Annika could feel the moment her life was drawn away from her. It wasn’t painful, at least not in the conventional sense, though it was uncomfortable. It made her feel uneasy, but with the unease came a sense of tranquility she suspected was familiar to those who were ready to fall into Taydir’s Well.
It was no longer necessary to keep her hands stretched out toward the stone altar in the center of the tent, so they fell quickly to her side. The ritual had been performed, and her purpose fulfilled. She stared at the flickering, prismatic light that danced upon the ceiling and walls of the tent, fed by the luminosity cast from lanterns hanging around her.
Exhausted, she sank into a white down sofa, provided for her to draw her last breath upon.
“Is that it?” asked a middle-aged man with a messy, grizzled beard that stood nearby. His eyes were fixated on the thing that she had conjured upon the altar. “It’s done, then?” He was an imposing, barrel-chested man who wore the aroma of damp hounds and narcissism.
Annika nodded. “Yes, General,” she replied.
She had done her part exactly as she had been contracted. The strange floating form before her was evidence of that. The bright little stars within it radiated a comfort not unlike one she would feel while staring quietly into a fire.
“You’re certain?” the man asked again, inspecting the void that hung in the air.
“Outworld lies beyond the Void. Do not touch it, or all this was for nothing. You may prepare the Twinning now.”
“Brilliant,” the General replied. He turned to the well-dressed blonde retainer standing behind him. “Casimir,” he ordered, “have the Augurs prepare for the Twinning, and send a runner to Tyrant’s Fall. Inform the King.”
With a nod and a bow, the King’s retainer turned on his heel and departed, his cloak flowing behind him. The General turned toward Annika as Casimir opened the flap and left the tent.
“You’ve done well, Annika Freia. Embrayya will remember your name. The Clan that is born of this sacrifice will last until the end of days,” he promised.
Annika smiled graciously. She knew that the act of conjuring the shimmering Void that floated before her was no common thing. If history held true, a Void the likes of which hung in the air upon the altar had not been manifested in all of Ayndir since Vaste’lon, the Great Dragon, pulled the lands from the oceans. None could be certain how long it had been. Ten thousand years? Twenty?
Communion with the Elder Law had always come at a cost, however. Some lost the ability to perceive light. Others sacrificed their voices or their hearing, or lost their very limbs as they withered from their bodies. It made them ill and gave them strange maladies. But the strongest, most powerful contracts with the Elder Law always cost lives. Annika might’ve lived to see the dawn, but longer? It was doubtful.
The summoning of the Void was just one impossible feat that preceded another– the Twinning was far more complicated and asked more of the Elder Law than even the Void. It required perfect concentration and coordination to make an exact copy of the seed, and would yet take the lives of many more Augurs.
She looked up at the General. Allanan Borou was normally gruff and direct, with little time for pleasantries. Seeing him stare wondrously into the Void amused her.
“This is Outworld then? It’s dark,” he observed.
Annika took a moment to peer into the Void. She found she had trouble focusing, a side effect of her communion. She’d never embraced the Elder Law so deeply before. Few had.
To Borou, she had simply fulfilled the contract required of her as an adept in the Elder Law and channeled the King’s ambition. But to her and her sister, she had done something worthy of the gods. She had also brought honor to her father. For that, she smiled.
Would Taydir recognize her role that day in the history of Ayndir? Would he catch her in his cup so that she may be reborn whole, or would he despise her for daring to pretend at a god’s power and dilute her very being as it mixes with the souls of the dead in his Well?
Within the Void, fractal lights shone forth, but it didn’t seem like there was much to see on the other side. The two of them peered through it to a flat, black stone with a solid line of a bright yellow shade. Certainly it was dark, but oddly it was not as dark as it should have been considering it was night. It was as though a source high above the Void cast a diffused light down upon it, illuminating the yellow line. Beyond that, she could make out no further details.
Another light suddenly began to grow brighter and… something passed beneath the Void. It went by quickly, but Annika could have sworn it had wheels– black ones.
“Naia’s tits, was that a demon?” Borou asked.
Oddly, Annika didn’t get the impression the thing was alive. It moved, but not how something that drew breath might have moved. But she wasn’t all that interested in what lay on the other side of that Void. That was to be the King’s business once the Twinning was completed. At that moment, Annika had other priorities.
“General Borou,” Annika began. “I will see my sister now.”
For a brief moment, Borou’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to speak, but held his tongue. The General was a veteran of three wars, and held the ear of the King himself. He was a commoner who rose to become the head of the collective Embrayyan forces. He was not one to be told what to do.
On any other day, he’d likely have taken the back of his hand to her for being so presumptuous. But Annika was no longer merely an adept. Her actions that day gave her a standing higher even than he.
“Aye,” he said. He turned to leave the tent.
“General?” Annika asked just as he reached the flap. He turned back to regard her.
“You’re a brutish man. Fat, rude, and even after a bath you smell of pig shit,” she said. She could never have said it before without repercussions. “But you are a man of your word. I expect my sister to receive the same veneration you would give of any dignitary when I have joined my mother in Taydir’s Well.”
To his credit, Borou’s face grew into a wide grin that was more respectful than she had expected. “You’re a girl of spirit, Annika Freia. You have my word. I’ll keep Sizilen by my side until her duties are fulfilled.”
“See to it that you do, General,” Annika replied.
Borou nodded. “I will.”
With that, he left the tent. Annika looked over into the Void. Her ears perked as a sharp growl emerged from it, and for a moment she feared a beast might reach through and take her before she had a chance to see Sizilen. But instead she witnessed another strange glow, and this time what passed by beneath the Void was not as small as the first. It was red and it pulled a large, rectangular box behind it. No, it was no demon. It had to be a carriage of some fashion. With no horses, however, she could not fathom how it was pulled.
She could hear footsteps approaching and felt her attention being drawn away from the Void just as a young woman with long, fiery red hair entered. Annika smiled at her younger sister as she warily looked around the tent. She had a black smudge on her freckled cheek and her fingers were stained with charcoal. She had obviously been drawing.
Sizilen looked to the Void in wonder, but soon turned her gaze to her sister. “It’s done then?” she asked curtly.
Annika nodded. “It is. Outworld lies yonder.” She pointed to the Void.
“How long?” Sizilen asked. She glowered at Annika.
“Long enough to share my last hours with my sister,” Annika replied. “Will you stay with me?”
Sizilen let her guarded attitude slip away. “Of course I will,” she said, sitting down next to her.
“What were you drawing?” Annika asked, reaching up to rub the charcoal from her cheek.
From the leather satchel at her side she pulled out three parchments and laid them across the white sofa, staining it with charcoal.
“Sorry,” Sizilen said. The sofa was expensive.
“I’m sure they’ll forgive you under the circumstances.” She picked up one of the drawings and looked at it. It was a drawing of three Empyrean Riders and their mounts flying overhead. The drawing conveyed the grace of witnessing a wyvern in mid-flight.
The second drawing was the central hill of Mercer’s Mound, the very hill they currently sat atop. Chosen by the King himself and granted to him by Arianell Duna, Clan-Mother and Chief of the province of Ar’Duna, which bore her name. Historically, it was the place where Mercer Amzi, the Eternal King, drew his very last breath at the hands of the High Clans of Embrayya, united under the banner of Aneirin Caradoc.
Her last drawing showed an aerial view of the wide open fields stretching onward to the Celeph River, and in its center, a hill marked by three outcroppings that towered over it. Annika smirked knowingly at her.
“You’ve been spending time with a rider, haven’t you? To see us as the sky does.”
Sizilen blushed briefly, but her embarrassment was soon replaced with a growing scowl. “What else should I do while my sister kills herself?” she asked sharply.
Annika placed the drawing down and looked to her sister. She could see the anger in her eyes, but it wasn’t as striking as her fear. For some reason, Annika could understand that intuitively. She wondered if it was because the two of them had only each other growing up, or if she had been recently gifted with some greater intuition as a result of her communion.
Regardless, starting a fight was not how she wanted to spend her last hours with her sister. She wanted to laugh, to play, to talk. She wanted to tell her she loved her. She wanted to talk about good memories of growing up in an orphan-home in Freia, the few good memories they had in that city. Annika was barely ten before Sizilen arrived at the age of four. Four years later, they had run away together and worked as a team to keep each other fed, clothed and safe from danger. The very next year they met Emrys Oringard, who took the two of them under his wing and eventually adopted them. She wanted to talk about all these memories, and more.
She placed a hand on Sizilen’s and said nothing. She only gazed into her eyes and smiled until the scowl faded away and Sizilen looked down.
“I’m sorry, I know we’ve already discussed this. I just… wish it didn’t have to be you,” Sizilen said, her voice beginning to crack.
“I wanted it to be me, Siz,” she explained. “With father--”
“Don’t bring father into this.” Sizilen couldn’t bring her eyes to meet Annika’s. “Please.”
Annika sighed. “No one blames you for what happened, Sizilen.”
“No one needs to,” she spat. “Father is gone, and now we are bound to the King’s foolish ambitions.”
“Lower your voice,” Annika admonished. “It was not your doing. You could not have known. And a King must adhere to his ambition. We are tools to that ambition, not slaves.” She pointed toward the north. “Father is still out there, and with the help of the House of Caradoc, he may yet be saved.” She folded her arms. “This was my decision. A last act of love from a daughter to her father… and to her sister. I do not wish for my last moments with you to be full of… of debate and argument. I want your last memories of me to be…” She deflated. “To be happy.”
Sizilen’s indignant expression suddenly softened, as though she had been physically struck. “I’m sorry. I know the King is a good man,” she said gently. “But it was my fault that--” her words were cut short by her own weeping.
Annika leaned forward. “Father does not hold you responsible, Sizilen. The King has given us a great gift. He has given us the reins to rule over our own Lesser Clan. With that, we can lobby the other clans for assistance and finally do something to help Father. We need only to stay on this path to see it through.”
“I know,” Sizilen replied. “But to annex the Outworld? To take the fight against the Wasted Hordes to the very place of their creation? There’s naught else to call it but arrogant ambition.” She looked into the Void. “Do they know we are coming? Will they prepare?”
Annika shook her head. “Outworld is not like Ayndir, Sizilen. Part of the reason the Void was so difficult to open is because there is no Elder Law there to latch on to. The Great Dragon took it from them when he destroyed the World Tree. They shouldn’t expect us. That will work in our favor. It will give us the time we need to establish a foothold in Outworld.” She smiled slyly. “Nothing is stronger than Embrayyan steel.”
“Except Borou’s body odour,” Sizilen commented with a smirk.
Annika laughed. “You are my sister.”
Sizilen sighed. “I am,” she said. She turned to her. “Let’s not speak of this any longer. What would you like to talk about?”
“Well I suppose I should ask about the Empyrean Rider that you’ve obviously been friendly with.”
Comments (0)See all