“Oh, isn’t that nice?” Kisidera leaned against Paulin, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him close. “Just smell that salt. Smell that breeze.”
Paulin closed his eyes for a brief moment as their cart rumbled forward. He breathed deeply, pulling in the air from the sea. He could hear the raging waves in the distance, the crashing waters against the stones, the foamy hiss of frothing bubbles. He could taste the salt on his tongue, the wet fishy scent filled his entire body. Oh, it was nice. This was why elves who visited the sea rarely came back to civilization.
“You know, some of us have blood that requires a bit more dirt.” Garnisic grumbled from behind him. “Or heat. By the Flame, it’s cold here.”
Paulin inclined his head in agreement, it was downright freezing. They were now in the dead of winter, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The dirt path that they were on wove through the gentle, rolling hills of northern Sintison, only a half a mile short of the coast, though he suspected that they would soon reach the cliffs overlooking the sea itself.
As it turned out, he was right, and before long they had come into view of the ocean proper. Massive waves crested high above the surrounding waters, racing for the land. Birds darted back and forth above those waves, their songs calling out cheerfully on the breeze. Fins broke through the water close by, though Paulin wasn’t certain if they were from dolphins or merfolk. The splashing waves, the rolling tide… It had been so long since he had seen anything like it.
“You know, there are theories that Persphone herself rose from the waves upon her birth.” Hesione leaned forward. “And that’s why we’re so drawn to the ocean.”
“If you’re so drawn there, how come you’re not all living down by the sea?” Garnisic grumbled.
“The short version is the political turmoil caused when the merfolk were born.” Paulin chuckled. He had studied that period of elven history quite significantly during his time in training. “The original merfolk were elves who were transformed by Persphone herself. It caused quite a great scandal for the Emperor at the time.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Garnisic yawned. “We dwarves just rose from the Flame, and that’s that.”
“If it was that simple, the Dwarven Civil War would never have broken out.” Kisidera snorted back. “Every religion has dissent among it.”
“And yet they all blend together.” Paulin shrugged. “Most of the gods of Calsin have been verified by the Deity Council. They’re all real, they just accept worship from different people. Maybe all religions are equally valid, even the different sects within religions.”
“Or maybe there’s something larger that none of us see.” Sapphire’s eyes were closed, and as Paulin glanced back at her, he found sweat beading on her forehead as she concentrated on her meditations. “Some form of ultimate God who allows these other gods dominion.”
“And this ultimate god would be Hinchipol?” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “I thought he was dead.”
“He is.” Sapphire shrugged. “I’m not saying that it’s him, just that it makes sense. All the species were created by different gods. God can be born and die, so who created the gods themselves?”
Paulin stroked his golden skin for a moment. “Other gods?”
“But then who created those?” Sapphire pressed. “There has to be an ultimate source for everything. Might as well be called the ultimate God.”
“I guess.” Paulin frowned. “But then… What would that source be? Just a giant supernatural sun that everything else bleeds from? Something sentient?”
“Something so far above our imagination that we couldn’t possibly hope to understand.” Sapphire sighed and opened her eyes, shaking her head. “At least that’s my bet.”
“Then why not serve that god?” Hesione turned to her. “If that’s the most powerful being, why not try to serve him? Or her?”
“Because I don’t know how.” Sapphire shrugged and closed her eyes once more. After a few seconds, she frowned. “Now stop getting all deep on me. I’m trying to focus.”
“On going deep within yourself? I agree, seems like a conflict of interest.” Garnisic rumbled and leaned forward. “Are we going anywhere specific?”
“At the moment, I’m just looking for a place to stop.” Paulin shrugged. “The northern Sintison shore is lined with unmarked fishing villages. We’ll be able to hide out there for as long as we need. We could probably spend the rest of our lives here without being detected.”
“I’ll pass, thank you very much.” Garnisic scoffed. “Once we head south again, I’m forcing all you winter lovers to spend an entire year in the desert. Or above the Flame. Anywhere warmer than this.”
“Assuming we survive that long, I will gladly consent to that.” Paulin inclined his head. He snapped the reigns of the horses and started clopping along the path a bit faster. It wasn’t yet noon, but he was getting a bit antsy to stop and explore the shore.
“Hey!” Hesione climbed to her feet and pointed off into the distance. “I think I see something! Flags!”
“War flags?” Ondernifam sat up, a bit of drool dripping down his chin.
“No.” Hesione took a deep breath and sat back down. “Clan flags.” She smiled. “We’re coming up on something.”
Paulin felt a smile break his face, and he urged the horses onward. The path led up a small hill, winding up to the very edge of a small cliff overlooking the sea, and then down the other side. As they started down the final path, Paulin felt something strange bubbling up in his heart.
Stretching out below them, nestled between two hills, stretching out across the low valley and up to the shoreline, was a small village. Poles rose from the thatch rooftops, brightly colored flags snapping in the wind. The homes were here were made from mud bricks and grass, cobbled together with the resources available, and only numbered perhaps a hundred in total. Horses clopped back and forth, making trips to and from the fields and animal enclosures surrounding the settlement. As they reached the edge of the nearest fields, men and women working the ground began to stand up and wave, while children raced from the softly waving wheat and began to run next to the wagon.
By the time the wagon reached the edge of the homes, they had amassed quite a following. Paulin smiled and climbed down from the wagon, motioning for the others to stay put. The children, a mixture of nearly every sentient species in Calsin, began to shout up at him eagerly. Paulin just smiled and held up his hands, and began to glance back and forth for a grown-up.
“Welcome, travelers.” A farmer walked up out of the field, a dark elf wearing a wide-brimmed hat and ragged clothes. “What can I do for you today? Please excuse the children, they’re not used to visitors.”
“There’s nothing to excuse.” Paulin smiled down at the group of eager faces. “I only wish that I had something to give them.”
“They’re spoiled enough as it is.” The man snapped his fingers. “Back to the field, all of you, or I tell your parents that you’re trying to solicit gifts from strangers!” The children scattered like insects, vanishing back into the crops and animal pens. The man sighed as they left, then nodded wearily at Paulin. “Let me guess. Fleeing the destruction of Elsinor?”
Paulin nodded. “We ran afoul of a small coup in Dindriir. I’m afraid that we may be somewhat noticeable among the armies of Sintison now. If you’ll have us, we just need to lay low for some time. Until this war comes to a standstill, at least. If you won’t have us, we’ll continue on down the coast.”
“The war will not end for a good many years, I suspect.” The man shook his head sadly. “The death toll rises every day. Millions of ghosts scream for vengeance. No, I suspect that Sintison’s days of peace have come to an end for the foreseeable future.”
Paulin grimaced. As a dark elf, the man could likely see many of the ghosts displaced by the fighting. “I’m truly sorry to hear that. Perhaps we’ll keep moving, then. If we could at least stay the night, refresh ourselves before we continue our journey?”
“I was simply speaking of the war, not of your permission to stay here.” The man flashed a small smile. “When the first refugees began to flee through our village, the elders made the declaration that all seeking shelter would be given it. Please, go to the center of town. Present yourselves to the elders in the lodge. They will make the final call, but I have no doubt that you will be allowed to remain.”
“Thank you.” Paulin flashed a smile and turned, climbing back up into the wagon. “My name is Paulin, by the way.”
“Zurchich.” The elf waved as Paulin took up the reigns. “Once you have been given your shelter, feel free to drop by my home anytime. I can help you make friends in the village, which could aid you if Sintison ever comes knocking.”
“I’ll do that.” Paulin waved and snapped the reigns, starting into the village proper. “Thank you. We are truly in your debt.”
Zurchich simply waved at the group, then turned and wandered back into the fields. Paulin felt a smile breaking over his face as they clopped down the partly paved streets of the settlement. They were by the sea, and they were in a community of people who certainly seemed open and welcoming. It was what he had always dreamed of, really. Of course, he had dreamed of settling down in such a place with Hesione, but… He could still do the same with Kisidera, at least for a time.
Would they be able to stay there forever? No. That said, he knew that their time in that village would be time that he would remember for many, many years to come. Maybe, just maybe, it would actually make the whole “fleeing the destruction of his country” thing more bearable.
“Here, this should be a good spot for you.” Zurchich gestured at the open land, stretching out far beyond the outskirts of the village. Tall grasses rose from the frozen ground, rippling like waves as the wind swept from the sea below up the small valley and to the plains above. Sapphire planted her feet, back to the sea, and prepared to attempt to control her magic once more. “We often use this land for practicing with weapons, spells, and other means of destruction and defense.”
“Thank you.” Sapphire turned and smiled at the man. “And I do mean that.” She took a deep breath, letting the salty air fill her lungs. Bundled in thick hides that the elders had provided, she was more than comfortable on the frigid landscape. “You’ve been incredibly helpful. This is the first time I’ve actually felt safe in a long time.”
“I’m glad to be of help.” Zurchich doffed his hat. “I trust that your stay last night was sufficient?”
“Your elders gave us enough beds for every one of us to have our own bed.” Sapphire smiled. “That’s the first time I haven’t had to watch out for Ondernifam’s claws in my sleep in weeks.”
“Then I’m glad we could be of assistance.” Zurchich glanced to his left, where the sun was just beginning to rise over the horizon. “Well, I’m off to work in the fields. If you get bored, feel free to come down and use your magic to help pull weeds or feed the livestock. I’m sure the fishermen would love help as well.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Sapphire smiled. “Again, thank you.”
“Think nothing of it.” Zurchich shrugged. “We have all been victim of hardship at one point or another in our lives. If we do not reach out our hands to those in need, why then should we expect help when we ourselves are in need?” With that, he turned to walk away. “I’ll see you tonight at the Wind Ceremony.”
Sapphire waved as he departed, then took a deep breath. The elders had mentioned the wind ceremony when they arrived, but Sapphire hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to it. It was some sort of religious ceremony that everyone in the village was expected to attend once a week. As far as she was concerned, it was a small price to pay for getting a chance to rest instead of running frantically from the hoards of people who wanted them dead.
With that, she ground her teeth together and reached deep within herself, grabbing hold of the magical field centered in her soul. Sweat began to bead on her brow as she hauled it up to her skin, it felt like she was burning up as she forced the magic to flow through her body as it had once done. With a snap, her robes vanished as the brilliant blue dress clothed her in her sorcerous attire. The staff rested in her right hand, heavy and ready to go.
As the magic started to slip backwards, she bit the inside of her lip and planted her feet. No. She was going to hold the stance, and that was that. She wasn’t going to try to cast any spells, she was just going to be a sorceress.
And so, she stood there. After only minutes, her muscles trembled with the effort of keeping the magic afloat. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff holding onto chains attached to great ships upon the sea who were being pulled away by a maelstrom. It felt impossible to keep upright for any length of time at all, it felt impossible to command the magic the way she had once been able to do.
Finally, with a loud snap, the magic slipped from her grasp and rushed back into her body. Her dress was replaced by her warm parka, her legs and arms lost any and all strength they had once held. The world spun around her as she fell to the ground, her lungs gasped for air as her eyes lost all focus.
“No.” Sapphire called on the magical field of Calsin, feeling its infinitely smaller trickle of magic flow through her body. “Come on!”
She poured her magic into her limbs, strengthening her muscles once again. She climbed back to her feet, sustained by a different font of magic. Carefully, she drew upon the magical field and reached down within herself once more, grabbing for the forbidden source.
This time, pulling the magic back to the surface was even harder. As her clothes transformed back into the blue dress, tears began to leak from her eyes as the pain grew to unbearable levels. There she stood, a single human link between the magical field of Calsin and the magical potential of the Ring. The field began to strain against her as it fought to return to its rightful place, the Ring fought desperately to escape her grasp. Her vision began to turn red, and she felt herself falling once more.
When she awoke, she found that she hadn’t even realized that she had passed out. She simply lay on the cold ground, several mice sniffing around her head, while the grasses waved around her. She swore and began to climb to her feet, wincing as her very muscles fought every command she tried to give them.
The sun was high overhead, noon perhaps. Sapphire took a deep breath and planted her feet, only to nearly fall as a gust of wind blew past. As she steadied herself, she watched the wind flow away from her, rippling through the grass, up the valley, and vanishing onto the plains above.
Slowly, she turned and began to stumble back down to the village, gasping for air at the slightest bump. Children glanced up at her, yelping and scrambling away as she wandered past the outer fields. Farmers and passersby stepped out of her way as she stumbled into the village proper, making her way back towards the small home that they had been given. When she reached the small doorway, covered only by a thin piece of cloth that shimmered with enchantments, she nearly fell through the protective cover, stumbling and landing on her knees in the middle of the room. The cloth drifted shut behind her, sealing out the wind and the cold air.
A small fire burst to life in the fireplace upon her arrival, casting its warm rays across her body. Desperate for warmth, she began to rip her parka and robes from her skin as she crawled towards the flame. When she collapsed in front of the fire, she wore only her night robe, a thin covering of cloth that let the heat from the fire wash over her.
Only minutes seemed to pass before the cloth door was brushed aside as someone rushed into the room. Footsteps pounded by her head, a hand came to rest on her forehead.
“So it’s true.” An elderly female voice breathed. “Sapphire? Can you hear me?”
“Uh, huh.” Sapphire breathed softly. The motion made her voice ache, and she groaned softly. “Help me, please.”
Healing magic washed over her body only an instant later. The pain flowed out of her limbs, and Sapphire was able to flop onto her back. She still had no energy, she felt as though her body was made from seaweed, but the pain was gone. So that was nice, at least.
One of the elders stood over her, a withered but kind-faced woman who waved her crippled hands over Sapphire in a strange pattern. She stopped after a few moments and smiled, bending down and holding out her hand.
“Stand up, please.”
“I don’t want to.” Sapphire sighed. Nonetheless, she took the woman’s hand, who proved surprisingly strong as she pulled the young woman to her feet. Sapphire swayed for a few moments before planting her feet and sighing. She now stood nearly a head taller than the ancient woman, though she somehow knew that the elder was somehow far stronger than she was. “Thank you.”
“You say those words a lot.” The woman snapped her fingers, conjuring two chairs in front of the fireplace. “Yet your actions do not speak of thanksgiving. Have a seat, please.”
Sapphire sighed and sat down, watching at the elder sat down as well. She was clothed in brightly covered wool that seemed to have been hand-woven to form an intricate series of patterns and runes. The woman smiled and ran her fingers over the shawl, sighing softly.
“This was brought to me as a gift by my late husband. He traveled to Taninor when we were first wed, the trip took the better part of a year. He purchased it from a dwarven merchant there. It’s made from the mountain sheep there, woven with thin strands of enchanted copper designed to bring good fortune and wealth.” The woman smiled. “My name is Kindra. I believe I introduced myself to you last night, but I daresay that you appeared more than a bit distracted.”
“I’m sorry.” Sapphire sighed. “I’ve been a bit preoccupied recently.”
“I can see that.” Kindra snapped her fingers, causing a mist to rise up in front of Sapphire. A moment later, Sapphire’s image took form, a reflection far clearer than in any mirror she had ever seen before. “Of course, so can everyone else.”
Sapphire gasped softly. Runes had been burned in her skin, a clear sign of excessive magic use. They wound up her neck and onto her face, wrapping around her eyes and secured on her forehead. She slowly held up her hands, which revealed more of the same.
“I…” Sapphire took a deep breath. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but…”
“Sapphire.” Kindra snapped her fingers, dissolving the mirror and allowing the heat from the fire to pour back through. “This is not the way. You fought your artifact once before, and it rejected you. What makes you believe that the Ring will not do the same?”
Sapphire frowned. “How do you know about that?”
Kindra smiled, then waved her hand. The chair dissolved under Sapphire, but magical strands kept her from falling. The hides that she had torn off leapt off the ground and wrapped around her body, securing her once more. Kindra then walked up to Sapphire and took her hands. Healing magic flowed from Kindra’s body, closing the wounds on Sapphire’s skin. In that moment, Sapphire felt nearly whole, and felt an actual smile break on her face as Kindra led her from the home and through the village.
While they walked, people continued to stare at Sapphire in curiosity, though none dared approach. She began to feel a bit self-conscious. What had she done? She had been there for a day, and already she had made herself stand apart from the crowd and was being taken somewhere by the village elders. What did that say about her? Was she going to get the group kicked out?
Thankfully, no one began to call down judgement upon her, and they soon arrived at the limestone lodge. Kindra held aside the cloth, allowing Sapphire to enter. Just as before, she found herself in a single room. The lodge wasn’t large, perhaps fifty feet long, and simply had three thrones on the far end with plenty of room for people to crowd in and stand for judgement. The floor was limestone, and showed plenty of wear from countless generations of people walking across the same location.
With a flourish, Kindra waved her hand, causing a portion of the limestone to liquify and sink into the ground with a gurgle. As the stone flowed away, it revealed a stairway that simply led about ten feet into the ground. A flame appeared in Kindra’s right hand, and she began to walk down into the depths. As she arrived at the bottom, the flame leapt from Kindra’s hand to dance across the room, splitting a dozen times to form dozens of lights to light the area.
Sapphire followed as they walked down into a room that seemed to fill a space that fit perfectly underneath the lodge. Unlike the above space, though, this was filled with bookshelves containing hundreds of leather-bound volumes. Near the stairway itself, several desks sat at the ready, covered in ink and quills, stacks of empty parchment and what looked like magical bronze hands for holding books open. At the far end, a small alcove displayed a statue of a dragon, wings outstretched, with a book held between its talons.
“These are our archives.” Kindra smiled. “It’s not much, but it’s what we have here.”
“What is this place?” Sapphire breathed. “This is larger than most other archives I’ve seen in Calsin.”
“It pales in comparison to other Windcaster archives.” Kindra flashed a thin smile. “Now come. You will want to see this, I think.” She walked to a nearby shelf, not deep within the archive, and pulled a thick volume off the shelf. She smiled as she held the pages in her hands, breathing deeply. “It took nearly a week to gather this story. So much life, so many tales. Here.” She passed the volume to Sapphire. “You may read this, but only here in this room under the supervision of one of the elders. I am free for the rest of the afternoon, and indeed have much work that I need to get done.”
She snapped her fingers, causing a chair to appear just behind Sapphire once again. With that, the limestone began to flow back up into the stairwell, sealing them off, while Kindra walked past Sapphire and sat down at one of the desks. Another volume floated off the shelf and drifted over to the bronze hands, which opened and grabbed hold of the book, flipping it open to the first page. Kindra than grabbed a quill and began transcribing the words onto other scraps of parchment.
“Don’t mind me.” Kindra waved her hand, causing Sapphire’s head to twist down to look at the volume in her lap. “Read. Now.”
Sapphire sighed, then slowly flipped open the first page. Her eyes widened at the title, scrawled in large, swirled letters across the top of the parchment.
“The life of Thomas, archmage of Sorcerous Studies in Distisil and friend to wandering sorcerers.” Sapphire breathed. “You knew Thomas?”
“Not until after his death.” Kindra shook her head. “It’s a pity, really. I would have liked to have known such an individual. Now read. He desperately wished to teach you. Perhaps now, he will have that chance.”
Sapphire bit her lip and found her way to the first line.
“Born on the eve of winter, Thomas was rejected by his parents as a hazard that they couldn’t afford. Cast aside, he was rescued by a witch, who vowed to raise him as her own. Upon receiving him, she was given a prophecy for his life: Blessed with wisdom, he will be heard by none. Blessed with knowledge, he will only be heard after ways have been parted. Cursed with a long and bitter life, he will go to his end only after the most powerful of his students has finally paid heed to his words.”
Sapphire felt a cold chill run down her back. She glanced at Kindra, who ignored her and simply kept reading. Sapphire watched her work, then glanced back down and began to read as quickly as she could.
She had always assumed that Thomas was little more than a freak, a wild old man set on imposing his will on anyone who would listen to him. And yet, maybe he was something more. Maybe, as Kindra said, she could still learn something from him even after death. And then, just maybe, his soul would be able to find rest.
“And that’s the last haul!” An aqahartis lifted the last basket of fish over the edge of the boat to Paulin, who gladly took the load from him. “A good day’s work, people!”
All around him, the crowd let out a brief cheer. Workers, dozens of hardy and weather-worn fishermen, began to wander back into the village with their baskets of fish and crabs. Paulin hefted his own basket, a smile on his face. As the aqahartis began to tidy up the boat, preparing it for the next day’s launch, Paulin frowned and nodded in his direction.
“What do I need to do with this, now?”
“The same thing they’re all doing.” The aqahartis turned and nodded at the workers, who were beginning to walk up to homes and knock on the doorposts. “Go from home to home and give away your catch. At the end, whatever’s left is yours to keep.”
Paulin flashed a smile. “So simple, isn’t it?”
“We’re a simple people.” The aqahartis jumped over the side of the boat and began fastening more ropes to the small pier that extended out into the water. “You’ll not find many places like it.”
“No, I suppose not.” Paulin sighed, then turned around and began to walk back into the village. As he was a bit behind the other fishermen, he had to hurry to find a home that hadn’t already been reached, but he soon found himself knocking on the doorpost of a small, thatch-covered structure.
“Welcome!” A human woman walked out, then bowed her head and grabbed two fish off the top. “Thank you for your hard work.”
“Any day, ma’am.” Paulin smiled back, then turned and walked to the next house. Here, a man with a peg leg greeted him, taking a single fish before vanishing back into the home.
From there, it took little time indeed before his basket emptied, and he was left with only a handful of fish remaining. With that, he walked up to the home they had been given to stay in. As he stepped through the doorway, he caught a glimpse of Kisidera and Hesione wandering through the village as well, doing much the same thing with potatoes and other vegetables.
He sighed and walked inside, where a fire sprang to life upon his entry. He then grabbed a large pot from the corner, placed it over the flames, and grabbed a bucket just next to the fireplace. A few trips to the village well later, the water was boiling while the fire raged. He was skinning and preparing the fish when Kisidera and Hesione walked in, the fruits of their labor ready for preparation.
It didn’t take long before the smell of fish mixed with potatoes and carrots filled the air. Ondernifam and Garnisic stomped into the room as Paulin took down several bowls from the cupboard and prepared to begin serving the meal.
“Well? How are you liking it here?” Paulin spooned out a bowlful of the soup and handed it to Garnisic, who began to devour it in haste.
“I like it just fine!” Ondernifam roared. “There are many rabbits that need kept from the garden!”
Garnisic snorted. “They put him on pest duty. He spent the entire day chasing and eating rabbits and mice. Apparently he’s the first orc they’ve had live here in decades.”
“I will stay here for decades more!” Ondernifam roared. “I will slay all the rabbits in the hills!”
“You do realize that if you eat them faster than they can come back, you won’t have enough to eat?” Garnisic taunted the orc.
“Rabbits will always come back!” Ondernifam snarled. “They are revered in orcish society. No matter how hard you try to stamp them out, they continue to reproduce.”
“Just like orcs. How quaint.” Garnisic raised an eyebrow.
Paulin snorted, then served Hesione and Kisidera. As they began to eat and he served himself, he frowned. “Has anyone seen Sapphire?”
“Some of the workers said that they saw her with Kindra.” Kisidera shrugged. “None of them knew what was happening, though.”
“I hope she’s not in trouble.” Paulin winced. “She didn’t blow anything up, did she?”
“That was my first thought too.” Kisidera shrugged. “They seemed to think she was injured somehow, but didn’t know any more details than that.”
“Great.” Paulin groaned. “Just what we need. More…”
“The ceremony is beginning!” A young boy stuck his head through the curtain over the door and grinned at the group. “You must come! Hurry!”
Paulin sighed down at the remains of his soup, scooped up several large mouthfuls as quickly as he could, and then walked outside as the rest of the group did much of the same. As they walked out onto the street, the sun was just beginning to touch the horizon while the villagers streamed to the west, up the road that led to the cliffs above.
A bit uncertain of what would be happening next, Paulin simply fell in line, following as the entire village flowed out of the homes and to the cliff. As they arrived at the top, Paulin glanced back down, feeling the same sense of security and comfort that he had felt ever since their arrival. Kisidera took his arm and pointed forward as the crowd of five hundred people all clustered around three pillars that rose from the edge of the cliff.
As the sun sank below the horizon, three humans clad in thin, windswept robes rose into the air to land on top of the pillars. They snapped their fingers simultaneously, causing long streamers to fall from their arms, where they snapped and twisted in the wind that blew inward from the coast.
“Welcome, all!” The voice of Nurthial, one of the elders of the village, boomed across the crowd. “As the wind comes, so the wind will go. As our souls are borne on the winds of life, so we too will come and go. Now, prepare for the story. Prepare for a new life. Accept it into your hearts, do not let it fade.” After a short pause, his voice continued in a less official fashion. “Please, allow our new visitors to proceed to the front. Accept them into our custom.”
The crowd began to glance back and forth, locating the small group near the rear. Almost instantly, they parted, forming a pathway to near the base of the pillars themselves. Paulin felt heat rise to his cheeks as they walked forward, making their way to the front. The crowd closed behind them, filling in naturally. As they arrived at the front, Paulin found the three elders kneeling around a statue of a dragon that held an open book. Curiously, unlike most religious ceremonies that Paulin had attended, the book appeared blank. To top it off, a single quill hovered in the air in front of the paper, complete with an inkwell sitting on the ground. They were going to write something?
“Hey, guys.” Sapphire hissed as she appeared out of the crowd. “You’ll want to pay attention to this, I’m sure of it.”
Paulin frowned, but said nothing. As the last rays of the sun slipped below the horizon, the statue of the dragon spat a great flame into the sky, where it formed a rolling ball of fire just above the pillars. As the wind whipped ever more powerfully, the humans on top of the pillars began to dance, twirling and leaping in place. The streamers snapped through the sky, crackling with a strange beauty. Then, in one voice, the dancers began to sing.
“The ballad of Lilia, the girl who loved.” They paused, then began to twirl ever faster as their haunting voices shook the sky. “I was born on the coast, in a small village with no name. Perhaps the people of the village had a title for it, but I was far too young to remember. I remember running along the turf, splashing in the pools of water as the tide receded back into the ocean. I was lucky, I suppose. The great sea monsters of the warmer oceans didn’t like to venture that far north, and the merfolk of the freezing waters were far friendlier than the ocean wartribes of the south.
“When I was five years old, the woman that I knew as my mother perished. It was nothing grand, nothing that we could have fought. Some said that it was the Blight, others said that it was a simple fever. Whatever the case, I suppose it wouldn’t have made any difference. We were far from the city, far from the routes of any of the traveling healers. Once she was gone, we buried her in the cemetery at the edge of town. I don’t remember much about the funeral, except that it was beautiful. White snowflowers, picked from the tundra, were laid out across her grave. We stood there as the wind came and swept them out to sea, carrying them off to the afterlife. To Sarcil.”
From there, the dancers continued to lay out her story. The death of her father. The birth of her son, and his subsequent kidnapping. Her lifelong fight to get him back, her travels from Sintison to Tifingor to Notirot and beyond. Her final death, lying in his arms, coughing as a curse slowly took her life away.
“I have covered this whole world, I have seen all four oceans. I have seen great beasts, I have fought for my life, and yet nothing seems greater to me than this moment here. At last, I have you. At last… I have peace.”
As the last notes of the song faded, Paulin felt liquid dripping down his face. He wiped away the tear quickly, hoping that Kisidera hadn’t noticed. As he glanced at her, he found her looking up at him with a sad smile. He pulled her close in an embrace, desperately praying to Persphone that no children he ever had would be cursed with such a life.
“And so ends tonight’s Story of the Wind.” Elder Nurthial climbed to his feet and clapped his hands. Below him, the other two elders began to close the book, which Paulin belatedly noticed was now filled with text. “Return to your homes, as it will soon be light. Rest tomorrow, meditate on what you have heard. We will ensure that the story is not forgotten.”
“We will indeed.” The crowd murmured, then slowly began to disperse. Overhead, the fire went out with a dull pop, and the dancers leapt off their posts, descending back to the ground.
Paulin slowly turned away, leading the group as they wandered back down into the village. Questions filled his mind, though they were pushed out of the way by the story that he had just heard. Was it really possible that such a thing had happened to someone? Was it possible that it could happen to another? And what did that mean for his own life?
He suspected that these were the same questions that all who heard the story were expected to ask. It filled his heart with something… Odd. As they walked back down the path to the village, the morning sky began to lighten in the east. Soon, the sun would rise, casting its warming rays across the town. It was such a strange way of life, and yet, it was so beautiful.
All he could hope was that they stayed in the village for a long, long time indeed.
“And so, filled with joy at the recovery of his student, Thomas’s heart gave out. Crippled by his earlier disease, the mage fell asleep in his chair, never to reawaken.” Sapphire bit her lip as she read the final lines of the book. She slowly flipped the volume shut, then looked up to find Kindra smiling down at her. “What does it all mean?”
“You’re the one who read the book.” Kindra shrugged. “You saw yourself there. What was he thinking when he saw you?”
Sapphire frowned. She hadn’t appeared until the final chapter of his life, and had been perfectly content not knowing his private thoughts about her abilities. “Nothing good.”
“Then perhaps you should consider what might be done about that.” Kindra sighed and sat down. “When you were chosen by the Ring, he was overjoyed. He was so happy that it killed him. That’s something important.”
“I know.” Sapphire frowned. “I just don’t get it. The Ring shows up. The whole point of the Ring is that it gives power, so why doesn’t it give me power? I thought that was the reason I read this volume.”
“No.” Kindra placed her hand on top of the leather surface. “I gave you this book so you could understand. You could see what Thomas thought of you. He wasn’t the best with words, and he admitted that readily. So what did he see in you? What did he see as your flaws?”
Sapphire bit her lip. “Too hungry for power, even for the Ring.”
“Exactly.” Kindra flashed a smile. “What were his words? Exactly?”
“To succeed with the Ring, you must place yourself in situations where you couldn’t possibly expect to succeed.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “Or something like that.”
“Exactly.” Kindra nodded. “The Ring gives power to those who seek power, but it doesn’t simply let you plow over everyone in your wake. It wants trust. You were already rejected once. It wants to know that you trust it to work through you, not simple give you power for you to wield.”
“You sound like Tomas himself.” Sapphire snorted. “You’re no expert on sorcerers.”
“Maybe not.” Kindra shrugged. “I do have stories, though. Why do you think that we gather these stories? To hear them is interesting, certainly. We could go out every night, hear the stories of the dead, and go back to our homes. We could have great amounts of fun, always learning new things, never required to memorize any of them because there will always be more. Why do we write it all down and store it here?”
Sapphire frowned. “To remember?”
“Yes.” Kindra nodded. “To remember. To learn. And, later, to teach.” She gestured at the shelves surrounding them. “Windcasters up and down the coast of Sintison gather stories every night. Most are short, which we bind and prepare for transport to Donenrot. Some are longer, which we duplicate and store here for our own resources. I have read every book here. While I may not have experienced the sands of Notirot, I can advise treasure hunters of the signs of vampires, and save lives as a result. Though no news of the outside world has arrived for months, I can tell of the state of the war between Elsinor and Sintison, and thus save lives by telling people which way to travel. I can send word to the Windmasters that Taninor is preparing a counterattack, and thus allow Sintison to prepare for such a contingency. I can give advice on poisonous herbs, and tell how to avoid a witch’s trap in Distisil. Such is the beauty of knowledge. Of lives.”
She paused for a breath, then continued. “I do not keep the stories here, but I have read many stories of fallen sorcerers. Only one has fallen during my lifetime, but far more from older times have passed through my hands. You still have your artifact, and that does you well. Nevertheless, you are still barreling towards your doom. If you do not hasten to correct your path, you may easily wind up consumed by your own greed and desire.”
Sapphire puffed out her cheeks and nodded slowly. “So… How do I fix it? What do I need to do?” She glanced down at her Ring, which sat as inert as ever. The scars from her last attempt to control it, though healed by Kindra, could still be seen as slightly lighter lines on her skin.
“That much, I do not know.” Kindra sighed and wrung her hands. “Though… Would you be willing to take some advice from an old lady?”
“A few months ago, I probably would have turned you down.” Sapphire shrugged and nodded at her. “What is it?”
“Travel to Donenrot.” Kindra gestured in a direction that Sapphire assumed was south. “The Windmaster archive there has ever single recorded life told through the wind to us. This includes many, many sorcerers. You may be able to learn from their lives directly far more than you could ever learn from me. You can read their stories or listen to the Windmasters who have spent their entire lives gathering up knowledge from the surrounding texts. I can think of no better way for you to learn.”
Sapphire grimaced. “We’re hiding up here for a reason. Donenrot is the last place we’d want to be right now.”
“On the contrary.” Kindra shook her head. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about your situation. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but that Paulin you have with you is Prince Paulin, exiled Prince of Elsinor.”
“The one and only.” Sapphire nodded. “And he was recognized in Dindriir. They know to be on the lookout for him.”
“Then Donenrot is the last place they’ll be looking for him.” Kindra held up her hands. “Sure, Donenrot has more eyes, but it’s also the largest city in Calsin. There are entire city districts that soldiers could never venture into for fear of being torn apart. It would be the perfect place to remain hidden, at least for a time. And it would be perfect for your continued studies.”
Sapphire bit her lip, and Kindra moved forward. “If Paulin is resistant to the idea, perhaps you should go. You could make the trip, study for a few months, and come back to rejoin your friends. It certainly seems like a viable option to me. No one knows you, and it’s easy enough to disguise a woman to appear different than she is.”
Sapphire sighed and nodded. “I’ll talk to them about it.” Slowly, she climbed to her feet and handed the text back to Kindra. “Once again, I have only thanks for you.”
“Please, think nothing of it.” Kindra smiled and waved her hand. “Now go. Rejoin your friends, make your decision. Please know that if you decide to stay, I will not hold it against you. I am simply providing my advice on what I see as a poor situation.”
Sapphire smiled and tilted her head, then slowly walked up the stairs as the limestone flowed out of the way. As she walked out onto the street, her mind spun. Leave her friends? Just… Just leave them behind? Like that?
It wasn’t what she wanted to do, and yet, it almost made sense. She would only be leaving for a few months, and then she could rejoin them. There were risks involved, certainly, but the team was in an incredibly safe location. Slowly, she walked back through the homes, pondering the questions in her mind. She would have to talk to the team, of course, but… In a strange way, it made a lot of sense.
A brief smile flickered across her face as a gust of wind blew past her. Perhaps she would just go where the wind took her. It certainly seemed appropriate.
And, given what Kindra had been trying to tell her… Maybe it was exactly what she needed to be doing.
“We’re really going to miss you.” Paulin held out his hand, which Sapphire shook firmly. “You’ll be back in a few months, you said?”
“That’s my plan.” The sorceress nodded. “It’s the first month of winter, right? I’ll be back before summer, I promise.”
“You will make good on your promise!” Ondernifam roared. “Or I will slay you!”
“You’ll try.” Sapphire sighed and climbed up onto her horse. Paulin bent down and grabbed her small bag, strapping it to the saddle for her. “This isn’t permanent. Not like…”
Paulin puffed out his cheeks in agreement as Sapphire paused. Only a short time earlier, Mal, Simon, and the rest of the angels had departed. Now Sapphire was, too. It was strange, and yet, the same feelings weren’t present. Sapphire was coming back. No one really knew what in the world was happening with the angels.
“Travel safely.” Hesione called up at her. “I don’t want to find out from the windcasters that you wound up dying in a bandit attack or something!”
“I’ll be safe, I promise.” Sapphire glanced down at the group. “Thank you for understanding.”
“Hey, uhh…” Garnisic walked up to the horse and pulled a small piece of paper out of his pocket. “While you’re there, can you look up the meaning of something for me?”
“I’ll try.” Sapphire took the paper and tucked it into her robes. After a few seconds longer, she flashed a smiled and waved at the group. “See you in a few months!”
With that, she spurred her horse and trotted off down the lane, angling towards the road that would take her down to the massive capital of Sintison. Paulin watched her go, an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach.
It was strange, seeing her leave after only being in the village for a week. And yet, it filled him with hope. She was leaving for several months, and then planned to come right back there and rejoin them. They had found a place to stay, a base, and wouldn’t be leaving again for a long time.
As he gazed out across the village, he took Kisidera’s hand in his own. A merfolk leapt out of the water in the distance, coming back down with a splash, and Kisidera gave his hand a squeeze.
They had found a home. They had a place to stay. And he wasn’t about to give that up anytime soon.
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