/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Blacklight Chronicles

Fire Mage

John Forrester


John Forrester

Fire Mage

1. THE HUNT

Talis searched the swamplands in twilight, driven by the challenge of hunting his first boar. He bent down and ran his fingers along the mud, feeling a thrill at discovering fresh boar tracks leading towards a stream. He looked ahead, squinting at the path illuminated by the four moon sisters. Mara, his best friend, came alongside and studied the tracks. He pointed his spear to where they led.

She shook her head stubbornly. “It’s late.”

“But these are the best prints we’ve found.”

“What are you trying to prove? We’ve been out here all day. I’m not going to let you get yourself killed doing something foolish like hunting a boar in the dark.”

“Don’t be angry.” He flashed her the look he knew always made her smile. “We can do it…if we work together.”

“It’s your father, isn’t it? You think he’s going to pay attention to you if you bring back a boar? Listen, he doesn’t really see you like he should. Ever since your brother died…”

The wind stirred and Talis sighed, memories flooding his mind of his older brother Xhan.

“You know I’d hunt with you to the Underworld and back. We’re a team. I just hate seeing you like this.”

“Please…just one boar-”

A blur of movement ahead shifted his attention. He stopped and searched. There, beyond a patch of bushes, something waddled down a muddy path. His heart pounded at the sight. Tensing his muscles, he stalked low, tracking the animal. He found another track and grinned at Mara. A boar. He followed until he reached a stream, and there, in a wallow surrounded by a circle of mossy rocks, was a boar, settling into the mud.

This boar will make a fine roast for Mother’s kitchen, he thought, wielding his bow.

He nocked an arrow and glanced at Mara. She nodded, her eyes wary, but she readied her bow as well. This will be a tricky shot. He leaned to the side, aimed, and the arrow sped towards the boar. It was a good shot. Straight at the target, but the arrow caught a thicket's branch and droned off past the boar.

The boar jerked its head up and glared at Talis. He barely had a second to think before the beast sloshed in the stream, bounding towards him. He ducked as Mara’s arrow flew past him and slammed into the boar's chest.

He brandished his spear. “Spread out,” he hissed, and circled around as Mara gripped her spear. He twirled his weapon, ready to strike.

The boar charged. He leapt out of the way, and thrust down as it whipped its tusks at his leg. The creature squealed in pain as his spear pierced the back of its neck. Mara dove at the boar and sliced its rear flank. It screamed, swung its tusks around, and knocked her to the ground. The boar bounded away, howling and grunting in a mad rush.

Mara winced and hunched over.

“Are you alright?” Talis bent down next to her.

After she coughed, redness swept over her face. “It knocked my breath out…there are stars everywhere!” She coughed, getting to her feet with the help of Talis. But she stumbled and almost fell.

“You’re hurt!”

“I’m alright, really.” She waved him away and lifted herself up, breathing deeply. “I feel better now.”

He crinkled his forehead, unconvinced she was okay.

She wobbled, then slapped her palms to her stomach. Talis grabbed her just as she was about to topple to her knees. Mara shook him off, trying to steady herself. She winced and wiped her hand across her mouth. A line of blood sat menacingly on her wrist. She stared at her hand.

“You cut your lip?”

She shook her head. “No, it just started bleeding… I think I’m going to be sick.”

Talis grabbed her arm and slung her over his back. “I’m taking you home now.” He carried her, stumbling down the bluff, ignoring her protests. A wound that caused bleeding from the mouth was very serious. After awhile he was too tired to carry her, so he rested for a bit. Even though it was almost dark, Talis could see that Mara looked paler. He had to get her home quickly to a healer.

By the time they spotted the city from afar, moonlight sent long, wiry shadows across the hillside leading up to the towering stone walls. Lights flickered from countless braziers mounted hundreds of feet higher on the upper part of the city. Naru stood ominous under the garish light of the four moon sisters. The evening gong sounded from atop a watchtower.

As Talis and Mara approached the main gates, a group of soldiers making their rounds studied them.

“Young Master Talis,” said Baratis, the captain of the barracks. “And Mara…is she alright?”

“I can’t talk now…open the gates…Mara is hurt!”

“Carem and Jorem! Help carry young Mara,” Baratis shouted. The soldiers carried Mara through the gate, massive steel shafts rising into the stone walls. Eyes blinked at them from behind murder holes as they entered. Archers ready to strike down enemies in a siege. Spread before them past the gate was the Arena of the Sej Elders, formed of gigantic white granite blocks, rising over everything in the lower part of the city. Stone towers lined the wide avenue leading up to the arena.

The soldiers’ boots clapped against the cobblestone streets as they strode past the arena, finally winding around until they reached the gates of the upper city. Up the snaking rise, they walked past merchant shops and eyes that gawked at the soldiers carrying Mara. They continued on, to the highest part of the city, beneath the Temple of the Goddess Nestria, the Goddess of the Sky. To Mara’s house, the House of Viceroy Lei and Lady Malvia, daughter of the king and second in line to the throne.

As the soldiers carried Mara towards the white marble mansion, Talis worried that her wounds were too grave to cure. Today was the worst day, and he was all to blame. Why did he have to chase after the boar? Two servants ran up and gasped when they noticed Mara, and they quickly carried her inside. Lady Malvia rushed towards them, her silver robe swirling behind her.

“What happened to my daughter? She’s so pale, why is she pale?”

“A boar…we were out hunting-”

“Gods, Talis!” She brought her hands to her face, an expression of horror paling her eyes. ”Boar hunting? You’re both only thirteen! What were you thinking?” Her face seethed with rage, and she paused a moment, breathing deeply as if trying to calm herself. “ I warned you two about hunting alone. Now go and quickly fetch the healer.”

A sick feeling wrenched his stomach as he raced out back to a small building overlooking the rose garden. It was his fault. He never should have insisted on going hunting in the first place. He vowed not to go on the hunt again-not if it meant hurting Mara.

Inside the healer’s apothecary, he found Belesia grinding herbs inside a round, wooden bowl. The room held the pungent smells of mold, fire and smoke. The walls were lined with jars of herbs, roots, dried insects and small, shriveled animals floating in clear liquid. The healer narrowed her eyes at him.

“Young master…what brings you here?”

“Mara was injured in the swamp…by a boar.”

Belesia clasped her hands over her stomach. “Is she bleeding?”

“From the mouth.”

She groaned. “How did it strike her?”

“Tusks slashed here.” He pointed at his lower ribs. ”And later blood spilled from her mouth.”

“Oh, an internal wound, this is dire…” She grabbed a satchel and hobbled outside. “We must hurry.”

As they made their way through the mansion, Talis’s heart pounded and his palms went flush with sweat. Mara was going to be alright, wasn’t she? Belesia came from far to the west, where their magical healing powers were renowned. But this kind of injury was different, and Talis was unsure if it was curable…

Inside Mara’s room, she lay on her bed, a servant swabbing a wet cloth on her forehead. Belesia rushed to the girl’s side and pressed her palms over Mara’s forehead and stomach.

“The wound is deep…the flow of energy blocked. The fever, rising.” Belesia chanted words from a strange tongue, from the western islands, lands filled with the magic of the earth and the spirits. Her eyes narrowed to small slits, and the room dimmed as her chants grew louder.

In the darkness, the healer’s hands glowed, red like burning embers, and Mara was filled with light, as if her veins pulsed with iridescent gold. Mara’s eyes flung open, unseeing, as if she stared at something that only existed far away in her mind. Talis stepped forward to hold her hand but Belesia motioned him back.

“Will she be alright?” Talis whispered, his voice choked and sad.

Belesia raised a finger. “Her wound lies in her internal organs. My power is strong, but the healing will take some time to regenerate the organs. And I’m sorry to say, m’lady, sometimes the healing fails…”

“Fails?” Lady Malvia said, her face pale as ash. “But you will do everything, won’t you? I can pay any amount, grant you titles and lands, but save my daughter!”

The old healer cackled softly and muttered words to herself. “When it comes to magic and the gods, money means nothing. Pray to the gods, dear lady, you and your entire house. And you, young master Talis, pray to your gods also. Most of all, pray to Tolexia, the God of Healing.”

“I will…I promise. I’ll do anything-gods willing-to keep Mara alive.” Talis bowed his head and pinched his eyes shut, saying the words of prayer to Tolexia… God of Healing, God of Harmony, listen to this mortal’s plea for Mara. Fair Tolexia hear my prayer and save her life, from my heart pure and my mind full of gratitude.

When Talis opened his eyes, Lady Malvia stared at him with a mixture of curiosity and fury. Talis trembled at her glare and found himself retreating from the room.

“I want you out of this house,” Lady Malvia said. “If she lives you’ll save your family from shame and bloodshed. For only blood will satisfy blood. And the gods may ask for your blood if Mara dies.

“I allowed Mara to hunt with you on the condition that you’d protect her, and now you bring her home like this? You always had the option to take rangers with you, yet you refused.”

She motioned for a servant with her eyes, and the man led Talis out of the mansion. Please let Mara live, please, Tolexia, please. Talis kept seeing Mara’s shining face, laughing and teasing him. She was his best friend. He’d ruined everything today by his foolishness, and put Mara’s life in danger. Her life was worth more to him than all the hunts in the world.

He stumbled down the cobblestone street, bumping into trees and people, barely able to see straight with the tears blurring his vision. It was only just a short ways to his house, the House of Garen Storm, but he almost went the wrong way. Somehow he reached his mansion and a servant ran inside to alert his parents. He lowered his shoulders and sighed. How could he face father now, after all that had happened today?

She would live, the gods were good, she would live. Talis felt it burning in his heart.

2. A FEATHER FOR A FRIEND

Father came limping down the dark hallway, carrying his hawk-headed cane as if it was a weapon. He swept aside his black silk cape, black eyes glaring, puffing on a pipe, sending smoke swirls rising into the gloomy air. The candlelight from the servant standing on the side of the room sent flickering black gashes across father’s face.

“What’s your excuse this time?” he muttered, tapping the cane to his hand. “Haldish, bring some light in here, I can barely see a thing.”

“Yes, Master Storm.” Haldish bowed, and set the candle on an long wooden table containing carved statues of the gods.

“We were out hunting…Mara was hurt by a boar.” Talis tried to catch his eyes, but father just sighed and shook his head, then started hobbling towards the fire at the hearth in the great room.

“As if we don’t already have enough trouble with House Lei.” Father sat at a plump, leather chair in front of the fire. “Now you force me to make amends with Lady Malvia…if she’ll see me. Is Mara hurt badly? Go on…sit…this is not an execution.”

Talis obeyed, feeling the leather chair warmed by the fire. Part of him wished Father was harsher, he felt guilty, he felt what he did was wrong, but he just sighed and nodded gravely. “She’s bleeding inside from a boar’s strike.”

“No…Talis, this is not good.” Father ran his fingers through his thick, black mane. “Has the healer treated her? Should I summon healers from the Order of the Dawn?”

“Belesia has cast her magic…and Mara sleeps. I’ve prayed to Tolexia.”

“May the gods favor her recovery. I’ll go visit the Shrine of Tolexia tomorrow and pay House Lei a visit.” Father frowned, disapproval spilling from his eyes. “I know you and Mara have been hunting for years, but you’re too reckless, boy… Boar hunting? You could have both been killed. Once again you disappoint me.”

Talis felt himself shrink back at Father’s words. He noticed his mother leaning against a marble column, staring sadly at him. Talis nodded and she waved back.

Garen glanced at his wife. “All that I’m saying is…be cautious, be more like your older brother…” His voice faltered and broke, and his eyes reddened suddenly. He raised his clenched fists towards the sky, face puffed and fuming. “Why, Nyx? Why did you have to take Xhan away from me?” He pushed himself to his feet, turned and tromped off, retreating once again into his study, the place where he often locked himself away from the family, in the years after Talis’s older brother Xhan had been poisoned from a fight with desert marauders.

Mother crept forward and put her arms around Talis. She hugged him for a time, and Talis could feel the worry and blame melt away from his mind.

“Come on…you can believe, she’ll be alright. Have faith in the gods. Let’s get you some food.” Mother led him into the kitchen where his younger sister, Lia, gripped her favorite white doll. “Why don’t you rest with your sister, she’s been worried about you.”

“Why was I so stupid.” His voice cracked and he placed his hands over his head. He felt somehow that he was to blame for the way Father acted since Xhan’s death. Maybe Father was right, if he was more careful, Mara would never have been injured by the boar. His mother sat next to him and he told her what had happened in the swamplands.

Lia squeezed his hand. “Mara will be alright…I just know it.” His sister was so delicate and feminine, and her eyes held certainty and innocence, with a wisdom beyond her seven years.

“Darling,” his mother said to Lia. “We should make an offering to Tolexia tomorrow for Mara.”

She nodded, her face beaming, and she glanced concerned eyes at Talis.

“Can you eat something? Or perhaps some soup,” his mother said.

Talis shook his head. “I couldn’t eat a thing…my stomach feels sick.”

“Then go to bed… There’s nothing you can do right now, except perhaps beg favor from the gods.”

He bowed his head, and once again prayed to Tolexia for Mara to return to health. He turned and shambled outside and up the stairs to his bedroom loft. Before going inside, he gripped the rail and stared out over the city of Naru, lit with the pale light of the four moon sisters. Thoughts of Mara and Lady Malvia and Father raced through his mind. And Xhan…his older brother, he couldn’t even picture his face anymore. Did the power of death do that to memories? If Mara died, would he forget her face as well?

After several days of worrying about Mara’s condition, with no reports from Father or Mother, and Lady Malvia’s refusal to allow his access, Talis thought of a way to find out how she was doing. That afternoon, he slunk behind a tree near the side door of Mara’s mansion, waiting for the healer, Belesia. She usually ran errands in town around this time, and around twilight, the wooden door creaked open, and Belesia stepped out onto the cobblestone street. She wrapped her shawl over her shoulders and strode away. Talis followed her from a distance, past the royal mansions, past the merchant’s houses, past the upper markets and their sweet smells of bread and cakes and ale, until they reached the dingy lower part of the city.

All Talis could think about along the way was whether Mara was all right. Would Belesia be under orders forbidding her to tell him anything? But he couldn’t believe that, the healer always did what she wanted, valuing the gods and friendship more than anything else. She was a friend, wasn’t she?

When they entered Fiskar’s market, Belesia stopped at a stall where a man with a twenty-pound tumor in his neck sold mushrooms. Belesia haggled with the man for a bit, clucking disapprovingly at the price, then finally handed him a few coins and clutched the bag under her arm and left.

Talis jogged up and Belesia turned her head, as if knowing he was there. “I’m surprised you didn’t follow me sooner.”

“I tried to respect the wishes of House Lei.” He didn’t want to get in more trouble than he already was.

“People say things they don’t mean when they are angry.” Belesia took his hands, her skin felt warm and leathery. “Your friend is close to recovery.”

“She is?” Talis couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his face, and he felt the tension go out of his shoulders, as if he’d released a heavy pack. “And is Lady Malvia still upset at me?”

Belesia rubbed her hands together. “Time heals foolish actions…and your father knows the right words to sooth Lady Malvia’s fire. You may not know it, but they were once close friends like you and Mara. That is until Lady Malvia decided to marry your father’s old enemy, Viceroy Lei.”

Father and Lady Malvia? “I didn’t know…Father talks little of the past…save for talk of Xhan.”

With that, Belesia came close and placed a hand on Talis’s cheek. “The living sometimes suffer more than the dead. Give your father tenderness. His heart still bleeds.”

She turned and sauntered away, her words still lingering in his heart, and Talis pictured Father after news of Xhan’s death had reached him. He had suffered and Talis realized he hadn’t been there to comfort Father when he needed it. Maybe there was more he could do.

A laughing couple tramped by, the girl bumping into Talis. She bowed her head in apology and giggled as they strode off. Talis glanced around at the merchant stalls, thinking of Mara again, and decided he should find a gift for her. The air in Fiskar’s Market smelled of roasted venison, pork, chicken, and sweet pies from the baker’s oven. He sauntered around, scanning the vendors hawking their goods: sacred charms, shrunken heads, colorful jewelry studded with precious stones, Orbs of the Sun and Eyes of Death, and prayer beads sold by gold-toothed monks. Fiskar was long dead, but the name stuck. He was smart enough to set up business and sell in front of Shade’s Gate and next to the Temple of Nyx, the God of War.

Talis discovered a merchant who claimed to have recently purchased amber feathers with white flecks, plucked from a rare bird found along the Southern coast of Galhedrin. Mara was crazy about collecting feathers and would adorn her hunting hats with them. So he bought a particularly beautiful feather for her using money saved from pelts he’d sold from hunting in the swamplands.

Out of the corner of his eye he spotted Nikulo, a boy he knew from the Order of the Dawn, where they both studied magic. Nikulo studied the healing arts, and Talis studied elemental magic, although his success was limited to magic done in training dreams. He’d never managed to produce magic like the other apprentices and felt very frustrated at his many failed attempts.

Nikulo was off in the back corner of the market buying something from a merchant Talis was sure sold poison and other black arts supplies. As if afraid he’d be seen, Nikulo glanced around several times, and marched down near the stall where Talis stood.

Talis tried to hide behind a bunch of feathers, but Nikulo stopped, and glared at him.

“Cowering already? You know you don’t have a chance winning the Blood Dagger.”

The Blood Dagger competition. Talis thought of the sparring competition held once a year, and froze, realizing he’d forgotten all about it. Wasn’t it only a few days away? With Mara injured, they’d moved the date, but Talis knew that House Lei and House Storm would never allow Talis and Mara to forfeit to the likes of Nikulo and Rikar, his sparring partner. Claiming rights to holding the Blood Dagger for a year meant far too much to the royal houses, especially since their Royal Houses had lost claim to the victor’s rights over the last few years.

Nikulo’s coffee-brown eyes sparkled as if he was eager to tell a new joke. He waddled close to Talis, holding a porcelain jar in one hand, and he yanked up silk pants that kept falling below his protruding belly. He scratched his curly hair and released a smoky fart, blowing the fumes in Talis’s direction. Talis coughed, retreating quickly. Nikulo never should have swallowed that last potion he concocted. All his farts smelled like sulfur and mustard and spoiled onions.

“Thanks for that, just what I needed.” Talis rubbed his stinging eyes. “What are you doing slumming in Fiskar’s Market? Finding more disgusting ingredients for your potions?”

Nikulo moved the jar away from Talis. “No…nothing of the sort.” He frowned, pursing his lips. “Why are you holding a feather?”

“It’s for Mara. Why are you hiding that jar?”

“Oh this?” Nikulo glanced around at the jar he was holding. “Just ingredients.” He fidgeted, constantly glancing towards Shade’s Gate, the way to the upper part of the city where Nikulo lived.

“Ingredients? What for? Weren’t you at the poison merchant?”

“Poison?” Nikulo coughed out a laugh. “Why would I want anything to do with poison. You know it’s not allowed for students of the Order.” Nikulo narrowed his eyes, studying him, as if trying to decide if he could trust him or not. “When is Mara supposed to get better? Rikar and me are getting tired of waiting to fight you guys. If you don’t compete soon, the Blood Dagger will be ours.”

“You know that’s not going to happen. You’ll taste our blades soon enough. Are you so anxious to have your blood spilled? Mara will be better quite soon, just you see.”

Nikulo chuckled. “You’re lucky that House Lei hasn’t sent an assassin after you.”

Talis waved him away, as if the idea was ridiculous. “I’ve got to go. Be careful with that poison… Another failed alchemy experiment and you’re likely to kill someone.” But then maybe that was Nikulo’s idea, poison merchant after all…

The next morning Talis awoke to spindly shadows dancing across his blanket as the wind knocked the shutters back and forth. He hated waking this way. His cat, the yellow and white Tobias, pounced on his bed, tail jerking crazily, staring above at the amber feather flipping in the breeze.

Talis had mounted the feather on a strand of leather tied to a wood beam that spanned across the ceiling. But the cat leapt anyways, trying to swat the feather, but missed it by a few inches.

“You little devil.” Talis tried to scoop up Tobias, but the cat darted about the room as if possessed by a ghost. “You can’t have Mara’s feather, it’s not your toy to play with… I’ll get you a duck feather or something. Come on now.”

The shutters slammed suddenly opened and Talis spun around. Mara was perched on the windowsill, grinning viciously at him.

“Miss me?” She jumped inside and dove into his bed, wriggling under the covers. Her hands were uncomfortably near his pants. Tobias immediately pounced on the bed, leaping high into the air every time Mara moved. The cat meowed, a complaining meow, and Tobias stared, as if trying to figure out what was going on.

“You’re all better!” Talis sighed, relieved to see her healthy and so active.

“Way to state the obvious. No”-she coughed and clenched her stomach, falling back to the bed-“I’m about to keel over and die.” She laughed maniacally and pulled the blanket over her head.

“Be serious, I thought you really might die. We were all so worried! I prayed so many times to Tolexia…”

“You can’t kill a cat that easily. Though you sure did try!”

“Me?”

“Just kidding!” She stretched her arms wide. “Somebody is so in love with me. I bet you couldn’t stop thinking about me, right?” She looked up at the feather. “Is that for me?”

Talis nodded, then jumped up to grab the feather.

Mara squealed when he handed it to her. “It’s gorgeous! I bet it cost a small fortune… It’ll look great in my green hunting cap. I can’t wait to wear it.”

He smiled, and braced himself as she flung herself onto him, giving him an enormous suffocating hug. From the look on her face, it was worth every silver piece getting her the feather.

She motioned towards the window. “Why aren’t you offering to take me to breakfast? Can’t you see I’m hungry?”

“I’m so glad to see you… Whatever you want, it’s my treat, thank the gods you’re all better.”

“Well, if you want to know, I’m craving dumpling soup from Fiskar’s Market. Hurry up, already.” She pulled her cloak over her head and jumped out the window.

3. A DEMON'S EYES

Usually royals never went down to shop or eat in the lower part of the city. That’s why Talis and Mara almost always went there, to escape prying eyes. Especially now that if they were seen together, it would mean trouble for them both. Mara informed Talis that her mother was still furious at him.

Mara ran ahead, as if daring Talis to catch her. She took the traders’ way to Fiskar’s: around the upper shops, down an alleyway stacked with crates, inside a warehouse door, past workers loading crates, until they reached the dark corridor winding down to the lift.

The workers always averted their eyes from Talis and Mara when they used the lift, as if they thought it wasn’t their business to notice a few royal children skulking around in the darkness. Talis and Mara hopped on the lift, and Mara grabbed Talis’s hand as the lift jolted, and they started their descent several hundred feet down, until the way opened up to Shade’s Gate, next to the upper part of Fiskar’s Market.

Today was Hanare, sacred day of the Goddess Nacrea, the eighth day of the week, a day free from study and work. At least for the royals. In Fiskar’s Market, most commoners still toiled, preparing for Magare, first day of the week and market day. But still, children chased chickens lazily through the market stalls, and old men played Chano, staring at the chipped granite pieces as if waiting for a mystery to be revealed. Old women gossiped, casting curious eyes at Talis and Mara as they sat at a flimsy table next to a boiling pot of dumpling soup. The broth smelled of garlic and chives and roasted hare.

Talis handed the cook a copper coin, and he stared at it suspiciously, then grunted and filled a ladle full of cabbage, bits of meat, shimmering dumplings, and piping-hot clear broth. Talis salivated as the man placed Mara’s soup on the table.

“Can I start?” she said, dumping so much chili sauce in her soup it turned red.

“Torture me…”

She slurped the soup and made a face of pure joy.

“Can I have a dumpling?” Talis’s stomach grumbled.

“Yours is coming soon enough. So impatient!”

The cook scowled at Talis, as if contemplating serving him or not. Finally, he slopped the soup into a bowl (skimpy on the dumplings and meat) and plopped it down in front of Talis.

“I’ve got news.” Mara held up her spoon like a professor giving a lecture.

Talis slurped the soup, wincing at how hot it was.

“Mother wants me to marry Baron Delar’s son-”

Talis spewed the soup onto the ground and coughed. Him? Baron Delar’s son was twenty-eight, how could she marry him?

“The soup is hot, you should be more careful.” Mara lifted an eyebrow, smirking at the look of horror that must have been on his face. “Don’t you approve of the engagement?”

“I don’t know…I guess it’s good news. Congratulations?”

“You idiot! Are you kidding me? I’m not marrying that pig-faced, smelly old wart-hog. He wears frilly silk blouses, a man dressed like a pampered child!”

“But all the lands he owns, and the trading routes, titles…”

“I can’t believe you actually think it’s a good idea.” She drew in the stares of the cook and many others nearby.

“Settle down,” he said, softening his voice like he was speaking to a baby. He smiled at her. “I never said it’s a good idea. Eat your soup, will you? You can’t be married until you’re fifteen anyways.“

“It’s two years away! Besides, engaged is as good as being married…it’s like prison. Nobody breaks their engagement-well there was Lady Macela-poor thing, never got married, all on her own. But to that old pig? What are my parents thinking? I hate them.”

“Just tell them you don’t want to marry him.”

“I already did. You know they never listen to me. They claim they know what’s best for me. I’d rather run away than marry him. I simply won’t do it.” She cast a venomous glare at her soup, then sighed and looked up at Talis, raising a finger as if she had an idea.

“Let’s win the Blood Dagger competition. If we win, I’m allowed any wish I choose. That’ll keep me away from that ridiculous man.”

“But Rikar and Nikulo are undefeated…they’re brutal-”

“I don’t care! We can do it, I know we can. Ever since that old witch made me drink all her potions and tea I feel strangely powerful…like I can do anything.”

“We’ve had a string of bad luck, though. We lost two times in a row at the training arena, and then you almost got killed by the boar.” Talis lowered his voice to a whisper. “It’s like the gods are angry with us.”

“There are rites of initiation we could try…a blood oath.”

“A blood oath?” Talis swallowed, not liking whatever was implied by her suggestion. “Would that be with the Temple of Nestria or Nyx?”

Mara glanced towards the vines that covered walls surrounding the Temple of Nyx, the God of War. “I know what we have to do. We must pray to Zagros, who favors the weak and fallen.”

Zagros? Why would they pray to the God of the Underworld? “I’ve not been beyond Nyx…”

“Listen, we know the rites of initiation. We’ve been trained, right? What are you afraid of?”

“The Temple of Zagros is for those bringing the dead…or those who worship dark magic. Why would we go there?”

“I’m not marrying Baron Delar’s son. We’ve prayed to the other gods before previous matches and we still lost. What have we got to lose?”

Talis imagined they’d have quite a bit to lose. “Oh let’s see, I can think of many reasons why it’s a bad idea. Demons. Curses. And just purely the wrong kind of attention!”

“You owe me. It’s not like it’s the first time in history people have performed the rites. We both read the books and were trained by the same priests. Many heroes in the past have done the rites of initiation to ward off death’s touch. We’d be doing it for victory.”

Glancing at the twisted black oaks marking the entrance to the Temple of Nyx, Talis frowned, but gave in anyways, despite feeling this was a terrible idea. Mara caught his eyes, and held out her thumb to touch his. They sealed the vow with this act. Now they could do nothing but follow through until they completed the Rites of Zagros.

After they finished their soup, Talis and Mara stepped hesitantly towards the blackened iron gate of the foul-tempered God of War. Once inside, the air seemed to darken, either obscured by the oaks or frightened by the shadow crows alive in the quavering branches above. Talis forced himself on, and Mara yanked his hand, leading him around the sword-shaped temple, through the onyx gravestones marking fallen war heroes.

The air reeked of sulfur. Mara puffed out her chest, eyes squinting, and faced a wall of tangled and twisted vines. She chanted words of passage to the realm of Zagros: “For there were four winds racing from the four corners of the world, four spirits and four demons, consuming all life in their path. Grant access to your dominion, yet hold your devouring fire till old age.”

With that the choke vines moved, loosening and untwisting, making a narrow path before them. Mara and Talis squeezed their way inside, where the power surged in the air, the power of dark magic, the power of death. The sky collapsed to a whorl of gray and black, tiny scintillating bolts forming an electric mesh in the sky. A barren ledge stood before them, with the Nalgoran Desert stretching across the sky. The wind rushed at their faces as they entered the ledge, the ledge where many chose to plummet to an early death.

Talis stepped gingerly towards the edge, mindful of the lack of railing, wishing he’d never agreed to perform the Rites. “All powerful Zagros, finish the deed, grind all matter to dust, from the remains the seed springs to life.”

He stared out over the vast expanse to the east, the Nalgoran Desert, with nothing but sand and whirling wind for hundreds of miles.

Mara tugged at his hand, pulling him to the left towards a cave set inside the massive granite cliff.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” he whispered.

She frowned. “You vowed. Just whatever you do, don’t stare into the statue’s eyes for too long.”

“I know that already.”

“I’m just saying…people have died that way.”

Talis swallowed hard, and followed her inside the cave. Farther in, the darkness was suffocating. He knew he had to walk boldly to survive the initiate’s test, but as soon as he stepped onto a wet stone, the feeling of snakes slithered at his feet. Hundreds of spiders crawled along his shoulders, and cold, slimy hands grasped at his legs. He wanted to kick them away, but he had to keep going. When he tried to breathe, he couldn’t. It was like there was no air in the cave. This was an illusion…part of the Rites. He controlled his desire to gasp like a fish caught out of water. After he pictured the morning sun, the vision calmed himself, and he took deeper breaths.

Around a razor-edged corner came the glimmer of an eerie green light. Talis stopped, his heart thumping hard. Two shimmering orbs hovered in the darkness. In between stood a statue of the terrifying Zagros, in a battle-stance, wielding an executioner’s blade in one hand, and in the other he held hundreds of tiny, severed heads tied together by a string. The onyx statue of the Lord of the Underworld. His mouth was open wide, tongue stretched out. Talis felt the hairs stand up along the back of his neck. The statue was revolting.

A cloaked figure knelt before the statue, mumbling prayers. Mara grabbed Talis’s arm, and they hid behind the corner and bent down, straining to listen.

“…I vow,” the figure said, “my father, his soul find respite-the endless war of Nyx-spare him, oh great Zagros.”

Mara leaned close to Talis. “It’s Rikar,” she whispered.

As soon as she spoke, Rikar whirled around and glared at them. “You dare violate the sanctity of this temple?”

Mara and Talis stepped out from the shadows, bathed in the violent green light hovering above the statue. Rikar raised a hand and Talis felt a sickening energy creep up his legs and into his stomach, squeezing hard until massive bursts of pain shot through his body.

“Stop it.” Mara glowered at Rikar. “Leave it for the Blood Dagger competition.”

Talis gasped out as the pain diminished. He balled up a fist and started to charge at Rikar but Mara held him back.

“I won’t even need to use a drop of magic against you pathetic runts.” Rikar shoved Talis aside. “Nice to see you’re all better, Mara. I look forward to using my sword to make you ill again.” He chuckled, pulled his cloak over his head, and stormed out.

“What was that all about?” Mara shook her head. “Why is he in here, anyways?”

“I really don’t want to know…Rikar is in a very bad place, since his father died.”

Mara shuddered, but took a deep breath and faced the onyx statue. “We must complete the rites of initiation.” She beckoned him towards the shrine, and knelt on the outer ley line.

Talis studied the deep crevices of the god’s face, and approached the statue, eyes fixed on the dark lord. He had to remain fearless, else a dark entity might take possession inside him. As he steadied himself, he thought of his brother, Xhan, dead many years ago. He was free now, free of the heavy burden of life. Xhan rested with loved ones, along the fair seas…

Closer to the statue, Talis stretched out his hand. The god’s tongue was cold and wet as Talis touched it, and soon the feeling of a dank fire slithered down his arm. In an instant, a vision possessed his mind. A dimly lit cave filled with vines. A green fire. Eyes hard and ruthless, staring at him in the chamber.

Mara was wrong, worshipping Zagros didn’t bring them favor; worshiping the God of Darkness only brought a demon’s attention upon them.

4. THE ORDER OF THE DAWN

The Temple dedicated to all gods, constructed by the magical Order of the Dawn over a thousand years ago, gleamed in the morning sunlight as Talis sauntered up the cobblestone street. Today he would study with Master Viridian, the leading wizard of the Order, for a chance at breaking his many year long failing streak, his inability at casting magic. Not that Talis was optimistic today.

“Another day, another failure?” Rikar said, and tipped his black hat as he swaggered inside the Order gate. Twin wizards at the entrance made notes, studying the students as they came inside.

Talis ignored Rikar’s banter and gathered his red robes, stepping over the stone dragons that guarded the gates. The sandy courtyard inside was raked in clean, diagonal lines that marked the ley lines of the world, divined by the geomancers of the Order. Talis skirted along the edges of the courtyard, following habits of caution, daring not to taint the central lines that marked the middle of the yard. But he was alone in refusing to alter those lines, as others, Rikar and Nikulo included, trampled where they liked, oblivious of what lay underneath.

“Ah…good morning, young master Talis.” Mistress Cavares, an old, eccentric wizard, stared at him. Talis wasn’t sure what she taught (or her area of mastery), but he knew all the rest of the students and wizards tried their best to stay away from her. She came closer and ran her fingers across her wrinkled lips.

“You look…in a dark mood today. Has something happened?”

Talis stiffened at her words, picturing the onyx statue of Zagros, and felt a cold chill spike along his shoulders. “I have studies with Master Viridian this morning,” he mumbled, and looked puzzled at Mistress Cavares.

“I see…” She frowned as if considering something. “Well, on your way. Do go see a healer if you’re not feeling well.”

Talis bowed and scurried away, not wanting to be late, but more than anything, wanting to escape from talking to Mistress Cavares. He reached the thick mahogany door leading to the masters’ chambers, stairs winding up and around, splashes of sunlight warming portraits of long gone masters, finally to the top level of the Order. Down the marble corridor he marched, the City of Naru flickering through windows, the glare blinding him temporarily until his eyes adjusted to the light.

“In here,” Master Viridian whispered. Talis’s eyes were blind to the dark now, and he could barely see his Master or the room he was in. He bumbled his way forward, and bumping into the door frame gave him enough time for his eyes to adjust to the candle-filled chamber and Master Viridian levitating, legs crossed, in meditation, his black and silver beard forked in two, each beard tip tied with a gold sun-medallion. The Master’s pale grey eyes looked even more washed out, and Talis thought it was because the Master spent too much time staring at the sun, absorbing its power.

“Close the door and find a place to meditate.” Master Viridian gestured at the silk pillows scattered on a rug embroidered with an ornate illustration of the sun.

Talis obeyed and found a gold pillow, and sat crossing his legs. In the dim light Talis swore he saw faces staring at them from each of the four, misty corners of the room.

The walls had disappeared, and in their place, a grey fog expanded out into nothingness.

“Don’t pay attention to the room…pay attention to what’s inside your mind. Close your eyes or close your mind to the room, find the brilliant speck of light that is the sun.”

Soon the sunlight roared in Talis’s mind and he relished in the feeling of its warm glow on his face. He knew he was now inside the world of dreams. This was a familiar exercise for Talis, find the sun, find the wind, find the lightning and thunder, find the rain and the cool mountain spring, feel the earth…your hands plunged into wet, loamy soil. The core pathways leading to elemental magic.

“Now raise your hands to the sun and let the rays burn your palms until they are black, charred, smoking, angry… Feel the fire pulsing and radiating from your palms until the flames lap out, hungry, thirsty, parched, needing wind and substance to devour.”

Talis did as his Master commanded and his palms burned and pain shot down his arms, but he resisted the desire to recoil his hands and instead kept them steady. In a matter of seconds flame tendrils danced out from his palms like the many intertwining arms of Kaleria, The Laughing God, who makes light of all mortal ambition and power.

“Be careful, contain the flames lest they burn you up inside…balance between the wind outside and the heat inside. Push enough of the flames outside to keep yourself from overheating…that path is death.”

Images of charred wizards after past battles flashed in Talis’s mind. He knew well the rules of magic and the high costs of ignoring its limits. That was the main reason he feared Fire Magic, and he thought, was probably why he had failed to produce it.

But despite his fears he managed to control himself and he continued to allow the flames to flow from his hands. It was easier here, inside the world of dreams, to cast magic.

“Excellent…I salute your progress. Now see me, see the grey fog, see this room, bring the flames here, to me, the fog is wind, use its latent power to fuel the flame’s anger, and burn me up. The flames will not hurt me.”

Talis found his eyes flared open and the room seemed instantly smaller. Something sputtered from his hands and tiny puffs of smoke filled his nostrils. He grimaced, knowing he’d failed yet again at Fire Magic.

“That was a reasonably good attempt, I suppose.” Master Viridian’s face twitched, and his eyes looked disappointed. “I still sense fear in you, fear of fire, fear of yourself, even…”

Master Viridian sighed and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, then stared at his fingers like he’d found ink spilled on his knuckles. “Let me ask you a question. How did you manage to overcome your fear of fighting with swords? Don’t you have a battle ahead at the Blood Dagger competition? From what I understand, although I’ve never seen fights such as these in the arena, the fighting is fierce…blood is drawn, and magical healers often fail to cure wounds. Am I correct?”

Talis nodded, realization coming to his mind. He pictured the last time he’d battled in the arena. “Wear the Battle Mask and Slay the Demon…”

“Is this part of your training?”

“To overcome fear of injury and pain, wearing the battle mask is our mental protection, and slaying the demon keeps us focused on destroying our enemy…the demon in our minds.”

“Where is your fear while you battle?” Master Viridian allowed a smile to raise the corners of his lips.

“Slain…fear is the demon. How we slay the demon is to execute the movements. Dancing Butterfly, Cringing Monkey, Leaping Snake, Dragon Circles the Moon… We memorize many martial moments, train and train and train until they are habits, then in the arena the fight is against our fear and emotions…and besting our enemies.”

Master Viridian chuckled, light filling his eyes. “Sounds like the way wizards learn battle magic. And who are you fighting at the Blood Dagger competition?”

“We’re fighting Rikar and Nikulo…tomorrow.” Was it so close already? Talis pictured the haughty gaze in Rikar’s eyes this morning, and scowled, wishing he could wipe that expression off his face.

“If you apply the same principles you’ve learned in melee fighting to casting magic, you’ll do just fine. Don’t think producing magic is anything different, treat it much the same.”

Except that losing control of magic could cause you to explode and kill everyone around you, Talis thought, but he only bowed to Master Viridian. “Thank you, Master, I’ll try.” If he could only get the image of charred wizards out of his head.

Instead of staying after school to study, Talis snuck out from the Order through a side, secret tunnel and made his way to the school where Mara was supposed to be learning how to act like a lady. Not that she was a good student. She drove her teachers crazy with questions like, Why do ladies have to act so stupid? And when her manners teacher dared to suggest that Mara give up hunting and fighting, Talis had to talk Mara out of poisoning her.

The stone wall surrounding Mara’s school was easy to scale, and Talis climbed down wisteria vines and crept over to hide behind a statue to the Goddess Nestria, Ruler of the Sky. Talis tossed a pebble at the window of the classroom where Mara and several other young ladies were practicing dancing. Mara glanced outside, squinting as she spotted Talis, then focused back to her teacher, nodding and curtsying in response.

After finishing several more quick spin dances, all the girls in the class bowed to their teacher at once and filed out of the room. Talis snuck over the the side door where Mara had escaped before, and waited. If he was in luck today, dancing might be Mara’s last class.

The door squeaked open and Mara’s devilish eyes peeked through.

“You just couldn’t wait to see me… You know my teachers will kill you if they find you in here again.”

“Come on, let’s get out of here. We’ve got to talk about the Blood Dagger competition…it’s tomorrow. The Tame Shrew?” Talis lifted his fist to his mouth, as if drinking.

“I couldn’t think of a nastier, seedier tavern to plot our battle strategy against Rikar and Nikulo… Absolutely perfect.” Mara grinned maliciously and brushed a lock of Talis’s hair away from his eyes. She glanced around to see if anyone was looking, then held Talis’s hand and they made their way through the bushes and up and over the wall.

The afternoon sun filtered through olive leaves, casting quivering inky shadows across the cobblestone street. The lazy windless time of day when many citizens took naps or drank milk tea and played cards. Talis and Mara snuck along the winding corridors of upper Naru, until they found the door that led down through the darkness to Shade’s Gate and out into Fiskar’s Market, where old men and women sat about sighing and chatting disdainfully with each other. They glanced suspiciously at Talis and Mara as they darted through the market.

Back behind the stalls, down a dank, smelly corridor, they found The Tame Shrew, one of the oldest and least respectable taverns in Naru. Outside the faded red tavern door stumbled two old drunks locked in a cheerful arm-grasp. They teetered about precariously singing familiar songs of war and adventure. Talis and Mara skirted around the duo and made their way inside the dark tavern.

Conflicting smells overpowered them as they entered: sweat and ale and roses. The tavern owners’s wife had a rooftop garden where she grew many fragrant varieties of roses, and she clipped the strongest-smelling ones and kept them in an old, ceramic vase on the middle on the bar. Despite her earnest attempt at eliminating the other foul smells in the tavern, the stench remained.

“There’s a quiet table over in the corner.” Mara lowered herself down and squeezed past a man and a woman having a furious argument about…Talis thought it sounded like a lover’s quarrel.

When Talis sat next to Mara, the woman burst into tears and stomped out of the tavern, leaving the man to stare stupidly at the mug of ale he was holding.

“I don’t supposed he’ll be standing after a few hours,” Mara whispered.

“Two hours at the most.” Talis motioned a serving girl over. “Could we have two…honey meads?”

Mara’s eyes lit up and she smacked her lips in anticipation. “And a slice of chocolate and raspberry cake?”

The serving girl eyed Mara disdainfully, but she twisted around and stomped back behind the bar and filled two mugs with golden brew from a barrel.

“She doesn’t like me much…” Mara scrunched up her eyes and lips in imitation of the serving girl’s pouty expression.

Talis chuckled, most girls he knew despised Mara, something about her came off as wrong to them. She acted like she wanted to take every ideal for how a girl should live and smash them with her own contempt. And that was exactly why he liked her so much.

“So you think we can beat Rikar and Nikulo?” Mara accepted a mug of ale from the serving girl, and frowned, peering at the bar.

“Don’t get all upset…I’ll have your cake out soon enough.” The serving girl muttered to herself and charged off again after giving Talis his mug.

“Honestly?” Talis took a swig of the sweet honey mead. “I don’t think we have a chance of winning against them. The question is, can we survive long enough to keep from getting murdered by Rikar? How many people has he killed in previous competitions?” Although Talis knew magical healers stood ready to cast healing spells on injured combatants, sometimes nothing could done, like the time Rikar sliced off someone’s head.

“You’re so optimistic…” Mara rolled her eyes in disgust. “Maybe I’ll visit the old witch that sells curses after all. And here I am, drinking my mead and thinking we could actually win…”

Talis poked her affectionately in the arm and grinned. “Here comes your cake…thank you, miss…go on, eat up, don’t make a face, you’ll feel better with the chocolate swirling around in your belly.”

“I’ll feel better holding the Blood Dagger and handing it to my father and mother.” Mara gulped down a bite of cake and squeezed her eyes closed in delight. “Mmm, I can picture it so clearly… Mother, Father, I’ve won, and there’s no way I’m marrying Baron Delar’s fat old warthog of a son.”

She opened her eyes suddenly and fixed her gaze on Talis. “You will do all you can do to help me win, won’t you? I really mean it. I’ve known you forever and then some, and if anyone can help me out of this…situation…you’re the one.”

Talis swallowed another gulp of mead, and nodded, unable to break away from the sight of Mara’s earnest eyes. He would do anything to help her, and besides, winning against arrogant Rikar would be more of a prize than the Dagger itself.

If he survived.

5. THE BLOOD DAGGER

As Talis stared up past the stone arena, stars twinkling through the black velvet sky, he could sense Mara stalking up to him. The familiar scent of roses wafted over him, the scent of Mara and the scent of House Lei’s gardens.

“I prayed to Zagros, Nyx, Nacrea, and to Nestria…” He turned and smiled at Mara as she approached.

“What say the heavens?” She stared up at the four moon sisters, her hands reaching out like she could caress the stars.

The moons were splayed across the sky, speaking of a secret. The Diviners of the Celestials would call the moons’ alignment “Three Sisters Conspiring Against the Brilliant One.” The cruel plot against the one of light. Fate was strong today, for or against you. Talis frowned.

He and Mara had been a sparring team for seven years, ever since he’d survived the initiation allowing him to wield the blade at six years old. This was a contest for reputation and favor, and the right to compete in the Arena of the Sej Elders. As Mara hoped for, it would mean she could get her wish and ask her parents to call off the marriage between her and Baron Delar’s son. For Talis, he hoped winning would mean praise and recognition from his father, praise he’d craved all his life.

Mara twirled her twin nine-inch blades, and paused, staring at them with satisfaction. She handled them like pets. “Be careful of Rikar’s twirling strike. Go for a foot sweep if you see him start to spin.”

Talis thought of Rikar’s deadly dances at previous matches, severing heads and breaking bones. In one case the healer couldn’t do a thing to save a boy, even with magic. Talis wanted to be brave, but bloody images of contestants at previous matches flashed in his mind.

“Ready?” Talis aimed his short sword at the arena, and Mara brandished her daggers as well, a look of intense determination flashing in her eyes. They strode into the arena, the House of the Warrior, and smelled air thick with cedar and sweet incense. Hairs stood up along Talis’s arms and he clenched his mouth to keep his teeth from chattering. The dark, silver and grey stones shimmered, catching the torchlight along the tunnel leading into the circular arena.

Inside, a round opening above allowed moonlight to shine onto the sandy floor. Great two-handed swords and halberds and spiked shields were mounted on the stone wall. Torches flickered in between, whipped by the wind. His cheeks stung from the cold. A red circle had been drawn in the center, marking the boundaries of the contest. The arena was quiet and empty, except for Nikulo and Master Jarvis Numerian, a giant of a man, muscles rippling underneath his banded leather armor, a twisted scar marring his otherwise noble face. Talis felt relieved that Jarvis, who was friendly to House Storm, judged today’s match.

“We challenge the undefeated for the right to hold the Blood Dagger,” Talis shouted, and glanced around, wondering where Rikar was.

Nikulo strode forward, his protruding belly waddling from side-to-side, and clapped his leather-studded jerkin. He pointed the bladed tip of his metal staff at Talis and Mara. Somehow Talis didn’t feel so intimidated at Nikulo’s scowling face. Although Nikulo was a fierce competitor, Rikar was the malicious one.

“Do we have a complete team to battle the challengers?” Jarvis spread his arms wide.

Footsteps pounded down the tunnel, and Rikar came charging into the arena, face shiny and proud, hair slick and wet as if he’d just taken a bath. His eyes mocked Talis.

“Do I have to fight these two buffoons?” Rikar snorted.

Talis gripped his sword so hard his fingers burned. We used to be friends, Talis thought. But after Rikar’s father had died, that all ended. Because Talis’s father had refused to grant the Rite of Royal Blood to Rikar’s dead father, it meant the Lords of the Underworld had condemned Rikar’s father to the torture of the Grim March. And now Rikar hated Talis. It was so unfair. Talis hadn’t done anything to Rikar, but Rikar made him feel like he was responsible.

Mara stepped towards Rikar and brought a dagger across her throat.

Rikar chuckled. “This little one can’t wait to get her hands on me. I can’t say I blame her.”

“I challenge you for the right to wield the Blood Dagger,” Talis said. “And the Blood Dagger we shall hold”-he flushed, trying to remember the words-”we shall hold until the spring bud kisses the maple tree.” He raised his sword and aimed at the zenith.

Jarvis harumphed. “Then begin…and fight until one of you are wounded-severe enough to require intervention by the healer. From that, the winner.” He gestured towards the shadows so thick that Talis couldn’t see a thing. “Master Healer Nonce…”

A bald man in a blood-red robe emerged from the blackness and shuffled towards them. He peeled an orange, not even bothering to look up. Although healers cured many wounds with magic, sometimes nothing could be done. The fate of the sword. Talis remembered the boy who’d had his head hacked off. He touched his neck, feeling the blood pulsing through his veins, and swallowed hard. In Naru, law allowed the sword to choose the strong from the weak.

From the crazed look in Rikar’s eyes, Talis knew he meant to inflict as much pain as possible. And Nikulo twirled his bladed staff so fast it hummed. Rikar whirled his curved sword around in a flourish, raised a finger and summoned a huge, shimmering blade above his head. Talis felt his skin go clammy, wishing he could cast magic like that. Memories of his failed attempt at magic yesterday with Master Viridian flashed in his mind’s eye.

“No magic in the arena.” Jarvis scowled at Rikar. “You know the rules.”

Rikar strode towards Talis, spinning his sword deftly. “Your screams will be like honey.”

Talis gritted his teeth and ignored his taunts. He circled around to his left, and Mara followed his lead, staying close.

Rikar’s blade sung as it cut through the air, just inches from Talis’s stomach. Talis clasped a hand to his stomach, almost feeling the steel blade lash into his body. A few inches closer and my guts would spill out onto the sand, Talis thought.

While Rikar leered at Talis, Mara leapt at Rikar’s back and punctured his scalemail armor just above the hip on the side. Blood dripped from her dagger, and for a moment, her face flashed a triumphant look.

Rikar whirled around and kicked Mara on the shoulder, sending her twirling through the air. She fell hard on her back and whimpered. A cold sweat fell over Talis as he remembered her being injured by the boar. He charged Rikar, hoping to catch him unaware, but Rikar just riposted and deflected his sword aside.

Mara pushed herself up and grabbed her daggers, nodding as if she was okay.

Rikar clapped his sword against the bloodied spot on his armor. “You barely pricked me. Next time shove your dagger in a bit harder…” He scoffed, and motioned Nikulo towards Talis.

Nikulo charged, spinning wide, causing Talis to leap back. Talis thrust his sword at Nikulo’s chest, but Nikulo swatted the weapon aside, spun, and slammed his staff into Talis’s shins, knocking him face-first onto the ground. Stars spun wildly in his eyes. To the side, Talis could see Rikar raising his blade. Rikar struck down at him, but Talis rolled aside. Mara this time jumped on Rikar’s back and tightened a dagger against his throat. A line of blood trickled down his neck as he sank to his knees, face red and sweaty.

Rikar growled. With one lightning-quick move, he yanked her dagger arm and sent her tumbling over his shoulder and onto the ground.

Talis jumped up, and quick-stepped away from Nikulo’s bladed staff. Talis parried and spun around, then slashed, but Nikulo knocked the blade away. Nikulo grinned in satisfaction. Talis leapt at Nikulo, swinging his blade at Nikulo’s head. Nikulo raised his staff to block, but Talis kicked his chest and knocked him onto his back.

Mara and Talis charged Rikar in unison. Talis sprang at Rikar, while Mara circled around. We can win, Talis thought. He aimed his blade towards Rikar’s chest, but somehow Nikulo had managed to get up quickly, and drove right through Talis and Mara, his bladed staff spinning wide. Talis jumped back, only to feel Rikar’s sword grating along his ringmail chest, issuing a shower of sparks. Talis retreated fast, smelling metallic smoke from the sparks.

Grinning, Rikar pressed his advantage, slicing and pushing him towards the arena’s edge. Just when Rikar was about to land a blow on Talis’s neck, Talis felt a dizzy sensation. All movement around him stopped, and the light in the arena went gold. The sky was filled with dancing stars.

Like the world had frozen, Talis could see the entire scene at once. The weakness in Rikar’s defense. Rikar’s frozen face shone with hate and bloodlust and madness. Talis felt a wind whirling inside his chest.

He knew suddenly where he had to strike.

Before time rushed on, Talis danced aside and landed a blow hard on Rikar’s hip, breaking through his armor, sending blood spurting, a red stain on his leg. Rikar sank, gripping the wound. That was it. The pain shot up to Rikar’s eyes and across his face. He bit his lip hard and sank to the ground.

The healer cried out and raced forward. He placed his hands on Rikar’s hip and the armor glowed white-hot, and Rikar’s face was filled with light. Rikar’s reddened eyes glared furiously at Talis.

“The winner of this year’s Blood Dagger is Talis of House Storm and Mara of House Lei.” Master Jarvis lifted Talis’s and Mara’s arms, and nodded to the victors.

Talis found a smile coming to his face. They’d won. They really won. Father would finally see him as worthy to carry on the Storm family lineage. He couldn’t wait to run home and tell his family. They’d won the Blood Dagger and won the right to fight in the Arena of the Sej Elders, in front of all the crowds that gathered to watch the fights. Talis remembered his father’s beaming face after his older brother Xhan had won his first Blood Dagger competition.

The healer finished casting the binding spell to close Rikar’s wounds. Talis offered a hand to help Rikar to his feet, but Rikar slapped his arm away. “Don’t touch me.” He picked up his weapon and limped down the tunnel.

Talis looked over at Mara, and gripped her hand. “I didn’t think we had a chance. But you were so amazing.”

Mara blushed, and waved the idea away. “You finished him. What got into you anyways?”

“It was nothing. I got in a lucky strike.” Talis could feel a redness wash over his face.

“You’ve improved.” Nikulo stared at Talis, as if puzzled. “That was an incredible move at the end.”

Master Jarvis Numerian tromped up. “That was a good fight. They outplayed you both at first”-he studied Talis-”but your final blow…deadly fast and accurate.”

Talis bowed to Master Jarvis, still feeling lightheaded over the win. After Jarvis left, Talis turned to leave with Mara, noticing the air was somehow warmer now. Mara reached out and held Talis’s hand, and they strode down the narrow cobblestone street, tall shops pressing in from either side.

“You did amazingly well, Talis.” Mara glanced up at him, pride and wonder in her eyes.

Talis squeezed her hand and grinned at her, his head bobbing from side-to-side. “I’m starving.”

The air smelled of sweet pies from the baker’s oven, with wafts of apple and honey and pear stirring in his nostrils. His stomach complained.

As they rounded a corner, a small, dirty boy in shoddy clothes ran up to Talis.

“Please sir, have pity on an old lady and her grandson.” The boy gestured to a frail, wrinkled woman crumpled against a stone house. Her hair looked windswept and tangled, and her skin was sun-burnt and dry.

Talis wanted to go home and celebrate with his father, but the boy wouldn’t let him pass.

“Wait,” Mara said, and held Talis’s shoulder. She turned to face the boy. “Where are you from?”

“We’re refugees…from the city of Onair. Please, sir, just a few coppers?”

“Onair?” Talis said. Father was from the western coastal city of Onair.

“She looks hungry,” Mara said.

“I wouldn’t ask for myself,” the boy said. “But my grandmother is so cold. I’m afraid for her life.”

“We should help her… Give her some coins.”

Talis nodded, glancing at the woman. She cringed as they approached.

Mara put out her hand. “Please, we mean no harm.”

The woman blinked, breathing in and out haltingly.

“You see,” Mara said, “my friend here has a few extra coins…we wanted to share them with you. It’s cold out.”

Opening her mouth as if to speak, the old woman coughed several times instead, wincing as if something hurt inside. She took a long breath, lifting her moist eyes to stare at Mara. “It is cold outside. Cold, cold, so cold…” A tear spilled down her cheek, but she remained motionless.

Talis placed some coins in her hands. They were like ice, as if nothing could ever warm that flesh. The woman stared at the coins for a while, then smiled at Talis. “You’re a kind boy. I’ve not had such kindness since”-she glanced off-”since before…” Her voice trailed off, and her eyes glazed over.

Turning to the boy, Talis said, “What happened in Onair?”

“We came with the others that escaped. All is lost now, lost to the waves.”

“To the waves?” Mara said.

“Aye, to the fury of the sea. When our rulers refused to yield to the Jiserians, their sorcerers sent a tide such as has never been seen to destroy our walls.”

Jiserians? Naru was allied with the Jiserian Empire. He thought of his father telling stories of his childhood in Onair, along the beautiful sea. What would Father do if he knew that Onair had fallen to the Jiserians? Surely Naru would break the alliance.

“And then the necromancers came, sending hordes of undead into our city, killing the innocent and foolish. We were all fools for not leaving earlier.”

A cold shiver swept through Talis as he imagined an undead army. He’d seen drawings of them inside books of legend and myth. Ghosts roaming the frozen forests to the north, animating slain humans and animals, their lifeless bodies filled with demonic spirits. Those stories still terrified him.

“You must come and stay with my family, until you’re well-”

“We cannot. I thank you, I do. But we cannot bring curses upon your house.”

The old woman gazed at a shadow scarring the cobblestone street, her head shaking like she was possessed by a fit of terror.

Despite any words Talis said, she just stared at the ground, ignoring the world around her. The shadow of darkness did seem to cast over her, and nothing could lift it.

“I want to go,” Mara whispered. “Take me away from here…”

As they left, Talis stopped a moment, watching the spot where the old woman looked. In the dark form, where the shadow merged with the light, he swore he noticed a shape: a wraith. Its eyes seemed to pierce his soul.

6. THE ANCIENT STRUGGLE

In the fires of the great kitchen of his house, Talis pictured the image of the wraith he’d just seen. Although the room was warm, he felt a chill so strong his arms trembled. He gazed at the flames, remembering the story of the siege of Onair. His mind drifted off, and all he could see was hideous scenes of his nightmares. The ones where fingers gripped his neck so hard he’d wake up coughing. Darkness and fire intermingled. The sound of wicked laughter ringing in his ears.

“Are you alright?” His mother, Nadean, ran her fingers through his hair.

Talis snapped his attention back and smiled at her. What was he worried about? He’d just won the Blood Dagger competition. He couldn’t wait to tell them the news, but he had to do it right.

Mother was preparing dinner: roasted pheasant, walnut and pear cake, spinach and garlic, and chicken bone soup. The delicious smells and the warmth of her smile made him relax, and he slowly felt the heat sink into his body.

Father stomped into the room, his silver and black Elder’s robes swishing, dark eyes gazing at the floor, and sat at the table with a thud, the chair complaining in response. He stared at the roast and frowned.

“Problems with the negotiations?” Mother set a plate in front of him, then took his black hat.

Father rubbed his weathered face brusquely and pinched his eyes together. “Always troubles to deal with…” He sighed, glancing around the table. “A lost caravan, marauders in the desert, prices too high, Viceroy Lei playing politics again with the Order of the Dawn…”

He studied Talis. ”Someday these will be your concerns, son. To hold high the House of Storm.”

Father made it sound like he was an ox carrying a burden. Talis nodded, pretending he was interested.

As if responding to Talis’s expression, Father’s eyes lit up and he leaned in close to Talis. “What we need is a small band of warriors to send those marauders to the Underworld”-he sliced the air with his fingers-”a quick trip to Hell.” He slapped Talis on the back and laughed like it was the best idea ever.

“I’d like to fight them.”

“You?” Father raised an eyebrow. “Been practicing your sword techniques?”

“You could say that.” Talis smiled. “Mara and I won the Blood Dagger.“

“What!” Father’s face shone. “You two really won?” His brow furrowed. “Who did you fight?”

Talis groaned to himself. Father hadn’t even bothered finding out who he was fighting, like he believed Talis didn’t have a chance of winning. “We fought Rikar and Nikulo.”

“Rikar? Madam Cheska’s son? The cruel one?”

Talis nodded.

“Didn’t he hack off an opponent’s head in the training arena? He killed the poor chap…what an odd family.” Father shook his head. “And you say you and Mara beat him?” He scoffed. “Well I suppose the gods of luck favored you today.”

Talis flushed and clenched his fist. How could Father just dismiss his victory so easily?

“You won all the same. I suppose this calls for a celebration.” Father looked at Talis’s mother. “Let’s plan something. Invite Mara and House Lei, if they’ll come.” He chuckled. “And perhaps a few friends.”

“A party would be nice. It’s been too long since…” Mother’s voice trailed off as her face held a sad smile.

They remained quiet awhile, staring at the flames, until a flurry of pops from the fire startled them to attention.

“I suppose I’ll retire to the study.” Father stood and smiled pleasantly. “You did well, son. And you surprised me, you did. Not once did I suspect you’d win, but you did it.” He turned, and strode off, nodding to himself.

Later that night, around the hour that the dead call out to the living, Talis found himself unable to sleep, still feeling a buzzing in his stomach from winning the Blood Dagger. His father’s words of praise echoed in his mind. You did well, son. So Talis snuck out and stalked through the dark streets of Naru. He craved the crisp cold air and the solace of the quiet past midnight.

A meteor shot across the sky and Talis watched its trail fade into nothingness. Was it a message from Nestria, the Goddess of the Sky? He squinted, barely making out the observatory and the interconnected rings and spheres of the Temple of Nestria high atop the city. He spidered his way up the hill through back alleys and side streets, trying to avoid city guards and prying eyes.

At the bare temple grounds situated at the peak of Naru, the stars flooded through the blackness. Below, the city shone pale-grey in the light of the four moons hanging in the sky. Talis glanced around, trying to spot any temple priests observing the stars. But only silence possessed the bleak landscape.

Now was the perfect time to practice. He stared at the leaves racing across the ground, whipped up by the wind gusting in from the Nalgoran Desert far below.

He lifted his hands and sharpened his mind.

Remembering his training dreams, he focused on the leaves once more. Remember the wind, remember the feeling of power swirling through you, he thought. He stretched his long fingers towards the leaves, and exhaled a hissing breath through his teeth. There was wind from his breath, but not the kind that laid armies low. He bashed his fist on his forehead. Why couldn’t he do magic?

He tensed his face and shouted at the leaves, as if the leaves could be moved by the sound of his voice. Would he ever learn?

“I doubt that will work,” said Nikulo. Talis jumped, turning as Nikulo emerged from the shadows.

Talis flopped his arms at his sides. Bad enough he’d failed, but worse still that Nikulo had been skulking out here, watching his ridiculous attempts.

“What are you doing out here?” Talis frowned at Nikulo, and crossed his arms.

“Relax…we’re not in the Arena.” Nikulo glanced up at the Observatory. “I couldn’t sleep. My dad was furious that we lost the Blood Dagger. All he does is push me to win.”

Talis raised an eyebrow. “I couldn’t sleep either.”

“How is that coming along?” Nikulo flourished his hands. Why was he trying to help him?

“How does it look.” Talis sighed. “Nothing ever seems to work. I just don’t get it.”

“Keep at it.” Nikulo studied Talis, his eyes black pools of curiosity. “Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. You and Mara won today…that surprised me. Soon you’ll be casting spells…just you wait.”

“You think so?” Talis wasn’t as sure. Three years he’d been in the Order of the Dawn and he still couldn’t do magic outside of training dreams.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. It took me four years before I cast my first spell. And that happened under the strangest circumstances.” Nikulo motioned him over towards the cliff’s edge, and they walked together, until they could stare down out over the vast expanse of the Nalgoran Desert. “I was assigned as a healer on a caravan, and we were attacked by marauders. I tended to a soldier’s wound, but couldn’t staunch the flow of blood. Something just flicked on inside and the next thing I knew my hands were glowing all red and I had this crazy feeling running through me. That was it. I’d used magic to save him.”

“Sounds so easy.”

“It’s not like that. I’d been doing training dreams for years with my Master. So when the time came, I think all that training just kicked in…”

Talis exhaled, more confused than ever. “I hope I’ll figure it out soon.”

Nikulo crinkled up his forehead and pointed at the sky. “That’s weird.” A slow-moving meteor was flying low. It left an enormous trail of smoke. But the meteor kept getting bigger and brighter.

It was coming towards them.

“What’s that?” Talis bent low as the meteor sped faster until it roared over their heads and towards the city. Great bursts and crackles of orange and yellow and blue flame scintillated around the core. With a dull thud it exploded against the vast dome of the Temple of the Dawn. Embers shot into the air like fireflies. He gaped, unable to move. After a few pounding heartbeats, he felt a shock wave strike his chest and a rush of heat knocked him backwards.

7. JISERIAN INVASION

Talis pushed himself up and stared at the explosion, his stomach clenched from the shock wave. Several smaller flaming meteors tore across the sky towards the temple dome. These were no ordinary meteors… Talis knew what it was, it had to be Fire Magic.

Someone screamed down in the city amidst a flurry of shrieks and shouts and shutters slamming open. Footfalls clapped on the cobblestone streets and figures raced through the dark while a plume of fire jetted across the sky. A deep, booming gong thundered out from the towers that kissed the highest point of Naru. The warning…warning of an attack. Why was this happening?

Talis and Nikulo stood gawking at the rippling explosions breaking out across the city. Overhead a flash of lightning singed the sky, shattering a guard tower. An enormous thunder cracked so loud Talis had to cover his ears.

As students of the Order, they were sworn to protect the temple at all costs. Talis and Nikulo jolted to action, dashing towards the temple. They reached the street, and snaked down the hill past soldiers burdened with steel armor, past citizens crying in terror at skies aflame, past howling dogs and cowering cats. Nearing the temple, Talis spotted wizards from the Order of the Dawn flying high above. Sprouts of fire erupted from their palms, spiraling across the sky, engulfing a cloud of shadows.

There, in the sky, were dark sorcerers like the ones from Master Holoron’s stories.

As Talis craned his neck up, searching the skies, he wondered how he could help. He heard a voice behind him.

“Over here,” said Rikar. His hair sprung out in all directions under his nightcap. Mara stood next to him, staring at the sky.

“What are you doing here?” Talis said, frowning at Mara.

“The explosion woke me up…I know you’d be here-”

“But your parents will kill you if they know you’re here…”

“Who cares! Our city is under attack. Let’s do something to help.”

Talis shrugged and motioned towards the entrance. “Let’s go up and get a better view.” They climbed broad, marble stairs leading to the top of the temple. Torches lined the stone walls. As they neared the exit, brilliant flashes of orange and blue and golden light flooded through the shafts.

Outside, a shriek stopped Talis in his tracks. A wizard from the Order stood paralyzed, a shadow mist enveloped her form. Faces of demons rose and fell inside the mist, and when she sank to her knees, he spotted a dark sorcerer hovering in the sky fifty feet away from them.

“Over here.” Rikar tensed his fingers and a luminescent blade, as long as a man, appeared near the flying sorcerer. As Rikar swung his arm around the blade lopped the man in half. The cloud of shadows evaporated, and the two halves of the sorcerer thudded on the streets far below.

“Help her,” Talis shouted, and bent down next to the woman and held her wrist. She still had a weak pulse.

Nikulo pushed Talis aside and lifted her up so she sat. Placing his hands on her upper back, golden light filled her body in waves. Her eyes surged open and she gasped.

“She’ll be alright,” Rikar said. “We have to keep going.”

They stalked towards a group of young apprentices clumped together, facing the sky. Fireballs and lightning and wind shot from their palms.

“Cassis!” Rikar raced towards the group. Cassis turned and flashed him a terrified smile.

A thundering crack singed the air between them, pulverizing a twenty-foot stretch of wall. Talis smelled electricity and sulfur. When the dust cleared, he noticed the wizards huddling together.

Rikar stretched his fingers towards a sorcerer flying above the group. A shimmering hammer formed in the sky, and he swung around to strike him, but it reflected off some invisible shield, and knocked Rikar back ten feet, slamming his head against the stone wall.

Nikulo darted towards Rikar and bent down, lifting his chin. Rikar shook his head, staring bleary-eyed around.

“Behind you!” Mara tapped Talis on the shoulder.

Whirling around, Talis noticed an invader diving at him. Cassis reacted, sending blast after blast of fireballs at the sorcerer. The sorcerer turned, palms facing her, pressing the fire back. Her body lit with a orange glow.

“Be careful, Cassis,” shouted a boy next to her.

She stopped her casting and the enemy used the pause against her. He fired off a wave of shadows and electricity, and the blast sent her tumbling across the ground. She swung her arms around, repelling the attack, igniting the air in front of her. Locked in battle, Cassis and the sorcerer pushed against each other until her face glowed red. Steam swirled above her long, black hair and her body pulsed with some tremendous internal fire.

“Stop…stop it!” yelled the apprentices. One grabbed her arm but recoiled in pain. She was burning.

When Talis saw the fire running through her, he could feel it circulating inside. Sweat flushed from his pores. Hot as an oven. Raging. He gazed at her, palms feverish. He wanted to help, so he kissed the amulet dangling from his neck and made a prayer to the Goddess Nacrea.

The sky suddenly paled to a silver gray. Cassis’s eyes were locked in terror. The cowering apprentices frozen like statues. The sorcerer’s face was fixed in a hideous scowl. The explosions and shouts and cries stopped. A crack formed in the sky and a golden light blossomed amidst the blackness. Now the fever inside Talis rose into a maddening intensity. It was too much. He stared at the sorcerer, knowing he had to release it.

With a hissing breath, he shot a powerful blast of fire from his palms. Since the invader had focused on Cassis, the attack sent the man somersaulting through the air. Smaller streams of fire had shot near Cassis and the apprentices. Talis gaped. Was that magic? Had he done magic for the first time?

“What did you do?” Rikar yelled, fury spilling from his eyes.

Cassis screamed, panting, flapping her fingers wildly, like she was trying to cool down. Her face gleamed red like embers.

“Water…water,” she gasped, glancing around. The scintillating glow of fire raged inside her body.

Talis shielded his eyes from the intensity of light pouring from her. The sorcerer flew back towards them, and scowled at Talis. He curled his fingers, ready to strike. Cassis lifted her hands as if in a grave struggle.

“No, Cassis, stop!”

Rikar ran towards her.

She released an enormous fireball at the enemy, incinerating him into a cloud of ash. But she couldn’t contain the power. It burned stronger inside. The light rose to a frenzied brilliance as many apprentices around started running away from her.

Her neck dropped. Her flaming, brilliant body exploded in a powerful wave, burning chunks of fire and flesh searing everywhere.

Those fleeing were cut down by the blast. Some were knocked against the stone walls. Some catapulted over the edge and plummeted to the ground far below. The ones refusing to leave her side were incinerated where they stood. Talis felt his stomach twist and flip around, and he vomited, coughing, choking on his own bile.

Gasping for air, for life, he tried to expel the image from his mind. A primal fear burrowed its way inside. What had just happened? Was this the terror of magic? He still felt the fire burning inside. Why would he risk his life and the lives of his friends? The power roared so strong. Could he ever learn to contain it?

Rikar balled up his fists and pounded the ground, sobbing. Nikulo came close and tried to comfort him, but Rikar just pulled away and curled up. A lightning bolt shattered a nearby tower, jolting Rikar to attention. He raised his head and stared blankly in the direction of the blast.

“She’s gone,” he whispered.

“We’ll be dead too if we don’t get out of here.” Mara pulled Talis back.

“Why of all times did you choose now to practice magic?” Rikar glowered at Talis, crawling towards him with murder in his eyes.

“It just happened-”

“Just happened? You just cast a wild spell and hit the sorcerer and your allies? Your inept, ill-targeted spell caused Cassis to lose her concentration, killing her and her friends? How does that just happen?”

“I didn’t mean to hurt her…I was trying to help.”

Mara turned Talis away from Rikar. “That spell you cast was amazing! I can’t believe you actually cast Fire Magic. Just ignore Rikar, it wasn’t your fault. Cassis went too far and lost control. Let’s get out of here.” She pointed at hundreds of black shapes charging across the sky. “Every moment more come-we’re outnumbered. Let’s go.”

“Cowards,” Rikar said, “I’d rather fight and die then run away like a dog.” He motioned to Nikulo and they jogged off towards the tower where a group of wizards were fighting a larger group of invaders.

“We can’t compete against that kind of power.” Mara sighed. “Let’s at least try to find Master Viridian or one of the other masters.”

But as they turned, a sorcerer with flame-red hair flew towards them, his long black robe fluttering behind.

“Let’s go!” Talis dashed after Mara and they raced towards the stairwell.

“Little mice, don’t run away,” the sorcerer said. “The Master has sent me to collect you.” He pointed a ruby-tipped staff at Talis and issued a flood of black tangle-vines.

8. THE SURINEDA MAP

Talis leapt out of the way and tumbled down the dusty stairs. He regained his footing, and Talis and Mara wound their way around to the bottom. He could hear the sorcerer’s laughter chasing after them.

“Oh good, a game of hide and seek…I always love a good game,” the sorcerer said, his shrill and booming voice echoing down the stairwell.

Instead of going through the door leading out to the streets, Mara jumped back, shrieking, trapped as a female sorcerer entered from the bottom. Talis shoved the woman’s back and she went sprawling onto a vase filled with peacock feathers.

“Down here.” Mara shot into a dimly lit corridor that led to the temple crypts. Why weren’t the sorcerers attacking them? And who was this master that was trying to capture them?

Up ahead Talis could see eerie shadows dancing from the magical blue lights mounted on the walls. The crypts. The place of burial for thousands of departed wizards of the Order of the Dawn. Mara stopped at the bottom, and a luminescent face, the Door-Guardian, hovered in the air in front of a black iron and wooden door.

“Who goes there?”

“Mara Lei, of House Lei.” Mara pointed at Talis. “And Talis Storm, of House Storm. We seek refuge and safety inside the crypts.”

“Refuge?”

“As in now!” Mara shouted. “We’re being chased.”

The guardian looked perplexed, as if trying to solve a puzzle. “How strange…trouble here inside the temple?”

Footsteps rapped on the stone steps behind them, and voices chuckled fitfully. “Where have the little mice scurried off to? A game of hide-and-seek in the dungeons? Come back, little ones, our Master only wants to talk to you.”

“I said let us in,” boomed Mara. “Our lives are in danger.”

As Mara pushed at the door, the portal bowed and blew golden dust towards the door, illuminating the black iron on the surface, revealing a complicated geometric pattern of overlapping triangles and circles. The shapes moved and finally came together, then the door went click and opened.

They rushed inside and pounded down a stone ramp that led into a vast gloomy room, faintly lit by floating candles that spilled out orange light. Shadows flickered across grotesque faces, hundreds of stone figures, standing as guardians over the countless crypts of the fallen masters of the Order. Throughout the crypts, Talis could see countless silvery spider webs tangling the air. The smell of mold and dust and embalming fluid pressed heavily like a choking hand.

Instead of the door slamming shut behind them, the voices following them got louder. “Of course we’re allowed to enter,” a sorcerer yelled. “No, no, we’re not chasing them. Yes, we’re friends. Be a good guardian and let us pass, now will you?”

Talis and Mara ducked behind a crypt statue and stared back at the door. They were going to take them away from Naru, Talis had heard stories like this. Dark sorcerers stealing children and raising them to study their nefarious arts.

“Only royals and members of the Order may enter,” the guardian said. “You’re uninvited guests.”

The door attempted to swing shut, but one of the sorcerers summoned a meaty hand the size of a man, blocking the door from closing. The giant fingers flexed, snapping the door hinges.

“No,” the guardian shouted, “you’re not allowed to do that!”

“As if you can do anything about it,” mumbled the red-haired sorcerer. He stepped inside the crypt. “Such flimsy magic here in Naru. One wonders why the Master allowed this pathetic city to remain neutral.”

The other sorcerer, a tall, spindly woman in a silver robe, cast a spell, illuminating the crypts in a garish white light. “Do remain diligent, Calasar, these children must have some power if the Master has sent us after them.”

“Mice? Oh little mice?” Calasar said, “A bit of cheese, a bit of bread, a bit of red from your bloody head…”

“Don’t scare them,” the woman whispered. Then loudly, “We’re not here to hurt you.”

“Are we really only collectors then? While the others are marauding the city, setting fire, sizzling innocent pets with lightning bolts, we’re stuck down in all this gloom looking for a stupid boy?”

A boy? Talis thought. Why were they looking for him? He pointed towards a mausoleum far off in the corner. Mara nodded, following as they stalked away from the sorcerers. The white light disappeared and Talis stopped, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Instead of voices, they heard only the lonely hiss of steam from an air vent. They crept along, staring at carvings of bulls and eagles and lions along the stone walls of the mausoleum.

At the base, he looked up and read the inscription: Master Baribariso, Legendary Wielder of the Kalashi Sword, Undefeated in Battle, Yet Defeated by Old Age…

“I’ve heard of him,” Mara whispered, tracing her fingers over a carving of a lion with long fangs.

“Champion from an age past. Do we dare hide inside?”

“This is a place of refuge.”

“Mice chattering away…so easy to find you.” Calasar lifted his fingers and aimed at Talis. “Don’t make me hurt you.”

“He has a bad temperament,” the woman said, “you’d best do as he says.”

“Leave us alone…” Mara thrust her dagger out.

The sorcerers broke into laughter, wide smiles stretching across their faces, as if they were in pain.

“You expect us to be scared of a little mouse with a dagger?” Calasar said.

Talis tried to remember what he’d done to cast the fire spell. If he could only cast it again. He raised his hands towards Calasar, then stopped. Calasar had a long, nasty scar that stretched across his face. When he grinned, it was more like a snarl. Talis knew he didn’t stand a chance of defeating them.

“If you’re thinking of casting a spell, beware,” the woman said. “He’ll make it very painful for you. You’ll stay alive, and yet Master Calasar has an amazing knack for delivering excruciating pain, especially to the toenails and fingernails. Imagine! An electrical spell that only inflicts pain to the tips of your fingers and to your stubby little mouse toes. Simply genius.”

Mara lowered her dagger in defeat, casting a wary glance at Calasar.

“I won’t hurt him.” Calasar grabbed Talis by the wrist. In a flash of brilliant light, Calasar summoned a dark and shimmering magical portal. “Inside you go. Tell your friend goodbye, for it’s likely the last time you’ll ever see her.”

“No!” Mara shouted, and grasped the blue amulet hanging from her neck. “Hear me, Goddess Nestria, my plea is simple and my heart pure. Prevent these dark ones from taking my friend.”

Calasar turned and laughed. “The little mouse begs to the Goddess of the Sky? As if Nestria would ever hear a mouse’s plea? Sooner Zagros would take you-”

At the name of the Lord of the Underworld, low rumblings and hissings were heard throughout the crypts, as if all the dead masters of the Order complained in unison. A rushing wind struck their faces, a hot wind, smelling of pine and storm. Dust also came, blasting their eyes, and Talis fell to his knees, pinching his eyes together, trying to make tears to clear his vision. But the wind only increased, striking so fiercely the stones of the mausoleum made an awful splintering crack.

“Who dares violate my house of rest?” a high, nasally voice boomed. Talis could hear a loud stirring inside the mausoleum, as if the champion was waking from a long slumber.

“It sounds as if the Goddess has heard this little mouse’s plea after all,” Mara said.

“The dead obey Calasar,” the woman said. “He’s mastered the shadow and the necrotic arts.”

“Including one such as I?” A shriveled, pasty mess of a man stumbled out of the mausoleum, wearing a ringmail coat and leggings of some dull silver alloy. He coughed and vile dust spewed from his lungs, the stench of spoiled flesh and organs. He lifted a curved blade with great difficulty, and stared along its damaged edge. Sighing, the man growled a deep growl, as if angry at his condition. Soon the withered and dried flesh under his skin wiggled to life, filling his body with youth once more. His bald flaky scalp turned ruddy and chestnut hair grew down to his shoulders. And yet a scar on his neck, present in death, remained.

Calasar strode up to the champion, stopped, and stared up at the inscription. “Master Baribariso, I presume?”

The champion scowled at nowhere in particular, flourished his sword, and allowed it to slice cleanly through Calasar’s neck. Master Baribariso grunted, ignoring the head gurgling bloodily on the ground.

“And you, my pet?” he said, staring tenderly at the woman.

She shrieked, and chose instead to flee inside the magical portal, which closed up behind her in a vast whooshing sound.

Master Baribariso sniffed, glancing around. “Such cowards exist in this time. Who has summoned me?”

Mara shrunk back, inviting the champion’s stare.

“Little one, be not afraid…I won’t harm you.” Master Baribariso sheathed his sword, and with a long sigh, arched his back. “I am tired from my long sleep. It pains me to find myself back in mortal flesh. The Fair Seas of the Underworld were so kind to me.”

“Have you seen my brother?” Talis said, his voice trembling. “A stout young man, Xhan Storm.“

“Ah, names and titles and grand positions…none are of importance in the Underworld.” He touched his head, as if trying to remember something. “I had a name once, before the shroud of death washed my memory clean. What was it now?”

“Master Baribariso-”

“Yes! That’s it, what a grand name. Now it’s all coming back.” The champion placed a finger on his forehead. “And there is more, so much more. I have a message for you-both of you-today is a day of war and mourning. Mothers are weeping above in the city of Naru.” He tapped his head, and reached out his hand, as if grasping something from the sky. A shimmering mist appeared and from within it he withdrew a circular map case with a golden clasp, shaped in the image of the sun.

“What is that?” Mara said, her voice weak and quivering.

“This is not for you, and yet it pertains to you, as you are connected to the grand scheme.” The Master handed Talis the map case. “Within lies the ancient Surineda Map, spoken of in legend, hidden by the Goddess Nestria until the time when the world needs the light to balance out the darkness.”

“Master Holoron spoke of this map.” Talis stared at the case. “Is this real or a waking dream? I’ve dreamed all this-”

“This is no dream, young master. Soon your city will ask things of you that bear a heavy burden. You must leave your city…”

“Leave Naru?” Talis said.

The champion nodded, and peered into Talis’s eyes. “You must leave all this behind and follow the noble path, the warrior’s path. When you open the map case, the Surineda Map will point you to your destination. And you must obey, or this world will fall…fall into endless darkness.”

“But how can I leave now? Now that we’re at war?”

“You will find a way.” Master Baribariso’s eyes shone with a golden light. “I feel the lure of the Immortals pulling me. I have answered the call of the Goddess, left the comfort of the Fair Seas, and now a new way opens before me…” A silver and gold portal appeared in the darkness of the crypts, and the champion disappeared inside.

9. THE SEJ ELDERS

Under twilight’s soft haze, the smoking city of Naru looked like an injured dog licking its wounds. Talis surveyed the damage, staring out over the city from the deck outside his bedroom loft. Smoldering fires here and there, broken towers, cracks in the temple dome, many houses and buildings in ruin. But considering the scope of the attack, the damage was less than he’d expected.

But would they survive the next attack?

He yawned, surprised he’d slept all day after finally crawling to bed early in the morning after the attack. In his hands he held the map case, given to him by the champion in the crypts. He hadn’t dared open the case, instead holding it as if it were a serpent coiled, waiting to strike. As if it might bring ruin to his life. Where would the Surineda Map lead him? An ache in his gut told him it would be far away, far from his home, far from the coming battle with the Jiserian Empire. Would it even make a difference? And could he make it back in time to help?

Talis heard soft footsteps behind him. He tensed, then relaxed as he recognized Mara’s steps.

“You’re getting better, but I still knew it was you.”

“How could you tell?” Mara jumped on his back. “You’re not supposed to hear me, you’re supposed to be surprised.”

“I’m trained to listen to you.” Talis flipped her around, and stopped, gaping at her painted face and tied-up hair. “What happened to you?”

Mara shrugged. “Mother’s determined to marry me off to the duke. Even after we won the Blood Dagger, she’s refused to listen to me. And now she’s insisted I get all done up like this and meet with his parents…”

“But you’re here…aren’t you going to be in trouble?”

“Whatever… I’m not marrying him and I’m not interested in meeting his stupid old parents.”

Talis chuckled. “How did you get away?”

“Now that’s a story. They locked me in the fourth-floor servant quarters.”

“And you escaped out the window and climbed down?”

“I eluded several guardsmen and servants at the front.” Mara’s face turned serious all of a sudden. “But listen, I didn’t come here for fun. You’ve got to go to the Sej Elders with the Surineda Map.”

“I’m not going-”

“Have you even bothered opening it?” She scowled. “You haven’t, have you. Give it to me.”

“No…the champion gave it to me. I should open it.”

“Then what are you waiting for?”

Of course she was right… He looked down at the map and twisted open the latch. Inside, the coiled parchment glowed with a faint golden light. He withdrew the map, feeling a radiant heat slither up his arms, until his entire body became warm. He felt suddenly sleepy and his eyes closed instinctively. In his mind he saw a beautiful, luminescent woman with golden, flowing hair observing him, as if measuring his worth. After she seemed satisfied, she nodded, and disappeared.

“I think I just saw the Goddess of the Sun, the Goddess Nacrea.”

“A vision?”

Talis nodded, and turned his attention to the map, sealed with a waxy stamp, the sun inscribed within. He glanced up at Mara. She nodded, urging him to open it. He broke the seal and the map released a hissing sound like a spitting snake. As he unfurled the map, golden light spilled out from within, revealing the shimmering landmass of the continent Talis was familiar with and other areas unknown: a large snowy island to the north, scattered islands off to the west with one long, spindly island running alongside, and far to the east, beyond the city of Khael, was a lush, tropical island. When he stared at that island, he could feel warm sunlight flowing through his veins. That was it, the island… They had to travel to the island.

Mara seemed to have followed his gaze, for she pointed at the island. “Is that where we’re going?”

“I think so…I feel something strong there. I never knew such islands existed-”

“I’ve seen a map in Master Holoron’s library showing the western islands…but not this one.” Her finger ran along the map, and she winced as if noticing the heat that emanated from within.

“See, I told you. There’s the power of Light Magic within…”

“You have to tell the Elders about the map. Don’t shake your head, you have to do it! Last night was only the first attack…next time will be worse.”

Next time. Talis felt the hairs along the back of his neck prickle. He pictured the dark sorcerers raining fire and lightning bolts down on the city. And that was only an aerial attack. If the Jiserian ground forces came with siege machines, what would be left of their city? Or could the map help them to win?

“Just take the map to them-the Sej Elders will listen-take it at once.” Mara shoved her hands on her hips, as if daring him to think otherwise.

Talis bowed his head, giving in. He had never been to the Sej Elder chambers and wondered what it would be like to finally set foot inside. His father was a leading member of the Elders, but had refused Talis entry until he came of age. He was about to head downstairs when he stopped, realizing the problem. There was no way they’d let him inside. Especially now that the Elders were debating on how to respond to the Jiserian attack.

“Who’s going to listen to us…we’re just kids.” Talis glanced at Mara. “Even if we went, they won’t let us in. It’s forbidden.”

“Find a way around…let’s sneak inside.” Mara’s eyes glittered dangerously.

“The entrance is heavily guarded-by multiple soldiers and wizards and at different levels-especially now we’re at war. And my father isn’t popular these days. His seat at the head of the Elders is at risk. If I did something crazy like trying to break in and see them, he’d be furious.”

“Talk to Master Viridian.”

“He’s in chambers with them also! We should just wait for them outside.”

“Wait? Do you think we have time to wait? This is directly related to the war. Whether we like it or not we’re part of the conflict now. This could mean everything to our struggle!”

“I know, I know. Okay, let’s just go and talk to the guards…”

Two burly guards stood at attention outside the tall gate surrounding the Sej Elders Chambers. More soldiers marched out front. The city was priming itself for war.

“Mind your own business, young master.” The larger guard frowned at Talis as he approached.

“Watch your tongue,” Mara said, and glowered at the guard. “Do you know who you’re speaking to?”

“A young whelp and his sassy lassie.” The guard laughed stupidly with his fellow.

“You happen to be speaking to Talis Storm, son of Master Garen Storm.” Mara whistled like the guard was in trouble. “Didn’t plan on that, did you? Are you okay? Your face seems pale suddenly. Now be a good guard and go fetch us the runner, we demand an audience with the Elders.”

“Demand an audience?” the other guard said, “aren’t you a little tart. Even if he is who you say he is, I can plainly see he’s still a young master, not reached his time yet. If he wants to see his daddy, tell him to wait until supper!” With that, both guards slapped their thighs, as if amused greatly by some wonderful joke.

“This is urgent…you do remember we’ve been attacked? He’s carrying something very important that the Elders need to see-”

“Just hand it here, I’ll see they get it.”

“In person.” Talis scowled. “I need to deliver it to the Elders in person.”

“Need to deliver what?” Master Jai said, a teacher at the Order of the Dawn. He pulled a black cowl off his head and sauntered over to them.

“Can you vouch for these two?” the guard said.

Master Jai waved them away. “Of course, can’t you see the boy’s signet ring? Fools. Now what do you need to deliver to your father? Speak.”

“I carry a sacred map-of utmost importance to our struggle-given to me… I cannot speak more now, it must be spoken only to the Elders.”

“Then come inside now.” He looked at Mara. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait outside. Your parents would be furious seeing you associating with young Talis. I cannot get involved in Royal House politics.”

Mara was about to speak when Master Jai raised a finger, as if ending all conversion. He motioned Talis through the gates and led him inside. Talis glanced back at Mara. She had already turned and was stomping sullenly away.

The entrance to the chambers wasn’t like he’d expected. A worn sandstone archway and a rough oak door supported by iron slats. Inside, the damp air smelled of mold and rot. A runner greeted them, carrying a lantern as he led them further inside. They marched down a long, dark corridor then followed stone steps sinking deeper. Wavering shadows bounced along the glistening ceiling. Talis could feel his skin flush, hot with anticipation for how his father might react.

The runner rapt three times on a heavy, oaken door. Another guard opened it and peered through. He waved them inside once he recognized Master Jai. Four more guards stood at attention along a waiting corridor, glancing suspiciously at Talis. Once Master Jai had set his hand on Talis’s shoulder, leading him on, they looked away. Finally, the runner opened a set of doors, crafted of intricately carved mahogany. He called out in a nasally, high-pitched voice.

“Announcing Master Jai Nomellius, and young Talis Storm.”

Talis’s heart dropped as he glimpsed his father sitting at the head of an enormous table surrounded by the other thirteen Elders. Hundreds of candles lined the stone walls, casting inky, flickering shadows on their faces. Grave expressions, as if they’d been told of a loved one’s death. They were staring at Talis like they were irritated he was here. His father glared at him. Talis felt he’d made a mistake coming here.

“Master Jai, what’s the nature of this? Why have you brought my son here?” Garen Storm rubbed his shoulder.

The door slammed shut behind them and a soldier bolted the door. Talis felt trapped, deep in this underground maze. He noticed four champions standing uneasily in each corner of the room, gazing at him as if taking in a new threat.

“Your son holds something in his hands, something he claims only the Elders can see.”

“What is that…a map case?” Elder Vellar Lei, Mara’s father, leaned forward, his beady, sunken eyes staring at the map. His wrinkled lips moved as if chewing on his own tongue.

Talis cleared his parched throat, and withered from all the intense stares.

“Speak up, boy.” His father scowled.

“Last night we were attacked-”

“What’s inside the map case?” Elder Vellar boomed, “we don’t have time for stories.”

“Let the boy talk.” Master Viridian stood. “I sense something powerful in his hands.”

“As I was saying, last night…on the temple walls, we were attacked. M-” Talis stopped himself from saying Mara’s name. “Attacked by sorcerers, one came directly at me, chasing us to the Crypts.”

“The Crypts? Whatever for?” Elder Vellar said.

“For the last time, let him speak!”

Talis glanced nervously around. “Trapped we were…in the Crypts…two sorcerers. One tried to take me through a portal. I thought I was doomed. Mara”-Talis coughed, latching eyes with Elder Vellar’s cold stare-“she prayed to the Goddess Nestria…and the Goddess heard her cry. A fallen champion, Master Baribariso, rose to slay the sorcerer.”

“ The Legendary Master Baribariso who rests in the Crypts?” Master Holoron said, his head shaking.

“No longer. He slumbers in the Crypts no more. He is gone to the Immortals…” Talis stared at Holoron, and flicked his hand towards the sky. “Here, I hold his gift…before the champion left, he gave me this, saying the Goddess Nestria hid this for a time like this, a time where the world needs the power of the Goddess Nacrea.”

“The Surineda Map!” Holoron said, rising to his feet. “Is it true?”

Talis nodded and sighed. He held out the map case and twisted open the latch. The Elders gasped as Talis unrolled the map, and displayed it to them all. In that instant, the candles were extinguished and the map shone in the darkness. He experienced a wave of dizziness as the map blazed, flickering fragments of the Goddess’s face, an island forgotten by time, forgotten by civilization, a wrinkled face veiled by smoldering fumes, a broken city nestled in a graveyard.

A snapped finger, flame returned to the candles, a deathly pallor on the Elder’s faces. They had seen it too. The vision.

“Behold!” Master Viridian said, “the Surineda Map. Spoken of in legend, and here before us now. Given by the Goddess for the time when needed most.”

“I saw the Goddess Nacrea!” shouted an Elder.

“An island.”

“The city covered in ash, the temple shattered and in ruins-”

“No the temple stands! I saw it!” shouted another. “You saw the old temple. I saw the true one, in a grove, hidden away. The doorway to it…unseen.”

Master Viridian raised his arms, standing. “Now, now, quiet now. We all saw different visions, that is clear enough. For each the Goddess Nestria chose to reveal a different vision. What is certain is the map is true. We must obey its commands.” He stared at Talis, as if expecting him to continue.

“The champion of Naru, Master Baribariso, told me I must leave Naru and follow the map.”

“You? You are but a boy. Why would the Goddess choose you?” Master Vellar scoffed.

“He’s my boy! Refrain from insulting him.” Garen Storm rose to his feet, towering over Master Vellar. “The gods have spoken to us. If we listen and obey we’ll live and thrive and survive this abominable war with the Jiserians. If we deny them-as a fool would-we deny ourselves. Well, Elders? What say you?”

Regent Balmarr Merillia, King of Naru, shadow Elder at the table, stood finally, raising a white-gloved hand. “We’ll assemble a force, a force greater than anyone has ever seen, and task this force with delivering this boy to the destination the map leads. We’ll spare no gold, charge the best in our land with success, swordsmen, pikemen, rangers-be a foe to our enemies and those that dare stand in the way. We will succeed! The gods have spoken. They stand on our side.”

Master Vellar snorted. “Have you forgotten about the Jiserians, Regent Merillia? Send this force out to the ends of the earth, while they ravage our homeland?”

“We can spare a party of swordsmen to protect the expedition,” said Garen Storm. “From each of the Royal Houses.” He glanced shrewdly around the table.

“Then it’s settled,” Regent Merillia said, and faced Talis. “Leave us now-to settle the details. Time is of utmost importance. I say the party must leave before daybreak tomorrow.”

The other Elders voiced “ayes” in agreement. Talis bowed, and shuffled out of the chambers. Leave Naru tomorrow? Leave his home and family, perhaps never returning…tomorrow?

10. THE FIRE SWORD

After Talis left the Elder’s chambers, he searched around the city for Mara but couldn’t find her anywhere. He finally gave up and returned home at twilight. His house was dark and warm, shadows dancing on the walls. Mother sat by the fire, knitting a wool scarf, and Father glanced at Talis and sighed, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

“Where have you been? Looking for that Lei girl?”

“It was her prayer that summoned the champion. The Goddess Nestria heard her.”

“Well her father has her locked up good now. You saw his face when you mentioned his daughter’s name. Vellar just about threw a fit.” Garen chuckled, as if amused at his own private joke. “Serves him right, I suppose. She’s a wild one, that girl. Lady Malvia faces an impossible task containing her.”

“You used to be friends with Mara’s mother?” As soon as Talis said it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. His father’s face darkened, brooding on some old wound.

Father sniffed, lifting his head as if leaving everything unpleasant behind. “Tomorrow then, it’s all settled. Do you require help from the servants on packing for the voyage? I imagine traveling lightly is the way to go.”

Talis noticed the color drain from his mother’s face as Father talked. Wrinkles formed hard crevices on her forehead, and her breath went shallow. She sighed, her body rigid, eyes glazed over as she stared at the flames.

After a long silence, she whispered, “Where is he going?”

Talis grimaced as his mother lowered her head in a gesture of defeat.

“Far away, dear…north across the desert, past the barren lands, to an island, I suppose. Not on any of our maps, but there nonetheless.”

“But he’s so young.” Her hands shook, then she calmed herself and put down her knitting.

“He’ll be protected by our soldiers.” Garen narrowed his eyes at Talis, puffing on a carved, wooden pipe. “Now then, go on, rest awaits you. We’ll see to everything, just you see.”

Talis turned and shuffled off, lost in thought. Would they really be protected by their soldiers, out there in the cold lands north of the Nalgoran Desert? And how could he leave Naru without Mara? There had to be a way to see her…

Early the next morning, before any light touched the sky, Talis stared out his window. A hard lump clenched his stomach as he thought of leaving home for the first time. Would he make it back safe? Or even if he did make it back alive, would there even be a home to come back to? He held the map case, still sensing the warmth inside.

Downstairs, he gazed at his mother’s face, memorizing every curve and line. He hoped she’d be alright. As if she knew exactly what he was feeling, she reached out and hugged him, and choked back the tears.

“Nothing will keep us apart for long…you’ll come back to us, I feel it in my bones.” The weight of her words made him even sadder to leave.

His father ambled down the hallway, carrying something wrapped in silk. “I’ve something for you. I’d hope to give this to you when you came of age. It will prove valuable for your journey…”

His father handed him a sheathed short sword.

Talis withdrew the sword, gaping at the red-tinged steel and ghost patterns and smoky lines running along the blade. A tremendous weight rushed up his arms from the sword, as if imbued with some terrific power. He tensed his arms and winced. Father was giving him this treasure? The sheath was made of blackened leather, and elaborate swirling patterns ran down the spine, with silver studs lining the edge. Talis gasped. It was immaculate. Why would Father give him such a priceless gift?

“This…this is for me?” He gazed at the ruby-studded hilt, a puma’s face with ruby eyes shaping the hilt’s edge.

“It’s the finest sword in Naru.” Father narrowed his eyes at the expression on Talis’s face. “What is it, what are you feeling?”

“I’m not sure,” Talis stammered, fighting the power.

His father’s eyes sparkled. “You’re sensing the power within the sword-”

“It’s magical?” What did his father know of such things? He was a man of commerce and trade.

“The magical gift runs deep in our family history.” Father took the sword from Talis and raised it to the firelight. “This is no regular sword…it possesses great power. The red color is not from blood, there's Fire Magic within.” Fire Magic…Master Viridian said his element was fire.

Father returned the sword, and Talis stared at his father, tears welling in his eyes. “I never imagined I'd have a treasure like this.”

“Take care of the sword, it’s part of you now. There's an old saying, 'As the bearer wields, so he holds his life in his hands.' So beware, I don't give you this gift lightly.”

“Thank you, Father.” Talis reached out and shook his hand, still not believing Father had entrusted such a gift to him.

“Are you truly willing to embark on such an important mission?”

It was the question Talis had been waiting to hear from Father for many years. A chance to prove himself and make his father proud. Of course he’d go; of course he’d do anything to protect Naru and his family. This adventure was what he’d been dreaming about his whole life.

He simply gazed into his father’s eyes and said, “I am.”

“Good, don’t fail to make me proud, son. Much rests on your shoulders.”

Talis embraced his mother again, then stepped out into the dimly lit streets. Down through the upper and lower city and out past the northern gates, he followed a soldier that led him north until they reached the first traces of the Nalgoran Desert. Torches illuminated the area where men loaded supplies onto the horses. He was really leaving. There was no going back now.

He stared back at the city, the massive stone walls were painted in a surreal orange glow from the torches. Those ancient walls, designed by men of science and magic to withstand the strongest physical and magical attacks. Over twenty feet thick, those walls scintillated with the power of warding runes.

But as he studied them, a cruel thought struck him. Will those walls hold until I return?

Talis turned north and stared at the faint glow lining the horizon. A meteor flared across the field of stars. He shivered at the cold and gazed up at the sky, wondering what was out there. He didn’t feel alone when he looked at the stars, but tonight, and for how long he didn’t know, he would be alone. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to Mara. Just like that, he was leaving.

“Star-gazing?” Rikar swaggered over and covered his head with a black hood. “The desert holds a chill.”

“What are you doing here?”

“What? Your father didn’t tell you?” Rikar laughed. “I suppose Master Viridian failed to mention that Nikulo and me are coming. Did you honestly think they’d leave the task all up to you?”

“The map was given to me.”

“A mistake. Must have meant to give it to me instead. Maybe out in the desert, that mistake will be corrected.” Rikar turned and strode away, humming a dark tune, a song of jealousy and the fate of the blade. Why did the Elders invite them? Talis felt his face flush as he clenched his hands. The politics of the Royal Houses…

The men preparing the horses finished cinching down the packs, whistled, and waved everyone over. The soldiers came first. Talis recognized a few men and women from his father’s company. He strode over to the horses, admiring their fine sheen. Talis stroked his mare’s grey mane and inspected the packs. Scanning the horizon, he felt a presence out to the northwest. Like a hand searching the desert.

Something was out there.

Talis turned as Nikulo waddled towards the party, wiggling his fingers in his pockets.

“Did I miss anything exciting?” He scanned around. His eyes had a playful, mischievous look.

“Ah, good company for the long ride.” Rikar clasped Nikulo’s hand. “A shame about all the lovely ladies we’ll be leaving behind.”

Nikulo yawned and covered his mouth. “Ladies you say? Look here, they’ve invited a girl on the expedition.”

“A girl with an ugly face,” Rikar said, and flicked a pebble at Talis.

Talis ignored the jape, and instead pictured his sword slicing through Rikar’s armor at the Blood Dagger competition. He grinned and turned away.

Master Jarvis Numerian tromped over to the group, his long black hair swinging back and forth. He glared at them. “Who invited you?”

Talis swallowed and glanced around. “The Elders-”

“Am I to play wet nurse to these saplings?”

“Will you change our diapers too?” Nikulo said, grinning.

Jarvis grunted and scraped a boot against the sand. “This isn’t the practice arena. You’ll have no healer to save you from your own stupidity.”

“Nikulo knows the art of healing,” Rikar said. “We’ll be fine on our own.”

“We’ll see about that.” Jarvis gestured at Talis. “So you’re supposedly the one leading this little jaunt into the northlands? A fool and his magical map?”

“He claims the gods gave him-”

“Was I talking to you?” Jarvis scowled at Rikar, then faced Talis. “Well then, what are you waiting for, lead on…”

The wind shifted and came up from the south, a warm wind, blowing against their backs as they faced north. Talis mounted and gazed at the shimmering horizon. He withdrew the Surineda Map, allowing it to light the dark way. The path was clear, but the way unsettling. Something was waiting for them.

11. THE NALGORAN DESERT

The cold wind blew unceasingly from the north: a violent wind, a merciless wind, a wind that crept inside your ears and pressed hard against the back of your neck. The desert sands swirled, leaving a lingering haze. Talis lifted his head and stared. The afternoon sun blurred over the horizon. The day had turned sour, and now a sand storm pelted them mercilessly.

He bent over his horse and clung to the reins, searching the horizon for signs of life. The journey across the desert was unlike anything he’d experienced. The wind left him feeling exhilarated yet also exhausted at the same time. They’d ridden long and hard that day, the desert growing colder each mile as the party rode north over the white sands.

Talis rode up to Jarvis. “When will we rest for the day?” He could barely stay on his horse and his tailbone was numb.

“Quit complaining. Did you think your mama was coming?” Jarvis kicked his horse, trotting farther ahead.

An hour after twilight, the storm cleared and the party reached a ghostly oasis, dimly lit under the four moon sisters. The soldiers slumped off their horses, jostling around and joking with each other. Jarvis grunted and ordered them to collect wood and start a fire. The party bustled about, unloading supplies from the horses and setting up camp.

Talis was starving and couldn’t wait for the soldiers to cook dinner. He rummaged through his packs and found a bag of dried meat. He smiled, and thanked the gods for giving him such a wonderful mother. He ate a few pieces until his stomach stopped complaining.

“What’s this?” Jarvis said, eying the dried meat. “No acting the noble brat out here with the troops hard at work. Pull your own weight… Do something useful like starting a fire.”

Withering from his harsh words, Talis nodded and marched over to where several soldiers were assembling wood for the fire. The men regarded him suspiciously, but moved away as Talis raised his hands at the wood, attempting to cast Fire Magic again.

But before he even had a chance to try, a spidering flame illuminated the dark night and engulfed the wood in a whoosh, then the magic disappeared, leaving only the brightly burning campfire.

“Can’t even cast a simple flame to start a fire?” Rikar said, his voice filled with contempt. He emerged from the shadows, chuckling with Nikulo.

“That’s what I was about to do…” Talis muttered.

“No, what he was about to do was lose control of magic and kill himself and everyone else around him!” Rikar said, his face turning suddenly wrathful. Talis knew he was still furious at him over Cassis’s death.

The soldiers went silent, staring at Rikar and Talis like they were about to fight. Some even stepped back into the shadows, as if wary of wizard duels.

“I ask you to start a fire, not start a fight!” Master Jarvis marched up and glared at them. “Now do something useful…preferably in difference places, you hear me?”

Talis nodded, and Rikar skulked off towards his horse, Nikulo trailing gloomily.

“And did I give permission for the rest of you to just stand there gaping at these fools?” Jarvis shouted.

Soon the soldiers went back to bustling around, setting up a cooking pot over the fire and preparing dinner. Talis helped them unload the food bags and one of the soldiers thanked him and said they could do the rest.

After eating dinner, Talis retreated with his blanket to a place behind several bushes, shielded from the northern wind. He thought about all that had happened…had it only been two days since the Jiserians had attacked Naru? Where was Mara now, locked up someplace in the Lei mansion, furious at her parents?

Talis let his thoughts drift away, and he leaned back to stare at the stars flickering in the sky. He dozed off to sleep, but was awakened by a rustling sound in the bushes. He tensed, finding himself completely awake in an instant. When the sound came closer, Talis gripped his short sword, feeling the fire crawl up his arm.

“It’s me,” Mara whispered, holding her hand out to stop him. “Put your sword away.”

“Mara? But…how did you get here?”

“I’m in disguise.” She pulled her hood down and grinned. “Proper soldier of House Lei… Did you miss me?”

“Of course! I can’t believe you escaped from your father. Everyone said he locked you away.”

“He did…but he doesn’t know I can pick all the locks in the house. I sneaked out in the middle of the night while everyone was sleeping…including the guard at the front gate.”

“Good secret to keep.” Talis grinned. “I’m glad you came-”

“Somebody had to keep you from getting yourself killed. When I heard Rikar and Nikulo were selected for the party, I was furious. I couldn’t let you go alone…especially not with grumpy Master Jarvis and those two fools…”

“Did you eat?”

Mara shrugged. “I packed chocolate and sweet bread.”

“That’s not food!”

“I didn’t want Rikar or Nikulo or Master Jarvis to recognize me by the fire…”

“Here, eat some dried meat.”

Mara nibbled on the edges. “This is delicious… You know, I really love your mother’s food. Why can’t I have your mother? My mother never cooks. Can we swap?”

“Not in a million years,” Talis said, and grinned.

They went quiet for awhile, listening to the droning sounds of insects in the oasis. Talis’s mood darkened, knowing that sooner or later someone would recognize Mara. “But what are we going to do when they find you’re here? You know they will, eventually.”

“Worry about that when the time comes.” Mara lay next to him, pulling his blanket over her, and stared at the stars. Twin meteors shot across the black sky, sending a pulsing thrill shooting through his body. Mara was really here with him… For the first time since leaving on the trip, hope blossomed in his heart.

After three grueling days north through the desert, Talis stared out across the stormy horizon, wishing they’d leave this bleak place. How far was it to the northlands? Jarvis was sullen and quiet, refusing to answer his questions. They’d stopped to rest in a gully underneath a massive sand dune.

Rikar was entertaining the soldiers-again, at Talis’s expense-telling stories about Xhan, Talis’s older brother, and what a tremendous fighter Xhan was (as opposed to Talis). It didn’t matter that Talis had beat him in the Blood Dagger competition, Rikar always chose to tell stories about older fights in which Talis lost. Rikar whispered something in a younger soldier’s ear, and they both scoffed and shook their heads at Talis.

This was the worst expedition possible. Talis wished he’d gotten to know his father’s men better, as they seemed to have the same challenging attitude towards him that his father had had for all these years. Especially the younger ones.

Mara kept quiet, keeping her face covered in disguise; she wasn’t about to get escorted back to Naru by one of the soldiers. Talis caught her gripping her dagger as Rikar was deep in ridiculing Talis. This wasn’t easy for her either.

Talis opened a pack and withdrew more dried meat from his dwindling supplies. He was getting sick of dried pork and dried beef. With the wind and storm as strong as it was, they didn’t even attempt to start a fire. He knew he couldn’t expect much in the way of variety on the expedition, especially the farther they went north and the colder it got. But still he missed the ovens of Naru filled with sweet bread and pies, dumpling soup from Fiskar’s Market, and most of all, his mother’s cooking.

But after an hour or so of waiting out the storm, the wind slowed and the clouds dissipated. An eerie calm possessed the desert as the soldiers stared around in wonder. Then one of the soldiers let out a shrill whistle, and Talis turned and noticed that the others behind him were staring at the western horizon.

“Raiders,” shouted Jarvis.

Talis squinted. Far away, a dust cloud swirled towards them.

“Prepare to ride!” Jarvis yelled, charging around his men. They gathered their gear and mounted up. “Battle formation, but keep it loose and fast, I’d rather not engage whoever is out there.”

Talis scrambled onto his horse, and rode after them, the wind stinging his face as they sped north. The horses of Naru were famous across the western world. Bred for speed and endurance, the thoroughbreds selected for the expedition were among the finest champions of Naru. But as Talis glanced back, whoever was chasing them rode like demons…

An inky-black sandstorm swirled behind the group chasing them, the fringes of which reached up to the zenith. The storm rose higher and higher as they gained on them, until it seemed that darkness would blot out the sky. White uniforms against the blackness. Jiserians.

The enemy soldiers on horseback didn’t travel alone. A hundred feet in the air behind them flew three figures in blood-red cloaks. Shadow tendrils lapped at their legs, shrouding their feet. Outstretched hands creating the power of the storm. Talis watched as the figure on the left dove from the sky and brought a spiraling arm down, a black lance of shadow and sand. The storm aimed directly at their party.

Talis stopped and gaped. His horse reared, spooked by the fury of the elemental assault. They would die out here. Or be captured and taken as slaves. Or worse, tortured for information. How could the Jiserians know they were out here?

A few seconds before the spiraling arm struck, it curved inwards and away, sending a blast of cold, sulfuric air washing over them. Talis froze, clearly seeing the Jiserian soldiers now. They weren’t human. At least not anymore. The soldiers and horses were all bone and rotting flesh. Swirling red and gold orbs blazed in their eye sockets. Talis glanced up at the figures in the sky.

Necromancers.

Talis gripped his short sword, feeling heat burning up his arm and racing down his spine.

Jarvis rode to the front, as if he could stop the overwhelming force. “Stay back!” Jarvis brandished his two-handed great sword.

The undead soldiers raised their swords and axes and halberds as they charged them, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. They rode in a twin blade formation, splitting before they reached the party. Circling, the undead soldiers paused, leering at them.

The lead necromancer flew down from the sky and landed twenty feet away. A pool of shadows swirled in her webbed hand. “You will surrender.” She extended her palm towards Jarvis. Talis had never seen such a terror before. Waves of shadowy mist billowed from her figure and light spilled in from above and illuminated the mist. Her eyes were radiant and cruel, yet her face appeared like a child.

“Go to hell,” shouted Jarvis, and raised his sword.

The woman chuckled and brought her hands together, sending a wave of shadows and light speeding at Jarvis. The force slammed into him, knocking him fifty feet back.

“Surrender…or die,” the woman said. A devilish smirk appeared on her lips.

“What do you want with us?” shouted a soldier. “We’re a simple scouting party-”

“You lie,” the woman hissed, and set her face into a twisted scowl. Now, she seemed a thousand years old, spidery veins on her neck, pulsing and black.

Another necromancer with a shaved head landed to the right. “Hand over the boy with the map case.”

“I sense the power.” The woman strode forward until she was inches from the soldier’s face. Her palm twitched. “I sense a powerful relic is near.”

Talis shrank back behind the soldiers, wanting to find a hole and disappear forever. They were looking for him.

Some strange power came over Rikar and he marched up and stood next to the soldier. The woman had gazed at him as he approached, as if her eyes searched his soul.

“You know of magic.” She frowned. “Yet you are not the one.”

“Deal with me, not the young ones.” The soldier stepped in front of Rikar.

“This one talks too much,” the bald necromancer said, and released a flood of demonic faces at the soldier.

He grabbed his throat, his face turning ashen, neck bulging and throbbing, and dropped to his knees, face planting into the sand.

“Now the map, and the boy, if you please.” The woman eyed the other soldiers.

“I have a better idea, let’s kill them one by one-”

“Patience, Oren, patience…”

“Talis,” Rikar said, “you might as well show yourself.”

As Talis stepped out, furious at Rikar for giving him away, he caught the woman’s gaze and the feeling of power grew from the sword in his hand. It built up into an uncontrollable rage, which he fought to suppress with all his power.

“This is the one.” The woman flew forward to where Talis stood.

Talis withdrew the map case and displayed it to the woman. “Is this what you are looking for?” he said. He used the moment’s distraction, stepped forward, and plunged the sword into her heart.

A wailing and hissing sound was heard as she vanished, her body melting into ash. The blood-red cloak wrapped around her floated to the ground.

Half the undead soldiers and horses collapsed around them. Bones clacked against bones, wilting on the sand. The sky cleared. Sunlight rained down on the dark army.

Talis fell to his knees, dizzy from the exertion, blinded by the sudden outpouring of light.

“What do we do now?” Rikar yelled, and stared at the glowering faces of the other two necromancers.

Talis laughed madly. He’d killed a necromancer and it felt amazing. Not some wild animal in the swamplands. The most feared opponent on the battlefield. A Jiserian necromancer.

After a brief moment of sunlight, the darkness rained down once again. This time it came with a fog so thick it suffocated all visibility. Talis heard a moan that sounded like a soldier being struck. Mara screamed. The sound of steel shattering bone and armor. A deep, booming roar that echoed over the sand, as if the fog itself was the source.

Turning, he charged through the mist towards Mara’s voice, trying to protect her. Out in the edge of the fog, Talis noticed Rikar talking with a shadowy figure. He turned his head towards Talis, as if surprised at being found. The figure disappeared into the fog. Rikar frowned at Talis. What was Rikar doing?

Soon four undead warriors strode towards Talis, leering at him, weapons raised. The fog lifted, and Talis could see they were beaten. Rikar charged at the undead, slicing off a leg and kicking another over. Talis joined in, severing the other two in half.

But the necromancers, hovering fifty feet off the ground, shot a stream of grey and black particles towards the slain undead, causing them to reassemble back to life. The undead warriors shook their fists above their heads and glowered at Talis. Looking around, Talis could see they’d lost. Almost every soldier from the party had been slain or beaten down. The undead surrounded them and the necromancers floated down to gloat over their victory.

“We can’t die like this,” Talis said, edging close to Rikar.

“Dying is for quitters,” Rikar said, and raised a ruby to his lips. He whispered a name, a name that Talis could barely hear, a name that sounded familiar, like from his nightmares. Aurellia… The ruby glowed red and bits of silver shimmered inside.

Instantly, it was dark again, so dark, Talis couldn’t see his hands.

A rumbling sound, as if millions of bison charged across a plain. Then a whooshing sound, like when the wind from a storm races through the trees. Brilliant lights pierced the darkness, forming a magical portal, filled with shadows and light.

An ancient man, face distorted and leathered, wearing a black hooded robe, stepped through the portal and glanced around, chuckling to himself like he knew some secret joke. He rammed his ruby-tipped staff into the sand. An explosion of red and orange and silver light shot out in all directions and vaporized the undead warriors and horses.

“Be banished to eternal night,” he said, his voice slow and slurred, and he aimed his staff at the bald necromancer, and pointed a finger at the other. A rift appeared in the sky and moans and screams of agony from a million dead souls cried out from that rift, as if the sound came from the torments of the Underworld.

The necromancers were pulled (or rather the darkness enveloped them) into the rift and they fought and shrieked against the force, but in the end lost the struggle.

And then the shadow portal came to the old man, rushed over him, and consumed him, until he too disappeared.

The air was clear. The sun was strong. The wind, cold from the north.

12. THE NORTHLANDS

After the dust settled, Talis felt the cold dew falling, sending a chill under his skin. He’d searched through the bodies, bones and fetid flesh and soldiers still dying, trying to find Mara and Nikulo. Rikar helped, illuminating the night with a shimmering orb, turning over bodies, revealing the hideous faces of undead and former living alike. Finally, a trembling lump lifted itself up, a dirtied face staring around in horror at the destruction.

It was Mara! Talis felt a wave of relief and joy washing over him like a warm summer rain.

“I was so worried…I’d thought you were killed,” Talis said. “Thank the gods you survived.”

“What are you doing here?” Rikar eyes went wide.

“You think I was going to let you guys go off on an adventure by yourselves?”

“This is not some kind of game…you could have been killed,” Rikar said. “And your family is probably worried sick about you…”

Mara scoffed. “Forget about them… They want me to marry some old pig.” She glanced around at all the undead bones lying around. “When they attacked I knew it was best to pretend I was dead. They went right after the soldiers and ignored me.”

“You did the right thing.” Talis brushed the sand off her clothes.

“Nikulo is probably shivering in his boots, somewhere around here.” Rikar squinted, peering out north.

“He was close to me,” Mara said, “before Talis attacked…”

“Let’s find Nikulo and whatever supplies we’ll need.” Talis rummaged around, checking the bodies for Nikulo. Where were the horses? All their packs, their food and supplies. Even if the threat of attack were over, they’d die out here in the desert without a way out and means to survive.

Rikar whistled, calling Talis back to where he was searching with Mara. Mounted on horseback, Nikulo grinned in his cocky way, holding the reins of a second horse.

“Couldn’t let these two run off,” Nikulo said. “I tried to find others…” He stopped when he noticed Mara. “You little she-devil! Who let you come along?”

Mara smiled, flushing a bit. “Nice to see you too.”

Nikulo chuckled, and glanced at Talis. “You look terrible, like something sat on your face.”

“Well, what happened to you?” Rikar swaggered over to Nikulo’s horse. “Were you around for the attack?”

“I was trying to stay alive, crawling away just the moment they attacked.”

Rikar scanned the northern horizon. “Looks like we’re on our own now, two horses, a few packs, some water, and how many days riding north until we-”

“Get out of this hellhole?” Nikulo frowned. “Two…maybe three days riding. I grabbed this horse and managed to track down the second…luckily the horses came to me…this one licked me…”

“North? Why would we continue on? The party is demolished…shouldn’t we return to Naru?” Talis said.

“And give up?” Rikar sheathed his sword. “I think not. We have the map in your possession. The Elders said that the champion commanded you to go…”

“I’m not saying give up, I’m saying return to Naru and resupply.”

“If one Jiserian raiding party found us so easily, what’s to say another one won’t again if we return?”

“Rikar has a point,” Mara said. “We’re lucky we’re alive. I say we keep going on.”

Of course Mara wanted to keep going on, if she went back to Naru, her parents would kill her. And it wasn’t luck, it was whoever Rikar had called…he saved them, this Aurellia. Who was he, anyways?

“Did you find any other survivors?” Nikulo said.

Rikar frowned. “I’m tired of dead bodies. I went through plenty looking for you and Mara.”

“I’m going to look…in case there is someone I can heal,” Nikulo said.

Talis rummaged through the mess, trying to find anything useful for the trip. Most of the horses had fled after the attack. Soldiers from his father’s armory-who he’d barely known-lying dead on the sand. There were too many to bury.

“Fire will purify the bodies,” Rikar said, as if reading his thoughts.

“Wait for Nikulo to check for any survivors.” Mara’s face held a dark grimace.

As the eastern horizon brightened, awash in the faintest bit of crimson and cobalt, Talis rose to meet Nikulo as he waddled forward. His shoulders sank with a morbid heaviness, as if his grim job had come up fruitless.

He shook his head, and turned to stare at the northern horizon.

Rikar faced the mass of bodies, breathing in and out rapidly, the breath of fire. Talis wanted to join in and help, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bring himself to use magic in this way. The fire danced from body to body, causing the whole mass to explode into flames. The sickly sweet smell of roasted flesh caused Talis to clench his stomach. He bent over, staring at the light flickering off the sand. He had to get out of there.

They rode north as the sun crept slowly up the horizon, igniting the desert with a blinding brilliance. As far as he could see, nothing but swirling sands and rolling dunes, ever-changing under the brutal wind. Mara rode with Talis, her arms clenched around his waist as if she was scared of being blown off.

Charting their way with the Surineda Map, they found a small oasis that night, luckily with an old but functioning well. Food was running low. They had enough for maybe another day, and in the oasis they found no game to hunt, just a few palm trees and scraggly bushes. Even a snake would taste good…if they could find one.

On the second day they ran out of food. Rikar caught a rattlesnake and roasted it. Tasted like a chewy, tough chicken, but very little meat and after it all, Talis still felt hungry.

The air was colder now, so cold at night it was close to freezing. They were nearing the northlands, the Elbegurian Forest and the Turyan River. He’d never felt so tired and sun burned in his life. If fire was his element, the sun was consuming all the moisture from his body. He felt like he was drying up.

Late afternoon the next day, Talis could see a thin layer of ice covering the last stretch of sand along the northern end of the desert. They’d finally reached the northlands. The sky held a swath of silver-grey-remnants of the sand storm that had cleared up only an hour before. A chill crept into Talis as he rode; he was tired and windswept and he missed Naru and missed his family. From the downward glances of the others, they were exhausted too, and there didn’t appear to be a good place to rest for the night.

He wanted to ride ahead and ask Rikar, but his arms and face were cold and unresponsive. There must be a place to rest ahead. Scanning the horizon, Talis spotted a pack of caribou, their proud horns bent down as they grazed on whatever bits of grass and lichen they could find. They raised their heads and stared at them. White mist billowed from their nostrils as they chewed, studying the approaching riders.

“Dinner…” Nikulo drooled and patted his belly.

Mara withdrew her bow and nocked an arrow. “I get the first bite. Let’s go!”

Talis sped off after the caribou, Rikar and Nikulo flanking. The pack bolted off together, but a young buck, confused at the two horses coming at him from different directions, turned to face Talis and Mara, pawing at the ground. A moment too late, he charged off after the pack, but Mara’s arrow caught him in the ribs, and a second hit his right flank. Stumbling, he kicked, huffing and grunting, big white exhalations floating off in the cold air.

Rikar leapt off his horse, bringing his sword sharply up to end the poor creature’s pain. They would feed well tonight and probably for the next few days. They hefted the young buck onto a horse, and Rikar scanned around as if looking for a place to setup camp.

Talis dismounted and gazed at the thickening sky: big clumps of snow drifted slowly to the ground. This was the first time he’d seen snowflakes this big. His horse neighed and stomped her hooves as he stared over the vast expanse. A wide, frothy river flowed down from the north and curved east. On either sides of the river were rocky clearings and thick, towering pines. Beyond, a mist settled over the river and the forest, obliterating the view of the lower mountains. Snow-capped peaks poked out halfway up in the sky, like sentinels keeping watch over their domain.

“This must be the Turyan River-and beyond, the Elbegurian Forest,” Talis said, his voice low and tense. “Master Holoron said these were dangerous lands…”

“But it looks so beautiful,” Mara said. Blade-edged peaks and granite faces ten thousand feet tall. Wind whipped near the peaks, and blew snow in enormous cotton swaths. One peak held a massive glacier…a thick cap of ice and snow. Talis sat transfixed, and glanced down at the forests. He’d never seen such gigantic trees. Closer to the river, the pines were hundreds of feet tall. But further up, titanic trees towered the land, with the top half of the trees bursting above the fog. A cold, dark power filled the land, Talis could feel it tingle under his skin. He stared at the lower forest as if eyes were everywhere, watching them.

“Let's camp over there, on the left side of the river, along the tree line,” Rikar said. “We’ll make a fine roast tonight.”

Talis followed Rikar as he rode down the hillside towards the river. The wind was fierce now, with snow coming down strong. Twilight settled as they made their way through the rocky clearing, and reached the forest's edge.

He slid off his horse and staggered, as his legs tried to recover from the long ride. A gnaw in his stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten in over a day.

Rikar removed his packs and began hunting around for wood. Soon they’d gathered enough and Rikar released a fiery stream into the wood, big puffs of smoke shooting up into the sky. They built a roasting spit and skinned the buck. Talis sat, watching Nikulo’s masterful roasting skills, listening to the fat sizzle, inhaling the sweet smell.

Once the roast was ready, Talis devoured a helping, then ate some more until his belly felt like it would explode. Food had never tasted so good. Color returned to Mara’s face after the meal, and she sat next to him, curled up, and lay her head on his lap. He thought he heard her purring with content.

Out the next day, after trekking along the river for several hours, they found a trail leading north, and Talis studied the Surineda Map, realizing they were heading towards the village of Blansko. Half a day’s journey in they found the trail obliterated by an enormous rockslide that had felled giant soldier pines, creating an unsurpassable mess. Rikar suggested they loop around to the east and follow the river north. But before they reached the river, tall boulders hundreds of feet high stopped their way.

The only way was through the dark, pine forest. The branches pressed down at many places so low they had to dismount their horses and lead them through. They followed Rikar as he trudged into the forest, slowing as the woods enveloped them. There was something soothing about the air infused with pine and mountain herbs, and the calm from lack of wind. Talis inhaled and walked on.

A commotion above moved the limbs against each other. The eerie croaking and groaning of wood against wood. The sound unnerved Talis, but Mara smiled, and they kept on.

“Over there,” he said, pointing with his chin. They kept ahead towards a patch of twilight beyond the forest. After reaching a clearing filled with logs and boulders, he realized it continued into an even deeper forest.

He sighed. “Still more to go.”

After a long hike through a dense, suffocating part of the forest, torches in hand, they found an old tree lying on the ground, with termites devouring the wood. Too tired to go on, they decided to rest here for the night.

Talis knocked branches off the tree and grinned as he kicked a branch. It cracked and shattered in several pieces. He made a game where he was snapping the necks off Jiserian necromancers. It helped. Mara picked up a branch and swirled it around, giggling.

“This place is creepy.” She poked Talis.

“Are you kidding? I’m so glad to be out of the desert.” Talis spun around, trying to trip Mara. She jumped, and darted out of the way.

“Would you stop messing around?” Rikar sighed. “Just get some wood for a fire.”

Mara stuck out her tongue at Rikar, and punched at Nikulo’s belly. He blocked and danced left. Readying another jab to the ribs, Mara stopped and looked up.

“What's wrong?” Talis said, following her gaze.

“Not sure. I just had a weird feeling.”

Then he caught an awful smell. A mixture of wet, decaying leaves and fermented wheat. His shoulders stiffened.

“Light a fire so we can see better,” she said. The air had turned quiet and lifeless, and he wanted exactly the same thing. There was something here in the forest-with them-watching them.

“Let's gather some branches,” he said, his voice urgent. Mara nodded and they got to work.

Rikar glanced around and raised his torch. “Are you guys just trying to freak me out?”

“No,” Talis said, shrugging. “It’s just strange here.”

“Alright-” Rikar froze in his tracks as Mara screamed.

Talis whipped around and spotted her cringing on the ground, mouth hanging open, staring up.

13. ASSAULT IN THE FOREST

Up in the branches Talis could see hundreds of spiders. Four feet across, hairy, and drooling something black and wet. Their yellow beady eyes shone, staring hungrily at them. They were suspended on scores of thin, silvery cords.

Mara whipped out her daggers and rolled aside as a spider dropped over her. Talis grabbed his bow and quiver and raced to help, but his foot landed in a hole and he fell face first in the dirt, his bow flying out of his hands.

Talis spotted two spiders heading towards him and more charged at Rikar and Nikulo. They had to get out of here; there were too many spiders to fight. Three of them lurched at Mara and she dove away and slashed with her daggers. Talis picked up his bow and shot one in the back, sending a green spray through the air. The others zig-zagged over the forest floor as they chased Mara. Rikar ran after her but got in the way of Talis’s line of sight.

“Move!” Talis shouted, running after them.

Mara’s foot caught on a root and she fell and landed hard, her daggers skidding across the ground. She glanced back as the spiders hovered over her, then scrambled to find her weapons. Rikar zapped a spider with a lightning bolt, frying it into oblivion, but another spider turned, coiled up and prepared to strike. Talis launched another arrow, missed, then shot another, sending the creature spinning in a green, twirling mess. It splat on a tree, and its juices started eating away at the bark. What kind of poison was that? Then Talis realized that the spider’s bodies were filled with acid.

“Don’t waste your magic,” Nikulo shouted, running up to Rikar. “There are too many of them.”

“Behind you,” Mara yelled.

Turning, Talis spotted one mid-flight in its jump at them. Rikar quickly summoned a silvery sword and sliced the spider in half. More charged. He flinched, stabbing and cutting the fat beasts until a pile of green spider parts and goo lay at his feet.

“Don’t touch it…it’s acid! ” Talis shouted, pulling Rikar’s arm.

Mara backed into a corner, surrounded by spiders. She slashed stubbornly and they snapped forward and flinched back. Every time he scanned around, more kept coming. He shot the two creatures surrounding Mara, but others charged her. Talis felt a furry leg brush his hair. He fell, aiming up, and sank an arrow into another’s fat underside. He rolled away as it splattered onto the ground.

Talis grunted. He was out of arrows and there were too many of them, anyways. He grabbed a thick stick and glanced around. Yellow eyes danced in the dark. Mara went to slice a leg off, but another curled up and hurled a sticky glob of venom over her face.

She froze and fell over.

Talis charged at the spider, yelling and kicking it away from her. He brought the stick down hard against its neck.

Nikulo huffed up to them and stared at Mara. “What happened?”

“She’s poisoned,” Talis said, and slammed a fist on his leg.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Nikulo said. Sweat poured down the sides of his head, and his eyes shone. A huge spider followed him, as if tamed and obeying his command. His hands were over his temples as he stared at the creature. It scampered over the ground and grappled two more spiders coming at them.

The creatures were everywhere. Hundreds of yellow, gleaming eyes locked on them.

“Which way do we go?” Nikulo said, and twirled around.

Rikar was feverish, exhausted from his use of magic. He summoned a curved blade, shimmering five feet across, and slashed as fast as he could. He was tiring and in danger of being consumed by magic.

“Be careful,” Nikulo yelled, whirling around to face his friend. Rikar was drenched in sweat and his eyes were locked, unfocused.

Talis knew he had to act, so he started breathing loudly, a hissing breath, the kind used to create Fire Magic. In a trance, the forest had turned blood-red. Nikulo reached out to stop him, then jerked his hand back in pain.

“Get down!” Talis shouted, and Rikar and Nikulo dropped. Through the haze of his view, Talis could see the spiders closing in on them.

Then an intense heat ignited from his palms, exploding out in all directions, a circular wave of fire ripping through the forest. Spiders ignited, curling up, and the trees flamed up. The air smelled like burnt hair and roasted chicken. Rikar and Nikulo rose, glancing around, shocked that the forest was aflame. They were surrounded by a circle of angry flames and the fire roared to an inferno, dashing up the trees.

Talis stared at what he’d done. How did he cast the spell without killing himself? He felt weak from the exertion, but his senses burned, vivid and alive.

“That was amazing!” Rikar said, his eyes surprised. “How did you cast that spell?”

“I…I’m not sure how I cast it…” Talis glanced around, concerned that the flames were stalking towards them. “But we’re going to die if we don’t get out of here soon.”

“Help me carry Mara.” Nikulo bent down and they lifted Mara together, and hobbled in a direction without flames. The fire ring extended out a hundred feet, and as they passed the fire, Talis glanced over his shoulder. I did it, I really did it right, he thought, feeling a wave of confidence wash over him.

As they left the burning forest, Talis couldn’t help but notice Rikar and Nikulo glancing at him, their faces beaming awe and jealously. Finally they reached a bed of soft pine needles, and they lay Mara down.

Talis clenched Mara’s hand and searched for signs of life, but her body was rigid but still warm.

“She’s still breathing, but her body is all clenched up by the poison.”

Nikulo interrupted him. “Rikar, can you hold Mara? I'll need it to give her a potion. The spider's venom…locked the flow of electrical energy. If I can…release the poison's hold.” He placed both hands on Mara’s jawbones and his hands shook with intensity, waves of healing light flowing out. When the light built up inside her body, Mara’s face softened and the tension in her muscles melted away.

Then Nikulo took off his backpack and withdrew a sack containing several crystal vials. He noticed a glob of poison sizzling away at her jacket, and he took a knife and scooped it up, placing it inside one of the vials. Talis thought he glimpsed a curious smile crossing Nikulo’s face as if he’d just discovered something incredible.

“One more herbal remedy, I think that will do it…” Nikulo rummaged through another bag from his pack while Rikar assembled wood and lit a warm, crackling fire. Nikulo pulled out a potion, and inspected it with satisfaction. He opened Mara’s mouth and poured the liquid down her throat. Her eyes fluttered and color slowly returned to her cheeks.

Mara squinted and glanced around suspiciously.

“Why is everyone staring at me?” She tried to get up but Talis held her back.

“Rest-give yourself some time to recover.”

Talis told her the story of what had happened after she was poisoned and Nikulo interrupted him to tell the part about Talis casting magic. Mara settled back, face flushed from the fire, her eyes beaming in pride at Talis, and she reached out to hold his hand and soon she drifted off to sleep.

He felt a wave of homesickness strike his heart as he gazed at Mara’s face. She could have died out here in this cold and unforgiving land, and Talis knew he could never forgive himself if that had happened. Yet Naru might already be in more danger than here, maybe another attack had killed more people… The Elders of Naru were counting on them to help their city. Maybe Rikar was right to continue on their expedition. Every day counted…

“We’ve lost our horses and whatever we had in our saddlebags.” Rikar glanced around the dark forest.

Talis swung his backpack around. “Still have these… And I kept a good bit of gold and silver coin inside. We can resupply and maybe buy horses up ahead at the inn.”

“What do you think we’ll find out there on that island?” Nikulo said, his eyes tired and red.

Talis shrugged, staring into the fire. “It must be worth it…worth all the risk. You weren’t there to see Master Baribariso rise from his grave and transform into an immortal. When he pulled the Surineda Map from a mist, I knew this was a gift from the gods.”

“There are many gods and many masters,” Rikar said, his face dark and gaunt. “But I do not doubt there is something powerful and special out there on that island…”

“Something that could help in our struggle against the Jiserians?” Nikulo warmed his hands on the fire.

They watched the fire for what seemed like an ageless moment, and the heat felt good sinking into Talis’s cold hands. After he’d cast the spell against the spiders, it seemed like all the warmth had left his body, and the chill of the northlands had possessed him.

A sputter of sparks shook them out of their reverie, and Talis looked at Rikar, recognizing a wave of pain and darkness flash across his face. Rikar turned away, flushed with discomfort, and Talis wondered what thoughts were passing through his mind…

The next morning, Mara feeling bright and renewed, they hiked along the Turyan River, snaking left and right, and up through massive, granite boulders, finally arriving at a series of waterfalls. The first one was about fifteen feet high and stretched across the length of the river. Beyond, more waterfalls fell over jagged cliffs and tunneled through pines.

Talis stopped and inhaled the crisp mountain air, peering up at the falls. “How do we get around-”

“I found a path up ahead…there on the left.” Rikar pointed and started towards the trail.

Mist shimmered off the rocks as they climbed up around the falls and Mara stretched out her tongue and enjoyed the cool spray. The boulders glistened under the sun's rays and the air seemed charged with power. The mountains were more amazing than Talis had ever dreamed. All his life he’d lived surrounded by desert. He loved Naru, but the forest and the mountains of the northlands made him feel like a mouse among giants.

Rikar led them up the path as it curved, climbing higher through the boulders. Talis watched the river disappear off into the distance. He was leaving the desert and Naru behind. There was no going back. He’d left his family and he might not ever return home.

After the sun plunged below the mountains, they reached a field of apple trees. Farther up, they passed a barn and heard rapids churning down the river. An inn lay ahead with billowing smoke rising from a chimney. Stone walls and a slate roof so heavy it seemed as if the rafters would crumble under the weight. Wooden shutters covered the windows and a glow of orange light shone through. Talis tensed as a group of travelers milled out front, their clothes tattered, faces dirty and gaunt, eyes hopeless and suspicious.

They stared, watching the party approach.

14. THE INN AT BLANSKO

Talis arched upright and pulled off his backpack, and strode towards the inn's steps, so exhausted and cold he could barely walk straight. All he thought of was food and fire at the hearth and sleep. The front door opened with a creak as he stepped through into the warm glow. The air smelled like the roasts back home at the fall festival, of pork and smoke and sweet pies. He inhaled and found himself drooling.

The great room was lined with cedar planks and pine beams spanned almost forty feet across. The once noisy room grew quiet as they entered and all eyes turned and stared with suspicion. The barkeep, a short stocky man wearing a bloodied apron, scanned the newcomers as he ran his stubby fingers through his beard.

His expression darkened. “What do you want?”

Rikar strolled forward and handed the man a silver coin. “Food…and drink, for my friends and me.”

The barkeep inspected the coin. “From Naru-long ways from home, aren’t you?”

“If you care to show us to a table.” Rikar tapped his finger on the worn, wooden bar-top.

The barkeep grunted, as if annoyed by his comment, then motioned Rikar towards an empty table.

The tension melted and the room went back to talking, eating, and drinking. Two girls, of a similar age to Talis, sat together on a wooden bench next to the fire. They wore white silk dresses with lavender flowers embroidered along the bottom trim. One girl was taller and had vibrant silver hair and a mousy face. The other girl had flaming red hair and long, dangling earrings. Her face was painted white and chalky, cheeks rouged, a seven-pronged star drawn on her forehead.

Could she be a mystic? Legend had it they were trained starting at age three: to read faces, read minds, read tea leaves, read the wind, animal bones, and even the future. Their powers were legendary, and it was said that royal houses all over the world valued them at court for their divination skills.

Turning their heads, they giggled as Talis sauntered towards the fireplace, blushing when they caught his gaze. The girl with the star seemed to know some secret about him that she was unwilling to share. Mara darted past and plopped herself onto another bench opposite the girls. He warmed his hands then sat next to Mara, yawning sloppily.

“I’m hungry and sleepy at the same time.” He glanced at the girl with the star, her grey-sapphire eyes danced as he looked at her. She whispered into the silver-haired girl's ear and laughed, tossing her head back, sending her long hair flying about.

The silver-haired girl blurted out, “Is she your girlfriend?”

The other girl paused a moment, leaned forward, and gazed into his eyes. Talis couldn’t break from her stare, and he could feel Mara seething next to him.

“Not yet…” the girl with the star said mysteriously. She laughed freely. “He doesn’t know a thing. Boys…” Mara blushed as he glanced at her, and Talis wondered if what the mystic said could be true.

Then Rikar and Nikulo strolled over to the fire and eyed the girls with unconcealed attraction.

“I’ve never seen a girl with silver hair.” Rikar grinned wolfishly at her.

She huffed, rolling her eyes. “Maybe if you took a bath more often girls could actually stand to be around you.”

Talis chuckled, then stopped, realizing he probably smelled just as bad.

“You’re travelers…like us? From the west perhaps?” Nikulo said.

“We’re just passing through,” said the girl with the star, and glanced shyly at Talis. “This is my sister Nuella.” Her eyes locked sweetly with Talis for a moment, and she said, “And I’m Lenora.”

Rikar bowed, trying to act like a perfect nobleman, but came off like he was arrogant and pretentious. He introduced everyone, staring way too much at Nuella in the process. She suppressed a glare each time he looked at her. Rikar was too stupid to even realize it.

Lenora bowed awkwardly, and sniffed suspiciously. “You’re runaways, like us.”

“We’re hardly like you,” Mara said, her tone sharp and dismissive. Talis chuckled as Mara stared contemptuously at them.

“Now, now, no fighting.” Nikulo tilted his head at Lenora and smiled. “But we’re no runaways, we’re on a quest.”

Lenora ignored Mara, and lowered her voice as she leaned forward. “Our city was destroyed by the Jiserians. Burned to the ground. Only a few of us escaped with our lives.”

“Father says we’re lucky.” Nuella frowned. “But I miss my mother and our home. I miss the parties and the dances and the knights in silver and gold.”

Talis stared at the fire, knowing the same fate could happen to Naru. He glanced up at Lenora. “You’re a mystic?”

Lenora flushed. “I was trained as one…not seasoned, not tested by Sisters yet. Too late for all that.”

“Never too late.” Nuella ran a finger along her sister’s arm. “You remember what Sister Eayla said…about the wind, the wind speaking to you.”

“I haven’t heard a thing from the wind yet…I just hear mother’s screams, that’s all I hear in here.” Lenora touched the side of her head, then looked at her hand as if wondering what it was doing.

“After crossing the desert and these barbaric woods, I’m in dire need of a drink.” Nikulo sighed. “Ale anyone? Cider? Red wine?”

“Father doesn’t let us drink…says we’re too young.”

“Nonsense,” Nikulo said. “In times such as these, ale does the soul good.”

“Well I suppose…” Lenora grinned like she was willing to hide anything from her parents.

Nikulo trotted towards the tavern owner, and returned with several mugs, handing them to the girls first. They glanced around the room nervously, and peered inside.

“I tried the ale…you wouldn’t like it.” Nikulo hiccupped. “I tried the wine too…dreadful. You wouldn’t like that either. Cider seemed like the best option. Harvest time of the year, after all.” He nodded his head knowingly at Nuella and lifted his mug in a toast. “To youth…may you always refuse to die.”

Lenora took a sip, and whispered, “Does your quest have anything to do with the Jiserians?”

Talis edged closer to Lenora. “We share a common foe. Just last week, our city, Naru, was attacked by Jiserian sorcerers. But they haven’t defeated us yet…at least I hope not.”

“Do you have any idea how powerful the Jiserians are?” Rikar said, and squinted at Talis. “Without the most powerful of magic, we’ll be useless against them. You haven’t got a clue what is needed.” He drank the cider, and wiped the sides of his mouth.

“But we can stop them.” Mara glared at Rikar. “That’s why we’re on our quest. Turn things in our favor.”

Lenora looked doubtful. “Father is leading us to Khael. They say Khael and the lands to the north are free from the Jiserian’s grasp-”

“Father said they are allied yet protected,” Nuella said, her voice uncertain. According to Master Holoron, the city of Khael was an outlaw city, filled with pirates and brigands. If Khael was allied with the Jiserians, they probably wouldn’t be welcome. But they needed to go through Khael to find passage by sea to the island.

Just then a big man with sagging jowls and darting eyes came stomping over. He glowered at them and grabbed the mugs from the girls’ hands. “What are you doing? Why are you talking to these people. And why are you drinking this!” He set his eyes on Talis and looked him up and down, and huffed, the smell of garlic and liver wafting from his lips.

“I think you misunderstand, Father,” Lenora said, standing firm. “These travelers are from Naru, recently attacked by the Jiserians-”

“Naru? You’re from Naru? But why would the Jiserians dare attack your fair city?”

The big man relaxed his shoulders, studied Talis more closely, then finally sat next to his daughter. The bench groaned under his weight. He wrung his hands as if they were wet. “Don’t pay any mind to my gruffness…who can trust strangers?” He smiled, as if trying to assure them his suspicion was natural. “Tell me, has Naru fallen?”

“Nay.” Rikar put a whetstone to his dagger. “We repelled their aerial invasion. Unlike, it sounds, your village…”

“Not a village lad, a great city, Bechamel Downs, lain waste by hoards of Jiserian mongrels. Strange beasts, made of mud and sticks and twisted vines. They sieged our city for weeks, as if toying with us, sending us petitions for our surrender each night at dusk. Our foolish leaders refused each time-”

“I’ve never heard of your city.” Rikar twisted up his face. “Well it doesn’t surprise me, honestly, your leaders probably sold you out in exchange for titles in the new Jiserian Empire…people do that, you know. They did it at Onair and countless other cities along the western coast.”

“Who are you, boy?” Lenora’s father said. “You talk as if you’re a king-”

“Perhaps one day…mother says that’s a possibility.” Rikar looked at the beams, eyes blinking rapidly.

“The Lei Family line is in waiting for the throne,” Mara said, her voice terse.

“They’ll be waiting a long time if they’re dead. Enough of this talk.” Rikar stared at Lenora’s father. “Our party is in shambles…ruined by an attack from Jiserian necromancers in the desert. Your daughter here tells us you’re traveling to Khael. Yes? So, so, we also travel to the coast… Shall we, bind together, safety in numbers and all that?”

“I don’t see why not.” Lenora’s father shook his fat jowls left and right. “Yes, it’s decided. Travel with us to Khael, join me and my daughters, and our two servants. Together we’ll be nine.”

“We’ll need to talk it over…as a group.” Mara glanced at Talis.

“All this talk is making me hungry.” Nikulo jutted his chin at their table. The barkeep had just set down a huge bowl of stew filled with pork and cabbage and potatoes, and roasted bread, topped with what looked like garlic and butter. It smelled better than it looked.

“If I didn’t have the gift of sight,” Lenora said, “I wouldn’t say our paths are intertwined. Because they are. Somehow the way ahead is made clearer after meeting you…”

The way she spoke made Talis feel as if fate had spoken. If he resisted, the gods would be angered. For a brief moment, when she had voiced the words, it was as if time stilled, and her eyes were illuminated with some strange fire. He couldn’t resist even if he tried.

Mara elbowed him in the ribs. “Snap out of it.” She pulled his arm, leading him to the table.

Talis was about to grumble, then he thought the better of it. When Mara was determined like that it was impossible to say a thing. He filled his bowl and ate, thinking about Lenora. She might be a mystic, but from Mara’s expression of contempt, Lenora was a witch.

15. THE EDGE OF THE STORM

When Rikar and Nikulo and Talis all voted to travel with Lenora and her family, Mara was furious. She promised them no good would come from traveling with strangers. But Talis couldn’t help notice the edge of jealousy in her voice. After all, Lenora was beautiful and from an exotic kingdom, and he was curious to discover the secrets of the mystic school of magic.

Rikar and Talis had found enough gold in their purses to buy four horses, the last of which was a small, fat horse that seemed perfectly suited for Nikulo (despite his protests). Talis glanced up as a stable boy finished placing a saddle and bags onto his horse. He handed a small silver coin to the boy, and grinned as the boy’s eyes went wide staring at the coin.

A stiff wind sent the cypress trees swaying above. The horses whinnied, spurred by the unsettled air. Talis thought of Naru, vowing he’d never forgive himself if anything happened to his family.

As he mounted his horse, he gazed east, filled with a sense of foreboding. What was out there waiting for them? His thoughts were interrupted as Mara rode up alongside.

“I still don’t think this is a good idea.” Her horse circled around, as if anxious to begin the ride.

“We can always go off on our own if it doesn’t work out with them.”

She came in close, and whispered, “Have you seen those servants Lenora’s father was talking about? More like an evil-looking sorceress and a grim reaper with a scimitar… We carry the most valuable relic in the world, how can you trust them? When it was just innocent-looking Nuella, that witch Lenora, and her fat father, it seemed harmless.”

Talis chuckled, not imagining Mara could ever be so jealous. “She’s not nearly as pretty as you.”

Mara blushed, looking down. She was about to retort when Rikar and Nikulo rode up, followed by Lenora and her sister. Nikulo’s horse seemed to strain under the weight.

“And what joker thought it was funny to give me this horse?”

“Why you’re perfectly matched.” Mara tried to stifle a snicker.

Lenora’s father trotted up, flanked by the sorceress and the blademaster. “Enough talk, off we go.”

The sorceress stared at Talis as if searching for clues. He felt a heat prickle under his skin, recognizing her use of magic. He knew he had to stay guarded against her magical senses.

After they left the village, they took a spindly trail to a bridge suspended between two huge boulders. The river flowed hundreds of feet below. The horse's hooves clapped against the wood as they trotted ahead.

In the warming of late afternoon, the sky cleared and Talis lifted his eyes and his mouth fell open. Sheer granite cliffs towered over them, to the left and the right, rising to the zenith. The glow of the sun reflected off the cliffs, a wash of brilliant light. Sentinel pines a thousand feet tall stood guard at the entrance of a pass that knifed through the mountains. But the mountains dwarfed those pines, rising seven or eight times higher.

The next day they trekked inside the dark pass, torches in hand, curving up and around until they broke out of the corridor and reached twilight on the other side. They’d climbed several thousand feet and the air was cold and dry. Swept before them, mountain lakes and sheer, jutting granite spires dotted the carpet of spruce and redwood and cedar. Talis loved these mountains, the invigorating, fragrant smell of pine, wind racing through rocks and branches. The shade of trees providing sanctuary from the unyielding sun, and when thirsty, the taste of sweet water from mountain springs.

After two days winding through the forests, the once fair skies turned dark and the air chilled. The horses whinnied nervously.

The blademaster stiffened and gazed at the sky. “Storm's brewing.”

Talis studied the thick grey and black clouds churning high above. Fierce winds shook the treetops and leaves and needles danced with each gust. The invigorating air rushed into his lungs, of storm and pine and cedar. It was as if nature was a crouched mountain lion, ready to pounce on its next victim. A drop of rain splashed into his eye and another landed on his chin. With a storm as fierce as this seemed, they’d need to seek shelter for the night.

Soon rain pelted his face and hair, and he grimaced and pulled his hood over his head. The trees grew animated with the force of wind, and large sheets of rain painted the grey sky. Inside his wool cloak he was warm and protected, but after awhile he was drenched.

The blademaster tried his best to keep the party moving, the wind whipping into a frenzy. Waves of leaves and rain made it impossible to see. Talis could feel the agitation of his horse under the erratic wind-her nostrils flared and she shook her head in contempt. Each moment a struggle, and each minute darker, he wished he was back in the warm comfort of the inn. The suffocating air from the low clouds and rain constricted his chest, making each breath more difficult than the last.

A sudden vast movement in the sky ripped the wind stronger, and the wind rushing through the trees howled in fury. Limbs cracked, branches flew and smashed against tree trunks. With the wind came an outpouring of torrential rain-the kind that reaches inside you and claws and digs and squirms, until you want to scream.

He glanced around, then kicked his horse and sped up to the blademaster. “We need shelter. I can barely stay on my horse.”

“Where?” the blademaster yelled, his strained eyes searching.

Talis blinked, wiped his eyes, and inspected the forest. Far off in the darkness, he spotted a flicker of light. The storm made it nearly impossible to see, but the light was there again, stronger now. Maybe it was a village? He stopped and turned his horse. He pointed at the light and the others squinted.

The blademaster nodded and rode on. One light expanded into many, dancing through the trees. Talis relaxed when he realized he was right, they’d found a village. Huts glowed and glimmered from fires inside. Smoke wafted out. He rode around a hut near the circle, and jumped at the sight of an old man sitting under a canopy attached to a hut. A smile crossed the man's face as he stared at the newcomers. The blademaster wielded his sword out of instinct, but softened after the man lifted his hands, and bowed in supplication. He wore tattered animal skins, as if from a hunt done years ago.

“Take shelter from the elements, friends. I’m Barnabus, our leader.” He motioned them inside. “Be our guests and warm yourselves by our fires.”

Talis glanced around and a chill shimmied up his scalp. Other old women and men poked their heads out of the huts, their eyes held a tired, hungry look, as if receiving the first visitors in years.

The blademaster sheathed his sword and slid off his horse. The wind gusted as he took refuge under the canopy. The sorceress followed, and the smell of roasted meat entered Talis’s nostrils as the blademaster went inside the hut. After a moment, he poked his head out and waved the others on. Talis licked his lips, imagining the taste.

Barnabus led Talis and Mara past several huts. Aged men and women stared at them as they passed. Their faces were filled with harsh wrinkles and their backs hunched over. Barnabus opened a flap to one hut and led them inside. “Our village is humble and our huts small,” he said. “You're welcome to stay until the storm clears.”

By a low fire in the center of the room, an old woman stirred an iron pot filled with stew. She wore a white lace apron. She smiled with soft, caring eyes as they entered. Her long silvery hair was tied up in a bun. She reminded him of his grandmother-always cooking stew on cold, wintry days.

Talis bowed to her. “Greetings, I'm Talis Storm. Thank you for your hospitality.” He pulled off his wet cloak and lay it on a bench near the fire. He was soaked to the bone. Shivering, he hovered around the flames, feeling life returning to his hands. He sighed as the warmth seeped into his body. Now if he could just sleep-no, he was hungry. He couldn’t decide what to do first.

The woman coughed slightly. “Welcome home, my son. What’s kept you away these long years? You've made a mother's heart grow sad, longing for her son.” She touched his shoulder and a million lines of electricity shot through his body. His eyes went wide, but he brushed off the feeling. He tried to imagine what it must be like for this woman to have her son abandon her.

“Let's get you out of these wet clothes.” She ambled over to a wooden chest in the corner. It creaked as she opened the lid. She peered inside, pulling out a green shirt and brown cotton pants. He eyed her cautiously as he accepted the gift.

“Would your lady friend be needing some clothes to change into as well?”

Mara nodded and rubbed her arms, looking hesitantly at Talis. It was too quiet. After they’d entered, it seemed the storm calmed down. Even the wind ceased. But Talis was glad for the fire, it melted his cold and fatigue. He was so exhausted he couldn’t think. Besides, he told himself, the woman was old and decrepit. Many old people in Naru had lost a bit of their minds.

She tottered back to the chest and pulled out a white gown. She lifted the gown, glanced at Mara, then smiled, and waddled over to her. “These clothes should fit you. My daughter wore them before the wind took her away.” Her eyes glistened and her face held the look of a mother betrayed by her children. Talis imagined his sister, Lia-how could she ever leave mother? They were inseparable.

Mara ran her fingers across the silky gown, then noticed Talis watching her. She held it over her chest, blushed, and searched the room for a place to change. She went behind the bed and Talis turned to let her dress.

“Much better.” She returned to the fire, and let the heat sink into her hands.

Talis removed his vest and shirt, and glanced up, noticing her curious eyes. She looked down shyly. He grabbed the fresh clothes and darted over to the corner, finding a quilt. He lifted it over his body and she giggled at him as he tried to change holding the quilt. He stumbled and dropped it several times, and she broke into laughter when he came back to the fire.

The old woman carried their wet clothes and hung them on a cord. She sat, returning to her stew. The smell of wild game and onions wafted through the air.

Talis collapsed onto a bearskin, too exhausted even to ask for food. His skin flushed as he faced the fire, his eyes drooping from the warm glow.

“So comfortable.” He yawned, wanting nothing other than to close his eyes and sleep.

Mara slipped next to him, lying behind with her arm wrapped over his chest. The heat from the fire slowly drained him of energy. He blinked and nodded off, still feeling the pouring rain and the wind hammering his neck. In his mind, the trees swayed back and forth, sheets of rain pelting his face.

Then the light in the hut dimmed. The room was quiet save the soft clacking of the wooden ladle stirring the stew. Mara pressed close to him, and soon he found himself drifting off. Faintly, as if off in another world, he thought he heard the sound of drums.

16. ASHTERA SUMMONS THE DARKNESS

Shadows stretched long and thin and wound around the corner to the sleepy hut. Talis bolted awake in a fright. A horrendous scream, guttural and deep, echoed through the huts. The saddest sound, worse than a mourner's party on dreary winter's day. Who had made that cry? Drums outside poured out a tight rhythm.

“Wake up,” he told Mara. He smelled a horrible stench and wondered where it came from. He glanced over at Mara and realized she hadn’t heard a word he said. She was snoring. His nose pointed towards the iron pot. He stood, peered inside, and recoiled in terror. A man’s hairless head floated in the vile stew. Blanched eyes stared at nothing. He could see the exposed veins and throat where the head had been sliced off. Arms and legs and bones pressed thickly together. Talis’s stomach churned, as if the contents of the stew were inside of him. He covered his mouth and fought the bile pushing up his throat.

“Gods, are those-” He stopped and glanced around. Be quiet, Talis, he told himself. A knot clenched his stomach and his mind raced. What was happening?

He shook Mara, but she only turned over. “There's something wrong. Get up!”

She rubbed her eyes. “What's that smell?”

He pointed at the stew. She stared into the pot, and gripped her stomach and fell back.

“Listen to that,” he whispered. There was something terribly wrong outside; they’d fallen into a trap.

Drums kept pounding and now voices joined in, chanting strange words.

“Talis, what’s going on?”

“We need to look…but stay quiet.” Stalking under the canopy, he peeked around the corner. A fever flushed through his body. Lenora, Nuella, Rikar, and Nikulo danced around a fire filled with an ghostly green light. Bones were crumpled up inside. Talis realized Lenora’s father, the blademaster, and the sorceress were missing. A beautiful woman with long black hair stood in the center, cackling incantations. Her arms gestured seductively into the air. Talis gasped, and shrank back into the hut.

“They're all mesmerized,” he whispered.

“We have to do something” Mara gathered her clothes, and they dressed quickly.

Did they have a chance? If they tried to attack, it was two against many. The once old and useless looking men and women were renewed. Their faces plump and rosy, hair full, without a speck of silver; their skin radiated vitality and not a trace of their former wrinkles remained; their posture was straight and confident and they danced and twirled like fools.

Talis remembered the battle in the desert. Destroy the leader and the rest will fall. “Attack the witch-the woman with the long black hair. Let’s go around back and surprise them.” He wielded his sword, feeling the fire slither up his arm.

He followed Mara outside, finding a place to hide in the shadows. The dancers gyrated their bodies and surrounded the leader as she shook her hips to the beat. Lifting her hands to the stars, she cast another spell, pointing at Nikulo. His body jerked off the ground, arms and legs hanging limp.

In a panic, Mara raised her bow and fired a shot at the woman. The arrow plunged into her left side and she screamed and spun herself around, glaring at Mara. Another arrow struck the witch in the throat. She released a muffled gurgling sound as she clenched her neck. Her body flapped like a bird knocked from the sky. Talis ran towards the woman, tensed and ready to cut her down.

The drummers stopped the music and glowered at Mara. The woman’s eyes widened, as if witnessing death’s door. Her mouth hung open in horror and she gasped for air, like a carp plucked from a pond. But her words were trapped inside. She yanked the arrow from her neck and ripped out a chunk of bloodied flesh. A gush of blood drenched her robe. Then she flicked her wrists and twirled around in a brilliant whirl, and transformed herself back into the old woman from their hut.

Talis gaped at her. How could she morph like that?

As she gripped her neck, anger flashed across her face. She coughed out blood mixed with ash. After she fell to the ground, her body went into frenzied convulsions. The drummers turned towards her and started a peculiar rhythm, and the singers chanted in time with the drums and mimicked the movement of the witch’s seizures.

She rocketed up into the air and landed, standing like a queen before her subjects. She shouted at the moons, and released a deep, rolling laugh. When she lifted her chin, she revealed an unbroken neck.

“I am Ashtera. Who dares challenge me?” She let out a savage cry, and Talis covered his ears at the sound. Mara flew backwards from the witch’s powerful spell and skidded across the ground. She cried out in pain and clenched her temples.

“Bad girl, playing games with toys.” The witch wagged her clawed fingers at Mara.

Talis shouted at the woman, and thrust his sword at her chest. She tensed her fingers, as if tightening her grip around a ball. An immense pressure crushed his throat and he coughed and pushed back, trying to fight against the force of her power. A flow of blood streamed out of his nostril. He felt a terrible pain and knew he was dying, and understood that dying was the only way to ease the pain.

So he gripped harder on his sword, greater than the crushing force around his throat. It was as if the power of the sword had unlocked something inside, breathing life into his will. His mind was forged with a purpose: he must save the others. He couldn’t fail.

After he lifted his sword above his head, he brought it down until the hilt was in front of his chest. He tensed his arms, allowing the fire to surge through his body. With renewed force, he pressed back hard at Ashtera, slamming her against the ground. He leapt at her, slicing down as she lifted terrified eyes to face him. He felt the resistance from her neck bone as it met the blade. Her head twisted and fell to one side as its came partially off the trunk. The sword glowed blood-red as it struck. Ripples of fire washed through him.

The drummers and chanters stopped and gasped in horror. But they went back and stupidly beat their drums and chanted. All too late, for his second blow lopped her head off completely and sent it flying like a bloody windmill. The head lay still on the ground. Her eyes moved-searching for meaning.

Filaments of green light streamed out of her head and body. The dark life force that had sustained her coursed back into the fire. A pile of ash remained where she once lay. I feel it, he thought, the fire in the sword. He growled with power, his eyes feasting on the blade.

The chanters and drummers stood in shock. Talis turned his gaze towards them. He had to kill them. As he charged, the drummers reacted, beating out an angry tune. The chanter's strained voices sang a shrill, powerful song. He flung his hands to cover his ears and his sword fell, slicing into the wet soil. Under that immense pain, he crashed to his knees.

The drummers found a new rhythm and sent the voices of demons to invade his mind. A surge of electricity shot along the left side of his body, great jolts wracking his heart. A sudden command from a demon’s voice echoed inside: smash your head, that stone, do it now! He reached out and exhaled, fighting back. For all the magic Master Viridian had taught him, why couldn’t he have said anything about resisting this kind of magic? He grabbed the stone and pounded the ground, then glowered at them. He wouldn’t stop now. Jumping forward, he hammered the drummer's head, knocking him back.

So the chanters found a low voice, like the sound of ocean waves gurgling through pebbles. They focused on Talis and delivered their merged power at his body. He was whipped back until he crashed into a hut. He slammed his fist against the wet soil, allowing his anger to build up the fire inside.

The drummers sped up the rhythm until it built into a stuttered frenzy. Talis glared at them through the torn hut, determined to win. They moved and swayed to the song of the chanters, the light from an unholy fire filling their eyes. Dark magic flowed from each note.

He pushed himself up, and conjured flames in his mind’s eye. Filled with fire, it surged in at each breath, enveloping his lungs. His blood pulsed with heat and he was fire itself. His palms radiated power. The breath he held inside flamed to a feverish pitch until he exhaled and fire burst from his hands, spinning like a dancing dragon.

The flames punished a chanter's head, pouring into his eyes and gushing out of his feet. The chanter screamed in agony. His writhing body issued forth a stream of fire from his mouth, which ate into the drummer nearby.

The chanter and the drummer melted into ash and only their screams lingered in the forest.

Talis gazed, defiance raging in his eyes. He roared a horrific yell and fire exploded all around him: a multi-fingered fire ripping into village huts, setting them aflame. The fire tendrils issuing from him went wild, scorching tree trunks, drummers and chanters alike, until it seemed as if the whole world would turn into a blazing inferno. He felt a terrific agony inside and his bones and tendons buckled under the pressure.

Mara leapt aside as a wave of flame tore in front of her. She looked stunned. Like a rising crescendo, the flames billowed higher: unceasing, unrelenting, and caring little for where they struck. Another flame nearly seared her hair as it ripped past her.

“Talis, stop!” she yelled. He heard her voice, as if from a faraway land, muddled by time, as if a great ocean was in between. Inside his mind, he pictured the fires of the Underworld, a sea of churning red and black embers. More flames leapt out until it seemed the air itself would take to flame.

She screamed at Talis. “Enough! You'll kill us all.”

Talis blinked, pulling out of a dark tunnel at the speed of a falcon’s dive. He stared at Mara, his senses coming back. What was he doing? He glanced around at the destruction. Had he caused all this? His body still vibrated with the pulse of his charged heart and the heat fevered inside.

He noticed the movement of his enemies and his determination returned. He wouldn’t rest until they were all dead. Wielding his sword, the fire rose again. One chanter fled into the shadows, searching for consolation. Another drummer threw down her drum, and grabbed a rock and lunged at Talis. He dodged and cut her down. The vial of her body spilled opened and spewed ash. The remaining enemies fled into the darkness.

Fire raged everywhere.

Talis glanced around. His friends had come out of their trances. Mara looked tired, as if she hadn’t slept in days. Lenora and Nuella cringed next to Rikar and Nikulo, staring at Talis as if he was some kind of a monster. Lenora’s father, the blademaster, and the sorceress were all gone. What had happened to them? The huts blazed and the green fire went cold. The silent bones seemed to cry out.

“Where’s your father?” Talis said to Lenora.

“They killed him.” Tears spilled down her cheeks. “Father is gone, consumed by the fire. Mordellia and Javar tried to stop them…but they were slain.”

Talis gazed at bones and bowed his head. “We have to leave this evil place.”

They collected their gear and found their horses. Talis mounted his horse and stared east. A beam of moonlight sliced through the trees. There was still hope; they still had a chance. He rode slowly, but the forest stalked him from every shadow.

17. AURELLIA

After a long ride through the forest, they setup camp along a broad river with burly boulders dotting the beach. A heavy mist blanketed the party in dew. Talis huddled next to the fire, trying to release a chill that refused to leave his body since casting the fire spell. He glanced over at Lenora, sitting on the other side of the fire, her eyes puffy and red from crying. She was holding her sister tight, shivering, staring into the fire as if seeing a monster.

“I’m worried about them,” Mara whispered.

Talis nodded. “I can’t imagine how they feel.”

“I know the feeling well,” Rikar said, his voice choked and bitter. “It’s like having your stomach torn out.” He sighed a long time, scraping the ground with his dagger. “When father died I swore I’d get revenge on his enemies-”

“And who might that be?” Talis said, bristling at Rikar’s words.

“Start at the top, House Storm.” Rikar twirled his dagger. “But fear not, son of House Storm, revenge can wait. Father beckons me from the Underworld.”

“The Underworld? Only the dead visit the land of the dead.”

Rikar chuckled, as if entertained by a secret joke. “You know little, young Master Storm. There is a way, you know. This was spoken many times in legend.”

“The hero’s journey to the Underworld, past the Titans of the deep and the mountain of fire.”

“This is all true, I’ve seen it in a vision.” Rikar threw a stick into the fire. “I’ve seen my father also…his agony…the Grim March. I will rescue him.”

“You’re going the wrong way,” Mara said. “The Underworld is beneath us.”

Rikar shook his head. “No, quite the opposite. We’re going in exactly the right way. The entrance to the Underworld in on that island.”

“How do you know this?” Nikulo said, suddenly alert.

“There are many things I know that you don’t. Enough of this talk. I’m tired.” Rikar pulled a wolf skin over himself and turned away.

The group fell silent. Talis closed his eyes, thinking about Rikar. The time he’d caught Rikar praying to the shrine of Zagros. His words in the desert. When Rikar had called his master. Aurellia. Who was this Aurellia? Talis was determined to find out…

After everyone was asleep, he glanced at Rikar. He seemed asleep as well, but for some reason Talis could feel he was awake, alert, waiting. The wind stirred, a moist wind, blowing from the east. Rikar shifted slightly, and Talis closed his eyes, observing with his ears. He could hear Rikar rising slowly, creeping from camp.

Seconds later, Talis opened his eyes and spotted Rikar stalking along the river. Shadows danced and the moons reflected off the rippling water. Talis followed, trying to stay quiet, and past a bend in the river he glimpsed a dark figure along the shore. Rikar approached the figure and Talis felt a chill run down his spine. He stalked along the forest’s edge, trying to get closer.

Rikar bowed low to the figure. Talis crept closer, until he could hear what they were saying.

“Obedient boy, you’ve served me well. Is all according to plan?”

Talis held his breath. The figure was Aurellia, the one who’d saved them from the necromancers in the desert. In the moonlight, Talis could see one side of his hideous, wrinkled face beneath a black cape.

“It is.” Rikar frowned. “Some complications…but nothing to stand in the way.”

“Complications?”

Talis listened to Rikar tell the story of the assault at the huts. Rikar did his best to change the story to paint his own actions (or lack of action) in the best light.

“This friend of yours…Talis Storm. He could prove useful. Could he be swayed in our direction?”

Rikar paused for a moment, as if unsure how to proceed. “Talis has different aims-he longs only to save his city.”

“As he should.” Aurellia chuckled. The wind changed, gusting up for a moment, striking Talis’s back.

Aurellia stiffened, like a hound catching a scent. He turned towards Talis, pits of blackness blazing at him.

“You were followed…by your friend.”

Talis dropped, feeling electricity crawling along his back. It was too late. Rikar strode towards him, lifting his hands. Aurellia sauntered over as well, his cloak shuffling along the ground.

“You should have stayed at camp…” Rikar pulled his shoulders back.

“A guest…how quaint. I would have come prepared.” Aurellia clasped his hands together, as if trying to solve a puzzle. “Now I could look at this two ways: one, a curious boy, loyal to his friend, concerned for his safety…out here in the wilds. Two, a traitorous boy, spying on a friend, sworn to some foul task. Now which is it?”

Talis stepped out of the shadows and bowed his head to Aurellia. “Curiosity… And I should offer thanks, for saving us in the desert.”

“Most polite…impressive. You are quite welcome.” Aurellia harrumphed. “A master must protect his loyal apprentices. But enough of history, why are you here now?”

“I should ask the same thing of you and Rikar.”

“And insolent. If you wish to preserve the use of your legs, please contain yourself.” Aurellia raised a long, crooked finger. “Let’s just say, behind the curtain of life, there is a grand struggle. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. Treacherous plans by the rich and ruthless. Everything you see on the outside is not what it seems.”

Rikar grinned. “The master today, is the slave tomorrow-”

“Refrain!” Aurellia glared at Rikar. He paused, then strode close to Talis. “I am old, as old as recorded time.” Talis could smell the sick stench of mold wafting from his mouth and wanted to vomit. “Many of this world call me master. You have a choice, young Talis, a choice that will decide your future. You can be patient and assume there is a valid explanation behind this secret meeting, or you can act rashly. The latter would be…a mistake.”

A mistake. More like it would cost him his life. He had no choice…

“Apologies for my intrusion.” Talis bowed. “I will take my leave.” As he walked away, he could hear Aurellia whispering to Rikar.

Before Talis reached camp, Rikar jogged up to him, breathless.

“Wait…before you-”

“Who is he? Have you been feeding him information all along?” Talis gripped his sword hilt.

Rikar backed away, pressing his palms out. “This conversation is going in the wrong direction. If you try to fight me, you’ll lose. That sword will do you no good.”

“I want answers…”

“You won’t get them from me. Only Aurellia can give you answers, so you’ll have to be patient.”

“No…you can tell me who he is…how long have you been studying with him?”

Rikar’s face contorted to a snarl, glancing down at Talis’s fire sword now positioned over his heart. “You really want to do this? You think you can beat me with that sword?”

“I just want answers…you owe me that at least.”

“Aurellia is my true master of magic…his knowledge and abilities are beyond any of the wizards in Naru.”

“And how did you find him?”

A pained sigh escaped from Rikar’s lips. “After my father was killed, I kept having nightmares of my father tortured in the Underworld. I visited the Temple of Zagros, begging mercy for my father, but the nightmares continued. Once at midnight I bumped into a robed figure worshipping at the Temple. I was surprised, because I’d rarely seen anyone there. I asked the person if he was a temple priest and he chuckled, saying perhaps in a way he was.

“The man asked me why I had come here, so I told him my story… It turned out that the man was Aurellia, one of the most powerful magicians in the world. He helped stop my nightmares and once he knew my abilities at magic, he took me in as his apprentice…”

“But who is Aurellia, really? Where does he come from?” Talis released his grip and lowered his sword.

Rikar shook his head, eyes dark and mysterious. “You’ll have to ask him that yourself.”

“So we go on, continue our quest and act as if nothing has happened?”

“Nothing has happened…yet. Once we get to the island, things will change, I can promise you that. And perhaps you’ll have your opportunity to find the answers you seek from Aurellia…”

The Surineda Map led them to the island and yet Talis felt like it was a trap waiting to spring. He couldn’t trust Rikar, and he didn’t feel like he could trust Aurellia either. But that island was where the map led them and he could feel the power waiting for them, the power of the sun, the power of the Goddess Nacrea.

Talis turned his back on Rikar and walked back to camp, his mind filled with thoughts.

The next morning Lenora glanced at Talis as if she sensed something had changed overnight. Mara noticed also and sent him a look that said, What’s going on?

He motioned Mara to follow him over to the river and they sat behind an upturned tree stump.

“You look like you slept in a pile of leaves.” Mara brushed a strand of hair from his face.

“After everyone was asleep, Rikar snuck off…to meet the sorcerer from the desert.”

Mara’s face paled in disbelief. “The one who slew all the undead?”

Talis lowered his voice and leaned in closer to Mara. “I followed Rikar last night to the river. The sorcerer…Aurellia, he’s…he’s some kind of a terror. But Rikar told me he’s studying with him…since his father’s death.”

“Rikar’s changed, ever since his father was killed on the hunt.”

“Who is this sorcerer?” Lenora said, jumping over the stump, her eyes filled with mischievousness.

Talis bolted upright, startled. “You…you followed us here?”

“This doesn’t involve you,” Mara said, bringing a dagger out, glaring at Lenora.

Lenora frowned and sat back against the trunk. “It does now, now that my fate is intertwined with yours. I’m not frightened of your pitiful weapons. Now, who is this sorcerer you speak of?”

“We don’t need to tell you a thing,” Talis said.

“I have ways of finding the truth…gazing into your eyes will tell me more than your lips would ever reveal.” Lenora’s eyes changed to silver and her pupils widened until they shone bright. Talis felt dizzy, as if he were spinning down into some dark chasm. He pictured Aurellia, slaying the undead in the desert, and Aurellia again, talking with Rikar by the river.

Lenora shrieked, startling Talis awake. He glanced around, spotting Mara sitting on top of Lenora, her daggers pricking the side of Lenora’s delicate neck, until a line of blood dripped down.

“Get her off of me!” Lenora shouted, wriggling underneath Mara.

“If you continue moving, these pitiful weapons, as you called them, are going to do a lot more damage. Now what were you doing to Talis, you witch… Casting some kind of charm, a truth reveal spell?”

Lenora’s body stiffened, and a look of triumph crossed her face. “I knew something was strange about your story. People rarely survive attacks from Jiserians… So this sorcerer, Aurellia, is connected with your friend Rikar? And you saw this Aurellia last night? Why is he following?”

Talis gaped at Lenora in disbelief, how did she know Aurellia’s name? Did mystics have the power to read minds? “Talk to Rikar about that… But if you try that trick on me again, you’ll wish you hadn’t. We’ll take you as far as Khael, you have family there, right?”

Lenora pursed her lips, as if greatly displeased. “You want to get rid of me, don’t you?”

She climbed over the stump and stormed off, her dress swishing back and forth.

“We’ll need to watch her,” Mara said. “She’s a witch. All those tears for her father…now it’s as if she’s forgotten about him completely.”

“Now she’s gone to Rikar…she’s talking to him.“

“Flirting with him is more like it, and it’s working. Why do girls resort to such trickery?” Mara scowled, then blinked as if remembering something.

“This morning, I woke up and heard Rikar mumbling to himself. It didn’t make sense. He said, ‘I obey, master, to Darkov…under the temple, Zagros commands.’ What does that mean?”

“I’ve never heard of Darkov, a city perhaps?”

“Look on the map. You can read the runes, right?”

Talis glanced back at camp, making sure they were all there. He withdrew the map from the case and stretched it out. Immediately the map lit up, symbols and markers glowing as if on fire. All over his body, his skin tingled from holding the map.

“There’s Lorello,” Mara pointed. “But the island is so small on the map…”

“I wish we could see more detail.” As if responding to his desire, the map changed, and now displayed a larger view of the island. New markers appeared. “This one says ‘Seraka’, along the coast.“

“And this one, over here?” To the south and east lay an immense marker, and within, a shimmering golden triangle.

“Urgar…and this one is the Temple of the Goddess Nacrea, our destination.”

“What about this?” She tapped a city to the north, shrouded in mist.

“Darkov…”

18. INTRIGUE IN KHAEL

After three days of hard riding, Talis and the others gazed over the city of Khael. The city was nestled in the side of a cleft overlooking the mystical Melovian Sea. The ocean glimmered as if enchanted by the Goddess Nacrea. Talis had dreamed about seeing the ocean ever since his father told him bedtime stories of his youth along the fair seas of Onair. How he missed his family and his home…

High above the city of Khael, sandstone spires ran along the mountain ridgeline like a dragon's spine. The sun lingered low on the horizon, painting the countryside in shades of violet and gold. A tower rose from the highest point in Khael, next to the cliffs, part of a palace that glimmered from the last rays of sunlight. He caught sight of a shadow cast from a low cloud floating over the harbor, a shadow that sent crooked fingers spidering across the rooftops. He gripped his reins tighter and prodded his horse on.

“I don’t like how it looks,” Mara said. Other than the palace and the surrounding compound, the rest of the city was a dark hovel. The difference between the two areas was startling. Along the docks and leading up towards the hills, old dilapidated buildings and crumbling earthen homes were crammed in so close together, Talis could hardly spot any streets. The town was heavily guarded with soldiers marching in many places throughout the city, with a large contingent stationed near the palace. Outside, no guard posts or walls or patrols of any kind protected Khael. It was as if the government had no interest in keeping people out. This struck Talis odd, a stark contrast with Naru’s enormous walls and regular patrols.

They reached what appeared to be a town gate: the broken down remains of two old stone guardhouses. A man’s body hung from a guardhouse, a noose cinched around his neck. His eyes were gone and the rest of him was being torn asunder by a gang of crows working mightily on his flesh. The stench was nauseating and Talis forced himself to look away.

Long shadows knifed their way down the main street past the guardhouse. The air inside smelled of burned meat and moldy bread. Women scowled at the party, slamming their shutters closed as they approached. Past the town square, down narrow, winding streets, the way opened up to the docks, and beyond, the sea. It went on forever. So this was the sea father had talked about so much. Where you could spend an eternity on those wild waves, drifting from island to island, alongside whales and dolphins and sharks, hoping and praying to reach a friendly port.

A breeze whipped up and filled Talis’s nostrils with the smell of fish and other pungent smells he didn’t recognize. A sudden craving struck him, to eat the bounty of the sea. He glanced around, hoping to find an inn or a tavern. The docks were thronging with people in tattered clothes. Ship’s hands, beggars, thieves with shifty eyes, and dotted here and there, soldiers harassing well-dressed sea captains and traders. Ladies of obvious poor-reputation sauntered amongst the crowd, looking for victims with coin. Talis spotted an inn, “The Rusty Harpoon,” and decided it the best choice. Fewer drunks littered the steps outside.

He motioned the others towards the inn. Rikar grunted and guided his horse to the stables, Lenora trotting next to him.

Mara chuckled. “She’s been cuddling up close to him for days.”

“Young love.” Nikulo flashed his teeth. “Catch me if I start to swoon.”

“Our uncle will never approve,” Nuella said, and frowned. “I don’t know what she’s thinking.”

“Love’s a mystery.” Nikulo stuck his finger in his mouth, as if pretending to barf.

“She’s not in love,” Mara said. “She’s just using him.”

Nikulo laughed at that. “Let me say, for the record, Rikar has no problem being used in this situation.”

Inside the inn was packed and noisy, smelling of smoke and ale and garlic. Ladies danced with drunken sailors in uniform, older officers sat drinking, eating, scheming. Talis followed Rikar and Lenora to a rickety table in the far corner under the stairs. Dust spilled down on them as people stormed up and down.

“No wonder the table was available.” Mara waved away the dust.

“It’s the only free table…stop complaining,” Rikar said, and motioned to a barmaid.

“Always liked a layer of dust with pork roast.” Nikulo brushed off the table with his hat.

“Do you have coin?” The barmaid frowned at them suspiciously.

Rikar flourished a silver coin. “Food and ale…and a room for the night.”

“A room?” Nuella said. “Aren’t we to have a room of our own?”

“Aren’t you bound for Uncle’s house?” Lenora spat, shifting her chair closer to Rikar’s.

“And you aren’t?”

Lenora shook her head, then glanced at Rikar. “I’ll not set foot in that drunk’s house.”

“But the plan was to live with Uncle and-”

“Plans change, sister. It’s hard for me to leave you, but I imagine you’ll manage somehow.”

The barmaid cast a disapproving glance at them, and swiped the coin from Rikar’s hand, storming off.

“You’ve scared her.” Rikar grinned. “You sisters shouldn’t fight. We’ll find your uncle tomorrow, and reunite you both with your family.”

“But you said!”

Rikar put up his hand as if to silence Lenora. “Eat first, your hunger is affecting your mood.”

“This seems a good place to ask…for ship’s passage to Lorello.” Nikulo flicked his eyes towards the seamen at the other tables.

“The crooked lot of them…the whole town included.”

“Be vague then,” Talis said. “Ask where they trade, home ports.“

Mara sighed. “That’s not how it’s done. Ask what trade garners the most coin. Pretend like you’re interested in signing up as a ship hand.”

The barmaid slapped down a large plate with a haunch of pork, roasted potatoes oozing in oil, and a whole cod. “Now there’s a feast.” Nikulo rubbed his hands together and sampled a potato.

“And ale?”

“Save your mouth for the food,” the barmaid said. “Ale’s coming soon enough. And you owe another silver for the room. That foreign coin of yours needs more weight.”

Nikulo handed her another coin, and gave Rikar a look as if trying to pacify him. “This is not Naru…prices are different.“

“More like robbery once they saw the foreign mint.”

“The inland mint…most people in this room are sailors…except us. Our coin gives us away.” Talis noticed the barmaid whispering to the innkeeper.

“We’ll see about changing coins in the morning.” Nikulo’s eyes brightened as the barmaid sauntered up, carrying a tray with six mugs of ale.

“Father complains from the grave,” Lenora said, and raised the mug to her lips.

“Your father walks the Grim March in the Underworld.” Rikar scowled at his hands. “Begging mercy from Zagros.”

Lenora paled, eyes widening. Instead of protesting, she bit her lip and drank half her ale.

“You cruel bastard…” Mara said. “Have you no feelings at all?”

Rikar shook his head slowly. “Not in many years…I’ve no need for them. You’ve enough emotions for the two of us. Wear them with pride.” He gulped down his ale in one go.

Talis wanted to kill him. He glared at Rikar, and gripped his sword.

“What do you want, oh you of royal blood? Do you want to murder me? You’re all just dripping with tender feelings. Plump morsels for the Master. Do you all realize how insignificant you are?”

Nikulo coughed. “Indeed we are…next to an ego such as yours… That’s right, I forgot to bow down and worship your lordship’s arse.”

“Go ahead, laugh until your fat face turns red. We’ll see how well your wit serves you on that island.”

“Promises and threats, my favorite bedtime stories. Is there something you know that we don’t?”

“Volumes, my old friend, volumes.”

“Who pray tell invited you on this quest? Am I missing something here? All this talk of Zagros, and mystery on the island. We arrive at Khael-a ship’s journey away-and my old friend shows his true colors?”

Lenora stared at Talis, as if begging him to say something. Talis cleared his throat. “Rikar here is in league with a dark sorcerer-”

“Say another word and I’ll slice your head off.” Rikar smiled madly. “I told you he will explain himself when he sees fit. Until then keep those words to yourself.”

“Are we to understand that this master of yours will explain everything once you lead us to the city of Darkov?” Mara scoffed.

“Who told you about Darkov?” Rikar’s face paled.

“You did, you stupid fool.”

19. PASSAGE TO LORELLO

Rikar woke early to take Lenora and Nuella to their uncle, ignoring Lenora’s final protests. Talis said goodbye to them, noticing the look of sadness in Lenora’s eyes. He didn’t buy it for a moment. She wanted to stay with them and continue on to Lorello, but everyone had agreed they had no interest in having her along.

Talis and Mara were to scour the docks in search of a ship bound for Lorello, and Nikulo mumbled something about finding rare ingredients. They split up. The air was cold and clammy from a dense mist and the ships in the harbor bobbed listlessly, their sails disappearing into the fog.

“Trade mostly in seal furs from the Isle of Tarasen,” an old salty sailor barked in response to Talis’s question.

They moved on, trying a broken-down tavern so close to the sea, Talis was sure it would soon fall in.

“Salt…salt from the salt flats of Douraman…we stay close to the coast. Yonder sea is vicious out in the open.” The barrel-chested hairy sailor puffed on a pipe, blowing rings of smoke thoughtfully. “Talk to Captain Calfour. He might know a thing or two about adventure on the high seas. Oldest and craziest dog amongst us.”

They tried the Captain and got a sour stare and plenty of grunts. He didn’t want their ale and wasn’t interested in speaking a word. As they were leaving the tavern, a man tapped Talis in the shoulder, and motioned them outside, down a dark alley.

“So you’re looking to join up on the Captain’s ship?” The man wore a white cap, and had two front missing teeth. “I’m his first mate, anything you want to say to the Captain has to go through me.”

“And where does your ship sail?” Mara said.

“Quite a lip on this one.” The first mate frowned at Mara. “We sail where there’s money in the wind.”

“Such as?” Talis said.

“Well if you must know, south to Tsenga, north to Blighter’s Bay, and if the need arises, east, far out to sea, to Seraka.”

So there it was, Seraka. Talis hated the look of greed and thievery in this man’s eyes, but it was their only lead so far. “And where will you be sailing next?”

The first mate frowned. “The need is great, so we set sail to Seraka at dawn tomorrow. You’ll work hard, the wages poor, the food awful…but if you’ve never seen her before, seen the ancient Isle of Lorello…there’s gold in that view. Can’t ye see her vibrant jungles and flaming mountains and mysterious ruins? Ah, the life of a sailor…wouldn’t trade it for all the salt in the world.”

“Then you have room for the four of us?”

“Four?” The man looked puzzled, though in a pleased sort of way.

“Well do you?”

“I’ll bring the Captain’s decision…to your?”

“Inn…The Rusty Harpoon.”

“Of course, of course you’d be staying there.” The first mate grinned crookedly, and slipped down the alley, disappearing into the shadows.

Nikulo stumbled into their room past midnight, so drunk he hit his head on the bedpost, then bowed, and apologized for his clumsiness.

“What happened to you?” Mara rubbed her eyes. “And where is Rikar?”

“I last saw my old traitorous friend trying to convince a young maid he was a prince…she didn’t believe him.“

“He is a prince.”

“That’s the funny part. A prince who looks more like a minstrel, a wanton one at that.”

Mara chuckled. “Rikar can’t sing his own name. Which tavern did you last see our old friend?”

“The Suckling Pig…surrounded by new friends with a taste for ale.”

“And silver…”

“Nay, always the ale that the silver buys.” Nikulo burped, slapping his chest and puffing out his cheeks. “Whew, I’d better lie down.”

“Did you find those rare ingredients?”

Nikulo hiccupped. “Success!” he said, then rolled over, and started snoring.

“Shall we go fetch him?” Mara studied Talis, her face disgusted and resigned at the same time.

“I don’t see why we should…”

The Suckling Pig reeked of vomit and smoke and sweat. It was the filthiest and most crowded tavern Talis had ever seen. There was an enormous round table in the center of the room and Rikar sat at the far end, shaking dice in an ivory cup.

“The gods be pleased, roll sevens!” A girl, maybe fifteen, jumped up and down, screeching, not minding her state of undress.

The table roared. Sevens… Rikar scooped up a pile of coins, grunted, and destroyed another mug of ale.

“Oy!” Mara shouted. “Time to go, we’ve found a ship.”

Rikar raised his eyes, as if annoyed at hearing her voice. “Can’t you see I’m winning here?”

“You’ll end up losing, in the end, whether to the dice or to these… ladies.” Talis sneered at Rikar. For all his noble upbringing, Rikar showed himself now as the fool he was. First Nikulo and now this. Even if the Captain let them on as crew, he couldn’t see how he’d manage to wake them up in time.

After Rikar sighed, he stuffed the coins into his purse and rose, shaking off the girl who’d clung to his arm. “The night is over…dawn awaits. Lead on, my prudish friends, may your steps be difficult, and the sinkholes you step in rancid.” For some reason he laughed to himself, as if caught up in some joke of his own.

At the door, someone grabbed Talis’s arm. He spun around, and frowned at the first mate.

“Ye said the Rusty Harpoon…this isn’t the place…”

“Powers of observation.” Rikar scoffed.

“This another of your friends? Tell him to mind his tongue tomorrow morning. Drunk as he is…good luck getting him up. Try a bucket of cold fish…that always does the trick.” The first mate tapped his finger on Talis’s chest. “First light or we sail without you. Not that the Captain cares, mind you. We sail on the finest ship in the harbor, The Bounty of the Sea. Eighteen canons, seven masts-”

“And a blathering fool that talks too much.” Rikar farted, walked past the man, waving the smell in his direction. “I need to water the sea.”

Talis chased after Rikar, who shambled his way towards the docks. As Rikar relieved himself into the water, Talis yanked back on his shirt to keep him from falling in. Why he was helping him? Maybe he felt sorry for the fool. Maybe he knew they’d need him in the days to come. Whatever the reason, Talis and Mara guided Rikar back to the room and shoved him into bed.

The innkeeper woke them before dawn as promised. Nikulo had a long river of drool spilling out of his snoring mouth. Rikar was curled into a ball, shivering and mumbling from a bad dream. Talis and Mara stared at them, chuckling. A perfect pair of clowns.

Without time for breakfast, they all headed down to the docks. Nikulo stumbled along, wincing, pulling his hair from a bad headache.

“Never again,” he said. “I don’t know what that bartender put in the drinks…something funny going on in his brew.”

“With any luck we’ll be back again for more.” Rikar took a deep breath. “Just what I need, a good sea breeze to keep my spirits up.”

“And rolling waves to have you barfing up yesterday’s meal.” Mara pointed at the seagulls kicking around in the sea. “They’ll appreciate it.”

“Don’t even mention it.” Rikar placed a hand on his stomach. “The world is still spinning.”

The first mate ambled up to them, chewing on a fat cigar. “The worst bunch of motley vagabonds I’ve ever seen. I’m certain you’ve never even set foot on a ship…well, you’ll learn soon enough…if the food doesn’t kill you first. Hey you, fatty, you’re looking kind of sick. Is he alright?”

“The sight of your face is making me ill…apologies for whatever my mouth gushes forth.”

“I like him…there’s salt in that fatted pork. A good choice letting you on after all. Get on up the gangplank and keep your mouths’ shut.”

Talis stared up at the bow of the largest galley in the docks. A goddess kept watch over her direction, painted in silver and gold and black. Her long flowing golden hair swept down along the sides of the ship, as if the wind might lift her up into the sky. The Bounty of the Sea. Her name made him hungry.

They sauntered up the plank, unable to avoid the leering eyes of the crew.

“Make yerself at home,” a midget of a sailor said, gesturing towards a rail.

A deep, booming horn sounded, announcing their departure. The crew raised the gangplank and pulled the anchor in. At the docks a horde of cats ran by, as if expecting a fresh new load from the sea. The galley shuddered as the sails popped, taking ahold of a cold, morning breeze. Soon they were out past the docks, navigating through the winding harbor and out into the vast, blue sea.

For the first time since their journey started, Talis felt hope surging inside his heart. They’d finally found a ship to the island of their destination. The Surineda Map had been true, the words of the hero true; out on that island lay the promise of a power so strong, they might actually have a chance of saving their city.

If they could survive the dark journey ahead.