XX. The Hermit
Triinton; 1 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“Drema,” said Garthniiel. “How? That would make you at least seven hundred years old; no one lives that long, not even the Hallowed.”
“With due respect,” said the doctor, “your race — you Ajjraeans and Elyrians — have not been around so long. There’s much you do not know.”
“How did you survive?” asked Flame. “If the entire archipelago sank into the ocean—”
“I found a boat,” said Izra.
Frost scoffed. “Right, and I’m the queen of Rhiinas. How stupid do you think we are?”
“I expected that you wouldn’t believe me,” said the doctor. Calmly, she strode over to Garthniiel’s saddlebag and pulled Greoore’s sword out from its scabbard. “This proves I’m Hallowed,” she said, grasping the sword firmly by the hilt. “And this—” She ran her other hand along the edge of the blade, drawing blood, then held the cut out for them to see. As they watched, the blood dried and the flesh knit back together until there was there nothing on her palm, not even a scar. “—this proves that I’ve magic.”
“How—” began Flame.
“Because, as I said, I’m the last of the Drema. We—along with the Heliikians—were the only races to have ever been capable of magic.”
Garthniiel shook his head. “Even if that’s true, why are you telling us this?”
“Because it’s the end of the world,” said Izra. “On Asterii, we believed that as Hallowed, we were the guardians of the world. It was our duty to protect it, including from the threat of the Harbinger. As the last of my people, it falls to me to carry out this duty, but I cannot do it alone.”
“But you said you wouldn’t help us find the Harbinger,” said Garthniiel.
“Because it isn’t necessary,” said Izra.
“What do you mean?” asked Avenel.
Izra turned to gaze out the window. “We had priests in Asterii. In anticipation of the Harbinger, they devised a solution, a means of saving the world. The Calamity claimed their lives before they could see it to fruition, but I know where they’ve hidden their work.”
“And where is that?” asked Garthniiel. “Asterii is gone now.”
“It was never in Asterii,” said Izra. “They hid it in the north, past the Bay of Lights, far from where civilization might reach it.”
Garthniiel glanced Avenel. “That’s—that’s quite far. I’m not even sure we can find a ship willing to go so far.”
“It is,” said Izra, “which is why I require your assistance. Think on it if you must. Meanwhile, I believe Lord Avenel will want to speak with me alone.”
Avenel nodded and gestured toward the door. “After you, Doctor Grey.”
“Izra will do,” said Izra.
Neither of them spoke as they descended the stairs and walked out of the inn. Izra seemed to know the area well, and she led them down a secluded path that disappeared into the woods. When she stopped, it was by a stream that was little more than a trickle of water running over rounded stones. She pulled off her boots and dipped her toes into the water.
“You must be wondering,” said Izra, “about Deena’s role in this.”
“Yes,” said Avenel.
“Do you think you’re protecting her by lying to her about what she is?”
“I don’t intend to lie forever,” said Avenel. “She’ll learn the truth when she’s ready.”
“And who are you to decide when that will be?” asked Izra. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of telling anyone.”
“But how did you know?”
“I know many things,” said Izra. She wiggled her toes, stirring up the mud and cloudying the stream. “I know it snowed on the day you were born.”
“Pardon?” asked Avenel.
“On the day you were born. It snowed, the first snow of the season. It was beautiful.”
“Were you there?”
Izra nodded. “You were so weak, you know, you couldn’t even cry. You were born so early that they hadn’t expected you to live. I hadn’t expected you to live. But you did.” She looked up. “Saving you hadn’t been my intention, Lord Avenel, but I was responsible nonetheless.”
“Should I thank you?” asked Avenel.
“No,” said Izra, looking away. “It was, at best, a happy accident.” She took the string of prayer beads from around her wrist, looping them over her fingers as she spoke. “There are forces at work beyond your understanding, things put into motion before either of us were born. Your role is to protect Deena, and mine is to guide you north. Don’t forget—I’m your best chance of keeping Deena alive.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” said Avenel. “How do you know what Deena is?”
Izra sighed. “You’re a persistent one, aren’t you? Would you believe me if I said that an angel told me?”
Triinton; 1 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“I think we should go with her,” said Garthniiel.
“Were you dropped on your head as a child?” asked Frost. “We don’t even know her, and what she’s saying is insane. Asterii priests? Surviving the Calamity? Going all the way past the Bay of Lights?”
“But she did magic,” said Deena.
“And Flame could pull a coin out from behind your ear,” said Frost.
“That wasn’t a mere parlour trick,” Garthniiel. He had picked up Greoore’s sword from where Izra had set it down. Blood still lingered on the blade. “That was real.”
“Even if it was,” said Frost, “that doesn’t mean she’s on our side. She might be working for the Harbinger. She might be the Harbinger!”
“She could be,” agreed Garthniiel, “but she could also be telling the truth. If this really is the only way to save the world, we can’t afford to ignore her.”
“Can we afford to walk into a trap?”
“Look,” said Flame, holding up his hands. “I agree it’s suspicious, but Garth has a point. We have no idea how to defeat the Harbinger. This woman is giving us our first real hint as to where to start. We can’t very well ignore her. Let’s just wait until Avenel gets back, and then we’ll talk it over.”
“Maybe I don’t trust Avenel, either,” said Frost.
Garthniiel sighed. “Frost, not this again. After everything that happened at the Meridian—”
“So? She’s obviously hiding something; why else would she need to go talk to this Doctor Grey alone?”
“She wouldn’t!” protested Deena. “She’s allowed to have a private conversation!”
“Of course,” said Flame, glancing at Frost. “And I’m sure Frost of all people can understand that there are perfectly legitimate reasons for keeping secrets.”
Frost grumbled and crossed her arms.
It wasn’t long before Avenel returned alone. “Have you decided what to do?” she asked, closing the door behind her.
“We’re still talking it over,” said Garthniiel. “Where’s Doctor Grey?”
“She’s talking with the innkeeper downstairs,” said Avenel. “I’ve already agreed to go with her. The rest of you are under no obligation to come with us.”
“I-I’m going with you!” volunteered Deena.
Avenel smiled. “I know. I’ve no intention of going anywhere without you.”
Garthniiel thought for a moment. “Then I guess I’m going going too.”
“Are you mad?” asked Frost. “We don’t even know her!” She turned to Flame. “Flame—”
“Sorry, Sister,” said Flame. “I’m with Garth on this one. We have to take a chance.”
For a moment, Frost stared at them all, scowling. “I’m going to go check on the horses,” she said, and stormed out of the room.
Flame sighed. “I’ll go talk to her,” he said. “She’ll come around.”
Deena didn’t see Frost again for the rest of the day. Nor did she see much of the others, what with all the preparations that needed to be done for their journey. While Avenel and Garthniiel spent the afternoon discussing the best route to take with Izra, Deena was handed a list of the provisions they would need.
She was able to find most of the items on the list at Triinton’s general store. The proprietor, an old man with only one good tooth left, was all too happy to help.
“A special discount for ye!” proclaimed the proprietor, “on account of being friends with Doctor Grey.”
“Oh,” said Deena. “That’s all right, I—”
“Nonsense, nonsense,” said the old man. “I insist.”
“No, it’s fine, really,” protested Deena. “We don’t even know Doctor Grey that well.”
“But yer travelling with her, aren’t ye?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Then I insist,” said the proprietor. He held out his hand. “A silver, please.”
“A silv—! I can’t take all this for just a silver!”
The old man chuckled and patted Deena’s hand. “Lassie, Doctor Grey probably won’t remember me, but she saved me life the last time she passed by, back when I didn’t have a copper to my name. I’m getting on in years, now, and who knows when she’ll be back again, so let this old man repay that kindness, hm?”
Deena hesitated. “I—I suppose—”
“Atta girl,” said the old man. “I’ll have me grandson bring everything in the morning.” He took the silver from Deena’s hand. “Take care of her for us, alright? She’s a good one, at heart.”
Frost was still absent at dinner, and Flame came by for just long enough to gulp down some stew and shove a few rolls into his pocket.
“Are you taking those for Frost?” asked Garthniiel. “That’s not enough; here, take some of this chicken.”
“Thanks,” said Flame, taking the offered chicken leg.
“Is she alright?” asked Avenel.
“She’ll be fine,” said Flame. “She’s just sulking; it’s how she is.”
“Yeah,” said Garthniiel. He looked like he wanted to say something more, but Flame was already hurrying out the door.
“Perhaps you should go speak with her,” said Avenel.
“Flame said she’ll be fine,” said Garthniiel. “I know she doesn’t like it, but the rest of us all agreed.”
“She doesn’t need to come with us.”
“She knows that,” said Garthniiel. “She’s my friend; I’ve never ordered her to go anywhere.” He paused. “But I hope she does come with us.”
Avenel nodded. “Whatever her decision, she’ll have to make it by morning. We don’t have time to spare.”
“I know,” said Garthniiel. “Are you taking the first watch tonight? Wake me for the second.”
“We’re still doing watches?” asked Deena.
“Just in case,” said Avenel. “It’s better to be safe.”
Deena returned alone to their room. She read for a while, then undressed, brushed her hair, and crawled into bed. Just as she was on the cusp of sleep, however, the sound of voices from the room next door woke her again. The voices were too muffled for her to quite make out the words, but from the tone, it sounded like an argument. Her first thought was that it was Frost, but it wasn’t Frost’s voice, or anyone else that Deena knew, and besides, Frost’s room was further down the hall. For a while, Deena just laid there, staring at shadows cast by the moonlight streaming in through the shutters, waiting for whoever it was to stop arguing and go to sleep. When the argument showed no signs of stopping, she pulled the covers up over head and covered her ears with her pillow, but none of it was enough to block out the sound.
She sat up. Avenel had said that they were to set out at dawn, and she had enough experience on the road now to know how awful it was to bounce along in a saddle after a poor night of sleep. Perhaps the people next door didn’t realize how loud they were or how late it had gotten.
The moon was bright enough that Deena didn’t need to light a lamp as she slipped out of bed and into the hall. She paused a moment at the door of the room beside hers, but the voices were still too muffled for her to make out the words.
She knocked. “Hello? Could you keep it down, please? It’s late.”
There was no response. The voices continued as before, as though the speakers hadn’t heard her.
She knocked again, a little louder this time. “Hello? I’m trying to sleep.”
Still the voices continued.
She knocked a third time, and when there was still no reply, she turned the doorknob and found the door unlocked.
The room was empty.
She stood there for a moment, confused. The voices were definitely from this room, but where? They were whispers now, and she stopped and stood still to listen for where they were coming from. It seemed, implausible as it was, that they were coming from a small wooden box sitting open on the nightstand. Inside, nested in a bed of velvet, lay a string of black prayer beads, smooth and shiny in the moonlight.
Curious, Deena reached for the beads.
???; ???, Year ??? of ???
She was the disembodied girl again, but the memories were autumn leaves in a whirlwind, a caucophony of fiery reds and golds that swirled around her. No, they were the sand in an hourglass. No, they were salty spray of a storm. No, they were shards of glass that cut at her as they blew past. No, that was wrong—they were all wrong—it was an endless caucouphony of colors and sounds that hurt as nothing had ever hurt before.
She was the disembodied girl, but there was no stranger, no eyes to see through. The memories were a fire that enveloped her, consumed her, that burned her everything, but she had no mouth to scream.
Stop, please. It hurts.
She saw a ruined schoolhouse with blood on the stones. A quartet of youths laughing on a beach. A circle of figures in golden robes. A smoldering crater in a field of ice.
Please, I don’t understand.
A tawny-skinned woman coughing blood into her hands. A fallen city swallowed by the sea. A corpse cut open from collar to groin. An empty glass casket with its lid askew.
Avenel, somebody, help!
And through it all, a single voice emerged from the chaos: “Izi, I think I’m dying.”
And the sound tore her heart in two.
Triinton; 1 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
A hand landed on Deena’s shoulder. “What are you doing in my room?”
It was all Deena could do to bend over and retch. When she looked up again, it was to see Izra handing her a cup of something dark.
“Drink,” said Izra. “You’ll feel better.”
The liquid inside was so bitter that Deena almost gagged again, but she forced it down. It was a while before her stomach settled enough that she felt she could speak. At some point—though Deena hadn’t noticed when—Izra had picked up the prayer beads from where Deena had dropped them on the floor.
“What were you doing in my room?” asked Izra again, taking away Deena’s empty cup and handing her a full one. This time it was only water.
“I—I thought I heard voices.”
“I don’t know,” said Deena. She could no longer hear the voices, and the prayer beads looked to just be beads, sitting inert on Izra’s nightstand. “I don’t… maybe I was just sleepwalking?”
“Do you usually sleepwalk?” asked Izra.
“No,” admitted Deena. “I’m sorry, I really thought there were voices.”
“What did they say?” asked Izra. “What did you see?”
“I don’t know,” said Deena. “It was all—it was all kind of a blur. And it hurt. What was that, anyway?”
“A dream,” said Izra.
“But I just said I wasn’t sleepwalking.”
“Then pretend it was a dream,” said Izra. “It isn’t important. You shouldn’t have been in my room.”
“I’m sorry,” said Deena. She set down her cup. “I—Let me help you clean up.”
“No,” said Izra. “You’ve done enough. Go back to bed before Avenel notices your absence.”
Deena nodded. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
She was about to leave, but Izra grabbed her by the wrist. “Wait.”
“Whatever you saw—whatever you think you saw—if you say a word of it to anyone, especially Avenel—”
Her hand squeezed tight around Deena’s wrist. “Y-you’re hurting me,” said Deena.
“I know,” said Izra. “Physicians can harm as well as heal; remember that.”