Dala brushed pale hair back from the sleeping child’s face, her touch light as a whisper. She’s so little, she thought, for the hundredth time. We shouldn’t have brought her.
Which was nonsense. Truth be told, Dala wasn’t sure they could have left her behind if they’d tried. The girl was a prodigy; barely seven years old, and more raw magical power than most wizards achieved with a lifetime of study. The Builder had needed her help to complete the spell that got them to the floating city in the first place – and if she were being honest with herself, Dala knew they’d needed the child’s support in the fights they’d been in since then, too. We’d have been slaughtered today, if not for her.
Dala had a pragmatic approach to magic. Her god, Olidammara, had gifted her with a few small tricks as a reward for devotion, but she knew nothing of how they worked. How any of it worked. If a spell existed and someone in her party could cast it, she could find a use for it – but she never pretended to understand it. So when the Builder had arisen, glowing blue, after falling in battle – when he stared at them with empty, uncomprehending eyes – when he attacked, his magic knocking them aside as easily as a child might toss a doll – she’d been helpless. All she could do was fight, for all the good her sword had been against the power that had lanced through her, breaking her apart.
She watched her father kill her mother, then helped her mother kill her father.
The next part was a blur. She’d been there, she knew – four of her had been there, and she hadn’t been sure which one was really her. All she knew was that she was dead, the Builder had killed her, and yet she was still there, still fighting, and they had to kill the Builder before he killed them all. She remembered Celia’s voice, high and terrified, screaming commands to them while she worked some desperate ritual with the – thing – the stone, the jewel, whatever it was, that the Builder had entrusted to her. She weakened him, Dala remembered, enough for the rest of them to put an end to the fight. Then when it was over… then, she’d been dead for real…
Not permanently, of course. Of course not. Hieza’s grasp of his own god’s magics was too strong for that. When you traveled with the little gnome, death was never final. A burden, maybe. An inconvenience. Never an end. And is it better or worse, that Celia seems to be grasping that fact? My gods, if that isn’t a terrible lesson to teach a child. “Other people have to worry about death, sweetie, but not us. We’re too special.” Dala shook her head in disgust, brushing another stray hair from the girl’s face.
She wasn’t theirs, not really. Her actual family was dead – dead, and most likely past any possibility of resurrection, judging from the soul-devouring monstrosities they’d found roaming the deserted town. One more charge to lay at the feet of the Emperor, whose experiments had thinned the fabric between realities and let who-knows-what leak through. Celia had been the only survivor. They’d kept her, at the time, because there really wasn’t anything else to do with her – and because, with the Emperor’s armies marching north, their stronghold was possibly the safest place for her. By the time they might have found a better home for her, she’d already adopted the Builder as her magical mentor – and Dala as her surrogate mother.
It was all still fun, when we left home the last time. Still just a grand adventure. It wasn’t real yet. If I’d known we would be taking her into something like this, I’d have left her with Mordecai and the rest of the thieves’ guild, and taken our chances without her.
When Hieza brought her back, Dala had seen Celia bending over the Builder’s body. doing something. As far as Dala knew, resurrecting the dead was a secret known only to clerics – and a select few clerics at that – but the girl was obviously doing something. Whatever it was, it worked – Builder, too, slept only a few feet away, regaining his strength for the fight to come.
Dala had talked with her, after. Talked with her, and held her, and didn’t let herself cry. Didn’t comment, either, on the markings on the girl’s face – black lines, like veins, or some sort of obscure writing. They were fading… but they’d been there. She didn’t know enough about magic to know what caused them, or even if they were a cause for concern. Maybe they were normal, with powerful enough spells. She didn’t know. They worried her… but not as much as the marks she couldn’t see. What did it do to a child, she wondered, to constantly see her”family” cut down in front of her? To choose to help kill a man she loved and trusted? For that matter, what did it do to her when she shot fire from her hands, roasting minions alive in their armor? Celia was strong, yes, and Celia was brave and Celia was clever… but Celia was seven. What right did they have, to make her grow up so fast?
And how many children lost their childhoods under the Emperor’s immortal reign? How many were crushed or drowned or burned alive when the planes crashed together? How many were put to the sword, as the Emperor’s armies swept across the north? How many were lost to wander the wilderness and die of exposure when the Cataclysm swallowed whole towns? And before them – how many saw their parents, their brothers and sisters, taken by the Emperor’s men? How many died by inches, growing up, their whole lives ground away from them bit by bit, until they grew into the obedient men and women the Empire wanted them to be?
What is one little girl’s innocence worth, weighed against the chance of stopping him for good?
What is my soul worth?
Dala stroked Celia’s hair again, and wanted to weep.