- 1 -
“Give me your hand,” I said. I knelt in front of the splintered window frame, careful not to trip over any stone fragments. Two brown eyes stared up at me, wide with terror. The boy couldn’t have been older than twelve. I forced a smile, hoping it made me look less menacing. Or at least hid my impatience.
The kid wavered, running a hand back through his sand-colored hair. His eyes darted between the street and my outstretched hand. Finally, he reached out and clasped it, fingers curling around the black leather of my glove.
“I’ve got you,” I said, lifting him out of the damaged house. “Was there anyone else inside?” He shook his head in response.
I rose to my full height and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “You’re safe now. Captain Karalis will make sure you get out of the city.” I guided him across the street towards a tall woman who was giving orders to a pair of Knights.
All three of them were dressed in silver plate armor, the bright blue capes draped behind them a sharp contrast with the drab browns and grays of the street around them. I fingered the rough linen of my own brown cloak, painfully aware that it stood out from the local style. The Knights didn’t seem to mind; they were used to outsiders in Merindor.
Knight-Captain Elysia Karalis broke off her conversation when she saw me approach. Her dark eyes glanced at me before fixating on the boy. She stood calm and collected with her helmet tucked under her shoulder, revealing short black hair that barely covered her ears.
I caught my right hand reaching for the back of my neck. I felt exposed without the warrior’s braid I had worn for years, but I couldn’t afford my hair getting in the way. “Found him in the house back there,” I told her. “That should be the last one.”
She nodded her thanks and then knelt to be on eye-level with the kid. “Hi, I’m Elysia,” she said, taking off her gauntlet and offering her tan-skinned hand.
The boy eyed it warily. “Where’s Marcus?” he asked.
Elysia’s lips tightened. “General Marcus is busy elsewhere. Where are your parents?”
The boy chose to stare at his feet instead.
She stood and turned towards one of the Knights. “Andris, take him to the caravan. Give him some food and see if anybody recognizes him.”
The man brushed the ends of his bushy mustache and smiled. “Come on lad, let’s get you something warm to drink.” The boy looked at him for a moment, then the two of them turned and walked down the street together. The second Knight saluted and at a nod from the captain, followed along behind.
“Did something happen to your General?” I asked as soon as I judged they were out of earshot. “He seems pretty well-liked around here.”
Elysia winced. “He was with the bulk of our troop at the Morning Gate.”
Ouch. I had felt the blast from all the way across the city. It was difficult to see the eastern rim through all the two and three story buildings, but all reports – what scarce few there were – said the area near the gate had been reduced to a smoldering crater. I still felt the sickening remnants of Shadow Magic. That had been one of the most powerful spells I have ever sensed, and I only knew of one fiend capable of Shadow Magic on that scale.
Before I knew it, I had slipped my hand inside a buttoned pocket in my tunic. My fingers brushed a small orb, felt the smooth glasslike surface, traced the shallow carvings that interrupted it. It was dangerous to bring the artifact with me, but I didn’t dare leave it behind. It was the key to defeating Icel, to returning home. If only I could figure out how I was meant to use it.
I caught Elysia watching me and hurriedly removed my hand from my tunic. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“For all this.” I swept my arms around. Formerly white brick walls were now marred by cracks and soot. The carefully handcrafted patterns of brown and beige tiles making up the street were interrupted by deep cracks, littered with broken glass and splintered wood. Even the city’s trademark blue slate shingles lay in shattered ruins.
“If I had done something sooner. If I had figured out some way to shut down Icel-“
“Tiernan,” she said, putting her uncovered hand on my forearm. “Icel isn’t in the city.”
“What?” I snapped my gaze back to hers. I glimpsed concern on her face.
Her eyes widened and she let go, turning to break eye contact. “Andris brought the news. There’s no sign of Icel.”
I rubbed the area she had touched. “It had to have been him! If he’s not here, who is leading the assault?”
Elysia’s face hardened. “Word is some man calling himself Jorumgard has taken over the Cathedral. Claims he’s one of Icel’s lieutenants.”
I didn’t recognize the name, but a new face on the scene didn’t bode well at all. If Icel was strengthening his forces, it was going to be even harder to take him down. “The Cathedral? Was anyone else in there?”
“Probably not anymore.” She pulled her gauntlet back on. “Come on, I’ve got a caravan to lead.”
I took a deep breath. Icel wasn’t here. I’d spent weeks trying to find his trail, figure out where he might attack next. I had expected wraiths, liches, undead, all kinds of nasty surprises, but I hadn’t expected this. Icel wasn’t the type of person to delegate power. He was greedy. Self-centered to the point of cannibalizing his own forces if it could give him an edge. He always kept his commanders on tight leash, never trusting them with anything important. This Jorumgard must be someone special.
I reached my hand inside my shirt again, but this time I fingered a pendant hanging around my neck. I’d traced the wires so many times I could picture the silver leaf. Once, three small drops of water hung suspended in the center, sparkling with life and beauty. The water had long since fallen out. That was the day I left her. The day I was forced to leave. Forced to kill Icel if I ever wanted to see her again.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, this time barely a whisper. I had wanted to finish this quickly, but I still had time. There were still four months remaining before the deadline. I hoped she had gotten my message. I hoped she still wanted to come.
“Hey, are you coming?” Elysia was looking back at me, already a dozen paces away.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll be along in a minute.”
The caravan was a hodgepodge of a half-dozen open wagons. Food stores, toolkits, spare parts, extra blankets, all manner of supplies were stuffed in the wagons. People were packed in wherever they could fit. Young children sat on barrels of salted meat. An elderly woman sat on a pile of blankets that had been hurriedly folded and shoved into a corner. An injured man lay clutching his bloodied leg on a pair of sealed crates emblazoned with the silvered open palm insignia of the Order. Others stood, milling around while the last goods were hurriedly stashed on board. I estimated around sixty people in total, including the dozen Knights that stood around the perimeter, watching the streets for any sign of trouble.
Scanning the crowd, I saw all manner of faces. Some were panicked, looking around frantically, trying to peer into every shadow. Others were distraught, bowed in prayer, or openly weeping. I saw one couple holding hands on the back of a wagon. They had dark circles below their eyes, drawn faces staring blankly behind me. Another woman was leaning back against the side of the wagon, head in her hands while four little girls clutched at the torn fabric of her green dress.
I caught sight of the boy I had rescued earlier, sipping from a steaming mug as he stood next to Andris. The man had his hand on the boy’s head while he discussed affairs with a fellow Knight. The boy spotted me looking and I shot him a reassuring smile, but let him be.
“Captain.” A Knight approached. He had pale skin with long black hair dangling over his shoulders. I suspected he had to wax his mustache to get the ends to curl up like that.
“Myron, what is it?” Elysia nodded her head in greeting. I stopped a dozen paces back, giving her space to conduct her business.
“These three say they want to fight.” Myron gestured to his left to a man with a grim expression in matching grim fashion, wearing the formal black and white garb of the city. Next to him was a muscled woman with chin-length brown hair standing with a stoic expression, though something in her eyes suggested I never wanted to see her bad side. And leaning against the wagon was a tall, skinny man in an unbuttoned yellow coat, filing his fingernails with a knife.
I blinked in surprise. Everyone else around – even the Knights – was affected by the attack on the city, but this man was totally relaxed. He looked up nonchalantly, dark eyes visible underneath his wide-brimmed hat. In the light, I could see about three days worth of stubble on his chin.
Elysia took in a deep breath. “I hope it won’t come to that, but if it does…” She glanced at Myron. He inclined his head in reply.
“Make sure my Knights don’t spend more time having to watch you instead of them,” she told them, her gaze lingering on the tall man.
“Thank you, Captain,” the grim man replied.
“Just one little problem.” The tall man stepped forward. I saw the two Knights stiffen, along with a third nearby I hadn’t noticed listening in. The man looked at them, seemingly taken aback, then holstered his knife and spread his hands. “The Order had us take a vow against violence as a…condition of our joining.”
“I’m sure they’ll make an exception, Maritus.” Elysia kept her expression calm and her tone flat. “But if Father Vortimer takes issue with it, have him come talk to me.”
The man smiled, revealing crooked teeth, then the three of them turned and took up position near one of the middle wagons. Myron watched them go, then leaned in and whispered, “I’ll keep an eye on them. Wish we didn’t have to, but…you know…”
Elysia nodded solemnly and he left, blue cape billowing wide.
“You don’t seem very happy about the yellow one,” I said, walking up behind her.
“He’s a con artist and a murderer. I don’t have any reason to be.”
“I guess it’s true the Order takes in all types.”
“Anyone can find redemption for the right price,” she said bitterly. She closed her eyes and let out a quiet sigh. “This is the last group. Alyssra willing, we’ll be in the hills by nightfall and near Ernheim by noon tomorrow. If only we-” She trailed off when she saw my face.
“You’re not coming, are you?”
I shook my head.
“It’s Jorumgard, isn’t it?”
“He is the reason I am here,” I said. Well, his master was.
She stepped closer, joining me in the intersection. To my right, the road followed the slope downhill. Just barely visible above the buildings lining the street rose white marble walls. The Cathedral of Light.
I looked at Elysia, saw the disappointment on her face. “I’m sorry,” I said, my voice barely a whisper.
She stared at me for a long moment. Her hand reached out, but stopped halfway. “You do what you have to,” she said, lowering her arm. She started to turn, then paused. “I had a lot of friends at the Morning Gate. Make sure he knows that.”
“I will,” I called out, but she was already walking away.
Merindor was built in a shallow bowl. The main avenues followed the land, forming concentric circles inside the rim. Major cross streets bisected them, all of which headed inward like the spokes of a giant wheel. The Cathedral of Light, bastion of the Order’s power, lay at the very center.
The city was eerily quiet, the streets devoid of life. I knew the city had been evacuated, but it still felt unnatural. Maybe I was just used to living armies occupying their conquests.
I knew I wasn’t alone. I could feel a steady pulse of Shadow Magic emanating from a source up ahead. But there were no cries for help, no sounds of battle, no dogs barking.
The aftermath was clearly visible. A broken sign over an inn, dangling on one hinge. An overturned cart, bruised apples scattered across the street. On one block, there was a large stretch that was untouched save for an alchemist’s shop in the center. The glass windows were shattered, the door broken in, and it looked like several bodies lay inside. I hurried past. I had no desire to investigate closer.
The road ended at a large circular plaza. The Cathedral rested at the center, a large rectangular structure that towered over ornate benches and the black lantern posts that ringed the plaza. A stone annex on the eastern side was paired with a wooden one on the west. Scaffolding and blocks of marble indicated the wood was intended to be temporary.
Two tall, heavy wooden doors ordinarily stood open between Mass, but today they were shut. I spotted a smaller side entrance nearby which was ajar. A quick glance around revealed nobody in sight. I couldn’t sense anything either, but my magic sense was dulled somewhat by that steady pulse of magic coming from somewhere further east. With a tug on the iron handle, I opened the door and prayed nobody heard the creaking hinges.
The antechamber held a pair of tables, each covered with a hundred candles, most of which were still lit. From the height of the wax, they had been tended sometime earlier today. No signs of a struggle here. The center of the tiled floor was heavily worn, forming a trail that led into the main room.
I crept over to the doorway and cautiously peered around the corner. A hundred wooden pews stood offset in two columns framing a long aisle marked by gilded blue stonework. Every fifth row, the pews were bracketed by a set of marble pillars rising dozens of feet in the air, holding up a ceiling that arched high overhead. Tall, narrow stained-glass windows lined both walls, the afternoon sun casting rays of colored light across the room.
Hearing nothing aside from my own breathing, I approached the back pew, keeping my head down. In contrast with the foyer, the floor here was polished granite and I had to concentrate on stepping lightly to avoid my footsteps echoing throughout the chamber. Once safely hidden by the dark wood, I took another peek.
The room was empty. I kept to the near side of the pews, moving from pillar to pillar as I tried to stay out of the wide open space between them and the wall. Bronze sculptures of robed men and women in solemn poses were fastened to each pillar by a band of metal well above walking height. Some of them carried books in one hand, others held staves or musical instruments, but all of them seemed to watch me as I crept from pillar to pillar, making my way towards the front.
Row by row, hand on my sword hilt, I advanced. Only once I was halfway did I hear the chanting. A male voice, from what I could tell.
I snuck another glance at the altar. The center aisle ended at the sanctuary, an elevated platform framed by a low wooden railing. A large alcove lay recessed on either wall, each with an open stone doorway. The right led down a dark flight of stairs, the left to the wooden annex. In the center of the sanctuary, resting underneath a gilded archway – shorter than all the rest – was a golden box, covered in numerous inscriptions and ornate carvings. Beyond the arch was the altar room, a rounded chamber ringed with tall, narrow windows. I couldn’t see very well into the altar room from here. The blue and red glasswork did not illuminate much of the interior and the altar was blocking part of my view, but ten oboloi said the chant was coming from there.
I couldn’t understand the language being spoken, but the intonation and pitch suggested some sort of nefarious incantation. Now and then the man would pause before starting anew. During those gaps I would hold still, not risking a misstep to give away my presence. For a dozen long seconds I would listen to my heartbeat, waiting and wondering if he would go back to his ritual so I could draw closer.
It wasn’t until I reached the altar that I got a glimpse of my foe. He was kneeling in the room over five bodies, red light from the windows shining onto his bald head. I could smell the scent of death in the air – not the fresh bodies, but the pervasive stench of decay from something that had long ago ceased to live. This must be him. This must be Jorumgard.
I drew my dagger and waited. I would have to cross about seven steps to reach him, so he would need to be deeply engrossed in his ritual if I wanted to maintain the element of surprise. I remained crouched behind the corner of the altar as the man came to the end of his chant. Waited through a few long breaths while he did something to the corpse on the ground. When he stood, I tensed, ready for his attack, but he did not turn to face me. Instead, he simply walked over to the next body, knelt, laid his hands on the dead man’s head, and began chanting again.
Holding my dagger in hand, I began to move. Two, three, four steps. Halfway there. I lifted my blade, readying a strike from behind, when suddenly a girl shouted, “Look out!” startling us both.
The man spun, flipping a staff into the air as he turned to face me. I finished my charge, barreling into him, pinning him against the wall, my blade blocked from his neck only by the quarterstaff in my way. Only then did I notice he was younger than I expected. He had to still be a teenager – seventeen at most.
The boy swept his leg up, but I dodged and spun him around, hurling him against the altar. Before he could react, I pinned his chest against the gold box and wrested the staff free, sending it clattering across the ground. Now it was just my forearm against his neck and the dagger in my right hand.
“A lot of people have died today because of you,” I said through grit teeth.
“I know,” he gasped. “Alyssra willing, you will be next.”
I raised the dagger, but small hands clutched at my arm. “Stop! Stop!” A young blonde girl in a purple dress was trying to pull my arm away. “You’re hurting Samael!”
“What?” I frowned in confusion and looked at the young man. “You aren’t Jorumgard?”
“Of course not!” the kid spat at me.
“Then explain the necromancy I can sense nearby.” I narrowed my eyes. “And the five corpses behind me.”
“Over there.” He gestured with his head off to my left. Still pinning him against the altar, keeping the knife above the girl’s head and out of reach, I glanced over to the corner of the room. A torn black robe, a bony hand clutching a curved staff…wait, those markings were the insignia of a lich! One that seemed to have met its demise from being crushed by something heavy.
The girl was kicking me now, sharp vicious jabs against my shin as she struggled to wrest the knife free.
“Ow! Stop it and I’ll let him go.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said, kicking me again.
“Look, I thought he was someone else. I’m sorry. There’s no reason for me to hurt him now.”
The girl looked up at me with blue eyes, still wet with tears. She was still holding onto my arm, but her grip weakened and she stopped her kicking. “You promise you won’t hurt him?” she asked.
“I promise,” I said, trying to calm my expression. I gave it even-odds that Samael would retaliate as soon as I let him go, so I turned back to him and met his glare. “I am here for one reason, and one reason only. I am hunting the man that led the attack on your city and I intend to bring him down. I have no further quarrel with you. Understand?”
The boy thought for a moment, then nodded.
“Okay then,” I said. I pushed away from him and backed up several paces, wrenching my arm free of the girl in the process.
Samael coughed and rubbed at his neck, but remained at a distance, staring at me. For a moment, I feared he would strike again and I’d have to break my promise to the little girl, but he backed down and turned to her instead. “Hildegard, what are you still doing here? It’s not safe.”
Hildegard looked on the verge of tears again. She put her left hand up to her mouth and started chewing on her fingernails. “I was hiding when–when…” She started crying and ran over to Samael, burying her face in his robes. “I was so scared!”
He looked taken aback, but patted her head. “It’s all right now,” he said. “We just have to get you out of here and back to your mother.”
I used the opportunity to study the bodies on the ground. Given the ornate robes and markings, I think I had discovered what had happened to the clergy of the Order. The fifth man, the one Samael was kneeling by when I ambushed him, was dressed like the Archbishop.
“What was the incantation you were saying earlier?” I asked, kneeling down to see if I could detect any traces of Shadow Magic.
“A prayer for the dead,” he replied, walking over slowly.
Only then did I notice that the four lower clergy had their eyes closed. Only the Archbishop remained staring at the ceiling, eyes wide in shock. From the wound on his chest, it looked like he had been run through from the back.
“I was sending their souls to the afterlife so the necromancers couldn’t have them.” He knelt respectfully next to the Archbishop and ran a hand over the wrinkled forehead. “Only Father Vortimer is left.”
I rose to my feet. “Then you should probably hurry up and finish. We need to get you and Hilda back to the others.” I looked over at the tear-streaked face of the little girl. “I know where Captain Karalis is headed.”
Samael frowned. “What about General Marcus?” When I shook my head, his face fell. “Then the Order is no more.”
“The Knights still remain under Karalis,” I told him. “They’ve evacuated the rest of the city. Besides.” I pointed at his silver-trimmed white robes. “Aren’t you a member of the Order?”
“I’m just an acolyte,” he said, shaking his head. “I only joined a few years ago. Alyssra save us, I never imagined this could happen! The Order has always guided everything!”
“I’m sure you’ll recover in time,” I said, walking to the edge of the railing. I looked out over the cathedral, at the dozens of empty pews. “But for now, you should finish your prayer.”
A loud boom drew us all up short. Something had slammed into the heavy front doors. I glanced back at Samael and Hilda, who was clutching the older boy’s robes in terror. Another boom and the doors shook. A heavy wooden beam prevented them from opening, but I didn’t think it would last long. Not under that force.
“Never mind, we need to go, now!” I said, rushing over to grab hold of Hildegard. She remained frozen, so I lifted her up and carried her out of the altar room. A third boom, accompanied this time by the sound of splintering wood. “This way,” I said, turning towards the stone alcove on our left. “Maybe we can hide until they leave.”
“That leads to the subterranean hall. There is no exit from there,” Samael said.
“Then where? We can’t go out the front!”
He pointed right, towards the wooden annex. “The administration wing. There’s a door on the far side.”
Holding Hilda against my shoulder, feeling her small arms wrapped around my neck, I leaped down off the raised sanctuary and started to rush towards the annex. We barely made it a few steps before a fourth boom rang out, followed by a large crack as the beam splintered, and the doors scraped open. I dropped to my knee and lowered Hilda to the ground, keeping our heads below the height of the pews, Samael right behind me with his staff in hand. Slowly, we crept towards the end of the pew and hugged the large marble column, keeping it between us and the main entrance.
The alcove was in front of us, but I had forgotten the large space before the wall. We would have to cross over a dozen paces out in the open to reach the doorway to the wooden office in front of us. Even with the row of marble columns, we would still be seen if we tried to cross now.
A single pair of footsteps rang out, but I knew the newcomer was not alone.
“Wait until they pass,” I whispered to Samael, adjusting my position so I knelt on the side of the second pew, giving him room to crouch by the first. I held Hildegard tight against my chest with one arm while I balanced the two of us with the other.
The footsteps drew closer, sounding like heavy boots walking down the center aisle. As the sound drew nearer, I felt a wave of menace and hatred rippling out, an evil I had not sensed in over half a year. Wraiths. Undead abominations twisted out of the souls of powerful magi, compelled by Shadow Magic to do Icel’s bidding. Yet, if Elysia’s information was correct, Icel wasn’t here.
I placed my hand over Hilda’s mouth, hoping we would remain undetected. The orb in my pocket burned, reacting to the strong presence of Shadow Magic nearby. I could feel the potential energy buzzing in the air. This was no ordinary magus. This must be his new lieutenant.
Peering underneath the benches, I could see black boots come into view, several rows away. Samael tightened his grip on his staff, knuckles turning white, but he kept it low enough to remain out of sight. At least, I hoped we were still out of sight.
I shifted my position slightly so I could sneak a glance as the figure passed between the first and second rows. For a brief moment, the enemy was out of sight as they passed my pew, but then black boots appeared. And stopped. I stopped breathing and lay flat against the edge of the pew.
I had only caught a glimpse, but it was enough to confirm it definitely was not Icel. I didn’t get a good look at his face, but those black boots extended up into black leggings and a black tunic. Visions of a black crystal fortress resurfaced before I pushed them aside.
My earlier suspicion had been correct. Two, white bony wraiths hovered in the air, flanking the man. Wraiths were notoriously hard to pin down and kill, and I had unpleasant memories of being hounded by one. We would be hopelessly outmatched in a fight, and I really didn’t want to risk the life of the girl, even if she had bruised my shin.
Another moment and I still heard nothing. Had we been seen? With the sun setting, it was hard to tell. Any shadows they cast were on the opposite side of the hall. The zetacomb burned in my pocket, emitting a blue glow that could be faintly seen through my clothes. And that’s when I realized I knew exactly why the man had stopped. If the orb reacted to the presence of the wraiths, then surely they would react to it.
I looked over at Samael. I pointed at Hildegard and then at the door and saw his expression tighten. We were going to have to fight, or at least I was. In the quietest voice I could manage, I whispered in her ear. “Hilda, listen very closely. I want you to go with Samael and get out of here. When the fighting starts, run and do not look back. Okay?”
She nodded, eyes wide in fright. There was a scratching sound as one of the wraiths brushed against the seat of the bench.
I shifted my right hand to my sword hilt and signaled Samael with my left. I took a deep breath, readying myself. Three. Two. One.
I jumped to my feet, drawing my sword as I spun to face the wraith. The blade collided with bone, but the creature just shrieked and fell back. Samael leapt to his feet, staff poised to defend against the second wraith.
“Go now!” I hissed at Hilda and she took off running, heading for the wooden doorway. With her out of the way, I was able to use both hands in combat. The first wraith was still across the aisle so I ignored it. Samael had the second wraith preoccupied. I turned my attention to the man.
My blood went cold. I recognized the face staring back at me, even as I struggled to comprehend how. I knew this man.
Delthoras. My friend and mentor.
The one man Icel hated more than anything.
- 2 -
“How–“ I sputtered.
It seemed beyond belief, yet the cold dread tightening around my chest knew it to be true. Gazing into those dark eyes, there could be no mistake.
A screeching hiss from my left drew my attention. Somehow Samael had managed to tear a gash in one of the wraith’s bony wings, though the fresh cuts on his arms indicated it had come at a price.
Jorumgard still stood in front of me, gloved hand outstretched, but I saw him waver. I had an opening. A chance to avenge all of those who had fallen today. But I too hesitated.
I owed this man my life. Did he not deserve the same?
I took a tentative step forward, watching the unoccupied wraith out of the corner of my eye. “Do you remember me?” I asked the black-garbed man. I swear I saw his eyes widen slightly, but the wraith chose that moment to pounce.
The fiend hurtled towards me with a howl, bony talons spread wide. I ducked, blocking the sharp claws with my blade as best as I was able, but the wraith didn’t stop. It rebounded off of me, spiraling onward. Towards the girl standing five feet in front of the doorway.
“Hilda, run!” I shouted at her. Why was she still out in the open?
Instead of heeding, she froze in place, eyes wide in terror. Somehow Samael made it to her in time, striking out in a clumsy blow, but it was enough to deflect the wraith. Yet, now both creatures were fixated on the easier prey.
I felt a shift in the zetacomb’s energy and lashed out with my foot, striking Jorumgard on the underside of his forearm. He staggered back, the bolt of shadow energy shooting wide. The pillar behind me exploded into a spray of marble and dust.
Jorumgard drew his sword and charged, forcing me backwards. I barely parried his strikes, almost losing my footing in the cramped space between pews. I glanced at the wraiths circling in on the others. There was no time for a drawn out fight.
I feinted left, then dropped my blade to free my dominant hand. The air in front of Jorumgard burst into a shower of sparks, stunning him for a second. It was enough time to grab both pews and kick him in the chest. He staggered backwards, tumbling into the bench on the far side, snapping the railing off as he fell. I left him, retrieved my sword, and dove towards the wraiths.
The twin creatures were lashing out at the boy, scoring gashes in his skin as he frantically spun his staff, trying to keep them at bay. Hilda clutched his midsection tightly, close enough to be shielded, but also restricting his movement.
Samael saw my attack an instant before the wraith did. He lunged forward, wood striking the bony chest, forcing the wraith into my reach. The wraith turned, trying to spiral away, but it wasn’t fast enough.
I hit the creature head on, drove it hard into a marble column and was rewarded with the sound of bone snapping. The wraith shrieked, one wing falling limp while the other flapped about in a frenzy. I held it pinned against the column, warding off the teeth and claws that tried to rend my flesh. My sword sliced into the taut skin, severing tendons wherever I could reach. It took a lot of effort to kill a wraith, more than I could spare. The best I could hope for now was to cripple it.
I felt a sickening chill and spun the wraith around, throwing it into the line of fire. A bolt of shadow energy blasted through the creature and slammed into the wall next to me, spraying more rock chips and dust into the air. The wraith flopped helplessly on the floor, smoke trailing from the blackened hole in its body. Ignoring it, I dove to the side as another bolt of energy slammed into the column, sending cracks up the pillar.
Hilda screamed and I looked over just in time to see the other wraith snap Samael’s quarterstaff into pieces. The boy had fresh claw marks on his back and blood running down his arms.
“Outside, now!” I snapped at them as I lunged towards the remaining wraith, trying to keep one of the central pillars between myself and Jorumgard for as long as I was able. To my relief, Samael backed off, picking up the girl, and ducking through the wooden doorway.
The remaining wraith hovered just a few paces before me, blood still dripping from its claws. With one wing injured, it wouldn’t be able to move as quickly. I could probably take it on and win.
All I had to do was step into Jorumgard’s line of fire.
I spun and dove through the doorway, rolling into a crouch as soon as I hit the wooden floor. Before the wraith appeared, my spell was ready. A ball of flame shot forth striking the wooden frame, splintering the wood. The wraith screeched and flew backwards as a second and a third blast took out the rest of the support structure.
Wood creaked and groaned as the beams overhead strained under the weight of the roof. I took in a deep breath, felt my skin tingle in the sudden chill as I concentrated the ambient heat into one final burst. A plume of fire torched the air in front of me, brushing across the dry wood, setting the wall and ceiling ablaze.
I saw Jorumgard appear on the other side of the burning opening, his face a lifeless expression. We stared at each other for a moment, until the stinging smoke and shower of sparks forced me back. I spared one last glance and saw him still watching me, as if he was waiting for something. But as the beams overhead began to splinter, I realized I didn’t want to hang around in a burning building, so I fled.
I caught up with Samael and Hilda at the outer ring of the plaza. He had stopped to bandage a cut on her leg, never mind he was openly bleeding from his own wounds. I picked up the girl, who was too distraught to object, and led them through the northern wards of the city.
I saw no sign of pursuit, but pushed forwarded relentlessly regardless. We stopped only twice. Once for a brief drink of water and once because I needed to catch my breath after carrying Hilda up the incline to the rim.
Once we crested the rim, I was able to make out the foothills up ahead. Ernheim was to the northeast, but Elysia would have led the wagons well away from the Morning Gate. I had a fairly good idea where she would try to set up camp.
Samael was looking behind us, watching plumes of smoke rise from the city. I noted the black cloud rising from the tall structure at the center, a stream of soot and ash nearly indistinguishable from the rest. Even here, I felt as though Jorumgard was still watching me.
“Come,” I said, turning away. “We have a ways to go before nightfall.”
It was well into night when the sentries escorted us to the camp. A weary looking Andris led us to one of the wagons where Hildegard had a tearful reunion with her mother and four sisters. I left Samael and the friendly Knight with the girls and collapsed on a flat rock on the far side of the campfire.
I was exhausted from the long day and not looking forward to replenishing my magical reserves. Once, I had carried an amulet to help store and efficiently channel my power, but that relic had been lost in a volcano, limiting me to what I could carry in my body. Tapping that source also drained my stamina.
A bowl of steaming hot stew was placed on my lap. I glanced over to spy Elysia sitting down next to me. Her cape looked dirty and torn and I thought I could make out several new dents in her armor.
She didn’t say a word until after I set the empty bowl down. Even then it was only a quiet, “How did it go?”
“I couldn’t do it,” I said, defeated. All the planning, all the waiting, and I had naught to show.
“I see,” she said, staring into the fire.
“I could’ve been here instead. I could have helped…“ Even in the dark, I had been able to count the wagons. Two of them were missing.
A hand lightly touched my arm. “I hear you saved a little girl today. That should count for something.”
“I should go with you.” I sighed.
“–But you can’t,” she finished. I looked over to apologize but she continued, “You were right. Waiting for them to strike again won’t work.”
Elysia turned to meet my gaze. I saw her exhaustion, her sorrow, her anger swirling in those dark irises.
“Hunt them down before they can hurt any more people.” Her voice was cold.
She lowered her head, staring at her boots. “Much as I would like to go, my place is here. I don’t have the luxury of revenge.”
“I see.” I turned my attention back to the fire, watched the flames slowly consume the dry logs. “I wish you luck.”
“We’ll need it,” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “The King might be fine with granting us refuge now, but I fear we will be forced to overstay our welcome.” She looked back down at me, face hardened into a professional mask once more. “Staying the night?”
I nodded. “I’ll leave in the morning.”
“Get some rest,” she said, striding off. She took three steps before halting. “Tiernan…thank you. For everything.”
I watched her leave, idly fingering the leaf pendant clasped around my neck, wondering when I could stop being a disappointment to everyone.
The sky had just brightened to a light purple as I left the camp. A narrow gravel path wound down from the low, rolling hills. There wasn’t much cover, the soil too poor for most vegetation, so I spent most of the trip constantly scanning the sky and my surroundings.
I paused at a small junction. The main road wound onward, leading back towards the city. Part of me wanted to return, to seek some answers. But I knew that would be foolish. What did I hope to accomplish?
I turned aside, following the smaller path to the west. I made it a few hundred feet before I noticed I was being followed.
My cloaked pursuer made little attempt to hide their presence – not that they had many options. Instead, they lingered behind at a fair distance, stopping when I halted. Until I turned around and waited for them to approach.
The sky had brightened substantially, but it was still too dark to clearly make out the color of their cloak until they were a couple dozen paces away. To my disappointment, it was black, not blue.
The figure removed his cowl as he approached, revealing a bald head. Samael stopped a few paces away, a mixture of nervousness and resolve warring across his face. He tried to speak a few times before finally saying, “I want to go with you.”
“What else am I to do?”
I took a deep breath. “Desperation is not a good reason to throw your life away.”
“The Archbishop was like a father to me!” he cried out, his voice uncomfortably loud in the silence before the dawn. He seemed to realize it too, for he flushed and lowered his voice. “I know you are going to chase down the man responsible. I want to be there too.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” I warned him. I didn’t think I knew the full consequences of what he was asking.
“Please,” he begged, dropping to his knees. “I won’t get in your way. I promise.”
I looked down at the boy, witnessed the anguish on his face. What good could I possibly do for him? Those around me met only death or disappointment.
Was this how he had felt?
Once upon a time, I had been the one kneeling on the ground. Fingers stained with blood. The world around me on fire. My best friend was dead by my hand and the order I had sworn to protect was crumbling in the face of riots. Left with nothing, I reached out, clutching desperately for something – anything – that could restore some sense of order and purpose to my life.
I begged and pleaded with the man who had witnessed it all. And just when I was on the verge of giving up hope, he took me in. Without Delthoras, I wouldn’t be alive today.
Now I was the one standing by while a young man was looking up to me. Did he not deserve the same chance?
Could I repay my debt to fate by helping save someone else’s life?
I swallowed, still uncertain about what I was getting myself into. But in the end, I acquiesced. I agreed to let him come with me if he would obey my orders. I wasn’t happy about having him go up against Icel, but I figured he had a better chance of surviving under my tutelage than if he were to attempt it alone.
The boy knew how to fight, that much was clear from the Cathedral, but his form was sloppy and his defenses weak. Before I knew it, my mind was thinking of ways to improve his stance and mitigate his weaknesses. I could benefit from having a sparring partner as well. My endurance was still not back to what it was before my imprisonment.
Maybe this wouldn’t turn out as badly as I feared after all.
- 3 -
Samael stiffened, squaring his shoulders. He took a deep breath before bracing his feet and raising his new staff, the second replacement in four weeks.
“I don’t think–“ he began.
“Too much weight on your right foot,” I said, rapping my quarterstaff against his calves. Gravel crunched underfoot as I circled around him. “You rely too heavily on your dominant side, leaving you unable to react to threats on your left. We’ve gone over this.”
He opened his mouth, thought better of it and resorted to grinding his teeth. If he had just listened instead of trying to rush through the exercises, maybe it wouldn’t have taken all morning. Were all teenagers this thick-headed?
Although I did have to give him a little credit for restraining his outburst. This time.
I paced around the enclosed veranda. A wooden walkway bordered what once had been an indoor garden. After the previous owner’s passing, weeds had taken over, choking off all of the flowering plants. Rather than contend with the leafy pests, we had just ripped everything out and covered the square pit in gravel. She would’ve been sad to see the garden go, but there were still plenty of flowers outside, like the red azaleas I could see poking into the entryway.
I stopped in front of Samael. He was watching me, the only sound his heavy breathing. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and he swayed slightly back-and-forth, as if he too was an azalea in a spring breeze. Or an exhausted man trying to keep his balance.
“Maybe we should take a break,” I said. He slumped forward, leaning heavily on his staff, confirming my suspicion. I felt bad about pushing him so hard, but he didn’t have years to train like I did. His style was still far too aggressive, more suited for a brawl. Still, he was improving.
I left him to recover and entered the kitchen. A small bowl of water and a bar of soap were set on the counter under a window. The kitchen faced north, giving me a view of a grassy field and the tree-lined path that led to town. If I angled myself just right, I could even make out some of the outlying farms from between the trees.
We were fortunate to find an abandoned villa outside of Heartsdale where we could live mostly undisturbed. Of course, the reason the villagers left us alone is because everyone thought the place was cursed, ever since the last owner had died under mysterious circumstances some several years prior.
Being ostracized didn’t bother me too deeply, as I only intended to stay until Icel was defeated. But I knew Samael was bothered by it. Whether it was a rough childhood or if he was still coping with the loss of his monk brethren I wasn’t sure, but I did what I could to draw all the furtive glances and whispers to myself. It seemed to work. I knew some of the villagers would engage him in conversation, even if it was mostly to spread slander about me.
I wiped my hands dry on a worn cloth and paused to look at the hanging pendant. I had placed the silver leaf necklace in a location I would see every day as a reminder of what I had to do.
Three more months. If I could defeat Icel – and if Selax kept his word – in three months I would be able to see her again.
I could almost smell her cinnamon fragrance, feel the fine strands of her long hair as I brushed them straight with my fingers. I could picture her smile as she closed her eyes and bared her neck. I remembered the warmth of her body, the shiver she would make when my lips brushed against her soft, blue skin.
Katerei. I miss you.
I hadn’t realized I was holding the silver leaf until I heard Samael come up behind me. He had a sweat-stained cloth draped over his shoulder.
“What is that? I always see you looking at it, but you never talk about it,” he said, gesturing at the pendant.
“A gift,” I said, carefully hanging it back on the wall.
“Thanks, I figured that much out on my own.” He stepped past me to wash his hands in the bowl. After a moment of scrubbing, he dipped the cloth in and used it to wipe down his face. When he was finished, he hung it on a rack and turned to face me. “So, who gave it to you?”
I buried my face in the pantry, pretending to gather ingredients for lunch.
Samael poked his head in next to mine. “That would probably work better if we actually had any food left.” He took hold of the tiny mushroom I was holding and put it back on the empty shelves. “I guess I need to run to the market.”
“It was a gift from a girl,” I said. “Someone special.”
“Ah.” He waited for a moment in case I wanted to say something more. When he saw that I didn’t, he turned to grab his satchel and told me he’d be back in a couple hours.
I stood there alone in the kitchen for a while after he left. I don’t know why I was so embarrassed over the whole affair. Maybe it was because our brief time together had been so rudely interrupted, leaving me uncertain where she and I now stood. Or maybe it was because my true reason for being here felt so shallow.
I closed the double pantry doors and slumped into one of the dining room chairs. A year ago I was off chasing dragons and uncovering buried mysteries. Now, I didn’t really care about any of that. All I could think about was how much longer I would have to wait before I could see Katerei again. As if all the lives endangered by Icel’s armies didn’t matter – someone else could deal with them.
This change in myself was concerning. I had spent the last fifteen years seeking out adventure and taking on mercenary contracts. What would I become if I forsook both? What could I offer her if I saw her again?
I stood up, nearly knocking the chair over in the process. Needing to clear my mind, I plodded down the long hallway and slipped into my study.
The room had very few furnishings, especially for a house of this stature. A small bed and a short dresser against one wall, an oak desk and matching chair placed against the other.
The room itself looked dry. The paint had long since faded, peeling off in some areas. The carpets had spoiled so badly we had tossed them out on the first day just to get rid of the smell. Any valuables the previous owner possessed had long ago been pilfered or destroyed, though we had swept the broken pottery shards off the floor.
I gripped the back of the oak chair, peering over the objects I had placed on the desk. An old iron lantern Samael had managed to barter for. A stack of papers covered in my handwriting. Between the two, set on a small block cut to prevent it from rolling off, was the zetacomb.
At rest, it looked no more than a small orb made out of blue glass. But if I were to hold it, to begin reading the incantations etched in the surface, it would easily illuminate the room. I would hold a ball in my hand that contained more latent power than I could conjure in a day unaided. The only problem was the energy source it employed was Shadow Magic.
Unlike my mentor, I was never any good at wielding Shadow Magic. Though when every training session had left me retching on the floor, I admittedly didn’t try very hard to learn.
Yet, everyone kept insisting the zetacomb was the key.
I flipped through the stack of papers, pulling out my notes on the artifact. Most of it was records of what I already knew. The inscription etched into the orb was part of a ritual capable of possessing a soul. Once bound, it was up to the caster to assert their will over the target, a feat that was not always successful.
I had toyed with the idea of attempting to bind Icel to myself, but he was a man capable of controlling untold horrors. I, on the other hand, was but a shadow of my former self. It was cowardly, but practical, to assume defeat without even trying. Even if I could master enough control of Shadow Magic to pull the spell off, he had years of practice at bending wills, and I had none. It was far easier to poke around with fruitless experiments instead.
I didn’t realize Samael had returned until I noticed him standing over my shoulder.
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” he said.
“How was the market?” I asked, rubbing my freshly-bruised knee.
He grinned. “Old Crowly is convinced you’re an evil warlock with plans to sabotage this year’s harvest. Says I should get away before you corrupt me.”
“Yet he’s all too willing to give up his onions in exchange for my coin.”
“True enough.” He paused and wrinkled his forehead. “Where do you get all that silver from anyway?”
“Trade secret,” I said, straightening my notes.
When I heard his footsteps approach the bed, I snuck a glance at the dresser. The bottom drawer was closed as I hoped, hiding the extra silverware I had acquired.
“So,” he said, sitting on the straw mattress. “When are we going after Jorumgard?”
I took a deep breath. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have, not that I could put it off much longer. “We aren’t,” I told him.
“What? But he–”
“Calm yourself,” I said, turning to face him. I waited while he spluttered around for a moment before taking a seat again. “Going after Jorumgard won’t stop the attacks. We need to hit the man who controls him. A necromancer known as Icel.”
Samael squeezed his fingers together but lowered his voice. “There were other attacks?”
“Merindor was the fifth city to be hit, to my knowledge.” I sifted through my stack of papers until I found the sheet I was looking for. I handed it to Samael and watched him scan the list of places and descriptions.
“Westwind?” He frowned. “Isn’t that just a few days from here?”
“It is. It’s also where he suffered a humiliating defeat four years ago.”
“Which explains why he razed it first.” Samael flipped the sheet over, reading the scrawling that continued onto the back. “But why Merindor? The Order has always remained neutral in conflicts.”
“I believe he is targeting magi.”
He glanced up. “What for?”
He stared at me in confusion.
“Remember those flying creatures? The wraiths? All of them were once former magi, twisted into servitude.”
“And the lich?” he asked.
I blinked, trying to remember a lich. Then I recalled the crumpled body in the altar room.
“Right, the less capable become like that lich.” I nodded. “But the strongest ones…”
I shivered, the memory rising unbidden. The man had cut his own arm off, using the blood to draw a rune on the ground. The wraith went wild, shrieking and flailing, yet seemed unable to escape. When Icel repeated the blood rune on the fiend, it warped the wraith, bending it into another form. A new arm, a pale bony protrusion that teemed with a dark energy of its own.
“The strongest ones become a part of him ,” I whispered.
“He’s a bit of a special case.”
“More secrets?” Samael frowned.
“I…don’t know what to make of him just yet,” I said truthfully.
Samael sat still for a moment before nodding and rising to his feet.
I could tell he wasn’t satisfied with my answers. I knew I’d have to give him the full truth at some point, but it felt too soon. If I revealed my history with Jorumgard now, I feared he would leave. And in his current state, that meant he would attempt something rash. Something that would get him killed.
Better to wait and revisit this later. After all, if we managed to take down Icel, who knew what would happen to the possession spell. If that was what had happened to Delthoras.
“So,” Samael said, pausing at the door. “Where will Icel strike next?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But I think I know where he is hiding.”
I gently leaned the gray suit of armor against the wall, taking care to ensure it remained standing next to its twin before stepping back. Samael caught sight of me from the kitchen and wandered over, still wiping down our kettle.
“Chitin?” Samael asked. He tucked the kettle under his shoulder and lifted one of the arms, running his finger down the length of the gauntlet. “Looks expensive.”
“Cheaper than plate,” I said, mopping the sweat off my forehead. “And easier to move in too.”
“I assume we’ll be wearing these against Icel?”
I nodded. “Where we are going, air will be in short supply. Like climbing up a tall mountain.” I took the arm from him, grabbed the elbow joint, and twisted lightly. “See here how the shell plates lock together? It’ll help keep the air in your suit. With a little help from these runes of course,” I said, opening the joint so he could see the pale blue markings faintly glowing on the inside.
“And the helmet?” he asked. “Can you even see out of that thing?”
I lowered the arm slowly before lifting the helmet up and setting it on his head. “The visor is not as opaque as it looks. As a bonus, when everything is sealed, it’ll help keep you warm.”
“Okay. So, when do we go?” His voice was distorted. Muffled, but without the metallic ring that accompanied the usual fare. I took the kettle from him so he could remove the helmet.
“Soon,” I said. I saw exasperation flash across his face and held up my free hand. “Not like that. A few days, at most.”
“Oh.” He stood for a moment before removing the dripping washrag from his shoulder. He took the kettle back and returned to the kitchen.
I took a deep breath and moved to the doorway. The sun had moved overhead, just enough to be obscured by the rafters. The red azaleas outside the door gave way to a sea of green, hedges and trees that lined the dirt path connecting the villa to the road to town. The fields here had long since been lost to wild grass, but fresh sprouts would be growing on the neighboring farms. This wasn’t the first time I wished I could just sit and watch.
I pictured Delthoras standing outside his tent, staring pensively while I took out my frustrations on a stack of firewood. It helped to remember I too was once impatient, thirsty for vengeance.
Soft footsteps approached from behind. Samael walked to the edge of the porch and sat, resting his bare feet in the grass. I joined him, the two of us watching budding leaves sway in the wind.
“I’m sorry,” Samael said after a long moment of silence. “I don’t mean–“ He took a deep breath and tried again. “The Archbishop was always trying to get me to think before I would act. It worked a few times.”
“You were close?” I prodded carefully. For the most part neither of us had wanted to speak much about the past.
“I guess you could say Father Vortimer saved me.” He bowed his head and folded his hands in his lap.
“I used to be part of a street gang,” he began. “My brother and I would draw one of the nobles down to our quarter and let the other guys rough them up for coin. The bigger the target, the more respect we got from the crew. It was fun for us, seeing those pompous idiots reduced to a quivering heap of terror. Fun, right up until one of them ran my little brother through with a sword.”
“Wrong target?” I asked.
“It was my mistake,” he admitted. “I picked the old man, thought his robes looked rich enough to keep us warm over the winter. Turns out he was a retired general; he saw right through us.”
His voice was starting to crack. He squeezed his hands together hard enough to turn his knuckles white. “We had just turned off a side street, not more than a few blocks from our trap when the man just reached out, grabbed my little brother by the neck, and executed him right in front of me. And I-I didn’t know what to do. This old man in silk robes killed my brother? I…saw him there, blood dripping off his sword, and he looked at me and I…I ran.”
Samael paused, struggling to maintain his composure. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, his shaking subsiding a little more with every exhalation. When he finally calmed down, he continued.
“I didn’t go back to the others. After I got over the initial shock, I became upset – furious at the man – and at myself for allowing it to happen. I wanted him to feel the pain he was putting me through, so I stalked him. Asked around if anyone knew a tan-skinned man with short white hair wearing silk robes. I found out who he was, where he lived, and-“ he lowered his voice. “I tried to kill him.”
“Tried to?” I prodded, careful to keep my tone neutral.
“Yeah, thought the old man was asleep. Turns out he was having a fireside chat in the next room with a visiting monk. When I crept into the room, the general leapt up, overpowered me and was on the verge of breaking my neck when the monk stepped forward and told him to stop. I was lying there on the ground, silk slipper on my neck and I looked up to see this balding man in a black robe with some weird silver hand insignia looking down at me. And then he told the other guy that he’ll take care of me.”
“I thought the monk was offering to kill me, but then he reached down, helped me to my feet, and asked me if I need to pack anything for my journey. All I could do was just stand there dumbfounded while he worked things out with the general, and then next thing I know I’m leaving town on the way to some place called Merindor.
“When he explained what was going to happen to me, about the brotherhood, I couldn’t–“ Samael had made it this far without crying, but now I could see tears forming. “I asked him why and he looked at me. He smiled and said the Goddess works in mysterious ways.”
He nodded. “One day I’m fighting for food scraps in the dirt. The next I’m an acolyte in a church.” He let out a long sigh, closing his eyes.
I let the silence stretch for a moment, staring down the path. Insects were buzzing around the flowers and the shadows from the roof had crept forward, blanketing us in shade. I caught myself scratching my chin and folded my hands in my lap to keep from fidgeting. What words could I possibly say?
“Did you have someone like that?” Samael’s voice was so low I almost didn’t hear him at first. “Someone who had a profound impact on your life?”
“Yes.” I let the word hang in the air as I debated what I should tell. I glimpsed him watching me, brow furrowed as if he expected to be left hanging with yet another deflection. I was uncomfortable with the topic, but…had he not just bared his soul to me?
I took a deep breath and began. “When I was fifteen, I was manipulated into killing my best friend.
“We were…chosen as initiates together, me for fire and him for water. I’d known him for a few years prior, so I was elated to have a familiar face in the Academy.“ I looked up to see Samael watching and belatedly realized he had no knowledge of my homeland.
“If you are chosen to study with the masters, you leave behind all childhood ties. The other magi in your chosen discipline become your family, and the few contacts you make with the others, your friends. So having a connection…made it easier for me. Our ward was one of the elders. Dethelon, the Guardian of Air.”
“And he helped you out?” Samael asked.
“No. He lied to me, to all of us. Turned us against one another. Fractured the disciplines, angered the populace, and destroyed an order that had lasted a thousand years. I wanted to kill him.”
The acolyte seemed taken aback at that, but he let me continue.
“I could see…signs, us growing distant, arguing more. But I didn’t fully understand the depths of the gulf between us. Not until…not until the accident.” I shook my head, attempting to banish the image of a bloodied brunette from my mind. “We both liked the same girl, but one day she was caught in a cave-in with her friends. I got there first, but I… I’m no healer. The best I could do was hold her hand and stare into her green eyes until they couldn’t stare back anymore.”
“And your friend blamed you?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “It was on top of everything else. We were all under a lot of pressure. The disciplines were becoming more isolated, blaming each other for problems, and the rest of the populace was sick of it. If water and air don’t work together, who brings in the rains for a healthy harvest? Fire, water, and life work in tandem to heal the sick and injured, each specializing in a different type of care. But set them against one another and the parts become less than the whole. And why would anyone want to give to a system that was broken?”
A blood-red moon, a crumpled form. A heavy heat hanging in the air, though whether it was from the steam or the burning building, I could not say. I was too focused on the dripping dagger in my hand.
“There were riots. The academy, the palace - they were all destroyed. But that night I lost something even more valuable.” I bowed my head. “I lost myself. I…it was self-defense really, but I’m still the one responsible.
“And there I was, kneeling on the ground, crying up at the stars. I had lost everything – no friends, no family, no future. It was in that moment of despair that I met him. The mercenary that would change my life.”
“And you begged and pleaded for him to take you in?”
“Yes, actually.” I smiled. “I studied under the mercenary Delthoras, nagged him incessantly about when I would be allowed to return home and seek my revenge.”
Samael rolled his eyes.
The mirth faded from my face. “I think without him, I would not be here today.”
“Did you ever go back?”
“Yes, years later he finally let me. But by that point it didn’t matter. Everything was broken, the tribes had split, and Dethelon was long dead.” I took a deep breath and let it out to calm myself.
“What…was it like?” the boy asked in a soft voice.
“Empty. Hollow. For a while I didn’t know what to do. My motivation for pushing myself forward was just…gone.” I snapped my fingers.
“Eventually, Delthoras convinced me I should start anew, find something else to occupy my time. So, I took up adventuring.”
“Where is he now? Could he help us against Icel?”
I froze. “No. I…tried to find him again, but something happened. He cannot help us now.”
Samael seemed undeterred. “What about recruiting others? Hire some mercenaries or old soldiers?”
I tried to estimate how many pieces were left. “I…don’t think I could afford them. Most people charge a high price when death is on the line.”
“What about someone like the Shadow Hunter?” Seeing my blank stare, he clarified, “There’s a rumor in town that a black-garbed man stalks the night, hunting the undead.”
“You heard about undead near here?” I frowned.
“No, I mean…” he blushed. “Old Man Crowly said he heard it from a traveller who was passing through. Says some masked fellow was going around asking if anyone has seen any necromancers and offering to put them down.”
“I…suppose that would be helpful. But how would we find him?” And could we trust him?
“I don’t know,” Samael admitted, lowering his head. “I just thought…”
“If we could find allies, it might help,” I conceded, “but we don’t have all that much time.”
“I suppose not.” He leaned backwards, resting his head on the wall.
“I’m planning on us leaving in two days,” I said. “We have the gear now, and I think it’s time.”
He grinned. “You approve of my fighting then?”
“At some point, you just have to try the real thing. Not every opponent will react the way I do.”
“I have tried the real thing, remember?” he remarked. “Just haven’t fought a lot of wraiths.”
“I’ll be bringing the zetacomb. If nothing else, it might absorb a blast or two headed my way. That thing feeds on Shadow Magic.”
His grin faded. “Won’t it give us away again? You said back at the church…”
“Where we are going, I’m not sure it’ll matter.”
I glanced down the road again. The swaying trees, the chirping birds…it was all so peaceful here. The quiet life didn’t seem so bad. I just had one last promise to keep.
“Besides,” I said, turning back to Samael. “It’s like you said. We’re going to need all the help we can get.”
- 4 -
Many a night I had spent under the stars, away from oil lanterns and campfires, but never had I seen so many specks of light in the sky. Thousands upon thousands of tiny pinpricks hung above us spanning from horizon to horizon. They were so numerous, I couldn’t make out any constellations.
The one landmark I could navigate by, the point of reference that guided me to this place, was the deep blue nebula arcing up over the terrain. Without it, we would have no sense of direction.
“Charming place,” Samael remarked. His voice was distorted by the chitin helmet. “Cold too.”
“As long as you keep your helmet on, the runes should hold,” I said. He was right though. Reaching out, I could barely sense any heat radiating from the ground. I wouldn’t be able to count on much magic here.
“This way.” I pointed towards the nebula.
Navigating at night was always difficult, but at least the blue light was bright enough to illuminate the terrain underneath. Taking a step, I felt my foot sink into the soft dirt underneath. The footing wasn’t treacherous, but our footprints stuck out against the unspoiled landscape.
“Suppose we can just retrace our steps to the portal on the way back,” I muttered.
“This takes some getting used to,” Samael said. I could see him stepping awkwardly, not accustomed to heavy footwear.
“I would’ve preferred to practice around the house a bit first,” I admitted. “I just didn’t want to risk wearing out the enchantment. We have a few hours at best.”
I had no way to estimate how far we had to travel, and the numerous hills and craters made it difficult to see very far. The best I could manage was to constantly look up and try to match the patterns in the sky to what I remembered from my vision. There was a fair chance we’d get lost, though secretly I was hoping the zetacomb would be able to guide me if I got close enough.
I don’t know how long we walked – I didn’t really have a way to tell – but it felt like hours. The landscape never changed, always another featureless gray ridge beyond the next. I kept my attention fixated on the stars and the slowly growing nebula in the distance.
It was almost a relief then when Samael discovered another set of tracks. They approached from an angle, crossing our path, but heading in the same general direction. After a brief moment of discussion, we decided to follow them instead.
It wasn’t long before I started to second-guess that decision. My calves were getting sore from the strain of walking in boots, and I was pretty sure the runes inside my suit weren’t glowing as brightly as before. Samael didn’t complain, but I could tell from his gait that he too was getting uncomfortable. I almost suggested we turn back, but then the zetacomb started humming. Tucked away in my suit, I couldn’t see the blue glow, but I could feel a faint warmth as it began to pulse with energy.
“We’re getting close,” I said. Then under my breath, “Whatever that means.”
We trekked up a ridge larger than most of the others we had encountered so far. From the size and the way it extended to the left and right, I figured it surrounded a large impact crater. But when the sand began to darken and became more fine, I realized where we were.
We crested the ridge and stared down into a deep, dark bowl. A step across the terminus and it was like I had walked into a sudden stillness. Even the stars felt dimmer here, the nebula far enough overhead that I could see the blue tail fade into wisps of purple that were consumed by the vast emptiness around us.
And at the center of it all, a black crystal fortress stood jutting out of the ground at the bottom of the bowl.
“He’s there?” Samael asked.
“Hope so.” I was half-expecting the zetacomb to have a stronger reaction near a Shadow Mage as powerful as Icel, but perhaps we were still too far away. I checked my weaponry, ensuring my sword was easily accessible and my crossbow was loaded.
Samael tightened his grip on his staff and nodded.
We followed the footsteps down into the bowl. The footing here was more difficult, more akin to walking down a sand dune than a forest path. The sound was off too, almost like we were walking on tiny fragments of glass.
Each step brought us closer to the fortress, closer to fulfilling my promise. With every stride, I felt the chill inside me deepen. The temperature outside had grown colder, if that was even possible.
The footsteps stopped a dozen paces from a wall of black crystal. At first I was confused why, until a few tentative steps forward revealed the ground had hardened into glass. The footing was uneven, but it was solid enough to leave no further mark of our passing.
I summoned a small ball of light to see. Wincing at the sudden brightness, I dimmed it as much as I was able and waited for my eyes to adjust.
“Great. I can’t even wipe my eyes,” Samael complained.
“Sorry,” I told him. I too would’ve preferred not ruining our night vision, but the fortress was tall enough to block the nebula up close. There was no way I’d be able to read the entrance runes without it.
“Can you get us in?”
“I think so. Hold this,” I said, passing him the ball of light. It hovered an inch above his palms, even when he turned them upside-down to see if the ball would fall.
“Hold it still please. I need to focus.”
The light stopped bouncing around and I was able to concentrate on the door. It was a simple enough spell; I had seen Delthoras use these markings before. I just hated using Shadow Magic. What he called Shadow, my people called Death. Invoking energy from beyond was always nauseating, but this probably wouldn’t even be the last time I had to do so today.
The three runes activated in sequence, glowing a sickly green before a chunk of the crystal parted, revealing a dark passageway beyond. At my side, I felt the zetacomb pulsing. Not strongly, but not faintly either.
“Ready?” I asked Samael, reaching out to take the light back from him.
He grunted in affirmation, and we stepped forward into death’s domain.
We crept through a long hallway, narrow enough to feel more like a side entrance. The light in my hand illuminated the path forward a few dozen paces, but it reflected unevenly off the various surfaces of the passageway. I could plainly see the crystal arches spaced every ten feet or so, but the recesses between were shrouded in darkness. Some of that was the styling, the crystal on the walls was rougher and less reflective. Other recesses revealed doorways that led into rooms buried in shadow.
The first couple rooms we examined were haphazardly constructed. Their shapes were irregular, the floors uneven. And they were completely empty.
The next room was not, though I immediately wished it had been. Six misshapen lumps were strewn about the floor, the last of which was lying in the midst of a burnt rune.
“Are those…people?” Samael asked. He nudged one of the corpses with his boot, turning it over.
The body was only a withered remnant of the man it had been. His skin had shriveled and dried, his hair had fallen out, and his face was permanently frozen into an expression of terror. I couldn’t find any clothes or identifying markings save for a small ring that was trapped on the bone of his finger. Even then, the sigil inscribed on it was unfamiliar.
“Guess we know what happens if you fail the wraith test,” I muttered.
We avoided the other side-rooms after that.
The main passageway curved, leading deeper into the fortress. After a few turns, I began to notice a faint glimmer in the path ahead. I extinguished my light and called a halt to give our eyes time to adjust. The crystal down the hall glowed a deep purple, as if it had been imbued with energy. It was no torchlight, but better than carrying a glowing target sign around.
I could feel the zetacomb pulsing steadily beside me while we waited. Based on the skirmish with Jorumgard, I was expecting a stronger reaction from the thing any minute now, but perhaps I was still too far away. I probably should have taken the time to figure out the range of detection, but there was no helping it now.
When we were ready to continue, I gestured for Samael to follow. Ordinarily, I’d have preferred to keep to the shadows, but our boots were clunking loudly enough there wasn’t really any point.
After two more turns, the hallway opened out into a large chamber. The room was more reminiscent of a palace’s grand hall than anything else. To our left, wide staircases on both ends of the room curved upwards, meeting on a small platform overlooking the room. Opposite the platform was a raised balcony, though not one accessible from the floor we were on.
Above us hung what I thought at first to be a purple crystal chandelier, its glow helping illuminate the room. Though that couldn’t be right – what I knew of Icel suggested he wasn’t into expensive decorum. More likely it was some kind of power source, similar to the veins of deep blue and purple I could see running through the walls.
Across the chamber, the hallway continued on, albeit without the benefit of the glowing chandelier to light the way. We had two paths to choose from and couldn’t very well go clomping through the entire fortress before our air ran out.
I took a deep breath and reached out to the zetacomb. To my surprise it flared strongly in response and I snapped my gaze up in time to see a shadowy figure dart away from the balcony above.
“We aren’t alone,” I warned Samael, drawing my crossbow.
“No we aren’t,” he said, gesturing forward.
Standing in front of the opening on the far end was a hooded figure. The robed being paused to watch us before turning away and retreating down the hall. The zetacomb pulsed unperturbed. They might’ve also been a wielder of Shadow Magic – hard to tell with so much energy echoing in the walls – but that certainly wasn’t Icel.
“So…do we follow the creepy stranger?” Samael asked.
“Well, we have two choices.” I said, stepping forward. “We can either put them in front of us, or go upstairs and risk them sneaking up behind us.”
“Forward it is then.”
We crossed the room carefully, my attention divided between the doorway ahead and the balcony above. The highly reflective surface of the walls in the room were starting to get on my nerves. One minute I thought I could see shadowy figures darting alongside us, the next there was nothing there.
“Question,” Samael said as we exited the large chamber. “Why are they letting us follow? Isn’t this a trap?”
“Probably.” I scanned the balcony one last time but saw nothing. Reluctantly, I turned my gaze back to the hallway ahead. “Be ready. Remember your training.”
The hallway was unexpectedly short. One minute we were in a darkened tunnel, the next we were in a small room. A dead end. In front of us was the cloaked stranger, a man standing in the midst of a circle of nine green runes. Nine glowing green runes.
The man tilted his head up, revealing his face. He seemed familiar somehow, but I couldn’t place him. The circle was muddying the zetacomb’s readings, so I reached out with my other senses and felt no warmth from within him.
“I don’t believe it!” Samael exclaimed, stepping forward. “Father? Father Vortimer?”
“Your Archbishop?” I frowned. “Didn’t you send him to Alyssra or whoever?”
“No, you interrupted me. Remember?” He took another few tentative steps into the room, though at least he didn’t lower his staff. “Father, do you recognize me? I’m your acolyte. Samael.”
Something about the glowing runes bugged me. If I could figure out the primed spell, then I might be able to counter it, but I could only understand a couple of the sigils. The others felt…off, as if the nature of the circle had been twisted somehow.
“Samael, I think you should get back here,” I warned.
Vortimer had removed his hood and was watching the boy with rapt attention. The man’s skin was pale, deathly white, definitely no longer one of the living. He had spread his arms wide, sleeves sliding down to reveal bony hands, as if he was going to embrace the kid.
“I failed to send him once and now see the result,” Samael said, stopping at the edge of the circle. “The man deserves better than this. Maybe I can send him again.”
“Don’t be foolish! He’s a lich now!” I pointed my crossbow at Vortimer.
“I know.” Samael tightened his grip on his staff. “But I have to try.”
Two things happened at once. Samael leapt forward in a spinning attack and the lich jumped backwards, clapping his hands together to activate the circle. Samael’s attack missed, but he recovered and repositioned for another strike. The runes flared and lifted off the ground, vanishing into the air as a wall of green energy crackled into place, dividing the room where Samael had been standing a second before.
I took aim at Vortimer’s head and fired. He lifted his arm and took the bolt on his forearm. Or rather, the bolt head struck him and lodged into bone, but the wooden shaft flared green as it passed through the wall and rapidly disintegrated.
“Should’ve brought my steel bolts,” I muttered as I scrambled to reload. “Samael! Don’t touch the wall!”
“Yeah, I got that,” he shouted back as he spun forward in another assault. Vortimer fended him off with surprising agility for a dead man. Apparently the Benefactor of Forgiveness was quite the fighter.
I finished winding up my next bolt, but there was still the problem of the energy field. The runes on the ground had gone dark, their magic expended, but a field strong enough to vaporize wood in seconds needed a lot of power…and something to focus it.
I reached out to the zetacomb looking for a large source of Shadow Magic and reeled backwards, finding it everywhere. Right, the walls were teeming with energy. Shaking off a wave of dizziness, I tried again, this time using my magic. I was able to hone in on a more precise response, a beacon flaring somewhere behind me.
“Hang tight,” I told Samael. “I’m going to go break his spell.”
“Sure thing,” Samael gritted out. Vortimer had conjured up a bone spear from somewhere and was forcing the boy back into a corner. I hoped his defense could hold.
I turned away and nearly ran headlong into four of the withered husks. Far from being the inert corpses we saw before, these creatures shambled towards me, reaching out with their shriveled hands. I dove to the floor and unleashed my bolt, striking one of them in the shoulder and pinning it to the wall. With the other three nearly on me, I dropped my crossbow and drew my sword. I swung at the closest one, throwing my weight behind the attack. My sword sank deep into its side. And stayed there.
“Oh, come on!” I kicked the beast in the chest and tried to wrench my sword free, but the blade barely moved an inch. I missed my old sword. Unenchanted weapons just weren’t the same.
The creature didn’t howl in pain or make any indication that I had hurt it. It just clawed at my leg and leaned forward, as if to bite my ankle. I let go of the hilt and kicked harder, sending the beast reeling backwards. Into the energy wall.
Green light flared and the husk let out a wail. It collapsed to the ground, sword still sticking out of the abdomen. Where its head had struck the wall, the flesh had just…melted away.
I didn’t have time for anything else as two pairs of hands grabbed hold of me, the weight of the withered beasts driving me to the ground. Claws scratched at my armor, scraped at my helmet. One of them tried to bite my arm, but the chitin held. Mostly. I could see deep holes in the outer shell.
“Tiernan!” Samael called out.
“Tiernan!” His voice was more frantic. “Look out!”
I managed to elbow one of the husks out of the way in time to see Vortimer push his hands forward, facing the wall. Light flashed and the screaming creature fell silent. More runes appeared around Vortimer’s hands until Samael intervened, diving into the lich and shattering his next spell. But it was too late. The wall began moving forward, approaching me.
I struggled to break free, rolling to pin the one I had elbowed under my weight, but that put me uncomfortably close to the wall. The other fiend was busy clawing at my face. I used my free hand to push him off just enough to unpin my right arm. Both hands free, I shoved the husk as hard as I could, buying enough space to roll out of the grip of the one on my back. That freed my leg enough for a kick. One more elbow to the face of the downed creature and I broke free, ignoring its cries as it began to melt away.
I scrambled to my feet and scooped up my crossbow, putting some distance between myself and the wall. I counted two creatures out of the fight, the third shambling towards me. The one I had shot had managed to wrench itself free, though its left arm was dangling loosely. My sword was a lost cause, already on the other side. I had three more bolts, a dagger, and whatever pittance of magic I could muster, plus the zetacomb as a last resort. I was so underprepared for this.
Samael seemed to be holding his own despite the necrotic magic being leveled at him, so I left him and returned to the main chamber, reloading my crossbow as I ran. Less than five steps into the grand room the zetacomb flared again. I looked up and saw the black-clad man kneeling on the balcony, bow drawn and pointed at me. I raised my crossbow and fired, missing by a hair. The man didn’t even flinch as crystal shards rained down upon him.
I tried to duck, diving close to the wall underneath him, but something struck me on the back of the head anyway, throwing me to the ground. I landed hard and slid into the wall.
I blinked, trying to clear my vision. I was dazed, but not in any sort of pain. My helmet was still on, though my right earlobe was starting to feel cold. I lifted my hand and felt around, only to find a chunk of my helmet near my ear was missing.
I managed to scramble back to my feet, still not quite able to focus clearly. Fumbling around, I found my crossbow and drew out another bolt, hugging the wall. If I remembered right, the overhang on the balcony would provide a slim angle of cover.
Back the way I came, the energy wall had almost reached the entrance to the room, led by the two husks that were still charging towards me. With three on one, I was certainly outmatched.
I had made it halfway across the floor. If I kept hugging the balcony, I might be able to get close enough to the exit ahead to only have to risk one or two more shots from my assailant above. But then I would have to leave Samael behind.
I reached out and found the large source of energy across the room, somewhere upstairs. At roughly twenty paces to the closest staircase, that was a long run without cover. I couldn’t see the archer from here, and the zetacomb was responding to everything around me, leaving me blind. If I could just get rid of some of this damnable background noise…
I looked up, spotting the crystal chandelier hanging over the center of the ground floor, slowly pulsing with purple light. Backing my way towards the exit, I waited until the husks were nearly underneath before raising my crossbow and firing. This time I threw some of my magic alongside the shot, enough to blow a large hole in the side of the chandelier.
The glow cut out as heavy crystal chunks rained down. The bottom half of the chandelier tore free from its frame, crushing one of the withered creatures. The impact freed the trapped energy, unleashing a shockwave that blew the other across the room and slammed me back into the wall.
Ears ringing, I reached for the zetacomb. The energy in the room had died down enough that it was no longer pulsing as loudly, though it was still reacting to the moving wall. There was no flare from above me, so I took that as my opening. I glanced at the exit a dozen paces away and then bolted for the stairs. With my damaged suit, I probably wouldn’t have made it back to the portal anyway. Already my nose and cheeks were starting to feel numb from the cold.
I looked back over my shoulder and confirmed the balcony was empty. Had the blast scared the archer off? The lower room was covered in a cloud of crystal dust so I couldn’t see if both of the withered creatures were down, but from the green glow I could tell I was running low on time. I took the stairs two at a time, racing up the long curved set, realizing belatedly there were more than I anticipated. The curving staircase was nearly as tall as three normal flights of stairs.
Battle fatigue caught up to me and I had to pause near the top to steady myself from a wave of dizziness. I knew I wasn’t in as good shape as before my imprisonment, but I had spent the last couple of months in rehabilitation. Yet here I was, struggling to catch my breath. Cursing my body, I leaned against the wall and forced myself up the last few steps.
The upper platform was fairly small, a dozen paces across with an opening on the left. I made it to the entrance, bracing myself against the wall so I wouldn’t fall over. The hallway went back a short distance before curving to the right. With the wall as my guide, I staggered forward as quickly as I could manage. I rounded the corner and saw a well-lit room about twenty paces ahead. My magic told me that was the energy source channeling the spell. There was just one problem.
The green wall was between me and the room. No way I was getting through.
I backed out onto the platform. Even here, the green wall was cresting the far set of stairs, covering roughly half the room now. I had no choice but to retreat.
I turned back the way I came and had almost reached the stairs when movement caught my eye. I brought my crossbow up to shield myself as the black clad man leaped down from somewhere, bladed staff in hand. The metal staff slammed against my crossbow, breaking it in half and forcing me back. I regained my balance and pulled out my dagger.
“Hey! What’d I miss?” a voice called out from behind me.
“Samael?” I asked, glancing back to see him on the far set of stairs. The top of his staff had melted, forming a pointed tip. A gleam of light revealed he was carrying my sword in his off-hand.
“I did it,” he panted. “The bone spikes were tricky, but I managed to – wait. Is that the Shadow Hunter? ”
I had to sidestep another blow from the black-clad man. The two of us were rapidly running out of room on the platform, and I was having a hard time breathing. The Shadow Hunter advanced again, so I flung my dagger at his head. He deflected it with his staff, sending it spinning over the railing, but I had at least interrupted his attack.
“Down the hall,” I pointed over my shoulder. “Room at the end.” Already most of the hallway was on his side of the energy field.
“I…okay.” He paused, looking back and forth between us. “Um, here. You can have this back.” He flung the sword through the field, sending it clattering at my feet.
“Thanks,” I said, stooping to pick it up. I grabbed the hilt with my left hand, half-expecting green energy to start racing up my arm, but nothing happened. Rising back to an aggressive stance, I shifted the blade to my dominant hand and started approaching the Shadow Hunter. “Go smash some runes,” I told Samael.
I saw my opponent ready for another assault and charged forward. Metal clanged against metal as he blocked the blow I had aimed at his head. Mindful of the wall of death creeping up behind me, I pressed forward again and again, driving him back a few precious steps.
The Shadow Hunter leapt backwards, landing gracefully on the topmost stair. He twirled his staff, rotating it to expose the pointed metal end on the bottom. I saw him shift as if to counter-attack, but a loud wail from the room below drew his attention.
My chest was starting to burn and I was losing my ability to focus. I had to end this now. I rushed forward, throwing my full weight behind my attack. The Shadow Hunter noticed belatedly and tried to bring his staff up to defend, but it wasn’t enough. I smashed into him, sending us both tumbling down a half-dozen stairs.
I landed on my back, my left arm pinned beneath me. My sword was missing, though I could hear a clattering sound below. I tried to push myself up, but a black-garbed arm forced me back down. The Shadow Hunter knelt on my chest, trapping me against the staircase. He leaned forward to place me in a chokehold. My armor prevented him from crushing my windpipe, but he didn’t have to. Even with my head pinned to the stairs, I could see the green energy field drawing closer.
I squirmed and struggled, striking and pushing at him with my right arm, but he held me firmly in place, content to wait. Green glow filled my vision. I could feel the hum of power pulsing through the crystal, vibrating stronger and stronger as the wall drew near. I made one last feeble attempt to break free, to no avail.
The field flickered once, twice. I figured I was finally blacking out from a lack of air, but then the room became deathly quiet. The green light vanished and the humming stopped. I hadn’t noticed just how long I had been listening to that steady pulse until it was suddenly no longer there. I wondered if I was dead, but the Shadow Hunter was still on top of me, looking around in confusion as well.
Footsteps rang out and my assailant reached into his garb, pulling out a knife and holding it to my neck. A quick adjustment and the knife edged under the neck joint, pressing up against my skin.
“Come no further,” he commanded.
The footsteps stopped, maybe a dozen paces away. I couldn’t tell.
“Tiernan?” Samael’s voice. “Do you want me to–”
“Tiernan?” the Shadow Hunter asked. After a brief moment of hesitation, he reached forward with his free hand and removed my helmet. “It is you,” he breathed.
I blinked, my eyes still adjusting to the sudden loss of bright green light. My face was already numb from the cold, and now I could feel a chill spreading down my torso. I was breathing heavily, both from exhaustion and from the thin air, but I still managed to squeeze out a question.
“You know me?” I gasped.
The Shadow Hunter leaned backwards in response, lightening his hold on me. He reached up to his helmet and peeled it off. Long dark hair fell out, dropping down past his shoulders – no, her shoulders. Fierce brown eyes stared back at me, from a face I recognized.
- 5 -
“Wait, you two know each other?” Samael asked, looking back and forth between us. “Then what was all that fighting for?”
“I didn’t know it was him,” Saria said.
“She attacked me,” I panted.
“You shot first!” Saria protested. She stood up and put her helmet back on. “We need to get you out of here.”
I rolled onto my side, nursing my pinned arm. Saria set about quickly retrieving what was left of our weapons, mostly her bow, staff, and my sword. The latter she handed to Samael for safekeeping. I was content to stay on the floor and let them do all the work.
“What’s wrong?” Samael asked Saria. “Can he make it back?”
“No,” she said flatly. She stared down at me for a moment. “But he might not have to.”
She knelt down by my head and addressed me. “I can open a rift to another place, a…passage between worlds. But it needs to be a place I’ve seen before so I can visualize our destination. A place I’ve been recently so it still exists as it does in my mind.”
In my dazed state, I was struggling to understand why she sounded so reluctant. My chest burned, my head hurt, and my eyes were having a hard time focusing. I tried to lift my head to nod, but ended up slumping against the stairs instead.
“So, what’s stopping you then?” Samael asked.
Thank you Samael.
“The places I can remember…we should not visit.” She held up her right hand, examining the black glove. “It would be better if it was some place you were familiar with.”
“Do it,” I rasped.
She hesitated again. “I will have to–“
She nodded and began to remove her glove. “I’ll be distracted for a minute,” she told Samael. “Watch over us in case any more creatures are nearby.”
“What are you going to do?” he asked as she knelt closer and placed her palm on my forehead.
“I need to read his mind.”
“You can do that?”
“Quiet. Keep watch,” she snapped.
Saria turned back to me and took a deep breath. “Try to visualize a safe place. Picture it as clearly as you can. And Tiernan…” she looked directly into my eyes. “Try not to throw up on me.”
She closed her eyes, her hand flashed blue, and I was no longer on the floor.
The pain, the fuzziness from before was gone – or rather, it was diminished. I could feel the pressure of all those sensations pushing at me, but from far away. Here I felt like I was floating. I didn’t need to breathe, I didn’t even need to walk to move unless I started thinking about it. It was an experience I’d like to have explored more, but I didn’t have time.
Focus! Saria’s voice echoed through my head.
I pictured a run-down house by the sea, sparsely furnished rooms. There was a wooden cabinet full of – wait, no, this wouldn’t do.
I pictured the square veranda, gravel under my feet, wooden walkway around the perimeter. In the center were two poles that had once held target dummies, though the remains had been tossed out, leaving behind only a few strands of straw to mark their existence. Outside the door were red azaleas and green trees and a dirt path. A spring breeze was rustling the leaves, cooling the air. I focused on describing our villa as I had seen it yesterday. There was the porch where Samael and I had sat, talking about the past. About Vortimer. About Delthoras.
The villa blurred and and faded away, replaced instead by a single-room cottage. Half of the glass from the window was on the floor. Orange sunbeams streamed through the walls as the sun’s light struggled to fend off the coming night. Delthoras lay against the far wall, hair disheveled, arms bound behind him. His leg was injured, but there was nothing in the room to prop him with, and the last bit of rope had been used on his restraints.
I was standing watch over him when he woke. He saw me, saw my arrow nocked and pointed at him.
“Do it!” he hissed. His hair had grown out, the greasy brown tips curling around his shoulders.
“Hurry! We don’t have much time!” He remained still, waiting for the shot we both knew wouldn’t come.
I lowered my bow and reached up to wipe the water running down my cheeks. “I can’t do it,” I confessed to him.
“You promised,” he said. It was worded like an accusation, but came out more like a defeated sigh.
I didn’t have the energy to argue. He was right, we both knew it, but I had already made my choice. Now I had to live with it.
The building faded away like a dream and I woke up to discover two figures towering over me.
“Is he all right? What happened?” Samael’s voice.
“Get him on his feet, we need to go,” Saria commanded. I could vaguely make out her figure in the dim purple light. She had her back to us, staff in hand, ostensibly preparing her spell.
The fuzziness returned and I felt like a bystander. I know Samael helped me up, that I took a few wobbling steps and almost fell again, but I have no conscious recollection of actually taking those actions. Everything was a blur up until the moment that Saria took my hand and guided us through a dark opening that had formed in front of us.
The moment I stepped into the rift, I felt an immediate change. The dizziness faded, just like in the dreamworld before. I was consciously breathing out of habit, but it didn’t seem like there was any air here – nor the need for any. There was no cold, no heat. Just us, at the entrance to a long tunnel.
Behind us I could see an entryway back into the crystal fortress. Our destination lay in the other direction, a glimmering portal a hundred or so paces ahead. Connecting the two was a long tunnel, formed of swirling purple energy clouds.
“Sort of like void travel, but slower,” I remarked.
“I don’t recommend that,” Saria warned, catching sight of Samael reaching out to touch one of the glowing clouds that made up the wall.
“What’ll happen?” he asked. His hand was still outstretched, but he had pulled back slightly.
“Considering where we are – or rather, where we are not – I wouldn’t be in such a rush to find out,” she replied. “You could be lost in the space between worlds.”
Now that I could walk by myself, Saria let go of my hand and moved to lead us deeper into the rift. Peering over my shoulder, I watched the entrance shrink as we moved away from it, finally vanishing a few dozen steps in.
Samael fell in beside me. Just a few hours ago I had been worried I pulled him into something over his head, but his tenacity had surprised me. All things considered, the boy had performed better than I had.
“Where are we headed?” he asked.
“Presumably, we’re headed back to the villa,” I told him. “How did you know she was the Shadow Hunter?”
“Recognized the staff. Been hearing a lot about… her in town lately.” He looked at me. “So, are you going to tell me how you two know each other?”
“We had…a mutual acquaintance.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell him. I was just worried that I might mess up Saria’s concentration. “She helped me fight against Icel before. Or maybe it was the other way around.”
“Then you were there hunting Icel?” he spoke into her back. “Maybe we can go back–“
“I doubt he’ll be returning,” Saria cut him off without pause. “I was hoping to cut off the head while his guard was down, but that seems improbable now.”
“Then we’ve lost him again,” Samael said. He fell silent, plodding along beside me.
We were roughly halfway through the tunnel. The walls of the shadow rift were rather hypnotic, the clouds of energy almost resembling thunderstorms swirling amongst the stars. It was hard for me to fathom that the magic of death could create something so beautiful.
Saria glanced back over her shoulder, looking at the boy. “Not entirely. Icel has a habit of striking back when threatened. We can set up another ambush for him. It just won’t be as unexpected.”
A bolt of lightning shot across the ceiling, arcing overhead to match the path of the clouds. Time seemed to dilate here, spreading out what would pass in the blink of an eye into several seconds. There was no thunderclap, just a vibration that thrummed and echoed long after the white streak faded from my eyes.
“We’re almost there,” Saria said. “Once we’re on the other side, you might feel a little nauseous if you haven’t done this before. Just take deep breaths and – wait.” She came to an abrupt halt and we nearly collided with her.
Some of the swirling bands of clouds ahead of us were glowing white, spinning more rapidly than the others. Streaks of energy crackled in the ceiling overhead and the walls around us. A particularly large flash raced down the tunnel and the path shifted, warping to the left for a moment before straightening out again.
“I take it that’s unusual?” I prodded. Those last three dozen steps looked pretty dangerous.
“Something is tearing the rift apart.” She looked around, searching frantically.
More flashes of lightning. The swirling walls spun faster, the storms within grew more violent. The zetacomb thrummed in response, each pulse increasing in strength.
Saria’s eyes went wide as she turned on me. “You! Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Um, I was busy dying?” I protested.
Her retort was cut off as the tunnel heaved underneath us, nearly sending us toppling. “Run!” she cried out. “And don’t touch the walls!”
Saria took off down the tunnel, us close on her heels. The lightning was strong enough now it was seeping out of the walls, sending sparks flying above our heads. The tunnel heaved again, bowing out to the right and I had to use all of my concentration to keep my footing. White-hot energy raced through the clouds beside us, casting everything in a pale blue light.
The tunnel warped a third time, sharply left, then right, the speed of which nearly squeezed the walls in front of us together. The path behind was unraveling, disintegrating into the void between worlds as the rift collapsed upon itself. The zetacomb burned hot, glowing bright enough I could see it through my belt pouch.
Ten steps to go, but we were stuck waiting for safe passage while the tunnel twisted and raged before us. We couldn’t wait long, the way behind was collapsing at an increasingly rapid pace. Already half the rift had closed together.
The walls bent from one side to the next in quick succession, like a rope bridge twisting in the wind. The curvature was such I could only catch glimpses of the shimmering portal ahead when the tunnel would change directions. Just when it seemed we were stuck, two giant bolts of lightning shot across the path before us and the tunnel settled into a calm if uneven path to the veranda.
“Go now!” Saria commanded, not waiting to see if we listened.
The experience of crossing those last ten steps was surreal. The ground beneath us twisted and heaved like we were in a giant windstorm. Energy sparked and crackled all around us. The stars I had seen before, tiny specks that represented worlds upon worlds, spun so rapidly that all I could see now was streaks of light. And carrying up the rear, I was acutely aware of the rift swallowing up everything seconds behind me.
Saria made it through, followed a pace later by Samael. The last of the rift collapsed upon itself, the portal wavering as the walls closed in. I took two last steps and dove forward, tumbling through the exit as the portal rippled and vanished behind me.
I landed on gravel, kicking up a spray of rocks as I skid to a halt. My sensations returned all at once, slamming into me like a wave. I lay there on the ground, coughing and gasping for air. My side burned fiercely and I frantically fumbled around for the latch on my belt pouch. Tearing the strap open, I grabbed the zetacomb and tossed it on the floor, my hand flaring up in pain like I had just seized hot coals. The zetacomb shone like a miniature sun, the white light strong enough to obscure the red lettering that usually covered the surface when it was activated.
I remained on the floor, panting. Feeling returned to my face and I found I had cut myself on the rocks when I slid. Blood mixed with gray dirt on my fingertips as I felt my right cheek.
When I finally had calmed enough to stand, I pushed myself up onto my knees, only to have Saria storm over and slap me hard enough to send me back to the ground.
“What kind of idiotic move was that? Draining a shadow rift while we were still inside! I thought you knew better!”
“Traveling through a void rift wasn’t part of the plan!” I protested. “Besides, I didn’t do it intentionally! It just happened on its own!”
Her mouth dropped open. “You mean you don’t even know how to control it?”
“Well, you guys didn’t exactly leave any instructions when you buried it in the snow.”
“There shouldn’t have been need for any. You’ve seen this all before!” She walked over and knelt next to the zetacomb. The light had faded, the orb now shone its regular blue. Spindly red lettering covered the crystal surface like a web, pulsing out of rhythm with the rest of the orb. She picked it up, holding it gingerly between her fingers. The motion sent the red letters spiraling around the surface. “You’re supposed to use the ritual, take control of Icel. Bend him to your will and make him defeat himself.”
“If you know what to do with it, why did you leave it to me? Why didn’t you take it?”
She hesitated, looking down at the glowing ball in her hand. “Because I might become like him,” she said in a whisper.
“Like…Icel?” Samael asked, moving to stand next to us.
I looked at Saria, at the sorrow hiding in her eyes. When she didn’t respond, I filled in for her, “I think she means like Jorumgard.”
“It was the corruption, wasn’t it?” I asked Saria, approaching her. “He drew on too much power, couldn’t fight the mage spirit inside of him.”
“What do you mean?” Samael asked, looking back and forth between Saria and I.
I took a deep breath. It was going to come out sooner or later, and I had to know.
“Do you remember the man I told you about before?” I asked him. “Delthoras?”
“Yeah, what about him?” Samael frowned.
“He was a swordsman. But he also was a strong wielder of Shadow Magic. And like many others who tap into that power, he became…addicted, reliant on it. But wielding Death also leaves you vulnerable to the dead, and Icel managed to trap one of his former lieutenants inside of him.
“Normally, my friend was strong enough that the mage’s spirit couldn’t break through. But drawing on Shadow Magic taxes the body and the mind, and in those moments the mage would try to break free, to seize control. Usually for a few brief moments, but each time longer than the last.”
I turned back to Saria. “You were there, weren’t you? I saw the cottage.”
She didn’t respond, remaining fixated on her feet. But the flush in her cheeks betrayed her.
“You watched as he lost.” I lowered my voice. “You witnessed him become Jorumgard.”
“Yes,” she hissed. “And I’ve hated myself every moment since.”
“Hold up a minute.” Samael stepped between us. “Are you saying–“
“What happened?” I cut him off, keeping the focus on Saria. “He wanted you to kill him?”
“I made a promise long ago that if he began to turn–“ Tears welled up in her eyes and her expression melted. “I thought I could save him,” she said, barely louder than a whisper.
“So you think he’s still in there?”
Saria reached up to wipe her eyes and the moment passed. In the span of a few breaths, the turmoil vanished from her face and she was once again the Shadow Hunter.
“Through my inaction, countless thousands have died. I will not make that mistake again.” Her voice was cold. She pressed the zetacomb into my palm. “I trust that next time you’ll be more responsible with this.” Then she turned and stormed off, heading towards the kitchen.
I stared at the crystal sphere, considering. The siphoned energy had dissipated, leaving the orb inert once again.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Samael asked.
“I was going to. I just thought it would distract from the mission.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Not as much as I should,” I admitted.
He started to speak, stopped himself and headed outside instead, shaking his head. I remained behind in the veranda for a few moments longer, feeling guilty for letting the kid down. After all, I was the one that had held us back today. He deserved better.
And he wasn’t the only one. I put my doubts aside and returned my attention to our guest.
“Don’t you men ever clean?” Saria asked when I joined her in the kitchen. She opened the pantry doors, sending a cloud of dust into the air, sending us both coughing and sneezing. “Well, I guess that explains the smell,” she said when she could breathe again.
The tomatoes and onions Samael had bought were all brown and rotten. I didn’t even want to touch what was left of the mushrooms. The potatoes looked fine, though not nearly as fresh as they had before.
“Does your shadow rift suck the life out of everything when it appears?” I asked her. I wondered if I should just torch the pantry and build a new one.
“Not usually,” she mused. “Although, we generally used it in abandoned sites.”
“Ugh, maybe I should get Samael to clean this mess.” I closed the doors again to block some of the stench.
“Tiernan,” she put a hand on my shoulder to stop me. “A shadow rift leaves a small trace behind, like footsteps in the snow. Icel will be able to find it, and through it, us. I don’t know how long we have, but we should prepare.”
“Ah. So I choose our destination poorly.” I hadn’t intended to get the village involved. Not even the angry old onion merchant deserved the fate Icel’s forces would bring.
“There wasn’t a lot of time to explain. It was hard enough trying to keep my thoughts from bleeding into yours.” Her face took on a light shade of red. “Though I seem to have failed there as well.”
“I waited six months for any kind of word from you two. What happened?”
“We felt it would be…prudent to draw Icel away from Cythera before he ran out of wraiths. By the time Delthoras caught up with me and explained what was going on, we were too far to help. Going back would’ve led him straight into a throng of magi.”
“I’m half-surprised Icel didn’t return anyway. From what I can determine, he isn’t wont to give up on a place of power so easily.”
“He wasn’t as powerful back then. And there was one thing he wanted more than power.”
“I mean to get him back.”
“Tiernan, didn’t I tell you–“
“You told me that I needed to learn how to use the zetacomb. What better way than to practice on Jorumgard before going up against Icel?” I saw her mouth open in protest and held up my hand.
“Saria, I saw him recognize me. He hesitated when he had a chance to kill me. I know he has to be trapped in there somewhere, and if this thing can do everything you claim, then shouldn’t I take the chance to find him?”
She looked down at the zetacomb in my hand, reached out a finger as if to trace the inscription before catching herself and pulling away. “And if you can’t?”
“Then you take your shot.”
I could see the emotions warring on her face. I knew she wanted to hope, I had felt it. But she was afraid of failure. That was a feeling I understood all too well.
“Fine, I’ll give you a chance. But if it doesn’t work…” She turned away. “I will keep my promise.”
The soft thudding of footsteps preceded Samael. “Hey guys,” he said, poking his head into the kitchen. “You need to come outside and see this.”
We followed behind. I could tell from the way he was tensed something had unnerved him. As he led us back to the veranda, I noticed our footsteps had made light tracks in the dust. Had we kicked up that much when we exited the portal?
He led us out the front door and down the dirt path to the road. Green leaves rustled overhead as we passed the trees lining our yard. Something seemed different. When we were on the porch the other day, I remembered seeing more…color. I glanced back, saw the azaleas by the door weren’t in bloom anymore.
Samael led us to the road, but didn’t stop. We crossed the small ditch that gathered the runoff from the rains, though it was just a bed of dry grass at the moment. We crawled through some bushes and emerged onto our neighbor’s farm.
I didn’t know our neighbors very well. They were a couple that kept mostly to themselves, or at least we kept away from each other. I did know they planted tomatoes. And as we stepped out amongst the rows of tomato plants, we found the red fruit hanging everywhere.
“What is it you wanted us to see?” Saria asked as we came to a halt. “Tomatoes?”
“Ripe for harvest,” Samael said, reaching out to cup one of them.
“We’re not here to steal tomatoes, are we?” she frowned. “In my village, outsiders were always trying to take our food.”
“It was spring when we left,” I said, catching onto his meaning. I looked up, found the afternoon sun, estimated its position relative to the villa. Sure enough, the sun was further south in the sky than before. I turned to Saria. “How much time lapses when you take your shadow rift?”
“I normally travel out and back in less than a day,” she said defensively. “Although, I typically don’t unravel my rifts while I’m using them.”
“Less than a day? This was five months!” My knees hit the dirt as the realization sunk in. Eight months. I missed my chance. She’d have been long gone by now.
“Icel could’ve hit another town by now,” Samael filled in, misunderstanding completely.
“Tiernan, remember what I said earlier,” Saria warned.
“Samael, go check on the village,” I ordered him. “And be careful.”
He nodded and took off, cutting across the tomato field to get back to the road. Once he had disappeared from sight, Saria turned to me.
“Tiernan, what is this really about?”
She looked down at me. A long, hard, measuring look.
“You don’t really care about Icel, do you?” she asked.
“Of course I do!”
“If that was true, then why did you send the boy off to town alone? You should’ve been right there with him! Instead you’re here, moping around in the dirt.”
“He can handle himself just fine.” Somehow that ended up being the wrong thing to say.
“I’m sure he can. But you don’t seem very concerned about all of the other townsfolk who can’t.”
I didn’t have an answer for that.
“What happened to you? You used to be headstrong and in the middle of all the action. Now I find you hiding out on some remote farm like you’re trying to avoid a fight!”
“I wasn’t hiding!”
“Then what have you been doing? Didn’t you promise long ago, back at that tavern you nearly burned down, that you were going to see this through?”
“I was just…getting ready. I’m still not quite ready for this.” Some enchanted weapons and a magic catalyst would be nice.
“And when will that be?” she demanded. When I didn’t answer quick enough, she let out a sigh of exasperation.
“Tiernan, I’ve spent the past year hunting down Icel’s lieutenants and lich lords and creatures I don’t even want to describe. I’ve fought tooth and nail trying to slow his reach, but it’s never enough! He brings more into the fold faster than I can stamp them out!
“ You can do the one thing I cannot. Kill the one being my arrows cannot touch. I don’t buy that nonsense earlier about not knowing how to use the zetacomb! I bet you know exactly what needs to be done, you just choose not to. What are you so afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid…” Even I knew my words rang hollow.
Saria cocked her head. “This is about that pendant, isn’t it?”
“The one hanging in the kitchen.” She paused for a moment. “I saw it you know,” she said in a lower voice. “The house by the seaside.”
I met her gaze. “I am here to kill Icel. Don’t think that I’m not.”
She stared back at me for several more seconds. “Then you’d better start acting like it,” she said before turning back to the villa.
Samael returned that evening with the news I already feared. The village was gone. Most of the buildings still stood, but the people were no more. The curse of the villa had consumed Heartsdale after all.
We ate a quiet meal of vegetables picked from the nearby fields. Saria was still unhappy about it, but she relented now that there was no one to miss them. When we finished, she gave me a dirty look and retreated to the guest room without a word.
“Did I miss something?” Samael asked once we were alone.
“I…have not been entirely truthful with you,” I began.
“Wait here for a moment,” I said. I got up and retrieved the silver-leaf pendant from the kitchen, setting it down on the table in front of us.
“This was a gift to me from a lover. The first one I’ve had in many years.” I fiddled with the wiring while I talked. “I’m not allowed to see her again until Icel is no more.”
“O-kay?” Samael said, looking confused. “Did her mom kick you out?”
I glared at him until he held up his hands in apology.
“The truth is…I used to care about adventure and glory. I used to seek out fights, whether I needed a thrill or because I thought I was correcting some great injustice. But now…” I set the pendant back down and folded my hands. “Now I just want to live in a house. Maybe grow a garden.
“I’m tired of lonely nights in a tavern, of seeing my friends slowly fall away. Of always living with my life on the line, wondering if I’ll make it to the next dawn.”
I looked up at Samael sitting across the table, saw him watching me patiently as I confessed what I’d suspected for a while now.
“I think I’ve outgrown my old life. Even if I’m not quite free of it yet.”
I waited for him to say something. Waited for quite some time. When he finally broke the silence, it was with a simple, “I see.”
“I’m still committed to defeating Icel. I’m still intent on saving–“ Oh, he didn’t know that part yet. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, trying to remain composed under his questioning gaze.
“I want to try and use the zetacomb on Jorumgard,” I told him. “I think it’s worth the risk. Best case, I get my friend back and we can have another ally against Icel. Worst case…well, one less obstacle in our way. Only problem is I don’t know how to find him.”
Samael put his hands on the table and leaned forward slowly. “You said Icel is trying to harvest souls of magi?”
“Yes, but there are a lot of places–“
“The sanctum halls under the Cathedral house the bodies of the most distinguished amongst the Order. Some of those, I am told, were proficient with magic.”
“You didn’t mention this before.” I frowned.
“You only told me what was going on a few days ago, remember?” His voice was bereft of malice, but it still stung.
I’d learned at the academy not to trust other people, but of late I’d begun to reconsider. If I’d been more forthcoming earlier…
“Surely they’ve all been sent? Wouldn’t they be useless now?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. The modern form of our ritual has been in place for decades, but there are a few hundred years worth of history buried in those halls. Some of the eldest might not have been.”
“It’s worth a try. I’ll let Saria know.” I scooped the leaf pendant off the table, and clasped it around my neck. I didn’t want to risk it being left behind again. In a sense, Icel’s counterattack may have saved it from being stolen.
Samael was staring pensively at his hands. “All this time, I’ve been wanting to go back. Even more so after facing that…abomination of my Father. That was Jorumgard’s work, wasn’t it?”
“Now you’re telling me I’m finally going to see him again.” Samael looked up at me. “I thought I’d be looking forward to this, but in truth, I just don’t know what to feel. Or how I can succeed where the others of my order failed.”
I got out of my chair, crossed over to his side of the table. “You’ll do fine. You handled yourself well today.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “You’ve been a better student than I ever was. You should feel proud.”
“Thanks,” he replied. He still looked a little uncertain, but some of the tension had drained out of him.
“Get some sleep. We’re going to have a busy day tomorrow.”
- 6 -
Merindor looked much the same as we had left it. Gray and white buildings with blue rooftops arranged in large concentric rings, built in a shallow bowl. The fires had gone out and the refugees were gone, but the city still stood.
The first time I had gazed down upon it from these hills, I had been impressed by the sight. Now I couldn’t help but notice how empty the streets were. Markets were silent, chimneys sat smokeless, and no merchant caravans approached from the plains that surrounded most of the city. The grand avenues that encircled the city were broken, the bowl permanently marred by a giant crater on the eastern side of town. And one side of the once-white marble walls of the Cathedral of Light was now scorched black.
“I can sense shadowfiends all around, but they are scattered, unfocused,” Saria said. “It’ll take weeks to hunt them all down.”
“So, does that mean there’s no one in command here?” I asked.
“Hard to say,” she said, looking at me. “Icel mostly seemed interested in searching for more wraith material he can leech. He never seemed to really care what happened to the scraps that don’t work out.”
“Except for Jorumgard.”
“Except Jorumgard,” she agreed. She looked back at the city, squinting as she focused on the Cathedral below.
“Is he still down there?” Samael asked.
“I think so,” Saria replied, adjusting the bow slung over her shoulder. “We’re a bit far, but I’ve grown accustomed to his type of magic.”
Samael was leaning on her staff. We were short on weapons and neither of them were all that comfortable with ransacking the houses of the dead, especially not the boy. He had known many of the people in the village, bartered with them at the market. Crawling through their homes and witnessing their decomposing corpses had all proven too much for the boy.
I couldn’t stomach it myself, for a different reason. Those people had died because of me, because of my carelessness and ineptitude. Saria was right. I hadn’t been taking this seriously. No more stalling.
I fingered the silver leaf pendant hanging around my neck. Three tiny balls of flame swirled within, the best I could manage on short notice. My sword was in its sheath at my side, though I doubted it would get much use today. A belt pouch on the opposite side carried the zetacomb.
We made our way into the city. I let Saria lead so she could guide us around any creatures that strayed across our path, thinking the less I had to rely on Shadow Magic today, the better.
For the most part it wasn’t necessary. We had to hide amongst the dead remnants of a florist’s shop while a trio of withered creatures shambled past. Later, we waited in a windowless alley while a misshapen doglike beast passed by. We could have taken either group without much trouble, but it wasn’t worth the risk of announcing our presence.
As we drew near to the cathedral, we were able to spot an eerie purple glow emanating from the windows.
“Well, that looks friendly,” Samael said.
“I guess we have our answer,” I agreed. I had a feeling once we got close enough, I’d find the sigils matched those from the ritual chambers of the black crystal fortress.
Saria tugged on my shoulder. “Tiernan, a ritual that powerful will interfere with any sensing I can do,” she spoke quietly. “We will need to use our eyes and ears from here on out.”
“Understood.” We already knew what to expect. There were only a couple people capable of channeling such a spell.
We reached the edge of the grand plaza. Only dead grass and iron lampposts stood between us and our destination. The main doors were slightly ajar, still broken from when Jorumgard had smashed his way inside.
“It will take a minute for you to activate the incantation,” Saria said. “I’ll hold his attention until then.” She pointed at Samael, “Your job is to make sure we’re not disturbed by any surprises.”
The boy didn’t protest, didn’t scowl and argue. He just silently nodded and kept his gaze on the building ahead.
We waited a bit longer, keeping watch for any sign of shadowfiends nearby. I didn’t like the thought of being out in the open, Saria less so, but as the minutes ticked by without movement, I knew we had to take the chance. When I felt it was time, Samael and I raced across the lawns, eyes scanning the thoroughfares that branched out from the plaza like spokes on a wheel. Saria followed behind with her bow drawn, watching the skies. We needn’t have worried; the only sign we saw was the deep purple light emanating from the broken doors.
A glance through the opening revealed nobody was in the immediate vicinity on the other side, at least not the half I could see from this angle. I wanted to slip in and scout the room, but the gap wasn’t wide enough to squeeze through, and the side door I had used earlier was locked. I tried to push on one of the doors to widen the gap, but it didn’t budge. I waved Samael over to help with the stuck door and the two of us leaned into it. The door jerked forward a foot with a loud groan from the iron hinges and we froze, listening for any sign we were heard.
I didn’t hear any shouts or footsteps, so I carefully poked my head around the door. Two columns of wooden pews stretched from a couple dozen paces in front of us to the glowing altar room on the other end. The candles were extinguished, but the purple light illuminated the room just enough to see. The room was still.
“We can’t stay out here forever,” Saria warned in a whisper.
“Let’s go.” I waved them in.
I was experiencing a sense of déjà vu as we crept forward, hugging the pews on the right. The bronze sculptures affixed to the pillars silently watched as we passed. Except the one near the front row. The top half of that one was missing, courtesy of Jorumgard from the last time I was here.
As we drew closer to the front, I was able to make out the silhouette of a man standing before the altar. I couldn’t understand the runes and sigils he was using, but my gut feeling said this was indeed a resurrection ritual.
We paused behind the first row, stepping carefully to avoid the wooden debris. I slipped my hand into my belt pouch and pulled out the zetacomb. The crystal orb was cool to the touch, but already carrying a faint glow as it reacted to the magic in front of us.
“Ready?” I asked Saria.
She nodded, nocking an arrow to her bow. Together, we stepped out from behind the pew and leapt over the low rail surrounding the sanctuary. I began tracing the inscription on the orb, the red letters lighting up as they activated. We crept forward, approaching the entrance to the altar room. Saria dropped to one knee and lined up her shot while I continued onward. A dozen paces now. I lifted my arm and pointed the zetacomb at the man hunched over the altar.
The man stopped his ritual and turned, the purple sigils hovering frozen in midair. I saw the bony exoskeleton that covered his arms, his legs. His left eye glowed red as it scanned the room, flickering between Saria and I in jerky movements, almost as if it was suffering from spasms. I stood gaping at the man, my spell forgotten.
It had been over a year, but I could still recognize him. His short spiky hair wasn’t as dark as it used to be, but the stern brow and sadistic smirk were the same. I recognized the bony exoskeletons now. Wraiths. The last time I saw Icel, he consumed one to replace his severed arm. Now I had to wonder how much of him was still left.
“Tiernan! To your right!” Samael shouted out, shattering the silence.
I glanced over to see a black-garbed figure emerge from the stone annex, purple runes encircling his gloved hand. I dove backward, barely missing Jorumgard’s blast as it tore into the wall behind me. The zetacomb slipped out of my grip and rolled across the floor. I saw it fall off the edge of the sanctuary, but there was no time to grab it now. I scrambled behind the lectern, only to have the top half explode into splinters, raining dust and debris onto me.
When I could, I snuck a peek around what was left of the stand. Jorumgard’s third wave was aimed towards the main hall. Good. Samael must’ve gotten his attention.
I spotted Saria kneeling across the platform, bowstring drawn, enchanted arrow aimed at Icel. She fired, only to have the purple shaft be deflected away before it could strike his head. I gestured for her to fall back.
Taking a deep breath, I drew on some of my body heat. After a silent count of three, I spun away from the lectern and shot a pair of firebolts at Jorumgard, interrupting his barrage. I sent another pair in Icel’s general direction, before turning and fleeing towards the others.
I had just leapt onto the railing when something slammed into me from behind, sending me hurtling into the front pew. A flash of pain, the crunch of wood snapping, and I found myself lying on my side amongst the shattered remnants of the bench. Groaning, I scrambled to rise, but my left arm wasn’t cooperating. I somehow managed to roll onto my back and lay there panting while a wave of dizziness dulled my vision.
I could still hear the sounds of battle. Samael’s battle cry, the sound of metal striking metal, the twang of Saria’s bow. I knew my allies needed help, but I still couldn’t move. I cursed myself. I should’ve known better than to turn my back to Icel.
A wave of purple shot from right to left in front of me, smashing into one of the stained glass windows on the wall. I paid the broken glass no mind. The brief light had illuminated something else. The zetacomb lay a half dozen paces from me, out of reach.
I attempted to lift my right arm and was somewhat successful, though my hand was shaking violently. Feeling a little emboldened, I tried next to roll to my left, to see if I could crawl closer to it. A black glove grabbed hold of my hand and gently pushed me back down.
“Hold on,” Saria said, kneeling over me. She inspected my left arm, took one of her gloves off, and began channeling something. “I can’t hit him,” she spoke while her magic worked. “He can feel my shots coming.”
“You’re too dependent on the magic now,” I told her.
“I know.” She nodded. “But I needed it to survive. To get this far.” She finished her spell and removed her hand, but remained kneeling, looking down at me. “If not me, then who?”
I didn’t answer her question. She didn’t seem to be expecting one. She tightened her grip and helped me to my feet, holding my shoulder for a moment while I regained my balance.
I spotted Samael taking on Jorumgard near the eastern wall. The bloody gash on the older man’s face suggested Samael had won the first round. But now Jorumgard’s iceblade was out and he was backing the boy into a corner. Another wave of purple energy from Icel collided into the pillar behind Samael. The blast blew a large hole in the marble, sending the top half crumbling to the ground.
“We need to split them,” Saria said, releasing her grip. “Now!”
“Give me a moment.” I said, trying to steady my hand. “You take Delthoras.”
She nodded again and drew her belt knife. Without waiting for my spell, she plunged into the melee with a howl, drawing Jorumgard’s attention off Samael. Towards the front I could see Icel winding up another shadow wave. Saria’s move would be for naught if I didn’t intervene now.
I tapped into the energy I had stored in the necklace. Drawing out one of the orbs of flame, I thrust both hands forward and shot a stream of fire, leaving a burning wall between Icel and the others.
Icel turned to face me, his red eye outshining the glow of the fire. I saw the runes around him shift, the spell change its target to me.
Drawing on the second orb, I aimed another stream of fire directly at Icel. He raised his arms to shield himself as a six foot tall wall of flame rushed towards him, blocking him from sight.
“Oh, you finally decided to join us?” Samael asked, hopping over a pew to reach me. Despite his quip, he looked a little shaken.
“Grab that please.” I pointed towards the zetacomb. I kept my attention forward, not wanting to be caught off-guard by Icel again. My fire covered the entrance to the altar room, but the flames from my first blast were already beginning to die down.
“You really should take better care of this,” Samael said. I felt a cool sensation as he pressed the crystal orb into my hand.
I held the zetacomb up in front of me. The blue orb was pulsing faintly, drawing on the energies of the ritual in the other room, or maybe just all the Shadow Magic being flung around. The red lettering was gone, having faded almost immediately after I fumbled my spell. Could I do it? I had intended to practice on Jorumgard, but with Icel here…
Movement from ahead drew my attention. “Get behind me!” I snapped to Samael. He obeyed without question, leaping out of the way just as a purple wave emerged from the fires before us.
Hoping I hadn’t misjudged the crystal’s powers, I thrust it forward and reached out to the energies within. Through the zetacomb, I could feel the wave approaching. The orb glowed brighter, matching the luminosity of Icel’s spell as it crashed into us.
The wave passed on, shattering the pews on either side of us, but leaving us unscathed. We stood there in the midst of the destruction, a glowing ball of white light in my hand, hot to the touch.
I held onto my link to the zetacomb and noticed runes and weaves lingering in the air, like an afterimage. Necromantic runes that I could recognize before but not read. I traced them out, replicating the pattern, and felt a wave of shadow emanate forth, crashing into something in the room beyond. The zetacomb’s light dimmed and the runes faded from my view, leaving me blinking in the middle of the room as a cold nausea filled my stomach.
“I’m not sure I want to feel that again,” Samael said, shivering beside me.
“Me neither,” I agreed.
Now I knew why so many people were afraid of this artifact. Even though it had just been for a moment, I was able to sense the fabric of a magic I barely understood. The clarity of that brief instant, the vividness of the lines and connections made even the light streaming through the stained glass windows seem dull in comparison. I had to struggle to shake off the lingering desire to draw on that power again.
Focus. We’re here for a reason.
“We need to be careful. He’s not down yet.” I turned to Samael. “Ready?”
He adjusted his grip on the staff in his hands, but his reply was cut off by a cry of pain and the sound of clanging metal.
I looked over, saw Jorumgard walking into the eastern annex. Saria’s knife was lying on the ground, but I couldn’t see her. I had a feeling I knew what was about to happen.
The zetacomb pulsed in my hand, reacting to something building in the altar room. “No!” I breathed. I couldn’t be in two places at once.
I felt Samael’s hand on my arm. “Go,” he said. “I can hold off Icel.”
I hesitated. “You sure?”
“I can keep him busy.” He removed his hand and smiled. “Trust me.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. Well aware that time was short, I hurried over to the stone annex. The wall of fire had faded to an easily crossable trail of embers.
I spared one last glance at Samael, saw him taking up a defensive position near the opposite wing. I tried to tell myself he’d be fine. He’d defeated Vortimer on his own and emerged mostly unscathed from Jorumgard. By all accounts, he was stronger than I gave him credit for.
There was no more time to dwell on it anyway. I was at the door.
I ducked inside and had to squint to see. The granite and marble of the main hall gave way to a darker stone. The small windows high up on the walls made it apparent this wing was intended to be lit by candlelight, of which there was none currently. I could vaguely make out the sparse furniture in the room, some kind of tall cabinet, a desk, some chairs, and a heavy chest against the near wall. The walls themselves showed more signs of habitation, decorated with numerous hanging tapestries, all marked with the insignia of a silver hand.
I ignored them, focusing on the shadowy forms of Saria and Jorumgard. He had her pinned against the opposite wall, hand on her throat. Both of her hands were around his neck, trying vainly to push him off. His back was to me. If I moved quick, I could probably strike him before he noticed.
I looked down at the zetacomb in my hand. We came here today for a reason. Was I going to give up now?
I traced the inscription, began quietly chanting the words. Red letters flared across the surface. Saria saw the glow, her eyes widened in realization.
I continued the ritual. A single red thread appeared beneath the surface of the orb and wound its way around, branching out, forming a web. Jorumgard turned, suddenly aware of the Shadow Magic ritual unfolding behind him. He let go of Saria, raised his hand as if to cast a spell, only to have her grab hold of his arm and fight to keep him in place.
The zetacomb blazed a brilliant blue, outshining even the sunlight from the window. Through it and the ritual I could feel the others in the room. Saria was like a cloaked presence, though one brushed with a shadowy residue. Jorumgard was drenched in it, his presence dwarfing hers. But there was something more. Very faint, almost indiscernible, I could feel another being inside Jorumgard.
Delthoras! I focused on that signal, directed the ritual’s power at him as I repeated the words he had passed on to me. I tried to recall that moment, when I stood in the Catamarca graveyard while he explained the orb’s purpose to me. I focused on my memories of him, the man I knew. And as I finished the incantation, the world was swallowed in light.
A cold wind blew through the frozen canyon, forcing me to shield my eyes from the small flurries of disturbed snow. The bitter cold stung my cheeks, but I ignored it. I was close now.
My companion and I followed the narrow canyon as it curved to the left. Thar’okk kept a watchful eye on the bluffs above, looking for any sign of our pursuers.
The two of us had been hounded relentlessly for weeks. Ice trolls, giant hairy beasts, even a dragon tried to stand in our way at one point, albeit not for long. The battle axe around his belt needed to be sharpened, but he did not complain. He could swing the large club in his hands just as well.
It was strange at first having a big hulking troll companion, but I had grown to like the guy, even though I couldn’t understand a word he spoke. He owed me a blood debt for saving his village, and I trusted him to watch my back. A trust he had already repaid threefold.
I glanced up, following his gaze. The blue slate walls towered above us almost a hundred feet, the tops capped with a thick layer of snow and ice. Even though we saw no movement, I was uneasy from being confined to narrow quarters. This would be the perfect place for an ambush, but there was no other way forward.
We rounded the corner and saw the canyon come to an end. The path continued on, leading into a small cave that had been tunneled into the far wall. Jagged letters were carved around the entrance in a language long forgotten.
“This is it!” I whispered in excitement. Long months searching, slogging through trial after trial, we were finally at the end. I brushed my hands across the lettering, feeling the stonework.
Thar’okk opted to stay outside, too tall to enter without hunching over. It was probably better that way, with the interior no larger than a small room. It didn’t need to be. The only object it held rested in the center, embedded in a small short altar.
The Sword of the Ancients.
I carefully wrapped my hands around the hilt and drew the blade out. The sword shimmered with magic, the edges giving off a pale fog. I tested the edge and was pleased to learn that even after all these years, the blade was still sharp and ice cold to the touch. But the real prize was within.
The sword had passed through the hands of a hundred master swordsmen. All their knowledge, all their experience was stored inside, waiting, ready to be tapped by the next wielder. And now I held the sword.
A loud horn echoed though the canyon. The ice trolls were coming.
I drew my old steel sword, passing it to my off-hand as I strode outside to join Thar’okk. My friend already had both his club and axe in hand. There wasn’t a whole lot of room at the end of the canyon, maybe a circular space a dozen paces across, but it would have to suffice.
We didn’t need to wait long. Within moments a half dozen ice trolls burst around the corner. At eight feet tall, wearing ragged animal skins, and brandishing weapons of their own, they made for an intimidating sight. The alpha of the pack snarled at us through his blood-stained teeth. We stared at each other for a moment, until he pointed his spear at us and they charged forward.
I moved to intercept the two on the left, raising my offhand to parry a club strike from one while spinning to avoid a claw swipe from the other. The swiping troll overreached, allowing me to score a gash on his forearm. My spin finished and I found myself between the two trolls.
“All right, let’s see what this thing can do,” I said, bringing up the icy blade. I called out to the ancients, seeking to draw upon their power.
I barely managed to leap out of the way as the first troll’s club smashed into the ground. I tried calling out again. All the legends said the bearer would be able to commune with the spirits from the past, yet I heard nothing, felt no power racing through me. I raised the iceblade to block the second troll again, but it felt no different than using my ordinary weapon.
Why won’t you answer me? I cried out as I dropped into a defensive stance. I had been counting on the ancients to guide me through this quickly, but it seemed that would not be an option. Why? Why? Why? The questions rang out with each blow I traded with the trolls.
The unarmed one fell to the ground first, leaving me to contend with the club-wielder. On and on we danced around each other. His swing was a hair too slow to catch me, but I was unable to penetrate inside his reach. I had to settle with slowly nicking and whittling away at the flesh on his exposed limbs. Until finally, he too staggered forward and fell.
I planted my swords in the ground and leaned on them, panting heavily. I was sweating despite the freezing temperature and the exhaustion from my journey was catching up with me. I looked over to check on Thar’okk and found his battle had already ended.
Five trolls lay on the ground on the far side. My friend was one of them, the alpha’s spear sticking clean through his back. A short-lived victory as the alpha’s head was no longer attached to his body.
I stared, blinking at the scene before me. Realization set in. Thar’okk was gone.
I pulled the iceblade out and threw it across the canyon. The frozen sword landed in the snow with a muffled thump. “This is all your fault!” I shouted at it. “If only you had helped!”
I knelt by my troll companion, resting my hand on his forehead while I recited a prayer to guide his soul onward. I lingered there long after I finished, my grief warring with regret. The sword wasn’t to blame. I was. I needed to be stronger.
The canyon darkened as the sun dipped below the top of the walls. I had to leave soon if I wanted to make it out by nightfall. I spent one last moment beside Thar’okk.
“Your blood debt is repaid, my friend,” I told him. Then I rose to my feet and looked around for my stupid new sword.
I’m such a failure.
The spirits in the sword refused to talk to me, so I mastered the magic of the spirits to drag my answers out of them. This Shadow Magic was unpleasant to work with at first, but over time my worries faded as my control strengthened. As a symbol of my mastery, I infused my magic into a new weapon, Shadowsbane. With the Sword in one hand and Death in the other, I was able to reach a new pinnacle of strength and sought out new challenges.
My travels led me to a village in a forest, one being tyrannized by the local bandits. The villagers had been on the verge of giving up all their winter supplies, but I was able to chase off the extortionists. Even so, the townsfolk seemed uncomfortable around me. My apprentice would have told me it was because they weren’t accustomed to such violence, but how else were the ruffians going to learn? Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised at their relief when I turned down their offer of free lodging.
But there was one woman who wasn’t disturbed by my presence. A dark-haired archer with impeccable aim named Saria. She had witnessed my magic and wanted to learn how to protect her people.
We spent time together under the falling leaves of the forest. A hunter for her village, she was no stranger to sleeping outdoors. The further away from the disapproving looks, the better. Until the day we strayed away for too long.
I knew from the smoke that we were too late. Even as the sun dipped below the hills, the fires from the village were enough to light up the valley. The screams loud enough to ring in my ears.
I had shown mercy the first time. I would not make that mistake again. I offered to hunt down every last one of the ruffians that had ravaged her village, but the damage was already done.
I had failed. I had thought they’d be safe, that the bandits would heed my threats and warnings. My hubris had carried us too far from the village to help, and now Saria was the one to pay the price.
I’m such a failure.
I was looking for her. We were supposed to rendezvous after that disaster in Pnyx, but she was days late. I was tired and hungry and above all sick of tromping through this damn forest. It had been too long since I slept in a nice warm bed or ate a meal that wasn’t half-charred.
Up ahead I could see a glimmer of light, a break in the forest canopy. A clearing! It was an uphill climb, but I was sick of walking amongst gloomy shadows. I forced myself forward, climbing over tree roots, wading through thick underbrush, until at last the trees gave way to a large field of grass.
In the middle of the clearing stood a small cottage, a thin wisp of smoke curling out of the chimney. On the near side of the cottage was a garden. My stomach rumbled at the sight of ripe vegetables growing out front. Some smaller bushes were planted around the back, maybe flowers. None of them were in bloom, but they were starting to look good too. I stood for a moment, taking in the peaceful tranquility of the scene.
Wait, something seems off.
I crossed the field, headed for the small path that led to the door of the cottage. That’s when I saw them. Through the front window, I could spy a middle-aged man wearing robes. And in his arms, embracing him tightly, was Saria.
I was stunned for a moment. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
She took hold of the man’s face, pulled him into a deep kiss.
I clenched my fist. How dare she do this to me? I’d been out here for a week. Scouring the forest for any sign of her, fearing for her safety. Had she been here all this time? The man in the window turned, having spotted me. And he smiled.
My rage took over. The Shadow Magic came willingly, rushing forth into my body. I was going to show them both, even if it meant I had to rend their flesh with my bare hands.
Wait, no! This is wrong!
I unleashed a wave of vengeance. The blast tore a channel through the grass and blew a hole in the cottage, turning the western wall into splinters. The garden plants withered, turned black by the passage of Death.
But it wasn’t enough. The pair had survived. The man stood pointing at me, Saria scrambled to nock an arrow to her bow. I reached back, feeling for the hilts of my swords.
This isn’t how I remember it!
I had relived this scene dozens of times in dreams and nightmares. I forced my eyes closed and concentrated, retracing every detail etched into my memory. Every sight, every sound. Power coursed through my body as I drew myself back to that place, willing to face it one last time.
When I opened my eyes again, I was greeted by the sight of a burning cottage. Smaller brush fires dotted the clearing, and the setting sun glowed red through the haze. Standing in front of the cottage was the robed mage from earlier. He spotted me and stepped back, startled.
“He’s mine! You can’t have him!” The mage said, scowling. I didn’t recognize his face, but now that I was free of the illusion, my connection to the zetacomb restored, I could identify his presence as the dominant force inside Jorumgard.
I tapped into the power flowing through me and pushed. The mage’s scowl deepened as he staggered back another few paces.
“You’ll never defeat me!” he snarled.
I pushed harder and the mage’s form dissolved into a black cloud of dust. The dust swirled around the clearing for a moment, cackling at me, before dispersing into the wind. As it vanished, I felt his presence fade to a faint form lingering at the edge of my awareness. I set my worries about the mage aside and went looking for my friend.
I found him on the other side of the cottage, leaning heavily on his iceblade. At his feet lay the ruined corpse of a man, a freemage I now knew to be Menelaus. I crossed the clearing, careful to avoid smoldering debris. I had almost made it to him when something in the grass tripped me and I nearly lost my balance. Looking down I could see a jagged metal shard, a remnant of Shadowsbane.
Delthoras looked up as I approached. I reached out, rested my hand on his.
“This isn’t real,” I told him. “You’ve been trapped in your own nightmares.”
“What isn’t real?” he said wearily. “Look around you. I failed them all.”
“You told me he was a wraith.” I gestured at Menelaus. “You saved him from being bound to Icel.”
“And Saria?” He looked distraught. “I couldn’t stop myself! I tore right through her!”
“Saria isn’t dead,” I sighed. “Yet. And her village didn’t burn down, it was conquered.” I squinted at him. “At least that’s what you told me.”
“He’s…still dead.” I winced. “But you told me you buried him with his tribe. That his spirit watches over his forest.”
“What about you?” He peered at me. “I let you down.”
I shook my head. “I understand why you did what you did. And I probably would’ve done the same.”
“I wanted to come back.” He lowered his voice. “I had every intention of returning…”
“I know,” I said. “I heard what happened.”
He stared down at his sword. Through the zetacomb I could feel it thrumming faintly, responding much like the mage had earlier. Maybe it did hold the knowledge of a hundred master swordsmen, but it also was a source of unending grief for my friend. The lock trapping him in his own prison.
“You should let it go,” I said, stepping back to give him room.
He blinked at me in confusion.
I pointed at the sword. “Get rid of it.”
“You know what this means to me, right?”
“I do. But I also know what it has done to you.”
He stared at me for a long moment. Then he pulled the sword out of the ground and held it up, admiring the icy fog that tinged the edges of the blade. “This was supposed to be my crowning achievement,” he said, rotating it in his hand. “I succeeded where so many had failed.”
“But now it’s time to move on.” I kept my voice gentle. I could still feel the mage’s presence far away, like a faint buzzing near my ear, but it seemed to be growing stronger, louder.
“We had a good run, didn’t we?” Delthoras said, talking to his sword. He turned it horizontal, rested one hand near the tip of the blade.
The buzzing intensified. The sky darkened as a swirling black cloud blotted out the sun. As Delthoras brought his weapon down, I heard a voice cry out, “No!”
The blade snapped on his knee, splintering into two. The fragments glowed brightly for an instant before the light winked out and a shockwave rattled the clearing. The mage’s presence vanished abruptly along with the dark cloud, leaving the two of us alone on top of the grassy hill. The sword pieces cracked and splintered, crumbling into a pile of metal shards upon the ground. The Sword of the Ancients was no more.
The smoke had cleared, leaving behind a blue sky. The fires had been put out, the grass regrown. Only the north and west walls of the cottage still remained, but someone had planted new flowers, including a solitary Starflower in the back. Yet, even this peace was still a dream, one that I could feel was beginning to fade.
“It’s gone,” Delthoras said, staring at his empty hands.
“You can get a new one,” I said. “You were skilled enough before you found that thing.”
“No.” He looked up at me. “I mean my magic. It’s gone.”
“Ah.” I could feel an invisible force tugging on me, trying to pull me away. I fought it, struggling to remain a moment longer, but I couldn’t think of any words to say.
The tops of the trees vanished, disintegrating into a spray of green sparkles. The sky cracked as if someone had shattered a mirror and then began removing the broken shards. The force pulling on me grew stronger, and I felt my tenuous grip slipping.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” I told him.
I stopped resisting and let myself be pulled away from the cottage. The clearing vanished behind a wall of trees, then they too faded into a murky fog. The fog covered everything, blocking my vision, blanketing my senses, until it also vanished, leaving nothing but darkness.
I woke to cold stone against my cheek. Three narrow slits of light greeted me from across the room, though somehow they seemed dimmer than before. I tried to rise up, but had to settle for sitting against the wall while I waited for circulation to be restored to my legs. As I shifted around, my hand brushed against cold glass. I pocketed the zetacomb before I could lose it.
The others in the room seemed not to have fared much better. Saria leaned against the wall to my left, an unconscious Delthoras cradled in her lap. She glanced over at the sound of my movement.
“He’s gone,” she said.
“The mage spirit?”
She nodded. “I felt him just disappear.” She frowned. “What did you do?”
“I broke his sword.” I pointed to what remained of the Sword of the Ancients lying in the middle of the room.
She rested her hand on his face and traced the stubble on his cheek. “I can’t sense his presence anymore.”
“He…might not be able to cast spells anymore.”
“I see.” She was silent for a long moment, just running her fingers through his hair. Her next words were almost a whisper. “Thank you.”
I figured enough feeling had returned to my extremities to risk standing again. The silver leaf pendant bumped against my chest, a single orb of fire still circling within. I was utterly exhausted, but I still had work to do.
“Are you all right?” I asked Saria.
She shook her head. “You were occupied for a while. I had to expend everything I had to keep him from killing both of us.”
“Catch up when you can,” I told her. I took a few steps and found out I needed to use the wall for support.
“Tiernan,” she called out after me. “Be careful. It’s gotten awful quiet out there.”
I murmured in agreement, still feeling a little woozy from the ritual. Then I realized what she meant.
I staggered forward, fingers sliding on stone as I forced myself through the doorway, out into the main hall. There were no flashes of magic. No sounds of battle.
What had I done?
- 7 -
Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows that were still standing on the west wall, casting green, blue, and yellow onto the rubble strewn about the main hall. Most of the pews had been smashed into pieces; a few rows in the back were the only ones still intact. Some of the marble columns had gaping holes, others were no more than a broken base.
Saria was right. It was quiet out here. No walls of flame, no blasts of destruction, no cries of battle. I had a growing fear that I knew who had won.
I slowly made my way through the debris, needing to pause every few steps to brace myself on whatever surface I could find. There was still a numbness in my arms and legs, but I couldn’t afford to wait any longer for it to fade.
I found him at the base of the frontmost pillar. My legs gave out at the sight, and I scrambled to hold onto the pillar to remain standing. The marble surface was rough, marred by jagged gashes from the wraiths during my first visit here, and I cut my fingers as my grip slipped. I collapsed onto my knees and settled for just leaning against the column.
Next to me rested the body of Samael. His mouth was open in a frozen grimace of pain and his chest had been torn open by what appeared to be a giant claw. Saria’s staff lay resting at his side, inches away from his slumped hand.
I knew this was going to happen. I knew from the very moment I agreed to take him with me that he would end up like this, and for some reason I brought him along anyway.
“Why?” I tried to wipe away the tears blurring my vision, but more took their place. “Why did I think I could help you?”
I received only silence in answer.
I don’t know how long I remained there. Minutes, hours, I was too tired to tell. All I know is that the lights from the windows had shifted when the zetacomb started pulsing again.
I cleaned my face as best as I could manage with my sleeve. I didn’t know his order’s ritual for the dead, but I did remember him closing their eyes. So I closed his. “Let it be as Alyssra wills,” I told him. Maybe his goddess could bring him some comfort in death.
I could see colors swirling from within the altar room, felt the zetacomb’s resonance grow in intensity, until suddenly both cut out abruptly. I didn’t like what that portended.
I managed to climb back onto my feet. The numbness was gone and after a moment of unsteadiness, I found I could walk normally again. I glanced down at the sword still sheathed at my waist, then at Saria’s staff on the floor. I wasn’t sure I had the strength to wield either right now, but the staff might give me better reach. Besides, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate time to use a weapon from the Shadow Hunter.
Staff in hand, I climbed up onto the sanctuary. Scorch marks covered the platform everywhere, courtesy of…well, me. I passed the broken lecterns and came to a narrow gilded arch. The altar room waited beyond.
Despite all the carnage in the main hall, most of the windows in this room were still intact, bathing the room in deep reds and blues. In the center of the room was a large gilded box, the top covered in some kind of mixture of blood and powder. Slumped over the altar, his back to me, was Icel.
I almost thought the blood was his, but the zetacomb reacted to his presence, beginning to hum faintly. The necromantic runes from earlier were gone, the ritual complete, but aside from some misshapen lumps discarded against the sides of the room, I didn’t see any other creature around.
I approached cautiously. At the sound of my footsteps, Icel stirred, rising to his feet. He turned to face me and then I understood. Two red eyes glared at me, the effect ruined by the irises darting about as if they were nervously twitching. The powder must’ve been the remnants of the summoned wraith.
“I’m here to kill you,” I said, raising my staff. I took a few more steps into the room, scanned the shadows again for any surprises.
He glared at me in silence for a long moment. Then, with a hiss, he lunged.
I managed to angle my staff to catch both of his claws, but his charge was strong enough to slam me into the wall. I felt a sharp pain in my chest as he pinned me with the staff. I kicked at his shin, but the exoskeleton protected him. My palms stung where the metal pressed against the cuts from the marble. I thought I was going to suffocate until he let go with his right hand only to thrust his claws at my face.
I managed to raise my left forearm fast enough to soak the hit. Clenching my teeth against the pain, I pressed my palm against his cheek and summoned forth a burst of flame. Icel howled and stumbled backwards, clutching at his face as the stench of burning flesh filled the air. I used the opportunity to stagger away from the wall, dropping the staff so I could assess my wound. The gashes felt deep and my sleeve was soaked with blood, but I didn’t have time for that now.
I dried my dominant hand on my pants and drew my sword. Icel had recovered, one claw gingerly brushing the half of his face that was turning red. I didn’t wait for him this time. I charged forward, scoring two quick hits on his arm. But like his legs, the exoskeleton from the wraiths seemed to shield him from any substantial damage. I saw his fingers twitch as he prepared to counter and leapt backwards, putting the altar between the two of us.
This was bad. If the exoskeleton could block most of my attacks, that shrank my strike zone to a narrow band on his upper chest and his face. Magic seemed to work, but I only had a little left. I reached out to the zetacomb, but it was still recharging, its power too weak to try another ritual.
Icel leapt onto the altar and dove at me. I managed to duck and spin away, quickly putting the gold box between us again. He stepped back, raised his arm, and sent a shower of blue-white missiles at me. I scrambled behind the altar, crouching down while the hail of bony projectiles rained down around me. As the rain slowed, I crept around the far corner, hoping to catch him off guard.
Icel was still facing the spot where I had been, but as I moved to strike, one of his red eyes spotted me. He took the cut intended for his face on one of his clawed hands, the blade lodging an inch into the bone. I let go of the hilt and fell backwards as he brought his left hand down, smashing into the altar where I had been standing. I scrambled to my feet while he dislodged the blade from his hand and sent it clattering across the room.
Unarmed now, I tried to back away, to maintain distance, but he was closing too fast. I was caught between the altar and the back of the room, the only way out behind him. He raised his claws, rushing forward, and I countered with the quickest spell I could get off.
A spray of colors streamed forth from my hands, lighting up the room and blinding the two of us. I took a few unsteady steps backwards and to the side, hoping those wraith eyes were as sensitive as they seemed. Out of options, I unbuckled the belt pouch at my side and drew out the zetacomb. I squeezed my eyes shut and focused on the orb. Through it I could sense Icel, pinpoint his presence.
But it also allowed him to sense me.
It was a risky gamble, but twice now my magic had struck him at close range. I needed him to sling some Shadow Magic around, and from the sudden warmth within the orb, it seemed like I was about to get exactly that.
My vision cleared, returning in time to see a wave of purple race towards me. But I was ready. Zetacomb in hand, I absorbed the brunt of the attack, even though it forced me back a few steps. The rest of the wave continued on, colliding into the wall behind me, shattering the stained glass windows.
The orb in my hand grew hot, the white glow intensified. I gave in to its power, opened myself fully to its magic. The glass shards raining down around me seemed to slow, each one glinting in the light of the runes and weaves that had comprised Icel’s spell. I could reconstruct it again, send the blast back at him, but I didn’t think that would be enough. I would have to perform the ritual. I just needed to buy enough time.
Icel moved towards me, following his blast with another charge, but in my hyper-sensitive state, his movements looked sluggish. I had enough time to study the bony patterns protecting him, the blood still dripping from his right claw, and the intricate lines holding him together. That made sense. He had bound the wraiths to him using his power, the fusion was just another spell.
I studied the glowing purple tendrils attached to his legs, the sigils and magic locks that kept everything in place. And I replicated it all. Right under his feet.
He stumbled forward, nearly losing his balance as he found himself suddenly bound to the floor. His red eyes darted around the ground frantically, and as he began clawing at the hidden tendrils, I realized they too could see the magic weaves.
The afterimages in the air faded along with some of the zetacomb’s glow, but I paid it no mind. I began tracing the inscription, red letters flaring up with each word I read. I hoped I could pull this off. Delthoras had been taken over by a single mage spirit. Icel was strong enough to maintain dominance over six.
A red thread appeared under the surface of the orb, standing out in contrast to the brilliant blue glow emanating forth. Icel had nearly clawed through all the tendrils binding one foot and began working on the other. I sped up my chanting, racing to finish the ritual before he could break free.
The zetacomb resonated with his presence. I could feel him, a force even more powerful than I had suspected. I could feel the wraiths too. Six smaller forces entwined with his.
I glanced again at the tendrils on the ground. If the zetacomb had the power to bind souls, surely it had the power to unbind them too.
I shifted my target, aimed the ritual at the wraith spirit in Icel’s free leg. Icel seemed to realize what I was doing. He looked up and for the first time, I saw fear on his face.
“No!” he snarled. He seized the last few tendrils binding him and tore them out of the ground. Icel was free.
I finished the last phrase of the chant, switching some of the words so the spell would relinquish control rather than assert it. Icel managed to take two steps toward me before the zetacomb flashed and the seal binding his right leg to them shattered. Almost immediately, I felt the wraith’s spirit rush past with a hollow screech as Icel’s hold faltered. The spirit vanished and his leg began to disintegrate, crumbling into dust. Thrown off balance, he fell to the ground, where he began to claw his way forward.
I kept the power flowing into the ritual and redirected it at one of his arms. Within seconds, the seal binding that wraith also shattered and he lost an arm. Undeterred, he kept clawing closer, having crossed over half the distance between us.
I broke the seal on his other arm, then his leg, and his two eyes. He howled at the last, suddenly bereft of vision. As the final wraith dissipated into nothingness, I let go of the zetacomb’s power. The orb’s light faded, the absorbed energy spent.
It took a moment for me to adjust to my normal vision, but once I could see again without blinking profusely, I looked down at the pitiful creature at my feet.
“A lot of lives have been lost because of you,” I said, kneeling down. Icel craned his head in the direction of my voice, even though his eye sockets were empty.
I glanced at the pendant hanging around my neck. The wire frame had been compressed, the leaf bent out of shape, but a tiny orb of fire still hovered within.
I placed the zetacomb against Icel’s forehead, pressing the crystal roughly against his skin. Then I drew on the orb in the amulet. “Never again,” I said, unleashing the last of my power. A loud blast rippled through the room, rattling the glass shards on the floor.
When the dust settled, I rose to my feet. The zetacomb lay in pieces, irrevocably shattered. And my mission here was finished.
I suppose I should have felt elated or relieved that it was finally over. But all I can recall while standing there, staring out at the gray sky beyond the open windows, was that I was very, very tired.
I don’t remember falling asleep. I just woke up and found myself lying on the ground in the sanctuary.
The cathedral had darkened considerably with light no longer streaming through the windows. For a moment, I panicked, realizing where I was, until I saw the broken glass and the crater on the floor of the altar room behind me.
So it really was over.
It all seemed so surreal. A year and a half ago, Icel had invaded Cythera. Ever since, it seemed like events kept spiraling out of that encounter, forcing me onto this path. And now I was finally free. I could go see her. If she was still there.
My gaze fell on the nearby marble column and the broken form of Samael slumped against it. No, this wasn’t some grand victory to go celebrate in a tavern. Somehow I couldn’t help feeling that I had lost.
I attempted to rise to my feet, but the pain that shot through my left arm reminded me I hadn’t emerged unscathed. Now that I had time on my hands, I took a closer look. I was going to need some serious medical attention, more than I could manage on my own.
Carefully this time, I managed to rise to my feet. Stumbling through the hall, I made my way to the stone annex. Saria and Delthoras were in the same positions I had last seen them in, though Saria looked somewhat more relaxed while she slept. I sat down nearby and watched.
Eventually Delthoras stirred, his movements waking Saria as well. The two of them looked at each other in confusion, before awkwardly separating. I waited for one of them to speak, but when no one did, I filled the silence with an explanation of what had transpired. Delthoras appeared rather distraught whenever I mentioned Jorumgard, but remained quiet until I finished.
“I could see, you know,” he said softly. “I was a witness to everything I did. And utterly helpless to stop it.”
“It’s over now,” Saria said, resting a gloved hand on his arm.
He nodded solemnly, and the room settled back into another uncomfortable silence. Normally he was the one speaking up, whether it be to crack a joke or explain the next crazy idea, but I could understand why he wasn’t in the mood. I wanted to say something as well, but I hadn’t really thought this far ahead. How can things go back to normal after everything that had happened?
Saria came to our rescue once again. “Del, can we talk?” she asked, in a lower than normal voice.
He nodded in assent, but she waited. I saw her cast a furtive glance in my direction and took the hint. With a grunt, I pushed myself up and stumbled to the door.
Outside the room I collapsed against the wall. I would have given them more privacy, but I was just too exhausted and most of the main hall was a mess anyway. Resting my head against the stone, I closed my eyes and tried not to overhear too much. It didn’t help. Their voices were still loud enough to overpower the silence.
“I’m leaving,” Saria said. “I’ll take care of the fiends outside, but…” A long pause. “I can’t do this anymore,” she finished, sounding pained.
“The fighting?” Delthoras asked.
“No. Us.” There was a loud sniff.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued, her voice wavering. “I like you, I really do. But I can’t go through that again. I can’t…”
Now I felt guilty about not moving further away.
“Why not?” Delthoras again, trying to hold himself together.
From the sound of her voice I knew she was in tears. “Twice now, I’ve nearly had to kill you. Do you understand what that feels like? How my dreams torment me night after night?” She paused to catch her breath. “I can’t go through that again.”
“I’m sorry,” Delthoras said.
“Me too.” There was a bit of a shuffle, as if someone was rising to their feet. “I love you,” she whispered. “But I’m not the one for you.” Then I heard footsteps approach the door.
The footsteps stopped next to me. I sheepishly looked up at her, expecting a rebuke. Instead, she just told me she was going for a walk before continuing deeper into the main hall.
I waited thirty heartbeats before re-entering the room. Delthoras was sitting cross-legged facing the wall, staring at his folded hands. He looked up at the sound of my approach.
“Hey,” I said, taking a seat next to him.
“Hey,” he said, looking back at his hands.
“I um, heard most of that.”
“I should have known it would happen sooner or later.” He sighed. “People around me always suffer.”
“You’re doing a lot better than me.” I stared at my feet. “I let a kid die today.”
“The boy with the staff?”
I nodded. “I thought maybe I could help him, the way you helped me. Instead, all I did was get him killed.”
He put a hand on my shoulder. “I’ve lost a lot of friends along the way.”
I shook my head. “The stupid part is that I could have prevented all of this months ago. All I had to do was try.”
“You can’t win them all.”
I thought he said that to cheer me up, but when I looked over I caught him staring at the place Saria had been sitting.
“I suppose not.” I fingered the leaf pendant. Devoid of magic, it hung lifelessly around my neck, nothing more than a tangle of wires.
“So, what are you going to do next?” I asked him.
“I’m not really sure.” He frowned. “I feel like I have a lot to make up for.”
“There’s a refugee camp twenty miles to the northeast. You could start there.”
“Are you coming with?”
I shook my head. “Actually, that’s the other thing I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’m…thinking of retiring. Settling down.” I squeezed the pendant, imprinting the lines on my hand. “Hopefully with somebody.”
He nodded silently for a moment. Then, he looked up in sudden realization, “You mean Saria?”
“No!” I burst out laughing. Longer than was polite, but I hadn’t laughed in a long while and now I kept picturing Saria trying to mother a bunch of kids. When I finally calmed down enough to speak again, I tried to mollify Delthoras. “Not Saria. I promise.”
“Who then?” He peered at me suspiciously.
“I’ll tell you if it works out,” I said. It was a small comfort to see a hint of his old self. I think that is what gave me the confidence that he would heal, in time. But he wasn’t the only one that needed healing.
I slowly rose to my feet. There was still one more thing to do. I glanced back down at him.
“Can I ask you a favor?”
We buried Samael on top of a hill overlooking the city. It was against the Order’s tradition, but it felt like a fitting place for the lad, allowing him to watch over the town below.
I tried repeating one of the rites he had given the monks in the cathedral, but I couldn’t remember all of the words and ended up changing halfway to a more traditional eulogy. I hoped Alyssra wouldn’t mind. When I finished, I knelt next to the small cairn we had built and gave a more personal farewell.
“I’m sorry,” I told Samael. “You deserved better.” When I ran out of words, I let my tears take over.
Saria and Delthoras waited at a respectful distance. They didn’t have to stay. The three of us had already said our goodbyes, but I appreciated their presence all the same.
By the time I finished, the clouds had parted, revealing a clear sky. Thousands of stars glittered in the night. A parade of lights calling out, each one beckoning with a new adventure. Once, I might have been enthralled by the possibilities, but not tonight. Their radiance seemed dimmer, as if the bright futures they promised were fading away.
I had made my choices. Now I had to live with them.
I pulled my cloak tight to ward off the chill wind, one eye on the dark rain clouds looming on the horizon. I’d need shelter later this evening, but for now, I could sit and watch the waves of grass rippling over the hills.
The sea of green was broken only by the occasional black obelisk jutting out of the earth. Edges worn round by the passage of time, the purpose of the monuments had been long forgotten. Four of them stood in the center of the bowl-shaped valley below, framing a large ring engraved in the stone on the ground. From within the circle I could access the void. Yet today, like most days, I was just here to wait.
I wasn’t quite sure what to be looking for. I had never seen anyone emerge from the void, and I was usually too disoriented to notice the details when I travelled myself. So I sat amongst the tall grass, waiting, silver pendant clasped in my palm.
I laid on my back, staring up at the gray clouds moving across the deep blue sky. There was not another soul around for a hundred miles.
Was I too late? I had missed our appointed time by months. Surely she wouldn’t have waited that long?
I had seen no sign, no markings of another presence. There was no note, no explanation – not that she would be able to write one anyway. Just silence and the rolling waves of grass.
“Where are you, Katerei?”
Maybe Selax hadn’t given her the message. I wasn’t certain how Selax would be able to know the time was right, that I had fulfilled my end of the bargain. Or perhaps he had told her and she chose not to come. Nine months was a long time to wait, especially since we had parted on…less than ideal terms.
A few times during the weeks I had been out here, I attempted to go back, to find her so I could at least know what happened. But for some reason I was unable to find the way. It was as if Cythera had ceased to exist. The paths that led there before had vanished. Had something terrible happened?
The air here was getting colder, the days shorter. Winter was coming and my supplies were starting to run low. I didn’t want to leave lest I somehow miss her arrival, but what kind of message can you give to someone who can’t read?
My thumb traced the silver wire, fingering the depression where the metal had been bent inward. Would I ever see her blue eyes again? Would I be able to feel the warmth of her embrace?
I closed my eyes. Perhaps one day I would give up, accept that she wasn’t coming. Perhaps one day I would admit I was just putting off the inevitable, waiting in vain hope because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Perhaps one day I would be forced to surrender and move on.
But that day was not today.
Katerei last edited by
Since I’ve already read most of this, some of it multiple times, I don’t have much left to say.
Still sad T cut off his braid.
Still laughing at the silverware.
Samael still my favourite character.
…Aww, and there he goes. I knew you’d kill him off eventually, but it’s still sad. So is Saria leaving Delthoras.
And after two and a half years, still no happy ending for T and Kat? sulks Surely she’ll show up. She has to.
453 last edited by Troyen
Fading Lights is finally here and it was well worth the wait I keep being afraid that this is a dream and I’ll wake up, but surely my subconscious couldn’t have made up a story this awesome!
I don’t know if I should make any effort to round up my previous comments on the first two chapters and the soundtrack, but anyway here’s the comments I typed as I read the entire chronicle with the soundtrack, over the last few days ^_^ My comments are divided by track on the soundtrack, though at times I may not have switched songs at exactly the right place (maybe you should put marks in the text to clarify when to switch to the next song? Maybe that would just distract from the story, I don’t know.)
The Burning City:
Everyone in the caravan has lost their home, and even worse, they’ve all lost family. It’s really sad
Lots of characters introduced in this chapter. I don’t know how many of them will be relevant to the story, but you made each of them real ^_^ I guess it’s a lot of little things like that that make the difference in making a story a truly immersive experience. Also, palpable tension between Tiernan and Elysia. I like Elysia, she remains strong even though things keep getting worse & worse. She’s a good leader ^_^ I remember why I wanted to ship her with Tiernan.
Music: Track 1 is intense! I feel like it’s not only a ballad to burning Merindor, but also an overview of the adventure to come? (Also, the timing of my reading worked out well, as I got to the forlorn ending of the track as Tiernan was thinking of Katerei)
This cathedral scene is still so creepy! Tiernan is a brave person. I wonder if he had a backup plan, if he died in his quest to take down Icel, how would Katerei find out? The cathedral sounds pretty.
It’s interesting that Samael agrees that he was the cause of a lot of people dying. Who did he kill? Did Jorumgard have an army of living people? Was Samael actually a formidable warrior? o_O Or did he just feel guilty, like it was his fault innocent people died? I’ll keep reading.
Tiernan is so serious and cool ^_^
General Marcus was a member of the order? Was he allowed to fight? By the way, all the details about the city, the religion, and the military are yet more touches that help make the story real and immersive ^_^
More scariness, with hiding beside the pews. I actually have a mental image of the cathedral sanctuary, I don’t know if it’s accurate , but it says something that I have a image, as I don’t usually picture things while I read.
Music: I guess I must’ve heard this track back when I watched Legend of Korra, but I don’t remember it. I enjoy the creepy-mysteriousness ^_^
Wraiths! I feel for Samael, trying to fight while Hilda clings to him. It’s hard to do anything while little girls cling to you >_> But, he did have his opportunity not to join the fight.
Intense fighting. (Tiernan really needs to learn how to use his zetacomb, because he’s in quite a dangerous position )
Tiernan burns down the church. I guess its congregation is already gone, but it still seems like bad form to destroy such a beautiful piece of architecture…
It was sweet of Tiernan to defend & carry Hilda though ^_^
Music: Matches the fight scene quite well! Unlike the other songs so far, it’s not very noticeable that the track is repeating over &over while I slowly read & take notes, it sounds fairly seamless.
I like the mention of an amulet that Tiernan lost in a volcano, an acknowledgment and partial explanation of how the heroes were more overpowered in the early TSes ^_^ (I can’t say I don’t wish he’d find a similar device now though…)
I really like these scenes of rest & reflection between the action scenes. It gives the action meaning and gives us something to focus on ^_^ I also really like Elysia. She really wanted Tiernan to stay, but encouraged him to go anyway because it had the best chance of ending the terrors. I don’t know if I could have done that? I do kinda wish she had gone with him. I wonder if she would have, if Tiernan had been adamant about it…
So sad that T feels like a disappointment ;_;
Music: This is another track that flows well on repeat ^_^ It’s a really pretty song, melancholy but not intense. I love how it sets the tone for the scene.
I feel bad for Samael It’s pretty amazing that T was willing to take him along, knowing what a commitment that was likely to be. He’s cool.
Music: Somehow I didn’t notice the song while reading the section, until I stopped to type my comments. Is that a good thing, that it’s unobtrusive and obviously fits well with the story? ^_^ It’s a pretty song.
Azaleas in the Wind:
Four weeks since the last chapter? Also, Tiernan is a good teacher ^_^
I wish I could see the house that T & S took over. It sounds so pretty!
Sad little note that T thinks about Katerei all the time, even when he’s busy doing something completely unrelated to her, like tearing out an abandoned garden Poor T
I wonder what happened to the villa’s owner?
Music: Today this is my favourite so far ^_^ Fun and productive ^_^ Between this song and the pretty descriptions, I feel like Heartsdale-area would be a really nice place to live.
Do you want to know which scenes made me cry? What gets to me is that Tiernan doesn’t want to be a hero anymore, but there’s no way out of that responsibility He will probably be saving the world for the rest of his life (which I’m afraid will only last as long as this chronicle - really hope I’m wrong about that!).
Has Tiernan been stealing silverware? (and does he have to polish it?)
I enjoy T & S putting together the mystery of what Icel’s up to. It’s risky for T to keep secrets from S, hopefully that works out.
Wowev, did T make those space-suits? He’s so cool!
Music: This is a nice easy song. I think it’s more anxious than sad.
I kinda panicked (? is that the right word?) when Tiernan started talking about his past. That was intense! Really exciting to read, finally answers to the burning mysteries of Tale of the Treasure! ^_^ I actually voluntarily took a break in the middle of reading this scene because I was so on edge I was having trouble focusing >_>
Young Tiernan reminds me of alt-Tiernan, who’s obsessed with revenge on Selax. I wonder if Delthoras’ untimely death in alt-Cythera is related to his irrational attitude…
Also interesting that Tiernan was best friends with a water-mage, since he later fell in love with a water-magess. I wonder if fire-mages are naturally drawn to water-mages, or if the memory of his water-mage friend made him more interested in water-magic later, or if it’s all just a coincidence
Shadow Hunter- My first thought was this must be Delthoras. Maybe he’s not constantly under Icel’s control, and when he has free will, he uses an alternate identity? Or maybe he’s completely under Icel’s control, but the Shadow Hunter is really evil, and is just looking for necromancers to join Icel’s evil army. Another idea is that the Shadow Hunter is Saria. She hasn’t shown up yet. Maybe taking down necromancers before they can join Icel is the best way for her to fight for Delthoras right now.
Music: Super sweet & super sad. Love it
Amongst the Stars:
Eerie, interesting, and cool ^_^ I like moon-world, I wish I could explore it, though it doesn’t sound like it’s actually a very comfortable place to hang out.
I’m nervous for Samael now. Does he even know any magic? Does Alyssra-based magic work on moon-world? Is his only weapon that staff? Good luck, dude…
Music: I enjoy this song so much, it distracts me from actually reading >_>
Death magic, ew. I wonder what the consequences of using death magic are. Does it harm dead people?
The dark, shiny fortress is super creepy. Tiernan really is brave.
Uh oh, Father Vortimer is back as a lich! Probably Delthoras’ fault. I’m glad Samael seems somewhat logical about it. Vortimer’s runes are pretty creepy…
Music: Also creepy! Really like the way it complements the descriptions of the black crystal castle ^_^ This is nightmare stuff.
Okay, I knew there was going to be some kind of wall, from the soundtrack list, but I guess I pictured a wall around the castle or something. Maybe something like the castle in Cademia, where some of the characters had such a hard time getting past the wall in Dark Mirror. Anyway, this scary magic wall is way cooler ^_^ It was really stressful when the wall nearly got Tiernan. I don’t think he could die this early in the story, but I don’t think you’ll protect him from injuries
Man on the balcony- Delthoras? How could living people live somewhere so cold? Ooh, it’s the Shadow Hunter! Exciting!
I guess I didn’t need to worry about Samael, if he can take on a lich on his own O_O Those buggers are difficult.
Yay, it’s Saria! Nice reveal! I wonder what she was up to, trying to kill Tiernan though. Who did she think it was? And what’s her position in the black castle? Such cliffhanger, I don’t know how I can wait until next week for more! @_@
Music: Direct continuation of the last track, that works nicely ^_^ It’s creepy like the last one, but scarier. Perfect undead battle music!
Okay yeah, I couldn’t wait until next week.
You see, this is the problem with wearing masks. You end up accidentally trying to kill your friends -_-
Saria can open rifts?! This chick has m@d skillz! Don’t let evil Selax find out about her. Wait, was she the one behind this whole Dark Mirror thing? I bet it was alternate Saria!
Is it bad that I rather enjoyed Tiernan’s impatience as Saria & Samael discussed the pros & cons of opening a rift while he suffocated? :x
I wonder what would have happened if Tiernan went with Katerei’s house as the destination? He probably hadn’t been there recently enough? Theoretically, would Saria even be able to open a rift to Cythera?
Ooh, that Saria POV is tragic I can’t believe I actually feel sorry for Delthoras (he was always such a jerkface >_>) I’m guessing if Saria had followed through on her promise, a lot of deaths could have been prevented…
I like the rift tunnel, it’s like the time vortex in Dr Who ^_^ This zetacomb ruins everything though. I love this part:
“You! Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Um, I was busy dying?”
The action sequence is fun! You’re good at coming up with action sequences, you have a different one in each chapter and they’re all suspenseful without being confusing, which is nice ^_^
Music: This track is great, it’s eerie but encouraging ^_^
Secrets and Lies:
Hey, at least Saria understands how to use the zetacomb ^_^
Poor Saria, living with her regret of breaking her promise ;_;
Uh oh, just like Dr Who, they messed up the time vortex and disappointed a girl who was left waiting. Isn’t that always the way of it? (Also, Saria & Samael are worried about how many cities Icel has destroyed during these few months, Tiernan’s just worried about missing a date with Katerei ^_^)
Music: Very soft, just enough to add some extra feeling to this scene ^_^
Tiernan’s responsible for another town’s death he sure is unlucky.
I’m happy that Tiernan is completely honest with Samael now. I wonder if Tiernan would truly find fulfillment in retirement, if he ever gets that opportunity? (Hopefully he’ll live long enough to find out… hopefully :\)
Music: A lot like the previous track, soft and barely there. Is this a slower version of "Regrets"?
I’m glad they went back to Merindor, it was a cool city ^_^
It’s cool that Tiernan was able to convert the water droplet necklace into a fire dots necklace, but wouldn’t that be painful to wear? And burn his tunic?
They think Jorumgard is still in Merindor - has he been there since chapter 1? What could possibly take him, how long has it been? Four months?
The creepy undead city reminds me of Necropolis in one of the death-gate worlds. Did Jorumgard really go to the trouble to necromance a dog, then just set it loose?
Music: How do you have so many creepy songs, anyway? @_@ Do they just seem creepy because I’m listening to them while reading about undead creatures?
Oh no, it’s Icel!
Once again really impressed with Samael’s skillz. I wonder what his secret is. If this were an anime, it would turn out he’s actually imbued with some ancient power and destined for greatness. Is that the case here?
Even though this fight scene has about twice as many characters as the previous fight scenes, it’s still not very confusing. I do a bit lose track of where everyone is, but I don’t know if that’s my problem, or Tiernan’s.
Ah, Delthoras. It’s not that you’re a failure because you’re not strong enough, you’re a failure because you’re too reckless
Music: I really enjoy this track ^_^ It reminds me of Ferazel’s Wand, but I couldn’t tell you which level it reminds me of, or why. (Also, cried during the epic part)
Noooo Delthoras Again he’s regretting not being violent enough, instead of regretting not being wise enough -_-
Speaking of dumb decisions, oh, hello, Saria.
The confusing part was when Tiernan pulled the point of view back to himself. Hey, I only had to read it twice, if that counts for anything :x
Wait, the shadow sword was the source of all Delthoras’s trouble? That’s how the evil mage was possessing him? And has he lost his Shadow Magic now? keeps reading
Delthoras without magic doesn’t seem such a tragedy ^_^ I think Saria agrees. I hope she’s okay. She seems to still have her Shadow Magic.
Another cliffhanger! I just can’t find a good stopping place I thought either Tiernan or Delthoras was going to be the "lifeless" one, but this doesn’t look good for Samael
Music: It seems like the gentle humming and the wild crazy piano must be two separate songs, but somehow they manage to flow into each other o_O Art is weird yo. It’s fun to listen to ^_^ And goes with Delthoras’s nightmares well!
"Why did I think I could help you?" ;_; This is so sad ;_;
Music: I like how the music keeps the focus on the realization of what happened to Samael. T doesn’t even have time to mourn
Tiernan tries the combat technique he learned from Hilda
Ah, I didn’t realize the zetacomb needed to recharge bummer. that’s super inconvenient!
Nice idea, attaching Icel’s leg to the ground ^_^
Ouch, I bet Icel regrets replacing his body with wraiths now
…And, it’s over! High five, Tiernan. Good job ^_^
Music: This epic music was noisy enough to drown out my husband and daughter singing hymns in the two seats next to me :x I love the song though, and appreciated how it took me away from the uncomfortable road-tripping moment and into a fantasy world ^_^
For someone who hates churches so much, you spend a lot of your story in one! ^_^
"This wasn’t some grand victory to go celebrate in a tavern" ;_; I think this attitude is all wrong, but I would feel the same way
“No!” I burst out laughing. Longer than was polite, but I hadn’t laughed in a long while and now I kept picturing Saria trying to mother a bunch of kids. When I finally calmed down enough to speak again, I tried to mollify Delthoras. “Not Saria. I promise.”
Heehee I’d ship it. I must say, I was totally not expecting Saria to dump Delthoras @_@
The ending is super-sad, but I’m so relieved that Tiernan survived that I still feel cheerful about the whole thing.
Music: Here’s the pretty "trust" and "regrets" melody again ^_^ This time it’s so soft that I can barely hear it (in a nosy church bus), and for a moment I was afraid my headphones were broken @_@ But it’s just a very soft (except for that swell ^_^), pretty song. This one had the highest play-count before I started actually reading the chronicle.
I’ll just imagine being in a movie theatre and watching the credits roll by as this plays, since chronicles don’t actually have credits. It’s a funny feeling when a movie (or in this case, a chronicle) is over. You’ve been completely immersed in a story for a couple of hours (or a couple of days >_>), then it ends, and you’re still full of story-induced emotions, but somehow you’ve got to move on and get back to real life
I especially like the clapping effects in this song. Also the song sounds vaguely like Legend of Korra, but maybe knowing what song is coming up next is influencing that?
Cried again ;_; When I’m alone, it doesn’t take much to make me cry, but when I’m around other people, I’m less emotional. I think reading the last chapter of this chronicle in a van full of people saved me from a lot of tears. But the epilogue was too much, even for being in public. Wondering if he’d ever see her again ;_;
Note that Tiernan is more concerned about Katerei’s absence than the fact that Cythera has ceased to exist. Katerei means more to him than an entire world
Music: This track was the only one that I could identify exactly where it came from ^_^ I always thought the Legend of Korra ending theme was interesting and pretty. And yet, it would kinda haunt me as I’d often be thinking "how can you end an episode like that?" :x
Totally amazing story ^_^ In my opinion, this is polished to perfection. Every character is relatable, the emotions are real, the action is exciting and tense, the places and societies are fleshed out, and you had such cool ideas about how to assemble everything. You are so far beyond the Chron board @_@ You should publish this series.
And/or turn it into a movie. Reading with a soundtrack does make it feel a lot more like a movie experience than a reading experience. But I suppose if it really was a movie, it would need an original soundtrack, and I don’t think you can top the one you compiled. It’s really beautiful ^_^
My favourite parts of this story were probably when Tiernan openly explained his past (finally!), the visual descriptions of the black crystal castle, and the rift-unraveling scene. I also love just about every major character (Tiernan, Samael, Elysia, Saria), they all seem so cool and admirable ^_^ And I’m impressed with your explanation for how the zetacomb worked, as I recall it being portrayed in two entirely different ways by different posters; but somehow you managed to wrap them up together! @_@ You’re so creative ^_^ Of course, I appreciated all the references to old stories like Tale of the Treasure, Echoes from the Past, and Shadow Games ^_^
I’m really really happy that Tiernan survived Hopefully his arm is okay too. The ending is open for a happy ending for Tiernan/Katerei after OoR, which makes me happy, but it’s also open for possible Tiernan/Elysia or Tiernan/Saria fanfics, which also makes me happy Obviously there would be some major reservations to either of those ships, but that’s what makes it fun
Thank you for writing this story (I can only imagine the amount of work that went into it @_@), and posting it, and letting me read it without making do some difficult task first ^_^ It was brilliant
Katerei last edited by
@breadworldmercy453_bot, on 23 June 2017 - 12:34 PM, said in Fading Lights:
In my opinion, this is polished to perfection.
It ought to be for how long it took him to write it
Congratulations on a job well done . A solid finish to the series.
You did a very good job of building up non-Cytheran's worlds and cultures. The characterizations and the descriptions were exceptionally well done.
@ikaterei_bot, on 22 June 2017 - 09:11 AM, said in Fading Lights:
And after two and a half years, still no happy ending for T and Kat? sulks Surely she’ll show up. She has to.
Probably followed by Selax and a few of his allies and enemies all engaged in a massive brawl (although Selax might actually be somewhat apologetic in such a situation).