The grotto was just as Arkin remembered it.

Hardly a surprise, that. The mountains were treacherous; only one with wings could hope to get this deep into the range, and even then, only the surest of fliers would make it past the chaotic winds. He was Frostkin, though – he didn’t need to fear the cold, and could take the longer, surer approach through the chilly currents up above the peaks. It was still a difficult flight, though, and one with no reason to attempt – unless one knew of this place.

Arkin had only shown it to three others in his life. The first was dead now, rest her soul; she’d chosen the risky path of the warden, though, and he thought her spirit would find satisfaction that she’d died protecting her home. The second was as a stranger to him now, cold and aloof, living as a moneylender of all things.

The last, dearest to his heart, was still out there somewhere – his hearth rune still glimmered, however faintly, or at least it had a few days ago when last Arkin was home.


And so it went.

There were many things still to do, many decisions to make. Plans were made to reclaim the mountain caverns, to rebuild a sensible mana font from the ruins of the great one; to dig a great tunnel into the foothills, where travelling would be easier; to turn the caves into a great new city, where people could set questions of race aside and be people, where the old laws could be examined anew, not by a great governing body with all its conflicting interests, but by two people, whose thoughts were very closely-aligned indeed.

Many plans indeed would be needed for it – the city needed to maintain its large tunnels and chambers, larger than the Vhark would normally build, so that all races might be comfortable there. Codes of law from those races would need to be acquired and looked over, that all sources were fairly considered, and that all who came might understand from the start that their thoughts would have merit, so long as they kept to the city’s ideal.

But such things were well in the future. For the twins, the greatest part of their saga came to a conclusion in the place it had begun, in the caverns and tunnels of Druumat; for the Magekin, their adventures ended, even before their brother would hatch, much as they had begun nearly sixteen years before – with an egg, warming in its hearth; the twins equally proud, shimmering with all colours as they gazed upon the blank shell, and their consort, dark as a shadow, curling a wing around each.

“There’s a celebration in your honour,” a voice said. “I’m not sure what surprised me more – that you left it, or that fewer people noticed.”

Mulin looked up; Kralin stirred beside him as he did the same. The one who’d found their quiet getaway was somewhat familiar – a Nightkin female, around twenty, who’d been in their classes on spell-forms, what felt like a lifetime ago. Mulin struggled a few seconds for a name – not because she was unmemorable; she was lithe and graceful, black hide healthy and glossy, shown to advantage by bits of silver jewellery. There was just so much buzzing through his head that it took him uncomfortably long to produce, “Oh, good evening, Srevva. I hope you’ve been well?”

“Well enough, no thanks to your little escapade a week back,” she said dryly. Leaning on the wall, she poked his ankle with her tail-spade. “I was working on a channel rod when that huge storm swept over. Shattered it; one of the shards bounced off my eyepiece. And to think I used to find those goggles a nuisance…”


“There is one thing you haven’t yet asked of me.”

Mulin tore his gaze from the dancing snowflakes, directing it instead to the aged Stonekin beside him. “I should think there are a great number of things I’ve not asked you,” he replied. “Most of them, it’s not my business to know; the others I’ve not seen the need. Where is it you don’t agree with me on those points?”

“You have a right to know why,” Arnak replied, still gazing out from the cave mouth at the swirling snow. “Why I started this thing; why I first sought his aid.” No need to say whose.


“He’s in a bad way,” Srin murmured, guiding Mulin through the corridors. “All of us have guilt to wrestle with – it just seems so… so foolish, the things we so easily accepted as true. But none of us actually tried to do you true harm.” He shook his head. “Vhish had to put him to sleep, even before… before we were freed. That… thing… thought he’d be mad with guilt and try to get in the way; I think Vhish thought he’d do himself a harm.”

Mulin thought of that time by the fire in Mar Drerrasett, of those Sharliss had spoken of casting themselves from the cliffs in guilt and grief. He thought of how he’d have felt, if he’d had to fight Liri, if he’d done any of his companions injury, and rather fancied he could understand that horrible impulse now. He sighed. “Some things, just one death is too little to remedy,” he half-growled.

The Nightkin squeezed his shoulder. “Have a care for yourself, Mulin,” he breathed. “I’ve grown rather fond of your gentle self. Please… please don’t lose sight of that.”

He was right, of course. Mulin sighed again. “I know. I shouldn’t take pleasure in someone being dead, not when there’s been so much senseless death already.” He didn’t say, and didn’t really need to, that one being in this mess had truly deserved to die; and at least that one hadn’t escaped the butcher’s bill.


The next few hours were a blur.

Not in the sense of it being too busy to remember any detail, although they were busy. Mulin was dizzy from fatigue; he spent a moment in meditation, trying to clear the toxins of it from his body. It gave him only a momentary reprieve from his aching head, though it did much better in keeping his hands from shaking; still, he kept himself to the rougher work of chiselling grooves for the new elements of the spell-forms. Kralin smoothed them out and finished the finer detail. Arnak, the old Stonekin, toiled with passionate intensity; his body did not wear its nearly two centuries as well as some Archwizards did, and from time to time his step would falter, but his eyes and hands never did so; he shaped cold metal through the raw force of a Stonekin’s affinity for anything of the earth, bending it into the proper shapes to amend the existing forms, pressing the new pieces into the grooves the twins cut. At first he forced the metal to merge, as well, but it proved easier to simply have one of the twins go back and melt the metal together; at some point, Kralin took over the cutting entirely and left the welding to his exhausted twin.

Thinking was made no easier by the discordant feeling that built in the air. The flow of mana was unstable even here, now, where before it had been intense but quite straightforward; it was starting to eddy, and as the eddies gained strength the turbulence would grow.

Steadying the flow was in principle a simple task, but the sheer power involved in it was daunting.

They suffered no distraction. At some point Mulin was aware of familiar voices, but Kralin and Arnak together shooed them away.


He had no time to grieve. His companions were out there somewhere, still; and he was not alone. There was still an enemy here.

An enemy who had crafted their own destruction, and cursed them all for wanting to stop it.

Anger flowed into him again – not the all-consuming rage of a few seconds ago, but enough to push back the grief and loss. Enough for him to lift his head, and focus his reddening gaze on the startled Stonekin a few feet away, staring down at him.

“You,” Mulin growled.

He yanked his knife free of the Siurrah’s corpse, the clear crystal covered in a film of blood. “This is your doing,” he said, rising to his feet. “This place is of your design. You brought here the hands that helped to complete it. Tell me why you shouldn’t share his fate,” his knife swept back to point at the body it had just left, “before I decide that you should!”

“I – I…” The topaz eyes shifted to the body on the stone, to the one in the cage, and back to Mulin’s own; their owner swallowed. “All the words I have are… weak. I didn’t want any of this – no bloodshed, no pain, no disaster. He promised me… promised that we would make a place where people could be themselves, where everyone could be happy, no matter how strange their people thought them. Four Winds, how did it come to this?” The old male swayed on his feet.


He found Kralin largely by accident.

His progress was slow, now, slower even than his earlier stalk; he had much less idea of which way to go, and spent more time looking in side chambers. That was how he noticed what seemed to be an eating area; the storeroom was closed tight, with a pair of human guards watching it from across the room, weapons ready at hand.

They weren’t watching very closely. If they had, they might have noticed that the chains slung across it were weak; some of the links had been repeatedly heated and quick-frozen. The lamplight helped obscure the sullen glow of the metal when it was hot; the ever-present rumble of stone probably obscured any minor cracking noise the metal made as it shifted.

The temper of the iron was quite thoroughly ruined. If he hadn’t spent so much time attuned to stone, feeling his way around the lowest caverns, he wouldn’t have noticed it, but in those moments he could sense the flaws even in the worked metal. A good hard shove, with the weight of the door and a body behind it, could snap them.

Kralin was there, all right, and obviously not too unhealthy. Mulin gripped his knife. He could speed his twin’s release, take down the guards –

But he forbore. If the guards died, the one controlling them would know that someone was there, and there were only a few people it could be.


His first shadow-step had been disconcerting simply because the world had looked so different.

This was far more so. The change was not only in how he viewed the world; the change was in him. He was, for a few minutes, a part of the living stone. He felt its pressures and tensions, he felt where it had flowed and where it had stopped; he felt where it had been cut away, a harsh edge to his perception.

Even moving through it was a strange experience. He didn’t move a muscle – his muscles, in a way, didn’t exist; they had been transmuted to stone with the rest of him. But through an effort of focused will, he could shift his own boundary, could alter exactly which portion of the rock was him. In that way, he turned to face where he was going; in that way, as he came near the far edge of the stone, he was able to get his head against it first. His head, then his eye. And through that, he could see.


It was easy enough, at first, to tell which way he needed to go: down. There was still something about the flow of mana – it was too streamlined to be very near the source; closer to, it would have been more likely to spread and billow out, so to speak.

Which did mean that the times he took a wrong turn, he felt it before getting more than a minute or so away.

Farther down, he doubted he’d have that cue. The stone here had been worked, and inlaid with spell-forms, to channel mana to the surface, rather than letting it go straight through the rock where it might spread out prematurely; with this much power, though, it would come to a point where those spell-forms weren’t enough to contain it entirely.

Unless the spell-forms got a great deal stronger – which might not be worth the effort – the whole area around the font would be washed out. And mage-sight would be essentially useless. It was hardly much good to him even now.

He took no chances; he walked in the shadows now. He had to assume that the others knew about it – after all, Liri had.

The thought made his gut wrench. If he had to fight her…

The less he needed to fight any of his companions, the better. Even if they knew he could copy a Nightkin, they still wouldn’t be able to see him. So long as the corridor remained clear, he should be all right.


The mountain loomed above them now; the pass that had brought them there stretched out behind and below, the setting sun pouring a flow of molten gold over the snow.

Before them – finally – the mouth of a cave beckoned. There could be no doubt that it was the right one; the stone had been carefully shored, and the pilings were recent, no more than a month old. Footprints had trampled the snow outside. It had even been guarded, and guarded well – but no longer.

“I think that was most of the ones that ran off, night before last,” Hark said, prowling around the fallen. He nudged one with the butt of his spear. “Some of them were already hurt. And this one looks quite familiar.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Mulin agreed. The fighting had been hard, and the guards had fought better as more of them fell – as their true foe had fewer bodies to keep track of, he suspected. But now they stood in the wash of the mana font; they had to push harder to get their magic to do anything, but there was effectively no limit to how much they could try.


There it lay before them – undeniable evidence that they were on the right track.

“I haven’t often wished I had mage-sight,” Hark rumbled. “But for the looks on your faces, I gather this would be an exception.”

“It’s…” Mulin tried to find a word that would convey some notion of the scope of this thing, without also suggesting admiration; he failed. “I don’t even know how to say it.”


It felt like he’d only just fallen asleep when a hand on his wing’s wrist-joint shook him awake. Another hand pressed down atop his snout, urging silence, even as he drew breath to mumble a query. That got his attention, sleep swept from his mind by a sudden surge of adrenaline.

He looked up; Srin bent down, whispering into his ear, “Enemies. Be ready.”

How he knew these were enemies, he didn’t say. Mulin didn’t ask – there were plenty of valid answers. He just tried to nod against Srin’s hand; he didn’t move, but the point got across. The Nightkin drew back and let him sit up.

The tent flap was open; even as Mulin was gingerly pulling the blanket off of himself, Srin’s image wavered, grew faint, and faded to a barely-perceptible outline of his former self; even the knife in his hand was obscured.


The Sachi armourer ran a clawed finger along the leather, peering at it with keen eyes. Looking up at Mulin, he chittered something, a query.

“He asks, it is a good fit? It’ll not move on you, but not dig into your hide either?”

“No, it feels fine.” Mulin stomped around a little, the cleats ringing on the stone; they didn’t shift any more than he’d expect, for instance, his own hide to do already. “It still feels strange, but it’s not uncomfortable at all.”

“Well, we’ll be able to put it to the test soon,” Hark said. His sword was still in its sheath at his hip, but he was hefting a longspear, swinging it in his hands as one might a staff. “Caution is what we need now, yes?”

“Oh, yes. A step forward is no use if you slide back ten, no,” Sharliss agreed. “But you’ve done well with these, and this is the better time of year to be venturing into the higher peaks; there is less snow there, but with autumn cooling the air, what’s there is good and solid. The first storms should be a long while off yet.”


Something was wrong.

Mulin held up a hand in signal, making a broad circle with it; he followed the same motion, banking away from his approach and sweeping around.

The Sachi city was below them now, a collection of terraces carved into the rock, forming walkways and buildings. It was also utterly vacant. There wasn’t a single being to be seen on any of those walkways, not one plume of smoke rising from any building’s chimney.

Their charts hadn’t indicated anything about this.


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