Titon and Lozan were poring over several musty old books in the cellar of the Golden Hall when Temu found them.
“There you are. I half thought you’d both been chased by a bear again.”
Lozan didn’t take the bait, although he shot her a dirty look. Titon just absently turned a page as he said, “I asked him to help me look up all the poisons and their remedies that we’ve collected over the years, but I’m sure the other healers have been through this already.”
Temu sat on the floor beside them and grabbed a tome. “Ugh,” she said, leafing through it. “How do you stand the smell of old books?”
“It’s relaxing,” Titon replied. “The smell of books reminds me that worlds exist in every individual’s head.”
“So bloody poetic.”
Titon smiled slightly. “You and Lozan can be so different at times.”
He glanced up when he heard his name. “What, now?”
“Nothing, brother dear,” Temu drawled, crossing her legs beneath her. “Just some grown-ups talking.”
He rolled his eyes but found it easy to ignore her, so he continued his work.
They were silent for the next ten minutes or so, absorbed in their search, until his sister sat up straight. “Look at this. A record of someone dying of a mysterious poison...” She fell silent, looking startled, and Titon leaned over her shoulder to see what it was.
“Haroun... Ailuros? That’s our family name! Who-”
“Look at the date.” Lozan joined them. “This must have been around... twenty years back. But his age is written down as nineteen. So he must have been our fathers’ cousin, or something like that.”
“‘Attacked by madman in the village of Thekkam when on a visit by a poisoned dagger. Wound rapidly ate away at the flesh, which turned purple. Rest of the body paled greatly. Poison unrecognized; the madman had nothing on him but a single, blue leaf which rapidly withered before any research could be made. No antidote eased his pain, although magic did, temporarily. But any amount of it could not save him. Dead within a week after showing very mild signs of improvement.’” Titon finished reading it and looked up at them.
“Dead within a week. It’s been...”
“Three days.” Lozan swallowed. “And Haina said they were showing a little improvement.”
Temu rose. “We need to talk to our mothers. Now.”
They followed her as she stalked out of the building and to their large house, where Lady Luna was sitting deep in discussion with Orchid, Titon’s mother. The two looked up when they saw them approaching.
“Who was Haroun?” Demanded Temu, walking up to their table.
Luna opened her mouth very slightly, and looked at Orchid, who smiled grimly. “I told you they’d come after us.”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “Sit.”
None of them did, and she sighed again. “He was Endion and Daemon’s cousin.”
“We figured that out for ourselves,” said Lozan, speaking before his sister could. “I’ll be frank; was he poisoned by the same poison used on father and uncle?”
Luna rubbd her forehead. “We think so, but we can’t be certain. There are, however, healers coming from Thekkam and th other villages who may know.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Burst Temu. “Our fathers are dying in a sick repeat of what happened twenty years ago, and we had no idea! If it were the two of you in their places, they would have-”
“Temu.” Orchid cut across her coldly. “We have not been idle. Whatever help we can get is on its way, and we are doing all we can to ascertain the poison and its antidote. Calm yourselves.”
Temu’s eyes sparkled with furious tears, and she stormd out of the house, leaving an uneasy silence in her wake. Finally, Luna sighed. “We thought of telling at least you, Titon, but we were worried that you would lose hope when you heard about Haroun’s demise.”
“I understand.” Titon’s voice was soft. “But do the other healers know?”
“They do. And your magic is needed in the Golden House now, Titon, so I suggest you hurry there. Lozan, please go talk to her and calm her down. We can’t afford to lose our heads. Tell her the healers from the other villages will begin arriving this evening.”
He nodded. “I don’t know about the calming her down, but I will try.”
His mother and aunt smiled slightly as he and Titon left together.
Titon headed off to the Golden House, while Lozan went to the one place his sister would be; the training yard. He found her hurling knife after knife at several targets. It was best not to approach her when she still had a knife in hand, so he stood by until she ran out and then approached her.
“Go away,” she snapped, stalking to the targets.
“You don’t mean that. You want to talk.”
“Who the hell are you, going around and telling people what’s in their heads?”
“Just you, actually.”
She turned on him, eyes flashing, but he didn’t balk. “What?”
He crossed his arms. “The other healers will begin arriving today. They might know how to save them.”
“Do you really believe that? Haroun wasn’t saved, was he?”
“What happened happened, so don’t waste time agonizing about it. Father and uncle are strong, and times have changed; we have made additions to our herbariums, and we can always reach out to others.”
“Like who?” She asked mockingly. “The Wardens?”
Lozan shot her a dirty look. “So you’re just going to sit here and whine about how miserable you feel?”
She sighed, sitting down on the grass. “You’re right. There’s no point worrying about or regretting what already happened; the best we can do is move on, and hope.”
“I... Don’t recall being so flowery.” Lozan joined her on the ground.
She smiled at him, then reached out and tugged his hair lightly. “You read so much, and you dare to call me flowery?”
He smirked at her. “Do you want to spar?”
Temu slowly grinned, revealing her teeth. She lithely got to her feet, and Lozan was reminded of his family sigil; a necrocat, the huge black felines that stalked Emeril Forest. She looked the part with her jet black hair and forest green eyes, and those cruel, glinting claw-like knives. “I’m going to beat you into the ground.”
He got up too, flexing his arms and eyeing her. “We’ll see.”
She tossed him two knives, which he caught in midair. They circled each other slowly, bodies tense with anticipation, and then Lozan sprung at her. She was caught off guard; she was always the one who attacked. Their knives met with a screech, and they leapt repeatedly at one another, each trying to gain the upper hand. Lozan pushed her back at first, but once she developed her battle fever she stopped giving ground and met him inch for inch. He was pushed back, and then all of a sudden, with a whirl of steel, she knocked him off his feet and slammed him to the ground, knife at his throat. They were both perspiring lightly, and panting as they stared each other down. Then she got off him. “See? I told you I would win.”
“I fought better than usual,” he shot back as he stood up.
“A defeat’s a defeat, brother dear. Accept your incompetence.”
“Like hell I will,” he said, scowling, causing her to burst into laughter. “Why, you-”
Lozan jumped at her again, and they began their next round.
Later that evening, the village hall was glowing with light. Torches were mounted everywhere, and ghostlights had been conjured as well. The village itself bustled with activity. There were more people than usual, as the other settlements had sent representatives in the dozens. The night was clear, with a splash of stars against the black canvas of the sky that added their own soft light to the scene below. Guards patrolled the perimeter of the village with dogs at their side, and the air was tense.
Lozan sat on the roof of a house, hidden in the shadows as he watched the life around him. He could make out the other villages from their varied colours. Honey yellow, dusty brown, sunset orange, sky blue, cloud grey... The colours of the forest and its surroundings came alive on the clothing of its inhabitants, it would seem. Lozan himself wore a dark green armband against his black clothing.
He could see his sister moving through the crowd in a beautiful home-spun dress of emerald green, hair braided with wildflowers. So unlike her usual self, he thought to himself with a smirk. She stopped every minute or so to greet their visitors, teeth flashing in a pearly smile. More often than not the people she spoke to would glance back at her when she left. When she was passing beneath the house, he stepped off the roof and landed with a muffled thud behind her. She turned.
“There you are. You miserable wretch, I’m going to kill you for this.”
“You do look far better than me, and besides, mother picked you.”
“You told her to pick me!”
“Like I said, you look better in that gown and that sweet smile than I do.” He laughed and ducked as she threw a rock at him.
“Do you have any idea how annoying those delegates from Padsala are? They wouldn’t stop gawking at my neck and insisted on my showing them around.”
“I did notice several people gawking at you, but didn’t see them.”
“Titon saved me, the sweet thing. He managed to distract them with ridiculous questions while I escaped. I don’t give him enough credit.” Temu sighed and leaned against the wall of the house. Her head dipped slightly. “I really can’t do this. Father’s dying as we speak, yet mother insists that I greet every thrice-damned visitor.”
He joined her, back resting against the smooth stone. “Don’t say that. They’re here to help, aren’t they?”
“Alright, alright, I’ll try to be nicer to all of them even if I don’t particularly care who their great-grandparents were. Why the hell do they insist on flirting with me so damn much?”
“Maybe because you’re the daughter of a Yavole?” Lozan asked sarcastically.
She glared at him. “But who am I talk to talk? All the young maids in the village other than me have their hearts set on Lozan Ailuros, the handsome, mysterious boy who can beat almost everyone at archery and who so resembles a ‘young god’, as Kora put it.”
He aimed a kick at her, which she dodged, snickering. “It’s Titon they want, not me. And did she really say that?”
“Don’t get ideas now, brother dear. Control yourself.” And with a final smirk, Temu slipped away to join the roving people while he contemplated throwing a rock at her.
Luna looked at the faces of all those gathered in the vilage hall. The murmur quietened and a hush fell in the building. They all looked back at her expectantly, and she cleared her throat. “You all know why I have called for you.”
Several noises of assent.
“My husband and his brother lie dying in the hands of our healers, and we are helpless. The poison which was used on them is unlike anything we have seen before... Other than one that was used to kill their cousin, twenty years back.” Some of them stirred uneasily. She turned her eyes to the cloud-grey of Thekkam. “He was attacked in your village.” They immediately began to protest their innocence, and their Yavole, a grey-haired woman who Luna knew as Randa, coughed.
“You know we had no part in that.”
“I do, my Yavole,” Luna agreed, “and I don’t mean to fling accusations at you but to beg you for aid. Your healers were the first to tend to Haroun Ailuros, and the only ones. He was dead before he made it back to Eruza. We need all the help we can get to save Yavole Daemon and his brother. Please.” Her voice cracked slightly as she finished, and she saw a flash of sympathy in Yavole Randa’s eyes. The older woman nodded slightly to her, then gestured at her people. Several of them, all in their fifties, stood up and declared themselves as the healers who had attempted to save Haroun. They spoke at great length about the remedies which had seemed to work and those which had not, and lectured her on various symptoms until she lost her temper. “Good folk, here is something I did want to speak about; the leaf that was found on the madman.”
“It withered away very quickly, my lady,” one of the healers said, “We were unable to study its components at depth.”
“But you do believe that this leaf was the source of the poison?”
They looked at each other, unsure of what to say, until Randa leaned forward. “We cannot be certain, Lady Luna, but we suspect it, yes.”
She nodded, satisfied. “Orchid, the painting, if you will.”
Orchid unfurled a large scroll for them all to see. On it was a faded sketch of a fleshy, round leaf in blue. “This was made by my husband, Yavole Daemon’s brother Endion Ailuros. If you recall, healers, he asked for a detailed description of the leaf. It was to make this painting. He told me that he had hunted for it in all of Emeril over the years, but never once did he find this leaf.”
“We can only conclude that it is not native to the forest,” boomed Yavole Dor of the village of Panaya.
“Indeed, my lord,” Randa said thoughtfully. “But if not here, then where? That madman was from the forest. That much we know, but we have no idea which village he hailed from. If it was from outside Emeril, how did he get his hands on it?”
Luna rested her hands on her lap as she struggled to remain calm. “And how did the leaf wither away so quickly?”
The questions were unanswered. The room was grim, ghostlights weaving through in eerie circles. Finally Yavole Dor looked up. “Perhaps this will be useful; when your message arrived, there was a herbalist from Alhallon who was visiting our village in search of medicinal plants. I brought him along in case he could be of any help. Shall I summon him?”
Luna nodded. “Thank you, Yavole Dor.”
He sent a woman to call the herbalist, who entered the room a moment later. Orchid raised her eyebrows. “A wood elf?”
The wood elf blinked and bowed. His large eyes were augmented by pointed ears that twitched slightly. Like all wood elves, he was slender and slightly short, with wiry limbs and loose brown-green clothes that fit him comfotably. He had a large satchel slung over his shoulder and walked with light steps. “I am, my lady.” His voice had a pleasant lilt to it.
“What is your name?”
“Owerr Greenbark, if it please you.” He bowed again.
“I’m assuming you are from the kingdom of Tsefor?” Randa asked.
“Yes, my lady. I have not been there in several years now, however, as I’ve been travelling the continent in search of new herbs and minerals.”
“Good,” Luna said, rising. “If anyone can recognize this leaf, it’ll probably be one of your people. Tell us, my good man, what this is, and I’ll allow you to take any plants you want from our herbarium.” She gestured to Orchid, who once again unfurled the scroll and held it for the elf to see. His eyes narrowed, and he stepped closer. “May I?” Luna nodded, and he came up to the painting, scrutinizing it carefully.
“Is it from your homeland?” Dor asked.
“No... But I have seen this, I think. I cannot be too sure. How did you acquire this painting?”
“My husband drew it.” Orchid was tense.
“It was found in a destroyed caravan we found close by.” Randa rose from her seat. “What is this plant?”
Luna glanced at her, grateful for the lie, but Owerr shook his head. “I have only seen this plant once before, and it does not grow anywhere else. It is a mere ornamental plant, but it withers very quickly when taken away from its source. Within hours, it turns to dust.”
They all leaned forward unconsciously. One of the other Yavole spoke, a middle-aged man. “And where is its source?”
He told them, and there was silence.
“Are you sure?” Luna whispered, feeling faint. “Are you absolutely certain?”
“I am, my lady. I only saw it once, while passing through, but it is what is called shini in the Common Tongue, and grows only there.”
All the Yavole looked at her then, her shocked expression reflected on their faces. Then Yavole Dor rose. “Leave us. All the healers as well.” Everyone filed out quickly, until Orchid, Luna, and the dozen or so Yavole were the only ones left in the room.
Randa broke the silence. “We must act. Now. Henceforth, this must become a council of war.”
“It may not be what we think...” Orchid said halfheartedly.
“No!” Dor slammed his fist on the table. “Yavole Randa is right. This cannot be taken lightly. Assume the worst and prepare accordingly. What could they want now, of all times?” There was a moment of quiet. “I’ll tell you. There’s only one thing that could have provoked them into action; they know of the Hidden.” He pointed to Luna. “All these years, we’ve been careful in all our actions. Our borders are watched constantly and we have been in touch with the others. Nothing has slipped past us, yet they came to know. How?”
“They are not as powerful as they could be, but we cannot grow slack in our own defences. Alert our allies in Alhallon that it has begun.” Luna was now the real power in the room. “I will ask you, though I know your answers; will you stand by the Hidden, as you always have?”
Every man and woman rose to his or her feet and recited the Oath. She felt a surge of hope in her chest. “We cannot begin rallying all our forces. That would alert them at once. Instead, I ask that you send hunters into the forest around Eruza and guarantee that no one gets through.”
“We will see to it,” on of the women declared. “Not a rat will get through your borders, my lady.”
“What of your husband, his brother, and the children?” Dor asked.
Luna closed her eyes, fighting back tears. “We must accept that Endion and Daemon may not live.” She heard Orchid let loose a shaky breath beside her. “Orchid. Use the Beacon to call for aid.” Beacons were extremely rare and effective modes of communication. From what Luna knew, it involved a very specific runestone with extremely rare crystal glyphs that could allow telepathy with other such stones over vast distances. She knew they were lucky to possess one; how Daemon had come by it, she did not know. “With luck, we will be able to locate the cure in time. As for the children...” She sighed. “Titon’s magic has bloomed; Restoration, far stronger than any we have seen, although he can’t use it to the maximum capacity yet. Lozan and Temu are not seventeen. Their connection with theKetekh is strong, however.”
“Do they know how important they are?” Randa asked softly.
Luna’s eyes flew open. “No.” There was muttering. “Daemon, Endion, Orchid and I chose to hide it from them until we deemed them ready. There was no need.”
“Ready? That’s bullshit,” Hane said angrily. “So much depends on them, it was only right for them to know earlier. And what is ‘ready’? When they can destroy the whole village with a flick of their fingers?”
“My lord, you go too far,” Orchid said coolly. “Our intentions were to allow them to live in peace before they were thrust into turmoil. And let us not forget that most of the Hidden have lost their purpose; they have no idea why their magic is so strong.”
“Comparing yourself to those worse than you does not make you any greater than the rest,”Hane said coldly. There were angry mutters and dirty looks thrown in his direction.
Luna sighed. “We may have erred, I agree. However, what is important now is that we try to keep them safe.”
“And you as well,” Randa said sternly. “My lady, ask what you will of us and it shall be seen to, but you must never leave the village.”
She nodded. “For now, all of you should go back to your homes and send reinforcements after you have strengthened your own defences.”
“We will leave behind the warriors we brought!” One of the Yavole stood up. “Your protection is-”
Luna felt her temper fraying. “And if you were all to be assassinated on the way back, of what use would you be to me?” He looked abashed and sat down. Luna continued after a moment. “We do need aid, but we are not helpless. I will prepare all our fighters. And I am one of them.” She cast her steely gaze around the room, and none met her eyes. “There is nothing left to say except this; hurry. We must be prepared to strike if need be.” Despite her words, she was dying on the inside, but couldn’t let them see.
The council rose, and all of them gave her a bow that she returned. Then they filed out, until Randa was the only one left with her. She stepped close. “Child,” she said softly, touching her cheek, “We need you to remain as strong as you were today, even if the Yavole and his brother are lost to us. For the sake of the children, and all of us.”
Luna felt a sob rise from her throat, and she embraced Randa. The older woman held her tightly as she cried, thinking of all that could happen, until the tears came no more. And when she let go, she resolved to not let a tear fall until this was over.