Beyond Sundered Seas - Preview
Are you ready for the third installment of this epic fantasy series by David Green?
This gripping book will take you to the edge and beyond.
Paperback out soon.
Ebook available April.
Enjoy the first two chapters.
FLICKERING SPARKS OF HOPE
Greton Bouseby—widely known as Haltveldt’s pre-eminent scholar and philosopher—sighed as he stared down at the ink spreading across the parchment he’d etched with painstaking care. Devouring black flames, it looked like.
Music drifted into his room from elsewhere in the living quarters of the Order of Sparkers, muted by the wooden earplugs he wore. He’d made them himself. Trial and error had shown that others weren’t up to snuff.
For years, Greton had used his Spark to reduce the incessant background noise, which wasn’t really ‘background’ at all when you got right down to it. A mind like his, primed and ready for every sound, no matter how trivial, couldn’t thrive in such an environment. Every sound demanded his attention, from the bells to the scrape of chairs to fragments of overheard conversations.
“You know,” Greton called, without looking over his shoulder, “there must be a better way of making maps than having to draw them myself. Still, even with my own hand unsteady, I just cannot trust anyone else’s. Not even yours, Tomas!”
His companion, Tomas de Ruig, didn’t answer. Or perhaps Greton simply didn’t hear, Gentle warmth from the popping fire by his side caressed his ageing bones, and light from the melting candle on his desk aided his fading eyes. He’d lost his glasses somewhere, and he didn’t want to spare important time searching for them.
They’d known each other for over a hundred years, their friendship close and comfortable. They weren’t lovers—all that hair pulling and jumping about had never really appealed to Greton—but they were more than friends. He’d met his fair share of people in near to three hundred years, and he made sure to keep tolerable company close at hand. The ones who understood him.
In his way, he loved them all.
“Ah, well,” Greton continued, a touch louder than needed, “I hadn’t finished anyway.”
He eyed it again. The spreading darkness reminded him too much of the gathering shadows in the lower levels of the Order of Sparkers itself. Curiosity got the better of him and he engaged his Second Sight, studying the ground beneath his feet. Darkness pulsated where the Shadow Sparkers lurked. The emperor’s latest weapons had taken root in the heart of the empire.
“A perversion of the Spark, some say,” Greton muttered, shaking his head. He did his best thinking out loud. “But I do not believe what they do comes from the Spark. No. I do not. It cannot. It simply cannot!”
Words Greton had sent out into the world more than once. His studies had begun to reach in that direction too. What the Spark was, where it came from, the forms it might take, endlessly fascinated him, and he counted the subject as a special interest.
Some discounted his theories about other timelines, other realities, but Greton knew he had the right of it, and he reckoned the Spark existed in each one. Where this shadow came from, he knew not. Not yet, anyway.
Folding up the spoiled parchment, he produced a blank sheet and lay it beside his own map of Haltveldt. He set about tracing the nation again, tongue stuck in his cheek, keeping the lines as fine as possible, easing his mind away from the shadow. He wanted to relax. Map-making helped.
“Didn’t you ask before why I am doing this, Tomas?” he asked, eyes narrowed. Focused. He didn’t know if his companion had asked him or not, but Tomas enjoyed questions as much as Greton did. “I thought you would know without asking. They’ll try to erase Solitude from the map, just as when they redraw the southern front every time those poor elves are beaten back. But what is the good of that? It is lazy for one, and it destroys a piece of history. Better to create new maps and keep the old ones so those in the future can see how their world has changed.”
Greton nodded, satisfied that the outline of Haltveldt in his new map matched the old one. He may have been known as a Sparker, a scholar and a philosopher, but he believed those titles sold him short. He had many passions— reading, eating, writing, writing and reading about eating, the Spark, history, map making. Maps in general, truth be told. Oh, and drinking. Red wine most of all, but he enjoyed Velen brandy. Strong enough to knock the socks off his feet and onto someone else’s.
“Ah, Solitude,” he murmured, shaking his head. “Such a pity. All those lives lost…”
The rest of his thoughts on the subject, he kept to himself. Criticising the emperor could be likened to reaching into a lion’s maw at the best of times. Greton, with his reputation as a satirist, got away with it more than most, but even he wouldn’t voice his doubts about the Conclave’s explanation of the events at Solitude, or the reason for the Banished’s march south.
If those northern ‘shepherds’ could have taken Solitude and the Sparkers there so easily, why had they waited so long? Would a few thousand extra Haltveldtian bodies really make the difference when there were five hundred thousand of them?
Greton’s own spies had told him the Banished marched with the young, old and sick. No one fielded such souls in an army bent on war.
Reaching for his goblet of Prosper red wine, a favourite vintage, he took a sip, closing his eyes and sighing as the fusion of dark berries and chocolate covered his tongue and eased down his throat. Then he raised the chalice in salute.
“To all the souls at Solitude. To my old, dear friends. And to Zanna Alpenwood. I hope you have found a better place than this, or discovered some way to survive.” He’d performed the same toast every night since news of the fortress’s destruction had reached him. “I suppose the battle between Nexes’s army and the Banished will be in full swing already. Godsrot, how I tire of war.”
Taking another sip, he placed the goblet back on his desk. A slip of parchment caught his eye in the light of the flickering candle. Greton reached for it but hesitated. He had studied it long, and had asked his people to find more like it. A woman had pressed it into his hand a week before as he bustled through Tallan Square, head down to avoid taking in every detail of the people milling around, ear plugs firmly wedged in to keep the cacophony at bay. She’d bumped into him, jostled him, then grinned when they finally made eye contact.
Find us, she’d hissed, Greton looking away quickly, uncomfortable at holding her stare.
She’d slipped away into the crowd before the parchment in his hands registered. Ducking into an alley, Greton had examined the odd sigil drawn on it—a hexagon with one long line crossing it, a shorter one through its centre and other smaller, hexagons around it.
The words ‘Protector’s Watch’ were written beneath.
Greton’s people had reported sightings of the same sigil across Spring Haven, usually in back alleys and on various signposts. Small and low down, difficult to see unless someone knew what they were looking for. His spies whispered of a rebellion, and that this organization had been responsible for killing Willow’s Patriarch and blasting a hole in the palace.
Because Greton Bouseby may have been a Sparker, scholar and philosopher. He may have been a mapmaker, historian and lover of food, even a devourer of drink. He was also a spymaster, with a network so secretive it could operate under the nose of the Conclave and the Emperor’s Hand.
The sole survivor of his distinguished family, his inheritance had given him more than enough money, and he had no heirs for when his time came to stand before Eternity’s Gates. His network were his beneficiaries, accumulating the real truth of Haltveldt, recording it in the remote library he kept in the small hamlet of Tirnot, a remote place at the edge of Protector’s Watch, nestled in the Varren Woods.
One day, once he’d passed, he’d reveal it all. Instructions for the information’s release had been written, and he trusted them to carry it all out.
Haltveldt’s revisionist histories turned Greton’s Spark black, and he’d spent long hours lamenting to Tomas, usually when on the road and away from listening ears, of how the truth would be lost. He’d made it his life’s work to ensure Haltveldt’s real story was told.
Well, one of his life’s works. His study of the Spark and its origins held just as much allure. Despite his middling magical talent—to put it kindly—his contemporaries agreed no one knew more about the Spark than Greton.
And though they were often wrong, they had it right this time.
“Ah, but truth is relative, is it not, Tomas?” Greton muttered, smiling as he returned to the map. “But it is safe to say some people’s perspective is relatively clearer than another’s. Godsrot, so it is.”
The musky scent of burning wood filling the room, Greton set about marking Haltveldt’s rivers, his favourite part of any map. The way they twisted and flowed, not caring for borders or boundaries, how they rushed to the sea and freedom. Sketching Lake Circa, where Haltveldt’s army engaged the Banished, Greton’s little finger brushed the paper with the sigil on it, stealing his focus again.
Leaning back in his chair and setting his quill aside, Greton eyed it, stroking at his chin.
“You know, Tomas, I believe we are due for a journey to Protector’s Watch. Do you agree?” Scowling, he pulled the plugs from his ears. The music from outside grew louder. The lute player had some talent, he admitted. “Tomas? I said we should take a trip to Protector’s Watch. Are you listening to me?”
Twisting in his chair, Greton smiled at Tomas, lying across the couch before the fire, hugging a pillow, asleep. He wore a simple tunic and trousers, his Sparker robes discarded.
Getting to his feet, Greton crossed to the door and closed it, cutting off the sound and giving his companion some peace. Greton didn’t do it just for the noise. Like him, Tomas had secrets, and they would reveal themselves when his mind drifted to slumber.
It had been years since the man’s ‘gift’ had emerged and the truth remained hidden, but it always paid to be cautious. They’d kept it from the Order for too long to be found out because of an open door on a dark and lazy near-winter night.
Kneeling, Greton pulled a blanket from under the couch, one he had learned to store there as his companion dozed more often than not.
“For a Sparker only just beyond a hundred, you do enjoy your sleep, Tomas,” Greton mumbled, unfurling the blanket and spreading it over the brown-skinned man. “No, that’s not true, is it? Your sleep gives you more trouble than rest.”
Tomas whimpered, leg kicking under the blanket. Reaching out, Greton smoothed his fellow-Sparker’s thick, dark hair from his brow, his fingers coming away clammy.
“Maybe you don’t need the blanket after all,” he mused, glancing at the fire. “I can never tell if it’s too hot in—”
Tomas’s hand snapped out, seizing Greton’s wrist. He winced, pulling away, but his companion’s grip wouldn’t yield. Tomas shot upright, pillow and blanket falling away, eyes rolling back in his head as he stared into the fire.
“Leave and find her, Greton. Find her now. Calene Alpenwood. She needs your help!” Tomas hissed, his voice hoarse rather than the rich, honeyed accent with which he usually spoke. “The Lodestone. That’s where it all begins, and where it will end. Run while there is still hope!”
Greton’s heart thundered in his ears. His skin grew cold, save for where Tomas still held him, his thin bones burning under the heat from the other Sparker’s fingers.
Tomas’s secret. There hadn’t been a mage born with Future Sight in centuries until him. He’d kept his gift a secret with Greton’s help. They both knew the Conclave and the Order would use him like an elven slave.
His visions were inconsistent, garbled and incomplete, but had helped Greton’s organization more than once. But it had been years since the last one, when Tomas had dreamed of a blinding light slamming into black shadow, the light beaten back even as it chipped away at the dark miasma in a seemingly unending battle. Neither of the men had been able to make hilt nor blade of it then, but now…
Greton swallowed the sick feeling rising from his stomach.
“C-Calene Alpenwood?” he stammered. “Where is she? Why do I need to find her? The Lodestone? Speak to me if you can hear me!”
Tomas’s head turned slowly, his white eyes meeting Greton’s, face impassive, almost slack.
“Beyond Sundered Seas. At Eternity’s Gates. Before the end of it all, we must return to the beginning.” Tomas’s lips curled back from his teeth. “Find her!”
His grip loosed, and he fell back onto the couch, eyes falling closed. Greton drew in a shuddering breath.
Calene Alpenwood? He hadn’t seen her since he’d acted as her mother’s Shield in her trial for Evisceration. He’d kept in touch with Vettigan Baralart, Calene’s companion, at least before the mess at Solitude, but he’d have to check in with his people, see if they knew the pair’s whereabouts. Eyeing Tomas, Greton pressed his fingers against the man’s neck, then his wrist, nodding when his pulse throbbed a strong, steady beat.
“Calene Alpenwood.” He got to his feet, shaking his head. “She has no love for me, I would imagine, but when have I been good at reading anyone? Sundered Seas? I am sure I have seen that on a map somewhere.” He furrowed his brow, staring up at the ceiling then into the fire. “Is that not what the elves call—?”
His voice faltered as the room’s vibrant colours dulled. The flames in the hearth, their pulsating energy a constant whispering to his Spark, faded, as did the candlelight and the hues of the rich, blue-and-yellow tapestries on the walls.
Goosebumps exploded across his skin and ice inched up his spine. The fire no longer warmed him. Frowning, he clicked his fingers, pulling on the energy inside to summon a flame, but nothing came. He clicked again, throat tight.
“What in Raas’s…?”
Cries of alarm sounded from the corridor, shouts merging together, words mixed to the point he couldn’t make out one from the other. He clicked his fingers again, harder this time. Nothing.
Pressing a hand to his still-thundering heart, Greton staggered to the door, sending his senses far, desperately seeking any hint of energy from the greater world. They came back dulled, his Second Sight useless.
“It cannot be,” he hissed, a numb sensation spreading in the back of his skull, and gripped the door handle. “It simply cannot be.”
“It is.” Tomas’s voice spun him from the closed door. His companion lay on the couch, tears streaming from his dark eyes. “The Spark… It’s gone, Greton. It’s gone!”
Greton opened the door to a panic matching the rising anxiety inside of him. Sparkers charged down the halls in their bright robes, some in tears, others raging, wailing, screaming for answers, for truth. They stared at their hands, like they were searching for their missing Spark. The cacophony almost drove Greton to his knees, but he clenched his teeth and searched the chaos.
“Pickton!” he yelled above the press, grabbing an aged woman as she passed. “How is your Spark?”
“Gone!” she screamed, half-giggling, her eyes unfocused and wide. “I feel nothing, Greton. Nothing! How is this possible? Tell me how!”
He let go of her, the noise and colours merging into an overwhelming overload of his senses. Greton withdrew into his mind, into his thoughts.
It cannot be. No. It cannot—
Hands grabbed him, spun him around, but the face didn’t register. Neither did the way they shook him.
The slap across his face broke through, the biting sting of it bringing clarity.
“Greton!” Tomas shouted, staring into his eyes. He looked away out of habit, staring at his companion’s lips. “Focus on my voice. Focus on me!”
“I am here!” he shouted, blinking. “I am with you.”
“Good. Now, do you remember what I said? Calene Alpenwood. You need to help her.”
Greton’s eyes flicked to Tomas’s. “Why? Because of the Spark? What happened to it?”
“I don’t know, the memory is slipping away. I just know you have to find her before it’s too late.” Tomas’s hands squeezed Greton’s shoulders. “Before—”
The room shook as a distant boom echoed above the din, then another. Turning to the door, the Sparkers there paused and fell silent, gazing around, eyes wide with fear and confusion.
Letting go, Tomas crept to the door. He’d taken his sword in its scabbard from where it had been leaning against the wall and unsheathed it.
“Greton, get whatever you cannot do without. Now!” He stared out of the door. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Dust shook loose from the ceiling as another tremor swept through the Order’s building, and the Sparkers screamed in response.
Nodding, Greton ran to the couch, grabbing the discarded blanket, staggering as a quick succession of explosions rocked the university. He threw it on the floor, sweeping books and pieces of parchment from his desk and piling them onto it.
“Quickly!” Tomas hissed over his shoulder. “You don’t need them all!”
“Damn you, I do, and you know it!” Greton replied, shoving the slip of paper with the hexagonal sigil into the pockets of his robes. “And you know I do not like to do anything without warning!”
The room shook once more, knocking the Sparkers outside the room off their feet. They scrambled up, running in all directions. Sounds of destruction echoed all around. The stonework groaned.
“We’re out of time!” Tomas yelled, crossing the room and grabbing Greton under the arm. “You have plenty more in your library. It’ll have to do!”
Piercing screams overwhelmed the pounding of feet outside. Cries filled with shock, pain and loss.
And gut-wrenching horror.
“Move,” Tomas commanded. “Now.”
Greton nodded, self-preservation taking over. Wrapping the blanket and tying it in a knot, he cradled the package, pressing it to his stomach. Tomas waited by the door, leaning outside, sword in hand. He may have lost his Spark like everyone else, but he’d kept his wits. He’d always used his magic little, only when he had to, refusing to rely on it. Now his decision had paid off.
“What now?” Greton asked, staying behind him. Unlike most Sparkers, he’d never shown much aptitude for bladework, and had simply given up trying. If he’d had a bow and quiver, things might have been different. “Do we head for the stables?”
“Yes. Stay behind me, and do as I say, when I say,” Tomas replied, holding a hand against Greton’s chest. He edged forward, then paused. “Ah, Raas… No. No!”
Going against all his years of accumulated better judgement, Greton popped his head around Tomas, and what he saw froze him to the spot.
A Shadow Sparker stood with hands outstretched, two kneeling mages before him, but they didn’t worship him. They writhed in agony, screaming, wailing as their skin shrivelled and hair shed.
The Shadow Sparker Eviscerated them.
Instinctively, Greton pulled on the swirling energies, seeking to send a funnel of air the Shadow Sparker’s way, trying to disrupt the assault, but all he could do was grasp at smoke.
No. At least smoke existed. Greton fumbled at nothing. At a memory of touching his sweet gift.
“You were right,” Tomas whispered, turning to Greton. “About the Shadow Sparkers. You were right all along. They don’t use the Spark! They can’t. Not if they’re still Eviscerating and causing this chaos!”
Not even a hint of jubilation stirred at his companion’s words, though Greton enjoyed being proven right in all things. Of course, being told he was wrong had never been able to change his mind. Zanna Alpenwood had once remarked that Greton had never changed his mind about a single thing. The way his brain worked simply wouldn’t allow it.
If he wasn’t correct, he’d damn well find a way where he was.
The Eviscerated Sparkers’ robes fell to the floor, steam rising from the oozing pus inside them, and the rest of the mages fled from out of the Shadow Sparker’s path. The obsidian-eyed woman didn’t seem to notice them. Hood cast back, her bald and cracked face turned to the ceiling, she licked her lips like she could taste death lingering there.
Greton clutched at Tomas. “We need to run.”
“Then why aren’t we running?”
The Shadow Sparker’s head turned as doors behind it flew off their hinges, cracking as they slammed into the stone walls. Another of the corrupted mages charged through the gap, inky tendrils shooting from its outstretched palms. The blast hit the unhooded one, who absorbed the eruption without moving. With a flick of her hand, her opponent slammed into a wall, crimson spurting from their nostrils on impact.
Tomas grabbed Greton by the scruff of his neck. “Come on!”
“They have lost their minds!” Greton cried, as his companion pulled him into the throng of fleeing Sparkers. Behind them, the standing Shadow Sparker Eviscerated the one slumped against the wall. “They attack one another!”
They ran through the screaming crowd of colourful robes and panicked faces, heading for the Order’s entry hall and freedom.
Freedom? It only leads to Spring Haven, and there are more Shadow Sparkers there. The emperor has infected Haltveldt with this madness! But out there is better than in here!
The flow of bodies came to a halt as they neared the exit, Sparkers arguing and shoving one another, screaming murder at those blocking the way as they attempted to pass through the narrow door. A deafening boom, like a peel of thunder, roared above the din.
The stones surrounding the doorway groaned, then cracked.
“This way!” Tomas hissed, grabbing Greton and steering him toward a side door. It led to the service ways, the corridors the servants used when cleaning. “Through here!”
It was typical of the Order’s increasing arrogance that few of the Sparkers considered using it. Tomas yanked Greton along, then booted the door open, just as the far wall exploded.
They dove through as the ceiling collapsed behind them, crushing the Sparkers beneath tons of rubble. Flames followed, a blistering tidal wave, lanced with black lightning, pouring through the corridor and incinerating any in its path.
Greton kicked the door shut, his wrapped belongings sitting on his stomach.
He heard nothing but screams and the roar of flames, punctuated by the repeated concussion of explosions. The music of death. Here, in the Order of Sparkers, Greton’s home. His work in his room, his maps, his inks and quills, the books he couldn’t save.
“Drok!” Greton cried, scrambling to his feet, clutching his belongings, the muscles in his neck and the back of his head so tight they could have popped. His breath came in quick bursts. “Oh, gods. Oh, gods! How has this happened? The emperor… The conclave…”
Tomas pressed his palms to his face and tilted his head up. “Focus on me.” He smiled. A brave one meant to instil false hope in others. “Just focus on me, love. Are you hurt?”
Greton flicked to his companion’s eyes, then to his lips as Tomas kept talking, his voice calm, level.
“I am not hurt,” he said, tucking the package beneath his arm, and pressed his hands against Tomas’s. “But what are we going to do?”
“The plan hasn’t changed. We just know who the enemy is.” They staggered as another blast shook the walls. “We get to the stables and take horses. Then we head to your library, and we make sense of all of this.”
“And we find Calene Alpenwood,” Greton whispered.
“Yes, and find a way to fix this horror.” Tomas let go and turned away. “Follow me, these corridors lead to the kitchens, and from there it’s a quick jaunt to the stables.”
Greton followed, descending a flight of stairs in almost complete darkness. Increasing his pace, he reached out and grabbed Tomas’s hand. The shadows had never scared him before, but now…
“How do you know where these stairs lead?” he asked, mostly just to make a sound as the screams and explosion dulled into near-silence.
“You know when you get hungry in the middle of the night and wake me up with your non-stop chatter about it when you’re working?”
“Where do you think I get the food from?”
A smile flickered on Greton’s face, swallowed by the darkness and the horrific echoes chasing him. Tears sprang in his eyes, created from the grief and terror.
He’d lost his gift. The Shadow Sparkers had killed his Order. Greton had never considered himself religious—he’d doubted Raas and Janna’s existence, let alone their divinity—but he still regarded the Order as a just body, and the gift they had one to use for good. It was a matter of morals and responsibility. The Sparkers had more power than normal folk, and they should use it to leave the world in a better place than how they found it. Simple. Idealistic, perhaps, but it made sense in Greton’s ordered mind.
Now, it all lay in tatters, and that ruin had to be placed at the feet of Emperor Locke Dazel, first of his droking name.
So focused on his thoughts, Greton didn’t realize Tomas had stopped moving until he bumped into him. They’d cleared the stairs already, a door standing before them.
“Wait for my signal,” Tomas whispered, cracking the door open. Sword gripped in his hand, he peered through. After a look left and right, his shoulders sagged a touch. “Come along.”
Crouching, Tomas eased through the gap, not opening the door any wider than he needed to. Dropping low, Greton followed, finding himself in the kitchens. On the far side, a fire burned, casting long, uneven shadows across the ceiling and walls. Dust fell from the rafters every time a new explosion sounded.
“They are tearing each other and the building apart,” Greton muttered, inching forward, keeping low behind the rows of counters where the cooks prepared food. They must have all fled as soon as the explosions erupted. “How many of them do you think—?”
Tomas paused, neck craned over a counter, hand raised. Turning, he pressed a finger to his lips, then pointed to the fire.
Greton’s bladder almost emptied itself. A tall figure, angry crimson cracks crisscrossing its face, passed by the fire, the flames reflecting in its black eyes.
Tomas pulled at Greton and motioned to the kitchen’s back wall.
“Stables,” he hissed, voice barely louder than a breath. “Slowly.”
Nodding, attention focused, Greton eased by Tomas, who hung back, letting him take the lead. No doubt he wanted to be closer to the Shadow Sparker in case it spotted them. It had paused near the fire, head turned toward the ceiling, smiling as it shook and groaned.
How could the High Sparker have agreed with creating these abominations? Greton shuffled forward, sweat beading on his forehead. When did madness—?
In the darkness, and with his eyes so fixed on the Shadow Sparker, Greton didn’t see the puddle until he slipped in it. Blood, water, something else, only the gods knew what it was, but Greton slipped just the same. Throwing his arms to the side to keep from crashing to the floor, his fingers dug into the countertop, saving himself.
But doing so sent a dish spinning over the far side.
He and Tomas pressed their backs to the counter when the plate smashed, the crack like a vicious whip.
“Who’s there?” the Shadow Sparker called. Slow footsteps followed. “Another servant? I thought I’d fed on you all. Nothing like another mage with the darkness flowing inside, but you’re delicious all the same.”
Reaching out, Greton touched the puddle he’d slipped on, and brought his fingers close. They came back red. If he’d eaten recently, his stomach would have hurled its contents onto the ground.
“Hide all you want,” the Shadow Sparker cooed. “There’s no escaping me. I only need a moment. The darkness is hungry still. Always starving, it is.”
Turning his head, Greton met Tomas’ eyes and, for once, held his stare. The kitchen shook with another blast, and dust dropped from the ceiling. Then another. A battle raged above.
“I am sorry,” he whispered. “I have killed us.”
Tomas shook his head. “Not yet. Get ready to run, and don’t stop.”
Tomas reached up, grabbing an item from the counter, and throwing it across the kitchen. It smashed, whatever it was, and the Shadow Sparker laughed, head turning in that direction.
Greton pulled Tomas close, wrapping his arms around his neck.
“I love you, you know?” he muttered. “In my way.”
“I know,” Tomas replied, kissing his cheek. “And I’ll tell you the same later. Now run!”
He surged from the ground, dragging Greton to his feet and pushing him on, slipping in the puddle but moving forward. Scrambling.
“There you are!” the Shadow Sparker crowed, and firm hands shoved Greton away.
Skidding, he looked over his shoulder as he neared the stable path. Tomas charged at the Shadow Sparker, sword in hand. The monster waited, smiling, the firelight dancing across its ruined face, darkness building at its fingertips.
“Tomas, no!” Greton cried, but a cacophonous groan swallowed his voice.
The ceiling collapsed. Dust, wood and stone fell like hale, blocking him from his closest companion.
“Tomas!” Greton yelled, staggering forward, coughing, grime filling his vision.
Nothing answered save explosions from above as Shadow Sparkers flung magic at one another from across the gap.
“I am sorry,” he muttered, reaching out to the debris before him, cutting him off from the kitchen. “I will see you at Eternity’s Gates.”
Tears tracking clean paths on his dirty face, like the free-flowing rivers of his maps, Greton escaped into the night. Alarm bells across the city rang out endlessly. Fire and smoke poured from the windows of the university, and screams chased him to the stables, his package of books tucked under his arm.
Greton hastily saddled a whinnying horse, its panicked noises matched by the other animals, though many stalls stood empty. People had fled before him. A small shred of comfort.
Climbing into his saddle, Greton paused, peering back at the Order, waiting for Tomas to appear out of the gloom. Only smoke and darkness lay there.
With a sob, he pressed his stirrups into the horse’s sides and set off.
“Stick to the plan,” Greton whispered, tears turning his lips salty. “Find Calene Alpenwood, and trust in hope.” He glanced over his shoulder, taking in the building burning bright against Spring Haven night’s sky. “It has abandoned this place, and I must find it elsewhere.”
Breaking into a canter, he pulled the piece of parchment free, the one with the hexagonal sigil. The mark of rebellion against the emperor and Haltveldt’s rulers. The one urging him to go to Protector’s Watch.
“Find Calene Alpenwood and fight back, any way I can,” he whispered, tucking the paper away and wiping at his eyes. “And if we cannot win, I will drag Emperor Locke and all the damned Shadow Sparkers to the Underworld myself!”
Greton rode into the night, clutching onto his belongings like they represented the last sliver of hope existing in Haltveldt. At least a flickering ember of it burned still.
THE HUBRIS OF A GOD
‘Killed them he did, and enslaved the rest. All of the old gods, the ones who gave life to us. Raas betrayed them all, and he’ll do it again. Mark my droking words!’ - From a sermon made by the River Heretic, shortly before their arrest and subsequent burning at the stake.
The battered journal seared Brina’s fingertips but she couldn’t let go of it. She wouldn’t. Holding it meant cherishing a piece of Calene, though miles, armies, flame, flood and darkness kept them apart. A childish idea perhaps, but one she clung to as tightly as she gripped Ricken Alpenwood’s black scribblings.
Calene could be dead. In all likelihood, the Shadow Sparkers she’d faced alone would have killed her by now, no matter how stubborn and talented the woman had proven to be, countless times.
In Brina’s experience, there came a time where the odds stacked too high for luck and skill combined to topple.
Tearing the fingers of one hand from the journal, Brina wiped at her eyes, then clutched it once more, lifting it to her nose and breathing deep. Calene hadn’t held it for long, but her scent—a mixture of grass and wild berries—stood out amongst the salt from the sea and the rain yet to fall in the grey clouds above.
The crackling of the small bonfire and the slow slosh of waves made the only sound on the secluded beach at Sea’s Keep, and the hooded elf sitting opposite her had fallen into silence, sky-blue eyes fixed on the blaze.
Janna. One of the long-lost Haltveldtian gods. An elf.
Brina studied the ancient being sitting opposite her, hands stretched out to gather in the fire’s meagre warmth. Winters proved bitter at Sea’s Keep, but at least up in the city the hulking walls lent some barrier against the chill winds and constant storms battering the coast. Not so on the shoreline.
Janna. She shouldn’t be real. The gods had left Haltveldt thousands of years ago. Some said they’d died. Others insisted they’d departed for new lands, to spread their word. The elves whispered about older gods, furious at the new ones, exacting their vengeance on the upstarts. A transparent analogy for the elven plight at the hands of the humans who dominated Haltveldt, to Brina’s mind.
But now she sat before one of them. She had healed a fatal dagger thrust in Brina’s back, and spirited her away from Emperor Locke and the Cradle to Sea’s Keep. A ten-day journey on horseback in the blink of an eye.
Tell me everything, Brina had insisted, when Janna tasked her with journeying across the Sundered Seas to enlist the help of the elves there. Everything.
Janna hadn’t held back, and Brina almost wished she had.
Raas—the god the human Sparkers worshipped and credited their gift to, the god whose so-called scriptures many followed, the god who had countless statues, buildings, towns and cities named after him—had betrayed them all.
In his name, humans had lived, died and killed. Elves too. But the man wasn’t a god.
“Tell me again about Raas.” Brina tucked the journal into her breast pocket, the weight against her heart a comfort. Folk had to cling to any they could find in Haltveldt. “Don’t leave anything out.”
Janna sighed, looking up from the flames, the light flickering across her pale skin. “Girl, I have not been trapped in a tiny stone room for over two thousand years to repeat myself. Note, I only needed you to tell me once of the state of the world.”
“Didn’t stop you from asking about a hundred questions though, did it?” Brina snapped.
“You were leaving out too many details.” Janna sniffed. “I wanted to be thorough.”
Brina’s history lesson hadn’t appeared to surprise the ancient elf. She didn’t look much older than five or six hundred, save for her eyes. They held the passage of time more than any Brina had seen before, each fleck of colour containing the depth of centuries.
Janna’s mouth had turned down at the corners when Brina detailed the elven genocide, driven by Haltveldt’s successive emperors, and spat in the sand when she’d told of the city slums.
But the rest? From the way the woman nodded and the focused questions she asked, unearthing specific information that Brina didn’t even realize she held in her mind, it was like she’d expected to find the world this way.
Brina jabbed a finger the elven god’s way. “Look, I could say the same about you, right? You’re asking me to get a ship—and a crew, let’s not forget—from a thiemea human city who are as likely to slap me in chains as to fill me with arrows, and I haven’t even agreed on doing it yet. Not to mention you transported me miles, healed me when I was near-dead, told me you’re the god Janna and everything else. I need to hear it again at my own pace, understand? It hasn’t quite settled yet.”
Janna’s lips twitched into a small smile and her eyes flashed. “You have some fire about you, girl. Good. You will need it. I cannot imagine many speaking to their god in such a way.”
“Well, you’re just one of the gods, aren’t you? And I never expected you’d be like me. Takes away the mystique a little.” Snatching up a small branch from the beach, Brina snapped it, the crack echoing in a satisfying way, and tossed it into the flames. “But I suppose they’re not gods either, are they? Are they elves and…First People, too?”
‘First People’. Everyone in Haltveldt called them the Banished now, and thought them nothing more than simple shepherds living in a shale-filled wasteland. Or had, until they’d marched south and laid siege to Solitude, before the fortress’ complete destruction. Or ‘vanishing act’, which would have been more accurate.
Over two thousand years ago, the First People had ruled Haltveldt, making slaves of humans and elves alike, until the subjugated rose up and decimated their armies. Peace and cooperation should have followed, but the humans inherited their masters’ taste for domination and turned their ire on the elves.
“Three of the so-called gods were ancient First People, like Raas. He led them.” Janna crossed her arms tightly across her chest. “The other three, me included, were elven, and were their slaves.”
“Thiemea,” Brina breathed. “But you said you were born over three thousand years ago! The cycle has repeated for so long?”
“Such is life.” Janna shrugged. “Always one set of people seek to lead, and they try to make it so they will never become the slave. First, they bring in laws, then they create armies to uphold their rule, and then they use violence and subjugation to enforce them. Take the name ‘First People’. Propaganda. They were not the first race living in Haltveldt.”
“If not them, then who?” Brina asked, frowning. “The humans?”
Janna’s laugh, tinkling like bells, drifted across the empty beach. “We were, you dolt. The elves!”
“We… We lived in Haltveldt first? It’s ours?”
“The First People came from elsewhere.”
Janna simply nodded, eyes flashing again.
“What do you mean?” Brina demanded.
“You are not ready to hear it yet, girl.” Janna held up a hand when Brina’s mouth opened, angry words on the tip of her tongue. “You wanted to know about Raas. Yes, he led the First People, but through me, he saw ruin approaching. The seeds had been sown, and there was no way to unearth them.”
Brina met the elven woman’s eyes, brow furrowed, trying to make sense of what her ears heard. In truth, she’d been attempting that for the best part of an hour with little success.
“Through you?” she breathed. “Magic? You have the Spark? Stupid question, you must. You healed me and swept me off here, after all.”
Janna smiled. “Not so stupid a question. I do not have the Spark. That is a…different wrinkle in this complicated world. But I do have magic. Ancient, like the one our people used to command. You recall those dioramas from the Cradle?”
Brina nodded. “I had other things on my mind, but yes, I saw them.”
“They told the future. A future I saw, one that Raas demanded I tell him. The end of the First People. A complete end, as Raas saw it. An existence he could not comprehend.” Janna bared her teeth. “To me, it was not so bad. An end is but a new beginning, no? So Raas locked me away in the Cradle after taking all of my knowledge, murdered the others, and began his grand plan. But he has erred. Badly.”
Janna pointed at Brina’s chest, where Ricken Alpenwood’s notes lay. Brina had explained their importance, how they formed the basis of the Shadow Sparkers.
“So you said,” she replied, pressing a hand against the journal. “You didn’t explain that part yet.”
“It’s complicated.” Janna shook her head. “Basically, it comes down to this. Raas played a long game, manipulating the races to a point where they would be punished for standing up to the First People—the humans wiping out the ancient enemy, us elves, before they in turn bore the brunt from the Return—while Raas’s descendants, led by him in his new vessel, would lie in wait and sweep away the decimated victors of a bloody war.”
“The Banished.” Brina bit out the words. She had liked Tilo too. Thought him capable, kind, had marvelled at the words they shared, and the strange magic he possessed, and his knowledge of ancient elven ways, how he knew the Lodestone, the source of long-lost elven magic before it failed them. Now it made sense. His people knew of them because they’d enslaved the elves. “They’re behind all of this, you’re saying.”
Janna laughed again. “No, girl, no. Raas is. The Banished, as you call them, are just unwitting pawns in his game. That was the future I saw for them. They became like us! The beings we used to be before the violence. One with nature, using the inherent magic of this land, peaceful and removed from the intrigue and unending struggle for power. This is all Raas’s revenge. He wants every other race dead, with the Banished sitting atop a pile of corpses and bones, emperors of a fetid wasteland sickened by death, drowning in blood.”
“But they attacked Solitude!” Brina’s hands balled into fists. “And to think I felt sorry for them. And I taught Tilo how to speak the—”
Brina cut off and blinked as a small twig hit her in the face.
“Are you quite finished, girl?” Janna asked, fiddling with another small branch in her hands. “There are plenty of these to throw, and you aren’t listening to me.”
Brina’s fingernails cut into her palms. Drawing on reserves of willpower she hadn’t realized she possessed, she uncurled her fingers, and forced a smile on her face.
“I’m sorry, Janna,” she bit out, between clenched teeth. “What am I failing to grasp?”
The elf raised an eyebrow. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like a lioness ready to pounce when you force a smile? You should try smiling naturally. It’s much more pleasant.”
The remark knocked the wind out of Brina’s temper, and she pressed a hand against the journal again. Calene had often complained of Vettigan saying the same thing about her.
“I’m sorry,” Brina mumbled. “Please continue.”
Janna tilted her head to the side, frowning, then sighed. “There is not much more to go through. The Banished are not the enemy. Along with the elves, they are the key to saving Haltveldt from the Returned because of Raas’s mistake.”
“Not the humans?”
Janna shook her head. “They need saving from themselves, girl. Raas’s grand plan was to manipulate Haltveldt through predictions and prophecies, ancient animosities and religion, with the Spark at the centre of his magnum opus until the Return came. Then, he’d take it away from them all, leaving the Banished as the only race with magic. They’d be unbeatable, and they would rule once more over a depleted Haltveldt, all threats neutralized.”
Brina shook her head. “The Order of Raas would have a field day with all of that. They’d burn you outside the Tower of Raas in Spring Haven and the whole city would come to watch, and I reckon not many would have sympathy for you. What mistake did he make?”
Janna tossed a twig into the fire, the flames casting an orange hue across her grim face.
“I do not wish for sympathy. My desire is to avoid annihilation, and for our kind to return to these shores. It is our home, and it is now home to the humans too, and the Banished.” Her voice seemed barely audible above the bonfire’s crackle. For a long moment, she stared into the devouring fire, grief eating lines into her face, until she raised her eyes to Brina’s once more. “Raas’s mistake was in thinking the Returned would use the Spark, like the humans do. They do not, and when Raas took the Spark away, the culmination of his great game, he hamstrung the armies of Haltveldt in their fight against the invaders. Now, in these lands, only the Banished can face what the Returned can call on. Those and the corrupted. It is why we need the elves from Avastia.”
Brina tapped a finger against her lip, her blood chilled despite the bonfire’s warmth.
“What do they use, the Returned, if not the Spark? The same magic we used to possess? The one the Banished do now?”
A shadow crossed Janna’s glittering blue eyes. “No. They have something else. Something terrible. A creature we must all be united in stopping.”
“But we can, can’t we?” Brina asked, leaning forward. “You can see the future, can’t you?”
Janna shook her head, her shoulders sagging. “I see nothing. The Return clouds all. I fear my last prophecy fell on ears filled with hubris. And the lies did not help matters. ‘With the Fair Ones on their knees, the First shall return, and ruin with them. One nation, one Haltveldt. He born apart shall be its salvation. Protect him.’ That last part was an embellishment by Raas. Part of his plan. I heard everything from my prison. Heard the lies, the histories changed by Raas and those loyal to him, then built on by those hapless humans who followed and built the Cradle around my prison. A place of history and learning built on lies, each nugget of misinformation compounding the next, furthering Raas’s purpose. But he would not listen when I warned him of his error. He told me it was nothing more than an elvish ploy to spare my people. So proud, Raas. So correct. When I had no more visions of the future, he locked me away, no doubt thinking to release me and use me when his plan came to pass. For all his flaws, discarding potentially useful tools has never been his style.”
Brina pulled the journal from her breast pocket, running her fingers over it again. “The Fair Ones. That’s us, isn’t it?”
“And a nation whole. One Haltveldt. It means all of us fighting together against this threat, doesn’t it? The elves, the Banished, the humans.”
“Yes. Now. Satisfied? Will you do this for me? Will you go to Avastia?”
Brina drummed a beat over the journal’s battered cover and chewed her lip, staring out at the crashing waves. A storm approached. She smelled it in the a