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AT ETERNITY'S GATE - First Three Chapters



THE EPIC CONCLUSION IS HERE



Prolouge


IN THE BEGINNING



Before the Recording of Days…


Sunlight kissed Janna’s skin. Warm and gentle, she bathed in its generous glow, the golden light sinking beneath the surface of her flesh and nourishing her bones.

She laughed, her simple white dress flaring as she spun on the spot, her wavy rich-brown hair streaming behind her like a mahogany waterfall. Bright blue eyes sparkling, as pure as the sapphire sky stretching above, Janna’s tinkling peals of joy spread through the green valley, the grass she danced on tickling her bare toes. She moved to the music in her mind, the melody mixed in with her blood, turning and spinning in time with the rhythm in her heart. Each morning Janna did the same, cherishing the gift from the azure heavens, and had since her legs provided the strength to carry her, though the silver moonlight, and the ocean of stars in the night sky, spoke to her soul in ways the sun couldn’t. Janna wouldn’t dance at night. Instead, she’d peer up at the jewel punctured velvet in awed silence, eyes shining just as bright, the leaves, flowers and vine markings tracing her forearms and torso glowing wherever the moon’s light touched her. At night, Janna became a beacon of argent amongst the glens and valleys of the Eldaris. She alone wore them; a gift from the Widow, the Ancients said. For what purpose, no one knew, not even Halla, the elf who spoke their divinity’s mind, and had done so for many Ages.

Janna trusted, in time, their purpose would reveal itself in her heart, but until that day, she kept the questions from her mind. If the Widow wouldn’t say, then who were the Eldaris to demand answers? Their goddess provided for their every need in all matters, save this one. A fair bargain.

All life – the sun, the moon and stars, even the breath filling Janna’s lungs – came from the goddess and in return, the Eldaris repaid the Widow with the beauty of peace. What did one question matter, especially when it provided such beauty and joy?

The Widow provided other gifts, too.

Weaving to and fro, Janna opened her mouth, and gave the music in her heart voice. Janna Sang.

And the Widow responded.

Flowers bloomed at her feet, fresh life shooting from the green grass covering the meadows, daisies, blue gems, wildfires and more springing from the earth and opening their petals to the nourishing sun in her wake. Pure joy filled Janna’s Song and, like all the Eldaris, nature responded to the innocence and wonder in her voice. A boon from the Widow, perhaps her most generous. Magic, the Ancients called it. Granted by the goddess in payment for the Eldaris’s peaceful existence. The Song healed scrapes and cuts which marked the Eldaris’s skin, and it regrew plants and flowers used for food. Their magic birthed new trees to replace the ones cut down to build their homes and furniture. If the Eldaris took from nature, and they did so only through absolute necessity, they replaced it with the life breathing through their Song.

Though sometimes, Janna just loved to Sing when she danced, expressing the joy coursing through her veins. The bloom of new flowers simply added to her endless jubilation.

A distant cry caught Janna’s attention.

Coming to a halt midspin, her Song faltering, she grinned, eyes flashing with delight. Halla approached, framed by the Peaks of Eternity, the place the Eldaris held most sacred in all of Bounty, their island home. A brilliant green light emanated from the summit of the highest point. Janna pressed two fingers against her lips when her eyes fell on it, then raised the digits in acknowledgement. Even though the Widow spoke to Halla seldom, their goddess always watched the Eldaris from inside the resplendent Lodestone. Janna smiled up at the summit, and hoped her Song brought the goddess joy, and that the new life she’d created pleased her.

“Halla!” Janna called, catching her breath and racing across to the older elf. “Have you come to dance?”

Janna’s grin faded at the pinched expression her friend wore, her black skin paler than normal.

“What is it?” Janna asked. “What is wrong?”

Wrong. Not a word any of the Eldaris used often. There simply wasn’t any need, not in Bounty. But, as the Widow’s Chosen, Halla would sometimes hear the goddess’ thoughts in her sleep, as she rested for Seasons at a time, and received the goddess’ instructions in her dreaming mind. Even ancient as Halla was, such a blessing weighed heavy on her heart, for the Widow’s mind proved vast, and her purpose dense for the Eldaris to comprehend, though they strove to carry out the goddess’ will.

Halla stared out across the valley, and Janna turned to match her sweeping focus. Tall trees reared beneath the encircling mountains, and elves danced or relaxed in the valley beneath the cherished Peaks of Eternity. Much of Bounty proved the same; green and teeming with life from the very north to the beaches of the distant south.

“All of this will be gone one day,” Halla murmured, her voice flat. Shocked out of emotion, almost. “Lost.”

Janna laughed, a barked peal of disbelief. “Lost? Gone? Are we all going somewhere? Is that what the Widow told you? We’re to journey further south and forget our way back? Bounty isn’t that large.”

Halla turned, her deep hazel eyes fixing on Janna’s, the ancient depths holding the wisdom of years.

“Gone. I mean gone, Janna. The trees rent. Even the grass you stand on sundered. Withered away, replaced by dry stone, lifeless rock and weak, with sparse, malnourished trunks standing in mockery of the great trees that bless us here now.” A tear ran down her cheek and fell to the ground. Janna followed its plummet, losing it in the turf. “All gone.”

Janna grabbed the elf’s hands, squeezing them. “A dream, surely, and nothing more. How would such a thing happen? The Widow would not do such a thing to us, and we have the Song. The Eldaris will always create new life. Always.”

Halla blinked, then gazed down at their hands, and back at Janna again, as if only now realising her friend stood in front of her. Extracting herself from their grip, she wiped away the moisture from her face, and smiled.

“Yes. A dream. Yes. This did not feel like the Widow speaking with me. It was too…forceful. Clear. Yes, it came from my own mind. That must be it. Baseless worries born from a long life.”

“Too clear?” Janna frowned. “The Eldaris do say the Widow speaks in riddles. If this was as forceful as you say, it does not sound like our goddess.”

“As you will find out soon,” Halla replied. “I did talk with the Widow last night in my sleep for a certainty, before my…nightmare…and she spoke of you.”

“Me?” Janna gasped, hands flying to her mouth. “Why?”

“Because you are going to replace me.” Halla moved away, throwing a smile over her shoulder. “Come. We must talk. Alone.” Her glittering eyes swept over the ground, and she smiled. “Your flowers will delight the Widow, I am sure. They please me greatly. The beauty you bring to Bounty always does.”

Wide eyes flicking to the green glow countless spans high above, Janna jerked forward, heart hammering in her chest. The Widow chose her to be her voice? She gazed down at the faint outlines of the leaves, flowers and vines twisting around her skin, nerves and intrigue battling one another in her stomach.

Perhaps the Widow had marked her for such a purpose before her birth? There would be only one way to find out.

Halla’s dream forgotten, Janna chased after the older elf, the new flowers swaying in the gentle breeze behind her. A single petal lifted from one, and drifted further into Bounty, floating wherever the wind would take it, forgotten and separated from the rest.


Waves crashed into the walls of stone below Janna’s dangling feet, the water sparkling like the crystals hidden in the depths of the Peaks of Eternity.

She and Halla sat on a ledge at the end of a pass through the mountains that led to a point overlooking the stretching waters. Janna journeyed there often, marvelling at the endless ocean. At its beauty. Its strength. Sometimes she Sang to it, creating waves of her own, simply because it brought joy to her heart. Using her Song came as easily to her as breathing air, and Janna Sang with the fullness of her lungs and with the subtlety of a whisper. But the peaks proved mightier. The aggressive surf hammered relentlessly at the mountain wall, but the stone never shifted. In her heart, Janna reckoned it never would, but then she’d believed Halla would be the Widow’s Chosen for all Seasons and Ages to come.

“You know, I always believed you were special, Janna.” Halla smiled down at the glittering expanse, but her finger tapped Janna’s bare arm, the tip running across a strand of the unique markings of nature covering her skin. “Since the moment you were born. You came into this world under the moon and stars, and those remarkable markings of yours shone with such beautiful ferocity. The gathered Eldaris wept with joy, but you made not a sound. You gazed up at us all, your small eyes moving beyond us as they took in the summit of the peaks. The Widow had told me nothing of you then, but I knew in my heart. You were different. Special.”

Janna scowled at the other elf. She’d heard the tale before, countless times, and had been witness to the birth of many Eldaris beneath the tallest peak. They all cried. Wailing until their cheeks turned red, their tiny hands waving, their stumpy legs kicking. The gathered Eldaris Sang in thanks for new life and, as sure as dew kissed grass in the early morning, stories of Janna’s birth would pass between the Eldaris.

But that wasn’t what she wanted to hear about at that moment. Janna shook her head, keeping the tears shining in her eyes in check, even though the choked emotion throbbed in her voice. “But what is going to happen to you? Why am I replacing you at all? You’ve always been here, and you always will be here, won’t you?”

They sat together, their knees touching as they gazed out at the sea, a deep smile on Halla’s lips.

“Janna, this might not happen for many Ages, yet, but I have not always been walking Bounty’s green earth, despite what some might say. Do you know how long I have been the Widow’s Chosen?”

“No. I thought forever, but now I have my doubts. My parents have known no other Widow’s Chosen, and they have lived for twenty-four Ages, double my twelve.”

“Yes, I remember both Glada and Liba’s birth well,” Halla smiled. “Though I was not the Widow’s Chosen then, despite their memories. The Ages twist such things.”

Janna frowned. “Then who was?”

Halla laughed. “Erenor. They had the light of the sun in their eyes, and their voice proved stronger than the waves below us. And in the Ages before that, there was another, an elf named Kiron. Before your parents came into Bounty, Erenor told me I would replace them as the Widow’s Chosen just as I am telling you. One Age is a long time, the passing of four hundred seasons. Four hundred cycles of birth and rebirth, and I have performed this task for so many. Too many. It is good that the Widow has selected my successor, and it lightens my step to know it is you. There is still time, and I will teach you all you need to know to take my place.”

“But what is going to happen to you?” Janna demanded. “This Erenor, I have never heard of them. What happened to them, and the Widow’s Chosen before them? What happened to them, Halla?”

She raised her hands to stem the flow of questions. “I get my reward, like my forebears did. A final gift given for our work and service in the Widow’s name.”

“Well, what is your reward? Will I begin to speak in riddles too when I take your place? Speak plainly!”

Halla turned from the vast ocean, her rich hazel eyes calm. Accepting.

“Janna, I am going to meet the Widow in Eternity. Like Erenor and Kiron before me, and all the ones chosen stretching back to the lost beginning, I will stand before the Lodestone, and its light will welcome me home. I will pass through the shining Gates of Eternity, and my life here will be at an end so that I may begin my new one sheltered by the Widow. Long have I desired to lay my eyes on her.”

Janna’s mouth dropped as the words made sense in her mind one after the other, spelling out precisely what Halla said to her.

“You are going to…” Janna swallowed, eyes stinging. “You are going to die? That is your reward?”

The Eldaris never grew sick. They never withered due to the passing of the ages. But some passed. A seldom few perished, slipping from the high rocks or floundering in the hungry ocean until it swallowed them. If they could be recovered, the Eldaris placed their lifeless bodies before the Lodestone in the summit of the peaks, and the stone’s glow would envelope them, its brightness covering the fallen until the watching Eldaris averted their eyes.

When the glare faded, those lost would be gone. Accepted into Eternity through gates of pure, brilliant light.

Halla took Janna’s hand. “I have lived for forty-one Ages. Forty-one. For almost half of those, I have been the Widow’s Chosen. A blessing, for sure, but I crave my reward. I go to Eternity willingly, and there, I will wait for the rest of you, and meet those gone too soon, rejoicing in their Song once more. I will meet Erenor and Kiron once more, as well as the other Chosen I never had the chance to see or speak with. Is that so bad a fate?”

Janna shook her head, tucking her thick, brown hair behind her pointed ears with her free hand, coldness seeping through her chest despite the sun’s warmth. “Is that what is going to happen to me? After Ages to come, I will be told of my successor before letting the Lodestone take me?”

Halla sighed, then held up Janna’s arm, twisting it slightly so the daylight shone on the markings of leaves, flowers and vines. “I do not know. The Widow says you will share a different fate from me, and she will say no more. Perhaps you will be the last one, and that is what your markings signify. I will be long in Eternity by then, and my tale in Bounty will be over. But I shall always watch you. Just as the other chosen watch me.”

The coldness in Janna’s chest chilled the blood in her veins.

“It could mean many other things,” she muttered, letting go of Halla’s hand and hugging herself. “Many, many things.”


Janna sat on the ledge alone, long after Halla returned to the green meadows nestled at the feet of the towering peaks, the drop in temperature not bothering her as the cold inside her still prevailed. Even the appearance of her beloved moon and stars did nothing to warm her heart, even when her markings shone under the silver light.

She gazed down at them, tracing the twisting lines with her forefinger, lost in thought. The Widow’s Chosen. Really, it shouldn’t have surprised her. None of the Eldaris wore markings like she did. Clearly the Widow had marked her out as special. For some purpose. But to be the final of her goddess’ Chosen? No, the goddess hadn’t said that, had she? Halla surmised it, nothing more. The ice in her veins built.

Would Janna find no place in Eternity for herself after death? An unwilling death? Unlike the other Chosen, she wouldn’t stand before the Lodestone and pass through, filled with joy at the prospect of meeting the other Eldaris and the Widow? Her fate would be different from Halla’s. Her friend had said that, and uttered it without doubt and the confidence in her words sparked paranoia instead of honour at being the Widow’s final Chosen, misgivings Janna couldn’t shake.

“If there is no Eternity for me, do I just live forever?” she whispered, peering up at the moon. It remained silent. “What else is there?”

She shuddered at the thought. Would she fall foul of some accident like other unfortunate Eldaris? Eyes wide, she shuffled away from the edge of the shelf, pulling her bare feet away from the watery drop below them and scowled. Halla said she’d replace her, she wasn’t about to go plummeting into the endless ocean right there and then.

But one day…Perhaps one day.

Ages. Halla said it might be Ages, yet. Stop panicking!

She breathed in deeply, listening to the endless crashing of surf, tasting the scent of water in the air as it filled her nose. The ocean grew hungrier. Angry, almost, and the night cloyed. A storm approached. In the distance, clouds hung heavy, blighting the unblemished night sky.

Sighing, Janna climbed to her feet, a slight breeze tugging at her dress. Shapes rose in the dark horizon, shadows birthed by the light of the moon and stars, formless shapes made from mist riding the dark waters, or waves gathering in strength to assault the indomitable stone wall rearing from the sea.

“Perhaps I should speak with Mother and Father, though I would not like to make them sad too,” Janna muttered, holding up her glowing hands in front of her face. “Would Halla want me to tell them yet? Perhaps when she says the time is right, I will. It is a great honour. No doubt about that. Me being the Widow’s Chosen would please them greatly, as it should me.”

Taking one last look at the sweeping ocean, Janna turned away, then frowned. A new sound made itself known above the waves. A guttural squawk. She squinted into the sky, expecting the shapes of birds to cross the moon, but nothing moved save for wisps of clouds gathering in the sky. The noise echoed again, more distinct but still not clear in her ears and mind. Raindrops fell on her nose and cheeks, and the wind blustered, rocking her back and forth. The clouds overhead moved quickly.

Janna crept to the ledge. Darkness fell on the ocean as heavy rain drove downward from the fast-gathering clouds smothering her beloved moon and stars. She clung to the rock wall, her dress soaked within seconds from being exposed to the driving rain, but she peered out, eyes frantic. The squawks grew louder, and were unmistakably cries of alarm, even though the words made little sense.

Had some of the Eldaris fallen into the ocean and couldn’t they call on their Song to rescue them, panic overwhelming them? She squinted, leaning out as far as she dared.

Janna leapt away from the shelf’s edge just as the moon emerged from behind a rain cloud, falling back in shock. She almost slipped to the ground and fell to her watery doom at the sight before her, the silvery light dancing across the turbulent expanse revealing all.

Objects rode the violent waves, the torrent rocking them from side-to-side. Long, hollow objects filled with strange, shouting people, fear and frenzy etched deep into their faces and powering their garbled shouts of alarm.

Janna gazed down at them, mouth wide, the moonlight illuminating the embattled seafarers below, and her heart almost beat through flesh and bone.

They weren’t of the Eldaris.

Janna’s mind reeled at the thought. Alone. There were more than the Eldaris in the world! Where had the strangers appeared from?

Even from the height Janna stood at, her keen eyes revealed the strangers’s broad, muscular bodies. Their pale skin, many whiter than the daisies filling Bounty’s meadows, glowed almost like her markings under the silver moon, and their curled, yellow hair dripped with moisture from the sea. They wrestled with wooden staffs plunged into the ocean as the great, dark expanse raged against their presence. Waves built, tossing the wooden vessels they rode clear of the surface, letting them bounce down once more with violence. Ocean spray exploded, tossing the pale passengers to the base of their vessels like sacks. They fought back to their feet, snarling, redoubling their efforts against the storm.

Rain hammered down on them all, Janna included. Howling wind picked up, smashing into them from all directions, and tears stung her eyes.

What have these people done to deserve such torment? The Widow cannot desire this.

She bit her lip, indecision gripping her. Did she have time to race along the path through the mountain wall and bring help? Would the Eldaris want that, after being alone for so long in Bounty?

Bellows of alarm from below tore through her thoughts. One of the vessels spun around, tipping on its side. Screaming figures fell from it, disappearing beneath the violent waves before their sodden heads reappeared, their fellows reaching to pull them from the expanse.

“They need my help,” Janna whispered, stepping to the edge. “And they need it now.”

She spread her arms and, as she did, thick clouds overhead parted, and the moonlight touched her. The markings of vines, leaves and flowers covering her skin shone, brighter than the stars themselves, and the people in the ocean cried out as one.

Janna stared down at them, her eyes meeting a figure standing tall at the front of the closest vessel. Defiance bore back at her, defiance mixed with fear. Mixed with hope.

A rogue wave crashed into the vessel, knocking the man off his feet. Another smashed into it from the other side, and a sickening crack echoed above the rage-filled surf, the screams, the howling wind.

The vessel split in two, spilling the pale-skinned passengers into the endless depths.

“No!” Janna cried, reaching out for them, teetering on the edge.

Filling her lungs with air, Janna closed her eyes, and drank in her surroundings, letting the conflicting energies of life sink into her. The crescendo of fear, yes, and the violence of nature, but the throb of life, too. Water saturated the air, filled the ocean. Water offered sustenance, provided growth, and healing. Strength. Yes, strength and power. She’d created waves before; she could do it again.

Janna opened herself to the surging currents below, surrendered to them, and Sang.

Jets of water rose from the ocean, the elements responding to her clear, commanding voice rising above the cacophony, each one carrying with it one of the strangers taken by the ocean. Janna Sang, calling on the waters to spare those riding the enraged waves, and nature responding to her call. The split vessel floundered, but Janna’s Song sent the drowning figures elsewhere, their fellows clutching at them, pulling them aboard. Nodding, satisfied none stayed abandoned, Janna’s pitch changed. Instead of command, she changed her Song, and soothed the waters with her gentle voice, settling the winds.

She leaned out on the shelf. Some distance to her left, even beyond the eyes of the Eldaris and further into Bounty, away from the beginnings of the Peaks of Eternity, a meadow lay with the sea touching the grass on each side. Her kin gathered there often, and swam in the cool, shining waters. Her Song encouraged the wind and current to push the strangers to the beaches following the shoreline. A safe place to make landfall, for these hardy, set-upon seafarers to rest and recover.

One of the vessels passed below, the pale, curly-haired people crammed into it staring up at her. Janna’s eyes met the ones of the figure she’d spotted before, the one whose stare held such defiance.

She looked away.

Only fear lived there now, and the stranger aimed his dread at her. But she’d saved them. He had no need to feel such anxiety. Janna ended her Song, frowning down at her glowing hands, and gasped as realisation struck.

The strangers hadn’t called on the Song. The Widow didn’t favour them? No wonder Janna’s actions filled them with terror, a glowing figure atop towering mountains controlling both sea and air.

“I have to meet them, explain it to them somehow. Tell them there is nothing to fear and that they are safe here.” With one last look, counting the number of wooden vessels crossing the calm sea, Janna turned on her heel, sprinting through the pass, her heart thumping, her bare feet slapping on wet stone. “I need to find Halla. Now.”


Janna waited beside Halla, watching the strangers from a distance as night fell once more. Others of the Eldaris had joined them on their journey south, and they’d travelled through what remained of the night before and all of the day under the sun, both excited and anxious to lay eyes on the newcomers.

Together, Janna and the Eldaris had made a three-day journey in less than half that time.

“How many of these wooden vessels did you say were in the ocean?” Halla asked, a faint frown marring her brow.

“No more than eight,” Janna whispered, shaking her head. “Maybe even fewer.”

“Well…” Halla trailed off.

“We should talk to them,” Janna said quickly. “Ask them where they came from.”

“No.” Halla frowned. “Remember, we are here to watch them. We must tell the Ancients, and they will decide our path. There are many more than eight vessels now. We need the guidance of our elders, and the Widow did not speak to me of this. I do not like walking without the sun or moon’s light to guide us.”

Scores of the wooden vessels lined the beach, with hundreds of figures milling about them, pulling out sacks stored inside them. The Eldaris waited in the tree line, a hush settling on them. Janna studied her kin, reading the expressions of doubt, anxiety and interest etched into their faces.

Newcomers. An exciting prospect. But the Eldaris had never skulked by a tree line before, filled with trepidation in their own home. In their Bounty.

“I saved these people,” Janna murmured, lifting her voice so all waiting around her could hear. “I saw their faces, the fear in their eyes as the ocean tried to claim them. They have no magic, and they are clearly lost and in need. I say we go to them, welcome them to our home, and hide in the trees no longer. The Ancients would agree. These sorry people still need our help. Surely the Widow would not want these people harmed.”

Despite how the ocean treated them. Surely the goddess could have stopped such a thing?

Night had fully fallen, hiding the Eldaris peering from the cover of the tall trees. Without waiting for a dissenting voice, and pushing her doubts aside, Janna strode from the trees, brushing off Halla’s grabbing hand, her back straight. She would soon be the Widow’s Chosen, in this Age or in an Age to come, and she’d saved many of the strangers from death. The goddess gave the Eldaris their space to live their lives, and perhaps these newcomers arrived as some test to her. No one had died, after all. If anyone was to welcome them, it had to be her.

“Wait!” Halla called, running up to her. “I am coming with you! Just—”

The ancient elf staggered, convulsed almost, then fell into Janna. Her stomach flipping, she reached out, supporting her mentor’s weight.

“Halla? What’s wrong, can you hea—”

The Widow’s Chosen still stood on her two feet, albeit supported by Janna, but her eyes had rolled into the back of her head.

“Halla?” Janna whispered, glancing at the tree line, then over her shoulder, the darkness of night hiding them from the strangers on the beach. With her free hand, she waved to the other Eldaris. “Halla? Can you hear me?”

The elf’s head turned, her white orbs searching Janna’s face. She reached up, her shaking fingers brushing against the younger elf’s cheek.

“A settlement will arise here, in this place, in an Age to come. A great monument will rise, tall and proud, seeing all. Few will remember why, but tales they will spin in its honour and mystery, though none will speak of providence. Because of you, Janna. Because of you.” Halla spoke in a whisper devoid of emotion and tone. Her fingers fell, clutching at Janna’s tunic. “This is your fate, Chosen. Here and now your destiny begins to unfurl, in this time, in this place.”

Halla’s clutching hands fell away, and her eyes slammed shut, the orbs moving beneath the lids. Gently, Janna laid her on the grass, her heart thumping in her chest. Halla would speak in such a way often when in communion with the Widow, and went many Seasons in a deep sleep, but for it to happen without warning set a tremble in Janna’s core.

But a settlement? And a great monument rising? Because of her? Not so unfortunate, as fate went…

Eldaris, running low to the ground, surrounded her.

Prudence suggested she withdraw, and take Halla back to the summit, to her bed near the Lodestone in case the long sleep had taken hold, and for her to speak with the Ancients and to mull over the words of the Widow. But they were words meant for Janna. Delivered and received. She eyed the strangers milling around on the beach. The ones she’d rescued from certain doom. Because of her actions, a settlement would form. A great monument would stand against the vast sky. Tall and proud. She couldn’t leave them. The newcomers deserved answers and guidance, and Janna had questions of her own. Many, many questions.

“Bring her back to the trees,” she whispered, kissing two of her fingers and placing them on Halla’s forehead, then met the eyes of the other Eldaris. “I will meet the strangers alone, but be ready to come if I call for you.”

“Wait!” one of them hissed, but Janna moved away, feet carrying her to the flock she’d spared from the depths.

Excitement overpowered the worry and doubt spreading from her stomach, packing it all into a small, hard ball deep in her gut. Halla would recover as she slept. The Widow spoke to her because of the portentous moment, nothing more. And why wouldn’t she? Since the Dawn, the Eldaris believed only the empty, endless ocean surrounded Bounty. That only they existed of all the Widow’s children with the power of speech, of invention, with the means to walk on two legs and use their clever fingers to build.

The only ones of the Widow’s scion with the Song.

These newcomers didn’t appear to use the Widow’s gift, unless panic had drained the joy from their hearts when the sea surged beneath them, but they certainly stood apart from the animals and creatures of Bounty. Janna slowed her steps, studying them with her keen eyes as she moved through the shadow, the clouds above aiding her unseen approach. Other than their predominantly chalky skin—though even in the darkness differing hues made themselves known to Janna’s keen eyes—and curly light-coloured hair, she judged them of similar height and build to most of the Eldaris, even though the newcomers seemed a little bulkier than her slender kin.

And they came from elsewhere. From places the Eldaris didn’t know existed before. That, according to the Ancients, didn’t exist. Only Bounty and the endless ocean existed in this life and, beyond that, Eternity. Nothing more.

Janna paused only a few hundred paces from the hive of activity on the dark beach. The strangers hauled packs from their vessels, and yet more moved on the horizon, finding the shore she’d guided them to. They talked and shouted to one another, their voices guttural and harsh, completely different to the soft, musical sounds the Eldaris made. The words they used ended up garbled in her pointed ears.

Doubt assailed her. She’d acted in haste. Halla had only agreed to watch them and make a decision afterwards. Janna should turn away, return to the Peaks, and await word from the Ancients. Let them take the lead in dealing with these newcomers. These strangers from a distant land that shouldn’t exist.

It altered everything the Eldaris believed. Everything they knew. Yes, the Ancients. They would be needed. Not Janna.

She took a step backward. As she did, as her retreating bare foot lifted from the ground and made contact with the tickling grass once more, the clouds above her parted. The moon and stars shone down on her once more.

Janna glowed, brighter than anything else in the sky. Fiercer than all the life in Bounty.

Husky speech and commands from the newcomers turned into rasping cries of disbelief and shock as her light flooded the beach. Cries of fear. Sacks fell from the stranger’s hands as they backed away, strange clattering ringing out amidst the gasps and shouts. Janna paused, spreading her arms slightly.

“Well, I can’t turn back now…”

The howls and clatters died down, replaced by the lazy slosh of the lapping waves against Bounty’s shore. Janna watched the strangers, and the strangers stared back, eyes and mouths wide, as the clouds refused to cover the silver moon. She searched the crowds, the hundreds assembled before her, and across the span parting them, Janna’s gaze met a familiar face.

He stood closest to her, though over a hundred steps separated them. He alone, out of all his companions, did not gawp Janna’s way. He didn’t back away. The man who’d peered up at her with naked fear from the sea after she’d saved him and his people stood with a straight back and squared shoulders, jaw firm, free of the terror that assailed him before. Glancing behind him left and right, a scowl briefly ate into his smooth face as none of his people moved to join him, but he banished the frustrated expression and bent to retrieve something from the sack at his feet. A long, slender item glinted under the moonlight as he brandished it in his fist, its pointed tip levelled Janna’s way.

Without so much as a backwards glance, he approached. A single, monumental step.

Janna held her breath, her attention split between the strange item in the newcomer’s hand, and the man himself. More details made themselves known as he approached. The beginnings of a pale beard covered his chin and cheeks. Rounded ears lurked beneath the curls on his head.

And his eyes lacked any colour at all, save their black centre.

He came to a halt, the moonlight glinting across the surface of the item in his hands. Janna frowned at it, perplexed. A gift? A walking aid of some kind? He didn’t seem to require any assistance.

The stranger grunted, a haughty look settling into his features. The sound pulled her focus from the levelled point aimed her way.

He muttered more words in his strange language, pointing north and west, back toward the sea. His speech made no sense, but the action did.

“Yes,” Janna whispered. “That was me on the cliffs. I saved you from the sea, and I am glad I did. Welcome to Bounty. We, and the Widow, welcome you.”

The stranger paused his pointing, the item in his hands dipping a little, eyes narrowed. They still held fear. A little awe, too. Janna almost smiled as the stranger’s point-of-view bloomed in her mind once more, as it had after she’d rescued them. The waves had sought to smash him and his people against the stone walls of Bounty, only for a shining figure from up high to spare them. Now she stood before them, emerging from the deep darkness in a strange place, resplendent and terrible as the first Dawn. Such a brave soul!

He pressed a hand against his chest. “Raas. Raas.”

“Is that what your people are called?” Janna asked, almost stepping forward in eagerness, though the shining point of the item in the man’s hand gave her pause. Now she thought about it, the gesture seemed defensive. Or perhaps aggressive. She shoved such thoughts away. “Or is that your name?”

He frowned, pressing just one finger to his breastbone instead.

“Raas!” he repeated, the word a grunt of pride and command.

A name. It must be a name. And he figured out the need to tell it, offering his name before I did mine! A keen mind.

She let her gaze sweep across those behind him. They’d crept forward into her light.

Smiling, she pressed against her heart. “Janna.”

Raas lowered his arm holding the item, and he nodded, then waved a hand at the people behind him. “Bokari.”

Janna bit her lip and tucked her hair behind her pointed ears. “Eldaris.”

Raas raised an eyebrow. Pointing at her, he grumbled a slur of words, punctuating each sound with his finger, the word ‘Bokari’ clear more than once. He swept it across the people behind them, turning back to her, a look of expectation on his face.

A laugh bubbled from Janna’s lips. “I’m sorry, Raas, but other than ‘Bokari’, I have no idea what you are trying to tell me.”

An expression of frustration swept across his features, and he grumbled more words, this time more to himself as he shook his head, and the item at his side.

He lowered it the more relaxed he became. A thing of defence then, and not a gift at all.

Janna gasped. A gift! Perhaps I can share something of mine…

She took a small step forward, and Raas brough the point up quickly, aiming it at her once more, alert focus flooding his colourless eyes.

“There’s no need to worry!” Janna said quickly, raising her palms like she approached one of the lone horses of Bounty she often came across in the wild. She’d Sing to them, putting her thoughts and intentions in their minds, causing them to relax. Could she do the same with the wary stranger? “I don’t mean you any harm. Wouldn’t I have let you perish in the ocean if I did?”

Raas stared at her, the muscles in his cheeks bunching, the point aimed her way unwavering.

“I am your friend, Raas of the Bokari,” she soothed, taking another small step forward, her glowing palms upraised, “and I only seek to give you a gift. That’s all. I want to help us understand one another better.”

Raas didn’t back away. His eyes fell to her lips as she spoke, widening slightly when she spoke his name.

She smiled and pointed with one hand to the north and west, back to the endless ocean. “I saved you, remember. Do you think I would have if I intended you harm? No, Raas. I am your friend, and the presence of you and your people on the shores of Bounty fills my heart with such unbounding joy. All I want is for you all to be safe, to be as happy as I am, to…”

Janna continued to murmur as she edged forward, repeating the same words. She reached her hand out to him, her glowing palm raised to the moon. Janna came to a halt, close enough to touch him, the point of the object he held a whisper away from her chest. She glanced at it, then back at the man before her.

“Raas. Of the Bokari,” she whispered. “Let me help you.”

The muscles in his jaw tightened, and he swallowed. With a last look at her hand, he lowered the point separating them, and stretched out with his fingers towards her palm. They twitched. Trembled. But he inched them toward her, eyes fixed on hers. The colourless meeting luminant blue.

Raas’s skin touched Janna’s. Calloused fingers running across smooth, unblemished flesh. Pity bloomed in her heart. What had caused such hurts on the stranger’s hands? She’d never before felt such rough bumps and patches on anyone’s skin, and her instincts, her soul, told her Raas had found them hard-earned.

She moved her hand upward, slowly, Raas’s fingers now pressing against the back of her palm. Smiling, gazing into his eyes as she would with the wild colts, she sank her digits into his curly hair, pressing against his scalp with gentle care.

And she Sang.

Her voice spread across the beach. Across the hundreds gathered. Janna Sang from her soul. Her heart. For the instant love she held for these strange people who’d journeyed across the wild ocean, who’d found Bounty in their marvellous vessels of wood. These hardy folk who’d braved the unknown. For the bravery of Raas before her, the only one to approach their shining saviour who’d appeared from up high in the violent storm, who’d revealed herself to them again at her place of choosing.

Janna’s Song resembled the cascading waterfalls. Birdsong at both evening and morn. It rustled like the wind through leaves and tall grass, and soothed with the murmuring of a parent in the blackest part of a long night. She Sang of Bounty, of the meadows and glades, and the wide expanses of land to the south. The forests and rivers, the lakes and mountains.

As she Sang of the Widow, Raas gasped. Smiling, her Song rose in pitch, in tempo. Flowers bloomed on the grass around her with petals of silver, matching the moon and the ones etched into her skin, and the assembled strangers fell to their knees.

All but Raas. Understanding flooded in his face, and his fingers tightened on Janna’s hand, pressing it against his head. She Sang of the Lodestone, of Bounty and their goddess. As she did, a single tear rolled down his cheek.

Her Song faltered, faded, but the shores of that place would forever remember its music. Even the earth beneath would hold Janna’s essence forevermore. This she knew as she fell silent, staring into Raas’s eyes. For a long moment, one that stretched like a Season, they stood together, his hand pressed against hers, her palm held to his head. The strangers on the shore knelt on the beach, and the Eldaris hiding in the trees crept from the shadows, standing in Janna’s light.

Clouds crossed the moon, smothering the stars, and her glow faded.

Raas blinked, his lips trembling. “You’re…You’re just…Like me. But how can you do this? How do you shine like the stars? What manner of creature are you? I have faced monsters before, but none like you. None so…fair.”

The words came out in rasp. Clear, but husky, edged with fear. Understandable fear, and spoken harsher than an elf would speak, but each inflection caused Janna’s heart to soar to greater heights.

She smiled, and her tears flowed. “We are the Eldaris, and I am your friend. Come, Raas of the Bokari, I have so much to show you.”


After the Battle of Sea’s Keep, Thousands of Years Later…


Raas trudged down the thoroughfare, cloaked and covered by his hood, favouring the leg with the torn hamstring.

Janna had attacked him. Him! Somehow, she’d defeated the compulsion laid upon her. One that had lasted for several millennia. Impossible, but she had. He scowled through the pain from his injured limb. How? How? Not that it mattered. She lay beneath the earth now, crushed and swallowed in the place they’d first spoken, so long ago.

A monster defeated, at last.

Shouts from the road interrupted Raas’s thoughts. A quick glance from beneath his hood revealed a wedged road, filled with travellers moving in both directions on foot, wagon, or horse. The stench of the great unwashed assailed him, and he pulled his cloak tighter as a sheet of constant drizzle fell from the grey skies. He hadn’t noticed them, lost as he was in his pain and memories of her.

Humans. Another set of monsters. A scourge worse than the elves. Hidden in the shadows of his hood, Raas’s mouth twisted. The Eldaris.

The image of Janna from above the sea flashed in his mind. Even though countless centuries had passed, he’d never forget it, or the fear that flooded every part of his body. The terror that made his bladder weak.

His people had fought long and hard to escape their home. Bokarc, they called it, a place of ice and wind, of clawed creatures and wide-winged monsters swooping from the sky, the frigid waters surrounding the great ice-shelf of a country filled with slithering, tentacled beasts of all manner. Combined with the harsh elements and the lack of sustenance Bokarc provided, the creatures hunting the Bokari had driven Raas’s people to the brink of extinction.

But such challenges had made them strong. Hardy. Clever. Their frigid home proved a forge of ice and pain, and it sculpted the Bokari into survivors. They’d escaped under his leadership, building boats from the sparse trees shooting from the snow-covered wastes and battling with steel, feet and fists until they reached warmer waters, no matter how unkind they proved. Raas promised to find a way to safety, and the endless sea did its best to break his guarantee to his people.

Despite all of that, despite everything he’d witnessed from the days his memories formed, filled with images of parents he couldn’t quite recall, Raas had never experienced terror like the primaeval horror that surged from his core when he stared up at Janna shining amidst the Peaks of Eternity. Brighter than the moon. More terrible than any star.

She’d saved them, yes. Spared them from smashing against the uncaring, defiant stone with her Song, but her presence, and that of the Eldaris, meant Raas had simply taken his people from one place filled with monsters to another. They would play their part as the inferior culture once more. Subjected to the so-called benign elves with their special gift from the Widow.

He hadn’t led the remnant of his people across the frozen plains of Bokarc, hunted by the towering clawed Hetirk, the blade-sharp teeth in their maws hungering for even more Bokari flesh, to find themselves under the heel of another yet another species. Raas commanded the last of his people to hold off attacks from the savage reptilian Dunkarn, scaled horrors with two-heads that spat venom, while they constructed boats made from withered trees dotted the southern shoreline of his land. He’d wept as his friends, family, and allies perished to keep the workers safe. Raas hadn’t tortured himself by committing each of the dead to his mind only to become subservient in the place the Eldaris called Bounty.

He hadn’t watched through numb grief as the endless ocean swallowed boat after boat of Bokari under his care and command, only to be at the whim of a magical people who would wail in their sacred mountains at a mere glimpse of the monsters filling Bokarc. Beseeching their ‘goddess’ to spare them.

Raas spat on the ground. The Widow.

Hadn’t he wrestled with her to create the Spark? Hadn’t he begged the cold-hearted ‘goddess’ to grant his beleaguered people some modicum of power, to at least stand aside the Eldaris as equals? To show them the Bokari wouldn’t be under heel?

And she’d responded with a ‘gift’ with checks. With constraints. One only granted to some of the Bokari. A magic that took as much as it granted. Not like the Song and the Eldaris.

Well, he’d shown them, hadn’t he? Raas had shown them all.

Even after he’d debased himself, and begged the Lodestone to grant his people the Song. After he’d embarrassed himself in front of the Eldaris Ancients by trying to Sing. How they’d smiled, the condescending light in their bright eyes twinkling as he and his closest brethren Sang their Songs. The Widow turned a deaf ear.

Well, he’d made the ‘goddess’ listen. Hadn’t he forced her to create the Spark through sheer force of will? There were limits, yes, but even with them, he’d led the Bokari to put the elves under heel, wielding their Spark as an all-powerful weapon the way magic should be used.

And none proved stronger in the art than Raas.

Pausing, he turned. Humans continued to fill the road, hurrying back and forth. Filthy humans, spreading through Haltveldt and the rest of the globe like a pestilence after they emerged from the dark shadows of the world. Beasts. Monsters. The Widow’s final insult; she ‘gifted’ them the Spark, too. Elves called the First People cruel, but hadn’t the treacherous humans outstripped all else in their depravity? A plague, indeed. Parasites! Not content with spreading their ruin in the present, they returned from the disaster of their own future, determined to repeat their vicious mistakes.

One of them drew close, then shied away from Raas after peering into the shadows of his hood, their steps quicker than before. Good. The humans should fear him.

He pushed the human infestation from his mind and gazed back along the crammed thoroughfare. The now-ruined Adhraas lay behind him, and he glowered from under his hood toward it. Back down the thoroughfare to where he’d buried the elf. His saviour. How she never let him forget that. She hadn’t changed during her captivity, either. Janna wouldn’t stop talking of his mistakes during their confrontation. Needling him. Belittling him. Him. Raas! The man who’d led his people from ruin across the endless ocean, who’d showed them the way to supplant the Eldaris and rule Haltveldt, even with the human interlopers appearing on the nation’s shores when they crept out of the shadows, the Widow calling on them to redress the balance.

Giving them the Spark.

Raas knew why. The Widow, or whatever it was, gave them magic to kill the Bokari. The First People, for elves weren’t people. They were slaves to a god who hated Raas’s folk. Who despised his followers. Who’d set fate against them, writing them into a future of ruin. The so-called goddess’ actions had proven her mind when it came to the Bokari.

Yes, he’d made mistakes. Every god did, and he stood alone. Not even the pathetic shadow remnant of his First People backed him now.

But they would. They’d come grovelling once they realised only he could spare them. And he’d see Kade Besem dead before he’d treat with them. Tilo’s wife and children, too. Yes. Raas would make them pay.

Turning, a smile grew on lips hidden in shadow. The walls, domed buildings and towers of Sea’s Keep rose above toppled walls, blasted and scarred earth, rent by battle.

Tilo’s body had served its purpose, but it could only take Raas so far. Half-elven vessels, ones capable of both Song and the Spark lay before him, ripe for the taking. Raas wouldn’t ask for permission. Never again. He’d take. Raas would make himself strong, and in doing so, he’d get close to this Calene Alpenwood.

A half-elf capable of Spark and Song would further his designs, would aid him in navigating this set of new enemies, but a vessel capable of untapped potential like this Alpenwood, one already with the command of all magic at their fingertips in complete balance?

Once he wore her body, one in tune with all magic, great and terrible, every being from every race would kneel before him, begging to be spared from the Corruption looming in the north.

From the humans of Haltveldt’s ruined future.

Chuckling, Raas resumed his journey, ignoring the biting pain in his hamstring.

When they all fawned at his feet, Raas would choose who lived and died in his new Haltveldt.

Like a god. The only god that mattered. And he would write a new future.



Chapter One

THE QUESTION ON THE LIPS OF MANY

“Already I fear our words go unheeded, our warnings treated with nothing but scorn. Byar’s faction gathers strength. I have heard there is talk of a statue in his honour in Spring Haven. A statue! I despair, Trell, I really do. We are walking in the well-trodden steps of the First People, and my heart tells me our strides will take us even further than theirs.” — A missive sent by Jakob, hero of Spring Haven, to Sparker Trell. Discovered by Greton in the repository belonging to the Followers of the Dawn, the old man transcribed the excerpt and gave it pride of place in his celebrated collection, ‘The Truths of Haltveldt: Dispelling the Shadows and Treachery’.

“Look, I understand you all want to talk about Calene and her desire to end magic, but do I need to remind you all of the army ready to invade in the north?” Brina spat each word from her mouth before they could sear her lips. “They’ve attacked once, and I reckon to them, it added up to nothing more than a skirmish. I suggest we talk about them, and what we’re going to do about the Confederacy.”

She dug her nails into the table top. Bit her tongue with such force she tasted hot iron. Gasping, she clenched her jaw instead, and forced a smile onto her lips, meeting the eyes of her so-called allies sitting around a gleaming rowan-wood round table deep beneath Sea’s Keep. Allies who seemingly delighted in tormenting her.

Sorra al’Gabhin, Maria du Gerran, and Herick Tellem, the weasley Haltveldtian Master of Trade, and de-facto ruler of the nation after Nexes Almor succeeded in his aggressive succession plan concerning the former Emperor Locke, all flinched when she revealed her teeth. Flinched!

Thiemeas! I’m smiling at them. What more do they want? A jig? A song? No, no song. No magic. Please, no more talk of magic!

The other member of the newly minted Ruling Council of Sea’s Keep, and therefore the grand nation of Haltveldt, hadn’t shied away, though.

Kalvhan cleared his throat, pulling Brina’s eyes and her forced grin his way. The ‘Avastian Advisor to Haltveldt’, and half-elven son of one of the mysterious and powerful nation’s ruling Diarchs, hadn’t baulked. He hadn’t so much as blinked. Either Brina’s prickly disposition failed to bother him, or he hadn’t noticed the thick, oily tension swirling in the air, or the smothering unease oozing from Brina’s pores.

Somehow. Even the cats slinking around the undercity belonging to the Followers of the Dawn hissed when they passed the door, wisely giving the meeting room a wide berth despite the five people sitting around the table and the ear scratching opportunities they presented.

Brina studied the young man across from her, taking in his sea-grey eyes, high cheekbones and unruffled raven hair. Handsome, if one liked the beautifully-bland, too clean type. Despite the time she and Kalvhan had spent together, and his father’s insistence she take the young half-elf under her wing, Brina really couldn’t tell if he spent his days oblivious to the anxieties flooding Sea’s Keep, or if he really didn’t give anything much thought at all. Avastia’s advisor smiled at everything. Everyone. Especially when reminding folk of his lineage, and what exactly he represented.

Brina once thought of him as having all of Diarch Bohdan’s charm and none of the man’s hair-pulling, clankte master-like deviousness. Her instincts hadn’t let her down, but Kalvhan proved himself a different kind of politician to his father. The half-elf simply told people what he wanted, and how matters would pan out, happy in the knowledge that the great nation of Avastia would back his every whim, and safe to believe so with more Avastians arriving on their brigattas every day, and with the Diarchy down to arrive in due course. He didn’t wheedle, didn’t manoeuvre, or lay thinly-veiled threats on the table for others to circumnavigate. Kalvhan simply asked questions and told others what he wanted.

Of course, it helped that, with the Spark returned, magical folk with Links to others back in Avastia had reestablished themselves. Kalvhan himself claimed he hadn’t Linked with anyone, echoing Greton and Maria’s thoughts of having one’s mind to themselves and themselves only, but others in Haltveldt didn’t share the same qualms. Plenty of what the Ruling Council discussed found its way into the ears of the Diarchy.

A Diarchy Brina had promised a seat on the table when charting Haltveldt’s future.

Her fake, muscle-aching smile almost turned to a grimace at that.

A problem for after we defeat the Confederacy. If we defeat the Confederacy.

But it wasn’t, no matter how much Brina lied to herself. According to Kalvhan, the Diarchy set sail from Grey Harbour to Haltveldt that morning and would arrive within three weeks. A month at most. Confederacy vessels ranged out across the Sundered Seas, and battles raged in the frigid north-western waters, after all.

Brina stared at Kalvhan, and he smiled back at her, his head tilted to the side, her patience pushed way beyond the realms of thin by the carefully-fixed vacant expression on his face. He cleared his throat again.

“Yes?” she asked, when the Diarch’s son showed no sign of broaching any subject. “Did you have something to say, or do you need me to direct you to a physician to sort out the catch in your throat?”

In her mind, that she hadn’t leapt over and throttled him should secure her a place in Eternity, despite her…chequered past.

“Actually, I wanted to know what the others asked. You know, the question you’ve avoided throughout this entire meeting. The one you avoid in every meeting and are now saying we cannot discuss. It seems rather important to me.” Kalvhan’s smile grew. “Calene isn’t serious about destroying magic, is she? I mean, she can’t be. We’ve only just got the Spark back! We need that and the Song to defeat the Confederacy and the Corruption. Even without magic, our scouts have their number outstripping ours, not to mention those strange shock weapons they carry. Will they work without magic? Can we count on them failing if Calene’s plan succeeds? Have you told her that? We’ve nothing to withstand against those, and no idea how to replicate them. Greton and people from Avastia have both studied them, and are flummoxed. She knows all this, doesn’t she?”

Brina had no idea if the crack echoing through her head resulted from fissures forming in her clenched teeth, or a breaking of some kind of mental fortitude. A dam which had withstood volumes of anger and frustration, demolished at last.

“I don’t know,” she snarled. “Why don’t you droking ask her yourself? I’m not the damned Voice of Calene, if you haven’t noticed, and she has a mind of her own.”

Sorra, Maria, and Master Tellem, as he insisted on being called, leaned back, throwing sidelong glances at one another, each all too jittery for Brina’s tastes. Even Maria. A woman who, according to Greton, had repeatedly threatened Calene with death. Calene! And Sorra. Leader of the Followers of the Dawn. She’d taken down heavily armed guards of Sea’s Keep with nothing but her hands and feet, not to mention battled through the streets of the city against the Confederacy as a glorious elven liberator!

Master Tellem’s reaction wasn’t a surprise, she had to admit. Even though he, in rank alone, ruled Haltveldt, he marched to the beat of the Ruling Council’s drum, and showed little backbone or appetite for arguments. In truth, he had a seat on the table as someone from Haltveldt’s Conclave had to be there, and Tellem proved to be the highest-ranking person still breathing.

Except for Nexes, but…Well, he had murdered the emperor.

If her tone caused Kalvhan displeasure, he didn’t show it. His wide smile stayed fixed to his face like they talked of the birth of a child on the morning of Fen’s Leaving, and seemingly oblivious that his question had pushed Brina to the limits of murder and a major diplomatic incident.

“Well, I would ask her, but she won’t talk with any of us.” He glanced at the others at the table. “She keeps to herself, aside from you and Greton. Isn’t that right? In fact, I looked for her this morning and couldn’t find her.”

Brina kept the wince from her face. On waking that morning, Calene’s side of the mattress had been cold. She’d left before dawn. To the cells, probably. Always to the cells. Apart from when she watched over Sea’s Keep from the rooftops, staring out to the north.

To where the Confederacy loomed.

“Don’t bring me into this,” Maria grumbled, shaking her head. Clearly a wise woman, despite the previous threats levelled at Calene. Her human lover may have brushed such things aside, but Brina wouldn’t forget so easily, even if the woman commanded the Shining Cross rebels. Fierce fighters, and most of the Sparkers, with their power returned to them, had swelled their ranks further. More Sparkers arrived at Sea’s Keep by the day.

“You’re happy with Calene’s…desire…to destroy magic, Maria?” Kalvhan pressed. “You’re a Sparker. Surely you wouldn’t want it gone. Again. Tell me, how did you feel once it was missing? Lesser, I’m sure. Frightened. Not yourself. Believe me, I speak from experience. Losing it once…” He shook his head, pain clouding his clear grey regard. “Well. I wouldn’t be rushing to miss out on it again, and it isn’t just the Spark she’s talking about. It’s the Song, too.”

“And the Corruption. Calene wants to destroy it, too. Remember that, Kalvhan,” Brina hissed. “It’s not like Calene’s just decided to remove magic like Raas did, and cause a problem just for us, is it?”

“Ah, so you do agree with her!” Kalvhan leaned forward. “You admit it.”

A muscle in Brina’s face twitched. “No. I don’t agree, it’s just—”

“Then you’ll try to convince her!” Kalvhan cut in. “If you don’t agree, and with your relationship, then you can—”

Brina didn’t realise her palm had slapped down on the table until the crack rang out, cutting off the eager half-elf midflow, and the stinging pain spread through her hand. Focusing on the throb, she glared at Kalvhan, ignoring the others around the table. They mattered little in that moment. Again, he hadn’t flinched. His smile hadn’t slipped.

He droking wants an argument, or some reaction on my part, thinking my anger will make me speak out of turn. Thiemea politicians! Deliver them all to Fen!

She breathed deeply through her nose before answering.

“I don’t support, agree, or disagree with Calene’s plan. She first announced it only a week ago and has said little else on the matter.” Brina rolled her shoulders. “Since then, we’ve had scouting to carry out—by land and sea—a city to reinforce and repair, relationships to build, Shadow Sparkers and Confederacy mages to question and keep docile, and a drok of an emperor to bury. I haven’t had the time to think about Calene’s plan, and it really isn’t a plan, when you get right down to it. It’s an idea. Nothing more. How is someone supposed to destroy magic, anyway?”

Kalvhan leaned back in his chair, then glanced at the others sitting around the table.

“She doesn’t agree with her.”

“Now see here, Kalvhan!” Brina exploded, almost leaping from her chair, but Maria’s raised palms kept her in her seat.

“Before you two get at each other all over again, and you really should stop needling her, Kalvhan, I might as well be frank about this…” she eyed Brina, “...idea.”

Kalvhan crossed his arms, a slight pout on his lips. “I was only trying to get an answer out of her. She’s in a perfect place to get them herself. It’s an important issue!”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Peace, Kalvhan, or by the wag of Fen’s tail I’ll throttle you myself! You asked me if I’d like to give up the Spark…” She sighed and shook her head. Holding a hand before her face, she smiled as faint flames erupted from her fingertips. Master Tellem shifted in his seat, scraping it further away.

“Look at them,” Maria murmured, letting the flames dance from digit to digit. “I never thought I’d be able to do this again, and to discover Raas, our droking god, cut us all off as part of some ancient vendetta certainly puts it all in a different light. When it came back…When Calene and Zanna Alpenwood, her dead mother— dead! —gave it back to us, I’ve never felt such joy. Even if it isn’t as strong as it once was. I felt unbeatable.”

“So you agree this is nothing more than madness?” Kalvhan unfolded his arms and leaned forward. “It’s a folly to spurn such a gift.”

Maria let the flames flicker out, then gripped her fingers with her other hand. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Kalvhan spat. Ruffled at last. Brina folded her arms and kept the smug smile from forming on her lips.

About time.

“You heard me,” Maria growled, glaring at him. “Months ago, I’d have never given up my Spark willingly. Losing it, I’d have done anything to get it back. But now knowing each misuse of it adds to the Corruption, that we played some part in its creation, that we are the ancestors of those waging war on us with this foul magic to call on…I think Calene might be right. I really do.”

Silence smothered the group, each lost in thought. Brina had tossed the argument around in her mind more than once, and even talked it through with Calene who, despite what Brina told the others, spoke of her ‘idea’ often, though didn’t go into details. She didn’t know how she’d do it, but was convinced of the need. Said it was right. As the week since the Battle of Sea’s Keep passed, they spoke of it less and less. What else was there to say?

“But that says nothing of the Song, as Kalvhan says.” Everyone glanced up at the soft murmur tinged with deep sadness. Sorra’s eyes pleaded with Brina’s as they locked together. “The Song is a gift from the Widow. An instrument of beauty, one for growth, healing. Joy. You know this, Brina. It is not an evil thing. It cannot be turned and used for ill, like the Spark can. Why punish us, too? What have we done other than try to live our lives as the Widow wanted? Haven’t we elves paid enough already?”

Brina swallowed. She’d avoided speaking to Sorra as much as possible in the past week, in meetings, in the corridors of the Follower of the Dawn’s city, for this very reason. All magic meant all magic. All.

“Sorra, would you let one culture raise themselves above others again? Isn’t that what Raas wanted? And, to make matters worse, it wouldn’t be one species alone. It would be the Banished, too.” Brina almost reached out to her friend when a full tear escaped the elf’s eye and rolled down her cheek. “From reports, it seems many of them have the Song. Almost all of them. Maybe all. They’d have power over the rest, then some of the elves next. Then the humans beneath everyone else.”

“Would that be so bad?” Sorra muttered.

Master Tellem gasped, his chair scraping as he pushed himself backward from the table. “How dare you say such a thing, elf!”

Sorra’s eyes flashed, the tears drier than the Prosper badlands, the heat of her anger cooking the moisture. “I dare say it after my kind have spent almost their whole existence under the boot of another race, human!”

Master Tellem spluttered. Sorra gripped the table edge like she gave great consideration to flinging herself across it at the Haltveldtian. Maria’s hands fell to the absent daggers usually hanging from her belt. Kalvhan’s sea-grey, luminous eyes met hers. Emotionless. Calculating.

“Enough!” Brina roared, surging to her feet, her hands balled into fists by her side. “There will be none of those slurs here. ‘Elf’. ‘Human’. Listen to yourselves, for Eternity’s sake! We’re on the same droking side here. Do I need to remind you the north is filled with an army ready to wage war on us all? And not just war. To wipe us off the face of Haltveldt, then roll over every other nation on the globe, too. This Great Confederacy. It doesn’t care if we’re human, elf, or Banished!” She glared at Sorra, then at Master Tellem. “Be better. Do better.”

Kalvhan’s smile changed. No, it wasn’t the lips curving in a different way. A light bloomed in his eyes, but Brina failed to understand its meaning.

Instead, she sucked in air. She panted like she’d raced across the rooftops of Sea’s Keep with the guard and slave gangs giving chase. A situation Brina knew all too well.

“But you should know better than anyone,” Sorra whispered, avoiding the orb-shaped daggers Brina aimed her way. “You are an elf.”

“And that’s why you should listen to me.” Brina leaned her fists against the table. “Unlike you, I lived my life topside. There’s not many who should hate Haltveldtians like I do, but I have to set that aside. In-fighting is making the Confederacy’s job easier for them. There is no ‘human’. No ‘elf’, or ‘Banished’ or ‘Avastian’. There’s us. Thiemea, we must remember that!”

She swept her gaze across the rest of the Ruling Council. Kalvhan did the same, no doubt reading Sorra’s, Maria’s, and Master Tellem’s faces for hints as to their thinking. Nodding, Brina straightened.

“Look, we still have a Fen-load to discuss. Reports are coming in from Sparkers who have reestablished their Links with their companions in other cities, and we have people exploring opportunities in Willow.”

Maria’s eyes flashed. “The exploding powder.”

“Yes. The exploding powder.” Brina took a measured breath. “Now. A reminder. The north is filled with the Great Confederacy. The victory in this city bought us some time, but let’s not fool ourselves. It was nothing more than a skirmish, and if not for…exceptional circumstances…we might have ended up in the mud staring up at Fen or beating our fists bloody against Eternity’s Gates. They are coming. They are our enemy. Winter is over, and spring is here. With it comes war. In Haltveldt, spring always brings war. And this is no battle for territory, or for trading rights, or just an excuse to keep the populace under heel. The Confederacy, with the Corruption behind them, won’t stop until every single one of us is dead. Take it from an elf, living a life close to extinction is no life at all. But that is what we’re facing. All of us. Do you all understand me?”

She glared around the table, meeting and holding each of the Ruling Council members’ eyes. Only Kalvhan smiled, but a muscle in his cheek twitched. The rest seemed to grasp their situation judging by their stony expressions.

“You are right,” Sorra muttered after Brina stared at her last. “The threat of the Great Confederacy requires our full attention. I have some ideas regarding the Banished. Reports from the Sparkers at Solitude say some of the dark magic like Evisceration did not affect them. Perhaps they can be brought in to bolster our defence? Not as a shield, but as full allies, working in the way the Sparkers would protect Haltveldt’s soldiers in battle, which I am sure you are all familiar with, though perhaps Maria can bring Kalvhan up to speed on that. Did Janna not say to tie all of Haltveldt’s people together?”

“Good luck trying to get anyone to speak with them,” Maria muttered. “The Shining Cross sent enough people to Lake Circa to talk, but they were all sent away.”

Brina let out a lungful of air, the knots around her shoulder blades untying themselves as she did. Progress. At last.

“We could send the elves. From my dealings with the Banished, I noticed we share common words. Greton is working with the Shining Cross to develop new Zendilton weapons, and I should have an update soon.” Brina dropped into her chair. “Good. This is better. Let’s push Calene’s idea aside and—”

“I do not see why losing magic all together is such a bad thing,” Master Tellem muttered sourly. “I reckon Alpenwood has the right of it, and it would solve many of our problems.”

“Thiemea!” Brina cried, throwing her hands up, shooting out of her chair. “Talk amongst yourselves, this is getting us nowhere!”

She turned on her heel and stalked out of the room.

“Where are you going?” Maria called.

“Anywhere else,” Brina snarled without so much as a glance over her shoulder. “Maybe without me around you’ll talk about something else than droking magic and what’s on Calene’s mind!”

The fact she’d been the one to bring Calene up again fuelled her blazing irritation.

Thiemea fool!

She blasted through the open door, a roving storm raging beneath Sea’s Keep, her long legs spiriting her away from the room the Ruling Council had taken over as their own. Brina paid little attention to anyone else as she stalked through the corridors, failing to marvel at the mixture of elven, human, and half-elven faces filling the vast city belonging to the Followers of the Dawn. Usually, taking her time and drinking in the sights and sounds, not to mention watching the children play, helped soothe the anger meetings with the council created, but not today.

Today they’d pushed her too far, with their constant questions about Calene. They asked her every droking meeting. Pressed her on it. Bad enough. Now they’d topped their skill to aggravate her with their petty arguments and needless slurs.

And they refused to let the matter of Calene Alpenwood drop.

Leaning against the wall, she closed her eyes and shook her head, a strained chuckle escaping her lips. “I’m not cut out for politics. Not at all. Yet here I am, holding together elves, Haltveldtians, Avastians, spies, rebels, and secret societies alike. How the drok has it come to this?”

She bit her lip, drinking in the sharp pain. “Childish of me to storm out. We have little time to plan. The Confederacy could attack again at any time. Their boats fill the northern oceans. A full assault is coming, and we sit here arguing. But how am I meant to pull everyone together? Me?”

It should be Calene…

Brina kicked the wall with the sole of her boot, shoving such treacherous thoughts away. Calene had enough to deal with. The Followers of the Dawn and the Sparkers flocking to them practically bowed and scraped on the ground whenever Calene showed her face. Whispers and unguarded looks followed her everywhere. Not just because of what she’d achieved at Sea’s Keep.

But because of the dream.

Brina pushed herself off the wall, resuming her journey through the vast underground city. The dream. More like a nightmare, from what she’d been told. She hadn’t experienced it herself, but anyone with a drop of magical blood in their veins had, and it hadn’t really been some shared terror conjured by their sleeping minds.

The Corruption, the leader of the Great Confederacy army, had marched out of a portal erected in the northlands, a gateway powered by the slaughter of thousands. And he wanted Calene. Dead or alive.

To make matters worse, he wore the face of her father, Ricken, and referred to himself by that name. A situation that threatened millions in Haltveldt and beyond had become unerringly personal.

Perhaps it had always been so, and the nightmare had simply revealed the truth.

So Calene kept herself apart, and Brina couldn’t blame her—errant, treacherous thoughts notwithstanding—but she’d remained busy. She examined the captured Shadow Sparkers and Confederacy mages, prodding them with her magic to find a cure for them, or spent hours with Greton as they poured through the bulging repository housed in the depths of the underground city, searching for answers and clues. Occasionally, when the room stood empty, Brina would find Calene in the Tapestry Room, gazing at the glowing depiction of the Lodestone stretching from wall to wall.

‘It’s the key,’ Calene would murmur, the green light dancing across her face. ‘I know it is. Like Tomas told Greton, ‘Beyond Sundered Seas. At Eternity’s Gates. Before the end of it all, we must return to the beginning’. Don’t you understand?’

Since Solitude, there was little she did understand, and despite Brina stubbornly clinging to the tattered shreds of her reality, she understood even less of the world after Sea’s Keep.

How could she not? She and her companions returned from Avastia to liberate the nation from a tyrant, only to find themselves siding with them against invaders from across time itself. Defeat loomed, the Great Confederacy springing a trap and turning Greton’s magic-negating weapons against the defenders.

Then Calene stepped in, and she’d achieved the improbable. Folk called it impossible, but it wasn’t. Calene had managed it, after all, returning the Spark and turning the tide of battle.

“Brina!” A shout from up ahead broke through her seething haze and memories of Calene. Even she couldn’t keep thoughts of her love from her mind.

Brina looked up in the direction of the calling voice, and the expression etched into her face brought Eomer up short.

“I see this is a bad time,” the elf muttered, twisting her fingers and backing away. “Sorry.”

Eomer, whom Brina had freed from captivity before meeting up with her again in Avastia, spun on her heel, ready to disappear into one of the many rooms leading off from the long stone corridor. Brina made an angry sound in the back of her throat.

Let go of your droking anger, thiemea! She doesn’t deserve it. Nobody does. These are uncertain times.

“No, wait!” Brina called. “Sorry. You’re right, bad time, but I need to let it go. Talk to me.”

She almost laughed at that. A bad time. The story of a droking lifetime for an elf in Haltveldt.

Eomer turned, a shy smile on her face. “You looked fit to pluck chickens with your teeth.”

“Politics.” Brina fixed a smile on her face. “How have you all been? I haven’t seen you since the morning of the battle.”

Eomer, and the others Brina had rescued from slavers, had made the crossing back to Haltveldt, at first determined to force Emperor Locke from the throne and affect change. Seeing Sea’s Keep under attack, the Avastians and returning elves helped protect the city instead, joining forces with the beleaguered Haltveldtians defending the capital from the invading Confederacy.

And change still came, thanks to Nexes dashing Locke’s brains out across the cobblestones of the city.

Heat rose in Brina’s cheeks. She’d promised Haltveldt’s former Master of War the opportunity to end Locke’s life, but thankfully had little to do with the business. Still, she’d given her word, and wanted no one to know of her involvement. And that wasn’t the only guarantee she’d agreed to in Avastia.

Diarch Bohdan’s face formed in her memories, the slightly condescending light in his eyes and the smirk on his lips.

“For our full support, we want your word, that of the Followers of the Dawn, and of Janna herself, that we will have a seat at the table when Haltveldt’s future is decided. We could take it, of course, but we want to be invited. Verline is in full agreement. She does not wish to free the elves only to see them persecuted again. Our motives are benign, you see. We want to begin our new relationship from a place of clarity.”

Blackmail. The Avastian Diarchy wanted to shape the future of Haltveldt – if there could be a future after war with the Confederacy – and threatened to withhold their full support unless Brina agreed. As Diarch Bohdan said, such an arrangement would prove beneficial for the elves. But xenophobia and elven hate underpinned all in Haltveldt, and such sentiments saturated the pillars of the earth. Master Tellem’s slur aimed at Sorra, a member of the new droking Ruling Council and supposed leader of the nation, no less, proved nothing would change in the short-term, not even with Locke dead.

“We decided to lay low and settle in after the battle.” Eomer murmured. Brina blinked. She’d asked the woman a question, hadn’t she? “And with the state funeral of Locke…Well, let’s just say we decided elves might not be too welcome in the above ground during the ceremony.”

“And after,” Brina grimaced. “Some of the humans took it very badly.”

“They’re going through a lot of sudden change,” Eomer replied gently, then offered a smile filled with mischief. “For once in their existence.”

“Now, now. Let’s try to be magnanimous about such things. Privilege is a hard thing to have challenged.”

“Of course, Brina, of course. Spoken like a true politician.”

Brina rolled her eyes. “Fen’s tail. Don’t get me started again, I’m not a droking politician. I’m just doing a job. For now.”

“You say that, and perhaps you aren’t, but look at this place…” Eomer smiled at a group of children—half-elves and humans—running by, a game of chase in full flow and, apparently, highly competitive. “You did all of this. Not the Followers of the Dawn. Not Avastia or Haltveldt, not even Janna or the Sparkers. You. And I believe this is just the start of a new beginning here.”

“Thank you. I think I needed to hear that,” Brina whispered, reaching out and gripping the elf’s forearm. “Give my love to the children.”

“One more thing,” the elf said quickly, and Brina’s heart sank, knowing exactly what the ‘one more thing’ would be. “Calene’s…plan. I wondered if—”

“I don’t know anything about that,” she interrupted. “Honestly. I’d tell you if I did. Now, if you don’t mind?”

Nodding, doubt clouding her eyes, Eomer continued on. Brina hugged herself, the woman’s words bringing another worry to the forefront of her mind.

Janna.

She’d disappeared before Locke’s death, refusing to tell Calene where, and hadn’t returned. Brina sighed.

“Who am I to expect a god to tell me of her comings and goings?”

Shaking her head, she moved down the corridor, slower this time. Janna wasn’t really a god, when it came right down to it, but Brina still missed her presence. She’d gone to Avastia because of her. She still breathed because of her. Calene had passed on Janna’s message, that Brina’s accomplishments filled the ancient elf with pride, but she longed to hear it with her own pointed ears. With treachery and the seconds of the day marching hand-in-hand on the island of Haltveldt, Brina’s instincts warned of the all-to-real prospect of her never seeing the elf again.

But didn’t they need the help of a god with the Corruption standing against them with an army from their own future?

Brina shook her head. She still barely believed it. Even if Calene and Greton assured her of the truth.

A shuddering breath escaped her lips, and she wiped at the tears building in her eyes, pausing by a doorway. Warm candlelight spilled across the stones at the threshold from inside, as well as the soft murmur of a gentle voice. Smiling, Brina leaned around the door.

Allay, the former Voice of the Window sat staring at the wall, a vacant grin on the human’s face as Denikk, a member of Maria’s Shining Cross, made shapes with their hands in front of the fire light, casting forms and shadows onto the stones.

“Do you know this one?” Denikk asked. A circle formed on the wall. They straightened their fingers, and shapes like ears appeared above the shadow circle.

Allay chuckled. “Rabbit.”

“Very good, Allay! Want to try another one?”

“Yes.”

Smiling, Denikk looked up, winking at Brina. She moved into the room slowly, though Allay didn’t seem to notice her. The former Voice had woken from the long sleep during the nightmare, and could hear the Widow no longer.

“Any improvements?” she murmured.

“Allay is happy, aren’t you, Allay?” Denikk replied. “That’s all that matters, isn’t it? Not the fact that the past and present are muddled up inside that head of yours.”

Allay turned, wide eyes meeting Brina’s. The human gasped, hands pressed together in delight.

“You! Brina al’Loria. Of flowers, leaves, and vines.” A relaxed smile grew across the former Voice’s face. “Chosen of Janna. Poor Janna. And selected for much more, I fancy. The keeper of the heart of she who desires the end of magic. What will she do, I wonder? Many wonder, no? I daresay the Widow does. Oh, yes. The Widow does, indeed. As does the Corruption. What exists in the mind of one, appears in the other. Yes. Yes, it does. Ha!”

Ice mixed with blood in Brina’s veins. Glancing at Denikk, she slid out of the room, leaving them to their solace. ‘Chosen of Janna’. Ignoring the stares of the elves in the corridor, Brina took in her hands and forearms, wishing she’d worn gloves. Faint markings covered her skin, ones gifted to her by Janna. Flowers, leaves, and vines that would glow under moonlight. They certainly caught the eyes, and Calene spent many hours tracing them with her forefinger… A pleasant shudder ran through Brina’s core, but Allay’s words chased it away.

‘And selected for much more, I fancy.’

More? Brina shook her head, letting her feet carry her through the maze-like corridors. What else awaited her? Nothing but supporting Calene, that’s what, and trying to knit together the Ruling Council and forcing manners on to them. Nothing more. Allay’s mind had wandered after the Widow left them, and the human knew little of what words they spoke now. Though that in itself gave Brina another set of worries.

Would a benevolent god such as the Widow cause such damage to one in their service? Denikk spent all their waking hours with Allay, and others kept watch on the former Voice while Denikk slept. It didn’t seem…fair.

In Haltveldt, not much did.

Even still, even in their condition, Allay wanted to know Calene’s mind. Everyone wanted to know Calene Alpenwood’s droking mind.

A rich voice broke through her thoughts. A welcome, vibrant force, speaking at an excited clip. Glancing around, Brina’s enthusiasm died a little. She stood outside of the repository, one an eerily similar match to the Cradle.

The place she’d descended upon to assassinate an emperor. The vault she’d almost died in, but the prison she’d freed Janna from. It even had a similar stone door, though this one had stood open for thousands of years, being the place the Voice of the Widow slept their long sleep. The voice drifted in again, a booming laugh accompanying it. Drawing in lungfuls of air, Brina entered, putting aside her misgivings for the company the room held.

If they couldn’t assuage her doubts, worries and anger, no one could. Well, besides Calene, but she’d be in the cells with the Shadow Sparkers.

And the cells of the Followers of the Dawn held more than just corrupted mages.

Multiple stacks stretched throughout a wide, deep room with a vaulted ceiling. Thousands of parchments, papers bound with string, and books filled every space of the stacks, but not a single piece of dust bothered any of them, the Followers treating the repository with care and awe. While it lacked the spinning globe of the Cradle, the one revealing hitherto unknown swathes of lands and seas across the earth, or the prophetic diorama crammed into every nook and cranny, the ancient library resembled its match outside of Spring Haven almost perfectly. Even down to the rune-etched stone door at the repository’s far wall.

A simple table with two men sitting at it lay before the venerable portal, and Brina headed that way, smiling as Greton Bouseby lectured Curran Mac Tir on whatever fascinated him at that particular moment in time. A stack of unopened books towered before the old Sparker, while his own notebook lay open beside them. A bottle of Velen brandy found itself amongst the books, as well as a clankte board. Curran relaxed in his chair, legs splayed, a mug in his hand. Brina’s mouth watered as the waft of spiced alcohol made its presence known.

“...well, I was there when Calene found balance, Curran, and let me tell you, I do not know if she spoke the words of her own volition, or if this…Widow…influenced her, but if my translations are correct, and I must confess language has never been an area I excel in, but believe you me I have spent time checking and double-checking.” Greton took a deep breath, then pointed at the runes etched across the stone doorway. “Those words are almost exactly the same as what Calene spoke, nay, bellowed when she channelled all aspects of magic. Bellowed!”

Brina came to halt, her elven steps quiet. “What did she say? On the hill, Greton, what did she say?”

Greton started, a great harumph exploded from his mouth, his face the perfect picture of shock and surprise. Curran’s eyes twinkled as he turned her way, lifting his mug.

“Never doubt how quietly an elf walks! Can I get ye a brandy, lass?” the sea captain asked. Bald, taller than most, and almost as wide as the undercity’s doorways, he grabbed a spare mug without waiting for an answer, filling it to the brim and handing it to Brina. As usual, he wore a leather vest that exposed his bare arms to the elements. The undercity contained enough heat, even though goosebumps afflicted Brina from time to time, but Curran would stride through the streets of Sea’s Keep under the lashing rain wearing nothing else. The elements and Curran Mac Tir existed in separate realms. “To the Widow’s Purpose!”

“The Widow’s Purpose,” Greton murmured, partaking of the brandy himself without hesitation.

Brina lifted hers and muttered the words, taking a mouthful of the aromatic liquid. Rich spices like a winter night fire warmed her taste buds, carrying with it a hint of honey and the flavoursome kick of burned cherry.

The Widow’s Purpose, Curran’s vessel for some twenty years, hadn’t survived the Battle for Sea’s Keep. The captain toasted its loss with every sip taken since.

Swallowing the brandy, Brina looked Greton’s way. The old man avoided her eyes as he often did, but she raised an eyebrow anyway. “Do I need to ask you again?”

“Of course not, of course not. I was simply taking a moment to mourn the loss of such a fine ship. Though I never had the pleasure to see it myself.” He hiccuped. The mourning had been long and consistent, it seemed. “The words, yes, the words.”

Brina smiled as he turned to his notebook, his slim fingers flipping through the pages, his snowy stack of hair bobbing as his head moved left and right. Calene could barely contain her excitement at the prospect of introducing Brina to the old Sparker, and the need for Brina to like Greton had been painfully clear. She’d truly seemed herself then. Excited and vibrant. A summer’s dawn. Not pensive and overcome with thought like the last days of autumn.

Thankfully, Brina hadn’t needed to pretend, even with her overall view of humans. Greton had the soul of an elf of the legends, the ones the Elders spoke of, and the only people who could take a dislike to the old man could meet the maw of Fen for all she cared.

“Anytime you’re ready, Greton,” Brina murmured, taking another sip of brandy. Curran winked at her. The men had bonded over their shared love of fine, exotic alcohol and clankte. As well as a little peace and quiet in a heavily populated undercity.

The old man jabbed at a page with his finger.

“I am ready! The words, yes. Now, if my translations are correct, and they are as I confirmed them with Sorra, the words above the door say, ‘Air I am. Fire I am. Water, Earth, and Spirit I am.’ A nice little sentiment.”

“What else is there, eh?” Brina nodded. “I know the words, Sorra translated them for me when I first came here.”

Greton’s jaw dropped. “She did?”

“Yes. You could have just asked her, or any of the other Followers.”

Colour rose in Greton’s cheeks. “Ah, it had not occurred to me.”

“So what did Calene say?” Brina asked, smiling gently at the old man. “Well, bellowed.”

“Something very similar.” Greton took a sip from his brandy, eyes fixed on the end of Brina’s nose. She fought the urge to rub at it. “For a part of it, I was still under the effect of the Zendilton, sleeping. But still, her words came to me, like the crack of thunder, waking me. ‘I choose air’, she said. ‘I choose fire, I choose water, I choose earth.’” He swallowed. “Then finished with, ‘I choose life.’”

Goosebumps broke out across Brina’s flesh as she eyed the runes above the stone door. “I guess there is more then, isn’t there? Life.”

“Quite similar to spirit, some might say, but yes.” Greton frowned down at his book. “Interesting that she chose to say such things, is it not? Calene says she does not remember saying those words, but I do not forget such things easily.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” Brina murmured, rubbing at her chilled forearms.

She loved Calene. Truly and wholly. She’d followed her across Haltveldt, and journeyed back again alongside her. Crossed an ocean and brought back an army in her name, and spent every moment she could with her since, and every night without fail. Losing themselves in each other’s arms, Calene’s soft, warm skin pressed against hers. Their lips entwined as they drank each other in, refusing to let go, moving in for another kiss, another touch, the last one never being enough. How could it be? Calene’s scent as familiar to her as spring rain, the memory lingering long after they parted, and Calene’s bright eyes danced whenever they met Brina’s, the violet deep and vibrant, filled with mischief, desire and longing.

So much desire and longing. It made Brina’s toes curl whenever the memory snuck up on her, caused the coil inside her stomach to tighten, and blazing heat to warm her cheeks.

But she’d be lying to herself if she said a change hadn’t befallen her love, and Brina knew all about lying to herself and refused to do it any longer. Well, except for the several times a day she fell into her bad habits and whispered mistruths in her mind. When Calene mastered all aspects of magic on the hill overlooking Sea’s Keep, when she’d turned the tide of battle and laid their enemies low without resorting to violence, she’d become…extra. Something else.

And everyone knew it.

“Greton’s got magic on the brain, so he has,” Curran murmured, refilling his brandy and raising his mug. “To the Widow’s Purpose!”

Brina sighed, taking another pull from her mug, even the rich Velen brandy doing nothing to quell her rising resignation. Magic on the brain. That meant one thing, and one thing only.

Questions regarding Calene.

“How goes the Zendilton production?” Brina asked quickly, hoping to head Greton off at the magical pass. “And the new weapons to use the potion? I don’t have to remind you both of what we’re facing, do I?”

“It is moving like an afternoon tide, as the locals say,” the old man answered, waving a hand. “A curious phrase.”

Greton burped behind his fist, then reached for the almost empty bottle of alcohol positioned precariously like a volcanic tower jutting out of a land made from paper, and refilled his cup. Brina eyed him, waiting for the inevitable. A week of it. A week. Everywhere she went. People would nag her with their questions and theories, human and elf alike, Haltveldtian and Avastian united at last in their quest to push her patience to its upper limits. At least something brought them all together, though the thought gave Brina little satisfaction. She bore the brunt of the newly, and tentatively constructed, United Peoples of Haltveldt’s endless curiosity.

“So when can I expect an update on our new weapons? We have the arrows, but we’ve seen how they can be used against us.” Brina smiled through gritted teeth. “We can’t expect Calene to come to our rescue every time, can we?”

She grimaced at her own mention of Calene. The very person she tried to steer the conversation away from. Her simmering frustration threatened to burn the broth.

Don’t get angry at Greton, thiemea. Not at him! He should be interested in her, he says he was sent to help her!

But the Confederacy were coming, and all anyone wanted to talk about was Calene Alpenwood and her idea to destroy magic, and not the monstrous army and the embodiment of droking evil looming in the north.

“Indeed.” Greton murmured at last, though what he confirmed after a lengthy sip of brandy Brina didn’t know. “I am beginning to think there is much more to this Widow than we first believed. Would you agree?”

“I don’t know what Calene intends with magic, Greton.” Brina snapped, her fingers gripping her mug with enough force the smooth wood finish protested. “You’d know more than I seeing as you were talking to her when she announced her scheme, weren’t you? That you’ve trawled through these books with her! Why aren’t people asking you instead of me!”

For the first time, Greton’s wide eyes met hers. The old man spluttered and glanced at Curran, who shrugged.

“Did I say different words than the ones I meant to?” he whispered, frowning at the tip of Brina’s nose. “I did not mention Calene’s plan. Or at least I did not mean to. Did I? Perhaps I have had too much of the Velen brown…”

He gingerly placed his cup down on the table, pushing it away with his fingertips.

“You mentioned nothing of the sort,” Curran replied, narrowing his eyes at Brina. “Reckon our friend here’s having a tough time of it, so she is, and she misspoke in haste, as folk struggling against the tide often do. Understandable, planning for an incoming invasion from a pack of monsters, but still, you have to remember who your friends are, so you do.”

Right then, Brina wanted nothing more than to cover her face in her arms and flee. Greton hadn’t said a single thing about Calene’s plan. So ready was she for the standard line of interrogation, she hadn’t listened to a single word the old Sparker actually said.

“Greton, I’m so sorry. Truly. I…No, there’s no excuses for it. I shouldn’t have snapped at you, and that’s that. Forgive me.” She hesitated. “You really don’t want to know about Calene?”

He blinked. “My elven friend, as I told Calene herself, I am with her until the Gates of Eternity open for us, or Fen’s maw devours us instead. Whatever she decides, she has my aid, though I believe the destruction of magic is a matter of how rather than if. You cannot change the future, but we can create a different reality than those returned future Haltveldtians experienced. Believe me, I have studied such things for a long, long time, though perhaps not too long for an elf. That is what Calene seeks to do. She wants a future unwritten, and to do that, we cannot have the temptation of magic. We are pinned in a battle between pure light, and corrupted dark. Why not sweep both from the clankte board?”

Despite the swell of love and gratitude surging in her chest for the old man—a wave of such power Brina almost staggered into the table—she latched onto his words with vigour. Calene never went into detail with her. They spent their time enjoying each other’s company while they could, making up for lost time. In Haltveldt, one never knew when Eternity’s Gates or the Fen’s jaws would call. Especially in recent times. But Calene had spent time with Greton. Hours each day for the past week. And Greton possessed a mind unlike many others, as Calene often said.

“She has a plan?” Brina asked, loathing each syllable with a vengeance as they fled her lips. After everything, again, she acted just like the rest of Sea’s Keep.

If Greton heard, he paid little mind. Already he rummaged through his notes, eyes flicking to the open stone door. Brina glanced inside of it; the bed Allay had slept in for years stood empty and made. Ready for a new inhabitant, if the Widow ever selected another tragic soul to speak with.

“See, the words Calene said during the battle when she returned from the dead—and I believe she really was on the precipice if not floating over the edge of it—are a little too close for comfort to these words we see in this very room.” Greton muttered. Curran smiled at Brina, his eyes twinkling as the old man galloped over the rise. Even though she’d known the Sparker for a week, she knew better than to grab at his rein when in full flow. “Even though the Followers here say their accounting of Haltveldt’s past are more accurate than the ones found at the Cradle, and I am inclined to believe them to a point, their work on this nation’s beginnings are scant. Spoiling the broth, everything they have is coloured by religion. The Widow is their goddess, their creator, the benefactor of their Song, and all life. But we know that is not entirely true.”

Curran frowned. “How do we know that?”

Greton glanced at him, a flash of annoyance crossing his lined face fading almost instantly as he nodded. A question in-line with his current thread of thought.

“Well, Calene’s experiences with the Corruption, and in the realm which she found herself in with her mother and Arlo. She claims she saw a presence. One made from pure light, and nothing else.” Greton leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers before his nose. “Does that remind you of anything?”

Brina rubbed at her forearms, wishing she’d worn longer sleeves, though she knew the conversations she found herself in made for the chill settling on her skin and not the room temperature.

“The Corruption. A monster made entirely from shadow,” she whispered, her stomach twisting with each word. “Coming to destroy us all, and devour the light, wherever it exists.”

“Precisely.” Greton threw his arm wide, taking in all of the books, then wagged a finger at Curran. “I am sorry, my bald friend. You believe in the Widow, and think she is a goddess. Perhaps she is, but there is too much of a parallel with the Corruption to dispel as mere coincidence – and consider this; what we know of the Spark, of the Song and the Darkness in between, and of the Corruption growing from it is this: balance. There needs to be balance. The Widow, as far as we know, is entirely innocent and good. It exists in the light, because it is the light. The Corruption must be its counterpart, and what do we know of the Corruption’s origins?”

He steepled his fingers once more, focus shifting from Brina to Curran. The sea captain stared into his cup, a deep frown etched across his wide forehead. He wouldn’t answer, and Greton would sit in that exact pose until Eru Day waiting for an answer. Brina had sat through all the debriefs and could remember each and every word Calene shared on the matter. She worked moisture into her mouth before answering.

“The Corruption is wholly evil. Intent on swallowing the light, seeking to destroy notions of balance once and for all, using the Great Confederacy to meet its ends. It said it grew from belief. From worship and use. Even though an inkling of it came into life with the first thought of evil, the misuse of magic caused it to grow.” Brina swallowed. “You think the Widow is the same? You think…You think the elves, what, created her?”

Curran’s wooden cup cracked, spilling brandy over his fist. Muttering a curse to Fen under his breath, he saw to cleaning himself up, shaking his head as he did.

Greton sighed, a v born of irritation forming on his forehead. “I do not know for certain, and this vexes me. But consider this, Brina. If the Widow and Corruption are counterparts, and the latter seeks to destroy balance, would the former seek the same? Would the Widow prefer a world made exclusively of good and light? Dangerous, maybe. There can be no light without darkness. And would such an existence rob us of choice? Of balance. Eternity. The Underworld. Did we create them, too? Perhaps they are where the Song and Darkness originate, and our belief in them created the Widow and the—”

“Greton.” Curran’s growl lacked any of the boisterous civility and warmth it usually carried. “You speak of blasphemy.”

“I spoke of blasphemy when I doubted and questioned Raas and Janna. Was I wrong then?” Greton sipped at his brandy. “Understanding means asking the difficult questions no one else will. Progress is allowing understanding to flow to all. What I know is that we are running out of time. The Great Confederacy comes for us, the Corruption with it, and we must have answers and understanding, or all is lost. Blasphemy is not a subject to consider.”

Brina drained her brandy. Another conversation dominated by magic and religion smothered with tension.

“I’ll leave you two at it, then,” she muttered. Greton didn’t respond, absorbed in his notebook already.

Curran got to his feet with a sigh. “I’ll come with ye. Another game of clankte tomorrow, Greton?”

“Yes,” the old man replied absently. “It really is a fine game. Calene will never play it with me…”

Curran remained silent as they left the repository, the low hum of chatter and tinkling laughter growing louder as he and Brina made their way through the stacks. The large captain kept his head bowed, lost in thought.

“He didn’t mean it, you know,” Brina muttered, torn at the prospect of defending Greton, appeasing her sailor friend, and nursing her own feelings at the Sparker’s thoughts on the Widow.

The Followers of the Dawn’s beliefs had eased their way into her heart and soul since arriving in Sea’s Keep. After Janna had saved her and set her on a quest. She’d believed in the Widow too, hadn’t she?

“He didn’t mean to offend me, but he did mean what he said, so he did.” Curran blew out his cheeks, then smiled. “There’s plenty of room for all kinds of thinking in Haltveldt, no? Isn’t that what we’re trying to achieve here?”

“But what if he’s right?”

Curran placed a companionable hand on Brina’s shoulder. “If he’s right, he’s right. No point in arguing with a rogue wave nor a gale. They exist, so they do, and ye have to deal with them and make no mistake. Are you heading down to the cells?”

Without thinking, Brina’s feet had responded to the longing in her heart and carried her toward the stairs to the lower levels. People in the undercity avoided the area, and their steps echoed through the silent corridor.

“Calene is down there.”

Curran paused. “Shadow Sparkers, too. It’s darker down there, so it is. Grimmer. I don’t know how anyone can stand being down there. Except for Alpenwood, of course.”

“Why of course?”

“She’s special, isn’t she?” Curran met her eyes. “You don’t need me telling you that.”

Brina frowned. “I don’t think you mean ‘special’ in the way I do.”

He took a step closer to her, looking left and right. “Brina, I know you don’t like the constant chatter regarding Alpenwood, never mind the questions, so you don’t, but what the folk are saying…Some say she is the Widow. Now, many welcome such talk, but just as many don’t. Is it…Deluge be damned, I don’t want to ask, but I must. Is she? Has the woman changed? They say flowers bloomed beneath her feet outside of the city. The trail is still there, leading from the hill. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, so I have.”

Brina rocked on her feet, the anger coiling inside her lashing out like a whip. Her palms stung from her fingernails piercing the skin.

“Of course she’s droking changed, thiemea! You know what she’s been through! How could someone not change?”

Curran refused to back down, but he met Brina’s rage with soothing calm. “You know I meant it in a different way. The same way I didn’t mean your kind of special.”

Brina glared at him, grasping onto her ire as it ebbed away. Hadn’t the same thought plagued her mind, and not just in the bitter watches of the night when she’d wake to find Calene upright and lost in thought? How her lover would blink at Brina’s touch and gaze around, surprised at her surroundings before telling Brina to go back to sleep.

She gazed at the doorway leading to the lower level and bit her lip, tears stinging her eyes.

“I don’t know, Curran. I just don’t know.”

“Allay woke up, lass. The Widow doesn’t speak to them anymore. There’s a reason for that, so there is. Maybe she’s seen Alpenwood and…” He shook his head. “Want me to come down there with you?”

Brina gripped his shoulder and squeezed. “No. Thank you.” She laughed and wiped away the tears. “Never thought we’d be talking like this when I stalked you through the streets of Sea’s Keep.”

Curran smiled. “But I’m glad we are, lass, I’m glad we are. My life’s better for your friendship, so it is.” He eyed the doorway. “Be careful of him. Even if he is locked up in his cell. His tongue’s as sharp as those blades of his, so it is.”

“No. But I need to talk to him, and I’ve been putting it off.”

Curran eyed him. “Because you thought he’d changed?”

“Partly.”

“Take it from me, lass, a man like that never changes. The emperor abused him, no doubt about that, so there isn’t, but he was, and always will be, a killer.”

Brina nodded. “But he knows war. And one is coming. The last one if we don’t win it. I’m supposed to be tying these people together, all these cultures—the Banished included—but I have no idea what to do!”

“And you’re hoping Nexes Almor has some kind of answers, but you fear he doesn’t.”

“Yes.”

Curran reached out and gripped her shoulder. “There’s only one way to find out, so there is. And if you find yourself struggling against the tide, your friends will pull you out, lass. Don’t forget that. We’re all in this together.”

The sailor stomped away. Brina waited till he turned a corner, until the sound of his heavy steps faded beyond the reach of her keen hearing, then filled her lungs. With one last glance at her surroundings, she headed through the doorway and descended to the undercity’s lower levels.

Shadows swallowed the faint light granted by the gas lamps built into the stairwell’s alcoves. The brave illumination flickered, strove against the encroaching darkness, but the inky black swelled. She put it down to her imagination, but she couldn’t ignore the whispers swirling in her mind. Snatches of conversation she couldn’t make out. Brina quickened her pace, taking the last few steps in a bound and pushing through the door, closing it behind her and leaning against it. Eyes closed, gulping for air.

“You think the stairwell is bad, try living down here.”

She almost fell sideways, her heart crashing against her ribcage with such force she winced and clutched her chest. Opposite her, clutching the iron bars separating them, Nexes Almor’s burning green eyes chased away the darkness.

No, they swallowed it.

“Welcome to the Underworld,” Haltveldt’s former Master of War murmured. The murderer of the emperor himself, his face half covered in shadows. But not his eyes. Never them. “It has been too long, Brina al’Loria.”




Chapter Two

MEETINGS IN THE UNDERWORLD

‘I cannot make out words on the page. The rage swells like a fever, but never fades. The sun is gone…gone. It exists no longer, but neither does the moon or stars. Shadows and darkness. That is all. I long to slip into a deep and dreamless sleep, and never wake up. What relief that would bring. But the Corruption would never allow that when I still serve its purpose, and even after it will find some use for my tortured soul.’ — the thoughts of the Shadow Sparker Noch Mero in a rare moment of lucidity. Turned at the command of Emperor Locke Dazel, he fought in the Battle of Sea’s Keep. Calene Alpenwood heard Mero’s words, and Greton preserved them exactly as spoken.

Deep beneath the city of the Followers of the Dawn, in the cells where most dared not tread unless they absolutely must, darkness swallowed light. Flickering illumination existed as an afterthought in that place, and the shadows smothered all.

The pervading gloom made the gaol its home. Its lair.

No light shone, save for the glare in Nexes’s piercing green eyes. They glowed, as though the dense murk existed as nothing more than an elixir designed to increase their potency. Brina latched onto them. Terrible as the shining orbs were, they offered something more than defeat in the face of overwhelming darkness.

Even the gas lamps huddled in the room’s alcoves seemed to cower, their white flames small and malnourished.

She stood in silence, staring at the former Master of War. Her people called him ‘The Slayer of Haltveldt’, but she’d saved his life when fleeing Sea’s Keep to Avastia, hauling him aboard the Widow’s Purpose before knowing his name or ambitions. He fought against Haltveldt on the docks with precise ferocity, and to her, his actions needed reward. His knowledge of the deceased emperor’s plans for Avastia unlocked the remote nation’s help, and he’d battled valiantly at their side when the fleet arrived at Haltveldt’s shores. Nexes wasn’t a hero, he wasn’t even close, but he’d proven himself useful. Reliable.

Until he’d smashed Emperor Locke’s skull to pieces outside the Vizier’s Mansion, repainting the cobblestones the colour of the emperor’s blood. A man Nexes had grown up with. Had sworn fealty to and massacred countless thousands of elves for.

How could anyone trust such a figure? Masters of War who assassinated their emperors went down in infamy. All in Haltveldt could recite their names. Even elves.

Most in the undercity avoided the cells because of the Shadow Sparkers and Confederacy Mages. Even under the influence of Zendilton, their darkness spread, oozing into the city’s foundations. How long before its foetid corruption made its presence known in the busy streets above? But Brina didn’t avoid the gaol for such reasons.

She stayed away because of Nexes Almor. Not because of the genocide he’d waged against her kind, and not for the regicide he’d carried out, and not just because of the reasons she’d discussed with Curran.

But because in the light of his eyes, Brina saw too much of herself.

Chains clinked in the shadows. Feet scuffled. Prisoners groaned. The stench of unwashed bodies, vomit and excrement alongside the putrid sweetness of uneaten, wasting food oozed through the unseen iron bars. Strong enough to make anyone gag. But not Brina and Nexes. Not right then.

For the moment, not even the darkness approached them.

Brina’s eyelids fluttered as the silence stretched. “I’m told Calene is down here.”

Her words punctured the tension somewhat, but the hole allowed the shadows to seep in. They swelled at her feet, and across the bottom of the disgraced Master of War’s cell, hiding his legs up to his knees.

“This dynamic of ours is wearing a little thin, no?” His teeth flashed in the gloom. “Or do you prefer me behind bars?”

“Answer my question,” Brina hissed. “I’m not here to play games.”

Her fingers fell to her side, grasping at empty space. She didn’t wear her weapons in the undercity and for the first time she regretted their absence after a lifetime of use.

“Now, now. We fought alongside one another not too long ago, let us talk before attending to business. I have not seen you since…” Nexes rolled his shoulders. “The incident.”

“The incident? You mean since you murdered Locke?”

“It is why I returned here, remember? It is what you promised me for my aid in securing Avastia.”

The man gripped the iron bars, face as expressionless as stone. In the past, whenever Nexes spoke ill of the emperor, even thought of him in a negative light, he’d rub at his arms. Scratch at them. Pick at the scabs eating into the flesh he refused to heal. But not now. The skin had healed, but the scars remained.

After beating Locke’s head into the ground, Nexes had dug his fingernails into the corpse’s eyes and face, gouging. Tearing.

Clearly, he’d scratched his final itch. Though deep hunger gnawed in his piercing stare. A different kind of desire. But for what?

Brina averted her eyes from his forearms. “I didn’t think you’d do it…like that.”

“How did you imagine I would?” Nexes chuckled, but the sound held as much warmth as a winter’s night in the distant and uncharted Northern Wastes. “Knives in the dark? A quick, painless death. Poison, perhaps, and let him die peacefully in his sleep. Do you believe the drok deserved such a fate? I see it in your face, Brina al’Loria. You would not have wanted such an end for our exalted leader. Not that it matters. I got mine, and do not fret, your secret is safe with me.”

She looked away, gazing into the darkness. Few knew of her deal with Nexes. Even fewer had knowledge of her bargain with the Diarchy. “Where’s Calene? Is she still down—”

“And they lock me away down here!” Nexes spat, face spasming. “I liberated this droking nation from a tyrant!”

His yell fell flat in the shadows, the darkness smothering all noise.

“You’re lucky you’re not dead,” Brina hissed. “You’re a fool, doing what you did!”

Nexes slammed the flat of his hand against a bar, the cell shuddering. “You are saying the emperor did not need to die? You saw him, what he had become. Weak. Petty. Even his Hand had lost faith, and they are fanatics! But he still carried danger with his every word, his every action. And he mocked me. Sought to needle me, to bring me underfoot once more. Is that what you are saying? That I should have bowed my head and let him continue? Oh, how would your brave new Haltveldt fare then?”

Despite being deep underground, ice filled the cells. If the darkness didn’t steal Brina’s breath, the sudden huff of anger would have fogged the air.

“No, thiemea, I’m saying you should have waited for the right moment!” Brina yelled, advancing on Nexes. Only the breadth of the iron bars separated them. “Instead, you couldn’t wait, like a Velen sailor returning to shore after months at sea, desperate for release! He invited you in close, and you could have chosen your moment and remained free! There’s a war on our doorstep, and we need you. We elves know your prowess too well.”

“A war.” Nexes’s lip curled. “An impending massacre. Know this then, if you rate my skills in the art of warfare. You cannot win. Even with Avastia at your side.”

“Why?” Brina snarled. Her head swam, the muscles in her neck growing tight. How she desired to wipe the sneer from the thiemea’s face!

Nexes tilted his head to the side. “Because the Corruption wants death, and you all fight for life. When destruction is all an enemy seeks, there are no rules. No lines soldiers and officers fear to cross. You, and all your friends, your Calene Alpenwood, are doomed.”

Doomed? How droking dare he?

A growl built in the back of Brina’s throat. She grabbed the bars, her white teeth shining in the gloom as she stared up into Nexes’s sneering face. Rage pulsed from her core into her chest, each beat of her heart pumped more anger through her body, sending more fury coursing through her veins. If it weren’t for the bars, she’d wring Nexes’s droking neck. He deserved it. An army of dead elves trailed in his wake. If Brina squinted behind him into the long shadows, she could almost see it. Men, women, and children sent to Eternity before their time. Men, women, and children persecuted and treated like cattle, worse even, for merely existing.

Nexes covered Sea’s Keep with the insides of Locke’s brains, and regretted nothing. Didn’t the former Master of War deserve the same fate?

Her heavy breathing filled her ears. Ragged gasps of air. Animalistic. She glared up at him, shoulders heaving with each pull of air, ready to rip the iron from the stone trapping them so she could end him and do Haltveldt a favour. Like he’d done with Locke. Yes. Exactly like that.

“You feel it, do you not?” Nexes’s murmur curled like smoke. “I see the rage in your eyes. Are you really that angry with me, or is it something else whispering to you, Brina al’Loria? Another presence seeking to own your soul through dark deeds? Ask yourself that.”

“Am I really that angry with you?” She snapped, spittle flying from her lips. “How dare you—”

“You are not. It’s because of them.”

Nexes’s soft words undercut her seething violence. Hanging onto the bars so she didn’t fall, the anger throbbing through her limbs detached itself and fled into the darkness. Eyes wide, Brina glanced around, heart thumping in her too-weak chest, like a fist pummelling stretched-out parchment. She’d dealt with Nexes’s past back in Avastia. Forgiveness would never be granted, nor friendship, but witnessing what the emperor had done to him, how Haltveldt had twisted its Master of War into a mockery of a man, a shell that desired violence and misery to function, had helped her push thoughts of revenge and hatred aside.

Vengeance had consumed Nexes. As had self-loathing. He and Brina weren’t all too different, but she would pick a different path and avoid his fate.

The cells and disgrace were a fitting an end. Not murder. Brina knew this.

“I did call this the Underworld, after all.” Nexes’s smile failed to reach his eyes. “You thought I was being glib. The darkness consumes all. It is sinking into your heart with every second you spend here.”

Brina straightened and let go of the bars, taking a step back. Nexes’s shorn hair grew through after a week in the cells, and his beard had become more unkempt, his hollow cheekbones making the hair growth appear bushier than it was. His simple, ruffled, dirtied clothes hung from him, and dark pits surrounded his blazing green eyes.

“Are they feeding you?” Brina asked, frowning, then shook her head. “No, not my business, and I’ve talked with you for too long. Where’s Calene?”

“Food.” Nexes licked his lips. “What is the point of it? They bring it, when Greton comes with his Zendilton, and they clean us, but no one eats. Not really. Hunger feeds the darkness. Can you not taste it? The Corruption? Yes. I hear them whispering. The prisoners down here. The mages. It tells them not to fear. That it has not abandoned them. Even drugged, their master calls to them. I know such a feeling all too well…”

He moved quicker than an arrow fired from a bow, his hands thrusting through the bars, Nexes’s fingers latching onto Brina’s tunic and pulling her flush against the metal divide, her forehead clanging against an iron bar. Gasping, she struggled, but her arms, stuck as they were, couldn’t come to her aid. He held her there, his strength as unyielding as the inches of iron separating their faces. Brina kicked her feet, bucked, but Nexes merely smiled, his hot breath covering her.

“Take your hands off me,” she snarled, but a numbness spread from her core. Nexes could throttle her in the darkness, if he wished. Smash her head against the metal bars in a repeat performance of Emperor Locke’s fate. “Now.”

His grin widened, but the fire in his eyes dimmed. Turned black. “Tell me you feel the Corruption, too. That it calls for you, like it did me. Tell me.”

Brina craned her neck, pulling her face away from his. “No.”

“Liar. What are you afraid of?”

She placed her boot against the bottom of the bar, her chest aching with each breath. “Nothing!”

With a yell, Brina surged upward, her hands coming free. They slammed into Nexes’s forearms, breaking his hold on her. She backed away, eyes locked on his. The caged prisoner resumed his grip on the bars like nothing had happened.

A slither of fear whispered in her mind, telling her Nexes had released her. That if he truly desired to keep her pressed against his cage, he would have.

Brina took another step back, heart thumping against her ribcage, and cast about for a source of light. A gas lamp in her hands would offer something other than impenetrable gloom and Nexes’s green glare.

The lack of sounds other than her quick breaths and the Master of War’s hissed rantings became more pronounced.

I need to leave. Now. But not without what I came here for.

“I didn’t come here to talk to you, I came to find Calene. We’re done.”

Nexes threw his head back, a laugh more akin to a howl escaping his mouth. From the encroaching shadows, the clinks of chains answered.

“I thought myself cured of this filth after Lake Circa. The Shadow Sparkers in my army spread their noxious influence on all, but I left them behind. Became myself again. But no. The Corruption is a deep rot inside of me! Its talons dig into my heart, my soul, and I care not! This dark presence is the master of the Shadow Sparkers, of the Great Confederacy mages. And of me. When I cut down the Haltveldtians who came for me, when I surged through Sea’s Keep, when I fled to Avastia, I did it all because it wanted me to. When I loosed that craven Locke’s brains across the cobblestones, the Corruption acted through me. I said this was the Underworld, and I believe it. This, where we stand, this is the Corruption’s Underworld. It can only be. Do you see now? I do. So, so clearly. The Corruption is Fen incarnate, and the monster from the shadows comes for us all!”

Brina backed away further. His final words echoed through the cells, his speech a dark, frenzied reflection of Greton’s. Reaching out, she grabbed at a gas lamp, pulling it from an alcove. Its white light flickered in her hands, striving to beat the oozing darkness away. It made little difference.

“Calene?” she called, holding the lamp out, its weak flicker no match for the gloom confronting her.

“Calene Alpenwood. Yes, you came for her, didn’t you?” Nexes chuckled again. “Oh, how they whisper about her. How deeply does the Corruption want her? They could tell you. Your…prisoners. Yes, they could. Alive or dead, they say. Either way, what does it matter? In the end, she goes to Fen.”

“Where is she, thiemea?” Brina yelled, all too aware of her weaponless hip. The lack of weight there tugged at her heavier than any blade would. “Calene? Are you down here? Calene?”

Nexes let go of the bars and swayed on the spot, like her scream broke him out of some kind of trance. Eyes burning into hers. He looked away, shaking his head. “She left. An hour ago. Maybe more, perhaps less. Time does not work as it should down here. How can it in all this Darkness?”

He dropped to the ground, knees hugged against his chest, glowering up at her.

“Could have told me that before,” Brina grumbled, clutching the gas lamp.

With a final cast about the darkness, she turned for the doorway behind her, fumbling with the handle. She threw a glance over her shoulder in case shapes loomed nearby in the shadows, and almost sobbed when the door swung open. Steadying herself, refusing to flee from the dark like a child alone for the first time, she straightened her back. All the prisoners, Nexes included, lurked behind bars. They couldn’t hurt her. She had nothing to fear.

“Brina?” Nexes called. Against her instincts and better judgement, she turned. His eyes glowed in the gloom. “There is no stopping the Corruption, and what it promises is a blessing.”

“What does it promise, Nexes?” she croaked. “Death? An eternity in Fen’s maw?”

“Yes, and no. The Corruption promises nothing less than the end of everything, and with it, peace. Endless peace. Is that so bad? I ask myself the question constantly. Me, a simple man of modest means and existence. A man of war. I have decided peace would not be so bad, and Brina? It is coming. Believe me, it is coming.”

Chains smashed against iron. Slurred shouts rose from the darkness. Hoarse screams containing two words.

“It’s coming.”

Nexes grinned as the disembodied calls became a chant, the Shadow Sparkers and corrupted mages using their voice as one. And the darkness swelled. Glass shattered as a gas lamp’s flame popped out of existence.

Brina spun, rushing through the doorway and slamming it behind her. Gulping for air, not pausing for any respite, she took two steps at a time, bursting back into the bright corridors of the underground city. Leaning against a wall in the empty passageway, the gas lamp still cradled in her hands, she closed her eyes. Her body shook. Sweat lent a sheen to her skin, despite the icy air filling the cells.

An unseen weight pressed down on her. Opening her eyes, she gazed around at the empty corridors, goosebumps breaking out across her skin, and the etchings on her skin glowed for a brief moment. A whisper tugged at the very edges of her hearing. A breath of a word. ‘Brina’.

She jumped from her resting place against the wall. “Who’s there?”

Only silence met her echoing voice.

Brina crossed to the other side of the barren corridor, focus fixed on the yawning opening leading underground, the darkness held under its arch swelling. Blacker than pitch.

It’s coming, they said? Drok, the Corruption is already here. Beneath our feet! How can Calene stand being down there alone?

Calene. Did she know about the whispers? Did she know what Nexes spoke of? She had to find her.

Setting the gas lamp on the ground, Brina took off, her heart still galloping like the wild mustangs of the wide and rolling Medero Plains, driving her on through the quiet corridors to her and Calene’s room.

No guarantee she’d go there, though. Perhaps to Greton. Yes, him.

Changing direction, Brina headed back the way she came, picking up the pace when she passed the stairwell to the cells. The flame in the gas lamp she’d left on the floor dead already.

‘Brina? Chosen of Janna.’

The whisper slid into her ears again.

She broke into a jog, the nerves eating away at her guts easing as sounds of life drifted down the empty corridors at last. Everyone avoided the cells. Everyone, and for good reason, and the hallways close by often remained empty. Faces soon followed the murmur, the voices building into a cacophony. Many faces. Too many, in fact, even though the return of life forced the encroaching shadows from her heart. Frowning, Brina paused, glancing around. Did disaster loom already?

Nexes and the prisoner’s chant. The whispers. Had the Corruption come to Sea’s Keep, the Great Confederacy beating at their shattered walls? They still hadn’t completed the repairs from the battle.

She shivered, her hands balling into fists, then smiled as she spied Curran’s bald head above the crowd up ahead.

“Hey, Curran!” she shouted over the hum of chatter. “Have you seen Calene? She’s not in the cells!”

Curran waved and made his way over, the passersby parting like waves. “No, we’re looking for her, and you.”

Her stomach flipped.

‘It’s coming.’ The words in her head sounded nothing like those from her memory, or her own internal monologue.

She swallowed. “Why?”

Curran kept walking, motioning her to follow. “A Banished has arrived in Sea’s Keep asking for Alpenwood. A Banished by the name of Tilo. Says he knows Alpenwood, but no one can find her, so someone had the bright idea to find you, so they did. Caused a bit of a stir, he has, a Banished turning up in Sea’s Keep speaking perfect common tongue.”

“Tilo?” Brina murmured, the sights and sounds of the underground city melting away. Could it be? “Take me to him. Now.”


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