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December 2, 2019

Lyora tried to get a good look at the commotion through her window. She’d been at her desk thinking of the miserable time her brother must be having–she had long ago memorized her father’s schedule and knew that today was inventory day—when an earthquake had rumbled through the town. Most likely an aftershock of the one she felt the day before. She wanted to go help but was concerned that leaving the house the day after she was grounded would push her father’s goodwill.

She could see a cloud of dust occupying the air in the distance, leading her to believe that a building had fallen. The thought of doing nothing sickened her more than the thought of her father’s disappointment, so she hastily climbed out of her window and down to the ground, only lightly scratching one of her legs in the climb.

The remnants of the dust cloud still hung in the air, giving her a direction to head, but it was fading fast. She quickened her pace, turning corner after corner, until one turn brought her to an abrupt stop. A massive metal container sat on the ground with robed figures surrounding it. The villagers of Greenhallow—because Lyora was fairly certain the entire town had been pulled to the commotion—surrounded the far side of the container, facing the only man whose robe wasn’t the color of darkness; A robe of flowing deep blue shifted around his body in the wind.

Lyora felt an immediate spike of curiosity that quickly turned to worry as she saw the looks on everyone’s faces. Fear. Turmoil. Anguish.

Lyora hid herself behind the closest building, keeping as much of her body hidden as possible, as she continued to inspect the scene. She watched as familiar faces disappeared inside the container, ushered in by the robed figures. Large thumps in her chest sent blood coursing through her veins. Something was very wrong. Squinting, Lyora found her brother’s face, grim and resigned. He was dragging a woman toward the metal container, away from a figure that was hunched over on the ground. Lyora felt a sharp jab of guilt at how long it took her to recognize her mother, who was wearing an expression Lyora had never seen on her before. The man on the ground reached with desperation towards her brother and mother as they were forced into the container. The movement caused his head to turn, revealing her father’s face in anguish. An explosion of adrenaline ran through her body, begging her body to move… but it didn’t. It remained rooted where it was. She knew running in would solve nothing… but that didn’t stop the shame. Her heart pounded, trying and failing to keep up with the number of people entering the container, until eventually there were no more people to board. Despite that, her heart kept threatening to break through her ribs.

“There’re all loaded in the container, sir,” one of the shadowed figures said. “Should we begin the search?”

Asokil paused before shaking his head. “No, there’s no time.”

“Are you… sure?”

Asokil looked as if he would strike the man for the question, but then reconsidered, instead trudging past him and inside the container. Lyora could see the scowl that affixed his face as he walked in, and the look of glee when he reemerged with a hand around Kaleb’s neck. She had the immediate instinct to step in and help, but she also wasn’t blind to the bodies of her father’s men strewn on the ground in puddles of their own blood. It served as an effective deterrent, and she hated herself for allowing it to be.

“Is there anyone else in the village that has not boarded this container?” Asokil demanded.

Kaleb paused, pretending to think it over. “Everyone has boarded.”

Asokil learned closer. “If you are lying to me, or if you are incorrect, it will go very poorly for you. So, be very sure of your answer. Is everyone on board?”

Kaleb ground his teeth together but knew better than to act on his anger. “Yes.” It came out as a growl.

“Good.” Asokil patted Kaleb on the head and turned to go. “Let’s leave.”

“My father—”

“—will slow us down,” Asokil finished. “We leave him. Now get back in the container or Greenhallow will lose its second Head in one day.” After one last look at his father, Kaleb boarded the container.

Lyora hated the sight of her father writhing in pain on the ground, hated watching her brother’s face drift from view as the container’s door creaked shut, and despised the cloaked figures with every fiber of her being, but most of all… she hated herself for remaining still.

No amount of her father’s stories could have prepared her for this. Logically, she knew that attacking would be foolish. She had no weapon, and even if she did, it would be useless. If they were able to deal with the swordsmen that her father hired, then they would certainly be able to handle her. Regardless, the feeling of guilt and shame made a final etching in her gut as she watched the container’s door lock in place.

“Toriana,” Asokil called.

“Wolf,” Lyora heard one of the hooded figures hiss. The voice was feminine and not friendly by any means. The response had come from behind the building that she was using for cover, making it impossible to see the woman’s features.

“What?” Asokil asked, a warning in his tone.

He continued in the direction of the female voice, which took him out of Lyora’s line of view… but away from her father. Once he was out of view, Lyora slowly, cautiously made her way around the corner and along the side of the building that led towards her father. She made it two steps before a loud crash shook the house she was pressed against.

“It would be smart of you to release me,” Asokil said, his tone jovial.

The woman—Toriana, Lyora assumed—growled.

“Wolf,” she said. “You will refer to me as Wolf. If you want to go about revealing your face and shouting your name, Asokil, that is up to you, but me and my kin like to remain anonymous. Are we clear?”

“I could kill you without even moving a muscle,” Asokil said. Lyora could imagine the smirk he was undoubtably wearing.

Toriana laughed. “Try it, tainted. We’ll see how long your master’s operation lasts without us stopping the flow of tongues. Not to mention, we have a contract, your master and me. One that guarantees my safety.”

It was Asokil’s turn to laugh. “I draw Relic and you draw… paper? A contract won’t stop me from running a piece of metal cleanly through your heart.”

“Your right,” she said. “It won’t save me, but it would condemn you. Contracts are law to the Silgras. Should it not be followed… well, not even the might of your council could save you.”

There was a pause before Lyora heard Asokil respond.

“You’re very lucky that you’re good at what you do.” His voice rose. “Everyone on the container, except Borax and Tumond. You lucky two get to spend some quality time with Miss Wolf here.”

Lyora could hear matching groans and a few muttered expletives.

“Follow,” Toriana said. She began walking to the tree line, not caring if the two followed. They did. “I’ve taught you how to hide your tracks. Now, let’s see if you can learn how to leave one.”

Their voices grew into unintelligible murmurs as their footsteps faded from Lyora’s range of hearing. She began moving forward, trying with desperation to get closer to her father. She stopped, unsure if she was truly seeing what was happening. The container was… lifting. It was impossible.

Putting caution third to her worry over her father’s laboring figure, she kept pushing forward, hoping the robed figures wouldn’t hear. Curiosity was second behind her worry, showing itself in her willingness to peak her head around the corner that Asokil had disappeared behind. A dozen figures cloaked in darkness and one cloaked in the same blue as her father’s eyes stood on the container or hung onto handles positioned on the side. The container stopped, weightless in the air. It hung in suspension before moving forward.

Lyora watched in astonishment as its speed increased, hurtling faster and faster towards the mountains. Her eyes whipped from her father to the container and back to her father. She ran, getting to him as quick as the tightened muscles in her legs would allow. Fear turned her veins to ice as she dropped to the ground beside him. He wasn’t moving. Breath entered his lungs with the accompaniment of wet wheezes, and a dark spot of blood stained his shirt like a blooming rose. She pressed her hands against his chest, trying and failing to stop the blood from flowing. It seeped out around her fingers, staining them red. She could smell iron.

“Lyora,” her father said, his voice weak. She’d been so focused on the spreading spot of red on his shirt that she hadn’t seen his eyes open.

“Father. Father! What happened!? Who were those people!?”

“Listen, child—”

“What did they want!? Why did they come to Greenhallow!?”

The last came out of Lyora’s mouth as a plea—a plea for this entire event to have been an extremely detailed nightmare. Her agony was lessened by the feel of her father’s hand resting on hers. This brought Lyora’s attention back to the open wound in his chest.

“Father. Don’t move! You’re losing blood.” Lyora looked around for answers that weren’t there, for guidance that didn’t exist. “I’ll be right back,” she said to her father. Lyora tried to stand thinking to invade Madam Rose’s house. She served as the villages healing lady, though Lyora had only seen her tend broken bones and cuts. Would she have something that could help with this? Lyora didn’t answer her own question. She couldn’t… because the answer had to be yes. An iron grip on her wrist kept her from rising. “Let go, father. I need to find something that can help.”

He smiled. “Lyora, my sweet daughter.” He coughed and Lyora saw blood on his teeth. “It feels like only yesterday that I held you in my arms as a babe.”

Lyora tried to yank her arm free but couldn’t get it out of her father’s grasp. “You’re dying. I need to get something to help you. I need to…” Her voice faded as sobs took its place.

Noil lifted his hand up to caress the side of his daughter’s head, leaving blood on her cheeks. “Don’t cry, dear. Death comes for all of us eventually. I’m glad that yours hasn’t come yet.” The sobs grew in intensity as Lyora was hit with the finality of her father’s words. “Will you do your old man one last favor?” he asked.

Lyora nodded, blinded by the tears that leaked from her eyes and down her cheeks.

“Stay with me for a while,” he said, his mask of calmness cracking but not breaking. “I’d rather not be alone when the time comes.”

Lyora gave another nod, unable to find the voice to speak. She gripped his hands as if it would somehow keep him there. She watched as his chest rose and fell with his labored breaths, eventually falling to stillness as the last breath escaped his lungs.

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