Lache gazed out over the fields of their family’s home – the Flusswelle estate – the fields rolling beyond view, the creek carving through the landscape of the Wasser Realm. His twin brother slid down the hill at his feet, his hands coming up to rest his head on as he lounged against the bright grass, grinning up at him.
“Lie down,” he called, squinting up into the glare of the arcing sun. “Relax.”
Lache grinned, sliding down the hill to his knees beside his brother, settling back as he let the cool breeze wash over him. “Remember when we used to play tag in these paddocks?”
Laufend’s lips curled in a smirk. “Yeah?”
“Becken couldn’t keep up,” Lache chuckled, and Laufend bolted upright.
“Remember!” he said excitedly, face animated as his hands sculpted memories from the still, unbroken landscape. “He was so fast! And we’d dive in the creek, and he couldn’t lay a hand on us with your amplifying!”
“You’d phase us out,” Lache recalled fondly. “Behende said it was cheating.”
Laufend poked his tongue out in a mockery of disdain, imitating a child in eighteen-year-old form. He really hadn’t matured. “Behende always lost, that’s why he called it cheating.”
“It was, sort of,” Lache admitted with a shrug, and Laufend looked incredulously offended. He placed a hand over his heart in ridicule.
“If I was blessed with the talent of phasing, and you were blessed with the talent to amplifying that magery, then that’s not out faults. It’s not cheating; they just couldn’t lay hands on us.”
“Because you phased us out of existence,” Lache chortled, watching as Laufend pushed to his feet. “You can’t lay a hand on someone when your hand passes right through them.”
“I’ll tell you what,” he bargained, “I’ll give you twenty feros if you can catch me.”
“Do you swear?”
“Don’t I ever?” Lache arched an eyebrow at him, but Laufend laid a solemn hand over his chest. “I swear it.”
He gave a startled cry as Lache’s passed through him, staggering with the force of his unbridled momentum.
“My own brother,” he said, shaking his head in exasperation. “Trying to cheat me out of my money.”
“You’re phasing,” Lache challenged, pointing.
“I’m not allowed to phase?”
“It’s hardly fair.”
“I’ll double your wager if you don’t phase,” Lache prompted, and Laufend’s grin broadened.
“Deal. Catch me if you can,” he taunted, dashing past Lache. The teenager bolted after him, breath rising freely to his lips as his feet thudded across the verdant plains, his knees rolling to propel him forwards.
After a few minutes of chasing and being chased, Laufend staggered to a halt at the base of the treeless hill, doubling over to catch his breath. Lache slowed to a stop beside him, equally fatigued. “Truce?”
Lache extended a hand to shake Laufend’s outstretched palm, and watched it pass through. Laufend burst into laughter, rolling with the motion as Lache shoved him light-heartedly.
“You fall for it every time,” Laufend snickered, and the other Wasserborn rolled his eyes, pivoting back towards the direction of the house.
Lache froze where he stood, Laufend turning to face what had startled him.
The field before them was filled with perhaps sixteen scattered black figures. The creatures were undoubtedly human. But they looked like great, flightless birds speckled across the green landscape like the pockmarks of a plague. They were undoubtedly threatening in their silence and unannounced presence.
They wore black robes that came to their knees, their legs bound in black wraps around worn boots. Their sleeves hung almost to the floor, great sweeping wings that masked their gloved hands from immediate view. Their faces were obscured by white ovals with black, pitiless eyes, staring relentlessly as Laufend reached out and wrapped fingers around his wrist. Lache felt that familiar tug behind his navel, the feeling of his magery surging under Laufend’s prompt.
Three of them sprung forwards at once, and Lache yelled in surprise, taking a reflexive step back as they passed effortlessly through the twin brothers. Laufend spun, dragging Lache with him, to face the creatures that skidded around on the hill, their heels gouging into the dirt as they turned to reassess the pair. His fingers dug bruises into Lache’s wrist.
“Don’t let go of me,” he instructed, and Lache nodded, staring down the men who didn’t move, summing up their plan of attack. “On three. One, two–”
He didn’t need any more instruction than that. He knew his brother’s mind inside and out. They had played this game as children, whenever Becken and Behende had wanted to play tag. Laufend would wrap fingers around his wrist, and would willingly pull Lache from that place just behind his navel, tugging his amplifying magery up and into both of them, and replacing it with his own phasing talent.
When the creatures bent down this time, preparing to launch at them again, the brothers surged forwards, leaping and ghosting through the three men. They landed clear on the other side, stumbling briefly before they caught themselves and bolted.
“Keep running!” Laufend shouted, and Lache could hear the fear behind his determination. His breath seared in his lungs, but Lache didn’t hesitate.
He heard the whistle before he saw the dagger that skimmed Laufend’s wrist, causing the other to jerk the limb away with a cry of surprise and pain. Lache’s hand leapt to his elbow, wrapping startled fingers around the limb as another man phased through exactly where he was standing. The twins staggered to a halt, facing the creature as he straightened, pursued by his comrades.
“What do you want?” Laufend screeched at the men, but their only response was silence.
“Who are you?” Lache asked more evenly, but received the same response.
“Lache,” Laufend murmured under his breath, only loud enough for his twin to hear. “I can’t keep us constantly phased out. We have to do something.”
“If we run, they’ll throw another dagger at us.”
“Only him,” the creature directly before them clarified, his gravelly voice muffled by the mask.
“Why him?” Lache asked, but Laufend seized his wrist and gave a sharp tug.
“No. Why only him? What do you want?” Lache persisted.
“Only you,” the voice answered, and Lache’s pulse ran cold.
The creature nodded his assent, and then they were springing forwards again. Laufend gave a cry of disgust as they phased through them, and Lache took that as his signal to move, turning with Laufend. He realised where they were headed the second they took off, and he increased his pace, understanding Laufend’s need as much as he felt the exhaustion begin to plague his own form.
The twins crashed into the knee-high water, spinning on their heels to watch the row of men line the bank, warily keeping their distance. They watched with impassive eyes as the teenagers stood their ground, panting hard. But even now, Lache could feel the strength and ferocity of the water invigorating his veins, cooling his brow and focusing his mind. Glancing over at his brother, he could see the similar effect sourcing was having on his condition.
“Kill the phaser,” the masked man ordered again, and the attentive creature beside him snapped daggers from their sleeves, fixing their gaze on the teenagers as they took a step forward.
The dagger pierced the bank behind Laufend, lodging in the wet dirt and deepening the disdain on the mage’s face. “You guys just aren’t getting it, aren’t you?”
“Laufend,” Lache breathed in dread, glancing down at the shimmering string that travelled straight through his brother’s abdomen. Laufend glanced down, surprise and concern lining his brow. “Don’t phase in.”
“We need to move,” Laufend insisted, but as he took a step to move further downstream, out of the path of the string connecting the creature’s wrist to the handle of the dagger embedded behind him, an array of daggers sprung from the hands of the surrounding creatures. The strings crossed through Laufend’s form, piercing through his cheek and jaw and chest and free hand.
“How long can you keep you and your brother phased?” the leader asked, taking a single cautionary step down the bank.
Laufend glanced at Lache, an understanding passing between. The man was right, of course. Laufend could only keep the pair of them phased so long as Lache stayed connected to him, and for as long as his energy permitted. Lache shared an imperceptible nod with him, and then he was wrenching himself away from his brother, who ducked under the phased strings, leaping at the leader.
He phased back into existence as his shoulder connected with the man’s abdomen, sending the pair of them cascading back into the bank in a mess of limbs and incoherent yells.
Then the creatures were springing at Lache. His mind was blind panic, and he hurdled for his brother, hands outstretched to grasp him as he dodged the advances of the other creatures.
“Laufend!” he screeched, desperation warping his tone in a fear-ridden shriek. His ankles tangled in the strings of the daggers, and he cascaded to the ground as Laufend disentangled from the leader, his gaze pinpointing Lache.
His hand reached for Lache’s shoulder as a dagger sailed between his fingers and embedded itself in the dirt. Then he was phasing out of existence as another creature leapt down to tackle him, rolling down the hill.
Hands closed on the back of Lache’s collar, dragging him to his feet to Laufend’s cry of protest. He was yanked away from his brother’s desperate hands, his own secured behind him as the leader pushed carefully to his feet, dirt smeared across his uniform and his mask slightly askew.
“Get back in the river!” Lache shrieked. Laufend tossed him a remorseful look before he reluctantly retreated back into the middle of the river, watching them from a safe distance.
“I’m gonna get Becken,” Laufend promised, regret strangling his tone as he watched Lache being dragged off. His voice rose in volume as they retreated, their cargo in tow. “We’ll find you, Lache. We promise. Alright?”
Lache nodded jerkily, his throat tight with terror as Laufend faded from view behind the hill. Someone pulled a bag down over his head, obscuring his view, and he mewled a cry of fear, stumbling in their grip. Blind, with his pulse thrumming in his ears, Lache’s mind tried desperately to wrap itself around what these men wanted from him.
When they forced him onto the back of a horse, his mind had produced no reason for their silent malevolence. When the air dimmed around him and his breath chilled in his lungs, reminding him that he was far, far from home, his mind abandoned reason. When he crashed to his knees on solid ground, after two days of riding, they ripped the bag off his head to expose a blank, empty cell, and his mind receded in the wholesome terror of where he was and what he was doing here.
He was visited by only one unmasked figure, a man with greying hair, and this man Lache recognised. “You’re from the projection,” he breathed, unblinking under the man’s coldly impassive gaze.
“We’re the Iron Faithful,” the man affirmed, and Lache felt something beyond terror. This was some visceral fear for his life, beyond dread and fear, primeval will to live coupled with the all-pervading thought that he may not survive long enough for Laufend to find him here. He felt tears bubble to the surface.
“Why am I here?”
The man smiled then, a half-smile, one corner of his lips tugging up in amusement. “You’re going to help me resurrect the Six Realms.”