< Previous Chapter Next Chapter >
She wasn’t laboring on the omnipresent, never-ending paperwork for once. The office was quiet and dim as usual by that hour of the evening, the moonlight pouring through its large windows not competing with the warmer glow of the fairy lamp sitting on her desk. Tonight, Tellwyrn had elected to take some personal time, brushing all the papers to be graded into a filing cabinet and indulging in one of the hobbies she was least inclined to admit to in public.
Not that she’d ever have contended that it was good poetry, but the satisfaction was in the creating, not the having. Most of them she shredded, anyway. Tellwyrn paused with her pen hovering above the parchment, considering syllables and studying the kanji already marked down. Haiku didn’t really work properly in anything but Sifanese, in her opinion, having tried it in several languages. It was an aesthetic matter of the syllabic structure of the language, not blind adherence to custom; had she been a stickler for tradition she would be using a brush, not a pen.
She sighed heavily at the soft flutter of wings on the windowsill outside. Setting down the pen, she blew gently on the ink to dry it, then carefully picked up and tapped the stack of papers into neat order, ignoring the tapping from the glass behind her. The professor continued not to acknowledge it while it grew steadily more insistent until she had meticulously filed away the pages in a desk drawer, locked it, stowed the key in her vest pocket, and capped her inkwell, all with careful and precise little motions.
Then she whirled, grabbed the window, and roughly threw it open.
“Fucking what?” Tellwyrn demanded.
Mary the Crow swung her legs into the room. “Arachne, we must speak.”
“Well, it’s not like I expected a social call,” Tellwyrn retorted. “What’ve you done this time, lost another dryad?”
“It was you who—no, never mind, I’m not going to play that game with you tonight. It’s about the Arquin boy, and that sword of his.”
“Yes, Ariel.” Tellwyrn leaned back in her chair, scooting it back from the window and smirking faintly. “Who has never spoken in my presence. Arquin showed her to Alaric but has never asked my opinion about it. I think he’s afraid I’ll confiscate the thing.”
“He seemed to fear I would do the same,” Mary replied, her expression intent and grim. “It is an original Qestrali magister’s blade, Arachne. According to the boy himself, Salyrene confirmed this. Do you know anything of the significance of such weapons?”
“I figured it might be,” Tellwyrn mused. “Not many other mages have worked out the method. Yes, that’s what they do to the really naughty criminals, right? Not murderers or anything so pedestrian, but the ones with opinions the Magistry doesn’t care to hear.”
“You are barking up the wrong tree if you think I’m going to defend the Magistry,” Mary replied, eyes still intent on hers. “I went to Qestraceel before coming here to check on something. Arachne… They are not missing one.”
“Huh,” Tellwyrn grunted. “And?”
The Crow’s jaw tightened momentarily in annoyance, but she pressed on. “He found that thing in the Crawl, did he not?”
“Yes, during an excursion while the place was somewhat dimensionally unmoored, due to my incubus messing with some old Elder God tech he found. It’s probably from an alternate universe, Kuriwa, nothing to get your knickers in a knot over.”
“Arachne,” she said quietly, “I was… I visited the Crawl once, before you arrived. Before the Third Hellwar. It was my escape route from the deep underworld.”
Tellwyrn’s eyebrows rose slightly, but she remained silent.
“I understand,” Mary continued, carefully choosing her words, “you spent many years seeking out the gods to ask something none of them were able or willing to tell you. Was it about your own origin?”
“That’s ancient history,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “You had better have a damn good reason to be digging it up again, Kuriwa.”
“I am not proud of this,” she replied, “but I did the least wrong thing I could at the time. I thought it was necessary, even despite the price. To undo a curse Elilial laid on my entire bloodline, I had to deal with Scyllith.”
Tellwyrn worked her jaw once as if biting back a retort, then said in a deceptively mild tone, “So is that where the hair comes from? Always wondered.”
The Crow drew in a deep breath. “The price Scyllith demanded for her aid was one of my kin. She said they would be removed from all memory, excised from the timeline. Only I would know that someone had been lost, but…not who.”
The silence was absolute.
“You what,” Tellwyrn finally whispered tonelessly.
“Arachne, you have to understand—”
“You knew,” the mage hissed, leaning forward. “From the very beginning. You recognized my name. If you’d been in the deep Underworld before then, you would have recognized my accent. And you are telling me this now?”
“Listen, Arachne,” she said desperately. “It was suggestive, but not proof! You do not trigger my familial sense, your hair is the wrong color, you are an arcanist when none of my descendants are—”
“Are you trying to pitch to me,” Tellwyrn snarled, standing up so abruptly that the chair smacked against the desk behind her, “that it never crossed your mind that any of that could be explained by alternate-dimension fuckery caused by the sadistic Elder God you were playing around with? You’re going to stand here at the apex of all the history between us and claim you are that blitheringly stupid?”
“I had to be sure,” Kuriwa protested.
“YOU HAD TO BE IN CONTROL,” Tellwyrn roared, and a sudden shockwave of pure kinetic force blasted the office apart, smashing its furnishings and sending the door shooting across the hall outside, but also pulverizing the window and flinging Kuriwa out into the sky.
She caught her balance in the form of a crow, squawking frantically, and Tellwyrn shot out of the ragged hole where the outer wall of her office had been, landing nimbly on a square pane of blue light that appeared conveniently under her.
Kuriwa lit on the opposite end, in elven form again, and held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Arachne, listen, consider what—”
“Thee thousand years,” Tellwyrn raged, stalking toward her, each step sending ripples across the panel beneath them. “While entire civilizations rose and fell around us, I drove myself mad scrabbling desperately for answers in every dark corner of the world, and you had them the whole time?”
“It wasn’t that simple! Given what was at stake—”
“YOUR EGO WAS AT STAKE!”
The wind rose as Kuriwa gathered the attention of familiar spirits, but not fast enough; the blessing shielded her from serious bodily harm but the bolt of pure arcane power that hit her from point-blank range was comparable in strength to a mag cannon burst. She went tumbling moccasins-over-ears again, barely catching her balance on a leaf-shaped construct of green light which coalesced out of the air and hovered atop a constant updraft conjured from nothing.
“If you want to blame me—”
“Oh, you’re damn right I blame you!” Tellwyrn hurled a pumpkin-sized orb of lightning, forcing the shaman to glide swiftly out of the way. “Spare me your dissembling, you self-obsessed old carrion feeder! From the very beginning, you had everything you needed to answer both our greatest questions and you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it because I am something you couldn’t control!”
“The risk was that you might have to acknowledge someone as an equal and then deal with them!”
“Would you let me finish a sentence?” Kuriwa snapped.
A spray of lightning bolts burst out of nowhere around them, forming a deadly obstacle course in midair. Kuriwa dodged nimbly, directing her leaf through the crackling haze with the deftness of an acrobat while Tellwyrn stood impassive atop her glowing panel, electrical discharges snapping harmlessly against the arcane shield around her.
“You may have swallowed your own bullshit, Kuriwa, but I never have, and in the end that’s what all this is about.” Tellwyrn folded her arms, her voice suddenly dead calm again. “You are so incapable of entertaining the possibility of not being in total control of something that you’ve squandered probably the widest window of time anyone has every had in which to do anything. Three thousand years, and you could have come to me at any point. Were you not such a walking bladder full of ego and spite, you’d have taken me aside the very day we met, but no. You had to wait.”
“Arachne, please.” Kuriwa brought the leaf to a hover again.
“You waited,” Tellwyrn continued, baring her teeth in a snarl, “until I tried everything I could try, and failed. You waited while I gave up on my whole existence and spent thirty years trying to die, in a place where you were quite possibly the only person alive who could have come to find me. You waited until I moved on, you selfish piece of shit. I gave up on the whole thing, found a true purpose in life and devoted myself to it, created an actual place in the world for myself that wasn’t just passing through it in every direction while trying to find my way back to somewhere I couldn’t remember. I was finally done, and happy, and this, this is when you chose to come here and tell me all this?!”
“I understand,” Kuriwa said urgently. “I am not saying I handled everything perfectly, but—”
This time it was an actual mag cannon burst, or near enough, a barrel-thick beam of pure white light which impacted the prairie below less than half a mile from Last Rock, fortunately at an angle that sprayed the debris away from the town. Kuriwa tried to evade, but the deceptively wide corona of the beam finally caused her conjured leaf to explode, forcing to catch herself in midair on her own tiny wings.
A white sphere of divine light snapped into place around her, dragging the squawking and struggling bird forward until it rested right in Tellwyrn’s hand.
The tiny shield only collapsed when her fingers closed, clamping around the crow’s neck. Arachne held it up, glaring into Kuriwa’s beady little eyes from inches apart.
“I am done with you and your shit, Kuriwa,” she stated. “Stay away from my mountain. I don’t want to see you again.”
A sheer kinetic burst erupted, just like the one which had demolished the office, but stronger; centered on Tellwyrn as it was, she was not affected, but having released her grip on the Crow in the same instant as the explosion, Kuriwa was hurled over two hundred yards into the night sky amid a spray of dislodged feathers.
Tellwyrn stood impassively atop her floating panel of arcane magic, watching the little bird catch herself in the distance, flapping desperately to right her flight.
Kuriwa started to circle back to head toward her again.
Tellwyrn held up one hand, and a whirling vortex of sheer arcane destruction manifested in her grip, causing a steady breeze as the very air was drawn into it like a black hole.
The Crow veered off in defeat and glided away to the south.
The sorceress stood there watching until she had passed beyond the limits of even elven sight, even augmented by her enchanted spectacles. Then the pane of light beneath her turned and carried her back toward the hole in the wall, in which she could see and hear several of her faculty gathering. Explaining all this and then fixing her office promised to keep her occupied for a while.
She welcomed the distraction.
“The questions are growing more and more insistent, your Holiness,” Branwen said, her expression openly worried. On his other side, Colonel Ravoud walked in silence, but wearing a matching frown of concern. “I don’t think Imperial Intelligence has more than rumor out of Ninkabi yet, but the rumors are themselves damning, and there’s just too much evidence left, too many witnesses… They will piece together an account of what happened, at least in the broad strokes. The newspapers are already all but openly attacking the Church, including some I thought were in your pocket.
“And the symbolism,” she continued, her normally controlled voice rising in pitch. “The Guild and the Sisterhood haven’t formally left the Universal Church, but with both choosing to forego representation, it’s a very bad look. That’s two of the three cults that forced out Archpope Sipasian to install Archpope Vyara in the Enchanter Wars. If even one more cult turns away, this could present a major schism. The Veskers would complete that symbolic break and they’re the most unpredictable anyway, especially with Vesk himself having been involved in Ninkabi. Given that he actually forced a public surrender from Elilial, his credibility is at an all-time high. If they do withdraw it will be a political catastrophe, and I can’t get Bishop Tavaar to even respond to my messages.”
“And the Shaathists,” Ravoud added. “They are the most loyal to your cause, your Holiness, and thanks to this Ingvar character and his splinter sect, with all the dreams and visions and portents that heralded them, Grandmaster Veisroi is going to be too occupied trying to control his own cult to lend much in the way of help.”
“Thank you, Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said calmly. “I greatly appreciate all the work you do.”
“Your Holiness,” Branwen protested, coming to a stop. The Archpope did likewise, turning to regard her with beatific calm, and Ravoud trailed to a halt a few steps further on, glancing up and down the hallway. This corridor was deep within the tunnel system under the Cathedral; they were unlikely to encounter anyone and all but certain not to meet anyone who was not supposed to be there, but Ravoud took his duties as Justinian’s protector with the utmost seriousness.
“I understand your fears, Branwen,” the Archpope said, reaching out to lightly rest a hand on her shoulder. “They are not misplaced. All of this I have planned for with great care.”
“I believe in you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said firmly. “I knew you would be in control.”
“Control is an illusion, my friends,” Justinian warned. “All we can do is have faith, and act as best we can without fear, and with our utmost skill and effort. You are right to be concerned, Branwen. All of this is unfolding too soon, before I am ready.”
“What shall we do, your Holiness?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“I…have planned for that, as well,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I had hoped and prayed that it would not come to this. I have, ready and waiting, the means to keep the circling vultures at bay until the proper time for them to strike, but it will require me to do things which I had desperately hoped I would not need to.”
“We’re with you, whatever comes,” Ravoud assured him. Branwen nodded.
“I am deeply grateful for you both,” he said, smiling. “Come, there is little time to tarry. Preparations must be made to meet the unforeseen, but first, tonight’s business has been long awaited and should not be delayed.”
This wasn’t the first visit by either of them to this secret underground complex, though it was the first time he had brought both together. Grooming each of them to a state of assured loyalty had been a long-term project, more so in Branwen’s case than Nassir’s as she had a far more complex mind and intricate motivations. In the end, though, he felt assured of both their loyalties, now that the moment had come. As much, at least, as anyone could be assured of anything. Certainty was as much an illusion as control; a time inevitably came when one simply had to act.
Justinian led the way in silence to the iron door, tapping the proper code into the runes affixed to its frame. It opened with a soft creak under the power of its own enchantments, and he strode through, both hurrying after as the door immediately began to shut again behind them.
Delilah turned and bowed to him upon his entry, receiving a smile and a deep nod in response.
“Finally,” Rector snapped, barely looking up from his runic console. Ravoud, ever protective of the Archpope’s dignity, shot the enchanter a scowl, but held his peace. It wasn’t his first time encountering the man, and Delilah had done her best to explain Rector’s eccentricities.
The chamber was a chapel-sized apparently natural cave in the bedrock beneath Tiraas, only improved by having a door added and the floor smoothed down; the rest of the walls had been left in their natural contours, originally. Now, it was heavily built up with powerful fairly lamps to illuminate the space and its heavy-duty equipment. Machinery was arranged all around the walls, along with sturdy beams of iron and copper to hold some of it up, and intricate networks of wires, glass rods and brass tubes. Most of the structures were made of modern enchanting equipment, though there were several purely mechanical apparatuses in the dwarven style, and here and there, sticking out from the contemporary machines, ancient fragments of Infinite Order technology distinguishable by mithril surfaces and in two cases, glowing information panels. All of it was confined to the outer walls of the chamber, including the section on which they now stood, leaving a wide open space clear in its center.
“Rector,” Justinian said calmly. “Is everything prepared?”
“I’m ready,” the enchanter said peevishly. “Have been for an hour. You did your part?”
Behind Justinian, Branwen gently placed a calming hand on Ravoud’s back as the Colonel tensed in agitation.
“I have made all possible preparations,” Justinian assured him. “We should be able to proceed without drawing the interference, or even notice, of Vemnesthis.”
“Should?” Branwen asked quietly. “No disrespect meant, your Holiness, but the Scions are one cult I am simply not prepared to contend with.”
“Wouldn’t they have intervened already if they were going to?” Delilah asked.
“Not till the last second,” Rector grunted. “Their standard policy. Wait till the event is ready to occur, freeze time, disassemble machine, deliver warning. Maximum emotional impact.”
“Indeed,” Justinian said gravely. “If I have failed and the Scions do register their displeasure, that will be the end of it. Apart from the probable loss of Rector’s entire construction, I will not engage in a futile contest with such an impossible force. And so, in more ways than one, this is the moment of truth. Proceed, Rector.”
“Thinning dimensional barrier,” he said curtly, rapidly manipulating runes on his console. “May be uncomfortable, but harmless. Stay calm.”
Massive power crystals began to glow and hum, energy lit several of the glass rods and brought several pieces of moving machinery to life, and in the next moment, the very quality of the air changed. It seemed to thicken and shift color, and a feeling almost of vertigo fell over all five of them, as if the floor had tilted. It did not, however, despite Branwen stepping unsteadily over to the wall to lean against it.
“Stable,” Rector reported. “Initiating major breach.”
In the domed ceiling of the cave, light began to swirl, quickly collecting into a visible vortex like the atmospheric effect caused by new hellgates. More lights activated and another bank of machinery hummed to life. Several brass connectors began to emit sparks, and a stray arc of lightning climbed one of the steel beams lining the walls.
“Rector?” Justinian asked calmly while the others ducked.
“All within normal parameters,” Rector grunted. “Triple redundancy in crucial systems, some circuit burnout planned for. Opening it.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Branwen muttered.
The vortex in the ceiling widened, till the swirling effect was not a spiral but a border, rimming a circular space that was pitch black, as if the machinery had opened a portal onto some absolute void. No more equipment came to life, but the energy coursing through the connectors visibly and audibly intensified. A red indicator began flashing on one of the Infinite Order panels.
Rector’s control panel put off a sudden shower of sparks, causing him to dodge momentarily to one side, but he did not otherwise react, even when Delilah rushed forward.
They seemed to form out of the very air, a network of gossamer strands fanning out from the portal in every direction. Most passed through the very walls, trembling as if their other ends were affixed to targets which moved and caused the whole web to shiver, but many of the streams of ephemeral spidersilk were connected to each of them. Ravoud grimaced and tried to brush at them.
“Be calm,” Justinian urged over the noise of the enchanted machines. “They have always been there, you are only now able to see them. The webs are a visual metaphor, delineating connections. They will not harm you.”
He himself was connected directly to the portal by a single, massive cable of gnarled silk. So many streamers of spiderweb radiated away from him it was as if he were a second portal in his own right.
“Portal stable,” the enchanter stated, brusque as ever. “All values locked in. Initiating temporal phasing. Stay on this side of the console, may be disorienting if you’re too close. If the Scions interfere it’ll be now.”
He grabbed a lever and slowly eased it into an upward position.
Around the center of the open space a swirl of golden dust arose, quickly forming a helix shape in the air and then fluctuating wildly about, a tornado extending from the dimensional portal to the floor. Or, looked at another way, the upper half of an hourglass.
The Archpope’s deflections held. No Scions appeared; Vemnesthis’s attention was not drawn to the portal they had made between two points in time.
But someone else’s was.
The entire network of webs shivered, then began to shake violently. And then, suddenly, more things poked out of the portal.
Long, segmented appendages emerged, amid showers of sparks and arcs of lightning from the equipment all around as the portal was strained beyond its intended limits at the entity’s emergence. One of the colossal spider legs drove into the wall, thankfully missing the machinery; unlike the webs, this was clearly a physical projection. Its tip made a crater in the ancient stone.
“Your Holiness!” Ravoud shouted. “We have to get out of here!”
“Peace.” Justinian held up one hand, noting the way the strands of silk binding it went taut at the gesture, quivering with tension as their other ends were collected by whatever now rose on the other side of the spacetime aperture.
Someone screamed, either Deliliah or Branwen, at the sudden pressure that fell over the room, the distinctive psychic force of a consciousness orders of magnitude beyond their own looking upon them.
Amid the blackness in the center of the swirling, eight crimson eyes appeared.
Justinian flexed his forearm in a circle, gathering a physical grip on the spiderwebs, then yanked hard.
The eyes shifted, fixing their gaze upon him directly. The mental thrust of it might have crushed another person. But he was the Archpope, and even while hiding his activities from the gods, he enjoyed certain protections.
Justinian nodded once in acknowledgment, and released his grip on the webs.
With a great tearing of metal, the entire portal collapsed. All the visible magical effects dissipated and the arcane hum of the machines began to power down. The last evidence any of them could see of the metaphysical forces they had summoned was the spectral shape of a spider the size of a dragon emerging into the chamber, fading from view like a shadow from a campfire.
It was only relatively quiet, with furtive fountains of sparks and several residual electrical discharges snapping around the edges of the walls. A significant percentage of the equipment built into them had either exploded or been crushed by falling stone and beams; this great machine wasn’t going to work again any time soon. More than half of the industrial sized fairly lamps had been burned out, leaving the chamber cast in odd patterns of light and darkness.
Ravoud stepped forward, planting himself in front of Justinian with his wand in his hand.
“W-what went wrong?” Branwen asked tremulously. “That wasn’t the Scions. What was that?”
“Nothing went wrong,” Rector said.
“Excuse me?” Ravoud exclaimed. “What do you call that?”
“Unexpected side effect,” the enchanter said noncommittally. “Experiment succeeded, worked exactly as predicted. Look.”
He pointed, and they all turned to stare at the unconscious figure now lying in a heap in the middle of the floor, directly below where the portal had been.
The swirling column of golden light had been bad enough. Prairie folk were very much accustomed to tornadoes; glowing tornadoes that came out of a clear sky and sat in one place for several minutes managed to conjure both their very reasonable caution for nature’s destructive power and the more primal fear of the unknown.
It did not help that the citizens of Hamlet could all tell at a glance exactly where it had centered.
But then it got worse.
Thankfully, the glowing storm didn’t approach the village, but when it abruptly dissipated, it left behind a column of pure fire that would have been visible for miles around, accompanied by the ear-piercing scream of a woman in the extremity of terror and pain.
Exactly as it had been only a few short years ago on the night June Witwill had died.
Now, Marshal Ross, having ordered the rest of the townsfolk to stay back, led his two deputies on a fast march across the prairie to the old basin full of flowers, wands in hand and expressions grim as the grave. Of all the things this town did not need dragged up again…
He slowed as he reached the rim of the little hollow, raising his weapon and peering down into the depression, ready for anything. Or so he thought. Ross was not ready for what he actually saw.
As it had been on that other terrible night, the entire basin was scorched black, every stalk of tallgrass and versithorae blooms scoured away by the unnatural firestorm. But this time, she was there.
She huddled in front of the stone marker, her gingham dress hanging off her in charred rags; even her hair looked to be half-burned away. But apart from that… What could be seen of her skin looked whole, untouched by fire.
And she was alive.
The Marshal stepped down into the basin, Lester and Harriet right on his heels. Their boots crunched on the charred ground, kicking up occasional sparks where the destroyed vegetation still smoldered. She had to have heard their approach, but she just knelt there, huddled around herself, staring at the stone memorial bearing the Omnist sunburst, and her own name and date of death.
He came to a stop a few feet away, glanced at the other two. Lester looked wide-eyed and on the verge of being sick; Harriet’s face was set in grim lines as if she still expected the worst.
“June?” he said softly.
Slowly, she turned. Her eyes were wide and terrified beneath a charred fringe of brown hair, but it was her. He’d known her all her life, mourned her and moved on. And there she was, alive and scared out of her mind.
“M-Marshal?” June Witwill said weakly, tears beginning to cut tracks through the soot smeared on her face.
“Harriet, go fetch Doc an’ the priest,” Ross ordered. Immediately she turned and climbed back up the rim of the basin, heading off for Hamlet at a run.
“Marshal Ross?” June whispered. “What happened? What is going on?”
He dropped his wands on the ground, already shrugging out of his coat, and knelt to sweep it around her shoulders. She grabbed and clung to him as if for dear life, trembling.
“June, honey, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”
“Data matches,” Rector reported, hunched over the repurposed telescroll machine affixed to his console. “Good thing I added the redundant circuit breakers. Didn’t lose any data in the overload. Perfect match for the values in the Vadrieny data, filling in all the blanks. Looks good, your Holiness, we can finish the Angelus Project with this.”
“Well done, Rector,” Justinian said softly. “Very well done indeed.”
“What was that thing?” Delilah demanded. “The spider? Where is it?”
“Didn’t actually emerge here,” Rector said distractedly, still pouring over the stream of markings being produced by the transcriber. “Looked like it cos of temporal effects, but she used the opening we made to…I dunno. She’s not here, or now, though. Probably not far off. Time travel’s confusing and dangerous, good reason there’s a whole god of not letting people do this.”
They all tensed, save Rector and himself, as the sprawled figure in the middle of the floor stirred. Claws rasped against the stone.
Justinian stepped forward at an even pace.
“Your Holiness, no,” Ravoud insisted, planting himself between the Archpope and the thing they had summoned.
“It’s all right, Nassir,” Justinian said kindly, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. “This is according to plan.”
“But that creature…” The Colonel glanced over his shoulder, gripping his wand. “The risk. Without you, your Holiness, everything will fall apart.”
“Nothing of value can be done without risk, my friend,” the Archpope said softly. “But you know me, Nassir, and have been with me for a long time, now. Have you ever known me to take a risk that was not meticulously calculated?”
Ravoud hesitated, agonizing indecision written clearly on his face.
“Have faith,” Justinian said softly.
Finally, clamping his mouth into an unhappy line, the Colonel stepped out of the way. Branwen sidled up next to him, tucking her hand reassuringly into his arm, and they all watched the Archpope descend to meet the new arrival.
She groaned softly, in pain or confusion, twitching again, and then flapped her wings once with a force that sent a burst of air whirling through the chamber. There came an audible crunch as the claws tipping her fingers sank right into the stone beneath her.
Justinian stopped a yard away, and knelt. “How do you feel?”
With a jerk, she snapped her head up. Her eyes, wide and frightened, were whirling pits of orange flame.
“What—who are… Where am I? Who are you?”
Her wings were tipped with little claws at the joints, otherwise being decorated with a rather pleasing arrangement of red and blue feathers not unlike a Punaji macaw. She had hair of a fiery orange—but orange that human hair could actually be, not literally made of flame like her younger sister’s.
“My name is Justinian,” he said gently. “Take your time. You have just been through something deeply traumatic, but you are safe here. Don’t rush it. What do you remember?”
“I…I…” She sat upright, curling her legs under herself and letting her wings slump to the floor, clutching her head in both clawed hands. If she had been wearing anything, it had been burned away by the transition. “Nothing. Nothing! Who is… Who am I?”
“I feared this,” he said, sighing softly. “We have seen this once before.”
“My memory… It’ll come back. Won’t it?” Her expression was pleading, as desperate as her voice.
“I don’t know,” he said gravely. “It may not; you must be prepared for that possibility. I will do everything I can to help you, but I will not make promises that I don’t know I can keep.”
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Who am I?”
“I am someone,” he said slowly, maintaining calm in the face of the incredibly dangerous creature’s growing panic, seeking to help ground her, “who is supposed to be your enemy.”
“My enemy?” She bared fangs at him.
“Supposed to be,” he replied, voice even but firm. “We have been set against each other by those who would presume to rule us. By liars calling themselves gods; by those who were meant to give me guidance, and one who should have loved you above all else. But they seek to manipulate me into fighting unjust battles on their behalf, and condemned you to die for their own convenience. I tire of dancing to the tune of selfish creatures who presume to be my masters. I believe we should be free to choose our own fates. Me, you, all people, everywhere. And so I saved you.”
He bowed his head once in a deep nod.
“I am sorry I failed to do so more thoroughly. I had hoped to spare you some of this trauma, at least preserve your memory. We are laboring against colossal powers, and my efforts have been…imperfect. But I at least have managed to preserve your life.”
“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Any of this. I don’t know who I am, let alone why I’m here. What’s happened…”
“All will be well.” Justinian extended a hand to her. Behind him there came several indrawn breaths as his companions tensed. “None of us can say what the future holds, but I will do my very best to protect you. And together, perhaps we can free ourselves of our enemies’ control.”
Slowly, she reached out and wrapped her murderous talons around his hand. She had, he knew, the strength to crush him with a single clench, but she just held onto him. Firmly, yet gently.
“I’ll tell you everything I can about your history, and what’s happened,” he said, slowly standing up. Still holding his hand, she did likewise, raising her wings in the process. “But that will take time, and we should get you somewhere more comfortable first. To begin with, though, your name is Azradeh.”