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Amor Fati

Amor Fati

Nicole Martinsen

Part One: Cause and Effect

 

Dying. If there’s one thing I never want to experience ever again, it’s that. Death? Death I don’t mind in the slightest. Death is the old friend at the end of the line. Death is the cold pillow after a bout of insomnia. Dying is all the shit and suffering you have to wade through just in order to make it to Death.

There I was, dying in Alyon’s arms, and the only thing I could think of was how cold it was up there in the clouds. By the time it dawned that I wasn’t going to get any warmer, my soul had already crossed to the other side.

And as the mists of Spawnwood took my senses, I recall staring at my body from a pocket lost in space. Ah, I thought. And that was that.

I was dead.

But I was far from over.

Chapter 1: The Weeping Tree

 

Deep within the halls of Harbridge, with legions of dwarves resealing their compromised defenses, an ominous rumble emanated from the heart of their home.

It was a pulse; low, and nearly imperceptible at first.

And there it was again.

The Stone Singer, a figure of no small importance, went as still as the rocks around him. His withered hands fell at his sides; the corners of his thin lips curved down in a show of disparagement. A set of blind eyes peered beneath his great eyebrows, staring ahead with grim determination.

This time, the dwarves of Harbridge heeded the cries of the earth and turned inwards. The Stone Tree, the mouthpiece of their world, began to bloom. It was breathtaking, the epitome of beauty, as magnolia buds unfurled with the softest shirring while rock ran against rock.

A red drop hit the Stone Singer’s cheek. The dwarves turned their attention from him to the blossoms, their breaths drawn in a collective gasp of horror as the caves of every petal filled with blood. Its copper scent filled the air. The heart of their world was hemorrhaging, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Yherod was the first to find his voice, one that tore at the seams as he used it.

“Stone Singer,” he strained. “What does this mean?”

And though his response was no louder than it would’ve been in a private conversation, his words resonated through the earth; felt, rather than heard, by those around him.

“The Ghostwalker has fallen.”

S

Clouds gathered above Lydia. They formed a dark and vengeful pall, the likes Damian hadn’t seen since the Torching of Vaisya Isle. He’d been waiting for thunder to sound for hours, and didn’t know whether its omission meant that this would be a passing darkness, or if this would become the sort of storm that would go down in history.

He decided that it was better to err on the side of caution in cases like these; after checking his mooring, he walked down the dock, bracing against the skies above him.

A dark outline hung on the horizon like a grain of pepper, growing larger by the second. Damian strained his vision, speeding up as time went on. This wasn’t a trick of the light. Whatever was coming towards Lydia was coming in fast, and headed straight towards the palace.

The sailor raced down the tiers, and only then did the thunder clap, jarring everyone in the streets.

The curtain was rising on what would be their darkest hour.

For soon, all their fates would be set in stone.

S

Ekarius braced against a column in the palace chapel, wheezing. It was as though the air had been kicked straight out his lungs. The man glared at the vaulted roof.

“What the devil is going on up there?”

Crimson gripped the altar as the room shook a second time. She wiped a lock of hair from her lips, frowning at a row of votive candles.

“I don’t know. Are the dwarves starting a new project?”

She didn’t have to wait for an answer to her question. The door flew open; Alyon rushed in with a flurry. She was so busy gauging his expression that she missed the precious cargo in his arms. His face was a font of the purest anguish she’d ever seen.

“Help her.” The words croaked past his lips. “Crimson, please.”

Her heart knew before she even looked down on the table. It sank so far that it fell through the floor. But as her gaze drifted downwards, her dread gained an element of reality. Silhouette’s lifeless body lied between them. Her eyes remained open, staring in the same shock she felt during the killing blow. What was strange was that the weapon used to cut her down didn’t hit any vital organs, and apart from a trickle of blood at the wound, there were no evident signs of struggle.

“Careful, Crimson,” Ekarius warned her. “That’s a soulshard. Whatever you do, don’t remove it.”

“Alyon,” she spoke. “Grab the nearest servant and tell them to fetch Ivane. I’m going to need help with this.”

He ran into the hall without further prompting. The priestess hovered her hands over Silhouette’s body, using her magic to gauge the extent of the damage.

Her organs, she realized, were perfectly fine. Everything was functioning, in fact. Only her pulse was slow, beating once for every six seconds. But there was a fragility that worried her greatly. Crimson couldn’t quite place her finger on it, but the dagger was sinister somehow, reaching deeper than she could, in a place no one was meant to go.

Alyon returned a moment later, growing pale at Crimson’s drawn features.

“Can you save her?”

She didn’t know what to tell him. This wasn’t a simple wound; this wasn’t anything she studied. Crimson glanced at Ekarius, but her phantom simply shook his head.

“A soulshard is a dragon’s tooth. It bears their spiteful spirit. It’s a powerful poison, Crimson. Silhouette may be able to resist it for a few hours, but she’ll succumb eventually.”

“Crimson,” Alyon pleaded.

The woman grappled with her predicament.

“I can slow the progress,” she said, raising her staff above the mage’s body. “But I can’t make any guarantees, Alyon.”

His look of devastation cut into her like a knife. Crimson was one of the finest healers he knew; if she couldn’t help Silhouette then no one could.

This was the very situation he had been trying so hard to avoid. Once again, Silhouette had tricked him, and his visions lied. He saw himself dying in Drahk’onil, never thinking that it was Silhouette’s death instead. He clenched his fists on the edge of the altar, horrified at her pallid form.

“Tell me how to save you,” he murmured. “There has to be a way.”

“There is.”

Alyon and Crimson whirled at Faodrin’s voice. The Shadow materialized from the darkest corner of the room, appearing injured. His outline dithered like the glow of a dying flame; his lips smudged as he spoke.

“A soulshard severs spirit from body, resulting in death. Silhouette has two souls. She’ll last longer than most.”

“That still doesn’t tell us how to save her,” Crimson frowned.

“Isn’t it obvious?” asked the Shadow. “You saved her from the Ghostwalker State by reinserting her memories. You need to recover her soul to save her now.”

“And how do you expect me to do that?” Alyon threw his arm to the air. “I had the locket last time. Unless her soul went there then we’re shit out of luck.”

Crimson glanced between the men.

“Alyon, I think he means you have to go to the Dead Realm.” She ignored his stunned expression to stare at the Shadow. “But how?”

Faodrin’s gaze lingered over his sister’s form before speaking.

“She’s always managed to retain spells, even when injured or unconscious. While you were in Riverstone, you learned that Silhouette’s magic revolves around telekinetics.” He motioned to himself. “I became a Shadow as a result of her magic.”

“I’m not following,” Alyon frowned.

“Telekenisis demands a stubborn will, Alyon,” Crimson started to explain. “It’s a branch of magic dependant on mental fortitude. When Faodrin died, Silhouette must’ve willed him to live on with everything she had. I heard the story from her years ago.” She turned to Faodrin. “You were connected by an icicle; it must’ve acted as a conduit, like a wand.”

He inclined his head in affirmation.

Crimson waned further.

“I always thought it was odd. Shadows can be bound to areas, even relics, but never people.”

Alyon made a face. “So if you aren’t a Shadow, what are you?”

“A fabrication,” Faodrin replied. His lips curved into a bitter little smirk. “It’s why Silhouette and I could read each other’s thoughts. I’m a figment based on memories. I’ve never known anyone who clung to the past as ferociously as she did.”

“But you are… you, right?” Alyon crossed his arms. “You’re at least the spirit of her brother. You’re not just a sliver of her subconscious.”

“That’s right, but the point I’m trying to make is that she made a bridge to the Dead Realm when she created our link. What she doesn’t know is that it’s transferrable.”

“If it’s a link to the Dead Realm then why don’t you get her soul?” Alyon wondered.

"Because even if I found her on the other side there's no way I'd be able to bring her back. I have no physical anchor -my body was destroyed years ago. But you still have yours."

They began to see Faodrin’s reasoning.

“What happens if the poison reaches her before Alyon does?” Crimson asked.

“He’s stuck,” said Faodrin.

He's dead -is what he meant.

“Alyon, no,” said the priestess. “It’s too risky. With Silhouette gone Lydia needs you now more than ever. You’re the only other leader Lydia kn-”

“I beg to differ.”

A woman stood at the entrance, her spiral curls pinned to the sides of her face. Hers was a severe expression, made terrifying by her one emerald eye.

“Go, Alyon,” she told her son. “I’ll act in your stead. Find Silhouette and bring her back. If we lose this fight then we’ll live to fight again; if we lose her then we lose the future itself.”

“Thank you… mother.” He shifted his attention back to Faodrin. “How do we do this?”

The Shadow approached him, setting two finger’s to Alyon’s brow.

“Like this.”

Alyon heard Crimson release a startled shriek, but he didn’t feel any different. The man glanced down to see his own body lying in a crumpled heap upon the floor. Alyon reached out to touch Silhouette’s face, only to find that his fingers ran through her skin like air.

"Follow the sound of my voice," said Faodrin, growing fainter by the second. "Don't think -you're good at that."

Soon both men disappeared from view.

Ivane stormed into the room not a moment later; Damian craning his neck around the arch to see what the commotion was about.

Two healers were now attending a dead Ghostwalker, his son was passed out on the ground, and his previously-deceased wife was staring straight at him.

“If you want an explanation then you’ll have to follow me,” said Lyssa, marching past him. “Summon the council!” she yelled at the nearest attendant, the force of her voice jarring him into action.

S

Lyssa was alive. But how? And her eye! What the devil happened there? He ran after her, fighting to keep up; this was another mystery. The old Lyssa was pampered. She couldn’t run down the street without losing her breath. This woman was stronger, hardened in a manner which almost frightened him. Ruthless. Unyielding.

“Lyssa!” He reached out, grabbing her by the arm. “Tell me what’s going on. How are you alive?”

The woman faced him, showing an expression so familiar that it broke his heart to look at it. Her skin suffered; an olive complexion marred by grayish film and scars all along her emerald socket.

“I never died, Damian.” Her voice returned to how he remembered it, soft, and a bit rueful. “In fact I-”

She stopped mid-sentence; the estranged couple glanced at the door, where a handful of haggard men entered beneath the arch.

Heron, Ballard, Marrick, Elliot and Vale stopped almost as soon as they saw the woman. Of the four, only Ballard found the sense to speak, if only one word.

Lyssa?

Heron’s brow shot up to his forehead.

“Are you sure?” he asked his friend.

“It’s her,” Marrick affirmed. “Although the last time I saw her was at a state dinner over two decades ago.” The elf crossed his arms. “And you had two eyes back then.”

Lyssa motioned to the chairs, waiting for the men to take their seats. She didn’t know how to make this transition easy, nor did she believe they had time to attempt it. Steeled through years of experience, the woman dove straight into the heart of the matter.

“Silhouette is dead.”

No one spoke for the next several seconds, jarred by the declaration. After a lifetime of evading the grave, Silhouette made a dance of brushing shoulders with the reapers of the world.

“At some point yesterday, Yherod sought Silhouette’s help in investigating the silence of Harbridge. They, with the addition of my son, took the shuttle beneath the Waterglass Library and headed straight to the High City. It was overrun by ophidians. Their objective was to lay their hands on the Stone Tree.”

Ballard made a face. “What would they want with a dwarven relic?”

“The Stone Tree isn’t simply an icon to the dwarves,” Lyssa started explaining. “It’s a map, one showing the fault lines of earth all across the continent. In this case, they were looking for Lydia’s weak points. By the time Yherod and the others arrived they already had what they wanted, and the dwarves were imprisoned in the depths of Harbridge,”

“They managed to free the dwarves, and Silhouette entered the Ghostwalker State in order to cut down the ophidians present. As all of you know, though she has mastery over the magic, it leaves her vulnerable. Reinforcements arrived. They threatened the lives of all the dwarves if Silhouette didn’t come with them.”

“She went,” said Heron. It wasn’t even a question.

“Yherod had my son go with her. They were escorted to Drahk’onil by dragon and had an audience with the Scaled King. He aims to conquer the High Cities of the east while we’re reeling from their raids and forming a new government. He’s been after Silhouette for years, since her existence as a Ghostwalker is what would allow him to accomplish his goals.”

“Did she commit suicide?” Elliot waned.

“She was assassinated.” Lyssa clenched her fists at her sides. “I Saw it, but I was too late to stop it from happening.”

Damian listened to her story, his gut clenched by grim reality. The sailor asked the question all of them were too afraid to broach; who had the power to kill a Ghostwalker?

“And the culprit?”

“The High Seer of Taerinval.” Lyssa closed her one eye, the other open in a chilling expression. “Jade, Damian. Our Jade.”

She turned to him, seeing the shock tear across his face like a jagged claw. Though she tried to remain strong there was the barest flicker of anxiety, anticipating retaliation. Her next words doubled as an explanation to the stunned men around them.

“Alyon had a twin sister, an extraordinarily gifted seer who Damian and I kept hidden. It’d be easy to take advantage of a young child with such devastating power. Kendra was the one left to look after her, more often than not.”

“So those were the assignments she was running off on?” Heron wondered. “She was guarding your daughter?”

“Yes.” Lyssa’s shoulders slumped. “Almost two decades ago, I had Damian take the children to Riverstone. I wanted to see what could be done to seal Jade’s magic… both magics at her disposal.”

“You knew she was an absolutionist back then?” asked Marrick, his voice ringing with a note of accusation.

“I suspected it,” Lyssa admitted. “She stood by, watching a boy jump off the cliffs one day. She told me that she wanted him to, almost as though it were some kind of game. Absolutionist or not, I knew Jade was sick. I had to get her help.”

“So you went to Ezara,” Elliot reasoned. “What did she say?”

“There was nothing we could do,” Damian answered, unable to look at his wife. He aged decades in the span of seconds. “But Ezara suggested to have Jade sent to the Scaled Order.”

Marrick leaned over the table. “The Scaled Order reveres seers for their insight. They’re nothing but a bunch of blithering old men who know a bit about seals and runes.”

Ballard’s mouth parted in horrified understanding. “That’s how Jade managed to raise the ghouls in Lydia. By the Gods! The knowledge was all there.”

“And our good intentions were reduced to nothing,” Lyssa concluded. “Jade… for whatever reason, developed a fixation with Silhouette. She was the one responsible for her death when they were children, and she’s been consumed trying to eradicate her ever since.”

“She succeeded,” Heron scowled.

“Her victory was short lived.” Lyssa motioned out the door. “Alyon killed her almost immediately after the fact.”

Damian staggered against the wall.

“Jade is…? Alyon?” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Dammit, Lyssa! Why didn’t you stop him?”

“Because if he didn’t do it then I would have.” She glowered at the sailor. “Jade was a monster, one I brought into this world. It was my duty to see her stopped.”

“Monster?” he hacked. “Lyssa, she was our DAUGHTER!”

“And that is precisely the reason I kept this from you! You never had the spine to do what needed to be done, Damian. A sense of duty is a liability if you aren’t willing to act on it.”

“Not this argument again.” He visibly withered with irritation. “Duty? My duty was as a father. If she’d have stayed with us then sh-”

“Father? Father!” Her voice shot up. “You raised our son to be a whining drunk. You allowed Silhouette to rot under Daerin’s poisoned thumb for over a decade. This. THIS is what inaction, due to your fatherly instincts, has wrought!”

No one in the room said anything to that. When Damian searched their faces, they lowered their eyes to the floor. The sailor was a wonderful friend, but an atrocious leader. During his tenure as Guildmaster of the Shadow Blades he managed to keep everyone safe… at the cost of cutting off the world outside. He was the sort to bury his head in the sand until the sky cleared up, and would remain buried because he’d never summon the courage to check its progress.

Lyssa knew she hurt him. She swore at herself, both for her lack of tact, and the unnecessary distraction.

“The point I’ve been trying to make is that we have maybe a week before Drahk’onil gathers its main forces for an attack. We can count on Harbridge for aid, but we need to call upon the other High Cities if we want to survive their threat.”

“I’ll get who I can,” said Marrick.

“I’ll round up Vaisya Isle,” Elliot agreed.

“And I’ll head to Riverstone,” Lyssa added. “Marrick, since Taerinval is on the way, you’ll be coming with me.”

“I’m going too,” Damian cut in. He raised a finger as she opened her mouth in protest. “We need to talk, Lyssa. You’ve gotten out of this for eighteen years. I deserve an explanation.”

She wilted on the inside.

“As you wish.”

Chapter 2: Spawnwood

The first thing she noticed was the lack of sun.

Tree branches brushed up against one another, and the sky beyond them was a clear, crystal blue. Silhouette felt warmth, and saw rays of light filter between the leaves, but the source of either was nowhere to be found.

Feyt appeared over her. Her ashy lips formed a concerned frown; silver hair brushed up against the sides of Silhouette’s face like a leaning tent.

“What… just happened?” she heard herself ask.

“We died.”

Silhouette felt heavy, sore. She winced as she sat on the grass.

“You finally decided to join us,” said Jade, sitting not far ahead of them.

The mage blinked at Feyt. “If we’re dead then why is she here?”

Feyt’s smile was a cruel one. “Because every so often, destiny has an impeccable sense of humor.”

“I’m not following.”

“Not five seconds after killing you, Alyon killed her.”

Silhouette stared at the Seer, her lips quirking up at one side.

“Now that’s what I call poetic justice.”

Jade rolled her eyes. “That’s all you have to say for yourself? You’re dead. I’ve won.”

“You’ve won?” Silhouette rose to her feet. Jade did the same in a defensive position. “Is that how you think this works? Everyone’s lost. The second you decided to kill me that’s all it’s ever been. I’m dead. So what?” She pressed a hand to her heart. “Congratulations in finally killing me. Does it make you happy? Did you enjoy those couple seconds before your own brother did you in? You’ve spent the vast majority of your life bent on my death and now that it’s done, what does it accomplish?”

“You don’t know anything.”

Stripped of her power and mystique, Silhouette was fueled with a monumental sense of disappointment… and pity.

“You said so yourself, Jade. We shared the same destiny. I understand you better than anyone else in the world. We were friends once.”

Jade crossed her arms, huffing at the statement.

“How naïve.”

“What’s wrong with being naïve?” asked Silhouette. “All this time you were angry at me when you should have been angry at the Tapestry of Fate, at Neith.”

The Seer threw her hands at her sides. “Do you think I wasn’t?! If I could’ve fought them then I would have, but how do you fight an abstraction? How do you fight a God? Not even you’ve figured that last one out, mighty Ghostwalker.”

Feyt stayed to the side, intent on watching the women as they sorted through years of resentment. It wasn’t long ago that Silhouette would’ve jumped at the opportunity to kill Jade. She sensed her host grow in wisdom, one that weighed on their bond like a rusted old chain.

“So you attacked me,” Silhouette concluded. “Because I was the closest target.” The elf closed her eyes. “I became a Ghostwalker eighteen years ago. I died when I tried freezing the red spider lily in my sister’s garden.”

“What are you going on about?” Jade snapped.

“I was so upset.” The mage smiled at the grass. “I thought that killing the flower in a children’s story would be enough to kill Destiny itself. We’re the same, Jade. Only I was your red spider lily.”

She snorted, flipping her hair over a shoulder.

“Bold words, for thief of fates.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Silhouette held out her open palms. “So I’m dead, Jade. Are you finally satisfied?”

“I’m still deciding.”

“Then decide while I try and find a way out of this place,” said Silhouette, grabbing Feyt by the hand. “I’m sure the Tapestry will take some time to mend, and now that I’m here I may as well pay Neith a visit.”

Jade waited a moment, balking as Silhouette and Feyt started off in the other direction. She stomped after them.

“You’re dead! You’ve failed! You can’t fight anyone, let alone win!”

Silhouette raised a finger to Feyt for pause. She cracked her knuckles. As soon as Jade was behind her, the elf whirled and socked her right between the eyes.

The Seer fell back accordingly.

“Feeling better now?” Feyt arched her brow.

“Loads.” Silhouette extended a hand to help Jade off the grass. The Seer slapped it out of the way, tending her bleeding nose. “I’d say I fought and won that quite nicely, wouldn’t you?”

“I’m not a God,” Jade hissed.

“You might want to tilt your head up until the bleeding stops.”

“I don’t need your advice!” Though this didn’t stop the woman from following it.

“Look,” said Silhouette, resting her hands on her hips. “Neith is somewhere in the Dead Realm. Now that I’m dead, I can fight her. Clearly staying alive until she came to me didn’t work out. One door closes, another opens; that’s the way it’s going to be until this ends.”

“But how do you kill her? She’s a G-”

Silhouette clamped a hand over Jade’s mouth.

“I hate that word. Stop using it.” She released her. “And you’re an Absolutionist. In theory, you’re the most powerful person alive. Well, you used to be,” the mage amended. “Everyone has a weakness, and if they don’t then one can be created. My entire life has been a fight against impossibilities. I overcame one after another. Why should Neith be any different?”

Jade lowered her hands to her sides, squinting at the elf as though there was something grotesque about her face.

“Where does that confidence of yours come from?”

“I’ve been asking myself that question for almost twenty years,” Feyt cut in.

Silhouette grinned, throwing her arms around both their shoulders.

“So now that you’ve axed me, and you’re still with me,” she said to each woman, “I say we let bygones be bygones and call a truce until I get Neith’s heavenly head on a spike.”

Jade cringed beneath her touch.

Then she noticed the fog at their feet.

Waves of mist rushed in between the trees, surrounding the women until they couldn’t see past the gray.

And then they heard the sounds of a bustling city. The trio gawked at narrow streets and brownstone buildings, sidestepping merchant traffic on the road.

The forest was nowhere to be seen as Silhouette pressed the group against the nearest brick wall. She formed two icicles in either hand, slipping them to the women.

“Resist the urge to stab me this time,” she warned Jade before handing it over.

The Seer was unused to holding such a primitive weapon. She gripped the implement with both hands, covering it whole.

People rushed off the streets as the air grew darker. Figures, vaguely human in appearance, emerged from the pall.

“What are those?” Jade wondered, nervousness creeping into her voice.

“Ninácetrin would be my guess.” Three phantoms touched the ground, growing solid before their eyes. They dressed in shades of draping gray fabric, difficult to separate from their misty surroundings. “Feyt, you can turn back into the Shadow Blade at any time now.”

“I can’t.” Panic tore across Silhouette’s expression. “It’s something to do with the environment. Give me a longer weapon and I’ll be able to fight.”

“No.” The air grew colder as Silhouette’s hair faded to white. “Stay back while I take care of this.”

“Come with us, Ghostwalker,” said the closest man, his voice distorted through layers of space. “We’ve come to escort you.”

“To the Pillar of Bones,” said one to his left.

“To the Great Goddess on High,” said one to his right.

Come with us, Ghostwalker,” they all spoke together. “We’ve come to escort you as a most honored guest.”

Silhouette raised a hand for them to pause. “Humor me by answering a quick question first.”

The apparent leader looked to his companions; it was obvious he didn’t expect her to be willing to speak to them.

“We would be happy to assist, though I’d ask you keep it short.”

“You cannot stall forever,” said one.

“We’ll use force if we must,” said the other.

“What the hell is she doing?” Jade whispered to Feyt.

“I haven’t the faintest idea.”

“And you’re not worried?”

“I’m always worried,” she confessed.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Silhouette said back to their escorts. “All I want to know is say, how many miles is it to this Pillar of Bones, and which direction is it in?”

“Measures of distance are not applicable here. It sits at the heart of the Mist Sea, which can only be reached through the Reliquary District,” the leader replied. He pointed down the street. “Left is the direction you wish to go. But you would’ve learned this by following us alone.”

“I see.” Silhouette held out her wrists. “Well, seize me or whatever it is you were going to do. I know when I’m beat.”

It was as she moved her arms that Feyt and Jade noticed a marble fall from her sleeve. The Seer made a face as the ebon elf crushed it beneath her foot. Apart from a tiny spark, nothing happened.

The spokesperson approached Silhouette with metal shackles in hand, but when he attempted to bind the mage, he simply fell through her.

The marble was an illusion field.

Feyt grabbed Jade and tugged her behind a pile of crates and sacks.

One of the Ninácetrin dropped dead as they took this position; a second followed shortly thereafter.

“We will summon reinforcements!” the leader shouted. “We already know you’re here!”

A line appeared across his throat; blood spurted out from the open wound. Silhouette reappeared as his body fell forward, simmering with annoyance.

“Why do they feel the need to talk so much?”

Jade slumped against the wall. “You’re a monster.”

“And…” Silhouette threw a frozen knife at a lamppost. “I know you’re there.”

The women waited as a slow clap sounded from the shadows. They fought a wave of disgust as a rotting, half-skeletal man emerged into the light.

“You!” Jade shrieked, earning a wicked smirk. “You’re Iago.”

Silhouette did a double take, piecing together the strips of flesh hanging off his face.

“Well aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

“Pleasure as always, Ghostwalker.” He swept a low bow before them. “I see you haven’t lost your touch,” he added, glancing at the bodies. “Didn’t you use a similar trick to kill me?”

“I snuck in and hit you in the gut. No air, no screaming. Simple, crude, but effective.”

“And then you cut my head off.”

“Actually, I slit your throat. Once you stopped moving I had to saw your head off. Ice; it’s great for stabbing. Slicing? Not so much.”

At the mention of decapitation, Jade coiled her hands around her neck, swallowing at the memory. Alyon took her out in one fell swoop. She didn’t even feel the edge of the blade, only saw the world spin as her head flew off her shoulders.

Iago laughed, “You’re a breath of fresh air. Things are interesting again with you around.”

“Which reminds me.” She pointed at Jade with her thumb. “I brought a playmate to keep you occupied. You have some things in common.”

“Oh?” he asked, sizing up the woman.

“Your manner of death, for starters,” said Silhouette. “Plus, you’re looking at the real Elvawein.”

His disdain evolved into fascination, settling into a form of respect. Iago took Jade by the hand and kissed the back of it.

She shivered violently, too scared to move.

“Has it not occurred that this might come back to bite you someday?” Feyt asked under her breath.

“It has, but do you see her face right now?” A wide grin broke across her lips. “Totally worth it.”

“Here I thought you were so mature, talking about letting bygones be bygones only a minute ago.”

“Just because it’s water under the bridge doesn’t mean I’m above splashing it around.”

Feyt rolled her eyes. There wasn’t an ounce of remorse in their bond.

“Now that we’re done with our touching reunion, it’s time to get you to your new home.” Iago extended his arms. “Ladies, if you’d be so kind.”

Silhouette shoved Jade into him. The Seer whipped her head around and glared.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

“Giving you a new target. As a bonus, if you have a bone to pick he’s got plenty to spare,” she said, nodding to his tail.

Feyt sighed, linking arms with the man, and dragging her host for good measure.

S

City was replaced by a field of lavender, stretching to the edge of the horizon. Silhouette saw a great many things in her young life, but this was a first. She swayed on her feet, her mind reeling from a sight she couldn’t comprehend.

Magic ran like a torrent of electricity through the air. She felt her skin prickle with its subtle static, the tiny hairs on her arms jutting straight in response to its currents.

“By the Gods…” Jade’s voice trailed off, astounded. Everyone looked to what caught her attention.

“The Trinity Spire,” Feyt breathed.

The tower stood as a void of midnight. Stars hung from its ramparts like celestial teardrops, while fog swirled within crevasses as a tide of smoke and shadow. In between everything was a pure blackness, not unlike the Ghostwalker State, but infinitely more comforting. It was a peaceful sort of oblivion, a welcome surrender made real.

“Follow me, and try not to get distracted,” Iago warned them. “It’s easy to wander these fields for weeks if you aren’t careful.”

It didn’t take the women long to realize why. What they first took for fireflies were, in fact, wisps. They chimed through the rows of purple flowers. Their sound was sad, but not the terror-inducing melody Silhouette remembered from Lydia. No. It was a tune of nostalgia.

She looked to either side of her, at Feyt and Jade, who slowed as they listened to the music. Their expressions slipped, lost in memories they couldn’t quite place. These wisps brought on visions of reminiscence, a bittersweet echo of times they could never reclaim, but left some imperceptible mark upon their souls.

Silhouette squeezed Feyt’s hand a little tighter. She didn’t want to remember. She didn’t want to be reminded of what she lost.

Her phantom summoned a comforting smile, tinged with a silent apology.

And they entered tower before them.

S

Its cleanliness was godlike -the irony of which was not lost on the women as they walked through the halls. Silhouette made a face at her reflection, gaping as she felt the ends of her severed locks.

She cut her hair in order to maintain a realistic illusion in Alyon’s likeness, but didn’t realize how horrible it looked until then. Feyt swatted her hands; this wasn’t the time for vanity.

Silhouette folded her arms to prevent her fingers from reaching her head a second time, though this didn’t stop them from twitching.

Iago led them to a set of open doors, standing aside.

“They’re waiting for you.”

An axe flew at Jade.

Iago deflected it with his malformed claw, rising on his haunches like the menacing beast he was.

Feyt and Silhouette, while startled at the sudden attack, were more stunned at his response. Iago stalked into the room, pointing an accusing finger at one of the three figures standing at a table.

“What was that about?!” he demanded.

A pale man regarded him with an icy stare.

“She murdered our Ghostwalker, and has no place in these halls.”

“She’s useful!” Iago insisted.

“She’s dead,” the woman cut in, haughty. “A Seer loses their worth once they expire.”

“And,” said the third, “an Absolutionist becomes impotent when their confidence is shaken.” He looked on the fallen Seer with pity. “The events of the past year have left her assurances in ruin.”

Jade backed into the wall behind her, appearing crushed. The three magi summed up her core weaknesses in a matter of seconds, further destroying what was left of her proud charade.

Silhouette almost felt bad for her.

Almost.

“Seeing as she killed me,” she stressed, entering the conversation. “Don’t you think it’s fitting that I’m the one to decide her fate?”

“How ironic,” Feyt muttered.

“In more ways than one,” Silhouette finished off. The mage returned her attention to the magi assembled.

The fair one nodded.

“Go on.”

“Let Iago have her.” She turned to the monster. “You only cause trouble when you’re bored; I figure the two of you are twisted enough to keep the other’s interest.”

Iago surprised them a second time that day, accepting his role without complaint. He walked past Jade, coiling his tail around her wrists, and dragged her away.

Feyt motioned to each of the figures, starting introductions.

“Silhouette, this is Vysriel,” she said of the pale magus. Her hand passed over the woman with the billowing hair. “This is Korosuth, and that,” she said, her eyes resting on the elf in earthen tones, “is Heldarien.”

The false gods inclined their heads in greeting.

“Rest assured, we know who you are, who you were, and who you should’ve been,” Heldarien beamed. “And in every circumstance, we are honored to meet you, Silhouette.”

She pinked, pointing at him.

“I like you.”

Korosuth threw her head back, laughing. She wrapped an arm around her neck.

“And I like you!”

“Korosuth likes women,” Feyt clarified, an explanation lost on the mage. “In that way.”

“Really?” Silhouette asked. “That’s possible?”

“Oh you’re so deliciously naïve.” Korosuth gave her a squeeze. “I want to keep you.”

“Hands off, you unrepentant whore!” Feyt pulled Silhouette back to her side, wrapping her arms around her like a shield. “Business first. You know how you get when you get caught up in new interests.”

Korosuth pouted her full lips.

“It’s been nearly a millennium; I’ve changed, haven’t I?” She looked to the men.

They turned away.

“Let me apologize for Feyt,” said Silhouette. Feyt bonked her on the head. “What? You just don’t go around calling people whores.”

“But it’s the truth!”

“No one wants to hear the truth, Feyt.”

Heldarien covered his mouth with a fist; not even Vysriel could resist a smirk. Korosuth guffawed outright.

“Jokes aside-” Vysriel was the one to get a firm grasp on everyone’s attention. “-we can’t afford to be lighthearted. The moment Jade plunged that dagger into you, Neith has begun repairing the fringe of the Tapestry. Once she patches the hole you’ve created, we’ve lost our chance at destroying it, and her, forever.”

The abrupt change sucked the joy right out of her. Silhouette felt the reality of her situation pressing down on her shoulders; a sensation she was aware of, but fought to avoid, since arriving in Spawnwood.

“What do I need to do?”

“Two things,” Heldarien cut in. “Your objective is to stay safe; that is, in our custody.”

“And the second objective?”

“You’re going to act as bait for the Ninácetrin. We’re going to wage war with them on our territory, leveling the field for your final confrontation with Neith.”

“My confrontation?” Silhouette pressed a hand to her chest. “I have to do this alone?”

“Not alone,” said Korosuth. “You have Feyt.”

“Considering we’re fused together, I’m doing this alone,” she reiterated.

“You are the only one who has the capability to harm her,” Vysriel explained.

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because if any of us posed a threat then she would’ve killed us already; you are the only one she’s attempted to go after; herself, no less,” he went on. “You pose a significant threat, though I don’t understand why.”

“So the bottom line is that I have to go toe-to-toe with a deity, whose power can’t be measured by your standards, and I have to somehow find this weakness, and exploit it, before she kills me and sucks out my soul, is that it?”

“In so many words, yes,” Vysriel agreed.

Silhouette rubbed her forehead. “Glad we got that cleared up. I feel much better now.”

Everyone wished there was something more concrete to their plan, but Silhouette’s death was sudden; Neith’s preparations were not. Still, there was a glaring hole to consider.

“You’re planning a siege,” the mage stated, her mood somber. “But what happens in the event Neith repairs the Tapestry before you deplete her forces?”

They had no answer.

“I see.”

Heldarien set a hand on her shoulder, swerving her away.

“At least you’re safe with us, Silhouette. The Trinity Spire is the most secure layer of Kharlaryyv. You can rest easy while you’re here. Look,” he waved at the door. “Let’s have an old friend show you around.”

Silhouette glanced at the entrance, where a man was waiting. She didn’t recognize him for the first few seconds, as he was older, and more defined. Nyx’s dark, almost black, eyes glistened like hard, polished stones. His hair was short, and he had a lingering stubble.

Her smile was tinged with relief and guilt, both for seeing him well and knowing she played a hand in his death.

“Go with him while we catch up with Feyt,” he said, more a command than a suggestion. “I’m sure you have much to talk about.”

Silhouette no sooner stepped outside than the door disappeared behind her, Feyt along with it. She felt the bond connecting them, so she knew she was alright, but it was no less unnerving.

“Silhouette.” Nyx cocked his head towards the hall. “Let me show you to your room.”

S

Fairies fluttered past them, stopping to hang off Nyx from time to time. Silhouette bit back a smile as they tugged on his clothes, vying for attention. The most he ever did was flick them off; the creatures treated this as a joyride, much to his chagrin, swarming him a second and third time for another go.

One tiny fey regarded Silhouette with a cocked head; the elf couldn't make out the details of her face, as it was so tiny, but her wings were beautiful -as though a prism shone through crystal feathers of a little bird.

She flew towards her, latching onto her nose, and proceeded to stare Silhouette in the eyes.

“You’re sad,” she commented, her voice tickling her ears. “You smile, but you’re sad.”

The mage was careful as she pulled her away, setting the little fairy on the leaves of a flowering bush. “I’m alright,” she replied. “Thank you.”

The fairy lingered before flying off; all of them did, as if sensing the woman’s desire to be alone.

Nyx led her to a garden; its sole furnishings came in the form of a trunk and a hammock, strung between two maple trees.

“This is my room?” Silhouette asked.

“I thought it fitting.” Nyx plucked a pear from a nearby tree. “At least you won’t have to go to the kitchen in the middle of the night.”

Silhouette wasn’t sure how this place could exist within the Trinity Spire; she wasn’t sure how the Trinity Spire could exist at all. The Dead Realm was like an abstract painting with distinct chambers, its areas separated by blaring contrast rather than blended scenes.

She sat on the hammock, not knowing what to do with herself.

“Thank you, Nyx.” She considered the sacrifices he made for her. “For everything.”

He leaned against the tree, arms crossed.

“What’s got you so depressed?”

“I’m dead,” she replied, her smile forced. “It really is over.”

“That doesn’t sound like you.”

“But it’s the truth, isn’t it?” Silhouette met his eyes. “Everyone else, they’re not saying it directly, but they’ve already given up. A war of attrition? Sit here and play nice? There’s no way we’re going to win by staying on the defensive.”

Nyx wanted to refute her points, but he couldn’t. She was right; he returned to Kharlaryyv in time to see Vysriel’s expression as she was murdered. It was as though someone took a bat to his reflection in a mirror.

Hope was fading fast for all of them. Neith, though they knew where she was, remained beyond their reach.

“Life isn’t fair.”

Silhouette hung her head, staring at the palms of her hands.

"I knew that the day I came to Lydia. I wished there was merit in suffering -the whole what doesn't kill you makes you stronger argument. But you know something, Nyx?" The corners of her mouth lifted in a bitter smile. "There's nothing noble about hardship, because it doesn't always pay off. Some people are born with the world at their feet; everyone else lives to get crushed beneath it. The greatest tragedy aren't those who do nothing about it, but those who try."

Teardrops fell on the backs of her hands.

“Those who fight, and kick, and scream; the ones who sweat, and bleed, and think that someday life will reward them for their pain.”

“That’s the entire point of being a Ghostwalker,” he said. “You exist to give them a chance.”

Do I ?" Her lips trembled. "Look at me, Nyx. What have I accomplished? All that fighting, all that killing; all the people who've died and will die because of me -a failure."

“You are not a failure.” He knelt, catching her face between his hands. Hers was a tortured expression, one culminating from years of staying strong in the face of adversity. He never knew someone could look so devastated. “You are an agent of change, and change is never easy.”

“And change isn’t always good. Maybe we were wrong, Nyx. Maybe this is why we need the Tapestry of Fate.”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“This is coming out of nowhere.”

“Not nowhere.” She shook her head, her voice tiny. “I’ve always had these doubts, gnawing at me. You say I fight to bring change, but not everyone will want it. The majority of people will lead mediocre, but content, lives in the Tapestry. All I’m doing is taking away that guarantee, that safety net, for a handful of those at the bottom.”

“The Silhouette I know didn’t care if it was one person or a hundred at the bottom. The Silhouette I know would’ve fought to do anything to give them the opportunity to get out from under.”

“But don’t you see, Nyx? The problem isn’t getting them out, it’s that there will always be a bottom. There will always be the weak, the strong. Take Lydia for a prime example. The nobles were cast down, but look at how many more had to struggle harder just to survive. Look at Taerinval, or Harbridge -so much change, so much death because of it."

Nyx didn’t know what to say.

Silhouette was indomitable, at least this was how he saw her. If she harbored these doubts then he was ashamed he didn’t see it sooner. He, like many, criticized her for not thinking, charging recklessly into one danger or another. It was beyond stupid, but also inspiring the way she faced her problems head on.

Except he didn’t guess that there was a reason she wasn’t thinking, because if she did then these doubts would come to the forefront. Before, people followed her lead due to what she was and everything she stood for.

Silhouette was an extraordinary sorceress, a ruler, a Ghostwalker.

But beneath everything was a girl who was thrown into an unforgiving world. She never had the chance to grow while expressing doubts or fears, for if she did then that same world would devour her in a heartbeat.

It was cruel, Nyx thought. Everyone bore such great hopes and burdens on her shoulders, and now as she slipped, all of it faltered. Silhouette was not given the option to be anything but indestructible.

This was what made her so cripplingly weak.

But there was one man who, though horrible in execution, did try to shield her from the world they lived in. One man who wanted to give her the semblance of a normal life while giving her the tools she needed to survive.

“Silhouette,” said Nyx, throwing a shawl around her shoulders. “If you head straight through the row of peach trees behind you, I think you might find something that’ll cheer you up.”

“I don’t feel like it, Nyx. I know I must sound incredibly annoying right now, but I want to wallow in my misery for a couple hours.”

“Then wallow all you want,” he said, removing a pair of scissors from his belt. “But first, will you let me fix your damn hair?”

This produced her first real smile in the Dead Realm.

Chapter 3: Letting Go

Feyt winced as thorns wrapped around the mage’s heart. She was afraid of this happening. It was easy to muster false confidence before other people, but when alone, or with those she trusted, Silhouette allowed her true self to show; all her demons along with it.

The magi gazed upon their estranged sibling, and she them, marveling that it felt as though little time passed between meetings. Feyt shrugged as an initial gesture.

“It’s nice to know I don’t have to launch into a lengthy exposition,” she started, clearing the air. “You’ve been watching over me all this time. Have you so little faith in me?”

“With your penchant for gloom and despair?” Korosuth huffed. “It’s not about faith, it’s about being beside ourselves with worry.”

“We don’t mean to suggest you aren’t capable, Feyt,” Heldarien amended, making up for his colorful sister. “Only that you took a heavy burden upon yourself. Acting as guardians was our way of playing supporting roles… though we had no way of informing you of our involvement, not until the Savantguard was formed.”

She dropped her hands to her sides, her smile faint.

“I suspected as much.” Feyt nodded at Vysriel. “After all, you have the ultimate voyeur at your disposal.”

Three of the four laughed at Vysriel’s expense, who turned his head at their mirth.

“You should’ve stayed a sword,” he sniffed, though a reluctant pink crept to his face, unable to hide his pleasure at their reunion.

Heldarien and Korosuth embraced their ebon sister; Korosuth grabbing Vysriel by his collar to join in.

Their happiness was short-lived; however, as the gloom of their circumstance encroached on the moment.

“Your Ghostwalker has a point,” Vysriel admitted. “Her death was so sudden. We were caught off guard. The odds are now overwhelmingly in Neith’s favor.”

“Is there any way we can prevent Neith from mending the Tapestry?” Feyt asked. “I know this will only delay it, but-”

“None.” Vysriel shook his head. “The Ninácetrin are already on the move, based on Iago’s reconnaissance. They’ll reach the Spire within an hour’s time. I have confidence in our defenses, but their numbers are…”

“How many?”

“In the thousands,” Heldarien answered. “As you know, they’re all victims of previous Ghostwalkers, all seventy seven, including Silhouette.”

Feyt did an approximate estimate in her head. There were a thousand to Silhouette’s count alone. With the others…

“Thirty thousand?”

“Thirty-two,” Korosuth corrected. “An amount we would normally have no issue in dealing with, if it weren’t for the fact that they’re resistant to our magic. The fog of Kharlaryyv does more than shroud them, Feyt; it absorbs much of the damage we can inflict, and in some cases, flings it back at us.”

“Chaos magic!” Feyt gasped. She grimaced at the world outside. “Vile, vile spellcraft.”

“Be that as it may,” Heldarien continued, “we are confident in our ability to hold them off. It’s doubtful Neith will send the full force after us, considering she needs to bide her time to repair the Tapestry. Even so, it limits our ability to move. We’re like beacons of power in the mist, impossible to hide. Neith will know if we enter the field.”

“So what you’re saying,” Feyt clarified, “is that we’re trapped in the Spire. There’s nothing we can do.”

“That’s correct.”

“So it’s truly over then.” She backed into a pillar, her shoulders sliding down its fluted surface. “We’ve failed.”

“Not quite.”

Everyone turned to Vysriel, who sported a rare smile -one growing across his narrow face.

“There is a chance Silhouette can be resurrected.”

“That’s impossible.” Korosuth turned serious. “She was struck by a soulshard; it’s guaranteed death.”

“Not if her soul can be reclaimed.” He set his eyes on Feyt, twinkling with hopeful light. “It would seem Silhouette’s devotion was not misplaced.”

“How do you mean?”

“Alyon is out to save her.”

S

Silhouette didn’t know how much time passed since Nyx left, but the garden was now dark. Stars littered the sky as dead leaves once littered the lifeless rooftops in Lydia. Clouds of shimmering dust billowed across the blackness. Its beauty pacified her for a time, and she forgot the pain of her conscience.

Her eyes traced her surroundings, falling on the row of peach trees Nyx mentioned. Silhouette clutched the shawl around her shoulders, stood, and walked down the grassy path.

And as she made her way past the fruit-laden boughs, the world changed, forming a limestone patio, one overlooking rows of lavender ebbing into infinity.

Wisps sang to the wind, breathing both light and music to the quiet surroundings.

A table sat at the edge of this viewing platform, and it was there that Silhouette learned she was not alone.

A handsome elf sat in the meager starlight, the blanket on his lap trailing to the floor. His black hair was slicked back, and off to the side, framing a tan face. Mesmerizing, inky eyes peered into the shadows beyond. He moved to grab a piping glass, bringing it to his narrow lips.

“Daerin?”

Silhouette was almost afraid to speak his name. In fact, she didn't know she did until he turned his head -not far enough to look on her, but from the corner of his eyes.

“I do hope you aren’t planning to kill me,” he said. “I’m not here to harm you.”

She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. He resumed staring at the horizon. A minute passed.

“I understand the view is an enchanting one,” he started. “But could you admire it while not staring over my head?”

Silhouette took a seat at the chair opposite him; the view was indeed beautiful, but it didn’t stop her from stealing glances at him, just to be sure this was the madman from her memories.

“Tea?” he offered, motioning to the pitcher between them.

“It’s not poisoned, is it?”

Though this was asked in all seriousness, Silhouette cringed a second later. Daerin closed his eyes, his lips curled in a sour smirk.

“Alright. I deserved that.”

“So is that a yes or a no?”

He sighed, “The tea is perfectly safe.” Daerin waited as she poured herself a glass. Silhouette began to sip. “…or is it?”

She sprayed it out.

Daerin laughed, earning a venomous glare from the woman in his company. Silhouette wiped the spit from her chin.

Her ire was fleeting, as his expression, one of pure, childish joy, took her aback. She lived under Daerin’s watch for over a decade, but this was her first time seeing him happy.

She stood a second sip from her cup, this time on her guard to watch for his taunting. A floral aroma spread across her tongue; sweet, and slightly tart.

“Rosehip.” She marveled at the nostalgic taste. Silhouette cradled its warmth. “Come to think of it, you taught me how to make tea… it was the only normal thing I learned from you.”

“I taught you about the medical properties of plants.”

“It was a little too hands-on for my taste.”

“The lessons remain, nonetheless.”

Neither said anything after that, drinking in silence. Silhouette knew his story from Faodrin; that Daerin was one of Jade’s many victims. Even so, it didn’t change the fact that she associated his face with her torture. No matter how put-together he appeared, there was a knot of dread in the pit of her stomach.

“So when did you get on such good terms with Nyx?”

He smiled at his drink. “I wonder that myself. Your friend has unwittingly become something of a pupil since joining the Savantguard. I see much of myself in him.”

“That’s a terrifying statement.”

Daerin made a pained expression. “I’m not the man you knew in Lydia. My mind-”

“-I know,” she insisted. Silhouette appeared frustrated. “I know. It was Jade’s fault. Faodrin told me. It’s just…”

“It’s just that the association is already there.”

“Exactly.” She served up a rueful smirk. “To think, all I wanted was a family, and you were my uncle right from the start. Why did you never mention it?”

Daerin rubbed the outer edge of his ears, once severed skin now plain signs of his heritage.

“I was the black sheep in our family, long before you were. My father exiled me himself.”

“Exiled?” Silhouette leaned across the table. “But Uradden seems so… docile.”

Daerin roared with laughter, startling his niece with the vitality of the display. The man she knew was a shadow in her memories -the elf before her was anything but.

“My father was a great many things, but docile wasn’t one of them. Not with me, anyway.” His expression sank. “I’m sure you know how difficult it is for two elves to produce natural offspring.”

“Not from experience, but yes.”

“Elfborn children are regarded as miracles. It’s a symbol of great pride, parenthood. But it acts as a double-edged sword. When I came into the world, Uradden took it as a sign that he could revive the glory of the Magi through a new generation. Mine.”

Silhouette’s mouth twisted. “I think I see where this is going.”

“I wasn’t untalented, but I was no prodigy either.” He raised his head to the stars. “There was always more to learn, to accomplish, and nothing killed me more than his unspoken disappointment when I failed to reach his exacting standards. For two hundred years I fought for his approval… until one day, I simply stopped.”

He paused. Silhouette watched ghosts swirl within his eyes, the memories replaying in his head.

"I distanced myself from him -traveled the world for the better part of a century, but my inferiority complex didn't get any smaller. I came to the conclusion that I needed closure, to confront Uradden one last time."

“And then what happened?”

“I met an infant.” He snorted. “My very own little brother.”

“My father.”

“None other.” Daerin grimaced, his tone flat. “To this day, I’ve never seen an uglier baby.”

Silhouette burst into laughter.

“I speak the truth! He looked like an old, fat, little man. Such a disgusted expression on his face, as though the world had done something to offend him.”

It sounded so like her father that she wiped tears from her eyes, her face rosy with mirth.

"It was then I decided to stay in Riverstone," Daerin continued. "No longer for my sake, but to act as a buffer -so my experience would not be repeated with Jerrold. Unlike you and Faodrin, who got along from the day you met, our relationship was a bit more… turbulent."

“Oh boy,” she grinned. “What happened there?

“Jerrold has a unique brand of magic, one involving direction. He can take any moving object and change its trajectory without sacrificing an ounce of energy. It was particularly bad when he was a child.”

“Give me an example.”

“He attempted to practice in the lavatory. I walked in to get piss in my eyes.”

She covered her mouth with a fist, snorting. “How couldn’t you dodge that?”

“He urinates with exceptional force.”

Silhouette no longer tried to contain her laughter -she knew a losing battle when she saw one. Daerin took great pleasure in knowing that he could do more than make her suffer -it healed him in a manner nothing else could.

"In retrospect, I needn't have worried over Uradden trying to mold Jerrold into a model mage. He fought every authority in the High City. It was quite the scandal when he elected to pursue martial hobbies over magical arts. What little I know of physical combat I learned from him -he gleaned great satisfaction from knocking me on my ass."

“He sounds like a tyrant.”

“He would’ve been,” said Daerin, “if he had any social skills.” He softened at the past. “Jerrold was famously misunderstood by those around him, except for myself. Though he looked infinitely angry, I could pick out nuances in his expressions. When he was thoughtful, or pleased. Like many, I didn’t give my brother the credit he deserved until much later in life, for though he was a natural rebel, he’s also an observer, and fiercely introspective. Oddly enough, it was these qualities that made him an excellent mage.”

“It sounds like you got along well after all.”

"Not on the surface." Daerin shook his head. "I tried, for years, to take the high road with regards to his antics. I'm ashamed to say I stooped to his level in the end. We'd set up the most elaborate traps, designed to ruin the other's day. The pranks resulted in some fantastic public damage, to the point where Ezara had to sit us down for corporal punishment. To my surprise, Uradden was also a fan of practical jokes -the greatest destruction occurred when he decided to join in on our sibling rivalry."

“This I can see,” Silhouette admitted, thinking of her easy-going grandfather. “But if he exiled you, then how did your relationship get so bad?”

Daerin’s knuckles ran white.

“There was a man, who I often clashed with during my life. At times, we got along swimmingly, but there was always something sinister about him. What he lacked in power, he made up for in cunning, and he made it his life’s mission to undermine me at every opportunity.”

Silhouette thought of Jade.

“That sounds familiar.”

“And for that you have my sympathies,” he acknowledged. “Our feud escalated, bringing in innocent bystanders. It got to the point where the only way we could sort the battle was through a duel.”

“Iridaesin,” Silhouette cut in, to a somber nod.

“Iridaesin,” Daerin repeated. “He and I were evenly matched. Truthfully, I don’t know if I would’ve won had Jerrold not run into the arena.”

“I didn’t know that was allowed.”

“It wasn’t.” Daerin rubbed the space between his eyebrows. “He had no eye for strategy, as he’d always fought battles head-on. He assumed I would lose, the fool.” The elf scowled. “I knew my opponent; he did not, but it still came as a surprise when he went after my brother the moment he stepped in. I moved on instinct to protect my family, so I dove for the kill.”

Silhouette’s heart sank.

"My assassination attempt was foiled, however." He caught her puzzled frown. "Uradden knocked us out before I could kill him -but my blade had done its work. My opponent, now hinging on death, was maimed beyond hope of a normal life. As punishment, Uradden burned me whole. My skin took two years to recover."

Silhouette gasped.

“During that time, he didn’t want my explanation. Not even your father could get through to him. All the shame and anger came to the surface, but rather than appeal to my father’s standards, I wanted nothing more than to obliterate them. Vengeance makes monsters of men.”

Silhouette thought of the bloodlust which drove her to murder the man before her, nodding in grim agreement.

“Recall how I mentioned that elfborn are miraculous existences; pride, joy, and hope all rolled into one. What would you say is the most distinctive feature of our kind?”

“Our ears.”

“Thus, I severed mine.” Daerin watched as all the pieces came together for his horrified niece. “I paid the ultimate insult to the parent who brought me into this world. I murdered my comatose rival, leaving the tips of my ears on his bedside like a gruesome calling card, and then I fled, knowing I’d only court death if I faced Uradden in his rage. Just like that, my name was blotted from our family register.”

Silhouette couldn’t help but draw parallels between her and her uncle. They were both outcasts, of a sort. They both fought for approval. Their falls both began with the best intentions.

As much as she didn’t want to admit it, she felt the strongest kinship with Daerin, for she walked the road he walked on.

“That’s why you gave me this name, isn’t it? I really am your silhouette.”

He looked her in the eyes.

“Yes. That, and,” he went on. “Because our magic was also the same, at least in origin.”

“How do you mean?”

“Like you, I’m telekinetic.” He closed his eyes and pinched empty space; Daerin produced a string of light. “But unlike you, who manipulates light, I manipulate its absence.”

Though the thread remained, it grew darker. Silhouette watched as black clouds consumed the sliver of starlight.

“Though it may pain you to hear this, we are the best matched of our entire family. Had I remained on good terms with Uradden, I have little doubt that I would’ve been your teacher.”

He stopped, as Silhouette covered her eyes with the palm of her hand. She bit her bottom lip, and it was clear to him that she was hiding tears behind her closed fingers.

Daerin didn’t say a word, allowing her the privacy to muddle through her thoughts.

Then, “It’s a shame.” She squared her shoulders against the back of the chair, her face red, but dry. “I think, given different circumstances, we would’ve been close.”

Silhouette could picture it. While her father learned how to be personable, she would run to Daerin’s and watch him work. He’d allow her and Renee to pour over his encyclopedias, and every so often they would meet with their grandparents at the Gildengrove.

She saw it, the future she was meant to have; the future that would’ve been had she not died that fateful day.

It was one thing to fight a destiny that would be cruel to you; another to throw a beautiful one away. Though inadvertent, and well-intentioned, this was what she did.

Daerin guessed her thoughts ran along these lines; could see it in her face, just as he saw it in Kendra all those years ago.

“Riverstone was once a bed of volcanic ash,” he started. “And Lydia was simply a series of mountain peaks. Vaisya Isle, too, was raised from the sea by mermaids, and Isoviel constructed of the ruins of the Magi. This world has always been a violent place, filled with darkness and danger.”

Daerin allowed the shadows to dissipate; his thread of light reemerged from the veil.

"With enough time and tenacity, even the greatest wounds can heal -but only if we let them." He smirked at his lap. "After my exile, I sought sanctuary in Lydia, and found it among the Shadow Blades during the last chapter of their glory days. I acted in the position Iago once did; as quartermaster, but one whose advice was sought by nobles and councilmen alike."

“But you were an elf.”

"They didn't know this," he replied. "Not until the years rolled by, and I remained as I always did, and by that time I'd earned their friendship, so they no longer cared. Lydia did much to soften my disposition." He closed his eyes, breathing deep. "I thought neither much, nor little, of humans till then. The brevity of their lives alarmed me, but not nearly as much as the ferocity in which they lived. I was some three centuries old, and they experienced just as many joys and sorrows; possessed of a wisdom I could scarcely imagine -and even now, can barely comprehend. I envy the fire of human men, for what they lack in time they make up for in vision, and I'm shamed by them daily for that simple fact,"

"Brennan and Durmon, Lyssa's predecessors, called me friend and confidant. Their influence gave me new identities and a measure of protection as racial stigma rose to an all-time high. Close to forty years ago, I acted as the captain of the guard for King Durmon. He entrusted me with a certain mission -one I found peculiar at the time."

Silhouette cocked her head to the side.

“What was that?”

“I was to catch a thief.” Here his eyes twinkled. “To this day, I remain the only man who has ever outwitted your mother.”

“Don’t tell me it was love at first sight.”

“Hah!” He clapped a hand on his leg. “Hardly! Though I caught her, it was only after the chase of a lifetime; and the mouth on the girl. A bucket of soap wouldn’t make a dent in that vocabulary.”

“Yherod said the same.”

“Where do you think she learned half of it?” he balked. “He’s a foul influence. It’s a miracle you haven’t adopted his vices.”

“Only his stubbornness.”

That you inherited from Kendra,” he argued.

She grinned in the dark. “So how did she break out?”

Daerin arched his brow. "You think too little of me. She didn't get out -I released her."

“But the King-”

“-said only to capture the thief. He said nothing of handing her over to him or any other authority. You see, Kendra laid out her plans, and while devious, she provided concrete evidence that she worked for the good of the High City. I saw no reason, beyond hearsay, to keep her locked up, so I let her go.”

Silhouette shot him a dubious glance.

“What?”

“I don’t know if that sounds noble or extremely irresponsible.”

His mouth twisted at the comment. “Moving on, it was a decision I came to regret, as the next time we met it was in my cellar. Kendra was helping herself to a round of cheese and a bottle of wine.”

She laughed.

“Oh you find it funny, but she made a habit of this, costing me a small fortune just to keep up with her expensive tastes. It got to the point where I was exhausted of chasing her out of my home, so I simply gave her a key. She came and went as she pleased from then on. And despite her asinine behavior, I stopped minding her intrusions. She was a curiously perceptive woman, your mother. Wise in a way only the greatest fools could be. That is how the great confidant found someone he could confide in. Truly, fate is the funniest thing at times.”

“I’m shocked.” Silhouette swung her legs over the edge of her seat. “It’s actually such a sweet story.”

“And through your mother, I met Ballard, and Heron. Two young men who, much to my chagrin, attempted to follow in her footsteps before realizing that thievery does require some talent.”

As Daerin went on, Silhouette began to pair his tales with those of Damian and her father. While Kendra was the fire who drew them all together, Daerin had been the glue of their tight-knit group, keeping them grounded. Ivane said, back when Silhouette was a child, that there was once a time they would’ve trusted Daerin with their lives.

And Heron and Ballard were so pained, having to watch their friend succumb to madness as a result of heartbreak. Silhouette softened towards her uncle, for though he was the source of so much pain, she now knew the reasons behind it.

This wasn’t a trauma that would heal overnight, she realized, but hope presented itself there on the starry patio. Daerin did terrible things, but he was not a terrible person.

In fact, Silhouette found that she resented her mother for doing what she did to him; the only man who ever kept up with her antics.

“‘Rin’, she told me one day, ‘I’ll be back before you know it.’”

The sentence struck her senses like lightning.

Kendra said the same exact thing to her father.

“It was-”

“-the one promise she didn’t keep,” Silhouette finished for him. “And you never saw her again after that.”

“That’s right.” If Daerin was surprised, then he didn’t show it. He resumed drinking his now-cold beverage.

“Daerin.”

“Yes?”

“What do you think about all of this? The Ghostwalkers and the Tapestry of Fate?”

“In what sense?”

“Which is right?”

His shoulders shook with silent laughter. “Silhouette, you disappoint me. Right and wrong are pure abstractions.”

She scowled, “You know that’s not what I meant.”

“So I did.” Daerin shrugged. “I believe everyone deserves a chance at a good life; while the Tapestry offers that to the vast majority of people, some are barred from the start.”

“So you believe destroying it is better?”

"I never said that." Daerin shook his head. "Ghostwalkers are agents of change, and chaos. What they give in freedom they deny in security. People, by nature, fiercely dislike anything which throws their lives into disarray -this is the root of why Ghostwalkers are so reviled by general society."

“I already know all that,” she fumed.

He smirked at her impatience. “Life, with or without the Tapestry, will forever have an element of unfairness. The one choice no one has is whether or not they’re brought into the world to begin with, and after this fact, what life we’re born to. Some starting points are so different that people will never entirely catch up to others in terms of wealth or success. But, to address your concerns, the future belongs in the hands of those who deign to shape it. One must be extraordinarily lazy to let the world do what it wants with them their whole life.”

Silhouette blinked.

“Then what you’re saying is… leave them to their fates?”

"That is also a choice, is it not?" he queried. "I believe the greatest reason the Ghostwalkers are so detested isn't because they take away a safety net from people, but because they force accountability upon them. Others can no longer blame their misfortunes on luck, fate, or chance. It will require people to earn their success, at least to some degree, and when they fail they'll have no one to look to but themselves. And let's face it -denial is an art."

Silhouette chuckled, stunned by his analysis.

“But… what about those people who suffer either way?”

“Would you rather they had a sliver of a chance to change their lives, or none at all?”

“The former, of course, but that doesn-”

“-then there is no problem. Silhouette,” he said, adjusting so he faced her. “You must give people more credit. You are not the only one who knows ambition or desire. And for those who are at the lowest rung, you cannot save those who don’t wish to be saved. The future you envision is a utopia, one that offers even less balance than the Tapestry currently provides. To save the world, as you describe, would be no different than destroying it altogether.”

Daerin softened.

“Compassion is a dangerous thing, Silhouette. Because of it, few things will hurt more than having to watch those you love struggle on their own. No one wants to feel helpless.”

Heron and Ballard popped into her mind, floundering at Daerin’s descent.

“But you have to realize that every individual has the power to save themselves. How long it takes them to find that strength, if at all, is entirely up to them.”

She sagged in her chair and exhaled, feeling lighter.

“Then the bottom line is… let people fend for themselves? I feel like that makes me evil, somehow.”

“Then parents are the ultimate villains.” He returned her stunned expression with a smile. “For the minute a child is born, every day is a lesson in letting go.”

“Daerin?”

“Yes?”

“I like you a whole lot better when you’re not nuts.”

The man coughed on his tea, a grin forming. “Then we have that in common.”

Silhouette tugged at the locket around her neck, stared at the horizon, and wondered whether it was possible to reclaim all she threw away upon becoming a Ghostwalker.

After all, there would always be a future for those who wish to seize it.

Chapter 4: Old Friends, New Allies

Faodrin groaned, Consciousness returned in flashes of color as he opened his eyes. He didn’t know what would happen if he attempted to bring a living soul to the Dead Realm, but he didn’t expect such violent backlash. The man dusted the dirt off his sleeves and trousers, scanning the surroundings. He was flanked by brownstone buildings; the bustle of commerce sounding on either side.

The Merchant Quarter, he thought with a sunken scowl. The district was half the size of Lydia. It’d take a week to find Alyon in the crowds. Thankfully, the man knew a shortcut to that end.

He covered the Savantguard crest and reached for the nearest door.

“Take me to Alyon,” he commanded.

And off he went.

S

Faodrin reemerged, startled at the sight of blood on the ground, the sound of clashing metal not far behind.

He ran around the corner to find a ring of spectators in a dilapidated courtyard. Alyon swung at his attacker with a rusted iron pipe, at an apparent disadvantage against the hulking brute and his massive cleavers.

The majority of those assembled were monstrous in appearance, not unlike Iago, thus Faodrin knew that this was a gaggle of criminals and lowlifes.

Alyon tumbled out of reach; his opponent’s weapon lodged in the hard earth. The Guildmaster charged as he fought to free the tool, grabbed hold of the rope belt hanging off his waist, and threw his weight forward.

He bent his heel, swinging around, and stabbed the end of his pipe through the back of his knee. The giant howled in pain, thrown into a berserker rage.

Faodrin arched his brow at the spectacle; he was going to intervene, but the man appeared more than prepared for this fight. Besides, Savantguard were easy to recognize; with the Ninácetrin out in force, revealing himself was a terrible idea.

Alyon proceeded to dodge the next several attacks, always just out of reach. One could tell, by the slight sneer, that he was out to provoke his foe… and he succeeded.

The monster roared, rushing forward. Alyon ran towards him, much to the surprise of the crowd. Then, at the last possible moment, he found a gap to slide between the giant’s legs.

The brute crushed four people as he slammed into the building wall; the surroundings shook with the weight of the blow.

Alyon sauntered over to the cleaver still in the earth, took a seat on the handle, and set his chin on the palm of his hand.

Faodrin ran fingers down his face -Silhouette was bad, but at least she didn't showboat.

The bruised and bleeding fiend shook off trash and gore, veins bulging as he spotted Alyon’s relaxed posture. Everyone wondered what the slight man would do now.

As expected, the beast charged again, the speed startling those assembled. Alyon simply turned around and walked off, as though accepting his demise.

But then the brute, blinded by bloodlust, stepped on the cleaver handle. His weight gave it the leverage required to pull from the ground. It sliced into him. And as he fell, the cut grew larger, until his bowels spilled onto the dirt.

Alyon’s expression was frightening in its chill. He spotted Faodrin in an instant.

“Where did you learn to fight like that?” he asked, numb.

“Silhouette wasn’t the only one who spent four years training,” he replied, snatching a broadsword from the hands of a stuttering observer. He weighed the weapon in his hands. “I’m taking this.”

After the scene they witnessed, no one dared to disagree. A dirty look prompted everyone to scatter, eager to avoid another death in their midst.

“Where are we?” asked Alyon,

Faodrin looked around. “I’m not sure.”

“Then how did you find me so fast?”

"With this." He motioned to the seal on his arm. "It's the Savantguard crest -a rune of space shifting with infinite charges."

“Then-”

“-I can’t,” he cut him off, guessing what Alyon was going to ask. “It holds two charges at a time, and takes twelve hours to recover one. I used the first to bring you here; the second to find you.” He pressed a hand to his still-throbbing head. “I thought we’d start in Spawnwood, so I directed us there, but then we were flung apart. I think it might’ve known you were still alive, so it rejected you.”

Alyon considered the explanation. “Where did you end up?”

“The Merchant Quarter.”

“But that’s forty miles from here!” The man who ‘gifted’ Alyon his broad sword shivered as they turned to face him. Upon closer inspection, calling him a man was a bit of a stretch. He was a tall, wiry adolescent, one who shrank at the sudden attention.

“Do you know the area well?” Faodrin wondered.

“S-somewhat.”

“What is this place?” asked Alyon.

“The Bound.”

Faodrin drew a sharp breath. “Of all the damn…”

“What’s wrong with the Bound?” Alyon looked to him.

“It’s the outermost edge of Kharlaryyv, like a cesspool moat where the scum live once they exit Spawnwood.”

The teen’s face scrunched. “Not all of us are bad, you know. Most, but not all.”

Alyon shot a sympathetic glance. “Look, we need to find a rune of space shifting, or a shortcut that can take us to… where was it we needed to go?”

“The Trinity Spire.” Faodrin crossed his arms. “Alyon, he probably doesn’t even know what that kind of rune is.”

“Oye, I’m not stupid. Not a mage,” the boy admitted, “but not stupid. So basically, you wanna get to the heart of the Dead Realm fast. Your buddy here is right,” he said, pointing at Faodrin with his thumb. “I dunno what a space shifting rune is.”

“See? I told you this was a waste of-”

“-but I know where to find a portal.”

S

Before they could leave, Nyx emerged from a door in the ruined courtyard, startling them.

Faodrin sighed in relief. “I’m guessing Vysriel told you we were here.”

“He did.” Nyx scanned Alyon, his lips quirked into an unimpressed frown. “But I’m afraid you’re going to have to find some other way to get to the Spire. You can’t use the seal on Alyon again.”

“What?” Faodrin, who hoped to wait for the charge to restore, balked at his fellow Savantguard. “Why not?”

"Without getting too into it, Alyon's still technically alive. The more we yank his soul through layers of reality, the less time he has here. We're wriggling it loose from his body -and you know what happens when it's free."

“Death,” Alyon answered.

“Which normally I wouldn’t mind so much,” Nyx admitted, earning an evil look from the Guildmaster. “But it isn’t Silhouette’s time to die, and unfortunately you’re the only one who can drag her back, no thanks to your shitty sister.”

“Sister?”

Faodrin glowered at Nyx, who shrugged. “I figured you needed something to talk about on the trip.”

“Wait, where are you going?” Alyon asked.

“Back to the Spire. Ninácetrin are surrounding the place. Someone’s got to protect Silhouette until you get there.”

“Silhouette is more than capable of protecting herself.”

Nyx lingered at the handle, wondering whether Alyon understood her a little more after all this time. Then he thought of her slumped in the hammock, crushed under a lifetime of obligation.

“If you haven’t gotten it by now then you never will,” said the Savantguard. “Once you bring her back to life, give up on her. I’m saying that for your sake this time.”

Then he disappeared.

Alyon made a face at the door.

“What the hell was that about?”

Faodrin swore under his breath. Nyx did a lot of growing up, but he reverted to childish antics whenever Alyon was involved.

“Portal, you say.” He ignored the Guildmaster’s question in favor of their objective. The teen took on a serious look.

“He said Silhouette just now, and you really are Savantguard.” He motioned over his shoulder. “Follow me. Any friend of the Ghostwalker is a friend of mine.”

“And how do you know Silhouette?”

“She killed me.”

His expression turned alarmed. “Then how are you not part of the Ninácetrin?”

“Cuz I was a ghoul first.” The teen’s eyes twinkled with mirth. “Funny story. Elvawein killed us, but she saved our souls on this side of reality. Anyone who was a ghoul isn’t out to kill Silhouette. Actually, everyone owes her a debt for setting us free. Most of them are heading to the Trinity Spire as we speak.”

He grinned at the Guildmaster. “I was part of Vale’s patrol that one night. Rumor has it he’s Headmaster of some kind of school now. Always knew the kid would go places.”

Alyon raked his brain. “You’re… Kat. A thief.”

“Kit,” he corrected. “And I prefer the term ‘Acquisitionist’ thank you very much.”

“How do you know any of this?” Faodrin demanded. “You aren’t supposed to be able to keep touch with anyone after you die.”

“The kiddos keep us up to date.”

“Kiddos?” Faodrin and Alyon asked together.

Kit pointed at the multitudes of lights hovering through the eerie streets. Upon closer inspection, some of these wisps had wings.

“Wisps evolve into fairies in Kharlaryyv. Most of these belong to the kids Elvawein used to create ghouls.”

“But I thought…” Faodrin trailed off, his lips forming a relieved smile. “I thought we’d lost them.”

“So did we, at first,” Kit admitted. He grinned into the dark, ushering the men through the halls of a ruined structure. “Point is, they’re always flying around the Trinity Spire. They keep us informed about what’s going on.”

“Wait, I’m more stuck on what you meant about ghouls on the way to the Trinity Spire,” Alyon cut in, waving him down. “And why you’re all the way here if you’re with them.”

Kit stopped, pressing a hand to his chest. “As an acquisitionist, I was acquisitioning supplies.” He pointed at the sword in Alyon’s hand. “Some of which found its way to you. So be grateful.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Anyway, we’re almost there.”

The floor shifted beneath their weight. Alyon pressed his hand against the wall for support; his heart hammered in shock as the nudge broke through its cracking surface. Faodrin bunched his shoulders.

“This building isn’t structurally sound.”

“That’s some astute power of observation you got there, Savantguard,” Kit sneered. “C’mon, Hendrick isn’t far away.”

“Who’s Hendrick?” I thought you were leading us to a portal.”

“Hendrick is the guy who can make you a portal. If the Ghostwalker’s fate rests in your hands then we have a whole lot more than Neith to worry about.”

Alyon bit back laughter as Faodrin’s face shrank, pulling tight at the edges. Kit led them to a cellar, reminiscent of the one at the Shroud. Faodrin gave Alyon a warning glance as they descended into the shadows; this reeked of a trap.

“I bet you think this reeks of a trap.”

“Saw that one coming,” Alyon snickered. “Don’t worry, Faodrin. He’s not fooling us.”

“And how do you know that?”

He pointed to his eyes, moving like kaleidoscopes. “I’m clairvoyant. Comes in handy once in a while.”

He walked into a pillar.

“Near-sighted, apparently,” Faodrin clipped.

“Kit?” A man’s voice called further out. It was scratchy, due to the dust and mold in the air. “Kit, what was that noise?”

“I brought some guests, Father!”

“He’s your father?” Alyon wondered.

“Not my father. A Father. You know. Man of the cloth.”

They entered a study. Books filled the room from floor to ceiling, acting as supports now that the walls were falling apart.

A gingered haired man leaned up against a table, scratching at vellum scrolls. He was strong, tall, and vaguely familiar. His name rolled around in Alyon’s head.

“Are you… from Vaisya Isle?”

He looked over a pair of half-moon glasses, inquisitive towards the emerald eyed guest.

“I am.” He straightened his back, proud despite his ruined robes. “My name is Hendrick, as I’m sure Kit told you. I was attendant to Abbot Ekarius.”

“You’re Crimson’s father.”

At the mention of his daughter, Hendrick’s posture went through an evolution. From stiff to sagging, from taut to relieved. A smile, which could only be described as self-deprecating, spread across his tired lips.

“I owe the Abbot for his kindness, and Damian for his initiative. It’s thanks to them that at least one of my children is alive and well.”

“One?” Alyon made a face. “I didn’t know Crimson had siblings.”

“She was the oldest of eight,” he chuckled. “Though all of them treated her like a child. Now they’re of the fey-folk, here in Kharlaryyv. It’s thanks to them I know what I do about the events of the world gone by.”

At that point a woman entered the room, her brown, almost-black hair swinging at her hips in a long braid. Her freckles were identical to those of her daughter's, but spread beyond her face, and all over her body. She set a tray of snacks on the desk. At first they took her for a child, as she was just a head above the height of a dwarf. Alyon failed to conceal his grin -it was clear who Crimson took after.

“Rare for you to bring friends here, Kit,” she noted. Her eyes lingered on the Savantguard crest. “Important friends, at that.”

“This is Selene, my wife,” Hendrick introduced, slinging an arm around her shoulder. It was an awkward stance, as he had to bend to reach her; the woman only reached his elbows when standing side-by-side.

She didn’t bow, her back erect. Selene reminded Alyon and Faodrin of a female Yherod. That, in itself, was a terrifying revelation.

“I’m Faodrin, the Ghostwalker’s brother. That’s Alyon, Gui-”

"Alyon!" Hendrick's voice boomed in exclamation. He clapped his hands on the man's shoulders, alarmed when they couldn't get a firm grip. "Wha- you died?”

“Not quite.” He glanced at the former Shadow. “I’m using Faodrin’s link to keep my soul on this side, at least until I find Silhouette so I can bring her back.”

“Resurrection,” Selene replied. “You’ve got some guts, boy.”

“Selene, don’t be rude to our guests.”

“I served up grub; after that I reserve the right to say anything I please.”

“Lady’s got a point,” said Kit, mouth stuffed with bread.

“See? He gets it!”

Hendrick shook his head in a show of disappointment, but his faint smirk was anything but. Alyon and Faodrin knew, in those two minutes, that this was what others would call an annoying couple -the sort that needed to make an effort to pretend they had problems like other mere mortals. Therefore, their sweet display of bickering made the men feel sick.

“So how might I be of service, Savantguard?”

Alyon couldn’t help noticing that Faodrin seemed awfully pleased by the title. There was always time for vanity, even in the most dire situations.

“It’s been brought to our attention that we can’t use runes to move Alyon through Kharlaryyv without tearing his soul away from his body. Kit said you can create portals; can you safely get us to the Trinity Spire?”

“Of course,” Hendrick replied. “Just let me get some things together.” He proceeded to move around the room, grabbing a handful of this, a pouch stuffed of that; soon his arms were filled with otherwise useless paraphernalia.

He positioned crystals of unknown make at various angles, turning them so the light would reflect just so. Selene handed him a mortar and pestle, he threw a handful of ingredients in the container, crushed them to a paste, dipped his fingers, and drew diagrams on the cracking earth.

They were familiar to Alyon, who studied the runes of Elvawein's Tower. He caught the reflection in a gem, realizing that Hendrick was drawing their inverses on the floor. Alyon tensed, expecting the ground to burst into flames, but nothing happened. The act of marking runes was just as dangerous as speaking them -if not more so.

Hendrick caught his bewildered look with a smirk.

“So long as the runes are properly aligned in some medium, there’s no danger of them imploding.”

“That’s the reason for the crystals?”

“That’s the reason for the crystals. Quite perceptive of you, Guildmaster.” Alyon scratched the back of his head, bashful.

“What I want to know,” Faodrin began, “is why inverted runes will work when normal ones won’t.”

Hendrick arched his brow as he labored. “To answer that question, a rune of space-shifting is a spectacular misnomer. Space stays as it is; it’s the user which moves through it.”

“I’m not following,” he said.

“You break apart into your base components, and then reemerge at a designated point. “He raised his head to see that the men were more confused than before. “Do you know how, when people use a rune, they fall away in shattered glass?”

“That’s what you mean by breaking apart!” Alyon exclaimed.

Hendrick snapped his fingers. “Correct. Now a portal is an inverse. Space warps around the user, depositing them where they need to be. Internal versus external transport; does that make sense?”

“More or less,” Faodrin admitted.

“And… finished.” Hendrick wiped his head with the back of his hand, inspecting his work.

The final product was an intricate series of black lines, smudged in certain places. It was more a work of art than a clean-cut diagram. Hendrick waved them forward.

“This is the main difference between runes and portals,” said Hendrick. “A rune can pinpoint a region in space as you’re moving, meaning you don’t require a designated exit. Portals do.”

“Does the Trinity Spire even have a portal?” Alyon wondered.

Hendrick covered his mouth with his sleeve, chuckling. “Guildmaster, the Trinity Spire is a portal. It’s the anchor point for all Savantguard, which allows them to travel as they wish.”

Faodrin blinked. “I didn’t know that.”

"Vysriel isn't fond of sharing his knowledge with those he believes beneath it. I myself had to riddle out the details from the fey -a bit of a maddening process."

“So we just… step into it?”

“In a moment.” Hendrick looked to his wife. “Selene, the lights, if you please.”

Selene walked to every candle, blowing them out one at a time. Hendrick tapped something; a dot of light appeared on the ground.

“Now watch,” he instructed. The dot traveled up, catching a crystal facet. Light melted across the entire stone, reflecting onto another crystal, and two more after that. It bled across the diagram until they were staring into another world, as if through a pool of shining water.

“The Spire,” Faodrin breathed. “That’s amazing.”

“This sort of portal doesn’t last long; you must step through quickly.” Alyon and Faodrin didn’t hesitate. Hendrick faded in a rush of color. “Godspeed, Alyon.”

Godspeed.

S

What Hendrick neglected to mention was that the view from the portal would be the first sight they saw in stepping through it.

Alyon and Faodrin released a combined scream as they fell through the clouds, terror paralyzing them as few things ever did.

Then, moments before they hit the ground, a great bird swept them up in its arms.

Arms… arms?!

Thank the Gods Vysriel knew where you’d be!” a woman shouted. She made a strained sound as she flew to a precipice, setting them hard on the ground. “And thank the Gods I didn’t throw out my back.”

They glanced at their unexpected savior, a woman in silver chain. There was something hard, but honest, about her narrow features. White-blonde hair slapped against her face in the wind, ruffling the great gray feathers at her back.

“Have I seen you somewhere?” Alyon asked.

Her eyes glimmered with the warmth of a mother’s love. “You know my son, Ian.”

“Isabelle?”

“In the flesh.” She helped them back on their feet. “I never thought I’d have the privilege of meeting the son of our late Queen, but it seems Fate has other things in store for us.”

They leaned over the rail, catching sight of the fields below. Several hundred souls were huddled in tight groups, mist-folk nipped from the fog at those furthest from the center. No one would deny that it was a battlefield, but it was, by far, the strangest one Faodrin and Alyon laid eyes on.

Rather than two distinct forces clashing against one another, it was more like a siege, of two groups of assassins glancing blows wherever there was a lack in vigilance. On the one hand, it was almost funny… but as a head flew loose with no prior warning, the men realized just how horrifying this battle was.

“I act as commander on this field,” Isabelle told them. “As well as messenger, due to more obvious reasons.” She motioned to her wings. “And you, my good men, are already running late.”

S

The three magi awaited their arrival with great anticipation.

Alyon wasn't sure what to expect of the men and woman they called Gods. They were radiant -that much was clear; the zenith of beauty for mortals. But that was just the thing.

They were mortal.

So try as he might, he couldn’t see them any other way. Given the circumstances, they were even haggard. Korosuth traced lines of fire in the air, matching the environment outside. Heldarien remained in an idle state, eyes closed in fierce concentration.

Only Vysriel was there to greet them in a proper manner.

“Glad to see you’ve made it,” he announced. “With eight hours left to spare.”

“Eight hours until what?” Alyon was almost afraid to ask.

Vysriel set a finger to his collar, drawing a line across his neck.

“Souls are quite tricky, as no two are exactly alike,” he continued. “You almost seem to want to die. You lack real ambition, and your entire life has been spent running from goals than pursuing any particular one. I can’t help but notice that you seem… relieved, standing here.”

“How unlike you, Vysriel,” a new voice announced. Everyone turned to Iago. Not far behind him was a figure clasped in chains, dragged by the end of his skeletal tail. “They do say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but if you’re trying to emulate me then there ought to be more bite in your delivery.”

Unlike others who saw him for the first time, Alyon recognized the man immediately.

“Iago,” he growled.

“Oh-ho, now there’s a wild sound!” The old Iago would be intimidated by now; the fact that he seemed entertained was a great red flag for all of them. “Rest assured, Alyon, my reason for appearing here is purely altruistic. It’s been nearly twenty years since you last had a good chat with your sister, and here she is, in the flesh.”

He pulled back the hood of the woman in chains. Jade was physically unharmed, but it was clear that Iago wasn’t after her constitution. With her confidence broken, and her power crippled, her terror was plain across her face. Her eyes locked at the tiles on the ground; shame bleeding through her cheeks like dye.

Iago didn’t have to grip her chin very hard to tilt it upwards, revealing a wicked scar across her neck.

Tsk, tsk. A soul scar, given by her own twin brother.” He smoothed her hair with a malformed claw. “You poor, poor dear.”

Alyon knew then that Iago was telling the truth. This, paired with Nyx’s previous comment, forced him to connect the dots. Jade murdered Silhouette, and he killed her not a second thereafter.

Moreover, Silhouette knew she was going to die, which meant that she knew of Jade’s involvement for months, or even years.

He clenched his fists.

Why did she keep it a secret for so long?

“You have one chance to explain yourself, Jade. But before you start I want to make something perfectly clear,” he said. “After today, you aren’t my sister. You will never be spoken or thought of again, and if you even think to hurt me or anyone I care about from this point on then not even death will save you from me.”

Tears dripped to the floor. Iago couldn’t hide his pleasure. He could twist words around with the best of them, but the deepest wounds were inflicted by those held closest to the heart. Alyon ripped Jade to pieces on the inside, and she buckled just to remain standing.

“She stole everything. Just by being alive. I was reduced to nothing.”

Alyon didn’t understand the full weight of her confession, and he wasn’t interested in delving deeper. It was the greatest irony, to those around, that Jade sealed her own fate the minute she decided to take it into her hands.

She had a chance to create a happy life while Silhouette was a Ghostwalker, but instead she remained so fixated on her unwitting sins that she alienated herself from a world willing to embrace her.

Jade was a poster child for the dangers of obsession. Her current state left little to be afraid of, but her misdeeds also made her impossible to pity; truly a wasted existence in every sense of the word.

“There, there now,” Iago crooned, wrapping his monstrous arms around her. She stiffened against him. “You never needed him anyway.”

The doors slammed open. Nyx rushed in, heaving for all he was worth.

“Silhouette’s missing!”

“Missing?” Heldarien opened an eye. “That’s impossible.”

“She and Feyt are asleep in the garden,” Vysriel told him.

“No they’re not.” Nyx shook his head. “Whatever you’re seeing is an illusion, Vysriel. They’re gone. Silhouette and Feyt are both gone.”

WHAT?” Faodrin boomed. “It’s a warzone out there, what does she think she’s doing?!”

“Going after Neith is my best bet,” Nyx spoke, somber. “She isn’t herself right now. I know she’s usually unpredictable, but this is a whole new level for her.”

Vysriel threw a platter off the table, roaring his frustration.

“The Trinity Spire is a battleground. We can’t follow her out there without Neith knowing she left! Who knows how far she’s gone at this point?”

Korosuth paused from her tracing.

“Daerin does.” Everyone looked in her direction. “I thought I was mistaken, but I see his Savantguard crest in motion. He’s moving fast; almost faster than I can track.”

“In which direction?” Faodrin asked.

“To the Reliquary District. It looks like Silhouette is headed straight for the Pillar of Bones.”

Part Two: A Meeting with the Maker

 

You don't have to say it. This had to be my dumbest move yet -an accomplishment, if you really think about it.

Yes. I created an illusion field. Yes. I turned Feyt into her Shadow Blade form while she was sleeping. Yes. I kidnapped her. Yes. I ran.

As a Ghostwalker, I was Change. Change is in perpetual motion. Standing still, moping, musing, thinking -these things were against my nature. The Ninácetrin would've kept us holed in the Trinity Spire until Lydia was overrun, Kaos destroyed, and the Future lost forever. I had to do something, and let's be honest: pulling one over everybody is one of my favorite pastimes.

So I charged after Neith.

And I met my maker along the way.

 

-Silhouette Spiderlily, The Last Ghostwalker

 

 

 

Chapter 5: Mother Dearest

 

Feyt wasn’t pleased. Her ire seeped through the iron hilt at Silhouette’s waist. She sent all sorts of placating emotions through their link, but the magus was having none of it.

She went too far.

And that was precisely why Silhouette had to go even further.

Truth be told, she didn’t expect to run off the way she did. It wasn’t until she saw the woman that it crossed her mind.

For after her talk with Daerin, Silhouette followed along the moonlit path, not knowing whether she was outside or in within a place that disregarded reality.

At first she thought it was one of the Ninácetrin, for this figure seemed to meld with the mists, but it… she was a little too tangible to be one of the fog folk.

She made no move to attack. After it became clear that Silhouette would give her a chance to speak, she pulled back the cowl of her gray cloak. It gave the mage a monumental shock.

For she was staring back at her own face.

They weren't identical, of course. Their clothes were different. The woman's hair was lighter -nearly white, and her ears were unmistakably human in their roundness.

“If you want to see Neith then now’s the best time,” she said, in a voice so eerily similar to her own. “While the Magi are distracted, and the fighting rages outside.” She held out a hand. “I can take you there.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Trust has nothing to do with it. Either follow me, or don’t.”

Silhouette couldn’t argue with her reasoning.

“Lead the way.”

S

“You can drop me off here,” Marrick announced. “Give me ten hours.”

Lyssa heeded his request, and veered her dragon near the earth, but before she could land the great, flying serpent, Marrick dove from its back. By grace of the magic at his disposal, the Knight buffeted through the air, slowing towards the bottom, as though the wind cradled him close to its insubstantial breast.

His coattails flew as the dragon flapped its mammoth wings. Marrick knew Kherin’s wards had been tripped by his arrival, so he wasn’t surprised when Gregor’s voice, damning as ever, came through the embroidered back of his gloves.

There’s better be a DAMN good reason why I just saw a dragon from my office!”

“Silhouette’s been assassinated.”

There was a long pause after that. Finally, Gregor’s voice returned.

“All Knights are to report to Kherin’s cottage immediately. No exceptions.”

No one gave them.

S

Once their flight course leveled out, Lyssa knew their trip was about to become even worse.

“That eye,” said Damian, referring to the emerald in one of her sockets. “You were Elvawein, weren’t you?”

Before she answered that question, Lyssa thought to the night she donned that awful persona. It was so subtle in the beginning; she saw Lydia deteriorating, could read the lips of those plotting the coup, and yet the words didn’t reach her. The declarations were mere sounds, like a buzzing in her ears.

There was only a sense of unease, resulting in stomachaches and dizzy spells. It wasn't until years later, after Silhouette freed her of Jade's influence in the Tower, that Lyssa knew it was her body's way of crying out for help -that an invader had compromised her being.

A servant finished starting a fire before being dismissed for the night. Lyssa knew then that something was wrong, for she wanted to go to sleep, but she was moving.

She moved to the closet, and drew her plainest articles of clothing.

She moved to her jewels, and pried out an emerald with a knife.

She turned that knife on herself, and jabbed it into her eye.

And her screaming was silenced, as though by an invisible hand.

It was with that hand that she grabbed a fistful of embers, and cauterized her bleeding while giving herself an infection that would last for months. And it was with that hand that she fitted the emerald, while her skin was raw and broken.

Her one good eye poured a never-ending stream of tears down her cheek. She rang the bell on her desk to summon the servant back into the room.

Runes appeared in her mind, ones that she never studied, but could guess at their intent. And she slit the girl’s throat the minute she stepped inside.

Lyssa watched in horror from a body that was no longer her own as she spoke the damning spell, and the girl’s soul arose as a wisp. She could feel the weight of her sin as she grasped the weeping orb with shaking fingers, like a blob of scorching lead.

“Yes.” The word barely managed to get past her lips. “I was Elvawein.”

Lyssa was always a private woman. Damian could tell, feeling her pulse from his arms around her waist, how deep the years cut into her. The day they wed he swore to protect her, to love her. He didn’t know whether it was because she came back to different, or because of the time gone by, but Damian came to the same conclusion.

He loved the memory of Lyssa.

But he didn’t know if he loved the woman who bore the name.

Their conversation ended there, for they knew that this was the end; if not the future, then of their marriage -which, Damian believed, was really one and the same.

Lyssa didn’t ask for forgiveness. She didn’t justify her actions. Instead she said only one thing to the sailor she used to love.

“If I’m to be executed after all this is-.”

He slid a hand over her mouth. Lyssa felt the heat of his ragged breathing at the back of her neck.

“Don’t say it,” he whispered. “Please don’t say it.”

S

Silhouette and her escort rode on the back of a great tunnel spider. She squirmed atop is chitin carapace, every brush of its short hair against her legs sending a trill of revulsion up her spine.

Her guide shook with silent laughter as she sucked in a breath. The elf glared at the back of her head.

“What’s so funny?”

“You are.” The woman took on a musing tone as she led them through a patch of sharply-slanted aspens. “I remember the first time you ran screaming to your father when you found one.”

“Oh really?”

“Mhm. He told you to squish it with the bottom of your shoe, but of course you didn’t want to get yours dirty, so you grabbed your sister’s.”

Silhouette made a face. “It sounds like a perfectly normal thing for a kid to do.”

“The funny part,” said the woman, looking over her shoulder, “was roughly an hour later, when you found another one. Your father told you the same thing, but you told him to take off his shoe this time. When we asked why, you said, ‘Bigger spider, bigger shoe.’”

Silhouette snorted in spite of herself. She caught the gaze of the woman before her, and her mouth turned down at its corners. “Are you Neith?”

Her human doppelganger smirked.

“Silhouette, you disappoint me. Everyone has their own branch of magic, even Gods. Haven’t I already proven who I am?”

The elf knew she was telling the truth, for she saw light bend to the will of this woman. It moved in neither threads nor dots, as it did for the mage, but in layers of mist, like clouds.

This was the real Kendra Illuminias.

Her mother.

Silhouette had a mountain of questions for her, but none came to her lips. There was too much turmoil, simply being in her presence, for her thoughts to make sense.

Kendra swung the locket from two fingers. Silhouette balked, reaching around her neck. When did she take it?

She laughed, eyes twinkling with mischief. “Come on, this is child’s play. Ask me a question, just one, and I’ll fill in the blanks around it.”

Silhouette thought.

“If you were alive all this time, then why didn’t you seek out the Magi?”

“Because I chose to run after Neith.” Kendra searched her daughter’s face, as though expecting her to understand the meaning of that sentence. When confusion remained, she looked down, almost as though ashamed of something. “Most people are born to mediocrity,” she began. “They have no particular talents to speak of, or if they do then they tend to find contentment before mastering them. Then there are those with one gift, maybe two, and these are the ones that usually end up leading the first group. And then there are those who seem unfairly favored by the universe, good at everything without an ounce of effort, admired and despised by everyone else. Arrogant as it may sound, I fall into that last category.”

The world grew darker as they passed into a tunnel. The locket glowed in the palm of her hand.

“I suppose I’m most similar to Jade, in that sense. When you start off with too much potential, consequences don’t feel as real. But, I have a critical character flaw as a result. I can’t form bonds the way others can. Relationships, love; I don’t understand them. I’ve tried for so long, but nothing sufficed.”

Silhouette felt her heart sink as she studied this woman, now in her fifties. Though lovely, Kendra had an aura of brokenness about her, and this was the source.

“I went to Lydia because I overheard someone saying that you can always find something to do in the High Cities. I became a thief because I was told that living for money was a wise investment. I became an altruist when it was said that happiness could be found in giving it all away. I married your father when I was told that a life without love was no life at all.”

“Did you even love my father?”

“I was fond of him.” Kendra cocked her head, just like her daughter had done hundreds of times before. “I was attracted to his abysmal social skills. People tended to shun him, and it reminded me of how I couldn’t relate to them to begin with. It was the closest I ever came to finding someone like me.”

Silhouette recalled Damian telling her stories on the Horizon Span years ago. Kendra dove into the ocean after declaring she wanted to find a reason to live. She thought the woman was a bit loose in the head, even spontaneous, but Silhouette realized that this was not the case.

It wasn't that Kendra was carefree, it was that she was serious. Neith created a woman for their world, but not of it -a defective human soul.

“Meeting Feyt made my life somewhat interesting again,” she smiled, the shadows playing across her face. “I could work towards her goals, and pass them off as my own. I got a bit single-minded in the whole pursuit, which was ultimately how I got ahead of myself, and died before I was ready to control her magic. So when I left Spawnwood, I followed the Ninácetrin without struggle. I wanted to meet the woman who set my course in life. I wanted to ask why she made me this way. Do you know what she told me?”

Silhouette shook her head.

“Nothing!” Kendra laughed. “As a matter of fact, she didn’t even know who I was. She looked through the Tapestry like a filing bin, and only then did she know. That’s how beyond us she is.”

Silhouette braced herself as the spider climbed a near-vertical wall, releasing a sound of disgust as her palms brushed its thorax.

“I think you’re missing the part where she tried to suck out your soul.”

Kendra raised an eyebrow at her daughter. "You'd think so, wouldn't you? Of course, I didn't know about that bit back then myself. While Neith did mention that portion of events, for whatever reason she decided not to lay a hand on me. I asked her if she could give me a reason to live -a purpose for being. So she kept me by her side, and I've been running odd jobs ever since."

“Like what? I highly doubt a God would have you darning socks.”

“Espionage, mostly. How do you think Neith found you so fast while your soul was shattered?”

Silhouette’s jaw dropped.

“You DO realize I almost died because of that! What kind of mother are you?!”

Silence.

The spider finished its ascent during this lapse in conversation. Silhouette glared at the back of her mother’s head during this time. Darkness gave way to gray as fog grew thick, like brambles. Silhouette could make out faint outlines of ruined buildings far ahead.

The locket glimmered as Kendra bounced it across her knuckles like a copper coin.

“Did you know that, prior to becoming a Ghostwalker, I was to suffer an accident that would render me barren?”

Silhouette didn’t say anything.

“Motherhood never even crossed my mind until I was chained to the latrine for a good six hours, vomiting every meal I’d eaten for the previous week.” She grimaced at the memory. “Lyssa wound up paying me a visit. Her clairvoyance kicked in, and she told me that I’d be the recipient of a baby girl come late spring. I’m not one to shock easily, but I fell flat on my ass when she said it.”

Silhouette watched as Kendra’s memories played out before them, the light playing across the dense fog like shadow puppets on a bedspread. A startled Kendra did, in fact, fall backwards. Lyssa roared with laughter at her stupefied expression before helping the woman up.

“Your father, while equally stunned, was thrilled by the news.” Her voice took on a pensive quality. “I had no idea that he wanted to be a father up until then; neither did he, by his own admission. News traveled fast, and everyone felt it was the greatest gift of all.”

“You didn’t think so,” Silhouette stated.

"It… confused me." Kendra rubbed her now-empty belly, feeling now as she did back then. "I felt no sense of attachment. There was a life growing inside of me, and I had proof of it every time I wretched in the Gods-forsaken hours of the morning, and later when I swelled, and ached, and scarred. Pregnancy, if you really stop and think about it, maims a woman. The first time Renee kicked, Feyt needed to shock me back to my senses -I was so horrified that I almost fell down a flight of stairs."

She wasn’t lying. Though Silhouette couldn’t see Feyt in this portion of her mother’s memories, likely because she wasn’t a Ghostwalker at the time, she recognized the signs of her presence. But it was Kendra’s expression that made the bigger impact. There was terror, but also disgust; she could only imagine the emotions behind it.

"I was so ashamed. There are women alive who would die a dozen times to have a child, and there I was, going along because I heard that motherhood would change things -would change me." Kendra paused. Her laughter took on a strained quality. " I thought the nightmare would be over after I gave birth, but that was when I hit one of the lowest points in my entire life."

The scene changed, this time Kendra, weak and haggard, watched as a newborn was placed against her chest. She looked down at the child, then at the faces of elven midwives, gazing in expectation.

Renee was crying, but it was her mother who looked more helpless. The women tried to teach her how to feed the baby, but it simply didn’t work. Finally, after Jerrold was allowed into the room, Kendra broke down and begged her husband to take it.

Yes. “It”. Silhouette read the word from her lips, though the memory was soundless.

“Thank the Gods for Ezara,” Kendra went on. “She helped give me space, explained to others, and myself, that it was normal for some women to be… out of sorts, after having a child. But it was more than that. Though I got my bearings, I wasn’t the same. Every day was an act. Lyssa needed help in Lydia, but she was loath to call me while Renee was so young. I had to beg her to let me return to her side. Ironically, my job back then was to watch her own children. But for some reason, I was alright with Alyon and Jade. Maybe it was because they were older.”

She closed her eyes. They were now on the outskirts of the Reliquary District. Silhouette turned every so often. There were flashes of movement at the corners of her eyes.

“Feyt was the first person to know about you.” Kendra beamed. “I reacted in disbelief, but I was determined to do things better this time.”

“How did Feyt know about me, but not Renee?”

Kendra shrugged. “A sense of kinship, perhaps? Or maybe because she knew me better by then, that she could tell? All I know is that you were a challenge from the day you were born,” she sighed, exasperated. “You cried, and cried, and cried. Of course, you were a natural at using magic, but you weren’t strong enough to sustain it, so you’d scream for several minutes before passing out for hours more. It was dangerous, not because of the power, but because it was next to impossible to get you to eat.”

Silhouette squeezed her eyes shut.

“Sorry,” she said, glum.

“Don’t be. Things got better as you grew.” Silhouette craned to get a better look of her. Kendra shook her head. “When you and your sister got older, and kept each other entertained, it wasn’t so bad. You went between two extremes of wanting to be coddled, and then being ferociously independent. When you were two, you packed a pillowcase, with three sandwiches, and declared you were off on a hundred-year adventure. I made your father and I invisible, and we followed you the instant you left the house.” She covered her mouth with a hand, stifling a grin. “While it only lasted several hours, it was the most fun I had with you.”

“But I didn’t even know you were there.”

Her nose wrinkled. “That was the fun part.” They continued onwards, until reaching the apparent center of the district; a place eerie in its similarity to Hangman’s Cross, due to the gaping hole at its heart.

Smoke billowed from this crevasse, pulsing, as though suggesting at an organ deep within. Silhouette shivered in the muggy air, cold for all the warmth this chasm provided.

“The Sea of Mist,” Kendra mused, as the spider began its descent. “You would think the Pillar of Bones would be far beyond us, but it’s right beneath our feet. Direction. Space. The fact that these exist is proof of our limitations.”

Silhouette braced herself as their arachnid mount spun webs on every outcrop of rocks they landed on. Touch, spin, lower; the women leaned far back every time.

A familiar chitter grew louder, the deeper they went. Spiders, hundreds of them, wove and spun, dancing in the air. Silhouette felt faint; her mother caught her with an outstretched arm, producing a cloth from her satchel.

“Here,” she said, tying it over her head and behind her ears. “This is to keep webs from getting in your hair.”

“Is it too late to turn back?”

"I wouldn't allow it even if we could." There was a flash of warning in her eyes; Silhouette knew her stare was chilling, but this was the first time she was ever on its receiving end. "You were only masquerading as vigilante, Silhouette. I was everything you pretended to be -it's suicide to fight me in close quarter combat."

She paused, horrified. “The thought didn’t even cross my mind.”

“Then consider it a warning if it ever does.”

“You would kill off your own child?”

“This is the consequence of choice,” said Kendra, facing forward. “I choose to pursue whatever purpose Neith gives me. You pursue to destroy purpose itself. What did you feel like when you became a Ghostwalker, Silhouette? How did you enjoy your taste of Darkness?”

The elf’s mouth twisted into a knot. “I didn’t. It was cold, empty; overwhelming.”

"I felt nothing." Though her daughter couldn't see it, Kendra's face waned, stricken by pain at the memory. "Feyt was shocked at how well I took it. I needed her to describe it to me, and when she did it became clear why. Imagine feeling that emptiness, that distance, all the time. Art doesn't move you. Music is just a buzzing in your ears. People, community -all of it so painfully pointless. But you know there's meaning. You just can't grasp it, so you become rife with ambition. You take, and take, and take, but it's never enough to understand. Why? Why? WHY?!" She threw her hands in the air. When no answer came, she slumped. Kendra sighed into the shadows. "I was born to be a Ghostwalker; a perfect husk."

The setting, circumstances, and spiders already had Silhouette on edge; but this conversation was the last straw. Kendra wasn’t even speaking to her anymore, turning Silhouette into a sounding board just to hear herself think.

The mage struck her at the side of her head, hard.

Kendra whirled.

“Relax,” the elf huffed. “Like you said, it’d be stupid to start a fight with you.”

“Then why?”

“Because you need to stop your whining and suck it up. If you know you’re so much more talented than the rest of us, then as far as I’m concerned, you have zero reason to complain.” She curled her thumb and forefinger into a circle. “Zero.”

“Bu-”

“Did I stutter?” Silhouette set her hands on her hips. “You have no reason for being. Big whoop. Find one. It doesn’t have to be big, or small; whether or not it’s life affirming is entirely up to you. Decide, and move along. Works for just about everyone I know, myself included.”

“You don’t understand. I feel empty.”

“So does everyone else. Do you think we don’t all have those moments of standing in a crowd and feeling like we’re all alone? So you feel it a little more often; get a damn therapist and stop dragging people around because you think they have a shortcut to happiness. There isn’t one, just so we’re clear on that.”

Kendra’s eyes bulged.

“Did you always have such a mouth on you?”

"Yes -from you, or so everybody tells me." She crossed her arms. "I guess this means the student has officially surpassed the master. Do you feel embarrassed yet?"

Her lips fluttered. “Ah… a bit.”

“Good.”

S

“I can’t believe this,” Nyx snapped. “We can’t use the seals because if your damn soul tether.”

Alyon growled under his breath, focusing on the reins of his skeletal steed.

“Can we fight after we get Silhouette?”

“You’ll get pulled back into the land of the living; this is the only chance we have.”

Faodrin released a frustrated roar. “Would both of you SHUT UP?!”

Iago snickered; Jade grasping his waist like a rattled doll. “I love how everything shakes up when we get down to the wire.”

All three men shot him a withering glance as they sped down the road. None of them were quite certain why he deigned to come along; not even the magi gave him many orders. They knew his record, his personality, and his questionable 'aesthetics' -the most involvement Iago had, the easier it was for him to exploit everyone else.

“Why are you even here, Iago?” Nyx asked him.

“For the show, of course.” His too-wide mouth formed a chilling smile. “A God, a Ghostwalker, and the war about ready to break loose? I couldn’t ask for higher stakes if I tried.”

“Who are you hoping will win?” Alyon wondered.

His broken laugh shot violent shivers down their spines.

“Whoever makes things the most interesting. I guess that makes it Silhouette… for now.”

Chapter 6: First Strike

 

Ekarius set his hands over those of his priestess. Bags formed beneath her auburn eyes; the markings on her face dithered like the embers of a dying light.

She teetered on a state of half-slumbering exhaustion; stress made years of minutes, and lives formed heavy burdens on her soul.

“I’m awake,” she mumbled, now in the early hours of morning.

Ekarius ran a hand through her hair. “No one said you have to be.”

“But the ophidians-”

“-are not here yet,” he cut her off. “You need some proper rest, Crimson, or else you won’t be in a state to take care of anyone when it matters.”

She couldn’t argue with his logic. From the point of a medical professional, she knew it was a gross error to try. Crimson followed Ekarius until he sat her down at a spare bed in the infirmary, pulling the blanket up to her chest.

“Are they alright?” the priestess asked.

The elf turned over his shoulder, at the bodies of Alyon and Silhouette. Their hands covered one another, sharing a pulse. It was growing weaker by the minute, but there it was, nonetheless.

“They’re alright,” he assured her. “You’ll have to leave them to me in a few hours, regardless. Elliot’s summoned the entire Isle to Lydia. You need to address them.”

Crimson squeezed her eyes shut. Public speaking didn’t sit well with her introverted self, though one would never guess it by the confidence she carried.

“Hours? What time-?”

Ekarius stepped in the way of the clock.

“I’ll wake you up when you need to be woken up,” he insisted. “Get some rest, Crimson. I beg of you.”

“How do you expect me to sleep?” she asked instead. “My stomach is in knots. My palms are sweating. I’m scared, Ekarius. And this is largely my doing. How could I think that a weapon order that large wouldn’t be used to start a war?”

“With any order for weapons there come two arguments.” He sat on the bed, taking her hands in his. “To protect oneself, or to attack another. Once a conflict starts it’s seldom clear-cut where either intent originated.”

“It is in this case.”

“Is it?” Her brow sank into a knot, but her lips deceived its ire. Ekarius played devil’s advocate so many times while she was his student; a sounding board always ready to juxtapose her stance. “Kaos, while an infant, is the first empire our world has ever known. I say first only because the existence of the Magi isn’t common knowledge,” he amended. “That said, it’s terrifying. High Cities have ever been autonomous, and Silhouette, as Empress, holds a dangerous amount of sway in all of them. By grace of its existence, Kaos is a threat to everyone who isn’t part of it.”

She snorted, shoulders hunching. “A Ghostwalker Empire.”

“In a matter of speaking.” He gave her hands a squeeze. “You feel tense, but I’m at ease.”

How?

Mist clouded his clay-colored eyes. “You forget my age so often. I love that about you.”

She pinked.

“I saw Time as it began for the Magi. I am a magus myself, as you know,” he added, smirking faint. “I knew, deep inside, before Feyt spoke her first prophecy, that something in this world bound us together. I took a great deal of security, and pride, in that bond, but I also lived in fear of it. Never forget that the stronger the chain, the easier it is to crush you. And its weight weighed heavily on our consciences, for it was our only constant for many, many years.”

Ekarius paused. A minute passed in silence, delving through memories and how best to speak of them.

“The very first time Feyt suggested a life without the Tapestry, not even a concrete plan, I lost my mind. For you see, Crimson, in my head, life and control were inexorably linked. Feyt spoke of freedom, and I heard death. It was a hard fight, winning us over. And for years and years, before and after our tragic mistake, doubt plagued us. Every time I crossed paths with a Ghostwalker my cynicism deepened.”

Crimson made a face. “But aren’t they proof that your plan worked?”

“Crimson, the fact that Ghostwalkers exist is proof that our plan ended in failure, and it will remain a failure until they’re gone.” He looked upon Silhouette with a fond smile. “That our Ice Empress has come so far is like a dream. After so long, despite everything at stake, I barely feel the weight of those chains anymore. I can face the day knowing that I can choose to be whoever I please, whenever I wish to be. Imagine going to Vaisya Isle while there was but a handful of people, knowing you would live there for the rest of a near-immortal life. Tell me how that makes it any better than a tombstone.”

She wrapped her arms around his waist. He rocked her back and forth.

“I love you, Abbot.”

“Crimson, I’m not the Abbot anymore.”

“You are.” She buried her face in his robes. “To me, you will always be my Abbot.”

S

The Stone Singer rapped at the bottom of the shuttle with the metal-tipped end of his cane, huffing at the sound it produced.

“Once something is considered a relic it ought to be put out of commission. For shame, brothers! This was old when I was young. Do you know how old I am?”

The dwarf closest him shook his head. “No, Stone Singer.”

His old face formed a disappointed scowl. “Damn, I was hoping someone did.”

“Older than me!” another shouted.

The Stone Singer pointed his cane at him. “And how old are you?”

“Two centuries and three score.”

“Bah, you’re a child.”

“My grandsire was twice that, exactly!” a different dwarf offered.

“And is your grandsire still alive?”

“Aye, though only barely.”

“Hmm… five hundred and a score,” the Stone Singer thought aloud. “Very well. If your grandsire is barely breathing, my age shall be five hundred. Someone write that down before I forget.”

A dwarf brought out a pen and paper.

“And what the devil are you doing?” his neighbor asked him.

“Writing-?”

“Milk-drinking, fool. THIS is how you write!” He brought out a chisel and began inscribing the flat side of axe.

“That’s inefficient,” he argued back. “You’ll forget by the time you’re done with half that sentence.”

“There are right ways, and not-wrong ways of doin’ things. This here’s both.” He shook his head, beard bristling. “This is why I can’t stand anyone under a hundred years. All their learnin’ and their knowin’; no respect for the way things ought to be.”

“Stone Singer, who’s right, me or him?”

Everyone turned to the ancient dwarf, stroking his beard in silence.

“Well… you’re right.” Half the cabin gasped. Then he pointed at the dwarf with chisel in hand. “But you’re not-wrong.”

“Then which is more?” Chisel-dwarf demanded.

“And you’re calling him a milk-drinker? Phah! If ye call yerself a dwarf then settle this right and proper, man. Through fightin’!”

Every dwarf in the shuttle roared, shaking it on its course. The Stone Singer blinked his blind eyes as he heard weapons being drawn.

"HOLD, YE FOOLS!" His voice jarred the lot of them. "What do you think yer doin'? We aren't some savages. Lay your weapons down, and we'll do this like civilized folk -with our fists!" Before the first punch could get thrown, he raised a finger. "But no beard-pulling. First dwarf to do that gets his cut off."

They grabbed their precious hair and gasped.

"This here's a somber occasion, after all. Resolve your fight in an hour -that's how long it'll take to get to Lydia. That said, as you were."

Reminded of their reason for leaving Harbridge, reality pressed down on their formerly merry group. The writer and the chiseler exchanged shamed glances, shaking on their dispute in a silent agreement to take it up later.

Yherod, who was closest to their leader, didn’t say a word during this entire episode. The Stone Singer clasped him by the arm.

“It’s not your fault, Yherod.”

“I knocked her out,” he scowled. “I told the boy to take her with him.”

“Hers was a noble sacrifice. She freed our fighters, our women and children. You besmirch her memory with your belly-aching.”

He didn’t think it possible, but Yherod glared, earning more than a few startled looks from his kinsmen.

“The girl was like my own.”

“A she-elf?”

“Who said that?” he demanded. When no one answered, he sank back down in his seat. “Aye, an elf. What of it? She could beat half of you with wit alone. This whole war couldn’t been avoided if I’d just gone along, kept her safe.”

“Yherod, the Ghostwalker was a fighter, as I hear it,” the Stone Singer said.

“That she was.”

"The greatest insult you can pay a fighter isn't serving them defeat, it's thinking they need saving from their battles. You helped the girl along the way, but most of her choices were just that -hers. Honor her memory. Fight to preserve it the way it's meant to be."

Though his words were of little comfort, they helped steer the stubborn dwarf in the right direction. Yherod nodded, squeezing the hilt of his mighty hammer.

“First we go to Lydia, then we meet with the men and elves.”

The cabin made a collective groan at the mention of the pointy-eared menace.

“Then we kick some scaly ass.”

Everyone cheered. This time even the Stone Singer thumped his cane on the ground.

S

Wards triggered as the dragon descended upon the only space it could; Ezara’s garden at the top of the Gildengrove.

Armed mages appeared virtually out from nowhere, in leather with gleaming trim. Uradden and Ezara waded through to the forefront, squinting at the flapping wings casting long shadows above them.

“Hold,” said the wife, and the elves fell back by a step. “Come down!”

Lyssa grabbed Damian by the hand. Before the sailor could protest, she jumped off the back of her scaled mount, throwing a pebble to the earth before she hit it.

A powerful gust of wind slowed their fall, though it was a shaky landing. Firelight drew monstrous lines across the woman’s already mangled face. Uradden made a pained expression as he saw what the years had done to her.

“Lyssa.” Then he noticed the sailor. “Damian.”

Damian studied the elves, feeling that something was wrong about this turn of events. Why weren’t they more surprised? Wh-

“You knew about this?” Rather than accusation, Damian’s voice withered with the tone of betrayal. The two elves, who he counted among his closest and most steadfast friends, dared to keep such a secret from him. “You knew that Lyssa was alive? And Jade, too?”

“Only in the past four years,” Ezara replied.

“Four years…” Damian opened his mouth, then shut it again. Lyssa’s words came back to haunt him. “Am I really that incompetent?”

“It’s not that you’re incompetent,” Uradden assured him. “You’re anything but. You just care too deeply, Damian. There are certain decisions-”

“That’s the whole point of all of this, isn’t it?! Decisions that each of us are to make for ourselves, yet in regards to my wife, my children, what gives you the right to make those decisions for me?”

“For the same reason, when the fighting broke out, you didn’t report to the elves about Silhouette being alive,” Lyssa told him. Her voice took on a cold, harsh edge. “For the same reason you did nothing for a decade, though it was only your choice to make. When it comes down to situations involving lives other than your own, you’re spineless, Damian. You’ve always wanted a quiet, peaceful, life.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” he demanded. “All you seem to want is hardship and suffering, the way you speak!”

"Has the Guild War taught you NOTHING?" She shoved him, jarring the man. "It's one thing to want a quiet life, but life, by its nature, will never be peaceful. It's hard. It's ugly. Look at Lydia -so beautiful on the surface, so festering and ill underneath. You want the lie, Damian. It's because of people like us, people who make the difficult decisions, that your beautiful lie exists."

He felt sick to his stomach.

“Were you always this way, Lyssa?”

Ezara looked between the couple, quickly falling apart. She stepped between them, keeping man and woman at arms’ length.

“Damian, eighteen years ago, wasn’t it you who told me that it’s always the decisions that no parent wants to make that need making?”

“This and that are two totally different things.”

"No, Damian. They really aren't." Ezara was loath to take sides, but the argument had to stop there. "I told you, and you seemed to understand this at the time, but Lyssa's obligations fell from Queen, to wife, then mother; in that order. She gave you the freedom to make decisions, decisions you chose to put aside. Death, and destruction -because of inaction, those decisions were made for you. While none of us here are in the right, casting stones will make a bigger mess than what's already here before us."

He bit his lip; no matter his opinion, this wasn’t the time or place to argue.

Uradden eyed the dragon growling above them.

“Lyssa, if you’re here it must mean something happened. What is it?”

“Silhouette’s been assassinated.”

Ezara staggered back into her husband, who could barely register what she just said. When Lyssa made no move to repeat or correct herself, they knew she was speaking the truth.

“What’s more, Drahk’onil is marching on Lydia as we speak.” Lyssa motioned to the dragon they rode on. “I tended to them, so I had the opportunity to set many free. If anything, they need to use the remainder to get their forces over a fraction at a time before they can launch a full-scale attack.”

“And you need our aid.” Uradden surmised, displeased by the development.

“Silhouette was struck down by a soulshard; her body, for the time being, is still alive, though her soul is in Kharlaryyv. While it’ll take too much time to explain, Alyon projected himself, and he’s working on returning her spirit to her body.”

“So there’s still a chance she may live,” he mused.

“A chance we won’t have if the Scaled King breaches our defenses,” Lyssa reminded him. “As it stands, we can count on Harbridge for aid. Elliot’s recalling the entire Isle back to Lydia. The Gods only know what support Marrick can bring from Taerinval. And from the start, Riverstone has the most experienced mages that can make a difference in the coming fight.”

“Then we have little choice,” Ezara agreed. She raised her arm at the elves assembled. “Call every mage over fifty years; any younger have the option of staying behind. Leave for Lydia immediately!”

Everyone disappeared in a shower of glass.

Uradden squinted at a figure looming from the office arch.

“Did you hear that, Jerrold?”

The elf, who had been silently watching, nodded. His expression was the most terrifying one Damian had ever seen.

“We leave on the dragon,” was his command.

Uradden and Ezara twined their fingers.

“Then it’s decided,” Lyssa announced. “We’re not giving up without a fight.”

S

Thousands filled Hangman’s Cross that dreary afternoon. Autumn was upon them, and the shore brought cold with every tide. Fog and storm clouds filled the air; Crimson stood as a tiny spark of fire at the podium before the palace.

Ivane and Ekarius offered looks of encouragement from the windows. Elliot and his wife stood not far behind, prepared to defend the slight priestess should things fall out of hand.

“We have reason to suspect…” She paused to clear her throat. Crimson glanced at the edge of the platform, then to her trembling fingers. “That Lydia will be attacked sometime in the coming days.”

Uneasy murmurs began among the assembled. Crimson would have to continue fast if she didn’t want to start a riot.

“For most of us, the Guild War is still fresh in our memories,” she pressed on. “And while our reconstruction efforts are done on the surface, the fact remains that as a High City… as an Empire, our defenses are anything but. As the seat of power in Kaos, it falls to us to gather our forces. You don’t need to play a direct hand in the fighting!” she assured those ready to speak out. “But we need your numbers elsewhere, as eyes, ears, medics. And should the attacks here succeed, then the Empire will come undone, and the remainder will be left entirely off guard, fresh for the picking.”

“Where is the Ice Empress?” a number asked.

More and more, her name was uttered. Crimson strained with what to tell them.

“Alive!” she shouted. “And I assure you, while I can’t tell you where she is, she is working hard on our behalf. Our Empress does not abandon her people. She does not abandon her promises!”

An explosion sounded high above them. The blood drained from Crimson’s face as she turned to look at what had caught everyone’s attention.

The unmistakable sound of falling rubble; one etched into her ears after the collapse of Elvawein’s Tower. Only now it was the Tower furthest west.

They stared as fire blew from its windows, and chains, pulled on the backs of two slivering wyrms, tugged, and tugged, and the Tower came crashing as if in slow motion.

“No one panic!” she cried out. “Elliot, Ballard, go an-”

We have the situation under control.”

Vale’s voice came from all around them. Crimson whipped her head around; it was coming from the fountainheads and lampposts, the frescos, and the water spouts.

Fire flew at the dragons plaguing the mountainside. Figures appeared to climb the chains attached.

The mages of Hoarfrost are here to serve, but as Crimson said, we need every set of able hands to help defend Lydia.”

One of the dragons released a wild screech as more mages brought it to the ground, tossing tethers.

“On a side note, if anyone wants to see what stewed dragon tastes like, we’ll be hosting a luncheon at the outpost on 22nd Street. Applications for the Shadow Blades will be provided in the event anyone wants to join.

Uneasy laughter bubbled from the crowd. Crimson pressed a hand to her mouth, thanking Vale for his quick thinking and precautions -though she was sure to have a word with him over unsolicited building additions later.

One disaster was narrowly avoided, but the threat of battle hung in the air. Those assembled, nearly all of them former Lydians, were steeled for the coming conflict. This was one thing the ophidian attackers sorely underestimated.

For they weren’t attacking a High City of barely-breathing victims, but of battle-hardened veterans, the memory of the Guild War still leaving a bad taste in the back of their mouths. Already, former residents returned to the homes they abandoned, many bringing out the weapon caches they once prayed they’d never have to use.

“Hurry, Alyon.” Renee slung a cloak around her shaking shoulders. Elliot gave the priestess a comforting rub. “Find Silhouette, and hurry.”

Chapter 7: Forget-Me-Not

 

Daerin charged through the ghosts in his path; the Ninácetrin dispersing into smoke as he tore their forms apart. His skeletal horse backed onto its haunches before it could fall into the pit below.

The entire time all he could think was it couldn’t be her.

Kendra wasn’t supposed to be alive.

He made a face at the smoke billowing from the crevasse, tapped his Savantguard crest for good measure, and jumped into the pit.

He fell for a good minute, his pulse racing at the sight of arachnids the deeper he went. Webs snagged his limbs, but most were so small that they did little to halt his descent. It wasn’t until he could see the floor at the bottom that one finally caught him.

Daerin made a sound of distress as he fought with the stick. If only he could get to the fire rune in his pocket…

He strained against the hold as spiders dropped around him, as though inspecting his predicament. Then, after a moment, they scattered. Daerin felt the clammy touch of dread as the webs shook under a monumental weight. A giant rose-haired tarantula, this web’s apparent owner, landed on one end of the chasm.

He froze at the sheer size of the beast; easily the height of a great black bear. He moved even faster than before; if the arachnid chose to land now then it already knew where he was.

It approached him, pincers dancing. Just a little further…

Success! Daerin grabbed the rune, fumbling it between his fingers.

And then he watched in dismay as it fell out his hand.

He swore so loud that even his predator stopped for a moment.

Then an idea dawned on him. Daerin shook his head at his own stupidity. He wasn't his niece -he had much more control over his branch of magic.

Which was precisely how he disappeared in a cloud of black smoke, taking the web with him.

He barrel-rolled on the unforgiving earth, certain that he cut himself in several places. The only benefit in the rough landing was that it aided in getting the webs off him. Daerin inspected his person, offered a satisfied grunt, and took a long look around.

There wasn’t much to this place, though it was an enigma. This wasn’t a cavern as far as he could tell. In fact, he couldn’t spot the hole he’d fallen from at all. This was a gray world, whose only landmarks of worth were is arid ground and the ivory column in the distance.

Upon closer inspection, Daerin came to see that ivory was a bit of a literal adjective, as this was a pillar of skeletal remains: The Pillar of Bones, home to the Weaver who created the monstrosity that was the Tapestry of Fate.

He ran his hands along stalagmites as he passed them, following two female figures atop another great spider.

He recognized Silhouette by her recently-cropped hair, but the other, due to the bulky cut of her robes, was more difficult to make out.

They spoke in a familiar, though awkward manner, something he could tell by the way they moved. As the Pillar loomed large before them, they stopped. Daerin took note of a chasm separating it from the remainder of this bizarre world. The women dismounted.

“What is that?” he heard Silhouette ask, and she motioned to the drop before them.

"It's the Moat of Lethe -not terribly original, is it?"

For a few eternal seconds, Daerin forgot what it was to breathe.

He knew this voice. It teased and taunted him for so many years. Its owner, his beautiful tormentor, was much older than he remembered. But she was alive. And this time, he was sure of it.

S

“So this is the only way to get to Neith.”

“Correct.”

Silhouette toed the edge, craning her neck. It looked like a normal moat to her, flowing in one direction. But the longer she stared the more she felt that there were faces in the water, images vague, but familiar. It was a maddening sensation.

“Whoever gets dropped in here is forgotten by everyone,” she recapped the knowledge Faodrin had given her. “How long does the passage stay open once you… offer up an existence?”

“I don’t know.”

Silhouette made a face. “Haven’t you ever gone inside?”

“Not once.” Kendra waved her close. “Neith and I spoke here, upon this soil. Other than that I have little clue as to where she goes or what she does in her spare time. But I can show you this.”

She pointed at what appeared to be a waterwheel… but upon closer inspection, it was a clock. There were twelve spokes, one for every hour, and three scratch marks between each, representing fifteen minutes. A red thread wove around many, many times. Hundreds, if not thousands, by Silhouette’s estimation.

“Those times Neith spoke to you was through an illusion, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” Kendra twirled her finger. “The last time she was out was nearly forty years ago, to devour the Ghostwalker before me. This way, though we don’t know how long the way is open, we can tell when the last sacrifice was made.”

Silhouette wondered about the last person thrown into the Moat. It couldn’t have been voluntary.

“I guess I’ll just come right out and say it, before I figure out how to cross this thing,” she started. “But more than anything else, I can’t forgive you for what you did to Daerin.”

Kendra blinked, not quite understanding.

“Oh… Rin? Why is that?”

“You’re not an idiot,” said the mage. “You’re a narcissist, and though it might sound redundant, you’re an extremely selfish narcissist at that. But you must’ve known that he harbored feelings for you.”

“There wasn’t a person in Lydia who didn’t.”

“Romantic feelings,” Silhouette clarified, annoyed. “He loved you. He still loves you, and you played him like a fiddle to get to what you wanted. You’re despicable, and I want you to know that.”

The woman set her hands on her hips, not offended, but amused.

“Is this what they call a pot and kettle situation?”

“I don’t see how.”

“Oh, but isn’t it obvious?” Kendra circled her daughter. “I’m the despicable one? Fine, I’ll admit that. I endorse it, even, but don’t judge me before taking a good long look at yourself first, my child. You are no more of an idiot than I am.”

Silhouette followed her with her eyes. “What are you getting at?”

“Rin and I were friends for years, and yes, I saw him falling in love with me. I didn’t stop him; I had no right to interfere with his feelings, and I couldn’t even if I somehow did. What would you have liked me to do? Break off our friendship? Never see him again? Tell him he didn’t have a chance before he even tried?”

“Anything would’ve been better than what you ended up doing!”

“Then tell me how what I did is any different from what you’ve done to Nyx?”

Silhouette felt as though she just dropped an anvil on her head.

“Nyx is different.”

"Is that what you tell yourself?" Kendra chuckled into her fingers. "You aren't that naïve. Men become stupid around the object of their affections. He didn't just try to touch the locket that night in the Undercity -he was testing to see whether your heart could accept him. He wasn't irritated over a lack of sleep the next day, but because he had his answer. And then, after he died, he looked out for you, got tortured by Elvawein just for the chance to gather information he could pass on at a later date. Don’t kid yourself, Silhouette. No man would go so far for just a friend, especially for one of the fairer sex. Call it love, call it infatuation, but the bottom line is that I am no more guilty than you are.”

Silhouette cringed as Kendra set her hand against her cheek.

“Like mother like daughter, hmm?” She laughed a moment later. “And the fact that you’re not saying anything now means that I’m right.”

“Shut up!” Silhouette threw her fingers away from her face. “So Nyx loved me. Yes, I knew, but I wasn’t in a position to do anything. I didn’t have a ch-”

Kendra’s gaze flat-lined. Silhouette’s argument flew to its grave.

“I didn’t have that excuse,” said Kendra. “And now, neither do you. We were the only ones who ever had a choice. Inaction is one no one thinks about until its effects are plain to see. But,” she shrugged, “I do agree with you on this much. I’m a despicable woman. That’s why I’m taking this chance to be a good mother. Maybe this was my reason for being all along,” she mused.

Silhouette shot her a perplexed look. “I don’t follow.”

Kendra motioned to the Moat of Lethe. “Just promise you won’t run from this once the way opens. Finish what you started, Silhouette.”

The mage waned.

“No! This isn’t the ans-”

Kendra fell.

Daerin dove after her.

S

Kendra felt her shoulder pop from its socket. She yelped at the pain, wondering why she felt any if she was no longer alive.

Then, upon opening her eyes, she realized it was because she was still hanging above the Moat. She was grabbed, in fact.

It was as though the elf holding her walked straight from her memories.

Rin?” she asked, unable to believe it.

“Climb up!” he shouted. “I’m not strong enough to pull you up.”

“W-why? Rin, I-”

“For fucks sake, climb!” Silhouette yelled. Her red face appeared over the edge. It became clear that Daerin wasn’t simply hanging; she was holding onto him. “I’m using ice to anchor myself here, but my arms will give out at this rate!”

Kendra’s face clouded with ire. “You ungrateful brat! I’m doing this to help you!”

“You can take your help and shove it up your ass. I was doing just fine without you!”

Daerin’s fingers slipped. Sweat poured down the side of his face.

“Kendra…”

“Ri-”

FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, LISTEN TO ME!” he boomed. The woman, rendered speechless, no longer saw a reason to complain.

“Hurry…” Silhouette whimpered, her arms shaking. “I can’t hold on much longer.”

Kendra got to Daerin’s shoulder. “Hard to do this with a bum arm.”

“Silhouette, just make sure she reaches the ledge. Then you can let go.”

“Like hell I will. I like her even less than I like you. If she’s saved then you are by defa… Faodrin?!

Her brother appeared over her shoulder, helping bring up Daerin by his other arm. Nyx also arrived, dragging Kendra back to the surface. Iago cracked the ice keeping Silhouette frozen to the earth, helping her up by his tail.

Alyon breathed a sigh of relief when he saw her.

“Looks like we’re right on time.”

Silhouette sat on her knees, shaking. She opened her mouth to start to explain when Faodrin backhanded her over the head. Then, before she could yell at him, he crushed her with a back-breaking hug.

The mage puffed her cheeks, but nothing came out of her mouth. Something was off that she couldn’t place at first. Then it dawned on her.

The last time she hugged Faodrin like this, it was the day he died.

Clearly, everyone else already knew this, so they were startled that it took her this long to realize it. Her eyes filled with tears. She squeezed him back, clutching his jacket with every ounce of strength in her fingers.

“You idiot,” Faodrin chided. “Why don’t you use your head more often?”

“That’s what you’re here for.”

Everyone released an entertained chuckle; not even Iago could repress a smirk at the exchange. Silhouette grimaced, pulling away. The bladeless hilt was shaking at an alarming rate. She knew she had to reform Feyt sooner or later -it might as well be now.

The magus coalesced in a coughing fit, having worked herself up in her sword form. She grabbed Silhouette by the front of her shirt.

“You have some nerve!”

“So many old faces…” The group turned to Kendra, who marveled at those assembled. Silhouette, Faodrin, and Nyx. Alyon, Iago, and Jade. Feyt, and Daerin… “I can’t say I know Faodrin, Nyx, and Iago very well, but look at the rest of you. Hah, you make me feel so old.”

Alyon glanced at Silhouette. “Is that really her?”

“Unfortunately,” she grumbled.

He arched his brow. “I thought you would’ve loved your mother.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Turns out having someone so similar to you is a bit of a recipe for disaster. She’s got a death wish.”

Nyx sighed, “You’ve died, and almost died, more times than any of us have combined.”

“It’s not like I go looking for it!”

Iago shot her a dubious look. She pointed.

“Don’t even start.”

Kendra turned and faced Daerin. “Why did you save me?”

He served up his most defeated smile yet. “Old habit.”

She blinked, recalling a memory only they shared. Kendra giggled into her sleeve, erasing decades off her appearance. She sounded like an innocent young girl.

“It is, isn’t it? But the circumstances are a bit different now.”

“I don’t see how. Both times you fell, both times I dove after.”

“The first time I tangled your legs with a bola and dragged you to the edge of a rooftop.”

The elf pinked in the face, rubbing the back of his neck. “I caught you, and that’s what counts.”

“This hurts to watch,” Iago muttered. Jade elbowed him in the ribs.

“That’s a fact, not a reason, Rin.” Kendra looked to the ground, guilty. “You must’ve heard our conversation. You had even less of a reason to jump after me the way you did. If you’d have just let me go, you wouldn’t be in pain anymore. You wouldn’t remember me at all, because it would be like we never met.”

"Kendra…" He rubbed his forehead. "You spend so much time living in the now that you neglect the future. You're too deeply involved in history, not just mine, but Lydia's as a whole. Your statue is still in Hangman's Cross, albeit in pieces, and you might really cause me to go insane, because the fact remains that I tortured Silhouette as she grew. And what if her family doesn't recognize her because her mother is now some anonymous figure -your daughters will be orphans who likely won't even realize they're related."

Everyone made a displeased sound. However noble a sentiment, Kendra disappearing would cause dozens of more problems than it would solve.

“Besides, I’m a glutton for punishment.” He grabbed her by the hands, rocking them side to side. “Haven’t I said it before? Living for the sake of living is just as fine a reason for being alive as any other. Don’t get so caught up in value that you forget that a life is a priceless thing.”

Her expression softened.

“You make it sound so simple.”

“That’s because it is.” Daerin wrapped his arms around her, she appeared like a child in his hold. “Always getting yourself so worked up that you overlook the simplest things. You never change.”

“You still don’t make sense.”

“I make perfect sense, which is exactly why everything I say goes straight over your head.”

Feyt set her hands on her hips.

“Precious or not, how are we going to face Neith if we can’t cross the Moat?”

“Why face her at all?” Alyon asked. “I’m here to bring Silhouette back. Drahk’onil is about to start attacking Lydia, if they haven’t already.”

“I’m with him, for once,” Nyx agreed, thumbing him. “Silhouette, you need to get back to Lydia. It’s too soon for you to be dead.”

Faodrin stepped between her and the other men. “I agree with both of you, but you also have to consider that this is the best chance we have to destroy the Tapestry for good. If we get rid of it now then no one can try to use Silhouette for her power as a Ghostwalker down the line.”

“The choice is yours,” Daerin told her.

“Silhouette, we’ve come too far to turn back now,” Feyt pleaded.

Silhouette took a step back, running through the faces of those around her, overwhelmed. The stakes were tremendous at this point. Lydia needed her. Kaos needed her. Alyon was already taking a major risk in even being there. They’d come this far, but even if she did see Neith, she didn’t know her weakness. It was a God versus the Ghostwalker she allowed to roam on a whim.

“I want to face her.” She clenched her fists. “But I don’t want to lose anyone. For better or worse, we’ve all played a role in coming here. Losing an existence is more than dying, it’s your memory and the meaning of your life. That’s the worst fate I can think of, and I dare any of you to think of one worse than that.”

No one could, so they said nothing.

“Alyon and Faodrin have to stay alive,” Feyt said. “I, as well. Without us you’ll have neither a means to go back or a life at all.”

“Kendra stays,” Daerin insisted. “I can jump, but Silhouette will have to face the trauma of suffering at the hands of a man she doesn’t remember. You’ll never get closure if that happens.”

“I’ll go,” said Nyx.

“Don’t you dare,” Silhouette growled. “You and Faodrin are staying right where you are.”

That left only two… Iago and Jade, standing right at the edge of the drop.

But before they could say anything, the skeletal man released a chilling laugh.

“You did leave her fate up to me, Ghostwalker.”

He slammed his tail into the Seer.

Silhouette reached out, mouth open-

-but forgot what she was going to say.

S

The ground rumbled. Everyone braced themselves as a bridge grew from the Pillar, touching the side they stood on.

Their hearts sank, feeling nauseous. A quick glance at the water-spoke clock revealed that the thread showing how much time had passed was gone -someone must've jumped into the moat.

They strained to remember anything about this person. Were they related to anyone in the group? Married? A friend? A stranger?

Silhouette shook her head, but nothing happened. All that mattered was that the way was open, made by a nameless sacrifice.

She couldn’t waste this chance.

“Come on.” She took Feyt by the hand. “Let’s end this.”

“I’m coming with you,” said Alyon.

“Me too,” Faodrin agreed.

“Then I need to report back to the Magi,” Nyx said. “Come on, Iago.”

The monster shook his head, tossing his Savantguard crest at the man. “No matter who wins, I can’t say I care for either ending. Tell the Magi I resign.”

Nyx, who wasn’t too upset by this turn of events, simply picked up the badge and looked to Daerin and Kendra.

“And what are you two going to do?”

The old friends looked at each other.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“We’ll probably get back to the Trinity Spire in a moment,” Daerin answered for the both of them. “We still have much to talk about.”

“Suit yourself. I don’t think I can handle any more surprises today.”

He disappeared.

Iago was gone.

Daerin and Kendra walked through the mists.

And those who remained ran towards the Weaver, to finish things once and for all.

Chapter 8: A Tale of Two Sisters

 

Light engulfed them as they stepped through the threshold. Alyon spun around.

“Silhouette?” His voice echoed in the emptiness. “Feyt! Faodrin!”

“Alyon?” Faodrin called. Alyon breathed in relief; at least one of them was alright.

Contrast revealed their surroundings. The men staggered at a fresh breeze, filled with the aroma of springtime. The grass was lush, like a carpet of unparalleled quality, almost like the silky fur of a well-groomed cat.

Flowers and trees stretched out before them. There was no particular pattern to this garden, but one thing was made clear from the start; there was only one of each flower, of every shrub and tree. Thousands united, but lonesome all the same.

He and Faodrin exchanged concerned looks.

“It doesn’t look like we’ll be attacked here,” said Alyon. And Faodrin couldn’t find a reason to disagree. Any acts of hostility within this place would feel taboo, if not impossible, though neither man could say why.

“Should we split up and search for the others?” the Savantguard asked.

“That will not be necessary.”

A woman appeared out from nowhere. Her hair was long and voluminous, composed of wild, finger-tight curls. It was red, not like blood, or copper, but in the purest sense of the word -unnatural in its hue. The same went for her eyes, which pierced them.

While these features, on anyone else, would seem menacing, there was something very warm about her character. Perhaps it was her smile, or her outstretched hands. Only one thing was certain.

This woman was not of their world; while the magi could masquerade as gods, beside her they were a pale, even sad, imitation.

“Are you Neith?” Faodrin wondered.

The red lady curled her fingers, pressing them to her lips as she laughed.

“Oh, no. Not at all. Although, she’d be terribly offended if she heard you ask.”

“Then who are you?” Alyon queried.

The woman tilted her head in greeting, her smile containing the heartbreak of a thousand years. “Your kind knows me as Ayasha. I am Neith’s sister.”

S

“Urgh, what is that smell?” Silhouette clamped her fingers over her nose. Feyt grabbed her by the hand.

Unlike the men, they did not step into light, but were consumed by shadow. It faded away, revealing a world of midnight.

The ground was sticky, and stunk of metal. The dim glow of floating candles showed it to be blood. Dilapidated ruins jutted out from the muck. Feyt threw her hair around her shoulders like a scarf in order to prevent it from dragging through the mess.

Webs hung above them, though it was easy to mistake their strands for veins. They pulsed with a sickening life. Silhouette cringed as one shriveled before them, falling to the ground in a husk.

Except, when she prodded it with her foot, she didn’t pick up a living thing, but a thread. Her hands flew to cover her mouth.

“This is the Tapestry of Fate.” Shivers ran down her spine. “It’s alive.”

“In a manner of speaking.”

The women turned around, startled by the brightness of the figure in their hellish surroundings.

She was human, by all accounts, her hair like fine-spun cotton in texture, gleaming of gold in waves reaching her waist.

Hers was a statuesque beauty, classic, as though sculpted of the finest marble. But there was something chilling about her eyes, black, like those of a ghoul, including the whites that should have surrounded her pupils.

“Come, Pretty.” She held out her hand. “I don’t bite.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” Silhouette replied.

A radiant smile spread across her lips. “Suit yourself, Silhouette.” She whisked her wrist at the wet ground. Chairs appeared from its depths. “Have a seat. I would deign to speak with you a moment.”

The mage thought of the impending war. “I’m a bit pressed for time.”

“Time!” she exclaimed, laughing. “What a quaint thought. Then allow me to assure you, you don’t need to worry about that here. Time doesn’t exist in the Pillar of Bones. Only two things matter: things that are, and things that are not.”

“Substance and absence,” Feyt commented.

“Yes. I see you understand perfectly well. It’s been some time, Feyt,” Neith added, her smile turning dark. “I see you didn’t learn your lesson from last time.”

Feyt’s eyes were equally cold. “I’m rather stubborn, in that regard.”

“So it seems.” Neith twined her fingers on her lap. “And you, Silhouette. I know all about you. I never would've thought you'd become a Ghostwalker. Your life was destined to be an easy one -there would've been exactly two hundred and thirty one days where you would be unhappy -that is to say, almost unheard of for most."

Silhouette shook her head into the palm of her hand.

“Some things happened.”

"Ah yes, the child's promise -such a sweet way to die. Your heart was so pure and determined that you did everything to keep it, even becoming a Ghostwalker to that end. And the rest, as they say, is history." Neith opened her arms. "For coming this far, I wanted to congratulate you."

Silhouette squinted, suspicious. “Aren’t you going to try to devour my soul?”

“In due time.” Neith pointed at the pulsing Tapestry above them, growing and writhing. “I’m currently more preoccupied with fixing the mess you’ve made. Eighteen years of damage; an Empire formed, High Cities plunged into such a tangled knot. I’ll be honest; Ghostwalkers aren’t usually something I pay attention to until they die, but you’ve been exceptionally difficult for me to ignore. Well done.”

Silhouette and Feyt exchanged uneasy looks. For some reason, that didn’t exactly feel like a compliment.

“I don’t suppose you have any weaknesses I could exploit to kill you?” Feyt stomped on her foot. Silhouette hissed. “What? It’s worth a shot.”

Neith laughed. “Even if I did, what makes you think I’d tell you?”

“You don’t strike me as being particularly evil, despite the… err… taste in décor,” Silhouette replied, completely honest. “Misled, but not evil.”

“This also happens to be what I think of you and Feyt. Naïve, foolish, but not inherently bad. Those people do exist, but they are much, much more rare than anything else.”

Despite the polite conversation, Silhouette and Feyt couldn’t help but feel that this woman was being extremely condescending. To Silhouette’s amazement, she wasn’t the one who snapped first.

Feyt shot up to her feet.

“What gives you the right to decide the lives of others? How do you justify your actions?”

Neith looked through her eyelashes, her expression turning sinister in its certainty.

“And here I was wondering the same thing. Alright. I suppose I can spare a moment, seeing as there won’t be any more Ghostwalkers once I’m finished here. Might makes right; my actions are justified because I can choose, and no one has the power to overturn my decisions.”

“That’s a barbarian’s reasoning.”

"It is the reasoning of the universe -a law even I have to live by. Tapestry or no, this is one thing that will never change. Look at your own race, Feyt. You made the choice for them to fight against me; you failed, and everyone, save for seven magi, wound up dead. Hundreds of thousands of lives, all on your hands."

A violent tremor shot through her limbs. Silhouette grabbed Feyt by her sleeve, reminding her to keep a level head.

“I freely admit that the Tapestry is an imperfect mechanism,” Neith agreed, much to their surprise. “But I have neither the patience, or the want, to make things fair . Think, if hard work always paid off, and if things were that easy, then everyone would be doing it. Life must have an element of unfairness in order to make it worth anything -not that I expect you to understand."

“What’s so wrong about allowing people to choose how to live their lives?” Silhouette asked instead. “I get wanting to keep consequences to a minimum, but at least allow them the liberty of seeing what might happen as a result of what they do.”

“Are you trying to negotiate?” Neith arched her brow, genuinely entertained. “That’s certainly different. But to answer your question, Silhouette, what makes more sense? Playing maid, or ensuring messes aren’t created in the first place? Besides, say that I do decide to go along with this plan of yours. If people have the luxury of testing every available option, there will inevitably be those who try to game the system. People are selfish and ambitious by nature; it’s better for them to think they have freedom while holding them by strings.”

“If we’re so awful then why do you bother?”

Neith smiled, but this time it was a real expression.

“The crux of the matter. Well done.” She stood, her robes brushing the tainted earth, but repelling its filth. “What makes a god a God?”

“The ability to choose.”

“That is a prerequisite, but not the rule. Think, Silhouette. As a figure who is now considered larger than life, how did you progress from a secret lovechild into the Ice Empress?”

The mage shrugged. “Word of mouth?”

"Exactly." Neith motioned to Feyt. "Feyt was the one who spread my existence to the world, due to her affinity for Destiny. And, after the failure of the Magi, and the creation of the Ghostwalkers, that legend has become bigger and bigger -the equivalent of a true God."

Silhouette scratched her head. “So are you trying to tell me you’re controlling people just because you can?”

Neith sighed.

“If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

“Yes.”

“But if no one hears it, does that sound matter?”

“I guess not.”

“Then you have your answer. What is an idol, a figure, or a God, if there is no one there to acknowledge it exists? At that point, one becomes nothing.”

“But most people don’t know you exist!”

Neith held up a finger. "As long as one knows the truth, that's all that matters. Titles; names. These things have a power of their own. Mage. Half-elf. Abomination. Ghostwalker. Savior -you've been called all of them, and each summons a different image of the same individual. People speak of gods, unknown, all-knowing -they think them to be those stupid magi, but they really speak to me."

Neith ran her hands across the throbbing veins of her Tapestry. "Give me wealth, cure my illness, spare my children -I hear it all, every pulse, every whisper, every piece of their wretched, fragile souls. This is what makes me a God, Silhouette. There exist some people, like you, who will never ask me for a single thing, who don't need me, but when life gets difficult there are a thousand more who will cry out for someone to save them, and as long as you do, they will gladly sacrifice what's in their disposal -freedom included,"

“You see…” She walked forward, resting a hand on the mage’s shoulder. “People need the existence of a God. The smallness, the insignificance of one’s life is a hard pill to swallow; knowing that one will really doesn’t make that much of a difference. Even you know you’d be nothing without those who stopped to help you in getting here. You’re just a little girl playing with forces you don’t bother to comprehend.” Neith embraced the Ghostwalker, speaking softly in her sylvan ear. “I control you because, deep inside, you want me to.”

Silhouette willed a frozen dagger to life.

Only nothing happened.

Her eyes grew into perfect circles.

“Oh, I forgot to mention something.” Neith dug her fingers into Silhouette’s arms. “This is my world. It’s time you learned that lesson.”

Her jaw unhinged.

S

“Sister?!” Alyon and Faodrin exclaimed.

Ayasha served a sheepish smile. “I’m afraid so.”

She plopped on the grass in a childlike fashion. The men joined her only after she had to pat a spot on the ground.

“She’s probably entertaining Silhouette and Feyt right now, so I’ll make this as quick as I can. Listen closely,” she warned them. “You see, there are many beings like us, those you call Gods. There are some for merchants, for warfare; gods big, small, and ridiculous. The only thing that really separates us from you is the scope of our power.”

Ayasha leaned back, running her fingers through blades of grass.

"Neith and I were the Gods of Control and Choice, respectively. Always fighting, always arguing -I'm sure it isn't hard to see why."

Alyon nodded. “Makes sense. She’s a freak about it.”

“So one day, Neith challenged me to a game. She would create a world for us to play in, with a set of rules by her standards. If I had so much faith in the power of mortals, it shouldn’t be a big issue for me to become one myself. If I bested her at her own game, then it would end, and I would absorb her. If she won, then the same would happen to me.”

“But if the Tapestry is still intact, doesn’t that mean you lost?” Faodrin wondered.

Ayasha tapped her lips, smirking like an imp. "Of course, if you think I fought on my own. You see, Neith could only make me as weak as the others around at the time -the Magi. So long as my influence remained, I would, in essence, be considered an active player in our game."

“So you seduced Vysriel with that in mind.” Faodrin waned with disgust. “Is that what you think we are? Toys to be played with?”

“Don’t misunderstand me.” She waved her hands. “I did love Vysriel. I loved every single one of you. I still do. Why else would I agree to such conditions, so obviously stacked against me?”

“So then what happened?” Alyon asked.

“Neith, as part of her setup, created a mortal extension in the world. The only woman who calls Destiny a magic of her own.”

Feyt.

S

Feyt grabbed a bone from the liquid and struck Neith in the back of her head. The God didn’t even flinch, though Silhouette did manage to tear away from her nails.

Feyt grabbed her mage by the wrist and started running in the opposite direction.

How quaint.” Neith’s voice became less human by the minute. “You think you can run from me. Haven’t I made it clear already?”

She materialized before them. The women fell back on their arms.

Distance means nothing here.

S

“Feyt was the only Magi with a Destiny that wouldn’t place her in any danger; the ritual to create a Ghostwalker should’ve failed right from the start. Why do you think it succeeded?”

Faodrin blinked. “Neith? Neith, allowed them to succeed?”

“What choice did she have? If Feyt died then I would’ve won by default. She had her player in our game; the Ghostwalkers were mine, and so long as there were people who could slip through her perfect Tapestry, I could survive. A rather frustrating, impasse, wouldn’t you agree?”

Ayasha’s eyes gleamed with warmth. “Oh Silhouette. That darling girl. The only Ghostwalker to Awaken Feyt’s magic. Neith’s power, my will; the single being that could decide the winner once and for all.”

S

I’m trying to save you, stupid girl. But you don’t let me. Do you think yours is the only world I’ve seen?”

Silhouette scrambled behind a pillar, her hands clasped with Feyt, shaking hard.

I allowed mortals to make their own decisions once. Oh, and it was spectacular, what they accomplished. They built towers of glass that could brush the skies; invented metal birds to ride the wind. They even touched the stars themselves. And do you know what happened to them?”

The pillar crumbled above their heads. Feyt pushed Silhouette out of the way as she rolled in the opposite direction.

They died! This is what a life without the Tapestry will look like! So brief, so beautiful, and so utterly pointless. I give your lives MEANING. I give your lives ETERNITY. And you complain about the little bit of suffering, of injustice, along the way?!”

S

“Silhouette now represents the two of us, thus she is an exception to both Neith’s rules, and my own, a dangerous entity that should’ve never been born.” Ayasha shook her head. “But it amounts to nothing if she doesn’t realize what she is. What it means to be a Ghostwalker.”

S

Neith, now in her true form, that of a monstrous half-spider, bent over the mage, shaking in terror.

“Why?” Her beautiful face turned into one of genuine askance, seemingly pained by her position. “Feyt I can understand, but why do you resist me, Silhouette? What is the reason you fight for choice? You had no reason to try.”

The elf’s mind was a wash of instinct, knowing Death when she saw it. But even so, out from the static of her nonexistent thoughts, her lips moved.

“Faith.”

Neith retracted the razor leg, aimed at the mage’s heart, perplexed by the answer.

“Faith? Yes, but in what? You couldn’t possibly believe in a God; not if you continue to defy me.”

“Of course I believe,” Silhouette replied, finding her words. “You just offer salvation in a package I have no interest in.”

“Then what? What? What?” Neith demanded, her face coming close. “Where does this faith of yours come from, Silhouette?”

“Humanity.”

S

“I honestly don’t know if she can figure it out,” Ayasha went on. “Which is why I’ve summoned you here. I created this garden as a failsafe for a time like this.” She motioned to the paradise around them. “Every plant in this garden represents the essence of a person; their soul, you might say. If you find Silhouette’s soul, you could save her before Neith devours her. But there are two caveats; the first is that Neith intervened, and I cannot give you any clues. The second is that you only have one chance.”

Ayasha stood, filled with resolution.

“Alyon, you have five minutes. Any longer than that, and your body will die along with Silhouette’s. Good luck.”

S

“Humanity?” Neith backed away, covering her face with her hand. “HUMANITY, she says!” She burst into tears of laughter. “Oh you poor, misguided little girl. I almost feel bad, having to kill you.”

“Then don’t.”

“I said ‘almost’, didn’t I?” Neith thrust her leg at the mage.

Feyt dove and pushed them both out of harm’s way. They slid down a slope, into the basement of one of the ruins. Silhouette gagged on the blood in the pit, spitting it out.

The women stared at one another, feeling the other’s fear keener than their own.

“Think, Silhouette,” Feyt urged her. “Do you see any weaknesses?”

The mage shook her head. “No. Did you?”

Feyt rubbed her head. “There must’ve been a reason she tried to kill you before, when your soul shattered. Why does our bond scare her so much?”

Stop fighting me, little mage. I’ll make it quick if you stop struggling.

"I- uh. I was weak. Down, destroyed."

“It’s not enough. Other Ghostwalkers were in the same situation before.”

“Uhm. I. I just…” She looked into Feyt’s colorless eyes. An image of them in Elvawein’s Tower came to mind. “I just Awakened. It’s something to do with Darkness, Feyt. Doesn’t she absorb Ghostwalkers to become a part of her?”

The ebon elf felt she was onto something. The roof shook under Neith’s weight. They saw her stab through the broken boards above them.

Come out, Silhouette.”

Tears streamed down Feyt’s cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I did this to you.”

“Feyt, don’t-” Silhouette froze. She looked at her hands. Ice didn’t work here, but if this was Neith’s world… “Oh my god.” Laughter bubbled from her throat. “That’s it?”

Hope tore across her face like lightning. “What’s it? You’ve found it? Her weakness? What is it, Silhouette?”

S

Alyon and Faodrin ran through the fields, scrambling through their meanings. Rose? No. Hemp? No. Juniper? Boxwood? Elder? No, no, no!

Ayasha watched them with increasing dread; if they couldn’t find Silhouette in time then everything was lost.

“What about-?” Faodrin suggested.

“No! It’s not these.” He looked at Ayasha. “It’s not the spider lily either. Silhouette is more…” Alyon didn’t know how to put it. This garden was a dictionary of a thousand meanings, but he knew that none of them were hers. There was more to her story, more to her life than a handful of petals and a couple of thorns.

“She’s not here.”

Faodrin thought Alyon lost his mind. “What do you mean, she’s not here?”

Alyon turned to Ayasha, whose smile melted the fear they were feeling.

“That’s the answer, isn’t it? This is a perfect garden; there’s no way Silhouette would be here.”

Faodrin came up beside him. “Explain that to me.”

“Don’t you see? She’s a Ghostwalker, something who shouldn’t exist.” Alyon laughed at the simplicity of it all. “Faodrin, she isn’t a flower. She’s a weed.”

S

Just as Silhouette expected, she could use magic so long it was one also in Neith’s possession. Feyt returned to her Shadow Blade form. From the start, it was never to cause destruction.

It was a weapon that could only be used by a Ghostwalker-

-to end a Ghostwalker.

Silhouette couldn't help feeling satisfied at the horror spreading across Neith's face as she plunged the weapon into her heart. Feyt said it herself a dozen times before, her magic was Destiny incarnate -Neith incarnate.

Ghostwalkers were never a threat until one could master Feyt's magic -an extension of Neith's twisted soul. That was what it meant to be the Last Ghostwalker, and the reason Neith tried to kill her right after the mage progressed that far.

Silhouette watched the world fall to black as she had the day she made her pact with Feyt. She felt the woman crying in the depths of her broken soul.

Don’t cry

She sank, deeper and deeper.

Don’t c…

Don…

D…

.

S

Ayasha produced Alyon’s answer in the palms of her hands. To his amazement, the plant transformed into the mage. She no sooner fell into his arms than she disappeared into a shower of glass.

“W-what just happened?!” he demanded.

“Her soul returned to her body.” Ayasha clasped her hands together. “You did it, Alyon. You saved her.”

“Then why am I still here?”

Faodrin’s expression sank. “You ran out of time. I feel it in my bond with Silhouette.”

“What?” The Guildmaster took a step back. “You mean, I’m dead now? I’m stuck here?”

“Perhaps not,” Ayasha answered, breathing hope into him. “But whether or not you return is not my choice to make.”

“What do you mean?” Faodrin wondered.

She raised a slender finger, pointing to him.

“It’s yours.”

Part Three: Free At Last

Please excuse the tears on the page. It’s hard for me to talk about what happened after the Tapestry was destroyed.

As you might imagine, I survived the attack on Lydia. Kaos is still alive and well, but not-

Let me start again.

It's one of the greatest ironies, that Freedom comes at the price it does -one no one can afford once it's paid. Ours was no different. As a nation, our place in history was secure, and the books remember the Battle of Shade and Scale as a time of triumph.

It was also the most devastating day of my life.

Chapter 9: Fire on the Ramparts

Ivane screamed when Silhouette opened her eyes. Her first few seconds were spent staring at the ceiling.

And then tears poured down her face.

“-ette.

Ivane’s voice was a sound that couldn’t reach her. The world slowly fell back into focus. Blurs became lines. Lines evolved into distinct shapes. She was alive.

“-houette!

Ivane crushed her as she sat up, sobbing her name.

Silhouette glanced at the hilt on her hip, trembling with every ounce of emotion that couldn’t reach its host.

“Feyt?”

It gleamed, as though to say, I’m here.

“Hah.” Silhouette looked down at the dwarf in all her faded, floral glory. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “Ivane, it’s good to see you again.”

At that, the dwarf pulled away, her arms erect at her sides. “Oooh, you!” Whatever anger she tried to muster melted in the puddle beside her heart. “Thank the Gods you’re alive.”

A shadow fell across her face. Silhouette grabbed the locket around her neck.

“The Gods have nothing to do with it.” She squinted then, not in reflection, but at the noise coming from the window. Silhouette felt her heart drop at the smoke billowing from buildings down below. “Ophidians? They’ve breached the mountainside?”

“Through the tunnels running beneath the Towers.” Ivane set a hand to her chin. “I knew they were old, but I suppose the renovation left parts of the structure weaker than others.”

“And they found those points through the Stone Tree.”

“That they did.” The women looked up at the rapping of a metal cane. The Stone Singer smiled with his thin, wispy lips. “So it’s done, then?”

Ivane, stunned by this member of her community come to grace them, simply looked to the elf on the bed. Silhouette didn’t seem like she believed what happened, but she nodded all the same.

“We don’t need to worry about the Tapestry anymore.”

“Oh…” Ivane thought Alyon had only gone to retrieve her soul… but it was so like Silhouette, to kill two birds with one stone. Her eyes welled with tears. “You did it.” Her rose turned red. Minutes ago she was paralyzed with the fear that Silhouette was going to die, and everything would fall apart. Now she was filled with so much pride that she thought her face was going to break from smiling. “You really did it.”

“And she isn’t done yet.” The Stone Singer hobbled forth, dropping something on the mage’s lap. It was curved, made of wood, with a tiny crystal hanging at the end. “Your Knight friends thought this up. Rather brilliant, based on the enchantment in their gloves.”

“It’s a communication device?”

Look who decided to wake up!” Marrick’s voice boomed from the rock. Silhouette wilted at the volume. The Stone Singer twisted the crystal; that seemed to make things softer on their ears.

“Who else has these?”

A multitude of voices came through the piece. Silhouette cringed a little at the static when they came out all at once, but she could make out their owners. It seemed all the Knights had them, Renee, Elliot, Vale, Crimson…

“[_ Also, don't speak right into the crystal. It's designed so you can wear it over your ear -try not to deafen us, okay? _]”

Silhouette turned red, fixing it over her ear, startled at how well it fit.

“Alright, so what’s going on?”

Elliot replied to her question.

The majority of them are parked on the outer edge of the mountains, but the ones they have in the tiers look to be some of their best. They’re not fighters, exactly. It’s like playing cat and mouse.”

“Assassins.”

Exactly. The Shadow Blades have got it covered, and the people laid traps everywhere. Lydia’s turned into a minefield based on the obstacle courses you made for Vale while he was a student.”

Silhouette looked out the window, snorting at some of the threads hanging off windowsills.

“And the remainder?”

I’m making a thorn wall for when they try breaking through,” Renee informed them.

Silhouette made a face. “Renee, they have scales protecting them. I don’t think that’ll help much.”

I’m helping more than you right now, so I don’t want to hear it.

The mage grumbled.

“The other dwarves are preparing hot oil,” the Stone Singer offered. “But the fact remains that we are sorely outnumbered. We’re all stuck on the defensive.”

“Ahh… okay, now I see.” Silhouette stood up, thankful she could feel her magic freely once more. “The only problem is how I’m going to get to the border; I don’t need to set off all the traps in the streets.”

Damian appeared at the window, swinging from a rope.

“Then we came at the right time!” He held out his arm. “Come on, we’ll get you to the Rim.”

Silhouette grabbed the rope, her jaw dropping at the dragon it swung from. Lyssa waved down at her, as did her grandparents and father.

“This is just insane!”

She tightened her grip as they swung even higher, the buildings growing small as they rose into the gray sky.

Ivane returned her attention to Alyon, who had yet to wake up. She pressed her fingers to his wrist, eyes wide.

Then he sat up a moment later.

The dwarf staggered back, allowing the Guildmaster room to breathe. He was dead seconds ago -she was sure of it.

When Alyon regained his bearings, he looked on her with the expression of a man who had just lost something important to him.

He and Silhouette were back, and Ivane didn’t have to ask to know that it had come at a very steep price.

S

Her father gave her a crippling hug the moment she climbed to the top of the beast, and this time he didn’t care for letting go.

“How’s it looking?” Silhouette asked over his shoulder, speaking to her grandparents.

“They’ve only gotten half their forces here, but we’re already hard pressed keeping them from flooding the High City,” Ezara told her, the wind whipping her hair into a frenzy.

"But now that you're here, we can level the field easily. The main objective is to find the Scaled King -once he's gone the others will fall back," Uradden added. "The only problem is spotting him. They've set up four large camps where he may, or may not, be located. Once any of us are dropped in a location we'll have to take out a vast number just to be picked up again."

“Dragons circling the drop-off points don’t help the matter,” Damian said as well.

Silhouette looked down at the hilt on her belt. She and Feyt seemed to be thinking the same thing.

“You know, our little adventure gave me an idea.”

Everyone waned.

“What might that be?” her father wondered, finally releasing her from his hold.

“I’ve tried combining Ice and Darkness before, back in Elvawein’s Tower. It packed a lot of punch, even without the runes acting as bombs.”

“That’s dangerous magic, Silhouette.”

Uradden waved at his son. “What makes you think you’ll succeed?”

“Well, I killed Neith.”

Silence.

Lyssa turned her head over her shoulder. The crystal at her ear buzzed with excited murmurs.

Cheers erupted from people down in the city proper as they flew past them; it appeared that everyone chose to spread the news rather than respond to her statement.

Ezara covered her mouth. “You…”

Uradden crushed her in a hug, showering her forehead in kisses. “You wonderful, wonderful girl!” He laughed from the bottom of his lungs. “Hah! It’s over. It’s finally, finally over!”

“Hey,” Silhouette pushed away from him. “It’s not over until that is taken care of.”

That, of course, being the army down below. Someone lobbed an arrow at them; Jerrold waved his hand, and it was redirected to the side.

“So here’s my idea,” Silhouette continued. “You, Ezara, and Jerrold split up. We’ll handle one tent at a time until we find that Scaled King.”

“And you?” Lyssa wondered.

“Once I handle my tent, I’ll draw the fire.” She held up her hands. “Trust me, I’ll be fine.”

They exchanged uneasy looks. “If you’re sure…” Damian said.

Silhouette leaned over the edge of the dragon, turning Feyt back into her physical form.

The women jumped into the air, shock silencing whatever scream they would’ve made.

“Silhouette, do you know what you’re doing?!”

The mage laughed, “Nope!” Feyt’s murderous glare made it that much funnier to the elf. She grabbed her by the hands. “Come on, Feyt. We’ll be fine. That’s a promise.”

The magus made a face, but try as she might, couldn’t stifle her smile from spreading.

From the ground, it was clear that two figures were falling from the sky, but then they melded into perfect blackness, falling so fast that the earth rumbled from their landing.

Dozens of ophidians were taken out with this alone, as a crater formed in the ground. Other scaled-folk leaned over the edge to observe this intrusion on their field.

Smoke cleared, revealing a single woman, her armor gleaming like ice, but black. Feyt’s silver hair trailed out from beneath a helmet, and though this being’s eyes were covered by a visor, it’s wide, toothy mouth was the undeniable feature of a Ghostwalker on rampage.

Silhouette and Feyt trembled at the power running beneath their fingertips. Like the Ghostwalker State, Silhouette wouldn’t be able to hold this form for long.

You might want to mute these things if you don’t want to start bleeding from the ears.” Even her voice was different, as though she and Feyt shared the same mouth.

She waited several seconds, long enough for the ophidians to storm her position, and assumed her allies took the advice.

Silhouette tilted her head back, and unleashed the Ghostwalker’s mind-tattling scream.

Her voice echoed throughout the battlefield, even reaching the ears of those in Lydia. Only this time, they were glad to hear it.

A Ghostwalker was a terrifying enemy -but one that was on their side.

S

The mages of Hoarfrost lobbed spells from the ramparts, keeping the hoard at bay. Shadow Blade agents played a game of hide and seek with the scaled assassins in the city proper; the place awash with fire traps, darts, and springs.

As for the ophidians, Silhouette had her work cut out for her. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they stood no chance against this monster, so they ran.

He’s not here,” Jerrold’s voice came from the crystal.

Not with me, either,” Uradden said minutes later. “Ezara?

Working… on it!” Out of everyone there, Ezara was the only one who couldn't use magic as they could -being immune to it altogether.

Silhouette, how are things on your end?

The elf wheezed, gripping her middle. “Fine. Let me get to Ezara. We need to finish this soon.

No one tried to stop her on her way. One bold dragon rider swooped low to the ground. Irritated, Silhouette made a whip of the Shadow Blade, lashing at the beast as it came down a second time.

Its innards spilled out before it could fly high again, crashing spectacularly into a score of fighters on their side.

The only person who could hurt her in this state was herself. Silhouette felt dizzy; she had to last for just a while longer.

Something was off; a feeling she couldn’t shake since coming back to life. It made her nauseous in a way she didn’t understand. Feyt acted to stabilize her reactions, but it wasn’t working well.

Silhouette spotted her grandmother, fighting off a slew of ophidians on her own. She took a moment to marvel at her movements, a true master of whatever axe-headed weapons she used. It was almost like a dance. What she lacked in power she made up for with grace and precision. In a one on one melee, Silhouette had little doubt that Ezara was a mage’s worst nightmare.

I’ve got this,” Silhouette coughed. “Go inside and get him.

She fended off the attackers until they too got the message that she couldn’t be hurt by their means.

Ezara emerged from the tent a moment later, dragging the Scaled King by his neck, wrapped in the chains of her weapons. Silhouette arched her brow at how such a slight woman managed to tug him along with so little effort.

The ophidians, seeing their ruler brought so low, backed away.

Silhouette felt her magic drop considerably, and her armor, with its shadow tint, fell apart. Feyt reverted to her mortal form, steadying her host.

The Scaled King hissed, eyes wide, at her appearance.

“You. Why aren’t you dead?!”

Silhouette found that she had just enough strength to summon a stick of ice. She didn’t give two damns about honor or integrity in that moment, much too exhausted to think of anything other than ending this fight.

“I was,” she muttered sourly, raising the shard over him.

“Then how?”

Silhouette plunged the icicle into his chest.

“Hell froze over.”

Chapter 10: Resolution

 

Unlike times before, Silhouette didn't pass out after making this show of strength. Instead, she found it necessary to walk all the way back to Lydia, through the field -giving the remaining ophidians time to look upon the woman who had decimated them so completely.

The scaled-folk, while militaristic, were also strictly rule-abiding. It was a silent one that said they must follow their leader. Now, left without one, their fight was over.

While they would despise Silhouette for the remainder of their lives, not one of them could deny the respect she earned that day. She and Feyt walked side by side, worse for wear, but alive. And this was all that mattered.

And as she came into the city, no one made a sound. Silhouette surveyed the landscape, pleasantly surprised that, apart from some superficial damage, Lydia was intact.

She set her hands on her hips and said to Feyt,

“I think I’m going to black out.”

The woman wrapped an arm around her before that could happen. Silhouette slumped -to everyone else it looked as though it was a hug. Dwarves appeared a moment later, setting her into a stretcher. Yherod did an awful lot of barking and hand-wringing as they brought her to a camp. It wouldn't do well for morale if others saw their Empress in this state.

Lyssa landed with her husband in tow, releasing her dragon into the sky now that she no longer had a use for him. She folded her arms across her chest.

They had done so much fighting, but she couldn’t see why it turned so ugly. They were alive. Their son was safe. Destiny was no more.

“I’m sorry, Damian.”

He stopped at her apology, unexpected as it was.

“Sorry?”

"What I did, taking on the role as Elvawein…" She rubbed her arm, staring at the ground. "No matter what my intentions were, I should have told you. I don't expect you to forgive me -I don't expect anyone to, I just simply thou-"

Damian set a hand to her face, running his thumb under the emerald eye.

“What do you think marriage is, Lyssa? Did you think those vows were just poetry?”

She lowered her one real eye. “No.”

“Then you should understand that your burdens are mine as well. To have, and to hold, till death do us part.” He let go of her, the ghost of his touch like a fire on her skin. “We’ve both made so many mistakes. We’ve hurt others, and ourselves.” He sighed at the fighters tending their wounds around them. “I can’t keep score. Honestly, I don’t want to.”

“Then don’t.” Lyssa rubbed her arm, glancing off to the side. “Eighteen years have come and gone… we’re both very different people from who we were back then.”

"Are we?" His mouth crooked up at the corner, like the devilish sailor she first fell in love with. "Lyssa, love is as much a choice as honesty, as loyalty. I chose to love you every day we weren't together -as embarrassing as it is for me to say it aloud," he flushed. "I've seen couples madly in love with one another turn into complete strangers over the course of a week. Why can't the opposite be true for us?"

“You’re being unrealistic.”

He came closer. Lyssa took a step back, knocking into a tree. He slipped one hand to her face, brushing his thumb across her ear; the other pressed against the bark behind her head.

“That’s an excuse, Lyssa.”

“Damian…”

“And the rest can wait until after I kiss you.”

S

When Silhouette awoke, it was beneath a small gaggle of heads. Elliot, Renee, Vale, Yherod, Ivane, Crimson, Marrick.

She sat up with a groan, her neck stiff.

There were others in the camp, as she took in her surroundings. Gregor, and the other Knights, her grandparents, her father; the former Queen of Lydia, Damian, and their sullen-looking son.

Heron and Ballard were there as well. It was the blind man who knelt before her.

“Silhouette, we have some important things to discuss.”

She searched for Feyt, who stepped from between the trees, setting kindling wood by the fire. Everyone gathered by the pit, quietly passing a plate of meat and forest greens for supper.

“So the Tapestry of Fate is gone,” Gregor spoke for all of them. He breathed deep, staring at the mage with a resolute air. “You’ve made Ghostwalkers out of all of us.”

Silhouette never thought of it that way, but Gregor was right. With everyone now free to make their own way in life, either she wasn’t a Ghostwalker anymore, or they all were.

"We've averted the worst scenario, for the time being," he went on. "But, in time, your actions will have massive, unforeseen consequences -of that I have no doubt."

"What Gregor means to get at," Kherin cut in, smoothing her hair. "Is that the Knights have always stood for order, against the Ghostwalkers. While a part of Kaos, since you are a Knight of Duskfell yourself, we've resisted acting as a member of the Empire. If we wish to continue standing for unity then our operations will have to change -we want to assimilate, Silhouette."

Marrick crossed his arms. “I didn’t see that coming.”

Crimson nodded to the city below. “I’ve heard a lot of discussion from the people we brought here, most of them Lydian natives to begin with. A good chunk want to stay in Lydia again. I think it’d be best if I only took healers to the Isle from this point on, to form a school, like Vale did with Hoarfrost.”

Vale grinned at the idea. “And thanks to our recruitment efforts, we’ve finally got the guild close to full again. They’ll need some work, but I’m sure our Guildmaster can whip them in shape again.”

Alyon, who was curiously silent, forced a smile -making a point not to look directly at Silhouette.

The Stone Singer sensed the unease in her heart. He set the end of his cane on her shoulder.

“While I’m against being a part of this Empire of yours, I see nothing wrong with forming an alliance. You’re an honorable sort, elf. Not wishy-washy like those crooks over there.” He pointed at Uradden and Ezara, who smiled, but didn’t deny these claims.

“The choice is yours, Silhouette,” Ballard told her. “Kaos is yours to rule, but we need to know how you want to do things if we’re to follow your lead.”

Feyt raised a hand, drawing their attention.

“The fact that Silhouette was ever a Ghostwalker is my doing.” Her clear eyes shined on the mage. “I don’t think anyone would disagree that it was because of her freedom that her options were so limited. Before you decide to set her on this pedestal, I say you allow her to choose whether or not she wants to rule at all. I, for one, will not fault her if she decides to walk away from everything.”

"Feyt." Silhouette covered her hands. "I appreciate the thought, but my feelings don't matter. All of this is a consequence of my actions. I'm not going to walk away from that -if possible, I want to live as an example. I'm not going to run."

Gregor sighed his relief. “Well said.”

"However," Silhouette glanced at the group. "I don't think it's a good idea that I stay in Lydia -in Kaos, in general." She held up her hands at their open mouths, ready to argue. "I think it's best that I rule, but from a distance."

“Why?” the Stone Singer asked.

Silhouette thought about the conversation she had with Neith. While the two were diametrically opposed, there were things they agreed on.

"I'm an elf. I don't know when I'll die -if at all. One generation after the next -if I stay, if people see me, then not only will I make it next to impossible for any successors to fill my shoes, but I'll also become…" she struggled with how to put it. "Larger than life. I'm not here to become a legend. I just want to be as normal a person as possible; if my shadow looms any larger than it already does, then I'm afraid for how future generations will grow."

She tapped her fingertips.

"I want this next generation of children to have a fresh start, one where they don't have to worry about our burdens, our mistakes. The best thing we can do is keep our policies light, for the time being. A decentralized government, a conglomerate of city-states, one united only by trade and crisis -this is what I think is best."

“So an Empire, in name only,” Kherin surmised.

"That's a bit of a loose definition, but yes. Every High City has their own flavor, and culture. I don't want to lose that in the quest to make everything uniform. In the end we all want the same things; a nice bed, warm food, our loved ones beside us -I believe that's enough."

“And it’s very naïve,” Gregor frowned.

Silhouette beamed at him. “It was enough to get us this far.”

No one could argue her point.

“I could modify the crystals, make a journal, or pen,” Ysril suggested. “That way you can keep in contact with those of us still within the borders.”

“I’d like that,” Silhouette grinned. “If there’s a way to make it so only certain people can use it, even better.”

“I’ll get started then.”

“And, with the Stone Singer’s permission, I’d like to form a colony for the dwarves beneath Lydia… like a permanent trade outpost, independent of the city above.”

The Stone Singer stroked his beard. “I see no issue with that.” He pointed at a pair of dwarves. “But that damned shuttle needs replacing. The current one is an embarrassment!”

They started into a flurry of motion. Silhouette rubbed her forehead.

“Oh, and the Shadow Blades need to be their own organization. Now that the Tapestry is destroyed, their original purpose is gone. Heron, Ballard, I want you to try and return it to its glory days.” Silhouette glanced at Vale. “It’s your choice, but I encourage you to follow whatever model they come up with.”

“And us Knights?” Gregor wondered, curious to see what the mage would come up with.

“You’re not going to rule only Taerinval anymore,” Silhouette told him. “I want the Knights to be the actual policing force for the country.”

He wilted; Revan physically groaned at the notion of additional work.

“Uh, paperwork will be left up to Ysril or someone else. I think you’d all be a lot better off in the actual field.”

This brightened their dispositions considerably. This left only one question, and Jerrold was the first to ask it.

“Where will you go?”

“West,” was her answer, which was all she could say for certain; Kaos stretched along the entire eastern coast of Dalani, after all. “But now that the most important business is taken care of, I’m off for a walk.”

It was clear by her tone that this was one walk she wanted to take alone. Even as Feyt rose up to join her, a tremor of emotion held her back.

Only Alyon, sensing what Silhouette thought, went along without her protesting.

S

She headed down the side of the Rim, to a terrace untouched by the fire and blood. Moonlight peeled through the clouds like the grubby fingers of a child, but its light brought little joy to her face.

Silhouette felt, in a word, numb.

And as Alyon stepped behind her, she said, “Whatever happened, I don’t blame you.”

“You knew?”

She sat on the grass, tucking her knees beneath her chin. Wind raked through her cropped hair.

"I suspected." The elf glanced at the outline of her shadow on the ground, a perfect copy of her stature. "I couldn't sense him when I woke up at the palace -necessity kept me from looking into it at the time. Alyon," she said, clutching at blades of grass. "what happened?"

He didn’t move from his spot, looking down at his feet.

“We just ran out of time. I was dead, but you were saved. Because you were alive, you renewed your link with Faodrin.”

Her lips formed a deep scowl.

“He said that he stayed longer than he should have; that he can’t do anything for you anymore.”

They were excuses, every last one of them. Silhouette bit her lips to keep from arguing -it wouldn't help now, and she knew it.

“He swapped his link with me, so I could go back, but it severed his with you. I’m sorry, Silhouette.”

“Don’t be.” The world blurred as tears filled her eyes. Silhouette rubbed then away with the back of her hand. “It’s not your fault.”

“It’s not yours either.”

Rather than respond to him, Silhouette turned to her shadow on the lawn, laughed once, and said, “I hate you.”

When it didn’t respond, her expression sank. Fresh tears fell down her face.

“I’m sorry, Faodrin. I’m sorry for not listening to you. I’m sorry for pushing you away.” She fell on her side, curling into a ball. Her voice broke into tiny, shivering pieces. “I’m sorry for keeping secrets. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay? So can you come out now?”

Her pleas went unanswered. Silhouette went very still.

And then he heard a cry, so tiny it could’ve been mistaken for a sniffle. They came in intervals, growing louder, and more pained.

In the end, Silhouette wailed, fists clutching her outline on the grass, for the only real family she’d ever known.

Alyon allowed her this grief, thinking of all the times she wanted to scream, but couldn't. For the first time since becoming a Ghostwalker, she was finally free to cry as long and as hard as she wanted -and she did.

Then something incredible happened.

For the horizon, a bed of grass and embers, glowed, almost like a sunrise.

Golden light pooled across the landscape, and threads rose into the air, weaving together.

Silhouette, now spent, stared with glazed eyes.

The threads changed their hue; Alyon looked out upon an ocean of red spider lilies… only this time they had leaves as they bloomed.

It lasted for only a handful of seconds, after which they faded into a shower of sparks, and the world was dark once more.

S

One week later, Feyt tossed a sack of flour into the back of the caravan.

“Oof!” She flopped, waist down, on the wooden boards. “Tell me that’s the last of it.”

Silhouette checked off her list. “That ought to do it. I’ve got those pens from Ysril for the two of us, we said goodbye. I think we’re good.”

Marrick stepped out from a general trader; Silhouette cringed at the sounds of disappointed women as he waved then goodbye. The elf crossed her arms and pursed her lips at him.

“Remind me why we have to take you, again?”

He wiped at the lipstick on his collar. “On paper, I’m your faithful guard. In reality, I’m sick of administration and am using this as an excuse to have a vacation.”

“You arrogant…”

“You can complain once you can best me in melee, no magic,” he added, just as she opened her mouth. “Here,” he said, shoving an apple into it. “You’re welcome.”

Feyt chuckled beside her.

Silhouette plucked the apple from her mouth and shoved it into hers.

“Hop on, or I’m leaving without you!” Marrick shouted.

“Hey! I was going to drive.”

“Tough shit. Feyt, sit next to me.”

“I am not riding in the back again!” Silhouette protested.

Feyt shoved her from her seat, grinning with the fruit still in her mouth -as though to rub it in her face.

Silhouette groaned.

“Achoo!

“Bless you,” Feyt replied.

Silhouette made a face. “I didn’t sneeze.”

“Me neither,” said Marrick.

Silhouette got to her feet. "Is that right?" She focused on her hearing, wandering around the densely-packed cabin. Her sights fell on a barrel. She glanced at her list -this was an extra.

The mage reached into the container, lifting up an over-zealous twelve year old.

“I believe I’ve found a stowaway.” She dropped Ian on the ground, tapping her foot. “I know you weren’t on our list.”

“Oh c’mon!” Feyt and Marrick glanced over their shoulders. “Let me come along. I’ll earn my keep!” He puffed out his chest.

“Oh really? Aren’t you supposed to be studying at Hoarfrost?”

“They, uh, kinda kicked me out.”

“Because…?”

“Because I set the library on fire. It was an accident, I swear!” Ian insisted.

Silhouette sighed, swiveling Ian by the shoulders. “I’m not particularly against it, but what do you think?”

“Be careful, Marrick,” Feyt warned him. “She’ll pick up every stray we come by.”

Marrick arched his brow. “I fine with it. You any good at cooking, kid?”

“I’m better than Ivane.”

Silhouette waned, prompting the others to laugh.

“If that’s a standard then I am very concerned. Ian, let me teach you about poison, so you know what to avoid putting in our food, okay? I’ll be fine, but you’ll kill those two if you make a mistake.”

"Teach him thoroughly, then," Feyt pointed. "If I die, you die -that rule still applies."

S

Alyon watched their wagon roll up the tiers from the roof of the Frozen Mirage. Elliot leaded on the edge with him, wondering if that was it.

“You’re just letting her go away?”

“She’ll come back.”

“That’s not the point.” He turned around, nodding his head. “I was sure you were going to end up together. Now that your clairvoyance seems to have fixed itself, when is that going to happen?”

Alyon smirked. “Never.”

"What?" His jaw dropped. "But she lived for you -she died for you, several times. She was there for you her entire life. Who’s a better match?”

“The one who was there for her.”

S

Feyt sneezed later that evening. She, who was so unused to being alive, stared at her hands in wonder.

“Am I getting sick?”

Silhouette tossed her a blanket. “Either that or someone’s talking about you.”

Feyt made a face.

“What? You’ve never heard of that saying?”

“I fail to see how sneezing and superstition go hand in hand.”

Silhouette plopped on the ground beside her. Marrick was not far off, teaching Ian about things to look out for on the road.

“Well,” said Silhouette. “They say that if you sneeze for no reason, or if your ears start itching, then someone is talking about you behind your back.”

“I see.” Feyt ran her fingers over her ears. “Then I’m just getting sick.”

Silhouette’s smile was a crooked one, but she didn’t bother pointing out that Feyt didn’t quite get it. Misunderstandings like these were more humorous than not.

“Silhouette.”

“Hmm?” She felt her forehead.

“I want to thank you properly. You’ve done so much for a quest that was never even yours to begin with, an-”

Silhouette pulled her close, giving Feyt a tight squeeze.

“You don’t need to thank me for anything.” She held her head against her chest. “You worked hard for this, for a long, long time.” Feyt looked up at her face. Silhouette played with her hair, smiling softly. “You did well, Feyt. And it’s finally over.”

A different emotion, one Silhouette couldn’t quite place, reached through their bond to tug at her heart.

Feyt thought of the day she met this strange little girl who asked in the darkness of a gray, dreary world, “Are you lost?

And as she wrapped her arms around the woman that girl became, Feyt realized the irony of that statement. For yes, she was lost. But Silhouette found her, and from that day she was never lost again.

Epilogue

 

 

Our group of four settled in the Faespeare Wood, which was also an adventure, but one I won’t get into at the moment.

I remained the Ice Empress, ruling Kaos from the shadows. Ian, as Feyt predicted, soon had peers to join him. I have a habit of picking up children who need a home, and I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon.

Crimson continues training healers. Vale is starting to get a rather lofty reputation, and Alyon is still the Guildmaster of the Shadow Blades. While he and I remain close, the few times I visited he seemed to have his hands full with his little brother, Thaniel.

It’s been three years since the Tapestry was destroyed, and I still question whether I did the right thing in ending it. The future is a terrifying thing, made even more menacing by the unknown.

I know that, one day, we will be the instruments of our own destruction. Yes. Mankind is a selfish, ambitious, egotistical race. I experienced it myself during the Guild War, and there were many times I was a prime example of it in pursuit of my goals.

But, more than good, or evil, or righteousness, I believe that the thing we must aspire to above all is accountability. This way, no matter the consequence of our actions, admitting them is the first step in meeting the future face to face.

And while I'm currently enjoying my stint as a hero, I have no doubt that history will record me as a villain down the line. After all, I'm the Ghostwalker, the God-Slayer, the Ice Empress -these titles, while impressive, don't exactly conjure up teddy bears and roses when someone speaks of them.

Ah well.

For the first time in my life, I have the luxury of not knowing what I want to do with it. I don’t see myself raising children forever. Perhaps I’ll travel, or learn different kinds of magic. But I’ll cross that bridge at a later date.

For those of you who are curious about Alyon’s little prophecy about me and Feyt, well, I’m looking at her right now. She nearly killed me after a slip of the wrist cut her hair off at her chin, but apart from that she’s sleeping after stuffing her face, just like an overgrown child.

Alyon and I spoke about this at length, about how his clairvoyance works now that he no longer has a Tapestry to read off of. And he told me it operates like branches, showing only the most likely outcomes. Some things, like my present circumstances, were inevitable, he said.

That’s the biggest irony of them all, isn’t it?

This whole story started with a flower, a promise, and the question, “How far will you go to defeat Destiny?”

But as it so happens, there are some things in this world that are simply meant to be.

THE END


Amor Fati

  • ISBN: 9781311554215
  • Author: Nicole Martinsen
  • Published: 2015-12-21 02:40:12
  • Words: 37625
Amor Fati Amor Fati