(These are the last chapters of the book. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)
Katashan awoke to the sound of a fierce storm and the gray light of another day. Someone stood at the door talking to Cork. He saw a halo of hair, light shimmering around her as Cork glanced towards the bed.
"Yes, he's awake now. We'll be down in a few minutes, love. "
Maylee. He calmed the sudden pounding fear that had chased all whisper of sleep from his mind. Katashan was sorry to see her scurry away. Thunder shook the building, and wind pounded hard against the shutters. Not a good day.
"We've problems sir," Cork said, already at work setting out clean clothing. "The storms are rolling in. There's been trouble elsewhere with them. Floods and downed trees and such."
"And the storms aren't natural," Katashan said, sitting up and lifting a hand towards the window where wind and magic leaked in around the shutters, along with a fine spray of rain.
"Seems not. Aster says they are part of the spell Sherina used, and the weather is not quite aligned properly now."
"Yes, that makes sense."
"Does it? Good then. Sounds insane to me."
"It is insane, but it's a logical insanity."
"I'm sure that's fine, then."
Katashan laughed as he slipped his legs over the side of his bed and experienced a moment of déjà vu from the day before. It took him a few breaths before he dared stand and prepare to face the others.
Katashan guessed the time must be mid-day, though he could hardly tell by the faint light coming through the shuttered windows. As he pulled on his tunic, he could hear the harder strikes of hail against the wood of the shutter. Not good.
By the time they made it down the stairs, rain and hail pounded the building, tearing open shutters along the way. A quick glance showed the fort grounds awash with water. At another window, the sea beyond looked wild as waves crashed against the shore and sent salty foam high into the air.
"What about the fishing village?" Katashan asked as he and Cork fought the shutters closed again.
"They evacuated earlier today at Aster's suggestion. They'll lose their homes, but that's nothing new," he said, with a sigh. "The worst problem will be the ships at harbor. They're taking quite a beating, and they're far harder to replace."
Katashan nodded, brushing water from his clothing. He hadn't been dry for very long.
As they headed further into the maze of halls, Cork greeted a few frantic and worried servants as they passed. When they stepped into the lower main room, Katashan could see a group of people who stood gathered at a table near the hearth, and no one looked happy. The servants had brought food, but Katashan could tell it had only been nibbled.
"We have problems," Lord Fordel said as they approached. He signaled Katashan and Cork to sit beside him. "The weather has taken a turn for the worse, and it's not a natural turn, either. Can you feel it?"
"Some," he said. "I didn't try for more. What can we do?"
Fordel shook his head, looking glum. "I don't know. The magic is too transfused to pin down. Whatever is happening at the pass with those runes is finally reaching beyond the mountain top. I've had word of flooding in nearby villages, along with mudslides in the hills. I suspect things will be worse in the capital."
Katashan nodded and sat down, feeling worn, even after nearly another day of sleep.
"We have a more immediate problem," Serrano said, pushing aside a plate of food that didn't look touched at all. A shame; the roast smelled wonderful. "The rain is cutting into the city, and parts of the walls are starting to erode, despite the magic. Fordel says that the magic in the rain is actually countering the magic in the walls, which is already old and weak."
"We need to get down there and reinforce it." Katashan stood, food forgotten. Fordel rose as well as he grabbed a cane. Katashan had thought to leave him behind, but Salbay was his city more than Katashan's. And Cork obviously intended to go along as well, of course. "The rest of you need not go with us. We'll bring back enough rain to share, I'm sure."
Onshara laughed. Serrano looked less certain, but finally nodded.
"You should take guards," Serrano said, and started to signal for them.
"Please, no," Fordel said, with a wave of his hand. "I don't want to make the people think I don't trust them or need to protect myself from them, just because they know about my magic."
Serrano gave an uneasy nod of understanding, even though he plainly wanted to argue. Katashan could hardly blame him, but they had to weigh all pieces in this trouble, and right now Fordel and Katashan would do better without soldiers. Neither had said the one obvious truth -- that with magic in such a flux right now, things could go spectacularly wrong, and having less people around would be safer.
Best not to worry them about that possibility when there was so much else going wrong already. If they couldn't handle this trouble, the Captain still had Aster, who as not present, though the book sat on the end of the table like an honored guest in the spot of honor.
"We'll go through the back way, and avoid a lot of the rain," Cork said. "This way, sirs."
The trip down through the halls proved quicker this time since they didn't have to backtrack to avoid any patrols. Fordel, despite limping, looked amused and pleased as Cork led them unerringly through the labyrinth building, and they stayed dry until they reached the herb garden. Servants had brought inside as many of the potted plants as they could, and they had to thread their way past them. Chickens huddled in corners of the steps, none of them looking happy. Cork gave them bread as they passed, and Katashan wished he'd thought to bring some as well.
Fordel stopped to move some of the plants up a few more steps from a pool of water seeping in under the door and almost up to the first step. Katashan braced himself as he stepped down and hissed at the icy cold that swept up over his boots and soaked his feet. He knew they would face far worse when they opened the door and went out. Cork even had trouble getting the door open, and all too soon the three of them stepped into the tempest.
This was cold, wet, miserable and dangerous. They fought their way to the gate and out, the bell already ringing wildly in the storm. A single guard, drenched and unhappy signaled them as they left.
"He has a way to warn someone up top if there's trouble down here?" Fordel asked.
"Yes sir. There's a chain he pulls and it rings a series of bells all through the fort, it does. The chain is worked into a channel that runs through the stone itself, and the Captain has it rung once a month or so as a test. It makes enough noise to wake the dead, sir." He stopped and winced. "Though I dare say that's not really what we want these days. We only put a guard there when there's some sort of trouble."
Fordel nodded and stepped past the gate and into the city. Unfortunately, with his wounded leg, he looked likely to go sliding down the path and straight into the sea. Katashan nudged Cork in his direction. He nodded, and went to help the local lord. Fordel almost argued until he saw Katashan's face.
"All right. Fine."
"Where do we go from here?" Cork asked, looking around.
Everyone had deserted the open streets, and rivulets of water rushed over the chiseled edifices and made swift moving streams searching for a breach in the city walls through which it could rush to the sea. Katashan could see there were a few such culverts, but they were overwhelmed with the amount of water and debris already in them.
Katashan stepped out into the path and lifted his hand, feeling out the lines of magic within the stone. Much of the ancient magic had weakened and begun to fade through age and this storm drained more of it away with the water.
And he remembered, with a new shiver, that vision Verina had shown him of the city collapsing and falling into the sea. The fear of of the vision being real gave him purpose and strength to do this work. He found the closest weak spots and they began the arduous job of working their way through the drenched city and finding the best places where he and Fordel could feed magic into failing lines. Though neither said so, if the storm did not pass soon, neither of them would have the power to keep the city from crumbling away.
Now and then Katashan could see pale faces looking out from the doors and scalloped windows. Looks of worry followed them everywhere, but he thought he saw signs of hope as well. The people might realize how lucky they were to have a lord versed in magic at a time like this. They lived in a city only made possible by magic and Katashan thought it probably helped them accept more than any other group might. He hoped so. Lord Fordel was putting as much power into saving their city as he could and he deserved their support.
They worked their way up past the baths and Katashan thought longingly about a nice rest in a warm pool. Then he happened to see a familiar face. He stared for a long moment at the woman standing in the shadows across the road. Only when she smiled did he realize. . . .
"Gods," Fordel whispered.
"Tell me you have another sister," Katashan whispered, already inching his way along the wall and looking for a way past her. "Because if you don't, she has somehow gained the power to become corporal again. And that's more damned power than I want to face right now."
"It's Sherina," Fordel replied and somehow made a curse of his sister's name. She smiled and stepped forward, straight into the light. Whole. "How in the name of the gods can she do that?"
"We don't know what she's been doing the last few days," Cork said softly. "Though she hd the mercenaries -- and I suspect they've served their last purpose for her now. We'll never get past her back to the fortress, sirs. Not unless you can come up with magic to stop her this time."
"She might be more vulnerable in a human form," Fordel suggested, and then he shook his head in denial. "No, she wouldn't do that to herself. Back up. We're near the temple. That's our best hope for any kind of sanctuary."
"Do you think it will stop her, then?" Cork asked, glancing dubiously towards the distant building.
"Perhaps not the building but Aster is there," Fordel said. He took a step backwards, still watching his sister with trepidation.
Katashan suspected the temple would prove as good a choice as they were going to find. He started that way, a few steps backwards at first, keeping his eyes firmly on her. When he nearly fell on a step, Cork took over the job of leading them to the temple, allowing the two mages to watch the enemy.
"She's not going to let us get that far," Fordel said, carefully watching Sherina who appeared amused.
"Unless there's no reason for her to fear us finding shelter there," Katashan suggested.
"Not exactly what I wanted to hear, sir," Cork said.
"My apologies. I always err on the side of truthfulness."
"Huh." Cork gave a little laugh and paused, hands on both their arms still, and steadying them on the slick stone walkway. "The way's clear between us and the steps, but this is going to be a hard run. There are two streams, about knee-deep, converging right below the stairs, and it looks like a maelstrom of eddies. And then we have to climb the stairs, which are no easy job and worse with the rain water rushing down over the roof. I'll stay by you, Lord Fordel."
"I. . . " he started to argue and then shook his head. "Thank you."
Katashan watched Sherina moving closer, with a steady step and a look of haughty indifference at the storm since neither the wind nor the rain touched her. She moved as though the world would bow to her command and nothing mundane would affect her again.
Katashan glanced towards the sea, barely glimpsed through the windows of the building across from them. The gray began to turn to a tint of red; fire and blood.
"Sunset. I suspect she'll only get stronger in the darkness. She always has," Katashan said. Shadows already fell across the path where she stood but she glowed with a light of her own. Had she not been so evil, she would have been beautiful.
"We were fools," Fordel said. He drew his weapon, though Katashan couldn't be certain it would be any help, even if she did look solid now. "The draining of the magic through this storm was probably her work, knowing we would come to see what we could save."
"True," Katashan agreed. "But even if we had known she walked here, we still would have come out to do the work. This is what makes us different from her, Lord Fordel. We will always do what we can to help."
"And damn the odds, eh?" Fordel said.
"The odds?" Cork said, still navigating them back toward the temple. "She's only one mostly dead woman, right, sirs?"
The words won a little laughter from both of them. Katashan thought she looked startled by the sound. If nothing else, at least they could confuse her.
"We're as close as I can get you safely, without you watching your own step, sirs," Cork warned at last. His hand tightened on Katashan's arm, and then let go as he moved to help Lord Fordel.
"When you're ready, Cork," Katashan said.
"Now, then," he said.
Katashan took two more steps backwards, and then spun and rushed forward. He nearly went down when he found himself knee deep in water. Already drenched, he couldn't feel any colder, except for the mental chill that came when he glanced back and found Sherina moving towards them, gliding over the ground with no trouble at all.
"I'm clearing the way for us," Fordel said, breathless already. "Watch her!"
Katashan didn't argue. His wrist already bled from a little cut they used to form the magic to help stabilize the walls. He brought a spell to mind that he hoped would help if they needed it. He suspected they would face a long night, though, unless Aster had better answers.
He heard Fordel whisper magic of his own. Sherina's head came up and she started forward far faster, her own hands lifted and light playing between her fingers.
The ground beneath his feet dried. He lifted his hands as well and waited a moment longer before he cast a fireball that lit up the sky like a miniature sun come into the world. The fire changed rain into fog and brightened the world all around them.
Sherina howled and retreated, ghost pale in that light though he couldn't tell if he robbed her of power or just surprised her. In the moment she fled, he turned and ran with Fordel and Cork up the stairs. They were mostly dry, but water still poured over the roof and raced down past them, cold and slick in spots. He fell to one knee but got back to his feet before even Cork could help him.
They rushed past the statue, which made him shiver for another reason, to think his friend sat trapped there, waiting for the night. Did he see? Katashan brushed his hand against the horse's flank as he went by and thought the surface felt a little warm to the touch.
Up to the door --
Which did not open at Cork's shove or his insistent pounding. Katashan saw Sherina had gotten her nerve again and looked very angry, which wasn't a good combination.
"I can't get it open," Cork said.
Fordel was already attempting magic to get it open, but they quickly realized the door had been warded by Aster himself, and the man was far more of a master mage than either of them would be in their short lifetimes.
"Damn. Why would he ward to keep the door closed?" Fordel demanded.
"I suspect to keep her out," Katashan said, waving a hand towards Sherina. "She's likely been in there before if he had been teaching her magic. He would need extra protections."
Sherina laughed, a sound like ice in the wind. Katashan put his back firmly against the temple wall and prepared to face her. He couldn't think of anything he hadn't already tried. The only thing that might work would be to throw the knife again, and hope that in her more solid form it did greater damage this time. However, she would be ready for such a ploy, and he dared not lose the ritual blade in the midst of a battle like this.
He had only one other hope of help. As much as he hated to waste the power, he decided to try one more trick. He laid his hand against the wall, a brush of blood on the stone, and used his senses to feel his way past the ward and find Aster, who surely had to be on the inside. This wasn't easy since the ward had been made to repel magic and solid forms, but he put no more power into the work than it took to find his way into the stone. He wondered how Aster could have missed them at the door and the thought lit a small fear that the man was not really a friend after all.
He found Aster in a trance, and hadn't the power to awaken him. He thought perhaps the man felt distantly aware of the trouble, but that he had been so far away himself that he couldn't slip back to this world so easily.
No help there.
When he opened his eyes, only heartbeats later, she had swept much closer; a glowing harbinger of disaster. Her laughter came in the wind again with a promise of winter cold in the warmth of a spring rain.
"Ward is all we can do," Fordel said with a worried shake of his head. "Did you find Aster?"
"Trance," Katashan replied, taking quick, deep breaths. "I think he's trying to return. Ready?"
Cork had put himself back against the door, his sword in hand, which might do some good if she got through to them. Better to keep her away and hope Aster came to their aid before their own powers gave out.
With the ritual blade in hand again, he began a spell, feeding his and Fordel's power into the ward which glowed around them, bright enough to banish shadows on all sides.
She lifted her head and slowed, but kept moving towards them.
"She thinks the ward won't stop her," Fordel said, who must know her mannerisms well. "I don't think I like that."
"She's gained some tricks," Katashan agreed, trying desperately to balance their powers and still keep track of what happened around them. Fordel had a strong reserve of power and he hoped the two of them could hold out against her.
The rain had eased and with the change he saw something that worried him for a new reason. People headed their way, probably to reach the temple. Surely they saw her, but they had probably heard about a phantom, a creature of the dark and night and Sherina had moved closer to the living again.
"I'm stepping out to warn them away," Katashan said. Cork and Fordel both grabbed at him. "Don't argue! Just hold the ward steady, Lord Fordel, because I intend to leap back in before she can get me."
"She's damned close," Cork said. "Sir."
"I have my knife. She'll be wary still." He used the ritual blade to cut a little deeper in the already scared skin at his wrist and pulled more blood magic. Fordel winced at the sight, and Katashan wondered when he had gotten so used to the blood and pain that he didn't even pause in the work anymore.
Katashan touched the side of the ward, felt the power fracture under his will, and pushed out into the cold wind and rain. "Go back!" he shouted at the people, and even added a little compulsion into the words.
Sherina had started toward them strangers, but finding Katashan free proved an irresistible lure, just as he hoped. They were tied still. He tried, again, to find what drew her to him, but the ties were lost in the magic surrounding them both, and he couldn't sort it out.
She drifted towards him, eyes bright, and a smile curling back on teeth that looked ready to bite away his soul. He held his place and tested his magic. When he lifted the blade, she stopped at last almost to the stairs.
"Be gone, Sherina. Go to hell or your master, or wherever the dead like you are given sanctuary. This world is no longer yours."
"Mine," she said, quite clearly, her voice shrill. He wondered if she had sounded that way when alive. "All mine now. He has promised."
Her eyes flared with a little red in the depths. Did he want to make her any angrier? And did he want to talk with this thing, to try and reason with it? Even if she had been human once, she wasn't now. And by all accounts, she had never been reasonable anyway.
"Go, Sherina," he said again.
She laughed this time. "You do not have power over me."
"Oh, but I do," he said and smiled, though no friendlier than her look. "I could leave this place. I could go to an island at the end of the world, and put up a shield around me even you could not breach. And you would be trapped there with me, wouldn't you? Shall we see?"
Her eyes widened. She pulled back, afraid --
Which was the break he needed. He turned and started to push back into the ward. She swept up at him, far faster than he had expected as her claw-like hands grabbed back. She nearly pulled him away but made a mistake and drew blood. He used that against her, sending a surge of power up through his body.
When he staggered into the safety of the little ward, he looked back to see her screaming in rage as her fingers smoked where his blood burnt her. But she was not, as far as he could tell, any weaker for it.
"She's going to focus on you now, isn't she sir?" Cork said. "That's why you told her what you did, about making her go away with you."
"Yes. Keep her focused on me." He gasped as he knelt within the ward, too weak to stand at the moment. His back felt half on fire but he waved away the help Fordel started to give. "No. Save the magic because I fear we will need it to stop her."
Fordel only drew back when Katashan used his own magic to slow the bleeding across his back. He didn't want to lose power anyway.
Sherina hovered nearby, her face livid with rage. Her pale, ice-covered hair blew back, her dress floating and twisting like something alive that wrapped around her. Was Aster any closer? Was there any hope?
The storm rose with her rage. Lightning rent the sky . . . and then came to her up-reached hand. She caught fiery light and glowed with the power, her face a baleful visage of destruction.
"Well now, that's not good," Cork decided.
And she threw the lightning at them.
Katashan shoved his hands up against the shield, willing power into it as the lightning flared, hot to the touch, blindingly bright. He blinked and when he could see again, she came close enough to put her hands on the shield just opposite his own.
He could feel her: Anger, evil, pain. And power. She pushed, and even with all his power and Fordel helping, she still pressed forward with her icy fingers nearly touching his. In a moment she would reach through the shield and have him. He wasn't certain what he could do then --
Lightning came to her again, and the fire surged through him, so painful he thought he would burn up in it this time. The shield crackled, and he heard Cork gasp. He didn't look. He could feel one of her fingers on the palm of his hand, ice and fire taking his breath away.
Stop her. Stop her somehow --
She lifted her head and smiled.
And then he saw movement close by.
A double image for a moment: God and horse. Then the essence of Peralin moved awayf from the statue prison. Peralin reached down from his mount and grabbed Sherina by the scruff of the neck and shook her.
"No, little demonling. No, you will not have them on the steps of my temple. Be gone back to your master."
He threw her out towards the sky and the sea, and she disppeared into the dark so quickly Katashan suspected she had left this world. Katashan blinked and lowered his hands, unsteady as the shield disappeared. Peralin slid from the horse and caught him before he sat down on the stairs.
"It's wet out here. Let us go inside."
He was getting too used to dealing with this Godling. Katashan only nodded, accepted a goblet to sip, and went with him into the building. The ward did not even slow Peralin.
They stepped into the building; a series of halls to the right and left, a large room ahead and an altar at the end. Candles flared to life all around them at the presence of the Godling in his own temple. Warmth came a heartbeat later.
Aster stumbled through the long inner hall to the right, his face white. "My apologies. I tried to draw on other powers and I couldn't break free of them. It hadn't occurred to me that the ward would be a problem. I just dared not be interrupted, or powers that should not be lose in this world --"
Katashan lifted a hand and he fell silent. "We survived. I doubt even if we had gotten inside the temple, it would have done much more good. In fact, I am rather glad we were so close to Peralin."
The Godling nodded and didn't smile this time. He signaled the others to sit at the first benches they reached. Even Cork, who had used no magic at all, looked drained. Kat wondered if he had come too close to Sherina again, who drained life. He didn't ask.
Peralin paced before them which was not a sight to calm poor humans. He ran a hand over his face, once, and then finally turned to the four.
"You do not have much time left," Peralin said. The ominous words drew all their attention. "The vernal equinox will fall at sunset tomorrow night. If the runes aren't destroyed and she is allowed to finish the spell, then the world will be changed beyond what can be fixed. You are seeing the first power of such changes in the storms. Rain, winds and even magic will sweep through the world without any control. If this trouble is not stopped, I suspect that nothing will remain standing by this time next year."
Katashan looked at him, not surprised. "We must go back to the mountain top."
Peralin nodded. "But this will not be easy."
"It never is," Cork said with a sigh.
"So true, friend," Peralin replied. He looked at Katashan, obviously expecting answers from him. "It's all about timing."
And the answer came to him, finally. "Of course. The runes and Sherina are only vulnerable in the moment the spell comes to fruition," Katashan said. "Like many spells, the weakest moment is when it transfers power from potential to reality."
Peralin bowed his head in agreement. "This is what Verina has told me. In a spell of this type, you can hinder beforehand, but you cannot destroy the core until the proper moment. Anything else only creates more havoc."
"What if we don't destroy the spell, but whatever is behind this cannot complete it either?" Fordel asked.
"Then the magic loosed runs wild, as it is now. The storms will feed each other."
"We better get back to the fortress and prepare to travel," Cork said, practical as ever. "We barely have time to get back to Silver Pass, unless you can get us there faster, sir?"
The Godling gave a little shrug. "I'll open a path, but by tomorrow the weather will be worse. You might be wise to get there as quickly as possible and be prepared."
"Then we go now," Katashan said and stood.
No one argued.
As he stood at the high point of Silver Pass, Katashan thought the day felt as bitter cold as any northern winter. Storm clouds towered on both sides of the peak, some over the mountains and another set out over the sea. Katashan could feel them growing in power, ready to sweep in as soon as the spell finished the transformation.
Devastation already stood all around him. Trees had been burnt to stumps by the massive storm that had raged here the last time he had come to deal with these damned runes. And the runes, alas, looked no worse for all his trouble. He could feel their power whenever he passed within a yard of them: Dark and malevolent, they drew life from an ever widening circle of ground. The snow had melted all around the area, but nothing green had grown. He suspected nothing would grow here for a long time.
The Verina statue still stood untouched, which he took to be a good sign. They needed one.
The dark, ominous clouds began to roil across the sky like two armies poised to do battle. However, in the pass -- for the moment at least -- all remained calm. The group of mages had gained some control of the space around them in the long hours they'd spent here. Katashan had reluctantly left most of the work to Fordel and Aster. He'd rested at their insistence and ate when Cork ordered him to, knowing the battle at sunset would take every bit of power he could manage. And while the others could help -- and must help if they had any hope of winning -- Katashan knew the fight would mostly fall to him. He had been called here by Verina, he had been the one to upset the spell, and he had the link to Sherina. He had to be ready to face her.
Unfortunately, nothing he had done so far had more than annoyed and slowed the woman. Katashan tried desperately not to doubt because he knew the feeling could cripple him. However, he couldn't help but worry. He had no new tricks, and none of the old ones had worked very well so far.
They had studied the book, but Aster couldn't be certain if the magic used to help create Sherina could be safely undone now, whether he forfeited his own life or not. Katashan knew destroying her would not end the larger battle, anyway. She had become only one lose end -- a troublesome, and dangerous one -- but the larger war would be between her master and everyone who stood to protect this world.
They were pitifully few on his side.
The sun dipped lower, bleeding dull crimson light into the turbulent clouds and tinting the sea with red. His wrists hurt to see it, a reminder of what he must soon do.
Katashan lifted his hand to feel out the magic, drawing startled looks from all around. He crossed towards the runes, but he only glanced at the glowing, swirling things before he moved on to the Verina altar.
He laid his hands on the statue, and felt her warmth beneath his fingers, just as the statue of Peralin and Night had been warm to this touch last night. Did that mean she stood close to this world? He hoped so.
"Please, Lady, keep us safe here," he said in his own language. He tried to quell the fear sweeping through him along with the longing to run away . . . but he'd done that once already, and it had only brought him here. "I do not regret you have chosen me to do this work, but only make me worthy of the job. Don't let me fail again."
Katashan pulled back his hands, bowed his head and brought out the ritual blade, cutting just the tip of his finger. He put a drop of blood into her outstretched hands. He dared not sacrifice more with the battle to come, and hoped that she understood.
The spot of blood disappeared into the stone. A good sign, at last.
The sun slipped lower still, rays spraying out beneath the clouds, golden and beautiful. The wind howled nearby, but here, still, he had peace for a moment longer.
"The wards are ready to be set," Aster said, stepping up beside him. Katashan looked from one set of clouds to another. A war was about to be fought the likes of which he didn't think any human had ever witnessed before. "We've not much time now. I'm just as glad. I was never good at waiting."
"Must be hard for someone who has lived as long as you have," Katashan said.
"So true. Ready?"
He nodded. They went to the runes together. The others retreated, save for Fordel. Cork looked back at them, worried but not afraid as he moved to where Onshara and Serrano stood. With them had come a hundred troops and as many villagers because Peralin had said he couldn't tell what might come to this battle. Fordel's guards, with their own little magics, had turned up late in the afternoon and now where with the troops. They would be some little help, Katashan hoped, in protecting those without magic.
A single arc of light rested above the sea, lessening even as Katashan watched. No more time for prayers, warnings and hopes. Fordel began to set his ward, weaving the first layer of magic. Aster joined in, and the ward rose around them, like fine crystal, sparkling with power.
Katashan knelt over those damned runes, his ritual blade in hand and ready.
The world went a little darker. He had to begin now, even though he didn't want to draw the trouble to them and give up this seductive peace.
He slit the tender skin of his wrist and winced at the pain this time. In some ways he found that reassuring. It made him feel more human again.
"She'll come now," he warned the others.
He dropped red blood onto the runes and used his blood stained knife to cut at the magic, breaking the runes up again, even though they immediately tried to reform. He kept at the work, hacking into the symbols that tied life and death, spring and winter.
"There she is," Fordel warned. "And not alone."
He dared to look because he needed some idea of what he dealt with this time. Sherina came out of the growing darkness over the sea, a bright wraith again, and far angrier than the last time he'd seen her. The allies at her side were dark shadows with red eyes. He had heard of such things, but never seen them before. These were lesser demons from her master's world that had come to earth where they should never have had the power to reach. And behind her came a train of ghosts, willowy and howling in the wind.
The first wave of demons reached the soldiers and they fell into battle though the ghosts remained caught in the maelstrom of the storm, still powerless in the winds. They would come later, he thought. For now the soldiers and villagers faced the demons, and these things could at least die. He saw swords cut through them, and their bodies wither and shrivel to black husks. But they came on, wave after wave, while his allies held their ground.
He cut at the runes again, but they reformed more quickly. He had known he couldn't destroy them -- not quite yet. He gave up the battle and stood. Fordel moved to his right, Aster to his left. They had both known her in life, and he suspected they both felt responsible for this trouble. Katashan knew the folly of such beliefs, though. Some things happened. Not their fault. Just as it had not been his fault for . . . other things that were best left forgotten at a time like this.
I will not fail again.
Sherina raced forward, alone. That was her weakness, he thought. She had a single-minded hatred he suspected had been an innate part of her personality, even when alive. He used the weakness against her now.
They had made the ward as strong as they dared without draining all their own power, but he also knew the protection wouldn't hold her off for long.
"This finished at last," she said, her voice clear and sharp. Battle raged between the soldiers and her demons, but she didn't look back to see how her army fared. Katashan dared not look either, because though he worried about those who fought, he could not help them. If he and the two other mages didn't win against her, then no one here would survive.
She put her hands on the ward, smiling. Streaks of red power sparked at her fingertips and flickered across the surface. She wouldn't take long now. . . .
Katashan put his hand up as well, blocking her entrance for a moment longer. He looked at Aster. "She has brought her allies, but not her master."
"He wouldn't come here," Aster said.
"He wanted to make you a slave," Katashan said, knowing she heard, and no doubt her master as well. They wouldn't understand the implications. "He made you immortal, Aster, because he wanted a link to this world, a vessel through which to use his power. Sherina must have been exactly what he was looking for; a totally amoral human. He made his link to this world."
Aster nodded. Ready.
Katashan reached out of the ward and grabbed her wrist. She screamed and raged and twisted -- but he held on and founda link to something else. He tried to sever the tie, but the being at the other end grabbed tighter hold.
So he caught hold of it in turn and pulled.
He wondered if this was wise, to compel such a being to come to his reality, but he did so anyway. Under most circumstances, he wouldn't have had the power to command anything of such power -- Godling or demonling, whatever Emista might truly be. But this one had created its own weakness by tying itself so tightly to the frail human shell of Sherina. Emista had tasted lives from this reality, long ago when they still sacrificed to him and before he lost his hold. He hungered for the power it would have here because...
Aster put a hand on his shoulder, linked as well, understanding the need to pull Emista to them from that place where --
Understanding came through Aster who had dealt with such beings during his long, long life.
"Hell," Aster said. "Minor being, almost powerless in his own realm."
"And as ambitious and amoral as Sherina," Katashan said, breathless, but holding on.
"Not evil on purpose. It just doesn't care. There, Katashan -- careful --"
Some thing cold, dark and shadowed came to his call, forming by Sherina, swirling into a human shape, though faceless.
"And now that I am here, what will you do?" Emista demanded, his voice full of echoes. "You cannot hope to win against me."
"Your power is limited on this world," Katashan said.
"True." The face took on a little shape. "But limited does mean different things to different beings."
He reached forward and brushed aside the ward.
And she swept in at them.
Katashan stepped aside and Aster grabbed her arm and pulled her straight to him as he threw up a ward around them. He trapped her inside the shell; an avenging ghost with an immortal mage who might just stand up to her ability to draw life from him.
Katashan turned a spell towards the second target, though the power was little more than a flare against the creature. However, Emista had never stood in human form before and the stunned him.
They would not have another chance.
Fordel put a hand to Katashan's shoulder, opening a conduit and allowing Katashan to take all the magic he could and shape the power in whatever way suited him.
The sun sent a final flare of fire against the sea and dropped, leaving behind the last, latent hint of day. He felt the runes swell with power and the world tremble as the air screamed with winds buffeting them on every side. Katashan sent every bit of power he could into the runes, blasting them aside from the ground, and filling in the space with enough magic that he nearly went to his knees.
But he held the runes at bay.
Emista surged toward him, running out of time if he wanted his spell to take hold. Katashan, still gasping from the last magic, brought up his knife and slashed at the creature. The move had been instinctive, and wise, because it sent Emista back with a cry of pain -- and unwise because the cut both angered Emista and taught him about pain.
In that moment Emista pulled back he saw the battle. Dead black carcasses littered the ground, but so did far too many bodies of soldiers and villagers. Serrano lay so still Katashan knew him dead. Onshara knelt beside Cork.
Gods. . . .
Emista swept back at him, not weakened by Katashan's attack. How could they win? Why should he fight and lose again. Better to finish this eternal struggle and give up forever. Better to be gone from this world than to suffer through the deaths of more people. He could not take this suffering into his heart again.
"No, Katashan," Fordel whispered at his ear. "Don't. Those are his thoughts, not yours."
But he wasn't so certain. He looked towards Onshara and Cork, and he saw the way she slowly stood and turned to him, her face bleak and lit by the lambent magic in the air. No, he didn't want to face the loss of friends again.
"Katashan," Onshara said. He reluctantly looked into her face. "Don't fail us this time."
The words struck a rush of agony and power. He remembered his wife, his children, all those he had failed before. He cried out and threw such magic at Emista that he looked surprised. No! He would not fail them.
But he was only human, and Katashan knew he was no match for a being of this power. Peralin could, perhaps, help them, but he doubted they would survive long enough for darkness to fall and bring him here.
Onshara fought once more, her sword swinging against demon creatures as tried to surround her. He had the blade in hand, but his wrist already bled and he could only bleed out so much magic from his veins. Fordel faltered, nearly losing his hold on Katashan's shoulder. Aster could not hold Sherina forever.
Help. Gods, he needed help.
Gods. . . .
He stepped aside, losing Fordel who fell senseless to the ground. No matter. Either this worked or he failed, but not because he had given up. Another step and he put his hand on the Verina altar. The blood flowed down his hand, so much that he felt weak, and his head pounded with each heartbeat.
"Help us now, Goddess. Help us or we are all lost."
He dropped to his knees beside the kneeling goddess, and Emista laughed as he rushed forward. Katashan had no more power to use to hold him back.
Light spread around him, radiant and warm. Unearthly. He hadn't expected the goddess to come in person, but he knew she stood beside him. Her hand brushed against his head and he felt strength again.
"Goddess," he whispered, and bowed his head to her.
"You have served me well, Katashan. I never doubted the battle you fought was for good, even when you doubted you could win." Her voice sounded like a song, and birds sang around them.
Emista's faceless head swung from side-to-side, either in denial or confusion. Peralin came as well, there on Night, even in this brightness. He looked fierce this time as he faced Emista, ready for the battle.
But Katashan looked back at Verina, who brushed a hand so gentle against the side of his face -- like the touch of a spring breeze, filled with life and love, and everything he had thought he'd lost. "I have brought you here for a reason, Katashan. You alone could keep this trouble in check and keep them weak until now; and I can only answer to the call of a wanderer, lost in the world. I could only come in the time of true need."
"You are no more powerful here than me," Emista said, daring to move closer.
"Am I not?" she said. Katashan looked up to see her smile, and the sight warmed his heart and gave him power. "You don't understand. You never have. It's not the control of humans that gives power. It is their belief in us. They're prayers. Their wishes. And the people here very much wish for you to be gone, Emista."
She swept her hand towards Emista and he fell back, stunned. The skies filled with lightning, and when Katashan looked up, he could see a thousand beings in the skies, swirling, moving and preparing to do battle.
Verina crossed to Emista. He tried to scramble away, but this time she caught him by the leg and flung him into the sky as easily as a child might fling a stick. Something caught hold of Emisa and dragged him away while he screamed in protest. Lightning flashed and winds roared, winter and spring at battle with each other just as the others fought.
"This is my battle," Verina said. She looked around. "I wish you all well."
She leapt upward toward the clouds, like a star flying into the sky. Peralin went past Katashan, leaning down in his saddle. He reached within Aster's ward and grabbed Sherina by the hair, and galloped off into the sky, dragging her with him.
The sky screamed with the powers. Lightning too bright to watch darted through the clouds. Winds as cold as winter alternated with warm spring rains. Katashan covered his eyes, and prayed -- truly prayed for his goddess, and hoped the others had the sense to do the same. He put his hand on the statue, but felt only stone now, cold and still.
"Give her strength," he said. "Give her mine, if it will help. Don't let her fail in this battle."
The ground shook. What few trees still stood cracked and fell and he feared they would all be swept away. How long? How --
He feared to take his hand away from his eyes. What if they had lost? What if he had failed?
He dared to look up. Onshara stood over him looking dazed and bleeding, but real. He let his hand reach out to hers, believing . . . they had survived. The sky had nearly cleared in those few last heartbeats; the last of the clouds dissipating and the stars bright in an inky sky.
"Did we win?" Onshara asked. She looked around and shook her head. Katashan couldn't quite focus on the others, but he knew that many had died. Aster sat, stunned, on the ground nearby. Lord Fordel moved a little and went still again.
Cork sat up, alive. Praise the gods for that.
But did they win? The night felt dark and still. Cold.
"I don't know," he admitted. "I don't know who won."
She looked worried at those words and watched the sky for a sign. There were no answers there. Katashan stood slowly. He ached. He wondered if that would ever end. What could they expect? The runes were gone, at least but then they would have been even if they completed their work rather than were destroyed.
They needed to know. He hated to doubt.
He went to the statue. Cold stone again. He had hoped. . . .
"Goddess, give us a sign," he whispered. And he carefully cut his wrist, letting the blood flow down into her hands again. "Forgive us our doubts, but give us a sign."
A little whisper of warmth spread over him. The cut on his wrist healed without him doing the work and for a moment a light flashed in the sky. Birds sang around them. And the blood in her palms disappeared.
The battle was done.
Everyone felt the loss Captain Serrano, especially at the fort. Even knowing the world had been saved from evil could not mask their sadness. Katashan understood too well. He said a prayer for the dead their first night back and he hoped the soldiers and villagers who had died in the battle found a good afterlife.
Katashan had come down from Silver Pass feeling like he had stepped into the world again for the first time in many long, painful years. He had finally forgiven himself for not saving those he loved and even forgiven the gods for not doing it for him. He accepted life again.
Lord Fordel took up residence at Salbay and the fort, partly to help with the work, but also because it was safer for him to be with the troops who trusted him. The soldiers and the townspeople had voted to stand by their unusual lord, even in the face of the King's army if he chose to send one to deal with his magic-knowing noble. It seemed unlikely there would be trouble, though. The High Priests in several cities had already sent word that they'd had ominous signs of what had happened at Silver Pass and they knew magic had saved the world.
So they lived in an uneasy truce. No one could be certain that the battle was truly done so the king would not waste a weapon like Fordel.
Peralin and Night had not returned since the battle and even that statue of the two empty now. Katashan suffered from that loss far more keenly than he had expected. Peralin had been an unexpected friend, as human and real as Serrano, and as much missed. He hoped -- prayed -- the Godling had survived the battle in the skies. He hoped that he might see him again.
Aster, still called Matish, remained as the priest of the temple. His part in the trouble had not been known by many, and even the soldiers didn't realize the full extent of his battle with Sherina. He remained a priest to them, and Onshara and her people still had the duty of guarding the book. The pages had taken on a new meaning for her, and she prepared to take it back to Holding. Oh yes, and the goblet as well, of course. The villagers would protect both.
Cork, recovering from his wounds, had admitted he told Onshara to say the words that sparked Katashan to his final rush of strength. He apologized for such a ploy, but Katashan knew he had done the right thing, to play on those feelings of guilt that he'd brought with him to this new land. The words had shocked him out of his acceptance of another failure.
Fordel had hinted that Cork would be the next Captain and in charge of the Salbay Fort, which Katashan thought a good choice. He was a good man, and both respected and liked as Serrano had been.
Everyone, it seemed, had begun to find their places to settle.
Except for Katashan. . . .
On the late afternoon, five days after the battle, he stood on the shore and let soft waves brush against his bare feet. The warmth of spring spread over him and the blue sea went on forever. Gulls skimmed along the water, and pelicans dove into the waves, coming away with their catches still wiggling in the huge pouches beneath their beaks. He had seen dolphins playing in the waves, and he thought perhaps he'd seen a sea person as well, dancing with them.
Off to the right the port and the fishing village had begun recovering from the storms, the locals stoic in their work of rebuilding. Ships had lost masts, but this was an excellent port to be stranded in, with good, stout trees so close at hand, and workers who knew how to cut, trim and prepare the trunks. He'd also seen some of the sailors, even those from far lands, helping with the work in the village. Good people, all of them. Where would they sail, when the time came? Where would they go across that blue ocean, to places so far away that he couldn't name or imagine them?
"I thought I would find you here, sir."
He hadn't heard Cork coming down the path to the ocean, even though the soldier walked with a cane while a serious leg wound healed. He looked battered, but content. Everyone should be content, Katashan thought. They had saved the world. The future could have been much different.
"Just . . . thinking."
Cork nodded. He looked out at the ocean in silence for a long moment before he looked back to Katashan again. "I am a fisherman's son, you know. I took to the sea a few times. It's a wild place, but sometimes filled with such perfect peace I couldn't imagine a better life. But, alas, one cannot stay on the ocean forever."
"Would you want to?"
"Sometimes," Cork admitted. "There's trouble on land, always trouble, isn't there?"
"No matter where I go," Katashan admitted. He watched the waves, the gulls and the pelicans. Was that the only place of peace?
"Will you be leaving us now, sir?"
And go . . . where? To what new trouble? Surely there was some place out there where he could find peace again.
Or not. Because the world didn't lack peace, he did. He knew the truth. Nonetheless, the ocean called to him, just the same. The peace Cork had found on the waves whispered to him with each brush of a wave over his feet and each cry of a gull.
So maybe he would sail to another land. What would it be like? He had heard of places where it never snowed, where people lived in perpetual sunshine, and danced upon the shore each night.
Could he fit among those people?
Cork stood beside him, silent and waiting patiently, as he had so often since he arrived at Salbay.
"The ocean is wide," Katashan said at last. He kicked at the wave that brushed at his foot, like he had so long ago as a child standing on the shore of a different ocean. "I'm not ready for the journey yet, Cork. I'll stay for a while longer."
"Ah, good," Cork said. He smiled so brightly Katashan felt the joy, infectious and bright along with his own relief. He had found acceptance here and need not go as a stranger to some other land. Not yet. He hadn't thought it mattered, but it did. "I'm glad you're staying, sir. And what will you do now?"
There was a question he hadn't even considered.
"I'm not certain yet," he admitted.
"Well, it may be I can help you there, sir," Cork said. "I've just come from the tavern, you see. The one that Maylee's uncle owns. He might be willing to rent you a space for that business of yours. He thinks oils and such for the baths might draw a few people in, and being so close to the baths would be good for you, too."
Katashan stared at him in shock. How could they talk about such things? Business? Trade and. . . .
And life the way it should be. Cork waited, his head tilted to the side as though judging how Katashan dealt with this offer. He had come here looking just for the opportunity Cork had given him, and now he wanted to run as though he feared to fail in business far more than he had feared failing to save the world. The people here were giving him the life he had wanted: A gift for the work he had done.
"I will need to know more about the taxes," he said. Cork grinned. "And it might be nice to know anything at all about the local coinage. Housing, too. When will Tyren be through again, do you know? I need to send an order back with him."
"Spoken like a true tradesman if you don't mind me saying so, sir," Cork said and laughed. "Shall we go talk to Maylee's uncle now? And then I'll get you back to the fortress in time for the feast."
"You are no longer charged with looking after me, you know," Katashan said, though glad for the reminder of the celebration.
"Am I not, sir? No one has told me so. Those were the Captain's order, sir. And I intend to keep it."
"It may not be safe, you know," Katashan said. "There are people who might not approve of me, even still."
Cork laughed. "Gods, man -- do you think I'm going to worry about what people think after all we've been through? Come on now, sir. We've a long walk back."
He couldn't argue the point. He started out with Cork, each of them limping. They climbed the long stairway path to Salbay's city in the cliffs, a slow walk that Katashan found reassuring somehow. Peaceful, and pleasant: No need, finally, to rush anywhere. When they reached the top landing, he stopped and looked back at the sea just as the sun set. He didn't think he'd seen anything so beautiful with the rays of red and gold blending into the darkening sky and sea. Sea birds flew and yelled, finding their places in the rooks along the cliffs and on the stone carved buildings. Cork didn't hurry him and Katashan turned at last and stepped through the corridor between the fish and salt markets and into the city.
Onshara had been on the path through the city, a few of her people with her. They all looked worn still, but it was a wonder to see the villagers walking through the city, at peace with the others.
Katashan nodded his own greeting and then, in the fall of dark as people lit torches at the shops, he heard the familiar sound of horse hooves, which were never heard here in the city. Katashan laughed and looked up as Peralin and Night came into view.
"I'm glad to see you!" Katashan said, slapping the godling on the shoulder as he swept off of Night.
Peralin laughed. People who had started to back away in shock stayed their ground. Smiles came here and there.
"Peralin, sir, if you're back, does that mean we are in danger again?" Cork asked, casting worried glances all around.
"Rest easy, Cork. Verina has given me leave to come and go as I like from this place, as long as there are believers here. There will be trouble again, of course. Doors opened recently that are not so easily shut, but I will be here to help if anything gets out of hand. Besides Salbay, with its fine port, is a good place for the goddess of travelers, don't you think?"
"Oh, yes, sir," Cork said grinning as well. "Yes, I think we can carve her a fine temple here, along the walls. Seems the least we can do."
"And good that you already have a priest on hand, isn't it?" Peralin asked with a brighter smile.
"I want to be a merchant," Katashan protested.
Everyone laughed. But then Peralin looked a little more serious, and laid a hand on Katashan's shoulder.
"For you, though, she sends a special gift. You may ask for anything, Katashan. Ask for anything you wish returned to you. But do so carefully, my friend. Some things would change the very fabric of the world."
Katashan stared at him, fears and longing growing in his heart. He could not speak at first for fear of doing something stupid.
"If . . . If I ask for my wife and children returned, things would change, wouldn't they?" he asked softly.
"Yes. You would be removed from the events here. You would come home from slavery to find them waiting for you. You would have a very happy life with them."
"But here . . . I would not be here."
"No, you wouldn't. The battle would go differently. Aster might hold back the enemy for a while, but he and Fordel would lose if they didn't find other help. It is possible they would. But you . . . you would not know about such things, my friend. These events would not touch you in your lifetime, except perhaps to hear that there was trouble in Cyrenia."
"But it would come, eventually, to my children. The world would be lost."
"It might. But you would never know."
He knew the future that would happen if he were not here. He had seen it in a vision from the Goddess. The city fell into the sea and that meant much else gone wrong.
For one, brief moment he thought me might hold his wife and children again. But he bowed his head and said farewell to them in truth, now.
"I can't. I can't throw the world away for a few years of personal peace."
"No, we didn't think you could. So what would you have instead, Katashan?"
He didn't take long to decide.
"I would like the return of our allies lost in the battle at Silver Pass if that won't change things."
Peralin nodded. "Yes. No real disruption there. . . ."
He stepped backwards and his cloak billowed out -- wide and far with a gentle darkness that came and went. People appeared in the shadows as the cloak swept back around him. Many people. And a dozen children. There had been no children at the pass --
"They died at the village," Onshara whispered, sweeping two of the youngest into her arms, and holding them tightly.
"Did they?" Peralin said. "My. I guess I spread my cloak a little too far, didn't I? Well, no harm done."
No harm, and great good. Katashan put a hand on the Godling's arm and nodded his thanks, thinking of other families that would be whole tonight.
Serrano stepped from the darkness of the cape and looked around, frowning a little and shaking his head. "I was somewhere else." He shook his head and focused on them. "I think . . . I think I need a drink," he said.
"That sounds like a damned good idea," Katashan agreed. He patted the grinning Cork on his shoulder. Then he looked at Peralin and smiled. "Thank you. Care to join us?"
"I would be honored," he said and bowed his head.
Onshara, one of the children still in her arms, stepped forward and wrapped her free arm around Katashan. "Bless you, my friend. The gods bless you."
And in an odd way, he thought maybe they already had.