Althea rolled her eyes when Daion accused the Azierites of training to be warriors, because she had spent fourteen long years doing exactly the opposite. Her mother had taught her to fight with her fists in the evenings, of course, because no one could survive a childhood in Azier without establishing a little dominance through violence. In the end, she was more dangerous as a healer than anything. There was no damage her fists could do that her hands could not undo, so she fought without restraint.
She cupped Faenon’s head at the temples and listened to what his brain had to say to her magic. From his attitude, she had guessed at the chaos in his frontal lobe, but the brunt of the damage was in the back of his head. Daion’s comment about pupil dilation prompted her to check his occipital lobe, especially since she had found him lying on his back when she appeared in the Winters’ house. A tender bruise confirmed her suspicion.
Brain matter alone was easy enough to generate, no harder than the skin and muscles she usually created. The problem came from integrating the new cells into the rest of the existing neural network. Each of the hundreds of thousands of cells had delicate tendrils with which they made their intricate circuitry. The brain was the last mystery of the body that Althea had yet to conquer, but she was several years deep into her conquest.
“Move your eyes around,” she told Faenon, watching electrical pulses fire through his head. “Look far away, then look at my face.”
His pupils contracted when she passed her hand, still glowing pale blue with residual magic, before his eyes. The new neurons faltered and sputtered, but they would learn how to behave in due time.
Althea held Faenon’s forehead. “Are you still unreasonably mad or are you feeling better now?” she asked.
“Of course I’m still mad,” he snapped. “You can fix this whatever-this-is, right? We need to go.”
“That’s probably reasonable,” she sighed to herself.
Adrenaline had carried her to the Winters’, through the healing of Faenon’s jugular injury, and into the woods to find Rune and Kari, but her supply had run out along with her magic. The fatigue settled into her bones and fogged her head. At this point, she could not foresee herself standing, let alone walking.
“You might have to carry me if you want to keep going,” she said to Faenon.
“Yeah, fine,” he said. “You’re alright? You fixed it?”
“Great, you didn’t get mad. You’re cured,” Althea declared, dropping her nearly limp hands to her sides. “Help me up.”
Her memory of the next few moments faded, but she found herself upright, arm hanging over Faenon’s shoulder. Her vision was gone, and not because of the thick curtain of long, brunette hair that hung in front of her eyes.
“H-hey, is she—let her sit back down,” said Daion, though Althea certainly did not remember his name. “We can wait until she’s not…”
“That’ll take hours,” Faenon complained, adjusting his grip on Althea’s arm and on her waist. “She’s just out of magic. Right?”
“Mm-hmm,” Althea responded, because she was worried about what else would come out of her mouth if she tried to open it to speak. Her eyes had started to pulse, along with the rest of her head.
“That… that shouldn’t happen. That’s not normal,” Daion said. “She shouldn’t get like that just from… Hours? That’s supposed to only last for a few minutes, if anything.”
She felt Rune’s green eyes boring into her before she could see him. Despite being so empty of magic that he had almost no aura left, he stood strong, stable, and alert. He and she alone had always known something was unusual about the drastic way her body reacted to a lack of magic. She had always said nothing, because the rest of her friends and family did not know better, and it felt easier to ignore the pain and pretend everything was alright. He had always said nothing, because he never said anything at all.
“This is how she always is,” Faenon said with a shrug. “I got her. Which way?”
Daion hesitated. “I’m not sure I can tell you that in good conscience,” he said. “Not if she’s like that.”
Althea craned her neck towards the sound of Kari’s voice. She had swung up her arm to point into the distance, eyes wide and intent upon Daion. Her stance wavered, but her stare did not.
“They’re that way, aren’t they?” she asked.
Rune jerked his head, frowning in disbelief. If he did not sense anything, Kari should not have, either, yet Daion had a look on his face like he was trying to ignore whatever morals kept him from lying to a girl with round cheeks and big, baby blue eyes. With her precise sense of magic, Althea alone was privy to the sight of a tendril of Kari’s aura touching a weak spot in Daion’s. Kari’s personal body of magic had a habit of moving around and into other presences, especially Rune’s.
“C’mon, Althea,” Faenon said, walking in the direction Kari pointed.
Althea let her chin fall to her chest. Behind her fluttering eyelids, she watched her shoes, concentrating on swinging one foot in front of the other with every step. She could not feel the squish of damp earth through her soles, only the pressure against her joints when her foot was stopped by the ground. She tried to wiggle her fingers. They, too, felt foggy and distant.
“Promise me you’ll lay low at least until… until she’s recovered,” Daion said as he took a long stride to the lead of the group. “Can you all cover your auras?”
“Not all of us,” Faenon said, then glanced around. “Actually, maybe none of us, now. Rune, how’s your magic? Althea said you… did something weird.”
Rune could barely shake his head. His body, usually flooded with rich magic, was an empty shell. Although Kari stood close by, she no longer had the calming effect over him that she had had when they were children. His cold eyes brimmed with volatile fear.
“Never mind,” said Daion. “I said I’d take care of it, anyway.”
He weaved his magic around the group and blended them neatly into the ambient energy of the forest. For a moment, he could not rub away Kari’s signal, sharp and strong as it was, but even that strange aura he managed to soften into nothing but static.
“I’ll increase your numbers, I guess. I’m handy enough with a sword,” he added. “Not that I’m too interested in taking on the mercs, but I’m not letting you kids go off alone after them like this.”
“Don’t you have anywhere better to be?” Althea mumbled.
Daion paused. “The short answer is not really,” he said at last. “Just… don’t bother asking questions about me. There’s nothing to say. I’ve got more important things I could be telling you.”
“Like what?” Faenon asked.
“Like who Vega is and why you should really steer clear of her,” said Daion. “Let’s start there. Have you heard of a demon called Vega?”
The words of every fairy tale Althea had absorbed in her childhood swam through her head, painting pictures of creatures so rare they seemed to her only a fantasy. She thought of the dream she had had as a child.
“A demon?” Faenon repeated. “You mean a real demon?”
“No, a fake demon.” Daion let out a sigh. “Alright, this is going to take longer than I thought.”
Fascinating as they were to the mortals bound to the earth, demons were common creatures of legend. In Azier’s modest library, ancient tomes blending history and fantasy told of a sacred ground known as the Immortal Stone, to which humans traveled and became ageless winged beings. Stories said the Stone was hidden in the forests of the Highlands, but the same ancient ink described it as guarded by elves. In that age, a mention of elves meant the fictional race, not the flesh-and-blood foreigners of modern times. If the Stone existed, the immortals had kept it a secret for all of history.
“Vega, who is in fact a real demon, is the closest thing we’ve got to a ruler of the Highlands. Has been for thousands of years, probably,” Daion explained. “She’s tucked away in a secret fortress in the Ring and runs a band of mercenaries. Those are the guys who you dealt with earlier.”
Faenon scowled. Though his wounds were healed, he had still felt the anguish that accompanied the very real threat of death. It was a while after Althea closed the wound in his shoulder that he was able to move without shaking. He resented every wasted second.
“The mercs do a lot of business around here, and most of it is pretty mundane stuff, from what I’ve heard. Just a bunch of soldiers trying to make a living,” Daion said. “But Vega’s real goal is to find Vessels. Don’t ask me why. Don’t ask me what a Vessel is, either, because I’ve never seen one and I’ve heard a lot of different stories.”
“A Vessel,” Faenon repeated under his breath. “I never even heard of a Vessel until my dad…”
Only Althea could hear Faenon swallow to clear the lump in his throat.
“When they took him, he was saying I didn’t know about the Vessel,” he said, “so… to leave me alone.”
“That’s the way they work,” Daion said with a nonchalant shrug. “If they can’t get their hands on the actual Vessel, they start going after anyone who knows about it.”
“What’re they gonna do?” Kari asked in a hushed, horrified whisper.
Once again, Daion’s cold exterior softened when he saw her face. “There’s no reason for them to do anything… really bad,” he said in a quieter voice. “He should be safe—there’s no good in a hostage who’s… Whatever happens, he should be safe. Just… imprisoned, somewhere, worst comes to worst. Your standard extortion.”
“So we catch up with those guys before they get him to their prison, and we take him back,” Faenon said. His grip on Althea firmed with confidence.
“Maybe, in an ideal world where each of us is as strong as two trained, armed mercenaries,” replied Daion. “We’re trailing them because that’s all we can do right now. We might stand a chance if they drop their guard and stop somewhere for the night, but we’d lose a fair fight.”
Azierites, and Plainsmen in general, were proud warriors. They did not stoop to the levels of backhanded tactics and dishonorable ambushes. Faenon did not react to Daion’s proposition because he did not let such a debased thought enter his mind.
“But what is a Vessel?” Althea asked, rubbing her aching forehead. “Can you tell us anything, or would that make Vega target us next?”
There was a brief moment, when Daion turned his head over his shoulder to face her, that his face was blank with something like confusion. In a second, the look was gone, as he laughed in a way he may not have laughed had Faenon asked the same question. Experience had trained Althea’s ears to hear this nuance of tone in a man’s voice. Though his laugh was quiet and gentle, there was a low, belittling pitch to it.
“Nothing like that. You have to be close to a specific Vessel for Vega to set her sights on you,” Daion said. “Like I said, I’ve never met one, so all of this is just hearsay.”
“Met one?” Faenon repeated. “Vessels are people?”
“What? Yeah,” Daion said with a small frown. “Did I… I guess I didn’t say that, did I. Yeah, they’re people.”
It would have been an appropriate time to laugh; Faenon sounded foolish even to Althea’s naïve ears. Daion did not laugh.
“Well, depending on what you consider people. If demons are people, Vessels are people,” he went on. “I heard from one guy that they have scales like a reptile. I heard from another guy that they have horns like a goat. I told the second guy what I heard from the first guy, and he said that wasn’t true. So I don’t know what to believe. Nobody knows for sure where they come from, kind of like with the demons. Just more creatures as old as life itself, I guess.”
“So Vessels are immortal, too?” Faenon said.
“Too rare to confirm, but probably,” Daion said. “You know how rare demons are? I’ve met demons. I’ve never met a Vessel.”
With childish excitement, Althea’s heart thrummed. “What are demons like?”
“I’m glad you’re curious,” said Daion, “because I’m a little worried you’re going to find out.”
There was a beat of silence. A pulse went through his magic to reevaluate the coverage of the group’s auras.
“What the hell does that mean?” Faenon asked. His hands slid around Althea’s arms like he was preparing to hoist her into the air. She wriggled one arm out of his grip, flexing the fingers she was starting to feel again.
“This might be a false alarm,” Daion said, “but there’s only so many things I can think of that cast an aura that powerful from that high in the air.”
“Is it close?” Kari asked in a shaking voice.
“Wait, can’t you feel it?” he asked. “It’s pretty… present. You caught the mercs earlier, didn’t you?”
Turning her face to the ground, Kari shook her head. Under typical circumstances, her senses were limited to a range almost as small as Althea’s. She had lost her link to Daion’s essence.
“What do we do?” Faenon demanded. “Do we hide or is everything cool?”
“We’re already hiding, you’re welcome,” Daion sighed. “Never know what to expect with a demon, honestly. They don’t care about mortals. Usually that means they leave you alone. But sometimes that means they don’t care what happens to you as long as they’re getting what they want. Assuming you don’t have any ongoing business with any demons, or it’s a different matter altogether.”
“You were just telling us how we apparently have a lot of business with a demon called Vega,” Faenon pointed out.
“I sincerely doubt she’s personally flying around the northern Highlands to supervise the abduction of one human man,” Daion said. “But whoever it is, they’re coming too close for comfort.”
Rune clutched his elbows when he felt the presence for himself. His faint, but rigid aura was as clear a signal of his fright as hair standing on end on the back of a cat. Kari’s magic doted on his in the usual way, circling and swelling. Daion had a difficult time keeping their fluctuating auras masked.
“There’s no demons after me, for the record,” Daion added. “I doubt it’s… A demon shouldn’t be working with the mercenaries, but he keeps circling back in their direction before getting close to us again, it’s starting to worry me. I’ve got an idea to find him out, but it’s a little risky.”
“Risky how?” Faenon said. “What do we do?”
Daion pointed at a dense patch of trees. “You kids sit there and I keep covering you,” he said, “while I keep walking with my aura out. I can’t get too far from you if I need to keep covering you, but if this demon thinks someone’s tailing his crew, he’ll come looking and find me, and I can swear I’ve got nothing to do with it. If all goes well, he flies away and we can buy a little more time.”
“What if all goes wrong?” Althea asked.
“He kills us all, because that’s what he was intending to do in the first place,” Daion said. “Higher chance of that happening if we do nothing. Want to hide in some bushes while it’s still dark?”
Kari sat on Althea’s lap to hide the bright white of Althea’s nightdress poking out from under one of Corona’s softest sweaters. A pair of wool tights and a pigmented scarf would have been all she needed to mimic her everyday look. Faenon sat close enough to run to Althea’s side should their plan go awry, but far enough to disperse the shapes of people hiding among the trees. Rune, too, sat alone, curling himself into an impossibly small shape. His physicality was but one of the many ways he had been practicing for moments like these for most of his young life.
Althea could still hear Daion’s footsteps walking away when she felt his magic waver overhead. She could also hear him mutter, “Damn.”
“How far is he, Kari?” Althea whispered.
She popped her head up and squinted. After five years of setting up and shooting at targets, she had a quick eye for distances. “Um, looks like thirty yards,” she said.
“So much for that plan.”
A quiver of vitality had returned to Rune’s aura. By quantity alone, it was enough to shield three modest presences, plus Kari’s jarring one. However, in the middle of the night, far from his home, in the presence of strangers, in the absence of his father, and under siege by a demon, Rune would have dubious control over that magic.
“I can’t get a safe distance away from you like this,” Daion said as he jogged back. “If there’s any way you can cover yourselves, this’ll…”
Rune lifted his head out from behind his knees to find Althea’s eyes on him. He flinched and tried to turn it into a nod. His tired magic eked out of his body and quelled the auras in Daion’s stead.
“Huh. Who’s doing that?” Daion asked. “That’s really good.”
“Get out of here and do your thing,” Althea snapped. “He doesn’t have much time.”
“Yep. Got it.”
He leaned into long strides and let his aura swell. With a soundless sigh, Althea held Kari’s hand to cling to consciousness. Her exhaustion kept her in a deadened calm when she felt the soft edge of an aura like velvet, but deeply, disturbingly black.
A subtle, rhythmic pounding faded in from the ambient noise of the night. Once it grew loud enough to notice, the air began to stir after each sound. First the tallest grasses began to sway, then the leaves began to rustle, and then Althea felt it rushing cool past her own cheeks as the wingbeats thudded closer. It was loud enough to frighten Kari into squeezing Althea’s hand, and growing faster, when all at once it stopped, and two light feet touched the ground near Daion.
“Who are you?” said an unknown voice in a smooth tenor, soft but intense.
“What?” Daion asked. He might have been acting, but he sounded genuinely taken aback. “Is something the matter?”
“What is your name,” said the demon, not as a question, but as an order.
“Uh, it’s Daion.”
There was a shudder in their voice as they uttered, “Gods.”
Kari inched her head upwards to catch a glimpse. Althea squeezed her hand, pressing with her fingernails. Kari began to lower her head.
“Are you… looking for someone?” Daion asked.
“Daion. Do you know half-elves?” the demon asked. “Have you ever associated with half-elves.”
The shudder that went through Rune’s body echoed in his magic. Althea held her breath. Kari did not breathe, either, but they heard Rune, high and fast.
“I… maybe?” Daion said. “If I did, I didn’t know they were half-elves. What exactly are you looking for, here?”
“The portals,” the demon said sharply. “Half-elves make portals, Daion. Have you ever walked through a portal.”
Althea saw Kari’s eyes go wide at the same time as hers. They could think of no other word to describe the strange hole that had opened in their bedroom. Neither could remember the details through the daze of sleep, but they had gone from their house to the Winters’ kitchen in a matter of seconds. Rune was at the center of it all. His cover over their auras was shaking.
“An ennostone portal, even,” the demon went on. “Have you ever used an elven light to open a portal?”
Daion was silent for a beat. “Have I been using elven lights wrong my whole life?” he asked. “Because I was just using them to make things brighter.”
“Think, Daion,” the demon demanded. “In the past seven years. In the past fourteen years. Ever. The portals are loud, you would have remembered it. Tell me.”
Daion laughed once. “You’re seriously underestimating my ability to repress my childhood memories.”
“Who’s over there?”
“No, wait, sh—”
Rune’s magic had fizzled out. He leapt to his feet in an unstable crouch, wild-eyed, as if trying to decide whether breaking into a sprint in the opposite direction would save his life or not. Faenon made his long-awaited jump to Althea’s side. He pulled her and Kari to their feet with a single sharp tug on their arms.
“Don’t move,” the demon called out. “Tell me your names.”
“First names,” Althea hissed at the Winter boys, since Daion had gotten away with the same, himself. Then she stole a glance over her shoulder.
It was difficult to see in the thick forest at night from a great distance. Against the backdrop of black trees, the shape of wings expanded into a midnight cloak three times the size of a man. The demon’s head barely made it above Daion’s high shoulder, but his—or perhaps her—raised wings cast both of them in deeper shadow.
Maybe it was a trick of the night, but these wings looked jet black, not the smoky grey of Althea’s dream.
“Faenon, Rune, Althea, Kari,” Faenon hollered for everyone, but mostly for Rune. “What do you want?”
Daion cocked his head and made a sour face. “Wait, Kari?” he repeated. Her name sounded different on his lips. “That’s your name? Kari?”
The demon’s wings furled back. The moonlight illuminated a small smile. “What’s the matter?”
“That’s—that’s not a…” He cut himself off, pressing his large hand to his forehead, massaging his temples with thumb and pinky. “Never mind. Just… never mind.”
Kari chewed her lip, digging a crease between her eyebrows. She mouthed her own name once, to no avail.
“Then, you are Faenon and Rune Winter?” asked the demon. “And Althea and Kari Rider. From Azier.”
There were a few tenuous threads that kept Althea from dissolving into panic at the reality of a demon wielding this power of knowledge over her and her friends. One was that Rune’s reaction was to fall to his hands and knees; had he the strength, he was more likely to bolt like a dog and never be found again. The second was that she, like Rune, was so terribly tired that panic just could not rise to her weary mind. The last was the most tenuous of all, and it was that, in that cool, smooth voice, she sensed something soft, even though it was nowhere to be heard.
The demon advanced, walking an invisible line in heeled boots. “What are you four Azierite children doing so far from home in the middle of the night?” they asked.
“What’s it to you?” Faenon retorted. He glanced between Rune and Althea as if wondering whether he could throw both of them over his shoulders and run.
“I’m wondering if you have business with the particularly suspicious company of mercenaries I’ve been tailing for the past mile.”
In the blue of the night, the demon’s skin looked barely darker than that of the Plainsfolk, but their slender eyes and angular face came from a country farther north, in the icy peaks of Fiall. Leather armor in the fashion of the northern mountaineers covered their chest, but opened at their muscled back, where it bled into jet black feathers. Their hair, too, was long, dark, and straight, in the style of Fiallan men, but somehow softer, perhaps more elegant. Althea recognized the subtle intonations of a Fiallan accent from hearing Azier’s music teacher speak.
“Let’s get off on even footing. My apologies for the curt introductions,” continued the demon. “You may call me Saakir.”
If Saakir had anything more to say, Althea did not let anyone hear it. “What are those portals you were talking about?” she asked. “Did you have something to do with those?”
“I have nothing to do with them at all, as a rule,” Saakir responded. “I would advise that you exercise the same caution. Or is it too late for me to be telling you this?”
Saakir’s dark eyes slid down and to the side. Althea dared not confirm the demon’s suspicions by following their gaze to Rune.
“I don’t like to play games, so let me be very clear,” they said. “If you have walked through a portal, it’s possible that your life and the lives of those around you are in danger. I’ve made a mission of undoing this danger. It would be wise to tell me the truth.”
Althea still felt that softness to Saakir’s voice, or presence, or somewhere. First she glanced at Kari, who nodded, and then at Rune, but he did not stir.
“We walked through a portal about an hour ago,” she said.
“Wait, what?” Daion’s stance crumpled as if to make room for his dropped jaw. “You skipped that part of the story when you—”
“Who went through the portal?” Saakir asked through gritted teeth. “Who crossed from one side to the other.”
Kari and Althea shared another glance. “Just the two of us,” Althea said.
“And was it loud?”
Althea nodded. “Woke us up.”
“I’ll warn you, that doesn’t bode well.” Saakir sighed and tilted their head back, running their fingers through their hair. “I’ll investigate the matter shortly. For now, let’s talk about your mission.”
The adventurers by association gave each other wary glances. “What’s our mission?” Faenon asked with an off-center frown.
“I’ve reasoned that there’s no one the mercenaries could have taken but your father, Faenon Winter. I assume you’re intending to chase him down,” said Saakir. “You’ll undoubtedly lose track of him through no fault of your own. You may choose to recall a few choice words I have spoken about ennostones and draw your conclusions.”
“What the hell are you playing at here?” Daion asked.
“I believe I’ve already told you I don’t like to play games.” Saakir folded their arms, rolling their hip out as they leaned to one side. “Unfortunately, the bigger picture isn’t something I could describe to you in a timely fashion, and you don’t have a lot of time. Show me a map and trust that I have no reason to deceive you.”
Althea, at least, had trust, and Daion had a map. Saakir pointed at a spot within a second of seeing the unfolded parchment.
“You’ll know you’re there when the forest becomes mostly oak,” they said. “There’s one tree in a clearing that’s far shorter and thicker than the rest. It’s an entrance. You’re welcome to take shelter there if you can find your way inside. Either way, you’ll find that’s a good area of the Highlands to be in if you’re under threat by Vega, which at least two of you may be.”
Daion fell back a step, staring at his map. “Wait, is this—?”
His shoulders fell. “Oh.”
“Follow the mercenaries if you can. When you lose their signal, go to that location,” Saakir said, spreading out their wings and stepping away from the group. “Gods smile on your journey.”
Dust flew into the air when those great wings slammed downwards. Saakir lifted their feet from the ground and never touched it again. The gust of wind blew Althea’s hair into her eyes. By the time she combed her thick tresses back, Saakir was nothing more than a dark shadow against the stars, easily mistaken for an odd bird.
“That’s not what demons are like,” Daion said after a long silence. “Don’t get the wrong idea from that. That was the most goddamn cryptic thing I’ve experienced in my life.”
If this had been Althea’s second experience with a demon, it was no more cryptic than her first.
“So where did he say to go?” Faenon asked. “How far is—?”
“Wait, he?” Daion repeated. “Wasn’t that a… woman?”
“No, I thought—guys from Fiall wear their hair kinda like that,” Faenon said, miming a long ponytail behind his back. “His voice was… kinda low for a…”
He trailed off and turned to Althea as if waiting for an expert to chime in.
“Maybe they weren’t either,” she murmured.
Daion’s head twitched to one side as he frowned. “Weren’t either?” he asked. “You can’t… you kind of have to be one or the other.”
“Biologically speaking, that’s not strictly true,” Althea said, holding an aching hand to her weary head. “But maybe… maybe it doesn’t matter if we’re speaking biologically.”
As soon as she looked up, she watched her words go over Daion’s head. He turned to Faenon for an explanation, but Faenon only shrugged.
They put off deciding whether or not to trust Saakir’s word by continuing to follow the scent of the mercenaries, who were walking in the same direction as their destination. Faenon pulled Rune to his feet. His pulse was still beating hard and fast in his weak aura. Kari took her place by his side, ducking her head and smiling to peer under the veil of red hair that blocked his face from the world. Faenon turned his back to Althea, crouched, and nodded over his shoulder. “It might be a long walk,” he said. “Get some rest.”
She could barely be convinced to let him carry her at all, let alone get comfortable enough to sleep. She curled her toes when they could no longer reach the ground.
“I’m your best friend,” Faenon said to her after a minute. “Relax. You can trust me.”
“I don’t trust anybody,” Althea grumbled into his shoulder.
He was wearing one of his father’s sweaters, too, a hand-knit red one with a horizontal stripe of white in the middle. Corona’s earthy scent lingered in the wool.
It was hard to notice where I had gone when that place was nowhere. As soon as I recognized the sensation of nothingness around me, I wondered whether meeting another winged immortal had brought back a dream from long ago. My hands were eighteen years old this time; my feet were a long way from my face. There was no demon, nor angel, whichever she had really been. I was not alone, however.
In the place of the woman from long ago was a waifish, adolescent girl with light blonde hair and flowing clothes trimmed with lace. Her eyes captured my attention, large and clear as they were, and framed by pale lashes.
“Is this the first time you’ve met me?” she asked. Her pupils dilated and contracted. A ring of amber circled her inner iris.
“I guess,” I responded, frowning.
“Well, of course, not the first time, but the first time you’ll meet me There,” she said, beaming. Her eyes glittered as her cheeks rose and flushed with warmth.
“Meet where?” I asked.
“There. Oh, I mean, this… this place we’re in,” she explained, blushing. “That’s what this dream is for, I bet. I’ve gone back in time one step so I can tell you everything I know about There.”
She stepped closer to me without reservation, though I almost backed away on reflex. Despite calling this meeting our first, she seemed to already trust me as a friend.
“We all call this place There,” she explained. “I don’t know where it is—it doesn’t seem to be anywhere, really—but wherever it is, it’s not where or even when we really are. It’s a world not only separate from space, but from time, as well. So from my perspective, we’ve already met once, but that hasn’t happened to you. But you’ve been There before, right?”
“I… yes,” I said. “Once, a long time ago.”
At this, the girl’s big eyes grew wide again. “Only once?” she repeated. “That’s odd. I saw women here throughout my childhood.”
“Women?” I repeated with wonder. “Is it only women?”
“It’s certainly easier for women to find their way There,” said the girl. “Well, it’s more common, to be precise. You’ll understand when you meet Lady Temporis. She said she’d meet you after you started going There—she’s going to weave your dreams into your past. It’s her daughters that I’ve met There—they taught me a special type of magic.”
I had no knowledge of Lady Temporis, but from this girl’s words, I suspected that I had also met one of her daughters. “The woman I met taught me special magic, too,” I said. “She taught me how to heal.”
“Yes! The youngest one, with curly, brown hair and the circlet of cherry blossoms?” asked the elated girl.
My confused pause diluted her smile. “I think her hair was black and straight,” I said. “She was… a demon, maybe.”
In the deepest chambers of my heart, I held out a hope that I never spoke aloud. I hoped that she was an angel.
“Oh,” the girl murmured. “I suppose I’ve… never met her.”
“Then who was she?” I asked. “Who are you?”
The last thing I saw was her sad smile.
Faenon raised his voice higher and higher until its sound forced Althea to confront the fact that she had woken up. She pulled her forearm towards her to lodge it in his open mouth.
“Ugh, you’re awake, aren’t you?” he snapped, craning his neck away from her. “You’re awake and you’re doing that on purpose.”
“Stop yelling in my ear,” Althea said through vocal cords that had been stretched by sleep. “What’s going on now?”
“I don’t know how I lost the aura,” Daion said, his voice tinged with morbid curiosity. “I had them, clear as day… then they just vanished.”
“Hang on, long as we’re stopped,” Faenon said, crouching.
Althea felt the dewy grass on her calves. She had regained the strength to sit upright, though Faenon knelt just behind her to offer his shoulder as support. She saw light behind her closed eyes. When she tried for a glimpse of Daion’s illuminated face in the golden dawn, his silhouette pierced the rising sun. She squeezed her eyes shut again.
“Should we do what, um, Saakir said?” Kari asked softly. “He—or, um… well, Saakir told us a place to go if we lost track of those people, right?”
“Saakir didn’t say if. Saakir said when,” Daion said. “This is wild. Something’s going on here over all of our heads.”
“Where did he want us to go, anyway?” Faenon asked. “How are we supposed to find it on our own? We’ve never even been anywhere near this deep into the Highlands before.”
“Well, if that’s where you want to go, I’ll definitely take you there,” Daion said. “Whatever you kids are tangled up in, there’s some kind of cosmic significance to it, and I’ll be damned if I don’t find out what it is.”
Althea heard his footsteps and felt his aura shift. She snuck a tentative glimpse free of the sun’s glare. Under a shaggy length of blonde hair, his tired eyes were a haunting shade of ice blue that glimmered as he pulled his lips into an inquisitive grin.
His face fell into a neutral expression when he noticed her eyes. He approached her while looking at Faenon. Slipping the single remaining strap of his weary backpack from his shoulder, he asked, “Do you want me to carry her for the next few?”
The words, “Don’t touch me,” slithered from her mouth without a thought. Though Faenon laughed, Daion froze in his tracks as he finally realized that he should fear this young woman. She was not usually so slow to give strangers this impression.