NOTE: Serial prequel (distant past) to The Unknown Sun which is now published. This work of fiction is not professionally edited and is for entertainment purposes only and I retain full copyrights of the following original material.
“No, let them go!” Jaeger rushed past Ivo, but his cry was lost in the gruesome screeches emanating from the roiling shadows behind him. Blue eyes glittered with tormented fury as he swung his axe in a singing arc.
Ivo gained his feet and dragged his sword from the dirt with a howl of rage. He turned and swung in tandem with his brother, both men intent on freeing the slowly dying women.
“Release them you bitch!” Ivo snarled. Dark, coiling vines erupted out of the ground and twisted and twined around his legs. More black tendrils shot out of the rocky earth and wrapped around Jaeger’s ankles in a blur of motion. They tumbled to their knees as more slithered and twisted up from the rocky earth and snared their arms and wrists. Axe and sword fell to the ground and clattered away before they could slash the sneer off the witch’s cruelly beautiful face.
Fury burned in Ivo as he struggled and jerked to free himself from the vines. Jaeger too, struggled to free himself; his eyes pinned on the barely moving women still clutched in the she-demon’s hands.
“Fools, axes and swords are useless here. Men,” she sneered down at them and laughed. Thunder rumbled and echoed, shaking the ground beneath their feet. “They never think beyond the obvious. You are no match for Alarandia.”
She turned away with a long suffering, dramatic sigh, and flung Jadeth and Emaranthe to the ground with a careless flick of her wrists.
“No!” Ivo howled and lunged forward only to be jerked back and pinned by the vines. They landed heavily, limply, and for a long agonizing moment the women lay still in twin heaps some distance away.
“Come on, breathe. Just breathe.” Jaeger’s eyes flicked between Emaranthe and Jadeth, worry settling deep in his chest. Ivo swallowed heavily, but forced his gaze back up to the towering woman pacing between them and their companions. Alarandia watched them. Keenly. Her black eyes seemed to glow in the inky air. She was waiting to see what they would do.
Jadeth gagged and shuddered, her lithe frame jerking with the force of her desperate attempts at breathing. She dragged in a choking, violent breath at last, and coughed before slumping back to the ground with a ragged gulp of air.
Ivo’s eyes swung to Jadeth as fear sharpened painfully in his chest. He watched in relief as she continued to breathe, but appeared to be unconscious. He sagged to the ground.
“Thank The Four.” Jaeger too, had watched Jadeth struggle to breathe and felt a weight lift from his chest as she seemed to recover, even if barely. He glanced at his brother, but Ivo’s eyes were pinned on the small bundle of cloth and tangled blonde braids.
Emaranthe inhaled with a gasp, her small body jerking with the force of needing to breathe. Coughing and choking, she blinked rapidly. Fuzzy dark spots clouded her eyes and distorted her vision. With each breath her throat burned and her lungs ached. She shifted her shaking arms beneath her and pushed herself up off the ground a few inches. Dizzy and gasping she let her tangled braids tumble over her shoulders and face in a curtain of yellow. Gold eyes glittered behind the fall of hair as they darted to the methodically pacing humanoid demoness.
“Interesting,” Alarandia’s mouth turned up in a vicious, catty smile. She spun on her heel and paced between Emaranthe and Jadeth, blocking Ivo and Jaeger’s view of them. Burning black eyes stared at the snared men. “You are all Immortal, yet you still feel fear over their safety.”
She spun again, her towering curls bouncing on her shoulder. This time her eyes pinned on Emaranthe, and then she turned to study the unmoving elf, then Ivo and Jaeger. They returned her glare, their eyes simmering with fury.
“Why,” Alarandia frowned and a puzzled look crossed her face briefly, then was gone. “Did those idiot gods bother to immortalize a child? What fools.”
“Why don’t you let us go and we’ll tell you.” Jaeger snarled and narrowed his eyes until they glinted in the shadows of his helm. Ivo tested the vines with a growl, but they didn’t give. The ground quaked and shook as thunder cracked and echoed. The clouds roiled and the sky grew darker as they thickened.
Alarandia cackled, her head thrown back to the inky sky.
“I am not stupid,” she hissed between clenched teeth as the rumbling echo of the thunder subsided. She turned and paced between Jadeth and Emaranthe again. “But it appears your gods are desperate if they’ve immortalized a little girl. They must be running out of real warriors again.”
“If you want a real fight, then fight us!” Ivo growled and jerked on the coils around his wrists. “Or are you afraid your sorcery is no match for two Immortal Warriors?”
“Brave words, Warrior. What is your name?” Alarandia raised a finely arched eyebrow and paced closer, hands on curvaceous hips.
“I am called Ivo, son of Veriuc! Free me now or you will pay, Demon!”
“Ah, Ivo is it?” Alarandia snarled and flung her head regally. “You speak well for a simple farm boy. Who were your people?”
“I am of the Eastern Clan of Saro-shir.” Ivo narrowed his eyes. She wasn’t about to free him. The glint in her eyes had changed. She seemed to recognize his clan name.
“Hmm. And you boy?” Alarandia turned and speared Jaeger with dark eyes and a haughty eyebrow. Jaeger snarled beneath his breath. She was toying with them.
“I am Jaeger, son of Veriuc, brother of Ivo even in immortality!”
“Well, this is a surprise. The Four sending brothers? How pathetic.” Alarandia sneered, spun on her heel again and paced away. Her pointed, heeled, boot kicked at Jadeth viciously as she passed by and both men snarled and growled in fury.
Jadeth threw herself away from the kick and ducked aside with a hiss. Sapphire eyes flared as she stood and tossed a scarlet braid over her shoulder, exposing her long, delicately tapering ears.
“Jadeth!” Ivo inhaled in shock as she danced away from the surprised Demoness. Jaeger jerked and tugged violently on the coils still rooting him firmly to the ground.
“More surprises. Too bad Elfkind were already immortal! You are what, four—five thousand years old?” Alarandia snapped and backed away from the suddenly healed and mobile elf. “Your kind die beneath sword and spear just as easily as a mortal, girl!”
“Oh no, I’d definitely say you are older Alarandia! I can tell. Maybe you should ask your demon healers for a wrinkle cream.” Jadeth smiled widely, almost sincerely, and waited.
Alarandia’s eyes narrowed.
Gold eyes glittered beneath the fall of pale hair. In the inky gloom they gleamed like cat’s eyes. She smiled as Jadeth insulted the evil bitch and watched as the two circled each other warily.
Emaranthe narrowed her gaze on the high leather boots that glided in and out of her frame of vision, then flicked to Ivo and Jaeger who were watching Jadeth and Alarandia face off in silent shock.
Their weapons were out of reach and the hammer lay too far for Jadeth to get to safely, but Emaranthe’s staff was just to her left, a mere foot from her. She glanced through the curtain of her hair… Alarandia was still busy with Jadeth.
Emaranthe shifted her weight to her left slightly. Beneath the thin folds of her robes she fumbled for her staff with trembling fingers and dragged it close to her side. A quick glance told her that Jadeth had scored another veiled insult. Alarandia was now pacing frenetically, her eyes burning with anger and pinned on the seemingly carefree Jadeth who was matching her wary circling with a wide, brittle smile.
No one noticed Emaranthe shift position again.
Ivo’s eyes slid past the confrontation between Jadeth and Alarandia. Gold eyes gleamed in the dim light as Emaranthe looked up. A small, triumphant smile pulled the corners of her mouth up as she smoothly stood up and flung her cloak off. It swirled soundlessly and drifted to the rocky ground as she lifted her staff high. Ribbons of flame crackled and swirled down its length.
Alarandia spun and furious black eyes locked for a long moment with glittering gold ones.
“What?” She snarled and raised both hands, her fingers curled into sharp claws. Emaranthe’s lips twisted into a bitter smile as a stiff wind dragged pale strands of hair over her face.
Jaeger inhaled sharply as the demoness darted forward, clawing and scratching with a shriek of fury. Emaranthe spun around in a blur of motion, her braids flailing, and vanished in a flicker of flame.
She reappeared twenty feet away, her feet a blur of motion as she turned and lifted Ivo’s sword from the ground, then vanished again, all in one smooth movement.
Alarandia screamed as Emaranthe vanished out of reach. She spun wildly in a circle, her burning gaze scanning the gloom.
Emaranthe ducked past the screaming demoness and reappeared on the other side of Jadeth, scooped up Jaeger’s axe, twisted, and vanished again.
Jadeth gasped as Emaranthe reappeared a third time, snatched the massive hammer from beside the rock outcropping and disappeared again, mid run. She reappeared next to Jadeth in a swirl of heat and fire and shoved the hammer into the shocked Elf’s arms before turning and blurring into nothingness again.
“Unwilling to face me child? Are you playing hide and seek then?” Alarandia screamed into the gloom as she spun about, trying to frantically locate the tiny Mage.
Ivo felt a vicious tug on the vines holding him down and then they were gone as steel glinted in the inky sky. Emaranthe twisted and swung the sword with uncanny precision as she appeared again, and Jaeger’s bonds fell away in pieces. The brothers’ axe and sword clattered to the rocky ground at their feet as she spun away, her braids blurring with the speed of the movement, and vanished yet again in a flicker of flame and swirl of smoke.
Ivo climbed to his feet heavily and lifted his sword. Green eyes narrowed on the statuesque demoness. Jaeger hefted his axe and swung it in a testy arc. Jadeth held her hammer low and the green glow cast sharp shadows on the cliff walls past a frantically turning Alarandia.
Alarandia turned with a cry to find the two warriors and elf armed. Furious eyes darted between the three and searched the shadows for the fourth.
“So, a fight you want then?” She hissed and her lush lips curved into a wide, slightly insane smile.
“Your wish is our command…bitch.” Jaeger snarled and dropped into a low crouch. Frost crept up the heavy iron. Ivo growled and readied his sword. It gleamed in the eerie green glow, as light to him as the wind, but his eyes studied the murky shadows.
Where was Emaranthe?
Ivo leveled the sword and paced to the left. His eyes narrowed on the tall, dark woman with burning eyes. Her crimson lips were curled into a sneer that made her elegant face ugly.
They continued to circle. Jadeth paced just behind Ivo and Jaeger, her hammer’s green glow stretching and bending shadows as they moved. Sapphire eyes, able to see better than the men in the gloom, watched a small flicker of smoke drift from behind a second, larger, boulder across the plateau. It vanished quickly in the dim light and reappeared for a split second behind a tall spiny bush at the very edge of the roiling and swirling band of shadows that heralded the incoming horde. The remaining generals still milled about, seemingly unaware of the looming confrontation.
The rocky ground trembled as thunder cracked overhead. A quick glance up and the violent, swirling clouds told Jadeth that the shadows were strengthening. She licked her dry lips and pinned her jeweled gaze on the evil woman.
“Tell us Alarandia, what will you do if we send you back to your Masters without Starstone?” Jadeth smiled widely and waited to see what the woman would do.
Both Ivo and Jaeger hesitated, startled. As expected, black eyes narrowed in fury and a snarl twisted her lush lips.
“I have no Masters Elf!” Alarandia stopped circling and turned the full force of her brittle anger on the elf.
“Oh, I thought you were the Dro-Aconi’s pet, sorry.” Jadeth shrugged carelessly and flipped a red braid over her shoulder.
“Um, Jadeth?” Jaeger sighed as the towering woman’s eyes widened, then narrowed dangerously. “Do you really need to piss her—“
“Pet!” Alarandia’s strident screech echoed off the walls. “I am no one’s pet, Elf bitch!” She raised both arms, her long thin fingers crooked into raking claws.
Smoky, inky tendrils spiraled out of the ground at her feet and swirled in a choking cloud. The ground trembled and cracked before her and multiple spears of small white bone jabbed up through the cracks.
Ivo snarled and motioned for the other two to back up as the bony spears twitched and scratched in sets up out of the ground. The grimy bones of fingers emerged first, then whole hands. The cracks widened as the hands clawed and raked apart the rock and moldy, chipped arm bones pushed free.
With a triumphant cackle, Alarandia backed away from the half dozen minions erupting from the earth.
“If you wanted pets to play with my dear, why didn’t you say so?” She screeched as another rumble of thunder echoed off the cliff walls. Lightning flashed above, then behind her something else, brighter.
Jaeger sucked in his breath as the lightning flared, sending shadows skating across the rocky terrain. Out of one of the shadows Emaranthe appeared beside one of the milling generals.
He opened his mouth to warn her, but she leaped at the general with blazing hands and it burst into flame just as lightning forked the sky. It stumbled and screeched hideously, but it’s howls went unheard in the last remnants of the thunder.
Jaeger’s blue eyes flicked back to Alarandia who was posing triumphantly behind her lineup of skeletons. They had to keep Alarandia’s attention on them.
Ivo hissed beside him as another burst of fire behind the demoness drew his attention too. Another general flailed and screeched in a ball of fire, unnoticed by the psycho bitch.
He grinned and swung his sword in a low arc and Jaeger lifted his axe high as he bent into a ready crouch. As one they launched themselves at the skeleton minions with twin howls of fury. As Jaeger’s icy axe swung high, Ivo’s sword flashed low, and heads and knees clattered free to litter the rocky ground. Six piles of moldy bones dropped to the plateau floor before Alarandia.
“Ahh! “ Her screech was echoed by another violent rumble of thunder as she once again found herself facing the three alone.
Lightning flared, tossing shadows wildly. The last general ignited behind Alarandia and Ivo watched as it flung itself off the plateau rim in a ball of fire. For a long moment Emaranthe stood still, her head down, in the midst of the swirling, storming shadows. When she lifted her head, gold gleamed in the purple laced gloom. Finally, looking weary and winded, she turned and focused on Alarandia.
A grim smile stretched Ivo’s mouth up at the corner.
Emaranthe inhaled and closed her eyes as weariness tugged on her mind and soul. So tired. She straightened her shoulders and turned to face the small group across the clearing. Green glittered in the darkness of Ivo’s helm and she knew that he watched her carefully, worriedly. She smiled slightly and inhaled again. She felt the fire build inside her and she lifted her staff aloft.
Flames licked and swirled up the staff, her arm, and down her body in a consuming cascade of warmth. Inside the fiery shell her eyes burned in the gloom.
She slammed them shut and vanished.
Emaranthe reappeared just behind Alarandia who spun on her heel as the fiery shield singed her leather bustier laces in the back.
“What?” Alarandia hissed and backed up. Toward Ivo, Jadeth, and Jaeger. Just in time she seemed to remember the three behind her and she wheeled about again, her arms raised and fingers crooked into claws. Her head snapped back and forth between the two sets of threats so fast that her tower of curls threatened to topple.
She settled on Emaranthe and turned her flaming, dark eyes on her. Emaranthe stared up at the woman, unconcerned and wide eyed in the gloom. The fiery shield settled and drifted away in the stiff breeze, leaving her unprotected.
What the hell…
Gold eyes flicked to his, deep in the shadowed depths of his helm, as if she’d heard his thoughts. Her lips twisted up in a small smile.
Alarandia stared down at the tiny female uncertainly. What kind of trick was this? She was a little girl!
Burning gold eyes glanced up and locked with fiery black and narrowed.
“Do you really think either of them will make you Queen?” Emaranthe whispered so softly that Jaeger glanced at Ivo and Jadeth. Both of them caught his look, startled. Queen?
“What are you talking about girl?” Alarandia turned and walked slowly away from the girl, but kept the three others within her line of sight. Those three are dangerous, she mused, and the girl is just a girl.
“You want to be Queen of the Universe,” Emaranthe tilted her head quizzically. “Why else would you betray your own people and serve the Dro-Aconi?”
“You don’t know anything do you?” Alarandia flung her head and sniffed haughtily.
“No,” Emaranthe agreed with the statuesque witch and turned to pace as well. Wind howled as the shadows behind them rumbled and swirled. “But what did they promise you then?”
Alarandia raised an arched eyebrow at the girl and switched directions to pace the other way. Emaranthe mirrored her motions as the wind snagged her braids and dragged them over her face and shoulders.
Jaeger blinked as ghostly flames appeared to lick and writhe the length of the long blonde streamers as she moved, but then vanished as the wind settled. Impressed, he found himself staring to his left, where Ivo was inhaling and exhaling heavily as he clenched and unclenched his fist around the sword hilt. He was furious, Jaeger realized.
Jadeth backed away a step at a time. She needed to get closer to Emaranthe, who was too far from the healing glow of the hammer. She sidled around Ivo to stand between him and Emaranthe, completing nearly a half circle around Alarandia.
“Promise me? What makes you think he promised me anything girl?” Alarandia snarled, her focus now totally on the small figure in frayed brown robes.
“What else did you have? Nothing. And you know that once you have nothing, you always want something.” Emaranthe shot Jadeth a covert glance and gold locked with sapphire for a fleeting moment. She could feel the soothing green glow touch her now.
“I’m pretty sure that you’d want a lot for betraying your own people, and you were used to getting money easily,” Emaranthe watched Alarandia’s face turn nearly purple with rage at this. “That nothing short of an entire empire would buy you.”
“Bitch!” Alarandia flung her arms high and a ball of inky smoke writhed and swirled in her palm.
“They won’t make you their equal, Alarandia.” Jaeger darted forward, snagging her attention for a brief moment. “You are nothing but a puppet!”
She had forgotten about them again.
Alarandia turned with a scream and hurled the ball of inky smoke at Jaeger. He ducked and it sailed over his head by a millimeter to splash with smoky swirls against the stones behind him. The rock cracked and darkened, crumbled, weathering instantly as if a thousand years had passed.
Ivo swung his shield before him and roared a challenge that echoed louder than the thunder. It shook the stone beneath them and howled across the plateau with the wind.
Alarandia swung around to him, her mouth wide in a furious scream. Ivo ducked aside, shield high, as another smoky ball of death flared by. It carved a sickening, cracking dent in the heavy steel, but it was made by the gods and didn’t splinter.
Jaeger dove as she turned away from him, swinging his axe in a icy arc low to the ground. It slashed through well muscled flesh on Alarandia’s left calf, sending her to her knees with a howl of pain.
“Wait.” Emaranthe stood still and watched Ivo and Jaeger back away, still growling with rage. Emaranthe watched Alarandia with steady, wide eyes for a long moment.
Next to her, Jadeth watched Emaranthe approach the now kneeling demoness. Long, lithe fingers curled tightly over the handle of the hammer and sapphire eyes flicked between her tiny friend and the hissing bitch.
“What did they promise you, Alarandia?” Emaranthe asked. “Why do you need to take them the Starstone?”
“The Dro-Aconi are coming, child.” Alarandia hedged her answer as her gaze darted between her and the bristle of sharp weapons pointed her way. “Soon they will be strong and you can’t stop them. Their darkness will spread like a plague for thousands of years and we who honour them will watch those gifted by the gods suffer!”
“We will fight for this world as long as it takes, Alarandia,” Emaranthe said. She watched as the woman’s smirk faltered. “But will you play pet to them for empty promises? Was it worth it to give up your life, your own people?”
“They promised me what I wanted, girl.” Alarandia hissed between bared, feral teeth.
“I don’t think they can give you that now.” Emaranthe glanced over her shoulder at the thundering storm of clouds and shadows. Without the generals the shadows had no anchor, no physical tether to this plane of existence.
Alarandia said nothing; she had underestimated the little girl.
“You should leave, Alarandia, before it’s too late,” Emaranthe whispered. She backed away as her eyes burned white hot in the murkiness. “Leave the Starstone. Leave these free people alone.”
Alarandia climbed to her feet with attempted grace, her soulless black eyes still on the tiny girl. Instead of fury, her eyes now burned with something akin to fear.
“Why are you letting me go?” Alarandia pulled herself together, her chin high.
“Mercy is something the strong give to the weak, Alarandia.” Ivo snarled as Emaranthe closed her eyes and fire slithered and spread up her legs and body to envelope her in a glowing shield again. Her eyes snapped open.
“Go back and tell your master that we are not going to give up. We will protect Ein-Aral. We will protect the free races of our world until our bodies are dust and time stands still.” Emaranthe’s voice echoed loud and strong within the shield and seemed to fill the entire plateau.
Alarandia backed away, her eyes darting between the foursome. She stumbled over something behind her and turned to find smoldering piles of cloth and bone—all that remained of the generals. With a hiss, she turned and glared at the four before her eyes settled on the flame shrouded girl who was closest.
“I will see you again, girl. I look forward to our battle, mage to mage.” Alarandia sneered as she lifted her hands skyward, toward the center of the rapidly shifting shadows. A flare of dark light erupted downwards, capturing Alarandia and lifting her slowly into the air. Floating free, her mass of scarlet curls in a halo around her face, she could have been considered beautiful. Once. Long ago.
With a grinding, angry screech the inky shadows jerked free of their tenuous grip and swung wildly in the sky as they and the beam of light containing Alarandia retracted with a flare of purple light.
The ground beneath them heaved and buckled, then settled with clouds of dust as the last of the darkness faded from the plateau. The inky gloom drifted away as a fresh breeze chased the rolling clouds. Light returned, at first dim, then rapidly brightening as the midday sun spilled from behind the vanishing clouds.
Ivo stared skyward, open mouthed, as he watched the blue sky return. Beside him, Jaeger ignored the transformed sky and air and traded worried glances with Jadeth. A sharp elbow in Ivo’s side jerked his attention back down to his friends. He caught sight of Emaranthe and inhaled sharply.
Emaranthe leaned on her staff with trembling arms, her head bowed, her hair trailing in the now fresh and soft breeze.
“Emaranthe?” Ivo swallowed and moved to her side. She didn’t move, but inhaled deeply. Finally, she lifted her head and soft golden brown eyes looked up at the sky. A small smile twisted the corner of her mouth.
Relieved, Ivo sighed, but something nagged at his mind until he recalled it.
“Emaranthe, what was it that the Dro-Aconi promised her?” Ivo asked and watched her golden eyes flicker with pain, but stay focused on the vivid summer sky.
“The same thing I’ve wanted for over a hundred years.” She turned and stowed her staff at her back and walked to join Jadeth and Jaeger who were watching with wide, curious stares.
“What is it?” Jaeger and Jadeth fell in beside her and Ivo, and the four turned toward the cliff face and stared far off at the red and oranges of the valley far below them. The pillars of stone glowed in the warmth of the sun and the distant ledges glinted as giant blades of the windmills spun lazily.
“She wanted peace in death.”
Ivo turned and watched as the last remnants of the invasion faded, drifting into dust on the wind, until nothing was left but the boulders and spindly bushes.
“Come, our work is done here. For now.” He jammed his sword into the sheath at his waist and slung his battered, cracked shield over his shoulder where it vanished into shadow. Even though he knew they had won, his heart still sat heavy inside his chest—they had won but a small, insignificant battle—the war was still all around them.
“Do you think we stopped her from taking enough Starstone to fully bring the Dro-Aconi back?” Jaeger too, stowed his weapon and shot the now clear sky a wary look as he moved to stand beside Ivo. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he narrowed them against the sunlight.
“We may never know. We can only hope Alarandia has rethought her position with them.” Ivo sighed and dragged the helm from his head. He gripped in with one hand and ran the other through his dark hair until it stuck up much like Jaeger’s.
Emaranthe watched the brothers from the edge of the plateau with a slight smile, then turned and tugged her hood up to cover her hair. The fresh breeze toyed with her pale braids as she turned to Jadeth.
“Are you ready to head back?” Jadeth stretched her arms above her head, much like a cat enjoying the sun. Her scarlet braids had come loose and now tumbled loosely about her shoulders. “I am. I am so sick of skeletons and zombies.”
“I don’t know, maybe you’d like this then?” Jaeger appeared beside her and held up a cleanly cleaved skeletal forearm and shook it playfully at her.
“Ugh! Get rid of that!” Jadeth slapped at the offering and knocked it out of his hand. He laughed out loud and both Ivo and Emaranthe turned to look at him in surprise.
Green eyes met gold and both smiled. It was good to hear Jaeger laugh. In the many years they had traveled together he had always been the least carefree and happy. Their smiles faded again.
Maybe one day, after their world was no longer threatened, they’d all be able to laugh.
“Come, let’s ride.” Ivo’s face tightened. One day was far off, unfortunately. He jammed his helmet over dark hair again and turned toward the mine entrance. “We need to get back to the village.”
Jadeth and Emaranthe followed behind Ivo, and Jaeger took up his customary position in the back. The darkness in the mine was no longer suffocating, but tinged with the faint off red of the still glowing Starstone veins. It gave just enough light for the foursome to find their way without needing Emaranthe’s little flame lamp.
They journeyed throughout the rest of the day, unhampered by foes or weather and enjoyed the fresh air and warm sunlight. The path wound down the cliff faces in many twists and switchbacks. The once surly wind was now a breath of life. They reached the body of the murdered villager and gathered rock and rubble to make a mound over him and then once again bowed respectfully before moving on down the path.
They reached the bottom as the sun began to sink into the west, casting vivid red and gold fingers of light throughout the valley.
Emaranthe watched the sunlight play on the red cliff walls, her gold eyes shadowed from deep within the frayed hood. Alarandia was gone, for now, and their job was done here.
She lifted her arm in an unspoken signal and her stallion appeared beyond a nearby cactus and shook his great mane in greeting. Smiling, she stroked his nose and patted his stiff coat with gloved hands.
“Hello old boy. Miss me?” Emaranthe glanced over her shoulder as the others mounted their stallions, and moved to do the same. She leaped onto the horse in a blur of motion and gathered the reins. They moved as one down the path toward the small village.
“I think I need a vacation.” Jaeger grumbled as he dragged a hand over his face. Weary lines tightening his mouth and his wide shoulders sagged under his armor.
“I could use a pint in the Broken Sow Pub.” Ivo shot his brother a look and earned a half smile as old memories surfaced. Emaranthe smiled in the shadows of her hood and turned to look back at Ivo, who had let the women lead for once in order to ride beside his brother.
“I bet I could out drink you this time.” Gold eyes glittered brightly and met green over their horse’s heads. Jadeth’s sapphire eyes snapped between the two in confusion.
“Okay, what’s the joke?” She raised an arched eyebrow a Jaeger who was struggling to keep a smirk off his face.
“Well, this one time—“
“What?!” Ivo jerked back on the reins of his horse so hard it sank onto its haunches with a snort. The beast jumped and danced with alarm, but beneath Ivo’s expert hand he calmed. He stared past the women.
Jaeger’s smirk faded into a scowl as he looked past Jadeth and Emaranthe to the oddly quiet village that appeared as they rounded the last bend.
Emaranthe slid down from her horse and studied the empty shadows. Nothing moved and no sounds betrayed the presence of …anyone.
“It’s empty.” She whispered as she dropped the reins of her stallion and darted forward. Fear sank in her chest as she slid around corner of the nearest clapboard shack and halted at the center.
The bonfire was out, not even smoldering in the late afternoon light. She dragged a glove off her hand and jammed it into the coal bed. Cold. She slid the glove back over her hand and turned as Ivo and Jaeger crept into the clearing with axe and sword ready.
Keen blue and green eyes sized up the village in one look.
“No bodies,” Jaeger climbed the rickety steps of the nearest shack and prodded the door open with his axe. It swung wide on worn leather strap hinges and sagged inward. A quick glance told him it was empty…of belongings too. “And no possessions. They’ve cleared out.”
“Why would they leave?” Jadeth glided into the clearing and shouldered her glowing hammer. Her confused gaze matched Emaranthe’s.
The mage’s narrow shoulders hunched deeper into her cloak.
“The fire is days cold. They didn’t think we’d prevail.” Emaranthe sighed softly.
“They were cowards.” Jaeger dropped off the high porch of the shack with a growl, landing lightly despite his armor. “They knew to trust us.”
“No, they did what they felt they needed to do. In time they will return, but it is our time to leave here.” Ivo’s scowl matched Jaeger’s briefly. He watched Emaranthe’s thin shoulders sag under her cloak and inhaled. Anger thinned his mouth into a hard line. These people should have had more faith in her, in them.
“It isn’t your fault, Emaranthe.” Ivo slammed his sword back into its sheath and moved to stand before her. She bowed her head for a long moment before looking up at him. Gold eyes glittered in the shadows—but he couldn’t tell if it was from fire or tears.
“Let’s go. We have work to do elsewhere.” Jaeger turned his back on the deserted village and walked away. The others followed.
“We need to report back to The Unknown City,” Ivo shot one last look at the silent village before reining his horse away. “The nearest portal is a half day from here.”
They rode in pained silence and for a long time the only sounds were the rattling of spiny sage bushes in the wind and the distant howl of a coyote. Darkness fell swiftly deep in the gorge and with it came a bitter cold.
Emaranthe dragged her cloak tighter around her arms and flexed her nearly numb fingers within the ragged gloves that hid her burned, scarred hands. Her frosty breath clouded her vision as she breathed. The others rode ahead of her and didn’t take much note of the cold…Jadeth’s elfin body made her practically immune to it, and Ivo was covered in heavy armor. Jaeger’s gift of water made the cold a friend, not foe to him.
They crossed a narrow stream and caught sight of the portal’s shimmering glow against the cliff wall. Another, smaller light flickered in the moonless night, casting dancing shadows.
The portal loomed before them, the doorway to their City.
They approached the shimmering blue light and walked their mounts through, vanishing as they did so.
Emaranthe glanced beyond the portal as her horse’s head vanished into the light. All she could see in the dark night were distant pillars of stone and shadows.
The rest of the horse flickered through the portal with her atop. She walked him into the comfortably warmer great room and slid off his broad back in one motion. A sharp slap on the rump sent his dish sized hoofs clattering across the stone floor and out the main door. He would find the stables easily.
“It feels good to be back.” Jadeth smiled down at her tiny friend but Emaranthe didn’t answer or look back. If possible her shoulders hunched even deeper into her cloak.
Burning gold eyes glittered in the shadows of the hood as they darted around the busy chamber.
Ivo led them toward the thrones where the three Lords of the Races sat. Rodon, Man-King, Helene, Elfkind Empress, and Atil, Lord of the WindWalkers, stood as they approached. As one they knelt before the three, heads bowed.
“Rise Immortals.” Rodon’s voice was a booming rumble, like thunder. Emaranthe inhaled as she rose, letting the hood fall free from her braids. Rodon’s gaze snapped to her unerringly.
“Tell me the news from the west.” Rodon tugged on his beard and paced between his seat and the platform steps. His silvery eyes swung back to the two men standing nearest him.
“We convinced Alarandia to leave, Lord.” Jaeger jerked his helm free and bowed again.
“Convinced, eh?” Rodon chuckled humorlessly, but didn’t ask for the tale. He had no time for tales with his people, the Earthlanders, dying by the thousands. “Good. Your mission was successful at least.”
“Yes, Lord.” Ivo too removed his helm. Rodon studied both men with keen pale silver eyes, and then the she-elf who was glancing between him and Helene. He understood her dilemma and didn’t comment. Helene was of Jadeth’s people and she would normally have only deferred to— and taken commands— from her.
“However, I have another quest for you four.”
Ivo frowned and traded looks with his brother.
“Lord, with all due respect, we have been without leave for a good amount of—“
“I am sorry, this cannot wait and you four are the best warriors I have.” Rodon’s gaze found Emaranthe’s and he wondered at the despair that flickered there. She bowed her head, however, breaking eye contact.
“Yes, my Lord.” Ivo slammed his helm onto his head once more. So much for the pint.
“Have you ever heard of the lost city of Seven Skies?” Rodon’s pacing halted and he studied their blank looks.
“Good, then you will have to go find it.”
To be continued in Book 2!