I wasn’t sure if The Six or the Spirits of the Norn or The Eternal Alchemy that the asura claimed governed the world held sway over any part of Tyria, much less the weather, but the storms that pushed back my departure for weeks and weeks almost felt planned. It felt as though the moment I had made my decision to leave the mountains themselves had decided I would not.
The snows had piled up, rising to surround the lodge and put into question just how well stocked my mentor’s home was. It would have been an ignominious end to starve to death, snowed in, only to be discovered weeks or months or even years later. It wasn’t infrequently that I found myself wondering who would find our frozen corpses first – the Order of Whispers or the few traders that Elsif did irregular business with.
My mentor hadn’t seemed concerned, but then it was becoming increasingly difficult to read her. I had only her voice and her actions to work from, with no other eyes it was impossible to see her facial expressions or gauge what her long silences meant. But she’d grown more distant. Her moods more erratic.
We spent our time as best we could. Training, working hard drills till my muscles ached, or locked in meditation, or engaging in miniature mock battles with tiny, illusionary simulacra – practicing tactics and stratagems. But the rift was there, something unsaid, and every moment that passed convinced me further that I should leave.
So I waited, impatiently, for the storm to pass, confined to ever-shrinking walls of what had once seemed a spacious lodge as days rolled by. Fortunately the training was intense enough to allow me to sleep deeply, sparing me from rolling fitfully in my bedding. The dreams, however, were a different matter.
“Get up, Kaede,” Elsif’s voice cut through a nightmare and brought me to a groggy wakefulness. She was looking down at me from her full height, fully dressed and watching me in the faint illumination of a flickering candle.
“What is it?” I kept my voice low, adrenaline sharpening my senses as I reached for my sword, but she planted her boot on the weapon and shook her head. “What?” Wordlessly, she knelt beside me, studying my blank eyes, unkempt hair, and barely-woken face long enough to make me more than mildly self-conscious.
“In a few days it will be clear enough to travel,” she said, softly. “But I don’t think you should leave.”
“No,” she cut me off quietly, her fingertips brushing my lips before her hand slid to cup my cheek. “You can’t explain what you don’t know, dear girl.” There was something gentle in her tone, and somewhat bewildered, I found myself at a loss for words. It was the middle of the night, by everything I could tell, and everything was so uncharacteristic of her that I wondered if perhaps one of us was still dreaming. “Best we keep to things we both understand.”
Leaning forward, she placed a gentle kiss on my forehead and whispered.
Alarm shot through me, and I surged to my feet as Elsif leapt back, sword coming free and a dozen clones shimmering into life around her. I threw mine in the way, six as many as I could muster in the instant, forming a defensive ring around me.
The first attack was unexpected, the norn hurling a small stool at me that smashed into kindling against the far wall as I wove aside to avoid it, but her second and third were more predictable. Clones darted forward to distract me while she lunged from her left, battering through my illusions and darting straight for me. I caught her blade on my scabbard, redirecting the force of it downwards into the floorboards. Letting the momentum play out, I firmed my grip on my rapier’s hilt and surrendered the scabbard to unsheathe the weapon and force Elsif a step back with a waist-level swing.
“Elsif?” There was no answer. “Elsif!”
I didn’t know what this was. Elsif had, in the past, sprung surprise training routines on Baen and I in the middle of the night, but never quite like this. There would be talking – taunts or encouragement, praise or criticism. This attack was different, and I wondered if perhaps my mentor had truly snapped and was actually trying to kill me now.
It was, I had to acknowledge, possible. Elsif’s behaviour recently had been strange – what if this was the manifestation of that? Some frustration or anger bearing violent fruit?
Now fully awake, I drew myself up and pressed forward, resolved to beat some sense into my erstwhile teacher. More clones shimmered to life, and the lodge became an all-out brawl as illusion fought illusion. The fingers of my free hand danced, the strands of my power launching themselves out to build an ever-more enveloping web.
I sent clones to the right, feinted left, then danced back to the right. She’d seen it coming, catching my wrist with her free hand, but I twisted out of her grasp, my bare foot connecting with her calf as I did. She stumbled, and I pressed forward, intending to end whatever this sudden burst of madness was quickly.
She vanished in a flash of pink light, but I was already moving, two of my clones impaling the one she had left behind. I vaulted over the dining table, scattering wooden mugs as Elsif rematerialised, both of my feet driving into her midsection. The norn buckled, stumbling back, and I rolled to my feet. She recovered quickly, however, an illusion manifesting itself to grab my shoulders and tug me backwards. I took a step back to brace myself and twisted in its grip, bringing my sword in close to slice across its gut.
It shattered into a thousand pieces, but the distraction had been enough. Elsif was on me, brushing aside my sword with hers, grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and launched me effortlessly across the room with an overarm throw. I went skidding back across the table with a hoarse shout, letting go of my sword so I wouldn’t impale myself on it, pain erupting in my side as I rolled of the far end. Several of my clones had vanished as my concentration wavered, but I thought two more into existence to help me rise, unsteadily, to my feet, a stratagem forming as I grabbed a metal poker from near the fire.
Elsif was strong, but I was marginally quicker, smaller, and for all their raw power I knew norn had the same weak spots as humans. If I could land a few decisive strikes I could incapacitate her and end this. Her legs were the obvious target – the calf, the upper thigh. Bring her low, so that I could land a decisive strike to her shoulder or sword arm. Dislocated or even broken we could tend to the injury, and it was unlikely to cause lasting harm. Perhaps the poker I had acquired was better than the sword – I didn’t want to cause any permanent damage, after all.
But then she was moving again, appearing in a flash of pink light to my left. I whirled, avoiding the stamp lunge from a clone and weaving under the assault of another as I aimed a low kick for her leg. It connected, hard, and while I ignored the pain in my foot she staggered down to one knee.
I turned, poker held ready to strike, pressing my advantage.
Elsif whirled to meet me.
Then I was on the floor, head ringing and gasping in pain. She lifted me by the back of nightshirt, flipped me onto my back, and then planted a bare foot on my midsection to pin me down.
She’d struck me, I realised. Somehow, she’d recovered and hit me with one of her massive fists. She’d been a blur, coming back into the fight faster than I had imagined was possible. Perhaps she’d played me from the start, that her stumble had been a ruse to lure me in.
Still too fast. Still too strong. Still too cunning.
Still too much for me.
“You keep losing because you’re not ready yet,” she said, and I felt the impotent rage rise up in me, cold and hungry. “And you’ll keep losing till you learn to accept that.” She was breathing heavily, clearly having been pushed but what little comfort that would have provided was drowned in the arrogance of her words. All this training, all this time, this random midnight attack, and this was her parting lesson – that I was still incapable. “You shouldn’t leave.”
I gripped her ankle and pushed. She relented, moving her foot off of me, but instead of letting me stand she reached down to grab me by the collar, hoisting me bodily into the air. She studied my face for a moment, then slammed me hard into the wall. I failed to stifle the cry of pain.
“You have more raw potential as a warrior than anyone I have ever known, but you’re still so young, girl.. You lack experience and you need to understand that there is nothing wrong with that,” she said, keeping me pinned against the wall. “Some things take time, and some things are beyond you. You need to learn the difference.”
“You’re not beyond me,” I snarled. “One day-”
“You’ll be my equal, then my better,” she finished for me, nodding. “And soon, that day will come, but I’m not the one you want to beat, not me, not even Ciani – and I know she’s on your mind too.”
“Tatianna too,” I snapped, not wanting to beat around the bush. “That’s what you want to hear, isn’t it? That it’s all because of her?”
“But it is. By your own admission, you-”
“You don’t know a damn thing about me, Elsif,” I snapped. “Spare me your theories.”
“Do you want to see her again?”
“I will beat her when I do.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so,” Elsif was shaking her head slowly, but her tone was gentle. “You need to accept that.”
“Have you ever fought a storm, Kaede?” Elsif said. “Have you ever attempted to do battle with an earthquake, or an avalanche? Have you tried to hold back a blizzard?”
“She’s not a god,” I retorted. “She’s just a necromancer, whatever you think she could become she’s as mortal as anyone.”
“I know what she is, better, I think, than you do.” She said, then continued before I could speak. “But more importantly I know what she is to you. What you yourself don’t want to admit yet.”
“I said that I don’t care about your theories,” My voice was rising, and I kicked at her, trying to free myself from the mercilessly strong grip.“I told you that I’d beat her, that’s all you need to know.”
“Kaede,” she said, leaning in close, her voice a low whisper. “Kaede, it’s just me. It’s just us here. There is nothing and no-one else.”
“I…” My words tangled in my head, failing to get past the sudden lump in my throat. “I will beat her.” It came out as a whisper, softer than hers. “I will. I have to.”
“Because she beat you?”
“I… she didn’t even try.” The words set something lose, a pebble rolling down the slopes of my mind till a rockslide began. I fought it, but found myself speaking. “She didn’t transform, and she wasn’t even at her peak when I fought her – battered, bruised, and wounded worse than I.” The words poured out. “She should have been dead, dead because she’d just saved my life like I was a child, and then when it came time to save her I was just as helpless. She had to act, to save herself, and did in a few breaths what would have been impossible for me.”
Tatianna’s face flashed through my mind. Those last horrific moments that I saw her – through the eyes of a dozen pirates – as she stepped between me and the grenade. Almost in my arms for how close she was.
“Kaede, I’m sorry.”
Her last words to me before the explosion echoed in my mind. An apology because, I realised now, she hadn’t wanted to have to reveal the truth to me, because the lie we’d been sharing had pleased her too. Because our proximity in that upstairs room to something far more complicated than our respective masquerades had been perhaps too real.
My own face, at her apparent demise. The cold fury. The numb horror. The helpless loss.
Her breath against my lips. So close, as we waited in the appropriated manor, only to be interrupted by the oncoming blood and madness.
The scent of her hair.
Her fists, effortlessly battering through my meagre defences. Flesh on flesh.
Her face as the first of the darts struck her. Despair. Loss. Terrible, familiar fear.
“I… I couldn’t…”
“Oh, my dear girl…” Elsif’s hands slipped free, letting me sag against the wall. She stroked the back of her fingers past my cheek. “What have they done to you?”
Then her arms were around me, pulling me close. Swathed in her warmth, with one of her hands stroking my hair as the wind whispered outside and the candles cast their fickle shadows, I felt something in me uncoil and vanish, like a serpent leaving its nest. Slowly, we sank down onto our knees and I buried my face.
“What have they done to you?”
In me, something broke.