He charged like a wild bull, this once-great priest and scholar, bony spikes sprouting between his knuckles. Anthousa raised two fingers in warding, and her spell deflected his jagged fist. Around them, Kelari clashed in the streets of Atia.
“Kelari blood runs in the gutters because you cling to old, stupid ways!” sneered Karris, a wave of heat from his open palm melting her ward away.
The High Priestess made no sign of discomfort even as the dregs of Karris’s spell singed her eyebrows away. He’d become obscenely powerful; Anthousa had to keep him talking. Anthousa found her most imperious tone, always close at hand. “Kelari blood need not concern you, Karris. All I see is another gibbering Wanton.”
Karris grabbed Anthousa’s throat as a ray of sunlight shot from the end of her staff and into his breast. Maelforge is not the only source of flame. Karris screamed, blood boiling in his veins, and in his agony, hurled her against a wall.
Anthousa slumped like a ragdoll, shards of shattered bone swimming inside her, struggling to whisper healing words as Karris stalked closer.
“Not Kelari, Eminence? Then we shall be Pyrkari, and sear away those who will not kneel to a greater power!”
At once, Anthousa rose into the air over him. Her skirts flickered like candle flame. “You shall be ash and memory. And then only ash.”
“Jace!” Anthousa sat against his chamber door, hands in her lap. “I’m sorry for saying that, but you know Karris can’t be trusted.”
“You’re just mad because you can’t prove him wrong!” cried Jace, loudly pacing within. “He says you want to hold us back!”
Akios fluttered by, the pale white wisp making his usual compassionate twinkling noises. She passed her fingers through his hazy light.
“If we march down Maelforge’s gullet, yes. I want to hold us back from that. If you would only study the spirit paths instead of seeking easy power, you—”
“I DON’T CARE!” Jace yelled, tossing his practice scroll against the door.
“About the spirits? About your people?” Anthousa said. “I know you better—“
She heard him mutter into his pillow: “About you.”
Anthousa hung her head a moment, perhaps for the first time in years, and then rose and smoothed her robes. “Yes, well. Your priorities are your own. Come and eat once you’ve calmed down.”
Anthousa sank to one knee as the next crowd approached. Her fingers burned from the magic. Refugees swarmed toward the docks, weeping and stumbling as they fled the rampaging Pyrkari.
“High Priestess, save your strength. We have other Clerics healing the crowds,” said Thesios, wringing his hands over her.
Anthousa downed a mana potion in gasping gulps, wiping the bright blue trickle from her chin. “None like me.” She immediately began chanting over the next group of huddled Kelari, watching with satisfaction as their wounds closed and their pace quickened toward the boats.
“If the Pyrkari break through our rear guard and find you exhausted…” Thesios said, “Karris nearly killed you last time!”
“And I nearly killed him,” she said, beginning to chant again.
He stepped closer, flashing an ingratiating smile. “Perhaps if we were to reconsider this exodus and stayed to fight? Many Kelari resent you for making them flee.”
She stopped and stared at him, her dark eyes hard as teak. “Many Kelari, or just you? We will leave, Thesios. We will live. Question me again, and you may stay.”
She sat upon her father’s knee, reading from the scroll he held open in one hand. Akios fluttered impatiently about their heads, waiting for her to come play.
“‘…came upon this isle of ancient spirits, who remember the secrets of creation, who are the last embers of truth in the world. So we called our home Ember Isle. We treat with the spirits as friends and equals, and will never again bend the knee, as once we did to Tavril. It is not Kelari ever to kneel.’” The little girl yawned, tugging at her elaborate braid. “Poppa, I’m tiiiired.”
“Just a bit more, coconut,” her father said, the smile striking on his stern face. “You’re doing well.”
“Momma says I’m too little, that this is stuff for acolytes.”
“Your mother is kind,” he said. “But she fears your destiny. One day, you will be High Priestess. And our people’s hope will rest on your shoulders. And hope is very big and fragile.”
“Well, I’m small but I’m tough!” she declared, immediately throwing herself back into the text.
“And more besides, Anthousa,” her father said.