Fading Madness Productions
Website: Dichotomy (fully updated)
“You won’t be able to see much tonight,” Wynn warned as she led the way into the odd, dark little camp. A handful of soldiers huddled in army-issued cloaks beside piles of ember that could hardly be called fires. As the major and general rode past, each soldier stood and raised a hand to his heart in the customary greeting of respect; then they gathered back around their low fires and poked at whatever foods hid cooking under the surface.
“I know.” Kier looked up into the fading light, as the first twinkling of stars spread across the night sky. “But I need to see. How far is the site?”
Wynn’s smile looked small and brittle, unlike her usual easy going demeanor. “Too far. We have cause - which you’ll understand soon enough - to want to keep distance between ourselves and the site. It’ll be dark by the time we get there, so we’ll need lanterns.” She drew her mare to a stop and dismounted. “Wait here a moment.”
Though he knew Scead had to be tired, and tempted by all the sweet grass just beyond the circle of tents, Kier didn’t join Wynn on the ground. Instead, he watched her as she moved. She seemed tired and stiff.
He started, tightening his hands on the reins as his heart beat a quick staccato against his ribs. Something had sparked at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t be sure . . . had it been his power? Or just an obvious conclusion from the hidden fires, small group of soldiers, and Wynn’s unfamiliar demeanor? He reached again, eyes half closed in automatic deference to the power shifting inside his head, but nothing more came to him. He growled under his breath, and heard Wynn’s soft laugh.
“Good to know you’re as mysteriously grouchy as ever,” she said, holding up a small lamp to him. The thick wax lay carefully molded in the bottom to avoid swamping out the long wick. He held it steady with one hand, watching as she remounted. A soldier handed her a lit lamp; his wasn’t yet, waiting until the last minute so as not to waste the wax. The light glowed yellow against her skin. No one could explain the peculiarities of Wynn’s snowy skin, white hair, or pale eyes. Although full Miltisian, she looked like she belonged to neither her own race or the Cildisc; a rare birth trait that, like Kier’s hair, sometimes popped up within family lines. “You’re the only person I know who can be cryptic and contentious at the same time.”
“I don’t mean to be.”
“But you’re so good at it!” She flashed a smile that reminded him briefly of Adrian. “Just in case I can talk some sense into you . . . you won’t be able to see anything by the time we get there tonight. It would make more sense to cross the river in the morning.”
This made Kier pause, his brows drawing together in confusion. “Across the river? Wynn, we’re an hour away from the shore.”
She shrugged. “I told you it was too far, General. It’s another half hour’s ride beyond that.” Though she kept her tone carefully light, tension simmered at the words. She knew he would understand the implications.
“. . . That’s in Janvian territory.”
For a moment, she watched him with silent eyes that held glints of the stars overhead. “Yes.”
Kier took a deep breath. The wise course when moving into forbidden territory would be to do so in the early morning, with light to lead the way and little chance of being disturbed. At night, it would be too easy for someone to sneak up on them, even if they should have had their powers on their side. Wynn was classified mid-level for a telepath; she couldn’t handle blanket searches like Kier could. Or at least, like Kier could if he had his powers. Despite his efforts over the years, Kier had never managed to make himself a naturally logical person. “I’ll see what I can, Wynn. It’s important. Besides,” he lifted one shoulder in a shrug that bordered on an old playfulness, “I haven’t wandered into enemy territory for years. Sounds interesting.”
This grin looked faintly wolfish and very Wynn. “Well then, Lord Blackwatch, let’s go see what there is to see, shall we?”
They rode in a silence that balanced precariously between the comfort found in traveling with an old friend and the tension that strung tightly in the air around each of them. Questions crowded through and past each other in Kier’s mind, and again he found himself reminded of Adrian, who would have given them all voice. Why is your camp in hiding? Why so close to the border? How did you find the circles in enemy territory? Does the army know you’re here? Does His Majesty know what you’ve found? The worst question he knew she couldn’t answer.
How can there be black circles without Osbearn?
As they rode, darkness fell, stars and the thick circle of the moon providing precious little light when they approached the river. There was no bridge, but Wynn knew the best place to cross and found it unerringly in the darkness. They dismounted and crossed where the water pulsed and flowed in cold eddies around their thighs. The horses followed obediently on their leads, though Scead obviously had little taste for the water, always cool and already growing frigid as autumn fell. After enduring the first months of officers’ training together, where there was little or no space for privacy, modesty was something of a trifling matter. They stripped out of their uniform pants before crossing and waiting until they’d dripped dry before they stopped and dressed again. Though forests were rare in Janvian territory, some grew close to the river; this one thickened above them until Kier used Wynn’s lamp to light his own. The pale flames did little but add faint, flickering shadows to the forest night.
“This would be easier if I’d brought Adrian,” Kier murmured as Scead shied at the fact that he couldn’t see anything.
“Adrian?” Wynn asked, and Kier twitched when, again, he thought he heard curiosity. He pressed cold fingertips to his temples, searching, uncertain if he’d heard it there or just in her voice. “Kier?”
A low growl sounded under Kier’s breath. Nothing was happening with his power except wishful thinking. “My Companion. Adrian Craft. He’s a fire Companion. I imagine he could see better in this darkness than we can, or at least light a proper torch.”
Silence reigned for a beat, then the leaves shivered and crackled under hoof as Wynn drew her horse up short. “You have a Companion?!” she demanded, staring through the darkness in an attempt to make out his features.
“Yes. For two months.” He raised an eyebrow at her, nudging her foot lightly with his own. “The night will only get darker.”
“I know that!” she snapped, moving again. “But you can’t just throw something like that at me and expect me not to act surprised. You’re here alone, which is not only illegal but foolhardy. I didn’t think you’d grown careless since I saw you last.”
Kier tilted his head a bit, returning with his own veiled accusation. “I’m surprised you hadn’t heard.”
Wynn’s eyes narrowed. She stopped and dismounted, leading her mare by the reins as they neared the location she knew too well to miss, even in the dark. Kier followed suit, allowing her a moment of silence. “We’ve been out of communication with the main forces for some time,” she said finally. “We’ll talk about why tomorrow morning. Why did you leave your Companion?”
“He’s young and inexperienced,” Kier answered. He left out the fact that it was also a mistake, that he felt himself reaching back for Adrian as a desperate means to ending his own silence.
“And that’s worth breaking the law?”
He sensed a . . . challenge in her words, a question. Some trees had fallen in front of them. Wynn released her horse and climbed over the trunks before he could answer, then turning back. “You’ll need to follow,” she called through the branches, and Kier released Scead as well. The trunks cracked and groaned under his weight, branches catching at his arms through the thin shirt. She stood too close, forcing him to balance precariously on the curved side of one of the trunks. “Is his youth and inexperience worth breaking the law?”
Kier grabbed at a thick branch, dead leaves crunching into powder with the force of his grip. “Yes.”
“Then this should be more than worth it.” She took the lantern he still gripped in his free hand and stepped back. She brought the two lanterns together, but their flickering light paled in comparison to the moon’s white glow on the circle of earth. The forest here had been destroyed, the clearing edged by the mangled remains of trees. Under his boots, the earth felt soft and slippery; the black dust clung to his boots, ankles, and pants. Hints of blackness smudged the edges; not the black of night, and Kier reached out instinctively to touch.
It came off on his fingers, clinging at the whirls and circles as he raised the tips, disbelieving, into the moonlight in front of his eyes. “Black circles,” he whispered. It was hard to see, but his eyes had adjusted, and the moonlight sank into the rough circle of destruction around him. He stared across the clearing, tracing the roughly circular edges of destruction, counting what seemed to be four interconnected attack points.
“There are more,” Wynn whispered. “Like this one. Scattered throughout the woods.”
Kier’s hand curled into a fist, leaving streaks of black soot along his palm. “Show them to me.”
Wynn groaned and rolled, her muscles sparking in now-familiar protest after weeks of sleeping on the ground. Her body ached, but she forced her eyes to open. Pale light haloed Kier Blackwatch, catching the flashes of white in his silver hair and bringing out the shadowed blue of his eyes. When she’d been a girl, because sixteen felt too young now to be called a woman, and first met Kier, she’d been quite taken with him. It was hard not to be. Tall, slender, and almost boyish, Wynn felt like a woman next to Kier and not like a half-man like she did around smaller, more delicate men; and though his silver hair was much less distinctive than the peculiarities of her coloring, it combined with his poor upbringing had made them somewhat equal in their initial roles as outcasts. But she’d figured out fast enough that his interests would never turn her way, and the fact that her reaction had been only mild disappointment let her know that she’d only felt a brief physical attraction. When he’d found love, she’d been happy for him.
Right at the moment, she wanted to punch him in the face.
“Let me sleep,” she groaned, trying to roll back into her blanket and away from the cold. But he grabbed her wrist, leaving faint streaks of gray on the tender skin. She blinked slowly to clear the clouds of sleep from her eyes. She sighed, lifting the marked wrist and focusing on it, then on Kier’s stormy eyes. “Never mind. I’m up.”
A curt nod and he straightened, moving away from her. Wynn sighed and followed suit, letting the thick blanket she’d been curled under fall to the ground with the faintest scrape of frost. She hadn’t been ordering her people to maintain early mornings of late; she hated to drag them away from their cocoons of warmth after two weeks of watching the nights grow colder. She owed them what meager creature comforts she could provide, with all of them putting their livelihoods on the line for her.
And for Kier.
Despite the fact that they’d grown used to late mornings, Wynn’s handful of soldiers stirred as Kier passed, responding automatically to his presence. Wynn felt something off about him, perhaps due to his having foolishly left his new Companion behind at Helm Eodor, but he still carried the same sense of righteous leadership he always had. Even as a new recruit, that presence had served him well, an unconscious way he carried himself, a faint taste of just how much power he must keep so carefully tucked away. Wynn watched with some amusement as her soldiers, who were more friends now than underlings, attempted to fulfill his wishes before he even made them known. Food appeared before him, and drink, while two young woman rubbed down the great black stallion who shifted his hooves in the frosty grass with impatience. Kier let it all happen, thanking them with polite smiles and soft words that made each soldier stand a little taller and straighten his or her shoulders.
Wynn smiled. She had a gift for encouraging people to trust her (their presence in a camp with no fires, so close to the border and yet off the maps served as proof enough of that), but Kier commanded respect without even trying.
She leaned over by his ear as he ate, murmuring, “Stop charming my men, Blackwatch, or I’ll tell them I’ve seen you leap bare-assed from a waterfall and twist your ankle when you hit the bottom.”
He coughed on the bite of eggs he’d been taking and she sat cross-legged beside him on the logs they’d set out as chairs. She took a moment to luxuriate in his loss of poise, knowing he’d be pressing her to take him to the other sites soon enough. “Threats are beneath a woman of your stature, Wynn,” he chastised, the hard line of his mouth curving into a soft smile. She batted her lashes at him and he rolled his eyes. Kier never had been a man susceptible to feminine charms.
The night before, Wynn and Kier had visited three of the seven sites she and her people had found thus far, finally giving up with the wind had picked up and hidden the moon behind dark clouds. The lamps hadn’t been enough, and she’d finally refused to continue; though blessed with the services of a Healer and his Companion when she had been a small, nearly blind child, Wynn’s eyes still struggled and ached in the dark and stung in bright sunlight. She didn’t advertise that fact, but Kier knew, and he’d eventually given in and allowed them both a bit of sleep. Precious little, really, as the moon had already stood in her third position when they’d huddled near one of the communal fires.
They ate in companionable silence, slowly joined by Wynn’s seven soldiers, each lost in their own thoughts. Wynn once again found herself trapped in the circular conflict she’d traveled for days: should she have involved someone else, especially someone as powerful and loyal to the kingdom as Kier? But Kier was . . .
Kier had a personal stake in this.
His voice broke through her reverie, and Wynn shook her head sharply, running a finger through her short hair. “Yes?”
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on here while we’re visiting the sites, today?” He studied her, but she still had that off feeling, like he wasn’t seeing what he felt used to seeing.
“Are you going to tell me about your Companion?”
If he’d been anyone else, he’d have rolled his eyes again, but Kier controlled even mild physical responses. Kier lived on control these days, though she couldn’t say she thought he thrived on it. “Yes.”
“Then I’ll tell you what’s going on.” She flashed a smile, but even she could feel that it didn’t reach those damnable lines around her eyes.
“Good.” He stood and held out a hand to her with old-fashioned manners. She accepted it, muttering at another twinge in her back as she straightened. This life living on the edge caused more pain than it seemed worth sometimes.
The fourth site lay deeper in the Janvien woods and farther south. They made their way carefully through the woods, trying to maintain quiet, though Wynn had seen no hint of the Janvians in the past few weeks. This trip, Wynn brought along three of her soldiers. She kept a young man named Ceol close, whose quiet nature she knew would compliment Kier’s carefully crafted stoicism and her inborn enthusiasm. The other two followed at a distance, keeping their eyes open for trouble. All three had also been with her from the beginning of this mission-turned-nightmare, and helped her explain their bizarre and secretive circumstances.
“We’ve been traveling the border for two months, often in disguise as merchants,” she explained as Kier catalogued another attack site. The season had been unusually dry in the south, but still only the first site she’d shown him the night before still held traces of the rough black circles that had characterized the Blackwatch Massacre. Adrian could have made sketches of the sites he thought, his previous discomfort at having left his Companion behind growing into anger. It wasn’t like him to make frankly stupid mistakes in the heat of the moment. He could only manage to dedicate the sites to memory and hope he could describe them well enough when he reached Helm Eodor again. If I can convince Adrian to do anything for me, since he’s most likely furious. He refocused his attention on Wynn, summarizing the tale for easier remembering.
Wynn and her small following had been assigned to prowl into the edges of Janvian territory, looking for any signs that Janvia was mounting an attack on Helmrichian soil. Kier could imagine why they’d been sent; in the last few years, rumors of possible Janvian strikes had grown, and the army had swelled in size to match. They’d found the first site, then quickly several more, all near the border but a good distance from any Janvian towns. They tended not to build on the river due to past wars with Helmriche, in which Janvia had never fared particularly well.
“And you didn’t report it?” Kier asked. She’d turned her face away, and he could see only the point of her nose and the soft curl of short white hair hiding her expression.
They’d stopped to eat. Ceol sat close beside her, silent unless drawn directly into the conversation, but wary and watchful. She’d chosen him well; his focus never strayed from searching for possible dangers. “Why?”
Fear. Another flicker, and Kier knew this time he jerked the hand he’d been tearing into a piece of flat, ember-cooked bread. His power surged, snapped, then slept again, but he grabbed at that emotion like a lifeline. “You know why, Kier,” she answered, looking him in the eyes now.
He took a slow breath. The memories overlapped each other: the remains of the circles at Castle Blackwatch, the twisted, black skeletons of his parents, sobbing orphans . . . the trial and execution. “Osbearne.”
“The circles never really made sense as a Fire Companion’s work. They can make fires out of nothing but . . . there was never a word for the sort of damage this did. The patterns. It’s as if something in the center just . . .” Wynn struggled for a word, and Kier couldn’t help her. “As if everything blew outward from a central point, and fire was only a part of it. But his Majesty and the council told us it was Osbearne-”
“There was evidence! He came to the estate,” Kier interrupted, and she didn’t chastise him for the unaccustomed rudeness.
“I tried to convince myself of that, too. But Kier, these circles weren’t formed years ago. They’re new. And I believe the Janvians made them.”
Kier’s jaw hurt from clenching it. “A weapon.”
“Something completely beyond our understanding. And the king . . .”
Treason is a painful thing. Wynn and Kier stared at each other, their expressions carefully blank, each waiting for the other to say the words running through their minds: The king let Osbearne and his Companion die to keep the attack a secret.
Wynn finally broke the silence. “King Odran betrayed our country and executed two innocents. It’s treason.”
“Wynn, the king or queen is the country. He can’t commit treason against himself,” Kier argued, looking for the logic in His Majesty’s actions. There had to be a reason.
Wynn lifted her chin, her pale eyes flashing angrily. “The Crown of Cadell is meant to serve the people of Helmriche, just as we are. If he allowed the Janvians to go free after committing mass murder on our soil, King Odran betrayed our country!”
“Wynn! You can’t just-” Kier knew he heard her anger this time, and he grabbed for it with his mind, hoping he could work his way through and around it so she’d stop this line of thought and help him come up with the logic behind this mystery instead.
“General Blackwatch! Major! There’s-” Ceol’s voice cried at the sharp snap of a branch behind them.
Wynn whirled, leaping from her crouch, hand grabbing for her sword as her other two soldiers tore through the woods toward them. From the corner of her eye she saw Kier already up, already moving -
Then something hit Ceol’s shoulder, fell to the ground, and the young man burst into flames that threw Wynn back with a force of wind she didn’t understand and couldn’t have predicted. She pushed to her feet, sensitive eyes tearing as she peered into the woods and saw the brown hair and eyes of their Janvian attackers, saw her soldiers fighting to protect her. The acrid scent of burning flesh assaulted her senses as she pushed forward to join her men. Heat scorched the thin white hairs on her arms as another circle of fire blew outward from her right.
And though Ceol burned, it was Kier Blackwatch she heard bellow in pain as he fell writhing to the forest floor.
If the mini description of Wynn seen previously in chapter two doesn't seem to quite jive with this one, you're right! I (Ryu) created Wynn, and my/our initial concept for her included her albinism, but then I went back and took it out. I don't recall my reasoning for removing it now. I grew up with a girl who was albino. We were best friends from the cradle through jr. high and friends in high school. She used to talk about how people with albinism in books and movies were always creepy or scary, not just regular people. So Cassiopeiea and I decided to go back and return Wynn to how I originally envisioned her. It's not central to her character, except that it's made her a tough chick, I suppose. The description of Wynn in chapter two has also been adjusted.