“Irony, it twists and twirls like a lover’s song, but this is hardly a lover’s tale. It’s one of blades and blood. I wish I could’ve seen it sooner, but that would’ve been too easy. I wouldn’t have learned to love him.”
‘They’ll stand amongst the corpses of the beloved.’ That’s what he said at the end, though I never considered myself one of the beloved, not at the beginning. I was simply a terrified woman then, but now… now I understand. Maybe I wish I didn’t.
Void take me, this is so demon-damned hard.
In the beginning, he loved me. Irony, it twists and twirls like a lover’s song, but this is hardly a lover’s tale. It’s one of blades and blood. I wish I could’ve seen it sooner, but that would’ve been too easy. I wouldn’t have learned to love him.
Through the years, Irreor had trained Kipra, taught her everything his father taught him, and she was nearly as skilled as he with a blade. Yet there was more to it than that. She was a fingertip to a parted lip—silence that should’ve been said, yet words never spoken.
He cared for her. Deeper than the deepest pool, he cared for her. Yet she’d never let him say it.
And so he’d held his tongue.
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Villeen's father might as well have murdered her eldest brother—now she was forced to finish it. She clenched her eyes shut, unable to look at a heap of rags in the cavern's corner. Pale flesh peeked from her brother's half-shredded, brown robes. A book's corner dug into her breast, but she ignored the pain, only clutching it tighter, wishing she'd found it earlier.
The heap, once her eldest brother, Torden, breathed in with a haggard burst.
His chest rose. It fell.
Why didn't father kill him? Why this?
Gravel and moss skittered toward him, sucked in by some strange power. Stones, dust, and tiny leaves of greenish-brown mold—all were dissolved into his flesh, into his unseeing eyes, into his gaping mouth.
Those fragments ceased to exist.
Years ago, her father had discovered a power that he'd called gentahl, but what had happened to Torden was more than simple gentahl.
Fier, her younger brother, pulled her into a hug. "Maybe Torden will hear us—"
"Torden isn't there."
She'd growled the words more fiercely than she'd intended, and she reached up to clasp Fier's arm. What else could she say? She couldn’t tell him everything would end perfectly, that the birds would sing, that sunlight would shine warm against their skin.
She knew better.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean…."
She turned to him, to the tattoos—twisting, twining, ugly things—that covered his face and body, and pressed her forehead against his shoulder. She'd etched the tattoos two days earlier, only hours after they'd discovered their father's treachery. In return, Fier had pierced her own skin with a needle and ink—hours of pain and determination.
They needed to hide.
Of course, neither knew if it would actually work. Their father could've found them so many ways, gentahl at the top of the list, and now the idea of a simple tattoo seemed absurd.
But she and Fier had been terrified. They hadn't known what to do. They'd panicked.
They stood in an empty room, no more than a cave, deep beneath the Kurin Mountains. Firelight danced across stone walls, and their shadows, so deep and long and black, wavered in rhythm with the flames. Dusty mold invaded her nostrils until only bitterness remained. In a way, that scent was a blessing. It helped her remember, helped her forget.
Her new tattoos burned, but the discomfort did little to dampen her sorrow. This place, their home, felt foreign and distant. Narrow walls pressed against her. The door stood open to prying eyes, allowing anyone to witness her pain.
Not that anyone could see; no one else lived here.
She plunged an invisible thread of gentahl into Fier, slid it into his mind like a needle through a single layer of cloth. Forced it deeper. The door stood open, but gentahl could shift reality. She nudged the thread, yanked and twisted it to change her brother's mind. In that same heartbeat she shifted her own thoughts.
The door closed. Not a swing or a creak, like a normal door. One moment it was opened, the next its edges pressed tight against the cavern's stone.
She hadn't needed to alter Torden's thoughts. He had none.
Gentahl was new, unknown, dangerous. It altered thoughts, and those thoughts then changed reality. Red became blue. Chairs became tables. Iron became copper. In theory, the power should've been able to change anything. In theory, it could've returned her brother, their father before he'd become insane, their lives.
If only it were so easy.
A failed attempt—trying to convince someone without the strength to do so, or attempting to convince too many people—led to pain, confusion, dizziness, and a headache to pierce stones.
The more firm the thought, the more difficult it is to shift. The dead can't live, and nothing can return Torden's mind. A shiver swept across her, and she caressed the tattoos on her arm. How a man or woman looks… ah, that's the strongest of all.
Thus the tattoos. They weren't gentahl, but they might be enough.
"It's dangerous to leave him here," she said, and hugged Fier tighter. "Four days is too long, and Father might return."
"We have no way to know what he'll do. I'm sorry, but we must kill—"
"No!" Fier shoved her hands away. He knelt beside Torden and brushed the hair from his brother's face. "Let Father study him. Prophet! Let him come back, and we'll stop him. He's nothing but a self-centered fool."
Her father had discovered gentahl long ago, and perhaps the power itself had driven him insane. He'd sunk into darkness like the dust and moss sank into Torden. He'd murdered his eldest son—or near enough that it no longer mattered—then he'd fled the cavern, losing himself amongst the island's populace.
Father was but one man within a vast sea of others.
Fier rubbed his forehead. The days since they'd lost Torden had proven hard on him. He was younger than her, but gray strands littered his otherwise red hair. He gazed at her with green eyes—intelligent, introspective, wise.
"We can't leave him," she muttered. "This is a mercy, and one he deserves. His life would be worse than death."
It would be a rat in the cage, but how to tell Fier that?
"Our father would return for him," she said. "We can't let that happen, but we're too weak to stop it, and our brother doesn't deserve Father's tests. You know it as well as I. Father is too dangerous."
And he was. He understood more of gentahl than she could ever imagine—how to twist a mind, to alter it so reality changed. She could accomplish minor things: close a door, conjure a spoon or a knife.
Her father could accomplish far, far more.
Fier shrugged, but he clenched his fist. "Then what do you suggest?"
"I'll put our brother to rest, and—"
"No!" He pulled the book from her hands, flipped to one of the earliest pages, and read it aloud. "'I'll bring fury upon them, but I'll have a reason. I want them to feel. I've never felt, but I've wished for it. How do I wish for a wish?'"
She nodded once, hard.
"A dead man can't feel, Vill. Father must have a reason for this, but—"
She yanked the book from him. Its crinkled pages and loose binding contained their father's notes. Thousands of pages. Torden must've found it.
Is that why Father did this to him? Too many unanswered questions.
"The world will change," she murmured. "You know it as I do. He's planned this too thoroughly, and we can't stop it with a word or fist or sword. It will take manipulation, and we must stand at the heart of that. Torden began the change."
"So we'll be the end." He swallowed hard. "But I don't understand why we must kill him."
"A week ago, Father strapped a man to a chair and, for two days, he observed. You think that village will miss their man? The wife her husband? I'd bet so. Ah, but father watched the man's expression, the man's eyes. What was he looking for?"
"I don't want to hear this. You can't be sure that happened—"
"I can, because I saw it. Father doesn't care about you. He doesn't care for me, and he certainly doesn't care for our brother. To him, we're the man in the chair. We're children of the Prophet, nothing more."
Tears tickled her eyes. One dripped to her cheek, and she wiped it away. She knew she was right; her father would use Torden, just as he'd used that villager. He'd grow more powerful.
Torden wouldn't get better. It was too late for that. His mind had already become like a soft butter.
"What do we do?" Fier demanded, as if she could answer all his questions, as if she could twist and twirl their island until it was right.
Nothing could do that.
Their island would sink beneath their father's madness. It would bob and tumble, but how to steady it? Neither she nor her brother held the power to change their faces, their bodies, but she suspected her father did. He could be anyone, anywhere—a whisper in the night, a voice on the wind.
And the whisper could be a maze, the voice a puzzle.
Now she must finish what her father started. She forced herself to look at Torden, at the dust and moss skipping across the floor. His chest rose. It fell.
She'd find her father, her vengeance. The bastard would taste it, wallow in it.
"We burn our brother," she whispered, and her voice trembled as she continued. "We lay him to rest in a way that no one—not our father or even a rat—can hurt him."
Fier paled. "And then? How do we find Father? What do we do if we find him?"
"We'll study his notes and do as we must." She lifted the book, allowed a hint of iron into her tone as she glared at its cover. It would take months, perhaps years. "We don't have a choice."
The key to the Prophet's mind lay within.