Xayah jumped upward into the trees’ foliage, dodging the gunfire that exploded from the temple's walls. The humans called their weapons “Kashuri rifles”. They were deadly, and the town's guards were obviously trained warriors. But they were too late. Too late to hit her. Too late to stop the tribesmen she commanded, who had already climbed the ancient temple and reached what it guarded: a quinlon.
It was a circle of five massive rocks, orbiting around each other, floating in the sky. A great ward, it contained ancient enchantments, which held back and limited the natural magic of this land.
From the quinlon's gray stone hung a dozen ropes, attached to spikes that the vastayan tribesmen had cast and hammered into it. The tribesmen were the Kepthalla vastaya. Their bodies were feathered, like Xayah's own tribe, but their heads were long, and from their crown grew great horns.
Hanging from some of those lines, with ropes tied to their waists, were the bodies of the slain. And on the ground far below were more dead bodies. A dozen comrades who had died trying to reach the stone—killed by the humans’ cruel missiles. But their sacrifice had, at least, secured the line Xayah needed.
She nodded to Rakan, her lover and partner. He stole a kiss from her as he took the bundle she held. Then Rakan bounded into the treetops.
“Whooo!” He screamed in joy as he skipped from tree to tree before jumping into the sky with breathtaking speed.
His final leap traversed the height of the tower, a distance greater than a dozen men standing on each other's shoulders, and still he was rising higher and higher into the air.
Xayah felt her lungs empty. So many had died for this moment... and in it she feared her lover might join the dead. Everything seemed too bright. Rakan's cape glittered like the sun through the thin autumn clouds. The guns were tracking him. Aiming. It all came down to this. But the energy of his leaps was slowing...
Above him, on one of the ropes, a Kepthalla tribesman swung down from his hiding place, toward Rakan. But Rakan was slowing. And the guns began firing at him.
It was a ludicrous plan, based on some idiotic circus move she'd seen Rakan perform. Xayah knew she shouldn't have used it. She was risking the battle, the fate of this tribe, and her lover's life all on Rakan's luck and athleticism. He was a warrior and an acrobat certainly. But there were so many guns. If he failed—if he hesitated—if he slowed... if he got hurt...
The tribesman hanging from the stone held out his hands and Rakan grabbed them, propelling himself even further upward.
And then he was on the side of the quinlon. He ran up its near-vertical surface, his cape flowing behind him majestically. And he was laughing. Laughing and mocking the mortals firing at him.
“You beautiful bastard,” Xayah whispered joyfully. She felt her hands unclench at last.
“What, warleader?” said the diminutive Kepthalla messenger-singer beside her.
“Sound the retreat! Get everyone off that rock,” Xayah roared.
The messenger blew the horn he carried. Its strangely deep and melancholy sound echoed through the forest and off the temple's walls.
The Kepthalla tribesmen began to flee from the quinlon. Rappelling, jumping, falling, before running for the forest. They were easy prey for the human marksmen... but they didn't take the bait. The mortals knew that Rakan was the only target who mattered now. But now he was alone.
Gunshots exploded around him, peppering the stone of the quinlon with tiny holes. When he reached the top, Rakan set down the package, then glanced around in confusion. He looked down at Xayah and shrugged.
“No, you damn idiot!” Xayah screamed. “The matches! The fire sticks behind your ear!” But her words were lost in the gunfire and distance.
Xayah leapt to the top of the trees, exposing herself to the marksmen, and mimed reaching behind her ear.
The bullets were impacting all around him, sending up tiny shards of shrapnel and dust. But Rakan only covered his eyes from the afternoon glare and looked to Xayah. Seeing her gesture, he seemed to suddenly remember the rest of her plan.
He yanked a match from the feathers behind his ear. Struck it on the rock. Leaned over the bundle with it. Then jumped clear.
He used his cape to direct his fall, gliding and banking, somehow always evading the gunfire directed at him. He was a battle-dancer, and their true skill was feeling what an enemy would do, even before they did.
He crashed through the treetops, lost control briefly, hit a tree limb, then somehow backflipped and landed gracefully beside her.
“I am gorgeosity in motion!” Rakan shouted in triumph. He held the smoking match out to Xayah. “Do we still need this fire stick?”
“Ashai-rei,” Xayah swore while rubbing her forehead. “No, we don’t need the match anymore.”
“Now what?” Rakan asked.
“Watch as one of the humans’ own weapons—a bomb used against our people in Navori—watch as it destroys our prison!” Xayah shouted, not to Rakan, but to the Kepthalla tribesmen gathering around her.
Only silence replied… followed by another round of gunfire raking the woods.
“Rakan, did you remember to light the fuse?” Xayah asked with all the calm she could muster and wondering, not for the first time, why she trusted him with these things.
“Fuse?” Rakan asked.
But before Xayah could scream, an explosion cracked overhead.
The largest rock of the quinlon broke apart. It was larger than any house, and its remains crashed into the other floating stones around it. And then the other, surrounding rocks stilled, no longer rotating.
“I put the fire stick on that little string,” Rakan said as the remaining stones of the quinlon began to quiver. Then, all at once, they plummeted downward. The earth shook as they crashed into the valley and monastery below.
The giant quinlon was gone, and the countless centuries of magic it had held back was suddenly released, like a dam crumbling and releasing a flood.
Around Xayah, the forest shone with light. Will-o’-the-wisps pulsed to life like miniature stars. Oddly-shaped beings of wild magic, glimmering with the light of the spirit realm, faded in and out of existence all around her. It was glorious.
She looked to Rakan, and he smiled back at her. His cape shimmered, crimson and gold. His feathers ruffled and peacocked. As the magic swelled, the faint impression of horns grew out from his sharp cheekbones, but he batted them away in favor of darkening his face to a color matching Xayah's.
“There’s so much, I can feel it. I can feel it changing us,” Xayah said as she breathed it in. It was as if a great iron bar had been clamped tightly around her chest, throat, and skull for years, and now she was finally free of it. Her feathers rose around her and she realized with only a passing thought she could effortlessly change their color, shape, and size. Though the initial wave of freed magic was ebbing, it took only a flick of her consciousness for her to rise into the air, high above the ground.
“We are born from here. On these edges of this world. Half of spirit, half of form.” The Kepthalla tribesmen gathered beneath Xayah, and her voice boomed as she spoke. “This is what we have fought for. This is the land of your ancestors. As it was. As it is meant to be.”
Xayah slowly floated back down to the ground. The tribesmen around her, with their mouths open in wonder, were also transforming. Invigorated by the magic suddenly available to them, they cheered, laughed, and roared in joy.
Xayah's Kepthalla messenger-singer—a previously shy runt—grabbed her and spun her around in a hug without warning. “You did it!” he screamed in joy. “You did it!”
“Now, you must defend it,” Xayah laughed as she gently pushed from him, allowing herself to float away.
The messenger, with the slightest twist of the magic available to him, transformed his sounding horn. Now it was longer than a tiger, and a dozen bone pipes grew from the instrument. Into it he blew a song as joyful as it was overwhelming.
Behind Xayah the forest was moving. The trail they had taken here, which turned right then left, now also turned the other left, into the spirit realm. A direction that went through places-past, places beyond the forests—and would transform any who took it.
“An ancient pathway has opened!” Xayah whispered in awe. She had not expected the magic here to be so strong. She turned to where Rakan had been, but found him missing.
She spotted him at the forest edge, his cape glowing like the afternoon sun. He was looking outward.
“Mieli?” she asked as she approached, using the ancient word for lover.
“We destroyed it,” Rakan said solemnly.
“Yes. We are free—that quinlon is no more.”
“No, their town.” He indicated the temple and the human settlement around it.
Vines larger than wagons churned the earth. They ran like massive waves from the forest, smashing a dozen houses into flinders.
The other woodwoven houses in the town were growing uncontrollably, folding in on themselves and crushing all inside, as they transformed into colossal trees.
A mortal woman, clutching a small child, ran from her home to a horse cart. Behind her, a man barely escaped being squashed by a huge vine that fell and crumbled his house.
He was carrying an armful of their possessions. He threw them into the cart, but as the wave of powerful freed magic overtook them, the vehicle burst to life, reforming itself as the plants from which it had been fashioned. Xayah watched as it changed into a giant insect-like creature made of wood and vines. The man slashed at the creature with a walking stick, before fleeing from it with the woman and child.
An old man with a long braid struggled on the undulating earth. He scrambled for a few paces before a pair of glowing forest spirits, shaped like ghostly butterflies, grabbed him. The spirits dragged him into the air. Then, growing tired of his struggles, they dropped him as they rose over a tree. He landed with a thud. His soul shuddered against the confines of his body, seeking to escape its own shell and join the forest.
Other mortals were running past him. Xayah could see their souls buffeting against the confines of their bodies too. An old woman grabbed the old man with the braid, lifting him to his feet, and together, limping, they fled... as the earth and spirits churned around them.
“The humans’ greed brought this to them,” Xayah said finally.Rakan’s said nothing in reply. Xayah followed his gaze back to the destruction her plan had wrought.
After their victory, Rakan and Xayah had received a call for aid from the Vlotah tribe, and it had taken three moons to travel to their main village.
It wasn’t much to look at. The Vlotah had always been a small tribe, even in ancient times. The town was little more than a couple dozen warping trees that surrounded a crystal pool. As Xayah and Rakan were led into the village by a guard, a few of the trees grew openings and Vlotah tribesmen stepped outside to see who the visitors were.
The Vlotah were lithe and narrow, but with massive shoulders that protruded vertically from their backs like wings of bone. Their iridescent fur glittered in the light, first green, then purple, all over their bodies—save for their faces, which were creamy-white and vaguely feline in aspect.
But tints and vapors of sickly yellow and black seemed to be weeping from the trees, the vastaya, and even steaming from the pool. It was the color of hunger and sickness.
Xayah whispered that she thought the vastaya here looked too weak to fight, or even help her and Rakan fight.
“The magic here is unclean,” Rakan observed. “We should leave quickly. It’s upsetting my coat.” He ruffled his feathers.
“Rakan, a victory here would raise awareness of our cause across Zhyun. We need another success to prove a rebellion is possible.” Xayah looked again at the tribesmen around her, pitying them, and confirming her suspicions that they were too sickly to fight for themselves. “The Vlotah tribe asked for our help. And clearly they need it, my love.”
“Is helping them more important than me looking amazing?!” Rakan said incredulously, then flashed a smile to reveal he was joking.
“Obviously not,” said Xayah, playing along and finding herself cheered by his humor.
“We have to pri-or-i-tize!” Rakan cried, emphasizing every syllable.
“Rakan and Xayah, I presume?” a voice rumbled.
In the center of the village, sitting cross-legged on a boulder shaped like an eight-legged turtle, was an ancient Vlotah. He was white-furred and wearing a crown shaped to look like elk horns.
“I am Leivikah, the Vlotah tribe’s elder,” he said, before coughing.
Xayah and Rakan bowed. A crowd formed around them. Dozens of the Vlotah tribesmen were whispering in their own tongue.
“We have heard of how you saved Consul Akunir and Speaker Coll at Puboe. I am hoping you can help us,” Leivikah said, with a weak voice that barely rose above the crowd's whispers.
Xayah glanced over to her partner and he took his cue.
“I am Rakan,” he confirmed with that deep voice he used sometimes. It was loud and certain, and somehow it held a smile behind it. Its confidence silenced the crowd. Then, with his shoulders squared and his back arched, Rakan turned so as to make eye contact with everyone around them. “And this is Xayah, the Violet Raven. You have heard of her triumphs, and her call for rebellion.”
And just like that, the crowd and elder were hanging on his words, excited he was here. Xayah shook her head, amazed how Rakan could so often say almost nothing, but with exactly the right feeling. She secretly nudged him in the back, keeping him focused.
“Oh, uh… We have answered your summons and we are happy to visit you as friends, or… as comrades. Tell us how we can help.” Rakan finished by flashing his glowing smile.
“Thank you, Rakan and Xayah, our need is great.” Leivikah rose unsteadily with his staff, then pointed toward the mountains. “North of here is the Kouln temple. It contains a small crystal quinlon. For many generations it has conditioned the magic of this region, and we have lived in peace with the mortals who tended it.”
He coughed and indicated the sickness around him. “But black-and-red-clad warriors calling themselves Yanlei have taken over. Now the magic here has dwindled and darkened. We attempted to retake the temple with the good monks of Kouln, but were driven back. Now we are too weak and too few to fight. It is our hope that, with your help, our allies can reclaim their sacred place.”
Xayah frowned and looked at the poverty around her. She began speaking then stopped herself, before finally saying with irritation, “You want us to help some humans retake a quinlon?”
“We have heard of your great successes,” Leivikah said.
“You heard we destroyed the quinlon in the valley of Houth and freed the Kepthalla tribe,” she said.
“The monks of Kouln are—”
“Human,” Xayah snapped, interrupting the elder. “Why would we—and why should any of you—care about squabbles between the mortal races? You ask us to help those who strangled the magic of these lands? Are you a fool?”
Elder Leivikah snarled and then looked to Rakan. But Xayah's partner didn't appear to be paying attention. He was humming and balancing a twig he'd just found on his index finger.
“We will help you. But only by destroying the quinlon—not by surrendering it to some monks,” Xayah said finally.
“That will destroy the valley town!” the elder exclaimed.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Many people will die!”
“Many humans will die,” Xayah said, correcting him.
“And when the humans try to take back their lands? What will—”
“With magic, you can defend it.”
“This is no way to speak to an elder!” Leivikah roared at Xayah, spittle coming from his mouth. “You do not have rights here, child! You make demands without knowing our tribe’s ways. Your fame as a warrior does not make you an elder!”
As Leivikah ranted, Rakan stepped away from Xayah and darted along the edge of the crowd, like a predator circling its prey. What few warriors this town still contained quickly backed away from the challenge Rakan was implying. Suddenly he leapt up onto the giant stone, landing beside the elder. Rakan stood over him for a moment.
“Do you want me to slap you off that rock?” Rakan asked.
Leivikah saw all of his guards had stepped away from the famous battle-dancer. Then he stammered, “I… I meant no disrespect.”
Rakan continued, “My lady speaks wisdom, fool. And she speaks only the truth. Listen. And watch your tone. Or we’re gonna have a problem.”
Rakan leapt back down from the rock as the elder pleaded. “My tribe only wants to return to the way it has been. The monks of Kouln have never broken their promises to us, and have protected us. We are not war-seekers like you.”
Rakan walked over to Xayah, adjusted his feathers, and then scratched his ear.
“What do you think?” Xayah asked quietly.
“About what?” Rakan replied in a whisper.
“About what he was saying?”
“I wasn’t listening to the words,” Rakan shrugged. He kissed her on the cheek and said, “You were both yelling. You were angry, but he is just scared.”
Xayah smiled, realizing Rakan was right before whispering, “Thank you, mieli.” Then she gave him a quick kiss on the lips.
“I’m sorry, Elder Leivikah,” she said apologetically with a bow. “I also meant no disrespect.”
Then Xayah placed her hand over her heart and said, “You are afraid. There is no shame in that. But as long as you rely on humans to keep their promises, your tribe will never be free. And that is what I truly fear. How many generations has it been since you saw a child in this village? More than most of our people? Look around you. Your numbers were dwindling long before these new warriors appeared. But in the Kepthalla forests they have hope for the future. They hope that children will be born again—because, at last, the magic there is free!”
She looked around the crowd—like Rakan had—making eye contact with as many tribesmen as she could. “Rakan and I have fought these Yanlei before. Many know them as the Order of Shadow, and they are dangerous. Very dangerous. But we are willing to fight for you. We want to help you!”
Then Xayah let her shoulders drop, and shook her head. “Neither honor nor oath-magic binds you to those Kouln monks anymore—so we offer you a chance to take back your lands. You need only the courage to accept our offer and protect what is yours!”
The elder stared at her for a long moment before replying, “You are truly as fierce as your reputation, Xayah of Lhotlan, and we thank you. We will consider your words, and I will have our answer for you in the morning.”
As the elder rose to his feet, Rakan asked Xayah, “Are we staying the night?”
“Looks that way,” she replied.
Rakan pointed randomly at the crowd. “Which one of you wants to make me dinner? And… do you have chocolate?!”
Unsure of the human substance he was seeking, the crowd exchanged confused looks. Rakan turned back to Xayah and with annoyance cried out.“No chocolate?!”
In the morning, Elder Leivikah made his decision. He swore his people would defend any lands reclaimed by the wild magic released, and he assigned the few warriors he had to Xayah's command.
After looking at their weakened and sickened condition, and because she knew the Vlotah tribe would need its warriors to defend their lands later, Xayah decided it was best to use them only as a diversion.
So while Xayah and Rakan were attempting to retake the temple alone, the Vlotah warriors would instead attack the Yanlei patrols—and hopefully draw some of their numbers away from the temple.
It took Rakan and Xayah a day to walk from the Vlotah's forest to the giant village the elder had spoken of.
Looking down on it from the hilltops, Xayah and Rakan saw it was far larger than any they had encountered in years. It was a small city, which dominated the entire valley with hundreds of dwellings.
“Can we go around it?” Rakan asked.
“No. Not unless we climb on the bare cliff walls surrounding the city.”
“Climbing could be fun.”
“We would be exposed the whole time we were on the cliff’s face. If the humans have ballistae, or their Kashuri rifles…”
“I hate tubebows,” Rakan grumbled. Then he gestured to the hills beyond the town. “I can hear the quinlon disturbing the magic. But I can’t see it. A forest is after the town.”
“We can rest there. But we must pass through the town without being spotted by the black-and-red-clad ones. They will know of us from what happened at Puboe and with the Kepthalla. We must try to look like humans.”
“Perhaps some of the Vlotah can circle back to help us get around it,” Rakan suggested.
“They are too scared and too weak, Rakan,” she replied. “And they would only draw attention to us.”
Xayah began pulling items from a bag she had taken from the village. “The Vlotah gave us human-style foot coverings. And we’ll wear big hoods.”
“That cloak is gray,” Rakan said with breathless horror. “That’s not even a color!” He snapped a twig off a tree and threw it with great force into the forest.Xayah looked down at the garments, and then she too shuddered at the thought of putting these coarse human fabrics over her feathers.
Guards dressed in black and red were closing the gate and waving the last visitors into the city as night fell. Xayah ducked her head down as she and Rakan walked past them.
As she entered through the gate, she stole a glance at the great town's wall. It was massive, many times the height of the tallest tree in the forest.
“Rakan, could you jump over this wall?” Xayah whispered.
“Why?” he asked.
“If we had to get out of here quickly,” she said.
He looked up at the wall, judging the distance, before saying, “No—too little clean magic here.”
She could feel the ill magic used to construct the wall. It was alien, even for mortal magic. Dark and angry. She had only felt its like once before... at Puboe.
The enormous thorn vines, each wider around than a horse, hadn't been asked or coaxed into dragging these stones into the wall—they had been goaded and forced. And the magic that held the wall and ramparts above her wailed and growled.
The wall would be a powerful barrier against invaders, but she wondered what would happen when the vines, which had been holding this magic, were suddenly let free.
The gates closed behind them and locked. Xayah and Rakan hid amongst the travelers and peasants who walked down the main road toward the town's center.
“There is a mage here,” Rakan said.
“I hear their magic,” Xayah replied, “but I can’t see them.”
On a tower made out of cut and dead trees, a man stood in burgundy robes. From his eyes a strange darkness emanated, and he held an ornate brass bell which misted a dark vapor.
“He is looking for vastaya and yordles,” Rakan said with certainty.
Xayah grabbed Rakan's arm and pulled him into an alleyway, as the mage screeched a horrific sound. He had seen through their disguises. Horns of alarm blared from the walls answering the mage's cry.
Footsteps and guards shouted behind them. Xayah and Rakan ran, dodging from alleyway to alleyway, but soon discovered the streets formed a labyrinth.
They could feel the mage scrying to find them. He was swinging the magically touched bell. It chimed softly but let free an invisible lash of magic in their direction. Again and again, it released a sound no mortal would hear—or feel the pain of—but which cracked like a giant's whip in the ears of the vastaya. One of his strikes crashed down the alleyway, just missing Rakan as he dove against a wall.
The bell's magic vibrated their feathers and for a moment Xayah thought they had been discovered. But then the mage rang the bell in a slightly different direction, down another alleyway. He was searching blindly, clearly uncertain what and where they were.
Ahead, at an intersection, the Yanlei guards were grabbing townsfolk and dragging them out into the open where the mage could see them.
One of the guards, a leader, was dressed differently than the rest. He wore a dark gray vest of rough cloth, unbuttoned. To the vastaya, he seemed malformed, touched by some sort of corruption. Rakan nodded to the black-within-black tattoos covering both of the man's arms.
“Shadow magic,” Rakan growled.
Xayah nodded. “They are insane.”
“Let’s see if he can dance,” Rakan said. On instinct Xayah grabbed her lover's hand and held him back.
Just then, the man's tattoos came alive. They rose from his body like smoke. Their darkness solidified into barbed talons like a spider's legs, each holding a cruel hook-sword. Then these shadow forms slashed a villager who had resisted being pulled out into the open. The man hit the ground screaming, a red gash along his back.
Rakan and Xayah swung against the wall under the overhang of the building next to them, then slipped into another alleyway that stank of rot and garbage. Then seeing it free of guards, they ran with everything they had. Bounding off the walls and drawing on some of the reserves of magic they held within themselves for greater speed. But the alleyway curved around. They discovered it led only back to the wide street.
Behind them several of the black-and-red-clad warriors appeared on a balcony and leapt down.
Rakan scanned the street, looking at each of the houses and inhabitants. Then he grabbed Xayah's hand and dragged her around the corner toward a nearly ruined house with failing timbers.
“What are you doing?” Xayah asked.
“This one is good,” Rakan responded, indicating the house's recently swept entranceway and clean windows.
“What?!” Xayah responded.
One of the guards down the street spotted the desperation of their pace, and indicated the pair to his commander. The tattooed brute was still standing over the wailing peasant.
“What’s wrong?” a woman's voice asked.
Xayah turned and saw an elderly woman dressed in yellow. She had long white hair held up in an elaborate braid, and her eyes were narrowed in suspicion.
“Nothing,” Xayah replied. “We were just—”
“The guards are looking for us,” Rakan interjected. “We need help.”
The woman looked to the guards, then back to Xayah and Rakan. Rakan gave her a hopeful smile. “We mean no harm,” he assured her.
“Quickly, come through the side door,” she said, gesturing to the alleyway beside her house. Then she closed and barred the front entrance behind her.
Rakan and Xayah ducked into the alleyway and ran along the side of the house. It was a dead end... and they couldn't see any doors.
“Damn it, why would you say that to her?” Xayah cursed. She could hear the mage scrying above them—his magic cracking loudly through the spirit realm. They could see the shadows of the guards in the street, heralding their approach.
But then, a wall suddenly moved, as a hidden door into the house slid open. The old woman leaned out and gestured for them to come inside.
Once the pair was inside, the old woman slid the smugglers’ entrance closed, hiding its existence.
The two vastaya looked around and discovered they were in a storage room with a low ceiling and dirt floors. It was dark and illuminated by only a single oil lamp and the glow of a pair of dying ekel-flowers.
Beneath her cloak, Xayah formed two feather blades and readied them.
Perhaps sensing the danger, the woman backed away toward a full-moon spear resting against the wall. It was a fine weapon, well-oiled and touched by ancient magics that purred happily inside of it.
“You are vastaya?” the woman said cautiously.
Before Xayah could stop him, Rakan nodded and said with the deep voice, “I am Rakan, battle-dancer of the Lhotlan tribe.”
To Xayah's surprise, the woman let out a deep breath, and laughed. “Leivikah told me he was seeking your help, but we have heard no word from the Vlotah tribe since then. I am Abbess Gouthan.”
There was a loud banging on the front door.
“Stay quiet, I’ll get rid of them,” Gouthan said as she hurried to the front room, sliding the hallway's door closed behind her.
While the abbess checked who was at the front door, six young mortal acolytes appeared from the house's other rooms. Many wore bandages and appeared injured. They nervously exchanged glances with each other. Xayah could sense them gathering what little magic they could muster.
Xayah slid one of her hands inside the woolen cloak she wore and willed a new feather blade into existence. If the monks attacked, it would be too close for her to throw the daggers, so she altered the blade's handle, shaping it into a short falchion.
When Abbess Gouthan reappeared, the woman held a finger to her lips to indicate they should stay quiet. Then, almost silently, she sent her more heavily injured monks back into their rooms, while she and her two remaining students readied a cooking fire. They quietly sang and hummed a haunting tune as they began to prepare food.
Rakan put his arm around Xayah's shoulder and led her to a low table in an adjoining room. The couple sat down together. While the monks cooked, Xayah slowed her breathing before cautiously reabsorbing her blades and their magic back into her feathers.As she waited, Xayah wrapped both her winged and woolen cloaks around her legs—only a few beeswax candles and the cooking fire illuminated their side room and barely held back the evening chill.
When the candles had burned down to a thumb span, the abbess and her two attendants finished cooking and quietly joined Rakan and Xayah with several plates of food.
“We hid in the hills for a few weeks after they took our temple,” Gouthan whispered. “Then, like you, we snuck into the city.”
She and one of her students passed the meager food they had prepared from the fire pit of their kitchen to the table Rakan and Xayah sat at.
“This old house was my family’s long before I became the abbess of Kouln temple. We managed to avoid detection only because the Navori—”
“Who is the warrior with black tattoos?” Rakan asked.
“The warriors with tattoos are the Order of Shadow. They are a part of the Navori Brotherhood… or they were, when—”
“Their tribe is at war with yours?” Rakan interrupted again.
“Not exactly,” Gouthan replied patiently. “They took our temple but let most of us live, I suppose to keep the local villagers from revolting against them. The peace ensures they can gather the foul shadow magic they are harvesting. But I’ve been sneaking my students back into the city. Readying ourselves.”
Rakan bit into the stone-cooked bread. “You sang ‘Theln and the Falling Leaves’ while cooking this?”
“Yes,” Gouthan replied. “When vastaya cook, the song is important, right?”
“It is important,” Xayah said without emotion. Her plate sat untouched in front of her.
Rakan explained, “For stone flour bread, it is traditional to use a happy song that you can drum with.”
“And you can taste that?”
Rakan shoved another piece of bread into his mouth and nodded.
“My apologies, we have so little to offer you, and even less skill in your customs,” the abbess said before bowing her head. She was clearly ashamed of what her order had been reduced to.
Rakan patted her on the shoulder. “It’s good! It’s not a song used for stone bread, but it goes well with this flour.”
“You are too kind.”
“He is hungry,” Xayah said.
“Now that we have shared food, can we discuss how we will take back our temple?” the abbess asked hopefully.
“Your help will not be needed,” Xayah responded.
“My students can lead you there. I myself can stand against more than a few of the shadow warriors. Also I sent word to the Kinkou Order—surely they will send reinforcements.”
Xayah and Rakan exchanged a glance. Then Xayah asked, “How many of these Yanlei warriors are in the city?”
“Perhaps a hundred.”
“And at the temple?”
“We can handle that number,” Xayah said.
“They are bad dancers,” Rakan murmured, while grabbing another piece of bread.
“But surely, if we wait for the Kinkou—”
“The Vlotah cannot wait for the Kinkou’s help. That is why we are here.”
“I understand,” the abbess said. “I failed them. Allow me to at least join you against these Yanlei bastards.”
“You should wait here in the city,” Xayah said flatly.
“I can show you where they have set up patrols—”
“You can show us in the morning,” Xayah said. “But if you don’t mind, I would like a moment with my partner.”
“Oh… uh, okay.” The abbess rose with her attendant. Rakan followed them to the door, gave each of them a hug and handed them a couple pieces of bread as they returned to the rooms at the front of the house.
Then Rakan closed the door, and sat back down beside Xayah. She whispered, “We should leave as soon as they fall asleep.”
“We should warn them about what will happen when we destroy the quinlon,” he responded, shoving another piece of bread into his mouth.
“If they knew what we were going to do, they would betray us to these other mortals. Or the Kinkou.”
“Many mortals will die,” Rakan said.
“The Vlotah tribe will die while waiting for help. My love, we are on this path. They settled on vastayan lands. They raised a wall with magic which they barely control and do not understand.”
“If you say so. But I prefer this abbess to Elder Leivikah. At least she’s not scared.”
“You’ve just been seduced by their food.”
Rakan took another mouthful and shrugged. “It was made with care and a song sung truthfully.”
“I don’t trust her. Not with our lives on the line.”
“This is why you said we didn’t need their help?”
“Fifty warriors is a lot,” Xayah admitted. “And that’s before you add shadow magic.”
Rakan shrugged. “You don’t have a plan?”
“Of course I have a plan.”
“Then I trust it,” Rakan said softly.
Xayah shook her head. “We’re going in alone. If my plan goes wrong—”
“You are never wrong about those things.”
Xayah ran her fingers through her feathers and bowed her head, running through every detail she had learned about the terrain—the black-and-red-clad warriors, the town, the mountain temple, and the crystal quinlon—from the Vlotah elder.
Then after a long silence, she asked, “Why did you trust this monk?”“Because I know about these things,” Rakan replied.
Xayah lay awake for many hours that night, studying the maps the Vlotah had provided her with. She was able to deduce where the warriors had probably set patrols and pickets, and charted a path that would allow them to avoid detection until they were only a few hundred paces from the temple.
They left after the moon rose and were able to sneak out of the house without incident.
The town was still, save for the sound of insects, making it easy to avoid the Yanlei warriors by listening for their footsteps. After Xayah deduced where these warriors were, it was simple for her to find a pathway through the sentries’ patrols.
They left the city and past the last of the farmhouses leading up the mountain as dawn was just beginning to lighten the sky.
The forest on the mountain was the color of ash. Rakan and Xayah could feel the magic they held inside them being tugged away from them.
The quinlon here wasn't just dampening the power of spirit magic to create change, or limiting its life-giving vitality by holding back the wild magic mortals found too dangerous; this one was actively absorbing magic, leeching it from the landscape and the spirit realm at a rate Xayah had never experienced before. It was as if the normal function of the quinlon had been turned upside down, allowing only the darkest magics to ebb out from the spirit realm.
For most of the day, Rakan and Xayah marched through the woods, concealing themselves in what remained of the bone-colored underbrush of the forest, keeping a few dozen yards from the trail. They stayed motionless as the enemy warriors went past. At first they seemed to be on regular patrols, but soon large groups of warriors were marching downhill with an obvious urgency.
Xayah surmised the Vlotah tribesmen had begun the diversionary raids she had directed. Certainly, she and Rakan could defeat these humans—but Xayah knew it was safer to conserve what scarce magic they had.
Weakened and sick from the lack of magic, the Vlotah who had volunteered to draw these Yanlei away had shown great bravery. Xayah assured herself these new comrades would be safe for at least a while. But if she and Rakan failed to take out the quinlon soon? Xayah could feel her fingernails digging into her palms as she and Rakan lay hidden behind a wagon-sized boulder.
After a while, the patrols of red- and black-clad warriors significantly dwindled in size and frequency, enabling her and Rakan to travel more quickly than they had before.
They reached the temple by late afternoon. The building was ugly, and it hated the world. It was tall and as pale as a corpse. Leafless branches and thorns had grown from its woodwoven walls, forming battlements and defensive spikes.
Rakan whistled, drawing the attention of the first guard he saw. The man turned just in time to take one of Xayah's feather blades in the chest. Rakan caught him before he fell—showing off.
A distant horn sounded, and Xayah knew they had been spotted. From hiding places scattered around the temple, a dozen more of the black-clad warriors appeared.
Rakan dashed into their midst, kicking, spinning, and throwing them up into the air, while Xayah's blades took their toll. They were moving fast now. They cut a path to the temple's entrance.
Xayah used her magic to pull her feather blades back to her, killing the warriors that stood against them, while Rakan took a bow.
She rolled her eyes at his antics and left him to keep these black-clad warriors busy.
She pushed through the vines at the gateway of the temple, then walked into its grand entranceway. With doors broken and strewn on the ground, dark curving passageways lay open on both sides of her. She ignored them, and instead followed the path the sunlight cut toward a vine-covered doorway at the far end of the room.
She paused as she passed a small stack of crystal boxes, hidden against a wall. They were odd things, perfectly square and completely soulless, somehow holding no magic at all. In some great act of sacrilege against the world, it was as if their maker had managed not to let any of his essence—or the essence of their base materials—pass into them. She gave them a wide berth, and crept through a doorway overgrown with black roots.
She found the center of temple bathed in red light. Xayah looked up to see the quinlon glowing above her. Like many quinlons, it was an arrangement of rotating stones, but this one appeared to be made of giant shards of ruby, each larger than a horse. It glowed. She could feel its pull as it took in magic.
And she watched in horror as it pulled tiny forest spirits up into it.
There was a shift in the air, and she knew she wasn't alone. She ducked just as an armored warrior appeared from the shadows. He vaulted above her, bouncing off the walls and pillars as a battle-dancer might—but he was appearing and disappearing in puffs of smoke.
She had known vastaya, touched by the clouds, with similar techniques. But this man's magic was strange. Even the shadows inside him were touched by something else, an echo of the magic of the twilight. He was powerful—more powerful than any mage, any mortal she had encountered. Weakened as she and Rakan were, Xayah knew defeating this armored warrior was unlikely.
She threw feather blades, but he simply cut them apart, and with each movement she was getting weaker and he closer. She stared as the warrior parried the next of her attacks and sent one of her feather blades up into the quinlon.
The red stone cracked instantly.
It was then the reason this small quinlon had been set inside the temple became clear. The strange ruby-like mineral it was made from gave it its unusual power... but it was fragile. Especially now that it was overloaded.
She couldn't defeat this warrior, not under these conditions... but if she kept him distracted, she could still destroy the quinlon.
She willed as many feather blades into existence as she could. The effort of it drained her limbs, making her feel as if she was being held underwater. But she threw blindly, forcing her opponent to dodge, to duck—knowing that every blade that went past him would sink into the quinlon, cracking it, or fly beyond it into the roof of the temple.
But her breathing had become short and desperate, and her foe circled around her like a shark. He had been letting her tire—and now he was ready to finish their duel.
In her exhaustion, Xayah clenched her jaw, preparing herself for what she knew she must do. She would die, and so would this warrior... but the Vlotah would survive.
And then for the briefest of seconds she realized she never again would see Rakan. Feel him against her. Hear his laughter. See his sly smile... And in her distraction the armored warrior struck at her. Barely she turned his blow, but the impact knocked her to the ground. The warrior backflipped away from her, then, without pausing, jumped back toward her with blades ready for his killing blow.
This was her chance. Instead of parrying, she drew back her magic blades and... ripped the quinlon and the roof of the temple apart! As the shadow warrior fell onto her, the quinlon's giant shards and the stones of the roof began to fall onto them both, as certain as death.
And then, suddenly... Rakan!
His arms were around her, holding her, embracing her. A swirl of golden energy wisped from his cape and surrounded them. She could feel the impact of the shadow warrior's blades slam against its magic—unable to deliver the killing blow. She felt Rakan's chest against her cheek. She could feel it rising as he took in a breath.
Bigger pieces of the temple's roof and the quinlon were falling now—whatever magic Rakan had held on to glowed as a bubble of energy, holding back the stones. But Xayah could feel him weakening under the shield's weight. He roared, screeching like a tiger in a trap, as the entire building collapsed. His chest shuddered, and he fell to his knees.And then there was darkness.
When Xayah opened her eyes, Rakan was helping her to her feet in the ruins of the temple. The strange warrior was gone, and his cohorts were running down the trail, fleeing as the first wave of wild magic crashed free into this world.
The forests glowed, flowers bloomed, and the great spirits were awakening. The light from the other world washed around them.
She looked at Rakan, smiled, and wiped a smudge from his cheek.
They embraced and took in the magic— it was different here than in the Kepthalla's forest. Despite, or perhaps because of, how it had been caged and abused, it was bursting with vitality and joy.
The Vlotah tribe would be free as the Kepthalla tribe were. And there would no longer be a question of whether destroying the quinlons was possible or right. More tribes, even Xayah's, would see the future she believed was possible for her people.
The ground rumbled—something giant beneath the mountain was awakening, and the two lovers danced across the great cracks forming in the landscape.
Rakan kissed Xayah gently, then said, “The humans cannot live in our lands, but I’m going to see if I can help that abbess escape. If I dive down that pink stone cliff, I might get there in time.”
“Go, save your bread-maker, my love. But I think she will have already fled the town.”
Rakan tilted his head in confusion.
Xayah cupped his face with her hands. “I left her a message, telling her what was about to happen, and that she should flee with as many of her kind as she could.”
“You told her what would happen?” Rakan asked, smiling as he held her hands against his face.“You trusted her,” Xayah replied. “And I trust you in these things.”
- The events of the story happened after Zed comic series.
- The events of the Wild Magic video are included in the latter part of this story.