Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Turning A Sick Day Into A Fantasy Story


So I was sick out of my mind the other day. As I was unable to do much more than drink ginger ale and lurch from couch to couch in search of cool pillows and tissues, I figured I might as well get something done. Thus was born "The Long Way Home", a fantasy story that picks up in the middle of an existing narrative and uses flashbacks to tell the backstory while the main narrative is occurring. The symptoms experienced by one of the main characters are essentially the same symptoms I was experiencing as I wrote the story, but taken to a higher level.

Why am I posting this? Because I presume someone out there will actually enjoy a product created in misery. Be forewarned, the story is lengthy - 10-11 pages - and heavily utilizes fantastical elements. Even for the initiated, it may at times be a little confusing. That being said, I hope you enjoy.

The Long Way Home

The senseless cries in the dark are the voices of the nether. They are the voices of a time bygone, and older era of chaos and darkness. They have a power that is great to be feared, and trying to harness it holds risks.

Ranulf held his head. It hurt, filled with chaotic noise and the incessant whirling of feral darkness. At the core of it, he retained a small kernel of sanity, but the rest had been poisoned and twisted by the nether.

Demon infusion sucks, he decided.

The spirits of the nether are beyond our comprehension. They are spirits that have been since the inception of the world, and may well continue long after the passing of our species. If properly controlled, they can be used as a source of great power. But if improperly summoned, they will instead use you - as a vessel for their designs.

Pressing his forehead into the dirt, Ranulf tried to shove back the chaos. The tumult was incredible, beyond description. To focus was impossible; to fight back against it was all he knew. In the small kernel of awareness he still possessed, he knew that ceasing to resist meant he would be overwhelmed entirely. Amidst the fury of his struggle, time lost meaning; all that he could perceive was moment after moment of assault.

Digging his thin fingers into the soft forest loam, he pushed himself up and looked around, grimacing at the difficulty of visually perceiving the world while trying to fight off the chaos inside. Summer lay heavy on the woods, oppressing everything with humid heat. The trees were bathed in the dusky blue of early night, and somewhere near, he could smell the barest hint of a cool breeze.

This is why Grimoire work in pairs. Your partner checks your work, watches your back, and in the case of demon infusion, can remove the spirit from you, or get help if it is beyond him. This returns us to the first rule of Grimoire: never summon alone.

Dragging himself through the ferns and leaf mold, Ranulf blindly chased the cooler air. All of his senses had been sharpened, but it was no blessing; it simply added to the overload of sensory input that was currently tormenting him. Trying to close out the noise was impossible, so more out of instinct than conscious thought, he struggled toward what his senses told him was a clean stream running through the woods.

The howls that arise from the wild are the voices of nature. They are the voices of this world, of those that have passed but remain, of those creatures who live by instinct. They have a fury that can never truly be tamed, and of the spirits, they are the most difficult to control.

Ranulf’s fingers traced over smooth, worn stones, mortared by mud and slightly damp. Reaching further out, his hand shoved into cool water holding bits of twigs and leaves, sending droplets running down his arm and wetting his sleeve. Bit by bit, he crawled forward, pausing every now and then to hold his thrumming head, and drank upon reaching the stream’s edge, not caring about the silt he’d stirred up.

The spirits of the wild do not possess the malevolence that the spirits of the nether do. They are personifications of things that are, and know only one thing - the struggle for continuance. If one is possessed of a strong will, he may allow a wild spirit into himself and control it, while allowing the spirit’s traits to manifest in his body. This is how Anima are created, and it is no great crime to become one, as long as you are able to control that which you take into yourself.

After taking his fill, he rolled over on his back, pressing his wet hands to his eyes. The fever that consumed him simply evaporated the water on his hands and heated the pool around him, so he turned on his side and pushed further into the stream, where the current constantly brought fresh water to cool his burning skin. Dunking his head in the water sent an icy flash of pain arcing through his head, so he rested his head on a mossy rock while the water flowed over the rest of him.

Like the Grimoire, those who practice Anima work in pairs. Unlike nether spirits, wild spirits are of this world, and may manifest themselves physically if the need presents itself. They do not require a body to act, and if provoked, will strike you down. Working with a partner reduces the possibility of becoming a victim of your own summoning.

Blessed by a lull in the tumult, Ranulf lay limp in the stream. To his side, he could see his rippled reflection in the running waters; yellow eyes with slit pupils stared tiredly back at him. Absentmindedly, his fingers wandered to his chest, where a necklace holding a piece of amethyst would normally rest. The darkness in his mind, sensing this movement, rushed back all at once, trying to drown the bit of him that remain aware of what had happened to it.

The whispers that come in the moments of silence are the voices of divinity. They are the voices of purer beings, seeking the ascension and purification of our race. They are difficult spirits to summon and command, for one must have honorable intentions and a pure soul before a divine spirit will agree to cooperate.

“Shouldn’t we wait for help?” Caryll asked nervously.

“What are you, brainless?” Umbriel said. “The zealots searching for Ranulf aren’t going to help him. They’re going to kill him.”

“Maybe that’s the only way we can help him.” Caryll offered timidly.

The inch-high shadow fairy fluttered to a halt, turning on Caryll. “You’re the one that’s responsible for what happened to him. You made a mistake all those years back, and he paid the price. Don’t you feel any guilt for what you did?”

Like the nether, divine spirits have existed since the inception of the world, a counterbalance to chaos. They are an anathema to the darkness, building where the nether seeks to destroy. Summoning them allows for enlightenment, and those infused with divine spirits are ascendant, powerful protectors against the darkness. Though many may summon the divine for their ends, only the purest can take the divine into them and become ascendant.

“What happened to Ran can’t be fixed.” Caryll said, stopping. “You’re a fairy. You know that.”

“Really?” Umbriel said incredulously, alighting on a branch and shaking her head. “I can’t believe you. So because he took the fall for your folly and can’t be redeemed, you’re just going to let the Elders kill him? You humans. . .”

“I can’t fix what happened to him!” Caryll protested. “What do you want from me?”

“I want you to try! I want you to show some remorse, some sign that you’re willing to make up for your mistakes. You owe a debt to Ran. When your experimental summoning went wrong, Ran absorbed the consequences. He saved you from the fate he now suffers. Yet you would stand aside, and let them kill him for something he’s not responsible for. . . what kind of person are you?”

Of all summoners, only the Lux may summon without a partner. The divine holds no danger for those that would summon them, and their power is elusive, impossible to abuse.

Fighting back against the darkness, Ranulf writhed, slipping deeper into the stream in his agony. The struggle to retain control over his body had physical effects, the most prominent being pain. Deep blue lightning sparked over his skin as he rejected the tainted part of his soul, which raged and stormed for control.

“Sure, we know a lot about human-spirit interactions. I mean, that’s what drives our world; it’s our way of life. But what about the interactions between spirits? All we know is that the nether and the divine destroy each other upon contact. We don’t know if a demon can infuse a wild spirit, if a wild spirit has ever become ascendant - who knows, that could be how the nature gods came into being! We know nothing about the intricacies of spirit interactions, and until someone starts exploring it, we never will. I am that someone.”

“The tracks lead through here.” Elder Aston said, holding aloft a pendant housing one of the divine. Yellow light cast shadows and painted the trees as his colleagues joined him. “It appears that he was not walking with confidence, possibly dizzy or stumbling. Perhaps he was regaining control?”

“Impossible. No one can recover from demon taint.” Elder Gareth determined with finality.
“What happened back at the house wasn’t wholly demonic. His powers were different - I’d almost say mixed with the traits of an Anima.” Elder Aston insisted.

The arrival of the Ascendant ended all conversation. Wreathed in a pale yellow aura, his very presence lit the night and served as a torch for others.

“The state of Ranulf’s infusion matters not. It cannot be reversed, and he has proved himself a danger to all. He must be laid to rest before he hurts others.” the Ascendant softly ruled. “Go. He must not be allowed to escape.”

“What will you start with?”

“A demon and a nature spirit, summoned into the same circle. My theory is that the demon will infuse the nature spirit, but since no one’s tried it before. . . I’ll be taking notes, whatever happens.”

“Do the Elders know about this?”

“Don’t talk to me about the Elders. They’re scared of change, discourage me every time I bring it up. I stopped asking for their advice a while back, after they kept telling me such theories were ‘profane’ and ‘unnatural’.”

“Perhaps there is a reason. . .”

“Please, not you too. Summoning was once seen as sacrilegious. What if our predecessors never overcame that perception? We would still be stuck in the dark age.”

“You want me to help you.”

“Will you?”

Distantly, Ranulf could perceive something approaching, but at the moment found that he could really care less about it. He was busy gripping his head, struggling against the chaos that filled it. Around him, the stream was steaming where it came in contact with him; his fever had reached phenomenal heights, though the tone of his skin refused to change.
“A felid spirit?”

“What, you don’t approve?”

“I thought that perhaps you would choose something more. . . stable. . . for this experiment.”

“What did you think I was going to summon? A hamster spirit? A nether spirit would eat a lesser spirit alive. I need a nether spirit and a nature spirit that are roughly on par with each other, otherwise we won’t learn anything.”

“Felids aren’t known for being reliable test subjects.”

“Well, I couldn’t use a canid. Too much raw power. Felids have the same amount of power, but it’s subtler, easier to bring under reign if something happens.”

“Fine. Just make sure you seal that circle tighter than a new bottle of ketchup. If there’s a way out, a felid spirit will find it and wriggle free.”

The approaching noise grew more distinct, articulated by the snapping of twigs and the swishing of undergrowth. It got louder, louder, until suddenly, with the skittering of stone, it stopped dead. Opening his eyes, Ranulf wrenched his body to the side to see what had the audacity to come so near to him.

Standing there on the stony shore was Caryll, blonde hair askew and eyes wide. One foot was in the water, the other on the shore; it appeared as if she had stopped midstride, repelled by an unexpected sight. From one hand hung a necklace with a raw amethyst, and there, flitting over her shoulder, was Umbriel, her smoky gossamer nearly indistinguishable from the night around her.

“There. The felid spirit has fully manifested in the circle; now we’re ready for the nether spirit.”

“Looks like a sneaky little bugger.”

“Focus, Caryll.”

“Yeah, yeah. Activating the gate. . . here comes the demon.”

“The circle is holding, no unusual stresses. . . the felid doesn’t look happy, though.”

“The demon’s fully manifested. . . whoa, they’re already fighting each other-”


Caryll slid to a halt, her stomach lurching. There in the stream was Ranulf, though not as she recalled him. He seemed to have grown more lithe and willowy, streamlined and efficient. His face was angled, his teeth sharper; instead of brown, his eyes were bright yellow, with slit pupils, and they betrayed the torment he felt as he staved off the madness threatening to take him.

“Help me.” he gasped.

“The demon’s infused the felid!”

“Caryll, the energy in the circle just spiked. We’re getting stress fractures.”


“It looks like coexistence is possible, with attributes of both being preserved in the new formation, which appears to be stable, albeit highly violent-”

“The energy in the circle has multiplied by tens, Caryll! We need to jettison the spirit back through a gate before the seal breaks!”

“Not yet! Give it time to calm down; infusion always results in an energy release!”

“Not like this! The energy isn’t settling, Caryll; it’s still rising. We need to jettison!”

“It’ll settle, Ran, just wait-”


“This thing is in pain, Caryll, and it’s powerful! We need to send it back before it gets loose. I’m activating the emergency shutoff!”


“Are you mental? Shut it down, you foo-”


The lightning flickering over Ranulf thickened, a black aura beginning to form around him. The torment on his face disappeared, replaced by a snarl; Caryll jumped back, but Umbriel dove forward, flying around behind Ranulf and projecting a larger version of herself. Looping her arms through his and wrapping her legs around his waist, she held him down as he thrashed, his black aura growing all the while.

“The necklace! Put it on him!” Umbriel shouted amid the flying water and lightning.

Caryll flinched, reluctant to edge nearer. It appeared that Ranulf was already lost to the feral darkness consuming him. His maddened thrashing was identical to that of the demon-infused felid they’d summoned years ago, enraged beyond reason or rationale. If anything remained of the person she once knew, she couldn’t find it.

“Caryll!” Umbriel hissed as her projection flickered. “Hurry! I can’t keep this up!”

Caryll started forward, but found herself unable to follow through. What she saw before her frightened her, though she was the one that created it. The fury of nature, coupled with the sheer power of the nether, resulted in a spirit that was beyond control and comprehension. It was the same hybrid she had once marveled at, but now Ranulf had become a part of it, and it frightened her.

“You owe him a debt, Caryll!” Umbriel shouted.

The shadow fairy’s words bit deep, and Caryll squeezed her eyes shut. Then steeling herself, she waded into the stream, necklace in hand.

“Where is it?”

“I don’t know. Destroyed in the explosion, maybe?”

“No. . . I can hear something. Light. Quick.”

Light flared across the ravaged summoning room as Caryll tapped a Lux pendant. Everything not bolted down had been shunted away from the blast pattern in the center of the room, where the sealed circle had failed. And there, prowling around the debris, was the demon-infused felid, its crazed yellow eyes fixed on them. Before either of them could react, it lunged forward, locked onto the one that had summoned and created it.

Ranulf pushed Caryll away, beyond the reach of the tainted spirit. Robbed of its intended victim, it instead slammed into Ranulf with enough force to throw him back against the wall, disappearing into him as he slid to the ground in a daze.

“Ran?” Caryll whispered.

Ranulf grabbed his head as he tipped over on his side and opened his mouth in a soundless scream.

Dodging Ranulf’s thrashing limbs, Caryll looped the necklace over his head, shivering where her skin came in contact with his black aura. The moment the necklace went around his neck, his struggling weakened, the darkness and lightning being drained into the amethyst on the chain. Soon he went entirely still, head lolling in the stream.

Umbriel’s projection shimmered and failed, and she returned to her original size, collapsing on Ranulf’s shoulder in exhaustion. Sitting on her knees in the stream, Caryll stared blankly at her former friend. His physical features hadn’t reverted; he was still lithe and willowy, his half-lidded eyes a sharp golden.

“Is he. . .” Caryll said.

“Still infused.” Umbriel said, sitting up. “All the crystal does it negate the influence of the infused parts of his soul. It allows him to control it, which is how he made it all these years without going mad.”

“I always wondered how he survived the years without being consumed.” Caryll sighed, combing her hair back. “What about his body?”

“That’s permanent. Too long without his negator, and the power of the spirit within morphs the vessel carrying it.” Umbriel answered, straightening out her gossamer and brushing her hair back into place.

“That’s incredible. I didn’t know that artifacts existed that could negate the power of an infused spirit.” Caryll remarked, leaning forward to stare at the amethyst. “Do you know where he got it?”

Umbriel shook her head.

In the ruins of the summoning room, Ranulf lay alone. Caryll fled - not to get help, as Ranulf anticipated, but to erase the evidence of her guilt. The demonic felid now merged into his soul raged within the confines of its new cage, seeking to spend its wrath on the one who created it. Only the thought of protecting Caryll gave Ranulf the strength to reign it in and hold it down, but the struggle grew harder by the moment.

In the dim light, there was a flicker. Suddenly, Ranulf found himself staring at a shadow fairy with short, dark hair, and dressed in smoky gossamer. In her hands was a raw amethyst, with rich, deep hue.

“It’s okay.” she promised. “I’m here to help you.”

Prying open his hand, she placed the amethyst within. The raging of his felid-infused soul quickly subsided, and Ranulf found himself able to think. Once his ability to speak returned, he whispered to his savior.

“Who are you?”

“Umbriel. . .”

“Is he alright?” Caryll asked.

“He’ll be fine, but the infusion has progressed to near complete. For all intents and purposes, he’s become the spirit caged within him. He’ll be himself, but he’ll also be changed.” Umbriel said, combing Ranulf’s wet hair away from his eyes. He stirred, eyes opening slightly.

Caryll turned as the sound of feet tromping through the forest echoed to them. Yellow light was closing on them; it appeared the Elders had caught up. Umbriel glanced up, alarmed.
“Go stall them, Caryll. I don’t have the strength to protect Ran, and he’s not awake yet.”

“It’s too late for that.” Caryll and Umbriel turned to see Elder Desarr come out of the brush on the other side of the stream, flanked by other elders and effectively cornering the trio. “This fool’s errand ends now. It is impossible to save the infused from demon taint.”

“Why are you still hanging around, even after all this time?”

“It’s my job to protect you.”

“On who’s authority?”

“Fate. Destiny. The threads of our lives have been woven together. Perhaps they’ll diverge some time in the future, but that day isn’t here yet.”

“So you’re just sticking around because you have to?”

“Well, you are a nice human to hang out with. . .”

The Elders lined the stream on either side, leaving Umbriel, Caryll, and Ranulf with no avenue of escape. Caryll slipped her bracelet off, ready to use it if the need arose.

“Aside, Elder Caryll. The creature you protect is no longer Ranulf.” Desarr ordered.

“He’s fine! The only reason he turned into this was because someone stole his negator from him. It’s an artifact that neutralizes the effect of a spirit infusion.” Caryll expounded, seeking resolve things through dialogue. “Look at him now. He’s no threat to anyone.”

Ranulf’s eyes flickered open a little wider, though still halfway closed.

“Your mind has been corrupted by Ranulf’s imp - and she is likely the reason he is the way he is now.” Desarr declaimed.

“Hey!” Umbriel shouted. “We’re called fairies, thank you very much!”

“No such device exists.” The Elders on one side of the stream parted to allow the Ascendant through. “And even so, this creature has killed. Justice must be served.”

“Stand aside, Elder Caryll.” Desarr ordered, raising a hand. Three of his five fingers bore rings, each one infused with a spirit of the divine. The other Elders followed suit, some more reluctantly than others.

“Did you ever forgive her?”


“Then why didn’t you tell the Elders of her transgression? Expose her sins and make her pay? The punishment for infusing someone else with a nether spirit is death, which seems fair enough.”

“Because I loved her.”

“Even after what she turned you into.”

“Even after.”

“She didn’t love you back. She betrayed you. Used you.”

“I know.”

“And even knowing that, you still didn’t turn her in to the Elders?”

“No. You believe in destiny, don’t you?”

“Of course. It’s what brought you and I together.”

“Then you must believe all debts will eventually be repaid. Justice will find her; I don’t need to be the one to dole it out.”

“Will you ever stop loving her?”

“It faded as I realized what she’d done to me. I still do love her - just not nearly as much as I once did, and probably never will again. . . may I ask why this is so interesting to you?”

“Humans fascinate me. It’s just hard to wrap my head around all the silly things you rationalize.”

The mud beneath Desarr’s feet bubbled discreetly. He did not look down until the muck began seeping into his shoes, and by then he was unable to uproot himself. The other Elders stepped back from the stream’s shore, save one who was caught with Desarr as well. As the pair continued to sink, they attempted to blast their way free with the divine power at their disposal; however, they were being swallowed too fast for it to be of much effect. Upon seeing this, the other Elders redirected their attention to help their colleagues.

With some difficulty, Ranulf pushed himself into a sitting position.

The few Elders that noticed raised their hands towards him, fingers glowing with divine power; Ranulf’s eyes flicked their way. With a soft rustling, the vines in the brush exploded with growth, crawling up legs and torsos and yanking hands down, or tying bodies to trees. The alarmed shouts caused the other Elders to come about. This time they did not wait for the order to attack.

“You still summon? After what happened to you?”

“I learned from my mistakes, and your mistakes. Knowledge is of no value if you don’t use it after you sacrificed something to gain it.”

“But you’re infused with both the nether and the wild. You can tap their power instead of summoning other spirits, so why don’t you?”

“The more I tap them, the more they become a part of me. I hope that one day I might be able to excise them, but if turns out that isn’t a possibility. . . on the day that I know that with certainty, I will accept what I’ve become and begin tapping their power.”

“So you regret what you turned into.”

“No. I don’t regret anything I did. Or didn’t do. Mostly, I regret the things you did.”

Ranulf surged to his feet, sliding Umbriel into his hand as he brought the other up and around. The stream roared up around them, solidifying into a dome of ice as streams of yellow light slammed against it, chipping bits and pieces away. More water washed over the dome and froze, creating layer upon layer of protection, until it was so thick that no amount of divine energy would break through it. When it became clear that the dome could not be breached, the attacks of the Elders petered off.

“What do we do?” Gareth asked the Ascendant.

“They have nowhere to go. We will wait until they emerge; they have no other option.” the Ascendant answered.

As it happened, they didn’t have to wait very long. The thrum of nether energy gathered within the dome, building to massive proportions; some of the Elders edged back, while others began to raise their hands to form a shield. None of them reacted quickly enough to avoid the shockwave that pelted through the forest as the dome exploded, shards of ice shredding the nearby forest to pieces, preceded by a blast that threw every Elder for more than ten feet.

“Don’t you ever worry? About what might happened if the infusion takes over?”

“Of course I do. It’s a risk I’ve had to live with every day, a consequence of exploring the unknown. I’ve made peace with what may happen.”

“If the infusion takes over, you may end up killing people. You’ve made peace with that?”

“You’re the one that did this to me. Have you made peace with that?”

“But. . . you walk among these people every day, and not a single one knows how dangerous you are. That hybrid we created was powerful, Ran. It’d take at least an Ascendant to stop you if you ever went feral.”

“I know.”

“And you won’t even consider moving away from here? Going somewhere isolated to protect innocents in case you turn dark?”

“Where was your concern for innocent lives when I told you to jettison the hybrid?”

“I. . .”

“These are the consequences for your actions, Caryll. You have to come to peace with what you’ve done, and you can’t impose on my peace of mind just to soothe your own conscience. If the day comes when I do turn dark, I hope you’ll be there to save me the way I saved you all those years back, and I’ll call it even. But until then, you still owe me - and I don’t have to do anything you say.”

Caryll, Ranulf, and Umbriel looked around. The shockwave had put all the Elders out of commission, leaving the way to escape clear. But before any of them could articulate on this point, a surge of divine energy lunged down at them from the embankment. Apparently, the Ascendant had weathered the shockwave.

Ranulf retaliated with blast of nether energy, and the two attacks negated each other in midair, leaving behind only a ripple of turbulence. As the distorted air settled, the two of them locked gazes, neither of them likely to back down.

“You should not be. A demon-infused Anima is a forbidden form; the fury of the wild and the malice of the nether are a combination that brought down entire nations in the ancient days. Your kind would be the end of the race of men.” the Ascendant adjured.

Ranulf’s eyes narrowed, and slid towards Caryll. “In me, all her sins remembered.”

The Ascendant shifted his attention to Caryll. “This is your work? I recall how suddenly you abandoned your scientific inquiries. It seems that learning your lesson cost your partner his humanity.”

“There are always sacrifices to be made for knowledge. . .” Caryll defended herself.

“You think you are the first to explore how spirits interact with each other? There were others who came before you, many centuries before you. They discovered what you have discovered, and seeing the destruction that it wrought, sealed away their knowledge to protect others. What you have uncovered is not new. We refrain from teaching of these things to protect inquisitive souls, and those that would suffer as a result of their actions.”

“Is that all I was, now?” Ranulf asked quietly, cutting off Caryll’s reply. “A sacrifice in the name of advancement?”

Caryll turned. “Ranulf. . .” she began painfully.

“How many others would’ve been sacrificed?” Umbriel demanded from Ranulf’s hand. “How many lives ruined, minds and bodies twisted? Would they’ve been nothing more than numbers to you?”

“It matters not.” the Ascendant continued. “What matters now is that you recompense for what you have done. You created this monster, and you must atone for the sin of its existence. I will aid you in its destruction, but the responsibility for slaying it lies on your head.”

Caryll gazed at Ranulf as behind her, the Ascendant began to glow with power. Ranulf gazed back at her with keen yellow eyes, searching her face.

“Do you think she’ll ever change?”

“Not really.”

“She’s become an Elder, though. A student of the Lux.”

“When a snake sheds its skin, does it stop being a snake?”

“Valid point. You would make a good fairy, you know that?”

“What makes you say that?”

“You’re not like other humans. You’re mellow. Foresighted. Thoughtful. Wise. That’s the ideal fairy.”

“Because fairies guard the secrets of knowledge?”

“Precisely. Have you ever considered it?”

“Being a fairy? I was under the impression that fairies were born, not made.”

“There’s a little flex room on that rule. We make exceptions for certain worthy individuals.”

“Why do you offer?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Ranulf didn’t look away from Caryll.

“When your experiment blew up in your face, when the hybrid you created stalked you down, Ranulf stood between you and the consequences of your actions. He sacrificed his humanity so you could keep yours.” Umbriel accused. “Take responsibility for what you’ve done. Pay the debt you owe. He gave you your life - now give him his.”

“Be silent, fairy. Too oft have your kind intervened in history, changing triumphs into tragedies. Your affection for this aberration clouds your judgement, and that is the damning fault of the fairy folk - your empathy for humans.” the Ascendant commanded. “All your knowledge, and yet you still have trouble discerning when a soul is lost. It is a contradiction of appalling proportions.”

Caryll’s eyes did not leave Ranulf’s face. She was waiting for him to say something, but he remained silent, waiting for her to act. It was a loop: she waited for him to speak, he waited for her to act, but neither would do anything unless the other did something.

“What do you want from me?”

“I want nothing from you.”

“Well, what can I do to get you to leave this place? Go somewhere where there are less people?”

“You can’t do anything.”

“Do you want me to apologize? Fine. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you got the short end of the stick when things went south. I didn’t mean for things to get out of hand like that. I should’ve listened to you.”

“Are you not listening to me? I don’t want anything from you. You have nothing to offer me.”

“I just said I was sorry!”

“Worthless. It’s just words. Words can’t change what you did.”

“Nothing can fix that.”

“Precisely. You have nothing to offer me. Sorry is just something people offer up when they can’t fix what they’ve broken. Now leave, before you break someone else’s life.”

Caryll’s bracelet hung from the tips of her fingers.

“Elder Caryll.” the Ascendant said, fully charged and ready to confront Ranulf.

“I’m sorry, Ran.” Caryll apologized. “Believe me.”

The bracelet slipped from her fingers, flaring to life as it hit the water. For a mile on either side, a wall of divine energy sprung up, separating Caryll and the Ascendant from Ranulf and Umbriel. Ranulf’s gaze wavered.

“Go!” Umbriel hissed, yanking on Ranulf’s wet shirt.

“We will not meet again.” Ranulf spoke to Caryll, drawing back as the shadows wreathed around him. “Farewell.”

And with that, he sank into the darkness without a sound.

Caryll turned. Upon on the embankment, the Ascendant watched, impassive and cold. Then he raised a hand.

She turned and ran.

At a worn bus stop in the middle of nowhere, a young man slouched against the faded post, yellow eyes wandering aimlessly. On his shoulder, a shadow fairy reclined against his neck, kicking her leg back and forth over the fabric of his shirt. Crunchy leaves billowed up over the side of the road and snapped off trees, rattling across the asphalt.

“You hungry?” Ranulf asked.

“Yeah. You?” Umbriel replied, twisting a lock of ebony hair around her finger.

“Yep.” Ranulf narrowed his eyes, staring down the road. “I think the bus is coming.”

Umbriel turned her head slightly, pausing before she spoke. “Do you ever think about going back?”

Ranulf didn’t shake his head, since it would knock Umbriel off. “I do think about it.” he admitted, staring down the road. “But things would be different. They always are after you leave a place for a long time.”

“So I guess the question is, ‘Will you ever go home?’ ” Umbriel asked.

The bus was visible now, coming down the road at a decent clip. Ranulf stared at it, absentmindedly toying with the raw amethyst around his neck.

“Eventually.” he said distantly, getting to his feet.

“Guess it’s the long way home, then.” Umbriel said, hanging on as Ranulf rose.

The bus eased to a halt by the stop, and when it took off again, nothing remained but the leaves rattling over the asphalt.