The sun rose and set.
Ember stirred enough to know that it did, but dreams held her.
After all, what did she have to get up for?
In the dreams she wandered endless halls in the castle in Tenkreille looking for something.
Each time she turned a corner she knew that it would be there, but it never was.
Surely this time…
The searching continued, as the world moved on without her.
But that was alright. She already knew the world didn’t have it.
But just maybe here…
The sun rose and set.
Ember cracked her eyes and a memory flitted across her mind.
Too painful. Too sharp.
Too hard to deal with.
Something was missing and wouldn’t come back.
Somewhere the wind blew through the brush, over the grasses, across the sands.
Ember was not part of that.
Didn’t want to be.
She pressed her eyes closed again.
Somewhere inside… somewhere in the halls… maybe…
The sun rose and set.
Ember’s feet felt hot.
In the distance she heard… something.
She opened her eyes.
Go back to sleep.
The great coils shifted. Rolled on top of her.
Squeezed her neck and her head.
Everything felt fuzzy. Soft.
Sleep. Just sleep.
Search the halls again.
The world doesn’t matter.
Someday she’d find it in those halls.
Whatever it was.
Ember’s feet burned.
She opened her eyes.
The sun was just a hint on the horizon, a brightness in the gray sky announcing the blazing disk to come.
No. Something important. Something near. She had to…
Go back to sleep. Just sleep.
The coils squeezed.
No. Something was close. She had to…
TRIN IS DEAD!
Ember froze, the yawning chasm opening up again, the great emptiness of the world screaming around her, sucking at her soul.
She whimpered. Curled up and closed her eyes. Locked her tail around her nose and her wings around all.
Yes Ember. It’s all your fault.
Now go to sleep.
Yes. Just sleep. Just…
Her feet burned.
She couldn’t stay here. Trin had told her to…
TRIN IS DEAD!
But she had said…
BECAUSE OF YOU!
She was. How… how…
Ember tried to open her eyes again.
All she could see was how worthless she was, a tiny, pathetic, selfish, whore of a Garagran, willing to give herself away to anyone, abandon her friends, take advantage of helpers, give up on life and anything good she was given.
Just a tiny little squaller, still a burden on her mother and a toy for the Duke.
Her feet burned.
She touched one clawed, burning, hand to her chest.
“Yahsaw forgive me.”
A space opened around her.
And a memory.
Trin’s eyes as she died.
Steady. Bright. Happy.
She didn’t regret rescuing Ember. Not a bit.
Trin had died for her. So very like…
Yahsaw had died to rescue her from her selfishness. Her evil.
She had to get up. This was not where she was supposed to be, not where she was supposed to stay. She had a home to get to. People waiting.
One… at least one… she was sure.
They’ll hate you because of Trin…
It was so hard to think. She winced as the guilt bit in, like fangs sunk in her head, pumping poison.
She set her feet and pushed up.
“Yahsaw, give me strength.”
She stood, opened her eyes wide, saw past herself.
A whimper escaped her mouth as the coils squeezed and the voice whispered.
She was in a desert. Sand on every side. Some brush. Some dirt. Mountains in the distance.
That was where she had to go. Salshira was somewhere in those mountains.
Steel clinked nearby. Voices.
A breath of wind carried the smell of horse sweat and wet leather.
She looked upwind and saw the Imperial soldiers on their mounts as they came over a dune.
She ran for all she was worth, ignoring the scream of her muscles and bones as she did.
The soldiers followed. Followed as she ran for a good solid mark or more.
A few times she heard the pop of a musket, but it meant little. What mattered more was the Garagrans the patrol would summon with their firing. Or their birds. She had to lose them.
She scanned the land ahead of her and spotted a low hill, more like larger-than-average sand dune, that looked like it was in between herself and rougher terrain. If she made it over that her pursuers would lose sight of her for a moment. Then she might be able to find a place to hide.
She put on the speed she had shown for Trin, but felt her strength draining.
So very tired.
Just lie down and…
Ember pushed, the thought of going back to Wahstruhl keeping her focused.
But it felt so good…
Death. Her time with Woldmont had been death.
And Trin had died to get her out of that death.
Death did not feel good and she was not going back to it.
She made it over the peak of the hill and started down the other side. Ahead were more low hills, some with scrubby trees. Off to her right, back to the plains. No place to get out of sight.
To her left…
She headed for that, routing through a cluster of low desert trees barely as high as her shoulders at best. It was even more tiring to run while hunching down, but she did it.
Behind her the sound of horses and armor and muskets faded. She reached the canyon.
Shallow, maybe ten strads deep, and dry as the sand in the flatlands behind her.
She found a place where the rock was rough and climbed down, careful not to leave any too obvious marks in the shale forming the sides. Bits and pieces broke off as she descended, clattering along beside her, but she made it safely down.
Then she took off again, running West along the dry riverbed until she found an undercut big enough to hide in.
By the motion of the sun she waited two marks before she was certain her pursuers hadn’t followed.
She sniffed the breeze that carried down into the canyon.
She listened hard.
No armor. No dogs. No hooves. No muskets.
But very far off, a few rumbles.
Safe. She was safe. It was just a storm.
And running flat out had taxed her to nothing again.
She curled up in the undercut, hidden from the cliffs above, and drifted to sleep again.
As her awareness closed off, she thought she heard a chuckle from a voice deeper than any she had heard before.
But perhaps she was just dreaming.
Ember woke in utter darkness to water splashing over her nostrils. As she spluttered and coughed it rose toward her shoulders, forcing her to hold her head up.
She stood and leapt out into the canyon. The water there was up to her belly, and rain beat down on her from above, harder than any rainfall she had encountered before. A flash of lightning illuminated everything for an instant and she saw water foaming through the canyon all around, channeled between the cliffs high overhead.
Far higher than she could jump.
She turned around and tried to climb up the closest side, but the cliffs were almost straight up where she was, and the shale was slick and broke off even when her claws sank into it.
The water kept rising as she scrabbled at the cliff face. When it was almost at her shoulder the pull became irresistible.
She threw herself up onto the cliff face and managed to grab hold so that half her body was out of the water.
Overhead, and all around, she heard laughter. Deep, booming, mocking laughter.
And also a roar, coming from upstream, that she felt even through her claws.
She released one grip, sank those claws in higher, pulled herself up.
Did it again.
A wall of water slammed into her side and ripped her off the rock face, tumbling her under. Before she knew what was happening she had bounced off the stones on the bottom of the river, collided with first one rock face then the other, and taken a heavy blow to the back from something that got in between her and the flow of the water.
And that was just the beginning.
She tried to swim, but it took her several tries to figure out which way was up. Spread her wings but one of them caught on something and was twisted painfully. She screamed and almost breathed in a lungful of water as she tried to pull her hurt limb back in.
She tumbled again and crashed into something else.
She could no longer feel the bottom at all.
She struggled just to keep her head above water long enough to take a breath. In the moment that she did she used it to cry out.
Laughter boomed back. Lightning flashed across the sky, revealing a great pair of red eyes in the dark roiling clouds overhead, set amidst vast shadowy coils.
“YOUR GOD CANNOT HELP YOU HERE, EMBER. THIS IS MY WORLD. AND IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO DROWN, YOU LITTLE WORM.”
That voice. Why did she know that voice?
The ritual… when she was a child…
A wave rose up and drove her under.
Right into the bottom. And the rocks at the bottom. And the boulders along the bottom.
And the walls of the canyon.
And the broken trees.
Ember’s lungs burned as she stayed under and the continual blows fractured her grip on where she was and how to get out of it. She tumbled in dark water until she forgot it was water. She crashed into things until her whole body was one continuous agony. She held her breathe until her lungs were a soul consuming fire.
Breathe, Ember. Take a deep breath and rest.
She fought, trying to remember why she fought.
Dead, Ember. Both dead. There is nothing but death. You have no reason to fight. No reason to suffer. No reason to be a worthless, suffering little worm in a world that hates you.
She was going to give in. She had always given in.
Ember struggled as she knew that the only thing in all the world that would end the burning agony was to breathe in her surroundings and give in.
It would feel so good to be nothing but a lump on the bottom.
But Trin had died for her…
Trin was dead.
Ember smashed into another rock and lost her focus completely. Her whole body went limp and her mouth opened. Coolness rushed in, begged to put out the fire in her lungs.
Who was she to say no?
Just a worm. Just a worthless worm in a world of dead things. Let it end, Ember. Let it end.
Yes. I am a worm.
She mouthed the word in the cool, but felt her lips and mouth say another in Hahkaht.
The word rang in Bethania’s voice, as hard as a blow from her practice sword. How many times had she called Ember that while she pounded her into the floor yet again?
Another memory bloomed, and Ember twitched in the depths as the tiny form crawled out of the cocoon again and clung to the maple tree in the palace garden, oblivious to herself and Nanli watching it as it put its all into unfurling its tiny rainbow wings.
Get up, Grandaughter! Death is not the end! Yahsaw has overcome!
The words were so distinct she was almost certain she had heard Bethania say them right then. With the words came clarity, and Ember understood the memory. Understood the word pakwah.
Trin had not just died for her. Trin had shown her the way.
Trin had believed.
She would believe too.
Ember spun in the dark and kicked out until she found the bottom and launched off it. Her head broke the surface of the water and she drew in a deep breath. Her lungs cooled.
She took another. And another, and she struggled to stay afloat.
Then she screamed at the sky,
“Yahsaw died. Yahsaw lives!”
Lightning struck the water near her with an ear shattering crack. Ember felt the pulse of it crawl across her skin but no deeper.
In the flash she was certain she saw the shadow in the sky writhing.
She struck another rock, another tree, and almost slid under again.
She kept swimming, until the afterimage of the lightning cleared from her eyes.
When everything was dark again she saw a bright spot flitting above the water just over the waves and froth. Tiny, not part of the water or the wind.
With nothing else to do, she swam toward it.
Somehow it stayed ahead of her, even with the water sweeping her along, just close enough that she could see it glimmering, but never close enough that she could quite make it out.
Still she followed, stroking against the cold water with every bit of strength she could beg as the waves drove her under time and again.
She broke the surface of the water for the hundredth time and looked for the bright spot.
It had stopped atop something. In the gleam of its light she made out a great boulder in the middle of the river, parting the waters. She headed for it.
Lightning flashed and she saw how fast the water was moving. As it struck the stone it frothed wildly and spun off in little whirlpools.
She would be crushed!
Ember fixed her eyes on the tiny light atop the stone and gathered herself. At the last instant she surged out of the water and grabbed hold of the great boulder. The water crushed her against it and she was sure she felt something break inside her.
But her claws sank in and held. She closed her eyes and focused on that, just that, the feel of sinking her claws in and keeping them there.
Painfully she crawled straight up the stone, using the pressure of the water to hold herself against it until she made it atop the boulder. There she collapsed, panting, so glad to breathe freely she didn’t care that each breath made her chest stab with pain.
The storm roared and redoubled its strength, lashing down rain until it felt as if the air was little different from the river just below.
Ember ignored it and stayed fixed to the rock. When she had regained some strength she opened her eyes again.
For a moment she saw a butterfly perching on the rock in front of her, fanning its wings as if the rain filling the air around it was nothing. It’s wings burned with all the colors of the gemstone kingdom.
With a flap of its wings it was up and gone into the night, so quick that Ember wondered if she had even seen it.
But she was still on the boulder, even though the storm raged on around her.
She remembered the second promise Lantil the slave had interpreted for her in Wahstruhl.
She began to laugh, despite the pain.
And then she began to sing.
“It is well with my soul,” one of the ancient hymns brought by the prophet Jone, rang out against the roaring sky. All through the night she clung to the stone and sang as the shadowy storm beat at her with winds and water and lightning, trying to shatter her and what she clung to.
The storm broke first.