World's of Ash: A Fantasy Tale
(hardback, and paperback, copies found at: https://www.austinmacauley.com/us/author/rutan-jonathan-lee)
Ash couldn’t take her eyes off Amalin. How she stood peering out after the Kawshun horses until they were mere specks on the horizon. How her fists kept clinching tight too—white knuckles going whiter, then relaxing, going whiter, then relaxing again.
And she never blinked. Ash made sure. Whenever she wasn’t taking a quick glimpse at those tightening knuckles, Ash kept her attention glued onto electric blue. Even when Casten began to moan and Jeth shuffled over to again kneel and check him out, Amalin stared only at muddy hills and a gray sky. She couldn’t turn away.
There was a slight rustle of clothes. Jeth was rolling up the green of Casten’s shirt, worrying over his wounds for about the hundredth time. Amalin sighed.
“Elf,” she said, “you know his wounds have been healing…he thrashed about while Henry Ash had us in that Remembrance, so I’m sure he’s almost done. Leave him be.”
Ash had quickly turned, the briefest switch from staring at Amalin to taking a peek at what was going on behind. However, she was sure Amalin hadn’t bothered to look at all. How had she known what was happening?
“I told you the Pool would cure him,” Amalin continued. This was her longest bit of talking in quite some time. Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing. “And you’ve already checked on him. Why do you keep that up?”
“But,” Jeth said. He stood as if caught doing something naughty. “It has taken a while.”
Amalin sighed once more. “This, too, I have explained. His injuries were severe and they occurred not on the Unkindness. I doubt if he wasn’t an Elf he would have survived. But he is Elf, and he put himself into a state of meditation to slow his loss of blood. He is fine.”
Jeth raised his hands. In surrender to the woman who was obviously in charge here? In defeat at an argument he couldn’t win? Whatever the case, he gave up. It was an act, Ash had to admit, he did a lot of.
Jeth walked over to Amalin, and only once he was close did he drop his arms to wipe bits of the Kawshun off his legs. “How about you?” he asked.
“What,” Amalin said.
“I’ll leave a potential kinsman of mine alone, but you need to do the same.”
“I don’t follow?”
Amalin finally tore her eyes off the gray distance. She looked at Jeth in confusion, yet Ash could tell her confusion wouldn’t last. She quickly sized Jeth up, perhaps finding him somewhat wanting, before she angled her sight back towards where the Riders had gone.
“Your brother has left,” Jeth said. He pointed to the endless amounts of muddy hills and gray. “Stop trying to see where he went when there is nothing to find.”
Amalin sighed one last time. “Since they took off just a second ago, maybe you could give me a moment.”
“And since Casten just got hurt,” Jeth countered, “why can’t you indulge my worry? If you can’t stop looking at things you can’t possibly see, then why should I stop checking out his injuries?”
Amalin smiled. “You have no clue about this place, do you?” Ash wished she would sigh again. That, at least, seemed normal. “You have no clue about me either?”
“Of course not,” Jeth said. “I may have been a wolf on the Kawshun, but how could I know of this place; how could anyone know of it?”
He turned towards Poppa Henry and Ash. It was clear he wanted support—a tiny smile of agreement or a hearty nod. Amalin had asked if he knew anything about her, and Jeth was sure that no one, especially not he, could know the answer.
Ash gave him his nod. She even added a shrug, but Poppa Henry merely shook his light blue head in sorrow.
“What?” Jeth asked. “Wait…you mean people can know about her, about this place?”
“Of course,” Amalin said. She looked back his way. “If you’re not someone who left their family when they were but a Little, it’s pretty common knowledge.”
Poppa Henry pointed at her. “You,” his voice was a loud snap of rage. “Shut up!”
“Why?” Amalin asked. “Have I upset you?”
“I know what you’re doing,” Poppa Henry said, “and it isn’t fair. He wasn’t being mean or rude, he just doesn’t understand. If he wants to be concerned for a man who may be his kin, then let him be concerned.”
“But it’s foolish. That Elf—”
“His name is Casten,” Poppa Henry said, “just as the girl beside me is named Ash and not little girl, and the Elf that you are ridiculing is Jeth! Start talking to them in the correct manner, not like they are only more lost souls you can boss around!”
Amalin mockingly bowed. “Whatever the great Henry Ash wants, I did just stand up for you because of your Remembrance, so, please, feel free to yell if it makes you happy.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Jeth said, “what do you mean I should know about the Kawshun? I don’t care if you’re ridiculing me. Why should I know about a land I didn’t realize existed before I fell into it?”
Amalin took a deep breath. Was she counting—trying to pause a beat to calm down? It looked like she was.
“Okay,” Amalin said. She let a rush of pent up slip free from between her teeth. “Maybe I’m not used to non-Riders questioning me.”
She looked at both Jeth and Poppa Henry as she spoke, but it was only Jeth who answered her. Without a trace of anything except an eagerness to please, he smiled. “Not a problem,” he said, “so tell. Why should I know about you?”
“Because when any Elf comes of age, they are taught of the Kawshun and of the Unkindness,” Poppa Henry spoke before Amalin could reply. “And since Elves aren’t considered mature until after their one hundredth birthday, this revelation takes a tad longer to arrive even though Elves begin their training in the Bright when they reach fifty. Since you…”
“Since I was abducted before I was a hundred,” Jeth said, “I wouldn’t know of this world.”
Amalin made sure Poppa Henry wasn’t about to speak before she got her words out. “Exactly,” she said. “Others who are not yet dead have wielded the staff long before I took it, and what happened to my eyes happened to theirs. It is a constant trick of the Kawshun and of the Pool, and if you had stayed with your kind, you would have known all about it.”
“And what is that?” Jeth asked.
“I can see everything,” Amalin explained, “even when my eyes are closed, I can see in any spectrum I want if I focus upon exactly what it is I want to view. I can flip through many different levels, I can look at you as a flesh and blood Elf, see your long black hair, your dirty white skin, and then, if I so desired, I could change the aspect. I could have you become nothing more than an outline of reds and yellows, a few blues and dark smudges as I changed my vision to see only heat instead of concrete forms.”
“You see everything.” Jeth said. “You can see your brother?”
“Distance, too, is defeated,” Amalin said. “If I focus, I can bring everything into clarity.”
Amalin shook her head. “It isn’t. Remember, I see even when my eyes are closed. It is a trick of the Kawshun, the curse of the Pool. Once the blue was in me to a degree I could never escape, I became its captive.”
“I,” Jeth began, “I didn’t know.”
“I know,” Amalin nodded. And maybe that was her hands up. Maybe Jeth had succeeded in winning her surrender. “But I understand what I have become, and I understood it long before I chose to be here. I know this place and all it can give, so trust me—leave Casten alone.”
“Won’t bother him again,” Jeth said. He decided to walk to Poppa Henry and Ash. He was as far from Casten as he could be. “How much longer till he gets up?”
Amalin didn’t get as near to Casten as Jeth had, and she didn’t drop to a knee to fret over his wounds or to check and recheck a pulse that must have already gone smooth. She merely let her blue eyes roam over his body.
“He really is almost done,” she said. Her eyes flashed bright only once before she took them off Casten. “He’ll be fully healed in ten minutes, maybe less. We have enough time to get a few of my questions resolved.”
Poppa Henry slowly shook his head. “He will fight me when he rises,” he sighed. “Casten didn’t see the Remembrance. When he wakes, he won’t believe what you say.”
“Then he will be the first convert I have,” Amalin said. “If I can convince him of your innocence, I will know I can convince anyone.”
As it turned out, Casten did try to fight as soon as he woke. But, before that, Amalin got all she could ever want; Ash also delighting in the fact that she too got to hear some details which explained things about the death of her grandmother in a way she’d never thought possible.
The last bit of light that was seen—what had burned so brilliant after Isabella had raised her hand—was a Last Breath, a spell as powerful as creating a Reflection. And also like a Reflection, it could only be done by using a life.
But whereas a Reflection allowed for any follower of the Black, or the Bright, to be able to use someone else for it to work, a Last Breath only succeeded when it took the life of the one who’d cast it. Isabella Denthro—Isabella Denthro Ash, Poppa Henry forcefully said after the umpteenth time Amalin didn’t call her by her full name—was dying, her heart pierced by the same blade that had brought down her father. But while he had been prepared for the strength of Denthro, Ophallo didn’t think all that much of his sister. After all, though she was strong in her magic, she was only a woman.
Isabella reaching towards her husband and children was just the very last thing she’d ever cast. She’d taken her final breath, and had used it to place her family into a spell of protection that had instantly transported the younger Poppa Henry and his children far from Castle Watch.
“After that, I don’t know what happened,” Poppa Henry said. “Isabella was able to work magic much better than I, better than anyone. I only know she must have thought what she was doing was for the best. She…she couldn’t have foreseen how wrong it would go.”
“What do you mean?” Amalin asked. Her eyes once more flashed a quick glow of darkest blue.
“I found myself in the Marsh of Lumbrica,” Poppa Henry said. “I was alone, and I didn’t get back to Castle Watch for over a month—maybe it was over two months. By then, I’d heard that Ophallo was dead and that Cathedral had been cut off from all who’d tried to reach it. I didn’t know the Silver Throne had been hurt—I wasn’t even sure how Ophallo had died—but it soon became obvious that Penthya was consumed with the start of war. I had to hide.”
“Why?” Amalin asked. “If you’d revealed yourself, things could have been different? If you’d confessed and grabbed someone—had done a Remembrance at least—people might have believed!”
“Yet,” Poppa Henry began, “when I heard that Cathedral was gone, I understood that the magic of Penthya had to have been dealt a heavy blow. Maybe I was the first to see it—how spells would be harder to cast, how many would lose their access to charms. Back then, I didn’t have the skill to create a Remembrance, and with Denthro and my Isabella gone, it would have taken Queen Tallis or the SpellMaker to work such magic. I was not willing to go find them.”
Isabella was so close to death. Poppa Henry kept saying that as if he too needed the clarification. Isabella was almost gone. No matter her strength, what Ophallo had done was a terrible assault. When she cast her Last Breath, she didn’t have much left.
However, Poppa Henry was still sure she’d done her best. He knew she’d fought off everything that Ophallo had cast, and then she must have also gathered all that remained so she could send it to her husband and her children.
But the spell wasn’t complete. Poppa Henry went on to explain that it had taken him many years of further study, done mainly in a world that didn’t acknowledge the amount of magic in it, but he’d increased his understanding of spells until he was finally able to send himself back into as many Remembrances as he wanted. It was then that truth was revealed.
A Last Breath needed to be worked in just the right way. First, whatever life was left had to be gathered to contain it, but then words had to be thought, very carefully, so the spell would know—exactly—what to do.
And Isabella hadn’t done it right. Once she’d lifted her hand and had let the white flow, her spell had been alive. It was an entity with a direct purpose to save her family, and the fact that she must not have told it—in precise detail—how to do that, wasn’t her fault.
“I had no clue where my children were,” Poppa Henry said. “The Last Breath took them elsewhere, and when I finally got back to Castle Watch, they were all I cared about. I had to find them.”
“And did you?” this time it was Jeth who spoke up, Casten beginning to stir, his eyes fluttering as Jeth asked his question.
“I got one,” Poppa Henry said. He smiled down at Ash. “I got my son.”
“But the other?” Amalin asked.
“She,” Poppa Henry began, his voice low, the vaguest of whispers. “She had hair as black as yours, but her eyes weren’t blue, they were brown; like her mothers. When I reached Castle Watch, I snuck inside—used a Looking Glass to try and find her. I poured over that thing for days—in shadows hidden behind the darkest corners—but the essence of my children was hard to see. I didn’t understand. I was foolish, and I panicked. I didn’t realize until it was far too late.”
“What?” Ash asked. She grabbed her grandfather’s hand. “What did you realize?”
“What else your grandmother had done,” Poppa Henry said. “You see, her spell created a Seal around us, it set up a protection that was so much more than I think she’d intended. Her Last Breath began to shield us from spells of location and the use of a Looking Glass. I spent most of my magic trying to find just one of my children, and when I did…when I found him, I…”
He couldn’t sense his daughter no matter what he tried. Poppa Henry almost cried in frustration when he told everyone near to the Pool that bit. His daughter was covered not just by the Last Breath and the Seal, but also by something he couldn’t quite figure out.
But for his son, he finally did it. He saw his boy in the Centaur Woods right near to the Cliffs of Random where hordes of Errun were still pouring down into Penthya. He bolted. He was nearly mad with worry, and he used magic and the fastest animals around to make it into the Centaur Woods in just another week.
Poppa Henry paused after that. He let an awkward silence fall as Casten came more and more awake.
“After I got Steven,” Poppa Henry finally said, “I thought I needed to get him somewhere safe. I don’t know how—maybe it was the Centaurs who’d found him and had given their lives to save his, that must be it—but somehow he’d survived the worst of the Errun attacks. I couldn’t put him into anymore danger.
“However, I was still so stupid—especially since I’d already formed an idea of what it was that Isabella had done. But I thought…I did…I thought I should do more, so I took my son, and I went. I found the first beam of light that was coming from my world, and I bent it around us so we could travel. It was as easy as taking one step in the Centaur Woods and the next in a field of cotton on some farm in Alabama. I just assumed that getting back in would be as easy.”
“It wasn’t?” Amalin asked.
“No, the Seal was too strong,” Poppa Henry said. “For my safety—and for Steven’s safety too—it considered all of Penthya dangerous. It locked me out just as it locked out everyone from Penthya from ever getting to us.”
“But he got to you,” Jeth said. Casten finally opened his eyes and sat up. “How?”
“I think that once I was sick, the Seal became weak,” Poppa Henry explained. He stepped in front of Ash as Casten shook his head and looked his way. “And then once I died, that weakness expanded. What kept me from Penthya only worked as long as those who’d escaped from that throne room stayed alive. As long as I was breathing and as long as both of my children were breathing, then the Seal would be unbreakable, something I took to heart. Since no Penthyan ever came to my doorstep, it meant my daughter was okay.”
Ash gave his hand a squeeze. “I have an Aunt.”
Poppa Henry smiled sad. “You do.”
“What’s her name?”
“Sara,” Poppa Henry said. “She’s beautiful.”
Casten found him. As soon as Poppa Henry stopped talking, Casten wasted no time in acting. He reached to his side, tried to find Justice, yet when he realized the sword wasn’t there, he leapt to his feet and began to fight without it.
From the way the color was draining from his body, Ash thought her grandfather wouldn’t have enough energy to survive. But that wasn’t the case. When Casten ran, Poppa Henry merely lifted a hand and shot a quick jet of purple towards Amalin and Jeth. He formed walls around them both. He even pushed Ash further behind, Casten clearly someone he wanted to face on his own.
A massive battle, with no weaponry and only clenched fists, appeared to be about to happen. Yet when Casten finally lunged, Poppa Henry did nothing in return. He only ducked every blow and jumped over every kick until Casten was out of breath.
“Stop…moving,” Casten said. Harsh gasps of air choked his words. “I…I can’t let you get to that water.”
Amalin pounded angry on the barrier that was keeping watch over her. “It isn’t water!” she shouted. “It’s the Pool!”
It was the only other thing Ash allowed herself to look at. Whenever she wasn’t concerned with Poppa Henry, she flicked her eyes over to see what Amalin and Jeth were doing.
Their barriers, lightly tinted rectangles of purple, were taller than them, but they weren’t that wide; each stopped just a few inches past their shoulders. Either should have been able to walk around what was keeping them back. But no matter what they did—shoving and pushing at every corner or spinning and trying to run off in a different direction—their purple followed. Each section only ever let Amalin get maybe a foot closer or let Jeth spin a couple inches ahead before they were returned to exactly where they’d been.
Casten, too, looked over his shoulder. Amalin’s fists were a dull echo that oddly seemed to be coming from far away. From where she stood—and from the level of outrage she was expressing—Amalin should have been easily heard. But barely a sound made it to the Pool.
“What,” Casten continued to gasp. He returned his attention to Poppa Henry as he fell to his knees. “What was that?”
Poppa Henry was before him, but he was at least smart enough to not get too close. His body was almost completely white. It was starting to become devoid of all the telltale features the blue had once made so readily identifiable.
Ash walked out from behind him. “The Rider wants you to know the Pool isn’t water,” Poppa Henry said. He lifted a hand towards the two barriers. Instantly the purple walls vanished, both Amalin and Jeth stumbling forward. “You couldn’t hear because my magic is strong. It kept that Rider out of our fight—and would have kept all her words out as well—if I’d used the full force of the energy I have left in my body. But I didn’t make my walls as solid as they could have been. I have one more spell I need to cast.”
Casten sighed. He stayed on his knees as Jeth and Amalin reached his side. “Is it a spell for my death? Or do you want your accomplices to hold me down while you have that little girl use my own sword to run me through?”
Casten looked at Jeth and Amalin, but he also peered at Ash with an intensity she didn’t like. He was regarding her with a hurried flare of surprise mixed with a twinge of jealousy. It was right in his eyes. She was still using only one hand to carry Justice, and in all the excitement of his attack, she’d even managed to let the sword dangle from her fingertips—the hilt of the blade barely kept in her grasp.
Ash saw how that was causing Casten to feel. It was brief, but feelings were there.
“Have you corrupted Justice as well?” he asked. He jumped to his feet, Amalin and Jeth ready. They had his arms in an instant. “That blade has only been carried by the strongest of Light Benders. Some of us have even seen it shine when its true master raises it above his head. What have you done to it?”
Poppa Henry regarded Casten with amusement as he shook his head and took another step towards him. Finally, Ash made out where her grandfather’s mouth was. She’d known the general area, but much of her grandfather was now such a pure white she hadn’t been sure. But when he took that step forward—and when he also motioned for Jeth and Amalin to let go of what they held, he smiled broad and full. It left no doubt over where his lips were.
“Maybe my granddaughter’s ability to carry Justice is proof you’re wrong,” Poppa Henry said. He nodded Ash’s way. “Maybe I’m not such a Bad Blood Traitor after all.”
Casten looked at the two that had let loose of him. “You think having your friends set me free is another sign of your innocence?”
“We’re not his friends, his allies, or his accomplices,” Amalin said. She shoved Casten in the back, Casten whipping around, his long blond hair flying as he whirled. “I was a child in the court of King Elyan, the true king of Bayden, and as a daughter to Duke Galon Charnell, I hated Henry Ash whenever I suffered from what I thought he’d done. But then truth was shown, and now I have doubts.”
“You’re from Bayden,” Casten said, “and you’re holding me back? What have you seen?”
“Only a Remembrance,” Amalin said. “It was not Henry James Ash who murdered Isabella Denthro and her father. It was Prince Ophallo.”
Casten shook his head. “Impossible. It…magic proved—”
Poppa Henry laughed. “This I’ve heard,” he said, “only I survived, right? But maybe magic got it wrong.”
“Never,” Casten said. He shook his head again. “We did countless spells. We found bits of Ophallo…he was all over the throne room. Magic proved…it proved Henry was still out there, he had to be the villain.”
“And did magic prove that the Errun can bend light?” Poppa Henry asked.
Casten stared at him. He had a look Ash had noticed before. It was one that Amalin had worn as well, but her jolt of confusion had lasted much longer. Casten had no clue what Poppa Henry was getting at.
“Of course, magic proved that,” Casten said, “and those that fled Cathedral said same. The Errun gained the ability to bend because you gave them the power.”
“They’re still bending,” Poppa Henry said, “and I had nothing to do with it. The Errun, maybe all the Errun, have the ability to bend light whenever—”
“Impossible,” Casten said. “They could never—”
Poppa Henry shook his head. “You were in the library! How could you not have seen?”
Casten pointed to his leg and at his chest. “I am healed,” he began, “but I was bleeding—I don’t know what I…I…I think there was Chood, but then he said he was Syndon and…and…it was confusion. I don’t know what I saw. I don’t even know how I got here.”
“I carried you,” Poppa Henry said. He nodded at Jeth. “So did he.”
“Well,” Casten said, “thanks. But I don’t know that for sure. All I do know is what I’ve learned. The Errun bent light once, and only once, when you gave them the power. And for the last four hundred years, there has been nothing, no hint of them doing anything like that again.”
“But they are—”
“Prove me wrong.” Casten said before Poppa Henry could go on. “Do it now. Show me something that says you’re right.”
Poppa Henry smiled. “That’s exactly what I want to do.” He took another slight step forward. “I will take you into a Remembrance. One I just took everyone into only a few minutes ago.”
Casten stared at Amalin and Jeth before he turned to Ash. “All of you were there?” he asked. “You three and Henry were in a Remembrance? Because that is proof—it proves you lie. Just bringing two people into such a spell is something that even the most powerful Light Bender has trouble doing alone. But you three were inside of one that you, Henry, created all by yourself?”
“There were seven of us,” Amalin said, “and do not think me that limited that I do not know what a Remembrance is. We were in it, the three of us plus three other Riders, and Henry Ash as well. We were all taken inside a Remembrance as we stood next to the Pool.”
“And why wasn’t I there?” Casten asked. He pointed to the spot he’d just gotten up from. “If the blue is the Pool and I woke near it, then why do I not remember any trip into the past?”
Poppa Henry took yet another step towards him. “Don’t be an idiot! If you are any kind of decent Light Bender you should know the answer to that better than any of us!”
“Because you should know that since you were unconscious, you would never have been brought into any spell unless I used great energy to slip into your mind—energy you have been well trained to fight off. Or am I wrong?”
“No,” Casten said, “I have been trained.” He sighed. “But that repeats the problem. You couldn’t bring me into a Remembrance back then, and unless you can conjure up another, I don’t care if that Elf or that Rider or even that little girl swears up and down to your innocence, I won’t buy your story.”
“Then I suppose I’ll have to do this,” Poppa Henry said. He took one last step.
He was right on top of Casten who looked oh so glad to finally have him near. He struck.
To Ash, it seemed as if Casten had hoped that maybe he could succeed in a surprise attack. But her Poppa Henry was the Pool no matter how much of the blue had already left him. Casten only succeeded in finding something that his hand bounced off of.
“What are you?” Casten asked. Poppa Henry reached out and grabbed his head.
“Just energy,” Poppa Henry explained. “Not as much as I would like, but enough so I can do one last spell.”
“To kill me?”
Poppa Henry pressed his fingers against Casten’s temples. “You keep thinking that,” he said, “but no. My last spell will be a second Remembrance—one done mere minutes after my first, something no master of the Bright has ever done. You will see truth.”
“I,” Casten said. “I won’t believe.”
“Well,” Poppa Henry said. Another light, this one surrounding only Casten and he, burst out of his hands. “That will be up to you.”
It lasted a second, as long as it took for Ash to turn her head and turn it right back around. Poppa Henry and Casten stumbled along the Kawshun, Casten walking a bit further off, while Poppa Henry made a path her way. Ash barely noticed.
Was that Remembrance anything like the one she’d been inside of? The time spent watching Isabella and King Denthro die had seemed quite long, but maybe only seconds had passed. Ash couldn’t stop thinking about that. She almost didn’t catch what was happening in front of her face.
“Ash…the mirror,” Poppa Henry said. His words slurred as his lips began to flake away.
That got her attention. Her grandfather’s body may not have been made of glass, but it was becoming obvious it could still fall apart. A large chunk tore free from his leg as Ash finally figured out why he was heading for her.
She fished beneath her red shirt. She didn’t remember putting her mirror down there, but she could feel the blue against her chest as she tried in vain to take hold of it.
The mirror slipped. “Ash,” Poppa Henry moaned. The bottom of his chin came loose. It crashed down at his feet.
But it didn’t break when it hit. Instead, it bounced and rolled along the muddy ground. More bits flaked off until what had been his chin was only dust, a fine white powder quickly absorbed by the parts of the Kawshun it lay upon.
Ash found the blue mirror and yanked it out. The pane of glass was a sudden relief to her grandfather who stared at it and took one final step.
“Poppa Henry,” Ash said. She turned the mirror so the glass faced her. The rest of his body had collapsed. It was all white powder now. “Are you okay?”
Poppa Henry was inside. It looked as if he was a good couple of miles from her as he fell to his knees and trembled with exhaustion.
“I…I’m fine,” he said. He turned to her and held up his hand. She could barely make it out, but she thought he might be giving her a thumb’s up. “It was close. I…I’ll just be glad when we’re out of here.”
“Me too,” Ash looked from the mirror to Casten. He was trembling like her Poppa Henry was doing. “But…did he believe? Did you take him into the same Remembrance?”
“I,” Poppa Henry said, “I added a bit more. I let him see our fight with the Riders, and I also reminded him of some of the stuff from the library. Hopefully, that will be enough.”
Poppa Henry had already gotten to his feet when Ash looked back down at him. He was once more against her blue mirror, his eyes and forehead all that she could see. Ash turned him to Casten who was also moving, he got closer and closer as he flicked his head first at Amalin, then at Jeth, and finally, at her.
“Remembrances don’t lie,” he said. His voice was a hoarse and raspy whisper, it sounded like it was a struggle to get any words out. “All my life I…after every skirmish, every Nomen and Giant invasion, whenever we had the time, they trained me, and when they also told me that Henry James Ash was evil, I bought it without question. But Remembrances don’t lie, and that was a Remembrance. You were right, Rider. It was Ophallo who murdered Denthro.”
Casten sighed. Throughout most of his speech, he’d stared only at the blue mirror, but he finally looked at Amalin to offer a shy kind of shrug and a weary shake of his head. He tried to get as complacent and sorrowful as he could, but it was almost as if those emotions were too foreign to pull off.
“You were right,” he said again. “And this…it changes everything. We need…I did see the Errun bend light in that other world, and Syndon is…he’s still alive and it…we need to get Henry back into Penthya so the Common Court can study him, join with him, and see what I’ve just seen.”
“Glad you agree,” Amalin said.
Casten shrugged his shoulders again. “But what’s next? We know what happened, but we’re on the Unkindness or—or I guess we’re in the Fields of Kawshun, right? How do we get out?”
“Oh,” Amalin walked to the two horses at her rear. “That’s easy. Get on.”
They scrambled for a ride. Jeth took the lead of one horse and reached to help Ash up, while Amalin let Casten slip in behind her before they were off.
The ride was worse than what Ash remembered from before. Maybe it was because she was fully awake this time? Or maybe without the poison of a wolf’s bite to burn through her veins, everything was just a tad too much? Whatever the case, the bones of the Kawshun horse could not be ignored. They poked at Ash no matter how she moved, and the animal’s thin flesh—so light and insubstantial—made her constantly worry she would tear right through it.
Sitting behind Jeth, Ash tucked her blue mirror back beneath her red shirt. It had been jumping around. She had to find some way to keep it and herself still.
She even tried to hold onto Jeth with one hand while keeping her body as immobile as possible, as if that might make things better. But her horse kept rising and gravity alone made her crash back down. It was probably why the ride was so grueling.
Yet when she looked at Jeth or stared over at Amalin and Casten, she saw how they were accepting the horses they were on. It boggled her mind. How were they taking the roll of such bony backs and the jarring gait of four sharp hooves while she tensed at each movement?
“So?” Amalin asked. She and Casten had been sharing stories about Penthya for quite a while. “Isin is dead? When was this?”
“Over two hundred years ago,” Casten said, “another Giant invasion, the last one; they sent most of their force against Bayden while Penthya was so consumed with yet another revolt we couldn’t muster much of an army to aid in their defense.”
Amalin laughed. “Serves Isin right,” she said, “after he betrayed the true King,” but the humor caught in her throat. She swallowed hard. “Is Bayden in the hands of the Giants?”
Casten slowly shook his head. “Parts of it have been under their control for the last two centuries, parts of it remain free, yet…and this is…Isin, no matter how you feel about what he did to Elyan, he was still a brave man. After…and…and I’m sorry to say this because there is no way you could know, but…but after Duke Charnell joined with the Giant Nation and turned against his own people—”
“What?” Amalin whirled as best she could.
Her horse kept going. Amalin was staring only at Casten. She wasn’t trying to direct her Kawshun horse around puddles or over winding bits of dead branches, and still the animal knew where to go. It ran further along in a direction it hadn’t altered from since it had left the Pool.
Casten, again, shook his head. “I shouldn’t have. From how you talk, I knew you’d entered the Kawshun long before his betrayal, and I—I just believe that everyone should know the truth but…maybe I was wrong. I shouldn’t be the one to tell you this.”
“If not you, who?” Amalin asked. “It’s been ages since I’ve talked to a living person who was recently in Bayden! The dead are consumed with crossing over—they never speak!”
Casten nodded. “The dead don’t speak,” he noted, “interesting. Very well then. Charnell married a woman with ties to the Giants, and—and from all the stories I’ve heard, when she had his ear for long enough, she brought him to their side. Apparently, it wasn’t that hard to do.”
Tears welled in Amalin’s eyes as she finally turned from Casten. “It has to be because of me,” she looked back at the parts of the Kawshun her horse was racing over. “Quill was already dead, and I took off. It must have broken…how did this lady woo him?”
“I don’t know much,” Casten said. “I fought for Bayden when Charnell engineered one of their greatest defeats, and afterwards, I heard only rumor. I can’t be sure I’m telling it correct.”
“You fought for Bayden?”
“As did many Elves. Even those who’d sworn to never again leave the Centaur Woods decided to come out one final time in order so that Bayden wouldn’t be completely overrun. It was the last occasion when many fought side by side with the Children of Men.”
“Tell me more,” Amalin said. She urged her horse faster.
“About Elves or about your father?”
“My father, but—but if we aren’t at the end of the Kawshun when you’re done, you can tell me about your people.”
Casten did. He told of the wife Galon had taken after Amalin had left Bayden, how that lady had kept in contact with those she knew in the Northern Reaches. She’d used a Looking Glass—an Unregistered Looking Glass, Casten made sure to add that—to deceive every nearby Light Bender. She’d gotten detailed instructions on just how Bayden should be betrayed.
“But—” Amalin asked when Casten paused for a breath. “I thought it was impossible to take a Looking Glass off the Registry. How did she keep the Light Benders from finding out?”
“We don’t know,” Casten said. “I’ve always thought it had to be areas of the Black; the lady your father married was a powerful witch. She made it so she could talk to anyone, anywhere, and no Bender would ever be the wiser. After she got pregnant and your father learned he was to have another son, he willingly went with her to—”
“No,” Amalin said. Her voice faded as she hunched over her horse and tried to stifle another outpouring of tears. “No more. I left my father, and…if he betrayed Bayden, he only died much sooner than I expected. Tell me of your people.”
“Of course,” Casten said.
He began to describe as much about the Elves as he could recall—his constant assertion that he’d left them when he was but a Little the single drawback to what he was saying. The way he kept repeating himself, as if in apology over the fact that he might not know all he should, it made Ash almost get tired of his story. But everything else was so fascinating that any level of irritation never lasted long.
Casten told of King Ethoc and Queen Tallis—the two who were called the first of their kind. Ethoc and Tallis had helped, with their own hands, to build first their home in the Anoral and then Castle Watch once the Unrest was over. Apparently, it was even Ethoc who’d opened his arms to David Random by giving Random his daughter’s hand in marriage. For quite a while, no one could remember a time when Ethoc wasn’t in control of the Elves.
“Thousands of years, thousands,” Casten explained. “My father once told me that one of his first memories was of going to the center of Athren, into its Theater which is a wide and open glade rimmed with stone seats and large trees. He heard Ethoc give his yearly Spring Day Speech there, the seven thousandth one Ethoc had given, yet at that time, it was only the eight hundredth one he’d made in Athren.
“Still, my father said that Ethoc told of how grateful he was to the Centaurs for how they’d blessed the Elves with so much land. Everyone truly thought they would get to hear his eight or nine thousandth speech when Athren had been the home of the Elves for so long no one would blame the King if he left out his thanks.”
Jeth let a harsh stream of disgust pass from between clenched teeth. No one else heard it, but Ash caught it clear. She also caught it when he said, “I remember that speech, I was there.” It sounded like he was mad but not mad at Casten. He was simply mad at Casten’s story.
“But Ethoc disappeared not long after that,” Casten continued.
“Was that when it happened?” Amalin asked.
The gray horizon was almost upon them. The Kawshun horses had taken them to another end of the world, the Unkindness almost within reach—other mirrors and other windows also nearby, they were hung all over another wall of dreary nothingness while tiny puddles of dark and dismal water covered the ground. Ash couldn’t have been happier.
The horse she was on was still a torment, but when Casten made mention of Ethoc’s disappearance, Jeth, too, became an irritation. He began to twist and move so much Ash almost lost her grip on him.
“What do you mean Ethoc disappeared?” Jeth finally said. He drove his heels into his horse so that he and Ash were not a little behind both Amalin and Casten, they were right next them.
“Didn’t you know?” Casten said, “every Elf knows?”
Jeth sighed. “I’ve been out of touch for a while—consider me a tad confused. The last I heard Ethoc and Tallis were both in charge.”
“Not anymore,” Casten said, “Ethoc left Athren a good two to three hundred years before Henry Ash’s murder of King…I mean before Prince Ophallo’s murder of King Denthro. He got wind of a possible sighting of his eldest daughter, the one child he wanted more than anything to see again. Ethoc took off into the Western Wilds, and once it was clear he was never returning, Queen Tallis forbade any Elf from ever going into the Wilds again. She sealed it off with magic and with law. And it was good magic too. It stayed quite strong up until the day she died.”
They were there, their horses slowing to a trot, then to a crawl, and finally to a dead stop as they veered as close to the Unkindness as they could get. Ash saw a large mirror hanging above that highway. It looked out onto what appeared to be a nice and quaint home, a small one with brown oak walls and a few tiny windows which gave her a great view of whatever was outside.
“What do you mean Tallis is dead?” both Amalin and Jeth asked.
Ash jumped off her Kawshun horse. She was the only one to move.
Once more, Casten shook his head to knock away the disbelief. “You cannot be serious,” he unclenched his hands from around Amalin’s waist and slipped off his horse. “I know you’ve both been here for a while, but really, how can you not know some of the most major events to have ever happened in Penthya?”
Jeth stared at him in exasperation. “We haven’t been here for a while,” he said, “we’ve been here for centuries. But if you want a more thorough explanation, know that before I found myself in this world, I was stuck as far from Athren as I could possibly get. I never heard of Ethoc’s disappearance, and now you tell me of Queen Tallis’s demise! How did that happen?”
“For Bayden and for Penthya,” Casten said. “I’m sorry, brother, I truly am. Here I wake in a world I’ve only ever heard vague stories about, but I’ve heard stories. I should have known. Queen Tallis was the one who withdrew into Athren and brought all the Elves with her when Denthro was murdered. But she only did that because she was pressured by the Council—the other Elder Elves who wanted to keep Athren safe even if it meant everything else fell.
“When some of her kind didn’t come along though, and especially when my mother, her own daughter, stood with my father and stayed in Penthya, she began to doubt the wisdom of her actions. When Bayden faced annihilation and when my father and mother rode out to help save that nation, she broke. Queen Tallis left, and she died. Unable to save my father, she did save me and my mother. She, along with Isin, truly kept the Giants from taking all of Bayden.”
Casten looked at Jeth, and Amalin, each of them stunned beyond the capacity to respond. They sat on their horses, the animals impatiently pawing at the ground.
Jeth slowly slid off his horse. “Everything,” he said. “My father, my mother, perhaps even my brother Cabalt and my sister, Anneese—how do I know they are not as buried as a King and Queen I thought would never die?”
He rounded his horse and finally returned Casten’s’ gaze, but now Casten was the one to be silent. He just looked at Jeth as if seeing him for the first time.
“My…my father,” he began, “his name was Cabalt, and—you can’t?”
“What’s on your belt?” Jeth said. He pointed to Casten’s waist. “It is my family seal, but you don’t just have it because of your mother, do you? If your father…if Cabalt was…you also carry that crest because my brother…”
He walked closer as his eyes roamed over what he could see. He’d been at Casten’s side ever since he’d seen him injured on the Unkindness, but to Ash, it looked as if Jeth was now staring at something new and amazing.
“He didn’t have blond hair,” Jeth finally said. He stepped back and smiled. “But you have his eyes. Maybe it is fitting that I find a relative in this of all places.”
“I think it might be the other way around,” Casten said. “You found me, yet I cannot believe I’m the one to have stumbled upon you. In my family, you are as famous as Ethoc or Tallis. The story of a lost brother—a brother my father never named for it hurt too much to speak of him. Wait until my mother finds out. Wait until Anneese hears the news.”
“Anneese is alive?”
Casten nodded. “I haven’t spoken to her in ages,” he said. “Looking Glasses are rare in Penthya, but my mother did leave me one with direct access to her and most of the Athren Council. The last I spoke with her Lady Anneese was an advisor there.”
“Then we must go,” Jeth said. He walked away from Casten as he headed over to Ash and the Unkindness. “Is this what we’ll be using?”
He pointed to what Ash had been staring at for quite some time. All Ash could see was what had been there when first she’d noticed the mirror, some deep red light of a setting sun, some brown oak walls too, and a few windows dotting here and there that let her spy upon some scattered leaves that were outside.
However, the world beyond that mirror wasn’t letting her know if it was moving at a rapid or slow pace. The sun wasn’t racing along the sky and no animals were slowing passing by either, yet Ash kind of thought that neither was the case. Everything looked to her as if it were moving normal.
Amalin sighed, and slid off her horse. “Is your reunion finished?” She walked not to Ash nor to Jeth—not even to Casten who stood a few feet away. Instead, she went to a small dark puddle lying behind her. “Because if you want to hug over the amazing impossibility of a long-lost uncle and nephew meeting in this world, feel free. I only just found out my father turned traitor centuries ago, so please, enjoy some goodness while that girl and I wait.”
“The stone heart and a lack of emotion returns,” Jeth said. “We are done, but tell me, will we be traveling through that mirror?”
“We don’t need it,” Amalin said, “and besides, I don’t have the staff or the Beacon, and if you remember, without either, we can’t enter the Unkindness. The barrier is back. We’ll have to jump into this water. Or we will jump if Henry Ash can help us.”
It took a moment for Ash to realize that though Amalin was looking at the water, she was talking to her. Ash fumbled under her red shirt. Again, her blue mirror just didn’t want to stay put, but finally, she grabbed hold and yanked it out.
She flipped it around. Her grandfather was there, right where she’d left him; however, the expression in his eyes—from what she could see of them—bothered her greatly. It was as if something he’d heard had struck him wrong.
“Can you help?” Ash asked. Maybe he was weak from using the Pool. Or maybe he was worried about dragging people through water and out into Penthya. “Can you carry us?”
“Of course,” Poppa Henry said, “but…lean forward for a second.”
“What?” Ash whispered.
“Keep an eye on Jeth for me, okay?”
“Why?” Ash asked. Her eyes flicked over to him. “Why do I need to watch?”
“Because,” Poppa Henry said, “he might seem fine but I know Jeth, I know him as well as I can know anyone I spent years in captivity with. He is scared, confused, and lost. Hearing about Ethoc and Tallis, about his brother as well, I’m not sure he wants to return to Penthya.”