Prologue (Demonhome Book 2)

Soft footsteps in gravel under the pink-blue sky. No umbra of sun yet peeks above the horizon, but the first fingers of dawn cautiously brush the walls of fresh-hewn stone. Despite the early hour, the quiet scrapes and bumps of activity escape the buildings as the newcomers pass by, though no one steps outside to acknowledge them.

The crunch of gravel on cobblestone ceases for a long moment as the four strangers pause just before the Legiontown gates. The walls of the castle loom high above them, but the gates stand open. The gate guards stand still and silent, but they are more figurehead than line of defense; no invaders would have made it through Legiontown unmolested.

As the first crest of the sun breaks the horizon, the man turns to his companions. He says nothing, but they understand his meaning; the four have much to do and little time, and they can dally no longer. As one, they turn towards the gates and resume their march. The guards do not acknowledge them as they pass through. The thick cables of wards hanging from the walls grab at them for the briefest of moments, sniffing, searching, but part almost immediately; these strangers are not what the wards are endlessly searching for.

As the four pass into the courtyard, one of the women rushes ahead, barely restraining herself from breaking into a run. She darts between flowerbeds and around hedges, quickly finding her way to the lone willow marking the center of the courtyard. She brushes aside the drooping boughs until she can lay her hand on the trunk, then delicately leans her forehead against the scarred wood. She does not turn nor pull away as her companions approach. As they stop just outside the ring of the willow's branches, she murmurs, "Is she ready? Is she prepared?"

Two of her companions trade a look, searching one another's faces for their answers to those questions. The small woman's face is nearly unreadable, but she nods. The man's thoughts, on the other hand, are plain as day; he's prepared everything he can, but he's still uncertain of this approach. The third companion, another woman, clings to his arm like an arthritic grandmother. Though she can't be any older than he, she stoops and shuffles, some inner pain driving her thoughts away from this reality and into herself. He pats her hand on his arm absently, worried, then responds, "As ready as is possible, Kipourós1." He starts to step toward the woman and the tree, then stops. Turning again to the diminutive woman, he asks, "You are certain of your research, Fýlakas2?"

The diminutive woman crinkles her forehead at him, clearly annoyed. "Why must you call me that still? Do you still disagree that my actions were necessary, not to mention correct? Can you not trust me?"

He snorts, annoyed. "Trust is not a word I would use, though I concede the wisdom of your actions. Yet that is past and this is present, so I ask again: are you certain of your research? This cure will work?"

"I would say treatment rather than cure, Anisychía3, but it will help her. Now move her into the ring before our veils fall and we're caught here."

"Hmmph." The man huffs, then guides his hunched companion under the ring of branches.

The diminutive woman follows four steps behind. She stops to the side of the man, waiting patiently while he takes the injured woman's left hand and places it on the tree. She still clings to him with her right, and he holds her hand in his as he forces himself to look away from her and to the tree. "Do it," he whispers, his voice rough.

Serpent-quick, the diminutive woman pulls a silvery stiletto from her dress and drives it into the injured woman's right hand, pinning her hand to the man's arm. Less than a breath later, another, and she pins the injured woman's left hand to the trunk of the tree. The injured woman whimpers but neither cries out nor pulls away. "Now, hurry, seconds count!"

The man grunts, and a halo of dull orange envelops his right hand. The other woman hisses air through her teeth as a dull green-blue suffuses her skin. The diminutive woman watches intently, counting under her breath, and finally nods. "Hold there," she commands, her voice resonating underneath the umbrella of the willow tree. Her hands fly, a blur of motion over the two daggers, and they begin to unspool as if woven. As they are reduced to thread, the silver in her right hand begins to glow a dull purple.

"You're slipping," the diminutive woman whispers, a warning note in her voice.

"She's worse than we thought," the man replies, his voice heavy with effort. "I have her now." As he speaks, the purple diffuses, replaced again with silver.

The three are silent now as the diminutive woman weaves the once-daggers into a cat's-cradle joining the three, the injured woman, and the man together in a net of silvery thread. Orange-gold pulses along the thread, slowly at first, then faster, faster. As the pulses blur together into a steady light, the injured woman cries out and straightens, pulling herself from the thread. The other women leap back and pull the third woman away as the man grasps the silver-gold thread joining him to the tree. He pulls the net and begins to roll it, ripping it from his arm in a spray of golden blood that splashes onto the willow's trunk with a sizzle. He fights the net, gripping and flexing as he forces it from a cradle to a sphere. As the net's ends close together, the air inside begins to solidify, a purple-blue flesh of fruit forming inside a silver-gold rind.

The woman who once held the tree steps forward, handing off the disoriented but aware patient to the diminutive woman as she takes the ball from the man. At her touch, leaves and a stem sprout from the ball as it fully hardens into a tough-skinned fruit before her eyes. She whispers something near-silent to the willow, and a branch dips as if pushed by a breeze. She hangs the fruit from the branch and leads the man, who is busily tending to his wounded arm, back out from underneath the tree.

The patient sees the man and begins to speak, but she's already fading, translucent. He places a finger on her lips and shakes his head, and the two disappear as though they were nothing but a fog dissipated by the wind. With a look back toward the willow, the tree-tender follows suit, leaving only the diminutive woman in the courtyard. She sighs and looks toward the rising sun, then takes a small box from her dress and sets it on a bench near the willow. She fades from view just as the rustle of cloth in grass reveals the approach of others.

Yoshirou-Mura - no, Yoshirou-Mura no longer, now Banríon4 Ryaltóir-Yoshirou-Mura5 Miyu-Mara6 Eilidh7 Spéir-éCloch8, despite her best efforts - greeted the dawn warmly. This was her favorite time of day, after all, the quiet before her work began, an hour where she could guarantee that she and her reluctant A'bualadh9 could once again just be Yoshirou-Mura and Finnbarre, soldier and farmer, sitting together on Fionansbinse10 and enjoying the sunrise. Well, they could almost pretend, if it weren't for the damned finery they were required to wear now instead of their armor.

They walked through the courtyard together in silent thought as always, a burgeoning tradition to hold their tongues until they were settled by the willow in the veil of seclusion it provided. Near the edges of the courtyard, craftsmen and apprentices started their errands, but they'd long since learned to ignore the two royals this early. Yoshirou-Mura had reached an accord with this, but she could still feel Finnbarre looking out of the corner of his eyes at the farm-gate, feeling he should be out tending fields. Yoshirou-Mura stifled a laugh thinking back on the last time he'd tried - she still couldn't decide whose reaction was more amusing, that of the other farmers or that of the royal tailors once they'd seen what Finn'd done to his finery….

Lost in thought, Yoshirou-Mura and Finnbarre turned the final corner of the hedge maze to Fionansgarrai11. Almost no one ever came here, save themselves and the groundskeepers, so the two were shocked to find an ornate box resting on Fionansbinse. Rapt with curiosity, Yoshirou-Mura strode forward and picked it up, opening it as she did. "I don't see a note or a tradema—"

A vision. A troupe, a dream she'd seen before. The one who made her mind call out "Deirfiúr-féin12," though she knew not why. The scríobach13. The anord-dalta14, though him she could somewhat understand, just another rialtóir15 himself, after a fashion. In her dream-visions, they all were, to be fair, dreams of a life never lived yet so close to her truth all the same. She saw them there, at the castle, the castle as it is now. Soon. And a whisper of cold knowledge, a vague notion that they would bring others, a script to follow when meeting them. Yet more logistics to consume her next few days, and she knew she was missing critical information. But also a glimmer of hope, hope that these years of visions and portents would finally all make sense, that she'd finally have the answers to the questions she'd asked herself for more than a century.

"Oh, Finn… they're finally coming."

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