Savage Light By Janeal Falor


The dark sky in the distance hasn’t moved in weeks. Mother and Kaylyn seem too preoccupied with their life-long quest to worry about it, but it keeps tugging at me.

“What do you think of the clouds in the distance?” I ask Jorrin. Not only am I hoping to find someone as curious as me, but it’s a good excuse to talk to him.
 Savage Light
 Savage Light By Janeal Falor


But it’s not, after all. “Mmm,” is the only response I get, his hazel eyes focused on something far off.

Does he even realize I’m here?

It doesn’t matter. He has a lot to be distracted with. We all do. But soon enough there won’t be any distractions left. Once mother and Kaylyn defeat the last evil person alive, there will be nothing left to worry about. Maybe then he’ll be interested in settling down. Interested in me.

And I will finally have what I’ve wanted for so long.

I stare off in the distance at those clouds, wondering about it. At seventeen, Kaylyn and I are now the oldest unmarried girls. Doubtful marriage has even crossed her mind. Being chosen to bring peace is a good excuse, at least. It means she’s too busy saving us all. I left that life when I wasn’t needed anymore, and there’s an ache in my chest from no longer helping.

An ache I think Jorrin can fix.

“Do you feel that?” he asks.

The ache lessens. Is he finally recognizing something between us? “Feel what?”

“Close by. Darkness. Malryx is chasing a light.” He jumps up, making the ache come back with a burn.

Despite the pain, I follow suit, stretching my power up and down the mountain as I do so to feel what he’s talking about. My Zophasken, or power, skims across the land, letting me feel what it finds. Plants and animals are all that’s immediately close, their neutrality a constant presence. Sparks of light hover around home as they should. I sense other Zophas, fighters of evil, like us doing chores, but as I reach further out something’s different. A glow is racing for home, darkness marring the space behind it, trailing after it.

The last darkness left in the world has come to us. It can’t bode well. “Which of us do you think he’s following? Is it Kaylyn, my best friend? Should we go help?”

But Jorrin’s already off, going to do what I should have done instead of asking, long legs running up the mountain. Too much time out of the life of fighting has made me slow. I hurry after, moving closer to the spot of light I can feel with my power. It’s slowing, but then the darkness is going even slower, letting the distance between them grow.

We’re almost to whoever of us is being chased when Jorrin calls out to me, “Marsa, wait!”

It’s too late. My heart is already frozen. On the ground before him, mother has collapsed to the ground. Crimson stains the dirt around her.

“Momma!” I rush to her side, rip a piece of cloth from the bottom of my shirt, and press it against her bleeding wound. Little good it does. My hands are already wet with her blood, which makes my own pound within my veins.

“Showna?” Jorrin gently asks. “What happened?”

“Morphrac. Surprise”—she gasps for air—“attack.”

“I’m going to carry you back to help. Everything will be fine.” But by the sound of his voice, and the blood on me, everything isn’t fine.

I move to the side, careful to keep pressure on her wound as he lifts her, and I hurry to keep up. My cloth is beyond soaked when we enter the clearing where the others wait, and he sets her gently on the ground.

Someone thrusts clean bandages into my hands. I pile them on top of the old ones, trying desperately to keep her precious life force where it belongs, but this is beyond me.

“Where’s Kaylyn?” And why wasn’t she with Mom? Why didn’t she prevent this, as is her duty?

“I can feel her coming,” someone replies, but my thoughts are so muddled, I don’t even know who responded.

But she’s right. There is a bright light headed our way, opposite from the direction of the encroaching darkness. She’s coming now, but from the red staining the table, it won’t be soon enough.

“Momma.” The word escapes me, crushing the air from my lungs.

“Shh. It will be fine. Kaylyn… will take care of… things.” But she’s so pale; the faintness of her voice says things will never be fine.

As if summoned by her name, Kaylyn dashes into the clearing. She hesitates for a moment, just a small, small moment, but inside I’m screaming at her to move. To help. To fix this.

The silent pleading doesn’t have to turn to words. She recovers and hurries to the other side of the Mom. Others move out of her way, letting her in. Her skills have to be enough to help. Have to stop the bleeding.

Kaylyn reaches out to check the injuries, but Mom stops her. “Leave it.”

“Momma, no. She can fix you.” My heart is being shredded by a thousand knives. This can’t be happening. Mom was never supposed to die. She was supposed to live. She was supposed to see her dream fulfilled. There’s only one Malryx left: the last remaining evil on the planet is almost vanquished. It’s not possible that he should defeat her when the goal is so close.

Kaylyn takes her hand as if none of my thoughts are real. Isn’t she going to at least try something? We can’t just let my mom die!

“It’s my time.” Mom’s breathing becomes more ragged as she focuses in on Kaylyn. “And yours.”

The knives in my chest grow jagged. “Momma.”

“Don’t talk anymore. Save your strength. I’ll find him,” Kaylyn says to her.

“Good. I know your final battle will be won.” Mom’s expression relaxes a little at this. At least Kaylyn can comfort her in her last moments. Assure her that the Malryx are soon to be vanquished. But it’s not enough. Not nearly enough.

“Those of you—” Mother coughs, and my lungs twinge on hearing it. Jorrin holds out a waterskin, but she waves it away. “If you haven’t… given Kaylyn your power…”

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

Mom continues on, driven to her goal even as life pools out of her. “Give Zophasken to Kaylyn,” she says between gasps. “She’s our best cha…”

Her face goes slack. I gather her to me as if it will somehow help bring her back. “No, Momma! Don’t leave me!”

Sobs wrack my body. Pain more fierce than any I’ve ever felt before attacks my core. The others are talking, discussing. Now isn’t the time for it. We have to mourn. Have to! She’s gone. From this world. From our home. From my life. It can’t be. It just can’t. They need to fix her. Kaylyn needs to fix her.

But she’s still beneath me, with not even the faintest movement of breath. I press my forehead to hers, squeezing my eyes tight. Any moment now, she’ll waken and rise, not even talking about her injury, ignoring it like she always does. Being tough for us. Tough for me. But there’s nothing.

She’s gone. Really gone.

How can that be?

And the others are still talking like she didn’t just stop living right before us. I squeeze her tight, wanting to rail at all of them. Except I can still feel that spot of darkness moving closer. The Malryx never allow time for mourning. Just because this is my mother doesn’t make it any different.

The others are right. We have to move on like we always do. I gently close her eyes. There’s nothing for the spasms raking through my chest. The best thing I can do now is the thing she wanted. I’ll make mom proud. I’ll help by doing what I’ve realized the others are doing. Giving their power to Kaylyn.

I push myself off the ground, unable to take my thoughts from Mom even though I’m leaving her. The sharpness dulls to a numbing ache as I wait for the last of them to finish sharing their power with the one who can defeat evil. When they walk away, leaving Kaylyn alone, I move to her, my steps heavy, and place my hand on hers.

“I can do this,” she says.

“I know.” She can, and she will. Mom’s dream will live on. “My Zophasken is yours.”

My power flows through me, down my hand and into her. Its loss leaves me cold, but this chill is nothing compared to the ice inside my soul. Kaylyn needs its warmth and strength now more than ever. The Aster and Astra were right to choose her to defeat the last evil. She’s stronger than the rest of us and knows how to use that power. But Morphrac already killed my mother. It won’t be an easy fight.

“I can’t lose you, too.” The words escape me before I realize it.

With most of my Zophasken now gone to her, she wraps me into a hug and whispers into my ear, “Nothing will happen to me, and your mother’s death won’t be in vain. I’ll defeat Morphrac. The world will be rid of Malryx. Your mother’s dream of ridding the planet of all evil will come true.”

Tears splash down my face as she lets me go, and Tavo puts his arm on my shoulders. It’s true. The evil people that have been around forever are about to be vanquished. Those lying, murderous people.

Something breaks close by, making me jump. Tavo pulls me closer and whispers, “It’s going to be okay.”

The words feel hollow, though I know they were well meant. Even if Kaylyn defeats Morphrac, it won’t bring back Mom.

Outside, Morphrac taunts. “Come out to play, my little Zophaslings. Or did my slaughter of your leader leave you too scared to face me?”

What does a person have to be like to mock someone with a murder? What darkness haunts his soul? This is why Mom’s dream needs to be fulfilled. Evil such as this shouldn’t taint the world.

“I will do this,” Kaylyn says. “Stay in the cave until I get back.”

“Vitliruc,” Jorrin says.

“Vitliruc, my friend,” I say, longing to give her more than just my power and good wishes.

And then she’s gone.

With Mom growing cold behind me, it’s hard not to worry Kaylyn will end up in the same place. Even if the Aster and Astra are right, even if she is the one to defeat the last Malryx, no one ever said she would live through it.

Today, I’ve lost one of the two people I’m closest to. I can’t lose the other. I want to call Kaylyn back, to tell her it doesn’t matter. There’s only one evil person left. How much damage can he do?

But Mom is proof enough of how much damage even just one can do. And evil always draws more evil to itself. It grows and morphs, tainting those it touches. It needs to go; only I wish Kaylyn didn’t have to deal with it.

The Aster and Astra have chosen her, though. They have guided her though this path. This is what should be. The defeat needs to happen, and she’s the one to do it.

The others take care of mother’s body, cleaning and preparing her for the ceremony that will likely take place tonight. Attending her funeral never crossed my mind. I stare numbly at their preparations, trying to process it all.

When some time has passed and Kaylyn seems far from the cave, someone is sent to tell the village and the Aster and Astra what has taken place. What will they think of all that’s happened? Of Kaylyn’s battling for the last time? Of the life that’s been claimed?

For myself, it’s something I never, ever wanted.

Once done, we sit and wait. And wait. Jorrin sits on one side of me, Tavo on the other. Both stay close, comforting without saying a word. The afternoon passes, and I lay my head on Jorrin’s shoulder and drift. Sleep is elusive, but the drifting helps take away some of the pain, worry, and pressure.

Footsteps near. I stretch my Zopahsken, but I have so little left it can only detect the area just outside the cave. It may be Kaylyn. Or it could be Morphrac, come to taunt us about Kaylyn’s death.

I jump to my feet, wishing my sword was on me. Why did I stop carrying it around? Right. Because I wasn’t needed any longer. It doesn’t matter because it’s just Kaylyn coming into view, pale and drawn. No serious injuries to be seen. There’s already been enough blood for one day.

Unless he got away?

“It’s done,” she says, easing the last of my fears.

That’s it then. The last evil on the planet has been vanquished. Mom’s dream came true. Just not before she died.





Chapter Two


The pain grows more numb by the hour, every moment bringing me closer to saying goodbye to Mom for this life. Somehow it’s already time to inform Kaylyn and Jorrin what’s going on. As I approach, the two are huddled close, Jorrin wrapping a nasty cut on her arm. The tenderness he uses as he works almost makes me wish my arm was bleeding.

Stupid thought to have at a time like this, yet his movements are so soft, his fingers whispering across her skin as he tightens the bandage. I can almost feel it. I should have gotten cut instead.

“The ceremony is starting soon.” My voice sounds strange, like someone else has taken over.

Jorrin drops his hand from Kaylyn’s bandage, but otherwise things are quiet. Are their thoughts wondering where mine are? We shouldn’t be having a funeral at a time like this, though there will be a celebration afterward as well. There should only be celebrating on the day when evil was finally vanquished.

I’m not ready to let Mom leave, and going to the ceremony will be just that. It’s hard to think we’ll be moving onto this new life without her. She’s been the driving force behind so much, how will things flourish with her not here? At least with the Malryx gone there’s no need for her guidance fighting against them, but I still need it. I glance at Jorrin. Now, more than ever, I need her guidance.

“I thought it would be harder to defeat Morphrac,” Kaylyn says, breaking me from my morose thoughts. She sounds like Mom.

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

“Maybe, but I guess I expected something more. I’ve fought tougher opponents.”

Why didn’t Mom survive then? She trained Kaylyn. She should have been up to the task.

“He was their leader,” Jorrin says. “Perhaps he only excelled at leading and not actual fighting?”

He seems to be forgetting Mom too. But maybe there was a reason for the way things happened. Something we’ll never understand. I can’t imagine anything making my mother’s death understandable.

“We’re going to be late if we don’t leave now.” Can’t be late to my own mother’s funeral, even if I’d rather skip it.

Jorrin helps Kaylyn stand, and she hurries down the mountain ahead of us. Jorrin and I follow after, at a pace more fitting to the emotions clouding me. The forest is as heavy as my heart, thick with trees, even as we pass the village built on the side of the mountain. I wish Jorrin would talk. Would say something. But then, I’m not saying anything either. It’s hard to think of words.

“Do you think Kaylyn’s all right?” I ask. “She’s been different. Distant.”

“I don’t know. Hopefully she just needs time. It’s not how any of us wanted to have the Malryx defeated.” He looks at me. Really looks at me like I can never remember him doing before. “How are you doing with this?”

My throat threatens to close, but I force the words past my grief. “Angry. If she could have lived past today, the only danger left would have been natural causes.”

He puts a hand on my arm; a blanket of comfort softens my ache at his touch. “I’m sorry. She was a good woman.”

“The best.” I’m embarrassed by how my voice cracks, but he only nods in agreement.

Words no longer seem needed as we continue on. Though his hand is no longer on my arm, the blanket of warmth remains just by being with him, by walking by his side. Does he feel that connection between us?

By the time we reach the village, Kaylyn has slowed enough for us to catch up with her. I wrap my arm around one of hers. Jorrin sticks close to her other side, and together, we stop just outside the group gathered around the pyre. Around my mother.

Despite the silence, many people are here. Probably all who were in hearing distance who could travel. Mother was well loved for everything she strove toward. For everything she did, even when it meant giving up personal things to make it happen. I always wanted to spend more time with her, but her cause was worth the time apart. Sometimes people have to do what they don’t want to do for the greater good. I always understood that.

“Showna was an incomparable leader and friend.” The Astra’s robes flow around her in a swath of black night, the silver twinkling like stars. Mom would have liked that.

The tears start then, hot down my cheeks. Kaylyn hands me her handkerchief, her own eyes glistening, but she’s not actually crying. The words make a melodious background Momma would have been bored with, but patiently sat through. She was good at duty. I can’t even pretend to focus on what’s being said. Kaylyn’s handkerchief is soaked before they even light the pyre.

Jorrin wraps his arm around me, which makes me cry harder. It should be comforting, and it is, but my mother should have been here for this. I try to enjoy the comfort as much as I can anyway.

The ceremony seems to take forever before the Aster falls silent. A villager hands the Aster a torch, and it’s time. Time to let her go. I can’t let my feelings be part of what holds her back. She needs to move on, and I need to let her. The Aster lights the pyre, making my tears come to a sudden, violent stop.

The flames crackle against the stillness of the night until the Aster says, “If any would like to speak of Showna, please take this opportunity to do so.”

Everyone looks our way. Though it’s not really our way. It’s Kaylyn’s way. She’s the one they all look to now. The one who should be stepping forward to take my mother’s place. But she doesn’t. She just stands there, gripping the hilt of her sword in the way she does when she’s upset.

There’s only one way I can think to help her. Besides, this is my mother we’re honoring. I have rights to start the memories as much as Kaylyn does, and I know it will help her out. I step forward.

“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 long enough to see it.”

I move back next to Jorrin and stare up at the stars. The place Mom will soon be. Others speak of her. Of her goodness and kindness. Of her unwavering determination to give us a better world. There’s so much good to say about her. That was my mother.

Once everyone who wants to speak has had a chance to, the Aster and Astra toss a handful of something onto the fire that makes it spark. “We release you to the stars.”

The flames burn high and bright, carrying Momma’s soul to the stars where she now belongs. It doesn’t matter what words are said, as long as she numbers among the others who came before us. She’ll probably burn brightest of all, eager to light the way at our darkest time. And I am nothing like her.

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

The crowd floods away. It feels a little like they’re eager to be celebrating instead of remembering Mom, but it’s what she would have wanted. What she fought her whole life for. No matter how many times I remind myself it’s what she would have wanted, the words never seem any warmer. Never hold any more comfort.

Not everyone leaves to celebrate, though. Those charged with fighting the evil, whether they fought until the end, or their services stopped being needed some time ago, all stay. They wait as the crowd disperses around us. We Zophas are what remains, those of us who knew Mother best. Those whom she led, even when it meant less time for things other mothers in the village did, like making special treats.

Kaylyn is the focus of attention. She would most likely have taken mother’s place if warriors were still needed. Even if they’re not, she’s still the leader they look to, and I’m the daughter that always tagged along.

Kaylyn rubs her thumb across the ball of the hilt of her sword and looks toward the stars.

Mother is there now, shining down on us. I dab my eyes again, hopefully for the last time. At least for tonight. Tears are supposed to be freeing at times like these but always leave me feeling swollen and achy.

The others look to Kaylyn. She appears fit to be my mother’s heir as she gives a nod to them, releasing them. They depart, unhurriedly, except for Jorrin. He waits by the fire, staring deep into its flames.

We’re supposed to all move on now. Let her life be remembered and her death honored, but not mourned over. It gives room for Jorrin in my life. Tonight will be the night we start building something new. Something we can grow together in. But the needs of my dearest friend come first.

I hold out Kaylyn’s now soggy handkerchief. “Thank you.”

“Keep it.”

It is pretty gross after the night I’ve put it through. “Just as well. My tears and snot are all over it.”

Our laughter feels forced. Hollow. Not what I need to be feeling right now. I glance at Jorrin waiting so patiently. The ache in my chest will be fixed soon. Time and love are supposed to heal heartaches.

“Have you said anything to him yet?” she asks, her voice low enough he can’t hear.

“No, but I’m certain he’s guessed my feelings by now.” How could he not?

“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.”

My face feels fiery. There’s no question of that. Too soon for anything like that. “A proposal is unlikely tonight, let alone a wedding.”

“You’ve waited long enough. At least tonight can get you started in the right direction.”

The fire doesn’t leave but moves to my chest where I’ve kept all my hopes and dreams. Things Kaylyn knows all too well. Only I no longer know what her hopes and dreams are. There must be someone in her future soon. “Don’t fret, sister. We will find you a match soon enough.”

She looks to the man I hope to soon make mine, not commenting on my statement. “Go on. I’ll be along shortly.”

Probably more like in an hour. But if it’s what she needs to feel like she can be ready to let Mother go, it’s what we’ll give her. As long as she doesn’t mourn too much and become infested with sadness. “Don’t be too long. It’s time you learn to dance and play.”

The prospect has me wanting to twirl to Jorrin. To let my emotions loose. Since we’re still on sacred ground, I let the feeling stay wrapped inside until the festival. Jorrin is somber, still feeling the effects of the ceremony. Or maybe, like me, he’s trying to remain solemn while still here. Hopefully the celebrations will loosen him some. I’m ready for dancing and merrymaking. Ready to leave the ache behind. At least for the moment, to try to give Mother what she would have wanted.

“Kaylyn needs some time alone, I think. Let’s go have fun, and she can join when she’s ready.”

His gaze darts to her, but he holds out an elbow for me. He’s never done that before: things are already looking brighter.

We walk across the field until we come to a clearing at the bottom of the mountain near the hall where we eat. By the time we reach the gathering, things are already underway. Food out, music playing, couples dancing. The air is potent with their joviality.

“Would you like something to eat?” Jorrin asks.

“Let’s dance instead.” Food isn’t distracting enough. Besides, finally being with him, mixed with wanting to put the day’s events behind me, has my feelings bouncing inside me; I’m ready to spin free until I’m so worn forgetfulness overtakes me.

Jorrin leads me to a free spot in the dance clear. We spin and twirl along with the others, the thrill of being thrown into the air and twisted about exactly what my emotions needed. They soar higher than even I do, releasing some of the ache over Mother’s death into the cool night air.

After the song ends, Jorrin leads me to a food-laden table. Boys always want food. Maybe I should learn to cook. Not to take over a cook’s job, but so I can make Jorrin a special treat once in a while. Let him see what I feel through sweets.

He offers me some sort of pastry, but I don’t even know what it is. My thoughts are too jumbled, nervous, and excited for me to pay close enough attention. At least the dancing seems to have helped some. “No, thank you.” I wave him away and look out at the dancers.

The song is milder than the last one, not as good at expending my nerves, but still moving. I suppose it doesn’t matter since we’re sitting this one out anyhow. My feet bounce me up and down, reminding me they want to move, as if I could forget.

Tavo, another Zophas who left shortly after I did, taps me on the shoulder. “Looks like you could use a dance. May I twirl you around this time?”

Jorrin lingers over the food like he isn’t ready to move. As if he’s not feeling the beat like my feet are. It’s not bad to dance with other boys. Especially when they ask. I’m not hiding my feelings for Jorrin, and it’s not uncommon for girls to dance with lots of different boys even when they have a beau or are married.

“That’d be great,” I tell Tavo.

He grins and leads me onto the dance floor. Unlike Jorrin, he doesn’t just dance with me, but he talks to me, makes me laugh. The sound feels odd, spurting from me on a night like this one, but is a balm to the stinging sorrow.

Tavo’s short, curly, blond hair is a perfect contrast to his golden-brown eyes. I’m not sure I ever knew what color his eyes were before, but that’s what happens when you dance, I suppose. Though he’s not as tall as Jorrin, he’s several inches taller than me, so it’s easy to twirl beneath his arm.

The song comes to a close, and he grips my waist with both of his hands, keeping me perfectly safe as he tosses me in the air one last time before bringing me back down to him. As the other dancers clap, I hug him. He’s warm and soft, and it’s so much easier to be comfortable around as a friend than to know how to behave around Jorrin.

“That was just what I needed. Thank you.” And maybe Jorrin will ask me to dance to the next song now that he’s had time to eat. “I’m going to go check on Jorrin.”

Tavo’s suddenly releases his grip on me as he smiles. “I’ll take you back.”

But I’m already winding my way through the other dancers who are lining up for the next song. Jorrin’s right where I left him, next to the food table, gaze turning back toward where Kaylyn probably still is. My own thoughts trail where his gaze is. It’s hard not to worry about her. I hope she’s handling everything all right and that she joins us soon. It will be so much easier for her to process if she gives into the celebration of everything they’ve done, everything Mom did. That’s why we’re having these festivities after all.

I move close to Jorrin’s side, Tavo’s back already trailing away from us. I wonder who he’ll find to dance with next. Whoever it is, I’m sure she’ll appreciate what a great dancer he is. If only Jorrin would ask me. Except he starts to grab for a cake as a new song starts. We can eat later. Even our leaders, the Aster and Astra, chosen to help us before I was even born, are dancing with others now. They’re almost what I imagine having a grandmother and grandfather would be like. And setting such a good example by enjoying the festivities.

“Will you dance with me, Jorrin?”

“Of course.”

He puts my hand on his elbow and leads me back to the clearing. My feet are ready to move before we reach an empty spot. Once we do, there’s no holding back. Our hands press together, arms around each other, feet perfectly in rhythm. We move to the music, flying through the air, twirling, moving together. This is what I’ve always wanted. This is what I’ve been waiting for.

The beat thrums through me as Jorrin throws me in the air, catches me, and whirls me away from him then back toward him. My breath is fast. Shallow. Heart pumping like mad. I let the pulse jumping in me radiate through my smile. He smiles back.

Everything is light and free. The music crescendos and ends with a smashing beat, dancers cheering. I collapse against Jorrin’s chest with a laugh.

“That was perfect,” I gasp out. “You’re marvelous. Why haven’t we danced before tonight?”

He smiles, shrugs, and looks around. “I don’t know. Guess the opportunity never came up.”

That’s true. We never had much of a chance for dancing when fighting Malryx. But I haven’t done much fighting for a long time, and he has done less the last year or so. Why haven’t we found ourselves together at a dance before this? I shake off the thought. We’re here now. That’s what matters.

Jorrin takes my hand, causing a flutter of excitement in my chest. He pulls me toward the edge of the crowd, and my excitement deflates some until I see where he’s headed. Straight toward Kaylyn, who’s looking solemn, but is at least here.

I curl toward Jorrin as we walk, unable to stop the laughter from bubbling up within me.

“Thank you,” I tell Jorrin as we reach her.

“My pleasure.” His words make the fluttering quicken. “What about you, Kaylyn? Would you like to dance?”

The fluttering sputters, and I try to force it back to its merriment. We’ve been having a good time together, but Kaylyn is our friend. From the drawn set of her mouth, she needs something happy to offset her thoughts. That’s the great thing about Jorrin—he’s always better at noticing these things than I am. Perhaps the more time I spend with him, the more his goodness will rub off on me.

But Kaylyn doesn’t look as if she feels the same about the idea. She purses her lips as she eyes those waiting to dance. “I don’t know how to dance.”

“I can teach you. It’s easy.”

“He really is great,” I add, despite the strange feeling of reluctance pouting inside. “I’m sure he can help you.”

The music starts, and behind me, the dancers begin, but still Kaylyn hesitates. “Why don’t you dance with Marsa again? Or another girl? I’m sure they’d be pleased to have you.”

“Of course. Marsa?”

The fluttering is back without any hesitance. I grab his hand—when did I let go?—and we’re off again. The beat moves through me as it did before, the music just as loud, the dancing just as engaging… but something is off.

That happy bounce won’t return to my step, even though Jorrin’s hands are on my back, arm, shoulder, and my own hand as we twirl about. Touching me like I’ve always dreamed of. In a way that, only a short while ago, made me excited for the new path our lives are about to take. But now the exuberance is gone. No matter how much I try to let the atmosphere draw me in, there’s no way to completely forget.

Kaylyn is upset. Momma is gone. And how did Jorrin and I stop holding hands without my realizing it?





Chapter Three


The week moves in a sort of stuck way. Things try to be like they were before my mom was gone and the Malryx were defeated, but of course they can’t be. And I don’t want them to. Other than the dance, things can’t move forward, either. There’s something there holding everything back from taking the next step. It’s keeping Jorrin and me apart and keeping Kaylyn from finding her place in life now that our fighting skills are no longer needed.

Whatever it is, I try to spend as much time as I can with them both, to let them know I’m ready to move on with them when they are. Even if it takes a while. I can continue with my duties, helping in the infirmary and the gardens, until they’re ready. Even if it’s hard. What’s harder is not thinking about how much I miss my mom. How much I long to listen to her tell one of her stories just once more.

This morning, the garden is quiet. Too quiet. The weeds are few enough that I’m almost done with them even though I’ve only been here a few minutes. The herbs I planted are thriving, twinning toward the light, just like they should.

The thought makes me look in the distance. The dark clouds can’t be seen from down here, but when I was at the top of the mountain yesterday, they were still there, and just maybe, a little bigger. I stand on my tiptoes to see if that will help me spot them from here.

“I think I need help,” a male voice says behind me.

I turn to find Felix clutching his head, blood oozing out between his fingers. I hurry over to him, trying to keep my face from showing panic at so much blood. It’s a head wound. Bleeding is just what they do. “Let’s get you to the nurse.”

I wrap an arm around him and support him, just in case he faints. His weight is easy to help hold up, though greater than my own. Even though I don’t train anymore, I still exercise regularly. It doesn’t take us long to hobble to the infirmary. Its central location is easy to get to from anywhere. The nurse isn’t in sight, though. I guide him to a nearby sick bed, and help him lay down.

“Brilona,” I call out.

The nurse scuttles out from the hall and gasps. “My, my, Felix, what have you gotten into this time?” She doesn’t let him reply. Istead, she tsks and gets to work inspecting the wound. She switches his hand for a cloth, only it’s soaked in moments. “Lands.”

“What is it?” I bend my knees slightly even, though being ready to maneuver won’t help. Too many years of training for battle when the adrenaline hits make it impossible to do otherwise.

“Fetch Kaylyn for me, will you? She’ll have a better handling on this one than I do,” Brilona says.

“Course. I’ll be right back, Felix.”

“I’ll be here,” he calls out as I hurry from the building.

It’s probably not as bad as Brilona thinks, but she doesn’t deal with wounds like this often. There’s a need to hurry but not a frantic urgency behind finding Kaylyn. She’s been all over the town this week, trying her hand at many different tasks, she, the Aster, and Astra hoping she finds a place to settle into. I don’t think such a place is going to be as quick to find as any of them hope.

My transition was hard, but I had time to adjust as my duties as a Zophas slowly ended. She doesn’t have that luxury, and today, she’s stuck in the barn. Not that it’s a bad place to be, but it certainly isn’t one I picture Kaylyn in. Of course, I can’t picture Kaylyn doing anything other than fighting.

When I reach the barn, I find Kaylyn in the corral sitting on a stool next to a cow. Bet she’s loving that. Maybe it’s a good thing Felix needs looking at.

“Kaylyn, you’re needed in the infirmary,” I call out as quickly as I can.

Her head pops up faster than she draws her sword against a Malryx. She says something to the woman in charge of the farmyard, who gives a chuckle. They exchange a few more words before Kaylyn hurries over, dodging the cows like she’ll have to go back to milking them if she gets too close.

“That was good timing. Is someone really hurt?” Her eyes are bright as we hurry toward the infirmary, but I can forgive her excitement. It’s that adrenaline rush, the power of what we know and do, coursing through her.

“Yup.”

“Is it serious?”

“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.”

“Did we miss a Malryx?” Something sounding a little like excitement coats her words. Almost makes me miss the thrill of a good fight.

“No. It’s Felix.”

“Oh.” Her shoulders slump. I want to reach out and comfort her, but she continues talking as if trying to hurry past what is no longer. “What did he do this time?”

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

We head a small ways up the mountain on the stairs to the infirmary. Kaylyn enters, and I follow. Felix is right where I left him—on a bed, holding a rag to his head, but Brilona isn’t. Her frantic movements are focused on getting more rags. “Praise the night sky. He just keeps bleeding.”

A little overly dramatic. It’s not that much blood. Once, when we were out hunting for Malryx, he slipped crossing a stream and landed on a stick. There was more blood then than I’ve ever seen, and it took him a month to recuperate from the injury.

“Hi, Felix,” Kaylyn says, her voice as calm as it always is when dealing with the wounded.

I hurry to the back room to heat some water while she gets an assessment on what needs to be done. We’ve seen this before. Probably could have even treated it myself, but she always had more of a knack for it than I did.

I move back and forth between taking out fresh supplies and cleaning things up. Kaylyn has Felix so rapt, he doesn’t even seem to notice me moving about. It’s easy work, though. One I did many of times on the road. At least here there’s plenty of fresh, clean supplies. By the time he’s fixed up and sent on his way, I’m already done putting everything away. Brilona shows us out, claiming we need dinner while she makes notes on what Kaylyn taught her.

“Thanks for fetching her for me,” Brilona tells me as I head out to follow Kaylyn for some much needed food.

“Always happy to help.” I give her a big smile. “Don’t stay writing notes so long you forget to eat.”

“I would never.”

I laugh as I pass through the doorway, making a mental note to bring her something later if she doesn’t show up for dinner. Kaylyn is waiting for me a few yards down the path. Now that no one’s health is in danger, she should be a little more upbeat, or at least more at ease. But she trails along my side, feet dragging instead of her usual precise steps. Why ever for? Doesn’t she realize what a good job she did?

Maybe not. Maybe someone hasn’t thought to tell her this is where she should be. If she can’t fight, she should be doing the thing she’s good at that’s closest to what she did before. It’s why I work mostly in the herb gardens now. Hoping to help her understand that, I quietly say, “Perhaps you could work in the infirmary. Be a healer?”

“Maybe.

Well, that didn’t sound convincing at all. “Do you want to talk about it?”

She shrugs. “Not now. Sorry, I’m still trying to sort my thoughts out.”

“Don’t worry about it.” But I’ll worry about it. Never before have I not known what she was thinking. We used to have almost the same thoughts. And when we didn’t, we always talked things out. I suppose this will return as we spend more time together.

Time. I can give her that. I can be patient.

And while I’m waiting, there’s time to heal from losing Mom. Time to fill the ache in my soul. At least everyone says time fixes things like this. Right now, I don’t see how it could, but it must happen. My mother didn’t ever seem to have a hole from losing my father to the fight when I was little.

Besides, I’ve got Jorrin. Things are going to happen with him soon. I just know it. It should help fill the ache inside me. Just thinking of him sparks a light in me. I want to skip to dinner, knowing he’ll be there.

The dining hall is within view. Hopefully, he’s already there waiting for us. Or maybe he should come in a few minutes after us and then be able to see where we are and join us. Ideally he’d be with us already, but he’s working to find good building lumber today. It’s fine, though. I shouldn’t push things so hard. It’s only that, well…I’m tired of waiting. I’m ready, but I told myself I can be patient, and I can. Even if it’s hard. Why am I even worrying about this so much?

“What’s going on down there?” Kaylyn’s voice startles me from my thoughts.

Guilt tugs at me since I’ve been thinking of Jorrin instead of talking with her. But then, if she was in the mood to talk, she would have said something. Right? I don’t know. When did things become so complicated?

I look down toward the riverside where she’s pointing. A crowd has gathered at the bank, with more people trailing over as we watch. Something must be going on, but I don’t remember hearing about any gatherings. “I don’t know. Maybe they’re all trying to catch fish with their hands?”

Jorrin did that once. Just thinking of the memory has me torn between laughing and being in awe. It’d be a good skill for him to teach others. I wonder if I could ever figure it out.

“Hopefully they’re more graceful than Felix.”

I chuckle. If he were here, he’d be laughing even harder. Jorrin may be a good teacher, but Felix is isn’t exactly coordinated.

Kaylyn heads toward the gathering, and I follow after, like usual. We’re not the only ones coming, either. Others have spotted the crowd and are headed toward it as well. But no Jorrin in sight.

When we get in the midst of those hovering around someone, I ask, “Who’s that, Tavo?”

I lean closer to hear his reply, growing warmer just by being near so many people. “Messenger from Criown. Weird things have been happening at their village.”

Criown? I went there once with Mom a few years ago. The memory brings a painful twist.

“What sort of weird things?” Kaylyn asks.

“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?” I can’t even think of what a strange cloud could be. And growing bigger? Clouds come and go as they should, sometimes gathering to take up the whole sky, dotting it with puffs of white or gray. They don’t stick around and grow bigger. Except… “The darkness you can only see at the top of the mountain?”

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

The statement shoots a tiny spark of fear through me. But why should it? I mean, what he’s describing certainly is odd, but why fear it? There’s no way to know the answer to that. I wonder if Jorrin does. He sometimes senses things others can’t.

The Aster helps the messenger head toward the row of homes on stilts up the mountain side, and the crowd begins to disperse.

“Are they going to tell us anything more?” I ask Tavo.

“Yeah. They were talking about letting him get some sleep before that, though. Apparently he came straight here, barely stopping for a real meal or sleep. They’ll have a gathering later tonight that anyone can join.”

Not sure I want to know what they’re going to say in that meeting. “I’m going to go eat before then. I’ll see you two later.”

“Want some company?” Kaylyn asks.

She would come with me if I asked, but her gaze is focused far off in the distance on nothing, as if she’s deep in thought. Heavy thought. “Thanks, but I’m good. I’ll see you soon.”

“Are you coming to hear what they have to say tonight?” Tavo asks.

Everyone’s certain to be there, but I want to go crawl into my bed instead and stay there long past time to get up. “Probably.”

“I’ll see you then.” He gives me a grin that’s dulled by the worry of the situation, but like he still wants me to know he’s here for me.

And it’s true. Even though Mother isn’t here, I have to remember I won’t be alone. Not that I always needed her, but she would have been there. But Jorrin will probably be going, too. I give Tavo a small smile back before heading toward the dining hall. Jorrin has to be inside by now. Unless someone from the crowd waylaid him with stories of strange, shiver-inducing clouds. Wherever he is, I’ll find him.

I don’t have to hunt much; he’s at a table in the back of the dining hall by himself. The hall is surprisingly empty for this time of night. After seeing the messenger, food doesn’t seem appealing, but I grab some corn bread and chili anyway, before joining Jorrin.

He nods. “How are things?”

“Oh, you know. Dirt and weeds. Felix had an accident that needed some tending to. Nothing much.”

“First time this month for him, isn’t it?”

“Second, but there was enough blood to make Brilona nervous. Kaylyn fixed him right up, though.”

“She’s good at that,” he says. “What happened to her? I thought you two were coming to dinner together.”

I push the bean around my bowl. “She, um—Have you heard…?”

He stops eating. “Is everything all right?”

If I want to have a relationship with him, I should be able to tell him what I’m feeling. Besides, he’s asking. That has to be a good sign. Right? “Have you heard about the messenger from Criown?”

“No.”

“Seemed like the whole village was down there to meet him.” I quickly explain the few details I know, ending with, “Something about it has me feeling… off.”

“That explains why it’s so empty in here.” He leans back, ignoring his half-finished plate. “There is something about this that feels different than other problems we’ve been called to help with. Though without Malryx, I guess it would.”

“True. Even though I haven’t been working with you guys much lately, I don’t know how long it will take me to get used to them actually being gone.” Maybe we’ll never get used to it. Maybe it’s like archery. I’ve given it up, but it seems like it should still be part of my life. It’s engrained in my every movement.

“You said they’re meeting once he’s rested?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“We should be there.”

“I… don’t know. I’m not sure I want to be involved. I have to finish in the garden.”

“Not at night, though. No one expects that. It’ll still be there tomorrow. And I think if we learn more about what’s going on, it will help.”

Going definitely feels worse, but he’s right. I need to learn about it. When have I shied away from anything hard? Never. Now isn’t the time to start. “You’ll come with me, then?”

“You know I will.”

My heart flutters. I can do this then. He’ll be at my side, and Kaylyn will be there. Mom must be watching me from the stars. Nothing could possibly go wrong.





Chapter Four


“Our crops are yielding less, our animals are fitful, and the darkness over us hasn’t brought rain,” Foley, the messenger says.

No rain? That’s enough to drive a person crazy right there, not to mention the problems it would cause with food and animals. He continues talking about the village’s circumstances, and the tales of how things have slowly been changing in the forest near them. How it slowly seemed to spread but didn’t worry them at first—what was there to worry about? How things have gotten worse. How animals are acting strangely, and the dark cloud hovering nearby hasn’t moved in weeks except to grow, threatening to block out their sun.

All of it makes me want to return to the garden, go back to before Felix interrupted.

If my mom was here, she’d have some ideas on what to do about it. The thought makes my worried heart ache. At least Jorrin’s here, though. He looks on the scene with the kind of determination that makes me lean a little closer to him. Whatever is going on, it will be fine.

Suddenly, Kaylyn speaks up. “I’d be willing to lead a group back with Foley to see what we can find out and how we can help.”

What? She’s really willing to risk herself in this situation? I guess I understand. She’s been struggling to find her place, and this is more like the missions we used to journey on together. Only, when my time as a Zophas ended, I was happy to be through—if a little lost for a while trying to figure things out. I wish she could be that way as well. What really matters is what the Aster and Astra think, the look they’re exchanging. Whatever it is they read in that look, they both seem in agreement.

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.”

That’s it then. She’s leaving me again, only this time willingly. As the Aster and Astra discuss with Foley if this will work, I can’t focus on their words. At some point, I slump back against the bench. The task is for a good purpose, but it shouldn’t be happening. My father left, my mom left, Kaylyn’s leaving. Everyone leaves.

“I’ll go with you.” Jorrin suddenly volunteers.

Point proven. My chest squeezes with a painful twinge, but this doesn’t have to be the end of us. Maybe it will be a good chance for Kaylyn, Jorrin, and me to spend time together like we haven’t in too long. I stand. “So will I.”

Kaylyn beams—not in the carefree way I do, but in her own subtle, glowing kind of way. Tavo also volunteers, along with a few other former Zophas.

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

As those gathered disperse, faces lighter now that someone capable is hunting to solve the problem, I slump back down on the bench. My volunteering was impulsive. Too impulsive. As much as I want to help, is it the right thing for me? For the others? The good thing to do isn’t always clear.

It’s been over a year since I’ve steadily served my Zophas calling. The time away from it has been better suited to me. As much as I’m ready to move on, Jorrin hasn’t been away from the Zophas as long as I have. Maybe the time apart would have been good for him. For us.

More than that, the thought of this journey, and what Foley described, leaves a dark tinge of worry.





Chapter Five


It’s peaceful this time of the morning and too early for me to be awake. I yawn as we start off. Kaylyn decided we should set off earlier than first light, so the stars still twinkle overhead, wishing our journey well. Foley is only too eager to get started. I, on the other hand, not so much.

“There’s no sense in rising before the sun,” I say, another yawn attacking me.

“You’d dance the night away and sleep all day if it wasn’t for chores,” Tavo teases.

If I weren’t so tired I’d stick my tongue out at him. “As any sane person should.”

“Right now is the best time to be awake,” Sosha adds. “Night creatures are just going to bed and day creatures are just getting up. Sometimes you can catch glimpses of them both if you time it right.”

“And your breakfast is still hot,” Felix says.

“Fine. I’m the only one with a good sense of when to sleep.” I stretch as much as I can make myself with tiredness and the pack on my back weighing my limbs. “Thought the rest of you would have better sense than that since we don’t have to go out on quests anymore.”

“It was never the quests that got us up early,” Sosha says.

“I know.” A third yawn escapes me, making my eyes water. “I’m just lazy.”

“I wouldn’t say lazy,” Tavo says. “More like you don’t enjoy mornings as much as the rest of us.”

In other words, everything is somehow the same as it was when we went on quests, even though it’s all changed.

“Let’s go,” Kaylyn says, coming to our group and directing Foley to lead us down the dirt road.

Already, fading memories of past journeys make this one familiar, yet different. Jorrin is always near, though we don’t talk. No one does. That our quest is something we’ve never tried before is too nerve-racking for chatter, I suppose. Not the most romantic way to spend my time with Jorrin, but at least we’re together.

We continue on the full day, moving through the forest toward the mountains. We’ll take a canyon to get between them, stopping only briefly for necessities and food. We break for the night and hurry to make camp and eat so we can be rested for another wearing day.

I stretch, letting the new movement combat the day’s soreness. “I’ve spent too much time doing gardening instead of stretching.”

Jorrin laughs. “You should have joined me training. I figured even if I wasn’t going to be a Zophas anymore, the exercise still felt good. And today it proved useful.”

“I wish I’d joined you.” This was the right choice—coming with. “Want to help me get firewood?”

“Sure.” But his gaze isn’t on me.

No matter. It’s a good start.





****





The second night we stop, there’s more life in our group. The fire is big and bright, warming my face while my back is chilled. Though days are still hot, nights are cool. I’m grateful the melancholy from the first day hasn’t carried on through tonight. When I don’t think about it too much, it easily feels like traveling back in time to when we were all Zophas, fighting evil, and working together to make life better for everyone.

“We’re running low on water,” Kaylyn says to me. “I’m going to refill the waterskins at the stream.”

“I can help, if you’d like.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine. Don’t wait on me for dinner. I’ll be back in a while.”

Not surprising. She’s always sought solitude more than I have. We may be like sisters, but I thrive with others while she prefers her own company. “Enjoy.”

I do a few stretches outside the fire ring, trying to burn some of my nighttime energy while loosening my muscles so I’m not as sore tomorrow.

“Too bad you can’t find this kind of energy in the mornings,” Jorrin says.

“It’s only too bad the rest of you don’t have this much energy when we stop at night,” I counter with a smile. “We’d have dinner in no time and still have a chance to dance and tell stories.”

“But then your antics at night wouldn’t be as entertaining for the rest of us,” Felix says.

I laugh and sneak a glance at Jorrin, wondering if he has the same thoughts. He grins at me, the firelight dancing shadows across his face. Maybe he’s growing more open to the idea of us. Everything feels perfect. Maybe he’ll even propose before we finish this quest, and we’ll have extra news for the Aster and Astra.

We converse as a group around the fire while dinner cooks. I’ve missed the smokiness, mixed with the savory smell of Tavo’s latest meal. There’s something so homey and comforting about it. The ache from losing my mom is tender at moments like these.





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