The Reality Saga Volume I - The Song of Steel

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Chapter Three

“I know you…” Kristina said. She was standing in a darkened corner of the first floor of an inn where woman in a black cloak sat at a round table. A full glass of ale sat before her while what appeared to be a massive scythe was propped up at her side, over six feet tall with a blade that curved to almost three feet at the point. That is no farmer's tool. Reclining back a pace, the cloaked one regarded Kristina with her dark eyes. “We've never met and yet I could swear I know you.”

“Have a seat and I’ll tell you all about it,” she said, voice rich and sultry. Kristina did just that, transfixed. Dark strands of hair fell around the older woman's face from the edges of her cloak as she leaned forward. “Good. I take it you heard me, then?” Kristina simply nodded numbly.

“That voice you used, how did you do that?” she said, her natural curiosity finally beginning to override her sense of unease. The cloaked one smiled, chuckling lightly to herself and leaning back in her seat again.

“Mental manipulation is a rather messy bit of business,” she said with a chuckle. “Though you heard me, out of all of these simple folk… perhaps there is yet a chance?” She shrugged, finally picking up the glass of ale and taking a deep swig. Kristina’s eyes goggled nearly out of her head – in seconds she'd emptied it entirely. Setting it down, the cloaked one wiped her mouth lightly with the back of her hand, a fiery light in her eyes. “Alcohol. I almost never get to actually drink any of it, poison is such a nasty thing.” The sudden look of distress on the younger woman's face set her laughing. “Oh, I’m sure there’s no risk of that here. At least there shouldn’t be. I can’t honestly picture that fat, beady eyed innkeep of yours slipping a little something into my drink. As closely as she watches me she herself is being watched. I’m rambling, aren’t I? Where are my manners? I haven’t yet introduced myself, what’s your name?”

“Didn’t you… Kristina, of the House Terwynn,” she said. Her surname and the connection it bore to said House had brought her little but grief for most of her days, though her father had made of himself a mage and a knight of some repute in Lothanis. It was said the he and the Regent had been close friends, for all that she'd ever been allowed to visit the capitol. The late Jonathyn Terwynn had said that a girl of her years had no business being at court, to which she'd countered with knowledge from books that by age ten, most lordlings and ladies all ready had a coterie of their own picked out. A single flat stare and a moment of his steely gaze had put paid to the argument there and then. Ten years all ready. I miss you, papa.

“Terwynn,” the dark one mused, looking at firelight reflected dimly through her ale glass. “I know that name. One Mathas Terwynn sits as Head of the House right now, yes?” Kristina nodded. Her distant cousin was known for a number of qualities, none of them at all savory.

“How that lout took the Seat from Mathwyn is beyond me,” Kristina groused. “Yes, I’m of House Terwynn, but my parents were simple enough folk.”

“Then how is it you are here, little one?” the dark one asked her. At this Kristina finally looked up and stared her in the eye.

“You know you still haven’t given me that name,” she said, holding her ground firmly. Instead of what she expected the woman seated across from her laughed, fully drawing back the hood of her cloak as she responded.

“Call me Andreida,” she said, extending her hand as a gesture of good faith. “Don’t worry, I don’t bite. Most of the time, that is.” After a hesitant laugh, Kristina extended her own, clasping hands with Andreida’s at the center of the table. After a moment Andreida reclined back in her seat lazily. “You know I like you, Kristina – you’ve got temerity. Most of these people take one look back here and find themselves wanting to be elsewhere. It’s easy enough to see, when you can hear their thoughts.” Her eyes seemed to grow distant for a moment, and then she simply shrugged with a resigned expression on her face. Her lips curled back into a slight smile soon enough. “Still, what fun would life be without a little excitement, eh?” Kristina noticed something of a dark glimmer in her eyes that appeared to fade away before she had a chance to identify it.

“What do you mean?” she said. Andreida grinned somewhat impishly at this as she tilted her head in the direction of the table in the opposite corner of the room. Kristina’s gaze idly followed hers. A small group of men in armor were sitting together, laughing and shouting and generally carousing as soldiers were wont to do in their free hours.

“Take that group of knights over there, the one that you recognize as Sir Dunwood no less,” she said, standing and pointing at a grizzled old knight that Kristina had seen when she entered the building. The blue eyed brunette shivered slightly without realizing why, and then resigned herself to pay attention. “You can’t see it for the block in your mind but I can read as clear as daylight, the darkness in that man’s heart and soul.” Kristina blinked at this – Dunwood had always been kind to her as a child and everyone knew him to be fair in hand as in heart, though he was a bit stern with the men under his command. Most feared him almost as much as they respected him.

“The man has seen battle countless times, during the Skirmishes under King Lothane. Men have died on his blade,” she said, her gaze taking Andreida in rein for a moment. “Killing, even in the name of good, surely leaves it’s own mark on the soul, yes?” The other woman nodded sullenly.

“You show some insight for one so young as yourself – nearly twenty years old, yes?” Andreida said to her. Kristina blushed – her youth was something of a sore point in a lot of places. Her daily presence in the unfinished township among them – she was to be their Lady of the Manor, and unlike most nobles she'd opted to take a direct hand in things instead of waiting in comfort back in Brenhel or the capitol. “So it is. There is more to that man than just the stain of killing in battle. There's a darkness underneath it all that combat alone simply does not account for. I can see images from his mind – roaring flames… a woman screaming, a child crying… men of courage being broken.” As if on cue, Sir Dunwood turned to look in their direction while the men at his table continued their revelry. Kristina felt an icy chill shoot down her spine – there was a strangeness to his gaze, when she thought about it – and quickly turned away.

“Odd,” she said, looking down at the table with her hands atop her head. Andreida did no such thing, staring him down as intently as royalty. In the end it was Dunwood who looked away in haste. It was this Kristina last saw, a blaze of energy that she could feel in Andreida’s eyes.

“Yes, I can feel it… and what’s more, he knows I can feel it,” she said, confusing Kristina to no end. Andreida could read the look in her eyes and endeavored to explain herself. “See how he looks at me, see the way the lines next to his eyes deepen, how a slight smile crosses his lips. A look of recognition, as if he’s known me for ages. See, then, how he looks at you. A touch of respect, your due as a noble perhaps, but little else. He knows who you are, but he knows who I am.”

“You do have a point, but... I’ve know him for years, what could possibly be so dark about him?” Kristina said. Andreida relaxed in her seat with a chagrined look on her face.

“Deny it as much as you wish child, it’s there and one day something will come of it. For good or ill I cannot say,” she said, trailing off into silence, staring off into space. “It doesn’t matter, anyhow. I fear I won’t make very good company at the moment, if you don’t mind.” Kristina heeded the unspoken request and stood up, tipping her head in Andreida’s direction. “Let me leave you with one good bit of advice, Kristina of House Terwynn. Don’t try to deny what it is that you are, now or in the future. Sooner or later it will catch up with you. Good evening to you, child.” The last sentence confused her to no end as she turned around and strode out of the tavern without giving a second look at either Andreida or Dunwood. I must be going mad.

Well into the night, after the day’s work was finished and everyone had gone to their various tents and makeshift homes outside of the site of the construction, Kristina was wandering the grounds in a leisurely stroll. She stopped outside of the incomplete structure that would become the her manor as a strange sensation tickled the back of her mind.

“Something…” isn’t right, her mind finished for her. Silently she rounded on her heels, half expecting to see some dark figure leap out at her from the night. She drew the four foot quarterstaff that she’d had strapped to her back.

What is it you are expecting to find, young one? a phantom voice called to her. She knew it had to be in her head – the sound did not register in her ears whatsoever. Kristina whirled about loudly in as many directions as she could think of, looking for the source – it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. That’s right, I’m here, with you… you know it, you can hear me…

“I don’t understand,” she said.

Not now… not yet, anyhow, young one… don’t worry, you’ll know soon enough, and if all goes well, you’ll be well away and safe before any of it comes to pass. Kristina couldn’t put a name or a face to it, despite her efforts.

“Damn,” she muttered to herself, starting to strap the quarterstaff back on and stopping halfway when the crunch of leaves underfoot spoke of people nearby. Just wait a minute. The undeniable feeling of malice afoot crept down her spine. Peering into the darkness to her left she waited as a patrol neared her, a small field of light surrounding them. A patrol? She kept herself on guard as they approached with swords at their waists and torches in hand.

“Mistress Terwynn, it isn’t safe for you to be alone out here by yourself at night,” a solider with an iron spike on top of his helmet said.

“Thank you Lieutenant, but if you don’t mind I think I’ll be the judge of what is safe for myself, wouldn’t you agree?” she said, ice in her voice. He arched one eyebrow at her, his hand seeming restless at his side. He wants that sword, make no mistake.

“Mistress…” he said, looking left and right nervously, down the empty streets. They were in the darker part of town on the edge of the construction and the Lieutenant and his three men were the only patrol within four hundred yards.

“I said,” she flatly, “that I can handle myself. Thank you, Lieutenant. Return with your men to your patrol.” The officer drew back a pace before he decided on his course of action. As smoothly as possible he drew a three foot length of well polished steel.

“Don’t bother to scream, it won't save you,” he said, voice gravelly. With a motion of his fingers his men moved around to flank her. Two of them seemed hesitant to move forward, as if in the middle of realizing their treachery, but one of them drew his blade without pause and came around behind her. Time to find out just how well trained these men are.

The officer slid forward at the same time the soldier standing behind her did, both bringing down their blades in an attempt to cut her down quickly. With a smirk she flicked her wrists, spinning the staff in her hands as she stepped aside, parrying both blows with only minimal effort. She turned and smiled at one of the two hesitant soldiers, winking at him even as she spun her staff up and cracked him across the side of his unarmored head with a single snap of her wrist. He went down in a crumpled heap, a look of surprise still on his face. She knew he wasn’t dead – his chest still rose and fell – but there would be a nasty lump on his head that would give away what had happened in a heartbeat.

“What, and spoil my fun?” she said to the officer and his lackey, both of whom were untangling themselves from the clash of blades they'd found themselves in when she'd moved aside.

“Don’t just stand there, move your fucking ass,” the officer said to the others. All of them turned to face her, no one quite willing to step forward. The third drew his blade and then threw it to the ground, running away in fear. She didn't know where he would go, assuming it would likely be the tavern to soak himself in liquor and drown his fears away. It didn’t matter – she hadn’t gotten a good look at his face and for all of the adrenaline pumping through her veins she didn’t think she could identify him on sight if put to it.

“Well?” she asked the officer, cocking her head slightly to the side. It was part bluff – she knew she was good with her weapon, but there were two men in front of her, both larger than her and more than likely a good deal stronger, as well. If she lost her staff, it would end swiftly

“Then I guess we’ll have to do it ourselves,” the dark haired, dark eyed officer growled, raising his blade. In the moment’s pause he had shown she flicked her staff towards him, catching him in the diaphragm and thoroughly knocking all of the wind out of him. “Bitch…” He slumped toward the ground, clutching his stomach, dropping his weapon in the process. Kristina stared at the other man with a wolfish gleam in her eyes.

“I don’t suppose you are willing to tell me what it is that he wanted?” she said, twisting her staff upright and setting the end in the ground, leaning casually against a single column behind her that would eventually become part of the manor wall. The remaining soldier – a blond haired youth of no more than twenty years – glared at her with icy blue eyes. Well now. Suddenly she felt the world around her growing dim, and yet the soldier before her seemed to shine. She felt as if she could see underneath his face and see… someone else. What is this? A man fully grown stood before her, tall and resplendent in black robes and black mail underneath, for just a moment before the world fell back into place. In a moment of dizziness the blond youth tried to strike, as quick as a snake. She had just enough time to get a good hold on her staff and parry the blow.

“Foolish human,” he growled at her, his voice deep and resonant. She felt a chill in her spine at that tone – she'd only ever heard men of power speak that way. Darkness seemed to ripple around him at her mind's edge, darkness that hungered and yearned. “That fool man on the ground next to me, holding himself like a babe still not off of his mother’s teat… that simpleton whom you nearly killed with that staff of yours, and the weakling who went running at the first sight of trouble… did you really think that any of them had it in them to carry out the mission? They don’t know even a tenth of what they were really at.” She didn’t understand a single word of what he said – it was in a language that she thought sounded ancient and yet harsh at the same time. He blinked, surprised, and then repeated himself in the Common tongue that she could know what he meant.

“What are you?” she said. She could feel power coming from him in black waves of energy, but she couldn’t explain a word of it. “I mean, underneath all of that… what are you?” He smiled, stepping backwards a pace. A pulse of darkness radiated from his center and he changed physically before her eyes. His simple soldier’s hauberk and tabard disappeared under elegant black plate, a rich black cloak bearing a strange symbol on the right side draping around his shoulders. A symbol that she knew she recognized – a small, round sigil, a black field bordered by silver flames with a jagged bolt of crimson lightning set across it. The ancient symbol of the Society of the Magus, known throughout the land as a symbol of power, an emblem of fear. She tried to press her self back farther against the stone column as the darkness she'd sensed became visible, twisting around his eyes in motes and symbols she could not understand.

“Where is she?” he said. “I can feel her on your mind, you’ve seen her – where is she?” He asked as if he expected an answer right away and Kristina could feel a tugging at her mind to do just that.

“I haven’t the foggiest,” she said. “Honest truth.” He seemed to frown for a second and then whirled about, disappearing before her eyes with a scowl on his face.

“I will find her,” he said in a growl as he faded from view. “And if you are lying to me you will suffer pain unimaginable for it, little foolish human. Mark my words.” After a moment of darkness, light began to fill her vision as soldiers came from every direction. And this time it was no small group of four – half of the entire battalion of four hundred stationed in the township were making their way to her location. She breathed a sigh of relief, knowing something had just begun whether she willed it or no.

Weeks later, seated in the center of the tavern with her feet planted firmly on the hardwood floor and her quarterstaff lying across the table before her, Kristina drank. No fine, soft teas for her today. She drank by herself, the common ale from the tavern's stores, though strangely the alcohol in it never seemed to have much of an effect on her. She’d gained respect from some of the soldiers in town by being able to drink any one of them under the table without even breaking so much as a sweat.

“This whole thing is madness,” she said to herself, sitting relaxed as she quaffed her frost drink alone. Gazing out of the open window she wondered just who she was talking to. I really am going crazy, go figure. “Every time I even think of that damned woman… and there we go again.” She felt the tingle at the back of her neck. “Would that we had never met.” She knew immediately that she didn’t mean it. Andreida intrigued her more than anyone she had ever met, even when the feeling was driving her near to the point of madness. To be free again…she wasn’t certain where that thought had come from, which startled her in and of itself.

Recent days had been difficult. The work load had increased as the largest and most complicated buildings were finally underway, and there had been... incidents, as well. A few random attacks, a few more unexplained instances of strange power that barely saved her life in the nick of time. Shaking her head, muttering under her breath about ‘foolishness’ and ‘madness’, she stood up, truly amazed when she felt no dizziness – she had drank six solid pints of their strongest vintage, surely that much alcohol must affect even her. “I’m losing my mind.” Men around her began to pay attention but she paid them no mind, striding out of the building.

Under the cover of darkness the town took on a somewhat sinister appearance. Shadows that seemed too long for comfort, edges and awnings that seemed to reach out to whoever stood underneath or nearby, a general sense of malice that was completely non-existent by day. She thought it must be her imagination, but at that moment she wouldn’t have put anything past being possible.

“Damn this place,” she said to herself. Why did I have to meet you? Everything was going so smoothly before you showed up. As she contemplated matters, a faint rustling to the north caught her attention. Look up and breaking her silent reverie, her eyes narrowed and her brow furrowed in irritation. She thought she heard voices coming from that direction.

“…quiet, or they’ll find us…” a fragment drifted towards her. She thought she recognized it, briefly, but the feeling was gone almost as soon as it was there. “…fools, at this time of night…” That one was completely unfamiliar, which she took to be either a relief or a threat – she couldn’t quite decide which at the moment. The familiar one spoke up again, this time clearer. “I told you to be silent.” With a gasp she felt something covering her mouth and her body being pulled around the corner of the building behind her. Before she could protest she was being whirled around in the shadows to face whoever had dragged her there. Shock erased all matter of comment from her mind.

Standing regally in black plate and a velvety black cloak, the tall woman before her with raven dark hair and piercing eyes was none other than Andreida herself. The long handled scythe was strapped to her back, now. She thought she could catch a glimmer of the raised edge of a design on the woman’s plate, but Andreida shifted positions slightly and her cloak veiled it before Kristina could make it out.

“Keep your wits about you and keep quiet, woman, if you know what’s good for you,” the taller woman whispered harshly. Fiery light of protest roared in Kristina’s eyes, but for the buzzing in her head she held her tongue. Andreida seemed to smile – must have read my mind. “Good, so you can keep quiet when necessary. Always a good trait. I never enjoyed having to waste fine soldiers who couldn’t learn that simple necessity.”

“I-“ she started as Andreida cut her off with a warning finger. Making an effort to lower her voice, she continued. “I haven’t had peace for a month running now because of you. And I don’t even understand it, that’s the worst part – things just seem to happen of their own accord. I’ve gotten into half a handful of fights that… nothing describes what has happened.” Andreida shook her head slowly, eyes lowered. She seemed hesitant to speak, if anything.

“I felt what you spoke of, if you must know, when it happened,” Andreida said through gritted teeth. “To be truthful, I had hoped it wouldn’t happen. I like you, Kristina. And I can feel a massive potential for power from you. Your future… gods' eyes, child, if I could but describe it to you… no matter, there is no time for that now.”

“Who were the two men around the other corner?” she asked, leaving Andreida with a look on her face as if she’d been struck dumb. Catch them off guard, that seems to work. Andreida seemed to grunt at this bit and then smiled somewhat viciously.

“You must have recognized the clearer voice, dear child,” Andreida said to her in fluid tones that suggested mockery rather than oozing with it. “I remember that same man gallivanting about in a certain inn not one month ago, telling stories, buying the trust of his men with nothing more than a few rounds of ale and a hearty laugh or three.” Kristina’s eyes lit up but Andreida laid a silken finger over her lips. “Not a word, child. That one is more dangerous than he looks. I told you that I felt darkness in his soul. I wasn’t lying.” Kristina’s eyes narrowed a bit – her mind was trying to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together, and the completed picture was shaping up to be ghastly.

“But…” she said. Andreida shook her head again.

“They’re looking for someone,” Andreida said to her, voice grave and serious for a change. “Me, if you should know. If they find me you’ll almost certainly see some fireworks, and as well as I can manage on my own, without you being properly trained they wouldn’t leave you a chance to escape and blow their cover. They don’t want witnesses – their sort are made for but a single task.”

“What do we do?” she asked. Andreida’s face darkened but she smiled in spite of it.

“Glad to hear that. ‘What do we do’, rather than ‘is there anything we can do?’ You’ve got spirit – I said that once – and it might just keep you alive,” she said. “Just remember that. And keep your wits about you. Move quickly now, and follow my steps. Don’t let yourself be seen, not yet. Not if you can help it.” Andreida drew out of the shadows without so much as a scraping of feet, and Kristina was behind her in a hurry. Perfect, save one thing.

When they stepped out of the shadows, men were waiting. More than just the two that had been skulking about in the darkness moments before, though those two led the pack. Kristina caught her breath in her throat with a gasp and Andreida’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“You,” she said in a growl, the sound coming from deep in her throat. Her hand slid towards her shoulders where her scythe lie strapped. One finger flicked open the clasp across the top and she had it waiting to draw in her hand. Kristina reached back for her quarterstaff, as well. She could feel the tension in the air.

“Sir Dunwood,” she muttered quietly. The lead soldier, appearing to be Dunwood if he had been about thirty years younger, cocked his head slightly to the side. “You…” Recognizing that armor made her catch her breath in her throat again. It was the symbol, more than anything else. The very same symbol that she caught a brief glimpse of on Andreida’s chest.

“What is that, my dear?” he said, sarcasm rich in his voice. “Oh, don’t look so surprised, child.” There was that again – child? Who are these people? “I could have sworn you knew something in the tavern last month, but I let it pass.”

“The attacks,” she said, hand taking a firmer grasp on her staff as she swung it around in front of her, positioning herself ready for an attack. “You were responsible for those, weren’t you?” Dunwood took half a step back, a snarl lining his lips.

“Until now you were a nuisance, nothing more,” he said flatly, eying her up and down. “But, now I can sense a… resonance, from within you. Vast potential, though I doubt the Terwynns know anything about it. Would I be right?” Kristina growled and Dunwood smiled. “So it is. Tell me, child, how long have you let it lie dormant, how long have you hidden what you knew to be part of yourself? How many days went by when you saw things happen and knew that you could do something about them, if not for the chance of being discovered and being bundled off to the Magery in Lothanis?” Kristina herself snarled – for every word he said that angered her, every word was true.

“I am not…” she said, mouth agape. Andreida growled at this, eyes burning with cold hatred.

“She isn’t a part of this, you fool,” she said. “It’s me you want.” Dunwood laughed aloud, throwing his head back as if all of it were a truly fine jest.

“You know as well as I do that our sort never lets a girl with her abilities go, don’t you?” he said. His full blond hair, neatly parted on one side, marked him as young just as much as his ageless features – not the worn, weathered face he’d shown before – proved it. Kristina knew he had to be older, though. His eyes betrayed a sense of age that was even greater than his physical body had looked just earlier that day.

“Then I claim protection of this girl,” Andreida replied coldly. Startled gasps and mutters rose from the crowd behind Dunwood but he silenced them all with an upraised hand.

“That kind of protection is not your right, not any more,” he said. “Only the Grand Magus can make that claim, and you’re little more than a useless runaway. I’m not even sure why the Council bothered me to find you, anyhow. You never knew what was best for you, or the Society.” The last statement drove it home – Andreida was a Magus, or had been, before she fled. And what woman in her right mind wouldn’t flee that? She liked Andreida, but she wasn’t sure just how far that went, knowing what she was.

“You are a fool, Jeryn, and I’ll see you dead for it,” Andreida said. Kristina could hear the defeat in her voice and tightened her grip on her staff. If she could only remember how she had created that bolt last month… a rustling and shuffling of feet from behind her drew everyone’s attention, but Kristina did not hesitate.

“To arms, to arms!” she said as loud as she could. “Soldiers, to arms!” Jeryn Dunwood made as if to laugh aloud again and then stopped when he heard the cries of soldiers coming from every direction. Kristina smiled to herself. Anticipating trouble, she had commanded every last soldier to be in the streets within running distance of the inn at the center of town – they proved faithful.

“So that’s your game, is it child?” Jeryn said to her. “Men, set to it.” Andreida’s eyes bulged and she leaped forward, scythe in hands. Her blade clashed with Jeryn’s sword in seconds and the two of them stood locked in combat as men began pouring in from every direction. Their momentary hesitation at facing over a hundred Magus was quickly erased as swords clashed and the song of steel filled the streets. Kristina herself strode over to the entrance of the inn, throwing open the doors. Instead of patrons, more soldiers came pouring out. She’d had the legion’s numbers increased dramatically since the first attack late at night a month previous.

“To arms, men, to arms,” she called, rallying them forth. Turning back towards the Magus soldiers, her eyes blazed with light as she felt power surging inside of her. Strapping her staff back across her back, she walked into the crowd unarmed. What had seemed to be a hundred Magus quickly became five times that number, and her soldiers were hard pressed to face such well trained opponents with magic on their side. So they have magic, do they? I’ll show them magic. She didn’t know where the thought was coming from but this time she didn’t care. Her hands glowed with power and she began thrusting her arms forward. Beams of jagged light in all manner of colors began erupting from her clenched fists, killing men left and right. Blast after blast ripped a dark soldier apart as she moved through the crowd, unaware of the frozen snarl on her face and the fierce wind blowing around her. Where is he, that vile traitor?

“Kristina,” Andreida called from a position off to her right. She whirled about, dashing towards the sound she recognized. It wasn’t the sound of someone calling for a comrade, it was a frantic cry for help. She arrived just in time to see Andreida scream and crumple to the ground, Jeryn standing over her triumphantly.

“You’ll thank me for this later, your highness,” he muttered to her collapsed form. His head swung slowly up and he met her gaze with cold hatred of his own. A slow smile formed on his lips. “Now you… I can make some use of you, child.” The smile never left his face. She didn’t give it a chance – with a harsh guttural roar she spread her arms, facing upwards. The distant sound of thunder was suddenly nearby, and a white lance of jagged light split her vision momentarily as a bolt of lightning from the skies above crashed into Jeryn, killing and charring the man to a blackened husk where he stood. She felt energy being gathered from an unknown source and the body crumbled to ash, whisking away on the winds tearing through the streets. All around her Magus troops began dying as she screamed, bolts of lightning targeting each and every one of them, one by one. Her soldiers stood as if struck dumb.

“Andreida,” she said, kneeling beside the woman’s slumped form. She’s alive. She didn’t know how she was doing a tenth of what she had done, but it seemed to work, all the same. She fumbled around for something she couldn’t quite see – Light, threaded with Water and Earth – and her hands glowed as power drawn from deep within filtered through her into Andreida. She kept up the spell for moments before releasing it, rising slowly. Andreida’s breathing quickly picked up, and with a harsh cough the woman’s eyes open.

“Kristina,” she muttered half heartedly, accepting the younger woman’s hand in helping her to her feet. A slight fog passed over her eyes and then she shivered, seeming to take herself in hand again. A smile curved across her lips. “I’m fine, child.” Kristina had half a heartbeat to mutter something of an apology before a gleaming of metal caught the corner of her eye. Her staff in hand within a fraction of a second, she deflected the sudden blow of Andreida’s scythe without even thinking.

“Why…” she said, taking a step back, crouching a pace with staff held in both hands across her body. Andreida threw her head back and began laughing. Loudly. Thunder rippled across the sky once more, and then suddenly everything was chaos.

Lightning hammered down once again, this time striking Kristina’s soldiers wherever they stood. Pillars of fire flowed through the columns of troops, burning them to a cinder as their jaws hung agape. Fierce wind took men off of their feet while daggers of ice were flung about mercilessly. Kristina could feel a strain from Andreida – battling herself and combating her ability as well. She was clearly stronger but every last shred of willpower she possessed was fighting to hold back. Kristina only barely shielded herself in a way she didn’t understand from the assault. Lightning, fire, and ice alike glanced off of the shield and the wind carved a path around her body, seeming to ignore her.

“WHY?” she said. The armored Magus whipped her head towards her, dark eyes glittering dangerously. A hunter, seeking her prey. Andreida laughed again, ruefully.

“The Great Master has taken what was his once more,” she said. Together with the frenetic laughter bubbling up from her throat were tears. Andreida grimaced as if in pain, her scythe clattering away on the ground, tossed by the wind. She grasped her head in both hands, trembling bodily. “Hurry, child. While I still have control, run.” Kristina turned and fled as laughter followed from behind.

Atolibus gasped as he separated from the link. She'd been willing to show him more but he found himself unable to look further lest blind rage take him. Only one thing danced in his mind, one woman's face, a face he hadn't seen in centuries. A face he'd hoped to never see again.

“Are you all right?” he said after gathering himself, a haze of confusion was fogging his mind. Kristina nodded feebly, responding with a whispered 'yes'. “I’m sorry to put you through that again. It must have been unbearable.” Kristina shook her head fiercely.

“It isn’t your fault,” she said softly, wiping wetness from her eyes. “It’s just that I haven’t thought about that day in so long… to remember it all so suddenly, so powerfully, takes more out of me than I thought it would.” She paused for a moment before continuing. “You know, it’s funny. The whole time I was with her there was this strange kinship that I could never understand. I felt something coming from her. That was what compelled me to find her that day in the tavern, what kept driving me after that.” Atolibus nodded – the telltale signs of the Gift were unmistakable to one as familiar with them as he was.

“I’m still sorry for it,” he said. And would have done everything in my power to put a stop to it, had I known about it. He wasn’t sure which part he was thinking about, though – Andreida, or Kristina. Riding slowly in silence, Atolibus took peripheral notice of the lights coming from the castle that was nestled at the other end of the city stretching into view in front of them. “We've arrived.”

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