Lisette thought she dreamed, but she couldn’t be sure. She thought someone picked her up, but it must’ve been a memory, because she was ten years old again, had lost herself in the night forest, and fallen down into darkness.
Voices ebbed and flowed over her head.
“…found a stray?”
“…you didn’t see—she lit up! She’s one of us!”
“Master Zoya said…”
The whispered discussion went on, but it didn’t touch Lisette. She floated in a daze, her body light, her mind drifting. She turned her head into someone’s chest, and half-heard, half-felt the rumble of a voice.
“She needs warmth and rest. I’m putting her to bed.”
The voice was quiet, not especially commanding, but the others fell instantly silent. Lisette was aware of their retreat, of distant bustling. She struggled to get past the uncaring haze that wrapped her around. She must’ve shifted a little, because the last voice said, “Go to sleep.” And Lisette did, her fingers curling into the fabric of someone’s shirt…
Birds called in the pale dawn that covered the forest. Long hushes lay between their trills, as if the earth still slept, trees and bushes and plants still drowsing in the cobwebby shadows.
Lisette twitched and winced at the dull, heavy throb in her chest. Something soft slipped down her shoulders. Lisette grabbed a handful of fabric and held the garment up in front of her face.
A hooded grey sweatshirt.
Her guts knotted. Lisette sat up straight, ignoring the icy jab above her heart. She hadn’t crawled into this hollow on her own; she had been placed there, with dried bracken to soften her sleeping area and covered for warmth. Her wings, sadly bent, lay beside her.
The care with which it had been done left a sour taste in her mouth, set her teeth on edge.
Lisette struggled to her feet, the sweatshirt dangling from her clenched hand, and snatched up her wings. One look around to catch her bearings, then she headed due west.
Every sense was on alert for even a whiff of the sweatshirt’s owner.
Lisette was beyond surprises. All she felt was a kind of grim tiredness when she emerged into the clearing with the manmade building she’d seen from the air last night and found a figure standing in front of it, staring up at its metal roof, now buckled into shiny frozen waves.
“Ashe,” she said.
He turned in that leisurely manner he had. He looked the same as always, dirty blonde hair falling across his forehead, shoulders slouching, watching the world through reddish eyes. His pants were baggy, his long-sleeved shirt plain, his dark gloves fingerless. The only thing missing was the ubiquitous sweatshirt, and that she held in her hand.
His face held that same detached expression. It rubbed against the raw places of Lisette’s soul; she just managed to snap her teeth shut and swallow back the hot words that rose to her lips. Instead, she strode towards the building.
“It’s empty,” Ashe said as she approached the door.
“I want to see for myself,” Lisette snapped. She balled up the sweatshirt and threw it in his direction without looking. She set her shoulder against the door and shoved; it gave way into an interior of thin sunshine and green shadows.
She walked into a building that had obviously been touched by Chaos. Springy moss grew underfoot. The building was all one enormous room, punctuated by supporting pillars. Frozen white flowers had burst out of one pillar; another had been riddled by destructive magic until only a thin lacework remained. It would collapse before long.
There was nothing else to see. The building was, as Ashe had said, empty. Here and there were the remnants of furniture and apparatus—a broken chair on its back that sprouted several extra legs, a cloud of glittering glass shards in one corner, defying gravity without fuss. Lisette moved around the perimeter, careful where she placed her feet, avoiding the glass. The room had probably been partitioned with screens at one point; the low-ceilinged area at the back likely private cells for the occupants.
What the occupants had done here, Lisette only knew from what Acidia had let drop.
She turned back to the doorway and stopped short. Her nostrils flared.
There, on the whitewashed wall right next to the open door, was a giant insignia in bold strokes. A stylized dragon’s head in black. A red sphere in its mouth.
The Red Dawn.
Lisette studied it, narrowed-eyed.
Then she left the building.
Ashe still stood outside, now wearing his hoodie, his hands buried in his pockets. It reminded Lisette of the first time she’d seen him, but at least he didn’t have his back to her.
“Where is everybody?” she asked. “Did they have children with them? Where did they take them?”
Ashe lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I’m only the clean-up crew.”
Lisette’s patience snapped. Kael was laid-back and Troi aloof, but at least she knew they cared about something. Ashe had always been so emotionless, as if he was just a shell over emptiness. As if he had no soul.
It infuriated her.
She lunged forward and grabbed him by the front of that thrice-blasted sweatshirt. “Where have you been for the past year?” she hissed. “And why are you here? Are you working with them now?”
He did not resist, regarding her without interest. “Why does it matter to you? I’m not with Heartwood anymore.”
Red ringed his pupils and bled into the brown irises. Ainsley’s vivid purple eyes were striking; Ashe’s disturbing. He was so quiet, so unassuming, you sometimes forgot the alien strangeness of him.
Or what his magic could do. Magic she had put herself in reach of.
Even at full health, she wouldn’t have been able to beat him. But Lisette couldn’t back down now.
She made a disgusted sound and let go of his shirt. Her gaze slid sideways as her eyes smarted. “What happened with Shade?” she asked.
“You saw the report.”
“I want to hear it from you,” she snarled.
“We went on a mission. I was careless. She died.” No change in his voice. Still soft, still even, still inexorable.
Lisette’s breath hitched. Darn. Why was she bringing this up now, heaping her sorrow over Shade on top of her anxiety for Micah and Amber and Naia?
“Did they expel you, or did you leave on your own?” she demanded.
“I couldn’t stay afterwards. Does it matter?”
“Yes!” she yelled. “Yes, it matters! She was my friend, and you…” she faltered. Ashe didn’t have friends—he didn’t invite that kind of connection. But he had been a staple of Heartwood, one of the original students, the first name on the list Tamsin had brought up a few nights ago.
Ashe regarded her with mild curiosity.
“You didn’t have to leave without a word,” Lisette said finally. Her anger, quickly stirred up, was just as easily quenched. She was too tired to sustain it anymore.
Her chest still ached.
Several silent moments went by. Ashe said, “I didn’t have anything to say.”
Lisette gave a bitter ghost of a laugh. “You never did. But maybe the rest of us wanted—needed—some kind of explanation, some kind of closure.”
He cocked his head. “Did you?”
She met his gaze. “Perhaps I did.” Her lips twisted. “I didn’t blame you back then.”
“But you do now?”
“How can I tell?” Lisette threw out her arm, encompassing the scene. “Not when I find you here. Not when it looks like you really did”—her brows drew together in a frown—“turn out bad.”
“Maybe I did,” he said. “That happens, you know, even at a place like Heartwood. Not everyone who goes there is good and admirable.”
Like Tamsin. Lisette averted her face. In the soft light of day, it seemed silly to feel so betrayed. It wasn’t as if Tamsin had handed her over to her mortal enemies. Perhaps she had really meant it for the best. And yet…
“Looks like you already found that out,” said Ashe softly. He stretched out his hand towards her. Lisette tensed, but she already knew that it was futile. She had put herself in his range, her suns were depleted, her magic twisted into something dark, and she was just plain tired.
Ashe’s hand stopped an inch from her chest, right at the place where the dull ache lay. “You’re hurt,” he said.
“Yes,” she admitted.
“I could take it away.”
Tears sprang to her eyes. Lisette shook her head. “No.” Her voice rasped. “The price is too high.”
His hand dropped. He shifted, settling his weight back to his heels. He turned, walked to the building, and placed his hands against its side.
The silence grew heavy, swollen with impending magic. It pressed against Lisette’s skin. The world seemed to hold its breath. She tipped her head up.
With a soft, soundless implosion, the entire building collapsed into motes. Lisette caught sight of an interior pillar, a fallen chair, before they, too, shivered into dust. A glittering cloud hung in place for a moment, then dissipated.
Ashe bowed his head. Lisette exhaled, realizing the tension in her back and shoulders. This was Ashe’s magic and his curse: the power to destroy something so thoroughly that all that remained was swiftly-vanishing dust.
And it wasn’t only limited to metal and stone and wood. She recalled the whispered warnings, the things she had witnessed.
Magic wasn’t meant to sit in your suns indefinitely. It wanted to be used, to be let out, to do something in the world.
In Ashe’s case, the results could be—had been—disastrous. Despite his care, despite his control, despite his quietness, no one could ever forget what he was capable of. What his magic could do if it slipped its leash.
Maybe that’s why he’d left.
With a twitch of his shoulders, Ashe turned away without a word and headed into the forest.
“Ashe!” Lisette called to his back.
He stopped. He didn’t look back at her.
“Don’t let them take you,” she said fiercely. “Don’t give in to the Red Dawn. It doesn’t matter what your magic is. What happened to Shade was an accident. You don’t have to walk a dark path.”
Ashe lifted a hand in acknowledgment. And then he walked on, disappearing under the trees, leaving Lisette behind in an empty clearing.
Naia and Amber were lurking at the top of the path that led into Cloud Village. Lisette felt a shadow lift from her heart when she saw them both. Naia charged down to meet her and hugged her hard. Lisette allowed the embrace.
“I’m glad you escaped the river,” said Lisette, as Amber joined them. The pattern mage looked pale and had some truly awful looking bruises on her face, but she seemed otherwise unhurt.
“So are we,” said Amber wryly, no sting in her words.
Naia, on the other hand, had a hectic flush on her cheeks. Her eyes were bright and her manner even bubblier than normal. She chattered on about the duo’s adventures, including something about a woman who knit the rain and two characters she referred to as Hooya and Wolf. Lisette guessed who they were as Naia described her fight with many dramatic gestures.
“I’m sorry you had to deal with two of them alone,” said Lisette.
“I don’t think I’d have been much use,” Amber put in.
Naia shrugged. “It wasn’t so bad. Chaos was killing them on the inside. But ooh, speaking of killing, there was a creepy guy on the road. Amber and I saw him touch a corpse—it had to be either Stetson or Rey from what they said—and it just vanished.”
Lisette nodded grimly. “I know. I met him. It was Ashe.”
Naia and Amber exchanged glances. “You know him?”
“Yes,” said Lisette. “He was one of the original Heartwood students.” She started back up the path and the two followed.
Cloud Village was a hive of purposeful activity, even in the early morning. Women and children scavenged whatever had survived from the ruins of their homes. The few men who remained walked the perimeter or hauled heavy loads. The rest of them would be out in the forest, hunting any Chaos-formed creatures before they became a nuisance.
Her people, Lisette thought, picking up whatever remained of their lives and continuing on. Enduring, as they always had. Something stirred inside her, maybe sadness, maybe pride.
Jonquil saw her and came over. “I’m glad you are safe,” she said simply.
Jonquil rested a hand briefly on Lisette’s shoulder. “You’re hungry. Sit down and I’ll get you something to eat.”
Lisette was too tired to disobey. She folded herself down on a tree stump and watched Tamsin use her ropes to lift a fallen tree from one of the cabins. The older mage gave her a relieved smile, but didn’t come over.
“She found us, you know,” said Amber quietly. Lisette looked up at the pattern mage hovering nearby, her tattered cloak on her arm. “This morning. Tamsin was out with a search party and felt the magic that brought Naia back together. She came and found us.” She hesitated. “Tamsin told us what she’d done, scheming to bring you back here. I think she’s sorry.”
Lisette stared off at where the trees overhung a slope dotted with grave markers. The Cloud Village cemetery, where her father was buried. She would pay her respects there later, allow herself to feel sad. Anything to take away the hollowness in her soul. “I’m not angry with her anymore, if that’s what she’s afraid of.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” said Amber. “It’s more like things won’t be the same between the two of you.”
“Not everyone who goes to Heartwood is good and admirable,” Lisette quoted and gave a scoffing laugh. A child brought her a bowl of hot porridge, and she dug greedily into it.
After several minutes, Amber said, softly. “Your suns are different.”
“You mean one is tainted,” Lisette corrected. “What does it look like?”
“Oily black. Twisted. What happened?”
“I was bitten by the bat-creatures that attacked us in the caves.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Yes.” Lisette dropped her spoon in the empty bowl and stared at its wooden interior. “Amber, I can’t fly anymore.” Her wings hung down her back, empty and useless. The heavy blockage in her chest prevented her from powering them with the golden magic that had always run in her veins.
“Don’t be defeatist,” scolded Amber. “Once you get back to Heartwood, the Masters will fix you up.”
“Maybe.” Lisette put the bowl down by her feet, and her gaze went to Jonquil, coming up with two pieces of layered cake. She gave one to each of the girls.
“I’m sorry for whoever’s celebration was ruined last night,” Lisette said. The seven-layered cake with prune jam filling was a staple of Cloud Village feasts—for weddings and wakes, holidays and namings alike.
“We made it for your homecoming,” said Jonquil quietly.
Lisette had nothing to say to this. She took a bite, and memories, sweet and bitter all mixed up together, swelled achingly inside her. She forced them back down. Someday, she supposed, she would need to confront them, sort them out.
But not today. Not while cobwebby greyness enveloped her, not with that obsidian fist clenched insider her chest.
Not with the urgency of the present throbbing in her bones.
Lisette put aside the plate and looked her mother in the eye. “Tell me what happened to Micah. Who was the mage who took him away to Heartwood?”
Jonquil searched Lisette’s face. Lisette didn’t know what her mother saw in her expression, only that Jonquil gave a slow nod, as if she, too, was accepting the reality of the way things were. “It was a girl who took Micah and Raoul away,” she said. “A girl with golden hair and purple eyes and a cloud of paper birds.”
Amber stifled a gasp. Lisette’s face grew stiff.
Author’s Note: This was quite the packed episode to write, with so much of the past bubbling up. I’m excited to see where all these threads will go! Which questions are you most interested in seeing answered?