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In the world of The World of Acuthan

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Chapter 3

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Dawn broke and Joziah awoke feeling more relaxed and refreshed than he thought he would, given the experience of the previous night. He was grateful his uncle had stayed at his house; he needed his help more than anything right now.

He washed and dressed for the journey ahead. They had packed supplies the evening before so there was not much left for it but to eat a quick breakfast and step from the house whilst the light was still low. They had agreed not to leave in the night, as if seen that could have caught suspicion from those that were the enemies of the Koushan Mai, and there were many of them, even in the country of Kaien. A dawn departure would look much more like an outing for the two men as they had often taken together over many years. The Red Hand's reach was only marginally hindered by national borders. Their organisation was simply less overt in those countries that so far, at least, had not passed laws forbidding Koushan Mai worship. And wherever they chose to act, the brutality was the same, and was not distinctive between male and female or adult and child. Following last night's vision he was now concerned that the fate of his family may, after all, be an example of that. Perhaps Shel is right he considered.

No sign of Shel.

He needed her too; he ached for her touch and words. And the loss of his daughter's sweet face and smile felt as harsh to him as the effects of his latest nightmarish vision. He yearned to go to Rossia's and speak to his wife, but as well as the low chance of succeeding in a reconciliation when the subject was still so raw, he also knew that this would only increase any danger for them. The emotion from witnessing the nature of his possible sister's and brother's deaths seared across his mind again like the sword that took their heads. He could not risk the life of his child. After supreme effort he suppressed the thought as much as he could, but he knew he must explore the vision for some meaning; one which had taken him closer than ever to the events of twenty-three years ago.

His previous visions had always involved witnessing, from a distance, the flight of his family from their home in southern Caillah to the ice caves concealed beneath the mountain range known as The Teeth. In later visions he entered the caves in pursuit of his mother. He had progressively got closer to her, but ultimately she had always slipped away. That is until last night. Evan had explained that dreaming of his mother was a sign that he felt a lack of control over his life and he needed to focus on integrating more with his community. He was well liked but he needed to make more effort. Whilst Joziah felt that lack of control, he believed there was far more to it than that. And besides he knew the difference between a dream and a vision.

His uncle had explained that Jandar, his father, was known as Koushan Mai and pushed for their rights to be re-established and honoured. He knew the dangers but he considered the cause too great to be swallowed up by the risks that he and his family faced. But he had pushed too far. Openly humiliating a member of the Caillan nobility, even if a minor one, in a fit of frustration-cum-anger sealed his and his family's fate. They became open targets with no fear of any action against their assassins. There was no choice but to leave. The inevitable alternative was torture and death.

Fillian did not know how, but they had a refuge available to them in the country of Kaien in the town of Kalithe, where Joziah had lived his entire life since. With the help of others they managed to secretly leave their home town of Shanveu. Unfortunately not all their friends were beyond the intimidation of Red Hand agents and once informed of the Kai family's departure, the hunt began. They only had a deficit of four days to make up.

The mountains that formed the border between Serukis and Kaien in this southern region were not passable at this stage of winter. But Jander and Kailin knew of a secret way, a series of linked ice caves at the southern end of the range known only to some Koushan Mai. The same caves now vivid in the mind of Joziah.

There was one thing that Fillian could not explain to Joziah about the journey of his family. Why was he not with them? His uncle could only tell him that Jandar pleaded with him to take the baby Joziah along a different, longer route. With help and no small amount of good fortune, Fillian succeeded in his task only to later find out about the apparent deaths of all the other family members. Fillian himself had sacrificed his own marriage to fulfil the wish of his brother. A sacrifice that Joziah would never forget.

Although Joziah had now finally resolved to take this journey and search for his family, he still felt little control over his situation. He was simply moving through it like an actor in a play, his lines written by someone else.  He had always believed that his mother was communicating with him, building up images and the journeys route, like a map gradually inked directly onto his mind's eye. But last night's vision had him doubting that and it now felt much more like manipulation than guidance. It frightened him.

Finally ready, the two men gathered their packs and set out. As the key clicked in the lock, Joziah heard the closure on his past life.

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The night had been cold and uncomfortable for the heavily grey-cloaked figure now squatting down in amongst the flower beds. It was expected that a vigil would be required throughout the whole night, but that did not provide any additional protection against the bitingly cold air.

But now just as dawn was approaching the quarry emerged. Two men dressed and equipped for a long trek, quietly padded along the dirt track now full of ruts from countless years of wagons entering and leaving the old market town. To the untrained eye they looked normal enough, two men embarking on a fishing trip perhaps to grab a few days away from the rigours of their lives, and the attentions of their loved ones. But to the trained eye they were trying just that bit too hard to look natural.

As they passed the garden concealing the cloaked figure one of the men cocked his head towards it and breathed more deeply through his nose. Am I discovered? Muscles tensed for unexpected action, the figure watched closely for the first signs.

"What is it Jo?" The older man whispered slowing his pace ever so slightly; a look of concern on his face had it been visible.

Whispering back, the younger of the two replied. "It's nothing uncle. The air is so clear tonight and I like this way out of town. It's nothing, honestly". Despite the poor light, it was enough to glint off the beginnings of a tear in the young man's eye. The two men carried on without losing more than a step.

As muscles relaxed again a resultant cramp shot through the hiding figure's legs born from the long night in the cold. Relieved however, they allowed a long slow sigh to exhale. Upon meeting the still cold air, the expended breath slowed and came together to turn more liquid. The unfortunate effect was a white cloud, but luckily the two men had moved on and could not see it.

Now sure of not being seen or heard, the figure stood and began to walk from the town garden that was planted some five years ago, a community activity that they had taken part in. Stepping through the final line of planting, a subconsciously guided hand gently caressed a blood red bloom that matched the trim of their cloak. The winter rose sprang back from the touch, spraying its distinctive scent more deeply into the cold air.

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