Sacrifice for king and queen and country. That is the greatest honor that any Kormar citizen can perform.
— The Puzzle King
When Kanéko reached the smoking crater, she fell off Ojinkomàsu and hit the ground hard. The rocky surface dug into her knees, but she got up and forced herself to limp forward. At the edge, she peered down the steep incline. At the bottom was Maris, face down in the ground. Scorch marks, cuts, and bruises covered her naked body but otherwise she appeared unhurt. Her tail was limp against her thigh.
Ozone burned Kanéko’s throat as she slid down the incline. She knelt down next to the dalpre. “Maris?”
She touched Maris, and then snatched back her hand from the intense heat that radiated from the dalpre’s body. Shucking off her jacket, she wrapped it around Maris and used it to insulate her as she pulled Maris to her chest. “Come on, don’t die on me.”
Tears ran down Kanéko’s face. They dripped from her chin and hit Maris’s skin. The droplets danced for a second and sizzled before evaporating. She clutched Maris tight to her body and ignored the heat that choked her.
“Please, I need you. Y-You…” Kanéko choked on the words, “You’re my friend. You and Ruben are my friends.”
Maris groaned but didn’t move. Her ears twitched.
Kanéko sobbed. “Please, just wake up.”
A hand rested on Kanéko’s shoulder. She looked up to see a tiny hand and felt the mental tickle of telepathy. At first, she thought it was Ruben, but when she lifted her gaze, it wasn’t the teenager she saw. It was an older figure, a male voman would would be a foot taller than Ruben. He had thick dark beard and a lighter color of blue eyes. There was a sad smile on his lips. Behind him, a black wolf with bright blue eyes sniffed the ground.
She latched on the tickle of her mind, and then felt surprise as the voman’s mind connected with hers. «Who are you?» She asked by picturing the voman’s image.
He spoke in a powerful, deep voice, “I am Tagon Pavir.” At the same time, he projected a series of symbols that represented his name in Volis, the language of Vo. “And this,” he said before an image of the wolf blossomed in her mind, “is my companion, Jason Magol.”
«You are—» She tried to picture Ruben, but the image of Tagon’s own son refused to focus in their thoughts. Kanéko switched to spoken words, “Ruben’s father?”
Tagon nodded, a wry smile on his face. “You had no previous skill with telepathic communication before you departed. A recent occurrence?”
“Yes, because of Ruben.”
“That would be an obvious reason. The adorable Maris Germudrir has many talents, but telepathy is not among them.” He gestured to Maris. “May I inspect her for injuries?”
Kanéko nodded and twisted her body to present Maris. She wondered if she should cover the dalpre’s naked breasts or close her thighs, but it was hard enough to move the curvy girl in her position. Somehow, she felt embarassed for Maris.
Tagon pulled off his own jacket and folded it into a pillow. He guided the dalpre to the ground. He hummed quietly to himself as he inspected her.
Kanéko couldn’t bear to see Maris helpless. She turned away and crawled out of the crater. Standing up on the edge, she scanned the surrounding forest. She wanted to run home, to check on her parents, but Maris needed her more.
A glint caught her attention. She spotted other places where debris smoked among the trees and underbrush. She padded to the closest one and squatted down to inspect a piece of metal. It was the sword blade, heavily cracked. The heat fused the metal together, twisting it into a useless hunk with cracks webbed across the pitted surface.
She looked up to see more of them: pieces of Sinmak’s sword, a burning belt, a smoldering boot. In the distance, about a quarter mile away, she saw a thick plume of smoke rising above the trees. Curious, she stopped herself and looked down. “Tagon, could I check out something?”
Tagon looked up, his eyes not blinking. “Keep safe and keep in the relative vicinity, please. The mercenaries distributed wanted posters with your likeness and many of us were concerned. I would rather not have you kidnapped at this point.”
He smiled wryly. “That would be embarrassing to both of us.”
Wondering what her father knew, Kanéko headed toward the smoke. The black wolf followed a few paces behind her. She got a few chains before she realized she had no weapon. She turned back with second thoughts but stopped when the wolf sat down behind her. The wolf blinked once and Kanéko was reminded of when Ruben really paid attention. She turned back and continued along her way, knowing that somehow Tagon was watching her through Jason.
She came around a tree and saw a smoking corpse. She gasped and stepped back. Her hand rose to her mouth, and she cringed. Sinmak was charred to the bone. She felt sick to her stomach. His half-burned hat rested on the ground, inches from his fingertips. The smell was rank, of burnt flesh and hair, and her stomach rolled with nausea.
Standing in front of death, Kanéko felt a pang of sadness. Her kidnapper, or the man who tried to kidnap her, was dead at her feet. She tried to dredge up anger for him, but all she felt was sick to her stomach at his destruction.
She looked away and spotted a glint of metal nearby. She padded over a pair of boulders to find Sinmak’s gun lodged in the crook of a tree. The wooden handle was charred and the wisps of smoke rose up from the wood. It took her a few minutes to climb up and grab it. It was hot in her hand, but it hurt less than grabbing a steam pipe.
Dismissing the pain, she flipped it over and inspected the gauge. It had a needle on a dial of numbers going from zero to five thousand. The glass over the dial was cracked, but she could see where someone scratched five marks on the brass fitting. The needle hovered just over the middle of the scratches. There were two tubes on the gun. One was a long brass muzzle that lead to a spherical canister attached to the gauge. The other appeared to be a feeding tube of some sort. There was a single lead ball in it; it rattled loudly as she rocked it forward, but when she tilted the gun up, it snapped into place.
She searched the area, spreading out until she found seven more shots. She used her shirt to hold them and carried everything back to Maris and Tagon.
As she approached, she heard a new voice she never expected: Virsian. She ran the last few steps and looked down in the crater. “Vir!”
Virsian bent over Maris, breathing hard as she rested her hands on Maris’s stomach and forehead. Yellow-green energies rose from both of their bodies as Virsian worked her healing magic. She didn’t look up at Kanéko’s outburst.
Kanéko stepped away when she realized the healer didn’t need a distraction.
Tagon joined her on the edge of the crater.
She looked over at him, and then reached down to grab his hand. As soon as she felt the itch of his telepathy, she brought up the image of the gun. It came quickly, like with Ruben, and she focused on it. Images flashed through her head and she continued to pull the construction of the weapon, how to use it, and what it could do. The images burned through her thoughts and she used it to explode it into parts and reassemble it in her mind.
«Kanéko Lurkuklan, we need to discuss your manners with telepaths,» came the amused thought from Tagon.
She projected a burst of an apology but continued to draw out knowledge from him. She focused on the gauge to determine its purpose. When it welled up in her mind, she smiled. The design of the gun would allow five shots but it was made by hand. That meant tiny imperfections changed how it fired the shots. The scratches on the dial must have been Sinmak’s attempt to identify the charge left in the weapon.
Tagon didn’t stop her but she could feel his amusement fill her as she finished learning about the weapon. When she learned what she could, she started to pull away, but Tagon stopped her. «Tell me what happened on your trip?»
Kanéko looked at him, not sure where to start. She began her tale with an image of the stables, right before Jinmel came back. Unlike Ruben, Tagon knew the tower as intimately as her and the images formed clearly. She found it easy to relive the last few weeks of her life, images racing one after the other. She could feel his listening to the tale, experiencing her trials, but his mind was picking through her thoughts for specific memories: Ruben.
When she realized that, she continued her tale but gave more detail with Ruben. The first time she remembered Ruben’s thoughts inside her own, Tagon closed his eyes and smiled. The bittersweet mixture of sadness and joy crashed into her.
Tagon smiled and his hand tightened on hers. «I missed hearing his thoughts.»
Kanéko tried to understand how two telepaths couldn’t communicate with their minds. «For how long?»
He shook his head. «Not for…» A calendar flashed through his mind. «…eighteen years, five months.»
She remembered Ruben saying something similar, but the date didn’t seem right. «What happened? Was that when he was born?»
An image flashed up, of a much younger Tagon watching a female voman holding a child. It started forward, the little one starting to crack open his eyes, and then Tagon the memory ended sharply. The thoughts flew back in time until the point much earlier of Tagon resting his hand on the female voman’s belly. «The day his mind woke up.»
She could feel Tagon’s sadness. She respectfully slipped her hand away. She looked down at Virsian and Maris.
Virsian groaned as she pushed herself up but slumped back on her knees before she could straighten. Her tail rested slackly on the ground and Kanéko could see the feline dalpre’s ears droop.
Virsian looked up and gave her a tired smile. “Kanéko, you’re safe.”
“What about Maris?”
“She will live, but there will be scars on her mind and body. Her resonance,” Virsian held up her arm where the hairs stood on end. Crackles of static electricity ran along her fur. “is much worse for me. I can feel her energies burning my insides and itching the back of my throat. She got powerful quickly.”
She stood up with a groan and stepped back. When she reached the edge of the crater, she started to crawl out. Kanéko helped her, and together, they stepped away. Even a rod away, the hair still stood up on Virsian’s body.
Virsian gave Kanéko a tight hug. “I’m glad you are safe.” She looked over Kanéko’s body, at the scratches and bruises, and then sighed. “Even if I could help you, your body has too much feedback from prior healing. You need time to recover.”
“W-Why are you here, Vir?”
“Yes, there was a fight in Rock River. I had to come here, but he should be heading to the tower soon.”
Kanéko pushed her away. “I-I have to go home. I need to check on Mama… and Papa.”
Tagon came up and rested his small hand on her wrist. «Damagar is there. I can feel his mental presence from here. He is calling for the death of my son.»
Kanéko tensed, and she felt sick to her stomach. She could still hear the creature’s demands in her mind, the shadow of a creature that still resided in her thoughts. She pushed Damagar away and looked down at Tagon. “What can I do?”
He looked up with his unblinking blue eyes. “My initial response is to keep you here—”
He continued, “—but you are not inclined to do that. I recommend you go to your parents and do whatever your skills are best suited for.”
She worried her lower lip. She didn’t know how an inert girl could help her father and mother against the most powerful magical creature she knew. “What is that?”
He smiled. “Adaptability, intelligence, leadership, and strategy. I will join you as soon as I make sure Mamgum is stable and my son is safe. Ruben…” He paused for a moment. “…will want to watch over Maris.”
Ojinkomàsu trotted up and stopped next to Kanéko as if he knew she was about to leave. His body radiated heat like Maris, but it was the heat of the hottest summer day and not the searing flames of an inferno.
Kanéko looked up at him and felt hope. She had no magic, but she could do something. She looked around for somewhere to put the shots for the gun. She noticed Virsian had a leather satchel on her. She requested it and Virsian handed it over. Emptying the contents, Kanéko loaded the bag with the lead shot and used the handle to form a makeshift holster around her waist.
Grabbing Ojinkomàsu’s mane, she pulled herself up and settled into place. Looking down at Maris, she spoke to Tagon and Virsian. “Please, keep her safe and bring her to the mill. She has family there and they need her as much as both of you.”