I stalk through a mountainside clearing, the small party of city folk I have guided to this meeting of the Binashim straggle in behind me. They are no longer my concern. I search among faces both familiar and unknown for Diron, the wizened wizard who leads us. While I search, our resistance against the King of Hariyna concerns me in the same way as existence after death — not at all. I am far too consumed by my failure. “We were followed.” I interrupt Diron when I find him. He turns to look at me with gray eyes so dark they match his faded black robes. The lack of emotion in that ancient face strips away all illusions I harbored of his forgiveness. “I tried every trick I know — nearly lost these fools.” I point my thumb back over my shoulder toward my clients. My anger more than makes up for his stoicism. “I couldn’t shake them.” Diron purses his lips, then looks away to address a green-eyed soldier I know only as Imit. “Gather everyone—” A motion in the trees, more sensed than seen, catches my attention. I turn west, squinting into the setting sun. The air fills with flying, burning arrows, then with the cacophony of panic and shrill war cries. “To me!” Diron’s strong, clear voice carries over the noise while I slide away through the crowd despite the tug along my spine, encouraging me to turn back toward him. The language of magic blossoms within the clearing, rolling and spiking and smoking like the land itself, forming a spell. A single crossbow bolt draws my eye. Darker and heavier than the arrows, it flies toward us out of the pale canopy of spring leaves. I raise my bow and release a final arrow, then drop my hands to my sides in surrender. Stepping forward, I present a shield to protect the old wizard behind me. My throat collapses as the bolt punches through, and I stand for a moment, amazed that something so silent as pain can drown out the screaming battle that surrounds me. In the shock of contact, my mind spins out along a thought I rarely stray far from. Home fills my mind, and, despite the miles that separate me from that quiet place, I watch my wife’s head snap upward, nostrils flared in anger. Something hidden beyond the scope of my vision has snagged her attention. Her lips form the shapes to tell our child to stay inside even as she sprints toward whatever threat she has perceived. My heart races in time with her footfalls. The scene dissolves. As my body falls without me, I see the webs that connect us all. A strand running between a man and his lover and another between his lover and his lover’s wife. Fine threads between friends. Thick braids where work and survival reinforce those friendships. Cords between each person and the Universal Spirit of Niysilem, the collective consciousness of the planet which breathes life into every being and will gather every spirit back to themself in the end. Rainbow ropes connect the hearts of the select few who have been Called by aspects of the Universal Spirit to an entity that remains beyond the comprehension of my still-mortal mind. Countless ties of countless strengths between countless people. Three spin out from the center of my awareness, clearer than any others. A line of red, the pure love of blood, runs between myself and my daughter. Five-year-old Mahila, beautiful and Called, though not to my path. I think of her running to me when I return from a trip, feel her weight in my arms as we both wave her mother off on a journey or a job. How many evenings have I spent sitting beside her to chase away the shadows until she falls asleep? I remember her deep brown eyes, still as mirrors, watching me with an understanding that unnerves those who don’t know her. I feel her fingers wrapped in my short braids to calm herself and claim me as her father. The realization that I will never watch her grow into her strength pulls me back down into my body, sends another gushing spout of blood around the bolt in my neck. The bright, iron taste of it fills my mouth. The web fades behind a haze of red, a curtain that ripples and spins into branches and ferns that fly by me as swift as a running deer. I feel my wife’s breath on the back of my neck and stumble. She, Charin, leaps past me over a fallen tree and slips her fists into the double-tipped serkythe that rest at her waist. The metal flashes at her side when her hands swing, bright counterpoint to the rustle of leaves under her feet. Ahead of her, a back appears, leather-clad with pale limbs blinking through the sun dappled forest. The scene dissipates in a rush of confusion, then pain floods all my senses, metallic and sour and silent, and pushes me back out of my body. The haze lifts and I touch the second line, a braid of gold, silver, orange, and green, between myself and my wife. With no formal training, Charin does not recognize how much strength she carries in herself. She cannot see that she is stronger than I could ever become. But the secrets I have kept these last months weigh heaviest, the truths I’ve learned about our world. The excuse of keeping her safe falls away without the weight of my flesh behind it, laying bare my own inability to accept the things I have recently learned. Old promises, rendered meaningless, taunt me. There are so many things I still need to say. I force my way back into my skin and struggle to draw breath around the wooden shaft blocking the passage of air. I fight to make severed nerves force open unresponsive lungs. My body shudders from the effort, and black edges the red mist. In the midst of the haze, I see Charin once more, one blade-wrapped fist connecting with the shoulder of her quarry. Light brown hair and bright red blood float around a pale-skinned Tachiysh face, so stunned that pain doesn’t register. Charin turns into that contact, and her other hand swings through her quarry. Her serkythe slices up from navel to jaw, one curved end hooking the bone and tearing it forward. My soul rips outward, rejecting my failing body. The scene vanishes. The rainbow rope between myself and the Universal Spirit of Niysilem, thicker and warmer than the other two, tugs me back up out of the flesh that I wore in this world. At the far end, I see the Hunter Aspect, androgynous and beautiful and powerful, one rich brown hand resting on the tiger familiar from which we followers take our name. Eyes like bits of the night sky smile sadly down on me, inviting and forgiving. I find no peace in that connection, only longing. In the midst of the battle, Diron, old and powerful, reaches out a hand toward me. The husk, my body without spirit, is transported away from me, to lean against his sandal-clad feet. Power lifts the heavy, white twists of his hair and whips his robes about his legs without touching the crowd that has gathered around him. Every part of the web of flesh that has linked to him, including my body, vanishes. The pressure of air re-entering the space they left knocks several archers from their trees. My mind brushes briefly against a gap in my soul where my sister should be. I reach through my memories for her, but the world shifts around me. My view of the clearing expands and centers on the corpse that still tethers me among the Binashim. I watch them all and reach toward their hearts with thoughts of comfort and strength and heart-rending agony.