Sidestep by Black Sword


There was nothing. There was no ground below the feet to support the legs. There was no comforting sky overhead to lessen the emptiness. There was no air to breathe, nothing to hold, nothing to touch, nothing. Only a sea of endless black. Darkness everywhere, and shallow pinpricks of far-off light that failed to diminish the eternal night.

Drifting helplessly in the emptiness of nothing, there should have been no sensation. But there was. Cold. It was a cold that bit into the bones, that froze the blood in the veins, that turned every painful gasp into microscopic crystals of ice. It was a chill that could not exist anywhere other than the void, a cold that forbade life, a frost that indifferently killed any life so foolish as to venture out unprotected.

Movement was impossible. Limbs bound by something indefinable. No thought could make them move. No amount of exertion made them move. The body simply drifted through the cold, empty nothingness.

There was a change in the nothingness. A shift. The body was still drifting, but not on its own. The change was so subtle that most would never feel it. It was an indefinable pull, almost imperceptible, but it was there. Something had a hold on the body. Some thing.

The limbs still could not move. The eyes were watching...somewhere. But not where the thing pulling the body was. The eyes refused to move. Oh, but they had to move! Something was out there, something was pulling the body in, something dark, something that had no pity, no compassion, no mercy, it would destroy everything if it was not escaped, but how could the body escape if the mind could not see the threat and the eyes could not see where the route to safety was?

Move. Move. Move. Move. Move. Move, eyes, move. Need to see, need to see, need to see, please move, please, need to see, move, move, move, in the name of Laya, in the name of Orakio, move, PLEASE!

An eternity passed in painful pleading to ocular servants to obey. The sense of danger grew and grew and grew until it was a wonder that it did not wipe out the pathetic, terrified existence. Move! Move! Move! Move! MOVE, DAMN YOU!

The eyes moved. They finally moved, they finally, finally moved. Wasting no time, they sought out the danger, the pitiless, dark, horrible threat.

Nothing. Where was it? Where? There was only void, only emptiness, why couldn't it be seen? Where was it? Where? Where was the dark, hollow danger?

Dark. Hollow. A part of the void lacked the pinpricks of light. It was empty, a place darker than black. It could not be seen for what it was, it could only be seen for what it lacked. A hole. A deep, dark pit in the great void. The mind gibbered in terror even as the body struggled to move. The arms did not move, the legs did not move, nothing beyond the eyes moved, desperately seeking a way out, a way to escape that terrible pit of darkness, the place where nothing could hope to survive, but the body would not move, would not flee, the body would fall into that abyss of horror, where nothing could escape, where nothing but destruction, the death of everything, Gwyn? Gwyn! Wake up, you're—

"—having a bad dream!"

Gwyn latched onto the arms that had been shaking her, gasping in the aftermath of terror and adrenaline as she abruptly awakened. She held onto those arms for dear life, desperately trying to fight off the last webs of nightmare that clung to her perception, desperately trying to remove the film of sleep that convinced her exhausted eyes that she was still trapped in the void, still falling into the dark pit that spelled doom to all that lived, that promised—

"Gwyn! Look at me! It's me!"

Slowly, Gwyn lifted her head. Slowly, her eyes came out of the world of dreams. Slowly, a heart-shaped face filled with worry swam into focus. It was hard to tell eye color in the moonlight, but the eyes would have been light blue under the kiss of the artificial sun. The hair would have been a dark lime green. She knew this face. Kara Kay Eshyr. Her coeval. Her friend.

Slowly, her head turned from Kara as she took in her surroundings. A bed just big enough for two. A washstand. A small table. Two chairs. A small chest. Her bow was leaning by the door, her travel bag right next to it. Kara's bag was next to hers. This was not her room in Orakio's Keep. She was at an inn.

Why was she at an inn? Where had she been before falling asleep? Memory tickled her frightened mind. Aerone. She was in Aerone. They had just returned from Dahlia. The shuttle had arrived late at night, so they had gone to the inn to get a little rest before heading out in the morning.

Kara wrapped her arms around Gwyn. "Are you alright, Gwyn?"

Gwyn took a deep, shuddering breath. It smelled of a hint of fresa scent, the aged wood in the room, and a bit of mildew. It was one of the best gulps of air she'd ever had. "I'm alright," she muttered. "Stop hugging me. You stink."

Her coeval snorted. "I do not. You're the one sweating enough to need to be tossed in the river."

It wasn't the strongest banter, but it brought a little bit of normalcy to the temporary insanity of her vision. Kara had not let her go but it was not the most important—wait.

"Fresa? Why do you smell of fresa?" Gwyn demanded suspiciously as she pulled out of the embrace.

Even in the moonlight, it was hard to miss the bright blooms of pink that blossomed on Kara's cheeks. "I-I went for a w-walk."

"A walk," Gwyn repeated flatly. "I know you said you would try, but aren't you moving a little too quickly?"

"N-no! I'm not! I mean, I didn't! I mean, my prin—I mean, Prince Adan asked me," Kara spluttered furiously, the pink deepening to crimson as she tried to explain, her hands fluttering like nervous birds.

"My brother invited you on a walk," Gwyn said, her irritation growing. It was bad enough to have the rare talent for divination, but this...!

Kara seemed to sense Gwyn's irritation, and rallied herself to try again. "You were already asleep," she continued, calmer. "He knocked on the door and wanted to talk to you, but you seemed so exhausted that I felt bad about waking you. So I went to tell him you were asleep, and he thought it might be more restful for you if you had a chance to sleep alone for a while and—."


The moon princess abruptly stopped talking as Gwyn interrupted her. Laya's heiress narrowed her eyes. "Fresa scent."

The crimson blossoms on Kara's cheeks did not fade in intensity. The moon princess turned away. Gwyn's glare did not leave her coeval. Kara looked at her out of the corner of her eye and fidgeted uncomfortably. After a time, she finally muttered, "I wanted to smell good."

Gwyn sighed irritably. "Honestly, it's annoying enough that every woman in Landen dome chases after him while he obliviously walks around collecting their hearts, but having you do it while I'm—" Gwyn shut her mouth with a click. Laya and Orakio, she was exhausted. If she had actually managed to get a decent night's sleep recently, she wouldn't have made such a stupid slip. Hopefully, her coeval would be too flustered to notice.

Of course, her coeval was no idiot. That would have been far too much of a break. "While you what? What happened in your nightmare, Gwyn?"

She looked away. Sloppy, stupid mistake. Hear ye, hear ye, let it be known that the tired Gwyn Sa Riik is too sloppy to keep her mouth shut about the greatest secret of the Layas, she thought bitterly.


The look she gave Kara was rancorous enough for the other girl to unconsciously adopt a defensive stance. "What I'm about to tell you does not leave the four walls of this room. If I hear a whisper of it anywhere, I will kill you."

Gwyn waited for Kara to nod in agreement. That done, she continued. "Do you know what an Esper is?"

Kara nodded slowly. "Father and Aunt Alair explained it to me, once. They are Espers who can use 'magic.' When I asked if magic is the same as techniques, they shook their heads and said it was something more. They told me I was not an Esper, but I should know in case an Esper was born in the future."

That simplified matters. "Do you remember the assassination attempt when we were children?"

"...yes, I do," Kara said quietly. "Your mother dispatched them."

"My mother is an Esper. A very powerful one. And so are Adan and I."

Silence. Gwyn did not bother looking at Kara. Her twin was oblivious to the advances of women, so she had taken on the role of weeding them out for him. Adan was her brother, and deserved to be happy with a wife who could love him in all his complexities. Either this would kill her interest now (which she did not consider likely) or Kara would accept it and pass to the next test.

Besides, if she had to share her brother, at the very least it needed to be someone she could like.

"I see," Kara said at last. The thoughtful expression evaporated as the moon princess smiled prettily. "If Adan does pick me, I hope to give him Esper children."

Kara and her dimple. Gwyn grunted. "There's more. The bloodline of the Laya holds a secret."

"Just the one?" Kara murmured.

Gwyn stared. "I don't know how in the seven domes I ever forgot your sarcastic streak."

"I would say that is the pot calling the kettle black, but yours is so much more pronounced than mine that it would not be a fair comparison."

"That had better be a statement on my sarcastic streak and not on my childbearing figure."

"Some men prefer busty, callipygian women," Kara replied. "I think you're put together quite nicely."

Kara thought Gwyn was put together quite nicely? Quite nicely? What was that 'quite' doing in there, anyway? Not only that, how in the world did she keep a straight face? "Callipygian cannot possibly be a word."

"Yes it can."

Exasperated, Gwyn threw her hands up into the air. "I am not continuing this argument."

"Good. You were saying?"

"As I was saying," Gwyn said, shooting Kara a dark look. "The bloodline of the Laya holds a secret. Every so often, a Laya is born with a rare ability that cannot be taught." Gwyn took a deep breath. "That power is divination."

The moon princess was shocked. Not a surprising reaction. At least she had not fainted the way some of the airhead gits back home had. And those had fainted at the merest of hints, too.

" can see the future?"

"Not perfectly, and not because I want to," Gwyn said, catching Kara's eyes with her own. "I have dreams that foretell the future. I can usually tell when they're prescient, but most of the time, the problem comes from interpreting them."


"Most of the time, the dreams are...abstract. It's usually very difficult to figure out what they foretell."

"Most of the time," Kara spoke slowly, measuring what she had learned with what had not been said. "But not this time?"

Maybe that thoughtful scholarly bent of hers was not so bad after all. She took things as they were and looked to the heart of the matter. "No, it's pretty clear this time," Gwyn said grimly. "We fall into the black hole."

Kara's hands covered her mouth in mute horror. Her eyes had rounded to the size of saucers even as the pupils dilated. The moon princess was terrified. Well, so was Gwyn! Her visions foretold the future, and it was not a pleasant thing to endure. People thought they wanted to see the future. What they wanted to know were simple, imbecilic trivialities, like the weather tomorrow, or whether or not a business venture would work and other such nonsense. Prescience was a curse. To know what would happen was bad enough; to be powerless to change it was unbearable. She cursed the drop of blood in her veins that forced her to see the end of everything. The dream tonight had been worse, the most intense since they had begun, almost as if—

Abruptly, Gwyn clapped her hands. "That is neither here nor there."

She stood, paying no mind to her sweat-soaked nightgown as she hopped out of bed. She did not bother looking for sandals before she strode out of the room. Once outside, she glanced at Mieu as her robotic nanny leaned against the wall, keeping watch. The gynoid had not strayed far from Gwyn's side once the nightmares had started. It was one of the many things Mieu did that made her love the advanced machine like family of flesh and blood. Gwyn smiled at the female android for a moment before she turned to her left and walked down the small hall. She stopped at the door at the end, knocked once, and entered.

Her twin was shirtless, a towel around his neck indicative that he had been cleaning up before bed. His sword was in his hands, a deadly, elegant weapon nowhere near as heavy as their father's great sword, but more suitable for Adan's smaller, leaner physique. He had obviously been cleaning the blade before she walked in.

Adan's eyebrows rose a little, and she watched his face gentle from its usual pride to the familiar sibling fondness. Not that many people could read that face; Adan kept his emotions close. So did Gwyn. It was something they had learned as children out of necessity.

"We can't go to Techna," she said without preamble.

Gwyn heard a small gasp. She looked over her shoulder to find Kara blushing. Really now! "He's shirtless, not naked."

"Gwyn," Adan reproved mildly.

"Right." Gwyn shrugged. "We can't go to Techna, Adan."

Her twin's indigo eyes met her own. Somehow, she could not explain how, they always managed to get a feel for the other's thoughts and feelings without the need for words. She supposed it came from being Esper twins. It was pretty handy most of the time, but sometimes it could be a dreadful nuisance.

"You had a dream," he said, not quite a question.

"Yes. It was worse than the previous ones. The only thing that changed was that we had decided to go to Techna. If we go to Techna, we are all doomed."

Adan said nothing as he considered. Her twin lacked her so-called gift for divination, but he had never been skeptical or afraid of it. He simply treated it as a part of her. "Then where should we go?"

It was that easy acceptance of her visions that made Adan such an easy brother to love, for all his pride and obliviousness to women. Well, one of the things that made him an easy brother to love. He had his virtues along with his vices. "Frigidia. We should go to Frigidia."

Her twin's eyebrows knitted into a frown. "Why Frigidia? Something in the dream?"

Gwyn shrugged. "That's how I feel. Frigidia was Aunt Laya's realm during the Devastation War. Mom said that the people of Mystoke kept the Seven Towers for her for a thousand years, so it's possible they may have kept other secrets, too."

"You could be right," Kara said slowly. "Father always seemed uneasy when I asked if the Layans of Frigidia would have better answers than he does, almost like they know something he doesn't want me to find out."

Adan turned his attention outside, as if his eyes could see through the distance, deep into the forgotten world of snow and ice. The world that had belonged to Laya a thousand years ago, and still belonged to their long-dead aunt. Gwyn held her breath. If her brother didn't trust her visions now of all times...

Abruptly, he turned away from the window. "Tomorrow we set out for Frigidia. Go sleep. We have an early start."

Somehow, Gwyn suspected her nightmares would be a little less violent tonight.

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