Chapter 1

3/18/1381

The temptation of power, I feel, is one of the most obvious reflections of a poor spirit. Those who are drawn to the seduction of power beyond that which they can responsibly control or fall prey to the trap of 'just one more formula' without really stopping to ask themselves if they should take that next step. Some do it out of otherwise benign intentions, some for control over their world and still others for the simple sake of it.

But the problem with power, arcane or otherwise, is that eventually you start to forget where things come from and the simple beauties of life. When you're no longer impressed or even care about a warm Spring day or you don't stop to listen to the song of birds, I think something has been truly lost. It's a little thing, like innocence, that gets lost along the road when we're too busy 'living'.

I'd like to hold out hope that deep down inside, we're all just waiting for that little something to surprise us and make us smile. I know that I've found one and I pray, maybe in time, I'll find the other too.

Until then, I take shelter in the shadow of my family, praying for the snow to stop and Spring to begin.

-Diary of Kathrine Stoneriver

The soft soles of her boots slapped the cobbles in time to the pounding of her heart in her ears. She'd never make it before the Oghmans did at this rate. The docks were in the rear most quarter of the western district and from what little she knew about the remade geography of the city, she knew it wasn't exactly the most pleasant place to visit without some sort of escort. Preferably a big one that would deter any unwanted attention from the sailors.

It'd occurred to her, only briefly, that Syler had mentioned the docks as a way to throw Kat off the trail but then if he'd wanted to do that, he could just as easily have told his subordinates to go to the planar bar to find Bree. Perhaps it was a ruse, perhaps it wasn't. At the moment it was the only lead she had on finding the woman or her ship.

Bree still held the artifact and now the Oghmans knew she was in the city, which begged the question; why? Why was she looking for Kat? Just to get the medallion back? It would've made sense but she had come back for Kat after she had it. Not exactly the actions of a sociopath. There was something more to this than she was letting on to anyone, especially Kathrine.

Even so, she was a friend. A friend in danger and one that'd stepped into the very maw of that danger to protect Kat when she just as easily could've walked away. Kat had been wrong to doubt her, even for a second. Even if the niggling doubt in the back of her mind quietly chimed a warning that things weren't as they appeared, she could still be the friend Bree had rightfully earned by her actions. She could warn them and try to help them escape if they hadn't already.

And then, who knew? Bree didn't particularly have an interest in using the artifact but she did have an interest in keeping it out of the hands of anyone else. Especially the Oghmans. Which brought Kat to another question; what exactly had happened that they'd tried to obtain immortality at the cost of Bree's soul? How was that even possible? Why would they use a human's soul anyway? From what little Kathrine understood of necromancy, humanoid souls, while robust in spirit and heart, were anything but powerful in magical terms. It'd take someone of immense power to even register as anything more than a minor power in terms of the Weave; humans just weren't meant to be able to be used like that.

But then she isn't human, is she? Kat almost tripped over her feet when she felt her invisibility spell shimmer and fade away, releasing her into the material world as more than a passive observer. She recovered herself quickly and continued her sprint through one of the smaller markets of the district. Contrary to the Central district, the west was utterly alive with the daily activity of traveling merchants, shoppers and a few roaming guards here and there on the look out for thieves. More than a few curious glances passed over Kat only to look another way when they'd decided she wasnt' a threat or a criminal.

Amidst the small crowd, just beyond the market, a blonde woman was carrying a small basket towards one of the buildings. She was dressed in red silk with her head held high and her short, close cropped hair was cut in just such a way that it reflected the light perfectly to catch Kat's attention. Her heart stopped cold as she stared, willing her feet to move but unable to actually get traction.

"J- Jez?" She whispered. Knowing full well she was deluding herself. Jez couldn't be alive- "Jez!" Kat cried out involuntarily and started towards the woman at a bounding gait. "H- hey!"

"You there!" A man called out from behind a stall, holding up a clay jar. "You look like you could use some water! And why not in the finest amphora in all of Arabel!" Kat shook her head and turned back to Jez.

There was nothing there. The group had dispersed and she stood there in front of an empty space where a stall could have gone. Her heart throbbed in her chest and it was hard to breathe but she reached out to the empty air as if she could make the illusion real. Just one touch. . . One breath. That's all she needed.

Please.

But for all her wishing, there was nothing there and there never had been. Her mind was playing tricks on her once more and she'd fallen for it in that way she always did. Tears licked her eyes, ready to spill forth but she pulled back, clenching her hands together into tight fists. She needed to be stronger than this. She was a Stoneriver. She needed to let go. Jez wasn't coming back.

Kathrine swallowed a gulp of air for the first time in what felt like eternity and stole a look around, finding her bearings. She needed to focus on those she could help. She blinked away her tears and turned on the ball of her foot, starting off at another dead sprint. Her body ached in a number of ways and places but through everything, the whispers tickling the back of her mind told her she was doing the right thing. They approved of her actions because they knew what was at stake.

It was perhaps that resolution that kept her going all the way to the docks without slowing down; the finality of it all, with no room for doubt or uncertainty, she was doing what needed to be done. She pounded through the cobbles until she got to the docks themselves, pointedly ignoring some of the glances she got from those loading or unloading ships.

The docks themselves were laid out with simple piers shooting off a main runner. At the edges, some of the cranes were being used to load heavier loads on to some of the bigger ships but one of them was suspiciously lowered and the pier it was set up on was empty. Could it really have been that easy? Kat walked down the dock to the edge of the pier and glanced around, whispering. "Hey, guys?"

It was a strange thing for a once land locked city but the magically made river that lead out to sea had bolstered trade and thus most people didn't pay much attention to it outside of the obvious geographical difference. Even so, the muted sound of waves lapping at the pylons holding the dock up tickled her senses with possibilities. Yet the only reply to her whisper was the distant call of seagulls.

"Bree?" Kat tried again. "Nyx?"

"You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you?" A low rumbling voice whispered nearby. Nyx's voice was casual and calm but carried a slight edge to it suggesting she may have done something wrong.

"I can't help it. . . It's in my nature, y'know? Uh. . . where are you?"

"What should concern you more is where you go from here." There was a small hesitation in his voice. Uncertainty. "Time is short."

"I heard. The Oghman- uh. . . Syler. He's coming-"

"Syler." Nyx hissed. "We're leaving. If you're coming, be warned you may not see this place again."

Kat didn't hesitate in the least. There was nothing left for her here anyway. "Let's get going." Before Kat could take a step forward she felt a pair of strong but feminine arms wrap around her stomach followed of a soft coo against the crest of her ear. No sooner did the touch register, than she could see Nyx sitting several feet in front of her looking at her with his tail swishing back and forth and his massive wings folded behind his back. He looked upset at something but not necessarily her.

"You're sure about this?" Bree's cool breath slid over her ear like silk.

"Y- yeah." Kat went to turn and the woman drew back slightly. "But I think we need to talk. . ."

"Of course, dear. . . Of course."

Nyx growled softly.

# # # #

They'd just gotten to the deck of the ship by way of the rope when Bree began singing without warning. It was a casual, beautiful tune that carried with it tones of hope and merriment that ran totally at odds with the situation at hand. To her it was just a momentary pause in what was surely some grand plan of her own design. Some part of that grated on Kat's already frayed nerves, even if it was meant to be soothing, it further reminded her that this woman couldn't take anything seriously if she tried, much less if she wanted to.

Before she could really get upset with the woman, though, Kat found herself humming along with the song. Even finding little niches she could fill in to create a melody unique to the both of them, meant for the both of them. It was a really silly thing considering the circumstances but it still made Kat smile for some reason.

"That's more like it." Bree stopped abruptly, looking at her with a smile all her own. They were a few feet from the dock with her massive ship hovering just above the water and- so far as Kat could tell- completely invisible to any onlookers. The formulae required to make something so massive vanish swirled about the back of Kat's mind making it ache with the very concept of such a thing, not to mention actually making it visible to them. "You smile far too little, priestess." She chided playfully.

"I. . . Guess I don't have much reason to these days, huh?"

"Perish the thought! I've seen many a smile grace those lips when every contradiction should have torn it free." She tsked. "You've no reason to delude yourself, least of all with me. Now, then!" The woman's own lips pulled into a small smile. "What is on that endlessly fascinating mind of yours, my good woman?"

Yours. Kat exhaled. Maybe she did belong to this woman but. . . No. She wasn't ready to give up that much control to someone holding back so much from her. Not just yet. She licked her lips, curled her toes in her boots and forced the words out from somewhere deep inside. "I want to know what he meant. . . What you really are, and why that artifact is really so important."

Nyx plodded over to where Bree was standing and sat down beside her, looking at Kathrine with a thoughtful, appraising expression. When he didn't speak, Bree glanced down at him for just a moment and settled her gaze on Kat. Her pale eyes could have hid a million different things and realistically Kat never would have known which were truths and which weren't. She was completely at the mercy of someone who had nothing to gain by telling her the truth. When the woman opened her mouth to speak Kat held up her hand.

"I. . . want to help you. You don't have to lie to me."

In a split second her eyes flashed with understanding and warmth before fading back into a cool, calculating glint. Her smile seemed genuine enough. "Good woman, I am many things. . . Seldom a liar. Doubly so when standing in the presence of an angel such as yourself. No, dear, I would never lie to you."

Nyx glanced up at her with clear disbelief. Bree didn't acknowledge it as she reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the now familiar silver medallion depicting a rolled up scroll on its face. Her gaze flicked briefly to the right and she smiled softly. Without any warning she tossed it up in the air and opened her hands to catch it.

"Yyyyyyoink!" A lithe elven woman in black leathers exploded into action from apparent nothingness, mere inches from Bree's side she had her hands out to grab for the amulet and her hands were just about to touch it. Kat opened her mouth to warn everyone but Bree was already on top of things; her left hand darted out and grabbed the collar of Lit's vest. The elf gasped in surprise as Bree held her several inches off the ground, catching the amulet without even looking at it.

They locked gazes, Bree's amused, confident smile didn't falter in the least as she continued to hold the elf off the ground without so much as breaking a sweat. She may as well have been made of stone.

"Uh. . . Hi?"

"Hello!" Bree turned the amulet over in her hand with a slight grin. "I take it you're a collector?"

"Um. . . Yep! Litanya's the name. Pleasure to meet you." The elven woman's gaze drifted back to the object. "And may I say, you have wonderful taste in velvet, red really suits you."

"Charmed, truly." Bree's grin turned into a warm smile. "I've always found red to be the color of passion-"

Without warning and moving much too fast for Kat to even see, Lit's arm swept out in a quick arc across Bree's throat. Kat's heart stopped as an image of the Oghman Lit had killed in Central flashed through her mind's eye. Instead of a spray of bright blood, though, the wound sealed itself shut quickly and no blood spilled from the woman's flesh. Kat's eyes widened in surprise but Lit's did so in terror.

"Uh-"

"Mmmhmm." Bree tilted her head ever so slightly as if asking her what her next move would be.

Lit reached up with her shaking hands and gently, reverently, straightened out the collar of Bree's blouse where it'd been disturbed. "Is that silk?" She chuckled nervously. "My apologies! I. . . I had no idea!"

"Forgiven!" Bree smiled. Lit's shoulders relaxed a tiny bit. "Now, get off my ship." In a smooth move the woman pivoted and threw the slender elf over the rail as easily as if she'd thrown a doll.

"I regret nothinnnggg~~" Splash.

Nyx looked up at her with a faintly amused expression even as she glanced over her shoulder briefly. When Bree spoke again her voice was the same casually confident tone she always used. "That goes for you too, miss. I don't recall inviting such lovely company when I'm already blessed with some!"

Anya stepped out of an invisible shadow, the shimmering of her fading invisibility spell leaving her perfectly exposed to the three on the deck. Bree could have easily torn her apart if she wanted to, yet the woman simply smiled at the elf.

"You're not going to. . . throw me off, are you?"

"Of course not, dear. The rope is right over there."

"Thank you. . ."

"Give your sister my best, hm?" She wiggled her fingers playfully. Without missing a beat she looked back to Kat and smiled. "Now, as I was saying. . ."

Kat shook her head in disbelief, trying to stifle the laugh already trying to grow on her lips. "Uh huh?"

"What did he really mean? I'm afraid I don't quite follow-"

"She deserves to know." Nyx said quietly.

Bree sighed theatrically. "Surely I'm not the only one seeing the irony of a sphinx wishing to divulge mysteries, am I? Very well. . . I was ah. . . born Brathtarixvhoo." She watched Kat for a moment, letting it sink in. When Kat didn't speak she smiled slightly. "And this fine gentleman, Nyx, has been a very. . . Close friend for most of my life. You see, the men of Syler's order took my mother when I was still a young one. They've been trying to find ways to turn the abilities of extra-planar races into-"

"Souls, you mean." Kat murmurered unconsciously. "They're using the souls of people to make themselves immortal."

"Quite so!" Bree's features lit up just a little. "I knew you were swifter than everyone told me." She winked playfully. "They've had some successes, you see. My mother was among them.'

"So-. . . Wait. . . that means you're a. . ." Kat furrowed her brow. "You're a dragon?"

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far. Remember when I told you I was probably more human than you are? You see, humans are usually mixed with some form of extraplanar creatures. Like yourself! I can tell a trace of an Aasimar's blood line miles away." She smiled at Kat's blush. "Yes, you might call it a hobby of mine. Forthwith; someone up your family tree found themselves a lover of celestial origin and through successive generations-"

"I'm not an Aasimar, Bree. And I don't see what this has to do with-"

The woman tsked softly. "It's painfully bad form to interrupt someone, my good woman. Now! As I was saying, humans can generally trace some lineage to extra-planar mixing. . . I however, am rather on the short end of the stick! You see, this. . ." She held out her hand and wiggled her fingers individually. "Is not natural to me. It's as pure as one could possibly construct, yet as unnatural as the ship we're on."

"S- So. . . Wait, so they. . . took your soul out of your body and put it in that one? Excuse me if I find that a bit hard to believe."

"In a manner of speaking? Yes. . . To put it into terms you might understand better, they forced me to transform into this. Pleasant though the form may be at times." She smiled a lingering grin. "This is not more than a prison of flesh. Most unbecoming, if I do say so myself."

Kat swallowed. "If- If that's true, then you're taking this rather well."

"Dear, I've had a long time to get used to it. Make no mistake, I'm not pleased." Bree casually straightened out her coat and slipped her hands behind her back, her gaze resting on Kat with a kind of otherworldly curiosity. "I am not above admitting I have my faults, but life has taught me the value of patience." She smiled slightly. "As to the artifact? Allow me this minor indulgence? What do you honestly think they would do with it if they had unfettered access?"

"I. . . If you'd asked me that a few hours ago, I'd have thought they'd want to protect the knowledge that could be gained. They are Oghmans, afterall. . . But that's not entirely accurate either, is it?"

Bree smiled a little. "You're on a roll. Keep going."

"So, I think they'd want to use it to get the immortality they're looking for. . . Um. . . I guess?"

Nyx's tail swished casually to the side, curling around Bree's foot protectively. It was just a little thing but it got Bree's attention and her smile warmed a little.

"Their experiments require the souls of extra-"

"Dragons." Kat supplied. "Right?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. But the device they have to consume our energy is only fit for a human. . . Hence this." She motioned down her body. She opened her mouth to speak again but stopped just shy of it. For a moment, Kat considered whether or not she was being lied to but dismissed it. Bree was withholding something but maybe it was to gauge how Kat would react before she divulged more.

"Wow. . . Uh. . ." Kat felt the hair on the back of her neck bristle. "How'd you escape?"

"I was blessed with very good friends." She slid her hand down to Nyx's side and ran her fingers through his mane. "As was my mother." At those words Nyx winced ever so slightly. "And now, I count you among them." She looked to Kat again with a patient smile. "I hope to, anyway?"

"O- Of course." Her mouth felt dry as she tried to comprehend the full depth of what she'd just heard. She was a friend, a lover. . . And something much more. Even if Bree would never really be able to feel the same way Kat did, it didn't change the fact that she felt something for this woman. Nor did it change the atrocities that'd been committed against her family and even others of her kind. She looked to Bree, searching her face for the right words. "S- so that black dragon? He was involved in this cult's activity too?"

"That he was. . . I saved his life. Nearly at the cost of my own, might I add."

"But-" Kat stopped herself. The argument hung on her lower lip like a fish hook. Chromatics are evil. Why would she help him? Were they lovers or was she like Kat in a lot of ways she didn't fully realize? She sucked in a deep breath and looked to Bree. "What kind of dragon are you?"

"The kind that likes spending time with good friends and has a particular dislike of violence." She shrugged and smiled. "Against anyone, my good priestess. Even those kinds of creatures."

"So you're. . . You're a. . . um. . . Metallic?"

The woman tilted her head slightly. "Ah! No, not hardly. . . You might say I'm somewhere in between. Anyway! Now that that's out of the way, shall we discuss the future, dear, or have you had enough?"

Kathrine stood there looking at her for a long moment, uncertain of how exactly to reply. She glanced back to the rope and then Bree. "I've come this far, I'm not leaving my friends now." And just like that, the weight of responsibility, of doubts and concerns, eased off her shoulders. It was right.

"Glutton for punishment." Nyx smirked a decidedly feline grin.

Kat smiled weakly in return to the two. The die had been cast, for better or worse.