“I still have enemies, Enoa.” As always, Sucora stood at her desk in the hidden room beneath the shop, recorded years before her death. “I hope you’ve never been forced to face that.”
Enoa sat on her bed, film projector beside her. She hadn’t bothered to set up the screen. The projector could send the movie onto the wall of her bunk, not good enough for real training, but good enough to listen ahead.
“I hope I left all of that behind,” Sucora said. “But if I didn’t or if you are in danger for any reason, I think you’re ready to learn to defend yourself.” She withdrew her staff and expanded it to its full size.
“Anemos offers the power of change. It arms us with the strength of the cyclical world. I’ve learned to wield the most dangerous changes on our Earth, causing and halting explosive reactions. I’ve used my studies to protect me from nuclear radiation and the high intensity weapons the IHSA developed. But you aren’t ready for that study. I hope you never need to be.”
Enoa fell back against her bed. So this wasn’t going to explain the explosions she’d caused.
“I have four techniques for you today. I believe these four early techniques would overwhelm people who know nothing of Shaping or similar disciplines and could offer some protection even against trained Shapers and other powered agents.”
Sucora approached the camera and angled it so it revealed a round target on a stand, set between two of the shelves of films, then holding fewer canisters. She stepped between the camera and the target, standing to one side, so the bullseye was still visible.
Enoa heard sounds, hollow and fast. Holes appeared at the center of the bullseye. It was suddenly riddled with the steaming holes. Sucora had done something too fast to see, something powerful enough to annihilate the target.
Enoa sat up. Sucora had hardly moved her staff. What could she have created without motion that could break through a target?
“Technique one.” Sucora turned back to the camera. “Bullet Rain. When it’s raining, the drops are lighter than air and are much too slow to be projectiles. But with training, Anemos can make even the moisture in the air around you capable of defending you.”
She walked to the target, tracing the new holes with her fingers. “You won’t be strong enough to wield Mach Two Bullet Rain. I doubt yours will be strong enough to do more than disorient, but most adversaries aren’t prepared to be pelted in the face with water.”
Enoa pulled water from the air, forming a small droplet. She held the water, floating between her hands. Could she really learn to throw a single drop of rain hard enough to break a target?
“Technique two,” Sucora said.
Enoa looked back toward the film projection. It was gone. Sucora and the hidden room could not be seen. In their place was a solid mass of gray, like those frames of film had been distorted and could not be viewed. Enoa wasn’t sure what she could do if the films were damaged.
“This is techniques two and three at once,” Sucora said. “Midnight Sight and Flow Sense. I’m sorry for the silly names. The Hierarchia was obsessed with naming everything.”
The screen cleared enough for Sucora to be distinguishable, surrounded by a heavy cloud, like a morning in marshland.
“I can teach you to form a fog too deep for even you to see through it,” Sucora said. “And I can teach you to feel motion in the air around you, sense everything nearby. You will see without sight.” The fog dissipated entirely. “Again, these skills take consistent practice to master, but even at a basic level, most people aren’t prepared to fight blind.”
Sucora stepped away from the camera. She held her staff with both hands. She slid her feet apart and stood in what appeared to be a deliberate stance.
She struck outward with the staff, sliding the weapon between her hands, jabbing into the air, dozens of strikes. She delivered a practiced flurry of motion. Enoa tried to follow all of the attacks, but she couldn’t. It was like watching a dance for the first time. The moves were a targeted routine, a rehearsed pattern, but they looked too fast to replicate, inhuman speed.
Sucora completed the routine and returned to her ready stance, facing the camera. “This staff, in practiced hands, can resist direct attack from a mythic elemental. You can learn about them in IHSA log eight, On Genetic Anomalies. This staff can puncture the body of a tank. Someday, it will belong to you, and it might be useful to know how to use it.”
Enoa reached for the staff. She knew what it could accomplish. It had already saved her life and likely saved Jaleel’s, as well, against Nalrik. But this was different. It was a true weapon of finesse and technique, not just an implement for surprise-blasting villains.
“As always,” Sucora said. “We begin with our breathing.”
* * *
Kol dreamed of the building collapse. He was buried, his arm crushed and numb.
This was not the first time his mind had replayed his maiming. This was not the first time he’d flashed back to the worst days of his life.
But this time it was different. This time, he wasn’t in the collapsed loft. Now he was somewhere else, with walls of wood and stone, instead of the modern masonry and concrete. He was somewhere hot, somewhere with living, red flame that flickered at the edges of his vision.
Kol dreaded the impenetrable shadow that had turned his time buried into an unbroken night. But the glow that moved at the corners of his eyes was worse. The fire seemed to call to him. He couldn’t turn himself toward the flame, but he knew it was edging closer. He could breath somehow, despite the smoke and fire, but there was no doubt the flames would soon reach him.
Kol woke up before he could cry out.
“You’re having a nightmare.” Brielle stood beside her bed, her hand on his cheek. She was dressed in her uniform, her command datapad in her other hand. Her room was little larger than the standard guest quarters, but more personally furnished with a desk and armchair. “Aww, what happened to you out there, Kol? You were restless, all night.”
“I’m sorry. I just… I’ve had a really trying few months. I hope I didn’t keep you awake.”
“You didn’t. I was already awake. Until I can organize an investigation into Lieutenant Gilford, I’m going to assume you’re in danger. Even if you aren’t, I have a lot of work to do to keep those kinds of attacks from happening on this base.”
“Thank you.” He slid his left hand from the sheets and held hers. “You’ve done so much to help me. I might have died twice yesterday. I can’t help feeling that our relationship still isn’t truly equal.”
“You worry too much.” She kissed his forehead. “You’re the man who’s going to find the Dreamside Road, so I’m pretty happy with my investment in you.”
Kol kissed her hand. “Investment? And I thought you liked me for my good looks and strong character.”
“Kol Maros fishing for compliments! Okay, here’s one. I really wish I could stay in bed with you, but I have dozens of video messages to send. I’ll be in the other room, so you can stay here as long as you want. Breakfast should still be warm. I left bacon and eggs in the pans on the stove.”
“I think I will stay.” Kol pushed himself into a sitting position. He hugged his face to her side, both hands at the small of her back. She ran a hand through his long hair. “I’m sure everyone knows about Gilford. No one will expect anything of me today. I think I should stay here and take plenty of time to recuperate. What do you think?”
“Hey, I got a message from Duncan.” She stared at her datapad.
“Oh no, what now?” Kol pulled his hands back. He had no idea how long he’d slept, but he still felt the deep fatigue from his Shaping. Brielle’s company aside, he really might need time to recuperate or at least time to figure out what he’d done to defeat Gilford.
“I’ll put his message on speaker.”
“Hello, ma’am.” Duncan’s voice played from the device. “I’m trying to reach Captain Maros. He’s not answering my messages. Is he still in the medical wing? It’s important I reach him. If you see him, please let him know that I’ve found a game-changer in the Cloud investigation.”
* * *
Enoa held images of the destroyed target in her mind. Bullet Rain – once she managed that technique, she could travel anywhere in the world she wanted. She wouldn’t have to worry about the Liberty Corps or anyone else. Then she could find her answers about Aunt Sucora and the Dreamside Road, and really enjoy her travels the way she’d hoped to.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been snuck into this house,” Orson said. “The first time I was here, I was used as a political piece in this showdown between the Corwin faction, here in Littlefield, and the weirdos working for Kappa.”
“How many factions have you dealt with, in different places, over the years?” Jaleel asked.
They sat in jumper seats attached to the inside of a cargo container. They were surrounded by barcoded boxes of various sizes. The container was on the back of a moving truck. It would carry them between Eloise’s and Carlos’s residence – where the Aesir was still hidden beneath its camouflage blanket – and the main Corwin residence.
Enoa wasn’t really paying attention to Orson’s story. He and Jaleel were swapping commentary on their situation, but her mind was too occupied by the visions of Sucora’s Shaper prowess to pay attention.
Enoa had the opportunity to win real safety, the kind of secure living that few people ever experienced anymore. As a Master Shaper, she could return to Nimauk after her adventures, with little need to worry about anything. No Master Nine could come along and defeat a fully trained Enoa Cloud, any more than he would have beaten Aunt Sucora when she’d been healthy.
The truck came to a sudden stop and shut off. Orson unbuckled himself from his seatbelt.
“What’s wrong?” Jaleel asked.
“We can’t be there yet,” Orson stood, his weight shifted onto his repulsor boot, probably anchored in place in case of sudden movement. “Something happened.”
Enoa reached for her staff. Then she forced herself out of daydreams and into her meditation. Since they’d reached the southwest, she hadn’t tried any of her transmutations outside the Aesir. How would the dry air affect her? She certainly couldn’t rely on the exhausting explosions.
She heard the truck’s rear door slide up. She unbuckled her own seatbelt and saw Orson rest his right hand on his sword’s hilt.
The container door opened too, but the person standing in the daylight wore blue Corwin coveralls.
“Hey, Pedro.” Orson nodded to the man. “How are…”
“Not now, Orson. You have to stay quiet. We all need to sit here a few minutes until we get the all clear.”
“All clear?” Orson asked. “What happened?”
“Governor Sloan sent a convoy to Mr. Corwin,” Pedro said. “I don’t know if they suspect him of anything or if they have teams visiting other places too, but we can’t risk taking you there.”
“If we go there anyway,” Orson said. “We can send their convoy gift-wrapped to the Pacific Alliance.”
“That’s too dangerous,” Pedro said. “My orders are clear. We’ll wait until we know they aren’t also moving on Miss Eloise’s house. Then I’ll see you safely back to the Aesir.”
“Then what?” Jaleel asked. “We can’t just hide out in a yard.”
“You have to hope the Liberty Corps clears out enough to head up to Kappa’s old base. It looks like, with all this scrutiny, you’ll be stuck out of town while you’re here.”
* * *
Kol found Duncan waiting for him in the hallway outside the suite.
“I’m sorry,” Kol said. “I was…” Kol wasn’t sure if he was ready for Duncan’s teasing about Brielle.
Duncan motioned for him to be quiet.
“Why are you…?”
Duncan vigorously shook his head. Then he held out his hand. He held a folded slip of paper.
Kol took it. He read.
I have difficult news to share. This information I hoped to give only out of honesty, when I knew you were ready, but my plans have changed. I leave you this message to keep you safe. I need you to act as soon as you read these words.
I should have told you this in life, but I wanted the last days with us together to be like they always were, without the burden of old secrets. You were the best part of my life. You’re so good, and it has redeemed me to raise such an extraordinary person in this difficult world and dangerous time.
I write this letter on July 5. I could have months left to live, but we can’t count on that. It could be that we deal with this situation long before my time comes, but I am too sick now to solve this, on my own. This problem may outlive me. Something happened yesterday that forced me to act.
Long ago, I was part of a group of people that hid something very, very valuable, called the Dreamside Road. It is beyond priceless, and I fear now that someone is looking for it. They believe I have it or they know I have one of the keys to unlock it. I don’t believe they are in Nimauk. I think this threat is still distant. The interested parties likely do not know where we are, but I could be wrong. My perceptions are not what they were.
I have feared this day for decades and now it comes so close to the end of my life, when I know this burden will not be mine, but yours. I am so sorry that I passed this on to you, but I could not let the Dreamside Road be located by the wrong people. It poses the danger of Thunderworks, many times over. It must be kept safe and hidden. I’ve always wanted to find a way to free myself, to free us of this danger, but I could find no safe solution.
You must be so confused. I promise everything will be explained in time. I have a plan that, if you follow it, I believe you can be safe, that you can live, and that all of this can be resolved.
I want you to follow my instructions. They will seem very strange, at first, strange and terrifying, but trust me.
As soon as my will is probated, you need to leave Nimauk, just for a time. I hope you can wait until the will is complete. If not, I have a plan for that too. Prepare to leave at a moment’s notice. Prepare to travel long distance, like one of our drives to Long Island.
Next, I need you to go to our family mausoleum. There is a hidden door inside. A room is hidden there. I work in it sometimes. It can be reached by the house too, but that is not a door you could take, not yet. That hidden room contains a secret I must share with you.
Enoa, I am capable of wielding a power of the mind, called Shaping. Do you remember when all of those stories leaked to the news, about seemingly magical abilities, about the ESP studied by the League of Nations or all the strange people that fought back against Thunderworks?
I wield a power like that, and as much as I hope my plan will keep you far from danger and from harm, I want you to learn this power too. It must seem so impossible to you, to even think about this, but I promise it is possible.
I will be honest with you now, honest in a way I should always have been. I’m sorry, but this is not the last hard truth you may face.
I have been preparing you to be a Shaper since you were a very little girl. The meditation we practice is influenced by the old Nimauk, by our ancestors, but it is not Nimauk in origin. I made it. I developed it to hone the mind to perform Shaping. I believe you could progress through the training very quickly. Shaping is difficult, but your mind is strong, and strong in all the ways it must be.
That is the part most people never learn, and you are already there. Think of the glade you imagine, in meditation. Think of the way your mind feels. That is where you will go to learn Shaping.
I have films prepared to teach you to Shape, hidden in that room near the mausoleum. Please go there and watch at least the first seven films. I have a screen and projector. Everything you need is waiting for you. That should prepare you well enough to defend yourself in case of attack.
You will think of Shaping as magical, but please try to learn it. If you believe, you can do it. If you believe, you can learn a power that will keep you safe. The detailed instructions to find your way through the mausoleum and into my secret study can be found on page 2 of this letter.
I also need you to get in touch with a friend of mine, named Archie Grant. He is another old Shaper, like me, and he will see that you are safe if anyone should come looking for the Dreamside Road. You can reach him through the process detailed on page 3 of this letter. I want you to contact him when my will is complete or if there is any sign of danger. If you hear anyone speak about the Dreamside Road, for any reason, you need to contact him, immediately. He will also be looking for any message from you or any word from Nimauk.
I’m sorry I set such a difficult path in front of you. I hope my fears are misplaced and you can live in our home. I always wanted our life to continue for you, no matter how long we were together. I have every faith in you.
I love you Enoa, and I am so dearly sorry. It was such a joy to raise you and watch the best of our family live on in you. It is such a gift to see the strong young woman you’ve become. I hope you don’t think less of me from these truths. I love you as my own child, and I only ever hoped to keep us safe. I hope I can continue to keep you safe, even after I leave this life.
My thoughts will always be with you,
Kol set the letter aside. Sucora had wanted to keep the Dreamside Road safe. She’d compared it to the threat of Thunderworks, just like he had. She wrote nothing about using the trove.
Duncan took the letter back. “Enoa trained her entire life! Can you believe it?”
“You were right to be quiet when I got here,” Kol whispered and raised his hand. “We do not want to discuss this with Max.” They both fell silent and heard nothing but the hum of the heating system through the building.
“Sorry,” Duncan said. “No wonder she ragdolled your ass. You didn’t stand a chance. ”
“Thanks. This letter mentioned other pages. Do you have other pages?”
“Yes, the second page is all about going through the mausoleum to reach that underground room. The third talks about sending a message through some kind of radio, hidden in a fake tree at their county line.”
“An IHSA remote depot cache,” Kol said. “The Hierarchia had those all over the outlying territories.”
“The reverse of the last page is all numbers. It looks like a bank account number or a foreign phone number or something. I can’t make heads or tails of it.”
“I’ll have to take a look. Also, there are keys to unlock the Dreamside Road?”
“On the page about the hidden room, Sucora said she left her key in the desk. There’s no way it was still there when we took the house, is there?”
“None. We literally dismantled that desk. There was nothing there when we left. Have we heard of keys before?”
“I’m not sure,” Duncan said. “But one way or another, it looks like we’ll have to hunt down the Aesir.”
Kol sighed. “I really enjoyed the idea of never seeing them again.”
“I know, but we have a secret on our side.”
“What do you mean?”
“Enoa might not have any of this information. The letter was still sealed when I found it.”