Night warmed under the light of three bonfires, their changing colors flaring through the fog and tall grass of the marshes. The dull roar of conversation, singing, and dancing echoed into the sky—navy, except for the stars twinkling white. Children of the Marsh Foxes bounced around a fire pit, the aroma of roasting meat glazed with marmalade exciting them; after all, what better way to spend a night, other than fires and good food and drink, with a song or story or two?
The foxes, a lively group of demons, spirits, in-betweens, and humans, also had a guest. Mysterious, with her hood and veil, she was the variety the foxes most welcomed. She sat on the edges of the firelight and watched the lively camp. Her voice, they found, was firm yet delicate—the voice of a seasoned traveler—and her hands were thin yet strong—hands that had created something significant. A hole in the back of her hood revealed her last visible feature: a long black braid that draped down her back and along the ground. The cubs had taken to the woman’s obsidian hair, and with their clumsy paws that had yet to become hands, strung native beads and feathers into her hair. And so, even though she was an outsider, she looked, felt, and smelled like one of the performing caravan.
She looked up at the sky, noting the position of the floating island in the distance. Despite the darkness, the moon illuminated the island’s waters cascading off the edges. The night silhouetted the island’s four spires, but one of them, the Spire of Ryugu, seemed more pronounced. Its visibility, the woman concluded, meant she had wandered far into the southern regions of the continent, and confident in this thought, she returned her attention back to the frolicking caravan. Such diversity and camaraderie, the woman thought. The world should be more like this.
A tiny paw tugged at her cloak. “Miss,” said the child, “don’t you have a story?”
She thought about this question, and reading its direction, nervously shook her head. “Even if I did,” she said with a chuckle, “I wouldn’t be able to tell it very well.”
Another member of the caravan overheard this conversation and drew closer. “A person can’t smell like the sun and stars, and the earth and sea,” he said, “without having a story to tell.”
Again, the woman shook her head. “I’m no good at telling stories.”
More of the caravan gathered around, and encouraged her to tell a story. Make it about someone else, they said. Tell it like it’s not about you.
The suggestion was sound. Already, she felt the tension and embarrassment leaving her hot face. Ah, she remembered, but the time… She glanced over her shoulder to the sky behind her. A golden light, winged and serpentine, coiled and circled in the night. It was drinking starlight, she knew, and from the light’s slow curls and sways, she knew it would need some time before it joined her at the fire.
The paw tugged again. “Miss, please tell us a story.”
She hesitated. Then, “I still don’t know if it’s any good,” she started. “And it’s not about me. But I’ve heard a story about how this land came to be.”
“The Door opened,” the child replied, “and all the spirits and demons came out to live with the humans who came from the mountains. Everyone knows that one.”
A murmur of agreement rose from the caravan, but the woman shook her head. “It’s a story of this land before the Door opened,” she said. “A story that begins beyond the mountains to the north, in a land where gods were born.”
Approval rippled through the caravan. More sat down around the hooded woman. The bonfires’ colors kept changing as she drew herself together, then sighed deeply. “It began, I think,” she started, “with a girl falling from a tower.”
Close your eyes, and trust me. I promise, everything will end once you reach the bottom.
So her twin brother had said, with his reassuring smile, but from the moment he shoved her out the window of the Ascending Tower, Aislin’s eyes were wide open. She saw her brother’s face, the spitting image of her own, then the top of the windowpane, and then the sky. The wind roared by her, and ripped off the ceremonial silks and robes from her body.
The sky and her tears slipped between her outstretched fingers. She had no room for screaming in her throat, but her brother’s name escaped on one desperate breath. “Zerenas.” Her wise and sweet twin brother, who had soothed her nightmares into dreams, and always held her hand.
He had smiled, when he threw his weight on her and sent her tumbling from the window.
“We were above this, Zerenas! Why?!”
A war raged around her, drowning out her cry. Aislin only had to slightly turn her head, to see the glints of sunset reflecting off bloodied dragons’ scales. The creatures tore into each other with claws and teeth, and burned wings and flesh with their fiery breaths. Their screeches rent the air, as ash and blood fell like snow and rain.
She knew some of them. That golden dragon whose wings and tail crumbled away—Renaun, incinerated by her sister’s flames. That small green dragon—that was Juniper, his twig-like neck crushed between the jaws of his own father, Saturnus. Alesta, the ethereal white, plummeted while locked in a mutual stranglehold with Cain, her bronze mate.
Bronze. Aislin frantically searched about, her red eyes wide to see through the drifting ash for a particular set of bronze scales. Surely even he hadn’t turned on her? The thought felt like a talon through her stomach, and her breath shallowed even more. “Jerran,” she whispered. “Jerran, help me!” He always heard her, no matter if she was sobbing or singing. “Please!”
If he didn’t come, she had no one else. A strangled cry squeaked from her throat at the thought, as she lifted her hands to her pounding head. “No.” None of this was happening. “No, no no.” She wasn’t alone; she’d never be alone. That was the promise they, Zerenas and Jerran, had made to her; they would never—!
Yet, there was no Jerran winging to her aid. She was alone, and she was going to die. The ash was falling, and the blood was raining, and her friends were dying because of her—
Her mind screamed just as her throat finally wrenched open, and her keening pierced the air. Shockwaves burst from body and crashed into the tower face she fell past, and the bricks leaned and buckled, and then like thunder, the tower Aislin knew as her home snapped. The air shattered around her, and for a moment, the space was silent except for her sobs. She resigned.
Surviving dragons turned to the falling body, and with victorious roars, raced to be the first to crush the girl’s body between their jaws. Only one, however, had the wings to beat the rest. He’d heard her screams echoing in his head, and with his enemies’ attentions off him for a few precious seconds, he seized the chance and shot past his brethren and into the cascading debris of the Ascending Tower.
He scooped the limp body onto his back, and blasted past the snapping teeth of the others as he fled from the area.
And not a moment too late.
A war cry split the air, loud and furious enough to freeze Jerran’s blood. Its source wasn’t far behind, and Jerran needed all of his strength if he wanted to fly for his life and Aislin’s. “Aislin, save the passing out for another time. Get up!”
The harsh command rang in Aislin’s head, forcing her numbed senses back alive. Seeing the bronze back she lay on top of, she scrambled closer to Jerran’s head and grasped his horns tight enough to turn her knuckles white. “I thought I’d lost you,” she whispered.
Jerran veered away from a blast of black fire, and sharply dipped down from another. “Hold tight.” He corkscrewed from another blazing stream, and shot further away.
The black dragon behind the fleeing pair snarled so deeply, she bared her curving fangs from under her reptilian lip. “Turn around and fight, Jerran; I’ll tear your spine through your tail, or I am not your Lord!”
Jerran could feel Aislin shivering on top of him. Just as Aislin had chosen him to serve as her personal guardian, Zerenas had chosen “Lord” Eurami, as she liked to be called, to serve as his protector. With the rift between the twins opening wider with each passing moment, Eurami’s goal had changed from ending her draw with Jerrain, to raining his insides onto the forest below.
So the bronze drake wasn’t surprised when Eurami was suddenly neck-and-neck with him, and bashed her horns against his jaw. White bursts exploded in his eyes as he wheeled out of flight. She closed in again ground her claws into his back, earning a pained screech and wild flail of his spiked tail. It held off Eurami for only a second, allowing her to speed her flight one more time and overtake Jerran and Aislin. Eurami’s clubbed tail swung down and smashed into Jerran’s head, putting him out and throwing Aislin off his back.
Before Eurami could catch up, Aislin reached out and grabbed onto Jerran’s body, as his draconic scales dissolved into human flesh. They plummeted together into the thick canopy of the forest, branches snapping and splinters grazing as they tumbled through the boughs. Then scraping down the trunk of their savior tree, they finally dropped through a hole and landed on the mud and dead leaves of the forest floor.
Every part of her body stung. Grimacing, Aislin rolled on to her stomach, and with shaking arms, levered herself to her knees. Leaves, splinters, and dirt matted her black hair, but she couldn’t care less about herself. She crawled to Jerran, unmoving.
Above the canopy, Eurami’s wingbeats and angry screams thundered like a storm. She could easily burn down the forest, but Zerenas’s protection, Aislin grudgingly acknowledged, held off Eurami’s rampage. Yet Aislin was scarcely comforted. She jumped at the chirps and rustles of the forest, knowing that, at any time, her brother’s supporters could appear to capture or kill her.
She fought to banish the thought, and focused instead on her unconscious companion. Cringing at Jerran’s bruises and the blood sliding down his face, Aislin gingerly shook him, then brushed his auburn hair away from his face. He didn’t respond. With her sleeve, she wiped away the half-dried blood sticking to his skin, and then shook him again. “Not after coming this far, Jerran,” she choked. “Not now.”
Finally, after the slowest seconds in Aislin’s life, he groaned fitfully and shifted his body, then slowly opened his eyes. At her relieved breath, Jerran turned his gaze to her. “You look terrible,” he croaked.
Tears threatened to drown her words. “My twin brother nearly killed me,” she said. “I destroyed the only place I thought was home, and you—I thought—!” She stopped herself from talking any further.
Jerran shifted again. “I need to get you out of here.”
“Not with those wounds,” Aislin replied, holding Jerran down. “Stay. You’ve fought enough.”
“They already know you’re here; you’re not—!”
“I won’t watch you die for my sake, Jerran!”
Her words stopped his struggling, but not his grim frown. As the silence settled between them, Aislin’s breath hitched, until finally, she leaned over and lay her against his chest, muffling her sobs. “We promised this would never happen. We were twins before we were gods—he said so himself!”
Perhaps knowing there was nothing he could say to console Aislin, Jerran defaulted to what he knew. He was realistic to the point of cynical, and as a result, not an openly friendly drake. It was with this cynicism that he responded, “Your voice snapped the Tower clean in half.”
Aislin bit her lip. “I was overwhelmed.”
“Control those emotions, and you’d truly be the All-End.” Jerran closed his eyes against his churning headache. “Your brother’s afraid of you.”
Aislin drew her breath to protest loudly, but rustles and calls in the distance made her swallow her voice. In a hiss, she replied, “What would you know about us?”
“Your brother creates. You destroy.” Jerran opened his eyes and turned to Aislin again. “I’d be afraid of you if I were him.”
“I promised I’d never hurt anything he created!”
“So long as you never awakened.” Lying down did him no good. Ignoring Aislin’s protests, he slowly sat up and cradled his head in his hands. “That stopped being the case when you mastered swordplay.”
Aislin stared at her free hand. That mastery had done little good, then—it started this rift between her and Zerenas, and without a weapon, she couldn’t defend herself. She clenched her hand into a fist. “I never asked to be the All-End. My brother knew that.”
“And neither does he care, now that you can potentially control your power.”
How could he speak so coldly about Zerenas? “You’ve been watching over me for my entire life! You know—!”
“I also know that fear can change a person.”
She knew better than to doubt her guardian. Jerran’s long dragon years, by definition, meant he had more experience than Aislin’s short human life. A part of her, however, protested this fact. He knew nothing; Jerran was not a blood relative. He’d only watched over Aislin, and though she’d often been with Zerenas, Jerran had cared little for the twin brother. Zerenas would never be afraid of her. He knew she wouldn’t dare a lay a hand on his creations—she had promised as much, and more. And her awakening powers were just now scaring him? Aislin stood up, shaking. “You’re wrong,” she said. “I’ll prove it.”
Jerran, still sluggish from his injuries, stared.
“I’m going to go talk to him,” Aislin went on. “His supporters are here, so I can use them to take me to him.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“My brother will listen to me!” Encouraged by her own thoughts, Aislin took a few steps back. “He’ll see his misunderstanding, and the fighting will end.” She nodded approvingly. “When I come back here, Jerran, I’ll have everything fixed. I promise!”
She turned and ran, ignoring Jerran calling her back. He could be right, that Zerenas would spare her no listening ear, but more than anything, Aislin needed to see her brother again.
Her pursuers, Aislin found, were survivors at of the fight at the Ascending Tower. In their human forms, the dragons were painful to look at—bloodied bandages, mangled eyepatches, reddened welts and burns, and hasty stitches made the proud race a miserable mess. The search party had a campfire burning between them, with some stoking and cooking, while others lay on their sides, devoid of energy. Still another few sat distanced from the fire, and cried into their knees.
Aislin steeled herself, then emerged from the brush, sending a ripple of confusion through the search party. They gazed inconclusively at each other, then turned pleading looks to the person they had known before as their old friend. One spoke up. “My lady, I—I mean—Aislin, I—!” He looked back at the rest of his group, but received no help. He fell to his knees. “What have we done?”
She bit her lip at these words, but battled back her tears. The lamentations kept coming. One killed his best friend. Another tore apart her three siblings. Yet another had to stop crying from the moment the war began. An angry one seized Aislin by her collar, and demanded she repay everything she took. Someone else stepped in and timidly mentioned Zerenas’s responsibility in the matter. Slowly, the search party devolved into argument, until Aislin cried out, “Take me to my brother!”
Dead silence dropped over the search party. They looked at each other again, and the seeming leader hesitantly spoke up. “We don’t understand. Lord Zerenas said you’d destroy everything, that we had to protect our world from you, but—!” He seized Aislin by her shoulders. “You—you are still Aislin! Yet, why?!”
There were no appropriate words. “I’m sorry,” Aislin replied. “I’ll fix this, so please, let me speak with my brother.”
The search party members shook their heads and gathered around her. Run, they said to her. Run before they sent Aislin to her death. Zerenas would not speak with her.
Protest boiled in her again. She could fix everything, if she could just meet with Zerenas again! Why were the dragons holding her back! Let me go, she said. Let me save you!
They trembled in fear, yet refused Aislin’s plea. Zerenas would not let her live. She had to flee, before he found her. She couldn’t allow him the chance to find her!
Aislin had heard enough, and she refused to believe anything she heard. There was enough pain—the dragons’ pain, Jerran’s pain, her own crushed heart. Her frustrated scream burst out in another wave, rending the forest floor with fissures, and splintered the ancient trees. Leaves decayed and shuddered off the branches, and the exposed forest creatures huddled together and cringed against the keening. When her voice finally died, the search party uncovered their ears and stared, breathless, at the ring of destruction around them.
The silence didn’t last long—wingbeats and dragon cries split the night air, followed by a gust that shook the bare canopy as a mounted black dragon sailed overhead. Eurami wheeled once and stopped above the clearing, the draft from her wings flattening everyone as her mount, robed and hooded, leaped off her back.
His hood came down as he landed, and spotting Aislin, he smiled. A cascade of warmth, relief, and love filled Aislin as she stumbled to her feet. The fair skin, red eyes, and black hair on Zerenas were the comforting reflections of her own. Now, she thought, everything can be solved. Her brother spoke. “I’m sorry,” he started, “for scaring you so badly.”
“I’ve always listened to you,” Aislin replied. “If you needed something from me, all you had to do was ask!”
Zerenas examined his surroundings, then shook his head. “I love you dearly, Aislin.” His smile faded. “That’s why, this time, I couldn’t ask you. I had to take care of it myself.”
He opened his tattooed palms to the moonlight, then gently clasped them together. As glowing circles surrounded her on all sides, Aislin felt her body stiffen, locked. Her brother went on. “I know all this here is your doing, and I can’t let it spread. “ His face clinched, as though he were in pain, but he continued. “Neither I, or my creations, can destroy your body—I fully realize this. But I can…” He breathed deeply. “I can seal you here.”
No. The thought pulsed through her body and spread out, rattling the rune circles around her. “This is wrong!” Another pulse. “You wouldn’t dare do this to me!”
Uncertainty trembled in Zerenas’s clasped hands, but he shook his head and held firm. “You’ve awakened far more than I anticipated. I’m sorry.”
The runes glowed with the moonlight, and as they shined brighter, pressure wrapped around Aislin’s limbs, neck, and stomach, and tightened as though to strangle her. She wriggled against the bindings, each move emitting a wave that again and again rattled the runes against her. But she soon collapsed to her knees, and eventually lay pinned to the ground, as Zerenas’s magic expanded over her.
“I lay you rest,” Zerenas murmured. “Sleep well.”
She threw her head from side to side, desperately looking to the fearful search party, Eurami’s glittering black scales, the night sky, and Zerenas praying; her voice was no longer strong enough to cry, and the constricting binds drained the strength from body, and her eyes became too heavy to hold open—
Until an enraged screech echoed, and something bodily smashed into Zerenas’s runes. Weakened by Aislin’s struggle, they shattered like glass, and Jerran, scales shuddering with his labored breath, tumbled in. He crashed onto the ground, just as Zerenas crumpled from the recoil of his forcibly broken ritual. While the runes’ brilliance blinded the others, Aislin scrabbled to her feet and raced onto Jerran’s back. She leaned close to his ear.
“Can you still fly?”
They shot into the air, and with the southerly wind, soared away. Aislin watched her brother growing smaller behind her. She finally understood. Her brother was lost to her, and she saw no way to mend their break. At least, she thought, she had the blessing of Jerran’s companionship. Without him, loneliness would have crushed her, and Zerenas’s seal would have been her salvation. She curled herself around the bronze dragon’s neck. “I told you to rest.”
He snorted, but seemed to ponder a moment. Then, “I wouldn’t have much reason to live if something happened to you.”
Inexpressive as he was, there was a softness to his voice that calmed Aislin’s agitation. “If I’d been sealed there,” she said, “Zerenas might have made you guardian of that place.”
“I’d hate it.”
“He might have erected a shrine.”
“It wouldn’t be the same.”
She inwardly agreed, and decided not to ask further. Resting her hand against the side of his neck, she instead said, “We should land for the night. You’re still hurt.”
He snorted in admonishment, and undeterred, continued his flight toward the foothills of the southern mountains. This time, Aislin, leaden by the day’s exhaustion, said nothing, and lulled by Jerran’s wingbeats and the breeze passing them, fell asleep.
It was during this pause in her story, that the hooded woman again turned her attention back over her shoulder. The gold light had disappeared from the sky. A part of her sank into gloominess; she’d only told the first half of her story, and she knew all too well there was more to come. She wanted to follow it through to the end, but she wouldn’t resist. Her guardian was too strict to yield to her desires.
“I’m sorry,” she said, standing. “I think I have to go.”
A unanimous murmur of disapproval swept through the audience. The cub at the woman’s side tugged on her cloak. “But the story’s not finished,” said the child.
Faced with the crowd of pouting, disappointed faces, the woman was at a loss for words. Being able to finally tell this story had both excited and eased her, as though she was taking care of one last job. At the same time, she hadn’t thought anyone would take interest in such an old story, let alone a gathering of practiced storytellers. “I—there isn’t enough time,” she said, flustered. “I have to go.”
Small wails resounded from the children, and the adults of the caravan bombarded her with questions. Was it the cold? We’ll stoke the bonfires again. How about food? There’s still plenty! Same with drink; we’ll make a hot one for you!
“No,” was such a difficult word to say then.
Relief finally came quietly, like a shadow, from the marshes, and laid his hand on the woman’s shoulder. The man, unseen, whispered into the woman’s ear. “I’ll forgive it this time,” he said. “Next time, tell me when you plan to have Story Night with this crowd again.”
“Sorry,” she replied, “but it was kind of forced.”
“I heard. Their whining’s so shrill I could hear them from the sky.”
Her companion let go and sat down, back turned to the camp. She sat down again, and as the comfort of his back against hers relaxed her tension, she gave the cub’s paw a light pat. “Fine,” the woman said, “I’ll finish the story.”
A celebratory whoop went up, and a few audience members dispersed to stoke the fires, serve more food and drink, and round up other caravanners to join the audience.
The cub, paw tightly curled into the woman’s cloak, grinned. “Thank you,” she said.
“I should be saying that,” replied the woman. “You’re all such good listeners, even though I’m so clumsy at this.”
Anticipation buzzed in the audience, as they settled down once more. Confirming her companion’s presence with a shift in her position, the woman breathed deeply, and continued her story.
Daybreak woke Aislin, who soon realized Jerran’s wingbeats had become steps through a hilly forest. He carried her on his back with little difficulty, but knowing he was still injured, guilt filled Aislin all the same. With a warning tap, she slid off his back and followed him.
Neither said anything, which greatly eased Aislin, until the trees cleared, and the logged gates of a village appeared through the forest. Jerran stopped and waited as Aislin caught up. “The dragons only hear about this place,” he said, “and the villagers hid themselves from you and your brother.”
“Why you, then?”
“Their healing arts saved my life a lot, before you chose me as your guard.” As the pair approached the gates, a few people emerged from inside. One stood out from the others, with her braided silver hair and gold eyes belying her youthful appearance. Jerran groaned. “They like to come in entourages.”
The silver-haired maiden smirked and crossed her arms. “Well,” she said, “this ‘entourage’ is what’s stitching your scales back together. Again.” Then she turned to Aislin. “You won’t be nearly as ungrateful, will you? We’ve been expecting you, All-End.”
They must have seen the Tower fall. Aislin averted her eyes, but the woman went on, in a gentler voice. “We’ll do what we can for you, so rest easy while you’re here.” When Aislin hesitated to respond, the woman chuckled. “Your guardian can smell betrayal a thousand miles away. I won’t say you can trust us, but you can believe his judgment, right?”
Aislin had, however, learned she could never be too careful. Again, she said nothing, and followed closely behind Jerran.
Beyond the gates, Onari Village—as the maiden called it—sprawled like a city. It was, Aislin learned, what the dragons once called “the hidden city of magic.” It sparkled in everything: the merchant stalls hawking herbs, tomes, and stones from “beyond the untamed mountains,” and children tossing streams of fire, water, lightning, vines, earth, and wind back and forth. Adults wore more than tunics and boots—they wore scarves, coats, belts, dresses, corsets, headbands, hats, and accessories in more colors than the dragons Aislin knew.
She also learned the village citizens called the young silver-haired woman “Priestess,” and revered her enough they bowed their heads as she walked by. “Formalities,” the Priestess said with a laugh. “They know I hate them, yet they keep teasing me.”
She was Priestess of Spirits, the alias given to the village’s head mage. The title meant she was the sole mage with the ability to both soothe and vanquish the elemental spirits roaming the mountains and beyond. It was a territory, Aislin remembered, that Zerenas had never touched, per a pact he held with the wild spirits there. Having a different creator than the northern forest and dragons, the spirits and their magic were different from any of Zerenas’s creations. For Aislin, Onari Village wasn’t just a hidden city; it was a totally new world.
Beyond the plaza, at the back of the village, stood the Priestess’s house, a large and cozy space for her and her family. Her husband came down with their son to exchange greetings, but it was then that Jerran finally crumbled. With Aislin’s help, the couple carried him inside and immediately tended to his injuries. As soon as a sleep tonic put Jerran out, the Priestess sat Aislin at her table.
Given that Onari was still hidden from Zerenas, the Priestess explained, they could safely assume that Aislin was safe for at least a short while. There were no assurances, however, especially against a god’s magic, so the elite mages of the village would devise a way to mask Aislin’s presence. Even then, the Priestess warned, there were no guarantees. The village’s affinity for the spirits made Onari immune to an attack or threat from Zerenas’s dragons, but the same couldn’t be said for the All-End. If Aislin had any intention of bettering the situation, she needed to find her own answer.
Confusion and frustration jolted in her, but a part of Aislin understood the Priestess’s advice. She couldn’t depend on Jerran, or Onari’s kindness, forever. If she wanted to stop Zerenas’s efforts, she had to face him herself. “Until I find my answer, then,” said Aislin, “I beg for your hospitality.”
In the days that followed, most of Aislin’s efforts focused on tending to Jerran. His fevers came and went, accompanied with lapses in his sense. During one of these phases, the girl at his bedside suddenly changed into a cowled woman, and the shock of his missing charge had him in such a fit that for a moment, Aislin’s words from under her hood missed him completely. Only when she unveiled herself did Jerran finally calm back down to a relieved rest.
The hooded mantle was a gift from the Priestess, who, when helping Aislin into it, instructed that its veiling magic worked its best only when Aislin wore the hood. So long as Aislin stayed under the cloak, however, her godly presence disappeared almost completely. The Priestess’s instructions were easy to follow, and once Jerran was able to walk about without fainting into a dizzy spell, Aislin left him to his rest and wandered the village of the mages. Then, once Jerran had fully recovered, Aislin was never seen without him.
On a day she realized she was settling into her cloaked life, and listening to a bard and flutist duo of masked mages, a commotion interrupted their ballad. The excitement followed a figure leaping across the village roofs and fell into awed silence when it landed in front of the minstrels. It was a woman, in silver armor and long scarves. “Makar,” she said, “the Priestess isn’t home. Where is she?”
“Not outside the village for sure,” the bard replied. “Strangely docile lately. Started with marrying Reeon and having their son back then, but having the All-End and its guardian as guests seems to have done something final.”
“The All-End. The mantle we created was for it.” The woman looked pensive, then turned and walked away. “The matter with the All-End’s settled. I’ll try the village hall.”
Aislin held down an enraged Jerran. She could, after all, forgive being called an “it.” The woman’s urgent need to see the Priestess, however, concerned Aislin. Something had happened. And maybe there was a chance she could help. She left some coins—far less precious currency than dragon scales, she thought—with the minstrels, and dragged Jerran with her after the armored woman.
At the village’s gathering hall, the Priestess sat on the steps, with her son in her lap, and other children around her. Seeing the approaching woman, however, she stood to meet her. The armored woman held her scarves down as she spoke with the Priestess.
“Utin’s kicking a storm this way,” the woman said. “The spirits in the mountains and beyond saw a black dragon in their skies, and none of them are happy about it.”
Both Aislin and Jerran were close enough to hear “black dragon,” which only meant one thing: Eurami. They drew closer to the conversation, as the Priestess, pensive, crossed her arms.
The woman continued her report. “Zerenas considers the All-End missing, yet that black dragon’s still flying. He’s still looking for her. I had your wind knight Tristan scout the northern territories; the Ascending Tower has yet to be repaired.” She hesitated, pondering the situation, then went on with her conclusion. “Zerenas won’t do anything about it until he finds the All-End.”
Aislin could no longer keep quiet. “Was my brother on that dragon’s back?”
She didn’t falter under the woman’s sharp glare. The Priestess sighed. “We’ll continue this at my home, Almira. I don’t want to alarm too many people here.” She beckoned Aislin and Jerran to follow. “And I know you both want to hear too.”
Back at her home, after she sent her son to fetch his father, the Priestess invited her guests to her table. The woman called Almira finished her report, and confirmed that, yes, Zerenas was seen on Eurami’s back, flying south. Aislin sighed, relieved. Her brother had passed over her, and missed both Aislin and Onari Village.
He had intruded on the spirits’ territory, however, instigating a new problem. The Priestess furrowed her brow. “I’m not excited about that angry Anima of Sky on my doorstep.”
Jerran voiced his and Aislin’s confusion. “You’re talking in a different language than even dragontongue.”
The wild spirits of the southern lands, the Priestess started, each controlled some natural element. The mages of Onari gained their powers by soothing and binding pacts with these spirits, or by having the blood of a person who bound a contract. And then, there were Animas, the purest forms of the southern elements. Utin was the Anima of Sky, a wind spirit who called the mountains his territory. “We’ve been on good terms for the most part,” the Priestess said. “but I’m guessing Zerenas’s unannounced intrusion into his land ticked him off something awful.”
Aislin could not deny the truth. “It’s because I’m running,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re surviving,” the Priestess replied. “I don’t fault you for this.”
“I do,” Almira said. “Naiveté only gets a person killed.” She turned a cold glare to Aislin. “So, what are you plans, All-End?”
The Priestess waved aside her colleague’s comment. “I’ll forgive you calling me naïve, but I don’t plan on forcing Aislin to bear that, or any kind of shame. She’s still recovering.” She stood from her seat. “Our plan is,” she continued, “I and the highest mages here are going to try to negotiate with Utin. He believes we allowed Zerenas’s intrusion; we’ll work to persuade him otherwise. If Utin refuses to talk sense with us, I’ll have to vanquish him before he destroys this village. Do you have anyone marking him?”
“I’ve left Cyrus to watch him.”
The Priestess gave an approving nod, and as her family came downstairs, she smiled and went to meet them. She consulted with her husband, and with a nod from him, the couple bade their son to play at the neighbor’s. The boy ran off, with no idea that his parents were potentially lying when they said they’d be home soon. Obedient and innocent, Aislin thought with a grimace. The boy’s parents were off to fight to protect him, when the root of all this trouble was a petty fight between siblings.
Aislin knew she had to make a decision, no matter the Priestess’s kind words. The trouble was no way to repay Onari Village’s hospitality. She stood from her seat as well. “I want to go with you,” she said. Without a weapon, she wasn’t sure how useful she could be against magic she had never seen, but as the All-End, if it came down to destroying an Anima, maybe she could help, if even just a little.
“So long as you don’t blow your cover,” the Priestess warned. “Your brother’s only just lost your trail. Don’t waste the opportunity we’ve given you.”
Jerran pressed his hand against her shoulder. He wasn’t going to stop her, but if need be, Aislin knew she had his wings.
Except Utin’s turbulent winds pinned down even Jerran. Before the strength and ever-changing directions of those winds, he couldn’t see an open space to take off from. With scree and torn branches whirling with the gales, the sky was more dangerous than the ground. The elite mages of Onari could see this as well, but no one, not even the highest wind mages, including the Priestess, could quell the Anima’s winds.
Either from the roar of the gales, or ignoring her completely, Utin spared no listening ear to the Priestess’s call. His responses were a cacophony of guttural noises, with no hint of coherent words. Even the Priestess’s features darkened at the sounds. “We’ve completely lost him,” she said. “Surround him! I’ll vanquish him before he reaches the village!”
Utin’s disconcerting sounds, however, had grasped Aislin’s attention. They were, she realized, just noises to other humans, and even dragons, but Aislin heard words. She had to get closer. Distantly, she heard Jerran and the Priestess calling her back, but unfazed, she ran into the winds. She ducked under mages buffeted by the wind, and followed the current around until she found a place to hold her ground.
There, the cacophony rattled into clear words. “The All-Be is the Creator, the Creator is the Life, the Life is the Breath, the Breath is the Heart, the Heart is the Soul, the Soul is the Gate, the Gate is the Trial—!”
Then, a scream split into the words, and became a different voice that raged and cursed, before dampening into the chant again.
Aislin bit her lip. “I hear you,” she said. “Zerenas touched you.” Perhaps it was an attempt to draw Aislin out of hiding, but it was also a complete betrayal of the pact Zerenas had promised. And through that betrayal, her brother had willfully endangered the lives of people who had nothing to do with the twins.
She never imagined her brother could fall so far, and she vowed to take responsibility. Shedding her hood, Aislin roared into the windstorm. “I am the All-End! I dare you to kill me!”
The wind shredded and tore the ground at this challenge, and blowing all others down, sliced blade after blade of wind after Aislin, who, at first, wove neatly around the stormy edges. With the mantle weighing her down, however, the unrelenting blades eventually tore into her cheek, arms, legs, and sides, until Aislin, bleeding and panting, could hardly move.
She sensed Jerran slowly making his way to her; he probably meant to fly with her through the ripping tornado, even if it meant slicing his wings into ribbons. She wouldn’t have it. She stepped once more toward the warped and enraged Anima, just as it loosed a buzzing scythe of wind.
Her body suddenly moved then, twisting under the attack and sweeping her hand in an arc above her. She touched the wind, cold like metal under her fingertips, and with the sound of breaking glass, the air dissipated.
Awed silence pressed down like a hot iron. Even Aislin stared at her own hand. Did I just break the wind? Another volley of wind scythes shrieked toward her, and like the one before them, they each shattered into gasping whispers.
Control. The realization hit her like the buffeting wind, and surged through her until her red eyes seemed to spark alive for the first time in her life.
Fazed no longer by the blades shredding after her, Aislin danced around the storm, destroying every arc of wind that threatened to slice her in half. She soon reached the eye, and without hesitation, lay her hand on the central humming thundercloud. A single pulse burst from her hand, and swelled the cloud until it blasted outward in a deafening microburst. Light flooded the forest, blinding everyone until it died down, and revealed an incredulous and confused man staring at his own hands.
A tired Aislin drew her hand away and stepped back into Jerran’s grasp. She didn’t need Onari’s mages to confirm. “Utin,” she said.
The young man, surrounded by an eternal breeze, seemed blown away by both the sight of his white kimono, and the sound of his name. He stared, wide-eyed, then lifted a hand to his head. “There was so much,” he croaked. “Terror, anger, sorrow, apathy…stagnation.” He dropped his hands to his sides and bowed low. “All-End,” he said. “My thanks.”
He lifted his head, and for a moment, stared into Aislin’s eyes. “I think I understand,” he went on. “One end is a new beginning. I hope—I pray—the All-Be can see this soon.” His features darkened, and he seized Aislin’s hands. “But I know, hoping won’t help. Even with that mantle, you’ve revealed yourself far too much. Onari won’t be able to protect you anymore.”
“I thought as much,” Aislin replied. “I just don’t know where I should go.”
“If it isn’t any trouble to you, go south. I don’t know how much help it’ll be, but, I think it’s a start.” Utin reluctantly released Aislin’s hands and stepped back. After a thoughtful silence, he bowed once again, and spoke with a firm resolve in his voice. “I pledge my winds to your name.”
With that, the Anima of Sky disappeared in a whirlwind, and the foothill forest returned to the quiet rustles of an undisturbed afternoon.
With Aislin realizing control, both she and Jerran were in agreement for the first time in a long while. As soon as they returned to Onari, they bade their thanks and farewells to the Priestess, as well as her friends and family.
From her hesitant responses and worried expression, the Priestess seemed loathe to let her guests go. After what appeared to be soothing words from her husband, however, the Priestess turned to Aislin again. “I was getting used to having you two around,” she said. “But, my husband’s right. You’ve started something big. As far as we know, Animas are either soothed, or vanquished. Yet we heard Utin pledge himself to you today. What an Anima could want from the woman to end all—even I have no idea.”
Aislin, at that moment, had little concern for the mystery. “What matters,” she responded, “is that I can’t burden you, your family, or your followers any longer.” The mantle and the village’s hospitality had been more than enough show of their kindness. Aislin promised to repay the debt by confronting Zerenas one more time.
She halted Jerran’s objection. “He willfully broke his promise to the spirits, and endangered these people for the sake of finding me. He has no excuse.” There was conviction in her voice, as she went on. “I want to find a way to banish him from these lands for good. Utin told us to head south; we’ll follow his word. That is, of course,” Aislin quickly added, “if you’re willing to lend me your wings for just a little while longer.”
“Now this is a development,” a bemused Jerran replied. “You’re taking charge and relying on me?”
Her indecision had been a major flaw, Aislin realized with a pang, that had inadvertently pushed Jerran into bearing both of their burdens by himself. She inwardly apologized for her selfishness, and taking Jerran by his arm, bade the village one more farewell, and walked away. Jerran’s bronze wings quickly had them heading south through the sky.