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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 16: An Unwanted Answer

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

Consciousness eventually returned to Mattawonah, though her vision remained dulled from loss of blood. As she teetered on the brink of collapse, she tore the breeches from her dead sister and ripped the soft leather into several strips and wrapped them around her wounded abdomen. She took up her greatclub and dragged herself around the wall of Westmeade. She would make the hidden breach in the wall before she died, if Falasteron didn’t eat her soul first.

As she trudged along, clutching her throbbing wound, one motive drove all others from her mind: vengeance. The swelling desire for revenge poisoned the Amurrak’s heart, and though her body trembled with every step, Mattawonah formulated plans to avenge her sister’s death.

The tight crawl through a secreted fissure in the wall, barely wide enough to slither through, nearly trapped her beneath a thousand tons of stonemasonry. But so great was her desire to avenge her sister that she pressed onward, postponing death for another day, the day of her choosing.

Emerging from the other side, Mattawonah rested and gathered her last remaining strength. It was difficult to see the house in the dim moonlight, yet her feet knew the way. She struggled to stand and every step was torture, but still the Amurrak pressed on.

In the root cellar of Tussex House, Master Bray sat calmly and quietly at his desk, staring across folded hands at the Amurrak. Mattawonah stood against the closed door at the base of the old, wooden steps leading outside. Her eyes remained locked on her feet as she wearily described in broken language the events of the night. For a few elongated seconds after she finished, the small basement area was quiet.

Bray’s stare turned dark, then he leaped from his chair. The chair flew backward and splintered against the wall behind him. He sailed over his desk, his knees drawn up against his chest and his right hand forming a claw, outstretched toward the Amurrak. He landed within inches of the Amurrak, and the grip of his right hand clutched her throat. Mattawonah recoiled and flailed, but the grip only tightened and turned her breathing into gurgling. The more she struggled, the stronger the stranglehold became.

“How dare you!” Bray seethed, “Do you know how unbelievably dense that was!”

Mattawonah’s toes were barely touching the floor. Her breathing had nearly stopped and her eyes began to loll about.

“I send you to gain information on the Audric savage, and you go out to kill him. Now…” He slammed her back against the door and lifted her completely off the floor. He held her aloft with a single hand on her throat, his other hand poised rigidly at his side, ready to strike.

“You have cost me my advantage. Now he is aware, his senses on high alert.” He held the Amurrak at arm’s length, staring at her with a snarl, but she was nearly unresponsive. Only then did he realize that he was choking the life from her.

He released her with a dismissive flick of his wrist. “You were nearly dead when you tumbled down those steps. I should have let you bleed out. I didn’t stabilize your wounds just to hear you speak of failure.”

Mattawonah dropped limply to her feet and fell upon her knees, her eyes obediently downcast. She gasped raggedly for air and felt her throat.

“I should kill you now,” Bray said as he returned to his desk and glared at his broken chair.

“What you want me to do, Master Bray?” The words escaped as a hoarse whisper.

He whirled and pointed an angry finger at her. “For starters, you will tell me how a flimsy skirt could overpower you and escape.”

“She not beat me,” Mattawonah sputtered. Every word sounded as if it were being spoken through a thick liquid, as if her larynx had been crushed. The Amurrak coughed and spat. “She has magic song. I think she my friend.”

“Magic song? So, this rotlark sang a lullaby and you completely lost your mind?”

Mattawonah remained quiet, her eyes locked onto the floor.

“You have nothing to say, as usual,” Bray brusquely noted, “Then I suggest you hear me well, slave. From now on you will do exactly as you are told, without deviation. When I give you a job, I expect you to complete it flawlessly. The Watcher expects nothing less of me, and so I demand it of you. Fail me again, slave, and I will demand your life.”

The Amurrak fell upon her face in reverent fear. “I weel not fail you, master,” she said, gurgling through a swollen throat.

“Good. It’s a start. Now, you are still wounded. You are of little value to me, but you will be worthless if you die. Lie down.”

She lay on the desk while Bray cut away her bandages and placed his hands on her enflamed and oozing abdomen. He closed his eyes and his hands grew warm as his fingertips rapidly tapped against her skin. An acute spasm jolted through his hand, eliciting a cry of pain from the Amurrak, but as he pressed in, warmth flooded through his touch, building heat deep inside her torso.

Mattawonah’s eyes flew open, and, despite all commands not to look at him, she gaped in wonder at her master. His blue eyes were solemn, and she realized she had never seen them before. But as quickly, she clenched her eyes shut.

“Forgive me!” she pleaded.

“Calm yourself, slave,” he said. “I would not heal you just to kill you.”

Several minutes later, Mattawonah, entirely healed, knelt respectfully before her master’s feet. Entirely healed, that is, except for her throat. She rubbed it carefully, frowning at what she found.

“That scar,” Bray said, “is my gift to you. Let your crushed larynx serve as a reminder that I will crush you the next time you fail me. Now, every time you speak with a voice that is broken, remember what I have spoken to you. Never look me in the face.”

“Yes, Master,” Mattawonah said, wincing as she swallowed.

“Since you have completely rinked things up,” Bray said, “I will have to clean up the mess you made outside the city so no one can trace your bloody tracks back here. In the meantime, I want you to wash that barbaric paint off your body, put on some clothes, for decency’s sake, and stay out of my sight for a while. Can you manage that?”

Mattawonah nodded without looking up. “I will obey,” she said, and the words sounded like they had been dragged across coarse sandpaper.

Bray nodded. “But first…find me a new chair.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Despite getting minimal sleep that night, Cora arose early and hurried through breakfast at the Kotting’s house. She found a weary Ordin at his makeshift home. He had stayed up throughout the night reciting mystic incantations over Cuauhtérroc, setting broken bones, and applying curative ointments to restore his health.

The savage was severely fevered, but improving. At the moment, he was slipping in and out of a restless sleep.

Cora hugged the mystic and clasped his hand. “Thank you for taking care of him. You’ve done well.”

“Yeah…well…that was pretty stupid what y’all did,” Ordin remarked, then he shrugged. “But I reckon you’re glad you went with him.”

She nodded. “And I know that if I needed him, he would gladly come to my aid as well. It’s what friends do.”

Ordin dabbed a moist cloth across Cuauhtérroc’s forehead. “So, he’s gonna be down a while.”

“How long do you think he’ll need for recovery?”

“I dunno. Several days at least, maybe a couple of weeks. A month?”

“Cripe. Is he that bad?”

“He was nearly dead when you dragged him here. And that makes me wonder…what’d you do with the Amurrak bodies?”

“Do? I left them. I had to get Cuauhtie back here as quickly as poss—” The half-cocked disapproving frown on Ordin’s face said something was amiss. “What.”

“You left two dead bodies outside the city? You don’t reckon that’s gonna raise some questions and get Captain Hunt back on our scent? And what about that old man that brought you here? How do you know you can trust him not to rat us out? I mean, he basically knows exactly where we are now.”

The blood slowly drained from Cora’s face.

“I swear, Cora. You two have taken stupid to a whole new level.”

“But…” She had no defense, and she knew it. “But what was I supposed to do?”

“Well, it ain’t gonna do no good for me to say you shoulda stayed in the city, so I guess I’ll just say you need to start prayin’. Pray the trail of blood doesn’t lead here. Pray no one saw you leave, or fight, or reenter the gate. Pray the wagon driver doesn’t turn you in.”

Cora slumped. “You’re right. For starters, I’ll donate to an Open Path shrine. A Pather basically rescued me from an impossible mess after Cuauhtie went down. He paid my gate toll, and claimed I was his daughter. Very brave…and shrewd, and I don’t think he’s going to turn us in. So, the least I can do is thank the Maker at a Pather shrine.”

“Whatever. I never understood people who make a religion out of wanderin’ around.”

Cora frowned at him. “There’s more to it than that, you know. I agree they are an odd sect, but I’m glad one of their followers was there to help me. By the way,” she added as she stood to leave, “one of the Amurraks was tattooed with the vile symbol of Falasteron, so I think this was more than a grudge. There’s some tangible evil at play.”

Ordin stared at the songsage through tired eyes. “You really shoulda straight up killed her.”

Cora sighed. “I wish I had.”

The nearest roadside shrine of the Open Path sat near the western gate. It consisted of a simple stone statue of an elderly man looking toward the western horizon. The Pathers believed that the world was the Maker’s secret and theirs to uncover and reveal. Like many other places, Westmeade had erected an Open Path shrine at each gate leading out of the city in order that Pathers could kiss the feet of the statue, petition for safety, or leave a donation as they began their travels.

Cora dumped half the contents of her coin purse into the strongbox at the base of the statue. She was a devotee to the Arthouse, the sect of Maker worship that emphasized the beauty and harmony of the Maker’s creation. She would never see the Maker through the eyes of wanderlust. However, Pathers saw beauty in the untamed wild, in the mysteries yet unexplained, and in the ever-present horizon. Perhaps they held some beliefs in common. Regardless, that a Pather had come to her aid was reason enough to bless many others with her funds. Thank you for your kindness.

Cora checked in on Cuauhtérroc often as the days rolled by, and though Ordin said the savage was improving, she couldn’t see it. Cuauhtérroc had broken four ribs, a collarbone, and his upper left arm. He had suffered a severe concussion and blurred vision that persisted for days. It could easily be another week more before he would be ready to sit up. That did not look like improving to her.

Toward the end of the week, the savage’s eyes were open but he could barely focus on anything. Cora sat by his side and applied fresh wet cloths to his forehead as she told fantastic tavern tales of brave warriors fighting fierce dragons and other horrible creatures. It was doubtful whether Cuauhtérroc heard much of the tales, but he grew more peaceful as she spoke, as if her voice alone was ointment for his soul.

After the savage slipped off into another restless sleep, Cora stepped outside the small lean-to and joined Ordin on the bank of the Rae Belshar.

“Look,” Ordin said, “I appreciate your checkin’ in on him and tendin’ to him, Cora. I think it does him good. I may can heal his body, but I don’t reckon I’m very good at makin’ folks feel better.”

She smiled softly at him and rested a hand on his alabaster arm. “That’s all right, Ordin. We all do what we can.”

The next day, Cora received a hand-written, lavishly decorated invitation in the mail. With trembling hands, she unfolded the parchment and read the flowing script.


The theatrical production, Turley’s Merry Men, will begin after sundown on Arini the 7th at the Fraand Theatre. I will pick you up one hour prior. I look forward to the evening.



She tucked the invitation under her pillow that evening and dreamed of performing duets on the lute and violin with Montpeleón in front of the entire town of Lorenvale.

Two days later, Cora’s heart began to race slightly faster than normal. Though this wasn’t her first date with Montpeleón, she still was far from growing accustomed to the fact that a councilman was accompanying her. Cora’s sang gaily to herself as she bathed, perfumed herself, arranged her scarlet hair in an intricate weave, and applied just the right amount of maquillage to highlight her natural beauty. Her dark blue dress accentuated her womanly figure without revealing anything—she insisted upon modesty—and a matching blue ribbon held her interwoven hair high atop her head. She was particularly proud of her sapphire pendant and earring set, which framed her face with droplets of blue.

Montpeleón arrived at the Kottings’ house precisely on time in his private hansom, and he practically swooned when Cora stepped down the stairs to join him at the front door.

“By the Maker!” he breathed, “Take my eyes lest I see anything else and thus spoil the memory of your beauty.”

“Thank you, Monty,” Cora said with a slight dip as she took his hand.

Harold and Velma Kotting stood near the front door to see them off. Velma beamed at the pair. “You two make such a darling couple,” she said in her best grandmotherly doting way.

Montpeleón bowed to them. “I bid you folks a good night, and I will return the fair lass to the warmth of your home before midnight.” With that promise, he opened the door and escorted Cora across the lawn and into his hansom.

The theatrical performance was comedic, and the young couple found themselves laughing at the same jokes or silliness on the stage. As the evening elapsed, they discovered a closeness forming between them. Near the end of the performance, as the comedy had relaxed considerably and a more somber tone was forming, Cora sighed contentedly and leaned her head on Montpeleón’s shoulder.

He reached an arm around her and squeezed her shoulder.

After the performance had ended, they walked hand-in-hand for a while along the paths of Riverwalk Park, listening to the soothing sounds of the Rae Belshar flowing by. Fireflies were out in abundance, and crickets sang their songs under every bush. If it hadn’t been so late, Cora might have enjoyed continuing the stroll for many more hours.

Cora switched to holding Monty’s arm, allowing her to draw nearer to him as they returned to the hansom. “I like this,” she said softly.

“As do I,” he replied, “and yet, I have a promise I must fulfill; else, I am duty bound to be run through by my own sword.”

Cora squeezed his arm and laughed gently. “Well, that wouldn’t do.”

They boarded the hansom, and the driver lightly cracked his whip to prod the draft horse forward.

The next day, Cora paid Ordin a visit at his crude hut to check on Cuauhtérroc’s progress. The savage smiled as she ducked her head under the low entrance to the lean-to. “Hello, Cora O’Banion. Where is Erik Rikeoven?”

“Cuauhtie!” Cora exclaimed as she knelt beside him. “But really, you don’t have to say everybody’s full names.”

The savage regarded Cora with a measured look. “You do not say any part of my name.” He tapped the pelt on his shoulders. “Dees is a cuauh.”

Cora grinned. “You’re right. And I don’t know where Elric is.” And I’m not sure I care.

Ordin stood with an exasperated huff. “I swear, if you two pull another stunt like this again, I’ll flamin’ kill him myself and get it over with. I’m sick and tired of changin’ him, feedin’ him, redoin’ his stupid stitches…” Ordin’s voice faded into the distance as he stormed out of the hut and flopped down on the grass near the river.

Cora turned to Cuauhtérroc. “He’s a bit short on bedside manners. So, how are you feeling? I know it does me good to see you sitting up!”

“I feel better, Cora O’Banion. Maybe I heal faster if he ees not so—how do you say—meeserble.”

Cora laughed. “Ordin can be a pretty miserable guy, Cuauhtérroc. You know how he hates being cooped up; well, he probably feels a bit cagey right now. Hey, I’ve got an idea…stay right there.” She hopped up and hustled out the door.

The savage surveyed his wounded condition. His left arm was tightly strapped against his stomach, preventing him from rebreaking it. His right collarbone had set easily, but to avoid any accidental movement, his right upper arm was also strapped against his torso, leaving only the forearm free. I am not going anywhere, Cora O’Banion.

“Hey Ordin,” Cora said cheerily.

Ordin looked up from a stick he had been breaking into tiny fragments. “Yeah?”

“How’d you like to take the day off, walk around a bit and stretch your legs, do some shopping…?”

After a pause, Ordin folded his arms and raised an eyebrow at Cora. “You want me to go shoppin’?”

“Well…probably not that, but maybe you need some supplies or—oh never mind. What I’m saying is I think you need to get out of this hut for a while. I’m going to tend to Cuauhtérroc today. You go do whatever you want.”

Ordin regarded the songsage for a moment and tossed the remaining stick aside. “All right, I think I’ll go pay someone a visit.” He stood, stretched, and headed into his hut. Moments later he emerged and gave a shrill whistle. Within seconds, Shinnick rounded a large elm and settled on his haunches beside the mystic. With a rub of the wolf’s ears, Ordin ambled off.

Once in the street, Ordin pulled a folded sheet of parchment from a pocket and nervously read it as he walked. The script was in an exquisitely flowing hand, written in the Vashanti language. Though the message was simple—“I would like to speak with you in Overdale Preserve”—the artistry in the penmanship suggested that such painstaking attention to detail could only mean a greater significance. Perhaps more nerve-wracking to Ordin was the signature: Celdorin Tarnistorel.

The import of the Lady’s message was not lost on the mystic, but of its meaning he had no clue. His mind raced through the possibilities: he had been summoned by the Mystic Council, his mother had died, someone had found a cure for his lightning attraction, or maybe even a clue to the purpose he was supposed to be finding. Then again, knowing Vashanti, it’s just as likely she wants me to fetch her slippers.

Ordin crossed into Overdale District, where he soon encountered a sight that took his breath away. He stopped and stared at the sprawling area known as Overdale Preserve, a grove of young trees expertly tended, with lush grass growing in their shade and underbrush that consisted only of berry bushes and flowering shrubs. It was an endless swatch of colors, a veritable floral paradise, a mystic haven. Why in the Nine Hells has no one told me about this place?

He entered the preserve with a keen sense of reverence, with Shinnick padding closely at his heel. His connection to nature was much stronger here than anywhere he’d been within a hundred miles, like the very ground was calling to him, as if the entire glade was sacred.

“This place pleases you,” a soft feminine voice said.

Normally, Ordin would have startled and reached for his scimitar, but he knew the voice. Lady Tarnistorel stepped into view from behind a small cluster of thin beeches, her footsteps padding quietly on the grassy carpet.

Ordin cowered before her splendor. He was young in light of her many years, and powerless against her incredible prowess. “Yes, it does,” he answered, then quickly added, “milady.”

Tarnistorel smiled. “Given that I am limited by the species that will grow here, I cannot populate this grove with the types of trees I would prefer. Nevertheless, this is as near to my former home in Vashan as I can manage. I am glad that you like it.”

There was hardly any fitting response. Ordin merely gazed at the graceful Vashanti clothed in a delicate gown of flowing silks and lace, dyed a light yellow-green and fashioned to trail away from her like leaves blown on the wind. Her abundant silvery hair, falling in thick waves nearly to her knees, appeared dusted with motes of light or perhaps metallic flecks that reflected the ambient light. Ordin was certain he had never seen beauty before now, not even in the most majestic mountain or verdant forest.

“Walk with me,” she said.

Ordin obeyed, and Shinnick silently followed.

For over two hours, Lady Tarnistorel gave him a tour of Overdale Preserve, describing the painstaking care she had exercised for nearly half a century over the non-native flora. As she detailed her craftsmanship, Ordin saw the patterns she had formed in the landscaping, how the spacing from one tree to the next formed a symbiotic harmony between each living thing.

“Of course,” the Vashanti admitted, “none of this would be possible without the safety and security of these city walls and the unfettered freedom to design this into a sacred haven. You will not find these conditions in the oldest parts of the Greenbrier Forest, and not even in the former glory of Vashan. Nature, despite its desire for balance, is capricious.”

The Vashanti suddenly turned to him. “But I did not summon you for a lesson in horticulture.”

The mystic shuddered beneath a gaze that pierced his soul as sharply as an arrow might pierce his skin. Despite being overwhelmed by the Vashanti’s splendor, Ordin found his voice, “What then, milady?”

“Come.” Lady Tarnistorel led him into a hut that he might have easily overlooked and bade him sit while she heated water on a wood stove for tea.

“You are surprised to see me living in such a humble dwelling.”

Ordin nodded. There was no hiding the truth from her.

The Vashanti turned away to stoke the fire. “It is more home to me than the mansion in The Estates. Skilled architects designed those homes and master craftsmen built them. They are finely made, admittedly, but it is ultimately a destructive craft that seeks to impose the builder’s will upon the land rather than merge that will with nature.”

“I would agree,” the mystic said, though he hadn’t given the Lord’s Castle or any of the adjacent mansions nearly that level of critique. He had been too busy pining for the day they could leave the city altogether.

“Would you?” Lady Tarnistorel asked, her voice penetrating Ordin’s thoughts. “Are you truly opposed to the idea of enforcing one’s will upon another.”

Ordin frowned at her. “What do you mean? Milady?”

The Vashanti’s eyes narrowed. “Your human blood causes you to chafe under the imposition of mystic decree. You would rather wander aimlessly than have the Sacred Council determine your path.”

Ordin lowered his stare, but his frown hardly faded. She’s right…

“But your Vashanti blood,” she continued, “knows full well that your life is prescribed. Like the river that must flow within its banks, your steps are ordered from spring to delta. Leaving your predetermined path causes great destruction.”

A weary sigh escaped Ordin’s thin lips as he pressed a hand to his forehead.

“You are an admixture, a skrub, and the two halves of your life war within you. You say you are opposed to exerting one’s will over another, and yet you know your life is not truly your own. The Maker has ordered your steps. Thus far, you have spent your whole life denying that.”

The room began to lilt and Ordin’s stomach turned. I don’t feel so good. He looked up pleadingly at the regal woman. “May I have some tea?”

“You have been constantly running from your destiny,” she continued, as if Ordin had said nothing. “Everything you have done has been centered on you. From the day your father died to this very moment, you think of no one but yourself.” Her visage darkened. “It’s time to change that.”

With great alarm, Ordin became aware of how inwardly focused and self-serving were his motivations. Out of nowhere, memories and attitudes he had harbored his whole life spewed up from the hidden recesses of his soul in a tumultuous clash of emotions. He loved, hated, cherished, despised, revered, and reviled…all at once. His head began to pound, and it occurred to him that the Vashanti was the cause of it, that she was altering his mind in an ancient Vashanti ritual.

He rubbed his temples and averted his gaze. Is this the “purging”?

A voice within the mystic’s head rang clear: “Do you wish to be purged?”

For a time, Ordin stared into nothing, struggling with the revelation of his utter transparency before this powerful Vashanti. A raging battle commenced within him. Do I wish to be purged? On the one hand, any so-called “purging” would be painful and life-altering, and he had no idea what would result in the end or whether he wished to endure it. On the other hand, he knew that his life had thus far been heading down a long path to nowhere. Being purged might provide exactly the clarity he needed.

Or it might crush him.

Gathering all his wits together, Ordin looked up. “I don’t know.”

Lady Tarnistorel took up the tea kettle. “It will indeed be painful for you, Ordin Austmil-Clay, for you are filled with confusion, anxiety, and fear. You kick against the goads, and that is a struggle you cannot win.”

Ordin had no response.

Lady Tarnistorel silently poured tea for each of them. “I know what you seek,” she said as she handed him a cup.

Ordin trembled involuntarily; the Vashanti was reading him like a scroll. “Please, fair Lady,” he implored, “Can you help me?”

She studied him for a moment as she sipped from her tea. “You are riddled by fear and ill-prepared for what lies ahead. The proper question would be how can I help you? Should I make you into a more pleasant, gentler man? Should I remove your affinity for lightning or restore your natural color? What if I were to replace your missing toe; would that help? Perhaps I should clear your mind of past horrors…”

Ordin looked up at her nervously. He might like that offer, but what would the clearing entail?

“Perhaps,” Lady Tarnistorel said, setting her teacup on the table, “you would like to be rid of your fears of the underground. And the Roark!” As she emphasized the name of the mystic’s most feared enemy, she set a powerful illusion into place, transforming her hut into a cave and her visage into one of the Tortured Ones.

A jangchi Roark, charcoal gray exoskeleton enclosing a mottled body covered with bony protrusions, towered over Ordin. Its dull gray, pupil-less eyes flickered as translucent eyelids blinked sideways across its vision. Ragged breathing escaped open slits below its eyes, short bursts of acrid vapor that intimated its depraved heritage.

Ordin panicked and recoiled, turning over in his chair and shattering his teacup on the floor. An anguished scream welled up from deep inside as he reached for his scimitar. But it wasn’t there. Frantically, he searched all around, but he found instead that he had none of his possessions, including his clothes. Only a ragged loincloth preserved his dignity, and that barely. Shinnick was nowhere to be seen.

The Roark turned Ordin’s sword over in her dull gray hands, its gray eyes sneering at him and suggesting any number of excruciating ways to use the blade on him.

“You will never be free of me,” the Roark seethed in a voice that sizzled with sadistic glee, “until you learn to harness that fear. My instincts are to slit your throat and throw your body to the fire, skrub. You are not Vashanti enough to be sacrificed to Falasteron, but you are not human enough to be prized as a slave. But I will not give in to my primal instincts. No, I will overcome them by slowly torturing your soft flesh for my personal enjoyment. As abominable as you are, you are my toy. Until I tire of you. Then I feed you to the dragons.”

Ordin shuddered from the repugnance and hatred that dripped from its every word. He slowly, agonizingly backed away, feeling for the wall of the cave, hoping beyond hope that the exit was somewhere behind him.

A soft, soothing voice in his head gave him strength: You are not enslaved by this Roark; you are enslaved by your fear of this Roark. Release that fear, Ordin!

The Roark pressed closer. “Normally, I would use one of the countless instruments of torture we employ on all such filthy creatures as you. But I think a more—shall we say—poetic method would be to use your own sword. A scimitar is a graceful and sinister weapon, much like I am…”

You are stronger than this, Ordin. Turn your fear into strength!

“I like this blade, you disgusting cur. I think I shall enjoy using it.”

Ordin trembled against the wall behind him.

The Roark surveyed the mystic’s body. “I might start with the rest of your toes, skrub. Or your fingers. Maybe your ears.”

“You’ll have no part of me,” Ordin said, forcing down his fears, but the warble in his voice betrayed him.

“Perhaps your tongue, then? It is such a vile thing. Human flesh is so revolting, really.” The Roark flicked its own tongue, black and forked at the end.

Ordin’s fear gave way to strength. He peeled himself off the wall and stood firm. It was only one Roark, not a horde, and he was not bound in a cage. “How about I rip that tongue out of your mouth and feed it to you?”

The Roark’s black eyes flashed as the lids crossed sideways. Ordin thought it sneered, but it was hard to tell with a creature that had no lips. “Tell me,” it said in a voice slick with vituperation, “did your Vashanti mother truly love your human father, or…no? He forced himself upon her? How typical. Such a shame, you being the product of rape…”

Ordin’s body trembled again, but this time from white hot anger. He leaped at the Roark. The dark creature’s eyes went wide in astonishment and the scimitar fell from its hands. Ordin pounced upon the Roark, his fists curled tightly. Blow upon blow he rained down on the Roark’s face, crushing the chitinous plating of cheek and jaw. Long after the Roark’s eyes were dulled and its body lay limply on the floor, Ordin continued to pound until his fists dripped with blood.

Are you still afraid?

Ordin’s heart leaped in his chest and he jumped to his feet, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the cave. “I hate the Roark!” he screamed, “I rinkin hate them for what they did to me!”

As well you should. But do you still fear them?

The mystic dropped his bloodied hands to his sides as he contemplated the question. He searched his heart. Nothing. There was no fear remaining. He tried to recall the years he spent encaged underground, but the memory eluded him. Already, those ancient gripping fears were receding into the past where they belonged. A smile began to form on the mystic’s thin white lips, a small but meaningful grin.

He was free.

The cave walls transformed into the interior of a simple wooden hut. The dank odor of wet limestone was replaced by the fresh scent of hot tea. For a second, Ordin was stricken by the realization that he had been influenced by a potent illusion, but he was greatly relieved to see the Vashanti sitting calmly across the table from him, sipping her tea as before.

The Roark was gone.

He stared incredulously at Lady Tarnistorel, awestruck by her power.

“You were once a slave to the Roark,” she said. “Never be enslaved by fear of them again.”

The mystic righted his chair and sat down. Despite an earnest desire to the contrary, he folded his arms on the table, rested his head against them, and cried. Shinnick walked over to his master’s side and laid his head across the mystic’s lap.

Lady Tarnistorel retrieved a new cup and filled it with a fresh brew. When Ordin had finished the last stage of his purging, he wiped his eyes and nose on his sleeve and offered the Vashanti his sincerest thanks.

“And still, this is not why you are here,” she said.

Ordin blinked, clearly not understanding.

Lady Tarnistorel studied him. “Your life has been, shall we say, something less than fulfilling?”

The mystic nodded. “I was sent from my home many years ago to ‘find my purpose,’ they said. I figured their real intention was to punish me since I had accidentally killed a half-dozen of my own kin.”

“You have since learned to channel that lightning into the ground?”

“Yes, or I can release it destructively if I wish. It’s a bit more difficult that way. I ain’t had a lot of practice aimin’. I don’t really spend a lot of time in the middle of thunderstorms…rings the ears a bit.”

The Vashanti rose from her chair and walked around Ordin, searching him. He fidgeted under her gaze, discomforted by her staring.

“There is a prophecy among our people that speaks of a future hero born to save his kin. You match the physical descriptions, but I am unsure about the rest.”

Ordin frowned. “No one ever mentioned a prophecy. They told me I had a purpose, but the details were sketchy at best.”

“It’s from an epic poem,” Lady Tarnistorel explained, “which has long been regarded by our people as prophetic. It speaks of the return of Valkyrion, that terrible blue son of the Great Dragon, and the simultaneous coming of Saení who will vanquish Valkyrion forever.”

The Vashanti closed her eyes for clarity and withdrew from memory some of the text:

In heart of Maz lies babbling brook whence hails cerul’an death.

Unlife gives wing to life and forges lightning with his breath.

Arise, Valkyrion! See how your reign comes to an end!

O Terror of the Trees, meet your demise in wooded glen!

From Cerion is born Saení who saves his kin from shock

Of dragon’s roar, and thus revenge the mark upon his back.

Our forest then may flourish, freed from azure bolt and might.

Saení will vanquish ancient foe, set Cerion aright.

It was several minutes later before Ordin spoke again. He stared into his cup of tea while occasionally scratching Shinnick’s twitching ears. “The Elders thought this was me, didn’t they?”

She nodded. “Some did; others disbelieved. They were divided on the matter. There are five recognized criteria for Saení: he is of mixed blood, born in the Cerion with alabaster skin. He has an affinity for lighting and a particular mark that must be avenged. You might see why they thought this.”

“But I ain’t got no marks.”

Tarnistorel nodded. “A small one, almost unnoticeable. But I rather think the meaning is more figurative that literal in that instance. A ‘mark upon his back’ certainly refers to Saení being targeted by Valkyrion, which he will avenge.”

Ordin glowered. No one has power over my life. But a burning question pushed aside any complaint. “Why did they banish me?”

Lady Tarnistorel smiled pleasantly. “In truth, because you were a danger to everyone around you. You needed to be ‘exiled’ for a time to learn on your own the manner in which you were to control and utilize your affinity for lightning. They presumed you would return at some point, for the heart of a mystic is to seek solace in his grove. And, it bought them time to convene on the prophecy and determine whether you are indeed Saení.”

Ordin stood up. “Look, milady, I don’t mean no disrespect, but I ain’t no rinkin fulfillment to no stupid prophecy!” The idea of his life being predetermined had often vexed him, but now that the details included the monumental feat of slaying an ancient dragon—one of the sons of the Great Dragon—that was beyond the limits of his comprehension.

“Presumably the prophets of old had someone more couth in mind,” the Vashanti said with a single eyebrow raised in disapproval.

“What can I do about a rinkin dragon? I’ve barely risen into the third circle of my order, which ain’t saying much when it comes to this. I sure as Nine Hells can’t kill a son of Vaeroloth; that’s not even physically possible!”

Lady Tarnistorel offered another cup of tea, which Ordin quietly accepted as he sat back down. “You will know what to do when it is time,” she said. “No one suggests you will face a dragon tomorrow or even in the next forty years. But if you are Saení, then you will assuredly face Valkyrion at a time when all hope is gone, and you will defeat the son of Vaeroloth for good.”

The mystic noted her vote of confidence, though it did little to change his outlook. He also grimly noted a bothersome subtext of the quote. “Is he…is this dragon undead?”

The Vashanti frowned and shook her head. “The prophecy is unclear on this. Perhaps he returns as an undead fiend, or perhaps he will merely be resurrected.”

Ordin swallowed hard. Merely resurrected? The idea of returning a dragon to life was unthinkable. One would have to be utterly insane to desire that, never mind accomplishing such a task. But resurrecting Valkyrion, one of the Ancient Five, an aspect splintered off of Vaeroloth, the enemy of the Maker? The very idea staggered Ordin’s mind. He was a long, long way from even entertaining those kinds of notions.

But if Valkyrion were to be made alive again, then he must currently be dead. “Where is he now?” Ordin asked.

Again, Lady Tarnistorel grew somber. “No one knows.”

Ordin drained the teacup and set it down a little harder than necessary. “Well, this is stupid. What kind of lame prophecy says Valkyrion will come back to life but doesn’t say where he is? I mean, wouldn’t it make more sense if we dug up his bones, burned them and scattered the ashes in the sea?” He stood and prepared to leave. “Forget it; I ain’t cut out for this dragon-killin’ thing.”

“Your lady friend would beg to differ.”

Ordin stared blankly at Lady Tarnistorel for a moment. “Who…Cora?” He recalled that the songsage had expressed that very notion. She needs to kill a dragon to win some stupid ocean sword. She doesn’t even wield a sword. Not a real one, anyway. He had written off her quest as moronic, but now he wondered if their meeting months ago was more than happenstance.

Or, maybe he was imagining things.

“Give it time, Ordin,” the Vashanti consoled, “Think it over and take as long as you like. Stay here in this house, in my forest. I will teach you my methods and bring you into purer harmony with nature. You need more than the purging you have endured. You need peace.”

The Lady Tarnistorel’s offer was an astonishing blessing for the young mystic. He gladly accepted, perhaps more readily than he would have liked, but he wondered if the Ambassador possessed ulterior motives. Vashanti always had second and third reasons interwoven into their schemes. Still, there was the immediate blessing of being away from everyone, tutored by one of the most regal and beautiful creatures in all Arelatha, and gaining greater insights into this shocking revelation. These were reasons to accept, regardless of any misgivings he might have.

That night, Ordin explained to Cora and Cuauhtérroc in his old hut at Riverwalk Park that he and Shinnick would relocate to the other side of town as soon as the savage was healed enough to leave. He might be less accessible, he said, but he was going to be much more contented there waiting out the remainder of their sentence.

But as to the prophecy, he said nothing to the others.Facing a son of Vaeroloth was hardly a detail he could burden them with, especially when he was yet unsure himself whether he believed any of it.

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