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Side A – Yasgrid
Leaving the road took only a single step but that single step spanned a distance across the world and to the stars and back.
“Breathe,” Kyra said. “The first step’s the hardest.”
“And the most dangerous?” Yasgrid asked, letting Kyra support part of her weight.
“No. Things are going to get worse from here.”
Yasgrid did as she was told an breathed in deeply, catching the breath that she hadn’t noticed she’d lost.
What she drew into her lungs sparkled and bit. Something told her it wasn’t exactly air, but the strange tingling it filled her chest with also didn’t provoke the wracking coughs it should have.
That was almost certainly a bad sign.
“Let’s go. I’ll keep up,” Yasgrid said, glancing in the direction Kyra was facing.
Kyra narrowed her eyes, searching Yasgrid’s expression for something Yasgrid couldn’t identify. Whether Yasgrid passed the test, or there simply wasn’t time to perform a proper evaluation wasn’t clear, because Kyra turned without saying a words and pulled Yasgrid forward, moving with the sort of speed and aerial mastery that Yasgrid wouldn’t have believed existed had she only seen the world through a Stoneling’s eyes.
Kyra provided no warning when she was going to leap, either trusting Yasgrid’s reflexes to allow her to keep up or feeling certain that she could carry the both of them if that was needed.
The forest the Lost Road ran through was not populated with trees, and the things which formed the its branching, twisted mass craved the light in Yasgrid’s eyes and the last of her blood.
Pushing off from a trunk the color of a bruise, Yasgrid felt its spongy surface deform into grasping fingers. She and Kyra soared away, hurtling through the air as fast as Yasgrid had run when she chased down the Trouble with Kayelle, linear speed turning into the best approximation of flight that a land bound creature could manage.
It wasn’t enough.
The deeper into the forest they moved, the more Yasgrid could see that even Kyra’s athleticism wasn’t going to keep them safe.
They landed on another trunk together, and Yasgrid’s right foot slipped into the maw that had opened in its surface. The creature had been waiting for her. It knew she would come to it. Mad voices that were all her own screamed to Yasgrid for safety and wailed at her inescapable demise.
Kyra hurled her forwards and they spun around the center point of their closed hands.
The blurring world around them left only Kyra’s face in focus for a long weightless moment and Yasgrid recovered a bit of herself.
The forest was deadly, and it was aware of them, but the edge of panic that had been leaking into Yasgrid’s thoughts wasn’t driven by that. The forest hadn’t set her nerves screaming, it was simply the only thing she could perceive to embody the terror that she felt.
In Kyra’s eyes, she saw a hard edge of determination. They weren’t where they were supposed to be, they were trespassers in a realm apart from any they’d been created to survive.
Yasgrid was the first to land on the next trunk, which let her catch Kyra in her arms and hurl them both forwards.
The force of the leap didn’t matter. The speed they sailed from trunk to trunk wouldn’t save them.
All that mattered was that they fought for their lives.
All that mattered was that they wanted to live more than everything around them wanted them to die.
Side B – Nia
Death flared up from Nia’s soul.
Not anger. Anger could cool.
Not rage. Rage drove the one who carried it mindless.
The Shale Shard band wasn’t winning.
They weren’t even competing.
Competition required an agreement between those who contested against one another.
Even the bloody brawls Nia had fought against the Roadies had been governed by an unspoken set of rules. They’d beat her, she’d beat them, but the fights were limited to one-on-one affairs and only between people who’d been mutually aggressive towards each other.
Because the Roadies were decent people.
They roughed her up, but no worse than what she did to them.
They didn’t break her.
They didn’t hide in a crowd and pile on in the middle of what should have been a fair struggle.
Nia watched as Margrada fought back against another round of assaults. Her drum was literally shining with captured light, the thunder from inside it shattering the sounds that strove to knock her down.
It might have been because she was the only one being pressed that hard, or maybe it was just a sign of how good she was, but Margrada was weaving such an intricate and powerful rhythm that the rest of the Frost Harbor Shatter Band was swept up and began following her lead.
Nia heard Osdora’s drums surge with radiant crashes, paralleling but not overtaking Margrada’s efforts. It was a superlative performance but not one anyone could have sustained.
Margrada missed the timing on a beat and the blow that slipped through slammed her hand down hard enough to crack bone.
Nia’s heart screamed.
If only she could have been there. If only she was sitting beside Margrada. She could have reached over. She could have been Margrada’s hands.
She could have stopped this.
“I still can.”
Nia felt like something shifted inside her.
She’d had too much experience with being broken recently.
This wasn’t the loss of something.
She wasn’t giving up.
Not on Margrada.
Not on herself.
Clarity without detachment filled her.
What she saw before her was wrong.
The drummers in the audience were wrong.
“I need to borrow something,” she said, and didn’t wait for Yasgrid’s reply.
Within her heart, fire roared to life as the Trouble woke.
Troubles came from problems which could not be solved, and could not be abandoned.
They were incarnate screams, wreathed in magic and driven by inexorable purpose.
No Stoneling, with one exception that Nia knew of, had ever seen their like before.
She laughed as the Trouble’s fire leapt from her heart to her eyes.
No Stoneling had ever seen her like either.
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