“Chara, a grey wolf, do you know her?”
At the mention of Chara’s name, Fray and Keeli paused, glancing quickly at one another. Both felt a chill run up their backs at Chara’s name being spoken by an armed rebel. They knew Azee’s sister was hot-headed and brash, but surely she wasn’t insane…
Wale, meanwhile continued to try and clear his throat and awkwardly shifted about as Fray held him by the scruff of his neck. He reached out with his feet, but the immense feline held him too high to touch the riverbed.
“I think the more important question is, how do you know her?” Fray asked, hauling Wale up so that he was at her eye level.
Wale hesitated. “I don’t really think I should-”
“How. Do. You. Know. Her?”
Screwing up his courage, Wale met Fray’s gaze. “I’m not telling you anything unti-”
Before he could say anything else, Fray plunged him back into the water.
“How long can lutrines hold their breath?” she asked casually, glancing over at Keeli.
Keeli stared in horror at the desperate thrashing of limbs and water. “F-Fray, you’ll kill him!”
“That’s not the plan.” Fray glanced down at the struggling lutrine. “I just want him to be more cooperative.”
There was a note in Fray’s voice that sent a shiver down Keeli’s spine, a tone she hadn’t heard for many years, since Fray had been a fore. Keeli had been a child then, but she still remembered the biting edge that had rang in
Fray’s powerful voice, the air of authority and control. Though she had never been cruel, Fray’s size, strength, and willingness to meet out violence if it was needed, had made her an imposing and frightening figure. Keeli didn’t like this version of Fray, not one bit.
After a few more moments, Fray hauled the gasping and sputtering Wale out of the river and held him up to her eyes again. “Shall we try again? How do you know Chara?”
“Sh-she was a-a fr-friend,” He gasped desperately. “W-we h-had a de-deal with her!”
“What kind of deal?” When Wale hesitated, Fray raised an eyebrow. “Another bath it is then.”
Before Fray could push Wale back under the water, she felt a weight slam into her side, though the force wasn’t enough to make her more than shift. She looked down and was shocked to see Keeli, her feet dug into the river bed, trying to push her over.
“Keeli? What in damnation are you doing?” Fray demanded as Keeli kept trying to push her, her feet kicking up great clouds of dirt from the riverbed.
“Stopping you… from… hurting him!” Keeli groaned, pushing with all her might.
“I’m not trying to hurt him,” Fray protested. “I just want to know-”
“You’re torturing him!” Keeli looked up at Fray, tears in her eyes. “And you’re scaring me! This isn’t you!”
Fray paused for a moment, glancing at Wale, and then at Keeli, who was still trying to push her. With a gentle sigh she put a hand on Keeli’s head. “Yes… you’re right.”
As gently as she was able, Fray set Wale back down on his feet.
The moment Fray released him, Wale backed out of Fray’s range, keeping his gaze locked on her. He considered going for one of the knives on his belt, but quickly thought better of it.
“I’m sorry Keeli.” Fray smiled down at her friend, putting a hand on her back and holding her close. “You’re very brave, you know that?”
Keeli shuddered a little in Fray’s arms, but soon felt the fear drain out of her.
“Now,” Fray looked back up at Wale. “Will you please explain what it is that you want with Chara?”
For almost a full minute, Wale was silent, gauging his options. He could easily vanish into the water and neither Fray or Keeli would have a hope of catching him, and he would be long gone before any humans arrived. But to have come all this way to return empty handed…
“Chara had a deal with our group,” he said at last. “She would help us free some of the slaves here in exchange for getting her sister out of Halcyon.”
“Getting Azee out? What about Chara?” Fray asked.
“She agreed to stay behind and help us fight the Order.”
Fray raised an eyebrow. “Fight the order? You mean a slave revolt?”
Wale nodded once.
“That will just get everyone killed.”
“Not this time. We’ve been getting help, and weapons.”
“Weapons?” Fray glanced at Wale’s knives. “Kitchenware isn’t going to defeat the Order.”
“Oh yeah?” A fierce smile crossed Wale’s face. “And what about rifles?”
Fray stiffened, her voice little more than a whisper, “You have guns…”
“Guns. Rifles, pistols, bombs, ignitors-”
“How?” Fray demanded, surging forwards. Wale pulled one of his knives, but she ignored it. “How did you get guns?”
As Wale spoke, neither Fray nor Keeli heard the sounds of another moving along the riverbank. As quietly as she was able, Syn crept close enough to hear the conversation. She’d snuck away from the field to catch a quick nap in the sun, there wasn’t much that needed to be done so the overseers and the fores were distracted and bored. She had almost fallen asleep in the high grass when the sound of voices from the river had drawn her attention.
Keeping low to the ground, Syn was surprised to see Fray and Keeli talking to another pelt, one she didn’t recognize, a male no less. Her eyes widened as she noted that the stranger wore a belt with weapons, real weapons!
“A rebel…” She breathed.
Syn’s ears twitched as she struggled to hear what was said over the sounds of the river and the wind in the trees
“What’s the Federation?” Keeli asked, looking up at Fray.
“It’s a bunch of countries up in the north.” Fray replied. “I don’t know much about them, just that they hate Halcyon.” She shrugged. “Well… or maybe it’s Halcyon that hates them. Probably both.”
“There’s more to it than that.” Wale raised a hand and clenched it into a fist. “War is coming. The Federation and Halcyon have been at each other's throats for years, and the federation is getting ready to cut off Halcyon’s access to the gate.”
“The gate,” Keeli gasped. “D-do you mean…”
“The gate that the humans first used to invade our plane.” Fray frowned as she reached up and touched the rune mounted to her collar. “It is also where all the catalyst crystals come from.
“But… if Halcyon can’t use the gate…”
“It will lose its supply of catalyst crystal and new slaves.” ” Fray’s gaze darkened. “Blocking it off will mean war.”
“For someone who is still a slave you seem to know a lot.” Wale titled his head. “How do you know all of this?”
“I was a fore for almost twenty years, the overseers liked to talk, and I liked to listen.”
“Huh… Well it doesn’t matter, the Federation is going to crush Halcyon, the order, the canon, the Tyrant, all of it.” Wale smiled, his sharp teeth flashing. “And we are going to help them.”
“So, you’re getting support from the north.” Fray crossed her arms. “You do realise that once the war starts, the Federation won’t be able to send you more weapons, right? You’ll be on your own.”
“Not a problem, we are getting help from other groups already in Halcyon!” Wales' excitement faded quickly. “ Well…. we were… The Order discovered our base and… destroyed it. There’s only a few of us left.”
With a determined snarl, he clenched his fist tighter. “But we’re not giving up. If we can cause enough damage to Halcyon, the Federation has promised to give us all of Flinton Valley.”
Syn’s eyes widened, her fingertips twitching with excitement.
Fray crossed her arms, a look of deep disapproval crossing her face.“So, you were looking for Chara to help you. And you were hoping to get new recruits for this rebellion of yours from this ranch?”
“I just wanted to check in with Chara.” Wale looked around quickly. “Can you get her?”
Fray shook her head. “You’re too late I’m afraid. Chara was sold… more than a season ago.”
“S-sold! But she… she said that was impossible…” Wale shook his head to clear his thoughts. “W-well look, all I need is-”
“To get out of here!” Fray moved forward, uncrossing her arms and baring her claws.
Wale retreated back a step. “But the rebellion-”
“Your rebellion is gone, and a good thing too.” Fray’s eyes narrowed dangerously as Wale raised his knife.
“Don’t you want freedom?” Wale demanded. “Don’t you want a country where you don’t have a whip at your back, and a collar on your neck?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then you should join u!” Wale reached to the back of his belt and withdrew a length of red fabric. “When you are ready, tie this to the branches of one of the trees along this river.”
“We don’t need it,” Fray snapped, snatching the fabric from Wale’s hand and tossing it aside. “Leave, now, or I will call for an overseer.”
“This is our chance! Our chance to-”
“I’ve heard all of this before, enough times to know that all it will lead to is blood and horror. If Halcyon and the Federation want to fight it out, let them. As for you, get out of here.”
Fray took another step forward. “I said, get out of here.”
Again Wale considered trying to fight, but Fray’s size was truly overwhelming. She loomed above him like a mountain, cold and harsh.
Hesitantly Wale replaced his knife back onto his belt. With a disgusted growl, he turned. “You can’t hide from what’s coming. When we rule this land, we will remember who stood with us and who did not.” With that, he dove into the water and vanished.
With a heavy sigh, Fray turned back to Keeli. “Let’s go back. Won’t be long before they come looking for us.”
Keeli nodded and followed behind Fray as she climbed out of the river. But as she started to climb up the clay bank, she paused.
Fray turned, “What’s wrong?”
“Wh-what if it’s true, what he said, that war is coming. What if… this is our chance to be free.”
Fray stepped forward, towering over Keeli, but looking down at her with a gentle expression. “Dear… I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve seen three slave revolts in my life. They all thought that they had enough people, enough weapons, enough food… and they all died.”
Keeli shuddered as she recalled the last uprising. It had taken place on the other side of Flinton valley, a small rice plantation whose slaves somehow managed to break free from their collars. The rebellion had been short lived, the Order’s response as fast as it was brutal. As punishement, both to the slaves and their owners, the Order had commanded that one out of every ten slaves in the valley were to be summarily culled.
Her heartbeat thundered in her chest as the memory of being forced to stand in a line, along with all the other slaves on the pantation. An Order agent had walked down the line with a pistol, counting the terrified slave and shooting the one in front of him when he reached ten. Keeli had been number nine, her young son, her first born, a mere four years old at the time, had been the tenth.
Keeli had hoped her son’s tender age would lead him to be spared, just as she had been after another revolt had taken place when she was six years old. She’d been holding her son’s hand when the Order Agent had shot him without so much as a second’s hesitation. She would never, ever, forget the sudden limpness of her son’s hand. She told herself that, had she known he would be killed, she would have taken his place, but the rush of terror that always accompanied the memory made her wonder if she truly could have.
“But… even if it’s a small chance… shouldn’t we take it?” Keeli asked at last, raising her eyes to meet Fray’s.
Fray shook her head. “I know how you feel… but fighting will only bring more violence down on our heads. We are always the ones that suffer.”
“I…. I know.”
“And even if we fought, and even if we won… do you really think that anyone would just give us the whole valley?”
“I don’t care about that.” Keeli whimpered, tears running down her face as Fray pulled her into a hug. “I just don’t want to die here.”
“I know sweetheart, I know.” Fray gently squeezed the weeping lapine, massive hands stroking her head. “So long as I am here, I will do whatever I have to do to protect you and everyone else, I promise.”
‘Dammit, where is it?’ Wale thought to himself as he swam under the water, scanning the river’s surface for his piece of red fabric.
A heavy weight filled Wale’s chest as thoughts tore unbidden through his mind. ‘Chara gone, the cave destroyed, our weapons taken, Raid dead…’
‘No!’ He shook his head. ‘We’ll kill the humans, even if we have to do it with our own claws!’
As Wale swam, a small pebble struck the water, just above him. Wale turned quickly, drawing one of his knives as he did. The pebble drifted past him, wrapped in his red cloth.
Wale caught the sinking cloth, staring at it for a moment. He peered up through the water, trying to get a look at the shore, but the surface was too choppy.
For a moment he hung in the water, weighing his options. He’d need to breathe before too long, and there could be a dozen overseers on the shore, just waiting for him to emerge. On the other hand… if the massive feline had changed her mind, he couldn’t pass that up.
Slowly, Wale rose to the surface, staying as low in the water as he could. On the bank stood a young feline woman, another pebble in her palm.
“What do you want?” Wale demanded.
“My name is Syn,” the feline replied, tossing the pebble aside and stepping into the water. “And what I want is to get out of here.”
“Not all of us are as timid as the old cat and her cowardly rabbit. Some of us are more than willing to fight, provided we have the right tools.”
“You heard our conversation.”
“I have good ears.”
‘And a loose tongue.’ Wale thought to himself. “Why should I trust you?” he asked, making ready to flee at a moment's notice.
“Because, you came here looking for help, and I can give it to you. If you can get us weapons, guns, I can get at least half of the others to follow.” Her tail swished back and forth as fire blazed in her eyes. “And once they are following, the rest will fall in line.”
“And you’re certain of this? It seemed like that… ‘old cat’ has quite the authority.”
“Over the rabbit? Sure. Over the rest? Not a chance. She’s great when you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to hide behind, but you offer the others a chance at freedom? They’ll take that over a hug any day.”
Wale straightened, observing Syn closely. “You don’t talk like a slave. Who are you?”
“I’m not a slave,” Syn snarled. “I’m a citizen of Nadiria, I was born free. Halcyon raiders captured me and gave me this ridiculous new name.”
Wale tilted his head a little. “What is your real name then?”
“Fiyra, Fiyra Redsky of Schaftsenbary, daughter of Sheereen Snowborne. I was dragged here, had a collar put around my neck, had my name and dignity stripped from me.”
“I don’t want pity,” Syn snarled through clenched teeth. “What I want is to see every single human in this valley dead.”
Wale felt a rush of adrenaline as he heard the same righteous anger in Syn’s voice that he had heard in Raid’s.
“Flinton Valley, and eventually all of Halcyon will be our new homeland, a place where we can be free of whips, chains, collars…” His eyes narrowed. “And humans.”
“Exactly what I was thinking.”
Tossing the scrap of red cloth to Syn, Wale gestured down the river at an ancient weeping willow. “Good. When you are ready to meet with me again, tie this piece of cloth to that willow tree and I’ll retrieve it. Meet me here one day after that.” Without another word, he plunged back under the surface.
As Wale vanished once more beneath the water, Syn stared down at the red cloth, clenching it tightly in her fist.
“I’m coming home,” she growled, turning back towards the field. “And no one is going to stop me.”
“You sure you have to leave?”
Azee looked over at Sinda, her chest still heaving from the passion of a few moments before. Her entire body still rang with fleeting tremors of a rapturous climax, her hair messy and spread out behind her.
For nearly three days, she and Sinda had barely left her tent. They had talked, laughed, poked fun and cried. But more than that they had shared, not just their bodies, but their hearts with one another. Each time they made love, it felt like… healing, like the joy and pleasure of their moments together was the rain, flooding a mighty river so that it might wash away the shore and leave something new and untouched behind.
Taking a deep breath, Azee nodded. “Yes… I am.”
Sinda sighed heavily, rolling over so he was on top of Azee. “Sorry, had to ask.”
“I know.” Azee smiled and touched her nose against Sinda’s. “You could come with us.”
“I’m not much of a shot, I’m a terrible hunter, I’m still learning to read and write, and if anyone ever tries to put a collar on me again, I’ll rip out their throat. I’m not sure you’d find me all that useful.” Sinda smiled sadly, stroking Azee’s cheek. “Besides, I can’t leave T’varo, Chess and Rayes… they are my family.”
“And I can’t leave Chara.”
“I know.” Sinda sighed, planting a kiss on Azee’s cheek. “You are always welcome back here. You could even bring your sister to stay with us.”
“Ha! Be honest, you just want a chance with her as well.”
Sinda’s ears flattened as he pasted a frown on his face. “Ma’am, you have slandered me and I demand satisfaction!”
Azee raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t I given you enough ‘satisfaction’ the last few days?”
“You make an excellent point.”
Sinda and Azee giggled, rubbing their noses against one another’s.
“I am really going to miss you though.” Sinda smiled, cupping Azee’s cheeks and staring directly into her eyes.
“I know… I’m going to miss you too.”
“I want you to promise me something.”
Azee raised an eyebrow. “That depends what it is you want me to promise.”
“Don’t forgive Windhill too easily.”
“You don’t have to worry about that.” Azee shook her head. “I am not going to let him get away with-”
Sinda placed a finger against Azee’s lips. “Azee… I know a thing or two about holding on to anger, and I know a thing or two about love.”
Azee fell silent as Sinda spoke. “Anger is exhausting… and I’ve found that it usually has one of two effects on people when they hold onto it for a long time. Some manage to bury it deep, allowing it to become part of them. These people… they are forever wounded by their anger, and though they may not allow themselves to be cruel, it will find its way out in other ways. The longer it stays… the more it will eat away at your soul. You don’t know how to let it out, sometimes you don’t even know it’s there, but regardless, it leads you to hurt those you love.”
As he spoke, Azee could see a veil of pain and guilt cross Sinda’s face.
“Others… they let their anger burn out of control, like a fire. And the angrier they become, the more people they hurt, the more anger is returned upon them. They become a blaze, constantly burning others and gaining more strength.
It becomes more important than food, or water, or sleep, they live off of anger… until they die.”
“I… don’t want to do either of those…” Azee replied, a quiet whine in her voice.
“I know.” Sinda pulled Azee close, whispering into her neck. “I think that… in time, you’re going to want to stop being angry with him.”
Azee wanted to argue, but paused instead. After a moments thought she sighed and held Sinda tight. “You might be right…”
Sinda raised his head and smiled at Azee. “And that’s okay.”
“So long as it is your choice, then yeah! Anger is like any other part of you, it’s yours and yours alone, and you should never let anyone else tell you what to do with it.”
Azee tilted her head slightly. “Says the one who’s asking me to promise to stay angry at Luke?”
“I don’t want you to promise that.” Sinda chuckled softly. “Just promise me that you won’t let him take away what you can be. You are not a slave, you are not some thing that he owns, no matter what any pieces of paper might say.”
“Forgive him, don’t forgive him, it’s your choice and your choice alone.”
Before Azee could answer, a soft and gentle voice spoke up from the entrance of the tent.
“May I come in?”
Azee looked up sharply and nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw Chess smiling at her. Despite the feline’s massive size, Azee hadn’t heard her approaching.
“I… Uh… H-hello… uh…” Azee flushed as she looked up at Sinda and then at Chess and back again.
“Relax.” Sinda smiled, tapping Azee on the nose before sitting up and smiling at Chess. “Hello love, rare of you to come this far down the tower.”
“Hmm…” Chess stroked her chin, “That is true, now that you mention it.”
Outside of the tent, Xia squacked in agreement.
“So,” Sinda looked down at Azee and then back up at Chess with a coy smile. “Care to join us?”
Chess laughed a little as Azee’s eyes widened even further. “Tempting, but no. I would like to speak with Azee, if I may.”
“Of course.” With a soft grunt, Sinda rose off the bed and brushed himself off. Raising his head he sniffed the air. “Maybe I should go and have a bath.”
“It does smell rather a lot like the two of you.” Chess smiled. “I think it’s a nice scent.”
Azee felt as if she might just die of embarrassment.
“I’ll be down in the springs.” Sinda kissed Azee gently on the forehead. “See you there.”
As Sinda left, Chess stepped into Azee’s tent and sat down on the edge of her bed. “I want to thank you.”
Azee blinked in surprise. “Th-thank me? For what?”
“For making Sinda so happy. I can see it in his face, you’ve brought him a great deal of joy these past few days.”
“I uh…” Azee paused for a moment to clear her throat. “I… I’m not trying t-to steal him from-”
Chess smiled and placed a massive hand atop Azee’s head. “Of course not sweet one, do not give it a second thought.”
“S-so you really don’t mind?” Azee asked, staring up at Chess.
“That you and Sinda were together? Not at all. I hope it was enjoyable, for both of you.”
Azee nodded, still uncertain of what to say.
“Your human friend is fond of you as well.”
“You mean… Luke? He’s not my friend.”
“He would be hurt to hear you say that.” Chess smiled. “But I was referring to Eloise.”
Azee stiffened. “What… about her?”
“She is very old, and very powerful, far more than she appears. She is a very strange and unique creature, and yet she finds you fascinating.”
“Sh-she said Luke’s family did something to annoy her, so she’s getting revenge.”
Chess frowned, tilting her head slightly. “Does that…. sound right to you?”
Azee paused. In all honesty, she’d tried to avoid thinking about why Eloise was coming with her. It was clear that Eloise was more than she appeared, certainly more than an innkeeper, and certainly more powerful than any runic caster Azee had ever heard of.
“No.” She admitted at last.
“I didn’t think so either.” As she spoke, Chess' ears twitched at the sound of stealthy movement just outside of Azee’s tent.
Chess smiled to herself. ‘The spider is very interested about what is happening in her web…”
“Should I… ask her about it?”
“Do you want to know?”
Azee frowned a little. “Do you only ask questions?”
Chess chuckled as she dropped down onto the bed and looked over at Azee. “You know Luke asked me the same thing?”
“That was also a question.”
Azee’s frown deepened and this time Chess laughed out loud. “Forgive me, that was a joke.”
“Oh, very good.” Chess purred. “You know, most people go through life not asking enough questions, and carrying around a bundle of answers that they give without thinking. But if you ask enough, you get a real answer, something from the heart.”
Azee’s ears pressed flat against her head as she frowned again.
“Since it would seem I am dangerously close to getting nipped, I’ll get to my point.” Chess stared up at the roof of the tent. “There are rumours that have circulated about our people, rumours of powers that have been long hidden and buried.”
There was something in Chess' tone that made Azee’s blood run cold. The air in the tent suddenly seemed heavy, like it did in the moments before a thunderstorm rolled across the valley.
“What kind of powers?” Azee asked at last, her own voice sending a chill up her back.
“I do not know.” Chess glanced at Azee’s neck, at the ring of bright fur that betrayed where the collar had been. “But I rather suspect that Eloise sees potential in you.”
“Me? But…” Azee shrunk as much as she was able, her ears pressing against her head and her tail curling between her legs. “But I’m not special.”
“We both know that’s not true at all. You don’t want to be special, special is what has given you so much pain, but special you are. You broke free of your collar with your own will.” Chess smiled sadly. “For so many of our people, commitment to family has been beaten out of us. Mates, friends, even our own children, are made temporary, subject to the whims of others. I have had two daughters, and I have long made peace with the knowledge that I will never see them again.”
Azee felt a pang in her stomach as she tried to recall the face of her own mother. All that came to her was a fragment of memory, blurred by time, of a canine face and a pleasant smell.
Chess' smile warmed. “
And yet… here you are, chasing after your sister, when simple surrender would have been so much easier.”
“I don’t have any choice… she’d do the same for me.” Azee’s hands clenched into fists, her claws tearing small holes into the cushions she lay upon.
“Keep that spirit and hold it tight.” Chess reached out and placed a hand on Azee’s shoulder.
As she gripped Azee’s shoulder, Chess noticed the piece of purple cloth neatly folded beside Azee’s bed. “Ah, so this is the gift Xia gave to you.”
Azee nodded, picking up the piece of silken fabric and gently running her hand across it. “It’s beautiful.”
“You know, Xia is very particular about who he gives his gifts.”
“Mhmm.” Chess smiled at Azee as she got to her feet. “As I said, you are special.”
“You.. think I have this.. power you were talking about?”
“It is possible, but I honestly don’t know.”
“And… What about Eloise?”
Outside of Azee’s tent, Eloise stiffened slightly at the mention of her name. She had been keeping low and close to the wall, staying hidden in the shadows and listening to Chess and Azee’s conversation.
“Do you think that she means you any harm?” Chess asked after a long pause.
“I don’t think so. She… she seems to genuinely care about me. And… I’ve heard her lecturing Luke from time to time. I think she really wants to help, even though I can’t figure out why.”
“Perhaps she is simply being kind.”
“I hope so. I like her. I… think of her as a friend.”
Eloise’s breath caught in her throat at those words.
Eloise tensed again as she heard Chess speak.
“A friend, curious...”
“D-do you think I’m wrong?”
Again there was a long pause.
“If you are to forge your own path forward, you need to learn to trust your heart.”
Eloise shrank back into the shadow a little further as she heard Chess get to her feet.
“I truly do not know the answers to your questions Azee, but I can tell you that you have the answers within you. Ask questions, be curious, and trust in yourself.”
“Is… that all you can tell me?”
“I am sorry young one, this is your own journey. But, for what it is worth, I think you will be alright.”
“I wish I had your confidence.”
Chess chuckled softly. “You will, I am certain of it.”
The tent flap shifted and Chess stepped outside. Immediately she turned and glanced at Eloise, smiling slyly, before turning and making her way back up the tower.
Eloise froze, before muttering a curse under her breath. It was no wonder that Chess had heard Eloise as she approached Azee’s tent, her feline ears would be even more sensitive than a lapine’s.
Sliding effortlessly out of the shadows, Eloise followed Chess up the tower. Xia hissed softly at Eloise, his plumage flaring as she drew up behind Chess. Chess only chuckled and gently stroked the trifit’s head.
Higher and higher the two climbed, passing by Luke’s tent, the light dimmed and the interior quiet, as it had been for the past two days. Passing by T’Varo’s tent, Eloise could hear the whispers of some quiet conversation, but was unable to pick out any words. Finally, Chess climbed the final ladder up to the top of the tower. With only a moment’s hesitation, Eloise followed behind her.
The sun was just beginning its journey towards the western horizon, with only the subtlest hints of colour filling the sky. A low rumbling from the east announced the approach of a bank of black thunderclouds. The odd bolt of lightning illuminated the vast spires of cloud that reached up into the heavens.
“Did you want to ask me something?” Eloise said after a few moments as Chess wandered over to her fire pit.
“I didn’t intend to.” Chess replied without so much as a backwards glance. “If you had any interest in speaking with me, you would have sought me out. Instead you’ve spent the last few days prowling around my home like a shadow.”
Chess held out a flask towards Eloise, “Care for some?”
“Water.” Chess chuckled. “I’ve eaten some truly foul things in my life, but even I have yet to truly develop a taste for T’varo’s brew.”
Eloise extended a hand and caught the flask as Eloise tossed it to her. Cautiously she approached as Chess set about lighting a fire.
“I have a rune for that,” she commented as Chess set to work with a flint and steel.
“Thank you, but I prefer to do it this way from time to time.”
“Suit yourself.” Crossing her legs, Eloise sat down. As she smoothed out her skirt she kept her gaze locked on the large feline kneeling across from her.
“So, I take it you want to ask what my interest in Azee is?” Eloise asked after a few moments of silence.
“I had thought about it, but I doubt I’d get an honest answer.”
“Then instead, I’ll ask you the same question, what is your interest in the girl?”
Chess stopped mid strike and looked up at Eloise. “Because she is as I was, suddenly free and alone, adrift and frightened. Though her circumstances are thankfully far gentler than mine.”
“Gentler?” Eloise raised an eyebrow. “She’s travelling with her former master, a Windhill no less, to try and find her sister, who is almost certainly dead by now.”
“Oh yes, by human standards her situation is bleak. But you forget, she is not human.”
Unconsciously Chess' hand drifted up to the scar at her throat. “If you, a human, were to be treated as she has been, you would call it a monstrosity, and rightfully so. But I am willing to bet that you have profited, in some way or another, off the bondage my kind endures.”
“Because I can’t help them all, am I a hypocrite for helping one?” Eloise scoffed. “Is that truly where you are trying to lead me?”
“And who says you can’t help them all?” As she spoke, Chess struck the flint and a spray of sparks landed in the little nest of tiny wood shavings and fur that she had built in the center of the firepit.
Eloise laughed out loud as Chess leant closer and started blowing. “You’ve been smoking too much fox weed. I am one person, and while you may think I am ‘older and more powerful’ than I appear, I can’t change something as hideously crippling as Halcyon’s addiction to slavery, no one could.”
Chess kept blowing, piling a few small twigs upon the smoldering nest as Eloise threw up her arms. “Even if the Federation were to somehow win the war they seem so interested in fighting, even if they tore Halcyon apart and conquered it, it will take decades, even centuries, to pull this rotten country out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves, and even then it will mean dragging them by the throat, kicking and screaming the whole way.”
“Perhaps… but then again, if we simply bowed to ‘reality’ and ‘inevitably’ would you have defeated the Drathian? And, more to the point, would Azee have freed herself from her collar?” Chess' eyes flashed. “And drawn your attention as a result?”
Eloise blinked in surprise as Chess leaned back, smiling down at the cheery little fire she had built.
“I don’t know much about you, beyond the rumours I have heard here and there about ‘The Witch of Lillyvale.” Chess shrugged, “That, and what T’Varo has told me.”
“And what, pray tell, did your pet Drathain tell you?”
“That you reek of blood runes.” Chess replied simply, carefully placing a larger log into the flames.
Unimpressed, Eloise crossed her arms. “Oh?”
“It is a stench he would know well, he was there, when The Cascade turned the Drathain plane into a waking nightmare.”
“That’s ridiculous. Even the Drathian don’t live that long.”
“Says the human that was also there.” Chess looked down at a bracelet on her wrist, carved from a horn-like material and etched with delicate script. Eloise recognized the bangle as a traditional Drathain bonding circlet.
Chess sighed softly as she stroked the bracelet. “Even he doesn’t know how it happened, why the Cascade cursed him the way it did, granting him the life that it stole from his people.”
“Fascinating. Is there a point to this?”
Eloise expected Chess to get angry, but instead she raised her head and smiled sadly at Eloise. “It’s painful, isn’t it, watching people make the same mistakes again and again. The Drathain war, the enslavement of the Shiyan, the north and south schism, the Lord’s canon, Halcyon’s crusades… all these terrible mistakes, monumental events to most of us, but mere flickers to you and T’varo.”
“They’ll never learn, and teaching them is meaningless.” Eloise’s face darkened, her hair rustling as narrow flickers of red energy raced up her body. “You try and explain it to them, and they cry out ‘traitor’, ‘dictator’, ‘heretic’, before merrily marching off to another slaughter, to become fodder for the poets, the painters, and other pathetic leeches to milk meaningless tears from. ‘Behold and be saddened, but learn nothing’, it’s truly pathetic.”
Chess watched as Eloise’s rage slowly faded. On her shoulder, Xia hissed, his claws digging into Chess' flesh as he stared at Eloise, his eyes wide and his tail twitching in agitation.
“They aren’t simply incapable of learning, they don’t want to learn,” Eloise muttered darkly. “Each generation thinks they are special, that they are the ones for whom it will all be different, the children of prophecy, the chosen ones, victims and heroes both. And when it turns out that they are just the same as everyone else, they start wars, they burn things down, and act like spoiled children, all desperately hoping to make some kind of mark that will shield them from death and oblivion. The smartest thing you can do is just get out of their way.”
“You sound like my old master.”
Eloise looked over sharply as Chess once again touched the scar at her throat.
“Of course she was talking about Shiyan, rather than humans, but the sentiment was the same. She was a true believer in the Lord’s words, and the ‘promise’ it held for our people. ‘With rod and lash must you treat the sickness that lies in the souls of the subhuman. With fearsome wills and vicious hands must they be made to bend to their masters, to be naught but clay, blank and empty, vessels molded by human hands into a form that is worthy of freedom and’-”
“Enough!” Eloise snapped. “I’ve heard enough of that damnable canon to last a lifetime!”
“You and me both.”
“So what do you want?!”
“To show you that, perhaps, there is another way, one between whips and surrender?”
“Oh?” Eloise crossed her arms as she sneered. “And what, pray tell, would that be.”
“I have no idea.” Chess couldn’t help but smile as her answer made Eloise blink in surprise. “I am just one more limited being, a hopeful child of prophecy, with but half a life already lived.”
“Then what is the point?”
“The point is, you want this to end.” As she spoke, Chess piled another few logs on the fire. “You saw the foolishness of the Drathain, you saw the result of their hubris, you watched as all their mistakes were wiped clean by the devastation of their plane. I think that you want the same thing for this plane, for the mistakes of humanity, and yourself to be swept away.”
Eloise said nothing, though her face once more darkened.
“Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think you desire this out of some… love of destruction. I think you want your people to be free of all the chains they have put around themselves. You’ve convinced yourself that you loathe humanity… but you don’t, not really, you just want them to stop.”
“But they will never stop.”
“So why hide in Halcyon?” Chess looked up at Eloise again. “Why come to this place, the fulcrum upon which sits the balance of humanity’s sins?”
Eloise didn’t answer. For a long time she simply sat and stared at the fire, the flickering dance of the flames reflected in her eyes. Chess too watched the blaze, her white fur glowing a golden orange.
As Chess and Eloise sat and stared at the fire, the storm clouds drew closer and closer. Soon the wind picked up, great gusts howling through the canyon and racing over the stepping stones. The sky darkened, the vibrant colours of the sunset masked by the impenetrable blackness of the storm clouds as they rolled overhead. Neither Chess nor Eloise shifted an inch as drops of rain began to fall, pattering against the rock. The fire hissed and spat as the odd drop fell amongst the coals, The wind, wet and cold, swept the flames into a frenzy. The droplets began to fall faster and faster, swiftly turning into a torrent pouring out of the sky.
Eloise watched as the fire struggled against the rain, thrashing about as if it were a living thing. But slowly, bit by bit, the fire weakened. Glowing red coals turned to black, and the few flames that remained sputtered and spat from beneath what little cover there was between the logs. It wasn’t long before even the last flickers were overwhelmed by the downpour.
As the fire struggled to stay alive, Chess raised her eyes and stared at Eloise. She watched silently as Eloise’s shoulders hunched, her hands bunching into fists.
The rain was relentless as it poured down, the sharp hissing from the coals fading to a quiet and steady hiss. As the last few flames died and the embers grew cold and wet, Eloise raised her eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks, mixing with the rain. Her voice was choked as she forced a smile. “That’s the way the world ends.”
Though she spoke quietly, Chess' voice, low and powerful,rumbling like thunder, cut easily through the wind. “I see… so that’s why you came here, to this country of all places, and why the girl interests you.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Eloise chuckled, wiping her tears away even as rain continued to pour down her face. “It’s just… the way it is.”
Chess met Eloise’s gaze, her golden eyes seeming to glow in the darkness. “Perhaps…” Slowly she climbed to her feet and stepped over to Eloise. After a few moments she knelt down. “But perhaps there is a choice to be made here.”
“Become the rain.”
Eloise scoffed, but Chess continued to stare at her, a gentle smile on her face. After a few moments she looked up at Chess. “You’re serious?”
Chess smiled and extended a hand. “That girl downstairs, she awakened something in you. It isn’t just the power that is stirring in her that you are interested in, is it? It’s the fact that, despite everything, everything that is against her…” Chess turned and glanced at the cold and darkened fire pit. “Despite everything… she is still burning. And try as you might to drown yourself in hopelessness and despair… you too are burning.”
Eloise sighed heavily and looked down, watching the tiny rivers of water that ran over the rock.
‘I can’t believe it… I’m doing it again…’
After a few moments she reached up and took Chess' hand.
“Fine… let’s try and teach them… one last time...”