Dawn in Ossian never arrived for Wren. Torn from her restless sleep, jarring movements and midnight air bombarded her senses. She woke lashing out at the hands that grappled her, faltering only when her eyes finally focused on the scene around her.
Rough concrete rushed to meet her, and she tumbled clumsily beside Lukas’ unconscious form. How could he have changed so much in just a few hours? His usually immaculate hair was dishevelled, his clothes were rough and torn. The most concerning change was his complexion; he was grey, and his rapid breathing was laboured. Wren hesitated; she had seen this kind of adverse reaction before. She could guess what the cause might be.
Nadja scrambled to his side, casting Wren aside, her empty expression giving way to a desperate madness that did not belong there. Blood poured from a wound on Nadja’s head, the vibrant colour standing out in the darkness. She paid it no heed, ignoring the trail dripping over her left eye, and grabbed Wren’s shoulders. “Help him!”
A closer look at Lukas showed her that he wasn’t grey; he was fading. His skin was almost translucent, and it flaked like dry parchment. Over his heart, the only hint of colour, a pulsing red rune had been carved. A rune Wren knew all too well. A rune she imagined already beckoned to her. A rune to mark and tether her sacrifices for the Equinox.
Swallowing the burning lump of disgust and regret in her throat, Wren crawled to Lukas’ side and pulled her thick, weathered journal from her bag. Rifling through it, she shot a look at Nadja and asked “Were you followed?”
“It doesn’t matter!”
Wren stared at her, gritting her teeth. “Of course it does. I need time to figure this out. Unbinding isn’t a simple thing.”
“You’re the best rune mage around. Fix him.” Only Nadja could make a compliment sound like a threat. Wren bit down on the urge to correct her and focused. The feeling of pages slicking through her fingers calmed her, the familiar sensation keeping her reluctant temper under control.
Wren took a deep breath and continued to scan the pages, but she quietly admitted “I don’t know how. We need to remove the rune but…I have to study its construction to stand a chance of unweaving the magic.”
“I’ll cut it out.” Nadja’s knife gleamed hungrily in the harsh lamplight, appearing from the shadows.
Nadja motioned towards her brother and Wren grabbed her arm. She had no chance against the woman’s superior strength, but she desperately tried anyway. “You will kill him if you try. It isn’t etched on his skin, Nadja. It’s tethered to his spirit.”
Nadja’s muscles slackened and her stern eyes filled with tears. Following her gaze, Wren saw Lukas’ eyes struggle open. Relief tweaked her lips into a smile, and Lukas shakily reached out to touch Wren’s face. Even in his weakened state, Nadja could not resist the urge to grab his wrist and push his hand away from her. His mouth quirked into a pained smile and he muttered “Wren…you’re here.”
“Your sister didn’t give me much choice.” She joked, wiping her cheek hurriedly with a painful grin. Finding a blank page of the large journal, she held it up. He knew what she wanted; he had seen her copy runes more times than he could count. Never usually from a living surface, but the process would be the same. “This might hurt.”
Lukas nodded silently, clenching his jaw in preparation, and Wren pressed the page firmly to his skin. On the back of the book, she drew a curved symbol with her finger and murmured “Transcribe.”
A brief flare and a muffled cry later, the symbol gleamed in the same vicious shade of red on the page. “Wren. There’s no time.”
“Hush now. You need to save your strength.” She argued quietly, mistaking the urgency in his voice for pain. When he pulled from his sister’s vice grip and clutched her shoulder, she felt her heart drop into her stomach. The words that followed seized her with icy panic. “He’s coming.”
His chest rattled with each gasping breath, but his voice rang clear. The book slipped through Wren’s grip and thudded dully to the floor, echoing in the silence that followed. Her throat was dry, so it took a moment to croak the words out. The question she was afraid to hear the answer to. “Lukas. Who marked you?”
Nadja’s voice reverberated through the darkness, carrying the name Wren had hoped never to hear again. “Xerus, the bastard.”
Xerus. The name rang in her ears, dragging her mind reluctantly back to him. While the twins argued, their words echoing but muffled, she grabbed the book and squeezed her eyes shut. She struggled with herself and pushed aside the panic gripping her chest. Experience told her it would pass in its own time, so she separated herself from it to ride the feeling out.
“He’s searching. I can feel it.” Lukas wheezed, struggling to sit up. He turned to his sister with desperation “You need to leave. Both of you. The shadows cannot hide me for long. Not from him.”
Nadja gripped his waiting hand, but shook her head. “I am not leaving you.”
Lukas’ measured voice was shaking with uncharacteristic frustration. “I need Artair.”
“I am not leaving you!” Nadja shouted, ignoring the danger of the silent night that surrounded them on the street. Her hard expression said enough even before she added “End of discussion.”
The pain was clear in his eyes, but he knew there would be no changing her mind. His heart wrenched as he turned once more to the girl kneeling at his side. He hesitated, taking the chance to memorise the fragile care in her eyes, knowing this would be the last time she would look at him with anything but betrayal. His voice shook and cracked as he finally murmured “Wren…I’m sorry. I need to ask you one last favour. There is a druid who can help me: Artair. He’s…a friend. He’s done this before; I know he’ll come if I need him. I can send you to him, so you can bring him back here to us.”
Wren’s eyes widened, her gut twisted painfully, and her heart burned her throat. “A druid?”
“This is not the time.” Nadja hissed angrily, but even she could understand the sting in Wren’s eyes. How long had she been searching, desperately, for someone with that power? Taking a shuddering breath, Nadja pleaded “Help us. Help us, and we will never ask you for anything again. Please, don’t let him take my brother. He’s all I have.”
Wren was shaking. She tried desperately to push the feeling down, but it seared through her chest like wildfire. Months. Months she had wasted, of what little time she had, searching for someone to help her. Someone with a grasp of natural magic. Druids were the epitome of the magic that permeated their plane. They were the only true wielders of magic, and their powers were immense. If the stories were to be believed. If anyone would know how to return a spirit to their world, it would be a Druid.
They were supposed to be extinct. Most believed they had never existed in the first place. Her thoughts of finding one were vague and bleak; they were more myth than history. Hopelessness had wormed its way inside her, burrowing deep, despite her best efforts. All this time…
The air around them vibrated with power, cutting her inner turmoil short. As Wren’s ears popped with the sudden pressure, fear quickly replaced her anger, bringing a clarity she sorely needed. “Do it.”
Lukas knew better than to second guess her impulsive decisions, and he silently pulled a small item from his pocket. Polished ebony encapsulated a small hidden mirror. She had seen him use it many times, but she waited numbly as he pressed it into her hands. “Sunset.”
“Artair?” She asked quickly, seeking confirmation while avoiding his pleading gaze. Her senses rejected his lingering fingers and she clenched her fist.
The sudden break in the steadily rising pressure was the only warning they received before the sky came crashing down around them. The air fizzed and crackled, and the atmosphere screamed as nine of the Faceless ripped their way through the street. Following their hulking broken forms was a smooth and graceful figure. He stepped through the rift he had torn open in the air a few short yards from where Wren still knelt.
Despite her best intentions, their eyes locked across the distance. A smiling face, one she knew better than her own, one she had hoped never to see again, made her heart drop into her stomach. With all the willpower she could muster, she tore her gaze from his dazzling eyes before they could suck her in again. The shadows stirred beneath her feet. As they rose to cover her, the last thing she saw was a satisfied smirk on the lips of the god that had once held her heart.
Cocooned in the darkness, her panic subsided. Lukas’ portal was alien to her; it was completely devoid of light, heat, and sound. Without any of her senses to guide her, she could easily lose her mind to such a place. Wren did not know how long the journey had taken, or when she had lost consciousness, but she woke to the sound of chirping.
The emptiness of the portal had been overwhelming, so Wren decided to take things slowly. Keeping her eyes closed, she carefully opened her other senses to the world around her. The ground beneath her was cold and damp, yet something about it comforted her. She felt the ground around where she lay, savouring the unusual textures until her hand covered a leather-bound tome.
With a gentle breeze tickling her face and bringing foreign yet familiar scents to her, Wren finally opened her eyes. A crimson sunrise peered through thick canopies and chased away the lingering chill of the shadows. The dappled light warmed her upturned face as the wind picked up, pushing against her back to urge her to her feet.
Though she had never seen trees, as far as she could remember, she recognised them. Everything about them called to her, like an old song her heart knew. The scent of fresh spring grass and morning dew beckoned her and lifted her spirits. Still, she stumbled back to her hands and knees at the thought of what she had left behind as the memory crashed into her.
Xerus. Even in her mind, his name was dangerous to utter. For two years, she had been running from him and the life he had planned for her. Even if she knew she would never be able to really escape, Corvan had given her hope for the first time. With Nadja and Lukas, Corvan had become her family. He had shown her a way to steal back a piece of the life she could have led.
If Corvan had been a father to her, then Lukas had been her brother. She expected Nadja to screw her over where she deemed it necessary. Nadja could hardly fathom the concept of compassion or putting someone else above her own opinions and decrees. Lukas though? He had always been kind and gentle, a buffer between her fragile heart and his cold sister. As she wept over the feathers Corvan left behind when he succumbed to his injuries and disappeared, Lukas swore that he would always support her.
Conflicting emotions swirled around her, her chaotic thoughts lost to wordless sound. Wren wanted to hate him, but she could not abandon him to the fate of a sacrifice. If the druid he asked her to find could help him, it would be in her best interest to find out how. If there were no sacrifices, the ritual would not be successful. Though she was certain that Corvan would have already explored the possibility, Wren knew she should at least try. Then, with any debt between them paid, she would have no reason to return to that cursed city.
Even with her decision made, it took a long time to collect herself enough to get to her feet. A cloud passed overhead, blocking the light of the sun, and the forest around her changed. The peaceful quiet was suddenly eerie.
It was then she realised that she had no idea where to go. She was supposed to be in a village, not the middle of the woods. With his injuries, and the stress of the situation, Lukas’ magic had been less accurate than usual. Logically, to create a portal for travel over such a vast distance would be difficult.
Ignoring the chill creeping up her spine, Wren knelt for a moment and carved a wayfinding rune into the frosty ground. Her offering was a drop of blood from her finger. A soft turquoise light spread across the lines and collected in the centre, swirling around the dark red drop before rising as a pulsing globe. Reverently, Wren asked “Can you help me find my way?”
The small ball of light flickered and chittered its confirmation and darted ahead. Gathering her things, Wren pushed forward after the creature she had summoned to be her guide, following it into the darkness.
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