Ossian was a contradiction. A city nestled in the middle of an oxbow lake was strange enough. But to be so consumed by Nature and yet remain completely untouched, that was a different kind of magic entirely. Unlike most of the towns and cities in the region, Ossian didn’t develop organically. Aside from the river, there were no abundant resources. There were other established settlements meeting any requirements it could fill.
Instead of necessity, Ossian was built for curiosity. It had been built to the specific designs of the oldest of the mage families. Every road and every building set to the schematic of an ancient rune of protection and prosperity. The order of construction had been crucial, the ritual of the making as important as the rune itself. Any mistake would mean starting anew.
An undertaking of such grand proportions drew attention from the greatest mages and scientists of the age. With their support and investments, it could be nothing but a beacon of civilisation in a harsh and unforgiving world. Ossian served as proof that Nature could be tamed.
The only way in or out of Ossian was by train. Tracks had been erected high above the dense forests below. Secured and protected by the Mage Lords, they repelled the demons and spirits outside. Another painstaking experiment in the name of progress. Another step for humans to carve a life in a world that was not made for them.
The seasons meant very little inside the city. Winter had given way to Spring, yet the cold refused to abate. There had been no snow to melt, and there were no trees or flowers to bloom. The only change could be found in the clouds, lightening from grey to white. The occasional peek of a blue sky gave the illusion that Summer was on its way.
Wren drifted aimlessly through the buzzing crowds, making her way through streets she still didn’t know. The signs of the passing time mocked her, subtle as they were. She kept her head down and her hood up, doing her best to ignore the world around her. Eventually, she found her way “home”. She wasted no time in locking herself inside, in the dimly lit room.
Her new apartment was already a scattered mess. Crystals and vials of ink were jumbled on the tops of furniture, her engraving tools were spilling out from under her bed, and books lay open on every surface. She tossed her jacket on the bed and lay beside it, staring blindly at the ceiling. Another day, wasted.
Wren didn’t know how long she lay there in her stupor, nor did she particularly care. Only the heavy thudding on her door roused her. She glanced at the window and saw the last faint glow of sunlight dipping over the horizon. This could only be trouble. Groaning inwardly, she pushed herself off the bed and shuffled across the room.
Opening the door just a crack, she flinched as another hand forced it open.
“Get your coat.”
As she often did, Wren wondered how so small a woman could be so strong. But she knew better than to argue with Nadja when she used her business voice. Instead, she hung her head and reached for her usual bag. Tiredly, she asked “What is it this time?”
Dark eyes narrowed; she did not like to be questioned. Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Wren turned to get the rest of her things, but Nadja surprised her by answering “We’ve got a lead.”
Wren’s head snapped up, turning swiftly back. “Corvan?”
“Wren…we’ve been over this.” Nadja groaned, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her jeans. “You need to let it go.”
Lukas stepped out of the shadows by the door, startling Wren. She really should get used to that, but it surprised her every time. He drifted to Nadja’s side and punched her arm. “Hey. Have a heart, would you?”
“They didn’t give me one.” She replied tartly. Pointing angrily at Wren, Nadja added “She needs to get her boots on the ground and her head out of the clouds. He’ll find his way back sooner or later.”
Wren always hated it when they spoke about her like she wasn’t there, but she just muttered “We don’t all have eternity to wait for him to revive.”
Nadja made no attempt to hide her irritation. “Stop being dramatic. It’ll be a decade, maybe two. Well within your pitiful lifespan.” She spat. She swept out of the room, shouting back over her shoulder: “Get your coat.”
After a lingering silence, Lukas sighed. He put on the voice he used with potentially volatile customers and said “You know she’s right, Wren. Even if you could, dragging him back before he’s ready could weaken him. These things take time.”
“Then why did he tell me there was a way?” She asked, biting her lip against the tears that were pushing themselves forward.
Lukas looked at her, dark grey eyes glinting with pity. “Maybe he just didn’t want you to give up.”
Wren’s stomach twisted. It would be like Corvan to tell her what she needed to hear to keep going. Even in his last moments. But he knew the stakes for her. He wouldn’t give her false hope. Her mind repelled the idea. Lukas watched as her expressions contorted, disappointed and relieved when it settled back into quiet determination.
“You’re not going to give up on this, are you.” He stated quietly.
She met his eyes and clenched her jaw. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she insisted “He wouldn’t give up on me.”
Lukas opened his mouth to reply but they were interrupted by another shout from Nadja, echoing through the hall. Wren flinched, grabbed her jacket, and darted out of the apartment. She locked it behind her; Lukas would already be stepping out of a shadow at Nadja’s side, in the street.
Wren tightened the strap on her bag, finding the balance she needed quickly. It wouldn’t get caught on anything when they ran, but was close enough to her hand for her to pull what she needed quickly. It was a habit she had picked up. Every time she put the bag on, she adjusted it.
Nadja watched in silence, surprisingly patient, and nodded when she was finished. Together, the three of them walked down the road. The girls kept to the centre, while Lukas melted through the shadows. Eventually, Wren gave in to her nerves and asked “Where are we going?”
Without turning her head, Nadja replied “Crysis.”
Wren stopped. Her heart stuttered, and Nadja paused, raising her eyebrow. “You have something to say?”
She bit her lip, desperately trying to come up with a logical response. Nadja wasn’t a sentimental person; she wouldn’t understand. Corvan hadn’t trusted her with the truth about Wren before, so Wren couldn’t trust her with it either. Weakly, she argued “We’re not exactly dressed for that place.”
“Do better.” She growled.
“You know I can’t go back there.” The words tumbled out of her in a rush as panic began to set in.
“I know you won’t.” Nadja countered, her face hard.
Her voice shook; Wren had never been good at standing her ground. Having an opinion was never required before Corvan helped her free herself. Clenching her fists, she persevered desperately. “If Corvan was here, he’d convince you this is a bad idea.”
“He isn’t here.”
The simple response cut her, a sharp pang to her chest. Trembling, Wren cast her eyes down. But she couldn’t afford to back down. If she stepped back into the club, if he was there, she would never escape again. “I won’t go.”
Nadja raised an eyebrow, tilting her head. “Oh, you won’t?” She asked, her voice dripping with scorn. “Listen here, little girl. The time for moping in your room, hiding from what needs to be done, is over. The stars will be in position this year. Whatever they are planning is coming to a head, and we still don’t know anything. All we have to show for ten years of work is you.”
“Nadja.” Lukas had been silent, watching their exchange. His sudden voice was a quiet warning. A reminder. But she rounded on him, the full moon’s glow reflected in her dark eyes. “On her side again, Luke? Am I the only one that still cares what we’re fighting for? What the stakes are!”
“I’m sorry.” Wren’s voice cracked, and the tears came.
Nadja rolled her eyes, and started walking again. The conversation was over. But Wren wasn’t finished. She hurriedly wiped her cheeks with her sleeve, and stammered “I’m sorry that…I’m…not strong enough. All I do is hold you back. But…you don’t understand the stakes if he…if the Mage Lords find me again. If you did, you wouldn’t keep dangling me like bait.”
Nadja’s silence gave her pause. With a sinking realisation, Wren thought back to their recent trips. Walking brazenly through the streets. No disguises, at sunset. Nadja and Lukas were cloaked from the Faceless, but they knew she wasn’t. “Am I bait?”
“I don’t keep you around for your winning personality.” Nadja replied, a cruel edge to her cold voice.
Wren stared at her. At least her previous captors had given her the illusion that they cared. But she finally realised that it didn’t matter to Nadja how she succeeded, as long as she did. “I…can’t follow you anymore.”
“What did you say?” Nadja turned back to her, her usually composed expression twisted with confusion.
Lukas’ eyes were sad; he had seen this coming for a long time. He had warned his sister there was only so much Wren could take. He knew his sister could be heartless, ruthless even. Too close to the dark to walk in the light, like he was. But Nadja had never understood that Wren the Chaos to their Order. Still, he had to try. “Wren, you’re one of us. We need to stick together.”
“I’m sorry, Lukas. I can’t.” She replied dejectedly, shame turning her gaze to the floor. “This isn’t the way.”
“You’re walking away? After everything they did to us? You need us.” Nadja made a lunge for her, grabbing the collar of her jacket and yanking her down. Wren knew better than to resist; Nadja was far stronger than she could hope to be. “Corvan is dead because of you.”
Sharp pain stabbed into her chest at the reminder. “I know. And I need to make that right.”
Nadja spat, her fingers tightening and twisting the leather until it creaked. “Stop being so selfish. Demons always find their way back eventually. You cannot affect that.”
“But you need him. He knew more than he let on, and we’re running out of time.” Wren exclaimed and pulled away, slipping out of the jacket when she could not match Nadja’s strength. Her head was low but her voice was strong as she vowed “I will find a way to bring him back in time to help you.”
When Nadja made to reach for Wren again, Lukas touched her arm. The rare contact froze her in place, and he muttered “Let her go. She’s no good to us like this.”
Nadja deflated, nodding her head. She muttered something before turning her back and striding away down the street, and Lukas was her shadow. Tears were still wet on Wren’s cheeks and she stared after them, numb.
She’s no good to us. The words echoed in her ears. She had known, of course, but hearing it from Lukas was a punch in the gut. Her heart twisted in her chest and she fled so she wouldn’t have to watch them leave her behind. It was for the best. With tears streaming down her face, she ran as though the Faceless were chasing her. With the darkness thick around her, they may well have been.
Slamming the door shut behind her, Wren tumbled onto the bed. The shakes wouldn’t stop, the shadows taunted her, so she closed her eyes and touched the beads circling her right wrist. Breathe in, focus your energy into a single point. She chanted to herself; her grounding ritual. Breathe out, channel it down your arm and push it outwards.
Going through the motions helped, as did the flow of energy. She concentrated on filtering away the excess into the beads, storing the power in case she needed it. The routine always helped her regain her focus; moving her energy, her magic, was the only thing she had always been able to do. It was second nature to her, but focusing it into a channel took her mind off of other things.
With her breathing coming easier, Wren set her mind to packing her things. Nadja was right; the time for moping and hiding was over. Her research in Ossian had been fruitless. What she needed was to find someone with natural magic. Not like the Mages. She needed a Druid. The libraries in the city were useless, and she could never gain access to the Tower Archives.
Wren knew how to disappear. It was the first thing Corvan taught her when they escaped her gilded cage. She knew how to pack efficiently, and what items she would need to keep at hand. Most importantly, she knew several ways to get out of the city.
Ossian was a fortress. The River Krien swept past on all sides, making leaving on foot impossible. The river had taken many lives without remorse. If one could cross the river, the surrounding forests were dense with fog. From Ossian, it was impossible to see anything beyond the blanket of white smoke.
Corvan had told her of the tunnels beneath that led to the woods, but she knew he had never intended her to take them alone. Her other option was to step onto the high-rise train and take the faster path above the trees. The next city had to be safer than Ossian. If she couldn’t find information there, she could move on again. But the train held a higher probability of being detained, and then it would be too late.
Her heart stuttered as she faltered over the decision. The train was safer. She knew cities. She didn’t know how to navigate the world outside. The world that belonged to the Demons. Corvan had told her little, except that the Mage Lords lied. But creatures of pure Chaos couldn’t be defined to a city girl. She had only ever known rules, barriers, Order.
The Demons outside couldn’t be any worse than the monsters within the city. No matter what the Mage Lords taught the people, no matter the lies they spewed like poison, if Corvan was a Demon then she would take her chances.
Wren finished packing her things, making sure she cleared every vial of ink and every shard of crystal from the space. Her rucksack was on her back, holding most of her things. In her satchel were the things she needed access to quickly, and it hung at her hip. As ready as she could be, Wren slumped under the window to wait for the sun to rise.
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