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Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Fantasy · #1114898
Few know of what happened during the Ravage of Asareen. Those that do, are hunted.

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"I know it will be difficult for you," Isabarra managed, her voice a whisper above the wind cutting through their encampment. "But Khemrissa is not to know of this."

Though the tent was tethered in place by thick spikes that had been driven through the sand, the framework of the rectangular structure shook against the barrage of the storm. Bellowing gusts had tugged at the nomadic tent since the start of Dunetide, but the sandstorm had never lasted this long. Something more than sand was adrift on the wind; she could feel it.

The vigorous glow of rhenn—a mystical power people of her kind were able to tap into and use—peeked from within the folds of her clasped hands. Within the arcane light, wisps of energy danced over the surface of a mottled orb. It radiated and quivered, fighting against the ethereal chains that attempted to bind its power. As the sphere pulsed against its rhenn prison, a web of pale veins rose above the skeletal frailness of her hands. Her sagging eyelids twitched as she struggled against the raw power of the orb.

In the eleven sunrounds the mystical sphere had been in her care, she had never become accustomed to its power. Although in her possession, the small object had never belonged to her. Even with the mastery of her craft and her position within its hierarchy, the stone was stubborn in her custody. It was unmoved by her ability as a Sarhenn and indifferent to the fact that it was within the possession of a Consal—one of twelve that led the society responsible for the pogrom that had killed its rightful bearer.

"I have your word, Gennrik?"

The candle lanterns hanging overhead swayed and flickered as the tent fluttered. Shadows surged and ebbed across the stubble-faced man standing before her. He held a scarred barbute at his side with the plumage that marked him as a Ward—a dutybound of the Consals of Bhesen. Gennrik was disciplined in his stance, though the stiffness of his posture had loosened over the many sunrounds he had been in her service. Sweat wreathed his shaven head and glinted in the light as though each bead were a jewel in a crown.

"Upon my oath,” he vowed. “What would you have me do?"

Her jaw tightened.

Isabarra looked up from the glowing stone between her palms. Her eyes had become clouded and variegated with age. But the determination with which she bore through him had remained unchanged; her eyes pierced his armor and invaded his soul with as much ease as the day she had elevated him to Ward. So many sunrounds had passed since then.

Time had slowly eroded thin lines into much of her skin, wrinkled canyons that wove across the terrain of her body. She licked the dried husks of her mouth, dragging her sallow teeth over the barren ridge of her bottom lip.

"Nothing," her voice faltered. With a sharp cough she cleared her throat and maintained, "You will do nothing."

Her Ward nodded. “As you wish, Consal,” his voice a solemn monotone.

Gennrik raised a calloused hand to his brow. He wicked away the sweat and wiped it against the dark fabric of his armored tunic. Though the nomadic tent sheltered against the warm winds and Dunetide had veiled the sun, heat this far in the dhasats—barren plateaus choked by sand that stretched to the horizon—clung to skin like wet fabric. He was a visitor to the dhasats but Isabarra had born among the tribal Ankhan'i that wandered the dunes. She never appeared bothered by the humidity; there was an underlying strength in her frailty, an innate glimmer that broke through her carob skin.

“Come now,” she requested, shifting in her seat. “Pour some nihan and sit. There is much to discuss before it happens.”

The Ward set his red-crested helm on one of the pillowed chairs beside him. As he crossed to the sideboard, he took notice of the woven rugs under his leather boots; most were tattered and heavily worn. The growing instability of Dunetide and the threat of slavers had forced the Ankhan’i to move their camps often, affording little time for the weaving of replacements. But like Isabarra, the rugs had withstood the trials of time with an undeniable beauty.

Gennrik grabbed the nihan decanter by its long neck and closed his eyes. He prayed to the Deep that when they opened, he and Isabarra would be home in Braavora—a place he knew she’d never see again. He had been her protector since the younger sunrounds of his life. But he had now been charged with protecting her journey to the one thing he had been sworn to prevent: her return to the Deep. It circled his thoughts like a flock of sandhawks over prey.

“When I pass to the Deep,” her words cutting him deeper than any weapon ever had, “ensure it does not break her. Her strength will be needed for what is to come. "

But what of his own?

Pouring the murky nihan into a shallow metal cup, he made his way back to Isabarra. Worry choked his voice as he asked, "Do you think it’s wise to withhold this from her?"

"She'll come to accept it,” Isabarra stated, placing the orb in an embellished box on the table between them. She shut the lid as if it contained his emotions. “Just as you have.”

Gennrik fought to steady his hand as he offered the nihan. Isabarra had broke through the stillness of his surface; ripples of concern spread out across his face. He had accepted that every Ward eventually faced the same loss. But where had the time gone? The echoes of nearly twenty sunrounds with her called out to him. He tried his best to shake them away; there was still more that had to be done, an oath yet to fulfill.

He picked up his helmet and ran his hand over the bristly plumage. "And if it destroys her trust in us?" He swallowed, fighting the urge to voice his true concern. Her trust in me.

Isabarra ran a finger around the rim of her glass. "If you remain silent, she'll be unaware you knew."

"She's been your Attend for twelve sunrounds and you sound like you've never met her." He looked to her, a sullen desperation in his dark eyes. "She'll find out."

Isabarra responded with a closed-mouth laugh, a grin twisting the deep lines around her mouth. She inhaled the spiced-floral aroma and seemed at peace—something Gennrik hadn’t seen since the stone had awoken. “Khemrissa will need you in my absence. Act as though I never told you."

I wish you never had, he thought.

A dull chime crept across the tent. Gennrik watched as a complex set of sandglasses clicked and moved about in an ornate circular structure behind Isabarra. Red granules of sand trickled down from a tapered container and began filling the bulbous shape of an empty sandglass. Each filled sandglass marked the passage of one sundown. With the last chime, he now counted seven.

“They should’ve been back by now,” he noted.

“Dunetide has been strong.” Isabarra sipped the nihan and let its strong taste rest in her mouth. “It will take them longer to find their way back.”

“Still,” he confessed, “it makes me nervous.”

“You needn’t worry so much, Gennrik. They are well-prepared.”

“We've put them in danger by asking them to do this. If they’re caught taking rhenn out of the Empire . . .” he trailed off, his thoughts too worrisome to put to words.

“Each of them knew the consequence of capture before they left. Do not disparage them; they do this for all of Bhesen. Whether they are successful or not, their bravery is to be commended.” The nihan in her hand trembled as she felt the bitter liquid course through her system, filling her with a warmth the dhasats never could. "It only saddens me that no one will know of their bravery."

Her eyes wandered the black and white tapestries that hung along the walls of the nomadic tent. Some had been loomed in intricate tribal patterns. Others depicted scenes recounting a battle that had shattered the world. None, though, were more striking than the contrast of the white robe draped over the darkness of her skin.

The ivory kaftan she wore was richly embroidered with golden filigrees along the sleeves. The short collar was adorned with a repeating crest of three interconnected circles that continued down the front of the garment. The sigil not only ranked her as a Consal but also represented the essential link between the land, its people, and its protectors—the Sarhenn.

Sarhenn had been the protectors of Bhesen and its mountaintop spirecities since time immemorial. Their connection to the Deep allowed them to extract rhenn from an amber-colored ore harvested from the bowels of the planet. This ethereal energy was the only means of defending against the Belorian machines that ate through entire empires.

As stores of rhenn dwindled without new deposits being found, fear of a Waning had swept through Bhesen stronger than any Dunetide. Tensions between spirecities intensified as those with stores of rhenn moved to protect and cloister the ore; those without supply were angered at the lack of cooperation and called upon their kin to use what rhenn remained for the defense of all of Bhesen. Some had refuted Highcouncil's order for rhenn rationing while others sought a means of defending Bhesen without its Sarhenn. Isabarra, however, had remained steadfast that new sources of rhenn could be found.

When whispers of rhenn deposits being found inside imperial borders had reached her, she hadn’t hesitated; she would investigate with or without the consent of her fellows Consals. She knew the peril of smuggling rhenn out of the Empire—to her Ward, her Attend, and to herself—but she would endure the pain. She had to for the future of her people.

A burning sensation laced its way along her temples, her nerve endings contracting from a burst of energy. Something was different about the surge, something she hadn’t felt in a long time. It wasn’t from the nihan, she had been drinking it much of her life. And it hadn’t come from the stone, either. It was too distant.

The warmth she had been filled with dissipated into a numbing cold that froze her breath as she exhaled. Her face cringed as she drew rhenn into herself in a frenzied manner. Only one person had ever made her defend herself in such a way.

Isabarra. The voice was ethereal, haunting, familiar. Why do you shake so?

She tried to block the invading voice from her thoughts, concentrating on the mental barriers she had carefully built against him. Isabarra searched for signs of weakness that had allowed him entry. How had he found her after all this time? She couldn't allow him to get the stone, even if it belonged to him. Not after all he had done.

When she opened her eyes, she was on the ground in Gennrik's arms. He knelt at her side, her delicate hand clasped in the roughness of his own. Her breaths were shallow and labored, the rich mahogany of her face turned ashen.

“Isabarra?” he asked, gently squeezing her hand. “Sit, sit. I'm here,” he assured, helping her to a chair. He returned with a small cloth to wipe the thin trail of blood that spilled from her nostrils.

As her eyes came to rest on his face, the box on the table began to tremor with violence. It appeared it, too, had sensed the presence of its bearer. Isabarra opened her hand and traced a circle on the palm with her fingertips. A light glimmered from the center of her palm as ethereal threads of rhenn began to emit.

With her index finger and thumb, she made a pinching gesture in the light and pulled at the rhenn. Once it reached the length she required, she flung the thread toward the box and watched as it coiled around it. The tendril hugged the decorated case and caused the runes on its surface to glow.

Isabarra shuddered, balling her hand. “I may only be able to contain its power a short while longer.”

Gennrik watched as the box came to rest. "Has he reconnected with it?”

"Not yet. But it calls to him, stronger each time.” The inner part of her eyebrows raised. “My rhenn is fading and when it depletes, he will hear its call. We will all meet the Deep if he regains possession of it."

"Then allow Khemrissa to help you until we reach Iskana. Once there, another Consal can take it. You've done your duty protecting it, its time one of them shared the burden."

Isabarra gestured for more nihan. Gennrik returned with the decanter in hand. "I haven't told them I have it."

"What do you mean?" He looked at her, his eyebrows furrowed. "They don't know you have it?"

"No," Isabarra stated plainly. "They don't know the stone exists at all."

"Isabarra." Gennrik stood rigid, the lump in his throat obvious. "You know where my loyalties lie but this is something you should've shared with Highcouncil. If no one knows you have this stone and your rhenn were to falter, there's nothing stopping him from regaining it."

"There's been a reason I haven't allowed Khemrissa to use her rhenn unless necessary. She is not aware of it, but I have been training her for this very task when the need arises."

"Highcouncil should, at the very least, know that the orb survived."

"The orb wasn't the only survivor that night. Kivallen has convinced most that the Ravage of Asareen was an attack by the Empire."

Her Ward blinked rapidly. "You and I both know they had nothing to do with what happened in Asareen."

"It's his word—the word of a survivor—against our own. Which would you believe if you were in their position? Someone who was there that night and survived, or an old woman flirting with the Deep who claims the impossible."

Gennrik's lips curled, his eyes narrowing. "What does he gain by feeding Highcounil a lie?"

"A truth is only what people are convinced it is. And with their sympathy, he is able to shape that truth to fit his ambitions."

He set the decanter on the table. "There is only one truth. The most dangerous Sarhenn to betray our order has come back for the weapon he used to destroy Asareen. Kivallen and his puppets can only hide behind lies for so long, it won't shield them from his return."

"That's why I protect this weapon not only from its bearer, but also from Kivallen. He is very close to obtaining Chancellorship."

Damn the Deep. Realization clawed at him. “You haven't told them because Kivallen would use it."

“I pray to the Deep it would never come to that.”

"You believe he'd use it?"

"With his anger toward the Empire, however misguided, he would certainly try."

"Highcouncil would stop him. He would need full consent for an attack on the Empire."

"Unless he were made Chancellor." Her words slammed into him like a fist. "He has the vote of five Consals. We will not have a majority to stop his assent.”

Gennrik paced as he thought out loud. "Vinnsk of Pepla, Maleesa of Tennivar. And Mharris of Gharrand—they have no patience for Kivallen, either. It's a start.”

"He only needs to convince another to gain control. The opportunity and urgency all play into his bid. And when he takes control—"

"—war with the Empire,” her Ward finished. As he sat, his index finger and thumb ran down opposite sides of his mouth before coming together at his chin. "There has to be a way to convince the others."

“We need only stay our course.” She was unmoved. “We cannot reveal its existence until we've secured rhenn from the Empire. It may be the only means of brokering peace and preventing Kivallen's war."

"I'm more concerned with your rhenn failing and him finding you."

Isabarra leaned in and placed a jeweled hand on his leg. “It is inevitable.”

He didn’t hear her words. Not because he wasn’t listening, but because he couldn’t accept them. There had to be another way. Scenarios ran through his head and when one failed, he altered it and let it play out again. But every path—save the one he could not face—ended in failure. He sat, defeated, the brevity of the grime truth buckling his knees.

Gennrik cupped his chin as he looked to her. “But to welcome it with haste?”

Her voice was smooth as she calmed, "We are all shackled by our mortality to the boulder rolling downhill. We all come to rest in the Deep."

He grabbed his helmet from the table and jostled it in his hands. "I could push KIvallen in front of yours, slow its progress." He had often thought of sending Kivallen back to the Deep.

Isabarra's lips thinned to a smile. "Nothing stops the Deep from reclaiming what has been borrowed."

He smirked, sitting back up. "Then I’d say the Deep has never met Gennrik of Braavora."

Isabarra erupted in a laughter he seldom heard anymore. She breathed, "You've been good to me.” With the heaving in her chest subsided, she continued, “Try to have some sympathy for him. He carries many ghosts with him."

Gennrik brushed his fingers over the dents and blemishes that marred his helm. "We all do.”

The whistle of Dunetide filled the da’ressa as its front flap was parted. Currents of sand licked at the back of the garbed figure that entered. It lingered in the air like a red fog. Khemrissa’s aureate face was framed by a heavy headscarf that protected against the blowing sand. As she made her way to the sitting area, she quickly unwrapped the scarf and let it fall to the floor.

“The Sarhenn I felt,” her voice eager and proud, “it’s her son!”

Isabarra smiled and nodded. “Trust your sense, Khemrissa. It’s improving.” She motioned for her Attend to take a seat. “I was aware of him the moment we arrived. It’s very strong in him.”

The young girl sat near her mentor without hesitation. “But, he’s—so young?”

“Sarhenn born among the Ankhan'i come into their abilities much younger. Some while still in the womb. It is important to teach them to harness their power and bring them into the Tiers.”

The box on the table vibrated as it stirred once more. Khemrissa eyed the shaking case and half-absently replied, “Highcouncil will never allow it.”

“Highcouncil? Or Kivallen?” Gennrik jabbed as he picked up the girl’s headscarf. “It’s getting difficult to tell one from the other.”

“Much is changing in Bhesen.” Isabarra released more rhenn onto the box and stilled it. “But the Jenorrian Task remains the same. We find and teach those able to use rhenn.”

Outnumbered by the two Sarhenn before him, he put up his hands. “We just need to be careful about all of this.”

Khemrissa shook her head in a playful manner. The sides of her dark hair had been braided and entwined with dark-colored beads, the top loosely slicked back into a messy bun. She held out her small hands for her scarf but Gennrik raised his eyebrows and let it fall to the ground. Her mouth opened wide before her lips pushed to a tapered close, her eyes slanting.

Isabarra ignored the typical banter and affirmed, “If the first of our kind found it unimportant where a Sarhenn was born, then I needn’t the blessing of the Highcouncil to teach those found in the dhasats.”

“I agree—”

“—you should—” Khemrissa interjected.

“—But we’re flirting with enough danger already. Given our actions tonight, Kivallen could have us all charged with treason.”

“Treason?” The young Attend scoffed. “If we learned how that boy is able to use rhenn so freely, we could end the Waning.”

If only I could tell you everything, Khem.

Isabarra's glare forced him to choose his words carefully. “Highcouncil is upon us and Kivallen has a lot of support among the gathered Consals. Iskana is his dominion, not ours. It’d be best if we remembered that.”

The box jolted and shook before falling quiet again.

“Isabarra, are you sure you don't need help?” Khemrissa asked, opening her palm.

As the light began to form in the center of the girl’s palm, it was covered by Isabarra's age-spotted hands. "This burden is mine alone.” A lucid smile wrinkled the corners of the Consal's mouth. “When the sun rises, we will see the boy together. For now, allow me to rest.”

Gennrik tossed the headscarf to the younger girl as she moved to respond. “Here,” he said, catching her on the cusp of reply. “Let me walk you.”

With her words robbed, Khemrissa's lips retreated to a close. She pulled the headcovering to her chest like it was an upset child and rose to her feet. “The blessings of the Deep upon you, Isabarra.”

“And upon you, my child.”

Khemrissa closed her eyes and hung her head as she walked to the front of the da’ressa.

Gennrik held back the thick canvas of the entrance flap with his forearm. As the younger Attend approached—her feet barely lifting and headscarf trailing behind her—he leaned in and whispered, “You might want to put it on. Something tells me there’s sand blowing outside.”

She nudged past him and uttered, “I hope the wind takes you with it.”

Gennrik peered into the da’ressa once more before he exited. Isabarra looked at him, a pained smile on her face. “Awake me the moment they’ve arrived."

He nodded and closed the flap.

The amber light of the cloaked sun had diminished to a fuscous brown. As the sun sank beneath the barren horizon, it had taken the warmth with it. Khemrissa pulled her outer coat closer to her body. She trudged through the drifting sand that covered the ground in a dense cloud, each step heavier than the last. The winds had calmed, but occasional torrents of sand still pelted her face.

Gennrik followed behind her. Though it was only a short walk to the da’ressa they had been afforded, he gave her distance. They had been among the desert nomads for eight sundowns and in that time he had learned the Ankhan'i referred to the dhasats as varra’saan, the eraser of steps. He prayed to the Deep that while among the nomads, the varra’saan—as it swept away every step he took—would not erase the steps he had taken to protect his bond with Khemrissa . So much was about to change. He would lose so much. But he couldn’t lose her, too.

Khemrissa remained silent as they entered through the thick, scaled hide of the da’ressa. The faint smell of incense lingered inside, contrails of smoke snaking in the scant lantern light. She unfastened her headscarf and dusted the sand from her coat.

“Have you eaten?” Gennrik asked, securing the flap in place.

Khemrissa threw her headscarf on the sidetable and shrugged. “I’ve been with the boy all day.”

The Ward turned to her, his face twisted into a wry grimace.

“What?” she asked, her hands upturned. “I haven’t been hungry.”

“Khemrissa.” He dropped his chin and stared at her.

“Okay, fine.” She passed to a group of woven sacks. Retrieving an oblong and dark lemmafruit, she held it up and faced him. “See? Look, food.”

He could only smile at her stubbornness. In truth, he knew her stress—the task at hand, the awakening of the stone, the Waning, the declining health of Isabarra. Hunger had rarely panged his mind in the last few sundowns, but he had a duty to meet whatever arose. And to do so, he had to maintain his condition to face it. As Khemrissa was still able to use her rhenn, she, too, needed to be kept in condition. Especially if Isabarra was prophetic in what was to come; Bhesen would need her power.

Khemrissa held the lemmafruit on the table. The podded berries reminded her of Gennrik; once its tough outer skin was cut away, a sweet and tender core was revealed. And she took pleasure in cutting through the hard exterior, it was favorite part of the process. She looked around for a knife as her mouth began to crave the sweet fruit.

"I know you’re worried,” Gennrik said, coming from behind her and placing a small blade on the table, “but she'll be fine, Khem.”

The corner of her lip drew back into her cheek. “I’ve just never seen her struggle with it so much before."

“She knows what she's doing better than any of us."

“I know,” she confessed as she stabbed the lemmafruit. “But I’m her Attend.” As she pressed down upon the blade, it slipped free of the berry pod and nearly sliced her hand. She sighed, “I have a responsibility.”

Gennrik took the knife and replied, “As do I.” He skillfully sunk the blade under the tough rind of the pod and moved the blade around to loosen the flesh. Once the husk had been removed, he gave her the pod.

Khemrissa placed a few small berries into her mouth and squished them between her teeth. The sweet juice erupted across her tongue and she smiled. She lavished the sweet flavor, letting it linger on her tongue until it had dulled. She offered the pod to Gennrik but he waved it off. Shrugging, Khemrissa emptied the remaining berries into her eager mouth.

As she chewed, she moved to the sitting area and unfastened the front buckles of her brown leathered turncoat, a dark belted tunic revealed underneath. "She says its power is growing stronger," she shared as she rubbed the soft skin of her arms. “He’s returned for it, then?"

Gennrik stood in the center of the room in front a small chimenea. As he opened the gate, he replied, “She senses—something.”

Khemrissa collapsed into a plush chair, her legs hanging over the padded arm of the furniture. Her harem pant tapered into the high boots she readily kicked off. She locked her hands together, resting them on her stomach. Her almond shaped eyes stared absently. "Why come back for it now, Rik?"

The Ward ran his hand along his strong jawline, feeling the graze of his stubble. He chose his words carefully, knowing the wrong ones would prompt questions he couldn’t answer. He wanted to reveal to her all that he knew but he had given Isabarra his promise. “I don’t really know. But she wanted to come here with it.”

Khemrissa broke, "I knew something was off about all of this. She hasn’t travelled since it awoke." She paused for a moment, tilting her head back as she closed her eyes. "Why doesn’t she let me help her. I don’t understand."

“She's doing all that can be done,” he assured.

Gennrik placed a few firerocks into the chimenea and grabbed the flint. He angled the stick near the dark rocks and began striking down its length. No sparks. He tried a few more times and still nothing. As he backed away and cursed under his breath, the firerocks burst into flame.


But as he looked into the blaze, fine threads of rhenn began to coil around the spires of dancing flame. He turned to Khemrissa .

“You should be saving your rhenn. We don’t know how much longer the Waning will last.”

“The Deep will bless us tonight. Have hope.”

Gennrik was captured by the soft peach of her skin, the way the light revealed the gold flecks in her eyes. She had grown up much since the day she had arrived nearly twelve sunrounds ago; she had been nearing fifteen, he just past twenty-six. Those were the memories he would keep after tonight. He vowed he would see her happy again after this.

“I’m being cautious,” he said, shutting the gate on the chimenea. He approached the sitting area and continued, “The need of this succeeding is just as high as its unlikeliness to succeed.”

Khemrissa stared at him. “There’s too much relying on this for it fail. Highcouncil has a responsibility to protect our people. It can’t do so without rhenn.”

"It's been a sunround since the last rhenn was found." He sighed as he took a seat. “We can’t keep sneaking into the Empire just to bring back small quantities of rhenn; it’s unsustainable.”

Her brows furrowed as she shifted in the chair, her feet firmly on the ground. “We won’t have to. Highcouncil will do everything it can to ensure the safety of Bhesen, even if its accepting rhenn from the Empire.”

Gennrik hesitated before he spoke. “I don’t believe a Kivallen-controlled Highcouncil will ever accept rhenn from the Empire. It would give the Belorians too much power over us. He will go to war to secure that rhenn rather than allowing it to broker peace.”

“For our future, they must accept it,” her voice trembling.

“The future we need may not be the future Kivallen wants.”

She rushed to her feet, “If you’re so concerned, then stop him from gaining power. Our future is not dictated by Kivallen!" Khemrissa paused for a moment, composing herself. When she continued, her voice was softer, albeit pained, "Only the Deep decides our fate.”

He nodded. “Then may the Deep help us.”

A strong gust violently shook the da’ressa. The light in the lanterns and the chimenea died and static-like buzzing filled the air. The sand beneath the woven rugs shook and rumbled. And then the ground trembled wildly, throwing Khemrissa across the room. The deafening cacophony of several roaring explosions pierced Gennrik’s ears like knives as he winced.

It appears our fate has been decided, Gennrik thought as he rushed to help Khemrissa to her feet. Damn the Deep.

They exited the tattered encampment and ran to the tent housing the Consal. Everything seemed to move slowly as though they were moving through quicksand. The glow of fires and more explosions filtered through the clouded air. There was a burnt salty smell to their air and cries of agony laced the explosions in a harmony of pain and death. Ahead, Isabarra emerged from the haze, the box in her hand glowing brightly.

Gennrik moved to shield her. “Consal, we must get you—”

“There!” Isabarra pointed, breaking away from his embrace. “That dune!”

The light of distant bombardment backlit a frail shape moving along the dune. As the echo of a large blast ripped through the air, the figure stumbled and fell, sliding down the sand. Khemrissa and Gennrik moved to the fallen being. As Gennrik approached, he made out the bloodied face of the figure as the Ankhan’i woman that had led their agents into the Empire. He knelt near her, cradling her head.

A stream of dark liquid spilled from the corner of her mouth as she tried to speak, “We—attacked—couldn’t—away.”

“Where are the others?” Gennrik called down to her.

The women’s eyes glossed with tears, “—got—couldn’t—”

Another explosion rocked the sand. The Empire. Gennrik yelled out, “They’ve followed her here!”

“No, not they,” Isabarra replied, the box shaking in her hands. “He. You both are to leave at once!”

“What about the others?” Khemrissa asked. “Her? The boy?”

“Now! You haven’t time!” Isabarra placed the box in her Attend’s hands. “Take this, Khemrissa.” But the young woman was frozen. “Khemrissa! He mustn’t get this!”

As Isabarra began to walk away, Khemrissa called after her, “Where are you going?”

Isabarra stopped and turned. “I’m getting the other thing he cannot have: the boy.”

A warm light flooded the camp, its intensity causing Gennrik to close his eyes and raise his hand to block it out. They were trapped within a hot white blindness. Another flash enveloped them, this time a light green hue. Gennrik collapsed, shortly followed by Khemrissa. Only Isabarra was left standing in the etheric energy of the light, the rope-like locks of her hair dancing behind her like snakes.

The voice intruded her mind again.

It was never meant to be held in such unskilled hands.

Isabarra smiled and took a defiant step into the growing intensity of the light. She sent back, I’ve been waiting for you. You have gotten stronger, young one, but this stone will never be yours again. I will not allow it.

Another flash of light enveloped her, this time orange. A roar ripped through her followed by a buffeted hum that seemed to shake everything until it disintegrated.

And then, silence.


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