In November 2018 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but knew I wouldn’t be able to manage 50,000 words of coherent narrative at that time. So instead I took the prompt list for World Anvil’s Inktober Challenge, and wrote a prompt a day. I posted them day by day on tumblr, but I’ve reordered them here to make things flow.
The world of Kestrien has three moons, one continent, a hurricane that never stops, and magic coming out of its hypothetical ears. The main narrative takes place in its modern age, nearly 1500 years after a worldwide apocalypse during which one of the moons, Demira, was shattered, and now hangs broken in the sky.
Part 3: After the Fall
These stories take place between the Fall of Demira and the modern age, and follow two immortals, Zephony and Akana, who are kicking around during that time. (Akana is the one doing most of the kicking.)
Voices outside the tent pulled Zephony away from her writing: whispering, and a soft singing with which she had recently become all too familiar. Someone hesitantly struck the chime hanging by the tent-flap. Zephony sighed.
“Come,” she said.
The flap was tentatively lifted and the Chief herself stepped inside, a tall, broad woman with hair so blond it was almost white. Zephony was unsurprised to see that she was decked out in her ceremonial robes.
“Oh sage,” the woman began, using the more formal mode of the local language, an odd blend of ancient Ivereth and whatever dialect had been spoken in this place before the Fall of Demira. “The weather has turned too soon and the crops are in danger. We would ask you to look upon the future and give us guidance…”
Zephony had to bite her tongue to keep herself from snapping. It was easy to forget that the things she had experienced and explained a thousand times were new every day to someone, somewhere in the world. She’d only been with this settlement for a few months. They were still in awe of her, still unable to fully grasp the nature of her existence. She estimated she had at least a couple of years before awe turned to suspicion and distrust. Maybe longer; they seemed more willing to welcome her than some tribes she’d encountered in the last two hundred years.
“Be seated,” she said.
She had begun communicating with these people in Ivereth, and they’d been able to piece together enough of her speech to teach her their own tongue. Her natural aptitude for languages and preternatural memory had given her enough fluency to talk on the day to day matters of the village, but she didn’t think they were fully grasping some of the more complex ideas she was trying to teach them. Particularly when it came to the things she couldn’t do.
“I cannot foretell the future,” she said, for what felt like the hundredth time. The Chief simply looked at her hopefully. Zephony sighed again. “My knowledge is of the past,” she went on. “I can look at the patterns of history. I can tell you what has happened before. I can suggest what might happen again based on those patterns. Do you understand?”
There was a pause.
“The crops?” the Chief asked hesitantly. She was a blunt woman whose strength was physical and whose prowess as a leader came from her ability to fight off outsiders, predators, and dae alike. She was clearly uncomfortable dealing with the spiritual matters her position required of her. Zephony liked her, even if she sometimes found her exasperating.
“I doubt the seasons are turning yet,” Zephony said. “I know this cold patch is alarming, but the long-term trend in this region is towards a longer growing season. The skies are finally beginning to clear and the storms are retreating towards the coasts. I think there will be a few more weeks for the crops to ripen after this bad spell. But I am not the Chief of this village and I do not bear the weight of its people’s lives. You must decide whether the risk can be taken.”
The Chief regarded her for just long enough that Zephony wondered if she’d fully understood. But then the woman nodded, and rose to her feet.
“You say the weather will turn again.”
Zephony began to interrupt, but the Chief held up a hand.
“You say it may turn,” she corrected herself. “It is not certain. Yes?”
“Yes,” Zephony replied, hoping it was enough.
“Our thanks, sage.”
The Chief bowed, and left the tent. Zephony ran the conversation over again in her mind, wondering if there was anything else she could have added. She wanted to help these people, if they would let her, but two centuries into this dark age, she still had so little to offer. What need had they for the history of Demira, the records of Cevelas, for stories of civilisations so far out of reach they might as well have been fairy tales? What need had they for her treatises on crystal magic, her analysis of the political decay of countries whose names were already forgotten, her memories of times when the skies had been clear and life had been easier and wonders of technology and magic had filled the world?
These people needed practicalities, things she’d never thought to study, back when she’d been the First Aetheri of Demira, so wrapped up in her own high ideas that she never cared to discover how crops should be properly rotated to avoid exhausting the soil, or how large a population could be supported from a given water source, or what might be done for sickness in the absence of advanced medicine. They needed spells and rituals that would still work amidst the aether storm that raged even now, they needed ways to fight back the daé that thrived in its chaos, and they needed leaders who would bear the burden of weighing their lives in the balance.
She picked up her pen and returned to the book before her. At least she could record their history, their names, their struggles. At least if this island of light vanished into the storm as so many others had, there would be a trace of it left. And at least she could give them the smallest sliver of hope. She could tell them that things had not always been like this, and perhaps not always would be.
She glanced at the small window cut in the tent. She could just see the bright circle of Demira rising over the horizon. The cracks in the shattered moon were visible even through the gossamer silk.
Perhaps the world wouldn’t always be like this… but neither could it ever again be what it once was.
Zephony was too far away when she heard that they were burning the Estreides Quarter in Vende. Even sinking as low into the aether as she dared, rushing like a wind through a world of mists and shadows, smoke was already hanging in a bitter cloud over the city by the time she arrived. Her heart clenched with anger and despair and pain, as it always did, when she was forced to watch these… these ignorant savages hunt down and persecute the magic users in their midst.
She caught herself, closed her eyes, tried to reword the thought. Not savages, though they were certainly ignorant. Ignorant, and afraid, and convinced that it had been magic and its works that had shattered Demira and all but annihilated the rest of the world in the blink of an eye. Could she even truly say they were wrong?
There were refugees already hurrying along the main road away from the city gate. She paused to speak with them, made sure they knew which towns would shelter them. She caught the gist of the spark that had ignited this latest inferno: a child manifesting unquestionable innate power. Something that these people did not believe in, they who were convinced that magic could only be learned and taught, that someone, somewhere must have corrupted the child for her to have such power.
Zephony hurried towards the gate. There wasn’t much she could do, but there would be something, at least. Some lives she could save, perhaps. Some homes she could protect. Some people she could help to safety. There was always something, and if it never felt like enough, at least it was more than–
The blast wave threw her off her feet. Even as she hit the ground, pain crashing through every part of her body, she was reeling herself back into the aether, abandoning the physical world instinctively. The aether itself was rippling under the force of the explosion: clear evidence, as if she’d needed it, that magic was involved. The shadows streamed past her, the echoing half-voices of people screaming and running away, and then it was over, and the aether fell still.
Seconds later she was standing on the road again, staring at the place where Vende had been.
There was nothing left. The remnants of the city could barely even be called rubble; the stone and brick and wood of the buildings had been torn to such small pieces it was like a blanket of gravel over the ground below. Zephony could see right through where the city had been, could see the slight rise that had held the Duke’s palace, the wide course of the river, now choked with debris, the whole footprint of Vende laid bare like a life-size map of a place that no longer existed.
The last time she’d seen such devastation… she pushed those memories from her mind and concentrated on the more urgent question: how had this happened?
She began to walk across the shattered plain, hoping to find some clue. And then she was brought to a halt again, shock coursing through her, at the sight of a figure in the distance.
It was a woman, young, maybe young enough to be more properly called a girl, though it was hard to say through the clouds of settling dust. She wore simple clothes, the tunic, leggings, shirt, and boots of the labouring class. She could have passed for any citizen of Vende, were it not for her striking hair. Streaming past her waist, it was divided sharply between two opposite colours: pitch black on her right, and stark white on her left.
It reminded Zephony instantly and terrifyingly of the curse of the Crystal Mages, though the slow creep of white into their hair had never been so uniform as this stranger’s was.
“Who are you?” She didn’t intend to speak, but the words escaped before she could contain her fear and confusion. “How did you–“
The stranger turned to look at her, and Zephony gasped: her eyes were a vivid purple, an impossible colour, one with a significance that could not escape her.
“This isn’t a good time,” the stranger said.
She spoke in perfect Ivereth, but by now Zephony was almost expecting something of the sort, and it only threw her off balance for a moment.
“You’re– you can’t be from the Order, I would know you. Who are you?”
“None of your business.”
“Did you do this?”
“Apparently.” The stranger looked around her, a strange and chilling mix of satisfaction and regret on her face. “I didn’t intend to, if that means anything.”
“You’re Aetheri, you must be–“
“Oh, I must, must I?” The stranger shot her an irritated look. “You haven’t changed, Zephony. Still a know-it-all, still jumping to the wrong conclusions.”
Zephony took a deep breath, fighting for calm against shock, anger, and dismay.
“How do you know me? Do I know you?”
“Unlikely.” The stranger smirked. “Extremely unlikely. Anyway, if you’re done with the interrogation, I have things to do.”
She turned on her heel and began to walk away. Zephony clenched her fists, and for the first time in a long time, reached for power, conjured a spell of containment, a ward of gleaming silver in a circle around them both.
The woman paused, tossed a withering glance over her shoulder, and said, “You’ll have to do better than that.”
The ward dissolved like cobweb. Its flying strands whipped Zephony across the face, tangled in her hair, then dissolved into the aether. The woman kept walking.
“Who are you?” Zephony demanded, taking one halting step after her.
“You can call me Arcana,” the stranger replied, with a dark laugh at some joke Zephony couldn’t fathom.
Then she vanished, diving into the aether with an ease that Zephony could not match. She followed for a few moments, pushing herself to her limits, but the stranger – Arcana – was too fast, and went so deep Zephony had to pull back for fear of being swept away by the currents.
She resurfaced in the ruins of Vende, almost gasping for air, so shocked she felt herself begin to shake with delayed reaction. She looked around her at the silent graveyard that had been Vende. Remembered the street stalls in the market, the children playing in the back alleys, the voices of the people now forever silenced.
She’d called them savages, in her heart, not so very long ago. But she would never have wished such destruction upon them. And worst of all, she had no idea how to prevent it from happening again.
Zephony was almost five hundred years old before she discovered that she could teach others to become what she was, what the philosophers had come to call Aetheri: one who could move through the aether, whose physical form was a projection of their will, and who therefore would neither age nor die. And in the end, it wasn’t even her own initiative that made the breakthrough. She had just assumed she would always be the only one, that the circumstances of her transformation had been so unique, so unlikely, that they could never be repeated. The idea that she might be able to teach it, that someone with sufficient dedication and determination might be able to learn from her and eventually, at the moment of their natural death, complete the transition… if not for Dornan, she doubted she would ever have arrived at it.
But Dornan had loved her with a love that poets wept for, and had been unable to bear the idea that Zephony would be eternally the only immortal, alone in the crowd until the end of time, and he had dedicated his life without a thought to accomplishing the impossible. And from anyone else such devotion, unasked-for, and born of a love unrequited, would have been painful, terrifying, suffocating, or all three – but Dornan had been a man like no other Zephony had ever met. She could never love him the way he wanted her to, but she did love him as a dear companion, respect him, and welcome his company, and because he was who he was, he accepted what she could offer, with grace and consideration.
And if he had succeeded in becoming Aetheri, it would have brought her such joy, she thought sometimes she might never have been the same. But when he failed, it felt inevitable, and though she mourned him so deeply her soul felt shaken, there was a part of her that had never dared expect another outcome.
And yet. And yet. Though Dornan failed, he came so close… unlocked so many secrets of Zephony’s strange existence, found so many avenues to explore, and at the moment of his death, she’d felt the aether shake as he tried to tear the veil… even as she grieved, she began to realise that he’d left her a gift beyond measure: the knowledge that it could be done. And the knowledge was not hers alone. Others were willing to try – more than willing, eager – some desperate for immortality, some fascinated by the aether, some simply drawn irresistibly to the unknown.
To start with, she attempted to teach anyone who wanted to learn. She was still so isolated, in those days, still holding herself apart: she had no interest in or affinity for judging whether a given person should or should not be permitted to try. And the process was so gruelling, so long-lasting – an entire lifespan, dedicated to nothing but preparing for one’s death, with no guarantee of any reward but oblivion – that those candidates with less high-minded motivations tended to falter long before they neared the end of the road.
Merl was the first to succeed. Merl who’d been such a quiet little thing, the girl with the shadowed eyes, who had somehow always looked the same to Zephony even by the time she was old and grey and frail. Where others were loudly determined or arrogantly certain, she simply worked and worked and worked, and when she drew her last breath, and tore the veil as if it were tissue paper, Zephony was as unsurprised as she was shocked to her core.
It seemed obvious to her then what the Order of Twilight would become. In her self-absorption it never occurred to her that anyone could want anything else. They would stand aside from the ebb and flow of time. They would watch, listen, learn, record. They would be aloof observers, lofted high above the petty concerns of those bound by mortality. They would be wise. They would be patient. And above all, they would be passive. The idea of meddling in the affairs of a world that already seemed distant and unimportant was so distasteful to Zephony, she never considered for a moment that others might not feel the same way. That perhaps her isolation was the echo of the trauma she’d suffered, torn from her world and from mortality, and that others who still felt intimately connected with Demira and its future might not be content to stand aside in silence.
And maybe she was wilfully blind, when some of the members of the Order did begin to meddle, here and there, with a light touch and a benevolence she could not fault. Maybe she convinced herself that each incident was one of a kind, never to be repeated. Maybe she clung to the idea that they’d grow out of it, as if she were more mature and full of understanding than them, rather than ignorant, in her own way, and childish, and close-minded.
Maybe that was why she made such a fatal mistake with Isri. Why she looked at that fire and spite and ambition and thought she saw a passion that could be channelled. Why it took her long enough to realise her error that Isri was already committed to her course, and refused to abandon it even when Zephony expelled her from the Order. And maybe everything that came after could be laid at her door. There were nights when she looked at the shattered moon and wondered if the Fall of Demira could be laid, ultimately, at her feet, the grand accomplishment of her works in those thousand years before she had been humbled.
But there were other nights, when she watched the stars wheel and the moons rise and set, where she also considered that perhaps it might have happened anyway, that the Fall had been inevitable, and then, at least, she could comfort herself: not all was lost. If she’d done nothing else with her time on Demira, she did that: preserved its memory, that would otherwise have been as lost as Cevelas in the dark ages that followed the Fall.
And if she’d done nothing else with her time on Demira, she had done one other thing: she had learned. She had learned the hard and painful way that there was no honour in silently watching, no maturity in her refusal to involve herself. They’d taught her that, all of them, one after another, in their different ways: Ressan, Dornan, Isri, Mallor, Zoreste, Arellia, Sena… they had made her understand, at last, even if the understanding had come only with the end of the world.
She would never forget that lesson. And she could never repay that debt. But she could try to make an accounting of it, word by word, page by page, an apology in every sentence, that it had taken her so long to remember that she was still human.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Zephony could see the lights of the refugee encampment from here, a haphazard collection of makeshift tents amidst the high prairie grass. How long until this particular madness ebbs?
The virulent persecution of magic users showed no sign of fading even five centuries after the Fall. They were known now as the Estreides, demon-touched in a language already half-lost, leaving only its malice behind. They bore no outward mark that differentiated them from other members of society, and perhaps that was a part of what terrified their persecutors: these people they so hated could walk among them, unseen, if their vigilance was ever relaxed.
And yet their skills were needed. Wards and rituals to fend off dae were the most sought-after, along with small magics that were technically outlawed but still often sought: fortune-telling and the dispensation of luck, good or bad. Zephony had never found any evidence that the future could be predicted or that the laws of chance could be influenced by even the strongest sorcery, but she understood the endless need people had for some illusion of control when they felt helpless. And so the Estreides were tolerated, confined to their own communities, watched with distrust, and kept under tight control. A child born into an Estreides bloodline would never escape that stigma, even if they practised no magic of their own. And as for those natural talents who sometimes arose elsewhere in society… well, that was when fires would be lit, and blood would be spilled, and the poor souls accused of corrupting pure blood would be driven out.
It had been particularly bad in Deshtar this past season. Zephony doubted there was a single Estreides left in the city, which would eventually become a problem for the righteous citizens, even here in the sheltered heart of the continent, as far as it was possible to get from the Sea of Storms. Sooner or later, the Estreides would return. And the cycle would begin again.
She approached the camp silently. They would have guards posted; she slipped under the surface of the aether so that she was barely visible as more than a breath on the night air. She didn’t expect them to welcome strangers right now. Some might know her name, but she hadn’t been in these parts for a number of decades. It was hard to say what her reception would be like.
“Stop right there.”
Zephony stumbled mid-step, looking around for the speaker who could apparently see her. Had they posted a Sensitive on guard duty?
“I’m a friend,” she said.
“Not many of those around at the moment.” The voice came closer. “You’d better explain what you’re– oh, it’s you.”
The speaker struck a light practically in front of Zephony, the small flame illuminating the scowl on her face. Zephony recognised her in a heartbeat. Even if the black-and-white hair hadn’t been so distinctive, the face was etched onto her memory, along with the questions that clung to it.
“Arcana,” Zephony said after a moment.
“What? Oh. Yeah. I guess.”
“What do you mean, you ‘guess’?”
“It’s Akana now. Spent a bit too much time in Vorlost, got used to their weird way of saying it.”
“Are either of those even your real name?”
“Real as it gets. I take it you’re here to meddle?”
“I’m here to offer help, and to record what’s happened,” Zephony replied, clenching her fists. “And you? Are you here to finish destroying these people?”
“Me? I’m just on guard duty. Can’t you tell?”
Zephony studied her. She was wearing leather armour over what looked like traditional Vorlosti garb – too warm for these latitudes, but it didn’t seem to affect her – and a longsword hung at her belt. It looked like Shillari work. Her boots were laced in the Nekhenese style, but the hide was clearly Merreshana elk.
“You get around,” Zephony observed. “I’ve heard rumours of you here and there. Dark ones, usually. What are you doing defending an Estreides camp on the high plateau?”
“They asked me to,” Akana said. She grinned at Zephony’s skeptical look. “They asked really nicely.”
Zephony glared at her for a long moment. She had a thousand questions, and she’d been searching for the answers for nearly three hundred years, and now here was Arcana – or Akana – or whatever her name really was – and she was none the wiser and already had several more questions. And Akana clearly knew that, and thoroughly enjoyed the situation.
Fine. She wouldn’t give Akana the satisfaction.
“May I enter the camp?”
Akana seemed to think about it, tapping her fingers on the hilt of her sword.
“Yeah, sure, why not.” She stepped aside and waved vaguely towards the tents. “Go write in your book.”
Zephony nodded in acknowledgement and continued walking, even though turning her back on Akana made her shoulderblades itch. There were other ways to uncover information, and she was nothing if not patient.
“Oh, hey, Zephony?”
She glanced over her shoulder. Akana was still holding the little flame, its light throwing eerie shadows over her face and creating an unsettling glow in her purple eyes. Then she smirked, as if she knew exactly what effect she’d created and couldn’t quite help relishing it, and then the light went out.
“Whatever they tell you about me will be wrong. But they get very creative, sometimes. Have fun.”
The Sanctuary Sea was restless, a cloudy sky hanging low over choppy waves. A few brave fishing boats were attempting to bring in a catch despite the warning signs that another storm was on its way. Zephony thought she had a few hours. She had no desire to be caught by the tempest either.
There were limits to where one could travel through the aether. She was held to the surface of the planet by gravity, for example, though falling could do her no harm if she was in an incorporeal state. She could travel deep into an active volcano but she wouldn’t be able to see much when she got there, so what was the point? She could sink into the solid ground itself, but only to a certain extent; as she went deeper, the stone and metal of the planet would begin to resist her, a dangerous, suffocating prison that could trap her if she remained for too long within its grasp. And of course, she couldn’t cross the Sea of Storms. The vast power of Dyne’s Storm churned up the aether as surely as it raged through the atmosphere of the planet. Even she would be swept away if she went too close to that hurricane.
The Sanctuary Sea was another matter. Protected to the east by the curving windbreak that was the high-backed island of Thari, the waters here were manageable – though never tame – and had been the biggest centre of maritime industry on Kestrien for centuries.
But Zephony’s memory went back more than centuries. Silently, invisible to anyone with normal sight, she stepped into the rolling waves on the shore, and sank deeper into the aether, and followed the downward slope of the seabed like she was riding an ancient current. It quickly grew too dark to see anything beneath the water, but she pressed on, knowing the way too well to falter.
The glow rose ahead and beneath her, faint at first, brightening as she approached. Lantern Jellyfish, clustering thickly in the deepest part of the Sanctuary Sea, ready for their annual breeding season. Perhaps there was an arrogance to timing her arrival so they would be there to provide light, but Zephony thought of it more as respect for the graveyard she had come to visit. It seemed wrong to her to conjure light in this place, either with magic or through technological means.
After almost three thousand years, the ruins of Cevelas were little more than shapes and rises in the seabed. Silt had buried them metres deep, and the salt water had eaten away at anything that protruded. If you didn’t know where to look, it would be easy to miss them – assuming you had a way of travelling beneath miles of water in the first place, which thus far, no archaeologist of the modern age had acquired.
Zephony drifted through the aether as though she were swimming through the water. She had been able to see landmarks here, once, but now even she struggled to recognise what part of the city she was in. The pattern of the streets was lost. She had used the Library for a long time as her reference, but some shift in the seabed had hidden its great walls and shattered dome a few hundred years ago. Just as she was wondering if this was the time she was forced to admit defeat, to acknowledge that there was nothing left here for her to mourn, she found the ruins of the Great Gate, unexpectedly exposed, the silt blown away from its massive curved rim and the steps that had led up to it.
At once the murky ruins aligned themselves to her memories. She had travelled almost directly up the Grand Boulevard, in fact. The same journey she’d made when she was a child too young to understand why they’d left their home. The same journey she’d made in the last hours of Cevelas, rushing to find Arna, to beg her to escape while she still could…
And here her life had ended, even though she had not truly died. The Gate had been her prison, trapping her in the moment she fell through it, holding her in the aether for almost two hundred years before finally spitting her out on Demira, the first Aetheri, the first who could shed her corporeal form and walk the aether at will.
“It’s been a long, long road,” Zephony said quietly, watching the silt swirl in the light of the Lantern Jellyfish, feeling the weight of time and water and loss. “And every time I think I see the end, it doubles back, and I retrace my steps, and I’m no closer to knowing how to change the pattern.”
She tried not to talk to the dead; they didn’t answer, and it wasn’t good for her peace of mind. But in this place, she still remembered the last moment she’d seen Arna, the desperation and love that had driven her adopted mother to try and get her to safety, and it was hard not to think she sensed some tremulous ghost just beyond the edge of sight.
“I still miss you,” she said to the darkness and the ruins and the ghost that wasn’t there. “I always will.”
The circle was still glowing with power, though the lines were beginning to fade now the summoning was complete. Its occupant was glaring at Zephony, arms folded, purple eyes narrowed.
“If you’re expecting three wishes, you’re going to be sorely fucking disappointed.”
Zephony managed not to smile, although she was feeling extremely pleased with herself.
“Just testing a theory.”
“Oh for…” Akana glared harder. “Don’t you ever stop? Would it kill you not to know something for once in your life?”
That earned her a snort of laughter.
“Can’t wait to hear what you think you’ve figured out this time,” Akana muttered. She turned on the spot, looking around her at the high ceilings and carved wood. “Where the hell are we, anyway? Your secret underground lair?”
“Something like that.”
Zephony began to collect the implements she’d used for the ritual. The circle was now only chalk, except for its outer boundary, which still glowed to indicate its function as a barrier. Akana watched her intently. She didn’t seem concerned about being trapped, but then, she rarely seemed concerned about any danger to her person. Zephony hadn’t figured out yet if that was bravado or backed up by truth.
“Oh.” Akana looked up again at the ceiling, her scowl fading into surprise and curiosity. Zephony froze. For a second there was a familiarity to her face that rang like a bell she couldn’t quite hear… “The Hall of Stars? It survived the Fall?”
Akana glanced her way and whatever she saw in Zephony’s expression, it brought the scowl back full force.
“Yes,” Zephony replied, shaking away the uneasy sensation. “Barely, and I was unable to access it for nearly a hundred years, but it survived.”
“And you’re the only one left,” Akana went on, watching Zephony closely. “Haunting the halls of the Order of Twilight like the ghost of your own past.”
Zephony put away the last of the implements. “It serves as a library now. I keep my records here.”
“So this is where all your little books end up. Convenient. Can’t burn down another dimension, or whatever this is.” Akana walked to the edge of the circle and prodded the boundary. Zephony noted that her boot rebounded as if hitting glass. “What now?”
“According to the Estreides, once summoned you can be given commands.”
Akana laughed with genuine amusement, which was worrying.
“I don’t take orders,” she said. “Sometimes I do favours. Depends what they are.”
“I’ve heard stories.”
“I bet you have.” Akana paced around the edge of the circle. “You know, it’s not always about vengeance. Sometimes I find lost kids and puppies and shit. But that doesn’t make such a good threat, does it?”
“The stories say the Estreides have a patron dae of great power, whom they can summon in times of need. Dyne’s Daughter, they call her, or the Lady of Last Light.”
Akana bowed theatrically. “I didn’t choose the names.”
“You like them, though,” Zephony observed dryly.
“Hell yeah. Are you mad I stole one of yours?”
Akana smirked at her.
“They used to call you Dyne’s Daughter,” she said. “Didn’t you know?”
“Me?” Zephony knew it was ridiculous to be affronted, but she couldn’t help herself. “Why would they name me after the herald of death?”
“Because you turn up whenever things go to hell,” Akana replied with obvious enjoyment. “They’re like, oh shit, it’s Zephony, better pack a bag and get out of town.”
“That’s– I try to help them–“
“Right, but seeing you around isn’t usually a good sign, you know?”
Zephony started to argue, then paused.
“I suppose they have a point,” she said begrudgingly. “All the same…”
“Oh, relax, like I said, they call me that now. You’re the Watcher or the Chronicler or other stuff like that. You know you had a little cult for a while? People carrying books around and writing everything down like you do. Then they got caught up in one of the purges and someone built a nice big bonfire with all that paper.”
The tone was offhand, edging into cruel, but it couldn’t quite hide the anger behind the words.
“I didn’t know,” Zephony said quietly. “Can you tell me more about them?”
“What’s in it for me?”
“I’ll release you from the circle.”
“Hmm.” Akana fixed her with a look that had Zephony suddenly on alert. “No, I don’t think that’ll cut it.”
She stepped forward. Zephony saw the shimmer in the air where the barrier tried to hold her, and also the fraying of intangible threads as Akana pushed through. The circle flared once, then faded to chalk behind her.
“You shouldn’t be able to do that,” Zephony blurted out before she could stop herself. “No dae should–“
“Looks like your theory’s wrong.” Akana strolled around the room, examining the carved wooden panelling. “You don’t mind if I make myself at home, do you? I could do with a break, away from it all.”
Zephony fought back rising alarm.
“I could banish you–“
“Nope.” Akana turned a wide, smug grin on her. “You really couldn’t. Didn’t think this through, did you?”
Zephony forced herself into composure. As usual, the only defence against Akana’s needling was to refuse to let her know it was working.
“It’s been a long time since I had a guest,” she said. “My hospitality might be lacking somewhat. But if you require sanctuary, you are of course welcome here.”
“Great.” Akana made for the door. “Let’s take a tour, shall we?”
Almost every culture Zephony had ever encountered believed in reincarnation, one way or another. There were occasional outliers, but for the most part, the conviction was strong, whether dressed up in ritual and legend, or quietly accepted as the natural cycle of the world. Avarra had believed their gods judged the souls of the dead, Cevelas had scorned their faith and avowed that the ebb and flow of souls was eternal and random, Demira had taught that the cycle of reincarnation was one of learning, moving away from chaos towards perfect order…
And in three thousand years, she’d never found proof one way or another. She’d seen ghosts, of course, but they were only echoes, memories caught in the aether, repeating malice or grief or desperation with no true awareness. She’d seen uncanny resemblances, people who could have been the twin of someone who’d come before them. And sometimes, she’d met people who reminded her so strongly of someone she’d lost long ago, that she wondered…
But couldn’t it just be that there were only so many personality traits and physical features to go around? That certain patterns were bound to recur? That she herself might be drawn to those who resembled the people she’d loved before?
It was impossible to know. She’d lost count of the times she’d investigated claims of memories from another life. They’d all been false, one way or another, though she had discovered some interesting truths along the way. If souls were indeed reborn after death, as far as she could tell, they didn’t take any recollections from their previous existence with them. But in that case, could they even be said to be the same person?
Maybe it was foolishness to think that she would ever know for sure, one way or the other. Maybe it was pointless even to entertain the thought. Maybe all she was doing was laying a trap of grief for herself, with the thought that they might return and she might never even know.
And yet… sometimes she could swear she saw Dornan’s smile, heard Zoreste’s laughter. Caught Arna’s frown on the face of someone studying intently. And sometimes, believing she would someday see recognition in one of those faces was all she had to hang onto.
It was raining in the unpleasant way that only the foothills of Gharn seemed to manage: a blend of fog and drizzle that wasn’t enough to soak the unlucky traveller, but brought with it a prevailing damp that worked its way under the thickest of layers. The town was quiet now, order restored, guards patrolling the streets. Zephony followed the rumours until she arrived at the cemetery, a grey space of grey stones under a grey sky, every surface beaded with raindrops, the ground muddy and recently marked by dozens of footprints.
The newest grave was near the back, behind a stand of trees. Akana was sitting under them, knees drawn up, either staring at the freshly carved headstone or past it into nothingness.
“This isn’t a good time,” she said, sending Zephony back to the moment they’d first met. She wondered if there was more linking the two events than the words, but she didn’t voice her curiosity, just made her way to where she could read the engraving on the stone.
“She was just a kid,” Akana muttered.
The name meant nothing to her. The distance between the dates of birth and death was barely more than ten years. Zephony felt a familiar wash of sadness and despair sweep over her.
“She was Estreides?”
“No.” Akana’s voice was flat. “But, you know, she looked at a ghost the wrong way one time, and then there was trouble, and then some fucker decided she was cursed…”
Zephony regarded her for a long moment.
“And you couldn’t save her.”
She saw Akana’s fists clench in answer.
“I don’t understand you,” Zephony said quietly. “I have seen you unleash such power… I’ve seen you do things no dae, no human, no Aetheri should be able to do. And yet at other times… it’s as if you’re shackled. You fumble with spells and rituals like the rest of us, and you struggle to draw even enough from your soulspring to light a fire…”
“Did you come here to rub my face in it?” Akana snarled. “Get lost, Zephony.”
Zephony watched her in silence. Akana glared for a few more seconds, then looked away. She hunched closer over her drawn-up knees. She looked tired, Zephony thought, for the first time in the hundreds of years of their acquaintance.
Zephony sat down beside her and took a small leather book out of her bag. It was lightly warded to protect it from water damage; the rain dripping from the trees above rolled off its pages. A similar cantrip would have protected Zephony from the discomfort of the wet ground and the damp air, but she forbore to cast it.
“Tell me about her.”
Akana snorted dismissively.
“She was nobody,” she said. “She didn’t matter.”
Zephony wrote down the name that had been on the headstone, and the too-scant years the child had lived.
“Tell me about her anyway,” she said.
“There are some wounds you don’t heal from.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Believe what you like.” Akana shrugged, gaze still fixed on the distant fires. “It’s true. Doesn’t matter if it’s ten years, a hundred, a thousand. Some things mark you, and you will never be the same. You of all people should know that.”
Zephony looked away.
“Some things mark you,” she agreed, “but that doesn’t mean the wounds don’t heal. They leave scars, but–“
“No.” Akana’s voice was as certain as stone. “Not wounds like these.”
“Then what do you suggest the wounded do?”
“No idea. Lie down and die? Burn down the world? Scream until the stars fall?” Akana turned and began to walk away. “I’ll let you know if any of those work out.”
One of Miyori’s earliest memories was of crying in the middle of the night, but trying to keep her sobs confined to whimpers. She couldn’t have been more than three or four years old, but she’d already learned better than to get her parents’ attention. Having them in the room with her didn’t make the whispers go away, or stop the pressure that built up in her head, or make the shadows that flitted from corner to corner vanish. And they didn’t like it when she tried to tell them about it. They told her to stop making up stories. They told her there was nothing to be afraid of. They told her it was her imagination, and it couldn’t hurt her.
When someone leaned over her bed, she just closed her eyes and curled up tighter, trying to believe that it was only another phantom. Then the figure sighed, and turned on her bedside lamp, and Miyori’s eyes flew open in shock and fear.
“That bad already, huh? This isn’t a good place for you.”
It wasn’t exactly a kind voice, and the stranger certainly didn’t have a kind face; she was scowling down at Miyori like she didn’t like what she saw. It should have made Miyori more afraid of her, but in fact, as soon as she’d seen the stranger’s eyes, the fear had gone away. They were like no eyes she’d ever seen before: a bright purple, her favourite colour. She sat up, momentarily distracted from the voice that was begging for something from just inside her wall.
“Know who I am, girlie?” asked the stranger, still looking down at her.
Miyori started to shake her head, then stopped. There was something in the depths of her mind. She didn’t know where it came from.
“Akana?” she said, uncertainly.
“Hmm, not bad. Maybe you’re learning.” Akana sat down on the edge of the bed. “They bothering you? The whisperers?”
Miyori’s eyes filled with tears again and she nodded.
“They don’t stop.”
“Yeah, that’s their thing.” Akana shook her hair back over her shoulders, and Miyori realised for the first time that it was two different colours, black and white. Like a magpie, she thought. She liked magpies. “Okay, you’re a bit young for this, but you’re too close to the Sea of Storms and you need to learn the basics now or you’ll go crazy by the time you’re eight years old…”
Miyori blinked at her, not really understanding anything. Akana grimaced.
“See, this is why I don’t normally do this,” she said. “It’s easier when you can form a coherent sentence… but whatever. Let’s see if we can make it work.”
She reached out a hand. Miyori shrank back despite herself. Akana sighed.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Hold still. This will help.”
Miyori stayed as still as a statue while Akana pressed one fingertip against her forehead. All at once, the whispers stopped. Silence rang in Miyori’s ears for the first time in… months, and she gasped with shock as much as relief.
“See? Told you.” Akana dropped her hand. “Now, I can teach you to do that yourself, but it’s gonna take a lot of practice–“
Miyori put her hands to her ears and took them away again, then stared intently at the wall.
Akana made a face. “Yes. Yes it is. Damn, I’m going to have to stick around for a while, aren’t I? You’re not going to get this for a couple of years. And I don’t suppose your parents will like it if I rock up at the front door, so I’ll have to do the ghost thing, ugh… hey, are you falling asleep?”
Miyori blinked. She hadn’t meant to. But the silence was so sweet, so total, and with Akana sitting there grousing about things she didn’t understand, she felt so safe… sleep was a heavy weight on her eyes and in her limbs.
Akana sighed. Not unkindly, she gave Miyori’s shoulder a push so that she flopped down onto the mattress, then pulled the blanket up over her.
“Fine. Go to sleep. I’ll keep things quiet for you until morning. But after that, there’s work to do, you hear?”
Miyori nodded sleepily against the pillow because it seemed like that was what she was supposed to do. Akana reached over and turned out the light, then got up from the bed, and for a moment Miyori panicked and tried to reach for her.
“Don’t worry.” There was something like gentleness in her voice for the first time, and something like sadness. “I won’t be far away. I won’t ever be far away, even if you can’t see me.”
If she said anything else after that, Miyori didn’t hear it, or didn’t remember it. For the first time in months, she slept without dreaming other people’s dreams, or hearing the voices of ghosts.