The Youngest Immortal Chapters 4-7
“Stop!” Jadeth hissed as she slid into a crouch behind a pillar of rock.
The rest slipped behind her and ducked into the shadows. Jewel bright eyes narrowed and focused on a distant movement far down the winding trail beyond several towering red rock formations. Lightning forked the inky sky and shadows jerked and danced.
“What do you see?” Ivo shifted his position until his back was to the stone beside her. His eyes never left the trail behind them.
“Hmm. Movement. It’s in the shadows of a cliff and blends in too well. I cannot see what it is from here.” Jadeth frowned back at Emaranthe, catching and holding her gold eyes steadily. “I’m moving closer, stay here.”
Gold eyes blinked in consent, then vanished as Emaranthe tugged the worn hood back over her hair. Both men made to protest, but a vivid sapphire glare sharper than a dagger stopped them cold.
Hissing and muttering, beneath his breath, Jaeger jammed his axe back into its holster and Ivo’s glare remained on the lithe Elf as she slipped from the shadows and darted into the open, scarlet braids flapping behind her long narrow ears.
“She’s being foolish.” Jaeger said flatly.
“She’s doing what she feels she needs to,” Emaranthe hissed softly. “She hates not being able to contribute more.”
“What?” Jaeger frowned down at Emaranthe but couldn’t catch her eyes beneath the hood. “She keeps us alive. Well, more or less. If you can call us alive.”
“She wishes she could fight.” Ivo sighed heavily, still keeping keen watch over her rapidly vanishing form.
“She never told me that,” Jaeger glanced at his older brother, then back down to Emaranthe. “Why? She was reborn as a Healer.”
“I was reborn to burn with fire, to own it and make it mine, it lives in me.” Emaranthe whispered as a sharp, cold wind snagged the hood and whipped it free from her fair braids. Emptiness burned in her eyes. “But it was fire that killed me, in the end.”
Gold eyes flicked up and locked on Jaeger’s pale blue and then Ivo’s clear green and held their gazes without blinking.
“So I must love what killed me, you see.”
Both men flinched as their memories stirred dark thoughts. Thoughts they’d never wanted to remember.
“So Jadeth both loves and hates her calling. She told me her story once. Long ago.” Emaranthe whispered as a peal of thunder shook the stones around them. Lightning, white hot and very close cracked all around. Shadows jerked and danced wildly in the light.
The inky sky settled again and Jadeth reappeared silently beside the two men just as the last leaping shadows vanished.
“Gah! Will you stop that?” Jaeger snapped, startled, as he casually looked to his left. Stifling a grin, Jadeth threw Emaranthe a sly wink before dropping into a cautious crouch. The others followed suit and the foursome traded worried looks.
“What did you find?” Ivo struggled to keep his voice down. The wind was picking up again, making whispering difficult.
“It was a villager,” Jadeth caught three pairs of startled eyes, two of which immediately narrowed suspiciously. “I’d not seen him before, but he was…” she swallowed thickly, and her long ears folded against her red braids in grief. “…too wounded for me to save.”
The suspicion fled and turned to sorrow.
“Ah. I’m sorry Jadeth.” Jaeger sighed and shot the purple sky a reproachful look.
“You did your best, don’t let the sorrow get to you.” Emaranthe smiled in the gloom and braced herself as another gust of wind whipped her cloak about her shoulders.
“We need to move. It is getting worse out here.” Ivo shifted to his feet smoothly for someone wearing several layers of heavy armor.
“The way is clear until…the body.” Jadeth swallowed again. “I saw nothing else.”
Lightning forked the sky and simultaneously thunder rumbled and echoed all around. Above them, unnaturally purple clouds shrouded the plateau in a gloomy haze.
“Hurry.” Emaranthe said as she jerked her hood up against the screaming wind. “We must hurry.”
As one, they darted from the shelter of the outcropping and moved at a smooth, ground eating trot up the narrow path, all eyes wide and wary. The couple of miles to the body of the unfortunate villager were a blur of thunder, lightning and howling wind.
They slowed to a wary halt at the edge of the shadows and paused to bow respectfully to the dead, their right hand over their hearts.
“Be at peace, friend, may The Four bless you and keep you at their side.” Ivo sighed wearily and turned, jamming his helm back on his head with a gauntleted hand.
“I wish I was.”
Ducking into the howling wind, they moved up the narrow path. The inky clouds now stretched over the entire valley, leaving only a small patch of red gold sunlight to filter through on the far western rim of the ravine. The shafts of orange light from the setting sun mixed with acrid purple. The waning daylight made the unnatural purple sky even more sinister as they wound their way up the steep path.
“We’re going to have to find shelter. It’s no use to fight in this unnatural storm and darkness.” Ivo grunted and shot the roiling clouds and vanishing sun a glare. Emaranthe frowned, but said nothing. He was right.
“Here, try this way!” Jaeger stopped as they rounded a bend and found a faint trail leading into a narrow gorge. “Stay wary.” He gripped his axe with both hands and led the way.
“I don’t like this.” Ivo frowned and let the women go first. He preferred to watch their backs.
“I wonder what is down here,” Jadeth slung her hammer over her left shoulder and tipped her head to stare far up the sheer walls. “This whole place is larger than it looks.”
Emaranthe followed silently, her staff held loosely in her left hand as gleaming gold eyes searched the shadows of the cliffs. Like, Ivo she didn’t like this one bit.
The narrow ravine ended abruptly at another sheer wall and the four stood in silent contemplations of their options. Though the wind still howled furiously, it didn’t quite reach so deep into the blind canyon.
“We must stay here. There is little choice with the sun setting.” Emaranthe slid the hood off her head and sighed as she scanned the slightly oval shaped dead end. “It could be worse; we could be in the open.”
Ivo grunted and stowed his swords as Jaeger did likewise with his axe. They had nothing with them, so setting up camp was as easy as sinking to the ground, which both men did with pained, weary grunts.
Jaeger leaned against the crumbling sandstone wall and closed his eyes, feeling a weariness he hadn’t felt in a long time. Behind his eyelids a small, flickering glow lit up the dark. He didn’t bother opening them.
Emaranthe cupped her hand beneath the tiny hovering flame and held it aloft like a lamp. It shivered and twisted in the sharp wind, but burned steady, casting a golden puddle of light on the four friends sitting in a circle.
“Why haven’t we seen more of the Dro Aconi?” Jadeth spoke to no one in particular and for a long moment no one answered. She too closed her eyes and leaned back against the cliff wall.
“Because they are waiting for the right moment.” Emaranthe stared at the tiny fire-lamp in her gloved hand. “They know we are here.”
“What are they doing? Mining the ore doesn’t need an entire invasion. Those skeletons were puppets, our people whose bodies were severed from their Souls.” Jaeger opened his eyes and frowned at the now pitch black sky. “There must be something else going on.”
“What else is here?” Jadeth sighed and dragged a scarlet braid over her left shoulder. She chewed on the tail of the braid, her long ears flattened back as she thought.
“Not much. These villagers lead a simple life. The ore was all they had and even then they never truly knew its value.” Emaranthe lowered her hand and let the fire writhe and flicker out of her hand until it hovered above the bare stone floor. She sat back and pulled her knees to her chest, her cloak and robes bunching about her legs. Propping her narrow chin on her knees, pale braids dragging into the dirt, she watched the floating flame with wide, enigmatic eyes.
Ivo stared at her, noting that she looked more like a young child than ever. He knew better however, knew that the decades of battle and death had hardened her, perhaps more so than either he or Jaeger had been. Something about dying, repeatedly, made one grow up awful fast.
Abruptly Jadeth dropped her hair and her ears shot up. Emaranthe, too sat up, her head tilted as she listened to the howling wind.
“Incoming!” Jadeth bolted to her feet just as a louder, more audible wail echoed down the long, narrow gorge. Her hammer sang as she swung it high over her head, the green glow instantly casting all in an eerie light. “More minions, I think. I hear their bones.”
Ivo hurtled to his feet, his heavy armor clattering as he slid his shield and sword free. He crouched, shifting agilely on the balls of his feet. Fury darkened his face and even Jaeger kept his mouth shut as he moved into a defensive position if front of the women.
Emaranthe’s tiny fire guttered and blew out as the wind strengthened and the wailing and clattering bones grew louder. She too pulled her staff free and moved to stand beside Jadeth. Vivid blue eyes met with sad golden ones and both women smiled wearily at each other.
There was no rest for the immortal.
Emaranthe closed her eyes and let the heat rise from within her. She felt it curl, writhe, and slither from somewhere deep in her soul. Flames erupted and swirled at her feet in a macabre dance. They continued to hover and circle her in an endless writhing motion at knee height.
Burning gold eyes slammed open. She was ready.
Jadeth felt the heat emanate from her tiny friend and despite the approaching danger, she couldn’t pull her eyes from the mesmerizing sight, and emboldened she tightened her grip on her hammer and turned to face the approaching horde.
Forced to march in a tighter formation by the narrow ravine walls, they appeared around the final bend in rows of 4 abreast. This time, however, there were more than skeletal minions.
Zombies, basically no more than skeletons with still attached half decayed flesh and marginally higher intelligence, shambled disjointedly behind the first few rows of minions.
Ivo snarled and clanged sword to shield before dropping into a deeper crouch. Seeing this, Jaeger moved to stand close behind, his great axe ready.
With a roar, Ivo launched through the air, sword swinging. He cleared the thirty foot distance to the front line of minions with ease and landed amidst them with an earth shaking rumble that shook rock and dirt from the cliffs above. Skeletons and zombies crunched, scattered and screamed beneath the force of his leap.
Jaeger reached the front lines at nearly the same time, having darted into action at the same time as Ivo. His great axe swung wide and bits of bone scattered and rained all around.
Still growling in fury, Ivo spun about, his swords flashing and gleaming in the distant green glow of Jadeth’s hammer. The skeletal minions fell quickly, but the Zombies posed a slight difficulty as dismembered limbs had the disturbing ability to continue to fight.
Emaranthe saw a mini horde of body-less forearms and hands scratching and clawing across the ground, intent on attacking the men. She plucked a large ball of fire from the miasma still dancing furiously about her legs and hurled it at them. It hit dead on, exploding and scattering even more flesh and bone and setting other skeletons and Zombies afire. Infuriated, a group of skeletons detached from the mass and turned toward the women, disjointed jaws wide in ear splitting screeches.
Jadeth swung her hammer over her head and the green light intensified, bathing the whole gorge in a sickening green glow. Electric blue eyes wavered between the rapidly approaching skeletons and the two men fighting furiously amid a sea of decay, bone and screams. She swallowed and focused on the men. They needed her more.
Emaranthe raised her staff and a pulse of fire, like a living vine, swept out in a fiery arc. It swept aside the first few in a blast of heat and flame, sending bits of flesh splattering into the sandstone walls.
“Get away from them!” Jaeger’s cry drifted from somewhere in the approaching mob and as the women watched, a large bloodied axe rose above the moldering heads and sheared through most of them with a single blow. “Why. Don’t. You. Die!”
Without warning he staggered and fell, his roar of pain nearly drowned out by the wind.
“No!” Jadeth screamed. She leaped forward and swung the hammer in a blaze of green.
Emaranthe sucked in a breath as he vanished beneath a gruesome dog pile of skeletons. She could hear their bony fingers scratching and clawing at his armor.
“Ivo! Help!” Emaranthe cried out and rushed toward the horrible sight, her terrified scream nearly lost in the ghoulish howls of the minions attacking Jaeger. She didn’t dare launch fire at them without risking his life and as much as he could be reborn, each time an Immortal died, a piece of their soul was irreparably wounded.
Ivo turned and took in the scene with a single horrified look. All he could see of his little brother was a blood streaked iron boot.
“No!” Ivo howled and spun, leaping into flight across the gorge, shield and blade ready. He landed at the edge of the mass, and swept his shield across the nearest few, sending them flying. Another bone crunching swipe unburied the lower half of Jaeger. His legs arched and kicked valiantly, seeking to fight his way free. Blood streamed from jagged gashes around the gaps of his armor.
Both women reached the still struggling mass of zombies and skeletons at the same time and Jadeth, tears streaming much like Jaeger’s blood, hovered at the fringe, dancing carelessly away from scrabbling skeletons in a frantic effort to heal him. Her hammer glowed even brighter as she neared him and the flow of blood slowed measurably and then began to reverse flow and slid back up toward his numerous wounds.
Hands glowing with white hot fire, Emaranthe too struggled past scrabbling, boney fingers to reach him. Each time her hands touched a flailing, defleshed body part it burst into flame and broke away with howls of terror. She flung half a dozen burning zombies and skeletons away before she reached his bloodied upper torso.
“No. Come on.” Emaranthe gasped and dropped beside him even as Jadeth flung herself beneath a Zombie’s outstretched arm and hovered her hammer over his barely moving body.
Ivo couldn’t stop his assault to see if his brother lived, but kept it swingly wildly as more and more skeletons ambled and shuffled closer, decrepit hands and moldy fingers grasping and clawing.
“Ivo, quick! Come here!” Jadeth screamed over the screeching horde, her hammer glowing furiously green. Ivo spared a frantic look and saw his brother draped over Emaranthe’s lap, his body so dark with blood he couldn’t see flesh. Jadeth’s hammer kept glowing, but the wounds seemed to hardly move to repair now.
Heat burned deep inside Emaranthe as a cold burning fury built. Her eyes, already glinting with fear and anguish, darkened into molten gold and began to glow in the darkness.
Ivo saw and threw himself toward the huddled, bloodied group just as a wave of heat began to burn and writhe. The fire enveloped all four, encasing them with flame. Shielded in impenetrable heat and fire Ivo dragged Jadeth closer and shot Emaranthe a worried look.
Her eyes glowed white hot and both Ivo and Jadeth huddled closer over Jaeger to better shield him from the still advancing horde. Bony hands that touched the living fire shield immediately burst into flame and crumbled into ash.
“I can’t stop Ivo,” Emaranthe whispered, her voice echoing oddly within the fiery dome. “I can’t hold it back any more. Stay close, don’t move.”
Her fiery eyes slammed shut and her arms flung wide, staff aloft.
Fire exploded from her tiny body in a violent, raging super nova.
The stench of charred flesh seared Ivo’s nostrils.
He opened his eyes and blinked up at the inky darkness. For a long moment he didn’t move. Slowly he shifted his legs, arms, and torso to test for injuries. His entire body ached viciously, but seemed able, even if reluctant, to move.
He grimaced as he sat up and jerked his helm free. He dropped it to his left where it clattered to the sandstone ground loudly in the eerily silent night.
“Jaeger!” he turned and reached out his hand, but felt nothing nearby in the night. He clambered to his feet and dragged a hand through his dark hair as fear settled low in his chest. “Jadeth! Emaranthe!”
“Ivo,” Jadeth’s voice echoed faintly on the wind. Ivo spun around, tilting his head to better locate her voice.
“Where are you?” He yelled into the night. A sudden grunt of pain just to his left startled him. He recognized that usually snide sound and moved toward it cautiously. His boot collided with another iron boot, and Jaeger’s familiar voice hissed sarcastically.
“So you’re trying to kill me too?”
Ivo ignored the sarcasm and dropped to one knee at his brother’s side. “Brother, you are alive, thank The Four.” he gripped Jaeger’s arm and heaved him upright. Though unable to see in the darkness, Ivo was certain he was being glared at.
“What the hell happened?” Jaeger grunted as he tugged off his left gauntlet. Even without seeing his hand he knew that it was cut up and bruised badly. “I remember trying to get the skeletons off the women—women! Where are they…are they okay?”
“I don’t know. I thought I heard Jadeth, but she sounded far away. I haven’t found Emaranthe.” Ivo squinted into the darkness but saw nothing.
“Jadeth! Emaranthe!” Jaeger bellowed into the night. Somewhere distant they both heard Jadeth’s voice in the wind. “Where in the hell—“
A neon green glow lit up the night sky.
Squinting, both men stared at the source in mute alarm. High above them, Jadeth crouched on a ledge, holding her hammer high.
“How in the—“Jaeger frowned at the Elf clinging to the cliff face. Jadeth was staring down at them with wide, terrifiedeyes and laid back ears. Her scarlet braids were undone, but other than that she seemed okay.
“I can’t get down!” her voice drifted to them in the sharp wind.
Ivo didn’t hear her; he was staring at the unmoving bundle of fabric at the base of the cliff directly below her. Jaeger felt his brother tense and dropped his gaze too.
“Aw, shit.” Jaeger dragged his helm free, wincing as it glanced over multiple cuts and scrapes and let it fall to the ground. “I’ll get Jadeth, you get her.”
Jaeger cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled up to Jadeth, “I’m coming up, hold on!”
He backed up several yards, gauging the distance to the ledge. With a blur of speed he broke into a short run and launched himself into the air. He soared across the narrow gorge and upwards to the ledge, landing hard next to Jadeth with a clatter of armor and slight grunt of pain.
“Thank you…thank you,” Jadeth gasped and clutched both arms around him in evident fear, still holding the unwieldy hammer in a death grip. She was shaking violently. “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”
Frowning, Jaeger gripped her upper arms and gave her a small shake, forcing her gaze up to his. Horrified blue eyes, vacant with memories long gone, stared at him as if they didn’t recognize him.
“Jadeth! Snap out of it!”
“So many dead. So many. Mother tried to help them. B..b..bodies everywhere…blood,” Jadeth stammered and gasped as she trembled. Jaeger saw in her vacant stare that she was reliving something very very horrible.
“Jadeth, that happened long ago. It’s over now.” Jaeger didn’t dare pull her down from the ledge without calming her down.
“No, no. Mother tried to heal them, but there was too many. Too many.” she choked on a sob. “I watched the…the… demons tear them apart.”
Jaeger shot a quick down but he could see nothing from his position.
“Mother tried to fight them off…she wasn’t a fighter though, she was a healer! She…she…fell…next to the chest I was hiding in.” She gasped and shut her eyes as tears slid in filthy trails down her pale cheeks.
“Jadeth, you don’t have—“Jaeger whispered, but she cut him off.
“—I…I…grabbed her hammer and tried to fight too. They laughed and flew away.” Eyes still closed, she swayed. Jaeger tightened his grip on her arms.
“I followed them, searched for them…for years. My mother’s hammer was the only thing I had left from her.” she whispered into the wind as it dragged streamers of her hair, now unbraided and loose on her narrow shoulders, over her face. “I chased the creatures for decades—”
“Jadeth, that was long ago. Please, we need to get down to help the others.” Jaeger shook her again, gently. Her eyes opened, wide and sad, and she looked directly at him at last.
“I found every demon I could. I chased them all. I did everything I could to…die.” she sucked in an unsteady breath and blinked as the sharp wind whipped her hair wildly. Jaeger stayed silent… her agony was palpable.
“I died at last. I welcomed it. I felt them clawing at me. I felt their claws, their wings that stirred a foul wind…the wind… I wanted the wind to take me,” Jadeth sighed softly. “But I awoke again, in my body, with my mother’s hammer and bearing her gift of healing.”
“You had proven yourself then, Jadeth. The Four chose you because you are the best healer of all!” Jaeger hissed. “You alone healed us through that battle!”
“It wasn’t enough.” Jadeth whimpered. Even in the green glow she could see the myriad of cuts, slashes and bruises on his face and neck. His pale hair was tousled from either helm or wind…and slightly singed looking. “My mother would have been able to heal you all whole. I am a poor excuse—“
“Stop it! You saved us!” Jaeger growled. “Without your abilities, I would have died. Something I vowed to never do again!” he turned and stared far down into the vaguely green-lit blind canyon, but still no movement below. Unable to see directly beneath their position on the ledge, he could only figure Ivo and Emaranthe were still there.
“Come on. Let’s go see if Emaranthe is okay.” Jaeger glanced back at Jadeth and caught her look of utter horror.
“Emaranthe…” Jadeth gasped and switched her hammer into the other hand. “I forgot…”
“Do Elf-Kind still have Last Hope by any chance?” Jaeger watched stark fear tighten her features.
“Yes. I’ve never used it.” Jadeth whispered softly. “I could never make myself fly…like them.”
“Then will you do it for your friends?” Jaeger’s voice pierced through the buffeting wind and echoed in the gorge.
“Yes.” Jadeth closed her eyes and swallowed. Her grip on her hammer tightened as Jaeger tightened his on her waist. She inhaled firmly and the glow of her hammer seemed to intensify. “Now!”
They leaped off the cliff.
A golden aura glowed brightly, joining the eerie green, and giant ethereal wings, seemingly made of nothing but sunlight, erupted from Jadeth’s shoulders as they plunged downward.
The wings buffeted and caught the air, slowing their descent until they were gliding smoothly. The wings vanished into the wind as their feet grazed the hard packed dirt and stumbled into a slight run to halt their momentum.
Gasping, wide eyed Jadeth spun around and launched herself at Jaeger, giving him a victorious hug.
“I did it!” she laughed.
Jaeger stood stone still and didn’t react. His blue eyes had scanned the green hued shadows and fallen on the huddled shapes beside the cliff.
Ivo looked up and locked eyes with his brother. Blue eyes stared at the limp, unmoving bundle draped over Ivo’s lap.
“No. No…”Jadeth looked past Jaeger and cried out. She pushed away from him and darted forward, heaving her hammer high as it glowed even brighter.
“It’s too late.” Ivo climbed to his feet, still holding the tiny body. As he walked from the shadows of the cliff, the wind stung his face. It was the wind, he told himself, that made his eyes tear up.
Singed blond streamers drifted in the screaming wind and a small, charred, gloved hand swung freely as he walked heavily past Jaeger and Jadeth into the night.
Jadeth rushed after Ivo. Jaeger followed, pausing to grab both of their helms. They followed Ivo into the night, knowing without asking what he was looking for.
Jadeth lifted her hammer and a dim green light lit up the narrow path before them. Three pairs of eyes frantically searched the shadows between pillars of stone, rock outcroppings, and bushes that leaned into the screaming wind. The path wound steeply, carving through sheer cliffs and rock outcroppings, leaving little space available for what they looked for.
“There must be one here.”Jadeth muttered and glanced up the path—but the light from her hammer only lit up a few yards at best. They did not dare to do anything else or risk attracting the attention of more minions that they knew were out there.
Jaeger worriedly watched his brother walk ahead, his stride stiff with single minded determination. He could see Emaranthe’s arm swinging loosely and a pale ribbon of her hair drifted in the wind over Ivo’s arm. They had to find a Solarium soon. Without the pedestal, a miniature temple to The Four, there would be no concentrated energy to heal Emaranthe…and there would be no coming back for their tiny mage. If they were attacked now…
“Here! Here!” Jadeth’s shriek broke Jaeger’s thoughts and both he and Ivo stumbled and turned.
To their left in a jagged indentation of the cliff, a huge bush jerked and shook as Jadeth grabbed the spiny stems and leaves and yanked. A handful of thorns and small leaves ripped free. She pulled again and several spindly stems gave out. Thorns bit into her fingers and palms but she reached for another handful. Beyond the bush Jaeger and Ivo could just see the small half arched stone and iron pillars that marked it as a Solarium. They were lucky. So many had been destroyed by their enemy over the eons.
Jaeger slid his axe free and pushed Jadeth away. She danced aside just as the blade arced through the air, glinting silver and green in the glow of the hammer, and buried itself in the bush with a brittle crack. Bits of leaves, long willowy stems and thorns spun away on the wind. A second whack. A third.
Jaeger swung the axe a fourth time, sending the rest of the brittle bush stems scattering. Thunder rumbled further ahead of them, shaking the ground. The pedestal was mostly uncovered now, but for a few remnants of spindly, dead cactus that towered over the far side.
Jaeger glanced at Ivo, but looked away as he caught his brother’s tight, pained look. He backed away and shouldered the axe, moving to stand beside Jadeth.
Grim and silent, Ivo moved forward and carefully placed the tiny figure upon the circular, knee high stone pedestal. Emaranthe’s cloak and robes, already overly large for her fragile frame, covered her easily as a death shroud…
“I am so sorry Emaranthe.” Ivo’s whisper vanished on the wind as he backed away. Guilt sat heavy in his chest, tight and painful. A delicate sniff to his left reminded him that he wasn’t the only one there and he walked with pained slowness to stand beside his other two best, and only friends.
“Please work. Please work. Please work.” Jadeth was alternately sniffing and whispering, her jewel bright eyes unashamedly wet. The wind screamed and moaned through the narrow path, dragging her vivid red hair into her face.
Jaeger felt her hair drag across his shoulder guards and snag on the sharp edges. Atypically, he ignored this, but instead his gaze traveled fitfully between the still shape on the pedestal and his brother’s stony face. Without realizing it, his hand had fisted tensely as they waited.
Out of the green hued shadows, symbols and shapes glowed white hot on the stone pedestal. Jadeth’s hammer fell from her startled fingers and the green glow vanished, replaced now by the light of the intricate runes covering the stone. Even the wind buffeted and stilled.
The white runes glowed brighter as Emaranthe’s petite body began to fade.
Ivo swallowed thickly but forced himself to watch as she slowly drifted into nothingness, the bright runes more and more visible through her body as she vanished. At last there was nothing left on the pedestal but the glowing shapes and symbols carved by The Four long ago. The glow gradually intensified.
Shielding her eyes now, Jadeth squinted into the light. A quick glance to her left told her Jaeger was doing likewise. Ivo still stared fully into the white hot light, his mouth tight, his eyes searching
A small, dark shape walked out of the light.
Burning gold eyes glittered in the white light and a small gloved hand curled around a staff. Blond braids trailed in the buffeting wind, dragging the worn hood from her head.
She inhaled heavily and smiled widely at Ivo, Jadeth and Jaeger, as the runes faded behind her, the light flickering and moving oddly— like fire.
“Emaranthe!” Jadeth launched herself at her friend, forgetting for the moment that she towered over the tiny woman, and tackled her to the ground.
Laughing and crying both women hugged while in the background, Ivo and Jaeger traded exasperated looks. Women.
Emaranthe pulled free from Jadeth and stood. Jadeth retrieved her fallen hammer and the green glow once again banished the darkness. Ivo and Jaeger stood uncertainly in the shadows of the cliff.
Gold eyes flicked between the brothers. Ivo’s face was dark with self loathing, his eyes watchful in the dark, as if awaiting reproach. Jaeger, too, looked worried and pained…something he would never admit to in any lifetime.
She halted before Ivo and stared far up at him.
“Thank you.” Emaranthe’s staff clattered to the rocky ground as she wound thin arms around his waist. Ivo froze, startled. He had expected blame and anger, not this.
“You thank me for letting you die?” Ivo rasped. “I should be begging your forgiveness and thanking you for saving us.”
“I didn’t die in vain if it saved you all.” Emaranthe whispered. Ivo closed his eyes as guilt battled with relief of her return. He knew like anyone else, that sometimes there is no return if your soul is too wounded. Their immortality, gifts from desperate gods, was fickle at best. You were counted lucky if you kept your original body for more than a handful of reincarnations, because with each new body all your previous memories were lost.
Ivo wondered if that would be a blessing…and wondered how many bodies, lives, he’d lived unremembered so far. That thought was nothing compared to the thought of losing the friends who had been at his side, loyal and brave, for many years.
Ivo’s iron and chainmail clad arms gingerly returned the hug, even more mindful now just how small and fragile she really was.
Jaeger watched with a tiny, twisted smile, noting how uncomfortable his brother was, as if Ivo wanted her to yell and blame. It wasn’t Ivo’s fault…
Emaranthe let go of Ivo and shot Jaeger a wide, sad smile.
“Oh, no.” Jaeger held up both hands to ward her off. “Uh, no mushy stuff.”
“Hehe. All right.” Emaranthe sighed and bent to retrieve her staff. She caught his eye then and gold studied blue. She nodded her head and smiled. No mushy stuff. Jaeger grinned and returned the acknowledgement.
No mushy stuff indeed.
The purple night was graying slightly to the East. The fitful wind dragged around them, then eased as daylight, though still hidden behind thick inky clouds, broke.
Jadeth and Emaranthe huddled in the hollow behind the pedestal and dead cactus, a tiny hovering fire between them, trying to rest. The barely lightened sky was icy and misty with the wind gone and everything was damp.
Ivo and Jaeger stood standing guard side by side, arms crossed—towering sentinels. Both had ganged up to make the women rest, and had earned glares and raised eyebrows from both females. In the end even Jadeth had to acknowledge that Emaranthe needed rest more than anyone and had acquiesced too.
Wide, sad gold eyes watched from the shadowed depths of her hood. They fixed from time to time on each of her friends, a pang of despair twisting in her chest. The thought of losing them had been too much.
They were all she had left.
Somewhere thunder rumbled. Emaranthe closed her eyes as the ground beneath her trembled. The thunder drifted off and she realized that she was what was trembling, not the earth…
The purple sky lightened little with the sunrise. Ivo and Jaeger stood guard at the edge of the trail, their shadowed eyes unreadable in the gray light. The subdued silence was mutual—as natural as breathing for them.
Thunder rumbled and one of the women shifted behind them. Ivo turned and green eyes narrowed as they pinned on Emaranthe as she drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders and rolled over with a faint sigh. He turned back and caught Jaeger’s inquisitive look.
“She’s still asleep.” Ivo grunted as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Jaeger shot a curious stare over his shoulder before turning back and surveying the wide desert valley that stretched out before them. They were high up, so high that they could no longer see the bottom of the gorge in the gray light. Still, Jaeger figured, there was many hundreds of feet left to climb upwards on the trail.
The plateau was immense, dotted with spires of red rock formations and arches hollowed out over eons of erosion. His eyes caught and held on an enormous windmill far across the gorge on the other side. Its colossal green blades spun with lazy indifference.
“Mirena would have loved it here,” Jaeger whispered, his eyes still on the windmill. “She had always talked about travelling to the south to see the Burning Desert and the Wind Walkers.”
Ivo hesitated, startled by the tumble of memories those few words brought back. Guilt rocked him as he shot Jaeger a sideways look and watched pain tighten his brother’s face into a mask of agony.
Empty blue eyes stared ahead, lost in thoughts and memories that had been pushed aside in order to survive a world gone mad, “And here we are not a league from the one place she will never get to see.”
“Jaeger—“Ivo jerked his helm off.
“No, it wasn’t your fault Ivo,” Jaeger said, his eyes still unfocused, remembering. “I never blamed you, even after all of these decades.”
“I should have been—“
“No, I should have been there,” Jaeger closed his eyes. “Mirena was going to make fish soup, remember? She’d been planning it for days.”
“Jaeger—“ Ivo swallowed thickly. There were no words for the tortured look on his younger brother’s face.
“—she was brushing Anya’s hair when I left. It had wanted to curl in the humidity.” Jaeger ignored his brother and spoke as the tide of bitter memories consumed him. Anya’s hair, so long and wild —a mane of brown waves, just like her mother’s. He remembered her vivid blue eyes sparkling with mischief as he’d blown her an adoring kiss goodbye. He’d then pulled Mirena close and kissed her fully on the mouth, with an unspoken promise for later —.
A promise he’d broken.
“Jaeger! Stop!” Ivo snarled. He flung his helm down. It bounced and clattered behind him, before hitting the red sandstone wall and tipping to a halt. “Don’t do this to yourself again!”
“I let them die—“Jaeger choked out. His shoulders slumped as guilt and pain pulled on him. “I wasn’t there to save them. They’d trusted me—“
“Brother, no one could have foreseen that day.” Ivo rumbled, almost a sigh. He too, had tried to bury the guilt and pain with little effect.
His brother’s wife, his little niece…their lives traded for a hunting trip.
Almost against his will, he remembered returning to their small village days later, proud of their manly accomplishments and feats of prowess. Their kills were impressive and would feed their whole seaside village in the distant eastern kingdom of Saro-shir. Sea and Wind, it meant in Sarhiran, their native language.
Instead of a village full of family and friends, there was a sea of death to greet them. Black water gushed and swirled waist high as they waded into what had been the village circle, their faces pale and voices mute with horror. Sturdy rock walled homes were tumbled and flooded with foul water and bloated bodies, very few, floated on the evil current, pushed by a wind that howled from every direction at once. There was no escaping the biting pull of the wind or the seductive tide of water it stirred with angry shrieks.
Crates, chickens, cracked and mangled wood frames—the brothers shoved past these as they searched, thrashing wildly through the water, screaming against the foul wind for Mirena and Anya. The water kept rising, tugging on them, pulling them…and in the boiling, frothing torrents where the wind and waves met, little maddening whispers could be heard--join us…join us…join us…
The mad voices filled the flooded village, taunting…calling…
Ivo finally found the foundations of Jaeger’s home—even the great stone walls were torn and washed away. Hoarse from screaming, tears blurring his sight, he could only watch his little brother wade through the torrents of water, white eyed with anguish and horror, as he searched futilely for his wife and daughter.
The flooding waters continued to rise with unnatural speed, but they paid it no heed. Ivo perched atop the remains of a barn, wrapped in the loathsome wind, his body bent against the unnatural urge to flee from it and vanish into the churning water below. It was no use in the end. The brothers were now forced to swim as they searched, struggling to shove splintered timber and sodden, floating carts aside—but the howling wind was strong and the voices in the roiling water were seductive—join us…join us…
As Ivo watched, Jaeger was pulled beneath the black water. At first he thrashed his arms, resisted, but as his fingertips slid below the surface, he stilled —as the mad voices grew irresistible at last—join us…join us…
Ivo plunged after him. Howling with rage and grief, he flung himself deep into the cold darkness after his little brother. He’d given it no thought. The black void beneath the water was a swirling vortex and he tumbled and tossed on the violent current. Brief images of other things in the black water…a crate…a beam of wood, a cart wheel…Jaeger’s limp, wide flung arm…
He kicked his feet and lunged after his brother and gripped his unmoving arm. What little light left faded and the only thing that was left was the black numbness of the dark water churning beneath the wicked wind and his brother’s arm clenched in his fist--and the cruelly laughing voices…
Eternity happened, maddening dark eternity.
Then the water drained away in a rush of light, sound, and motion. He inhaled suddenly, freely, felt the weight of death vanish. He gagged, coughed, inhaled air as if his lungs could never fully fill. Something or someone next to him was also choking, gasping…
“Jaeger! Jaeger!” Ivo choked, gagged on more water. It gushed from his mouth and nose in dark trails. He pried his eyes open and blinked at the light. To his left, Jaeger jerked himself upright, his eyes glazed with confusion.
Ivo jerked to the present as his brother stumbled beside him with a keening cry. Jaeger bent at the waist, hand on knees, as grief tore at him.
“Jaeger, you must stop. Mirena is gone. Anya is gone.” Ivo swallowed the words we wished he could say, wanted to say, but the unrelenting wind shoved them back into his throat.
“Maybe, maybe they are here too. Maybe they are like us,” Jaeger whispered. The wind returned and whipped sand and rock about their feet angrily as he spoke. “There are so many lands left to search, so many other immortals.”
Ivo closed his eyes, suddenly feeling very old and tired. Thunder rumbled, closer this time, the reverberations shaking the ground beneath them.
“I’m sorry Jaeger.” Ivo moved away from Jaeger and retrieved his helm from near Emaranthe with a sigh of despair. “I’m sorry.”
Jaeger straightened wearily and turned to look at his brother as he returned with the helm. Sad blue eyes locked with troubled green and held for an eternity.
“I know. I—I don’t know why—“ he swallowed, his blue eyes misting, then freezing into anguished chips of ice. His breath fogged the air with his despair, “I wish I had stayed dead.”
“Don’t say—“ Ivo growled as the wind eddied and swirled about them in a rush of fury. It settled as Ivo stilled and his pained gaze dropped to the gritty red ground. “Don’t say that.”
A deep, earthy rumble filled the air. He stopped and traded frowns with Jaeger.
“What is—“Jaeger spun and stared up the barely visible trail. The rumble continued, louder and angrier. The rock and dirt beneath their feet groaned and creaked as if cracking from within.
Emaranthe shot upright with a gasp as her cold stone bed shifted and buckled, sending pebbles and debris raining from the cliffs above. She stumbled toward the brothers, dodging the raining debris.
Jadeth followed on her heels, coughing. The rumble became a roar as the sky darkened and clouds swirled and frothed above them. A thread of light and a flash of purple streaked across the sky far above them.
“What’s happening?” Jadeth narrowed her eyes on the odd clouds as she fought the shifting, shaking ground to remain upright.
Four pairs of eyes watched the roiling purple clouds swirl and mass together until a sharp flare of inky light lit up the sky. Black shadows erupted out of the light, shifting and slithering with each crackle of lightning. The ground beneath their feet shook, buckled. Dust blanketed everything, turning the garish purple light into a reddened miasma. The inky shadows spread until they blanketed the top of the plateau.
“That’s where they’re coming in!” Jaeger snarled, pulling his great axe free. Ivo followed suit and his axe sang and whistled in the sharp wind. Fury darkened his face, fueled by bitter memories. “If we don’t stop the spread of the darkness the whole valley will be over run in hours!”
“Dro-Aconi,” Emaranthe shuddered, unable to look away from the eerie scene. “They are here in person this time.”
“Why?” Jadeth asked. Her scarlet braids whipped on the dusty wind.
“They need the stone.” She said. She rubbed her bare arms with her gloved hands where goosebumps rose freely.
“We need answers,” Ivo added grimly.
Gold eyes flicked between the brothers, and then up at the writhing shadows of evil high above. Emaranthe sighed, but the wind dragged it away unheard.
The men launched into motion with wild cries that defied the wind. Jadeth followed at their heels— her hammer high and bright. Emaranthe's drifted after them, her feet a blur, barely touching the quaking ground, blond braids trailing.
Gold eyes steadied on their backs as her chest tightened with a sudden, unnamable fear…
Green eyes narrowed as they studied the red rock landscape and steep path as he pushed himself into a wary run. Beside him, Jaeger was growling, panting, and snarling like a predator nearing the kill. The narrow path abruptly swung left around a hair pin turn. Both Ivo and Jaeger shouted, dug their boots into the rock and dirt, and slid to a dusty, grinding halt, weapons high and ready. Jadeth slid to a graceful stop beside Jaeger. Ominous thunder rumbled from above as the clouds rolled and swirled with the evil shadows in an inky fury.
“What is it?” She gasped as she let her hammer drop to her shoulder. Emaranthe walked up past the three, blinking as dust and rock rained down the cliff walls. The stiff, turbulent wind whipped and dragged her pale braids from her shoulders.
“The mines,” Emaranthe turned and fell in beside Ivo, her eyes oddly neutral in the graying purple light.
“Um. People go inside those?” Jadeth frowned. Elfkind didn’t do well in dark holes, preferring hills and trees. Dread pulled on her. She swallowed thickly as her sapphire eyes flicked between Ivo and Jaeger for reassurance.
Neither male’s face offered any.
Ivo frowned at the pitch black rectangular hole into the cliff, his dark brows drawn and lined. Jaeger’s face was grim, but resolute. If it came to a battle in the mines, there would be little room to maneuver, and both men knew how perilous that could be.
Thunder shook the ground and echoed off the cliff walls. Four pairs of eyes snapped up as far above them on the pinnacle of the plateau the Dro-Aconi, the living shadows of death, their world’s oldest enemy, swirled and stormed.
“We have no choice—” Emaranthe called out over the ghastly screeches and moans emanating from the shadows high above. “—if we are to get up there. This is the only path.”
Ivo dropped his gaze with a grimace.
“Yes. Let’s finish this,” his hand clenched around the shaft of his sword until the leather in his gauntlets creaked. “Be warned, fighting, if it comes to it, in a mineshaft is deadly business.”
“Be wary.” Jaeger shifted his feet, ready to spring.
“Can we have light in there?” Jadeth licked her dry, cracked lips. “What if there are bottomless pits or gorges?”
Emaranthe caught and held Jadeth’s eyes, burning gold and jeweled blue. She nodded and lifted her small gloved hand, palm up. A small, luminescent flame ignited and flickered and twisted in the stiff wind. She cupped her fingers slightly, shielding it, and its soft light steadied and brightened. Four pairs of eyes watched the small flame with a sense of both dread and hope.
“Ready? Emaranthe, follow behind me, then Jadeth, then Jaeger you can be rearguard.” Ivo turned and vanished into the darkness. Emaranthe followed, holding the tiny lamp aloft. Jadeth hesitated a half second. Her innate fear of dark holes dragged her usually lithe feet and spirit to a standstill. With a soft snarl she dove after Emaranthe and the guiding light she held.
Jaeger followed on her heels, his eyes wary and watchful in the dim light. Both hands gripped the shaft of the great axe as he ran lightly behind the other three. For long, tense moments the only sounds were their ragged breathing and the swift and sure steps of their feet echoing in the dark.
The mineshaft was narrow and only so often was shored up by fire blackened timber bracing. Often Ivo and Jaeger both ducked as the roof itself abruptly lowered. Emaranthe paced behind Ivo easily despite her smaller stride and her arm did not tire from holding the flame aloft. It cast a puddle of gold about their feet and the fast moving shadows of their legs and arms marched beside them along the walls and ceiling.
The shaft dove steeply down for many yards before angling up again and veering sharply to the left. Every so often another shaft would drift off to the side and the four would hesitate in caution before resuming their steady run. At one such offshoot Emaranthe halted with a gasp as her flickering lamplight fell on its walls.
“Wait!” She lifted her arm higher, dragging both the golden glow and their shadows higher on the cold stone walls. The side shaft was empty and silent, but still she stared into the blackness beyond. “There’s something here.”
Jaeger frowned suspiciously into the dark. “What?”
Ivo too, stared puzzled into the deep side shaft, his eyes narrowed as they searched for an unseen foe. “What is it Emaranthe?”
“This.” Emaranthe stepped into the side shaft and lifted her arm high above her head, as close to the stone ceiling as possible for her diminutive frame. The flame in her hand flickered and twisted in some draft and as they watched an iridescent red glow bloomed within the rock above the flame.
The red glow glittered and spread, spiraling and streaking along the ceiling and down the walls. The veins of red continued to multiply until it was racing almost against itself down the dark tunnels, leaving a bright glittering glow in its wake.
“Wow.” Jadeth watched the mesmerizing dance of red trail down the mineshaft until it vanished into its depths elsewhere. Bathed in the incandescent light, the four traded amazed —and simultaneously worried— looks.
“Raw Starstone.” Jaeger inhaled deeply and shifted his axe to his shoulder. “I didn’t know it could be found so close to the surface.”
“This is why the Dro-Aconi have come. It is easy to get.” Jadeth shivered as an icy draft tugged fitfully on her braids and chainmail dress.
“This discovery is not news, but nonetheless grim.” Ivo sighed. “There are neither minions nor other slaves here mining, so what is going on? How will they dig for it?”
Emaranthe let her arm fall to her side with a weary sigh. Her little fire flickered and died, leaving them bathed in the vivid red glow of the Starstone veins. Now charged with her power, they would glow for days. Their ability to remain undiscovered was numbered now.
“We must get to the surface,” she whispered. “I’ve left a trail for any foes to follow us I am afraid.”
As one they turned aside from the now lit shaft and pushed themselves into a swift run. Emaranthe's flame rekindled in her hand, small and white hot. Ivo reassumed the lead, his sword raised before him, but nothing evil lurched out of the dark tunnels to waylay them as they wound through the maze higher and higher toward the surface.
The first hint of inky, clouded sky showed itself as they angled around a steep turn in the tunnel and a rectangle of grim light appeared. They halted as the mineshaft quaked and rumbled from the force of shadows close by. Dirt and dust choked the air as Emaranthe closed her fist over the little flame and it flickered and died.
“Keep close, keep wary,” Ivo crept toward the exit. Green eyes swept over the exposed landscape outside the mine shaft, noting the terrain and foes with a single glance. “The shadows stretch across the expanse of the plateau. I cannot see what evil is stirring within it.”
“Let me see,” Jadeth poked Jaeger in the shoulder. Reluctantly, he moved aside just enough to let her slip to the front. She dropped into a wary crouch, her keen eyes narrowed on the gruesome turmoil within the odd tangle of shadows swirling about the plateau. Not just the Dro-Aconi, but instead four generals. A fifth, perhaps of a higher rank, stood at the center of the chaos.
“There are at least four generals. They guard a fifth figure in the center. I can’t see who or what it is.” Jadeth hissed over her shoulder. Ivo’s features tightened.
“And the Dro-Aconi?” He asked.
“None yet, but their shadows twine and cling like the slime of a slug.” Jadeth whispered. “They are close, but not strong enough to materialize yet.”
The Dro-Aconi have no corporeal bodies. They are the true evil, manifested only within the darkest moments of reality. Their shadows come before their forms, with long reaching senses and abilities used to conquer and enslave. Their slaves were once free peoples of Ein-Aral. Bitter minions now, half dead, perhaps undead, and all corrupted by the stench of darkness the precedes the most terrifying evil in their world. To face the true Dro-Aconi is to face true evil. True terror. Only The Four have ever done so, in ages past, and now they are missing. Legend speaks that they will return only when truly needed.
“Let’s go.” Jaeger snarled.
They crept out of the shaft into the barely brighter light. The clouds roiled and swirled in the inky gloom and a peal of thunder shakes the rocks beneath their feet. They hugged the cliff wall to the left, skirting the open landscape in favor of the cover of the few spindly bushes and craggy rock outcroppings.
Emaranthe pulled her staff free and it gleamed faintly with smoldering fire as she bent and crept behind Ivo. Gold eyes flicked between the few generals guarding the rift. They were singularly evil, twisted beings—higher forms of minions clothed in midnight black robes. Instead of empty eye sockets in fleshless skulls, twin beads of black fire burned as eyes.
Ivo held up a hand.
They halted, now as near to the generals as they dared, behind a spiny bush and knobby rock outcropping nearest the eastern edge of the plateau.
“We need to pick them off one by one.” Jaeger studied their movements, his eyes narrowed as he tried to see beyond them to the being in the center. The frenetic pacing of the generals made identification frustrating.
“Okay, nearest first.” Ivo pointed a gauntleted finger at the towering, robed skeleton. “Remember, these have powers the lower minions didn’t.”
Jaeger shifted his axe. It’s razor sharp edge bled water and froze, now much sharper, and deadlier. Ivo freed his shield, the motion sending a nearly invisible gust of wind ricocheting around his massive body. The wind eddied and twisted until it swirled before his battered shield, creating a blanket of buffeting air. Dangerous air.
Jadeth held her hammer low to the ground so that its healing glow would not attract unwanted attention. The gritty sandstone dirt shifted and sank beneath the weapon, leaving a carpet of green in the exact same shape as its shadow behind. The tiny plants and vines coiled and waited for their orders. Emaranthe inhaled deeply as ghostly flames licked and curled from her staff up her arm to her shoulders and over her body. Fire writhed and twisted, nearly invisible, until her entire body was sheathed in a layer of living flame.
Ivo shot a glance at his friends and three pairs of determined eyes met and locked with his own. He nodded and turned with a blur of speed. With a blast of wind, he heaved his shield into the air with a silent, furious cry.
It arced across the short distance, spinning and glinting in the gloom, but silent and true. guided by the wind, it turned, clipping one general in the shoulder, before spinning back to him with unnerving accuracy. Ivo caught it with an outstretched hand just as the infuriated general turned and screeched with slack jaws and bony arms outstretched. Still unable to see its attacker, it shambled closer to them.
They waited for a long, breathless moment for it to be out of range of its companions. With a suppressed snarl, Jaeger launched forward, axe singing in a brutal arc. It connected with the outstretched arms and they cracked and snapped like dry branches of a tree and clattered to the rocky dirt, frozen solid. Ivo darted in and swung his sword low, snapping it at the knees and sending it flailing to the ground. Its screams of agony and rage were short lived as Emaranthe grabbed a moth eaten fold of cloth and a hungry flame consumed as it spread. The odor of charred bone joined the stench of death and decay.
One down. Three to go.
Ivo crept forward again, his green eyes pinned on the next general. He felt Jaeger beside him shift to reposition for the attack.
Twin gasps, gagging chokes, from behind made both pause, then spin on their heels. Blue and green eyes stared in dawning horror at Jadeth and Emaranthe.
“No!” Ivo cried out. His sword clattered to the ground.
Long, strong fingers wound around both of the women’s slender throats, lifting both high in the air. Her skin was dark, or well tanned perhaps, and well toned with muscle and voluptuous curves. Long, lithe legs drew the eye up her lush body and her face was shockingly, horribly beautiful. Full lips, dark red, wanted to pout but tended to sneer instead. Dark eyes burned black in the inky light and her red curls, held in check by a headdress, towered high and regal.
Emaranthe scratched and clawed at the vice-like grip. She tried to suck in a gagging breath, but couldn’t. In the towering demon-woman’s other hand Jadeth struggled frantically to breathe, her long legs kicking valiantly.
“Well, well well…two men, an elf girl, and a child.”
The strange woman cackled and the hairs stood on the men’s arms. Her voice was as lush and as deadly as her beauty.
Ivo fell to his knees…
“No, let them go!” Jaeger rushed past Ivo, but his cry was lost in the gruesome screeches emanating from the roiling shadows behind him. Blue eyes glittered with tormented fury as he swung his axe in a singing arc.
Ivo gained his feet and dragged his sword from the dirt with a howl of rage. He turned and swung in tandem with his brother, both men intent on freeing the slowly dying women.
“Release them you bitch!” Ivo snarled. Dark, coiling vines erupted out of the ground and twisted and twined around his legs. More black tendrils shot out of the rocky earth and wrapped around Jaeger’s ankles in a blur of motion. They tumbled to their knees as more slithered and twisted up from the rocky earth and snared their arms and wrists. Axe and sword fell to the ground and clattered away before they could slash the sneer off the witch’s cruelly beautiful face.
Fury burned in Ivo as he struggled and jerked to free himself from the vines. Jaeger too, struggled to free himself; his eyes pinned on the barely moving women still clutched in the she-demon’s hands.
“Fools, axes and swords are useless here. Men,” she sneered down at them and laughed. Thunder rumbled and echoed, shaking the ground beneath their feet. “They never think beyond the obvious. You are no match for Alarandia.”
She turned away with a long suffering, dramatic sigh, and flung Jadeth and Emaranthe to the ground with a careless flick of her wrists.
“No!” Ivo howled and lunged forward only to be jerked back and pinned by the vines. They landed heavily, limply, and for a long agonizing moment the women lay still in twin heaps some distance away.
“Come on, breathe. Just breathe.” Jaeger’s eyes flicked between Emaranthe and Jadeth, worry settling deep in his chest. Ivo swallowed heavily, but forced his gaze back up to the towering woman pacing between them and their companions. Alarandia watched them. Keenly. Her black eyes seemed to glow in the inky air. She was waiting to see what they would do.
Jadeth gagged and shuddered, her lithe frame jerking with the force of her desperate attempts at breathing. She dragged in a choking, violent breath at last, and coughed before slumping back to the ground with a ragged gulp of air.
Ivo’s eyes swung to Jadeth as fear sharpened painfully in his chest. He watched in relief as she continued to breathe, but appeared to be unconscious. He sagged to the ground.
“Thank The Four.” Jaeger too, had watched Jadeth struggle to breathe and felt a weight lift from his chest as she seemed to recover, even if barely. He glanced at his brother, but Ivo’s eyes were pinned on the small bundle of cloth and tangled blonde braids.
Emaranthe inhaled with a gasp, her small body jerking with the force of needing to breathe. Coughing and choking, she blinked rapidly. Fuzzy dark spots clouded her eyes and distorted her vision. With each breath her throat burned and her lungs ached. She shifted her shaking arms beneath her and pushed herself up off the ground a few inches. Dizzy and gasping she let her tangled braids tumble over her shoulders and face in a curtain of yellow. Gold eyes glittered behind the fall of hair as they darted to the methodically pacing humanoid demoness.
“Interesting,” Alarandia’s mouth turned up in a vicious, catty smile. She spun on her heel and paced between Emaranthe and Jadeth, blocking Ivo and Jaeger’s view of them. Burning black eyes stared at the snared men. “You are all Immortal, yet you still feel fear over their safety.”
She spun again, her towering curls bouncing on her shoulder. This time her eyes pinned on Emaranthe, and then she turned to study the unmoving elf, then Ivo and Jaeger. They returned her glare, their eyes simmering with fury.
“Why,” Alarandia frowned and a puzzled look crossed her face briefly, then was gone. “Did those idiot gods bother to immortalize a child? What fools.”
“Why don’t you let us go and we’ll tell you.” Jaeger snarled and narrowed his eyes until they glinted in the shadows of his helm. Ivo tested the vines with a growl, but they didn’t give. The ground quaked and shook as thunder cracked and echoed. The clouds roiled and the sky grew darker as they thickened.
Alarandia cackled, her head thrown back to the inky sky.
“I am not stupid,” she hissed between clenched teeth as the rumbling echo of the thunder subsided. She turned and paced between Jadeth and Emaranthe again. “But it appears your gods are desperate if they’ve immortalized a little girl. They must be running out of real warriors again.”
“If you want a real fight, then fight us!” Ivo growled and jerked on the coils around his wrists. “Or are you afraid your sorcery is no match for two Immortal Warriors?”
“Brave words, Warrior. What is your name?” Alarandia raised a finely arched eyebrow and paced closer, hands on curvaceous hips.
“I am called Ivo, son of Veriuc! Free me now or you will pay, Demon!”
“Ah, Ivo is it?” Alarandia snarled and flung her head regally. “You speak well for a simple farm boy. Who were your people?”
“I am of the Eastern Clan of Saro-shir.” Ivo narrowed his eyes. She wasn’t about to free him. The glint in her eyes had changed. She seemed to recognize his clan name.
“Hmm. And you boy?” Alarandia turned and speared Jaeger with dark eyes and a haughty eyebrow. Jaeger snarled beneath his breath. She was toying with them.
“I am Jaeger, son of Veriuc, brother of Ivo even in immortality!”
“Well, this is a surprise. The Four sending brothers? How pathetic.” Alarandia sneered, spun on her heel again and paced away. Her pointed, heeled, boot kicked at Jadeth viciously as she passed by and both men snarled and growled in fury.
Jadeth threw herself away from the kick and ducked aside with a hiss. Sapphire eyes flared as she stood and tossed a scarlet braid over her shoulder, exposing her long, delicately tapering ears.
“Jadeth!” Ivo inhaled in shock as she danced away from the surprised Demoness. Jaeger jerked and tugged violently on the coils still rooting him firmly to the ground.
“More surprises. Too bad Elfkind were already immortal! You are what, four—five thousand years old?” Alarandia snapped and backed away from the suddenly healed and mobile elf. “Your kind die beneath sword and spear just as easily as a mortal, girl!”
“Oh no, I’d definitely say you are older Alarandia! I can tell. Maybe you should ask your demon healers for a wrinkle cream.” Jadeth smiled widely, almost sincerely, and waited.
Alarandia’s eyes narrowed.
Gold eyes glittered beneath the fall of pale hair. In the inky gloom they gleamed like cat’s eyes. She smiled as Jadeth insulted the evil bitch and watched as the two circled each other warily.
Emaranthe narrowed her gaze on the high leather boots that glided in and out of her frame of vision, then flicked to Ivo and Jaeger who were watching Jadeth and Alarandia face off in silent shock.
Their weapons were out of reach and the hammer lay too far for Jadeth to get to safely, but Emaranthe’s staff was just to her left, a mere foot from her. She glanced through the curtain of her hair… Alarandia was still busy with Jadeth.
Emaranthe shifted her weight to her left slightly. Beneath the thin folds of her robes she fumbled for her staff with trembling fingers and dragged it close to her side. A quick glance told her that Jadeth had scored another veiled insult. Alarandia was now pacing frenetically, her eyes burning with anger and pinned on the seemingly carefree Jadeth who was matching her wary circling with a wide, brittle smile.
No one noticed Emaranthe shift position again.
Ivo’s eyes slid past the confrontation between Jadeth and Alarandia. Gold eyes gleamed in the dim light as Emaranthe looked up. A small, triumphant smile pulled the corners of her mouth up as she smoothly stood up and flung her cloak off. It swirled soundlessly and drifted to the rocky ground as she lifted her staff high. Ribbons of flame crackled and swirled down its length.
Alarandia spun and furious black eyes locked for a long moment with glittering gold ones.
“What?” She snarled and raised both hands, her fingers curled into sharp claws. Emaranthe’s lips twisted into a bitter smile as a stiff wind dragged pale strands of hair over her face.
Jaeger inhaled sharply as the demoness darted forward, clawing and scratching with a shriek of fury. Emaranthe spun around in a blur of motion, her braids flailing, and vanished in a flicker of flame.
She reappeared twenty feet away, her feet a blur of motion as she turned and lifted Ivo’s sword from the ground, then vanished again, all in one smooth movement.
Alarandia screamed as Emaranthe vanished out of reach. She spun wildly in a circle, her burning gaze scanning the gloom.
Emaranthe ducked past the screaming demoness and reappeared on the other side of Jadeth, scooped up Jaeger’s axe, twisted, and vanished again.
Jadeth gasped as Emaranthe reappeared a third time, snatched the massive hammer from beside the rock outcropping and disappeared again, mid run. She reappeared next to Jadeth in a swirl of heat and fire and shoved the hammer into the shocked Elf’s arms before turning and blurring into nothingness again.
“Unwilling to face me child? Are you playing hide and seek then?” Alarandia screamed into the gloom as she spun about, trying to frantically locate the tiny Mage.
Ivo felt a vicious tug on the vines holding him down and then they were gone as steel glinted in the inky sky. Emaranthe twisted and swung the sword with uncanny precision as she appeared again, and Jaeger’s bonds fell away in pieces. The brothers’ axe and sword clattered to the rocky ground at their feet as she spun away, her braids blurring with the speed of the movement, and vanished yet again in a flicker of flame and swirl of smoke.
Ivo climbed to his feet heavily and lifted his sword. Green eyes narrowed on the statuesque demoness. Jaeger hefted his axe and swung it in a testy arc. Jadeth held her hammer low and the green glow cast sharp shadows on the cliff walls past a frantically turning Alarandia.
Alarandia turned with a cry to find the two warriors and elf armed. Furious eyes darted between the three and searched the shadows for the fourth.
“So, a fight you want then?” She hissed and her lush lips curved into a wide, slightly insane smile.
“Your wish is our command…bitch.” Jaeger snarled and dropped into a low crouch. Frost crept up the heavy iron. Ivo growled and readied his sword. It gleamed in the eerie green glow, as light to him as the wind, but his eyes studied the murky shadows.
Where was Emaranthe?
Ivo leveled the sword and paced to the left. His eyes narrowed on the tall, dark woman with burning eyes. Her crimson lips were curled into a sneer that made her elegant face ugly.
They continued to circle. Jadeth paced just behind Ivo and Jaeger, her hammer’s green glow stretching and bending shadows as they moved. Sapphire eyes, able to see better than the men in the gloom, watched a small flicker of smoke drift from behind a second, larger, boulder across the plateau. It vanished quickly in the dim light and reappeared for a split second behind a tall spiny bush at the very edge of the roiling and swirling band of shadows that heralded the incoming horde. The remaining generals still milled about, seemingly unaware of the looming confrontation.
The rocky ground trembled as thunder cracked overhead. A quick glance up and the violent, swirling clouds told Jadeth that the shadows were strengthening. She licked her dry lips and pinned her jeweled gaze on the evil woman.
“Tell us Alarandia, what will you do if we send you back to your Masters without Starstone?” Jadeth smiled widely and waited to see what the woman would do.
Both Ivo and Jaeger hesitated, startled. As expected, black eyes narrowed in fury and a snarl twisted her lush lips.
“I have no Masters Elf!” Alarandia stopped circling and turned the full force of her brittle anger on the elf.
“Oh, I thought you were the Dro-Aconi’s pet, sorry.” Jadeth shrugged carelessly and flipped a red braid over her shoulder.
“Um, Jadeth?” Jaeger sighed as the towering woman’s eyes widened, then narrowed dangerously. “Do you really need to piss her—“
“Pet!” Alarandia’s strident screech echoed off the walls. “I am no one’s pet, Elf bitch!” She raised both arms, her long thin fingers crooked into raking claws.
Smoky, inky tendrils spiraled out of the ground at her feet and swirled in a choking cloud. The ground trembled and cracked before her and multiple spears of small white bone jabbed up through the cracks.
Ivo snarled and motioned for the other two to back up as the bony spears twitched and scratched in sets up out of the ground. The grimy bones of fingers emerged first, then whole hands. The cracks widened as the hands clawed and raked apart the rock and moldy, chipped arm bones pushed free.
With a triumphant cackle, Alarandia backed away from the half dozen minions erupting from the earth.
“If you wanted pets to play with my dear, why didn’t you say so?” She screeched as another rumble of thunder echoed off the cliff walls. Lightning flashed above, then behind her something else, brighter.
Jaeger sucked in his breath as the lightning flared, sending shadows skating across the rocky terrain. Out of one of the shadows Emaranthe appeared beside one of the milling generals.
He opened his mouth to warn her, but she leaped at the general with blazing hands and it burst into flame just as lightning forked the sky. It stumbled and screeched hideously, but it’s howls went unheard in the last remnants of the thunder.
Jaeger’s blue eyes flicked back to Alarandia who was posing triumphantly behind her lineup of skeletons. They had to keep Alarandia’s attention on them.
Ivo hissed beside him as another burst of fire behind the demoness drew his attention too. Another general flailed and screeched in a ball of fire, unnoticed by the psycho bitch.
He grinned and swung his sword in a low arc and Jaeger lifted his axe high as he bent into a ready crouch. As one they launched themselves at the skeleton minions with twin howls of fury. As Jaeger’s icy axe swung high, Ivo’s sword flashed low, and heads and knees clattered free to litter the rocky ground. Six piles of moldy bones dropped to the plateau floor before Alarandia.
“Ahh! “ Her screech was echoed by another violent rumble of thunder as she once again found herself facing the three alone.
Lightning flared, tossing shadows wildly. The last general ignited behind Alarandia and Ivo watched as it flung itself off the plateau rim in a ball of fire. For a long moment Emaranthe stood still, her head down, in the midst of the swirling, storming shadows. When she lifted her head, gold gleamed in the purple laced gloom. Finally, looking weary and winded, she turned and focused on Alarandia.
A grim smile stretched Ivo’s mouth up at the corner.
Emaranthe inhaled and closed her eyes as weariness tugged on her mind and soul. So tired. She straightened her shoulders and turned to face the small group across the clearing. Green glittered in the darkness of Ivo’s helm and she knew that he watched her carefully, worriedly. She smiled slightly and inhaled again. She felt the fire build inside her and she lifted her staff aloft.
Flames licked and swirled up the staff, her arm, and down her body in a consuming cascade of warmth. Inside the fiery shell her eyes burned in the gloom.
She slammed them shut and vanished.
Emaranthe reappeared just behind Alarandia who spun on her heel as the fiery shield singed her leather bustier laces in the back.
“What?” Alarandia hissed and backed up. Toward Ivo, Jadeth, and Jaeger. Just in time she seemed to remember the three behind her and she wheeled about again, her arms raised and fingers crooked into claws. Her head snapped back and forth between the two sets of threats so fast that her tower of curls threatened to topple.
She settled on Emaranthe and turned her flaming, dark eyes on her. Emaranthe stared up at the woman, unconcerned and wide eyed in the gloom. The fiery shield settled and drifted away in the stiff breeze, leaving her unprotected.
What the hell…
Gold eyes flicked to his, deep in the shadowed depths of his helm, as if she’d heard his thoughts. Her lips twisted up in a small smile.
Alarandia stared down at the tiny female uncertainly. What kind of trick was this? She was a little girl!
Burning gold eyes glanced up and locked with fiery black and narrowed.
“Do you really think either of them will make you Queen?” Emaranthe whispered so softly that Jaeger glanced at Ivo and Jadeth. Both of them caught his look, startled. Queen?
“What are you talking about girl?” Alarandia turned and walked slowly away from the girl, but kept the three others within her line of sight. Those three are dangerous, she mused, and the girl is just a girl.
“You want to be Queen of the Universe,” Emaranthe tilted her head quizzically. “Why else would you betray your own people and serve the Dro-Aconi?”
“You don’t know anything do you?” Alarandia flung her head and sniffed haughtily.
“No,” Emaranthe agreed with the statuesque witch and turned to pace as well. Wind howled as the shadows behind them rumbled and swirled. “But what did they promise you then?”
Alarandia raised an arched eyebrow at the girl and switched directions to pace the other way. Emaranthe mirrored her motions as the wind snagged her braids and dragged them over her face and shoulders.
Jaeger blinked as ghostly flames appeared to lick and writhe the length of the long blonde streamers as she moved, but then vanished as the wind settled. Impressed, he found himself staring to his left, where Ivo was inhaling and exhaling heavily as he clenched and unclenched his fist around the sword hilt. He was furious, Jaeger realized.
Jadeth backed away a step at a time. She needed to get closer to Emaranthe, who was too far from the healing glow of the hammer. She sidled around Ivo to stand between him and Emaranthe, completing nearly a half circle around Alarandia.
“Promise me? What makes you think he promised me anything girl?” Alarandia snarled, her focus now totally on the small figure in frayed brown robes.
“What else did you have? Nothing. And you know that once you have nothing, you always want something.” Emaranthe shot Jadeth a covert glance and gold locked with sapphire for a fleeting moment. She could feel the soothing green glow touch her now.
“I’m pretty sure that you’d want a lot for betraying your own people, and you were used to getting money easily,” Emaranthe watched Alarandia’s face turn nearly purple with rage at this. “That nothing short of an entire empire would buy you.”
“Bitch!” Alarandia flung her arms high and a ball of inky smoke writhed and swirled in her palm.
“They won’t make you their equal, Alarandia.” Jaeger darted forward, snagging her attention for a brief moment. “You are nothing but a puppet!”
She had forgotten about them again.
Alarandia turned with a scream and hurled the ball of inky smoke at Jaeger. He ducked and it sailed over his head by a millimeter to splash with smoky swirls against the stones behind him. The rock cracked and darkened, crumbled, weathering instantly as if a thousand years had passed.
Ivo swung his shield before him and roared a challenge that echoed louder than the thunder. It shook the stone beneath them and howled across the plateau with the wind.
Alarandia swung around to him, her mouth wide in a furious scream. Ivo ducked aside, shield high, as another smoky ball of death flared by. It carved a sickening, cracking dent in the heavy steel, but it was made by the gods and didn’t splinter.
Jaeger dove as she turned away from him, swinging his axe in a icy arc low to the ground. It slashed through well muscled flesh on Alarandia’s left calf, sending her to her knees with a howl of pain.
“Wait.” Emaranthe stood still and watched Ivo and Jaeger back away, still growling with rage. Emaranthe watched Alarandia with steady, wide eyes for a long moment.
Next to her, Jadeth watched Emaranthe approach the now kneeling demoness. Long, lithe fingers curled tightly over the handle of the hammer and sapphire eyes flicked between her tiny friend and the hissing bitch.
“What did they promise you, Alarandia?” Emaranthe asked. “Why do you need to take them the Starstone?”
“The Dro-Aconi are coming, child.” Alarandia hedged her answer as her gaze darted between her and the bristle of sharp weapons pointed her way. “Soon they will be strong and you can’t stop them. Their darkness will spread like a plague for thousands of years and we who honour them will watch those gifted by the gods suffer!”
“We will fight for this world as long as it takes, Alarandia,” Emaranthe said. She watched as the woman’s smirk faltered. “But will you play pet to them for empty promises? Was it worth it to give up your life, your own people?”
“They promised me what I wanted, girl.” Alarandia hissed between bared, feral teeth.
“I don’t think they can give you that now.” Emaranthe glanced over her shoulder at the thundering storm of clouds and shadows. Without the generals the shadows had no anchor, no physical tether to this plane of existence.
Alarandia said nothing; she had underestimated the little girl.
“You should leave, Alarandia, before it’s too late,” Emaranthe whispered. She backed away as her eyes burned white hot in the murkiness. “Leave the Starstone. Leave these free people alone.”
Alarandia climbed to her feet with attempted grace, her soulless black eyes still on the tiny girl. Instead of fury, her eyes now burned with something akin to fear.
“Why are you letting me go?” Alarandia pulled herself together, her chin high.
“Mercy is something the strong give to the weak, Alarandia.” Ivo snarled as Emaranthe closed her eyes and fire slithered and spread up her legs and body to envelope her in a glowing shield again. Her eyes snapped open.
“Go back and tell your master that we are not going to give up. We will protect Ein-Aral. We will protect the free races of our world until our bodies are dust and time stands still.” Emaranthe’s voice echoed loud and strong within the shield and seemed to fill the entire plateau.
Alarandia backed away, her eyes darting between the foursome. She stumbled over something behind her and turned to find smoldering piles of cloth and bone—all that remained of the generals. With a hiss, she turned and glared at the four before her eyes settled on the flame shrouded girl who was closest.
“I will see you again, girl. I look forward to our battle, mage to mage.” Alarandia sneered as she lifted her hands skyward, toward the center of the rapidly shifting shadows. A flare of dark light erupted downwards, capturing Alarandia and lifting her slowly into the air. Floating free, her mass of scarlet curls in a halo around her face, she could have been considered beautiful. Once. Long ago.
With a grinding, angry screech the inky shadows jerked free of their tenuous grip and swung wildly in the sky as they and the beam of light containing Alarandia retracted with a flare of purple light.
The ground beneath them heaved and buckled, then settled with clouds of dust as the last of the darkness faded from the plateau. The inky gloom drifted away as a fresh breeze chased the rolling clouds. Light returned, at first dim, then rapidly brightening as the midday sun spilled from behind the vanishing clouds.
Ivo stared skyward, open mouthed, as he watched the blue sky return. Beside him, Jaeger ignored the transformed sky and air and traded worried glances with Jadeth. A sharp elbow in Ivo’s side jerked his attention back down to his friends. He caught sight of Emaranthe and inhaled sharply.
Emaranthe leaned on her staff with trembling arms, her head bowed, her hair trailing in the now fresh and soft breeze.
“Emaranthe?” Ivo swallowed and moved to her side. She didn’t move, but inhaled deeply. Finally, she lifted her head and soft golden brown eyes looked up at the sky. A small smile twisted the corner of her mouth.
Relieved, Ivo sighed, but something nagged at his mind until he recalled it.
“Emaranthe, what was it that the Dro-Aconi promised her?” Ivo asked and watched her golden eyes flicker with pain, but stay focused on the vivid summer sky.
“The same thing I’ve wanted for over a hundred years.” She turned and stowed her staff at her back and walked to join Jadeth and Jaeger who were watching with wide, curious stares.
“What is it?” Jaeger and Jadeth fell in beside her and Ivo, and the four turned toward the cliff face and stared far off at the red and oranges of the valley far below them. The pillars of stone glowed in the warmth of the sun and the distant ledges glinted as giant blades of the windmills spun lazily.
“She wanted peace in death.”
Ivo turned and watched as the last remnants of the invasion faded, drifting into dust on the wind, until nothing was left but the boulders and spindly bushes.
“Come, our work is done here. For now.” He jammed his sword into the sheath at his waist and slung his battered, cracked shield over his shoulder where it vanished into shadow. Even though he knew they had won, his heart still sat heavy inside his chest—they had won but a small, insignificant battle—the war was still all around them.
“Do you think we stopped her from taking enough Starstone to fully bring the Dro-Aconi back?” Jaeger too, stowed his weapon and shot the now clear sky a wary look as he moved to stand beside Ivo. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he narrowed them against the sunlight.
“We may never know. We can only hope Alarandia has rethought her position with them.” Ivo sighed and dragged the helm from his head. He gripped in with one hand and ran the other through his dark hair until it stuck up much like Jaeger’s.
Emaranthe watched the brothers from the edge of the plateau with a slight smile, then turned and tugged her hood up to cover her hair. The fresh breeze toyed with her pale braids as she turned to Jadeth.
“Are you ready to head back?” Jadeth stretched her arms above her head, much like a cat enjoying the sun. Her scarlet braids had come loose and now tumbled loosely about her shoulders. “I am. I am so sick of skeletons and zombies.”
“I don’t know, maybe you’d like this then?” Jaeger appeared beside her and held up a cleanly cleaved skeletal forearm and shook it playfully at her.
“Ugh! Get rid of that!” Jadeth slapped at the offering and knocked it out of his hand. He laughed out loud and both Ivo and Emaranthe turned to look at him in surprise.
Green eyes met gold and both smiled. It was good to hear Jaeger laugh. In the many years they had traveled together he had always been the least carefree and happy. Their smiles faded again.
Maybe one day, after their world was no longer threatened, they’d all be able to laugh.
“Come, let’s ride.” Ivo’s face tightened. One day was far off, unfortunately. He jammed his helmet over dark hair again and turned toward the mine entrance. “We need to get back to the village.”
Jadeth and Emaranthe followed behind Ivo, and Jaeger took up his customary position in the back. The darkness in the mine was no longer suffocating, but tinged with the faint off red of the still glowing Starstone veins. It gave just enough light for the foursome to find their way without needing Emaranthe’s little flame lamp.
They journeyed throughout the rest of the day, unhampered by foes or weather and enjoyed the fresh air and warm sunlight. The path wound down the cliff faces in many twists and switchbacks. The once surly wind was now a breath of life. They reached the body of the murdered villager and gathered rock and rubble to make a mound over him and then once again bowed respectfully before moving on down the path.
They reached the bottom as the sun began to sink into the west, casting vivid red and gold fingers of light throughout the valley.
Emaranthe watched the sunlight play on the red cliff walls, her gold eyes shadowed from deep within the frayed hood. Alarandia was gone, for now, and their job was done here.
She lifted her arm in an unspoken signal and her stallion appeared beyond a nearby cactus and shook his great mane in greeting. Smiling, she stroked his nose and patted his stiff coat with gloved hands.
“Hello old boy. Miss me?” Emaranthe glanced over her shoulder as the others mounted their stallions, and moved to do the same. She leaped onto the horse in a blur of motion and gathered the reins. They moved as one down the path toward the small village.
“I think I need a vacation.” Jaeger grumbled as he dragged a hand over his face. Weary lines tightening his mouth and his wide shoulders sagged under his armor.
“I could use a pint in the Broken Sow Pub.” Ivo shot his brother a look and earned a half smile as old memories surfaced. Emaranthe smiled in the shadows of her hood and turned to look back at Ivo, who had let the women lead for once in order to ride beside his brother.
“I bet I could out drink you this time.” Gold eyes glittered brightly and met green over their horse’s heads. Jadeth’s sapphire eyes snapped between the two in confusion.
“Okay, what’s the joke?” She raised an arched eyebrow a Jaeger who was struggling to keep a smirk off his face.
“Well, this one time—“
“What?!” Ivo jerked back on the reins of his horse so hard it sank onto its haunches with a snort. The beast jumped and danced with alarm, but beneath Ivo’s expert hand he calmed. He stared past the women.
Jaeger’s smirk faded into a scowl as he looked past Jadeth and Emaranthe to the oddly quiet village that appeared as they rounded the last bend.
Emaranthe slid down from her horse and studied the empty shadows. Nothing moved and no sounds betrayed the presence of …anyone.
“It’s empty.” She whispered as she dropped the reins of her stallion and darted forward. Fear sank in her chest as she slid around corner of the nearest clapboard shack and halted at the center.
The bonfire was out, not even smoldering in the late afternoon light. She dragged a glove off her hand and jammed it into the coal bed. Cold. She slid the glove back over her hand and turned as Ivo and Jaeger crept into the clearing with axe and sword ready.
Keen blue and green eyes sized up the village in one look.
“No bodies,” Jaeger climbed the rickety steps of the nearest shack and prodded the door open with his axe. It swung wide on worn leather strap hinges and sagged inward. A quick glance told him it was empty…of belongings too. “And no possessions. They’ve cleared out.”
“Why would they leave?” Jadeth glided into the clearing and shouldered her glowing hammer. Her confused gaze matched Emaranthe’s.
The mage’s narrow shoulders hunched deeper into her cloak.
“The fire is days cold. They didn’t think we’d prevail.” Emaranthe sighed softly.
“They were cowards.” Jaeger dropped off the high porch of the shack with a growl, landing lightly despite his armor. “They knew to trust us.”
“No, they did what they felt they needed to do. In time they will return, but it is our time to leave here.” Ivo’s scowl matched Jaeger’s briefly. He watched Emaranthe’s thin shoulders sag under her cloak and inhaled. Anger thinned his mouth into a hard line. These people should have had more faith in her, in them.
“It isn’t your fault, Emaranthe.” Ivo slammed his sword back into its sheath and moved to stand before her. She bowed her head for a long moment before looking up at him. Gold eyes glittered in the shadows—but he couldn’t tell if it was from fire or tears.
“Let’s go. We have work to do elsewhere.” Jaeger turned his back on the deserted village and walked away. The others followed.
“We need to report back to The Unknown City,” Ivo shot one last look at the silent village before reining his horse away. “The nearest portal is a half day from here.”
They rode in pained silence and for a long time the only sounds were the rattling of spiny sage bushes in the wind and the distant howl of a coyote. Darkness fell swiftly deep in the gorge and with it came a bitter cold.
Emaranthe dragged her cloak tighter around her arms and flexed her nearly numb fingers within the ragged gloves that hid her burned, scarred hands. Her frosty breath clouded her vision as she breathed. The others rode ahead of her and didn’t take much note of the cold…Jadeth’s elfin body made her practically immune to it, and Ivo was covered in heavy armor. Jaeger’s gift of water made the cold a friend, not foe to him.
They crossed a narrow stream and caught sight of the portal’s shimmering glow against the cliff wall. Another, smaller light flickered in the moonless night, casting dancing shadows.
The portal loomed before them, the doorway to their City.
They approached the shimmering blue light and walked their mounts through, vanishing as they did so.
Emaranthe glanced beyond the portal as her horse’s head vanished into the light. All she could see in the dark night were distant pillars of stone and shadows.
The rest of the horse flickered through the portal with her atop. She walked him into the comfortably warmer great room and slid off his broad back in one motion. A sharp slap on the rump sent his dish sized hoofs clattering across the stone floor and out the main door. He would find the stables easily.
“It feels good to be back.” Jadeth smiled down at her tiny friend but Emaranthe didn’t answer or look back. If possible her shoulders hunched even deeper into her cloak.
Burning gold eyes glittered in the shadows of the hood as they darted around the busy chamber.
Ivo led them toward the thrones where the three Lords of the Races sat. Rodon, Man-King, Helene, Elfkind Empress, and Atil, Lord of the WindWalkers, stood as they approached. As one they knelt before the three, heads bowed.
“Rise Immortals.” Rodon’s voice was a booming rumble, like thunder. Emaranthe inhaled as she rose, letting the hood fall free from her braids. Rodon’s gaze snapped to her unerringly.
“Tell me the news from the west.” Rodon tugged on his beard and paced between his seat and the platform steps. His silvery eyes swung back to the two men standing nearest him.
“We convinced Alarandia to leave, Lord.” Jaeger jerked his helm free and bowed again.
“Convinced, eh?” Rodon chuckled humorlessly, but didn’t ask for the tale. He had no time for tales with his people, the Earthlanders, dying by the thousands. “Good. Your mission was successful at least.”
“Yes, Lord.” Ivo too removed his helm. Rodon studied both men with keen pale silver eyes, and then the she-elf who was glancing between him and Helene. He understood her dilemma and didn’t comment. Helene was of Jadeth’s people and she would normally have only deferred to— and taken commands— from her.
“However, I have another quest for you four.”
Ivo frowned and traded looks with his brother.
“Lord, with all due respect, we have been without leave for a good amount of—“
“I am sorry, this cannot wait and you four are the best warriors I have.” Rodon’s gaze found Emaranthe’s and he wondered at the despair that flickered there. She bowed her head, however, breaking eye contact.
“Yes, my Lord.” Ivo slammed his helm onto his head once more. So much for the pint.
“Have you ever heard of the lost city of Seven Skies?” Rodon’s pacing halted and he studied their blank looks.
“Good, then you will have to go find it.”
To be continued in Book 2!