The road was bordered by a sea of autumnal trees. Their fiery branches wove through one another and formed a thick blanket that obscured the sky and allowed only scattered moonrays to pass through the mass of leaves. Astana’s majestic white walls loomed ahead of the dirt track, both a welcome and fearsome sight that dwarfed the ancient forest and gleamed bright beneath the twin moons. The polished granite blocks were mirrors that absorbed the moonlight and projected a radiance of their own, and Lyria shrank back into the saddle as her borrowed horse followed the platoon into the city, wincing as she caught sight of her own image reflected in the stone. Her dark eyes stared back at her, emotionless and haunted, her blonde hair was caked with days-old blood and appeared as black as a deathbird’s feathers, and the same blood streaked her pale face in thick splotches. It was ghastly.
The gates closed with a deafening clang that echoed through the streets, reverberating around the empty stalls and dark shop-fronts. Each front was constructed of the same granite blocks as the walls and were adorned with timber accents near as dark as the night sky. Small spherical lanterns were threaded along the eaves and linked the identical buildings to one another, the orbs housed an eternal flame of ever-changing colour that mimicked the Aethya and they swayed as a gentle burst of wind caressed their delicate glasses. They were the same lanterns that were forever embedded into her mind, an image from the past that now mocked her present, and each one held a memory she would rather forget.
Rede’s voice rang out through the silent night and the horses stopped in unison, each creature attuned to the commander’s orders. He murmured an inaudible instruction to his second before dismounting and handing over the reins, and then walked towards her, his long strides closing the distance between them within moments.
“Young Lewell, you will be accompanying me.”
Her time had come. The gates at her back were closed and locked, guarded by faceless soldiers, and Rede stood in front of her, any thoughts he may have concealed behind shrewd eyes. With his hand resting on the hilt of his blade, his posture allowed the golden plainscat he wore to gleam beneath the moonlight. Its snarl was a smirk that mocked her upcoming audience —her upcoming sentence— and her response was automatic as she said, “Yes, sir,” and slid down from the saddle. It wasn’t as though she had a choice; her fate was sealed and hopefully her death would be swift.
The horses resumed their walk to the stables, the rhythmic clop of their hooves against the paved stone all that could be heard as she followed the commander. It had been eight years since she last stood within these walls and walked these paths. The colourful lanterns had swayed above then just as they were now and renewed her fear as the cries of the past echoed behind the quiet reality. The people had screamed and begged for a mercy that would never come, the unrepentant tread of Andru’s guard their only answer as each mage was slaughtered. The triumphant growl of a plainscat reverberated through the city as it discovered yet another family who harboured the blessed blood… that horrifying growl had haunted her for months, rumbling through her dreams every night and disturbing her sleep until it at last became a mere mew that could be ignored. All other memories of Astana had been buried beneath the weight of a thousand murdered souls and she could not recall any joy she may have once felt here. This place was no longer her home.
“I’m sorry this isn’t the happiest of homecomings.”
Lyria whipped away from the lanterns and stared at Rede, her tongue faster than her restraint as she snapped, “Is Lord Andru aware of your telepathy? If memory serves correctly, that would be illegal.”
“Keep your wits about you, miss… and a handle on that tongue. You will give your very brief account and then you will be silent. With luck he will place you under my command and simply forget about you.”
The blood drained from her face as Rede’s steely glare pierced into her. He did know. Her earlier paranoia had not been misleading… of course it hadn’t! He had barely kept his cautious eyes away from her throughout the entire journey, it was as though he expected her to transform into an Aethyarean demon and descend upon his men if he dared turn away. He had said that he and her parents were close friends and that she would be safe; why would he risk himself? There were no answers behind his impassive demeanour and she could not question him, not out in the open where anyone could hear, and they were nearing the palace. The winding spires towered overhead, caressed by the Aethya’s iridescence, and both moons illuminated and transformed the building into a brilliant white beacon that glittered as the stars. It was a radiant jewel with its faceted sides shimmering beneath the rainbow skies, an ornate structure that no mortal architect could lay claim to, and Lyria swallowed her rising nausea as the Lord’s home brought rise to further loathing and despair. Arisse Palace was an acceptable gift from the Gods —she was not.
Two emotionless guards flanked the stone arch that served as entrance to the courtyard and saluted as Rede passed through, their eyes on her back as she followed at his heel. Did she really look that terrible? Her reflection in the mirrored wall burst into mind. Yes, she did; forbidden blood or not, Lord Andru would likely strike her down simply for violating his pristine floors with her filth. She stopped mid-step. A gentle hymn enveloped her as the paved stone met soft grass and her pulse soared as it imparted a hope to her heart. That voice was beautiful. It was a song filled with soul and tinged with sadness yet held undertones of love and wonder. Where was it coming from? She peered about the dark courtyard in search of the source, but found only vague silhouettes of shrubs and statues. The music sent shivers down her spine and lessened the ache of her broken heart the longer she listened. The rise and fall of the woman’s bittersweet voice pulled at her, called for her to fall deep into each note and allow it to remove her sorrows, until Rede’s impatience broke her captivation.
“If all goes well you can listen to our beloved Lady Elira sing for however long you desire. Lord Andru is waiting.”
The voice belonged to Lady Elira? Andru’s wife had died eight years ago, her death rumoured to be the spark that fuelled his wrath. No-one seemed to know what had actually happened or simply hadn’t wanted to speak of such things to an inquisitive child, but if the Lady’s song drifted through the courtyard so long after her death, surely that was another forbidden magic. Lyria faced the commander, determined to find answers, but his glare stopped her. Now was not the time. He gave her a curt nod and motioned for her to enter the palace, and her heartache returned tenfold as a heavy silence replaced the song. Its absence was an unexpected pain that wrenched through her chest and summoned fresh tears, and the gilded tapestries that adorned the walls tripled in her sight as the commander guided her through the corridor and into the grand hall. ‘If all goes well,’ he had said, and then what? It wasn’t as though she could stay in Astana. After Andru’s slaughter, the remaining mages fled to the Skyswept Isles for safety and education. It was purported to be a haven for those who were blessed with the Gods’ blood, yet her mother had shunned the belief, instead insinuating it to be a house of tyranny and vile magic —it was better to remain hidden on the mainland. Perhaps she could be posted in another village, her father had insisted on instructing her with basic military training… by the Three! She shielded her eyes as they entered the grand hall. The massive chamber was easily the size of ten large paddocks and at first glance it was brighter than the noon-sun.
There were candles everywhere, and they held actual flames! Not the illusory fires that lived in the street-strung lanterns. They hung from crystal chandeliers, sat in clusters upon high ledges, and long tapers on delicate golden stands lined the crimson runway. Their glow accentuated the glass panels embedded into the walls and illuminated the golden threads that encased each one, the threads spiralling into ribbons that meandered towards the arched ceiling and formed intricate runes along the cornice. It was beautiful and intimidating, and pure. It was another reminder that she was tainted and did not belong in this Gods-given creation.
“Rede, I gave you a half-cycle. It’s been four weeks!”
A deep voice bellowed through the hall. Blinded by the majesty of the room, Lyria had not noticed the unadorned throne at the back of the area, the two finely-dressed men who stood beside it or the plainscat at their feet, and a chill swept over her as Rede nudged her forward. It was widely known that the Arisse’s revered the beasts that terrorised the countryside and had domesticated at least one of them, but she hadn’t expected to see the creature inside the palace walls. Longer than a horse and half as tall as a man, its large bat-like ears flicked back and forth, and its slanted golden eyes gleamed as bright as the candlelit trimmings. It was a mature cat with patched silver fur, old enough to have been the very plainscat that hunted her fellow mages eight years prior, and Lord Andru rested his hand on its head as it stared directly at her, seeming to sense her dread.
Andru did not wear the jewelled robes or flowing capes of story-tale sovereigns and in place of the imagined crown a simple golden band sat high above his brow, barely visible beneath his wavy hair. He was a formidable man, at least seven feet in height and as solidly-built as the walls that protected his city, and a raw power emanated from him.
“I assume there is an explanation.”
Lyria stared down at her grimy toes. She couldn’t face him; surely he would see her curse as clear as the golden runes that contrasted the white walls.
“Sir, it’s rather grim I’m afraid. At least six of the smaller settlements lie in ruins and we didn’t find a single body ‘til our return. Over a hundred men dead on the outskirts of Fan’ore Forest, no women or children in sight, the young miss the only survivor. There are scouts following her path and checking in with the Watchers.”
“And who is she?”
“Captain Lewell’s daughter.”
“Lewell… ah, yes. Good man. Sends his reports on time. But, you were gone for longer than sanctioned and offer no new information. Perhaps she will be more forthcoming.” A shadow fell across her feet and Andru’s voice softened. “Young miss, I know this isn’t easy, but you have travelled quite the distance and you look like the ground itself birthed you. What happened in Syosse?”
He seemed kind and benevolent —nothing at all like the mage murdering madman she imagined— and he had not struck her down despite the dirty footprints tainting his flawless runway. The cat wasn’t growling at her, why did it not inform her master of her inherent crime? She tentatively looked up, and cringed as she found herself face to face with Lord Andru. He had lowered himself to her height and emanated a fatherly aura as his thoughtful blue eyes inspected her from beneath a furrowed brow, his patience akin to the Creator’s as he awaited her response. This was not the audience she had expected.
“Sir, we were attacked. They appeared from nowhere, from the air and ground! There was no time to think, to do anything… they killed everyone… my father’s body fell atop me and everything went dark… I-I woke up with the dead. The noon-sun was high when I crawled out… my mother’s face…”
Gods, her mind was all over the place and she sounded like a fool. Rede had instructed her to be brief. How could she possibly be brief when so many thoughts were fighting for their freedom? Her sob echoed about the empty hall as her mother’s face wavered beneath the excessive candlelight, only to be replaced by Andru’s compassionate stare, and a fire inflamed her cheeks as an anger reclaimed her grief. Kindly, sympathetic, and patient; despite appearances, he was as murderous as those dead men. They had escaped this man’s wrath and her mother had died anyway. Damn them and damn him!
“I killed them! I followed them over the miles, from Syosse through Loren to the edge of your forest. I prayed to my Chosen, prayed for vengeance, and then I guided my justice into every, damned, murderer.”
Lyria emphasised ‘murderer’ as she glared into Andru’s eyes. She was cursed and he would soon know it, her pain would be at an end and she would be one with her family before the cycle rebirthed, with her death a thousand would be vindicated! The slow prickle of magic flowed through her blood, the air thickened around her and fluctuated in rhythmic patterns, and the soft, rumbling purr of the plainscat vibrated against her stomach. She looked down, her self-destructive anger vanishing as the large cat rubbed itself against her similar to its smaller cousins, and its purr intensified as it smiled into her eyes.
“Ari, stop crowding the girl,” Andru commanded, returning to his full height. The plainscat made a soft chattering sound through its teeth before it slunk back to its position beside the throne, and Andru clasped his hands together as he sat upon the cushioned seat, raising his eyebrow as he said, “So, the hundred dead men Rede found was your doing. An impressive feat.”
“Pfah! A mere girl could hardly orchestrate such destruction.”
Her blood froze as the other man broke his silence and raked his eyes over her. He was a carbon copy of Lord Andru, though younger, and held a distinct air of contempt that contrasted Andru’s kindliness.
“Quiet, Cael.” Andru leant forward, his gaze fixed to hers. “Now, tell me of your journey. Were there any other survivors? Rede claims there were no women or children, what happened to them? What about… scent. Did you smell anything out of the ordinary?”
His interrogation was guided, evidently he already knew what Rede was yet to say and wanted her to confirm his beliefs. Lyria looked at the commander but couldn’t read him or his perpetual glare, and simply nodded. “Yes, sir. A putrid odour. There were women and children dead in both Syosse and Loren when I left, I assume they’re still there. Well, were. The commander said they would be… cremated.” She swallowed, forcing the pyre from memory. “There was a man near death on my path. I asked him which way the raiders went, he said that they weren’t raiders, that they were fiends, monsters made flesh-”
Andru clapped his hands together. The sharp sound echoed through the hall in an endless series of cracks akin to that of a thunderous night, and he gestured wildly, suddenly every bit the madman she had once imagined.
“Rede! There it is. More of the blasted re-risen. The work of those damnable magicians!”
An ill-disguised weariness washed over Commander Rede as he moved to speak, only to be silenced by the disregarding wave of Andru’s hand.
“No! I tire of your sympathies and your persistent failure. They sit up there in that glittering sky fortress, plotting our demise with their vile necromancy and conscious mayhem. Your familiarity blinds you!” Andru whipped back to her, and her heart raced as he demanded, “Who is your Chosen?”
“Fitting, he is known for his compassion and I have experienced it myself. I recognise a talent when it stands before me, and more importantly, Ari finds your scent agreeable. You have a capable hand and will work for me-”
“Sir,” Rede interrupted. “I was considering taking her under my wing. A favour to her father.”
“Nonsense, you would waste her skill! Young Lewell, I will assume there are no objections.”
Bewildered, Lyria stood silent as she recalled every word she had yelled minutes ago. Had she insinuated that Xandur was involved? That was not her intention, but if such fancy took away the possibility she was a mage… she would have a purpose, a home, and he would not slice her down in this hall or unleash his pet plainscat upon her. She lowered her head in obeisance, may her mother forgive her.
“Wonderful. Rede will see to your outfitting and continued training, but you will report to me. I will call upon you by week’s end to verify your capabilities and have you integrated.”
“By the Three!” Cael leapt forward and gestured at her. “The damned cat likes her because she’s coated in blood. Do you honestly believe this mere girl took an entire camp of those monsters? The cat purrs and that is all that matters, all that ever matters. This is ridiculous!”
Lord Andru squinted at his son, an extended silence passing between them, and his tone was overly gentle as he at last drawled, “Indeed, Cael. She is just a mere girl; it is as you say. Draw your sword against her.”
Lyria’s heart plummeted into her stomach. Cael’s disdain radiated towards her in thick, tangible waves and her gift manifested in response, forbidden within these sacred walls. Ari sat tall and stared at her as the magic enveloped her body and slowed her surroundings, and she held her father’s over-sized sword at the ready, wincing at the blackened filth that still coated it. Cael turned from his father, his movements slow and fluid. His blue eyes were as pale as the moons and the waves of his hair danced across his brow as he whipped his hand with a flourish and drew his sword from its sheath. He whirled about to face her, but it was too late —the grime-encrusted point of her father’s sword was already at his throat. His weapon fell as he winced in exaggerated misery and the clatter echoed several times over as Lyria forced the young Lord to his knees. Natural flow returned and a dangerous excitement soared alongside her heartbeat as she asked, “Does the Lordling yield?”
Cael stared up at her, his face as stone, and an unreadable glint flickered within his eye as he muttered, “’twas hardly fair, but I concede.”
It was involuntarily, but she had gotten away with it! Ari continued to watch her, but there was no malice behind the cat’s golden eyes, only a knowing gleam. The creature licked at its paw and stretched out beside the throne, seemingly indifferent to her transgression, and she rehoused her father’s blade, allowing Cael to return to his feet.
“As I thought, the mere girl outplayed you. Rede, find her some lodgings and get that sword cleaned up. A captain’s blade must shine bright in these dark days.”
The commander bowed without a word and hurriedly shuffled Lyria from the hall, his glare as dark as the midnight skies as they stepped into the peaceful courtyard. There was no time to enjoy the tranquillity of Lady Elira’s song, Rede grabbed her arm and she stumbled over her feet as he dragged her into the street away from the palace and guards.
“Whatever were you thinking? Do you have a death wish?”
Was he was talking about the blatant unveiling of her gift or her acceptance of Andru’s offer? It didn’t matter either way, her answer was the same. She wrenched her arm from him and returned his glare.
“It’s not like I had a choice. Maybe when the cycle rebirths I can finally enjoy an unremarkable existence.”
“You had every choice!” Rede retorted before rubbing at his brow. “By the Three… it’s been less than an hour. Andru will have expectations and Cael already has a vendetta against you. Damn you to the lower planes!”
He stormed down the street and she hesitated before following. There was nowhere else to go; this was home again, as much as it didn’t feel like one. The colourful lanterns swayed above, mocking the events that had just transpired, and she lowered her eyes, preferring to watch the paved stone pass beneath her feet as she trailed the commander. The minutes elapsed in a slow, pained silence before he at last stopped in front of an austere building. Constructed of thick grey slabs, it was the only building thus far that did not gleam beneath the moonlight, and Rede sighed as he motioned for her to enter.
“You can bunk in the barracks. I will find you somewhere more suitable on the morrow, and perhaps a bath. Your secret is safe with me… but I cannot protect you. Johne’s eye! What a mess.”