There is a people in the deserts of Pendar who call themselves the Ma’a-mbai, and they collect stories. Under the green-blue light of Oceanus they sing of Ravenna’s daughter and her shadow. As time goes on the Ma’a-mbai learn to call them by many names: the Aeriel, the Sorceress, Pearl-touched, Corundum-blessed; and Erin they call Sol-gone-down, and Dust-born, and Shadow, and champion. Each nation has its stories, and the Ma’a-mbai preserve any they hear, but they remember how the Pendarlon brought them an injured girl, who then was just Aeriel. These, then, are the tales the people of Pendar most treasure: not stories of valorous deeds, but of only Aeriel and Erin.
Aeriel was not proud to admit it, but as she and Erin began their journey, she sulked. She had, as yet, avoided explaining...well, anything, really. She had told Erin only the nature of the mission they would undertake. Aeriel dreaded talking about the Witch, and the pearl, and what had passed between herself and Irrylath. Erin seemed to sense this and leave it alone, but Aeriel doubted that she could avoid it for much longer. Her heart ached in her chest at the thought, and she took some bitter pleasure in the hurt. This, at least, was one thing the fragmented wisps of the Ravenna’s soul couldn’t take from her! Her will, her mortality—but not this.
Ah, child, she seemed to hear inside her head. I never wanted to take him from you.
“Aeriel.” Erin had come up behind her silently. “I’m done sleeping if you want to keep going. Where now?”
Aeriel closed her eyes and stood. Breathing out, she pointed in front of her and a few degrees to the right. “There. The next piece is that way.”
Erin’s quiet presence comforted her, and she realized with a startling suddenness that, despite everything, she was nearly enjoying herself. This was the first time in too long that either of them had undertaken a journey without the urgency of imminent destruction propelling them.
Perhaps not imminent to you, but destruction looms. You must hurry, murmured Ravenna.
“Stop!” Aeriel shouted. “Just stop. Do you think I don’t know the seriousness of this? I know! We are going. But we won’t kill ourselves to appease you. We have time.”
Erin had stopped walking next to her and was simply looking at her.
Hovering before her eyes like beads of fire, Aeriel could count down the steps before they reached another integral part of Ravenna’s knowledge. When she took it up, it would make her a little bit less mortal than she already was, and more the sorceress she had never wanted to be.
Here and now, her best friend was waiting for her to explain why she had shouted at nothing. Perhaps, Aeriel thought, I am going mad.
No, the pearlstuff in her blood informed her, but that would be very convenient for you, wouldn’t it?
Aeriel did the only thing she could. She sat down on the ground and laughed.
Day-months passed, and they arrived at NuRavenna. According to the partially-assembled pearl inside her, they still had many pieces to find; they were traveling near the city, however, and it seemed silly to pass by what would soon be her home without stopping.
When she was here last with the duaroughs, the pearl misting her sight, Aeriel had almost felt that she could puzzle out the mechanism of exit. This time, Aeriel saw the airlocks on the dome of her city and knew what to do. Walking down the deserted streets, Erin by her side, Aeriel took a deep breath and felt something inside herself loosen and relax.
Erin said, “So, this is where we will live.”
“What? But, Erin, you’re going back to the the Sea-of-Dust, to your people.” Aeriel continued walking. Erin kept pace and huffed out a laugh.
“I don’t believe I am. They are my people by blood, yes, but I think I will never be theirs. I know I said I might go to them one day, but,” she said with a grin, “I doubt I will. After all, I can see that you need me. Perhaps you always will.”
“Of course I will!”
“Then it is settled. I will go where you go, and when we have gathered Ravenna’s sorcery, I will stay where you stay.”
What was intended as a brief respite was extended so that Melkior could become acquainted with Aeriel and Erin, and they with the city. Aeriel hadn’t realized how tiring months on the road had been for her friend until she noticed that Erin walked lighter without Bright Burning on her hip. NuRavenna was good to them. And yet.
In her quarters, Aeriel dreaded sleeping. She had nightmares the previous two nights, for the first time since they left the Witch’s Mere. She supposed she should have expected them sooner. The first night hadn’t even been so bad. Aeriel had dreamed of Irrylath and Sabr, and awoke with the calm certainty that her heart was no longer in any way his. But last night she had dreamed of Oriencor.
And so Aeriel lay in bed, not wanting to remember the macabre trinkets stitched into Oriencor’s dress, the awful coolness of her breath, yet unable to stop. She fell into an uneasy sleep, and when the call of the pearl woke her she was grateful. Sick with fear and trembling with anger, Aeriel thought of her dream. How dare she? How dare the Witch threaten Erin? Ravenna took pity on her this night, maybe because it was the spectre of Ravenna’s true daughter that haunted her.
Find Erin, she heard. Seek your shadow.
Aeriel stepped into the corridor and walked across to Erin’s room. She raised her hand to knock on the door, but Erin was yanking it open before she could, wearing only a soft tunic. In her hand she held Bright Burning, sheathed but visibly glowing, and she was wild-eyed.
“Aeriel, the sword woke me. What’s wrong?”
Taking in the scene, Aeriel smiled tiredly and said, “Nothing, Erin. I had a nightmare. I’m sorry to have woken you.”
Aeriel turned to leave, but she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Wait. Do you...want to stay?”
Erin was biting her lip and looking down, and in that moment Aeriel felt her defenses crumble. She fairly threw herself at Erin and hugged her tightly, thinking that she would very much like to stay. When they separated, Aeriel let Erin take her hand and guide her to the bed.
“What did you dream about?”
“The Witch.” Erin waited for Aeriel to keep talking. “She touched me. It was so cold, Erin, her hands were so cold. She would not stop touching me. I would not do as she commanded. And then when she saw that she could not force me, she tried to harm that which I hold most dear.”
“Irrylath?” Erin asked.
“You,” Aeriel said. Shock flitted across Erin’s face. Then she hugged Aeriel close and smiled.
“Sleep here. I will wake you if the Witch bothers you again.” Aeriel felt her heart flutter in her chest.
Your shadow will be the death of you, Ravenna told her drily.
Aeriel and Erin had been gone from NuRavenna for seven day-months when the almost-whole Ravenna in Aeriel’s blood informed her that the last part of the pearl lay in Rani. They had passed briefly through that land once before, but never for long enough to know it well. This time it became clear that they would have to venture into a city, which was unusual. The fragments tended to be found near fresh water--on the banks of rivers and ponds more often than not, washed farther downstream with every rainfall.
You should disguise yourselves, the pearlstuff advised. A glamour.
Aeriel hated to agree, but going into a large city like this and being recognized would delay them further. Already the world was winding down. In NuRavenna Aeriel had used some of Ravenna’s sorcery to watch the progress of the duaroughs; they were skilled, but without her help even they could not halt entropy. She watched as thin bits of the atmosphere escaped into the Void and flowing water coagulated back into the not-water that had filled the Witch’s Mere.
But now Aeriel had almost everything she needed to stop that. One last fragment of the pearl, and she and Erin could go back to NuRavenna, to their new home.
She cast the glamour. Cautiously opening one eye, she laughed.
“Aeriel,” Erin gasped, giggling, “you made me pink!” For if they were to blend in with the rose-skinned people of Rani, they both had to look the part. Aeriel did not alter their features--neither of them looked truly Ranian--but Aeriel thought it would hold up under a cursory inspection.
They stumbled through the city, laughing, searching. In part they were acting, for in this area drunk women would be less noticeable than sober ones, but they were also enjoying themselves.
And why should we not? Aeriel thought. Feeling intoxicated and reckless, she placed her hand on the curve of Erin’s waist. She heard Erin’s breath hitch and was just about to slide her hand lower, when
There! cried Ravenna. In that shop.
Aeriel and Erin jumped.
“I heard that,” Erin whispered, “I heard Ravenna. I’ve never heard her before. It was while you were touching me. Is her voice always like that, like bells?”
Heart pounding, Aeriel said, “I--yes, more or less.” And now that she was no longer distracted, Aeriel could feel it too: the call of sorcery, the last piece of the unified whole tugging, pulling her forward.
“Erin. Are you ready?”
“Then unsheathe Bright Burning!” They grinned at each other and approached the door.
Aeriel awoke lying on the ground under a dome of light, and Erin was bleeding out before her eyes. She jerked upright with a scream.
Erin stared back at her and then choked out--something, Aeriel couldn’t hear her.
“What?” Aeriel said “Oh, Erin, hold on. I will fix this.”
Coughing and pressing a hand to the wound in her side, Erin spoke louder. “I have it. I have the pearl.”
“I don’t care about the pearl!” In a flash of light and heat, Aeriel broke the dome and moved to cradle Erin. “Don’t you remember? I care about you.”
“I remember, sorceress,” Erin said. The glamour had faded from her skin, and her weak smile was very white in her dark face.
When Erin’s breathing evened and slowed and then stopped, Aeriel said aloud, “We can fix her, can’t we, Ravenna? We can build her a new body, like you did for me.”
“You cannot stop me from hunting whoever did this to her, Ravenna.”
I would not dream of it. Rage boiled in Aeriel’s veins, and for the first time she realized it was not solely her own. I care for her, too, you know.
Aeriel’s first action was to take up Bright Burning and kill the people who hurt Erin. She could have killed them with sorcery, but it seemed more fitting to use Erin’s own blade.
Let it not be said that you shrink from what must be done.
Her next was to keep the necessary parts of Erin’s body for transport back to NuRavenna. The Ravenna, who was now whole inside of Aeriel, had convinced her that a near-immortal body (like Aeriel’s own) would be best. If Erin chose, she could discard it later, though Aeriel ached at the very thought.
Ravenna guided her through the endless task of taking her best friend and love into her component parts, and Aeriel cried as she steadied her hands. Ravenna had debated the proper vessel for Erin’s soul, but Aeriel had finally come upon the solution: the crown of the world’s heir. Marrea and Eoduin and Irrylath’s other brides would keep Erin safe in their midst.
Heavy with sorrow and feeling years older, Aeriel readied herself to return to NuRavenna.
“When we get there, what will you do?”
I imagine I will stay with you for a time. Then I will leave you my knowledge but let my soul go. It must be tiresome, to have two people in your mind at all times.
“Couldn’t we build you a new body. too?”
Oh, Aeriel. It is kind of you to offer, but I do not want a new body. I am tired.
Aeriel was sitting by her bedside and smiling when Erin drifted out of a dream.
“Aeriel? Weren’t we in Rani?”
Aeriel smiled. “We were,” she said. “Here, you should drink some water.”
Erin accepted the glass, and their fingers brushed. Erin jumped and looked at her hands. She lifted her empty hand and flexed it curiously. Aeriel knew the feeling.
Erin looked up, a look of dawning comprehension on her face. “This is not my body.”
“Well, now it is! And if you ruin this one, I’ll make you a new one!”
Unwise, Ravenna said, as the smile dropped from Erin’s face.
“Aeriel, I am still tired. You should leave me to rest.”
“Please?” Erin said quietly.
Aeriel was unable to deny her. It was her fault that Erin had to deal with this. The least she could do would be to allow the single most important person in her life some time to recuperate.
As she left, she whispered, “What did I do wrong? I was only joking.”
You should be able to understand that for yourself.
Aeriel knocked on Erin’s door, carrying a tray laden with fruits and cheeses. They were some of Erin's favorite foods, and Aeriel hoped they would be a good peace offering.
Aeriel entered to find Erin sitting in a nook before a window, overlooking the city. It was nearing Solstarset, and the mist that descended upon the city was lit by the star.
Aeriel set the tray down and waited for Erin to speak. Eventually she sighed and said, “Well, don’t just stand there looking sad.”
Aeriel breathed in relief. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have made that joke. I have just been so worried, and having you back...I spoke without thinking.”
Erin finally turned to face her. “I wasn’t angry because you brought me back, you know. I suppose it felt like you were taking liberties with my body, the way they used to when I was a slave.”
Aeriel flinched and said, “I never, never, meant to do that. I am so sorry. Erin," she begged, "I cannot do this alone. I have had you by my side for so long that I do not think I can live without you.”
Erin looked at her, and Aeriel’s breath caught. The light of Solsar in Erin’s dark eyes was unbearably lovely.
Erin stood suddenly, and Aeriel’s side felt cool. Before Aeriel could truly mourn the loss, Erin took her hand and pulled her to her feet as well.
And Erin tugged her into a kiss. Laying one hand on her face and the other on her hip, Aeriel stumbled back. She bumped the tray and heard it crash to the ground, but she was already working her hand under Erin’s shirt. Erin bit her lip and she gasped.
“Is this--?” Erin asked.
“Yes,” Aeriel said, “gods, yes.”
As they staggered to the bed, Aeriel said, “The issue of entropy will have to wait until tomorrow.”
That is acceptable, daughter.