At first, all Kelven could do was run. He had no purpose, no destination in mind, not even a general sense of where he was running to. He was hardly even aware of the world around him. His mind was still haunted by Ki-Kala’s words, and the way they recalled the image of Prince Jayslen reflected on the watery wall of his dream. Is that my fate? Am I to become like him? A cruel and heartless killer? The thought, while both revolting and terrifying, was also impossible to avoid. It was becoming increasingly clear that he had been irrevocably bound to the Prince, in a way that went far beyond the bloody knife that had brought Jayslen to his own end. There was no escaping it. No matter how far he ran—or how fast—that bond would remain as firm and unbreakable as the manacle on his wrist.
“Damn you!” he cried. Amid the echo of his own, strained voice, Kelven thought he could hear the faintest sounds of laughter. I’m going mad. Completely and utterly mad.
Moments later, he stumbled into a small clearing. At least, it would have been a clearing if it had not been filled with the remains of the Urophex. The sharp, pungent smell threatened to bring up the entire contents of Kelven’s stomach; somehow, he managed to keep it down. The creature’s unmoving, black bulk seemed less imposing than it had when it had been pursuing him through the forest. Kelven did his best to ignore it. Headless and unmoving, the beast could not hurt him now. If this was the indeed spot where he had killed it, however, that meant the lake from which it had sprung would also be nearby. Its still, clear surface would reflect his own visage back at him—allowing him to see whatever it was that the Iria woman had seen. Maybe she had been mistake, he reasoned. Maybe she had seen something other than what he feared and suspected.
Or maybe she had seen exactly what she had described. Green eyes. Emerald eyes. The mark of the Flameborn.
Turning in the direction that he guessed would lead him to the lake, Kelven started running again. He was already growing weary, but forced himself to continue, following what seemed to be the inverse of his mad flight from Urophex. Several times, he passed what he thought to be a familiar looking tree, but familiarity meant nothing here, where everything looked so much alike. He could have been a dozens miles away and still felt that he had passed that way before.
Maybe he would, eventually. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever escape the confines of the Fellwood, or if he was destined to wander endlessly through its eerie stillness. Before he had even finished the thought, a commanding voice shattered that stillness.
“Kelven, stop!” shouted Ki-Kala, gliding into view no more than ten feet in front of him. How did she manage to get ahead of me? Hovering several inches above the ground, with her long, white hair blowing in every direction at once, she had a wild and untamed look about her. Kelven was reminded of a gathering storm, calm and quiet, but ready unleash its fury at any moment. He was struck by the sudden impression that the Iria woman could have knocked him off his feet, and came skidding to a halt before she could do so. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Back to the lake,” he replied, panting heavily. He had not realized that he was so short of breath. “I need to see for myself.”
“You’re going the wrong way.” She pointed to her left, in what Kelven could only assume was an easterly direction. “The pool is over that way. But what are you so worked up about?”
“I’ll tell you after I’ve seen my reflection.”
That dangerous look still flashed in her eyes, and she regarded him with such intensity that he we was sure she would try to stop him. “This way,” she said at last. Kelven breathed a sigh of relief as she turned away, beckoning him to follow as she set off through the trees. She seemed to glide more than walk. While his own footsteps echoed softly through the forest, Ki-Kala did not make a sound. As he watched her, he could have sworn that her feet never touched the ground, as though cushioned by a thin carpet of air. Shaking his head, he looked away, wondering if he would ever grow accustomed to her strangeness.
It was only a matter of minutes before they broke free of the trees and found themselves gazing down over the crystalline lake. It looked just as it had when Kelven first found it: calm and undisturbed, like one great sheet of glass, perfectly mirroring the surrounding landscape. Standing there gazing down upon it, Kelven could almost imagine another world hidden beneath its still, unbroken surface, a world that somehow reflected his own. And in that world, another storyteller would be standing on another hill, looking down at the other side of this same lake. What would his eyes look like?
Kelven needed to know.
With greater care than he had shown the last time he had approached these waters, he began his slow, gradual descent. Using petrified tree trunks and leafless branches to stabilize himself, he took the time to consider every measured step, until finally he set his feet on the stony shore, looking out over the still, smooth waters.
Now that he was there, he hesitated. He wanted to see the truth for himself, but he found that he was also afraid—afraid to look, afraid of what he would find gazing back at him.
“We’re here,” said Ki-Kala, somewhere behind him. “What are you waiting for?”
He did not respond. In truth, he did not know what to say. He felt frozen in place, unable to take the last step that could confirm the terrible reality that everything he had ever been, everything he had ever known himself to be was changing forever. Killing the Prince had changed his life. He had known that, of course. But this, this was something else entirely. As a simple and unremarkable man, there would have been a chance—however slim—that he could have hidden from the Queen’s wrath. If what he feared was true, however, there would be no hiding. His eyes would mark him as surely as they had marked Jayslen and all of the other Flameborn.
Slowly, he lowered himself to his knees. Taking one deep breath to help steady his nerve, he eased himself forward until he was leaning out over the water, looking upon his own, unfamiliar reflection. He hardly recognized the man staring back at him. His face was gaunt, and his normally smooth cheeks were covered by a scraggily and unkempt beard. Neither of those changes mattered at the moment. Ki-Kala had spoken true. His eyes, which had been a greyish blue since childhood, were indeed dotted with swirling flecks of bright, emerald green.
He had seen eyes like this before, once many years earlier. His mother had taken him with her when she went entertain the court of some minor Lord. For some reason, he could never remember which one, or even what province it had been in. All he could ever remember was the girl whose eyes had looked just like those he was now seeing in his own reflection. As the Lordling’s own daughter, everyone had been fawning over her. Only a boy himself, and painfully ignorant of the boundaries of social decorum, Kelven had approached her with questions and an open curiosity, at least until he had been firmly reprimanded by one of the ladies hovering like vultures over the poor child. At the time, he had been left with the distinct impression that the girl would have liked nothing more than to escape the tedium of her circumstances. He had never had another opportunity to ask her. Later, his mother had explained that girl had only just started to recover from the Burning Fever, and that soon she would be accepted as one of the Flameborn.
It had been a fever not unlike his own.
So that’s it, he thought. I’m going through the Second Birth. It seemed undeniable. Even if his eyes and fever were not evidence enough, there was still the otherwise impossible reality that he had somehow managed to kill the Urophex. He recalled the moments after it had happened, how he had thought that only someone with the power of the Flameborn could have slain the monster. Now, as he pulled away from the lake—and the stranger he had seen reflected there—he very nearly laughed. He had been right. It had been the power of the Flame that had saved his life. Only it had not come from some unexpected saviour; nor had it come from the Queen herself.
It had come from him. The power that had destroyed the Fellwood’s spidery nightmare was flowing through him.
And he had no idea how to control it.