|Saturday, October 22nd, 2016|
For October, here’s the first scene with Jason and co from Retribution. This will (probably) be the last bit I throw up before release. I’ll keep everyone posted!
“The dragons are prepared, Your Majesty. We can depart whenever you are ready.”
Krystia Tharule, Dragon Queen of Solaria, waved a dismissive hand without turning her head. “I will join you shortly. Wait for me upstairs.”
Once the door closed, she leaned down and placed her hand on the cheek of the unconscious man lying upon the bed. Her pale blue eyes turned mournful as she slowly shook her head.
“I’m sorry, Jason,” she whispered. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. If you had just listened to me, if you just stayed here where I could have protected you…”
“You will accomplish far more with this power than he ever could,” a male voice said from the shadows behind her. “Do not allow misguided sympathy to blind you to the greater truth.”
Krystia sighed and grit her teeth. “I do not wish to see him harmed. There must be something we can do for him.”
“If he was strong enough to survive his Awakening, he is strong enough to survive this.”
“Perhaps,” she whispered as she lovingly stroked Jason’s face. “I’m afraid he’ll overreact. Once he learns that Darius is gone—”
“I’m far more worried about his friends,” the man in the shadows interrupted. “I don’t trust them, and neither should you. We should imprison them until we return.”
“No,” Krystia insisted. She kissed Jason’s forehead and stood. “We cannot afford to antagonize the Asgardians any further. Sarina assures me that her cousin is willing to negotiate.”
“And you believe her? She’s convinced that I ordered the attack on Valheim.”
“You did, and it failed. Instead of dividing the clans you’ve united them against us.”
“The point is that the barbarians are going to invade regardless of how you treat the High King’s cousin. We should lock her in the dungeon and interrogate her. With your power, you could extract everything we want to know from her memories in seconds.”
“We’d have to find her first,” Krystia pointed out. “No one has seen her in days.”
The other speaker finally stepped out from the shadows and crossed his spiked gauntlets over his chest. His golden armor glittered in the thin beams of afternoon sunlight filtering in through the window. “She and her friends are still here in the city somewhere.”
“Obviously. They would never leave Jason behind. Sooner or later, they’ll make their move and attempt to break him out of the palace.”
“And you’re just going to let that happen?”
Krystia took a deep breath before she turned around to face him. “They are not our enemies, no matter what you think. They’re simply…misguided. Just like Jason.” Her expression hardened. “And Darius.”
The armored man scoffed. “So what do you plan to do, then?”
“I don’t want to harm them, but we obviously can’t allow them to jeopardize our plans, either. Not even Jason.” She glanced back down to the bed. “If they do try to break him out of here, we know exactly where they’ll take him.”
“Eventually, perhaps, but first they’ll try and rendezvous with Darius. If we follow them, there’s a chance we can solve all of our problems at once.”
The armored man smiled. He was tall and relatively young, and his wide forehead and pronounced cheekbones suggested an eastern Torsian heritage. “I’m impressed. You’re finally learning to think like a queen.”
“A queen who has no interest in being patronized, least of all by you,” Krystia growled. “Deep down, Jason and his friends know that the Crell are the real threat, but they’ve allowed themselves to become distracted. Once the war is over, they’ll understand…but until then, I may need to protect them from themselves.”
“And what of the faeyn twins? The male will not survive much longer, but his sister might.”
“They will be executed, as planned.”
“Even though they fought against Dathiel? Even though they have intimate knowledge of the Watchers and the Triumvirate? You knew who they were when they entered the palace with Jason, but you didn’t seem to care at the time.”
“That doesn’t matter now,” Krystia said, shaking her head. “They killed our soldiers at Belethari. They are enemies of Solaria and shall be punished accordingly.”
“The healers believe they will awaken soon or not at all. Shall we stay the execution until our return?”
“No. The moment they regain consciousness, I want them carted out to the lower ward and strung up in front of as many of the refugees as possible. I will not tolerate any more dissent, not from my people and certainly not from foreign mercenaries.”
The armored man grinned. “We prevented Dathiel from destroying the city. Once we liberate the Darrowmere, the people will have no further reason to doubt us. Even the Legion will recover, in time.”
“Perhaps,” Krystia whispered. “Or perhaps you were right all along.”
“Meaning I never needed soldiers to win this war. I have the Unbound, I have your dragons…and now I have the power of the gods themselves.”
“I have a feeling that even the Sovereigns know their time has come.”
“If they don’t already,” Krystia said, “they will soon.”
Jason Moore awakened with a start. For a brief moment he thought the world was shaking around him, but then he belatedly remembered he was inside a covered carriage lumbering down the road.
“You all right?”
He swallowed and turned. Sarina was sitting next to him, her green eyes narrowed in concern. Behind her, Gor was snoring softly beneath an oversized silk blanket; behind him, Kaeya Virithal was huddled up against a cushion in the corner, her arms crossed and her hood drawn over her face. The rest of the carriage interior was filled with their meager traveling supplies.
“Uh…I think so,” Jason muttered as his brain finally reconciled the difference between dream and reality. His memories of the past few days flooded back over him: waking up inside the Celenest palace, rejoining with Tam and Sarina, escaping the city before the royal guards could catch them…
“You should try and get as much rest as you can,” Sarina suggested, squeezing his shoulder before she shifted her attention back down to the impressive bow she’d brought back with her from Asgardia. “We should be coming up on Lonath’s Watch soon, but with any luck the guards won’t give us any trouble.”
Jason cleared his throat and ran a hand back through his tangled brown hair. They were three days out from Celenest at this point, and as long as their bribes and bullshit continued to appease any Legion soldiers they encountered, they would arrive in Serogar tomorrow evening. There, hopefully, they would reunite with Darius and figure out what in the void they were going to do next.
A week had passed since Dathiel, the mortal avatar of the Immortal Orias, had assaulted Celenest. As far as Jason was concerned, however, it could have easily been a different lifetime. In addition to trashing the Temple of Sol, Dathiel had also ripped Anvira’s Godsoul from the Virithal Twins and stolen the Malacross Godsoul from Jason. He was surprised he’d woken up at all—host bodies didn’t often survive the extraction process. Kaeya’s dead brother, Zorvyn, was proof enough of that.
“You want some water?” Sarina asked into the silence. “You look like you just saw your father’s ghost.”
Jason nodded and licked his parched lips. “You’re not as far off as you think.”
She handed him a skin of water and frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I was having a vivid dream,” he mumbled, taking a long drink. “So vivid I’m not sure it was actually a dream.”
Her auburn eyebrows arched in unison. “What else would it be?”
Jason pressed his tongue hard against his teeth. “You remember back before Garos when I had that vision about the coming battle?”
“Of course,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “But it came from the Godsoul, right?”
“Yes, but that’s exactly what my dream felt like just now. Except it wasn’t a vision of the future—it was more like an echo of the past.”
Sarina’s eyes narrowed as she studied him. “You think it has something to do with your…condition?”
“I don’t know, but I can’t think of any other explanation. Unless I’m just going crazy.”
Jason shook his head. Ever since he’d awakened in Celenest, his entire body had ached like he’d just been pummeled into submission by a groll. Most of the lingering muscle and join pain had faded by now, but the strange hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach had not. It felt like he’d eaten some rotten food, but more intense…and nothing they’d tried so far had helped.
“What did you see?” Sarina asked. “Do you remember?”
“Perfectly,” Jason said. “It was just after you and Tam arrived in Celenest. Krystia and a man in golden armor—Wyrmlord Sovan, I assume—were standing over me talking about their plans.”
She pursed her lips in thought. “Maybe you overheard them while you were unconscious. Your mind could be playing tricks on you.”
“I considered that, but my memories are too vivid. Even now, I can remember almost everything they said with perfect clarity.”
“Strange,” Sarina murmured. She didn’t sound convinced, but he could hardly blame her for being skeptical. “Did you learn anything interesting?”
“Only that it’s more important than ever for us to stop them. To stop her.”
When Sarina didn’t reply right away, he wondered if she was using her newly acquired channeling abilities to try and probe his emotions. He still had trouble believing she’d actually accepted her cousin’s power; she had been opposed to the idea of becoming a ranger for as long as they had known each other.
“Tam is still convinced that Sovan is the bigger threat,” she said eventually. “If he’s half as insane as the man he sent to attack Valheim, we’re all in trouble. He believes the Unbound are destined to—”
“He’s been whispering poison into Krystia’s ear, but she’s the one who chose to listen,” Jason interrupted. “She’s the one who worked with my father. She’s the one who murdered Areekan and deposed the Lord’s Council. She’s the one who has to answer for all the death and suffering she’s caused.”
He stared into Sarina’s eyes for several long, heated seconds before he finally turned away and sighed. “This wasn’t how I envisioned our reunion, believe me.”
“When has anything ever gone the way we expected?” she groused. “At this point, chaos seems perfectly normal to me.”
Jason smiled despite himself, but it faded quickly. “We never should have split up after Ashenfel. It was delusional for me to think I could get through to Krystia. I could have helped with your cousin and—”
Sarina reached out and grabbed his arm. “You did what you had to. You never would have been able to live with yourself if you hadn’t tried.”
“I’m having enough trouble living with myself now.”
“That’s because you’re moping like a child. I’m already sick of it.”
Jason turned and glared at her only to find a wry smile on her lips.
“We haven’t been able to bicker in almost a month,” Sarina said. “You didn’t really expect me to show up and coddle you, I hope.”
“I guess not.”
“Good. Because I’m not that kind of girl.”
Jason snorted. They’d barely had any time alone since he’d regained consciousness, and there were still about a thousand things he wanted to tell her—and do to her—before they reached Serogar. Unfortunately, he doubted they’d get any privacy in the near future.
“Hopefully Darius has been able to gather some support,” Jason said. “It won’t be—”
He grimaced as a fresh spike of pain shot through his chest. He clutched his side like he’d just been stabbed.
“What’s going on?” Sarina asked, grabbing his arm.
“I’m all right,” he breathed. The pain faded as abruptly as it appeared, but it was yet another reminder that something was seriously wrong with him.
“Maybe you should lie back down,” Sarina suggested. Her voice was unusually warm, and her forehead was creased with concern. “And maybe I should commune with my cousin and see if he can teach me any healing magic…”
“I’m all right,” Jason assured her. “It’s been getting a bit better every day.”
She shook her head. “Lying will only make me hit you.”
“I’m not lying. It’s just…I wish I understood what was going on.”
“Kaeya seems convinced that the Archdruid is the only one who can possibly help you,” Sarina said, glancing back over her shoulder to the faeyn woman buried beneath a blanket in the corner. “Do you think she’s telling the truth?”
“I think she believes what she says. Whether it’s true or not is a separate question.”
“Mm,” Sarina murmured. “I understand why you wanted to help her escape from Celenest, but that doesn’t mean she’s suddenly our ally.”
Jason sighed and swallowed the lump of guilt in his throat. Kaeya and Zorvyn, the “Virithal Twins,” were former Watcher operatives who had turned against Dathiel when he’d betrayed the Triumvirate and attacked the Temple of Anvira in Sorthaal. In the aftermath of the massacre, Archdruid Nelethayne had entrusted them with the goddess’s power. She had sent them to find Jason and bring him to the rest of the Triumvirate in western Galvia. There, the Archdruid hoped, the knights and druids could make a final, unified stand against Dathiel and the Sovereigns.
But Jason had refused to go anywhere until he made one last attempt to convince Krystia to see reason. Thanks to his stubbornness, Kaeya’s brother was dead and two Godsouls had been lost.
“She has no reason to deceive us,” Jason said. “It’s not like I have any value to the Triumvirate without the Godsoul.”
Sarina eyed him intently. “Is that guilt or reason talking?”
“It’s the truth. I hope all of this goes away, but if it doesn’t…” He shrugged and slumped back down onto his pillow. “It feels like some kind of disease, and I’m pretty sure it’s eating away at me—at us.”
Sarina squeezed his arm again. “Just try and get some rest. We’ll be…”
Jason frowned when she trailed off. He belatedly realized that the horses had begun to slow down, and a few moments later he heard voices shouting in the distance. Shortly thereafter, Tam banged on the outside of the carriage as a warning.
“We must be at the checkpoint,” Jason reasoned, leaning back up. Kaeya still hadn’t moved, but Gor’s eyes had finally cracked open. The chagari licked at his fangs and rubbed his paws over his eyes.
“Not as long as you trust Tam to talk his way out of an inspection,” Sarina said.
“Definitely trouble, then,” Gor muttered as he stretched out his arms. “Wonderful.”
Jason reached down and touched the sword and crossbow lying next to him. He hadn’t thought about wielding a real weapon in months, not since he’d learned how to control the power of the Godsoul. He still trusted his aim, but he wasn’t nearly as confident about his swordplay…
Ideally, he would be the one out there bluffing the soldiers at the checkpoint, but Krystia had almost certainly warned her priests that he might be fleeing in this direction. Everyone here in the carriage was easily recognizable—the chagari, the faeyn, the Asgardian huntress—which left Tam as the only one who could confidently toss on a disguise and pass as a random merchant.
“He’s gotten better at this sort of thing,” Sarina whispered as her fingers anxiously slid up and down her bowstring. “He actually sweet-talked some people in Valheim.”
Jason cocked an eyebrow at her. “You really think he can pull this off?”
She stared straight ahead for a moment before she finally shook her head. “It’s Tam,” she admitted. “So no.”
Jason grunted and picked up his crossbow. Once the horses finally came to a halt, he could make out several muffled voices outside. The canvas they’d stretched over the back of the carriage wasn’t particularly thick, but the wind was ruffling it just enough to make eavesdropping difficult. Hopefully that would work both ways and prevent anyone outside from hearing the heavy breathing of a chagari.
Tam responded to the soldiers and hopped off his horse, though based on his increasingly pleading tone it appeared they weren’t buying his bullshit. The muted exchange continued for another minute, and Jason forced himself to stay calm even as Sarina slowly plucked an arrow from her quiver. None of them had any interest in killing random Solarian soldiers, obviously, which was why they’d taken the long route to Serogar and avoided as many patrols as possible. But they obviously couldn’t afford to just surrender, not after they’d busted Kaeya out of the Celenest dungeon and assaulted several royal guardsmen in the process. Jason still didn’t know if Krystia would actually harm them or not, but at this point he didn’t really care. One way or another, he was going to find a way to stop her…
“Fine!” Tam yelled eventually. “Open it up and look around, but you’re just wasting everyone’s time.”
He wrapped his knuckles against the side of the carriage as he circled around back. From the footfalls, Jason guessed there were at least two, possibly three men with him—enough that this could get messy in a hurry. He and Sarina would have to strike quickly enough that the soldiers couldn’t signal the fort, otherwise they’d have to ditch the carriage and vanish into the forest on foot. Though at this point, there was a good chance they’d have to do that anyway.
Jason braced his crossbow against his forearm once he heard Tam fiddling with the locks outside. But just before the gate fell open, a strange sensation tugged at the corner of Jason’s mind, almost like he could feel the presence of the soldiers in the Aether again…
“Don’t shoot,” he whispered.
Sarina turned and glared at him. “What?”
He lowered her bow with his hand. “Just wait a moment.”
The gate dropped open. Tam was standing there alongside three scowling legionnaires. It took less than a second for them to draw their swords.
“I knew it,” the soldier with a captain’s insignia blurted out. “Signal the garrison. Have them—”
“There’s no need for that,” Jason said, raising his hands in surrender. He could feel Sarina and Gor glaring at him. “We’re not here to cause trouble.”
“Good, then we won’t have to kill you,” the captain growled. “By order of the Dragon Queen, you and your allies are to be chained and returned to Celenest immediately!”
“Nothing would please me more than watching you try, human,” Gor snarled.
The captain’s lip twitched as he reflexively took a step backwards. He knew how badly he was outnumbered, but the close proximity of the fort must have emboldened him to stand his ground. “The Queen’s orders are quite clear.”
“So are General Iouna’s,” said a female voice from somewhere behind him.
The legionnaires died before they could turn around. Jason heard the unmistakable click of multiple crossbows firing in unison, and the barrage of bolts dropped all three soldiers in the span of a single heartbeat. Tam shrieked and rolled away, then conjured a massive flaming sphere in his palm as he turned to meet the ambush—
But no more shots were forthcoming. A moment later, a small group of leather-clad, camouflaged marksmen shuffled out of the bushes along the edge of the road. They were also wearing Legion insignias.
“Jason Moore,” their leader said, lowering her weapon. “General Iouna sends his regards.”
Twenty minutes later, the group had unloaded their supplies, set the carriage ablaze, and ducked into the nearby forest. Ten minutes after that, they were hunkered down in a thick copse preparing to continue their journey to Serogar. Sarina was a bit concerned about their water supply, but otherwise they still had everything they needed.
“We really can’t thank you enough for the help,” Jason said as they were preparing to leave. “I’m glad Darius still has some loyal supporters.”
Neera, the Legion scout who’d saved them, smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “He has plenty, trust me,” she said. The pride in her voice was unmistakable. “General Iouna is the only reason most of us are still alive. If Wyrmlord Sovan had gotten his way, we’d all be rotting in a ditch somewhere in the Darrowmere.”
“Why do you say that?” Sarina asked.
Neera shrugged. “Since the fall of Amberwood, he’s been trying to redeploy every soldier in the north. The bastard doesn’t give a damn about the people here. I think he’d feed us all to his bloody dragons if he could.”
“That’s more or less what we’ve heard,” Jason said, nibbling at his lower lip. His skin was still paler than normal, and he moved with the sluggishness of a man who was soaking wet. “I’m a bit surprised he emptied out all the forts.”
“Most have less than fifty men, some barely have a dozen. Even Lonath’s Watch is down to about a hundred these days. If there were any groll left in the mountains, they could take half the province before anyone stopped them.”
Jason nodded solemnly. “We’ll see what we can do about that.”
“I know the General will appreciate any help he can get.” Neera pulled a crudely-drawn map from her satchel and handed it to him. “The patrol routes on the roads here used to change frequently, but since all the garrisons are undermanned these days…” She shrugged again. “Just stay as clear of Lonath’s as you can, even if it means traveling through the night. The watch commander will start deploying more scouts once his men finish pilfering through the wreckage.”
“We’ll do that,” Sarina said, squinting out through the tree cover towards the distant fort. She had expected to be able to ride a carriage straight into Serogar, though a part of her was glad they’d have to move on foot instead. The spring weather in this part of Solaria was rather pleasant, and the blooming forest was a sight to behold. Besides, she’d always hated being cooped up.
“With an Asgardian huntress and a faeyn ranger, I figure you can handle just about anything,” Neera said, smiling and glancing over towards Kaeya. As usual, the faeyn woman had barely spoken a word this entire time. She was currently standing a good thirty paces from the group staring off into the forest.
“What about the soldiers in Serogar?” Sarina asked. “Where do their loyalties lie?”
“They’re loyal to staying alive, which for the past few months has meant doing whatever Overseer Grovahl says,” Neera told her. “With the depleted garrison, his dragon is the only real authority in the whole province. And believe me: he’s not afraid to use it.”
“Sounds like yet another charming friend of the Wyrmlord,” Tam muttered. “Do you think Darius will be able to convince anyone to support him?”
“I don’t know. I certainly hope so.” Neera turned back to Jason. “He seemed convinced that you could make all the difference. I hope he was right.”
“So do I,” Jason whispered.
Neera clapped him on the shoulder again before she turned and barked fresh orders at her men. After a few more parting words, the scouts slipped back into the forest and disappeared.
“If nothing else, it’s always nice to meet new people who didn’t want to kill us right away,” Tam commented. “My faith in humanity has been restored.”
“Mine hasn’t,” Gor grumbled. He hissed between his fangs and squinted through the trees towards the Lonath’s Watch. The fort wasn’t actually visible from here, but his chagari senses were much sharper than anyone else’s. He could probably hear and smell the garrison. “We should get moving.”
“We will in a minute,” Sarina said, turning back towards Jason. “But first I want to know why you stopped us from shooting those soldiers.”
Jason’s upper lip quivered. The movement was subtle enough that the others probably didn’t even notice it, but she knew him better than anyone.
“I wish I knew,” he said with a shrug. “I just had a hunch.”
“What’s this about?” Tam asked. “Is that why you were all just sitting in there like idiots? I banged on the doors to give you a warning.”
“We were just about to fire, but he stopped us at the last second,” Sarina explained. “Just after he told me that he was having some kind of prophetic vision.”
Tam blinked. “Uh…what?”
“It wasn’t prophetic,” Jason said, rubbing his eyes. “I was dreaming about the past, not the future.”
“Oh. Well, there’s obviously nothing to worry about, then,” Tam grumbled. “When exactly were you planning on mentioning this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Translation: never. There’s no point in holding back now. Are you sure this was a real vision? Like the one you had back before Garos?”
Jason shrugged. “I’m not sure about much of anything these days. But before those guards opened the door, I knew that something was about to happen.”
“In other words, you risked our lives on your ‘hunch,’” Gor growled. “Why am I not the least bit surprised?”
“Whatever happened, there’s no point in worrying about it right now,” Jason insisted. “We need to get moving before—”
“It wasn’t just a hunch.”
All four of them turned to look at the faeyn woman standing off to the side. She still hadn’t moved or picked up her pack.
“You know something about this?” Sarina asked.
“Only the Immortals are capable of glimpsing the future or past,” Kaeya said. “I don’t know how or why, but it’s true. Every mortal channeler who has ever claimed to be a prophet has been a fraud.”
“Who told you this?” Jason asked. “Dathiel?”
“Him and many others. I have no reason to doubt them.”
Sarina crossed her arms and studied the other woman. At first, she hadn’t been able to figure out why Jason had insisted on bringing along someone who, by her own admission, had been fully prepared to drag his corpse back to Galvia if he refused to cooperate. But once Sarina had learned the full story, the truth had become abundantly clear.
Jason was an irredeemable sap. He felt guilty for dragging the faeyn to Krystia in the first place, and he felt especially guilty for getting Kaeya’s brother killed. It was as pathetic as it was predictable.
It was also, rather inconveniently, one of the many reasons she loved him.
“Anything else you feel like sharing?” Tam asked after a moment. “You’ve barely mumbled a word since we left Celenest.”
Kaeya’s luminous green eyes flicked over to Jason. “Only that his condition—our condition— is unprecedented. Few host bodies survive the absorption of a Godsoul. None have ever survived the extraction.”
“So what makes the two of you special?” Sarina asked.
“I don’t know.”
Tam grunted. “Okay, well, how in the void is Jace still having visions without the Godsoul inside him?”
“I don’t know that, either,” Kaeya admitted. “The Archdruid is the only one who might have answers. We need to reach Dreen as soon as possible.”
Jason’s eyes narrowed as he took a step closer to her. “You’ve been having dreams, too, haven’t you?”
The faeyn woman glanced back into the forest and sighed. “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you mention it?”
“Why didn’t you mention it?” Kaeya countered.
“Galivar’s mercy, this is already giving me a headache,” Tam muttered. “Remind me again why we busted her out of the dungeon?”
Sarina crossed her arms and stretched out through the Aether. She had only met a few faeyn in her lifetime, and Selvhara was the only one she’d ever considered a friend. The druid had always been poised and serene, even in the heat of battle.
But Kaeya was…different. Her anger was as sharp as a dagger, and she wore her grief like a heavy cloak. Sarina had only barely begun to explore her newfound telepathic abilities, but the faeyn woman’s anguish was like an open wound gushing into the Aether.
“Maybe Dathiel didn’t steal everything,” Jason whispered. “Maybe he left a sliver of the Godsoul behind.”
“Is that good or bad?” Sarina asked.
“I have no idea. But I can feel…something.”
Tam sighed. “You know, I’m starting to think that opening that ancient cube was a terrible idea. We really should have sold it in Taig when we had the chance.”
Sarina rolled her eyes. “We can talk on the way, but we really should get moving. This place will be flooded with legionnaires soon enough.”
Jason’s eyes remained locked on Kaeya. “If you’ve also had visions, what have they shown you?”
“Nothing of consequence,” the faeyn whispered.
“Did you see the past or the future? Maybe there’s a connection we can—”
“Talking is pointless,” Kaeya interrupted. She reached down and flipped her pack up onto her shoulder. “We need to get to Dreen as soon as possible. The Archdruid is the only one in Torsia who might be able to help us.”
“So you’ve said,” Tam muttered. “That’s about the only thing you’ve said, actually.”
“Because it’s true. And even if she can’t help us, we still have to warn her that Dathiel has captured another Godsoul.”
“You’re free to go wherever you want,” Sarina reminded her. “But the rest of us are heading to Serogar to meet up with General Iouna. An Asgardian army will be crossing the border soon, and we need to find out what they’ll be up against.”
“None of that will matter if Dathiel consumes any more Godsouls,” Kaeya said pointedly. “And the druids and paladins are the only ones capable of stopping him.”
Tam gestured west with his thumb. “Then you should definitely go speak with them. Just head in that direction for a week or so and—”
“Come with us to Serogar,” Jason interrupted. “It’s not far out of the way at this point, and maybe Darius will have some ideas.”
“Every moment we delay gives Dathiel more time to reconstitute himself,” Kaeya said. “And once he’s corporeal again, he’ll go after the Triumvirate. They need as much warning as possible.”
“And they’ll get it, I promise,” Jason assured her. “But for now, we need to keep moving.”
Kaeya eyed him for a long moment, her scarred, pale cheek twitching in thought. Sarina wondered if the elf woman might actually storm off to Galvia on her own, but eventually she slung her pack over her shoulder and started north towards Serogar. Gor followed a moment later, grumbling something derogatory under his breath.
“What a charmer,” Tam muttered. “Are you sure it’s good idea to keep her around?”
“For the moment, yes,” Jason said. “She’s not wrong about Dathiel, and she might not be wrong about the Archdruid, either.”
Sarina sighed. “Be that as it may, you know we can’t afford to head into Galvia right now. Not with my cousin’s forces already on the move. They’re counting on us to size up Serogar’s defenses.”
“Which is precisely why we’re headed that way first.” Jason flicked his wrist dismissively. “Look, I’m sure it will work out. And if we run into trouble in Serogar, we’ll need all the help we can get.”
“Maybe, but I don’t plan on turning my back to her,” Tam said sourly. “She was a Watcher, Jace—a Watcher who hunted down and killed Unbound.”
“Dangerous Unbound,” Jason added. “You know, the same kind we’ve had to deal with this past year.”
Tam’s jaw clenched. “This is different and you know it.”
“We can argue about this later. I have a feeling she won’t stick around long anyway.”
“Just don’t tell me you’re planning on going with her. We are not splitting up again. Not after Asgardia.”
Jason smiled tightly. “Come on.”
They made reasonable time through the sparse forest, and Sarina used the silence to try and sort through all the questions racing through her head. Unfortunately, she couldn’t seem to find any decent answers.
“I’m worried about him too, you know,” Tam whispered into her ear once they’d separated a bit from the others. “In some ways, this might even be worse than right after he absorbed the Godsoul in the first place.”
Sarina grunted softly as she watched Jason hop over a log and wince the instant he landed. She didn’t need the Aether to know that he was in pain.
“I really thought this reunion would be a lot more fun,” Tam added after a moment. “I should have known better, given our luck.”
Me, too, she thought to herself. After almost two months of separation, she’d been so happy to see Jason again that all her concerns about the war and her people had faded away…but not for long. Tam was right: this wasn’t the reunion any of them had expected. Jason’s “condition” was more severe than he was letting on, and none of them had any idea how or if it would ever get better.
And then, of course, there was the imminent Asgardian invasion. Her cousin’s victory over Thogrim Bjoldera had solidified his control over most of the clans, but the people were still crying out for Solarian blood. Queen Krystia had attempted to mollify them by insisting that Pavos Varin hadn’t been acting under her orders, but no one who’d lost loved ones in Valheim or Frostgarde gave a damn. Clan-Lord Garm Agridor would have marched his soldiers across the border no matter what the High King said, and ultimately Doyd had been forced to go along with an invasion.
Sarina hoped that taking Serogar would be enough to sate their bloodlust, at least for a while. Otherwise, Varin and his master, Wyrmlord Sovan, were going to get the war they’d wanted all along.
“Jason has endured worse,” Sarina said after a moment. “Just make sure you keep your eyes on the Watcher.”
Tam nodded idly. “You really think Jace will let her go off on her own?
“He’ll have to eventually.”
“What if his condition gets worse? What if the Archdruid really is the only person who can help him?”
“Then we’ll figure something out,” Sarina whispered, wishing she believed it. “We always do.”
|Thursday, September 22nd, 2016|
For September, here’s a preview of the first Elade PoV chapter in Retribution to tide you over.
Retribution: Elade Chapter
“He’s still out here somewhere, sir. I can feel it.”
Lieutenant Vulef Panarin sighed softly as he peered through his spyglass. This gloomy forest of wide, blue-green pines was relatively sparse, just like every other forest he and his squad had scouted so far in Glorinfel. Still, the trees did offer considerably more potential cover than the nearby gulch, and they hadn’t spotted anything for at least half an hour. He was becoming more and more convinced that his men were jumping at shadows.
“The locals couldn’t sneak up on us if we were suddenly stricken blind,” Panarin said in a hushed tone. “We haven’t spotted a competent scout since we landed in this bloody backwater.”
“If they were competent, we wouldn’t spot them at all,” his partner, Narjin, replied with a grunt. “Maybe they’re just better than we give them credit for.”
Panarin shook his head. “If any of the barons knew we were here, they’d have already thrown their armies at us. For as little good as it would do them…”
He pulled away from the spyglass and sighed again. Their expeditionary force had landed off the Crystal Coast almost eleven weeks ago at this point, but he still hadn’t gotten used to sheer size and emptiness of this “untamed frontier.” Calhara was a land of chaos, particularly here in the east. The various baronies and duchies of Glorfinel were so small and disorganized that they couldn’t hope to stand against an ordinary Imperial battalion, let alone a squad of elite soldiers like the Hands of the Archon. Every man and woman here had been hand-picked by Alexandra Damir, Sovereign of the Zarul. Panarin was reasonably confident they could conquer half the bloody continent before anyone raised an army large enough to stop them.
Regardless, the Archon wasn’t willing to take any unnecessary chances. Even a mild entanglement with the locals would threaten their advance towards the center of the God’s Wastes, and that was precisely why Panarin and his men were out here scouting a path through the wilderness. Now that the Hands had completed their primary mission, their only remaining objective in this gods’ forsaken land was to march on the Citadel and destroy the Knights of the Last Dawn once and for all.
Panarin had never looked forward to anything more in his life.
“If Regis doesn’t find any tracks by the time he circles back, we’re leaving,” he said. “We can tell the Imperators that it’s safe to march the chagari through this section of the forest. They can hug the rim of the gulch for a few days, then cut north across the—”
He cut himself off when an arrow suddenly whistled through the air and speared into a nearby tree. Panarin instinctively clutched at his bow before he saw the small piece of purple cloth attached to the shaft.
“I’ll be damned,” he muttered. “Looks like they caught something after all…”
He hopped to his feet and gestured for Narjin to follow him. The two scouts skittered through the darkness back towards the rendezvous point with the rest of their squad. Regis and his two men were waiting for them when they arrived.
“Report,” Panarin called out.
“We caught him following our tracks down near the creek,” Regis said, smirking at the bound and gagged man sitting on his knees near the fire the other soldiers were building. “Surprisingly quiet for a big guy, but he’s still an amateur. If this is the best the barons can throw at us, we could probably march an army of screaming groll up to their gate before they knew we were coming.”
Panarin nodded and studied the man they’d captured. His frame was more befitting of a front-line soldier than a scout; his arms were thick enough that he’d obviously spent a great deal of time waving around the impressive broadsword resting harmlessly on the ground in front of him. He was relatively young—perhaps mid-twenties at most—but his cherubic face made him look even younger.
“He didn’t put up much of a fight, then?” Panarin asked.
“None at all,” Regis confirmed. “He surrendered the moment we popped out of cover.”
Narjin snorted. “Inexperienced and cowardly. You sure he’s not Solarian?”
Panarin chortled and took a step closer. “Has he told you anything?”
“We were waiting for you, sir,” Regis replied. “Though I was tempted to just kill him.”
“If the local baron notices that one of his men is missing, he’ll send soldiers to investigate. We can have the Imperators wipe his memory and send him back once he’s been interrogated.”
“Should we tie him up and throw him on a horse, then?”
Panarin pursed his lips in thought. He couldn’t imagine how this worthless Calharan dreg could possibly understand Crell, but there was a strange glint of recognition in the man’s eyes…
On impulse, Panarin stepped forward and removed the man’s gag. “You can understand us, can’t you?”
“Well enough,” the prisoner replied. He had an accent, but his words were understandable. “The average Imperial scouting patrol is five men, possibly six in an unknown frontier like this. I assume this is your whole squad?”
Panarin blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’d rather not repeat myself, so I want to make certain that all your men are here. Then again, you’re obviously in charge—speaking with you is probably good enough.”
“What?” Narjin blurted out as his hand abruptly dropped down to the sword on his belt. “Who in the void are you?”
“Someone who’s trying to figure out what a battalion of Imperial soldiers is doing half a world away in the middle of Calhara,” the prisoner said. “I don’t expect you’ll just come out and tell me, but it would save us all some time.”
Panarin opened his mouth to reply, but then his eyes belatedly flicked down to examine the broadsword lying in the dirt by the fire. The jeweled pommel, the detailed grip, the subtle runes along the hilt…no random scout of a pissant kingdom could afford an enchanted blade of such obvious quality.
“You idiots!” Panarin spat. “He’s not a scout. He’s a Knight of the Last—”
Panarin never finished the sentence. A flicker of movement from the forest drew his attention, and he turned his head just in time to watch the long shadow of a nearby evergreen writhe and twist like it was a living creature. Within the undulating darkness, he caught a glimpse of two humanoid figures silhouetted in the moonlight.
The word had no sooner escaped Narjin’s lips before one of the shadowy figures conjured a shimmering, blue-white shield of pure Aetheric energy onto her arm. She hurled the disc with enough force that Narjin didn’t even have a chance to move before it struck him in the face. The horrible crunch of his shattering nose echoed across the grassy knoll even as the rest of the squad scrambled for cover and readied their weapons.
Panarin didn’t bother drawing his sword. Instead he dove behind a nearby log and reached for the calling crystal in his satchel. The small device flickered softly at his touch, and he risked a quick glance over the edge of his cover while he waited for one of the Imperators to answer his signal. He knew he didn’t have long.
One by one, Regis and the rest of the squad were scythed down like a peasant militia. The bulky paladin they’d captured had retrieved his broadsword and chopped down two men, and his shadowy, shield-wielding accomplice was already carving through the others. But no matter how hard he tried, Panarin couldn’t seem to locate the second shadowy figure anywhere…
“Nau ka’lith whol lil verin,” a strange voice whispered from beside him. “Nau seil whol lil dusqup.”
Panarin yelped as a nearly invisible blade whooshed through the darkness and smacked the crystal from his grip. Miraculously, his hand didn’t go flying off with it. Stifling a curse, he reached down to his belt to retrieve his sword—
At which point he felt a cold metal edge press against his throat. Standing above him was a tall man clad in a flowing black robe. He tiled up his chin, allowing a few scattered beams of moonlight beneath his hood, and Panarin gasped when he saw the gray-blue skin and faintly glowing eyes of a vaeyn.
“Sovereigns save me!” he pleaded.
He had no idea whether the dark elf could understand him or not, but either way the man obviously wasn’t impressed. He scoffed, then abruptly pulled back his blade and bashed the Crell man in the face with the pommel of his sword. Panarin had a vague recollection of his body crumpling to the ground, but an opaque, suffocating darkness washed over him before the pain could fully register. By the time his eyes finally reopened, he had no concept of how much time had actually passed.
“You should be able to breathe just fine. I set the bones, and the healing salve should minimize the inflammation.”
Panarin gasped for air and struggled to blink the fog from his eyes. He was lying on the ground with his back against a tree stump, and his hands had been bound behind him. A large fire crackled a few yards away, and the human knight they’d captured was calmly warming his hands over the embers as if nothing had happened.
“Your men are alive too, before you ask,” the knight added. “I am a paladin, remember?”
A belated spike of pain lanced through Panarin’s nose, and he grit his teeth and forced himself to take a calming breath. He couldn’t have been unconscious for more than an hour—the full moon had barely moved in the sky.
“What in the void is the meaning of this?” he blurted out. His voice sounded even more nasally than normal thanks to his broken nose.”
“I already told you, Lieutenant: I’m trying to figure out what a battalion of Imperial soldiers is doing half a world away in the middle of Calhara. Since you decided not to answer me, my friends and I had to take more extreme measures. They would apologize, but they don’t speak Crell.”
Panarin craned his neck to the side. Off to his left, he spotted the robed vaeyn man who’d knocked him unconscious. Standing next to him was the mysterious woman who’d conjured the Aetheric shield and humiliated his squad mates so thoroughly. Like the male, she was shrouded by the darkness and a flowing black cloak, but he could still make out the purple-black scales of her form-fitting armor. She was tall and lithe, and a single lock of silver-white white hair peeked out from beneath the cowl of her cloak. After seeing her friend, Panarin would have been able to identify her even before he saw her unmistakable luminescent blue eyes.
“Dark elf,” he croaked.
“Vaeyn,” the knight corrected with a smile. “She can understand that much, and trust me: you don’t want to get on her bad side.”
Panarin swallowed the sudden lump rising in his throat. Before the Hands of the Archon had set sail from Tracordia, he’d heard rumors about a vaeyn paladin assassinating their Breakers on the front lines of the war against Solaria. He’d been skeptical, of course; the Imperators had never confirmed the stories one way or the other, and none of the knights had ever been able to stand toe-to-toe with their Breakers. Besides, the very concept of a dark elf paladin was absurd—surely even the wretched hypocrites of the Last Dawn would never allow a demon-worshipping savage into their ranks.
“You won’t learn anything from me,” Panarin insisted. “You might as well kill me and get it over with.”
“I’m not in the habit of killing unarmed men,” the human paladin replied. “Even if I was, you wouldn’t get off that easily. We’ll return you to the rest of your unit once you’ve told us all about your mission here.”
“I won’t tell you—”
“I know, you don’t have to repeat yourself,” the paladin interrupted, raising a gloved hand. “Frankly, I wouldn’t believe anything you told us anyway, which is why we’re not going to bother asking questions. There’s another way to get what we need.”
Panarin turned towards the two vaeyn as they began placing several small, glowing violet crystals around the grass in front of them. After a moment, the male knelt down and began chanting something in his native tongue…
“I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of rumors about vaeyn shadow knights,” the paladin said. “If you haven’t encountered any of them since you landed here, consider yourself lucky.”
As the male vaeyn’s chant intensified, the female slowly pulled off one of her gauntlets and tossed it on the ground. The gray-blue skin of her hand glistened in the moonlight, and when she pulled back her sleeve Panarin saw several strangle, glowing tattoos crawling up the length of her arm.
“They protect her from possession,” the paladin said. “I imagine that type of magic is pretty useful when you’re summoning demons.”
“Demons?” Panarin gasped. “But you’re a paladin!”
“An exiled one, actually. The Conclave didn’t care for my methods, but I still try and help out whenever I can.” The man shrugged. “Anyway, you’re getting worried about nothing. She’s only summoning one or two small demons. Once they possess you, they’ll be able to sift through your memories and tell us everything we want to know. It shouldn’t be too painful.”
The tiny crystals surrounding the vaeyn woman began glowing with an inner light, and the tattoos along her arm did the same. Her chanting intensified, and she thrust her palms into the air—
“Sovereigns forgive me,” Panarin muttered. “Stop this madness! I’ll tell you whatever you need to know!”
“That’s kind of you,” the paladin replied, “but how can I be certain you’re telling the truth? The demons won’t leave anything to chance.”
The female shadow knight said something, and a moment later the paladin nodded and took a step backwards.
“Looks like everything is ready,” he said. “Just try and stay still. She’s going to summon it directly inside you. It will hurt a bit more, but at least this way we’ll avoid making a mess.”
“What?” Panarin screamed as the vaeyn approached him with her hand outstretched. “Don’t let her touch me! I’ll tell you everything, I swear it!”
The vaeyn hovered her hand over his forehead, and Panarin grit his teeth and closed his eyes…
“Fine,” the paladin said, waving the woman away. “We’ll give you a chance—one chance—to do this the easy way. But if I suspect you’re holding back a single detail, I’ll hand you over to the vaeyn. Understood?”
“Yes, o-of course,” Panarin stuttered. “I’ll tell you everything.”
The paladin smiled. “Good. Then we might as well get started.”
“You’re a much better actor than I would have guessed,” Elade Devarath said after the last Crell soldier had been bound and gagged. “What other skills have you been hiding from me all this time?”
“I’m a decent sejaak player, too,” Belek Talroy replied with a wry smirk. “I cleaned out half the barracks the night before your execution. I bet that irritated them just as much as me helping you escape.”
She chuckled softly and squeezed his wide forearm. The third member of their group, the lanky, robed vaeyn pacing back and forth across the grassy knoll, didn’t find the situation nearly as amusing.
“So you bluffed a bunch of self-righteous paladins who probably couldn’t even tell you how many cards were in the deck,” Mirvali Sathras scoffed in disgust. “Truly, you are a boy of many talents, Sir Talroy.”
Belek closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. One of these days, he was going to whirl around and punch Mirvali in the face. Elade hadn’t decided whether or not she would bother stopping him.
“Anyway, you did all the real work,” Belek said, glancing back towards the Crell soldiers. “He was so terrified of you I’m surprised he didn’t piss his trousers.”
“He did,” Mirvali replied, wrinkling his nose. “On occasion, your dull rivvil senses are actually an advantage.”
Elade chuckled despite herself and squeezed Belek’s arm again. “Seriously though, good work. There aren’t many other knights who could think on their feet like that. All those missions Alric sent you on to regain his favor must have taught you a few tricks.”
“Some I wouldn’t mind forgetting,” Belek muttered. He sighed, then crossed his arms and shot another glare at Mirvali. “I still think we could have done this without him. And we definitely don’t need any more of his ‘help.’”
Mirvali snorted. “You did hear this Crell wael say that his army is planning on attacking your precious Citadel, right? You would really turn away help from someone who has asked nothing in return?”
“You’re a confessed warlock and a member of the Adorei Kel,” Belek said. “And no one believes for an instant that you’re helping us out of the kindness of your heart.”
“I never said anything about kindness, Sir Boy. I merely wish to help an old friend caught in a difficult situation.”
“An old friend who’s the only thing standing between you and the wrath of the Watchers,” Belek growled. “Don’t try and mask your self-interest behind a veil of bullshit.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Mirvali replied with a shrug. “Life is self-interest, my virtuous and almost assuredly virginal friend. But that’s really the point, isn’t it? We’re all helping each other here, and we obviously work well together. Why go our separate ways now?”
Mirvali continued smirking, and Belek continued glaring. All in all, it was a perfect summary of the past two days.
Elade ran a hand back through her hair and sighed. A week had passed since she and Belek had left Mirvali in his cave inside the Tarkannis Gulch, but after they’d first spotted the Crell army in the adjoining forest, she had decided to go back and ask for her old friend’s help. As it had turned out, she needn’t have bothered—Mirvali had been following them the entire time.
Belek didn’t trust him, obviously, and in all fairness he didn’t have any reason to—Mirvali had embraced demonology and joined one of the most despicable organizations in Calhara. But despite the fact Elade wanted to choke him sometimes, she knew Mirvali as well as she’d ever known anyone. He had served alongside her as a shadow knight for decades, and he’d been her friend longer than Belek—or his parents—had been alive.
And of course, there was the part of her that felt guilty about the fact Mirvali had been exiled from Sulinor in the first place, all because he had chosen to support her scandalous affair with Varess, a demon-possessed soldier. The Matriarch-Queen had taken everything from him, including the Aether. Elade couldn’t just ignore his sacrifice, no matter how much she wanted to slap him.
“I still can’t believe the Crell deployed over a thousand soldiers to Calhara when they’re in the middle of a war with Solaria,” Elade said into the pause, hoping to get the men back on task. “It’s even more amazing they’ve been able to travel this far without engaging any of the Glorinfel kingdoms.”
“Those rivvin may be terrified of vaeyn, but they’re not completely incompetent,” Mirvali said. “Besides, most of this frontier is essentially lawless. A clever commander could probably sneak a whole regiment of troops from here to Mavarinth without being noticed.”
Elade nodded and glanced back over her shoulder. They had left the tied-up Crell scouts right in the middle of the road, and with luck one of the baron’s daily patrols would pick them up and conduct their own interrogation. Mirvali may have been right about the breadth and lawlessness of the frontier, but she doubted that any land-owning noble would ignore the presence of a foreign army on his or her soil. At worst, they’d deploy more scouts and make it more difficult for the Crell to move around; at best, they’d deploy a whole army and force the Crell to delay their advance through the Wastes. Either way, it would buy the remaining knights in the Citadel more time to prepare an adequate defense.
Allegedly, Panarin and his men were part of an elite Crell expansionary force called the “Hands of the Archon.” Their initial goal had been to capture the Watcher temple in the Salt Peaks and gain control of the many portals therein, but Elade and Belek had destroyed it a few weeks ago. Now the Archon had decided to focus on his secondary objective: destroying the Dawn Citadel and shattering Maeleon’s Godstone. If the troop numbers Lieutenant Panarin had revealed were accurate, the Crell could very well succeed.
“The Sovereigns must have known that Highlord Alric was planning to deploy most of the knights in Torsia,” Belek said as if he were reading her thoughts. “They’d never stand a chance otherwise.”
“These soldiers set sail months ago, back before Alric had fully committed to occupying Galvia,” Elade reminded him. “I don’t see how they could have known the Highlord’s plans.”
“From what you’ve told me about these ‘Crell,’ they have a vast spy network,” Mirvali pointed out. “Perhaps one of your paladin friends is a traitor.”
Belek hissed and shook his head. “Impossible.”
“Because no one in the Citadel would ever betray the knighthood to the bloody Crell, that’s why.”
Mirvali glanced between them, both of his white eyebrows arched. “You have a remarkably high opinion of the people who cast you into exile and tried to execute Elade.”
“That’s different,” Belek insisted.
“I don’t see how. At your core, you rivvin are creatures of passion and ambition. The Sovereigns could have made your people an offer and—”
“How or if the Crell knew about the Highlord’s plan doesn’t matter at the moment,” Elade interrupted. “The point is that they’re here, and we still need to warn the knights about what’s coming their way.” She took a deep breath and shielded her sensitive eyes from the rising sun on the horizon. “Be honest: what are the odds that anyone at the Citadel has read the letter you sent them?”
“Higher than zero,” Belek said.
“How much higher?”
He shrugged. “Not enough.”
Elade nodded in silent understanding. Just over a week ago, Belek had reached out to some of his contacts in Westridge, a nearby settlement at the edge of the gulch, in the hopes of getting a warning letter delivered to the Citadel. There was a great deal the knights needed to know, both about the presence of a Crell army in Glorinfel and about Dathiel’s plan to absorb the remaining Godsouls. So far, however, she hadn’t been willing to take the risk of delivering that information herself. Riding up to the Citadel in broad daylight had seemed like a suicide pact given that the Conclave had sentenced her to death less than a month ago…
But now, given how dramatically the situation had changed since their escape, Elade wasn’t sure they had a choice. No matter how unfairly Alric and the others had treated her—no matter how much resentment she harbored for the way they’d treated Tevek—she still wasn’t willing to abandon them. The world needed the Last Dawn, perhaps now more than ever.
And even if it didn’t, she wasn’t about to stand by and allow the Watchers to pillage Maeleon’s Godsoul. According to Mirvali, Dathiel wasn’t just collecting the souls of his fellow Immortals for old time’s sake—he planned to use their combined power to destroy the Aether and plunge Obsidian into an era of darkness. Two thousand years of civilization would be eradicated in a heartbeat, all to stop Unbound channelers like herself.
“I could try sending another letter,” Belek suggested after a moment. “A courier from the Citadel stops by at least once a week. If we’re lucky, we might even bump into him.”
“If we don’t, the Crell army gets that much closer,” Elade replied gravely. “We’ve already wasted too much time. We’ll just have to warn them ourselves.”
Mirvali’s eyes gaped open wide. “Just a few days ago you said that going there in person was a terrible idea.”
“It still is.”
Elade raised a pair of fingers. “If the Crell sack the Citadel and shatter the Godstone, it will destroy the Last Dawn forever.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t get weepy about a bunch of sanctimonious rivvin who’d rather—”
“If Dathiel sacks the Citadel and absorbs Maeleon’s Godsoul, it might destroy the world forever,” she added. “You worked for him. You should understand this better than anyone.”
Mirvali’s lip twitched. “Yes, well…fair enough,” he mumbled. “But I don’t relish the idea of strolling up to the gates of a castle filled with people who’ll want to kill me on sight.”
“In that case, you probably shouldn’t get anywhere near civilization again,” Belek snickered.
“Proud of yourself for that one, are you?” Mirvali sneered back. “Look, for all you’ve told me, I can’t imagine the Dawn will greet the two of you any more warmly. There must be another way. We could hire a rider in Westridge—we could hire a dozen riders in Westridge, actually. There’s no reason to keep any of this a secret, is there?”
“Not all of it,” Elade said. “But we could send as many riders as we wanted and there’s no guarantee anyone at the Citadel would actually listen. If I risk going there in person, however, they’ll know I speak the truth.” She idly tapped her left ear in thought. “Riding through most of the night, I could probably reach the Citadel by tomorrow afternoon or evening. At least then Alric might have a chance to pull back any knights left in Calhara. Perhaps he could even convince the druids to send some help.”
Belek sighed and shook his head. “You can’t go. I won’t allow them to pass judgment on you again.” He grimaced and glanced off to the horizon. “Let me go—alone. They might toss me in the dungeon, but they won’t consider me a threat. They’ll listen to what I have to say.”
“You don’t know that,” Elade said.
“No, but it’s still the right choice,” Belek insisted. “I’m not as important as you are. It’s not even debatable.”
“For once, we agree on something,” Mirvali said.
“You’re the only knight who can stand against the Breakers,” Belek went on, his teeth clenching as he tried to ignore the jibe. “You’re the only one Dathiel fears. If things are anywhere near as bad as we think they are, we can’t afford to let Alric take you out of the fight again.”
Elade sighed. “You know I’ll never agree to that.”
“No,” she said, grabbing and squeezing his hand. “If we’re going to do this, we’ll do it together. And that’s final.”
Mirvali glanced between them in confusion. “Living on the surface really has warped your mind, abbil,” he murmured. “I’ll just be standing over here trying not to wretch.”
“This offer applies to all of us,” Elade said, shifting her eyes back to him. “I appreciate your help here—truly—and I’ll completely understand if you don’t want to get anywhere near the Citadel. But Belek and I have to do this, and we’re going to do it together.”
Mirvali continued staring at her for a long moment, his face creased in confusion, before he finally turned away in disgust. “Wonderful. March the Adorei Kel warlock right up to the front door of the zealots who want to kill him. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Then don’t come,” Belek said flatly. “Go crawl back into your cave and hide.”
“And wait for Dathiel or his goons to track me down? I think not.” Mirvali grunted and crossed his arms. “If you really want to go and beg for forgiveness somewhere, why don’t we try returning to Sulinor? We can tell Her Pompous Majesty about what happened to Zereloth. We’ll save them months of trying to figure out where all the demons went. Who knows, perhaps she’ll even reinstate us.”
“You’re welcome to go if you wish,” Elade told him. “One day I might even join you. But this is too important to ignore. You can hate the Dawn all you like, but Maeleon’s Godsoul must be protected.”
Mirvali sighed and flicked his hand dismissively. “Fine, we’ll do it your way,” he grumbled. “I suppose I’ve always been curious about these paladins of yours. Perhaps I can give them some tips on how to actually fight demons. You know, from one knight to another…”
He flashed a final sardonic smirk before he finally sauntered back towards their horses. Belek watched him go, his hands curling and uncurling around the pommel of his blade.
“They’re going to kill him,” he said.
“They might kill all of us,” Elade countered.
“We never should have accepted his help.”
“You’ve said that before. At least ten times a day, by my count.”
Belek’s lip twisted. “I don’t trust him.”
“Because he’s a warlock or because he’s irritating?”
“Pick one.” Belek sighed heavily. “I still don’t understand why you tolerate him.”
“I owe him that much,” Elade said. “You may find it hard to believe, but he’s one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met. We fought side-by-side for many years. At one point we were even—”
“I really, really don’t want to know the details,” Belek interrupted.
She smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Look, the truth is that Mirvali doesn’t have anywhere else to go. The Kel won’t take him back because he worked with the Watchers, and the Watchers won’t take him back because he worked with me.”
Belek eyed her strangely. “I understand you have a history, but he’s a warlock. He’d be summoning demons again right now if we weren’t here.”
She closed her eyes and ran a hand back through her hair again. Belek may have been her friend—one of her only friends, in fact—but every once in a while she had to remind herself that they were almost literally from different worlds. He’d spent almost half his life as a squire or a knight training in the Citadel. Just because he’d become a bit more world-weary over the past year didn’t change the fact he’d grown up inside small, doctrinal bubble that viewed the world in stark shades of right and wrong.
Over time, Elade had learned to appreciate the Code and respect the Dawn’s mission, and she’d always been proud to call herself a paladin so long as the order had accepted her. But even the most traveled and experienced knights like Tevek still possessed a far narrower worldview than she would have liked. Few things in the world could truly be dissected and classified as good or evil. Not even demons.
“We’re not going to tell anyone that he’s a warlock, obviously,” Elade said. “All they need to know is that he’s familiar with Dathiel’s plans, and he’s a capable sword who can help defend the Citadel against the Crell if necessary.”
“They’re already going to look at us like escaped criminals,” Belek protested. “Do you really think dragging along another vaeyn is going to help?”
“No, but I doubt it will be a tipping point, either.” Elade shrugged. “Dame Najeen should have reached Galvia by now. If we’re lucky, she’ll be able to argue with Alric on our behalf. Hopefully he’ll order whoever he left in charge to listen to what we have to say. If they refuse our help after that…so be it.”
Belek studied her for a long moment, his thick hair tousling in the morning breeze. “And what if they do try to apprehend us?”
“I’m not just going to surrender outright, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“So we’ll fight back?”
“We’ll run first. If they force the issue…”
Belek grunted. “After what they did to you and Tevek, a part of me wants to attack them. I want to smack them around until they finally see reason.”
“Unfortunately, reason can’t be dispensed with a sword,” Elade said soberly. “They may not want us as allies anymore, but that doesn’t mean we have to become their enemies.”
“You’d really trust them to keep the Godstone from the Crell? Or from Dathiel? You’ve said it countless times already—there’s more at stake here than just the future of the Last Dawn.”
Elade nodded soberly. She didn’t trust them, of course, and that was the whole point. She had touched Dathiel’s consciousness back in the Watcher temple; she had felt his rage at the world of the present and his yearning for the world of the past. In almost two thousand years, the Knights of the Last Dawn had never confronted an enemy like this. And if they weren’t able or willing to face it, then she and Belek would have to figure out a way to stop a rogue Immortal on their own.
“Come on,” she beckoned, grabbing his arm. “We need to get moving.”
|Sunday, August 14th, 2016|
This month, I have draft of the Retribution prologue for you! Normal disclaimers apply: everything is subject to change, and there are likely spoilers for anyone who hasn’t caught up with Absolution yet.
Enjoy and feel free to let me know what you think!
The Aether was many things. An endless expanse of thought and emotion. A scintillating mosaic of light and shadow. A terrifying source of power for mortals who desired everything yet understood nothing.
But most of all, it was a graveyard for those who had tried and failed to stop these “Unbound” from poisoning their own world. And Orias, the last of the Immortals, had been hearing the echo of his people’s dying screams for so long he had forgotten the sound of silence.
His consciousness was flotsam in the Aether, completely at the mercy of its whims and currents. The physical world was a pale shadow at the fringes of his mind, and no matter how hard he focused he couldn’t make himself manifest. Not yet.
“I haven’t betrayed you,” he insisted to the voices that refused to listen. “I have saved you. I have made us whole again.”
Their answer was the same as always: hollow cries of anguish followed by the vivid memories of their mortal worshippers turning against them. One by one his brothers and sisters fell, usurped by false gods and their boundless ambition. And the faster his people fell, the more powerful the mortals became.
“For an age I have watched them,” Orias insisted. “For an age I have destroyed them. But their avarice cannot be quenched, and their power cannot be contained. Our only chance is to unite in purpose as well as form. Division is their weakness—we cannot afford to make it ours as well.”
Orias tried to turn away from the memories and ignore the voices, but there was no escaping either. He had no eyes to close or ears to plug. The physical world was a dark and dreary place, but there was a reason he spent so much time there inside a host. Sometimes, limitation meant liberation.
Before the recent destruction of his mortal shell, he had finally been able to merge the strongest of his brethren’s voices into one. Zerel, the goddess of long-forgotten wars and those who had been destroyed by them, had spent an eternity trapped beneath the earth bleeding her energy into the world; Anvira, the patron of the druids, had spent the same years locked inside a prison surrounded by fools. They were a part of him now, and their combined strength was nearly enough to destroy the false gods and end this war once and for all.
“Whatever happens, I will not forget you,” he promised. “Your memories will live on through me. Your powers will live on through me. And your pain, your suffering…I will forge them into a weapon. I will use them to cleanse this world and rebuild a new one from the ashes. The mortals will face justice for their betrayal.”
Orias expected them to protest. He expected them to scream and wail just as they had always done. But for the first time in an age, their only response was silence. A long, hopeful silence.
He wasn’t sure if they believed him or not. He wasn’t even sure if his words and feelings could even reach them anymore. His people were echoes now, not consciousness; they were shattered fragments of a whole rather than the whole itself. But every once in a while, he swore he could feel them come alive again, if only for an instant.
Not justice, they whispered to him. Retribution.
“Yes,” Orias agreed. “Retribution.”
The word rippled through the Aether like an undercurrent, tugging all the fragments of his brethren back to him. Their thoughts and memories became one with his, and his consciousness transformed from flotsam to vortex. He was no longer at the mercy of the storm—he had become the storm. He shed the mantle of Orias and became something greater. The last god. The only god. The One God.
His eyes fluttered open. Once again the mortal world sprawled out before him, and he drew a deep breath into the lungs of his host body. One by one his physical senses returned: hearing, touch, smell…and then finally sight. His eyes required several seconds to adjust to the near darkness; his ears, however, were instantly drawn to the muted cries and crashes of a nearby battle.
Another deep breath rattled through his lungs as he studied his surroundings. He was lying atop a cold stone slab, and he instantly recognized the engravings on the ceiling. This was Anubek Tor, the last standing temple of Orias in all Obsidian. But strangely, none of his supplicants were looming over him to aid with the transference ritual…
“My lord! Praise the Aether you’ve returned!”
Dathiel sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the slab. The rest of the antechamber was empty aside from a single black-robed man. He stumbled inside and sealed the door, a trail of fresh blood smeared along the wall behind him.
“You must leave quickly, my lord,” the man, High Priest Casadyn, pleaded between labored breaths. “They aim to destroy you before you can fully gather your strength.”
Dathiel concentrated upon the sounds of battle vibrating through the walls. He could sense almost thirty individual minds, including several that were near death. Normally he could identify them or even control them outright, but the transference ritual had obviously been interrupted. For the moment, he only had access to a small portion of his abilities.
“Who are they?” he asked. The voice of his new body sounded strange in his ears. “Minions of the Unbound?”
“N-no, my lord,” Casadyn said as he slowly sank down to his knees. His injuries were severe—it was clearly taking all of his effort just to remain conscious. “They are priests.”
“Priests? Whose priests?”
Casadyn grimaced. “Yours, my lord.”
Dathiel leapt down off the slab. “Explain.”
“When they heard of your defeat in Solaria, they decided to…” Casadyn closed his eyes and grimaced as he mustered the last of his strength. “You must leave now, my lord, before they breach the—”
A thunderous boom shuddered through the antechamber as the attackers attempted to smash their way through the door. The wood was thick and reinforced with an enchantment, but it still wouldn’t last for long.
“I will not retreat from my own temple,” Dathiel declared. He stepped over to Casadyn and helped hold the priest up. “Nor will I abandon my loyal supplicants.”
A burst of brilliant yellowish light erupted from his hands and encased Casadyn in a luminous cocoon. Divine energy coursed through the priest, mending his flesh and restoring his vitality, before the cocoon molted away and dissipated.
“My lord…” Casadyn breathed, his eyes gaping wide in awe.
“Remain here,” Dathiel ordered. “If your brethren wish my attention, they shall have it.”
Turning towards the door, he extended his hand and unleashed a seismic wave of telekinetic force. The stone splintered like glass beneath a hammer, showering the main chamber in a barrage of pebbles. The men outside the door were hurled backwards, and their battering ram soared through the air until it crashed down atop a row of wooden pews.
A low rumble echoed off the walls for several seconds as the attackers stumbled to their feet and realized what was happening. Dathiel stepped over the debris, his eyes sweeping back and forth across the men and women who had defiled his temple. He recognized each and every one of them; many had loyally served the Watchers for decades.
Scattered between them, their bodies pierced by arrows or swords, were Casadyn’s acolytes. They had died defending this holy place from their own brethren.
“What have you done?” Dathiel asked. His voice was barely a whisper, yet the temple foundation trembled at every word.
“No,” one of the attackers, a woman named Cyrel, breathed as she dragged herself back to her feet. “No, you’re not supposed to be here!”
“This is my temple. And you are my servants.”
“Not anymore,” another man, Revick, hissed from behind a shattered pew. His sword still dripped with fresh blood. “Not after you betrayed us!”
Dathiel took another step forward. “I have betrayed no one.”
“Except for the faeyn. And the knights. And the druids!”
“And us,” Cyrel added. “We served you loyally, and you repaid us by stealing away our magic and leaving us in darkness!”
Dathiel stopped at the center of the chamber. “I see,” he murmured. “Like all mortals, you believe you are entitled to that which doesn’t belong to you.”
“We earned the right to channel!” Revick snarled. “We gave you everything!”
Their rage burned like fire in the Aether, and Dathiel finally understood. For over a millennium he and his brethren had been party to a grand deception. In order to fight back against the Unbound, they had pretended to be Ascendants. The druids, the paladins, the Watchers—they had all captured a “divine spark,” a fragment of Unbound power, and used it to imbue their followers with the ability to channel the Aether.
It was a perverse form of pragmatism and sickening hypocrisy. Rather than continuing the fight on their own, the Triumvirate had successfully harnessed the energies of the very enemies that had destroyed them. This deception had allowed the Watchers to contain the Unbound and limit the scope of their atrocities, but it had never granted them enough power to actually win this Godswar once and for all. Only the combined might of the surviving Immortals could do that.
And only Dathiel could unite them.
“Your service has been exemplary,” he said, glancing between each and every one of the attackers. “But I have not betrayed you—I have liberated you from an unfair burden. No mortal should wield the power of the gods, not even their most loyal supplicants.”
“You expect us to fight the Sovereigns without magic?” Cyrel asked. “You expect us to kill the Unbound without protection?”
“I was all the protection you ever needed,” Dathiel told her. “Even if your mortal shells had failed you, I would have shielded your souls for eternity.”
Revick hissed and twirled his sword. “And what about in this world? What do you offer us here?”
“Before today, I offered you the only sustenance mortals require: a clear and vital purpose. But now…” Dathiel knelt down over one of the corpses and retrieved the broken, blood-splattered mask from its face. “Now you have spilled the blood of the faithful. Now you have betrayed your oaths, your kin, and your god.”
He slowly rose back to his feet, the bloody mask clutched in his hand. “Now I have only one thing left to offer you,” he whispered. “Oblivion.”
With the flick a finger, Dathiel purged every breath of air from the chamber. The attackers realized what he’d done immediately. They clutched at their throats and waved their arms as their lungs seized. They tried to call out to their comrades as their eyes bulged in horror. But without the wind to carry their cries, they drowned in silence.
Some directed their final bursts of rage at the avatar they had once served. Swords, spears, arrows—they all pierced Dathiel’s mortal shell, but his wounds sealed before his flesh spilled a single drop of blood. In the end, the traitors died just as all mortals did, terrified and alone.
“Casadyn,” he called out once the last body had collapsed upon the floor. Air rushed back into the chamber and filled his nostrils with the scent of blood and incense.
“My lord?” the priest whispered from the antechamber doorway. He seemed unable to drag his eyes away from the corpses.
“You will acquire the necessary reagents to complete the transference ritual,” Dathiel ordered. “This shell is not yet at full strength.”
“Yes, my lord. Of course.”
“Do not weep for the fallen, my child. Those who died defending my name shall spend eternity at my side. And once this war is over, they shall bask in the glory of the One God.”
Casadyn nodded solemnly. “Your other subjects are ready to serve, of course. Since your defeat, we have been attempting to—”
“The enemy has a new weapon,” Dathiel said. “An abomination of great power.”
“A dragon, yes. Our agents report that it may only be the first of many.”
“It must be destroyed, and all knowledge of its creation must be eradicated. This is our first and only priority.”
Dathiel turned and strode up to the throne along the chamber’s northern wall. It was flanked on either side by two statues, each representing one of his dormant siblings: Anvira, Krosis, Maeleon, and Zerel. When he sat down, he could feel a tiny fraction of their power coursing through him. More importantly, he could sense the wayward souls of those he had yet to capture. They were still out there in darkness, yearning to rejoin him…
“We have located the Solarian breeding grounds, my lord,” Casadyn said after a moment, “but without an army we cannot challenge the Dragon Queen’s garrison.”
“We won’t need an army,” Dathiel replied.
Casadyn’s lip twitched. “Forgive me, my lord, but you cannot afford to risk yourself against this creature again.”
“I don’t intend to. We have other options.”
Lifting his arms from the throne, Dathiel reached out and tore open a rift between the Aether and the physical world. It only took a moment for a horde of his spectral servants to pour out into the temple.
“Demons,” the priest breathed.
“A word created by the ignorant to describe that which they do not understand,” Dathiel said. “They are echoes of the fallen, nothing more. And if we can no longer rely upon the soldiers of this world, then we shall summon aid from another.”
Casadyn nodded but remained silent. His eyes flicked about the chamber, but his mortal vision couldn’t even perceive the creatures.
“Take these bodies,” Dathiel said, gesturing to the bodies strewn across the floor. “Wear them to battle in my name.”
His servants eagerly obeyed. One by one the corpses twitched back to life as the “demons” burrowed in and seized control. Soon they were standing and awaiting his command.
“This may not be enough, my lord,” Casadyn warned. “And they will have to travel some distance.”
“My servants are legion, and distance is irrelevant,” Dathiel said. “The time has come for the Watchers to leave the shadows, my servant. I will not allow this girl-queen to imprison my sister, and I will not allow the false gods to ravage this world. We will find and destroy them.”
“Of course. As always, I trust in the infinite wisdom of the One God.”
“As well you should. There was a time when mortals considered faith a virtue.”
“Many still do, my lord,” Casadyn assured him. “And the rest…they’re simply confused. They don’t understand why you’ve been silent, and they’ve forgotten the extent of your power.”
Dathiel smiled. “Then it is time for us to help them remember.”