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Crimson Arrows, Book III of The Elemental Chronicles

 

 

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Copyright © 2017 by Jessica Schaub

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All rights reserved.

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Cover design by Sarah Aman

Book design by Jessica Schaub

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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

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Jessica Schaub

www.JessicaSchaub.com

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First Printing: July 2017

King Books Publishing

 

Shakespir Edition

Crimson Arrows
Book III of The Elemental Chronicles

 

Prologue

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Rock of Refuge

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Valley of the Sphinx

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. The Broken Seal

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. A Cloud of Soot

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. A Storm Brewing

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Carmen & Hedda

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Collette’s Strengths

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Taste of Iron

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. General Plans

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Amberson’s Way

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Ladyship

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. For This Time

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Singular Surprise

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Diane

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Disease

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Ostia

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. The Last Meal

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Sickness of the Soul

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Elder Niveus

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Prodigal Daughters

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Stoneman

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Change of Heart

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Homeless Renegade

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Winged Rival

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. The Division

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Refugees

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Shadowy Returns

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Martina

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. A New Ally

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Rockheart Ambassador

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. From the Earth

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Passages

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Mirror Memories

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. And the Earth Shook

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Circle Lake

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Crimson Arrows

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Intelligent Strikes

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. The Key

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Reunited

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Face Off

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. A Final Good-Bye

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Opinions

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. The Depth of Darkness

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. A Place of Preparation

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. The First New Day

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Fight Fire with Fire

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p<>{color:#0563C1;}. Fear No Death

 

 

Bonus Chapters of Lies in the Shadows, Coming Fall of 2017

Prologue

Worse than the cold nights and the soaking drizzle that oozed through the thin tarp and dripped on his head were the looks of disappointment from his wife. It hadn’t been his fault, he told himself again. His wife never uttered a word about “fault” but he knew she blamed him. What could she possible know? Any savvy business man would have done the same. Any man who hoped for a richer future would not have thought twice about it.

He remembered back to the night of the murder, when the men came through Woodland Hills searching for an escaped prisoner, he had kept the bag he’d taken from Sophia safe. The bag with the scrolls had to be worth a fortune if those men were willing to kill for it. With it safely tucked under the floor boards of their pantry, he and his wife had claimed innocence. Actually, his wife had been truthful. She knew nothing about it. And a good thing, too. She shook so badly from fear that night, she would have handed over anything the men demanded. Even when those men tore apart their little house, tossing blankets and cushions, searching drawers and even dumping the flour on the floor (as though the scrolls would have fit in that basin!) he remained silent. While his wife counted the destruction as a great financial loss, he saw the ability to replace it all ten-fold within his reach. Those weren’t just papers in that bag, they were ransom for silver. Possibly gold.

He even hid the bag from Sophia’s niece when she came looking. He knew that woman was a mage. The way her eyes were different colors and the confidence with which she walked and talked. Those mages with their high and mighty ways. He didn’t know exactly what a mage could do, but he knew they had abilities that no human should have. It just put others at risk. His wife scolded him and reminded him that they had never had any trouble from the mages or the sphinx. They all just kept to themselves and were always very civil. She was a fool, he shook his head sadly at her poor, misguided thinking.

A drip of cold water plopped on his bald head and ran down his back. The tarp was only slowing down how quickly the water reached his skin.

“We need more dry kindling,” his wife said. Between them, a small and smoky fire struggled to remain alive. The little warmth it provided was worth the smoke that burned his nose.

“I don’t think there’s a dry piece of wood in a hundred miles.” He looked at his wife. She was thinner now, but still a sizable woman. It would have been easy for him to feel sorry for her if she wasn’t scowling so darkly at him. They had eaten their last meal yesterday. His stomach growled noisily at the memory of the thick, stale bread and last few drops of wine from the flask. They had refilled the wine flask with water, which now tasted sour with the tinge of fermented grapes tainting the iron flavor of the ground water.

He looked around at their tarp shelter. This hadn’t been the plan. They weren’t supposed to be here in the rain with starving bellies, but living in Delphi in style. It had all started well. With the wagon and the two mules, they dressed in their best and rode grandly through the gates of Delphi. He sauntered into several stores, treating his wife to a new wool scarf, and demonstrated how successful he was with purchases of rich meats and cheeses from the vendors that lined the main road. He spoiled her with the baked pastries that dripped with honey. They stayed in a beautiful inn where, with a flash of silver coin, they were given a very good room.

He took the scrolls to the Magistrate’s Office, bragging to his wife that he would sell it to them for a price. The Magistrate’s assistant asked to see what was in the bag, but the Mayor refused. “The Magistrate will know the value. I don’t trust anyone else.”

And so he waited another day. The Magistrate’s schedule was busy, but tomorrow, the assistant said, he would have five minutes.

After another night in the inn, there was less money clinking in his pocket.

Another day of enjoying the sites of Delphi. More silver left his pocket, but now his wife knew what a man of influence he was. Not just in their little hamlet of Woodland Hills, but here in Delphi, too, people were eager to please him.

Not the Magistrate, however.

The Magistrate of Delphi was a slight man with thinning hair and a pointed nose, who was not easily won over. The Mayor was not impressed with the Magistrate either, for that matter. He set the bag heavily on the Magistrate’s desk and opened it for him. “What have we here?” the little man asked, thoroughly unimpressed.

The Mayor knew this technique; drive down the price by claiming that the item for sale isn’t worth much, if anything. But he knew. A glint of surprise had flashed behind the Magistrate’s eyes. He knew these were valuable.

“Ancient scrolls.” Taking one out of the bag, the Mayor unrolled it for the Magistrate to see. “Valuable pieces of history.”

“Hmm.” The Magistrate studied the writing on the scroll. “How did you come to have these?”

He was prepared for this. “They are pieces of my family’s ancestry.”

“You are willing to part with these for a price, I assume?” the Magistrate narrowed his eyes.

“They are extremely valuable.”

Standing, the Magistrate took the scroll, studied it for another moment as he held it right under his nose with his eyes squinted, then shook his head. “I sometimes purchase old scrolls to scrape clean and re-use. I’ll give you seven.”

“Gold?”

“Goodness no!” The Magistrate laughed. “Coppers.”

“These are valuable pieces of history. Can’t no one scrape this off!” The Mayor nearly shouted.

The Magistrate held up his aged hand, “It can be scraped off, my greedy friend. You are simply disputing whether it should be.”

“These are valuable!”

“Yes, so you said,” the Magistrate said, he walked around his desk and opened the door, indicating that the Mayor’s five minutes were over. “I wish you the best of luck in finding someone who understands the value of old scrolls.”

“Ancient scrolls,” the Mayor corrected.

“Good day,” the Magistrate bowed his head slightly and the meeting was over.

That afternoon they checked out of the Inn and carried their baggage a few streets over to a smaller Inn with smaller rooms, darker walls, and creaking stairs. His wife appreciated the room and told her husband it was wise of him to not waste their money on such finery. This room was clean and tidy, she said, and she would be very happy here until they could sell the scrolls.

While she settled into the room, the Mayor went to the stables to sell his wagon. He traded it for enough to live in the Inn for another week. He knew he could buy it back, so he didn’t worry about the loss. It was all temporary. An investment in appearances until the right buyer could be found.

His wife sneezed and more rain ran down his back. “We need some dry kindling for the fire,” she said again.

He sighed. She wasn’t going to stop until he built up the fire.

He scratched at the bites from the gnat swarm that had scoured the city the day after he saw the Magistrate. It was, without a doubt, the strangest thing he and his wife had ever witnessed. As they walked toward the scholar’s quarters, screams and the rumbling thunder of a thousand scrambling people stormed toward them. They stopped for a moment, trying to figure out the cause, when the street suddenly burst with panic. People ran, flailing their arms, swatting at a dark cloud that rolled down the street. At first it looked like a dark fog, but the blackness clung to the buildings and the people. Millions of gnats settled on anything and everything, crawling over their clothes, into their hair and down their necks. Screams and scratching and disgust infected the city. The Mayor and his wife joined the mass of people running out of the city. Their mules were nowhere to be found and his wagon had been destroyed when the horses in the stable, in absolute fright, tried to escape the swarming infestation. As they ran, he grabbed any food he could stuff into the bag with the scrolls.

He had a purse filled with coins from selling the wagon, but everywhere they went, people turned them away, money or no. Illnesses, infestations, and fear ruled the world and no amount of money could inspire people to help them.

Dreams of vast fortunes were dashed as they walked toward Woodland Hills. His wife was silent about the discomfort, but she voiced all shades of disapproval with her expressions.

The fire sputtered and hissed as a stream of rain spilled off the tarp and onto the red coals. The Mayor sighed sadly and unlatched the bag. His wife had been comfortable at home. She was an honest woman who deserved to have a warm fire to fight off the cold rain. He pulled out a scroll and fed it to the flames. A burst of heat filled their damp tent, lighting the space with warm light. He looked across the flames to his wife, he saw her smile. She was a good woman. This was all his fault.

 

 

1

 

Rock of Refuge

The smoke from the sphinx city filtered through the forest, choked its way around the trees, over the moss-covered ground, and replaced the fresh woodland air with a sick scent of burned papyrus and paper. A day had passed since the mad escape when the Ragnarok burned the sphinx right out of their ancestral homes and toward the subterranean holes that had housed the sphinx in ancient times.

The caves were not stone outcroppings in a mountain or dark caverns. When Victoria first followed Ambrosia into the cave, she walked down an earthy ramp, which followed the outside of an oval underground room. The walls had been reinforced with stone, and the floor was smooth slate, the ceiling was cave-like with a few stalactites forming from years of neglect. Overall, it was a comfortable space in the sense that it was dry, but a few cushions would go a long way for true comfort; something Victoria believed she would never experience again.

The scent of the fires was singed into every nostril, and soot stained their fur and clothing. More than half of the mage and sphinx refugees needed burn treatments. All they had for first aid was water.

Hushed voices and sobs, stifled by fists or paws, broke free from inconsolable souls. Desperation clung to every expression. “What now?” “What will happen?” were whispered here and there, answered by those only slightly injured who asked, “Why didn’t I do more?”

The sudden appearance of blood and fire defiling their precious lawns and buildings traumatized their minds. Sphinx and mages alike whispered Elder Parnassus’ name in complete shock at his death, a death earned in defending the city when so many other sphinx had run in utter fear. Centuries had swept by the sphinx city without a battle being fought on their soil.

Unlike the sphinx who spent the first day searching the caves for family and loved ones, Victoria was one of the few to celebrate a reunion. Anna and Worthmere doted over her, checked her for injuries, asked her again and again if she was okay and what had happened, but did not give her a moment’s breath to answer. Bobby and Tucker were not there. Only God knew where they were.

“I’m sorry about your father,” Victoria leaned on Ambrosia’s shoulder.

Ambrosia tipped her head down to meet Victoria’s and they hugged. “My father was not the only casualty. Frigg, too, fell.”

Victoria’s eyes widened. “No!” she could only whisper. Pressing her face into Ambrosia’s fur, she tried to picture Frigg the last time she had seen her, sleeping in that barn a terrace away. “I’m so sorry.”

“I know, little one,” Ambrosia straightened and Victoria wiped her face on her sleeve. “I see you’ve returned to your denim slacks,” Ambrosia teased.

“Jeans,” Victoria reminded her. “I’m afraid the clothes you gave me were ruined.”

“I don’t have replacements for you this time,” Ambrosia said as she looked around the inside of the cave.

“This cave is well stocked,” Foley commented. “Who had the brains to prepare?”

“Elder Amberson, my father, and I have prepared the caves for just such a turn of event,” Ambrosia said.

Worthmere pointed upwards, toward the noise of defeat from the sphinx still wandering around outside. “Shouldn’t we help the others?”

Ambrosia looked down and shook her head. “There is too much pain right now for us to do much good. I have bandages, but that’s not the right kind of healing they need.”

“If you have food,” Anna started, but Ambrosia continued.

“If the others would stop and look, each cave has a supply. But, being blinded by their pride, they might not notice until later.” She turned to face Anna. “Let them sort it out for themselves for a while. I’ve had enough for one day.”

Anna and Trina found the food Ambrosia had stocked in her cave and they ate in silence. Like the bomb shelters in the Fourth Terrace during the 1950’s, this cave was well-stocked and ready for months of living away from home. From outside, arguments were rabid as sphinx tried to claim possession of the caves that were in better repair than others. Disagreements fueled by hunger and fear left more than one sphinx bleeding. Without the Elder’s Circle, the government system to resolve disputes, conflicts escalated quickly.

Ambrosia had welcomed Abner, Anna, Worthmere, Victoria and Foley to her cave. It hadn’t been designed for two sphinxes and four people, but with two blankets strung over small alcoves, they had a men’s room and a woman’s wing which afforded them some privacy.

“Father thought of everything,” Ambrosia smiled as she found a half dozen sleeping mats. Anna placed her hand on Ambrosia’s shoulder.

As the sun set, closing the first day after the attack, the enormity of the situation fell on Victoria suddenly and her heart nearly stopped when she took a moment to think about all that had happened and how little had been accomplished. Where was her mother? Her friends? What had happened during Elder Parnassus’ last moments? Why was Ona fighting so fiercely for the Grandfather’s Weapon? Was there more she could have done to stop it all?

Victoria pressed her face with her hands, trying to stop the tears that refused to dry out. Sobs were stifled at first, but gained as she could not hold back any longer. Memories of events from the moment she slipped through the painting in the school’s art room blasted through her mind. Fear, pain, and loss were real horrors. But it was the loneliness that extended her despair. If only she could see her mom. If only Bobby and Tucker were here. She felt like she could do anything if she could only have them here, safe and huggable.

She feared sleep. Several times when the dreams haunted her rest, she jerked awake. The last time she woke, it was because Foley shook her from a nightmare. Not a dream-walk, but a true nightmare in which she had tried to protect her mother from Ona, and called the lightning to do her bidding. Everyone was burning in her dream when Foley finally woke her.

“You were crying,” he said.

She couldn’t stop. At some point, she knew she would have to stop, but it wouldn’t be tonight.

“So much,” she sobbed, but couldn’t find the words to explain it fully.

So much loss. So much pain. Pain unlike anything she had imagined. Fear haunted her sleep, tormented her waking hours with exhaustion. There were so many needs that would possibly never be met. What would happen if she never saw her mother again? There were thousands of people out there who had lost both of their parents, who had suffered unimaginable terrors. Victoria never thought she would be one of them.

She never understood why she had a single mother and never dreamed that her father had been a part of an elaborate scheme to take down the entire world. Or worlds.

“I know,” Foley said. He held her as a father would. As her father’s friend, he did what her father had never had the opportunity to do. He consoled an inconsolable young woman. He allowed her to cry without trying to calm her fears with false promises. Foley didn’t try to make the situation less desperate. He simply cried with her.

In his arms and feeling his tears fall onto her head, she knew that her emotions were acceptable. Now she wasn’t alone. For the first time in weeks, she could share the burden with another. It was permissible to cry, to feel grief so deep it pressed through her heart and into her spine.

A long time later, when the sobs had stopped wracking her breath, Victoria was finally able to ask the question that started it all. “What will we do?”

Foley lifted her chin so they were eye-to-eye. “We will do the next right thing. Always.”

 

2

 

The Valley of the Sphinx

 

The dawn was well spent when Victoria awoke feeling oddly renewed. Only the memory of exhaustion from her weeks of travel remained. Despite the lingering scent of battle and blood in the air, the sun was bright, the sky was clear, and the air was warm. Hope stirred beneath her ribs. She knew she wasn’t alone in her loss. She knew that she was among warriors. She knew she would fight.

With the dawning of day and the renewal of hope, she walked out of Ambrosia’s cave to stand beside Foley in a foreign world. Because they had arrived at dusk and under the cloud of fear and sadness, she hadn’t noticed the trees and the landscape. It wasn’t until she saw the layout of the land that she wondered at the name of this region.

“Why do the sphinx call these caves?” Victoria asked Foley.

“Sphinx haven’t always lived in the city. In fact, they were wild until one of them started this community. I can’t remember all the details, Elder Amberson could, but this was where they first learned to live together.”

“But caves?” Victoria asked again. “I see underground homes.” She pointed to the curved opening lined with round stones that lead to the rooms below ground. A stone ramp turned and disappeared into the raised dome of grass. “And they are comfortable. Not like cushiony-carpeted comfortable, but they aren’t cold, wet caves.”

“Ambrosia’s isn’t,” Foley said. “Elders Parnassus and Amberson understood the threats and prepared their family’s ancestral cave. I don’t think other sphinx and their families are not as comfortable as we are. Follow me.” He led her toward several less well-kept caves and pointed to the broken steps and an earthen roof that had completely fallen in. A short distance away, Victoria could see out over a valley. The scene was completely untouched by the horrors of wars that still smoked in the distance behind them. Here, small birds swooped and dove after little insects that fluttered near the small river at the bottom of the valley.

Foley walked down the hill toward the river on a narrow path. About half-way down, he pointed back up. “Look there.” Victoria could see several cave openings with a few sphinxes sat near the entrances, staring blankly at the landscape or whispering to each other.

“Oh, the poor things,” Victoria whispered.

“Hmm,” Foley seemed completely void of sympathy for the sphinx.

“It’s terrible, what’s happened to them,” Victoria said.

Foley shrugged. “Something terrible has happened to them, but it didn’t start yesterday.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Even twenty years ago, they had warnings that Ona was teaming up with the Ragnarok. From what I gathered this morning from Worthmere, they also knew that the Minotaur had joined the foray. Those beasts are vicious and a threat from them should never have less than a full response.” Foley looked around and shook his head. “Instead of acting against the threat, they almost welcomed it. They talked nonsense about forming alliances with other races of beings and beasts that have such a different belief system that in order for an alliance to form, both sides would have to forfeit their most core values.

“Sphinx have been dividing their attention between worrying over positions of power and doing away with the traditions and values that made them great in the first place. I do feel badly for them. Many of them didn’t deserve to lose so much. Others had it coming. Come on.” Foley started walking up the hill, returning to Ambrosia’s cave. “I can go on and on. We’d better get back. There is much to do.”

Ambrosia had prepared a breakfast of bitter herb jam on crackers served with a weak tea, but it warmed Victoria as if it had been served on golden platters. She looked around at the faces at the small table. Trina’s eyes were dark and her forehead pressed with worry, but the set determination of her chin proved she was ready for anything. Anna and Worthmere sat close together, their arms almost touching. Foley sat across from her and ate quietly, but he nodded at Victoria and with a smile. He was not her father, but she understood now that he would do anything for her, had done everything for her. The seal of friendship he made with her father withstood not only the test of time, but the elements, as it were. Nothing would stop him from protecting her. And she knew that there would be more danger to come.

“We need to go back,” Worthmere announced as they finished their breakfast.

No one disagreed. Nor did they jump from the table and eagerly dash to the edge of the city.

“Just to see the damages,” Foley added. “We are in no situation to plan a counter-attack, but we must be prepared.” He lifted his chin upward, indicating the sphinx that walked around outside. “These sphinxes are too wounded to fight.”

“They’ve wounded themselves,” Worthmere said softly. “Their effort to turn away from the traditions has scarred them worse than any Ragnarok fire can.”

“We must be careful.” Trina said. “Not only have they lost that greatness, but their homes and loved ones as well. Any advice we offer or any help we provide will likely be viewed through the eyes of suspicion.”

Foley scoffed. “We’ve lost much more than they. Most of them barely lifted a finger during the Uprising. I hope this bitter loss will be, unfortunately, a good lesson.”

Trina looked surprised. “That bitter loss, as you say,” Trina leaned in, “will turn some hearts to stone, while others will be softened to nothing. The battle with the Ragnarok was a terrible loss. But much more will be lost if we can’t convince certain sphinx to…” Trina struggled to find the right word.

“Practice a little humility?” Worthmere suggested.

“See the error of their ways?” Foley said.

“Admit they may have made a mistake?” Worthmere added.

“Learn to fight?” Anna joined in.

“Alright!” Trina raised her hands in surrender. “We all know that many sins have lead them to this point. But we must accept some of the blame as well.”

“What blame?” Victoria wondered.

“Oh,” Trina rubbed her forehead in frustration, “I’m sure they will think of something. In the meantime, returning to the city is good. We need to see what they are doing. We all know that Ona is after the Grandfather’s Weapon. Why she chose to send the Ragnarok to the sphinx city is beyond me. We need answers and we need them fast.”

“She must be after the scrolls,” Worthmere said.

“They were stolen years ago,” Anna reminded him. “Everyone knows that.”

“What scrolls?” Victoria asked, looking from Anna to Foley.

“The writings of the Grandfather,” Trina answered. “He documented everything he did. The scrolls are believed to hold the key to opening the Weapon, but they were stolen twenty years ago from the Library of Ages.”

Victoria’s eyes widened. “So, someone out there has all the information? Did Ona send someone to steal it?”

Everyone around the table looked at each other uncomfortably.

“What?” Victoria asked. “You mean Mr. Martin?”

Foley nodded, but Worthmere had a question. “Was he hiding them or planning on using them?”

“Hiding them,” Foley said.

“You’re certain?” Worthmere asked.

“Without a doubt. I didn’t believe him at first, knowing what I thought to be true of Adam.” Foley said. “He lost more than any of us did in the Uprising. Only he and his sister remain from their family.”

Worthmere chuckled. “Oh, I imagine there is a great price on Adam’s head from his sister’s office.”

“Let’s hope we don’t have to find out,” Foley said. “But here’s a reality check: without the scrolls, no one can possibly succeed in finding and using the Weapon. As long as Ona doesn’t have what you found in the kiva and the fact that she doesn’t have the scrolls, she can’t win this.”

Trina shook her head. “Which means that she will fight that much more to find what she needs.”

“You think she has the scrolls?” Anna frowned.

“No,” Trina bit her lip, thinking. “No. I’m certain she doesn’t. But the clock has started ticking. The plagues are upon us. It’s not a matter of keeping the scrolls or the key away from Ona. We need them to stop her. If the plague continues, I can’t imagine the carnage that the tenth plague will leave behind.”

“You want us to find the scrolls?” Worthmere asked.

“We must.” Trina’s mouth was set in determination. “Without the scrolls and the key, we can’t stop the plagues. If Ona has them, God only knows what she’ll do.”

“Adam sent the scrolls with the boys when Victoria first mentioned trouble,” Foley told Trina. “He had kept them safe for so long, he figured that the mages looking for him had caught up. He never figured that they were after the kids.”

Victoria nodded. “And Lucian took them from Tucker. We haven’t had the bag since before we first came to the sphinx city. How are we supposed to find them?”

No one had an answer.

“Are we going to fight back?” Victoria wondered.

“Either we fight back,” Trina looked at Foley, “we defend what we have left, or we roll over and wait for death. Personally,” she looked at Victoria, “I’d rather fight. It feels less like I’m backed into a corner.”

 

3

 

The Broken Seal

 

Thaddeus held the silver triangle he had taken from Bobby, closely examining it, rubbing his finger along the notch on one end. “And you don’t know what it is?” he asked again.

“No.” Bobby was tired of having his hands tied, exhausted by the constant travel on horseback. He and Tucker and Collette had been captured two days ago when a camp of cunicanes, fanged rabbits the size of coyotes, had surrounded them, making them easy picking for Martina’s men to capture.

Aunt Martina had been less than welcoming when she announced their lineage. They had barely escaped, but now she had them. Kind of. They were not jailhouse prisoners, but in a traveling captivity that included bound hands, scant meals, and the guards had the freedom to keep them injured just enough. That’s how Thaddeus discovered the silver triangle Bobby kept hidden in his shirt. When Stoneman, one of Thaddeus’ thugs, took another cheap shot at Tucker, Bobby launched himself off his horse right on top of Stoneman. Smithy, the other guard, tried to push Bobby off and hit the silver triangle. What Bobby had been trying to keep safe was now discovered.

Thaddeus carried it in his saddlebag, pulling it out at every stop and questioning Bobby. Thaddeus had Stoneman and Smithy stood guard on either side of their prisoners while they stretched their legs, walked a bit, and rested. Tint, the scout, never stopped moving. Even when he ate, he munched on bread while in the saddle or ate as he walked the perimeter of the camp.

“Then why carry it with you?” Thaddeus noticed his reflection in the silver and straightened his hair.

“You think I’ve just been waiting until you asked me that for the twenty-third time before I finally give in?”

Collette’s eyes widened at Bobby’s boldness.

Thaddeus smiled. “It’s an interrogation technique, as I’m sure you know.”

“We aren’t terrorists,” Tucker said, wincing as Stoneman, the guard with the long stick, jabbed him in the ribs. “Would you stop that?” Tucker said, but was struck again.

“Stop it!” Collette yelled. She had spoken so little, that her voice startled them all. “Tucker isn’t going to hurt you.”

Stoneman pressed his staff into Tucker’s side. “He can’t as long as he’s the one hurtin’.”

“Enough,” Thaddeus said and wrapped the silver piece again. “Check their bonds and let’s be done with the violence. I know a place that will be good for camp.”

Tucker was a bruised mess. Stoneman had a clear dislike for him and made it his personal mission to remind Tucker of that often. Bobby fared well. Thaddeus was not threatened by a fellow Earth mage. Collette was his fulcrum in the shaky balance of maintaining control over the twins. Staying by her at all times, Thaddeus kept alive the threat to her life at any attempt to escape. Earlier, Tucker had shifted his position on the ground to find a more comfortable position which sent a flurry of panic through their guards. In a flash, Thaddeus had his arm around Collette’s neck, and Smithy and Stoneman had their weapons pointed at Tucker.

“I had a stone in my back,” Tucker said calmly.

Seething, Thaddeus kept his arm tightly around Collette. “Make sure you move slowly, Fire mage. You’ve seen our speed. Don’t test us again.”

Tucker nodded and slowly moved the stone out from behind his back, holding it out so Thaddeus could see it. He loosened his grip on Collette and she turned to face him.

“Your hair is messy,” she said and walked toward the campfire and continued cleaning up from dinner.

Thaddeus reached up and straightened his hair.

The routine for mounting the horses was tedious. Before they were hoisted onto the horses, their hands were tied in front of them so they could hold the horn of the saddle and swing their right leg over the horse. Once on, their hands were then tied behind them. Despite fears of falling off the horses, they did not travel beyond a mosey. The greatest danger was falling asleep in the saddle from extreme boredom.

When the prisoners were securely tied, each of the guards took a lead rein and wandered forward, slowly clomping their way through the sparsely wooded landscape. Grass grew sporadically in clumps, which the horses occasionally stepped on, releasing the fleeting scent of spring. Hours passed at they casually plod along, seeming for all pretenses to be lazy tourists—except for three of them being tied to their horses.

When the sun was bright in the sky but sliding down the western horizon, Thaddeus stopped his horse, he looked around and nodded. “This will make a nice camp.”

Smithy slid off his horse, groaning. “I’d rather to be riding hard for the day than dot along like a woman.”

Thaddeus grinned. “Tomorrow you can spare your horse the effort and walk.”

Smithy frowned.

“If you prefer to ride that poor beast that lugs your weight, you’ll keep your complaining to yourself,” Thaddeus said as he unlatched his saddle. “And if you complain about your sore feet tomorrow, you’ll carry your horse.”

Smithy grumbled his retort as he yanked Tucker off his horse and tied him to a tree. Bobby tried to dismount his horse before Smithy could drag him off, but with his hands tied behind him, he almost fell. Collette eyed him carefully when he came for her. “If you pull me off this horse like that, I’ll know what little honor the men of Mandaras have.”

“You seen me scars?” Smithy flexed his arms, thickening his muscles and the intricate scars that decorated his arms.

She nodded. “The markings are remarkable. Your behavior doesn’t match.”

Smithy laughed, but his face turned red. “What can yon young lady be knowing about my people?”

“I’ve heard what your people suffered in the Uprising. I can only imagine what you lost. My uncle told me that the number of markings had meaning. That if I ever met a Mandaras man who had been scarred from the elbow to the shoulder, I was meeting a great man.”

Smithy looked at his arms and held them out for Collette to see. “I’ve not the full markings. Them Uprising enemies done interrupted my training.” He held his arms up to help her down gracefully.

When her feet touched the ground, Collette sighed. “Or, it’s possible that with your actions now, you will receive much more than just markings on your arm. Thank you for helping me off the horse.” With that she walked over to Bobby and Tucker with her arms still tied behind her back, and sat down.

As Smithy and Stoneman continued to prepare the area for the night, Thadeus scanned the darkening horizon. Tint was off running the perimeter of the area and whistled a warning to Thadeus. A moment later, the sound of horse hooves drew near. “It’s Amos,” Smithy said and he relaxed, setting his crossbow down. “Ho, Amos!” he shouted. “You coming in just the time to be fixen’ us some o’ that stew!”

Amos slowed his horse.

Tucker and Bobby exchanged a glance. They watched as Amos rode toward them with a sword hanging from his belt, two long-knives in a harness on his back, and a knife strapped to the outside of each boot. The side of his saddle held a bow and arrows.

Is he a mage or a weapons expert? Bobby asked, using the secret way of communicating that had nothing to do with spoken words or expressions and everything to do with being twins and mages.

I think his arms should be registered as lethal. Tucker said.

Amos wore a leather vest over a stained shirt with sleeves rolled up, exposing thick biceps. They were not muscle bound, but so massive that it didn’t really matter if there was muscle behind the mass or not. The sheer weight of the bicep alone was enough to squash a skull.

“Smithy,” he nodded. “I will stay, but I’m not going to be the cooking one.” He dismounted, took a letter from his jacket and handed it to Thaddeus. “I being here just to deliver yon message.”

Thaddeus peeled the seal off the parchment and read the letter as he paced. He looked at the horses, then at Amos. “She must know we have no provisions for this.”

“Aye. Madame Minister sent ample supplies.” Amos took three large bags off his saddle. They fell heavily to the ground. He untied the fourth bag with more care and carried all of it to Thaddeus. “Two meals a day. Plus this.”

Thaddeus looked in the bag, and breathed in deeply the scent of fresh bread and meat. “She does think of everything.”

Amos gestured to Collette. “How is her cooking?”

“She is under guard,” Thaddeus said. “It wouldn’t be proper.”

“Less proper than a man preparing a meal when a lesser gender could do it?”

Thaddeus looked at Collette. “Do you have skill in preparing meals?”

She looked at Amos. “My uncle taught me.”

Laughing, Amos reached into his saddle and took out a small bottle. He held it up in a mocking gesture of gratitude. “Then grace us with yon culinary knowledge, sweet prisoner.” He turned his attention back to Bobby and Tucker. “How is it, say? The twins,” he walked toward them and leaned over, studying their faces as if they were not humans, but animals on display. “I’ve heard how twins can be looking so alike.” He straightened and took a short drink from the small bottle. “Saw a pair down along the coast some years back. But them weren’t mages. How is it?”

Instead of answering, Thadeus untied the rope binding Collette to the tree and retied her hands in front of her with about a foot of rope between her wrists.

Amos noted the raw skin on her wrists. “I see Stoneman been keeping ‘em under close watch. No prisoner yet ‘as been able to find ‘em freedom from his knots.”

Thaddeus gripped Collette’s arm just above her elbow and steered her to the food bags. “Stoneman has a big appetite.”

Amos sat next to Stoneman and leaned casually back on an elbow, taking another drink.

“Any idea how long?” Thaddeus asked as he folded the message from Martina and tucked it carefully into his shirt pocket. He noticed a smudge on his shirt and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe it off.

“No telling,” Amos said, swirling the drink in the bottle.

Thaddeus walked in a circle around the camp, looked toward the mountains in the distance, toward the desert, then back the way they had come. Bobby knew there was nothing much in every direction. The only place Thaddeus didn’t look toward was Rockheart, which lay bustling underground in the southeast.

“How often we will be resupplied?” Thaddeus asked Amos.

“Oh,” Amos stood and untied a pouch from his belt. “Madame Minister sent this, too.” He tossed it to Thaddeus. Coin clinked as Thaddeus caught it.

“How convenient of you to remember,” Thaddeus remarked and picked a piece of lint off the bag.

“Madame Minister also requested that I bring any of them valuables on them. I suppose that means they robbed her, huh?”

“I will send it to her sealed.”

Amos laughed. “Never trust a messenger, is that it?”

“That’s it.”

“And the fact that Madame Minister trusts me not enough?” Amos scowled. “What will she be thinking when I show up with a sealed package?”

“That I took measures to assure that what she is looking for wasn’t traded away for a spot of drink.” Thaddeus walked to his saddlebags and took out a waxed burlap bag, a flat string and sealing wax. He placed the cloth containing the silver triangle in the bag and wrapped it snuggly. Reaching toward the fire, he melted the end of the sealing wax and pressed it onto the string, making sure that it was a large seal. Finally, he pressed his ring into the wax, leaving his mark to assure Madame Minister that the package was not tampered with in any way.

“Yon thinking Madame Minister trusts you more?” Amos asked.

Thaddeus blew on the wax and checked its soundness. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just that she’s keeping you out here with guards and these children. Seems a dull mission.”

“I suppose not much can compare to the thrill of being a messenger.” Thaddeus raised his eyebrows when he said thrill. “I suppose you have an abundance of useful information concerning the affairs of others.”

Amos didn’t respond.

“I also recall the punishment doled out to messengers who try to reseal private messages.”

With his drink halfway to his lips, Amos paused.

“You’ve seen it, haven’t you, Amos?” Thaddeus asked. “The punishment?”

Amos made no comment.

Smithy dropped his thick body down on the ground with a grunt. “I have,” he said. “The sight of such ugly beatings is being forever lasting in my mind.”

Amos shifted forward. “I never read yon message.”

“Perhaps you didn’t,” Thaddeus said. “But someone did. The wax has been poorly resealed.” He held up the letter from Martina. “Someone is taking advantage of you, Amos. I happen to know that Madame Minister only allows illiterate messengers to carry her letters. Whoever paid you to allow them to read this letter,” he held up the paper from Madame Minister, “no doubt said that you would only be punished if you read the letter. But your mission is to deliver the messages sealed and therefore, unread by anyone. It’s the broken seal for which you could be punished.”

For a long moment, Amos thought about what Thaddeus said. “You said, could be punished. What is your price?”

“Tell me who read the letter.”

“That’s it?” Amos leaned forward. “Only wanting just a name?”

Thaddeus nodded.

“What yon to do with a name, say?”

“It’s information.”

Amos shook his head. “Information is not buying yon anything.”

“I’m surprised you fail to comprehend the value of information.”

Amos shrugged. “Some fellow by the name o’ Delgo or Delgato. Not some man I’ve known before. He being one of them mages over from yon Council.”

“How long ago did he read it?” Thaddeus asked.

“This morning.”

Thaddeus narrowed his eyes and tossed the sealed package containing the silver triangle toward Amos, “I will not be there when you hand this to Madame Minister’s people. They will not hesitate to administer the appropriate punishment if they even suspect foul play.”

Amos scowled and took another drink.

“I hope that flask was worth the trade,” Thaddeus said.

Amos stood and dusted off his pants. “Never liked yon so much, Thaddeus.” He picked up the package. “Enjoy yon dinner and this here time wandering about. This job is calling me back.” He tucked the sealed package into his saddlebag, swung himself into the saddle, and charged away.

How important do you think that silver triangle really is? Tucker asked Bobby as they studied the conversation between Amos and Thaddeus.

How many people have died for it? Bobby asked.

That doesn’t mean it’s important, Tucker argued. We’ve heard of people killing someone just because their skin is different or their beliefs are different. Doesn’t make one set of beliefs better than another.

Just scarier, Bobby said.

At least we know where it is, Tucker said. I wonder if it will be safer with Martina?

I don’t think anything is safe with her.

What a family we have. Tucker shook his head.

Yeah. Dad’s a thief. Our Aunt runs a corrupt political party based out of an underground city. This should all end really well.

With someone else privy to the information between he and Martina, Thaddeus changed direction the next day as well as their pattern. They traveled for two days, stopped at night with a cold camp, Smithy’s term for the quick overnight stops without a campfire and cold provisions from their supply. When they reached an area near water, they stayed for two nights, thoroughly watering the horses.

The pace felt casual, almost as if they were wanderers from ancient times just looking for food and water. Casual except for the constant badgering from their guards. Collette was never harmed, but she was made to work hard to keep the food supply sufficient, the meals prepared, and the water supply ample.

 

4

 

A Cloud of Soot

 

Trina divided the mages who volunteered to spy on the Ragnarok into groups of two. Victoria and Foley were paired up and were sent to see what they could see around the Elder’s Circle. As they walked, they dared not speak. Foley warned her that Ragnarok warriors were incredibly stealthy. “If you suspect you’ve been spotted, take to the underground. They can’t follow you there with Fire.

As they walked silently toward the sphinx city, Victoria thought about the practical use of Earth. Of all the elements, Earth was her favorite. It didn’t float around like Air, dipping on currents and causing her to lose her equilibrium. It didn’t bog down her thoughts like Water, and didn’t consume her with a fiery appetite. Earth was steady. It was rich with detail and even had a smell and a taste, which was sometimes surprising, but mostly a comfort. Warmth and movement in the Earth meant life. With Air pressing it down, Water moving along and within it, and Fire burning on its surface and deep within its core, it was the hub of the wheel of elements.

Since the fall of the sphinx city, Earth’s sweetness had been replaced with a sour, iron taste. She tried to avoid those areas, but like invisible clouds of decay, they lurked about and invaded her senses. Not so with the caves, the original homes of the sphinx. Although abandoned centuries before, the caves still had a sweetness to them. The earth hugged the caves, cradling the prodigal children. While bitterness spurned the spirits of many of the sphinx, Victoria imagined that Earth felt nothing but joy at the life within its pockets; the cool stone rejoiced in the vibrations of feet and voices.

When she and Foley were close to the city, Victoria didn’t use her eyes. Mostly she studied the Ragnarok with her Earth element. Hundreds of footsteps tapped at the ground with a speed that rang of urgency. When the wind carried the sweet charred smell of roasting food, her mouth watered. She peeked out from behind a tree and gasped.

The sphinx city was blackened. The cremated remains of the Library of Ages drifted listlessly from the windows and the open courtyard, carrying away the ashy clouds of thousands of years of literature and history. The Hall of Art was the same. Lumps of twisted silver and gold frames were being harvested from the charred mess, and the paints and canvas that once lead to other terraces were crushed under ashen feet as the Ragnarok terminated all evidence of the sphinx city’s prestige.

From the west, she felt the densely-packed earth underneath the training fields, which had once been four immaculate circular plots of lush green surrounding a fifth circular plot in the center, giving the entire field the look of a giant green flower. Each field was edged with a low, white stonewall with openings at the compass points of North, South, East, and West. The training fields were now campgrounds for Ragnarok and in the center circle, a wooden fence that looked oddly like pens for animals was under construction. There were no horses here, leading Victoria to conclude that the pens were not for animals, but for prisoners.

The number of Ragnarok had tripled. Small shelters littered the city, each with its own cooking fire. The pale forms of the Ragnarok swarmed the landscape like white ants.

Victoria saw a Minotaur carrying a long staff walk toward the Elder’s Circle and disappear within the archway. Not long after, a new cloud of billowing smoke rose from within the Elder’s Circle. Whatever had been inside the towering stone walls had now succumbed to the gnawing jaws of fire.

Victoria glanced at Foley who was hidden behind a nearby tree. His eyes frowned at Hall of Art, or what remained of it. Victoria understood why. As they watched, Minotaur climbed through a gateway and entered the sphinx city. From another gateway, four mages emerged and immediately set to work directing the Minotaur and Ragnarok. They watched the activity for hours. There was one purpose behind everything the Ragnarok did: destroy as much as possible as quickly as possible. Whether with fire or their bare hands, the tattooed warriors left a path of destruction in the Hall of Art, the Library of Ages, and even burning the grass.

As the sun started to slide down the western sky, Foley came up behind her and whispered, “I’ve seen enough.”

As they returned to the caves, slanted slices of sunshine struggled to penetrate the forest floor, casting eerie shadows. A bird on a branch chirped loudly raising the hair on the back of Victoria’s neck.

What they had seen confirmed their fear: the Ragnarok were using the gateways in the Hall of Art to fortify their army. As if the fire-worshiping tribesmen weren’t frightening enough, they had gathered in a battalion of Minotaur and a group of people whom Foley called Purists.

“What are Purists?” Victoria asked as they walked back to the caves. “They look like regular people, not pale and tattooed like the Ragnarok.”

“Purists are mages who have been working for centuries to undermine the Council. They believe that God created mages and that the ungifted are the result of sin. Just as most people are when it comes to sin, they seek to resolve it, to find a way to make it exist no longer.”

“You mean they want a world with only mages.”

“They see the value in certain people who have skills. Scientists, philosophers, inventors and the like have joined their ranks. Purists also understand the value of having servants who manage menial tasks.” Foley pushed a branch out of the way, he moved aside to allow Victoria to go first. “What I wonder,” he continued, “is if Ona’s goals for the Grandfather’s Weapons are in line with the Purist’s goals? Or if she’s just using the Purists to her own end?”

“Would the Purists’ ideal world of mages increase Ona’s power or her influence?” Victoria asked.

“Power? That depends on what the weapon really is. The Council mandates and the laws for all mages protect the ungifted by honoring the life of everyone. But obviously, a mage can easily break that law. And again, different mages see that mandate through different lenses. Some look at the mandate as part of the Creator’s commandment that ‘thou shall not kill.’ We honor that because we believe that all life is sacred and therefore worthy of protecting. Because Purists believe that those who are not mages are a result of sin, they don’t see the value in their lives, which is why their cause is to rid the earth of such filth.”

“Except when that filth can serve their own purposes,” Victoria added.

“Exactly,” Foley was quiet for a moment. “I believe that their views of life are the result of the sin of pride. But, if you are asking if her elemental power would increase, I don’t believe so. She, personally, wouldn’t be able to gain power in that way. But, if there was a world with only mages, then are we all equally matched? Or, if she’s planning on something far worse for those without an elemental gift, would she use her power to rule them?” He sighed. “I just don’t know.”

“How far would the Purists go to cleanse the earth?” Victoria asked.

Foley stopped and looked around at the forest. “That’s the question.” He pointed in the direction of the caves. “We can’t see the caves from here, but if these trees were to be cut down, we would see not only the caves, but the foothills of the mountains,” he pointed West, “and at night, we would be able to see the lights of Delphi. It’s only because we are closed in here with the trees and the undergrowth, that we can’t see what’s beyond.” He picked up a rock. “If I throw this, it’s going to hit something before it travels ten yards. But in a prairie, it wouldn’t be inhibited by obstacles. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

She was quiet for a moment. “Purists don’t see the bigger picture, only the trees that stop them from running quickly from one point to another.”

Foley nodded, tossed the rock aside, and walked on. “And the best way to run faster?” Foley asked.

“Clear out the trees.” Victoria’s face paled. “Aren’t there laws? What about the Ten Commandments? Don’t they follow God’s laws?”

“You know history. All it takes is a volatile environment, a charismatic leader who promises change and people are committed. As far as I can tell, they only pay attention to the laws that coincide with their own desires.”

“Would they really exterminate everyone in their way?”

“They’ve already started.” Foley said. “There was a war in the Second Terrace when I was younger. My father fought against a sudden uprising of Purists. They had gained permission from the Council to establish a city of only mages under the pretense that others—the ungifted—had treated them badly because of fear of their gifts. It was good for a short time, but the Purists began attacking people that were not mages in other cities. My father died trying to protect a neighbor. Our friends without elemental intent assumed that all mages were evil. Purists argued that because they fought back, the ungifted were evil.” The memory ended and he looked at Victoria. “That’s just my story. There are countless others. Purists, in my opinion, have a terrible history.”

Foley kept walking and Victoria ran to catch up with him. “So, who’s stopping them? I mean, they aren’t going to be allowed to do this again, right?”

He almost laughed. “I joined up with Ona years ago because I thought she was going to be the one to stop them. That’s why we went looking for the Weapon. Ona believed that the Weapon wasn’t really a weapon at all, but a tool that she could use to correct everything that was wrong in the terrace. She had us convinced that by helping her we could put everything back the way it was.”

“Is that possible?” Victoria asked. “How could she determine what was good and what needed to change?”

“I don’t want this to sound like an excuse,” Foley said, “but we were raised during a time and in a terrace where mages were treated unfairly. The people around us feared us. And sometimes they had the right to feel that way, with the Purists running about using their elements in any way they wanted.”

“When did it change for you? I mean, what happened that forced you to leave?”

“When Leora died. Ona sent us into that kiva without telling us what we needed.” Foley laughed bitterly. “She didn’t even know. I knew there was no remorse in her heart when she told us that Leora’s death was only the first of many. That in order for her to gain the Weapon, she would be willing to do whatever was necessary.”

“So, you left,” Victoria said.

Foley stopped walking and looked at her. “You think we ran away?”

“She didn’t say that,” Trina said as she walked toward them from the direction of the caves. “Foley and your father never ran from anything,” she told Victoria. “I had to make them hide. They wanted to go to the Council and point fingers at Ona, bring down the entire Council in order to stop her search for the weapon.”

“By the time we reached Trina,” Foley continued, “Ona had already reported to the Council that a small group of mages were plotting to bring down the society by using the Grandfather’s Weapon to undermine their authority. Anything we said after that point would have been seen as a full confession.”

“With the Purists so rabid,” Trina said, “Ona was able to label Foley and your parents as Purists.”

“Sound familiar?” Foley asked Victoria. “Remember American history?”

Groaning, Victoria’s shoulder’s drooped. “I knew this would become a lesson. Witch hunts. McCarthyism.”

Foley winked. “You are passing my test. The witch hunts and McCarthyism are the practices of making accusations of treason without evidence—or even without any regard for evidence. We didn’t run away, but needed to step away until we could be effective. Trina kept us informed.”

Trina scoffed at the comment. “Hardly. Half the time I couldn’t get a message to you without being discovered. But Ona didn’t stop looking for the weapon.” Trina started walking back toward the caves. “Instead, she convinced the Council and a small group of mages that in order to protect the Grandfather’s Weapon, they needed to locate it. I’ve done everything I can to keep them searching.”

“So,” Victoria tried to understand, “as much as some of the Council Mages have been working with Ona to discover the Weapon, you’ve been working to keep her from it.”

“Treachery to the highest degree,” Trina said. “How does the city look?”

Foley shook his head sadly. “Like a giant campfire run wild. They are bringing in reinforcements.”

“Minotaur?” Trina asked.

“And Purists,” Foley added.

Trina’s stopped walking for a moment, took a deep breath, then continued. “Well. Back to the old fight.”

Before Trina even stepped foot into the border of the caves, she was stopped by several mages and a sphinx who had questions, ideas, concerns, and even a food request.

“Lady Trina,” the hungry mage spoke hurriedly, “I can lead a band of mages into the woods to hunt. The need of meat is very high.”

“For you,” Trina said. “Not for the sphinx. They are vegetarians. While you and your friends hunt, find mushrooms and any root vegetables you can.”

“Lady Trina,” a sphinx commanded her attention, “How are we going to reclaim our city? I think I may have an idea. We will need digging implements for the mages. We sphinx have excellent claws.”

Holding up her hand to stop him, Trina was patient. “I’m thankful for the foresight of returning your great culture to your rightful home. For now, please speak with your father. As an Elder, he can work with you to formalize your plans before you present them.”

“My father isn’t well,” the sphinx said, following Trina as she continued to walk. “He hasn’t emerged from the cave since our arrival and refuses to eat.”

At this news, Trina stopped walking and gently put her hand on the sphinx’s shoulder. “Then he is your first concern.”

“He grieves, my Lady. I do not know how to help him. My best plan is to restore our society to the city. Perhaps then he will emerge from his stupor.”

“Go and talk to him of your plan. Perhaps that will be enough to enlighten his soul to action. And food.”

Dejected, the sphinx walked away, but Trina called to him. “Tristan.” He turned. “Let me know how he is tomorrow. I will visit him and try to help.”

Tristan bowed gratefully and hurried off through the caves.

“Who is his father?” Victoria whispered to Trina.

“Elder Aurum. I knew this defeat would affect him deeply. The strange thing is that he counseled me years ago, saying that times of trial will come to us all. Our true strength comes in how we handle ourselves in the face of being completely defeated. Victory can only be possible if, first, we imagine it.” She looked at Victoria sadly. “I hope he remembers his own words.”

Trina walked on, fielding question after question and concern after concern. Victoria didn’t follow. Neither did Foley.

“Wouldn’t want her job for the world,” Foley commented.

“You are patience with all my questions,” Victoria said. “You were a high school principal for years. You helped a lot of kids. I know. I heard them talk about how you helped them find purpose and a reason to complete school.”

Foley watched Trina, but spoke to Victoria. “I wasn’t… well, thank you. I did enjoy those years.”

“Me too.” Victoria felt the lump in her throat thicken. “I miss my mom. I hope she’s okay.”

Foley put his arm around her and pulled her into a fatherly hug. “Diane is the strongest woman I know. Stubborn strong.”

“She lost her elemental intent,” Victoria reminded him.

“It won’t slow her down.”

“Where do you think she is?”

“The plan was to meet at the sphinx city. I’m sure they are on their way.”

“Why didn’t they use the gateway at the museum like we did?” Just a few short days ago, Foley had returned Victoria to her home only to find it abandoned. Her mother wasn’t there waiting for her like she had hoped. Instead, they left the house and rode to an art museum in the next town and used a gateway that had been put into storage to come to the sphinx city.

“Without her elemental intent, she can’t use the gateways,” Foley said. “Besides, Adam knows of a few other mages in the Fourth Terrace that would need to be warned. One of them had a gateway. They will find their way here.”

Victoria could hear the confidence in Foley’s voice, but she still wondered how they would manage.

5

 

A Storm Brewing

 

Another strange place. More pretending. More smiling when she really just wanted to find a dark corner and cry until every problem they faced simply disappeared. Not that it would do any good, Diane knew, because she had tried it. Adam had found her with red eyes and a terribly snotty nose. “Do you feel any better?” he asked, handing her a tissue.

“No. I won’t until I know where she is. I can’t stand this. I have to find her.” As soon as she said it, she knew how ridiculous it was to complain to Adam. His boys were missing too. “Sorry.” She sniffed and wiped her eyes.

He smiled and handed her another tissue; one of the few left from her hasty packing weeks earlier. “Actually, I’m jealous. I feel like doing the same thing, except I don’t want my nose to look like that.”

She laughed, but covered her nose with the tissue. “You’re terrible.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

Today they were scouring Northern Italy for a Painter who would allow them through to the Third Terrace, hopefully somewhere near the sphinx city. Over the last few months, they had traveled by plane from home to New York City, then on to Rome. A Painter near the Coliseum had recognized Adam and called for Green Guards, but they managed to stay hidden as they made their way to Florence where Diane’s old friend, Louisa, had lived years ago.

Walking through the outskirts of Florence, Diane prayed that Louisa was still living here. Her house was in the villa, just around the corner from the old village well. What had once been a dirt paved hollow, was now a stone-paved oasis of trinket shops and over-priced restaurants whose main income came from tourists.

Diane knocked, turned to Adam and sighed. “I hope she’s still here.”

“If she’s not, we have no means to get to the sphinx city.”

The door opened. The book in Louisa’s hand fell to the floor when she recognized Diane. She looked at Adam then back to Diane before fainting. Adam rushed forward to catch her before she hit the floor. “Courage of steel, this one.”

Diane followed him into the house and closed the door behind her. “That’s why I like her,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that her first reaction is her honest reaction.”

Louisa came to when Adam lay her down on her couch. With heavy eyelids, she looked around the room. “Diane?”

“Are you okay?” Diane asked.

“You obviously are,” Louisa said. “I thought you had died.”

Diane shook her head. “Xander and I had to hide. The Council accused us and we had to hide.”

Louisa sat up, wiped her forehead, and sighed. “Oh, I just knew today was going to be a doozey. With that storm brewing off the coast, it felt ominous.”

“A storm brewing for over twenty years,” Adam said. “And I’m afraid it will be a doozey.”

“And you!” Louisa pointed at Adam. “The most wanted mage just walked into my house.” She looked at Diane, then Adam. “I’ll make some tea. I need to hear your story and I won’t do it without a strong cup of something.”

By late afternoon, Louisa had heard Diane’s story and admitted that she knew of one other mage in hiding.

“That’s why we need your help,” Diane said. “The Council is failing. Trina, I believe, remains true to the Old Ways, but the others,” she shrugged, “I wouldn’t trust them to tell me the color of my eyes.”

“Helping is not going to be easy.”

“It never is when the Council is involved,” Adam agreed.

Louisa stood and walked toward a door, shaking her head and speaking as she did. “Difficult not in a challenging way, but in an almost impossible way.” She walked into another room and beckoned for Diane and Adam to follow. Turning on the light, Diane gasped at the sight. The room was Louisa’s studio, a small art gallery of gateways framed with silver and gold. Almost half were burned. Diane rushed forward and examined the lower left corners of several of the damaged gateways.

“Adam,” she said with a shaking voice, “these are all gateways to the Third Terrace.”

He didn’t move. They both stood there and felt the world shift under their feet.

“News has been sparse,” Louisa explained, “but it seems there was an attack on the Hall of Art. Not all of these gateways lead to the sphinx city, so it seems that whoever is behind this has support throughout the terrace.”

Adam turned his head slowly, as if he were underwater and trying to understand a foreign language. “The sphinx?”

“Several messages have come through the mirrors,” Louisa said. “At first I thought, well, I didn’t know what to think. There was talk of twins, mage twins. Word was that they were very dangerous and we were not to allow them through any gateway at any cost. Then Ona was rumored to be missing and the twins were to blame. I don’t know if she’s been found, but just the other day, I came in here and found the gateways like this.” She walked to one and lightly touched the charred canvas. If left a greasy smudge on her finger.

Diane had been watching Adam, but she spoke to Louisa. “Did they say who was responsible for the Hall of Art attack?”

Louisa stared at the smudge. “You know how rumors are. I heard it was a lightning strike. Then another rumor indicated that it was the Ragnarok.” She wiped the smudge on her pants and looked at Diane. “Who knows. After what you’ve told me, it’s probably the twins. It could have been the sphinx, too. They’ve been toying with different hierarchy placements. I don’t think it was going well.”

“It wasn’t the twins,” Adam said, his face betraying the anger that boiled in his chest.

Louisa, surprised at his tone, looked to Diane for an explanation.

“We need to get to the sphinx.”

“I don’t know how you will,” Louisa pointed to the destroyed paintings. “There are Painters who are destroying their own gateways out of fear that the Ragnarok might enter.”

“What about the Nations?” Adam asked.

“No, Adam,” Diane said. “We’ve talked about this before.”

“We’ve argued about this before,” Adam said, “but we’ve never come to a decision.”

“I thought my opinion was clear.”

“An opinion based on information that is nearly twenty years old.”

“Not just information, but experience from twenty years ago,” Diane corrected.

Louisa watched the exchange with growing interest. Her intent observation stopped Diane’s oncoming speech.

“The Nations have been quiet. Eerily quiet. I think the more pressing concern should be Martina,” Louisa said. “Since you’ve been away from the Society for so long, I can tell you that the Lady Martina has worked long and hard to overcome her brother’s crimes.” She looked at Adam. “She will not be happy to see you.”

“She never was,” Adam said.

“Do you have anything that leads anywhere in the Third Terrace?” Diane asked. “Even remotely close to the sphinx?”

Louisa moved frames out of the way and revealed a rather small painting of a river banked with pleasant grass and spring flowers. In the distance, worn mountains covered with towering trees met the horizon. “My sister, Carmen, guards the other side. She travels a great deal for the Council, so there’s no telling where in the Third Terrace you will be once you get there.”

Diane looked at Adam, her expression agreeing with his. A risk, to be sure.

“My sister and I have discussed the Council often,” Louisa said, understanding the concern on their faces. “Her husband died mysteriously and Carmen was never fully satisfied that it wasn’t to do with his suspicions that certain Council members were corrupt.” Louisa laughed bitterly. “To think that I was the one encouraging her to remain true to the Council. She’ll love rubbing this in my face.” Louisa smiled at Adam. “You know how sisters can be.”

“Yes. I know that well.”

“Truly, Louisa,” Diane said, “We are in your debt. Will you help us rally more mages to the cause?”

“It seems that unless I support deception, I must work to bring the Council down.” She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Oh, to think that such days would visit my lifetime.”

“Don’t stay in your fears,” Adam said. “Just listen to the talk of other mages.”

“Spy?”

Adam nodded.

“What do I do if I find someone who might be ready to join a revolution?” Louisa said, almost laughing at the absurd idea.

“Just take note,” Adam said. “There will come a time when we will need an army.”

Louisa’s eyes widened. “Army? I was joking about a revolution.”

“I am not. My wife was killed. Xander, too. Much has been sacrificed to protect our children, but the time to hide is over.”

Sighing, Louisa’s forehead creased with worry. “I’m not looking to join a fight. But I’ll keep an ear open for mages who might be.”

Waving her hand over the canvas, Louisa opened the gateway. The river began to flow and the flowers waved in a gentle breeze. The entire scene looked peaceful, but Diane knew all too well that the days of painting scenes like these were over. Now it was up to her to assure that the future would hold the same hope that Louisa had obviously felt when she painted this scene.

Diane hugged Louisa, thanked her once more, then turned to Adam and held out her hand. “Ready?” They both reached toward the gateway and slipped through.

Diane knew immediately that something was wrong. The pull was too strong and then it disappeared altogether. She couldn’t feel Adam’s hand, which was normal as far as traveling through gateways went, but it lasted far too long. She had no voice to call for help. She couldn’t find her arms to reach out. Her vision was gone.

There was nothing.

 

6

 

Carmen & Hedda

 

Time passed. Minutes and hours slipped by as Diane tried to find a way to end the fall through the abyss which wrapped around her so completely.

“What a way to go,” she thought. There had been stories told of mages who had been lost between the gateways—just as likely as being a victim of an assassin—slim, but still possible depending on where you were.

To be lost between gateways was to be wedged between two worlds, to belong to nothing. To be nothing. But, she realized, she was still thinking. She still had a mind, thoughts, and a soul. If she could have physically reacted to the reality of her situation, she would have screamed. Here, wherever this here was, she would never find Victoria. She would simply be forgotten. She was already supposed to be dead. Now that she was, only Victoria would never hear the truth from her.

Diane didn’t like that. To have lost her husband was terrible. The passing of her elemental intent was an intense loss. To know that Alexander survived for almost sixteen years and then to feel his death was beyond words.

Is this what happened to him? she wondered. Was he lost between worlds and then just died? No, she decided. He would have found a way. This is not how I’m going to die. Without any sensation, she didn’t know how to pull herself together, but she tried. She willed herself to be whole, to be complete, to find something solid to stand on. Thinking of every memory she could, she put together her entire life: the gifts, the pains, the joys and the losses. She had made grievous mistakes as well as committing some decently heroic acts; she claimed them all. Everything she had endured made her who she was. She would not be lost in this nothingness.

Her thoughts tunneled into a violent will to live. As if she were caught in a spiraling tunnel, her mind rushed in a sickening circle. She felt her body pouring out the other side of the gateway and landing hard on the ground.

A startled voice exclaimed and someone scrambled away. It took her a moment to reclaim a grip on her senses. Her vision spun. Was she on her stomach or her back? She didn’t know.

Slowly, the room stopped spinning and she recognized that she was inside a home. It was a small and roughly set cottage that immediately indicated that she wasn’t in the Fourth Terrace. The smell of the wood cabin brought back memories of her childhood home before the war. She could see a woman dressed like the people she had grown up around; a skirt with a delicate blouse embroidered with colorful flowers and vines. The woman approached her cautiously.

Diane stood up and asked, “Are you Carmen?”

“You must be Diane,” Carmen smiled.

From the back of the room, shading the light of the door, Adam rushed into the room and swept Diane into a hug. She wheezed as he squeezed her tightly. “I thought I had lost you, too.”

Diane hugged him back. “You know me. Can’t stand to be left out.”

He set her down and looked her over. “Are you hurt? You were missing for so long. You are really okay?”

“How long did it take me to make it through?”

“Hours.”

“Diane?” a voice from Diane’s past made her knees weak and she clung to Adam’s arms for support. For years after she and Alexander had run to the Fourth Terrace, she dreamed of somehow hearing that voice again, but she knew it would be impossible. And yet, here it was. Gasping, she looked out the door. When Diane saw the woman, her walk, her hair, her expression, she burst into tears and stumbled her way toward the arms that she had missed for almost twenty years. As she embraced her mother, Diane sobbed apologies. “I’m so sorry. We had to leave. I didn’t want you to be hurt, but we had to leave. I’m so sorry.”

“Shh,” her mother whispered and rubbed her head the way she had when Diane had nightmares as a child. “It’s alright.”

It was far from alright. She knew that for her mother, her prayers had been answered. But Diane wanted to have this same teary-eyed reunion with Victoria. That made her cry all the more.

Finally, Diane made herself stop. Gripping her mother’s arms, she pulled away. Her mother’s face was wet with tears and her right eye twitched the way it always had when she was holding back emotions.

“There,” Hedda nodded authoritatively. “Enough of this sobbing about such a happy moment.”

Diane sniffed and laughed. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Hedda’s eyes swam with tears, and when she smiled, they spilled down her cheeks. She let go of her daughter and dried her cheeks with her sleeve. “I hope that is a compliment.”

Diane turned to Adam. “Are we close?”

She could tell by his expression they weren’t. Adam cleared his throat and took a map from Carmen and spread it on the table. “The good news is that even though we aren’t where we wanted to be, we did find your mother.”

Diane studied the map. “This is Terrace Two. In The Nations. Just where we don’t want to be. Wait,” she gaped at Adam. “Terrace Two? How?”

Adam shrugged. “Carmen promised that she would explain. We are just North of my sister.”

“I think I know how,” she looked at her mother. “Like I said,” not losing her anger as she looked at Adam, “we are just where we don’t want to be. An entire Terrace away from the children!”

“No,” Adam rested his hand on hers. “The boys are here.”

Diane gasped. “How close?”

“As far as I can tell, they are somewhere in this region.” He pointed to the map to a wide swath of land that ran along the river. Diane traced the area with her finger, and followed the blue line further south to wide circular mark. “Rockheart. If they are heading toward Rockheart, that means your sister has them.”

Adam sighed. “It’s not all good news.”

“Well. You wanted to see her. I guess we can’t avoid that family reunion now, can we?”

“From what I’m hearing from Carmen, I will not be welcomed. I might even be arrested.”

“You think she is still searching for the scrolls?”

“If she has the boys, she has the scrolls. She needs to know what happened. You will need to tell her. No matter what I do, she won’t believe me.”

Diane scoffed. “Well, can you blame her?”

Adam’s shoulders sagged in defeat. “If I had known that all my choices back then would have caused so much damage…”

 



 

Over the next several hours, Diane was filled in on the history of the mage society from the last twenty years. Adam was right—it wasn’t all good news. Actually, none of it was good news, but somehow, she found it all encouraging. In the years after she and Alexander left, she worried about the people she had left behind. Would someone else realize the extent to which the Council had corrupted themselves? Would others suffer as she and Adam had? Should she have returned sooner and revealed what she knew to be true?

As time passed and Alexander didn’t come home, she wondered if there were other women out there waiting for their husbands who would never return. Every time she thought about confronting the Council, Adam held her back. “There will come a time,” he had said. “But it is not now. We can’t protect the children there. We must wait.”

Now she regretted waiting. And what had she been waiting for, anyway? For the children to be kidnapped and thrust into the world of their inheritance which they knew nothing about? It was too late, but Diane decided when Victoria disappeared that Adam’s plan wasn’t really that great.

Several people had been told of her arrival and slowly, Carmen’s cottage filled with mages.

After her supposed death, her mother had gone to the Council to ask for Diane’s body for a proper burial. Because they never did produce a body, her mother believed that it was possible Diane was still alive. “It was the hope of a grieving mother, but it was also a real possibility. The circumstances of your death didn’t match what I knew about your mission or your strengths. I had also spoken with Alexander about a month before. He said something that I didn’t really understand until much later. He told me that the mission you both had been assigned had holes. He said that if needed, he would use those holes in a way that the Council didn’t intend.”

“He certainly did,” Diane laughed. “There were other holes in the Council’s plan. The more we worked, the more we could see them. Missions in terraces in which the Council Mage of that terrace had no knowledge of our activities. There were deaths with no bodies. When we left, I knew we would be one of those deaths.”

“My husband,” Carmen said, “was sent to the sphinx city to gather information from the Library of Ages. The Council sent him under the pretense of researching a mage from centuries ago. Trina wasn’t sure why other Council members would want to know about him, so she sent him with a warning to be cautiously observant. Hugh being Hugh didn’t turn down an opportunity to go to the Library. He loved it there. But he never came home. I know he was there because I spoke with Elder Amberson a few months later. He had spent a week in the Library and left through a Second Terrace gateway to report his findings. That’s where his trail goes cold.” Carmen turned to Hedda. “But that’s when I met Hedda. Together we knew that something was wrong. We needed a way to safely travel.”

“Oh, mom!” Diane interrupted. “It worked?”

“It did.” A mischievous twinkle in her eye was followed by a knowing smiled between Hedda and Carmen.

“What worked?” Adam asked.

Diane laughed, shook her head and laughed again. “My mother. Most girls worry their parents by being rebellious. Not me. My mother is the rebel!” She looked at Adam. “She slipped a gateway.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Really?”

“You don’t know what that means, do you?” Diane teased.

“Not a clue.” Adam admitted.

Diane explained. “A slipped gateway was mom’s theory. That if she brought a gateway to a new terrace through another gateway, it would slip a traveler past a terrace.”

Adam’s eyes lit up.

Hedda winked. “He catches on quick.”

“Hedda’s slipped gateways have saved many lives.” Carmen indicated the growing number of people in the room. “We have all lost someone or have been on the Council’s list for disposal. We are the lucky ones: assumed dead to the rest of the world, but living here. Only Trina knows of our plans. She, I believe, is the only Council Mage we can trust.”

Looking around the room, Diane saw the faces that could be hers or Adams or Victoria’s. They were mages without a mission, without a home, and God only knew what they had lost that would have brought them here. “The Nations. You are trying to tell me that The Nations is now the force that will attempt to bring down the Council?”

“The Nations were once a ruthless group,” Hedda said. “In the last twenty years, many of us have been forced to find refuge in this God-forsaken place because of the ruthless reputation. No one would bother us, you see?”

Carmen leaned forward. “Every group of people who come together have a dark corner. Years ago there were those in The Nations who sought their own means to stop the Purists in dastardly ways. They are no longer here, but their terrible choices have stained the good efforts the rest of us have always worked hard to maintain. We just,” she shrugged, “use the reputation to our advantage.”

Adam nodded. “With a reputation of being divided from the mage society, no one would ever suspect you to come together under one flag.”

“Exactly.” Carmen looked at Diane. “Elder Parnassus was aware of your mother’s theory of slipped gateways. Months after we met, he sent word to us that it was imperative that we not only try to slip a gateway, but, if it worked, to slip as many as possible.”

“That’s when Carmen painted this,” Hedda indicated the gateway through which Diane and Adam had entered. “Trina commissioned the gateway and approved Carmen and Louisa to be the guards.”

“But Louisa remained unaware,” Diane said.

Carmen nodded. “For protection.”

Diane understood. She had remained hidden all these years to protect Victoria. The risk of the Sanguis ceremony was worth the protection it provided Alexander.

Hedda took over the story. “After you were declared dead,” she patted Diane’s arm and sniffed, “I went looking for answers. Elder Amberson didn’t know anything, but Elder Parnassus, did. He was very cautious and didn’t let me know anything specific, but he told me to keep hoping and to keep looking. A few months later, Carmen came to my door and told me that Elder Amberson and Elder Parnassus had suggested we meet. Since, we’ve been building a community of disgruntled and grieving mages. We came together because of loss, but together we have found hope.”

“Hope in a restored Society?” Diane asked.

“Hope in the Lost Painter,” Carmen said.

Diane paled. “I don’t know if you should put your hopes in a legend.”

“Hope in that legend has driven us.”

Adam interrupted. “That’s a discussion for later. For now, we need to find our children.” He put his hand on Diane’s shoulder and kept his voice steady, but everyone saw his face redden. “I know that many of you have lost loved ones to the growing madness of our society. Diane’s daughter and my sons are missing. The last place they were known to have been was the sphinx city.”

“The city is fallen,” a young man named Darius said. “It’s impossible to travel through gateways to the city.”

“We can still get there,” Diane started, but Darius interrupted.

“The Ragnarok are there. The Hall of Art is destroyed and any gateways that remain are under their control. The nearest gateways leading to Delphi and Rome are destroyed. It would take us a week to travel to the nearest gateway to the Third Terrace. And who knows where in that terrace we would be?”

Several people nodded in agreement.

Diane looked at Adam. “Maybe we came to the wrong place.” Her comment silenced Darius and insulted everyone else. “Am I wrong?” she asked, sounding innocent. “Are we fighting for justice and the beauty that our society once stood for or do we roll over right into our graves?”

Hedda rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. “Still as gentle as ever with your words.”

“Not everything has changed, Mom,” Diane said. “And some things have changed forever. I am no longer a mage.” Several people gasped and a few even moved away from her, as if her loss of elemental intent was leprosy. Diane looked to the other mages in the room. “I defied the laws of our society and performed the Sanguis Ceremony with my husband. He was going to try to rescue our friend from the Council after several of its members tried to kill us. Neither of them ever returned.”

Hedda’s mouth opened in surprise. She blinked twice. “How long have you been giftless?”

“Mother,” Diane almost rolled her eyes, then remembered how it felt when Victoria did that to her. “Giftless? It’s like saying I have nothing left to offer.”

“How long?” Hedda repeated.

“Four months.”

Darius frowned. “But you’ve been in hiding for years.”

“Alexander and I went into hiding after the Council tried to kill us almost twenty years ago. He left before Victoria was born. Sixteen years ago.”

Hedda stood. Her face was pale. Her hands clenched. “He’s been prisoner somewhere. Alive.”

“We could never find him. Foley went looking for him several times, but after a while, there was no trail to follow. I knew the very moment he died.” Diane’s chin quivered. As she spoke, her voice rose with tension. “I have no elemental intent, but I will find a way to restore the greatness that once was the standard of our society. All of you have the gifts of our people, but you are afraid to use them. You hide here waiting for—what? An invitation? Here it is! Find the courage deep within your souls to do the right thing.”

“But we can’t even get there,” a woman said. “How can we fight if we are here and the sphinx are a world and a half away?”

“You are proposing the impossible,” Darius said. “We would fight, but the fight isn’t here.”

Diane held her head high and stood before a frightened people. “There is a fight here. Against cowardice.”

Darius walked to her, towering over her petite frame. “Show me the fight and I will join. How do we get there?”

Diane smiled, reached into her pocket and pulled out a small clay vial. “Through a new gateway.”

Carmen came forward and held out her hand. When she opened the vial, she smiled and poured the dirt from the vial into the palm of her hand. “What perspective?”

“Do you know the woods near the river about a half day’s walk north of the sphinx city?”

“Near the caves?” Carmen asked.

“Just to the west. There is a slight outcrop of stone that leans over the river.”

Carmen nodded. “A tall oak grows there.”

“This was taken from the base of that tree.”

“I’ll start right now.” Carmen carefully cupped her hand and tipped the dirt back into the vial. “All of you had better prepare. We’ll be shouting distance from the sphinx city in less than a week.”

Darius, clinging to his stubbornness, protested. “Slipping gateways is one thing. New gateways must be commissioned by the Council. To create one outside their jurisdiction is treason.”

Hedda slapped the back of Darius’ head. “Don’t you get it yet? The Council is done. The very fact that Diane exists threatens their power.”

“What?” Darius looked at Diane. “What does she mean?”

Diane sighed and looked at her mother pleadingly.

“Don’t give me that look,” Hedda said. “It’s not my fault. Blame your father.”

“I would if he were still alive.” She pulled up her sleeve. Another gasp sucked the air right out of the room.

“You have the mark of the Lost Painter.” Darius said, stating the obvious.

Above her elbow on her left arm was an angry looking diamond-shaped scar.

“I’ve never wanted it. But if it will save our people, I will use it.”

 

7

 

Collette’s Strengths

 

“It really is remarkable,” Collette said as she held her cup of stale water and watched another desert sunrise. Bobby and Tucker both looked at the eastern sky. A distant range of flat-topped mountains lined the horizon where the sun had crested and cast pink stains across the bottoms of the cotton-like clouds that peppered the morning sky. The land seemed bleak in comparison, but within moments, the details of the landscape took shape. A thin crop of green grass clung to the ground. Closer to the horizon, gray sand swept across the plain, a barren land of heat and death. Not far from their camp, the last grass blades between them and the desert stood like miniature sentinels warning the careless travelers to venture no further. In the morning sun, however, even the deserted lands lured the adventurer with beauty.

Bobby knew better. There was nothing out there. He had searched every inch of land as far as he could, seeking an escape.

Every few days, a falcon found them and delivered a message to Thaddeus. When the falcon found them again, which direction would they turn? There was no destination, only directions. Move south. Then west. For three days, they had followed a northeastern trail that ended at a cliff’s edge, which they skirted for another two days. Bobby wondered how long they would live like this. When the falcon found them again, they moved southeast, away from the cliffs, but through a dry valley. Here, in the deep south, arid skies parched their mouths quickly. Sweat soaked them by the time the sun was a third of the way into the sky, leaving everyone coated with a grimy grit.

The lingering filth didn’t seem to affect Collette, who spoke seldom, but always said something about the sweeping grandness of the mountains or the gentle breeze that cooled them the day before. This morning, she drew their attention to the dawn of day.

Bobby watched the sunrise. Within minutes, the pink that sprayed the underside of the few clouds that dared to venture near the desert, turned bright orange with an explosion of color and quickly dissipated. All that remained were blue skies, blaring brightness, and heat-driven mirages.

Tint slid his cross bow around to his back and adjusted the arrows in the strap on his leg. “Sunrises. Out here if I blink or turn my back, I miss it. At my home in the north, the sunrises last.”

Collette handed Tint a small bowl of hot cereal. While it was impossible to make oatmeal and dried meat soup taste good, all the guards looked forward to the meals. “The porridge is hot,” Collette warned Tint. “I added a little cinnamon to sweeten it.”

Tint nodded his thanks and continued his circuit around the camp, his eyes scanning the horizon. The fire Collette cooked over was small. Thaddeus insisted on keep the flames low, which meant Collette spent the morning kneeling by the fire, trying to coax the small flames to stay hot enough to cook breakfast, but not lively enough to send up much smoke.

Thaddeus took his bowl and walked to where he had slept, eating while standing and surveying the area. Bobby knew what troubled him. The last falcon-delivered message had been longer, not just directions, but it contained information. Thaddeus’s expression darkened with each word he read. He pressed his ring onto the paper, a sign to Martina that Thaddeus had read it, and returned it to the bird’s leg.

They had turned their course slightly to the south and slowed their pace. Thaddeus spent hours scanning the land. He sent Tint to scout out the area before they advanced. Something about this place had him nervous. According to what Bobby had been able to determine about the land, they were nearing a populated area and a large source of water. Why that troubled Thaddeus, Bobby didn’t know for certain.

Smithy, the large guard who insisted on double rations to maintain his girth, started packing up his sleeping roll.

“Don’t.” Thaddeus kept his eye toward the horizon, toward where Bobby knew there were other people living in crowded cities.

“No falcon come yet,” Smithy argued. “Why we not going?”

Thaddeus turned to Smithy. “That is not an area we want to venture.” He pointed toward the south east. “See that double notch in that range?”

Everyone looked. The mountain range to the east snaked along the horizon before disappearing in the south, but straight ahead, the mountains rose from the earth like worn fangs. It would take days to travel there, especially at the loping pace of the horses.

“Them don’t seem much to be afeared,” Smithy mumbled.

“Properly, it’s said, ‘The range does not seem to be reason for much fear.’”

Smithy rolled his eyes and bowed in mocking acquiescence to Thaddeus’s correction.

“Despite their apparent lack of grandeur, if you were to approach them, you would discover that there is much out there to cause apprehension.”

Stoneman, with fists like iron and a face like a leather pouch, was not impressed. “What’s being out there that would be causing us fear? Are yon not a mage? Are we not being elite guards to Lady Martina?”

“Between here and the mountains is hostile land. No river, no basins, nothing to provide shade. Assuming one can begin that journey prepared, reaching the mountains is very possible. But we haven’t the supplies and the people of the mountains are no longer welcoming.”

“What is being wrong with them people?” Stoneman asked.

Before Thaddeus could answer, Collette handed him a cup of hot tea. The rope tying her wrists together had rubbed her skin raw, hot red welts were visible and obviously painful, but Collette hadn’t complained. Thaddeus took the tea, looking quickly away from her wrists. “Your size is impressive, Stoneman. Despite your skill, the odds are stacked against us. We will not advance any further.”

“What’s out there?” Bobby asked.

“What does your gift indicate?”

“People. A lot of people. And water.”

“A lot is a selection of land. Many people.” Thaddeus sipped his tea. “Yes, many thousands of people. We will not disturb them. There is enough disturbance for them as it is.”

Collette moved toward a bag on the ground that held the water canteen. “Is there a place nearby where I can refill these?” she asked Thaddeus.

“We will ration the water.”

Collette indicated Tucker’s swollen eye. “I would like to use some water to clean Tucker’s forehead.”

Thaddeus sighed. “Stoneman’s temper.”

“His temper is going to kill Tucker unless you do something,” Collette reprimanded Thaddeus, referring to Stoneman’s efforts to take extra care to make sure Tucker remained uncomfortable and tired. When Stoneman was confident that Thaddeus wasn’t looking, he would harshly poke Tucker with a long stick he carried. Collette was certain that if Tucker took his shirt off, he’d be covered in round bruises. The evening before, when they had stopped to set up camp, Stoneman had nearly killed Tucker.

The routine was to have Bobby and Tucker sit on their horses with their hands tied behind their backs while the others set up camp. Everyone knew that if they tried to escape on horseback, they wouldn’t remain long in the saddle. That’s what Stoneman was counting on when he intentionally startled Tucker’s horse from behind. Tucker gripped the horse’s body tightly with his legs as it dashed forward then scooted sideways with a wild-eyed look. He fell off and landed heavily on his left shoulder, and the horse dashed off, with Tint running after it.

Collette managed to pop Tucker’s shoulder back into place, but he stopped her from healing the cuts on his face. “Don’t do much,” he had whispered to her. She nodded, understanding that these guards didn’t know she was a mage nor a healer. The less they knew about Collette, the safer she was. She managed to clean the wound with the little water Thaddeus would allow her to use, but during the night, Tucker’s face had swollen badly. His left eye was completely shut and vivid abrasions shone through deeply bruised skin.

At Collette’s request to use more water to help Tucker, Thaddeus was clearly torn. Tucker hadn’t spoken much since the fall, which everyone knew had been purposefully caused by Stoneman. In punishment, Stoneman went the night without dinner and stood watch for a double shift. He woke this morning particularly hungry and twice as grumpy as usual. Collette willingly gave him an extra helping of oatmeal. She told him that it was sweetened with cinnamon, but Bobby knew that she was using her gift of persuasion, as he had watched her add wood ash to the bowl instead. Stoneman ate the ashy oatmeal eagerly, fully tasting the cinnamon Collette convinced him she had added.

A decision made about the water, Thaddeus nodded to Collette. “Use as little as possible. There is water about ten miles back. I’ll send Stoneman.” He added under his breath, “It will be good for everyone to send him on an errand.”

Smithy watched Collette carefully as she cleaned Tucker’s face. “Why don’t him just heal himself? We all knows his skills have the healer in him. That white hair’s what happens to healers.” It was true. Despite being seventeen, Tucker had white hair at his temples and a growing salt and pepper grey sprouting over his entire scalp.

Tucker turned his bleary eyes toward Smithy. “It doesn’t work that way.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Tucker looked away. “I don’t care.”

That would be nice if you could heal it yourself, Bobby spoke to Tucker. You look terrible.

You’re just jealous of the attention I’m getting, Tucker replied.

Yeah, beatings and murder attempts, Bobby said. I’m really disappointed they think you’re the threat, when it’s so obvious who’s the real danger. All we need is a good earthquake and we could be free.

That isn’t the attention I was talking about. Tucker looked at Collette with a smile.

Collette glanced at Bobby. “Stop it,” she whispered and tipped her head ever so slightly toward Smithy. “He’ll think your laughing at him.”

“What more can they do to me?” Tucker asked.

Collette ran her finger down the bruise and Tucker winced and pulled away. “The bone is bruised. One more impact would cause a break. I know you are thick-headed, but…” she raised her eyebrows, then winked.

Smithy walked over and examined Collette’s efforts to help Tucker. “Too bad you didn’t never learn to heal nothin’. Him could need some of them healers to tone down that there bruise and puffiness.”

Collette’s face bore the sting that would accompany any insult, and she waited for Smithy to turn away. “The best I can do is help you sleep off the pain.” She touched the temple that wasn’t purple and spoke softly. “Sleep. You will feel better.” Bobby watched as Tucker’s un-swollen eye closed and his head tipped back. Collette eased him backward to the ground and slid a blanket under his head.

“Thank you,” Bobby said. “He needed that.”

“Being around you two is no picnic. Helping one of you fall asleep makes my day easier.”

***

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Crimson Arrows, Book III of The Elemental Chronicles

Victoria could read the smells on the breeze like a book. She heard the vibrations in the ground speak to her like voices. Air surrounded her always, whispering smells, tastes, and warnings. Air was friendly, sometimes pushy; it could strip the land of everything given the right twist. Water teased her with its refreshing touch, but if she wasn’t careful, it pulled her in and pushed her down. Fire was none of those. It surged through her brain with a lusting appetite and charred her spirit. Left unchecked, fire blackened beauty. Lightning was completely different. It growled in the background like a ravenous lion, struck instantly, and vanished, leaving only the electric scent of ionized air and scorched earth. Unlike the other elements of nature, lightning was born in the infinitely small space where the energy sparked to consumable rage. She knew it was coming. The Air sizzled. The ground vibrated as black clouds crowded into formation, as if the sun suddenly desired to hide and pulled the blankets over its head. She looked up and knew something was different. Foley looked up at the sky. Dark clouds boiled toward them, churning as if fueled by an angry volcano. “Is this you? Are you doing this?” “No,” Victoria said. “Bad time for a storm,” he said as rain drops began to fall. Victoria shook her head. “This is no storm.”

  • ISBN: 9781370142125
  • Author: Jessica Schaub
  • Published: 2017-06-25 03:35:11
  • Words: 87325
Crimson Arrows, Book III of The Elemental Chronicles Crimson Arrows, Book III of The Elemental Chronicles