Ever Darkening By Janeal Falor


I’m the one chosen to save the entire world from evil. Even at the age of ten, I know enough for that to give me knots of tension.

“Are you still sure I’m the one?” I ask the Astra, our leader, as she prunes her struggling vine climbing the side of her cabin.
Ever Darkening
Ever Darkening By Janeal Falor


She stops her clipping to give me her full attention instead of just part of it, as she has the rest of my lesson on good and evil. “More certain than when you were called. You are meant to destroy the last of the evil in this world, Kaylyn.”

I rub the hilt of my sword—a burden from the moment I received it. Someday, when I’m grown, it will be full size, and I will have to slice into men and women. Not as an evil murderer but as a bringer of good and peace. “It just seems like such a big task.”

She places a hand on my shoulder, strong despite her many wrinkles. “It is, my child. But you have it within you to accomplish great things.” She returns to cutting back the vine. “It’s like this plant. It was growing before, but after I cut it back, it will thrive. It needs conflict. You are just like it. The harder things get for you, the greater you will become.”

The last thing I want is to be cut down. But the Astra smiles so sweetly, and I have learned a lot in the last four years. Somehow I’ll make it happen.

“Besides, we’re giving you all the training and power we can to aid you.” She cuts off another long vine. “Now run along and play. Stars know you don’t have as much time for it as you should.”

“Yes, Astra.”

I hurry as fast as when I’m training, searching for Jorrin and Marsa, my two very best friends. It doesn’t take long to find them in the forest on the mountain. Marsa is sitting on a log, giggling, while Jorrin looks like he’s dancing around the grove of trees.

“You’re just in time,” Marsa says, her blonde hair twirling as she looks toward me. “Jorrin’s going to catch a squirrel.”

Thank the moon the Astra released me from lessons when she did! “What will you do after you catch it?”

“Let it go, of course,” he replies, his smile wide.

“Perfect. Why haven’t you caught one yet, then?”

Even though he’s only a year older than me, he puffs out his chest like he’s one of the grown Zophas warriors. He waits a moment, and we’re all quiet until a squirrel comes near. It never takes long to find them in the forest that’s around our home.

I laugh as Jorrin dives for the squirrel and misses by inches. He grins at me as if the whole point of his actions is to get me to laugh. Something warms in me then. Something strong and unfamiliar and not entirely just friendship.

As he jumps to try and catch the squirrel again, Marsa leans over and whispers, “Someday, I’m going to marry him.”

The new feeling within my heart clamps down with twisting pain that juts through me. It’s fine if she marries him. The new feeling was just our growing friendship anyway. I used some of her mother’s attention when she took me in. I can’t take her future husband’s attention as well.

“I’ll help make it happen.” My vow is even more solemn than when I promised to do my all as the one chosen to defeat evil.

“You’re not just my best friend,” Marsa says. “You’re like my sister. The best sister ever.”

I grin at her, the last of the pain that clamped around my heart releasing. We’ll be together forever because of it.

Jorrin strolls out from a group of trees, gently petting a squirrel held close to him. “Guess they like it better when you ask nicely instead of jumping after them.”

“You did it,” I exclaim.

He gives a sheepish grin. “I did offer him some nuts.”

“That just means you’re smart,” Marsa says.

As Jorrin comes closer, he holds the squirrel out to me. “Would you like to hold it?”

The clamping in my chest is back, fiercer than ever, but I temper it with the knowledge that I’m helping my best friend. She did call me her sister. Sisters we will be. “After Marsa.”

“Really?” Marsa is already reaching to pet the squirrel. “He’s such a cute little guy.”

For a moment, Jorrin’s expression darkens into something hidden and wholly unfamiliar. But then the expression is gone, quicker than it came. Everything is good. Or as good as it’s supposed to be with evil still in the world. The Astra is right, however. I can do my job as the chosen one. I will defeat all evil and leave the world a perfectly good place for everyone, including Marsa and Jorrin. I will fulfill my duty as the chosen one.





Chapter Two


Seven Years Later





Being the one chosen to kill the entire evil population is a burden heavier than sin. Not that I know what it’s like to sin, but I imagine this is worse. Killing is never taken lightly, even when sanctioned by our leaders, the same leaders who chose me to carry it out. I’ve lost count of how many Malryx I’ve executed for that exact reason. And now there is only one left. Only one evil being. My purpose of being is almost complete.

As I sit alone on the mountain, daylight filtering through the trees, I’m not quite sure what to think about my task almost being accomplished. It’s one thing to know Malryx murder, kidnap, steal, and do numerous other things, and even to see them do so in person. But to be the one in charge of eliminating such people? It’s a lot to take in.

They’ve been around as long as anyone can remember, until I finish them off. Even after all these years, the talk I had with the Astra still comes to me in perfect detail. Our talk doesn’t seem to make the pressure any easier to handle, no matter how hard I think on it.

I’ve spent enough time wondering about it, though. It’s time to head back to the others and find out if there is any news on where the last Malryx is so I can track him down. He’s been cunning, giving us trouble finding him. Hopefully, that will end soon.

I head toward the top of the mountain, wondering who will be there and what news they’ll have. I flex my power out as I go—a habit no longer needed since only one Malryx is left, and he wouldn’t dare show himself around so many of us. It would mean certain death for him. Still, I stretch out my Zophasken. Looking for danger has become such a habit, I can’t help it.

It flows over the land, finding nothing but the plants and animals as usual, but at the top of the mountain where I’m headed are a good dozen sparks of light. The spots of goodness against my own power are soothing. I focus on them as I move closer, but as my power expands outward, something isn’t right. There’s a flicker of darkness. Of evil.

How can that be? I thought no one knew where he was. Something must have happened in the few hours I took for myself—at Showna’s command. The leader of our band of fighters was insistent I needed the time. Now I’m not so sure it was the thing needed most. I move faster, legs straining, familiar as the hurried pace may be.

Darkness draws nearer to the mountaintop, slinking closer to home where there's only light while I approach. Fallen branches crack beneath my feet as I race there. Maybe someone is bringing the last Malryx. The last evil man. Morphrac. But the thought is in vain even before I think it. The darkness is alone, trailing continually nearer. No light accompanies it. Everyone is gathering just outside the cave in a bright burst of light. They must know. They must feel it coming.

Then why aren’t they doing anything?

They must be waiting for me.

But why is he coming to us after hiding for so long?

The sound of my boots grows faint as I reach our clearing. From the amount of blood soaking Showna’s tunic and pooling on the ground, she has little time left, no matter what I do. The sight stops me, and I almost fall to the stones beneath me. I tilt forward but don’t let myself go. Those gathered around her part, making a place for me, but they don’t leave her side.

They aren’t waiting for me. The bright spots are waiting for our leader, Showna, to die. My adoptive mother.

Knowing it’s too late, that it won’t do any good, I kneel down and reach out to examine her injuries.

“Leave it,” Showna croaks out.

I grab her hand instead of checking her wounds. Next to me, her daughter, Marsa, calls out, “Momma, no.” Marsa sobs. “She can fix you.”

“It’s my time.” Showna gasps for breath and looks straight at me. “And yours.”

“Momma.” Marsa’s big eyes are filled with tears, and her usually laughing mouth is cinched with pain.

My own pulse quickens, energy infusing me. And guilt. Even if the moment I’ve trained for my whole life has come, it’s wrong to be this eager for it as Showna lies dying. If I had been with her, if she hadn’t sent me away, if my moment had come sooner, she wouldn’t be leaving. “Don’t talk anymore. Save your strength. I’ll find him.”

“Good. I know your final battle will be won.” Her breathing is wet.

I don’t know which is worse, her dying or her words. That Morphrac, the last evil, the darkness coming to my home, killed her because of me.

The others shift beside us, but I don’t let them distract me. I don’t let the pain and sadness scratching at me inside. Now is not the time for distractions.

“Those of you—” Showna coughs, a hacking, pitiful sound. Someone offers a water skin, but she waves it away. “If you haven’t… given Kaylyn your power…”

“Hush now,” I say. “I’ll be fine. I’ll defeat Morphrac for you as I am. The Aster and Astra said I can do this.”

She doesn’t seem to hear me. At this point, I can’t tell if it’s intentional or delirium from blood loss. “Give Zophasken… to Kaylyn. She’s our best cha…” She draws out the word but never gets to finish it.

My throat tightens as her life withdraws. I won’t cry. Not now.

Marsa pulls Showna to her, heedless of the blood soaking her clothes. “No, Momma! Don’t leave me!”

What does one do in this situation? I’ve seen much death but never my best friend’s mother. The woman who is in almost every respect my own mother. And evil is still coming. I can feel the darkness closing in on us. There’s not much time before it’s here.

“Showna was right,” Jorrin says, his tall height empowering his words. “Kaylyn is our best chance.”

I meet his eyes, the coolness of the stone floor finally registering. He reaches down for me, his grip firm and warm as he helps me up. Once I’m standing, he doesn’t let go. Instead, he closes his other hand around mine, tender and comforting. With something else hovering just on the edge.

I’m grateful I’ve done this before so it’s a familiar process, though it doesn’t get any easier with repetition.

“My Zophasken is yours.” Jorrin’s deep voice thrums through me.

His power washes over me, his goodness flowing to me in vast waves. He’s strong. So much stronger than me. Why did the Aster and Astra not choose him for this? Not only is he one of our best fighters, but he’s also unfailingly good. Only last week, he stayed to practice with me when all the others had long since gone to bed. When we finished, he pulled out some food he’d set aside from dinner, knowing I hadn’t stopped practicing long enough to eat. And it’s not just his power that is strong but him as well. He’s tough from years of fighting.

No wonder Marsa is in love with him.

When his Zophasken grows low, I stop the flow. Still plenty of good left within him. The memory of having to defeat another Malryx after taking too much is still a powerful reminder. It’s not a mistake I’ll ever make again.

He gives my hand a quick squeeze before moving away. His power hums within me, sunny and comforting, as it merges with mine. The others take turns coming to me as quickly as they can, relinquishing their powers to me so rapidly, it’s hard to keep track of them all. It only takes a moment to get through the last of those who haven’t already gifted their Zophasken.

Not one of them hesitates to share what they know I’ll need. Perhaps if Showna would have also shared their powers, she’d still be with us. But the Aster and Astra insisted I am the one extra Zophasken should be given to. I am the one to finish the quest that began hundreds of years ago.

I am the one to defeat the last evil person alive.

I just don’t know why.

By the time Azleco, another Zophas, steps to me, I’m tingling with an overabundance of power. I’m not used to getting so much at once. I’ve been getting it from just a person or two at a time for years. With Marsa’s grief, I didn’t expect her to even notice us. But when Azleco finishes, Marsa is waiting her turn. Though her eyes are red-rimmed, they’re dry. She takes my hand with hers, one of the few places not marred by her mother’s blood.

“I can do this,” I say.

“I know.” Her voice cracks with grief held at bay. “My Zophasken is yours.”

And it is. Her strength rushes into me, merging with my own and all that many others have given me. Its warmth is a balm against the ache from Showna’s death, which I’ve been trying to ignore. I let the power soothe me as it slides into place. When I’ve taken some but left enough for her to stay strong, I don’t let go. Instead, I embrace her, not caring about Showna’s blood getting on me.

“I can’t lose you too,” she whispers, voice desperate.

I keep my words faint, for her ears alone as I hug her. “Nothing will happen to me, and your mother’s death won’t be in vain. I’ll defeat Morphrac. The planet will be rid of Malryx. Your mother’s dream to get rid of all evil will come true.”

She sniffs and starts crying again. I motion for someone to take my place, hoping Jorrin will, but Tavo moves forward before Jorrin has a chance. As long as someone is here to help, it will be enough. There will be time for her and me to comfort each other later. After I kill Morphrac.

I pull away, and Tavo puts an arm around her. She’ll be fine.

Something breaks close by with a loud crash.

Morphrac.

“Come out to play, my little Zophaslings,” he calls from a distance, though too close to our sanctuary for comfort. “Or did slaughtering your leader leave you too scared to face me?”

I don’t let anger rise within me, though it wants to. Instead, I channel everything I’ve been taught for the last seventeen years into what’s to come. It’s not for revenge over Showna that I’m doing this. It’s for the calling I’ve been given. It’s for her dream and the dream of those before her.

Everyone stares at me. Not frowning but not smiling either. What’s the appropriate expression for this moment? With Showna’s death and our possible victory so close together, I’m not sure. I draw my sword and settle on giving them my most determined look.

“Let us come with you and help,” Jorrin says.

Without their power, they’re more likely to be a hindrance than a help. “Thank you, but I will do this,” I say. “Stay in the cave until I get back.”

“Vitliruc,” Jorrin says.

“Vitliruc, my friend,” Marsa says.

“Vitliruc.” The others join in.

I nod in acknowledgment of their good wishes and then leave as they carry Showna’s body into the cave.

No Morphrac in sight. I stretch my Zophasken, readying it to feel the burn of his darkness as I move away from the cave. My power flows through me, dancing through every corner of my being. I stretch it away from me and to the mountain I’m on. It flows from me smoother and easier than ever, strong in its grandeur.

There’s no Malryx in the immediate area. Did he give his taunt and then run like a coward?

Something’s wrong.

As I walk away from my home, I push my power out farther, searching the area for his stain. Nothing. He’s backtracked more than when I first arrived. Why is he so anxious to get away after invading our territory in the first place? I shove my Zophasken, rippling it from me down the slope, but there’s still no sign of his taint. Just the soothing hum of nature’s neutrality.

Overhead, the sky is a perfect blue, light and clear. A few puffs of pristine clouds power across it. But far off in the distance, past the village, forests, plains, and mountains shorter than my own, the blue gives way to a faint hint of darkened sky.

Will the heavens rain down on us tonight? This, our night of mourning? And our night of celebration after I kill Morphrac? Tears for all those we’ve lost in the journey and a fresh new beginning. Fitting and possible… if I can find Morphrac before the clouds get here.

Yet, there’s nothing. The surrounding area is empty. For all his taunts and reputation, Morphrac appears to be a wimp. No doubt he’s waiting somewhere with poison darts. Or perhaps he’ll try to shoot me with an arrow from behind. I’ve lost to both of these tricks before, but I won’t stoop to the same level.

Instead, I let more of my Zophasken slide from me and pour into the cracks and shadows that evil may hide in. It billows from me, searching far past where I’m used to. Its strength tries to let loose from me, but I keep a tight grip on it lest it be uncontrolled and useless. Soon, it’ll be a natural extension of me.

I study where my power touches and try to decide where to search next. The world is laid out before me as I stand on the mountain’s peak. Air swirls around me, warmed by a false return to summer. Through the forest on the mountainside, I can see a little of the closest village far below in the valley. A stream from a nearby river flows through it. There’s a clearing, then an expanse of forest on the other side. My Zophasken moves through it all. No slithering darkness. Where could he be?

I scan the forest with both my vision and my Zophasken one last time. I can’t see far, but my power feels the lack of human life. I turn toward the other side of the mountain, my power moving across the world as I do so. A heavy, dark splotch mars the world.

There’s a reason he won’t attack me. A whole group of them.

Fool.

I whirl toward the cave where I left the others.

The trees blur as I rush by. My power snaps back in my haste, but it doesn’t matter now. I know where he’s going. He’s not there yet but will be before I can make it. I hope their combined skills are enough to fight him off until I reach them. With so little power left, they won’t know he’s coming. Why did I leave them?

Marsa. Jorrin. Tavo. Felix. Sosha. Azleco.

Am I to have their deaths on me, too?

They gave me their power, and I sped off without a thought. My legs and lungs burn, but I press on. I’ve been doing this long enough; I should have known he’d go after them. I was too caught up in my own triumph. It will be a hollow victory should he kill them before I’ve dealt his punishment. The cave and Morphrac are nearing. Almost there.

My foot catches on a rock. The ground rushes toward me. I twist, landing on my side instead of my face. Pain jars through my arm. Not broken or seriously injured. I ignore it and jump back to my feet, but evil looms close, chuckling.

I spin to face Morphrac, trying not to let my relief that he didn’t make it to the others show. His looks don’t even hint at the darkness that lies within him, scorching my Zophasken. He’s deceptively handsome, like many Malryx are. Dark hair, dark eyes. Shorter than me but muscular. A face that says, “marry me,” not “all the evil left in the world is in me.”

“Your last apprentice was bigger,” I say, hoping to buy time to catch my breath.

“He could have handled you.” His voice is smooth and rich.

“He didn’t.”

Morphrac spits. “You lie.”

“You know Zophas never lie.”

His lips thin and eyes narrow at the truth he doesn’t want to admit. Malryx never see me for the threat I am.

“You had help,” he says.

“Not for him. I dealt his punishment alone. Gelpeta, though—Showna and I took him down together.” I bend my knees. “And now it’s your turn.”

“You don’t know what you’re getting into, girl.”

“I’m ridding this world of the last scum. Peace will finally be ours.”

He grins. Not the response I usually get.

I blast him with my power, a bursting, white-hot fireball charged with good against his evil. Zophasken against his Malkine power. Then I rush at him. Our swords clang as they meet. The sound rings through the air, invigorating me, but his jabs are already slacking. Was he the leader of the Malryx only for his planning? It can’t have been for his fighting skills.

The brightness of my Zophasken is tainted as his Malkine arcs toward me. No way I’m letting his power weaken my own. I push back, my light easily overcoming his darkness. His sword falls to the ground. It hasn’t even been a full minute since our blades met.

All the years I trained. The power I was given. It must have paid off. Killing Morphrac, the last of the evil, is the easiest punishment I’ve administered. But killing is still hard, even if it’s for good. Taking a life is something the Malryx do. Except in situations as this where the Aster and Astra have passed judgment. Morphrac is responsible for the torture and death of countless innocents. If allowed to live, no doubt he’d be responsible for countless more—and who knows what other catastrophes.

I press my sword against his neck. “Are you willing to change your ways?”

He laughs.

No, then. Not unexpected, but a girl can hope.





Chapter Three


Jorrin wraps the cut on my arm. Though strong from years of fighting, his fingers are gentle. My arm may be thin, but it’s all muscle, and the blade didn’t go too deep. The wound will heal long before my emotions.

“The ceremony is starting soon,” Marsa says from behind Jorrin, pulling me back to what is about to take place. Of what never should have happened.

None of us move. My body is sore from the fight, but it’s nothing I’m not used to. Really, it’s not even bad. I’m just not sure I know how to handle what’s to come. It’s so much easier to deal with what I know. To worry about defending the people.

“I thought it would be harder to defeat Morphrac,” I say.

“Give yourself some credit,” Marsa says. “You’ve always been the best of us. That’s why you were chosen. The Aster and Astra knew you would be able to do it.”

Which is why Showna would still be alive if I’d been with her. Though as easy as he was to beat, I’m surprised Morphrac killed her. She should have at the very least been able to hold him off until I got there. “Maybe, but I guess I expected something more. I’ve fought tougher opponents.”

“He was their leader,” Jorrin says. “Maybe he only excelled at leading and not actual fighting?” But from the look in his eye, I can tell he’s not sure he believes the idea either. And it doesn’t explain how Morphrac killed Showna. The two ideas don’t go together. Though maybe there was more to their fight than I know. With both of them dead, we’ll never understand.

“We’re going to be late if we don’t leave now,” Marsa says.

That’s finally enough to get us moving. Not that they’d start without us, but one shouldn’t be late. Jorrin stands and grabs my hand to help me do the same. Of course I don’t need help standing. And as much as I appreciate the thought, having such contact seems wrong in front of Marsa. I quickly drop his hand and head down the mountain, hurrying to put distance between us. Between what should and shouldn’t be.

Still, as we walk it’s hard not to think of the two behind me, walking side by side. Jorrin with his deep brown hair, hazel eyes, and strong build next to Marsa’s light frame, big blue eyes, and blonde hair. They look good together. They make the perfect couple.

When we arrive at the village, Showna’s remains are already waiting on the unlit pyre, where we will release her soul to the stars so she can watch over us. There’s a pang in my chest. I don’t know if I want to get closer to say a proper goodbye or back away. I do know this is wrong—all wrong. She was strong. The one who worked so hard to make my destiny come to pass. Our leader. Our hope.

Jorrin stops by me, Marsa on his other side. Maybe now she’ll finally be able to feel the love that she wants. The love from him she’s been waiting for. What a morbid time to think such things, but it’s what Showna would have wanted.

It looks as if the whole village has gathered around the pyre. So many cared about Showna. Even some I don’t recognize. Word must have spread fast if those from other villages had time to get here. If they waited to do the ceremony, I’m sure the whole valley would be brimming with people to see her to the sky. Those who are here are many, but they are silent, even the young ones, as they wait and watch.

We hover at the back of the group, though most of them turn to look at us as we join. Or maybe they aren’t looking at us. Maybe just at me. I’m used to being watched often, taken in as I help rid different villages of the evil that plagues them. But it’s always easier when someone else is with me. When others help to take the watchful eyes from just me. I ignore the gazes the best I can. We’re here to remember Showna, and that’s what I’m going to do.

I let my arms hang loose at my side. The Astra and Aster are together in front of the pyre, their black ceremonial robes flowing to the ground, dotted with silver like the night sky. Both of them have long hair and crinkled faces. I remember them looking like this even when I was young and they first worked with me. They will one day grow old and die, and a new Aster and Astra will take their places, but it’s hard to think of that ever coming to pass. They are dear friends and trusted counselors, even if I don’t always like what they have to say.

“Showna was an incomparable leader and friend,” the Astra begins. Even from back here, I can see her hazel eyes are bright with unshed tears.

Her words continue, but it’s hard to focus on them. They mush like too many opponents in a fight, clashing and clanking together. Marsa sniffs. I reach across Jorrin and hand her my handkerchief. It’s new. I haven’t used it to clean my sword yet, so for once I don’t have to worry over loaning it out. I suppose I won’t need to use it anymore. There’s nothing left to use my sword for. My handkerchiefs will have to be for things girls normally use them for, like blotting noses and waving at boys. The thought makes the pang in my chest grow. I grip the hilt of my sword and clench my fingers around it until they ache.

Jorrin wraps an arm around Marsa, who struggles not to openly weep, her eyes blinking furiously as she pants those hitching breaths she did when her pet rabbit died. She leans into Jorrin, his presence no doubt easing the pain or at least helping to soothe it. Yes. Soon her wish of getting the attention from him she’s always wanted will be granted. The sight makes me uncomfortable, probably because I’m not used to seeing more than sibling-like affection.

I focus on the Aster, who is now speaking. His deep voice is soothing, but it’s still difficult for me to concentrate enough for the words to make sense. I give up trying and instead look at the pyre, carefully stacked up and adorned with flowers. A pyre fit for the best.

Showna. I miss her already. The only woman I remember as my mother, who took me in when my own parents died in a Malryx attack. She could have given me to another family, one with both the husband and wife still alive, unable to have children and aching for their own. But she kept me. She must have seen something in me, even back when I was a little one. She raised me. Taught me. Trained me. Loved me. Marsa became my sister. Showna, my mother. And I returned her kindness by leaving her alone to fight Morphrac.

The wind picks up, swirling a cold breeze as the Aster falls silent. Just as well since I wasn’t listening. He may have grown up with Showna, but he couldn’t have known her like we did. The breeze settles down, but the chill remains.

A villager hands the Aster a torch, and with it, he glides forward. Head bowed, he places the torch against a piece of wood until it lights. The crackle quickly fills the air. After a minute of silence, the Aster says, “If any would like to speak of Showna, please take this opportunity to do so.”

No one steps forward. Instead, everyone’s gazes turn toward me. And they should. With her dead, I’m the next in line to lead. I have the confidence of the Aster and Astra behind me. I have the greatest Zophasken within me, its power almost consuming whenever I think on it. By all rights, I am the Zophas’ leader now.

But I’m not. Not really.

There’s nothing left to fight. There’s no reason for us to even have a leader against evil. We’ll rely wholly on the Aster and Astra now. We Zophas won’t be needed any longer. Those of us who haven’t already will become a helpful part of society another way. No more need for warriors. No more need for fighting. No more need for everything I was trained for. Especially this. I was trained to fight, not talk.

After several moments of silence, Marsa, stars sing her praise, steps forward and speaks, her voice surprisingly clear considering the tears on her cheeks.

“Mother was unlike the rest of us. She helped pave the way for us to have freedom from the Malryx. More than anyone else, she would have realized what has been accomplished this day and want it celebrated. I only wish she’d lived a little longer to see it.”

She steps back next to Jorrin and lifts her face to the sky. The clouds I saw in the distance didn’t move fast enough to make it here tonight. Perhaps tomorrow they will come, but for now, Showna’s path to the heavens is clear.

Others speak. Some say few words; some say many. All mourn Showna. Most also acknowledge her dream come to pass. Our victory and freedom. The fire is smoldering when no one else speaks. The Aster and Astra move closer to the coals. They reach into their pouches and throw something onto the embers. Flames flash from them.

“We release you to the stars,” they say together.

And there’s nothing left to hold her spirit here. She’s free from this life. Free to watch from above, where the stars give direction. Not free to be with us, though. I press my teeth together to keep my jaw from trembling.

“Please, go and enjoy the festivities,” the Aster says. “We have the peace Showna and many others always dreamed from the evil people of this world. Let us celebrate that.”

It doesn’t take much prompting. Though the people loved Showna, this moment has been coming for many lifetimes. It’s just as well. It’s true Showna would rather us be celebrating than mourning. That doesn’t make moving from my spot any easier. The other Zophas, both current and ones who have moved on, must feel the same way. The villagers leave with a nod or a hug, as if they know we need the time.

No matter that there’s much to celebrate and that it’s what Showna would have wanted. There’s still a throb in my chest at seeing how quickly they leave.

Once everyone else is gone, the Zophas all look to me, but I still have nothing to say. I stop myself from rubbing my toe against the ground. Now is not the time to be weak. They need strength. I look to the heavens, wishing Showna would send some sort of sign or direction. I see nothing but thousands of twinkling stars, warmed by all the souls of the good who have passed on.

I look at those still gathered. They have followed my example and are staring at the stars. This is the best I can give them, to honor those who have gone before us. Slowly, they look at me again, one by one. When everyone’s attention is back on me, I simply nod.

We’ve worked and trained together enough that they know and understand me almost as well as Marsa and Jorrin do. They follow after the crowd in twos and threes, heading for the celebration. Though maybe with not so light of step as the others.

Jorrin moves toward the Zophas, giving Marsa and me a backward glance. He stops close to the cooling coals. Far enough to give us space but close enough to be supportive.

Marsa holds out my handkerchief. “Thank you.”

“Keep it.” After today, I’ve no further use for it.

“Just as well. My tears and snot are all over it.”

We chuckle together but not in our usual, full way. We’re both too somber to be any good at laughing.

She glances at Jorrin. I follow her gaze and say quietly, “Have you said anything to him yet?”

“No, but I’m certain he’s guessed my feelings by now.”

“Then perhaps you should get him to the festival, where you can cheer each other up. Showna would have been delighted to welcome a son-in-law to celebrate evil being eliminated.”

Marsa blushes. “A proposal is unlikely tonight, let alone a wedding.”

“You’ve waited long enough.” Indeed, we both have. Most girls get married by sixteen, if they hold off that long. Even a year past that feels like too much for the villagers to understand. “At least tonight can get you started in the right direction.”

Saying all this is right for her, but it pricks at me. Marsa must detect that. Of course she does. She wraps me in a hug. “Don’t fret, sister. We will find you a match soon enough.”

Soon enough for what? I look at Jorrin, who is patiently waiting, and reluctantly release her. “Go on. I’ll be along shortly.”

“Don’t be too long. It’s past time you learn to dance and play.” She heads for Jorrin.

He turns at the sound of her boots crunching toward him, her skirt swaying. Maybe I should have changed into something nicer, too, but I’m still in my usual attire. Dark brown breeches and shirt. The better to blend into nature with.

Jorrin smiles at her, but when she tries to lead him away, he looks back at me, feet unmoving. Marsa says something to him, and I give a little wave toward the party. He turns his gaze from me, although slower than I expected, and together they leave, but he keeps glancing backward.

The party is close but far enough that it’s not easy to see in the dark. A large fire brightens the right; torches leave specks of light all around the side. Shadows and light are all I can make out from here, though the sound travels easily. Shouts of joy and laughter. Music bouncing through the night air.

The revelries make me long to train with my sword. Without moving from my place, I squat, not letting the ground dirty my pants. I wrap my arms around my bent legs, rest my head on my knees, and stare at the faint glow of coals.

I’ve never attended a celebration before. All the times I was invited, I had to leave beforehand to carry out a request from the Aster or Astra. Or I would be making plans, tracking down Malryx. It’s one of the few places I belong during such parties. Where I used to belong. Celebrating like the others—not so much. With the others is where I should be now, though. Dancing and feasting and doing whatever it is they do to revel in the good things of life.

I meditate for a few minutes, clearing my mind of everything. But I can’t stay like this forever. The others will worry if I don’t make an appearance. I can’t keep putting it off. I must go. Standing, I reach my hands high above me and stretch out my body while ignoring the pain in my arm. The kinks don’t ease like usual.

I take one last look at the night sky. The stars Showna has joined glitter. What’s it like up there? What does she think of it? Is she happy to know we’ve succeeded? Glad to see us celebrating? Or does she even notice or care now?

With a sigh, I tread toward the celebration.





*





The festivities are roaring. Drums are being tapped. Stringed instruments are being plucked. Feet are stomping and hands clapping. Couples dance in the clearing. Spinning, twisting, laughing. Tables are filled with food, more than I’ve ever seen at one time before. Unfortunately, I’m not even hungry. But others are. They cluster around the tables, eating and talking. Everyone seems to be smiling. It’s all so loud and fast and bright.

Jorrin and Marsa are by one of those tables, but before I can go to them, a new song starts. Marsa says something to him, and Jorrin leads her to the clearing. I hang back in the fringes, watching them dance. He twirls her and throws her in the air with strength fitting a Zophas. Others around them do variations of the same thing. It’s like random chaos. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The music is loud—almost too loud, but it makes me feel like moving. Maybe I should get the musicians to play their songs while I train. Though I guess it’s something I should have done a long time ago. It’s hard to remember I don’t need to train anymore.

My throat tightens. This was a bad idea. I turn to hike up the mountain toward my room. Or at least some place empty and quiet. A boy of about thirteen stops in front of me. Stick arms and legs. Unruly orange hair falling in his eyes. No threat.

I’m about to brush past him when he says, “You’re her, aren’t you? Kaylyn?”

I stare him down, not sure I like hearing my name with this sort of awe. “I am.”

His grin widens. “Thank you! Thank you! I want to be a Zophas like you when I grow up.”

Before I can think of a reply, he hustles over to a group of boys. His friends, I assume by the way they punch him on the shoulder and pat his back. They gesture at me. Tentatively, I raise my hand in the air and give it a twitch. Every one of them waves back, their chatter growing along with their praise toward the orange-haired boy. It’s almost like congratulations after beating a Malryx. Of course, no matter what he wants, he can’t be a Zophas. The thought makes me cringe.

I glance over my shoulder at the dancing. Marsa and Jorrin are still twirling and laughing. My chest twists as they smile at each other. Though they trained with me all while growing up, the last couple of years there have been fewer Malryx to hunt after, so they’ve been spending more time with the villagers. The only reason I didn’t join is because the Aster and Astra said they saw something more in me. Something they thought we would need.

They must have been right. I did defeat many Malryx, including Morphrac. Rid the world of evil. Yet I can’t help wondering, if they had chosen someone else, would that person have met my same success? If someone else had gotten the extra training and Zophasken I received, instead of me, couldn’t they have done what I did? Sometimes it was hard. Beyond difficult, in fact. Too many times I thought I wouldn’t succeed. And defeating Morphrac? That was easy. Almost too easy.

The song ends, the cheering afterward disrupting my thoughts. Jorrin catches my eye and pulls Marsa toward me, laughing their way over. No escaping the festivities now.

“Thank you,” Marsa says to Jorrin as they reach me. Her face glows with more than just the torchlight.

“My pleasure.” He turns to me. “What about you, Kaylyn? Would you like to dance?”

Something almost familiar, like a faint memory, races through me at the thought. It’s not entirely unpleasant but not comfortable either. I eye those gathering for the next song. Boys on one side of the clearing, girls lined up on the other. I’d rather hunt down another Malryx than join them. Except I can’t do that anymore. What am I to do now?

I say, “I don’t know how to dance.”

“I can teach you. It’s easy.”

“He really is great,” Marsa adds. “I’m sure he can help.”

The drums beat, and soon the lively fiddles join them. The boys and girls meet in the middle and twirl around each other. They briefly touch hands, then back away from each other before doing it again. It’s sort of like fighting. Without blades and fists. Maybe it’s more appealing than I first thought.

I’m about to say just that when the boys grab the girls by the waists and toss them in the air. Never mind. I prefer to do the tossing.

“Why don’t you dance with Marsa again?” It would thrill her if he did. “Or another girl? I’m sure they’d be pleased to have you.”

He smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes, which have dimmed. “Of course. Marsa?”

Eagerly, she snatches his hand, and soon they’re dancing with the others again. The sight fills me with longing. Probably because it confirms life isn’t what it used to be, nor will it ever go back to what it was. That’s supposed to be a good thing, though. Why can’t I let it be?

I whirl away from them and try to dodge through the crowd, but people stop me often to talk, to congratulate or thank me. I try to get away from them as quickly as possible without being rude. Everyone is most kind; it’s just too much. Once I escape, I head up the mountain and to the hall. The walk is invigorating and comforting.

It’s dark inside the hall. Empty.

I light the torches hanging on the walls. They do nothing to bring warmth. The space is filled with flickering lights and shadows. I pull out my sword, the fit perfect within my palm. No one to practice with, though. I go through the motions, thrusting, jabbing, and parrying an imaginary foe. It’s harder with no one on the receiving end of my blows. I haven’t practiced without a partner since I was a Zophasling. Everyone worked hard to help the chosen one.

My muscles bunch with the tension of restraining myself. Until I can’t restrain anymore. Too much momentum. I tumble toward the ground and twist my face away. My back slams onto the floor, the pain sharp and stinging.

It’s hard and cool beneath me. My muscles ache where they made contact with the ground. But it’s not the pain that keeps me from getting up. The pain is minimal. Pain I can handle. The emptiness of the room is what presses into me. What holds me down. The emptiness that will be my life without needing to hunt and kill evil. There will never again be an opponent.

I grip my sword so hard my hand aches. Instead of letting it go, I hug it to me, letting its cool sharpness bring me the only comfort I have left. For the first time I can ever remember, I cry.





Chapter Four


A week has passed since defeating the last evil. I stare at the farmhand, Mirgen, and try to detect a hint of a joke somewhere within the folds of her skin. But I can’t find any, so I ask, “You want me to do what?”

Her wrinkles multiply as she laughs, which is a feat. “Don’t worry dear. It’s not too hard. Merva here’s gentle.” She pats the cow on the rump. How can she touch the thing? And why does it have a name? “Don’t fret over getting close to her.”

It’s not getting close to it that’s the problem. Or at least not the biggest problem. But I have to do this. It’s my assigned task for the day, and I won’t fail. Even though I can easily fit under the cow several times over and may get stomped on. At least I have the strength and speed to get away. I hope. I ease onto the stool, muscles tense.

“Good. Now take hold of her teats.”

She can’t be serious. My hands aren’t meant for female bovine parts.

“Really, lass, what did you expect you’d be doing?” She gives an encouraging smile. “Go on now. You can do it.”

I expected to contribute in another way. But until I find what I’m good at, now that my fighting skills are useless, I get to try everything. Even touching female bovine parts. Lucky me.

Suppressing a grimace, I reach out a hand.

“Kaylyn,” Marsa calls out from behind me, “you’re needed in the infirmary.”

I snap my hand back, fighting a smile. It slides the corners of my lips up anyway, and I don’t feel bad about losing. I turn to see Marsa standing next to the gate.

I say, “Guess I’ll have to try milking a cow later.”

Mirgen shakes her head with a laugh. “Oh, don’t bother. It’s clear as the twinkling stars it doesn’t suit you. I’ll let the Aster and Astra know. That strength of yours would have been good when we were bringing the harvest in, but I’m sure we can find something else for you to do.”

I grin at her, trying to ignore the fact I’m still struggling to contribute. That I’m useless. “Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

I rush over to meet Marsa, careful to keep my distance from the cows.

“That was good timing,” I say as we head out over the field toward the mountain on which most of the village lives. A village full of people who only do nice, kind, good things. People who don’t need looking after. “Is someone really hurt?”

“Yup.”

Of course. No need to practice spotting lies anymore. It’s no longer a problem needing detecting. One thing to be grateful for. I’ve never been good at figuring out when someone is untruthful.

“Is it serious?” I ask.

“I don’t think so. Brilona was nervous about all the blood, so she sent me for you. It’s a head wound. You know how those bleed.”

A head wound. My pulse increases. Nurse Brilona rarely treats anything besides illness.

“Did we miss a Malryx?”

“No—it’s Felix.”

“Oh.” I try not to let disappointment color my words. I shouldn’t even be feeling that way; it’s good that things are better for everyone. I just need to find my new place. “What did he do this time?”

She shrugs. “I didn’t get the chance to ask. It’s certain to be something entertaining, though.”

We climb the stairs to the infirmary. It’s one of the lowest houses on the mountainside, keeping it easily accessible with only a few steps to go. Inside, Brilona is frantically grabbing supplies from a shelf. “Praise the night sky. He just keeps bleeding.”

She motions to the other corner where a boy about our age lies on a cot, a bloody cloth pressed against his head.

“Hi, Felix.” Even at fifteen, his freckles are still bright against his pale skin, unruly red hair untouched by his injury. Just at the sight of him, a grin wants to make itself known. I’ve missed his company since he left and joined the villagers.

“Did you bring me some wheat berries?” His voice isn’t even strained, and he wants to chew gum. He’ll be fine.

“Can’t say that I did.”

Brilona shoves a rag at me and flutters about. “What do I need to do?”

Poor woman. It’s a good thing she never came with us to hunt Malryx. “I’ll need some hot water.”

She bustles off without a word.

“What did you do this time?” I ask Felix as I inspect the wound. Not so bad, exactly what Marsa said. A typical bloody head wound. I should teach Brilona how to handle these better.

“I was trying to see if I could catch a fish with my hands,” he says. “Slipped and hit my head on a rock.”

I hold in a snicker. “Did you catch one at least?”

“Almost.”

“Almost doesn’t make a fish.” I smile to soften my words. “Not worth the wound then.” I press a clean cloth to his head, not letting up on the pressure. “How is it you can handle a sword without killing yourself?”

He gives a sheepish smile. “Swords are different. I think I’ve managed to get clumsier since I left the Zophas.”

“Maybe you should keep practicing, then.”

He nods as if this is the best advice he’s ever heard, making me struggle to get the cloth pressed against his wound. Brilona comes back with the hot water, and we get to work while Marsa goes back and forth, coming with clean supplies and taking the old ones away. I show Brilona what I know about the wound and tell her how head injuries behave and what signs mean trouble. The work is familiar. I’ve enough field experience with wounds like this and much worse. Soon enough, Felix is clean with a bandage on his head.

“As long as it doesn’t get infected, you should be fine,” I say. “Probably end up with a dashing scar, too.”

“Only dashing if the girls don’t know how I got it,” he says with a boyish smile. “It was easier to get their attention when I was a Zophas.”

“I can’t bring you back as a Zophas now. I can’t even do that for myself. But if you learned to be a little more careful…”

“Who? Me?” His grin widens. “Thanks for fixing me up.”

Seems like there’s been too much of that gratitude thing going on lately. I punch his shoulder, softly so it won’t bother him, but with enough force that he knows I care. “Just paying you back for all those times you kept me entertained instead of letting those long walks get tedious.”

We exchange more banter while I clean up. After we wash, Marsa and I head back down the mountain to the hall to get dinner. It’s at a sort of halfway point, though still closer to the mountain than the farms.

“Perhaps you could work in the infirmary,” Marsa says. “Be a healer.”

“Maybe.” It would be better than working with the cows, and I’d get to properly utilize my skills. But it doesn’t make me happy. There’s something missing from the work. It does feel good to help people that are hurt get better but not as good as hunting down evil. Besides, I know little about treating illness and births, which is what healers will mainly be needed for now.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Everything there is to talk about feels too selfish. Too Malryx-like. “Not now. Sorry, I’m still trying to sort my thoughts out.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

But I will. By the way her mouth tightens, I can tell it’s hurt her feelings that I don’t want to talk. Seems like whichever choice I make, it’s wrong, when all I want to do is what’s right. My thoughts have brought us almost to the hall in the center of the village when I spot a gathering of people by the riverbed.

“What’s going on down there?”

Marsa looks where I point. “I don’t know. Maybe they’re all trying to catch fish with their hands?”

“Hopefully they’re more graceful than Felix.” I giggle with her, but we quickly smother it. None of the people look happy. Everyone is staring at something with faces drawn. Instinct and curiosity make me switch directions, heading toward the crowd.

Marsa follows, and others from the village trickle after us. Whatever it is, it’s bringing a lot of attention. When we’re almost there, I finally spot what everyone’s staring at. A stranger is sitting on a rock by the riverside. He’s thin and pale but well built.

Marsa nudges a boy our age in the crowd with short, curly blonde hair. “Who’s that, Tavo?”

“Messenger from Crowin.” Tavo’s voice wavers. “Weird things have been happening at their village.”

“What sort of weird things?” I ask, thinking of the village. I visited it once, a long time ago on one of my first quests for Malryx. It was a small but happy place.

“Animals have been acting as if a predator is about, even when the villagers can’t find one. Strange clouds in the forest by them have been growing bigger by the week.”

“What type of clouds?” Marsa asks. “The darkness you can only see at the top of the mountain?”

I look toward where I saw the clouds before defeating Morphrac. They can’t be seen from the valley, and they never did come and bring rain.

He nods. “Same ones. He said they’re even stranger up close. Odd color. Don’t ever blow away, only grow thicker and bigger.”

Something shifts inside me. Not something good but not entirely bad either. As I finish talking with the others, see Marsa off, and hover around the crowd, the feeling grows. I should only be upset about the situation. The fact that I’m not sends a flash of guilt through me. It mixes with the indescribable feeling but doesn’t get rid of it. This sounds similar to reasons we’ve had to go on a quest. Even if it’s not a quest for Malryx, it could be an opportunity to help, which sounds a lot better than milking cows.





*





Despite the daylight, the Aster and Astra have gathered those of us who want to hear around the campfire. The messenger, Foley, is in our midst with a bowl of stew. His fourth. I hope he can keep it down. The fire helps take the chill out of the fall air, but after getting my own bowl of stew, I stand in the back. Close enough that I can hear what is said but also to the side where I can read the messenger’s expressions.

From the ravenous way he’s attacking the food, it’s clear something difficult has befallen him. The situation he described, though…I’m not sure what to think of it.

“This isn’t something we’ve encountered before,” the Aster says, “but we will do what we can. Is there a specific way your village would like assistance?”

Foley scoops another bite into his mouth before answering. His troubles are bad, but his hunger is still demanding. “I don’t know, but if things stay like this, my village won’t survive. We’ll run out of food. And if it keeps getting worse as it has been, we won’t be the only ones.”

An iciness that has nothing to do with the temperature shivers through me. The Aster and Astra share a look, and beside me, Jorrin and Marsa lean closer as Foley continues.

“I’m grateful your village has been spared so far, but I don’t know if it will stay that way. This has been creeping up for, stars, I don’t know how long. We first saw strange plants growing deep in the forest a few years back, but I don’t know how long it was a problem before we noticed.

“We didn’t think it would bother us, but then it started spreading. Then it spread faster. It hurt our crops, and our animals are trying to flee. We’ve had to pen them in. Even the ones that usually stay close. The wild animals are disappearing. Our crops were doing well until this year when they just up and withered.” His voice grows weaker. “We may need to join your village if something doesn’t change soon.”

“You and the other villagers are always welcome here. We only wish you needn’t leave your homes,” the Astra says, her voice reassuring.

Foley sets down his empty bowl. “Do you think you can figure out what’s causing these changes and stop it?”

“I don’t know,” says the Aster. “Without knowing what we’re dealing with, we can’t know what actions will help or if anything will. Nature doesn’t change because of what we want it to do. We will look into the problem, though.”

But he’s right. What good will looking into it do? Nature has a will of its own. How can we discover what’s wrong and fix it?

The Astra says, “Now that our community is no longer devoted to destroying the Malryx, perhaps our new purpose could be to help those towns and villages who have need, starting with yours.”

It’s a good idea. Not only should we help, but also, giving aid will maybe fill the hollow place inside me. I may not be able to figure out why nature has gone mad around them or how to fix it, but I can figure out a way to assist them. “I’d be willing to lead a group back with Foley to see what we can find out and how we can help.”

Foley glances my way for the first time. He doesn’t appear so desperate with some food in him. Less pale, at least. The Aster and Astra exchange a look. Both nod. The Astra says, “This would be a good option for you, Kaylyn, and we believe your knowledge will be of great use with the task. We will find others to join you.”

Thank goodness they understand me so well.

The Aster turns to Foley. “Would you mind guiding them to your village and answering any questions they may have?”

“I would be happy to. I’m grateful you’re willing to aid us. It will put some of the villagers at ease knowing you’re looking into it and that we can come here if needed.”

Some of the villagers. Others will still be upset that their homes are changing and that they may have to leave. I’ve seen it before when a Malryx has damaged someone’s home or livelihood. Change can be difficult.

“We will get others as soon as we can, then, so you can get back to them,” the Astra says.

“I’ll go with you.” Jorrin’s declaration is welcome, yet not unexpected.

“So will I,” Marsa says, also welcome and not unexpected. Though I wonder if she would have spoken up if Jorrin had stayed behind. Of course she’s ready to move on with her life. I can’t blame her for wanting to be wherever he is.

Soon there’s a group who have volunteered. All young. All Zophas. Or, really, former Zophas. Young because that’s all that’s left of us. Young but strong and accustomed to situations such as these. Or sort of like these.

“It’s settled then,” the Astra says. “Gather supplies, and you will leave at first light. Vitliruc. May the stars aid you on your quest.”

That’s that, then. A journey I have no clue what to do with. There’s already less of an echo in the hollow space within me.





Chapter Five



Well before sunrise the next morning, we’re all ready. We’re used to missions coming at all times. Having a full night to prepare is more than enough time; it’s a novelty. Judging by the way Marsa and Tavo rub their eyes, some are more used to it than others.

Felix grins at me as he listens to Sosha chattering. The wound on his head is uncovered and scabbed over. He wiggles his eyebrows at me. I’m not the only one eager to be on our way.

Seven of us Zophas are ready with a new sense of purpose. Marsa, Jorrin, Tavo, Felix, Sosha, Azleco, and me. Foley makes eight.

No one sees us off. Good wishes were all given last night. The stars shine bright, and all three moons light our way. A good omen. Foley leads us from town, toward what I’m not sure. I do know the village he described sounded nothing like the little bits I remember.

My pack is familiar and comfortable against my back. More so than the room I’m leaving behind. The journey doesn’t meet that same familiarity. I’ve gone in search of Malryx before. This isn’t the same. This situation is serious but in a way we haven’t dealt with before. We don’t know what we are looking for or how to fix it. Still, it’s easier than staying around the village and trying to figure out where my place is. Besides, even if we don’t know what to do once in Crowin, we can at least assist the people back to our village. That I can do.

As grateful as I am for something to do, to be helping, I haven’t trained for this. You can’t fight weather. And though you can slaughter animals, it’s not something I like to do unless they’re rabid or on their death beds, suffering. Besides, these animals just want to get away. We’ll help with them and the people as best we can. I have at least directed crowds of people before.

We’re a few miles from home when the sun finally makes its presence known. Its warmth is welcome but not enough to make me take off my cloak. Foley hasn’t spoken a word as he leads, but then again, neither have I as I take up the rear. Though I know the Malryx are all gone, I can’t help but keep a look out for them. Just as well. There are still wild animals about, just none of the human kind.

Marsa has clung to Jorrin’s side all morning. I should be excited for her, and I am, it’s only that…I don’t even know. Something about their togetherness has me constantly glancing at them and looking away.

Azleco slows down to join me, though he doesn’t say a word. He’s sixteen and left the Zophas over a year ago. We never went on any quests together and only practiced with each other a few times. I didn’t know him well, but I know him even less now that we haven’t been working together. He smiles at me, though, and gives me something to think on other than Marsa and Jorrin. That is more welcome than a best friend right now.





*





Two days into our journey, we’re almost to the canyon, and moods are growing somber. The sun blinds my eyes. The cool fall air is tempered by the warmth of the sun on my skin. The heat can’t last long. Not with the changing seasons.

A sadness grips me as we leave the full warmth of the sun. Its rays lost behind the mountain. We pull out our cloaks but keep walking. The mountain walls on both sides loom over us, angled straight up to the sky, ending high above us. They’re made of pale rocks, covered in spots by soft green plants. A few trees have managed to make their homes in the cracks, but I don’t know how they survive on the sheer face. More trees heighten the top of the mountain. I feel small and humbled in its grandeur.

As we walk farther into the canyon, boulders, small at first but increasingly larger in size, speckle our path. When we’ve gone about a mile, we find one almost as big as the hall back home.

“Are any of these going to fall on us?” Felix asks.

I trace his line of sight up the mountaintop. It’s growing hard to see the details in the fading light, but the rocks not connected to the mountain are jammed in place with smaller rocks. At least, most of them are.

Foley shrugs. “I’ve never had a problem with them before.” He continues walking. “There’s a clearing we can stop at just up ahead.”

“Are there any big boulders barely hanging to the mountain side?” Tavo asks.

“We’ll be fine.”

Not reassuring.

Foley rounds a boulder, moving out of sight. The view that greets me when I follow after him is better than I hoped. There’s plenty of space for a camp, wood close by, the river still rushing in the distance, and, best of all, no boulders barely clinging to the canyon wall next to us.

“This is nice,” I say.

Foley doesn’t respond to my comment but only delivers a dejected, “We can camp here for the night.”

I move closer to him as the others start at their tasks. “We’ll start early in the morning.”

He gives an almost smile and nods.

We quickly get camp set up. The fire burns hot and bright, the meal cooking over it filling the air with smoke and spices. Once I’ve done my part, I tell Marsa I’m going to the stream to refill some water skins.

“I can help if you’d like,” she says.

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.” Truthfully, I’d like a few minutes alone. Since we’re not on a quest for Malryx, the only danger lurking should be animals. “Don’t wait on me for dinner. I’ll be back in a while.”

“Enjoy.” And her attention is already back on Jorrin.

I quicken my pace until I’m in the trees and then stop to lean against one. The fire is bright enough to light most of their faces and the rock wall behind them even from where I’m standing. My friends and companions, warmed by the flames of light. Felix says something, and everyone laughs, even the somber Foley, though he’s the first to stop. Marsa glows with more than just the firelight as she watches Jorrin, whose expression is lost beyond the night.

My chest constricts as I turn away. What is wrong with me?

I cross in the filtered moonlight toward the stream. Now that I’m looking away from the flames, my eyes adjust to the forest around me. The stream is wider than I expected, two moons glowing on its surface.

I refill the skins and set them aside. I reach my Zophasken out to the canyon around me. The others back at camp are bright spots against the otherwise neutral world. And that’s all I’ll ever feel from now on.

I dip my hands in the cool water and splash the travel dust from my face. It’s almost too cold, icy against my skin, but it feels good, clean and pure. I shake my hands dry as best I can and unwind my hair from its usual braided bun. It cascades around me in a sheet of dark brown, adding another shelter from the cold. It is so rarely let down other than to clean it, the long strands seem like they belong to someone else.

One of the spots of light leaves the group and heads toward me. At least I had a few minutes to myself. And then the person is nearing, and I know who it is just by the sheer quietness of his movements. Maybe having one other person with me isn’t so bad, even if I don’t understand why he’s going through the shadows of the forest to find me.

“Hey, Jorrin,” I say long before he reaches me.

“I’m never going to sneak up on you, am I?” He sits next to me and dips a finger in the water. He yanks it out and rubs it on his cloak. “How can you stand it? It’s freezing.”

“Feels good.”

“You’re crazy.”

I stick my tongue out at him. Childish, but he laughs. Friends should always have a chance to laugh together. But then, why does it feel so wrong? The unknown of what we’re going into maybe. “Why did you volunteer to come? Don’t you like being free from Zophas duties?”

“I’ve missed… being a Zophas. And, well, it’s nice to be with you again.” He looks me in the eye before glancing away.

“I’ve missed being around you, too. The last few months without you were lonelier than I expected,” I say.

“Do you mean that?” His expression grows more serious.

“Of course. Being pretty much the last active Zophas wasn’t a very jaunty experience. There was less to do and rarely anyone around to do it with. It would have been nice to have a friend around.”

“Right.” He plunks his fingers back into the water, despite his earlier protest of it being too cold, and holds them there a moment. “I suppose I never thought of it like that. How hard it was on you when everyone slowly got called away for other duties. Maybe if I had thought about it more, I would have hung around more often and not just when you and Showna needed a hand with something.”

The urge slams into me to take his now dripping fingers and dry them off with my cloak. “Change your mind about how good the water feels?”

“No.”

Huh? That’s odd. “Foley’s worried.”

“He hasn’t said anything. At least not to me.” Jorrin finally dries his hand on his own cloak and keeps it wrapped up tight.

“It’s what he doesn’t say and the look he has more and more often. If there’s so much worry about the strangeness of the forest and how it’s changing them, how much worse will the foliage be with it growing closer to their village? And what if it’s not just close to their village by the time we get there, but over it? How will that affect them? How will it affect our jobs?”

“We’ll help bring them back home.”

“But what if it keeps growing and affects our village too?”

He sighs, a loud, drawn-out sound that carries more weight than he’s admitting to. “I don’t know.”

“None of us do. How can we help if we don’t know, Jorrin? How?”

He grabs my hand, warming it with his own despite the chill of the river. Maybe the night air left me cooler than I thought. The touch is so good. I hand him my other palm, too. He turns more fully toward me and presses both of my hands together between his. I shiver but not from cold. The desperation in me has lessened with his touch.

“Just because none of us knows,” he says, “doesn’t mean we won’t be able to help. We’ll figure this out. We’re smart.”

Not smart enough to save Showna. “But we’ve never done anything like this before.”

“The first time you went on a quest for Malryx, you’d never done that either. And you were only ten then.”

“That’s right. Not long after you caught the squirrel for Marsa and me to pet.” I almost forgot how old I was. It seems like fighting has been my whole life. “But I had help and training then, and others with me who had done it before.”

“It’s going to be fine.” His words don’t reassure me, but his voice is comforting anyway.

“You’re probably right.”

“What do you mean, ‘probably?’” He grins.

I giggle. What is wrong with me?

He shifts my hands so they’re held in one of his, and with his other, he reaches out to grab a lock of my hair. He runs his fingers through it, down to the freed ends near my waist, making my breath catch.

“I didn’t know your hair was so long.” His voice is even deeper than usual.

“Yeah, I usually keep it up.” Why do I sound as breathless as when I just finish a battle?

He weaves his hand more fully into my hair, playing with the locks in a way that leaves my heart fluttering until his fingers brush against my neck. “You should keep it down more often.”

I jump to my feet, something about his touch more shocking than the coldness of the water. “We should get back to camp. It’s getting really cold out here.”

His gaze is intent on me as I quickly braid my hair and pin it back up. I bend to grab the water skins. He reaches to help, our fingers brushing. I pull away and let him take the two water skins closest to him. Once we’ve got them all, I turn toward the fire and our friends. I can still feel their bright and true Zophasken. Including Marsa’s.

“Kaylyn.”

“We really should get back. I’m sure dinner is finished by now.”

He sighs. “We should talk sometime.”

I scuff the toe of my boot along the ground. “Is it urgent?”

“No. I guess not.”

“Then maybe it can wait. We really should get back.”

As I start off, I hear him mutter, “Not urgent, but important.”

Something about his words make my legs move faster. It doesn’t take him long to catch up.

“Any ideas of what we should do when we first get to Crowin?” I ask before he can say anything.

“What we always do.” His voice is laced with bitterness.

“Of course. What we always do.” And my own voice is laced with disappointment, even though I don’t fully understand why. “Analyze the situation.”

The rest of the walk back is silent. Dinner is already being served. The fire is indeed warming, but I’m still cold. I hand out water skins to their owners. Marsa’s last. I feel bad about spending time alone with Jorrin. She should have been the one to do that.

I meet her where she waits by a rock farther from the center of the group. She holds a bowl of soup for me.

“You and Jorrin were gone a long time. Anything interesting?” she asks, my guilt growing with each word.

“We were talking about Crowin.” I sit next to her, letting worry replace the guilt. “I’m not sure what to expect or what to do.”

She hands me the bowl of food and then pulls a blanket out of her pack. “You’ll figure it out.”

As she wraps the blanket around my shoulders, I can only hope she’s right. “Thank you. And I should have taken you up on your offer to come with me. Then I could have left you alone with Jorrin.”

She gives a girlish grin. “That would have been nice.” Her grin lessens. I feel like even though we’ve been around each other more since Morphrac’s defeat, we haven’t really had a chance to talk. We’ve been together more, but it feels like less. “Sometimes I almost think…”

I pause eating. “Think what?”

“It’s nothing.” But the look in her gaze doesn’t seem like nothing. “Any cute boys caught your eye yet?”

If not for the weight of the situation on me, I would laugh. I do let her change the topic…for now. She’ll talk when she’s ready. And maybe I’ll talk when I’m ready, too. Whenever I figure out what I even want to talk about. “When would they have had a chance to?”

She grabs a leaf and throws it at me. It floats to the ground several inches from me, and I laugh.

“Go ahead and joke about it for now,” she says. “When a man finally captures your heart, you’ll realize you’re the silly one. Love doesn’t need time. It forces its way into your life whether you’re prepared for it or not.”

“It had better wait to force its way in until later. There’s too much to do right now.”

She sighs. “I wish it would have waited for me. Jorrin’s always busy, like you, even though I’ve been struck by him. It’ll probably be the same for you. Some handsome guy making you swoon even if you haven’t got time for it.”

I set my empty bowl down. “No time and definitely no swooning.”

“Oh, you’ll swoon all right.”

“You’re crazy,” I say with a laugh. “Besides, it’s not like I’m going to fall here. Who would it be? Tavo or Felix whom I’ve known my whole life? I could list every embarrassing thing they’ve ever done. The silent and worried Foley? No, love won’t be hitting anytime soon. I’ll have to stay on my own two feet so I can keep you on yours.”

She shakes her head, but by her smile, I can tell she’s pleased with my answer. Zophas girls have left for boys before. Though you’re not required to leave if you marry, many seem too occupied with their newfound love and life to have the desire to run around taking down Malryx. I’m sure they’d come if we still needed them, but with little need, more and more have fallen in love and left. And now we all have to leave.

“Do you see those roses?” Marsa says, drawing my attention to a nearby bush. “They are gorgeous.”

“They are.” Though the beautiful blossom looks a little withered.

“Do you have your—” Marsa bolts upright with a squeal.

I jump toward her, sword in hand. “What is it?”

The others race over, except Foley.

“I’m fine.” She puts a hand to her chest and takes a deep breath. “Just fine. Something just brushed against my hand. It startled me.”

Azleco snickers. Tavo punches him on the shoulder.

Even after all our years of training together, she really is out of practice. I lower my sword. “What was it?”

“I don’t know.” She turns from me and makes a sad cooing sound. When she turns back, a small black bird is cupped in her hands. “I think its wing is injured.”

An injured bird caused that shriek? Maybe I should have everyone train when we stop at night. I sheathe my sword. “I don’t recognize it. Is it edible?”

Marsa glares at me, then coos at the bird again. No eating it then.

“Its wing needs tending to,” she says. “Anyone know how to do that?”

I’ve tended to all sorts of human injuries but have never done anything for animals.





* * *








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