Sage

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The trees smelled of ash and morning mist. Morie wouldn't let herself smell their despair.

Despair. What an interesting notion—one that Empress Izumi would never accept. After all, trees couldn't feel something so distinctly human—something so raw. But Morie felt their chi constricting, felt the waning of their life's energy as the serrated saw cut through the trunk like it was cutting through her own bone.

She had always felt chi dying, even when she hacked away vines and poisonous plants. Even when she tried and failed to keep the pain off her face. She stepped back as the tree fell, the shadow rippling and splitting as the behemoth crashed to the ground at her feet, scattering crisped and dead winter leaves onto her boots.

Danno wiped sweat from his freckled forehead and nodded at her, looking away as soon as their eyes met. His were flecked with blue. Sky blue. The sky had been blue when Izumi called Morie back from the front last week, but it hadn't stayed that way for long. "Apologies, my lady. I didn't see that you'd returned."

"I would've died by now if I couldn't avoid a falling tree, don't you think?" Her eyes lingered on Danno, who still held the saw with his scarred hands.

An experiment, Morie, just a little one, the empress had said. If I can extract chi from these trees, I can use that chi to help us win the war.

If only she'd asked, and Morie would have told her you couldn't harvest chi from things that are no longer alive — could no longer breathe.

Of course, Izumi didn't believe trees breathed at all.

Morie held up a hand, and the men and women in her squad swarmed to her like flies around a rotting carcass. And to some of them, she might as well have been a carcass. She was replaceable—could have been anyone else who fell at Izumi's feet.

"I don't know where Izumi is going to put this tree. Do you think her suites are big enough?"

She was rewarded with a few weak chuckles. She bent down and wiped off some tree resin, sliding it between her fingers. The sun beat down on her head as she glanced into the forest, wishing she could revel in the smooth shadows and cool breeze. She tried not to stare for too long, for her squad already thought her strange.

Her eyes found Riku, her second-in-command, and he gave her a slight nod despite the flicker of fear she saw on the others' faces. Riku would never act afraid. His bloody, chewed lips said otherwise. She longed to see the gap between his two front teeth. But that only appeared when he smiled, and right now, he didn't have a lot to smile about.

Her squad would follow her into the forest because they had to, but fear of the Everdeep and what it might contain was almost more powerful than loyalty.

Fear. Like despair, a powerful tool. Especially as an illusionist.

Morie reached for her chi, drawing it up. She crafted the illusion carefully in her mind before she expanded her senses out, making sure every detail—every glint of sun and wash of warm breeze felt real. Then she inclined her head toward the forest, where a patch of light now filtered through the canopy. More sun than they had seen out on the plains all day.

"See, the forest is welcoming you. And we would certainly stay dryer," she said.

Danno grunted. "I would rather be wet and miserable than face those beasts."

Morie sighed and let her illusion dissipate. It hadn't convinced them that the Everdeep wouldn't harm them. Not even close.

"What now?" Riku asked.

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