“Dan, really. This is completely unnecessary.” Aly looks over her shoulder at Dan.
“Naer said it was, so here I am.” Dan shrugs, trailing her.
“Honestly, I feel fine.” Aly tromps through the grass beneath the trees.
“People don’t randomly topple over.”
“Sure they do.”
“Dammit, Aly. Stop being difficult.” Dan bounds closer to her.
“Aly.” Dan takes her by the arm, drawing her to a stop.
“Dan.” Aly turns, looking at him. “Let go.”
“Aly….” Dan lets go of her arm.
“Dan, just let it go.”
“I can’t do that.”
“It’d be for the best if you did.”
“The best for whom?”
“Dan, really. There isn’t any point to having this conversation.” Aly walks away from him, her gaze on the ground.
“I think there is, Aly.”
“Of course you do. You always think everything needs a conversation, Dan. Can’t you just understand that whatever it is you want isn’t going to happen?” She pauses, her eye catching sight of a flash of color on the ground. She moves toward it and crouches down. “HA! Jackpot.” She picks up her phone and her cloak. The phone she tucks into her pouch and then gets to her feet. She swirls the cloak about herself in a flash of shining silver.
“Aly, do you even know what I want?” Dan stares at her, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Honestly? No. But you get utterly awkward and weird around me whenever we’re together, so…”
“I beg your pardon?” Aly turns and looks at him.
“That has nothing to do with your sister.”
“Then, what the hell – ”
“I don’t know what your sister told you about what happened.”
“She said you asked her out and she turned you down and then you got angry about it.”
“You asked her out, she said…..” Aly lets the sentence come to a stop and frowns, watching his face.
“That isn’t what happened at all.” He strides away several paces, his body tensed.
“What did happen, then?”
“I asked her a completely different question. And she got insulted and punched me. She’s lucky I didn’t punch her in return.”
“Jesus Christ, Dan.”
“Yeah, well. Your sister isn’t always one who is entirely rational.”
“No, but she’s not normally a liar, either.”
“No. You may be many things, but a liar is not one of them.” Aly frowns. “She’s not usually one for punching people, either.”
“She did. Ask anyone who was there.”
“I did. They were all rather… cagey… about the whole thing. Told me to ask you or to ask Chele.” She crosses her arms over her chest. “And the two of you have two completely different stories about it.”
“I’ve told you my version.”
“Why? Why bother?”
“Because it was important to me that you know the truth.”
“I already knew the part about you shoving her was a lie. If anything, you walk away before hitting anyone, unless someone is in trouble.”
“Christ.” Dan shakes his head. “Anyway. You found what you were looking for?”
“Yeah.” Aly spins around once, making the cloak swirl around her body. “Man, this fabric is amazing.”
“Heavy. Good for a winter’s evening.”
“Yeah, let’s head out.” Aly turns, taking a step away. She suddenly pitches forward. “Son of a -”
“Hey!” Dan lunges for her, managing to snake a hand around her wrist. He drags her back upright, then further back to rest against him. “This is seriously not fine.”
“I’m FINE. Leggo.” She mutters and shoves at him. “Don’t make me Ice Entomb you, too.”
“Ha. I’d like to see you try.” He releases her, slowly, his eyes narrowed.
“See? I’m fine.” She takes several steps forward, then back. “Ta da.”
“Sure. Let’s head back. Should probably get Cassie to have a look at you.”
“I’m FINE. God.” She stops, her attention caught by a small passageway in the trees. “Oh, hello. What’s this?” She veers off the path, toward the passageway.
“Hey, that is not the way back.”
“Fine. You go. I’m interested in this.”
“Oh, hell no. I come back without you and Naer will slaughter me.”
“Maim. Maybe a little maiming. Slaughtering is a bit harsh.” Aly eases her body through the small gap in the trees.
“I am going to regret this.” Dan follows her through the small gap.
“Never regret an opportunity to explore something new!” Aly moves carefully through the narrow gaps between the trees.
“Even if that something gets you killed?”
“Since when are you such a voice for reason?”
“Since… now, I guess.”
“C’mon, it’ll be fun!” Aly emerges into a larger space. Completely encircled by trees, the sunlight gleams through the leaves in bright rays. There are several stones set in a circle, with several more running through the center of the circle. The stones appear to be at least two feet taller than Aly, who, in her bare feet, stands at around five and a half feet tall. “Oh wow.” Aly stops near one of the stones, looking up. “It’s amazing here.”
“I can’t argue that. Hopefully, it won’t get us maimed.”
“Dan.” Aly levels a look at him. “We are close enough to town, that such a thing would be rather unlikely, don’t you think?”
“This is how all horror movies start.”
“You mispronounced fantasy movie.”
“I did not.”
“I think you did. Because, just look at this place.” She gestures with one hand. “It screams of ley lines and dormant power.”
“Well, yeah.” She laughs. “Have you met me? I was a mage in my previous life. Maybe even an elven one.” She moves toward the center of the circle.
“Me? I’d rather just have been rich, so I didn’t end up dying of starvation. Or getting beaten to death by a cruel master.”
“You want to be the cruel master, then?”
“I would hope not.” Aly comes to a stop at the center of the circle. She sits on the stone, folding her legs on themselves cross-ways. She tips her head back, letting the sun hit her full in the face. “This place is perfect.”
“So many things. Mediation, maybe.”
“It is really quiet.” Dan stands in front of her, arms crossed. “But this isn’t lunch.”
“Always thinking with your stomach, eh?”
“Not always. Right now, yes.” He holds out a hand. “C’mon.”
“Fine. Ruin it.”
“You can always come back.”
“Well, that is true. Now that I know where it is.” She reaches out to take his hand. She frowns, closing her eyes. Her arm falls, then her body. “I feel weird.”
“Aly.” Dan leans forward, taking her by the shoulders. “Open your eyes.”
“Give me a second, Dan. I feel so tired. I just want to lay down.”
“Just a minute.” She sighs, losing interest in the conversation as her body relaxes.
“Aly. Aly, wake up.” Dan shakes her upper body.
“Stop. Just a minute.”
“Time to wake up.”
“But I don’t wanna.”
“You’re going to want to be awake for this.” Not Dan. Someone else’s voice. Soft, in her ear.
“God. Fine.” Aly grunts, sitting up straight. She opens her eyes, then throws her hands up in front of her as she finds a very large man with a sword swinging it at her head. “Entomb!” She follows this with a string of curses at herself, then stares as the man is, in fact, frozen in place. “What in the…. Dan?” She looks around the small clearing. Aside from this man she has never seen, she is alone. While not locked in a block of ice, he is, in fact, unmoving. “Um. Wow.” She scrambles back from him, then to her feet. She looks at her hands, then at the man. Taller than her by at least a foot, his hair was long and dark, braided back from his face. Wearing leather armor and carrying a two-handed sword – which he had been swinging at her head! – he appears to be around her own age of about thirty, though much more – battle worn was a good term. She notes a scar running down his left cheek, away from dark green eyes.
“So. Um. Dan?” She chances a quick survey, but, no. No Dan. “I’m going to tell Naer. Now, she really will slaughter you.” She jumps, hearing voices headed her way. “Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.” She didn’t know what to do. Who was this guy. He was most definitely not part of her LARP group. None of them carried ACTUAL weapons.
“Here!” She could hear the sounds of people moving through the trees.
“Neil? Naer?” She edges away from the sound of the voices – and the man standing stock still in front of her.
“He’s here.” An unfamiliar voice carries through the air.
“He? Christ. Are they looking for you?” Aly stares at the man. “Well, fucking son of a bitch. I don’t even know…” She darts backwards, hearing the tromp of feet. She hides behind one of the farther stones, clutching her cloak tight around her to keep it from betraying her location.
“Here! He’s here!” A second voice. Female. “But he’s…. I don’t even know how to explain it.”
“What do you mean, Avri?”
“Khai, he’s completely frozen.”
“No. Come here.”
Aly risks a peek around the stone. She sees a female in leather armor, a sword belted to her side. Her dark hair is braided and wound around her head to keep it out of her face. Aly can see a man entering the clearing. He is taller than the woman by at least a foot, as well as much broader across than any man she’d ever seen. He stalks his way toward the woman and the frozen man, the hilt of a two-handed sword jutting up behind his ear. His blonde hair is drawn back from his face, his eyes a pale color, his skin is dark brown. She whips herself back around the stone, not wanting to be seen.
“What is the Heir doing out here? And with his sword drawn? And what – ”
“Khai’ixur. You are asking questions I have no answers to.” Aly hears the sound of skin hitting leather.
“I apologize, Avri.” He lets out a huff. “What do you know?”
“Only that I found him like this. Do you know anyone who can do something like this?”
“There are stories of mages of great power who could set buildings aflame, annihilate armies with a single arcane bomb….”
“I have heard the stories. But, do you actually know anyone who can?”
“No. I know no mages of any kind. Not even the hedge mages who might light a fire for you.”
“Nor I. The priests call on the Goddess to help heal wounds and disease, but nothing like this.”
“Have you tried touching him?”
“No. What if I….”
“Let me, Avri.” Aly risks a second peep around the edge of the stone. She sees Khai approach the first man, then push him gently. She frowns as the man doesn’t move. How was this even possible?
“At least it isn’t spreading.”
“A singular positive.”
“What are we going to do, Khai?”
“I suppose we attempt to carry him back to camp and from there, worry about what it is we are going to do.”
“Carry him.” The woman snorts. “Sure. It will only take hours. You and I are by no means weak. However….”
“Shhhh.” Aly shifts her body back around the stone as Khai gestures to Avri to be silent. She would swear they could hear the thundering of her heart. She tips her head slightly to the side, waiting. She wished this was like the movies, where the protagonist heard the crunch of the leaves, the breathing of the hunter, but she suspected this would be nothing like that. A soft scraping sound reaches her ears, from the left, but closer to her than the voices had been. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. She releases the fabric of her cloak. Her fingers restlessly start forming the rune she’d created eons ago for the pushback spell she’d written for her first game. She smirks at herself, shaking her head.
“Who are you?” The voice of the male brings a startled, strangled shriek to her throat. She stares up at the man, who has just rounded the corner of the stone. His weapon is raised at her. Her hands fly up, the word expels out of her before she can consider the wisdom of what she is doing.
“Repel! Oh, Aly, you really are….” She stops speaking abruptly, watching in both fascination and horror as the spell actually works. The man flies back from her, though he manages to hold onto his sword. “Oh, son of a bitch.” She winces as the male slams into another stone. “SORRY! I… uh…. Shit.”
The female streaks out of concealment, a small blade raised. Aly catches sight of her and squawks out a garbled noise, her fingers unconsciously whipping through rune again as yells the command once more. She cringes and winces as the woman goes flying away from her, the blade nicking Aly along the side of her hand. It draws blood, but is barely a scratch. She watches the woman fly a shorter distance, impacting the ground only. She keeps an eye on Aly as she moves to crouch next to the male. She lifts his head.
“What did you do.” The female’s voice is flat.
“Is he alive?”
“Yes.” The woman sets the male’s head gently on the ground, then readjusts her grip on the smaller blade, rising to her feet. She eyes Aly warily. “What did you do.”
“I don’t know.”
“You lie. I will kill you.” Her voice belies the certainty of her words.
“Honestly.” Aly raises her hands, then yipes and jumps out of the way as the blade comes sailing toward her head. “HEY! That could have hit me!”
“How it did not, I am not certain. I have another. Tell me what you did.”
“I swear. I swear.” Aly drops her hands, leaving them by her sides. “I didn’t expect it to work. That’s why I was calling myself an idiot.” She skates a glance as the male on the ground groans loudly. His head snaps up, then he drags himself to his feet. Once he is fully upright, he brings his weapon up. “Jesus. I swear.” Aly balls her hands into fists at her sides. She watches the two slowly circle toward her. The male – Khai – lists a bit to one side every third step, but he continues to help the female – Avri, right – flank her.
“Again, I call you a liar. No one does what you did without knowing how it is done. In fact, what you did shouldn’t even be possible. What did you do to the Heir? And how? No one can do what you have done.”
“I swear to God, I don’t know. In fact, if I hadn’t seen it, I would swear I didn’t do it.” Aly’s hands convulsively open and close at her sides. Had she ever written cantrip for this? She couldn’t remember. Christ, she wished she could remember.
“Release him.” The tone to his voice brings a shudder to her spine. She risks a look over her shoulder at the frozen man. “I mean, I guess…. Um…” She closes her eyes for a moment.
“I heard you. GIVE ME A MINUTE.” Her eyes flare open, her temper flaring within her. Whatever they saw – or thought they saw – on her face causes them to take two steps back. “Thank you.” She exhales slowly, inhales, then exhales. “Okay. Let’s have a look at your boy.” She shifts her body, walking backward around the stone. She darts her gaze over her shoulder and back to them, drawing them back toward the original man, but not turning her back on them. She skirts around the man in a half circle until he is between her and them. She then focuses her attention on the one in front of her. “Well, I suppose if entomb did this, then, logically….” Her head tips to the side. She lifts her hands.
“Hey!” The female jumps close, wrapping a hand around Aly’s wrist. “What do you think you are doing.”
“Do you want him out or not?” Aly looks back at the female warrior. She could only hope the twisting of her insides was not evident on her face.
“Yes. Let him out.”
“I am going to need that hand.”
“What if you kill him instead.” Khai’s voice intones darkly.
“I guess I’ll be dead shortly after, eh?” Her lips twitch into a smirk.
“Quite.” Though, as with Avri, he does not sound as certain as his words would indicate.
“Since I am not interested in dying today, how about you let me try to let him out.”
“TRY?!” Aly winces at the shouted chorus.
“I told you. This was as much of a surprise me to me as it was to him.” Aly tugs on her wrist. Avri releases it, but only takes a single step back. She has exchanged her smaller blade for her sword, now pointing it toward Aly.
“Fine. Try.” Avri gestures.
“Mmm.” Aly gives them both a wary look, then looks at her hands. Do the thing. Whatever the thing is. Muttering to herself in several languages, mostly curse words, she starts the runes for the release cantrip. She exhales slowly, focusing on the man before her. She nods, then finishes with the last gesture. “Release.” She steps back. She frowns as it doesn’t work as intended.
“Wench, if you cross us…” Avri moves forward.
“God. I swear. This is impossible!” Aly throws her hands up in the air, cursing all the while. She jumps as it causes fallen leaves to swirl around her body and fly through the air. “Jesus. WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.”
“Enough of these games. If we kill you, it will release the Heir.” Khai moves forward.
“I guess so.” Aly steps away from the pair as they close in on her. “How did it end up like this….” She cuts off the rest, figuring they wouldn’t appreciate the next line at all. It does make her laugh however.
“Harpy!” The exclamation is followed by the sound of a body impacting the ground.
“Finally! Wonder what I did wrong?” Aly tips her head to the side. “Or maybe the cantrip just wore off. Hrmmmm.”
“Foul…” There is much grunting.
“Avri,” Khai gestures toward Aly, then moves to crouch near the other man. “Are you injured?”
“No. I am well enough.” The man pulls himself upright, drawing his weapon up with him. Moving closer to Aly, he grips the hilt tightly. His expression is closed, revealing nothing. “What did you do to me.”
“Christ. This again?” Aly throws her hands up again, then lets them fall, which, for the second time, causes the leaves at her feet to swirl and spin about her, before spiraling out from her. She whips her head toward Avri as the woman grips her wrist again. “Let go.”
“I think not. You are dangerous.”
“I’m really not.”
“I would disagree.” The Heir, for he had not been named in her hearing, steps closer to her. “You arrive from nowhere, leaving not a trace of your passing into this sacred place. And then you cause me to become frozen in place.”
“Which wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been swinging a sword at my head!” Aly glares at him. “Why the hell were you doing that?”
“You will address him with respect and answer only the questions you are asked. You will not speak to him in such a manner.” Khai growls at her.
“You have got the wrong girl if you think I am going to sit here meekly.” She jerks her wrist against Avri’s grasp. She makes a face at the other woman, then looks back at the Heir. “Seriously. Why the hell did you swing a sword at my head? You couldn’t start with a goddamn hello?” Really, Peters, what the hell are you thinking. Taking this attitude with three people who have all pointed blades at your throat. This is really not the best idea. She drags in several deep breaths, wondering if Avri can feel the racing pace of her heart.
“I have said you will not address the Heir in such a manner!” Khai steps in front of her.
“Khai.” The other man rests a hand on his shoulder. “She does have one point.”
“She does not. She assaulted you and myself in a manner which is not possible. She is a danger and I say we ought to kill her where she stands.”
“Fuck.” Aly adds several more curses to that, but in multiple languages.
“Bring her, Khai. I would agree with you that she is a danger. However, she may be of use to us.”
“Hello? Right here? Also, I am not some… object. Property. Tool.” She jerks her wrist again. Seriously, girl, this is not how you should be reacting. But, the other option is just collapsing in fear, so let’s just ride this out. Aly nods her head, then winces as Avri jerks her wrist back. Aly shifts her body, glaring.
“I still say we kill her.” Khai steps forward.
“I agree.” Avri shoves Aly back a step, but keeps hold of her wrist.
“Hold, I say.” The Heir approaches Aly again. “Who are you?”
“You couldn’t have started with that?!” Aly glares at him, indignant.
“I am doing it now.”
“Fair enough.” Aly sighs. “Alysandre Peters. Aly is good enough, really.”
“And what are you.”
“What?” Aly snorts. “Just a regular person.”
“No. I think not.”
“Okay. So, all of that….” She gestures with her free hand toward the space behind the small group. She winces as they tense. “Sorry. I’m a hand talker.”
“What?” Khai stares at her.
“I gesture a lot with my hands when I talk.”
“That seems to be less than ideal, given what your hands have done.” Avri observes.
“Okay. Look. That? What happened? Has never happened before. Ever. In my life.”
“I hardly believe you could cause such chaos on your first try.”
“Have you guys never read about apprentice mages? They are absolutely the worst. They cause MORE chaos because they don’t….” Her voice trails off. “What. Why are you looking at me like that.”
“There are no mages.” The Heir responds.
“Well, of course not. They are just stories.” Aly shrugs.
“You are not a story.”
“We must go.” Khai shifts position, looking toward the trees.
“On the march?” Avri looks as well.
“Unknown, but we should not stay and await confirmation. It will be too late.”
“Eh?” Aly looks toward the trees as well. Her head tips to the side. She idly taps her foot, in time with her current favorite song. She murmurs some of the lyrics to herself. “See as far as you wish to see…. See what lies around the tree….” She idly jerks her wrist against Avri’s grasp, to see if she can free herself. Her body goes stiff, her eyes widening. She inhales sharply, her knees giving out on her, sending her to the ground. Startled, confused, Avri releases her grip on Aly’s wrist. “No. God. Stop. STOP.” She closes her eyes, then place her hands over her eyes. Her body begins to shake. “You can’t go that way.”
“What?” Kahi stalks forward, aiming his blade at her throat. “That is the direction we must go.”
“You can’t. There is nothing left. Nothing but fire. Ash.” Her hands slide to the sides of her head, her fingers curling into her hair. “I don’t know what you had there, but it is gone. I don’t know why. It’s gone. Please, make it stop.” She shudders, tears sliding unheeded down her face.
“Gone? What do you mean, gone.” Avri also aims her blade at Aly.
“What else do you see.” The Heir crouches before her, edging the two blades back. He receives stern looks from the both of them, but he lifts a hand. They step back. Khai growls low. Avri slowly sheathes her sword. She moves away.
“Ten men. Black armor, black helmets. Silver livery.” Her hands fall to her sides. “They carry bloodied axes. There is an eleventh man. Shorter, much shorter, than the rest. Malicious glee. Anger. Hate.” She shudders. “Please.”
“I don’t know. The fire is licking up the trees. The tents are ash. The people…” She stops. “No.”
“He burned them. Alive.” She wraps her arms around her middle, closing her eyes. She rocks back and forth. “How do I end this. How.”
“Khai. Bring me your flask.”
“Why.” Suspicion laces through the single word.
“Whatever else she might be, can you not see she is in distress?”
“You are too trusting. It could be a trick. It most likely is a trick, to send us toward him rather than away.”
“Khai has a point.” Avri returns, sheathing the dagger she’d thrown earlier.
“Look at her.” The Heir gestures to Aly. She shakes like a leaf, her hands curled into her palms tightly, all as she rocks back and forth. “Look.” He reaches down, taking one of her hands and lifts it for them to see the blood streaking her fingers. “Is this an act? If it is, it is a terribly good one.”
“I still don’t know.” Khai frowns.
“Avri, give me some of the sleeping draught.”
“I still say we should kill her.” Avri draws the vial from a pouch at her side. The Heir takes it, then looks at Khai. “Your flask. How much is left?”
“Barely any. We had not yet been to the river.” He hands it over.
“It will have to be enough.” He pours the vial into the flask, then swirls the water with the potion. “Aly. Drink this.”
“What is it.” She questions, though her voice is wooden.
“Does she even know what she is saying?” Avri frowns, crouching next to Ally. She waves a hand in front of the other woman’s face. It garners no response. She snaps her fingers, with the same lack of reaction.
“Avri.” The Heir hands her the flask. Avri eyes Aly a moment, then helps her drink the sleeping draught. “Why did you water it down?”
“I do not wish her out the full day. As it is, it may only lessen it by a few hours. I’d hoped it would only put her own an hour or so.” The Heir frowns as the draught takes effect. Aly slides into an unconscious heap at his feet.
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