Larona’s Journal

June Bennie

“What is your name?”

The man speaking introduced himself as Haulrin. He said he was an agent of the Holy Sarlen Empire, whatever that is. His movements are smooth and gentle. His smile appears genuine, I know it is not. He is speaking Almaranian, my native tongue, but his accent is strange. I’m usually good with accents, but I have no idea where this guy is from, or even where we are. The only thing I do know is that I can’t let him find out who I am.

My name is Larona, and if he learns my identity I will be in a lot of trouble. Normally I’m one of the most powerful people in the world. But right now, in this place, I’m vulnerable. Maybe that’s why I was brought here? Except vulnerable doesn’t mean helpless, and they’re definitely underestimating me.

Perhaps it’s because I’m disabled. I lost my legs from just above the knee when I was younger. I’m also pretty small and scrawny. But I have a power, and under the right circumstances I’m practically unstoppable. I’ve also received extensive training in combat and interrogation. If Haulrin knew who I really was he wouldn’t be in a room alone with me.

We’re in a prison cell inside an enormous tower, surrounded by a cold and desolate mountain range. The tower is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. A bizarre construct of stone and metal, two dozen stories tall with several dozen rooms on each floor. In it’s own way this place is beautiful, but it all seems so cold and lifeless.

There are many statues and frescoes decorating the hallways and chambers, but the only colors seem to be stone and metal. The tower is filled with wonderful machines the likes of which I would have never imagined, but they hum and buzz at all hours of the day. The air smells like dust and electricity. The food is terrible. At the least the people were nice, but they’re gone now. When I woke up a little over a month ago there were more than three thousand people living here. Then Haulrin’s people came. At first I assumed they were looking for me.

Ten years ago I was chosen by the Patrons, guardian spirits that watch over the world. The Patrons had grown frustrated with humanity, we had stopped listening to them, and fought with each other constantly. So they decided to let us judge ourselves. Twelve humans were granted immense power. The Patrons decided that we would either learn to work together or we would destroy ourselves.

The twelve of us are called Arbiters. I’m still hopeful that we can sort out our differences, but I’ve seen too much violence to be naive about our chances. Some of the other Arbiters are my friends, and some want to see me dead. A few months ago my army won a major victory against one Arbiter, but we were soon attacked by another.

One afternoon when we were making camp, I was stabbed in the back by one of my closest friends, a man I grew up with named Kazlim. At one point he told me he loved me, until he found out I’m not the kind of girl that men are allowed to fall in love with. Even so I never would have expected him to betray me. And the weapon he used, I’d heard of a blade that could kill Arbiters, but how did he get it?

I never saw the knife, but I felt it go in, it was impossibly cold. Next thing I know I’m in this strange tower. The people here were kind, but none of them spoke a language I could understand. I’ve never met a race quite like them, their skin is unusually pallid, as if they never spend any time in the sun.

A few weeks ago a flying ship came from over the mountains. I’ve seen several incredible things in my life, but never a ship that could fly. The ship moored itself at the top of the tower and pale soldiers in brown uniforms came flooding out. I didn’t have enough power to fight, so I hid. The people of the tower tried to fight back, but they were overwhelmed. Those that weren’t killed were taken to the ship and flown away. The soldiers found me shortly after that.

They tried to question me but they also didn’t speak any language I can understand. So they beat me constantly. One of them almost raped me until he saw that I’m not the kind of girl he was interested in. Even though none of them spoke Almaranian they obviously recognized it, because they knew to bring an interpreter. This guy Haulrin showed up this morning, he acts friendly but it’s a safe bet he’s working with one of my enemies.

So I say nothing. I study his clothes, looking for some clue to help me figure out who I’m dealing with. He wears a long brown coat and calf high boots. The heel of his boots indicate they are made for riding. He has a strange white hat which he placed on the table between us. It has a wide brim that curves up on either side, along the top are two sharp ridges running front to back.

“You can trust me.” He says in a gentle tone. “I sincerely apologize for the rough treatment you received earlier. I promise it won’t happen again.”

Standard interrogation technique, alternate between brutality and kindness. If I cooperate I get kindness, otherwise I get more beatings. That’s ok, I can handle a few beatings.

“Can you please tell me your name young man?” Young man. I hate that. The first thing he did after coming into my cell was order his soldiers to bring me some clothes. That’s a real problem, because if he does figure out who I am he will know my most damaging secret.

I’m a woman, despite my anatomy. My people use words like aberrant, freak, or deviant to describe girls like me. In my travels I met someone who’s people have a much better word. That word is transgender, or simply trans, a word which literally translates as ‘across from’.

“I’m told you speak Almaranian.” Says Haulrin. “That’s why I’m here, none of the soldiers know the language. I’ve come a long way to talk to you, and I really do want to help you. Can you understand what I’m saying?”

I’ve been trained to deal with interrogations, though I never honestly expected to find myself in this kind of situation. My teacher, a woman named Delzana, taught me that the less I say the better. But I need information, so I decide to take a risk and talk to him. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“He speaks at last.” Says Haulrin with a smile, “And that’s a fair question indeed. “Why don’t I start by undoing those shackles?” He retrieves a key from a pouch on his belt.

I offer my shackled hands and he unlocks them. My wrists are badly chaffed so I rub them to get some of the feeling back. “Thank you.” I say. “My name is Estoca.” It’s a common male name among my people.

“That’s a wonderful name, it means ‘scholar’ if I’m not mistaken.” Haulrin says with a self satisfied grin. He’s right, that’s what the name means, I guess this guy does his homework. “I’m something of a scholar myself. Now can you please tell me where you’re from?”

“I’m from Almaran.” I say. I have brown skin and green eyes, and of course I speak the language, I doubt I could convince him I’m not from Almaran.

But his reaction surprises me. He shakes his head and says, “If you’re going to play games with me I can’t help you. Please tell me where you’re really from.” Haulrin interlocks his fingers and glares at me, waiting for an answer.

Interesting. Why doesn’t he believe me? Perhaps it’s because I’m unusually small for an Almaranian. Foreigners tend to assume we are a race of giants. This is not the case, we start out as the same size as any human, but we grow faster and continue to grow throughout our entire lives, also we live about twice as long.

This is because Almaran contains an abundance of sana, which is a naturally forming teal colored liquid that has a number of incredible properties. It can be altered to suit almost any need. It can emit a very bright light, and is currently illuminating this cell. It can become a nearly indistrucable blue crystal, or an invisible gas, it can make fire or ice, it can heal or poison and so on. Also, Sana is the source of my power.

Sana can be found in other parts of the world, but Almaran produces considerably more than anywhere else. On Almaran there’s so much sana in the ground that I’m practically unstoppable. Here there is absolutely no sana in the ground. Maybe that’s why I was brought here? Fortunately there are still trace amounts of sana in the air. It’s not much but I can slowly draw it into myself, giving my body what it needs with a little left over to put up a decent fight if it comes to that.

But there’s too many soldiers for me to be careless. I’ll need to be smart and find and an opportunity. For now I need to keep stringing this guy along. Since Haulrin doesn’t believe I’m from Almaran I don’t know what else to tell him, so I stay quiet.

After a long minute of silence he lets out a sigh and says, “Fine, if you don’t want to tell me where you’re from I won’t try to force you. Can you at least tell me why you’re here, how did you even get here for that matter?”

Delzana taught me that if I have to lie, it should be as close to the truth as possible, so I tell him the truth. “I have no idea where I am, or how I got here.”

Haurlin frowns at that, “Is that so. This place is very remote, I highly doubt you got here by accident.”

I shrug, “I don’t know what to tell you, I don’t even know what day it is.”

Haulrin raises an eyebrow and says “It’s the fourth day of the the month of Auger, in the year of our Divine Lady seventeen hundred twenty eight.”

None of that means anything to me, the Almaranian calendar doesn’t have a month called Auger, and I’ve never heard of anyone called the Divine Lady.

“Oh wow it’s the month of Auger already?” I say. “My how the time flies.”

“Hmmm.” Says Haulrin, clearly not impressed. “Can you tell me your beliefs about Larona?”

And there it is. Does he suspect who I am? Probably not considering he thinks I’m a boy. Even so I don’t want him thinking I’m even associated with me. A lot of people hate me. But of course no one hates me as much as I hate myself. So once again I decide to tell him the truth.

“Larona’s an idiot, and a monster. A random nobody who was given a power she didn’t deserve or know what to do with. She was far too young when she got her power, she’s killed hundreds of people and her incompetence has led to the senseless death of thousands more.”

Haulrin looks furious, his cheeks are red and his eyes are practically popping out of his head. This is surprising, I assumed I was telling him exactly what he wants to hear. “Young man…” His words are muted, he’s trying to contain himself. “That is not an appropriate way to talk about our Divine Lady.”

Wait what now?

He takes a deep steady breath, thinks about his words and says “Larona was the greatest person who ever lived. She had the purest heart, the sharpest mind and the most compassionate soul. She saved us all, the world still exists because of the sacrifice she made. Even if you are a non believer I would ask that you not speak of her that way again.”

Maybe he’s talking about a different Larona? I raise my palms, “Ok I’m sorry, I just… I was just testing. I wanted to see how you’d react.” Maybe he’ll buy that?

“There are people who will kill you for that kind of blasphemy. I personally don’t approve of such excess but I caution you to be more careful.” He says with a stern glare.

Yikes. I guess this is why Delzana told me to say as little as possible. I really need to take her advice more seriously. I wanted information but this is a lot to process. I want to believe he’s talking about a different Larona, but the fact that he’s speaking Almaranian makes that unlikely. It’s a name I made up for myself when I was younger, it means flower maker, so I’m pretty sure I’m the only Almaranian with that name.

A sudden realization hits me like a brick to the face. He said it was the year of their Divine Lady seventeen hundred twenty eight, but if I’m the Divine Lady… what!?… How… There’s now way…

Maybe it’s a trick, maybe I misunderstood something, maybe they have a weird numbering system, maybe seventeen hundred doesn’t refer to years… If not years then… I mean it’s impossible that I’m still alive after…

There’s no way I’ve been asleep for seventeen hundred years. That would mean everyone I know is dead. My whole world…

I stare blankly ahead, trying not to let my growing panic show. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to ask that won’t immediately raise his suspicion. I can’t simply blurt out ‘hey mister Haulrin, has Larona really been gone for seventeen hundred years? How do numbers work in your culture?’

My whole world is gone. I fight back the tears. I force myself to feel nothing, shut my mind off from my emotions, put them in another room and lock the door. They don’t exist right now. I don’t know that it’s been seventeen hundred years. The idea is crazy.

Haulrin studies me with concern on his face. “Is everything alright young man.?”

I try to speak, but I choke. I try again and manage to say “Yeah…” I cough. “Yeah it’s just… I’ve been through a lot.”

“It’s quite alright young man.” I wish he’d stop calling me that. “Take a nice deep breath.” He reaches into the large travel pack he brought with him and retrieves a pen and paper, then sets in on the table in front of me. “Maybe these will help you to collect your thoughts. Just write down whatever comes to mind.”

I stare at the pen and paper. I want desperately to draw something. Drawing has always been my coping strategy. Whenever I feel overwhelmed or lost I find a secluded place and pour my feelings onto the page. But right now that would be a bad idea. This paper is a trap, anything I put on it will give him information, and I cannot forget that this man is likely an enemy.

“You’re right.” I say. “I know better than to slander the name of Larona. Please forgive me, I promise it won’t happen again.” I do my best to sound sincere, and hope that he doesn’t notice the emotions tugging at the corner of my eyes and lips.

“It’s quite alright.” Says Haurlin. “I’m sorry to have lost my temper. I consider myself a devout follower of Larona, and I’ve never heard anyone speak of her that way. But she teaches us patience and understanding. You can be honest with me, was that really just a test or are those your true feelings?”

I need to think very carefully. This tower is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, the same goes for the people that lived here and for it’s current occupants. It’s possible I really am in the far future. If it is a trick it seems needlessly elaborate, the idea is almost too absurd to be fake. And what did he mean when he referred to my sacrifice?

The last thing I remember I was with my friends and followers. We were getting ready for a major battle, fate of the world kind of thing. Of course my life seems to be nothing but fate of the world kind of things. I was talking to Kazlim. I’d recently told him I’m trans. He was upset about that, but he said it was because I hadn’t told him, and not because I’m trans.

That day we were talking about something else entirely, he was angry about a decision I had made during our recent battle. I had a million things on my mind, and I didn’t have time for drama, so I wasn’t really paying attention to him. Then I felt the knife go in my back. And here I am. Dear All, creator of everything, please help me to figure this out.

In a strange way I’m kind of relieved. I’ve always tried to meet people’s expectations as best I could, but I’ve failed as often as I’ve succeeded. A lot of people have said some really terribly things about me and they weren’t always wrong to do so. Now I can leave all of that behind.

Haulrin is staring at me, expecting me to say something. What did he ask? Oh right he wants to know my real feelings towards his so called Divine Lady. Well one thing I have learned over the years is that zealot’s love nothing more than the chance to convert someone. “To be honest,” I say, “I don’t know what to think about Larona.”

Haulrin nods with interest, “Go on.”

Where can I go with this? Let’s try broken home with poor values. “My parents were… not good people. And the things they said about Larona… Well…” I keep it vague, hopefully Haulrin will help me fill in some of the blanks.

“I think I understand.” Says Haulrin. “Forgive me for prying, but you have a lot of old scars. I imagine you’ve led a hard life.” He then stands, and begins to pace. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I have a feeling we may be able to help each other. You see I’m not actually here for you. I’m conducting an investigation, I agreed to come here because I thought you could be a potential lead.”

Interesting. “Oh…” Is all I say.

“I’m looking into a group of heretics that call themselves the Burning Dawn. Have you heard of them?”

What a ridiculous name. I’ve never heard of any such group, but I say, “Maybe…”

Haulrin smiles like a fisherman who’d just felt a fish on his line, “As I suspected. The Burning Dawn have some peculiar beliefs regarding the our Divine Lady. None of my colleagues can agree on what the Burnding Dawn is actually after. But I believe I know. One of them told me they are searching for Larona’s tomb.”

Oh. Well congratulations, you found me. Now kindly go away

“They claimed that Larona did not ascend to Paradise to lead the blessed Patrons as is written in the true scriptures. Instead they say she lies sleeping, somewhere hidden. They believe that one day she will wake up, and when she returns she will burn away the land and sky, and from the ashes the world will be reborn.”

Ok then….

Haulrin leans back, “So I’ll ask again, what do you know?”

What should I tell him? I have no idea what’s happened in the last seventeen hundred years. Apparently there’s a religion based around me now. That can’t be good. It seems most people assume that I’m dead, but at least a few people knew I would eventually wake up. I have no interest in burning land and sky of course, so these are not people I want anything to do with. I could just play dumb until he decides to take me back to wherever he came from, perhaps a place with more sana.

But I realize I still have one responsibility. The people who lived in this tower. I may not know anything about them but they obviously cared for me. They watched over me while I slept. They seemed so happy when I woke up, there was one lady in particular who must have been their leader. She and the others doted on me, they were all so gentle and caring. Maybe they’re descendants of my friends and family?

Whatever the case I can’t abandon them. I need to learn where they are, and get access to more sana. So I’ll tell him what he wants to hear, then maybe I can get him to tell me what’s happened to the locals. “I’ll tell you what you want to know, if you guarantee the safety of the people who lived in this tower.”

Haulrin’s eyes sparkle, he thinks he’s got me. “I give you my solemn word to do everything I can to ensure the well being of the locals. So please, tell me about yourself young man.”

Young man, blech. Anyway I had better make up something that sounds good. “My parents were members of Burning Dawn. They raised me with strict Almaranian traditions. I never spoke with anyone outside of the family. They were searching for something, but I don’t know what.

Haulrin lets out a heavy sigh, “I see. And where are your parents now my boy?”

Gag. I don’t know what’s worse, his assumption that I’m a male or that I’m a child. I’m twenty two years old. But I have to suck it up and keep going. “I don’t know. I ran away, my parent’s are not good people. I’m not sure how I came to be in this tower, but I don’t believe the people here have anything to do with my parents or Burning Dawn.”

Haulrin seems surprised by this, “You ran away?” He shakes his head and sighs, “How is it you were able to travel through the wilderness? How did you survive the pestilence clouds?”

What is a pestilence cloud? I want to ask but from the way he said it these pestilence clouds are common knowledge. I have no idea how a person might safely navigate the wilderness these days. I’m pretty sure he won’t believe me if I tell him I stole an airship. But I do know how the people of Almaran were able to safely travel through dangerous wilderness. “I stole a dreken.”

Haulrin’s eyes become wide, “You stole a dreken? That’s quite impressive. They are rare and precious animals.”

I’m relieved to hear drekens still exist. Drekens are riding animals native to Almaran. They are incredible climbers and jumpers. They can scale a vertical surface while carrying a rider in full armor, and leap between branches with the grace of a floating leaf. Their long neck and tail give them excellent balance. Their long pointy ears provide them with unmatched hearing, allowing them to easily avoid predators. They have grey skin that is usually covered with a green symbiotic moss when the animal is healthy.

“I’ve been planning my escape for a long time.” I say, trying to sound humble.

Haulrin nods, “Well done in any case. Now I’d like to ask you more about the Burning Dawn. I’ve been tracking them for over a year now but I know almost nothing about them. What can you tell me?”

“Not much,” I slump my shoulders and look down. “Mostly my parents taught me about Larona.” This at least is a subject I’m familiar with.

“Then can I ask what they taught you about Larona? It’s clear that their teachings differ considerably from the true texts, but I haven’t been able to learn anything specific about their beliefs.”

Hmmm… Over the years a lot of people have asked me to tell them my story. I turned them all down. I don’t really like talking about it. My life is kind of an embarrassing mess. But on the other hand this person has no idea who I am, so it will be as if I’m talking about someone else. I could make something up I suppose, but suddenly I find I want to get it all out. Though I should probably leave out the fact that I’m trans.

***

“The world is not kind, but neither is it cruel. It is what we make of it.” This was something Larona’s mother told her often, especially when Larona was struggling.

“Yes mother.” Larona sighed. At twelve years old she was short for her age. Normally the daughter of a singer would have unlimited access to sana, and would therefore be much taller that the other children. She avoided drinking sana because she wanted to be short. She wanted to be small, so that people wouldn’t notice her. She didn’t like the attention.

Larona’s mother hummed. It was a habit of hers when she was irritated. “You seem distracted. You need to focus, most children will never have the opportunities you have.”

“Yes mother.” Larona was often reminded of how lucky she was to be the daughter of a singer. Very few people had the opportunity to become a singer. Technically anyone could qualify, but the level of knowledge and skill required, not to mention the amount of sana needed to practice, was well beyond the means of most Almaranians.

Larona’s mother let out a sigh and gave Larona a serious look, “Is everything alright?”

Larona shrugged, “I don’t know… I’m still really bothered by that dream I told you about.”

Larona’s mother produced a half smile, “It was just a dream sweat one, it’s nothing to worry about.”

“But it seemed so real,” Larona pleaded, “What if the Patrons really have become upset with us? What if I really am supposed to help decide the fate of humanity?”

Mother rolled her eyes, “Larona, sweat one, you’re old enough for me to tell you this. The Patrons aren’t real.”

Larona’s eyes became wide, “What do you mean they aren’t real? The Patrons, servants of the All, stewards of our world, how could they not be real…”

“It’s all politics,” Said Larona’s mother, “The people in charge made them up so they could stay in charge. If anyone disagrees, the response is ‘sorry, it’s the will of the Patrons. Or if they make a mistake, ‘We were just following the will of the Patrons,’ and so on. None of it is real.”

“But the Holy Listener, Arch-Maestro Gavelum, he was chosen by the Patrons…” said Larona.

“Gavelum was appointed by the Counsel Choir, not the Patrons.”

“Wait, if the Patrons don’t exist, then does that mean the All doesn’t exist either?” Larona was now very confused.

“My point is,” Said Larona’s mother matter of factly, “Don’t worry about any of that. What matters is what’s right in front of you, and right now that means this poor man needs our help. You should focus more on sanacraft, and ignore frivolous things. You spend far to much time drawing you know.”

This was also something her mother often told her. “It’s one thing to draw a little bit in your spare time, but it’s affecting your progress. Right now you’re young, you can get by without much sana, though I’ll stress it’s not healthy to avoid it as much as you do.

Larona’s mother studied their patient as she spoke, “As you get older you’ll need sana more and more. When you turn sixty no one is going to give you free sana anymore, unless you become a singer. Otherwise you’ll have to earn it. And trust me you wont’ be able to earn much with simple artwork. There are a lot of artists who die of sana withdrawal before they’re even one hundred. But as a singer you’ll have access to enough sana to live more than two hundred years. And who will I get to lecture and boss around if you die before me?” Larona’s mother smiled, she was trying be humorous.

Larona rolled her eyes, “Yes mother.”

Her mother let out a deep sigh, “Larona please take this seriously. This man needs our help, I need you to focus.” Larona and her mother were at that moment administering to a wounded elder. A man who by his height and build appeared to be in his eighties, relatively young, tall and strong, his skin only slightly weathered by age.

They had been tending to his injuries for over an hour, and Larona kept making small mistakes. The wrong note, the wrong timing, the wrong tool. She dropped things, and at one point she tripped and fell. She felt as if she was giving her mother more grief than their patient. She simply didn’t want to be there.

Instead she longed to run deep into the forest, to her favorite spot. A small pool of sana hidden by thick vegetation. There she would sit and draw or carve for hours. Forgetting her problems, forgetting her life, forgetting her failures. Forgetting what a miserable freak she was.

When things were quiet her mother sometimes let her have the morning off, to go and do just that. But today this elder had arrived, unconscious atop his dreken. The dreken wore barding that Larona had never seen before, and his injuries were far more serious than anything she had ever helped her mother with.

“Who is this man anyway?” Larona asked as she handed her mother a bowl of sana.

“He’s a border scout.” Replied her mother. “C sharp, hold for three count.”

Larona sang the note as instructed. After a moment her mother joined in with a much more complicated series of notes. As her mother sang, sana floated up from the bowl and settled in one of their patients many cuts.

“I’ve never seen anyone with armor like his, not even in Zelis.” Said Larona. She had grown up in a large city called Zelis. There were problems, and when Larona was ten she and her mother moved far away, to a logging town called Crethas. They lived there in relative peace for two years, until the day the border scout arrived.

“Border scouts rarely come this far into the interior.” Said her mother. “Their primary role is to guard the mountains that separate the interior from the Elmessian coastlands.”

Almaran is a massive island, shaped in a perfect circle. There is a range of enormous mountains along the perimeter, with a thin strip of coastland on the exterior called Elmessia. The All created Almaran to be perfect, and the unworthy were banished to the exterior. There is much less sana in Elmessia, and fewer resources in general.

Because of this Elmessians must work harder and live shorter lives than those in the interior. For countless generations the Elmessians have attempted to break through the mountains without any success. But a wounded border scout this far inland was a very bad sign.

Larona’s mother wiped the sweat from her forehead. “I need you to take some notes.” Larona retrieved a writing stick and a notebook from a drawer, when she was ready her mother said, “Subject is male, judging by his skin he is mid eighties, height and build indicate average to above average sana consumption throughout his life. Three arrow wound in his torso, multiple cuts and scraps on his face and hands.”

Larona’s mother stopped to think for a moment then continued, “The arrows appear to have been coated with a substance that I am unable to identify. The unknown substance is black and oily, and seems to neutralize the effects of sana. So far nothing I’ve tried has… Larona what are you doing? Are you writing this down… Larona!”

Larona was startled, her mother appeared furious. Then Larona looked down at her paper, she had written half a line of what her mother had told her, then her mind had drifted and she started to draw. It was a picture of the border scout, riding his dreken through the forest.

“Larona! What is wrong with you today? This is serious, this man could die, don’t you understand that?”

Larona fought back her tears, “I’m sorry.. I didn’t mean to…”

“Didn’t mean to?” Her mother was incredulous, “You accidentally ignored what I was saying… Look if you’re not going to take this seriously then you should just go.”

“I’m sorry,” Said Larona, “I promise it won’t…”

“You know what, forget it.” Her mother cut her off, “If you’re not going to respect me or the work we’re doing then you shouldn’t be in the healing room. It’s almost noon, go have lunch with your friends.”

Larona didn’t have any friends. The children of Crethas found it strange that a singer and her daughter would move to the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. They suspected there was something wrong with Larona. And Larona knew they were right. “I’m… I’m sorry,”

“Go.” Said her mother sternly. “Maybe you’ll be more focused after you’ve eaten.”

Before leaving Larona hugged her mother tightly. Her mother sighed and returned the hug.

“Take care my sweet one.” Despite the fact that her mother was extremely frustrated, Larona knew she loved her deeply.

Her mother had given up everything to take Larona away from her father, who was a cruel and impatient man. Larona was happy to be away from him. Things were better now, though still a long way from perfect. A big reason for that was the other children.

Since coming to Crethas the only time she was forced to interact with the other children was during the midday communal meal. For two hours every day she put up with their questions and insults. There were a few brief scuffles, but she hid her tears and took their torment in stride. Most days.

It began as a fairly normal meal. Beams of sunlight pierced through the canopy high above, glistening off the hanging vines. Crethas was a tree falling and harvesting community. The trees of Almaran are enormous. It takes a great deal of care and skill to safely take one down. The town itself was built on a series of gigantic tree stumps.

The largest of these stumps served as the town common. There was a open grassy space in the center, big enough for the entire town to gather for the communal meal. Surrounding the grass were a number of important buildings including the town hall, trading post, various shops, a blacksmith, dreken stable and of course the singer’s chapel.

The town loved color. There were flags and streamers of every hue strung along and between most buildings and bridges, which nicely complimented the many leaves and flowers throughout the forest. The buildings themselves were expertly carved and finished in a deep brown. The smell of sweet pastries blended with the warm fresh breeze of the forest. The clamor of saws, chisels and hammers complimented the melodious birdsong from the trees.

Crethas was well known for it’s woodwork, and their talent showed. Each piece of wood on every structure and post was carved with intricate detail. Images depicting local plants and animals, surrounded by fanciful swirling patterns. Larona may not have gotten along with the people of Crethas, but she absolutely loved their artwork. It was likely the reason why her mother chose it for their new home.

The people of Crethas expected that Larona would become a singer like her mother, but she found she didn’t have much enthusiasm for it. She loved creating art. Perhaps it was the focus involved. Everything became about the piece in front of her, and the rest of the world just melted away.

The meal wouldn’t start for a few more minutes, so Larona busied herself by carving a razka onto a small block of wood. She had a fondness for the cute little winged creatures. Most people did not. Larona liked them because they were inquisitive and colorful.

Most people see them as vermin. Razka are natural scavengers, and seem to be fascinated by human products. They often steal and wear random human made items. It’s not uncommon to see a razka with a belt around their neck or a bowl on their head.

Like dreken, and many other animals native to Alamaran, razka have a symbiotic moss growing on their skins. Usually this moss is green, Razka are the only animals who alter the color of their moss. Though no one was quite sure how or why they do this. In Larona’s opinion it was because they liked to, and because they could.

Larona worked away on her carving in peace, that is until the other children arrived. This was often the point where they would get bored and decide to bother her. “Hey Weirdo.” One of them shouted. “What are you doing over there?”

“Looks like she’s carving something.” Shouted another.

“Carving? What is that idiot doing trying to carve? She can’t even sing properly.”

Soon the entire table was up and gathered around her.

“Hey idiot, leave carving to those who know what they’re doing.”

“What’s that she’s making?”

“Ew gross it’s a razka.”

“A razka, she’s making a disgusting razka?”

One of the larger children, his name was Aumbak, snatched it away from Larona before she could react. “An ugly carving by an ugly idiot.”

“Hey give that back.” Said Larona. She stood up and glared at Aumbak. He was a head taller than her, but she wasn’t intimidated by that. She’d been in more that a few fights over the years.

Aumbak chuckled, “Make me.” He tried to shove her but she slid to the side and kicked him in the shin. He yelped and staggered back, then tossed the carving to one of the other children.

A girl named Irisa caught the carving and inspected it, “All protect me this is shoddy work. You really are terrible at everything.” She then tossed it to another child, who tossed it to another and so on. Each one adding their own commentary. Freak. Weirdo. Ugly. Idiot.

She held back her tears, refusing to let them see her cry. She’d experienced this game before. There were too many of them for her to try and chase down her carving. They would throw it between them until they got bored and eventually give it back. The whole thing filled her with quiet rage, she had been working on that carving for a few days.

Then the carving was tossed back to Aumbak, who had since made his way to the opposite end of the table. He looked at it and smiled, “Hey I know what will fix it.” Then suddenly he snapped it in half. “There, much better now.” The children all around began to laugh.

Larona was suddenly filled with mindless fury. The next thing she realized Aumbak’s face was on fire, and the poor boy was screaming. What just happened? She asked herself. Some of the children rushed to offer aid to Aumbak, the others just stood and stared at her, their faces a mix of shock and disgust.

“She just used Sanacraft on him.”

“She tried to kill him!”

“Murderer.”

“Murderer, murderer!” Suddenly everyone was shouting. Sicko. Killer. Bloodthirsty. Abomination.

Larona did the only thing she could. She ran. She sprinted across the town commons as adults and elders looked on in shock. She wiped tears form her eyes as she half stumbled down the steps carved into the stump. The elders who stood guard at the town’s main gate stared at her as she ran past but made no move to stop her.

She made her way deep into the forest, to her secret spot. A small pool of Sana in a tiny clearing. She kept a journal stashed under the root of a nearby tree. It was an odd looking tree, bright pink, with white leaves and teal swirls running up the side. She would sit on the root of this tree and draw for hours whenever she had free time.

She retrieved her journal and immediately began drawing. She felt numb and hollow. “I’m the worst person in the world.” She whispered to no one in particular. “I don’t deserve to be alive.”

She drew for hours, filling page after page. She drew the flowers around her. Then she drew the razka watching her curiously from the branches above. She drew herself with her mother, holding hands. She drew the odd looking tree upon which she sat, because she felt as if the tree had always been a good friend to her.

Afternoon crept into evening, and surprisingly no one came for her. She had expected that her mother would come calling for her sooner or later. If not her mother then one of the town’s elders. Surely someone would come looking for her after what she had done. Her mother was probably busy looking after Aumbak and the injured scout, but there were more than a few elder’s who knew Larona well enough to look for her here.

Maybe they were still trying to decide what to do with her. In attacking Aumbak the way that she had, perhaps the town was now considering expelling her and her mother, or worse. She stayed by the pool until daylight faded overhead, giving way to a vast array of stars, visible beyond the forest canopy.

Finally exhaustion overtook her and she awoke the next morning, shivering and covered in dew. No one had come for her, and the forest was far too quiet. She returned her journal to its hiding spot, then slowly began to work up the nerve to go back. What would happen when she returned? Would she be arrested and put in chains? Would her mother be furious with her? The latter was definitely the more terrifying prospect.

Questions regarding her own fate were gradually replaced by much broader concerns. Why had no one come. Why was the forest so quiet. Almaranian children all grew up hearing horror stories of the Elmessians. Vicious, primitive, and savage, always working destroy whatever they could. There were tales of Elmessians stealing children in the night, poisoning sana wells, or burning down entire cities.

These were just stories of course, but the threat of Elmessia was very real. Though a large scale invasion was near impossible, there were definitely instances where Elmessian raiding parties had razed entire towns and cities. They were always quickly dealt with, but not before inflicting considerable harm.

She felt a sinking fear in the pit of her stomach. There was a part of her that could easily believe she had simply been forgotten, deemed unimportant by the town at large. But much as she hated herself she knew her mother would not abandon her. There was no way her mother would allow her to spend the night alone in the forest. She would have come, or she would have sent someone.

She raced as fast as her legs would carry her through the forest back to Crethas. She had spent quite a bit of time in these woods, and navigated them effortlessly. Jumping, swinging and sliding along the most efficient route she knew of. Climbing up and over the massive roots that lined the forest floor, weaving through ferns and leaves and vine clusters.

The towns massive gate lay shattered on the forest floor. No one stood guard. The air was filled with the stench of smoke and burning flesh. She sprinted through the gate and up the stairs of the main stump. When she reached the top, she could see her entire world was destroyed.

Immediately her focus turned to the singers chapel. Before Larona and her mother moved in, the chapel was a mostly neglected formality. A humble building for visiting singers to stay in. But with an actual singer in residence, the people of Crethas had given considerable effort to make it the most beautiful building in town. It was arguably nicer than the home they’d had in Zelis.

Now the chapel was splintered husk. One side had collapsed, and what stood was broken and burned. Without thinking Larona rushed inside calling out “Mother! Mother where are you!” Everything was silent. She ran into the healing room, it was empty. Even the border scout had been taken. She ran to her mother’s room, nothing. Then she ran to her room.

Larona’s bedroom was still more or less intact. Dozens of drawing lined the walls and ceiling. Stacks of old journals, every page covered in sketches and poetry. On a shelf were several dozen attempts at carving. When drawing she could create a fair likeness of her subjects, but carving was proving a difficult skill to master. Even so she persisted.

On the bed was a collection of plush animals. Her favorite was a yellow razka she called Miss Razzy. She clutched it tightly as she held back her tears. What would she do? Where would she go? Was her mother still alive? How could she possibly find her even if she was?

The reality hit that her mother was probably dead… No, she decided. Her mother was definitely still alive somewhere. And even if Larona didn’t know how she was going to find her, she clenched her teeth and promised herself she wouldn’t stop trying.

Larona’s train of thought was interrupted by the sound of movement outside. She placed miss Razzy gently on the bed then carefully crept to the chapel entrance and peeked her head out. Out in the town common she saw a dreken rider, wearing dark and evil looking armor. The rider looked right at her.

“Over there!” Shouted the rider. “We have another one! Don’t worry it’s just some kid.”

Larona ran back into the healing room. She retrieved a sana gourd and removed the cap. A quick sniff was enough to tell her that the sana inside was going stale. It had been drawn yesterday so that was expected. Larona prayed to the All that it was still fresh enough to be useful.

The rider, obviously an Elmessian, had to duck low as he entered the half collapsed chapel. “There’s no use hiding little one. Come along without a fight and no one will hurt you.”

Controlling sana through the air was supposed to be one of the most difficult skills for a singer to master. Those who were less skilled in sana craft usually relied on firearms because of it. Almaranian firearms are metal tubes that can launch pre-crafted spheres of explosive sana. Larona had no such luxury.

She took a moment to think over her mother’s lessons. She sang the notes to raise the sana from the gourd, and was surprised to see that it responded. There were singers twice Larona’s age that couldn’t manage that, and Larona had never been much of a student. She decided that her success was due to sheer desperation.

The rider came into view and flashed an evil smile. Larona sang the notes to send a flaming ball of sana directly into the riders face. At first she thought she had made a mistake on one of the notes, but the sana ignited and flew directly towards her target so she must have gotten it right. She turned away from the gruesome sight that followed, but the screaming and the smell would later give her nightmares.

Now riderless, the dreken galloped outside and out of sight. Larona collected herself with several deep breaths, trying to ignore the dying sobs of the Elmessian writhing on the floor. They had called out to someone, they would be there soon. The destruction of the chapel provided a convenient exit out the back.

She decided her best move would be to get out of town and hide in the forest. The town wall made that difficult. She’d passed through the main gate without drawing attention to herself, but she probably wouldn’t be so lucky a second time. Especially now that people were looking for her.

The town was built on a series of tree stumps connected by bridges, Larona decided that the gully between the many stumps of Crethas would provide the best cover. She scampered down the side of the main stump and crouched low in the tall grass of the gully. During the rain season the gully would be flooded, she was lucky this was the dry season.

Above her she heard voices talking “All protect me they’ve killed Malar!”

“What?” Shouted another voice, “I thought it was just some kid.”

“The little monster used sanacraft. They probably belong to that nasty woman who took out half our unit last night.”

“The kid can’t have gotten far, check down in the gully.”

“I see her! Down there.” That voice came from a nearby bridge, Larona realized there was a rider staring at her. Apparently she wasn’t very good at hiding.

She ran through the gully, trying to maneuver away from the voices. She didn’t get far. Within moments a gigantic dreken landed directly in front of her.

“Stand down kid, I hear a single sound from you and this spear is going in your…” As he was speaking sana flowed from Larona’s gourd and engulfed the rider in flames. Larona didn’t recall singing that time, but she must have.

“All have mercy, Sirama’s down!” Came a shout from somewhere above.

“Someone kill that little demon!”

“Calm down, remember Maruketh wants all singers alive. Malar and Sirama just got careless. We do it just like we did with the singer last night. Surround and exhaust. Watch my signals and don’t give them a clear target.”

Larona closed her eyes as panic began to overtake her. She could practically feel the hostile riders all around her. In her minds eye there were over a dozen of them, all circling. When she opened her eyes she could’n’t see any of them, and everything was quiet once again. But she could still feel them. Somehow, she was aware of what each of them was doing.

One was perched on a rooftop directing the others. There were two positioned close to each of the towns’ three gates, ready to ambush her if she tried to pas through. The rest were running in a wide, clockwise circle around her. Larona suspected that the idea was if she attacked one, the rider behind them would attack her.

Larona thought about what one of the riders had said. Maruketh, whoever that was, wanted singers alive. She could simply surrender. But then she recalled something her grandfather had once said. If your enemy wants to capture you alive, it’s because they have plans. And those plans are usually less pleasant than dying. Larona didn’t know her grandfather particularly well, and they certainly didn’t like each other, but this at least seemed like solid advice.

She checked the sana gourd and saw that it was almost empty, maybe enough for one more fireball. She could charge one of the gates and hope no one saw. She could climb the wall and hope not to break every bone in her body after jumping off the side. She could try to find somewhere to hide in town, but so far that wasn’t working out very well.

Then she felt a presence behind her. An elder, unmounted. She turned to face them. The elder seemed surprised that Larona had noticed her. The stranger put her finger to her lips to indicate they should remain silent. She wasn’t dressed at all like the riders. Instead of black pointy armor she was wearing a simple green tunic.

She raised her palms and approached slowly. The riders continued to circle but they were keeping their distance for now. When the stranger was close enough she whispered “I’m not with them. I’m a gregar.”

The gregars were an ancient order of protectors. They acted as messengers and arbitrators between the city states of Almaran. Singers rarely engaged in politics outside their own order, so long as their authority was recognized without question. Things like trade agreements and local governance was left to regional magistrates. The gregars acted as the glue between these magistrates. Their primary function was to prevent conflicts between cities from escalating to violence.

Some rumors suggested that the gregars also acted as spies and assassins, but such activities were always officially denied. Whatever the reason this gregar was in Crethas, she was the closest thing Larona had to an ally at the moment. With a reassuring smile the gregar said, “My name is Delzana.”

“My name is Larona. How do we get out of here?” Larona decided to trust her, since she had little alternative.

“They’re keeping a close eye on you, but they haven’t figured out I’m here yet. I’ll draw their attention while you make your way through the southern gate.”

As Delzana was speaking Larona felt one of the riders break from formation and charge directly towards her. The rider had planned his route carefully, she knew she wouldn’t be able to see the rider until they were right on top of her. But she could nonetheless sense exactly where the rider was.

She held up her hand to stop Delzana from talking and pointed behind her. Delzana was again surprised by her level of perception but nodded knowingly. The moment the rider came into view Larona was ready to blast them with the last of her sana.

The rider screamed, and the remaining riders each let out cries of surprise and frustration.

“All protect me this kid isn’t human.” Came a shout from above.

Delzana looked extremely impressed, and said, “I guess that’s my queue. Remember, south gate, don’t look back.”

“Wait…” Said Larona, but Delzana was already climbing up the side of a nearby stump.

“Look it’s… it’s not her.” Said one of the riders.

“It’s the gregar we scared off earlier. I guess that explains it.” Larona was pretty sure this rider was in charge of the others.

“What do you mean?” Said another rider.

“The kid’s harmless,” Said the boss rider. “The gregar was using her as a diversion. She’s obviously the one who killed Malar, Sirama, and now Palak. Tell me gregar, what’s your name?”

“You want my name?” Said Delzana, “You’ll have to catch me first.”

With that the riders all shifted their focus to Delzana. Gregars are not known to be sanacrafters, though most of them do carry firearms. The Elmessian riders likely assumed she was out of ammunition, because they were now being much less cautions. The continued to circle, but now they were a lot closer, and it didn’t take long for one of them to charge Delzana.

Delzana leapt out of the way as the dreken rider bore down on her. The gregar deftly avoided the riders spear, then landed and rolled into a standing position. No sooner was she up than another rider charged in, once again Delzana managed to evade by spinning quickly to the side. As she did so, a third rider charged.

This time as the rider approached Delzana dropped his shoulder as if she were about to roll forward, then suddenly she jumped back instead. The move caused the rider to overextend their lunge. Delzana took the opportunity to grab the riders spear, and with impressive flexibility kicked the rider in the elbow. Larona heard the riders arm snap as Delzana took their weapon.

Larona was mesmerized by Delzana’s skill. She seemed to effortlessly weave away from oncoming riders, and now armed she began to inflict some serious damage on their ranks. The next rider to charge found a spear in their side after their own glided mere inches from Delzana’s neck.

The rider after that slowed at the last minute in an attempt to disrupt Delzana’s timing. For a moment it appeared as if Delzana had exposed her back, but when the rider came in to exploit the opening Delzana spun and thrust her spear into the riders belly.

As the riders became more heated Delzana seemed to become more calm and balanced. The next wave charged in two at once. Delzana slipped through both of their attacks on their first pass. On their second pass Delzana managed to lure one of them to thrust their spear directly in front of the other drekens foreleg. It was enough to throw the rider off balance and give Delzana an opening. Delzana was blindingly fast with a spear, and within moments two more riders were on the ground.

As she watched it suddenly occurred to Larona that she was meant to be running towards the southern gate. She turned and fled, but could still feel the battle waging behind her. She didn’t know how she could feel the battle without actually seeing it, she just could. Just like she knew the town was completely deserted except for herself, the gregar, and a few dozen dreken riders.

The gully was overgrown with thick vegetation. Since no one was in her immediate vicinity she decided to climb out of the gully into the city proper. She ran across the stumps and rope bridges that connected them. It was eerie to see Crethas so empty. Most of the destruction seemed contained to the main stump. Here and there she saw relatively minor damage to some buildings, but otherwise the town looked the same as always.

She passed through the residential stumps and came to the wood processing stumps on the south end of town. Larona sensed two riders nearby, One waiting behind a large pile of lumber, the other waiting in the gully beside the south gate.

So how to get past them. She was now completely out of sana, and she was pretty sure they knew she was there. So why had Delzana told her to go to this gate? Larona looked around for some means of escape, a hidden passage or a rope leading over the walls or something. Obviously the gregar must have had some kind of plan. Or did she? What did Larona really know about this person. She’d spoke with her for all of thirty seconds.

Maybe Delzana didn’t even know about the hidden riders. Maybe Delzana had scouted the area and decided it was safe and the riders had simply come later. Maybe Delzana was bad at scouting. Maybe she wasn’t really a gregar. Larona stood frozen, contemplating her situation and options. Then she sensed more riders approaching her position from inside the town. Apparently boss rider had sent people after her.

Four additional riders converged on her position, and the newcomers weren’t interested in hiding. Strangely, just as the four new riders converged on her position, the two hidden riders suddenly bolted into the forest. The newcomers meanwhile didn’t even notice them leaving.

Why did the hidden riders leave? And then it dawned on Larona. The hidden riders weren’t with the Elmessians. They probably worked with Delzana. The gregar wouldn’t have assumed Larona could sense them, she probably thought Larona would simply run right through the gate where her people were waiting. And when the Elmessian riders arrived they were forced to leave, so that plan was ruined.

Four Elmessian riders took up position around Larona. She was consumed by panic, a desperate urge to fly away. And somehow, she did just that. She found herself soaring straight upward. The ground seemed to fall away from her and high above the canopy rushed closer and closer.

Of course the drekens and their riders had no intention of letting their prey escape. A large tree grew nearby, the four riders bounded over and began to race up the side of the tree. Each dreken keeping a keen eye on the airborne child.

Larona had no idea what she was doing or how she was doing it. She looked up and realized she was heading directly towards a particularly thick branch. She braced herself just as she collided, the impact didn’t hurt as much as she had expected. She found herself tumbling downward, arms flailing wildly.

The pursuing drekens were excited by this. They recognized an opportunity. One of the dreken sailed off of the tree, jaws wide and eager. Typical dreken are docile creatures. Shy and easily spooked. But Elmessian dreken were bread for war. Since Elmessians did not have access to nearly as much sana, they relied instead on dreken to wage their campaign against the interior.

Larona, barely thinking straight, somehow managed to push herself away from the oncoming dreken. As she did another dreken was sailing towards her. Miraculously she evaded this one as well, and pushed herself right into the path of the third. As it’s jaws closed in on her a ball of flame shot from Larona’s hand and exploded in the creatures face.

The force of the explosion sent her spinning downward, where the fourth dreken was waiting. It leapt, aiming for her throat. Larona barely managed to push herself away from certain death. Instead the monster clamped down on her legs. She heard as much as felt the bones snap. Pain greater than human imagination flooded her entire body.

The dreken landed hard, and the force of the impact was enough to rip whatever skin was still keeping her legs attached. She was pale with shock, without a coherent thought in her head. She simply stared at where her legs had been. Sana formed around the stumps, Larona barely noticed.

The Elmessian riders didn’t seem to care. “That was quite a chase you gave us.” One said as they dismounted.

The dreken who had taken her legs swallowed them down eagerly. Dreken were not usually meat eaters. The rider patted his beast approvingly, then asked, “How did she do that? I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

“Some sanacrafting trick no doubt. Who knows what these fiends from the interior are capable of. Look at her. I saw someone loose an arm once and they were dead in an hour, but she already seems fine. This is what these people have robbed from us. That man who lost his arm, and countless others would have lived if not for the selfishness of these people. Jeka, grab the child. We should get back to the others.

The four riders returned to the town common. Delzana was still holding off the others. She was covered in several small cuts and a few serious looking bruises. There were eight Elmessian bodies on the ground. The commander of the Elmessian riders signaled a stop when he noticed the group returning with Larona.

Everything became still. The only sound was a gentle wind rustling the leaves. The commander spoke. “You’re an incredible fighter, but you can’t defeat all of us. You’re getting tired, and slow. Put down your spear and surrender. Or you can watch us cut this child’s throat, and then we’ll find out how long your stamina can hold up.”

Delzana looked at Larona, who was still deep in shock. She launched her spear towards the commander, it grazed his cheek, leaving a thin red line that began to trickle blood. Then she said, “You win.” She placed her hands on her head and knelt down.

The commander was furious. He clenched and opened his fists several times, then wiped the blood away from his cheek. At last he growled “Put her in chains.”

“What happened to the girl?” One of the riders asked.

The rider who’s dreken had taken Larona’s legs responded, “Fang here got hungry.”

The commander shook his head and sighed, “Whatever, put her in the cripple wagon I guess.”

The Elmessians took the opportunity to kick Delzana repeatedly in the face and torso before tying her in chains. As they took her away she looked up at Larona and smiled, “Don’t worry kid, this isn’t over.”

****

Haulrin’s face is completely blank. I can’t even guess what he’s thinking. I decide to stop talking for now and wait until he shows some kind of reaction.

Eventually he begins to say something then stops. He spends a moment thinking about his next words, then finally says, “Well that was certainly interesting.”

“Oh?” I say, “Is that not how your church tells the story?”

Haulrin’s face looks pained. “So according to what your parents taught you, Larona lit a boys face on fire, then proceeded to kill three people, then had her legs bitten off by a dreken?”

It’s not like I’m proud of any of those things… and they weren’t just three people. They were Malar, Sirama and Palak. I actually met Malar’s younger sister one time. She was surprisingly sweet. She said that she was sad to lose her brother, but she understood why I killed him. She told me she believed he and I might have been friends under different circumstances. We talked for hours and she told me all about him. He sounded like a pretty good guy. I can still remember the sound of his screams as he died.

Sirama was apparently a loudmouth cretin. I never met any of his family but I did talk to a couple of people who served with him, a few who were there that day and remembered me. He was constantly bragging and said that one day he was going to be the next General Maruketh. The attack on Crethas was his first and only mission.

Palak was very quiet. I guess that makes sense given how effectively she snuck up on us. Even Delzana didn’t notice her until the last second. She didn’t really want to be in the military, but the money was good and she had two children to support. I never learned what happened to them. After her service she was hoping to become a gardener, she loved watching things grow. I think she would have gotten along with my friend Imastus.

And it seems the world doesn’t remember any of that. I shrug, “That’s what they told me.”

Apparently a lot of things didn’t make it into the history books. I never really hid the fact that I lost my legs, but then I usually crafted artificial legs out of sana, so I guess no one noticed.

“Young man,” Gag, it’s like I’m eight years old again, talking to my father. “Larona was paragon of peace and goodwill. She never killed anyone, and only resorted to violence when it was absolutely necessary. And she was always, Always calm and even tempered.”

I have to stop myself from bursting out in laughter. As it is I squeak out a nervous giggle. Now I absolutely abhor killing, and honestly go to great lengths to avoid it. Some of my best friends have said my penchant for preserving life borders on foolish. But there is still a lot of blood on my hands. I detest killing precisely because I’ve done too much of it.

As for being calm and even tempered, that’s how I acted in public because that’s what Delzana taught me. The people close to me knew full well I have a bit of a temper. And Haulrin doesn’t know about my legs either, so I can assume whoever wrote about me never actually spent much time around me. That or they deliberately glossed over the truth.

It’s frustrating that so many people know my name but don’t know anything about me as a person. It was like that before as well. A lot of people had opinions about me, but if they spent even five minutes talking to me they would know those opinions were total nonsense. I suddenly want to tell him who I am, and set the record straight. But I doubt he would actually believe me, and it would be worse if he did. So I’ll keep my identity a secret.

If Haulrin wants to play teacher then I will play the dutiful student. “I see, yes that makes sense. I always felt that my parents were lying to me. I’m honestly eager to learn the truth about Larona.”

Haulrin smiles, “Of course my boy, of course.”

Aaugh stop calling me that… Stay calm, deep breaths, listen patiently… Suddenly Haulrin looks down at the paper in front of me. “Oh this is nice, let’s see what you’ve drawn for us.”

Crap, I really didn’t mean to draw anything. It just happens when I’m nervous I guess. Most of what I’ve drawn is simply the story I just told him. Plus some flowers and cute little animals and such.

“Hmm yes,” He says approvingly. “You’re quite talented for one so young. How old are you exactly?”

I’m twenty two, but I’m often mistaken for being much younger. An Almaranian my age would be well over six feet tall, especially if they had access to a lot of sana. I’m a little over five feet, that is when I craft legs for myself. Being an arbiter seems to cause sana to give my body whatever it needs, but also seems to respond to my desires to an extent.

Crafting legs for myself is surprisingly intuitive, most times I don’t even think about it. It’s like my body knows what legs are supposed to look like, how they’re supposed to function, and the sana just follows those instructions. I can craft other things out of sana as well, pretty much anything I can picture in my mind. This is where it helps to be an artist, my sanacraft is much more elaborate and detailed than that of other Arbiters.

But my artistic skill may have just given me away. The work I drew is much better than what I could manage as a teenager. Do I tell him my real age or do I let him keep thinking I’m a child. There are advantages to both, but the fact is I am an adult, and Delzana taught me that when lying, I should stay as close to the truth as possible.

“I’m seventeen.” I think seventeen is a good compromise. I will still be a child in his eyes, but I can act like an adult without raising too much suspicion.

“Seventeen?” Haulrin seems surprised. “I would have guessed younger.” He says it like that’s a compliment. “Your work is remarkable. Can I ask how you learned?”

Can I ask he says. I smile and adopt a delighted, almost bashful appearance. “Oh thank you, my mother taught me.” I say sweetly. My mother was never actually a fan of drawing. Drawing is just something I’ve always done. It’s my escape. I have studied with a handful of teachers over the years, each of them had very useful advice and insight, but for the most part my ability is self taught.

“Did you know that Larona was also a very talented artist?” Asks Haulrin. What kind of a stupid question is that, my art is like the main thing I’m known for among the Arbiters.

“Oh yes, I really love her artwork.” I say enthusiastically. It’s true, my art is one of the few things I’m proud of.

“Really” Says Haulrin with a smile. “I want to show you something very special. He reaches into his coat pocket and retrieves a small box, then places it on the table. With sparkling eyes he opens the box, inside is an object wrapped in a silk cloth. Delicately he unfolds the cloth, careful not to let his fingers touch the object wrapped within. He leans back with a self satisfied grin, as if he’s just shown me the single greatest thing in the world.

Oh, it’s one of my water stones. Water stones are hand sized rocks that I would carve and give out to people. This one depicts an Almaranian predator called a roksham. They’re big and scary, they climb trees and drop down on their prey. Anyway I made this carving for a boy sitting on his fathers shoulders, they were watching a parade that I was in. I decided to carve a roksham because young boys tend to like big scary animals.

The reason these carvings are called water stones is because I would always include a tiny sink in the top. You can poor water into this sink and the water will flow out of various holes in the carving. I started doing this because I’m literally the only one in the world who can. My control of sana combined with my artistic skill allows me to carve tiny channels through the stone.

When my work started to become famous I saw a lot of forgeries. I started doing this as way to prove it’s authenticity. None of the other arbiters had the precision control of sana to carve the channels without shattering the stone, let alone the artistic talent to create the carving.

Haulrin beams proudly. “This is called a Laronian water stone. Each one is completely unique in the all the world, and impossible to reproduce.”

Yeah I made thousands of these things. Haulrin continues, “Children would gently toss stones towards Larona,” It wasn’t always a gentle toss. “She would catch it with sana. Then in mere seconds, without so much as touching the stone, she would create a beautiful carving just like this one.”

I get the impression that this stone may be Haulrin’s most prized possession. Another fanboy who doesn’t actually know a thing about me. Oh but this presents an opportunity. After waking up here I made a few of these for the locals. I was working on a special one for the lady in charge here, it’s still in my room. “Oh yes I know. I have one that’s much nicer.”

Haulrin’s eyes practically pop out of his head, his cheeks flush and he takes a moment to collect himself. “You’re serious?”

“Oh yes,” I say innocently.

“When you say you have it, do you mean here? Now?” He’s suddenly halfway out of his chair.

“Well, it’s hidden in the room I was using before your people put me in a cell. It’s the most valuable thing I own, but I’ll give it to you if you promise to release the people who lived here.” I can always make another one for the nice lady.

Haulrin’s features appear frantic, his composure is slipping, “They are well taken care of I assure you. The Sarlen Empire is strong but fair. We will ask them a few questions and then return them safely to their homes

Not good enough, “Can you please tell me where you’ve taken them?”

Haulrin nods, “Yes, right now they will be in a housing facility in Sanacore.”

Sanacore, I don’t know what that is. A city maybe? A military base? The way he said it implies that this place is common knowledge. But if it’s a province or a country that doesn’t really help me. “Can you be more specific?”

“They are in the military wing of Sanacore, south side of the city. There are barracks there that are sometimes used for prisoners when there isn’t enough space in the holding cells. Their buildings will have been assigned when they arrived, I don’t have access to that information from here.”

Ok, Sanacore is a city, and it has a military wing. I don’t know where exactly in the military wing, but I’ll be looking for barracks, and three thousand people will probably stand out. “Thank you for telling me.” I say, trying to sound sincere. If you take my to my room I’ll give you the water stone as promised.”

Haulrin summons one of his people to carry me. The indignity of being carried around like a sack of laundry is almost more than I can bear. Even in my weakened state I can probably move faster on my hands than any of these people could keep up with. But I want them thinking I’m helpless, so I go along with it.

Heavy boots clang on metal hallway. Soldiers on patrol press against the wall and salute crisply as Haulrin approaches. He returns their salutes without so much as a glance in their directions, as if his own people mean nothing to him. His sole focus is on the water stone. We arrive at the central lift, the attending soldier presses the call button and we wait in silence.

The air is tense. The soldiers exchange a knowing glance but otherwise remain rigid as statues. Ah I think I see what’s going on here. The soldiers don’t like Haulrin, he makes them nervous. And he knows they don’t like him. That’s why he’s so eager to get the stone, he’s worried one of them will find it first. Hmm I wonder if I can exploit this somehow, maybe provoke an insurrection?

The lift arrives and we make our way up to the eighth floor. The room I was given is rather spacious, and seems as nice as any in the tower. There are signs that someone was in here looking around. The metal dresser drawers are all open, the bedsheet is crumpled on the floor, the waste basket is turned on it’s side and so on.

I ask to be set down and the soldier carrying me drops me like a stone. So that’s how it’s going to be. I cry out when I hit the ground, and make a big show of being in pain. I assume that’s the response they were hoping for. Haulrin looks furious, while the soldier makes an insincere apologetic shrug.

Haulrin kneels beside me, “Estoca! Are you ok?”

Estoca, right. The name I made up for myself earlier. I contort my face as if I’m about to burst into tears and say, “Oh yes I’m quite alright. My fault honestly, so sorry about that.”

Haulrin looks at me with a worried expression then glares at the solider. “Well I’m glad you’re alright, let me know if you think anything is broken.”

It occurs to me I’ve never had to worry about broken bones. I remember one time a foreign sailor broke his arm. I patched him up with sana, and all the other sailors were amazed that he was healed so quickly. They told me that for them broken bones take months to heal, which was just mind-blowing. I mean I’ve heard of people having to wait a week or two for a singer to arrive, but once a sana-crafter is on hand broken bones can be repaired in minutes.

I smile, “Thank you for your concern, I’m fine really. I’ll be right back.” Looking at the ransacked dresser I’m glad I didn’t hide the water stone in there. Delzana drilled into me certain habits, one of them was to never hide something in a place that was easy to search. For the water stone I found a metal panel that had been welded to one of the walls for what I’m assuming was repair work. I used a bit of sana to cut the panel off and found a perfect hiding spot. Then I used a touch of sana to solder the panel back in place.

I return to Haulrin with the water stone and hand it over. His jaw literally drops, his face flushes to a delightful shade of pink, and it looks as if he’s about to fall over. I’m genuinely thrilled by the reaction. I love watching people respond to my art. And I honestly feel this water stone is the nicest one I’ve made.

I carved a profile of a woman sitting in a rose garden. I put a lot of detail into it, much more than a typical water stone. The water spouts are positioned to compliment the piece. There are three spouts in pools by her feet, and two waterfalls, one on either side of her. The last hole is in her eye, so that it looks like she’s crying. It’s a sight I’ve seen far too often in my life.

I’m definitely more skilled at making them than I was a few years ago. And I’ve started experimenting with the channels inside the rock. At first I would include between two and four channels, this one has six. And I’ve spiraled some of them, so that water will poor out of the bottom hole first and the top hole last. It’s a neat effect if I do say so myself.

Perhaps just a bit too proud of myself I say, “Come over to the sink, it looks really neat.” One thing I do like about this tower is that there are fixtures with running hot and cold water in most of the rooms. Also flush toilets are basically magic in my opinion. I eagerly make way to the washroom and wave him over.

Haulrin looks horrified, “You ran tap water through a Laronian water stone?”

Umm.. but they’re meant to have water run through them. I stay quiet and watch him with a blank expression.

Haulrin almost shouts, “This is a priceless artifact, seventeen hundred years old.”

I shrug. “Don’t you want to see if it’s authentic.”

Haulrin opens and closes his mouth a few times, as if trying to decide what to say. At last his curiosity gets the better of him. “Oh alright then. I must be losing my mind.”

He places the stone beneath the faucet, his arms are trembling slightly. He turns on the water, just a little. The water goes into the top, and flows smoothly out of the three holes at the bottom. A half second later water pools smoothly out of the two waterfalls on the side and Haulrin skips a breath. A half second after that water pours smoothly out of her eye and I swear Haulrin’s heart nearly stops.

Haulrin turns off the water faucet. Water stops flowing out of the pools first, then it stops flowing out of the waterfalls, then finally the water stops flowing from her eye. Haulrin turns the faucet on again, and watches the pattern repeat itself. He does this a few times and I am thrilled by his reaction.

“Blessed Larona this is completely unheard of. I’ve spent my life studying Laronian water stones and this is beyond anything I’ve read about. Six channels, all flowing smoothly. No chips or scratches, no signs of wear, no accumulated grime. And the level of detail, the artistic sophistication. This may well be one of the last water stones ever produced.”

It is in fact. I made it about a week ago.

“And it’s somehow been perfectly preserved all these years.” Suddenly Haulrin yells out as if he’s been stabbed, “And here I am running tap water through it! Handling it with my bare hands. Like I’m some dull eyed novice, quickly pass me a towel.”

Haulrin proceeds to dab frantically at the stone. “Estoca my boy you really must take better care of this.”

“It’s yours now.” I say. “Do what you want with it, so long as you keep your promise to help the people who live here.”

“I’ll keep that promise.” Says Haulrin, “But I can’t accept this, it’s far too valuable. Though if you like I will keep it safe for you.”

Keep it safe he says. How dumb does he think I am. He has no intention of giving it back and I couldn’t care less. One of the art teachers I studied with said that art wasn’t the object, but rather the act of creation. She would make me create a piece, then destroy it. She said that destroying something I had made shouldn’t bother me, because I still possess the knowledge to create it again. It’s taken years of practice to be able to make water stones, but it takes less than a minute for me to actually carve one. So do whatever you want with it, I’ll just make another.

“I would appreciate that very much.” I say with a smile. “So what happens now?”

“Hmm.” Haulrin thinks for a moment, “I think we’ve accomplished a lot for today. Why don’t you stay here this evening, I’ll have my people tidy up for you and bring you some dinner.”

Wow, I’m being treated like a human being, and all it took was one priceless artifact. Thanks. “Oh my yes, that would be lovely. I’m very tired, and I’m glad I don’t have to sleep in a prison cell this evening. I understand the position your people are in, and I intend to prove worthy of your trust.”

Haulrin looks at me as if I’m laying it on a bit thick, I smile and he seems to buy it. “Of course young man of course. Think nothing of it.” I want to slap him every time he says young man, but I keep smiling as he barks orders at the soldier who dropped me on the ground.

I watch with satisfaction as that same soldier sets about tidying up my room. I stare at him the whole time with a stupid grin on my face. No doubt he’s contemplating his revenge. I’m not really worried about what he might do, though I probably shouldn’t provoke him too much.

Once he finishes I lay on the bed and wait for my food. It’s the same grey mush they serve at every meal in this place. Do they not have any other food in the future? By absorbing sana I don’t really need to eat, but since there’s so little sana in the air I want to conserve as much as possible, so I choke down the bland gruel as I consider my next move.

My ability to sense sana allows me to also sense the world around me as long as there’s sana I the air. I can sense the shape of the rooms and hallways, I can sense the people as sana flows in and out of their lungs, and throughout their bloodstream. Large amounts of metal can interfere with my ability to sense and control sana, but given enough time I’m able to get a pretty good understanding of the place. I know that Haulrin is a few floors above me, having a meeting with someone.

I feel out the rest of the tower, but there’s not much activity. A lot of people are asleep in bed, There are a two to four soldiers patrolling each floor, and there’s maybe two dozen people in the dinning hall. In total there are a little under two hundred soldiers. Less than a tenth of the tower’s former population.

The tower is also home to a population of razka. I suppose I didn’t fully appreciate their presence at first. I can’t remember a time in my life when there weren’t razka constantly nearby. As I think on it I find their presence quite comforting. I’m glad that even after so much time these delightful creatures continue to watch over people just as they always have.

I decide that I need more information, and I’m not going to get that by sitting around. There’s a guard outside my room. His shoulders are slouched and his head slumps periodically, practically falling asleep at his post. Works for me. I decide to go out the window. The windows here aren’t designed to be opened at will, but there is a hinge, I’m assuming for maintenance purposes.

I’m impressed by the glass-work here. The window is a bit grimy, but otherwise it’s perfectly smooth and clear, no discoloration, bubbles or bulges. Such quality would be top rate and very rare back home, but near as I can tell every window in the place is of similar quality. I use a bit of sana to cut through the bolt holding the window shut and head outside.

The wind is freezing. There are a number of blinking blue lights lights along the outside of the tower, but the countryside is complete blackness. I’m able to feel the sana in the air around the tower, but beyond that I feel nothing. Fortunately the exterior of the tower is covered in a series of handholds, so the climb up is manageable, although barely.

My muscles are slowly getting stronger, but they’re still severely atrophied. The metal hand holds are like ice. Occasionally a gust of wind blasts me sideways, and I have to hold on for dear life. I’m physically and mentally exhausted, and I have barely enough sana to keep myself from hypothermia. It’s moments like these that I thank the All for Delzana.

Delzana insisted I be able to move freely in any environment, without legs, and without using sana. Her lessons were intense. One day she had me hang from a narrow ledge and stay there. All day long. It was an unpleasant day. She says it was something every gregar had to do as part of their training. I very much appreciate those lessons right now.

I make my way up to Haulrin’s window as nearby razka scurry about the tower exterior, unfazed by the wind and cold. I peek inside, he’s finished his meeting and is now writing something. Probably a report on my interrogation. His makeshift office is fairly sparse. Most of the shelves are empty, I’m assuming anything belonging to the former residents has been packed up for study. Haulrin has brought a few things with him. There is a stack of books on his desk. Two of them have Almaranian characters on the bindings.

Next to his bed is a bulky travel pack. It looks pretty full, as if Haulrin is ready to up and leave at a moments notice. I guess he moves around a lot. He writes at a steady pace, stopping only briefly to take a sip of water then goes right back to work. For about an hour nothing really happens. Patience is another lesson Delzana taught me.

Finally there is a knock at Haulrin’s door. I can feel who it is before I see him. It’s the soldier who administered all of those lovely beatings. The one who probably would have raped me if I wasn’t trans. I don’t know anything about him except that he stinks worse than anyone I’ve met since the slavers. So I will call him mr Stinky. If it wasn’t the stupidest thing I could possibly do right now I’d strangle him. Well ok I wouldn’t, I don’t actually like hurting people. But sometimes I’m sorely tempted.

I can hear their muffled voices, but I have no idea what they’re saying. No doubt their conversation is very interesting, but I don’t speak the language. So I make up what they’re saying to each other in my head.

After Haulrin opens the door Mr Stinky barges in and says Alright I’m here what do you want “I enjoy being very loud.” I imagine the man saying.

Haulrin takes a step back and says Have a seat Commander, we need to talk “You smell bad, I think I may pass out from it.”

Mr Stinky coughs loudly without covering his mouth then says, What do we need to talk about “I’m too dumb to care.”

Haulrin takes a seat at his desk and gestures Mr Stinky to a nearby chair. He then says “I have some concerns regarding the Almaranian boy.” “You need to bathe more often, it is a problem for everyone.”

What of it? “Not for me.” Says Mr Stinky as he crashes his butt into the chair.

Haulrin’s shoulders tense, and he says First of all are you able to explain the bruises all over his face and body? “The others are complaining. Please listen to reason.”

Mr Stinky shrugs, and rolls his eyes. No idea, he was like that when we arrived “But I don’t like it. The water hurts my skin.”

Haulrin looks angry. He practically snarls I’m sure he was. What about his clothing? “That is because you are diseased and foul.”

Mr Stinky seems amused, he chuckles and says What about it? “This is true.”

Haulrin’s chest and shoulders tighten Why was it torn to shreds? “Bathe, and you will feel better”

Mr Stinky looks a little worried now. No idea, it was like that when we found him “But like I said, the water hurts my skin.”

Haulrin becomes angry. He stands and says, I know you’re lying Commander. I spoke with the others. I have reports that the boy was fully clothed and in good health during his first interview. “Then I will hurt your skin. I will do what I have to. I will make you bathe and soon you will smell like fresh roses.”

Mr Stinky is starting to sweat. His eyes dart around the room, as if looking for an escape.

I don’t know nothing about that. “I do like the smell of roses.”

Haulrin slams his fist on the table and shouts, you’ll tell me Commander. You’ll tell me or you’ll spend your days in a cell until you tell me “I’m glad you do. I’m glad you do so let’s go draw a nice warm bath for you right now.”

There is a long silence, like the precipice of a canyon. Eventually Haulrin speaks in a quiet voice, Last chance Commander. “Shall we go now?”

When Mr Stinky doesn’t answer Haulrin walks over towards the door, Ok Fine, “If you won’t come…” He then calls to the officer outside. Corporal, could you come in here “Let’s call your friend…”

Mr Stinky bursts from his chair and moves to intercept Haulrin, there is a pleading look in his eyes. Alright I roughed him up a bit “No don’t call him over.”

Haulrin gestures to the office outside to stay, then closes the door and says, Why tear off his clothes? “Oh that’s right you don’t have friends”

Mr Stinky steps back and spreads his arms, he laughs, as what he’s saying should be funny.

I… I thought he was a girl “They say I smell bad.”

Haulrin goes into a rage. His cheeks flush and his nostrils flare, his eyes burn and he growls,

You thought he… You were going to… “You smell… You smell so bad!”

Suddenly Haulrin punches Mr Stinky squarely in the jaw. Stinky goes down, blood dripping down his chin. Haulrin reaches down, and tears something off of his uniform. It appears to be a badge of some sort, possibly a rank insignia. He then opens the door and summons the guard outside, Corporal, put this man in chains, and prepare papers for court martial. “Hey idiot, come over here and give Mr Stinky a bath.”

The corporal comes in and takes mr Stinky away. Haulrin looks up and catches a glimpse of me through the window. I quickly scramble away. He comes closer and inspects the window but does not see me. I hope. He goes back to his desk and resumes writing.

What was that all about? In any case it proves that Haulrin is just as violent and cruel as the rest of them. No surprise there. After that the evening is pretty dull. Haulrin falls asleep at his desk and I make my way back to my room. Nothing really happens on the way, I’m just very very sore and tired. I fall asleep the moment my head touches the pillow.

A gentle knocking on my door echoes through the metal chamber. It’s relatively bright outside, considering the permanently overcast state of this region. I expect further knocking, but there is none. It seems they are letting me sleep if I want.

I yawn then run through my morning exercises, a routine practiced by gregars for generations immemorial, taught to me by Delzana. It consists of stretches, pushups, pull-ups and squats. I skip the squats because obviously, and instead do extra pushups. When that’s done I make my way into the washroom.

There is a stool next to the sink. I climb up and force myself to look at my reflection. Like the glass in the windows, the mirror is a curious mix of incredible quality and bland framing. The image is as clear as any mirror I’ve ever seen, but it’s frame is plain square cut metal, and every washroom in the tower has one just like it.

The face staring back at me looks a bit like my mother, if she’d recently been starved and beaten. The eyes belong to my father, deep green and hateful. I woke up here without any hair, and it’s barely started to grow back, it’s currently thin carpet of black fuzz. My skin is covered with countless tiny scars, sana heals but it does not erase. Thin, cris crossing lines that disappear in a certain light, then I turn and my face looks like the surface of a cutting board.

There’s a lot I don’t like about this new world, but their morning customs are kind of great. For example brushing teeth, which I find to be a delightful concept. Then there are flush toilets, one pull of a chain and my morning leavings are swept far away. And finally there’s my new favorite thing, showers. The water smells funny, but aside from that showers are absolutely amazing. Turn a couple of knobs, and warm liquid magic sprinkles gently from above. Glorious.

I dry off and get dressed, then I call to the guard outside my door. They open the door, and smile. This guard is different from the one who dropped me. They actually seem pretty nice. They say something I don’t understand, I nod and smile, then they gently close the door behind me. A few minutes later the guard returns with a tray of food, more mush. Yay.

On the tray is a note from Haulrin, it reads ‘When you’re ready give this note to the corporal and they will take you to my office. If instead you’d prefer to spend the day resting simply tear the note in half, and I promise you will not be disturbed except for meals.’

Wow he seems downright civil. I could honestly use a bit of rest, but there are people who need me. I return the note and soon find myself in Haulrin’s room, sitting across from him. He seems pleased to see me as he says, “How did you sleep Estoca?”

“Very well thank you.” I say pleasantly. “The corporal was very kind.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Says Haulrin. “Now if you’re ready to begin, I have a few questions about our conversation yesterday.”

“Yes of course.” I say.

“I’d like to know more about your parents, what can you tell me about them?”

The basics of interrogation are to get me talking. It can be about anything really, everything I say to Haulrin will give him more information, and increase the likelihood of me getting caught in a lie. I need to change the subject, I stare at the floor and say, “I don’t want to talk about my parents.”

Haulrin nods, with an empathetic look on his face, “I think I can understand how you feel. My own father was quite violent towards me. There were more than a few times I had to hide the bruises from my teachers.”

He’s digging. Maybe his father actually beat him, maybe he’s just saying that to get me to open up. My father hit me one time, and my mother is the only reason he didn’t hit me a second time. But I definitely don’t want to talk about that. So I stay quiet.

“You mentioned yesterday that you moved around a lot.” Haulrin has decided on a new angle of attack. “And most of your time with them was spent learning about Larona.”

Where is he going with this?

“They obviously weren’t reading from the true teachings. So I’m curious, did they have a book of some sort, or did they teach you these lessons from memory?” A deceptively simple question. If I don’t answer he’ll know I have something to hide. If I say there was a book then he’ll ask about the book. If I say there was no book… then what?

Since everything I’ve told him about myself is completely made up, there are a lot of details that I will have to keep straight as he questions me further. Delzana taught me to always avoid introducing more variables. “No,” I say, “There was no book, at least not one that I ever saw. We were on the move so much, and they were always worried about being caught. They didn’t want to carry around anything incriminating I guess.” Let’s see if he buys that.

“Hmmm I see.” He says, his tone tells me he doesn’t buy a word of it. “Because I was wondering if you could tell me anything about this.” He places a book on the table between us.

Not just any book, that’s my journal.

That’s my journal!

I’m not even thinking straight when I lunge for it and clutch it tightly to my chest. Needless to say my reaction surprises him. I don’t care, this is my journal. It’s my most recent one, the one I was using when I was stabbed in the back. It’s maybe half full by now. My journals are my most personal possessions. They contain all of my intimate thoughts and fears. I never let anyone read them. Not my mother, not Delzana, not my closest friends. The people who know me know that they are off limits.

And this moron is not going to lay his filthy hands on it again. He studies me, taken aback by my sudden ferocity. “I take it you’ve seen this book before.”

Well crap, now what?

Haulrin leans back in his chair, apparently content to let me hold onto my journal. “I’m not sure you fully appreciate what it is you’re holding.”

And what the heck to you know, idiot. I sullenly glance around the room, careful not to make eye contact.

He continues, “That book is bound in a type of wood called calsawood. It’s from Almaran, and the type of tree it comes from was destroyed along with Almaran over a thousand years ago.”

So Almaran was destroyed? I guess that doesn’t really change anything for me, the Almaran I remember is long gone anyway. This explains why he didn’t believe me when I said I was from there. It’s sad that my country was destroyed, but obviously our culture and traditions have carried on in some form, so I can take some comfort in that.

Haulrin studies my reaction then continues, “There are a mere handful artifacts made from this wood in the world today. They are all housed in sealed environments because, being over a thousand years old, they would probably crumble to dust if someone sneezed on them.”

Haulrin glares at me for a long moment as if expecting the significance of what he’s just said to sink in. I fail to take the hint. “That book, that you are clutching tightly to your chest. Is made. Of an incredibly rare and fragile material.”

Yeah don’t care. Oh wait no I do care. Very gingerly I poke at the cover of my journal. Seems fine. I open it, and as I do so Haulrin inhales sharply and his look intensifies. Honestly it’s as supple as the day I last wrote in it. Is that weird?

Haulrin exhales slowly, his muscles relax slightly. “It took me a bit to identify the material, mainly because I never would have dreamed of finding any calsawood in such good condition. Can I ask how this book came to be in your possession?”

Well I guess I have to tell him something. “It was my mothers. She never opened it of course, said it was far too delicate.”

“Yes on that note maybe you should not be touching it with your bare hands.” Hmm I guess he makes a good point. Whatever it’s my journal and I’ll touch it however I want thank you very much.

Now I have to ask. “Did you read it?”

Once again he’s trying to read my expression. Finally he says “Only briefly, and with utmost delicacy. It’s encoded. There is however some very nice artwork in there. Reminiscent of Larona’s style, perhaps the work of an imitator.”

I rankle at the implication. Haulrin appears to make note of my reaction, but says nothing. Then something begins to feel off. Suddenly I notice, “There are a lot of people gathered out in the hallway.”

“What did you say?” Asks Haulrin.

Crap, did I say that out loud. Doesn’t matter. Somethings about to happen. I stare at the door, beyond it I can sense the crowd making space for a pair of soldiers holding something. It’s a battering ram.

Haulrin is already moving. He grabs his travel pack and straps it snugly on his back. Then he gestures at me, as if seeking my permission to pick me up. Sure why not. I nod and he lifts me up as if I weigh nothing at all. Keeping his eye on the door he backs towards his window and opens it without turning. His eye never leaves the door as he buckles something onto his belt. There is a rope attached… Wait what is he planning?

The door bursts open. Haulrin is holding me with his left arm and in his right hand is a small firearm. It’s trained on the first person who entered the room, and big surprise it’s mr Stinky. Apparently he wasn’t satisfied with how things played out last night. I notice mr Stinky has sewn his rank insignia back onto his uniform. He seems rather happy. Haulrin does not.

Mr Stinky speaks. I still don’t understand the language, so I’ll have to make up what they’re saying in my head again. You don’t belong in these parts, Historian. Some of these soldiers have been with me for close to thirty years. We’ve bled and suffered together, buried friends together. Who are you to come here and tell them their Commander isn’t fit to serve. “I smell like roses now, are you happy? My friends have all come with me and we are going to throw a party. There will be singing and dancing and we will all make fancy hats. You should join us, it will be a lot of fun.”

Even with an entire lake of Sana to draw on, I’d be nervous standing in front of that many unhappy people. Haulrin doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit worried. I’m an agent of the Prime Minister. I report to her directly. So long as you’re wearing the colors of the Sarlen Empire you owe your allegiance to her. What you’re doing now is treason, you are forfeiting not only your own life, but the lives of these soldiers. All of you gathered here, disband and return to your duties, then your former commander and I can settle our differences like warriors. If you stay you will all suffer the cost. “I do not like parties. I am old and grumpy. I will not allow a party, and I will certainly not allow any of you to make fancy hats. Go away now, I am torturing a child and soon I will kill her parents. And mr Stinky you still smell bad. I can smell it from here, please bathe again.”

No one moves, well ok a few people scratch themselves, one guy is picking his nose, but otherwise no one is moving. Mr Stinky puts on an ugly smile and says Prime Minister? Never met her. Don’t see her here. Only authority that’s ever mattered to me is hot lead. “You don’t like parties? Well you don’t have to. We will have a party without you, and there will be hats.”

Mr Stinky draws one of their strange firearms, and points it directly at Haurlin. So here’s what’s going to happen. You hand over the kid, the book, and those two pretty rocks, and then you’re going to make sure I never see your ugly face again. “And I bathed like you asked. You can’t ask me to bathe again, it was very unpleasant, I’ll die before I bathe again.”

Haulrin is totally unfazed. Last chance. “Alright then.” He holsters his weapon, and retrieves something else from his belt. Whatever it is contains sana. Haulrin throws the object, too fast for me to actually see. The device explodes, and I can feel the release of Sana. I’ve felt thousands of such explosions.

A cloud of smoke fills the room and suddenly Haulrin and I are falling out fo the window. I’m startled at first, but soon realize this is a controlled fall. We’re rappelling down the side of the tower. Haulrin’s backpack doubles as a rappelling harness, because of course it does. Who is this guy?

We reach the ground and Haulrin is moving with purpose. Not rushed, he actually appears quite calm. Weapon fire cracks from high above us, the soldiers are shooting at us from the window we just jumped out of. Clouds of dust puff up from the ground where their rounds hit. They don’t explode like they would if they were using Almaranian firearms, something I’m grateful for. Their aim is wild, and Haurlin doesn’t react.

We head directly towards a gate nestled into the side of a tower. He opens it up, and inside I’m more than a little surprised to see three dreken. Why couldn’t I sense them before? When we step inside the the stable I know the reason, because my sense of everything outside the stable suddenly disappears. This room is shielded from my sana sense.

The technology is actually quite simple. Basically just a mesh made from a conductive metal will prevent me from feeling or controlling any sana beyond it. The effect was discovered by an Arbiter named Tescon, who was a friend of mine, he called this kind of mesh a faraday shield.

So why is the dreken stable surrounded in a faraday shield? I have no idea, but I’m really happy to see these animals right now. None of them are particularly healthy looking. They are much smaller and skinnier than the dreken I’m used to, also their moss is dull and patchy. Back home these dreken would have been close to worthless, but Haulrin had said these days dreken are rare and valuable animals.

Haulrin doesn’t slow down for a moment as he saddles the largest dreken, secures his travel pack then lifts me up to the seat then slides in front of me. “This is Falk, he’s probably my oldest friend.” Says Haulrin, and just like that we’re off.

The sky above is dull gray. The air is damp and frigid. As we move away from the tower there isn’t a hint of sana anywhere around us. I feel very cold and alone. Since gaining my abilities there hasn’t been a time when I wasn’t surrounded by sana. I feel a strange electric pulse, I believe it’s coming from the top of the tower. Waves of energy carrying some kind of pattern, a code perhaps.

The dreken can feel it too I think, it’s long ears flicker in irritation. If Haulrin can feel the strange pulse he makes no indication. I decide not to mention it. As we gallop into the wilderness with weapon fire echoing through the barren mountains, Haulrin says in a relaxed and conversational tone, “It looks like we have a long ride ahead of us. What would you like to talk about?”

Everyone I know is dead, my entire world is gone. I feel like I’m being swallowed into nothingness. I haven’t felt this dark since losing my legs and waking up in a slave caravan. The only person I know is this idiot sitting in front of me. I find myself overcome with a desire to be known and understood by someone, even if he doesn’t believe a word of it. “I’d like to tell you more about Larona, at least the Larona that my parents taught me about.”

“Alright then,” Says Haulrin cheerily, “Tell me more about your parents version of Larona.

***

Larona dreamt that she was flying through the forest. It was nighttime in her dream, the stars shone brightly through the canopy above. Miss Razzy was with her, her beloved plush toy come to life. The two of them soared through the trees, over and below branches, weaving around the hanging vines.

They came across the town of Crethas, broken and deserted except for a trio of Elmessian sentries. One kept watch while the other two slept. Larona flew into her old room in the broken chapel. She sorted through her former possessions while miss Razzy looked on patiently.

There was nothing there for her, so the two of them left, and flew to Larona’s secret place in the forest. There they were greeted by another of Larona’s friends, the pink tree with white leaves and teal swirls running up the trunk. “Hello Larona and miss Razzy” Said the tree, happy to see the two of them.

“Hello tree,” Said Larona. Miss Razzy gave the tree an approving look, miss Razzy didn’t talk very often. Larona told the tree about the days events.

The tree was sad to hear about Larona’s mother, and the loss of her legs. “Don’t worry,” Said the tree, “You are safe from Maruketh. I’ve made you one of us. We are now sisters, and someday you will be like me.”

“Oh.” Said Larona, “But I don’t want to be a tree.”

“Don’t worry,” Said the tree, “You’re still you.”

“I see,” Said Larona, thinking this over. “But seriously I don’t want to be a tree.”

“Here,” Said the tree, “You should take this with you.” A globe of sana floated from beneath one of the trees roots, inside the globe was Larona’s journal.

“Thank you.” Said Larona as she accepted the journal. “I don’t want to be a tree.” Larona said once more. The tree paid the comment no mind.

Miss Razzy indicated that they should be on their way, the sky changed color as the first rays of sunlight crept over the horizon. The tree bid the two of them farewell as they flew through the trees to a train of wagons winding it’s way along the forest floor. Ranks of Elmessian foot soldiers marched along throughout the wagon train.

Inside the very last wagon Larona found her sleeping body. She was wrapped up in a smelly blanket. The cuts and bruises from the fight in Crethas were all mostly healed and she seemed to be in relatively good health.

Dream Larona gently wrapped the journal inside the smelly blanket, hidden from sight. Just as she finished wrapping up the journal she woke up. She was disappointed to realize it was just a dream. She wished that she did in fact have her journal with her. “At least I haven’t been turned into a tree.” She muttered under her breath.

In the wagon with her were three other children, two boys and one girl. Larona was always apprehensive about meeting new children, she never got along with them. It was like they could sense that there was something wrong with her. The three of them were still fast asleep, and Larona was happy to ride in silence for a time. She was not looking forward to having to make introductions.

One of the boys began to stir, he blinked several times then rubbed the sand out of his eye. He soon focused on Larona and said, “Oh hey, new girl. Wake up you two there’s a new girl.” He proceeded to shove the other two children with one arm. It was then that Larona noticed his other arm was missing.

The other two children were slow to respond and somewhat groggy when they did. The girl sat up but didn’t open her eyes. The boy beside her stirred and looked at Larona but didn’t say anything. Suddenly the girl perked up girl and said “Oh hello there!” She had a great big smile, but her eyes were still closed, “My name is Ambrett, it is a pleasure to meet you. This is Kazlim,” She gestured to the boy with one arm, “And this sleepy head is Imastus.”

Imastus smiled as he looked at Ambrett then back at Larona, but said nothing. Then Ambrett said, “Yes of course I’ll ask her, what is your name?”

Kazlim and Imastus stared at Larona, and she stared back, saying nothing. Ambrett meanwhile faced a seemingly random direction between Larona and the other two children. After a solid minute of staring at each other Larona covered her head with the blanket and curled into a ball. She then heard Ambrett say, “Imastus thinks she’s shy, do you think she’s shy Kazlim.”

“Makes sense.” Said Kazlim. “We don’t know what she’s been through but it can’t be much different from what we’ve experienced.”

Ambrett said, “I think if she wants to be left alone for now we should give her some space.”

Larona was confused by this, the concept other children choosing to leave her alone was a foreign one. Larona had expected a stream of torment, taunts, insults, maybe some kicking. Instead the three children went about their day as always. They played a curious game that involved clapping hands.

The three had apparently created a pattern that they were practicing. It began with each of them clapping their hands, Kazlim slapped his opposite shoulder, then they clapped each other’s hands to the side, Kazlim clapped each of the other two in turn, then they each clapped in the center, and on it went. The pattern was fairly long and complex, and as the day passed they got faster and added to it.

Clap clap clap. Clap clap clap. Clap clap clap clap. Clap clap.

When Kazlim spoke he was loud and energetic, “Wow you’re really good at this Ambrett. Sorry I keep messing up the rhythm.”

Clap clap clap.

“Oh you’re doing great Kazlim,” Ambrett say cheerfully. “My family are all dancers, so movement and rhythm is something I’ve practiced since I was little.” She still hadn’t opened her eyes.

Clap clap clap.

“I’m normally very good at moving.” Said Kazlim. “But I’m still getting used to only having one arm.”

Clap clap clap clap.

“Does it still hurt, where your arm used to be?” Asked Ambrett.

Clap clap.

Kazlim looked down, “Yeah, it does. I know that sounds silly. How can it hurt when it’s not even there?’

Clap clap clap.

Ambrett faced Imastus for several moments and their game paused If felt, it’s real, then she turned back to Kazlim, “Imastus says pain is not silly. If you feel it, it’s real.” As she did so Imastus gave Kazlim a sympathetic look. The game resumed.

Clap clap clap.

Then Ambrett said, “You lost your arm less than a week ago, of course it’s still gong to hurt.”

Clap clap clap clap.

Kazlim smiled in appreciation, “Do you think we can find a singer who can restore my arm?”

Clap clap

Larona knew the answer to his question, but kept silent. Ambrett said, “I don’t think so, at least I’ve never heard of a singer being able to do that.”

Clap clap clap.

Ambrett faced Imastus, and Larona noticed he was tapping his fingers on her palms Tell him my story. She nodded at him and turned to Kazlim, “Imastus has been deaf since birth. His parents looked into every possible cure, and the singers all told them that they could only speed up the body’s healing process, they cannot heal what is lost.”

Clap clap clap.

Kazlim’s face darkened, “So I’m going to be a broken freak forever.”

The clapping stoped.

“Hey none of that,” Said Ambrett sternly, “We agreed remember. We get through this, we survive. Elmessian raids never succeed, as soon as the Almaranian army finds us we’ll get back to our families. That’s what we promised each other.”

“Get back to our families? We don’t even know where they are! They could be anywhere by now, they could be dead!” Kazlim shouted.

Suddenly a mean looking guard appeared. He wore the same dark and spiky armor as the rest of the Elmessians, but it was sloppy, several pieces were missing, and it smelled about as bad as anything Larona had encountered in her mothers healing room. “Hey! You kids keep it down in there or I’ll paint this wagon with your blood.” The guard then lifted a studded whip and gestured menacingly, “One lash at a time.”

The children were silent as the guard went back to his perch on the wagon. Ambrett gently placed her hand on Kazlim’s shoulder, “Hey there.” She whispered, “I know this is terrible, but it won’t be terrible forever. We will find our families, and we will get back to doing the things we love. You love playing foot ball, you don’t need both arms to do that. Just like I don’t need eyes to play music. Just like Imastus doesn’t need hearing to be a silly goofball.” As Ambrett said this Imastus smiled and pushed her playfully.

Kazlim wiped his eyes, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry. We will find them.” With some effort Kazlim put on a brave face.

Ambrett then turned to face Larona, “And yours too new girl.” Ambrett waived and smiled at Larona, still wrapped tightly in her blanket.

Larona stared in wonder at this child who was actually acknowledging her, and being kind of nice. Then she wrapped herself back up in her blanket and the clapping soon resumed.

Clap clap clap. Clap clap clap. Clap clap clap clap. Clap clap. Clapclapclap!

As the day progressed the three children spent a lot of focus on the game they were playing, other subjects included how nice the breeze was, how pretty the birds looked and sounded, various aches and bruises, the quality of the food, and favorite pastimes when they weren’t trapped in a slave wagon.

That evening the mean looking guard from earlier placed a bucket of food scraps in the wagon. Imastus picked through it, dividing the choice bits into four portions. The tastiest morsel was a half eaten sweet bun, Imastus tore it into four equal size chunks. Larona was almost shocked to tears when she was offered a handful of food that was the same size and contained the same choice portions as the others. And they didn’t spit in it or anything.

The children smiled as Larona accepted the food, and it was the best meal Larona could remember having. Larona ate in silence as the others discussed their dinner and marveled at how many delicious things could go uneaten. I occurred to Larona that they hadn’t been offered any sana all day long, not even a small amount.

Larona’s mother had often lectured her on how important sana was to good health. Larona never heard the other children complain about the lack of sana. In fact they never complained about much of anything. The children in Crethas complained about a lot of things. And the children she remembered from her original home in Zelis complained about pretty much everything.

If Larona had been in the mood to speak she would have complained about missing her mother.

Just as they were finishing their meal the mean looking guard returned. “You lot aren’t finished yet?” He snarled. “I thought I told you to eat quicker. You think we have all day to wait on you broken freaks.”

Ambrett faced the guard and raised her palms in a placating gesture, “We’re sorry.” She pleaded.

“Sorry?” Scoffed the guard. “I’ll show you sorry.” The guard reached for the whip on his belt and and unrolled it with a flick of his wrist. He wound up to strike. The studded cord sailed towards Ambrett, and the pained anticipation on her face indicated this was not her first lashing.

Just as the cord was about to hit, Larona appeared between them and the whip struck her instead. No one saw Larona move. She slid between the guard and his prey in an eye blink. The lash cut across Larona’s face and she didn’t flinch. She stared at the guard with a look of cold determination.

The guard was taken aback, confusion twisted his face. He lashed at Larona again and again. Red lines appeared on her skin then quickly faded. He may as well have been whipping a statue for all she reacted. Clearly unnerved the guard left the wagon and slammed the cage door behind him.

The other children stared. Larona shuffled back to her blanket and wrapped herself up. As she did so she noticed a lump wrapped in the folds. She felt it and realized it was her journal, the one she had brought from her dream. The implications of which suddenly horrified her.

After a very long silence Kazlim remarked, “He left the bucket.”

Ambrett shrugged, “He’ll probably get in trouble for that.”

Imastus meanwhile gave Larona a sympathetic look, and reached out his hand as if to ask are you alright.

Larona eyed his hand warily, then at last she clasped it and smiled, then nodded to indicate yes I’m fine.

“Ok what just happened?” Asked Ambrett.

“The new girl saved you.” Said Kazlim. He then looked over at Larona, “How did you even do that new girl?”

Larona thought about this for a time. “I think I may have been turned into a tree.”

“Ok then.” Said Ambrett.

“That doesn’t make any sense at all.” Said Kazlim. “What’s your name new girl? Or would you like us to keep calling you new girl.”

Larona hid herself in her blanket. Then after a moment she peeked her head out and said, “I’m Larona, and I don’t know how I did that. I’ve been doing a lot of things I can’t explain recently, and it kind of scares me.”

“And what was that about being turned into a tree?” Asked Kazlim.

Larona shrunk back down into the blanket. She knew the answer would shatter the goodwill of these children. It was a pattern that had repeated throughout her entire life. Children were friendly enough until she said something they didn’t understand, then they would turn on her. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She said “Please just leave me alone.”

Kazlim raised his hand in exasperation, “What? No what are…”

Ambrett laid a hand gently on Kazlim’s arm, “It’s ok.” She said. “If Larona doesn’t want to talk about it she doesn’t have to. Thank you for saving me. Did the guard hurt you?”

“It hurt when he hit me, but the pain faded right away.” Said Larona, “I think I’m different somehow, but I’m still figuring it out. I don’t know how to explain.” With that she covered herself completely with the blanket and curled into a ball.

“Ok wait I don’t…” Kazlim started to say, but Ambrett raised her palm and shook her head.

“Leave her be for now.” Said Ambrett.

The mood in the wagon had shifted. That evening the three children were each wrapped in thought and spoke little to one another. When the others had fallen asleep Larona unwrapped her journal.

It was indeed the one she kept hidden under the root in her secret spot, the one she had retrieved in her dream. She opened it and read through her recent entries. It all seemed so trivial in contrast to the last three days. She came to a blank page, and wished that she had a writing instrument. Then she decided to try something. With a bit of focus, she was able to make words appear on the page just by thinking about it.

As the first words appeared it startled her and she slammed the book closed. Tentatively she opened it again and there were the few words she had written. The last three days have been very strange. She continued to write, recording recent events and processing her feelings.

She wrote about the wounded border scout who had come to Crethas. Then about the the conflict at lunch with the other children, about somehow burning poor Aumbak’s face. She barely knew enough sanacraft to make sana float, let alone send a ball of fire towards a target. And she did it without saying a word. Just like how she was now putting words on a page just by thinking it.

Larona detailed the feeling of returning to Crethas, only to find it broken and violated. The people all gone, her mother gone. Larona reiterated her promise to herself, that her mother was alive and that she would find her. She recorded the names of the three riders she had killed. And she wrote about the gregar she met, Delzana.

Finally she wrote about Ambrett, Imastus and Kazlim, and her intervention with the guard. Once all of her thoughts and feelings were on the page she filled the margins with drawings of the people and places involved. Then she closed her journal, wrapped it safely in her blanket and drifted to sleep.

She found herself in the same dream as the night before. There was miss Razzy, waiting for her. She looked down on her sleeping body and realized that this was definitely not a normal dream. Her dream body was made of sana, a semi-translucent liquid with a faint teal glow.

“Hello miss Razzy.” Said Larona, “Can you help me look for my mother?” Miss Razzy was not made of sana, she was just an oversized yellow razka.

Miss Razzy nodded in agreement. The two of them flew along the train of wagons. The wagons had stopped for the night and most people were asleep. One of the sentries spotted Larona and miss Razzy and called out to them, but they paid him no mind and flew on their way.

Larona scanned each of the wagons as they flew past. Most of them had considerably more people than her own wagon. None of the people in the wagons were from Crethas. The two of them flew past every wagon in the train without seeing a single familiar face, until they got to the very front of the column.

The gregar, Delzana had been tied to a post. Three guards surrounded her. One of them whipped her and she grunted in pain. “Tell us where your camp is and I promise your death will be quick and painless.”

Delzana smiled. “That’s a tempting offer, and I want to believe it. But I know for a fact that you can’t kill me until you’ve brought me to your boss, Maruketh.”

“The general is none of your concern.” The Elmessian soldier whipped her again. “Talk, where are your people hiding?”

“I’m not sure you understand the concept of hiding.” Said Delzana. “They are um… hiding? As in I don’t know where they are. How else can I explain this?”

The guard whipped her yet again. “You’re hilarious. I’ve got all night. You’re people killed two of my soldiers today. Now I want answers.”

“What can I say? Look I promise as soon I see them I will chastise them harshly. I’ll use my meanest voice and scariest words. Just like you’re doing now.”

The guard was about to lash Delzana again when Larona swooped in and grabbed the whip. The Elmessian tripped backwards in fear. The other two guards picked up their spears and jabbed at Larona. Their spears passed through her teal form like it was a puddle of water that quickly regained it’s shape.

Larona recalled one of the songs her mother used to put patients to sleep. She didn’t have to sing it, just thinking about it was enough. The two guards drooped, their spears fell from their hands and moments later they collapsed onto the ground. As the third guard began to rise she put him to sleep as well. Larona knew they wouldn’t sleep for long unless she provided a steadily increasing dose of the sleeping agent. She hopped they would stay asleep long enough to free Delzana.

Delzana watched with slack jawed fascination as Larona flew over and broke the chains that bound her. “You’re the little girl from Crethas, how are you flying, and why do you look like you’re made out of sana? And oh look there’s a giant yellow razka with you. Am I hallucinating?”

Larona tried to say hello Delzana, I need your help. But no sound came out as she spoke. Strange that she was able to speak to Miss Razzy, but not to Delzana.

“There’s no sound coming out of your mouth, but it looks like you’re saying hello.” Said Delzana as she rubbed her arms. “Were you trying to say something about needing my help?”

Larona nodded emphatically, then gestured for Delzana to follow. She and Miss Razzy flew back along the wagon train, but Delzana took to the forest. Larona turned and followed Delzana into the brush.

Delzana waited for her to approach and said, “Maybe we don’t want anyone seeing us. Don’t worry I’ll follow you.”

Larona led her to the rear of the column. Delzana surveyed the scene. Shouts erupted from the front of the column, the guards Larona had put to sleep were apparently now awake. An alarm whistle sounded, every sleeping guard was soon awake and moving towards the front of the wagon train. A single guard remained at each of the slave wagons.

Delzana watched the activity with interest, “What’s the plan here kid?”

Larona thought for a moment, and since she couldn’t speak she crafted a series of images out of sana. First she created an image of Ambrett, Imastus and Kazlim, and also an image of herself wrapped up in her blanket. She then created an image of Delzana picking her up and running away.”

Delzana nodded. “Four kids in the wagon, I need to carry the one covered in a blanket and then we get out of here. Ok solid plan. Can you deal with the guard and open the door for me?”

Larona smiled and nodded. She flew out of the forest, startling the wagon guard. Within moments the guard was asleep on the ground, and Larona tore open the cage door. Ambrett, Imastus and Kazlim were up with a start.

Delzana rushed into the wagon and said, “I’m a friend of Larona’s, let’s get out of here.” She then lifted the sleeping form in the blanket.

Larona woke up in Delzana’s arms, as the gregar and three other children ran into the forest.

Once Delzana felt they had gone a safe distance she gently set Larona down. “Ok so that’s not how I saw my evening playing out. Not that I’m complaining but can you tell me what just happened?”

Ambrett, Imastus and Kazlim were equally confused. Everyone looked at Larona expectantly, “I guess it wasn’t just a dream.” She finally said.

“No,” Said Delzana, “That was definitely not just a dream you were having. Have you had any other strange dreams recently?”

“Last night.” Replied Larona. Then she stopped talking, suddenly feeling incredibly self conscious.

Delzana tilted her head,“Would you care to elaborate.”

Larona shrunk into her blanket.

“She’s shy.” Offered Ambrett.

“But she’s tough.” Said Kazlim. “She took a whipping for Ambrett.”

Delzana nodded, “Yes these Elmessians do enjoy their whippings. Anyway we should get moving, we don’t want to stay here.”

“What about the other captives?” Asked Kazlim.

“I don’t have a way to save them.” Delzana said. “There’s over a hundred Elmessian soldiers guarding this wagon train. Now that they know we’re using sleep agents they’ll have consumed stimulants. I’m not sure what you’re quiet friend here is capable of, but I can tell you none of them are going to be sleeping for the next eight to twelve hours so her current strategy is out. Without a better plan we need to leave.”

Larona peeked out of the blanket. “I can also make paralyzing agents, blinding agents, irritating agents…”

“I think we need to do more than irritate them.” Said Kazlim dryly.

Larona responded matter of factly, “Irritating agents feel like the worst sunburn you’ve ever had and then some. Like your skin is peeling off and then you’re set on fire. That’s how my mother described it anyway. She’s s a singer.”

Delzana pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration, “These are soldiers we’re dealing with. Elmessians may not use a lot of sanacraft but trust me, they have countermeasures to everything you’re suggesting. Look if you’re serious about rescuing these people then lets wait a few days and watch them. They’ll assume we’re long gone and we can come up with a plan.”

Just as in Crethas Larona could feel the entire wagon train, she could picture it in her mind and she did not like what she was seeing. The Elmessians were definitely not happy. A group of eight were gathered outside the front wagon, they pulled out one of the captives out and threw them roughly to the ground.

They shouted questions at the poor soul, and when the captive didn’t have an answer they put a spear through their throat. Another captive was dragged from the wagon and the scene repeated itself. Larona stood suddenly, which was a surprise to those around her considering that she didn’t have legs.

Except now she did. Somehow, instinctively she had formed legs out of liquid sana, they were partly translucent and emitted a light teal glow. Delzana and the three children stared at her. “We can’t wait, we need to help these people now.” Said Larona, then she flew off towards the caravan.

Delzana watched in stunned silence. After a moment she came to her senses and told the three children “Stay here.” Then she dashed off in pursuit of Larona.

When she came in sight of the wagon train Larona was using sana to slice open each of the cages. Former captives flooded out and attacked their Elmessian guards. It was loud, it was violent. Delzana studied the scene for moment before joining the fray.

Once Larona had opened the last of the wagons she looked back at what she had wrought, and was frozen in shock. She had never experienced violence on this scale. She simply watched as the massacre unfolded.

The captives had the weight of numbers but the Elmessians were trained warriors, armed and armored. Delzana did what she could to mitigate the bloodshed, but she was only one person. As bodies fell the Elmessians began to realize the tide was turning against them. A few deserted, then a few more, until almost all of the guards had fled into the forest. Those who stayed were cut down without mercy.

There was a moment of stillness. As the surviving captives realized they were victorious a cheer rose up. Most people had seen Larona cutting their cages, and those who hadn’t were told of it. They surrounded her and voiced their appreciation. Many were shouting, a few tried to touch her. Larona, feeling overwhelmed and panicked, flew straight up and found a branch to sit on, hundreds of feet above the forest floor.

The people below were once again shocked into momentary silence, before bursting into excited conversation and speculation about what exactly they had just experienced. A few had the wherewithal to tend the wounded and gather the bodies. Delzana made her way back to where she had left the three children.

They of course had ignored her instructions and were quietly observing from atop a nearby root, ineffectively concealed behind a large pink flower. The children likely assumed they were inconspicuous where they were but Delzana spotted them with little difficulty. They tensed as Delzana approached them.

“Your friend is certainly unlike anyone I’ve encountered.” Said Delzana.

Ambrett replied “We don’t actually know her that well.”

“She’s only been with us since yesterday, and she barely said a thing.” Said Kazlim.

“Hmmm.” Said Delzana, “Well she seems like someone who could use some good friends. Is that something you three can help me with?”

The children nodded enthusiastically, “Did you see what she did?” Said Kazlim, “Heck yeah I want a friend with superpowers.” Both Ambrett and Imastus smiled in agreement.

Delzana nodded and smiled “Excellent, now if you’ll excuse me I need to go find our new friend. My advice to you is keep clear of the others for now, until we have a better understanding of what we’re dealing with.”

Larona sat in the darkness of the canopy for quite some time. She could feel the people below. There were of course quite a few people mourning fallen friends and loved ones, but for the most part the mood seemed celebratory despite their heavy losses. They broke into the food supply and passed around victory spoils. A few slept but most were too energetic for that.

She could feel Delzana as she went to check on the children, then as she climbed up a nearby tree. It took Delzana a bit of time to notice Larona, and she was in a completely different tree with no way to get across. Delzana then had to climb all the way down and climb up the tree that Larona was perched in. The whole process took over an hour.

The branch they were one was wide enough to walk along comfortably, and it was fairly smooth and level. Delzana approached from behind and Larona made no indication that she had noticed her.

“It occurs to me we’ve yet to have a proper introduction.” Said Delzana. “In case you don’t remember, my name is Delzana, and I am a gregar.”

“I remember.” Said Larona, without turning, still facing away. “My name is Larona.”

“I remember.” Said Delzana warmly. “You can do some pretty amazing things Larona.”

“I don’t know how I can do these things, it just started happening.” Larona wiped away some tears on her smelly blanket.

“What you do with your abilities is none of my business, but if you want, I’d like to help you.”

Larona turned, a look of suspicion on her face, “Help with what, exactly?”

Delzana raised her palms in a gesture of peace, “That’s up to you.”

Larona’s eyes narrowed, “Then help me find my mother.”

“Absolutely, I will help you find your mother, I promise. But our first priority is keeping you safe.”

“Why should I trust you?” Asked Larona.

“That’s a very good question. I guess a better question is why did you free me in the first place if not to get my help?”

Larona shrugged, “I don’t know. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Fair enough.” Said Delzana. “You seem like a very smart girl, so I’m going to be honest with you. After you’ve heard what I have to say then you can decide whether to trust me or not.”

Larona repositioned herself and inched a bit closer, “Ok, go on.”

“I know of one other person with abilities like the ones I’ve seen you use. That person is General Maruketh. Currently he and his armies are ravaging the Almaranian interior and I need to come up with a solution for that.”

“So I’m that solution.” Said Larona dryly.

“Whether or not you are eventually is up to you. For now I definitely want to keep you as far away from him as possible. Even if you don’t want to fight him he will see you as a threat.”

“And you can keep me safe from him?”

“Again I’ll be honest, I have no idea. But I am pretty good at this sort of thing.” Delzana offered a reassuring smile.

“So what’s involved in keeping me safe?” Larona was slowly becoming more relaxed and focused.

“First we need to get out of the forest. I’m not sure if staying with the caravan is a good idea, given the level of attention you’re bound to receive, but on the other hand I don’t think that traveling alone is a great idea either. Plus there’s your new friends to consider.”

“I don’t have any friends.” Larona said sullenly.

“Well you do now.” Said Delzana matter of factly. “You’ve saved those kids from slavery, trust me they appreciate it. And you have me, if you decide to trust me that is.”

Larona shrugged, “Ok. Say we get out of the forest, then what?”

“Then we track down your mother.” Delzana said with conviction. “And while we’re doing all of that I train you.”

“Train me how?” Asked Larona.

“I train you as I would a gregar. Not to boast but I’m the gregar’s highest ranking field operative, and before that I spent quite a few years training new recruits.”

“What if I don’t want to be a gregar.” Asked Larona, somewhat cheekily.

“Well I’m not training you to be one, we don’t even consider applicants under fifty.” Said Delzana, rolling her eyes, “I’ll train you to keep yourself alive. Which to be honest is most of what Gregar training involves. The diplomatic stuff is less of a focus than you might think.”

Larona considered her options then said, “Ok, for now I’ll trust you. I think staying with the people down there would be better than traveling alone, but what do you think?”

Delzana looked down at the people far below them. “It’s a risk either way. I’ll make sure the people keep their distance and treat you with respect. If it becomes too much of a problem we can always just leave.”

“Alright.” Said Larona, “Let’s see how this works out.”

“I promise to work hard and be worthy of your trust. Now I’d like to ask, only if you want to tell me, why is it you came all the way up here?”

Larona thought about the question for quite a while, and Delzana waited patiently for her to answer. “The people down there, they seemed to appreciate what I did. But…”

“But.” Delzana repeated.

“But a lot of them died. And I feel like it’s kind of my fault.” Larona sunk back into her blanket.

Delzana and Larona sat in silence for a time. Then Delzana said, “You made a decision, and that’s admirable. You saw a need to act and you acted. It’s something I’ve seen you do a few times now, and it’s one of the strongest virtues a person can have, I think. It’s certainly one of the most difficult skills to train someone.”

“But.” Said Larona.

“But,” Delzana went on, “Let me ask you, did you know what your losses were going to be when you opened those cages?”

Larona shook her head, “No, I had no idea what would happen, I just felt the need to do something.”

“And that’s the problem,” Said Delzana, “You bought something without knowing how much it would cost.”

“That’s why you wanted to wait a few days.” Said Larona.

“I don’t know that things would have turned out better if we had.” Said Delzana, “Sometimes you’re taking a risk no matter what you do. Maybe if we’d waited the Elmessians would have called for reinforcements, maybe they would have decided to execute every one of the prisoners before we could do anything. Like I said you made a decision, and you decided that waiting would be worse that acting.”

“I didn’t really decide anything…” Said Larona.

“So consider this my first lesson for you. Life is complicated. Sometimes you need to act even if you don’t know what the consequences will be, sometimes you need to slow down and think. Whenever possible you need to ask yourself what will happen if I do this. What will happen if I don’t, and most importantly what can I do to mitigate my losses.”

“When I opened the cages, and the fighting started, I did nothing. I just watched…”

“That’s a normal response, after all you’re how old?” Said Delzana matter of factly. “You’ve got more initiative than a lot of tenured gregars that I’ve known. You were overwhelmed. It’s something to learn from but not something to feel bad about.”

“Yeah I guess…” Larona said reluctantly. “Assuming I still wanted to save them right away, what could I have done differently?”

“Well,” Said Delzana, pausing to think it over, “You should have dealt with the active threat first, in this case the caravan guards. By trying to save the people before removing the threat of the guards, you made yourself and the people wanted to save vulnerable.”

“Always deal with the active threat first, got it.” Said Larona.

Delzana gave Larona a reassuring pat on the shoulder, “Ok let’s go join the party down there. With your abilities can you lower us safely?”

“I don’t know. Let’s find out. It will be fun.” Larona’s mood shifted suddenly, and a great big smile crossed her face.

“Wait what?” Said Delzana as Larona grabbed her arm.

With much greater strength than a typical twelve year old Larona yanked the two of them off the branch. Delzana, a woman who routinely faced life threatening situations, shrieked in terror.

A cloud of sana formed beneath the two of them as they fell and solidified as they passed through it. The sana cloud then drifted them gently to the ground.

Delzana, now visibly shaken said, “Young lady, you are a very unusual mix of reserved and reckless.”

****

I’ve never really talked about these experiences with anyone before. At least not with anyone who didn’t share them with me. And again it hits me. I will never see Delzana again. I will never see Ambrett or Imastus either. Or my mother. At least that backstabbing Kazlim is long gone as well.

I study Haulrin’s features, trying to get a read of what he thinks of my story. Of course he believes it’s all some heresy, but I wonder if parts of it ring true for him. I have no idea what actually got written in the official texts, though it’s obvious a lot of details were left out or changed completely.

After riding in silence for a time my curiosity gets the better of me and I ask, “So what do you think? Does this account line up with the, what did you call them, the True Texts?”

Haulrin considers my question then says, “Well as I said before your account is certainly interesting.”

“But it doesn’t line up with the true texts?” I say.

“Well no, to be blunt. First of all your account contains a great deal more detail than the texts. For example in the Texts there’s brief mention that Larona saved Kazlim from a slave caravan, but there’s no mention of any other children. Also the gregar, Delzana I believe you called her? Anyway the texts mention that the gregars were protective of Larona but none are ever mentioned by name.”

Delzana was my closest friend and advisor for ten years. She was almost always by my side. And her name didn’t even make it into the texts. Ambrett and Imastus were just as close to me, and they were also forgotten. Yet somehow Kazlim was remembered? The traitor who stabbed me in the back! Whoever wrote these texts did not do a good job. All I can think to say is “I see.”

Haulrin continues, “What you’ve been told sounds more like a fictional story than a historical account.”

“Oh.” I say.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you’re parents had the best of intentions when they were teaching you. But there are several instances where you say what these people were thinking and feeling, particularly Larona herself. But Larona was a very private person, she never would have shared her thoughts and feelings with that level of detail.” This is the most accurate statement he’s said about me so far. Haulrin continues, “What is recorded in the True Texts are her teachings and the major events of her time as an Arbiter. Almost no details of her personal life exist.”

I was thrust into the spotlight at a young age. Delzana did what she could to protect me from the worst of it and preserve my privacy. I guess that’s why so much of my story has been lost. “It’s possible my parents may have filled in a few blanks to keep my attention.” I say in an effort to reduce any suspicion.

“There’s another possibility.” Says Haulrin. “That book you’re carrying.” It was too much to hope for that he would have forgotten my journal. Haulrin’s tone remains light and conversational, but it’s obvious he’s continuing his interrogation, “You said your mother never opened it, but I nonetheless feel it contains the basis for the things she taught you. I can say with confidence that your journal is one of a kind, how someone got their hands on such well preserved calsawood I have no idea, but it must have cost a small fortune.”

“Do you think it may have belonged to Larona?” I ask, and part of me hopes he believes it might actually be mine.

“What I think,” Haulrin says, “Is that journal was forged to look like something Larona would have created, and it was filled with whatever lies suited it’s creator. Though I can only guess at it’s original purpose, the journal was ultimately used as the foundation for the Burning Dawn.”

“But you think it’s all made up.” I say.

Haulrin replies, “The legitimacy of its content is irrelevant, what matters is that people believed it.”

I’m telling Haulrin my actual story in more detail than anyone’s ever heard from me, yet he thinks I’m the one who believes a bunch of made up nonsense. I put on my best doe eyed innocent face and say “You mean that everything I’ve been taught my whole life could be a lie?”

Haulrin shrugs, “We can’t know for sure unless we find a way to decode the text.”

Hmm. I started writing my journals in code when I was very young. I did so because one of them was stolen by a classmate back when I lived in Zelis. They read it aloud in front of the whole class, revealing a lot of very personal thoughts and feelings. After that I came up with a code that involved switching the letters based on lyrics from a number of my mothers favorite folk songs.

Delzana was very impressed by my code, she said it was called a rotating cypher, and that it would be very difficult to break unless someone was familiar with each of the songs I used. Of course she said the strength of the cypher was spoiled by the fact that I included detailed illustrations in the margins. A person could conceivably use those drawings to figure out enough of the contents to break the code.

Even then, she said it would take an expert codebreaker months if not years to decipher part of it. The fact that I used multiple songs means that deciphering one part of it would not necessarily help them with the rest. But Haulrin seems pretty sharp, I suspect if anyone from this era could find a way to decode my journal it would be him. So I will have to be very careful not to give him that opportunity.

Haulrin gives me a sympathetic look and says, “I understand the truth must be difficult to hear, Estoca. But don’t blame yourself or your parents. I’m sure that they, like you, believed that these false teachings were genuine. You know I am an expert historian, If you like, I can teach you to distinguish fact from fiction, and show you the light of the true texts.”

“Thank you, I would appreciate that.” I say, trying to keep a straight face. “I feel truly blessed to have found such a wise teacher.”

The pace of our dreken begins to slow noticeably. Haulrin pulls back on the reigns, signaling the animal to stop and pats it gently, “There there.” He turns to me and says, “I suppose we should suit up now.”

Suit up? What’s he talking about? I stay quiet in the hopes that an explanation is forthcoming.

Haulrin dismounts then gently lifts me and places me on the ground. He then reaches into his travel pack and takes out two large black bundles. He hands me one of the bundles, it’s surprisingly heavy. “I’m sorry it won’t be a very good fit, but it should keep the bugs out.

The bundle is some kind of full body suit, thick black cloth over what feels like chain metal. Also included is some kind of mask. I inspect the suit itself. It’s fully enclosed, I have no idea how to open it so I can get inside of it.

Haulrin sees me struggling, and appears confused by my hesitation. After a few moments of looking helpless he says “Here, let me show you.” He takes the mask and places it over my face. There are glass goggles and some kind of apparatus covering my mouth. I can hear air rasping through it as I breath. He gently pulls on some straps until the mask is securely fastened.

He then takes the suit itself, and finds a small metal tag near the neck line. He pulls on it, sliding it down the front of the suit, which creates a zipping sound. With the suit open he prompts me to put it on. It is quite loose, and of course the leggings hang empty. He pulls on a series of straps throughout the suit, tightening the fabric around my waist, shoulders, wrists and arms. There’s still an excess of cloth, and the whole thing is very heavy, but I can move with reasonable comfort.

“I must ask,” He says as he puts on his own suit, “Do your parents always put on your pestilence suit for you? I mean no offense.”

“The ones we use are a bit different.” I say, hoping he buys it. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to manage without assistance going forward.”

But why are we wearing these?

Haulrin smiles, “Ah fair enough. These suits are quite new and top of the line, I’m sorry I don’t have one for our friend here.” He says, patting the dreken. “Hopefully she can steer us clear of any swarms.”

Swarms. What swarms? The way he spoke implies it should be common knowledge. We mount up and continue on our way. The suit is ridiculously hot and humid, and it’s hard to see anything through the thick mesh of the hood. I can’t imagine what’s so important that we have to wear these.

We ride in silence for a time. I’m still processing everything that’s happened. This world is so different from the one I came from. I need to learn the customs and politics, not to mention the language. For a moment I consider the possibility this is all some kind of trick. I remember watching a play about a solider who was wounded and captured.

He woke up in a hospital, and the doctors told him the war was over and that he was a hero. While there in the hospital he told the doctors and nurses of his military exploits. But then it was revealed that the war wasn’t over, and the people at the hospital were actually enemy agents. He inadvertently revealed a whole bunch of sensitive information. The play ends with him burning down the hospital and dying in the fire. It was a dumb play.

But I don’t think that’s what I’m dealing with here. For one the setup is needlessly elaborate. In the play the solider was made to believe a few months had passed, not more than a millennium. Why make up a whole language, uniforms, weapons, weird pestilence suits and all that, for a simple ruse.

I find myself overcome with a deep sense of hopelessness. Even if I get somewhere with more Sana, what then? Do I reveal myself as their ridiculous Divine Lady returned to life? I really don’t want my own church. Maybe I could make a life for myself as an artist? My art is apparently pretty valuable these days. I mean I wouldn’t be able to reveal my true identity, but I’m pretty sure I could make a living ‘mimicking’ myself.

My immediate goal is to find the people of the tower. But what then? What is there to live for? When I was taken out, we were in the middle of a war. It all seemed so important at the time, fate of the world and all that. The world doesn’t seem to have done very well since then. This part of it at least is pretty bleak and depressing. I still haven’t seen a piece of vegetation that wasn’t brown and less than four feet tall.

I grew up around trees that stretch up for miles to the sapphire blue sky, every direction was a thick wall of lush green leaves, and vines, dotted with flowers and ferns of every color. Looking out over the grey landscape under grey sky makes me wish I really had died a thousand years ago. I say a prayer to the All, asking why am I still here? Call me home already, take me away from this.

Haulrin seems content to respect my desire for silence. He’s pretty focused on the trail, constantly looking around and pausing at every fork to consider the best way forward. Progress feels slow, but I trust Haulrin knows what he’s doing. He may be a manipulative worm, but he’s obviously quite capable.

Then as the sun is setting I feel something. It’s very far away but moving closer, and it’s gigantic. Like a sickly black mass, stretching across the countryside. It feels like… it can’t be… oh no. All protect me it is definitely praetus. Also known as black Sana, praetus is a mysterious substance that first began to appear just as Maruketh launched his campaign against the interior.

No one could tell me exactly where it came from. Delzana believed it was crafted specifically to deal with singers, and it also happens to be particularly effective against arbiters. In it’s most basic state it neutralizes sana in equal parts, rendering both totally inert, and when the two substances meet it’s just about the worst feeling in the world. Even being near the stuff makes me sick, and it feels like there’s miles upon miles of it out there now. We need to stay away from that.

I tap Haulrin on the shoulder, he seems almost startled. “We need to move that way, as quickly as our friend here can take us.”

He nods as if he knows exactly what I’m talking about, and soon we take off at a gallop directly away from the mass of praetus. Any relief I might have felt is short lived as I realize the mass is gaining on us. The wind picks up and the mass begins to move even faster, almost like it’s chasing me down.

Haulrin notices this too, apparently. He pushes the dreken, then for no apparent reason he slows down, then stops. What? “What!” I practically scream. He says nothing, just dismounts then grabs me and he travel pack, then slaps the dreken on the hindquarters, sending it running off into the distance. “What are you doing?” I’m now frantic.

“We can’t outrun it, and our friend deserves a chance.” He says matter-of-factly. “The swarm is moving surprisingly fast, but don’t worry. I’ve survived swarms before this. We’ll be ok.”

I’m not confident. So swarms are made of praetus somehow. I can see why people avoid them. Non-arbiters can’t actually feel praetus, but they’re just as susceptible to it’s effects. It makes sense that our faces are covered with some kind of air filters. But why are the suits lined with chain metal.

As the swarm approaches I hear a low chittering sound that continues to grows louder. Then I see it, a large black cloud over the horizon. Haulrin reaches into his pack and retrieves two small metal canisters. He breaks something off of one, and a stream of grey smoke begins to seep out of it. He then zips the bag shut and straps it onto his back.

As the swarm approaches the cloud appears to be twisting and twirling to some unknown current of air. Then I realize it isn’t just a cloud, there are millions, billions of tiny dots. Insects. Buzzing and clicking, the swarm closes in on us. As the bugs approach most of the smaller ones suddenly turn away from the smoke. A few of the larger ones fly right through it and settle on our suits. I can feel them on the outside of the suit, crawling all around, biting and prodding, searching for an opening.

The praetus is making me feel dizzy and nauseous, I want to fall over and throw up, but somehow I’m able to stay vertical. Haulrin is slowly waiving the gas canister around, keeping the bulk of the insects at bay. Then I see a black carpet, creeping along the ground towards us. More bugs of countless species, millipedes, cockroaches, spiders, crickets, and several species I’ve never seen. All jet black, every cell of their bodies filled with praetus.

I want to scream, and it takes every ounce of focus to stay silent. The carpet overtakes us and soon the bugs are crawling up and all over me. My focus evaporates and now I am screaming. In blind panic I frantically brush them off me. I notice Haulrin seems totally in control, continuing to slowly waive the gas canister. When he sees my distress he helps me brush the bugs off of me, but ignores the bugs crawling over him.

Haulrin then gently lifts me up, still waving the canister with his other hand, and we begin to walk very slowly. Jittering legs carry inky black bodies all across my field of vision. I hear the crunch of insects under Haulrins boot as he walks. I don’t dare use Sana right now. I have so little, and I know I’d be wasting it anyway.

We walk like that for hours. When the sun finally goes down the world becomes completely dark. I hear a tin chime and suddenly a faint blue light appears in Haulrins hand. Oh it’s a sana lamp. It seems to be enough for Haulrin to find a path, but it’s slow going. Aside from the faint glow of Haulrin’s lamp, the entire world is a buzzing black nightmare, clicking scraping crunching.

An eternity passes, and Haulrin continues, one step after another. Then suddenly something knocks us over. The blue light is knocked from Haulrins hand, I go tumbling to the stony ground, bugs crunching beneath my weight. I can’t see Haulrin, I begin to panic. I hear a very loud series of clicks, slow and deep. Then I feel it. Something huge, a giant bug at least as large as a roksham.

A few feet away I hear Haulrin say “Larona protect us.”

Yeah ok, I’ll get right on that. But seriously what can I possibly do at this moment? Even if I had all the Sana I can hold it wouldn’t be enough to neutralize this much praetus, not to mention that doing so might well kill me, or at least leave me sick and delirious for days. But then I don’t need to neutralize all of the praetus. Most of the bugs seem harmless, at least while we’re wearing these suits, but the big one is the problem.

I just need to neutralize enough praetus to take this thing out. I have a small amount of Sana in my body, so how to get it to the big guy? If I just shoot it out it will be neutralized by the cloud between us before it even gets close. Then I notice the gas canister, still spraying smoke. Wait, the smoke is Sana based… Not pure enough to react with the praetus, but it does seem to push it away.

I grab the canister, then shuffle up to the giant bug. I can feel the shape of it, I maneuver myself to what I’m pretty sure is the head. It’s strong and nasty, and it seems very eager to bite me in half. Good. It lunges, I position the smoke canister between us, and when I have a clear line I shoot out all of the Sana I have, right into the creatures mouth. It may be foolish to waste of my sana, but sometimes you have to act without knowing the consequences.

There is a flash of light, the bugs head pops like a ripe melon. I can smell the creatures flesh melt, hear it bubbling. I throw up into my air filter. Fortunately my stomach was almost empty. Even so I can feel stomach fluid dripping down my chin.

Haulrin doesn’t waste time trying to figure out what just happened. He grabs me and we move. Quickly. He is running now, while I’m trying my best not to pass out. Apparently I don’t succeed because the next thing I know it’s light out, and the swarm is nowhere to be seen. For the first time since coming to this blighted region, I see blue sky. It’s pale and hazy, but it’s blue. It feels like hope.

Haulrin is fast asleep. He’s set up a pretty good camp. We’re covered in thick brush, impressive given how little there is to work with. We’re lying on a thick mat, and still wearing our praetus suits. As I look around I can see a series of simple traps, tripwires and chimes, likely intended to alert us to any trespassers, rather than inflict any damage.

I breath in the moment. I’m still alive, my situation sucks but that’s no reason to give up. If anything that’s a reason to keep pushing forward. Unfortunately there’s basically no Sana in the air, not even the tiny amount that was around the tower. I wonder what that place was called, no one ever told me it’s name.

I decide to risk looking through Haulrin’s travel pack. The gloves on my pestilence suit are thick and unwieldy. I unzip myself so that I can more easily rifle through my captors things.

As I move towards the bag I hear Haulrin stir. I stop. Wait. Nothing. Ok I keep going. His pack contains a zipper similar to the one on my suit. Fascinating mechanism, a series of interlocking metal teeth, pulled apart and put together with a small metal tag. My friend Tescon would have loved this.

There’s a lot of stuff in Haulrin’s bag. The first thing I find is Haulrin’s firearm. I looks a bit like an Almaranian firearm, but with a curved handle and trigger. After that I find clothes, tools, metal containers of various shapes and sizes, along with close to a dozen books. He carries books around with him? He really, really loves his homework.

The books are all bound in metal covers, the paper inside is corse and brown. Most of the books are written in a language I’ve never seen, but it uses Soreallian letters and even a few words. Soreallia is the closest landmass to Almaran, and the Arbiters from Soreallia were the first foreigners to ever make contact with us.

I guess since it’s been seventeen hundred years this could be what Soreallian looks like these days. But why would he have a book with Soreallian letters… Wait… Sarlen Empire… Maybe Sarlen is how Soreallian is pronounced by Haulrin’s people. So the Sarlen Empire could be related to Soreallia. Very interesting, but not relevant to my immediate situation.

Two of the books are written in Almaranian. One of them is an overview of various Almaranian customs, holidays and religious beliefs. Nothing terribly interesting in that one. The other one is titled Larona’s Sacrifice. I’m pretty sure the information in there will be upsetting. Right now I feel terrible, and have no desire to find out. Maybe another day.

I pack everything back in as best I can, then zip it up and put my suit back on. I decide to just sit and enjoy the morning. I’m famished, but breakfast can wait until Haulrin wakes up. It’s a bit unnerving that there’s no Sana in the air, I can’t get a sense of my surroundings. I’m so used to having a detail understanding of everything around me it feels like being in the dark, even though it’s relatively bright daylight around me.

Haulrin finally stirs. The sky is too hazy to get an idea of what time it is, but I believe it’s mid morning. “Did you sleep well?” He asks when he sees me.

I put on what I hope is a pleasant smile. “I did thank you.” Just because he saved my life doesn’t mean I can trust him. Delzana might have suggested I kill him in his sleep. I’ve killed a lot of people since becoming an Arbiter, and I hate myself for it. I don’t need any more blood on my hands. So for now let’s pretend we’re friends, and I’ll deal with you when the time comes.

He smiles back, “I’m glad. Are you hungry? I have a bit of food.” He digs through his pack, and doesn’t seem to notice the contents have been rifled through. He retrieves a metal canister and uses a tool to pry it open. He then hands it to me along with a spoon. It’s the same tasteless mush I’ve been eating since coming here. Do they not have any other food in this country?

After eating I set about my morning exercises. The ones Delzana taught me all those years ago, a routine passed down by Gregars for countless generations. I work through the series of stretches then move on to pushups. As I do so I notice that Haulrin is staring at me quite intently. I stop mid pushup. “What is it?”

“Who taught you that routine?” Asks Haulrin, seeming very curious.

Delzana always told me to be very careful about revealing any secrets of the Gregars. She taught me that all information could be dangerous. Names, dates, locations, and apparently workout routines. Obviously Haulrin recognizes this routine, but how?

We stare at each other for a long moment. Then Haulrin says, “You mentioned the gregars in your story of Larona. May I ask have you ever met a Gregar?”

May I ask, he says. He knows I learned this routine from a Gregar. Good to know that Gregars are still around I guess, but this also throws my cover story into question. I can’t afford to raise his suspicion any more than I have, but I need more information. So I say, “I don’t know, have you?”

Haulrin scratches his beard, he seems lost in thought. Finally he says, “The person who taught you that exercise routine, did they carry a pendant like this one?” He reaches into his coat and pulls out a small locket. He opens the locket and reveals they symbol of the Gregars, two concentric circles with a line through the middle. Delzana had that symbol tattooed on her arm.

“You’re a Gregar.” I say, genuinely surprised.

“Yes well…” Haulrin brushes his hand through his short scruffy hair, “Please be careful with that information, unless you want to get me killed.”

Same as ever. Delzana told me there were people who would kill her on sight if they knew she was a Gregar. But I decide to play naive and innocent, “Get you killed? Why is that?”

“Gregars are often romanticized in stories, but in truth we’re as human as anyone. I like to think we do a lot of good, but we also make mistakes. We make enemies. A lot of people are afraid of us and it’s not always without cause.”

“So your soldiers, from the tower, the one’s who butchered innocent people and tried to kill the two of us. Are they Gregars as well?” I ask with a touch more cynicism that I had intended.

“Them? Not at all no. They’re locals. I was called in because they requested a translator. I happened to be in the region, and the Prime Minister was worried that they couldn’t be trusted. As it turns out, they couldn’t.”

“So did you know about the innocent people they killed? Did you know I was beaten repeatedly for several days.” There is anger in my voice.

“You have good reason not to trust me. I sincerely appreciate the faith you’ve shown so far. I was told the locals attacked first, and had no reason to doubt the report at the time. Clearly that report will need to be revisited. I met with you as soon as I arrived. When I learned they had beaten you and um, so on, I stripped their commander of his commission. Apparently the soldiers were more loyal to him than to the empire, so here we are.”

“So here we are.” I give him a level stare. He says he had nothing to do with the slaughter at the tower, or the beatings I received. He claims he’s a Gregar, and has a pendant that seems to prove it. It’s a good story, which Delzana taught me is all the more reason to be skeptical.

On the other hand he didn’t reveal himself as a Gregar until he saw my workout routine. He can’t have planned for that. Maybe he really is a Gregar, or maybe he was simply waiting for a good opportunity to pull out that pendant. This could all still be part of his interrogation. I need more information, “Can you tell me about where we’re going?”

“Good question,” Says Haulrin. “I studied a number of maps on my way here, but I’m really not familiar with the region. I’m hoping to find a small mining town called Bluestone. From there we can take a train to the regions capital, Sanacore.”

“Oh yes,” I say, “Sanacore is where the people of the tower were taken. So you still plan to help me free them?”

“Of course,” Says Haulrin, “I gave you my word. And since the officer who arrested them is now guilty of treason, it shouldn’t be difficult to exonerate them.”

“Thank you again.” I say with what I hope is a sincere smile.

“Yes.” Haulrin says flatly. “Now who are you, really?”

“What?” I say, now worried.

“You’re definitely more than you’ve told me. You obviously don’t trust me, and that’s quite understandable. But don’t think of me as a fool.”

“What are you talking about?” What can I tell him? There is no way he would believe I am his Divine Lady. “Look, I’m sorry but there are some things I simply can’t tell you about myself. And you’re right, for now I don’t trust you. After the people of the tower are home safe we’ll see.”

“Then we are in agreement. I respect your right to privacy but you can stop it with the fake smiling. If you’re not able to reveal certain information just say so, please don’t lie.” Haulrin’s tone is even, his features are passive.

“I haven’t…”

“The water stone, that you handed to me like it was worthless, was it really you’re fathers.” This is a statement, not a question.

“I mean I…”

What’s with this guy…

“And the journal you haven’t let go of since I showed it to you, was it really your mothers.” Haulrin’s face is like stone. “Are you really seventeen? Is your name really Estoca?”

“I… I can’t…”

“Keep your secrets. My concern is the well being of the Empire. Are you aware of any threats to the Empire?”

“I… I’ve never even heard of your empire ok? But what I’ve seen so far doesn’t inspire my confidence. How do you justify working for a pack of murderers and thieves?” I can feel my anxiety spiking. Did I just let slip that I’ve never heard of this empire? Crap.

Haulrin’s passive features shatter, and now he seems thoroughly surprised, “You’ve really never heard of the Soreallian Empire? In all my travels you’re probably the first person I’ve met who didn’t have strong opinions about us. I’m more curious than ever about who you really are. But fair question. The short answer is that even though we do our best, we’re a long way from perfect. Resources are scarce. And like you saw in the tower there are people who wear the uniform but really don’t understand our ideals or our purpose. Speaking personally I make an effort live the teachings of Larona. That is to say I do what I can to help those in need.”

“Is that why you’re helping me?” I ask.

“Yes in fact.” Says Haulrin. “You’re obviously hiding from something. Whether that something is the Burning Dawn or something else, it’s my job to keep innocent people safe from it. As far as I know you are innocent, and so unless I learn otherwise it’s my job to protect you.”

I can’t help but ask, “And what if I’m not innocent.”

“Then we cross that bridge when we come to it.”

This guy’s pretty smooth. It’s something he has in common with Delzana. I need to distance myself from him as soon as possible. Right now I’m as close to helpless as I’ve ever been. I’m completely without sana and feeling very sick.

Haulrin packs up the camp with military efficiency. He straps on his travel pack, which based on the contents must weigh at least fifty pounds, then proceeds to lift and carry me as if I weigh nothing at all. He walks at a brisk pace and shows no signs of tiring even after several hours.

As we start to walk I say, “Maybe it would help if you told me more about the Soreallian Empire.”

“I would be delighted to.” Haulrin talks like someone who has a lot of experience delivering lectures. “The Empire was founded in the year 562. That is five hundred and sixty two years after Larona’s ascension. As everyone knows she reigned over a golden age of peace and prosperity for two hundred years. Then came the time of Judgement. The island of Soreallia was one of the few nations to survive the judgement relatively intact. A lot of things were lost in the seemingly endless storms and floods of the judgement, but much of their infrastructure was salvageable.”

Haulrin collects his thoughts for a moment before continuing, “I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of the arbiter Tescon, he was actually a friend of Larona’s. He was Soreallian, and his engineering allowed Soreallia to survive with enough resources to not only sustain themselves but actually go out and help other remnants of civilization. Every bit of sana tech in the world today is based on his designs.

“Machines to build shelter, machines for heat and light. Sana tech is what allows us to grow food and purify water. Without Tescon’s inventions humanity would have long since died out. His airships allowed Soreallians to travel the world and look for other survivors. Soreallia wasn’t the only nation with access to Tescons inventions when the Judgement came, his work had been traded all over the world during Larona’s golden age.

“The stories of survival are truly incredible, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes tragic. The Soreallians of the time offered what help they could, and slowly put together the empire we have today. Naturally there has been conflict. I’m loath to admit we are responsible for a number of tragedies.”

“Tragedies,” I say, “Like killing innocent people who don’t do what you want?”

Haulrin sighs and nods, “Membership in the empire was always meant to be voluntary, but the fact is not everyone sees it that way. We have laws that are meant to maintain order, but some people are sadly overzealous in enforcing those laws. Too many of have justified despicable acts with the need for survival.

“Which is where the Gregars come in. We are a secretive order. Some stories paint us as brave yet lonely heroes, wandering the land righting wrongs. In other stories we are the villains, shadowy figures who lie, steal and murder in order to get what we want. The truth is all of this and none of it. We are civil servants. We have a job to do, that job is to keep our people in line. sometimes we do it well, and sometimes we do it poorly.”

Ok this is a lot to take in. He thinks I ruled the world for two hundred years? I certainly don’t remember that. And this judgement he talks about, endless storms and floods? I’ll need to learn more about this at some point. Then there’s the Soreallian Empire and modern day Gregars. So far I’m really not liking them. He says they’ve done terrible things with the best of intentions. I think that’s garbage. “It sounds to me like you’re making excuses.” I say, all pretense of nicety has evaporated from my tone.

Haulrin grimaces, “I am taking ownership of our misdeeds. Larona teaches that mistakes are bound to happen. It’s important that we acknowledge and understand them so that we can move forward.”

I did say that to people. It sounded good at the time. In hindsight it seems a bit oversimplified, but this guy seems to believe in it. “ I guess that’s reasonable.” I don’t want this conversation turning into an ethical debate, so I’ll drop the subject.

Haulrin is happy to continue his lecture. He spits out names and dates and I tune most of it out. Normally I enjoy learning and it’s information that I desperately need, but it’s just too much right now. I shut myself off. I push away all my thoughts and feelings and sink into numbness. Haulrin’s words wash over me like the frigid breeze rushing over the barren hills.

We travel like this for days. Haulrin tells me all kinds of interesting facts and tidbits about the modern world and the history that created it. Even though he says the Soreallian Empire is focused on helping humanity, it becomes more and more apparent that there is a consistent push to find and control more deposits of sana crystals.

It makes sense, considering survival depends on sana tech. But there’s a lot of greed and excess woven into the stories he tells. Haulrin acknowledges this, but his attitude is that’s just the way things are sometimes. As Delzana would say, if you buy that then they’ll keep selling it. Not that I’m in any position to fix the world, or to even understand the complexities involved. But I don’t like pretending there’s no problem when there’s clearly a problem.

At any rate Haulrin is a good teacher, and I’m happy to learn what I can about this strange new world. And after four days of travel I feel it. Of in the distance, over the hills, there is a large amount of sana. Quite a bit more than there was at the tower. The approach seems to take forever. Once we’re close enough I draw it in greedily.

Just a trickle at first, but as the towers of Bluestone begin to stretch up over the horizon I draw in as much as I can. Haulrin grunts as I get heavier. In just over an hour my weight has nearly doubled. His arms sag, “Sorry,” he says as he jostles me into a more comfortable position, “My arms are getting tired.”

Sana isn’t magic, it’s a physical substance. in gaseous form it’s lighter than air, but as I draw it into my body it becomes liquid. I can hold an amount of sana that’s roughly equal to my own mass inside me. It’s not usually a problem given the extra strength it give me, not to mention the fact that I can move it with my thoughts. But I kind of feel bad for Haulrin right now. Fortunately he thinks the extra weight is the result of his own exhaustion.

I decide to give him just a bit of sana to heal his muscles and restore his energy. He breathes it in without even knowing it and soon there is a noticeable improvement. His hold of me becomes more secure and his pace increases, “I’ve just gotten a second wind I think.” He says. “Good to be within sight of civilization again.”

The city of Bluestone is surrounded by an uneven metal wall. It’s covered in rust and flecks of black grime. The towers inside are a variety of shapes and sizes. Most are cylindrical but there are a few rectangular buildings as well. There are a number of bridges at various elevations connecting each of the towers. People clearly put a lot of effort into staying away from ground level.

Gaseous sana wafts up from seemingly every part of the city. It feels good to be full again. The guards on the wall see us and waive. A gate opens and party of soldiers wearing what I have come to recognize as Soreallian uniforms rushes out to meet us.

Haulrin sets me down gently and raises his hands, palm out. “I am Major Haulrin…” He barely gets those words out before the soldiers converge on us and throw him roughly to the ground. Soon they are pushing my face into the dirt as well. They shackle our hands behind out backs as they pat us down. They rip Haulrin’s travel pack from him and they take my journal. They take my journal!

Now that I’m full of sana I could kill or incapacitate the lot of them in an instant. But I’ve learned the importance of patience. Sometimes you need to act, sometimes you need to slow down and think. There are still soldiers watching from the wall and the towers. If I attack then what will the consequences be? First and foremost I give myself away. I doubt anyone will think I’m really Larona but they’ll know I’m dangerous.

So do I fight the whole town? I mean I probably could but then what? Do put myself in charge? Do I fight the Soreallian Empire when the inevitably send reinforcements. Or I wait. I let them take me into custody. They can’t read my book and with so much sana in the air I’ll be able to sense exactly where they take it. If worse comes to worse I can still use sana as a last resort.

Haulrin seems to be of the same mind. He stops talking, puts up with the rough treatment and goes along with them. He gives me a reassuring nod, like he’s not the slightest bit worried. I may not like him very much, but I’m starting to respect him.

They take us inside the city. The ground is packed dirt, there are tiny brown plants growing in various patches. There is some foot traffic on ground level but it’s clear people prefer to use the bridges above. We enter a nearby building, take a lift up three levels, cross a bridge, then another bridge, then we take another lift down below ground level. The people we pass along the way keep their distance and avoid eye contact with the soldiers escorting us.

The clothing is almost entirely brown, black or grey. But I must admit I love some of the styles. The lack of color options has apparently forced their tailors to put extra effort into their designs. I see a woman wearing an absolutely gorgeous dress, with a beautiful floral pattern. I want one, after I get out prison that is.

The soldiers lead us to a cell, and our possessions are taken to a room just down the hall from us. I guess looking through our stuff will be someone else’s job. Haulrin and I remain perfectly calm as they remove our shackles and shove us into the cell. They basically throw me to the ground.

Once the bars slam shut Haulrin comes over to check on me, “Are you alright?”

“Yeah I’m fine,” Yay for sana. “So what now?”

“Well,” Says Haulrin as he looks out through the bars. “We don’t want to stay here too long, I think our best chance will be this evening, ideally when they’re changing the guard.”

“Sounds like a plan.” I say. “What do you want to do until then?”

“Hmm.” Haulrin thinks for a moment, “I’ve spent the last few days telling you about Soreallian history, I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me more about yourself, or if not maybe you could continue your account of the life of Larona?”

“Sure, I’ll tell you more about Larona,” I say, fulfilling both of his requests.

***

Larona stared out at the passing forest. Under the glow of mid morning sunbeams the tumbling green was as beautiful as ever. Massive trees dripping with tangled vines, ferns and bushes crowding every open space, all of it punctuated by flowers of every size, shape and color. But even the beauty of the forest couldn’t lift her spirits.

She’d barely spoken since her conversation with Delzana on the tree branch. Jumping out of the tree and dragging Delzana with her had been risky, Larona hadn’t been entirely sure if she could get them both down safely. It had proven remarkably easy. Just like killing three people. Just like freeing hundreds of captive and igniting a slaughter.

The captives at least seemed appreciative. Larona didn’t think they should be all that grateful. Though she had freed them, she had done a miserable job of it. She opened the cages and left them to fend for themselves. It was only after landing with Delzana that Larona realized her own neglect. While she had been sulking, others were bleeding out and dying all around her.

Many of the freed captives had been celebrating, rummaging through the Elmessian stores and getting drunk. Only a handful were tending to the wounded. Having come to her senses Larona set about healing people, just as her mother had taught her. The sun was rising by the time Larona had seen to everyone that could be saved. But how many had died as a result of her inaction.

Delzana took charge of the wagon train. She organized watch rotations then made sure their supplies were rationed and distributed fairly. A few people tried to challenge her leadership. Those who weren’t convinced by her withering stare and strong words were persuaded by her boot heel. Larona got to watch Delzana take down six elders at once, and the gregar looked almost bored while doing it.

Larona and her friends took up residence in the Elmessian commander’s wagon. It was spacious and well furnished, laid out with militaristic pragmatism. A large map had been pinned to the wall, with their planned route marked out. There were shelves lined with books and more maps, a dresser with spare uniforms and repair kits, a large mattress, a trunk with an assortment of personal effects, and a number of mostly empty weapon racks.

The weapon racks had been emptied when the captives were freed, though a few armaments were left behind. Kazlim had taken one of the swords and swung it around until Delzana convinced him to stop by promising to teach him how to use it properly. Ambrette and Imastus went to sleep on the giant mattress, holding hands as always. Larona perched herself on a padded bench next to a window and stared out into the forest, contemplating recent events.

She passed out around midday. When she woke up the other three had resumed their clapping game from before. When Imastus saw she was awake he offered Larona a plate of fresh berries and a whole sweet bun. Somehow it didn’t taste as good as the scraps from the day before.

It took some convincing but Larona eventually agreed to join the children in their clapping game. It was harder than it looked, and Larona found she was having quite a lot of fun. In fact she was actually smiling, which was a rare event.

Clap clap clap

She is smiling, I’m glad. Ambrette smiled and nodded towards Imastus, then turned to Larona and said “Imastus is glad to see your spirits have improved.” Imastus looked at Ambrett as she spoke then turned to Larona and smiled along with a quick raise of his eyebrows.

Clap clap clap

Larona looked at Imastus, “Oh thank you.” Then with a curious look she asked “Um, why does Ambrett always speak for you?” Then looking at Ambrett she asked, “And how do you know what he wants to say?”

Clap clap clap clap

Ambrett and Imastus smiled as if they had been expecting that question. Ambrett squeezed Imastus’s hand and nodded as if agreeing on something then she said, “Imastus can speak, but he doesn’t like to, it sounds… different. We’ve been together in the wagon for some time now, months I think.” Ambrett paused and faced Imastus for a moment as he tapped his fingers into her palm, 3M 6D then she faced Larona and sad, “A little over three months. So we worked out a series of taps.”

Clap clap

“Wait what?” Said Larona, “I don’t mean to be rude but I’m really confused, how did you.. I mean you’re blind, and he’s deaf… How… No offense or anything…”

Clap clap clap

Ambrett giggled, “It’s ok, I understand your confusion. I admit I was terrified of Imastus at first. I was blinded when the Elmessians attacked, I overheard someone say it was a reckless sana bomb. The rest of my family was taken away on foot. They had me wait for the wagon train because I had been blinded.

Clap clap clap

“When I found myself in the wagon I didn’t know what was going on, I actually screamed the first time Imastus spoke, I thought he was some kind of monster.” She gave Imastus an apologetic nod, Imastus smiled and shrugged. “Anyway after a few days in the wagon I realized he wasn’t a monster, and he was the only company I had. He held me when I cried and spoke what words of encouragement he could.”

Clap clap clap clap

“Imastus has been deaf since birth, so he can read lips pretty well. There were no singers that could cure him, so his family decided to make sure he had a valuable skill set. They taught him all kinds of things, including drum language.”

“Oh,” Said Larona, “I’ve heard of drum language, but I don’t know much about it.”

“Basically it was invented by border scouts to communicate over long distances. Imastus can’t hear, but he can feel the rhythms, or people can write it out for him and he can translate.” Said Ambrett

Imastus smiled and tapped out a brief, yet complex rhythm on Ambrett’s arm.

Ambrett smiled in his direction and said, “Yes he quite enjoys rhythms. As luck would have it, I come from a family of performers, and happened to learn drum language as part of my upbringing.”

Clap clap

“So wait, this clap game that we’re playing…?” Asked Larona.

Clap clap clap

Ambrett smiled and faced Kazlim, “We’ve been teaching drum language to Kazlim, he only got here about a week before you. We’re working on letters right now, we decided to make a game of it.”

Clap clap clap

Kazlim smiled and loudly said, “It’ pretty fun isn’t it.”

Clap clap clap clap

“It is.” Said Larona with a smile.

Clap clap

“I’m pretty good at patterns myself.” Said Kazlim, “I’m the best foot ball player in my town. When I’m an elder I’m going to go play in Zelis. I’m excited that we’re going there now, I went once with my dad to watch a game, it’s the most amazing city you can imagine.”

Clap clap clap

Larona’s smile faded, “I grew up in Zelis… I didn’t like it there.”

Clap clap clap

“Wait you grew up in Zelis?” Said Kazlim, “Only singers are allowed to raise their children there. Oh yeah I forgot, you said your mom is a singer. Why did you leave Zelis?”

Clap clap clap clap

“Ah… I don’t want to talk about it.” Said Larona shyly. “Let’s focus on the game.”

Clap clap

Kazlim was about to say something, but Imastus and Ambrett both gave him a look that said not to press the issue. They continued the game and were soon all laughing and smiling.

Clap clap clap

“I wonder how long it will take to get to Zelis” Said Kazlim.

Clap clap clap

Imastus tapped a brief pattern on Ambrett’s arm 1W 3D Then Ambrett Said “Imastus says it will be a little over a week.”

Clap clap clap clap

Kazlim faced Imastus, “How would you know that?”

Clap clap

Imastus pointed up at the map on the wall.

Clap clap clap

“You can read maps?” Asked Kazlim.

Clap clap clap

Imastus nodded, then tapped something on Ambrett’s arm Can you tell them?

Clap clap clap clap

Ambrett faced Imastus and nodded, then faced between Kazlim and Larona, “Imastus’s home is close to the border mountains. A lot of border scouts and even gregars come from there. His parents knew he wouldn’t be able to make a life for himself without a practical skill set. Imastus chose to focus on Logistics and planning. Drum language obviously, also map reading, geography, meteorology, mathematics, things like that. Am I getting this right Imastus?” Ambrett turned to Imastus who shrugged and nodded as if to say ‘close enough.’

Suddenly Delzana was there, “Imastus is remarkably skilled for one so young.”

Kazlim nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard Delzana speak. “All protect me, don’t sneak up on us like that.”

Delzana studied the large map for a few moments and began jotting down notes in a small journal, “Don’t mind me, I just need to check a few things.” She turned her head slightly as she spoke, conscious of making sure Imastus could see her mouth. “Imastus and I have never met before, but he’s on a list of potential recruits.”

“Wait,” Said Larona, “I thought you didn’t consider recruits younger than 50?”

“True, but there are a few exceptional cases where we might mentor a promising candidate.” Said Delzana before she began rummaging through a stack of maps.

“Oh,” Said Larona, “Like what you’re doing with me.”

“Actually you’re something else entirely.” Said Delzana.

“What does that mean?” Asked Larona.

Delzana stopped what she was doing and turned to face Larona, “I’m not sure you fully appreciate just how important you are. You and Maruketh are like something out of ancient legend. I’ve seen what the two of you can do and I honestly doubt the combined forces of every singer and soldier on Almaran could stand in your way.”

“But I wouldn’t… I mean… I don’t want to hurt anyone…” Said Larona Shyly.

“A fact that comforts me more than you realize.” Said Delzana, “Maruketh on the other hand does want to hurt people. Which means like it or not you’re going to get pulled into this mess at some point. My goal is to keep that from happening for as long as possible, and to get you ready for the day it does happen.”

“And what about us?” Asked Kazlim, somewhat indignantly.

Delzana faced Kazlim, “Larona’s going to need people to watch her back.” She then turned her focus to Larona, “Given what happened to your legs, we can assume that despite your incredible power you are still mortal.” Then Delzana swept her gaze across the other three, “I’m going to ask you three to protect her, watch out for threats, keep her from doing anything too reckless, and most importantly be her friend.”

“And you’re going to teach us how to fight!” Kazlim said enthusiastically.

Delzana sighed, “I did say that didn’t I. Ok look, rule number one of fighting is don’t do it. I’m serious, if there’s trouble I want you to stay as far away from it as you can. Run, hide, call for help. Do not engage. Am I making myself clear?”

Kazlim’s smile faded to a look of disappointment, “Aw, come on. I know you can teach us more than that. We all watched you fight six people at once this morning. Teach us how to do that.”

Delzana pinched the bridge of her nose, “That was… You should understand that I wasn’t actually fighting six people at once. Four of them were drunk and could barely stand. The other two were planning to turn on each other the moment I was taken care of.”

“What difference doe that make?” Asked Kazlim.

Delzana looked up in thought for a moment, “You know what, this is actually a good lesson for you kids. It’s not possible to fight six people at once. Fighting two people at once requires a considerable gap in skill and even then you’ll need a bit of luck. Three people of relatively modest skill can defeat even the best opponent if they’re properly coordinated.”

Kazlim rolled his eyes, “I know for a fact that’s not true. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about lone warriors who take down dozens of enemies in a single battle.”

“You’re right, that does happen,” Said Delzana, “But the reason those stories are so popular is because they’re incredibly rare. And do you know how one warrior takes down dozens of enemies in a single battle? A whole lot of training and experience, even more luck, and most importantly by being very careful to only fight one enemy at a time.”

Now Kazlim appeared genuinely thoughtful, “But how do you do that when you’re surrounded?”

Delzana smiled and nodded, “Figuring that out is where the training and experience comes in. In this mornings case I did it by paying attention to who was drunk and who didn’t like each other. The key take away for the four of you is coordination. You want to learn to fight, learn to work together. This clapping game you’re all playing right now is perfect. Keep that up, and when we have more time I’ll start giving you proper lessons. If you’ll excuse me I need to go have an argument with a directionally challenged elder.”

The next few days practically flew by. Two gregars riding on drekens appeared at one point. Delzana had a brief meeting with them then sent them on ahead. Miss Razzy, Larona’s plush toy that had somehow come to life was still around, but they kept to the forest and didn’t interact with anyone. Larona spent most of her time getting to know her new friends.

Larona had never really experienced friendship before. It was true they were only her friend because Larona had powers and because Delzana had told them to. Even so Larona appreciated the companionship. She could be open with her feelings, and tell them things she had never really talked about with anyone, not even her mother. Of course she didn’t tell them everything about herself, some things were still too personal.

The adults and elders of the caravan were curious about Larona, and eager to talk to her, but Delzana did a remarkable job at keeping them at bay. Their wagon was off limits, and those who tested that rule came to regret it. Delzana was never rougher than she had to be, but she didn’t shy away from violence either.

It seemed like hardly any time at all when the spires of Zelis came into view through the distant foliage. They saw the city about a day before arriving at the gate, it was that massive. The city was built over a large mountain. There was a tall spire at the peak, the crowning jewel the singers catherdral. Around that the city was divided into four concentric tiers, each divided by a massive wall.

The top tier, which surrounded the singers cathedral, was housing for the local singers. The homes were generally massive and could hold three or four generations at least. Larona used to live in such a house. Her family has been quite important before she and her mother fled. She could only guess what that had done to the local politics, and she didn’t really care.

The second tier was home to the middle class. No children lived there, only the most skilled trade workers and artisans. Citizenship in Zelis was something few could hope for, but for those that proved themselves it meant long life and ample work.

The third tier was the commercial area. This was as far as most visitors were allowed to venture into the city. It contained everything a traveler could want, if they had the money for it. There were shops, restaurants, inns, and of course the foot ball stadium that Kazlim was so excited for.

The fourth tier wasn’t so much a part of the city as an informal shanty town built up around the city. Every few years the singers council attempted to clear it out but even their most extreme efforts produced temporary results. When she was young Larona heard a story that they had once killed every single person in the shanty town, and ten years after that it was more or less back to the way it was. Larona wasn’t sure if that story was true, but she knew the singers of the first tier really did not like the existence of the shanty town.

As they passed through the shanty town Larona was surprised to see that it was actually deserted. It’s haphazard buildings were completely empty, even when she felt out with her sana sense there was no one. It didn’t take long for her to figure out why, as they approached the city Larona realized that everyone still living was now inside.

The situation must have been dire for the city to allow the denizens of the shanty town inside the city proper. A deep sense of unease came over the people of the caravan as they approached the city. When the wind shifted the smell hit like a rock to the face. The reason everyone living was inside became suddenly obvious.

Countless bodies littered the area outside the gate. Some were weeks old, some were fresh. Birds picked away at the rotting flesh but otherwise the bodies had been left alone. City guards watched from high above on the city walls, but as the caravan approached the gate no effort was made to hail the caravan, and the gate remained shut.

Delzana called up to the guards but there was no response.

“Riders.” Said Larona.

“What?” Asked Delzana, blood draining from her face.

Larona nodded. “Riders in the forest. I think they were waiting for us. Maybe not us specifically but for anyone hoping to find shelter in the city.”

“You can feel them?” Asked Delzana.

“Yes I can feel them.” Replied Larona. “They’re out there, hundreds of them. They’ll be moving soon. And look at the guards on the wall. Look at their faces.”

Delzana looked up and squinted, “I cant see them very well, it’s too far.”

“Their hearts are breaking.” Said Larona, “Some of them are crying. They know what’s about to happen, they’ve seen it already.” Larona gestured to the bodies surrounding them.

“I’ll admit, I’m impressed.” Said Delzana, “And I’m not easily impressed. So, do you have a plan?”

Larona took a deep breath. “They’re moving. I’ll deal with the riders, protect my friends.” Then Larona flew towards the forest.

Delzana stood for a moment in wide eyed bewilderment before turning to the nearest elder then began barking orders. “Get the children and wounded into the wagons, form defensive positions, just like I taught you. Move! Move! Move!”

The Elmessian riders were arranged in a loose crescent formation around the caravan. They rode at an easy pace. Their heart rates were steady, their eyes were dull. They didnt’ enjoy this work, but they wouldn’t hesitate either. Larona surrounded herself in flaming sana and flew past the riders, hoping they would get a good look at her. Their paces slowed but they did not stop.

A number of javelins were launched towards Larona but she avoided them easily. That was followed by a volley of firearms. Those came on faster and the explosions were harder to avoid. But covered in sana as she was even the rounds that connected didn’t really phase her. The riders clearly weren’t sure what to make of her. They saw her as a target but obviously didn’t think of her as a threat.

Larona considered using sleeping gas, or irritation gas, confusion gas maybe, but ultimately she knew these things would be ineffective. These were warriors ready for battle, laying siege to a city that held some of the most powerful singers in Almaran. They would be ready for attacks of that nature. Elmessia may not have had as much sana as Almaran, but they had enough to develop basic countermeasures.

She closed her eyes, thinking back to the three riders she had killed earlier. She thought about Aumbak, the boy who’s face she had burned. She thought about the countless fights she had gotten into when she lived in Zelis. She thought about the very first time she hit someone.

She had been young. The attack felt justified in the moment. Upon reflection she wasn’t so sure. It was a child her age who saw her as an easy target. This child had been taunting her daily, an unending barrage of insults and threats. Larona had been scared of them. One day she hit them. They left her alone after that.

With a heavy sigh she launched a column of fire just in front of the advancing riders. “Run away.” Whispered Larona.

The Elmessians were startled, they slowed briefly but soon resumed their pace. Then they quickened. “Run away!” Larona launched another column of flame, this time close enough to singe a few hairs.

The riders charged. Larona clenched her teeth. Tears forced their way out of the corner of her eyes. “RUN AWAY!” She shouted at the top of her lungs as she launched a massive ball of flame at one of the leading riders. When the smoke cleared there wasn’t enough left of them to scream.

The other riders didn’t falter. “Run Away! Run Away! Run Away.” Larona launched fireball after fireball, each consuming an enemy rider. But there were hundreds of riders, and for the most part they ignored her, aside from the handful that continued to blast her ineffectively with firearms. The mass of riders were getting very close to the caravan.

So Larona cut loose. She watched the riders, studied their position, felt their movement. And in her minds eye she pictured a line of flaming sana cutting through the front third of them. There was a noiseless flash of light, followed by over two hundred lifeless bodies falling from their mounts. The surviving riders stopped dead in their tracks.

“Run Away!” Larona yelled once more. The Elmessian riders spent an uneasy moment eying their dead, then each other, then they collectively turned and disappeared into the forest. Larona landed on a convenient branch. She wanted tears to come, but her eyes were dry. She wanted to feel grief or remorse or anything at all. But all she felt was hollow. Nearby Miss Razzy watched with interest, but said nothing.

She returned to the caravan and found Delzana, still at the front, shouting at the city guards to pen the gate. The guards were stunned by what they had seen, and were deliberating amongst themselves about what they should do. The consensus seemed to be that they would leave the decision for their superiors. Larona flew up and landed on top of the wall, the guards stopped their conversation and stared at her.

“Open the gates.” Said Larona. No one moved. With a heavy sigh and roll of her eyes Larona flew down to the inside of the gate. It was a thirty foot tall double door, secured by a massive portcullis. She had never in her life seen the portcullis closed. Larona lifted the portcullis with ease that surprised even her, then studied the mechanism until she figured out how to secure it. After that she casually opened one of the thirty foot doors and gestured for the caravan to enter.

No one made any move to stop her, in fact no one moved at all. Delzana ordered the caravan to advance and minutes later everyone was inside the city. As Larona was closing the gate she spotted Miss Razzy, still in the forest, waiving farewell. A peculiar odor wafted over Larona. It was a smell unlike anything Larona had ever experienced. It smelled something like ‘Farewell for now, little one.’ Larona had no idea how a smell could also be words, but she waived back and said, “Goodby for now Miss Razzy.” She then closed the gates and secured the portcullis. The silence that had overtaken the city was suddenly broken. A flurry of activity broke out.

City guards and officers appeared and began questioning people. A stern looking elder wearing an officers uniform approached Larona and said, “You there, what is the meaning of all of this? How did you get inside the city?”

Larona was dumbstruck. She wasn’t sure if she recognized the officer or not, but if he recognized her it would be uncomfortable. Fortunately Delzana was soon beside her and said “Thank you Malden, there’s not time to explain. Please look after these people. I’m taking these four to the gregar compound. You’ll receive a full report in due time I promise.”

“Delzana?” Said the officer, Malden. “You’ve been gone for months, where have you been? And what’s happening with Maruketh? How were his riders able to get so close to the city? Where is the army?”

Delzana was already walking away, leading Larona and her friends onward. With a wave to Malden she said, “I promise you’ll get the full report as soon as possible. For now please help these people. Sorry to dump this in your lap. Time is short.”

When Delzana and the four children were well away Larona asked, “Who was that?”

“Malden is the city Customs Officer.” Said Delzana, “Nice enough, usually. We probably interrupted their breakfast. Don’t worry, they’ll manage things.”

“I’m sorry I…” Said Larona, “I should have waited for them to open the gate.”

“Not at all,” Said Delzana, “Like I told Malden, time is short. You did the right thing. Now let’s hurry to the gregar compound.”

The city’s commercial tier was more crowded than Larona had ever seen it. Thousands of people packed in tight, and not just people but also their things, piled high in every corner of the city streets. Personal effects like chairs and dressers, bed frames, shelves, boxes and all manner of clutter. Some piles of stuff were watched over by possessive owners, but a lot of it had simply been abandoned. With the incident at the gates now resolved the noise of the city became almost unbearable.

Ambrett covered her ears and scrunched her face. Imastus held her hand and patted her gently on the back as he led her around the piles of litter. Kazlim was awestruck, looking around in every direction, trying to take it all in. Delzana moved with purpose and seemed to ignore the chaos. Larona retreated into herself and stayed close to Delzana, walking on legs made of sana.

Larona had only ever seen the gregar compound from the outside. Built from plain stone, nestled beside a giant tree, it was easy to overlook among the otherwise ornate and colorful buildings of Zelis. There was a ten foot wall around it, built more for privacy than defense. Inside the compound was a main office, a supply building, a training building, exercise yard, and two barracks. Delzana led them into the main office.

As they passed other gregars, Delzana was greeted with a brief “Commander,” To which Delzana responded with a nod. They came to a large room, there were a number of desks arranged in the center of the room, a variety of shelves and cabinets lined the walls.

Delzana waived at one of the gregars and said, “Elaster, there’s some people I’d like you to meet.”

The gregar Elaster approached with a smile and said, “Who have we here?”

“This is Larona, Ambrett, Imastus and Kazlim. Look after them please, I have a lot of work to do, oh and Maruketh could show up at any time.” Delzana strode off and barked out a request for recent reports and a warm mug of java.

Elaster was a bit perplexed, but he seemed used to Delzana’s brisk tone. “So, is there anything I can get the four of you?”

“I have a question.” Said Kazlim, “What do gregars do, exactly?”

“Well,” Said Elaster, “Lots of things. First and foremost we are wilderness experts. We know the forest better than anyone. We work for the singers and go where they tell us. Our responsibilities include things like gatherings information, delivering messages, mediating conflicts, things like that.”

“Are you all amazing fighters like Delzana?” Asked Kazlim enthusiastically.

Elaster let out a nervous laugh, “Not many of us are as good as Delzana, but we do train an awful lot.”

Imastus signed with a flurry of hand gestures at Elaster. Elaster smiled and returned a series hand of signs. Imastus grinned at the response.

“What did you just say?” Asked Kazlim.

“Your friend asked if we all know sign language.” Said Elaster, “I told him it’s standard training. It helps to be able to communicate silently in our line of work.”

Imastus eagerly bounced off and patted a nearby gregar on the shoulder, then flashed a series of signs. The gregar was a bit confused, but responded with a series of signs. Then Imastus ran to another gregar and the scene repeated.

“I guess he likes being able to talk to people.” Said Larona. She looked over at Ambrett, who did not look happy. Larona sat beside her and said, “Are you doing ok, Ambrett?”

“Not really.” Said Ambrett. “The wagon wasn’t so bad. I knew where I was and what was going on, I mean it was difficult but it was OK. Here though, it’s so noisy, and so big. I keep finding myself trying to open my eyes to see what’s going on…”

Larona hugged her. “I don’t know what I can do to help, but if you need anything just let me know.”

“Actually I could use some water.” Said Ambrett.

Elaster nodded, “I’ll go get some. Wait right here.”

Just as Elaster was getting up the door to the room burst open. A small procession of city guard filed in, followed by members of the singers council, including Maestro Daven.

“That’s Maestro Daven.” Said Larona to her friends.

“Who’s that?” Asked Kazlim.

“He’s the head of Zelis’s singers council, basically he’s in charge.” Larona spoke quietly, hoping to avoid notice.

“In charge of what?” Asked Kazlim.

Larona never took her eyes off the Maestro as she whispered, “The whole city.”

Maestro Daven scanned the room until his eyes rested on Delzana. “Commander.”

Delzana was deep in conversation with another gregar, without turning from her conversation she lifted a finger towards the Maestro as if to signal ‘Just one moment.’

“Commander!” The Maestro shouted.

Delzana did not turn, but shook her finger as if to say, ‘Just a bit longer.’

The Maestro’s face turned red, “Commander if you please…”

Delzana turned and smiled, “Maestro Daven, what a pleasure. I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Enough of your jokes Commander.” Sputtered the Maestro, “Where is this child people are talking about?”

Delzana bowed her head, “May I ask that we discuss the matter in private, Maestro?”

“My city is under siege.” Barked the Maestro, “I’ve no patience for this. Where is the child?”

Delzana put on a forced smile, “I fully appreciate that time is of the essence. Which is why I…”

“That’s her.” Said one of the guards, pointing to Larona. She recognized him from the gate, he had witnessed the whole series of events.

The Maestro studied Larona, “Wait I know you, you’re the deviant. Paxon’s child.”

Larona had never actually spoken to the Maestro, but she had certainly been the topic of conversation. The Maestro gave her a disapproving glare, “Still causing problems I see. Explain yourself child.”

Larona shrugged, but said nothing.

“Have it your way.” Said the Maestro. “You’re coming with us.” Maestro Daven twirled his finger, a signal to his entourage that meant ‘Let’s go.’

“No.” Said Larona.

“Delzana,” Said the Maestro. “Bring the child.”

“I can’t do that.” Said Delzana.

Maestro Daven scowled. “Have you forgotten who you work for? I said bring the child.”

“Forgive me Maestro,” Said Delzana, “What I mean is that I am literally, physically unable to comply with your request.”

Maestro Daven bared his teeth, “Guards, bring the child.”

Two of the guards approached Larona and reached out to grab her. As their hands drew close a bright flame burst from her skin. Both guards jumped back in alarm.

“So be it.” Said the Maestro as he uncorked a sana gourd. Then he began to sing.

Larona recognized the song and it’s purpose. He was commanding the sana to float out of the gourd, then towards Larona’s head. Once it had enveloped her head he would likely sing a sleeping song, or perhaps a paralyzing song. Larona didn’t like that idea, and willed the sana to remain in the gourd.

The sana did not move from its container. The Maestro grew flustered, and began to sing louder, even though any singer worth the title would know full well that singing louder does not increase the potency of the song.

Larona sat with a bored look on her face and waited for the Maestro to give up.

Realizing he was at an impasse the Maestro tried a different approach. “Can you please come with us, dear child.”

“No.” Said Larona flatly.

“Why not!” Snarled the Maestro.

“Because I don’t like you.”

“Delzana,” Growled the Maestro, “A word in private please.”

Delzana and the Maestro made their way to a private office, while the nearby gregars all suddenly remembered how busy they were. This left the guards and singers council sharing an awkward silence with the four children.

Larona could see questions dancing behind the eyes of each member of the council. Thankfully they kept their questions to themselves. The moment brought on a strange nostalgia for all the times she had been dragged before them. Larona recognized each of them, and they were not happy to see her. It was their descendants that Larona had fought with. Every child in the city was related to someone on the council. Larona didn’t see anyone from her own family present. She wondered if that was coincidence.

Larona was almost relieved when war horns began to echo over the city.

***

Interlude.

The following conversation has been lost to time.

Delzana closed the door to the office and gestured for the Maestro to take a seat, then took a seat across from him.

The Maestro wiped a bit of sweat from his brow, “All protect me Delzana, could have warned me back there, spared me the embarrassment.”

Delzana shrugged, “Next time I ask for a word in private you could trust my judgement.”

The Maestro sighed, “Sorry about that. It’s been madness here.”

“Understandable.” Said Delzana. “I was not expecting to meet enemy riders that close to the city.”

Maestro Daven nodded, “The riders showed up two weeks ago. We sent out a unit to take care of them, they never came back. We’ve been trapped in here ever since, I don’t dare waste any more city guards. We’ve sent out messenger birds but there’s been no reply. You’re lot are the first people to get into the city since this all started. And that child out there…” The Maestro nodded towards the door.”

Delzana looked pensive. “So that’s Paxon’s kid huh? I remember looking for them and their mother after they disappeared.” Said Delzana.

“Yes,” The Maestro nodded. “That was another fine mess. Their families never really recovered afterward.”

“I found them in Crethas.” Said Delzana.

The Maestro let out a pained laugh, “Crethas? They really didn’t want to be found.”

“What exactly is this kids story?” Asked Delzana. “Since I’m going to be working with them.”

The Maestro shook his head, “As you’ve no doubt surmised, the child is trans. The families weren’t happy about loosing such a valuable political match. They put pressure on Paxon to… correct the matter. Paxon may have pushed a bit to hard. His efforts worked for a time, but the child became violent. Every other week it seemed there were bloody noses, or broken arms. Then one day the child disappeared, along with their mother. You know the rest. Paxon left the city a few months later. Their families feuded, fought each other into irrelevance. Two powerful houses brought down by a single child. And now that child… What are they calling themselves now?”

“She calls herself Larona. She’s ah… something else. She, like Maruketh, has somehow gained the ability to control sana with her thoughts.”

“So it’s true,” Said Maestro Daven, “About Maruketh.”

“Yeah,” Said Delzana. “I watched him kill fifty soldiers with a wave of his arm. And an hour ago I watched Larona kill two hundred soldiers just by thinking about it. If that’s not scary enough, I’m pretty sure she was holding back.”

Maestro Daven’s face paled, “So the guards weren’t exaggerating.”

Delzana shook her head, “They were not.”

“Can she stand up to Maruketh?” Asked Maestro Daven.

Delzana was incredulous, “She’s twelve! Maybe in twenty years we can put her up against Maruketh, for now we need to keep her alive.”

Maestro Daven leaned in close, “Can she be trusted?”

Delzana let out a sigh, a look of uncertainty crossed her face, “She seems like a sweet kid, when she’s not killing people, which I’ll note I’ve only seen her do in self defense. I wouldn’t recommend making her angry but, yes? I think we can trust her?”

Maestro Daven leaned back in his chair, “Well then for now she’s your responsibility. At least it will be some comfort having someone with her power in the city.”

“Actually I’m not sure we should stay here.” Said Delzana.

Maestro Daven was alarmed by this, “What? Why not?”

“Like I said,” Delzana raised her palms in a placating gesture, “I don’t think we should put her up against Maruketh.”

“You think Maruketh is coming here?” Maestro Daven looked worried.

“Well his next goal is either here or the Dawn Tree.” Said Delzana, “But from the reports I got just before you barged in in, I think he may be coming here first.”

As if on queue, war horns began to echo over the city. “All protect us.” Said Delzana and Maestro Daven in unison.

***

“You make Larona sound like a hooligan.” Says Haulrin.

I shrug, “She was troubled.”

Haulrin scratches his beard, “Did your parents every tell you why this version of Larona was so troubled?”

“They didn’t really go into details.” I say. The truth is that my being trans was politically inconvenient. Trans people weren’t allowed to marry or have children in according to Almaranian law. My ancestors on the singers council put pressure on my father to talk me out of it. Unfortunately being trans is not something you can be talked out of.

“Well, as interesting as your stories are, I think it’s time we make our exit.” Haulrin rises from his seat and begins to stretch. “Our guard has wondered off, presumably to relieve themselves.”

Our cell is small and dimly lit. Iron bars seal off one side, opposite that is a barred window above a seatless toilet, and there are bunks on either side. It’s very dark outside. I’m curious to see how Haulrin plans to open the cell. I could open the bars with ease, but I don’t want to out myself.

Haulrin rips open a seam in his coat, and retrieves two metal prongs. He reaches around the bars to the lock on the outside of the door. A minute later there is a satisfying click and the door slides open. “We’re lucky our security is so lax.” Says Haulrin, “I’m assuming our jailers were not made aware of my identity.”

Haulrin carries me down the hall. I point to the storage room where they put our things, “I saw them put our stuff in there.” I say.

“Did you now?” Says Haulrin. I didn’t actually, but he doesn’t need to know that.

He picks the lock on this door with the same practiced ease as the previous lock. Inside, Haulrin’s pack is resting on a shelf right next to my journal. “I’ll admit, I’m impressed.” Says Haulrin, “And I’m not easily impressed.”

Just then our guard returns. Haulrin, moving as fast as anyone I’ve seen, retrieves a knife from his pack and lunges at the guard.

“No!” I yell, and with a sana assisted push I grab onto Haulrin’s arm. “No killing.” I say.

The guard inhales to call for help. I need to be very careful now. Incapacitating someone is much more difficult than simply killing them. That’s why Haulrin reached for the knife, it’s the safer play. But it also means the life of an innocent person. I’ve learned from experience that sort of thing eventually catches up. The authorities of this town would be on full alert, and the guard’s family and friends will have cause to hate us.

Of course if the guard alerts the others we will have a similar problem on our hands. I think of air, forming sana into a gas and directing it towards the guard. As the guard breaths in the gas, a song plays in my head, constricting and paralyzing their vocal chords. They try to scream but no sound comes out. They being to panic, I push fresh oxygen into their lungs. I remember my mothers song for sleep, their eyes droop, their legs collapse.

This is the dangerous part, if he hits his head as he falls then all of my efforts are wasted. I send sana to cradle his neck and head. As a gas, sana is nearly invisible, but when it’s solid it looks like a light teal gel. I’m hoping Haulrin doesn’t notice it, I use as little as I think I can get away with, and I put most of it on the back of his head so it’s facing away from us.

Haulrin watches in stunned silence as the guard crumples to the ground. After a moment he says, “I suppose he passed out from fright.” Then he does something that surprises me, he goes to check the guards pulse. “Thank Larona he seems alright. But what’s this?” As he pulls his hand back it’s covered in a a bit of the sana I’d used to cradle the guards head. He studies it, and smells it.

“We should go now.” I say, hoping that Haulrin doesn’t start asking questions.

Haulrin studies the sana on his fingers, “It’s like… Aloe gel. But the color’s off, and how would a humble guard afford aloe?”

“You can ask his friends when they get here.” I say, with a fair amount of impatience in my tone.

Haulrin stands and wipes the sana on his coat, “Right, let’s go.” He lifts me up and dashes up the stairs, taking two steps at a time.

“You were planning to kill him, why check his pulse?” I ask. I should probably let the matter slide but I’m very curious to hear what he has to say.

“I wasn’t planning to kill him, I was planning to threaten him.” Say Haulrin, he almost sounds as if his feeling are hurt by the implication.

“Of course you were,” My voice is dripping with sarcasm. “And if that didn’t work?”

Haulrin’s face flushes. I can’t tell if it’s from the exertion of running up the stairs. “Let’s not dwell on what ifs.”

We pass a few doors until we get to the third floor. This is the floor we came in from, there are a number of bridges leading to other buildings on this floor. The door is closed, my ability to sense sana is not great through metal. Given enough time I could probably get a sense of things on the other side, especially if we opened the door just a crack. But Haulrin does something much more sensible. He stops and listens.

When he’s satisfied that the way is clear he slowly opens the door. Once the door is open I’m able to feel the sana in the air quite clearly. I feel the shape of the hallways and the human shaped objects breathing sana in and out. There’s a few people wandering the halls, they should be easy enough to avoid if we’re careful. There’s a number of rooms I assume are offices, most are empty but two are occupied by people who I assume are working on late night paper work. Oh my, there are two people who are, ah… enjoying each other’s company.

Maybe it’s different for these people, but city guards on Almaran had strict policies against fraternizing on duty. Honestly I’m happy for this couple, and I appreciate their lax discipline in light of the fact that it facilitates our escape. Haulrin stays at the door and listens for a good minute. I watch his face and eyes as he picks out the sound of people walking the halls and makes a mental count.

Once he’s satisfied he picks me up and carries me silently through the labyrinth of hallways on this floor. He avoids the patrols as easily as I would have and soon we find ourselves with line of sight on a bridge leading out of this tower. The problem is that even at this late hour, lax as the discipline here might be, there is still a guard on duty watching the bridge.

I send an invisible stream of sana gas towards the guard. If there was more sana in the air I wouldn’t need to do even that, I could simply alter the sana that they were already breathing. This place definitely has more sana than the tower I woke up in, but it’s still not nearly enough for that. So I use a bit more of the sana stored inside of me.

I think of my mothers sleep song, the guards eyes begin to flutter, their head bobs, and soon they are asleep at their post.

Haulrin’s eyes go wide, as if he can’t believe his luck. “Larona is truly watching over us this evening.”

You’re welcome. Jerk. Mister ‘let’s not dwell on what ifs’… I could leave him here, put him to sleep and carry him back to the cell. I picture the look on his face when he wakes up, still behind bars. It would be funny, but I still need his help for at bit longer. I have no idea how to get to Sanacore and I’m not equipped to survive the wilderness on my own. Haulrin said something about taking a train to Sanacore.

Does he mean some kind of merchant caravan, or a group of airships maybe? I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about. But if it’s the best way to Sanacore then I need him to show me. Right now he’s my best chance of helping the people of the tower. Once they’re home safe… I don’t know what I’ll do after that. But for now that’s something to hold on to.

Haulrin carries me across the bridge into a much nicer looking building. This is the first place I’ve seen here that has actual decoration. Not much in the way of color mind you, but the artistry is nonetheless quite impressive. It’s comforting in a way, reassuring to know that the world hasn’t completely lost it’s mind.

The portal leading into the building from the bridge is framed by statues on either side. Depicting highly stylized humans, their faces are devoid of details, their bodies are androgynous. They are surrounded by swirling shapes, plant like tendrils twisting upwards and intertwining in the center to form an arch. I like it.

The tower itself is quite beautiful, a lot of strong vertical lines that curve around the windows and bridges. Dotted about the exterior are statues similar to the ones framing this portal. Inside is equally impressive. This floor at least appeared to be filled with various shops, judging from the ornate signs that overhang each doorway. Everything is closed up now, but I imagine that during the day this place is probably bustling with activity.

Haulrin moves with purpose, paying little mind to the lavish surroundings. “We need to find somewhere to lay low until morning. They’ll be coming after us soon.” He says as if speaking more to himself than to me. He carries me down a flight of stairs to a floor that’s not quite as nice as the one above. Still pretty fancy though, the decorations are less expensive but more creative I feel. I would love to explore this place when everything is open, but I doubt there will be time for that.

We proceed through a winding maze of closed shops to yet another stairwell, and go down to the ground floor. This place is definitely not nice looking. Many of the shops appear to be closed permanently, and those that look like they might still be in business are not well maintained. Bugs skitter under Haulrin’s feet as he carries me along. The sana in the air here is much thinner than up above. I still haven’t managed to recover the sana I spent getting out of the guard station.

We step outside and I feel sick. There’s very little sana in the air right now, and I notice for the first time that the ground is layered with praetus. It’s pretty mild, not nearly as bad as the praetus from the pestilence swarm, or the praetus that was used to against me and my fellow Arbiters int he past, but it’s still unpleasant.

I never learned where praetus comes from or how it’s made, but the most credible theory was that it’s made from stagnant sana. So, my working theory is that the city runs on machines powered by crystallized sana. The machines emit sana gas, which I’m able to draw in and make use of, but the gas eventually settles to the ground as praetus. Or something like that, I guess.

This town is a decent size, a dozen or so towers containing maybe twenty to thirty thousand people. Some are beautiful, some are utilitarian, and a few are worn and dilapidated. We come to what appears to be the largest tower. I look up and see that in addition to a number of small bridges leading to other towers, there is also a gigantic bridge that actually leads out of the city.

“Those tracks lead straight to Sanacore.” Says Haulrin as he notices my interest.

“Tracks?” I ask

“Train tracks.” He says, pointing to the massive bridge leading out of town.

“Of course.” I say. “Train tracks.”

We come to a door set next to a slab of raised rock. Oh this isn’t normal rock, it’s concrete. On Almaran we used concrete for small repairs and such, but never on large projects because it is too brittle. I suppose the people here have found a way to make it more stable. Tescon would have probably loved this place.

“So here’s the plan,” Says Haulrin as he sets me down on the concrete outside the door. He retrieves his lock picking tools and begins to work on the door lock. “Once we’re inside we need to make our way to the ticket booth. We could try buying a ticket when they’re open but I’m pretty sure the local authorities will be looking for us. So we help ourselves, don’t worry I plan to leave fair payment, then we make our way to the platform and hope to avoid notice until the train arrives tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds good.” I say. It’s not like I have a better plan.

Everything goes smoothly. Haulrin is obviously a skilled infiltrator. He knows when to stop and listen, and he knows when to hurry. He knows how to move and where to hide. And he does all of it while carrying me around. I don’t think Delzana could have done better.

Before long we are are nestled in an obscure corner of train platform. Overhead a pack of razka flit about the rafters, other than them no one notices us. We make ourselves reasonably comfortable all things considered. Comfortable enough that I actually doze off. I’m woken up by a loud horn, which must be the train Haulrin talked about.

I must admit it’s impressive, and loud. I stare, and Haulrin notices my fascination. “You are a fellow enthusiast I see.” He says cheerfully. “How much do you know about locomotives?”

Locomotives? Nothing at all. “Only a little.” I say.

“Not to boast, but I’ve been to every corner of the known world,” Says Haulrin, “And there’s no method of travel that’s faster or more comfortable. The locomotive train is in my humble opinion the greatest technical marvel since the days of Tescon himself.”

My friend Tescon certainly created a number of technological marvels, but his most impressive work required an Arbiter to both power and control. This locomotive obviously has no such limitation. My fingers practically itch with a desire to open my journal and draw this beautiful machine.

A small crowd of people has gathered on the platform, no doubt waiting for the train. They all appear tired, they look at the train with faces of longing impatience. The train comes to a stop, porters appear from somewhere carrying baggage to and from, stairways are lowered from each of the train cars and a swarm of people begins to pour out. Once the cars are unloaded the people who had been waiting on the platform begin to board.

I notice a checkpoint has been set up at the entrance to the platform. City guards are questioning everyone still trying to get to the train and a long lineup has formed. It’s a good thing we slept on the platform. I’ll give Haulrin credit, he’s definitely good at this sort of thing. One of the porters checks our ticket as we board, they smile at us and waive us on.

We find our seats and soon the train is moving. The horn lets out a seemingly joyous blare as the car jerks into motion. We follow a track that circles around the platform and turns onto the track that the train came in on.

I greedily pull in as much sana as I can, assuming that once the train enters the wilderness It will be difficult to get more. But soon I am relieved to discover that the locomotive engine actually gives off a fair amount of sana. I begin to relax, and stare out the window at the grey barren countryside rushing past, faster than any dreken and almost as fast as I could fly when I was on Almaran. Too bad there’s not nearly enough sana here for me to fly.

Flying is fun, but I can live without it, there are more important things. I wish my friends were here. Just thinking about them is almost enough to make me burst into tears. But I can’t let Haulrin see that, he’s already asking too many questions about me. Burying my emotions is a skill I’ve had a lot of practice with. I hold back my tears and adopt a face of bored contemplation as I watch the non existent scenery.

“I still can’t believe our luck.” Says Haulrin. “That guard passing out like they did, and the other guard who was fast asleep at their station.

I simply shrug, what am I going to say?

“I can’t get over the strange substance on the back of that guards head.” Haulrin takes on a deep, thoughtful look.

I shrug again.

“The color,” Says Haulrin, “I’ve never seen anything like it, an impossibly bright teal. Do you know what it reminded me of?”

I stare at him, trying to keep my features blank. I guess this confirms that he’s never seen liquid sana before.

“It almost matches historical descriptions of liquid sana.” Says Haulrin, his eyes wide with wonder.

Well I guess the ruse is over. Any second now he’s going to say ‘I know, you’re secretly Larona, back from the beyond, and also apparently transgender. My whole life is a lie. I guess I’ll have to tell the church to stop using your name.’ Since that’s definitely not going to happen I’m more than a little curious to see where he goes with this. It takes every ounce of concentration I have to keep a straight face. I can feel my cheeks tugging at the corner of my lips. I maintain my composure and continue to stare blankly at him.

“Do you believe in miracles?” Asks Haulrin, with surprising intensity.

What an odd question coming from this man. I like to believe that the All watches over us, and in rare cases perhaps even deigns to intervene on our behalf, but one thing I’ve definitely learned over the years is that everything comes with a price. I just shrug.

“Maybe I’m reading too much in to things.” Says Haulrin, more to himself than to me. “I mean what do we even know about ancient sana anyway?”

The conversation is becoming painfully one sided. Still, I can’t think of anything to say so once again I just shrug.

“Actually that’s something I’ve wanted to ask you. You’re parents certainly had some strange ideas about Larona, but what did they teach you about sana? What is it, where does it come from, how does it work?”

This at least gives me an opportunity to say something. “Well, according to my parents, it was a naturally occurring substance. It could be found all over Almaran and it was in just about everything. It can exist in any state, so solid, liquid or gas. It naturally formed as a bright teal liquid, but with the right song it could become a dark blue crystal, or a transparent gas. It could become incredibly hot, or incredibly cold, again that’s assuming you know the proper song. Oh and it could take on any chemical or biological properties. Basically if something exists, sana can mimic it’s effects.”

“Interesting,” Says Haulrin, “But one thing confuses me, you just said it could be found just about everywhere, but you’ve also said it was an extremely limited resource.”

To me this all seems obvious, having grown up with it, but I’ll indulge him. “Right,” I say, “So even though it can become anything, it can’t go back and forth. For example if you turn it into poison, you cannot then change it into a healing potion, or do much else with it. Fresh sana pools only formed in specific places. Sana from other sources wasn’t very useful to most people, except for the Arbiters, we could use sana from pretty much anywhere. Oh and it’s only good for about twelve hours from when it’s drawn, so you can’t store it or transport it, unless you’re an Arbiter.”

Haulrin gives me a curious look. A little too curious for my comfort. Did I just say something to further his suspicions?

“That’s…” Haulrin seems at a loss for words, “A more detailed description of sana than any book I’ve ever found.”

I give him a well practiced blank stare and shrug.

“And your parents told you all of this, without every saying where this information came from?” Haulrin is once again digging for information. He clearly knows the story I’ve fed him is not accurate. But what could I possibly tell him instead that isn’t another lie.

So I shrug again.

Haulrin lets out a long sigh. “I understand your mistrust, really I do. We will rescue the people of the tower together, and in so doing I hope you come to appreciate that I really am trying to help you.”

“Would you have killed that guard?” I ask, “If you needed to I mean?” For all his talk of trust he sure was quick to grab that blade.

“Yes,” Haulrin’s tone is somber, “If necessary. First I would have identified myself, and given them a fair warning and explanation.”

I roll my eyes, “So you were willing to kill an innocent person, even though you claim to be a follower of Larona.” I give him a stern look.

Haulrin scoffs, “I think that’s a tad hypocritical coming from you, considering that just yesterday you were telling me a story about Larona killing two hundred people with a thought.”

My face becomes flush. His comment hits like a rock to the head. “I… I think you’re missing the point.”

Haulrin crosses his arms, “Oh and what’s that?”

I collect my thoughts, take a deep breath and say, “Larona doesn’t kill, not simply because it’s a nice idea, but because killing has real consequences. Death is an irreplaceable loss, which means that it’s irredeemable. The people that Larona killed had families, friends, loved ones. Larona eventually had to face those people.” There’s so much I want to say, but I stop talking. I may have said too much already.

Haulrin leans back, thinking on what I said. “Interesting. So you’re saying that, according to your parents, Larona didn’t kill because she experienced the consequences.”

I shrug. At least my shoulders are getting a good workout today. “Yeah I mean… It took a while for that lesson to sink in, but yes.”

“How long is a while?” Asks Haulrin.

“Eh… Longer than it should have been…” I squirm in my seat.

“So your parents version of Larona isn’t done with killing just yet.”

“No,” I say, feeling the shame and regret that never really leaves me, “Not by a long shot. Remember she was still just a kid at the time. And people are very good at making comforting excuses for terrible things.”

Haulrin leans in, “I’d certainly like to hear more of your parents story. If you’re willing of course. I believe that Larona was about to confront Maruketh for the first time. This is a story that most people grew up with, so I’m very curious to hear a new version of it.”

New version. Whatever, here goes.

***

War horns blared over the city of Zelis. High atop the spire of the singers cathedral at the mountain’s peak, singers crowded, jostling for position to see the events unfolding below them. All around the cathedral, the families in the singers tier retreated to shelters built into the mountain. Further down, the people in the trade worker tier moved into their own shelters if they had them, those that did not boarded up their shops and hoped for the best.

At the base of the mountain, the merchants and refugees that were crowded into the commercial tier simply panicked. Larona and her companions stepped out of the gregar’s compound into a scene of pure chaos. People running in every direction with no clear goal in mind.

An elder ran past, then moments later that same elder ran past in the opposite direction. More than a few people were shouting, frantically searching for loved ones lost in the crowd. Some people stood in place, staring at nothing. Larona noticed one couple arguing about a dresser that had been passed down through the family, their children sat on the street beside them with terrified expressions.

City guards did their best to direct the flow of people, calling out and waiving them away from the main gate and up the hill. Most people seemed to ignore the guards and their efforts. Delzana studied the scene for a moment then said to Larona, “We need to get you out of the city. This way.”

Delzana did an impressive job of maneuvering the group away from the thickest crowds, while keeping an eye on all four children. Ambrett was shaking and gripped tightly onto Imastus, who was alert and attentive, diligently responding to hand signs from Delzana. Meanwhile, Kazlim’s attention was diverted by the hundreds of things happening at once around them, and Larona had to physically drag him on more than one occasion to make sure he kept up. Maestro Daven and his entourage followed close behind.

Progress was slow, and it took what felt like forever to move just a couple of city blocks up the hill. As the group was making their way up a stone staircase that was carved into the side of the mountain a deafening explosion drowned out all other sound, followed by a thick cloud of dust that swept across the entire city. The dust completely obscured everything, blanketing the commercial tier in near total darkness. The rumble subsided, and a brief moment off.;/l silence fell.

Then people started screaming. “I can’t see anything, what just happened?” The question came from Maestro Daven.

“I’m not sure,” Said Delzana, “I’m guessing that was the main gate coming down, along with what must have been a sizable chunk of the wall.”

“No.” Said Larona. “That wasn’t the main gate, or the wall.”

“Then what?” Delzana began coughing, the smoke in the air was so thick that everyone but Larona was having trouble breathing.

“The spire.” Said Larona.

“What?” Said Delzana, Maestro Daven, and half the singers council in unison.

“I can feel it.” Said Larona,

“What do you mean you can feel it?” Shouted Maestro Daven.

“I can feel sana.” Said Larona, a tad impatiently. “All the sana in the air, in the roots, flowing underground and up through the mountain. I can feel sana going in and out of people’s lungs as they breath. I can feel all of it. And I can feel that the spire isn’t there anymore. A lot of people are dead, but there are also a lot of people who are alive and trapped under the wreckage.”

Maestro Daven was coughing furiously. At last he managed to choke out, “Can you help them?”

“No,” Said Delzana sternly. “We need to get you out of here.”

Maestro Daven stumbled blindly until he managed to put his hand on Delzana’s shoulder, “But these are my people. Larona, you have to try and help them.”

“There’s only one person who could have taken down that spire.” Insisted Delzana, “Larona listen to me, if general Maruketh finds you he will kill you. He has every advantage over you, he has the same abilities you do, he’s four times your size, and he has decades of combat experience. You can’t help anyone if you’re dead, we need to leave.”

“Larona please,” Said Maestro Daven, “The smoke is too thick, Maruketh won’t even be able to see you. Please just try to help whoever you can. I’ll instruct the guards to distract Maruketh.”

“He doesn’t need to see me.” Said Larona. “If he has my abilities he can feel me, just like I can feel him. He’s up there now, moving from one person to the next. I think he’s asking them something, then killing them when he doesn’t like the answer.”

“He’s looking for you.” Said Delzana. We need to get out of here quickly.”

“Too late.” Said Larona. “He’s coming this way.”

There was a burst of wind and suddenly the dust around them was blown away. There was now a clear line of sight from the top of the mountain all the way down to the gregar’s compound. The compound was less than two blocks away, their group hadn’t traveled very far at all. The streets were still packed with people, all of whom stoped what they were doing and stood in silence, holding their collective breath.

A dreken rider came bounding down the mountain, leaping between rooftops, clearing the span of several city blocks with each leap. Larona tensed as the rider leapt directly overhead. And kept going. The rider didn’t stop until he reached the gregar’s compound below.

Kazlim was the first to speak, “I don’t understand. Was that Maruketh? I thought he was after Larona?”

“That’s definitely Maruketh.” Said Larona, “So why didn’t he attack me?”

General Maruketh stood on a one story building next to the gregar’s compound. He was lightly armored in patterned leather. On his head was a hooded helmet, designed to protect his neck. He had a regal bearing, his muscles were lean and well defined. “Gregars! Where is Maestro Daven?” Shouted the general. “And where is your champion?”

A number of gregars emerged from their main office and ran to the street below Maruketh’s perch, each armed with a bronze spear. The people who had been crowded in the street pushed themselves aside to make room. “He’s gone.” Shouted one of the gregars in reply. It was Elaster, the one who Delzana had introduced them to earlier.

“And your champion?” Shouted Maruketh, “Where is the one who killed over two hundred of my soldiers?”

“Also gone.” Replied Elaster.

“If you value your life, you’ll tell me where.” As Maruketh spoke he lifted his right arm, and a jet of flame shot up from his palm.

“Eat dreken scat.” Shouted Elaster. A lance of fire pierced Elaster through the chest. His body crumpled to the ground. The spear he held clattered loudly on the stone as it fell, echoing in the uncomfortable silence.

The people around him began to scream, then started climbing over each other in mindless panic. Larona had to choke back vomit as she felt people’s bones being crushed under the panicked crowd. She took an instinctive step forward, but Delzana placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “You can’t fight him.” Delzana’s tone was calm and even, but her grip on Larona’s shoulder was like a vice.

Somehow the street began to clear of people, at least those that could still move. Maruketh let out a roar of frustration and began launching massive blasts of fire at the gregars compound. The walls of the compound cracked then shattered under the barrage of projectiles.

Delzana clenched her jaw, then said, “You go, get out of here as fast as you can. Stay close to your friends, and don’t fly, I’m pretty sure that would draw his attention.”

“What will you do?” Asked Larona.

“I’m going to distract him.” Replied Delzana.

“He’ll kill you!” Cried Larona.

“As long as he doesn’t kill you, that’s ok. Get away, become stronger, and one day when you’re ready you can challenge him.”

Maruketh was now launching balls of flame indiscriminately. “Come out and face me coward. You slaughter my soldiers without hesitating, but apparently your too scared for a real fight.”

Maruketh was becoming increasingly erratic with his attacks, throwing fiery sana in every direction. The singers council and city guard fled as soon as fire began arcing over their heads. Maestro Daven shouted at Larona, “You heard Delzana, we need to run.”

Larona was torn, “I… I can’t just leave her.”

“You can’t help her,” Said Maestro Daven, “But maybe you can still help some of of the people who are trapped.”

Larona froze, “I… But Delzana… She told me I should always deal with the active threat first.”

Another ball of flame soared overhead and crashed into a building just up the hill, dust and debris tumbled down around them. Maestro Daven coughed and brushed a bit of the dust out of his hair, “If you want to die here, well you’ve made it clear I can’t do anything to move you.” And with that Maestro ran up the hill.

Larona noticed her new friends stayed where they were. “You three should go.”

Kazlim took a step forward, “We’re not leaving either, right you two?” He looked at Ambrett and Imastus, “We’re staying with you.” Kazlim nodded, and Ambrett and Imastus nodded back.

Ambrett was pale, and looked like she was about to throw up, but she also seemed determined. “We stay together. So do you have a plan?”

Larona stared down the hill at the madman shooting fireballs from a rooftop in random directions, shouting out taunts and curses. “A plan would be a really good thing to have right now. Any ideas?”

Then Maruketh’s dreken reared. A spear thrust up through it’s throat and out through it’s left eye socket. The creature wavered and fell. Maruketh rolled smoothly form the dying animal then stood, features furious and eyes watering, to face Delzana.

The gregar was covered in dreken blood, a satisfied grin on her face. “That was for Elaster.”

Maruketh’s face was a mixture of hatred and grief, “You. I remember you, you’re that gregar from the border.” He then gestured to his fallen dreken, “You’ll suffer for that.”

“Aw,” Said Delzana mockingly, “Were you two close? I’d heard you were close.”

Maruketh screamed, he raised his palms and shot a torrent of flaming sana at Delzana. The building that the two of them were standing on shook, and the top half of the building next door was shattered to rubble by the impact of Maruketh’s attack.

Imasustus and Kazlim both cried out in alarm, Ambrett asked “What just happened.”

“Delzana’s ok” Said Larona, “She managed to slip off the roof just before Maruketh attacked. She got a nasty scrape on her shoulder from some falling debris but otherwise she’s fine.”

“You can feel all of that?” Asked Kazlim.

“Well yeah, more or less.” Said Larona.

“So why can’t Maruketh?” Said Kazlim. “Does this mean he might not actually have the same powers as you?”

Larona peered over the hand rail, down at the building that Maruketh was on, “Good question.”

Ambrett and Imastus exchanged a series of taps on each other’s palms. Then Ambrett said “Imastus was wondering, how long after you got your powers did you realize that you can feel your environment?”

“To be honest,” Said Larona, “I’m not even sure when I got my powers. I just started using them by accident one day. That was the day the Elmessians attacked our town.”

“So maybe…” Said Ambrett, “Maybe Maruketh just hasn’t figured it out yet.”

The four children peered down at Maruketh. He was looking around furiously for Delzana. He seemed to know that he hadn’t hit her, but could not locate her. He waived his hands and a gust of sana blew away the dust clouds, then he raised his hand and a wave of liquid sana washed away a pile of debris.

As they watched him, Kazlim remarked, “He keeps waving his hand to clear away dust and debris and such, but he’s using sana, does he need to waive his hand like that?”

“No, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.” Said Larona, “I just think about what I want the sana to do and it happens, I don’t need to move my arms.”

“Sooo… Why is he doing it?” Asked Kazlim, “Is it just because that’s what he’s used to?”

“Very good question,” Said Larona, she gasped and her eyes widened. “Yes, I think you’re right. He’s waiving his hands to move sana, and he’s looking around with his eyes instead of his sana sense, because that’s what he’s used to. You guys are brilliant. Ok I have a plan, I think.”

“You think?” Said Kazlim.

“Delzana was wrong when she said I don’t have any advantage.” Larona smiled, and a glob of liquid sana rose from the ground. The glob of sana began to take shape, and soon it formed into a very close likeness of Delzana.

Imastus smiled, and began tapping excitedly on Ambrett’s palm. As he did so Ambrett began to smile and she said, “Oooh, that’s clever.”

Larona nodded, “Thank you. Anyway maybe you should run away now. If I don’t see you again I just want to say these last few weeks together have been…”

Ambrett walked up and hugged Larona. Ambrett was still pale and shaking yet she somehow managed to keep it together. “We’re not leaving. We’re your friends. So go deal with that creep, then we can save the people trapped under the rubble.”

“Ok then… thanks. Now let me think a moment.” Larona was reminded of they day she first met Delzana. The gregar had remained practically invisible while Larona’s efforts at stealth failed miserably. Larona had no doubt that Delzana could avoid detection and slip away if she wanted to. But Delzana’s goal was to distract Maruketh, which meant sooner or later she would expose herself, just as she had done for Larona back in Crethas.

But this time Larona would not abandon her. There was too much going on for Larona to see clearly with her eyes. She focused on her sana sense, picturing Delzana and Maruketh in her mind. Delzana was creeping through the rubble, looking for a suitable opportunity to peek her head out then quickly duck back into cover.

Delzana needed a spot that provided suitable cover, close enough for Maruketh to notice her, but not so close as to be an easy target. And she needed to get there without Maruketh spotting her. Larona decided Maruketh could use a distraction, so she sent her glowing teal sanacrafted copy of Delzana running though the street, directly past Maruketh’s line of sight.

Maruketh noticed the copy, but hesitated in his attack, probably because he was confused. When the copy was halfway across the street Maruketh raised his arm and shot a lance of flame towards the copy. Larona sped up the copy’s movement just enough to avoid the attack, then sent the copy behind a nearby building, and allowed it to melt into a shapeless puddle.

Maruketh jumped down from the building he was standing on. The stone cracked beneath his feet as he landed. He walked over those dead and dying in the street, ignoring cries of pain and despair of the wounded citizens around him. His eyes focused forward, he raised his hand and launched a wave of sana at the building he believed Delzana was hiding behind.

The stone structure shattered from his attack. He approached the rubble and looked around. He began waving his arms, summoning sana to sweep away the debris. Then Larona noticed the real Delzana, sneaking up behind him.

The gregar had obtained another spear. Delzana thrust her weapon into Maruketh’s back. The spear tip barely pierced the general’s skin. Maruketh turned and smiled, “Nice try.” He said. He tried to punch Delzana but she was too quick.

Delzana danced backwards, never taking her eyes of the general. Maruketh lifted his arm and shot out a lance of sana, Delzana barely managed to roll out of the way. Maruketh shot another lance of flaming sana towards her. Just before it hit, a glowing teal wall of sana appeared from the ground and blocked the attack.

Delzana stared at the wall of sana and under her breath she muttered, “Darnit kid, I told you to run…”

“So,” Said Maruketh with a bemused grin, “You are the champion I’m looking for.”

“You got me.” Said Delzana. “I’ll give you one chance to surrender and walk away.”

Maruketh scoffed, “You just tried to stab me in the back. Before that you killed my dreken. You killed hundreds of my soldiers, some of them were people I grew up with. You’ll die for that.”

“You started all this, that blood is on your hands.” Said Delzana.

“Your people started this!” Shouted Maruketh, “Your people! The ones who banished the Elmessians to the exterior, and closed off the border gates, condemning us to lives of poverty and squalor.”

“So why are we talking?” Asked Delzana.

“Tell the city to surrender itself to my authority. Accept your execution with dignity. Do this and I’ll spare those that don’t resist. Otherwise I will kill everyone. Every Almaranian in the city, I’ll bury them all.”

“Hmmm. No deal.” Said Delzana.

“Then their blood is on your hands.” Maruketh swung his arms up above his head, as if flipping over a giant table. An enormous wave of sana ripped through the street towards Delzana.

Larona wrapped the gregar in a bubble of sana. Maruketh’s attack roared over her, but Larona’s bubble kept Delzana safe. With the resulting dust cloud providing visual cover, Larona rolled the gregar between two nearby buildings. Once Delzana was out of harms way Larona created another replica of Delzana out of sana in the same place the real Delzana had just been.

Maruketh saw the copy and said, “You’ve covered yourself in sana, a clever defense.” Maruketh pointed towards the ground, a pool of sana formed at his feet. He then pointed at his legs, the pool of sana flowed up his legs and followed his finger as he pointed up and over his whole body. Soon he was covered head to toe in glowing teal sana.

Larona thought back to the day she first met Delzana, and her fight against the dreken riders. Her Delzana copy assumed the same stance she had seen the real Delzana take that day. Maruketh launched a ball of fire at the copy, it sidestepped the attack and charged at Maruketh. The Elmessian general raised both hands and blasted a wave of flaming sana towards the copy. The copy leapt over the fiery stream and kicked Maruketh in the face, then landed gracefully in front of him with a wicked smile on it’s face.

Blood was dripping down from Maruketh’s nose, his features were stunned. After a moment those features twisted into a snarl. He swung his left fist at the copy, it ducked and countered with an uppercut that sent him staggering back several steps. Maruketh lunged towards the copy and attempted to grab it. The copy spun away from the attack and grabbed his outstretched right arm.

The copy’s right arm held onto Maruketh’s wrist, while it’s left arm struck the elbow with considerable force. There was an audible snap, and Maurketh’s face twisted in pain. Impressively he did not cry out. Maruketh burst into furious flame, surrounding himself in a conflagration hot enough to burn skin from bone. Of course it had no effect on the copy, because it was formed out of sana.

The copy kicked at Maruketh with it’s right leg, but the general sidestepped the attack. With inhuman speed the copy planted it’s right leg on the ground and swung it’s left leg at Maruketh’s head. This attack connected and the general was sent sprawling.

Maruketh found himself face down, only a few feet from the body of Elaster. He pushed himself up, evidently he could still use his right arm. He flexed his jaw, then his eyes focused on Elaster’s spear, he retrieved the weapon and turned to face his opponent.

He swung and twirled the spear through a brief series of drills in order to familiarize himself with the weapons weight and balance. It was obvious that he was quite skilled. He took up a defensive stance and approached the copy. When he was in rage he thrust, faster than Larona would have thought possible. Larona barely managed to move the copy out of the way in time to avoid the tip of the spear.

Just as the first attack slid past the copy’s cheek, Maruketh swung the butt of the spear around and hit the copy square in the head. He hit with enough force to send the copy flying. Larona actually felt the impact, it didn’t hurt per se, but it was certainly and odd and uncomfortable feeling.

The copy bounced and tumbled like a rag-doll, traveling nearly a city block before coming to a rest. Larona willed it to stand, but it’s movement was not quite as fluid as it had been. The damage it sustained clearly had an effect. Larona could easily create another copy, but doing so would no doubt reveal it’s nature to Maruketh. So Larona had the copy run behind a nearby building.

Once the copy was out of Maruketh’s line of sight, she destroyed it, and created another. Maruketh was in close pursuit, he rounded the corner just as the new copy formed. Maruketh did not slow down and immediately launched a flurry of attacks. It was everything Larona cold do to have the copy evade each strike.

The copy danced and spun, ducking, flipping twirling, through Marukeths vicious assault, staying barely a hair’s breadth from his weapon. Larona attempted to have the copy grab Maruketh’s weapon, but the general was too strong. As soon as the copy wrapped it’s hand around the spear, Maruketh jerked and flung the copy into a nearby building.

The wall cracked and the building shook. Larona willed the copy to move, but it was sluggish. An instant Later Maruketh stabbed the copy through it’s chest. Maruketh yelled in triumph, but stopped when the copy looked up at him. Larona willed the construct to adopt an evil, mocking grin. Maruketh’s eyes widened in shock, Larona used the momentary distraction to reinforce the copy with fresh sana.

The copy grabbed the spear and ripped it apart like wet clay. It then tore the broken spear out of it’s chest and slashed it at Maruketh. The general quickly regained his composure and stepped back to avoid the blade. The copy still had a hole in it’s chest where the spear had been.

With a growl Maruketh said “There’s no blood… You’re not real… This is just a damned puppet! Where are you hiding gregar! Enough of your tricks come out and face me!”

The copy lunged at Maruketh, the general managed to evade the thrust and grabbed the copy by it’s throat. So Larona willed the copy to explode. The noise was deafening, and the shock sent up a huge cloud of smoke. The dust cloud hung in the air briefly, before being blown away by a gust of wind that was summoned by Maruketh.

As the dust was swept away Larona could see Maruketh standing in the crater left by her explosion. He was staring in shock at his right arm, which now ended at his wrist. Covered in sana as he was, most of his body was relatively unharmed, but the hand that had gripped the copy was gone.

Quickly Larona began to create another copy. Maruketh looked up suddenly, as if he felt something. He turned to look directly at Larona. She stared at him in wide eyed panic. He stared back with with a curious look on his face, “I can feel you… who on earth are you?”

Then Larona saw Delzana, creeping up behind him. The gregar raised her spear. Larona closed her eyes and infused Delzana’s body with sana, lending the her as much strength as she could. This time when Delzana plunged her weapon into Maruketh’s back it went clean through his chest.

Maruketh gasped in shock. He turned to face Delzana, then turned back to look at Larona, up on the hillside. His mouth opened and closed repeatedly without making a sound, his pupils were dilated and his body was shaking. He obviously had no idea what was going on, or who his real opponent was. So he did the only rational thing a person could do in that situation, he ran.

The spear in his chest didn’t seem to slow him down. He leapt, clearing several city blocks with each stride, though he was not actually flying. Within moments he was out of the city and gone from sight.

End of part 1

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