Kezia did as she had said she would, the river gate of the Bone Wall closing behind her just as the sky was lightening to a recognizable purple. There was a small strip of ground between the wall and the large, rushing river than ran through the three territories, barely wide enough for her to lie down, so she kept her spine straight and checked her footing for the mile until wall and riverbank finally twisted away from one another. A few more miles down and she would reach the fork of the river, but that was where the river vipers lived and Kezia didn’t particularly enjoy fighting for her life until she’d at least had breakfast.
So she crossed the narrow, creaking wooden bridge, making sure to place the balls of her feet just where the cracked wood held, and strode confidently into the dense forest that separated Middle Territory from nearly everything else. And she didn’t stop to eat part of her rationed food for the day until she’d been walking for a few hours and the sun was high. When she did, she sat against a thick tree trunk and sighed, sliding a stiff piece of yellowed paper between her fingers.
Rachel had come to her room late the previous night, as Kezia was finishing preparations. The woman had pressed it into her hand and sighed, and for the first time Kezia could remember, looking forlorn.
“This is another old relic,” she’d chuckled a bit. “When I came to possess it, I was told it’s enchanted. I don’t know how much good it will do you, but sometimes it pays to consider the impossible rather than rely only on the factual. Good luck, Kezia, my daughter. May your sword remain strong and your mind remain sharp.”
Kezia unfolded the paper, but it still was only the size of her two hands together. And it was nearly blank, as it had been when Rachel had given it to her. It had one line of narrow, curling script, dark and clear as though the ink had been applied an hour ago instead of several lifetimes.
“The Bridges between Human and Seraphim must be crossed,” Kezia murmured, the phrase still not making any more sense than it had the night before. If it truly was enchanted…Kezia knew little of magic. Magic was not for humans, but for the cunning and cruel creatures they shared this world with. It twisted the rational mind and came with prices higher than ever expected, a force always winning at the expense of whoever was foolish enough to give it rise. That was what she had been taught all her life, and the few encounters she’d had with creatures who danced with magic only confirmed it.
But, perhaps, if magic was so entwisted with minds and souls, and hearts…the idea was weak and half-formed at best. Kezia closed her eyes and willed her journey to leave her mind, just for a moment. She thought of the fortress, deep inside where there was a room painted with crushed light blue stones and ebony frames. There was one small window, but several large lanterns where flames danced playfully, and looked very high up from her small height. Her brother, small and a bit pudgy as the child still hadn’t outgrown his infant fat, stumbled into her vision. He was small for his age, while she was normal sized, but for once he wasn’t frowning at her as she lorded it over him.
Kezia opened her eyes and quickly looked down, but the words remained the same. She swore, pursing her lips in thought. So, either this enchantment was not led by thought or desire, or the memory wasn’t strong enough to fool it. She sighed and stood, repacking it and her food and starting off again. There was no use staring at it all day and losing light. Still, as she walked she played the words over in her mind. There was no literal bridge between Middle Territory and…well, no one even knew if Seraphim existed, let alone where. The next closest thing would be the Atayharans, but only because they boasted of it so loftily. But again, no actual bridge built over water or land. The Gold Mountains were the natural borders, though the Bone Wall was perhaps thickest in that direction.
A sound yanked her from her thoughts and she stopped, automatically sinking slightly into a defensive stance, one arm out to defend her as her head turned to look another way, other arm on the handle of her long knife at her back. It could be an animal, but the sudden silence following the rustle was too suspicious to be nature minding its own business. Kezia forced her breath to remain even and unlabored, so that it barely reached even her ears, scanning the dense foliage rapidly. And then another scuffle, closer, from off of her left shoulder, just out of her sight. She twisted. Another scuffle, louder still.
An odd, high-pitched yet gruff yelp and a steel grip met her forearm as it came swinging up, her blade glinting in the light. But both froze after that, Kezia gritting her teeth and pushing her weight into the man, trying to loosen his grip. He didn’t move. She looked up.
“What the–” she started, loudly, before he spoke over her.
“Easy, Kez,” he said, the strength of both his tone and grip surprising her into obediently closing her mouth. But she did glare. He sighed. “I followed you, I don’t think you should be doing this alone.”
She scoffed. “And you’re going to, what, protect me? You?” a twinge of guilt went through her at the hurt flickering in his eyes, and she noted her unnecessarily disdainful tone. It didn’t make it untrue, however, Keinan was not half the warrior she was.
“Besides, you don’t have an ounce of belief,” he smirked. This just reaffirmed her own thoughts, though.
“No,” she said flatly, leaving no room for discussion. But damn her, if Keinan wasn’t famous for arguing with her.
“I’m already here,” he pointed out.
She bit back a scream of frustration that only her twin could illicit. She opened her mouth to have a retort more fitting of her status, when his eyes cut from her to the side and he frowned. She immediately stiffened and shifted her focus. “What?” she murmured, turning slightly to look over her shoulder. She saw nothing, and turned back to him with a mixture of concern and annoyance.
“Your bag is glowing,” he said slowly, but his voice squeaked at the end as though in question. Kezia frowned and pulled it off of her shoulder, but it looked its normal worn brown to her. She leaned forward, eyes narrowed as if she could know what the hell was wrong with Keinan just by scrutinizing him. He seemed to ignore her, taking the bag from her still fingers and opening it carelessly. Normally, this would annoy her–and he knew that–but instead Kezia just continued to watch him root through her things, apparently led by whatever he saw. Her eyes widen and she felt her body straighten in surprise when he pulled out a flimsy scrap of burnt yellow.
“That’s just something from Rachel,” Kezia explained quietly, uncomfortably unsure of how her brother would react. But he just nodded, imitating a response despite not registering her words since his eyes didn’t leave the paper. “Well?” Kezia tried sharply, getting impatient. Her foolish brother was playing with superstition while he burned her travel time. He wasn’t fond of traveling, especially the less he knew about the journey or destination, and especially when it was Kezia by herself.
“Don’t you see this?” he finally looked up earnestly, straightening the paper between them. Kezia glanced down, a sigh already bubbling in her throat, but it froze and would have choked her if her lips hadn’t parted in shock.
Where there had only been one vague line of writing, there now were five faint lines, too blurred and light to make out, and three bold ones below them, in that same inexplicably fresh ink Kezia had seen alone.
“’Three to tie the three divided,” Kezia began slowly, hardly believing her own eyes.
“’One the least, but believes beyond all,” Keinan followed with more strength, and Kezia felt the beginnings of foreboding in her stomach. “‘One which steps from lowly to light,’” he finished when she didn’t continue. He looked at her across the paper and…smiled.
Kezia just raised an eyebrow, still trying to process that there actually was some…not magic. It couldn’t be full magic, but something. This paper had traces of something. “What about the other lines?” she pointed out, already sensing Keinan’s imagination running wild. He shrugged, but not discouraged.
“More to unlock I guess. It seems like a list, like the instructions aren’t finished,” he said easily, as if this was normal. Kezia asked as much, to which he simply folded the paper and handed it back to her.
“In every story we know, no matter what it says about the others, magic is always unpredictable and has its own logic. This makes sense, then.”
She looked at him dubiously. “No, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, probably not to you,” he smirked. “But you’ve never been able to even think outside the box, Kez,” he chuckled. “And anyway, don’t be so upset. We have a direction now. At the very least, this will give us a few days of having some idea of where to start, since I know you had none before.”
“Us?” Kezia said slowly, not wanting to finish the question she already dreaded the answer to. He nodded.
“Yes, I’m coming with you. You need me. It was blank until I showed up, that can’t be coincidence.” Kezia opened her mouth to protest, but Keinan had already moved past her, sliding the paper gently into a fold in his shirt as he stepped over a root. She grit her teeth, ready to deliver a sharply worded, personal retort at her brother and damn his hurt feelings because they both knew he was terrible out here. But he looked back at her, triumphant grin suddenly replaced by an expression that was unreadable. He’d never looked like that, not to her.
“I was going to follow you anyway, magic or not,” he said. “I’m not going to just wait there for you to never come back.”