Known for its expansive, rugged beauty, the Flatlands Province of Caergwlân covering most of the western portion of the kingdom was known formerly for its inhospitable terrain and outlaws. Craggy rocks, marsh lands and the constant wind swept seas made for beautiful paintings, majestic clouds and lonesome thoughts, but the inhabitants were hardy, loving hard-working, and disinclined to listen to reason or authorities.
In the town of Rukisismos, at the western most part of the province, the ocean was at the edge of the town. The city was one of the most popular places to vacation on the island, and trains came from all directions – north, south, and east. A port for ships was also busy with ships arriving from the Forty Isles, and kingdoms around the world. As one of the main harbors, there was a vibrancy to the town, especially in the spring and summer. It was a tourist place, though, and most of the boats arriving were small pleasure yachts. One of the cities farther down the coast had a better harbor and was quickly seeing the rise of merchandise for Caergwlân and the Forty Isles. Outside the eastern end of the city was an airship port for those traveling through the skies from other portions of the kingdom and Forty Isles.
The morning Luna arrived with Mederei, Hugh and Ramses, the wind blew in off the sea, bringing the faint scent of salty water with it.
“I've missed the ocean,” Mederei said, lifting her nose. “We'll have to go down for a bit.”
Only a river flowed through the town where Fire Shadow was, and the only thing in Luna’s hometown was a large freshwater lake. She didn’t have the affinity to the sea that the other three had. Hugh, though he had spent most of his life at the Fire Shadow Guild, had spent his early years on Demidrake Isle which had beautiful beaches all within a thirty minute walk from practically anywhere. Ramses’ home island was also known for its beaches, and the capital of Caergwlân was centered on one of the largest harbors in the Forty Isles. Many of the wealthy members of the city had houses built along the many canals and rivers leading down into the ocean.
As the trains left the station, a tall, red-headed and ruddy man on the opposite side waved at them. He wore a pair of blue linen trousers over brown boots, and a buttoned-down cream colored shirt. He wore an intricately woven tapestry vest over the shirt, and on his back was a sturdy univercity bag.
“Caradoc!” Mederei called, waving both arms at her cousin. They were close and hadn’t seen each other in over a year since Mederei joined Fire Shadow. There was the strong family resemblance between them, but as far as looking like each other, Hugh and Mederei looked more alike than Caradoc and Mederei did. How much that was blood, and how much that was magic was hard to say.
“Hi! Stay there!” Caradoc called back. “I have to exit on your side.”
He disappeared down the stairs to the tunnel under the tracks and back up. Once on the other side, he and Mederei met in a hug. “Look at you!” He held her back a bit to take a good look. “You look wonderful.”
“Thanks; you do too.”
“Course, I do; I always look wonderful.” He waved to Ramses, and shook hands with Hugh. It was in those moments in which the family resemblance between the two men was strongest – both were near the same height, had a very similar muscular build, and even their stance was similar. Currently, as they faced each other, they mirrored one another’s movements and expressions. With Mederei added into the scene, the three looked like some set of dangerous triplets – which in many ways they were.
Caradoc turned and swept Luna into a hug as he had Mederei. He smelled of musk and wool with a pungent scent beneath it all that was just Caradoc. “And you look wonderful as well, Luna. Bet you drive all the boys crazy in your guild.”
Luna's cheeks colored, but she turned back to Hugh. “Where are we staying?”
“Hotel in the downtown,” Hugh answered. He held a hand to Ramses who deposited a coin into Hugh’s hand. “We need to find the board council since they're the ones who hired us.”
“I'll take the girls to the hotel if you two go to the council,” Caradoc suggested dropping Luna back onto the ground, but keeping his right arm around her shoulders. He looped his left arm around his cousin. “Give me a chance to chat with Medi. What's the hotel's name?”
Caradoc snorted. “You've got to be kidding us?” To Mederei, he said, “Doesn't that sound like some scary story people tell in the winter when the sun's down?”
“It's on the edge of the town towards the sea,” Mederei defended. Her eyes glinted, though - a bad sign. “Maybe they take unsuspecting guests down to an abandoned cave where they can perform unspeakable rituals on them.”
“Such as?” Ramses pressed.
“They wouldn’t be unspeakable if you could name them,” Mederei retorted. “You should understand that, Ramses. Then, at midnight on midsummer’s eve, they all gather to dance a macabre dance of death.”
“Who?” Luna gasped.
“The ghosts,” Mederei said. “Oooh.” She wiggled her fingers at Luna until both girls giggled. “Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“For your brain, yes,” Caradoc muttered, pulling them forward as the other two men started to the exit. “Gives me little hope to the owner or anyone else here, though - probably some crotchety old man. What sort of place gives itself a name like that?”
Mederei nodded to Hugh and Ramses. “Maybe I should go with them? At least they understand and appreciate my humor.”
“No,” Luna and Caradoc said together. “That'd only make it worse,” Luna finished. “After all, no one needs to know that we're both wizards, right?”
Mederei shrugged and walked off with Luna and Caradoc.
The town was small, under twenty-thousand inhabitants, but during the summer it doubled as tourists from all over the kingdom flocked to its shores. Despite the inhospitable appearance of the landscape, the Flatlands had some of the best surfing and sunbathing beaches in the entire world.
The stone buildings were brightly colored pastels with many having signs hanging above their front doors. Last Chance Souvenirs, Last Chance Chocolate, and Last Chance Surfing were some of the names along the road to the beach.
“Must be the last ones before the beach,” Luna suggested as they passed the Last Chance Emporium.
“Looks like it,” Caradoc agreed. “We should start a store called the Last Chance Weavers, Medi.”
“Speaking of which, I expected to see more tapestries, like we have along the walls at the guild hall.” She meant the Gwion guild hall, though the Fire Shadow Guild Hall also had several tapestries hanging on their walls.
Luna paused mid-step, and shuffled a bit. She had read once, when she was a child, that the Gwion placed tapestries outside buildings as well, such as their guild hall. At Fire Shadow, all the tapestries were inside, even as the ones at Mederei’s place or Hugh’s place. “Do people hang them outside?”
“We do,” the Gwion answered. “But only because they're meant to be outside,” Caradoc continued. “Must be interior tapestries, or they're farther out.”
Luna looked around them. What Hugh and the Gwion took for granted confused her. Neither of her parents had been especially wealthy, though her mother had come from a respected wizarding family. They had owned a bookstore, but nothing else. The Gwion tapestries were things one saw in museums, or heard about in stories, especially stories that took place in wealthy homes.
Now, her best friend was not only a Gwion, but daughter to the head of the Gwion family, not to mention that her cousins were incredibly attractive – Hugh with his demidrake bad boy good looks, and Caradoc with is rough and tumble boy-next-door style. Still, there was a lot to learn about the inner workings of the Gwion not to mention what was real and what was fantasy.
“Not to sound silly or anything,” Luna began as she started walking again, “but if the tapestries are outside the town, how can it protect anyone?”
“Most of these towns have the same blood living here for generations. They found an old body buried not far from here, thought to be several thousands of years old, and actually found several members of the same blood line still living in the area,” Caradoc explained, drifting around a family of five on their spring vacation. “As long as the blood remains true, the tapestry will protect whoever is here.”
Luna nodded her head. “So, I understand how that works with the Blood Gwion like you two, vaguely, but how does it work with someone not of the Gwion or with the Heritage Gwion like Hugh and Gramps?”
One of Hugh's ancestors was a Gwion who married one of the demidrakes. It was also known that one of the ancestors of the Gwion was half demidrake himself, hence the strange family genetics of reddish hair and appearances similar to the demidrakes. To look at the Gwion, it was said, was to see their ancestry – the ruddy complexion and hair of the demidrakes, the brilliant yet cool eyes of the fae, and the sturdy build of their northern human ancestors who were known to be long-lived and adventurous. Some even suggested that they had dae ancestry, but many denied it.
For one thing, the Gwion had no horns or wings. Some, however, said that their magic came from the dae. The Gwion were known for their inexhaustible ability to protect themselves, and that, at its root, was dae magic’s source, or so many speculated.
“It works the same way with Hugh as it does with us, since it’s his Gwion blood the magic reacts to,” Mederei answered. She dodged a crowd of noisy teenagers who were ignoring everyone as they listened to their music through their seeing glasses. “What is going on today? It’s like everyone and their mother came to the beach.”
“It’s not like it’s vacation season yet,” Caradoc concurred.
“Family Week,” Luna reminded them. “Mederei, you really need to get a calendar. Haven’t you called your parents? Parents’ Day is tomorrow.”
“I talked with them yesterday. Father received the present I sent to the younger three, and the ones I sent for him and Mother.”
“Isn’t your brother a little young for presents? He’s fourteen, isn’t it?” Luna asked. “Iah said he didn’t need presents this year, and he’s thirteen.”
Caradoc and Mederei looked at each other and shrugged. “He would be greatly annoyed if we didn’t give him something,” Mederei explained. “Besides, my parents give all their children and grandchildren gifts.”
“Back to your question, though; normally we have those who want the protection add some drops of their blood to a dye bath before we dye the yarn,” Caradoc explained as they turned down the street to the Last Chance Inn.
“Which might be actually a good indication of things here,” Mederei picked up. “It's normally the most dominate color in the tapestry, but since their magic is fading, it might mean the tapestry had faded or something.” She scrunched her forehead. “That could actually be bad, now that I think about it. People don’t like giving their blood too often especially since some people believe we use it to sacrifice to unknown gods or dae.”
“They only believe that in books,” Luna insisted.
The Gwion glanced at each other, but said nothing. Caradoc cleared his throat, and continued, “In which case, it could be harder for us to repair anything especially if the dye is what has faded.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Mederei argued. “The magic itself should protect the tapestry from fading, theoretically, but it could also mean that the tapestries are extremely … ancient artifacts. You don’t think ….”
“Gramps thought maybe.”
“Gramps thinks anything older than his grandmother is old.”
“Alfny never traveled ….”
The conversation went downhill from there as they argued in that strange tongue they did. Most of it was understandable when they were calm, but when they argued, their accents grew thicker. At that point – only Gwion could understand or those like Hugh.
“What are you two arguing about?”
“Nothing,” the Gwion answered.
“Yes, you are,” Luna pointed out. “For one thing, your eyes are flashing, secondly, you’re voices are raised slightly, and third, you’re not speaking in any common tongue but that strange language the Gwion have for themselves.”
Neither Gwion answered as they pouted.
Luna sighed. “Seriously, you two are obviously not the firstborns in your families. Anyway, the magic of the tapestries. So, the dye connects the magic to the non-Gwion, but the weaving is in fact what makes the magic. What does it have to do with multiple tapestries?”
“If they're placed in the traditional star pattern, the magic will also feed off each other forming a protective layer.” Mederei drew a line in the air with her wand, and the lines glowed as a blob of light shot around in a pattern, igniting another one at each point until the entire star glowed. The five-pointed star was found near every wizarding school. Many schools added a star at every centennial celebration. The best-known wizarding schools, on the isle of Babirye, had on average fifteen stars.
Caradoc grunted his agreement then wiped the star out of the sky.
“Making it very old,” Mederei continued. “You think we'll be able to repair them?”
“Certainly. You can see the magic in addition to the threads, so I wouldn't know why not.”
“We’re here,” Luna said, pointing to the Last Chance Inn which stood on a bluff looking down over the ocean. It was a stone building, three and a half stories tall. Formerly a manor house of some sort, the building had a bright red roof, many windows, and a curving driveway.
“It's beautiful,” Luna gasped. “Like something from a picture book.”
“Picture books can be deceiving,” Caradoc warned, opening the gate for the girls.
“Don't start on that,” Mederei muttered, waving a buzzing fly from her face. “You and your brother always try to make things worse than they are.”
“Do not; it's a fact of nature.” Caradoc opened the front door and allowed the women in first. “You know as well as I do nothing is ever as it seems. How many times have the people in stories found themselves in trouble because they didn’t listen to their instincts?”
“And what do your instincts tell you?” Luna intervened. Normally, they didn’t bicker this much. Maybe it was because neither was exactly awake yet. They both needed hot pots of coffee and silence. Glaring at each other over coffee would be better.
“That something terrible is going to happen,” Caradoc answered. “And, I might add, I have excellent instincts.”
Mederei snorted. “And who was the one who insisted we were going to have wonderful weather then we had that god-awful storm?”
“That was a fluke of nature … or a god, depending on which story you want to believe.”
“Definitely a god. Still would like to know what you did to her.”
“Why does it have to be me?”
“You challenged her when you said it would be perfect.”
Caradoc kicked at pebble. “I would have thought it was Brys who angered her by saying not even the gods could ruin his trip.”
“And they didn’t because Brys is who he is.”
Luna paused on the steps leading into the inn. “Dare I ask the reason for this particular spat?”
“We were at an island before Father took the current position, and well, it was interesting,” Mederei answered. “Besides, Caradoc, just because your instincts suggest it is that way, doesn’t mean you should aggravate the situation.” Mederei crossed the plush navy carpet to the large glass reception desk. The desk itself was hollow and had an aquarium inside, though without any fish but a lot of plants.
“Hello, we're with the Hugh Black party,” Mederei said to the woman on duty. While the woman checked the reservations, Mederei turned to Caradoc. “Just because everything looks beautiful on the outside doesn't mean it's corrupted on the inside.”
Caradoc leaned against the desk. “Have you never met the fae king, Rozern?”
“Rozern is a breed all his own,” Mederei argued with a wave of her hand. “Anything as beautiful as he is can't be perfect.”
“He's only that beautiful because he's evil to begin with,” Mederei countered. “He's not evil because he's beautiful.”
“She has you there,” Luna said, leaning forward to look around Mederei. “My mother always said it was like those poisonous bugs that are beautiful as a warning.”
“Have you met him?” The woman behind the desk asked setting a pink stone in front of Mederei. “King Rozern, I mean? I’ve seen him on the glasses, but I’ve never met someone who has met him.”
“Yes, once,” Mederei answered. She placed her thumb on the rock until it glowed blue then removed her thumb. Caradoc and Luna repeated the motions as well. “An event I would prefer never to have again,” Mederei finished.
“We have you in the upstairs suite,” the woman said. “Your thumbprints give you access to everything in the inn.” She looked at the glass providing the information. “That's strange. Normally guests don't have that much freedom.”
“We're here to check the magical barriers,” Luna explained.
“That’s what they want us to believe,” Caradoc groused. “All the more convenient for us to get into serious trouble.”
“Oh, that might explain it then.” The woman smiled. “Your thumbprints will allow you access to any place in the community in fact. We use this so people don't have to remember keys or anything like that. It's also used for those who don't want to carry any cash.”
“Wow; talk about a nice vacation place,” Mederei said.
“It's helpful,” the woman answered. She motioned with her hand towards the stairs. “Take the stairs all the way to the top floor. Your suite is the entire roof suite, but I will warn you, it's somewhat low at the edges, so you'll want to make certain you don't hit your heads.”
“Thank you,” Caradoc said, taking the lead up the stairs. “We're expecting two more as well.”
“I'll let them know where you are.”
Upstairs in their suite, Mederei and Luna took the first bedroom while Caradoc tossed his items on one of the beds tucked under the awning. There were two bedrooms and four beds tucked along the one wall complete with curtains to draw across the space. “Rather nice, isn't it?” Luna said.
“Cozy,” Mederei agreed. “Must be set up for families.”
“I would think so.” Luna wandered out into the kitchen area where Caradoc was already preparing water for tea. “They have tea here?”
“Brought some with me.”
“Caradoc's a tea snob,” Mederei teased as she opened the refrigerator. “Looks like we'll need to do some grocery shopping.”
“I can take care of that,” Luna said.
“I'll help,” Caradoc volunteered. “Wouldn't want Medi making any food decisions.”
“I'm a good cook,” she muttered, shutting the refrigerator door. “I have been cooking for myself this past year, thank you very much.”
“Sure you are,” Caradoc said. “Just watch the water and make certain it doesn’t boil over.”
“You say that as though you don't believe me.” She turned off the stove. “Besides, let’s go get coffee below and see what’s …”
“Hey, there's a balcony over here,” Luna called from the kitchen's double doors. “Wow, wow, wow!”
Before them, the ocean opened up; beneath them, the back portion of the inn revealed the perch it had overlooking the hidden half-moon beach enclosed by the red cliffs the Flatlands were known for. Hundreds of people had already arrived, planting themselves across the beach with umbrellas and towels. Even more it seemed enjoyed the shallow water while farther out, surfers caught the waves.
“It's like a picture postcard,” Luna squealed. “I'm going to love this job.”
Mederei shielded her eyes to look at the horizon. “Is it just me or are there black clouds over there.”
“What a way to ruin the day,” Luna muttered. “The two of you are completely related to each other.” She looked up as well. “Oh, wait, there are black clouds on the horizon. Storm?”
“It was supposed to be a clear all week,” Caradoc said. He sniffed the air. “We need Hugh up here, I can't smell anything.”
“It's too far away to see if there's magic there,” Mederei agreed.
Luna cocked her head. “I can't smell anything different, but there are too many new smells here. I hear something, though.” She held her breath, closed her eyes and leaned forward. “It's like ... A voice, maybe?”
“Yeah, something's there. Might be a wizard, might not be. Are there any gods known to be from this area?”
“There's the god of the deep, but his residence isn't here.”
“Might be a local god,” Caradoc suggested. “But I thought they were to protect the area not threaten them.”
“Probably not enough money coming in. Didn't you notice there were no shrines in the area?”
“That could be because they worship the High King of the Gods,” Luna reminded Mederei. “I saw a couple daeggaroc as we passed through, or their steeples at any rate. Besides, aren't the local gods beneath the Uncreated One?”
“Supposed to be, but it is politics like everything else,” Caradoc muttered, pushing back from the railing. “Maybe it's whatever the town needs protecting from.”
Luna and Mederei looked at each other. “Doesn't bode well for us, does it?” Mederei asked.
“Nope, it doesn't,” Luna agreed. “Wonder where the other two are?”
“Probably hung up at the council meeting.”