World's of Ash: A Fantasy Tale
(hardback, and paperback, found at: https://www.austinmacauley.com/us/author/rutan-jonathan-lee)
Ash was angry. She didn’t know why or what was causing it, but the fury in her soul was quickly becoming the only thing she cared about.
She squeezed her eyes tight. In the dark, her rage was alive—a substantial form coming closer and closer with each passing second. She couldn’t wait for it to arrive.
Something cold and electric made its way past her lips. It sparked down her throat—that was the only way Ash could describe the sudden sensation of what it was she was drinking.
The horse she’d been on had been uncomfortable to an unimaginable degree, its bones rolling and rising with each step the animal took. But Ash had gotten used to that. The jarring beat of such hard hooves upon such wet ground had created a rhythm she may not have liked, but it was a rhythm that, once listened to, had become ordinary. Ash had been able to push every bad sensation into the back of her mind, which was why it was such a surprise when something strange and filled with energy was poured into her mouth.
Ash swallowed and choked. She got some of the liquid down, yet lost a good portion of it up as she realized that somehow, and at some time, she’d been taken off the Kawshun horse.
“Easy, easy,” Amalin said. She cupped the back of Ash’s head as she cradled her along her thighs. “We are by the Pool, and I have had my sip. This is my flask. Everything is fine.”
Ash looked up. She stared straight into Amalin’s eyes—twin currents of deepest blue. They scared her.
She didn’t want her eyes to be like that. She didn’t want to be held by some wild woman either. Ash was angrier than she had ever been in her whole life—all her emotion focused only onto Amalin. She wanted to hit and bite until Amalin screamed in the same amount of rage she was feeling.
“Get off me!” Ash howled. She writhed in Amalin’s grasp, Amalin clamping down and drawing her closer. “Let me go!”
Amalin only smiled. Ash was snapping and whipping around, and Amalin just let a wide grin play across her lips. It still looked odd.
They were near to the Pool, a wide lake of glowing blue that was easily reachable if Amalin were to simply turn with the smallest of efforts. She ignored it.
When Ash finally paused to gather her strength, Amalin let her smile drop. “I have spent countless centuries in this world,” she said. “The Kawshun and the Unkindness do love to play their games, speeding up the world you left behind, slowing it down as well, this place does it all so you’re never quite sure how much time has passed in the life you abandoned. But, most often, the Kawshun and the Unkindness torture you by moving at a pace you can’t begin to imagine. Once they know you’re here for good, and trust me they both can know that well, they make it so everything moves quickly.
“I have been here for quite a while, and maybe in the world I left, things haven’t aged that much, but for me, they have. Don’t think me a fool, little girl, and don’t you dare think I haven’t seen it all. You’re angry, the poison in you is making you fill with a rage you can’t believe, and a part of you likes it, I know you like it, but I won’t let you fall into it. You can struggle all you want, but I will keep you here and you will drink from my flask. Whether I force it on you or you take it willingly, you will drink from my flask.”
Amalin scooted more comfortably onto the Kawshun. She’d been kneeling with her legs underneath her and Ash held securely at her waist, but she hefted Ash up so she could push her legs out. She sighed in contentment, her left arm all she needed to keep Ash on her lap.
“I can sit here forever,” Amalin continued, “and I really have drunk enough to keep me fine when the sun goes down.” She shook her flask back and forth, Ash unable to look anywhere else but at it. “Are you going to drink?”
“My eyes,” Ash said. She went limp in Amalin’s arm. It would do no good to fight. Amalin was too strong. “Will drinking…I don’t want my eyes to be like yours.”
Amalin laughed. “Oh sweetie,” she said as she brought the flask to Ash’s lips. Ash sipped from it slowly, then greedily—every drop sparking down her throat. It was quenching her rage. “You can’t get eyes like mine unless you drink from the Pool for years, hundreds of years, and by then, you’ll be so saturated you won’t care how it changes you.”
Ash kept sipping. The blue tasted like a current of living energy, all Ash could think was that she wasn’t swallowing anything liquid—instead, she was drinking a source of power not unlike what gave life to the lights in her house or the computers at her school.
When Amalin finally took the flask away, Ash even made a feeble attempt at protesting, but such cries were lost when Amalin clamped down hard upon her. She threw her flask to her side, and hurriedly squeezed until Ash felt as if all the air were about to slip from her lungs.
A seizure hit. Her shoulder no longer oozed something black. It no longer burned with pain either. Instead, it felt utterly ripped apart. Ash expected, at any second, to find that her whole arm was somewhere off to the side and along the Kawshun.
She passed out. It was starting to become a terrible habit of hers.
But when she awoke, both her arms and both her hands—all her fingers and her two shoulders—were still there. Ash sat up and inspected her body. The bandage from Casten’s cloak had been taken away, the bundle of cloth discarded and set next to her. No longer was there any scar or bite in her flesh—the black ooze coming out of her gone as well.
“So, without a recent drink from the Pool,” Jeth was saying. When had he arrived? “And as saturated by all the blue as you certainly are, you would have still turned wolf?”
Ash turned. Jeth was standing next to Amalin, Casten lying near to them both. It was impressive. Jeth really had been able to run fast.
“If you’re a living person on the Kawshun,” Amalin said, “then yes. The rare nightfall is too powerful, and any long ago blue won’t do. It has to be a recent sip, something only a few hours old, even if that sip comes from a container like my flask.”
“You mean the flask you forgot to fill the last time you were here?”
Amalin sighed. She held her flask up before her. “Yes, that one,” she said. She’d already retrieved the thing from the Kawshun. Ash watched as Amalin bent down to refill it before she stood and tucked it beneath the shirt she wore. “And, trust me, I won’t be forgetting about anything anymore. Sometimes Kawshun horses quit on you, and since I can’t go as fast as an Elf, I will never again be caught without the blue. Where did you learn to run like that?”
Ash had been moved—or had the seizure moved her—and Jeth and Amalin seemed content to let her be as they both stood much closer to the Pool and its soft halo of light. Everywhere else was dark, an endless black that couldn’t be breached no matter how hard Ash stared.
It was the sunset. Ash had never been in a night this complete.
“Running fast is a talent all Elves are born with,” Jeth said. He knelt on the Kawshun as he scooped up as much of the blue as he could. He took a good long drink, and when he was done, he grabbed another handful. But this time, he turned to Casten. He made sure some got to him as well. “When I was a boy in the Centaur Woods, I remember how Elves used to be able to run almost as fast as the wind.”
Amalin peered at him, a sudden interest burning across her face as she took a slight step to her rear to calm her Kawshun horse. The beast must have also been enjoying the Pool, or perhaps it had been further off doing whatever it was that emaciated pale horses did in this world, for Ash hadn’t seen it until now. It nuzzled Amalin with its thin snout. But Amalin never took her eyes off Jeth as she quieted it.
“You are from Penthya, when?”
“What do you mean, when?” Jeth asked.
“I mean, when were you last there?”
“Did I say another place?”
“No,” Jeth said. He was done with the Pool. He wiped his hands on his long shirt as he stood. “But I don’t know when last I was there. I was captured by Nomen scouts who’d ventured into the Marsh of Lumbrica to check on the lay of the land during the earliest days of Vensue’s Outrage. Prince Denthro was still just a Little himself, and things seemed on the verge of another Civil War, so the Nomen, like the Errun, were curious as to how that weakness could be exploited. I was made a slave just a few days after my ninetieth birthday. That was the last I saw of Penthya until I entered, once more, very briefly, into the Lumbrica.”
Amalin turned her attention to her horse. “You don’t look to be ninety.”
“Actually, I’m older. I think I celebrated my four hundredth not too long before I found myself here.”
Amalin stroked the mane of her horse, yet also cast another sideways glance at Jeth. “But,” she sighed, “you said you left Penthya when you were ninety and no one ages in the Kawshun or on the Unkindness. They either cross or they become wolf.”
“I said I left Penthya when I was but ninety,” Jeth explained. He faced Amalin—let himself be judged. “Never said I left the world Penthya is in when I was ninety. I was taken by the Nomen and was their slave for over three centuries before I escaped. I fled with the help of the man who was in the glass that hung on that gray wall, and when I finally did make it back into Penthya, I was captured by the Errun in the Lumbrica. Really, I think that marsh might not be the best spot for me to visit.”
“Why were you in the Lumbrica?”
“First time or second?”
“My father was a Lord of a noble Elf house and had been sent by King Ethoc to strike an accord with a Wiggan Tribal.”
“How about the second?”
Amalin was starting to believe. It was obvious to Ash who watched from afar, but it was clear that it was even more obvious to Jeth. He nodded before turning. He looked down at Casten and then knelt to check on his injuries.
“He is healing,” Jeth said, “but it is taking him much longer than it did for that girl. Why?”
Ash had to get closer. She had to hear the answer to Jeth’s question almost as much as he did. She was cured, right?
“My Little Ash,” Poppa Henry said. But his voice was muffled. It was coming from under her red shirt. “Are you alright?”
Amalin and Jeth hadn’t yet noticed her. Ash was close enough to catch anything they might say, but both still had their backs to her as she stopped to pull out her mirror. It was lying against her white undershirt, and as soon as it was free, the blue from the Pool flickered onto the glass. Her Poppa Henry was still with her. Everything was fine.
“I’m okay,” Ash said. “What did they do to me?”
“I don’t know,” Poppa Henry said. “I’ve always known of the Unkindness and of the Kawshun, but I never dared to try and spend much time here. That woman, however, the one with the blue eyes, she seems to know this world, and if that is the case, then she must be a Rider of some experience. Ask her.”
“Okay,” Ash said. She dropped the mirror down to her chest, yet made sure its glass front was aimed towards Amalin and Jeth so her grandfather could easily hear and see them. “Do you really think she will know everything?”
“She’s a Rider, she has to know.”
“Okay,” Ash said again, “but maybe we should be quiet. She might be about to say something important.”
Poppa Henry kept on. “And,” he was rather loud too—so annoying. “She looks familiar. Not the eyes, I’ve never seen anyone with eyes like hers. Still, her face—she seems like someone I should know.”
Ash gave her mirror a shake. “Poppa Henry, hush.”
Her grandfather finally went silent as Amalin ambled slowly to Jeth. The night was breaking; a touch of gray entering what had been pure dark a moment before. With the coming light, her horse was put at ease—Amalin was free to tap Jeth on his shoulder.
“Tell me why you were in the marsh the second time you got captured.”
Jeth stood. He let his inspection of Casten come to an end as he turned to look at her.
“No,” he said, “you tell me why this Elf is not yet completely healed. His wounds are smaller, but he is not better, while that girl is already on her feet.”
Jeth waved at Ash, she should have known she wouldn’t be able to remain unnoticed much longer. Trying to sneak up on them had been rather silly.
“This girl was injured on the Unkindness,” Amalin explained, “and as I have already said, any wound on that road can be fixed at the Pool. But I should have further added that if any injury actually happens on the Unkindness, then the fixing of that injury will occur a bit faster. Your Elf friend will be fine, but he was obviously attacked off that highway. Why are you concerned?”
“Because,” Jeth said. He stood and pointed to a belt that was around Casten’s waist. “I think he might be family.”
Like the belts that the other Rider’s had worn, Ash had—once more—not yet seen something she probably should have already taken note of. The belt was slender and tiny, but it was also as brown and as leathery as Casten’s pants, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise she’d missed it.
Yet what Jeth was pointing to now was the one spot Ash knew she shouldn’t have overlooked. A small and circular red medallion—with a tiny black phoenix burnt right into it—was there. It was something lying at the center of Casten’s belt. It was also just under the tip of Casten’s sword. Before he’d taken off for his run, Jeth must have returned the weapon to its rightful owner.
“The crest, that phoenix, it’s my family crest,” Jeth said. Amalin leaned over to see what it was he was talking about. “It is the crest of House Ethallis, the crest of King Ethoc himself, and it means this boy could be my Prince, my King, or he could be a cousin. Whatever the case, I have to make sure he’s fine.”
“He will be,” Amalin said. She locked Jeth into her steady blue-filled gaze. “Now answer me, why were you in the Marsh of Lumbrica when you got caught the second time?”
“My fault,” Poppa Henry spoke up from his position inside Ash’s mirror. Amalin and Jeth looked her way, but it took Ash pointing at the mirror for them to finally nod in understanding.
Jeth laughed as he walked over. “So that is what you meant when you said you could follow. What else can you do as a Reflection?”
“He answers me, not you,” Amalin said.
She didn’t get any closer to Ash. Instead, she made her way back to her horse as a tiny speck of blue, something not the Pool and way off in the distance, began to become noticeable just past the gray of the horizon.
“And what would you like for me to answer?” Poppa Henry asked.
“Why were you in the marsh?” Amalin said.
“I wanted to get out of the Ferrousai as quickly as possible, and Jeth took me to the Lumbrica rather than taking a much longer route which would have led us straight into the Centaur Woods. I was so ready to leave that desert I pushed him into it. I told him we had to get out of the heat, but as soon as we were over the cliffs, we got caught, and when we finally did reach the Centaur Woods, it was in the dead of night, and we were in chains—the Errun who took us, not letting us make a sound; they were so worried we would alert the Elves or the Centaurs to their presence.”
Amalin nodded. “And what happened next?”
“For Jeth or for me?”
“Well,” Poppa Henry began, “Jeth somehow fell into this world, while I finally made it into Penthya and got married.”
Got married? In Penthya? Ash paused to digest that fact. Had Grandma Ash been Penthyan? That would be so cool.
“You got married,” Jeth said. “When, where, how?”
“I did say the girl who holds my mirror is my granddaughter,” Poppa Henry said. “Did you think I had her father out of wedlock?”
Jeth laughed again. “Never gave it a thought—should have though. Well, much belated congrats! Who was the lucky lady?”
“Isabella Denthro,” Poppa Henry said.
Ash blinked hard and almost reached for the mirror at her chest. She wanted to pull at it, maybe shake it a little too. What was Poppa Henry talking about?
Grandma Ash had died long before she’d been born, but her name had been Whitney. And Isabella Denthro was a princess—a woman from a story. How could her Poppa Henry…or was he…but that couldn’t be, could it?
Was Poppa Henry the mystery husband he’d always refused to name? Now Ash really wanted to go for her mirror. Maybe yank it to her face. Ask it every question that was consuming her.
But her hands never made it to the blue around her neck. Amalin howled in rage before jumping onto her horse. She took every thought straight from Ash’s mind.
“I knew it!” Amalin said. She was already digging her heels into her horse. The beast aimed only towards the horizon and the blue light that was still there. “You’re a Reflection! Your name is Henry! But I was too worried about that girl and—and about the coming nightfall!”
Ash and Jeth stayed where they were. Too stunned to move, they just bore witness to the sight of Amalin. The dark was almost completely gone, and so was she. Her Kawshun horse moved at a speed that was stunning.
“What was that about?” Jeth asked. He stared at the blue mirror.
“I think she thinks I killed King Denthro,” Poppa Henry quickly added.
“Wait,” Jeth said slowly, as if to clarify. “Denthro…he became a king—and he’s dead?”
“Yes, but I didn’t kill him. You have to believe me.”
Jeth sighed. “I already stood up for you once. I know you wouldn’t do that.”
“Good,” Poppa Henry said, “that will help in case you need to use that sword over there.”
“And why would I need that?”
“To protect yourself and my Little Ash,” Poppa Henry said. Amalin was a dot on the horizon, yet she was a dot that had stopped right beside the blue light that was much closer. “When those Riders arrive, they might pull out their own weapons. I need for you to be ready to do the same.”
Jeth leaned over and took hold of the blade lying across Casten’s’ chest. It was a struggle for him to rise.
Finally getting upright, Ash watched as he studied a gleam in the sword before he cast a quick glance back onto the speck of blue that was way off in the distance. Except, it was no longer a speck. When Ash followed his gaze, she found that the blue was now a large and ominous glow on the top of a staff that was way too close for her liking.
Jeth sighed. “I can’t.” He gave one last effort to lift the sword; however, he barely got anywhere before he dropped his arm. “Too heavy.”
“What?” Ash asked. She headed his way. “What do you mean?”
Jeth bent again. The tip of the sword fell deep into the Kawshun as he rested upon its hilt.
“Too heavy,” he said, “sorry.”
“But it wasn’t heavy for me.”
Ash grabbed at the hilt, Jeth not protesting in the slightest. He stepped away with a shrug as the sword came out of the ground with the smallest of efforts. Again, there was something in Ash’s mind. It made her feel as if this thing was an extension of her body.
She twirled what was in her hands. The sword could sing—that something in her mind, a sudden chorus of confidence. It let her know she could do anything she wanted.
Ash flicked her wrists in broad circles as she expertly worked the sword, as if she’d been born with it in her fingers. She wouldn’t fail with this—be afraid or long for a change she could never keep. This sword made her perfect.
And it must have made her look quite the threat too. Jeth stepped further away in shock. However, he wasn’t nearly as blown away as Ash was. Her eyes were wide with awe. There was that chorus in her head, but—seriously—how was she doing this?
“Ash,” Poppa Henry said from inside the blue mirror, “what’s going on?”
“I,” Ash said. She could hear the chorus as it gently moved her arms and the sword. “I don’t know. The sword is—it’s talking to me!”
Poppa Henry shook her mirror. Actually, he made it dance—a crazy twist and lurch as it thumped up and down on Ash’s chest.
“Let it go,” he yelled. “Ash, when I handled that thing, it never spoke! If it has a presence, you need to drop it!”
Ash stopped throwing the sword around as she noticed that the Riders had come to a halt. They were still a few feet away and looked worried, but it was obvious their worry would only last for a second. There was no way they weren’t getting closer.
Jeth faced her blue mirror. “Don’t,” he was talking to Ash, yet he stared only at Poppa Henry. “Don’t let that sword out of your grasp.”
“She is my granddaughter!” Poppa Henry shouted back. “She doesn’t need to listen to you!”
“But you do,” Jeth said. He pointed over his shoulder to the Riders who were once more on the move, this time a tad more cautious, but still, they were urging their Kawshun horses forward. “I’m sure Amalin has already spurred everyone on with tales of the murder she thinks you committed. And if the way she acted is any indication, those Riders are mad. However, your Ash has a connection to that injured Elf’s sword, and she may be our best chance at defending ourselves.
“I can use the blade, but not for long. When I tried to run with it and carry that Elf, I could barely move. I almost didn’t make it to the Pool, and I only somehow lightened the sword by putting it back into the hands of that Elf. But Ash throws it around as if it were a tiny stick. Let her have it.”
“To fight four Riders by herself,” Poppa Henry said. His face was pressed up to the blue mirrors glass. That must have been how he’d made it dance. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Who said she’d be by herself,” Jeth turned back around, his hands beginning to glow red as he whispered something Ash couldn’t catch. “I may not have received as much training as I could have if I’d remained with my people, but I know a few spells of disarmament. They should be able to aid your granddaughter.”
Poppa Henry sighed as the mirror went still. Ash was sure she could keep hold of the sword with only a few fingers, it was so light maybe a mere two would be needed. She let everything sway as she lifted the mirror with her now free hand so she could get a good look at her grandfather.
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
“You sure?” Poppa Henry asked.
“Positive, but can you help too?”
“Maybe.” His voice was still there for Ash to hear, but his face had left the mirror. Where had he gone?
The Riders arrived. They came to a stop in front of Ash and Jeth, Amalin looking at Quill who nodded first her way and then at the one called Thur who flung to Amalin the staff. She grabbed it while sliding off her horse, hitting the Kawshun gracefully with Quill a step behind.
His ivory sword, a blade that seemed quite sharp from where Ash stood, was out, and pointing at Jeth. But Amalin didn’t care about what Quill was interested in. She only had eyes for Ash.
“Give up, Henry,” she commanded, “no Trial, no judgments, let me see his face, and I will use the Beacon to send the rest of his soul to where most of him already is!”
Again, Ash was drawn to Amalin’s eyes. No longer did the color—which gained in intensity along with the glow of the Beacon—appear strange. What was odd was merely how Amalin was the only Rider who had eyes like that. She was as dirty as the other three, yet while Thur had bits of the Pool in him, he still had other colors, some white and a bit of black, in his eyes, while Amalin held nothing but a complete and unending blue.
And there was Quill. He couldn’t stop staring at Jeth, his sword ready for whatever the Elf might send. Ash could tell that he and the other Rider—the one Ash still thought had to be Fara—didn’t have a trace of blue in them. Sure, Quill and Fara’s skin was just as soft and sickly white as Amalin’s and Thur’s, but Quill’s eyes were brown and Fara’s were a very pretty shade of green.
They were different from Amalin, even Thur was different, and though for Fara and Thur any difference could be explained away, Ash was finding it hard to do that with Quill. His eyes she could understand, hadn’t Amalin said it took years of drinking from the Pool to make them change, but his angular face—more oriental in nature then Amalin’s—was a difference Ash couldn’t quite fathom.
Quill had called Amalin “sister.” Didn’t that mean they were family? Yet as Ash let the other two Riders go and studied Quill, all she could think was he didn’t look like he could ever be kin to Amalin.
“Henry stays with us,” Jeth said, “however, you can come get him if you would like.”
He began to whisper again—one word that Ash, just barely, caught. It sounded like “Proqin,” but she wasn’t sure. What she was sure of was that Jeth’s hands were back to glowing—first softly but then strong; the red which flowed around his wrists becoming a glare so bright Ash lost where his fingers were.
“You do know magic,” Amalin said. She cast a quick glance Jeth’s way. “But a mere spell of disarmament won’t have any effect on a Rider. We hold weapons of the Kawshun, my brother’s sword and Fara and Thur’s swords are those taken from our very own horses. Casting any charm onto them, onto a section of living death, won’t have much of an impact.”
Ash looked past Amalin’s shoulder. Fara and Thur had their own weapons out, their blades of bone just as shiny and bright as Quill’s. They were even smiling like Quill was, so sure that neither she nor Jeth could do them any harm.
Ash was ready to prove them wrong. There was still that something in her mind—that song, or maybe just a warm and gentle calm, which increased whenever she moved the sword she held to the right position. It was like there was an entity inside her, not a bad one as her Poppa Henry had feared, but one of good intent that could see through her eyes. Her sword knew what she had to do to stay protected.
Ash put two hands back around the hilt and slowly flicked her sword up. Not all the way, just a bit as she also brought it out in front of her. She took her eyes off the Riders behind Amalin and stared only at the Beacon. Its harsh and steady pulse was something she suddenly knew was of utmost importance.
Thur laughed. “The Little is ready for a fight,” he peered over Amalin and down at Ash. “Does she believe that while we hesitated from afar because of her, we will do that again?”
“Maybe she does believe,” Amalin said. She didn’t turn to Thur. She kept her attention only on Ash.
It came in a flash so fast there was no way Ash could have been ready. But her sword was ready. A ball of light—a sphere of crackling blue—erupted out of the Beacon, the thing most assuredly able to knock Ash out, kill her, or just send her hurtling off the Kawshun if her sword hadn’t reacted much quicker than the sphere could fly.
The warm and gentle calm increased to an urgency Ash was compelled to comply with. As soon as the Beacon shot, she brought her sword up, her arms moving faster than she thought possible. The sphere hit the silver and black dotted steel and bounced away. It barely missed Jeth as it splashed into the Pool.
Amalin and her Riders stared in awe. “How?” Jeth asked. He, too, couldn’t believe his eyes. The red around his hands faded as he forgot to speak the word that was giving him his power.
“It doesn’t matter!” Amalin screamed. The Beacon once more flashed bright. “Nothing matters except the retrieval of Henry Ash! Get her!”
Fara and Thur were off their horses, their beasts watching as they went to work. Fara went for Ash, her blade of bone slicing every which way to get around Ash’s defenses, as Thur ran to Jeth. Both he and Quill fought him as Jeth expertly dodged their weapons whenever he wasn’t yelling “Proqin,” “Proqin,” which brought all the red back into his hands.
But Amalin hadn’t been lying. Each time Jeth sent out his red, his magic found only sharp bone that deflected it away. All his assaults were cast into the Kawshun where they exploded upon impact, bits of wet mud flying everywhere.
Ash couldn’t help but to take it in as she fought. Whatever was in her brain, it seemed to work best when she surrendered to it—merely watched what was going on as if she was a spectator far from the danger.
She could give Fara and Amalin all her attention. She saw Fara’s blond hair, how it was dingy and coated in grime. She was finally able to look at her up close, and though Ash could tell that Fara had skin as pale and as white as everyone else, she looked more decrepit than any of the other Riders.
Actually, she was almost skeletal, but that didn’t in anyway relate to how she fought. Fara was a bundle of energy running here and there as she tried to find some breakage, some angle which she could exploit so she could trip Ash up.
Ash wouldn’t go down. No matter how good Fara was, Ash was better. She handled Fara so well she had the time to take a second and give Amalin another look. How the blue-eyed beauty merely stood where she’d been ever since she’d gotten off her horse. Ash saw how Amalin let the Beacon pulse on and on until the blue pouring out of it was at its utter limits, and then she would fire off another round. Just like Fara, Amalin was doing her best to end Ash, but she failed at everything she tried.
“Who is this girl?” Fara said. Ash had again defeated an attempt she’d made to disarm her.
Her teeth were black. Ash hadn’t seen Quill’s yet, but Fara’s teeth were a grimy black of decay. A fetid odor poured out of her, too, whenever she talked, the smell something Ash couldn’t avoid no matter how fast she moved.
“She is the blood of Henry Ash,” Amalin said. The Beacon was almost to the point where it could fire off another sphere. “And you know Bayden was never the same after he killed Denthro! If we can’t get to him, then we must get to his kin! We will make this girl pay for almost getting us killed!”
Fara laughed. “Almost getting us killed,” she stepped out of the way as another bit of blue went for Ash and was easily knocked aside. “Speak for yourself! I did die!”
It made sense. Hadn’t Amalin already said that Quill was gone? Ash took a quick glance over at Thur before Fara came at her once more. He might have been dead as well, but Ash didn’t think so. Out of all the Riders, it was only he and Amalin who’d held the staff, and if Amalin was alive, wouldn’t that mean that Thur had to be alive as well?
Something came out of the Pool. Right after Ash let all the pieces fall into place—Amalin and Thur were the only living Riders around—something began to rise from the blue liquid, something large and solid and in the shape of a man.
It was Poppa Henry, the sight of him making everyone turn as Fara ended a wild charge, and Quill and Thur paused just as Jeth let one last “Proqin” die on his lips. Amalin lowered the Beacon.
“No,” she said, “there’s too much energy. No Reflection can be made from the Pool.”
“Yet,” Poppa Henry said, “here I am.”
His voice was somehow more solid than Ash had ever heard it be. Also, he was finally a complete figure with easily discernable legs and arms and with pretty much a regular looking face and eyes. He looked almost human—a blue-covered and slightly glowing human.
“And,” he continued, “I have a question. Do you really think I’m the one who killed Denthro, his son, and his daughter?”
Amalin nodded as she raised her staff back up. “I do.”
“Why?” Poppa Henry asked. He lifted something of his own. He brought up a hand and pointed two fingers to the side of Amalin. “Why does everyone believe that?”
Amalin tilted her head to the side. “I,” there was so much confusion in her voice, “what?”
“I heard a bit,” Poppa Henry explained. “Magic proved…”
“That you were the killer,” Amalin added. Maybe she’d finally gotten what it was Poppa Henry was saying. “There were bits of Ophallo all over the throne room, pieces of King Denthro too, and blood from Isabella and all those Errun. None could ever work enough magic to fully see what had happened, but the violence was everywhere.
“Yet you and your children were not. You escaped, no one else did, and no one in that room, except for Isabella and Denthro, could have—”
Poppa Henry began to laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. “That’s it? I’ve been considered a murderer because I didn’t die!”
“Ophallo failed Assembly,” Amalin countered. She gave another one of her weird smiles. It was as if she just knew that what she’d said took care of everything. “And we all understood what that meant! He didn’t have the strength that you had, Henry! So, yes, you weren’t there, and you had the power, who else—”
“What about the Errun?” Poppa Henry asked. His hand was still up, but it was shaking. Was he angry, nervous? Ash couldn’t yet tell. “They were known to…the Light Benders who escaped from Cathedral told of how the Errun entered there! Why did no one think they might have been behind Denthro’s death?”
Amalin sighed. “And who had spent time with them,” she said. “Who had always gone into the Western Wilds?” His hand still shook, but now Ash could see the rage in Poppa Henry’s eyes. It was blue, which had thrown her, but she’d been around her Poppa Henry long enough to finally get it. He was really, really, pissed off.
“To fight them!” he shouted, “and to find Jeth, that’s why I went, and if my past is well known, then you should also know I never went alone! In the Wilds, I always had…”
“Doesn’t matter,” Amalin said. “The Errun bent light! They didn’t have the skill to do that before you were in Penthya, and the last I heard they haven’t done it since you left! But for a moment, they had strength, and again, who in the throne room had their own strength, who in the throne room always went to the Wilds, and who in the throne room didn’t die?”
A spark, something blue and strong, flashed along Poppa Henry’s arm. “Fine,” he said, “I’m a murderer! However, if I could do all that for a scant taste of power, then what do you think I might do to someone who threatens my chance at something even better! I love my granddaughter—what do you think I might do to protect a love which is so much greater than any throne?”
There wasn’t a spark anymore. There was a stream, not a sphere, a pure and steady stream of darkest blue. It flew from Poppa Henry’s arm. But first it ran down his shoulder and along his fingers before pouring in an unending current that hit the Kawshun right next to Amalin. The resulting explosion was terrible. It tore a massive hole in the ground, a hole that grew and grew until Amalin had to move out of its way.
Amalin shook her head. “You’ve gained strength.”
“I’ve gained a lot,” Poppa Henry said. He dropped his arm, the blue current ending as Amalin lowered her staff. “I might even be able to keep this body and not have to jump back into a mirror for quite some time.”
“How?” Amalin asked, “what kind of dark magic do you possess?”
Poppa Henry strode out of the Pool. “I have no dark magic,” he said. He went to stand next to Ash as Fara scampered away. “I don’t have any claims to the Black other than creating the Reflection I made.”
“Which is even more proof of your guilt,” Amalin noted, “a Reflection, you took a life to make that, just another innocent you slaughtered to gain whatever power you have!”
“I only took my own life to make what I am.”
“Prove it,” Amalin said. She refocused her attention onto Ash and Jeth and then onto everyone else that either stood next to her or right before her. “Prove it to me and to my brother, to my friends as well, that you’re a good man! You do that right now, or you need to let me send you to the other side so I don’t have to keep fighting this granddaughter of yours!”
Poppa Henry nodded and walked back into the Pool. He stood just past its shore; his blue feet lost in the energy there as Ash got as close to him as she could without stepping into the Pool herself.
“Fair enough,” he said, “gather round.”
“For what?” Amalin asked. “A trick?”
Poppa Henry didn’t look at Amalin. “While I do have power,” he said. He lifted both his hands above the blue that was rippling and shimmering with his every movement. “That power is not from bad magic or Bad Blood. It’s not even from the Black Light. I have it because the blood of David Random, blood from the children he had in my world before he fell into Penthya, used to run in my veins before I became this Reflection. It is that blood which makes me strong, almost as strong as Random, and it runs through my granddaughter as well.”
Amalin laughed. “You expect us to believe that?” Fara, Quill, and Thur laughed along with her as only Jeth and Ash stayed silent. “There is no way someone as vile as you could ever be any kind of relation to David Random.”
“Ash, give me the sword,” Poppa Henry said.
“What?” Ash studied the weapon she held. It had saved her life multiple times now, each occasion more amazing than what had come before. She didn’t want to give it up. “Can’t I keep it?”
Poppa Henry smiled. “I’ll only have it for a little while,” he dropped one of his hands, “please?”
Ash lifted the sword, the weapon telling her to twist it so her grandfather got its black and red hilt rather than the sharp end she’d been about to thrust his way. Her Poppa Henry took it as the presence in her mind, the sense and the calm and all that music, vanished.
“I have no more blood in me,” Poppa Henry explained. He walked further into the Pool and held the sword up for all to see. “But enough of my essence remains so I can use this. It took me a while, but as I was creating this form, I realized what this blade must be. I can use it; I can use Justice one last time.”
Amalin leapt forward, Quill, Thur, and Fara staying at her side, even Jeth went along with her. She studied the weapon from behind Ash. “That cannot be Justice.”
Poppa Henry smiled again. His strange lips of blue, his entire face, beaming amusement as he thrust the sword into the liquid energy at his feet.
“You need to stop doubting me,” he said.
The Pool burst into a strong white light. It took a few minutes, but after a couple good blinks and one nice headshake, Ash found amazing. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
The Kawshun was gone. So was the Pool and the horses—even Casten couldn’t be seen when she turned to find him. But everyone else remained.
Ash had a thought. She’d heard of King Denthro before. It wasn’t one of her most favorite stories. In fact, while anything to do with him was quite engrossing, it was also so depressing. Whenever Denthro came up, Ash usually begged to skip over how he’d lost his first wife and his second. She always wanted to hear something better—something with romance.
Ash would ask her grandfather to rush on to Isabella. Her story, at least, had handholding, long looks, and quite a few epic scenes of heartache that sometimes ended in long—slow—kisses. Ash was a fool for such things.
However, far too many times, her grandfather refused to do as asked. Ash even knew why that was. To really know the love of Isabella, Ash had to know how that love had come to a tragic halt, and since Denthro’s death was deeply tied into how Isabella had died, how could she not hear of him?
Ash had even heard all about Denthro just before her Poppa Henry had died. Yet now that she thought back on it, that last story hadn’t dealt all that much with Denthro or Isabella, it had mainly been about Ophallo—the evil one, the one who’d made her grandfather look so wretched when he’d spoken of him. And here, in a new world, because the Kawshun truly couldn’t be seen anymore, Ash felt her heart drop.
The room she was in…she didn’t want it to look so familiar, but she couldn’t deny her dread. She was sure that at any second, she was about to see the evil one face to face.
Ash was behind five thrones. She was staring out past them—into a wide and open area where an Elf and a few Errun stood gathered around a much younger looking fellow Ash almost recognized. Everyone was facing her, except they weren’t looking her way. The Elf and the Errun glared heavy either at the thrones or at the younger fellow who—seriously—was someone Ash was sure she should know. His eyes, the shape of his face, this younger fellow had to have some kind of connection to her, but try as she might, Ash couldn’t put a finger on what that connection could be.
There was something else. The Errun, all six of them, were unmoving, as was the Elf—this strangeness suddenly stepping to the forefront of Ash’s mind. Figuring out who the younger fellow was would have to wait.
“Why have you brought us into a Remembrance?” Amalin asked.
Ash turned to look at the blue-eyed beauty. She and Quill—Fara, Jeth, and Thur too—were standing just behind her.
Poppa Henry smiled. “You do know quite a bit about magic.”
He alone was at Ash’s side, so wrapped up in what he was looking at that Ash had thought he, too, was frozen. If it hadn’t been for his body, which kept radiating the strongest hue of the Pool, she would have believed him a statue—a gift left years ago to stand forgotten in the shadows of this place.
“I’ve always had a talent for it,” Amalin said. She stepped out from behind Ash and moved past the thrones until she was facing them. “Back in Bayden, I was trained as a High Lady of the Court, a protector for the Queen. Until the chaos in Penthya became noticeable to the Giants, I learned history, art, magic, everything a Lady should know. I remember enough, and the Pool is all that could ever make a Remembrance of this size. Why have you created it?”
Poppa Henry finally moved. He went to Amalin as she came to a stop right beside the Elf. He waited to see what she would do.
“The Pool is an energy I’ve never felt,” he said. Amalin was finished with her inspection, the Elf and the Errun not reacting as she waved a hand and snapped fingers in front of their faces. “What is it?”
“A leftover,” Amalin said. She turned back to the thrones. There was one in particular that captured her attention. It was silver.
That alone got Ash to start walking. It got Jeth to move as well. The Silver Throne—there was only one thing it could be. There was only one room it could be in too.
Suddenly, almost all of Ash’s dread rose to new heights. This had to be the place she feared, and the Elf just had to be Ophallo too, yet she clung to one last section of denial as she and Jeth made their way to Poppa Henry.
Quill, Fara, and Thur stayed put. With a pained and sour expression on Quill and Fara’s face and with Thur looking at Fara with deepest concern, they clearly showed how much they didn’t want to move as Ash and Jeth stared at the throne Amalin was now inspecting.
She was bent before a chair that held someone of such dignity upon it that Ash thought she too should be bowing. Except Amalin wasn’t bending out of respect, she was doing it so she could get a good glimpse of the Silver Throne.
The man of dignity was halfway out of the chair. His eyes wide with outrage or horror or simply a bit of both mixed with a touch of sorrow. Ash knew who this was. She even felt as if she’d once seen a picture of him—yet this picture was merely a snapshot of words, something well lit and glossy, yet also just an image from her Poppa Henry’s stories. It was King Denthro.
He was rather solidly built, his brown hair streaked gray and kept short—his piercing blue eyes easily noticeable. Ash trembled in front of them no matter how he wasn’t looking at her. All that the frozen Denthro was staring at was the Elf who was staring right back at him.
“When Eric Odd built the Unkindness,” Amalin continued. She got bored and stood back up. “He gained control of a world that didn’t want him there. The Fields of Kawshun, the gray sky and the gray wall that mark the end of everything, even the bits of water that dot the land, they all belong to a place that is simply a Between—a place where the dying go to hopefully make the trek from life into the afterlife. But Odd ripped into it, he put chains upon it, he set down slabs of rock and stone and endless panes of glass to bind that Between. He also brought some servants of the Between—the ravens you saw—over to his side. He made them his slaves to further upset a world that doesn’t like the living, and the Pool is merely what remains due to the magic he had to use to form what he formed.
“None of us know if he left it behind on purpose or if it is merely a byproduct he could have never predicted, but it wasn’t there before Eric Odd, and now it is anywhere the Kawshun wants it to be. Like the Unkindness, it remains, but since it is residual energy, it can do something much greater than the Unkindness can. The Pool is magic, unrealized and never used magic, just waiting to be formed into a spell.”
“But it isn’t good magic, is it?” Poppa Henry asked. He lifted a hand and pointed it at Amalin’s face. “The Pool may be a body of untapped energy, yet it isn’t pure.”
Amalin ignored his question. She pointed a finger of her own, her hand leveled at the king. “Is that Denthro?” She’d never been given the word picture that Ash had. She wasn’t caught up yet. “I thought you were going to show us how you became a Reflection; what does he have to do with that?”
“Answer me,” Poppa Henry said, “because I used the Pool to bring us into this Remembrance and my granddaughter drank from it as well. If it is a tad impure, I need to fix any harm it has done.”
Quill lifted his head. He stared right at Poppa Henry. “Why do I doubt that?” he asked. His words were heavy and full of malice, yet they also came out in a rush, as if speaking were something he had to get through with in a hurry. “Why do I find it highly suspect that a murderer would ever care what happens to us?”
“Yet, Rider, you still have form,” Poppa Henry said. “If I’m a powerful master of the Black, if I can create Reflections and bring many people into a memory, you must also know how I could unspool the dead flesh you wear. However, I haven’t done that, so shut up. Let your sister speak.”
“No,” Amalin said. She brought her fingers around to put them onto what Poppa Henry already was pointing at. “The Pool is not pure. My eyes prove that. For the dead, nothing the Pool can do will harm them, they are beyond harm, but for the living, the Pool will let you stay on the Unkindness and the Kawshun. It will cure any injury and do whatever else you want it to do, but it will also bind itself to your cells until more of you is it rather than yourself. I don’t think I could live a week without a sip to keep me going…so the Pool is as impure as Eric Odd, and if you drink from it not once, not twice, but for years, it will corrupt you.”
“I thought so,” Poppa Henry said. He closed his eyes.
“What are you doing?” Amalin asked.
“I’m making sure any impurities in this spell get fixed. Of course, my body will now fall apart all the faster, but it will be worth it.”
It took a few minutes. Ash watched as her Poppa Henry’s eyes stayed shut the whole time, his face a deep-set line of concentration, but it seemed to work. Ash didn’t feel anything during the whole endeavor, and before it had begun, she hadn’t felt anything either, but when Poppa Henry finally opened his eyes and smiled, she knew he’d succeeded. It was a smile she’d often seen, one that usually came after a well-told story, where something about Penthya and how he’d painted it with his words, had come out so perfect he couldn’t add anything else.
“Done,” Poppa Henry said, “and in answer to your question, Amalin, yes, that is Denthro. To prove myself a good man, I decided not to bring you into the memory of how I took my own life. Instead, I’ve brought you…”
“To where you committed your greatest atrocity,” Amalin said. “You do know that a Remembrance charm never lies, right? It never indulges the wants of the person whose memory you are in. If someone is strong enough to cast it, a Remembrance doesn’t let them alter the past as they wish it to be. This spell will let us see how things actually occurred.”
“And that is why I have put everything on pause,” Poppa Henry said. “Before the yelling and the death, I think it’s time to finally correct a bit of history.” He nodded towards Denthro. “That man you already know, he is the one you think I murdered. But this fellow, you have no clue of him, do you?”
He turned, and nodded to the Elf that Denthro was looking at—the sharp and angular face of a tall and angry fellow, someone with long brown hair and eyes a deep and vibrant shade of green. There was no longer anyway to deny who this was.
“And who,” Amalin asked, “is that?” Ophallo must have just been another thing she wasn’t caught up with yet.
Poppa Henry nodded. “I suppose no picture survived if Penthya has been chaotic,” he began, “as a matter of fact, I was a tad taken aback at how my name has lasted for so long. But if I’m the villain of this particular tale, then maybe it shouldn’t be a shock.”
“As if we could forget you,” Quill said. His words were still rushed and somehow thick. It was as if he was trying to speak without letting anything else come out.
Poppa Henry nodded again. It was clear he was so very happy that someone was following his logic.
“My point exactly,” he said, “unless other events were around to take all your attention off me, then, of course, I’d be the monster you would never let slip from your mind. If I killed King Denthro, I would be remembered for forever while his son would merely be a name kept alive for people to mourn. But this is Prince Ophallo, and I need you to remember him.”
“Why?” it was Jeth’s turn to speak, his question something Amalin nodded to as if to say she would have asked it as well.
“Because,” Poppa Henry said, “he is the true murderer of Denthro.” He finally took his attention off Ophallo. He pointed to the group of Errun that stood before the younger fellow that Ash still knew she should have recognized. “He is the man who slaughtered his own father, his own sister, and then, he tried to kill me.”
Ash turned. With his revelation ringing in her ears, it was almost too clear. Of course, the younger man was her Poppa Henry. The eyes, the face—it could be no one else.
But there was more. There was a door further behind her much younger Poppa Henry, one halfway open with a few figures just outside it.
A woman, a beauty with long locks of thick chestnut brown hair and eyes to match, with a slim figure and a face as gorgeous as Amalin’s, stood in the half open doorway with even more Errun flanking her. Ash could see the gentle grace of this woman’s white skin and the way she had her slender arms wrapped around her chest. She was cradling two bundles—finely wrapped objects she held with such care that Ash wasn’t surprised when she realized she was also staring at the woman’s children.
Ash knew this lady. Even without having seen her before, it was another word picture that Poppa Henry had described too well.
This was Isabella Denthro.
In an instant, the throne room was alive. “Don’t do this,” the younger Poppa Henry said. Everything was moving—so much sound bouncing off the walls. “Ophallo, don’t you do this!”
Ash had been keeping an eye on the tiny bundles being held in the arms of the frozen Isabella. Was one of them her father? And if so, who was the other? Ash hadn’t known what to think, or do.
However, she had known that a tempest was raging within her heart—its’ every beat begging for her grandfather to keep the throne room in a state of mute anticipation. If Poppa Henry never started this memory or Remembrance or whatever, then Isabella—no, no, her grandmother—would be fine. And her babies, they would be okay too.
Her grandfather refused to do as she’d silently asked. She caught his steps from the corner of an eye—how he leaned forward and angled between the group of Errun. He put three fingers onto his younger self’s face, the Remembrance instantly in motion.
“Son, listen to what he says,” Denthro agreed. He rose from the Silver Throne.
Ophallo let a cruel snicker echo about as he looked at the younger Poppa Henry. “Son,” he sighed, “did he just say son?”
He whirled, and punched his father across the jaw. Denthro stumbled. He fell onto the Silver Throne, toppling it over and sending it into Quill, Fara, and Thur.
But no matter how much everything in this room might have seemed real, nothing was really real at all. As Isabella was pushed inside—the Errun at her arms jabbing her cruelly onward—Ash saw how Denthro caught himself before he too toppled to the ground. He once more stood straight, but the Silver Throne sailed right on through Quill, Fara, and Thur. The chair hit the floor, bounced twice, and acted as if the people it had glided past were ghosts.
“My father wants me to listen to his favorite,” Ophallo laughed some more. The Errun in the room, the crowd of six around the younger Poppa Henry, and the five still at Isabella’s side, joined him in his sick and twisted hilarity. “Why am I not surprised?”
“If this is because of the chair,” the younger Poppa Henry said. He moved forward, tried to get close to Ophallo. But one of the Errun hit him cruelly in his gut—sent him to his knees.
“No!” Isabella cried. Her babies began to wail as the Errun near to her kept her from rushing to her husband.
The younger Poppa Henry gasped. “I…I’m fine,” he said. He stood back up and faced Ophallo. “If this is because of the chair, I renounce it. I renounce anything to do with power and ruling Penthya. Do you hear that? I renounce it! Let my wife, my children, and your father go!”
“I’m impressed,” Ophallo said.
He didn’t look at the younger Poppa Henry as he talked. Instead, he smiled at his father who only rubbed at his jaw and scowled. Ophallo walked towards the toppled over Silver Throne, angling past the completely ignored older Poppa Henry and Ash, as he sauntered right through Jeth who didn’t get out of his way.
Ophallo grabbed the Silver Throne and hauled it upright. He wiped at it carefully, lovingly, with the sleeve of his shirt before he turned to face the younger Poppa Henry.
“I was always impressed by you,” he said. His fingers slid across the arms and high arched back of the Silver Throne as he leaned up against it instead of sitting down upon it. “Your strength, your goodness; ever since you fell into Penthya, I could never stop admiring you. You have so many amazing qualities, Henry, but you were always such the fool. I don’t just want the chair! I want everything that is mine to have!”
“I know what you want,” Denthro said. The shock over his son’s assault was wearing off. He glared at Ophallo with unbridled disgust. “You want my throne and my power! You want all I have ever had even when you know you are too weak to rule without the aid of Errun scum!”
The Errun in the room snarled and hissed. Their wide and unblinking black eyes glowed dark as their lips curled to reveal rows of sharp and angular brown and yellow teeth. A few at the younger Poppa Henry’s side moved closer to Denthro before Ophallo smiled again and held up a hand to still them.
“Why shouldn’t I want that?” he asked. He pushed himself straight and threw his arms out towards the thrones. “Why shouldn’t I want what is mine since I am your only rightful heir? Not your only child, but your only heir since Isabella is just a woman and Henry isn’t even from our world!”
“Then sit on it,” Denthro said. He nodded at the Silver Throne. “Stop touching and sit!”
Ophallo laughed once more, a deep and throaty roar that didn’t try to cover the rage inside. He walked over to his father—stared deep into Denthro’s eyes.
He was gone. Ophallo had tipped into a level of insanity Ash could clearly see from her new position in a corner of the room.
“You think me a fool,” he said, “weak and pathetic, an idiot perhaps?”
“Son, I never thought anything like—” Denthro began to say. But he was cut off when Ophallo struck him yet again, this time with an open hand across his face.
“Don’t call me that,” Ophallo said. “I am not your son!”
Ophallo shook his head. “No, no, no,” he yelled. “I failed Assembly, and that was the final thing in a long list of things to prove that though I may be your blood—your rightful heir—I am not your son! I am a burden, a mistake, and you asking me to sit on the Silver Throne only proves it!”
“But if it is what you want,” Denthro rubbed at the spot where he’d been hit as Ophallo nodded to one of the Errun behind Isabella. That Errun handed him a sword Ash recognized. It was the same weapon her all-blue Poppa Henry still held.
Ophallo grabbed its red and black hilt. He tried his best to absorb its weight as he hefted it high. It really was the same. The sword her grandfather had was in Ophallo’s hands as well.
Ophallo smiled, or at least he tried to smile. His lips more trembled than anything else. “I made sure to have them get this after I snuck them inside,” he said. “The Errun came with me through the Unkindness. They attacked all your Riders, Father. They let those poor idiots finally cross to the other side of what they’ve ridden on for eons, and then we entered through a mirror in your bedroom. After that, I sent them off so they could carry this to me.”
“Impossible,” Denthro said, “they could never—Justice has in it slivers of the same metal that created Judgment! No foul Errun could ever wield it!”
The Errun that had handed the sword to Ophallo snarled angry and took a step forward. Immediately both the younger Poppa Henry and Isabella acted. They tried to protect their king, but cruel hands clamped down and prevented them from going anywhere.
They needn’t have bothered. Ash too had thought the Errun would do something terrible, but instead of hurting Denthro, the beast merely lifted its palm. It showed in the vague moonlight of the room, dark red splashes which covered its flesh.
“The Errun are strong, Father, you know this,” Ophallo explained, “and all it took was a bit of blood from my very veins, a covering which is on the hands of every Errun so the spells on my sister’s body…so the spells on Justice, too, won’t hurt them. With my blood, they can lift any sword. They can also haul Isabella into your throne room with her noisy brats in tow. Am I an idiot now, Father! Am I a fool!”
Denthro took a step back. “What have you become? Saturating these beasts…it doesn’t make any sense? You still have magic—you could be much in my kingdom even if you can’t handle all the Bright that flows through these thrones!”
“And there it is,” Ophallo said. He dropped Justice to the floor until its tip dug heavy into a rock slab near to his feet. “I knew you knew it, just wanted to hear it from your mouth.”
“What?” Denthro asked.
Ophallo leaned on Justice’s hilt as he threw an arm out to point back at the five thrones. “Don’t play coy,” he said. “I have read the ancient texts, the books that all the kings of Penthya have for their eyes alone. I know I should have waited. Only when I was given the Silver Throne should I have been able to get inside your private study, but I was impatient. I snuck in, and I know. You want me dead.”
“I never wanted that.”
“Don’t lie!” Ophallo screamed and then went calm. It was terrifying. “Father,” he whispered, “don’t lie, especially not when we’re closer than we have been in years. I know my failure at Assembly means that if I try to sit on the Silver Throne it would kill me in an instant. I would not be able to control all the Bright that flows through it, and since you know this as well, I can only assume you want me to sit because I will die. Do you want that, Father? Do you want me dead?”
“Of course!” Denthro spat. He let a mad laugh of his own escape from his lips. “If you’ve sided with the Errun over your failure, then as you say, you are not my son. No child of mine would ever do such a terrible act, so sit. If you do, you will kill not only yourself, but also everyone in this room. But that is okay. I would love to watch you be torn to shreds before I breathe my last.”
Ophallo nodded. It was as if Denthro’s words were music to his ears.
“Finally,” he said, “a true emotion. Whenever you told me you loved me, whenever you called me son, I never believed it. But what you’ve just said…my father, a man willing to kill his own grandchildren to get what he wants—that’s the father I know!”
Denthro shook his head. “Son, I—”
“Shut your mouth,” Ophallo said. “You are who you are, and I am who I am. A mistake—I’m someone who didn’t just side with the Errun this very day over one tiny failure, but rather, I have been in talks with them for years. How else do you think they were so ready to invade Watch at a moment’s notice? How else do you think that Pride Syndon is entering Cathedral as we speak?”
Denthro turned in horror and sized up the Errun around him. There were only eleven, but the way they returned his gaze with such victory in their cold black eyes, it turned him a shade of white Ash didn’t think possible. Even with his son’s betrayal and his daughter and grandchildren in the clutches of monsters, Denthro had still held an aura of confidence that spoke of how much he truly believed he would somehow make his way through this. But Ophallo’s words struck hard—they were way worse than any hit across the face.
“Cathedral,” he said, “how…you let them enter into the source of all our magic?”
“Father,” Ophallo began to confess, “that isn’t even the worst of what I’ve done. Besides Cathedral and Watch, I have been slowly bringing the Errun closer and closer to the western edges of the Cliffs of Random. Every Band is in attendance, their Prides ready to lead them to victory with weapons and food and lines of supply that will keep them fed for months. Father, I have been talking with them for so long, and my failure was the final sign. The Errun here and those with Syndon are merely an advance guard sowing chaos and destroying your access to magic so when I finally do sit on the Silver Throne, no one in the Centaur Woods or the Lumbrica, no one way up in Bayden either, will be able to stop me.”
“For a throne you can never control,” Denthro said, “it makes no sense.”
“But it does,” Ophallo said. He once more pointed towards the five chairs. “It does if you have been listening! But you still think I’m only after my birthright, that I only want the one!”
“Don’t you?” the younger Poppa Henry asked. “You said you wanted the Silver Throne?”
“No,” Ophallo sighed, “I said I wanted what was mine to have. I never said I wouldn’t take more. I want the Silver Throne, but why should I settle for it alone when there is magic and Light that runs through every chair? As long as I do a bit of cleaning, as long as I sever the line of Good Blood that has bound the chairs together since the last Search occurred, I can be the master of everything.”
Denthro began to laugh. “Never—if you can’t sit on the Silver Throne now, what makes you think that killing me or your sister will change a thing?”
“Because,” Ophallo said, “with the line of Good Blood gone and with Cathedral destroyed, I can make it so the Bright in these thrones gets changed to Black. I can put into the chairs enough darkness to allow me to be able to control them because though I may be weak in the Bright, my skill in the Black is beyond compare.”
The babies in Isabella’s arms had wailed through every bit of the conversation, and all Isabella had done was to try and calm them. But as Ash saw her move, she could only think one thing. Isabella must not have been able to stay silent any longer.
She pushed forward, ignoring the Errun who were surprised by her sudden movement, until she was at her husband’s side. “You really are a fool if you think that will work,” Isabella said. She smiled at the younger Poppa Henry who drew her close and kissed the top of her head. “If you bring the Black into any of those chairs, Penthya will be destroyed in fire and in ice. You will become nothing more than a king of desolation.”
Ophallo smiled. “Fire and ice,” he said, “let’s see if that’s true.”
He lifted Justice, the sword still heavy, the cumbersome nature of it causing his arms to shake. But he managed. He brought the sword back down—sent it right through his father’s chest.
Denthro buckled. Shock—he hadn’t expected his son to do it—coating his face as Ophallo wrenched Justice out of him. Denthro collapsed to the floor. Blood, thick and red, poured everywhere. Denthro was dying, but he was not yet gone. There was enough time for Ophallo to once more leer over him as the Errun in the room kept Isabella and the younger Poppa Henry where they were.
“Do you know how heavy this thing is for me?” Ophallo asked. He leaned further over the prostrate and gasping form of his father. “Justice is supposed to work like Judgment did. It is supposed to be light in the hands of its true master. It is even supposed to speak directly into the mind of whatever person of Good Blood it knows should wield it.” Ophallo pulled at the blade until it was right in front of his father’s eyes. “You handled Justice with ease, and so did Isabella, but when I was younger, I tried to lift it, and even then, Justice knew how wrong I was. It was the first sign I had that I was not your son. Oh, I was of your blood, but I wasn’t your son, and I never would be.
“But I worked at it. I practiced until no matter how heavy, I could lift this blade, and now I’ve used it to pierce your heart. I’ve killed you, Father, and once Isabella is gone, I will let your favorite child…I will let Henry Ash watch as I take your thrones and warp them into things I can sit upon. My darkness will spread.”
Denthro gasped for a few seconds more—then went into a stillness that wasn’t like what he’d had before the Remembrance had come to life. He was gone, Isabella wailing at the sight of her dead father as the younger Poppa Henry seethed in the grasp of the Errun who held him in place.
“Coward,” the younger Poppa Henry said. His children were suddenly more frightened than ever. They cried out louder and louder until his words were almost lost. “How about you let me go? Let’s see if you can handle someone who fights back!”
Ophallo looked at him. “No,” he said, “don’t think I’ll do that. But I will take the mantle of coward if it pleases you. If you want to call someone who’s smart enough not to tempt fate a coward, so be it. Before I came here, I cast charms to prevent most magic from working in this castle. Unless you are me or someone I give power to, the Bright will be out of your reach. But such a measure is tiny, miniscule really, when compared to my biggest preparation. I made it so my father would not be able to work a Last Breath.”
Ophallo smiled and took a mocking bow, as if in celebration of some hidden ovation only he could hear. Apparently, Last Breaths were big deals.
“You see,” Ophallo continued, “I’ve thought of every outcome, and I won’t let you hurt me, Henry, but I will let my Errun keep hold of you. I’ll let you watch how I go about killing your wife.”
The younger Poppa Henry struggled, but the Errun who held his arms were soon accompanied by more. He couldn’t get free. Except for the ones who stayed beside Isabella, all the rest were with him. They pulled until he was on one side of the room while she and their children were on the other.
“Don’t, please,” the younger Poppa Henry begged. He threw himself against the sharp talons at his shoulders and chest. He writhed in the grasp of the Errun until the clothes he was wearing were in tatters—his chest torn wide with the many slashes being made each time he tried to escape. “Please, Ophallo, kill me, don’t you hurt her, don’t you hurt my kids!”
Ophallo sneered. “Your blood is human weakness. David Random was the only one of your kind who ever mattered; it’s why I need not worry about you or your kin! I don’t care how powerful you seem to be, you are still a full and complete Child of Man, Henry Ash! You are not only somewhat human like my father was, you don’t even have a splash of pure Elf in you to make you strong, you are nothing, and your weakness is all over your children!
“All I need do is sever what is in Isabella. I kill her, and my spell will work. I kill her, and you and your kids can enjoy the sight of your new liege as he ascends to power.”
Ophallo pointed at Isabella. Using a hand free of a sword, he flicked a finger her way as two of the Errun grabbed both her babies. They held them as Isabella ceased her sobs and stared only at her brother.
“Promise me you won’t hurt my family,” she said. The Errun that didn’t have her children took hold of her arms. She didn’t struggle.
“I make no promises,” Ophallo said. He walked towards her, both his arms trembling as he raised Justice back over his head.
“You will fail,” Isabella sneered. Her voice was the only raised and angry part of her body, the rest of her as peaceful as ever.
“Don’t think so,” Ophallo stopped right in front of her before turning to look over at the younger Poppa Henry. “Ready?”
“Not her…please,” the younger Poppa Henry begged. His voice was filled with so much agony that tears were all that Ash could feel along her face.
“Sorry,” Ophallo said. He brought his arms down as the younger Poppa Henry—and the older version as well—screamed.
What happened next went by in a hurry. Ash wasn’t sure she saw it correct.
Ophallo pulled Justice out of Isabella. But, unlike what he’d done with his father, he didn’t bother to watch her die. He merely turned towards the Silver Throne.
“Mine,” he said.
The whole room was off kilter. There was so much blood; the bright red coming out of Denthro—and now Isabella’s own growing pool. Ash didn’t want to be seeing this; however, she couldn’t look away.
“And now,” Ophallo said. He dropped Justice to the ground before lifting his hands. A foul spell, something long and awful, quickly followed as it spilled fast from his lips. “Darkness.”
A gray, some swarming mass of dreary color, formed around his wrists and fingertips. Everything in the room went silent, except for him and the younger Poppa Henry. That Poppa Henry merely wept on his knees as he cried Isabella’s name. But Ophallo had no trouble ignoring him. Never once did he hesitate in his words, and when he was done, the gray sprung from his hands. It flowed into each throne.
There was movement. Isabella was sitting up, the wound at her chest—one just to the right of her throat—horrible to look at, and probably painful to the extreme. Ash didn’t know how she was still alive.
Isabella smiled at the younger Poppa Henry. “My life,” she said. She lifted a hand, every single being turning to look at her. “My life for you all.”
There was light, such a blinding light, which shone from the hand Isabella was directing at the younger Poppa Henry. Ash had to close her eyes—she was so glad she was finally able to do that—yet still she heard her grandmother say, “My breath,” and then the light grew even brighter until everything went dark.
“She gave you her Last Breath,” Amalin said.
Ash looked around. She was back beside the Pool; not only that, she was in the exact same spot. A part of her had half expected that with all the walking she’d done, she would find herself somewhere far. But she hadn’t moved an inch.
However, that wasn’t the case for Casten. He was still lying on the Kawshun, but he was no longer near to the Pool. It seemed that while everyone else had been watching Isabella die, his wounds had undergone a bit more healing, and that process had caused quite a lot of thrashing.
“Poppa Henry,” Ash said.
He alone was in the blue. He stood quiet, the liquid energy lapping around his ankles. Both his hands were wrapped around Justice’s hilt as Ash slowly began to head his way.
She was afraid of his silence. Inside the Remembrance, he’d alternated between calm and utterly devastated, and that she’d understood. It was another reason why she’d never liked the stories about Denthro. They remained depressing, yet they were also so unfair, and this time, things had been even worse. This time she’d seen rather than just heard, and if she was being affected this badly, what must her grandfather be feeling?
“Not just a story anymore, is it,” Poppa Henry said when Ash reached him, his body, the entirety of the blue making up his face, arms, and legs, looking a tad lighter in color.
It was as if he was reading her mind. Ash wasn’t surprised. Suddenly, she could feel her grandfather. She could feel everyone and everything around. Before, she’d been afraid of his silence, but she had to admit, she’d also been afraid of the Pool. It was why she hadn’t walked into it till now.
She had no clue what it would do to her, but it was nice. Not amazingly so, she didn’t want to stay in it for long, but the blue only tickled at her feet as it sparked against the cuffs of her jeans and her socks beneath.
The best description Ash had was that it was like she’d just stepped into an eternal hive of pins and needles. Her feet kind of felt like what she experienced anytime she let a leg or an arm go to sleep and then had to suffer through the process of waking them back up.
Tiny shocks danced along her toes, yet they weren’t annoying. Everything was somehow warm and comforting—the pins and needles friendly rather than alien and scary. As soon as Ash stepped off the Kawshun, she felt as if she should welcome what was happening, and when she did, she realized something she was sure no one on the shoreline had any clue about.
Once in the Pool, she could feel the minds and emotions of everyone nearby. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, and she was in no way reading their thoughts, but she could understand what made them act the way they did. In fact, Ash could sense all the Kawshun.
She felt a flood of anger somewhere off in the distance that was a sure sign she’d located the pack of wolves, and when she followed a soft tug of curiosity above her head, she found an endlessly circling raven flying way up in the sky. Living or dead, she could feel it, and when her grandfather turned to her, she knew he was the same. They were connected. She understood him more than she ever had before.
Ash nodded her head. “No, it isn’t just a story.” She grabbed Justice’s hilt. “Can I take this?”
“Of course,” Poppa Henry said, “it is more your sword than mine. It told you how to fight, didn’t it?”
“Then I was wrong. Justice has never been dangerous, so lift it out of the blue, my Little Ash. I don’t want you in this Pool for long.”
With one hand, Ash easily pulled Justice up and followed her Poppa Henry. There was no trace of moisture along the sharp edges of the blade, yet she absent-mindedly wiped at it with the sleeve of her red shirt. She kept trying to polish the sword as she stepped back onto the Kawshun.
The Pools presence vanished. Only the voice of Justice was back with her as Ash went to Poppa Henry’s side. He stood before Amalin who’d maneuvered herself in front of him with her staff dipped slightly. It appeared to be eying him with displeasure.
“You need to answer me,” Amalin said. She and the Beacon didn’t look any happier than they’d been before Poppa Henry had done his Remembrance.
Amalin’s eyes flashed a quick beam of darkness. Only a second ago, Ash had understood her to a degree she’d never expected, but now that knowledge was fading. What made Amalin tick? What made her happy? Ash had known, but on the Kawshun, the wild and weird-eyed girl was back to being a mystery.
“The memory I showed should have given you all the answers you need,” Poppa Henry said. He pointed to the left. Over another few dips and rises in the muddy earth to where Ash, while in the Pool, had felt something lost to be. “Besides, I need to tell you before the blue fully leaves me—there are souls who have just entered the Kawshun. You should be more concerned about them.”
“We have the Beacon for that,” Amalin said. She nodded towards the still-angry gem at the top of her staff. “It is filled with bits of the Pool that can’t be drunk by the living, and when we need to, we can use it to find lost souls.”
“Then use it,” Poppa Henry said, “do your job.”
Amalin’s eyes flashed once more, the deepest and most vibrant shade of blue yet. “Do not presume to tell me what to do,” she said. “My job will get done, but first I want a few words.”
She threw her staff to Thur who stood beside Quill and Fara, who were now doubled over with the same discomfort they’d shown in the Remembrance. They remained in pain, an odd sight since Ash knew both were dead. How could they feel anything?
“I am not myself,” Quill said. He looked at the Beacon which was flashing erratically in Thurs hands. “Henry Ash has done something to unbalance me.”
“And me,” Fara chimed in.
“Yes,” Thur said. He still only had concern for Fara. “He cannot be trusted.”
“Yes,” Amalin was quick to add, “he can.”
It was Jeth who spoke up this time. “Come again?” he asked. He’d stayed put until Ash had moved, her entrance then exit from the Pool his sign to get back to Casten. Down at his side, it looked to Ash as if Jeth had unwound Casten’s bandages and had found him to be fine. “You think you can trust Henry?”
“Of course,” Amalin said. “It was his Remembrance we were in, was it not? Just the injured Elf wasn’t there. I assume, since he was unconscious, he was left out, but we were there, and we saw. A Remembrance never lies, you know this, Quill, you know this too, Fara, so don’t tell me we can’t trust what we have seen. Henry James Ash was not King Denthro’s murderer. Prince Ophallo was.”
“But I feel,” Quill said. He shook his head and clutched at his stomach even more. “It has to be from mischief.”
“You feel?” True astonishment was in Amalin’s voice as she walked over to Quill. “I thought…I just thought you were in pain.”
Quill laughed. “How can the dead be hurt or feel pain? This is only the discomfort of life. It started in the Remembrance.”
“How?” Amalin asked. She turned back towards Poppa Henry whose blue body she still couldn’t help but to scowl at. “How is this possible?”
“The Pool,” Poppa Henry said, “I used the energy inside the form I now have to counteract its more dangerous side effects, but it seems I was better able to help the living than those who have already passed. Everything should get better soon.”
“You’re certain?” Amalin asked.
“Absolutely, they’ll be fine in a matter of hours.”
Amalin turned back to her brother. “Is the staff okay, can it help?”
“I…I think so,” Quill said.
The blue was flashing erratic. It reminded Ash of when Amalin had held it near to Jeth.
“The Beacon is only upset,” Quill continued. “But once it decides if Fara and I are dead or not, it should be able to flow. You were right. The Remembrance was not a lie.”
As if to prove he was telling the truth, Quill straightened, the blue gem also ceasing its frantic show. It slowed to a dull rhythmic pulse.
“There are souls out there,” Thur said. He too was convinced. The concern he held slipped as he nodded his head and pointed to where Poppa Henry had pointed. “I can feel them.”
“Then go,” Amalin ordered.
“But,” Thur said, “they are far.”
Quill appeared to be about to speak. But Amalin never let him say a word.
“And I will be fine.”
“We know,” Quill began. “But are you—”
Amalin sighed. “But what?”
“Are you coming with us?”
“I thought so.”
“You’re going to help.”
Amalin gave another one of her not-so-convincing smiles. “I have to,” she said. “For our world, for Bayden. Ophallo may be dead, but there are still people who revere his name even if we have forgotten what he looks like. The Purifiers who attack those with the blood of Man in them and—and the Order of the Anti-Child who were just getting started before we got here. Quill, who knows how much worse it has become? Bayden could be wiped off the map because of this lie. I have to help Henry.”
Quill nodded in agreement. “And to do that, what will you do?”
“First, I will get a few more details from him,” Amalin said, “like if his wife really did use a Last Breath and what that meant. I will even hear of why he waited until now to work the one bit of magic that would have cleared his name—then I will send him on his way.”
“You mean you’ll go back to Penthya?”
Quill looked at the Kawshun horses nearby, all four that stood staring at the group by the Pool. He smiled sad.
“I won’t be going with you now,” Amalin said, “but that doesn’t mean I’m leaving for good. I will point Henry Ash towards the correct direction. I’ll meet you later.”
“We’ll take two horses,” Quill said. “And do you have your flask? If you fill it now, it will last for months. You won’t have to reenter the Kawshun for who knows how long.”
“Quill, I’m not—” Amalin began.
Quill moved. He threw his arms around his sister. “You should have never been here,” he said. “I want you to go.”
He hugged her for quite a while as Ash could hear Amalin try and fail to give a reply. There were only gasps, wet smacks of an empty mouth.
“I…I’m not leaving,” Amalin finally said. “I’m just going to point the way.”
“But you want to help, don’t you?” Quill asked. He let her go as he slowly walked back towards the Kawshun horses, one of which Fara and Thur were already upon.
“Then go,” Quill said. He jumped onto the first horse he reached. “You have to.”