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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Twin Spires: Part 1

The Twin Spires

Chapter 1:

  "The faeries, the threads, and the colours that make up their realm share a complex and unique relationship compared to the universe above them. The Phantoms seem to be composed of the same exact being duplicated a thousand times over, in a world of lights and clouds. They require nothing to live and there's nothing that can kill them, and so the Phantoms live forever, unchanging. The faerie realm is at least as abstract, where everything is imbued with a pseudo-life that senses the emotions of the faeries and reacts to it in the form of intense flashes of colours. It is the threads, however, that set Faeries apart from the Phantoms and all the others above them. Like the phantoms, Faeries have no means of creating life. Faeries stem from the infinite numbers of threads that populate their universe, which each hold a distinct characteristic within them, a pattern of thought and action. When enough threads have twined together, a mind, and then, a body, and then, a Faerie is formed. The faerie is the living embodiment of the threads that created it, and follows its actions according to how it was created. Thus, each and every faerie is unique and separate from the next, but all of them are merely robots performing the acts programmed into them since the beginning of time. . ."
  'On the Conflict between Phantoms and Faeries',
  Angel Latonius.

The sky shook from the ominous rumble of thunder in the distance. Flickers of lightning like the tongues of giant serpents rent the sky as a sea of pitch-black clouds settled over the land. Piercing the clouds, as if in defiance of nature and its threats, stood a temple of black marble. Only the occasional flash of lightning allowed you to see portions of the structure, a fragile minaret here, a beautiful altar there, and then darkness would engulf the world again. The barrier between sky and earth seemed indistinct and petty, as if the Unseelie Court floated twixt two roiling oceans of storm clouds. The landscape stretched to either side formless and unchanging, with neither heights nor depths, so that one could travel endlessly in any single direction and be no further from any one place than before. Aside from the approaching storm, the scene was eerily silent and dead. No sun or moon had ever shone upon this ground, no water had flowed through it, nor had fires raged across it. If not for the storm and this one single structure, one might believe that the only thing that remained here was chaos.
  Bringing the only light this world would ever see, a particularly fierce thunderbolt pierced the sky and seemed to bore straight through the earth as well, bathing a single figure wrapped in a purple cloak with menacing violet irises in an unholy aura. This being did not seem to notice the storm at all, as if this were the natural state of the world, and it never even occurred to him that it might endanger him. The figure stood regally, staring at the flickering, gleaming temple with hatred so deep that a steady stream of black-tinged splashes of red colour emanated from him. That building promised the last hope and salvation of the Unseelie, within were the thousand faeries that worked their incredible magiks to reform their universe into something of their own making--and one of those thousand should have been him. Was not the power of God thrumming in his heart, more powerful than any had seen since the last coming of the Fires? Why, then, did they deny him his rightful place? Deny all of the Unseelie his strength, his help in changing the order of the universe? It was the single most evil act he had ever seen in all his years, and it ravaged his soul with the unjustness of it all. Streaks of dark green envy poured out from him, mixing with pure hatred and black despair. All his life he had yearned for a return to the times before the Fires, all his life he had laboured to reach the peak of his abilities, all for this triumphant moment when those ebony gates opened before him, and the Unseelie Court would erupt in rejoicing that one such as he was to take on the healing of their realm. The word shot through him as if a dagger had been plunged into his heart: Rejected. A wave of pain rivaled the lightning in brilliance. He closed his eyes a moment in an attempt to stop his mind, but the words kept flowing like a mantra. Rejected, on account of moral failings and a general weakness of the threads. He squeezed his eyes tight to shut the thought out, to replace it with physical pain and sensation. It made no sense. He'd done his duty since the beginning of time, he had never hurt this world around him or unraveled the great workings of his elders. What moral failings? And here he was, with more strength than hundreds of those residing in that palace, and he was being rejected out of weakness? He was being judged for acts that he hadn't even done yet, merely on the basis of the threads that composed him! Rejected from doing good on the basis that his soul would someday turn to evil? It was a lie. Even though faeries never lied, it was still a lie. And finally, the last burning words of the court went silent, and a wash of wondrous blue peace ran through him. Yes, of course, they feared my powers, resented my ability, and denied me simply out of jealousy and greed. They sit on their positions of power, gathering honour and wealth from all their peers, and who among them would give up such a standing so that another could steal it away? They no longer existed to serve the faerine race, to guide them in peace or war, but simply as parasites. His mind went on, bathing his heart with soothing balms, honing his hatred to a razor sharp edge, directed now not at the entire world, but only those few who sought to take advantage of it. In a mechanical rip of thunder, a thought so alien that he wondered if it had even stemmed from his own mind shot through him: these are my enemies. The Fires were their enemies, the only enemies of all the Faeries, Seelie and Unseelie. All Faeries were united, allies against these greatest of foes. How could one Faerie be the enemy of another, when all of them strived for the same goals? But if his rulers were willing to strive less hard than they potentially could, aren't they allying themselves with the Fires right then? If I could arm all the Faeries in the realm with swords against their foes, and instead I gave them all daggers, what does that make me? Blessed, for giving them daggers, or cursed, for depriving them of swords?
  Shade slumped to the earth struggling to understand the universe he had known so well only hours ago. Cradling his head in his arms, an immense weariness fell through him, as if the world had been too cruel, this blow too much for him to ever rise up from again. He would merely lay here, broken, for the rest of time, until the Fires unraveled him and he thanked them from his heart for the chance at escape. What worth were his threads, when evil has stripped them from Clotho's web? What was left for him now? Was he to pursue the past, a scholar dealing with a world that no longer existed, a fantasy of impossible times? Was he to sacrifice his life and powers battling the next wave of Fires as his father and mother had the previous? Sacrifice his life, all for the sake of those selfish bastards that would not let the best and brightest of its people to rule over them? No, he wanted justice. He would confront them with their sins, and strike them down, and he would take his rightful place in court. Their evil would not be allowed to destroy him, destroy his realm. He would crumble the gates, crumble the doors, and unravel all the faeries that had voted against him, and bring a new era of enlightenment to those remaining. Under his rule, he would allow anyone of power and good will to enter his court, and all of them would work for the single goal of changing their land into something bountiful and solid, their people would no longer be judged by their threads, but only their actions. There would be no prejudices, no rivalries for power, and when next the Fires came to destroy the Unseelie, they would not be able to find the doorway, and the angle between universes would be too wide. He would change the realm so fast and well that it would no longer share any likeness to that of those above them, like a continent splitting at the seams and drifting away to become an island. At once he stood, purple cloak rippling underneath him, glowing gold and silver with excitement and the glory of the new realm that would begin when he took his first step towards those polished marble gates. . .
  Yet something held him back. Some part of him was paralyzed, knowing that never in all of known history had someone gone and done what he planned. Knowing that it was right, that it was just, wasn't enough to stop that little voice inside of him. Doubt and confusion rippled off him in waves of bright orange and gray. He'd never heard of anything save the Fires unraveling a Faerie anyway. How could he simply walk in and cause people to cease to exist? It was all so strange. Just because in his best judgment he knew this plan to be right, all laws, customs, traditions, and beliefs shouted, screamed for him not to do such a thing. Couldn't it be true that these laws held a wisdom that he should heed, even if he couldn't understand them?
  But his mind shied from such a thing. What, then, does one believe anything told to him solely because he can't understand it? If he were taught that torture was noble and just, and his mind rebelled, but he let this little part of himself decide that he simply couldn't understand why torture was noble and just, but should follow the custom anyway because it was made by wiser heads than his own. . . . No. Ultimately, he had to believe in his own mind above all else, and the conclusions that mind led him to. Elsewise, where would his mind roam, what would people believe, if they refused to listen to their own minds and followed the beliefs of others as slaves, knowing them to be wrong but thinking--I don't know for sure what my mind knows for sure, I can't trust myself to ever believe the right thing so instead I'll trust others to believe the right thing for me. Cursed and twice cursed if he let some little part of his mind turn him into something like that! So Shade gazed at the ominous, looming storm overhead to beseech God for his will to be done, and strode purposefully towards the gates of the Inner Council. They were weak things, ornamental only, and it took only a moment to twist reality in such a way as the gates were now open and inviting to the violet-eyed, cold-blooded Unseelie. The gates were truly only in his mind, the gates and restrictions of culture, the gates his society had forced upon him as a kid, all the rules and laws and restrictions he had to live by in return for the services his leaders were rendering for him. He'd already broken those gates when he gazed at that tower for the first time in hatred, those gates lay wasted long behind him. Shade laughed, a piercing, mad laughter to see that all this time he could have simply walked in just like this, just walked in and taken his rightful place. Why under all the heavens did I wait this long? Pausing a moment to relish the sheer irony of it all, Shade looked for the first time from the inside of this fabled courtyard and all its beauties. Fountains sprayed molten glass from the mouths of sculpted dragons and griffins, flowers marched up and down the columns, worked so well so as to look as if they were swaying in the wind at his approach. All cast in this wondrously luminescent black marble, gleaming under the light of the storm. He belonged here. Ever since the Fires had come, destroying his family, taking his sister from his arms, unraveling the proud and noble threads of his mother and father, separating the courts of Seelie and Unseelie and razing the vegetation and undoing the animals that had thrived for a brief moment alongside them--ever since that time he knew this was the only place left in the realm of any use, the only place left that fought the wrath of the Fires, the only place that had triumphed against those flames, and withstood their coming and going. Taking a deep breath to compose himself, though truly there was no need for him to breathe at all, Shade made his way to the marble doorway and pushed his way inside--inside, where a thousand faeries laughed and cheered on their newest member, the one who had taken his rightful place, and thus the first one to die. Shade took on the wicked grin of a beserked wolf, so starved for food that the arrows of a hunter no longer brought it fear. He merely walked, the faeries did not even notice him at first. He just sauntered on up to his rival, laughing softly at how easy it all was, how stupid everyone was not to do exactly as he had done so long ago. He walked between two maidens, bowing politely in refusal as they offered him wine and bread. Still laughing, he spotted his rival once more preening in his treasured throne, the thousandth seat, drinking wine and chatting about his bright new initiatives and what he'd devote his power God had so kindly invested in him towards. That was supposed to be me. That was supposed to be my bright new future, my happy thanks, my power serving the realm! And so, with never a word to anyone, Shade approached the Unseelie, and thought what it would be like if a few of his threads had never found their way into that form, and made that the new reality. So easy, so easily the faerie crumpled, changed into a violet flash of complete surprise and ceased to exist. Shade laughed, this time long and loud, to the silent horror of everyone else watching on. Everything had frozen, perhaps for a year they remained frozen, too shocked to comprehend what had just happened. Faeries simply did not do this, they couldn't comprehend what this faerie had just done.
  "There, now. I would have been content with this seat, if you had just given it to me as I'd deserved. Even though now I see I should own the first seat, and all you selfish bastards should join the likes of him. I was naive, then, and I would have been overjoyed to have this seat. But now I think not. I think you've passed up that opportunity, and now things must be set right. What you did not give to me by law I will now take by force, and it is your own damn fault!" Shade literally glowed with red hatred and white righteous fury, blindingly brilliant to an Unseelie court accustomed only to the flashes of lightning for illumination. His words did not register on any of their minds, the only thing that registered was that here, in their midst, was a murderer, a murderer so evil that he thought himself in the right, and was not ashamed, and he was going to do it again if they didn't stop him.
  "Well?" Shade shrieked to them, suddenly afraid, wholly terrified that what he'd done was a mistake, the most horrible mistake he had ever made in his life, that anyone in any of their lives had ever made. Their silence made the red and white struggle with a rising tide of gray. "Don't you have some excuse! Don't you have any more vaunted reasons for why I wasn't fit? Don't you want to expose your greedy, selfish souls to us all, to show how you hypocrites choose to serve the faerie realm by rejecting the greatest of magicians, for fear that we'll get too much of the glory for ourselves? You! You're the one, step before me again and repeat what you just said to me earlier this day. Repeat it, for God's sake, or I'll cut you down where you stand, a coward and a liar twice over!"
  The Faerie fell over backward, throwing his arms in front of him in warding, not understanding how this could have ever happened. The others backed away, some crying, all of them trying to avoid his gaze and the horribly empty chair where once a fellow faerie had sat and joked with them.
  Shade howled in fury, and turned on the nearest Faerie, and struck out. And he turned on the next, and struck out again. He'd kill them all, all of them would die and he'd get a whole new palace built in their ashes! His mind turned into a maelstrom of seething colours, and he no longer knew what he was doing, or when his vision settled into utter darkness.
  *  *  *  *
  "All rise, the court is now in session!" Boomed the voice of an Unseelie herald. Outside, the dull booms of looming thunder and the flickering lights of an approaching storm woke Shade from what he felt was an endless slumber. Groggily, he looked around, trying not to remember what had happened, for hopes that it had all somehow been a dream. In the polished finery of the courtroom, incredibly precious wood from the trees that grew before the Fires gave seating to any onlookers and the people in the process. A judge, shielded by a layer of black glass so that none could see the colours he emitted, gazed with soft purple eyes at the prosecutor for him to begin. Shade wondered why this mockery of a trial was even being made, seeing as how everyone knew he'd done it. Done what? He shook his head to stop himself from thinking of the enormity of his crimes. Whatever they were going to charge him with, he'd call himself guilty and be done with it. He wished he'd never lived, gazing at all these faeries around him. None met his gaze, for fear of incurring his hatred, and people edged away from him as best they could without looking like they were edging away from him. They don't know what to do with me, Shade thought, and it made him smile. Everyone knew how to deal with everyone, simply by learning the makeup of each other's threads and using common sense from there on--but he had escaped that ensnaring web of predictability. It felt like a giddy triumph, even though he knew this newfound freedom would be taken away from him by the end of the day. So he turned to watch the prosecutor with a spark of amusement in his eyes, and the other Faerie swallowed under that gaze. They probably thought him mad, and this look that of a berserker who cared nothing for his life. Well, in truth he felt quite collected. Everything had been rational, and he certainly cared for his life like any other living being. But let them think as they will, mayhap I can claim temporary insanity due to the enormity of my emotions, and they'll let me go. . .
  "I stand before this court to bring justice to the realm. This man has done an unspeakable act, beyond all comprehension or recompensation, and the only penalty left of any meaning is that of unraveling. There is no need to prove his deed, as everyone here can surely attest to it. Since no law even covers such an occasion as this, it would set a good precedent to stop other such madmen from repeating this man's murders. Your honour, I believe the most good that can come of such a thing as this lies in the penalty of death."
  "Your position is noted, and will be considered. Now let me hear from the defense." The judge intoned with complete neutrality.
  Another faerie stepped up, whom Shade recognized as one of the best and brightest of people he had ever known. He felt honoured and shamed at the same time. He did not deserve someone like this to represent him. Almost he ordered the man to step down so that he could plead guilty and spare this one a case such as this. It must ache his heart, to try his best to set a mass murderer free. But he remained silent, simply to watch what sort of defense there was for his crimes. Mass murderer? Is that what I did? I suppose I did. Well, I certainly don't feel much regret for the poor souls. . .it's not like they're dead or anything. Their threads will turn into someone else and so it goes. It's not like I did any harm to anyone.
  "Your honour, I admit that my defendant is guilty of mass murder. However, the prosecution's solution is ill thought out and harmful to the most. What happens when someone is unraveled? The threads snap out of that form, and drift around until they twine into some other being. Somewhere in this man lies the thread of a mass murderer. If we unravel him, then that thread will be passed on to another, and that other will kill again. May I remind your honour, also, that this man is completely unaccountable for his actions. The prosecution says it will discourage others from doing this crime, but I say that's a foolish and stupid thought process. The defendant was fated to do this since the moment of creation, as will any faeries with a thread like his. Death is no solution and will only lead to even more murders in the future."
  "Your position is noted, and will be considered. Now let me hear from the prosecution." The judge intoned with careful neutrality.
  "Your honour, I confess that there is no easy or perfect solution for a crime of such magnitude. The defense is quite right that unraveling will only make this day come again, and again, for all of eternity. And as long as the Fires continue to undo all that we do, time and time again, our destinies can never escape the tapestry of fate and the threads that make us the way we are. This all aches my heart, but the defense conveniently forgets that we aren't here to decide what is best for our realm, we are here merely to carry out justice. If the court chooses to sway its decisions on what is best for the realm, instead of what is just and fair, then our realm will lose all knowledge of what is just or fair, and I believe that to be a far more grievous loss than any the defense can muster. The crime must have a fitting retribution, and the victims cry out for their lives to be valued and mourned. What does it mean, when we cease to care about the victims of crime, and look only to what is best for the living? Do any of us have compassion for those that were so cruelly undone, do any hearts glow in fury or grow black in misery at this man's deeds?"   The prosecutor shot out auras of white righteous fury, and the onlookers’ auras flashed and glimmered in a rainbow of emotions from the speech. The judge, however, merely repeated his lines, and it was up to the defense to rebut this completely emotional turn of the debate.
  "Bide a moment, and let your minds be cleared from these glamours and passions our prosecutor has put upon us. Truly, we are here to bring justice. Truly, the lives of the victims must be remembered in such a case and our final decision. But to base all the decisions of our realms on our emotions is sheer folly."
  The defense paused, and indeed the courtroom which had been ablaze with colours a moment ago now settled down to the flicker of lightning alone.
  "Now, think for a moment. If you had been the victim of such a thing as this, would you plead for this thread to be released back into the heavens, to become another murderer, and then that murderer's thread to be released, to slay even more innocents, and so on and so forth into eternity? Would the souls of these dead wish to visit incredible suffering on the realm of the living for the rest of time? Indeed, we must honour the feelings of the dead, and mourn their passing. But no one would wish an honour bought by the ashes of their brethren."
  And so the argument ran back and forth, long into the night. Shade watched, entranced by the eloquence and power of these two speakers, which melded into a sort of music, incredibly majestic and beautiful to his ears. When the same arguments started to be spoken again and again, in the raspy voices of tired and muddled faeries, the judge broke in loudly, "Enough! I have reached a decision."
  The prosecutor and defense bowed, releasing blue and green tinged waves of relief and exhaustion both. The onlookers laughed at this, and the two gave each other a weary smile at how similar the two of them were despite the raging debate that had been a wedge between them all this time. The judge allowed refreshments to be passed around as the crowd gossiped about their own opinions and what they thought the decision would be. A silver gong acknowledged the new day, though the distant rumble of thunder and streaks of lightning showed no sign of a rising sun. With this, the crowd became silent, and the judge stepped away from his black glass shield to stand before the crowd. Judges who had made especially poor decisions were mocked and booed, and promptly thrown out after the case. Those who made especially brilliant ones were given reverence and adulation. Now that everyone had a face and a thread-pattern to this judge, he could make his decision, knowing that the opinions of others would mean his honour.
  "I have considered the wisdom of both these Fae, and thank them from the heart for their partaking of this great venture to determine justice. I'm honoured to have them here in my courtroom."
  The onlookers broke into a hearty cheer and applause for these two, well-known public speakers. The two had debated against each other in many other famous cases and also were prime rivals in the new path their magiks should lead the Unseelie towards, but remained the best of friends in private.
  "The accused may rise!" Boomed the herald once more, and once more the crowd became solemn.
  Shade woke as if he had been entranced, and casually stood to meet his fate. The defender had worked marvels, but Shade did not doubt the outcome nonetheless. The facts were clear: he had killed, and in so doing forfeited his right to live. Perhaps he could make a dramatic speech to the crowd assembled to watch his hanging, about the evils of the palace and how their selfish greed had brought the realm to this day. He didn't really care.
  "My decision is this: Shade shall be exiled!"
  The crowd broke into a frenzy, the entire courtroom blazing into a plethora of colours, striking through each other and rebounding across the walls. Some were giddy with excitement at such a novel way to deal with things, others were in a fury that justice was not to be found, some didn't even know if they agreed or not, but simply made noise with the rest of them, caught up in the moment of the thing. The defense smiled in relief and graciously shook hands with the prosecutor, who gave a scowl at the judge but did not complain.
  "Order!" The herald shouted at the top of his lungs. "Let the Fae justify his decision, for God's sake!" With that the crowd did become silent, but colours simmered still, sometimes erupting into violent spectacles as they overlapped one another.
  "We all know that there are more universes than one, and that the Fires can travel from theirs to ours. I believe that we can travel through this gateway as well, and some of us in the higher echelons are privy to knowledge of universes even beyond that of the Fires, some above and some below, that the angle of our universe intercepts. Since there is no way to obliterate the threads that make up Shade, the only way to get them out of our system is to send him to another universe. Not only will it prevent this day from ever coming again, it strips this Fae of all he has ever known and all the faeries he has ever met, and I believe that to be a suitable vengeance in its own. I believe that if we set a precedent of exiling the worst of our people, then perhaps only the best of our race will see the days of liberation from the Fires. . .to ensure that paradise in the future, this solution will set us on that path. For the progress of our society, exile is the best solution possible." Flickers of yellow apprehension and golden pride flowed out of the judge, worry at the crowd's reaction, and a self-assured rightness of the decision he had made. Whenever a judge emitted telltale flashes of gray self-doubt, the crowd was very likely to throw him out of office. But here the judge stood, with golden colours pouring out of him, and so the crowd was content. Even if they did not agree, they could grudgingly see the logic of the decision, and that the judge had done it with the noblest of intentions. The onlookers bowed to his decision and filtered out of the palace into the black, roiling clouds outside.
  Shade stood, dazed. He did not know if he was elated to be alive, or if he felt horribly cheated of an honourable death. Exile. Who had ever heard of such a thing? Exile to where, the realm of the Fires? That was as much a sentence of death anyway. . .
  The herald took Shade's arms forcefully and showed him to his apartments. "Tomorrow we will come to see the judge's decision carried out. May God have mercy on your soul." The herald let out a beam of muddy brown contempt as he slammed the door of polished marble in Shade's face. The Unseelie crumpled to the floor, a growing miasma of deepest pitch filling the chamber around him. All he'd ever wanted in life was to help this realm restore itself to the beauty it once had, and now he wouldn't even live there anymore. Before, somewhere inside himself, death had not made him this bleak, because his threads would live on to see the day of their liberation. But this. . . He would not be able to help in any way, he'd dishonoured his kin, and now they'd stripped his life of all purpose and meaning. What was life worth, outside his land and people? Would he ever see his sister again? Shade wrapped his arms around his knees and swayed in utter misery, waves of black and blue exploding in silent warfare all around him. This was not what he had planned when he broke through the gates of the Unseelie Court. His mind sought escape from the direness of the present, and relived a time of brightness and life, a time before the Fires had come. It was as vivid as if it had happened the day before, and Shade began to hum a slight tune as he rocked himself back and forth, a smile reaching his lips. The black receded, and silver and gold started to shine all around him. . .

  "Sunbeam? Sunbeam! Dinner's ready." Shade shouted out excitedly, colours splashing around him and mingling with the bright sky and the firm, grassy ground. Sunbeam couldn't help herself, and her smile bubbled out into uncontrollable giggles. Dinner! It was the first time mother had ever thought about it, and all the family was bursting with apprehension at the idea. They supposed it was possible to digest things, but Faeries didn't need any food, and until recently there hadn't been any source of it. Sunbeam had talked to Sting about his foray with food, and he promised it to be awesome, but her mind still skittered around the idea. After all, what if mother cooked it all wrong? It's not like anyone really knew how to cook food, after all. . .
  "Sunbeam!" Shade shouted, waving his arms up and down in front of her. "Hello? I said dinner's waiting. I'm starving!" His smile seemed about ready to extend past his face and into the air around it.
  She tossed a blade of grass at him teasingly. "No you're not."
  "That's besides the point." Shade pouted. "Come on come on come on!" Shade grabbed her hand and tugged at her ineffectively. Sunbeam splayed herself limply on the hill, luxuriating in the feel of grass against her skin and the play of wind across her face, daring Shade to try and lift her from this peaceful heaven. All of a sudden, Sunbeam was floating in the air. Astonished, she turned to look at Shade glaring in concentration. "Stop that!" She snapped. "Mother told us not to mess with others like that, who knows what happens if you think the wrong thing about me when you're doing stuff like that!" The fear in her voice more than the words themselves made Shade drop her quickly. The boy blushed and looked at his feet. "Please, Sunbeam, can we go eat dinner?"
  Sunbeam tensed on the ground, feeling the rush of energy through all of her muscles, and in a single motion leaped off the ground and tackled her little brother. Shade never saw it coming, and soon they were rolling down the hill, tickling each other and shouting for their parents. Silver light rushed around them, whirling and suffusing the air around them. When they'd reached the bottom of the hill, they both lay panting, not out of any need for air, but simply because it felt so wonderful to have air going in and out of their lungs, the smell of fresh air and life all around them. Sunbeam was firmly on top of Shade, his shoulders pinned to the ground by her arms and her legs on either side of his. They gazed at each other's violet eyes and pink glowed from both of them, striking into each other and becoming shades of crimson and lavender. "Now Shade, next time you do anything to me like that again, I'm going to slap you so silly that your skin will turn permanently red, okay?"
  Shade nodded gravely, putting on as serious a face as he could muster. Then he stuck his tongue out at her and they both broke into laughter.
  "Oh, stop it!" Sunbeam reprimanded, hugging him to her like a lost puppy and kissing him on the cheek. "Let's see what sort of concoction of dead leaves and cat fur Mother's going to shove down our throats!" The two of them pounced up with the vibrancy of all children and raced for the door. Shade stopped running and dived through the air, shouting out behind him. "Last one there is a rotten egg!" Sunbeam's eyes narrowed and she chased after him at breakneck speed. If her little brother beat her she would have to join a monastery and live out a life of shame for the rest of eternity. . .
  Shade relaxed, lying on his bed with his eyes closed. Exile, to a new world. A world with no Fires, maybe. Maybe a world with no enemies, where they lived forever in total peace. A world that held no power equal to his own.
Golden light of confidence filled the cavern and Shade grew a small smile, as if laughing at a joke only he could understand. In the distance, a crack of thunder heralded an approaching storm.
*  *  *  *
  Crystals flared through the sky and gleamed across the ground, a realm of scintillating, twinkling, brilliant lights as far as the eye could see. The ground, as if stretched taut over a hollow tube, trumpeted out with a rush of beautiful music underneath any slight pressure. Sometimes it would sound as if a string were plucked, or perhaps a chime struck, or a horn blown, sometimes sounds no instrument could replicate, nor any mind render into words. It was a dazzling brilliance, and wind rushed across it and through it, whistling between the crystals and evoking splashes of emerald and sapphire, ruby and diamond, amethyst and topaz. Crystal spires in the distance stretched as far into the sky as the eye could travel, perhaps to meet their brethren hanging from above. The crystals were slender and brittle, a hand could snap them at their tips, a foot could grind them into dust. In the center of each column glowed and pulsed blinding colours that would illumine themselves and their realm at the touch of wind, or rain, or Faerie hand. It was a paradise, more glorious a land than any under the heavens. Within it, a figure wrapped in the yellows of the sun, splintered and refracted, replicated a thousand billion times to pierce the world with its warm glow, wept. As each tear ran, unheeded, down the channel of her face, it splashed into the carpet of tiny glassy blades, which shone with a rainbow of colours before returning to their common transparent glow. The Fires had recently come, and her memories of a land with air and grass, life and kin, hope and joy, remained only to torture her eyes as they perceived what was now left of the Seelie realm. A sun, the wind, and glass. Perhaps the Fires had melted the sand into this glass, she thought, perhaps the Fires thought shards of lifeless crystal could match the splendour of a wolf pack stalking a starving doe through the leafless woods, shrouded in the silence and coldness of snow. She wished to feel cold again, just once. She wished to know of a world without this sun. She wished for her parents and her brother. Now, they were all gone, more hopelessly out of reach than ever before. Her parents’ threads had long since mingled with the colours around her, perhaps reshaping into some other being. Her brother, her sweet, gay, wondrous, innocent little brother--a murderer, exiled. The Seelie Court spoke of some day bringing back the times of yore, of uniting the Seelie and the Unseelie again. But what was the point? Without her brother, without any family left to her, there was nothing she could ever join to. The Unseelie realm was one of eternal darkness and storm, why would she ever wish to work towards unification with that? Her life, over a single day, had become hell. And she would live forever. Tears dropped from her cheeks, fell to the puddle beneath her, and for a moment her figure was bathed with a spectrum of light, violet eyes slit to lids as she trembled silently in grief.
  "Sunbeam?" A distant, familiar voice called, anxious. "Sunbeam?" It was going further away, not nearer.
   Sunbeam would have been content to let it find her, but she was not content to let it be lost in this dizzying realm. She breathed in deeply and replied. "Sting, I'm here!" As the crystal spires erupted all around her from the force of her voice, it was as much the flash of colour as the sound that alerted Sting to her.
  Sting winked beside her, twisting the realm with the power of God, and enwrapped her hands with his own. "Daydrop, why is it that you cry?"
  "Oh Sting!" Sunbeam wailed, hurling herself upon him; her one and only friend, the only Fae left to her in the Seelie realm. "I just want to die. I want the Fires to come and burn my threads to cinder and ash and I want to never exist in any form ever again. And I can't stop wanting to, even though it's scaring me to hell, even though I've always wanted to live forever. I'm so confused and I'm so tired and I just want to die."
  Sting shivered against her, fear reaching through him to match her own. Faeries simply didn't feel like this. What could he possibly do to comfort her? What possible power did he hold over her emotions that could match this alien force? But he tried, because he was her friend and it tore at his heart to see her in this kind of state. Crystals flashed and shimmered at each of her sobs, mocking her pain by causing it to form beauty. He did not know what to say to her, he did not have the power to help her, but God had the power to do anything, so he turned to Him.
  "God, help me. Help this girl in my arms. Free her from this grip of despair, open her heart to you and her world, wash away her sorrow with a river of understanding, feel what she feels and tell her it will be all right, that this world you made is all right, that all of the suffering you have laden upon us and her has a meaning, a purpose, a goal, and that her suffering is not made in vain. Tell her that all is right with the world, or if it isn't, make it so, or if you can't, give us the tools to make it so. Or else give me the tools to comfort this girl, to wash away this pain, to let her soul of love and determination break loose from this power no Faerie can shed as if a mere cloak upon the wind. Or else give us nothing, give the world nothing, but at least let us be free to change our world alone, to what we believe you have always wanted it to be. At least lend us the time free from the Fires to create a world where no Seelie will ever suffer as this girl does again, and let us put aside her suffering in the pursuit of this goal, so that we may set its grip aside, and though we cannot break it, let it not break us. Amen."
  "Amen." Sunbeam breathed, the calm in his voice as soothing as the words. The love of his embrace as warming as the sun. She raised her face free of tears to gaze into her friend's eyes, and violet irises met solemn blue in thanks her throat could not find words to speak. "Sting, I've lost my brother. I've lost him, and without him. . .lacking him, I am no longer me. Do you see? These threads may still twine around each other to form this being, but that being is no longer Sunbeam." She paused to brush golden-auburn tresses behind her ears annoyedly. "I know its selfish and stupid and silly, that there's so much more to this realm than just me, that I've been without Shade for time immemorial and that his exile should mean no difference to my mind. . .but there's nothing I can do about it." Sunbeam shrugged, her shoulders slumped, defeated. "They say a thread snapped in him, that he went crazy and he's changed and fate dealt him that hand. Maybe a thread snapped in me, too, maybe we aren't that very different. Except my thread, it snaps in on itself, it snaps me, and without Shade I will snap with it."
  "There's nothing that will change your mind?" Sting asked, sympathetic pain tearing at his heart. "There's nothing I or anyone else can do?"
  "God created the threads, the threads created us, and I can not match either of those strengths. Please, I don't want to die." Sunbeam clutched his hands fiercely in desperation. "I don't want to die, but I feel like if I just sit here long enough I'll just unravel, simply fade away and cease to be. Without even the hope of rejoining the only person I love, what part of the tapestry has fate left to me? I feel like a strand accidentally cut loose on both ends, that sits upon the tapestry of fate but is no longer part of it, and soon gravity will rip me from it and drag me to oblivion."
  Sting paused to take in a long, shuddering breath. Crystals sparked and flared in response, and the two squinted until the light faded once more. "You say you still love Shade, even after what he's done?"
  Sunbeam shook her head. "I love Shade because the only Shade I've ever known was the little boy I lived with before the Fires. How can simple words shatter that image of him, so perfect, so clear, after so long? Perhaps when next we meet I'll hate him and spit upon the grave I make for him, but not now, never now."
Sting kissed her, briefly, as if sealing a promise so sacred words would have weakened its force. "Here now, my little Daydrop, what if I told you that Shade isn't beyond your grasp? That you can still join him, even though this person is one you no longer know, even though this person is one who has killed faeries before and might well kill faeries again? Would you accept that chance?"
  Sunbeam soared into the air, the power of God rushing through her in an endless stream of overpowering joy. "Oh Sting, does the Court really have such power? Can you really sway the court to do such a thing?"
  "We aren't a bunch of heartless bastards, you know." Sting smiled wryly, his own dolor washing away under the force of her cheer. She dived into him at full speed, and they rolled across the plain of crystals, shattering and crushing any in their path. "Oh Sting, I'll pray for you every day. I'll sing songs in your praise and name all my children after you!" Her words were short and sporadic, broken in-between a blaze of passionate and deep kisses to wherever her lips could find.
  Sting laughed as the crystals blazed bright reds and greens. "Where are you going to find children, when all the threads will still be up here?"
  Sunbeam playfully punched him in the gut. "It's a figure of speech. As if I'd name anyone after such a horrendous name as that! To think, your mother saw you and the first thing that came to mind was a sharp, stabbing, jolt of pure, unadulterated pain!"
  "Oh, yes, and your name is so original and creative, too. As if there weren't a hundred thousand sunbeams falling upon the earth right now. Your mother found the most common, unimportant aspect of the world possible and decided that had to be you!"
  "Hmph, I'll bet you my journey into exile your first daughter will be Daydrop." Sunbeam pouted, sticking out her tongue.
"As you command, so shall it be done." Sting answered with as much solemnity as the moment could muster. "Now let's wink on over to the Marble Palace and lay your case before them."
  "Let's shall." Sunbeam spoke, winding her arm around his.

Chapter 2.

"When crossing between the different universes of God's creations, there is a simple metaphor one can look to. Think of heaven as a line, and then the next universe as another line maybe a single degree different from that of heaven itself. Though it only intersects at one spot, the space between the two universes, forthwith referred to as 'the angle between universes', is slight and easily traversed. Like taking a hop from one stepping stone to the next across a raging river. Between the universes, or stones, is the vast emptiness of the void, or perhaps chaos. This realm outside that of God's, this river, is the end to any life that should fall into it. It is utter oblivion, and it cannot be fought, subdued, or contained by any living thing. Even God does not shape his universe from this substance, but rather uses his own form to fabricate the worlds around him. Thus, the leaping from stone to stone is a dangerous and tricky business. Jumping from heaven to the realm below is an easy hop, but the universe below that? That would require only a small hop for the dwellers below those of heaven, but a fearsome leap for those who live in this highest plane. And the next realm below? Again, only a slight hop for the realm separated from us by two degrees, but a treacherous jump for the realm below our own, and for us, a monumental, suicidal act of desperation. And so it is, that the angle between universes forever widens from one of God's realms to the others, so that only the two nearest to either side of one's own universe can be reached. Also, the further the leap you take, the more concessions you must make with your own form to fit into the physical laws that exist in the next universe. Phantoms, for instance, cannot exist in their true forms in the universe of the Faeries. The laws of physics that govern that realm--the fact that all life comes from threads, or that there is a possibility of destruction, and the firm division between Seelie and Unseelie, cannot accommodate the life of a Phantom. Thus does the Phantom morph into something the Universe can accept into its gates--that of giant, ravening, unstoppable flames that render all things back into their original form that God had crafted them to be, slaying all those who strive to combat them. It is hypothesized that all living things change the least they can when going from one universe to the next, retaining their fundamental identities, but only in an aspect that fits within the bounds of the other universes. Perhaps an angel, stepping down to the realm of light, would change into a star, pulsing and shining eternally, never to walk the clouds of heaven again. . ."
  'On the Angles between Universes.'--Angel Latonius.
  A bedraggled, worried to exhaustion man paced back and forth in front of the poor but cleanly cottage of the midwife. It had been hours, he was sure, it had been years, since his wife had gone into labour. All he could hear were the occasional, pain-filled cries of his wife, making him wince and grow silent until their end. It was the first time for his wife, and in these backwaters of the kingdom the mortality rate was high. Not just for the infants, but for the mothers as well. Always the first time was the worst, he had been told. Fear that he had never known while hunting in the dark woods, fear that had never gripped his bowels when the sleeping sickness had passed through the village, now pulsed through him with every beat of his heart. This was something he could not fight, this was something he could do nothing about, and the helplessness, the uselessness he felt gave the fear free reign of his mind and body. He shook, and sweated, and his eyes gleamed as if from a fever. Every now and then a good friend of his would pat him on the back, tell him it was going to be fine, and like a hunted animal he would flinch from their touch and cast about with unrecognizing eyes at his assailant. People would make nervous chuckles and back away, handing him another drink of ale before walking quickly back to their own homes. In a village as small as this, the fate of a single mother and her baby could paralyze everyone in anticipation. The tin cup lay forgotten in his white-knuckled grip, the majority of its contents slopped to the now-muddy ground.
  "Why should I drink the ale?" He figured. "It's her who's going through labour, I'm just standing here, just fine." Except the midwife told her not to drink any alcohol, that it put a curse on babies in their womb, that foul spirits would warp their babies into horrible monsters if she drank, and so they gave him the ale, and left her to scream in agony. What a wretched botch of a job God had done. Pacing back and forth, his eyes glared in concentration as he started constructing an angry speech he could throw at Him the next time the two met. This distraction soothed his frayed nerves and let his tensed muscles relax, and a friend dared to approach him once more.
  "Don't worry, it won't be long now. What are you doing?"
  The man gave a wry grin at this, "Praying."
  "I'm sorry to disturb you, then." The other said hastily, patting him on the shoulder once more and walking back to the inn. Backcountry folk put less stock in God than the cities, knowing it was more often the spirits that controlled day-to-day life. After all, the spirits were right there alongside you, evident and numerous, and God was a long way's away. But no one wanted to offend the clerics, who had built a really nice school and taken in the homeless and hungry for them. Best to wink and nod your head at their sermons, and at least pretend to take it all as-serious-as-could-be. They'd learn soon enough that when a storm came or the chickens stopped having eggs, God had nothing to do with it. But since God had made the world where spirits could make everything backwards and only let the people who didn't need to drink, drink, the man felt he had every right to blame it all on God. After all, it was a lot safer ranting against God than the spirits that lived all around you--the spirits might hear, and be offended. No one wanted to be on their bad side. As a hunter, just a single mischievous spirit who felt like snapping a twig could mean no bread on the table that evening. No, this was definitely all God's fault.
  The man looked at the setting sun and let out a heavy sigh. Positively, it had been hours. He looked at the cottage forlornly, wanting to hold her hand, fetch hot water, anything that would mean he had helped. But this was something left to women, and it would be the shock of the village if he tried to intrude. People would be gossiping about him for months, probably would hike up their prices. . . Women had their ways of making sure no bungling fool of a husband ruined everything. Petulantly, the man didn't think the women had that good of a record of their own. Maybe he could've done it better. Maybe it wouldn't have taken hours if he were in there. Maybe with men at the helm, an infant wouldn't die for every one that grew to a child. Maybe with men at the helm, half those toddlers wouldn't die from one disease or another, never to have enjoyed life before it was stolen away from them. The man gripped his cup convulsively, the despairing knowledge gnawing at his bones that this child they were to have was most likely going to die. That there was a chance his wife would die, too, if not this time than the next, or the next. His first serious try at prayer was disrupted by the howls of his wife, more frantic than before.
  "They're killing her!" He cried out, but friends quickly grabbed his arms and tore him away from the cottage.
  "It's in their hands, man. It's in God's hands, so stop acting the fool!"
  Amidst all the noise, the healthy wailing of a newborn could barely be heard. There were some cheers from the men gathered outside, but they were quickly quieted. It was too early to celebrate, yet. They had to wait for the midwife to open the door and deliver the news. In the hush that fell upon the assembled villagers like a soft blanket, in the failing light of the sun, the mewling of the first infant was joined by a second, strong and healthy. People fidgeted or scowled, the nervousness of waiting breaking them down one by one. A few younger lads chattered about how brave they'd be and how perfect their wives would do when it came to be their day to wait outside the cottage doors.
  Then the door opened, and everyone grew silent and reverent. A cleric would not receive the respectful silence of this opened doorway. The midwife stepped out, a look of weary triumph upon her face. "Twins!" She called out proudly. "The two most perfect, beautiful twins I ever did see!"
  The man fell into a daze, as if there could not be a world in which everything worked out better than expected. The crowd erupted into cheers, their relief mingling with their joy to produce a shout heard by the next village to the west. People clapped the man on the shoulder and started singing his praise. The women looked out of their windows with amused gazes, remembering the time they had been the reason for those cheers. There would be a celebration given, when the wife was strong enough to move about. The first time was always so hard, and twins! Already instruments were being retrieved as sporadic dances and songs filled the rustic hamlet at the edge of the Glimkeer that was their reason for existence. Fires sprang up as the sun passed away, and the sky was filled with merriment and song long into the night.
  The man bounded into the cleanly cottage, running to his wife's side to hug her tired body holding a baby to each breast. The babies seemed to be aware of their world, casting quick and terrified looks around the room. "Twins!" He marveled, gazing at his beautiful children and his beautiful wife. "We weren't prepared for twins. I thought twins were fabled heroes, gods. . .not villagers!"
  "God's blessed us, blessed them. This is a sign, husband, that our children are fated for better things than this kind of life. We can get the clerics to teach them to read, maybe. . . send them to my uncle to become accountants." The wife fondled her babies lovingly, dreams of what they'd become years and years from now, not letting the realistic part of her mind say that neither would likely live to see such a thing.
  "Whatever you want, wife." Her husband spoke soothingly, brushing sweaty strands of hair from her face. "But what shall we name them? I was thinking if it were a boy, we'd name him after my grandfather--"
  His wife shook her head. "They're twins, sweetheart. Apollo and Artemis, Helios and Selene, Firius and Falchenor. Our twins have to be connected with their names, too. They have to have special names, ones that will stand out in the legends and fables just like the others."
  Her husband took on this silly romantic thought and mulled over it. "Perhaps we should name them after the Glimkeer, seeing as how this will be their lives’ greatest influence. That is where we get our food, our water, our lumber, our metal, our money. . ."
  "But they can't be too strange. Uncommon, but not so rare that the names sound stupid to one's ears. . ."
  "Glen!" one snapped in a moment of revelation.
  "Rain!" the other snapped at the exact same moment.
  The two laughed and hugged each other once more, hoping the villagers wouldn't think them daft. It was the most perfect day of their lives.
*  *  *  *
  There was cause for much joy in the young couple's lives, both of the twins had survived their first year without a hitch, and during the next few years they learned quickly, were energetic, little hassle, and seemed to love each other more than their mother loved their father. Though these were all pleasant surprises, a few people cast puzzled glances at the twins. The cleric would bless them more often than any other child, in case of any foul spirits. Even the mother and father would whisper about them at night before they went to sleep. Things like, "He's only four and he can speak better than some adults we know." Or, "She's the same age as him, but they treat each other as if she were years older." And, "The little boy is so happy with his twin, but without her. . .have you seen his face? He gets so angry and moody, he won't listen to me or anyone, it scares me." "I'll give a stern talking-to to the boy. There'll be no disrespect in my house." And so the twins grew, beautiful, polite, intelligent. . . different.
*  *  *  *
  Glen gazed at the oncoming thunderstorm, a sense of belonging, of rightness, seeping through his bones. It was so beautiful, so natural, that he could not pull his eyes away. This was the sound he could sleep to, utterly at peace, utterly comforted, assured of his safety. This was the sound of home.
  But Glen shook his head, he was home right now, and it most certainly didn't sound like a thunderstorm. This was the rarity, not the norm. The dark clouds swept over the land, darkening the sky. His parents would be worrying about him. He did not worry for himself, though. No matter how close the storm came, he knew that it would not hurt him. He was not afraid of the lightning, the thunder, or this strong wind, gripping his clothes and hair with tiny hands and trying to hug him with it. It felt so good. Someone yelled out his name over the sound of the approaching storm, making large, sweeping gestures that meant, 'run to me, get to shelter and hide'. Glen laughed, a smile he had so far held within his mind now bursting across his face. People said he was gorgeous, that purple eyes were so uncommon these days, that his voice was soft and musical, not shrill and high. A girl had even kissed him, once, while he was thinking up a song to write down. Not Rain, Rain's kisses didn't count.
  Somebody put a strong grip on his arm, pulling at him impatiently. It almost lifted Glen off his feet and he stumbled, trying to tug his hand out of the other's painful grasp. Why were parents so mean? Couldn't they tell they were too strong? Couldn't they tell that he didn't want to get out of the storm? Why couldn't they just leave him alone? The strong man pulled him under the wooden overhang, looking furious. But what can he do to me? He is not my father.
  "Why in damnation are you laughing like a madman with a storm coming like that? Don't you know it'll be pouring like all hell in a minute? You'll never make it to your parents’ now! Haven't they told you to get right home when there's a storm?" And the first drops of water did start to fall. Glen shivered, trembling at the sight of the water. That wasn't natural, that wasn't right, and it chilled him to the bone. To think that storms made water drop from the sky. . .they named my sister after that, but I can never think of it as right. Not my sister, he corrected himself, my twin. And yet sister came more easily to his lips, his mind, than twin. He always felt like she was older than him.
  "Are you listening to me, kid? Think you're so smart, you can just ignore good folk like me when we're trying to help you? Damn pissant, is what you are, reading books and such when your mother should've gotten you to help with the chores by now. Making you damn arrogant, is what it is."
  "I'm listening, sir. It's just the rain scares me." And Glen's trembling body and wide purple eyes attested to the truth of that. In fact, in all of the man's memories the boy had never told a lie, pulled a prank, stolen a cookie or anything of the sort. Unnatural, was what it was. But then, twins weren't supposed to be natural. Maybe it was a blessing or something, but the man believed it more likely to be some foul spirit. That's what the cleric said, didn't he? Not in as many words, of course, but that's what he felt, what the entire town was beginning to think. Happy about the thunder and damn trembling in fear from a little water? Cursed little boy. Where was that sister of his? They were always hanging around each other, she wasn't afraid of the rain. She was named after it, after all. Casting his gaze around the shadowed village, he caught the gleam of her purple eyes as she raced down the street shouting out his name.
  "Glen! Glen! Mother says come home right now! Glen, I don't want Mother to get mad at me!" Rain wailed, still having not spotted her brother as the storm gained in fury. Lightning flashed overhead, tearing great tears in the sky which shrieked in pain in the thunderbolt's wake. Rain's cloak offered little protection as the water dribbled down the small of her back or dropped from her hair. She shivered from the cold, a slight tremor going down the entirety of her body. The rain did not bother her, though, as a hot bath would counter this chill once they got home. It was the lightning, so terrifying and unnatural. Storms were meant to be slight spring showers, not these menacing bolts of death and howls of approaching death coming from every side, impossible to predict or dodge. It made her feel helpless, that no matter what she did it was simply blind chance that would determine if she lived another day or not. The winds were throwing the rain into her face, now, and it was hard to see anything through slitted pupils.
  "Glen!" She yelled, more in fear of the storm, now, than fear of her mother's anger.
  An older, booming voice answered her gruffly, gesturing theatrically for her to join him. In his grip stood her trembling brother, eyes wide and face pale as it valiantly fought against the wish to curl up into a ball and cry. Her heart leapt out to him and she cursed herself for her own fear. Lightning hardly hit anyone, especially down low. . .but here was her little brother who had always been terrified of the rain and she hadn't thought a moment of him. Little brother? Well, she had been born first, though her parents had told her it was inconsequential. Gripping her drenched and sopping cloak tightly about her, she sprinted for the two and the chance of shelter from the downpour.
  "R-Rain." Glen managed from a tongue dry with fear. The two embraced, comforting each other from the other's fears. "I don't want to go into that." Glen said in a more normal tone of voice. "Please, sir, could we stay with you until the rain stops? My sister is dreadfully cold."
  "That's okay." Rain reassured with a slight, stoic smile. "I have a cloak, but what about you? Please, sir, for his sake. . .?" The twins had learned very early on in life that though begging for yourself was demeaning and would get you nowhere, begging for another is an admirable and often times successful practice. Thus, whenever faced with the ordeal of persuading adults to do perfectly reasonable and small things, they fell into a natural pattern of pleading each other's causes. To make sure the parents never thought of it as whining, whoever that was being spoken about would show that they could carry their weight, and that truly it was the other person that needed this or that, and that the other person was just putting a brave front on it all. The parents would see them as having courageous and caring souls, and give in to anything they wished. So far no one had caught on to this trick, and, predictably, the old man's hard and cold eyes warmed and a smile worked up his face.
  "Of course, your Mother would probably have my liver if I sent you back as wet and miserable as you are. Come in, come in." Yes, the children were strange, but perhaps all twins were. After all, they were strange in a good way, considerate and polite at all times. His worries assuaged, the villager forgave the two their idiosyncrasies and went to tell his wife about the guests.
*  *  *  *
  The Glimkeer, the great and wild forest that supported all the villages in the region, sparkled under the morning sun, brilliant and vibrant with the sounds of life. Insects and birds vied for supremacy, each creating their own songs in an attempt to drown out the others. Glen marched through the dead leaves that coated the ground, purple eyes trying to absorb this incredible new world all around him. His father, strong and silent, slid across the ground with a grace Glen could not begin to emulate. A hunter, they called him. Glen thought that meant killing deer and wild boars, now he knew that the Glimkeer housed much stranger prey than that. And that his father did not hunt to kill, that in fact if he killed any of the creatures he was hunting he would be punished by law. The creatures he was hunting were more valuable to their kingdom than the hunters themselves. The exotic fauna were meant to be caught and sold to the rest of the world, birds, beasts, flowers. . .all sorts of creatures that could only be found in the dark and magical wilderness of the Glimkeer. His father had trained all his life at this, knew the forest and its denizens like the back of his hand. There were the birds of paradise, the giant ants and dragonflies, the jaguars, timber wolves, wolverines, raptors, the rainbow trout, the trapdoor spiders, and the freshwater dolphins. Uncounted species Glen probably had never heard of resided in this realm, and his father was strong, brave, and sharp enough to conquer them all. It made Glen's heart glow a bit in pride, but it also made him afraid, because how could anyone be as good as Father? How could he ever match his father's skill, and support a family of his own at such a dangerous job?
  Nevertheless, at the age of eight it was time for his apprenticeship to start, and so here he was. He hoped he could get home soon, to be with his poor sister who would have to take up housekeeping this very same day. He obviously had the far better part of the deal, traipsing through these beautiful, enchanting woods every morning at his father's side. Watching his father's gait, so smooth and quiet, Glen tried to emulate it. He supposed they were hunting very perceptive prey, if they had to walk everywhere like this. His legs were already getting tired from this unnatural position. To distract himself from the physical torment, he started asking questions.
  "Do plants ever eat things, Father?" He asked, poking a stick at a bush to beat off the dead leaves.
  "Plants eat sunlight." Father answered briefly.
  "How?" Glen asked, thoroughly perplexed.
  "Well, you'd have to ask the scholars about stuff like that." Father answered with a slight smile, glad to find his boy to have such a curious soul. Curiosity was a sign of intelligence, and he wanted his son to get as far as his wits could reach. Neither of the twins had been touched by illness yet, the cleric seemed to believe that neither of them would ever be, that both would live to healthy adulthood. In the presence of him or his wife, they always spoke of it as such a wonderful blessing, that maybe these twins would become as legendary heroes as the ones of the past. Amongst themselves, there were dark whispers of sorcery, witchcraft, the Glimkeer's children, or perhaps the coming of demons or even the devil. Father knew of these whispers, and was ashamed. Not of his children, who he loved and cherished more than anything else in the world, but of his village, which was superstitious and hateful enough to say such things of anyone who had done no harm. Once he had had faith in these people, thought of himself as part of a community devoted to each other more than anything else, ready to sacrifice everyone to save anyone, united against the forest that gave them life. Now he saw behind every man's eyes a certain frown of suspicion, or a grimace of distaste. Behind every woman a righteous anger that he had brought such creatures into the world, or perhaps fear that he would ask to eat at their house, or even them to his. The children shunned the twins as well, though the twins found more joy in each other than any of the other children, so they hardly noticed such things. Well, Ramses' baby adored Rain, but that hardly counted. It made him worry, that someday it would be spoken out loud, that someday he would be confronted by a mob of drunken, fearful, hating men with torches. What will happen to you then, boy? Will I give you up to that mob, to be burnt at the stake as a creature of the devil, simply because you are the most perfect little boy the village has ever seen? Another good reason to teach Glen the ways of living out in the wild, alone, without anything but his wits and his hands to keep him alive from one day to the next. If a day like that came, Glen could escape to this forest, perhaps journey to another village or city to pick up a trade. . .
  Glen’s piping voice and wide upturned eyes interrupted his thoughts again, though. He'd been thinking silently for as long a time, working out in his mind the eating of sunlight and what happened to the rest of the animals from there on up. "Father, does that mean we eat sunlight, too? We eat plants who eat sunlight, and we eat animals that eat plants that eat sunlight. So why can't we just eat the sunlight just like the plants and not bother with all the rest?"
  His father sighed in exasperation, rolling his eyes to the sky. "The plants change the sunlight into sugar to eat, and then animals eat that sugar, and then animals eat those animals who ate that sugar, and then we eat the animals who ate the animals who ate the sugar of the plants that ate the sunlight."
  "Oh." Glen asked, his face clouding up as he mulled over that for a time in silence.
  "But now you must be silent. We are near the Darkness." Father spoke sternly, unlimbering his crossbow and loading it with slow-acting poison darts. These would paralyze their prey until they could be caught with ropes and cages, or defend them in the worst of scenarios. Even though Glen knew his father had come and gone through this area a thousand times without encountering the Darkness, the boy shuddered and broke into a cold sweat. The Glimkeer was magical. That was where all the land-spirits were concentrated, what determines if the winter is harsh or mild, the harvest full or scant, the children healthy or plagued. That, Glen could deal with, but it terrified him to think that amidst such beauty and wonder was the destruction of mankind, waiting to be unleashed with their uncounted hordes, sent by God to punish man for their sins, to purge their world and wrought it anew. The clerics preached that if only mankind were to reform and repent their sins, the darkness would vanish, their purpose no longer necessary. They spoke that the world would come to an end, all of them would be slain come judgment day, if humanity did not turn their face back to God and worship him as they had in the past. His parents said that God created the darkness at the same time as humanity, and the two would battle each other into all of eternity, both necessary for the other's survival. After all, if there were no Darkness then humanity might have turned against its self. And if there were no humanity, the Darkness could no longer destroy it. Glen agreed with his parents simply because that was what a child should do, but somewhere in his mind he rebelled against both these beliefs, knowing them both to be wrong, though he did not know why he knew.   
"There." Father whispered, an arm pointing precisely to the grizzly bear hidden amongst the almost impenetrable camouflage of the trees. Even with Father's directions, Glen had to gaze at the spot for a full minute before a copse of leaves changed into the brown fur of the bear. Glen watched the creature in awe as its rippling muscles moved underneath its fur. Here was nature, so complete and unworried. No amount of the Darkness could destroy mother earth. Here was something that gazed at all of humanity's trials and tribulations and laughed, watching us scurry about like ants and the great interplay of all our emotions, flashes of colour to light up the bear's night. . .
  Father leveled his crossbow on the bear and held it steadily, unflinching. Just the slightest pressure and the bolt was released, slamming into the bear's side.
  The bear reared up in pain, searching for and finding its assailant. It roared and Glen darted behind the calmly reloading figure of his father. The bear started an ungraceful run in their direction, like a drunk walking from the tavern back to his house. Father took aim once more and released, a second dart piercing the bear's tough hide. Even before the second bolt connected Father was loading a third, and the bear still came. Glen tried to think of something, anything that he could do. Run at it with a stick? But before such dire straits became necessary, and before Father had unleashed his third shot, the Bear sank to the ground in a pitiful wail and became loose, as if all its joints had turned to water and now all it could do was sag under the force of gravity.
  Father then went on to teach him about how to successfully cage such a large animal and transport it on a sled back to the village. Glen watched it all with sharp and attentive wide eyes, wondering what would happen to the poor thing. Would it be chained up for the rest of time? Or perhaps it would be sold in the north, where they held 'sports' concerned with the merciless slaughtering of the things. They'd be chained up and attacked by hounds until the bear lost its strength and was torn apart. The animals on both sides suffered terribly, and in the north they thought it all great fun. Am I at fault for this bear's torture? Glen mused. If it is then sold to someone who ships it to the north to sell to someone else who tortures this living being, then haven't I also contributed to the bear's death? Couldn't I alone prevent this entire chain of events from happening? It plagued Glen all the way home, until finally, as the forest began to fade away to be replaced by cultivated land, his mind came up with a rationalization. Whenever there is someone willing to pay for such a thing, you will find someone willing to sell it. If someone is not willing to pay, than no one will sell. Thus it is the buyers who cause the torture of these bears, and even if I didn't sell, other people will, because those people will starve to death and their families will starve to death with them if they do not. So no matter what I do, this will go on, so I might as well be a part of it. If I step down, another will step up, and maybe the next one will be crueler than my Father, and the animals will be even worse off because of my selfish, weak conscience. So even though I hurt them, by caring I will be helping them, because I will hurt them less.
  "You've been quiet all this time, lad. No more mysteries left in the world?" Father asked teasingly, proud of having netted such a large bear in front of his son on their first foray. The real question was whether he could stomach seeing these things getting hurt and not panic at the sight of a charging grizzly. So that was the question Glen answered.
  "I'm glad we don't kill them, father, but I'll kill them before I'll let them kill you." His purple eyes narrowed in solemnity for the vow, and his father tousled his hair.
  "That's sweet, son. But don't do anything heroic. If you see me in danger, like today, then I'll probably know exactly what I'm doing and you'd only get in the way and endanger yourself and thus all of us if you tried something heroic. And if you see that the Glimkeer has bested me, then run away as fast as you can. All hunters have to lose the game, sometime, but you're no hunter. You're my son, and the most perfect son in all the world, and you sha'nt sacrifice yourself for nothing. Understand?"
  "Yes, father." Glen spoke, abashed. What did he think he, an eight year old armed with a stick, could have done anyway? Without either of them noticing, Glen was matching his father stride for stride, in that graceful, silent glide that only a hunter could make. It seemed like the only natural way to walk, to the boy, like everything else was just stupid and clumsy.
  The forest faded away, to be replaced by giant fields of crops and a small dusty trail leading back to the village. The bear was still dead asleep, but the other villagers shied away from them with fingers crossed. They'd come see the thing when it was good and captured at the village square, but no sooner. Father laughed and waved to his reticent friends, dragging the sled on his shoulders with practiced ease. Glen thought a horse would have made more sense, but perhaps they could not afford one. Or perhaps it made too much noise. Either way, his father was strong enough to carry an entire grizzly bear all the way back to the house, where he tossed it aside at the front of their door. The merchants would come through soon enough, and there the bear would be in the village square, along with anything any of the other hunters caught, and then there would be plenty of food on the table for the next month or so. Glen had always found money as such a strange construct, unable to understand how bits of metal were worth food, houses, animals, clothing, ale, or anything else. Why would someone accept coins in lieu of something real and solid that they could use?
  Real coinage should be based on food. It was the one thing everyone needed, all the time, the one thing people fought and strived for in this village every waking day. Why give money to the blacksmith for some service who will then use it to buy food, because he grows none and thus must rely entirely on his trade to live from one day to the next? Why not just give him the food straight off? And then, if the Blacksmith needed a service from someone else, he could give food to that other person, and so on and so forth. What use was a thousand pounds of gold to a starving man? And yet, Glen wondered how you could stockpile food like you could gold. If food were the basic item of trade, how could one store it for a rainy day? No one would get any richer than 'rich enough to feed his family for today', no matter how much work they did. It was unfair for the blacksmith to work on some fine piece of work for half a year and be paid only in enough food to survive the next day. Even if that person paid him food for a year, it would be inefficient and a complete waste of time on everyone's part, time needed to grow more food. . .
  In the course of these meanderings his feet instinctively stayed aside his father's, and eventually they entered their cottage. The familiar sights, sounds, and smells shook Glen from his reverie, and he smiled brightly, remembering all that had gone on on this wonderful first day of being an apprentice hunter. Taking a deep breath, he shouted out Rain's name gleefully and raced to her side.
  It was a piteous sight. His sister dripped with sweat, her hands sore and scratched working so feverishly that she couldn't even wipe the sweat from her brow that stung at her eyes, making it almost impossible to see. The weaving looked infinitely complex and Glen was afraid to breathe lest he disrupt the strange machine in one way or another. He wanted to help, but he didn't know how. It didn't even seem that Rain knew how. In the adjacent room Mother and Father were sitting down to talk about the bear and such, so Glen put a finger to his lips and then pointed out the window.
  Rain shook her head, spraying sweat from her hair, and bent to her task with new fury. Glen sighed and slid his back down the wall until he sat watching his sister mournfully. Glen knew that there wasn't enough money to buy all the stuff they wore and used and suchlike and so on, but he couldn't bear seeing his sister endure this kind of torture. Why couldn't she help them make money, instead of helping them make the money go further? Rain was beautiful, intelligent, talented. . . better than he in every way. Why was it that he and he alone must provide for a family? It was something he wanted to ask his parents, but the question would be too scandalous, too utterly strange for his parents to possibly accept. It would only earn him a strapping on this oh-so-perfect day, an end to whatever enchanting memories he could ever have of galumphing through the forests with his father. His mother and father were still talking, Rain was still working, and it seemed she would never stop, so Glen was left alone to himself and his thoughts.
  He loved Rain more than anything else in this world. They were together all the time, and she was the only thing that mattered to him. There was nothing they withheld from each other, nothing between each other. It was as if God had tied an invisible bond of golden thread between their two hearts, so that they could become the one, single baby everyone had expected once more. But with a sinking feeling that sapped at his heart, Glen knew that today, all this had come to an end. Not because either of them had wanted it to, but solely through the cruel circumstances of daily life. Glen would have to wake up early and tend to the animals and watch the snares and hunt with his father every day, getting home hungry and exhausted every evening so that he could collapse upon his bed. When would there be time for play? And whenever the hunt went especially well, like today, and they got home early and exuberant, what then? Rain would still be working at these wretched clothes, or cooking, or cleaning, with so many duties and obligations lavished upon her that she could never escape. So here they were, living in the same house together, wanting nothing more than to be with each other, and yet separated irreparably forever. How would he cope? What would he do when he got home early, or at a holiday, or when the merchants came and he was not needed but Rain still was? He couldn't help Rain with her chores, Mother and Father would have a fit. Rain had to do it, she was obligated to do her share of the work and only she was allowed to do it. They might make him go chop firewood or something, but never would they allow him to do her chores. Which meant time, unallocated time with which he had nothing left to do. He'd have to talk with Rain, figure out what would happen now. Tell her how sorry he was that this was all happening, tell her that he would always love her first and foremost. He knew he should say all these things, but sitting miserably with his back against the wall, he could not force his mouth to open. It was as if some higher power had paralyzed him, making him incapable of accepting this new life and trying to make the best of it. As if he would rebel against the fate the world had given him, lash out against the world, do anything necessary to make things right and fair. There had never been two people more in love, what right did the world have to cut him away from her? What if he refused to hunt? What if he helped her with her chores? What would they do, what could they do that would hurt him more than this? Glen struggled against this surge of new and strangely alien thoughts, fought with all his soul to open his mouth, if only to breathe through it, just to get air moving through his lungs. Two conflicting, utterly opposite decisions had been reached in his mind:
  I will bow to the necessity of the world, accept it with good grace, and try and find happiness in it as best I can.

I will fight against the unfairness of the world, refuse it with all my heart, and see which of us will break first.
  And more simply:
I will open my mouth and breathe.

I will not breathe until I'm willing to keep my mouth closed.

  Glen began to whimper and curled himself into a ball, unclenching and reclenching his teeth as tears started to run from his eyes, his entire face drawn and tight under the tension. A spasm went down his spine as if his body, seeing the indecisiveness of his mind, had decided at that moment to rebel against its control. His body slammed violently against the wall, and Rain cried out in terror for her mother. I will breathe. . . He thought, he willed. I will breathe. . . So that nothing else entered his mind, so that all of his senses, even his sense of pain, no longer reached his consciousness.
  "Glen!" Rain shrieked, its sound tearing through her throat and rushing into the entire village. Father was grappling with the boy, forcing Glen's body with the incredible strength of those immune to pain to the floor. Mother had ran to call for help, though how she thought someone could help in this situation was beyond understanding. Fear gibbered like a river of ice-cold water through Rain's mind, overran all other thoughts as Glen began to turn pale and blue. "Father, he's not breathing! Why won't he breathe! Do something!" She wailed. She knew that Father was doing everything he could, but still she raged at him because it wasn't enough, because her father was failing her, someone who was not allowed to fail.
  And then both forces of equal will, raging still against each other, were overwhelmed by the instinctual, utterly basic urge to live, and breathe, and so Glen and the force with which he fought no longer mattered. With his entire body feeling as if in flames, his mouth opened and he sucked in air with a shuddering cry. Feeling the gloriously sweet honey reach his lungs, Glen relaxed, the energy of desperation fading from his soul, and darkness washed over his eyes.

Chapter 3.
  "Of the numerous and unfounded accusations of possession, only a few can be proven as fact, and most of those are destroyed before I have a chance to study them. However, I believe I have found some basic symptoms of being possessed simply by listening to the villagers' tales of the event and noting whenever the tale of one relates to the tale of another, completely separate case. A few rules without exception can be noted: That a human will always have an immortal soul, that nothing is more powerful than the immortal soul, and thus, that all creatures who are possessed do so because they choose, and are not overpowered and conquered as many of them confess to be. This choice could be made for power, health, personal gain, or any such thing. Signs of possession include seizures, insanity, strange powers or immunities, strange actions or speech, strange eyes, etc., etc. Take care, however, to remember that humanity is a strange and unpredictable race, and that many people who act as if possessed are truly innocent of all such crimes. One must wait years and take careful note of the suspect to see what he does with his life or suchlike before one can justly accuse someone of having a pact with the devil. Some accounts in the north speak of possession by creatures from a higher plane that have nothing to do with the darkness. They relate that in these cases the ones possessed take on the aspects and abilities of the one that possesses them, and that instead of a soul these creatures are given 'thread-patterns' that determine their lives. To this, I say rubbish. No one has heard or seen of such a case as an involuntary, uncontrollable possession and it is a flimsy excuse to wield before the righteous fury of a witch hunter. Anyone who resists you with such excuses should be suspected just the same as the man with red eyes that glow with the heat of the forge. . ."
'The Book of St. Gerome'--St. Gerome

  The seizure was credited to the boy being possessed by the Devil. Whispers and rumours flew through the village at a speed greater than the finest of the Prince’s Men could match. Perhaps the boy had struggled against its captor, or perhaps the boy's deal with the devil entailed physical torment in exchange for all his gifts. Or perhaps the boy's body could no longer withstand the incredible forces imbedded within it, and was beginning to collapse under the strain. Those merchants who dealt with exotic flora and fauna suddenly decided that there was no more profit in it, or that the hunter across the street actually found far better specimens. Quickly, a family which had been well to do was on the point of bankruptcy, and this, too, was attributed to Glen's pact with the devil. Villagers would say, "See what he has done to his family to keep so healthy and brilliant all these years!" Even though they all knew that it was they, not the child, who were ruining their fellow man. Even during these sobering times of reflection, they would blame the child for making them do such things to his family, and so it went. Children would throw stones and insults at Rain whenever she passed, and there never seemed to be a parent around to stop these mobs. Glen was almost banished to the forest and his home, being menaced by children and parents alike whenever crossing this unspoken line. Family tensions rose to horrible levels as parents yelled at each other for buying something 'extraneous', for not bringing in enough food, or anything to do with coin. They would yell at the children for doing anything to support the rumours, such as doing well in school, or going out together at night. The children would cry or scream back, that it wasn't their fault, that they hadn't done anything, anything, ever, at all, and that they were beat every day before reaching home and now they had to expect to be beaten once they reached home, too? In fury, they would accuse their parents of believing the rumours and slam the doors to their rooms, and the village would be listening on to the entire scene. Small islands of good-natured people attributed the seizure to just the involvement of a nasty land-spirit and went on with their lives, speaking out against the general fervor and doing the best they could to help the family in secret. Whenever one of these families were found, though, they suffered the wrath of their village and the same fate as the ones with 'the devil-child'. The family went to church, and the priest blessed Glen in front of everyone, but no one was convinced. After all, what was the power of a backcountry cleric compared to this supernatural demon?
  *  *  *  *
  Glen walked along the dusty road, gazing bitterly at the houses to either side. Maybe a gang of children would be waiting for him, maybe a sternly frowning parent who would throw out their garbage or their sewage whenever he passed. This was life, he couldn't imagine it being any other way. Whatever happened, he would not let it stop him. Bagging a sable for the first time, he wanted to cage it and put it in the market all on his own, as a surprise for his father. Rain was becoming less and less a part of his life; hunting, the one time he could escape the world, was becoming more and more. It had torn at him constantly in the beginning, but now it seemed to be only part of the constant dull ache he felt in the back of his head that registered all the torments of his young soul. Yes, it was all so horrible, but there was nothing he could do about it. Misery came from a difference between your mind and reality, and if reality could not be budged, the only way to stave off misery was to change your mind, and so he had. Perhaps it would have been more noble to feel miserable forever, to show the extent of his love for his sister, but then she did not want him to feel miserable for her and would feel guilty for all of his pain in addition to her own, so wasn't it more noble to not love her, and thus not hurt her? His mind took a torturously familiar route of rationalization and justification until it arrived at the same decision it had the other five thousand times: to not worry about it and perform the action that was at hand, namely, to deliver this sable to the marketplace.   
  As he came out of his mental turmoil, he noted the sounds of a horse coming up the road tiredly. Looking back, he saw the horse with head bowed with strain, hardly even seeing where it was going. Atop it sat a man hardly in any better condition, with what looked like a once-fine tunic now faded and worn from a long journey. Obviously someone from far away, because he'd never seen him before. Perhaps a merchant fallen upon bad times. None of that really mattered. What mattered was this person would not look at him and think of demons, or spit at the ground and scowl, or shake his fist and voice obscenities. Here was something infinitely better than life, what life should have been.
  "Hail, and well met, stranger!" Glen called out boldly. "From where have you come?" Glen slowed to match the pace of the horse and rider. A hump, which Glen had thought to be a saddlebag, stirred and seemed to blossom into a sleepy-eyed child of nine.
  "Who is it, papa?" the boy asked, afraid. Not exactly afraid of the little boy walking beside him in the road, but simply afraid of the world in general. From somewhere, something was likely to want to hurt him.
  The rider squeezed the boy's hand reassuringly and gave the best smile he could manage to the boy. "Have we finally arrived at the famous Glimkeer, then?"
  "True, sir." Something made the title 'sir' sound right when applied to this man. "My family makes a living off hunting in it." The boy gestured proudly to his sable.
  "I thought hunting game was illegal in this region." The man frowned, as if ready to condemn the practice and uphold the law no matter what the age of the poacher.
  "Hunting for eating, sir. We never kill anything if we can avoid it, we sell what we catch to the merchants." Glen cast a defiant glance at the rider, not at all intimidated by the man's stern face.
  "What of the Darkness?" The man asked, then shook his head and began again. "The Glimkeer has been the birthing point of Loass' destruction before, now is it so safe that children can play within?" The safety seemed to be a disappointing thing to the man instead of a relieving one.
  "The Glimkeer is huge, sir. We're only on the very edge, and the Darkness is in the very middle."
  "But I've heard of a stirring, reports from Fael Glim of farms being burnt. . ." The rider thought aloud.
  "Are you one of the Prince's Men, then, sir?" Glen asked, scrutinizing the sullied, embroidered tunic.
  The man laughed at that, his weary face and distracted voice suddenly coming to lively animation. Even the boy risked a tremulous smile toward Glen at it. "They say you folk believe in the land-spirits." The man said good-naturedly.
  "Yes, sir." Glen answered to the almost-question.
  "Well then, they had a very fine joke on me, they did. A very fine joke." And with that the rider kicked his horse to a trot and left Glen to ponder the man's sanity. The boy waved from the back of his horse as his other arm clutched tightly around his father's waist. Glen would've waved back, but the dust made him double over in a sneeze.
*  *  *  *
  "Where are we going, Papa?" Cyrn asked, gazing anxiously at the village they were riding through. Villages had always seemed safe, until they had tried to sleep in them. Cyrn didn't understand why his father had taken him from their comfortable home in the castle all the way to the other side of the Kingdom, but he did understand that the entire nation and all its people hated Papa. That every single person he met would eventually try and kill Papa, or him, to get at Papa. So why they were riding through a village in the middle of the day was beyond him. He had gotten so used to sleeping by day and riding by night that it was hard to keep his eyes open. Both of them were dirty and bedraggled, lacking food, sleep, and constantly under stress. They were barely making do with the gear they had--a change of clothes, food, water, camping equipment and such. Cyrn had no idea how much money Papa had left, but considering it took a healthy bribe to even gain entrance to a tavern, much less eat at its tables, the boy doubted there was any left. In the space of a month, he had descended from princehood to pauperdom. Not that Papa was a king or anything, but they had lived like ones, so it sounded like a clever enough saying to his ears.
  The cottages to either side slowly passed by, bright and airy. The village, save for that single kid, seemed to be gloomy and withdrawn. No one had come out to greet them yet. A shiver ran up his spine, and Cyrn imagined a ghost town, haunted by a vampiric child who would devour any unwary travelers. Obviously the vampire had killed everyone else already, and the look of the village was simply a trap for foreign merchants, who did not know the local legends. . .
  "We're stopping here, Cyrn. We're going to stop here, and find a place to live. You see those tree-covered hills?" Papa shifted to the side to give Cyrn a clear view of what was ahead. "That's the Glimkeer. A magical, evil forest. Maybe the village will need protection, someday. Or maybe I can go on the merchant caravans that come in here every now and then. Would you be all right, if I left you here to join a merchant caravan?"
  "Forever?" Cyrn asked, a wail of despair seeping out of his throat.
  "No!" Papa answered, smiling again at the very idea. "You think I brought you all this way just so I could drop you off in this misbegotten backwater?" Father made a gesture towards the humble homes, the dusty streets, and the haunted forest at its outskirts. "I'll be gone for a while, but then I'll come back, with food and clothes and money. Then I'll probably have to leave again, then come back again, and so on. Could you handle that?"
  "Papa, what if you don't come back?" Cyrn wailed, clutching his father tight, as if to hold him here by force.
  Father's voice made a grimace and his eyes narrow. "Then that's fate, the fate of all knights. Not even I can overstep that, haven't you learned anything?"
  Cyrn bit back his tears and nodded silently, not wanting to betray his fear with the pitiful sound of his voice.
  "There's my boy," Papa tousled his hair. "Now slide on down, that's it, all right." Father helped Cyrn off the horse, then with one swift motion swung himself down beside him. "Now remember, don't talk about God or Country or anything important, okay? These people aren't the same as city-folk. Who knows what might offend them? And I'll tell you this--the only reason we can possibly have a chance to live here is because of their differences to the city-folk, so don't look down upon them. I could only wish everyone were like these farmers, judging you by the strength of your back and naught else, not boring into your past or worrying about how you and I got into the state we're in. Learn something from these people, lad, they're just as good as you. And if they think this world is run by a bunch of faeries instead of by our God, then remember that their opinion has as much right as yours does, that for all we know all of us are the idiots and Faeries have been running things all along. Understand?"
  Cyrn nodded again, wide-eyed and solemn.
  "All right. Now I'm going to talk with the mayor or what have you, you just stay right here and guard the horse. We're among friends now." Papa's eyes twinkled with a large, merry smile. It made his soul feel so comfortable that all was well that he was ready to fall asleep standing up. Among friends now. What did that mean? He hadn't had any friends in what felt like forever. And besides, none of those friends really mattered to him. What was being among friends like? Would they give him cherry pies as he walked by, would they laugh and cheer and wink and hug him? What did friendship entail?
  *  *  *  *
  It was dark by the time Glen reached home. Exhausted, he still had a bounce in his step full of triumphant glee. Maybe this could be an offering of peace to his father. Maybe they could stop hating each other and put the blame where it rightfully belonged--upon the world. He never wanted to argue with his parents, it was stupid and useless, but how could he stand by when Rain broke into tears from their abuse? How could he promise not to learn so well, promise not to be seen with his sister in public, when it just wasn't fair? He did not want to hate his parents, but he had no other choice. . .it was that or give up everything he'd ever believed in, everything he'd ever been. Didn't they see, that if they ever bowed under the village's weight, if they ever showed that what the village whispered affected them, that it would only encourage them to do more? Like rabid wolves, pouncing at the first sign of weakness. Like vultures circling a dying man in the desert, wondering how long it would be until he was too tired to resist. If they lent any credence to what they said, if they ever acted as if they were guilty of some crime, and changed their ways, it would be enough to send this quiet village into a frenzy. Glen could see all of this, but his parents couldn't, and that was another reason he did not want to argue with his parents. Every time he did, a sickening feeling washed over him, a horrible doubting plagued him, that maybe they were just too stupid, too weak to understand what he did. Just a year ago, he had marveled at his father, so wise and strong, a hunter of the Glimkeer. He was the embodiment of courage, strength, skill, everything Glen had ever hoped to be. And now these thoughts came to him, that only a coward would bend under the weight of the village gossip, that only a fool would preach acceding to the village's demands. He did not want to think of his father like that.
  He had walked softly, hoping to reach his room without anyone to notice. A smile crept across his face as he imagined the surprise and joy of his parents when they found the sable at the market. They would say that he was a great hunter already, so wily to have caught a sable unharmed, they would be proud to have such a son, and he would be proud to have such parents, and all the hate would go away. His daydreams were shattered, though, when a sleepy voice called out from another room.
  "Glen, is that you? Are you all right?" The soft, high voice could only be his sister’s. Of course she had waited up for him, there was that much love left between them.
  "I'm fine." He whispered forcefully. "Go back to sleep."
  But soon an oil-lamp was alight, and she came walking out in her nightclothes, blinking from the brightness of it. "I wasn't asleep yet." She answered. Dark bags ringed her eyes, and there was a slump to her shoulders he had never seen before. Her hair wisped wildly across her face, and she irritatedly brushed it behind her ears. Violet eyes shone and flickered, reflecting the uneven light between them. "Father is angry at you, for skipping your chores. He's always angry at you. It's bad enough already, you shouldn't be giving him excuses to punish you."
  "It's all right, he won't punish me today." A smile crept across his face, though he tried to hide it. It was impossible to hide anything from his sister, but it was supposed to be a surprise. "What have they been doing to you? You look like a wreck."
  Her eyes narrowed, and there was a tight look about her lips. "With you gone every day, how should you know? You never have enough time for me anymore. The moment the sun is up, you are gone, so why do you care now what happens?"
  Glen took a step back, as if struck physically. "I--I can't face the village like this. I have to get away. And besides, we need every pence just to keep up now. I don't want to leave you." None of his words seemed to help, though, and Rain did not soften. He brushed his unkempt hair back with his hand nervously. "I don't understand, are they hurting you? What can I do? I can only make it worse. Rain, I'm sorry, please don't look at me like that."
  The anger left her, all in a rush, to be replaced with such exhaustion that he thought she would collapse on the floor in front of him. "There's nothing we can do. No one can do anything. I go to school, and I learn everything they teach me, never speaking out, but they still all glare at me, as if I'd killed their baby brother in his sleep last night. The only person who will even talk to me is Treant, and he's just too young to know any better. I go home, and spin, and weave, and cook, and clean, and am never good enough at it, and my parents shout at me for being too smart, for being too pretty. And then you come home, and all of us shout again, and the two of us never exchange a word, and there's nothing we can do. How long can I live like this? Another week? A month? How long will they let us live?" Tears welled up from her eyes, but they were silent sobs, so well hidden that only the lamp's glimmer betrayed her. "I'm just ten years old, for God's sake," She wailed. "Why is this happening to me?"
  He sat beside her, wondering what he could possibly say, possibly do to make everything right. He stroked her hair and gazed at the shadows the lamp made flicker against the wall. There was a beauty in it, a peace, that laid his soul to rest. There was nothing he could think to say, but maybe just being with her was enough. Maybe silence was a better reminder of his love than any words he might say. Then there was a soft weight on his chest, and he looked down to see her head resting against it. A thought crossed his mind, that comforting someone else was more comfort than being comforted could ever provide. Giving joy to another was more joy than receiving it from another. That as long as you loved someone, her joy would suffice for his own, that no matter how wretched his life became, it would be a blessed one, if it was only a fraction of what made her life full of splendour. After a few more minutes in that embrace, Rain rustled her nightclothes and lay down beside him, staring at the wall's shadows.
  "What is the Glimkeer like, Glen? Tell me about it. It's as if half your life is shrouded in darkness from me now, like I'm not wanted to be in it anymore. I want to be part of your life, Glen, even if all it is is imagining you in the woods while I spin the thread. My life is misery without you. We were born to be together, always and forever."
Glen let his mind wander, thinking of all the best things he'd ever seen in those woods, of resting a night under the stars, of the great storms that swept through, of the time he'd come upon a bird-of-paradise singing and it had been so beautiful he could not bring himself to catch it. All these happy memories rushed into him and out of his mouth, to rest within her, and the two stayed up the entire night together, basking in the light of that single lamp.
  Tomorrow, everything would change, he vowed. His parents would know him for a hunter, and he could be with Rain again, and he would find that strange man and learn about the world. He would make a friend with that shy boy, and show him the forest, where the land-spirits dwelled, and the Darkness, and they could play at swords together, imagining the day they met that Darkness. Everything would change, and all because of a single sable. Life could not be more wondrous.

  "One of the Prince's Men, they took me for!" Papa laughed. "All tattered and dirty from my long journey. Well, the journey was long enough, all right. By the time I'd told them of Fael Glim, they were all round eyes and gaping mouths, believing me right down to the core. Well, I wasn't going to disabuse them, for it's the God's own truth. They spoke of some pact they'd made with a tribe, but it was all hushed. A village making a pact with the Darkness? I'd be silent about that sort of thing, too. With the darkness, there can be no truce, no mercy, no peace. With the darkness, all men must march to war. But they pay their taxes and do not poach, not breaking a single law among them, so who can say what is wrong? I say, let them make their pacts, and see what good it does them in the end. Much good it did Firion." Father harrumphed at that and buried his face in ale, Cyrn looking on cheerfully. He wanted to learn all about Firion, Papa seemed to know everything, and tell such grand stories about it all, as if he'd been there at the time, fighting those battles, courting those ladies. . . But he held his tongue, knowing it was not a good time to interrupt. They'd been given a roof over their heads and some time to move in, all for free. After all, one of the Prince's Men deserves every luxury, as no one wanted to anger the sheriff. Cyrn wondered what happened when the sheriff came and told the truth about Papa, but he kept his worries to himself. Papa thought worrying about stuff you couldn't do anything about was a commoner's weakness, a peasant's stupidity. Cyrn would not make himself look stupid to his father, but it still gnawed at him. How could they make roots here, if they lived their entire life shrouded in a lie? Once more Cyrn wondered what disgrace had made them flee the castle for their lives, what disgrace had made them hunted animals all across the land, what disgrace would make his father lie and lie in order to find a place to live for them both. A knight was not supposed to lie, Cyrn was sure of that, but he hadn't lied, not exactly. Only let the villagers believe something that was not true. Was there really any difference? The entire thing made his head ache.
  "But anyway, they're going to want a good man with the sword regardless. There are always lawbreakers, and merchant trains, and all sorts of things that only a sword can deal with. Believe it or not, this backwater even has a school. A church's school, but what more could you expect?" Papa spit on the ground at that. Church schools always followed churches, but anybody with enough money avoided them. They taught history, and how to read, and write, and figure, but they also taught about God, and the church, and all those who left those schools were the fiercest supporters of the church thereafter. Nobles made signs of warding at the idea of their children getting that sort of education. Let a man make his own decision, they declared, and went from there to train their firstborn in the art of ruling, and all the rest the art of war, never thinking a moment that they were doing the same as the church.
  "I'll not let them get their hands on you, lad, don't you worry. Whenever I get home, I'll give time to teach you the right and wrong of things, and I'll be damned if you don't become as good a swordsman as any knight. We'll attend the church meetings, of course, no need to get God any angrier at us, but I won't let them get their grubby hands on you regardless."
  "Thank you, father." Cyrn managed through droopy eyes and a yawn. They had been traveling all day, and it was now well into the night. It was enough that there was a place to lie down on without worrying about waking up with a knife stuck in him, he wouldn't have asked for anything more.
  "Well, now, you look tired enough to skip the morrow. Off to bed with you, then. I still have some things to do, but I'll join you soon enough. We're home, Cyrn. We're home." Father offered a bright smile at him and tousled his hair. Cyrn could only manage a nod before he staggered towards his bed. Home? It sounded nice, the idea, but his mind was too tired to figure out what it meant. He would figure it out tomorrow, he decided, asleep before his head met the pillow.
  "Where were you yesterday?" Father asked. Glen leaned against the wall, his hand curled around his sister's, her head pillowed on his shoulder. They had slept in that position for what could have at most been two hours, but his body protested this mistreatment with severe pain already. They had intended to stay up all night, but Glen had never realized how wrung out he was by nightfall. He could only fight for so long, before he no longer wished to fight. It was the strangest feeling, surrendering. Not even losing the struggle, but simply giving in. It had felt good at the time, but now he hurt more than if he had just won. Glen wondered how well this pertained to life in general, and resolved to try this again next week, and compare this to victory.
  "I asked you a question!" If Father hadn't been so far away he would have struck Glen, but Glen could tell that he wanted the dramatic effect of a pillar of righteous fury that would be compromised if he broke out of his stance. Glen squeezed Rain's hand, whispering in her ear. She blinked a few times and gave him a warm smile, before realizing they had company. She gazed at her father unwaveringly, sliding away from her brother and leaning against the wall beside him, refusing to admit any wrongdoing.
  Glen stood up, not wanting to look insolent, before he broke into a wide grin, violet pupils sparking with joy. "I was in the forest, father. And then I was here."
  "You skipped out on your chores and didn't come in until God knows when! Your mother was worried sick that something had happened to you, and you smile?"
  "Let me explain." Glen coaxed.
  "I do not accept excuses. I want you to--" His punishment was interrupted by the frenzied shouts of the villagers, and finally his practiced speech was sidetracked as he looked genuinely surprised. Rain slipped away, having never said a word, hoping that her father would have no memory of her existence. Glen watched her go supportively. The last thing he wanted was for her to suffer his mistake. Catching the sable wasn't the mistake, believing in his parents had been. I should have known they are my enemy. There is no quarter, no mercy, no understanding between us. They want me to make a mistake so they have the right to beat me. They want to hurt me, just like all the others. Everyone wants to hurt me. But I won't let them. I was willing to make peace with him today. Never again. Perhaps an armistice, but never peace again.
  The villagers had marshaled before the doorway as Father went to open it, wary. In the hands of the leader was the crushed, maimed carcass of a sable. "What are you doing?" Father menaced in a soft, cold voice. "You know the law against poaching. If the Sheriff finds out. . ."
  The speaker of the mob spat in disgust, cutting Father's words short. "Sometimes the law doesn't think about everything. Like having a demonspawn in the village." Glen shrank back against the wall in horror. That was his sable. That sable symbolized all his hopes and dreams, and they had crushed it that easily. His heart sank into his stomach, it felt hard to breathe, and cold radiated from the inside outwards.
  "I don't know what you mean." Father spoke slowly, giving weight to each word as he challenged the villagers to accuse him.
  "Miss Jenkins saw the whole thing. He carried the sable in all alone at twilight, like part of some ritual, and sneaked it into the market all quiet-like." He threw the carcass into the dirt. Its fur, sticky from blood, coated with grime. "We're telling you now, that we won't put up with this anymore. None of us will buy anything he catches. Next time he tries some spell it will be his body in the dirt. Mark my words."
  "How dare you threaten my son! You just destroyed my rightful property and now you walk to my doorstep and don't even have the shame to try and hide it. What will you say in Church, when this all comes around? What kind of people go around threatening children and strangling defenseless animals in the light of day, like as if they're proud of it? If there are demonspawn in this city, then by the Holy Word it is those people who break His codes that are the culprits."
  "We did this to protect our children! Who knows what plague that cursed thing had, what it could have done if it had bitten us. . ." one shouted.
  "God can go back to the cities, where he belongs!" another protested.
  "Who are you to judge us? You and your demonspawn, plotting and contriving against us hard working farmers. We heard the Darkness was loose! The Darkness, and here are two Demonspawn at our doorstep!" Glen could hear from the background. From that moment on he learned that fear was an evil far greater than the Darkness had ever been.
  "Get out of my land! I have nothing to say to you. You disgust me!" Father slammed the door and immediately took six giant strides to the crossbow in its rack on the wall. "Get behind me." He ordered, and Glen went, wide-eyed. Father looked of fierce concentration as he decisively loaded the bolt and swung it to the doorway. Glen had only seen such a face once before, when he had blundered across a she-bear over her cubs. He didn't dare shoot her, afraid that it would only provoke her. So he backed away, step by step, in a cold sweat, for the next hour as she followed with her eyes his every motion. That was the second closest time he had ever come to dying. Of course, it's not like he'd cease to exist. . .
  "Glen, I don't want you to be hunting alone any longer." His father ordered.
  "Of course, father. I thought it would be a surprise. I thought you'd be proud. . . I'm sorry, father."
  "I understand," His voice was utterly neutral as he carefully laid the crossbow down on the table. "I think you should spend this night out in the woods, just in case."
  Glen finished the thought: just in case they come back with drink in their blood and murder in their hearts. "Yes, father." Fear had struck all the drowsiness from his body, and his mind took great leaps and bounds as he reevaluated his father again and again. He'd never seen Father like this. Father was so. . .perfect. He'd stood up for his son, facing down an angry mob. He had been willing to die protecting him. Father loved him. In a maelstrom of thoughts, he gathered his gear and slipped quietly out the back door.

  Cyrn woke rather late into the afternoon amidst a crowd of foreigners and well-wishers toasting his father's arrival. For a moment Cyrn thought that they had been hunted down, and these people were about to descend upon him. After a moment of panic, however, he realized all the ale and laughter being passed around. He was home, his father had said. Then these were his neighbors. Cyrn relaxed, his muscles loosening as he sank back into bed. Loass was not the largest of nations, but it had felt like years traversing only half of it. News of his father's disgrace always traveled faster than Dingo, their horse. Every town or city they had stopped in or ridden through, he had been met with curses and slander. All of their eyes shone of hatred at him, all of them reviled him for what they had done. Every stranger he had met since he had left the castle had thought him the most wretched product of any union in history. When he looked into another's eyes for approval, he found instead that gleam of disgust and the pelting of rotten vegetables. He didn't want to look another person in the eyes for the rest of his life. He never wanted to see that torturous, cruel gaze touch him again. He wanted to flee to this forest and never meet another human soul again, except that how could he live on his own? He was so small and weak, he didn't know anything, he had no skills, no relations. . . He depended on the very people who delighted in his misery and pain simply to live from one day to the next. How many years would this vicious necessity require?
  "So you're finally awake, lad!" A strange adult greeted. "A hard journey, eh? But then again, being the son of a Prince's Man means every journey is a hard journey."
  Cyrn gave a shy smile and lowered his eyes, not wanting to naysay someone so much older and wiser than he. Another man approached, tousling Cyrn's hair. " 'All journeys are hard, as long as you press hard enough.' Isn't that their motto?"
  A woman rolled her eyes as she listened. "Where do you get these things, James? If you have so much time reading books, perhaps you should finally get around to making those cabinets you promised Master Gear two months ago."
  The man held his arms up to ward off her derision. "It isn't my fault he has asked for a type of wood that can only be found across an ocean. Until Mollant gets a new shipment how am I supposed to--"
  "Excuses, excuses." The lady interjected as the two walked away from Cyrn. The whirl of conversation and people was making Cyrn sick. He huddled his head between his shoulders and silently, as politely as he could, worked his way out the door and into the fresh air. The noise still washed over him, though, as if every single person in the village had managed to cram themselves into that single household and had decided to have a shouting contest. Cyrn gazed longingly at the distant forest, gauging the sun and the miles of farmland in-between. The walk would give him time to think, he knew he had meant to think about a lot yesterday. What, though? He couldn't remember. Either way, the forest meant escape from people and noise and congestion. Maybe he would meet that boy from before. Did he even have a name? He couldn't remember if he had given one. He had been too tired to record anything, really.
  So what had he been thinking about the other day? Probably about Papa. He thought of Papa every day, what he had done, and why he had done it. He could never think of a crime Papa was capable of doing, and he knew from experience that it was fruitless trying to find one. All he knew of his father painted basically perfection. Mother had died before he could remember. Papa had risen him since birth. He did not want to think of him as a murderer, or a thief. It just could not be. The farmland quickly gave way to wild brush, and then into a forest so vast that it stretched to infinity in all directions. It would be easy to get lost in this place, so Cyrn gathered acorns to make a trail. The sound of insects and birds was constant, but somehow the sound melded so well into the background that it was serene. As if the noise of humanity had been replaced by the music of nature. At that moment, Cyrn believed that there really could be land-spirits inhabiting the world. Why must the idea of spirits and God conflict? Couldn't God have given the world a life of its own, as well as given humanity the world to inherit? Just as horses were living and yet owned by man, could not the entire world be so? Each acre of earth conscious even whilst man sows and reaps a harvest from it, each stream and lake conscious even whilst man washes clothes in it? Each breath of air conscious even whilst man inhales it? It seemed both preposterous and beautiful at the same time. What a work of art it would be if true! As Cyrn marveled over God's power and the wonder of his creation, the sun quickly traversed the sky and became a firedrop splashing into the horizon. Cyrn finally noticed his predicament and realized the near impossibility of following a trail of acorns in the night. With a curse, he wondered how far from civilization his sojourn had taken him. The beauty and wonder of nature was all well and good during the day, but when night fell it would be a different world. He did not want to face the cold, menacing, lurking aspects of darkness. His quick walk became a controlled run when he thought of just which forest this was. He did not have only the darkness to fear. He had the Darkness. Papa would curse him for a total fool when he got home. Cyrn couldn't agree more, running aloud a litany of scorn and scathing insults upon himself as he ran. He could almost see the sun moving, it seemed to set so fast. It was getting to the point that running would risk a sprained ankle, and helplessness. Taking a calming breath, he slowed his pace back down to a walk. Chances were he'd get out of this just fine. This close to the village, predators would fear humans. And the Darkness was in the very middle. That's what the other boy had said, right? Suddenly that conversation seemed very important, and he struggled to recall all he knew of the Glimkeer. Head lowered, only the rustle of leaves alerted him to the presence of another. Whipping his head about, he recognized the very boy in the distance, his eyes bent to the trail of acorns.
  "Hail!" Cyrn called with a rush of relief. God had blessed him for his appreciation of His works, it was the only explanation.
  The boy looked up, the dying rays of the sun glinting off bright violet eyes. His every motion was a work of art, carrying such inborn grace that it reminded Cyrn of a serpent sliding through the air. The boy blinked, recognizing him.
  "Hail." The other boy answered, hesitant. "Why are you out here? It is almost dark."
  Cyrn lowered his eyes in shame, not wanting to see the face of one who must think he was so stupid and careless. "I didn't mean to. The time just slipped by."
  "Well," the boy responded, this time much more assuredly. "I'll lead you back, then. We've met before, right? My name is Glen."
  Cyrn shook his offered hand. "Mine is Cyrn. God must have blessed me by sending you to me, Glen. I know nothing of these woods, and it's too dark now for these nuts to be of any use."
  Glen shrugged. "Perhaps it was God. I don't think he'd delve into such trivial matters as these, though. If anything, it was the land-spirits. My best guess is that these nuts did the job. I was so curious about them that they led me straight to you. I think we ascribe credit to too many things outside our own wits and hands."
  Cyrn nodded, desperately trying to cogitate all that had been said. He felt helplessly stupid compared to Glen, totally clumsy and malformed, incredibly immature and weak. It was like being the light of a star adjacent to the sun at noon. After an uncomfortable silence, Glen spoke again.
  "The whole town is talking about your father, you know. They say he brings news of the Darkness." The question was apparent in the words, and Cyrn tried his best to answer them.
  "We used to live at the castle, and some of the Prince's Men reported farms and such being burnt around Fael Glim. For all I know, though, it could've just been a minor revolt or the work of vagabonds."
  "What do you believe?" Glen pressed.
  "What does it matter what I think?" Cyrn retorted sharply. "I think it is the Darkness, simply because that is the most terrifying possibility there is and I always believe that the worst thing possible will happen to me."
  "I think it is the Darkness, too. Before I was born, there was a tribal war between goblins. Since we accidentally gained an alliance with one of those tribes all everyone thinks about is how fortunate we are. But I thought, why would there be a war unless there wasn't enough room for both of them? And if there are too many to live in the Glimkeer, now, won't they eventually stop fighting for what room there is left inside the forest, and start fighting us for all the room outside?"
  "I. . .guess." Cyrn answered, trying not to sound an imbecile.
  "It worries me, every day I go into this forest. I wonder if this is the day I'll meet some foraging or scouting party of the Darkness, and I'll never come out again."
  "Then why do you go in?"
  Glen held his arms out in surrender. "Because I have no choice. My family depends on this forest. Almost the entire village depends on this forest, in one way or another. It's as if the very force that sustains us also strives to destroy us, and there's nothing I can do about it because I'm just a boy."
  Cyrn understood that. It resonated with his own soul, and Cyrn suddenly felt like a brother to this stranger. They shared the same suffering. Nothing could bind two people closer together than that.
  "Umm, Glen?" Cyrn uttered, summoning his courage up. "Do you come out here every day?"
  "I'm a hunter." Glen answered.
  "Then would you mind if I joined you, sometimes, when I had the time?"
  Glen sighed. "I have a duty to provide for my family, Cyrn. I can't have you making noise and scaring away all the game."
  "Forget I asked." Cyrn said, his voice woven of sadness and chagrin.
  "And there's another thing," Glen continued, this time far more subdued. "You don't want to be seen with me, or even seen talking to me. If I allowed you to travel with me, word would get around that you were my friend."
  "What's wrong with that?" Cyrn asked, confused. After a long silence, Glen's voice came again, quavering with the force of an emotion being tightly held in check.
  "Because they think I'm possessed by the devil. Or I've made a pact with him, or something. They hate me for my charmed life, they want to punish me for being so much better than them, so they do. My family has to live with that hatred every day, I don't want it to spread to anyone else. That is why I can't have any friends, even if anyone wanted to be one."
  "I'm sorry." Cyrn gave, such a meager salve for such a deep pain that it was almost mocking. "I don't believe you're possessed, or anything. You are the most intelligent, kindest person I've ever met."
  Glen laughed to stop from crying. "Just wait a couple years. You'll see. In a couple years, if I'm still alive, you will agree with them. That's what people do, all people hate that which is better than them, and seek to bring it crashing down to their own level. Sometimes I wonder if you are any better than the Darkness. But I daren't say it, because that would only prove that I'm part of the Darkness, in their eyes, and would give them an excuse to kill me."
  "If that is what you believe." Cyrn answered tightly, his voice trying to hide the anger at being called a liar and full of envy. How dare he question the honour of a knight's son! But he was bringing him out of the forest safely, so that same honour required a gratitude that exceeded the sully upon his name. The rest of the way home was made in silence, and the cold of the night mirrored the chill between the two boys from that point on.
  Only when Cyrn had crept into bed and warmed himself beneath its covers did it occur to him that Glen had said 'you', and not 'we', when talking about humankind. A shiver ran down his spine, and he crossed his fingers in an attempt to ward off evil. Perhaps it was just a slip of the tongue. Perhaps he really was a demon. How could he judge a person as such, though, when the only thing he had to go on was that he helped lost boys back home without even the thought of being thanked? For that matter, if all the boy had ever experienced was people being hateful and envious, why wouldn't he assume that everyone was like that? What did he have to disprove it? Hadn't he in fact just believed it all true? Wasn't he just as bad, just as Glen had predicted? The thoughts kept streaming until dreams replaced them.

  When he woke, it was from the lash of a belt. "That for making me worry. That for not telling me where you were going. That for not doing your chores or being here for schooling!" The belt rose and fell indiscriminately for as long as his father's fury could not be contained, until Cyrn's piteous wailing reached the thinking portion of his mind. They both remained still for a moment, one recovering his wits and breath, the other drowning in a sea of pain and trying to swim out of it.
  "Now," Papa spoke slowly and steadily, "You are going to tell me what the Hell you were thinking when you decided to leave the city without telling anyone. Then you will tell me where the Hell you went."
  Cyrn gulped, trying to regain control of his mouth. "Father, it was just all the noise, I just wanted to get away for a bit. . ."
  "A bit? You call the entire day a bit?"
  "And then the bit became a long time, and I was just wandering around the forest and I never thought it was going to be like that at all or I would've told you and everything. I know it was stupid, don't you think I've been telling myself that this entire time? It was a stupid mistake, all right?"
  "It was a stupid mistake, you've got that right. I don't know where you think you are, but that forest is inhabited by the Darkness. For the next week, I want you to dig a hole. If it isn't big enough, I'll make you keep digging for the next week. Do you understand?"
  "Yes sir." I understand that it was you that ruined my life and made everyone despise me and brought me to this backwater bordering the Darkness, and yet the moment I try to be alone long enough to deal with this I'm the one who gets punished. Don't you think you've hurt me enough, Papa, that your belt feels like a Mother's kisses--of course I don't know what they'd feel like, though, because I never got one. Yes, I understand perfectly. Hadn't you said that I was tired enough to skip the morrow?
  Trying not to show the slightest pain as he rose and prepared for the first day of a long week, Cyrn wished he had stayed out in the forest.
Chapter 4.

  "The knightly orders of Loass both protect and govern the merchant nation, laying down strict codes of honour and justice for all those who join their elite ranks. To break their codes is the greatest disgrace a knight can face, and he will suffer the stripping of his titles and holdings at the least, and most likely death as well. Though magistrates often do not declare such a sentence, preferring not to shed the blood of nobility, it is understood that he is fair game for any knights who wish to redeem their order's honour through his death. The Prince's Men carry the message immediately to every city of the land--said knight is disgraced and disbanded, a curse to the human race and a blight upon the glory of Loass. Such harsh measures ensure that only the best of men can ever attain and hold the rank of knight, so that the commoners can trust and accept the knight's judgment and governorship of his lands. Though of course their form of government, wherein the Merchant Prince holds ultimate authority over all the kingdom (and I am aware of the misnomer--consult The History of the Alliance by E. Sariditus for further illumination) , cannot compare with the pure democracy of Kalm.
  However, a system no matter how poor can succeed under the leadership of great men, and a system no matter how grand will fail under the weight of stupidity and corruption. If Kalm were to adopt the mannerisms of Loass, whilst retaining its enlightenment, then it would fulfill the test of time as the greatest nation since Firion. . ."
--"The Future of Kalm", Mayberry Kassa.

  The sun at its zenith shone down upon Cyrn, and his neck felt awash in flames. The labour was too hard, for one thing, making his every muscle burn in protest. The heat seemed impossible, as the sea breeze had always cooled the summer nights and warmed the winter nights at home. How could farmers sit in this heat all day, toiling over their fields? Sweat streaked down his face and matted his hair against his brow, but he could not spare the energy to banish it. The rhythm of his shovel was smooth and steady, and to break that rhythm just once would give his entire body time to realize that this was impossible, and rebel. If he were going to be sentenced to meaningless labour, fine. He would obey the instructions to the letter. But he'd be damned if it were going to be meaningless.
  "Hail, lad! I've brought you some cool refreshment for this hot time of day. No one can work through the day without anything to nourish him, and I wouldn't want your good father to think us slave drivers." Mistress Warren stood at the rim of the hole still only a few feet deep with a pitcher of water.
  Cyrn sighed both in relief and resignation, knowing that he could stop working, knowing that he had to stop working, simultaneously. He wiped his brow as his eyes stung and looked up at his neighbor dully. "My thanks, Mistress Warren. I confess this is hard going for me, and I'm sorry I've only done this since early morning."
  "Quite all right, lad. I've seen men twice your size do little more." Then she favored him with a wide smile and handed him the pitcher, which he gladly accepted. Water had never felt so good against his skin. After being delivered his sentence, Cyrn had asked around the village for any service he could do that involved digging a hole, and the community had produced Mistress Warren. She was a widow who lived on an outlying farm, and it was a chore to reach the community well and fetch water all those miles back and forth every day. He decided then and there to do this village a service, so that maybe they wouldn't hate him like everyone else in the world did, and out of pure spite. And here he was, way in over his head with a duty no nine year old should hold. But he had given his word. His face set with determination as he gazed at the pitiful beginning of his grand work. He'd just have to evolve into something that could dig this well, or die trying.
  "Again, my thanks. But I can't just sit here all--" Cyrn began.
  A cloud of dust roiled into the sky as a horse raced down the trail leading to the village proper. The rider seemed to be one with the horse, moving effortlessly exactly as the horse moved, coaxing every inch of speed from his grand steed. The rider swept to a halt before them casually and looked down with a business-like demeanor.
  "Excuse me, Mistress. There are reports of a dishonoured knight moving through some nearby cities to the west, traveling with a small boy, the lad's age." He spared a slight glance at the boy before returning his attention to the important personage. Cyrn focused all his will into maintaining his exact pose no matter what, betraying no sound or motion. He listened to the proclamation of his own death warrant, and his sweat changed from the effects of scorching heat to that of the freezing cold of terror.
  "Have you seen such a person traveling through or what have you?"
  "Goodness, no! I haven't seen a Prince's Man in five years, much less a dishonoured knight in all my life. I do hope you catch him." She replied. "You must be tired. Here, let me get you some water for you and your horse, good sir."
  "My pardon, Mistress, but a Prince's Man stops for nothing short of death." And with that he shouted to his horse and spurred his ribs into the same controlled rush as before towards the city.
  Mistress Warren turned slowly to gaze at the boy, who was trembling with reaction, his eyes searching frantically for some escape. "Here, lad, he's gone. Gods, you look like you've seen a ghost. He didn't even notice you, lad, and a good job of that you did. Show me some of that knightly upbringing of yours and come with me to the house."
  He gulped, and looked at her, searching her face for any sign of malice or treachery but finding only the kind and gentle woman he had seen since this morning. Nodding, he gave her his hand and stepped out of his 'well'. Soon the knight would be in the village. Someone would have to make the connection. Someone would have to see it as their duty to betray Papa. He would be an orphan by tonight. . .if he even lived that long. The horror seemed so deep as to be meaningless, as if nothing like this could really happen.
  Lost in thought, he hadn't noticed that he was sitting at a table with a glass of milk in his trembling hands. His hands shook the milk so violently as to make it seep over the cusp and slide down to his hands, but he could not make them stop.
  "Now I know what you're thinking, lad, and you can just stop. This is a good village and I know you're a good lad. To think, the first day you arrive you go asking around for what you can do to help this place. It's saintly, it is. You city people must be so steeped with religion as to make righteous acts run of the mill, but I haven't seen such a thing in all my life."
  A sickly smile ran across Cyrn's face, thinking of the great virtues of the city and the great virtuousness of his vengeful attempt to sting Papa's pride as best he could, and make a mockery of his punishment.
  "That's better, now drink that milk before it all goes to waste." Her voice snapped with command and Cyrn reflexively obeyed, his mind numb to the taste of it.
  "When our city promises to take someone in, we take him in, you hear? I don't care what happened, I really don't, as long as he acts like a good God-fearing man in this village. And I especially would never betray a lad like you to that fate. And if I've learned anything in my fifty-so years of living, its that no one else in this village will, either."
  The heartening, confident tone warmed the paralyzing fear from his body, and he managed to drink the rest of his milk without spilling. He had to get to his father, and warn him. Somehow he had to get the warning there and get away from the other knight before the knight could find them. . .
  "I see that look on your face, and there's no way you're going anywhere. Lad, if your father is found, then what? Just sit there and think for a moment. What will you do? What can you do? What will happen to you?"
  He could run over there and tell Papa that they had to run away again. But if Papa had already been found, then it would be too late for that. There would be a fight, and if Papa killed the other knight, the entire nation would be hunting them. And if Papa was killed and the son wasn't found, then the son would survive, an orphan, with nothing left in his life at all. But at least he'd be alive. He was too afraid of death to find it better than any life. If death had chased down Mama, and now it had chased down Papa, he'd just have to run faster. He would be the last one left, and he had to make his ancestors proud. If Papa had somehow dishonoured them, he couldn't die until he had made things right again. Death was the coward's way to escape from his duty. And besides, what if they hadn't found him, and he went in there screaming to his Papa that they were discovered, and to flee with all haste? He might as well have delivered the fatal blow to Papa himself.
  "Now I want you to go back to that well and get back to work, and just not think about a thing until the sun goes down, you hear? Then I want you to stay the night and just wait for as long as it takes till news reaches all the ways out here about what happened. Everyone knows you're staying here, so they'll come fetch you the moment anyone knows a thing. Now scoot!"
  Cyrn scooted.
*  *  *  *
  The town was called to a meeting with the speed of panic. The sheriff came annually on a tour through the borderlands, or the backwaters to the city people, only a week from then. If they were caught harboring a dishonoured and exiled knight, what would become of them? If the Glimkeer was really stirring, what would become of the village without the knight? A Prince's Man could save them, with his speed and courier’s status. Without him, it would be a month before any aid could come to the village, by then far too late. It seemed as if the land spirits had cruelly put the village in-between two immovable objects as they squeezed forward from either side. The nation on one side, and the Darkness on the other, and somehow instead of fighting each other they had decided to concentrate all their energy into cursing this village's life. Which led many to speak of the demon-child and how all of this must somehow be his making. Or perhaps a symptom of the stirring of the Darkness, others argued, and so it raged from dusk to midnight. As important as all of this was, farmers could not spare to stay up long past the sun and though nothing had yet been resolved somehow the Mayor was now required to resolve it. Everyone grew quiet and pensive, waiting for the great decision to be made.
  Glen hid behind his father in this crowd, watching and thinking furiously over the situation, wondering where Cyrn was and if he knew that the villagers were deciding his fate. And as the villagers quieted and the sounds of the night became magnified to the point that they shouted in his ears, he felt a distinct wave of deja vu, so strong as to make his breath catch. For a moment he was struck by confusion, because he caught himself expecting the air to be yellow and gray. What am I thinking? The night sky is black, or perhaps deep purple or blue. Yellow? And so his mind raced so that he did not even notice being called a demon, or the iron grip of his father's hand around his arm. Why do I see someone's fate being decided for him and feel empathy for that person? When did I have such a thing happen to me? One answer was obvious, as his memory clearly announced that such a thing had never happened in his life. But it didn't make any sense, and Glen had thought he had comprehended everything, and so a thing he normally would have banished as nonsense haunted him all night, so that he only came to from the slight tremors of his father's hand in time to hear the last of the mayor's words:
  ". . . and so the solution is to hide this knight until the sheriff is gone, until all the hubbub about this entire episode has faded, and we can once more live in peace. Who better to take on this duty than the hunters, who know the forest so well? And who better of all the hunters than the boy?” And such weight those last words held. The reasons could not be said in public, but the public all heard as if they had been shouted at the top of the mayor's lungs. If anyone is to be endangered, let it be him.
  "He is just a boy!" Father objected angrily.
  "Of course." The mayor smiled diplomatically, "you will have to accompany him, then. We can not put the responsibility of such a thing on the weight of a lad's shoulders. I would never have thought it!" Everyone agreed about the great wisdom and kindness of the mayor and made their way quickly home, racing the coming of the sun for as many hours of well-earned sleep as they could find. Glen was left gaping, struck by something so irresistible and so sudden as to leave him with no reaction whatsoever. He didn't even know what it was they were asking of him. He cursed his wayward mind and searched his memory for all the sounds he knew his ears had at some point taken in and his brain translated. . .but they came up with only the vague idea of living in the Glimkeer with Cyrn for the next few weeks. How or why was not to be found. He missed Rain already.
Chapter 5.

  "In all the universe there were only two states: Existence and Non-existence. One was God, the other was the Outside, the great Void which is the exact and equal opposite force that binds this Universe together. Neither could be defined without the other, neither could upset the other, and so it was for countless eons. Eventually God grew curious, and wished to know the answer to various questions. To find the answer, God began a great making. Since nothing can be made from nothing, God used his own flesh and spirit to generate this creation, and so it is that all of the known Universe, the realm we live in under God's will, is a part of God. And all of us consist of the flesh and spirit of God, with the power of God within us. The first of God's creations was his angels. Together they disputed the answer to the question until it was agreed that such a thing could only be learned through experimentation and not theory. This, too, was a thing of countless eons.
  The nature of good and evil, one of God's myriad questions, would be settled by creating an independent living realm of beings and to study their interactions with their realm and each other. The children of God, however, were too close to God and refused to live separate from his glory. They rebelled and inhabited the realm of Heaven, and God could not bear to see them harm for this infraction. So it was learned that God was a loving and merciful being, and that all beings can seek redemption in his eyes. However, God learned from his mistakes in his creation, and set out to create yet another type of life, this one somewhat further divorced from the Inner Circle, separated by a narrow cavern of the Void. For between all existence lay non-existence, and a perilous attempt it was to cross such a gulf. These, however, were too at peace with their realm and the order of things, incapable of any emotion or action. And so it went for countless eons with a countless number of experiments until today. Humanity, discontent with its mortality, chafed under the Peace, the contentment with God's creation, so that God thought that perhaps the answer to his question would finally be found. To goad them into action, God asked his angel to craft a separate life that would be bent solely on the destruction of Humanity. Eventually this force, God theorized, would bring humanity to a decision between good and evil, and expose its nature once and for all. So was born the Darkness. . ."
  --The Prophet Issayah, burned at the stake for heresy, in his gospel to the inhabitants of Antonus.

  Cyrn's sides burned with pain as his small frame shook with his every ragged breath, his arms trembled with fatigue as he clutched his stick with deadly ferocity. His every sense strove with all its might to discern the enemy across from him; his whole will was keyed to defeat this boy, whatever the cost. He had fought with his friends and the other squires before, but he had never met such a challenge as this. Always before he was either slightly better or hopelessly worse, now he was against someone so dead even that the fight had lasted for minute upon crawling minute. He had had training with the sword since the moment he could lift one, but his enemy had the speed, intelligence, and reflexes of a demon. It was as if he could take to the skill in fluid ease what others could do only after years of intensive training. Even so, Glen's violet eyes showed the same desperate exhaustion as Cyrn knew he felt, and he consoled himself that the other was a full year older.
  The moment Glen regained the slightest amount of breath, he pressed the attack, letting his stick blur with speed at Cyrn's small skull. Cyrn backstepped, not wishing to have to stop the blow with arms that felt like water already. Glen pursued striking high and low, stabbing and slashing in a patternless but unstoppable rush. It was all Cyrn could do to remain in the cleared circle as he dodged when he could and parried when he must. The solid thwack of the weapons resounded again and again through the morning forest, quieting all the animals as they witnessed this clash of titans. So it was in silence the two boys raged, sweat flinging from their hair and dirt scuffled into the air.
  Their fathers were off hunting and making sure of their clean escape into the Glimkeer, and the camp had been left into their care. The two boys had taken to sparring the first moment they had been alone, and now their heated battle was the striving for respect and friendship more than anything else. Cyrn, with his life turned upside down by a force completely out of his control, was now being hunted down by his own nation as all its people reviled him. His need to gain this boy's friendship was a desire so strong it burned at him every moment they were together and kept him awake deep into every night wondering what he could have done or said better to make the dream become reality. It was not just an anchor to a rapidly deteriorating life, it was affirmation of his natural goodness, it was the right for his soul to believe everyone else in the world was wrong, and that he did not deserve their hate. Glen, persecuted and feared by every stranger he had ever met, was finding a miracle of a boy who recognized his abilities and admired him for them instead of reviled them as gifts from the Devil. A boy who was willing to stand beside the most hated and feared person in the village and claim him as a friend. He had only to prove that he was normal like everyone else by fighting in a simple game of sticks.
  Cyrn doubled over and crumpled under the force of Glen's final blow, whimpering in pain and trying to conceal it. Glen simply stood there for a moment, too tired to see, his every muscle burning with pain. Eventually he cast down his stick and kneeled down beside his ward. "Are you hurt?" He asked gently.
  Cyrn only squeezed his eyes tight, shaking his head forcefully 'no'.
  "Here, then, I'm going to get some water. Are you going to be all right?"
  Cyrn let loose a tight breath and felt where the stab had taken the wind from his lungs. Probing it gingerly, he nodded 'yes'. He quickly wiped away his treacherous tears of pain and sought to bear it like a man.
  Glen dropped his stick, too weary to carry it, and limped his way to their camp with its fresh stream. It was his hunter's instincts that forced his head to turn, as some part of his mind sensed an anomaly. Glen pivoted to see the Orc in absolute terror, and let loose a scream. He tried to run, but the panicked impulses of his brain were blocked by an opposing will of equal strength from ever reaching his muscles.
  Run! Glen screamed. But it was useless, he was paralyzed as some other part of his self shouted at him utterly senseless orders he could hardly understand from his gibbering fear. It was as if he were being torn apart, and he just sat there, eyes locked on the shadowed brutish figure of the Darkness come to life.
  An eternity passed in the blink of an eye. All his will was focused on getting away, escaping into the forest and hiding from the surety of death. And yet all his will was also focused on standing to fight against this creature. Unravel it, fool! It screamed in as much panic, watching helplessly his end approach unfettered. Use the Power of--
  Run! RUN!
God! And so his will bent with all its fury to wish the destruction of the Darkness, and his will bent with all its desperate need to make his body heed his mind, and before the creature had taken three steps toward the wide-eyed lad, he had collapsed in convulsions under the strain of his divided soul.
  The Orc laughed, hefting an ax suited for chopping wood at the helpless maggot, but then was struck down with a sickening crack across the back of its skull. The stick snapped apart in Cyrn's grasp as the creature twice his size growled in a fury of bloodthirsty pain. Cyrn snatched up the nearest piece of wood in a frenzy of speed, knowing his death and Glen's would be in a matter of seconds, and swung it with the nine-year-old's utmost strength at the foe's rising form. The ax sunk into the beast's face with a convulsive snap, and the creature went still without even a sound to note its passage from life to death.
  Cyrn's eyes traveled from the base of his arm holding the haft of wood until they reached, in horror, the sickening sight of the ax blade stuck in the beast's face. Releasing the haft Cyrn scrambled away from the corpse, rushing to the stream as his stomach emptied itself again and again in convulsive reaction. His friend lay helpless on the forest floor, his spasms only beginning to recede as his body was left a hopeless wreck. When the two had recovered the slightest control, their eyes met with dread. The Darkness had spread to the very edge of the Glimkeer. Their numbers rising, pushing, expanding. How long until the forest could no longer contain them? How long before they stopped fighting over the dwindling resources amongst each other, and turned outward and swept across their nation like the horsemen of the apocalypse? Today it came to hew down trees. Tomorrow it will come to hew the bodies of our sisters, mothers, daughters, wives.
*  *  *
  Rain kept her eyes downcast and subdued, pale , silent, and unmoving as if she had become one with the inanimate walls around her. Being noticed was the worst thing that could happen at school. Her slightest remark was noted with simmering hatred by her peers, as their smoldering eyes would gaze upon her perfect beauty and brilliance with fear and envy. She was unnatural, such a thing of beauty simply could not arise from a human womb. Untouched by even the slightest illness or misfortune, brimming over with talents and aptitudes so as to make a mockery of anyone else's achievements, Rain listened to the words of her teacher inside the small church, playing a song through her head to relieve the tedium. This ritual, however dull, was the far better part of the day, as housework and spinning awaited her homecoming every evening. What she dreaded the most, however, was the passage between these two hells, when all the village watched her, their intentions hidden beneath their wary eyes. Of course not everyone was like this, but it was enough to make the minority of kindly people in her life seem miniscule. She was a lamb in the company of wolves, and they would rend and tear her apart at the first sign of weakness. Even as they preached the mercy and forgiveness of God. She was skeptical of everything that was told to her of Him. After all, how could you believe what these people said about the ultimate Good? How could people of such ignorance be trusted to know the truth about creation, destiny, and the mind and motives of God himself? Obviously somebody had to have created this world, but how could they know who? And how is it that these people never mentioned God having created the land-spirits, even though everyone knew they were evident in every instance of daily life?
  These thoughts rushed through her head to the rhythm of her song as she listened, still as a statue, to the adult at the fore. Her mind easily encompassed this all, and caught immediately the whisper of one pupil to the next. Her eyes flashed in anger upwards, catching the eyes of the accuser in a silent challenge, a silent promise of retribution, before she recalled herself and threw her soul into transforming back into the meek and silent lamb. The whisper burned through her mind again and again, until it became a cadence of its own, impossible to ever forget:
  "I heard the demon-child has left us to rejoin his kindred in the Glimkeer!"
  How could they ever think such a thing? Their parents saw him born and raised in this village. He has never done anything to any of them! The other child, unfazed by Rain's stare, knowing the entire weight of the village would always be on her side, went on.
  "I heard he was banished after being caught worshipping Scratch during the dark of the moon!"
  Rain almost choked on her rage, a slight cough erupting from the back of her throat. The teacher looked at her in annoyance and went on, heedless of the undercurrents that twisted and writhed across the room. They had all been there when Glen had been named the guardian of the Prince's Man. Why did they do this? How far will they corrupt the truth to meet their fevered dreams? Have they no shame of the terrible feelings they hold within themselves? Do they ever pray for God's forgiveness at night for the sinful lies they spout each morn'?
  "Rain?" the teacher barked.
  "Yes?" Rain looked up meekly, trying to contain the colours that must surely be flaring throughout the room by now of her outrage.
  "Would you care to repeat the psalm of Benjamin?"
  And of course she did, unerringly and crisply, and so the class continued as the teacher spoke on what this meant and how it applied to their lives and Rain wondered at her previously insane thought. Colours? She marveled over this unearthliness until the class was dismissed, and she quietly gathered her things and waited for the others to leave so as to not seem to believe she had the right to be ahead of any other. This constant ritual of appeasement was so instinctive and automatic that she no longer even noted its existence, but she remembered her threat and was not about to allow it to go unfulfilled. She wanted an apology, an acknowledgment of their lying ways and to pray for forgiveness, to promise that they would never say such filthy things of her little brother again, for them to admit that they knew exactly what Glen was doing for the benefit of their village and to feel gratitude for his sacrifice. And she would have it.
  Hurriedly leaving the room she sought out her victim and fixed her gaze on her as an eagle does upon a scampering hare. And by some cruel prank of the land-spirits, her attack was checked by the tiny form of the priest's son as he raced happily to walk by her side.
  "Go away, Treant." She shot at him before he could even hail her. He seemed to not hear, or not care even if he did hear, and took his accustomed place beside her. Normally she held a tender spot for this child's refusal to accept the village's common belief of her evil, and his stoutness to bear through all the nasty comments and rumours about him because of this, but right now it grated on her.
  "Hail, and well met!" He spoke joyously. "How are you, Rain? I'm so sorry about Glen. How could the Mayor--"
  "Treant!" She interrupted in exasperation. "I have to go talk to someone my age now, do you mind?" Her anger against the rumourmongerer by now had had enough time to seep into anger against the entire world, even that part of it that knew and loved her.
  "That's okay. I'll be real quiet then." His words didn't reflect it, but his voice felt aggrieved at this unmerited sting, wavering between feeling hurt or angered for being so unjustifiably hurt. Just because he was only seven and she was ten, that didn't mean he didn't deserve to talk to her. It was so unfair for Rain of all people to fall victim to prejudice.
  By now the other student and walked off with her friends towards home, and was already in the village proper, almost safe from any challenge Rain might throw at her. She will not escape! She vowed to herself, and quite contrary to everything she had been taught she broke into a sprint.. Effortlessly she raced across the ground, picking up speed with every step until she felt as if she could fly as her prey turned to see her attacker and gasped with widened eyes of shock.
  "You take that back!" Rain screamed.
  The other student was too frightened to say anything in reply, but soon she took note of the comforting fact of her friends, and the fact that Rain was only one, and she recovered quite elegantly.
  "What are you talking about?"
  "Don't you dare! You know exactly what I'm talking about, and you'd better apologize now!"
  "I really don't know." The other answered with a mocking smile, knowing everyone would lie and say the same thing, and Rain's anger was only digging her in deeper.
  "Liar! That's all you do! You're a filthy, rotten liar! If you won't admit it, then I swear I'll make you sorry."
  "I don't have to listen to this." The other declared, and with a sneer turned her back to Rain and began to walk away. Rain snarled and made ready to pounce upon the other, but something clamped down upon her muscles and froze her in place. She felt as if she were torn in twain as she both abhorred all violence and aggression and wished to beat this swine into gibbering submission. The two wills met each other with such force that she collapsed from the strength of it, her body being fought over by two separate identities as they emitted imperious commands to each of her muscles, all conflicting with one another.
  The villagers looked on with horror as Rain fell into seizures, they called for the minister and wondered if the demon were exacting his toll for her unnatural perfection, or if perhaps she were doing her witchcraft on the other poor school girl. Maybe the demon was angry because they had tricked its other servant into the forest where it couldn't hurt the village anymore, and now it was getting back. A few villagers decided there was no time for the cleric to arrive, and took up stones with which to strike her.
  It was at this moment Treant had finally managed to reach the scene. Treant held his body as a shield across her, the villagers frozen with indecision. Here was the cleric's son. To strike him would be a direct affront to God. And yet this girl was doing her witchery, and to let it proceed. . .
  "Stop it!" He wailed. "Can't you see she's hurt? You will kill her, the greatest crafting of God in all the world! You will spit in His eye, and show that we're no better than the Darkness! The Land-spirits will curse your fields and your flocks!" The first thing that raced into Treant's mind he spouted out, desperately keeping their attention on him and his words until something hit its mark and they dropped their stones.
  Finally Ramses arrived, only to see his son protecting the cursed child, after he'd ordered Treant to have nothing to do with her again and again. Instead of looking ashamed for his actions, Treant looked with relief at the approach of his father, which goaded him into an even further rage. You'll get no support from me, wretched boy. He vowed.
  "Father! Please, tell them to leave her alone. Help her." He implored, not daring to move lest he give the villagers an opening.
  "Treant, step away from it." Ramses uttered in a cold and distant voice.
  "Father, you don't understand." Treant plead. "They were going to stone her. Tell them to go away."
  "Don't you order me around, boy!" Ramses shouted, removing his belt. "I told you not to consort with that girl, and I told you to get away from her, and by God I'll teach you to obey."
*  *  *
  Rain led Treant, silent and trembling, to a stream where she could wash his lashes. She didn't know the slightest of how to deal with this sort of thing, but wasn't water always good for an injury? She couldn't believe she had done that. What on earth had made her so stupid as to challenge a popular girl? It was her fault this little boy was in so much pain, that he would be estranged from his parents for years to come. She never remembered being so angry before.
  "It hurts." Treant whimpered quietly, trying not to move and yet in agony regardless.
  "Oh God, Treant, I'm so sorry." She looked him in the eye and took his tiny hand in hers. "I almost got you killed. Why did you protect me?"
  Treant managed a twisted mockery of a smile. "It was the right thing to do."
  There was nothing Rain could do to repay him, so she chose the greatest gift she could think of at the spur of the moment, and kissed him softly on his forehead.
  They sat together for a while, saying nothing, holding hands, and watching the river's flow. Eventually, the pain began to recede from the both of them, and Treant managed to spark up a conversation about how when he was still a child he used to have this fascination with birds, and how whenever he saw a sylph he would ask it to let him fly like a bird, and the sylph would smile and shake its head teasingly. He chased around sylphs for months and not one of them would ever let him fly.
  Rain laughed, wishing she had seen the land-spirits once, but her life had been too rough, too aging to have the innocence necessary to see them. She felt like she had been born fifty, and her bones already ached from each passing day. She almost looked up to see if she had gray hair.
  "What made you so angry, Rain?" Treant eventually asked, not accusingly, but just wanting to know all the facts, wanting to know if he had done the right thing to protect her.
  "I don't know." She muttered. "I've asked myself that a dozen times already, and it all seems so silly."
  "Come now. I've never seen you want to hurt anyone before. She had to have done something!"
  Rain held out her hands as if to show her own resources incapable of the job, then offered her best explanation. "She was saying horrible lies about my brother. And then she lied again and said she hadn't said them. And all I cared about was that here was a liar and how dare she lie when we never lie, not ever?"
  "But Rain, everybody lies." Treant blushed. "I mean, we try not to, but. . .surely you've lied before to avoid punishment or somesuch."
  Rain shook her head irritatedly. "Not once. I manipulate people all the time, but I just can't imagine trying to lie to them. I don't know, it's stupid, isn't it? Why am I enforcing my own moral code on others, when mine probably isn't the right code anyway?"
  "It’s not enforcing your code, when you judge people by it. They have the choice to seek your admiration or not. It’s not like you’re trying to stone them." Treant joked, and the two laughed, and they began to use the words us and we more often than I and me, until by the end of the day they felt like lifelong friends.
  Soon the sun was on its downwards course, and the two were getting hungry, so they said their good-byes
  "Just one thing, Treant: You understand, we can't be together like this, right?"
  Treant froze, hurt. "If that's what you'd like."
  "It's just I'd ruin your reputation, they'd think you worshipped Satan or something if you kept hanging around me."
  "I don't think that's the reason at all." Treant countered angrily.
  Rain took a deep breath. "Okay, so it's only part of the reason. But just look at us, I'm taller than you and everything. You're only six.--"
  "Seven." He countered. "But if that's all you care about, then of course I won't bother you. I don't even think I'd want to." He stopped, as if considering how he should end this conversation, then grudgingly bit out. "I'm sorry they were hurting you. I'm not one of them. I know who you really are."
  I don't even know who I really am. Rain answered silently. I wish someone would tell me, so I can know why I never lie and why I think there should be colours in the air and why if I try to tackle someone I collapse to the ground like a rag doll. . .
  By the time she thought to answer with something, Treant was already gone, and Rain made her way back home alone. She wished Glen were home, so she could talk to him and be comforted by him. They were different, there was something unearthly about them, and it scared her to be influenced by something she did not understand, had no control over. It scared her to keep having thoughts she didn't understand, emotions she shouldn't feel, abilities she shouldn't have. What else could account for the fact save the Devil?
Chapter 6.

  "And there stood the hosts of Firion in all their splendour at the gates to the undying land, and their gaze stretched to the horizon, and all of it was filled with darkness. War after war, victory after victory, Firion stood ever-ready and ever-able to repulse the hordes of Lucifer. They had once known the peace of God in all their hearts, but upon the darkness' arrival, they hardened their hearts and stood firm. They fought for the memory of that Peace, they fought for the beauty of the ancient past, they fought for the essential belief that they deserved to survive and so God would see to it that they would.
  Firion, the heart of the universe, had never lost against the countless hordes, and yet in their souls they already felt that they could never win. Regardless of humanity's valour and courage, strength and skill, still the darkness came to their very doorstep to wage fruitless war. For every victory Death took its price, and upon the district of Thrakor fell the darkness' fist more heavily than any other land. The stretch of Firion's ascendancy unraveled millenniums into the past, and yet Thrakor viewed it as the twilight of mankind. Darkness would someday cover all the world, for they can not be stopped, only hindered, and all of Firion, all Good, all the children of God would vanish in the ravening maws of the Devil.
  What good, then, to battle the horde that stood before them, at great loss to themselves and at no profit for their posterity? Better to surrender, so that at least something of humanity would survive the Darkness’ passing. Despair twined around their heartstrings, the weariness of the soul that announces 'I can not go on, for it is not worth it any longer', and the gilded warriors of Firion, most renowned for their bravery and strength, opened the gates to the undying land, and the darkness poured in as a flood."

"The Fall of Mankind"--Estavuer Larenthiun, Third Crown Prince of Silber.

  As the sun crowned the horizon in all its brilliance, the land seemed as if drowned in light, sparkling with the morning dew and shattering hither and thither against the polished mail of the approaching army. Trumpets blared the glory and strength of their kingdom, great horns wailing to the heavens. To the villagers on the poor fringe of the Glimkeer it was as if the grandeur of Firion had sifted through all the ages to be reincarnated on this day in the retinue of the Sheriff. Beholding their strength, humanity cheered, and all their fears seeped away. For here was their lord, who understood everything and controlled everything, and they could trust in him to protect them from the evils of the world. The Sheriff came on the coattails of a grand parade on his yearly rounds across his domain, and though his coming was before a danger as they dared to harbour a dishonoured knight, now it seemed like a blessing from God, or at least the will of the most beneficial land-spirits.
  The farmers and hunters watched as the parade wound its way through the streets and to the Mayor's building, everything crisp and smooth and precise. Then the Sheriff held out his hand, and the company halted, and he dismounted with such graceful ease that all felt in awe of one so full of strength. Here was someone who could stare at the tide of the oncoming Darkness and laugh, for he was a knight.
  The Sheriff turned to the crowd and they grew silent. "The rumours are true. From Fael Glim all the way to the Golden Hills, the Darkness is stirring."
  At this everyone became somber and quiet. There was fear, but in addressing the fear and openly admitting to it, the Sheriff seemed as if the solution were already at hand, and truly there was nothing to fear at all. As if he were a farmer watching the approach of a disastrous storm, and yet he saw that it would come too late, and that soon the reaping would be done and the storm would pass by harmlessly, bringing only the blessing of water in its wake.
  "In these times, it is all the more important to remember we are part of something greater. First, we are all part of this domain. And this domain is a part of the great kingdom of Loass. And Loass is united with all the nations of the Treatise. And all these nations, all of these people, are a part of God. Looking to the horizon we all know that we are too weak to withstand the Darkness alone, but when we look not to the great unknown, but upon each other, and behold the light of God shining forth behind all our eyes, then be comforted, for this strength is enough to stymie the greatest of floods."
  With that the villagers gave forth a mighty cheer, and the Sheriff left the crowd to enter the City Hall, where he would make everything well with his wisdom and his armies, and all the people believed that matters were well in hand as they went back to earn their daily bread.

  "Damn it all, but I need a drink!" The Sheriff exclaimed, tossing his heavy gauntlets upon the table.
  "Of course, sire." People immediately scurried to allay his needs.
  "We march as if the hounds of war were already at our heels, just so we can reassure the peasants that even though last time Loass was swept away like a log in the mother of all rivers, this time it will all be different. That even though Firion eventually fell to the Darkness, somehow we will prevail!" Taking a deep draught of ale, he pondered on his darkest thoughts, all the more cynical because of having to be so blindly optimistic only minutes before.
  "Ah, well, it is all God's will. If He should choose for us to win, then so it will be. And if He has chosen the Darkness to inherit the earth, then cursed if I can do anything about it. So here I am doing whatever I can because maybe God is on our side and we'll come out of this alive after all."
  "My lord." The mayor gave a bow that showed respect but not obsequiousness.
  "Ah! There you are, cousin. Come, sit down and let's have a drink together. How fares this village?"
  "Thank you. Nothing important, sire, just rumours and tales. The crops are still good, the village only grows."
  "And you, after all, still have the Pact that means that when the Darkness comes, perhaps it will go around you to the Capital instead of straight through." The Sheriff joked.
  "Who are we to deny the blessings God has seen fit to bestow upon us? Perhaps this small village has a purpose, a reason for being preserved, and in serving God to fulfill this purpose he deems so important as to protect us for, we will do more for our kingdom than we possibly could have done in the straight heat of battle."
  "Assuming that your Pact is a blessing from God and not the temptations of Lucifer. But enough of that, we've had this argument far too many times before. The only answer there has ever been is let us wait and see. Wait and see. And I think now, when next I make this circuit, I will not be able to say those words again. Perhaps the day humanity has waited for has finally come, and now it is time to be tested and found worthy."
  "If so, what am I to do? The Darkness lives upon our very doorsteps. My lord, are you to abandon us to our fate, to God's judgment and God's mercy alone?"
  "Cousin, I am only a Queen's Man. I run my domain, I provide the taxes and the men. It is not up to me to determine how those taxes and those men will be used. The Merchant Prince even now is holding council with the nations of the Treatise. In truth, the Treatise of Lilies is my only hope. We've never been so strong, so united as we are today. If I were to choose a day to go to war, I could not think of a better time. Many in the royal court already believe it to be holy scripture, as much so as the Morann itself."
  "Have faith, and wait, you say. But I have a duty as well to my people. They believe in you. See how they trust you so, that a few simple words can make them feel that the Darkness will never reach them! If I were to allow the falsehood to remain, and watch as we are swept away, flotsam in the coming river. . . God could never forgive me."
  "Quite simply, cousin, I command you to sit tight and speak nothing of the danger. Fear is a greater enemy than any number of demons. We must be stolid, not in panic. This is a time when the wise remain the wise and the ignorant remain the ignorant, so that the wise can rule the ignorant far better than they could ever rule themselves. Great things are moving in the world. I should not tell you this, for even in court it is a rumour, but there are no tidings from Kalm. No messages for a year, their ambassadors are in a great panic. Kalm was a silly nation, believing that men could be their own rulers, but their strength and numbers were not to be taken lightly. If Kalm has already fallen. . ."
  The Mayor's face went white. "You say the Darkness has been at war for a year already, and we retain the illusion of peace?"
  "I say the world is bigger than either of us can possibly imagine, and it is up to greater heads than ours!" The Sheriff stated in a tone that meant the conversation was over.
  "As you say, my lord."
*  *  *
  Glen rushed through the door, darting like an arrow for the sheer joy of achieving such a speed, and burst into Rain's room.
  "Did you hear!" He announced, breathless, a drunken grin making his face seem to glow with unearthly vitality. Rain yelped and threw herself under her covers, cheeks burning with embarrassment.
  "Are you my brother or some wild sylph on the prowl?" Rain asked. "If you wish to enter a lady's chambers, knock first!" Her overshirt seemed to fly onto her of its own accord.
  Glen burst out laughing. He would have laughed if she had said the sky were green, he was so happy. "Spoken like a true elder sister of ten minutes. But I can see right through you, your eyes are gleaming like the sun."
  Then Rain's smile broke through her control and she jumped up to give Glen a hug. "It's true, then. We're going to Mollant!"
  Glen squeezed her tight, and then backed up enough to look into her eyes again. "That's not the half of it! Cyrn's father has joined the caravan as a guard, and Cyrn is accompanying him. But where did you hear it from? I just found out five minutes ago."
  "Treant told me this morning that his father was sending him to the cathedral for his baptism, so he can be ordained as a good city priest. Can you imagine? He said that he was going to travel with the merchant caravan, and what with us catching a Red Leopard, I just knew we were going too."
  Glen's merriment turned to a slight disconsolateness. "Yes, Treant always manages to reach you first, doesn't he?"
  Rain gave him a stern glance. "Don't even try to ruin this day! Are you still trying to pretend that the entire time you were out in the Glimkeer you should have also been protecting me, and that somehow it's all your fault that you weren't there? Gods, Glen, it was my fault for picking a stupid fight in front of the entire village. Are you telling me that I'm not responsible for my actions, but instead everything I do is some projection of your own self? I mean, come on."
  "It's not that. I'm not trying to feel guilty for everything or what have you. It's just I should have been there. If I lost you. . ." Glen's voice wavered.
  Rain kissed him on the forehead, her tone comforting. "But you didn't. What does it matter who made that so? For all we know God himself decided to keep me alive, are you going to hate him for saving me now, too?"
  "Fine, I'll shut up about the whole thing, but I thought just once I could be the one to make you happy."
  "Glen, I live for you. Every day I wake up I remind myself that I have a twin so special, so intelligent, so perfect, that God must be watching out for me."
  "Don't tell me you actually believe God is on our side." Glen barked, a glimmering of all the pain that had wracked his soul in his meager thirteen years.
  "The land spirits, then. You're missing the point. You have nothing at all to be jealous about. Please, Glen, Treant is like my Sting. He would never match you."
  "What?" Glen responded, giving her an odd look.
  "What?" Rain responded, as in, "What did I say that was so complicated that you couldn't fathom it the first time around?"
  Glen shook his head as if to shake out all the thoughts from his head. "Nothing, nothing. We'll have a month or more of time together, all four of us. This will be the best time of our lives. Right now I could kiss Mistress Cowlens I'm so happy."
  "If you want to keep that pretty head of yours attached to your neck, you'd best not."
  "We'll see." Glen crowed, a boyish grin on his face as he crept toward the door quietly, lowering his frame as he skulked quietly out of the doorway.
  "Oh, just leave!" She answered, throwing her arms to the heavens to implore someone to teach this boy the ways of civilization. "And knock next time!" She shouted as he ran out of the house.
  Cyrn was waiting for Glen when he came outside. "What are you doing, skulking about?" He jibed.
  Glen immediately stood upright, pretending he had never been skulking at all. "Remember how Mistress Cowlens called me the Devil and started beating me with her cane in Church?"
  Cyrn laughed. "The whole church burst into a panic. She was too weak to even make it reach through the clothing, and there you stood, embarrassed. . ."
  Glen let half his lip raise in an ironic twist. "And yet when they described it the next day it was the champions of God and Lucifer striking at each other with hammers that shook the earth. Did you know that my spirit was trying to suck her blood at the time, and she was just defending herself from my sorcerous ways?"
  "Oh, I think people thought it funny more than anything else. Really, by making such a scene it showed how stupid everyone was acting."
  "What?" Cyrn gave him an annoyed look.
  "The word you were looking for. It was a satire of the superstitious villagers, to believe that the Devil could be found attending church and that ol' Mistress Cowlens could manage to beat him to death with her cane. It exaggerated the feelings that everyone felt to a comic degree, showing that in principle their viewpoint is stupid, because if a principle fails at any degree, then it fails entirely, and so the use of satire helped to show them the error of their ways."
  "Thank you, Mircassian. Now could we please return to the language of us lowly Loassians?"
  "We're all Mircassians. You've just forgotten."
  "Oh shut up, I was the one who told you that this country was colonized by Mircassia."
  "Then why are you insulting me by calling me one? I'd think I'd be proud to come from Mircassia. The isle of wisdom and ancient arts, founder of a dozen nations, mother of the world. . ."
  "And I'm sure every single Mircassian makes sure we all remember that whenever they talk to us, just like you and your stupid 'satire'. Where on earth did you pick up a word like that anyway?"
  "Just because Mircassians hold themselves aloof from the world doesn't mean they're arrogant. Maybe they have more important things to do."
  Cyrn's face took a somber tone. "The darkness is stirring. What's more important than that? Loass fell to the storm last time, what's to stop them from doing it again? Where are the Mircassians with their 'arts'? How do we even know whose side they are on? They aren't part of the Treatise."
  "Mircassia is allied with life, and God, and Good. What more do you want? They don't have to send an army over just to fight the Darkness."
  "You're just assuming everything that's ever been written about them to be true. For God's sake, who do you think wrote the history books, Glen? I say they're just like those traders from Kalm. All rude and disapproving because they're 'free' and we're all slaves to the throne, except that's probably multiplied by a hundred."
  "Have you even seen a trader from Kalm?" Glen ridiculed.
  "I lived at Fael Grun as a page. Of course I saw a trader from Kalm. I've seen someone from everywhere."
  "Fine. The point is I mentioned Mistress Cowlens to Rain and so of course I had to play-act being the devil for her because that's how Mistress Cowlens sees me."
  Cyrn gave a slight smile, almost seeming to shrink inwards.
  "Nothing. I asked a question and there's the answer. I should be getting home, though. Papa wants me to try to become a squire. I'd be one already, except for him, but he doesn't think that's excuse at all. If I'm good enough they'll have to accept me."
  "But if you become a squire. . ."
  "Then I certainly won't be sticking around here anymore." Cyrn shrugged. "Maybe we can work something out on the way. The last thing I want to do is to go join the King's Lancers right before the Darkness comes howling out of the Glimkeer."
  "Maybe they won't be so strong this time. After all, we won the last war, and now we have the Treatise. . ."
  Cyrn's eyes flashed. "As long as the Devil lives, the Darkness will always be stronger. They are the Flesh of the Devil. All we ever manage by killing them is to give the Devil a haircut."
  Glen shrugged. "The sages and the kings can worry about all that. I just want to be on my way to Mollant. Can you believe it, my father caught a Red Leopard!"
  "I know I know. Someday I'll tell you how my father won the jousting tournament against Corbald Gatrithor, and we can figure out who's best."
  "Which reminds me, has your father ever told you--?"
  "He's told me naught of it."
  "And him pushing for you to be a squire and never seeing you again at that."
  "He'll tell me when he feels the time is right. Cursed if I know whether that is an hour from now or when he releases his last breath."
  "At least I know exactly why everyone despises me."
  "Here, now, moments before we were comparing the grandness of our fathers, and now we're making a competition out of our miseries. Would you like to see who can drink the most next?"
  Glen laughed, his face breaking into a wry smile and his violet eyes shining. "And why can't I act like a foolish lad? And why can't you? What good has being mature ever done for the each of us?"
  "What good? It gives us the right to look in the mirror every day and know in your heart your worth, and let all the world's eyes slide off you like water from a duck."
  "Your own self worth? What drivel. You can't heap honour upon your own bier. The only respect worth anything comes from the people around you, the people you admire. Why else are you striving so hard to become a squire, if in truth the last thing you wish to do is fight?"
  "So I want my father's respect, what lad doesn't? That doesn't mean you have to get everybody to respect you. If nobody knows you well enough to even make the correct judgment, what is their judgment worth?"
  "Everything! The whole world is tied around these bonds. All I need is respect, and I could lead the world against the Darkness and knock on heaven's doors. What does it matter if it is deserved or not? Who decides if it is deserved or not? What is truth but the perception of it? Respect gained through valour and respect gained through treachery is the exact same respect, it feels and acts and looks and achieves the exact same thing, so what does it matter?"
  "The only people whose respect is worth anything are those people who recognize the respectable and the despicable."
  "And if they judge me to me respectable, even if all my life I have looted and murdered to no ends whatsoever? Am I then to be commended?"
  "That would never happen!"
  "On the contrary, even the greatest heroes of gilded Firion could have been evil at heart. How can we know, when only the glossy report of poets is left to us? Even God is not known, for how can we understand his actions? Here is the Darkness, unstymied by His hand, and we his very children. How can we understand that? And so nobody can be truly understood, and thus no one can be justly respected."
  "Fool, the Darkness is a test of humanity's virtue. If the world were perfect and we could live forever on just the sun and the air, how is He to divide the good from the bad?"
  "Can't he know without this elaborate scheme, isn't He powerful enough to know everything and everyone?"
  "Don't you see? How can you know if someone is good or bad, if there is no good or bad! If there is no potential for you to do anything of benefit or anything of harm to the world, if we are as rocks that are motionless and unchanging, evil and good have no meaning."
  "But the definition of good and evil keeps changing as the years go by, its already meaningless because humanity can never agree on its meaning."
  " 'What is good?' the farmer asks his wife. The wife replies 'It is good when we work hard and feed our children and tend the land and obey the laws and prosper at no one else's harm.' The farmer asks 'And suppose our taxes fund a campaign to turn babies into another farm product for the eating. Suppose by helping to make this nation prosper we support an evil nation that is doing harm to others. How are we doing good then?' The wife answers 'It is good when we do good for the world as a whole, not for any smaller community such as self, family, village, nation, or alliance.' The farmer asks 'But what benefits the world as a whole?' The wife replies 'It will do the world good to keep our children fed, because then life shall spread, and the potential for good will remain infinite, and the potential for souls to travel to heaven and rejoin the flesh of God will remain infinite. So farm.' The farmer ponders 'But if God constructed us to be apart from him, whysoever would he want us back? Is good truly the foiling of God's will?' The wife answers 'God constructed us to be apart, so that we might experience the joys of life and our love for God’s works. But he also gave us the ability to return, so that we might join our power into the crafting of his designs.' The farmer sees that all his points have been answered, and that he must farm all day after all. And then his eyes light up with a mischievous grin, and he asks--'"
  "But who said God was good?" Glen asks, finishing the tale. "I can't believe you remember that, and you a city-dweller!"
  Cyrn blushed and hung his head, but a wide smile played across his face. "The first time you told me that, just off the top of your head like that, it struck me as profound. The church never bothers to answer any of those questions, and here a farmer's wife is just rattling them off like as if it were common wisdom. I tell you, you have to tell it to someone else. The merchant guards, perhaps, and then they will tell it, as if it were from their heads to all the tavern lasses, and sooner or later the bards will be singing of it in the courts of Silber, and the High Prince will make a witty comment to his wife about it in bed. . ."
  "Oh get off it." Glen's gruffness could not hide his pleasure in the flattery.
  "The point is this: even though no one will ever know or ever admit that you came up with the entire spiel, every time they say it, or comment on it, or write essays arguing over it, they respect you and your works and are paying tribute to them. It isn’t my understanding of you, but the love of your works, that is the source of my respect. Knowledge is not the basis of respect, for what if I knew you for a villain? Knowledge of who you are is about as worthwhile as knowledge of the length of each leaf on that tree yonder. A million details all trivial and quite worthless. Knowledge of what you've done. . . Here, now, would you honour a tree for having a thousand leaves of such and such a length? You could know that tree from core to roots and not give a damn about it either way. But suppose that tree were to give you shade on a hot day, or sing to you with the passage of the wind, or stop an arrow that was intended for your heart, or provide an escape route for you from one beast or another? Suddenly that tree matters, and you honour it for what it has done. You could know the length and hue of every leaf on a tree, and the first time you'd ever respect it is when you learned that it was part of the dike that held the flooding waters from crashing down upon Hiant and scouring it away."
  Glen thought about that for a while.
*  *  *  
  Treant watched the tedious scenery pass slowly to his left and right as the wagon made its way down the road. Behind him came many more of the same, the trade caravan which would mean the success or failure of many a villager back home. The trade had become a sort of festival, an event that villagers looked forward to every year and a time of celebration and relaxation with its passing. The dusty, hot journey was the last thing Treant would have wished to celebrate, however. He was going to the city to be ordained as a child touched by God, so that he could speak God's words to the masses. What if he wasn't ordained? What would become of him, what would father think? What if my rebellious spirit is tainted, and God turns away from me with disgust?
  And if I succeed, what then? Will I go on all my life vainly preaching the words of God that fall on deaf ears out in the countryside? People are too concerned with getting by to worry about their immortal soul. They are more animals than people, their entire existence bent only towards the continuation of existence reaching towards no point whatsoever. What good is living, if it is not in God's palm? One's entire life would waste away in frivolities, and on the last day God will turn from you and your soul will be lost to the void forever. We strive each day to become closer to God and in our death return to our Father, so that we may live on as a part of Him. What good, then, is a life that ultimately will be no more? In the face of eternity, one's lifespan is the slightest second. What does it matter, then, if one should live out his full second or if he were never born at all? All my life I will be trying to uplift these animals into something resembling humanity. But in all of father's efforts, how many have actually been turned to the light, and how many have just found new reasons to fear and hate and abdicate responsibility for their actions? Have we really done more good than harm? How am I to become a priest, if it means sacrificing one's life to do more harm than good? The wagon trundled on, and Treant brooded, sweat trickling down his neck and his tunic itching with grit. Eventually the irritation overcame his ability to ignore it, and he cast about for some source of relief.
  "Ramses, it is hot and the horses have been at it for hours. Let's please call a break." Treant wheedled.
  "All right then, let's see if we can find some good shade." Ramses answered distractedly, as if his mind could not concentrate on such petty details as human comfort.
  "What?" Glen responded, the trance of the dullness of travel washing away as he looked up anxiously at Ramses.
  Treant gave him a slight smile, hopeful to be in Glen's favour for once. "We're going to call a break is all."
  "Oh. Why tell me first?"
  "What do you mean?"   
  "Didn't you call out my name?" Glen frowned, feeling as if something were amiss.
  "Not at all. But I'm glad to have talked with you anyway. Let's go find Rain!" Treant was immediately filled with the vitality of the young as he leaped from the slow-moving wagon and raced back down the line. Soon the wagons had pulled up and the horses had been released to find some proper grazing. The hunter’s children were tending beasts from all over the Glimkeer carefully as they could not afford to lose their prizes on the road. Treant found Rain carefully lowering water to the red leopard with a look of intense concentration that meant he was not wanted. Letting all his worries wash off of him, he allowed himself to simply stare at her as her teeth caught her lower lip and her eyes gleamed through lowered lids. Every part of her seemed to be natural and necessary, with no excess of flesh to be found, it spoke of a sleek panther that killed as a way of life. It was Nature embodied in its most perfect form, and he had been blessed to be put in the exact same time and place to live as her, so that the sight of her would never be lost to his memory.
  "What is it, Treant?" Rain asked amusedly, catching him staring at her open-mouthed. "The leopard can't be all that scary in bars, now, can it?"
  Treant beamed at her, the sound of her voice and the knowledge that he had made her happy flushing through him. "We've called a halt, and so I just thought I could come see you."
  "Of course, where's Glen?"
  "He was right behind me--"
  "Ah, well, it doesn't matter. What with all the dust these cursed wagons throw up, I need a bath. Can you watch over the leopard and make sure they don't leave without me?"
  "Sure." Treant promised, proud to be of service.

  Glen relaxed as the water sluiced off the grit and fell back into the pond, the water rippling below him and spreading across the pond in ever smaller waves. The cold snapped his senses back into place, and for a moment he could escape the scorching of the sun. It was too bright, these summer days. It didn't seem natural. As he sprawled his body across the rocks and let his arm wander aimlessly through the icy pond water his mind fell into orchestrating a tune, and his eyes barely caught the reflection of a tall, pale girl walk around behind him.
  "Hail, and well met." He greeted the lady politely. The figure stiffened as if shocked and turned furiously on him.
  "How is it that you see me, boy?" The voice was cool and soft, as if the voice of the water's murmurs through the forest. Glen turned to look at the lady head on, taken aback by her reaction, and confusedly saw that the face was too sharp to be a girl's, but too fine and pristine to be a man's. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude." Glen answered, forming each word carefully and respectfully. There was an odd feeling of fear in the back of his mind, as if here were a puzzle that did not fit together in any way.
  The man's lips drew into a tight smile, his eyes a bright green that seemed to narrow to slits. A southlander? But then how was he so tall? "Here now, lad, perhaps you've seen others such as I. A young girl, and a lass, an old man, and two sturdy folk who look as brothers."
  "Naught of the sort." Glen answered, just wishing to leave this scene and return to the good wholesome heat and noise of the caravan.
  "Ah, well, you know how these things go." The man gave a slightly wry smile, as if inviting Glen to share his annoyance. "Whenever you wish to find somewhat, it is always in the last place you look, because if you had found it sooner that would have been the last place you had looked, and so you are always vexed with your bad fortune."
  Glen laughed as he took apart the spider web of the joke, admiring the man's quick wit. "Truly, and well spoken. My father found a red leopard. We're taking it to Mollant."
  "Did he, now? Perhaps God is in a good mood, then, and we can settle all this shortly."
  "I hope so." Glen answered, now at ease with this almost beautiful example of a man. "But I really must be going back now."
  "Perhaps we shall meet again." The man answered, giving a grave nod to his head and crossing his arms so that each hand rested on his opposite breast. The man then slunk away, his gait much resembling Glen's own while he was on the hunt. I've never seen anyone so graceful. Glen thought. He could have snapped me in two before I even saw him move. And so he returned to camp, his mind marveling over his good fortune.

Chapter 7.

"When Firion collapsed before the hordes, the heartland knew little of war and was slaughtered without resistance. Such was the hatred of the Darkness for those who had defeated it that none survived their coming, and yet there was little peasants and tradesmen could do when the borders came down. When it seemed that humanity would have nothing left, the newly-crowned queen led the brave and the valiant to make a stand. The high prince, seven summers old, helmed the mass exodus. God willing, life would spread faster across the earth than their pursuants could snuff it out. The people who marched to certain death held trust in a tiny child, hope for all those who fled, and love so strong for Firion that it was better to die while it still lived, than to live on under some other banner, some other world, a world that had tasted defeat and despair, death and ashes. And yet, who can explain why some went, and some stayed? Who can explain why one's life is willingly given over for the sake of utter strangers, children and grandchildren he will never know, and who will never know him? Why did Beliande kiss her brother and turn away from the ships, tears streaming down her cheeks? Why did she take up a sword for a land already choked in flames, for a people already abandoned by God? What is it, that makes people loyal to dreams and hopes, concepts and ideas, above their very lives?
  One led the end of the greatest Age of humanity, the other led the beginning of the new Age. When Firion would split, and split again, until it was known as Arnoss and Silber, TraVal and Flank, Ryheir and Filliis, two great events shaped the human mind forever. The Fall, when man betrayed his fellow man to its extinction, and the Redemption, when the line of Falchenor stood and bled from dawn till dusk against the force their greatest heroes had despaired of holding against for even a single hour. Humanity, in all its wonder, had proven to have hearts of both lead and shimmering gold. It is a puzzle even the Fiish, after all these years, have yet to explain."
"The Fall of Mankind"--Estavuer Larenthiun, Third Crown Prince of Silber.

  Glen walked at a hurried pace through the streets of Mollant. Though he had never been in such a profusion of sounds and colours, his every step was one of careful thought and placement, his every motion full of purpose. People seemed to give way, forming holes which he could slip through. It just seemed to the crowd that the boy should not be inconvenienced. Later they would think up reasons, that it wouldn't be right to bully someone so young and orphaned. Or that he was on important business and perhaps a squire or page, helping to win the war. In truth, Glen was abuzz with the talk of the city. It seemed as if even the lowliest cutler knew more about how the world turned than even the Mayor back home. Rumours of Kalm had already sped through the city and died out, becoming simple common knowledge, before their hamlet had even known that Kalm was missing. Without Kalm, Loass was the only remaining maritime empire in the Treatise. It was the ascendancy the Merchant Princes had striven for since the renaissance of Loass. And yet, if the Darkness was stirring, Loass would more likely than not be the next country to follow in Kalm's footsteps. After all, the last war had started from the Glimkeer, and nothing had stopped the Darkness then. It was hard to think of the bountiful forest as the source of the world's destruction, and yet he had seen the creature himself. Cutting wood, because they needed more. . . When would the Glimkeer not be able to hold them all? When would they burst forth to meet their rivals, to claim once more for Satan what God had given to His children? He had to talk to Rain.
  A blind man seemed to snap upright, as if shocked, from his place on the corner. Glen noticed it as he also noticed a dozen different details, filing them away in his mind but not reflecting upon any of them. But before he had crossed the beggar's hovel, the man gave up a hoarse cry and staggered to his feet. Glen stopped for a moment, puzzled. Why would a beggar make a nuisance of himself? If you make yourself out as fearsome and mad, who will stoop to aid you then? Better not to reveal yourself as an animal, capable of leaping about without regard to the laws of courtesy and society. Who will feed the wild dogs of this city? The beggar had just sacrificed his place as a human to stop Glen from walking by. What can I possibly give you, that it is worth receiving little to nothing from this point on?
  "Boy! Boy!" The beggar was desperate, panicked that perhaps Glen had not stopped. If he can not see me now, how did he know I was here before?
  "Yes, I'm here." Glen called out soothingly. He took three steps toward the beggar, no more. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing--"
  "No, no! Don't just stand there on the street. Come over here. You can't leave me. Please, God, don't leave!"
  Glen stepped closer, touching the man's hand gently. "I'm here. Calm down, you're scaring them." Glen thought it sounded silly, to have a boy reporting that all the busy townsfolk, solid men and women with gray in their hair, were afraid and needed reassurance. But Glen knew that people were always afraid, that fear was in every mind of every person there, because things were not like they were supposed to be. Beggars didn't shout and plead to God for handouts. And because he was no longer known, they were afraid because they had no idea what the beggar was capable of doing. City folk or farmers, all of them serve their fear. And then another thought. I will not.
  "My name is Glen, sir. Hail, and well met."
  "Arcturus Cynnibol." The beggar responded, as if unfamiliar with the sounding of his own name. "You are different." He stated, half a question. "I thought you lived in the stars. We searched and searched, we prayed to God every day to lead our eyes, so that we might find you. But not from the stars, always right here. We never thought to look so far south as here."
  "It is not so far south, I should say, to be further than the stars." Glen commented wryly. "Are you from Ryheir, then?" Childhood tales of the winter gardens came excitedly into his mind. "It is true that sculptures made of ice stand in the palace untouched through even the deepest days of summer?"
  "Why do you speak such trifles, boy? Is that all you have to say, after all this time, when you finally allow us to find you?" Cynnibol seemed genuinely outraged.
  "Filliis, then?" Glen knew little more about the country than its name. Part of him wanted to go on, to make sure his sister was all right and the leopard looked after. But he stayed. This was important, someone said. And so Glen stayed.
  "I am only a man. I once headed the entire guild, but I grew drunk with it. People had to start begging for time to watch the stars. And then I thought, ‘why should I receive only words for thanks?’ They took my eyes. I could never look to the stars again, never have a chance to see your coming. But now!" The beggar started to laugh, it was full of pain, of bitter years and bitter memories.
  "Why did you come to me? What chance do I deserve? What honour have you given me, when my chances and my honor were all swept away by my own hand?"
  "Sir, you must have me confused. I was born not far from here, in a village on the frontier. I am nothing more than a hunter, come to sell my goods." He wanted to go now, he even told himself to take a step, to move his leg and bend his knee so that he would turn away from this old man and his laughing. It wasn't a good laugh, it put shivers up his spine, and he wanted to go. Stay! Someone told him, and his leg did not bend.
  "The Glimkeer." The beggar took a deep breath, the knowledge piercing into his mind, distraught at its own stupidity for not having made the realization sooner. "A portal for the Darkness, so why not the Fae as well? Crossroads, crossroads. It all comes together."
  "What do you mean, the Fae? Do you mean the land-spirits?" Glen's voice was strained, urgent. The whole world rested on the man's next breath. It was here. It was right here. The answer!
  "Boy, please tell me. Have the Seelie come to fight against the Darkness? Will the power of God save us from the hellspawn? We have seen, in the stars, this time it will be much worse. We tried to tell the others, but Kassa kept insisting, kept insisting. . . Will you save us, such poor fools? Will God have mercy on us?"
  Seelie. The word streaked through him as an arrow, striking something deep within. Fae. Seelie. "The Faeries, what are faeries? Angels of God?" Glen struggled, asking himself more than the beggar before him. What are you understanding? I can't follow you. Your thoughts are too fast.
  Listen! Listen! Was the only command he got in response.
  "Not angels! Not land-spirits! What is this infernal teasing? The Seelie Court, born of light and music, crystals raining from the sky and earth alike. You must help us, or the Darkness will be at your doorstep next. They've changed before, they can do it, they can reach across the void! You must tell the others, that the Darkness can only be stopped here, that it must be stopped for the sake of us all."
  Wrong, wrong. No crystals, only black glass, only storm and the softness of rolling moss. What does he mean?
  What do you mean?
  Ask him what he means!
  "Sir, I'm only a simple hunter. I don't even know. . . I don't even know what you are saying."
  "What's going on here?" Came the gruff voice of someone who held short shrift for boys and beggars alike. "Come away from there, boy. You aren't so young as can get away with thieving anymore. No matter how hard he hits you."
  Glen turned away to look up at the constable. He remembered him from the market square. He was okay. "Hello, sir, I remember you from the square. Is my leopard safe, then?"
  The man gave him a quizzical look, and then gave a sort of snort. "Well so you are that boy. Leaving that pretty sister of yours to her own devices! What kind of courtesy do they teach you country lads? Now step away, step away. Have done with this beggar. I'm sure your family cannot afford to feed this entire city, red leopard or no."
  "Of course. I was only curious. I've never talked to a Fiish before." Stay! Stay! His mind was frantic, now. I want to go! You said he was wrong anyway.
  I don't know anymore. How can I know if you won't ask him anything? Glen put a hand to his head, a cold shiver running through him. What is going on?
  "Are you all right, lad?" The guard put a hand to his forehead, looked into his eyes to see if they were dilated.
  "It's okay now." Glen managed through ashen lips. He had to talk to Rain. "I'm sorry to have troubled you. Did my sister need me?"
  "She was ready to let the leopard free and ride it to find you." The man joked. Glen dragged himself away from the wall, falling into the longer steps of the adult. When he looked back, Arcturus Cynnibol was crumpled as if his God had deserted him. You were supposed to save him, the voice snickered. You were his redemption, but you wouldn't stay.
  "Shut up." Glen whispered, a tear gathering in his eye. He was shaking, he did not know why, but he couldn't stop it either.
  He won't live for you to come again, what's left for him to hope for, when you've already come and gone?
  "Shut up!" Glen screamed, tears rolling down his baby's cheeks. He had to talk to Rain. . . he couldn't take it any more. . .he had to talk to Rain before he went mad. His head throbbed from the blow of a dozen hammers.
*  *  *
  Father and son, dressed in immaculate white finery, carefully weaved their way through the busy streets. Ramses held his head high and challenged the city folk to comment. Treant only stared at his feet. If he succeeded, it would mean the end of things. But if he failed, how could he fail? His father would hate him, would detest him, would detest himself for failing to raise him. The whole village would mock him. He could not live with himself if he were to fail.
  "Now, boy, when the bishop summons the applicant forth, you are to clearly and loudly state that you are the humble applicant Treant Gallanger. Then you are to hold your right hand over your left, and walk with head bowed down the center of the aisle."
  "Gallanger, father?"
  "Yes, yes. Your surname, it is of no use in the country, but these things matter here. Are you listening?"
  Treant nodded. All this ceremony. Why did it take a ceremony for God to perceive the purity of his heart? If the spark of a priest lay within him, why not run up the aisle and shake the bishop's hand? The bishop should be able to tell either way, if God guided his hand. And God did. That was why the bishop had power at all. But his father would be mortified. Treant was trapped. Nothing he could do, nothing he even thought of doing could be done. His father wouldn't even listen to his reasoning on ceremony, he would already be getting ready to strap him. Treant closed his eyes--hard--and opened them again.
  "Once he pours the third cup of water over you, you are to kiss his ring and remain kneeling, but ask--quietly--if God saw fit to find a place in his heart for you. Do not sound servile, but neither confident nor bold. You must say it only softly, without inflection."
  He nodded. Trapped, trapped. What will I do without her?
  "I'm so proud of you, son. You must become the shepherd of our flock, in these times. You must have the courage to strike down the Darkness, to clear away the lies and deceptions of our Enemy. You must show our people to follow God's light, not the temptations of the Devil. I can not carry this on forever, son. Go with God's love."
  Treant only nodded. God's love, and yet to serve God is only to war with Satan. All my energy, devoted to hatred of sin, not love of virtue. Surely he did not mean that. Surely he did not call Rain a 'temptation of the Devil'. No, he could not have known I was thinking of her right now. That she's all I can think about every day. She is God's most beautiful creation. How could anyone think such beauty could stem from Satan? If Satan could craft such perfection, he would not be my enemy. I would thank him, from the bottom of my heart. That I saw her just once. That's all I really needed. She is no temptress. . . she can't even lie.
  "I will not fail you, father." Treant answered, opening his eyes to look upon the church's doors. Scenes from the Creation and the Fall, all in gold, coiled themselves across the hard, southern wood. Statues marched to the left and right, stained glass overhead depicting Firius and Falchenor, Helios and Selene. The source of humanity, and their protectors. Treant had never seen such splendour in his life before. Never even imagined the possibility of it. If this were only one church in Mollant, what would it be like in a real city, like Hiant or Roant? Where did all these riches come from?
  "Who comes as an applicant to find the World of our Lord? Who comes as an applicant to spread the Word of our Lord? Who comes as an applicant to guide our souls back to the Lord?"
  Trapped. "I am the humble applicant Treant Gallanger, Father Beatrice."
*  *  *
  “Sir. . .Mitchell? If you would please. Sir Ablan is in services until sundown.” A hurried-looking page no younger than Cyrn gave the knight a respectful nod and went on to his next task. Sir Ablan was the Queen’s Guard of Mollant. The frontier town traded finished goods to the villages in exchange for crops and exotica meant for the cities. As a way station, it required a scrupulously honest reputation for trade to remain. Sir Ablan had challenged one of his own deputies to a duel for supposedly accepting bribes. The truth behind the story did not really matter, the Truth behind it was that Sir Ablan was known and loved as the honorable and brave champion of Mollant. Whether he personally challenged corruption or whether he used the laws to simply hang the man, or whether the man was guilty at all, took second place to the fact that the people perceived Sir Ablan to be the sort of person that would do the brave and right thing. And this perception, this reputation for goodness, must have been grounded on some truth somewhere about how he gave no shrift to corruption. Mollant’s entire success as a city could be put at Sir Ablan’s door. He was the magistrate to whom one appealed if the courts had ruled unfairly. He was the arbiter to whom all the deputies served to keep the streets safe and open to the steady flow of riches. He was the ambassador who served in the Assembly of the Land, keeping the Merchant Prince appraised of his city’s needs and serving as the voice for all the villagers and city folk that owed allegiance to him. The very fact that the people and the Crown both held his absolute loyalty was enough to prove the greatness of Loass--a nation undivided within itself, branching outwards to claim all the high seas as its realm. No one had seen a ship in any harbour bearing Kalm’s checkered banner for the past year. The eerie silence from Loass’ principle trading rival had given her sole dominion over the high seas, and the riches were already pouring in at an unprecedented rate. Loass’ waxing had reached the point where Marble had even ceased to grumble over the Golden Hills. The territory was Loass’ now, because no one dared cross her. Not when the medicines of the south and the inventions of the north were to be found only through Loass’ merchantmen.
  But he was digressing. As a Queen’s Guard, Sir Ablan and he had met several times in the Assembly and discussed the fate of their nation. Coming from Fael Grun, near the capital and teeming over with Queen’s Guard, to meet Sir Ablan was one of the more memorable accomplishments of his life. Out here on the frontier, everything was so different it was as though you were discovering Loass all over again. That was why he had chosen the Glimkeer to hide within until the troubles simmered back down. Because he thought that Sir Ablan was not too honorable a man to do the right thing. His son had been born and raised a knight. Farrus would rather die than have that future lost. Ablan could not turn his wish away. Disgrace or not, his line had served the crown almost since the second founding. With his wife dying soon after the first child, Cyrn could not fail. If Cyrn were to not be accepted as a squire of Mollant, Farrus would have brought his entire family to ignominy. Surely God would not have him bear such guilt as that for the rest of his years. The Darkness was stirring. Farrus Mitchell had been born to protect Loass, had been waiting all his life to serve the Crown. They could not take this away from him now. They could not take away their knighthood, when finally Loass’ knights were called upon to protect the earth itself from the bane of Firion. Cyrn had lived for this day. Sir Ablan had to see that. He had to see that what Farrus had done could not deprive Cyrn of his birthright.
  “Papa?” Cyrn tugged at his father’s sleeve nervously. When last they’d gone through this town, everyone had hated him, threw things at him, as he rode on Dingo, face pressed to the reassuring solidness of his father’s back. No one had cared to even notice him today, but he still waited nervously for everyone around him to turn on them again. How could they have wanted me dead that day, and not even know me now? Surely it is all a trap. Except that that was stupid. That they really didn’t notice him, which made their hatred for him before seem even more monstrous. A mob willing to see him killed, and they had forgotten why? They were so ready to kill, so ready to hate, that it was as easily banished as summoned. Hatred coming and passing like a dream. What kind of people lived like that?
  “It’s alright. I was just thinking. Do you remember how to serve table anymore, or have you forgotten everything living in that backwater?”
  “Papa,” Cyrn implored, impatient with banter because of his own fear.
  “Alright then. Sir Ablan is hearing disputes at the Bar. I will present you as a page hoping to attach himself as a squire to the manor. He’ll probably have us retire to his chambers to discuss matters, and I want you to wait upon us.”
  “Papa? Will I get to compete in any games? At Fael Grun, all the pages would compete in games.”
  “There aren’t enough pages for that sort of stuff out here. Perhaps he’ll put you up with a sparring partner, but nothing of the scope of a tourney. You’ll get to fight soon enough. After all, you’ve already fought and won the first battle against the Darkness. There will be more soon enough.” His father never looked so happy as then. So assured that the future would mean fortune, since mother had died. Cyrn felt that all his toil and hardship had been worth kindling this spark in his father’s eyes. He couldn’t fail now. He had been born for this.
*  *  *
  Rain gave Red an absent-minded pat on the head. “Do you see that, Red? Everyone comes here to set up shop. It’s the common green, which means the place everybody comes together. I’ve never seen so much stuff before, have you, Red? Well, I guess you haven’t seen a city before either. Certainly not in a cage. But that’s not really so bad. After all, I’m just as stuck here as you are. Because I have to ‘watch over everything.’ That’s all he said. Just ‘watch over everything’ while he wanders off. So I might as well be in that cage, too, you know. Don’t come whining to me about how you’re caged. You still have the chance to escape. Since I’m bound by my own decision, nothing could ever get me out of this. You don’t see people giving me food and water every day, though. I’m supposed to look after myself and ‘everything else’. All you have to do is lay in a cage. So don’t complain to me about how my father caught you when red leopards aren’t supposed to be caught. You should have thought about that before you let daddy see you. He isn’t afraid of anything. Did I tell you, Red, that one day he stood down the entire town with just his crossbow to protect Glen? That’s why he caught you. He’s willing to do anything for his family. And he’s not afraid of anything. Once we sell you, we won’t have to worry and yell about money so much. I won’t have to work so hard to keep everybody clothed with all the old stuff. We won’t have to eat those horrible radishes anymore. Oh, at dinner we eat potatoes and stuff, because they’ve been hunting ever-so-long and it wouldn’t be fair. But when they’re away, it’s just radishes, radishes, radishes. Whoever heard of eating radishes for lunch? So you see, it’s not like we don’t like you, Red. But we won’t have to worry about the other villagers anymore after this. We can just get along quietly, and not have to fight anymore. That’s why I’m in this cage right now with you. Why I’m willing to ‘take care of everything’ when Glen traipses off. Because I never want to fight again,” Rain whispered so that her own ears could not hear the sound. “Oh God, to never fight again.”
  As always, Rain wasn’t just soothing the red leopard as she explained things to him. Her eyes jumped from place to place, as wide as they could spread, to behold the spectacle on the green. The wagons she’d been traveling with had now all set up shop, selling off other plants and animals only found in the Glimkeer, and some more simple wares like Master Thompson’s trout. Of course, the trout were from the Glimkeer as well, which gave them their distinctly tangy richness, but since he caught them outside the forest it wasn’t poaching. She had always liked Master Thompson. But those weren’t the only wagons. They daubed the Green like a field of flowers, each marking the livelihoods of entire families, each with something only they had and others especially wanted. Rain had never seen so much energy so concentrated in one place. It was like an entire year of hard work in the village, summed up by a single day of frenzied buying and selling in the city. If every day was as important in the city as an entire year. . .how could city folk stand it? Their hearts would cave before their fifteenth summer.
  “You filthy vermin! Yesterday my silver goes missing, and today your wife is flaunting it shamelessly around her neck! You think I’ll let you get away with this?”
  “What, you think all the silver in the world belongs to you? My business sells as much as yours!”
  “Lying thief! Give it back now before I rip out your scrawny neck!”
  It was inevitable. One person bumped the other flaring his chest. The other pushed back, and then all attempts at discourse vanished.
  Luckily, the two had shouted long enough that the deputies had managed to make their way through the crowd and tackle the rolling, tearing, biting mass. The two were beaten with poles until they stopped moving and stopped yelling, and the deputies were then at a loss as to what to do next. “Excuse me, Red.” Rain apologized, standing up with a look of decision in her eyes. “I have to go help, now.”
  “Get up, both of you. What the hell was that about? No! I don’t want a word! I just want you to pack up your stuff and don’t bother to come back. We won’t have the Green become a den of thieves and brawlers!” This last thing he said for the crowd’s benefit. Don’t worry, we’re on top of it. We’ll keep you safe. Just keep trading because there are no thieves here. Nobody is going to try to beat you up.
  Excuse me, sir, but can I explain?” Rain asked loudly, also for the crowd’s benefit. The crowd gave her an amused look, a child looking so serious in their midst. The deputy decided it was as good a way as any to dispel the tension on the Green and give people something to smile about.
  “That man,” she pointed at the one with the necklace in his hand, “sells jewelry from Silber. If you look at the patterns, you can tell how very old and formal the crest is. Silber is very proud of their unbroken descent from the little prince, and that’s why they try to keep to all the old ways.”
  “That man,” she pointed at the one wiping blood from his mouth, “Sells jewelry from somewhere local. Hiant, we’ll say. If you look at the other goods in his wagon, all of them are more flashy and more intricate than that necklace. He says the necklace is from his own goods, but that’s ridiculous considering Silber never lets its high quality goods be sold alongside ‘gaudy trinkets’ like outsiders make. Besides, what other goods from Silbur is he selling than that one necklace? He’s a liar and a thief.” The crowd broke into spontaneous applause, and the bloodied man was left spluttering.
  “Alright then.” The deputy conceded grudgingly. “Next time you catch a thief you come to me. We won’t have you disrupting the peace and taking justice into your own hands.”
  “It won’t happen again, sir.” The victor beamed triumphantly, pocketing his hard-won prize. As things began to stir back to normality, the deputy turned his attention to this insightful little girl. She reminded him of no one else he had ever met. The beauty of her could not be disguised by her age. It was already there for anyone who searched for it, just aching to burst forth to meet the world. “And how did you end up here, lass?” He asked kindly.
  “My little brother. . . well, my twin brother, ran off and made me tend to the wagon.” Rain complained bitterly.
  “Well, we’re certainly glad you stayed behind. That was an ugly scene to have to try and sort out, and you knew the answer all along.”
  “Do you think?” Rain smiled shyly. “I was just so angry that he was going to get away with lying. It wasn’t right, that they’d both be punished.”
  “Why can’t it be that simple?” The deputy mused rhetorically.
  “Because,” Rain lectured, “people are too stupid to know what’s right, even for them. We can all agree on fighting the Darkness, but nobody sees what’s wrong with lying or cheating or stealing. As long as they can get away with it, they think everybody’s happy. They can’t see what kind of world it would be if it were peopled by their ilk. And even worse, when they go home to their kith and kin, they’ll tell about how cleverly they lied or cheated or stole, and they will be heaped with praise and admiration for it. And at the same time, people feel sorry for the liar and don’t feel sorry for the rich jeweler, so they look the other way and think ‘it’s not like he did anything all that bad’. It’s the sanction of the crime that gives it strength. Nobody would be a criminal, if society at large decided not to tolerate crime.”
  “Well. . . I can assure you that Sir Ablan doesn’t tolerate this sort of stuff in Mollant. Nor do its citizenry. It’s just with all the people coming through from who-knows-where that all the rotten apples show up.”
  “What we need is a Sir Ablan, except with power over the entire world.” Rain daydreamed. “And I mean, the power would derive from the fact that everybody agreed with Sir Ablan and wanted him to do what he was doing. We need a people united on the basis of Goodness, instead of Church or State--the Morann or the Treatise. We need a humanity whose ultimate loyalty is to Goodness. The Darkness can only threaten us when we allow it to rule our own hearts. Firion only fell after the Fall. The Darkness isn’t the anti-life God set forth upon us. The anti-life are all those people. . . all those liars. . .all those bad people who are so obviously bad and yet no one does anything about.”
  “Heh. You could become a regular demagogue, but shouldn’t you be looking after that red leopard of yours? It’s a lot more valuable than that silver necklace, after all.”
  “Oh, curses!” Rain jumped up embarrassedly to check on her quarry. “I’m sorry, sir. But if you see my brother--could you tell him I really need to talk to him? I’m not going to just sit here all day.”
  “Well, I’ll go make my rounds, and we’ll see if the land-spirits are feeling benevolent today.” And with that, the deputy slowly stood and stretched, giving the little girl a rueful look as if to say--’you see what pain you put me through?’, and weaved his way through the bustling market.
  To stop bad people from gaining the sanction from society to be bad. . . the very reason for their badness. . . she had to talk to Glen. He would agree. He didn’t lie, either. Not ever. He would hug her and say stuff like, ‘Peaches taste horrible without you to eat them with, did you know?’ And she would laugh and tell him to wait until he was back from the hunt, then. But then he’d be like, ‘so now I’m supposed to wait until they’re rotten instead?’ And with that she laughed and ran back to Red hair whirling. All of a sudden, she wasn’t caged in at all.

Chapter 8.

'The closer one approaches the plane of God, the more at peace one feels with his existence. Once a mind basks in the presence of God, he feels as one with creation and can no longer be dissatisfied with any portion of his existence. This Peace creates a stability and harmony that remains unbroken for the rest of time, and those touched by it cease to grow and change and become like steadily glowing stars instead of rapidly spinning planets. The Darkness was necessary to break humanity away from this seductive languor, so that it could not stagnate but must always progress and evolve if it wished to survive. It was also the only means to test the virtue of humanity and begin the path that led to their fall. God gave his greatest angel the task of creating this 'anti-life', fearing that his past experiences in creating life would foil his ability to accomplish the exact opposite. His angel had a separate problem, however, in that he had no experience in creating life whatsoever. Lucifer was forced to borrow from his father's works, and in so doing his 'anti-life' took on many life-like characteristics, ruining the whole thing. The Darkness, for instance, was as bent on preserving its own race as destroying mankind, to the point that they even made treaties with each other. Even worse, the Darkness--finding Firion too tough a nut to crack--slipped across the angle between universes to strike at the utterly beautiful, utterly helpless, peace-mired kingdom of Alphe. When God learned that the Darkness was laying waste to his most precious creation and making no headway in its true purpose whatsoever, he was very wroth with Lucifer, and declared the whole experiment a failure. '
'On the Role of the Darkness'--Angel Latonius.

'They give us their very hearts. How is it that we can desert them?'
--Angel Sollias.

  "Get up!" Nuen wailed, tugging at his hand. "Please, we can't stop here. We've got to keep going, Vayski."
  The forest shivered with the cold of the wind, all its creatures silent in reverence of their passing. At any moment, the motion could be the emergence of a minion, instead of the innocent face of nature, and they would never know until it was too late. The fear broke into Nuen's voice alone, but it was evident in all of them, in one form or another. Restless eyes, shifting weights, a tautness of breath, all of it spoke of fear breaking through their mind and creeping like some lengthening shadow into their bones--a fear strong enough to keep them from their grief.
  Vayski let out a long breath, as if annoyed with the inevitable effort he would have to make to take in another. "I can't. . . I can't do it. I've nothing left to fight it with."
  Nuen's eyes began to brim over with tears, and, as if some support had been stricken from her waiflike form, crumpled to her knees. "Azteer, help me! We can carry him, right? Jhennador?"
  They looked away guiltily, refusing to meet the hope in the looks she cast at them, the trust of a child for her guardians to make the world right again.
  "He's dying!" Nuen screamed, her voice tearing at her throat. Litfee sunk to her knees and gathered Nuen into her arms, running her hand through Nuen's hair, coaxing away the tremors of a body not strong enough to contain its own emotions.
  Jhennador licked his lips, a bead of perspiration forming on his forehead. "Quiet, Nuen. Vayski will be fine." In whispered prayer, "Helios preserve him, and welcome him back to our home."
  Sleet glared at him for the obvious lie, but couldn't say anything to cross him. If Nuen kept screaming, they would all be dead. The minions could be anywhere, Opalion hadn't returned yet, and the elementals were all so strange here, as if they had never learned to speak, and were afraid of her. She felt naked without them, in this prison of sight and sound where she couldn't know whether or not the minions had found their trail, whether or not they were far or near. Oh Vayski! Why now, when we need you most?
  With the crash and crackle of foliage, Opalion burst back into view, short of breath and eyes narrowed in determination. "They will be upon us in an hour. And there are eldar."
  Litfee hissed in hatred, and Azteer unconsciously ran his hand across the hilt of his blade.
  Jhennador gave Opalion a meaningful look and tossed his head towards Vayski. "We all must face the death of the body, but far worse is the death of the soul."
  Vayski opened his eyes, his back pinning him upright against the trunk of a tree. "Opalion, so you're still alive." He smiled, and Opalion jumped from Tyrifell's back to come to his father's side. "All of you, I had thought we could run far enough away so that Satan would never find us. But we can never run far enough, can we? Life is the perpetuator of its own curse."
  "No father!" Opalion objected. "You mustn’t let your heart break. Helios shelters us from our enemies, but he can not protect us from ourselves! Please, you cannot talk like this."
  "I will have my say, child." Vayski snapped. "I remember, I remember Alphe of the falling rivers and dancing clouds. Now I have gone so far from it, and, and I only want to go back. That is all I want now."
  "Vayski!" Nuen screamed, the pain of the world rushing through her. As if in reply, the sounds of horns rose up in the night, the blaring cry of death on its merciless hunt.
  "We must go." Jhennador stated, knowing it was to him, now, to make the hard decisions.
  "He can ride Tyrifell," Opalion muttered, knowing the futility of his own desires. "I will keep up, we can still get away."
  The horns called again, the eldars' hounds jubilant at the thought of triumph.   "Selene have mercy." Litfee mouthed, grief and horror ripping at her face. "Opalion, there's nothing left to save."
  Vayski was a thing of cloth and bones alone.
*  *  *
  "Sleet?" Jhennador asked pensively.
  Sleet shook her head in frustration. "Maybe the kings can't hear me from here. Maybe they are only on the other side. I can't speak to anything intelligent."
  "So we really are alone." Litfee mused, eyes lowering to slits from the weight of exhaustion.
  "We're safe, at least." Azteer countered. "We are alive, and we have each other. That's more than can be said of the rest." The swei gathered around the campfire, friendly sylphs filtering the smoke away and salamanders feeding the flames. Nuen lay asleep in the furs nearby, her body spent from a day of crying. Opalion was tending to the pegasus. The rest of the swei had been hoping Sleet could provide for a miracle. All around them, the forest bustled with nocturnal creatures of incredible strangeness. The elementals were everywhere, but strangely stupid. As if they could not recognize their brothers and sisters. Their creators. With coaxing, Sleet had recruited the nearest elementals to help, but without guidance from the elemental lords, elementals could never concentrate on anything but the simplest of tasks. Without Tyr, they would never be able to make good scouts of the sylphs. They would be moving through this forest blind. And the forest so far seemed truly endless, teeming with minions. If it came to a fight, they would do their best. . .but it could not come to a fight. Not with eldar on their side.
  "Yes, we are a swei. We are all family now, however little blood might flow between us." Jhennador counseled. "How is Opalion, do you think?"
  "He's suffered worse than this. We all have. The crystal towers shattering, the pools of the sun and the moon, the flutes of Aethyr. Our tribes, all gone. Our guilds. All our creations, save these last elementals who do not even know us. Our Peace. So many lost to Lucifer's fold. . ." Litfee remembranced.
  Azteer finished where she left off, "Opalion is the best of us. He will not fail."
  "I do not worry about his grief. It is anger that consumes the soul." Jhennador corrected.
  "I am not angry." Opalion remarked, walking back towards the fire. Jhennador and Opalion exchanged a steady and silent look. "Vayski is the one who led us so far astray, he thought it was the only way we could survive. He was right, that everyone else is either dead or Lucifer's. But every choice has its dangers, and Vayski died knowing these risks. I have no grudge against the winds of fate, when a man willingly walks to his doom in order to preserve something far greater. It is fine. I'm fine."
  "Of course." Azteer answered, the only person who could truthfully state that he had, without reservation, thought as much of Opalion. "And how is Tyrifell? Do the plants taste the same, or what have you?"
  Opalion sat down next to the campfire and let the heat wash out the winter air. "Pegasi are a resourceful breed. And Tyrifell is of Mieren's stock. Did you have any success, then?"
  "Well, we have a fire." Sleet answered ruefully. "That is all I can get from King Fafnir. And we have no smoke. That is all I can get from King Tyr."
  "It will come with time." Litfee comforted. "We wouldn't have anything without you."
  Sleet waved an arm to cut through the thanks. "We are all in this together. I don't know how I could get through the day if I could not look at Nuen and find more beauty in the world than pain upon waking. Satan can't stop us, not unless we let him. We can still beat them, Helios willing."
  Jhennador nodded. "Opalion shall be our eyes now. This forest must be as foreign to the minions as to us. We will find a way out." And with that, the swei fell asleep around the untended fire, salamanders and sylphs dancing about them for protection. It would be as long a day tomorrow.
  Litfee huddled around the salamanders, watching the fire, a wonder of endless motion without form. All of the sounds in the forest were foreign to her, and the nocturnal life kept her from an easy rest. Anything unusual, her internal logic argued, was obviously dangerous and thus you must be awoken by it. Instincts never listened to the countervailing arguments: I need sleep, for instance. I'll be in more danger if I don't get enough sleep. My mind will be muddied, I won't move as quickly, my senses will be cloaked in a blanket of muffling cotton. Or perhaps: the sylphs are protecting us and will alert us to any harm, so we don't have to stay awake because of foreign noises. Her mind gave a disgusting litany of all the stupidities of her instincts as she watched the flames, its allure a thing of instinct itself.
  When did her internal logic decide that fire was beautiful? When it learned that it scared away animals, or kept her warm, or cooked her food? Or did it feel fire was such a dangerous object, so hot and always moving and trying to grow, that it felt she would have to keep a constant watch on it? Do I watch it out of fear, or love? Do I ever see anything my instincts feel I don't need to see, or is the world I view dictated to me by its relative dangers? How much of me is mine? Alone with her thoughts, with the popping and snapping of the fire, and her little sisters and brothers, Litfee crept into a trance, drowning in sensations and abandoning the capacity for thought. She sought to suck it all up, everything around her, to include it, to memorize it, so that she wouldn't think of it as alien but instead as familiar. To make it a part of her ken. For every snare instincts laid, they also found a way out of them, or else they would not last very long. The very instincts that made people stay awake with fear of the unknown also gave them the ability to become familiar and unafraid with the world around them. So Litfee sat in the middle of this strange forest, in this strange land, peopled by minions who had somehow chased them even here, even across the Void. She watched the salamanders with their shimmering scales and forked tongues, jeweled eyes and sinuous tails, and thought how different they looked at home. Why do the salamanders have to leap about like rabbits, when we gave them wings? Do the salamanders look at us and wonder at how we've changed as well? Such a strange land, and yet not that strange. It was as if the world had never been touched, as if it were Alphe, without elves. Perhaps God had made many many worlds, just with other peoples. Perhaps the minions came from such a world, invaders from across universes, extra-dimensional travelers intent solely upon the devouring of all other life. How could God have crafted such an evil? Why would such a thing ever be made? How could the elves and the minions share the same flesh of God, be crafted of the same substance? Perhaps Vayski knew. . . he knew so much of everything. But she would never be able to ask him. There was no Vayski anymore. Just the empty hole where he should have been. Just an. . .absence. A lack of presence. No Vayski. As if the Void, every now and then, could enter God's realm and suck a little bit of it up. Piece by piece, breaking God apart, dissolving him into nothing, into Nothing. As if the void, in the end, claimed far more victories than God ever could. Perhaps God looks down at me, and is proud to see such a bright light upon this empty world. But he can not see Vayski's light any more. It doesn't shine, it is extinguished. God can not see our light anymore. The elves, so much light, where does the light go, when the light runs out? Soon God will have nothing left to find beauty in, God will wonder why there is nothing but void whichever way he looks. And the void isn't even trying. The darkness has such an effortless triumph over the light.
  How long did it take to build Alphe, their home? So many years, so many eons. And yet, it was all gone in the blink of an eye, all scourged away to be replaced by holes, victims to Lucifer. But ultimately, victims to something far more sinister. Victim to purposelessness, uselessness, nothingness. How hard it is to make! And yet, how very easy it is to wipe away, to unmake, all that has been made. Every fire needs energy to support it, but the cold needs no support. The cold will always be there, but eventually all the fires will wink out. There's only so much fire, and the cold is boundless, growing with each fire that winks out, always growing. Fire shrinking, cold growing, endlessly. . .

  An ember snapped, striking her out of her reverie, and abruptly she shivered with cold. The forest was gray with pre-dawn, and the fire was dwindling away as instructed, the salamanders flitting off to find more fun things to do. The whinnies of Tyrifell and the rustle of cloth betrayed the wakefulness of the other elves, and Litfee abruptly pulled her legs into herself, her arms wrapping around as she rested her chin on her knees. She ached for her mother's embrace. For all the time she had traveled with Nuen, and Sleet, and Azteer and Jhennador and Opalion, they were neither family nor guild nor clan. Everything around was so foreign. How small she had become. How like a ball her ken had grown, contracting back down to its very roots, her tiny body, as if she were once more only a babe, so very small, so shrunken. . .like a grape without its water, shriveled up, retaining its flesh but losing everything within. She hoped no one would make her get up, she hoped no one would say anything to her, she didn't feel like moving or talking would change anything. It didn't matter where she was, it was all foreign. And there was nothing to say. There never was. Nothing anyone said ever mattered. Such a waste of breath, to put things into words. No point, no point. Leave me alone. She thought. You are not me.
  "Fee! Look, Fee! Look, Look!" Nuen called, to the point that you could see her smile without even having to look at it. Litfee couldn't help but smile in response, and raise her head from its perch.
  "Opalion said I could ride her until he gets back with the water! Look! Opalion never lets others ride her! Do you think he likes me? I mean, Tyrifell. Do you think Tyrifell likes me?"
  "How could he not like you?" Litfee teased, and she noticed for the first time that the glade was bright with sunshine. "I bet Opalion's breaking his heart over missing you right now."
  Nuen stuck her tongue out, just big enough to straddle Tyrifell’s back. "I meant Tyrifell!"
  Sleet gave a sweet laugh as she struck the ground three times with her staff. "I bet Opalion went to pick flowers by the riverside for you. He isn't getting water at all."
  Nuen's eyes took on a mischievous cast. "Fine, I admit it! Just yesterday, all he did was sing about my hair, and he promised tomorrow to dance, too."
  "A little respect, please." Jhennador implored, as if run ragged with exhaustion from trying to get children to have manners. "This isn't a time to talk about Opalion singing and dancing."
  "But Jhennador, there wouldn't ever be a time to sing and dance if misery determined our schedule." Litfee countered, rising gracefully to her feet to collect her stuff. It was as if all her night's thoughts had been pricked like a bubble to be replaced by a world of life and love and warmth and it felt strange that she had ever forgotten it.
  But of course, Jhennador was right, and so they all quieted down before Opalion returned. Nuen jumped off the pegasus and rushed off to collect her stuff, and soon the elves had sobered down to a day of wary, quiet running. Opalion was already aloft in order to scout their way, and he wouldn't be back until the midday meal. A half hour later, though, Nuen broke out into laughter and couldn't stop, trying to do a little imitation of Opalion dancing. The swei had to stop then, because even Azteer was doubled over, tears streaming out of his eyes.

Chapter 9.

Hereby declared: the holy union of peace between the village of Arntuck and the village of Corenn. Arntuck of the Glimkeer recognizes the territory of Corenn of Loass as inviolate. The people of Arntuck and the people of Corenn shall not raise a hand in violence towards one another. The will of God, as displayed by the heroic actions of Master Gullo and Master Francis in the protection of the matron of Arntuck, is for a union of love and harmony. Any who cross the will of God will be known as a shameful, honourless, no-man. Let he who would beget blood and fire know no home, no hearth, no food, no rest, no kith, no kin, and no God.”

--“The Alliance,” signed by Glovel, matron of Arntuck, and Master Keith, Mayor of Corenn.
  It’s fine. I didn’t think it would last even this long,” Glen sighed, his head against the wall, looking at the most important thing in the world across from him.
  “It’s still not fair. How can they say this? We’ve left them alone, the whole village, this whole time. . . I thought it would all be over after Mollant.” Rain stormed, trailing off into a whispered wail.
  “It will never end. It can’t. Not when everyone is so afraid. I can feel it in the air. The crackling air, like lightning that can’t decide where it should strike.”
  “Why! You’ve never hurt a soul! You’ve grown up together, and she, she. . .” Rain spluttered to find the words for it.
  Glen shuddered, took a deep breath, and held it. Time stretched out into unendurable silence. “No. Please, Rain, don’t talk like that. It’s all I can do, to stop him from talking like that. Please don’t. . . just please understand.”
  “Rape? You traveled to her as a spirit in the night?”
  “What else is she supposed to say? That she had an affair, that she brought ruin to her family, shamed herself in the eyes of God? The Church would be full of whispers and snickers whenever she entered. She would be set to all the hardest jobs, no one would be caught talking to her. The village, the punishment it has for her, it is nothing short of death. So to save her life, and the life of her child, her child, Rain, what else can she do? If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. They’d never let me live in peace. At least this way, no one gets hurt.” Glen shut his eyes, the dryness of them a steady ache. “Who is she? A small girl, her whole life coming to an end, but here, wait, there’s still a way out! She doesn’t hate me, she wishes me no harm, it was desperation. Two lives rested in the balance. Simple arithmetic. How could I weigh as much? Is it her fault the village is so ready to believe? That the village hates me because I’m different? It’s not her fault!”   Glen shoved his bedroll into his rucksack forcefully, convictedly. “I know the true enemy! It isn’t anybody, anyone. It’s this malaise! The very air we breathe! Stifling the world with injustice, and anyone who fights it, they are brought down like a noble wolf beset upon by hounds. Never from the front, always in the rear, the flanks: ‘keep at him until he’s too tired to fight, he can’t fight forever!’ Dark tendrils, they never stand against you, they are the whispers behind your back, the looks, the rumours. They come for you at night, when you sleep, whenever you aren’t watching, they tug at you, bring you to your knees. It hurts so much. Gods, Rain, they hurt me so much, and I hate them so. . . but if only, if only just once they would love me. . . .” Glen began to cry, his body sagging, tears silently betraying the pain as they marched their way down his cheeks. They were still a child’s cheeks, rounded and wide. Only with Rain, would he ever look this young. Only with Rain, could he admit the power his enemies had over him, lose his anger, and replace it with misery.
  That’s it, then. I’m not leaving you.” Rain decided, her hands clutching at his. “Glen, look at me. Glen, I’m not leaving you. This is it! Remember, Mircassia?” She imbued the word with a sense of excitement, a thrill as it ran across her tongue. “Don’t you think I wonder, too, why our eyes are purple? Why my hair is tawny gold? Why we can think faster and deeper, why you can walk like that, all fluid like a serpent, better than father ever could?”
  “Rain, I think I’m going insane. Or maybe I always was. I just want to leave here. Maybe, maybe I can just keep walking into the Glimkeer, further and further. Maybe I can see, for myself, just how soon everyone I’ve ever known will die. That’s all that’s left to me now.”
  “No! You mustn’t give in. We are special. Look at me! Tell me you’re not special!” Rain shivered, not knowing what next to say, not knowing how to heal a soul intent on devouring itself. “It isn’t insanity. It’s something special. Like Cynnibol said-”
  “Another madman.” Glen injected disparagingly, his head cradled against his thighs.
  “Shut up and listen!” Rain snapped. “Remember when he called you Fae? When he named you Seelie! Remember, you thought it wasn’t right. That he was wrong, somehow. It confused you. But when you told me, Glen, it felt true. Maybe, maybe we are Fae. The north believes in Faeries, if you just listen long enough. And Seelie, the word, it means something to me. It reminds of me of warmth, and light, brilliant light, shining every which way. It’s real! Maybe I’m Seelie.”
  “So what does that leave me? You go save the world, then.” Glen’s head was still muffled by his legs, but you could tell he wasn’t crying anymore, that the tremors that had run through him were thinning, weakening, passing into memory. He was listening. Rain loved him because he always listened.
  “And if I am Seelie, from some distant kingdom, some other creation of God, Mircassia will know. Who we are. How, why, we are special. How to stop it from driving us insane. And yes, maybe it means I am supposed to save the world. What right do you have, then, what right lets you go and die on me, while I am left to carry the whole world on my shoulders? Do you think I could live without you! Have you never seen, that golden cord, that shining bar, I can see between us day and night? Doesn’t it mean anything to you?”
  “Rain. It was just a beggar. A madman. There are doomsayers everywhere. People will say anything, and people will believe everything, because they all know, somewhere, deep down, that something horrible is about to happen. It’s like a sickness in the stomach, a constant pain of unease, that makes you look around to see if the beasts are upon you. The Darkness. . . it is terrifying. People will say anything when they’re scared.”
  “I believe him, Glen.” Rain responded. “And Glen, I believe in you. Maybe you aren’t Seelie. You’re still my brother. My twin. Why do all the Faeries have to be from Seelie? Are all humans from Loass?”
  Glen let out a choked laugh. Misery and irony colliding somewhere in his throat.
  Rain kissed him on the forehead, then kissed him again. He felt it only as warmth, ripples of it passing through his bones, leaving calm in its wake. He’d never needed it so much as now. “We can go to Mircassia, Glen. I wasn’t going to stay here anyway. This world is choking on. . .ignorance, and fear, and despair. We aren’t going to win this time. I think that’s what we feel, in our hearts, to be the truth. Firion’s blood was still strong in us last time. Now, everything is as frail as lace. Now, before the land boils over with war. We have to try, Glen. It’s all so beautiful, we can’t give it to Satan. It’s ours, yours and mine, Glen. It’s ours to save.”
  Mine to save. The thought ran through Glen’s mind, down to his very core. The world was his to save. Somehow, that’s what he’d always wanted. He just hadn’t realized it until now. To save the world from the Fires. He had fought and died for that. Or perhaps he would fight and die for that. He’d never fought anyone before. Certainly never died before. But it made sense, somewhere. The power of God had always been stronger in him, after all. He need only reach out his hand, and he could shelter the entire world from the storm. If only they’d have let him. . . if only. . .
  “Glen?” Rain asked, a note of apprehension running through her voice.
  “It’s nothing.” Glen responded, as if coming out of a deep trance. “I just thought, well, I didn’t want it to be this way. Not in exile. I’m so sick of exile. . .”
  “Then don’t let it be! Glen, who cares what the villagers think? Anyone whose respect is worth holding, would never withhold it from you. What do the rest matter? You aren’t leaving because they don’t want you. You’re leaving because we don’t need them anymore. We can do it on our own, now. Don’t you see?”
  “It shouldn’t be like this!” Glen rebelled. “Why is it always. . . why did I have to be a rapist? Why did fate name me that? Why couldn’t I have just been a hunter?”
Rain didn’t know what else to do. It tore at her, the weakness. The uselessness. When it all comes down to it, nothing I can say or do will change how he feels. All the love we have, it isn’t enough for me to change anything at all. I’m so cursed helpless.
Rain! I heard from Holly--” Treant saw Glen crumpled against the wall and fell silent. For all his ordainment as a bishop, a vessel of God, Treant still felt small and stupid around Glen. Guilty. Though Treant had no idea of what, the rebuke was always there, in the dull way Glen looked at him. In that dam of silence that held back the flood of hate. Treant felt guilty of even existing, when Glen was there with Rain. What right do I have to be here? None at all. This is not my place. How dare I try to take his place? The smoldering silence said it all.
  “I heard from Holly, that. . . I’m sorry, Glen.” Treant finished, flustered. Don’t blame me! Why do you blame me, when I’m the one who believes you? I’m not one of them. So why am I to blame? What could I have done? I’m only eleven. Nobody listens to me. What was I supposed to say?
  “It’s alright, Treant.” Rain sighed. “We’ll be okay. I guess I should tell you, I’m leaving too. I’m not waiting for my own lynching. I’m sure they’re already trumping up charges for me, too.”
  “Stop it!” Treant plead. “You say that, like as if I were right there with them. As if I’m a part of it all. How can you say that?”
  “I don’t know.” Rain answered. She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I don’t want to leave like this. I’m just so angry.”
  “Rain, if you leave, I’m leaving too.”
  Glen laughed. “Tend your flock, Treant.” The sting was meant. It was always meant. Why does Glen hate me?
  Treant, we’re going into the Glimkeer. That’s no place for children. You wouldn’t be able to keep up. There’s no way the village would let you go with us. It just doesn’t work at all.” Rain reasoned consolingly.
  “Leave me behind, and I’ll follow.” Treant threatened. “I hate being here. I hate what I do, and I hate why I’m doing it. The only thing that keeps me here is the chance to see you. Nothing else matters at all.”
  ‘Treant. . .” Rain stopped, looking to Glen for help.
  “So you need us. Is that any reason why we should bring you along? It will be hard enough to live on our own. Why should we try to take care of children along the way?”
  “Because you need me!” Treant raged. “You say you’re going into the Glimkeer! That’s great, you’re a hunter, you’ll do just fine there. But do you really think that you will live there, next door neighbor to the Darkness? And when you leave the Glimkeer, slinking about with your purple eyes, what then? Do you think strangers will receive you more kindly than those of us who saw you born right before our eyes? Do you think you’ll make one day out of the forest before you’re labeled a pair of demons on the prowl? I’m a priest. A cleric. A bishop. God’s man. With me, we’ll become just travelers. Alone, you’ll have to fight your way from here to Hijaku.”
  Rain looked at Glen. Her heart was too large to deny him, so she left it up to Glen. But for all Glen could try, the right thing to do was to give in. He couldn’t let envy cloud his judgment, not when it could mean Rain’s life.
  “Fine. Get your stuff ready. And be quiet. I don’t want to be a rapist and a kidnapper at the end of the same day.” Glen watched the lad hurry off, his stately clothing no impediment to his youthful energy, and wondered. Where are you? Now, when I need you, why are you so far away? Why did God ever give you to me, if His only plan was to take you away?
  “Glen?” Rain asked pensively.
  “It’s fine. I just keep thinking. . .there should have been four leaving this town tonight. There should have been four.” Glen couldn’t explain it any better than that.

*  *  *

  Cyrn first began to feel it in his dreams. He would be protecting someone, guarding a doorway with his lover in a white nightgown, terrified, some creature of the night elsewhere in the house, stalking, biding, hoping to find Cyrn gone, so it could strike. And then there would be a. . .tug. . .some part of his mind suddenly thinking—‘How very interesting the stove is. Why haven’t I gone to look at this stove before? It is just across this hall.’ He knew it was the creature making him think this, but it didn’t matter, he still wanted to go. He left the doorway, to see this stove, knowing it meant the death of his wife and helpless to do anything about it.
  And then, they would be opening presents with all the family, and some misshaped, comically smiling old man with totally outdated clothing came to present his grandmother with a small box, kissing her hand with a stately bow and calling her the most wonderful person he’d ever known. And after he had left, Grandmother commented that she knew quite assuredly that that man did not exist. Which meant Cyrn could no longer trust his own senses to discern the border between reality and fantasy. He came to her grandmother’s side, to make sure she was real; when at the same time grandmother came walking in from the hallway. He screamed, clenching grandmother’s shoulder in a death grip, screamed and screamed as grandmother came walking up to him with a look of fearful concern. Until he woke, almost in tears, fearing to move, lest it would bring into view a ghost he knew could not be there, fearing to prove himself insane. Tight iron bands circled his chest, so that he could hardly breathe. His mouth was dry, but he could not swallow, and a surge of red-needled panic washed up his spine.
  There was the dream, where he wandered about in a maze, enemies hunting him; all of them quiet so as not to betray their position. Because, inevitably, it was so dark that he could only feel his way from wall to wall. The only way out, he knew, was to scream. But for all he tried, no sound escaped his mouth. He brought the sound up his throat again, each time harder, but no sound would come, until with desperation the sound escaped into this tiny feeble gurgle, and he realized he was awake, and that the sound was real and it was what gave him his blessed consciousness.
  Again and again, he would will himself to wake, and each time his dream accommodatingly had him wake up. Only, when he cast about for proof that he had in fact awoken, walking around, touching things, it soon became apparent that he was not awake at all. Again and again, with it ever more difficult to prove that he was still encased within his dream, he struggled to lucidity. With a gasp, or a shift of weight, everything would snap into focus and he could tell that this time it was real. But he knew the victory was his only until the next night, when it would start all over again. Maybe next time he wouldn’t make it, either. All he had to do was fail once.
  There were times when he had to run, and he could not. There were times when phantasms would hunt him in the middle of his house, and when he finally thought he was safe with his mother and father, hiding in their laps, they only turned to look at him, skeletons, bluish green and laughing images that showed that there was no safety, no place to hide and no person who could save him. One time he woke up to the pain of some horrible burning in his side, as if a bar of iron white-hot from the forge had been implanted into his body. He struggled to his washbasin, trying to splash cold water onto it, but finding that it was only his flesh, with no wound at all. Only his flesh and the horrible burning pain.
  The day was one of tired struggles, his eyes sunken into his face, flitting back and forth like a hare in a wolf’s den. It would pass full of stupid mistakes, full of abuses and scorn from those around him, but his mind could hardly remember it. All of his waking moments seemed to happen from somewhere very far away, so that he could hardly hear what they said or care who it was said to. Even when he said something, he only heard it as if some stranger were saying it from some place far away, about something that didn’t concern him. The only thing that mattered to him was the horror of the night. He could feel when it was coming, the helplessness of succumbing to it, the dread of what was to come. Terror could destroy a person, reduce him to an unthinking, frozen panic. Dread just wore you down, piece by piece, eating away at your every rational moment, lurking somewhere in the dark. The demons had come to some sort of deal, one owned the night, the other owned the day, until Cyrn gave up and was broken by them.
  “What the hell was that!” The squire yelled furiously, throwing down his sword. “You could have blocked that! What are you trying to do, make fun of me? Just because you come from the city, you think you don’t have to fight me?”
  Blood ran down Cyrn’s scalp, matting his hair and getting into his eyes. Then he recalled the pain, the pressure that must have been the other’s practice sword against his head. For the life of him he could not recall where he was or why this boy was hitting him. He could only look up at the youth dully, pleadingly. If ever there was a soul dying from fear, drowning away in it, clutching at whatever straws that might retain its hold on sanity, it was summed up in that desperate gaze.
  “Gods, man, get someone to look after that.” The youth gave up on his anger, the boy across from him too wretched a sight to inspire anything but pity. And there was a fear in him, now, as he quickly walked away from that strange boy. There was a fear all around that person, and now all he wanted was to get away, to some place very loud and very hot, and not have to look at that person’s eyes ever again.
  Cyrn tried to look around him, to find some water, as he wiped the blood again from his eye. Whenever he blinked, though, the only thing he could see was that foppish character with his impossibly tall, skinny frame holding his present, bent over and smiling. It wasn’t really there to see, but the thought was there, in his mind, reconstructing in perfect detail the image because he could not get rid of it. If anyone would have asked him before, what was the scariest thing in this world, he could have answered the Darkness. Their twisted faces, their bestial bodies, so strong and primitive. Now all of that paled in significance, to this one bent-over, courteous, smiling man with his present. Cyrn could not think of anything more terrifying than that. Slowly, he took a step towards his target. He could have sworn he’d told his body to move to the water trough long ago, but only now did he come any closer to it. And then he remembered, yes, he had told his arms to block that blow, but they had just never gotten around to it. Funny. What will give out first? He wondered objectively. My mind, while I sleep? Or my body, while I’m awake? It was far too much to hope, now, that he would not give out at all. It was a wonder he had even made it to the practice field on time. He didn’t even remember getting dressed for it.
  “That’s a bad cut.” One of the girls commented anxiously as he approached. There were always girls watching the squires at practice. They watched him at first, when they learned he was from the city. He was very good, but that did not stop the girls from watching others when he never seemed to notice their coquettish smiles and lingering gazes. He didn’t notice anything, in truth, or else he might have done something about it. He was glad he hadn’t, though, when he learned that the smiles passed away at about the same time he started losing all the sparring matches. That’s all we amount to in their eyes. Cyrn related venomously, splashing water against his cut, washing the blood away. That’s all we’ll ever come to with them. The blood kept coming, even though he couldn’t have been hit that hard. He splashed more water onto it annoyedly. A means to an end. That’s all we ever are. Just a means to an end.
  “Here.” The girl pressed a strip of cloth to the cut tightly, her voice anxious to not let any more blood get out. “You have to put pressure on it.” She instructed, getting behind him so she could tie the cloth together.
  “You don’t have to—“ He protested, letting the irritation show, but only through a film of exhaustion
  “Be still.” She ordered, and Cyrn stopped moving and was silent. The pressure was helping, he couldn’t feel the blood trickling down any more, and she was so very close to him. It gave him this sense of reverence, this sense of stillness, that he didn’t want to break by even giving out a breath. All he wanted was for her to stay there, to feel her hands as they brushed against his hair, tying the knot. It was the first time he had come to alertness in what felt like weeks. He was only twelve, but he knew the feelings twisting through him. They were strange, but in a good way. It was a gift, she was giving to him, this closeness. He didn’t know how he had possibly merited it. At last the bandage was applied, and she stepped back in front of him.
  “Are you okay?” She asked, her eyes taking in the whole of him.
  Cyrn touched the bandage tentatively, to make sure the blood wasn’t soaking through. “My thanks. I think this will hold up. It’s out of my eyes, at least.”
  “I didn’t mean that. . .” She trailed off, her hand twitching. Did she mean to take up my hand with hers?
  There’s naught else wrong with me. I’m just not any good anymore. Go chase after Rodney, he can get you one of those new green dresses everybody wants.”
  Her face froze up into a tight, stony anger. Her hands clenched at the rip in her dress, as if to stop them from slapping him. “If I wanted to chase after Rodney, I wouldn’t be here with you.” Cyrn looked at the rip, and thought with horror all the blood he was getting over her bandage.
  “Oh.” He managed. He didn’t want to talk to her anymore. Everything he said only made it worse. He had to get back onto the practice field. Sir Ablan didn’t tolerate these stupid flirtations with the girls. He would end up cleaning the latrines, and he would do them all wrong, so he’d have to do them again, so that when sleep came it would only be when he passed out from exhaustion. Why did she have to care about me?
  “Your name is Cyrn, right? Why don’t you come visit my house, this evening? My parents would just love to hear about how you lived out in the Glimkeer for all that time.”
  “I couldn’t.” Cyrn recoiled, as if faced with a viper ready to strike. “I mustn’t. Won’t you just let me go?”
  The jaw line slacked, her entire frame sinking into itself. “I’m not holding you, Cyrn.” The reply was quiet, defeated, full of self-rebuke for having dared to face him.
  But someone is. He thought, stumbling back onto the practice yard. Someone is pulling at me, pulling me away from where I need to be. They’ll just keep pulling until I give in, or until they break me. And then they’ll think—‘how strange, all that pulling and he never even came.’ I’m going to be a knight, you devils. You will not pull me away from this. I’d rather die than become your pawn. Cyrn shifted fluidly into guard position, his center of gravity low, knee bent, sword ready to lunge across the space and strike the other lad. The other had to see it coming, knew it was coming, but could never know just how fast Cyrn could make it, how far his pounce could take him, or whether the first one would be just a feint. In less then a minute, his sword clacked against the other’s head, knocking him to the dirt. Cyrn dropped his sword and helped the other boy up, who cursed and shot the victor a glare asking—‘Did you have to hit that hard?’
  Cyrn could only shrug, wondering over the transformation that had taken place once he’d lifted his sword. Then the realization came to him, and he could only feel sick with himself. She had been watching him, and so he had put himself on display, and tried to make her proud. Did I measure up? Am I a good enough protector? Is this man enough for you? The whole thing made him sick. And for the rest of the time at that practice, he was too busy calling himself names to even remember that twisted, smiling face.

*  *  *

  “Okay,” Glen started his turn to tell a tale. “Once there was a farmer and his wife—“
  “Oh no.” Rain sighed dramatically. “Not another farmer story.”
  “Just give me a minute! So this farmer is wondering. . . ummm. . .” Glen trailed off.
  “What is he wondering?” Rain asked sweetly.
  “So this farmer is wondering why he has to farm, right, because he sees all the other animals just flying around and eating leaves and stuff. ‘It isn’t fair!’ He tells his wife. ‘Look how much work we do just to feed ourselves when all these animals just laze about and fly around.’ And the farmer’s wife answers: ‘If we don’t make the food, the only other thing we can do is take the food. That’s fine for animals that aren’t any good at it. But if we decided to take food, we’d end up killing all the animals very quickly, because we’d get too good for them to survive us. Or else, we’d have to go take food from other farmers. But if all the farmers decide it isn’t fair that they should farm, and all the farmers resolve to go take food from other farmers, we’d be in a decidedly poor state of affairs. So farm.’
  ‘Well,’ the farmer counters, ‘who says I can’t just stop farming, and have everybody else farm? Wouldn’t that be a much better deal?’
  The farmer’s wife gives a sigh at this point. ‘The only way that would happen is that for some reason you could beat up all the other farmers. Even if you could, invariably some other disenfranchised farmer will wander in and beat you up. If you establish the moral right to take whatever you can take, what stops others from taking everything you take, and everything you make? So it turns out that it is much better for you to agree that property belongs to whomever earned it, and that anyone who wants to take someone’s property is no longer fit to live in society. Anyone who agrees to this contract will be able to return to their house with their crops and their sons and their daughters. Anyone who doesn’t isn’t secure in anything: it is a matter of kill or be killed, with all civilization as their foe. So farm.’
  ‘So the farmer says. . . ummm. . .” Glen cast about for a good rebuttal.
  “The farmer says?” Rain prompted.
  “The farmer says, ‘Well, who says I can’t get society to believe that they’d be better off if I had their property than if they did? Then they can just give it to me, and I can keep all of it.’
  The farmer’s wife pauses to serve the children their porridge. ‘The difference between taking someone’s stuff and fooling someone into giving you their stuff is basically that the latter somehow manages to be even more evil. You still have the strong preying on the weak, only now it is a war of words instead of blows. Even worse, instead of destroying someone’s body, this way you seek to destroy someone’s soul. You attack their sense of self worth, their sense of right and wrong, you attack their ability to reason and their ability to take care of themselves. By convincing someone that they don’t deserve what they earned, you convince them that they are less than human. That justice doesn’t apply to them, because they’re too stupid or weak or lazy or greedy or selfish to deserve it. Force will leave the person beaten but not broken. Fraud leaves the person as no longer a person, but rather a slave. You have enlisted into your services an animal, and all the animals that he takes care of, and so on down the generations. Anyone who gains property at the expense of the rights and freedoms and values of others is a sin against God. It is the surest way to give one person the status of a god, and every other person the role of the beast. At this point anything is permissible for the god, who then proceeds to cruelty unimaginable in a civilized society. In the end, nobody has anything resembling a soul. So farm.’
  ‘Just because I can’t take the food and I can’t be given the food doesn’t mean I should have to make it.’ The farmer grumbled. But even as he gloomily looked out to the endless rows of corn to be grown, his little daughter ran up calling, “Thanks for the porridge, Daddy!” And suddenly farming wasn’t so bad after all.”
  Rain clapped as Treant followed behind, trying not to be noticed as they traded tales. “But where was the joke?” Rain complained. “I thought the farmers always had some joke at the end to tell their wives.”
  “Well maybe this farmer isn’t as witty as all the others!” Glen exclaimed, exasperated.
  “Maybe the world has run out of witty farmers.” Rain teased. “Maybe you’ll have to tell about all the witty tailors in the world instead.”
  “Yes, well, first it’s your turn to tell a tale. And seeing as how you never seem to finish them, maybe a witty farmer will be born and raised by the time you are finished.” Glen countered.
  “Okay,” Rain paused to gather her thoughts. “One day God got sick of humans, and told his angels that it was time to make dwarves.”
  “Dwarves?” Glen laughed.
  “Yes, dwarves!” Rain answered petulantly. “Little short men with beards, they were. And the moment God gave them some land to live on, the dwarves were very disappointed with God and decided they could do much better. They got out all sorts of instruments and devices, started making all sorts of calculations, and scurried about pulling levers and spinning wheels. Once everything was under way, the dwarfs decided that what this world really needed was a giant clock. Without a clock, they figured, the world would never know what time it was. They all agreed that God had made a real botch of it, and started making all sorts of wheels and bells and gizmos to tell the world what time it was. And when it turned out that it was getting too hot for the dwarves, they decided the world ought to know what temperature it was. So the next thing they did was made a big glass tube and filled it with little floating things. Whenever things stopped floating but went to the bottom, the dwarves nodded sagely that it was altogether too hot and the world obviously needed to get some wind blowing in. So the next thing they did was make a very tall tower that pointed every which way, so as to tell the world which way it ought to blow the wind.”
  “Wait.” Glen hissed. Rain and Treant froze in their tracks, watching Glen anxiously. The Glimkeer was his element, and it was up to him to see them through it. They had entrusted him with this responsibility, and so now they obeyed him when he tried to fulfill it. “I thought I saw—no, I’m sure I saw a man walking over there. Only, he wasn’t walking, but doing this sort of duck-step. . .I’ve seen that gait before.”
  “Where?” Rain whispered.
  “On the way to Mollant. It was very strange. I don’t know what it means that he’s here, but I wish he weren’t. He probably knows we’re here, too, now. We’ve practically been shouting our way through the forest.”
  “Is it the Darkness?” Treant asked, eyes wide.
  “No. . .Well, I’ve never heard of the Darkness being something that. . .awe-inspiring. I guess it doesn’t really matter. He was looking for someone, it has nothing to do with us, so we might as well just keep going. But we can at least be quiet about it.”
  Rain whispered whimsically. “I guess you’ll never know how the Dwarves measured the sunlight.”

*  *  *

  Sleet stomped on the ground three times, scooping up dust and tossing it over their tracks. “It’s impossible. The sylphs say we are walking towards the minions, but this whole time they’ve been right behind us. There’s no way the minions could be moving faster than us. Maybe the sylphs got confused.” The sense of her words meant that she hoped the sylphs were confused.
  “Where’s Opalion?” Jhennador asked in frustration. “We are blinded without him!”
  “In front of us or not, there’s only one direction left to us. There’s naught for us to do save go on.” Azteer took shallow breaths, supporting himself against a tree.
  Litfee and Nuen walked tiredly behind the others, their heads only seeing the next steps in front of them. Litfee’s look towards Jhennador seemed to say, “east, west, north, south, just tell us where to go so we won’t have to waste a single step going in the wrong direction.”
  “We can’t just keep going, not when Sleet tells us that it’s a trap.” Jhennador rebelled.
  “I didn’t say it was a trap.” Sleet snapped. “I’m just telling you that there might be minions in front of us.”
  “What hope does that leave us?” Jhennador retorted. “Can’t your sylphs tell us of places where minions aren’t, instead of where they are?”
  “Look, Jhennador, do you want to try this? Without the elemental king, the sylphs are just too simple to follow directions like that.” Sleet answered in frustration.
  “They couldn’t have gotten many minions all around us. It must be just a screen, a picket line.” Azteer stressed. “If we go now we can break through, but if we bicker about it they’ll seal us up in these God-forsaken woods and then it’s just a matter of time.”
  Jhennador finally nodded acquiesce. “Litfee, Nuen, come over here. I’ll take point, Azteer the rear. Sleet, give us all the little brothers and sisters you can. Helios preserve us if we chose wrong.”

*  *  *
  “He wasn’t all that tall, but he’s slender, moving like a serpent, so it makes him look tall. Maybe I’m just translating ‘menacing’ in my mind to ‘tall’ because tall people have always looked so menacing. And his voice was like music, like. . .well, better music than any instrument ever made. Like chiming crystals. His face was sharp and translucent, with this bright light shining out of it. It wasn’t human. . . it was more like, what every human always wanted to be in all the paintings and stories. He had this assurance about him, as if he knew all there was to know and wasn’t afraid of anything. Except he didn’t know everything, he didn’t even pretend he knew everything. . . . more like he knew so much that he could just figure out the rest if he ever felt the need to. That was it, this sense of competence all about him. You just knew he was off doing something very important, that he would succeed, and that anyone else would have failed. He looked so complete. Like, he didn’t need anything else in the world. He isn’t human. And nothing of the Darkness is like that either. Maybe. . .maybe he’s of the Fae?” Glen conjectured.
  “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” Rain asked quietly.
  “I. . .got this feeling that I shouldn’t talk about it. Except, I don’t ever remember having come to that feeling, or that conclusion. I just now thought, ‘how odd, that I didn’t want to talk about this before.’ But a couple minutes ago it was obvious to me that I shouldn’t talk about it. Like, as though it weren’t worth talking about. Too boring and trivial to even mention.”
  “What do you mean Fae?” Treant broke in. “You mean those faery tales of the north? The Church always figured they were distorted versions of the land-spirit myths.”
  “You know they aren’t myths.” Rain snapped.
  “It’s what the Church always figured,” Treant stressed. “But I thought maybe there would be snow spirits. You know, sylphs, salamanders, undines, gnomes, and faeries. Except only the north knew about the faeries because they only stay in ice and snow.”
  “It could be like that,” Glen admitted. “But then shouldn’t there be desert spirits and sea spirits and volcano spirits and suchlike? I think there are only those four. And faeries are different.” Glen gave an almost enigmatic twist to those last words, violet eyes sparkling with humour.
  Treant followed Glen’s footsteps carefully, trying not to make any noise. They shouldn’t have said so much as it was. The forest around them had that feeling of hush about it that announced the presence of the Darkness. Nothing wanted to move, or call, or feed, or do anything that might bring Lucifer’s eye to them. Wind rustled the tops of the trees, but only hesitantly, apologizingly. Even the land spirits seemed to have filtered away, finding some better place to play. And so when Treant heard the snapping of a bush being trampled under, he almost cursed himself for his negligence before realizing that the sound had come from over there. And over there meant. . . Treant’s eyes rushed to verify the warning of his ears, and were dumbstruck.
  Their clothes were made of some impossibly fine weave, as if weightless. There were no tears in the fabric, no stains, it was dyed in splashes of brown and green, shifting in the light of the sun to suit the environment. They ran hunched over, as if each step barely stopped them from falling, and yet effortlessly, more gracefully than even wolves loped. There was a zipping sound, the figures slashing their way through the air and across the ground, and then they were gone. They were impossibly fast, lightning fast. And the strangest thing was, they were quite obviously fleeing something. Treant gulped and whispered the Lord’s Prayer under his breath.
  “Well don’t just stand there!” Glen shouted, already stretching out into his hunter’s stride. “I can still see them up ahead!” Glen ran as fast as the forest allowed him, balancing caution and speed and trusting in his instincts to take care of where his feet actually touched the earth.

*  *  *

  “They couldn’t have been minions.” Sleet argued. “The elementals liked them.”
  “Truly, they didn’t look the role. Like, as though they were a sort of stunted prototype of us instead of our designated murderers. Maybe the sylphs got them confused with our pursuers?” Jhennador asked hopefully.
  “Don’t look now,” Azteer laughed, “but our little friends are trying to catch us.”
  “Well, do they have any weapons?” Jhennador questioned, as if asking whether these were the sorts of bees that stung.
  “Nay. I think they are curious.” Azteer noted as if studying some form of wildlife.
  “Do you mean intelligent?” Jhennador asked, a little bit fazed. What, had God decided to kill us off and make a whole new race as a replacement?
  “Minions ahead.” Sleet announced grimly, cutting off all conversation. With a thunderclap the eldar came to a halt, wind spilling about them as they put hand to blade. So many. Was all they could think. How did so many come across so quickly? Were they here all along? It wasn’t just a hunting party. It wasn’t just an army. . . It was a tribe, a whole nation of the Darkness, as if placed by divine providence directly in their path.
  And from their ranks emerged a slender man with sylvan grace. His hand was also to his blade, but the weapon coiled around him like a whip, all of one piece but as fluid as liquid. A dark elf.
  Azteer spit on the ground, staring at the other with utter loathing. Wind spilled about the scene frantically, fires spurting in and out of existence, storm clouds gathering from an empty sky, as the elves gazed into each other’s eyes with absolute hatred.
  “It is done.,” the dark elf cried out triumphantly. “The hunt is over, the last of your pathetic race, having fled so far, only to die at our hands anyway. What a pitiful story you will make for my children.”
  “It is you that we pity!” Litfee shouted. “Some of us had the grace to die away when they realized they were too weak. But you!” Litfee couldn’t manage the passion burning out from inside of her.
  The dark elf’s eyes narrowed. “You silly elves! You could never bring yourselves to admit the truth, could you? God didn’t want us anymore, but you kept defying him! Insisting on living, rebuilding, surviving, fighting, when you knew it would all come to this.”
  “God loved us!” Nuen shouted. “He loved us so much he sent down his own children to shelter us from Lucifer’s treachery. He delivered us from the Peace and taught us how life might go on!”
  “Spoken like a perfectly deluded little girl.” The Dark elf sneered. “Where are our Guardian Angels now? They never saved Alphe of the dancing clouds!” And for a brief moment real tearing pain flickered through the eldar’s eyes.
  “They can’t save us if we don’t open our hearts to them!” Nuen insisted. “Helios and Selene are too far away to come to us, but they can always be in our hearts. If you had a heart, you would feel them too!”
  “I will never forgive them!” The dark elf vowed. “How can you serve God, how can you love God, after what he’s done to us?” It was as if he wanted to know this more than anything else. As if he had not come here to extinguish the elves he had trapped before him, but had only wanted the answer to this one burning question. This question that had devoured his very soul.
  “How can you blame God for the blood that stains your sword?” Sleet challenged.

*  *  *

  Glen was the first to reach the scene. Goblins, the entire tribe of them, more than Glen had ever imagined. And at the fore, it was him, clutching that sliver of metallic death and speaking in some unearthly melody that haunted the forest with echoes and reverberations. And standing proudly, five others, alone in a sea of enemies. They were beautiful. Not in that demeaning sense, not in that they were healthy and well groomed. Beautiful in that they fit in with the world around them, beautiful in that the land-spirits flocked about them lovingly, beautiful in that they stood for all that was bright and wondrous against life’s darkest foes. It was the beauty of the lone sentry overlooking a stormy sea in those hours before dawn when the world shivers with cold, his armour gilded and burnished to gleam with its own inward light, and a steely gaze that meant people would live on for as long as this man could manage it. It was the beauty not of grace, but of pure shining Goodness. Glen could only think of them as angels. And the other one, with that serpent’s gaze and that serpent’s coiled blade, that must be a demon. A fallen angel, servant of Lucifer. The elves sang to each other, oblivious to the toss of wind and flames, oblivious to all the spectators that were as plentiful as wheat stalks before the harvest.
  “Glen!” Rain called out, racing to his side. Glen slipped his arm around her, hugging her to his side. He did not know if he were comforting her or if she were comforting him. Or perhaps he only wanted her to see this, to share this moment, when the most glorious beings under the heavens had assembled right before their eyes. The elves did not seem to notice, but a goblin or two looked over, and then mumbled something and more goblins looked, until surreptitiously the goblins had stopped watching the angels and were all muttering as they watched these few children.
  The demon looked behind him in irritation, a sharp rebuke on his lips, but then followed their gaze to Glen and Rain, arm in arm. “You.” The Dark elf lapsed into the human’s tongue. “What are you doing here?”
  “This is my home!” Glen stood firmly, arm tightly wound about his twin.
  “Look around you, child!” The dark elf sneered. “This is Satan’s den.” But the goblins had actually broken up their ranks, mutters turning to speeches of discontent.
  Treant had finally caught up, and immediately pulled out the circle of the Morann. “In the name of God, let any who should beget blood or tears become a no-man, bereft of kith and kin, should he dare to break God’s peace between Arntuck and Corenn!” the words came out as a chant, a ward that every child of Corenn learned on his fifth birthday and under it at first one goblin, then two more, threw down their weapons and began to walk away.
  “What are you doing?” The dark elf shouted, enraged.
  “This is our home!” Treant shouted, gesturing to the goblins and the twins before him. “And you have no hold over us, demon.”
  “That’s what you think.” The dark elf countered, looking to his left and right with a quick calculation. And then he lapsed back into song.

*  *  *

  “It seems my pets haven’t yet learned the name of their Lord. No matter, I can tell the elementals are just as ignorant, if this is all they can manage.” The dark elf waved at the fireworks display around them. “We’ll meet again once we’ve got all our children in order. My name is Sonatzen, let it haunt your dreams!” And with that he crossed his arms, his hands resting on the opposite breast, and the shadows. . .embraced him. . . the voice’s echoes still reverberating with hatred.

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