Tara blinked and looked around.
Where was she?
When she’d touched the stone, she’d been pulled into a void, like the other teleportation trips. Cold and silence had greeted her.
The first sound she’d heard was the wind, much like she’d heard as a child, blowing across the fields around the farm. This one sang the song of a constant howl, rustling all in its path.
The world had spun into view and Tara found herself standing on a stone road, surrounded by open fields that went to the horizon, where they met distant mountains. The sky above her was a dusty red, almost the shade of sunset, though not peaceful like one. She couldn’t spot the sun. The light of the day seemed everywhere at once.
The wind tossed her loose hair around. She’d worn her hair in her usual fighting style, with the top section pulled into a ponytail to keep it out of her face. The rest hung loose, falling above her shoulders.
The voices in her head started again, louder than before. There were so many of them, words toppled over each other. She couldn’t make sense of any of them.
“Stop!” she yelled. “Shut up!”
No one was around her.
Where in Nirn was she?
This isn’t Nirn.
Tara looked around. Down the road, in the midst of the fields stood a house. Modest in size, it looked to be made of stone, with a roof of wood tiles. Surrounding it were crop fields. No crops grew, though.
Looking again at all the land around her, Tara was struck by how dead everything was. The fields by the house, it looked like a farmhouse with a second glance, were full of long dead crops. Tall stalks of dead wheat, potatoes, and other plants. Some looked burned, others simply dried husks.
The surrounding land was full of dead grass, shrubs, sparsely interrupted by long dead trees. The ground itself was cracked, dry ground, as if the worst drought of an era was in full swing.
Leave, Tara. It’s not safe here.
The constant wind blew warm air, adding to the feeling of a long, dead land.
Tara turned around and looked behind her. More flat land and mountains in the distance. No sign of the strange stone she’d touched. Or of Katla. Or Mira.
Mira. She’d wanted Tara near the stone.
I shouldn’t have listened to her. Shouldn’t have agreed to go to the cave, she thought.
Tara surveyed the land again. Something felt familiar.
She’s coming. You need to leave.
The voices seemed to be growing louder.
…what to do…
…are we finally…
…I feel you…
Tara looked beyond the farmhouse. Past it stood a city, perhaps a kilometer down the road. Old, crumbling walls, and ancient towers were all she could make out. Some of the towers looked to be in ruins. The city architecture felt Breton, but also not. Older? Or some blend of another culture? Something was off about it.
The voices were coming from the city.
…I want to see you…
People were coming from the city.
Get out of here, Tara.
Tara felt herself step back and her hands touched her axes. There was nowhere to go, though. To that farmhouse? She’d never get there before the approaching crowd.
…is it time…
…all my sacrifice…
…does she have it…
…how is she here…
Where to go? Fields, mountains; there seemed to be nothing else besides the farmhouse and city. What lay past the mountains? Could she run to them?
…there you are…
The crowd was unlike any Tara had ever seen. She took a quick count. There were more than a hundred people approaching her. All of them were dark haired, raven black, except for two.
…I feel you…
Nearly all the people seemed to be wearing mage robes of various styles. As they drew close, Tara realized all the robes had the same emblem on them. The tree and sun. The Order of the Fire Queen.
The only two not raven haired led the crowd, as if they were the leaders. Two women. One blonde, the other…
Tara stepped back again. She felt her stomach clench. Her throat ran dry.
The other woman was from her dream. The fire woman. The woman in the painting in her parent’s home. Her namesake. Her ancestor.
The crowd stopped about three meters away. Everyone stood behind Geonette, whispering, except the blonde, who stood by her side. Tara searched her memories for the research, what Katla had written, about the order.
The blonde woman was perhaps the first Breton Tara had met that was actually shorter than her. The woman was thin and petite. Delicate. She had to be Lysona Meric. Geonette’s first or second in command. One of the order’s top leaders.
Lysona’s blue eyes were the most haunted Tara had ever seen. Her face was thin, pale. Hungry. Greedy. There was something else in her eyes. A recognition of sorts.
Lysona was like her, Tara realized. Attracted to women. Tara had never been able to put into words why she knew some women were potentially interested in her, and others only had eyes for men. It’d been something she picked up in their voice, the way they moved, a look in their eyes. A knowing between two people of a special group. Lysona’s eyes held that special aspect.
She looked so hungry, though. Haunted by…something.
Tara turned her gaze to Geonette. She felt her skin go cold. The woman was smiling at her.
“Welcome, Tara,” she said.
Her voice held a sultry tone, a playfulness. Tara felt her skin crawl. Geonette was tall for a Breton woman, having several inches on Tara, and Lysona. Unlike everyone else’s robes, Geonette was dressed in armor, a thick red leather, dark pants, with a steel pauldron running down her left arm, ending in a spiked gauntlet. A protective steel band with a lion’s crest sat across her chest, covering her heart.
Geonette’s hair color was the same as Tara’s, a striking dark red that shone as fire in bright light. Her eyes were green, too, though of a paler shade than Tara’s. Tara’s eyes had a ring of blue around their edges. Geonette’s did not.
Her eyes didn’t have that special aspect Lysona’s held, either. They were the most intense Tara had ever peered into, though. They were also cruel.
Captain Havilguss’ face floated in Tara’s mind. His eyes had been cruel.
“Does she have the stone?” someone in the crowd asked.
Geonette’s face flickered to annoyance. She held her hand up, as if to silence everyone. The crowd stopped whispering.
She kept her eyes on Tara, tilted her head slightly, and breathed in deeply.
“No, she doesn’t,” she said. “She’s touched it, though.” Her voice had a curious tone.
Geonette closed her eyes and reached out a hand toward Tara, as if she were feeling the air around her. A memory of Katla floated into Tara’s mind. The first time she’d seen her, standing in Dead Man’s Drink, looking for a table.
Geonette opened her eyes. A slow grin spread across her face.
“What are the odds?” she said. “You and her.”
Tara caught her breath. She knew about Katla. Had the woman read her mind? That wasn’t possible.
“How’d she get here?” Lysona asked Geonette. Lysona’s voice was high and frail. Her eyes stayed planted on Tara.
“Good question,” Geonette said. “I do wonder which anchor you found.”
An image of the cave and barrier floated into Tara’s mind.
“Ah,” Geonette said.
Tara stepped back. “Stay out of my mind!” she said. How was the woman reading it?
“So much anger,” Geonette said. She sounded amused.
“So much…” A wider grin spread across Geonette’s face. “…pain.”
Memories flooded Tara’s mind. She found herself on her knees. Flashbacks hit her, one after the other.
The first time she remembered Mira using a Calm spell on her. Mira leaving home for good. The first boy who touched her against her will. The look in Ginette’s eyes at the Buckingsmith’s. The first time Father beat her. All the other beatings. The fight with Shum gro-Ulfish. Riser kicking her out of the Synod Conclave. The bear attack on her first day in Skyrim.
Rorikstead. The entire night played out in slow motion.
Freta. The bandits. Seeing the arrow in her neck. Knowing she couldn’t save her. Freta drawing her last breath.
The memories wouldn’t stop. As each shifted, Tara was there again, reliving these most terrible of moments. She heard Captain Havilguss’ voice. Felt his breath. She heard her father telling Mom to get a scroll. Freta was shaking her head one last time, reaching up to touch her.
All the emotions slammed into Tara. The terror, anger, confusion, guilt, grief.
Tara heard screaming and realized she was screaming. Her voice cracked and she tried to catch her breath. She was on her hands and knees now, her nose almost touching the stones from this ancient road.
“I can bring her back, Tara,” Geonette whispered. She had knelt down next to Tara. Tara flinched, crawled backwards, away from her.
“I’ll bring Freta back for you,” Geonette said. “I’ll even spare Katla for you.”
“GET OUT OF MY MIND!”
“When the time comes, don’t fight me, and I’ll bring her back for you,” Geonette said. She stood and stepped closer to Tara.
Tara tried to stand, but more flashbacks hit. Norring’s punch and her shattered nose. Argas kicking her out of the College of Whispers. The Augur’s warning to stop pursuing magic. Katla leaving her.
Varro. Plunging the knife into his neck.
“You’re not ready yet,” Geonette said. “Have Katla give back the stone. Don’t fight me when I come for you, and I’ll let her live.” Geonette was staring down at Tara, a smile across her face.
“So much pain. You’re perfect. Better than I imagined,” she said. “One day, you’ll be free from it all.” Her tone sounded happy.
Geonette stepped back from her. “Not today, though, my little catalyst.”
Her voice turned to ice. “Don’t try to return here.”
Geonette snapped her fingers and Tara felt the void again.