Life is the greatest of all mysteries, and though I seek to solve its many riddles, my deepest fear is that I will succeed.
--CiCi Bajur, philosopher
* * *
Immersed in its primordial glow, a comet soared through space with incredible speed. Three thousand years had passed since it last shed its light upon the tiny blue planet known to its inhabitants as Godsland, and the effects had been cataclysmic. A mighty host of comets followed the same elliptical orbit as the first as they returned from the farthest reaches of the solar system. Their light had already charged the atmosphere of Godsland, and the comets themselves would soon be visible to the naked eye.
The cycle of power would begin anew. Radiant energy, though still faint, raced toward Godsland, bearing the power of change.
As the force angled over the natural harbor where the fishing vessels were moored for the night, it soared beyond them over the Pinook Valley, and nothing barred its path. Beyond a small town, amid foothills dotted with farmsteads, it raced toward a barn where a young woman dutifully swept the floor. A slight tingle and a brief twitch of her eyebrows caused Catrin to stop a moment, just as a chance wind cast the pile of dirt and straw back across the floor. It was not the first thing to go wrong that morning, and she doubted it would be the last.
She was late for school. Again.
Education was not a birthright; it was a privilege--something Master Edling repeatedly made more than clear. Those of station and power attended his lessons to gain refinement and polish, but for those from the countryside, the purpose was only to stave off the epidemic of ignorance.
His sentiments had always rankled, and Catrin wondered if the education was worth the degradation she had to endure. She had already mastered reading and writing, and she was more adept at mathematics than most, but those were skills taught to the younger students by Master Jarvis, who was a kind, personable teacher. Catrin missed his lessons. Those approaching maturity were subjected to Master Edling's oppressive views and bland historical teachings. It seemed to her that she learned things of far more relevance when she worked on the farm, and the school lessons seemed a waste of time.
Master Edling detested tardiness, and Catrin was in no mood to endure another of his lectures. His anger was only a small part of her worries on that day, though. The day was important, different. Something was going to happen--something big; she could feel it.
The townies, as Catrin and her friends called those who placed themselves above everyone else, seemed to feed on the teacher's disdainful attitude. They adopted his derogatory manner, which often deteriorated into pranks and, lately, violence. Though she was rarely a target, Catrin hated to see her friends treated so poorly. They deserved better.
Peten Ross was the primary source of their problems; it was his lead the others followed. He seemed to take pleasure in creating misery for others, as if their hardships somehow made him more powerful. Perhaps he acted that way to impress Roset and the other pretty girls from town, with their flowing dresses and lace-bound hair. Either way, the friction was intensifying, and Catrin feared it would escalate beyond control.
Anyone from the countryside was a target, but it was her friend Osbourne Macano, son of a pig farmer, who bore the brunt of their abuses. The low regard in which his family profession was held and his unassuming manner made him an easy target. He had never fought back, and still the attacks continued. Chase, Catrin's beloved cousin, felt they should stand up for themselves since passive resistance had proven fruitless. What choice did they have?
Catrin understood his motives, but to her, the problem seemed unsolvable. Surely retaliation would not end the struggle, but neither had inaction, which left her in a quandary. Chase seemed to think they needed only to scare the townies once to make them realize such treatment would not be tolerated. That, he said, was the only way to gain their respect, if not their friendship. She could see his logic, but she also saw other, less appealing possibilities, such as a swift and violent response or even expulsion from the school lessons. Too many things could go wrong.
Chase was determined, though, and she would support him and Osbourne in their fight, if that was their choice. But she did not have to like it.
From bribing a woman who had once worked as Peten's nursemaid, Chase learned that Peten had a terrible fear of snakes--any snake, not just the venomous varieties. Chase planned to catch a snake and sneak it into the hall during lessons, though he admitted he had no plan for getting it near Peten without being seen. Just thinking about it, Catrin began to feel queasy, and she concentrated even more on her work. As she slid the heavy barn door closed to keep out the wind, she was submerged in darkness and had to resweep the floor by the light of her lantern.
Her father and Benjin, his close friend, were returning from the pastures with a pair of weanlings just as she lugged her saddle into Salty's stall. She watched the skittish colt and filly enter the barn wide eyed, but they gave the experienced men little trouble and would soon become accustomed to frequent handling. The lamplight cast a glow on Benjin's dark features. Bits of gray showed in his neatly trimmed beard, and his ebon hair was pulled back in a braid, giving him the look of a wise but formidable man.
Salty, Catrin's six-year-old chestnut gelding, must have sensed she was in a rush, for he chose to make her life even more difficult. He danced away from her as she tossed the saddle over his back, and when she grabbed him by the halter and looked him in the eye, he just snorted and stepped on her toes. After pushing him off her foot, she prepared to tighten the girth, and Salty drew in a deep breath, making himself as big as possible. Catrin knew his tricks and had no desire to find herself in a loose saddle. Kneeing him in the ribs just enough to make him exhale, she cinched the strap to the wear marks. Salty nipped her on the shoulder, letting her know he didn't appreciate her spoiling his joke.
Dawn backlit the mountains, and heavy cloud cover rode in with the wind. A light spray was falling as Catrin walked Salty from the low-ceilinged barn into the barnyard. Salty danced and spun as she mounted, but she got one foot in the stirrup and a hand on the saddle horn, which was enough to pull herself up even as he pranced. His antics were harmless, but Catrin had no time for them, and she drove her heels into his flanks with a chirrup to urge him forward.
In that, at least, he did not disappoint as he leaped to a fast trot. She would have given him his head and let him gallop, but the wagon trail was growing muddy and slick in the steady rain. Cattleman Gerard appeared in the haze ahead, his oxcart leaving churned mud in its wake. Trees lined the narrow trail, and Catrin had to slow Salty to a walk until they cleared the woods. When they reached a clearing, she passed Gerard at a trot, waving as she rode by, and he gave her a quick wave in return.
Fierce gusts drove stinging rain into her eyes, and she could barely see the Masterhouse huddled against the mountains; in the distance, only its massive outline was visible. Harborton materialized from the deluge, and as she approached, the rain dwindled. The cobbled streets were barely damp, and the townsfolk who milled about were not even wet. In contrast, Catrin was bespattered and soaked, looking as if she had been wallowing in mud, and she received many disapproving looks as she trotted Salty through town.
The aroma of fresh-baked bread wafting from the bakery made her stomach grumble, and the smell of bacon from the Watering Hole was alluring. In her rush, she had forgotten to eat, and she hoped her stomach would not be talkative during the lessons, a sure way to irritate Master Edling.
She passed the watchtower and the large iron ring that served as a fire bell, and she spotted her uncle, Jensen, as he dropped off Chase on his way to the sawmill. He waved and smiled as she approached, and she blew him a kiss. Chase climbed from the wagon, looking impish, and Catrin's appetite fled. She had hoped he would fail in his snake hunt, but his demeanor indicated that he had not, and when the leather bag on his belt moved, any doubts she had left her. How he had concealed the snake from her uncle was a mystery, but that was Chase, the boy who could do what no one else would dare attempt.
His mother and hers had died fifteen years before on the same day and under mysterious circumstances; no one understood what killed them. Since then, Chase seemed determined to prove that he wasn't afraid of anything or anyone.
Catrin pulled Salty up alongside him, and they entered the stables together. Once clear of the gate, she turned to the right, hoping to slip into her usual stall unnoticed, but instead she saw another insult. All the stalls were taken, despite there being plenty for those students who rode. Many of the townies, including Peten, rode to the lessons even though they were within walking distance. In a parade of wealth and arrogance, they flaunted their finely made saddles with gilded trim. It seemed they now felt they needed pages to attend to their mounts, and they, too, must ride. It was the pages' horses that had caused the shortage of stalls. Catrin stopped Salty and just stared, trying to decide what to do.
"What's going on, Cat?" Chase bellowed. "Have the townies gotten so fat they need two horses to carry each of them?"
"Hush, I don't want any trouble," she said with a pointed glance at his writhing bag. "I'll stable Salty at the Watering Hole."
"Strom may let you stable him there, but certainly not for free. Where does it stop, Cat? How much abuse do they think we'll tolerate?" he asked, sounding more incensed with each word.
"I don't have time for this now. I'll see you at the lesson," she said, turning Salty. Chirruping, she gave him a bit of her heels, trotted him around the block, and slowed only when she neared Baker Hollis, who was busy sweeping the walk. He gave her a sidelong glance and shuffled into the bakery. Inside, Catrin saw his daughter, Trinda, who stared with haunted eyes. She rarely left the bakery, and it was said she spoke even less often. Most thought she was daft, but Catrin suspected something entirely different, something much more sinister.
As she turned into the alley behind the Watering Hole, she whistled for Strom, who emerged from the stable looking tired and irritable.
"Cripes, it's early, Cat. What brings you here?" he asked, rubbing his eyes. He had once attended the lessons and had been friends with Catrin and Chase. After his father died, though, he had gone to work as a stable boy for Miss Mariss to help support his mother. He was shunned by most. His humble circumstances and departure from the lessons marked him as undesirable in the eyes of many, but Catrin enjoyed his company and considered him a good friend.
"I'm sorry to wake you, but I really need to stable Salty here today. The stable at the academy is full, and I'm already late. Please let me keep him here--just for today," she asked with her most appealing look.
"If Miss Mariss finds out, she'll have my hide for a carpet. I can only stable a horse if the owner patronizes the inn and pays a copper for the stall," he said.
Digging into her coin purse, Catrin pulled out a worn silver half she'd been saving for an emergency. She tossed it to Strom. "Buy yourself something to eat and take good care of Salty for me. I have to go," she said as she grabbed her wax pad from her saddlebags.
Strom rolled the coin across his knuckles as she sprinted away. "I hate to take your money, Cat, but I assure you it won't go to waste!" he shouted.
Catrin raced back to the academy, turning toward the lesson hall at a full run. Master Beron shouted for her to slow down, but she was nearly there. She reached the door and opened it as quietly as she could, but the hinge betrayed her, squeaking loudly. Everyone in the room turned to see who would be the target of Master Edling's ire, and Catrin felt her face flush.
She entered with mumbled apologies and quickly sought a vacant desk. The townies gave her nasty looks and placed their wax tablets on the empty chairs near them, clearly indicating she was not welcome. In her rush to reach the desk next to Chase, her wet boots slipped on the polished floor, leaving her suspended in air for an instant before she hit with a crash. The air rushed from her lungs with a whoosh, and the room erupted in laughter.
As soon as she regained her breath, she immediately held it, seeing Chase take advantage of the distraction. He slinked behind Peten and slid the leather pouch under his chair. The drawstrings were untied and the top lay open, but nothing emerged. Catrin stood and quickly took the seat between Chase and Osbourne, still blushing furiously.
"This isn't going to go well for you, Cat. Edling looks boiled," Osbourne whispered, but Master Edling interrupted in a loud voice.
"Now that Miss Volker has seen fit to join us, perhaps she will allow us to commence. What say you, Miss Volker? Shall we begin, or do you need more leisure time?" he asked, looking down his nose, and several of the townies sniggered, casting her knowing glances. Catrin just mumbled and nodded. She was grateful when Master Edling began his lecture on the holy war; at least he was no longer adding to her embarrassment by making a bigger fool of her.
"When Istra last graced the skies," he began, "the Zjhon and Varic nations waged a holy war that lasted hundreds of years. They fought over conflicting interpretations of religious documents, none of which could be proved or disproved. Meanwhile, the Elsic nation remained neutral, often acting as a mediator during peace talks. Many times peace was made only to be broken again upon the first provocation.
"Then there came a new Elsic leader, Von of the Elsics. He ascended the throne after killing his uncle, King Venes. Von had been clever and murdered his uncle during the harvest festival, when there were hundreds of people in attendance who might have wanted the king dead. No one could identify the killer, and a veil of suspicion hung over the court. Elaborate conspiracy theories were rampant, and Von encouraged them since they served his purposes well. Those who believed treachery was afoot were much less likely to speak out for fear of being the next mysterious death."
The teacher droned on. "Von believed his nation's historical neutrality in the war was folly and that it would be better to conquer both nations while they were weakened by the prolonged war. The Elsics did not condone the use of Istra's powers, claiming it was blasphemous, and none of their scholars were skilled in arcana. Von had no large army at his disposal either, so he concluded that Istra's power was the only way he could defeat both nations. He would use the very powers that were flaunted by the Zjhon and the Varics as the agents of their destruction.
"He staged clandestine raids against each nation, disguising his men as soldiers from the opposing nation. His instructions were clear: he wanted people captured, not killed, because he wanted slaves. Those captured were transported in secret to the Knell Downs, which we believe to be high in the Pinook Mountains. Camps were built, and the slaves were forced to experiment with creating powerful weapons using Istra's power.
"There were many failures, as most of those captured had no experience in such things, but after countless attempts, a slave named Imeteri made a deadly discovery. Weakened from working in stuffy quarters, he convinced his captors to let him work outside whenever the sun shone. His efforts were fruitless for many weeks, and many of his experiments lay about in disarray, unfinished or forgotten completely, except for the details in his copious notes. Most of them consisted of various compounds of elements he placed in clay mugs, which he sealed with mud. One day, while working on his experiments, an explosion knocked him off his feet, and he knew one of his concoctions had worked. It took many more efforts for him to duplicate his success.
"One major problem was that his explosive needed to charge in the light of both Istra and Vestra before it would detonate. As it became saturated with energy, it would begin to glow, gradually getting brighter and brighter until it would eventually explode.
"Von was pleased by Imeteri's discovery, and after several refinements and small-scale demonstrations, he declared it the success he had been looking for. Imeteri was raised to the highest status of slave, barely less than a free man. Von ordered the other slaves to build enormous statues in the likeness of Istra and Vestra sharing a loving embrace. These great behemoths became known as the Statues of Terhilian, and packed with the new explosive, they were sent to the various Zjhon and Varic cities. Appearing to be tokens of peace, they were readily accepted and revered. The wars had drained the Zjhon and Varic nations, and lacking the resources to fight, they were relieved to receive the gifts.
"It was an abominable tactic and one I hope is never eclipsed. Drawn to the statues like moths to a flame, the faithful and war-weary congregated in enormous numbers around the likenesses of their gods. All but a few of the statues detonated, resulting in cataclysmic explosions that leveled entire cities, killing countless souls. The toxic aftermath debilitated those not killed by the initial blasts, and most died soon thereafter. And so began mankind's darkest age, a time known as the Purge," Master Edling continued, his unvarying cadence threatening to put Catrin, and most of the other students, into a deep sleep.
The snake, which Catrin now saw was an olive-green tree snake, was lured from Chase's pouch by the stillness, its slender head and neck poked from the pouch, looking like a bean pod with eyes. Catrin held her breath as it slithered forward and coiled itself around the chair leg. Peten noticed Catrin's sideways glances and gave her a snide look, tossing his long, blond hair over his shoulders.
With his muscular build, strong jaw, and piercing blue eyes, he cast a striking figure, but his attitude and ego made him the least attractive person Catrin had ever met. She felt little pity for him as the snake continued to follow its instinct, which was to climb. Peten was oblivious to its presence and continued to look bored, casting his own glances to get the attention of Roset Gildsmith.
The snake slithered up the slats on the back of his chair; it brushed against his curls, and still he remained unaware. He shifted in his seat, as if sensing the stares of Catrin, Chase, and Osbourne, and turned his head to glare at them. As he did, his eyes met those of the snake, and he shrieked. His high-pitched scream and sudden movement alarmed the snake, and it struck, biting him on his nose. Catrin knew the snake was not venomous, but Peten obviously knew nothing of the sort.
He leaped from his chair, sending his desk and the snake flying. Charging from the hall, he knocked Roset and another girl from their chairs. He showed no concern for anyone in the hall, and it was obvious his only care was for his own safety.
Master Edling stormed to the back of the hall, fuming, and snatched the agitated snake from the ruins of Peten's chair. After releasing it at the base of a tree in the courtyard, he returned, pushing Peten before him, forcing the shaken young man to return the desks to order.
Chase's eyes danced with glee, and Osbourne let a giggle slip. The townies and Master Edling glared at them with eyes like daggers. Catrin sat quietly, hoping the situation would somehow improve, but instead it worsened.
"Peten Ross, you are a coward and a boor," Roset said with a haughty look. "Do not aspire to speak to me again." She turned smugly away, her jaw stuck out in defiance.
Chase seemed to think things were going very well, but Catrin could see Peten's fury rising, his embarrassment fueling his desire for retribution. How Chase could not see mounting danger was a mystery to Catrin. Perhaps he was simply caught up in his own thirst for revenge.
Master Edling concluded his lecture and dismissed the class curtly. Catrin was just glad to have the lesson over and tried to flow out with the rest of the crowd, but Master Edling barred her path.
"Miss Volker, I would have a word with you," he said, and he clearly did not wish to compliment her.
"Yes sir, Master Edling, sir," Catrin replied softly. "I'm sorry I was late, sir."
"I'll have no excuses from you. It is your responsibility to arrive before the appointed time. If you cannot do so, then I recommend you do not attend at all. Since you wasted my time at the beginning of class, it is only fair I waste your time now. Be seated," he said, and Catrin slumped into the chair nearest the door, anxiously waiting for her punishment to be concluded.
* * *
Outside the lesson hall, Chase ducked into a darkened recess and waited for Osbourne. Roset came first, and she cast him a haughty glance, but he was grateful that she said nothing. Using the darkness for cover, he held his breath as Peten stormed by, followed by a mob of agitated townies. Minda and Celise walked by, and Osbourne seemed to be trying to hide behind them. Hoping no one noticed, Chase grabbed Osbourne by the shirt and dragged him into the alcove. Osbourne let out a small yelp before he realized it was Chase who had grabbed him, and he looked over his shoulder more than once.
"Looks like Edling held Catrin after class," Chase said.
"I told you he looked boiled," Osbourne said, but there was a tremble in his voice, and he looked nervously over his shoulder. "Are you going to wait around for Cat?"
"I can't. I promised my dad I'd help with the afternoon deliveries."
"I can't either," Osbourne said. "I've chores to do, and I should probably study for the test we have coming up."
"Bah, who needs to study?" Chase asked with a grin. "Just remember everything Edling says; that's all."
Osbourne shook his head. "That may work for you, but my father'll tan my hide if I bring home bad marks. I'd better get Patches saddled and get going, or I'm going to run out of light."
Chase peeked around the corner before walking back into the light, half expecting to find Peten and the rest of the townies waiting for him, but the stables were eerily quiet. Only Patches remained in her stall, and Chase stayed with Osbourne while he got her saddled.
"Never seen everyone clear out so quickly," Chase said.
"I'm starting to think the snake was a bad idea," Osbourne said as he tightened the girth. "Feels like I've got squirrels in my guts. You don't think they'll do anything to Cat, do you?"
"You worry too much," Chase said, but he secretly wondered if Osbourne was right. It seemed strange that Peten and the others had left so quickly, and letting Osbourne and Catrin travel home alone suddenly seemed like a very bad idea. There was nothing he could do about it, though, no way to take back what was already done, and he tried to drive the worry from his mind. "I'm sure everything will be fine."
"I hope you're right," Osbourne said as he mounted. Patches, who was a well-mannered mare, must have sensed Osbourne's nervousness, for she danced around the stable, her ears twitching as she spun. Osbourne soothed her with a hand on her neck, and she trotted away with her tail tucked. "I'll see you tomorrow," Osbourne said with a wave.
"Be careful," Chase said, betraying his own fears, and Osbourne rode away looking more nervous than ever.
Checking around every corner as he went, Chase made his way to the mill. At each turn he expected to find the townies waiting, and their absence only increased his anxiety. "I wish they would just get on with it," he mumbled to himself as he passed the market.
When he saw his father waiting with the wagon already loaded, though, he forgot his fears. They had enough work to keep them until nightfall, and he would have time to think of little else.
* * *
After sitting far longer than needed to make up the time she had missed, Catrin began to wonder if Master Edling had forgotten she was there. He was completely engrossed in his text, and she was hesitant to interrupt. She tried to be patient, but she desperately wanted to talk to Chase, and she shifted in her seat constantly.
"You are dismissed," he said suddenly without looking up.
"Thank you, Master Edling; it won't happen again, sir," Catrin said as she rose to leave.
"It had better not. And do not think for a moment that I'm unaware of your involvement in today's disruption; you can pass that along to your cousin as well," he said, and Catrin did not bother to deny it, knowing it would do no good.
She walked quickly to the Watering Hole, arriving to find Strom busy with the mounts of two nobles. She waited in the shadows, not wanting the nobles to complain about riffraff hanging around the stables; it had happened before, and she didn't want to impose on Strom. Once the nobles made their instructions abundantly clear, they strolled into the Watering Hole, and Catrin emerged from her hiding place.
"Thanks for keeping out of sight," Strom said. "Salty's in the last stall. You can saddle him yourself, can't you?" he asked with a smirk.
"I think I can manage, though the task is beneath me," Catrin replied, and her sarcasm brought a chuckle from Strom. Her tack had been cleaned and hung neatly outside the stall; he had treated her horse and gear as if they were his own, and she appreciated the gesture. Salty gave her no trouble, being aware he was on his way home, where his feed bucket waited. Strom was still attending to the nobles' horses and tack when she mounted.
"Thank you, Strom. I appreciate your help," she said, waving as she left.
"Don't mention it, Cat; just try not to make a habit of it," he replied with a wink and returned to his work.
Salty needed little prompting, and he broke into a trot as soon as they left town. Catrin turned him onto the wagon trail that meandered toward her home, hoping Chase would meet her there. She had expected to find him waiting at the Watering Hole, and his absence concerned her. She was tempted to push Salty to a gallop but resisted the urge. The trail was muddy and slick, and speed would only put her and Salty at risk. Her father and Benjin had warned her about such behavior, and she heeded their advice.
Engrossed in her thoughts, she let Salty cover the familiar distance without her input, but as she approached the woods, she heard someone cry out. Urging Salty forward, she scanned the trees for signs of trouble. Through the foliage, she saw flashes of movement in a clearing, and harsh laughter echoed around her. When she saw Patches, Osbourne's mare, wandering through the trees, still saddled and bridled, she nearly panicked. Osbourne would never leave his horse in such a state, and she knew he was in trouble.
After jumping from the saddle, she tied Salty to a nearby tree and approached Patches, who recognized her and cooperated as Catrin tied her to another tree. Meanwhile, she heard more muffled cries. Running as fast as she could toward the nearby sound, she burst into the clearing. Osbourne was near the center on his hands and knees. Blood flowed freely from his nose and mouth, and he clutched his side. Peten Ross, Carter Bessin, and Chad Macub were on horseback and appeared to have be taking turns riding past Osbourne, beating him with their wooden staves.
"Stop this madness!" Catrin shouted as she ran to Osbourne's side. She crouched over his body, hoping to protect him yet knowing she could not; she was overmatched. He whimpered beneath her, spitting blood through his ruptured lips.
"Out of the way, farm girl, or you'll share this one's fate. He needs a lesson in showing respect to his betters," Peten said as he spurred his horse. As he swept past, he swung his staff in a powerful arc, landing a solid blow on Catrin's shoulder. She barely had time to recover from his attack before Carter approached. His mount was blowing hard from the workout, sweat frothing around saddle and bridle alike.
His staff swung wide, striking her on her hip, but she barely felt the pain. As Peten wheeled his horse and dug in his heels, his eyes were those of a madman. He seemed intent on killing her and Osbourne, and Catrin became convinced her death approached. Peten was a well-muscled athlete who had trained in the jousts for as long as he could ride. He would not miss his target again, and her defiance clearly enraged him, leaving little chance of mercy.
Time slowed, and as she cried out in fear, her voice sounded hollow and strange in her ears. Still Peten came, aiming his mount so close that she feared they would be trampled. He did not run them down, though; instead he brought his horse just close enough to provide a clear shot at Catrin. She watched in horror as his staff swung directly at her head, and she saw her own terrified reflection in its highly polished surface as it blocked out the rest of the world. Intense sadness overwhelmed her as she prepared to die. Though she hoped Osbourne would survive the encounter, it seemed unlikely.
In the next instant, Catrin's world was forever changed. Her body shuddered, and a sound louder than thunder ripped through the clearing. She tried to make sense of what she saw as the world seemed to fly away from her. Everything took on a yellowish tint, which faded to blackness as she crumbled to the ground.
* * *
Nat Dersinger turned his nose to the wind and inhaled deeply. The wind carried the smell of misfortune, and he had learned better than to ignore his instincts. Despite the fact that he'd caught no fish, he pulled in his nets. Looking out at the clear skies, broken by only fluffy white clouds that seemed frozen in time, he wondered if he was just being silly, but the ill feeling persisted and grew more intense with every passing moment.
With a sense of urgency, he raised his sails and guided his small craft back to the harbor. Along the way he passed other fishing vessels, but no one waved or shouted out in greeting, as they did with other fishermen. Most just cast Nat suspicious glances, others glared at him until they were lost from sight. Nat tried not to let any of it bother him, but he soon realized he was grinding his teeth and his hands were clenched into fists. Too many times he'd been treated as an outcast, as if he were not even human. With a long sigh, he released his frustration and concentrated on avoiding the scores of hidden rock formations that flanked the harbor entrance.
At the docks, he received more strange looks--partly because he was back long before most of the other fishermen would return, and partly because he brought no fish to the cleaning tables, but mostly it was because he was Nat Dersinger, son of a madman. Most would rather see him dead or exiled; others simply tolerated him. There were few people he trusted and fewer still who trusted him. It was a lonely and unforgiving existence, but he had to believe it was all for a purpose, some grand design beyond his ability to perceive or understand. He let his mind be consumed by the possibilities, and he entered an almost dreamlike state; nothing around him seemed real, as if he walked in a place somewhere between this life and the great unknowable that lay beyond.
Unaware of where he was going, he let his feet follow a path of their own choosing, permitting his unconscious mind--rather than his conscious mind--to guide the way. It was one of the few lessons his father had taught him: sometimes the spirit knows things the mind cannot; never ignore the urgings of your spirit.
When he reached the woods outside of town, he barely recalled the walk. His feet continued to carry him into the countryside, and he wondered--as he often did--if he was simply fooling himself, assigning himself otherworldly powers rather than admitting he shared his father's illness. In truth, that was the crux of his life. Most seek answers to a myriad of questions, but Nat was consumed by one question alone: Had his father been a true prophet or a madman? As he found himself suddenly climbing over a hedge of bramble, he was inclined to believe the latter, but then the ground trembled and the air was split by a mighty thunderclap. Leaping over the hedge, Nat moved with confidence and purpose, suddenly trusting his instincts more than his senses. For the first time in a very long time, he believed not only in his father, but also in himself.
* * *
As the sun was sinking behind the mountains, casting long shadows across the land, Catrin woke. She sat up slowly, dizzy and disoriented, and put one hand out toward the ground to steady herself; it found Osbourne's chest. He was unconscious, his breathing shallow, but at least he looked no worse than he had when she'd arrived. She hoped he was not seriously injured. Her body ached as she moved, and she closed her eyes. Drawing a deep breath, she tried to calm herself.
Moans broke the eerie silence, and Catrin heard someone behind her gasp. She turned to see who it was, and only then did she behold the devastation that surrounded her. The clearing was a good bit larger than when she'd entered it; every blade of grass, bush, and tree within a hundred paces had been leveled. She stood, unsteadily, at the center of a nearly perfect circle of destruction. All the debris pointed away from her, as if she had felled it with a giant sickle.
Turning around slowly, she took in the awful details. Supple stalks of grass had been so violently struck that they were broken cleanly in half. In all her seventeen summers, Catrin had never witnessed such a terrifying sight. Behind her stood Nat Dersinger, a local fisherman who was thought to be mentally unstable. He leaned on his ever-present staff, his jaw slack, and made no move. The staff was taller than he was, half its length shod in iron, which formed a sharp point. His wild, graying hair stuck out in all directions, and his eyes were wide, making him look every bit the madman some thought him to be. Though he was of an age with Catrin's father, the lines on his face made him appear much older.
Peten's horse lay, unmoving, in a tangle of downed trees. Horrified, Catrin saw Peten's boots sticking out from under the animal, and she feared him dead, but she could not make herself move.
"Help, my leg is broken!" she heard Carter shout, and she turned to see him struggling to get out from under his own dead horse. Chad wandered aimlessly, followed by his faithful mount, which limped badly.
"Gods have mercy. I bear witness to the coming of the Herald. The prophecy has been fulfilled, and Istra shall return to the world of men." The words poured out of Nat and struck fear into those who heard them.
Townsfolk and farmers had begun to arrive, having heard the blast and been guided by the shouting. They tended the wounded, and word was sent to the Masters as well as the parents of the students involved. People scrambled to help Peten and the others, and many cast frightened glances at Catrin as they passed. Osbourne regained consciousness, and a kindly old man helped him to the edge of the clearing to await the Masters.
Few folk had the courage to speak to Catrin, but those who did all asked the same question: "What happened?"
"I don't know," was the only honest answer Catrin could give, but no one seemed to believe her. When her father arrived, he ran to where she stood, tears filling his eyes. Overwhelmed, she collapsed into his embrace. He hugged her and tried to comfort her, but he seemed unable to find the right words. Instead, he tied Salty to his saddle and pulled Catrin atop his roan mare, and they rode home in cautious silence.
* * *
A pool of molten wax and a dwindling wick were all that remained of Wendel Volker's candle, and he let it burn. His eyes, swollen with tears, were focused beyond the blank wall he faced. Raising Catrin alone had never been in his plans. He had done the best he could without Elsa, but in Wendel's mind it never seemed enough. If not for Benjin, he wasn't sure they would have survived. All along, they had struggled, but now they faced a danger far too great. The chill of fear crept up his neck--fear, not for himself, but for his beloved daughter.
Remembering the damage in the clearing, Wendel felt goose bumps rise on his skin. More disturbing than the damage was the look in Catrin's eyes. She felt responsible and guilty; that much was clear. Wendel tried to figure out what might have happened, but he found no answers. Instead, he accepted the fact that he might never know. What mattered was that people would be angry, confused, and afraid; all of which put Catrin in danger. Stronger and deeper than his greatest personal desire was the need to protect his daughter. So powerful was this urge that he went to where she slept and stood over her, watching her breathe.
"Help me be strong for her, my dearest Elsa," he said under his breath. He wept quietly. "If ever you've heard me, hear me now. I can't do this alone. I need you. Catrin needs you." Then he stiffened his jaw and firmed his resolve. "Watch over her, my love, and keep her safe."
* * *
As darkness claimed the sky, Nat Dersinger stood at the center of the clearing. All the others had long since gone to their homes and were probably discussing the day's events over their evening meals, but Nat tried to push that vision from his mind. Such thoughts brought him only pain and misery, and this was not a time he needed to be reminded of his loss. What he needed was guidance on what to do next. The prophecies warned of disastrous events, but they gave no indication of anything that could be done to prevent the foretold dangers. There must be something he could do, Nat thought, but he came to the same realization he had come to in the past: It would take more than just him. Somehow, he would have to convince those who had enough power to make a difference. Given his past failures, he found it difficult to be optimistic. Bending down, he pulled a blade of grass from the ground and marveled at how cleanly it had been broken. He let his mind wander for a time until something tugged at his awareness and demanded his attention. A familiar yet indefinable smell drifted on the breeze, and Nat's eyes were drawn to the heavens. As a sailor, he knew the stars as friends and followed their guidance, but on this night, they seemed almost insignificant, as if their power were about to be usurped, their beauty eclipsed. Nat had nothing more than his feelings to guide him, and his thoughts ran in a familiar pattern. So many times his instincts and gut feelings had caused him nothing but trouble. He would spill his heart to save those who showed him only hostility. "Why?" he asked himself for what seemed the thousandth time. But then his familiar pattern changed, irrevocably, as he looked at the blade of grass and the tangled mass of downed trees that lined the clearing. It was proof. No one could argue it or claim that it was a creation of his deranged mind. This was real and undeniable. For the first time in more than a decade, he did not question himself.
When he looked back to the sky, he believed completely. His father had been right all along. There was little consolation in this knowledge, for it foretold a difficult and perilous future for all, but it was vindicating for Nat nonetheless. As his thoughts wandered, he felt himself drifting into a different state of awareness, his eyes fixed on the sky yet focused on nothing. He felt himself being drawn upward, lifted to the heavens. His eyes felt as if they would be pulled from their sockets, so strongly did the sky seem to reach for them, longingly and insistent. The vision began more as a feeling than images in his mind; he felt small and afraid in the face of a coming storm. Lightning flashed across his consciousness, and thunder rattled his soul. From the skies came a rain of fire and blood, and the land was rent beneath his feet. A single, silhouetted figure stood between him and the approaching inferno. Nat reached out, his hands clawing toward salvation, but his only hope faded along with the vision.
Lying faceup at the center of the grove, just as Catrin had found herself, Nat drew a ragged breath. Sweat ran into his eyes, and his heart beat so fast and hard that he thought it might burst. He realized then that it might be better if he were truly mad.