Leo found the knight deep in prayers when he exited the workshop. As the inventor strolled through an overgrown and poorly maintained pebble path, his eyes were drawn to the spectacle in the sky. After a long sigh, he shifted his gaze downward and settled on a lumber log by the campfire.
He greeted the knight but she paid him no attention. Her breaths remained steady, her eyes closed and her hands clasped in front of her chest. Her eyelash moved a little as she noticed him, but that was all, she had chosen to focus on her prayers.
When the prayer had reached its end, the knight stoked the fire and finally nodded in acknowledgment of his presence. Then, she bent down to pick up a canteen of mead next to her shield and she too cast a distant gaze at the sky.
What they both observed was a single column of smoke so vast that its sides could not coexist in the same field of vision. And, from the column spread a canopy of dark ashes, swirling ominously and expanding in all directions from the root. Countless embers floated in a haze under the ash cloud, spreading the fire and multiplying endlessly wherever the wind took them.
It was as though they were witnessing a manifestation of Emedis—the mistress of war and death—herself.
Certainly, it had grown bigger than he anticipated. The east wind had been keeping the veil of destruction from reaching the city proper. Nonetheless, parts of West Rufus district had begun to feel the impact. His workshop too would soon be under the ash cloud.
He had planned on moving back into the academy, into one of the quarters reserved for the masters. His plan was under the assumption that the ash would not arrive before moon ten. But, it did not look like the astronomer’s prediction was accurate and a change of wind was pushing the cloud toward his home. It could very well arrive by moonrise.
“It’s like two different worlds, in there—Katherine nudged her chin toward the workshop—and out here. In there, we disagree over classes and factions. Out here…out here, Emedis cares for none of that,” the knight spoke, pausing only to sit down.
“Death is cruel but fair,” she emphasized and brought her mead canteen up for a sip; just a bit in order to moist her lips and no more.
“Heh? Never know you’re into philosophy. Ever consider applying for an apprenticeship? I happen to know the philosopher very, very personally.”
“You jest! I wouldn’t be caught dead giving a speech in front of Her Highness and His Majesty.”
“Not until you kick me out of the Philosopher’s quarter first. Fair warning, you will see a lot of things worse than a swarm giant in that office,” he mused.
The knight chuckled.
“It just frustrates me sometimes. The D’Amore and I can’t see eye-to-eye at all. I know it is their game and I ought to walk away and not stoop to their level. But…what must I do? I can’t shake off this uneasiness, this feeling that I am giving up without a fight somehow,” the knight confided.
The inventor took in a deep breath. The cold air roused his senses and brought to attention the fire’s gentle warmth. The answer was clear, she either had to master the game—this was his preferred method—or she must pick the fight where she could prevail.
Yet, he found it difficult to impart wisdom on the subject matter. Perhaps, it was because he had always seen D’Amore eye-to-eye as a fellow back-channel dweller, a funny lad to share a drink with, and a reliable ally who would stop at nothing to help a friend.
At that moment, indeed, his heart had not chosen to stand by Katherine even if his mind wanted otherwise. He did not want to hurt her feelings either; he doubted such an untimely betrayal would be a blow after which their friendship could bounce back.
The heart was a greedy bastard like that.
In the end, he decided to avoid giving a straight answer.
“I think you should write that down. Sounds to me like a great topic for your thesis next week. Seriously, be my apprentice! I’ll train you in the craft and get you ready for the trial. It’s getting dull doing it alone all the time. Imagine if you win, if you win…you can hold the title for me while I get the alchemist title back from Her Highness.”
“Haha, then, will you make your apprentice sleep outside, in the cold, with a cloud of fiery death looms?”
“I will not…unless, of course, the place belonged to the herbalist and the architect, then out in the cold and under the fire she goes!”
So he said with a grin while putting up dramatic gestures.
“That’s not funny…” the knight scowled. Her stern expression was somewhat off-putting.
“Well, I admit I went too far…but, there’s good news! Look like none of us is going to sleep inside tonight after all.”
“What do you mean?”
The inventor gestured at the ash cloud, explaining: “See, I don’t like the look of that so we’re moving out tonight.”
“As in…now? In the dark?” the knight frowned, looking astonished.
“Rather a bandit or two than the wrath of nature. The former you should manage just fine.”
“Fair enough…just don’t expect me to help a D’Amore.”
“That, you don’t have to worry. Just tell the bandits who she is and no sane man would lay a finger on her.”
“He does have his fair share of enemies who might want a piece of his daughter though,” the knight rebutted.
“I’ll come up with something when we cross that bridge,” he shrugged.
At this moment, he heard the sound of the door latch being lifted and the witch appeared at the workshop’s entrance in her sky blue gown. She gestured the inventor to come over. Rising on his feet, the inventor asked the knight to gather her things and put them on the wagon while he told the witch about the move.
But first, he had to listen to the witch’s divination result and it was not good news.
“That son of a horse still has the amulet on him,” the witch informed, “The ritual bounced back and in all likelihood, he is now aware that we are on to him. That’s the least of our worry now because—”
The witch was interrupted by a ferocious roar. He could sense it; the rush of winds, the beats of monstrous wings, and the cold fingers of Emedis creeping up his neck. From the west where the Dark Forest stood, something large emerged and was fast approaching their position.
He wished he did not know what it was.
At the same time, he saw Katherine bolting into the workshop. She too was mortified, donning the pale face of a criminal on the chopping block. The knight had no time to get ready. Evidently, when she stumbled in, only the chest plate and the cuisses were put on; the rest of her equipment still rested by the fire, which was blown out of existence like a candle in a storm as a giant shadow flew overhead.
With bated breaths, the knight looked at the inventor in the eyes and uttered these words:
“Tenrid helps us, the dragon is here!”