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Children of Sotania

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Part II - Kaelani

And far upon the skies Lies the truth within We are shadows of the dying sun Children of infinity Always gazing to our past We are dust of the stars And I feel it in my heart And I know it in my mind That's all, ever will be We're the dust of the stars ‘Shadows of the Dying Sun’- Insomnium

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Children of Sotania Our Sotan Lord Herald my words, For I am the light of the susurrant past, That blazes far across the darkened skies. In nights of fire we shall sing The songs of our Sotan fathers. The rise of my reign Shall root us within the earth. As our goddess’s creatures Whisper the rites of the divine. Our hallowed halls Shall bloom once more in cheer. Feast on our feats, Vanquish the quarrels of yore. I am the sunlight. I am the darkness. The constancy of time. I am the welkin. I am the eternity, By which we are bound. 2


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OCCUPATION My dearest child, you must know that I keep you within these walls for your own safety. There is a world out there and it will wait for you, but for now while the fate of this country balances on the thinnest string, I wish to keep your heart pure from those that threaten us. As I watch you grow each day, it seems that your path will be a prosperous one. Even if I do not live to see the day you reach your fullest potential, I am sure that your name will be one that is remembered, and I could rest with peace that I was the one to help you along that road. I write this as you play with your wooden toys by the hearth, a spirited smile on your face and many upturned books strewn around you. Every now and then I glance up, notice your happiness and more words come to the ink in my pen. (Alden, 10th Kan’Quel 68)

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ate again. He would surely receive some sort of backhanded comment or witticism this time, one that would likely be succeeded by a round of sniggers from the others in the group. The first time had only been a slap on the wrist, the second time the same but accompanied by a disapproving remark from Lynss. The third, fourth, fifth and however many other times after that had devolved into it being an ongoing joke, something for them to use against him. Whenever he spoke out of turn, or did something of 4


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any particular worth, it would only ever come back to how he was the one who was always late and how he had the time keeping skills of a toddler. The two swords across his back clinked together with every step he took, and the larger of the two dug repeatedly into his side. He shifted uncomfortably, slinging the strap higher up on his shoulder. Hyrish Lossanin was tall for a Kaelan, standing a good few inches higher than anyone else he had come across. He was at a point in his life where he had not quite stepped over the threshold into manhood, and stood awkwardly on the cusp in a beardless and adolescent limbo. His elders would still call him ‘boy’, while his peers would refer to him as a man. He wasn’t quite sure what he was. He didn’t feel old enough to hold the responsibilities of an adult. If he had been a Sotan or Tairian at his age, he would have likely been given some woman— whom he had never met—to be his wife and would be expected to produce an heir to their family name. Perhaps he would have preferred that. But as things were, he was a late teenage Kaelan, still living with his father and staying out far too late. The path he took began to ascend into the mountain road that rose up one side of Beuldani’s Peak, and soon his footing became more difficult with the number of large stones that littered the walkway. He knew the road well, but still he was cautious. Turning up late with a sprained ankle would only serve as more fuel for the fire. Why in this world did Lynss insist on having his clubhouse half way up the tallest mountain in the east? Hyrish was sure it was simply a way of inflating the man’s already rather sinister ego. His own castle overlooking the lands. To his left, Hyrish could see over the edge of the rock face to the city below that currently sat in the darkness, its presence marked 5


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only by blurred lines and several glowing lamps with flickering candles in the windows. Beuldani was a peculiar location. Hiding in the shadow of the highest mountain in Kaelani, the town bordered the coastline of the north end of The Fifth Kaelan. The Sotan winds from the west would course through the alleys and streets and then run straight into the side of the mountain, shielding the rest of the island from its chill. Ilidieye to the north west, the rest of Kaelani to the south east. He knew if it were a clear day, he would be granted a view of the eastern side of Sotania. The stretching coastline of the great nation would be dotted with galleons and vessels of gold imbued with crimson sails. Soon, the path levelled and cleared as he walked the final stretch. The modest clubhouse came into sight, a sturdy wooden shack that survived the winds and weather year after year and rarely required to be worked on. Originally belonging to a circle of Peak Dwellers, the group had found the building full of all the religious and ritualistic paraphernalia of the odd mountain-loving monks. It had never been uncovered as to why they had abandoned the building, but now that Lynss’ crew had moved in, it was unlikely that they would ever come back. He made it to the front and pushed open the door, expecting a humiliating cheer as he finally showed himself. ‘Here’s the timekeeper!’ he heard Derno the ranger say. ‘Your father keep you home for bad behaviour? Or is he the one in charge of keeping track of time?’ This time it was Gil, the sailor, an older man that stood with a hunched back, and one of the few that Hyrish thought well of within the group.

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‘Finished licking the mud from his shoes yet?’ someone else said from the back. Sounded like Pann. He didn’t give them the satisfaction of a retort. ‘How does he even know when the shoes are clean? Why does he even care?’ Derno joked again, sending the rabble into a round of laughs. Another weak spot, his father’s disability. ‘Shut it, you lot,’ said a voice, obviously intending to sound fierce but struggling to mask their usual timid tone. Shefa was always on time. Never once had she been late. She likely had been the first one there tonight. Choosing as always to sit at the back, the silvery-haired girl was wrapped in a cloak far too large for someone of her small size. Her youthful face was much more rounded than the usual Kaelan, giving her the impression of an angry field mouse. But as Hyrish was very accustom to, the girl could throw and take a punch as well as any man or beast. A lifetime of being a street rat in the alleys of Beuldani had made sure of that. Though the men would tease her and make jokes, none would ever be comfortable facing off against her. She was quick, nimble and her dagger was sharp. And for that reason, Hyrish was glad that he kept her close. Shefa was of a similar age to himself and seemed to like him a lot. During their time with the crew, they had watched each other’s backs. ‘Looking out for your little lover boy again, Shefa?’ said another crewmember. She gave him a glare. Hyrish stood awkwardly by the front door. ‘Sit down, boy,’ came Lynss’ voice from behind his ear. Hyrish jumped briefly, before quickly finding a seat. ‘You’re late again,’ Shefa said to him quietly as he sat down. He gave an awkward shrug of his shoulders, conveying to her just how 7


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accustomed to that fact he was. She huffed. ‘I don’t know how you can lose track of time so easily. I’m surprised Lynss hasn’t kicked you out at this point.’ Lynss Kanan was a regal and official looking man, draped in expensive looking fabrics and leathers. His dark hair was cut close to his head, the sides of which were greying slowly like patches of snow. To an onlooker, the man may have appeared like a Sotan citizen if it weren’t for the darker skin. He was wealthy for a Kaelan, particularly a commoner, but as the group were aware of, his renowned history of thievery and past dealings were well known. He was perhaps the most experienced and respected crew leader in all of Kaelani, and now that the Fifth Kaelan was occupied by Sotan forces, he had chosen to direct his attention to other matters. To give back to the people as he put it. His focus no longer lay in personal gain and growth, it stemmed from taking away from those who had stolen the isle. Gold that rightfully belonged in the pockets of the sellers, craftsman and common folk of Kaelani would be returned to them, extracted from the hands of the scoundrel. ‘Gather, my friends,’ Lynss began in his alluring voice. ‘We have work to do this night. Riches to pass to the rightful hands. While the scoundrel walks upon our lands, the attentive eye looks away from us. Our time is now.’ Hyrish was never admiring of Lynss’ odd way of speaking. The man’s use of metaphor and overly eloquent language seemed unfitting in the halls of an underworld crew. Every conversation felt like a performance. The man got things done, there no was no question about that, but Hyrish was never quite sure of how exactly any of his followers knew what to do when the man spoke. Orders were always hidden under a layer of complicated words.

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‘Lynss, my man,’ Gil began. ‘Are you saying that you haven’t got a job for us involving Kilaksan directly while he freely walks our isles?’ ‘Agreed, the man is here. Surely we’re going to face him? It only takes one man with a knife in his hand to win back our country, not another day of picking pockets,’ said Derno. Lynss calmly raised a hand. ‘Take it from me,’ said Gil, sitting forward in his chair. ‘There will be no Kaelan future while the lands we own lie in the hands of any man from that country.’ ‘Aye, we don’t want the silver men putting fear into the hearts of our children. We want them gone.’ ‘Calm your hate,’ said Lynss. ‘The game we play is far more controlled than the impulses of a prisoner. What your eyes do not see is that this hand feeds us, far more so than we could on our own. Since the Fifth fell, more gold is in circulation. Our dwindling economy has improved drastically.’ ‘Are you saying that it’s a good thing that the isle no longer belongs to Faelani? No longer truly Kaelan?’ Shefa asked. ‘There is money, yes. But all the gold you speak of sits in the pockets of the silver men, the officials and the scoundrel!’ ‘That is true,’ Lynss said with a subtle bow of his head. ‘That is why we must be clever. A quick death will lead to an even quicker fall.’ ‘So what are you planning, Lynss?’ Hyrish asked. He looked the boy in the eyes, holding his gaze from a silent moment before glancing around at the others in the room. ‘Perhaps the greatest insult to the hand that feeds is to simply outlive it.’

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The night was dark for a Kaelan summer. No golden horizon loomed in the distance, and the winds that swept through the alleys still had the hint of chill in their bite. It was particularly unusual weather for the far east, even more so for the fact it was the latter part of the month of Loess. The entirety of the five isles of Kaelani would normally be roasted under a searing sun, but the year had looked bleak so far. Hyrish and Shefa had been sent along first, for they were the smallest, and Shefa had the sharpest eye. In his mind, Lynss wanted Shefa to start the job alone, but knew that the two were difficult to separate and things would likely work the best if they remained together. In addition, if Shefa were to be caught, a little more muscle and steel might be useful. Shefa could hold her own in most situations, but she relied on her ability to be unseen. Straight combat against multiple opponents favoured Hyrish’s approach. His strength lay in being a jack of many trades but master of none. He worked best with a specialist, but was ultimately versatile. The areas around the southern outskirts of Beuldani were far less occupied by Sotan legionaries than they had been in the earlier days of the occupation. There was a time when the streets were lined with patrols of men in silver, their pikes aimed to the skies and their stares locked ahead. The citizens had cowered and remained in their homes, leaving the market stalls and residential areas eerily empty. Kilaksan’s arrival on the shores of the Fifth Kaelan had stirred the men to report to his side, and as such, many areas were apparently unattended. Shefa stuck close to one side of the wall, knowing that soon the path would open out and look over one of the military outposts in the south of the island. Hyrish followed closely, one hand holding the tips of his swords to stop their clinking. Kilaksan had docked in 10


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the north, and as such they would have more freedom to work around the Sotans that were there. The outpost was purely functional, mostly consisting of a crimson tent in the centre surrounded by burnt out campfires that the men had gathered around in nights past. The ground was stained black in many places with soot, and it looked as if the grass had all but died. Shefa surveyed the camp and Hyrish saw how her lip rose in disgust. ‘This was a crop field only a few months back, now it’s host to these dogs,’ she said bitterly. Her dagger was slipped from its sheath by her side with the subtlest grate of metal. He watched her warily, waiting for her to make the first move. If she struck first, he would have to wait until she gave him the sign to follow. Hyrish did not reply to what she had said. He could see that Shefa’s mind was focussed and there was little point in speaking unnecessarily. They had a job to do. Shefa’s eyes narrowed as she scanned the area, making several mental notes of the positions of the silver men she could clearly see, and anticipating those that likely were out of her current view. The dagger by her side began to sit uneasily and impatiently in her palm, eager to make a move, but she knew that even though their numbers were not high, alerting them would lead to a fight they could not win on their own. She would have to deal with them one by one. There was a clear entry into the camp, one that would take her to her first target, after that she would have to pull the body behind the wall. ‘Let me deal with that one,’ she said, pointing at the guarding legionary that stood at the edge of the camp. ‘But as soon as you see him begin to fall, I need you to hurry over.’ ‘Why’s that?’ Hyrish asked. She gave a disapproving scowl, which in all honesty, Hyrish found rather cute. 11


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‘Because I can’t carry him, idiot,’ she whispered sharply. ‘I don’t want a suit of steel armour clashing on the ground.’ Shefa tugged her hood more tightly around her head, before ducking low and setting off soundlessly like a black mist on the waves. Hyrish followed her cloaked form before she stopped and began to edge closer to the lone guard that was completely unbeknownst to what was about to happen. Try and buy your way out of this one, Hyrish thought as he saw the knife sink into the back of the man’s neck, before quickly snapping his attention back and hurrying over to where Shefa was. He reached her position and placed a steadying hand on the legionary’s neck as Shefa pulled the blade out, before laying his metal body silently on the patchy grass. The steel made him heavier than Hyrish had imagined. He glanced up to find Shefa with a fire in her eyes, her first kill of the night secured. She patted the man’s body down in search of coin or items of value but found little in his pockets. ‘The charter will be in the tent. From what I can see there’s only one other Sotan in there, so let me deal with him. Same again this time, got it?’ Hyrish gave a resolute nod, trusting her intentions better than his own. He watched her cautiously once more as she slithered towards the fabric door of the main tent, the shadow of a person within being silhouetted by the light of a lit candle. Once more, Hyrish saw as the body jerked in shock before becoming limp and weak, the whole picture like some macabre puppet show. He hurried in, catching a lifeless legionary for the second time. He lay him down, looked over to Shefa to find her already searching through the contents of the tent. With her palms on the wooden table, she looked over the many documents and files that were littered atop it. She sifted through them, before pulling one out and holding it near the candle light to illuminate it. 12


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‘Found it, but the seal is missing,’ said Shefa. ‘Is that a problem?’ ‘Sotan ledgers aren’t valid without the Spire seal, there’s got to be a stamp around here somewhere.’ She began to search the tent thoroughly, opening and throwing out the contents of a chest in the far corner onto the floor. Hyrish scanned the makeshift room, finding it more or less empty, his gaze finally landing on the fallen legionary half laying in the doorway. This one had a blood-red cloak on, surely identifying him as a higher rank than the others they had seen. He glanced at his body, noticing a hint of gold between the plates of his gauntlets. The man was wearing a ring on the smallest finger of his left hand. He knelt beside him, inspecting it more closely. ‘He’s got a signet ring here,’ Hyrish said to Shefa over at the over side of the tent. As Shefa was about to speak, the man let out a throaty splutter and groan that startled the two of them. He continued to cough under his helmet, alerting them that he quite clearly had some life still remaining in him. ‘Bastard’s still breathing,’ Hyrish noted. ‘Deal with him and pass me that ring,’ Shefa instructed. There was something crude about her words Hyrish found, something almost insensitive. He took in an uneasy breath before standing. ‘Quickly,’ she said urgently. He sensed her standing over him. His hand fell nervously to the short blade on his back, slowly slipping it from his sheath. Shefa’s eyes narrowed in disdain. ‘Do it, then. Hurry. We don’t know how long till that second platoon gets back here.’ Another few tense moments passed, before Hyrish found himself pushed out of the way. Shefa impatiently knelt down and implanted her dagger harshly into the man’s throat, silencing his moans and ceasing his choking. She pulled the ring from his finger and strode 13


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back over to the table. He heard her let out one of her huffs, a sound he was becoming familiar with. ‘Don’t make me do everything around here,’ she chided. She inspected the signet ring more closely, before appearing satisfied that it was the correct one for this particular type of document. Taking the candle, she poured a generous amount over the now folded sheet of parchment and pressed the signet ring firmly into the hardening wax. With their mission appearing complete, Shefa doused the candle’s flame with her fingertips, plunging the two of them into darkness. In the silence that followed, metal footfalls began to rise in the distance. They were repetitive and perfectly in time. ‘Come on,’ said Hyrish, pulling the girl with him out of the back of the tent. Once they had the cool air back on their faces, it was clear that another squad or perhaps two, were nearby and converging on them quickly. They sat with their backs to the canvas of the tent’s side, hoping that the coming soldiers did not light the candle within and see their shapes. ‘Shoreline’s only a mile or so that way,’ Hyrish whispered. It was Shefa’s turn to nod. ‘Quickest route is down past the Sill, but it’s a steep drop.’ ‘It’s not the drop I’m worried about,’ replied Shefa. It was true, the mountainous environment of Kaelani was not a hindrance to those used to living there. But one aspect of island life that struck fear into the hearts of so many was the Sea of Ilidieye below those rocks. Anyone unlucky enough to fall into the depths was considered dead before they drowned. ‘The sea’s far enough away that this route won’t risk us being near it. Gil’s going to be docked on the southern coast away from 14


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any of the ports,’ said Hyrish. ‘That way he can get to Pachundae without being spotted by any of the Legion galleons.’ ‘We’ll talk about it on the way. I’d rather not discuss this now,’ Shefa said irritably as the plod of armoured boots became apparent in the tent behind them. The murmurs in the Sotan tongue they could hear were all but unknown to the two young Kaelans, but it did not sound like friendly chatter. ‘This way,’ Hyrish said, before moving towards what looked to be a sheer drop off the cliffs in front of them. As they came closer, it was obvious that a way down was accessible, and although it would involve several jumps of faith, this was the part of the operation where Shefa had to trust in Hyrish’s usually reliable knowledge. They began to make their way down, careful to ensure their footing was secure before putting their full weight on any part of the crumbling rock. ‘If we can set Gil off quickly, Derno can do his part before midnight,’ said Shefa. ‘Yeah, then he might actually shut up for a minute.’ Shefa let out a snort of laughter. ‘He really doesn’t like you,’ said Shefa. ‘I’m very aware of that. I don’t like him either and I’m quite happy if he knows it or not.’ ‘Either way, he can’t possibly have a go at us for our part, it went smoother than ever.’ Hyrish nodded, dropping down onto one of the larger shelves of rock on the way down. They stopped for a moment, admiring the silver glint of the moon on the surface of Ilidieye. ‘Why did you hesitate?’ Shefa asked quietly. ‘Hesitate?’ ‘When I asked you to kill that soldier that was still breathing.’ Hyrish paused briefly, letting out a deflating breath. 15


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‘I’ve never done that before. When we’ve done these missions I’ve always had you to deal with those matters.’ He could tell Shefa was surprised, but it wasn’t in any way meaning to mock him, or think any less of him. ‘You’ve never killed a Sotan? Or anyone at all?’ ‘Anyone. The opportunity’s never arisen,’ Hyrish said. Shefa pursed her lips into a line, chewing on her tongue in thought. ‘Well, when it does, my advice would be to get it done quick. It’s a difficult thing at first, even more so if you linger on it. Just do it, don’t ponder.’ Hyrish gave a small nod. Soon enough, they began to move on again. His next drop brought him onto sand rather than stone, and with another small hop, Hyrish and Shefa made it to the bottom. They spotted Gil by the shore untying the ropes that kept his small wooden boat bound to a post. There was another figure silhouetted behind him with a muscular stature, standing proudly and twirling a sword around in their hand. Hyrish assumed it was Derno. ‘No problems yet then?’ the elderly man said with a goodhumoured grin as they approached. ‘Not as of yet, Derno’s still got to have his turn though,’ Hyrish replied, with a gesture to the man. Derno didn’t look impressed. ‘Aye, unlikely though lad. Don’t come much better than this man. You got it then?’ Shefa presented the sealed document to them, handing it over to Gil. He began to busy himself with shifting the boat further into the water. ‘What does Lynss want with that then?’ Hyrish asked, nodding to the parchment. ‘It’s a charter of all the Sotan gold on the island, why do you think he wants it? Use your brain, boy,’ Derno said sternly. 16


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‘With that, we can keep watch of all the comings and goings of them pale-skins, see where’s best to strike next,’ said Gil with laboured breaths as he tried to push the wooden boat. ‘Give us a hand, Dern.’ Derno moved to the other side of the craft, planting his feet in the sand and leaning his weight to shove the boat into open water. ‘It’s snagged on something,’ Derno said, standing and angling his head to look behind the boat where they were trying to get it to go to. ‘By the Goddess…’ he said as he came to the other side. Shefa and Hyrish noticed his wide eyes as he became still. ‘What is it?’ Gil asked, still trying to force the boat further. ‘Stop, Gil,’ he said with some urgency, holding his hand out. ‘Look.’ The three of them hastily came to where Derno was stood, glancing over the side of the vessel. Hyrish’s jaw fell open at what he saw. Resting on the rocks that jutted from the sand, coated in seaweed and mud from the sea was a body. ‘Move the boat,’ Derno instructed. Quickly, the two of them managed to move everything away, so they had a clearer view. In the moonlight that now reached in, it was clear that it was definitely a human body. The hair was hard to see at first as it was matted and clumped with sand and dirt. The skin looked to be cut, grazed and raked all over, likely from the rocks on the shoreline and within the ocean. The four of them simply stood in silence for several moments, studying the figure in the shallows that was gently knocking against the rocks with each pulse of the tide. ‘He’s a Sotan,’ Gil noted. ‘He?’ Hyrish asked with confusion. ‘It’s a woman.’ ‘Is it?’ the old man asked, tilting his head to the side to inspect the body from another angle. 17


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‘Yeah, look there’s…’ Hyrish paused, then mimed a hump with his hand. ‘Not much, I grant you.’ He felt Shefa poke him in the side. ‘So it is.’ ‘Well either way, get it moved. We’ve got to get this boat sailing,’ Derno said, as he moved back to the stern of the boat and began to push. ‘Wait a second now Derno, you can’t just leave a body on the beach,’ said Gil. ‘It’s a damn kiraena, Gil, one of those lot stealing our money,’ Derno said, standing up to the man. The ranger was more than a head taller than the sailor. ‘All I care about right now is getting that charter off as per Lynss’ orders. Now get sailing.’ ‘Kiraena?’ asked Hyrish. ‘A mainlander, lad. Not someone from the islands.’ ‘That’s a horrible name,’ Shefa remarked quietly. She had been numbly staring at the face of the unidentified body floating in the water with an unmoving gaze. ‘Move, Gil. I need to be back to the southern outpost by now,’ said Derno, clearly becoming agitated with their lack of interest in the job they were currently half way through. Gil hopped into the boat as soon the water began to keep it afloat. Soon enough, he was moving into open water and edging towards the horizon. Once he had left, Derno gave the pair a backhanded scowl, before he too took off into the night. Hyrish and Shefa were left on the beach with the body. ‘What do we do with her?’ Shefa asked after a silence in which they both were staring down. Hyrish noticed that Shefa’s usual firmness had softened, and she had wrapped her cloak more tightly around her body, so that only her round face was visible. 18


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Hyrish knelt down, putting his palm into the shallow water and supporting the woman’s head. Once he had a grip with his free hand around her legs as well, he pulled her out and laid her down on the beach away from the sea. Gently, he pushed some of the mud and sand away from her face, finding her to be far younger than he had originally thought. ‘Definitely Sotan,’ Hyrish said. ‘But not one of the soldiers.’ He picked up the woman’s left hand and placed it into his own, finding her skin clammy and freezing cold. He pushed his finger’s deeper into her skin until he felt it. ‘She’s still alive,’ he said quickly. ‘How in this world can you possibly tell that?’ Shefa asked. ‘Blood is still flowing around the body. I think if I…’ He hovered his ear over her mouth and placed a hand down on her stomach. He felt the smallest rise in her chest and a brief rhythmic wisp of air hitting his ear. ‘Yes, still breathing.’ Shefa knelt down beside him, still finding her gaze unable to move away from the unconscious woman. Now that the mud had been cleared somewhat, Shefa could see she had a youthful face with pure white skin that reflected the moonlight off its deathly paleness. She looked to have barely eaten in her life, as her body was thin and bony all over. She did not look much older than the two of them. ‘Help me carry her,’ said Hyrish. ‘You’re not seriously going to take her back to your home?’ asked Shefa incredulously. ‘Hyrish, this is some random Sotan that for all intents and purposes should be dead. She washed up out of Ilidieye, that cannot be a good omen however you look at it.’ ‘Her washing up out of Ilidieye is precisely why we should try to help her. How many people can say they survived the waves of that

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sea? As far as I’m concerned, there’s a reason she’s here and still alive.’ ‘Don’t start speaking nonsense.’ ‘Look Shefa, this is someone who needs aid, forget the fact she’s from that country for just a moment. If you won’t help me, I’ll carry her myself.’ Hyrish, pulled the cold body of the Sotan woman up, holding her under her knees and neck. He began to trudge towards the eastern side of the Fifth Kaelan towards his father’s house on the outskirts of Beuldani, not bothering to see if Shefa was following him.

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ACOLYTES OF THE OWL She is not ready. Far from it. Her seventh birthday is not long away and by now her language and listening skills should be far better than they currently are. When the Spire officials arrive to log our progress, they will surely tell of my tactless ability to teach her. ‘Do you even know the girl? You are her father!’ they will say. I know she can do better, but her attention is fleeting and short. Her interest lies in those silly books and stories. What use is fantasy in unlocking her potential? She should be training. She should be learning from me. She is not ready. (Dominan, 17th Kae’Shan 71)

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he stared vacantly at the unappealing food that had been thrown at her feet. On a simple wooden plate, a lone cut of dried bread sat in the centre, holey and rat-bitten. A redness had spread around her wrists from the shackles that still bound her, and her arms had become stiff in their lack of use. The hold of the ship where she had been left was far darker than the upper decks and the planks that made up the floor were slick with seawater that seeped in through the cracks in the boat’s hull. Amid the constant creaking noise the ship produced as it bobbed on the surface of the sea, Penumbra could hear a door opening in the darkness from the top of the stairs. The hold became filled with weak 21


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candlelight, just enough illumination for her to make out her surroundings slightly better. At the top of the stairs a figure became visible, a silhouette of a man. He approached her, precariously placing each foot on the next step to ensure he did not fall. She thought it funny for a legionary to take such care and idly observed him as he came closer to her. She did not stand or make any attempt to engage him. He stopped at her feet and watched her form leant against the far side of the ship. There was a silence, one in which Penumbra could feel his eyes upon her. ‘Do you have something to say? Am I to be released now?’ said Penumbra casually, thinking to herself that her words would have no effect on the thoughtless legionary before her. ‘No, but we are heading back to the Crimson shore,’ the man replied. At the sound of his unexpectedly expressive voice, Penumbra looked up at him. Bearing no helm like the hundreds of others she had come across, the man had a head of roughly cut brown hair with eyes to match. His jaw was chiselled and square and his body was honed for the military. But, it was clear to her in an instant that there was far less of the normal legionary about this one. He seemed positively real. In his hand, Penumbra noticed that he carried her torn crimson cloak that had been confiscated along with all her weaponry when she had been captured. He continued to study her as if her presence ignited a curiosity in him. ‘Have you been assigned to my side? Told to make sure I do not break from this ship and swim many miles in the most dangerous sea to escape to dry land?’ she questioned. He seemed to break from a daze as she spoke. ‘No,’ he stuttered. ‘I came to make sure you were eating.’ 22


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Penumbra was struck with almost comical confusion. ‘To ensure I was not trying to starve myself?’ she said with a chuckle. ‘I fear Kilaksan’s view of me is far from the truth. I have no intention of wasting my life to escape him.’ ‘I have very little understanding of what an Elstarren would be willing to do to escape him,’ he said. ‘An elevated view of himself, I’m sure. I would have thought he knew what we were like by now. He’s killed enough of us.’ Her gaze fell once again to her cloak that was in his hand. She had not realised how eagerly she wanted it back until she saw it in someone else’s possession. ‘Are you going to give me that back?’ she asked, giving a small nod of her head in its direction. He glanced down at what was in his hand, before holding it up before her. ‘Not until you inform me as to why you have the cloak of the Legion’s former High Commander,’ he said. A half-smile played smugly at the corner of Penumbra’s mouth. ‘Does it worry you that I have it?’ she asked as her smile grew. The legionary shook his head firmly. ‘Perhaps it would worry you to know how I forced him to the ground before driving a knife deep into his neck and pulling out his throat. It is sometimes said that a killer never forgets their first kill, and they were right. I will never forget how he spluttered as I stuck him like a pig. Does that answer your question?’ The man fell silent, nervously adjusting his posture as she spoke her gruesome story. His lips rose in disgust as he threw the torn cloak onto the floor at her feet. She chuckled darkly. ‘So, what fate have I been granted?’ she asked. ‘I will escort you back to Sotan shores, and then you will be taken to the Spire.’

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‘To suffer in a cell until Kilaksan finds the strength to send me to my death,’ she mused. ‘Who might you be to be granted the honour of my escort?’ ‘It does not matter to you,’ he said stiffly. She thought for a moment, studying the unusual legionary. ‘I would at a guess say you were Kilaksan’s personal guard. I have of heard of you before.’ She gave a wry grin at his obvious discomfort. ‘Always by his side but never covering your face. Cannot be easy being half-Tairian in the halls of the Sotan Lord. Would I be correct, Sir Markas Halund?’ Markas’ face dropped as he searched for a response. ‘Silence, prisoner,’ he said eventually with strictness in his voice that she had not heard in their brief encounter as of yet. Her cunning smile returned on her face. ‘There it is. That squashing of defiance that was drilled into your brain by the Legion. But I see it is only practiced in you, it is not genuine in the slightest.’ It was clear to her she had struck a nerve within the man and chose to pursue it further. ‘Why is it that rank is required within a legion of spineless and thoughtless servants?’ She had stood with her words and slowly advanced on him, standing several inches shorter. He pushed her back in an attempt to stop her provoking him. He seized the handle of the blade by his side, threatening to draw his sword. Her smile began to warp into a deadly scowl. ‘Have trust, legionary,’ she said venomously. ‘Crossing blades with me would be the swiftest death sentence you would ever pass.’ ‘You are unarmed.’ ‘I am always armed. If I have to tear your head from your shoulders, then so be it.’ He did not show any fear in his face as she stood up to him, but quite passively watched her. 24


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‘I shall remember that,’ he said calmly, raising an eyebrow. She gave a dissatisfied huff at his lack of aggression. ‘Why are you even a part of this? A royal guard?’ She let out a feigned laugh. ‘By the Goddess, you are the worst legionary I have ever come across. I can’t even bring myself to kill you.’ He chuckled at her insults. During her outburst, she had not noticed that another figure had appeared in the doorway at the top of the stairs, casting a small shadow into the hold. The figure of a young girl. ‘Mister,’ the girl said questioningly, bringing their locked eyes away from the exchange. ‘Are we heading home?’ Markas looked up to her, his whole body softening at her presence. ‘Yes, Aerica. We’ll be going back soon.’ Penumbra’s eyes narrowed as she watched quietly, confused at the whole situation. Her eyes flicked between them. She too looked towards the girl, seeing her blonde hair and sky-blue eyes in the low light. The realisation began to dawn on her as she connected what she was seeing. Soon, the girl had wandered back into the upper decks, leaving them alone once again. ‘The Legion is employing children now?’ said Penumbra. Markas looked back to her, his mouth pursing back into a line and the furrows on his brow returning. ‘She could not be left in The Spire. She’s not meant to be here.’ Penumbra paused, noticing the effect the child seemed to have on the man. ‘Because she isn’t yours,’ Penumbra said, more calmly than anything she had said to the legionary previously. His gaze wandered back to the open doorway. He remained silent. With the movement her shackles allowed, she pulled him back to look at her. ‘I know where to find that girl’s father. I can get her back to him.’ 25


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‘She is safer with me,’ he said, though it did not sound to her as if he believed his own words. ‘How could that be true? A child of that age should be with their parents. Her upbringing is not one for you to play with. Release me when we reach Sotan shores and I will guarantee that I will get her back to her father.’ Markas snorted at her proposition. ‘And have my head put to the block? I’m no fool, Elstarren.’ ‘She isn’t yours,’ Penumbra reiterated firmly. ‘I was the one who caused her to be separated from her father. Let me take her back.’ He looked at her, studying her vibrant green eyes for any trace of a lie. ‘We’ll be leaving soon,’ he muttered. He gave her a final glance before moving back towards the stairs. The door was closed, and Penumbra was once again left in darkness. ~ Laen had never enjoyed riding. His experience had gone little further than trotting small ponies around the streets and gardens of Lordspire, while a horse-master kept a hand on the rope around the muzzle, but even that had been terrifying. Now he found himself atop a racing stallion, galloping towards the north with sleet and rain hitting his face. His bones had long since been crushed to dust by the repetitive thumping against the saddle and his mind was exhausted. He had had the chance to change into a more suitable set of clothes that were available at the mansion, but they did little to ward off the cold. He did however feel strangely glad to abandon his ruined suit. It felt like the shedding of an old identity, leaving his Lordspireconfined life behind. Now was a chance to begin anew. 26


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He refused to believe he had only been travelling two hours. The grassy plains stretched for miles, and every tree looked no different from the last. Still, he pressed on, allowing Palan to go where he pleased. Truly, the horse seemed to have a better idea of where he was going than he did. Strapped to his back was a pouch containing the message Penumbra had entrusted him with. The rough parchment had been sealed with wax and wrapped in cloth. The front had then had a strange insignia burnt onto the paper. An owl, stretching its wings to their full span with an eye imprinted in white onto its chest. He had restrained himself from reading the message, too afraid in his mind of the consequences that Penumbra would have in store for him if she were to find out. During his briefing with the resistance leader, Penumbra had made the importance of the message very clear to him, and expressed several times in their short meeting that she was still not entirely comfortable with him being the one to deliver it. But in the end, she had trusted him. Trusted him with a task that she felt was only fit for one of her group. He hoped this would be the first step in ingratiating himself more within the crew, a chance to prove his worth and reinvent his ungainly reputation. He couldn’t think immediately where all his newfound determination to succeed in this new life he found himself living had come from, but quickly he realised the feeling routed back to a certain black-haired girl. He had a strange desire to impress her, to repay her perhaps. Karshah believed in the Elsworne’s cause, that much was clear to him, and through her he had found that those beliefs made sense. The Alden-Dominan mansion was situated in the Sotan Eastern Dominance, many miles from Lordspire and Warrenvel in the centre

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of the country. Laen had left and travelled more or less as the crow would fly towards the north. As patches of snow began to appear more frequently on the ground, Laen was sure he was entering the Selian region and falling further and further away from central Sotania. Mountains of icy blue began to form in the distance, marking the position of the Selian Heights, but that was not his destination. Laen now knew that his path lay in a more easterly direction, towards the isolated villages of Quelindel and Lorit’ndale. This knowledge however, was all theory. Laen was very familiar with the maps of Loessiah he had seen during his time in Lordspire. He knew the lay of the land almost by heart, but having never left his birth city, he could only hope this understanding would translate into the real world. After another painful hour had past, Laen saw the gates of Loritn’dale merge into view. The town was eerily quiet as he rode through the main entryway. Not a soul mingled in the square, nor a smith at his grindstone by the empty forge. He had heard rumours that the northerners were proud and arrogant and there was little evidence to assume any different, the place was deserted. The town’s layout was not dissimilar to that of Warrenvel, but the buildings and structures were far more ornate, and the greenery more reflective of the north. The olive stone homes were topped with deep maroon tiles and trimmed in gold. The northern settlements of Sotania possessed a comparable level of wealth to the capital, and so the area was well maintained and pleasant. Rich pine trees dusted with snow and ice stood on every street corner, reaching to the sky with a layer of needles shed at their base. Taking a quick glance above at the darkening clouds, Laen decided it best to stay the night in the town. The worst of the 28


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northern region stretched beyond the town’s gates, territory that would be easier traversed with the light of a new day. As he walked around the town’s meagre centre, he scouted a few taverns and inns that would be suitable. He settled on a tavern in one of the far corners, slightly shaded within an alley, a perfect spot to remain hidden. Laen also noticed that the side of the building had a small stable attached that Palan could be housed in. The horse let out a huff and a tap of his hoof that Laen took as his approval. Once the horse had been tied in the stable, Laen stepped into the tavern’s main entrance. Night had fallen outside, and although it was far into the spring months, the temperature had dropped with the sun. Coils of mist began to swirl in the streets, dancing along the cobbles. The inn was not lit inside except for a small candle atop the bar. At the sound of his footsteps sending the floorboards into a round of creaks, a very well-kept looking barkeep appeared behind the wood. ‘A room, sir?’ he asked in an accent that rivalled many of the officials in Lordspire. ‘Please,’ Laen managed to say after his brief shock of the man’s sudden appearance. ‘I’m afraid there is only the one room remaining sir,’ the keep replied. Laen was sceptical to say the least. If it were so that all the rooms were full, it must have meant that the entire town had decided to spend the night there, as no one appeared to be outside. ‘No matter,’ said Laen politely. ‘The name, sir?’ Laen paused for a moment. It seemed foolish to use his own name. As unlikely as it was that anyone outside of the Elsworne was aware of his new alliance with Penumbra, he still felt it prudent to hide his identity. 29


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‘Hallbrook,’ Laen said finally. ‘Faran Hallbrook.’ He clenched his teeth as he studied the barkeep’s response, hoping to the Goddess that the man had not noticed he had simply combined two character’s names from a well-known Sotan novel. The man showed little interest as he produced a slender fountain pen from his top pocket, marking the name down in the guest book. Laen’s eyes narrowed as he noticed the pages all appeared blank. Once he had been led to the room, Laen was left alone with the silence of the town. He paused, noticing that the only sound he could make out was his own breathing and the distant beat of his pulse. He moved his belongings aside, his eyes drawn once more to the folded parchment imprinted with the strange owl insignia. His curiosity pulled at his mind, until finally he gave into its temptation. He unravelled the pouch and slipped out the message before carefully breaking the wax seal. He was confident that since the wax held no emblem itself, he would be able to reseal it fairly easily without anyone noticing the message had been disturbed. He rolled the message out and was instantly struck with puzzlement. There was no distinguishable script on the page—or not one that Laen was familiar with. Despite not having any comprehensive knowledge of Loessiah’s many languages besides the Sotan tongue, Laen was still able to differentiate between the alphabets of Kaelani and Tairia and even some Nalian dialects to some extent. But this was nonsense, what was displayed on the page looked like children’s drawings of random squiggles and shapes. He realised swiftly that there must be a reason of secrecy behind it, to ensure that if the message were to be intercepted—or read by the uninformed messenger for that matter—the contents would not be understood by anyone other than the intended recipient. 30


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Laen had fallen asleep on the bed after attempting to read the message. Opening his eyes slowly, he saw that outside a frigid wind had picked up and he could see that a fine snow had begun to fall against the light of the stars. While the rest of the country had begun to warm towards the summer months, the north remained in perpetual climate of cold. Laen did not move immediately, realising that it was only the early hours of the morning. His eyes peeked around at the room he was in. The candle on the bedside table had long since burnt out, but only a few dribbles of wax had made it down its body. A sound caught his ears, the briefest shuffle of movement in one of the corners. It came again, this time accompanied by a creak of a floorboard. Laen stilled his breathing and listened closely. Another soft creak was produced, the wood obviously straining under some sort of weight. It was definitely coming from the far-left corner, nearest the door. There was someone else in the room. Laen froze, deciding to stay as still as a rock. His idleness however did not last. Before he knew it, Laen had been hauled off the bed and thrown onto the hard wood floor of the tavern’s bedroom. Still in pitch black darkness, Laen felt a hand around his neck and a breath of hot air on his face. The skin of the hand was weathered and worn as if its owner had never experienced the comfort of home. ‘You carry a fraught message, traveller,’ the assailant said in a guttural voice. ‘One I do not think you understand.’ Laen did not reply as the hand around his throat restricted his breathing. ‘Let me tell you this, you work under an emblem that is not to be meddled with.’

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He was thrown back onto the floor, granting him the freedom to take in some needed breaths. The room’s candle was then relit, uncovering the figure from their veil of darkness. As the stranger pulled down his hood, Laen was met with a rugged face that was weather-beaten and scarred. He wore a dark green leather cloak, sprinkled with a layer of powdery snow and mud. His covering concealed the two short blades on his person, as well as a large tomahawk that was strapped to his belt. His dark eyes were aged and tired, but still appeared judging and piercing. Laen was mostly drawn to the intricate tattoo around his left eye. Sharp black lines like calligraphy sprouted from the bridge of his nose, before weaving around the edge of his eye like many inky serpents. Laen soon realised it was the same design that was displayed on the chest of the owl symbol adorning Penumbra’s message. ‘I am sworn to secrecy. I will tell you nothing.’ Laen finally said, intimidated by the stranger, but holding his resolve. He shuffled himself back as the man began to advance on him. ‘Not secrecy. Ignorance,’ said the man, with a voice like clashing rocks. ‘That assassin keeps your mind in the dark for her own agenda. She seems to believe that now the Order has been broken, the Elstarren is hers to reinvent.’ Laen did not reply, choosing to continue moving himself back as far as he could go into the corner. ‘Do you have any idea what I speak of? Has she told you nothing?’ he asked, raising his hands. ‘Or are you a brainless servant like those Kilaksan enslaves?’ ‘She told us what Kilaksan is doing. Controlling the people through the use of dark magic.’ Though Laen was still unbelieving of what Penumbra had told him, he thought it best to convey the same words. The man paused briefly, standing up straighter, his aggressive expression falling into one of thought. 32


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‘Then perhaps she is not completely lost in herself,’ he said more softly. ‘Who are you? What do you know of Penumbra?’ Laen asked. The man paused. ‘She tells you nothing of who she really is,’ he muttered quietly, his gaze roaming over the fear that was barely concealed on Laen’s face. ‘The Elstarren were many once. The triumvirates were of Rangers, Paladins and Assassins, each tasked with a different element of Sotania’s harmony. They were the greatest fighters and protectors the world would ever need. ‘Within each group, three titleholders upheld their duty of maintaining balance within the world. While Penumbra holds the second title in the Assassins of Shadow, she is not like any of the others. She is reckless, impulsive and selfish, brought in only to keep appearances up.’ ‘What agenda is she pushing? As far as I know, she works only to stop Kilaksan and expose the unnatural power she seems to believe he has,’ said Laen. ‘That is partly her objective. Her duty is still somewhat her concern,’ the strange man replied. ‘But mostly her passion for his death is driven by revenge.’ ‘Revenge? For what?’ ‘There are rumours of her bloodline, ones I will not spread without knowing the truth. But, when the previous holder of the Penumbra title died unexpectedly, she was brought in without a say from those within the Order. She was initially an untrained, naïve and foolish child. Even once she had reached the level of skill required to be an Elstarri, the others did not think highly of her. It seems now she is all we really have left.’ ‘But what she speaks of Kilaksan is true? That he manipulated the people through black magic to gain his rule?’ 33


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‘Aye, that much is not false.’ The stranger glanced back at Laen’s cowering form. ‘Stand up, man. What use are you on the floor?’ He reached down and pulled Laen to his feet. Laen felt as if his arm was about to be wrenched from its socket. ‘Why are you here? Why pull me from my sleep?’ Laen said. ‘The Elstarri are connected to their siblings, I knew what it was Penumbra was doing. I came to ensure she was doing the right thing, as the scripts would have dictated,’ he replied, walking across the room to the bedside cabinet where Penumbra’s message was laying still open. If it were not for the lethal weaponry the man carried, Laen would have tried to stop him and uphold his mission of delivering the message to the correct recipient. The man’s eyes scanned over the parchment as he brought it up to his face, clearly understanding the strange scribbles far more so than Laen. His face seemed to tense as he worked through it, the lines of his brow causing the black tattoo around his left eye to crease. ‘She sends you to treat with the Crow?’ he said in disbelief, lowering the page. Laen nodded. ‘You are aware of who he is though?’ Laen shook his head. The man quickly began to shuffle towards the door. ‘I will not let you go there alone. The House of Raenhall is not the place for a lone messenger. As an untrusted outsider, the Venari Orgen will not let you leave alive. You would walk to your death going to see the Crow alone.’ ‘I have come this far on my own,’ Laen said, attempting to put some power behind his words. ‘You rode through the Towaenian district. There are far more dangerous men that roam the wilderness in the north.’ 34


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‘Men like yourself?’ Laen asked, raising a chestnut eyebrow. The man stared him down and from his proximity, Laen could see clearly the many scars that lined his worn face. ‘Come, I have no time for this. Gather your belongings, I will escort you further north.’ Feeling in no position to argue, Laen did what he was told before he followed the unidentified man out of the room and down into the pub. They emerged into the main bar area of the establishment, finding themselves traversing the many tables and stools with the light of the single candle that Laen had seen on his way in the previous evening. ‘What is it that I call you, stranger?’ Laen called out to the man who was across the room, unlocking the pub’s front door. In a movement so quick it went almost unseen by Laen’s eye, the stranger turned, making a sudden lurch with his arm. In the dim lighting Laen could see something large spiralling in the air towards him. He instinctively ducked to the floor, feeling the flying object lift his hair as it passed over his head. A repulsive squelch was heard, followed by a low thump as something hit the floor behind him. Still in shock, but sensing by the silence that the danger had passed, Laen tentatively looked up from the floor, seeing the body of the barkeep splayed out on the floorboards behind him. In the body’s hand, a large dagger lay as if the man had been poised to strike in his last moments. Laen felt a sickness in his stomach as he saw that the tomahawk previously strapped to the stranger’s belt was imbedded deeply in the barkeep’s face. Laen span around to see the strange man standing by the doorway, his arm still extended from his throw. The stranger relaxed his arm, staring Laen in the eye before letting out a breath, his gaze falling to the floor. 35


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‘They call me Gaalo,’ he murmured.

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A LESSER COMMAND There is no doubt in my mind that what our country’s ruler has planned for my girl will lead her to become the best person she can be. A protector of the people who shall be remembered for all of time. But while I watch the lessons be taught to her, I cannot help but fear the danger and darkness that lies in her future. She will face trials, fight for the preservation of our Sotan values and be made to kill for sanctuary. My child will become a murderer. (Alden, 1st Jun’Waen 72)

V

orla dipped the tip of her brush into the ink, expertly applying only the necessary amount to complete the typographic label of her latest design. With the brush in her fingertips, she finished the lettering with a flourish before admiring the slenderness of the produced line. The black ink was stark against the pure white parchment she had acquired for this piece, a paper type she did not normally have the privilege of using. The usual brown tinted paper she was used to was for personal projects. The white was for professionally commissioned maps. She glanced over the map of Towaen she had been working on. She knew every inch of the city. Every corner, every road, every slab

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of paving and all of their exact measurements. She was a master of her craft and enjoyed every minute of it. Her eyes scrunched as she noticed the far end of the Farlington District in the top right-hand corner. The angle of the distillery’s alleyway wasn’t quite to the correct degree. She huffed, disappointed that she had not noticed it before. How could it be wrong? She had measured it and checked the numbers several times before even thinking of putting ink to paper. She set the map down. She didn’t have time to fix it. While under normal circumstances she would negotiate with her client some more time to perfect the product, at this moment her client was an angered and stressed member of the Elstarren Order and a renowned killer. She took up her quill, signing the bottom of the page with her Daewen signature. She had never really liked her first name and chose not to include it, but she was proud to have her work bear her family name. Though married, Vorla had fought to keep her birth surname. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ a male voice said from the door. Vorla looked up from her work to find the Sotan girl’s twin brother in the door way. She was still perplexed as to why Penumbra had brought Karshah to the mansion, and even more confused as to why now her brother was there too. ‘Can I help you, dear?’ she asked, studying the young man’s face. It was quite extraordinary how similar he looked to his sister. His jaw line was sharper and more masculine with the hint of a stubbly beard, but his hair and eyes were almost identical. ‘I was just looking for my sister. Got lost,’ he said, shifting nervously in the doorway. ‘New surroundings and all that.’ Vorla gave a small nod. ‘I’m afraid I have not seen her today, although you should ask the rest of the crewmembers, I’ve been here all morning.’ 38


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Karshan glanced down at the array of brushes and inkpots littering the desk top. ‘What are you working on?’ he asked. A spark appeared in Vorla’s reddish eyes. ‘I am a cartographer, dear. I chart the length of Sotania, mapping every little spot of detail.’ ‘You made the city maps?’ he asked, noticing the scrolls that were piled on the shelves behind her. ‘Of course, some of my better work,’ said Vorla. ‘Say, where is it you and your sister were from?’ ‘Warrenvel,’ replied Karshan. Vorla stood from her seat, flattening her dress before rummaging through a pile of papers behind the desk. She pulled one out, unrolling it and holding it in the air. ‘Ah, Warrenvel. Tricky one, I found. The main square wasn’t built to any measurements, thusly everything had to be sized individually.’ Karshan stepped around to find a near-perfect representation of his hometown from above. He noticed The Warren in the centre, the farmlands where he worked around the edge and to the far corner, a lone shape that he knew to be the Drayke household. ‘Most of the older homes were built during the first Wensfold’s reign under the Ice King. Then in the last fifty years or so when the most recent son, Lord Roban Wensfold, was on the throne, the businesses and craftsman’s workshops started popping up,’ she explained, pointing out the location of all the small shops and traders peppered around the main square. ‘You must have barely been born when I was beginning to survey the town.’ ‘Kar and I grew up there,’ Karshan said, pointing to the small square in the corner. ‘Larger house than most of the townsfolk have.’ ‘I remember it. I found it a little odd how away from the rest of the town it was,’ said Vorla, running her finger on the page from the main square to the Drayke house. 39


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‘Father insisted. I think he wanted it as far away from his work as possible.’ ‘What was his trade?’ Vorla asked. Karshan gave a brief shake of his head. ‘He was a town guard. Almost a captain before he gave it up and left for Lordspire.’ ‘I see. A legionary now I’m guessing?’ Karshan let out of breath and held his arms out to the side. ‘Honestly, I don’t even know. We were never told, but I can only assume so. Last I heard of him, he was on the city’s doorstep.’ ‘The Legion does not let outsiders into the capital unless they have the intention of joining their force. Your father will be among them now.’ Vorla noticed Karshan’s blue eyes and the edges of his polite smile begin to fall. ‘Is he what you and your sister are searching for?’ ‘No,’ Karshan said flatly. His hands balled slowly into tight fists and she saw how he had to visibly relax himself. ‘He treated us badly. Wasn’t a father to me. After our mother died, he seemed to lose himself. Never fed us, never even bothered to check how we were most of the time.’ Karshan took a hold of the corner of the map, staring at the lines on the page. ‘Karshah had it the worst,’ he continued. ‘She didn’t like to speak much back then and that annoyed him. I tried to stop him hitting her when he did, but there wasn’t much I could do. I was only young. Perhaps it’s wrong for a son to say he hoped a day would come when his father would leave, but I welcomed it.’ Vorla kept her keen eyes on him. ‘I would like to say that I understand,’ said Vorla. ‘But my upbringing was vastly different to yours. I was only given a taste of how the wilder settlements live when I went to cartograph them.’ 40


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‘You’re noble-born, I guess?’ Karshan asked. Vorla gave a nod of her head, before adjusting her hair. ‘The Daewen family has resided in the upper districts of Towaen for centuries. I was born into wealth and a promised future, at the cost of much of my freedom. The one thing I envied of the people living quieter lives were the choices they had. Marry whoever you like, study your craft and build your reputation from nothing. I think perhaps that life would have suited me better.’ ‘You were forced into things?’ ‘Yes. That sadly is what keeps the higher societies going strong. I fought for my craft, which has worked out well it would seem. As for marriage, that was never up to me.’ She turned to look at the young man, taking the map from his grip and rolling it back up. ‘Enjoy your liberty of love, dear. There is no greater prison than a cold marriage.’ Karshan wanted to question further and perhaps learn a little more about the lives of the city folk, but loud footsteps from the hallway interrupted him before he could speak. ‘Penumbra’s gone,’ Hadran said quickly as he erupted into the room. His blond hair was scruffy and he was panting slightly. Vorla’s eyes became wide at the news. ‘Gone? Not here at all?’ she asked, standing up from the desk and making her way swiftly out of the room. She entered the corridor, hastily moving towards the main lobby. ‘That lassie ain’t here either,’ Rynd’s booming voice came from downstairs. ‘What?’ Karshan asked with a stab of panic. ‘Karshah’s not here?’ The Elsworne members rushed down the stairs, following in Vorla’s footsteps as she began opening doors and searching around the house. ‘She went through with it,’ Vorla whispered to herself, scarcely believing what she was discovering. She vaguely sensed Hadran at 41


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her side and Rynd and Karshan making their way down the stairs, but her mind was rushing with a bombardment of thoughts. ‘You don’t think she took Karshah with her?’ Hadran asked. ‘That woman’s run off with my sister?’ said Karshan roughly. He let out a strained breath, running a hand through his hair. ‘Why’d she go with the lass? Thought she didn’t want no one coming along and messing it up,’ said Rynd, planting a heavy foot on the carpet of the main lobby. Karshan began to anxiously fidget, tucking his hands in and out of his pockets. ‘We’ve got to find her. I’m not leaving Kar out there. Forget all your business with her, I have to know she’s safe,’ Karshan said standing up to Vorla. The older woman appeared lost in her own thoughts as if analysing the situation in the greatest detail. ‘Vorla?’ said Hadran quietly, noticing her contemplation. Vorla’s ears seemed to prick up at a nearby noise. She took off heading for one of the doors on the ground floor, one she knew to lead to a small cloakroom. She pulled the door open, finding the house’s elderly maid sorting through some of the shelves. ‘Haenia,’ Vorla said. The old woman turned slowly, with items from the shelves in her aged hands. She paused in confusion, before her tired eyes seemed to brighten with the briefest spark. ‘Good day, Mrs Daewen. How may I be of service?’ ‘Have you seen…’ Vorla paused for a moment. ‘Have you seen the owner of the house today?’ she said. Maid Haenia’s eyes fell to the floor, searching through her many memories. ‘My Lady is not here at this moment. She and her daughter left in the early hours of this morning.’ ‘Where did they go?’ Hadran asked from behind Vorla’s shoulder. 42


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‘It is not of my place to know my mistress’s doings, I am afraid. She does not inform me.’ ‘She did not tell you anything of her plans today?’ Maid Haenia scrunched up her face in thought for a moment, then shook her head. ‘Thank you. I’m sorry for bothering you,’ said Vorla, giving the maid a small, respectful bow. Vorla turned back to the group in the lobby who were eagerly watching the exchange. ‘What’s that old bat on about? Whose daughter?’ said Rynd. Vorla looked at the burly man with a frown. ‘Don’t speak like that Rynd. It is not polite. Haenia can be a little confused at times. I’m willing to bet she’s referring to Penumbra and Karshah.’ ‘So if they left this morning they would have made it to Valaninsal over three hours ago,’ said Hadran, folding his arms. ‘They could be anywhere by now.’ Vorla took off briskly into the large drawing room. With the others in tow, she made it to the end of the long table, piled high with plans and maps. She pulled out the map Penumbra had been studying the night before. ‘I know the road to Valaninsal like the back of my hand. There is only one clear path in and out of the port. If Penumbra had launched an attack she would enter and leave through one way only.’ ‘So how does that help us find them?’ Karshan asked. The panic had ebbed slightly in his voice, but his arms were still shaking and his hands were clenched tightly. ‘If Kar’s gone with Penumbra, how can I get to her?’ ‘What I mean is that unless they’ve boarded a ship to the Kaelan Isles, they’re only coming back via one route. We travel that road, tracing their original steps and we should encounter them.’

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‘Hang on a moment, Vorla. Knowing the maps is great and all, but what if we find them captured by legionaries who are taking them back to the Spire?’ said Hadran. Karshan winced at the talk of capture. ‘Penumbra is the fighting force within this group. She’s the Elstarren with years of training. If she’s been caught, us lot aren’t going to be any match for them.’ Vorla stopped for a moment, bringing a slender hand up to her chin. ‘That’s true, that is. Even I don’t fancy my chances against them armoured blokes,’ said Rynd. Vorla had seemed to come up with a solution, one she did not seem sure of. Her lips had merged into a thin line and her owl-like features had arched. ‘Yysana could use the power,’ she said tentatively, as if she was not sure how they would react to the proposal. ‘Who?’ Rynd said, bluntly. ‘The Masked Child, you oaf.’ ‘Oh, her. Forgot she was still here. You sure she can be trusted to use that magic of hers reliably? I ain’t never seen her use it to heal, let alone kill,’ said Rynd. ‘But just think of that,’ said Hadran. ‘If she can kill a fully armoured legionary with a simple thought and train herself to be able to do it on cue. That’s some power right there.’ ‘You’re asking an eighteen-year-old girl to kill for you? Isn’t that a bit wrong?’ Karshan remarked, looking between the faces of the rebels. Vorla nodded. ‘It is. But we may be able to save far more lives as a result. We should not force her.’ Vorla still looked sceptical, but soon she walked over to the small brown door that she knew Yysana was behind. She didn’t knock, but entered quickly, finding the young Kaelan girl staring out of the one 44


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dirty window in the room. Quills and parchment paper was strewn across the floor with markings of the Kaelan alphabet. ‘I hear what you say to them,’ she said in her soft and peaceful voice. ‘Penumbra is lost? Is that truth?’ ‘Yes,’ Vorla said quietly, approaching the masked teenager, but keeping her movements slow. She knew the Kaelan girl’s attitudes to the Sotan group were friendly, but her knowledge of the power Yysana possessed was still limited. ‘For all we know Penumbra is captured while Kilaksan still leaves for your country. From what we have heard, his ship will have docked this afternoon.’ The Masked Child turned swiftly, staring Vorla in the eye from behind her mask. ‘You want me to kill,’ she said flatly, her arms resting loosely in the fabric of her tunic. ‘I would not ask it of you if I did not think the circumstances required it,’ said Vorla, taking another step forwards. Yysana seemed uncomfortable with her edging any close. ‘Listen to me. If something has happened to Penumbra, we cannot leave her. While Kilaksan is wandering your country’s land, she is the only one that can help us, and help your people. You are the only person we have that could have any chance of saving her.’ Yysana looked to the floor, obviously feeling the pressure of the group’s eyes upon her. ‘You say Karshah gone too?’ Yysana asked. ‘Yes,’ Vorla replied. The room fell into silence as they waited for the girl’s answer. She looked up, inhaling sharply and dropping her hands to her sides. ‘I will try as I can. To strike with death leaves me broken, but I can do it.’ ‘I understand,’ said Vorla. ‘Thank you, Yysana.’ Vorla noticed a small smile appear on the girl’s face. 45


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~ Karshah opened her eyes. It was not the unfamiliar surroundings or the taste of sea salt on the air that caught her attention at first, but the sharp stinging pain that coursed throughout her body, like many needles being jabbed repeatedly into her skin. The pain was not deep within her, but felt like the surface of her body was under constant attack. She groaned loudly, attempting to haul herself up but finding little strength in her arms. An aching wave throbbed in her head as she sat up and her eyes closed tightly to try and let it pass. Pressing her hand to her forehead, she fell back, finding that she hit the soft covers of a bed. It was not a luxurious place to sleep, but felt more like the scratchy hide blankets of her bed back at home. She let her eyes open again, this time more slowly, determined to ignore the pulsing in her temples. She saw that indeed she was wrapped in the furs of some animal and that she was laying on a small wooden bed frame, supported by straw thatched beneath her. She jolted uncomfortably when she realised that the clothes she wore were not her own. She was wearing a loosely fitting white robe that was belted around her waist with a leather strap. She brought a hand up to her raven hair, finding that it felt washed and clean with her braid missing. ‘Forgive me,’ a deep calm voice said to her right. She jumped at the sound, turning quickly to find the speaker. ‘I would not have done anything without your consent if I did not think it important.’ Karshah pulled the blanket up to her chin, shifting back in fright. The man who had spoken was elderly, likely nearing the age of a grandfather. He was sat on a small wooden stool by a table in the 46


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centre of the room, with a small porcelain cup in his hand. There was not a single hair on his bald head and his rough skin was littered with scars of varying sizes, the largest of which were a duet of two particularly thick scars that lingered under each of his eyes and fell to his chin. Her gaze was immediately pulled therefore to his eyes, the sight of which initially startled her. Both of his irises were ghostly and white, like thick smoke in a glass jar. The man was completely blind. Karshah did not reply, choosing to watch him warily from her place in the bed. He seemed to focus on her as if he saw her clearly. She found that no words came to her mind as she was still adjusting to her odd surroundings. The man’s presence was not hostile and appeared to not place her in any sort of danger, but still she panicked. She looked around the room she found herself in, finding it to be a small hut. The roof was constructed out of thin dried strings of wood that had been latched and bound, with planks holding the roof up to create a small, open space inside. Rays of bright sunlight nestled in from between the cracks in the construction, keeping the interior well-lit and welcoming. The room was filled with basic furniture that looked to be handmade with many small painted ornaments and artworks decorating the walls. Judging by the cultural style, this was not the home of a Sotan. ‘Do not worry yourself, friend,’ the man’s voice came again. ‘You are perfectly safe. I have tended to your injuries, you will make a full recovery.’ Karshah was reminded of the pain. She tossed the blanket aside and pulled up the sleeve of her white garment. She found her arm had been bandaged completely as none of her pale skin was visible. Similar bandages were wrapped around all her limbs, and areas of her neck and hands were also covered. 47


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The man seemed to notice her discomfort. He stood quickly, coming to her bedside and producing a small bowl from a nearby stand. ‘The waves of Ilidieye were not merciful, but she was kind to you.’ Karshah struggled to believe how in any way the ocean had been kind to her as her whole body was in agony. He seemed to understand her confusion. ‘Ilidieye would normally kill those who tested her depths. There has not been a survivor of the sea in many lifetimes. You are fortunate to be alive, young one.’ He settled beside the bed, gently extending his hands for Karshah to show him her arm. She held onto her wrist tightly, afraid as to what he was planning to do, but soon she relaxed and offered it to him. He began to unwind the bandages of her right forearm, eventually exposing the skin. The sight of her bare arm sent a pang of fear into her chest as she saw the bloody and raked mess of her white skin. The man leant down, bringing a bowl of water from under the bed and placed it in his lap. He began to wash away the dry and congealed blood around the many cuts that were all about an inch in length. Seeing the wounds themselves was more reassuring. Cleared of the horrid crimson and darker reds patches of blood, the skin appeared only lightly pierced. The many slices her arm had suffered were numerous, but the cuts did not go deep. She thought he had finished when he put the washcloth down, but he replaced the water bowl with the smaller one she had seen earlier. Karshah glanced warily in at its contents finding it to be filled with a thick creamy white substance. Streaks of green were mixed with the paste from the cuttings of herbs that had been added. 48


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He applied it to her arm and immediately Karshah hissed through her teeth. The substance caused her cuts to sting horribly. He uttered a quick apology, but did not stop. She guessed that it was to ensure the wounds did not become infected, but it did not make the experience any more bearable. Soon, her wrappings had been rewound and her arm began to numb. ‘I must apply the salve to all of your injuries. But for now, you must rest.’ He kneeled, his sightless gaze washing over her face. She wondered how much exactly he could see, but so far it was obvious the disability did not hold him back. ‘My name is Odalen, friend. I will not ask yours. It is best I do not know. I will bring you back to health and you will leave.’ He stood up and left her, not allowing her time to consider his odd words. She watched him go further into the back of the hut, hearing a door open and close. What happened? Karshah asked herself once he had gone. She sorted through her recent memories, finding them hazy and unclear. She fell back, resting her head on the rough pillow. She tried to rest, not feeling in any danger, or the need to try and leave. She was still very much alive and with a roof over her head. That much was comforting. Her best plan of action was to do as this strange man had said and work out where to go from there. Her body gave a sore throb of pain in agreement. Before she knew it, time had passed. The sun beams that creeped into the hut had gone, replaced with a warmer orange glow that spread throughout the house. She guessed it to be the evening hours as the temperature was far cooler. There was a rustling accompanied by a crackle across from the other side of the hut, an area that was separated by a thin partition.

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She wondered if it was the old man, Odalen, that she had met before, or perhaps another of his family. The name wasn’t familiar to her, as it certainly was not a Sotan one or even from one of the associated Sotan tribes like the Selians. It was certainly foreign, perhaps Tairian or Kaelan. Odalen emerged from behind the wall, a clay pot in his hands. ‘Awake, I see,’ he said. Karshah still did not feel confident enough to say anything. He paused and studied her. ‘Still yet to speak.’ He placed the pot on the low wooden table in the centre of the room and took a seat, folding his arms and appearing to fall into a trance. She was unable to tell from his eyes if the man was asleep or not, but he did not move for over an hour, appearing to turn into a stone golem. She did not know how long he sat there, seemingly disinterested in the world around him. Her brain had become clouded and she lost track of how time was passing. She could not tell if she was floating in and out of consciousness, or if her memory was affected, but every time she blinked, things had changed. ‘Stupid girl,’ she heard him say. Karshah looked up seeing the man towering over her, the broken half of the flower vase in his hand. She had not meant to knock it over, it was just an accident. She met his glare with a plea, finding no sympathy in his blue eyes that were so like her own. His hand hit her face with such force that she was sent toppling over. ‘Speak you damn child. You’re not even going to apologize?’ Karshah had not yet found her voice. She felt the regret in her heart, but could not express it in words. She saw him raise his hand again. Instinctively, she covered her face with her arms and looked towards the floor. 50


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It was then she noticed the broken half-blade lying beside her, its handle offering itself and the jagged spike of its broken body looking deadly. She seized it to defend herself, spinning around to meet the attack. With no further thought, she planted the needle-like remainder of the blade into the man’s neck. She screamed as the crimson hit her face. The blade fell from her hand with a clang and the body hit the floor with a thud. Immediately, a puddle of blood underneath his lifeless form began to swell, slowly creeping along the floor to her feet. She paused in shock as she gazed down, a hand coming to cover her mouth. ‘Father.’ Karshah felt herself scream more so than hearing it. She sat up quickly, a rush of heat running across her skin followed by a chilling flush. She could feel that she was sweating all over and beads of liquid had formed on her brow and the backs of her hands. She knew the dream had not been real. Her father had not been killed, the situation was simply the haunting echo of the previous events that happened in Valaninsal. Her mind was taunting her by mixing the visions of the past. She desperately looked around and remembered where she was, although night had since fallen and the hut was in darkness. Hurried footsteps came quickly to her side and her hands were taken and placed into Odalen’s. His skin was coarse and hard, but the warmth of another human being helped to alleviate some of her shock. He was crouched by her bedside, concern painted on his elderly features. She did not look at him. ‘I’m a murderer,’ she whispered, choking on the tears that fell from her sapphire eyes. ‘I’m a murderer.’

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Odalen did not speak at first, but tightened his grip, squeezing her fingers gently. ‘You are safe,’ he said calmly. ‘I do not care what demons lie in your past, they mean nothing to me. No harm will come to you here.’ He could tell that she had begun to calm with his presence. The breathing that was uncontrolled and ragged when he arrived had begun to slow and though he could hear her weeping, he knew she was beginning to regain herself. For a while neither spoke as Karshah calmed down. ‘What happened to me? How did I get here?’ she finally asked into the silence. ‘You came in with the tide two days ago. My son found you floating in the shallows of the shoreline. Your body had been beaten and torn from the ocean’s rocks but still you breathed. Your clothes were matted with mud and sand. I had to clean you and your wounds if you were to have any chance of living. My son carried you here.’ ‘Where am I?’ ‘You are in Kaelani, our Fifth Isle. The city of Beuldani is south of us. The coast is just north. Sotania lies beyond the tide.’ The Kaelan Isles. Karshah said the words over and over in her mind. The thought sent shivers back into her core and nerves soon welled in the pit of her stomach. She had strayed even further from home. She was in a different country.

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THE LORD’S FAMILY I do fear my father, but I fear his little soldiers and councillors more. Lord Roban Wensfold has a reputation among his citizens of kindness and altruism, but I tell you, there is a bitterness that is not shown at first glance. He is dishonourable and petty at heart. To sell my beautiful daughter to a lifetime service of murder as a way of repenting for his own wrongdoings? How could he sleep in his rich halls with that bearing on his conscience? No matter what I think though, my sentiments are not to be heard aloud. I’m sure he would have no trouble sending his firstborn son to the block. (Dominan, 3rd Kae’Waen 72)

T

he Spire council chambers were awkwardly quiet and full of confused glances amongst the few that were seated, as only seven of the Council of the Spire had appeared for the morning’s meetings. The clacking of long fingernails on the half-moon desk echoed off the marble walls and floors. Though the room was bright and airy, it did not lift the spirits of the impatient councillors. Carcella Maldaeven was one of the most prominent and out spoken of the country’s officials. Garnering the title of ‘Raven-Eye’, the older woman had worked within the Spire since she had entered adulthood. Her forty years’ experience had granted her a level of expertise high above even many of the elected High Councillors. She 53


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had seen the rise and fall of rulers, orchestrated many of Sotania’s campaigns and was intrinsic to the country’s success. Once again, she had not been informed of the High Councillor’s whereabouts, nor of any replacement in his absence. The past five week’s sessions had been chaired by whoever was available and the lack of a consistent speaker was wearing down her wits. She had dragged herself away from critical work in the business districts to be present in another useless council meeting. It looked as if today would be the worse. Raven-Eye had served in the halls of Roban Wensfold for half of the former Lord’s long life and while the young ruler had struggled with many aspects of his leadership, at least his council was focussed and punctual. Every day, the officials in Kilaksan’s new assembly were becoming lazier and in many cases, disappearing. The Lord ruler rarely attended and was not often seen out of his study on the highest floor. After a painfully long wait, the doors of the inner chambers finally flew open. But for the waiting councillors, the person that came through the doors was not who they were expecting. With her feathered collar ruffling with every strut of her legs, Elanah walked with her head held high. Her perfect smile gleamed in the white light, and her black curls glistened. She held a glass of red wine lazily in her right hand, taking a sip as she entered the nearempty halls of the Spire’s chambers. ‘Miss Wensfold. What an unexpected pleasure,’ a councillor named Indlan said. The stringy man had straightened his back from the slouch he had been sat in as soon as he saw the royal daughter and stood tall with a bow in her direction. ‘Lady Wensfold, if you please my man,’ Elanah said. ‘Gosh, why must I be treated like a child everywhere I go?’ she said to herself, resting her head on her hand. 54


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‘For that to be the case sweetheart, you must be married,’ Carcella said. ‘Without a husband, you present yourself as a maiden, and therefore a miss.’ Elanah’s violet eyes rested on the mature woman, her black eyebrows arching as she glared. ‘You are clearly very well-read darling, but perhaps your volumes are outdated. Please, take a moment to familiarise yourself with the latest editions. The monarchy is no longer in power. My father is not the ruler. Kilaksan is our glorious leader now and he promotes freedom. I have the freedom to choose how I wish to be addressed. You will do as I ask.’ ‘Freedom,’ Carcella echoed with a snicker. ‘You’re one to talk about freedom.’ ‘What was that?’ ‘As you said, the monarchy is not in power, so what in this world are you, a Wensfold, still doing in the Council chambers? Where is the High Councillor?’ ‘High Councillor Ferran is not available. Therefore, today’s council meeting will not be in session,’ An audible groan made its way through the chambers as the many officials sat at the half-moon table began to leave their seats. Elanah cleared her throat and raised her hand. ‘But if I may, my Lady. We have not had a full meeting for nearly a month. While Lord Kilaksan is away, we must have order to maintain our nation,’ said Indlan. ‘That is true. So, if you could all remain in your seats. I would like to speak to you,’ she said. Elanah strutted into the centre of the room within the crescent of the table. Raven-Eye had not moved and watched her closely. ‘Why are you here, Wensfold?’ Carcella asked again. Elanah gave her a toothy smile. 55


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‘Kilaksan has granted me administration of the Council of the Spire during his time away monitoring our Kaelan friends. He has also instructed that I am to have full control over the daily business of the Spire and the capital city.’ ‘And you have proof of this?’ said Carcella. Elanah flicked her hair before snapping her fingers towards the door. A legionary entered swiftly, a scroll in his hand. Elanah unravelled it before presenting it to the room. Kilaksan’s signature was clearly marked on the bottom of the page, but the ink was blotted and the writing looked to have been done without much thought. Elanah marched over, placing the document on the table in front of Carcella’s eyes. ‘Happy, dear?’ ‘Did you drug the man in order to acquire this document?’ Carcella remarked as she studied the scroll. ‘Not at all, and if you would refrain from making such comments in the council chambers. Be professional, darling. You’re not in the district taverns now.’ Carcella huffed. Elanah grinned once more and snatched the paper back, rolling it roughly and shoving it back into the arms of the legionary. She shooed the armoured man away like a dog with a flap of her arms. ‘Now then,’ she began once he had left. ‘To business, I think.’ Carcella rolled her eyes, thinking to herself that the Wensfold daughter knew nothing of business. ‘As perhaps the more astute of you will be aware, Kilaksan’s escort aboard the Lady Aureliah was not a smooth one. The rampant Hylasahi Raiders launched an ambush on the Lord’s convoy. As we had foreseen such an attack, the numerous platoons we had posted there—along with High Commander Vir—were more than enough 56


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to deal with the heedless bandit horde. But, as most of our force occupied the eastern side of the map, we have been left exposed. ‘This brings to light an issue I have been wanting to address for some time. The Legion of the Spire may be of substantial numbers, but we are not using their strength strategically. Rebellions rise on both sides of the Central Dominance’s borders, with raiders and brigands arming themselves for a futile war they’ve dreamt up in their wild minds. Tell me, who is in charge of deploying the Legion’s squadrons?’ The largest of the attending councillors, a broad shouldered, muscular man who sat in the furthest seat to the right, raised his hand. ‘You?’ ‘Yes, my Lady.’ ‘Consider your responsibilities relieved while I find someone more suitable for the job,’ she said, resting her hands on the speaker’s lectern. The man paused as he processed her words, but did not argue. ‘Yes, my Lady.’ ‘I want more of the military redirected back to Lordspire and Towaen. The Eastern Dominance is a cesspit of defiance. Everyday new resistance fighters appear speaking treasonous tales of tearing down the country we have built. More control must be instated.’ ‘Have you ever thought for a moment that if a vast majority of your citizens have a problem with your leadership that perhaps the fault lies with you?’ Carcella spoke out. Elanah’s flawless features creased into a piercing scowl. ‘Let me remind you, Raven-Eye, no matter what your foolish friends decide to call you, does not place you above the Lord. The revolt of these Sotan clans comes from their own arrogance and refusal to accept the new ways of our leader. In the face of their 57


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insubordination we shall respond with force. I don’t want to hear you speak out of turn again this session. Understood?’ Carcella only smiled. Elanah appeared as if another comment lingered on the tip of her tongue, but choose to hold it back and return to the centre of the room. The insufferable smirk on Carcella’s face welcomed her frustration. ‘Centre our might back to the Sotan mainland. Kilaksan has enough squadrons following his journey from the Kaelan Isles in a couple of days’ time. He will be protected. Currently, we are the ones in danger. While we wait for his return, we must protect our cities.’ ‘Lordspire will keep you safe, my Lady,’ said Indlan. ‘The Crater and our stone will shield us from any invader.’ Elanah’s face fell again. ‘Are you all as oblivious as you appear?’ Elanah said to the room, raising her hands. ‘Do you pay any attention to the capital outside your cosy halls?’ The room was silent as the councillors exchanged both confused and slightly offended glances between them. ‘If you had been awake recently, at least one of you may have realised that we had a spy within the Spire itself. A confidant for the enemy,’ said Elanah. Mutters began to sound in the chambers. ‘It was not until I made any move to dispose of our unwanted guest that the situation was dealt with. Not only was information being passed from the halls of the Spire to the resistance groups in Towaen, but members of this group were sneaking in and out of the city walls without consequence.’ ‘Which of the faithless factions was this, my Lady?’ another councillor asked. ‘The so-called Elsworne resistance, headed by one who swore to serve this country.’ 58


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Carcella’s ears pricked up at the name, a movement that Elanah seemed to notice. The Wensfold daughter studied the woman out of the corner of her violet eyes for any trace of disloyalty. ‘Know well that I had the betrayer executed for his crimes. I would have paraded through the streets with his head on a pike for such treason.’ Elanah did not move her eyes from Carcella. She scoured the woman’s face for any twitch or wince. ‘And if I see that harpy of a leader of theirs prancing through our alleys, I’ll send her pretty face to the grave myself. We as a state, cannot be too careful now to ensure we are not infiltrated under our noses. Loyalty will come with reward, the defiant shall get what they deserve.’ ‘How then my Lady can we be sure who to trust? You said yourself the rebels roam our halls in disguise.’ ‘The simple answer is we cannot be sure. With that in mind, I would like to verify that the allegiance of the council is where it should be. You will each be required to repledge your vows in accordance with the new rule.’ Carcella raised a hand. ‘That, dear Elanah is not a power you can exercise, no matter what piece of paper you have and whose signature appears on it. For vows to be said, the Lord himself must be present. Kilaksan’s chosen administrator is not the Lord, therefore they cannot be truly pledged.’ ‘Another of your outdated readings, Maldaevan?’ ‘Figure eighteen of Kilaksan’s council Rules of Procedure. Page fifty-seven.’ Elanah’s brow visibly twitched and it was clear she was keeping her lips in a tight line.

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‘Very well. I will have Lord Kilaksan evaluate his stance on the loyalty of his officials upon his return. Something for you to look forward to, I’m sure.’ ‘Is that all then? Or do you wish to continue bellyaching?’ Carcella said, beginning to stand with her words. Elanah shot her a glare. ‘For now. You are all dismissed.’ The councillors began to file out of the room, those closest to the door hurriedly making to leave. Their steps echoed down the hall as they exited quickly. As she was sat the furthest away, Carcella was the last to reach the exit, by which time most of the councillors had long since gone. Elanah watched them one by one as they moved, smiling at their bows as they passed her. When she reached the front, Carcella did not make any such gesture to the Wensfold daughter, but headed straight for the corridor with her files tucked under her arms. Elanah gave a nod to the legionary that was posted outside. The man marched towards Carcella’s retreating form before taking her around the neck and pressing a gauntleted hand to her mouth. She was unable to let out a scream or any grunt of discomfort before she was pulled back into the council chambers, her heeled shoes scraping across the marble as she was dragged inside. Elanah closed the double doors and locked them with a click. The legionaries threw Raven-eye against the half-moon table. She slumped with her back to the block of white stone, looking up at Elanah with a resenting stare and ragged breaths. Her brown hair that was previously tied up tightly had come undone in places, with mahogany strands falling in front of her eyes. ‘What do you think you are doing, Wensfold?’ she choked. ‘Let me go.’ 60


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‘Restrain her. She’ll be far easier to talk to that way.’ Elanah took another sip from the glass of wine she held in her hand, before placing it down on the table top behind Carcella’s head. The two legionaries in the room took hold of the councillor’s wrists, while keeping her on her knees. Elanah folded her arms within the flowing material of her purple dress. ‘Unhand me!’ Carcella screamed as the legionaries roughly took hold of her. ‘You have no right to do this.’ ‘Perhaps not,’ said Elanah. ‘But if I decide that you pose a risk, I’m sure Kilaksan will understand. If I also happen to find out that you have any connection with a certain Elstarren assassin, I’m doubly sure Kilaksan will want you removed.’ Elanah leant in close to Carcella’s face. ‘No matter how valuable you seem to think you are.’ ‘I have no idea what you mean.’ ‘Are you sure? You mean to tell me you have no dealings with the Elstarren? Penumbra seems to have all the right contacts, I will grant her that.’ Elanah began to pace up and down in front of Carcella’s kneeling body. ‘Her little attack on Valaninsal was a valiant effort, but I daresay the intelligence for an insurgency like that took more than a single informant’s understanding. Maosus Spirefald was an invaluable asset to Penumbra, but as Kilaksan’s researcher, Maosus would not have had any knowledge of how the Kaelan visit was going to be conducted. He must have had someone else direct him. Tell me, what branch of our government do you work in?’ Carcella remained silent, not daring to even look Elanah in the eye. Like the crack of a horseman’s whip, Elanah’s hand made a sharp sound as it struck Carcella’s cheek. The councillor’s skin immediately flared a bright red colour in the wake of the strike. She

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showed no evidence in her expression that the slap had caused her any pain. ‘Answer me.’ ‘The foreign office,’ Carcella said quietly. ‘That’s right. As the chief executive of that division, you would be the first to know of any official visits. I was the one to organise this event and I made sure the information never went further than those who needed to be involved. No one else in your agency had any understanding of what was planned.’ Elanah leant down to Carcella’s level, gliding the tips of her slender fingers along the woman’s jawline. Her voice became softer. ‘The Elstarren are not very good at keeping their vows intact, isn’t that right? Even the most loyal of them. One vow in particular always seems to cause a little trouble: to never love. To never fall for another human being. Who can blame them? We’re only animals, after all.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ Carcella demanded. ‘Oh, I think you know. The Rangers of Terra were always the triumvirate to employ such handsome men. Their leader, now there was one to set any heart aflutter. Gaalo was his title, but I think you know him by another name.’ Carcella met Elanah’s mockingly warm gaze. ‘A man willing to risk his position for his woman. Some of us can only dream of such a romantic thing. Gaalo and Raven-Eye, two great advocates for Sotania, beautifully in love. A well-guarded private affair. I’m very sad that I was not invited to your secret wedding.’ Elanah’s lips closed in to Carcella’s ear until they were only an inch away. ‘I gave the order for Kilaksan to slit his throat. As our prisoner, I watched him bleed on the floor of the Spire’s dungeon, until nothing 62


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was left of him,’ she whispered softly into the councillor’s ear. Elanah’s proud smile grew as she stood back up. She waited for the restrained woman’s reaction, expecting her to lash out in bitter anger. But the smirk on Elanah’s face slowly dissipated as Carcella began to laugh. She blinked a few times. Through the moisture around her eyes, Carcella brought her head up from the floor to look directly at Elanah. ‘You insult the intelligence of everyone you meet, yet your own mind is empty. You treat the Elstarren as only paperwork to rip up. An old obsolete regulation of a past government. You forget what they are, why they were employed. They are greatest this world has to offer,’ she began. Though her body was still tense with fear of the legionaries that held her down, her voice did not waver. ‘Gaalo is alive. You are stupid enough to believe that he would let you defeat him. He still roams this world as the Rangers swore to your father to do. The Elstarren stand for what is just in this world, and while any of them still live, you should be fearful. You should worry about the day when my husband finds Penumbra, because they will be the ones to see you to your end, witch.’ For the first time that day, Elanah could not bring herself to even smirk. ‘Throw her below. I don’t want to see her face again,’ she said to the legionaries. Carcella did not speak again as the armoured men carried her out of the council chambers and towards the dungeons. ~ Penumbra allowed the two legionaries to pull her along by the shoulders. For now. Their grip was tight on the bones in her arms, but she did not resist. Not yet. There was no point in making any aggressive moves 63


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while still within the bowels of the Lady Aureliah. The ship had no clear escape routes and was full of the Sotan army’s infantry. The legionaries were one thing, the expanse of sea was another. Though it felt as if the vessel had docked, she could not be sure that they had reached dry land until she was outside and could see it with her own eyes. Beside her, Kilaksan’s personal guard marched her forward but appeared as if he was trying not to look at her. Every now and then, she would catch his brown eyes taking a glance at her without turning his head. Either her presence intimidated him, or he was madly in love with her. Both made her feel sick. They hauled her onto the main deck and she was granted her first sight of the world around her. They were still very much out at sea and from what she could tell, far from any land. However, the mist on the waves obscured her long-distance vision, so she could not be certain that the Crimson Shores of Sotania did not lie only a few hundred feet away. The deck was busy with fully armoured legionaries, many of which held their usual pikes by their sides. A few others were equipped with broadswords that were held in sheaths. They brought her to the edge of the ship, where it would have only taken a small shove to send her into the waters of Ilidieye below. ‘You four,’ Kilaksan’s personal guard said, pointing at the four legionaries posted on the main deck. They immediately marched over. ‘You will join this squadron and escort the prisoner ashore.’ ‘So that is how you plan to send me to the Spire?’ Penumbra asked, stepping up to the brown-haired man. She saw how he still tensed at her proximity. ‘Do you trust that seven men could keep me from escaping? Would you not prefer to see me to my destination yourself?’ 64


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He looked down at her. ‘It only took one man to put you in shackles,’ he said as he prepared the ropes that they would use to moor their boats. The Lady Aureliah had several small vessels suspended at its side that could be lowered into the water. They were small, only large enough to carry four or so men. ‘What awaits me in the royal halls? I hope for the gallows. Less to clean up. I will admit I am eager to see how the Elstarren are welcomed home after their service.’ ‘It shall be whatever my Lord wishes,’ ‘And I’m sure he’ll be very proud of you,’ said Penumbra with a small smirk and a raise of her black eye-brows. As she was about to step off the ship and into the smaller boat, she felt something be clamped around her ankles. She glanced down finding her legs now in cuffs along with her wrists. ‘Just to make sure you weren’t planning on finding your own way to the shore,’ Markas remarked. The two legionaries by his side bundled her over the taffrail. She hit the floor of the lifeboat on her back, and immediately shared the space with the three legionaries. The other four had boarded the vessel to the left and were preparing to cast off. The boats rocked in the waves they created when they hit the surface of the sea and before long, the legionaries had thrust their oars into the water and were pushing off into the mist. Penumbra caught the gaze of Markas on the main ship’s deck as he watched her depart. She returned it, but was the first to look away. She felt strangely awkward as they bobbed on the waves, with every row of the oarsmen’s arms sending them closer to Sotania. This was Penumbra’s first extended encounter with legionaries in which her immediate goal was not to kill them. She studied them, 65


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watching their mechanical movements as if all their joints were fixed in position by metal bolts and could only bend in one direction. How their minds did not work in human connection but responded only to commands given by their superiors. With every rigid movement they made, she caught a glimpse of pink skin exposed under their chainmail where their armour did not quite meet. Where the forearms slipped into their gauntlets, where their boots met their greaves she would see the smallest patch of pale flesh. Underneath it all, they were human. They were enslaved, just like the regular citizens she fought to free. The legionaries were the ones who had fallen deepest into the magic that wove their minds. While on many occasions her first thought would be to simply plant a blade in their necks, she had to remind herself that they needed saving just as much as everyone else. Perhaps even more so. With every lurch the boat gave as the oars were swept through the water, the distant mist cleared a little more. Penumbra could make out that the prows of the two small crafts were directed further along the shore than Valaninsal, likely to a smaller dock around the peninsula. She turned her head as the boat hit a wave, sending a splash of icy seawater into her eyes. She rubbed the back of her arm over her face to clear her vision and was granted with the sight of the shoreline merging into view. As she had suspected, it looked to be only a narrow cove further east than the main military port, one where the Tairians that owned the land in the past would have docked their trade ships. They hit the sand at speed, sending the boat to a sudden stop. Without a word, the legionaries stepped out. Penumbra remained sitting, wanting to waste their time as much as possible. A gauntleted hand grabbed her by the back of the neck and threw her 66


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onto the beach. A wave broke and the swash glided up the sand until it reached her waist, before ebbing back into the ocean. ‘Stand,’ said the legionary who had been at the head of the boat. Reluctantly, she found her feet, feeling a surge of sickness as she adjusted to being back on land. She glowered at the armoured man. ‘You will secure the boat on the beach.’ A wooden stake was stuck in the sand far up the shoreline where the man was pointing. ‘Do it yourselves. I’ll be your prisoner but not your slave,’ said Penumbra. She lurched forward as she was punched hard in the stomach, her thin leather armour doing little to soften the blow of the steel fist. She felt a sharp pain in her mouth and the metallic taste of blood where the attack had caused her to unwillingly bite her tongue. She spat the blood at the soldier, projecting a red splatter across his pristine silver breastplate. But as the others that surrounded her readied their weapons, she did what she was told. Earning herself another beating was unnecessary. Hobbling in her chains towards the boat, she began to force the wooden craft up the beach, the resistance of the sand making it an arduous task. While Penumbra’s agility and speed saw her the victor in every duel she faced, her overall strength was not like that of a soldier. Being held in chains for hours also made her limbs feel unresponsive and weary. With a little more effort, she finally wrapped the boat around the stake. ‘Satisfied?’ she snarled. The metal men did not respond but also did not argue or strike her again. She studied her surroundings, finding the rock face of a short cliff shielding them from the town of Valaninsal above. The cove was sheltered by a high vantage point that overlooked the shores. As

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she began to conjure possible plans of escape in her head, her emerald eyes caught a white glint. At first, she thought she had imagined it, or perhaps had simply caught the reflection of the legionary’s silver armour in her peripheral vision, but after a moment it came again. This time it was three flashes of light definitely coming from the top of the cliff. She struggled to locate its source, but knew its meaning. She parted her wrists, pulling the chains of her shackles tightly so they became taut. The legionary who had ordered her to move the boat began to choke as Penumbra sprinted up behind him and threaded the iron chains around his neck. She tugged as hard as the fatigue in her muscles would let her, toppling the man to the ground and cutting off his air. He continued to splutter as the pink of his skin slowly became blue. The surrounding men headed straight for her, eager to break up her attack. One drew his broadsword and pounded the pommel into the side of the woman’s head. The force was so ferocious that it drew blood, leaving a circular imprint and graze around her eye. She hit the sand, still clutching the choking legionary with her chains tangled around his neck. She felt the wood of a pike butt hit her temple again, sending spots of black across her vision. The legionaries showed no interest in saving their fallen comrade, but seemed only concerned in punishing the guilty prisoner. Even with the threat of those around her, Penumbra ensured man she held was dead. She smiled as he fell limp, but soon found a sword to her neck and pike tips in her back. The sharp edge that was pressed to her throat threatened to draw blood. The man seized her by her long black hair, making her wince as her scalp screamed in agony. 68


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The legionary turned quickly as a large shape was tearing across the sand towards him. Complete with an axe in hand, a remarkably loud clang rang out as the weapon hit the steel of the soldier’s chest plate. Although the blow had not pierced through the steel, the sheer force that propelled the axe head sent the legionary rolling along the beach some five feet from Penumbra. ‘Rynd,’ Penumbra exclaimed as the shaven head and musclebound form became familiar to her. The large man gave a roar as the remaining legionaries closed in. With one finding his feet, the other six rushed in with pikes at the ready. Though he swung with fervour in an arch in front of him, Rynd was in no position to launch a successful attack as they closed in on him. His element of surprise had allowed him to incapacitate one foe, but now found himself trapped by many others. Penumbra looked beyond the cliffs, noticing more of her allies emerging from between the rocks. The shapes of Hadran and Karshan came into view each holding swords in their hands but appearing unwilling to charge as aggressively as their companion. Even with their numbers increasing, Penumbra knew that with her still in chains, they could not escape from seven legionaries. She tried to pull herself up, releasing the legionary she had choked to death, letting his head sink into the wet sand. She desperately searched his body for the keys to free herself, but was taken around the neck by another of the Sotan infantry. She wrestled in his grip whilst also trying to hook her leg around his knee and trip him. Instantly, a pulse like silent thunder rippled through the earth, causing the sand to dance with the energy that coursed through the ground. A rumble boomed in every person’s ears, throbbing in their chests and rattling their bones.

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The legionaries all became still as if locked in their own time prison. One by one they became limp like slabs of boneless meat and fell to the floor like ragdolls. The Masked Child stood with her arm outstretched and fingers tense in a claw pointed towards the conflict. She was breathing heavily, and her knees were trembling. A droplet of sweat trickled beneath the wolf face of her mask. Her gritted teeth slowly relaxed as her face fell. Yysana collapsed. Vorla rushed to her side, scooping the young Kaelan girl up in her arms. Penumbra searched the closest legionary’s body, finding a bunch of keys strapped to his belt. She freed herself from the chains. ‘Penumbra, we need to get her out of here, quickly,’ Vorla said. Yysana was still conscious and breathing, but looked as if all the life had gone from her eyes. Her skin was as pale as the Sotans around her. Penumbra stomped over, her deadly glare returning. ‘What do you think you are doing bringing her here?’ she seethed. ‘We agreed not to allow her outside of the mansion. Just think for a moment what would happen if Kilaksan got his hands on another Aspect.’ ‘We all knew the risks, thank you. If it weren’t for her, you’d be on your way to your death. Now, if you please, let’s get her back to safety,’ said Vorla. Yysana choked on a breath she was trying to take while her neck was supported by Vorla’s arms. It was obvious that Penumbra was at her breaking point with anger boiling within her. She did not retort as she knew Vorla was right. Before she could say another word however, she was grabbed around the neck and hauled around to meet the sapphire eyes of Karshan. 70


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‘Where is my sister?’ he demanded. ‘Where is Karshah?’ Penumbra sighed. ‘Do you want me to say something you want to hear or the truth?’ ‘I want you to tell me why you stole my sister away and keep trying to turn her into some kind of fighter. Before she came across you, she wouldn’t have spoken a word against anyone and now she seems to believe she can change the world.’ Karshan’s teeth were bared and his grip was tight on Penumbra’s collar. ‘You go around talking of how Kilaksan is controlling the minds of the people, yet you are the one poisoning my sister’s heart.’ Penumbra pushed him away without much effort. ‘She was the one who demanded to let me bring her here. I had no interest in letting some useless peasant ruin my operation.’ ‘Enough Penumbra, please,’ Vorla begged as she lifted Yysana’s head. ‘Valaninsal is still brimming with legionaries, we’ve got to leave.’ They could all hear the definite rumble of booted footfalls, but it seemed that no one in the group wanted to acknowledge them. As their volume rose like a brewing storm, it became apparent that their escape was on a time limit. ‘We must leave,’ Vorla pleaded. She pulled Yysana’s body up in her arms. Penumbra took a quick survey of where they stood on the beach, realising that the road to Valaninsal would cross their path and they would surely be spotted. If they were to be surrounded, they would all find themselves on their way to The Spire.

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RITES IN BLOOD Another dream came to me last night. While it is not uncommon for me to wake up in horror from what I see in my sleep, this was unusual for the fact it filled me with warmth and joy. I saw my girl standing on the precipice of the Crater’s high walls, freed from the chains of order that bound her and overlooking a crowd of future citizens that saw her as the heroine she is to me. She looked different. She had grown into a beautiful and strong woman, but one that was tired and exhausted from the hours of servitude. It felt so real, the vividness of a vision rather than the blurry eyes of a sleeper. (Alden, 23rd Dran’Waen 72)

L

aen sat around the campfire, trying his best to keep his eyes from drooping. He found himself nearly defeated, when he was startled out of his doze by the sound of wood being thrown onto the fire. The loud thud as the blocks hit the ground and the disturbed crackle the fire gave with its new fuel brought Laen back into the world. ‘Stay awake,’ Gaalo said as he approached the fireside. ‘It is not safe to sleep yet.’ 72


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Laen gazed around at the calm wilderness they had trekked into. The leaves in the trees were lifted ever so slightly by the pleasant breeze that drifted through the land and the night was silent aside from a few chattering insects. ‘Nothing’s going on. No one’s around. Can I not just rest my eyes for a moment?’ ‘No.’ ‘What about have a little lie down?’ ‘No.’ ‘Just for a minute.’ ‘No.’ ‘I’m sorry sir, but I think my eyes will give up before it ever becomes safe.’ ‘Don’t call me sir. Stay awake.’ Laen huffed. They had been on their feet since the early hours of that morning, when the strange Elstarren man had disturbed Laen’s sleep in the Lorit’ndale tavern. ‘There is always something to be wary of.’ Gaalo had returned to the camp with two rabbits attached to a length of twine on his belt. The animals had no obvious marks on their bodies indicating how they had been killed, and so Laen could only assume that Gaalo was an expert hunter. The wild man pulled one rabbit from his side and placed it down onto a rock. With the fingers of both hands, he took hold of the animal’s hide, before pulling hard and peeling the skin off in one quick movement. Laen gagged in disgust at both the sight and the noise. Gaalo let out a dry laugh at the Spireman’s discomfort. ‘Never hunted your own food, city man? Perhaps the wilds will teach a little of how the world works.’

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Laen nearly retched when Gaalo picked one of the animal’s up and snapped its ankles. He stood up, finding himself far more awake than before and stepped away from the fire to take in a breath of fresh air. He let the nausea sink back from his throat as he stared out into the darkness surrounding the camp. He thought for a moment that surely Karshah and the rest of the group were not watching animals being turned inside out. Wherever they were. When Laen returned feeling slightly better, Gaalo had skinned and disembowelled the two rabbits and began to prepare them for cooking over the fire. Laen sat back down, watching the man with rather more intrigue than before. Gaalo began to erect a makeshift spit for the fire. As he worked, Laen caught sight of another tattoo on the ranger’s skin. His facial tattoo had been so striking to him that Laen had not considered that Gaalo likely had several others on his body. This particular tattoo was on his forearm, and Laen was able to make out that it showed a raven and a hare. At first, he assumed that the raven was swooping down to strike the hare and catch it in its talons, but he soon realised that was not the case. The two animals appeared to be playing and leisurely enjoying the other’s company like they were lifelong friends. The paws of the hare were reaching up as if to embrace the majestic avian. Gaalo seemed to notice where Laen’s eyes were aimed and pulled down the sleeve of his overcoat to cover his skin. He saw that the action had caused Laen to look away awkwardly. Gaalo rested his arms on his knees as he sat by the fire. ‘I should not keep you in the dark. You may only be her messenger, but you have a right to know. I will not keep things from you like she might. We are no longer secret now that rule has changed. I will answer the questions you surely have,’ said Gaalo. Laen shuffled around to face the man. 74


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‘Tell me about all this,’ Laen started, gesturing to his eye. ‘That tattoo must have been extremely painful. Let alone risky. Could have lost your eye.’ Gaalo pulled off the leather glove that covered his right hand, bringing the fingers up to trace the black ink. His movements were slow and solemn like he had forgotten his face was marked. ‘I am one of the nine who bear the brand of the Elstarren,’ he said eventually. ‘One of the three with Eyes. The Order was split into three triumvirates, each tasked with maintaining the balance of our world. The three Paladins came first, armoured and unstoppable fighters who would diffuse any battle as it arose. Then came the Rangers, those who walk the lands and sustain the beauty of the wilds. Finally, the Assassins were tasked with eliminating individual threats that pose danger to the royals or citizens of Sotania. As you may have guessed, Penumbra is one of those. ‘The Elstarren keep the world safe, without asking for gold, fame or recognition in return. It is our blood right. We take our vows to serve the state and cannot be free of them unless the Lord allows us, or death ends our duties. Elstarren are chosen before they are born. They train until they are at least at the age of an adult and then they are initiated. Every member of the Order is welcomed by being marked with either the Owl or the Eye,’ said Gaalo. ‘Do the initiates choose their tattoos?’ Laen asked, trying to remember if he had seen any sort of markings on Penumbra’s arms or perhaps her neck. ‘The triumvirate leaders are the Eyes, while the remaining two are the Wings.’ ‘What’s the point of that?’ ‘It’s symbolic. I don’t expect you to understand. The leader is the seer, while his followers are the strength that send us forward.’

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‘But, Penumbra doesn’t have something around her eye like that.’ ‘She is not a leader. In the Assassins, Umbra was the elected speaker of the group. Now that she is no more, Penumbra has elected herself into power.’ Gaalo’s face became harder and more wound. ‘She is an odd case. She was allowed into our family as a fully initiated Elstarri a year younger than is tradition. It was unheard of and I did not approve of it. Untrained, impulsive and stupid. She bears the Wings. I remember watching it being embedded in the skin on her shoulders as per her request.’ Gaalo reached behind him and tapped the centre of his shoulder blade. ‘Doesn’t that take some time? You’ve all got to all sit around watching someone be tattooed.’ ‘Yes, it took some hours. Particularly as Penumbra requested a large owl from shoulder to shoulder. I saw it as her way of placing herself higher than the rest. She’s always been the same.’ ‘You hate her?’ Laen asked. Gaalo thought briefly, his sullen eyes watching the flames and glowing embers in the firepit. In the dim light, Laen could see the dark circles of weariness that lined his eyes. He wondered if the man ever slept. ‘No. I do not hate her. Hate is a word reserved for the worst of one’s enemies. She is not my enemy. I merely…disapprove of her attitude. Elstarren are meant to keep their emotions in line and never let them cloud their judgement. She seems to have forgotten that.’ Laen shifted some more on the rock he was sat on, leaning forward, closer to Gaalo. ‘Who is she? I mean really. What family is she from? Is she noble born or common?’ 76


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‘That I do not know. The Elstarren are not informed of the personal information of their siblings. Once they accept their new title, they leave their old lives behind. They never use their birth name again.’ ‘But last night you said something about her bloodline. You’ve heard something about her. Something that you judge her by.’ Gaalo stood quickly. ‘I told you once. I do not spread false rumours. Aye, I heard things. Things that make sense to me. But until the truth is revealed, I will keep my peace.’ ‘But you said you would not keep things from me?’ ‘I will not speak it,’ Gaalo said firmly. His deep voice bellowed in the winds and cut through the nature’s calm. He sat back down. ‘I will tell only the things I know to be true. About the Order you are working with and the secrets your country is built upon.’ The fire crackled in the silence that stretched between them. Laen reminded himself that he was speaking with another member of the order Penumbra represented. ‘Do excuse me. You were talking of the Elstarren. What happened to your siblings? Why are there only two of you left?’ Gaalo’s head fell until the strands of dark brown hair began to slip from within his hood. ‘Penumbra believes it was Kilaksan that stole her brothers and sisters. But Kilaksan is only the executioner, one doing a job to keep his position. He has no ill feelings towards our Order. He has little care for the world he has found himself leading. He is being manipulated by the witch.’ ‘The witch?’ ‘The Wensfold daughter. Elanah, first born of Lord Roban Wensfold and Hillah Dominan. Set to be the first Lady of Sotania.

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Her family’s rule was stolen when the democratic change occurred and Kilaksan rose into office.’ ‘I see. I remember seeing her when Roban was on the throne. She’d occasionally be seen by his side when he made royal addresses in Lordspire. She was just a child though.’ ‘Years pass. Children grow. Bitterness remains. Kilaksan has ruled for nearly eighteen years already. The Wensfold’s lost favour in the world when it was revealed that Elanah was not Roban’s first born. Elanah disappeared in shame while Kilaksan was adjusting to lordship. Never married or bore a child. She seemed to resurface just as land was beginning to be surrendered.’ ‘I see. So, Lord Wensfold has another child? One more than the Sotan law would allow?’ ‘Yes. He and his wife had a boy soon after their wedding. Lad had a lame leg, so they sent him for adoption and never put him in line for the throne. Council of the Spire found out. Wensfold’s were forced to pay a price.’ ‘Not that money matters all that much to the most powerful family in Loessiah. Doubt they even gave it a second thought.’ Gaalo didn’t say anything back. ‘So she works with Kilaksan?’ said Laen. ‘Apparently so. I am yet to discover why she would choose to ally herself with the person who stole the throne from her. She is just using him.’ Laen fell into thought. The conversation went silent. ‘Rest. I will take first watch. You must be ready at first light for tomorrow’s trek to the House of Raenhall. The Crow will be waiting,’ said Gaalo. Laen brought a hand up to his forehead. ‘Oh. Forgot that was what we were here to do. What even is this place we’re going to? Never heard of Raenhall in all my life.’ 78


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‘The House of Raenhall is an abbey, one that serves both gods. A ruin of a place heading a saintless town. A talking raven is more common than a sane human there.’ ‘Right. Good to know, I suppose. Anything to warn me of?’ asked Laen. ‘Don’t drink the wine.’ ~ They could hear the cries of the crows long before they had spotted them perched upon the gables of the abbey. Red eyes watched from above as Laen and Gaalo made their way through the reeds towards the remains of the burnt-out buildings of Raenhall. What Gaalo had referred to as a “town” was no more than a few blackened houses, a derelict cattle barn and a well, all scorched by past flame. The small settlement looked to have been ransacked and left to burn several years prior to their arrival. Dark shapes amongst soot-stained grass, Raenhall was a village that Sotania had forgotten. ‘What in the world is this place? It’s disgraceful,’ said Laen, turning his nose up at the smell of the dusty ruins. He moved a block of timber aside with his foot, finding the wood soggy with the water of uncountable rainfalls. It broke in two with only a slightly push from his boot. ‘Has all this been wiped from the map?’ ‘Never on it to begin with,’ said Gaalo, a few strides in front. The hood of his green overcoat was up as drops had begun to fall from the overcast sky. ‘The saintless towns do not appear on those Daewen maps you see. If the townsfolk are mainly followers of Kall rather than Loessiah, the place is kept hidden. Stains aren’t welcome on the Sotan canvas.’

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Laen had heard of Kall, but it was not a topic spoken of in Lordspire. Loessiah was the religion of moral justice and the one most citizens followed, their Goddess a paradigm of righteousness. Kall was a nefarious deity of sacrifice and war-mongering. Worship had been outlawed throughout the Central Dominance and believers had been prosecuted. ‘Ah, but Warrenvel has no saint. That’s there quite clearly on any map I’ve seen,’ he said. Gaalo stopped, looking his companion up and down before grunting. ‘You’re right. Well spotted, Spireman. Your knowledge is outstanding.’ Gaalo continued to lead the way past the blackened splinters of houses and onwards into the darkness. A looming shadow cast itself across the entire townland, a shade born from the monument atop the hill at the far northern corner. The House of Raenhall was a vast and forbidding edifice of sable stone. Torches of vermillion and sickly yellows burned from every sconce nailed to its walls. The abbey had arches and turrets that looked more fitting on a Tairian fortress than a religious building. The light seemed to illuminate the path away from the town, leading up to the great door at the abbey’s front. Gaalo and Laen began to walk across the trodden dirt. Laen stuck close to the Elstarri’s side. Shapes began to move between the trees that ran alongside the path. They were unmistakably human, but shrouded in darkness. ‘There’s people out there,’ Laen said under his quivering breath. He stared warily at the treeline, the black forms moving behind the trunks. ‘Stay close. The Hunters are out,’ said Gaalo, his brown eyes noting the positions of the shrouded figures. Laen caught a glimpse of one as some torch light hit its face. He was startled to see a 80


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crimson skinned expression outlined in white gleaming back at him. Porcelain teeth and eyes on a red mask. ‘Who are they?’ ‘His puppets.’ They made it to the threshold of the front door. Upon the surface of the wood, a carving of duelling crows was etched, the two birds displayed fighting in the dark skies over the carcass of a fallen body. Gaalo did not knock, but waited for the door to open of its own accord and welcome him inside. The wood parted, opening into the extended central aisle of the abbey. The handle clanged against the grain, echoing throughout the revealed inner chambers. With pews lining the walls on either side, the open walkway was lined in black marble that reflected the light of the hanging torches on the walls. Their footsteps reverberated up into the rafters of the abbey’s arched ceiling. A musky scent of iron hung heavily in the air. At the end of the aisle, sitting under the stained windows of the far wall, was a cage. Large enough to contain the mightiest of beasts, the confining metal bars were positioned where the altar would normally be, and within it housed a cross-legged man. His eyes were shut, and his expression was neutral. He appeared to be in deep meditation. ‘An Elstarri wanders north. Past the boundaries of what even a Ranger would deem safe. A raven’s caw above reminds him of a home long forgotten. One he longs to go back to,’ the man said, opening his eyes to reveal irises of dark sanguine. His head was shaved, save for a tied strand of white at the very back of his neck that fell down his bare back. The skin of his torso was scratched and grazed. It appeared disfigured and burnt, raised and inflamed like the man had been pressed to flames like a piece of meat. The lines of the burn marks were done with purpose to create 81


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an image on the man’s skin. The two crows that Laen and Gaalo had seen on the abbey’s door had been branded onto his torso, and had then had their lines outlined in ink. The skin held a different, brighter pigment to the rest of his body. His hands sat idly on his knees. ‘While wings are clipped in the tower of ice, the hare comes to see the crow. How have you been, Luga?’ ‘Keeping alive,’ Gaalo said back, throwing off his hood and turning to face the seated man in the cage. ‘Trying to not kill too many. Complete opposite of you, it would seem.’ The Crow looked to him. He raised his brow where his eyebrows would have been if they had not been scorched away. ‘Kill? My hands have not sent any to the earth. Unlike yours.’ ‘I do what I must,’ said Gaalo. ‘As do I. While two deities look upon this world, it is my duty to preserve their balance. The blood of the believers is my pay.’ Laen watched the man cautiously. He took a look around the front of the abbey, noticing the cage floor to be littered with clumps of what he assumed was human hair. Tracing the length of the iron bars of the gargantuan cage, Laen saw that on either side, two fonts were sculpted from the rock of the back wall. Above each one, a different effigy was carved and loomed over the liquid contents in its basin. The left showed a woman with cascading locks of hair that flowed over her weeping face. The right showed a man with paws like a bear and fangs of a sabre cat. In each of the fonts, the smell of iron in the air was identified as both were filled with dark blood that gleamed in the fire’s light. While the pool under the bear man statue was full and nearly at the point of overflowing, the woman’s font was dwindling behind. ‘You have brought me a believer of Loessiah to fill my fountain?’ the Crow asked, his unnerving eyes looking to Laen. ‘They are all worshippers of the Goddess in Lordspire, aren’t they? 82


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Kall holds no place there. A pity, but a feast for the hunters. This one will do me well.’ ‘You aren’t touching him, Crow. We are not here to entertain your delusions,’ said Gaalo. ‘Oh, but they are not tricks, Elstarri. Someday the world will see that the balance between the gods is important. When the time comes for Loessiah and Kall’s eternal battle to come to a close, your people will be first to feed the pyre. I wonder, what do you believe Gaalo? Where would your life essence be most welcome? Under the order of Loessiah’s righteousness, or in Kall’s chaotic grasp?’ ‘My blood will sink into the soil I tread. It does not belong to some illusive daemon.’ ‘I shall await that day. If then you have not come to share your blood with the Crow, what brings you to his nest?’ ‘Penumbra sends you a message,’ said Gaalo, walking over to Laen and taking the package from his back. He passed it through the bars. The Crow examined it with interest. His hands came to hold it, before carefully unravelling the message inside. His eyes scanned across in moments, before carefully and meticulously tearing the parchment to shreds. He placed a sliver of the paper on his outstretched tongue, tasting it briefly before swallowing it down. ‘Penumbra slowly pieces the puzzle together. Yet so far she has left to go before the picture is complete. The first piece is always the easiest, but the second is lost to her eyes. The third goes unrecognised, and the fourth is a whisper too distant to be heard even by her trained ears. She has everything she needs, but cannot quite figure out how they fit together.’ ‘What does the message say?’ Laen asked, leaning over to Gaalo. The Crow heard him and moved his red eyes to the Spireman. Laen kept behind Gaalo’s shoulder.

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‘The Assassin has discovered Elanah’s part in Loessiah’s labyrinth. She asks for my knowledge to understand what it is the Wensfold is doing. The drinking of Kilaksan’s blood to pass the power to her veins and share control of this Sotan world is what she sees, but there is more than that here.’ ‘She didn’t mention any of this,’ Laen said, almost like an accusation. ‘One would think Penumbra would know Elanah by the all the years that have passed.’ ‘Loessiah’s soul was split into four,’ Gaalo interjected. ‘The soul shards root themselves within different hosts, granting them the powers of the divine. As far as I was aware, the chosen host is the only Aspect. Kilaksan is the Mind. The Masked Child is the Body. There cannot be more. How could Elanah possibly plan to wield Kilaksan’s power herself?’ said Gaalo. ‘You are right, Luga. There can be only one. Elanah’s loyalty is a façade. She does not plan to share Kilaksan’s power. She intends to take it.’ ‘How do you know that?’ asked Laen. ‘Because she has told me.’ ‘You’re working with her?’ Gaalo said roughly, his hand sinking to the grip of his tomahawk. He planted his fist on the bars of the cage, rattling the metal construction. The Crow remained calm. ‘She asked for my guidance, which I gave. Penumbra has done the same. I do not place myself on a side in your feeble quarrels. Loessiah and Kall’s battle in Illeriah is my concern. Yes, Elanah has come to me on occasion requesting my insight into the divination she is meddling with. I will not stop her, as I will not stop you with however you wish to retaliate. However, the Venari Orgen always wishes payment. While she has sadly taken the Lord’s blood for herself, she offered me noble blood in return for my service. The 84


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prisoners in the Spire’s dungeons have kept my wells flowing. But alas, the blood of a raven is not substantial, is it Luga?’ Gaalo’s face warped into a grimace, infuriated by the neutral face of the blank Crow. He pulled the tomahawk from his belt, gripping it tightly by his side until his knuckles turned a bright white. ‘You’re a madman, Crow,’ he said gravely through the bars. ‘A price for service is not mad, sir Gaalo. In fact, I am awaiting your offering for the information I have given.’ ‘You will get nothing from me.’ ‘Doesn’t your mortal mind see? It is not I that requires it. The gods demand it. The blood to balance the fonts is what I request. You are now my guests, and will not leave here till it is paid.’ From the great doors at the front of the abbey and the hallways that led to the sacristy and undercroft came the masked figures they had seen in the house’s grounds. Grotesque crimson masked faces with porcelain teeth began to circle them, cutting off their exits. With rusted sickles poised in their grasp, they grinned at their master’s guests. Laen stepped backwards in fright, finding his back hitting Gaalo’s shoulder. The Ranger had drawn the sword by his right side, and he span his throwing axe around in his grip. Laen had no weapon aside from a hunting knife in his pack, and held it outstretched at arm’s reach in hopes of deterring the inhuman-like Hunters. ‘They hunt for the blood I need. Their hunger is not often left unsated,’ said the Crow. The gauntly built man had stood from the bottom of the cage and pressed his face between the bars of his cage like an animal. He ran his tongue over the sharp canine teeth in his mouth and swilled it across the bars. A swing of a sickle was blocked by Gaalo’s sword, a clang reverberating and echoing off the abbey’s hall walls. The Hunter who had made the attack snarled and let out a throaty bark like a 85


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feral dog. Gaalo’s hard eyes kept track of as many of the Hunters as possible, using the tip of his sword and the threat of his tomahawk to keep them at bay. ‘A follower of Loessiah is all I need to maintain order. You have brought me that,’ said the Crow from his cage. Laen let out a yelp as two sets of clawed hands wrapped around his arms and shoulders. They hauled him away from the safety of Gaalo’s side, kicking his knife away and dragging him to the edge of the font. Gaalo made to strike, the side of his blade shattering the porcelain face of one of the Hunters. The beastly figure screeched and pawed at his eyes in pain. There were too many however still seizing Laen’s torso for the loss of one to be an issue. Panicking and writhing in the clutches of the servants, Laen struggled with all his might to free himself of their hands. His shallowed breaths were joined by drops of sweat on brow in fear of what they would do. A palm on his neck pushed him roughly over the stone rim of the font, his face only inches from the blood swirling in the fountain. The shrill sound of a cleaver was heard as it was drawn across the stone. It made Laen squirm and the hairs of the back of his exposed neck became raised. The cold metal was pressed to the bottom of his hair, the blades edge threatening to decapitate him and draw the blood that the Hunters longed for. Laen’s eyes shut tightly and he prayed to the statue of Loessiah above his head. Blood hit his face. A scream filled his ears. He found himself no longer pinned to the rim of the basin, but free and able to move. He fell backwards in shock. Gaalo pulled his axe from the neck of the Hunter. He lifted it into the air and brought it down into the flesh again. The crunch of bone and the wet splatter of blood emanated from the figure’s neck that only clung to the rest of his body by thin strings of skin and tissue. 86


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Blood flowed into the font. The Crow smiled. ‘Someone needs to take that axe away from you,’ Laen spluttered from the floor.

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GIRL IN THE DARK Today, our country welcomed the news of a new-born heir to the Wensfold’s throne and our future ruler. My sister. In a country chained by a law that says parents may only have one child, I should feel blessed to have a sibling. But as this news comes to me, I know that this is a person that I will never come to know. She and I will never speak, and I very much doubt she will ever learn that she has a brother in this world. I will watch her grow from a distance. I will just be a stranger amongst the crowd, standing on my crutches, lame and crippled by a life taken from me. (Dominan, 20th Kan’Abir 63)

‘W

on’t you sleep, Penumbra?’ Vorla said behind her ear. The assassin had been keeping watch for more than three hours without moving a muscle. She stood on the edge of their camp, gazing into the darkness, the red cloak and cascade of midnight hair being all Vorla could see of her from behind. Vorla stood up from Yysana’s bedroll where she had been tending to the young Kaelan. The use of the killing magic had sapped the strength from her and her body was struggling to retain its warmth. Vorla had wrapped her in all the material they had spare, but still the girl’s arms and cheeks were a shade of pale blue. 88


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Penumbra had insisted on making camp. The rough grasslands surrounding Towaen were far enough away from both the city’s suburbs, and the harbours of Valaninsal, but still she needed to be wary. Her emerald eyes were aimed out into the black, but her trained vision did not see anything properly. It was hazed over, her thoughts were troubled, too occupied by the war raging in her mind. Vorla’s voice had broken her from her ruminations. ‘I don’t need to,’ she said flatly. Her voice was quiet and distinctly temperate compared to her usual tone. Vorla had noticed Penumbra’s silence since they had freed her from her chains and left on the road away from Valaninsal. The older woman took another step towards the Elstarri. ‘You must. Rest will be good for you after being locked in that ship,’ said Vorla. ‘That is precisely why I want to be up and away from the ground. I had all the chances to sleep as Kilaksan’s guest,’ Penumbra replied. ‘You didn’t sleep. I know you, and in that situation, you would not have allowed yourself a wink.’ ‘You don’t know me,’ Penumbra said gravely and from low in her throat. ‘Don’t pretend to.’ Her mood was shifting in an instant. Her coolness came and went, replaced with bitterness that appeared in a flash. Vorla came up behind her, standing by her side and joining her in staring out at the pitch-black of the night. ‘I have been with you long enough, dear. Though I may not know all your secrets, spending enough time around you has revealed more to me than you realise. You’re still human, Penumbra. I know your duty weighs on you, but you can’t ignore the needs you have.’ Penumbra seemed to snap.

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‘You do not know the burden I bear. You cannot begin to imagine it. Shut that mouth of yours and stop offering counsel to those that do not want it.’ Penumbra’s eyes had shot to Vorla, glaring at her with anger behind the green. Her hands lingered around one of the daggers concealed in her ebony armour. Vorla did not flinch or look away. She was familiar with the temper of the Elstarri and familiar with the subtle unfounded threats she would spit. ‘Leave the knives, Penumbra. They aren’t for cutting your friends,’ she said softly. ‘Is that you think you are?’ Penumbra muttered, turning away and going back to her watch. Silence stretched between them. The words did not faze Vorla. Penumbra was disappointed that Vorla showed no interest in leaving her alone. ‘Why did you take the girl with you to Valaninsal?’ said Vorla finally. ‘You turned down your own Elsworne, but took someone you had only just met. A peasant no less.’ ‘Must I explain myself to you?’ she said. ‘Come, dear. Don’t be that way. You saw something in that girl, something that passed by the rest of us. She said it herself, if you had only wanted the locket, you would have taken it. We’ve worked for the same cause for more than ten years now and never before have you brought an outsider into our business. There was more that your eye saw.’ ‘Why does it matter? The girl is dead,’ said Penumbra bluntly. ‘I hesitate to believe you think that way,’ Vorla replied. Penumbra did not say anything more, but continued to look away. Her eyes were sullen and her arms had fallen to her sides. ‘I think you saw some of yourself in Karshah. Some of who you used to be,’ said Vorla. At her words, Penumbra’s brow began to furrow, and her lips were pressed tightly together. 90


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‘I do not want to remember that.’ ‘I was there the day you took your vows Penumbra. I was in the Spire. I saw you before the responsibilities of the Elstarren had been thrust upon your innocent mind. I saw the child before the killing, before steel had been placed in your hand and before your obligation to this country. I’ve seen how it’s changed you.’ ‘Then you will know that I am not her anymore. The moment I uttered the last of the Elstarren script, I forwent myself. I lost that child. That was my duty, that was what I agreed.’ ‘You talk as if that person is not still in you. She may be lost, but not gone. ‘This is what I am. Penumbra. The past does not matter.’ ‘If that’s what you think dear. But everything that the past brought to you has shaped what you’ve become today. It would be unwise to forget the lessons it has taught you. Only a fool would do that, and you are not a fool,’ said Vorla. She moved to stand in front of Penumbra, blocking her gaze from the rest of the world. The green eyes came to rest darkly on her, appearing as if Vorla’s words tired her. Penumbra’s arms folded. ‘I wish I were a fool,’ said Penumbra. ‘Perhaps then I would allow things to drift by me without a care. If I could so nonchalantly look burdens in the eyes, then perhaps they would lose some of their weight,’ she said. The edge in her tone had gone, replaced with what Vorla knew to be the gentler side of the assassin. ‘It is because you care, dearest. You are loyal and honest and would see your commitment to its end. Your investment goes beyond this country. It strikes at the common person, that’s who you are fighting to protect.’ Penumbra’s eyes began to sink to the floor.

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‘Let the walls fall, just for a moment,’ said Vorla, reaching out to take the woman’s hand. Penumbra pulled herself away and shook her head. ‘No. My guard must be up. If it falls, I may as well draw the blade against my own neck to save them the mess.’ Vorla thought for a moment, and did not make another attempt to physically comfort the Elstarri anymore. She kept a distance between them. ‘Then let me propose one idea to you, one that I only ask you listen to. Discard it if you want and forget I ever said a word, but please take it in first. Call Opal. Send him to look for Karshah. If she is still alive and you believe there is still a part for her to play in this war, then give the search to him. I know you think him useless and clumsy, but there’s a reason the Elstarren animal companions are like timeless myths. He could do it. Call him and have him survey the land from the sky. Please, think on that.’ Penumbra did not reply and showed no measure of expression of her pale face. She sensed that Vorla had gone and she was once again alone in the grassy plain. At the corner of her peripheral vision she could make out the embers of their campfire dancing in the wind. The men had retired to sleep, while Vorla had stayed awake to tend to Yysana and ensure the girl was cared for. A pang of guilt had seeped into Penumbra’s conscience at the Kaelan girl’s use of the darker side of her powers to rescue her. Yysana had saved her, but she had killed for it. Eighteen years old was too young to be killing people. Numbly, Penumbra realised her first kill had been at fifteen. She began to walk, finding the grass to clump into a thicket. Twigs and dried mud crunched underfoot as she pressed onwards deeper into whatever the night held. It was not a cold night, as the seasons were gaining on summer. She stopped and raised her head 92


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to the sky. A soft hum began to leave her mouth, deep and sonorous like the drone of a low flute. The sound echoed beneath the trees and soared into the starry sky. She waited, unmoving. Minutes passed. She listened intently to the rustle of the brush and shrubbery, and soon caught wind of a hoot among the nightly chorus. Opal came to rest on her shoulder, pecking gently at her fingers as she brought them up to scratch under his beak. The owl looked at her with golden eyes, inquisitive but still as ditsy as she remembered them. The owl gave a hoot in greeting. ‘I need you to do something for me, Opal. One of our group is missing,’ she said gently to him, lifting him perched on her hand to her eye level. His talons were sharp, but her leather gloves kept them from tearing her skin. He cocked his head, inspecting her before giving another cry. She frowned. ‘Now don’t give me that, Opal. Just because I’m not Umbra, you’ve still got to listen to me.’ He padded his feet up and down on her arm, giving a flap of his wings at her tickling fingers. ‘Remember when she sent you to find me when I was lost in the Ayven’s mountains? I’d bet you didn’t kick up so much of a fuss back then. You can’t have favourites, Opal.’ Opal hooted again, his golden eyes growing in interest at the other assassin’s name. He nipped at her index finger that was stroking his downy chest. She let him, finding he was not biting with the intent to hurt her, but took her finger lightly in his beak. Her green eyes were sullen. ‘Umbra’s gone, Opal. It’s just me now,’ she said, no louder than a breathy whisper, running a knuckle over the softness of his feathered head. ‘We need all the friends we can make.’ She lifted her arm into the air, encouraging the bird to take off into the skies. ‘Find Karshah for me, wherever she may be. You’ve got a long way to fly.’ 93


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~ Karshah ate the food heartily. It was delicious. Never before had she eaten something that was so exotic, so rich and so full of flavour. She dug the wooden spoon into the bowl, scooping up as much as she could to ease her hunger. Odalen sat across from her at the small wooden table in his hut. Though she knew his vision to be impaired, he still seemed to watch and see her as if his eyes were working perfectly. He laughed at how earnestly she was eating the food he had made for her, a smile on his elderly face. ‘I can only guess you are enjoying it,’ he said in his calm voice. ‘It’s so tasty,’ she said. ‘What is it?’ Her bowl was filled with sweet vegetables, surrounded by some white grain she was not familiar with. Since the nightmare, Karshah had found herself slightly more at ease in the man’s presence and had begun to talk more to him. The pain from her cuts had calmed as they had begun to heal. She had no need to keep her bandages on as the wounds were sealed and no longer bleeding. ‘Never tasted rice before? Kaelani lives off it. I’m sure we would all die if our farmers stopped growing it. Our other four isles are patched in rice fields that bring us the food to live from. The Fifth is too mountainous to grow it, you see. But if they could find a way, I’m sure they would grow it here too.’ ‘I love it,’ she said, taking another mouthful. ‘I am glad. What do the Sotans eat? It is not often a Kaelan has the opportunity to hear the ways of the great nation,’ he asked. Karshah immediately thought that she was not the best person to speak of the wonders of Sotan cuisine, as she was from a settlement that considered meat and grain a luxury. The city folk would be the ones to sample the finer foods. If only Laen was here. 94


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‘Sotania is not very adventurous with their meals. We mostly eat hunted meat from the wilds where I am from. My hometown has many crop fields as well.’ She set her spoon down, somewhat disappointed that she had finished the contents of the bowl. ‘Thank you,’ she said. Odalen bowed his head at her gratitude. ‘You are welcome. It is a pleasure to cook for someone again. My son rarely comes home for his meals anymore. Too busy with the life he leads. It does not dishearten me, I’m glad he is finding his place in this world,’ said Odalen. His words felt somewhat forced to Karshah’s ears, tinted with a melancholic strain. He picked her bowl up and took it away. ‘A father can rest once his son is his own man,’ he said walking to the other side of the hut. He stacked the bowls and cutlery up to be washed later. ‘Do you have children of your own to go home to?’ he said, shuffling some items around. Karshah looked up quickly, slightly taken aback by the sudden question. She assumed it to be as a result of the change of culture, as in Sotania, it would have been considered impolite to ask people of their relationships and children so soon after meeting them. ‘No…no I don’t,’ she replied, thinking that she was far too young to even be thinking of such a thing. ‘Is it not tradition to be married at sixteen in Sotania? Children are never far on the horizon after the knot has been tied,’ he said. He was right, many of the Warrenvel residents had been married at that age. Some had had children soon after. ‘It is tradition yes, but it is always organised by the parents of the betrothed families. I’m not married…I lost my parents before I reached the right age.’ Karshah’s voice trailed as she spoke. Odalen’s white eyes sank. ‘I am sorry to hear that. Forgive my asking. Sometimes curiosity makes me forget my manners.’ ‘It’s fine,’ she said. 95


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Odalen stopped, his hands resting at his sides. He was aiming his sightless gaze her way again, appearing to study her without seeing. He had done it many times since she had been on her feet, completely coming to pause to watch her for a moment, before going back to what he was doing. She found his gaze not unmannerly, but still rather awkward. The whistle of the steel kettle on the fire brought him back into the world. He poured the boiling water into a short ceramic cup. The smell dispirited her. ‘I know you do not like the herbal remedy, but it is important for you to make a full recovery,’ he said, placing the cup on the table in front of her. It was pale green in colour, with the leaves of some plant still floating in it. She forced herself to take a sip and swallow, enjoying the heat, but despising the gritty earthy taste. The door at the far end of the hut opened as she set the cup down, and entering in was a young man of about nineteen years of age. His hair was of a muddy brown colour that had stuck to his face. He moved it out of his eyes, wiping the sheen of sweat that had dried on his brow. On his back were two swords that he had slung over his shoulder like a pack. He did not appear like a man ready to go to battle, but more like a young squire who was forced to carry the burden of his knight’s weaponry. He was preoccupied with the weight of his possessions as he bundled his way into the hut. ‘Father, that steel smith in the Beuldani marketplace has not balanced these swords properly. I was half way to the floor after the first swing in training today,’ the boy said, speaking Kaelan. The words sounded like a collection of muddled noises and sharp hisses to Karshah’s ears. ‘Speak in the Sotan tongue, son. It is rude to leave someone out of the conversation,’ said Odalen. The boy looked up, finally seeing that there was another person in his father’s house. It took a few seconds for him to recognise who it was, but soon Karshah saw the 96


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boy’s eyes widen in understanding. He was struck by how different she looked, how much better than the muddied, unconscious body he'd seen on the shoreline was. The matted sand had gone to reveal a bony and innocent face with eyes the colour of Ilidieye’s waves. Skin as white as northern winters and charcoal hair. He straightened his posture and let his swords down. ‘Oh,’ he said, eyes locked on the person who was a stranger to him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, speaking in the Sotan language so that Karshah could understand. His accent was far less noticeable in his speech compared to his father’s. ‘Come and sit down, Hyrish,’ Odalen said, pulling him up a chair at the table while he continued to mill around the area of the hut that he prepared food in. Karshah found herself sat opposite the young Kaelan man. He was fumbling with his clothes and awkwardly wringing his hands. He didn’t seem to want to look at her. Karshah continued to drink the herbal tea. Silence stretched in the hut. ‘Well speak, boy,’ Odalen said, coming to the table. ‘Hello,’ Hyrish said, finally looking up at Karshah and meeting her sapphire eyes. She saw that his brown hair reached his jawline, dark strands falling over the ghost of a newly emerging beard. ‘I pray that you don’t make a habit of saving people’s lives if “hello” is all you can manage to say to them,’ Odalen said. Hyrish looked at her again, holding her eyes with more conviction than before. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked. ‘Better,’ she said. Odalen came in and placed a similar bowl of food in front of his son. Karshah took another sip of the tea. ‘I trust you have been staying out of the Sotan’s business, my son,’ Odalen said firmly.

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‘We’re trying to keep them out of our business father. You’ve got to realise that. I’m trying to help make sure they’re not hurting anyone,’ Hyrish said with a plea. ‘They are not to be interfered with Hyrish. You leave them be.’ ‘But father, they’ve got no right to be here. I’m not going to let them walk all over us,’ Hyrish said back. Karshah found his tone becoming more like a child as he spoke. He reminded her of her brother at a similar age, where hormones would tinge him with attitude and shorten his temper. ‘They’re so arrogant to think they own this place just because their numbers are greater than ours. Fancy steel armour doesn’t make you a warrior.’ ‘Neither does wielding a sword. And don’t be rude, Hyrish,’ the boy’s father said, gesturing not so subtly to the Sotan girl sat at their table. Hyrish’s brown eyes flicked to her as more words caught in his throat. ‘She’s not a soldier though father, it has nothing to do with her.’ ‘Please, forgive my son. He does not think before he speaks,’ said Odalen, turning to Karshah. ‘She’s quite clearly not one of the legionaries,’ Hyrish said again. ‘Women aren’t allowed to be legionaries.’ His palm was extended towards her. ‘That’s enough,’ Odalen said, his voice hard but not raised. ‘But I’m telling you-’ ‘I said enough.’ ‘I’m not a soldier,’ Karshah said. Odalen stopped, arms freezing as his white eyes came to rest on the black-haired girl again. ‘You are not?’ he asked. She shook her head. ‘Your son’s right. Women aren’t allowed in the Sotan military. I’m not here with them. I…don’t know how I got here.’ ‘Then you are not part of the occupation?’ he asked. ‘No.’ 98


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‘So why are you in Kaelani?’ Hyrish joined in with the questions. She almost found it in herself to laugh. Why was she here? ‘I didn’t mean to. The sea took me here.’ Hyrish gave a chuckle. ‘I assumed as much, seeing as you were unconscious in the sea. I could only guess it wasn’t a holiday,’ he said. Odalen didn’t seem to share in the humour. The old man’s face had darkened, and he looked deep in thought. ‘Not a soldier,’ he echoed, ‘but still a Sotan. Your stories confuse me,’ he said. His voice remained soft, but there was an edge to his words. ‘What was it you did to end up in the Sea of Ilidieye? To drift here you must have been on the edge of the Sotan peninsula.’ She nodded. ‘Last I remembered I was in Valaninsal,’ she said. ‘The military port? But you say you are not a soldier,’ Odalen continued to question. She was beginning to feel as if she were under interrogation. She wrestled in her mind as to whether she should reveal the exact details of her presence in the port, but ultimately decided the secrecy would not help her in any way. Baring all in the open might help her find a way home. ‘I was part of a rebellion. An insurrection against Lord Kilaksan. His ship was docking in Valaninsal to take him here in order to conduct his royal visit. We were trying to disrupt his crossing before he had cast off Sotan soil. Raiders and brigands from factions against the lordship fought there, but the legionaries overwhelmed us. I remember being thrown into the harbour at the hands of their High Commander. That’s all I remember before waking up here.’ As she spoke, Hyrish’s brown eyes seemed to brighten with every word. ‘You’re a rebel fighter?’ he asked brightly, but with some skepticism. ‘Forgive me, you don’t look like one.’ ‘Neither do you, son,’ said Odalen. ‘It does not seem to stop you thinking you are one.’

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‘Come on father. Not only the strong have the capacity to fight back. Lynss always says the weakest prisoner has the strongest craving for freedom,’ said Hyrish. Odalen sighed. ‘You should not be filling your head with what that man preaches. He is not a good influence on you.’ ‘He’s the most successful Kaelan crew-master with more gold to his name than anyone outside Duchess Faelani’s family.’ ‘Don’t use Faelani’s name that way. Lynss Kanan only made that gold through deception and tricks, he has never worked a day in his life,’ said Odalen. ‘I do not think myself a fighter,’ said Karshah. ‘Swinging someone else’s sword hasn’t made me a warrior.’ Odalen gave his some a tap on the top of his head. ‘You would do well to understand that, son,’ he said to Hyrish. The boy turned his nose up and brushed the comment aside. ‘So there are Sotan rebellion groups? Against their own empire?’ said Hyrish. Karshah gave a nod. ‘Which one are you part of?’ ‘I don’t know exactly. I’ve heard them be called the Elsworne, but to me they seem like just a group of misfits looking for a cause.’ Hyrish’s eyes brightened and blinked a few times. ‘You should come to our group. Having a Sotan on our side would be so valuable. Can’t know your enemy any better than having them on your side!’ the boy said as his jumped to his feet. He went to grab his swords that were propped up by the door. Odalen laid a hand on his shoulder. Hyrish was much taller than his father, so the old man had to reach up. ‘Don’t pull her into your group. I’m sure the girl only wishes to go home,’ said Odalen he said turning to her. Karshah seemed to have surprised him as she had gotten to her feet as well and seemed eager to step out of the hut. 100


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‘You want to go?’ Odalen asked. Hyrish looked on behind him eagerly for her answer. ‘I want to help,’ said Karshah.

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THE LONELY FEW I knew of my husband’s past before we were betrothed. He wanted me to know what may lie ahead once the ring was on my finger. We built the walls of our house as far from the capital as we would like to be, so we were safe from the repercussions of a Lord’s sins. Trican Dominan is guilty of no crime. He has proved his righteousness to me, his courage to look upon a predator in their red eyes, and the strength of his seed to bear in me a healthy child to continue our legacy. My husband is a hero to me, though all the Sotan officials see is a crippled man struggling to stand on his own two feet. (Alden, 44th Tai’Quel 65)

T

he winds were beginning to sing of summer, their spring chill receding as they breached the middle months. The breeze was gentle as it lifted the silken curtains that hung either side of her balcony doors into a dance. Elanah found her bare feet cold on the marble of the balcony as she stood near the balustrade. She had pulled her satin nightgown more tightly around her to ward off the cold, but did not want to step back into the warmth of her bedroom just yet. Inside, there was only an empty bed to welcome her back, with one side destined to be cold this night. 102


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The black sky was starry and glinted with a thousand diamond winks in the darkness. The souls to come, the Kaelans would say, as they believed that every twinkle of light at night was an unborn child waiting for their turn on Loessiah’s earth. The Sotans had no such abstract idea of what the stars were, but simply believed them to be other world-spheres suspended by the god’s magic, too far away to ever reach. From her window in the Spire, Elanah could see a thousand points of light below her from the buildings of Lordspire. The crystalline surface of the Spire’s stone reflected it back over the many white homes and businesses in the capital city. She found the city beautiful at night, as she knew every person lucky enough to enjoy this view did. Her father had spoken of how proud he was to rule over such a land. He would whisper sweet tales into her childish ears of how one day, every drop of rain, every flake of snow and every ray of sunlight would be hers. Everything the sky looked down upon would be her own. Sotania would be hers. She inhaled a lungful of crisp nightly air, filling her breast with the coolness of a late spring eve. The Spire was quiet, as was most of the city. Since the departure of the Lord, many of the Sotan officials had seemed to mold back into the stone of the white halls, leaving the corridors and chambers empty. She had little to do in the days, and even less to occupy her in the nights. A cold gust caused her loose hair to tickle her cheeks and cover her violet eyes. She brushed it aside and tugged her nightgown over the pale skin of her shoulders where it had slipped. She stepped back into her bedroom, leaving the balcony doors open. She wanted the stars to be with her a little longer. She had been granted her old room back after Kilaksan had begun his rule, the bedroom she had grown up in as a child when 103


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her father had ruled. It was not the same, but still filled her with nostalgic solace. The large four-poster bed was draped in plush magenta fabrics and piled high with pillows. A mahogany dressing table and mirror were set against the wall, the necklace and gemmed choker from that day on its top. Her violet gown, still with its silver feathered collar attached, hung over the bedroom door. On the wall above her bed, was a framed tapestry displaying the short lineage of the Wensfold family. It was not a long line of succession, as the name Wensfold had only become associated as the Sotan royal family for the last three generations. The Modern Sotan Rule as it had become known. Her grandfather, Savan Harling Wensfold, the Ice King and first Lord of Sotania, headed the fabric side by side with his wife, Bailei Maywin. He garnered the title of Ice King from his cold and stoic demeanor, but also as a result of his many dealings and negotiations with the snowbound people of Selia in the north. Below him, along embroidered branches of a violet barked tree was her father, Roban Savan Wensfold and his wife, Hillah Dominan. Elanah had had very little contact with her mother during her childhood as her father would say she was always preoccupied in the affairs of the Eastern Dominance away from the capital. Finally, alone below her parents’ names sat the one solitary square that was hers, Elanah Roban Wensfold. No husband, no betrothed, no children. Not a single line to pass her name along. She stared sullenly up at herself that looked down on her from the tapestry, her father and grandfather glaring at her from above. ‘Failure,’ they screamed. ‘You lost the monarchy, girl.’ A knock on her door pulled her away from the scrutinizing eyes of her fathers. ‘Enter,’ she said, without a thought of her state of undress. She heard the door swing open, followed by the voice of Councillor Indlan. 104


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‘Forgive me for this late intrusion, my lady,’ the thin man said but interrupted himself as he stepped into the room and saw her only in her nightgown. She could feel his eyes as they traced the exposed skin of her pale legs, past her form in her nightgown to finally rest upon the loose hair that flowed down her back. ‘Please excuse me…I can come back in the morning.’ ‘No. You obviously have something important to tell me or you would have not disturbed me at this time. Say what you have to say, man.’ Indlan gave another small bow. ‘Of course, yes,’ he said. ‘I have been informed by Lord Kilaksan’s guard, Markus Halund—’ ‘Not that dreadful Tairian,’ Elanah interrupted, pressing her hand to her forehead. ‘Yes, as you say. He has told me that Kilaksan’s passage across Ilidieye was successful and our Lord is safe and well. On the morrow, he will give his political address to the Kaelan people alongside Duchess Palyys Faelani.’ Elanah turned around. ‘That is all? Surely you did not come to my personal chambers in the early hours of the morning to tell me something that trivial.’ ‘No my lady, there was more he said. I’m afraid to say you will not be best pleased to hear it,’ said Indlan. Elanah strutted up to him. ‘Spit it out. I will decide whether it pleases me or not.’ Indlan fumbled his words and he shifted his weight from foot to foot. ‘The rogue Elstarren assassin Penumbra was captured, my lady,’ said Indlan, although his tone conveyed that the whole story had not been told. ‘That sounds like perfectly good news to me,’ she replied.

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Indlan took in an uneasy breath. ‘As she was brought ashore, the squadron of seven legionaries escorting her were killed and the Elstarren escaped,’ he said. Elanah’s violet eyes widened, but not immediately with anger, more with disbelief. ‘Seven legionaries? She killed seven on her own?!’ ‘Difficult to say. The reports from the soldiers posted in the vantage towers in Valaninsal are…vague. I have heard on many accounts that there were others there to rescue her, and from what I have discerned, the legionaries were engaged in combat with the Elstarren and her associates and then seemed to just…drop dead.’ ‘Killed by the blades of her silly little friends?’ said Elanah. ‘No no, my lady. I am told they all dropped dead in an instant. All seven.’ Indlan sounded worried at the news he was conveying. Elanah face turned a paler shade of white. She did not say anything for a moment as she thought. ‘She’s learning,’ Elanah said quietly with some apprehension. She began to pace slowly around her room. ‘Her power to kill grows. If The Masked Child is allowed to train herself to wield her magic fully, we must find a way to contain her.’ Indlan looked confused at her words. ‘The Masked Child, my lady? Those are but stories, aren’t they?’ ‘Stories are based on truths. Penumbra has the Kaelan girl and is using her as a weapon. It is simply something we must accept. This is not pleasant to hear, especially while Kilaksan is far away. Tell me that Tairian has given us some good news.’ Indlan reached inside the folds of his council robes and produced a torn piece of parchment that was stained and dirty. It looked as if it had been left out in the rain all night. ‘This was found on the outskirts of Valaninsal, leading away from the town on the Eastern Road and towards Towaen. It does not belong to anyone from 106


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Valaninsal. We can only assume it was left behind by the perpetrators.’ ‘Give it here,’ Elanah said, snatching the tanned paper. She saw that the page was covered in black ink that displayed the layout of a large building with several grandly sized rooms outlined by their walls. Dining Room, Study, Drawing Room, Kitchen were a few of the labels displayed in the boxes. As well as this, in the bottom corner of the page was a signature. Daewen. ‘Daewen,’ Elanah said to herself as she read the name. ‘What was the first name of this cartographer? I am aware she was employed by my father for the Lordspire maps many years ago. She was insufferably cynical if I recall rightly.’ ‘I believe her name is Vorla Daewen, my lady. Her work has been credited throughout Sotania.’ ‘And this map here,’ said Elanah, gesturing with her hand at the shapes on the page, ‘what house is it showing?’ ‘I have cross-referenced it through the archives in the Spire and have found it to be the home of the Towaenian barons, Alden and Dominan.’ Elanah glanced back at the tapestry on the wall. Her eyes met her mother’s maiden name, Hillah Dominan. Indlan noticed were she was looking. ‘Your assumptions are correct, my lady. According to the records, Trican Dominan, owner of the house on this map, is the son of your mother’s twin sister, Savvah Dominan,’ said Indlan. ‘I was not aware my mother had a twin.’ ‘Nor were many people. I have found no accounts of this sister ever being present in Lordspire, or even seen in the major cities. She is even more elusive than your mother.’

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‘Do we have any councilors in the current assembly that were present during my father’s rule? Is there anyone who would have knowledge of the Dominan family? Elanah asked. Indlan thought for a moment, running a hand over his jaw. ‘I believe Councillor Maldaevan would be the only one likely to have any information on this subject. Her work in the Council of the Spire is expansive and harkens back to the early years of Lord Wensfold’s rule,’ Indlan said. He noticed that Elanah seemed disgusted. ‘Raven-Eye,’ she sneered. ‘I can summon Maldaevan if you wish, my lady,’ Indlan offered, making to move towards the door. Elanah stopped him. ‘Oh no, Indlan. That won’t be necessary. Let me dress and I will meet you in the dungeons.’ ‘The dungeons, my lady?’ ‘Yes, you heard right. Some wine wouldn’t go amiss as well. Bring me bottle of a vintage red as you make your way down.’ She took her time to meet him by the iron doors of the Spire’s dungeon. Councillor Indlan stood by the two guarding legionaries, looking away from their steel gaze and shifting his weight from foot to foot. He would not rush a member of the Wensfold family, but as the minutes ticked by, he wondered if he had misheard her or if her proposal of reconvening in the dungeons was all some kind of joke of hers. He had in one hand a bottle of fine sweet wine from the grape vines of Aldran, the best he could find in the cellar under the kitchens. On the streets of the country’s settlements, the wine would sell for an amount that would feed a peasant family through several winters. The clacking of heels alerted him that Elanah was near and soon enough she appeared from behind a pillared corner dressed in her usual display of violet silks. 108


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‘Follow me,’ she said, as if her tardy arrival was not to be questioned. ‘You two, join us.’ She snapped her fingers at the two guards who opened the heavy doors and let them inside. The clang of the metal handles against the grain echoed into the dark tunnels of the dungeons. The legionary on the right side of the entryway went in first, taking a torch from a sconce on the wall and leading the way down the many steps. Indlan had never actually been in the dungeons. The career he led as a councillor had granted him the privilege of never seeing the dark walls made of roughly hewn stones, the encompassing darkness that stretched for miles and the dank smell of blood and sweat that hung heavily in the thick air. As they made their way deeper into the caverns below the angelic Spire of Sotania, Indlan saw rows and rows of cells where a prisoner could not even stretch their arms out wide as the walls were so close together. Some contained weary skeletal figures of inmates long forgotten, while others were empty. She led him deeper, into an area where the cells no longer covered the walls like a thick coat of paint. Here, the space was taken up by rusted chains hanging from the ceiling, pillories and wooden tables with tools of torture strewn across their tops. Against the far wall of this dingy room shrouded in the shadows, was a body. Strung up by chains and with manacles clamped around their ankles, Councillor Indlan saw Raven-Eye, shackled and broken. A legend amongst her colleagues and an unopposed force in the council chambers, she had been reduced to a feeble mess of a woman, with nothing to cover her nakedness but a set of roughspun rags. Her hair was untied and unwashed, clumped and thick as it fell over her eyes. She looked up to see the newcomers, letting Indlan see the gauntness of her face, the dark circles under her eyes and the

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red bruises on her dirty cheeks. Her skin was paler than the truest Sotan Trueblood. ‘Carcella,’ Indlan breathed in shock. ‘By the Goddess, what is the meaning of this?’ He looked desperately to Elanah, who stood with a hand on her hip and a smirk on her lips. ‘Tell me, Indlan,’ said Elanah brightly, still only looking at the chained woman below her. ‘Why was Maldaevan given the nickname Raven-Eye by her colleagues?’ Indlan’s wide brown eyes flicked to her. ‘Oh, erm. It was because we used to say that Carcella could always see a problem in its entirety and know exactly how our actions would affect the overall outcome. We always said it was like she had a raven’s eye view of the situation from above,’ said Indlan. ‘That was it. Well, the raven has been a naughty girl and has had her wings clipped as a consequence. The largest cog in the machine is not always the most important. Isn’t that right, Maldaevan?’ said Elanah. Carcella only groaned and mumbled something in response. ‘Make her look at me. I do not wish to stain my dress on this dirty floor,’ Elanah said to one of the legionaries. The man grabbed Carcella by the hair and forced her head up to look. Her eyes were half-lidded and had no trace of her usual spark in them. ‘Know that it is your knowledge that’s keeping you alive,’ Elanah said, bringing her face close to Carcella’s. ‘Fraternising with the enemy is criminal enough for me to take your head, but wedding and bedding a man who has also sworn vows to our country? My word,’ Elanah put a hand over her mouth in feigned shock. ‘Not to mention you are already married to a wealthy Towaenian. I can only hope it was worth it. Let’s start with an apology, shall we? Just one little sorry for all your wrongdoings in the past and the manner in which you spoke to me in the council chambers.’ 110


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Carcella said nothing, but continued to take in labored breaths. Her eyes still looked at Elanah with the same weary contempt. ‘Make her talk,’ Elanah said quietly over her shoulder to the legionary. The man took a hold of the jailer’s baton hanging from a hook on the wall. It was length of wood wrapped in thick leather at the top, designed to inflict pain without causing any permanent damage. He struck Carcella hard across the face, before landing two more blows to her shoulders. She screamed and wailed, turning her head as best she could to protect herself from the attack. Elanah crossed her arms and watched. Indlan looked horrified. After more hits had been sent her way and with no words leaving her mouth, Elanah gestured the man to stop with a calm raise of her hand. She leant down to Carcella’s level again before furiously backhanding the woman across the cheek. She yelped as the metal rings on Elanah’s fingers broke the skin of the councillor’s face, droplets of blood dripping from a new wound. Elanah raised her hand again. ‘…sorry,’ Carcella breathed. ‘I am sorry…’ Her long mahogany hair had covered her face from view again. The blood on her cheek dribbled to the corner of her lips. Elanah paused. ‘Indeed, you are a sorry thing.’ The Wensfold daughter hit Carcella again, not quite as sharply, and spared her from the rings this time. ‘But what are you sorry for?’ Elanah gently tucked the older woman’s hair behind her ears so her face was visible fully. Carcella did not look away. ‘I am sorry that I could not have relayed more information to the Elstarren of how vile Kilaksan’s rule is, and how the little Wensfold princess is still pining over the loss of the throne promised to her by father. Lord Roban Wensfold’s sweet daughter shares the Lord’s bed like a whore and plays at leadership. I’m sure they already know by now, but I am sorry for the fact that I was not the one to 111


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inform them of how you plan to sabotage Kilaksan’s rule, how you wish to sit yourself atop a Sotania you still seem to think is yours.’ ‘The Elstarren,’ Elanah repeated. ‘You talk as if there are still nine of them. Still the three Paladins on the battlefield, the Rangers in the wilds and the Assassins in the shadows, but there are not. If I am inclined to believe you about Gaalo, then there are only two left. A silly girl playing with knives and a man whose best friend is a rabbit. Am I supposed to be afraid of that?’ ‘Gaalo’s axe will be embedded in your head before you can see the black of his tattoo.’ ‘I simply cannot wait,’ said Elanah. ‘Again.’ Elanah stepped aside to allow the legionary to strike Carcella a few more times, sending the blood on her face splattering on the ground. The woman continued to wail and scream, before her cries were caught in her throat. She coughed up a mixture of blood and phlegm at Elanah’s feet. ‘I said information was why you were still alive, Raven-Eye, so let me have some of it. Tell me about the Dominan family.’ ‘What?’ Carcella said hoarsely once she had found the strength to talk. ‘Why do you need to know anything of them? They were your mother’s family after all. What would I know of them that you do not?’ ‘I want to know what a famed councillor of the Spire knows. Hillah Dominan was my mother, she had a sister called Savvah Dominan. Savvah had a boy named Trican who went on to be a businessman in Towaen. Are you aware of all this?’ Carcella gave a weak nod. ‘The boy, Trican Dominan had a mansion on the outskirts of the city, once he was all grown up. A mansion he shared with his new lady wife, Mali Alden. The Alden-Dominan mansion it was so named. Tell me what happened to that family.’ 112


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There was a brief quiet in which the only sounds were the soft purr of the burning torches and the clink of Carcella’s chains. Carcella started laughing again, exactly in the same way she had done when she had spat in Elanah’s face about how Gaalo was still alive. It unsettled the Wensfold, more so than she would ever admit. Her hands that were resting crossed across her chest started to fidget in unease. Carcella carried on laughing. ‘Stop that,’ Elanah said as sternly as she could manage, yet the words sounded weak. ‘Stop it, I say.’ Carcella continued to guffaw and smile at her with dark eyes. ‘You foolish harlot, Wensfold. Dumb as the dirt you force me to. You never think, do you? Not back when you were Roban’s child princess dancing along the halls of the Spire, and not now while Sotania sits in your hand. Your stupidity will go down in history, woman,’ Carcella said, through her snickering. ‘Speak your meaning before I have the legionaries tear your limbs from your body!’ Elanah shrieked, seemingly forgetting the uncleanliness of the floor as she knelt down and grabbed Carcella by the rags around her neck. She gritted her pearly white teeth in anger and her violet eyes had flared. Carcella’s infuriating smile never left her face. ‘The boy was not the child of your mother’s sister. Savvah Dominan does not even exist. It was all a story to hide the Wensfold’s crimes. If only you had read more of your father’s records before you burned them. Trican Dominan was Lord Wensfold’s first child! A cripple, so your petty father hid him from the public’s eyes, stripped him of his right to the Sotan throne and orphaned him under the name Dominan!’ Elanah’s grip slackened on Carcella’s clothes. Her pretty face had begun to soften with each word the councillor spoke. Carcella continued. ‘While you were licking Kilaksan’s shoes so dutifully, 113


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you advised him to kill every last one of the families that were named as barons under your father’s reign if they did not comply with the new ruler. Kilaksan obeyed like the weak-willed craven he is and went to the Alden-Dominan mansion. He used his mindmagic to force them to take their own lives.’ Elanah let go of Carcella, her arms losing all feeling as a chill ran through her veins. ‘You had him kill your own brother Elanah!’ Carcella screamed. ~ Shefa looked her up and down from beneath her hood. Strands of platinum hair covered her amber eyes, but Karshah could see how sharply they were judging her. Pale skin, blue eyes and hair of the deepest black. Anyone could tell from a distance that Karshah was a trueblooded Sotan. She was now realising that was a dangerous thing in a country occupied by the Sotan military, where Kaelans were slaved and beaten in the streets by people that looked just like her. ‘What do you think we are going to do with her? She’s some Sotan you pulled out of the sea. Not even a tough looking one, just some undernourished peasant girl.’ ‘She can help us. Imagine how useful having a Sotan in our group would be. We’ve got no idea what it’s even like in that country, let alone how to free our own from their soldiers. If anyone’s going to know the silver men’s weaknesses, it’s going to be one of their own, right? She’s even a trueblood. Father told me the truebloods descended from the ancestors of the royal family,’ said Hyrish, gesturing at Karshah as if she was some treasure they had unlocked from its chest. ‘Anyway, speak in Sotan, Shefa. It’s rude to leave someone out of the conversation.’ 114


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‘I don’t speak it,’ she said flatly. She was still staring at Karshah with narrowed eyes. Without seeing it, Karshah could tell that the girl’s hand was wrapped around the hilt of a dagger beneath her covering. Hyrish looked confused. ‘Yes you do. You just don’t want to,’ he said. Shefa didn’t respond, but pulled her cloak tighter around her small body. ‘We learnt it when we were kids, Shefa. Everyone had to.’ ‘Fine,’ Shefa said in the Sotan tongue. What’s your name?’ she said to Karshah. Her voice was sharp, and her accent was more akin to Hyrish’s than the boy’s father. It was obviously not native to Karshah’s ears, but her speech was clear. ‘Karshah,’ she said, meeting Shefa’s treacle-coloured eyes. She kept her hands by her sides, away from her pockets. Karshah had lost the loose white robes that Odalen had given her while she healed, and was now dressed in some of Hyrish’s old clothes. They were boyish and unfitting, hiding any femininity from her form. A dark blue woollen shirt went down to her waist, held around her middle by a thick leather belt. On her legs were olive green breeches, tucked into thin leather boots. ‘Don’t give me a reason to hurt you, Karshah,’ Shefa warned. Her cloak had loosened, granting Karshah sight of a gold-hilted dagger that was tightly in her dainty grip. ‘Come on Shefa, leave her alone. I’ve already told you, she’s not with them.’ ‘Yeah, so you keep saying. You said she was a rebel fighter. A Sotan one, whatever sense that makes. Lynss isn’t going to like this one bit. You’ve told her what she’s in for, haven’t you?’ ‘Well…not really,’ said Hyrish. ‘Did you think bringing a Sotan into a Kaelan crewhouse would go down well? Derno kills the bastards on sight.’

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Karshah felt an anxious weight in her stomach with every one of the girl’s words. Stepping outside from Odalen’s hut earlier in the day, she slowly begun to see the position she was in. Cultural feuds were rampant between the Sotans and the Kaelans, and tensions had only grown since the occupation had begun. There was more than just a dislike for the legionaries amongst the Beuldani citizens while they patrolled their streets, enforced their curfews and beat those who stepped out of line. There was pure hate. She could only hope that Hyrish could convince more of the Kaelans to listen before they reached for their swords. The crew’s headquarters went immediately silent once Hyrish and Shefa entered with Karshah in tow. Several sets of Kaelan eyes were aimed her way, looks of shock, confusion and anger in their dark stares. They sat uncomfortably in their wooden chairs. There was a pause like an intake of breath. One man at the back began to speak in Kaelan, standing up and leaning on the pommel of a longsword. Before he had finished a sentence, another chimed in. A counter then came from someone else. Soon the room was a cacophony of shouts and foreign curses. Though what they were saying was not understood by Karshah, there was one word that they endlessly repeated, often accompanied by a finger pointed at her. ‘Kiraena...’ ‘Kiraena!’ ‘...kiraena!’ The man with the sword stood forward, grabbing Karshah by the arm while his hand snaked around the handle of his weapon. Hyrish became animated, speaking hurriedly and urgently at him. Shefa’s dagger emerged from beneath her cloak as she stepped in front of Karshah, forming an obstacle between them and pushing the man back with a steely glare. Many other people in the small wooden shack were getting to their feet, their expressions both fierce and 116


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confused. The raucous crew members continued to bawl and scream at her, with Hyrish and Shefa fighting them back in a slew of Kaelan words. Their arguing words were not silence until the sound of the Sotan tongue interrupted them, and the presence of a new man in the room set the others to fall back. Eyes were aimed to the door behind them. ‘A Central Dominance Sotan, no doubt,’ the deep smooth voice came behind Karshah’s ear. She turned quickly to see a new man draped in soft silken fabrics, with dark hair and eyes that held to them the wisdom of the island nation. Thick pointed cheek bones decorated with well-kept facial hair identified him as Kaelan, though the blackness of his tresses gave the impression of Sotan descent. ‘Even more so, this one is Trueblooded it would seem. The Kaelan shores have seen only a few of your kind cross over Ilidieye, but all have been clad in the plate of the Legion, soulless and without care for our people,’ the man said. He began to slide his fingers along Karshah’s thin arms, trailing them lightly up her sides until he cupped her chin. He inspected her with sharp eyes as if to measure her quality. She stiffened in his grip, but refrained from pulling away, he was obviously the one in charge here. ‘I would never wear the plate of the Legion, nor did I cross into your country willingly,’ she said. He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. He let her go and stood back. ‘Tell me boy, why have you brought a Sotan with you?’ ‘Lynss, let me explain,’ Hyrish said. ‘We found her while we were doing the mission for the gold charter. She was lying in the shallows by the shoreline just down from the Sill. She’s no soldier or legionary. She was a rebel fighter from one of the Sotan groups,’ the boy said. Lynss watched and listened carefully, exuding a level of intellect. 117


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‘Sotan groups?’ the man with the sword said. It appeared that the Kaelans had no trouble switching from Kaelan to Sotan in a heartbeat. ‘As if any kind of resistance exists in that nation to fight against their rat of a leader. If I see anything here, I see a warhost whore stowed in the ships to keep the legionaries aiming their pikes the right way. Nothing more.’ He stepped forward, brandishing his steel and raising a lip at Karshah. ‘Leave it out, Derno. Can’t you just for a moment not go harping on about how much you hate Sotans and see what this might mean for us?’ Hyrish asked, stepping not too confidently between the man and Karshah. ‘I know exactly what it means, boy. You’re trying to bring a Sotan into our halls all innocently, believing the shit this kiraena spouts. Then before we know it, there’s a Sotan dagger sticking us in our beds and that’s one more set of Kaelan fighters down. They’re getting clever these metal bastards, but I won’t fall for it.’ ‘She’s not trying to kill you, Derno. As if anyone from that country would have interest in someone like you. She’s here to help,’ Hyrish, standing towards Derno. ‘We don’t need help. Especially not from some Sotan girl. My right arse cheek has more muscle than her.’ ‘Hush Derno, before you make yourself out to be even more of a vagabond,’ said Lynss. He turned to Karshah, and for a moment she was able to study the softness of his gaze and the smoothness of his words. ‘I am Lynss Kanan, leader of this group. We fight for a better Kaelani, whichever way we can. It does not matter what I call you, for there are more pressing matters while we lead up to Kilaksan’s royal address.’ ‘Pressing matters? What’s going on, Lynss?’ asked Derno, his sword loosening in his grip. 118


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‘Gil’s ship did not make it to Pachundae,’ Lynss stated. The Kaelans fell silent as he allowed them a moment to take in the news. ‘Was the gold charter intercepted then? The Sotans have got it back?’ said Derno. ‘Never mind that,’ Shefa said. ‘Is Gil alive? Where is he?’ ‘That I have not been informed of,’ said Lynss. His stoic facial expression did not change in the slightest. ‘My information has been lacking on how events played out. While the man’s safety is most certainly of my concern, we must also consider what this means for us. If the Sotans have the charter and have any notion that we were the ones who stole it, we must disappear into the earth while it lingers in their minds. For now, we must disband.’ ‘Disband? But what about the Duchess? She’s going to be appearing alongside Kilaksan in a few hours. We need some of us there to make sure nothing bad happens,’ Hyrish said. Lynss raised his hand as soon as the boy spoke. ‘We cannot risk any of us being present at the address. We do not know what the Sotan Legion knows of us. We shall remain in hiding.’ ‘You’ve got to be making a joke here, Lynss,’ said Derno. His hard gaze went back to Karshah. ‘Some random Sotan turns up on our doorstep the same day that one of us goes missing. Too much of a coincidence to ignore. We’ve got to be there. What if Kilaksan plans to kill Faelani and seize this country? He’s got more than enough numbers to do so. You expect us to sit back and let something like that happen?’ ‘I forbid it,’ Lynss said quickly. ‘I’d advise you all to return to your homes and stay there. Keep your faces out of sight and do not approach any of the legionaries. We will reconvene in due time.’ With that, Lynss turned on his heels and left the crewhouse without

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a word. The Kaelan crewmembers were left in silence each unsure of what to do. Not quite the same ilk of a leader as Penumbra, Karshah thought to herself. The man seemed a bit of a coward. The Kaelans began to leave the room, each shooting their own glare Karshah’s way as if the whole reason for their departure lay on her shoulders. She did not look at them as they walked past. ‘I’m sorry. They can be a bit like that,’ Hyrish said to her with a nervous shrug of his shoulders. ‘I thought this would involve a bit more than it did,’ Karshah said, looking around at the now empty crew house. ‘Resistance in Kaelani’s a bit of a new thing,’ Hyrish said, slinging his sword on his shoulder and making for the door. ‘We’re not very organised really.’ ‘The occupation’s only been going on for a few years. We spent most of the first months hiding in our beds,’ Shefa said. She had relaxed and slipped her dagger back into the sheath under her cloak. The short girl led the way out and back into the clear night. The height of summer was yet to come, but the night was still warm and without a cloud in the starry sky as Karshah stepped beyond the threshold. ‘Things will only continue as they are if no one acts,’ Karshah said. ‘The isles will remain in the hands of the legionaries and they will keep taking more and more from your people.’ ‘So what do you suggest?’ ‘Kilaksan will make his address alongside your ruler that every Kaelan loves with all their heart. We have to be there. Forget whatever Lynss says, I would not leave her to a public appearance at the hands of a scoundrel like Kilaksan. Like you said Hyrish, some resistance needs to be there, to be ready if anything happens.’ 120


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‘You think we should sneak into the public address? With you looking like that we’d be spotted in no time. Like Lynss said, how many Trueblooded Sotans do you see walking around here? We’d have to cover you.’ ‘Then we’ll do that.’ Hyrish’s dark eyes searched her face and found that even though her words had been firm, she seemed rather trepid. ‘Are you sure about this?’ he asked Karshah, stepping up to her. ‘Not at all,’ she said without a thought. ‘But for some reason, I’ve ended up in your country at a time when it needs to show its resolve. I’m going to muster whatever courage I have left.’

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THE DUCHESS This beautiful house, the land I sow and all my successful years doing business in Towaen are not my own. My possessions, my wife, my daughter, all belong to the Sotan Lord. The man who I am supposed to call my father, Roban Wensfold. The day that his secret is discovered, the day that I am discovered, will be the moment I lose everything. When the council become aware that Elanah is not the true heir to the Sotan throne, they will shame the name I never had, and I will become nothing. (Dominan, 5th Kae’Shan 66)

T

he tunnels of the Rangers were hidden within the wilderness. By the time Gaalo and Laen had reached the northern den, the aches in the Spireman’s legs had devolved into a constant throbbing pain. His ankles had swollen in the unfitting boots he’d found back at the Elsworne’s mansion, and the skin was rubbed raw from the endless trek he was being dragged through. The heat was increasing as they made further ground from the Selian region and back into the south. Laen felt the sweat start to form on his brow as they walked, and the sun soon became visible amongst the smoky skies of grey clouds. Summer was not a season the northerners had heard it seemed, yet the south remembered it well and the heat was a welcome change from the chill of ice and snow. 122


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Gaalo was far ahead as they made their way through the thickets down from Raenhall and towards the rocks of the Ayven. Laen struggled to find the energy to keep stepping over stones and tree roots, to put one foot in front of the other and keep making progress on their journey. The day can only last as long as the sun takes to cross the sky, he told himself. The thought of a warm meal and a comfortable bed for the night spurred him on, but he knew until he made it back to the Elsworne’s headquarters, those thoughts remained as wishful dreams. He focused his vision on Gaalo’s green overcoat, although the man seemed to camouflage himself against the waving greenery with every step. The twilight sun of the summer’s evening shone an orange glow over him, yet the Ranger appeared like a gust of wind in the grasses of the vale, an elusive entity passing through the wilds without a sound. The Elstarren were truly more than just highly trained individuals, they were one with their respected territories and Gaalo knew the lay of the land better than anyone. When Laen finally saw that Gaalo had stopped, and the possibility of making camp for the night kissed at his sores, he trudged the final distance over to him. Gaalo was knelt low to the ground as Laen approached and when he neared, he could hear that the man was speaking in a low voice, gentle and soft compared to the Ranger’s usual gruff tone. He appeared to be talking to himself, or perhaps the earth, but as Laen came within a step of Gaalo’s knelt form, he was surprised to see that sat quite happily in front of the Elstarren was a large hare. The small animal had long ears that were cocked with interest at whatever Gaalo was saying, and round orange eyes that watched him lovingly like a child looking to their father. It listened to him with intent and snuffled as it saw Laen come into view. The hare quickly bounded with its large feet to sit atop Gaalo’s shoulder and 123


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hide behind his head. Gaalo stood straight and turned to meet Laen as he approached. ‘Is it a normal occurrence for you to have a rabbit on your shoulder?’ Laen noted with bemused nod of his head. Gaalo offered a gentle stroke to the hare’s ruffled brown fur coat as it squeaked at Laen. ‘She is a hare. Her name is Beatrix,’ said Gaalo. ‘A pet of yours? Or do you just give names to all the animals you encounter out here?’ ‘Beatrix is a companion of the Elstarren. She is as much a part of this group as I and the other Rangers are.’ Beatrix continued to study Laen with a tilt of her head and walked along Gaalo’s shoulders before hopping off and bounding over to Laen’s feet. ‘Beatrix tells me Penumbra is missing,’ Gaalo said watching the animal inspect the new human. Laen watched the animal who was looking up at him with wide eyes, sitting up on her thin back legs. He wasn’t sure whether to stroke her or back away. ‘Tells you? How in this world does a hare tell you things? I mean not to offend you Beatrix, I’m sure you’re capable of a great many things,’ said Laen to the hare, who only watched and continued to snuffle. ‘You are quite comfortable speaking to her like that, yet won’t believe she might talk back,’ the Ranger said dismissively. Gaalo turned and began to walk to the boulders that lay in the earth marking the beginning of the rock fields of the Ayven. Noticing his movements, Beatrix hopped her way back to his side. ‘The tunnels of the Rangers lie beneath us,’ Gaalo said, tapping the soil with his boot. He stalked close to the ground, listening closely for the hint of a hollowness in the earth. Beatrix had moved a few yards to the 124


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north, sitting up in a patch of thick grass and making a strange snorting sound. ‘Think she knows where it is,’ Laen nodded to the hare, casually watching the animal’s odd behaviour. Although he did not often encounter animals like hares in the streets of Lordspire, he knew enough about them to know that Beatrix was far more trained than any wild beast. Reaching her position, Gaalo knelt low and tugged the grasses from the mud and pulled the undergrowth up. Underneath, wood planks became revealed in amongst dirt and clay and covered with a layer of greenery. With a brush of the remaining mud aside, a trap door became clear which Gaalo yanked open to reveal the darkness of a tunnel below. As Laen dropped down to follow Gaalo into the dark, his nose was met the musky scent of charred wood and dust. His vision blurred from the change of lighting and for a moment he remained in the spot of sunlight that gleamed in from the hole in the earth above his head. What the trapdoor led to was a hollowed out section of rock underneath the Ayven, the inside hewn from the stone and constructed to form a dwelling for the Rangers. Completely hidden from the world above, the Elstarren could do their duty to the wilds from within the soil itself. Gaalo had wandered into the central cavernous room, still with Beatrix happily sitting atop his shoulder. From there, thin tunnels sprouted off like tree roots down different pathways. Laen quickly decided he would stay close to Gaalo. From a glance, Laen could tell the tunnels were a place the uninformed would easily get lost in and he did not care to be stuck between two rock walls no more than a shoulder’s width apart without a guide. The central open room was decorated in black and white tapestries on the walls, all displaying the same eye design Laen had 125


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seen on the chest of the owl on Penumbra’s message, but here the eye was placed inside the silhouette of a hare. Two swords were hooked by their handles into the stone of the wall, displayed like trophies. The right one was sleek in its design and gentle in the curve of its blade, while the left was heftier and honed from more solid steel. An idol to Loessiah sat underneath the fabric insignia and between the swords, carved from gold and displaying the usual pose the goddess was often presented in, covering her eyes with her hands while tears fell down her delicate cheeks. Gaalo had knelt to allow Beatrix to hop back to the floor. He stood up straight and reached with his hand. At first, Laen assumed he was going to pull the swords from their hooks, but to his surprise, the Elstarren purposely allowed the tips of the two blades to nick the skin of his outstretched hands. Blood dripped from the pierced fingers, yet the man seemed to care not for the pain. He wiped the blood with a rag from his coat and allowed it to clot. After travelling for several days with the man, Laen had slowly decided not to question the odd behaviour the Ranger showed. ‘Are these your swords?’ Laen asked, keeping his voice low as the caverns seemed to amplify any sound he made. ‘No,’ Gaalo said, even quieter than him. The roughness of his voice had seeped into a tone laced with sorrow, and when the Ranger turned, his tired eyes were forlorn and downcast. ‘They belonged to my brothers. I am the last of the three Rangers.’ ‘Who were the other two?’ Laen asked, stepping to Gaalo’s side to inspect the swords more closely. For once, Gaalo did not seem to disapprove of Laen being near him. He ran a leathery hand along the side of the more elegant blade. ‘This one was Kaolo’s. Dedicated and loyal he was. He would only reach for his sword as a last resort. He spent many nights reading Loessiah’s teachings and lived by the code of the Elstarren 126


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in everything he did. If it had not been so that I was given leadership of the Rangers, Kaolo would have been the most suited to the role.’ Gaalo walked to Laen’s other side where the thicker blade hung. Its handle was butted with a large pommel of black obsidian and looked heavier than any of the boulders that littered the fields of the Ayven. ‘This was Kosmo’s. A giant of a man with the strength of a mountain. He would happily pull this sword from his back and crush an enemy into dust.’ Gaalo gave a melancholic chuckle, the first sound of laughter that Laen had ever heard from him. ‘A brute of a man, but filled with the wisdom and sagacity of the wilds. He helped me to see the errors of my leadership and gave strength to my arms when I had none left to give.’ ‘They died?’ Laen approached the subject with caution. Gaalo gave a slow nod. ‘I did not see what they did to Kosmo, but I would like to believe it took the entire might of the Legion to bring him down. Kaolo on the other hand, I saw what fate befell him. The scoundrel’s High Commander and the plaything of the witch, Elanah. Have you heard of High Commander Vir, Laen?’ Laen thought of the hulking soldier named Vir, the sharp contours of his helm and the plume of red that fell down the crimson cloak on his back. ‘Yes, I’ve seen him. He led the raid on Warrenvel while I was recovering there. I hadn’t seen him before that, but had heard the stories in Lordspire. How he carried a blade more like a butcher’s saw than the tool of a knight.’ ‘Aye,’ Gaalo said. ‘It was that same toothed blade of his that tore Kaolo to pieces in front of my eyes. We had heard word that the Legion were marching on the town of Hylasah in the south. Commander Vir was heading the charge. We decided to intervene as the townspeople rose up alongside us. I could see Kaolo engaged with the commander from a distance. He was light on his feet, my 127


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Elstarren brother. I assumed that his speed and agility would be enough to stick his opponent before that serrated blade could touch him. It was not until I ran to aid my brother that I saw the blade graze his stomach. The serrates bit into his skin and the sword became lodged in him. I saw that man Vir wrench the blade from Kaolo and tear him in two. The earth drank his blood and once the conflict had finished I burnt the pieces that remained of my brother on a pyre.’ ‘Do you want revenge on Vir what he did to Kaolo?’ Gaalo thought for a moment. ‘No. I am strong enough not to allow a plot of revenge be my guide. That is for someone like Penumbra to follow. But if my path crosses again with Commander Vir, I will be sure to give him my regards for what he did.’ Laen listened, but was eager to ask Gaalo a question that had been plaguing his mind throughout the long trek through the wilderness down from the north. ‘Will you come back with me and meet with Penumbra?’ Laen asked. Gaalo turned and met Laen’s eyes. Behind the black of his tattoo, Gaalo gave a scowl. ‘I said I would lead you to the Crow, protect you while you delivered her message and then escort you back from the north. On the morrow, I intended to send you on your own way.’ ‘So is that a no?’ ‘I do not have any interest in whatever rebellion she is dreaming. It is not of our duty or concern. She may as well be rogue.’ ‘I’m sure she would want to see you. Just for assurance if nothing else. She believes you all died, that she’s the only one left.’ ‘From what I have heard, she seems to enjoy that notion.’

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‘How could that be so? She longs for company, that’s obvious even to me. Did you not swear to protect each other? You are both Elstarren after all.’ ‘Again you try and speak of things without knowledge. You’ll be dead before you find your daughter speaking like that, Spireman.’ ‘How do you know about Aerica?’ ‘An Elstarri knows many things. Keep your mouth shut if you want to cover your back. But as things are, you are not far from the truth. I will go with you, exchange words with the assassin and then I will leave. I am not part of your goal.’ ~ The Sotan Lord and the Duchess of Kaelani met at dusk on the second day of his visit. Set in the shadow of Beuldani’s peak, the Sotan Legion had constructed their crimson pavilions across the empty fields that spanned the western side of the Fifth Kaelan. Though the island was mountainous all over, there were many flat areas that had been cultivated into crop fields. No longer did they promise a harvest for the Kaelans, as their soil only bore the stains of booted footfalls and the ash of military firepits. Dandran Kilaksan stood in the doorway of the largest infantry tent, the one that had been made plush and comfortable for the Lord himself. His attire mainly involved a sable black overcoat that had been trimmed in red and gold with the Sotan crest embroidered on the breast, worn over his usual shirt and dark breeches. While he had insisted to his servants that his clothes were not to reflect military power or have him armoured in any way, he had been given a regaler version of the cloaks worn by the legionaries to hang down his back. Commander Vir was posted to his side, the huge man was clad as always in gleaming plate steel, his signature toothed blade by his 129


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side. Countless other legionaries had joined the Lord’s convoy and were posted around the campsite. The royal head of the Faelani family approached with an entourage of six of her Kaatani royal guards. The Kaatani were Kaelani’s only military elite, highly trained in the secluded mountains of the Fifth and only allowed to serve the Duchess after graduating from several gruelling trials. The six men wore black suits of light armour, well-kept and maintained with a sash of azure fabric over their right shoulders and tied to the belts that their katanas were sheathed into. Unlike the Sotans, their helmets granted view of their tanned faces and were rounded with a trio of cerulean feathers attached to the left temple. Dandran watched as she approached, her guards holding their formation while the tails of her pink robes fluttered in the wind. Duchess Palyys Faelani was exotically beautiful far beyond even the noblest women Dandran encountered in the streets of Lordspire. With sharp cheekbones and elegant eyes, Faelani walked delicate steps that did not disturb the ground as she made her way towards the Sotan Lord. Her face had been painted with blue lines like leaves that swirled from the corners of her dark eyes. As she stopped only a few feet away from him and his commander, Faelani’s guards clicked their heels and stood upright. ‘Duchess, it is an honour,’ Dandran said with practiced politeness. He gave a simple bow and extended a palm for her to allow him to kiss her hand. He skin was soft in keeping with her youthful appearance. Though Dandran was not aware exactly of her age, he could only assume she had just entered womanhood. ‘Lord Kilaksan,’ she said gently but with mastery in her words. ‘It is a pleasure once again to welcome a Sotan ruler to our isles. Kaelani greets you, as does the spirit of Beuldani that dwells in the 130


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mountain. I am sorry to hear of your difficulties in your crossing of Ilidieye. I fear our nations do not see eye to eye as they once did.’ ‘That is precisely why we have come together, Duchess. Sotania and the Kaelan Isles have shared a great alliance throughout the rule of the Wensfold family, it would be a shame to see it decay. Come, let us mark our meeting on your country’s soil with tradition.’ Dandran stood aside and waved his hand to allow her entry into his tent. Commander Vir moved to join the two rulers inside, but was stopped by a raised hand of the Sotan Lord. ‘One guard from each country will hold the door. Stay outside. No one comes in.’ Faelani gestured for one of her Kaatani to stand by the right side of the fabric door, while Commander Vir took the left. She stepped inside. Lord Kilaksan and Duchess Faelani sat across from one another over a small table. The Lord’s tent was carpeted in rugs to cover the grass, and the room was filled with wooden furniture. ‘May I call you Palyys?’ Dandran asked, setting a small porcelain cup of rose tea in front of her. She sat with her hands in her lap, her posture straight and her eyes forward. ‘You may while we are here. The Kaelans would see you address me properly once the public ceremony has begun. You must realise Kilaksan of how your presence here has upset the balance of our nation,’ she said. Her voice had lost the kind politeness he’d heard in their meeting now that they were alone. She was beginning to assert the rules of her country. ‘I am aware. I would not have made the journey though if I thought I would be in too much danger. I have my infantry by my side, too many for your citizens to fight and the Kaelan military is no match for us. That much became obvious when the occupation began.’

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‘I was hoping that perhaps the reason for your visit was to negotiate terms under which the Kaelan Isles do not have to live with legionaries patrolling the streets, beating our elderly and enforcing their rules onto us. Perhaps I was wrong to dream.’ ‘That is not why I have come, no. Sotania will remain in control of the Kaelan Isles. You should be thankful that I have allowed you to continue your rule.’ Palyys tutted. ‘You pretend your temperament is of a tyrant Kilaksan, though it appears to me it is more like a spoilt child,’ Faelani said harshly with a dismissive flick of her delicate hands. She did not touch the small cup of tea in front of her. Dandran studied her from where he stood, unsure of whether her hard words came from confidence or hate. ‘Must we fight?’ he asked softly, though his tone did not sound genuine. She scowled at him, adjusting the silken purple robes on her slight form and the silver diadem on her head. ‘No. Why would I start a fight I had no chance of winning? But the least I can do for my people is pray to the Lord of the country enslaving them to be merciful. Every day they live in fear of your soldiers. I must remain strong during this meeting for them ever to find hope in me.’ ‘Perhaps we share more in common than we first thought, Palyys,’ said Dandran, coming back to sit at the table. He took a sip of the tea in front of him, finding it still rather hot. The Kaelans were very fond of their floral and herbal teas. It was not something the Sotans showed any real interest in. There was more a desire for alcohol than flavoured hot water. Nonetheless, the rose tea was sweet and pungent. He hoped him drinking would entice the Duchess to take a sip from her own cup. She looked confused at his words, lines appearing on the smoothness of her brow and her arms folding tightly in her garb. 132


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‘What similarities could we possibly share? I would not see my guards harm anyone unless it was necessary, and I encourage my people to lead quiet lives free from prejudice and hostility. You on the other hand seem to be quite the opposite.’ ‘Not in our ways of leadership, I grant you we are not at all similar. More of the position we find ourselves in at this current moment. We are both the only remaining members of our houses, thrust into the public’s eye as a ruler to be worshipped. We are both on our own, Duchess,’ said Dandran. ‘The weight of a nation is more than one soul can take.’ Palyys’ beautiful features were struck with confusion as Dandran spoke. She seemed to find his words unnerving, as if he had peered into the darker corners of her mind where he was unwelcome. ‘What do you mean? I was given the throne, I did not seize it,’ she said eventually. Her hands began to fidget with the porcelain cup in front of her, the tea inside still yet to be tasted. ‘You’ve lost your family. The name Faelani now lies only with you. Isn’t an heir overdue?’ She stood briskly, almost knocking the table to the rugged floor of the tent. ‘Watch your tongue, usurper!’ she said in a raised voice from behind gritted teeth. Her face had flushed with colour, tainting the sleek tan of her skin with red. ‘Do not forget you are in my country. I have welcomed you here in good faith!’ Dandran did not move or flinch from her outburst. He studied her, finding her aggression to be more akin to a child having a tantrum. Duchess Faelani, while revered like a goddess by her people, was more like a spoilt princess to him at that moment. ‘I just mean to say our ruling is a burden without the support of our families. We were nothing and alone. Now we have become something and still remain alone. Change does not make us happy,’ Dandran said from his seat. Palyys continued to fume as she 133


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watched him and his calm demeanour, but slowly her breathing became more controlled as she listened. ‘You were an orphan, were you not?’ she asked. The gentle polite tone that Dandran had heard in their first meeting had returned. He felt a warm flush hit his cheeks as she spoke. ‘You were brought up in the Western Capital of Pelise without parents. How far you have come, Kilaksan. The orphanages must have done something right for you to end up as Lord-’ Dandran stood up briskly and raised a hand in her direction. His grey eyes smouldered with a smoky fire and immediately she became still and silent. The Duchess’ body became rigid and straight and she looked straight ahead without seeing anything in particular. Her slender arms fell to her sides, unravelling themselves from the purple silks of her robes. ‘This visit is to enforce your place, Duchess. Your hate is not to be directed at me as I am not the one enslaving your country. I am just the man that will soak up the blame. A face for people to throw insults at. I cannot control your people, but I will control you. You thoughts will stay out of my past.’ Dandran gave a gesture with his arm to the door of the tent. The flare of his smoky eyes died down and Palyys regained her mind. She seemed to wake as if from a dream and saw Dandran stood in front of her, a calm smile on his face and his arm outstretched. He felt the visions she had brought of his past dissolve into mist at the back of his mind. ‘A stage has been erected for our address alongside each other, Duchess. The people of your country have been invited to view it. Shall we go?’ ~

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The crowds were gathering around the outskirts of the Beuldani marketplace. In the shadow of the mountain, the Kaelan people moved collectively to view their Duchess speak alongside the Sotan Lord. Amongst them, with hoods up and swords hidden beneath their cloaks, were Hyrish, Karshah and Shefa. While the two Kaelan teenagers kept their faces hidden from view for the sake of remaining unrecognised by their countrymen or crewmembers, Karshah’s covering was far more thorough. Her raven hair was completely enclosed in the hood of an overcoat she wore over the top of Hyrish’s old clothes and a large sash was tied around her neck to keep her pale skin hidden as best they could. Her sapphire eyes were the only part of her that remained visible, more for practicality’s sake and so Karshah decided to keep her gaze mainly aimed to the floor. ‘Might want to take this in case things get out of hand,’ Hyrish whispered to her as they walked, though his voice was muffled by his attire and drowned by the crowd. She felt his hand pass her the hilt of the smaller of the two blades he normally wore on his back. ‘Why do people insist on handing me swords?’ she said, more to herself than him. ‘You’ll be glad I did if anything happens.’ She wasn’t given time to consider his words as the crowd continued to move her forwards. The eyes of tanned skinned Kaelans were watching her, and she worried that maybe something had given her away. She soon had another thought that perhaps they just looked rather odd wearing full covering and hoods up in the height of summer time. Many of the men wore nothing on their upper bodies in the heat, and were lean and muscled. Even those that lived lives of poverty seemed to keep themselves in good shape. The women were dressed in long cloth dresses, cheaply made, with loose hoods to keep the sun from their eyes. 135


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As they neared the edge of the Beuldani marketplace where the address was set to take place, legionaries became a more frequent sight. Many were patrolling the streets, standing as sentinels in the tops of the larger buildings and some were simply positioned around the perimeter of the event. Karshah caught glimpses of Kaelans being roughly pushed away if any tried to get past the metal figures. Any further defiance was met with beatings. ‘Stay close,’ she heard Hyrish say. His voice was kept low from the risk of speaking in the Sotan tongue while surrounded by Kaelans. She kept to his side and found comfort in his interest in looking after her. As they continued onwards, the land opened out into a large space with none of the thatched huts or mud buildings seen in the more densely populated areas of the city. A large wooden structure had been constructed as the land sloped towards the beach, creating a stage for the address to take place upon. A line of legionaries acted as a wall to stop the crowd from pushing too close to the rulers while they gave their speeches. Behind the stage, the waves of Ilidieye crashed endlessly against jagged rocks honed by the sea. The stage was decorated with the flag of the Kaelan Isles on the left side, the fabric a royal blue and displaying a white emblem of two hands desperate to lace their fingers. On the right side, a crimson flag showed a sharp black design with a central pointed shape to represent the Spire of Sotania. ‘Kilaksan isn’t here yet,’ Karshah noted, eyes darting through the crowd trying to spot a convoy of legionaries that might be acting as his escort. ‘Nor the Duchess,’ Shefa added. ‘Maybe they’re arriving together,’ said Hyrish. Members of the crowd of Kaelans began to shout and chant at the empty stage like theatre-goers who had paid for a show. But their 136


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voices were not just impatient, there was hate and anger in their tones. The Kaelans draped in their island cloths shuffled irritably amongst themselves, the more rowdy and aggressive pushing their way to the front. Legionaries started to close in. Karshah counted ten of the armour-plated men along the front of the stage and at least another twenty holding the perimeter of the crowd. ‘There aren’t as many as I thought,’ Karshah said. The two Kaelan teenagers looked at her with confusion. ‘There’s still a lot of them though,’ said Hyrish. ‘You think this isn’t that many?’ ‘The ports of Sotania have at least double this amount guarding them. Trust me, it’s the reason I ended up here in the first place.’ Hyrish glanced around at the Sotan military. Slowly, their formation was advancing. ‘We’re being closed in on,’ she said to Hyrish, tugging on his sleeve. She saw him look around, his brown eyes noting each of the legionaries in turn. ‘They want to make sure if anything happens, no one’s getting away,’ he replied. Shefa looked uneasy and tugged her large hood further over her eyes. The nerves that had settled in Karshah’s stomach were beginning to well up into anxiety. Commotion erupted at the front of the horde of people, jeers and shouts aimed at the stage. Several more legionaries filtered out onto the stage, standing beside the banner of Sotania. On the other side, the few Kaatani soldiers that were present stood under the emblem of the Kaelan Isles. ‘At least she’s brought some Kaatani with her,’ said Shefa. ‘Even if there’s about ten legionaries to every one of them.’ ‘Who are the Kaatani?’ Karshah asked, interested in the black armoured men, accented in azure.

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‘Our royal guards. Probably far more trained that any of your silver men. I bet one of those Kaatani could take down all those legionaries if they don’t get swarmed,’ said Shefa. The stage was flooded with armed men of both countries as the two rulers emerged side by side like a bride and groom. Karshah had never truly seen Lord Kilaksan of Sotania in the flesh. She had caught a glimpse of the man during the assault on Valaninsal, yet found him even less impressive than the stories told. Kilaksan appeared like a man wearing someone else’s clothes who did not fit into the situation that he found himself in. All the words Penumbra had used to describe him were ringing true. He appeared lousy and tired, an old man with an army to play with. Duchess Faelani on the other hand, looked positively radiant in the fading light of the summer’s eve. A beautiful young woman with her hands laced in front of her and her head aimed up to look upon the faces of the crowd. The sight of their beloved ruler alongside the scoundrel had set the crowd back into a roar. Legionaries were poised to intervene as curses of screams were aimed at Kilaksan. The Lord seemed unphased, but his smoky eyes would flick to his soldiers whenever the citizens tried to move forward. ‘People of the Fifth Kaelan and the last colonies of Kaelani,’ Kilaksan began. The crowd seemed to refuse to listen and continued to shout foreign insults his way. He struggled to continue over the roar of their voices, but spoke nonetheless. ‘Sotania’s place within the Kaelan Isles is not born from hate nor a desire to control your citizens as our own. It comes from the love of the crimson banner, to bring you into a modern world that has been woven by the Sotan throne. We are here to progress your country forward, to make your economy thrive so your children can live in a freedom unknown to their parents. While the white face of the Sotan may appear as the 138


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enemy to your eyes, you must see that we are not your foe. Sotania will not steal Kaelani from the world, it will only allow it to grow.’ Not steal it? So what about all the land taken from Tairia, the Selians and the other Kaelan colonies? Karshah thought to herself. Sotania wants them living under their name, under their banner. That isn’t freedom. The crowd did not take well to the words of the Sotan ruler. While screams and cries were bellowed from the men and women, others decided that the only offense lay in attack. They pushed and shoved towards the stage, their hate only quelled once they came within a few steps of the legionaries lining the crowd. Karshah found herself almost trampled by the moving waves of the mob, but Hyrish’s hand on her shoulder kept her upright. She glanced at him, noticing the worry on what she could see on his young face. He continued to scan the area, the leather handle of his concealed sword primed in his grip. Karshah’s hand fell to her own blade. ‘As I stand before you with the Duchess of your nation by my side, I hope to promote a better relationship between our two countries,’ Kilaksan continued his speech, though his voice was beginning to falter with the aggression he was receiving. Faelani looked just as uncomfortable, although the young Duchess was keeping her back straight and her hands together. ‘Loessiah’s world will remain strong if we stand as one,’ said Kilaksan. A rock was thrown. It clattered across the wood of the stage, narrowly missing Kilaksan’s feet as no target was met. There was a moment where the air was thick and the cries lost their volume. The legionaries took formation.

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Silver men closed in on the crowd, their weapons falling from their sides to aim at the Kaelans caught in their surround. Screams rang from women and children began to cry. The men of the Kaelan Isles stood their ground as the legionaries took steps forward, reducing the space the crowd were allowed. Karshah felt the throng around her close in, until people were standing on her heels and pressing into her back. The heat rose in the summer climate as the scent of sweat permeated the humid air. The dust on the ground was dry and hard, but the few pebbles and stones that littered the dusty streets of Beuldani were all the Kaelans had to fight back. Projectiles of hard rock and mud began to soar through the air like many trebuchets unleashing their shots upon a target. The clang of stone meeting steel was heard whenever the armour of a legionary was met with the pelting rocks. No command was given to them, so they remained still like metal sentinels. When a protester dared to push past the line of soldiers, they were met with a hard bludgeoning by the butt of a weapon, sending them to the floor. ‘Stay close,’ Karshah heard Hyrish say with command, though his voice was lost amongst the ruckus. She did not know where Shefa had gone. A rock hit a legionary square into his helm and the armoured man fell to the floor. Immediately as their formation became broken with a lost member of their squad, the more aggressive of the Kaelan crowd swarmed on the fallen man, seizing his weapons and tearing his armour. A shout came from the stage and Duchess Faelani’s shrill scream cut through the air as the body was trampled and picked apart like animals to a carcass. The rest of the armoured men did not wait for further instructions. Swords were drawn, pikes were thrust forward to meet the softness of unprotected flesh. 140


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At the sound of steel, Karshah drew the sword by her side. Hyrish followed suit and gave her a worried look as the legionaries began to advance through the crowd. Karshah looked to the stage to see that Kilaksan was being escorted away by his officials, while Duchess Faelani seemed to be contained by legionaries engaging in combat with her Kaatani. ‘We need to get to the Duchess,’ Karshah cried to Hyrish, ducking to narrowly avoid a rock in the air. She did not wait for his response, but felt him behind her as she pushed on through the crowd in the direction of the wooden stage. She threw aside her politeness and reserve, and shoved through the hordes of angry people. A forest of limbs and bodies met her as her covering slipped from her head. Black hair seeped out as her hood came away, joined by the deathly white skin that was now open to the Kaelan sun. The people noticed, there was no doubt in her panicked mind about that. They saw who she was, and the sword in her hand, but their moments of confusion were enough for her to press on through in the direction of the stage. She looked up to see a pike be thrust through the neck of a Kaatani. A spray of red tainted the deep azure of his armour’s accents. While the Kaelan warriors were faring well against the Sotan Legion, they were still only six against the uncountable numbers of the legionaries. The stage and the soil were starting to taste blood. The silver men advanced on the young Duchess. One took her in a gauntleted hand, causing her to scream again as she was pulled away from the front of the wooden platform. Karshah ran up the few stairs that led onto the stage with sword in hand, finding no resistance as the legionaries were occupied with the riots. No second thoughts crossed her mind as she swung Hyrish’s blade in an arc at the legionary, catching him where only 141


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thin chain covered his knee. Blood dribbled from between the metal rings and the man lost his grip on the pike in his hand. He still clutched at Faelani but had fallen to one knee where his injuries had incapacitated him. With all the strength she remembered from fighting in Valaninsal, the legionary shoved her hard in the stomach, knocking the air from her lungs and sending her sprawling to the hard plank floor. Before she could rub some life back into her aching limbs, another Sotan solider was on her and pressing the flat of his pike to keep her pinned to the ground. Her breathing was cut off from the steel and she instinctively gripped the weapon, wincing and giving a strained yelp as her hand was cut by the curve of its blade. While she pawed and grabbed at the weapon at her neck, she was met with another splatter of crimson. The pike went slack. Hyrish’s blade was embedded beneath the legionary’s chest plate, cutting through the under armour and piercing the heart. The boy stood behind the armoured man, eyes wide and his shaky grip on the sword turning his knuckles white. Karshah saw the rush of emotion and adrenaline on his face as he slipped the sword out, looking upon the slick red stains on the edge with horrid fascination. She hauled herself to her feet, seizing the short-sword by the handle and delivering one decisive strike to the wounded legionary who still gripped the Kaelan ruler. He released her, and the Duchess swung her silks around her body with tears in her dark eyes. ‘Sotan!’ she shouted at Karshah with an accusatory point of her finger. ‘Kiraena!’ ‘That’s right,’ Karshah said through her laboured breaths. She pulled her hood back up, slipping the strands of her black hair out of sight. ‘I suggest you take whatever is left of your guards and run before you meet anymore.’ 142


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With that, she left the Duchess and ran to Hyrish. He still appeared in a state of shock, staring into the glint of his blade and the red drops that fell from it. She grabbed him roughly and took off away from the stage and in the direction of the main town. The riots were continuing even further off into the Beuldani marketplace. Legionaries beat Kaelans into submission with no care for age or innocence. Order had to be maintained. ‘Where’s Shefa?’ Hyrish asked as Karshah pulled him along, pushing past those who were running. ‘No idea. Let’s worry about that once we’re out of here,’ she said, looking for the dirt track that led away from the main marketplace and towards the shoreline. Odalen’s hut was the only safe place to run to in her mind, but she had little idea of where it was on the island. ‘I killed him Karshah, that legionary,’ Hyrish began to bawl in her grip. ‘The Duchess saw it.’ Karshah didn’t respond as images of the legionary she stuck with the broken blade in the harbour of Valaninsal began to flash in her mind. Hyrish was even younger than her. ‘Where’s your father’s hut?’ Karshah said, letting go of him and looking up and down. They had wandered into an alleyway, perhaps in search for a place to be out of sight in case any passing legionaries saw them on their way to the centre of the riots. In the air, the screams and cries continued with the odd shrill of grinding steel. ‘That way,’ Hyrish said with a point down to the other end of the alley where a beam of sunlight indicated a way out. Karshah took off in the direction, with Hyrish stumbling behind. The more built-up areas of the Kaelan capital—where industry had been invested in—consisted of only a few stone buildings,

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whereas the outskirts that bordered the shorelines and coves where only peppered with wooden huts. With another turn, Karshah recognised more of her surroundings. The sea became audible over the distant cries, and her boots met sand instead of stone. Odalen’s hut was even more far removed than the others on the coast, and with Hyrish trailing behind they made it to the old man’s home. While they were indeed seeking him for aid and comfort, they did not expect to see racing out at first sight of them. ‘Hyrish, get inside! What in Beuldani’s name do you think you are doing? In, now!’ Odalen said as he hobbled to them. He took a hold of his son by his collar like a stray cat and pulled him into the hut. He turned to Karshah and glared at her with his milky eyes. ‘You’ve outstayed your welcome here, Sotan. An ill omen from the sea that I was a fool to let into my home,’ he said, with all the care and compassion gone from his elderly voice. ‘This is how you repay the kindness I have shown? To take my son and thrust him into the war with your people. I don’t care whether you fight for them or against them, you will not come between what remains of my family. Go, leave! You are not welcome in this house anymore.’ Karshah felt the heat rise in her cheeks as the man shouted at her and pointed with a gnarled finger. Dirt and blood covered her face, but soon the trails of warm tears made streaks down her pale skin. Odalen turned and pulled closed the wooden door of his hut tightly, as if to ward off the threat he seemed to believe she posed. Not welcome in this house. She turned, but found her legs did not agree with her mind in taking her far away from this place. Falling to the floor with a stumble, she curled up on the Kaelan’s doorstep and wept to the sunset as the night closed in. 144


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WIND OVER THE SEA ‘Why must I learn to carry a sword?’ she said to me to today after her training with the Spire officials. My daughter looked to me with green eyes of innocence and purity, confused as to why I was allowing her to hold a tool of death and pain. I see visions of her later in life now more frequently, blood on her hands and deadly in her control over the weapons I gave her. For now I must respect her youth, while still holding to the duty we agreed. Lord Wensfold’s shadow looms over us all. (Alden, 12th Nal’Loess 75)

F

ires were burning in the north, sending tongues of flame against the night sky in Kaelani. The stars had vanished under a veil of smoke, and the calm of the dark hours was lost in the distant cries of rioting Kaelans and the shrill clang of meeting steel. The riots of Beuldani after the royal address continued long after Karshah and Hyrish had fled them. Karshah curled herself up on the small porch outside Odalen’s hut, stricken with his hard words and lost without his home to go back to. Hard slabs of stone made up the path to the door, with a small overhanging shelter of twined thin branches keeping the area covered. Her hands were tucked around her knees, fiddling anxiously with the leather of the boots she had been given. The tears had soon run dry from her sapphire eyes, and the streaks down her 145


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pale cheeks had all but disappeared. There was little left in her to feel. She could not sleep, nor allow her mind a moment’s rest while lost in the unfamiliar country and away from the safety she had been granted by the old man’s kindness. She felt foolish and guilty. Why do I need to involve myself? I just want to go home. Hours passed where Karshah put little effort into moving or trying to take any action. Laying curled on the porch was all she had, there was nowhere safer. Perhaps Odalen would forgive her and let her in. She could only hope. It was not until the moon had begun its descent and the glow of dawn light threatened the horizon that something happened to make her look up. A flap of wings caught her ears, accompanied by a distinct avian hoot. Her eyes flicked up at the sound and the sense of movement nearby, seeing a pair of talons tapping on the stone of the porch. She shuffled back slightly as the bird moved closer, and giving herself more room to look at it, she saw it to be a tawny owl. Immediately she was confused. Owls weren’t exactly common to southern Sotania, let alone the Kaelan colonies, but here this one seemed right at home as it padded towards her. Karshah’s presence did not seem to intimidate it as it walked straight up and inspected her with golden eyes, hooting with interest. It was not until the owl hopped on top of her that she made any attempt to shoo it away. ‘Get away!’ she said, finding her voice dry and hoarse. ‘Leave me alone.’ She swatted at the air, causing the bird to jump away in fright with a flap of its wings and another exasperated hoot. Still, it didn’t leave. The owl didn’t seem to understand. It padded over again and began to peck at her lightly with its small beak, cocking its head after each time as if to gauge her reaction. Again, she fluttered her hand in its face to try and get it to leave her be, but as before it showed no interest in going away. Eventually, she sat up. 146


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The owl stood on its small feet in front of her, staring up with an inquisitive yet ditsy smile on its round face. ‘What do you want?’ she asked, studying the animal with curiosity, half expecting the strange creature to start talking back. Perhaps this was common to Kaelani, but Karshah had never had an experience with an animal appearing so interested in human attention. Normally, they would flee or attack as soon as any person started to come too close. More than an hour had passed and still the owl stood beside her on its little legs, staring up expectantly. She didn’t turn away, but laid with her knees up to her chest and her eyes watching him carefully through the strands of her black hair that had fallen over her face. Once the sun had risen beyond the horizon and the beach of Beuldani in front of Odalen’s hut was bathed in pale light, Karshah was broken from another daze by the sound of the hut door creaking open. When she properly opened her eyes again, the owl was still there. Odalen stepped out of the hut, the blind man perplexed once the owl began to flap and become agitated at the presence of another person. ‘I see you have made a friend in your solitude,’ the elderly man said, leaning down and sitting cross-legged on the porch beside Karshah. He looked over at the owl, tracing its position by the gust of air produced by its fluttering wings. ‘A persistent friend at that.’ ‘It won’t leave me alone,’ said Karshah. ‘And neither will you leave us alone, like I asked you to last night. Perhaps this owl has come to show what it is you are doing to others.’ Karshah hung her head low like a child being scolded by a parent, but Odalen’s warming laughter broke her out of it. The owl 147


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had hopped up onto Odalen’s knee, looking up at the man with the same interest in its golden eyes. He started to run a hand down the bird’s closed wings, before coming up to tickle its feathered head. ‘A male screech owl. Very uncommon to Kaelani. They would normally only live in central Sotania, as the trees there make better nests than anything Kaelani could offer them. The females warm the eggs while the males hunt.’ ‘You can tell that just from touch? How do you know it’s a male?’ Karshah asked. She had little understanding about birds compared to the livestock animals that her life in Warrenvel had made her familiar with. She learnt about them from Karshan. ‘The males are smaller. More bold as well. This one seems quite comfortable here.’ Odalen laughed as the owl jumped up again to sit on his shoulder. Karshah noticed the bird kept looking back to her. ‘He hasn’t left me all night,’ she said. Odalen turned to her with his milky gaze. ‘So you did stay here throughout the night.’ ‘Where else can I go?’ ‘That was my thinking. I hoped you would stay. I must apologize to you, young one. The words I spoke last night were from anger and not from heart. The fact you have not left my doorstep has proven to me again that I was wrong to cast you out.’ ‘I don’t blame you Odalen,’ said Karshah, watching as the owl turned to look at her when she spoke. ‘People with my face are treading all over your country, hurting your people and keeping you their prisoners. I still don’t understand why you helped me in the first place.’ ‘You forget one thing, child,’ he said. She looked at him confused. He laughed and pointed to his opaque eyes. ‘I cannot see your face. Nor do I have any reason to believe you are one of those that would enslave us. Your voice is Sotan to me yes, that much is 148


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clear, but I made my decision to help you based on your apparent need for it. While it hinders me in everything I do, my blindness removes my prejudices. I see not race, nor can I judge a person based on their appearance. I have to listen before making any conclusion, and I listened to you. I heard no hatred, only demons thrust on an innocent mind. I was wrong to call you an omen.’ The owl hooted in agreement. ‘What do you think he wants?’ Karshah asked watching the bird. Odalen let the owl hop onto his hands, seemingly unconcerned with the talons digging into his skin. Even as he gave it attention, it didn’t stop looking at her. ‘He wants you it would appear.’ ‘What do I have that he wants? I’ve got no food or anything, yet he keeps staring at me.’ ‘Owls were often used to carry messages in Sotania, isn’t that right? In the cities maybe? I know you have not talked to me in much detail about the group you belong to back in your home country, but is there any chance that perhaps this owl has been sent to look for you?’ Karshah thought about Karshan. The worry that was surely tearing her twin brother apart from her absence. The owl didn’t seem like something her would do to try and find her. Knowing Karshan, he was more likely to try and swim across Ilidieye to get to her. Not that they knew where she was. ‘They don’t even know I’m in the Kaelan Isles. Last they knew I was in Valaninsal during the attack that happened. I doubt any of them even saw me fall into the sea.’ ‘Who was the last person you spoke with before waking up here?’ Odalen asked. ‘Penumbra.’ As she said the name, the presence owl seemed to make sense. ‘Penumbra must have sent him.’ 149


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The owl let out a loud hoot at the name and flew briefly in the air to land on Karshah’s shoulder. She flinched from the sudden movement, tensing her shoulder and raising a hand to ward him away, but as he sat quite contently atop her, she relaxed. She looked at him deep into the gold of his big eyes. ‘Did Penumbra send you?’ The owl gave another enthusiastic hoot. Odalen chuckled. ‘I think that must be the answer. He wants to go back and tell them you are alive.’ Odalen stood up and walked back into the hut. She heard him rummaging through his home, before emerging back onto the doorstep with parchment and a quill in his hand. ‘Write a message for them and I’m sure he will take it.’ ‘A message? What do I say?’ ‘Perhaps only something small. If you are worried that it might be intercepted by the Sotan legion then write something that your friends will understand which someone else will not.’ Karshah stared at the blank parchment as Odalen handed it to her. Her mind went completely blank as to any word or phrase that might be useful in helping her be found, yet still ambiguous enough that someone else wouldn’t understand. Words that maybe Karshan would understand, inside jokes from her past or phrases that had meaning to them, but that wouldn’t help them find her. Kaelani? No that’s obvious, and the Kaelan Isles are huge. Writing Beuldani has the same problem… Odalen stood up and left her as Hyrish appeared in the door way. The Kaelan boy had obviously had a wash and a change of clothes and looked much fresher than Karshah. Streaks of blood and dirt still covered her face and clothes. There was a moment when the boy and his father looked to each other, Hyrish silently asking for permission to see Karshah again. He showed no intention of stopping him and stepped past to go back into the hut. 150


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‘Give the owl something to eat, would you son?’ Odalen said, handing Hyrish a bowl of scraps and morsels of meat. Hyrish’s face went blank once he spotted the brown feathered animal sitting happily on Karshah’s shoulder. She almost laughed at the confused expression on his face. ‘Why’s there an owl here?’ he said, sitting down next to her and inspecting the bird with curiosity. Karshah took a small chunk of the meat in the bowl and offered it front of the owl’s beak. He leant forward and with a quick peck, took the meat and swallowed it whole. ‘I need something to tell the people that are looking for me. Something to help them find where I am,’ she said to him. ‘Some sort of code so they know where to start looking?’ ‘Exactly.’ Hyrish put the food down. The owl eyed it with interest and so Karshah offered him another morsel to eat. ‘Any of them speak Kaelan?’ ‘Yes, at least couple of them.’ Yysana obviously did, and Penumbra had often spoke to the Masked Child in the Kaelan language. ‘Problem with that though is that you still can’t write place names. They’re the same in both languages.’ ‘And the people who do speak Kaelan might not be the ones receiving the message.’ ‘So it needs to be more like a riddle then. Something they could work out.’ Karshah stopped thinking about the possible words to put on the page and started to find something in the young Kaelan’s voice, a weaker tinge in his words. ‘That legionary that was attacking me,’ she began, the change of subject coming as a surprise to Hyrish. 151


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‘The one I killed,’ he said flatly. She nodded. She went to speak but found that he finished her sentiments for her. ‘That was the first time I’d killed…anything. It didn’t feel like I thought it would.’ ‘Unless you are evil to begin with…I don’t think it ever will feel good.’ She saw him looking awkwardly at her out of the corner of his brown eyes. He didn’t meet her gaze. ‘Do you remember the first time you killed a person?’ She let out a sullen chuckle. ‘It’s the last thing I did before I woke up here.’ ‘Really? How did that happen?’ ‘There was a raid on the military port of Valaninsal. We were trying to disrupt Kilaksan’s passage across Ilidieye so he would feel weak while he was here. The legionaries were much too strong even for the numbers against them. I was cornered by one, and before he could kill me, I stabbed my sword into his neck. The blood of another human being on your hands doesn’t give you warmth. It makes you sick to your core. Before I could come to terms with what I had done, I found myself drowning.’ ‘And the sea took you all the way to our coast. It still seems impossible to me.’ ‘I don’t think I should be alive.’ She felt him shuffle a little closer to her and lay a hand tentatively on her arm. ‘But you are, so let’s keep moving forward with it all, shall we? If there is a reason you’re alive, if Loessiah or Beuldani willed it, then there’s something they need you to do here. You said it yourself. Beuldani literally means family, so if you’re here, you’re part of our family.’ She smiled for what felt like the first time since she had appeared in Kaelani. There was a trace of doubt in the boy’s eyes, yet the 152


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confidence in his own words was filling her with a desire to move forward. The owl hooted loudly. Karshah’s attention was brought back to the blank parchment in her lap. With Hyrish’s words ringing in her mind, she wrote a single word down. She rolled the paper up and carefully offered it to the owl, who seemed entirely willing to let her tie it around his leg. With no complaint, the bird took off into the morning sky. ‘What did you write?’ Hyrish asked as they watched the owl turn into a small brown speck in the sky. Another person approaching them however brought her away from her answer. Shefa came stalking over to Odalen’s hut, still wrapped tightly in her large cloak, only her small round face and streaks of platinum hair visible. She stepped right up to the two of them. ‘Shefa. Where have you been?’ Hyrish asked. ‘Derno’s looking for you,’ the girl said, looking at Karshah. ‘Looking for me? What does he want with me?’ Karshah asked. She’d only been introduced to the man while he was insulting her at the crew meeting. He seemed to hate her back then, all the more reason for him looking for her to cause worry. ‘He was at the address. He saw you save the Duchess,’ Shefa replied. ‘Save her? I just got the legionary off her and then ran. Hardly the work of a hero.’ ‘Either way, rumours of a rogue Sotan saving the Duchess are starting to go round the town after the riots. He’s looking for you.’ Karshah immediately got to her feet and set off away from the hut. Hyrish and Shefa trailed behind her. ‘You’re going to meet him?’ Hyrish asked with a trace of worry.

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‘I’ve sent the message. Hopefully my friends will start to look for me. Until then, I’m stuck here. I think Kilaksan’s address is the start of resistance in Kaelani, and if that’s what Derno wants from me, I’m going to hear him out.’

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Children of Sotania - Part II - Kaelani (WIP)  
Children of Sotania - Part II - Kaelani (WIP)  
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