Chapter 1 - Echo
A small circle made of little quartz stones, with a larger crystal in the centre...
My father, on his stomach next to me, the sun bright on his hair, his blue eyes laughing with simple joy. “Now we wait, my little warrioress,” he murmured. I could smell the stronghold on his clothes, rock and secret, magical places. I was not allowed to go there, and he was not allowed to come to the cottage my mother and I shared in the village.
But here, in this place, we could be together as a family...
“Are you watching?” he whispered. “We have to wait, for the perfect moment... wait, Echo, wait... now!”
Wait, Echo, wait. Now!
Memories... fractured beautiful memories... suspended in crystal. My cottage was festooned with them. The wind set them to chiming as it blew through holes in the thatching, the facets displaying the fragile moments of captured time as they rocked. The birds that nested in the support struts and decaying thatch pecked at them, ever hopeful that the images revealed within were edible.
The floor had once been tiled. I remembered it so, from my childhood, a wild mosaic of festive colour... but the slow decay of the building had seen the tiles lost to the gradual creep of dirt. Now the only festive colours were the wild briar rose that was gradually conquering the walls, and the occasional weed that took hold in the dirt.
I lay upon the ground, amongst the dirt, the weeds, the crumbling leaves blown in by the wind, gazing up at the shiny crystals, exhausted from my efforts.
I cast out and into the aether... for the Arcana, the aether was a blank space. A void, that they sought to fill and control, as they sought to control all elements of their magic, from the genetic lines, through to their daily lives... control and order. For me, the aether was not empty. It was an ocean of seething waves formed of twisting and tangled lifelines, slipping and moving throughout time, moments and faces rising from the disorder for a moment, before sinking back within.
The roar of the power was brutal to the ears.
I waded through the waves, my fingers casting ripples through the liquid like silk. I let myself sink back into it, the black of my hair a stain upon the silver, spreading out as I let it take me down into its uneasy depths. The Arcana had their Keeps, where the threads of their lines were captured, restrained, and pinned against the walls, forced to order... They did not understand the power of what they kept prisoner.
In the depths, the roar overwhelmed the mind to the extent that the sheer amount of sound became a silence of sorts, against which whispers rose. I closed my eyes and followed the whispers. I could see it, poised amongst the storm swept waves... a fragile moment. Almost impossible. Beautiful for its unattainability. My moment.
I surfaced through the threshing of the waves, and left the aether, back into the shell of a home, another fragile moment, my parents dream that had never eventuated, strung with the memories of the past, with the music of the crystal in the wind a wistful lament for the dead.
I rose to my feet, my limbs heavy, my head unsteady. When had I last eaten, I wondered? When had I last slept? Sometimes I forgot to do so. This life seemed distant, not quite real, in comparison to those of others that I watched. I took some time to look after myself. I made a fire in the chimney that seemed to be holding up to time the best of all the cottage. The tangled garden outside held the remnants of a vegetable garden, left to its own devices for so long, it had self-seeded generation after generation. I scavenged and found the wizened fruits of the vines and made a soup.
Whilst it cooked, I drew water from the well, and bathed, washing my hair and clothing, resetting the spellbraids in my hair. I dressed with care, although my clothing was an odd collection of items inherited from my mother and stolen in my travels. Threadbare and frayed, hems and seams restitched in my own, clumsy hand. Patched together, rather like myself. My father’s cloak, the hem still showing char marks... I had slept with it wrapped around me, all I had left of him, the night that they had set my house to fire...
I ate, sharing my food with the rodents and birds that lived here more than I, before dousing the fire, and casting open a portal. Back to work, Echo. Much to do. No time to rest.
The Old Lord soldiers, like soldiers throughout the history of all four worlds, liked to gather, share battle stories and alcohol. They gathered during their off time in the taverns run by the outlines, and where they gathered, so did the outlines in throngs. Mate-seekers, the Old Lords called them, derisively. Outlines who had their minds set on finding an Old Lord mate, for a myriad of motivations, from escaping their own miserable lives, to believing there was some glamour to it... Although the Old Lords spoke of them derisively, they weren’t above taking them into the back rooms for a quick and sordid tumble.
The taverns frequented by the Old Lords therefore stank of sweat, sour alcohol, vomit, and sex; and seethed with people. I moved through these grim rooms, loud with raucous merry making and rank with desperation and greed, dodging the hands that sought to draw me to them, thinking me amongst the outline mate-seekers.
I did not fear these grasping hands.
As the Old Lords augmented their alcohol with narcotics of various purpose, it made their minds like open books before me, if I could stand the twisted ramblings their intoxicated thoughts took me on. Occasionally I would let one capture me and used the opportunity to dig into the minds of his or her cohorts, until they became over amorous, at which point I would free myself and move on.
It was not hard amongst all these open minds to find the ones I needed. “Seek the Archer. Go to the Eagle Nest rock formation in the plains near Briar’s outpost, and seek the Archer...” I would tell them, my lips against their ears, soft and intimate. To one, I gave a map, a crude drawing, written in Arcanan, with instructions to destroy it when caught... My messenger. “Seek the Archer.”
War. They all thought of it. Their revelry more brittle for their fear. Was this it, then? They wondered. Would they die out on this foreign world without achieving that ultimate goal of finding their mate? Or worse, would they find that person, only to lose their lives? Would they never see their families again? Would they never know the joy of creating their own small beings, and raising them to adulthood? And so, they sought comfort in their cups, in the narcotics, in the willing bodies of outlines, and all the time they despaired whilst laughing...
I found him in one such tavern, his shield like the glow of a star around him. He held a cup of alcohol, although he did not take much from it, and his mind was free of narcotics. A dreamer, this one, I thought, fondly, letting my fingers run through the loose white tumble of his hair. Dreaming of home, of the loved ones left behind, of the plans he had to bring them to this world, a better future, a better life... “Seek the Archer,” I whispered in his ear. “Your future awaits you there with the wounded little warrior.”
My little gift, and why not? Why should the warriors not have some happiness and love as they fight their petty little wars? He would be her strength, her motivation, this gentle giant of a man. And she deserved the happiness he would bring her; the green-eyed Arcana had chewed her up in his angst and left her bleeding. I needed her strong and whole for the battle ahead.
Little ripples in the timeline. Little moments that seem like nothing at the time but unfold into big events. The big white-haired man would cast a new ripple, not just to my little warrior, but the green-eyed Arcana. His time had not come, as my own had not. We were tethered, he and I.
So many players of this game. The Old Lords in their spaceships above and the Old Lords in their outposts below, pitched against each other in a struggle for power over this world. Old Lords against Old Lords on the planet’s surface, those who would answer the call of their home worlds, and those who swore allegiance to the new. Outlines against the Old Lords of the outposts, fearing their invasion, resentful of their past sins. The Arcana divided, old against young, those frightened of and those seeking change. And, of course, the ones who came from another colony world, the Tratorym and Noxyim, who had somehow become entangled in it all.
They were here too, hidden amongst the Outlines, those that had become trapped upon this world when the shield had been erected. Cut off from their home world and resources, lost amongst an alien culture, fighting against each other. The Rogue Arcana kept three in her outpost, but the rest wandered free. These dark ones had their own secrets, I observed. Their lines were yet to come into play. If they were enemies or allies, I was yet to see, but they certainly added an interesting element to the mix of it all.
I opened a portal to another outpost, another tavern... Recruiting an army took time and effort. Nights and days blurred into one another. A different tavern, a different woman or man, always the same instruction: “Seek out the Archer, go to the Eagle Nest stone formation near Briar’s outpost...”
On another of the many blurred nights, as I wove through Old Lord soldiers and outlines, I felt a summons. This was unusual; not many knew that I lived, in order to summon me. I answered it, intrigued.
“Echo,” The Light of Peace murmured. “My time has come.”
I withdrew into the passage to the back rooms and opened a portal with the sounds of passion and scent of sweat heavy behind me. I stepped through into a room of stark contrast. An Arcana room, bare and simple, hewn from rock, sparsely furnished and austere. The Light of Peace lay in his bed, his countenance serene.
“Why would you choose to die alone in your chambers?” I asked him, puzzled. “There are many here who love and celebrate you.”
“There are some things that a person must do alone,” he replied, with a smile. “I would slip away peacefully into the night, without the tears and sorrow of my loved ones heavy on my heart, and without the efforts of a healer trying to force this old body to live for another day, another hour, another minute...”
I sat on the bed beside him. “Why call me to this moment?” I murmured taking his wizened hand in mine.
“Oh, my dear,” he smiled. “To say I am sorry. There are many things I regret throughout my life, but none so thoroughly as what happened to your family, and my part in it.”
“You tried,” I stroked the fragile skin that creped the back of his hand. “They bound you to silence.”
“I took the binding. I served the lines because I thought serving the lines meant something.” Regret and irony were stark in his voice.
I leaned over and pressed my lips to his brow. “Rest easy, wise one,” I told him. “There are some things we cannot change, some moments that are necessary to the flow of time. They were not wrong to strike out at my family; I am dangerous to the enclave and the Arcana. I am the instrument of change, and change is always dangerous, and quite often necessary.”
“It is a lonely road you walk,” he observed.
“Yes,” I agreed stroking his hair back from his face. “But it is my road.”