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Way Walkers: Broken City: The Tazu Saga

Way Walkers: Broken City: The Tazu Saga

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Way Walkers: Broken City: The Tazu Saga

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5/5 (1 Bewertung)
Länge:
476 Seiten
4 Stunden
Freigegeben:
Apr 5, 2016
ISBN:
9781524235987
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

Wounded and alone, Jathen desperately tries to make his way back home to the Tazu Nation. His path is treacherous, as he is pursued by the traitorous Mikkal and the mysterious Sister. However, a Grand Artifact has chosen him as its guardian, and it may have other plans for the wayward moot.

Torn once more from everything he's known, Jathen must not only find answers from the Artifact's past but also learn to use his newfound Abilities to save the populace of a city lost to time.

Freigegeben:
Apr 5, 2016
ISBN:
9781524235987
Format:
Buch

Über den Autor

J. Leigh wrote her first novel at the tender age of eleven, delving deep into the extensive fantasy world she entitled Way Walkers . Since then, she has never really left, though occasionally does emerge to enjoy the company of friends, family, horror movies and the ever-popular sushi dinner. She currently lives in southern New Jersey with a chow-chow, several cats and fictional cast of hundreds. Leigh’s published works include a “choose your own” interactive novel, Way Walkers: University, with Choice of Games. Mac J Rea has been writing stories and sharing them on the internet since GeoCities was the hot new thing. Fortunately, most were never read. Despite earning a M.A. in English Literature and the ability to cheerfully bore people with heartfelt opinions on semiotics, Mac credits fanfiction communities that share writing online as their primary influence. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Mac has spent years of friendship with J. Leigh, collaborating over the world of Way Walkers. Mac currently lives in northern New Jersey with their spouse, mother, piebald cat, and a fleet of airplanes in almost every scale.


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Way Walkers - J. Leigh

Prologue:

Awake

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Red light pulsed.

It flickered rhythmically upon the panel. An unknown glitch had rendered the round beacon soundless sometime during the long years of its dormancy. The only glow in his darkness, it bathed the glass prison in primordial crimson—somehow a fitting greeting as his brain slowly meandered into consciousness. It was a steep climb, full of phantoms and nonsensical sensations, where memories drifted through the burgundy illumination, floating, falling, and fanning out. He would catch one, only to have it crumble. Each memory was a tiny portion of his universe, no more than a battered pane of glass through which squinting discerned only vague shadows.

Clear, square, and sleek, a new illumination bloomed beyond the barrier: a window of light in a dark world. Words flittered across the holographic screen. Through the haze of glass, he read them.

Strange seismic activity….third report in three decades….danger to the Lemuria project….grace period passed….activation of Contingency Program Beta…

So that is it. An entire lifetime coalesced in his head. That is why I’m awake.

Through the fog of memories, only one question remained. He knew who he was. The real question was: Which am I? That was the important unknown—the answer that would decide everything.

For him.

For everyone.

FLIGHT

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Chapter 1

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Someone knocked.

Sprawled upon the beaten wood planks of the floor, his back against the foot of the shabby rope bed, Jathen stiffened. As he turned toward the sound, the comfort of the crackling fire pit vanished, giving way to uncertainty. Dozens of possibilities skittered across his frightened brain, sparking a fractured myriad of suspicions. The majority of his concerns were, of course, centered upon the thing tucked in his pack under the bed.

The Grand Artifact of Bree and Bron.

He’d spent the first hour in his inn room trying to disassemble it, but all of Jathen’s running of fingers over it and seeking out seams had been for naught. No one would ever imagine you’d even been a puzzle waiting to be solved. Oddly, he wished it could at least take up residence in his chest again. Instead, it had simply reappeared only to stay appeared. That was highly inconvenient, since Jathen had already destroyed it once in order to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Then again, for all I know, it could have done its mergence trick after I smashed it, rode down the mountain inside me, only to return to outside of me once it decided it was safe.

Jathen suspected the lovely cuff, which Hatori Chann had made for him, had buzzed in reaction every time the Grand Artifact moved in and out of the protective ward worked into the master-charm timepiece, but since Skaniss had dashed the gift from his mother upon the street, he’d heard no such thing and thus lost the luxury of warnings.

His visitor knocked again.

The force of the rap reverberated against the door, sending a shiver down the body of Ass’shiri’s crossbow. The dead kasior’s weapon had served Jathen well in the last few weeks since Ass’shiri’s death; the only remnant of his murdered blood brother was braced against the single entrance as a precaution against intruders. Jathen flicked a few sweaty clumps of overly long blond hair from his eyes but didn’t stir to remove the makeshift brace. Who is it?

Ka’moya.

Ka’moya?

I’m a Rheanic messenger, sir. Surprisingly, the visitor answered flawlessly in the scholar’s tongue of Tar’cil, a language uncommon in the isolation of the far north. I was told to pick up a letter from someone here answering to ‘Jathen’? Is this correct? The innkeeper said you were the only new guest today.

Spirit in Heaven, the Interpreter actually sent someone. Yes. Can you wait a few moments? I’m just finishing it up now.

Not too long, sir. I’ve other deliveries to make.

I won’t be long. I just want to read it over once more. The ink is probably already emblazoned into the back of my gold eyes, every line, every difficult sentence.

Jathen thought back to the previous night. Having toyed unsuccessfully with the Grand Artifact, he’d finally succumbed to sleep, only to awaken the next morning to the memory of his request to the mysterious Interpreter, asking to send home a letter. Downstairs, he had begged paper and pen from the innkeeper, only to have her try to drag him into the gossip spinning around the room.

You feel—the shaking? she’d asked in her broken Tar’cil. See the smoke? To the east?

Jathen had shaken his head. No, he’d lied, heading back up the stairs with the precious ink and quill. I came from the west.

While the ka’moya waited, Jathen reread the letter, brooding over the content. The words themselves had taken a long time to come. The three-pronged stab of grief, secrets, and uncertainty had stayed his hand with every looping letter.

Thee,

I’m not certain if I can explain without terrifying you or saying too much or too little, as so much has happened—so much more than I am capable of understanding, let alone describing with any clarity. I am alive. I am alone—Hatori, Jephue, and Ass’shiri are dead, murdered. I am no longer in the Republic and am being pursued. I’ve been drawn into something, Thee—something, as I said, I cannot explain without putting us both in danger. The only thing I can tell you is while in the Republic, for reasons which seem unattached to my current pursuers, Skaniss actually tried to kill me. I know this is a grand burden to lay at your feet while saying so little, but I need you to tell Mother this truth. Tell her to be cautious, as Skaniss hinted he had orders from a higher source, perhaps even our dear uncle and king, Kyanith.

I hope this letter finds you, and please know I am going to do my damnedest to get home.

~Jathen

In the end though, the things he’d written on the other pages of his letter—the portion he wanted to send in a separate envelope for Thee’s eyes only—tugged at his soul.

You know your little friend Seren? Well, she gave me a present when I left—and it turned out to be half of a Grand Artifact of the Child Bree and her Aspect, Bron. The problem is, after I solved it, it kept disappearing. Only, it was hiding inside my chest, of all places. Apparently, a Red follower named Sister is intent on getting it so she can uncover the hidden laboratory of Prothidian Altar. She had the other half of the Grand Artifact and made a terrible device that caused the earthquake in the Tazu Nation that killed our grandmother and granduncle and orphaned our mother. Apparently, it didn’t work very well without both halves.

Sister had a brother, Mikkal, who took the device from her. He was supposed to report it to a secret group of Clansmen who monitor such things, but he didn’t. He was following Hatori, who was the apprentice of Charm Master Yvette Ashton before Yvette was killed by A’ron De’contes. Even though he was innocent, Hatori had been exiled for helping De’contes, and Mikkal thought Hatori would have an Artifact with him. And Sister, who wasn’t really dead, was watching, too! Isn’t that funny, Thee? The whole time, they thought Hatori had it, but I had it! They killed Hatori, Jephue, and Ass’shiri—all for something I didn’t know I had!

I trusted Mikkal, but he wanted the lab, too. He brought me to the Solki Islands for it, but a strange man named the Interpreter, the man who trained Mikkal, saved me. The Interpreter and I destroyed a mysterious room from the Old World together after the Artifact brought it up from the depths. It wasn’t Prothidian’s lab, though, and now I fear both Mikkal and Sister will come for me, seeking this strange Grand Artifact and the larger prize they feel it shall uncover.

Jathen crumpled those two pages then tossed them into the fire pit. He imagined his letter was better—or at least less insane sounding—without it. Sighing, he heated a small wedge of wax over the fire then let a few drops fall onto the folded letter. He sealed the missive with his signet ring, one of the few things he still had from the beginning of his ill-fated trek. Resolved, he blew on the rough, cream-colored wax. It will have to do. Jathen crossed the room, removed the crossbow, and opened the door.

A thin layer of dust lightened the ka’moya’s dirty-blond hair, and he had a formal but hurried mien. The human wore a dark uniform but no cloak—odd for so far north—and a black leather satchel was slung over his shoulder. Jathen couldn’t place the man’s coloring or accent; with brown eyes and fair skin, the man could have hailed from anywhere in the north from the Clan Lands to the Lu’shun Republic.

Who is the intended? he asked after Jathen handed over the sealed correspondence.

Intended?

The courier sighed, tapping the strap of his bag with his forefinger in a vexed rhythm. Have you not used ka’moya before?

Jathen shook his head.

"There’s an incredible binding pact gone into each of our deliveries and also sealed into our messenger bags. Only the ka’moya who carries the individual bag can reach into that bag to pull out the letter, and only in the presence of the intended recipient. I cannot make the delivery to anyone else, and no one can relieve me of the letter without killing me, which is difficult, because we are trained to be rather evasive. After slipping the letter into a new envelope he’d pulled from his bag, he waited with a scrap of charcoal, poised to write. Now, who is the intended?"

I have your discretion?

I’m a Rheanic. It goes without saying.

Jathen smirked a little. Despite his personal issues with the Ways, he did get along with quite a few of the Protector’s followers. Thee, er—Genthelvith Monortith. Thee is her nickname. You’re more likely to get her to answer to that.

The ka’moya’s eyes widened slightly at the name, but true to form, he didn’t pry. Where am I to find the intended?

The palace in Kidwellith. That’s the capital city in the Tazu Nation.

I know it. He scribbled the information, along with some odd symbols Jathen didn’t recognize. He blew on it once, as if to dry the ink. A hum burst from nowhere, reverberating all around. Then a light sparked, and the symbols and writing disappeared, as if burned away. All right then, your parcel is now held under the truest protection of the one true guardian, Rhean, the Obsidian Dragon, the Protector Child of the Twelve. He slipped the letter into his satchel. I’ll be on my way, then.

Don’t suppose you could fit me in there? Jathen chuckled halfheartedly. The Interpreter had given him some money, but he was still uncertain as to how, exactly, he was going to get home. And take me to Kidwellith, too?

The bags function on the principles of travel-adaptive spatial magic, so I don’t think there’d be enough oxygen for the trip in there, the ka’moya replied. Besides, I’m not strong enough a Talent to Veil-slide anyone but myself, even if they were riding in a dimensional pocket. Still have to go through the International Ward checkpoints, too. It will be a few weeks or so before I get all the way down to Kidwellith. Maybe more, depending on the weather and such.

Was worth asking. Jathen bid the ka’moya farewell and thanks, then he shut and rebraced the door. On my own then, truly.

Though rest beckoned him, action seemed more prudent. I have no idea how far Mikkal fled, and if he has any idea where I am, it’s best if I’m not there. The mainland, then. Jathen began gathering his things. Home.

He needed minimal time to ready himself, putting the most debate into what to do with the Grand Artifact. Keeping it in his pack seemed a poor solution, and as much as it pained him, Jathen found himself considering Mikkal’s words: Artifacts are pieces of the Children themselves, Jathen. To some extent, we have even known reports of them thinking, planning, and deciding things.

Well, it’s certainly shown signs of doing just that so far. Jathen studied it. I wonder if that means I can reason with this thing?

Feeling silly, he tried asking, Bree, or Bron, or neither of you, or rather, Grand Artifact-thing, could you, perhaps, please do that trick where you ‘hide within what’s not hidden’ for a bit? It’s not to use or abuse your power, I promise—it’s just going to be a lot simpler and easier to protect you in there. To his unending shock, it worked. He felt it agree soundlessly. Then it disappeared, leaving only a sensation of warmth pulsing in his chest.

Though gratifying, the result sobered him as the possible ramifications of this preferred home settled in. In the Republic, he’d been terrified he’d inadvertently triggered the Grand Artifact and created the earthquake that caused the deaths of not only his friends but thousands of innocents. It turned out to be a false fear; the earthquake and resulting tsunami were caused when Mikkal used Sister’s half-fueled Artifact device. However, Jathen had only been toting half of a Grand Artifact in his chest before; at that moment, it was whole. He needed to be careful. He still didn’t know what the Grand Artifact could do—or what would trigger it.

Again, Mikkal’s words sprang to mind unbidden, after the moment when the Artifact had brought an ancient laboratory to the surface. "Spirit in Heaven—the way it feels, it must have been anchored—spaces within spaces—the Artifact combined with such a Talent—it must draw out the rooms between—"

Anchored, spaces within spaces… could Mikkal have been talking about spatial magic? Jathen ran fingers through his hair, frustrated that he couldn’t recall Hatori’s rants on the subject in more detail. Rooms between? Did he mean vibrational rooms created from spatial magic? But what did he mean about combined with such a Talent? A nontraditional Talent? Sister, Ishane, and Mikkal called me that. Spirit, I wish I had answers, or at the very least, more time to ponder the questions. He knew sleep would aid his memory, but that had to wait.

Jathen donned his winter wear and pack, tucked Hatori’s sword cane into his belt, and swung Ass’shiri’s crossbow over his shoulder. It will all have to wait for later. The mourning, the answers, the decisions. All for later—if I get to see later.

After a quick trip downstairs, he paid the innkeeper and asked for directions to the nearest port and supplies.

A moment give, she assured, while I gather for you. She put a mug on the bar a single stool over from a burly older man who was nursing a drink. She poured a honey-colored ale then put a slice of crusty bread and cheese beside the mug. Here. Drink. Eat. Back soon.

Taking hold of the rough handle carved like a wolf’s head, Jathen settled onto his stool to wait. The drink was warm and sweet, almost overly so, but it masked the bland flavor of the bread and the tartness of the cheese. He had just relaxed slightly when the man beside him spoke.

You need a Solki. The comment seemed to emerge from the depths of a frazzled gray beard.

Pardon?

The man shifted a little, eyeing Jathen with beady, dark eyes tucked under a brown hood. A nasty scar dug so deep into his scalp that hair no longer grew around it. "You reek of sorrow and pain, boy, soaking in it as if you’d wet your sheets in the night. To be rid of it, all you need do is sit with a Solki, and poof! All the misery, all the hurt, it is as if it never were."

An interesting prospect. Jathen knew of the Solki. The Solki Islands, the only place they lived, were named for them. The only intelligent race who claimed to not have originated from humans, they never explained their origins. Legend told they ate emotions, relieving human suffering in exchange for coexistence.

Could it really be that simple? To not forget the faces of my friends, but to simply lose this crippling sadness that they are no longer here?

Memories surfaced. Ass’shiri laughing when Jathen tried to fire his crossbow. Hatori and Jephue fighting. All of them sitting together in the charm shop, happy and carefree. The fire that took Hatori and Jephue. Ass’shiri bleeding out before him.

He felt a sickening stab of sorrow, but then it fueled a spark of passion that became a purpose for being, for fighting, and for making it home. I’m going to need that.

No, thank you, Jathen firmly replied. I’ll keep my pain. I’ll ‘marinate’ in it, as you say, let it soak in and temper my soul, knowing no matter what comes, no matter what monsters I face in the dark, nothing shall ever be as bitter or cut as deep as the pain of my past. Finishing off his drink in a single swig, he realized he’d spoken more for his own benefit than the stranger’s. "For that, I shall be stronger. For that, I will be braver. For that, I will be better."

Then you are wiser than a lot of us. The man snorted into his drink.

I best be, Jathen murmured. Or it was all for naught.

The innkeeper returned with a few wrapped parcels and a local map. Paying the lady once more, he bid them both farewell then went back out into the cold world. He got halfway across the road before someone grabbed him.

Chapter 2

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Stiffening, Jathen turned.

A child held his sleeve. A pale boy no more than maybe nine or ten, he had eyes the color of shadows on snow. Those eyes held an eager glint. You have an attachment.

Jathen’s tightened muscles relaxed in his confusion. Attachment?

A ghost, the boy explained in lightly accented Tar’cil. A soul not moved on to the far side of the Veil. It’s following you. Can come? I have someone will help.

Jathen frowned, examining him further. Thin, he wore the dark blue of Turin’s followers. He’s far too young to be a shandi. He also lacked the light-blue embroidery that adorned the Walkers’ outfits. It could be a scam, meant to glean a few coins off travelers or outright rob me, but then again—

At the summit, a figure had forcefully warned Jathen of Mikkal’s treachery, squeezing Jathen’s throat and looming in the middle of the fire. Deaths and betrayals come in threes. Watch yourself. An indistinguishable shadow, the voice had seemed familiar, though Jathen could not place it. All told, plenty of dead men could have been following him. How would you know?

I am Laer. He released Jathen’s sleeve. Assistant to Shandi Miolung, soon to be apprentice. Pride infused his tone. She sent me.

So, you can’t see the ghost.

Only shadows, he replied, squinting. "Though feel them, too, and you surely have something. He hopped from one foot to another, reminding Jathen of Thee, who was also an emotional medium. Please, sir, can come? It’s bad, to let dead linger."

Feeling no protest from the Artifact in his chest, Jathen took that lack of reaction for a sign of safety. All right. Lead the way.

Laer led him up a worn path that crested the hillside, away from the inn and the huddled houses. In the overcast budding morning, the dingy sky of the far north was about as welcoming as its frigid wind chill. Time spent in the true snowfall higher on the mountain had acclimated Jathen to the cold, but the glacial bite and murky gray still fed the islands’ ever-somber ambiance. Perhaps because he still mourned those he’d lost, the place just felt sad, even in the light of day. Or perhaps they didn’t feel sad, but—detached, as if the islands didn’t care who lived or died there. He remembered his vision at the summit—the destruction of the Old World. Or they’ve just seen so much death that one more hardly matters.

At the top of the crest, a small Way shrine of stone adjoined a residence of wood and clay, built partly into the hillside. Is this the village temple? Jathen followed Laer to the entrance. A rough effigy of a demon being stabbed by an angel, probably a ward to keep out spiritual predators, decorated the door.

Yes. Laer let them inside. Shandi Miolung’s home, too. And mine.

In the foyer, dual altars to the Children flanked the doors of the small vestibule. The first statue, Turin, the Avatar of Death, Jathen had expected to see. The dragon’s sapphire body glowed eerily in the candlelight. The altar was well suited to the home of a shandi. The other shrine, however, was occupied by a deep-green dragon statue of Desmoulein, Emerald Dragon and Child of Healing. She’s an odd partner to be found beside the Death Child, don’t you think? Their Ways aren’t exactly compatible.

Miolung say life and death go hand in hand, Laer explained reverently. There is healing in speaking to the passed. Turning from Jathen to the depths of the building, he proclaimed, I found him!

The blond with dragon’s eyes? As Shandi Miolung entered from the left archway, Jathen stiffened. Clad in the dark blue of her Way path, she was a human in her mid-seventies, with a hearty bearing despite a very frail frame. Fear not, young one. Stepping up beside him, she placed a gnarled hand on his shoulder. A motherly gaze lit her hazel eyes even as the shadow of her hood fell across them. "The ghost was merely very specific, and very forceful in having us find you."

Jathen eyed her hand, unable to shake the ominous overtone of her words. To what end?

It seems your ghost wishes to have a conversation with you. She tucked her hands into sleeves embroidered with light-blue dragons. Come.

A conversation? Jathen knew mediums could speak to the dead and that it was the specialty of the shandi Way path, but having a conversation with a ghost seemed absurd. How?

You shall see. Motioning to the archway she’d emerged from, she repeated, Come.

Trepidation filled Jathen. What on the continent did I just agree to? His experiences with ghosts were limited to shadowy stories from Thee and the benign haunting of the boarding house in the Republic, whose previous owner didn’t like the new decor and kept moving the furniture. I thought she was moving the star half of the Artifact, too, but now

He took a steadying breath, trying to focus on the present as he passed through a dim hallway. The strong scent of incense made him cough. Its earthy undertone was similar to frankincense but with a stonier cut, almost like wet rocks. I never thought I’d miss the temple fragrances from home. Or at least the sweeter aromas from the Beleskie temples in the Republic.

They entered a round room flagged in shale; a round table stood in the center. A stone protrusion ran the perimeter of the wall at waist height, covered in candles and burning incense. Like twittering ghosts awaiting Jathen’s arrival, a layer of the white smoke obscured the low ceiling.

Sit. Miolung motioned to one of the heavy cherry-wood stumps serving as chairs. She took the other, while Jathen stood, still hesitant. You cannot know until you try to find out, she said kindly.

And what if I don’t want to find out? Swallowing, Jathen felt a distinct but manageable sense of panic as his precognition prickled. Though not an outright vision, something seemed off. "I’ve learned that often knowing can make things worse."

Miolung bobbed her head. Wise, this line of thinking often is.

Jathen almost smirked, amused at having been praised for his wisdom twice in the same town.

She continued, This ghost which follows you, it is stuck. Many believe the path of the shandi is to move souls along so they might not harm the souls still in lesson. This is not entirely true. We also serve the dead, helping those who cannot find their way. You have been brought here not for yourself but for this lost, stuck soul. I will not force you to stay, but I will implore you, for the sake of this soul, to listen. Will you do this? Will you help someone who is lost to find their way home?

Jathen sighed, unable to summon any contestation. Longing also pierced his concerns—if any of his friends wished to tell him something, he wanted to hear. Hatori had died before telling him something important. Very well, he agreed, sitting. I’ll stay.

Thank you. She smiled warmly. Let’s begin, then. The shandi closed her eyes.

No chanting, no calling the spirits? Jathen murmured, nervousness making him sarcastic.

Beside his right elbow, Laer snorted. She a true Medium, not performer of party tricks, he whispered. "A real shandi need nothing special to speak to the dead—they just do."

Abruptly, the Way Walker straightened. Her eyes opened to a startling blue, and the voice that emerged from her mouth was not hers. Hello, Jathen.

Shivers shot through his entire body. No. His heart clenched. Not her. He’d expected the ones he’d loved and lost, but not the Red follower who’d cut down Ass’shiri in cold blood and conspired with Sister to kill them and thousands more.

Not Ishane.

"What the hell do you want?" he spat, considering fleeing the room. Leaving Miolung, though, seemed cruel; he was fairly certain she hadn’t known who Ishane was. A liar in life and in death.

It’s hard to see, she whispered. "There’s so many shadows, Jathen, so many things, out in the mist."

What? Jathen narrowed his eyes.

Ishane was no longer the confident Red follower, cohort of the infamous Sister, or even the doleful mei pretender playing on his affections. This was an Ishane he’d seen only once: in the wake of the earthquake, when the shock of so much death had taken her and honest vulnerability had finally broken the façade.

What is it you want, Ishane?

They’re coming. She clenched her hands, quavering. "I can’t find my way, not with all the mists. But if I can make it right, perhaps I can find the path—before they come."

Demons, Jathen realized. They’ve come to collect her soul for the Pit.

You once said you knew you’d rot in hell for the sins you committed. Are you trying to say you want my help avoiding it? Angrily, he blinked away tears. "As if you deserve it?"

No, she answered, soft but sure. They are coming, but I still see things, places, people— She shivered, and Jathen sensed something, almost as if the corners of the room darkened. "They are coming for you, Jathen."

Not good, Laer squeaked. Demons shouldn’t get in—Miolung, break connection!

In a desperate burst, Ishane-Miolung sprang forward and seized Jathen. Her freezing grip, as cold as the grave, bit hard into his wrists. Sister knows what you are! Don’t go home! Miolung slumped forward.

Shaking, Jathen pulled away, his heart pounding as Laer went to his mistress’s side. The lights in the room brightened but did little to settle Jathen’s nerves. Is she well?

Yes. Laer helped the Walker straighten. He produced a water skin from his robe and put it to her lips for a few long draws. He frowned, eyeing Jathen suspiciously. Most demons shouldn’t get past our wards. Don’t know what happened.

This ghost was Red, Jathen offered, the taste of metal stinging his mouth. Perhaps her demons were too strong for your ward. Licking the inside of his cheek, he found he’d bitten it.

Laer looked ruffled, but Miolung seemed merely sad.

I’ll be on my way then. Jathen stood, gathering his things. I’m sorry to have caused you trouble.

Every soul must pass to where they need to go, Miolung whispered, her voice haggard. "No matter the where. Thank you for helping."

Jathen couldn’t get outside and down the path quickly enough. Sister knows what you are. He shivered, genuinely unnerved. Nontraditional Talent—has to be. But what in the Pit is that? And if Sister knows, when I don’t, then what could she be plotting? Assuming I can trust anything Ishane said—a liar, that one, even in death. What if it’s all a ruse? Maybe I should go home, despite—

Wait, wait!

Oh Spirit, what now? Jathen turned to find Laer chasing him down, brandishing a note. Here—she wrote for you, after.

Frowning, Jathen opened the single slip of paper.

For what it’s worth, her warning is sound. Stay low. Don’t go home. Go to Tar’citadel—return my crossbow to the kasior order. Remember our words. Find my girl. Please tell her what happened to me. Stay strong, brother—I’m with you till the end, and beyond. And give the kid a damn coin, Moot. You aren’t Hatori to be so cheap.

The handwriting belonged to Ass’shiri.

Jathen’s body shook so hard he could barely breathe. Blinking back the wave of tears, he dug into his pocket and gave Laer a silver coin and a heartfelt thanks. As the boy retreated, he pondered the words in more detail. Return the crossbow. Find my girl. Please tell her what happened to me.

Jathen chided himself for having forgotten. The crossbows were meant to be wielded only by kasior. Of course it must be returned upon his death. And your girl… Jathen closed his eyes, recalling Ass’shiri’s hesitant description of a woman he’d left behind in order to add some actual age, as the Clansman had put it. Jathen knew little about her—only that she was Clan and was significantly older than Ass’shiri. And she had some pull in Tar’citadel. Oh, Ass’shiri, I’m so sorry. I’m not sure if I can do this for you. Why ask it of me?

The old stories Hatori had told came to life in his memories. It’s a Clan custom. We are accustomed to carrying on after those who die. Unless cut down by murder or accident, most of us will outlive the majority of those we come across. If they mattered to us, we take care of their affairs, settle their debts. It’s our way of showing respect and part of our honor—part of what Rhean gave us. Without it, we would be beasts.

All right, blood brother. Jathen steeled himself with duty. It’s my honor to try and finish what you would of me. And at least Tar’citadel is a lot closer, he reasoned, reverently tucking the note inside his coat pocket.

Tangled-Paths-scene-break.psd

Jathen made for the dock city of Sigla, traveling with a willing trade caravan whose members were happy to have someone along with a crossbow strapped to his back, though he didn’t need to use it during the short trek. He suspected Mikkal might very well assume he would choose the closest port. At least it’s not the same one we arrived in. That hope didn’t keep Jathen from jumping at shadows, however, especially in the late afternoon. The dipping sun lengthened them, and the dark strips played among the ash trees as the group stopped for a rest.

Drannic! One of the younger traders stood suddenly, pointing off into the woods.

Jathen gained his feet in an instant, straining to see the telltale signs of wings and staff. Please, please be there. Another Dragon Walker who can relieve me of a Grand Artifact. Jathen deflated, identifying the flutter of wings in the distance. Just bats. No Drannic.

The caravan members seemed as disappointed as he was—apparently, sighting one was a sign of good luck on the Solkies. They give wisdom to travelers, one of the traders explained. Warn of storms or animals. Sometimes give gifts to those worthy. Very good, to speak with Drannic.

How vastly different from Zo’den. Jathen smirked, remembering the fear in the eyes of the Msāfryan children when he’d met his Drannic—the one waiting on the Interpreter who had told him he wasn’t special. Just different.

Despite false Drannic sightings, they reached Sigla just before dusk. The city was the largest Jathen had been in on the Solki Islands. Moving through the bustling streets gave him both the liberating sense of blending in with the crowd and the awareness of so many more eyes possibly watching and following him. Still, Sigla had a warmer tone, and colors other than Turinic blue brightened stone facades and residents’ clothing.

The captain who’d ferried them from the Lu’shun Republic had warned the ice would come in early fall, making the crossing back to the mainland too treacherous to transverse. So Jathen set out amid the dozens of ships readying to leave the dockyards, hoping to negotiate passage. The dual issues of language and limited funds narrowed his possibilities. Not to mention it’s getting late.

A half dozen rejections later, full night had fallen. Burly men waited on the ends of gangplanks, guarding their ships with large cudgels and deep scowls. Deciding his luck would be better tried in the morning, Jathen sought out accommodations near the waterfront. Most were too shady to stay in without getting mugged, but he finally settled in a smaller hostel with a Rheanic symbol on the lintel and actual doors on its tiny, individual rooms. After bracing Ass’shiri’s crossbow against the thin planks in what was slowly becoming an evening routine, Jathen discovered he had barely enough space to sleep sideways across the floor. Cuddling up in a fetal position, he managed to snatch a few hours of sleep in between the loud bangs and screams of waterfront crime. A year ago, such things would have unsettled him; now, it was merely an irritant that kept him awake. After all, there are worse things to fear than thieves and murderers.

Jathen slept late in the early hours’ respite from violence. Unsettling images of Ishane being devoured by demonic mists marred his dreams. When he awoke, he discovered a terribly high number of ships had set sail at dawn. He cursed after counting sails. Only five left out of dozens.

Ignoring the growl brewing in his stomach, he quickly began making his case. The first three spoke only Solki or Kinawan and wouldn’t try listening, while the fourth had apparently arrived the day before and wasn’t heading out again until spring.

Most of the ones you missed are doing their last runs of the season—they’ll be back in a fortnight or so but won’t sail to the mainland for months, the human first mate kindly relayed. You might try Jhyarn’s ship, though. He nodded toward the final set of white sails. He’s short on crew and might be willing to take on a set of hands in exchange for passage.

Thank you, Jathen called while dashing over to his last hope. The ship was big, though not the largest. Its sleek hull had been lovingly scraped clean of barnacles, and well-polished banisters were adorned with minor protection charms that clinked in the breeze. Six bulky, well-maintained ballistae dotted both sides of the deck. Their triangular shapes reminded Jathen of the dirigible Charmed Wind. A name he couldn’t read was painted on the side in fresh, neat lettering.

Halfway up its gangplank, Jathen faltered. A hooded form huddled over a banister between two ballistae,

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