Annika could feel the moment her life was taken from her. It wasn’t painful, at least not in the conventional sense. But it was uncomfortable. Her hand was stretched out toward an altar in the middle of the tent. It was no longer necessary. The ritual had been performed, and her purpose fulfilled. She stared at the flickering, prismatic light as it danced upon the ceiling of the tent. It was almost as beautiful as the thing that reflected the light emanating from the hanging lanterns around her and those in the tent.
Her hand fell to her side and she dropped to sit on the white down sofa in the center of the tent.
“Is that it?” asked the middle-aged man with the grizzled beard that stood nearby, his eyes fixated on the thing she had conjured upon the altar. “It’s done, then?”
Annika nodded. “Yes, General,” she replied.
She had done her part exactly as she had been instructed. The strange floating form refracted the nearby lantern light in such a way that it amplified it. Bright little stars danced upon the inside of the tent. It was comforting, not unlike staring quietly into a fire.
“You’re certain?” he asked again, inspecting the void that hung in the air above the altar.
“Outworld lies yonder. Do not touch it, or all was for naught. But it is ready for the Twinning.”
“Brilliant,” the General replied. He turned to the soldier standing behind him. “The void has been manifested. Have the Augurs prepare for the Twinning, and send a wyvern to Tyrant’s Fall. Inform the King.”
With a nod and a bow, the soldier turned on his heel and left the tent. The General turned toward her.
“You’ve done good, Annika Freia. The King will remember your name and honor your kin and your Clan,” he assured her. “History will tell of your tale.”
Annika had known that, of course. The shimmering void that floated above the altar before her was no common thing. If history held true, such a thing hadn’t been conjured in all of Ayndir since the Great Dragon pulled the lands from the oceans, and none were entirely certain how long ago that was. Ten thousand years? Twenty?
But communion with the Elder Law always came at a cost. Some lost sight or the ability to hear. Others lost limbs. But for the strongest, most powerful negotiations with the Elder Law, it cost lives. Annika might’ve lived to see the dawn, but longer? It was doubtful.
The summoning of the void was just one feat– the Twinning was far more complicated and asked more of the Elder Law than even the void, and would likely cost every last remaining Augur their lives to complete.
She looked up at the General. Allanan Borou was normally a gruff man, with little time for pleasantries. Seeing him look in wonder into the void amused her.
“This is Outworld then? It’s dark,” he commented.
Annika took a moment to peer over into the void. She found she had trouble focusing, a side effect of her communion. She’d never immersed herself so deeply with the Elder Law before. Few ever had.
She smiled at the thought that a King had required her to give her life to provide his ambitions, but Annika had done something worthy of the gods.
Would Taydir recognize that when she entered the Well of Souls? Would he honor her and keep her whole for her next life, or would he despise her for daring to pretend at a god’s power and dilute her very being?
Within the shimmering void, fractal lights shone forth, but there wasn’t much to see. Flat, black stone with a solid line of an odd shade of yellow. Certainly it was dark through the void, but not as dark as it should have been, considering it was night. It was though a light shone down upon it… or many lights. Still, there wasn’t much to see.
Another light suddenly began to grow brighter and… something passed by the void on the other side. It went by quickly, but Annika could see briefly that it had wheels. Not like a carriage’s wheels, but similar.
“Well of Souls, was that an Outworlder?” Borou asked.
Oddly, Annika didn’t get the impression the thing was alive. It moved, but not how something living might move. But she wasn’t all that interested in what lay on the other side of that void. That was Borou’s business once the Twinning was completed. At that moment, Annika had other priorities.
“General Borou,” Annika asked. “I would see my sister now.”
For a brief moment, Borou’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to speak, but held his tongue. The General was a veteran of five wars, and held the ear of the King himself. A commoner that rose to become the head of the collective Embrayyan forces. He was not one to be told what to do.
On any other day, he’d likely have taken the back of his hand to her for being so presumptuous. But Annika was no longer a mere Augur. Her actions that day gave her a standing higher even than he.
“Aye,” he said. He turned to leave the tent.
“General?” Annika asked just as he reached the flap. He turned back to regard her.
“You’re a brutish man. Fat, rude, and even after a bath you smell like pig shit,” she said. “But you are a man of honor. I expect my sister to receive the same veneration you would give of any fellow noble when I have joined my mother in the Taydir’s Well.”
To his credit, Borou grew a wide smile. “You’re a girl of spirit, Annika Freia. You have my word I’ll protect Sizilen as though she were my own.”
“See to it that you do, General,” Annika replied.
Borou laughed. “Aye. I will.”
With that, he left the tent. Annika looked over into the void. Her ears began to perk as a sharp growl emerged from the void, and for a moment she feared a beast might reach through and take her before she had a chance to see Sizilen. But instead she witnessed another light grow, and this time what passed by her view was not as small as the first. It was large, red and white. It pulled a large white box behind it. No, it was no Outworlder. It had to be a carriage of some fashion. But with no horses or running birds, she could not fathom how it was pulled. Perhaps a beast running with it upon it’s back?
She could hear steps moving up to the tent and her attention was drawn away from the void just as a redheaded woman entered. Annika smiled at her sister as she gingerly looked around the tent. She had a black smudge on her cheek and her fingers were stained with charcoal. She had obviously been drawing.
“Annika,” Sizilen greeted. She looked to the Void in wonder, but soon tore her gaze away from it and back to her sister. “It’s… it’s done then?”
Annika nodded. “It is. Outworld lies yonder.” She pointed to the Void.
“How long?” Sizilen asked.
“Long enough to share my last hours with my sister. Will you stay with me?” Annika asked.
Sizilen looked down. “Of course I will,” she said.
“What were you drawing?”
Sizilen walked over to Annika’s sofa and sat next to her. She picked up a leather satchel from her side and began pulling out parchment. She laid out some drawings on the white sofa, smudging it with charcoal.
“Sorry,” Sizilen said. The sofa was expensive.
“I’m sure they’ll forgive you under the circumstances.” She picked up one of the drawings and looked at it. It was a landscape drawing of the hill they currently sat atop. The spot the King had chosen for the campaign into Outworld. Mercer’s Mound. It was the place the last king of the former dynasty had died, thus putting an end to the Amzi’s dynasty of tyrants.
Sizilen’s drawing showed an aerial view of the wide open fields running over to the Celeph River, and in its center, a hill marked by three outcroppers that towered over it. Annika smiled at her.
“You’ve been spending time with a rider, haven’t you? To see us as the sky does.”
Sizilen blushed briefly, but soon her embarrassment was soon replaced with a growing scowl. “What else would I be doing while my sister kills herself? I needed the distraction.”
Annika placed the drawing down and looked to Sizilen. She could see the anger in her sister’s eyes. But it wasn’t as great as her fear. For some reason, Annika could understand that intuitively. She wondered if it was because the two of them only had each other growing up, or if she had been gifted with some greater intuition as a result of her communion.
Regardless, starting a fight was not what she wanted to do with her last hours with her sister. She wanted to laugh, play, talk. And she wanted to tell her she loved her. She wanted to talk about good memories of growing up in Freia, the few they had in that city. Annika was thirteen when her mother died, but Sizilen was only four. For five years the two had to keep each other fed, clothes and safe from danger. Sizilen might not have lasted a sixth year if they hadn’t been adopted by a kindly man that recognized Annika’s connection to the Elder Law and helped her to foster it while providing for them.
She placed a hand on Sizilens and said nothing. She only looked into Sizilen’s eyes and smiled until the scowl faded away and Sizilen looked down.
“I’m sorry, I know we’ve already discussed this. I just… wish it didn’t have to be you,” Sizilen said.
“I wanted it to be me, Siz,” she explained. “With father–”
“Father’s just letting this happen too!”
“He is respecting my decision, Sizilen. And you know the position he is in right now.”
“What, that of a gilded cage of his own making that he must rely on his daughters to rescue him from?”
“He is a guest of the King,” Annika said.
“He is a prisoner of the King,” Sizilen responded, pulling her hand away from her sister’s grasp. “And he’s made slaves of us.”
“None of that was his doing, Sizilen!” Annika exclaimed. “Do not forget why he is there. We owe it to him.” She released Sizilen’s hand. “I do not wish for my last moments with my sister to be full of… of debate and argument. I want your last memories of me to be…” She deflated. “To be happy.”
Sizilen’s indignant expression suddenly softened. She looked as though she had been physically struck. “I’m sorry. I know he is a good man,” she said softly. “And it was my fault that–” she began to cry.
Annika leaned forward. “He does not hold you responsible, Sizilen. But we must do what we can to help him, and that means I must do as the King requests, and you must continue your education under him.”
“I know,” she said. “But to annex the Outworld? To take the fight against the demons to the Outworld? There’s nothing else to call it than arrogant ambition.” She looked into the Void. “Do they know we are coming? Will they prepare?”
Annika shook her head. “Outworld is not like Ayndir, Sizilen. Part of the reason the Void was so difficult to open is because there is no Elder Law there to latch on to. The Great Dragon took it from them when he destroyed the World Tree. They shouldn’t expect us. That will work in our favor. It will give us the time we need to establish a foothold in Outworld.” She smiled. “There’s nothing stronger than Embrayyan steel.”
“Except Borou’s body odour,” Sizilen commented.
Annika laughed. “You are my sister.”
Sizilen sighed. “I am,” she said. She turned to her. “Let’s not speak of this any longer. What would you like to talk about?”
“Well I suppose I should ask about the Empyrean Rider that you’ve obviously been friendly with.”