There was fire everywhere. Fire, blood, screaming, death… One by one, Bener watched her childhood friends die, screaming for help that would not come. Her heart ached, and she sobbed, seeing their scorched bodies grow still. She sobbed and screamed and all the time, the fire was around her, eating her up…
Bener woke with a gasp, clutching the sheets in trembling hands. Sweat dripped from her face and she wiped it off impatiently.
"Stupid prophetic dreams," she muttered, rolling out of bed and groping blindly for the towel on the washstand. Finding it, she dabbed her face clean and lay back in bed with a sigh. The dreams meant that something she was going to do that day would influence the future in a big enough way that disaster could happen if she made the wrong choice. She had been cursed with the dreams ten years ago and had long stopped freaking out over them. The way she saw it, all she could do was make the best choices she could. If she panicked and did everything she could to prevent the cataclysms, chances were she would only make matters worse. And anyway, pretty much everyone was faced with choices every day that could have disastrous conclusions, and they didn't freak out about it. Her rational mind knew this, but that didn't stop her from waking up screaming.
Glancing at the clock, Bener growled in frustration. It was six o'clock, one hour before the time she normally woke up. That was short enough that she definitely wouldn't be able to doze off, but long enough that she would suffer from the missed sleep. Resolutely falling out of bed, Bener pulled on a robe and stumbled over to where she vaguely remembered the window as being, cursing as she stubbed her toe on a heavy object. Prolly that useless crystal ball, she thought with a humorless grin. It had been an impulse purchase about a year ago that she had hoped might be able to help her focus her visions more clearly, perhaps tell what choice would influence the future and which path she should take. The first time she tried scrying in it, the useless chunk of glass started smoking and cracked under the strain. Bener still hadn't thrown it away, because she never threw anything away that there was a remote possibility could ever be useful again. Her room was exceedingly messy, needless to say.
Finally, Bener found the window and threw open the heavy drapes, letting in the first pale rays of dawn. She watched the sun rise for a while, then turned away, deciding she might as well go for a walk. And since misery loves company, Bener decided that Lord Evyn didn't really need all that sleep anyway.
Half an hour later, he was still grumbling as the two of them strolled up the long, sloping path that wound up the side of Mount Ellehcor. Bener could hear Evyn clanking along up the path behind her and smirked secretly.
"Why are we climbing mountains at half past six in the morning?" he inquired, sounding pained. "Not that I'm opposed to exercise, but why a mountain? Tell you what, you continue on your nice predawn hike in the frigid winter air, and I'll take a different path. A nice, level route, maybe, like the hallway right outside my bedroom."
"Cut it out, Evelyn," Bener teased, using the nickname she had given him in childhood and knew he hated. "It wouldn't be so bad if you didn't wear all that armor and insist on carting around that huge sword."
"One never knows when danger will strike. In that event I, at least, will be well prepared," he said loftily, placing one hand protectively on the hilt of his sword and raising an eyebrow at Bener's choice of a light cotton shirt, breeches, a short cape, and woven sandals.
"If there was any danger that my choice of going on a hike would have resulted in us being attacked, I would have foreseen it last night," reminded Bener. "Now get your lazy lordly rear up this mountain. We're going to see Sorceress Hithunuwe." With that, she turned on her heel and stalked up the path, bright russet cape fluttering in the breeze. Evyn would have sworn that gesture was purposefully meant to mock his heavy black brocade cloak, which refused to flow impressively and merely hung in depressing heavy folds, obscuring his highly polished armor and expensive engraved sword. With a sigh and a shake of his auburn head, he clanked off up the path after the patch of bright red that was rapidly outpacing him.
Tellehni Hithunuwe was delighted to see them and even had breakfast ready for three. (Her crystal ball was far more effective than Bener's was, partly because she never asked it to see anything so complicated.) Evyn seemed less moody once he had a few stacks of the sorceress' excellent pancakes under his belt and chatted animatedly with both of them.
"I had that dream again," said Bener into the silence after laughter at one of Evyn's jokes.
"What, the one where you do terrible things to penguins with a croquet mallet?" said Evyn, still a bit giddy. He giggled at his own cleverness. Bener gave him a withering look.
"No, it's that one with all the fire, death, and doom."
"The only one I've talked about more than once before, wiseguy." She sipped a cup of tea thoughtfully. "The only one I've had more than once, actually," Bener observed. Tellehni looked at her pensively, resting her chin in her hand. "Normally a prophetic dream only comes once, and then it goes away, otherwise the dream comes true. But this time, it keeps coming over and over again. What do you think it means?"
"You know," said Tellehni, speaking slowly, "it could mean that you made the wrong choice, the one that leads towards this future. But somehow, the disaster didn't happen yet, or it's one that takes a series of choices to make it come true. Then the dream would keep coming, since it hasn't happened yet, and you can still prevent it. But somehow, you keep making the choice that leads up to it."
Bener was alarmed. "What can I do about it?"
Tellehni shrugged. "Do what you always do. Make the best choices you can. It's almost statistically impossible that you would continue to consistently make the choice that leads you towards it. It would be like finding your way blindfolded through a maze – a maze that has a trap at the other end, anyway. Look, if you're really worried, I can look back and try and find a trend in the choices you made the days that you had the dream."
Bener agreed gratefully, so Tellehni had Bener sit opposite her with the crystal ball between them. Bener placed one hand on they globe as the sorceress focused on some point in the glowing heart of the sphere. Something in Bener's subconscious flinched as she saw the vision reflected in Tellehni's eyes, miniscule flames dancing in her pupils. The room seemed to dim as the sphere glowed from within, and Tellehni's vision seemed drawn into some other plane. Evyn watched, impressed as always by this display of magic.
After five minutes that lasted an hour, Tellehni finally stirred, shaking her head and blinking. She looked at Bener and sighed.
"Sorry, Bener," she said regretfully, and shrugged. "I couldn't find any pattern, unless your consistently eating breakfast is going to bring disaster on us all." Evyn snickered, but a sharp glance from Bener quelled him.
The door flew open suddenly, blinding them all. As they blinked the dazzle from their eyes, the three could see their friend Lady Rehamonn Nenvett leaning against the doorframe.
"Why are you guys shutting yourself in this stuffy little room?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. This was a habit she had gotten from Evyn, which annoyed him. Evyn and Rehamonn couldn't stand each other. He thought she was an annoying little copycat who didn't know her place as a woman, and she thought he was a pompous overbearing jerk who desperately needed someone to trounce him, and took every opportunity to make the attempt. The two of them were extremely evenly matched, both in magic, hand-to-hand fighting, and weaponry. They trained at such a fever pitch to defeat each other that they had both reached a standard of excellence in these areas unrivaled by few except the palace weaponsmaster, the royal wizard, and the queen's own personal bodyguard.
"We were just having a chat with Sorceress Hithunuwe," explained Bener hastily to prevent the sharp retort that she didn't need a crystal ball to see forming in Evyn's mouth. She stood up from the table and smiled, trying desperately to restore a feeling of peace to the gathering. Grabbing Evyn's arm and hauling him up from the table, Bener pulled him out the door and past Rehamonn, ignoring his protests about the pancakes left on his plate. "Thanks for your help, Tellehni," she called as the door swung shut.
The three trekked back down the mountain, maintaining a companionable silence between Bener and Rehamonn and Bener and Evyn, but a hostile silence between Evyn and Rehamonn. Rehamonn broke it first.
"Have that dream again, Bener?"
"The one where you do terrible things to…"
"Called that one," interrupted Evyn smugly. Rehamonn turned to him angrily.
"Yeah, when we all know it was me that said it first," she snarled.
"Oh, and what do you know about original humor? I told it much better than you ever did!"
"I know that you never told an original joke in your life!"
"Ooh, look who's sore about getting owned in the tournament?"
"What does that have to do with it?"
"Guys, please!" pleaded Bener. "Fighting gives me a headache!"
"You cheated in the tournament!" Rehamonn went on, ignoring her.
"Just getting even for the frog in my helmet."
"Numskull, you set your helmet down on the ground next to the pond. Duh there's going to be a frog in it when you pick it up."
"Ooh, you'd like me to think that, wouldn't you?"
"Takes one to know one!"
"Please!" wailed Bener, grabbing each of them by the shoulder. Rehamonn brushed her off, sneering.
"Yeah, you just don't want Evyn getting hurt, do you? Don't want-"
"-don't want the same thing happening that-"
"Rehamonn, don't you dare say what I think you're going to say!"
"-that happened to your precious Karus!"
"Rehamonn Nenvett!" yelled Evyn, but it was too late. Bener was standing there with a lone tear sliding down her face. She took a deep, shuddering breath and wiped the tear away with her sleeve. Her voice quavered as she spoke softly, a look of deep hurt on her face.
"That was low, Reha," she whispered. "Yes, I don't want Evyn to face Karus' fate. But I don't want you to, either. I suggest that, in the future, you find a better way to resolve your differences without hurting those around you." Bener turned slowly and walked off the trail, following an animal track that would lead her on a more indirect route to the base of the mountain. The two watched her go in awkward silence.
"I didn't mean to say that," said Rehamonn guiltily. Evyn nodded.
"I guess things just happen when you're mad at someone," he said, sounding a bit remorseful himself. He was watching the place Bener had left, so he didn't see the look Rehamonn turned on him.
"Yeah, making it my fault again?"
"What?" Evyn was shocked.
"If you hadn't antagonized me into the fight, that never would have happened!"
"Oh, now who's pointing the finger?"
"Anyway, I think her suggestion had some merit."
"I couldn't agree more."
"A duel, then?"
"Let's make it the cove, it's isolated. That way we can't hurt anyone by accident."
"What's wrong with now?"
"As the challenged party, you may choose the nature of the duel," Rehammon said with a mock curtsey. Evyn smiled. This was the part he liked. He glanced at the hilt of his sword, but discarded a swordfight as too cliché. He snapped his fingers.
"Fire," he said. Rehamonn raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, fire. Magical, mundane, or any other kind. The winner will be the one who quenches his opponent's fire."
Rehamonn didn't miss the slight emphasis on his. Ignoring it, she shrugged indifference and pulled a piece of paper out of her belt pouch. The two of them drew up a contract stating that the winner would get bragging rights and would have to admit to Bener that the insult was his/her fault. They couldn't quite bring themselves to shake hands, but managed a friendlyish nod before hiking off towards the cove. They didn't see Bener slumped in the tall grass in a dead faint, dreaming frantically of fire, death, and doom.
The duel started off modestly enough. Rehamonn, kneeling on the ground, struck flint and tinder together and lit a candle stub from her pocket. Evyn, laughing contemptuously, went to pinch out the flame with his finger, but inexplicably it flared up into a raging fire that instantly melted the candle into a waxy puddle but somehow kept burning. Taken aback slightly, Evyn looked up nervously at the inferno that Rehamonn was so casually holding in her cupped hands.
"Aisia's Demoncandle Cantrip," she said, smiling mischievously. "A simple spell. Surely you can remember the words to cancel it?"
Evyn licked his dry lips. He knew she knew perfectly well that he had never heard of this spell, simple though it might be. He hesitantly tried a few beginners' spells for quenching fire, but none seemed to have any effect except to make it blaze higher.
"It feeds on magic, you see," she explained kindly. "Any spell that fails will serve to fuel the fire."
"Right, then." Evyn threw back his cloak dramatically and drew his sword. Pulling a small translucent stone from the chain around his neck, he fitted it into the place where the pommel stone would be on a normal sword. Holding it up while striking an impressive yet unnecessary pose, he shouted out.
"Soul Sword Storm!"
A torrent of rain was unleashed, black clouds swirling around the cove and dumping buckets of water into the fire. It hissed and sputtered, and then blazed higher still. Frustrated, Evyn nevertheless had an idea for his fire. How could you quench lightning, after all? He pointed the sword straight up at the sky, and a lightning bolt darted down and flickered into the blade. With a wave of the sword, he canceled the storm, then planted the sword in the ground. The enchanted lightning flickered around the blade, illuminating Evyn's face with flickering, firelike light.
Rehamonn's response was unexpected. She gently set the fire down on the ground, dusting ash off her hands. The fire lunged forward, engulfing the sword. When it pulled back, the blade glowed red hot, but the lightning was clearly gone. So was the stone in the hilt. Evyn yelled and grabbed for the sword, getting a burnt hand for his troubles.
"My Stormstone!" he yelled, glaring at Rehamonn. She smiled sweetly.
"You see, Evyn…" she began, but stopped suddenly, frowning. Evyn followed her gaze and saw that the fire was blazing up more than ten times its original height. Not only that, it was also pulling away from the ground and seemed to be forming into a distinctive shape. Rehamonn stepped back in dismay.
"What's happening?" yelled Evyn over the roaring of the blaze.
"I'm clueless!" yelled Rehamonn back. The fire began twisting itself into a humanoid form, and Rehamonn stepped backwards and unconsciously gripped Evyn's arm. She felt the hard metal under his sleeve and shuddered, catching herself and pulling away. Evyn carefully pulled his sword out of the sand and pointed it at the shape, which was definitely looking like a demonic creature.
"'Aisia's Demoncandle,'" whispered Rehamonn fearfully. "'A spell of inferno, it shall consume the magicks in the area, but be warned that when it has done with them, it shall burn itself out'"
"Out?" questioned Evyn, keeping a wary eye on the fire in the sky, now settling and hardening into a solid shape as the fire began to sink out of their plane of existence.
"The page was torn there," explained Rehamonn. "I thought that was where it ended. I guess it meant that it would burn itself out, as in out of our world, and let in this… thing." She groaned. "That's what I get for not reading spells carefully enough, trying to beat you."
The fire abruptly extinguished, and a red, demonic, yet freakishly humanoid creature fell to the sand. Long, greasy black hair fell over its dead white eyes and fanged yellow smile. They caught the scent of death from it.
"Time for apologies later." Evyn fumbled another stone off the chain around his neck and fitted it into the sword, pointing the blade at the being crouched, grinning, on the ground before them.
"Soul Sword Shadow!"
A ribbon of darkness darted out of the blade and wove itself around the creature. For a moment it seemed that the spell was working and it would be bound, but the creature emitted an inane cackle and swallowed up the spell. It stood straight and tall, eyes now nightmarishly clear and black as a void, unfurling jet-colored wings. Black spikes sprouted all over the deformed body.
"It didn't work!" Evyn shouted in dismay. "It's only getting stronger!"
Rehamonn stepped forward, clenching her fists. A red glow formed around her hands and lit her eyes with an internal fire as a tornado of heated air spun around her, whipping up the sand around her feet and tossing her golden hair. She pointed at the dark beast.
"Draconic Blaze!" A jet of fire streamed from her pointing hand, taking on the shape of a dragon, but as before, the monster consumed it, gaining a coat of metallic armored scales and lethal claws. The thing opened its mouth and blasted fire at them. Rehamonn leaped for Evyn, pushing him out of the way just in time.
"That didn't work either!"
"Captain Obvious strikes again," she remarked drolly. She began weaving the signs of some arcane magic summoning, but before she could activate the spell the two heard a shout. They turned to see Bener sprinting down the hill, blood-hued cloak flowing in the high wind, holding up one arm to shield her face from the gritty flying sand.
"Stop it! It's still feeding off your magic!" she screamed again. "It will only feed off your attacks and turn them back to you!" She leaped out of the way of a fireball launched her way by the thing, which cackled again, seeming to find her amusing.
"What do we do, then?" yelled back Evyn in dismay. The monster began flapping its wings, stirring up more wind, so he couldn't hear Bener's response at first. Finally her faint voice drifted over to them.
"The summoner has to banish it!"
"The same way you would extinguish the fire before it burned through!"
"Oh… right." Rehamonn pulled herself straight, muttering to herself. "'To quench the flame, ye shall give it such magic that it cannot take and it shall smother.' But I gave it my strongest spell, and it absorbed it without a problem! How am I supposed to give it more magic than that?"
Evyn had an answer ready. "We'll work together!" Gripping the hilt of his unsheathed sword in his right hand and the end of the blade in his left, he formed a loop with his arms and the sword and placed it over Rehamonn's head, encircling her. She recoiled a little from the touch of his left hand and tried to duck out of his arms.
"What the heck do you think you're doing?" she yelled. He held her arm firmly in the steel grip of his left hand and with his right, guided the sword to rest on the palm of her right hand. The point nicked the skin.
"I'll feed you magic! Now give it all you got!"
Rehamonn gulped, closing her eyes. She could feel the magic coursing through his sword into her, more than doubling her power. Opening her eyes, Rehamonn hunted through her memory for a magical phrase that could release all of this magic at once. She doubted there was one; even the legendary mage Tavanna Telrunya had probably never had this much magic to work with.
"So I'll improvise," she muttered, then grinned mischievously. She looked up at the monster, staring unafraid into the unblinking void behind its eyes. "So you want magic?" she shouted to it. It appeared taken aback. "Have magic, then!" With all the force of her will, she focused on forcing the combined magic of herself and Evyn into that void, commanding the raw power to fill and overfill it.
It still wasn't quite enough. Gripping the sword tightly with her hand, feeling the blade slicing her palm, Rehamonn grinned again and pulled at the magic Evyn was still feeding her, though she had no idea where he was finding it all. All the magic she got, she channeled straight to the being until it howled with pain, trying to blink or look away. It was too late. The beast began to glow from an overdose of raw magic, as its howls became low groans. And still Rehamonn took the power Evyn was giving her. Where was the man finding all this energy, anyway?
Bener blinked, not quite sure what she was seeing. But it seemed like Evyn and Rehamonn were blurring at the edges, shifting and dissolving. Come to think of it, an effect that she had previously attributed to the sandstorm was making a large area of the beach they were standing on blur and run together. Then she remembered something, and panicked.
"Rehamonn! Evyn! Stop!" Bener screamed, running towards them. She reached the section of blurred reality around her friends, and suddenly found herself rebounding off thin air where the blurring ended. She stood up and ran at it again, this time breaking through with a massive effort.
It felt like running on quicksand. The ground shifted and sank away from her feet, and sometimes – very bizarrely – above her head. The sky swirled in clouds of discordant colors, and a musical yellow taste filled her mouth. Now she was running on snow, then toiling across a baking desert, then, in a blast of humid air, shoving through dense greenery. The only fixed point was the demonic creature, which was writhing in pain and seemed to be rushing away from them at intense speeds, but staying still, or maybe they were keeping pace with it.
Even as Bener focused on it as a point of reference in this crazy place, it dissolved into a swirling pile of ash that was carried swiftly away on a wind that sounded like purple trees. Its shape hung in the air as a red, black, and gold glow, then exploded, sweeping Bener, Evyn, and Rehamonn off their feet in an explosion of pure thaumaturgical force.
All was still.
Rehamonn came to, very slowly, as she gradually began feeling someone frantically shaking her and a voice calling from far away.
"Huh?" Rehamonn sat bolt upright, groaning as a dull pain pounded in her head. "Oh, man, magical whiplash. I'm gonna feel that tomorrow… ack, who am I kidding? I'm feeling it now." Glancing down at her right palm, she saw what seemed to be a scar. If she hadn't known that it was caused by Evyn's sword slicing her palm open just then, she would have sworn that it had been there for years, it was so well healed. On closer inspection it turned out to have been seared shut. The sword itself lay nearby on the ground with a fresh bloodstain on the blade, which at least took care of the theory that she had lain in a magical sleep for decades.
Rehamonn almost had a heart attack when, with a loud clank, a red and black gauntlet seemed to rise out of the sand and clasp around the sword. Then she saw Evyn get up, shaking sand off himself and coughing.
"Oh, man, I've got sand in my armor again! That's going to take forever to get out," he groaned, pulling off his left gauntlet and emptying it onto the ground before replacing it on his arm. Rehamonn shuddered inadvertently, but stopped as she caught Bener's look.
"Well, all present, alive, and accounted for?" Bener said, sounding falsely cheerful. "You know, we were all so amazingly lucky, it's just not even funny."
"Yeah, seriously. That's the last time I try that spell. And when we get back, I'm going to burn Aisia's Grimoire and throw the ashes down a very deep chasm."
"That's not what I meant." Bener fixed Rehamonn with an intense violet gaze. "Mixing two different kinds of magic is extremely dangerous, and releasing raw power outside of the focus of a specific spell is even more so. In this case, it achieved the desired effect, but not without a serious distortion of reality around you."
Evyn gulped. "Could… we have been…?"
"No, probably not killed. But you could have ended up with your minds merged together, or you could have been trapped on an astral plane or mutated into something really nasty. And if the spell hadn't worked, one of us would almost certainly have been possessed by the demon."
Rehamonn and Evyn both turned pale. Bener plowed on resolutely.
"And the worst part is, this never would have happened if you two hadn't always been arguing!" Bener, normally the quiet, amiable peacekeeper, was flushed with anger and speaking through clenched teeth in a voice that was almost a shout. Rehamonn bit her lip, and Evyn looked sheepishly at his feet. When they looked back at Bener, she was striding away in a huff, cape billowing behind her and sand rising in puffs from each stomp of her feet. Rehamonn raised a hand halfheartedly to stop her, then dropped it back to her side.
"And I don't want to talk to either of you again until you can tell me you've made up – and mean it!" Bener yelled back over her shoulder. With a final burgundy swirl, she disappeared over the top of the dune.
Evyn and Rehamonn looked at each other, then quickly looked away. When Evyn spoke, it was in a hesitant and halting tone, which was unusual for someone usually so self-assured.
"Um… Reha, I…"
"You've never called me Reha before."
"Well, I did once… remember?"
"Um, no, I don't think…"
"But it was a long time ago, and it was right after I put the dragonet in your bedsheets, so I wouldn't be surprised if you don't remember." A smile crept sneakily over his face. "You were so scared you threw yourself into my arms when I opened the door."
"I was mad!" protested Rehamonn. "I was trying to throttle you!"
"Are you sure? 'Cuz the way I remember you were gibbering with-"
"I WAS NOT!" Rehamonn glared at him, breathing heavily. "And I most certainly do not remember you calling me Reha then, so the point is irrelevant." She crossed her arms and glared.
Evyn drew breath to answer, then sighed. "Oh, what's the use?"
Rehamonn appeared taken aback.
"This is what makes Bener so mad. We can't even apologize to each other without arguing. And there's no point pursuing the matter. If you remember being angry instead of panicking, then you're probably right. I'm not in your head there with you, so I don't know." He shrugged. "You win. Now can we get back to apologizing?"
She spent one more second in stunned silence, then narrowed her eyes skeptically.
"You're teasing me again, aren't you?"
"What?" Evyn was shocked.
"You're just trying to goad me into feeling guilty and confessing to something! It figures. You've always been a sneaky, backhanded lying jerk."
Evyn put his face in his hands, but before he could reply they both heard a sharp scream. They both looked up, startled, at the place where Bener had disappeared. Abandoning all thought of a quarrel, they both raced up the side of the dune, tripping and sliding where the dry sand gave under their feet.
When they caught up with Bener, they found her rigid with panic, staring fixedly at some point in the distance.
"Bener, what's wrong? Are you having a vision?" Rehamonn grabbed the other girl's shoulders and shook her violently. "What do you see?"
Bener said nothing, but pointed with a shaking finger. Rehamonn and Evyn turned to look…