Chapter 46: Say Nothing

Keenin could not think of another day. He found himself lying in bed, feeling the softness of furs underneath him, eyes fixated on the taught beige cloth of the tent over his head. In a way he was lying on his death bed. To one side was the helmet with the plume of feathers. To the other, a crumpled piece of paper, an attempt to explain to Dia. It had been his only chance to apologize. Now he just had to die. He continued to feel that there would be this right time, that given one more minute he would be ready. Honestly, ready.

Keenin heard a soft knock against one of the tent poles. The cloth over the entrance was pulled aside before he could make an argument to be left alone. And there stood Nadia in her practical clothes. She let the door close behind her.

“I thought that you would be here,” she said.

“This is my tent,” Keenin said.

Nadia smiled at his cynicism.

“I mean, I knew you would be awake,” Nadia corrected herself. “I know that Iscara spoke to you.”

“So what? I’m sure he talks to people all the time.”

“Keenin,” Nadia said. “I want you to stop sulking and go see that girl.”

Seriously.

“Do you think your helping? I can’t see her and I can’t seem to go against what Iscara says,” Keenin replied irritably. “You already knew that.”

“I am sorry it turned out this way for you,” Nadia said. “This war is not what it should have been, but it is. When our country’s king and Iscara’s father betrayed the trust of Septose, she took with her the blessing placed on the city and Iscara’s trust in others. And this was all he could do to save us. We of the fallen city may not be able to look away or desert the cause now, but we can still speak the truth of how we feel. And so should you.”

“Listen lady. What part of I cannot see her wasn’t clear.”

“Do I have to spell it out for you.”

Nadia pulled a black strip of cloth from her pocket. “If you cannot see her, then you must have no such intention.”

“Is that…a blindfold.”

Could the answer be so easy.

“There is no reason that you can’t see her with this,” Nadia explained. “She’s in one of the carts. Put this on when you get there.”

Keen stood and accepted the blindfold.

“Thank you,” Keenin said.

After Nadia left, Keenin pulled on the black turtleneck shirt that he had bought with his friends. He was disappointed to find a rip in the side and considered wearing something different, but this is what Dia was waiting for. He had to be that person. Thinking of it, he dug his old pair of lizard skin pant from his bag and pulled those on too. He slid a hand down the smooth scales that Bodwin had helped him skin off some angry lizards. He had been so childishly ill during the process. That backstabber, Keenin wished that he was finding a better life for himself. The last thing Keenin pulled on where his army boots. Though he had walked mostly barefoot his entire life, he couldn’t part from this luxury.

He crumpled the blindfold in his fist and tossed back the cloth in front of the door. In the open night air crickets chirped in chorus, fires crackled, and soldiers lazily moved around their temporary camp. In the small tented camp it was easy to find the grouping of carts that they had brought with them. He just needed to locate the right one.

He saw a standard guard equipped with a pike stationed at the area as he got closer. Keenin paused to consider and listened to the laughter of a group that roasted corn over a fire. He pushed the blindfold into his pocket and approached the happy bunch.

“Do you mind if I take a cob of corn to my friend?” Keenin asked them. 

“Take two,” one of them offered. “There’s nothing better.”

“Thanks.”

Keenin smiled and accepted the two cobs smeared with butter and salt. He happily ate one while he continued his way over to the guard. Keenin offered it over wordlessly as he continued to eat.

“Thanks,” the guard said. 

Keenin swallowed. 

“I know how it feels only being able to watch,” Keenin said. 

He saw the keys hanging on the guard’s belt. He needed an isolated spot to make a move.

“Do you know where the salt is kept? We’re running low,” Keenin said, feeling that he might get lucky.

Salt was usually a limited supply, especially if it was used to ward away ghosts.

“Oh, sure,” the guard replied.

He left his corn on the edge of the cart and lifted and shifted though the key ring to find the correct one. Then he idly moved to the cart holding salt while Keenin followed him out of sight from the main camp. The guard fiddled to undo the padlock.

“Just a second,” the guard said.

While he was busy Keenin aimed a hand at the guys hand to give direction to his magic and the man collapsed wordlessly. Hopefully, he had only applied enough heat to his brain to cause a blackout. If there was other damage, then it was too bad. He left the guard as he lay half over the back of the supply cart and took the ring of keys for himself.

He wasn’t yet sure where Dia was, but he had an idea. Keenin sniffed the air for the sour and fowl stench of death, then moved up to one of the carts and tried the keys in the lock. He finally got one to fit. Keenin remembered that he had to follow the rules and pulled the blindfold from his pocket to cover over his eyes.

Preparations done, he turned the key in the lock and pulled open the door. A strong stench of rot plugged his nose and it was quiet. But then he heard the scrambled sound of scattering bones before two thin warm arms wrapped themselves around him. She felt taller and softer.

“Keenin,” Dia said. “I didn’t think you would come. I’m sorry that I got captured. I didn’t know he would use me against you.”

It was odd not to see her. Keenin wondered how long Dia had been here. It was just like Iscara. It was almost ironic that she had been thrown in with the corpses. 

Keenin felt for her arms and gently pushed her away. He felt her hand touch the blindfold and closed his eyes tight in case she pulled it off. She didn’t.

“Did Iscara do something?” she asked.

“Sorry. He told me not to see you,” Keenin replied honestly. “I had to listen.”

“Then, his words. That’s how he had been doing this.”

“Ya.”

“And you couldn’t come back,” Dia said.

He took hold of her hand that had rested on the blindfold.

“Dia I have to know. Why did you come here?” Keenin asked.

“Don’t you know,” she said hurt. “I didn’t want to let them have you.”

So she had felt that way. He had just wanted to make sure.

“Listen…” Keenin said, lifting a free hand to gently touch the side of her face.

She was so warm and she must have been beautiful. Even in this place. He removed his hand in embarrassment. Being blind, it wasn’t easy to be subtle.

“I…I’m sorry if I said anything that upset you in the meeting.”

“But it’s ok now right,” Dia said. “We can go. This curse will wear off.”

She took his hand.

“Not yet,” Keenin said.

“Meladona can win this war on their own, Keenin,” Dia protested.

“I mean…my friends are going to prepare our escape in the early morning,” Keenin said.

“But we could just go. Every time you-

Keenin put a finger over her lips.

“They’re important friends to me,” he said. “So can you wait just a bit longer.”

“If you really say so, but don’t I stand out.”

Keenin smiled.

“I wouldn’t know. Do you stand out?” he teased.

“You invalid,” Dia insulted him. “You wouldn’t know good clothes when I saw them. Everything I own is tattered.”

Not a bad image, Keenin thought.

“And who said I wanted you in clothes,” he said snidely.

“You. You. You!” Dia fumed.

“What?” Keenin said innocently.

“This is not the place,” she stated.

In the end, Dia had him wear the helmet of the guard he had knocked out so that his shut eyes wouldn’t stand out while she put on his boots and pulled her grey cloak around herself. They walked close with arms linked so that Keenin could describe where to go and she could guide him, looking very much like a drunken pair of secret lovers. 

“This is embarrassing,” Dia whispered. “Are you sure that you can’t open your eyes if I walk behind you?”

“I did try,” Keenin said.

But since his mind had changed the meaning of Iscara’s words to eyesight and he knew she was there, it was like his eyes were glued shut. At least his friends might not recognize him like this. Dia halted and Keenin heard her pull back a tent flap.

“Is this it?” she questioned.

“Is there an ugly feather crested helmet on the floor?” 

And that scrap of paper with his notes that he had to hide. 

“Yup,” she said.

“Good.”

Keenin took three steps forward and the paper crumpled under his bare foot. He picked it up unconcerned.

“By the way,” Keenin said as Dia came closer. “What were you planning to do if it was the wrong tent?”

“I think they would have understood.”

He felt her pass by and heard her sit down on the furs, setting her booted feet out in front of her. He turned away.

“You, uh, wouldn’t happen to have food, would you?” Dia asked. “Hey, is this a sword?”

The paper crumpled further in Keenin’s hand.

“Dia,” he said.

He knew that she was watching him.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For not saying it sooner. I… I like you.”

Gods, he couldn’t even say it clearly. 

“I know,” Dia said quietly.

When he realized that the silence was her answer, Keenin was almost glad that she didn’t say it.

***

Dia lay asleep in his bed. He had brought in a food tray and they had stayed inside all night, talking, laughing, remembering. There had been nobody to disturb them. Now he pulled his shirt back over his head and stepped outside into the cold air. Letting the door fall shut behind him he leaned back against a tent pole. A headache that he suspected had been induced by the earlier battle was creeping up his temples and the cold felt nice. He listened to the rustle and clink of materials being moved around camp, and pulled the blindfold from over his eyes to gaze up at the stars above. The moon was so large in the sky that it threatened to crash down, cold and crushing.

“It’s a ghost moon,” Tess explained beside him.

Her pale blue form rested coldly against his shoulder. He absently ran his fingers through her silken hair. 

“It’s pretty,” he responded.

“Did leaving me hurt like this?” she asked peering up to him.

Keenin closed his eyes.

“Tell the death god, there is one more thing I want.”

Chapter 45: Splinter

He had been supposed to kill Iscara. That was all is should have been. These were the lies Keenin had kept telling himself. Like the lie that it had been worth it. 

This night’s dream had Keenin out on the ruined battlefield among the fallen dead to search for Dia. A cold and acrid wind ruffled his hair and stirred the rags of cloths still clinging to fallen corpses. His hand throbbed where he had cut it the night before. 

Keenin wouldn’t take a single step more.

He had come here thinking that he wanted to escape his fate. It had been fun. Living was fun. Exciting. Hurtful. Forgiving. Wondering. But it seemed that the reason he wanted to reach Dia was that…

He regretted not letting her go. He should have told Dia that it wouldn’t work for them. Keenin didn’t want her in his complicated life, tied up in his personal problems. And, honestly, it might have been the same elsewhere. He had been a thief. What would he really have done in the town of Stonefield other than pawn off wilted herbs? Keenin pushed himself for her and he wanted things for her, but he didn’t want…

He didn’t want…

Disappointment.

Regrets.

There was nothing left to regret when he died. Death had told him so, but surly she would regret. She would ask why she couldn’t save him. Dia should know it wasn’t her fault. That was it.

Keenin had to let go. 

He would never have a life worth anything, not while knowing that so many of the deaths to come would be his fault. Maybe he had wanted to be a hero like the ones in books or maybe he wanted a small shop by the edge of the road, but this was the only dream he got; a glimpse of being alive in a future of his making, and it was held together by rotten fate, lies, and meetings with people too incredible to be for him. Neither could he become the man who took personal vengeance on the people around him.

Keenin stared down at the dead eyes of the man who had died from a severed artery on the side of his neck, an unlucky slip of the blade. His anger with fate had burned out. The weight of the dead bodies around him were piling up and killing Iscara would not be enough. 

All these stupid, reoccurring dreams were proof.

“I get it,” Keenin told the silent tableau of the dream. 

“But why?” Keenin asked the space around him. “Why did Calendor choose me?”

I didn’t want to control any fire, not really, Keenin thought. He had just wanted Tess.

As though having waited for a summons, the death god’s voice was there.

“Calendar is not a spirit that sees good from bad,” the young voice of the god sounded. “He craves to be a champion of change and he saw you on a different path, be that taking revenge for Tess’s death or fighting this war. He is the maker of hero’s regardless of which cause you uphold. He gave you nothing but choice itself. I believe that is what you wanted, Keenin.”

Keenin laughed in contempt. Had that really been a choice, Keenin thought, when he saw only one way to go. These gods and spirits sure were cruel.

 “Have you been sending me these dreams too?” Keenin asked.

Whether awake or asleep he had been manipulated. 

The death god snorted in amusement.

“Who do you think I am?”

The death god gave no more specifics, but more than one god must have been invested in his sacrifice.

“One more question then. Who is Iscara? I’ve been getting visions, but I don’t understand how this happened.”

“All I can say is that Iscara is a man of wish fulfillment and persuasion. I warned you. You would be smart to let this be the end.”

“Sorry,” Keenin said, turning the death god down a second time. “I have to say goodbye.”

*

When Keenin finally awoke, sunlight was spilling across the space from the open door of his tent. Harris stood there. He was still dressed in armor, this time in a black color that matched Iscara’s army. Keenin wondered if he ever took it off these days. 

“Did I miss roll call,” Keenin half joked.

He knew that Harris and Aron were still serious about this war. Even before Rumin convinced them that this was a proper cause, those two had no intention of falling behind here. They had a future planned for themselves. But knowing the truth, Keenin wasn’t sure that he could keep this up.

“Iscara would see you,” Harris said bleakly. 

Iscara. Keenin smiled to himself at the uttering of that name. What a hollow name, Keenin thought. He had known the man all along. Practically since the first day he had known. The dreams had laid the answer bare.

Keenin stretched, pushed back his covers, and pulled on a crumpled white shirt that he had tossed beside his bed the day before.

“I expect that he will forgive my appearance,” Keenin said. 

Since Harris insisted on awkwardly maintaining his position in the doorway, Keenin brushed past him to get the infamous meeting over. That’s when Harris roughly grabbed hold of Keenin’s arm and lifted it to reveal the poorly bandaged hand. His friend slowly unwrapped the torn cloth, gently unsticking it from the dried blood, to reveal the swollen gash. The raw wound stung against the open air.

“When did you do this?”

Keenin had been careless in his treatment and had risked infection. 

“Is this how you tell us you aren’t going to fight?” Harris accused.

“It was a mistake when I was sharpening,” Keenin responded honestly. “But I have an appointment. Could you wrap it up for me. I’ll go to the medic right after.”

It wasn’t like he would be here much longer.

“Medic first,” Harris insisted.

With irritation, Keenin tugged his arm out of Harris’s grip and put his hands together. There was a sharp searing pain on his cut and when Keenin took his hands apart his palm was lightly burned over. Harris grabbed Keenin’s shirt collar and pulled him face to face.

“Stop pushing us away!” he said angrily. “War doesn’t get easier just because you don’t care.”

Keenin felt bad that he couldn’t tell these friends of his that it was already over. It was his fault. Keenin had known not to get close to them. Now he could only hurt them.

“I hope that Iscara doesn’t have as little patience as you,” Keenin responded. 

Keenin saw the hurt in Harris’s eyes before the grip on his shirt released. 

“Careful,” Harris warned quietly. “That person isn’t normal.”

“I know,” Keenin confessed gently. “But neither am I. You know that.”

*

Keenin found his way to the leaders tent. It was square shaped and made of green cloth patterned with mean looking dogs that reminded him of the carved stone castle from his dreams. Seeing that, Keenin took time to think of how hard he had fought to not see the connection. He smiled to himself then and as he moved to enter the tent Keenin closed his eyes before sweeping aside the cloth. 

When his eyes opened he found Rumin sitting behind a large desk that was cluttered with books and paper, as well as a plain wooden staff. He didn’t look very impressive dressed as he was in belted orange robe with a brown cloak draped across his neck and covering one arm. Two guards stood at the sides of the space. Rumin might have been there to represent the leader, but the simple answer was that this was Iscara. This guy who liked to make jokes and speak eloquently about better times ahead was the same infamous necromancer.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Rumin said. “You do know who I am?” 

“Iscara, was it,” Keenin confirmed. “You said some strange things for just a sword teacher. And I found your notebook in Iscara’s office. Not to mention that nobody ever knew where Iscara was. It’s just not possible to motivate your people if you don’t exist.”

Iscara smiled.

“Can you believe that you’re the only one to figure that out yourself and make it this far,” he said.

“You also pick favorites,” Keenin accused.

Though he heavily suspected that fate had prevented his untimely death. Iscara leaned back in his chair.

“What can I say. You remind me of someone I knew,” Iscara said. “How are you liking war?”

“I’m not,” Keenin said, not caring that he was supposed to be entranced by this person.

“Keenin,” Iscara scolded gently. “You were supposed to come find me if you had doubts. Now look at your miserable self.”

“Either way, I’m not going anywhere,” Keenin stated. 

“Truly?” Iscara said. “Then what is this?” 

He indicated the staff laying across the desk. The item didn’t have any notable design and looked like any other walking stick.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Keenin said.

The man seemed to be finding any reason to toy with him.

“Try picking it up,” Iscara suggested.

Those were familiar words. Keenin starred longer at the piece of wood, but since looking alone wasn’t enough to confirm his suspicions he rested his hand over the worn surface and felt a hot gust of upward air as Calendar materialized behind him. Keenin could feel the spirit like a cold silent weight, as though it was disappointed, as though the spirit knew Keenin would step off the path. 

Though he dared not to speak, Keenin’s hand trembled with recognition and he slowly pulled away. 

“I…I’ve never seen this here,” Keenin stammered, cursing inwardly at his lack of composure.

He bunched his fists at his side and looked down, not caring that Iscara knew that answer either way. This item didn’t mean anything he told himself. It could have been a different one or stolen.

“Really. A girl said that she was bringing it for you.”

With a soft thud, Dia fell into view from behind the desk. Her hands and feet were tied, and her mouth covered to prevent her from speaking. Her clothes were so torn that the skirt of her dress looked like rags and only a newly donned grey cloak saved her from embarrassment. Her eyes were full of hurt from his absence, embarrassment at her position, and fear for him. Keenin again looked to his feet, also feeling ashamed that this was how they should meet.

“I would have gotten rid of her for you, but I’m afraid she would crawl back out of the grave.”

Keenin feared that Iscara would hurt her out of curiosity alone.

“D– I don’t know her,” Keenin said, still fixing his eyes on the ground.

If he gave Iscara other things to think about it would be fine.

“Really,” Iscara teased. “So you never noticed that you were being followed by some undead girl?”

Keenin didn’t respond. 

“Little girl,” Iscara said to Dia. “Could you tell me where you got my older brothers staff?”

Keenin felt a jolt of surprise at the question. How? How could they be so connected? Iscara pulled the gag away from Dia’s mouth.

“I answered that already,”  Dia said stubbornly. “Can I go now?”

Her eyes rested on Keenin hoping that they could leave together or that she could get him out.

“She said that her caretaker had the staff before he died. Is that true?” Iscara questioned further.

Neither of them had known this question would come up. Keenin knew that she didn’t want to talk about painful memories.

“Melsa adopted her,” Keenin explained for her now. “And then he died. I saw the grave myself.”

“Is that what happened?” Iscara asked Dia.

“Yes,” she said bleakly.

Iscara’s lips went thin.

“What a poor child,” he said. “Keenin. You may escort her out as you wanted.”

“I…

Keenin felt that he was going to protest, but didn’t know why. Following Iscara’s advice and deciding he should get this out of the way Keenin walked over and reached down to take one of Dia’s bound wrists so that he could pull her up. 

“What are you doing?” she questioned him.

Dia wasn’t opposed to getting out or following his lead on a plan, but would this really be best for Keenin. He seemed confused. Keenin recognized this too. He had an odd feeling that maybe he had not wanted to do this before. He looked to Iscara.

“Sir?” Keenin questioned.

He didn’t think that he had been trying to do this, thought it felt ok. Iscara sighed.

“Just take her out of the camp. I don’t want anything of my brother here. Do you understand?”

That did make sense. Keenin pulled out a knife that he always kept in his boot to cut the rope on her ankles so she could walk. Then he pulled Dia up by her still tied wrist and led her to the exit. She didn’t protest.

“Wait,” Iscara said before they could get out the door.

Keenin halted and gripped Dia’s wrist tighter as though still intending to drag her out, but he wasn’t moving forward.

“Let her wait outside. One of you guards take her.”

Keenin raised an arm to block Dia from the guard, but the man was larger and pushed him aside to grab the rope between Dia’s hands and pulled her outside. Keenin felt a small bit of relief thinking that Dia still might escape when this meeting was over. But instead of using the situation for negotiation Iscara turned to the other guard in the room.

“You, guard,” Iscara told the other one. “Lock her up.”

“Keenin,” Iscara said before Keenin could protest. “I’m sure you don’t want to go see her. In, fact, you may not.”

Horrified, Keenin realized that this is what the death god had warned of. Keenin panicked and grabbed the second guards cloak as he passed. 

Because of what Iscara said Keenin couldn’t bring himself to go out there, the idea made him numb, but he still had to try and so he held to the guard with the last of his strength.

“You can’t keep him!” Dia yelled from outside, having hearing Iscara.

“Don’t,” Keenin begged the guard.

He had to get her back to Clide. Keenin owed it to them to at least let Dia escape.

“Keenin,” Rumin said impatiently. “You don’t want to do that, do you?”

Did he. His grip failed and the guard slipped from the tent. Keenin fell to his knees in defeat.

“I’m not going to say this is entirely your fault,” Iscara said. “The people I kidnap don’t usually have friends as difficult as yours, but I don’t want you to leave.”

Iscara had done this on purposed to prove what he could do. He had been held back. There might have been a time when Keenin wanted to understand his mentor, but there were too many unspoken words between them. The only thing Iscara was to him now was a demon. 

“You promised that I would see her,” Keenin protested.

At the very least this man had said he could fight for her.

“And did you not?”

“You know better,” Keenin told him. “I wish that you cared. I wish that your fighters knew what you were like.”

“What I know,” Rumin said for himself. “Is that you haven’t been fully invested in my fight. What I want is for you to make it up to me tomorrow. I owe it to my people to allow them a day of rest. Because, well, they never seem to tire from working,” he laughed.

Keenin realized that it wasn’t just him or his friends. The entire army was being entranced. It was possible that none of them wanted to be here. Iscara tossed a helmet to the floor that was decorated with feathers to stand out in the crowd. There would be no fight tomorrow Keenin thought. He would make the sacrifice before then.

 “I hurt my hand,” is what Keenin said instead.

“Then roast them.”

“Why?” Keenin asked bluntly.

Why fight for control of the city? Meladona had done nothing. The city might have even helped these people who had lost their homes.

“Tell me something first,” Iscara said. “Yesterday you were so entranced, today so doubtful. Why do you think that is?” 

Divine intervention, too many bad potions, Keening thought. 

“I blindly followed a lot of people,” Keenin told him regretfully.

“Who?”

“Keln,” he said first remembering the thief leader. “Bodwin. Vindice. You.”

The last word came out more forceful then intended as he had not wanted to say death. Keenin couldn’t stop giving the answers, but no matter what he couldn’t let Iscara forbid him from dying. Death had warned him. There had been so many chances.

“There is that,” Rumin said, seemingly pleased to have himself on the list. “As to your question, I started this war to teach the world to pay respect to their gods as my mother wanted. The country my people came from was once very prosperous. We crafted magic amplification and nullification items like the staff. Techniques gifted by our goddess to help our people, but they started to take it for granted. So now this god deemed it fit that I rule the land in her name.”

“Which god would that be?”

“Dear goddess Septose,” Iscara said. “My mother. She is a jealous woman indeed. As am I. You will find that you want to do what makes me happy. Maybe you’ll even forgive.”

Chapter 44: Miss me Not

Keenin. 

 

Dia didn’t know the last time that she had thought about him. It had started so easily. He had just been a boy being carted off to war. She and Clide had simply been frightening the soldiers. They had thought to play a secret little part in helping to end a war they had heard of, but had little to do with the forest they lived in.

A crack like the sound of a branch breaking came as a warning. Dia lifted her head expecting to see Clide. The dragon could never keep quiet, but there was the curve of a horses leg, soft and brown, and the head of a gryphon buried into the beasts belly. A gleaming sword was still stuck into the horses side from when it had fell in battle. The crack had been the sound of a gryphon snapping one of the horses ribs as it dug for meat. The cat-like creature pulled its bloody beak from the carcass and took in the sight of her with a large yellow eye. Then it slowly moved off, not wanting to be around her, still a proud creature through and through.

Dia must had died again and now her right hand that still gripped the boost staff was pinned under the side of the dead horse. She could feel the wood of the staff held solidly in her hand and could move her wrist to little effect. Dia rotated her shoulders to get a better sense of her body’s condition, stretched her stiff legs, and placed her free right hand on the side of the horse for leverage. She pulled as hard as she dared, her caught arm painfully stretching and scratching against the ground yet barely able to move from under the weight. She ended her efforts with little result and an aching arm that felt like it might simply break under the pressure, and likely had before she died.

“Shit,” she cursed. “Uhh…

Dia tried to push the weight off instead, to even less results, and hit her fist into the horses thick hide.

“I don’t care what Clide is thinking,” she declared. “ The next time I get the idea to cross a battlefield, Clide’s flying me. And when I see that idiot Keenin then we will use our amazing powers to end all the wars. This is the most stupid thing.”

A crow cawed overhead, making Dia sharply aware of how quiet and deserted the field had become. The afternoon sun was filtering its way down through the dust and fog. Dia couldn’t be sure of how far she had come, but it had been dark when she left.

With her free hand she pushed back the grey hood of a cloak she had stolen on the way over to blend in. She no longer needed stealth, and the hood shaded her view. The large body of the horse also blocked a portion of her sight, but she tilted her head and stretched her neck enough to see beyond.  

The field was indeed empty, littered only with lost weapons, feasting crows, and corpses. There, a few meters away, close enough that she could imagine touching them were tents flying the black banners of the Red Heart Army. She could watch the soldiers roaming around, unaware of her spying eyes. She had to get free of this horse and find Keenin. What if he walked by and didn’t see her?

With renewed energy Dia pulled and grit her teeth against the pain. Then an idea made her stop. Her eyes fixed on the sword stuck into the belly of the horse. She tried to get a grip on the blade and pull it free, her struggles going unnoticed to those around her. Her fingers slipped against the smooth edge and when she wrapped her hand around the edge all she managed to do was to cut herself before pulling away.

If Tess was around the ghost might have joked about contracting funny diseases, but the girl had vanished. Moving corpses wandered past, unhelpful, and seemingly oblivious to her presence. She should have been grateful to be left untouched, yet they made her feel unreal. Dia paused to observe them. This close she could see the essence of souls woven through the rotted flesh like stitches in a straw doll. A crow landed atop the horse and cawed at her to hurry up or die.

“Dammit!” she yelled at everyone and no one.

It was hard enough to get through this without some stupid dead weight trapping her here.

“Just go through the battle Dia,” she mumbled. “What  a great idea!”

She glared at the other crows, one of which scratched at a shiny coin on the ground. Her tension eased as she realized that might work. It would take time, but she could dig around her arm until there was a pocket large enough to slip out. She took hold of a scrap of metal and began scraping away the dirt.

“Keenin you better have made it this far,” she muttered. 

The sound of boots crunching over the uneven ground made her still. Dia turned her head around to see a man that had quietly approached her. He had sandy hair, wore a comfortable short grey tunic, copper-tinted pants, and tall leather boots partly plated in steel. There was no weapon on his person.

“Who would you be?” he asked simply curious.

The man seemed too at ease for a guy walking a field of dead with no protection.

“A lady,” Dia said warily.

He gave a slight smile. 

“I heard you say a name,” the man said. “It looks like you came quite far, Dia I think it was, but you should go home. The person you want isn’t going anywhere.”

Dia had come far. And she had not come for some proud person to tell her otherwise.

“You,” Dia said. “You’re Iscara.”

No one else here would have such confidence or know what she was talking about from overhearing a single name.

“Did…did Keenin mention me?”

Had he really been thinking about her.

“No. Rumors, I’m afraid. Knowing the friends and history of my comrades is my hobby. And since the dragon was out where I could see him I have been very curious as to your whereabouts.”

“I need to see him,” Dia stated.

She couldn’t let this person manipulate everything. 

“No,” Rumin said.

Dia felt the weight lifting from her arm and looked over to see two undead corpses lifting it off. They tossed it aside like a sack of flower and wandered off.

“You go back to wherever you call home. Stubborn people like you only cause more harm.”

Dia tightened her grip on the boost staff with her bruised arm. He deserved a good hit for daring to get rid of her. Just because he thought she wasn’t needed or couldn’t be controlled didn’t give him the right to stop her here. Iscara’s eyes shifted to the staff she held.

“Is that…my brother’s staff,” he said.

“What?”

“I refer to that unsightly piece of wood,” he pointed to the staff. 

She pulled it closer to herself in protection.

“Well I…

She wasn’t ready for this. This was not why she had come at all.

“You’re right. Where are my manners,” Iscara said. “Let’s have one more talk with Keenin. Just so he knows you’re safe. All right.”

Chapter 43: Reminders

Keenin sat with a bucket of water and a brush, scrubbing the dirt from his boots outside his assigned tent. Rumors of ghosts were spreading through the camp again. For a group whose leader summoned the dead they sure were superstitious. There were even paper charms pegged to tent poles that supposedly warded away the spirits. 

Keenin had been haunted by his personal ghost long enough to know that bits of paper didn’t work. Salt did, but if he was going to see ghosts here it would have happened already. He was more interested in what people didn’t talk about.

Rumin had kept his word in giving him a defensive position in the fight. Keenin had spent the early part of the night sitting in one of the circular pits, crowded by other soldiers wielding bows, swords, and whichever weapon was favored. He had been given a crossbow, which was easier to shoot and aim than a usual bow, and had only been expected to shoot oncoming enemy soldiers. It would seem Iscara simply wanted them to show a level of dedication. Keenin had not been expected to use magic, though he could see a wandering fog that Aron was conjuring and was sure that Harris would be experimenting with his metal manipulation. Keenin had been sure that when the field was clear of sun crested soldiers, he would be asked to help move the catapults that had been sitting unused behind their defense, but instead he had been thanked for his time and sent back to camp. 

Why had they taken the time to defeat their enemy only to retreat? Had there been a threat? Had they expected Clide to attack in revenge? Keenin was grateful not to be out there, but still.

Emerging from his thoughts Keenin became aware that water dripped from the heel of the boot he held to clean while his other hand rested on the brush that was on the ground. He released the brush and gripped the lip of the boot with both hands to wiggle it on over the sock on his foot. Then he stood and picked up the bucket of grey water, carried it to the edge of camp, and emptied its contents. He wasn’t the first to do so. Garbage and other waste lay there too, as though to mark the fowl beginnings of the battleground. Keenin was splashed again as Aron came to stand beside him and flung soapy water from a large wash basin.  

“Nice shirt,” Aron commented. 

Keenin wasn’t wearing one. He had taken it off to wash before he started on the boots. 

“Where did you get that?” Keenin asked his friend.

He had been looking for a larger bucket to clean his clothes.

“The ladies let me borrow it,” Aron admitted. “They might clean your clothes if you ask them nicely.”

“So what were you doing?”

“Bathing,” Aron said. “You should try it.”

Keenin held out his hands.

“Give me that and I will.”

“Oh, no. You have to ask the ladies for this one. Same as me.”

Keenin smiled. There was the self-righteous kid he knew.

“We both know that my charm cannot compare to yours,” Keenin said. “Go give your thanks. That cool cut you got over your eye isn’t going to stay there forever.”

Aron grinned, highlighting the thin pinkish line over his eye and left with his tub to find the girls. Keenin walked back to his tent to see if the shirt he had left drying was ready to wear. Keenin had managed to get Rumin to talk to Aron about the purpose of the war. After all, once it was understood that this desperate group only needed the resources to settle in peace, the fighting seemed silly. The City of Meladona should have let Iscara’s people take shelter. Right. 

Right…

He let the thought fade from his mind  as he reached the door of his tent and grabbed hold of the door flap. There was a silence he wasn’t ready to face.

“Keenin,” Harris called out before he could duck inside.

Keenin looked to his other friend. The blacksmith wore an armor of his own design. Since he had figured out that he could mold metal like clay, he was becoming more elaborate in his creations.

“Did you get the news? Apparently the catapults took a chunk out of the barrier. Seems all that they have is a bit of ice and a pissed off dragon.”

“Oh, good for them.” 

Keenin entered the tent and grabbed his damp shirt from where it had been left hung tucked into a supporting tend pole and pulled it over his head. Getting to the city without bothering to fight the war wouldn’t be so bad either. 

“Uh,” Harris said from outside. “Before you finish cleaning up do you mind practicing some sword moves with me. Being able to change the shape of weapons is useful, but I could use some practical testing.”

Keenin looked in Harris’s direction and could just barely see him through the gap in the tent flaps. He would rather be left alone.

“Did you ask Rumin?” he questioned towards this end.

Rumin was their combat master. Surly training with an expert would better compliment Harris’s natural talent for weaponry.

“Nobody can find him.”

Keenin sighed. That man had a double agenda. He had said things.

Harris pulled back the fabric blocking the entrance, letting sunlight flood the space. Keenin blinked and he rubbed at his eyes as his friend regarded him.

“I mean if you’re tired, I can…

“Sorry,” Keenin said, trying to push back his growing doubt. Rumin had said things.

“You should ask Aron,” Keenin continued to say.

He didn’t like to push his friends away, but he was starting to feel sick inside, an uneasy mix. Keenin started to remember the larger scale of his fight, that long ago talk with the god of death. He needed a bit more time to convince himself to fight for Rumin. He had to save himself. A bit longer. 

“Then can I just ask?” Harris said distracting him. “Why you don’t use fire? I mean why don’t you use your magic? If you’re worried about control, you should just practice.”

His friend was funny. Practicing magic brought back good memories. Using it, not so much. 

“Harris,” Keenin said, knowing that this at least he could answer. “It’s not that I haven’t used the magic. It’s just I can’t imagine where it’s use would stop. The first time I used fire against a person I was honestly overwhelmed, and sad, and I felt that there was nothing else that I could do. But I still feel that there should have been another way out. People should have certain chances and I shouldn’t take that away with some instant kill ability. Besides, it seems like the sort of power that would make people afraid. Like I would only be the bad guy. I think winning can happen without it.”

“You really worried about that, huh. That makes me envious.”

“Why?”

“I don’t mind taking advantage where I can. Great for myself, but as a leader, you would be the best choice.”

“Heh, Aron’s more noble than I’ll ever be.”

“And that’s why you’re the best. He would stumble over the details and please everyone and no one. I think you could handle a bit of give and take.”

“I don’t know,” Keenin said. “I would still rather it be him.”

Between being a maybe savior and a maybe hero, he had enough positions as it was.

“That’s just like you too. You really like to hold onto little things without being noticed. Some people might call that a dust collector.”

“I guess so.”

Harris could have a strange way of comparing things.

“And you know that you can talk to me,” Harris added. “War isn’t easy on anyone. We haven’t forgotten. Were just trying to live through it. Right?”

“Right.”

How weird. At the worst times, people were still trying to make him feel better and he had let himself think that he was alone just because they didn’t understand.

“And…thanks,” Keenin ended.

“I’ll go find Aron,” Harris said.

With that Keenin was left alone in his tent. He looked to the unused sword that he had left lying on the floor in its moss-green scabbard. Having nothing better to pass the time he dug a polishing stone out of his pack of belongings and sat down on the furs he now used as a bed. He set the stone on the dirt floor and lined up the edge of the blade to slide across the rough surface. 

Harris had shown him how to polish a sword not too long ago. The meticulous work felt similar to how he helped Alaban prepare plants for his potions, stripping leaves or crushing seeds into powders. He  could almost forget why he was there for a while as he smoothly and simply became a part of life and what other people did. People could go on forever just like this. But not…him.

Keenin wondered if Dia would be disappointed. She had prepared him to fight back and he had not moved an inch. He had not found Iscara. He claimed to want a life so amazing and bold, full of courage and new experience, but he had remained where fate had put him. Truth was, he was breaking apart. He was lying to his friends. He was forcing others into positions that suited him. For the price of more time alive he was becoming a cheating, dirty villain who didn’t care about others. It wasn’t a situation he could escape when fate deemed that every path led back here. 

As for Dia, seeing her again and facing up against what she thought of him now, was more terrifying than facing a god. Everything between her and him were now made up ideas in his head. It had been so long since they had last seen each other that Dia might not even remember him, or like him. So what was the point in waiting? If he was being honest, Clide could take care of her. 

Keenin paused in his work, drew in a deep breath and sighed.

Still. Death was a harsh bargain. Out of all the decisions he had to make, did it have to be that.

“I’m always stuck doing all of the work,” Keenin commented to himself.

Keenin felt a sharp hollow whack on the side of his head and confusedly looked up. His scabbard clattered to the floor from where it had been held by a blur in the air. He thought that maybe Dia…

“Nice job making the situation worse,” came the voice of Tess.

“Tess,” he said surprised. 

Realizing that it was her he looked away.

“You look…glowing.”

Smudgy might have been the correct description, but it was never good to insult a girl. He was grateful not to have admitted anything in front of her. He was oddly embarrassed and annoyed.

“I picked up a trick on my way with…glee. It was a very, uh, fun trip,” Tess finished.

She seemed more awkward and genuine than usual, but he didn’t want to hear the old saying of ‘I told you so’.  

“Go away,” Keenin told her stubbornly.

She was like a bad reminder.

“Hmmm, don’t you have the wrong idea here. You aren’t supposed to let the evil guy win the war.”

There it was, the usual persuasion.

“Iscara isn’t tying to kill me,” Keenin protested weakly.

And since when did she care. Tess just wanted him dead.

“Do you think Iscara would stop at one City?”

No, Keenin guessed not, but he didn’t want to discuss it with her.

“Iscara probably just needs a new home for his people,” Keenin said to annoy her.

Rumin might have had him believing it for real a few hours ago, but the influence of gods or other bad luck had put Keenin back on track.

“You do not think that!”

“Sure I do. Rumin told me so.”

“What about the dragon. Since the barrier became so weak he’s the only thing left between you and the end of the world as we know it,” Tess said.

“End of the world is a bit strongly worded Tess. And it’s not my fault. He should come over here.”

If Clide was serious, the war would be over.

“Why do you think you can avoid this!” Tess asked in frustration. 

“I can kill Iscara whenever I want now. I’ve got options.”

“Well, the rest of us don’t.”

He had almost forgotten. The death god was also the only one who could let Tess pass on. Killing Iscara had seemed like a good last idea.

“Right,” Keenin mused. “So I did forget something.”

“Ya, and I have another something to say that you might not have figured out. That guy Iscara can’t control ghosts as well as you think.”

“The death god said…

“Attracts. Iscara attracts them.”

“Then killing him would…

“It doesn’t matter what you do to him. Iscara can’t send ghosts back, the death gods can’t pull ghosts back, and the ghosts don’t know how to leave. Lingering spirits turn into monsters. Dia and I saw it.”

Keenin felt a sharp pain across his palm and notice that he had cut his hand with the blade he had been sharpening. Blood was dripping onto the clean furs of his bed.

“Shit,” he said to himself.

He let go of the sword and grabbed a loose white shirt from under the bed and wrapped it around.

“Please leave,” he urged Tess.

He was feeling sick again.

“I’m not leaving until you see what you’re doing is wrong,” Tess argued.

“I know. Tess,” Keenin uttered weakly in defeat. “I know this place is full of lies. I know you’re right and that I’m being manipulated. I drank the bloody hero potion back on the road and I still remember everything. Tess. I can’t listen to something just because you tell me to.”

He covered his ears to block her out. If only he could have been left alone, he might have done it, he might have died so the stupid world could go on. He might have decided all by himself. His death would have had meaning. It would have been more than just a scripted part. He hated them for taking his willpower away.

“That really hurts,” Tess said. “Did you want to leave us behind that much?”

Keenin held his head in his hands to hold back his teas.

“No,” he whispered.

He had not wanted to leave them at all. That was the point.

“Dia is coming. Decide what you want to tell her.”

He felt the silent withdrawal of her presence. I’m sorry, he thought. Nothing had come out the way he wanted.

Chapter 42: You Can Say It

As Clide sat as one of the men by the crackling fire, a helmet obscuring his face and hair falling past his shoulders, he felt that something was shifting. He was being relied on to support a bigger idea, a sense of communal freedom that he had not understood. He had thought of freedom as the ability to be anywhere he chose, not as the opportunity to be with whom he chose. Somehow, he had assumed that those people would be where he went.

The men around laughed, drank their watered down alcohol, roasted chicken over the flame, and bragged about home. Some kept some distance to play simple games such as marbles or checkers not enjoyed since they were young. A brave group had already been sent across the field for the day, not to return till victory and these men would be next. Clide stood out in his silence and obscurity. Perhaps he was more, perhaps less, than he appeared.

He tried not to think of war. Clide tried to remember his time with Dia, sometimes exploring the world of humans or taking long naps in the forest. He had not treasured her enough and he was starting to understand that being a dragon didn’t mean he could bring back his friends.

Clide felt his mistake. He should have chased after her on the day that she left and admitted that he was sorry. He had been jealous to not be the only person in her life and he had not known what to do. He had thought that letting her go would ease his uncomfortable feelings and that joining the war would distract him, but it had brought more empty nights. And the truth was that he didn’t know if Dia would return. She had every chance to choose a life without him. 

Clide watch the chicken roasting on a stick above the flames, the grease beading and sliding down the plucked cracked skin to fall sizzling to the fire. The shifting orange blaze made him think of Keenin. In the calm passing of time Clide could almost hear the drip of melting ice from his victims. 

“What are you doing dragon?”

Clide recognized the rough voice and turned his head to see the leather clad white knight with a prissy name. The one that Keenin’s friend Lester hung around like a puppy. What was the name again? Ritz. Rold. Waldo.

“I’m keeping busy with your war. What are you doing here and how did you know it was me?” Clide questioned.

None of the soldiers had discovered his changing trick, though Clide suspected it had more to do with a lack of imagination than a lack of suspicion. Renaldo sat down heavily beside him on the log, stiff leather creaking. Clide had not realized that the man wore so much protection even under his plate mail, a defenseman though and though.

 “It’s my job, dragon,” the white knight let him know. “We take turns in battle. And to answer your question, it was your silver hair. Should I teach you how to tie it up before they realize you aren’t out for lunch in the forest?”

“Don’t bother,” Clide told him. “I’ve been trying this trick for a while. They have yet to notice, white hair or otherwise. Did you leave your protégé behind?”

“Oh, he’s here too. I told him to wait for you at your usual spot. Thought you had enough kids to worry about since that girl of yours disappeared. Any luck?”

“Like I said, I’m busy with this war,” Clide responded. 

In the silence Renaldo acknowledged the loss.

“I appreciate it,” is what Renaldo finally said. “But if you don’t mind me asking, why didn’t you get that boy Keenin.”

Humans, Clide thought. They always needed things spelled out.

“Because. They don’t need me to stand up for them. And I made a promise to your men in exchange for Dia’s safety, as odd as that seems.”

A dragon did not make promises lightly. And even though he had panicked over Dia’s wellbeing despite her ability to heal, he was obligated to shoulder the consequences.

“And I’m not his dragon. I’m hers and in no way did Dia ask me to redeem myself by saving him.”

“You…” Renaldo tried to think of the right words. 

Pissing off a dragon had not been the white knight’s goal. Clide sighed. He had been avoiding the idea for long enough.

“You can say it,” Clide said.

“You love her.”

The dragon’s silence spoke of much.

“I didn’t know,” Clide said for himself.

They were so close for so long, and there was never anyone else in their lives. She had never spent time with another boy until Keenin. And his juvenile self had only known great friendship and making her happy. But somewhere along the way he had felt disappointed that she wasn’t looking only at him, his feeling becoming unsure for the first time. 

The attack against them on the road had been the last that he could stand. He had just wanted to protect her. He had just wanted to protect her, and Keenin had put her in danger. It had not mattered that she could take care of herself. She had been everything to him and he had not been able to put away his anger, his fear, and his sadness any longer. And his body had finally adapted.

“Now I’m a territorial ice breathing dragon,” Clide explained. “For all I know, I might sooner eat Keenin than save him.”

“I see.”

“Either way you better be ready,” Clide said. “When I get my friends back, I expect you to give them everything they need and be grateful that your city was chosen as our temporary home.”

Clide knew that Keenin had intended to make something for himself here so that his parent would be proud.

“Temporary, huh.”

Renaldo reached out to turn the spit holding the chicken. 

“Ever consider–

The idea was distracted from by a fuzzy ball that landed at the edge of the fire and quickly caught ablaze.

“Uh, what the hell is that,” Renaldo said covering his mouth.

All the delicate emotions in the world could not mask the awful stench it gave off. Clide squinted at the charred mass. With his night vision he could just make out the wispy shape of the matted feathers, already consumed, and the stick feet sticking from the charred flesh.

“A bird,” Clide said curiously. “Maybe one of the archers brushed it.”

Renaldo used his boot to nudge the mess further into the fire where it might disintegrate in peace.

“There goes my appetite. I need to check the wall anyways,” Renaldo said standing.

“Good lu—

As a small dark shape moved through the air towards him Clide swatted it with the back of his hand. It landed with a soft thud and he aimed to hit another as they became surrounded in small pecking birds. Clide could smell the rot of their tiny corpses, see the dirty bent feathers keeping them in flight, as he flailed and spun to keep them from clinging to the eye slit of his helmet. Small burning bodies had started to fall and ignite objects they landed on.

Renaldo was nearby, swinging his sword like bat, keeping his eyes nearly closed for protection against pecking beaks and scratching claws as he tried to catch a breath. The spit with the chicken over the fire had already been knocked over, the fire slowly spilling beyond it bounds. Soldiers screamed in pain and frustration, some bundling and hiding themselves with anything or anyone they could grab, some running with flames caught to their clothes yet unable to remove the garments and expose themselves to the flaming birds. They were going to need some serious food salvaging and inventory repairs after this.

The birds were too scattered to freeze without catching others in the ice, but maybe he could distract them. Clide removed his helmet and put it down over Renaldo’s head before he shifted into a full sized, gleaming scaled dragon and roared his frustration. As expected, a larger body meant more attention. With head held high, mouth clamped shut, and eyes closed Clide felt the birds flocking to peck at his hardened scales, providing relief to others.

“To the wall,” he heard Renaldo yell.

That the white knight had enough room to speak meant well. He heard the jangling of boots and armor as the men headed towards the wall, no doubt where the real attack took place. It was strange to simply sit blindly at the center of an attacking flock of birds, while the others left, but it had been a good move. Clide could feel the soft thuds of the birds falling away, their bodies finally too broken to continue and he parted his lips, keeping teeth clenched to exhale a fog of chemical ice around his head that frosted around him. He opened an eye feeling the density of birds greatly decrease. Only a few flapped around uselessly. 

With both eyes open Clide saw that the protective fire outside the barrier had been put out. The undead corpses of humans were pressing against the barrier. Meladona soldiers were attempting to push them away with little luck since the falling corpses remained piled. Magicians of the purple lotus were chanting to hold the barrier as a ring of men with shields protected their positions. The barrier. It was going to break.

Clide rushed forward and unleashed a gush of ice at the attackers, hoping to push them back as much as possible. A strong wind plastered the ice like a second shell over the barrier. Through it he saw the line of catapults, knowing that the defending soldiers would not have let those get here. So how? The first stone slammed into and cracked the thin layer of ice. He saw the barrier shimmer in weakness. He was enraged. He was enraged at the idea of them winning. Before any more damage could be done Clide stepped forward and used one large paw to sweep aside the soldiers and magicians standing at the edge, put his nose to the ground and unleashed a concentrated icy breath that crystalized before the wind could blow it back. Water condensed into a meter-thick wall that straddled the barrier and encased any corpses. He built it up and up as high as he could before the breath ran out and he finally stood panting and staring angrily through the space. Despite some bruised soldiers and surprised magicians, the barrier stood. 

He had promised to stay until the end. Until Dia found him atop a mountain of these corpses or Keenin marched to take his head. He was a dragon and he would be the first remembered in the protection of humans. If he was making a stand, it would be goddamn spectacular. Generations would hear of it. He would make sure the races whispered the rumors and that the frozen wind carried the proud feeling to his people.

More than ever he wanted to stand. 

Chapter 41: Dust Under Boots

The horses walked slowly over the cracked ground. Carts creaked as they followed the line of soldiers towards the battlefront.  A white mist trailed around their legs and obscured Keenin’s vision of what lay ahead, only affording him a view of Harris’s broad back as his friend easily led his horse ahead, a mace strapped to his belt. Keenin had pondered over the more brutal weapon as he and Aron had kept to swords.

He could not see Aron who rode ahead of the blacksmith. Keenin’s proud and privileged friend had become more silent, almost in the way that Faber had, but at Rumin’s orders he had worked the magic that surrounded them in a damp fog; perhaps reflecting the state of his friend’s mind. 

Rumin had said that the ice dragon was targeting the creation of zombies so now they were forced to cart more in and make slow progress forward. The fog may not have deterred a dragon, but somehow their leader understood that Clide was not just that. Clide was a creature of strong morals that would wait to see what was in the crouching mist that lay at his feet, and Keenin knew he would be searching for a friend, for him. There had been days where he had looked up to the birds, wondering if Clide would be up there, but maybe the dragon didn’t want him. 

While pressing forward across the land whispers of anticipation for the battle, talk of drawing the blood of enemies and achieving their goal went around, dampened only by the passing of protective talismans and mutterings of the danger of stray ghosts. Keenin felt much like a specter himself, moving beyond a sense of time in a place that he no longer knew. He passed much of the time watching the ground for dry shrubs and the occasional lost belonging, such as an empty sack, a bit of jewelry, sometimes brittle flesh and bone. 

He wondered if the dragon was holding back from hurting living people, but what did he really know. Keenin no longer deserved an easy way out. 

“A few more days,” Aron mumbled to himself from up ahead.

Keenin was relieved that Aron still spoke his mind, if only in cryptic messages to himself. It would have been nice in Keenin’s short, unlucky life to see the unfortunate people around him find a happy place. It wasn’t fair looking up to people who had so much more and were miserable. It was like an insult. It was like stating to the life givers ‘what was the point’, but damn did he ever want to see those people happy. That alone would have been something. 

Aware that he was shut inside his own thoughts again, Keenin lifted his head. The mist brushing up against them was forming itself into eerie shapes that likely came from the designer’s thoughts. It was surprising that one of the horses had not turned an ankle or been spooked. Perhaps he should say something to Aron after all. The only small problem was that he didn’t know how to turn his horse around. He had never learned to ride and had just managed to stay seated this long.

“Harris,” Keenin quietly called the boy ahead of him.

Harris looked back at him, but with a steady gaze that didn’t see the turning emotions of the soldiers around them.

“Sorry,” Keenin found himself saying.

Harris’s silence seemed acceptance enough, but it didn’t ease Keenin’s feelings of guilt. The more that Keenin chose this, the more he left the two of them behind. The life he had was being whittled down, but maybe he could still get to her, to Dia. He fixed her image in his mind: the loose curl of her blond hair, the mossy green of her eyes, the cool paleness of her skin, and the tilted smile. Then he went further to think about the ghostly older girl he had glimpsed of her and how she was now in the shape of her sister. He had sensed her unease with him and treasured the moments when she had forgotten herself, and not treated herself as borrowed. Dia was much more than that.

He was so lost in thought again that Keenin didn’t hear the soft growl to his left. Harris shouted as a gryphon broke through the line of riders, sinking its claws into the horse of the rider beside Keenin. His own horse screamed in terror. It took a minute to realize that it must have been a stray beast before his horse bolted out of the line. Keenin terrifyingly threw his hands around the horse’s neck before he could be thrown off and the scared animal continued through the fog in a direction he didn’t know. They quickly broke out of the mist onto a flat plane of cracked earth, but Keenin didn’t raise his head to see the direction. It was a most unexpected way of deserting.

“Keenin!” he heard Aron call his name.

It was exactly the sound as when the zombie was going to chop off his head.

“Keenin, grab the reigns! You idiot!”

He heard a second set of thundering hooves behind him and remembered how angry Aron had been the last time. He slowly relaxed the grip of his right arm and reached into the seemingly empty air ahead to feel for the leather strap. He felt it brush past his fingertips and managed to grab hold before a sudden turn from his horse caused him to lose all grip. Keenin flew off the horse’s back, thrown into empty air, the strap of the reigns painfully ripped from his hand, and he landed and rolled over the dusty ground. 

When his world again became still and the distinct pain of his bruised shoulder and rope-burned hand pestered his senses, Keenin raised his head. He had never felt so dirt covered in his life and he tried not to think about the sandy crunch of it in his mouth. The sun was rather blinding after all their time in the fog. Across the field Keenin saw a line of beige tents flying black banners with the army’s heart and bird symbol. Far off near the horizon flashed the glint of gold banners. The sight of them sent his heart beating in nervous anticipation. He felt the power of being able to cut his own path, each enemy a mere physical obstacle in his way to something much greater.

“It’s so close,” Keenin breathed.

He sat back on his knees just to watch the free movement of the clouds across the sky that connected everything he knew. Aron’s horse had come to stand quietly beside him, with the rider himself looking down. The scratch over Aron’s eye was lightly scabbed over, standing out like a red mark as distinct as the painted heartless crow of his army.

“I want to be there Aron,” he explained. “I want to stand at the top of the world and hold onto it. You won’t regret this.”

Keenin would have anything taken away anymore. He could protect the people he cared for.

“Keenin,” Aron spoke his name quietly.

Aron seemed like he might speak of something important and yet his friend seemed to think better of what he was going to say.

“Let me help you up,” Aron told him. “Until you learn to hold onto your horse, you’ll have to ride with me.”

Keenin smiled.

“Whatever you say leader,” Keenin responded, and stood to brush the dust from his leather pants. “Just know that I’m not going to be any more coordinated in my armor.”

Aron held out a hand and Keenin tightly gripped his friend’s arm. 

“We will talk about that.”

Keenin was ready for Aron to pull him up when he heard a crunch in the dirt behind him. His eyes fixated on the scabbard at Aron’s belt. Not wanting to be wrong Keenin drew the sword with his left hand, and while his right hand was still held by Aron he turned and held the blade high. An opposing blade crashed against it and send a vibration though his unsteady left arm. He felt how lucky his was that this foe had not made a straight jab and that he had let caution win.

Even now Keenin couldn’t see anyone standing there. Before he could think of a next move Aron had in turn drew the sword at Keenin’s side and thrust it straight into the air. There was a grunt, blood bloomed around the edges of the blade where it had stuck into flesh, the man materialized before he fell dead in front of Keenin. They both stared. He wore armor with the crest of the sun. Keenin knew that he should not have felt betrayed and yet he had kept to the sliver of hope that someone on the other side would know them as the kidnapped children and care.

“Hey!” Harris called out.

Keenin turned his head to locate the cloud of fog and saw Harris leading his horse over. He noticed blood dripping from the end of the mace and remembered how he had come to be left out in the dirt. The gryphon must have been dead then.

“What are you talking about? We’re getting behind,” he called out to them.

Harris got closer and saw the body. 

 “What happened to him?”

Keenin remember the blade he held and sheathed it back at Aron’s side. Aron pulled out a cloth to wipe the blood from Keenin’s blade, respectfully not mentioning that Keenin forgot to do the same.

“Do you have to ask?” Keenin said.

“Making amends then,” Harris said.

Aron handed the clean blade to Keenin who sheathed it.

“Thanks. Aron can we go up the line? I want to talk to Rumin.”

“We should go together,” Harris suggested.

Keenin was finally lifted to the back of Aron’s horse and he led them back to the patch of fog and up the line to find Rumin. They found the weapons trainer riding behind the row of carts.

“You do know that you were given your line position for defensive reasons,” he said absently as they rode up.

“Are you aware that a gryphon nearly ate us?” Keenin questioned him.

“Keenin, I’m not sure that’s fair,” Harris told him.

“Well, I am aware that some of the riderless gryphons have gone feral, but we don’t have time to waste on simple casualties. It’s not like I asked danger to approach you.”

“What about invisible killers?”

“They’ve been sending assassins for months. Their little magic order spells them invisible and sends them out with no hope of return. Not the sort of people I would want to work with.”

“Then they are making desperate attempts,” Aron said. “Meladona might lose.”

“That is the intention,” Rumin said. “Don’t think that you magic users were the only thing keeping this fight together. Think of this as practical experience.”

“Anything else that you forgot to mention.”

“There is an ice dragon freezing my men. Keenin I realize that you feel slightly cheated, that maybe you didn’t have time to prepare for fighting in a war, but Iscara knows that too. You will have defensive positions until you learn more. Any other problems?”

Chapter 40: One Ghost Too Many

“Hurry up!” Tess urged.

Her blue form flickered between the trees ahead as a guiding light as Dia ran blindly in the dark forest. Dia hugged her travel pack and the staff against her chest, hoping that she wouldn’t trip as branches brushed her face and leaves crumpled in the wake of her steps. She could hear the labored breaths and unsteady steps of the young soldier trying to pursue them through the maze of trees and did her best to ignore the faint glow of other spirits that wandered the woods around them.

“This is your fault,” Dia panted, “You shouldn’t have shown yourself.”

The nice soldier had been willing to share his fire until Tess showed up.

“Can’t a ghost play a friendly prank anymore?” Tess complained.

“Not,” Dia gasped, “In the middle of an undead war.”

She raised her pack over her face as she uncomfortably passed through a wayward spirit in her path. Dew sprinkled her face from the trees above. They had found a path down the canyon and were now traversing the last forested bit of land before the field opened up into the battlegrounds.

“Gods slow down,” she called to Tess.

She lowered the pack to glimpse her guide, but the forest was pitch dark. Dia was hit by the intense feeling of being the only person left and she slowed to turn in all directions, every way a dark dead end. And the longer she waited in silence the more she thought that she heard the slow crunching of a predatory animal.

“Tess,” she whisper called.

Then Dia again heard the pursuer’s steps and continued running in an unknown direction through the trees. The crunching sound seemed to get louder.

“Tess!” Dia called for help.

Then she saw a hopeful thin blue line between the trees. Dia was almost at the light when her foot snagged a root and she pitched forward. The staff and travel pack hit the ground in front of her as she caught herself on her elbows, managing not to crush the contents. Water from the damp ground soaked through the thin fabric of her dress that must have looked like rags and she felt the sting of scrapped elbows. 

But she had found Tess. Dia had fallen to the edge of a clearing and Tess had manifested in a motionless state not far off along the side. Now they both had their attention on the black mess that lay in the middle of the space. From the mass came a loud snap like a large tree branch breaking and Dia knew that this was the origin of the sound of predator eating prey.

“What is it?” Tess wondered aloud.

A wright, Dia thought horrified; an all-consuming spirit. There was no more time for thinking when the soldier chasing her burst through the trees beside her and into the open space, unaware that Dia had fallen out of sight. He skidded to a horrified stop in front of the withering shape. If the thing didn’t move right away, Dia knew it was only by choice as it was occupied in a current meal. But slowly, the formless shape pulled itself together enough to have a ridged spine-exposed back, slender toothpick arms ending in three fingered hands, and a skull-like head with empty eye sockets and a gaping toothy mouth. It was the only semblance of humanity that it knew. Its chin dripped with the blood of a corpse that it had been sitting atop and feasting on.

Dia knew that there was not enough salt in her bag to fend off such a monster, and as she felt a twig caught uncomfortably under her left hand she gave silent thanks for the soldier’s distraction. Before the soldier made an ear-piercing scream, Dia used the twig to painfully carve a bloody symbol into her left palm. Then she clutched the staff and travel pack in one hand and darted towards Tess to grab her wrist and drag her along. 

The only thing that prevented Tess from tripping up was that as a ghost her legs and body phased through the foliage so that she seemed like a memory of someone running through open ground that the forest had grown over and obscured pieces of. 

Dia’s didn’t know what she was aiming for. They only needed to get far enough away so that wright would forget them. Heck, it would have caught them already if it hadn’t been so stuffed. She didn’t stop even when her hand began to itch where the wound was scabbing over, not until the spell lost its hold and her hand slipped from Tess so that she caught herself against the nearest tree to stop from falling. Dia coughed from the impact and drew in a proper breath. 

“You were worried about me,” Tess said amazed.

The comment brought Dia back to her regular irritated frame of mind.

“Oh, shut up,” Dia told her angrily.

The stupid ghost would have got herself killed. Dia hadn’t realized how being alone would affect her. She had assumed that with her past she would be able to handle it, but she couldn’t take it anymore. Now this stupid ghost that she had wanted gone was all she had. Irritated, Dia opened her pack to check that nothing was broken from her earlier fall.

“I-I’m not apologizing,” Tess said standing behind her.

Dia pushed back her tangled hair away from her face and glanced at Tess.

“You mean thanking, being grateful,” Dia suggested. “I hope you had a good look at that thing.”

Wrights and other corrupt spirits were usually rare, but this spiritual war was clearly starting to take a turn for the worse. Other spirits would become like that once they got sick of their half existence. Spirits like Tess.

“Uh, I’m nothing like that,” Tess said trying to brush nonexistent dirt from her gown.

Even an unknowing spirit could tell that the creature had been a ghost like them once, now a cannibal that tried to be more solid and real. Dia didn’t respond to this, choosing instead to sit down on a nearby rock to account for everything in the pack. Ghost Tess’s prolonged silence was a sign that she understood her guilty part in the process.

Dia carefully removed the salt bag to check for tears or water damage while Tess watched curiously. Satisfied Dia placed it back in the travel pack that she put on the ground, then used her left hand to adjust her crooked shoe. When Dia felt a tingle on the right hand that rested against the rock she glanced up to see that Tess had curiously tried to place her hand over top, only to have the usual fade-though reaction.

Dia gave the girl a sympathetic look and turned her palm over to show the remaining scabbed outline of the symbol. 

“Don’t think about being any more than dust Tess. It was a grounding spell used to hold spirits long enough to save a person near death.”

“Humph,” Tess said removing her hand. “Scratching yourself up was stupid. I wasn’t going to go near that monster.”

Maybe or maybe not. It was hard not to yearn for life and be awed by those who seemed to have pulled themselves together, so to speak. Dia pondered if the cut would leave a scar once it healed, though she would go back to being the same flawless girl if she died.

“The professionals bring paper charms,” Dia explained. “They used to paste them on trees along the road where I lived. Not this symbol of course. But once there was a traveling healer on his way to learn from the white knights in the city who stopped in the village where I used to live. We all went to watch him.”

That had been an advantage of living along the route to a major city.

“We only ever had Alaban,” Tess said for herself.

That was the second time the connection had come up. Dia had not realized that Keenin and her had both cared for their village potion maker.

“I heard about him,” she said.

The conversation seemed to have reached an end. Dia had a look down at the torn skirt of her dress. She had hoped to make it further before looking like a haunted spirit herself. She pulled spare clothes from the bag and unashamedly began to change in front of Tess.

“We’ll camp here,” Dia announced. 

“Near that creepy spirit.”

“Wraith,” Dia corrected. “Ya. I’ll spread salt and draw some symbols around. You’ll just have to deal with not roaming outside. It’s probably best that you don’t socialize with the spirits here anyways.”

“I thought that you wanted to get to Keenen.”

“He’ll still be there. That guy made it half way to the golden city before I even found him and I need to sleep.”

She tossed her destroyed dress into the trees.

“When we catch up to Keenin I promise that you can have him first for all the damn trouble.”

Tess watched as Dia used sticks to create rough circle that the salt could, well, stick to without dissolving. The truth was that Tess wasn’t sure if she still cared about Keenin in the same way. Before now Tess might have risked going to the Red Heart Army by herself believing that she was the only one who could help Keenin, the only person to know the entire story, but now she sort of pitied him. Tess might eventually be sent away by an exorcist or changed into a different sort of thing like that creepy wraith, but it didn’t mean as much when you were dead and forgotten. Keenin lost a part of his life every day.

As Tess watched Dia finish her symbol drawing and pat down a patch of leaves as a spot to sleep Tess thought to warn her.

“He’s not the same you know, Tess mentioned as Dia lay curled with the pack under her head. “He isn’t a hero. If he had died he could have been the same.”

“If he died then he would be dead,” Dia said absently.

She seemed too close to sleep to listen.

“I hope that you don’t blame him,” Tess said quietly.

“What?” Dia turned and asked.

“We’ll be there tomorrow so quit looking so heartsick,” Tess said instead.

Dia rolled back over and secured her pack pillow.

“Whatever,” Dia mumbled, “I am not the one whose heartsick.”

At least, Dia wasn’t sure. Keenin had made her happy and let her accept parts of herself that she had thought of as horrible. At the very least she didn’t want to lose sight of him. Dia wanted him to grow up even more in a place that was peaceful.

She had already decided that she wouldn’t regret any more life choices. For everything that time took, there were replacements; friends, home, favorite clothes, true loves, but not choices.

Chapter 39: The Price of Magic

The dream came of a scorched and empty battleground. He was leading a horse by the reigns as his armored boots crunched over the rocky ground. This in itself was odd since Keenin had never touched a horse except for those stabled at the Inn in his hometown of Stonefield. But as he curiously followed the trail of the dream a castle formed itself on the wasteland, a marble entrance arching wide. Keenin saw a lush garden reflective of the one in Rumin’s drawing and it seemed that whatever was wrong had started there. He could feel the presence of Calendor with him and he wanted…

Keenin,” a far-off voice seemed to call to him.

He saw the statue of Septose in the courtyard with her large marble hands cupped around a lily and thought that she spoke, but then he noticed the sandy-haired boy sitting at the base of the statue, head bowed as birds flew to eat the seed from his hand.

“Keenin. I know what will make you happy,” the voice sounded louder in his head.

Keenin startled awake at the violent shake of his shoulder. His eyes stared wide at the bare wall across the room as he wanted to pull back the vision, but Aron’s voice broke though the last of his will.

“Keenin are you alright?” Aron asked from behind him.

It was that boy’s hand that had been on his shoulder. Keenin rolled over.

“What?” he asked Aron.

“We were practically frozen yesterday. Are you feeling sick at all?”

There was worry in the boy’s eyes, but Keenin could not tell him the truth. That no, he had not been frozen. Keenin had fallen asleep in his clothes with the covers half pulled up, exhausted from a long night, only disturbed by the thudding sound of soldiers’ boots against the floorboards as his friends were brought in.

“I slept in. Are you…”

“We’re fine. Slight headache,” Harris brushed off the comment. 

Something jumped off the bed and Keenin saw an ice cat land against the floorboards and look curiously back at him.

“We were worried about that thing,” Harris explained. “Thought it might have hurt you.”

The cat stretched up and clawed the side of his bed, its icy eyes seeming to plead for attention. He put away the urge to scratch the cat’s head.

“It must be from Jenna,” Keenin explained. He pushed off the covers on his bed. “Let’s go.”

“Go?” Aron questioned.

“She, Jenna said that she wanted to teach us magic.”

“What about getting changed?” Aron suggested.

That did sound like a good idea. Keenin couldn’t believe that he was getting used to wearing clean clothes. He pulled off the shirt that he had been wearing the night before, jumped out of bed to dig in his trunk, and pulled out his old black turtleneck to put on. When he looked back to Aron the boy was looking at him funny.

“Isn’t that the shirt that you wore when you got here?” Aron questioned.

“Ya,” Keenin confirmed, not seeing where this went.

“So didn’t you want to keep it separate.”

“From what?”

“From this place,” Aron suggested. “Like a reminder of going back.”

It was an interesting idea. Keenin guessed he had felt like wearing it because getting magic back his was a big thing. But he knew that Aron had trouble being in the camp and didn’t want to worry him.

“I have you for that,” Keenin said.

The oddly heartfelt statement seemed to put the matter to rest.

“Where did you say we should go?” the ever-practical Harris asked.

*

Jenna was eating at a table by herself in the food tent wearing a knee-length olive tunic over thick grey tights. She foggily bit into her food, swallowed, and yawned; covering her mouth lopsidedly with a hand as Keenin took a seat opposite of her instead of joining his friends for food. The cat that was not a cat jumped up on the bench beside him. 

“How do you make the ice cat so lifelike?” Keenin asked.

He could make shapes with fire too, but couldn’t give it real personality unless he consciously moved it.

“I don’t,” Jenna said. “Sculptures are my hobby. My spirit likes to jump into them sometimes.”

“I didn’t know they did that.”

“No. Not usually.”

When Keenin glanced over the cat was still watching him.

“Your cat doesn’t seem so happy with you.” Keenin said. “Maybe you aren’t having enough fun.”

He had been told that spirits could leave as easy as they came.

“I’ll have plenty of fun making you understand.” 

She reached over the table to scratch the cat under the chin and it disintegrated into a pile of shaved ice, the spirit seeming to return to her. Aron and Harris joined them with their plates of food.

“You three may as well eat,” she told them.

“You won’t freeze us then?” Aron asked carefully.

“Not yet. Last night I was cranky. You broke into my house.”

“Makes sense,” Harris said. 

An armored man approached their table.

“Lady Jenna,” he addressed her, seeming to indicate something unsaid.

She handed the man her plate off the table and when he took it she stood to leave. 

“What about that magic?” Keenin asked her.

“Meet me back at the training house in half an hour.”

*

Keenin was surprised that the training house was still standing. Debris had been piled to the side. The whole front wall had been smashed in. Even now the gaping hole was covered lazily by a tarp which they ducked under to enter the half-lit space. Inside the bench was pulled out from against the wall and Faber was sitting on it with his hands tied behind his back. He glanced over, but didn’t say a word, choosing to look back at his feet. 

“Well this is awkward,” Aron commented.

Seeing Faber made the situation feel less special. Ever since the boy had told him to die Keenin had not felt the same around him.

“After you two.” 

Keenin wasn’t going to deal with this today.

“What did he do something?” Aron half joked.

“Ruined my mood,” Keenin said.

Couldn’t he try to enjoy his time in war camp Keenin thought. 

Everything else in the room was still in place, the whole armor on stands and weapons on the rack routine. You would think that magic class might be a bit more interesting. 

“Wasn’t she supposed to show up before us?” Aron observed.

“Probably picking out her best outfit,” Harris suggested.

“Is anyone imagining that,” Aron said. “How they will test our magic.”

Keenin had regrettably imagined Jenna’s bare olive skin as she sat naked on the bed in her room while picking out clothes, not that he had ever seen her room. It was a sexy thought that Keenin was blameless for, but not one of his better moments.

“Calm down,” Harris told his friends. 

The tarp lifted and Jenna entered the space. In one hand she held a glass orb on a cloth, perhaps so that she did not touch it herself. Her clothes were different from what she had worn that morning, now a teal pair of pants and a white shirt with frills on the cuff. She gave them a long silent look as though she had not expected them to show up. Then she glanced to the boy sitting on the bench.

“Faber,” she emphasized. “I’m so glad that you could join us.”

Faber had turned his gaze towards the wall to show as much indifference as possible.

“Why don’t you boys follow his example,” Jenna suggested.

She sounded genuinely happy. Aron assessed the bench situation and moved to sit next to Faber, Harris followed, leaving Keenin at the other end of the bench. It all felt very childish as they waited for what Jenna would say next. 

Jenna held out the glass orb that they had all seen the night before. 

“This,” she explained, “Will show the nature and strength of your power. Before you think of using this as your chance to rebel, you should be honored to know that you are the only ones in the last year to make it this far.”

Keenin had already started to suspect that. He could not help thinking that getting this far was due to his connections to a predetermined fate. Whether this made the boys sitting with him lucky, he didn’t know. There must have been other magic users recruited before them, perhaps Jenna among them, but he supposed that most had died in the battle.

“Do any of you have anything to say before we start?”

None of them did, but thinking about dying in battle Keenin decided that he would try not to show too much of his magic. He didn’t want to be made responsible for so many deaths. Ironic, he knew.

“I’ll go first,” Aron announced.

Aron had always been the one to want out as soon as possible. He held out his hands as Jenna approached with the orb. Before she handed it over she grabbed his wrist and he flinched at the touch of her cold hand, his eyes widening with the fear that she would hurt him, but she released her grip and the bracelet sealing his magic fell broken into shards on the ground. Then she placed the orb in his hands. Aron breathed in deeply. Jenna took a step back as mist started to pool at Aron’s feet and began to circle, turning slowly until it solidified into the form of a snaky ridge-backed dragon which lashed out as though to bite her, only to dissipate on contact. Jenna didn’t even flinch.

It was hard to know if Aron had done it on purpose. Keenin was sure that she would accuse him of threatening her; had that not been the form of hostile anger.

“Pass it on,” Jenna said simply.

Harris accepted the weight of the glass orb before Jenna could take away his cuff.

“I like the weight of this, but am I supposed to feel something,” he asked.

She tilted her head and shrugged.

“Why don’t you take the cuff off yourself,” she suggested as though any of them could.

Harris balanced the orb in his hand with the cuff and used the other to grab hold of the metal circling his wrist. A disorienting low hum vibrated in Keenin’s eardrums and died as though someone had turned the sound down. Harris gave the cuff a light tug and it snapped on the opposite end as though it had been meant to open that way the entire time. He dropped it on the floor. Nothing else obvious happened.

“Well,” Jenna said. “What magic is it?”

“Metal working,” he said. “That’s always been my talent. Didn’t you know when you asked me to remove my own cuff?”

“Rumin had an idea about that. You should ask him more about it.”

Keenin realized that it would be his turn and he stood up from the bench to prepare himself. He remembered the performance he had put on at the Inn back in Midden and pictured a small delicate winged fairy fluttering over his shoulder when he accepted the orb. The fairy materialized in place, its crisp outline fanning overhead as it hovered. His bracelet wasn’t even off and he nervously wondered if they noticed.

“Hey, that’s cool,” Aron expressed.

“I know,” Keenin said slightly strained as he tried not to think of the real shape of the fire spirit.

Being asked to burn people was not his idea of cool.

“You would make a good match with our wind mage Judial,” Jenna commented.

Of course he would. It would be bonfires every night Keenin thought.

“You said you didn’t know your magic,” Harris pointed out Keenin’s previous omission.

Keenin felt like smacking him. Wasn’t anyone going to take the orb away from him. Was the fairy too mesmerizing or something.

“Elementals are the most obvious and dangerous. It’s good that you have a start on control,” Jenna said as though to defend him.

“Thanks,” Keenin managed.

“Pass it to Faber,” she told him.

Keenin glanced over to the boy who still had his hands tied.

“Aren’t you going to untie him?”

“Put it on his lap,” she specified.

Keenin slowly approached, feeling somehow guilty despite the other boy’s coldness towards him. Faber was looking directly into his eyes now as if he knew what Keenin thought. Still Faber didn’t say a say a word and Keenin had to do what he was told so he carefully placed the orb on Faber’s lap. Then Keenin took two big steps backwards in case something crazy happened, but nothing happened. Faber continued to sit as he was.

“Did you lose it?” Jenna questioned quietly. “Your magic.”

Aron raised interested eyes to Jenna, who didn’t notice. Harris seemed to accept the statement. It occurred to Keenin that the entire time on the bench Faber had not been wearing a bracelet, a fact hidden by the way his hands were tied. In his silent realization Keenin imagined Faber wrapped in his green cloak, leaning against a rough wooden fence around a large grassy field as sheep grazed; clouds drifted; and wind carried the answer too far away.

I told it to go away. Time slowed as Keenin thought about it: What was said. What led to Faber being another corpse.

“I told it to go away,” Faber spoke outright.

His friend did not see it coming. Those were possibly the only words that Keenin’s friends heard the boy speak before a spike of ice was embedded in the boy’s heart, the proud smile still on his face when his body fell forward to land on the dirt floor, all with merely a trickle of blood. Faber’s tied hands and lack of bracelet were undeniably visible.

Of course, nobody except Keenin saw it quite that way. Keenin was in a calm state of shock as Aron yelled and nearly pushed Harris off the end of the bench. It was the ever-relaxed Harris, who wasn’t bothered unless Aron was threatened, that looked towards the silent blaze behind Keenin. 

“Holy shit,” Aron said, seeing it too.

Keenin kept his eyes on Faber, but he could see Calendor in his mind’s eye hovering behind him like a sentry and he guessed that the fire figure must have actually been there; a response to a wordless need to see everything put back. The bracelet still hung on Keenin’s wrist. Perhaps, the thing that had been sealed was not the fire, but his own spirit; a simple dream for them to be happy, not like this. 

Keenin lifted a hand to dispose of the body, only to have that hand encased in ice. The ice … didn’t quite hurt, but it reminded him of where he was.

“That’s not your property,” Jenna told him sternly. “Don’t touch the corpses.”

Keenin glanced over. Her stern looked broke away to warily watch the silent fire spirit.

She was actually afraid of him. Keenin made a choice and tightened his grip on his ambition, bringing it close to sit smoldering in his heart. Calendor sputtered and poofed out of existence.

“Perhaps, I should be excused,” Keenin said for himself.

Without waiting for her permission Keenin ducked out into the open air and morning light. He continued walking though the camp until he stood at a tent more familiar than the others, the tent of the soldier that was teaching him how to fight. The man was outside refreshing the paint of the army’s symbol, a red bird with a hollow heart, on the back of his leather jerkin. Keenin had seen the symbol all over the camp, but he had never thought to ask.

“What does that mean?” 

The older man looked up from his work. He looked more tired than usual. Keenin found it a bit odd that the man had not noticed him sooner, being the skilled fighter that he was, but perhaps Keenin was no threat to him. The man inspected his work and smoothed a hand over the dry paint.

“I’m not sure that it has one meaning,” the man said. “But I always thought of it as a sort of burden.”

Keenin had made interpretations himself, but the idea of burden had not come to his mind. He had thought more of love for the leader, respect for the goddess of love, attachment to death as the bird may have been a crow, or no love for the enemy.

“How is it a burden?” Keenin asked.

Maybe it was an inappropriate question coming from him as an outsider, but the man simply looked sad as he told the story in a way that reminded Keenin of Alaban.

“Our people are connected by a love for our family and we share the burden of carrying the others into better times,” the man explained. “But let’s not talk about it anymore. I have something else for you.”

The man invited Keenin inside his small tent where pieces of armor had been laid out on a carpet inside. It appeared to be a lighter set designed only to cover the most vulnerable areas. Instead of a full breastplate there was a chainmail shirt with metal plating over the shoulders, curved around the sides of the ribs, attached around the neck and a short breastplate over his heart that left his stomach, back, and arms bare except for the chainmail and padding underneath. For his legs there were metal plates to strap over the front of his existing pants. 

“I want you to try this on.”

It seemed only yesterday that Keenin had been wondering when he would get proper armor and now here it was. The process of getting it on was a little finicky. He had to be careful pulling the chainmail on so that the loose plates didn’t catch or cut him and he had to be able to properly tighten all the straps. At the end of it he was handed a rounded helmet designed with a long slit across the visor for him to see and a crinkled face protector with holes for breathing that was welded in place. 

It looked uncomfortable and Keenin didn’t put it on. He simply imagined this would be like having a new face.

“Looks like you’re ready,” his teacher said.

“I don’t quite…feel that way.”

All of the magic and shiny armor was great until you had to put it to use. Keenin had not imagined being a war hero. He was supposed to die at the hands of an innocent for trying to steal a part of their life or on a cold night after a day of selling herbs to ease the pain of others. His teacher looked at him with sympathy.

“We never do feel ready,” he admitted. “Let me help you take it off.”

Keenin’s burden was removed piece by piece and his teacher explained how to properly care for and pack the metal to prevent rust. In the end he placed everything into a tidy travel pack and handed it over. 

“Do you think,” Keenin said accepting the pack. “That you might help my friends get their armor too.”  

He didn’t want to see his friends die. He had not even wanted them to be friends.

“Your friends already know how it works. I was asked to show you.”

His teacher nonchalantly picked up a larger travel pack with a sleeping roll from against the side of the tent. Keenin realized that the tent was cleared out. The carpet and the armor had been the only things inside.

“Where are you going?” Keenin asked the guard who trained him.

“The second line. They need someone with wits to work the catapult. Damn ice dragon is cutting through our forces.”

“Oh,” Keenin said. 

“I’m sure you’ll do great. I’ll keep an eye out for you on the field.”

The man held the tent flap open. Keenin took the cue and went out while the man laced up the entrance to keep the place clean. He felt that he ought to say something as he stared at the freshly painted symbol on the man’s back.

“You…,” Keenin tried to think of the words as the man finished with the tent and turned to leave. “You stay safe too.”

As he watched the man leave he felt disappointed. 

“Keenin!”

Harris was calling his name as he ran closer.

“Keenin.” When Harris reached him he grabbed Keenin’s shoulders. “Where is Aron?”

The boy breathed with effort and his eyes were wide with fear. Keenin didn’t know where Aron was and his silence seemed to be answer enough.

“You need to help me find him,” Harris begged. “I think he’s trying to leave. I already looked around the edges of camp and the food tent and the commander’s office.”

A cold sweat broke out over Keenin’s skin. To leave meant death. 

Without a word he started running back through the camp, his new pack bumping against his back, helmet still clamped in his hands so that Harris was forced to follow after. If Aron was not in the place that Keenin believed then they might not catch him, but Aron was intelligent, battle ready, and used to getting things handed to him.

“He has to be there,” Keenin yelled back to Harris.

“Where!?” Harris questioned as he followed. 

“The stables!”

Nobody would think twice about Aron riding a horse around camp. It would be some time before they realized he was not coming back. Keenin knocked open the front door of the stables nearest their lodging in time to see Aron in one of the stalls fussing with riding gear.

“Can’t anyone get some proper horse tack around here,” he swore to himself.

Relief flooded though Keenin. They were lucky that Aron was a strategist and had taken time to not only pick out a preferred horse, judging by the fact Aron had not taken the largest animal or the one closest to the exit. He had also put together a saddlebag of supplies.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said looking to them.

“Aron, you said we were leaving together,” Harris reminded him. “Let’s talk about this.”

Keenin shifted the helmet he carried under his arm and stood straighter.

“Where are you going?” Keenin accused.

There were no safe routes out of the valley. 

“I don’t know Keenin. Where are we going? To battle or war, to find justice, or to get peace for my house. I just can’t stay here while you fail to decide. I’m stepping up to be a leader Keenin.”

“There is nothing to decide,” Keenin argued.

Aron unsheathed his sword and pointed it towards Keenin.

“Life or death Keenin. It’s always a choice, but answer me this. Why didn’t you kill Jenna? Why didn’t you burn her Keenin?”

“Because…” 

The question had nagged him too. He had done it before when his innocent guide had been taken hostage. The bandit had held her at knife point, so close. Her blood had spilled like warm butter and he had focused everything on her loss. He had hated those bandits, but the people in this camp didn’t make him angry. He felt pity.

“I don’t want to choose this side,” Aron answered for him.

He pointed the sword back towards his own heart. Keenin could understand. Aron had weighed his options and decided that if he could not take revenge then he would not let them use him. He was too honorable to join a cause that had forced him there and that he didn’t believe in. 

“Aron there is nothing wrong with living like this,” Harris called to him.

“My family is gone,” he said.

“Maybe,” Keenin said. “Maybe we can be family.”

Tears of frustration stained Aron’s cheeks. Keenin tossed his helmet to the side as a show of trust and took a tentative step forward to take the sword away before the boy did anything he would regret. Aron forgot about hurting himself and flashed his sword, swinging it twice though the empty air. But Harris rushed forward expectantly and grabbed Aron’s sword arm. As the two remained locked in place Aron glared. Seeing that he might need to fight Keenin slid his pack down to the ground so that he could move more feely.

“Why don’t you just come with us,” Keenin suggested.

Anger flashed across Aron’s face. Aron ripped his hand free of Harris’s grip and slammed the hilt into the side of Harris’s head so that he fell unconscious onto the hay. Aron was breathing hard, but the sword was held loose at his side again.

“I can’t let you fight for these people,” Aron told him. “It’s dishonest, and immoral. Maybe. Maybe if I can just kill all of us, we don’t have to disappoint the people we care about.”

That sure was a lot that Aron had decided on his own, but Keenin didn’t get to make his argument. The door to the stables creaked as it was pushed and knocked against the wall. Rumin stood there unsmiling, a thin sword held lazily in his right hand.

“Did I miss something?” Rumin asked.

The red headed boy glared across the space at their sword teacher. Rumin adjusted the grip of the thin sword in his hand. Aron tightened his grip and raised his blade an inch from the ground, not quite a fighting stance. Wait, Keenin thought. Wait.

He could almost see the ark of Rumin’s blade before it lifted, see the muscles in Aron’s arm stiffen as he twisted his defensive angle. He heard the horridly loud clash of metal. Rumin might have turned away his well-met blade, but when Keenin saw the man kick Aron, causing his friend to lose his footing, Keenin gripped the sword at his own side. Rumin’s sword came up again.

Wait.

Keenin didn’t know he had spoken aloud until they both looked his way.

“Idiot,” Aron told him.

Rumin’s sword came down over Aron’s head as though he had not heard Keenin’s protest. Keenin thrust out his hand as a weaponless child might. The cuff on his wrist was all too visible. His thoughts were filling with ways to stop the course of events. The tip of the blade cut a red slash down over Aron’s left eye and landed in the hay scattered at the boys’ feet. Blood ran down Aron’s cheek like mock tears. His eyes blinked in surprise, not expecting to have been spared. Aron’s left hand slowly came up to cover the wound. His right hand rose to feel the unscathed crown of his head. Rumin had turned his sword arm to inspect the bubbled skin on the back of his hand.

“Keenin,” his friend said in shock. “You did it. You fought back.”

No flame had burst forth. No scream had been heard. But he had perceived the thick heat of the air that had blunted the blow and scalded Rumin. A normal soldier would not have still held a blade as Rumin did with a nerve exposing burn. Rumin pulled a white and yellow patched cloth that looked to be a flag from his pocket and wrapped it around his injured hand that continued to grip his sword. Aron swayed and Keenin rushed forward to catch the boy as he fainted.

“I guess that I should be lucky that Jenna will only scold me,” Rumin said. “But enemies don’t stop.”

Keenin checked the cut on Aron’s face. It was a surface scratch and the result of his fainting from the stress of almost losing an eye. Keenin had felt the dense air surrounding Aron connect with the blade and the release of pressure as Rumin removed the weight behind his blow and stepped back to let the point slide down the barrier of air in a shallow cut before the hot air burst outwards to burn his hand. Had Rumin held his downward force Keenin would have had to physically knock Rumin down before the blade sliced though the thickened air and Aron’s skull. Rumin had given them another chance.

“We’re not enemies…yet,” Keenin responded.

He still had a great deal of respect for the man. He had never lied about expectations or consequences. Rumin left the point of his sword buried in the hay as he considered. Then Rumin looked right into Keenin’s staring eyes and asked a question.

“What do you want out of this war?” Rumin asked. “I want you to think, imagine imagine that you reach the very end the very end of all the fighting. And I want. And I want to know what you see.”

The words were spoken in an odd way that lulled him into a dreamlike state of mind. Keenin wasn’t able to question why the words fascinated him so, all he could do was envision an answer. There was something. 

In his mind he saw…Dia. And then he forgot about the stables, and the conflict, and he really did see her. She was sitting on the edge of a fountain decorated with golden mermaids, but her attention was towards a pair of crows jostling on a rooftop like old friends. She was older, and slightly taller. This Dia would never be as tall as she was in her other life, but as though to better show her age she had replaced the dresses with travel ready pants and a loose lacy shirt. An older Keenin walked up to sit and watch with her.

“Tell me again how you met him,” she asked.

But then Keenin was aware that this was a sort of vision not fulfilled.

“There’s a girl,” Keenin tried to explain.

Rumin bent down to put a hand on his knee that prompted him not to say more as though the man already understood.

“Keenin you deserve more than this. We will ride victorious into the city where they will rejoice. That girl will be proud,” Rumin told him.

He felt that too, felt that just seeing Dia would be enough to set things right between them. He would be some sort of war hero. In his heart Keenin had always wanted to be the hero who rode across the open field. These invaders and the defenders would work out their differences at the end of the war. Peace would come in time. What their leader Iscara was doing was right, even though the enemy didn’t understand. The bit of fighting, breaking through the misunderstanding would be worth it.

“Keenin,” Rumin said.

At the sound of his own name Keenin eased out of the good thoughts to focus back on Rumin’s words. Keenin had nearly forgotten that Rumin was there and now vaguely felt that it may have gotten colder in the room.

“I’ll make everything right again. When you’re scared or unsure I want you to come find me. Now give me the cuff. You won’t need it.”

He wouldn’t quite remember how he took the metal cuff off, but he handed it over undamaged and grateful. It was such a relief for Keenin to hear that Rumin was there for him. Everyone had kept telling him to choose even when it hurt so much to do so. He had been so afraid of every choice being the wrong one.

It was simple. He would let Rumin make the choices and he would finally be free.

There were tears in his eyes when Rumin took his hand from Keenin’s knee and the stables became rough and solid around him once more. Dia and the future of the fight had gone from his mind. Keenin raised a hand to wipe the teams from under one of his eyes in confusion. He seemed to always be the last one left standing. He was sure that Rumin had come to punish them, but they appeared to have been spared.

“What did you come back for?” Keenin asked him.

He knew that Rumin had been the one to tell his chosen sword teacher to help Keenin put on some armor. Only he would do that.

“Were going,” Rumin said simply.

“How long?”

It seemed unimportant to ask when.

“Long enough,” Rumin replied.

Like that the time of training and the little freedom left had come to an end. Keenin knew it was unlikely that they would be back at all.

Chapter 38: Space Between Space

It’s getting to a place that’s easy. It’s knowing when you’re there that’s hard.

-Dia

 

The feel of the journal was in her hand when she opened her eyes against the pale blue of the sky and early morning rays that had settled on the forest. For that short time, everything felt right in place. Dia could forget that she had left her best friend far behind or that the boy she had thought to love had been stolen.

But undertaking a journey alone was not nearly so rewarding. There was too much time to think, especially as she sat with her back propped up against a tree trunk, smoke slowly curling up from the ashen embers of a fire at her feet.

Dia’s felt a cramp in her back from her slouched position and one of her outstretched hands gripped a book. She had fallen asleep trying to record her journey as the doctor had recommended. She let her head fall to the side so that she faced the direction towards the valley.

Ever so faintly Dia could see Tess between the spaces of oak and pine trees, standing by the cliff edge. There was no real battle here, three days around the edge of the valley and all there was to find were steeper cliffs and territorial squirrels, but from above you could watch the injured limping back towards the city and the fresh young men answering the call to the field. 

Going through the low valley might have been faster, but at least this way there was nobody to question her presence. No doubt the soldiers would send her away for her own good. Besides, Tess deserved not to be reminded of how invisible she was. 

Tess. There was someone else with too much time. The ghost would not have slept. She must have watched the movement in the valley all the long night. Dia wondered what the girl would be thinking. Did space feel vast to her? Did she feel small? Did time move or did fragments of then and now fall together? 

Dia pulled the weighty book to her lap and opened it to a page in the middle that held only two lines of writing that ended a paragraph from the previous page. The pages to this point were covered in the crooked doctorish scrawl of the first owner as he fretted about finding a future, but that came to an end with her application of ink on the previously empty following page, her oddly unrelated entry; a slow script that was unsure of itself even as each ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ crossed. And this is what it spoke:

 

I would never be the first girl he cared for. In all my time knowing him I would always catch him looking back the other way. 

Her name was Tess. 

I shouldn’t have known her. A man, even a boy, is allowed to silently hold to the people they once loved and not be judged. But I have had the unfortunate pleasure of hearing the rumors about this now dead girl, right from the girl herself. 

Because Tess was not just a name. 

-Dia

*

Dia sighed. She glanced towards the cliff where Tess was no longer and noticed a coolness by her shoulder. Dia raised her head to Tess who read the words with concentration held on her face. Dia expected a haunty joke or a mean response, but got something else.

“Is it…a fiction story?” Tess questioned of it. “Can I be in it all the way to the end?”

As usual the silly girl was thinking about herself.

“That depends,” Dia told her. “If you’re willing to come to an end.”

“You mean, die,” Tess said offended, catching on. “Ugh, how awful. I ought to get a fairy tale kiss.”

Dia shrugged and softly closed the book.

“It’s not that kind of story.” 

“But it’s your story,” Tess complained.

“Then you’ll have to bribe me,” Dia gently teased back.

“Humph,” Tess said looking away. 

Dia knew that dissatisfied look anywhere. Her younger sister had made the same face once.

“What?” Dia asked.

She couldn’t believe that she was still taking pity on a ghost.

“Can’t we go any faster?” Tess pouted instead. “The war will be over before we get there.”

While Tess prolonged her pouting Dia got up from the ground, retrieved her dusty pack, and resumed her walk through the woods. It wasn’t that she had not thought about it.

“Hey!” Tess exclaimed.

Dia ignored her.

“Come on, we were finally getting somewhere. What happened to the conversation?” Tess argued.

Dia was not answering that. She focused on the natural sounds of sparrows fluttering and chirping from overhanging branches. Dia knew that ghosts had a bad sense of empathy, but she didn’t have the patience nor the desire to feel any more disappointed with herself. She knew perfectly well that she hadn’t moved fast enough; that a real lover would have done everything to be back with their true love. 

She was a pitiful fraud who needed Keenin to validate herself. 

She had left at the last possible minute in the misguided hope that he might make her a whole person again, that he might prove that she had reason to still exist in the world.

“Why do we have to stop and rest anyways?” Tess asked more gently.

“Because I get tired.”

She didn’t want to think about how many miles more this trek would be.

“But your immortal?”

Gods. Why didn’t they teach any magic in school? Given the chance, Dia would make it mandatory and she would feed and toss all the street urchins in class too. Spirit chosen ones like Keenin ought to know what was going on before they got dragged into another’s war.

“Listen. I can starve and exhaust myself to death like any other. My body is the same as everyone else. It’s just that when I die it returns to perfect health,” Dia explained.

“So you get healed by getting killed?” 

“Yes. Except I would like to avoid always dying given that it’s awkward. And I’m not immortal. I’ll die at exactly the time I was meant to.”

Whenever that is.

“Which is when?”

“I don’t know.”

“So like, in five seconds you could…

“Tess. I don’t want to talk about it.”

Another pause.

“Guess it wasn’t five seconds. But any second. Really?”

“Tess!” Dia exclaimed in frustration.

She stopped to turn her anger on Tess, but then ahead Dia saw a collapsed body not far from where she stood. Her eyes seemed to adjust and she saw a greenish ghost sitting beside the body, but he didn’t seem to be the same person. Tess materialized in front of him before Dia could tell her not to.

“What are you doing?” she asked curiously.

Dia knew that Tess would annoy him. She seemed to like picking on other lost ghosts. It wasn’t a nice hobby, but if it kept other ghosts away Dia could live with it. The ghost raised his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I was with a group of other ghosts walking along a crystal walkway, acceptance settling into my heart, when I had this nagging, tugging feeling that I had forgotten something important. Then I was here.”

“Iscara,” Dia said aloud for them. “I was told that he could summon spirits, but this is much worse.”

“Why?” Tess asked.

“He isn’t calling specific spirits. Our guy here is unused and forgotten, meaning Iscara lacks control.”

“Isn’t that good if he can’t control it. I might be safe,” Tess explained.

“Maybe,” Dia said. “But he might not be able to stop. Like a fire raging through a city. I wonder if the death god knows.”

“Oh, the death god knows,” Tess said. “He’s just occupied at the moment.”

Dia scrutinized her.

“Uh…,” the ghost started to say.

Dia slid the pack off her shoulder and rummaged inside. She pulled out a handful of salt that even now slipped from between her fingers. Tess blinked out of existence to get out of the way.

“Don’t think about it too hard,” Dia told him.

She tossed the salt at him. The grains of salt filled his figure with holes where it touched and he broke apart into the air. His spirit wasn’t gone, only scattered temporarily where it would not have to think. Ghosts were always about. They only began to be visible to her and others with spiritual sight when they formed a conscious collection, pulling bits of air and dust into a semblance of their bodies.

“Your death god better do something fast or we might all be dead,” Dia observed.

“I do not want to be dead with you,” Dia complained. “We better figure out what Keenin is doing.”

Chapter 37: The Pride of the Thief

Keenin lay in his bed after a long day, feeling the bruise across his cheek where his new trainer had whacked him. Days of outdoor practice did that, but he was feeling more confident in his ability with a blade. Keenin had noticed his friends at practice too and he had begun to imagine them fighting together, pushing back men, not letting a friend go undefended. He wondered when Iscara would return or when they would be deemed ready to fight the real battle.

“We have to go tonight,” Aron finally said into the silence.

“Go where?” Keenin complained.

He had practice in the morning and he didn’t feel like fighting any more undead guards.

“To the commander’s office. He must have battle plans or a map with a hidden way out of this valley.”

Keenin doubted very much that there was a hidden way out. Besides…

“If he has a map of it, then it’s not a secret.” Couldn’t he just go to sleep. 

“But then maybe it’s another test. Why else would Rumin leave us a note telling us that Iscara is away,” Aron said.

“Death trap, maybe,” Harris said.

Death trap, Keenin echoed in his thoughts. It felt like a good time to start writing apologetic letters to his friends, if ever he saw them again. Especially to Clide. Clide he might be seeing soon. Maybe the dragon would take initiative and end the war.

“They did not bring us here to kill us,” Aron argued. “We are clearly of more use to them alive or they would never encourage us to train.”

“Still. There is no way the building is unguarded,” Harris spoke up.

“And there is no way I am not getting inside,” the redheaded boy concluded. “Did you finish the grappling hook yet?”

“What a joke,” Keenin said. “It’s no wonder why Rumin won’t train you two.”

They couldn’t even take things seriously, didn’t think of all the things that would get them killed. He was better to sneak in by himself and figure out where Iscara had hid himself. Or at least figure out why all the ghosts couldn’t move on.

“Is this your real side showing,” Harris said. “You’re going to take things easy because they show a bit of favoritism. Things have been different since you came.”

“I know what I’m good at. Getting into places is a specialty of mine. Fighting at sword point is not. Was not,” Keenin admitted. “And I wouldn’t know about anything else being different here. Maybe there were never three magic users before.”

But now that he thought about it, maybe he was becoming too relaxed in solving his fated problem, assuming fate would drop opportunity in his hands or ultimately kill him off for the benefit of everyone else.

“You’re enjoying this,” Aron accused. “You think this is a game.”

“Of course, it’s a game to them.”

He was now enjoying what he could of being a captive. Such as the benefit of being welcomed to go where he wanted and talk as an equal, unlike back home where adults pretended he didn’t exist.

“Your parents would be ashamed,” Harris told him.

“My parents,” Keenin repeated. “Were dead where I was three.”

Aron’s eyes went to the ground. Keenin amused himself by imagining how they saw him as the boy who was going dark, siding with the enemy. Really. Why didn’t the heroes from his books give in sooner? Why not take pride?

Keenin had run from home on a non-stop blind trek to prevent other people from defining his life, and it honestly had not worked. When he looked in the direction of home there was no longer a desire to go back, but an acceptance that this was his final resting place. The sun on the horizon above the tents was all the world encompassed, and none but a story would carry back the many miles. 

Keenin had to admit, since his close call with death by zombie the pressure of choosing heroic sacrifice or villainous livelihood was starting to get to him.

“Then I’m sorry you don’t trust us,” Harris told him.

It was all the better they not grow close. 

“Do you still want to break into the office?” Keenin asked disinterested.

He was sure that Rumin would show them the battle plans himself once they were behaving nicely. And Iscara had to show his face eventually. 

“Of course, I do,” Aron insisted. “Did you have a genius plan for that too?”

“Yes. I have a better dumb idea. No grappling hooks involved.”

*

The three of them gathered below a second-floor window of the grand house where Iscara and the generals were supposed to live. Harris had known where the room was after asking Faber and lucky for them, it had a window and Harris had a grappling hook. This did not make Keenin feel any better. The heavy grappling hook was likely to shatter the window if it caught to the ledge at all. 

His eyes moved along the wooden planks to search for gaps and handholds. The building had been constructed too recently to have chips and knots in the wood, but the planks didn’t fit tight. Vertical boards had been fastened as a final decorative and structural layer, but the ledge of those wasn’t thick enough to grip for a length of time. Keenin put his hand behind his back and felt a thin kitchen knife that he had tucked into the belt that had come with his training gear. He had saved the weapon stashing spot at the side of his boot for something better. It was just a shame that this knife wasn’t as good a quality as the last one he had stolen. Now he pulled it free as his friends debated how to throw the hook.

Keenin moved to the side of the building and wedged the knife between one of the vertical cracks at shoulder height, it sank to half its length and held. Keln, the leader of the group of thieves in his hometown of Stonefield, had taught him this little trick.

As ready as Keenin had been to leave his hometown and its restrictions, Keenin could not deny that he had admired the older boy. Keenin had recognized that Keln had been mean in his own bitterness and isolation. Perhaps if Keenin had spent a few more years in desolation, watching friends die of starvation, he would have been just the same. 

“What are you doing?” Harris asked curiously.

Despite the fact that Harris and Aron had already planned to break into the office in their own way, Harris seemed to recognize that Keenin had come up with something better.

“Great,” Aron complained. “You killed the building. Now you’re in the way.”

“You’ll smash the window,” Keenin said simply, gazing up at the goal. “And someone will hear. Maybe even the ice witch and I don’t think she would appreciate missing her sleep over us”

Keenin had not been quite prepared to climb the wall. There was another solid dagger in his left boot that he had swiped from one of the soldiers since it had not felt right to use the matching set of daggers from the training room, but his friends have given him no time.

“Your specialty really is breaking into places, isn’t it,” Aron said then.

“I wasn’t lying if that’s what you mean,” Keenin responded.

It was quite some ways up to the second-floor window since the first floor was tall in height, but he only needed to reach the bottom of the window frame.

“I mean I owe you an apology. I was thinking you were a town troublemaker. We used to have one of those kids that would mess with locks for fun,” Aron admitted. “And I thought street kids picked pockets.”

“Well, it was a small town,” Keenin admitted.

Mind over body, Keenin told himself.

“What do you want us to do to help?” Harris asked.

Be quiet, Keenin thought, before he lost his nerve. A fall would not be deadly, but heights still made him nervous.

“I can climb the wall if you boost me up,” Keenin said instead. “Then I can tie the rope.”

A little help getting started up would be nice. Harris set down the metal hook and his fingers worked the knot undone. He handed the loose rope to Keenin.

“You can tie it to your belt,” Harris suggested.

As Keenin worked the knot, Aron sigh to himself.

“Fine,” the redheaded Aron declared. “As the leader I order you to get us up there.”

Keenin smirked as he looked down and his fingers finished the tie of the knot, then cleared the expression to look Aron in the eyes.

“Smart move leader. Would you do the honors?”

Aron positioned himself near the wall, bending his knees for stability and linking his fingers together form a platform, the way someone might lift a friend onto the back of a horse.

“Just don’t fall down on top of us.”

Keenin smiled knowingly.

“As long as you don’t pull on the rope. Now lift me slowly.”

Keenin didn’t run as Aron had expected. He simply stepped up to the wall, set his left boot into the raised cup of Aron’s hands, and using that as a step Keenin lifted himself high enough to get his right boot onto the thin knife handle stuck into the wall at arm height, and tightly grip the vertical strip of wood for support- else he would fall sideway from his position. Unlike what stories said, a wild jump full of forward energy was not a good way to get onto the side of a flat surface.

The handle of the thin kitchen knife bowed dangerously under Keenin’s weight. Leaning as close to the wall as possible and shifting his weight to his right hand, he shakily lifted his left hand free of the support as he bent his dangling left knee and grasped the handle of the other knife tucked into the heel of the boot.

If he had been a circus performer, he might have held his heel in some outstretched pose. As it was, Keenin solidly pulled the second knife free, shaking his balance and quickly swinging his hand out and up to horizontally stab a crack in the wall as high as he could. The knife stuck more solidly and held him in place against the wall.

Gathering his resolve and the remainder of his strength, Keenin let his footing slip and pulled himself up with one hand, his free hand reaching to the window ledge higher still until his fingers curled around the edge. There he dangled, one hand on a knife hilt and fingers gripping the flat bottom of the windowsill, the window above still shut.

Keenin would have to move all his weight to his fingers gripping the ledge and wiggle the stuck knife free of the wood if he was going to release the latch. This is where he was going to fall. This is where panic tried to set in, despite knowing that this was for a dumb cause and that a two stories fall wasn’t death. Hanging before him was a greater impossibility, the one where he and Dia met again. Here was one impossible task for another.

It felt very slow, the time it took him to let go of his grip on the knife handle, holding on with every straining, slipping muscle in his right arm and shoulder as he practically pushed himself off the wall with the force of pulling the knife, and reaching it up again to slide between the window panels to flip the latch. The thin glass window tilted inwards at its release.

He dropped the knife to the windowsill and wrapped his left hand securely around the inside of the frame. Keenin lifted his right elbow onto the ledge and, suppressing his fears of falling, he lifted his right leg higher than anyone should to get his boot onto the window ledge. 

He slid over the edge and landed hard on the carpeted floor inside the dark room. Breathing heavily and feeling dizzy from the experience, Keenin was only glad that there was not a table where he landed. The fact that it was empty of people was a small relief. 

The rope had remained tied to his belt and forcing himself to his feet, Keenin dragged a tall metal lamp to the window and tied his end of rope around the pole. He leaned against the wonderfully solid wall as his friends climbed the rope with only minimal knocking of the lamp pole against the open window. His eyes wandered over the moon-brightened room and fixated on a bookshelf.

Keenin went closer to pull a book free and let it fall open in his hands. He couldn’t read it. This was just as much a reason why he had not wanted to come. But Keenin felt a strange obligation to help these two friends, as someone who knew how it felt to be trapped and also as someone who could end the war.

His friend’s boots thumped softly on the carpet. Keenin turned around to find Harris pushing aside a wall painting of a field of flowers to feel for hidden spaces while Aron shifted through papers piled on the commander’s desk.

“For the record, we would have caught you if you fell,” Aron let him know.

Keenin responded with silent contemplation.

“What are those about?” he asked instead.

“It’s all correspondence letters here. Do you think we should take these when we leave? Maybe the good guys can stop the war.”

“Leave it,” Harris told him. “We don’t want to be a part of this fight.”

“But maybe one of the guilds would take us as members for the help?” Aron explained. “Then we don’t have to be orphans.”

“I already explained that I’ll get a job for the both of us. You can just focus on managing money and clients.”

Their banter reminded him of familiar friends, but he wasn’t particularly interested. Keenin noticed a scrapbook sitting on a chair in the corner of the room. He approached and picked up the leather-bound folio of pages that were softened with age and held together by a leather lace bowtie in each corner. 

When he let the cover fall back he saw a lifelike pencil drawing of a palace garden; the slim sharp towers of the palace rose in the background, patterns were carved into bricks in the walls resembling bands of vine, dragons, and dogs, and the statue of a beautiful goddess stood in the foreground. The goddesses’ hair fell in long tangled curls, her dress clung to her carved body, a deer lay by her feet, and a flower unfolded in one of her upturned hands. Keenin knew that she was Septose and he knew who’s drawing this was. It felt like every step had already been decided.

His question was as much to distract himself.

“Why didn’t anyone leave here before if they hate it?” Keenin asked them. “Wouldn’t there be a rumor about that, at least to scare us?”

“I thought you figured that out,” Aron told him. He had taken Keenin’s place pulling books from the shelf, only he was flipping all the way through.

“Because they killed them. Immediately,” Harris said. “Why do you think Faber is so traumatized? He saw what they did to his previous companion.”

Keenin again remembered the barn with locked up corpses, as though a paranoid man was trying to keep his beloved children close to him; and Faber’s own dark words.

“Did you see what they did to them?” 

A rattle and a grunt had Keenin looking up to where Aron pulled at a desk drawer.

“Of course not,” Harris said. “We weren’t here then. We just heard about it from Nadia. You remember the girl who met you the first day. She was always trying to be nice and give us advice as though it would win us over.”

“Maybe,” Keenin said slowly. “This isn’t a good idea.”

He had the feeling that this camp was much less innocent then it appeared, that somehow their perceptions were being twisted around. Aron stopped pulling at the drawer.

“That,” Aron emphasized. “Is because this is a great idea. Can one of you please get this open?”

“Then can we leave?” Keenin asked.

Just as Harris had said, this scenario seemed much too convenient. They had already been messing around in enemy territory far too long to go without any consequences.

“Yes,” Aron told him.

Keenin pulled the pin from his belt buckle and went to work on the lock, jamming the bit of metal into the keyhole and putting his hand beside the bit to leverage it against the bolt inside. He tested to find where the lock would give way and pushed the bolt to its unlocked position with a click. He smoothly slid the drawer open so that they could all see inside. A glass orb bumped gently against the inside of the drawer with the movement. It rested over three scraps of paper like an impractical paperweight.

Neither of them reached into the drawer. There was an odd out of place feel about the glass orb that Keenin didn’t want to ignore. Sensing magic was not an easy skill. It was like a hunch, a tingle, or a premonition; As elusive a sense as belief in the gods themselves, for who could believe so strongly in what they had never seen. Bodwin may have been one of those believers since he had known of Keenin’s worth. 

Aron reached forward first, but Keenin caught his wrist.

“Some things are not meant to be found,” Keenin let his friend know.

Even Keln, Keenin’s old thieving leader had known not to take a magic item else they be hunted down and killed by the owner.

“Do you think it’s magic?” Harris asked softly.

“Yes,” Keenin said.

Maybe this is what was used to attract souls. Was there another way to solve the problem he was in?

“I thought magic came from spirits,” Aron argued.

“Don’t try to act like the know-it-all,” Harris told him.

“I just want to read the papers,” Aron stressed.

Keenin looked at the handwritten pages, but his mind would not decode the symbols. 

“I’ll take it,” Keenin said.

“Why you?” Aron said annoyed, since he had already moved to grab it.

“If it kills me, you can still get the information you want,” Keenin said. “And you don’t like me as much as Harris.”

Harris made no argument to being kept out of the test.

“That’s true,” Aron said, relaxing his hand in Keenin’s grip. “But I do hope to keep you for the battles ahead.”

“Noted.”

Keenin released Aron and reached to grip the orb. A quiet bit of nothing seemed to happen, but like a trickle of water a prickly feeling went up his spine and Keenin felt the contained scorching presence of Calendor behind him. Not yet saying this, Keenin lifted the orb from the drawer and held it in front of him so that Aron could rummage through the papers. The feeling of being watched by the fire spirit persisted. Calendor was much calmer than Keenin had expected for a guy that had been locked away. Keenin sensed that the battle he was headed to had made the spirit content and sure that a splendid reputation would be upheld. All the while Aron shifted papers.

“I can feel magic,” Keenin said, getting his voice back.

Immediately his companions were looking at him. Keenin became very aware that he stood in the middle of the enemy camp with the power to burn it down. Distracted by this idea, Keenin didn’t become aware of his friends until Aron put a strong grip on the top of the orb. Keenin might have let go at the acknowledgement that his turn had ended, but he noticed another source of magic kindle in the building, and reflexively gripped the orb tighter.

“Keenin,” Aron complained. “Let me try.”

Keenin looked to the closed office door as it was opened and Nadia stood there. They silently regarded one another.

“Leave quietly,” she spoke.

Aron kept his hand on the orb.

“Keenin use your magic power,” Aron goaded.

The boy may not know what Keenin could do, but perhaps because they held the orb together he had a good guess in the destructive power. Keenin himself was sensing Aron’s idea to stay hidden in their escape. Aron had said his magic power was mist, but Keenin waited for Nadia to finish.

“You don’t understand,” Nadia started to say. “The spell’s already in effect.”

Then Nadia gasped, eyes flashing fear before she collapsed to the floor. And there was the ice queen Jenna herself, the person that Keenin had saved himself for. He didn’t have time to admire her frilly blue nightgown, but neither did he know how to defensively use his magic. The room plummeted in temperature. Keenin’s companions collapsed in a cold induced coma, leaving Keenin the only one standing because of the enduring warmth of the fire spirit. 

Jenna gave him a neutral stare. Keenin still held the orb in his hand and it was likely that Jenna knew what it did. Keeping his eyes on her, he reached with his one hand to put the orb back in the drawer and slid it securely shut.

“We didn’t mean to take anything,” Keenin told her.

He didn’t want Jenna to hurt his friends.

“Humph,” she grumbled. “Iscara said that you would get bored.”

The name of the leader make Keenin wonder what Jenna was supposed to do with them. Maybe this was another test or they were too vulnerable to kill.

“Should I…knock myself out,” Keenin offered.

Perhaps this is where they were supposed to be blindfolded and carted off for solo training. Maybe it would make Jenna feel not so undermined in authority if he passed out. Jenna made a sour face. Then she signed.

“Fine,” she said as much to herself. “I’ll teach you idiots magic. But I’m not like that peasant girl Nadia who tries to fix all the broken kids. When I start my lessons I expect you to pay attention.”

“We’ll…you’ve got me,” Keenin told her. “Spell or no spell.”

He wasn’t going to argue with not being killed. Jenna’s mouth quirked in a smile. 

“Get going,” she told him. “The guards will bring your friends.”