~ For my favorite ghost hunter. In loving memory of SLS. ~
South of Iseyba
Kronen could sense the hungry beasts in the shifting darkness. Their orb-like forms, glowing at the periphery of his vision, were rarely there if he glanced in their direction.
They hungered for the energy shima travelers naturally emitted, especially those who favored darker magic. They stalked their prey from the shadows. Waiting for the foolish or the unwary to step off the path.
He had walked these shadowy trails many times before, however, and understood their dangers well. He knew the faint hums he heard on occasion, like someone quietly singing, were meant to lure him deeper into the trees. He recognized the soft lights he saw out of the corner of his eye from time to time, blending in with the shimmering colors around him, as inviting distractions meant to make him lose focus. To follow them.
From the multihued glow of the crystal trees, iridescent trunks growing from the dark gray stone of the mountains, to the steady pulse of magical energy in the air, everything about the Hidga Mountains was deceptively beautiful and calming. The dense canopy of dark blue leaves high above, blocking out the sun’s light, made the mountains feel like they were cut off from the rest of the world. This place could easily lull travelers into a sense of complacency, and lead the overly comfortable astray.
Sensing they were in no immediate danger, Kronen kept his dark silver gaze trained on the path ahead. Neither him or his companion relied too heavily on the kind of darker magic that would tempt the creatures closer.
One of the bluish-white orbs drifted near the path, just out of his line of sight, before fading away again, and he sensed the tension spike in his Ushara, Varuk Iyadeyros. As Kronen’s second protector, he had insisted on accompanying Kronen, and had been going on about what a bad idea it was for them to leave Iseyba for nearly an hour.
“Is a wendja following us?” Varuk asked beside him, sweeping their surroundings with his dark green eyes. Shifting colors kaleidoscoped over every surface, reflecting off Varuk’s silvery-white armor and painting Kronen’s long white hair, cloak, and garshik robes in different hues. It was the perfect environment for wendjana, their glowing forms dancing gracefully through their surroundings, mostly undetected.
“Yes.” Kronen shook his head when Varuk reached for his sword, signaling with a raised hand for him to stand down. As a garshik, the only aspect created without emotions, Kronen felt no fear himself, but understood he should probably say something reassuring to ease Varuk’s mind. “The wendja is curious, but we are in no danger. We would make a poor meal.”
Varuk heaved a sigh, pushing a hand through his shoulder-length dark blond hair in frustration. “This whole thing makes me uneasy,” he said for the fifth time. “The last thing we need are wendjana.”
“It’s tracking us, but I doubt it will come any closer,” Kronen said, confident in his understanding of that particular beast. “It probably senses I would kill it.”
“Again, with the total certainty about all the killing,” Varuk said, chuckling.
“It’s true, and the fastest way to solve the problem.”
“Your honesty scares me sometimes.”
“Lying in this situation would only waste time.” Kronen mimicked a smile. “Besides, you are partly here to stay my hand when appropriate.”
“Truly, you terrify me, my friend,” Varuk said with a laugh, shaking his head. “I still say this is a mistake,” he continued, clearly disapproving. A glance in his direction showed the grim furrowing of his brows as he walked beside Kronen on the wide path. “What if they find out you’ve left the protection of Iseyba and try to attack you next?”
“You know what I mean,” Varuk said, heaving another sigh. He did that a lot when he was frustrated.
“The rogue shimana?” Kronen asked.
“Yes,” Varuk said, scanning the trees around them before turning a narrow-eyed gaze on Kronen again. “The ones setting fires to cities, setting loose some sort of unknown void monstrosities, and kidnapping people. Even high-ranking people, such as Jiruna.”
There was a short silence and Kronen felt the pressure of Varuk’s glare, but decided not to make eye contact. He had learned to do so in this kind of conversation was to unwittingly admit some form of guilt. Since Kronen knew he was acting appropriately, according to his mission, he chose to ignore him.
Varuk made some sort of noise then that was a mixture between a loud sigh and a groan of irritation. “Jiruna like yourself,” he said in a tone like he was explaining something complicated to a misbehaving child.
“They haven’t shown an interest in garshikna yet,” Kronen pointed out.
“That we know of! What if they’re plotting against you specifically? It wouldn’t be the first time people have wanted to kill you or take your powers for their own,” Varuk nearly shouted, clearly at the end of his patience. “We know next to nothing about these void creatures, except that they’re living weapons and are more powerful every time we encounter them. Maybe the goal is to refine them until they can stand up to even you.”
It was Varuk’s duty to protect Kronen, but he also recognized the genuine concern Varuk had for him. Friendship was a rarity between a garshik and any other aspect. His aspect’s emotionless state didn’t normally endear them to others. Although Kronen had never felt this sentiment for himself, he understood the significance of it.
“I would destroy them,” Kronen answered, attempting to reassure Varuk. It was true, and he was sure Varuk knew that, but he continued anyway. “It doesn’t matter how strong they believe they can make their creatures, I am the oldest living being, and the most powerful. Attacking me would be futile and the most foolish move they could possibly make.”
He stopped in his tracks, remembering his manners as Varuk paused beside him with a raised brow. From studying other aspects, he had learned considering the opinions of others was the polite thing to do, despite the fact that he was right. He tilted his head thoughtfully, and Varuk waited with an openly amused expression.
“No,” he said, clapping Varuk on the shoulder once in what he assumed would be interpreted as a friendly gesture. “Even if they managed to get passed you, which is extremely unlikely, and attacked in my sleep, they would all die.”
Varuk laughed, shaking his head. “It’s unsettling when you say it with such confidence.”
“I’m simply addressing your concerns,” Kronen answered, then added a shrug as he’d seen Varuk do. “My intention is to ease your anxiety about me leaving.”
“I’m suddenly much more worried about our enemies, to tell you the truth.”
Kronen recognized this as humor, and that killing him would be the incorrect response. Prone to taking things very literally, jokes usually escaped him, but he’d been around Varuk so long that he had learned the subtle differences between when someone was serious and when they weren’t. It was also obvious Varuk would never betray him, so he returned his attention to the path ahead and started walking again.
“What was that pause just now?” Varuk asked, jogging to catch up with him.
Kronen wondered if this was one of those times where he should not say what he had truly been thinking. It might make Varuk uncomfortable. “It was nothing.”
“I feel like I almost died again,” Varuk said, unexpectedly entertained by the idea. “I did, didn’t I?”
“Why do you seem further amused by the idea of me killing you?”
“Because it appears to be an inevitable risk, serving you.” Varuk laughed, some of his tension beginning to fade as he talked. “Everybody outside Iseyba looks at me with awe for lasting this long.”
“I don’t kill my protectors,” Kronen said, raising an eyebrow for effect. “But you have stayed much longer than any before you.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Varuk said, still greatly entertained for reasons beyond Kronen’s comprehension. “At first it made me uneasy, the different ways garshikna can interpret things without their emotions. You especially, my friend. One misstep and you may see me as a threat to be wiped out of existence.”
Kronen couldn’t argue, since it was true, so he merely nodded in agreement.
Varuk smirked at that, calmly tracking a wendja alongside the path for a moment before glancing at Kronen again. “Now it just makes me laugh. I understand you better, and why you take everything so seriously.”
“Yes, it’s your duty to remain serious and vigilant,” Varuk said with a chuckle. “I feel like I deserve some kind of reward for having the world’s most dangerous job. I should keep a tally of my near-death experiences, just in casual conversation with you.”
An unfamiliar feeling of lightness came over Kronen then, almost dizzying in its intensity, and he found the corner of his mouth curling up slightly. A noise that could have been a laugh left his throat, followed by such an odd mix of sensations that he had to stop walking to keep himself from stumbling.
“That was more convincing than your last attempt,” Varuk said, spinning on his heel to walk backwards a few steps. He froze when he saw Kronen’s expression.
Kronen wondered if there was some danger in the Hidga Mountains that he was unaware of after all. Resting a hand against a crystal tree for support, he used his magic to scan himself for anomalies or injuries.
It was like somewhere inside himself there was a subtle change. Something vital shifting. Familiar and not. Uncomfortable but necessary. Like a missing piece of himself he’d never been aware of was trying to slide back into place.
Just when the chaotic feelings sweeping through him began to weaken, another sensation moved through him, as foreign and indecipherable as the rest. He turned his head to the west, squinting through the fluctuating lights of the woods, unsure what he was even looking for. Whether it was the high concentration of magic in the Hidga Mountains, or some unexplainable instinct, he suddenly felt like there was somewhere else he was supposed to be.
Where, he couldn’t say.
He unthinkingly brought his free hand to his chest, taking a deep breath to ease the strange pressure he felt building there, and then whatever it was just… stopped.
“That was new,” Varuk said, eyeing him warily. He glanced to the side, following Kronen’s line of sight, before giving him a worried look. “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” Kronen said, still a little unsteady on his feet and unable to explain anything that had happened. This response seemed to upset Varuk, based on the way his eyebrows shot up, so Kronen decided full honesty was unwise in this situation. He shrugged, straightening away from the tree. “I mimic others to make them more comfortable,” he said, determined to quickly return to the task at hand.
Whatever those sensations had been, they were completely gone. He would consider them further later, but for the time being they were merely an unnecessary distraction.
“No, I know you do that all the time, but this was different.” Varuk seemed unusually serious, but Kronen had no idea how to reassure him. “You always think about what mannerism to use before you use it, but that laugh was automatic.” He narrowed his eyes, studying Kronen with suspicion like he expected him to burst into flames at any second. “And you looked like you were in pain for a moment.”
“I don’t know what it was,” Kronen said. Even though it had happened only moments before, he found the sensations impossible to describe. Without them, it was like they had never existed, or they had happened to someone else. “Maybe I have some illness.”
Varuk crossed his arms, eyeing Kronen doubtfully. “You don’t get ill,” he said flatly. “Is this the first time this happened?”
It was obvious what Varuk was concerned about. The very real possibility that Kronen had just had the first definite signs of the biranij, the onset of emotion for a garshik. An extremely dangerous time for a garshik and anyone around them.
For Kronen, many believed it would be catastrophic.
“Yes, but now is not the time to worry about it,” Kronen said, continuing down the path. “This does not change our task, and I will not allow it to get in the way.”
“That sounds like you,” Varuk said, catching up with him again. He could feel Varuk studying him closely, despite his easy tone. “Your nearly obsessive garshik focus on the mission is more comforting than it was before, but are you sure—”
“There is no foreseeable scenario where you could convince me to turn back,” Kronen cut him off, adding a sigh because it seemed like it would fit the situation.
“Yes, but it’s the unforeseeable scenarios I’m suddenly concerned about,” he muttered, but continued to follow Kronen.
It took the better part of the day to reach the southern edge of the Hidga Mountains, and although Varuk made his usual small talk along the way, Kronen could sense a new tension in his Ushara. He kept stealing glances at Kronen, and it was clear he was looking for any changes in behavior.
As the crystal trees thinned, the terrain flattening out into a grassy plain, they reached their destination. One of the larger shima graveyards, the architecture was all open archways, decorative pillars, and stone walkways that led to gravestones housing cremated shima remains. Parts of the cemetery had been converted to sky gardens, honoring those that had passed into the next life.
At the center there was a large stone ring. Hollow in the middle, translucent smoke shimmered and moved inside the open space like water. Dark gray and about a foot thick all around, the ring was a perfect circle and twice as tall as a shima. Carved in graceful spirals and intertwining lines, and etched with ancient, powerful spellwork, it served as a window into the land of the dead.
It was there that shimana could sometimes communicate with their loved ones who had passed.
“So?” Varuk said, keeping his voice respectfully low. “Anything out of the ordinary?”
Kronen scanned the area with his senses, able to detect things in the arute as a garshik that no other aspects could. As the barrier between the human and shima realms, the arute was carefully monitored and maintained.
It was an unknown imbalance that had drawn him to the cemetery. Something he’d never felt before. It was similar to an arag in some ways, a weak spot in the arute. If it were only that, however, he would have sent someone else to investigate. The imbalance was unusual enough that it demanded immediate attention. Any change in the arute could be deadly, for both the human and shima realms.
“It’s too quiet,” Kronen said after he swept the area a few times. Varuk followed his lead when he suppressed his energy to make himself harder for others to sense. “There are no spirits here.”
“None?” Varuk raised his eyebrows, glancing around uneasily. There should have been traces of them all around.
As they moved further into the graveyard, Kronen could feel others there, hiding their own energy. This wouldn’t be cause for concern under normal circumstances, but the mysterious nature of the disturbance in the arute made him cautious.
“There are three shimana at the ring,” he said, using his bond with Varuk to communicate. “Watch them.”
Varuk silently unsheathed his weapon, giving Kronen a quick nod. Keeping to the shadows at the edges of the cemetery, he went to find a good vantage point where he wouldn’t be spotted or sensed by the others.
Confident he was undetectable to their senses, Kronen moved between gravestones and archways for cover as he closed the distance between them. Their attention was on the ring as he moved closer, but he didn’t want to risk getting too close.
He waited behind the cover of an archway, near enough to catch bits and pieces of their conversation.
“—have to bring back more this time—”
“—it’s too risky—”
“—experiments have failed—”
“—make them stronger—”
Varuk heard everything Kronen did through their bond, and he could feel his Ushara bristling at those words. “Do you think they’re causing the disturbance you felt?” he asked, and Kronen sensed him settling into cover somewhere on the opposite side of the ring.
One of the three stepped forward, drawing a silver dagger with a jeweled wooden hilt. Even from a distance, it was so heavily enchanted that he could feel dark magic pouring off it. The feeling was so repellant to him it made him nauseous, but he stood his ground and ignored it.
The one holding the dagger whispered a spell of some kind, slashing at the smoke swirling inside the ring. At once there was a terrible screaming in Kronen’s mind, silent to anyone but a garshik. The arute tore dangerously, and he winced at the pain slicing through his head. It was so strong he could feel Varuk doing the same, even though he was only getting the sensation second hand through their bond.
The dagger glowed with dark energy, and Kronen could see souls of the dead being sucked into it. Their cries of pain echoed in his mind, and he decided he’d seen more than enough.
Teleporting himself to stand in the middle of the group, he grasped one by the neck, then outstretched a hand and blasted another in the face with light magic at close enough range that he felt the man’s gasp against his palm. The one with the dagger tried to escape, not even bothering to try and help the other two.
“Capture him,” Kronen said, already sensing Varuk moving.
The second man was on the ground, unconscious. His face was blistered and burned from the light, but he would live. The man he held onto was choking in his grasp, clawing futilely at his hand. Kronen turned his attention to him first.
“What you have done is against several of our laws,” he said, glancing at the damaged ring. The smoke was heaving inside it, flickering with sparks, and he wondered if even he could repair this kind of damage without assistance. A coldness came over Kronen as he looked at his enemy and dropped him in a heap on the ground. “I sense nothing but darkness inside you. Why would you ruin yourself by absorbing the souls of the dead?”
The man’s hood fell back, and Kronen could see the signs of the unchecked later stages of hajithra, severe dark sickness, marking his skin with sores. The odd twitches and sheen of sweat on his brow and drenching his dark blond hair showed him as being hopelessly addicted, and Kronen knew it wouldn’t be long before the darkness burned its way through him. Killing him would be a mercy.
Bloodshot green eyes stared up at Kronen in fear. “I didn’t!” he croaked, holding up a hand to beg for his life. “It wasn’t for us! It—”
Kronen shielded himself just as there was a flash of light, and a jagged shard of crystalized air ripped through the man’s chest, killing him before he could say anything more. Blood spattered the ground around Kronen while the crystal projectile shattered harmlessly against his shield.
Calmly stepping over the dead body in front of him to search for the new attacker, he used his magic to scan the area. Whoever they were, they were powerful enough to sneak up on him and hide their energy, which was a rarity.
It wouldn’t be nearly enough to save them.
He could sense Varuk returning to him, having dealt with the man with the dagger. “Watch yourself,” Kronen said through their bond, but his warning was too late.
As Varuk came out from behind a tree at the edge of the graveyard, tucking the dagger inside his cloak, Kronen caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. The last man teleported behind a gravestone, holding a hand out towards Varuk, who hadn’t seen him yet.
Time seemed to slow, and that unknown, fragmented part of Kronen reacted again, more powerfully than before. It happened so quickly he could have imagined it. Not pain. More like a sinking in his stomach that stole his breath. An unexplainable compulsion he couldn’t ignore. He teleported before he could process any of it.
He put himself between Varuk and the cloaked man, meeting the deadly magic head-on and easily deflecting it. Dirt and rock flew from the impact as the spell crashed into the ground several feet away. The cloaked man was already moving to attack again, but it didn’t matter. The feeling that had made Kronen teleport in front of him began transforming into something sharper. Focused on his enemy. Boiling through his blood like fire.
This man would pay dearly for trying to kill Varuk.
The man hurled spells at him, some Kronen deflected, others he absorbed, and he felt the corners of his mouth curl up in a cold smile. The man hesitated, suddenly unnerved, and Kronen latched onto the man’s mind with his own. Mercilessly tearing through the man’s mental barriers, he permanently ripped his enemy’s powers from him. The man howled in agony, collapsing onto the ground and clutching at his head.
This should have been enough, but the fire in Kronen’s veins had him convinced only blood would make the offense right.
“Stop!” Varuk shouted, racing to intercept him as he raised a hand to crush the man. Through their bond, he heard Varuk’s words in his mind. “If this is the biranij, you have to control your anger!”
The sound of urgency in Varuk’s voice stopped Kronen cold. Quickly, like someone had snapped their fingers, that fire in his blood was extinguished, leaving the familiar calm.
Anger? Was that what he’d felt? Disoriented, he remained still and took stock of what was happening in his body.
Varuk paused several feet away, sensing the chaos in Kronen’s system. “Kronen,” he said, before cautiously moving closer to rest a hand on his shoulder. Not wanting the enemy to overhear him, he spoke through their bond again. “Are you all right?”
The man’s eyes widened in horror when he heard Kronen’s name. “The Sight of God,” he said under his breath. He crawled backwards away from Kronen, weakened and unable to scramble back to his feet.
“I’m fine now,” Kronen said, glancing at Varuk before turning to the enemy again. Unwilling to let the man get away, he moved to close the distance between them.
“Wait! Please! I didn’t know it was you!” The man raised his hands, flinching away from Kronen. He looked to Varuk for mercy. “Please, stop him!”
Kronen could still sense the tension in his Ushara, but Varuk returned his attention to the man anyway. They had a job to do. Kronen slowed his steps while Varuk approached the man with a smirk.
“You think I have any say in whether or not he kills you?” Varuk asked, a cold glimmer of amusement in his eyes. “It’s true, part of my job is to be his conscience. I could try to convince him, but that only works if you’re useful.” He tilted his head, staring his adversary down. “Are you useful?”
Kronen watched his enemy sputter and beg for a few moments, before he decided he had waited long enough. Unmoved by anything the man had to say, Kronen raised a hand, ready to finish him off.
“No, I can help you!” The man shouted, scrambling back a few more feet before Kronen slammed him down into the dirt with a thought.
“Speak then,” Kronen said. “You’re wasting time.”
“It’s for the creatures,” the man said, desperate to save himself. “We’re bringing the souls to them.”
Kronen stared down at the shaking man before him, considering. “Bind him,” he said to Varuk. “We must bring him back with us for questioning with the other one.”
While Varuk tied up the two men who survived and contacted Iseyba for assistance in bringing them back for questioning, Kronen found his gaze drawn to the west again.
The fight was over, and everything was calm. The spirits were at ease, and would be safe until the ring could be repaired. But deep inside his chest he felt an inexplicable pull. Like the touch of a hand so gentle it could have been imagined. It reminded him of something he’d experienced in the Hall of Memories, studying the emotions of others, but so much clearer than those echoes that it made him want to follow it.
It lasted only a moment. There in one breath and gone the next. But that moment made the whole world shift around him. It was clear this wasn’t a fluke, or some random illness.
It was impossible to tell how close it was, but he would finally have the biranij.
Varuk came to stand beside him, following Kronen’s stare again. “Is something wrong?”
In the absence of those earlier feelings, he couldn’t be sure if they were good or bad. They were just something that had happened.
Varuk clasped his shoulder, gently drawing Kronen’s attention back to him. “We need to return to Iseyba. If your time for the biranij is coming, you need to be in seclusion when it happens. It’s too dangerous to have you around others until you know you can control yourself.”
Neither of them mentioned the possibility everyone feared. That the shock to his system could drive him into the darkness, and Iseyba was the only place that could hope to contain him, aside from an act of God.
“Or you could follow the pull,” Varuk said, clearly uncomfortable with his own suggestion. “Get it over with, and pray I can help you through it until you return to Iseyba.”
For the first time in his long life, Kronen hesitated to respond. Varuk noticed immediately, but didn’t comment on it.
Every garshik would have the biranij at some point in their life, and the warning signs, flashes of emotion and a compulsion to fling themselves headlong into the biranij, had become known as premonitions of an upcoming event in a garshik’s life. Whether the event was good or bad, it was always life-changing.
“Would it be worse to postpone it, if that’s even possible, in order to help fight this new enemy?” Kronen wondered out loud. “Or to pursue it, and fight two battles at once, possibly losing myself?” He shook his head. “We can’t risk it right now. I will do what I can from Iseyba.”
“Either way, the timing could be better,” Varuk said grimly. “We mustn’t let word get out, for as long as possible. Otherwise, who knows what the enemy will do while you’re unable to leave Iseyba.”
“If the attacks on the cities get much worse, I may have no choice but to intervene anyway,” Kronen answered, knowing he had to maintain peace and balance in the realm before concerning himself with the biranij.
“I pray it doesn’t come to that,” Varuk said.
With no words of reassurance to offer, Kronen stole one last look towards the west before turning back towards Iseyba.