CHAPTER V: DRAGON DAWN

A SANTHARIAN NOVEL

 
The Tale of Katya Dragonseeker   
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Introduction. The Vardýnnian Atonement where no light shone has finally ended. Voldar has begun its renewal with the coming of spring. Katya Ileri too has entered into the first bloom of womanhood. Yet, despite new friends and a home, she cannot forget the oath she has sworn to avenge her father's death. Rumors that a few dragons still remain alive despite the year of darkness only fuel her desire for vengeance.

Watching over her is Lysander Dain, whose growing love for Katya is viewed with approval by some and jealousy by others. Meanwhile, the beautiful Queen Jenefra maneuvers the ever-treacherous intrigues of her court to secure a throne tainted by betrayal and bloodshed. Aided by her trusted advisers, she struggles to rebuild a realm that is weakened by war and siege.

Unknowing to them, a new evil is arising in the wake of an old. A monstrous evil that threatens to consume all and herald a gruesome dragon dawn.
 

 
1648 b.S.
 

odge left!

Katya heeded the instinctive soundless cry that emanated from her mind and twisted awkwardly away from the sword that came at her with the speed of a darting snake. She almost lost her footing on the muddy ground but regained her balance quickly by digging her heels into the squishy earth. 

She swung in savagely with a gut level cut but her opponent ducked to a low crouch to avoid her counterattack. At the end of her cut, she reversed direction as her enemy rose to stand and he caught the blow on his hilt instead. But from the slight, barely imperceptible wince that crossed his face, Katya knew that the impact of their swords catching together must have jolted the bones of the wrist considerably. 

She refrained from a satisfied smirk and instead, pressing in her advantage, she lunged in and thrust as her opponent slithered aside gracefully to parry aside her sword. 

Her mind turned over dozens of attack manoeuvres furiously, considering and rejecting each one with the same liquid lightning swiftness that matched her sword parries, thrusts and blocks. 

She jerked backwards as her opponent’s blade flashed past her face and she ducked, throwing up a defensive block. But the sword skipped past hers, ripping a thin welt across her forehead that at once oozed sluggish blood.

Ow! Damn Armeros’s teeth but that hurt! 

The sword jabbed towards her again and she spun aside but her foot stepped on a stray root sticking up from the ground, bruising her instep through the boot heel. She rocked backwards as a foot kicked out at her ankle, shattering her already precariously held balance. She started to fall, feeling the wind hissed past her hair as her body tumbled to the ground and she was helpless to stop it. 

However the anticipated impact with the earth never came. A hand grasped hers in mid-fall and she was jerked back upright.

“Meregin would have my head on a plate if you came back drenched in mud again.” Lysander’s tones were mild enough but Katya detected amusement glinting from those dark eyes. “I think she thinks that you deliberately doused yourself with mud just for the fun of it.”

Glaring at the young man, she shook off his hand. “Meregin worries too much. I never wanted a maid, let alone a mother-hen.” She pressed her fingers against her forehead cautiously, feeling the small cut. 

Lysander’s amused face changed to one of alarm and seeing the care on his face only served to heighten Katya’s annoyance. She hated it when anyone gave what she thought of as special preferences for her, simply because she was a girl. Or worse, because of the perception of who she was. 

“Don’t fuss, Lysander. I’m not hurt, it is just a scratch.” Katya cut him off brusquely before he could start fretting. She had enough of that from Meregin. 

“I wasn’t about too.”

“Yes, you were. You’re worse than Meregin sometimes, both of you, coddling me like I’m still a baby nursing on mother’s milk.” Katya regretted her harsh tones instantly even as she finished speaking them. She bit her lip, still angry at losing but angrier at herself at taking out her wrath at Lysander. “Oh Lysander, I’m sorry. I know you mean well but it’s just that....”

One of Lysander’s eyebrows rose up quizzically. “Just what?”

“Never mind, you would not understand.” Katya muttered as she retrieved her fallen sword from the ground. The hilt was muddied and the blade was covered with the dirt and soil. She knew she had to clean it before she went in to wash up and dress for dinner or Vaelaron, Lysander’s father and the present Captain of the Guards, would have her head for not taking good care of her weapons. 

Walking to the armoury, she snatched a hanging piece of rag and sat down on a bench, her sword resting on her legs as she started rubbing it with determined, angry swipes.

It was drizzling again; cold raindrops beating down relentlessly like tiny silver needles. The oily flames of the torches spluttered and sizzled as the rain grew heavier. Seeing the sky, low and heavy with storm clouds, the sunlight filtering weakly through, reminded Katya uneasily once more of living under the shadow of the Atonement.

Seven Aér'ai'chanían months had passed since the sun came back. But the toils that a year of darkness brought with it would not, could not, be so effortlessly shaken off. Much of the refugees that had congregated in Voldar during the Atonement had travelled back to their own villages and farms but the earth, deprived of the sun-rich nutrients for so long, reluctantly yielded a poor harvest that could scarcely, sufficiently feed a race that had been recently enduring the rigours of a famine. Meat was very much a rare commodity still. However, there had been sightings of goats and pigs that had somehow lived through the dark times, thriving wild in the nearby woods, outside the city walls, and Jenefra had ordered a number of these animals to be captured and bred to greater abundance so as to spread them to the peasants as basic livestock. 

The Erpheronians who stayed in the city fared slightly better. With the help of the Ruling Council, Jenefra pushed forward a new law that conscripted those who could work and set the labourers to rebuilding many of the buildings and roadways of Voldar that had been ruined by the dragon siege. These workers were paid a modest monthly wage of three Maengolth metals, supplemented by food rations from the reserved stores. Taxes were also suspended for the peasants for a year though the levies were elevated for the high-borns. Several nobles complained, as they were wont to do, including Lord Nikos Lothari, Lady Preya Arkaisa and Lord Aerlicht Hruth who protested against the higher taxes voraciously. Finally, Amalthea got tired of Nikos’s blustering and told him in no uncertain terms that either he paid the stated levy or she will personally see to it that Captain Vaelaron will escort him to a nice, private little cell situated under the catacombs that ran underneath Thyrrinths Hold - the latter once was Maengolth’s seat of power and now his daughter’s. 

The steely look in Amalthea’s grey eyes, plus Vaelaron’s looming presence behind her as she delivered her ultimatum, effectively silenced Nikos’s and his allies’ arguments.

Lysander sighed inaudibly as he watched Katya cleaning her sword; the straightness of her back and strength of her swabbing belayed her ire. She was the one who insisted on this impromptu duel. If his father ever knew that the both of them had been practising with real swords instead of the wooden ones provided for training, he would skin his son alive, progeny or no progeny. Katya’s skill with a sword was improving by leaps and bounds; even Vaelaron was overheard saying that the girl was a natural. 

‘Medoc’s blood showing itself in the daughter.’ Vaelaron had said with a tone suspiciously like pride. 

Natural or not, she still had a lot to learn. She was strong in technique but faltered at improvisation. She thought too much when she fought. You don’t start to question the whys of what you’re doing; you just do it. 

“Katya, what is it?” He sat down besides her, holding his own sword loosely between his legs, both of them ignoring the rain and chill. “What is bothering you?”

Lysander Dain

View picture in full size  Picture description. Portrait showing Lysander Dain in a melancholic mood during the hardships of the Vardýnnian Atonement. Image by Faugar.

“Nothing.”

“Then why are you angry at me?”

“I’m not angry at you.” 

“Then you’re certainly doing a very good imitation of it.” 

It was Katya’s turn to sigh. Well she knew Lysander’s character by now. The young man has the tenacity of a Silvermarsh leech and she said as much. 

Lysander only grinned. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“I lost.”

“Er?”

Katya’s green eyes blazed with furious shame. “I lost to you. How am I going to avenge Medoc’s death when I can’t even beat you?”, she demanded. “I’ll never be good enough. Never!”

Taken aback by the vehemence of her words, Lysander blinked and then involuntarily laughed. 

“Don’t do that! It’s not funny!”

Seeing her hurt expression, Lysander was sorry immediately. The last thing he wanted to do was to bruise her feelings.

“Katya, you’ve only been learning swordplay a year and a half ago. I’ve been in training since I could pick up a sword. The mere fact that you can hold yourself against me for as long as you did should be proof enough that you are good.”

“But not good enough.” Katya muttered as she swabbed her blade forcefully with the rag. The sword that she held now was given to her by Lady...no, Queen Jenefra now, a year back in the privacy of Jenefra’s private chambers. It had belonged to Jenefra’s late grandmother, the Lady Zhajile, and it was a truly beautiful thing, more like a priceless work of art than an actual weapon of war. Jenefra’s grandmother had descended from the Azhorhria, a legendary tribe of desert warriors hailing from the enigmatic continent of Aeruillin. Their savageness and skill in battle was unparalleled. No one could cross the Ysthalinth without their permission. Death was swift and merciless to those foolhardy enough to travel the burning length of the desert without their good-will, for not only do the Azhorhria knew where the precious water-wells were hidden, the Oasis of Nashrhul was under their protection as well. 

It was also said that living in such constant close proximity to the Etherial Void had changed the Azhorhria in ways no human could understand, although how they had changed exactly remained murky and unknown. Zhajile had not lived long after giving birth to Jenefra’s mother but the tales about her strange ways persisted among the older generation who still remembered the black-haired, blue-eyed woman whose fierce and piercing gaze could scorch a man in her path. 

“The sword belonged to my mother’s mother and before that, her mother as well.” Jenefra informed as she indicated for Katya to pick up the blade lying on the table.

“I can’t take such a valuable heirloom, your Majesty. Not when it holds such consequence for you.” Stupefied, Katya could only clutch the lovely, slim blade with the intricately carved hilt and cross-guard, wondering if it would be terribly rude if she suddenly shoved the sword back to Jenefra. 

“I have no use of it, not being versed in the art of sword as you will be. I never learned. Father said there was no need for me to.” Here, a pang of regret shadowed Jenefra’s porcelain pale face. “He always said my beauty was my weapon and that no man could withstand it.” Her face twisted as if she was remembering something painful but the features smoothed out to its customary composed expression almost immediately.

“Grandmother could use a sword well. She was Dara, a princess of the Azhorhria and swordplay was in her blood the moment she was born. She lived and breathed warfare. From the stories my mother told me, I think there is much of her in you. Take the sword and I know you will use it well to bring honour to her name.” Jenefra said warmly and Katya accepted simply because she didn’t know how to reject the Queen’s wish. 

To her surprise, Lady Zhajile’s sword had fitted perfectly into her palm. It seemed to have been made especially for women to wield. The weight of the sword was effortlessly light and the steel blade was as hard as any tempered broadsword, despite its airy appearance. 

It wasn’t Medoc’s sword, the sword she lost when she hurled it into the eye of Ol'dem'brey, but she liked Zhajile’s blade well enough. 

“Do you not get tired, Lysander? I do. I’m so tired of sitting here in Thyrrinths Hold, huddling inside its walls like scared little mice. I’m so tired of waiting. Now that the light has returned, I do not want to hide anymore.” Katya said passionately. “I’m sick of waiting for something to happen. I want to be out there, looking for Ol'dem'brey!” 

Lysander looked into Katya’s face and even in the dim light, he could see that same feverish, hectic light glinting off her green eyes, like chaos-fire, whenever she spoke of the adamant-dragon that slaughtered her entire village including her beloved father. 

“Katya, you have much to learn. Going off like this will only get you killed. Besides, Ol'dem'brey could well be dead by now. Many dragons did not survive the Atonement.” Lysander reasoned, hiding his uneasiness from her. He never liked that burning gaze of hers when this mood came upon her; it resembled too much of a devoted fanatic. If he could, he would have out his arms around her, holding her close, bring some comfort to her tortured mind until her consuming need for vengeance, never far, left her. But the only time he had gave in to that impulse, Katya had shifted uncomfortably in his arms, like a restless deer, and he let go immediately. 

“But you don’t know that for sure. I don’t and the knowledge eats at my heart every day.” Katya insisted. “I have to go, Lysander.”

“You do not even know where to start looking.”

“I don’t care. I will search all the continents if I have to.”

“Then I’ll go with you.” 

“No, I’ll do it alone.” Katya shook her head emphatically

“In that case, I’ll have no other choice but to tell Jenefra of your plans then. And you know she’ll lock you up in the highest tower of the fortress before she’ll let you leave.” Lysander blackmailed shamelessly.

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“If you think I am going to just let you pass through the gates of Voldar and risk never seeing you again as you get your brains sucked out by hungry orcs, or decapitated by murderous trolls, then you must be stupid.” The young man crossed his arms and stared pointedly at a spluttering Katya.

“Lysander Dain!” 

“Lady Katya!” A voice wailed at that moment and both turned to see a woman, swathed in a thick cloak pulled tight against the ample body, walking towards them, treading through the mud carefully as she did.

“Just look at you!” Meregin wailed in such dire tones that Katya could almost see the large coils of hair piled on top of the maid’s hair quivering with outrage. The maid was almost half the height of Katya and thrice as large.

Katya looked down at herself. Oh yes...the mud. While she was not exactly plastered with it, patches were rather liberally spread on her boots, trousers and shirt. 

“Lady Katya, what have you been doing??”

Throwing a quick, guilty glance at Lysander who shrugged to indicate that she’s on her own, Katya tried for the most innocent expression she could muster. Smiling guilelessly, she lied, “Meregin, I...uh...slipped in the mud just now...it was muddy...” 

The maid snorted. “Slipped indeed and I supposed you just happened to pick up that sword of yours while slipping?” 

Launching into a heated tirade about young ladies who traipsed around, behaving like ill-behaved beggars, the maid looked about ready to dunk Katya into a vat of water and wash her spotlessly clean with a vengeance.

“Peace, Meregin!” Lysander laughed. “Go on with her, Katya. I’ll finish up here.”

Katya suddenly flashed one of her rare smiles of quick mischief as she stood up. “Next time, you’re going to be the one who’s covered in mud.” 

“We’ll see.” Lysander deliberately crossed his eyes comically, knowing it would make her laugh. 

Meregin frowned slightly at Lysander, the heavy folds of her face creased until the eyes could barely been seen. “As for Master Lysander, the Captain is looking everywhere for you.”

Lysander stood up quickly. “I better go see what he wants. Probably he’ll want to discuss the training schedules of last month’s new recruits.”

“We have guests for dinner tonight.” Meregin announced importantly. “Perhaps Captain Vaelaron wishes Master Lysander to overlook the security details. You and Lady Katya here are to attend at the Queen’s wish.”

“Guests? But from where?” Katya exclaimed in surprise and Lysander’s face mirrored the same amazement. The last time guests graced Voldar was when the Emperor of Xaramon sent his ambassadors for a possible marriage alliance with the widowed Queen.

Jenefra, of course, refused his suit with the tactful reason that she was still in mourning. But the two states managed to reach a cordial trade agreement, recognising the need for the solidarity in difficult times such as these. It wasn’t only the Erpheronians who suffered devastating losses in lives and crops during the Atonement Year. 

“I don’t know. All I know is that they will be present at the hall tonight. The cooks are in hysterics, trying to get a feast worthy of an emperor ready in such short notice and with what meagre supplies they have. Which also means I don’t have much time left to get Lady Katya prepared if we’re to stand here yakking like sick cows all day! Good day, Master Lysander.” Obviously indicating that Katya’s time with the young man was over, the maid took Katya’s elbow and firmly led her away.

With Meregin fussing over her, trying to reach up to wipe the mud off her face with a handkerchief and the young woman bearing the attention patiently, the two women moved towards the left wing of the Hold where Katya’s room was situated. 

Seen from a distance, Katya’s form was a distinct opposite to the plump maid’s. The girl from the Silvermarsh had grown tall and slender. She was still a child in many ways but, lately, the contours of her face had subtly re-moulded and narrowed in preparation for incipient womanhood. She wasn’t beautiful – delicate and fragile allure like Jenefra’s would have been out of place imposed on those lean features. But she had a handsomeness that was oddly attractive especially when her face was flushed in the heat of battle. Then, she would acquire a predatory grace that reminded one of a wolf, steadily moving through the shadows of a forest. 

What was more worrisome was that Lysander knew he wasn’t the only one who had noticed Katya’s burgeoning appeal. Jarat, Lord Nikos’s eldest born, had lately been pressing his attentions, a little too familiarly from Lysander’s viewpoint, on Katya. When he broached the subject to her, the young woman merely snorted rudely and said ‘Jarat? That…that limp leech?’ before going into howls of amused laughter.

Thinking back to their previous conversation, Lysander resolved that no matter what Katya said, if she leaves, he’d be going with her whether she wanted his company or not. What he told her was true enough, he could not stand letting her go like that and face a lifetime of not knowing what happened if she never returned. Still, remembering Katya’s reluctance and knowing her stubborn nature, Lysander began to think of ways to persuade the girl to allow him to come along.

If all else fails, a little blackmail never hurt anyone. The young soldier grinned as he made his way to find his father.

Dek stumbled out of the tavern and sucked in a deep breath of clean night air. The cheap ale was causing a ruckus inside his stomach but cheap or not; it felt good to drink something vaguely alcoholic again. It had been a terrible year but the Gods willing, it was going to get better. His carpentry skills were much in demand at the moment, after the darkness had lifted and the stately houses of Voldar needed refurbishing. The highborn were keen on reflecting their social status once more now there was light to see by. In the dark, everyone was the same but now, the poor still stayed poor and the rich, well, they were less rich maybe but rich still they were, Dek was thinking cynically.

Shouting a farewell to his mates inside, the heavyset man turned to go and as he did, he bumped into a woman hurrying unseen behind him. He knew instinctively it was a woman even though she was wearing a cloak that covered her from head to ankles. There was a subtle aroma around her that he could smell immediately. It wasn’t something he could describe; the closest the practical carpenter could get was that it reminded him of the sharp, green fragrance of a forest after a light summer’s rain. 

She stumbled back a little but before he could help her, another cloaked figure came out of the shadows of the alleyway and caught hold of her, steadying her by placing a hand on her arm. The force of the collusion slid the hood of her cloak slightly across her head, revealing her features, and Dek gaped at the sudden shining wealth of red-gold hair that spilled out from underneath.

She was the fairest woman he had ever seen and staring at her, for that brief and honest moment, he would have swum the entire length of the Darksea for her and more. 

“Please accept my apologies.” The woman smiled at him and Dek actually felt his heart skipped a beat then and there.

“No, no! It’s not your fault it’s mine. I mean, I should have looked, I didn’t realise you were so beau…..I mean, my apologies!” he stammered out, cursing himself silently for his idiotic babbling even though the words just came pouring out. 

“Then we both are apologetic.” Her smile deepened but there was no contempt in it; just gentle mirth. “Perhaps you can help us. It is our, my companion and I, first venture into your city and we would like to know how to reach Lady Jenefra’s castle.”

“Lady Jenefra?” Dek frowned. “Oh, you mean the Queen. She’s Sovereign now. After Caein’s death.” At the mention of Caein’s name, Dek unceremoniously spat into the gutter with disgust. 

The woman hesitated a second and she half-turned, as if in question to her companion for assurance.

“Yes. We seek the Lady Jenefra.” Her companion agreed and the voice belonged to a man. Like the woman’s, his voice and tones were well modulated with a hint of accent although none that Dek ever heard of. He was taller than Dek by half a head at least and the latter was considered of good height among his peers. The stranger’s face was completely hidden by the cloak and hearing the disembodied voice coming out from the gloomy recesses of the hood made Dek uneasy. 

After giving instructions on the way to Thyrrinths Hold, the woman thanked him and as she passed him by, Dek caught sight of something that made his eyes widened with shock. 

Even though the torches lit across on the walls of the building were dim, it was enough for him to see that the woman’s ears were longer than norm, almost extending to the back of her head and the ends were delicately curved and furled at the edges, half hidden by her hair but still clear nonetheless. 

Just like an elf from the stories, was what Dek’s muddled mind told him as he stared at the two cloaked figures. Staring long after they turned into a side street and were gone.

Back in her room, after taking the bath that Meregin prepared for her, Katya surveyed herself critically in the mirror, wearing only a thin shift. The chilly evening-air was bearable in her chamber, mostly due to the blazing fire in the wood stove at the corner.

She turned her head to the left slightly and squinted at her reflection for a long moment, before finally slapping a hand angrily against the smooth, cold surface and splaying her fingers across her own frowning face, obscuring and blocking what she didn’t want to see. 

There was no question about it; her hair was turning yet again. The dyed chestnut brown was fading and, here and there, silvery strands could be seen weaving and streaking through the length of her unbound hair. 

“Urgh…” she muttered unhappily. Meregin had promised her that this new dye would last longer than any of the previous ones she’d used. Since the time when her hair had turned this horrid shade of ghostly pale, she had diligently and regularly dyed her hair to an indeterminate shade of chestnut brown but to no avail. The silver would stubbornly over-power the strongest hair-dye and before long her hair would revert back to the bizarre odd colour she hated so much. 

Hated because it was a persistent barrier between her and most of the people around. Hated the sidelong stares and behind-the-hand whispers as she passed down the hall. Hated the involuntary bowing, born of apprehension and not of friendship, they sometimes gave her even more, as though she was highborn. She wasn’t! Why couldn’t anyone see that? That she was still Katya Ileri at heart, daughter of the former Captain of the Guards of Voldar and sometimes part-time barmaid in her father’s tavern, the One-Armed Soldier, when the regular girl was sick. 

Sighing, she shrugged into the deep blue satin dress (she refused to wear pastel colours, which were greatly admired now, despite Meregin’s hysterics. Pastels made her look like a sickly sheep in Katya’s opinion) with the black embroidered bodice laid out for her already, and quickly tied her hair into a plait and wound it tightly across her head like a coronet. At least this way the silver wasn’t so obvious. In the forgiving light of candles, she hoped that no one would notice until she got her hands on more dye from Meregin. 

As she paused by the door, she hesitated. Amalthea would have fits but…

The sword belted around her waist looked incongruous against the dress but without it, Katya felt strange, somehow empty. She was training to be a warrior and what was a warrior without her weapon? 

“Amalthea will just have to accept it or…or lump it!” Katya giggled a little as she thought of the other woman’s face. Amalthea was nice but she could be so old-fashioned at times! Protocols were to be followed strictly to the letter in Amalthea’s world and no aberration could be tolerated. 

Resolving to get the dye from the maid first thing tomorrow morning, Katya stepped out of her chamber, hungry enough to eat a horse. She walked down the length of the passageway and as she turned the corner with a purposeful stride, someone hailed her from behind.

“A moment of your time, Katya Ileri.” That smooth, condescending voice belonging to Jarat, son of Lord Nikos, said casually and Katya resisted an overwhelming urge to ignore him and continue walking. 

Am I never going to get to eat?? she thought with some asperity. But common courtesy compelled her to halt and turn around to greet this unwanted and unfortunately persistent suitor. 

“Yes, Lord Jarat?”, she said neutrally, letting none of her displeasure show. 

“Why such a hurry? I thought you and I might stop awhile and…chat.” Jarat’s lean, pockmarked face contorted itself into a suggestive leer as his gaze swept across the girl’s body like an oily rag.

“I am late for dinner and I do not wish to keep Her Majesty and the others waiting.” You idiot with the mind of a diseased goat, Katya added silently. “If you will excuse me.” Without waiting for a reply, Katya was about to walk away when Jarat’s hand shot out to grasp her wrist, his fingers unpleasantly sweaty as they touched her skin.

“You’re nothing but a common peasant slut, you know.” He told her conversationally even as his hand tightened his grip. “I’m growing tired of you playing hard to get. I was amused at first but really, it’s getting boring.”

“Indeed. Then I do beg your pardon for boring you. I will thank you now to let go of my hand, please.” Katya replied in an expressionless tone but her eyes were gleaming with a dangerous light. If Lysander or Vaelaron had been there, they would have undoubtedly advised Jarat to start running and never look back until he reached the Warnaka Mountains.

“Don’t try to play the outraged virgin with me, Katya. I know what you are, whoring yourself to Lysander Dain during those little practice ‘sessions’ of yours.” Without warning, Jarat pulled Katya towards him and pinned her body against the hard stonewall with his. “If you ever get tired of him, you know where to go.” His hand came up to grope her left breast as he started to pant, becoming excited by the fact that Katya wasn’t struggling to get away.

Lysander was right, he does have the breath of a fish left out to rot in the sun for days, Katya decided. She briefly considered using the sword strapped around her waist, but regretfully concluded that Lord Nikos might not appreciate having a son whose guts were spilling all across the stone floor. Something more direct then…. 

“Thank you for the good advice, Lord Jarat. I certainly know where to go now. You have been so enlightening.” The young woman answered blandly as she bought one leg with all the strength she could muster to slam it between Jarat’s legs. Her knee impacted very satisfyingly with a fleshy thud and the noble gave a high-pitched scream of pain as he doubled over, clutching the injured part with both hands. 

“I shall see you at dinner. That is, if you can hobble your way there.” Katya was saying with a ferocious grin when she noticed Lysander walking towards her rapidly. 

“Katya? Jenefra sent me to look for you.” He saw Jarat on the floor, now gasping out his agony in little breaths, and his expression changed to one of tightly controlled anger. It didn’t take a genius to deduce what just happened. 

Lysander was instantly furious but he spoke in a carefully moderated tone. “Did he hurt you?” 

Katya shook her head. “Do not worry, Lysander. Somehow I don’t think Lord Jarat would be bothering me, or the local sheep population, for some days to come. I’m famished, let’s go eat.” She reassured her friend and strode past him quickly.

Watching her go, Lysander bent down on one leg and grasped Jarat’s head by his hair, pulling it up so that the man could look him straight. Jarat’s eyes were mere slits as tears ran down his cheeks. He cowered slightly as if expecting Lysander to hit him. 

The young soldier considered saying something but concluded that Katya had more than put her opinions about Jarat’s unwanted advances across; instead he patted the other man’s head insultingly as if he would a beast and walked off to join the girl. 

Katya tried her best to stifle a yawn and almost failed before she covered it up with a fit of coughing. 

‘Excuse me. Um, crumb in my throat.” she explained quickly. 

“Just so. As I was saying, mushrooms taste especially delicious when mixed with carathien spice. You may not know this but….”

And I do not particularly want to know, you boring old fart, Katya thought gloomily as the man, she couldn’t remember his name, went on and went on about mushrooms of all things. 

She had been standing by herself, behind one of the heavy hanging curtains of the hall, enjoying the sight of the dancing couples on the floor when the man accosted her with his culinary stories of mushrooms. She knew him by sight, a minor dignitary from Jenefra newly formed Education section and apparently he only sought out Katya’s company because no one present would talk to him about mushrooms and the girl was too polite to tell him to go away.

Katya sighed inwardly and distracted herself by looking around the hall while still murmuring inanities along the lines of ‘is that so?’, ‘I never knew’, ‘how interesting’ to the nameless mushroom fanatic. He, on his part, was surprisingly flattered by the keen interest shown by the girl. 

Heartened, he launched into the different ways that mushrooms could be broiled and yet retained their delicate clarity of taste even as Katya’s mind drifted away. Her eyes tracked for signs of her friends inside the great, austere dining hall of the fortress, and she spotted Lysander being cornered by a gaggle of giggling females. She grinned involuntarily at the trapped and harassed look he wore as he was sized-up and devoured whole by the market of marriageable girls around him. It was no surprise to Katya that Lysander was considered quite the catch among the female population of Jenefra’s retinue. He was tall, he didn’t smell like leftover goat cheese, he was the Captain of the Guards’ son, he had a distinguished record in combat, and in Katya’s less critical moments she supposed that Lysander could be considered rather good-looking. 

Taking pity on him and upon herself - she had enough mushroom lectures for the evening and indeed, to last a lifetime - Katya murmured a vague excuse about attending to urgent matters. But the mushroom fanatic seemed not to have heard her, so intent on his own voice was he. Desperate, Katya looked around for a route of escape when she suddenly spied a well-built girl with a perpetual pouty expression on her face and dressed in a low-cut scarlet gown that barely concealed her assets, standing nearby. Katya recognised her as Linn Terolude, Lady Preya Arkaisa’s granddaughter. Katya also knew, much to her hilarity, that Linn loathed her, considering her a rival for Lysander’s affections. It was no secret to anyone that Linn tried all ways and means, subtle and some not so subtle, to get Lysander into her arms and probably into her bed as well. Katya didn’t hate Linn but there a streak of mean-spiritedness in the other girl that she sensed and did not love. A few weeks past, she had to stop Linn from ordering a servant girl to be flogged for the simple mistake of letting Linn’s bathing water turn cold. The incident had served to increase Linn’s open animosity towards her but she paid it no mind until now. 

Ha! Katya thought triumphantly as she dashed to Linn’s side and dragged her to stand beside the mushroom man. In her brightest voice, she announced, “Linn loves mushrooms. You should talk to her about them!” and then she darted off, seizing the chance to sweet freedom, but not before she caught sight of the fuming expression on Linn’s features as the man continued his sermons on the properties of mushrooms with scarcely a change in beat to his new listener. 

Still giggling, she reached Lysander and skilfully extricated her friend from the ravenous horde, informing him officiously that Captain Vaelaron wants him. With a grateful look, Lysander followed her and both retreated to the relative safety of a tiny secluded alcove. 

Katya told Lysander about her own narrow escape and he laughed when she comically re-enacted Linn’s glower for him. Linn’s overt overtures were very familiar to him by now. He treated her with polite disinterest and that was all.

“You look nice.” He complimented Katya casually, making sure that his tone was mild and nothing else. Actually, Lysander privately thought she looked more than nice but from experience he knew that praise, even sincere ones, made her nervous like a skittish colt. 

“Thank you.” Katya mustered a half-hearted smile. “Even though my hair resembles the stripes of a milking cow.” She plucked at her hair disconsolately. 

Lysander knew about the exasperation that Katya regarded her silvery locks with and that she religiously dyed it whenever it showed which, inevitably, it always does. In the dim brilliance of the hall, lighted by candles and torches, he peered critically at her hair and true enough, it was threaded here and there with that muted, gleaming silver-white strands among the dyed brown. Still, contrary to what Katya thought, Lysander didn’t think it looked odd but in a way, like Katya, it had an indefinable otherworldly quality to it.

“It’s not too bad. Doesn’t show up much. I will remind Meregin to get you more dye tomorrow.” Glancing around, Lysander continued, “I wonder where these mysterious guests are? They aren’t here yet and Jenefra wouldn’t disclose their identities to either Father or I, only that their safety is of the utmost importance.”

Katya creased her brows. “Whoever they are, they’re late.”

“I know. Maybe something has happened. I should ask Father about it.” Lysander said worriedly. He paused slightly. “Amalthea is going to have a fit when she sees you wearing that sword.” 

“Why do you think I’m staying out of her way for? She thinks it’s unladylike.” Katya nodded, a little deflated. Then she rallied and lifted her chin proudly. “I’m in training and you and the other men are allowed to bear arms into the hall so why can’t I? It is not fair.” The girl grumbled. Then her tone changed as she went on, “Lysander, it’s Jenefra.” She pointed out their Sovereign who was conversing with her closest advisor, Lady Amalthea and Cale Perim, the Queen’s wizard. For this occasion, Jenefra had discarded her habitual blacks and was wearing a pale green silk dress, which highlighted her golden hair to perfection. A circlet was wound across her head and one single pale diamond droplet hung from the thin metal filament to rest serenely upon her brow. Amalthea was dressed in elegant amethyst shades while Cale, a short, heavyset man who looked as if he was more at ease working in the fields than spell casting wore his customary black robes, but it was Jenefra who caught Katya’s full attention. 

“She is so beautiful, Lysander. I wish she was…happier.” Katya sighed.

“She does not have much to be happy about.” Lysander answered gravely.

“I know.” Katya had grown to love the gentle woman who had the weight of a kingdom and a legacy of deep betrayal upon her seemingly frail shoulders. “But she deserves to be happy,” A burst of almost child-like stubbornness darkened her eyes. “I want her to be happy.”

“She will be. She has us. We’re her family now.” 

Just then, the musicians ended the sprightly tune they were playing and were now striking up a stately air as the couples on the floor rearranged themselves for a pavane, a dignified court dance that used to be popular before the Atonement. Vaelaron, imposing in his constant black and silver uniform, approached Jenefra and the Sovereign Lady of the Epheronians accepted his offered arm, smiling shyly. The grizzled old veteran and the dazzling blonde woman walked out slowly to the centre of the floor as the dancing couples respectfully cleared a path for them. 

“Drafas insisted on leaving. I couldn’t stop him.” Amalthea was saying to Lord Kel of House Branoc who was a massive bearded bear of man. Looking alternately worried, annoyed and sad, she continued, “And I have not heard from him since the light has returned.”

“He is not a boy any longer but a man, full grown, and capable of making his own decisions.” Kel pointed out. 

“Well, to me he will always be that little terror who broke his arm while trying to slide down Yron’s Hill on a tray.” Amalthea replied tartly. “The south, can you believe it? He wants to go to the south. There’s practically nothing there but trees, trees and more trees! What does he plan to do? Chop those blasted trees down?” 

“You worry too much, Amalthea!” Kel laughed. “Drafas can take care of himself, he’ll be fine. Here, dance with me, at least it’ll distract you from thoughts of your wayward nephew for the moment.” He escorted a grumbling Amalthea to the floor as well and though the latter was nearly dwarfed to insignificance by her partner, they went through the slow motions of the ancient dance with care and grace.

Katya clasped her hands together with quiet delight; her face suddenly appearing younger and less tense as the sight of the dancing couples, weaving skilfully within the intricate movements of the pavane, entranced her sensibilities. 

“If only things could stay like this forever,” she was telling Lysander wistfully. “wouldn’t it….” and stopped, her eyes widening, words hanging in mid-air. She gasped, a sharp hurt cry, and doubled over. 

“Katya?”

The left side of her cheek was on fire, like a flame-hot brand had been pressed to the skin, and the pain was blazing a path through her mind, withering her thoughts to shades of red and black. She shook her head violently as if she could somehow alleviate the agony by doing so. Her hair flew free of its pinned constraints to tumble free about her shoulders. 

Katya, marked with an elven sigil

View picture in full size Picture description. Katya Ileri Dain, marked with the elven sigil. Image drawn by Enayla.

“Katya!” Lysander stooped next to her and watched with disbelief as silver markings, faintly shimmering at first but steadily growing more distinct and brighter as they seared the flesh high upon Katya’s cheek, just underneath the eye. It was like an invisible needle had deliberately etched the arcane looking sigil upon the skin.

“My face!” The girl choked out. “Gods…it hurts!”

The throbbing anguish beat out its staccato rhythm of warning and danger insistently inside her mind and the initial red-black fog intensified to an uncompromising white-hot flare. Katya almost screamed; she wanted to, desperately, find a relief for the pain, but instead she clamped down hard upon her lower lip and bit it till it bled. It helped for a little while, this small insignificant sting somehow anchoring the harsher hurting. She reached up with one hand, fingers clenched into claws, intending to tear whatever that was hurting her so but halted when Lysander firmly grasped her wrist in an unbreakable hold, stopping her from doing harm on herself.

Then as unexpectedly as it descended, the pain left, leaving a yawning emptiness of blessed relief. 

“I’m…I’m fine now.” Standing up gingerly, Katya shook her head slightly again. 

“Katya…” Lysander murmured. “Your hair…it’s completely silver again.” The striking tresses draped across the girl’s shoulders and back; a seemingly living cascade of soft, shimmering moonlight colour. Katya wound one of the strands between her fingers, staring at it, an intense look of puzzlement and uncertainty warring for dominance within her green eyes. Lysander released the hold on her wrist and reached up to trace lightly with one fingertip, the place where the inexplicable sign had materialised on Katya’s face. 

It too was gone now, leaving the skin smooth once again. Katya instinctively flinched from his touch even though the pain was no longer. 

An instinct, baseless yet compelling, prompted her to look up, towards the great stone archway with its wide opened oak-hewed doors heralding the front of the hall. 

Two figures were standing there, motionless as granite, the darkness of their cloaks almost blending in with the dimness. A glimpse of gold peeked out from beneath the shorter one’s hood and Katya blinked, recognition dancing just beyond her grasp. 

“Gadkehn!! ” A guttural scream soared above the music and that one single alien word was laden with unbelievable loathing. “Styraía!”

It was Linn Terolude, her vapidly pretty features twisted into something almost primeval by hatred as she glared, eyes wide and savage, at the two figures. 

Styraía…elves, Katya remembered that much from her impromptu Styrásh, the elven tongue, lessons from Melór, eons ago, during her ride from the Thaelon to Voldar. 
The Styraía are here! 

Even as her heart rejoiced in the unexpected arrival, Linn was undergoing a transformation, at once malignant and wholly unnatural. Her face lengthened and narrowed as her eyes receded to sickly gleaming yellow slits with cat-like black irises. Her fingers stretched to beyond normal human capacity and transmuted to wickedly sharp claws as her rounded arms twisted to ropy sinews of muscles. Worse was to come when her flesh rippled and surged like thousands of maggots writhing underneath skin and impressions of scales rose up to imprint upon the flesh. She gave a parody of a grin with her maw-like mouth and her teeth were filed to points like a shark’s. 

“By the Gods…” Horror was plainly etched upon Lysander’s face as he watched, unable to tear his eyes away.

Throughout her mutation, incongruous and yet adding a tinge to the nightmarish unrealness, Linn still wore her bright scarlet lace gown. When the changes finally ended, the curly blonde hair and the voluptuousness of flesh still remained and that made it more terrible somehow. That it was still possible to find suggestions of Linn Terolude within that reptilian form. 

The hall was deluged by screams and hoarse yells from the frightened guests. The reason was their panic was not Linn alone but because at least five to seven people were subjected to the same malevolent transformation. Katya recognised some of those changed and two of them were Nikos Lothari and his oily son, Jarat. Their faces twisted into semblance of torment but Katya realised, with a pang of revulsion, that they were actually experiencing extreme rapture. 

“Run!” she shouted at the top of her lungs as she tried to steer the guests present towards the entrance with Lysander’s help. “Get out now!”

Most of them heeded her cries of warning and a stampede ensued as everyone, regardless of position and rank, sprinted for the main entrance. 

Meanwhile, the dark transformations went on, unheeded, and when they were fully completed, instantaneous chaos reigned. 

Jarat, only recognisable by the purple doublet and black hose he was wearing, grabbed a gibbering man, too afraid to even move, and its claws sank into his chest with a wet, sickeningly tearing sound to rip his heart out. The man, bereft of a heart, still screamed endlessly, a soft whistling sound that dwindled until he toppled over face-down in a growing pool of his own blood. Similar scenes of carnage ensued as the creatures killed, without compunction, those who could not defend themselves, rending limbs and slicing into soft, vulnerable flesh. The floor of the great hall was soon slick with carcasses, gore and bits of human meat.

“Form a circle around the Queen!” Vaelaron shouted, pushing Jenefra behind him as he drew his sword out. One of the creatures came at him with astonishing speed and swung its arm at him and the Captain blocked it with his sword. Expecting to see a gaping wound, the soldier swore when the blade of his sword bounced harmlessly off the creature’s leathery skin. “Armeros’s teeth! Their hide is like stone. Lysander, protect Jenefra!” 

Lysander, with Katya, raced across the hall and joined his father. One of the creatures bore down on them and Katya drew her sword smoothly in a continuous movement to make a lunging stab at the belly. Like Vaelaron, her sword did not make a cut but slid off. Hampered by her long skirts, she nearly fell as she twisted from an oncoming blow but Vaelaron clasped her arm and dragged her along to push the girl within the growing circle of those who did not make it out of the hall in time. Around them, a thin line formed of the hall guards, tried to slow down the creatures by hacking at them, stopping their advance. There was no finesse involved, not against an enemy who did not seem to feel pain and whose skin was like armour. 

“Cale, what are they?” Jenefra asked her wizard, horrified. 

“I do not know.” Cale answered, his brown square face creased with apprehension. “What I do know is that we cannot let them go beyond the hall. They will slaughter the people of the Hold. Your Majesty, listen, I can raise a shield around us temporarily. It will hold off these beasts long enough for my colleagues to get here from the Tower.” 

“Do it then.” 

With a quick flick of his eyes, Cale spelled the immense oak door shut. It closed with a heavy, groaning wooden thud and the sound of invisible hands shutting in the creatures and barring the humans’ only route of escape was eerie and final.

“Your Majesty! You cannot stay here!” Amalthea exclaimed, terse with dismayed alarm as she heard Jenefra’s command. 

“No, the doors must stay spelled-shut. Cale is right. We cannot allow even one of these abominations to get out.” Jenefra was determined. “We have to fight until the other wizards get here.”

“Then they better do it fast.” Lysander muttered grimly as the creatures slaughtered the hall guards with systemic speed. One went down, his stomach slashed opened and entrails, pink and glistening within, shone dimly through the deep cuts. The man shrieked faintly with distress as the creature stood above him, its right arm, tipped with wicked ivory claws, ready for the final blow. But before it could, Lysander was there, blocking the reptilian arm with his sword. Knowing his weapon would be useless against the toughened skin, he clenched his free hand and punched the side of the creature’s maw, attacking the pliant web-like lining joining the side of the jaws and the beast staggered back slightly, unhurt but stunned. Lysander gathered the injured guard and half-carried him away from the creature’s immediate radius. 

The remaining gathered around Cale as the wizard started chanting, words of sorcery rolling off his tongue with sonorous intensity. When the spell was done, a dome of opaque gold sprung up and surrounded them as the creatures clawed futilely against the surface. The whispery sound of the claws slithering against the shield was deeply ominous but Vaelaron, Lysander and what few soldiers were left gratefully took the chance to regain their strength. 

“How long can this shield keep us safe?” Amalthea muttered direly under her breath as she tore off a strip of her gown as a makeshift bandage for a protesting Kel who had been hurt, four vicious bleeding welts across his upper arm, while protecting her from one of the mutated humans. “You there, attend to that injured man! Stop that whining and make yourself useful.” She directed imperiously to a cowering noblewoman. Within minutes, the advisor was efficiently bullying most of the unwounded cringing nobles into impromptu medical attention for the injured ones. 

Cale’s forehead was beaded with tiny droplets of water as the strain of maintaining the shield took its toll on him. “I can keep this up as long as need be.” he grated out with an effort. 

Outside, the thing that had been Linn Terolude sensed the futility, at least for the moment, of trying to break through the wizard’s power. Instead her eyes swivelled to the left of the hall and Katya, with a sickening lurch, saw what it was looking at. 

The Styraía! They did not enter inside the shield with us!

The two were standing at the same spot where Katya had first spied them, radiating an inexplicable aura of serene calmness within the chaotic madness. In that same pandemonium, Katya had completely forgotten about them and so did everyone else. Everyone, that is, except the creatures.

Linn crouched down, powerful muscle tendons bunching up with suppressed tension and it sounded a discordant roar; tensing to spring as its kind drew together for a similar attack. A fallen sword lay nearby and it picked the weapon up, wielding it with surprisingly agility despite the impediment of claws. 

“No!” Katya shouted. Without further thought, she pushed her hands through the barrier, breaking the membrane easily. Her arms sank to the elbows and then the rest of her body sliding in with ease, her outline shifting indistinctly as the translucent walls of the shield enveloped her. 

“Katya! Stop!” Lysander ran forward to prevent her but the smooth, deceptively thin surface of the shield was unyielding for him no matter how hard he punched. 

“That’s impossible! No one, inside or outside, can breach the shield.” Cale told Lysander roughly. And yet Katya Illeri did it, moving through as if it was mere mist, the wizard thought silently, perplexed. 

“End the spell then! Let me out!” Lysander’s eyes blazed with anger.

“I cannot risk it.” Cale said, his craggy face hard with implacability. 

“She’ll be killed! Your Majesty, please.” The young man turned to his Queen to implore.

“Wait, Lysander.” Jenefra was similarly anxious but she knew too that she could not sacrifice the lives of those still remaining within although the decision twisted her heart painfully. “Katya is…different. You know that, as do I. No one could have gone out of Cale’s shielding but she did.”

“As a soldier of the Palace Guards, your paramount duty is to remain by your ruler’s side and protect her at the expense of your own life if there is need.” Vaelaron told his son expressionlessly. “I taught you better, Lysander.” Still, the older man’s eyes, for those who could see, was sympathetic as Lysander turned back and pounded his fists against the shield with helpless rage.

The moment she tore free of the shield barrier, Katya started to run as Linn, with another rasping snarl, leaped up and like the girl, it sped, loping towards the strangers that stood unmoving even at the approach of grave danger.

“Run!” The girl screamed to the elves but it was as if they were deaf or deliberately unheeding to her warnings.

The creature was almost upon the Styraía and it lifted its sword high, ready to cleave their heads in two.

The weapon descended, the steel of the blade throwing off scintillating glimmers of light as it fell with certain doom.

Doom, which was averted when Zhajile’s sword was there to hinder the elves’ death. A metallic sound of steel meeting steel resounded loudly as Katya flung Zhajile’s sword in a vertical motion to thwart the other. 

The two blades locked and stayed as the human girl and the thing that had been of the same race as the former once, not so long ago, looked at each other.

“Katya Ileri…” The creature hissed slowly, the syllables coming out awkward and thick as they seethed from that distorted mouth.

“You can still speak.” Katya whispered. “Oh Linn…” 

“The kwagega…gone…we are…one. We live…again.” 

“Wait, Linn, if you can hear me, listen. Let me help you. The wizards can find out what happened and I’m sure they can reversed the change!” 

There was a brief moment when Katya thought whatever vestiges of Linn’s consciousness that might have remained heard her as the creature gave the barest shudder at her words. The sword it held dipped and lowered fractionally. Behind her, the rest of the beasts halted, unsure at the sight of their leader’s own uncertainty. 

“Linn.” The other girl’s name was a fleeting breath of hope upon Katya’s lips. 

But, like a snake rearing its ugly head for an attack, Linn shrieked instead and Katya knew with sorrow and anger that it was too late for the other, once human, girl as the sword regained its momentum and path as it rose and fell.

A cold shard of nothingness slipped into her mind then, driving all coherent thoughts away and her hand moved before she even knew it was in motion. It was a small movement, scarcely noticeable to the naked eye, so swift was it as time slowed down in a God’s hourglass. Using the blade of the dead Azhorhria princess, she drove the steel tip into the creature’s open maw, piercing the top of the vulnerable throat. 

Greenish red ichor, thick and viscous, oozed out from the wound inside the mouth as Linn screamed and gagged on her own blood. It dropped its sword and glared at the human girl, malice and fresh hate radiating crystal-bright and vengeful. 

It drew back an arm as it screeched with pain and with claws extended, intending to decapitate, swung it towards Katya’s unprotected head.

Inside the shield, Lysander was shouting, “Look out!” as fear twisted his belly. 

Katya’s eyes flared to a vivid white heat, the green irises dimming until they completely disappeared. A glowing nimbus appeared, surrounding her body, and spilling forth a fiery radiance of its own. Dazzling and terrifying, it grew to the scorching intensity of a small miniature orb. 

The beast halted and drew back, baffled by this turn of events.

Katya Ileri burned. The sense of immense power sprang up like witchfire and coursed through her veins, setting every nerve alight with the recognition of invulnerability. Where this unknown force was coming from, she did not know, only that it was irresistible and undeniable. Katya threw her head back and laughed with sheer delight, a sound at once high and wild like a peregrine’s scream when it spied its prey. The strands of her hair lifted from her shoulders as if blowing in a tremendous wind, creating an aureole of silver, framing her exultant face. She flung her hands high above her head as the nimbus weaved whirls of light around her, like a pillar of flame, the height of which extended almost to the roof of the massive hall. 

Is this how a God feels? she thought with exhilaration as she closed her eyes, savouring the waves of flawless energy surging within her body. The strange markings re-materialised once more upon her cheek, throbbing fiercely as it scorched forth a pale silvery light of its own.

“Don’t look! Close your eyes!” Vaelaron ordered as he threw up his arm against his face, protecting himself, and turning his gaze away from the girl who was blazing as fiercely as a white sun. Those encased inside the shield obeyed, unable to look upon Katya without going blind. “Do it, boy!” He grasped the side of Lysander’s head roughly and turned it away, the young man letting his father do so with reluctance.

Then the girl’s eyes opened and incandescent brilliance detonated within the hall.

The creatures, including Linn, howled with sudden terror as the light devoured them hungrily, drawing them within its encroaching sphere. In an instant, each one was incinerated on the spot where they stood as they imploded, the sight shockingly swift, and only piles of ash remained to mark where they once existed.

When they were gone, the light disappeared, leaving Katya untouched, her eyes wide and unseeing but rapidly returning to the normal greenness. The burning sigil faded away to nothing as well. She swayed gently once before sliding down to a kneeling position. 

Before she could topple over, the Styraía, who had remained so still throughout like unconcerned spectators and had been seemingly unscathed by the white light, finally moved. The smaller one caught the girl and held her tight. The hood of the cloak fell back to reveal a female, alabaster fair with delicately shaped features, and her ears were long and furled. Katya wasn’t surprised to see it was Ar’leiná, the elven woman from the Thaelon. It was merely one more aspect in this continuing surreal and nightmarish dream where humans turned into serpentine things and elves appeared out of no-where.

“They have arrived.” Jenefra murmured as those around her gazed with disbelieving wonder. “They really came.” 

Katya half-turned to stare blindly at the elven woman. “What have I done?” she asked hopelessly, sounding like a lost child. Now that the power was gone, returned to whatever depths it rose, she realised the enormity of what had just transpired. She had killed. Nikos, Jarat and a score others including Linn Terolude, poor, silly, vain Linn who never had an original thought in her pretty head except dresses, men and jewellery. 

“I did not mean to…” Katya whispered, gazing at her hands, which were speckled with tiny droplets of green-red blood. In their last moments, it was true they had changed into horrific, unnatural beings but that didn’t discount the fact that they had been mortal once. And she eradicated them without reflection or compassion. They had been changed from being people she had once known and into fundamental enemies.

The remembrance of power flowed through her again, a pale shadow of the thrill she had experienced, but it was enough to make Katya shudder with dread and treacherous longing. 

Ar’leiná looked sombre and said nothing. She merely continued to cradle Katya protectively in her arms like a babe. 

Lysander was the first to her side when the shield dissolved. He grasped her cold, unresponsive hand. “What have you done to her?” he shouted angrily at the elven woman, not caring that he was yelling at a supposed mythological being. “You sent those creatures, didn’t you?”

“We have done nothing.” The other Styrá spoke as he drew his own hood over his head. Like his companion, he was beautiful, incredibly so. But while the first elf’s loveliness still contained an element of approachability, the male’s beauty was ancient and harsh in its flawless precision. “Those who attacked you are what my people call hárf'á'dalaían and they are deadly. We came to warn you but it appears that we are too late. My apologies, your Majesty.” He indicated his head towards Jenefra who acknowledged his regret with impressive aplomb, considering that she just watched a general massacre happened inside her hall.

“I received your missive and I thank you for coming. For my part, I apologise for the unprepared state we greet your arrival. Blood is always very hard on the carpeting.” Jenefra answered, obviously shaken, but one of her eyebrows tilted slightly upwards with irony.

The male elf knelt, folding his long limbs with limber grace, next to Katya. “I said we would meet again if She dreams it. And apparently She did. We are ill met in these dark times, hárf’á’chón. Esh-Avá’s fist tightens ever more across this land and around your race.” He laid one cool hand across her brow and at his touch, the girl’s cár'áll, still radiating a formidable white light but which was invisible to mortal eyes now, slowly soothed to a soft, glowing luminosity. 

No one noticed Cale Perim as he gave an imperceptible start of surprise. Only a wizard with considerable magic abilities could have seen what just happened and Cale was considered one of the most powerful ever to walk in this age. Just as quickly, he smoothed out his features again even as the eyes narrowed with speculations.

At those even tones, tinged with that same veiled sardonic amusement, the fog from Katya’s mind lifted and her eyes snapped with an alert awareness once more. Her fingers closed around Lysander’s firmly as she peered sourly at the elven man with the perfect, aristocratic features of a God.

“Why can’t you ever make sense for once, Melór?” she demanded with automatic exasperation. “You’re giving me a headache.” 
 


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