It was Ileniel’s birthday, and despite the persnickity scholar’s wishes, both Namiss and Antian had insisted on trying to prepare a grand meal for him. Namiss because she was Namiss, and she did such things, and Antian because against all odds, he and Ileniel had become something like friends in the preceding month. When Lorin and Sifani walked in to the nook – little bigger than a closet – that served as the tower’s kitchen, Namiss and Antian were arguing over the presence of onions in the stew they were concocting.
Lorin solved the problem by picking up the entire onion in question and throwing it into the pot without preface. Namiss’ short black hair swung as she turned round, outraged, and Antian scratched his wispy beard in confusion, the dim lantern in the corner illumining the crest of his bald head like a stand lamp.
Sifani placed her hand on Namiss’ arm before the girl could release the string of curses she reserved just for Lorin, for special occasions. “Sorry. That’s his way of calling an important meeting.”
Namiss huffed under her breath. “Great. Now what have you two gone and done? We were actually having a bit of peace and quiet around here, if you choose to ignore Lorin’s flapping tongue every day, like I do.” However she complained, she hurriedly cleaned her hands and gestured for Antian – who was still staring disconsolately at the whole onion bobbing in the stew – to follow.
Both Jatan and Ileniel were reading books in their respective rooms when the others fetched and assembled them around the long table in the central chamber, the circular, all-purpose space that resembed a dungeon on its best days where the band had spent so much of its time. Once they were all seated, looking none too enthused about the idea of a meeting in the sleepiest part of the afternoon, Sifani stood and clapped her hands together by way of introduction.
“Looks like we have a decision to make, everyone.”
Jatan gazed at her thoughtfully, his chin resting on folded hands. Sifani paused, wondering if she had offended the band’s leader by calling a meeting he knew nothing about. However, he simply nodded his head as if to ease her mind. She held his tired eyes a moment longer – he looked tireder than usual, these days – and proceeded with her speech.
The biggest challenge was fumbling through an explanation of what had happened that very morning. It would certainly seem as if she had made a rash decision, but Sifani had thought about it long and hard. If the action was sudden, it was only sudden to those who weren’t her closest confidantes – which, it was true, meant everyone but Lorin…
Upon Sifani’s recounting her meeting with Donis, the response was about what she expected.
Ileniel, who appeared to be growing out his ponytail again, snorted derisively. “A young fool, that’s what you are! I feel as if ‘it’s a wonder you’re not dead!’ is all I ever say to you!”
“That’s because that is all you ever say to me, Len,” Sifani flashed him a smile fit to make a candymonger sick.
Namiss had her small hands to her face in disbelief. “Donis? By the gods, Sif! You should have at least told us what you were going to do!”
“Lorin had my back. I wasn’t worried.”
“Like you ever are!”
“In any case,” Sifani plowed ahead, “I’m sure you’re curious as to what he told me. This, my friends, is where our decision comes in.” She paused for effect, too late realizing she had picked up some of Lorin’s flair for the theatrical. “Brace yourselves.”
She told them of Donis’ true reason for rescuing her from Nume a month earlier – of his desire to leave flux and live as a regular mortal under the band’s protection.
Her friends’ reaction was immediate and vociferous.
“It’s official – she’s lost her mind. We should all back away from this mess while we still can!”
“Quiet!” Lorin stood up, his voice a thunderclap in the chamber. Silence fell as the echo died. His expression shifted from stern to grinning in an eyeblink. “Thank you, kind sirs and ladies. Before you throw this chance aside, how about we listen to the rest of Sifani’s story? You might find that the research opportunity that goes along with Donis’ flight is too good to pass up.”
Sifani nodded her agreement as eyes turned back onto her. “That’s right. Research opportunity.” Unsurprising, that this would be her trump card. “I haven’t yet told you the reason Donis wants to leave – it’s not because of his fellow Deities at all. He claims there is something new in flux, a presence that presents too much of a risk for him to stay. He hasn’t investigated the origin or nature of the presence, but claims he knows it is dangerous. It could be something that our great and not-so-wise Creators created…or it could be something else.” She inhaled deeply as the nervousness tickled her consciousness again. “Anyhow, we’ll never find out for sure unless we investigate ourselves.”
Antian’s eye practially twitched at that. Sifani watched as he scanned each face around the table, stopping at Jatan’s. Then, he wholly surprised her.
“That…doesn’t sound like enough information to build any kind of decent investigation on.”
Lorin raised his eyebrows at the man. “I must’ve misheard you, Antian. You’re turning down an opportunity to learn something new?” He looked to the sky, interrogating the heavens. “What are we coming to?”
Ileniel, of course, spoke harsh truth without hesitation. “Maybe you two reprobates hadn’t noticed, but the last time we stepped in over our heads, people almost died.” He eyes shifted to Namiss involuntarily. “Not all of us feel the same way you do about life-threatening situations. That is, we don’t get our highs from them!”
The implication made the blood flame in Sifani’s cheeks. She swallowed her initial outburst, but let it burn down to a steady fire in her chest before approaching Ileniel slowly.
“How dare you,” she growled. “How dare you imply that I put friends in danger just to get my share of excitement out of life! By your friendship with my father, you should be ashamed of your own disloyal thoughts! I would never, as long I draw breath, level such an accusation at you, Ileniel, though some might say you warrant worse!” Trying to keep her voice level, Sifani turned away, quivering treacherously. She had learned the price of letting her anger get out of control. “We are the only ones – the only ones – who are gathering the information that our ancestors left behind about the power of the Reehlers. The world they lived in might as well have been an entirely different one from ours. Reehlers walked from day to day beside non-Reehlers, and weren’t feared or deified. They knew things about the world, wonderful things, I’ll wager, that we will never again know if we curtail our research just because of opposition. I don’t know about you, but this is my life’s work. I will always hold that life spent recovering this knowledge is a worthy one! And I refuse to come to the end of my days and wish that I had done more!”
Lorin began a slow clap. Sifani wanted to punch him.
Jatan cleared his throat. “I think you all may be missing the most salient point. What was one of the first principles we established when we began our research?” He jabbed a finger into the air for emphasis. “Anything we do in the epheria has an effect on the real world, whether we can see it or not. We started our research with humility, knowing it would be folly to assume we knew every nuance of the power we were dealing with. If the epheria affects the world any time it’s manipulated, I imagine that flux does even more so. If whatever it is that Donis is afraid of exists, then chances are it’s only a matter of time before it becomes our concern, too.”
Sifani nodded. That, too. she thought, a bit chagrined. That point was an easy one to forget, she had to admit, in the midst of her own noble, self-declared goals of recovering her ancestors’ knowledge…and sating her own curiosity.
Namiss had listened attentively to Jatan – he was the only person she ever really listened to. “So you think we should take advantage of this early opportunity,” she repeated, “Find out what we’re up against before it begins to cause problems for us, and all that.”
Jatan nodded. “And it will be dangerous.” He kept his eyes from Ileniel so intentionally that it was obvious the man was the addressee. “That is, and always has been, the nature of our work.”
Ileniel grunted something under his breath.
Antian had removed a notebook from his coat and his already-moving pen scritched in the proceeding silence. “Well, then, the first order of business is to get more information from Donis.” The last word was spoken uncomfortably – the straight-laced man had never grown comfortable with the Deities’ un-deification. “Do you think you could summon him again, Sifani?”
“Summon” wasn’t really the word – Donis had attempted to make that, if nothing else, abundantly clear – but she overlooked the mistake. “I know I can. If he wants to make a deal with all of us, he’ll have to deal directly with all of us.”
“Wonderful! That’s all settled then.” Lorin drummed his hands on the table in the carefree manner that was all his. “Tomorrow, we meet with the king of the gods, make a decision about whether or not to act as his protectors, then hunt down a threat we know pretty much nothing about in the deadly netherworld of flux. My kind of a day!”
Sifani moved down the hallway that evening, eyes on the floor, when a familiar voice startled her from her reverie.
“Watch yourself, lady.”
She looked up, stopping herself just in time from barreling straight into Lorin. She made a noise of mock scoffing. “For such a big lummox, you move surprisingly quietly.” She made to move past him, but he stepped in the same direction she did, blocking her path.
“Lorin,” she quirked her lips at him, “what are you doing?”
His grin was all mischief. “Since we’ve been talking about the things that happened a month ago, I was just thinking…” He put his face enticingly close to hers, forcing her to look him in the eye. “That ‘conversation’ we had before you entered flux for the first time? I’m thinking it’s long past time we rehashed that ‘conversation,’ Sifani.”
“Lorin!” To her dismay, she felt her cheeks heat. After their passionate kiss that day, Sifani had kept the topic of them at arms length. There were just too many other things to deal with and think about – plus, the thrill of battle led people to do things that made a lot less sense in retrospect.
“We haven’t really gotten much privacy lately,” Lorin said, continuing to block Sifani’s attempts at moving as if it were accidental. Noticing her resistance, though, he abruptly straightened both body and face. “Are you okay?”
“I…just thinking. You know me.”
As quickly as he had initiated his flirtation, he grew serious and moved from in front of her to beside her, matching her step as she resumed walking. “Okay, tell me what’s going on.”
His thoughtfulness warmed her, and on a whim she took his arm, like she might a close friend. Well, maybe a bit tighter than that. “I’m trying to work out what might be the origin of an object in flux, based on what I know about the epheria, Deities, and transposition.”
“Tsk. Same petty topics as usual. You disappoint me, Sifani.” He flinched, blocking Sifani’s feigned punch. “So what have you concluded so far?”
“Concluded? Nothing at all, though I’ve guessed at a great deal. When I was in flux with Donis, he was able to create objects there, like a bench, for example. Except, the bench wasn’t permanent – it was just a reflection, a figment of our imagination, just like our bodies while we were in that state.”
“Therefore, I don’t think that anything the Deities could’ve created would pose a serious threat. If, for example, they created something like the dog-creatures in flux rather than in the epheria, they creatures couldn’t last, because they would only be imagined things. They would need the solid ground of either the real world or the epheria to survive in.”
“You don’t think this ‘thing’ that Donis spoke of was created, then.”
Lorin always had been good at following her reasoning. Sifani shook her head appreciatively. “Exactly. I think it was already in flux. Though that state is nothing like our world, it’s still composed of something. And within that something might be life that we can’t conceive of in our limited paradigms.”
Lorin considered that, at the same time grasping for an explanation that was a little less abstract. “Well, couldn’t it be something or someone besides the Deities that managed to enter flux, or something that the Deities created outside of flux that found a way to get inside?”
“It could be another human, I suppose, though it seems unlikely Donis would be so scared and reticent about just another mortal. As for a some-thing rather than a some-one getting in, keep in mind that the only way humans can get into flux is by re-making themselves, and there is no other conscious being that has a complex enough mind to do that. So if it were a beast of some sort, it would have to be a mighty intelligent one. Possible, I suppose. Possible and terrifying.”
Lorin laughed at that, drawing a glare from Sifani. “Don’t pretend you’re afraid, Sifani. It doesn’t suit you.”
Her pleasure at the compliment turned into snark, as it often did. “I’m never afraid for myself, Lorin. I’m always concerned, on the other hand, that your own flimsy and easily-botched plans will get us into deeper trouble than we’re already in.” As if he didn’t go along with what she wanted most of the time, extricating her from danger as often as not. Not that she would ever admit that.
He shrugged ingenuously, and Sifani slipped her hand from off his arm as he did. “Well, I’m off to learn a new board-and-pieces game from Jatan – something he picked up during his time off from the band. Also, Namiss may or may not have promised me a new pipe to smoke, since she bartered my last one.” He rolled his eyes playfully and moved to leave, then glanced over his shoulder, expression softening ever so slightly. “Care to join us?”
“I’d never give up the chance to irritate Ileniel with you, partner,” she winked, and followed him out of the corridor.
Haven’t read part 2 of “The Shaking of Epheria” yet? Catch up here.
He smiled, white teeth flashing, and inclined his head to her. “Sifani a-vinna Leyone.”
Sifani’s opened her mouth in a stupid, wordless greeting. It turned out not to be much of a greeting. “Uh, which one are you?”
The man’s mouth, fat and pink, released an incongruously high-pitched laugh that made him suddenly seem much more human than god-like. “Which one do you think?”
Was this some kind of a bizarre test? “Ah…” Taken aback, Sifani began spouting the names of the gods that had been so familiar to her. “Edra? Cabbion? Gods above…” she muttered, the humor of her statement nearly lost on her. “That is, damn.” She was being toyed with. “Please, just tell me. I have no desire to antagonize you. I only came to get a few answers, and then I’ll leave, I promise.”
The small man chuckled bitterly, turning from Sifani to gaze through one of the windows. “Well, now we know who hasn’t been worshipping properly lately! My name is…well, I’m Donis! Ask me your questions, then, girl.” He waved his hand at her, turning a dismissive shoulder. “The sooner we’re finished meeting together, the better.”
The revelation staggered her. This diminutive, petty thing, was Donis? The Deities’ de facto leader? Except for his dress, this man might’ve been the local grocer, not to mention the fool that peopled gossiped about in the privacy of their own home. She almost literally had to hold her tongue to keep it from wagging like a fool herself.
Sifani cleared her throat. “Thank you for meeting me,” she said lamely. “I guess I should say…if you’re the one who saved me in that battle with Nume, my mother…thank you for that, as well. Was that you?”
The man – Donis – leaned back against one of the thin glass walls and crossed his arms, drawing a deep, tired sigh. “I was the instigator, yes. It took more than just my power to overcome your mother, though. She always has been at her strongest when angry.”
Letting the information sink in, Sifani nodded slowly. “Why did you instigate it?”
Donis straightened from his position against the wall and slapped his hands together for emphasis, making Sifani jump. “Now, that is the most important question.” Pacing past her, he clasped his hands behind his richly-robed back. “Officially, the answer is this: the other Deities and I did not want to draw negative attention to ourselves by slaying a mortal. The last thing we want it more of you researching types to start poking around the epheria, trying to find out if there’s more to their religion than they’ve grown up believing.”
Sifani narrowed her eyes. “But unofficially…?”
Donis spread his hands toward her with an avuncular demeanor. “Thus we come to why I decided to meet with you today, girl. And you’re lucky I got to you first! I always have been the most skilled at detecting changes in the flux landscape.” A troubled look passed over his eyes, of a sudden. “The true reason I preserved you is that…I knew I might need your help. And now, it seems that the time has come. You’re here, and simply put, you owe me your life. I could turn you over to Nume in a heartbeat, but instead, I only require one simple favor.” He took slow steps toward Sifani until their noses were only inches from each other. Sifani refused to flinch as his breath puffed onto her face. “I want you to help me disappear into the real world. I want to live as a normal person again.”
Even if Sifani had had time to conjecture, she knew this eventuality would never have crossed her mind. “You’re kidding.”
Donis shrugged his shoulders. “It’s that simple.” He paused. “Plus, gods don’t kid.”
“Whatever,” she answered unthinkingly, making an irritated brushing-away motion that a Deity would probably consider less-than-reverent. “Even if you’re not lying to me, and this is what you really want, you’re not going to be happy living a human life. Even in my limited experience, I know – transposition, all the Reehler powers, are addictive. As long as you’ve been steeped in them, you’ll jump right back in the first time temptation seizes you. Uh, with all due respect. Which means – if I know anything about them – your fellow Deities aren’t going to let you off easy the first time they find you after your desertion.”
The dismissive way Donis snorted at her was decidedly unbecoming for a god, not that her own manners had warranted better. “Exactly. That’s why it’ll be you and your friends’ job – if you choose to include that mongrel pack of yours – to actively protect me from my compatriots.” The way her eyes must’ve widened made him show his teeth again. “Come, come. It’s a small price to pay for my rescuing you from ultimate annihilation, don’t you think?”
Sifani’s jaw had dropped and remained open. Offense and disbelief surged within her, and of all the things she thought to say, the one that came out was, “Who do you think you are?”
Donis folded his hands primly, pink lips pursed and hanging gold tassles on his sleeves swinging. “Why, king of the Deities, of course.”
Their meeting ended up lasting longer than either had hoped, but there was no way Sifani was going to leave without asking all her questions, this time. Why her and her friends? According to Donis, they were the only serious researchers of the epheria in existence now, which didn’t surprise Sifani. Moreover, the band had her. She and Lorin were the only two humans venturing into the epheria intentionally, and Sifani was by far the more powerful. Who better to ask for protection, as far as puny mortals went?
That was a drop in the bucket compared to what she learned next, though.
“Donis,” the name still did not come easily to her, “don’t think it hasn’t occured to me that you never told me why you want to become a mortal. After all you’ve seen and been through, why would you want to go back?”
She and the god were sitting on a bench that Donis had constructed, looking out over a section of the real world Sifani had never visited before. It hung over a tree-ringed glade with a small pool at one end. A rivulet of crystal blue water tumbled down a few worn boulders until it spilled at last into the pool, and through the thin glass, which Donis had manipulated to be all but invisible, Sifani could hear the high, clear sound of water hitting water.
Donis stared ahead, not speaking. After a moment, he said lightly, “I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I told you I miss the simple life.”
She glanced again at his resplendent clothing, considered the personality of the man she was speaking with. She had never been one to analyze others, at least, not with any success – that was more Lorin and Jatan’s specialty. However, she had gleaned enough from her conversation with Donis to know that he was, understandably, proud – the kind of proud that goes to one’s head and makes one, well, intolerable. He delighted in special attention and probably adoration – something Sifani had not been affording him much of. No, the simple life wasn’t something he would just opt for.
All she said was, “You’re right. I definitely wouldn’t believe you.”
Donis glanced at her, his expression a mixture of wryness and irritation. “As annoying as your mother,” he mumbled, then abruptly closed the gap in which Sifani could’ve reacted. “Try believing this, then, girl. You’ve seen the power of transposition – at the very least, what your mother was capable of. She was actually the best of us at creating things straight from her imagination.” He lifted one palm, attempting to illustrate his words. “So it’s possible that creation – our tampering with a medium we don’t fully understand – is what caused it. The other possibility,” he lifted his other palm, “is that is was already there, hidden in flux, where we were, perhaps, never meant to go in the first place.”
Sifani rubbed her arms, feeling suddenly and inexplicably nervous. “Um. What is it?”
Donis rubbed his hands together nervously, eyes darting involuntarily. “We, ah, found something…in flux.” His voice dropped to a ludicrous whisper, but Sifani only leaned forward hungrily to hear all that was said. “As I was saying, we don’t know the hows and whys of its existence, but… Perhaps I alone can sense the danger. All I can say is, I don’t want anywhere near it, and the further away I get from it, the happier I’ll be.”
Clutching her knees, Sifani fixed her stare on him, nervous in earnest now though she did her best to at least hide it. “You’ve told me a whole lot of nothing, Donis. Let me tell you something about myself and the band: you’ll have to do a lot better than that to get us to help you.” Of all things, a new mystery was not what she expected, or even particularly wanted. In the background, her mind kept buzzing with that new phrase it had picked up since she and her partner had finally acknowledged their regard for one another – “I have to get back and tell Lorin.”
Shaking his head vigorously, Donis stood. “That’s all I want to say about it, not to mention there’s not much more I can say. One thing you’ll learn about me, girl, is that I know when to keep investigating, and when to bow out. This time, I bowed out, so before I decide throw you out again, you best tell me whether or not you’re going to help me.”
“Throw me out again and you know what the answer will be,” Sifani growled, despite her sudden realization of the danger of being alone with a being so much more powerful than her. “Though, really, I don’t see that I have much of a choice, given your threat to turn me over to Nume otherwise.” Not to mention this new information about flux and the epheria piqued her interest terribly, but she tried to quash that thought behind the more immediate concerns.
“That’s the spirit, girl!” Donis released his idiot laugh and clapped her on the shoulder, making Sifani flinch. “Now get out of here, before I give into the temptation to throw you out just for the sheer fun of it!”
Swearing to herself she’d figure out how to do the same before the month was out, Sifani, in that strange and immediate “blowing” motion unique to flux, returned to the place where the glass wall overlooked her bedroom and the waiting Lorin, without so much as a goodbye wave to Donis. It had been awhile since someone had so thoroughly irritated her. She put one foot through the glass – a token gesture, for as soon as she willed it, her body and mind returned with nothing short of a crash back into the light, sense and color of reality.
Blinking, Sifani sat up. Lorin was at her side in a split second, his bright eyes peering into hers in keen anticipation. “Boy am I glad to see you.” She put her hand on his and couldn’t help but smile at the question on his face, or maybe just his face in general. “So, I met someone today. Short, not at all handsome, with the lowest amount of social charm and the highest bloody rank of anyone I know. And with what he had to say, you definitely won’t be disappointed with my story.”
As soon as that new scene came into being on the canvass of reality, thought and memory and consciousness funneled back into place at alarming speed. Sifani caught her breath – at least, she would have, if she had had anything but an imagined body in that otherworldly place – and gazed about the familiar smooth, white-floored hallway. On either side of her soared what appeared to be glass walls. They were even taller than she remembered, flying upward into the sky beyond sight, and made her feel like she had stepped into a dream she hadn’t been sure had really happened until she found herself dreaming it again.
She glanced to her left, and saw a bird’s-eye view of her room, Lorin sitting on a chair in the corner and watching over her motionless body. The sudden reconnection to reality made her stomach lurch, and she quickly turned her head to the right, where she was met instead with a mirror image of what she had just seen, except all awash with blue. The epheria.
It would’ve been easy to stand and stare, and the wild blood in her – the same blood that had always drawn her to the epheria despite all reason and risk of danger – longed to test her power here, to see how she could affect reality as she looked down on the world like a goddess. And yet, if she was going to try to find a Deity, it would be well to get started. It wasn’t as if she had ever done this before.
To be honest, her only clue as to how to go about this was tenuous, derived from that disastrous encounter with Nume a month before. At that time, she had been able to track her mother because she had sensed her presence. Though at the time her frantic mind had registered the sense completely abstract, Sifani’s memory now attested that it had been more substantial – an actual smell, a true feeling of movement and disturbance.
Sifani figured if that if Nume had left behind that kind of trail, she must be leaving a trail of her own, as well.
Her first attempts to detect her own trail were fruitless, as she expected, much like trying to describe the scent of one’s own room, where the smells are so familiar one can no longer detect them. But she certainly wasn’t going to go through the trouble of entering flux without exhausting her resources.
That, of course, involved a good amount of pacing and thinking. Time seemed nonexistent, or at the very least, warped and less urgent here than in the real world, so Sifani did not know how long she spent in this state, though she occasionally reminded herself that Lorin was watching and waiting for her. If she stayed too long, she wouldn’t put it past him to come charging in here after her, provided he survived the transition. Not that Lorin worried about that sort of thing.
She finally paused in her pacing and sighed, imaginary shoulders heaving with the motion. “The last the Deities could do is provide some seating in this world of theirs,” she commented.
A chair appeared.
Sifani blinked. There had been no preamble to the object’s appearance, and no smoke or blinking lights to highlight the magical nature of it. It had simply not been, and then it simply was.
It occurred to her so abruptly that she had to laugh. If she could imagine a body for herself in this place, one that could interact with things around it, then why couldn’t she imagine the things to interact with, as well? Grinning, Sifani spoke aloud that it might be nice to put her feet up, and a matching footstool appeared in front of the chair. She hastened to it and sat down, feeling giddy at the discovery, and a bit foolish for it.
She propped her feet on the stool. Yet another mystery of flux. As much as that state of being depended on what was going on in a person’s mind, flux had to be composed of something. Of this, Sifani was certain. If she wasn’t using that something to create imaginary chairs, she was certainly disturbing it with her actions.
And then she began to wonder, as she had in the days between her visits here, if she might be able to train her mind to “see” differently within flux, just as she did when entering the daydream state used to transition into either flux or the epheria.
Drawing an anticipatory breath, Sifani let her mind go free – it did not drift, but settled back into an inward-looking state that yet maintained its view out into the landscape around her. Truly, she expected to see nothing, and that was the first thing she saw. All was the same, with nothing new to detect. And yet, she could not help but keep trying, on a hunch. Both she and Lorin had learned to trust their hunches, particularly when they related to the epheria.
She honed her mental “vision” tighter, and something came into view.
It was a trailing line – sort of a smudge or cloud, really – of blue, the kind of glowing, ephemeral blue that characterized vision within the epheria. It hovered thickly around Sifani’s body, but just barely washed the spot where she had created her imaginary chair and footrest, almost fading altogether. Intrigued, Sifani turned toward the spot where the chair had been, and then saw the blue flair up anew around her, echoing her motion.
Sifani experimentally swiped her hand before her. Bright blue trailed after her hand like a flame, marking her presence and motion. Though her body was only imaginary, the pieces of herself that floated about in flux were apparently real enough to leave these marks.
The satisfaction of discovery made Sifani’s head buzz. Wait until the band hears about this. Continuing to watch the blue glow swish after her moving limbs with childlike pleasure, she mused about the encounter with her mother. If she had tracked Nume by both sense of movement and scent, why couldn’t she see any scent trail here?
After a moment, she tried to adjust her vision, but to no avail. The amount of unknowns here in flux…maddening. She could spend the rest of her life standing in this same spot and not learn all there was to know about it.
The novelty of her discovery wore off enough for Sifani to remember what she was doing there in the first place, but she was the better for it. Now, finding her Deity would be nearly as easy as tracing a line.
Sifani wandered about for awhile, admiring the strange and stark world around her as much as looking for a sign of another presence nearby. “Wandering” wasn’t even the word, she knew, for space was as odd and bent as time, here. Though she maintained constant motion as she moved forward, it was difficult to say how far she had gone. Sometimes, it seemed as if she hadn’t moved at all.
Yet, eventually, Sifani saw a hue of ultramarine in the distance, and having a definite mark to move toward, she used the “blowing” motion that was particular to flux to approach.
The trail was fresh! Pulse rising, Sifani followed the smudged blue line even as it began to dissipate before her eyes, her muscles tensing for the possible confrontation that a meeting with a Deity might easily bring about. She prayed – to whom, she had no idea – that Nume didn’t show her face around here these days…
And then, she started. Without warning, a figure came into view from around an unseen bend – a man, short, yet compact and powerful, the thin wisps of grey hair on his head and above his lip blowing slightly with some undetectable breeze. His tasseled robe, green trimmed with gold, brought to mind those grave, ghostly figures that had stood by to witness the last battle between Sifani and her mother, and she trembled inside at the realization that she had found her Deity at last.
This is the first installment of the second book of the “Bloodlines” trilogy, by yours truly. I will post the entire draft of the book here in serialized form before I collate and publish it for Amazon Kindle. The Shaking of Epheria is a working title.
He fled. He could not even remember the last time he had fled.
He also couldn’t remember the last time he had felt less like a Deity than he did at this moment. Whatever it was that he had just seen, though, he wanted nothing to do with it. A man like him didn’t get far without being able to anticipate danger early on, and this was danger, indeed.
Glancing behind him, and saw the fading glow of the trail his fellow Deity left behind when she ran. He had only caught a glimpse of her, a glint of gold hair against high, proud shoulders, yet that was all he needed. She was certainly involved with this, somehow.
That thing. It felt like it had reached out for him as surely as if he had seen the grasping fingers. In that moment, flux expanded into a world much too large for them to be lording over like self-entitled children playing explorers.
His dignity rebelled at that. Stupid. Of course, a Deity would naturally hate such a feeling, but his hatred was less pressing than the warning buzzing in the front of his mind.
If there were ever a good time to get out of the world of the Reehlers, it was now.
“Lorin, can I talk to you? It’s about something serious.”
“Anything, you know that.”
Sifani crossed her arms skeptically as they walked beneath the cool shadow of their tower. “Let me qualify – can I talk to you and you just listen? No advice, no easy solutions, just you listening to me.”
“Well, now that’s a little bit harder to promise. You do wax long and boring sometimes…”
Sifani punched him in arm. In addition to the so-very-Lorin-like comment, she had caught his eyes straying again as she tried to keep hold of his gaze. True, it wasn’t very often he saw her in a dress – she wasn’t usually inside as much as she had been of late – but this was serious business!
He twisted his lips boyishly. “Ow.”
“Eyes up.” She smothered a smile, and beckoned him follow her to the nearby bench where they sometimes stole a few moments alone. Positioned just behind the tower on a square of struggling grass under a wizened tree, it was the closest thing to a garden view the band would ever have.
They sat down. Lorin smiled quickly at her. “So? Talk to me.”
Sifani drew in a deep breath. “Does the silence ever bother you?”
“No,” he answered, a touch too confidently. He pulled a knife from his boot and began trimming his nails.
She narrowed her eyes at him. Lying had never been high on his list of skills.
Keeping silent, he started on a thumbnail, whistling quietly between his teeth.
“Well,” she continued, “it bothers me. After all that happened with my mother, this calm is unnatural. It’s like…like prison, almost,” she struggled to articulate. “If I keep my head down, chances are, I’ll stay alive and untouched to a ripe old age. But if I don’t take action, if I don’t make some noise eventually, well, there’s no chance of escape, or of living free for the rest of my life.” A pause. “I think that living free is worth the risk.”
The knife in his hand stopped moving. He looked up, met her eyes with a look that strengthened her resolve. “You know I agree with that.”
They sat quietly for a minute, considering.
“It was only a month ago, Sifani,” Lorin finally proffered, examining his left hand. “Not long. The silence can’t last long, anyway, not after, you know, you went on a little crusade to take down one of the Deities and all.”
Sifani snorted. “Maybe. Ah, Lorin. I just wish I knew why the other Deities kicked me out of the epheria like they did. I have a feeling it’s not because they took a fancy to me.”
Lorin pushed a black curl off his forehead irritably. Sifani watched his pointedly blank expression. He was holding his tongue.
“I see that look! You think I should break the silence myself, and just go to flux and ask them!”
The young sunlight flashed off his teeth as he grinned. “I’m sorry, Sifani. Much as I’d love to, I can’t confirm that. You told me not to give you any advice.”
One month ago – the first and last time Sifani had used the powers particular to her Reehler bloodline – seemed part of a different lifetime. Then, she had been mired in the chaos of finding out things about her past she should’ve always known, and entering the epheria had been something of a comfort to her.
That comfort ended when she opted to follow her mother into flux. There was nothing safe or agreeable about the process of ripping apart the pieces of her own being to become an un-being. All Sifani knew is that while she didn’t want to do it again, she also did.
In the secure familiarity of her own room, she sat on the edge of her bed and calmed her buzzing nerves. It helped to have Lorin standing nearby, watching over her, though his presence was more of a token than a necessity. She took long, slow breaths to the shuffling rhythm of his footsteps, until her mind could sink back into the daydream state that was the threshold to both flux and the epheria. That, at least, was as easy and thoughtless as walking.
Forcing herself to focus on the pieces of her own being, on the other hand, was like trying to walk a straight line on the deck of a ship heaving on the high seas. It was less terrifying and yet no less terrific than that first time she had done it, now knowing what to expect. She felt as if she floated an infinitesimal distance from her mind and self. She was unreal, a mere echo off the wall of reality.
Despite her previous experience here, that sense of unreality threw her. How could a person grow used to it? For a moment, thought and intention were nearly lost, so faint that not even the emotion of panic could touch Sifani. In weak muscle-memory of her actions a month ago, Sifani willed herself to reach past the nothingness and grabbed hold of the pieces of herself before it was too late.
She clutched to the metaphor that had kept her together before: she was paint and paintbrush, paintbrush and artist, and she dipped brush into paint and mixed the colors into something strange, beautiful, and altogether beyond her.
Well, friends, I’ve decided I’m just going to post the entire last chunk of “Bloodlines,” since I’ve taken my sweet time finishing it despite lofty promises of swift postings.
Make note of a few retroactive changes I’ve made in the story – “transposition” instead of “reconstitution” (as per the suggestion of astute fellow writer Bill Tracy), and flux no longer a permanent state. Also, pretend that there was never a time that people in the real world were able to see people who were actively within the epheria. Haha. As I’ve said before, you’re seeing the writing process happen here, and perhaps it’s both a blessing and a curse!
Without further ado, the conclusion to “Bloodlines of Epheria.”
The attack came immediately. For the first time, Sifani saw the dog-creature materialize: the air seemed to fold in a split-second of blue-white, and a mass of dark fur and two-inch claws tumbled out of nothingness. As it barreled toward them, its eyes glowed an unreal red.
It dived for Lorin at breakneck speed, and the man barely managed to shift his weight aside so that the creature didn’t touch him. The hellish thing skidded past and barked out something between a yelp and growl. A wicked grin cracked across Sifani’s face. “Eat this, you ugly son of a horse’s backside!” she cried, and honed her focus, razor-sharp, on the ground around the creature’s paws.
Her consciousness swimming in a sea of particles invisible to naked vision, Sifani systematically demolished a ring of earth around the monster. At first a small burst, then in increasingly larger chunks, brown and tan clods exploded beside it, causing it to dance from side to side. Sifani released a manic laugh as the rapidly dissolving ground formed a small island around the thing.
It was really only a bare handful of seconds before the monster regained its composure, unfortunately. It paused momentarily, and a snapped a few sharp barks. At its call, the air folded in four more hair-thin lines behind it. From them stepped reinforcements.
Sifani heard Lorin’s hissed intake of breath as four new dog-creatures bounded outward and forward around the edges of the crumbling island, even as their stranded companion vaulted over the growing rift between it and its prey. Over disgusting and guttural noises that for a moment sounded to her like language, Sifani almost didn’t hear the beat of Lorin’s running feet until the wind of his passing tugged at her hair and clothes.
At the first sight of him sprinting, Sifani reached hastily into her pocket to ensure that he had put the first of their plans into action. Her first closed around a hard ball of twine that was rapidly twitching and unraveling as Lorin ran off with the other end. Reassured by its presence, Sifani took off in a sprint in the opposite direction of her partner, hand still closed tight around the twine. Her body thrummed with pent energy and the morbidly pleasant thrill of the chase, though she ground her teeth as she considered their limitations once again. There was only so much they could do without touching the creatures with something from the real-world – they couldn’t use hands, couldn’t use knives…she was definitely missing Namiss and her knives right about now. As it was, this odd medium would have to do.
Sifani huffed a quick sigh of relief when the string stretched taut – she pulled her steps up short. It appeared that the twine hadn’t touched any of the monsters in the process of unraveling, thank Donis, since the scene hadn’t changed much. The monsters were close, though, desperately close, and obstructed only by the deep scars in the ground where Sifani and Lorin had transposed.
“Now, Sifani!” Lorin barked – that was the only cue she needed to begin transposing the twine stretched out between them.
Hers and Lorin’s joined powers were not insignificant. Together, they delved into the pieces that made up the string. Their minds danced between and weaved around one another as Lorin ripped pieces apart, and Sifani transformed them.
She really didn’t do much this time, only pulled the small, rough fibers of the twine outward into stiff needles. Piece by piece, at lightning speed, Sifani made the string into a deadly weapon, which Lorin summarily cut into sections. Then, together, they pressed the pieces away with all their combined might.
The result was explosive. The hardened and broken twine torpedoed outward into the enemy line. Agonized screeches made the air ring metallically, and as the twine ripped through into the dark flesh of Nume’s dog-creatures, Sifani and Lorin plunged back into the real world.
The monsters, having been touched by an object Sifani and Lorin had brought from the outside, appeared there with them, strewn across the ground. Sifani had hoped that all five would be lying stone dead – that the force of the explosion would’ve driven the sharp pieces deep into the vital organs of all the filthy things. Instead, despite the three that lay blessedly unmoving, two others stood on shaky, yet solid enough, legs. And as her luck would have it, those two were the two closest to Sifani.
Angered by their near defeat, they leapt onto her ferociously.
True to his nature, Lorin threw himself into the fray. Sifani could’ve sworn she heard him shout a triumphant, “ha!” as he wrestled one of the things off of her, rolling to the side and bellowing as teeth scraped the side of his face. Particles of dirt floated upward in small clouds, stinging Sifani’s nostrils as she struggled to ignore Lorin’s plight and concentrate on pushing the second creature away from her. Its stifling, meaty scent filled her nostrils as it snapped its jaws in her face, teeth bare inches from her.
Her arms felt weak, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to hold the thing off for much longer. It was in that moment of doubt that a handle suddenly and inexplicably protruded from between the creature’s shoulder blades as if it had grown there. There was a quick, gurgling sound from within the monster’s throat, a gush of warm blood and a spasm that caused it to roll off Sifani and onto the ground, and then death.
The knife had flown true, so of course it had to be Namiss. Sifani pushed herself to her feet and looked over to see the members of the band all wielding the weapons they had brought – Jatan fitting a new arrow to his bow, and Ileniel and Antian brandishing swort-swords in case they had the opportunity to strike close. Instead of looking victorious, though, all their faces were masks of horror.
Sifani felt her heart and lungs freeze, and she spun around to Lorin. He and the monster – which now had two of Jatan’s arrows sprouting from its flank – were thoroughly bloodied now, and still tumbling to and fro in their death grapple. There was a snap of jaws and a flash of grey teeth, and the thing bit hard into Lorin’s neck.
Sifani’s world exploded in anger and fear. LORIN! Her vision wavered, and suddenly she felt her mind diving almost against her will into the daydream-place that she had been able to access once before, at the Head Counselor’s home in what seemed another lifetime – that strange state of being that bridged the real world to her Reehler powers during fits of unquenchable emotion.
Her eyes trained on the dog’s body as it strained and twitched, trying to disable its victim. Her mind floated, melting back yet leaning forward, drifting further away and yet plunging exponentially closer.
She could see the skin and fur of the creature in startling detail, but knew it was not enough. In that strange tension between letting go and clutching tighter, Sifani further freed her mind to the daydream state.
And she saw pieces. So many pieces to a living creature. She had never seen an animal so close before. The pieces themselves had pieces – that skin and hair was made of up so many, trembling parts that only a few eyes must’ve ever seen. Plants were one thing, a kind of life that put the fear of the Deities, so to speak, in a person…but to know that the kind of life Sifani now held in her hand was one of flesh and blood, effectively making her the mistress of a conscious being’s destiny…it was horrible, and so very heady.
She took those pieces and transposed them into something that was, simply put, unnatural.
The truth was, Sifani didn’t know what to do with the building blocks of a conscious creature. She and Antian had talked about the ethical ramifications of that kind of tampering, but that was all, and at the time she had devoted much of her mental energy to ribbing Antian about taking his life too seriously. She regretted it, now. Like a child trying to rebuild a complex device she had dashed to pieces on the floor, Sifani took the blocks and formed them into something grotesquely wrong.
She pulled her mind back from its deeply-embedded state to see what she had done. As she had hoped, Lorin had moved back from the creature, not needing to fight. And though the wound on his neck bled, it did not look as dire as she had feared. Far from seeming debilitated, Lorin was watching a sudden, awful growth, large as a honey melon, sprout from the side of the creature’s head. His eyes flicked to her momentarily. She thought he looked slightly horror-stricken, but all he did after looking away was stick out his tongue and mumble, “Disgusting.”
Sifani thought she would have sicked up at the sight, had she the time. But there was nothing for her but to watch her handiwork go through to its rapid conclusion, knowing Lorin was alright. The monster’s cries became almost unbearable – rasping, high-pitched things that scratched the surface of the gut as the heavy growth dragged the dog-creature’s sooty head down to the earth. It thrashed madly for minutes that seemed to stretch on and on, spasming and frothing all the while until at last it lay still.
The only sounds were Sifani and Lorin’s panting breaths, though the silence from the watching members of the band was almost louder than those. The pair exchanged glances over the monster’s corpse.
“We’ve won the first round,” Lorin commented with grim satisfaction, then his eyes narrowed as he concentrated on Sifani’s face. “And that’s all that matters right now.”
Sifani bit the inside of her cheek. She must’ve been wearing her discomfiture with what she had done plainly on her face. She nodded tersely, acknowledging Lorin’s silent admonition. “Canvass again?”
Lorin nodded, and closed his eyes to slip back into the world where, despite their limitations, they were most equipped to fight one of the Deities.
When the world blossomed into blue, it took the space of an eye-blink for a fold to appear in the air – one that stretched itself endlessly upward like an upended bolt of lightning before Nume herself stepped out from inside it.
Her beauty was not what Sifani remembered, and perhaps it could no longer be called beauty. Her mien was not the cold and sneering beauty of a highborn lady, but the terrific rage of a monarch – full-throated, insane, and indiscriminate, a commodity left only to one impossibly powerful.
“YOU LYING BRAT!” Nume screamed. Her voice was dark and resonant as approaching thunder. “NOW YOU SHALL SEE WHAT COMES FROM SPURNING MY GENEROSITY.”
Don’t stop moving. Sifani’s own instructions replayed in her mind as she threw her body to the side full-force. A terrifying wave of heat followed close on her heels, and a tumultuous heaving of the ground knocked her further away. She scrubbed her arm across her dirtied lids just long enough to peer through the clouds of disrupted dust for Lorin.
He was no more than fifteen paces away from her, pushing himself up on his elbows and scrabbling backwards. Bless him – he had kept his head. Figuratively and literally.
She jumped onto her own feet and took off like a hind before the hunter. The only way that she and Lorin could keep Nume from being able to transpose them or anything on them was to never stay still enough for her to focus on any point on their bodies. It protected them to a degree, but – a column of fire flashed through the air half a foot away from Sifani, giving her a bare eye-blink’s time to turn heel – there was still so much more that Nume could do to destroy them.
Nume hissed as Sifani escaped her blast a second time, and began to direct her efforts toward her daughter in earnest. Sifani had rounded toward some jagged trees with low-hanging foliage the color of rot, and as she passed beneath one, a solid wood chunk the length of her thigh abruptly hardened, then shattered with a mighty crash. Something much harder and sharper-edged than wood pelted forward, storm-like, slivers tearing across Sifani’s arms and legs and biting through her skin like a hoard of stinging insects. She bit back a cry of pain and stumbled.
Throwing her arms over her face in a reflexive posture of defense, Sifani tucked and rolled as best she could with her numerous wounds. Though her mind was almost all hysteria now, her survival instinct sharpened her senses for a crucial second. Rolling back up onto her right shoulder – and wanting to die for the pain that coursed through her – Sifani fixed all her attention on the silver-violet slippers Nume wore, slapping the earth as she headed toward her quarry. Fabric – something blessedly non-living, and a medium Sifani had worked with often in the past. Knowing what to look for, Sifani easily detected the interwoven strands that made up the feeble shoes. She summarily unraveled them.
In any other situation, Sifani would’ve called it a cheap shot, but it was all she had, and the rules of a death-match would forever differ from those of a duel. The trick threw off Nume’s balance in the midst of her dead run, and she went hurtling forward, her hair a red-gold splay in the growing daylight.
And then, Lorin charged onto the scene like Sifani’s own personal hellion to finish the job. Rather, there was not actually any charging involved, but she saw his immovable stance, feet apart and fists clenched, as he transposed a strategic section of the already-crumbling garden wall into dust. As it dissolved, the stones it once helped to support trembled fitfully before cascading in a low rumble onto Nume’s prone body.
Sifani’s stomach jumped sickeningly. Could it be that, just like that, they had killed her?
She heard footsteps and the air next to her changed as Lorin slipped in beside her. “You’re injured,” he growled, looking her up and down bleakly.
Sifani hardly heard. “We should bring down the rest of the wall…”
“You think a wall is going to stop her?”
Her eyes shifted to him. “Says the man who brought it down in the first place.”
A sound like the purr of a thunderhead rose up near them. They turned toward the pile of rocks, and saw it shifting.
“As long as she’s in the epheria, we can’t hurt her using that kind of tactic. You’re going to have to transpose her, like you did with the creatures.” Lorin spoke matter-of-factly – they might’ve been discussing the situation over tea. “You have to do it now, Sifani, while she’s incapable of counterattack.”
Sifani stared at him in disbelief and horror. All of sudden, she felt utterly paralyzed. “I- I don’t think I can…”
Even as she spoke, a few of the rocks burst spectacularly into flowers of dust, and a woman pushed her head out and tossed her hair angrily, screaming, “You’ll pay in spades for that!” A few seconds later, the tree that Nume had transposed a part of earlier burst into furious, nearly white-hot flame.
“Too late,” Lorin muttered. Both Sifani and Lorin took steps back, their muscles tensed for quick flight as the entire trunk flashed almost instantaneously to ash. “She’s not at all one for theatrics,” he added wryly.
The pair bolted in opposite directions again as Nume stood among the rubble and lifted her arms, hefting an apple-sized stone above her head. Morbid and inexplicable curiosity overtook Sifani as she ran, and she peered over her shoulder to see what her mother was about. The woman hurled the stone, and her eyes followed it halfway through its flight before she transposed it…in mid-air. The simple rock became a flaming projectile that resembled a piece out of the ramparts of hell, and it was on a straight path towards Sifani.
All this happened in less than a breath. Sifani had just enough time to dodge slightly to the left, and even then she detected the sudden smell of burning – the rock had passed close enough to her to singe her clothes. Horror at Nume’s level of transposing power momentarily fuddled Sifani’s thoughts, and she glanced distractedly down at her sleeve to assess the damage from the burning rock.
That opening was all her mother needed. When Sifani looked back up from her sleeve, she was careening straight into a swift-moving Nume’s outstretched arms.
Her mother had circled around to intercept her. They crashed into one another and out of the epheria into the mortal world for a second time.
Sifani knew her friends would still be waiting vigilantly, but she wished she could’ve given them warning all the same. The world crashed back into full color as she and her mother tumbled to the ground, grappling wildly.
Sifani heard Lorin’s voice bellowing into the chaos moments later. “Remember our instructions! Namiss! Remember our instructions!”
Though Nume could not have been surprised about the presence of the band, being suddenly surrounded gave her a moment’s pause. In that space, Sifani was able to twist her body around and deliver a sound blow into Nume’s side, making the woman double over. Sifani wriggled out from underneath her, and staggered backward onto her feet. As she did, a bright sliver of silver whooshed past her forearm and into Nume’s leg.
Namiss, sure-shooting once again. They needed to stretch out the battle in the real world as long as possible before they could destroy Nume for good, and Sifani had explicitly ordered the band not to make a killing blow until she or Lorin gave the word. Sifani’s feeling of relief at seeing Namiss was at odds with the disquieting sight of blood streaming from her mother’s wounded body.
Nume’s eyes rose to discern her attacker.
In all her life, Sifani had never seen such distilled hatred in a person’s expression. It seemed to ooze from Nume’s hazel eyes that had gone dispassionately and dangerously flat. The other members of the band were closing in for support – the muscles stood taut in Jatan’s arms as held his bow drawn, and Ileniel and Antian still bore their swords with competence if not exactly confidence – but all the same, Sifani suddenly felt profound fear for Namiss.
She was about to cry out to her friend, when Nume propped herself up on one hand, the other one clutching her leg. In the time it would’ve taken for her to verbally command the earth itself, Nume turned the ground to water directly underneath Namiss’ left foot.
The girl was holding a knife aloft in her left hand, its twin already buried in its target. She had been preparing to throw it, but her sudden loss of footing caught her completely off-guard. As Namiss slipped downward with a stifled cry, Nume seemed to mock Lorin and Sifani with the preciseness she used to copy the trick Lorin implemented earlier to bring the stone wall down.
The stones that crumbled away left the heavy skeleton of the wall teetering, then toppling, onto Namiss’ elfin frame. Anger and dismay tore from the throats all around Sifani. She, on the other hand, could only stare, silent and aghast, at the wall, and then at Nume.
“In spades,” her mother said. “And he’s next.”
And though all hands surely itched to send their weapons toward Nume at that moment, there was the barest hesitation – the band didn’t yet have Sifani’s sanction to kill. While their obedience stayed them, Nume formed one of those strange folds in the air and dragged herself through it, wearing a gloating smile.
Jatan’s arrow whizzed through the suddenly empty space. He swore for the first time Sifani had ever heard.
All of them turned on their heels and rushed to where the stones had buried Namiss. Lorin dropped to his knees first and began hauling rocks off of her, one by one.
“Careful!” Ileniel warned shrilly as he approached Lorin from behind. “Shift one of those the wrong way, and you might make things worse than they already are!”
“You think I don’t know that?” Lorin’s voice was pitched almost to a shout. His arms, stained with his own blood, corded with muscle as he lifted one rock at a time in strong yet gentle hands. “Each of these is heavier than a moneylender’s purse,” he snarled to himself. Then louder – “Do you know where Nume went to, Sifani?”
When Lorin glanced up at her, his eyes were troubled and tender. Sifani still felt as if her mind and body were moving slowly, her senses mired in disbelief and fear for Namiss. And he’s next, Nume had said.
Looking back at Lorin, she realized what she must do.
“Sifani?” Lorin repeated. “Where did Nume go?”
“She went into flux.” Sifani put one hand on Lorin’s shoulder, suddenly calm.
“In flux…then, we can’t reach her there.”
“No.” She paused. “You’re not powerful enough.”
Lorin stood and ran a hand over his dirty face. He wandered to an in-tact section of wall and leaned his head against it for a moment. Then, he drove his fist into the hard stone and roared out a primal cry.
Sifani grimaced. She amended her statement quietly. “I said, you’re not powerful enough.”
Bloody fist still pressed against the wall, Lorin half-turned to look at her. Understanding flickered to life in his eyes. “No.”
Sifani was already walking away.
“No!” Lorin repeated, and stormed over to her, grabbing her fervently by the upper arm and turning her about to face him. “You can’t follow your mother into there! You said entering flux means you have to manipulate your own pieces.”
He was close enough that his breath pressed hot against Sifani’s face. The smell of his fresh sweat fell thick upon her nostrils, and beneath it lurked vibrant scent of wood and water that was all him. She breathed him in, stepped closer. And then jabbed her finger hard into his breastbone.
“So, you do listen to me sometimes, Lorin a-tayn Kavath. But if you had payed attention to all of what I had said, you would know that you and I will never be safe from Nume as long as she lives.”
“Sifani, you sounded unsure that you could even achieve flux!”
“Then trying it could kill you!”
“Yes, it could.”
Lorin’s heart beat forcefully against her hand, and Sifani pulled it away from his chest. Lorin’s mouth worked soundlessly, stymied as to what he could say – which was, of course, nothing. Of a sudden, he grabbed both her shoulders, and a look of uncertainty briefly touched his eyes. “I will not let you.”
Sifani tried to snake one of her arms out of his hand, but though his grip was not painful, it held like a vice. Her brows climbed in incredulity and outrage. She lashed out with her right hand, intending to cuff him on the side of the head like she might an unruly child. His left wrist moved like a shadow, though, soundly blocking her. More quickly this time, Sifani struck out with her left hand, only to meet the solid obstruction of Lorin’s right. Yelling in frustration, she leaned hard into her motion and swiped both of his arms outward and away. When her hands came back down, her and Lorin’s bodies were practically pressed up against each other.
Lorin stared into her face, then, and slipped one arm up her back and the other around her waist. And with a passion found only in a woman full of anger that has nowhere else to go, Sifani grabbed Lorin’s head in both her hands, pulled his lips to her own, and kissed him.
It didn’t take long for him to return the fierceness of her kiss, and as it turned out, he had more than enough to spare.
Their mouths parted slowly, reluctantly, stealing a few last touches before they stood apart, the summer-sweet taste of Lorin’s mouth still warm on Sifani’s lips.
Sifani gently disentangled her fingers from Lorin’s dark curls. Somehow their silkiness made the growing distance between their bodies profoundly more bitter.
Her lungs pressed out a quick sigh. “Why didn’t you tell me all that before, you big lummox?”
Instead of returning a wisecrack, Lorin abruptly, almost awkwardly, encompassed Sifani in a hug. As he held her, his shoulders heaved a few times, almost like he were laughing, but Sifani heard no laughter.
He brought his arms away from her slowly as if he were releasing a bird, his eyes blank. He said nothing. Sifani took two steps back, not turning.
Then, because she couldn’t decide whether or not to say “goodbye,” she canvassed.
Tampering with her own being was not something she had ever even thought about before she had spoken with Nume in her circle of fire. It had been completely unthinkable, like cutting off her own finger just to see how it felt. So when Sifani slipped into the daydream-like state of mind that led her to the epheria, the act of focusing on her own pieces proved slow and nauseating.
The first moment Sifani became aware of her pieces, a jolt of panic coursed through her. Her focus fled immediately, and she sucked in air between her teeth. Her heart fluttered madly in her chest like a moth caught in a hand.
Sifani took a few steadying breaths before trying again, this time knowing what to expect. She would be doused by the sudden sense of being insubstantial, the feeling of hovering just outside of herself – outside of, even, her own conscious mind. It was a quivering certainty that there was little holding her together or making her real.
She plunged herself into that strange place with resolve, and held there only for a few long moments, knowing there was nothing for her but to go deeper.
Sifani honed her focus further on the trembling pieces of her being, her sense of them intensifying. If transition from simply standing in the epheria to focusing on her own pieces was the difference between knowing a cup existed and seeing it with her eyes, transitioning from the first level of focus to the second was the difference between imagining what the cup might feel like if she touched it, and actually touching it. Sifani was touching the pieces of herself, able to sense their movement and their potential, their placement and their function. She was both the drops of paint and the artist using them.
The familiar image of paint drops somehow set Sifani’s distant mind at ease. It helped her at least begin the process of manipulating herself – slowly, at first, but with rapidly increasing intensity and dexterity. Her presiding consciousness – the part of her that knew to focus deeper and not let go – became the paintbrush, and it took Sifani’s pieces, pushed them gently apart until they were suited to re-creation, and fashioned a new picture that bore faint resemblance to the old yet was something new entirely.
Sifani’s normal vision returned in a jarring rush. The memory of the paintbrush and colors dissipated from her memory. She found herself looking around at the space before her – a pristine white hallway that stretched on indefinitely, made of some strange, smooth material. No, Sifani thought, she was not “looking around,” exactly – she didn’t have eyes, or a body at that. But somehow she was perfectly aware of everything around her.
Her vision moved away from the floor of the hallway to its walls. They were not walls in any real sense, but Sifani could think of no other name to put to the sheets of spiderweb-thin glass that stretched from the floor to infinity on either side.
What was behind that glass was more spectacular. There were two worlds there, as one might see them from afar, as from the top of a tall hill. In one world, the band stood in the abandoned garden where Sifani had been standing only minutes ago. Namiss’ body lay unburied on the ground. Lorin held her in his arms. Through a pang of pain and regret, Sifani turned toward the other window-wall. Behind that one, a glowing blue color flowed across everything in the same familiar garden. She was looking into the epheria.
It could be a trap, she told herself…but no. Nume moved easily between worlds when she was in flux, even though it seemed she couldn’t stay in one for an indefinite amount of time. It appeared, then, that Sifani had achieved her goal – she truly was in her mother’s realm, and hopefully retained the same powers as the woman. Hopefully. She scoffed. There was so much she didn’t know. Lorin had been right to fear for her.
Even knowing she had no feet to walk, Sifani decided to try to move forward.
Sifani willed herself forward. With the vague sensation of flight, she…blew…to where she wanted to go, as swiftly as the motion of wind. Her mind sharpened with surprise, but before she could consider what had just happened her thoughts were grabbed away by something infinitely more pressing. Sifani felt her mother’s presence nearby, sharp as the scent of decay on the wind and clear as a black blot of ink on white parchment.
The presence was so tangible that Sifani located it without thought. She let the wind of her will sweep her rapidly in that direction – whatever direction meant in such a place – and quickly found herself in a circular chamber with the same white floor and glass walls as the never ending hallway that cut through the center of it. Nume stood in the center as well, enrobed in the same gauzy dress she had worn in the real world, her half-turned, regal face impassive except for a subtle tightness that bespoke shock at seeing her daughter again.
Why can I see her body? Sifani wondered, though another part of her pushed the thought away irritably. It was hardly the time to contemplate such things, and this was clearly not a place of matter, but of the mind. The things that were possible in flux, with the building blocks of different beings floating around freely, seemed limited only to the consciousnesses of those who had brought themselves here in the first place.
Standing before her mother, feeling the full weight of desperation that had driven her here after her, Sifani thought she should say something. She wanted to at least try to reason with this woman who had both abandoned and tried to kill her. She considered the cold hazel stones set beneath Nume’s dark brows, and language failed. There was no compassion there. She knew no amount of words would move her mother’s heart.
Sifani struck out at the same time Nume did.
Sifani struck out with the sensation of motion, but upon making contact with Nume, all illusion of physicality shattered, and she viewed the full scope of what it meant to be in flux. Its vastness was terrifying. Sifani was pure potential, a host of ideas waiting to take form. There was no way she could know how to do battle in this state.
Nume, on the other hand, took to the new form with horrifying familiarity. At first, Sifani didn’t even realize that she was under attack – not only that, she was losing rapidly. It wasn’t until she tried to push against the consciousness that was Nume that she realized part of her was blocked off, or missing, like a limb hanging useless.
Sifani panicked. She pushed again, frantically, and felt the growing impotence of her every movement. Black fear stole over her – Nume was using parts of herself to render parts of Sifani useless. A powerful distraction, and a further opportunity for Nume to prove how much more skill she held here than her daughter.
Sifani yanked herself back from where she had been pushing at Nume’s consciousness. She tried to clear her mind – tried to get used to the free-floating feeling of going without a body – and discern where her mother was blocking her. It took a few tries, but finally, she felt collected enough to quickly but carefully test each part of her many and scattered pieces for her mother’s influence.
Sifani found one place where Nume blocked her, and with a surge of bestial fury, shoved the unseen obstruction aside. Sifani exulted – the obstruction moved! – and had she a mouth she would’ve crowed with victory. If she could find the other areas where she was blocked in time, she might be able to meet her mother head on. As it was, she was beginning to feel the full force of Nume’s frontal attack, and it was rapidly growing unbearable.
Even as Sifani considered it, the frontal attack…doubled. No, tripled. It…Sifani couldn’t concentrate for the pressure that built up on her. What was Nume doing?
She formed a series of half-thoughts and half-motions, which were quickly swallowed up by an irresistible force pressing in all around her. Next to this, the parts of her that were blocked were a pittance. Sifani summarily ignored them. Her consciousness aflame with her power and the strain of the fight, she honed all her efforts on keeping herself from being sucked into the void Nume had created.
An idea struck her – if she stopped “touching” Nume, she might be able to regain her sense of “sight,” and maybe even get a hint as to how Nume was manipulating her being. Perhaps it was the sheer abruptness of the idea that made it possible, but Sifani acted on the impulse without waiting another moment. Sufficiently jarred, Nume let go her hold.
In a flash, Sifani was staggering backward in her body that was not a body, with her mother still looming before her in the white circular room. Except this time, Nume seemed larger, more imposing. When Sifani moved, she again felt that targeted emptiness that told her pieces of her had been ripped away, but it was exponentially greater than before.
The truth became clear of a sudden. Nume was not only taking Sifani’s pieces – her very life force – she was assimilating them into her own being. She was using her own daughter to bolster her life, her power.
So that was how one Deity killed another.
The realization twisted agonizingly through Sifani’s consciousness. In the flashes within her concentration, Sifani saw bodies filling in the spaces around where she and her mother fought. There were people of varying heights and colors, in clothing from muted homespun to elaborate, tasseled robes of emerald and violet. They stood like boundary stones with grave expressions, unflappable and still before the chaos of a mother and daughter’s wrath.
The crowd faded from Sifani’s awareness as Nume’s visible form again lunged for her, and her mind exploded back into the nothing-world once more.
Desperately, Sifani struggled against the wild, pulling force that was her mother using her as building blocks. Even without a body, it was painful, and if a kind of mental pain could be said to be worse than physical pain, this certainly was. It was the ripping and tearing of her very self, and Nume did it with alacrity. Sifani’s attempts at resistance were weak, and slowed her mother at best.
Simply because she didn’t know what else to do, Sifani attempted to pull one of Nume’s pieces into her being. She didn’t have the luxury of hesitation, and poured every bit of strength she possessed into it, though it scared her to her core to do so. Briefly, an image of the cancerous growth on Nume’s dog-creature assailed her mind. However, even with the ferocity of her effort, Nume hardly budged.
Heavily, the realization settled: there was no way that Sifani could win.
Her training in combat kept her going. Her consciousness continued to push back, to lash out, working as her muscles would work to swing a sword or throw a knife even when the battle was lost and death was inevitable. Her consciousness worked tirelessly, desperately, despite – perhaps because of – the grim thoughts floating by. She has stolen my life and my past from me. She will go after Lorin. And Namiss! Gods, I still don’t know if she is –
That was it. Namiss.
She could not summon the strength to destroy her mother’s being apart for her own sake, but for Namiss’…
Just as it had when Sifani formed the wooden birds to summon her mother, emotion fueled Sifani’s power to a furious level. Understanding brushed the back of her mind as she yanked on the first of Nume’s pieces and felt it give: the emotion could not be wild and chaotic, like anger, but something solid. Though she didn’t know how to show it most of the time, her affection for Namiss was solid if nothing else.
As before, Nume’s surprise at the counterattack was registered in the sudden withdrawal of her own attack. Perhaps her mother had not thought it possible that her half-breed daughter had a whisper of a chance against her in flux. Sifani would show her just how much strength there was in her father’s half of her bloodline, though. Daughter took advantage of mother’s pause, and tugged a larger swath of Nume’s being to herself. Even as she did, she reached out to a barrier that she could not, at the moment, see, but knew was there.
Sifani reached through the wall of glass into the real world, right into Namiss’ body.
At that moment, Sifani felt like a goddess. Her awareness burned with a bright white fire, making every second slow, every action exaggeratedly deliberate, and every subconscious supposition or piece of knowledge seem well-known and well-used. In one “glance” through Namiss’ limp body, she saw the damaged pieces in stark relief with those that were whole.
She began to place the pieces she had taken from Nume into Namiss. The process might have taken a few seconds’ time in reality, but Sifani did not feel rushed, only capable, and determined. The pleasure of seeing Namiss’ form rebuilt – the walls of her skin and the muscle and bone inside coming back into place – was visceral. As a Reehler, Sifani had always felt abnormally powerful, but to see that power save…now that was something.
I wish I could see Lorin’s face now, she mused, as she pulled all of herself back into flux to contend with Nume. The image of him holding Namiss’ body, shoulders hunched in grief, seared her. The thought was quickly lost as Nume pulled on her again, however, dragging another swath of the pieces of her form into oblivion. Sifani knew she would still lose if she didn’t finish this fast.
Desperately, she reached out into her mother’s form to grab away her pieces again, but now that Nume knew what to expect, the effort felt worse than futile. Sifani could almost taste the contempt with which her mother flicked away the attack, responding with a counter-pull on Sifani that hurt twice as much as the last one had. The very fibers of her self were quivering, burning to dust in intermittent flashes. Sifani tried to resist, to push her mother away, but she hurt so bad she could hardly think.
Another great pull, and Sifani felt that she had been folded backward and in half and set on fire with torches from the depths of hell. She screamed with an invisible mouth, screamed murder and dismay and refusal from the center of her mind.
This is the end, then, Mother…
And then, like a note of music sounded in the midst of the clamor of demons, Sifani felt something new.
Her mind burst with something like the ghost of a scream – a rumble of denial and frustration that bored into her like a thick and dirty nail into a plank. And though she shuddered beneath it, she knew it as the sound of rescue.
It was not the kind of rescue she had expected. There was no gentle extraction, no arms bearing her away from the battle while allies vanquished the woman who had so assiduously been trying to kill her. It was jerky, as if a person – or group…the figures in the robes and clothes of all colors burst for a moment into her mind – had startled, and seen that perhaps he had been making a decision he needed to amend.
Sifani sensed herself being forcibly heaved out of flux and through the glass wall into the mortal world.
She fell to the ground, skidding backwards several paces away from where the band had gathered. As she pushed herself to her knees, she was almost surprised to look down and see her hands in front of her. She flexed her fingers tentatively, wondered whether she had died among the Deities.
A susurrus of disbelief broke the smooth, hard silence. Footsteps hurried to where Sifani knelt. She did not look up.
“You’re back, Sifani,” Lorin’s voice washed over her, a warm wave. His shadow fell onto her as he knelt, his knees pressed to hers. Only when he put his rough hand on her face did her eyes rise to stare back into his.
“Was it you?” The music of Namiss’ voice, weak but unmistakable, made Sifani tremble with unshed tears. “Whatever you did, Sifani, you brought me back. They told me I was as good as dead, and then you went after Nume…”
“What happened?” The gentle caress of Jatan’s voice. She felt the air stir as he knelt beside her in turn. “Child, how did you…did you…?”
“The other Deities let me live.” Sifani shook her head, the blonde strands of hair she had gotten from her mother brushing back and forth against her cheeks as she did. “They threw me back here, into the real world. My mother was about to kill me, but they interfered.”
The air was still – perhaps all breaths were held. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” Sifani let her forehead drop tiredly against the warm, hard surface of Lorin’s chest. Next to his heart, she couldn’t bring herself to care. “I don’t know.”
To be continued in the second book of the “Bloodlines” Trilogy.
The sun came up over the horizon pinkly, brushing Sifani’s face with deceptive warmth. The streets were mostly empty – early-morning workers crept timidly from their doors, eyes blinking open to a perfect day. Yet, Sifani and the band kept their hoods up and their stride purposeful as they headed for the abandoned garden. Though today they worried little about being discovered, it still wouldn’t do to be reckless in their recklessness.
Lorin strode at Sifani’s right side, close enough to her that his arm brushed hers every few steps. She didn’t even try to stop herself from stealing a glance at him past her cowl – his presence was the most reassurance she had.
His bold, straight nose stood out from the shadows that concealed his face, rose-tinged by the sunlight. The knot that been forming in her stomach since Nume had made her demand two days ago tightened suddenly, so that it felt hard to breathe. Was there no way to avoid this? No way stop her divine hunter, no way to keep Lorin away from the danger?
She had thought about sneaking off to the garden alone in the earliest hours of the morning, had even begun to mention that she ought to face Nume by herself. However, Lorin headed her off on both counts, shutting down the former option as if he had read her mind and cutting off her attempt at the latter with little more than a curt rebuttal. He was so frustrating! So damned…admirable. She tugged her eyes away from him and stared straight ahead.
The group turned from the main thoroughfare into a series of wide alleys, and wove in between sleepy buildings. Sifani took deep, calming breaths, knowing they had rehashed the plan ad nauseum. They swept past a row of small trees with blossoms just giving way to green leaves. Would all their planning be enough? Too soon, the overgrown walls and neglected gate appeared before them, and the thoughts that had been drifting in and out of focus clarified starkly. “Stick to the plan,” Sifani murmered to herself. From her left, she felt Namiss’ slender hand squeeze her arm comfortingly.
As Sifani strode ahead of them and pushed through the old gate, its doleful sound echoing her dark mood, she saw that shadows still prevailed inside the crumbling walls of the garden. The others filed in quietly behind her as she surveyed the interior. Jatan caught her eye and nodded, gesturing to his right and left for Namiss, Ileniel, and Antian to spread out around the wall.
Sifani stopped in the center of the garden and pulled back her cowl. To her surprise, Lorin was already un-hooded himself and looking intently at her when she turned to him.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
Sifani gave the ghost of a nod. Without turning her face away from him, she closed her eyes, and canvassed.
Blue mist fell over the world, rendering the shadows even chillier.
Chris has already done a read-through of this installment for me. His comment was that Sifani knows too much from her one conversation with Nume, and needs to figure it out another way. I’ll probably change this in the second draft. Read on and see what you think.
If you need a refresher (since it’s been awhile since the last post), glance over part 15 again.
Not long afterward, Sifani was clean and her wounds dressed. She desperately wanted to stretch, longing to rid herself of that tightly-pulled feeling the stitches gave her. It made her feel all too restricted, like she might not be able to act quickly enough if someone or something decided to attack.
Fortunately, there were no enemies present now. Only the naked truth, which felt more threatening in some ways. She sat at the long table, next to the spot where she had ripped a chunk of the wood away for reconstitution. Though that kept her in the present, there was a small comfort in the fact that, as in the past, all the chairs at the table were filled.
She drummed her fingers on the table a few times, thinking of what to tell her friends first. Her eyes flicked up to Lorin. If he was feeling anything, he just managed to conceal it. Maybe if she addressed the issue concerning him, first, no one would question her about it further.
She cleared her throat. “Lorin, Nume knows that you are a weakness to me.”
Strands of Nume’s gold hair fell around her cheeks as she stood over Sifani, her lips appearing barely to move.“If you are to join us, you must not make the same mistake as I did. You must not allow even the smallest part of you to be tied down by the love of a mortal.” Those eyes seemed to search the depths of her.“So, Sifani? Do you love him, that boy who has twice thrown himself into the path of my creatures on your behalf?” She turned on her heel, stalking away. “I won’t have it! I won’t allow this folly again.”
“…You are a weakness to me,” Sifani continued, “and Deities cannot have weaknesses, especially not for mortals. Nume wants me to join her, to become a Deity. That is the only way she will let me live – I must become her ally to increase her power, and you must die.”
Lorin’s eyebrows climbed, and his lips parted in the beginning of speech. A horrified murmur washed over the crowd at the table. Sifani was about to continue, but Lorin chose that moment to flippantly interject, “By Donis, I know we have our differences, but I didn’t know you disliked me enough to lead me to the headsman’s block!”
“I’m not going to turn you over, you big lummox,” Sifani answered testily, rolling her eyes at him. “Obviously, I’m not going to join the Deities, either. We can go along with Nume’s plan until she lets her guard down – and the moment she does, we’ll strike, and end this for good.”
At that, hell broke loose. Everyone began speaking at once. The loudest demand was for Sifani to explain how – how – was it possible for her to join the Deities? And just how did she expect to defeat Nume with only herself and Lorin? There were a few cries of protest to her fighting at all, what with the beating she had just taken, and only one voice – Sifani never identified who it belonged to – wondering aloud why Lorin, not Namiss or Jatan, had been pegged as Sifani’s primary “weakness.”
Finally, Jatan held up his hand, and in a few long moments, they all fell respectfully – though perhaps grudgingly – silent. “Becoming a Deity. Explain.”
Sifani nodded, detecting severity in Jatan’s tone. “It’s difficult to explain to someone who isn’t a Reehler, but I’ll try. As I’ve explained in detail to Antian,” she gestured to the tawny-headed man, “entering into the epheria, canvassing, is like shifting your mind from focused thought into a daydream state. In the daydream state of mind, a Reehler can see things in terms of their pieces. The harder a Reehler focuses in the epheria, the deeper she settles into the epheria, and the deeper she can see into different objects.”
“You know how I’ve told you that objects in the epheria burn with a kind of white light, and people are the brightest? It has to do with the amount of life, and the complexity of life, in them. That’s why a stone is dull, a tree is brighter, and an animal or person, brightest.” Sifani took a deep breath. “Well, the less bright something is, the easier it is to break down. Of course, that makes the same true for the ease of creation. It was definitely easier for me to create dust and rain than it was to make the birds I used to summon Nume.”
Sifani glanced down unconsciously at the ripped spot on the table. “Well, the point of saying any of that is that a Reehler who is strong enough can manipulate her own pieces. The process requires a simultaenous breaking down and building of matter. It’s…” How much should she reveal of her own unsurity, Sifani wondered? “It’s hazardously abstract at best. It will put me in a state of flux that allows me to interact with the epheria at a level of complexity none of us could’ve imagined. Creation on a whim, and destruction just the same.” Sifani let that hang, to make sure they all understood. “And that, just that, is what it takes to be a ‘Deity’: a Reehler bloodline strong enough to remake yourself.” The weight of the admission prompted her to follow that, in a quiet voice, with, “I’m sorry.”
There was a long silence, and then Jatan stood up, avoiding all eye contact. “Just like that, the religion of the Deities dies. And shall it be born again?” he asked, quietly.
Lorin shoved a dark curl from his forehead irritably. “We can ask the philosophical questions later. I think the more pressing matter is, if I may opine,” he gestured with exaggerated civility, “how we are planning to defeat one of the most powerful Reehlers who’s ever lived who also happens to be in an ambiguous state of existence, as well as haul my rump out of the cookfire?”
The tension that had clearly been building in Namiss – who sat hunched over the table opposite Sifani – snapped, along with her patience. “Oh, Lorin, for the gods-cursed love of—!”
“No, he’s right,” Sifani interejected swiftly. Whatever the next few days brought, she wasn’t going to spend them with Namiss and Lorin at each others’ throats. “We need to focus on what we can change now. Don’t worry – this time, I have a plan.”
Sifani didn’t favor him with a reaction. “Nume has had the advantage thus far – she’s always picked the battleground. But if we can force her off of whatever territory she chooses, we can throw her off – gauge her weakenesses.”
“What exactly do you mean?” Lorin asked. He narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously.
Jatan put his fingers under his chin, scratching it thoughtfully. “I think I may know where you’re going with this, Sifani. Can a Deity transition out her state of flux?”
Sifani pictured Nume appearing to her father for the first time, fully human, at least, as far as he could tell. She saw her mother standing before her only a little while earlier, a beautiful form invisible to those in the real world; therefore, Sifani guessed, a woman fully in the epheria.
“She can. Only for a little while, though,” Sifani answered. “That’s the price a Deity has to pay. Once you join their ranks, you must stay a Deity until the end – a sort of un-being, unable to be anything for true. I think that if Nume stays in a definite state for too long, she’ll collapse. ”
Lorin’s smile was tight and mirthless. “You think .” He wagged his head. “Conjecture is not good enough to win this, Sifani.”
“As if I don’t know that!” It came out wildly, desperately. Her hair swung as she looked at him squarely. “Lest you believe it’s my life I care most about preserving, here—“ The words died on her lips. The flash of emotion died as well, leaving her shoulders slumped over wearily.
“Though I’m not entirely sure of any of this, you have to admit that my guess is better than any of yours. I know the epheria most intimately. Our best chance is to keep Nume in a non-Deity state as long as possible. Long enough, and she will likely die.”
Jatan replied gravely, “Then it’s my turn to tell you I’m sorry.”
Sifani tossed her head. “Tell me your sorry after Nume’s been defeated.” Looking away, she ran her hand over her face tiredly. “That alone is more than enough worry for all of us, now.”
Hey, all. I just want to assure you that the rest of Bloodlines of Epheria is still coming! I’m writing the last large chunk as a whole, so that I can have my favorite beta reader (my husband Chris) give me feedback on it. Then, I’ll make the necessary plot and style changes, and post it in smaller pieces as usual. That means you’ll get a new installment every day for several days running.
I really want the ending to have some punch, and don’t want to leave you feeling unsatisfied by a ho-hum first draft. So, stick with me! The end (of Book One) is near.
P.S. Keep in mind that when I’m done, I’ll be asking for your feedback before I write the second draft (the one I’m going to send to Harriet McDougal. I KNOW, RIGHT??). I’ll also post the feedback I’ve already received via blog comments and email. Thanks for the help you’ve given me thus far – it means a lot!
It took the length of Lorin’s story for Jatan, Antian and Namiss to recover from their shock. Ileniel still insisted on muttering to himself from time to time, but Lorin pointedly ignored him.
“I should’ve pressed her more. I should’ve gotten to know her better,” Namiss said to her hands, sounding disconsolate.
She jerked her head up with suprrise when Lorin snorted a dry laugh, though it was Jatan who put voice to what he was thinking. “Pressed her? Namiss, you know Sifani was never one to respond to pressure, especially in respect to personal matters. She is —”
“Self-reliant?” Lorin supplied dryly. “Excellent at deceiving herself? Or perhaps the phrase you’re looking for is ‘infuriatingly slow to trust others.’”
“I suppose she can be all of those things,” Jatan conceded slowly, completely missing the humor.
Not that Lorin himself found any of this truly funny. The fire in the center of the room was yet burning, and the only thing that kept him from going mad with the inability to act was knowing that as long as the flames roared, Sifani was probably still alive inside them. “She was planning to tell you all, you know, but only after she had asked her questions of Ileniel. Unfortunately, her temper got the better of her, as it often does.”
“She’s not the only one who had information that needed sharing,” mild-mannered Antian asserted as he glared at Ileniel, more fiercely than Lorin knew him capable of. Of course. Antian would’ve expected the other scholar to share any information about the epheria with him, at the very least. “Your direct experience with a Reehler like Nume would’ve put much more meat on our research. Perhaps this crisis could’ve been averted if we’d had the information you chose to keep secret.”
The words, bordering on pugnacious, seemed to rouse Ileniel from his blubbering stupor. His back straightened suddenly, expression only barely under control. “You weren’t there!” he spat. “You don’t know the terror of it – the burden of an experience not many could comprehend and even fewer would believe. What was I to do with what I had seen, hm? Besides, you signed me on to study the epheria, not the Deities. I knew the roads had to cross again someday, but until then…”
“The roads are one and the same, Ileniel.” Lorin had only been half-listening to the scholars’ exchange, but Ileniel’s last sentence had caught his ear and he had replied idly. But now that he was considering it, just how closely _were_ the epheria and the Deities interconnected?
He was following the path of that thought when the steady crackling of the fire ring died suddenly. Lorin spun, frozen for the briefest moment, then bolted to the space where the flames had been burning. He was there before any of the others had time to do more than stand. Was Sifani still alive?
Lorin was supporting Sifani’s hunched body by the time he was able to process that she was standing somewhat on her own, blessedly living.
“Ow, Lorin. OW. Could you be a little more careful, please?” Sifani flinched, and Lorin eased his grip with the closest thing to embarassement he had felt in years. “I didn’t draw these cuts on myself, you know!”
“Ever the sweet and demure damsel,” he mumbled, mildly vexed. “I’m keeping you from falling onto your face right now, and this is the thanks I get?”
“I thought the familiarity of my actions might reassure you of my good health,” Sifani retorted, wincing as she clutched a particularly large gash on her shoulder. “Ho, Jatan! Think you could fix me up?”
Discordant voices began calling for bandages, crying out in concern, and swearing as Lorin turned, putting Sifani in full view. Finally, Ileniel ran for the medical supplies while the rest gathered around Sifani, trying not to crowd her with their bodies or their multitude of barely-restrained questions.
“She let you live!” Namiss exclaimed, sounding near to tears.
Sifani reached out and squeezed the girl’s hand. “That she did. At least, for now.”
Jatan had come up on Sifani’s other side to help hold her up, nodding across her drooping body to Lorin. “Your partner has been telling us very interesting stories about you, Sifani.” His smile was a mixture of warmth, relief and solicitude. “By all things holy, it is good to see you – more than I can properly express.”
Lorin waited for the older man to finish his salutation before he addressed Sifani again. “You said Nume let you live ‘for now.’” He wanted to stop and look her in the eye, but he and Jatan brought her to the bench by the wall and seated her, first. Silence hung heavy in the air as they did. “What do you mean, ‘for now?’”
Sifani inhaled deeply, taking in the face of each member of the band in turn. Finally, her gaze lighted on Lorin, and he saw distress behind it. “I made a bargain with my mother.” Another deep breath. “I am to meet her in the garden two days from now, to put myself into her power. And…I am to bring you with me, Lorin.”
He could not have been more surprised. “Me?”
She nodded, looking away as if ashamed.
“I — why?” Lorin forced his mind to stillness, though it resisted. “I’m a little too young for her, don’t you think?”
Sifani shot him a routine look of annoyance, but she didn’t answer. Before the pause had time to become uncomfortable, Ileniel trundled into the room with an armful of bandages and the small pouch that contained the needle and gut. It wasn’t hard for Lorin to detect that Sifani was relieved by the distraction, as she made a show of summoning Ileniel loudly and setting Jatan to the task of stitching her up at once.
Fortunately, Jatan wasn’t going to have it. “We’ll clean you up, Sifani, but then no more secrets,” he told her gently but firmly. “You must explain what happened between you and your mother just now, and why she has demanded that both you and Lorin come to her.”
Sifani nodded, looking sick. For some reason, Lorin felt the slightest bit sick, too, but he forced himself to grin.