The Eyes of the Fire

by Marian Crane

Isadra leaned against the railing, frustrated to her core. She’d been so certain no one from the Temple followed her on board the Banner!

Her strategy had involved nothing more than hacking off her bead-woven braids, adopting a fisherwoman’s layered clothing in place of her own ascetic but distinctive red linen shift, and simply walking up the gang-plank of the galleon Denerida’s Banner, one of a hundred anonymous refugees. Her light hazel eyes and olive-toned skin marked Isadra as Deneridan half-breed, like so many others on the ship.

Her defection was so unexpected that she knew the Temple wasted vital hours in disbelief and recriminations. In spite of that, two people managed to second-guess her choice of the dilapidated Banner instead of the faster passenger ships.

The so-called merchant from Hankuaket watched Isadra from the elevated survey-deck of the Banner. A beautiful eleven-year-old girl, dressed in Wryn-Temple vermilion, lounged beside him, his “daughter” according to the rampant grapevine of ship gossip. The dark-skinned girl wore her auburn hair loose, except for one long braid wrapped with red carnelian beads and gold charms shaped like tongues of flame. The man beside her was attentive as a doting father -- or servant.

Benetai, Isadra thought. They sent a child after me. Not so much a child; after Isadra herself, Benetai was the most powerful of the fire-adepts of Hankuaket. More telling, Benetai had always been kept apart from Isadra, the two never allowed to exchange more than cold courtesies and veiled insults.

From her own station near the bow of the galleon, Isadra stared openly at her enemies. She wondered if she could persuade Benetai to change sides and flee with her. As if in answer, the girl tossed her waist-length mane and smiled directly at Isadra, her dark eyes narrowed in shockingly adult greed and hunger. Benetai had always made it plain that she resented Isadra’s rank and power. Plain enough, that even secluded Isadra heard of her derision. Even more, the child despised Isadra’s refusal to use that power for her own benefit. “Isadra the Hermit,” Benetai called her in poisoned derision.

Isadra pulled her ragged gray linen mantle up across her throat, even though her shirt hid what nestled across the hollow of her throat. Under the stained brown cotton lay a collar made of seven links of filigree platinum in swirling, fiery shapes, joined together to form a crescent that covered her from throat to just above her breasts. Each link was set with a ruby nugget shaped like a jet of blood-colored flame.

The relic didn’t belong to Isadra. Even though she wasn’t about to let Benetai claim it, Isadra could not sell it. Who could ever pay her more than a fraction of its worth? And the collar was almost like a child to her: a demonic, mischievous, amoral child, but still her closest companion. To sell it would be like engaging in slavery. Keeping it would be advertising for her own death!

Isadra clamped down on her fearful, angry thoughts. She wasn’t in the Temple anymore. The Banner was not smoke-darkened, terrorized Hankuaket. While daylight lingered, while she stood in the open around incurious sailors and passengers, she was safe. Murder was the last of her pursuers options, and unlike the girl on the survey deck, Isadra no longer carried the Temple laws with her, only her memories of them.

She still wore the platinum and ruby collar that linked her with the incredible power of the Wryn, the volcano that had lit up all fifteen years of her life in Hankuaket. No one could take the collar from her against her will. It bit back with red fire and stinging sparks, and seemed to enjoy tormenting anyone who touched her with ill intent.

Back in Hankuaket, there had been other means of persuasion besides physical violence. Fasting, scorn, rank, bribery, seduction, and mental games designed to make her into an obedient Flame of the City. A living conduit for the immeasurable power of the volcano that had been the city’s bane and blessing for millennia. Isadra weathered those tests with the same equanimity she bore everything else -- by retreating into herself. Sometimes, she’d felt the collar’s frustration. It wanted to protect her, and was itself a slave.

Isadra’s comfortable link with the Wryn’s collar made her the youngest, most powerful Flame Hankuaket had ever seen. Isadra and her mother had been the first of the priesthood in centuries to treat it as an entity instead of a tool. No one knew how old the collar was, or what genius, smith, or godling had made it. No one except Isadra guessed that the relic was alive, capable of thought and learning.

To the merchant families who controlled Hankuaket and its crumbling empire, Isadra was a prayer answered. Another prized tool, until she walked onto a refugee galleon and became a liability. She knew the two following her would try to persuade her to return to the city, or pass the relic on to Benetai. Just as Isadra’s mother had unexpectedly given it to her six-year-old daughter, locking the raw power Hankuaket sorcerers needed into the body of an unskilled child. The previous Flame of Hankuaket had made the exchange final by leaping into the Wryn’s maw that same night.

Isadra didn’t remember too much of that wild, red-lit time. She knew that in Denerida, the people called the dead Hankuaket traitor a peacemaker and a saint. It took twenty years to train a new channel for the Wryn’s power. Hankuaket lost its scramble to save its empire in less than ten. Refugees flooded from the former capital like rats deserting a tenement on fire. The Banner's load would not be the last to leave.

Isadra forced herself to relax a little, although the hand clutching her mantle remained white at the knuckles.

No point in jumping overboard, now that she’d been found by the Temple tracker. Isadra recalled a folktale about a trapped mink. The beast waited patiently until the hunter came to kill it. The hunter, confident of a stunned and half-dead quarry, freed the animal and got a mangled hand as reward.

Isadra waited patiently by the age-smoothed wooden railing, thinking mink-thoughts and admiring the vista. Her eyes were dazzled by noon sunlight. She blinked, and the red darkness behind her eyelids was painted with afterimages of white spray and leaping fish. Gulls threaded their neat, needle-winged way between the Banner’s hemp rigging and jungle-green sails. The waves heaved past like the backs of dark blue water-serpents.

Magic pulsed again through Isadra’s veins, an instinctive response that she hated to deny. She hungered briefly to call up a real water-serpent, to let it dance like a silvery-blue sidewinder across the waves and keep her company as she stood on the beggar’s-fare deck. The rest of the deck passengers crowded astern. Isadra had a lonely place near the galleon’s bow. No one but the assassin and the sailors high overhead would see her, if she summoned one of the elemental water spirits that took the shape of wing-finned serpents. The sailors knew rightly that water serpents were good luck, like white dolphins, but the two people hunting her might fear her prowess at sorcery...

Isadra shook her head in denial and settled her stained hood closer around her face. The taught compulsion to use her magic only inside the Temple was stronger than her need to parade her gifts. Stupid to flaunt them, anyway, she rationalized. She was a beggar, fleeing from Hankuaket like all the refugees, now that the war with Denerida was over and the borders opened. She had enough of her mother’s hoarded money to survive for a while in Denerida. That was, if she could elude Benetai and the Temple assassin.

She glanced up at the survey-deck again. The young priestess had closed her eyes in trance, trying to get past Isadra’s natural barriers and the collar’s protection. The male assassin wasn’t looking at Isadra, but down the deck toward the first of the Banner’s huge masts.

A woman lounged by a hatch, a burly Deneridan with cropped blonde hair and swarthy olive skin. Isadra had seen the woman often during the last few hours on the Banner. Another of the crew?

No, Isadra thought. The woman had never been really busy, like the rest of the Banner's people. And the assassin looked as if he’d just swallowed a rancid cheese.

Another Temple lackey, out to collect the bounty on Isadra? Or a Deneridan counter-agent? Was she aware of the assassin’s interest in her? Isadra chuckled softly, settling back to enjoy the show.

The assassin looked back at Isadra. He gave her a harmless, ingratiating grin. His walnut-brown, chiseled features and neatly-cut, gray hair made him look like a distinguished but generous nobleman. It was a “let’s be reasonable, come up and talk to me” face. Isadra kept her own face as immobile as a statue’s. Under her shirt, the collar turned warm with its inmate’s anticipation of mayhem.

The Deneridan laid aside the net she was toying with, stood up easily on the rolling deck, and started toward Isadra.

The Temple assassin lost his mask just long enough to reveal a worried expression. Then he shrugged, grabbed his startled charge’s arm, and walked to the other end of the survey-deck.

When Isadra lost sight of him, she turned to find the Deneridan gone as well.

The refugees weren’t allowed to unpack their fire-pots on deck for the passage. Isadra mingled with them, shared their grumbling as they paid for hot food from the Banner’s below-decks galley. Two of her bronze coins bought a rubbery strip of cold fowl and a hunk of dark bread.

Back in her accustomed lurking-spot, she eyed the food sourly. Two more coins would have meant hot roasted chicken. Damn the Temple compulsions that had been pounded into her skull! She didn’t have to be as miserly with magic as with her bronze and silver kals.

Isadra shut her eyes, feeling once again a heavy, rooted stillness, a seductive sense of being tied to the very earth by a slippery cord of invisible silk. Around her, in the black void she’d always called darksight, heaved the magical traces of the sea. Glowing washes of blue radiance delineated the surface and deeper currents of the water. Red-orange and yellow sparks of life hurtled past, bobbing placidly with the motion of the sea, or darting under their own power. Witches and sorcerers would have reached out to that treasure-house and plundered it, leaving millions of tiny dead husks drained of the life-fire.

Isadra merely turned her altered sight inward, to brush against the core of deep-red radiance that flared within her. Stolen magic of her own, meant only to be used to benefit.

She felt the spasm of trapped earth-magic when, miles behind her, the Wryn rumbled and stretched in its sleep. It was sensitive, even at this distance, to her lightest touch. How far away did she have to be before the collar lost its perverse personality? Before it turned into something that could be sold or safely destroyed? Denerida was thirty leagues down the straights. It had been harassed by Hankuaket’s magic, as had cities leagues beyond it.

Isadra hated to think of selling the collar. Hated even more the thought of being its guardian all her life. Someday she would have to find an apprentice to carry the collar in her place. And how then would she know the relic wouldn’t be misused in some future time?

Enough moaning about what can’t be changed, she told herself and the collar. I have need of you, friend...

It had been waiting for a direct order, like a gazehound whining and tugging at the leash. Eagerly, the collar stabilized the power flow up from within Isadra, allowing her stocky young body and mortal nerves to channel enough raw magic to feed a thousand greedy sorcerers. Waves of earth-magic sang along her veins like a second heartbeat, strong enough to shake a city apart.

No, Isadra said silently. Not that much power.

For a second, the collar grew just hot enough to make her skin uncomfortable. Isadra bore it with grim humor. The relic seemed to enjoy freedom as much as she did, and often resented being told to mind its manners. But the power level cycled down to a bearable thunder in Isadra’s bones.

Still blinded in her own trance, Isadra guided a small flicker of heat into the cold lump in her hands. It turned warm after a heartbeat. The rich, fatty odors of the fowl and bread seemed better than perfume. Isadra sighed, lifting herself out of trance, letting the collar absorb any leftover magical energy.

Before she could bite into the now-steaming morsel, a woman’s disbelieving voice said: “You -- you roasted a chicken sandwich with the three-thousand-year old defensive magic of Hankuaket? It took the Deneridan alliances ten years to fight that to a stalemate.”

Isadra lowered the food from her mouth. “Fighting what? The Wryn? Or my chicken sandwich? You Deneridans always had a faltering command of language.”

The blonde Deneridan woman sat down beside her, in lanky, cross-legged disarray. “Sorry. I’m just amazed that you’ve avoided that assassin so far. You are Isadra, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” the fugitive said warily.

“Well, then, it’s settled,” the Deneridan answered in lofty assurance. “Go on, eat. I’m Shvarne. Your new bodyguard. The Deneridan High Council wants very much to talk to you. They offer you your rightful place as a free noblewoman, in return for information about Hankuaket’s remaining defenses and its leaders. It’s quite legal. Your father was a Deneridan war hero, after all.”

“He was a scruffy spy that Mother took a liking to and harbored for a month,” Isadra said practically, “to the great disgust of several hopeful Hankuaket princes. They never could bring themselves to court me in earnest. I wasn’t worth it. I’ll repay them the favor by not betraying them,” Isadra continued between bites of her dinner. “They’re not worth it. I just want to get away from Hankuaket.”

Shvarne shrugged. “We can talk about that after we neutralize your two trackers.”

“We?” Isadra asked in growing dismay at the arrogance that shone through the Deneridan’s thin veneer of helpful friendship.

“It’s obvious that you can’t take care of them alone. You’ve done well this far, but you have to sleep sometime.”

Isadra involuntarily raised a hand to her throat, but kept back her own acid comment. The collar, like the Wryn, was never completely dormant. It would have warned her about intruders. At least she’d got it trained to warn her before it ashed them. The collar had begun to achieve a growing awareness of tiny moral considerations, usually couched in terms of Isadra’s approval or censure. She didn’t want it backsliding now, just when they might have to wander the world together.

Isadra decided she didn’t intend Shvarne to have that information yet. The Deneridan’s ignorance said worlds about how much Denerida itself underestimated the collar of the Wryn. And even with that wrong estimate, their rulers still craved its power.

“You’re probably right,” Isadra said calmly. “The assassin and the priestess will try for me tonight. Will you help me?”

Shvarne just looked back at her and grinned. Isadra kept her annoyance from being too apparent. Shvarne’s friendly, patronizing smile seemed a mirror image of Benetai’s mockery. She hoped Shvarne didn’t make the mistake of underestimating Benetai. Isadra knew that, to protect her own slight advantages, she couldn’t actively warn the Deneridan...

By the ninth bell after noon, the western sky had almost lost its purple afterglow. The stars uncloaked themselves and wandered in slow arcs, like the running lights of lost galleons. Isadra, watching them, felt almost carefree again.

Despite that unaccustomed feeling of ease, she’d asked Shvarne to fetch a pile of spray-dampened fleeces for a fire-shield. Isadra refused to cede the tactical advantage of open air; an enclosed space could collapse from fire damage, or have all the air sucked out of it by a canny opponent’s strike. Fire-adepts had to have fuel, after all, the same as their weapons. She hoped they wouldn’t be necessary.

Isadra felt the collar warm gently against her throat as it reacted to her emotions, amplified them, then reflected them back at her in a wistful inanimate query. It was accustomed to regular schedules of activity, to ritual, to endless practice sessions with its current master. Isadra’s brazen flight from Hankuaket, the stress of watching and evading the assassin, and Shvarne’s dubious assistance all confused the relic’s simple view of its universe.

*This is freedom,* Isadra said to the collar. *Uncertainty is the price everyone pays for not being a slave.*

The collar’s uneasiness focused tighter, on Isadra herself.

*No,* she told it gently, making a decision then and there. *Whatever happens, I’m not going to sell you or destroy you. You’re beginning to think about cessation and your own death. That means you are becoming a mortal thing, my friend.*

A chill like the spray off a winter sea trickled through the fine platinum. Whatever it meant to say next was interrupted, as it sensed someone walking quietly toward Isadra. The warning heat from the rubies made Isadra automatically duck and roll away from her place by the railing.

*Stupid!* she thought to herself and the collar. Her body must have been clearly outlined against the blue-green phosphorescence of the night-darkened sea.

Shvarne let out a low whistle of surprise and approval. “Isadra?” she asked quietly. “It’s only me, with the damp fleeces you wanted. I didn’t know you could move so fast.”

“That might not have been you,” Isadra muttered, feeling ashamed that she’d revealed part of her tactics to a possible enemy. The collar behaved oddly, still testing its surroundings as if it wasn’t sure Shvarne was alone. “For all I knew, it was our fine gentleman from Hankuaket.”

“Not him,” Shvarne answered smugly as she tossed a bale of clammy-wet sheepskins at Isadra’s feet. “He made the mistake of claiming to the captain that you were a thief who’d stolen some jewelry from his daughter. I told the captain you were a Deneridan operative on official business. My credentials were higher, so your assassin is currently being 'entertained’ at an officers’ dinner.”

“Detained, you mean,” said Isadra flatly. “Where is Benetai? The girl?”

“Back in her cabin, of course. Why? She’s just a child.”

The answer to that came out of the blue-black darkness near the base of the survey deck. Isadra heard a girl’s low, measured laugh, followed by a blast of air-sucking heat and pressure.

Isadra spat out a curse, even as the rubies on her collar let out a thermal shriek. She rolled again, trusting the collar to shield her as she passed underneath the main force of the blast. Benetai had been clever. No visible fire to warn the sailors, just a cone of deeper blackness edged with faint, colorless flickers. Very little noise, just a deep-toned hum only a note or two lower than the thrumming sails and the sound of the Banner plowing leadenly through the waves.

Shvarne, who had no other warning than Isadra’s retreat, ducked a moment too late. One inadvertent gasp, soft as a sigh, told Isadra when the other woman made the mistake of breathing in Wryn-fire. Shvarne staggered and folded to the deck with a dull thump.

Isadra scrambled behind the damp sheepskins and tossed the majority of them over the unconscious Shvarne. She had to neutralize Benetai quickly. The girl was a competent adept, but not at all wise. The Banner’s deck timbers smelled of hot pitch and scorched wood. Too much heat applied in too small an area would doom them all. Isadra had a nightmare vision of the elderly Banner in flames, shattering in fountains of sparks even as the wind swept the galleon downwind on her last course.

The collar was blood-hungry and as panicky as Isadra, wanting to scorch the air from Benetai’s lungs in a blast far more controlled and potent than the clumsy one that downed Shvarne.

*No!* Isadra told the collar. *That would kill her! She’s young enough to learn better, someday.*

Benetai hit her with another wash of unseen fire. The sheepskins sizzled. The smell was appalling. Isadra regained her presence of mind and used the collar to draw in the heat, keeping it from touching the railing and deck. Benetai realized suddenly that she was simply feeding the collar’s power, and stopped.

“I am charged to ask you,” she said bluntly from the shadows. “Will you come back to your rightful place in Hankuaket?”

“No,” said Isadra.

“Then give the collar to me,” Benetai crooned, stalking from concealment and holding out her hands. Her thin body was edged in weak ripples of deep-red light. The child’s eyes seemed inhumanly huge and dark. “You’ll never use it the right way. What can you do with Wryn-fire? You who would rather be a beggar than Flame of the City?”

“At least I am a free beggar,” Isadra answered calmly.

“The Deneridans only court you because they want to exploit the Wryn and destroy Hankuaket.”

“I know. I’ll deal with them,” Isadra went on, sensing that her candor confused Benetai.

“You’ll not leave this ship alive, unless you cede the collar over to me.”

Isadra laughed. “Why should I agree? Anything you throw at me, the collar can neutralize.”

“As long as it wants to obey you,” Benetai observed astutely. “I am only five years behind you in training, Isadra. Did you think you were the only one destined to wear the collar of the Wryn?” Then the girl began to hum.

Isadra stepped back, feeling Benetais power again, but in a different way. Benetai ignored Isadra completely, aiming her low, discordant song and agile thoughts straight at the collar. Isadra caught the trailing edges of the visions that Benetai showed the relic: enemy and rebel ships on fire in a dozen harbors; Deneridan city walls melted into slag; the Wryn smoldering triumphantly over a Hankuaket restored to empire, rank smoke trailing up from a hundred altars like miniature volcanic plumes...

Isadra suddenly realized the collar was channeling the images to her, asking advice in the only way it knew from the only person it trusted. With that knowledge, Isadra felt as if a millstone had suddenly been dropped from around her neck. She knew what she had to do!

*I cannot order you not to serve Benetai*, she told the collar. *You know what tasks she will put to you and the Wryn. You know what I would do. This is another price of freedom. Choose!* Isadra lifted her hands to the elaborate catch at the nape of her neck, undid it, and tossed the glinting collar to an astonished Benetai. “Take it and have done with me,” Isadra said quietly. “I’m tired of your games.”

Benetai smiled at the treasure spilling across her hands. The spun platinum shone like frost in the combined radiance of the sea-glow, the wan light of the stars, and the infrequent lamps of the Banner. Seven tiny glitters, like scarlet eyes, woke within the ruby nuggets. Isadra thought they were peering back at her.

“Mine,” said the girl hungrily, smoothing the collar around her own neck. There was just enough light for Isadra to see that the collar suited Benetai. The sheen of metal and gemstone mirrored the dark, silver-shot vermilion of Benetai’s shift. Except for its seven eye-sparks, the collar seemed quiescent, a spectacular but un-magical piece of jewelry. Benetai closed her eyes to enter a rapport with the relic.

And failed. Her eyes flew open in shock. “It won’t do anything! Did you damage it, Isadra? If you’ve given me a fake...” she hissed.

“It’s real. Try a specific command,” Isadra said, gritting her teeth in apprehension. She thought she knew what command Benetai would give.

The young priestess grinned and pointed her hand at Isadra, her only rival, and whispered smugly, “Ash her, Wrynfire! Down to bone and beyond, and do not betray me to the guards with your light!”

The rubies burst into their full scarlet radiance, raking red gleams from nearby wood and metal. Isadra couldn’t help from cringing in uncertainty. She heard the watchman’s startled outcry from above. A beam of ruby light lanced out toward Isadra, covered her from head to toe, brightened steadily until it was pale gold and warm as blood. Then the light faded, gentle as a caress.

Isadra and Benetai were inundated with whirling visions of the Wryn, seen from the inside. They glimpsed the veins and arteries of the mountain, the dormant ones clogged with precious metals and jagged crystals, the living tubes full of richly-swirling lava. Some of the molten stone forced its way out of the rock, trickling like syrupy rivers over the Wryn’s granite flanks.

Each river contained one branch of a fragmented intelligence, which bumbled over the trails of its cooled and blinded predecessors. It was old and earthbound, its power hedged by the limitations of heat and pressure, its ceaseless quest outside the volcano-cradle driven by its curiosity and loneliness. Having learned at last the concept of self, it went looking for others of its kind.

The fire-rivers coiled around groves of trees, investigating, puzzled and disappointed when the blooming trees inevitably caught fire in billows of scented smoke.

As if from a thousand eyes, both women saw the tiny, wood-walled settlement of ancient Hankuaket undergo the same scrutiny and the same fate dozens of times. People shouted, screamed, grabbed their most-treasured possessions and raced for the shabby little canoes that bobbed along the black sand beach. Over and over they ran from the rivers of living fire, until at last the frustrated spirit of the Wryn turned inward to harness its deepest magics.

Isadra and Benetai saw again what proud Hankuaket had long forgotten: the moment when a tribal shaman stubbed his toe on a barely-cooled lava shoal, cursed the mountain with tired familiarity, and uncovered a glittering platinum collar with seven ruby eyes...

“It’s alive,” whispered Benetai in shock, breaking the ecstatic contact.

The rubies turned incandescent against her skin, and their platinum settings pulsed with white fire. Benetai screamed, clawing at the unyielding catch, as the collar prepared to turn on her.

*No,* said Isadra flatly, as if to a recalcitrant child. *What does that prove? Why not let go, and come with me, if you are hungry to see the world outside the mountain?*

The fires faded again. The collar dropped on the deck with a bell-like clink. Isadra scooped it up, quickly fastened it around her own neck, and covered it with her stained and smelly shirt. Benetai rubbed her collarbone and throat, where the skin was only reddened. Isadra heard excited voices, feet pounding along the deck. The defeated priestess made as if to run away, but Isadra caught her by the arm.

“No, you don’t! You might yet convince the collar to live on your throat, Benetai, if you learn to behave. And here is your first lesson,” Isadra said firmly, exerting enough force on Benetai’s arm to make the girl whimper and subside. “It’s called accountability.”

“What’s this?” blustered the Banner’s captain, when he and his men reached the scene. He was still toting both the carved-stick tally of his night’s winnings and a half-full flagon of pale Deneridan wine. “I’ve been rousted out of a profitable dice game for a fire that doesn’t exist?”

“There was a fire, sir,” said Isadra grimly. “It is out now, and it will not start on your ship again.”

The 'merchant’ from Hankuaket started to babble something about Benetai having been attacked by the refugee girl, but Isadra cut him off with an imperious cough.

She released Benetai and bent to uncover the still-comatose Deneridan woman. The captain snarled in outrage as Isadra explained. “The Hankuaket priestess Benetai was experimenting with her magic. She accidentally hit Shvarne with a fire-blast, sirs. By luck, I was unharmed. Shvarne breathed in some of the flames. She is not dead yet, though she needs help. Benetai is the only one here who can heal this woman fast enough. I will hold no grudge against her, if she does as I ask.”

The captain nodded. “Seems fair,” he said, then turned to the merchant. “See that your 'daughter’ makes her amends, or I’ll let the Deneridan High Council know she brought Wryn-fire onto my ship.”

“But I can’t...” Benetai wailed.

Isadra sighed and held out her hand. “Of course you can. Burn wounds should be the first thing a Temple priestess learns to heal,” she coaxed, but with no room for refusal. “Give me your hand, so that I may lend you what little support I can give, priestess.” In a whisper, she went on, “Watch and learn, Benetai. Make them think it’s you doing this healing, and you’ll save all our skins.”

Wonderingly, Benetai let Isadra place their entwined hands around Shvarne’s throat. Once again, the two were linked through the collar’s network of fiery thought. Isadra guided that awareness down into the ravaged passages of Shvarne’s nose, throat, and lungs. The same power that could level a mountain was so finely focused that it compared Isadra and Benetai’s flesh with Shvarne’s, and simply sped up the reactions of the heat-damaged cells to match theirs, force-healing Shvarne in a minute or less. The onlookers saw only a few red glimmers and sparks that floated through the air and settled on the Deneridan woman, who began moaning and wheezing.

As soon as it was done, Benetai lunged away, eager to shrug off Isadra’s iron hold. Isadra ignored her.

“My nose itches,” Shvarne coughed. “What happened? There was black fire, I breathed it. Pain. But it’s gone now. Did she...?”

“The girl had an accident,” Isadra said quickly. “That’s all. She healed you in recompense. The itch is the dead skin still in your nose and throat. Liquid will help,” she finished, commandeering the captain’s flagon.

Near dawn, the Banner glided into a neutral fishing port to off-load a few dozen refugees. Much to the regret of the Banner’s gamblers, the unlucky merchant from Hankuaket decided he had urgent business at a nearby estate. His money would be missed, Isadra overheard from the chattering sailors, but not his arrogant daughter, who played with magics best left alone. She repeated this remark to Benetai, after catching up with the girl on the gangplank.

“So? Why should I care?” Benetai asked sullenly. “And why did you even bother to say farewell to me, Isadra?”

Isadra winced a little at the tones under Benetai’s bitter remark. “I’m not going to live forever. From now on, the collar of the Wryn will choose its wearers. I’d like to think it might decide on you someday.”

Tears glittered in the younger girl’s eyes. “What are you now, some gentle sheep that thinks I could be your friend? After you humiliated me in front of those peons?”

“I’m not a sheep,” laughed Isadra, shaking her short dark curls. “Notice, I’m not returning with you to Hankuaket. But we are sisters, in a way. Far closer than my Deneridan sheep-dog Shvarne, lurking back there on the bow. At least you are an open enemy that I've known about all my life, and now have shared sense with” Isadra finished cheerfully.

“I meant what I said, about the Deneridan plan for the Wryn,” Benetai maintained, trying another tack. “We’ve known about it for years. You would have, too, if you hadn’t been such a lonely misfit. You owe a debt to Hankuaket.”

Isadra looked down at the girl. “I know. The Deneridans will get the same reply I gave you last night: they can take the collar if they dare. If it likes them, then I’m free. If not, then I’m still protected and the collar simply won’t do anything for them.”

“But what of Hankuaket?” pressed Benetai. “You cant leave us without command of the volcano! What if Denerida decides to attack again, or some other army batters our gates? We’ll have nothing but archers for defense.”

“Hankuaket will have the same weapons any city has,” said Isadra, stroking the warm collar under her shirt. “Arrows, spears, molten lead instead of molten stone, hot oil instead of white-hot gas clouds. But have you ever thought of what we inadvertently taught the Wryn about people? Warfare. Hate. Destruction for its own sake. Forced sacrifice on the fire-altars.”

Benetai cast her eyes down, hiding an emotion that Isadra fervently hoped was shame.

Isadra stepped backwards until her searching hand met the sleek solidity of the rail. “While Hankuaket commands those things, I refuse to return.”

“What answer should I give the Temple elders?” Benetai asked, still looking away from Isadra.

For a moment, Isadra was adrift in a memory of smoke and war. Then she looked out across the tiny bay to the blocky adobe buildings of the port, indigo silhouettes against the clear golden sunrise. Lamps still glowed amber in many windows. Isadra heard young voices soar in a spontaneous dawn-song.

“Tell them -- tell them that the Eyes of the Fire are meant to see better things,” Isadra said finally. “If I must teach the Wryn, you must teach Hankuaket ... my sister.”

“And if I do not?” Isadra caught the hint of interest under Benetai’s whine. The girl was less a child, the more Isadra watched her. “What will you do to me?”

The older girl grinned, petted the collar affectionately. “Nothing at all,” she chuckled, and walked down the ramp toward the singing and the dawn.

THE END


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