an excerpt from
The Knife’s Edge
by Matthew Wolf
Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Wolf and published here with his permission
Karil shoved another set of riding clothes into her pack and turned from her bed. Her room was still, but her heart was not. Even the serene night mocked her frantic mind.
From the window above her bed, azure scrolls lit her room. An ornately carved bookshelf sat in the room’s corner. In the center, a wide-table, its stout legs made of silveroot, flowing as if alive with liquid silver. Elvin craftsmanship fit for a princess. A tranquil scene, but still her hand trembled, for beyond these walls lurked danger. Her gaze jumped to the plum-colored door made of heartwood. Heartwood was harder than most human metals—it would take a small army to break it down, but she knew that wouldn’t save her. He will be here any minute, she prayed.
She looked down and saw the polished stone in her palm. The rock was carved with a pattern of a leaf, stunningly real, as if the leaf had shed its skin upon the emerald stone. It was a gift of her fathers, something she had long forgotten, and childhood memories flooded through her. Only things I can’t live without, she repeated. She set it aside, placing it in a pile of books, jewelry, and precious things likely never to be seen again. Surely it’s too small to matter, she thought and quickly tucked the smooth stone in her bag.
The hard rap of knuckles sounded on the door. Karil grabbed a fistful of her split- riding skirt. Three knocks. She remembered their code and rushed to the door, unlocking it. Rydel flowed inside like a tempest. He passed her wordlessly and strode to the window. His grand hando cloak of black and forest green fluttered as he moved. Karil knew the cloak silently demanded respect, for he was one of only ten elves who bore the same shroud. He took the room in two giant strides, throwing back the drapes.
Outside, lights from the kingdom glowed. Hues of amethyst and sapphire lit the forest. A vast canopy was obscured by mist and cloud. Far below, tiny white dots blushed where twisting paths wound throughout the forest. The whole kingdom appeared as if stars were flung amid the trees. Each tree was a towering guardian, their trunks the width of cities. Below, a staircase glimmered, as if made of shimmering glass. It encircled the main structure they were in, the massive Spire, twining all the way up the Great Tree.
“Is it time?” she asked, stepping forward. Her voice was strong. She was glad for that—the tears shed were all but a memory. Rydel was quiet. His slender elvin eyes, a piercing green, watched the staircase. His sharp ears pricked, as if hearing sounds her half-elf ears could not.
Karil joined his side. “What is it? What do you see?”
“I see them. They are coming.” Rydel turned. He grabbed her shoulders. “We must leave, now.”
“So soon,” she said, “Somehow I thought there would be more time. Is everything ready?”
Rydel grabbed her pack. “The horses are waiting in the stables. All that is required now is to get to them, from there I have cleared a path out of the woods.” She heard the unspoken message in his words. If we can make it there…
“How many?” she asked.
“A dozen in the halls, maybe more, and hundreds scattered around the grounds of the city.” She saw his hesitancy, as if he was afraid to speak the rest, “What we feared has come to pass. Dryan is seizing upon the chaos of your father’s murder. Elves are joining his side in droves. There will be hundreds, if not thousands looking for you soon. You are the only thing standing between Dryan and the throne now.”
“And what of our supporters?”
“Most are dead or swayed to his side.”
“Then Dryan has won,” she whispered.
“No. Not yet. It will not be long before the entire kingdom is crawling, and then all hope of escaping will be lost. But there is still a chance if we leave now.”
If all things good can go to ruin so quickly, what did it matter? Karil rested a hand upon the windowsill. “I can always trust you, can’t I Rydel?”
Rydel answered without hesitation. “Forever, my queen.” Karil tensed. The title was daunting, but somehow he made it sound true and good.
“Lead the way,” she ordered and he nodded.
They left her quarters and swiftly navigated their way through the labyrinth of halls, taking the least used routes. Though they moved quickly, they were high in the Spire, where all the nobility resided. They turned a corner and saw shadows nearing. They threw themselves against the wall. The shadows revealed themselves as servants trailing robed nobles. Karil breathed a sigh. For a moment she considered gathering them as allies. Judging by their robes that were shades of green, they were of the House of Nava, a staunch supporter of her father. She shook her head. No one could be trusted.
As they ran, she caught glimpses through wide windows of bright lights like dashing sprites in the night. Rydel abruptly pressed her against the wall. Karil waited, listening, the elf’s rock-like arm holding her in place. He pulled them back further, moving into a carved niche, tucked behind a standing vase of Merilian Silver. She looked but saw nothing. The halls were silent. Then, around the bend, something shifted. Karil’s breath caught as a guard in black elvin plate-mail appeared, as if melting from the wall. He had been hiding in plain sight. His eyes skimmed just past their hidden nook. At last, he moved down the hall. Now she knew what pursued them.
As a girl, she had both looked up to and been afraid of these elite guards that protected her father. Even back then, she would cling to his leg when a Terma entered the room. Her father would simply stroke her hair as she trembled. The Terma lived and breathed their training, with the skill and agility of a hundred normal elves.
However, there was another rank, a secret echelon. The black-armored Terma were one rank below Rydel, and it was said that difference was the span of chasms. For there was no one higher than one of the Hidden, those who bore the hando cloak. But one against hundreds?
As they wove through the halls, she kept to Rydel’s side, watching the dark corners. Four more times Rydel halted them. Each time a Terma slunk out of the shadows, always impossible to see until revealed.
At last, they reached the stables. Relief flooded her. She entered. The dawn light lit the rafters and stacks of hay.
Rydel returned, guiding their horses. She saw Rensha, her white mare, and was glad for the familiar face. She stroked the horse’s muzzle and Rensha nickered. Rydel swiftly strapped down the saddlebags. She normally rode her cormac—faster and more intelligent creatures that were more attuned to the spark, but such a creature would be far too conspicuous beyond the gates and within Daerval, a land without magic.
Karil nimbly mounted Rensha. Rydel took to his large black warhorse and together they turned towards the wide archway when the ground rattled. Abruptly, the door behind burst open. Shards of wood rained down. Rensha spooked, bucking in terror and she fought to gain control of the frantic animal.
“Karil! Run!” Rydel shouted.
She slammed her heels into Rensha’s flanks, bursting towards the open archway, but her charge was brought to a sudden halt as she was flung forward. When Karil gained her senses, she was on the ground. Twenty or so elves in black armor poured into the stables, surrounding them with silent, deadly ease. She saw the one that had flung her from her horse. He stood before her, tall and muscular. Where Rydel was broader of shoulder and arm, this elf was slender like a blade, with long straight blond hair that draped over his shoulders. He held Rensha’s reins casually with one powerful arm as the creature bucked. His other hand gripped a long, curved dagger. Karil swallowed with a rush of comprehension.
“So then, Dryan has no intention of letting me live,” she said. The blond elf grinned, showing uncharacteristically human-like emotion. Karil’s blood ran cold. “I see. That’s clever of him, crushing all opposition here in the quiet, where the chaos will flow over and wash away his questionable deeds.”
The elf sneered as he approached. “Oh, you misunderstand. You’re not a threat to an elf like Dryan. Nevertheless, dead is always simpler than alive. Rumors are easy enough to quell. You have been too outspoken for your own good.”
Anger rose inside Karil. “You’re more of a fool than I thought,” she replied. “Dryan has no claim to the throne, and never will. Who would ever believe him?”
The elf laughed openly. “You don’t get it, do you? They will believe what we want them to believe.”
Karil took a calm breath. She summoned her ka. It was weaker than most elves because of her half-blood, but undetectable for that same reason. In the corner of her vision she saw Rydel. Surrounded by ten other elves, he looked like a cornered tiger. He flashed her a look. She nodded. With a fierce cry, she lashed out, pulling every shred of her power into one invisible cord. A root from a nearby tree plunged upward through the thick ground, sending a shower of dirt into the air. Startled, the elf bounded backwards. He cut at the tubers, but the roots were quicker. They shot out, snaring his legs. The elf was thrown to the ground. At the same time, Karil leapt to her feet and bounded into Rensha’s saddle.
Behind, she heard the cry and clash of Rydel with the other elves, but she didn’t spare the time to look, trusting her companion. She bolted for the open door, when Rensha bucked again as if colliding with a brick wall. She turned and saw the blond elf held the reins. His face twisted, muscles cording with strain. Three more guards were approaching fast behind her. In one swift movement, she unsheathed her slim dagger and slashed the elf’s hand. He unleashed the reins with a cry and she broke free. Suddenly, Rydel was at her side, riding hard.
Twenty more elves alighted from thin air and she pulled her reins short. Too many, she thought.
A fierce battle cry rang through the clearing, and the Terma froze. Karil followed the sound, but saw nothing. When suddenly more elves burst from the woods. Her heart rose as she glimpsed their green armor. The two forces clashed and cries pierced the night. Green armor upon black, swords flickered like a blur. A Terma was thrown into Rensha’s flank. The animal bucked wildly. She gripped the reins and clung to her mounts back. Through the haze of swords and tangle of Rensha’s mane, she saw him once again.
The blonde Terma cut down a green armored shadow with menacing ease. The other elf fell to his knees clutching his chest, vainly trying to stop the flow of his gaping wound. The Terma lifted his sword to finish the job. Karil wasted no time. Holding Rensha’s mane in one vise-like grip, she lunged for her dagger, hurling the blade. It flew over the crowds and sunk into his back, biting deep between his shoulder blades. She watched him fall and then unsheathed her sword and looked around, but in a matter of seconds, the fighting was over.
Bodies littered the ground, mostly the Terma. She turned to her defenders. Their breathing was heavy, faces ragged. They wore green cloth, loose and light with a few added pieces of leather armor, piecemealed together. It was the garb of the Lando, as they had started calling themselves. In the common tongue, it meant Liberators. Karil noticed the last subtle difference in their armor. Small trinkets the size of her finger were pinned to their breasts. She recognized them as the shattered pieces of her father’s crown.
Rydel approached. “Are you all right?”
Rydel looked to the elves, with a note of respect. “They saved us again. But the Terma are not done,” he said. “You know as well as I, that was only the first. More will be coming, and soon.”
She nodded. The elves now stood in a file, all facing her. As one they clapped a hand to their chest, and spoke in unison, “Tel Merahas.” Then they took to one knee, their armor rustling in the quiet night.
Her heart welled with pride and sorrow. Every one of them had abandoned everything to protect her, to protect the side of light against the tide of darkness. Her people. Most of them were young, but their youthful faces were far different than two days ago. Whatever softness had once been there had been hammered out. She regretted it all, feeling somehow that it was her fault. Yet such was the times, her father would have said. She swallowed, choking back her emotions. “Twice you have protected me. Words can never express my gratitude for your brave acts, both two days ago, and tonight.” She let the words hang in the air. She felt Rydel’s presence and knew the gap for their escape was closing, but it was because of these elves she had survived. The elves waited for her command, and she felt the weight of all their fates. “Time is short. I would wish to say more, and though I do not want to I, we must leave now.”
“Then we will accompany you,” said one, immediately standing.
“We will have your side,” said another, a slightly older guard with longer ears and deeper-set eyes, but with equal fervor.
She shook her head firmly. “You all must stay. With Rydel, I can make it past the border. I would ask one more thing of you, as your queen.” The words tasted bitter on her tongue, a taste she would gladly spit out for another. Her first order as queen was to strip them of their pride, but she knew she must. “You must forsake your pledge to me until I return. Furthermore, for now, you must wear your normal armor.”
They looked hurt and confused.
She pointed to the small trinkets. “I know what it represents to you. You fought with great pride that day, but the honor you hold is not in some trinket upon your breast. Just as the power my father wielded, and your love for him did not derive from the crown he bore. So please, spread the word: take up the normal armament of the guard, and assimilate back into the ranks.” And live. She swallowed hard at the command. She knew she was doing it for them, but she also knew many of them might have chosen death, instead of losing their pride. And many of them had died. Yet she would not allow anymore, at least not because of her.
Karil felt Rydel, urging her to leave. She owed them one more thing… “Not far from now, where we stand, I will be back to take the throne, and on that day I will call for you to fight and take back what is rightfully ours.” Pride returned to their faces.
“My queen,” Rydel pressed. At the same time, Terma guards appeared like shadows from thin air, attacking from every angle, but the Lando charged.
“Sirvas!” they cried as one, cutting a path through the enemy. The dark armored Terma faltered, taken back by the sudden retaliation, but only for a moment, and the tide was quickly turning in favor of the dark elves.
A shout rose, “Run, my queen!”
One elf, the older of the bunch, gripped Rensha’s reins in one hand. “Heed your own words. Live, my queen. One day we will see you again, and return the honor that has been stolen from you. I swear to you, we will not see your father, the true king, die in vain.” He clasped a fist to heart and dove back into the fray. The Lando bellowed as they were sliced down, but still they fought.
“Karil!” Rydel shouted.
At last, guilt wrenching her, she turned, dashing through the opening they had created for her. Rensha’s hooves pounded as she raced into the woods, away from her kingdom. Karil chased the image of Rydel’s whipping cloak, heading towards Daerval, with the bloody cries of elves loud in her ears.
The Shadow’s Hand
Gray’s legs burned as he followed the hermit’s cloak through the night. The tree limbs seemed to reach out, lashing at him as a roar cracked through the woods. The forest was a blur as he ran. He skidded to a halt, nearly crashing into Mura. They stood in a small clearing. To his left was a sheer cliff with a view of the vast canopy of the lower woods, far below.
He slumped against a tree, catching his breath. “What’s happening? Those things were vergs weren’t they?” He shivered at even saying the name. Vergs were monstrous creatures, myths rumored to have lived during the Lieon, but no more than that.
Mura didn’t seem to be listening. He moved as if searching for something. “It was here! It has to be,” he muttered. He set down a strange scimitar that Gray hadn’t seen until now with brown sheath and obsidian-like handle. The hermit’s hands grazed the trunk of a silveroot. He tore into the brush at the base of the tree, ripping away clumps of tanglevine. Gray watched in confusion as the hermit’s fingers pried into the tree’s base, pulling away a perfectly square hunk of wood from the trunk and unveiling a dark cubbyhole.
He stepped forward. “How did you know that was there?”
“Because I created it, a long time ago, and have kept it concealed for a much needed time.” Reaching in, Mura extracted a brown bag. “I will answer all, lad, but this is not the time. Now come forth.”
Mura grabbed a handful of the forest floor, and then rubbed the soil between his palms. He then put a hand to Gray’s head. The warmth of the man’s palm against his temple was comforting. He opened his mouth when a bright light bloomed. It grew as Mura chanted in Elvish. A chill coursed through his body. “What did you do?” he asked. “That was…”
“Magic,” said Mura. “It’s not much, but it will hide your scent for five days, and buy you time to leave the woods.”
“But where will I go?”
“North and stop for nothing. Follow the Silvas River. It will lead you out of the woods and to safety. Once out, get to the town of Lakewood, and I will find you there. I swear it. But you must go now.” He picked up the bag and pressed it to Gray’s chest. “Here, take this.”
“Some of the answers to your past,” said the hermit, “Now, go! There isn’t much time.” The howls grew louder, emphasizing his words.
He unsheathed Morrowil from his back. “I won’t let you fight them alone. I can help.”
Abruptly, the woods darkened, and even the silver light from his sword dimmed.
“Go!” Mura shoved him, withdrawing his blade.
Gray startled at sound like rushing air. A black mist appeared, and then vanished. “What is that?”
“A creature not from this world,” Mura said.
Like dark lightning, the black mist leapt from one tree to another and a voice hissed from everywhere at once, “Handle them. Kill the boy and take the sssword.”
A figure stepped out from the shadows, head scraping the belly of the bent boughs. Despite uneven shadows, Gray saw teeth like hand-length daggers jutting from a wide mouth.
“Run, boy! Now!”
Gray took a step backwards.
The verg gave a throaty laugh. “You should listen to your master,” it said, guttural voice rasping like a saw, as if it were not meant for speech.
“Flee!” Mura yelled.
Something flashed within the dark slits of trees. The shadows materialized, leaping towards him. He dove to the ground, pitching beneath a set of glistening fangs. His sword tip caught the dirt and was ripped from his grip. He turned to see a large black wolf. It turned its massive head, eyeing him with burnished red eyes. Gray’s heart hammered as he grasped for his sword. It was nowhere to be seen. He twisted, and in the pocket of his vision he glimpsed the blade. It was several feet behind him, teetering on the cliff’s edge.
Slowly, he edged towards it. In the corner of his vision, Mura leapt over the verg’s massive swipe, moving with incredible speed. As he looked back, the wolf lunged. Gray reached for his sword. As he gripped the handle, sharp teeth snatched his arm scraping against bare bone. He screamed in pain. Still, he gripped the sword and kicked at the beast, slamming his heel into its muzzle. The wolf didn’t budge, its teeth like iron pincers. It snarled and shook, ripping at his flesh. Gray gasped, pain blotting his vision when he saw trunk-like legs pounding towards him.
“No!” Mura cried out.
The verg’s huge hand seized Gray’s arm and heaved him into the air. He cried out, stretched between the wolf’s snarling jaws and the verg’s brutish grip. Mura dove, lashing at the verg, lacerating its trunk-like legs with his sword. The verg gave a bestial roar. The earth shuddered as its fist cracked the ground and shards of dirt flew. Gray’s body whipped like a wet rag. Through his agony, he felt the wolf’s teeth slip. He heard a loud pop and his vision clouded in pain, voice too hoarse to scream.
When his sight cleared, he saw Mura. The hermit was slumped against a cracked tree trunk. The verg eyed the hermit like a child playing with a broken doll. It turned its massive head. Gray closed his eyes, feigning unconsciousness. “The boy is ours,” the verg rumbled.
Suddenly, something pressed against his back, digging into the root of his spine. His dagger.
“No, he belongs to her,” a voice replied, darker but far less booming than the verg. “She is his keeper.” Gray opened his eyes a fraction and saw the wolf. Its pale lips moved, snarling each word. The wolf speaks…
“She does not command us, beast,” the verg growled. “We answer only to the Rehass. We are the Shadow’s Hand. Flee to your mistress before I crush your bones where you stand.”
The wolf’s red eyes gleamed. “Perhaps I will bite off your flapping tongue and deliver that instead. Along with the boy’s body,” the wolf snapped, its snarl rising in intensity. “Give him to me.”
“Never,” the verg said, its deep growl shaking the ground. Gray’s heart slammed inside his own chest. His left hand dangled, painstakingly he inched it closer to his concealed dagger.
“The boy’s alive!” the wolf snarled and lunged for his leg.
Gray reached for his dagger, but the verg moved quicker. The beast swiped at the wolf, protecting its bounty. Struck by the mighty fist, the wolf yelped, skidding to the cliff’s edge. At the same time, Gray unleashed a cry of rage. Ignoring the stunning shards of pain, he grabbed his hidden dagger. He whipped it around and slammed it into the verg’s fist, piercing its thick hide. The verg howled in rage, then flailed. But Gray held on. He sliced down, cutting bone and tendon. The beast roared. With its free hand, the verg gripped him around the waist, and threw him with a grunt.
Gray was ripped from the dagger and he catapulted through the air. He hit the ground, skidding towards the cliff like a pebble across water. His fingers clawed the ground, but it was useless. The last thing he saw was Mura’s horrified face as he slipped over the edge and beyond, falling towards a sea of trees.
A Journey Forward
Blinding white flickered across the darkness.
Light… the notion skittered across a distant field of thoughts—each thought like a tiny flame dancing in the darkness of Gray’s mind. He drifted back towards slumber and darkness when a voice sounded through the gloom. Wake up! He ignored it, but it spoke again, Sleep is for the weak and the dead.
Am I dead? he asked the voice.
Not yet. Now rise.
Gray let the distant light fill him and his eyes opened to the blinding brightness. Suddenly the fall and all else came back to him in a rush. He gasped as if water filled his lungs and he was drowning. Gradually, his breaths slowed.
With pebbled dirt beneath his cheek, the world appeared as if seen through thick glass. High above, he gazed upon a screen of branches. A canopy. His eyes adjusted to the bright light, and he saw broken branches and a hole in the awning. His mind reeled. How am I alive? He propped himself upon his elbow and his arm burst in a fountain of pain. A jagged gash ran down his left arm. He recalled the scene with the wolf. The wound was peeled back at the surface, looking like gnarled lip, and congealed blood covered the gaping cut. He winced. “I’ll have to clean it soon,” he voiced aloud, looking around for a stream or nearby brook.
Suddenly, he remembered his sword and fear ran through him. He turned and spotted it beside a nearby tree. Relief flooded him.
He rose to get the blade and throbbing pain wrenched his other shoulder. Gently, he rolled it, and sucked in a sharp breath. It felt detached. He looked around in uncertainty, when a memory flashed. Stumbling to his feet, he hobbled to a thick oak. A strange, familiar calm came over him. At the height of his exhale he rammed his shoulder into the tree’s trunk. There was a loud pop and pain bloomed before his eyes, but when it cleared he could move his arm again. He smiled in relief, but knew the hermit had not taught him that.
“Mura,” he whispered and memory of the hermit flooded through him. The last image he had was of Mura slumped against a tree.
He moved towards the cliff and placed his hands to the looming mountain of stone and dirt. Mura had told him to escape the woods and quickly. I will do as promised. I can pass through the woods easily enough following the Silvas River. Once he reached the trading city of Lakewood, he would find safety and wait for Mura. Five days before the spell wears off, he reminded himself. Five days until I see Mura again.
Snatching up his sword, he found a nearby stream and rinsed his wound. The clear, crystal water rinsed over the deep cut. As he ignored the pain, a leaf flashed in his mind’s eye. He paused curiously when a fish darted among the rock bed, and his stomach growled. When the cut was clean, but in need of a bandage, he made his way back to the clearing, hunting for his bag, but after a while his spirits sank.
He leaned against a tree and looked up. There, dangling from a nearby bough was his bag. That should do for now, he thought when he finished wrapping his arm, admiring his handiwork.
Famished, he set aside two red apples and a hunk of orange cheese wrapped in waxy cloth. He finished his meal quickly. With the tang of cheese still on his tongue, he wished for more, but already he knew he would have to ration it out if he were to survive. He began to rise when he caught a flash of silver.
Gray reached into his pack and withdrew his hand. A silver pendant glinted in his palm, and he remembered what Mura had said about the pack containing an object from his past. The pendant was divided in parts by lines, and in each part, was a symbol.
The eight symbols of the Great Kingdoms. The hair on his arms stood on end. “There is one missing,” he said, remembering the emblem of wind that Mura had shown him in the cabin; and he realized the curious tome the hermit had bestowed upon him was now likely gone forever…
His grip tightened on the pendant and magically the two halves of the metal twisted as if on hinges, and then snapped whole once again. Now four of the symbols were on one side, and four were on the other. He twisted it once again. Now two showed. The pendant’s surface glinted.
If the stories were right, the kingdoms held different strengths. Perhaps… He twisted it again, trying to order them from most powerful to least. Aside from wind, sun was the most powerful, so the stories said. Then forest. Sun, forest, fire, ice, stone, moon, metal, flesh. Twisting, Gray lost himself to the symbols, until the last one clicked in place. He gave a triumphant smile, revealing the eight symbols of the Great Kingdoms in order of power. Abruptly, all the symbols vanished in a wave of light.
In their place, was the emblem of wind.
The pendant grew hot and he threw it to the ground as a sudden light flared from the pendant, lighting the clearing in a flash of brilliant gold. He approached. It was warm now, no longer hot, and he twisted it once. The glow vanished and all the symbols returned to the way they were. All eight.
He shook his head and laughed aloud. He looked up, as if expecting someone to see what he had just done, but he was alone. The clearing was empty. A small breeze emphasized his solitude. Gray went to put the pendant back in the pack when his hand halted, and he slipped it around his neck, tucking it beneath his shirt.
He strapped his sword to his back then slung his pack over his shoulder, looking towards the early morning sun. With a last glance behind, he moved out of the clearing, into the forest, and onward. Towards Lakewood, wondering what was around the next bend.
Vera left the camp and walked east.
Her boots crunched on the dry leaves, peeking out from her dark dress. A modest collar revealed faint green veins on her slender neck and chest. The dress was well fitted, flaunting her perfect curves. A strip cut from the side revealed glimpses of her pale, slender legs. It was something she wouldn’t have worn in the Citadel, but she was altogether different now.
Above, the canopy was thick. It was part of the reason hiding from him had been easier, but it made it difficult to tell the time of day. Between the branches she caught hints of the brightening moon.
Her meeting with her companion should be now.
Not far behind, her niux made camp within a small clearing. The contrast between the inviting woods and her cruel, nightmarish beasts almost made her smile.
Two massive vergs, even larger than the rest, were constructing a crude fire, snapping huge limbs from nearby trees. Though fairly intelligent creatures, they looked almost awkward with the act. The beasts ate their meat raw and saw better than most creatures in the night. She had told them to build it without explanation, for she knew the shadows were not only their allies. While they hunted, he also hunted in the darkness. Meanwhile, the others, six saeroks, tall lanky beasts made of raw sinew and thin hair, and four other hulking vergs fought over the remains of their last kill, tearing and shredding into the disgusting carcass of a werebear. She put the noise and commotion of the camp out of her head, dismissing it, when the woods rustled. She stopped.
“You can come out now.”
The biggest wolf she had ever seen stalked out of the shadows. It stopped in the middle of her path. “Mistress,” it snarled, dark fur ruffling in the wind.
Sitting on its haunches the wolf stared her in the eyes, now of equal height. She knew that her attitude, and the lack of fear she emanated was part of her control over the beast. If she let it waver, she wondered if the creature would attack her, or if they had gone beyond that. So close, she sadistically imagined the creature lunging and she knew its speed. She imagined her neck caught in its vicious teeth, the press of its barbed teeth on her soft skin.
“You’re late, my pet,” she replied.
The wolf bowed its head lower.
She continued walking and the creature slipped in at her side like a shadow. “Speak, precious, what news of the boy?”
“The boy…” it growled.
“Yes?” she questioned, turning to look. Already, disappointment spiraled through her and it began the moment she sensed Drefah’s presence. The boy was not here and neither was the sword, and that was all that mattered. All else was worthless news.
Suddenly the forest shifted, and a wind tore through the woods, wracking the trees and howling. If Vera had a pulse, it would have quickened. She sensed Drefah’s fear as well, watching the hackles rise on its massive body. “What is that foul smell?” the wolf asked.
She eyed the woods calculatingly. “It’s him.”
The muscles in her jaw twitched. “Kail. The legend.”
Drefah had no idea who she spoke of, but his snarled heightened. He took her words seriously, as he should. The frightening bay of wind grew louder. Though in reality, it wasn’t the sound, but the feel of the wind. It felt powerful. More powerful than all of them. Her pet’s snarl grated her nerves, and the mere thought of him vexed her.
Vera turned and saw the same fear echoing through the camp behind her. Vergs stiffened and saeroks loped, climbing trees as they watched the woods in fright. It bothered her that she had weeded out every single coward from the bunch and still they trembled like barn mice at his presence. Granted, he had killed four of them already. Not to mention, their fear was instilled in their blood, something born in the Great War, but it still annoyed her, like a sharp splinter she couldn’t pry from beneath her skin.
“Tell me how you lost the boy,” she said.
“A Nameless and its niux, under orders of the Great One, tried to steal the boy. But in the process, the boy was flung over the side of a great cliff. The fall would have killed any human. I searched, but found nothing, not even a scrap of his scent.” The wolf sounded especially irritated about the last part. Its large ears wilted as it spoke, as if it had failed her, and it had, though not entirely.
“It is not your fault, my pet,” she said softly. It seemed appropriate, and her hand absently grazed its waist-height black fur. “They hid his smell with the spark. The old man did. It was nothing you could do.” She scooped a handful of dirt and let it fall to the ground. Simple magic, she thought with a slim, but impressed smile. She looked up, glimpsing the bright moon through the canopy. “I underestimated them, this time. The one who cast the spell was not from this land. I should have anticipated that the prophecy did not reach the Great One’s ears only. I had heard whisper of a prophet from Eldas, a human-blooded cur, but dismissed it as rumor. The man was likely sent as his guardian from beyond the black gates with the knowledge of the prophecy.” She did not mention that she had heard that the prophet was the queen, and her death a timely, fortunate part of the Great One’s ultimate plan. Sometimes she wondered if his plans were the result of coincidence or much more.
The wolf growled in affirmation. “It is as you say. The old man did not move like any human I have seen. He might be elf blood.”
Vera shrugged. “Elves, humans, it does not matter. The man’s power is minimal, but his knowledge is what I fear. We must assume now that he knows everything about the power of the sword and the boy.”
“But, mistress, the boy is dead.”
“No,” she hissed. It was the first time emotion had entered her voice and the wolf flinched under her hand. “The boy is alive. He will not die until I twist the blade in him with my own hands.” Her fingers clenched, grasping his fur. “I want to feel my dagger slide into his heart as I watch the life vanish from his eyes.”
“Why do you hate him? He is a mere human,” the wolf said.
She turned to the massive wolf, her violet eyes flashing dangerously. “I don’t. He was everything in the world to me once.”
“Now he simply stands between me and the sword,” she stated matter-of-factly. “And the sword will be mine.” Nothing would deprive her of that. Not a fall, or the Great One, not legends. Not even you Kirin. She turned with a wicked smile. “Do not fret, my pet. I know where he is heading, and the boy does not know the darkness of what he holds. We shall see him soon.”
The wind howled, and this time she laughed, answering the legend’s call, power filled her voice, overwhelming the sound of the wind.
Gray watched the bright woods as if it were a cutpurse or murderer. In the distance, he heard the gurgle of the Silvas River, often called the Sil, reassuring him of his path. Something glinted ahead.
As he turned the bend, he saw a moss-covered stone spiraling heavenward. Could it be? He wondered, remembering the stories of the watchtowers of old.
Mura had told him of ancient towers that were placed all over Daerval in order to watch, night and day, for The Return. The idea of an ancient watchtower made his heart quicken. A time not long after the Ronin walked the earth, he thought. It was followed by the fearful question. And do they again?
Gray stone jutted from the earth, touching the forest’s high canopy. Moss, roots, and tanglevines covered its surface.
He neared in wonder. Throwing off his pack, he grabbed hold of the nearest tanglevine, tearing it from the statue’s face. He worked quickly and soon enough, he pried the last gnarled vine from the stone. He wiped his damp brow and took a step back.
Five spires shot from the ground. Each were approximately the same size, except for the fifth one, which was shorter and stouter. He made out the wrinkled grooves at the knuckles and the slender curvature of veins as thick as his own forearm.
“A hand the size of a giant,” he whispered in astonishment.
His tired legs wobbled beneath him, and he decided this was as good a place as any to stop. After a quick lunch beneath the shade of the hand, he continued. He left the statue, eyeing the relic one last time as he turned the bend. Gray halted. Straight ahead, the woods forked into two paths. Nothing he remembered from Mura’s tales mentioned the road splitting.
Reaching the split, he slowed. The familiar sound of the Sil was gone. Running back, he searched for the statue, but it was nowhere, as if the woods had shifted, and panic roiled through him.
He was lost.
Overhead, thunder cracked, promising a storm to shake the land.
Rain came in sheets, cleaving the canopy, and falling on Gray’s makeshift shelter.
He had made camp beneath a marmon tree. Mura always called marmons the safe haven for the wayward traveler, for the hollow trunk and awning-like branches was a perfect shelter.
Cold and hungry, he pulled flint from his pack and sparked it against a stone, but with no luck. He eyed his sword at his side. The blade glinted through the cloth bundle. Curious, he grabbed it and struck the flint against the flat of the sword. Sparks flew, lighting the tinder. He laughed in success and saw the blade had not even a scratch.
Gnawing on a hunk of bread, Gray eyed the two trails, waiting to be chosen. He looked away, stoking the fire with a stick. He knew he should sleep, but he wasn’t tired. Instead, the fire of purpose burned in his gut. At last, he walked into the downpour to stand before the two trails. One path was shrouded in cobwebs, the other paved with green moss.
“Often what is darkest, is that which pretends to be light,” he quoted, remembering the words from the one of the tales of the Ronin. Mura told him people from beyond the forest said the Lost Woods were alive; that it had a mind of its own. But the woods had never betrayed him before.
The pendant grew warm. He pulled it from his shirt and it glowed silver. Curious, he stepped forward, lighting both paths in a silver tint. Rain soaked his hair and skin. He closed his eyes and held the pendant before him, following a strange instinct.
When he opened his eyes the pendant’s leather thong was parallel to the ground, as if pulled by a fierce wind towards the darker path. In wonder, he took a step toward the cobwebbed trail. The pendant pulsed as if in agreement. With a laugh of triumph, he snuffed his campfire, strapped on his sword and pack, and then plunged into the waiting trail.
Darkness enveloped him. What he could see, he almost wished he couldn’t. Enormous webs hung from tree to tree, blending with the mist, from which spiders clung, each bigger than his fist. They scuttled as he passed, but he continued. At last, shreds of light pierced the darkness and he realized that night had turned to morning.
The day wore on, the light faded again. With the return of night, the spiders crawled from the trees, watching him with red eyes. Twice, a thick web blocked his path and he pulled his blade free, cutting it down. Once, a spider fell upon his shoulder and he knocked it free, running until his legs burned; but still he jumped when a branch brushed his shoulder. He distracted himself by cutting a notch on his leather belt, marking the passing days. Two days, he counted now, starting from the day he fell from the cliff. He had to keep track of time. Five days until the spells wears off, he reminded himself. Which means, I only have three more to make it out of the woods. He marched through mist, web, and vine. As he walked, his wound itched fiercely. He wanted to check it. It’s healing, something told him, and he trusted it.
Gray moved as if he could see Lakewood around the bend. Only when his legs could move no more, he stopped; but only to kindle quick fires for a few short hours of sleep. In the light of the small fire, he nibbled on a small hunk of cheese, or sliver of dried meat; but his rations dwindled quickly, and each time his gut felt more empty than last. Worst of all, he dreaded sleep and the inevitable nightmares.
Always his dreams involved Mura. Most times he was back in the clearing where he had left the hermit. Mura would cry out, and each time Gray would turn and flee. Other times, he would see the misshapen image of Mura’s head on a pike, eyes glazed in horror. Being awake was not much better.
Several times, a strange mist rose from the soil. It was so thick he could barely breathe, and he would scramble off the trail into the underbrush. Sword clutched to his chest, he listened to animal-like howls and cries. At last, exhaustion overtook him, and he slept restlessly until the mist of morning announced the dawn.
Gray awoke from one of those mornings. It was a particularly frightening night with snarls that sounded in his ear. It was still raining and he felt as if his clothes were now permanently attached to his soaked skin. Still groggy, he glanced down. Barely an arms-length away, imprinted in the mud was a head-sized cloven hoof-print. He tensed, peering through the foliage. Overhead, thunder cracked. It shook the woods like the rumble of a giant. He glanced to his leather belt.
Five notches, he realized, today will make the sixth. He was out of time. A shiver traced his spine. What if I’m on the wrong path? What if I’ve wasted all this time? He hadn’t heard a murmur of the Sil either, not once, and that was his only way out. He shook his head and cast the thoughts aside. No, he would trust the pendant.
More thunder roiled above, sounding closer. Gray looked up. Another storm was brewing, and something told him, this would be far worse than all the others. He unsheathed the sword from his back and rose, moving forward.
Into the thickening mist.
Karil rubbed her hands before the red flames. They made camp on the desert, just outside a ruined town. The nearby trees cast shadows on the flat land. She watched them out of the corner of her eye, reassuring herself that they were not creatures standing still in the night.
“Find anything?” she asked, noticing Rydel had slipped into the camp like a shadow and now stood beside a nearby tree. The elf threw a cloth bundle on the ground and she unfolded it.
Rydel held up a small root. “This’ll be enough for me. The rest is yours.”
She eyed several shriveled roots the color of dirt, and a green head of leaves. Grabbing a long root, she nibbled on it. It was bitter, nothing like she had ever tasted in Farhaven. She thought of the farms of Eldas. What she wouldn’t give for a lignin fruit, head-sized melons that hung from small trees or the crisp tang of moonroots plucked on the twelfth night of every moon. She took another bite. At least it was edible. It had been two fortnights since they had left Eldas and her heart panged with thoughts of her home.
“What’s bothering you?” Rydel asked.
“It is a strange thing when you lie,” he said. “It is truly not elvin.”
She said nothing, staring into the flames as she ate.
“I understand your sorrow,” he said softly.
“Do you? Or is caring for those you loved simply my human side as well?” She regretted the words immediately. It wasn’t Rydel’s fault. But sourness gnawed at her insides like a poison.
The elf looked pained. “I did not mean to offend. I loved your father, too.”
She shook her head, feeling a fool, and touched his arm. “I know you did. Forgive me.”
“By tomorrow, we will see Lakewood, and your uncle,” he said, changing the subject.
The thought lifted her spirits. For a moment, she wondered how different Mura would appear after two years outside the realm of magic. It was said that ten years within Farhaven was the equivalent of one year within Daerval. “And even more pressing, we will finally see the boy of prophecy,” she said. “My mother was right, as always. I was forced beyond the Gates. Now I must continue to follow her words. I must watch over the boy, and ensure his survival.”
“And how will you do that?” Rydel asked. “We’ve seen the destruction the enemy has wrought. He may already be in danger.”
Karil couldn’t deny the truth of that. Upon their journey, they had come across barren towns, and ruined villages, each more horrifying than the last. Fear for the boy’s safety wormed its way beneath her skin like a deep cold.
Suddenly there was a disturbance in her ka. Rydel turned, seeing it in the darkness before she could. The air distorted with the flutter of wings. Come, she beckoned in her thoughts.
From out of the darkness, a hawk appeared, landing upon her pack. It was a beautiful creature, even in the dim light, large with golden plumage, slightly ruffled by its sudden change in course. It eyed her regally.
“Sa mira, kin ha elvia su nivia,” she whispered, enjoying the feel of her language as it flowed across her tongue. At her words, the bird leapt into the air and landed upon her arm. Its sharp claws gripped her harmlessly. She smiled and the hawk tilted its head, listening attentively. She touched the bird’s side calmly, closing her eyes. Save the boy, she implored. Watch over him. But aloud she voiced, “Tervias su unvas. Remlar uvar hil.”
The bird twisted its head, as if in acknowledgement and then flew off.
“At least now we will have eyes on him,” she answered, watching the creature fly away until it was obscured by the dark night. Attuned to the spark, the creature knew her words. But it was still the bird’s choice to follow her. The bird had answered simply. It would obey her command unto death.
“Get some rest, my queen,” Rydel said.
“I will take first watch,” she replied, eyeing the nearby trees again. When Rydel looked ready to argue, she raised a brow. “That’s an order.” The elf grumbled, and settled beneath his dark green blanket, asleep in moments, sleeping dreamlessly as full elves did. The notion of dreams gave Karil a shiver. Her watch was not wholly altruistic. She feared her dreams and would do anything to stave them off for as long as she could. She huddled closer to the red flames that warded off the cold night. With thoughts of the boy and her uncle, she looked south, praying to see Lakewood soon.
The Gathering Dark
Thick plumes of smoke obscured the red moon. The screams had finally settled.
Vera had traveled quickly to make it here. The message had been clear. Come or die. And she valued her life, greatly. It was perhaps the only thing she did value anymore.
She paused outside the inn, feeling the warm glow of the common room on her back. She looked down. The once-thick snow was now trampled flat by thousands of cloven hooves and stained crimson. Her fur-lined coat was covered in blood as well. She threw the coat to the snow, embracing the cold, and stepped to the side, out of the light.
Vergs and saeroks stalked past, joining the swelling army. Her cool glare panned up, and even she had trouble keeping her features smooth.
Wreathed in shadows, the nine sat on deathless steeds. Beasts that made Drefah look tame. Those dead eyes were rimmed in red that writhed with maggots, and hides as black as a moonless night. The beasts appeared as if crudely put together, patches of flesh missing from the animal’s torsos, exposing their white ribs. Steam flared from their nostrils and their hooves beat against the ground with power.
“Is it done?” the leader asked, the closest of the nine. His voice was like a claw raking inside her ear.
“Yes,” Vera answered. “All the inhabitants of Tir Re’ Dol are dead, except for the one. I gave him the message and he will relay it. You can be sure of that,” she couldn’t help but smile. With the fear she had inspired in him, their pawn would ride until his eyes burned and the horse fell beneath him. “We left him a beast to ride, but it will take him some time until he alerts the rest of Daerval.”
“Good,” said the nightmare. “Then it is finished.”
“However,” she paused. The nightmare turned again, and she almost regretted her words. Still her driving need for knowledge overrode her better judgment. Her voice gained strength. “What’s the point? Why warn the prey before the kill?”
A dark hood hid its features, but she felt as if the nightmare was smiling, as if it knew her hunger for knowledge. It squared to her. The jutting spike on its metal pauldron—differentiating it from the other eight of its kind—was the length of her whole arm. Its black cloak wavered as it took a step forward, red snow crunching beneath its plated boot. It took another, and still she remained motionless, until it stood towering head and shoulders over her. She looked into the nightmare’s hood, but saw only darkness. Still she knew that arrogant smile was there.
“Do you fear me?” It asked calmly.
“Yes,” she replied. Her voice was smoother than she anticipated, but the words stung. There was no use lying. She didn’t know what the other eight Kage would do, and it was almost certain death, but she wouldn’t let him lay a hand on her.
“Not nearly enough.”
She swallowed. “You didn’t answer my question.”
It laughed, or what she hoped was laughter. “It will do them no good. It is the Great One’s wish that they know their demise. A week is no matter. Besides, it will take us several days here. We have things to do still,” it said, and she knew that smile turned wicked. “There are still several towns within the mountains to destroy before we finish the southern lands.”
“But why? They will know of your arrival, and if they have any wits about them, they’ll flee.” She was careful of her tone, trying not to bite off each word. The fools. He’ll slip right through their fingers.
“Fleeing serves no purpose without the key. And if they flee with it? Then they run right into our hands.”
Vera released a hidden breath as it turned its back; at the same time, she glimpsed its true features and saw merciless scarlet eyes. She sunk to one knee, pressing a fist to the snow. Head bowed, she was glad they could not see her teeth grind in fury. “Am I done?” she asked.
The nightmare turned and its cloak, edged in blood, flung behind him.
“Burn it all, than you may take your leave.”
She coiled with restrained lust. Her hands rose at her sides, a pale glow surrounding them and she shook with power. She threw them to the sky and the inn ignited, sending flares into the night air. She unleashed a fierce cry, and fire roared to life, consuming all it touched.
At her feet, a man held a small girl. She watched the two corpses burn. Holes were torn through their abdomens. Such a shame. The fool girl and her father would have lived, if only for a while longer, had they not run to her for help. The thought sparked an idea and she knew how to get Kirin. Oh, Kirin, your luck has run out. Soon you will be leaving the safety of the woods and I will be waiting. The sword and its power will be mine.
She walked through the huge gate, flames hot on her back. Ahead, her niux waited. To the east, she spotted the tail of the dark army, leaving the city as well, roving towards its next kill. Vera’s boots left red prints in the fresh snow, as she approached her niux.
“We follow the Kagehass?” A verg rumbled, watching the dark caravan.
Drefah growled. Aside from her pet, none were allowed to speak. The huge leathery skinned creature knew it too. At any other time she would cut its tongue from its mouth, but instead she answered, “We do not.” The beasts trundled. To disobey the Kage was a fate worse than death.
“Then where to, mistress?” A saerok rasped. It stood on the balls of its feet in the thick snow. Standing several feet taller than her, its patchy fur ruffled in the wind.
“We go south,” she told her dark army, “towards Lakewood, and towards the sword.”
A Fire Lit Within
Gray’s pulse beat in time with the flickering flames. The fire raged before his closed lids, pushing back the shadows in the quiet glade.
Cross-legged on the ground, the leaf sat in his mind’s eye, but it was not what he sought. A swirling ball of air flashed. He reached for it, but it retreated, racing away. This time he didn’t let it go. Eyes clenched, he followed it, pushing into his consciousness. The ball of air was just beyond his reach. He reached out. Pain shot through his limbs as he ran into a wall. His concentration wavered, but he held on, bashing against the wall. At last, it shattered. His eyes opened, returning to the real world. His heart raced as he took in his surroundings.
Before him, the fire still burned. Shadows danced in the trees, as if waiting to move into his small camp. But everything seemed different. His world was crisper, sharper.
Slowly, he stood, confused but calm. He was soaked in sweat. It rolled down his limbs as he reached for his sword that stuck upright. He gripped the handle. It had never felt more right.
He inhaled deeply. With two breaths, he gained control of his breathing, something he had never done before, but somehow knew he could. Still, his heart beat wildly. There was nothing but his body and the sword.
Heron Rises on One Leg, a voice whispered, and the sword parried an unseen blow. Without slowing, he twisted the blade, disarming the shadow opponent, and striking. Crane’s Beak. Before the strike was finished, his left leg circled, raising a fan of dirt as he swept the opponent’s legs. Ten Moon. He switched his grip stabbing behind. His muscles flexed in the last moment, power resonating through the flashing blade as the sword snapped to a halt. Setting Sun. With a cry, he spun, pivoting in a full-circle and cutting down a charge of unseen foes. Still, he was moving. Wind Dances in the Reeds. With the momentum of the spin, he dove into a fluid roll, cutting left and right at the enemy’s legs. Tempest’s Fury. Gray unleashed a cry as he pounded his feet against the ground, and sprung backwards. He flipped, head over heels. His back arched as he landed on his feet, and drove the sword down with all his might, and slammed it into the ground.
His breath challenged the fire’s crackle. Again, he stilled it in a matter of seconds. His limbs shook, but inside he was calm. He eyed his camp and saw his pack showered in dirt, and the ground torn up.
His hand trembled, but not in fear. “My memory is coming back.”
Cautiously, he reached into his mind. The swirling ball of air came forth and his world expanded. Suddenly, he smelled a rabbit as it raced down a game trail. No. He felt it. He reached out and his mind shifted.
He sniffed the air, wet nose twitching as he smelled for danger. Nothing. He continued, moving through the grass, searching for tender stalks. He hopped closer, nibbling at a leaf, eyes flitting all the while. Suddenly, he froze. His muscles stiffened, fur ruffling from a sudden wind. His heart hammered faster. DANGER. The sensation flooded him. He leapt, pounding through the brush. SAFETY. AHEAD. The words were short and simple. Feelings, not whole, concrete thoughts. His heart beat harder and he saw the tangle of brush, taking a final leap and—
Gray gasped loudly, breaking from his trance and staggering backwards. He reached for his sword, looking up and behind him. He clutched his racing heart. His heart. “What was that? It’s as if I was dying…”
There was a fluttering sound and he turned. Perched upon a branch, was a hawk. Its head swiveled and he followed its gaze. Upon the stone, beside the fire, was the carcass of a rabbit and his hunger surged. “Is that for me?” the hawk tilted its head. “All I’ve had to eat is dried meat and cheese, you have no idea how hungry I am.” A few minutes over the flame and… He reached out a hand and touched the rabbit’s soft fur, when a flash of pain ran through him. He leapt back as if stung. His hand appeared unscathed, and yet it felt as if he had just put it to the flames.
“I had its sight, smell, and feelings ripped from me as you caught it,” he said. “I must still feel its pain.” He shook his head, turning. “It’s all yours. I’m not as hungry as I thought. Go on.” The hawk seemed to understand and swooped in, tearing up the small animal.
He turned his head, unable to watch, and then sat down on