Sarabelle sat by Bren’s bed, the candlelight casting soft shadows onto the table and papers. She dipped the pen in the inkwell and wrote a few more words in the letter Sarabelle was composing to her aunt, and then paused. She looked over at Bren’s gaunt face, his sunken cheeks looking even more sickly given the flickering candlelight.
Sarabelle sighed. The relief nurse had sent notice that she would be unable to arrive tonight, due the illness of her daughter. Sarabelle was unable to find someone else to cover, and rather than leave Bren alone for several hours – even if he was most likely going to just sleep – Sarabelle decided to stay the night.
Bren erupted in a coughing fit, and Sarabelle swiftly moved in with a cloth and some water, lifting Bren up and steadying him. Once it subsided, she lifted the glass to his lips, where he half-heartedly sipped and then weakly pushed the glass away. She laid him back down, and was relieved to hear his breathing fall into the tell-tale rhythm of sleep within a few minutes.
Sarabelle returned to writing her letter, telling her aunt of the recent if unexciting events of her life. Not that Sarabelle held any resentment. Though she had people who had been suitors and lovers in the past, she had never found someone she desired enough to commit a lifetime to. And Sarabelle had never held a desire to have children. She enjoyed watching and caring for various cousins and their children over the years, but the desire for motherhood eluded her, and it was a temperament she embraced long ago, much to the chagrin of her own mother and aunt. This had driven some of those lovers away from her over the years, and that was fine with Sarabelle. Her life was her own, and she would not sacrifice the joy of her limited existence for anyone.
Sarabelle turned back to Bren, whose face was a mask of calm in his slumber. Thoughts of mortality returned, and she wondered how long Bren had. She had given up hope that Khloe had received the letter she sent, and perhaps it was for the best. Bren’s lucidity was suspect at best these days, and the doctor reckoned he had a few weeks at most.
A stray through crawled across Sarabelle’s mind: what if Khloe simply did not want to return to see her father?
As if feeling a physical sensation, she shook her head to cast it away.
Whatever the case may be, she hoped that, when Bren passed, Khloe would be able to make peace with it.
“You too, Allana?” Aedyn said, trying to keep his tone playful.
Allana had found Aedyn sitting alone at a table in a side room in Belmont’s home. She pulled a chair out and sat with him, favoring him with a look Aedyn remembered well.
It meant she wanted to have a talk.
“You tired of me already?” Allana said with a thin smile. “I could go and see if Draxen will take me back.”
“I thought you had enough of him for a lifetime.”
“At least he wanted me around.”
Aedyn smirked and shook his head. “You know I’m overjoyed to have you back.”
Allana leaned back in the chair. “And yet, you seem troubled.”
Aedyn shook his head. “It’s not you. Khloe… we just had a conversation. She has valid concerns. I was addressing them. Or trying to.”
Aedyn’s face collapsed into confusion. “And what?”
“Did you make her feel better?”
Aedyn laughed at that. ”I don’t think.”
Allana’s voice assumed a faux-mocking tone. “You’re losing your edge, Aedyn. A long time ago you would have probably given a speech that would inspired her to slay giants. What happened to you over the past five years?”
“I might ask you the same question.”
Silence fell hard between them. Aedyn visibly winced.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have-”
Allana raised a hand. “No, it’s okay. It’s a fair question.”
Aedyn shook his head. “Not really. It was rather brusque considering… what happened.”
Allana leaned in. “My husband and son died at Morcross. I’ve had five years to make peace with that.”
“And have you?”
Allana allowed a beat to pass. “No. And I never will. But I’ve accepted that I cannot change it.”
Aedyn slowly nodded. “Is that why you allowed Draxen to keep you?”
“Well,” Allana began, “he did feed me regularly. It beat having to hunt for my own food.”
Aedyn’s eyes narrowed.
“What?” Allana said defensively. “Times really are tough.”
“I think you’re doing that thing you’ve done since we were kids. What did that alienist once call it? ‘Deflecting’?”
“She was a strange one and I never cared for her anyway.”
“Probably because she called your bullshit on why you didn’t want to marry Esaul at the time.”
“Like I said… ‘annoying’.”
They shared a light chuckle, then silence settled between them.
“Why have you brought us back together, Aedyn? What’s the real reason?”
Aedyn said nothing for a long moment. He broke the silence with a single word: “Roué.”
Allana didn’t know how to respond. “Are… you serious?”
“You’ve found him?”
Aedyn leaned in. “I spent a long time trying to find him, figure out his routines and where he travels. I was able to bribe someone on the inside. Not a powerful person inside his organization, but someone who could gather information unnoticed. They’ve proven quite reliable over the past two years. I know where he’ll be staying soon.”
“And then what?”
“We’re going to avenge what happened to Tomen and Esaul. And everyone else who died at Morcross because of Roué selling us out.” He paused. “We’re going to kill him.”
Akaja found Khloe behind the house, alone and sitting on steps leading down from the patio. She was tempted to reach out and touch Khloe’s mind – their recent extensive training had bonded them slightly, and Akaja found it would be easier to do so than with some others.
But over the years Akaja had learnt that reading people involved more than peering into their minds and seeing their hidden fears and desires. She didn’t need to anything other than her eyes to know that Khloe wanted to be alone.
So naturally, I’m going to ignore that.
Akaja moved over to Khloe, who never turned towards her. Rather, Khloe kept looking up at the stars, arms folded on her hunched-up knees.
Akaja waited a moment. “Hey there,” was all she offered.
Khloe nodded, barely perceptible in the moonlit night.
“You’re going to make me pry it out of you?” Akaja said with a smile.
“Can’t you just read my mind?”
Akaja joined Khloe in looking up at the stars. “I wouldn’t do that. Not to friends.”
“We haven’t known each over very long.”
“So now there’s a qualifier on how long we have to know each other before we’re friends?”
Khloe let out a terse laugh, and shook her heard. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m not much for company.”
Akaja placed her arm on Khloe’s shoulder. “I can tell something’s on your mind. I just wanted to offer an ear if you were willing.”
Khloe leaned her head down to the side, resting it on Akaja’s hand. “Thank you. I’m… just thinking about my father.”
Akaja nodded. “You have concerns we won’t reach him in time?”
Another nod from Khloe.
They said nothing for a long time. Khloe didn’t move her head, and Akaja kept her hand in place. She felt the waves of loneliness and fear radiating from Khloe, and in kind attempted to subtly use her skills send soothing thoughts and energy.
“It’s okay. There might be-”
Then the night collapsed into chaos.
In an instant, there was the rushing sound, feet crashing through the brush and leaves. Akaja’s heightened sensors barely had time to register the movement before a roar shattered the night. Khloe stood quickly, and Akaja’s mind had difficulty processing the next few moments. Khloe was there, and then sent careening into the dark. In her place was a massive creature, all matted and wild fur and drool caressing razor teeth, arm outstretched where it had struck Khloe.
But something seemed different about it.
Akaja’s training immediately took over. She got low, sweeping her leg at the Na’Ald, but she might as well have struck a tree trunk. The creature did not budge, and balled its fist and punched down. Akaja barely rolled out of the way in time before the creature made contact, sending wood and dirt flying. Akaja moved back quickly, drawing on her Obscura power, but the creature was just as quick. It swiped at Akaja, its blade-like claws tearing at her tunic and barely grazing flesh. It brought its other arm forward in an arc that almost caught Akaja in the chest, but she brought her arms forward in a flowing motion, diverting the attack away from her. Akaja allowed her momentum to turn her around, rolling against the creature’s body and wind up behind it. Akaja kicked the back of the creature’s knee, then followed up with another to the lower back, but the creature barely budged.
It swung back around and caught Akaja with a fist to the chest, sending her onto her back. The creature swiftly moved, towering over Akaja and reaching down to grab her.
Before Akaja could react, a knee came flying in, striking the creature from her left. Akaja’s eyes shifted and saw Khloe completing her attack, following up with an elbow to the creature’s head.
That stunned the Na’Ald for a moment, and Akaja took advantage. She swing her legs up, and summoning Obscura, propelled herself forward into a corkscrew kick, striking the creature in the chest. The Na’Ald stumbled back, and Khloe followed up with a series of blows to the creature’s face and chest.
Akaja focused and reached out, feeling the others’ presence nearby. Reaching into them through their link, she sent a brief message, a thought of the creature and needing help.
But the creature had other ideas.
It roared, and Akaja found her thoughts scattering, as if a mist had suffused in her mind. It was disorienting, and Akaja stumbled to the side. From her peripheral vision she saw Khloe react in the same manner.
It was all the creature needed.
It grabbed Akaja’s head and slammed it down into the ground with greater speed than Akaja had imagined.
The world swam in darkness and light. Akaja found herself unable to move, and her vision become a stutter step of images.
Khloe missing a blow to the creature.
The creature grabbling Khloe.
A blow to Khloe’s neck.
The creature lifting up Khloe, and escaping into the dark.
Akaja tried to scream out to Khloe, to try and move after them, but soon the dark took her as well.