Noelle Katherine Hanama lay on her sweetheart Ian MacGregor's lap, grinning as he attempted to braid bits of her long, tangled, dark brown hair. The fire next to them cast flickering shadows across his face; the warmth felt wonderful in the chill night. Noelle shifted slightly to a more comfortable position. Above her, Ian stuck his tongue out slightly as he concentrated, and slowly, a loose braid took shape. The girl giggled. 'He can make all manner of really neat things with metal, but a simple braid... Then again, it took me forever to learn how...' She let her thoughts drift until the mechanic's hands on her hair fell still.
"Sarin?" his voice asked. Noelle opened her eyes and saw the Kascharan leader, Sarin, standing over them. His face was hard, his eyes haunted. He looked like he'd seen a ghost.
The human girl sat up and looked at him. "Sit down, Sarin," she ordered gently. "What happened?"
Sarin shook his head. "Rianadra?"
"Sit down," Noelle said again. "You're making my neck hurt. I'll tell you what I can then." Sarin obligingly sat, still looking as though he was a thousand miles away. The human girl reached out and touched his hand. "Tell me what you want to know, and I'll tell you what I can."
"Who is she?" Sarin asked. "Rianadra, I mean. Why does her name make me feel...? I don't know the word for it."
The human girl sighed. Jacan, the Wyvern who had changed everything, had repressed almost everyone's memories of their previous lives. And now, there was only one way to bring them back to the surface. A long, tedious way, but one that had proven successful on more than one occasion. "Well... You know that she's the Xchellen, right?"
"Right... That bastard took your language..." Noelle rubbed her temples. "Your leader. The Kascharon word for 'king' or 'queen', depending on the gender, is Xchellen. Rianadra is that leader. Her father, Eradan, was Xchellen before her, and, were she somehow made incapable of continuing her reign, Cri would take over as next in the bloodline."
"It's a worthless title, then," Sarin commented darkly. "Queen of the Kascha... it's like it was made to mock us."
"Not in the old world, it wasn't."
"The old world, right," the Kascha muttered, a mocking tone to his voice that hadn't been there before.
Noelle sighed. "Look... I know it's hard to believe now, but there was a different world before this one. One where the Kascha were free. You had your periods of trial, yes, but you overcame them! You were free, and you were one of the most powerful races on Amayra!" Ian grinned as she waved her hands around for emphasis. "You and your twin, Ibadar, met Rianadra and Cri when you left your hometown of Elmcourt after Dylena was kidnapped. I won't go into detail about that now, but suffice to say that you got her back... While you fought alongside Rianadra, the two of you became very close."
Sarin hissed quietly at the mention of Ibadar, but he continued to listen. He was beginning to believe her... but, even more than that, he was beginning to remember the events she spoke of as though they were more than stories. 'Rianadra,' he tasted the name again as Noelle gathered herself. Sarin dragged himself back to the present before she spoke again. 'Try and figure this out later, Sarin.'
Finally, the girl went on as gently as she could, "You invited Rianadra and Cri to come to Elmcourt and stay with you after the last battle. She did, and Cri and Kyre came, too. You stayed together for twenty years..." She sighed and rubbed her temples again; Ian reached up and massaged her neck. Noelle grinned at him and went on, "Then, you joined her and some of your old friends, Roaxon, Arnelle, Etsen, and the others, to fight an army of undead. You... You met the ghost of her father there Sarin. Do you remember him?"
"Eradan..." Sarin muttered.
"Right." Noelle hid her elation that he'd remembered a name without her having to tell him. It was progress, and maybe he'd remember more if she gave him the chance. "What do you remember about him? Anything?"
Sarin shook his head. "Tall... red hair... good man, I'm sure."
"Rianadra always claimed he was the greatest leader the Kascha had ever had," Noelle added. "She always said there was no way she could ever compare to him."
"I remember now..." Sarin ran a scarred hand through his long, red hair. "But I don't at the same time..."
"Do you remember how you felt when she'd say that?"
"I... I think I do..." Sarin muttered. "Continue your story. Maybe that will help."
Noelle nodded. "Well... When you met Eradan, he asked you if Rianadra was your ethra, your mate. You told him that, although you cared very deeply for her, you hadn't spoken to her yet. Eradan just said that he didn't want her to wait forever... Then, you almost lost her after the battle of the Autumnsea..." The girl sighed, and Ian moved from rubbing her neck to her shoulders. "I don't know how much later this happened, but... It was winter, and you heard her leave your home late one night. You followed her to an old outpost, where... You told her everything you'd been meaning to tell her for twenty years, Sarin. You told here there that you loved her."
"I... I did?"
Noelle nodded. "You did, Sarin. And she... Rianadra said the same thing to you that night."
Sarin's eyes went wide with amazement, "But I've never even met her..."
"Not in this world, no. But you've known her for a very long time."
"Well, if I wasn't sure, my mind is made up now," Sarin stood, "We have to go to Rianadra, and the rest of our people."
Noelle and Ian stood as well; the mechanic smiled down at her as the Kascha left. "Tha' was well done, wee lass," he told her. Noelle nodded her thanks, although she did look a tad proud of herself. He snorted and kissed the top of her head. "We should probably find Hanama, figure out what's going on."
"Right," the brown-haired girl agreed, throwing her partially-braided hair over her shoulder. "Let's go."
It took the company over two months of hard travel, and the weather had turned bitterly cold by the time they reached their destination. Once the city of Rockfall, the camp where most of the Kascha now lived in squalor sat between two mountains and two massive walls. A tower stood in the center of the city, separated from the rest by a metal fence topped with spikes.
Sarin knelt on a small, treeless outcropping, staring down into the city while the rest of his company waited below in the forest. He couldn't help but compare this place to the one he'd escaped from after the Wyverns had taken his twin. This one was far larger and marginally better kept, although the Kascha knew the conditions of his people inside would be no better than his "home" city. He leaned a little further forward, pulling the hood he wore to hide his hair down. 'There's no way in but the gate,' he realized, eyeing the only break in the walls that he could see. 'How…?'
A presence at his side distracted Sarin momentarily from his thoughts. He turned to see Kallyn's nightwalker friend crouched next to him. Kyre's red eyes were glued to the city below, and his hands trembled a little. "This… is horrifying," he whispered.
"Indeed," the Kascha agreed softly. "And the place I came from was no better. I can only imagine what the inside looks like." He sighed and tried to run his hand through his hair. "But for now, we have to figure out exactly how we're going to get inside. I don't see any other ways in, and I can guarantee that they'll be watching every nook and cranny of that place!"
"It's odd that even with Jacan's control gone that they still guard the place," Kyre noted. He thought for a minute, watching the gate open for a small company surrounding a group of prisoners. His eyes widened and he gripped Sarin's elbow. "That gives me an idea." The Kascha glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. "My comrades and I could lead a few or even all of you inside with no problem, if you posed as prisoners."
"They're going to hate that," the redhead muttered. He, too, had noticed the group that the gate had opened for. "But it could work."
"We should bring in a task force," Kyre said, "no more than twenty, preferably smaller. A larger group would be difficult to explain."
"Let's go back to the others," the redhead said. "We'll bring the idea to them and see who volunteers to go. Should any of the humans join us? I'm sure Noelle will want to, as will Ian."
"Might look odd," Kyre said thoughtfully. "Best we keep it as Kascha, and better bring a child or two to make it believable. Once we're inside, though, we might find another way in."
"Right. Let's go back."
Ian, Noelle, and Ketse were waiting with Kallyn and Dylena when the two returned. "Well, what did you see?" Ketse asked as soon as Sarin and Kyre landed on the ground.
"The place looks pretty horrific," Sarin said simply. Under his breath, he added a sarcastic mutter, "Home sweet home."
"We're going to take a group of Kascha in under the guise of prisoners," Kyre told the assembled group. "Don't worry, I'll be sure the 'guards' are all my most trustworthy."
"So we can' go?" Ian asked. Noelle shushed him, but Kyre and Sarin still overheard.
The Kascharan leader shrugged. "We'll see if there's another way in once we're inside, but, no, most likely not."
"So..." Noelle thought for a minute. "Who is going?" She looked around. "And how are you getting in?"
"I will lead several Kascha inside," Kyre explained, jerking a thumb back in the direction of the gate. "I will claim to have found them hiding out in a cave."
"How is that going to go for us?" a soft voice asked. "They don't exactly deal nicely with runaways or escapees in there." Everyone turned to see Cri standing behind them. "Remember, I lived here. I don't know how it is in the other places, but here..." He shuddered.
"What do you propose, then, Cri?" Kyre asked. He went to kneel in front of the young healer so they could look eye-to-eye with each other.
The boy sighed. "Honestly, I don't see any other way," he admitted, wincing. "We'll just have to be prepared for whatever they dole out."
"Then it is with dread I inform you that we need to take a child with us," Kyre said. Cri's entire face turned white, and he stared at the nightwalker in complete disbelief. The nightwalker touched his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Cri, but to make it believable, we must-"
"I'll do it!"
Cri whirled around to see one of the only children in their company standing there, her bright blue wings folded tight against her back. "What? No!" He turned back to Kyre, desperation in his eyes. "She can't! Kyre, why do we need children?"
"A group of only adults might arouse suspicion," Kyre said sadly. "I've seen it before. But if we have a child, they'll assume it was only a familial group." The healer looked away, refusing to admit what he knew was true. "I'm sorry, little Saphia," Kyre said, still with his hand on Cri's shoulder. "I wish there were another way..."
The little girl puffed her chest out and shook her head. "I want to help!"
Kyre sighed deeply but smiled in spite of the horror he would have to inflict. "Pick out ten more," he ordered, adding as gently as he could, "and chain them up."
Dylena glanced at her brother, held her hand up. Kallyn did, as well. "Eight more," the green-haired girl said. "Dangerous, maybe, but worth it."
"I'll go as a guard," Xila said from behind the group. She'd been kept bound and under guard at all times; now, she stood tied to a tree. Asche stood nearby, a dagger held to her throat just in case she tried anything.
"I think not," Kyre said simply. "I'm only taking those I trust."
"I'll go, as well," Saphia's mother volunteered, stopping whatever Xila would have responded to Kyre with.
Cri held up a shaking hand. "And me."
A few more Kascha volunteered, making nine in total. Sarin stepped into the circle, bringing the number of ten. "Well, what should we do?"
Kyre picked out a few nightwalkers who were especially loyal to him, gave them detailed instructions, and then had them bind the Kascha's wrists with three Kascha to a guard. Sarin bit back a hiss when the guard locked irons around his wrists, but otherwise, he didn't fight it. He heard similar sounds coming from the other Kascha around him and only wished he could keep his sister close to him. Finally, though, they were ready, and he had no more time to think about it. Kyre stood at the head of their little group. Each guard gave the all clear, and they left for the city below.
The group marched their way toward the gate. The nightwalker guard there commanded them to halt. Kyre held up a hand, and each of his men stopped and yanked on the chains binding each group of "prisoners". The gate guard stared down at them, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What's all this?"
"We found a little family group hiding out in a cave," Kyre explained calmly. "This is the nearest settlement, so we brought them here."
"Family group?" The guard peered at them closely, studying each Kascha's face. Cri hissed fearfully and ducked his head. Thankfully, the guard's gaze passed over him. "They don't look related..."
"How can you tell?" Kyre laughed. "They all look the same to me!"
Kallyn snarled under her breath, but the nightwalker guard tugged hard on the chains around her wrists. "Be quiet!" Luckily no one else gave them a second glance.
"Well, bring 'em on in."
"Apologies, I've never visited this settlement before," Kyre said. "Is there a barracks, or a cabin...?"
The gate guard laughed. "Yeah, stop by supply and give 'em each a blanket. After that they can find their own wretched hole to crawl into. With any luck, they'll die quickly and then they won't be our problem."
"Nowhere in particular for runaways?" Kyre inquired as he waved the group through the gate. As Cri passed by his guard, he lowered his head and hoped desperately to avoid notice; he'd been skipped over once, but he didn't expect his luck to last. Kyre kept talking, although every word tasted foul, "At the other settlements I've been to, they don't exactly treat runaways kindly. What are you going to do?"
"Why, do you have some runaway?"
"It only stands to reason that they ran away from somewhere."
"Then give 'em a good whipping or something," the guard said dismissively. "Y'know whatever you want."
Kyre nodded and they made it inside unscathed. Cri, at the middle, breathed a quick sigh of relief. 'Thank the Four Winds, they didn't recognize me...'
To keep up the appearance of returning prisoners, Kyre marched his group to the supply shack. There, a surly Kascha handed out blankets, if one could truly call them that. Each was a tiny, threadbare, torn, and filthy excuse for a blanket. While they waited in line, a nightwalker guard dragged a dead Kascha into the main room. Kyre winced at the sight, and behind him, Sarin gagged. Dylena, chained next to Saphia, quickly stepped in front of the little girl before she could see. The guard, ignoring their reactions, dropped the corpse's blanket back on the pile, then he hauled the body into a back room. The Kascha handing out blankets didn't even bat an eye.
"Get a move on, prisoners!" Kyre's most loyal follower shouted once each "prisoner" had received a blanket. He had seen the sorrow in his leader's eyes and spared him the pain of having to torment the Kascha any further.
The guard holding Dylena, Saphia, and another female, allowed enough slack so Dylena could hold the little girl's hand. He covered this leeway by yanking on the lead chain and dragging them after the others. "You heard him! Move!"
The group of ten moved off, moving with the dispirited shuffle of those who know they've been beaten. At the entrance to the town where the Kascha lived, the large core of the circular settlement, Kyre undid the Kascha's bonds. "Someone wait here by the gate, and we'll bring you news when we can. My friends and I will hold your weapons for you," Kyre whispered to Sarin and Kallyn, indicating the two nightwalkers who stood nearby carrying two short swords and Kallyn's massive blade. "But in the meantime, if you get into trouble, use these."
Kyre's right-hand man produced two small, roughly-made blades, not even large enough to be called daggers. Kallyn sighed, but she didn't turn her nose up at the blade once she held it. "Thank you, Kyre," she whispered. The others echoed her thanks, then they vanished into the circle.
Cri paused for just a second, looking up at the dark tower that resided over the entire city. Somewhere inside there, in a mockery of a throne room, sat his sister. "Hala…" he whispered once, then he followed the others.