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Red Oak village, southern Bialta. 7th day of Arlon*, first year of Lord Irem’s Regency.

2 years, six days since Sacral’s return.

  Nial looked out the window and smiled. She was watching Korkos run back and forth across the patch of grass behind the farmhouse, Skeg close behind and purposefully never quite catching the boy who shrieked his delight at each near-miss. Nial desperately wished she could go out and join in the fun, but the risk was too great. The bond that linked the girls to Amon Kareth was strong and they could still feel the demon prince questing for them in the darkness beyond their wards at night. Nial clenched her fists. Korkos was her son, her little brother, her fellow student, and her playmate all rolled into one, and she loved him dearly. She wouldn’t let Amon Kareth have him, no matter what happened. If she had to hide inside for the rest of her life to make sure he was safe, then so be it.

  Their new house was every bit as comfortable as the first that Shade had prepared for them. Another well built, if unremarkable, little farm in a small village near the border with Keral. A place to hide and recover, a safe place to study and raise their son. Another prison to lock ourselves away in. Zuly thought bitterly. Her resentment and anger towards Amon Kareth were undimmed, but they were matched by her fear - Zuly was no more willing to risk leaving the house that Nial was.

  Their self confinement was an old conversation. One that went in endless circles. Nial didn’t feel like getting pulled into it again. Korkos was only allowed out for short periods of time when the sun was at its highest, and she was determined to enjoy it while it lasted.

  Skeg and Zuly had become the family she’d always wanted, as wonderful as the increasingly vague memories of her early childhood with her mother and father. Korkos had proven to be a wonderful addition. He wasn’t a normal child of course, but then none of them were what anyone would call normal. He was growing far too quickly for one, at just over six months, he could pass for a four-year-old, and he was smarter than any child had any right to be. But he looked like a perfectly normal, healthy little boy with a shock of dark hair and a mischievous smile who loved to run and play. He’s still a little kid in all the best ways. Nial thought as Skeg grabbed for the giggling boy again. Zuly wordlessly shared her usual skeptical feelings.

  It was easier for Nial of course. She was far more detached from the events that had led to their son’s conception and didn’t even remember a lot about the birth – technically only twelve herself, her mind had adapted and simply made the worst of the details rather fuzzy. Despite everything, Zuly was becoming increasingly fond of the boy, even if she wasn’t willing to admit it just yet.

  Nial’s smile widened as she thought back to the endless discussions about the boy’s name. Zuly had been convinced the child would simply attempt to devour them all at the first opportunity and had refused to get involved. Nial had finally settled on Korkos which meant little devil or something to that effect in an obscure language they had been trying to decipher that day. The memory of Skeg’s face when she first told him what name she’d chosen still made her giggle.

  Zuly made an impatient noise in the shared part of their minds. Nial let out a sigh and let her turn their attention back to the ward they were carving into the window frame. The practice had become obsessive. Not a day went by that they didn’t add to the house’s already impressive magical defences. Shade had assured them that this house was far better protected now. Powerful wards had been carved into stones and buried around the perimeter of the house and even the low wall surrounding the property was as thickly enchanted as the house itself. But Zuly wasn’t willing to stop and Nial couldn’t blame her. They had very nearly become complacent before the birth and it had very nearly cost them everything.

  Zuly still wanted to hunt of course, and Nial missed the feeling of helping the poor people of the Muds of Darien. But there was no question where their priorities were now. The better part of their day was spent with Korkos and Skeg in study and weaving practice. Shade had made a few short visits and had helped Skeg replace part of what he’d lost when their last home was destroyed, so there was no shortage of study materials. Zuly’s appetite for knowledge and power had increased even farther over the last months, more determined than ever to push her abilities farther if she was to be deprived of new souls. Nial, for her part, couldn’t concentrate for quite so long anymore. Korkos had given her back a little sliver of her childhood and she loved nothing more than playing the simple games the toddler came up with.

  How long would it be before he was all grown up? Would he change? Would he want to leave? Again, she steeled herself and pushed the fears aside, letting the sounds of the laughter outside distract her. You know this can’t last forever Nial. Zuly said, echoing her thoughts. Even if he isn’t something to be feared now, it doesn’t mean he’ll still be this way when he comes into his full power. You’ve felt his strength growing like I have. How long before he’s able to overpower us and Skeg and do as he pleases?

  He’s not like that Zuly! Nial insisted.

  Zuly returned to her tense silence. Watching and waiting. Never quite willing to let her guard down.

  It was over all too soon, a short hour in the daylight. Skeg and Korkos came back inside smiling and sweating. As if on cue, Zuly activated the new ward with a small surge of power and turned away from the window.

  “All done for the day girls?” Skeg asked gesturing towards the window. Zuly nodded. Never quite letting Korkos out of her sight.

  “I was thinking it was time to challenge the boy tonight. Why don’t you show him the little trick Shade taught you? If nothing else, it should give him an idea of just how complicated weaving can be.” He moved to select a book on weaving from their collection. “After that we can see if we can all make sense of a few new ones together.”

  Korkos was looking at them, eyes wide.

  Zuly stiffened, about to refuse. Nial just nodded and wove the spell as quickly as she could.

  Korkos clapped as he watched his mothers vanish from sight, then laughed when she stepped beyond the spell’s limits and reappeared. Skeg smiled down at the boy. “Now Korkos, this should be a challenge even for…” His voice trailed off as Korkos vanished. The boy reappeared a moment later laughing uncontrollably as only a child with a new toy can. Then he vanished again, and again, and again. Skeg was staring with his mouth open and Nial just sat there with a stunned look on her face. The flashes of visibility grew progressively briefer as the boy ran in circles around them until there was little more than an occasional shimmer in the air at random places around the room that he was still apparently frantically running around.

  “He’s done it!” said Nial, in shock.

  Power started forming into a variety of defensive and offensive weaves around the girls as Zuly prepared to defend them. Nial! Help me!

  Reluctantly, Nial started to weave the strongest barrier she could around them, her eyes darting to the flickers of movement.

  Skeg had trouble getting his mouth to work properly. There were beads of sweat on his brow. He slowly pushed himself to his feet, looking around, a growing look of fear on his face.  

  Korkos burst out of the air and threw himself into Skeg’s arms, out of breath and smiling widely. Skeg clutched him tight and swallowed hard, struggling to control his breathing. “So much for giving the boy a challenge,” he finally managed.

  “He’s figured out Shade’s trick,” said Nial. She let her weaves dissipate, disturbed by what had nearly happened. When Korkos had reappeared, they had very nearly unleashed their power on him. The guilt was almost too much for Nial. She moved to the back of their mind crying silently.

  It was a mistake to show this to him Nial. Zuly said not entirely unkindly. We will forever be wondering if he’s near us now. It’s even worse that he can do it better than we can. Another wave of regret and sadness welled up from Nial.

  “I… I don’t think Shade could do it this way,” Skeg said, oblivious to the girls’ inner conversation. “You and Zuly might manage this if you tried very hard. But a single person? A single mind weaving this fast?” He shook his head. “I would have sworn it wasn’t possible for anyone a few minutes ago. Besides, I think Shade probably has to work harder at being seen than the other way around.” Nial didn’t answer. Skeg took a deep breath and tried again. “This is like you starting a really big fire by making a huge version of the candle lighting weave. There must be more efficient, refined ways of solving the problem other than throwing more power at it. This is closer to knocking a stone wall down instead of just opening the door and walking through.”

  Zuly nodded slightly, not really caring about the intricacies of the weaves at that moment. They had seen Korkos’ talent shine when he wove the spell. In that moment his talent had shone with a coruscating surge of power that might well be stronger than all of the souls the girls had managed to harvest combined. For a moment even Nial’s determined optimism was shaken. He’s so strong. How…? She couldn’t quite articulate the thought. Zuly was as dumbfounded as she was. I’m starting to appreciate all the strange looks Uncle Skeg gave us when he first started teaching us. Nial finally observed, a hint of her earlier happiness returning.

  This is not a power we will be able to oppose if it comes to that Nial. Are you sure you want to continue this way? Nial ignored the question, unwilling to even consider losing her family, and all the more determined not to doubt their son’s intentions again.

  Skeg stood up and set Korkos down in his usual seat. “Maybe you girls and I can find something new to work on after Korkos goes to bed. We can all just pick up where we left off yesterday and get back to the book about Algadi demons Shade brought us last week.” Zuly and Nial nodded numbly, absorbed in their thoughts.

  The rest of the afternoon proceeded uneventfully. They finished by discussing the differences between several different varieties of Algadi demons and some of the closer equivalents among the Karethin. Zuly’s fist hand knowledge was invaluable in understanding and expanding on everything they had managed to read regarding her own demon world and that knowledge was helping them fill in gaps now that they had expanded their studies to include other variants.

  Finally, Skeg picked up Korkos when he saw the boy slumped in his place, fighting to stay awake. Korkos managed a vague “Goodnight Mothers.”

  Nial kissed his forehead and watched them leave the room. It’s strange that he needs to sleep as much as any other little kid when he doesn’t seem to need much of anything else.

  The need for sleep is something that Karethin demons don’t have. It is possibly the one thing about him that makes me doubt that he will eventually try to destroy us. Zuly answered.

  Skeg came back out of the room and settled back into his chair.  “Girls, I know we’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s time I took a trip back to Darien to try and recover some of my stuff.”

  “But Uncle…” Nial said.

  Skeg didn’t give her a chance to say any more. “There’s just no other option. We need to get out from under Shade’s thumb and without any resources we’ve got nothing to get started with. Do you really want to stay locked in this house forever?”

  “Would it be so bad?” Nial whispered.

  “What you suggest sounds like the best option we have,” Zuly agreed evenly.

  “But how will I teach Korkos without you?” Nial pleaded.

  Skeg shook his head. “Come off it Nial. You know most of what I do is play with the boy these days. I need more resources to teach him anything else. Shade has brought us more than I expected, but I keep wondering what it’s going to cost us and when he’s going to come asking.” He looked at her sadly. “I don’t want to go Nial. But I think it’s the best choice for all of us. When we left Darien, I only brought along my emergency stash. If I can spend a couple weeks in the city to gather up the…”

  “A couple weeks?!” Nial exclaimed. “But it’ll take you at least that long to travel each way. You’re going to be gone for months!”

  He nodded. “It feels like the right time to me. The boy is well behaved and easy to take care of. He can even keep himself fed now.”

  Nial went silent, in a sulk. Zuly looked at him with a hard stare. “You know how I feel about the spawn. I will keep a close eye on it while you’re gone.”

  “Just try to be nice to him Zuly? He’s a good kid despite everything.”

  “Are you taking the horses?”

  “I wasn’t going to.”

  “Take them. They may speed your travels. Neither Nial nor the spawn will be calm until your return.” She gave a small shrug. “Besides, none of us are comfortable caring for the creatures and we’d rather not leave the house anyway.”

  Skeg smiled. “I’ll get my things ready and leave tomorrow morning. I’ll want to say goodbye to the boy anyway.”



Next Chapter: Carver