PART ONE: THE OUTCASTS
Lora was considering how to approach Dav with the information that his daughter was an Apath. It wasn't something he would readily believe, especially without proof, yet it was vital for all their futures in Heltala that he not only accept the truth, but be willing to convince the elders of the town of it as well.
A demonstration was the most logical course of action, but Eya was so frightened by her powers that Lora didn't think she would be able to perform on demand. Beside that, it was dangerous. Any magic she unleashed would be out-of-control. The first time, she had demolished a candle. Who knew what might happen on the next occasion? Nevertheless, the only way to prove an Apath's talents was by a magical display of some sort, and one that couldn't be produced through chicanery.
Lora had put off telling Dav. He had arrived home a half-hour ago, looking grim and dour as always, and asking if "anything new" had happened while he was out. She had told him no, and he had gone on to describe in grisly detail the scene in the center square. Then, accompanied by Reg, he went to check on the fledgling crop of fall vegetables that were sprouting in what remained of Lora's garden in the valley.
Lora cradled her baby in her arms while Eya sat motionless on her pallet, her legs tucked under her chin, staring into space. Her silent refusal to accompany her father and brother on their daily twilight trek was unusual, but if Dav had noticed anything odd in her behavior, he hadn't mentioned it. Lora was inclined to believe that after the birth of Mora, he had given up looking after all his children. Eya's despondency wasn't something he would observe, and, if he did, it was questionable whether he would care.
"Eya, would you like to hold your sister?" asked Lora, trying to coax the girl out of her stillness. Of them all, Lora included, Eya seemed the most taken by Mora. She was forever picking up the child, humming and singing to her, and stroking her downy hair. Not this evening, however. A fractional shake of the head was Eya's only response. Her attention remained fixed on something beyond the confines of the house.
After a moment's consideration, Lora deposited her daughter amidst a sea of blankets, then went to sit by Eya. Draping a comforting arm around the younger girl's shoulders, Lora said, "This is not something you can run away from. You will have to learn to live with it, for good or ill."
"Isn't there any way I can get rid of it?" asked Eya. She began chewing on her lower lip.
"No. And there will come a time when you will be glad that you cannot. I know that is hard to believe and understand now, but there is no greater honor in all of Devforth than to be an Apath. Even kings are not so well-received."
Although unconvinced, Eya nodded. Lora could see the tears pooling in her eyes. She wished she had some nugget of wisdom to offer her friend, but her thoughts were blank. And the difficult part - facing Dav with the truth - lay ahead. His unpredictable reaction might range from stoic acceptance to violence.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. It was a light, staccato rap, entirely unlike Dav's. While a visitor to the house was unusual, one coming at this hour, when dusk was descending and the streets of Heltala were emptying, was unheard of. With trepidation, Lora rose to answer the door, wondering what reason anyone could have for calling this late in the day.
The moment the bolt was drawn back and the latch released, the door was thrown open with enough force to stagger the elf. A hooded figure crossed the threshold, then slammed shut the door behind it. As Lora moved to intercept the intruder, she was dealt a blow to the face that sent her sprawling, stunned senseless, blood oozing from a broken nose.
The figure was human or human-like, although short and stooped. He wore typical village garb, but with a cowled cape that concealed his features in shadow. In his right hand, he brandished a curved dagger, the craftsmanship of which made it clear that it had not be fashioned in Haven, nor in any town with only a small forge and ill-trained blacksmiths.
Three candles were lit inside and the intruder moved to extinguish two, both on a table to the immediate left of the entrance. The third, resting on the floor next to Eya, he ignored. Once the level of light in the room was diminished, he turned to the elf lying prone by his feet. One thumb scraped across the edge of his blade, as if testing its sharpness. Then, slowly and deliberately, he lifted the weapon high above his head, preparing to drive it into Lora's breast.
Eya, who had been silent for the first part of the tableau, suddenly let out a piercing shriek. Startled, the intruder turned to her. He took two steps toward her before stopping, lowering the knife, then raising it again, as if caught in a paroxysm of indecision. He waved the blade in her direction, making several cuts in the air, but his uncertainty stripped the action of menace. Eya continued to scream, her voice powered by a pair of seven-year-old lungs.
Meanwhile, a dazed Lora was struggling to her feet, blood smearing the left side of her face. She got to her feet as quietly as she could, then, fingers bent into claws, she attacked from behind.
The man let out a grunt of surprise when he felt Lora's light weight impact his back. Although staggered, he did not lose his footing, but the elf had leaped upon him, like a cat riding a horse, her fingers tearing at his face, seeking his eyes.
He flung himself backward against the nearest wall, crushing Lora between his back and the hard stone. Her head struck the unyielding surface with a thud and, once she was no longer pinned, her body crumpled to the ground where she lay motionless.
Lora dispatched, the intruder advanced upon the baby. Eya, seeing the way he gripped the knife and realizing what he intended, leapt to her feet and rushed at him, the high-pitched force of her screams never abating. But the strength of a girl, even enhanced by fear and anger, was no match for him. He grabbed both her wrists then drove his knee into her stomach. She doubled over, gasping and choking, hands clutching at her abdomen, while black spots danced before her vision. The screaming stopped.
Calmly, the intruder looked down at the baby, who was cooing and playfully flailing her arms and legs around. His single blow with the knife was sure and swift and Mora never uttered so much as a feeble death cry. Her eyes glazed over and her limbs went limp as the dagger sliced through her flesh and into her heart. Once the deed was done, the man removed the knife from its fleshy sheath and wiped it off on one of the baby's blankets.
The front door banged open and Dav stalked into the room, his son behind him. "What the hell is all that yelling about! And why isn't this door..." His voice trailed off as he registered the sight in front of him: Lora struggling weakly on the floor, Eya on her knees, coughing and choking, and a cloaked figure bent over the still form of his newest child.
The intruder took advantage of Dav's momentary startlement to flee the house, knocking both him and Reg aside as he ran outside. The boy moved to follow, but Dav grabbed his son's arm and commanded him to see to his twin. He set off in pursuit himself.
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