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SR1

Reborn

BOOK I

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Clint Thurmon

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015918931

Rev. date: 4/25/17

ISBN:

Hardcover: 978-0-9970364-0-4 Softcover: 978-0-9970364-1-1 eBook: 978-0-9970364-2-8

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/SuperiWorld

Twitter: @Superi2015

 

 

To order additional copies of this book, contact:

SuperiLLC

www.superillc.com

Superi

___________________________

REBORN

Book I

CLINT THURMON

CHRISTINA R. WILLIAMS

Chapters

Prologue: A Mercenary’s Mistake

I: The Inn

II: Taken

III: Hunting Party

IV: Painful Revelations

V: Unlikely Alliance

VI: Crossing the Oceanus

VII: The Weight of Guilt

VIII: Strike a Deal

IX: Mercenaries in Training

X: A Common Cause

XI: Distrust and Misdeeds

XII: Private Battles

XIII: On the Word of a Traitor

XIV: Deceived

XV: The Cost of Knowledge

XVI: The Value of a Friend

XVII: What’s a Dracon?

XVIII: A Good and Proper Parting

XIX: Lost Hope

XX: The White-Stoned City

XXI: Race the Dawn

XXII: Getting In

XXIII: Ascertained Truth

XXIV: Time to Go

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Reference/Dictionary

Not all names are here, just the harder ones.

table<>. <>. |<>.
p<{color:#000;}. Malstar Luxson

Calstar Luxson

Tristan Matthewson

Anliac Aquam

Shashara Jacobs

Davad Jacobson

Montilis Aquam

Triton

Razoran

Socmoon

 

Superi

Imbellis Asylum

Nubilosus

Pisces Stragulum

Exterius Antro

Catena Piscari

Caterva Concentio

Certamen |<>.
p>{color:#000;}. ……………..

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…………….. |<>.
p>{color:#000;}. (Mal-Star Lux-son)

(Cal-star Lux-son)

(Tris-tan Matthew-son)

(An-li-ac A-quam)

(Sha-sha-ra Jacobs)

(Da-vad Jacob-son) (Monti-lis Aquam)

(Tri-ton)

(Ra-zor-an)

(Soc-moon)

 

(Sup-ery)

(Im-bell-is Asi-lum)

(Nub-i-losus)

(Pi-sces Strag-u-lum) (Exter-ius Ant-ro)

(Cat-ena Pis-cary)

(Cat-er-va Con-cen-tio) (Cert-a-men) |

PROLOGUE

A Mercenary’s Mistake

 

Standing before a full-length mirror, Beth stared at her reflection. Black, fitted breeches skimmed her long legs and tucked into black boots, that pushed her from five-feet-seven to five-eight. She’d donned the tower’s standard black tunic in place of her preferred leather vest. The scarlet letters “I.A.” – for Imbellis Asylum – emblazoned it above her right breast. She pulled her thick braid of long, blonde hair over her shoulder, to fasten a wide, silver, studded belt around her slender waist.

Crossing the floor of her bedroom to the small nightstand, she lifted a silver dagger and hid it beneath the belt at her back. Her black-handled dagger rested securely in its sheath, which was fastened to her outer right thigh.

Closing her eyes, she inhaled the bold scent of coffee wafting from the kitchen. The small brick house was not their home – mercenaries couldn’t afford the ties. But, though it was only one of many they rented throughout the regions of Superi, it was her favorite; perhaps even their future.

Thoughts of settling down – of children – tinted her cheeks with color, as her husband’s voice drew her attention to the doorway. His unruly locks of black hair and piercing blue eyes shaded him scandalous. The dark blue spiral markings that flowed up the left side of his face, turning his hair white where they crept over his scalp, added to his roguish appeal. His powerful body bore other marks as well, but they were kept carefully hidden from all but Jacob. There are no secrets around a telepath.

“You look better in blue,” he said, “but black works as well.”

Beth rolled her eyes at Matthew’s teasing, as she closed the distance between them. “Malstar has sent a guard, with a summons to the tower.”

Leaning against the doorframe, his head cocked to the side; “I thought that job was finished.”

She sighed as she rested her forehead against his chest; “I thought so too, but Malstar is obsessed, Matthew.”

Placing consoling hands on the tops of her shoulders, he eased her away; “Perhaps now you’ll discover what it’s all been for.”

“Perhaps I don’t want to know,” she countered. A touch of fear tightened the skin around her eyes, as she asked: “What could he possibly want with such a rare strain of blood?” She hesitated; “Matthew, how did Malstar even know that I could track it? I hadn’t known myself.”

There wasn’t much that could breach the emotional defences of a mercenary, but Beth’s last assignment had broken through hers, and had left her vulnerable. The questions in her mind were a distraction, so he said: “I’m not the one with the answers, babe, but you know who has them, so why don’t you go ask him?”

With a voice like velvet-covered steel, she said: “Don’t tempt me”, as she walked by to leave the room. “Knowing Malstar, he would give me the answers and then have me killed for knowing too much.”

Concern creased his brow; “Should I be coming with you?”

A decidedly unfeminine snort erupted in the back of her throat: “The tower is no place for the likes of you, Mr. Suxson. The lawyers would have you detained before breakfast.” Grinning at the sound of his chuckle, she turned at the door and cupped his cheeks in her palms. Placing a quick kiss to his full lips, she said: “No, you make them nervous, but stay close.”

Leaving the house, she stepped from the alleyway and took the cobble-stone side streets towards the main thoroughfare of Imbellis. It was easy to become turned around in a city this size, but her destination rose from the midst of it, as a separate enclave unto itself.

The Imbellis Asylum, better known by the locals as “the tower”, had been constructed at the end of the third water war, to promote peace amongst the races; but, what had begun with good intentions, had mutated into something foul. Those in power lusted for more, and it had infected the citizens, while the city itself gleamed gloriously.

From the marketplace she followed the river Vitreous, which cut through from the north and ran straight to the city’s heart. At the tower’s base it split in two, towards the southeast and west. Crossing the open plaza that lay between the river’s branches, Beth took the stone steps leading up to its massive double doors – she paid no mind to the two stout fera guards that stood post outside of them, as they opened the doors and allowed her to pass.

Inside, massive pillars, rivaling the great trees of Turris in size, supported the vaulted ceiling. Several stairways along the circular wall led to a walkway overhead, between the first and second floor, to a ring of chambers the lawyers used – this early, their presence was scarce.

Her boot heels clicked against the smooth stone, as she crossed the larger foyer, towards the stairwell that stood at the back of it. Imposing pillars stood to either side, like silent sentinels, and caused the shorthairs at her nape to rise. Upon entering the cavernous stairwell that would carry her beneath the tower, she choked on the dank, musty air that fought to escape. Taking a steadying breath, she descended into the shadows.

On the first lower level was the weapons room and sleeping quarters of the guards. She passed the egress without slowing and continued further down. As much as she would have loved to outfit herself from what the rooms held, she pushed away the temptation – guilt wasn’t the issue, nor was morality: it was the rotation of guards that stayed her hand.

She knew she had come to the second lower level of the stairwell, when the pull of the river coursing through the aqueduct flooded her senses; the presence of her element calmed her. Still, she had to steady her nerves before her feet would take her down to the third level.

Though thankful for the stairwell blocking her sight, she could still hear them – the accused, held in varying stages of agony and despair. Oftentimes used as test subjects for Malstar’s insane experiments, the prisoners of Imbellis and of the tower waited in Purgatory for the lawyers to decide their fate.

Reaching the fourth and lowest level, she arrived at Malstar’s chambers. She mentally braced herself, forcing her heart rate to slow and to blank her expression, before she entered in. The alchemist was not one to make an enemy of, but, after today, he might very well be hers.

Torches set in stone cast the room’s only light, and her eyes took a moment to adjust to the chamber’s dim interior. She could make out the tools of Malstar’s trade, which lay precisely so, on the table closest to the door – they represented the sole example of order.

Elsewhere, chaos reigned. Stacks of parchments were cast haphazardly about, and countless vials cluttered the stone shelves that ran the length of the far wall, except for three, which had been placed with care. Long hoses ran from each of these to whatever lay atop the rectangular slab of ebony rock, beyond where Malstar stood, with his back facing her.

At seven-feet tall, his lanky stature belied his true strength. His white skin starkly contrasted his shoulder-length, black hair. The hem of his dark robe hugged the ground, and made him appear to float as he turned.

“What took you so long?” he demanded, as he pinned her with dilated, frenzied, yellow eyes, from beneath his protruding brow.

“I had assumed our business was concluded after delivery of the child.” The boy was mortalis, without any abilities, and barely a month old.

Malstar scoffed: “That is why one of your standing should not make assumptions.”

Biting back the sharp retort perched on the tip of her tongue, she asked: “Why am I here, Malstar?”

“I was feeling generous.” One corner of his mouth curled, in a cruel smile; “After all, Beth, it was your ability that made it possible.”

Beth’s heart squeezed in her chest; “What are you talking about?”

With a flourishing wave, he stepped aside. The babe, naked and trembling on the cold rock, lay bound by leather straps. Beth’s muscles tensed. The tubes from the three vials ran to needles, embedded deeply into three of his tiny limbs: both arms and his right leg. Even in the dim light, tear streaks shone off his temples.

The last she’d seen, his skin had carried a honeyed hue, but no longer – it pulsated with power now, as the color leeched away, to leave the mortalis with the iridescent white skin of the fulgo.

Fascinated by their shared color, Malstar pulled back the long sleeve of his robe and laid his forearm across the infant’s chest.

“You were right, Beth,” Malstar said, looking across the room at her: “his blood is mixable; the transfusion of fulgo blood is already complete.”

“What?” His words made no sense. “You can’t do that. He’s… mortalis.”

Fire lit his golden eyes, as he jerked his head around. “Not only fulgo, blood seeker – no, I’m going to transfuse him with all three.”

“Why would you do that?” she asked. “You’ll kill him.”

“Then you’ll find me another, and I will try again.”

The babe squirmed beneath the restraints. His face puckering, his cries renewed and intensified, as more foreign blood entered his veins.

Malstar sucked in air between his teeth, as he sinuously circled the black rock; “Yes, this is good.”

The infant’s nails lengthened, growing sharp in the way of the fera.

“Stop this!” Beth stepped forward to intervene. But, eyes focused on the child, she left herself open – Malstar’s wide-armed swing caught her across her chest. Stumbling backward, before regaining her balance, her hand reached automatically for the dagger hidden beneath her tunic.

He saw, and cautioned: “Don’t be a fool. Science cannot be stopped, and if pain is what it demands, so be it.”

“That’s easy for you to say – it’s not your pain,” Beth said through clenched teeth, as she released the hilt of her dagger.

“Quiet, woman.” He rubbed his hands together, as his anxiety mounted – the vial of nox blood was empty.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked. “To what end?”

A staccato laugh escaped him: “The recreation of an angeli, of course.”

Her knees grew weak. “What you’re suggesting… it’s not possible.”

“Is that so? Witness for yourself the changes wrought within the subject.”

Words were made impossible, as the babe’s screams grew wild, filling the chamber with a chilling wail, which should have brought the very stones down upon them.

His mortalis ears narrowed and flattened to the sides of his head, as tips grew from both the top and bottom. She gasped when his blond hair turned black. The nox blood was indeed changing him.

The infant’s body quaked and trembled. His heart pumped at a mad pace that lifted his torso from the rock, as undeveloped muscles ripped apart and grew, hardening unnaturally beneath his pale skin, into the musculature of a man. His bellowing screams of agony would become a thing of nightmares – it was as if his animus, his very essence, was being devoured.

His body tensed, before falling limp upon the slab of rock. The sudden silence was deafening.

“No, no, NO! This can’t be! His blood is perfect!”

Beth cared not at all about Malstar’s ranting. She had been played for a fool, had delivered an innocent into the hands of a monster, and now the infant was dead.

Malstar’s breathing grew erratic as he feverishly worked over the body. He shoved the infant’s head to the side, only to curse at finding no pulse. Bringing a candle close, he held open one of the baby’s eyes, in hopes that the pupil would react. It did not.

Frantic, he turned on Beth: “You’ll find me another.”

“No.”

He came at her, full of aggression, and pinned her back to the wall. His outstretched arms became her cage, and she turned her head, as spittle sprayed out of his mouth, along with his demand: “You’ll do as I say!”

When she looked forward, her visage was stoic; “You would do well to remove yourself.”

He hunched his shoulders, until their faces were mere inches apart, and growled at her defiance.

She spread one hand across his chest, while the other reached for the dagger at the small of her back. Before she could unsheathe her weapon, she caught movement in the infant – a twitch in his right arm – and her breathing hitched.

Malstar tracked her distracted gaze. When he saw the arm muscles of the infant, from shoulder to wrist, bunch and release in a wave, he lurched back to the slab of black rock. When his fragile fingers closed into a tight fist, Malstar’s laugh was maniacal.

The baby’s mouth stretched wide, as new life inflated his chest – it was as if he awoke from sleep, rather than death. A solitary jerk of his left leg loosened the leather binding from the slab.

Malstar made quick work of removing needles and remaining leather bindings, casting them carelessly to the floor. Reeking of pride, he said: “I’ve left orders with the guards: you’re not to leave the city.” He glanced over his shoulder with narrowed eyes; “But, you are dismissed.”

Beth’s jaw dropped when the innocent’s eyes opened golden yellow. Moving without conscious consent, her arm stretched out to the glass vial, teetering on the edge of the shelf.

Knowing that hesitation often spelled death, she snatched the vial and shattered it against Malstar’s dismissive back.

Monstrous howls of pain filled the room. His spine bowed inward, as he tried to escape the liquid flames licking at his flesh. Reaching his long arms backwards, his fingers curled into claws, to tear at his robing.

Dark tendrils of smoke rose from Beth’s hand. She gagged at the stench of her burning flesh, but ignored the pain, to take of advantage of Malstar’s pathetic snivelling on the floor, to get her and the baby out.

After yanking several glass shards out of her palm, she scooped the infant up with her injured hand, leaving the other free to fight.

Realizing her intent, Malstar staggered to his feet. “No!” he shouted, and lunged for her: “He’s mine.”

Instinctively, a dagger appeared in her hand, and found its way into his outer thigh. Holding the infant securely, she pivoted sideways and kicked him squarely in the chest; he landed hard and fast on the floor. As the ruined skin of his back connected with the rough stone, his renewed screams sounded like justice.

She ran up the stairwell, as his angry shouts gave chase. “Do not think this is over, Beth,” he threatened: “I will find you.”

She knew he’d try.

Beth ascended the stairs as if flight were her ability. Bursting through the stairwell door, she was confronted by the two fera guards, who blocked her path to the exit. She did not slow, as they caught sight of the child in her arms and lurched to readiness. Her long legs closed the distance between them, as she tried not to think about the guards waiting outside.

To her right, the fera’s split upper lip parted and revealed sharp fangs, as he pulled a heavy hammer from its scabbard upon his back. Laying the pommel in his left hand, he stepped forward in challenge.

A twisted mess of a creature, the other guard stood like a man, on two legs, but with hooves instead of feet. His wide mouth and protruding muzzle crooked into a parody of a smile, while his talon-like finger beckoned her to come to him.

Pitting her will against their might, she bore down on the weaponless guard, relying on the adrenaline rush to gain her an advantage. It was not her intention to fight, but to flee.

At the last moment, she twirled around the muzzled guard’s left shoulder. Tucking the infant in tight, she rolled across the guard’s back, her right hand reaching for the door, before her feet touched the floor. But she wasn’t fast enough – the feline guard caught her right wrist and yanked her off-balance.

“Stay back!” She hugged the baby to her chest. When the second guard reached for the infant, she turned away; “Don’t touch him!”

“Hand over the boy,” the feline ordered.

“I have a better idea,” she said. Then she threw back her head… and screamed.

As the guards hesitated, questioning her sanity, a smile turned up the corners of her lips, and she braced herself.

The front doors exploded open, slamming into the feline guard. The impact loosened his grip on her arm, and threw him backwards into the stone wall, where his skull cracked like an egg. When the door bounced back, the guard’s corpse lay crumbled awkwardly behind it, his blood, bone and brain matter oozing down the wall.

She could hear the other guards coming – the cumulative pounding of their racing steps vibrated the stone floor. “Matthew,” she shouted, upon seeing his face, “get us out of here.”

The muzzled guard shifted his defensive stance towards the new threat.

Matthew’s eyes widened briefly at sight of the baby lying in her arms, before he raised his sword arm high, to draw the guard’s attention. With practiced skill, he pulled a dagger from the small of his back, and buried it to the hilt in the guard’s exposed neck.

Dragging Beth behind him through the doors, a wicked gleam brightened his eyes. “Woman, what trouble have you caused now?” he asked, as he began dragging the two guards he had killed outside into the tower, to avoid detection.

She gave the plaza at their backs a cursory scan, which showed no obvious signs of any discovery. “Malstar wants this baby,” she told him, her eyes narrowing, “but I won’t let him have it.”

“Hold!” a lead tower guard bellowed, as his men rushed forward. “That child is the possession of the Asylum!”

“Get to the market while I hold them back,” Matthew told her; “You can hide with him there.” When still she did not move, he growled: “Go, Beth. I can handle this.”

“Do not keep me waiting, Matthew,” she said, as she turned to leave, “or I’ll kill you myself.”

Skillfully bringing his blade to bear, he grinned: “Yes, ma’am.”

Tucking the infant close, Beth darted down the steps, two at a time. Her instinct told her to run, but her training held her back.

She saw a group of lawyers standing off to the side, and knew the moment they took note of her and the baby, by the way their eyes narrowed in suspicion, beneath the concealment of the red, hooded robes. She was aware of how guilty she looked, and she cursed when two of the men started in their direction. She pretended not to see them, and hoped they wouldn’t call out to detain her, because she couldn’t… wouldn’t stop. When the riotous noises from the tower drew their attention, she let out a long-held breath, and lengthened her strides.

Staying off the main thoroughfare, Beth made her way into the market district, to disappear into the masses. The tower would soon have the city guards searching for her, if they weren’t already. At the perimeter of the crowds, she sunk to the ground beneath a sprawling oak, and gritted her teeth against the pain in her hand. To distract herself, she focused on the baby.

She inspected each finger and toe where the nails had grown – thick, long and pointed – and then touched the thatch of wavy, black hair, where blond tufts used to be. The double-tipped ears of the nox looked strange on his precious mortalis face, while muscles which shouldn’t have been there made him heavier than any one-month-old should be. He would be shunned for his differences.

It doesn’t matter, she thought, as she checked him for injuries: what is done is done.

The injection points were gone – there wasn’t a mark on him. It was good that he was a fast healer, all things considered, because the life she could offer him was not one of safety.

Barefoot as always, in the matching, long-sleeved, white shirts and brown trousers she had made for them the week before, Matthew approached, with Jacob in tow.

Seeing Matthew’s rakish grin, she relaxed – for the moment, they were safe. Still, she was not too pleased with the blood spattered on their clothes – she’d never get the stains out.

“How did it go?” she asked. Matthew craved battle like a body craves air, but he was also reckless, and for the first time since they’d met, it worried her.

“I was having fun until this one arrived.” He punched Jacob on the side of his shoulder. “Nearly half fell to his blade, in half the time it took me to drop the kills I claimed. But,” he shrugged, “we all know Jacob cheats.”

“A quick kill is not cheating,” Jacob chuckled. “I simply find no pleasure in playing with my prey. I leave those games to you, my friend.”

Beth winced, and their humor dissipated.

Seeing her burnt hand, Matthew dropped to his knees before her. The veins at his temples, and along the sides of his neck, pulsed, as his blood heated. “What happened?” He wasn’t asking Beth – he was asking the telepath.

Jacob’s brown eyes glowered in the direction of the tower. He ran his gloved fingers through his blond hair – cut short in the back and left to hang long in the front – as the image of Beth and Malstar’s confrontation poured from her mind into his own.

Before he could respond, Beth replied: “It can wait – we have to get out of Imbellis. The tower guards have orders to keep me here, and that was before I took the child.”

Using his ability, Jacob searched through the minds of those close enough for his power to reach, in search of signs of danger. “Beth is right,” he said.

“I know I am,” she quipped, rising to her feet.

Jacob rolled his eyes and continued: “We’re vulnerable here. We need to move.”

Matthew objected with a hard shake of his head; “Not until we’ve seen to her injury… and the one responsible for it dead.”

“Listen to me,” she said; “I don’t have time to explain, but this child… Let’s just say it would be better that we all should die, than for Malstar or the Asylum to get their hands on him.”

Matthew growled in the back of his throat, as Jacob said: “Then what we need are horses, and then we need to find Triton.”

“We passed an inn coming through the eastern gate,” Matthew offered; “there are stables behind it.”

“Good,” Beth said. “There’s a nox elemental close by, with a talent for healing – she owes me a favor. Jacob, I need your shirt.”

“Seriously?” he griped, but pulled it over his head. “Do you know how ridiculous I’m going to look, running around Imbellis half-naked, with leather gloves running up to my elbows?”

“Just let me have it,” Beth sighed. “We all have our secrets to keep, and you know full well that Matthew needs his shirt to keep his.”

“Fine,” he grumbled, handing it over.

Wrapping the bloodied cloth around the infant, she laid him in Matthew’s hesitant arms.

“Beth,” he asked, taking the baby, “who is this?”

“The child meant for Malstar,” she told him.

Matthew’s confusion was clear; “I saw the boy before you took him into the tower – this is not the same child.”

Gently rubbing the top of the baby’s head, Beth exhaled a shaky breath, and agreed. “No,” she paused, “he is not. And believe me when I tell you that you don’t know the half of it.”

Staring down at the infant, Matthew’s expression was pure awe. “He’s a cute little thing… and sturdy.” He tested the boy’s weight, by bouncing him in his arm.

“We’ll be hard pressed to pass for his parents if he doesn’t have a name,” Beth told him; “I suggest you think of one.”

Matthew grinned. “Really?” he asked, as he and Jacob fell into step behind her; “we get to keep him?” He shifted the baby to his left arm, to leave his sword arm free.

“We do,” Beth said over her shoulder.

A ridiculous grin split his face. Glancing sideways at Jacob, he said: “I have a son.”

Jacob shook his head, and chuckled at his friend’s enthusiasm. “So it would appear. She has you well trained, my friend. What will you call him?”

“Tristan,” Matthew said, without hesitation.

“It’s a good name,” Beth told him. “Now, can the two of you hurry up?”

Jacob rolled his eyes at her sass, but Matthew’s grin broadened.

“I love it when she bosses me around.”

Beth’s responding laughter sounded more a snort, for the sudden burst of it.

I

The Inn

 

Groggy and tired, Tristan cracked his eyelids, only to then wince. The twin red suns of Superi, which glared at him through the room in Trennor’s Inn, assaulted his sensitive, yellow eyes.

In a daze, he scanned the sparsely furnished room to make sense of his surroundings. There was a small, two-drawer nightstand beside the bed; an empty water basin and pitcher sat atop it. The matted throw rug that covered most of the wooden floor was worn with age. The room – which he didn’t remember entering – felt like a closet.

Set, his brother, stood staring out of the second-storey window of the inn, into the bustling streets of the walled city of Exterius Antro, with his tanned arms hanging limp at his sides. The dark-blue, diamond-teardrop markings that ran up the left side of his face framed his piercing blue left eye, and became streaks of white as they intermingled with the inky-black hair at his temple. Though tall for his age, he was scrawny; Jacob said he was young yet, and time would thicken him up, but Tristan had his doubts.

“Ugh…” He sat upright atop the lumpy mattress. “What happened?”

“You let that beast Trennorson calls a horse kick you good,” Set said, pointing to Tristan’s forehead.

Frowning, Tristan skinned the brown leather glove off his right hand, and gingerly tested the area above his right brow. He hissed and drew back his hand, expecting blood. Surprised there was none, he asked: “How long have I been out?”

“Forever,” Set groaned, “and Trennorson’s not happy about it. He’s been up here twice.”

“I don’t understand,” Tristan shook his head to clear it; “I’ve taken worse hits falling out of trees – it shouldn’t have taken me half a day to…” His eyes narrowed: “Did you drain me?”

“There’s no reason to get bent out of shape,” Set told him: “I only took your speed and stamina – I left the other stuff alone,” he added, with a shrug.

Tristan’s hands clenched into fists; “You had no right, little brother.”

Rolling his eyes in the way his mother used to, Set retorted with equal measures of sarcasm and humor: “My ability as an epoto would suggest otherwise, big brother.” His chest swelled as he stood taller, and grinned: “I think perhaps destiny allowed you to be born first, because it knew I was coming. You’re like my personal power source.”

A snarl ripped from Tristan’s throat, as he shoved himself off the bed. “Come here, you sack of dung!” He lunged, but the arrogant little thief evaded him when the room started to spin.

“Give it up, Tristan – I’m faster than you.”

An outstretched arm was all that kept Tristan from face-planting the white-washed wall. When the sharp, narrow nails of his exposed right hand gouged through the soft wood to slam against a stud, he cursed, and then swivelled to free himself, before resting his back against the wall.

“You know, Set…” Tristan dropped his voice, “you don’t get to keep that speed for long.”

The bobbing of Set’s Adam’s apple spoilt his bluster; “I’m not scared of you.”

“Oh,” Tristan pushed himself to his feet, “but you should be.”

“Now, Tristan,” Set said, holding his arm out to fend off his brother’s impending attack, “you need to calm yourself.”

Tristan’s expression went slack; “Calm myself?” He took his first retaliatory step.

The door to their room burst open.

“Whoooaaa!” Set let out a girlish shriek. His arms spinning in midair, he leapt from the ground with flailing legs, but landed with both fists held high. It took a moment after seeing Davad’s face, before his arms dropped.

“What has you breaking the sweats?” Davad asked, stepping into the room and closing the door.

Tristan chuckled when Set’s head turned in his direction. “What are you doing here?” he asked, sparing Set from having to answer. “Clave short on work?”

Davad’s black trousers were bunched atop his worn leather boots. His long-sleeved, black linen shirt had burn-holes all over it, despite the heavy apron he wore. The apron, and the scent of smoke, suggested he had come from the forge.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Davad cocked his head at Set, and asked: “Are you aware that there are guards scouring the city to find you?” He turned to Tristan, before Set had time to reply; “What did you let him do?”

“Me?” Tristan squawked; “I’m not my brother’s keeper! I was knocked out cold… by a horse he spooked.” Shooting daggers with his stare, he said: “And then he drained my abilities.”

“Not all of them,” Set pointed out, and then flinched, when Tristan balled his fists.

“Seriously, Tristan, again?” Davad closed his brown eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You have to stop letting him do that.”

“As if I had a choice,” Tristan said, with clear resentment; “a man has to sleep.”

Davad ran his fingers backwards, through his chocolate brown hair, mimicking a habit of his father’s; “Apparently, not around your brother.” Setting humor aside, he said: “Sizon and another guard came by Clave’s forge, asking questions.” Davad pinned Set with a hard stare; “They called me a liar when I said I hadn’t seen you since we left for work this morning. I don’t appreciate being called a liar – if Clave hadn’t been there to vouch for me, I’d be the one in trouble right now.”

Tugging on his ear, Set winced, and offered: “I’m sorry about that.”

Davad took a steadying breath; “They were headed to Martinson’s place to talk to Shashara, so I came here looking for you.”

“That’s just great,” Tristan said, looking for something to punch; “it wouldn’t matter what fool thing he did, your sister would rather spend the night in a cage than give Set up.”

The thought of the beautiful, brown-haired girl, with bright blue eyes and a soft sweet smile, turned Tristan’s cheeks crimson. He knew she thought of him as a brother, but that didn’t stop his heart from pumping faster when she walked into a room.

Davad crossed the floor and smacked Tristan across the side of his head; “Stop thinking about my sister.”

“What?” Tristan grinned at Davad playing the overprotective brother. “All I’m saying is that we all know she thinks she’s the only one with the right to make us miserable.” He had never once voiced his growing affection for Shashara, but with a telepath in the house, it was hard to keep secrets.

Flames ignited at the tip of Davad’s pointing finger, lending weight to his threat; “And I’m just saying: no…”

Set had his eyes stuck to the floor, but he wore an impish grin, and was bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Shifting his stare between the brothers, Davad said: “You’re both idiots. Set, I want to know why the guards are looking for you.”

“I don’t understand what the big deal is,” Set told them: “I didn’t break any laws.”

“Well you must have done something to rile them up,” Tristan said.

“Fine,” Set sighed. He pointed to Tristan; “You got kicked, and Trennorson had Livits carry you up here.” He said to Davad: “I got tired of listening to him snore, and I guess I got bored, so I drained him and went out into the city.

“What?” He threw up his arms at the incredulity on their faces; “It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.”

“What did you do?”

“The city is a big place, Davad,” Set spoke, as if to a child. “I only took his speed and stamina. And don’t look at me like that – Tristan’s speed makes it easy to get around, and the stamina keeps me from getting tired; the two are a good mix.” Waving off their judgment, he asked: “Do you want to know what happened or not?” When neither interrupted, he continued: “I saw Kimjie talking to some of her friends in front of the mercantile, a few streets down.”

Despite his frustration, Davad smirked with mild amusement; “That’s the mortalis girl, right? With the long, blonde braids and big, brown freckles?”

Set nodded, his eyes sparkling. “I snuck into old lady Moraine’s yard and swiped one of those purple flowers she’s so proud of.”

Tristan’s eyes widened; “So, you are a thief! Are you insane?”

“I’m surprised she went to the guard instead of hunting you down herself,” Davad said; “as feras go, old lady Moraine is as fierce as they come.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Set retorted; “with Tristan’s speed, she’d never catch me. But that’s not what happened.”

“So, then, you gave Kimjie the flower?” Davad asked, stoked. “I wouldn’t have credited you with the courage to do it.”

“I gave it to her… sort of,” he added, as his expression twisted with embarrassment. “I was walking in her direction… all smooth….” (he gestured, with one hand sliding over the empty space before him) “..my heart was racing like a hare’s on the run. She looked at me and smiled – I smiled back.”

For a moment, he was a man on top of the world, but as he jabbed a finger in Tristan’s direction, his triumphant expression soured; “But then your speed kicked in and sent me flying right past her.”

“Ha! It serves you right,” Tristan told him. Set might be able to drain his abilities, but that didn’t mean he knew how to control them. He’d lived in this body for sixteen years, and there were still times when his physical abilities frightened him.

Clearing his throat, Set said: “I dropped off the flower on my way by, but the gush of air that came with me blew the girls’ dresses up. I swear nothing showed but their ankles, but you’d have thought I’d ripped the clothes from their backs.”

There was a short moment of silence, and then Davad started laughing, hard. Tristan tightened his stomach, ridging his defined abs, as he clenched his teeth and tried to keep from chortling at the redness creeping up Set’s cheeks – the sound of Davad’s contagious snorts didn’t help.

“It’s not funny.”

The whine to Set’s voice pushed Tristan over the edge.

“Ugh,” Set pouted, “you don’t understand – they shrieked really loud.”

Leaning over, with a hand wrapped around his torso and the other propped on his knee, Davad howled in amusement. Tristan was laughing so hard he had tears.

“Everyone started staring and pointing,” Set went on. “Some woman started screaming, and then the guards were on their way over.” Glowering, he said: “I split and came back here. This isn’t funny!”

“It won’t be,” Davad said, stifling his laughter as best he could, “if the guards beat you to my Dad. You know that’s where they’ll head as soon as Shashara tells them she doesn’t know anything?”

Reality stole the humor from the room.

“We can’t leave,” Tristan shrugged; “if I don’t get those new shoes onto that mare by morning, I’m as good as fired. Add that to the stalls we still have to muck, and we’ll be after dark getting home.”

“Actually, Trennorson stopped me on my way up.” Pointing a finger at each of them, Davad said: “You’ve both been fired.” He backed towards the door; “So, you should go home.” And then he let himself out.

Tristan stared at Set. He shook his head and turned for the bed. Sitting down on the edge of it, he opened his mouth to speak, but words failed him. He tossed up his hands, stared some more, and shook his head again for good measure.

Shoulders slumped and brows furrowed, Set was defeated by the betrayal sitting in his brother’s eyes – he couldn’t meet them with his own. “I shouldn’t have been goofing off, Tristan – I’m really sorry.”

“I wish that were enough, brother,” Tristan said, in a tone much too cold, and then locked down his molars to keep from saying words he couldn’t take back.

They both knew it had been Set’s fault – he’d been walking the top rails of one of the horse stalls, while Tristan did the work of shoeing one of the mares. When Set had slipped, Tristan had tried to catch him – the horse had spooked, and now here they were, hunted by the guards. And, worse, they would soon have to tell Jacob they’d been fired.

When Tristan trusted his voice enough to speak, he said: “Let’s just get you home before something else goes wrong.”

Their heads turned towards the door, towards the creak of the stairs, and the harsh growl of a man’s voice, as it passed through the thin walls of the inn.

“That was Jacob Davadson’s boy,” they heard him say, “I swear it. He’ll lead us to the other one.”

“Too late,” Set whispered, his eyes glued to the lever on the door.

“Set,” Tristan snapped his fingers; “Set, the window.”

After blinking several times, Set nodded, and used Tristan’s speed to blur across the room.

The window frame refused to budge. “A little of your strength would be handy right now,” he said, putting his back into opening it.

A fist pounded on the door. “Open up!” came a more authoritative voice than before.

Chances were good that the window hadn’t been opened in years. The salty spray that wafted over the peninsula city had warped the aged wood; it groaned in protest, but gave way to his will.

The men outside reacted to the noise: a shoulder slammed hard into the door, causing Tristan to fall into a defensive stance – it was a stroke of luck that the door held fast in its frame.

“Set, you need to go.” When he didn’t hear footsteps, he shouted: “Set, get your arse out that window!”

The door burst open, and Sizon, a fera guard they knew well, filled the doorway, with shoulders as broad as an axe handle. He stormed into the room on legs the size of oaks, with a fulgo guard entering a step behind.

“Stop!” Sizon shouted, the word garbled by the two, short, symmetrical tusks protruding from his boarish snout, but he was too late: Set was gone. “Tristan,” he said, narrowing his mortalis-like blue eyes, “do not move!”

Tristan took a step towards the window.

Sizon’s triangular ears twitched, causing the twirl of light brown hair between them to wiggle, and his fur to rise. “I’m warning you,” he said, as he took a step towards Tristan: “stay… put.”

Keeping his exposed hand hidden behind his back, Tristan gave a flippant shrug, and with a rakish grin, said: “Sorry, Sizon, you’ll have to catch me later.”

Sizon lunged for him, as Tristan dove backwards out of the window, in a loose arc. When his feet failed to follow, he was left dangling upside down, his blood rushing to his head.

“Ugh!” he grunted, as his back slammed against the wall, expelling the air in his lungs. Curling his stomach, he searched for the cause, and found his right foot caught in Sizon’s meaty grasp. The fera’s lips peeled back from his yellowed tusks; “I’ve got you now, boy.”

Tristan relaxed his stomach, and felt his shoulder-length black hair give way to gravity.

“What on Superi…!?” he heard the fulgo exclaim. “What’s wrong with him?”

Tristan knew they were staring at his double-pointed ears. He groaned, and said aloud: “Jacob’s going to kill me.”

“Come on, Tristan!” Set shouted from below; “quit hanging around.”

Tristan twisted, almost breaking his neck to glare at his brother; “Seriously?”

“Sorry,” Set eked, “that wasn’t funny.”

From inside the room, Tristan heard Sizon order the fulgo: “Go get the other boy – I’ll deal with this one.” Sizon’s strength ability was revealed, when Tristan felt his body being dragged back towards the window.

Taking three quick breaths, he prepared himself for a hard landing, and then kicked himself out of his boot. The air whooshed out of his lungs upon impact, and the snapping of ribs had him curling into a ball, as Sizon’s curses faded behind the ringing in his ears.

Slamming his fists into the window frame, shattering the glass that rained down on Tristan, Sizon snarled: “Don’t move, you little scamp”, before disappearing from view.

Moving to stand over Tristan, Set shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We have to go,” he urged, as he watched the opening of the alleyway, between the inn and the abandoned building, for signs of the guards. Without looking down, he offered his hand to help Tristan up.

Tristan knocked it aside; “Don’t touch me.”

Rolling to his stomach, Tristan pushed himself to his hands and knees, before finding the strength to gain his feet. Wrapping his right arm around his tender left side, he took a cautious breath, and then cursed at the pain the action brought.

“Are you good?” Set asked, but there wasn’t time for a reply: the fulgo guard had entered the alleyway.

“Crap!” Set said; “What now?”

Tristan sized the man up, as he swaggered toward them with far too much confidence. Taller than Sizon, and just as husky, the guard would prove hard to beat – he would only have one shot at this. “Now, you run,” he told Set.

“Not happening, brother – I’m not leaving you.”

Tristan forced his body to relax, coaxing the fulgo to let down his guard. Low enough that only Set heard, he said: “If Sizon rounds that corner, Set, you run. I can’t take them both… not without killing them.”

The fulgo was closing the distance.

“Just shut up and focus,” Set said, on the verge of panic.

“You should have run, boy,” the guard taunted, and lunged.

Tristan tightened his calves, and launched himself into a backflip. With his booted foot, he kicked the tall fulgo under the chin, knocking him unconscious; Tristan winced when the man crumpled, and hit the ground.

“Did I kill him?” Tristan asked, as Set bent to check the guard’s pulse.

“No,” Set said, “he’s good. Can you run?” he asked, checking the alley for Sizon.

“Do I have a choice?”

“Not really,” Set said, as they started off.

“Stop!” Sizon shouted, as he entered the alleyway from the front, and then spewed curses as he caught sight of his crumpled partner. They took advantage of Sizon’s hesitation to leave his partner behind, and ran.

Tristan refused to look at his brother as they raced to beat the guards back to the house they shared with Jacob, Davad, and Shashara. It wasn’t easy traversing the highly populated city to keep from being seen, even while sticking to side streets and back-alleys of the stone buildings.

When they paused before turning onto another street, Set, breathing hard, said: “Maybe… Sizon… gave up.”

“He’s not the only guard that’s going to be looking for us now,” Tristan retorted. “You’d better hope you have enough stolen speed and stamina left to get you home, Set.” Then he took off again.

Set wasn’t sure it would – the more times they had to dodge the city guards, and the further they’d had to go, the slower he became. By the time they entered the front door of their home, he was holding a stitch in his side, and his legs were numb.

Hands braced on his knees, and bent over to catch his breath, Set was determined to get in the first word: “It was an accident, I swear!”

Jacob, sitting in a cushioned armchair in the front room, paused, a needle and thread dangling from between his lips, with one of Davad’s shirts held up for inspection. Under different circumstances, catching a battle-scarred mercenary carrying out such a domestic task would have been funny, but not today.

Six feet in height, his white linen shirt hung open to his sternum, showing an expanse of lightly tanned skin, dusted with golden curls, and thin white scars, left behind by countless blades. His brown trousers were an odd sight without the sword belt; it was completely normal, however, for his bare feet to be sticking out from underneath.

Setting the needlework aside, Jacob took in the harried sight: Tristan had a boot and glove missing – there was also a rip in the seat of his dirt-stained trousers, and he had a bump on his forehead. It was the latter detail that had Jacob turning to Set, who looked ready to drop.

“Good afternoon to the both of you, as well,” he said. A grin tugged on the edges of his mouth when, instead of attempting to block his telepathic ability, they opened their minds to him.

As their stories unfolded, Jacob’s eyes returned to the fading bruise on Tristan’s forehead, which had been the size of goose egg not long before. When he turned his hard stare to Set, he had to swallow back his amusement.

Set rolled his eyes. “It’s not funny,” he said, knowing what Jacob was seeing.

“No,” Jacob said, “it is not.” He held up his hand when Tristan opened his mouth to speak: “Now is not the time.”

He had made it halfway across the floor, when a rapid knocking sounded at the front door. With a hand on the door lever, Jacob turned a disapproving scowl on the boys – his stare stayed longest on Tristan’s feet, where sharp nails had worn holes through the toes of his socks, and on his gloveless right hand.

Tristan winced, and dug his toe-nails into the woven rug before the hearth, where he and Set stood. Folding his hands behind his back, he looked down to avoid the older man’s gaze; he knew he was in trouble.

They’d all made sacrifices to be able to stay in one place for so long, none more than Jacob. Boots were not cheap to have made, and Tristan had just lost his source of income, which meant the cost of replacing them would have to be shared amongst the others.

The knocking sounded again, louder and more insistent.

“Not one word,” Jacob warned, and then opened the door.

On the other side, in matching dark green uniforms, stood two very angry city guards – the fera, Jacob knew: “What can I do for you, Sizon?”

With no neck to speak of, a guttural noise in his throat proceeded Sizon’s words: “We need to talk about your boys.”

“I’m aware of the situation, gentlemen,” Jacob told them, “and I can assure you, they will be dealt with.”

“That’s not good enough.” The fulgo, six-feet-ten in height, stepped forward to stare over Jacob’s head, into the house; “The big one and I have unfinished business.” The material of his shirt sleeve stretched, as he leaned against the door-frame and tightened his bicep for show.

Jacob, unimpressed, took a step to the side, and blocked the man’s view with his wider frame. “You’ll not have any more trouble from them – I gave you my word.” Searching within the golden eyes of the fulgo – so much like Tristan’s – he waited to read the man’s next move.

“Your word doesn’t mean anything to me, mortalis,” the fulgo sneered.

“Well, that’s too bad,” Jacob’s tone was as dangerous as his blade, which hung within easy reach, behind the door.

According to the red bars stitched down their sleeves, Sizon outranked the mouthy fulgo, and he used his status to silence further words from his partner: “It’s enough,” he said, pressing his palm against the fulgo’s chest, and pushing him backward. Jacob’s reputation as a mercenary was known throughout the city, and the expression on his face was darkening. Still, it was Sizon’s job to add: “We simply have more important things to do with our time than chase down delinquents, Jacob.”

“As I said, it won’t happen again.”

Perched on his toes to see past Jacob’s shoulder, Sizon met the hard stare of the young, blue-eyed rogue. The boy’s mouth was set in lines of grim determination, as he held his tongue by force of will, but it was the markings on his face that concerned Sizon – there was a dangerous air about the youth that sent chills down his spine.

He turned his attention to the strange mortalis, with a fulgo’s eyes and a nox’s ears, who stood staring at the tanned, woven rug spread across the front room’s floor. Sizon noted the way he held his hands behind his back, as if hiding a weapon.

Bringing his eyes back to Jacob’s, Sizon warned him: “I want no trouble with you, mercenary, but, next time your reputation won’t save them.”

Disgusted by the way his superior had backed down, the fulgo spat at Jacob’s bare feet, narrowly missing them. “The next time they so much as stir dirt in the streets of Exterius Antro,” he swore, “I’ll throw them in a cage.”

There was the decisive sound of a blade clearing its scabbard, as Jacob fully opened the door. In a fluid move, he raised the sword in his left hand to shoulder level.

The fulgo’s eyes went wide, as he cowered. Tripping over his feet, he landed on his rear end with a grunt, and threw his crossed forearms over his face to ward off the blow that never came.

Flipping the hilt of his sword, Jacob dropped the blade over his shoulder, to scratch his back with its sharp point. Nostrils flared, his upper lip furled, Jacob’s brown eyes were full of disdain, as the fulgo growled and came to his feet.

In a foolish attempt to regain his pride, the fulgo got up in Jacob’s face: “Do you hear me, mercenary? Next time they will pay!”

Jacob leaned forward until he could see his own reflection in the fulgo’s heated stare. “Understood,” he said, and then stepped back and slammed the door in the guard’s face, catching him squarely on the nose.

The fulgo’s curses, wafting through the door, were epic.

“Come on, you fool,” they heard Sizon growl, “before you get us both killed.”

Inside the house, Set’s snicker drew Jacob’s attention. He crossed the room to stand in front of the boys, as he shook his head – their actions carried the gravest of consequences.

He’d read into Sizon’s mind – the image of Tristan’s double-pointed ears had struck fire to an inquisition they couldn’t afford. They would have to move… again. But, this time it would sting – this was the closest thing to a home they’d had since Shasha had left them.

The boys fidgeted under Jacob’s scrutiny. Set worried his bottom lip between his teeth, as Beth had used to do, while Tristan choked on suppressed anger. Set was the first to break under the strain: “I’m sorry, Jacob.”

He ignored the apology: “Since neither of you have a job to return to, you will work for me.”

With that said, Jacob turned and made his way to the storage room located at the back of their small, three-bedroomed, wood-framed house. It stood just past the kitchen, where the pot-bellied stove let out an occasional pop or sizzle, as the wood inside it heated.

The boys shared in their confusion, as Jacob took down dishes and pots. and carried them by the armful through the kitchen, to stack them on the round dining table.

As he worked, he said: “First, you will wipe down the shelves, then you will wash, dry and put away every last dish. If there is still daylight when you’re finished, come and find me,” he told them; “I’m sure there are plenty of useless chores I can find for the two of you.”

The veins in Tristan’s temples throbbed, as he struggled to keep his mouth shut.

Set had less self-control: “Why would we wash clean dishes? It’s senseless.”

Finding the opening he’d been looking for, Jacob countered: “Is it as senseless as you draining your brother’s speed and stamina so you could go and rile the city guards?”

Set’s face went slack from the unexpected rebuke.

Jacob didn’t give him a chance to respond. “You drained him after he got injured helping you. You took from him what he needed to heal himself, Set – you left him unconscious and defenceless.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, as he paused to regain his composure. “There are not many men who have ones they can trust at their side, but every man has his limit, Set. Don’t push your brother so far that you find his.”

“I mean no disrespect, Jacob,” Tristan said, “but if we’re in agreement that this was his fault, why am I to be punished alongside him?”

Jacob could read Tristan’s resentment towards his brother. Crossing his arms over his chest, he mimicked Tristan’s defiant stance: his legs shoulder-width apart, and his weight settling on his lower spine. Though he was certain that Beth would have used a different approach, he spoke the hard truth, as Matthew would have done.

“How would you have me answer, Tristan?” he asked. “You’re sixteen years old, so you tell me, are you a boy… or a man?”

Extensive training kept Jacob’s expression stoic, when Tristan’s eyes begun to radiate a strange, golden glow that he’d never seen before. Nothing about Tristan was normal, and so as adolescence gave way to manhood, Jacob had no way of knowing what to expect from him.

With a defiant lift of his strong jaw line, Tristan replied: “I am a man.”

“Good,” Jacob nodded. “Then, as a man, hear me: you’re quick to blame your brother, who is not yet a man, for failures that fall on you.”

“Excuse me?” Tristan stiffened.

Without sympathy, Jacob continued: “If you don’t want him to drain your abilities, Tristan, then stop him, because the day will come when it’s not your brother trying to drain abilities – one day, it will be a stranger trying to take your life. And that, son, you don’t get back.”

Throwing his hands into the air, Tristan shouted: “Even a man has to sleep!”

The unspoken words being shouted inside Tristan’s head sparked Jacob’s temper; “A man learns to sense when another approaches. A man learns to react to that threat without conscious thought. A man… does not blame a child!”

Perhaps Beth’s way would have been better, Jacob thought, as he plopped back into his armchair, and ran his leather-gloved fingers through his white-streaked, blond hair.

The chair had been a gift from an unattached woman a few houses down. She’d shown interest, but it had been too soon for him – Shasha had left him alone to raise Davad and Shashara, and Beth and Matthew had done the same with Set and Tristan, though it had been death that stole them from him. He’d taken their sons into his heart as his own, but, despite all the knowledge gleaned from the minds of others, he was still at a loss as to how to handle the teenagers.

He rarely thought of the wife that had abandoned him, but thoughts of his friends were never far off – the loss of them never lessened. “Your father used to say that a man was no smarter than his dumbest move, and your mother…” his expression softened “..Beth used to say that common sense was the greatest power one could hope to possess. Hear their words, boys, even if you won’t hear mine. Learn from their wisdom,” he said. “Now, go – you have work to do.”

He’d left out the part about Matthew having said those words to him after jumping away from a swinging blade, straight into a brick wall, which had knocked him out cold. If Matthew hadn’t been there to save his hide, he would have woken up skewered, if he had woken up at all. When Beth had heard about the close call, she’d made sure to school them both on the importance of common sense – of course, in her opinion, he and Matthew had lacked the quality completely.

Jacob ignored the bickering between the brothers, as they exited the house through the back door, where a well awaited them in the yard. Stacked stones blocked off the square area, and afforded them a measure of privacy, as the two begun drawing the first pails of water they would need for their chore. He had other things to occupy his mind; there were plans to be made – their departure from Exterius Antro would have to be soon. After what the guards had seen, staying was no longer an option.

It was certain that Sizon would talk to the city’s magistrate about Tristan, if he hadn’t already, and the confrontation between him and the fulgo guard bode ill. There would be trouble between them, he could feel it.

II

Taken

 

Set and Tristan were setting the table for supper, when Davad came through the front door, nose first. Dropping his brown leather pack by the wall with the others, below the wooden rack that held their hooded cloaks and Jacob’s sword belt, he headed for the food.

“Stew smells great, Dad.” Davad’s stomach growled, as he nudged Set out of the way and reached for an empty bowl.

As Jacob set the boiling pot of stew on a folded cloth, set in the center of the table, he elbowed his grimy son away. “Wash up first,” he told him.

“You sound like Shashara,” Davad grinned, but headed to the kitchen. “Whoa,” he said, as his foot slipped on a puddle before he reached the basin and water pitcher they kept on the counter. Peering up at the ceiling, he asked: “Do we have a leak?”

“No,” Jacob chuckled, “just sloppy dishwashers.”

Upon his return, Set and Tristan held up matching sets of wrinkled fingers. Tristan’s sharp nails made his hands appear twice as large as Set’s, but their grimaces of pain were identical.

Davad shook his head and chuckled as he sat down, but glanced up from the bowl he was filling, when his Dad asked: “Where’s your sister?”

Tristan and Set were hissing and blowing their way through their second bowls, but they paused and waited for Davad to answer.

“Clave said the forge couldn’t use us both today,” Davad told them, “so he sent her over to Martinson’s forge.” As worry settled on his face, he said: “I thought for sure she’d beat me home. She shouldn’t be walking alone this late at night.” Setting his spoon against the side of his bowl, he started to stand; “I’ll go get her.”

Jacob pressed a hand on Davad’s shoulder to put him back in his seat. “You look like you’ve worked harder than I did today,” he said; “Eat. I’ll go get her.”

Dinner was not working out as Jacob had planned, but he wanted them to be together before he broke the news. At the door, he pulled on his boots, then fastened his black leather belt around his waist. His left hand fell naturally to the hilt of his sword, sheathed in its matching leather scabbard, which rested against his outer left thigh.

“Are you sure?” Davad winced, regretting the words the moment they’d left his mouth. He held his hands up in surrender at the scowl on his Dad’s face – mercenaries hated to repeat themselves; Dads didn’t much care for it, either.

“Okay, alright,” he said; “I’m eating.” Picking up his spoon, he made a big deal about taking his first bite: “Hot, hot, hot!” He sucked in air to cool his singed tongue.

Tristan and Set laughed, but their mirth dried up when Jacob paused on his way out, to say: “Tristan and Set have volunteered to do dishes – you have the night off.”

Tears rolled down Davad’s cheeks from the heat of the stew, his nose started to run, and his mouth was on fire; he could only nod and wave in reply as his Dad left. Dipping his finger into the hearty stew, he withdrew a portion of its heat with his ignis ability, before taking a bite. Swallowing, he asked: “So, what did my Dad say?”

Having heard the question in his mind, Jacob stood just outside and listened in on their conversation.

Tristan answered first: “He told Set that a man was only as smart as his dumbest move.”

“Ouch,” Davad snickered, “that had to sting.”

“Not nearly as much as Jacob telling Tristan that he needed to find some common sense,” Set shot back.

Jacob sighed. “That’s not what I meant,” he said aloud, as he crossed their front yard and stepped onto the street outside their home, beyond the range of his ability.

With an upward glance at the many moons that hung overhead, like multicolored ornaments, he frowned at the position of the stars – it was later than he’d thought.

Though in his fifties, Jacob struck an imposing figure, as he walked through the empty city streets. His broad shoulders cast a large shadow and his predatory eyes missed nothing. Though he waved hello to the stragglers making their way home in the dark, most pretended not to see, and those who waved in return reeked of fear.

Exterius Antro had grown in the last two years. Trading posts, based on a bartering system, had collapsed under the mercantilist rise of the city’s expanding economy. The primarily fulgo population battled the mortalis race for majority now, although Antro was still fulgo dominant; however, the fera population was growing as well. The border of the Turris region crowded the northern gate into Exterius Antro, with only the great trees hindering its progress.

The increase in population had assured him work, without having to travel too far from home. Though the wages were not the prime rate he was accustomed to, a man raising four children alone needed a place to call his own – a place where they could regroup at the end of each day. They’d spent years on their feet, following one road to the next, with barely a pause for breath in between. After Shasha had left, and Matthew and Beth had died, he’d needed some type of foundation upon which to rebuild.

In truth, Set and Davad were both too young to be working as hard as grown men. Shashara, at fifteen, should be thinking of stepping out with a young man who’d been lucky enough to gain her attention, not sweating over metal. Tristan, forced into one subservient position after another, because so few were willing to let him work, dealt with daily ridicule. Perhaps it was a good thing Tristan’s exposure was forcing them to move on – domesticated life was making him old and the children older.

Jacob rounded the corner and walked the short distance down the side street to Martinson’s forge. His expression grew slack, before his brows furrowed at the banked fires and unmanned bellows.

Martinson, busy tapping the oil and water barrel lids closed, didn’t hear his approach, but his green eyes remained sharp. He glanced up as Jacob’s shadow fell across his work area.

“Can I help you?” Martinson asked.

Unlike the newer citizens of Exterius Antro, Martinson exuded no fear. Years of swinging a heavy hammer, and forcing metal to bend, had layered the mortalis with thick muscle.

“I’m looking for Shashara,” Jacob said. Distress tightened his chest when he scanned the area and found no evidence of her.

Grasping the hammer’s wooden handle in a meaty fist, the forge-man asked: “And who might you be?”

Jacob’s heart quickened, as unwanted images poured from the forge-man’s mind into his own. “She’s my daughter.” His voice was like rough gravel.

Martinson dropped the heavy hammer onto the ground, and, after wiping his hands on the front of his black leather apron, warily approached the swordsman. When Jacob swayed, Martinson reached out to steady him, and said: “I’m so sorry – the guards…” he swallowed hard “..they came for her and another girl – a nox aquis wielder looking for work.”

Jacob stepped out of reach, as his head cocked to the side. Heart pounding, he asked: “And you just let them take her?”

“No,” Martinson rushed to assure him, “of course not – I tried to help,” he said, “but there were too many to fight. I would have come to find you sooner, but they placed guards to keep us here until sunset.”

As the swordsman’s visage hardened, it was Martinson’s turn to back away. “I intended to ask Clave how to find you, I swear… just as soon as I was finished here.”

Jacob couldn’t hear anything except the buzzing in his head, but the images flooding his mind tore him apart. He saw Shashara running toward the guards, instead of fleeing like the rest, her feet slipping on a sheet of ice that an aquis wielder laid in her path. His stomach turned at the sickening sight of Shashara’s head slamming against the hard-packed ground, before ice quickly encased her from the hips down. A mortalis squatted down beside her – Jacob couldn’t hear the words he said, but fire lit Shashara’s blue eyes as she smacked the man hard across his cheek.

Jacob continued to rummage through Martinson’s memory – a stunning nox girl had taken an ugly fall; a water barrel exploded. She flicked her wrist to send a solid block of liquid flying at a fulgo city guard, who struggled to maintain his footing after Martinson shoved him backward, to buy the girl time to flee. Saving the fulgo, a nox city guard used his ignis ability to break apart the massive block of water, which splattered the downed girl with boiling liquid. Jacob saw her mouth open, though he couldn’t hear her screams.

He took note of each involved, but the image of the one manhandling his daughter was etched into his mind: a mortalis of average height, with an athletic build. Besides the puckered scar on the back of his left hand – as if a stake had been driven through it – the mark Shashara had left on his face would make him easy to identify. The mortalis was already dead – he just didn’t know it yet: Jacob would see to it that the man was informed shortly.

Sizon’s second in command – the fulgo guard with the arrogant mouth; the one who had threatened his boys – stood leering at the nox girl, as he covered his ears to drown out the noise she made; a wide-mouthed grin adorned his pale face. He will die first, Jacob vowed.

Martinson moaned and grabbed his head, falling to his knees before the swordsman. “Superi help me,” he gasped, as his eyes fell on the man’s black leather gloves, and the markings they hid; “you’re a telepath.” Blood trickled from his nostrils. “Please,” he said, “let me go – there was nothing I could do.”

Knowing the pain his aether ability could cause, Jacob pulled back the dark swirling mist – the evidence of his ability that only he could see, and spoke: “How are so many afraid of so few?” Disgusted, he loosened Martinson’s mind, and then turned away.

Throwing back his head, he roared, as he filled his animus with rage, and hardened himself towards the violence he would soon unleash. Crossing the moonlit street, he faded into the shadows of the alley – a predator stalking his prey.

He knew where to find the fulgo guard, and, if fortune favored him, he would find the other guards responsible as well. They’d arrested his daughter – he would know why, and if their reason did not suffice, there would be death to pay.

A mercenary’s most reliable weapon is the mind, but his was under attack by thoughts of what might be happening to Shashara. To focus, he did as he had been trained: he stepped into the void, where emotion could not touch him, and sped his pace.

Along the eastern coast, the city made use of a run-down, wooden building, filled with iron-barred cages, designed to hold prisoners until they could be brought before the magistrate. His instinct told him that a braggart and bully would seek out receptive ears to regale the day’s events; prison guards – especially those on the night shift – would prove the perfect audience.

He was right: the condemned guard was amongst others of his ilk, sitting around a campfire in front of the building, as he gave a lecherous description of the nox girl’s curvaceous charms.

Jacob’s stomach turned – no more than two years could separate her and Shashara in age; the father in him wanted to cut out the man’s tongue. The mercenary in him demanded more: he wanted to cut the man to pieces. His blood ran cold when the fulgo spoke again:

“The coin we were given for our extra sets of uniforms will more than replace them.” With a grin, he pulled his coin purse free from his belt and bounced it in his palm before dividing the spoils.

“Who do you think they were?” a fera guard asked, as he took his portion.

“Who cares?” the fulgo said. “I saw them to the northern gate and watched them cage those two girls along with others. They’re long gone by now.”

The new information threatened the precarious hold Jacob had on the void that kept him calm. She wasn’t arrested, he thought: she’s been taken.

Eyes locked on his prey, his breath even despite his racing heart, as he waited for the fulgo to leave the group. With every gulp the guard took from the large jug of ale being passed around, his lips pulled back in a feral smile.

It wasn’t long before the fulgo stepped around to the side of the building to relieve himself.

Jacob was there… waiting.

He left his sword sheathed. While he wanted to take the time to torture the man, he knew this needed to be quick and silent. From his front trouser pocket, he pulled out the garrotte he hadn’t used since the third water war. It was a simple apparatus – two smooth sticks notched at the center, where a thin, braided wire ran between – but it got the job done.

When the guard turned his back, Jacob slipped from the shadows, and looped the wire over the fulgo’s head. With a violent yank, he pulled his arms apart and cut off any strangled cries. The magnitude of his fury sank the wire through the fulgo’s neck until only the spine held his head attached. Jacob caught and lowered the body before it could thud to the ground, and then he dragged it deeper into the undergrowth of the surrounding trees. It would be found in the morning, but, by then, he and the kids would be gone.

III

Hunting Party

 

Tristan and Set heard Davad shout: “Dad!” and came running from their room down the hall. They saw Davad scrambling to his feet, from his place before the hearth.

Jacob stood in the front doorway. His face was blood-spattered, as was the white shirt he wore; streaks of it matted his blond hair, where he had run his fingers through it, but it was his cold expression that sent chills racing down their spines.

It was Davad who asked: “Where is Shashara?”

Jacob closed his eyes, blocking out the array of questions and fears that flooded his ability from the boys’ minds. He couldn’t speak – not yet – so he turned from them and made his way into the kitchen. The sound of their footsteps followed him.

Filling the basin from the pitcher on the counter, he tossed his blood-soaked gloves aside and shoved his sleeves up to his elbows. Plunging his hands into the clear liquid turned it crimson. He bent over the basin and scrubbed his face, in a vain attempt to wash away the images of his little girl being taken from him. It failed.

“Here,” Tristan said, laying a towel on the counter beside him.

Jacob used it to dry off, then tossed it to the floor. He returned to the front room and stared into the leaping flames within the fireplace, as he tried to find his voice, while the images of Shashara tore at his psyche.

Davad tried again: “Dad, where’s Shashara?”

Without shifting his gaze, Jacob answered: “She’s been taken.”

His son’s reaction shattered the void he’d held in place to keep himself sane; blue flames ignited from Davad’s hands, encasing them – they licked at his wrists, threatening to catch the sleeves of his cotton shirt on fire. His body trembled, and his breathing grew erratic as his heart raced; rage engorged him with power.

Set, Jacob tilted his head in Davad’s direction, and gave a silent order: help him.

Wiping away the tears that blurred his vision, Set searched for an opening.

“No!” Davad threw his hands out in Set’s direction, as he realized his intent; “I want to know who took her.” Becoming unhinged, he bellowed: “I want to know where my sister is!”

“Son,” Jacob said, to draw his attention, “you need to calm yourself.”

When Davad turned towards Jacob, Set avoided the flames, and lunged for the ignis wielder’s feet. The moment he made contact, the fire from Davad’s hands sputtered and went out.

Davad’s head fell backward, and he screamed at the pain inflicted by Set’s sudden draw on his elemental ability. Desperate to make it stop, he reared back his foot and aimed for Set’s head. Tristan’s speed prevented it – faster than Davad could track, or counter, Tristan grabbed him by the back of his shirt and lifted him several feet into the air.

Set ducked, just in case, and felt the heel of Davad’s foot brush against the hairs that stood up atop his head.

Davad jerked in Tristan’s grasp; “Let me go!”

“Not until you calm down,” Tristan said, then grunted as Davad’s heel scraped his shin.

Twisting and yanking against Tristan’s hold, Davad struggled until his own collar choked him. When the fight left his body, he was left with nothing but frustrated, angry tears. Released, his legs failed him, and he sank to the floor.

Set stood, trembling, arms held out from his sides, as the ability he’d drained from Davad coursed through him. It couldn’t dissipate fast enough – the flames swirling from his fingertips prevented him wiping his eyes, but his tears were not enough to block out the utter defeat on Davad’s face.

Jacob was stone, and Set was fighting a battle of his own, so it was Tristan who crouched before Davad. Laying a hand on the younger boy’s shoulder, he said: “We’ll get her back.”

Without reply, Davad lifted his head and stared at his father’s bloodstained clothes – the sight soothed him. When their eyes met, he said: “Tell me that blood belongs to the guilty.”

Jacob gave a slow nod. “One of them,” he said, “but they all will pay before we’re finished – you have my word.”

As Set brought Davad’s ability under control, he asked: “What do we do?”

“We find her,” Jacob replied, “or we rip Superi apart in the search.”

Tristan stood and held out his arm.

Davad clasped Tristan’s forearm and let himself be drawn to his feet. “I want them dead, Dad,” he said, “but first I want them to suffer.”

As Set moved to stand beside the other two, Jacob did not see them as his boys – the father in him had been left at Martinson’s forge. As he’d entered the shadows, he’d embraced his true nature, and the mercenary had retaken control. What he saw were weapons, and he intended to use them as such.

“Pack only what you can carry,” Jacob told them, as he walked down the hallway. Before disappearing into the room he and Davad shared, he said over his shoulder: “We’re going hunting.”

“Come on, Set,” Tristan said, giving his brother a nudge to get him moving, as they gave Davad a moment alone. Grabbing a clean shirt from the chest on his side of the room, he was just pulling it on, when Jacob called out: “Tristan.”

Darting across the hall to stick his head through Jacob’s bedroom door, Tristan said: “Yes, sir?”

“Here,” Jacob said, and handed him a spare pair of boots. “They’re going to be snug, but they’ll have to work until we can figure something else out.”

“Thanks, Jacob,” Tristan winced, as his guilt renewed. Taking the boots, he returned to his own room.

Set had stopped packing. Grief-stricken, he asked: “She’ll be okay, won’t she? I mean, they wouldn’t hurt her after taking the time to steal her… right?”

Picking up his leather pack, from atop the bed where he’d left it, Tristan said: “I don’t know, Set.” Shoving in clothes, he admitted: “The not knowing is driving me crazy.”

Set had started pacing, and so Tristan asked: “What’s on your mind, little brother?”

After checking the doorway to make sure they were alone, Set lowered his voice to a whisper and confessed: “I would do anything – give anything – to know that Shashara was safe and home where she belongs. But, Tristan, I’m afraid we’re never coming back.” He lowered his eyes. “I know it’s selfish, but I don’t want lose our home.”

Tristan sighed and set his prepared pack on the floor, before sitting down on the edge of the bed. “Exterius Antro is the first place we’ve been where I don’t feel like a freak,” he said. “Outside of its walls awaits all the hatred and prejudice of Superi. These four walls are not my home, but Exterius Antro is. And, believe me brother, I don’t want to leave either. But I would set fire to it myself to see Shashara safe. We do what we must, Set, because at the end of the day, what good is a home if what is left of our family isn’t there to fill it?”

Set’s neck turned, when Tristan’s stare diverted to the doorway.

Davad paused, having overheard the last of Tristan’s statement, and then, on numb limbs, made his way to his room. His mind in a haze, he tried to come to grips with what was happening. He told himself that this was just a nightmare – that he’d wake up soon – but his father’s rage made the pretense impossible.

“That pain you’re feeling,” Jacob said, as he moved about the room collecting their things; “there’s only one way to make it stop, and that’s to get her back.”

When, still, Davad did not react, Jacob rebuked him: “She doesn’t need your tears, son – she needs your strength. So find it, or get out of my way.”

Davad flinched. “You’re not leaving me behind,” he said, and yanked his pack from a peg on the bedroom wall. He made quick work of tossing into it the clothes he would need, and then knelt before the chest at the foot of his bed. From it, he picked up the chunk of iron he’d brought home to make weights for their fishing poles, and tossed it in with everything else.

Threading an arm into the strap, Davad flung the pack onto his back before heading to Shashara’s room. She’s a girl, he thought; she’ll need… things. He saw her spare pack in the open red cedar chest that had once belonged to Beth – one of but a few items they’d held onto over the years – then stared helplessly around the room.

“Are you okay?” Set asked, entering.

Davad shook his head.

“Here,” Set took the empty pack from him, “let me help.”

From the chest tucked in the corner, he took out a pair of loose-cut brown trousers, and a blue, full-sleeved, button-down blouse. She’d been wearing her only pair of boots, but he found stockings and undergarments beneath the dress she wore on special occasions. Next, he chose a black, hooded cloak and two tunics – one black and one blue – both featuring splits up the sides.

“Where is her hairbrush?” Davad scanned the shelving and storage space, hysteria raising his voice to a piercing pitch: “She’ll need it.”

Adjusting the two large packs slung over his shoulders, Tristan tossed a third through the doorway to Set, and said: “Jacob’s waiting. It’s time to go.”

“But, her hairbrush…” Davad tore through Shashara’s room in a desperate search; “She’ll need it.”

“Come on,” Set told him, “we’ll get her another one. But we have to go.”

When the boys came into the front room, Jacob asked Tristan: “You have the medicinal supplies?”

“Yes, sir,” Tristan assured him.

Jacob’s stare was intense and menacing. He was a force of nature – a boiling thunderhead that promised destruction when let loose. Gone was the man who was a father to them all – in his place a man bent on retribution. They welcomed the sight, though it terrified them.

Without looking back, Jacob left the door open behind him, as he stepped out into the night. Fearing he would leave them behind, they took their hooded cloaks off of the rack by the door, and, sliding them on, they followed.

Tristan was the one to shut the door behind them, but the sound of it closing shook them all, as they left behind the life they’d come to love… to search for one they loved intensely more.

Traversing the empty streets in the darkest time before dawn, their boots made the only sound, as they crossed the cobble-stone plaza of the marketplace. The shops were closed up tight, so their passing went unnoticed.

They paused at the northern wall: grey stones piled two storeys high, which formed a definitive V at its center. A gate to each side controlled access to Exterius Antro.

Antro itself lay beyond the next stone wall, at the other end of the city. Memories were fresh of the devastating wars over trade and water rights that had ravaged the peninsula more than once. The walls kept blood at bay, but also trapped its citizens within, unless they took to the oceanus.

As they approached the right exit, a fera called out: “Who goes there?”

“Ones who wish to leave,” Jacob said, leaving his hood in place.

“You should know the law, stranger,” the guard said, with a hiss of his forked tongue, as he stepped into the moons’ light: “lower your hoods and reveal your marks.”

Of a cut, lean form, the man was covered in grey, overlapping scales, with a single black hole on either side of his head. Diamond-shaped pupils, dilated due to the lack of light, peered out from silver eyes that blinked with horizontal lids.

All telepaths born with a completed mark could read thoughts, but, unlike most who shared his ability, Jacob had mastered his skill. So, when he pushed his own thoughts – his will – into the boys’ minds, they responded without hesitation; they did as they’d been trained, without a word or question.

Tristan moved five feet behind Jacob, keeping his head down and his gloved hands folded in front of him. Set went ten feet to Jacob’s right, in line with Tristan, which placed him closest to the fera, whose fangs leaked a yellow, venomous pus. Davad mirrored Set on Jacob’s left.

When the four ignored the command, a second guard – a slick, black-haired feline fera, with emerald-green eyes and sharp white teeth – rumbled out words from deep in his chest: “The laws of Exterius Antro forbid any from leaving in the night without revealing their identity, their marks, and their reason for departure. All know the law. If you’re not on our list, we’ll let you pass.”

The guard was right. Jacob knew that the city’s statute stated that those like him were required to register with the magistrate’s office. He also knew that to inform Exterius Antro of his aether ability would have had him run out of the city, and it would have denied him the home he’d wanted for the kids. Very few knew the truth of what he was, but it looked as if that number was about to grow.

He lowered his hood and flipped the edge of his cloak over his left shoulder, so it wouldn’t hinder his reach, should he go for his sword. “My name is Jacob Davadson. These are my children.”

“Tell them to lower their hoods,” the reptilian guard demanded.

Jacob spoke into their minds: Do it.

Set and Davad lowered theirs, but Tristan hesitated.

“What do you have to hide, boy?” the feline fera asked, his long tail cracking like a whip.

Tristan’s hands rose to the hood of his cloak. He dropped it back, and, with deliberate slowness, lifted his chin. His yellow eyes caught and reflected the moons’ glow like burning orbs; a rushing breeze swept his long, black hair away from his alabaster face. Stoic, he braced himself for what would come next.

Flicking out his forked tongue to taste the scent of the mortalis with mixed features, the reptilian guard asked: “What are you?” The cold grin that turned up the corners of the boy’s mouth elongated his venomous fangs.

“There are four of us and two of you,” Jacob said; “don’t be stupid: let us pass.”

“Show your marks!” the feline fera retorted, his fur rising, as he tightened the muscles in his forearms and hands to unsheathe his claws.

Davad reacted to the feline’s unspoken threat with a mounting anger, which ignited flames from his fingertips.

Fear of the element backed the feline guard down, but the reptilian fera was not so easily cowed, and, sinuously, he approached.

Jacob’s words stalled the man’s progress: “My son is losing patience.” Unsheathing his sword from its scabbard, he twirled the hilt in an experienced hand, before falling into an offensive stance, and said: “So am I.”

The sword-play had the desired effect. Retreating, the reptilian fera scowled: “I know your name and your face, swordsman. By morning, both gates will know them as well – you will be banned from Exterius Antro.”

“Understood,” Jacob said, as he started forward, giving silent orders to the boys: Davad, watch their backs. Tristan, take the feline – keep him quiet; we don’t want to alert the other set of guards. Set, do your thing. I don’t want them going anywhere tonight.

Jacob walked through the gate, like a man without concern. The boys could handle themselves, and where they were going, they needed the practice.

Tristan’s image blurred, as his speed carried him past the feline, where he spun on the balls of his feet to face the fera’s back, and place him in a choke-hold. He gritted his teeth to endure the pain, when the fera dug its claws into the meat of his forearm, in an attempt to free itself.

Distracted by the speed of the first attack on his partner, the reptilian guard didn’t notice the one coming from his blind spot until the last moment.

Set allowed himself to be hauled forward by the guard’s fist, which knotted his shirt – he needed to be close. When rancid breath offended his nose, he placed his hands over the fera’s temples and reached into the man’s mind with his aether ability.

“Shh,” Set whispered, as he pulled from the fera’s core of energy, until the guard’s body grew slack and crumpled to the ground.

Within moments of each other, the two men were incapacitated, with the guards at the other gate none the wiser.

The boys hurried to catch up with Jacob, who had already disappeared beyond the wall.

“Well done,” Jacob said, “but, Tristan, you need to watch your timing: when staging a two-pronged attack, it must be done in unison to ensure success.”

“Yes, sir,” Tristan accepted the constructive criticism.

“Set,” Jacob drew his attention.

“Sir?” Set asked, unsettled.

Masking his concern, Jacob asked: “What ability did you pull to put the guard to sleep?” There were certain aspects of Set’s aether ability that he wasn’t ready to learn – those that Matthew had said he wished he’d never learnt – and yet it would appear the time was fast approaching.

Consternation pinched Set’s face as he searched for the words to explain: “The fera didn’t possess an ability, but everyone has a core of energy – I pulled from that. I’m not certain how it works, Jacob – I’m not even sure how I know it’s there, I only know that it is.” As his shoulders slumped, he said: “I really wish my Dad were here to teach me.”

Though his worry redoubled, Jacob said: “I know, son”, and then let the subject drop.

Set’s ability had manifested fully four years ago, but without training – the evolution of his power was erratic… dangerous. In the beginning, he’d known only that if he touched someone, he could drain their ability and use it for a limited amount of time. A year ago, he’d learned that when draining someone who was asleep, he could take as much as he wanted with half the effort. Though Set didn’t know it, the energy he pulled came from a person’s life source – their animus – and chances were good that the guard he drained was dead.

Jacob forced his mind to clear, as they moved beyond the northern wall, and into the Turris region, where a forest of giant sequoias grew. Like much in nature, the great trees proved predatory, taking no pity on the saplings struggling to grow in their shadow – towering high above their heads, the heavy boughs formed a canopy that forbid the growth of weaker trees and assured their dominance, while blocking out the pale pink and brilliant orange of a Superian dawn.

Small, furry creatures scuttled across the trees’ branches, and insects buzzed, as they went about their daily routine. The passing of four mortalis men raised no concern, except from the forest animals which hid from sight, until the group had moved on.

Lost in private thoughts and worries, the boys had neither the energy or the will to put toward conversation, as exhaustion overwhelmed them. Instead, they conserved their strength for things of greater importance… like putting one foot in front of the other… and breathing.

At midday, they stopped for a quick meal. The boys sat together, while Jacob sat apart from them. The mask the mercenary wore was a wall they were not willing to breach, and so they talked amongst themselves.

“Did you see the tracks?” Set asked.

A peek upward revealed a sky of dark, ominous clouds. “We’re lucky we left Exterius Antro when we did,” Tristan said; “the rain would have washed them out.”

“The boot-prints don’t surprise me,” Davad told them, “but the number of them does. There are paw and claw marks on the ground, as well.”

Tristan nodded. “I saw them,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Whoever Jacob has us tracking, feras are definitely involved. But, what do you guys make of the wheel tracks?”

“I don’t know.” Davad ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “But we are four against many.” He sighed, and added, as he dropped his arms: “I hope we are enough.”

“We will be,” Jacob said, startling them. “Let’s move.”

Stifling weary moans, the boys stood and then followed the course Jacob set for them.

The suns were setting and the temperature was dropping, before Jacob called a halt to the day’s travel.

“We’ll camp here,” he told them, dropping his pack at the base of a monstrous tree; its roots had lifted its trunk off of the ground, and had formed a hollow beneath it.

“Davad, slide under there,” he said, “and clear the hole.”

As the first of the rain fell, Davad’s ignis ability lit the way, as he dropped into the dark. Only after they’d heard him say: “We’re good”, they slid into the hollow themselves.

“Tristan… Set,” Jacob said, clearing a space in the center of the dirt floor for a fire; “help Davad gather up the dry wood lying around – there’s plenty of it.”

Once the fuel was stacked, Davad touched his finger to the dry tinder and flames overtook it. As the smoke vented out through the openings in the tree’s roots, they settled in, grateful for the shelter that protected them from the coming storm.

Despite the energy Set had drained from the guard, he could barely stand. When his legs, trembling from exhaustion, began to cramp, he plopped onto the ground and dug his fingers into the knotted muscles.

From out of one of his packs, Tristan took chunks of dried meat, and the biscuits Jacob had made the evening before, and passed them around.

After taking his portion, Set met Jacob’s stare over the fire. Wary of Jacob’s mood, he asked: “Where are we going?”

Picking a small twig, Jacob rolled it between his fingers, as he broke eye contact to stare into the fire. Snapping the twig, he tossed it into the flames and then surprised them by answering.

“Reading Martinson’s mind,” he said, “I thought that the city guard had arrested her, but later I witnessed coin being paid to the guards who’d given up their uniforms to those who’ve taken Shashara.” Shoulders tense, he added: “She wasn’t the only one taken – there was another: a nox girl. They were taken out of the city by way of the northern gate. The tracks we’ve found suggest slavers are involved.” After the admission, his back molars pressed together, causing the corners of his jaw to pulsate.

Davad’s stomach churned as he closed his eyes, but the image of his sister caged by slavers had them popping open, as he swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Tristan said, with a shake of his head: “there is only one city left on the eastern continent that trades in slaves, and that’s Antro. Why would they take her in the opposite direction?”

Jacob’s eyes were cold; “There are many cities lying across the oceanus that still trade in slaves.”

Tristan winced, wishing he hadn’t asked.

“What’s our plan?” Set asked, to veer the conversation from worry to action.

Jacob cleared his throat, and then said: “By morning the rain will have washed out their tracks. We will continue in the direction we’re going, and, if chance is with us, we will pick up on their trail. If not, my instinct says to turn northeast, to the coast.”

As Set and Tristan fell silent, Davad asked: “So, we’re to cross the oceanus?”

“If we must,” Jacob told him.

“After what happened at the northern gate,” Set said, his voice unsteady, “I knew we’d never go home again. But, to cross the oceanus makes it all the more real.”

Avoiding Set’s comment and the pain it held, Jacob continued: “Should events lead us in that direction, we’ll head to Catena Piscari – it’s one amongst a cluster of fishing villages that lies along the coast. There’s a port there where I’m hoping to find a… friend, who can give aid.”

Davad shifted, pushing aside a hard clump of terra digging into his backside, and asked: “Who is he?”

“His name is Triton.” A phantom grin lifted the right side of Jacob’s mouth; “He calls himself a ‘pirate’, but in truth he’s a merchant. He travels across the Nubilosus Oceanus between the coasts, plying his trade with the nox and mortalis cities and towns.”

“I’ve never met anyone with instincts as good as yours,” Tristan told him: “if you think slavers have her, then I say we change course in the morning. It seems pointless to hunt washed out tracks when we know where they will lead.”

“I would agree with you, Tristan,” Jacob said, “if not for the dead zone to the east of us.”

“What dead zone?” Davad asked; “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Much of what actually happened has been lost to history,” Jacob answered, “but the facts can’t be denied. The city of Rus Elisium was used during one of the first wars, to create and test new weapons. Supposedly,” he said, “an ignis wielder and an aether wielder used their combined abilities on a piece of metal that a terra wielder had pulled from deep in the ground – it caused an explosion that destroyed the city and killed everyone in it, including the plant and animal life. Whoever has Shashara, they will not risk going through Rus Elisium.”

The information had Davad’s spine stiffening. “If we changed our course we could come out ahead of them. We could be beat them to the coast.”

“No,” Jacob said, “it’s not worth the risk.”

Davad’s tone took on a hard edge: “Shashara’s life is worth every risk.”

Keeping a tight rein on his temper, Jacob tried again to explain: “Anyone who comes too close gets sick. Any who try and pass through it never make it out the other side. I would gladly give my life to save any one of yours, but I will not die in the name of stupidity.”

“Take it easy, Jacob,” Tristan said, when Davad flinched; “he’s just worried about Shashara.”

Jacob’s glare heated at the reprimand; “The road ahead will not be easy, Tristan. If we are to succeed, I need you all to follow orders without question or hesitation. The task before us will demand sacrifice – I can promise you that.”

Though he did not give voice to his fear, Jacob knew that Tristan would pay a higher price than them all. They were looking to him for guidance, but there was little he could tell them without revealing more than he should. How could he tell them that he’d sworn never to set foot back onto the western continent, when he couldn’t tell them why? What would he do if the path to his daughter led directly to the city that he’d run from all those years ago – had sworn never to return to – for the sake of another child?

His loyalty lay in the graves of those he’d lost, while it placed those who remained alive in peril. For a man with no morals, his conscience was killer, but he’d meant what he said: he needed their obedience; he needed them angry; he needed them to stop asking questions. So, to protect them and his secrets, he did what he had to do.

“Life in Exterius Antro has made you all weak,” he sneered: “Set cannot keep pace, Davad speaks of rash actions based on desperation and fear, and you… you forget your place and speak out of turn.”

Gaping, eyes wide, the boys were speechless.

“As of right now, you will do as you’re told, or I swear I’ll drop you off in the first city we come to and retrieve you once Shashara is safe. I’ll not risk her life because of boys who think they know best, nor would I risk the lives of those boys by allowing them to follow me if they cannot follow orders.

“Now,” Jacob said, “bank this fire and get some sleep. I want to be moving by daybreak.”

Tristan’s yellow glare was the last thing to be swallowed by darkness, when Davad, his temper loose, sucked the heat from the fire.

Using their packs as pillows and the root-gnarled ground as beds, the boys settled for the night. Jacob leaned back against a wall of packed terra, and then braced himself for the thoughts and images his ability would bleed from their minds as they sought – and were embraced by – slumber.

Worry and fear for Shashara was prevalent in Davad’s psyche, but he was angry at Jacob, as well, for the things he’d said. Still, the physical and emotional exertion lulled the boy into a restless sleep.

The musty scent of tree moss and dank mould, mixed with the aroma of the forest, made for strange dreams in young Set’s mind, where roots became bars, and trees prisons, guarded by ferocious, green-eyed monsters, which spoke with a hiss.

However, Tristan’s thoughts were the hardest for Jacob to bear – the flickering, horrific images running through Tristan’s mind of what might be happening to Shashara shook him to the core. As sleep claimed him, Tristan’s subconscious took control, and his dreams turned bloody: Jacob saw an image of himself appear, sword in hand, to pit his prowess against Tristan’s elongated claws.

Sleep for Jacob was a long time in coming.

IV

Painful Revelations

 

Davad and Jacob waited, as Tristan reached down a hand to help Set out of the hollow beneath the tree. Set’s misery was all too clear as he allowed himself to be hauled out, though he didn’t complain as he slung his pack over his shoulder.

“Set…” Tristan couldn’t believe what he was about to say: “take some of my stamina… maybe a little strength. Just try to leave some for me too, okay?” He extended his hand again.

“Why would you do that?” Set asked.

The question was running through Davad and Jacob’s mind as well. Never before had Tristan offered Set his abilities, as Jacob had often done with Matthew, when the need had manifested. In fact, Set’s epoto ability, or, more specifically, his use of it on Tristan, was a sore spot in their relationship.

With a shrug, Tristan told a half truth: “You’re my brother and you’re hurting.” When Set hesitated, Tristan dropped his arm. “Look,” he said, “if you’d rather suffer than accept my help, so be it.”

Set knew he would never match his brother in physical size or stature, but it assuaged his pride to know that he would always have more power. He glanced at Davad, whose expression gave nothing away, and then at Jacob, who wore a crooked smile. It was one thing for him to take what he wanted – it was another thing for it to be given to him, like he was a weak link that needed strengthening. He wanted to refuse, but he knew he couldn’t – it would be days before they reached Catena Piscari, and Jacob would be disappointed if Set let his pride slow down their progress; he might even be left behind. So, he stretched forth his open right hand and waited for Tristan to take it.

Focusing on his reason for doing this, Tristan buried the resentment he felt towards Set for all the times he’d taken advantage, he blocked out his anger towards Jacob, for the callous words spoken since leaving Exterius Antro, and, though he could not ignore it entirely, he did his best to rein in his anxiety over what he would face beyond the walled peninsula. Using every technique Jacob had taught him, Tristan braced for the coming pain. Determined to keep it from registering on his face, he focused on the epoto before him, and clasped his brother’s hand. He felt the pull on his blood, as it gathered like liquid heat in his palm, even before their flesh met.

You’re like my personal power source” – the words Set had spoken echoed through Tristan’s mind, as his physical abilities were extracted. Leaving a wading pool of power where an oceanus of it had been, Set’s taunt proved true – it was as if Tristan was nothing more than a silo waiting to be emptied. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead, to run in rivulets down his face; jaw clenched, his nostrils flared, and he fought to stay on his feet.

When Set had taken all he wanted and broke the contact between them, Tristan sagged in relief.

“Um…” Set cleared his throat. “Thanks,” he said, keeping his eyes averted.

“No problem,” Tristan replied, drying his sweat-slicked palms on his pant legs. He passed by Davad and Jacob, who turned to follow him, as he started off in the direction they’d been travelling.

Set, waiting for the rush of Tristan’s abilities to hit him, fell in line behind the others. He’d taken a portion of each – strength, stamina, agility and speed – but only enough for the day.

He shook his head – if they only knew how hard it was to fight the temptation to take more… And there was so much more to take, like Tristan’s superior hearing and sight, for instance, or his sense of smell; it was there, but he was afraid to reach for it. It lay in a separate part of Tristan’s core, and his gut told him that the cost of obtaining it would be too high.

“The great trees will be behind us by midday,” Jacob said, breaking the silence that had followed them from camp. “We’re well into the territory of Turris. The feras out here are not like the ones who live in Exterius Antro – they are wilder and can be meaner, so the last thing we need is to draw their attention.”

Elbows bent, Set held his hands up in surrender; “I understand,” he said, rolling his eyes at the look Jacob shot him. He heeded the warning for as long as he could, but the energy coursing through him made staying calm impossible.

As Set zigzagged, darting in and out around them, Tristan and Davad’s countenances darkened. On Set’s next pass, Davad stuck his foot into his path.

Set tripped with a yelp, but rolled with ease back to his feet, a gloat splitting his face wide; “Uh!”

Tristan clothes-lined him.

Set felt his feet go out from under him. When he hit the ground flat, on his back, the impact stole his breath. He wasn’t down long – coming to his feet, he told the other boys: “Oh, it’s on!”

“Bring it,” was Tristan’s reply.

Under continued assault, Set’s enthusiasm faded, along with what he’d taken from Tristan, allowing the aches and pains he’d sustained to reach him. Dropping back, he endured Davad and Tristan’s smirks, and admitted defeat.

They emerged out of the forest, and journeyed under the glaring midday suns, wishing for a sign that the rain would return.

Envy furled Tristan’s upper lip, as Davad and Set stripped off their cloaks. Their shirts were drenched in sweat – now all they needed was a breeze to cool their heated flesh, but Tristan didn’t dare do the same – with his alabaster skin, he was forced to keep his hood up and his face down, or suffer the consequences of a blistering burn.

“Are you serious?” Tristan shouted, broken out of his introspection, when Set started up with his antics.

Davad, nearly driven to his knees when Set planted his hands on his shoulders to leap over his head, swung his fist, but caught only air. “Knock it off, Set!”

Quiet!

The mental bellow had them covering their ears, though it did no good.

We are not alone.

Turning in slow circles, they searched through the tall grass that followed the gentle roll of the meadow. There were foothills undulating along the horizon to the north, but, close by, there was nothing more than scrawny trees for an adversary to hide behind.

“I think you’re seeing things, old man,” Set teased. Regret registered on his face even before Jacob turned a punitive glare his way.

Jacob’s fingers spread wide and then clenched into tight fists at his side. He wanted to throttle Set, but now was not the time. The confrontation he’d hoped to avoid was now inevitable – he could hear the thoughts of the feras, as the pack closed in on them.

Angry, Jacob pushed his words into their minds: Your racket has drawn feras down on us.

Davad, his temper short since Shashara’s capture, ignited his ability: “Don’t tell me – tell him!” Glaring, he pointed a burning finger at Set.

Drain him, Jacob ordered.

Davad didn’t fight when Set caught his wrist – if he lost control here, they were all dead.

Tristan’s head turned, when, in his peripheral vision, he saw a section of the shoulder-high grass shift out of sync with the direction of the wind. “There,” he said.

Set and Davad saw nothing, until the first fera chose to reveal himself, and then they felt better about not being able to spot him. His shaggy, tan fur matched the color of the surrounding grass exactly, making him all but invisible.

Jacob scowled at their thoughts. Don’t make excuses for failures, he pushed; be better.

The fera stood on slightly bended knees, his upper back hunched in a natural curve, as he approached them. Bearing his weight on the balls of his feet, he stopped before Jacob. His sharp, pointed claws dangled close to the ground, but his long arms put them within striking distance. As his broad nostrils flared to take in their scent, his small, triangular ears quivered.

Jacob read the fera’s intent, as the fera gauged theirs. When his droopy, wide-set, grey eyes narrowed, and his upper lip pulled back in a snarl, Jacob moved defensively in front of the boys, and said: “We’re not looking for trouble.”

“Nor are we.”

Jacob had known the tribal alpha was there, but he’d been uncertain as to how the woman would react to their presence on her land. As she stepped clear of the grass, he was relieved.

Delicate white fur covered her feminine curves in place of clothing, and her ears protruded from an abundance of flowing white hair that fell to the small of her back. From beneath thick, white lashes, she peered at them with huge, red eyes that were absent of fear. Her button nose bunching, she asked: “Are you friend or foe?”

The melodic sound of her voice dropped Davad and Tristan’s jaws, but Set was too focused on the other fera to notice.

“We’ve come from Exterius Antro,” Jacob told her. “We’re only passing through, ma’am, and I assure you we mean no harm.”

With a “tsk”, she sized up the children. “They look exhausted. Come,” she said, expecting to be obeyed: “you can rest in the shade of my home.”

“Your hospitality is much appreciated, ma’am,” Jacob objected as much as he dared, “but we really must keep moving.”

She paused mid-step and considered his refusal. “The land grows dry between here and the oceanus, if you know not which plants to look for. For their sake,” she said, with a nod in the boys’ direction, “allow me to refill your water-skins. We are close.”

When the boys searched for sight of a home, and found nothing, she smiled and offered: “I’m called Char, and this is Rupert.”

Rupert, ears twitching as everyone focused on him, ducked his head, and darted past her to lead the way.

Char’s laughter at Rupert’s expense sounded like a chime, and it brought a smile to their faces, despite their current set of circumstances.

“He’s actually quite ferocious when he wants to be,” Char told them, as if it was a good thing.

“Personally,” Jacob chuckled, “I hope to keep him docile.”

Char laughed again.

Twenty paces later, they stepped clear of the tall grass and found themselves almost at her door; without a guide they never would have seen it – the three-dimensional illusion tricked their eyes into sliding right by. Hard-packed mud blocked the gaps between the haphazardly propped up branches of the crude structure, and bundles of tan grass worked as camouflage.

“Welcome to my home,” Char told them, as she gestured for them to enter.

Surprisingly cool, and much larger inside than expected, it was a welcome respite from the heat. In the open format of the home, obvious circular indentions in the terra floor marked each area. Grass padded one section, covered in a coarse material which looked as though it would itch. Tanned animal furs – most likely used as bedding – were piled high in the spot farthest from the door. The section where they had entered was small in comparison, and full of leaves and sticks, which crackled under their weight – nobody could sneak in during the night without alerting the inhabitants.

The boys’ eyes gaped at the zone set aside for weaponry.

Rupert snatched the water-skin from Jacob’s shoulder, letting his sharp nail nick Jacob in the process.

Jacob allowed no reaction to show on his face, but he was certain the man had inflicted the injury on purpose. The suspicion was confirmed, when Char scolded: “Rupert, they’ve been invited!”

She scowled, her hands propped on her rounded hips. “Forgive him,” she said, with a shrug; “he’s young yet.”

“I understand,” Jacob told her, as he searched through the minds gathered in and around the house.

The woman had a pure intent to aid them – she had a soft spot for children. Rupert, on the other hand, craved mischief, and hounding the heels of four mortalis was as appealing to him as it was to his compatriots, sniffing around outside.

“Boys,” he told them, “give Rupert your water-skins.”

Huddled as they were in the doorway, they handed the skins over, and then turned sideways, to avoid the fera on his way out.

“Please,” Char said, “come in.” Gesturing to the right, she bade them sit around a low-set table, without the benefit of chairs.

With a nod from Jacob, the boys took their seats upon the covered ground, and crossed their legs to prevent their protruding from the other side of the table. Jacob chose to stand, but moved in closer. Tristan, always hungry, pressed his hand against his stomach, to quiet the rumbling the scent of food had set off.

Char giggled, as she busied herself placing strips of boiled root and roasted peppers onto round, unleavened bread, and rolling them in. “No matter the race, young boys are always hungry. Here…” She handed one to each of them, and waited for them to taste it.

Having scoured her mind, and finding no malice, Jacob nodded to the boys. “Go ahead,” he said.

Tristan didn’t need to be told twice. “This is delicious,” he praised, around a mouthful of food. Too busy chewing to respond, Davad and Set bobbed their heads in agreement.

Char bounced on the balls of her feet at their praise. “I’m pleased you like it,” she said, turning towards her makeshift kitchen; “I’ll make up more for you to take with you.”

Once they’d had their fill, Jacob said: “We can’t thank you enough for your kindness, ma’am, but we should be moving on.”

At Jacob’s cue, the boys stood from the table and grabbed their packs, from where they had left them, beside the door.

Head tilted to the side, she asked: “Are you going to Catena Piscari too?”

Her question stilled them.

Settling the weight of his pack over his shoulder, it was Set who asked: “Have there been others?”

“The number of strangers travelling through our land is disturbing,” she confessed. “The first came through with a convoy of cages.” She dropped her eyes, but didn’t keep them averted.

“We were ashamed to see so many of our kind helping the likes of slavers, and it’s such a pity about the girls, but…” She held her dainty hands aloft, revealing three-inch nails they hadn’t noticed before; “I would have liked to have helped the girls, even if we couldn’t help the others, but we were forced to let them pass.”

Icy fingers of dread coursed through Jacob’s veins, as he asked: “Why?”

Grimacing, she replied: “There were simply too many.”

“And so you did nothing?” Davad growled.

A rhythmic clicking erupted in the back of Rupert’s throat, as he advanced on Davad.

Jacob stepped between the fera and his son, his hand falling to the hilt of his sword. “He means no disrespect,” he said, as his mind raced with the newly unlocked information churning inside of the feras’ minds. The tracks outside the northern gate had convinced him that slavers had taken his daughter, but the barrage of images pouring forth from Char and Rupert painted a more disturbing picture.

Laying a restraining hand on Rupert’s shoulder, she said: “As I’ve told you, there were others. My pack was divided – we lacked the number to intervene on their behalf.”

“We sent them in the wrong direction.” Rupert’s clicking grew excited, as his words raced together: “Three nox males looking for Triton – we trade with him. We sent them away. They wore the uniform of the Regia Aquam guard. Nox should know better than to hunt the pirate – he will hunt them when he finds out.”

“You seem like nice mortalis,” Char said, when Rupert ran out of breath, “though secrets you keep, I think. If your path carries you to the coast…” She asked: “..perhaps you could warn our friend, Triton?”

“I’m afraid I’m just a simple father trying to take care of his children,” the lie slipped from Jacob’s tongue with ease. “I’ve nothing in common with a pirate, but, if our paths should cross, I’ll give your warning.”

With a nod toward the door that got the boys moving, he said: “We really should be going.”

Char and Rupert followed them out into the cooler evening air. Giving Char a gentle hug, he whispered into her ear: “Your hospitality was much appreciated.”

Her palm thumped on his back in quick repetition, before she stepped away; her smile was endearing as she said farewell. “The suns will set several times before you reach the coast. Be safe.”

Turning to the aggressive fera, Jacob asked: “Would you care to travel with us, Rupert? I’m sure none know the way as well as you.”

The boys’ eyes widened at the unexpected invitation.

Pleased, Rupert replied: “You’re a good mortalis – we like you. But, I can’t go – I must stay: too many strangers come too close; have to stay.”

“I understand, Rupert,” Jacob said, offering his hand. “You take care of Char – she’s a good fera.”

Rupert unfurled himself out of the crouch he favored. Pulling back his shoulders – broadening the expanse of his chest to twice that of a mortalis – he shook the swordsman’s hand, careful not to nick his skin.

“Come,” Rupert said, “I’ll show you, but not all the way – just to the path.”

The fera possessed speed. As he turned to lead them, they could see the white tribal markings, running from the outside of his hips to the inside of each ankle, and were forced into a jog to keep pace.

They hadn’t travelled far when they came upon a path, one they could have passed within a few feet of, and yet never seen. Wooden wheels, booted feet, and clawed toes had trodden down the tall grass.

“You are here,” Rupert told them. “I leave you now.”

“We are in your debt,” Jacob said, but when he turned to shake Rupert’s hand again, the fera was already gone.

Seeing a clear path, Davad’s instinct was to run full out until he reached his sister. Jacob, who had read his son’s thoughts, used raw logic to quell the instinct.

“Some feras can sprint for miles without ever breaking their wind, and are as fast as a horse on the run – you won’t be able to catch them, Davad.”

“So, then we send Tristan,” Davad countered; “he’s fast enough.”

“There are too many,” Jacob told him; “I won’t risk Tristan becoming another of their prisoners.”

The weight of Jacob’s secrets pressed in on him. Yes, it was slavers that had Shashara, but they represented only a marginal threat. It was the danger posed by those leading the convoy that concerned him – he knew what they were, but he was not ready to tell the boys yet.

“Hey!” Tristan glared. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not standing here,” he said; “I think I should have a say.”

“Well, you don’t,” Jacob stated. Holding up his hand to silence Davad, he said: “There is nothing to discuss. We know where they’re headed, son – we’ll find her.”

As they started off in the direction of Catena Piscari, Set asked: “Does anyone else want to talk about Rupert?” He let his jaw drop for effect; “I mean, seriously, can you believe the size of that guy?”

“He’s huge!” Tristan said, opening his arms wide. “Though not as mean as he seems at first. I think he’s just really protective of Char.”

“Appearances can be deceiving,” Jacob chuckled. “I’ve met other feras like him before – their innocent facial features and docile behavior are forms of self-defence. Nice doesn’t always mean safe, and intimidating doesn’t always mean bad. Something to remember.”

Lengthening his stride, Davad fell into step beside his father; “So, why did you invite him to come?”

With a smirk, Jacob replied: “I’d rather him walk beside me than nip at my heels from here to Catena Piscari.”

“You think he would have chased us?” Set asked, his eyebrows crawling up his forehead.

“He and the four feras we didn’t see were looking forward to it,” Jacob informed them, “which is why I invited him along. They chased the ones looking for Triton clear to the foothills to the north. They’ll be a day behind us reaching the fishing port, unless they run themselves into the ground.”

“Are you going to tell Triton about the men?” Tristan asked.

“Knowledge is power, my boy. You don’t share it unless you have to. With Triton, there is always a catch – always a cost.” To himself, he added: “Perhaps this time I’ll be the one with the upper hand.”

Tristan grinned: “Meaning he’s always had it in the past?”

Jacob’s spine stiffened; “Shut up.”

Tristan chuckled, but let the topic drop.

They made camp that night in the open plain, beneath a sky dotted with the many colored moons of Superi. The twin moons – the ones which rivalled the suns in size – seemed close enough to touch. They used dried dung as fuel for a small fire and made a meal of bread and cheese, choosing to save what Char had packed for them.

Jacob hung a teapot from a metal tripod over the flames. As they waited with impatience for the water to boil, they anticipated the sweet taste of the honey Jacob had brought along – it was the one luxury he insisted on having during their travels.

Introspective, Davad’s gaze was captured by the wavering flames.

“Are you okay, son?”

Davad shook his head – lying was pointless when your father was a telepath: “Shashara’s been with them for two days, Dad. If the slavers are using feras to pull the cages, we’re never going to catch up in time – you’ve said so yourself, and Char said it as well: it will take us several days to reach the coast.”

He swallowed around the lump forming in his throat, as his eyes turned towards the invisible shore; “If you’re right, and they plan on taking her across the Nubilosus, they’ll have her there tomorrow… the next day tops.”

“I never thought we’d catch them, Davad,” Jacob said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m a mercenary – gaining enemies is a part of the job. We followed them to make sure it was, in fact, slavers who took her, and not someone looking for revenge against me. Now I know.”

“Ugh,” Set turned green, “I hadn’t even thought about that.”

Tristan turned ashen at how much worse the situation could be. “Me either,” he said. “Slavers are only interested in coin, but revenge extracts a higher price.”

Davad took a sip of his tea and scalded his tongue. Absent of conscious thought, he dipped a finger into the dark brew to withdraw some of its heat, as he stared across the fire at his father. “There’s something you’re not telling us,” Davad stated. “What is it, exactly, that you know?”

Tristan and Set went silent, as tension sprang up like a sudden storm.

Jacob forced himself to face the truth. Knowing ignorance could get them killed as easily as their fear, he steeled himself and then said: “Shashara is with slavers, but they are not alone – they are being led by men in black uniforms. The scarlet ropes around their waists… the letters I.A. stitched over their right chests…”

As tense as his father, Davad asked: “Who are they?”

Jacob’s visage hardened; “One slip in front of the wrong person, and they’d slit your throat for knowing what I’m about to tell you, do you understand?” He waited to hear their weak “yes, sir” before he continued: “The ones who have taken Shashara were once called ‘blood-seekers’ – now, they are called ‘bounty hunters’.”

“What are they?” Set asked, on the heels of Tristan’s confused: “‘Bounty hunters’?”

Jacob’s gut clenched. “They are mercenaries with a talent for seeking out people of interest,” he told them.

“You mean they hunt people?” Tristan said.

Jacob’s eyes glazed, as memory took him back. “Bounty hunters work for the Asylum in Imbellis – the locals call it ‘the white-stoned city’; the twin suns reflecting off of the stone make it ethereal.” He blinked several times to dispel unwanted images, as he focused on the boys. “But, beneath the surface, the city is foul, and the Asylum is its rotting heart.”

“How is it we’ve never heard of the place, and what race rules such a city?” Tristan asked.

Ignoring the first question, Jacob gave answer to the second: “Imbellis represents not one race, but all races. They’ve made it their job to maintain the peace on both continents, whether or not the regions want their help.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad – wanting to ensure peace after so many wars is a good thing.”

“It depends on whose idea of peace you want, Set,” Jacob replied. “There are lawyers within the Asylum who converge daily to discuss ways to enforce their definition of peace.” He paused, to make sure they were all listening. “They believe peace can only be achieved if the regions of Superi submit to a higher governing power. I believe peace comes when a man is free to govern himself, and when other men are free to govern those who act the fool.”

“What you’re saying makes no sense. What would a bunch of stuffy lawyers absorbed with politics want with Shashara?”

“Nothing, Davad,” he said, “but there are others within the Asylum who might.” He could feel their thirst for answers, but they weren’t yet prepared for the burden of that knowledge.

Consternation crinkled Set’s visage. “Wait,” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts; “if you’ve known from the start where they were taking her, why didn’t we hire a gate-maker to portal us to the Asylum?”

“I wasn’t certain until I saw it in Char’s mind,” Jacob told him. “But, it makes no difference…” Swallowing more pride than he had in ages, he said: “We haven’t the coin to pay a gate-maker, and, for truth, not even I would try to force one.”

“It always comes down to coin,” Davad said, “and there never seems to be enough of it.”

“Coin makes life easier – it makes the roads we travel smoother. But life is only truly lived when off the beaten path – the bumps and bruises along the way make us who we are.

“Time to turn in,” he told them, taking his own advice, and finding a flat spot of ground to lie down on. Tugging his cloak across his shoulders, he said: “It’s late”, then hoped sleep would find him.

An inundation of thoughts assaulted him instead. The days of the boys’ innocence had passed, and manhood was upon them. Angry and desperate, he cursed the Earthling god, who had cast the Discindo Pestis curse; by splitting the races, the god gave birth to the ambition which had created the bounty hunters, who had stolen his little girl. He cursed the rift-maker, Nathon Bealson, for his part in what had become of the people of Superi centuries ago – if the gateway had never been opened, the second curse – the Cruxen Clav – wouldn’t enfeeble his mind. Perhaps then he would have been able to find a way to save Shashara from the clutches of the tower without endangering them all. As things stood, only violence would set her free.

V

Unlikely Alliance

 

Shashara fought against unbidden tears, as fear threatened to devour her. A moan escaped her lips as the cage bounced over the rough terrain, sending new rivulets of pain through her battered body, courtesy of Stolace – one of three men in charge.

Gingerly, she touched her swollen bottom lip, fingering the split at the corner: a souvenir from Stolace’s fist. Wrapping an arm protectively around her injured side, she flopped around, in search of a comfortable position within the iron cage, as she thought over the events that had got her here.

At the forge, everything had happened so fast. She’d spent the morning working on an order of marlin-spikes, for Lortenson, a toolmaker with whom Martinson had a contract – he’d wanted a dozen ready to put to handle by the end of the day.

As evening had arrived, she had heard a female voice. Not many girls wanted to work a forge – not that she did, either – but she’d been excited at the prospect of female company, amongst so many males.

Though not insecure, she couldn’t help feeling a touch of envy at the new girl’s beauty – tiny, at five-feet-two, the curvaceous nox boasted caramel skin, almond-shaped green eyes and ridiculously silky, black hair, that fell like satin rain to her shoulders. Unaware that jealousy and her ignis ability had united against her, she’d stared as her fingertips sprouted tendrils of red-yellow flames. What on Superi had possessed her to dunk her hands into the water barrel was a mystery, but she’d done it, and the water had hissed its objection, drawing the girl’s attention. The veil of steam which wafted into the air had allowed her to break the awkward eye contact.

That was when a number of the city guard had filed through the open double doors at both ends of the shop. Three guards of peculiarly low rank had approached Martinson, while those of higher rank had secured the perimeter.

As it had turned out, they weren’t guards at all. They discarded their uniforms the moment they had passed the northern wall, exchanging them for black tunics that hung to mid-thigh, with the letters “I.A.” stitched in red over the right side of their chests. Scarlet braided ropes cinched their tunics at the waist, and their black breeches fitted neatly over their polished, black leather boots.

Jaydon, the fulgo in the threesome, was old enough to have silver streaks running through his roughly cropped black hair. Like Tristan, his skin was pale, and his irises were yellow, but that was where the similarities ended. The nox amongst them – Ronin – looked dirty; he wore his greasy, thin, brown hair tucked behind his double-pointed ears, which exaggerated his sharply angled nose and high cheekbones, creating a hollow beneath them that made him appear sinister. Unlike whip-cord thin Jaydon, Ronin’s sleeveless tunic revealed a body made of lean muscle, a portion of his mark peeking out at the neck of his tunic.

Shashara would rather die than admit that when she’d first seen Stolace, the last of the trio, she’d thought him handsome. A mortalis, he had blond hair and brown eyes, like her father. The dark blue elemental mark – resembling leaping flames – beautifully wrapped around the top of his right bicep, and trailed around behind his shoulder, before looping up the outside of his neck; the heavy muscles clinging to his hard frame had been a feast for her eyes. When he’d first glanced over, she’d blushed at the thoughts galloping through her mind. The need to vomit had since replaced that feeling.

She might never find out the words Martinson had said, but she remembered his wary visage as the three men had approached. His expression had changed from polite deference to fierce denial before her eyes.

A single action was responsible for triggering the events that landed her in this cage. Martinson had shoved Jaydon’s chest, knocking him away from the nox girl, as he’d barked an order for her to run. However, as the nox girl had pivoted to do so, Jaydon used his aer ability to yank her heels together – she’d gone down hard, with arms outstretched to break the fall.

As the other workers had run away from the unsavory scene, Shashara had run towards the fray – her Daddy hadn’t raised her to sit by and witness an injustice.

As the nox girl had flipped onto her back, a look of violent intent on her face, a water barrel had exploded. The spraying liquid was then funnelled into a stream, which the girl hardened during its flight towards Jaydon. Ronin had stepped in its path, and fire like she had never seen shot from his palms – the two elements had collided, producing boiling water and hissing steam. The sound of the nox girl’s screams as the burning liquid landed upon her had been horrific.

That’s when Ronin had reached down and grabbed the front of the nox girl’s shirt. Shashara had watched his fist rear back to strike.

No!” she had heard herself scream, as she’d sprinted to the girl’s defence. But, distracted, she never saw the slick of ice Stolace laid beneath her feet, until her back slammed against the dirt-packed floor. In a daze, she’d thought the sudden chill was from shock, but Stolace had encased her in his element.

She remembered him squatting down at her side, his face a blurred image behind her tears. She remembered his taunt as well: “What did you think you were going to do, little girl?” he’d asked her.

Pouring rage into her palm, she’d slapped him, hard. The stench of singed flesh had gagged her, as Stolace bellowed in pain. She watched his left hand cover the injury, as his right fist slammed into her cheek. Two blows – that’s what it had taken to break her. Two blows, and she’d pleaded for him to stop.

Then, Jaydon had the rusted iron boxes brought inside. There were two of them – rectangular in shape, each balanced on two long poles, meant for hoisting upon sturdy shoulders.

Ronin folded the nox girl in half, as if she’d lacked any bones, before he’d snapped the lid closed. Shashara didn’t fight Stolace when her turn came – instead, she’d curled into a ball and tried to force away the disappointment her father would feel for her cowardice. He would have never allowed himself to be taken – he would have died rather than submit. But she wasn’t as strong.

There had been no light inside the box, despite the tiny holes that ran around the perimeter of her prison; so little air made it through them that breathing became difficult. Fear of suffocation had brought on panic, and so she’d focused on the sound of her captors’ voices, to keep from going insane.

She’d heard Jaydon ask for a volunteer to help carry their haul to the northern gate – one of the city guards had jumped at the opportunity – then she had felt her box being lifted.

Nausea became her worst enemy, as the iron box swung to and fro with every step, and it hadn’t take long for the suns to turn her prison into an oven; sweat had poured out across her body, running into the open wounds on her face, and adding another level to her pain.

When at last the lid had opened, she’d gasped for fresh air, tasting a hint of salt from the oceanus. They were outside of the city, surrounded by the towering trees of Turris. She could recall looking up at the angry streaks of red, cutting through the orange haze of Superi’s sky, at the grey clouds, which promised rain.

The next image to be branded upon her mind had been the other cages. Staring at the prisoners, seeing her own fate in their faces, she’d wondered if she would be like those drowning in fear, or if she would find her courage and fight back; the consequences for doing so had been made evident by the blood and bruises on those who had tried.

When Stolace pulled her out of the box by the hair, she’d had her answer. As he dragged her across the ground, she’d refused to put her feet beneath her. Reaching above her head, she’d touched his exposed skin and heated her hands, hoping she didn’t catch her hair on fire as well.

Stolace responded with a vicious kick to her side, then he’d thrown open the door to one of the iron cages, and tossed her in like a rag doll.

Ferocious was the only word that had come to mind when Jaydon flipped open the box imprisoning the nox girl. She had been wide awake and seething; confusion struck when Jaydon grabbed at his own throat, his eyes sinking back into their sockets, as he was incapacitated and brought his knees. To break the connection between the nox girl and Jaydon, Ronin had shot flames from his hands, forcing her to duck, or burn.

“Water…” Jaydon had gasped; “I need… wa…” He had been unable to speak, as his tongue thickened and stuck to the roof of his mouth.

If she hadn’t witnessed the strength of the nox girl’s aquis ability with her own eyes, Shashara never would have believed it – only a level-three could pull the water straight from a person’s body, and even then only with intense training.

Ronin had stood over the girl, with his ignis ability at the ready, as one of more than a dozen feras scurried over, with a water-skin in hand. Jaydon had gulped it down, as though dying of thirst, and squeezing out every last drop, before demanding another. Then, once he’d regained his composure, he’d turned his wrath on the girl, lifting her out of the box with his aer ability. With a scream, she’d risen high into the air, then he’d slammed her onto the ground. The dry dirt had puffed out around her, accentuating her grunt of pain.

Time and again, Jaydon’s arm had reared back, and each time his arm had snapped forward, he brought to bear an invisible whip of air, to beat her with. Her green eyes had widened at the shock of the pain, and though she’d writhed to avoid the blows of the whip, wrenching screams had followed in the wake of her failure.

When it was over, the girl hadn’t been moving at all.

With lechery twisting his face, Stolace had torn at the fine cloth of her shirt, exposing the dark blue markings that ran from her shoulder to her elbow, like lightning bolts.

The girl had been unconscious, unable to defend herself, and so Shashara screamed: “Stop it!” But, from behind the iron bars of her cage she had been equally defenseless.

In a raspy voice, Jaydon was the one to stop Stolace’s advances. “We don’t have time for that,” he had said; “throw her in a cage.”

Stolace complied, though was not pleased by the order.

A set of wheels lined the back of each cage, and a horizontal bar beneath the front of it kept them level when stationary. With the order given to move out, feras slipped on the leather harness which attached one to each; their greater height ensured that the bar didn’t catch the ground as they started the wheels to rolling.

Though day had stretched into night, still they travelled. In utter darkness, only scattered beams of light from Superi’s two greater moons penetrated the dense canopy of the great trees. The light had shone onto Jaydon’s pale flesh – a beacon Shashara had focused upon, to avoid being swallowed by the waking nightmare, as she pretended it was Tristan she saw.

The travelling caravan of guards and prisoners had cleared the forest, just as thunderclouds moved in. She had hoped the rain would slow them down, and buy her father time to catch them up, but the feras brought out grease-lamps to attach to the front of the wagons, and they’d continued onward.

Ruts hidden by shadow had bounced her bottom painfully against the iron surface. Her long legs had begun to cramp, but she had no room to stretch them. When sleep had seductively called out to her in her misery, she had answered.

 

*

 

Shashara snapped herself awake. Time had passed her, unaware.

Her neck was stiff, and she ached all over; her tongue felt thick and gritty, her throat parched. Shielding her eyes, she checked the position of the suns: it was close to midday.

They were passing through a rolling plain, covered in tall, wheat-colored grass. The feras seemed restless – their eyes darted about, searching constantly for something which she couldn’t see.

Jaydon, Ronin, and Stolace were also edgy. Stolace held a cudgel firmly in his hand, while Jaydon walked with a lifted chin, defiantly refusing to appear concerned, yet casting furtive glances into the chest-high ground cover. Flinching with every light breeze that shifted the grass, Ronin appeared the most out of sorts, his knuckles white around the hilt of his rapier. This worried her – if he wrought fire here, they would all be dead.

His nose wrinkled in distaste, Jaydon barked at the lead fera: “Keep them moving! We can stop once we’re clear of these nests.”

Nests…

Shashara recalled a fulgo from Antro, who had used the term when speaking to a ship merchant at the docks, where she had gone to deliver wares from different forges to shopkeepers. The man had said that the feras of the Turris region were becoming more animalistic with each generation, and that if Imbellis didn’t do something soon, Antro would. He had called their crude dirt homes “nests”.

“Yes, sir,” the fera said, in something between a snarl and growl. With his reddish-orange fur standing on end, and his bushy tail swinging wide, he turned to obey. As he passed the cages, his nose lifted in arrogant superiority.

Shashara wasn’t the only prisoner to turn towards the sound of a husky feminine voice.

“I see you,” the nox girl said, but she wasn’t speaking to the fera guard.

“Hold!” Ronin said, as he saw the direction of the girl’s gaze. Drawing the convoy to a halt, he shouted: “Ready for defence!”

The cages slammed into the ground as, rattling their teeth, the feras slipped free of their harnesses. They reached for weapons – or bore their natural ones – as Jaydon, Ronin and Stolace clustered towards the middle of the line, their backs to one another.

“What did you see?” Stolace demanded. “Where was it?”

A smirk twisted the girl’s mouth, revealing a dimple in her right cheek. With a derisive arch of her thin, right brow, she asked: “Why would I help you?”

Jaydon broke rank and barreled down upon the girl’s cage. She never so much as flinched, until his arm snapped out – as the invisible whip of air wrapped around her slender throat, purple bruises appeared; her green eyes bulged as breath was denied her.

“Leave her alone!” Shashara screeched, her voice breaking. The guards’ laughter brought with it frustrated tears.

Panicked, the nox girl clawed at her neck, rending her tender flesh, as she tried in vain to dislodge the whip.

Anger broke Shashara’s self-control, and fire enveloped her hands and wrists. Stolace lifted his hands, drawing moisture from the air, and, chuckling, he doused her impotent flames, dumping cool water unceremoniously over her head.

Clenching her teeth to bite back the words screaming in her mind, she shoved her dripping hair away from her face and glared at the mortalis. He will pay, she vowed to herself, one way or another.

A strangled gasp drew her attention back to the girl, to see a dainty hand stretched towards her; she shivered, as the nox sucked the water from her clothes and hair, turning it into sharp blades of ice which flew out of the cage. A piece of it sliced into the side of Jaydon’s neck. As the noose loosened, the girl gasped for much-needed air. Her lips and skin regained their color, but the whites of her eyes remained bloodshot.

Clamping a hand to the side of his neck, Jaydon attempted to stem the flow of blood, as he growled at Ronin: “Cauterize this so we can get moving. She didn’t see anything.”

Ronin raised his hand, as he stopped in front of Jaydon. “You ready?” he asked; “Because this is going to hurt.”

“Just do it.”

“Okay,” Ronin said, and laid two fingers across the gash in Jaydon’s neck. The girl laughed as, unable to bear the pain, Jaydon passed out cold.

Ronin kicked the side of her cage; “Keep it up, little nox, and you’ll be dead before we arrive – he will kill you.” Lifting his head, he barked to the closest fera: “Put him in the back of a wagon. We’ve wasted enough time here.”

Shashara waited for Ronin and Stolace to walk out of earshot, then she turned to the nox and asked: “What did you see?”

The girl placed a finger over her lips and indicated with her eyes where to look: following apace the convoy, his long fur blending into the wheat-colored grass, was a fera. The grey eyes peering back at them were so sad that they brought a rush of tears to the surface; Shashara fought them back, but once they spilled over she couldn’t stop the downpour – sobs wrenched their way free, shaking her whole body.

The day gave way to night, and still she cried.

 

*

 

At dawn, the convoy stopped.

The captives were taken out, one at a time. They were given no privacy to relieve themselves, and only a moment to stretch their limbs, before being shoved back into their cages. They were given a piece of bread, a small chunk of cheese and a strip of salted meat, with a few sips of water to wash it down when they were finished. The nox girl was the exception: she was offered nothing.

Shashara glanced down at the food in her hand. She wasn’t fool enough to starve because of the other girl’s hunger, but neither would she take more than was necessary to survive in the face of it. So, when the guards weren’t looking, she tucked the strip of meat into the front pocket of the apron she’d worn since arriving at the forge, the morning before.

The rest of the day hobbled by without event. Boredom wore on them – it offered far too much time to think.

 

*

 

As night fell again, the meadow of tall grass opened into a clear field, which was dotted with sparse cropping of trees. At last, Jaydon, called a halt to their day.

The feras rolled their cages into three rows, which ran four deep, and slid the harnesses off of their shoulders. Dropping them to the ground, they scattered to set up camp.

With terror no longer foremost in her mind, Shashara took note of the composition of the group: twenty were feras, with more than half of them bearing markings; of the twelve captives, three were mortalis – including herself – five were fulgo and four were nox. She wondered why no feras had been captured.

The eerie yellow lights of the grease-lamps went out, one by one, to be replaced by small campfires. The flames hissed with the dripping of rich juices, from hare and grouse caught along the way. The guards laughed when the stomachs of their captives growled in jealous protest.

“Here,” Shashara said quietly, sliding the strip of meat through the bars, grateful that the nox girl’s cage had been placed directly beside her own.

“Thank you,” the girl replied, reaching for the proffered food with a hesitant hand.

“Eat slowly,” Shashara cautioned, “or you’ll get sick.” A hint of a smile curved the corners of her mouth – she was constantly telling Tristan the same thing; he would consume three times the amount of food as her father, and still leave the table to check the kitchen for sweets, oftentimes earning a stomach-ache for his gluttony.

With her eyes straining through the darkness, the nox girl said: “I’m Anliac Aquam, from Palus Regia.” When her name brought no great response from the other girl, she relaxed.

“I’m Shashara Jacobs.” With a shrug, Shashara added: “You know where I’m from.”

Tipping her head back, Anliac opened her mouth and drank the moisture she pulled from the air. Between bites of food, she studied Shashara; “You tried to help me back at the forge.”

“Yeah,” Shashara rolled her eyes, “for all the good that did.”

Anliac shook her head: “The others ran, but you and Martinson… you both tried to help. Where I’m from, Shashara, that kind of loyalty is returned.”

Heat suffused Shashara’s cheeks, which made her grateful for the dim light, as Anliac’s praise heightened her shame for not having fought harder.

Anliac spoke as if she owned half the world, as if she had chosen to be in a cage, rather than been forced into it – so calm and collected, it left Shashara to feel childish and insecure.

“Do you have family, Anliac?”

Anliac’s chin jutted forward haughtily, but a world of hurt lay beyond her words, that not even the night could hide: “If you’re asking if anyone will be coming to rescue me, the answer is no. I choose to walk alone,” she said, and then she looked away.

The other captives whispered amongst themselves, as their captors settled for the night. Jaydon and Stolace slept soundly beside their fire, while Ronin sat on a wagon, sharpening his rapier. A number of feras – those chosen to keep first watch – started a game of stones; they stopped every few moments to turn the spits hanging over the fires, while the remaining guards drifted off to sleep.

“What about you, Shashara? Are you looking to be rescued?”

“I hope to rescue myself,” she admitted, “but I have family that will come for me. When they reach us,” Shashara said, “I won’t leave you behind.”

Swallowing the last of the salted meat, Anliac peered through the bars at Shashara, and nodded. “Then, we live or die together,” she said; “that will be the vow betwixt us.”

“Agreed,” Shashara replied, feeling less alone.

“Reach your fingers through the bars,” Anliac told her; “I can heal your wounds, but I have to touch you.”

Shashara scanned the shadowed bruises around Anliac’s neck. “Can you do the same for yourself?”

“No.”

“Then save your strength.” She sneered in the direction of the feras; “Chances are, if they see me with no wounds, they’ll only add new ones.”

“Alright.” Anliac told her: “To be honest, I’m tired, and healing takes a lot out of me.”

“Then, sleep,” Shashara told her.

Anliac glanced around at the surrounding men; “I’m afraid.”

Shashara understood. Beauty like Anliac’s would come at a price: the ogling stares would have scared her, too. “We’ll take turns watching,” she said; “I’ll go first – if any of those idiots comes too close, I’ll wake you.”

A moment of weakness overcame the stoic nox, and a small tear escaped. “Agreed,” Anliac said, after regaining control of her emotions. Curling up, she used her arm for a pillow, and soon fell asleep.

“Thank you for helping the girl.”

Shashara turned in her cage, towards the handsome nox, a decade or so older than herself, that had spoken softly, from the cage behind her.

Cocking her head to the side, she said: “I figure we have to help each other, if we’re going to find a way out of this mess.”

“I tried to stop this from happening,” he said, more to himself than to Shashara, as his eyes fixed on Anliac.

“Wait… do you know her?”

The nox nodded, but didn’t offer details; “My name is Malic.”

“I’m Shashara.”

“Stop talking,” a guard growled, from over by the fire, “or I’ll gag you both.”

She winced – she had seen the dirty rags the guards shoved into the mouths of other prisoners, and she wanted no part of it.

The nox, undeterred by the threat, scowled. Shashara shook her head, to keep Malic from making matters worse, and exhaled a sigh when he quietened.

The silence that followed betrayed her – despite her struggle to stay awake and guard her new friend, she nodded off.

 

*

 

An angry ranting woke the girls the following morning.

Jaydon held a fera guard by the front of his shirt, shaking him; “Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” the guard said, keeping a tight rein on his temper; “it didn’t happen on my watch.”

Jaydon cursed, and shoved the fera backwards.

“The bars of his cage have been melted through,” the guard explained, straightening his shirt. “No one saw him leave.”

“He could have half a night’s gain on us, Jaydon, in any direction,” Stolace said. “What do you want us to do? Do we search for him?”

“No,” Jaydon told him, “let him go. It would have been a nice bonus to be able to deliver two level-threes, but he was of no importance beyond that. I don’t want to waste the time hunting him down.”

The look exchanged between the girls said that they were both thinking the same thing: if one of them had managed to escape, then it was possible for them to escape as well.

Of course, Anliac had another reason for finding hope in the man’s disappearance: she’d recognized him from her home. Malic was an apprentice to her house’s master blacksmith. If he could make it back to Palus Regia, he might be able to find help.

If her father even cared…

There were so many ifs.

When she’d fled in the middle of the night, it had been in fear that her father had played a role in betraying her. But, perhaps he had not. If he discovered Inabeth’s actions against her, perhaps her father would try to save her.

It was a slim hope, and she hated herself for grabbing hold of it.

VI

Crossing the Oceanus

 

The escape did little to slow their progress. The captives were given a short time to relieve themselves, then they broke camp, leaving the refuse of their stay behind.

Shashara was glad for it: her father might see the discarded bones of the feras’ meal, and the cold campfires.

“We’ve made excellent time,” Jaydon said, as he and his two companions walked alongside the convoy of cages. “If anyone is following from Exterius Antro, they’ll be too late to stop us: we’ll be on board the ship before dawn.”

“The transporters are complaining about the pace,” Ronin reported; “we should stop tonight, instead of pushing through to Catena Piscari.”

“No, Ronin – Jaydon’s right,” Stolace said: “the girl is a level-three; the nox who escaped may not be important, but we can’t risk the girl escaping as well. The sooner we have her on board and locked down tight, the sooner we can relax.”

“Boarding a ship at night isn’t a good call when your cargo is an aquis wielder with considerable strength,” Ronin said, with a glare.

“Then push the feras harder, Ronin, and get us there before dark,” Jaydon countered, as if speaking to an imbecile.

When Ronin caught Anliac and Shashara hanging on their words, he taunted them; smiling, he asked: “Which do you think Malstar wants – the mortalis or the nox?”

“We can always separate them and find out,” Stolace told them, “but I don’t see that it matters: we’ll get paid for both.”

Shashara wondered which one of them was there by mistake – on the one hand, they had come to the forge where she was working, on the other, they had gone for Anliac first, only attacking Shashara when she had interfered.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shashara said, aloud. Turning towards Anliac, she added: “It’s me and you now, remember?”

Anliac, her spine stiff, agreed, as she glared daggers at the slavers who tugged the threads of her fate.

Shashara wanted to be as brave as Anliac, but learning that they would be sent across the Nubilosus Oceanus made it hard. So many questions filled her mind. Who was Malstar, and what did he want with all these people? What was going to become of her if her father failed to track her to the coast? What if she wasn’t strong enough to save herself?

They arrived at Catena Piscari before the suns had set. A shallow forest of trees, cleared of underbrush, blocked their line of sight to the coast, but the scent of salt and brine indicated their proximity. West of the tree line, they entered the predominantly mortalis fishing village.

There were only two buildings – one to either side of a wide dirt road, beaten down by the passage of feet and wagon wheels that led to the docks: a trading post and a two-storey inn, which had seen better days.

The faded yellow paint on the inn’s exterior walls was cracked and peeling, boding ill of what the inside would look like. Several cords of wood were stacked halfway along the western outer wall. Beyond those were large sacks of sand, intended as a meagre measure of defence, should the oceanus flood the coast.

From inside came the boisterous sounds of sailors taking advantage of a layover; a round of raucous laughter accompanied a feminine squeal of protest. Anliac had her ears covered, to drown out the offensive off-pitch tune pouring out of the swinging double doors. The noise of the village was a lullaby, in comparison to the racket at the dock.

Sitting in an uneven row at the dock’s edge, eight buildings of varying sizes, all in need of repair, held the wares sailors would need to restock for the next leg of their journey.

There were two ships at port. They were docked at the end of long chutes which jutted into the water, assuring the deeper drafted vessels wouldn’t drag keel. Shashara didn’t know much about sea life, but she had seen enough ships in her time in Exterius Antro to know that both were impressive.

On the main deck of the smaller ship, called a “schooner”, stood a muscle-bound man, dressed in black leather – the white, long-sleeved shirt, beneath his V-cut vest, was the only exception to this. His long, black hair whipped in the wind, as he rested his hands on his hips, and watched their progress.

Feeling his eyes on her, Anliac reached up with one hand to clasp the ruined material of her blouse together, as best she could. Grinning at her distress, he stood up straighter, and strained for a better glimpse through the failing light. He watched them until the other ship blocked his view.

Disgusting, Shashara thought, as the feras rolled their cages across the dock, and down the long chute which led to the larger ship. Shame suffused her cheeks with heat, as she shrank.

Anliac grew pensive as the dark-skinned stranger from the schooner passed them by. From this close, his massive size was intimidating; it was obvious he was a nox, and his confident demeanor marked him as one used to being obeyed.

They forgot all about the man, however, as the captives were hauled, one by one, from their cages, to be shackled and blindfolded. “Take them to the bilge,” Jaydon said to his men, as the dark-skinned stranger called him to a stop.

No! Shashara didn’t know much, but she knew the bilge would be dank, musty, and full of rats and darkness – she couldn’t be locked down there! Her breathing grew erratic, and she felt the cage close in around her. Wrapping her fingers around two of the iron bars, she pushed her ability to its limit.

The iron melted and ran down the underside of her forearms, to drip onto her thighs. It burned through her breeches, to the flesh beneath; she screamed to release the pain, but refused to let go – she refused to give up.

“Pathetic,” Stolace scoffed, at her pitiful display of rebellion. With a body of water at his disposal, dousing her efforts was the work of a moment – a flick of his wrist had the oceanus heeding his call.

Her hands, now entombed in chunks of ice, dropped heavily to the bottom of the cage. She melted through it, but Stolace had made his point. His words at the forge echoed through her mind: “What did you think you were going to do, little girl?” What, indeed?

“No one is coming to save you, Shashara,” Anliac said. “We have to stay alive long enough to save ourselves.”

Unable to deny the truth of Anliac’s words, Shashara collapsed into tears. She knew her father was searching, but he was too late to save her.

A scrawny fera, covered in feathers, opened the door to Anliac’s cage, his orange beak letting out a squawk of amusement at their distress. He yanked her out by the arm, and said: “No one escapes from the Imbellis Asylum.”

Striking out with her right foot, Anliac snapped the fera’s left knee at its knobby joint. The ship rocked on its keel, as the oceanus rose to meet her demands; a sharp spike of water, flying over the gunwale, pierced his back and relieved his agony; he tumbled forward, dead before his body hit the planks. The guards bellowed a warning, as Anliac released a barrage of ice missiles. Three more men went down.

A torrent of rain from the cloudless sky froze, trapping two of the guards in their tracks. Anliac lifted free a dagger from a third guard’s sheath, before burying the blade into its owner’s chest.

Sensing an attack from behind, she pivoted on the balls of her feet to meet it, but was knocked out cold by Ronin, who clubbed her over the head. A sticky trail of fresh blood seeped from a wound just inside the hairline, at her temple.

“Hold!” the dark-skinned stranger commanded; “I want the girl!”

Panic seized Shashara at the prospect of being separated from Anliac, but she was powerless to intervene.

With Anliac incapacitated, the guards resumed their task, and members of the crew removed the dead bodies left in the wake of her unexpected attack. Stolace yanked Shashara’s cage open, pulling her out by the hair, and snapped iron shackles around her wrists and ankles; the cold metal bit painfully into her skin. Blindfolded, like the others, she was caught off-guard when her feet left the deck, the air whooshing from her lungs, as her stomach folded over Stolace’s hard shoulder. The stranger’s voice, haggling for Anliac, was the last she heard, before being taken into the bilge with the other captives.

Down in the dark, the men railed against their restraints, banging uselessly against their cages. As she was tossed in one of her own, she heard movement coming from below her, and then again from her left side; the cages were stacked and mounted to the hull of the ship, to keep them stable during transport.

Her chest tightened. Superi help her – she was on a slave ship. The fera was right: there would be no escape.

The youngest of the captives – a mortalis about Set’s age – let loose his sorrow. His tears tore at her heart. She wanted, so badly, to offer him comfort, but there was none to be had. As the men continued to struggle, the women grew quiet, until only the sound of soft sobs revealed their presence.

Her sobs joined theirs, as she waited to discover Anliac’s fate. She wasn’t forced to wait for long.

“Shashara?”

“Anliac!” Shashara turned towards the sound of her friend’s voice. “Oh,” she sagged against the bars of her cage, “I thought I’d lost you.”

Metal clanked, as the cage to her right was opened, and she heard Anliac grunt, hitting her head against the iron, before the door was slammed closed. There was a finality to the sound of its latch falling into place.

“Are you okay,” Shashara asked. “What happened?”

“Filthy nox!” Anliac replied. “He’s old enough to be my father.”

Knowing the opportunity had passed, Shashara said: “It might have been better to go with him, Anliac. In truth…” she paused “..I would have been terrified to go on alone, but… over the water – without the slavers or fera guards – you might have escaped.”

“We escape together or not at all, remember? Besides,” Anliac told her, “Jaydon said we belong to Malstar now.”

A cold chill swept through Shashara; “I wonder who he is.”

Anliac’s response did nothing to ease her fears: “We’ll find out soon enough, I’m afraid.”

A deep, rumbling laugh warned them that they were not alone. Falling silent, the prisoners surrendered to their fate.

VII

The Weight of Guilt

 

Knowing his secrets had placed a divide between him and the boys, Jacob continued to hold his own council. The anger they felt pained him, but there was no help for it. During the day the boys walked side by side, but at night they succumbed to the doubts and fears that plagued them, and sought solitude.

Davad had dug small holes into the hard ground. Clenching the iron ore he’d brought with him from Exterius Antro, he had melted it into the holes, then, removing the small, irregularly shaped balls the moulds had formed, he’d perfected their shape and placed them in his pocket. Each night thereafter, Davad caressed them as a soldier would his blade.

Jacob was aware of what his son intended. He knew the nativity of it, but he was loath to take this measure of comfort from the boy, so he allowed the ritual to continue. Of the three, his worry for Davad paled in comparison to his concern over the brothers.

Having scratched the surface of what he was, Set had reached a crossroads. Physically inferior, he struggled to find his place amongst them, even as he fought the temptation to use his ability to secure it. Full of self-doubt, he fought the war raging in his mind, alone. Jacob and Davad had borne witness the first time Tristan had offered a portion of his physical abilities to his brother. The disruption to his psyche had been the catalyst of change in Set, and the tear had grown with each subsequent offering, until the day arrived when Set had refused. He’d chosen to suffer in silence the arduous trek that would lead them to Shashara, and Jacob was glad for it, as Set gained weight enough to flesh out his skinny frame. His muscles adapted, and though Set could not see it, it was his own increasing strength and stamina that gave him the will to resist the pull to take from his brother.

Tristan, his emotions raw, had begun to question everything again. What was he? Why was he different? What had made him this way? Jacob had the answers, but feared they would destroy him. He’d kept his promise until now – he’d protected Beth and Matthew’s son for as long as he could, but soon the truth would be revealed; these questions are not new – they repeat in cycle.

The night Shashara had been taken, Jacob had sensed Tristan’s trepidation about leaving Exterius Antro. Tristan’s differences had stood out less in a city amongst fulgo – it had offered him a taste of what it meant to be normal. But out in the world, his mother’s words reverberated in his head, until her voice was all he heard. Long before the age of comprehension, Beth had cautioned him to cover his hands and feet, to wear his hair long, and to never share his secrets with another. She’d been killed before he could ask her why, but the ridicule he had faced so far had been reason enough to heed her warning. Shame had kept him silent… but not for much longer.

“We’ll reach Catena Piscari late evening tomorrow,” Jacob said, after making camp for the night. A momentary pause syncopated each of the boys’ movements, as they regarded the man who, until now, had refused to tell them anything beyond what they already knew. “With any luck,” he continued, “Triton will be on his ship or at the tavern. Every port has at least one.”

Juggling a hot piece of grouse that Davad tossed him, from off of the spit over the fire, Set asked: “What if he’s not there?”

“If need be,” Jacob answered, “we’ll check into the inn and wait.”

Davad’s hands trembled with an anger he couldn’t seem to douse. “If we know where they’re taking her, I say we take the first ship we can find passage on.”

Jacob scowled; “You think passage across the Nubilosus will be cheap? You believe that every ship would be safe?” He shook his head: “Consider the number of water wars, son, with that of land-bound wars, and use your head. If we had money we would just portal across.”

Davad glared at the reprimand.

Jacob didn’t care. There were other reasons they had to find Triton, beyond price or safety. His gaze flickered to Tristan, before settling on Davad again. “I know Triton,” he said; “scoundrel that he may be, still, I’d trust him a hundred times over before I trusted a ship to sea with a captain I don’t know.”

Sitting across the fire from Jacob, Tristan pulled up his knees and wrapped his arms around his shins. Guilt dropped his forehead forward – Davad was catching the rough side of Jacob’s tongue and it was his fault. He didn’t have the courage to say it straight – apparently, neither did Jacob. Sailors were a superstitious sort, and he was an oddity – there was a good chance they weren’t going to find a captain willing to let him on board. Jacob was counting on a past acquaintanceship with Triton to gain them passage, but it was a long shot. Without raising his head, and knowing Jacob would hear, Tristan thought: If Triton won’t let me board, leave me behind.

The unspoken words drew Jacob’s stare. They’d sounded so much like those of Matthew, that he had needed a visual image to know that they had been from the son, and not the father. Selflessness was a terrible quality in a mercenary, but in a friend and an ally, it was priceless. As he pushed his reply into Tristan’s mind, he had never meant anything more empathetically: I would no sooner leave you behind than I’d leave Shashara in Imbellis.

The silent exchange fuelled Davad’s ire: “Don’t you think you’ve kept enough secrets, Dad? Or have you decided that only Tristan is worthy of hearing them?”

“You’ve no idea the secrets I keep, son, and if Superi had gods, I would pray to take them with me to my grave.” Lifting the hood of his cloak, he lay down, tugging the material over his shoulder. “Cover the fire and bury the bones when you’re through,” he ordered, “and then get some sleep.”

“Gods? What are gods?” Set asked, as they did as Jacob had bidden.

Tristan shrugged: “You’ll have to ask Jacob.”

“Don’t bother.” Punching his pack to settle the lumps, Davad used it as a pillow and laid down. “It’s not like he’d tell you, anyway,” he said. Turning his back, he fell asleep, listening to the hushed words spoken between the brothers.

 

*

 

He woke with a start.

Rubbing his eyes, he thought perhaps he was dreaming, as Set sailed over the cold fire, to land in a crumpled heap, within a thicket of briars at the perimeter of their camp. Tristan was on his feet, his chest heaving, and his eyes glowing far too fiercely for this early in the morning.

“What is it, Set?” Tristan asked. “Is the offer of my abilities not enough? You’d still rather steal it from me in my sleep?” When Set did not reply, Tristan snarled: “Answer me, you coward!”

Pulling his torso off of the ground, Jacob rolled his head around to loosen the stiff muscles, and said: “Calm yourself, Tristan.” To Set, he asked: “How badly are you hurt?”

Fear doused Tristan’s anger. No one saw him move around the fire, as adrenaline fuelled his blurring speed. Reaching into the briars, he grabbed Set’s arm,yanking him free with too much vigor; Set bellowed, as he was cast into the air, tethered only by his brother’s hold.

Grounding him, Tristan asked: “Where are you hurt?”

“Let go of me!” Shoving against Tristan’s chest, Set turned to walk away.

When Tristan saw the tear in Set’s blue shirt – the material turning black, as it absorbed his blood – nausea rolled his stomach. “You are hurt,” he stated, starting forward; “let me see.”

“I’m fine.” Yanking his shirt off over his head, Set tossed it to the ground beside his pack.

The four tapered, thumb-width lines that ran from the back of his right shoulder to his left hip were old wounds, but the memory of their making was fresh in Tristan’s mind. He closed his eyes at the bloody new gash slashing the old scars in two, as guilt washed over him. “Ah, Set…” he paused, at a loss for words, “..I’m sorry.”

“Whatever, Tristan,” Set said, without turning. “It’s not the first time you’ve stabbed me in the back.”

Set’s words hit Tristan hard. His brother had only been three years old the first time he had lost his temper; so many years had passed that he wasn’t sure what Set had done to make him so angry – he remembered Set turning his back on him, and remembered reaching a hand out to snatch him back. He hadn’t been wearing his gloves, like his Mom always told him to, and his sharp nails had ripped his brother’s skin open. Now, he had scarred Set again, and, like before, his anger was to blame.

“Brother,” Tristan pleaded, “look at me.” As Set glared over his shoulder, he added: “I’m so sorry.”

As Set pulled a clean shirt from his pack, before he could slide it over his head, Jacob said: “Set, we’re going to have to close that gash, son.”

Set paled, as his blood ran cold.

Walking over, Jacob told him: “You have two choices: I can sew it, or Davad can cauterize it.”

Tristan cursed, looked at Set, and then cursed again. Unable to bear the combination of fear and anger warping Set’s face, he walked away.

“I’m not burning Set,” Davad said, his hands held aloft, as though fending off an attack.

Jacob ran his hands through his hair. “It won’t be pleasant,” he said, “but stitching it will take time we don’t have.”

“How long?” Set asked, his voice weak.

There was no help for the truth, so Jacob answered: “That depends on how long it takes you to pass out.”

“Great… That’s just great,” Set said, glaring at Tristan’s retreating back. He paced in a tight circle, his hands clenched into fists, as he struggled to find his courage.

“Davad,” he said, “do it. But when it’s over, I’m going to drain every ounce of strength my brother has… and then I’m going to beat him with it.”

The distance Tristan had placed between them wasn’t enough – with his superior hearing he had caught every word. “So be it,” Tristan said, under his breath – it was no more than he deserved, for having lost his temper again.

Set never got his chance for revenge. He fainted cold at the first touch of Davad’s power.

Davad turned away, vomiting in violent heaves, as the scent of burning flesh assaulted him.

Jacob handed Davad a water-skin. “You did well, son.”

As Davad took it, rinsing his mouth, before gulping down more, Jacob squatted to rummage through their pack of medicinal supplies. With Davad’s help, they covered Set’s burn with a cooling gel, which had been extracted from a plant, and then they wrapped a length of cloth around his middle, before sliding a shirt over his head.

Davad could feel his father watching him, but he kept his eyes on Set. “Burning flesh is nothing like heating metal.”

“I know,” Jacob said.

“Is he going to be okay?”

“Set will be fine,” Jacob assured him, as he stood, his knees cracking with age. “He should heal quickly after he pulls from Tristan again.”

“I wasn’t asking about Set,” Davad told him: “I’m worried about Tristan.”

Jacob sighed, as he looked over his shoulder – Tristan was pacing, with shoulders hunched, as guilt folded him in on himself.

“I’ll go talk to him.” Glancing down at the unconscious boy, Jacob added: “Try and get Set on his feet”, as he walked away.

“Yes, sir.”

Tristan’s brow was furrowed deeply, as Jacob approached. “You don’t have to blast me out, Jacob – I feel bad enough already.”

“I didn’t walk over here to reprimand you,” Jacob said; “I wanted you to know that you did well.”

Tristan turned angry eyes at the man he’d looked to as a father, after his own had been killed. “How can you say that? I hurt him! I’m always hurting him.”

Jacob knew something about regret and how it weighed on a man. He also knew that to move forward a man had to let his past go. “You were six, Tristan – Set doesn’t even remember it happening. Besides, siblings fight, and you’ve spent the last decade making up for it.”

I remember.” Tristan pounded a closed fist against his chest. “And now look what I’ve done.” He glared when Jacob chuckled.

“Yes, well,” Jacob told him, “I would recommend controlling your strength a touch more next time. But, Tristan…” – Jacob stepped in front of him to stop his pacing – “..you’re learning to sense Set’s ability – you were able to stop him from a dead sleep. Yes, he got hurt, but that was a lesson Set needed to learn.” Laying his hands atop the boy’s shoulders, he said: “You did nothing wrong.”

Set, awake and livid, narrowed his glacier blue eyes on the two of them; “What lesson would that be?”

Jacob considered the boy, before responding: “You can drain any ability you want, Set, but you have to be strong enough to take it. Tristan isn’t responsible for you getting hurt – you are: you chose to sneak up on him, you chose to take what he would have offered freely, and now you’re suffering the consequences. Don’t waste energy blaming Tristan – instead, work on your stealth.”

Before Set could let loose his temper, Davad handed him a pack, and then threw Tristan’s hard into his chest.

Catching it, Tristan cocked his head to the side, and asked: “I get Set’s issue, but what’s your problem?”

Davad pointed his arm, like an arrow, in the direction of Catena Piscari: “Have you both forgotten why we’re out here? They have Shashara, Tristan, and the longer we stand here, the further ahead they get!”

“Hey,” Tristan retorted, “I didn’t ask him to drain me, Davad.”

“You’re right,” Davad said: “you didn’t.” His brown eyes cut into Set deeper than Tristan’s claws. Guilt turned Set’s head away.

With anger powering his stride, Davad stalked off in the direction they’d been travelling for days, leaving the others to follow or stay – he was beyond caring.

“He’s right, Set.” Holding out his hand, Tristan said: “You’ll heal faster if you pull from me.”

Clasping Tristan’s forearm in a vice-like grip, he said: “You owe me.” Then, he pulled from his brother’s abilities with a vengeance; “I hope this hurts.”

It did, but Tristan gritted his teeth through the pain, and allowed Set to make his point. A sharp ringing began to blare in his ears; his ribs became a cage, which trapped his lungs and prevented him from drawing breath; his heart-beat, which had been racing before, stuttered, threatening to fail him, as he fell to his knees. The pressure behind his eyes made them bulge in their sockets.

Something was different; something was wrong – it had never hurt this much before. True fear seized him when he tried to break away, only to discover that Set was too strong.

Long, sinuous lines of golden light flared to life on Set’s body – ones Jacob had never seen; ones that didn’t belong to the epoto.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jacob said, as he swung an arm across Set’s chest to knock him backwards. With the connection broken, he sighed in relief as the golden marks faded and disappeared – proof that he had acted in time. On the heels of his fear came anger.

“Do you have any idea how much pain someone feels when you drain them, Set?” Jacob asked. “Your lack of control…” He swallowed back his rebuke, knowing that knowledge in the hands of the ignorant was dangerous.

Jacob’s voice was a buzz in Set’s head, as he blinked to clear his hazed vision. His body was flooded with so much power that it trembled – he felt invincible. Staring down at his collapsed brother, he revelled in it.

Tristan’s hands dropped to the ground. With his elbows locked to support his upper body, his head fell forward. The horrible hollow in his chest – the one that always appeared after Set pulled from his abilities – returned, deeper than ever before. As if from a distance, he heard Jacob tear into Set again.

“He kicked you into some bushes – so what?” Jacob snarled. “You rip away from someone’s power and then act as if you had the right – as if there aren’t consequences? You’ll heal, thanks to him – you’ll get stronger, but look what you’ve done to your brother.”

Moving as though he’d aged forty years, Tristan forced himself to his feet, wincing as his joints and muscles complained. “I’m fine,” he lied, swallowing back the nausea that rolled over him, turning his alabaster skin grey.

The first time he had scarred Set, he had been too young to know about his abilities, or that they could speed up the healing process in an epoto. He had sat beside Set for days, waiting on their parents to return with an aquis wielder, who could heal the boy – it had been the longest three days of his life, Set crying and burning with fever. There had been nothing he could do to stop his brother’s pain then, but this time he’d fixed it, although the scar would remain.

Yanking his pack from the ground, Set slung its strap over his shoulder. Looking from Jacob to Tristan, he said: “Don’t bother waiting on an apology.” He took off in the direction Davad had gone.

Jacob hung back to keep an eye on Tristan, as he picked up his packs. “Are you alright, boy?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Tristan told him, as he started forward.

“No, you’re not,” Jacob said, “but you will be.”

After a moment, Jacob told him: “Thanks to your father, I have some experience in dealing with an epoto. It’s not easy being on the draining end.”

“Did my Dad pull you from you often,” Tristan asked.

“Often enough,” Jacob replied. “Your brother…” he paused; “..he’s becoming more and more dangerous by the day. He needs training, but Matthew was the only other epoto I’ve known.”

“There’s nothing you learned from our Dad that can help him?” Tristan asked, already knowing the answer.

“Matthew was trained long before we met,” Jacob said; “he didn’t have to think about how to use his ability, and when he was wielding it, I was usually occupied with wielding my own.”

“I might not be a telepath, Jacob,” Tristan said, “but I know there’s something you’re not telling me.”

“You want the truth?” Jacob took a deep breath, and let it out slowly before continuing: “If I could help him, I would, because he nearly killed you this time.”

With Jacob’s words hanging between them, the time it took them to reach the coast was multiplied by Tristan’s waning energy. The suns’ heat was a constant drain, but the animosity between him and Set was an even greater one – the longer Tristan dwelt on the morning’s events, the more his own anger mounted.

Falling into step beside Tristan, as Set and his father moved ahead, Davad questioned the fury resting on Tristan’s face: “Do you want to talk about it?”

“You know,” Tristan said, “I realize Set has a reason to be angry, but so do I – he took things too far this time.”

“How so?”’

“He almost killed me, Davad,” Tristan told him, causing the other boy’s steps to falter. “Perhaps that wasn’t his intention, but that doesn’t change the facts.” When he swayed on his feet, Davad steadied him.

“Hold on Tristan,” he said; “we’re almost there.”

It was true. The promise of shade lay just ahead, as the trees near the coast appeared across the plains.

With a nod, Tristan stumbled onward. The smell of salt-water and sea life wafting on the breeze renewed his longing for Exterius Antro, but, more than that, he longed to rest. They had travelled less than fifty feet into the shade, when Jacob called them to a halt.

Tristan dropped to his haunches, and stared in the direction of the oceanus – he could see its grey waters, through a break in the trees. Stretching his long legs straight, he leaned against the trunk of a tree and closed his eyes. He could hear many voices, and heavy footsteps, coming from the docks.

Settling himself in the shade of a different tree, Jacob said: “We’ll rest here until the suns have gone down.”

With the pain in his back gone, and only a scar to remind him of the morning’s events, Set had too much energy to rest. He shimmied onto the boughs of one of the trees, to get a bird’s-eye view, and pointed directly behind Tristan: “There are a couple of buildings just over there.”

“That’s Catena Piscari,” Jacob informed him, without having to look.

“Seriously?” Set asked; “That’s all there is to it?” After Exterius Antro, the fishing village was but a blip in a traveller’s journey. “There are more buildings down by the docks – seven or eight, it looks like. There are several boats down there, and two ships; Jacob,” he said, “one of them looks like a warship.”

“Then it has nothing to do with us. Let’s just hope the other one belongs to Triton,” Jacob said, as he peered at Tristan, and sighed.

He was glad for the snores rattling the young man’s body, and he hoped the short reprieve would be enough to recharge his abilities – chances were good that he’d need them, once they’d made themselves known to the mortalis village.

Davad was seething: “How can you all just sit here? Shashara could be down there!”

“She’s not,” Jacob told him, unriled by his son’s ire; “the docks would be crawling with feras, and Set hasn’t mentioned them. Besides, even if she were, Tristan needs rest to regain his energy – he’s too weak right now to call on his abilities, if trouble starts.”

Davad’s jaw snapped shut as he glowered, but the haggard lines on Tristan’s face confirmed that his Dad was right. Too anxious to sit idle, he asked: “How do you know this… Triton?”

Curious himself, Set came down from his perch to listen.

Jacob was slow to answer: “We fought together in the third water war…” He looked at Set; “..along with Beth and Matthew.”

“How did he become a pirate?” Set enquired.

“How did your parents and I become mercenaries?” Jacob answered, with a question of his own. “Life leads us where it will.”

Abashed, Davad cleared his throat; “You were right to call me down before – there are things I wasn’t taking into account. How expensive will our passage be?”

“Triton will take more if he can, less if he must, but in the end, he’ll get what he wants either way. With a pirate,” Jacob said, “there is always a cost.”

“What if he wants more than we can pay,” Set asked; “we could have come all this way for nothing.”

“There are things of greater value than coin, Set.” Jacob hurried onto another subject, before they could question his response. “He has a completed aquis marking, and is as mean as a snake, but usually with good intent.”

Pensive, Davad asked: “Are you sure we can trust him?”

The curve to the corner of Jacob’s mouth was not encouraging. “We can trust him to stay true to his nature,” was all he could promise.

In truth, he doubted that Triton would be interested in his coin, even if he had it to offer. Triton wanted something particular from him, and though he would always refuse, that wouldn’t stop the man from trying – the cost of their passage would lie in whatever common ground he and the pirate could find.

Their heads turned when Tristan stirred.

“You’re awake,” Jacob said. “How are you feeling?”

Tristan rubbed at his eyes, and then glanced overhead at the setting suns. “Better,” he said, stretching.

“On your feet, then,” Jacob told him, standing himself, along with Davad and Set. “We’ll avoid the village for now and head to the docks. Keep your hoods in place until I tell you otherwise. And, remember,” he warned: “sailors and pirates are a different breed of men – they live by a different code, and if they take offence, they’re quick to retaliate. Mind your words, and keep your eyes to yourselves.”

“Well that’s not ominous at all,” Set quipped, as they skirted the village.

A break in the trees revealed the inn and run-down trading post which made up Catena Piscari. The trading post was closed this time of night, but there was a steady influx of people, coming up from the docks to enter the inn. Smoke trailed out of its double chimneys, and a raucous laughter bellowed from the common room.

Tristan’s stomach rumbled as he caught the scent of boiled lobster and baked sea bass – they hadn’t eaten since midday. “Smells good, doesn’t it?”

Knowing how much food was required to sustain Tristan, especially after Set’s drain on his abilities, Jacob pulled out a few strips of dried meat from his pack; “Chew on this until we can check into the inn.”

Too hungry to suck on the meat long enough to soften it, Tristan swallowed whole chunks and wished Jacob would offer more. Thoughts of hunger waned, however, when the docks came into view.

“So, what do you think?” Jacob asked the boys.

“It’s not at all like Exterius Antro,” Davad replied.

Jacob chuckled.

Small shops in varying stages of disrepair ran the length of the docks. Many crates – some holding fish and shelled creatures, freshly caught and hauled in by local fishing boats – filled several dilapidated buildings. Inside another structure were nets, stacks of canvas, crates of marlin-spikes, and other tools necessary for common repairs on various sea bound vessels.

People were everywhere. Shop merchants shouted their wares, as patrons haggled for a better price. Laborers moved down the chutes, hauling their loads onto the dock, as off-duty sailors headed into the only tavern – the largest of the wooden structures lining the coast.

Inside the tavern, at the bar situated against the right wall, a haggard bartender slung out drinks as quickly as he could. On a central stage, a fera sang a heartfelt tune that depicted the oceanus as a ship’s greatest love. Sailors filled the small, circular, brown tables around the perimeter, and shared tales of their adventures out at sea. Jacob counted more than two dozen men inside – whether sitting or standing, all had drinks in hand. The barmaid was busy refilling their mugs with the cheap grog common amongst sailors and pirates alike – the good stuff was kept for the captains and their first-mates.

Along the left side of the tavern wall, a set of wide double doors opened to an outside sitting area, should the patrons prefer fresh air to a smoke-filled room. Jacob clung to the hope that Triton was there, as the crowd was rowdy, and he was hesitant to lead the boys through it.

“I don’t see Triton inside,” he told the boys. “We’ll check the outside tables before we head to the docks.”

Wordlessly, they followed him, around the side of the tavern.

A heavy canvas was stretched over the sitting area – it offered protection to the tavern’s patrons from the suns’ light, and from the rains, when they came. The area held as many tables as were inside. Jacob disregarded them all, save for the long, rectangular table, surrounded by seven men – three were feras; three were mortalis; it was the seventh man that held Jacob’s interest:

He was a nox, with shoulders broad enough to fill a doorway. The muscles in his arms rippled, beneath the black material of his shirt, as he reached for his drink. Legs outstretched, he tapped his booted foot, to the rhythm of the fera’s song. Facing away from Jacob and his boys, he watched the stage, through the opening in the wall.

“Stay here,” Jacob ordered the boys, “and no matter what happens, do not interfere.” Plastering a good-natured grin on his face, Jacob entered the throng of men; “Good evening, gentlemen.”

As Jacob greeted the others, he pushed a thought into the nox’s mind: You have people looking for you.

The nox’s shoulders stiffened. He eased his hand away from his drink, to let his arm dangle at his side, palm open and fingers twitching.

Don’t even think about it, pirate.

As expected, the nox didn’t listen: in one fluid movement, he rose from his seat and snapped his arm forward, as though wielding a whip. A water barrel sitting beneath one of the canvas support poles exploded, as the nox rotated to face the threat; the liquid struck out at its target with lightning speed.

Reading the nox’s intent, Jacob ducked in plenty of time to avoid the blow, a broad grin spreading across his face. It had been a long time since he’d played such games with an opponent as skilled as Triton.

Enduring the lash meant for another, a wolfish fera snarled, as unexpected pain lanced through his grey fur, to the tender meat beneath. The bench he sat on slid back several feet as he leapt from it, and, seeing the stranger hovering on the other side of the table, he let loose his rage. Overturning it, sending drinks clattering to the floor, he clamoured across the mess, to lunge for Jacob’s throat.

Jacob stepped to the side, leaving his would-be attacker to stumble past, with arms wide, and clawed fingers aimed at a target no longer there. He slammed the hilt of his sword against the back of the fera’s head, whose eyes rolled, as his knees buckled; too dazed to counterattack, he toppled to the floor.

The ensuing chaos silenced the fera performing inside – men rushed out of the double doors, while the ones already outside snarled, ready to fight, after seeing a stranger take down one of their own.

Triton stood, his visage a nightmare to behold, as his first mate writhed on the floor. But, upon seeing the mercenary’s face, he bellowed: “Jacob!” and threw his arms wide in greeting. The abrupt change in demeanor confused the other men.

The fallen fera shook off the blow and came to his feet. His grey eyes narrowed as he turned, teeth bared, towards Jacob. Bowed legs took from the fera’s height, but there was nothing small about him; his narrow waist formed a V up to his wide shoulders, his torso stacked with thick, heavy muscle. Even without the white markings running down the underside of his massive arms to his wrists, it was obvious he had the ability of strength.

“Your man has a good imagination, Triton,” Jacob grinned; “you may want to call him down before he acts on it – I don’t want to hurt him.”

“You should worry more for yourself, old man,” the fera snarled, his black lips peeled back.

“Calm yourself, Razoran.” Triton manoeuvered around the mess, to clasp forearms with an old friend; “What brings you to Catena Piscari?”

“You,” Jacob told him; “we need to talk.”

The tavern was too quiet, all eyes focusing on the two men at the center of the confrontation.

“Here is not the place,” Triton replied.

“Agreed,” Jacob said, and then asked: “where and when?”

“I have business to attend to,” Triton answered. “Wait for me at the end of the chute – I won’t be long.” With a prideful grin, he added: “You should know which vessel is mine.”

“You’re just going to let him go?” Razoran glared.

With a full-bellied laugh, Triton slapped his first-mate on the shoulder, and then bent to put the overturned table to rights.

Turning, Jacob chuckled at the images playing out in the nox’s mind, as to how he’d acquired the schooner. Of course, having been there, Jacob remembered the episode well.

The fera’s song sprang up again, as Jacob collected the boys and led them towards the chute, where the schooner bobbed in the water.

“Spit it out, Davad,” Jacob said, “before you choke on it.”

“I thought you were going to get yourself killed,” Davad exclaimed. “That nox is unreal. And I’m telling you, Dad, you’ve made a lifelong enemy of that fera. What were you thinking?”

“I think I know more than you do,” Jacob told him.

“Did you ask him about granting us passage?” Set asked, to divert the fire sparked between the father and son.

“He’ll meet us shortly,” Jacob said, “and then we’ll discuss things.” Sensing Tristan’s disquiet, he asked: “Tristan, are you okay?”

Hiding his face deep within the cowl of his cloak, Tristan answered: “I don’t like the way people look at me here. There’s going to be trouble, Jacob – I can feel it.”

Jacob wouldn’t lie to quell Tristan’s fears, but he could make him a promise: “If there is trouble, we will handle it.”

VIII

Strike a Deal

 

Standing on board the schooner, the pirates eyed their approach with suspicion. When they closed in on the chute, it was as though a water gate opened, and Triton’s crew poured down the gang-plank, effectively barring their way to the ship beyond.

Jacob drew his sword, slowing the onrush of crewmembers that surrounded them. Locking his eyes on no one man, he sensed them all, wincing at what he read in their mind.

“We’re here at your captain’s request,” he said. When they reached for weapons, he shouted: “Stand down!”

The pirates laughed as one called out above the others: “Who are you to give orders, stranger?” His gaze slid to Tristan; “And what manner of man do you travel with?”

Another shouted from the back of the mob: “He tries to hide his mortalis face beneath his cowl, but we can see his golden eyes glowing from here.”

Jacob felt Tristan’s anger rise. Easy, son, he warned, and then said, aloud: “The boys are with me, and we are guests of your captain.”

The pirate who’d spoken first stepped forward; “I know my captain better than you, swordsman, and I tell you, the ground will bleed before an abomination such as he curses the captain’s vessel.”

The mortalis, several inches shorter than Jacob, had outrageous red hair and impossibly bright green eyes. Pockmarks scarred his round face, but it was the man’s mouth that was getting on Jacob’s nerves.

Davad sidled to his father’s side, his ignis ability turning his hands into torches. “Mind your words,” he said, “or you’ll be named the curse of Triton’s ship. Test me, and I’ll burn out her belly till she sinks like a rock!”

A voice, like rough gravel, bellowed from the direction of the tavern: “What talk is this of burning my ship, boy?”

Beneath the light of the twin moons – one blue and one orange – in combination with the many smaller moons and stars, they had a clear view of Triton’s predatory approach; his dark mocha skin made his obsidian glare all the more frightful.

As the crew-members parted to let Triton pass, Set gulped, as Davad’s eyes grew wide.

Dressed in fitted black leather, his powerful physique couldn’t be missed. A black silk shirt was visible beneath his leather vest, which featured silver snaps down the front. The polished blades of his twin swords – their hilts a beautiful intertwining of silver and gold – hung comfortably in their three-foot long scabbards, riding low on his narrow hip. The crewmen relaxed as their captain took control of the situation.

Jacob sheathed his sword, and said: “Good timing.”

Triton chuckled: “Indeed. They’re a protective lot.”

Jacob whistled, as a moonbeam reflected off of the silver tips of Triton’s expensive boots, inlaid with silver on both sides, and bearing the symbol for aquis. “A pirate once told me that until a man learns to keep his feet beneath him, he shouldn’t cover them up with slippery soles.” He looked down at his less impressively booted feet; “The lesson was hard… but it was learned.”

“It’s strange not to see Matthew and Beth by your side, old friend.” Laying a hand over his chest, he bowed forward; “I’m truly sorry for their loss – they were the finest of people.”

The boys didn’t understand the exchange at all, but Jacob bobbed his head in acknowledgement – a pirate has few friends, but Beth and Matthew had been counted amongst Triton’s.

Triton zeroed in on the young ignis wielder, whose flames were making his men sweat. The youth jumped, as he barked an order to his crew: “Back to work, you sea dogs! We leave on the morrow.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” came a chorused reply, as all but his first-mate returned to their tasks. A man covered in quills hesitated also, but he, too, followed the command.

“Triton,” Jacob said, “meet my son, Davad Jacobson.”

Planting his feet wide, Triton crossed his muscle-bound arms over his burly barrel chest; “Jacob’s son or not, you have nerve, boy.”

Clenching his fists, Davad forced the flames to go out. “Do you love your ship, sir?”

Triton, taken off guard by the boy’s straightforward question, replied: “More than my own mother.”

“Then you’ll understand when I say that one doesn’t threaten what another holds dear without risk, Captain, and Tristan’s life is far more important to me than your ship… or your mother.”

Stunned to silence, the captain could only stare. His chuckle built up slowly, but ended in robust laughter, which reverberated from him. “You are indeed your father’s son,” he grinned; “for now, let us agree that both of what we love shall remain safe.” He pretended not to notice Davad moving with him, as he slinked around Jacob to take stock of the other two boys.

Set shuffled over to his brother at the pirate’s approach, his hand inching towards Tristan.

“Do it and die,” Tristan growled.

Dejected, Set dropped his hand to his side.

Jacob sent a private order into the boys’ minds for them to knock it off, as he introduced them: “This is Set and Tristan Mattewson – Beth and Matthew’s sons.”

Triton scrutinized Set: “I’ve seen such markings before, and the bearer was one I called ‘friend’.” His head tilted to one side, as he considered further: “I wonder how much like your father you are.”

Facial markings were common amongst those with aether abilities, but Jacob had warned him long ago of the danger in admitting what he was, especially considering his markings were complete. So, Set kept his mouth shut and waited for the captain to move on.

Tristan, spine stiff with indignation, and hands clenched into tight fists, seethed. He kept his head down, trying to avoid doing something stupid that would get them all killed… like punching the pompous captain in his arrogant face.

“Are you mortalis, boy?”

Tristan raised his chin, inch by slow inch, and levelled angry, yellow eyes at the stone-faced captain.

Jacob answered in Tristan’s stead: “You know he is – you’ve met him before.” At Triton’s questioning glance, he said: “You witnessed with your own eyes, as Beth carried her newborn son onto your deck.”

“I remember she had a child with her on that voyage, yes,” he said, clearly unconvinced. “It matters not, I suppose – sixteen years is a long time.” Turning his attention from Tristan to Jacob, he asked: “Why are you here?”

“I need your help,” Jacob told him, “and, from what I hear, you need mine.”

A smile split wide the captain’s face: “It’s like you can read my mind.” He chuckled, when all three boys rolled their eyes: “As always, Jacob, your timing is superb. Though, I admit, I’d hoped you’d have changed your mind about coming to work for me by now.”

Jacob returned the man’s smile with a stiff one of his own; “That’s never going to happen, Triton.”

The pirate shrugged: “You can’t fault a man for knowing what he wants.”

“No,” Jacob chuckled, “but he can be held accountable for how he goes about acquiring it.”

“Are you calling me a crimp?”

“You procure your desires through trickery and coercion – is that not the very definition?”

“It’s the definition of a pirate, you landlubber,” Triton laughed. “Come aboard, the lot of you – I’ve a cask of Nelson’s Folly, and pewter mugs enough for us all.”

“I’ve no interest in spirits,” Jacob replied, “and the boys are too young. Let us speak, instead, of business.”

Triton led the way down the chute, to the gangplank of his ship. “You never did know how to relax, mercenary.”

Wary, angry faces peered as they came on board.

The raised deck at the prow and stern cradled the main deck – it was the latter that Triton directed them towards; his cabin sat directly below the quarter-deck, where the helm of the ship was located.

Entering, maps and charts covered the walls of Triton’s cabin. A bunk built into a wall allowed for storage underneath, and in the center stood a table, fastened securely to the planked floor, with two chairs facing each other across it.

Lifting a hinged wooden arm, Triton sat down in one, and gestured for Jacob to take a seat in the other. “Tell me what you require of me, old friend.”

Jacob, uncomfortable with being pinned inside, left the wooden arm of his chair lifted, as he took his seat. The boys stood behind him – one nervous, one angry, and one… Superi help him – Set was getting sea-sick!

Focusing his ability, Jacob chose the words that would trigger the memories he needed from the pirate. “Bounty hunters raided the forge where my daughter was working,” he began; “they took her and a nox female – an aquis wielder. I need to know if they’ve boarded a ship.”

Triton’s countenance darkened; “Dangerous words you carry aboard my ship, mercenary. Those who wish to avoid the eyes of Imbellis call them by a different name.”

“Triton, I need to know.”

“Because you know what they are,” Triton retorted, eyes narrowed, “then you also know they’ve gone to ship. There’s only one place for them to go, Jacob.”

Never having mastered the ability to block a telepath from his thoughts, Triton didn’t even try. There was only one way to cloak the crucial information he didn’t want the telepath to have, and that was to feed him the knowledge he sought. So, he did.

Insanity skirted the edges of Jacob’s mind, as Triton’s memories became clear. He saw a mortalis girl, with long, wavy, brown hair and baby blue eyes, attempting to melt the bars of her own cage; the markings of an elemental trailed her left shoulder, as it travelled up her neck to the back of her left ear – Shashara. She screamed, as melted iron burnt its way down her forearms and onto her thigh. The bruises at her mouth and right temple brought tears to his eyes, and rage to his heart, and as her hands became encased in chunks of frozen water, which halted her futile escape, a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed him.

In the cage beside her was the young nox girl – of an age with Tristan – who had been at Martinson’s that day. Her torn shirt revealed part of her elemental mark, on her right shoulder; bruises ran the length of her arms. An ugly, purple bruise encircled her neck, where claw marks marred the caramel-colored skin. She had a regal bearing that belied her circumstances. The obvious abuse she had suffered at the hands of her captors turned his stomach.

The girl spoke, but he couldn’t hear her, and then he witnessed Shashara, collapsed into tears.

Lifting the wooden arm, Triton turned sideways in his seat. Kicking his long legs out straight, he crossed them at the ankle and stared at Tristan, as he bought Jacob time to come to terms with his visions.

Returning the captain’s stare, Tristan saw more curiosity than judgement, but his shame cut just as deep – everywhere he went, it was the same: his strange mixture of mortalis and fulgo features inspired fear and mistrust. Perhaps the sailors were correct: perhaps he was an abomination. Surely, they would think so, if they knew what he kept hidden beneath his straight, black hair, his gloved hands, and his booted feet.

As the ship stirred and pitched on top of the water, Set was oblivious to the events transpiring in front of him. It was all he could do not to embarrass himself by vomiting his last meal onto the captain’s planked floor. Utterly green, he glanced over his shoulder at the door, longing for fresh air and solid ground, and then wished he hadn’t turned his head so fast. Gagging, he covered his mouth with his hand.

The sound had Davad eyeing Set sideways. At sight of the sheen of sweat slicking Set’s pasty pallor, he slid closer to Tristan, in case Set decided to blow. Grinning, he nudged Tristan’s shoulder with his own, gesturing to Set with a tilt of the head.

Breaking eye contact with Triton, Tristan chuckled at his brother’s predicament, before looking down to collect himself. He was not the only one to jump when Jacob sprang to his feet.

As pale as Set and strangled by emotion, Jacob said: “I need you… to take us across the Nubilosus.”

His panic put the boys on edge, but Triton’s relaxed posture remained, as he shifted his hard stare to Jacob. “A swordsman once told me that his honor rested in his word, and then I witnessed him giving a certain young woman a vow. Are you asking me now to help you break it?”

From Triton’s mind, the memory of the last time he’d been aboard this ship poured in, leaving Jacob no choice but to relive it.

The stars had been brighter that night. He’d stood beneath them with his closest friends, as Beth held Tristan in her arms, tears of regret pouring from her cat-like green eyes. Her words were as clear in his mind today, as they’d been sixteen years ago: “We can never come back to the western continent – Malstar’s reach is too great. He can never find him.” She’d taken his hand in her own; “It’s not too late for you to leave, Jacob – you can still have a life.” He could remember how angry he had been that she could doubt his loyalty.

It was then that she’d demanded his vow: “Jacob, swear to me that no matter what happens, as long as there is breath in any one of us, that Tristan will never be brought back here.”

He’d given his word, and then, years later, Beth and Matthew had given their lives protecting his rear flank, while he had fled, with the children, to escape the nox military pouring in from the swamps of Palus Regia. He couldn’t stop his mind from conjuring the question: would they ask him to sacrifice Shashara, to protect Tristan? No, he told himself, they would not. If they were alive, they’d be standing at his side, ready to do whatever was necessary to get back one of their own.

“Take me to her,” Jacob said, with conviction.

Coming to his feet, the nox stood upright before Jacob, as amiability gave way to negotiation. He crossed his arms; “You alluded to having information I needed.”

In no mood for games, after what he’d just witnessed, Jacob spoke plainly: “Beyond the great trees of Turris, before the plains, we crossed the path of two feras. They said that three nox men, each with the look of military about them, had got turned around and lost in the tall grass of the meadow – they were on their way to Catena Piscari to find a ship merchant by the name of Triton. The tribal alpha had her pack misdirect them towards the foothills. I’d say they’re a day, maybe two, behind us.”

Jacob’s nostrils flared, as an errant thought escaped Triton’s mind; “But, guessing by the nox crawling over that warship, and your lack of concern, you already know that.”

Triton shrugged: “Word came down from the villages further north. The men acquired horses from Turris Cavae and rode them into the ground. They’re not far from Catena Piscari.” Taking a deep breath, he said the words Jacob had to have known were coming: “You want passage across the Nubilosus for you and three others? I want to know what those men want before they’re apprehended, and, if they pose a threat, I want them handled.”

Like wicks on a candle, flames sprouted from Davad’s fingertips, causing the ambient temperature to rise exponentially, in proportion to his temper: “We’re not murderers.”

“Nope, you’re perfectly harmless.” With a deep rumble in his chest, Triton chuckled and raised his thick brows high at the boy’s short fuse. “Do we have an agreement, mercenary?”

“No,” Davad shook his head; “taking the lives of enemies not our own is repulsive. Set… Tristan… tell him!”

As Jacob’s ability tapped into Set’s psyche, his hand flew to cover his own mouth, as he severed the connection to save the contents of his stomach. Linking with Tristan’s, he heard the words ricocheting through his volatile mind: Thief… pirate…

“I can’t, Davad,” Tristan said, “because what your father doesn’t want to say is that Triton is the only shot I have of crossing the oceanus – no other ship will take me on board.”

Turning from Triton, Jacob laid a hand on Tristan’s shoulder, and said: “I’d give my sword arm to have it any other way, but I need you with me. Unless, of course,” he said to Davad, “you would have me leave Tristan behind.”

A sharp rapping of knuckles broke the sudden tension. Triton’s first mate, the wolfish fera from the tavern, bid his captain’s pardon as he entered.

“What is it, Razoran?”

“Hammy says they’re here, and that the rumors are true, Captain: they look military. He says the one in charge is definitely a level-three aquis wielder, but he didn’t see the others use their abilities. They’re on their way into Catena Piscari, to get a room at the inn.”

“Tell Hammy to grab a wench and a bottle of rum, and to take her to the forecastle – he’s done well. I’ve another who will take it from here.”

The fera caught Tristan’s stare. “Happy hunting,” he said, wiggling his bushy, dark-grey brows above his light-grey eyes. The skin along the sides of his protruding muzzle wrinkled into a wolfish grin, as he darted out onto the main deck.

IX

Mercenaries in Training

 

Don’t speak until we’ve cleared the docks, Jacob mentally warned the boys, on their way off of the ship. Once there was no one close enough to overhear, he drew them to a stop.

“Shashara is on a ship headed across the Nubilosus.” When he saw their fear, he added: “Which is no more than we already knew,”

“Did you see her,” Davad asked, as tears filled his eyes. “Is she okay?”

“Shashara’s tough,” Jacob told him; “she’s holding her own.”

Davad wasn’t the only one to read between the lines.

“Listen to me now,” Jacob said, focusing them. He waited until he had looked each in the eye; “Young as you all are, I know what kind of men you can be. Now is the time to step up and prove me right.”

Their chests swelled with the accolade.

“Set, Davad,” Jacob begun, “I need you both to go ahead to the inn. Find a table in a corner and observe – maybe we’ll get lucky, and can pin them down in their room. Try and follow if they go upstairs – get a room number if you can, but do not risk yourselves.”

As the two boys started to leave, Jacob reached out to Set: “If things go awry, Davad’s ability will not be enough. We all heard what Razoran said: at least one has a completed aquis marking, and we know nothing of the others. If you have to, absorb from one and use whatever you can drain to help Davad. Nothing fancy, do you understand? Simply stop them.”

Set gave Jacob a tight nod. The pride from being entrusted with having Davad’s back lit up his emotional grid. Their journey had been harder on Set’s self-esteem than Jacob realized.

Davad, on the other hand, was bottled fury. Lips skewed with distaste, he asked: “Where will you and Tristan be?”

“Tristan and I need to talk, but we won’t be far behind. Don’t worry, son,” Jacob assured him; “I’ll be close enough to hear if you need me.”

“It’s a mistake to split up,” Davad fumed.

With a slight shake of his head, Jacob sucked back his son’s ire, and then added to it by saying: “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

“What you’re asking us to do is wrong.” Turning away, Davad said: “Come on, Set – let’s get this done.”

Jacob stood with Tristan, as they watched Davad and Set take the hard-packed dirt road, back into the village. “Nothing in life is ever easy,” Jacob said. “Tristan, you need to know that none of this is your fault – you had nothing to do with slavers coming into Exterius Antro.”

“You mean bounty hunters.”

A bolt of fear shot down his spine. “Quiet!” Jacob hissed, as he scanned the area for any who might have overheard. “Do you think I’m making jest when I tell you that those words would get us all killed?”

“Jacob,” the boy’s head hung, “I’m the leverage Triton is using to get you to do this favor.” Tristan spat out the last word, as if it were a curse. His shoulders slumped, he raised his head; “You and Davad and Set, you all have options, but we both know he’s my only way across the Nubilosus.”

“You’re not as important as all that,” Jacob chuckled. “The truth is, Tristan, that Triton fears you as much as he’s intrigued by you. But, in this, I am what he covets – my ability is of great use to a man like him.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m wrong – he’s my only ride.”

As much as he wanted to, Jacob couldn’t deny it; “I can read your mind, Tristan. I can’t claim to understand what you must feel – the prejudices you face – but I can tell you that I’m proud of the way you handle the pressure. Your parents would be, too.”

“I hate this, Jacob – all of it. That nox,” he pointed towards the ship; “he’s full of himself. He enjoys tugging people’s strings, just to watch them dance, and we both know I’m the strings he’s pulling to make you dance.”

You have your mother’s way of speaking, Jacob thought, but what he said was: “He would have agreed to give us passage, even had I refused his terms.”

Tristan’s scowl deepened; “Then, why do it?”

With a tilt to his head and an arch to his brow, Jacob replied: “Come on, Tristan, think – there’s not a ship captain in the whole of Superi who wouldn’t demand their own price. Triton’s is one I’m willing to pay.”

“You are not a killer,” Tristan said, even though he knew the statement to be a lie.

“A mercenary – a killer for hire… this is who I am, son – this is what I do. I’ve never made a secret of my life, or those of your parents.”

“I know that, but,” Tristan’s voice cracked, “you’ve been home for two years.” His breathing accelerated, as his heart slammed against his chest. “I don’t want to be the cause of it starting all over again.” With that, his face crumpled; “I’m tired, Jacob – we’re all tired. How long did we stay on the move last time, stopping only long enough to catch our breath, before we were picking up and going again..? That’s no way to live.

“I’m sorry,” he said, holding out his gloved hands, and looking pointedly at Jacob’s own; “it wasn’t your mistake this time – it was mine.”

Tristan, like his mother, wasn’t one for an abundance of words, but when she chose to use them as weapons, they cut to the quick. Markings for aether wielders were revealed on the bearers’ faces, with the exception of telepaths – they wore their mark on their hands. They were feared, hated, and, in this case, used.

“You’re right, Tristan,” he said: “you messed up. There is no going back to Exterius Antro, and, yes – there is no way to do this without revealing what I am. So, it looks like we both will have reason to run… for a time.”

“My mistake cost us our home,” Tristan said, unwilling to let him off the hook that easy, “but, if you do this, you will cost us years.”

With one hand resting on the pommel of his sword, Jacob lay the other atop Tristan’s shoulder, and squeezed. “We are each born who we are – choice and circumstance dictate what we become, but destiny does play her part; perhaps she will lead you in another direction. You are strong, Tristan, but, like your Dad, your heart is too soft for this life.”

Tristan harrumphed: “Set believes destiny bore me to Mom and Dad because it knew what he would be – he says it’s my destiny to be his endless power source.”

Laughing loud enough to draw unwanted attention, Jacob cursed through a chuckle, and moved them up the road a piece, before saying: “Ah, my boy, your destiny is much greater than that, I can assure you.”

Jacob felt Tristan’s mood lighten, but his psyche still pulsed with sadness. “I’m going to tell you something, but only because I need an honest answer, and I can’t find it on my own,” he chuckled again; “believe me, I’ve tried.”

“Okay,” Tristan said.

“I can feel your fear,” Jacob told him; “your fear for Shashara, your fear of being outside of Exterius Antro, and even your fear of taking a life.” His eyes narrowed, as he focused his ability. “But, there is a greater fear,” he continued, “and it threatens to consume you. Tell me what it is, and I will help you fight it.”

The words tore out from Tristan, like daggers pulled from his guts: “You’re a telepath – people fear your ability. But,” he threw his hands in the air, “I wield nothing. They fear me… loathe me… because I’m different. Mom and Dad were mortalis, Set is mortalis… Jacob…” he swallowed hard, “..what am I?”

Since the day Beth and Matthew had fallen to the monsters of the swamp, Jacob had dreaded this moment. With all the time he’d had to prepare for it, he found himself without words.

“I’ve always known I’m different, Jacob, but now all I can think is that I’m the greatest threat to getting Shashara back. Everywhere we go, I stand out like a nox in Duar Mortis. I could not live knowing I was the cost to Shashara’s freedom.”

“You are Beth and Matthew’s son,” Jacob told him. “That’s who you are, and that’s far more important than what you are.” He held up his hand, when Tristan would have interrupted; “The answers you’re looking for - the ones that will explain why you’re different -” he paused, “they are more complicated than you can imagine. Stand with me,” he said; “help me fight for her freedom, and, when she is safe, I will tell you everything I know.”

“But not now,” Tristan smirked.

“In truth,” Jacob said, “we cannot afford the distraction, so I’m counting on your growing affection for my daughter to be enough to convince you to give me time.”

Tristan’s jaw dropped, as his pale face turned pink. His interest in Shashara had never been openly discussed, and, until he was certain of what he felt for her, he wanted to keep it that way.

Shashara didn’t return Tristan’s feelings. It was a shame, and Jacob felt a twinge of guilt for taking advantage of Tristan’s heart, but he had done what was necessary to keep Tristan from refusing to board the ship.

“Not now, Tristan,” he answered, “but you will have your answers.” Concerned over how long the two younger boys had been alone, his eyes slid to the inn door.

“You win,” Tristan told him: “I’ll kill whoever I have to to get Shashara back, and to get my answers, but the method turns my stomach.” He didn’t understand Jacob’s smile.

“A mercenary’s worth is measured by his ability to shut down his conscience,” Jacob said, “so that only logic rules his actions. There is very little that can turn my stomach – I would slaughter a thousand innocent lives if it meant the return of my daughter.”

Unable to bear the horrified expression on Tristan’s face, his eyes swept towards the inn again. “Why don’t you wait outside,” he said, “in case one of them tries to bolt? You look like you need a moment to clear your head.”

“Yeah,” Tristan agreed, though he followed Jacob to the inn. Taking a seat atop a capped rain barrel, sitting beneath the overhang of the roof, he said: “I’d appreciate that.”

As Jacob went inside, Tristan’s shoulders shook with silent laughter – at himself, at Jacob… at the whole situation. For all their talking, he’d learned nothing, and he suspected Jacob had orchestrated it that way.

Jacob disappeared through the inn’s doors and slowed down as he entered the dim interior. Wooden tables and benches took up most of the floor, while buxom waitresses scurried around in dresses short enough to show their calves, and cut low enough at the bodice to drive a man to distraction. Boxes held dice stones for the patrons’ pleasure, and wood-bound books lined the mantles of the small stone fireplaces, on either side of the far wall.

Unlike the rowdier crowd at the tavern, the men here were looking more to relax. A few – two mortalis and a nox – sat, puffing long-stemmed pipes before a low-burning fire, while the innkeeper entertained several mortalis at the bar. The latter tapped their pewter mugs against the bar’s scarred top, with a chorused round of: “Here! Here!” at whatever the short, round innkeeper was saying, his puffy cheeks forcing his eyes closed, as he laughed at his own joke.

A small group of fulgos, who carried the stench of a long voyage, gathered around a table shrouded in shadow, as they scarfed down the nightly special of poached bass and buttery scallops, with a side of bright red lobster. For sailors used to hardtack and grog, it would be the best meal they’d had in months.

The peacekeeper – a fera with feline characteristics – leant against the far wall; three-inch claws suggested he needed no weapon. Ears turning constantly, he monitored the room for warning signs – he went rigid upon Jacob’s arrival, as his vertical pupils narrowed.

Back in the day, Matthew would have taken a table close to the peacekeeper, just to put him on edge, and then he would have worked the peacekeeper into a frenzy with his smart mouth. It would have been fun, and it would have ended badly. He could hear Beth: “Don’t help him, Jacob! No, Matthew, put the poor man down. NO – not in the oceanus!” Then, she’d roll her eyes…

He shook his head to clear it – there had been too many memories stirred in his mind of late, and he needed to focus. Realizing he’d been staring, he grinned at the peacekeeper.

If the widening split in the peacekeeper’s mouth was an attempt to smile back, Jacob wished he wouldn’t try – the exposed fangs, elongated like daggers, and extending past his bottom lip, were disconcerting.

Shaking off the sight, Jacob found Davad and Set at a table in the back, and moved to join them. “Any luck identifying our three targets?”

“We know two of them, at least,” Set said, when Davad refused to look at his father; “they were at the bar, asking questions about a ship merchant named Triton.”

“Where are they now?”

“Upstairs,” Davad’s tone was chilling; “room seven.” He twisted to check the door; “Where’s Tristan?”

“Waiting outside, in case they try and run out the back,” Jacob told him, eyeing the stairs. From his pocket, he pulled out a handful of coins, and laid them on the table; “Davad, go rent us a room from the innkeeper.”

“We’re not staying here, are we?” Set panicked. “Will Triton wait on us?”

“Calm yourself,” Jacob said: “we’re not staying, but I do need a legitimate excuse to get up those stairs, and I don’t think the peacekeeper likes me much.”

Davad glanced over before he could quell the impulse, which only increased the fera’s scrutiny. Hissing a curse beneath his breath that had Jacob’s brows rising, he turned away.

“Sorry,” Davad winced, “that was stupid.”

“Don’t worry about-” Jacob’s words were cut short, as Tristan slammed to the fore of his mind: Jacob!

The mental plea was desperate.

The images came next: Tristan had found the level-three aquis wielder. Hurry!

Jacob flinched, as Tristan’s agility barely kept him from being gored by ice shards. Man, this guy is good.

Tristan ran up the side of the inn, and back-flipped over a solid chunk of ice which would have flattened him to the wall. Tactically, Tristan landed on the other side of the nox, facing him away from the front of the inn – from the direction Jacob would come.

“Stay here.”

“Why,” Davad demanded. “What’s going on?”

“Do as you’re told,” Jacob said, as he jumped from his seat, and made a mad dash for the door. When the peacekeeper shifted, as if to follow, Jacob pushed a thought into his mind: This isn’t your fight. The words, coupled with a well-placed image of what Jacob would do to him, halted the peacekeeper in his tracks.

Bursting out the front door, Jacob rounded the corner of the inn, to see Tristan breaking his ankles free of an ice trap. With the man’s back turned, Jacob picked up a piece of wood, from the split cord running down part of the inn’s wall. Searching the nox’s mind, in case he thought to turn, Jacob inched into range.

Trained, Tristan’s expression gave nothing away, but Jacob’s appearance brought with it a moment of distraction. Tristan didn’t see the ice slick cast at his feet: he slipped, and went down hard. The price of his folly was his freedom – ice froze his hands and feet against the terra. Breathing heavily, he looked up at the victor.

“Your stamina and agility are impressive, boy,” the nox said, “but you should learn to use them for more than simple defence – battles are won by taking the offensive, not by allowing yourself to be forced to your heels.”

Tristan taunted, to hold his attention: “Maybe I just didn’t want to be the one with your blood on my hands.”

Confusion clouded the man’s emerald green eyes, and then realization struck, but it was too late. Jacob hit the nox over the back of the head, and the man went down like a boneless husk.

“Now what?” Tristan asked, as he broke free from the ice trap.

“Run inside,” Jacob told him; “tell Set and Davad to keep an eye on the other two, and then you and I will take this one into the root cellar, below the inn. Make sure they know where we are,” he said, “lest something go wrong.”

Taking the nox beneath the shoulders, Jacob grunted, as he tugged the man’s six-feet-one frame towards the cellar entrance. Beyond the coal-black rip of an old scar, that ran from the soldier’s black hairline – around his left eye – to his jaw, lay a familiarity that nagged him.

Dropping the man’s dead weight, Jacob flipped the wooden latch to the cellar door, and threw it open. “Good,” he said to Tristan, “you’re back. Help me get him inside.”

“Too much for you, huh, old man?” Tristan grinned. Bending at the knees, Tristan lifted the nox, and tossed him over his shoulder as he stood.

Smacking Tristan on the back of the head, Jacob said: “We’ll see how strong your back is when you’re in your fifties.” Then he went first into the cellar. He cursed, as, in complete darkness, he slammed his shins into something hard. “I can’t see a blasted thing down here.”

The nox grunted when Tristan dropped him unceremoniously to the dirt floor. He could hear Jacob stumbling around.

Crack!

“Ow!” Tristan chuckled, rubbing his forehead, where he had banged it on a low-hanging beam. “Where’s Davad when you need him, right?

“Wait,” he said; “I think I found something.” He struck a flint and stone from his pocket, to create a momentary flash of light. “Yup, it’s a grease lantern. Give me a moment.”

He felt around for the cylindrical glass cover, set it aside, and used the flint and stone to spark the wick to flame. The cellar was illuminated, with a sickly yellow glow.

“Nice work,” Jacob said. “Now, let’s see if we can find something to tie him up with.”

They found a length of coarse twine, half buried in the dirt. Loosening it from the terra, with the toe of his boot, Jacob picked it up. Kneeling down beside their prisoner, he secured the man’s wrists together, and said: “We can use the support beam in the ceiling.”

Without being told, Tristan hoisted the man, while Jacob tossed the twine over the beam and pulled it taut.

The nox grunted, as he woke to feel shoulders threatening to pull free of their sockets, and was forced onto his toes. Jacob made sure his face was the first thing the man saw; “Who are you?”

The lack of a verbal response wasn’t surprising. The lack of a mental one, however, had Jacob scowling. “It’s an easy question,” he said; “don’t make this difficult.”

He pushed his way into the nox’s mind, but the image that came to him was not the one he sought. It was, however, powerful enough to block his physical sight, and to fill it with endless miles of a foggy, thick, boggy swamp. From out of the mire, upon a dais of dark green water, the nox stared back at him.

Shaking his head, Jacob broke the connection, and braced himself to try again; “What do you want with Triton?”

The image of the swamp returned. This time, the nox in the vision said: Get out of my head!

Tristan stood in silence, as the mental war was waged, slicking both men with sweat. As time stretched, he began to pace. He flinched when Jacob growled and broke the connection again.

“What’s wrong?” Tristan asked.

Jacob maintained eye contact with the nox, but answered: “I can’t read him.”

The nox smirked, but, with Jacob’s grin, it waned.

“There are two paths a telepath can take into a man’s mind,” Jacob said: “we can use verbal stimuli and read the memories it invokes, or we can push our way in. Of course,” he added, “that option often results in bruising the brain – the damage is most often permanent.”

He paused. “I’ve met people who could block me from reading them,” he admitted, “but never in my fifty-three years have I encountered one who could block my push. You have an impressive mind, nox, but you will not be the first.”

“It would appear,” the nox replied, breaking his silence, “that I already am.”

“I can’t see beyond your block,” Jacob agreed, “but, here’s the thing…” He stepped within sword’s reach (tied up or not, the man was a level-three, and that made him dangerous): “..if I can see your image, it means my ability is getting through, and that means I’m stronger. So, you can either answer my questions, or I’ll shove myself so far into your psyche that nothing will be left but your insect-infested swamp.”

With an arrogant tilt to his head, and his chin jutted out in defiance, the nox countered: “And likely kill yourself in the process? No,” he peered around Jacob to Tristan; “I don’t think you’ll risk it, because, here’s the thing: it would appear you have more to reason to live than I do.”

The pain that warped the man’s angled features had Jacob stepping back – it mirrored his own. “I don’t need to be a telepath to know you’re lying, and I need answers.”

Taking slow, deep breaths, Jacob gathered his power, and then pushed again. Though he saw nothing beyond the swirling black mist of his own ability, reflected back at him, he did not relent.

Nor did the nox. Capillaries bursting, blood streaked the whites of his eyes. The veins in his temples and neck bulged, as he gave up projecting the image of the swamp, to cling to his mental block by sheer force of will.

Crimson trickled out of Jacob’s nose, filling the crease of his pressed lips. The nox was right: he could break through, but even if it did not kill him, he would be drained of energy. The wielder, however, would have energy to spare.

“Jacob! Stop!” Tristan urged. “You’re not getting through. Stop!” he said again. “We’ll find another way.”

Lashing out, Jacob shouted: “There is no other way!”

“Yes, there is,” Tristan stated, his gait confident, as he advanced. He knew his own strength, and he was more than willing to wield it.

Drawing back his arm, Tristan let a fist fly. It landed in the man’s stomach, lifting him from the floor. Air whooshed from the nox’s lungs. He gagged, but clamped his teeth shut, refusing to vomit. His head dropped forward.

Tristan twisted his hand into the man’s hair and yanked his head to the side. Drawing his mouth close to the nox’s ear, he whispered: “That was recompense for what happened outside.” Losing his hold, he grabbed the man’s chin instead, and forced his head up. Rearing back his arm once more, he said: “Now, let’s talk about Triton.

Three sets of eyes swung to the cellar door, when it was flung open wide.

Davad, seeing the blood on his father’s face, tripped over the last step, and stumbled to a stop beside Tristan. “Nox soldiers,” he said, between panting for breath; “they took them.” Leaning over at the waist, with one hand braced on his knee, he swiped the air with the other; “They’re everywhere.”

The nox renewed his struggle against his restraints; “Those are my men! You must let me go.”

“What do you have to do with those soldiers?” Jacob demanded. “Why are you trying to find Triton?”

Habit had Jacob searching for the answers with his mind. “I’m getting nowhere, and we are out of time. Tristan,” he said, backing away to give the boy room to work, “hit him again.”

“With pleasure,” Tristan said, moving to strike.

A block of ice, half his size, struck the boy, instead. His torso curled around the frigid mound, his arms hugged its sides, and his legs flew upward, as the force of the blow slammed him against the far wall. It transformed into a fluid sheet, which blanketed him from shoulders to ankles, and froze him in place.

They watched, as the skilled wielder wrenched every drop of moisture from the dank cellar ground, save for that which held Tristan captive. When he levelled his stare at the brown-haired boy, he revealed his next target.

“Try it,” Davad snarled, as he became the embodiment of fury unleashed. Brilliant orange flames engulfed his hands, but the fire in his eyes burned hotter. Spreading his feet shoulder-width apart, he planted his left foot slightly forward, and raised his fists in a fighter’s stance. While he held the nox’s stare, the ice block which was thrown now barrelled towards him.

Events were outpacing his ability. “No!” Jacob bellowed. But before he could intercept to save his son, Davad proved he did not need the aid – seeing his Dad in harm’s way, Davad shifted stance to change the block’s trajectory, putting his weight behind his punch; the second fist he threw was ablaze of white heat, which hollowed the ice.

The change in temperature proved too much: the block fractured, and then exploded into snow powder. The heat Davad was throwing out melted it fast, and a damp, steaming fog was filling the cellar.

The sheet encasing Tristan was now running off of him. “Thank S-S-Super-r-riii,” he said, through chattering teeth; “th-h-hat was-s-s cold.” No one was paying any attention to him.

“Davad!” Jacob could read the words racing across his son’s mind, as plain as script on a scroll; “Please, don’t!” He wasn’t getting through. “Do not force me to bear witness, as you take a life – the loss of your innocence, because of a deal I struck, would wound me as no weapon could. Davad!” he shouted; “This burden is mine!”

“Is this not what you wanted?” Davad asked, struggling to control his rage: “To make us all like you: to make us killers? It’s too late now, Dad, to change our course.”

He started towards their captive; “You are all that stands between me and the means to save my sister – I will kill you.”

“I’m weak, boy,” the nox said, pulling water from the mud at his feet to form a shield, “but not without a fight.”

Davad pulled the iron balls from his pocket, and, keeping his ignis ability at bay, closed them within his fist. “I was hoping you would say that,” he said, and then he dropped his restraint.

From red to white, in a blink of time, his elemental ability reached its zenith, and the nox’s shield parted like cloth before him.

When the liquefied iron touched upon his skin, the nox’s head flew back, his jaws gaping, as if unhinged. It was a testament to his training that only the smallest sound escaped, but even he was not immune to the stench of burning flesh – especially his own. He gagged, through rounds of vomiting.

There was a hole in the soldier’s uniform, where the mix of browns, greens, and tans turned to black ash. The burn had gone deeper than the dark blue markings covering their captive’s mocha skin; traces of white bone peeked from within raw, bloodied muscle. Through the wound, swirling around spared flesh, the laid metal melded.

Feeling the strain he’d put on his ability, Davad extinguished the flames, before they decided to go out on their own. But he wasn’t finished: he back-handed the nox across the face, before throwing his weight behind his fist, to deliver a sharp uppercut. He hit the nox again… and again… and again…

Jacob had thought his heart made of stone, but seeing his son like this made it bleed. “Tristan, stop him – we need him alive.”

Tristan wrapped his arms around Davad from behind, and forcibly moved him, as Davad struggled against his superior strength. Angry, hot tears coursed in rivulets down his cheeks; “Tell me what I need to know!”

“Be easy, Davad,” Tristan urged; “he’ll talk.”

Jacob drew his sword. Turning to the soldier, he said: “We all have our orders – mine are to garner information concerning your search for Triton, or to assume you are a threat… and kill you. It’s your choice.” Closing in fast, Jacob lost control of his emotions, and found his free hand wrapped around the man’s throat. “Don’t make me kill you in front of them,” he said, and then began to squeeze.

He sagged when the nox dropped his mental shield, and spoke aloud, as the information came to him: “His name is Montilis Aquam. He’s the general of the Regia Aquam Guard from Palus Regia…” His hand tightened around the handle of his sword, as he swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat; Beth and Matthew had been pinned down and slaughtered by monsters conjured by the Regia Aquam Guard.

Pushing down a surge of rage, he continued: “The soldiers… they’re saying he’s a deserter.” He pulled back, to see the man’s face; “Anliac… is that your daughter’s name?”

Yanking against his restraints, Montilis’s upper lip furled: “Do not speak her name.”

“Twice before I’ve seen her image,” Jacob dropped his arms. “We have more in common than you think, General” he said, turning his back on his enemy.

Tristan slammed into Jacob’s side, sending them both to the floor.

Jacob groaned – he was getting too old for this mess. He saw the ice shard, intended for his head, fly over him instead.

“Ugh!” Davad roared. His fury sucked the heat from the room, coalescing in his hands as twin orbs of white fire. “You son of a goat kissing…” He stormed forward; “I’m going to kill you!”

Montilis twisted his wrists, tied above his head, as if scooping water from a river. Two spherical liquid bodies combined into one large cannon – rock solid and deadly; he hurled it at the aggressive boy stalking towards him.

Davad didn’t hesitate – his steps never slowed. As the water closed in, he bent one leg and pushed off the ground with the other, to put weight behind his jab; the impact sent shards of ice in all directions.

Tristan threw his body over Jacob’s to shield him. He hissed, as a needle of pain stabbed through the hair at his nape. Reaching back, he broke off what ice he could, and covered what remained, hoping it would melt quickly. Ice splinters were much worse than wood or metal – he could smell the blood, welling at the wound.

Feeling his sword being lifted from its scabbard, Jacob pushed Tristan off, but there was nothing for him to do – Davad had things well in hand. Standing before the nox, Davad pressed the tip of his father’s sword into the hollow of the nox’s throat. His breathing was shaky, but his hand was steady, as he stared intently into the man’s eyes; “I have two reasons to kill you now.”

“Davad,” Jacob said, coming to his feet; “no, son – he’s here for the same reason we are.”

It took time for his Dad’s words to penetrate through the veil of anger. When finally able to look away from Montilis and lower the blade, he asked: “What?”

“The girl taken with Shashara – she’s his daughter. That’s why he’s looking for Triton: he’s as desperate for a way across the Nubilosus as we are. Passage isn’t easy to find for a deserter, no matter his reason.”

“What do you know of my daughter?” The salty sweat running down the man’s chest added a new level of burn to the mutilating wound Davad had placed there. His body quaked with pain, yet he kept his voice under tight control.

“I told you,” Jacob said: “we’re on the same side.” To prove his point, he relieved Davad of the sword, and severed Montilis’s restraints, with a fluid pull of his blade.

The general’s arms fell uselessly to his sides. Shaking them out, he eyed the ignis wielder with the promise of retribution. As the feeling returned to his fingers, he yanked the ruined uniform off his back, and, dropping it to the ground, he inspected the damage to his flesh. A deep rumbling growled from his chest.

Davad rose to the unvoiced challenge – red flames danced between his fingertips, his anger not yet spent; “You want to go again, old man?”

“Enough, Davad,” Jacob urged, understanding all too well the rage his son was battling. He didn’t envy him the fight, but some wars took a lifetime to win.

“Tristan, go find Set, but don’t let yourselves be seen. We need to come up with a plan.”

“I’m on it.”

“And, Tristan.”

“Yeah?”

“The night we left Exterius Antro, you and Set had come home early from work.”

“I remember.”

“I told you to protect something important. Hold on to it, son – we may need it.”

“Understood. I’ll be back.”

X

A Common Cause

 

It took Tristan forever to reach the tree line on the other side of the small village, due to the number of soldiers scouring the area for the general.

More by smell than by sight, he found his brother crouched behind a tree, trying to stealthily peek at the docks. Coming up from behind, he placed a hand over Set’s mouth, and pulled him back against his chest. Wiggling like a worm on a hook, Set panicked.

“Settle down, little brother – it’s just me.”

Sagging in relief, Set’s muscles turned to jelly, and he shoved against Tristan’s shoulder in irritation; “You scared the wits out of me!”

Ignoring Set’s tantrum, Tristan stared at the steady flow of foot traffic, pouring between the chutes protruding into the water and the docks. Triton’s schooner seemed like a toy in comparison to the warship, tied off further down. He could see the tension carried on the faces of Triton’s crew, as they watched the soldiers for signs of trouble. There had to be over a hundred men – mostly nox, from what he could see – on the warship’s main deck alone. Their uniform of browns, blacks and tans would disappear the moment they hit anything close to woods.

Paranoia danced at the edge of his mind, as he scanned the area – the shadows seemed to move, and the knotted tree trunks began to look like men. Closing his lying eyes, he hoped his heightened sense of smell would reveal the truth, but the scent of sailors, salt-water and sea life were as much a part of the village as the terra at his feet.

Set pointed towards the two soldiers in chains. “If those two have anything on Triton that the nox want to know, there’s nothing he can do about it now,” he said. “Have we learnt anything from the other man?”

“Yeah,” Tristan hesitated; “it turns out the nox girl taken with Shashara is his daughter.”

Set’s face fell; “You’re kidding, right?” When Tristan shook his head, he said: “Tell me we found this out before one of you hurt the guy.”

“The rest of the Regia Aquam Guard isn’t happy about his unauthorized leave of absence,” Tristan told him. “Jacob sent me to find you, so we can figure out how to get to Triton without the soldiers finding the general.”

“Wait – what?”

“I’m beginning to see why Jacob hates repeating himself,” Tristan smirked. “There’s a lot you don’t know, little brother, but now is really not the time to catch you up – we need to move.”

“Um… you can take the time to tell me something.”

“Fine,” Tristan sighed: “the guy we have below the inn is a general in the Regia Aquam Guard – he deserted to find his daughter.” Nodding towards the ship, he said: “The soldiers are here to bring him back to Palus Regia.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Set said; “Palus Regia lies on this continent. Why would they come by ship?”

“Most likely,” Tristan shrugged, “they thought they would find him across the oceanus.” Checking to see if the way back was clear, he said: “How the soldiers get home is not our concern – making sure Montilis isn’t on the ship when it leaves is.” His eyes narrowed, when a familiar tingling sensation crawled over his skin.

Set caught Tristan’s elbow at his temple. Stunned, he fell to his backside, his head spinning.

Pivoting on the balls of his feet, still in a crouch, Tristan rolled his eyes, as he turned towards his brother. “I didn’t mean to hit you,” he said, as he offered a hand, “but I can’t let you drain me.”

“Whatever,” Set grumbled, as he pushed himself from the ground, and dusted off his hands.

“Look,” Tristan told him, “I don’t have to see your scars to be buried beneath the guilt of putting them there, and you know it. But you should know, too, that I resent you for using your ability on me against my will – it won’t happen anymore, Set… not without consequence.” More to himself than to his brother, he added: “I grow weary of hiding… whatever it is I am. I mean, what good are abilities if I can’t use them?”

Set smirked: “Self-pity doesn’t suit you, brother, and, for the record, you’re not the only one has to hide what he is.”

Unable to deny what Set had said, Tristan told him: “Jacob gave specific orders not to let you drain from my abilities – he said I might need them. Are we clear?”

“Crystal,” Set said, as he glanced up, “but if Jacob wants us to get there without being seen, and before the suns rise, then I’m going to need some help.”

Tristan’s brows furrowed, as he contemplated their situation. “All right,” he said; “I’ve an idea. But, first, I want your word that you’ll not use your ability.”

“Please,” Set scoffed; “like you’d trust my word.”

Taken aback, Tristan’s head tilted; “You’re my brother, Set – I’d trust your word before any other.”

Set couldn’t explain it, but he knew Tristan was telling the truth. He felt a shift between them, like puzzle pieces falling into place. Stretching out his arm, he said: “Then you have it.” A slow smile stretched across his face.

Clasping Set’s forearm, Tristan nodded once, and then said: “Climb onto my back, as you did when we were little, and I’ll run with you.”

Set had always envied Tristan’s speed – it felt like flying, but it was the one ability he could not control. “I’m not as small as I used to be,” he said, as he latched on to his brother’s back.

“Don’t’ worry,” Tristan chuckled, “neither am I.”

Like the strokes of an impressionist painting, the scenery blurred, until the air resistance forced Set to close his eyes. Gagging, he spat Tristan’s long, black hair from his mouth, and then pressed his lips closed.

Reaching their destination far quicker than Set had expected, he slid from Tristan’s back, onto wobbly knees. “You’re faster than you were,” he said, swallowing back the bile burning his throat.

“I know,” Tristan grinned, leading them towards the cellar door. Opening it, he said: “If you’re going to puke, do it up here.”

Set’s eyes narrowed. “I’m good,” he said, entering the cellar before Tristan. “Sweet Superi,” he gasped, when he saw their captive.

“Wait,” he held up his hands, as the man tossed up an ice shield; “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“He’s one of us,” Tristan said, before he’d reached the bottom step; “don’t waste your strength.”

Montilis scrutinized the completed mark on the young boy’s face, but, when Jacob’s hand fell to the hilt of his sword, he focused on the mercenary. “How well do you know the merchant?” he asked.

“He’s not one for letting people close,” Jacob replied, “but I’m your best shot of gaining a ship, without being clamped in iron.”

Set barely heard the conversation; he couldn’t look away from the battered general. The man’s face had seen better days: his left cheek was split wide open, and his left eye was swollen shut. But those injuries were nothing compared to the burn on the center of his chest – the pain of it had to be immeasurable.

As he fought the urge to cover his nose from the stench of burnt flesh, he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. There was something silver embedded in the wound – something that did not belong in living flesh. Turning on Davad, he broke into the conversation: “Is that the iron you’ve been hoarding in your pockets? Was this your intent for it? What’s wrong with you?”

Jabbing a finger towards his father, Davad shouted back: “Don’t presume to judge me. He set us on this path – I simply did what needed doing.”

Set tensed, waiting on Jacob to become unhinged for the way his son had just spoken. But, Jacob just stared.

“I didn’t want any part of this,” Davad continued to rage; “I said we couldn’t trust the pirate, and now look…” his voice broke, as he pointed at Montilis: “look at what I did. Look at what he made me do.”

The silence that followed was painful. Surprising them all, it was Montilis who spoke next: “I often tell my men that battles are won or lost by a man’s ability to hold the course. Your father has taught this lesson well, and, because of it, you’ll bring your sister home – not by the strength of your ignis ability, but by the strength of your commitment to hold the course. Under different circumstances, boy, I’d have killed you for this…” he chuckled without mirth, as he gestured to his raw injuries, “..but knowing what I know now, I wish I had a dozen men just like you, to go after my daughter.”

“What of your course?” Tristan said. “I ask because there’s a warship waiting at the docks with your name on it. Are you willing to risk the fate of your daughter on Triton?”

“Tristan,” Jacob cautioned.

“His question is valid,” Montilis said, in the boy’s defence. “Though, for truth, I could ask the same question of you, young man.” Stiff, as if standing before a firing squad, he was yet determined to make his point: “I’ve deserted my post and my men – I’ve likely gotten two of them killed for aiding me. Triton is the only chance I have of rescuing my daughter now. If I can’t get across the oceanus, I can’t reach her… I can’t set things right.”

Jacob spun to face the general, as he caught a fleeting image of a voluptuous nox woman, with long, black hair and blood red eyes, slapping Anliac across her cheek, and knocking her to a redwood floor.

Montilis knew the telepath had witnessed the memory; “I should have defended her.”

“We all have our reasons for being here,” Jacob told him. “Right now, we need to focus on how to get ourselves out. We have to get to Triton’s ship.”

“Well that’s not going to be easy,” Tristan said; “the village is crawling with soldiers, and the dock looks like an overturned anthill.” To Montilis, he said: “They must really want you back.”

Montilis shrugged, wearing an arrogant grin: “I’m good at my job.”

“We’re running out of darkness,” Jacob said; “if anyone has an idea, now is the time to share it.”

“They’re not after us,” Set said. “Let Tristan get the general onto the schooner – we can follow.”

“No,” Jacob said.

“It’s the only way,” Set told him; “with Tristan’s speed, the soldiers will never catch them, and, once they’re on board, Triton’s crew can help us.”

“I see no speed markings,” Montilis said to Tristan, “but even if you have the ability, you wouldn’t have the strength to carry me.” He became intrigued, when four sets of eyes hit the ground.

Clearing his throat, Tristan said: “Trust me – I can do it.”

“That puts you out there alone, Tristan,” Jacob said, “and I won’t risk it.”

“He wouldn’t be alone,” Montilis argued: “I’d be there.”

“And you have a price on your head,” Jacob scowled; “Triton’s crew is as likely to cut you down as defend you.”

“He’s more worried about the crew killing me than you, Montilis,” Tristan clarified.

Montilis started to speak – Davad cut him off: “He said no!”

Reining in his voice and his temper, he began again: “Look, either we trust Triton or we don’t, but splitting up is a bad idea.”

“I agree,” Jacob said: “we’ll keep to the shadows until we’ve reached the trees, and play it by ear from there. Once we clear them, the moonlight will be our greatest adversary. We won’t have much time.

“Montilis, stay at our center – we’ll shield you as best we can until we reach the ship. Set is right: if we can get you on board, we should be fine.”

“We’ll be trapped,” Tristan told him. “I don’t trust Triton, Jacob – not his honor, nor his intent.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have a choice,” Jacob said. “Let’s move.”

“This is a mistake,” Tristan mumbled, but he filed out of the cellar behind the others, and took up his position.

“This way,” Jacob said. Differentiating between the thought patterns of the locals and the soldiers, he guided them toward the coast, using his ability.

Though the suns had yet to crest the horizon, the sky was beginning to lighten by the time they reached the tree line, and the shadows that remained.

“Hold,” Jacob told them. Reaching out with his ability, he entered the minds of those within range, and winced. So many silent voices colliding created a cacophony that reverberated through his skull, like static. He shook his head; “There are too many people: I can’t get a read. We’ve got to move.”

“Uh… Jacob.”

The surge of panic from Set had Jacob turning; “What is it?”

Set grabbed the man’s forearm; locking eyes, he pushed the thought as hard as he could: I think we’re surrounded.

Jacob relaxed, and ruffled Set’s hair with his free hand. “Trust me, son,” he said: “I’d know if we’d been discovered.”

Jacob was forced to eat his words, when soldiers, hidden within the trees, filed in at their backs; more emerged, from behind crates full of fishing supplies and netting. They were surrounded, and forced to a stop.

“It’s not like I didn’t try and tell you,” Set said, loud enough to know that Jacob heard, as he fell back to guard their rear flank.

“Gloat later,” Davad said, manoeuvering to the left. Seeing the look on Tristan’s face, he changed Jacob’s orders, and said: “Montilis, move right.”

Bemused, the general did as he was told. He glanced over at the center position – at Tristan, whose eyes were glowing from beneath his cowl

Red stripes, running horizontally down the outer sleeve of a multi-colored uniform, marked the man who spoke out as an officer: “General Montilis Aquam, you are to be taken prisoner for the desertion of your post and transported back to Palus Regia, where you will stand trial for your crime. Come willingly, or we have been granted permission to take you by force.”

From the fore-deck of his ship, Triton witnessed the commotion at the docks. Turning to the nox cargo-master he’d just made a deal with, he shook the man’s hand, and said: “I’d better get down there before this turns bloody.” In slow, steady strides he disembarked and headed over.

“Triton,” Jacob shouted, “you’ve got it all wrong!”

He bared steel, as one of the soldiers surged forward to get to Montilis. “Back off, boy!” Jacob snarled at the ambitious youth; “You’re too wet behind the ears to understand the danger you’re in, or the bloodbath you’re about to instigate.”

“Is that so?” Triton interrupted, close enough now not to have to raise his voice to be heard. Scratching his chin, he grinned, as he paused to take in the clustered group.

A telepathic swordsman at the fore, a master aquis wielder to the right, an angry ignis wielder to the left, and, if his suspicions were correct, the blue-eyed boy was, like Matthew, an epoto, and was inching his way closer to the nearest soldier – no doubt to drain the man. Then, there was the strange one with yellow eyes, who stood at the center of the group, like an animal, caged even by his own pack. They were all deadly.

When a seasoned soldier reached for Set, he found himself overmatched. He had a hold of the boy by the arm, but the youth grabbed him by the chin with his free hand, and his world became pain.

“Tell your men to stand down,” Triton said to the officer, as the soldiers drew their weapons, “before they all die.”

“He’s killing one of my men!”

Pivoting round, Tristan slammed his fist into the soldier’s temple; loose from Set’s hold, the man hit the ground, knocked out cold. Without revealing his eyes, Tristan said: “Better to wake up with a headache, than to wake up dead.”

“Hold,” the officer commanded his men. Then, he threatened: “I’ll have you all shackled for that.”

“Careful, nox,” Jacob retorted: “arrogance kills.”

“He’s right,” Triton shrugged: “you’ll die first if this turns ugly – guaranteed.”

The officer paused, before bellowing: “Stand down! For now,” he growled.

Jacob lowered his sword, but didn’t put it away. “Montilis is not a threat to you, Triton – he came looking for you for the same reason I did.”

The pirate rubbed at the stubble on his chin; “Now that you mention it, Jacob, there is something familiar about the green of his eyes. Pity, it truly is, but you see, these men have offered a hefty sum for capturing this one – enough to cover the passage of four looking to cross the Nubilosus.”

Jacob had taken three solid strides before he could bring his rage under control: “You knew about his daughter! You used me!”

“Don’t be a fool. I had no idea you’d show up on my dock, and I certainly didn’t know that his daughter had been taken by slavers.” Showing no fear of the swordsman, Triton continued: “What I knew was that a deserter had fled Palus Regia and was headed towards the coast. Those looking for him came to me first, offering good coin for his capture, should he try to take to ship. You were a convenient tool, and, as always, your work was superb.”

“And what if I had killed him?” Jacob asked.

Triton shrugged: “He would have fetched a lesser price. In which case,” he turned to stare pointedly at Tristan, “one of you would have had to stay behind.”

“You sorry son of a-”

“This isn’t right,” Davad said, as flames engulfed his hands, his body trembling with indignation.

“There is nothing worse than a leader who would abandon his crew, boy,” Triton said. “Turn him over, Jacob, before your son starts something we’ll all regret.”

“Davad, calm yourself,” Jacob ordered, without taking his eyes off of their adversaries.

“He’s trying to save his daughter, Dad,” Davad stated. Glaring at Triton, he asked: “How can you fault him for it?”

“Because he’s a deserter,” Triton told him.

“It’s okay, Davad.” Stepping past Tristan, Montilis paused to rest a hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “Guilt is great burden for a mercenary,” he told Jacob; “set yours aside for the sake of both of our daughters. The death of you and yours would serve no purpose here.”

With Jacob’s nod, Davad let the flames dissipate from his hand, as he offered it to Montilis; “I owe you for the scars, old man.” Refusing to look at his father, he said, without hesitation: “It galls me to know my father would hand you over – know that I would not.”

Montilis shook the young ignis wielder’s proffered hand. “Save Anliac, and I will be the one in your debt. Any hope she has now lies with the four of you.”

As the soldiers shackled him, hand to foot, he filled Jacob’s mind with images of Anliac, and said: “I’m begging you, mercenary: bring her back to me.” Then, they led him down the dock, to where his comrades and the warship waited.

The soldiers dispersed as quickly as they’d appeared, only to be replaced with Triton’s crew-members, who moved in to protect their captain.

Looking beyond the swordsman, to Davad, the pirate’s smile was cruel; “Did you learn something tonight, boy?”

Davad tilted his chin in defiance: “I did.”

Triton took note of the deadly gleam in the boy’s stoic eyes. “And what would that be?”

“That a pirate’s honor is based on his own self-interest – that it has no value except to the one it serves, and that if there is any justice in this life, the time will come when you need me. The cost will be more than you can imagine, and I’ll settle for nothing less.” The loss of innocence was written across the young boy’s shattered visage.

Triton gave a slow nod – an acknowledgement of the painful growth Davad had survived. He looked at the yellow-eyed youth, and wondered whose blood stained his right hand. The youngest seemed shaken to his core, yet, when their eyes met, Set didn’t flinch, but brought his ability’s draining hands forward, as he fell into a defensive stance.

“Perhaps now they’re ready to face what comes,” Triton said, as he refocused on Jacob. “What do you think?”

“They are no longer the boys who left Exterius Antro,” Jacob said, making eye contact with no one other than Triton; “but, that was your aim, was it not?”

Triton chuckled: “By now you know where you’re going, mercenary, but not even you can take the tower alone. They weren’t ready.”

“Be that as it may,” Jacob scowled, “I don’t much like you at the moment.”

The comment made Triton’s grin broaden. “You can remove the warning from your tone, old friend – I’ve no more lessons to teach this day. And, though I’ll spend the voyage with my cabin door locked and guarded,” he said, “you’ve earned your passage.” Winking at Davad, as he turned towards the schooner, he added: “A pirate always keeps his word.”

Without concern for his exposed back, Triton led them up the gang-plank, and onto the ship. The angry stares of the crew tracked their progress, but it was Tristan who held their focus.

“You should know, Triton,” Jacob warned, “that my boys will defend themselves if your crew crosses a line. We both know the extremes they are capable of.”

“My crew will see what I see,” Triton told him: “that your boys are mercenaries in the making, being trained by one of the best. I wouldn’t worry,” he said, as he called out for his first mate.

Razoran dropped what he had been doing and walked over.

“Take the boys into the forecastle and find them a place to sleep,” Triton said; “they’ve had a long night.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Razoran nodded. Turning to the boys, with a half grin and amused eyes, he said: “Follow me.”

Ducking into the forecastle, they heard Triton bellow: “Totalis!” The rest of what was said was drowned out behind the closed door.

“Aye, Captain?” Totalis shouted, from his perch in the crow’s nest, high above their heads.

“Get your prickly arse down here, and get our girl into some open water!” To no one in particular, he added: “We’ve been tied to the land long enough.”

The quilled fera shimmied down the thick pole, and headed for the helm, barking orders to the crew along the way. “Loose the cleats and get on board!” he bellowed, to those still on the docks. “Man the capstans, boys! Lift those anchors!”

The crew went to work manning the rigging – scurrying up the ratlines to release the sails of the ship’s two masts. The long arms of the booms swung wide, and the sails filled, as they caught wind, and brought the prow of the ship about, until it faced the open waters of the Nubilosus Oceanus.

Triton opened the door beneath the quarter-deck and stepped aside, to allow Jacob to enter the upper cabin. “You can sleep here,” he said; “it’s not much, but it’s private.”

“I’ll not take your bed,” Jacob objected, as he stepped around the table, his eyes straying to the maps tacked to the wall.

“Nor am I offering it,” Triton chuckled. He pointed to a hatch-door in the back corner of the room: “I sleep below.”

“Triton… thank you.”

“You’ve had a long night, my friend,” Triton said, turning for the door. “We’ll talk again once you’ve had sleep.”

“I need to check on the boys before I retire.”

“Don’t worry,” Triton replied, “I’ll take care of it.”

XI

Distrust and Misdeeds

 

The suns’ light, pouring in the window of the cabin, blinded Jacob, as he woke from too little sleep, with Triton’s furious psyche bellowing in his head.

Not bothering with his boots, he wrapped his belt and scabbard around his waist, and headed out the door. Stepping onto the main deck, he searched for his boys.

A disreputable-looking mortalis had been secured to the thick, wooden pole of the mainmast. Hysteria danced in his wild eye – the other had been sewn shut – as his long dreadlocks jumped about, with the jerking of his head. His lips drew back from black rotted teeth, as he snarled at his captors.

Ten feet behind Triton, Set and Davad flanked Tristan. Joining them, Jacob crossed his arms over his chest, and asked, with a hard edge: “What’s going on?”

Fighting the breeze, Davad shoved his wavy brown hair out of his face. “Earlier, when Razoran was leading us to our room, this one” – he pointed to the bound man – “shoved Set into the wall.”

“His energy felt wrong,” Set said, “but I didn’t know what it meant.”

Davad shook his head: “I told him to stay out of it, but did he listen? Nooo.”

Tristan spoke up: “Triton came below to check on us, and Set told him about the man.” He shrugged: “But Triton told us not to worry about it.”

“Yeah,” Davad snorted. “Then, the next thing we know, we’re being dragged out of our bunks, so Set can make sure Triton has the right guy.”

“Who is he?”

Without turning, Triton answered: “I was hoping you could tell me, telepath. He’s not one of mine.”

A collective gasp from the crew preceded a rush of whispers and worried looks.

Jacob sighed, as he approached the bound man. Slamming his shoulder into Triton’s as he passed, he snarled: “Thanks for that.”

Triton chuckled.

Manoeuvering directly in front of the prisoner, Jacob listened to the man’s mind – it volunteered the information he needed without him even asking the first question. Jacob’s scowl darkened; “Tell the cook to toss out the flour and anything he’s prepared with it – it’s been poisoned, as are the casks of spirits you were to deliver to the nox from Exsulto, at the port in Effugere Aquam.”

Triton was personified menace, as he stalked forward. Grabbing the mortalis’s chin, he tilted it up to make eye contact; “You’ll meet the end of the rope for this, you sorry bilge rat.”

Set tip-toed up, to lean into Tristan’s ear: “What does that mean?”

“They’re going to hang him, I guess,” Tristan replied.

“No,” Jacob said, returning to stand beside them, “it means they’re going to flog him.”

Set paled. “I’m going back to bed – my stomach can’t witness a beating this early in the morning.”

“It’s past midday,” Davad said.

“Not for me.” Set ducked through the door of the forecastle and disappeared.

“Let’s see if he has a taste for the cat,” a crewman yelled from the starboard gunwale.

Raised fists and angry shouts confirmed a consensus.

Triton’s bellowed: “Bring her out!” brought the crew to a frenzy.

“Do I even want to know?” Davad asked.

Before Jacob could muster a reply, a crewmember laid a cat-o’-nine-tails into the captain’s palm. At the end of its nine leather strips glinted barbed metal, that would not only tear open the mortalis’s skin, but would also snag into the flesh and rip it wide with each retracting pull. The sight of it provided explanation enough.

Turning to the boys, Jacob said: “You need to get below.”

“Yeah,” Davad agreed, “this is too much.”

Tristan mimicked Jacob’s stance, and shook his head; “I’m staying.”

“Trust me, son – you’re not going to want to see this.”

Holding his ground, Tristan said: “Leaving would mark me as weak, and I can’t afford to let that happen – not if I want to survive the voyage across the oceanus.”

The first blow sank the barbs deep. The man’s eyes bulged at the intensity of the pain, as he began to scream. Triton yanked the barbs free, ripping the mortalis’s flesh, and blood flung from the leather strips, into the crowd of frenzied men. The pirate showed no mercy, as he continued to punish the guilty.

When at last the man could scream no more, his body sagging against the restraining ropes, they released him. His lifeless, mutilated body plopped onto the blood-stained wooden planks – a discarded hunk of tenderized meat, soon to be tossed over the gunwale, to feed the fish.

“It’s finished,” Jacob said, over the excited shouts of the crew. “They are beyond noticing your presence now – you can go.”

Tristan nodded once, then turned for the forecastle door. He found Set and Davad, lying on the two top bunks in their closet-sized room. Taking the bunk beneath Set, he searched for a comfortable position, atop the thin, lumpy mattress.

“Are you okay?” Davad asked.

“I’m exhausted,” Tristan told him. “Shashara, Montilis, Triton… witnessing that… execution…” he sighed; “I’m tired.”

He closed his eyes, and didn’t open then again until the next morning, when a loud, clanking bell shattered his dreams.

Sitting up too fast, Set’s head whacked the ceiling. “Ow,” he groaned.

“What was that?” Davad asked, stretching himself awake.

Jacob stuck his head into the room; “We’ve been asked to join Triton in his cabin for breakfast. Get yourselves washed up – I’ll wait for you on deck.”

“I guess that answers your question,” Tristan said, crawling out of bed. Rolling his head backwards, he sighed, as his neck cracked into place: “Not exactly how I would have liked to start my day.”

“Maybe Triton’s not as bad as he seems,” Set said, as he pulled on his boots. “After all, he and Jacob have been friends for a long time, so there has to be something redeemable about him.”

“I wouldn’t hold your breath,” Davad said. “Come on – Dad won’t be happy if we keep the captain waiting.”

“What took you all so long?” was Jacob’s greeting, when they stepped onto the main deck. He didn’t wait on a reply, as he led them across it to the upper cabin. Stepping inside, he paused, before throwing open the hatch that would take them down into Triton’s room.

“Don’t smart off,” he said; “try to remember that we are guests on this ship, and that the only way off it is to go for a swim. Oh, and Tristan, try to leave enough food on the table for the rest of us.”

As his Dad dropped onto the ladder, Davad elbowed Tristan in the ribs, to knock the scowl off his face. “Smile,” he said, going down next; “I’m fairly certain they won’t let you starve.”

“I don’t eat that much,” Tristan glowered.

“Yeah,” Set grinned, following Davad down the ladder, “you do.”

Tristan’s stomach growled. “Shut up,” he snarled at it, ignoring the ladder as he jumped down the hatch.

“Glad you could join us,” Triton greeted, once they were all present.

“Thank you for the invitation,” Jacob replied, when the boys were too busy gawking at the items in the opulent room to remember their manners.

Brilliant red walls complemented the glossy shine of the wooden planked floor. Drenched in red satin, and covered with a mountain of black down pillows, an enormous round bed sat atop a foot-high platform. Along the far back wall stood a silver-gilded armoire, a chest of drawers, and a tall narrow mirror, with a gilded ebony frame. Their lids open, black lacquered chests, spaced along the walls, revealed some of the pirate’s treasures: pearls of varying colors and sizes, shells of peculiar designs; no gold, as one would think, but aged scrolls, which seemed to be on the verge of crumbling, and simple stones. Oddly enough, the latter constituted the most interesting of his collection, for the mystery they held.

However, the weaponry hanging on the wall – beyond anything they’d ever seen – sucked the air from their lungs, and inspired the most awe: daggers and two-handed broadswords that appeared the weight of a man – each held a violent edge. There were spears, which crossed each other; two, without tips, hung vertically side by side, with a linked chain connecting them. In the space between them was a set of double-bladed knives, which made their palms itch to hold them.

Tristan nudged Davad, and nodded to the sets of gloves which bordered the arms – metal claws protruded from the leather, to reach out over the back of the bearer’s hands. Pitching his voice low, he wiggled his brows and said: “I want them.”

In the right corner were armored uniforms of brown and dark green, most likely from war. The empty space beside the armor made the absence of Triton’s two favored swords notable, but it was the sword that hung on the wall above the armor that had their jaws dropping: its craftsmanship was beyond equal, its beauty unparalleled – intertwining silver and onyx laced its way down the hilt, to disappear into a solid black scabbard.

Davad grinned. “You can have the gloves,” he whispered, “if I can have that sword.”

They jumped when Jacob snuck up behind them. “I doubt those weapons are for the taking,” he said, urging them forward, past the bed, around the thick, moon-shaped pad on the floor, littered with blankets, backrests and pillows.

“Weapons such as those must be earnt,” Triton stated, as they reached the rectangular table, laden with scrambled eggs, smoked ham, slices of red apple, fresh cheese and round, flat biscuits, with small holes in them. Of the eight chairs surrounding the setting, five were available. With a wave of his hand, Triton said: “Please, join us.”

Taking his seat at the far end of the table from Triton, Jacob chuckled at the boys’ speculative looks at the strange bread. “They’re called sea biscuits,” he told them, as Davad and Set hunkered into the chairs on either side of him.

Tristan glanced at the two other men Triton had invited to dine: one was covered in quills and wore a heavy scowl; the other was the fera Jacob had tangled with in the tavern – Razoran, Tristan thought his name was, as he chose the seat next to the fera. His memory proved correct, when Triton began the introductions:

“Razoran you know,” Triton grinned; “he’s my first mate. Totalis,” he continued, indicating to the brown quilled fera, “is my quartermaster.” To his men, he said: “Allow me to introduce you to the infamous telepathic mercenary, Jacob Davadson.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Jacob warned. Changing the subject, he said: “These are my boys: Davad, Tristan, and Set.”

Totalis regarded Davad and Set in turn, carefully avoiding eye contact with Tristan: “I had intended to offer you boys a way to earn your keep this morning, but it looks as if only one of you is able. Having trouble finding your sea legs, are you?”

Eyeing the runny scrambled eggs and slightly discolored salted ham, Set stiffened; “I hit my head this morning. I’m hoping…” He leaned away from the table, unable to finish his sentence.

“You did us a good turn in weeding out that interloper,” Totalis told him. “You stick to your bunk, boy, and I’ll have old Swiney come to you – he’ll have herbs and such to settle your bones.”

“It’s not my bones,” Set groaned; “it’s my belly.”

The three sailors chuckled.

“Aye,” Totalis chuckled, “old Swiney will help with that too.”

“I would appreciate the opportunity to earn my keep as well,” Tristan said, knowing he wouldn’t be addressed otherwise. “What can I do to help?”

Totalis answered by stabbing his dirk into the meat on his plate. Lifting the entire chunk, he bit off a piece with his short, spiked teeth, and glared.

Razoran nudged Tristan with his shoulder; “You look like you’ve a strong back, and the oarsmen have been called to the lower mid-deck – you’ll be of use there.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Totalis blurted, and then winced – Razoran outranked him. Clenching his teeth, he held up his hands in surrender.

When Razoran turned to Triton for approval, the captain’s visage read: speculative, though not displeased. So, Razoran asked: “What do you say, boy?”

“Sounds good.”

“What?” Davad asked, a hard edge to his question, when he caught Triton staring.

“How did you sleep, ignis wielder?”

“I have a name, pirate.”

Triton laughed, as Jacob cautioned: “Easy, Davad.”

“I slept fine,” Davad scowled.

The curl of Triton’s lips percussed more riling at his son’s expense, so Jacob turned the direction of the conversation: “I’d like to take a look at some of your maps, Triton, and discuss where we’re likely to take to port.”

As talk of winds and timetables sprang up amongst the men, the boys fell silent. Set nibbled on a few of the sea biscuits, and sipped at his water, but, for the most part, he simply suffered under the onslaught of smells. Davad, taking twisted pleasure in Set’s discomfort, made a messy, slow showing of his meal, until he’d eaten enough to make his stomach ache. Tristan picked at his food until the men leaned back their chairs to stretch out their distended stomachs, and then he ingested all that remained.

The quartermaster stared aghast at the amount of food Tristan had consumed: “It’s a good thing the Nubilosus isn’t very wide, boy, or you’d eat us out of stock and ship.”

The blush that flushed Tristan’s pale face had as much to do with anger as embarrassment. His physical abilities – the ones he wasn’t allowed to show – took a considerable amount of energy; food was the source of that. If there was another way, he’d love to know about it. Heeding Jacob’s mental order to keep his mouth shut, Tristan said: “If you’ll excuse me, Captain, I’d like to go below?”

Feigning a disinterest that Jacob knew to be false, Triton dismissed Tristan with a wave of his hand. Though concerned, Jacob didn’t stop him from disappearing up the hatch.

Alone for the first time since boarding the schooner, Tristan expected trouble, as he stepped out onto the main deck. The crew paused upon seeing him, and the red-headed mortalis – the one who had deemed him an “abomination” – moved to block his path.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Below,” Tristan said, “to help the oarsmen.” Desiring to avoid a fight, he stepped around the man, but was shoved from behind. “Leave me alone,” he growled.

“Does your blood run as yellow as your eyes, boy?” the redhead taunted.

Shaking with rage, Tristan stayed focused on his destination, ignoring the insults that followed him. Out of sight of the men above, he sagged as some of the tension drained from his muscles, but his relief didn’t last long.

The belly of the ship comprised three separate lower decks; two bulkheads – dividing walls – split the first deck into three sections. The galley, where food was prepared and served, sat beyond the bulkhead, at the fore of the ship; the bulkhead towards the stern was a continuation of the captain’s quarters. The merchandise that Triton carried between ports filled the hold, located in the center of the first deck.

Grateful that his destination wasn’t the bilge, which even the crewmen avoided, he braced himself for the inevitable confrontation to come, as he dropped through a second hatch door, to the lower mid-deck.

Two columns of benches lined the curved hull – cannons were secured to the deck at every porthole in between; three men at each bench rowed the oars in unison. At his unwanted appearance in their midst, a green-skinned fera, with a wide tongue and vertical, golden eyes, stopped his measured walk down the aisle.

“What do you think you’re doing down here, boy?” the fera hissed; “You’d best run back to that telepath, where you’re safe.”

Tristan rolled his head and shoulders, forcibly grabbing hold of his temper, as the blatant threat stoked his anger; “Razoran told me to help.”

Hands raised, the fera pivoted in a slow circle; “Who wants to share an oar with Yellow Eyes? Who here wants his help?”

Tristan’s skin grew tight, as curses rattled the hull’s curved walls, but he wasn’t leaving. Forcing his legs to lead him to the back, and forbidding his feet to run or falter, he sat at the only bench of just two men. When they released their oar and moved away, Tristan grabbed the long, smooth, wooden handle – positioning himself like the others, he mimicked their movements, and manned the oar alone.

“Push…” the fera walking the run called out, after seeing that the boy was determined to stay; “pull… push… pull…” To the oarsmen, he said: “Don’t worry, men: his back won’t hold out long. Push… pull…”

Tristan lost himself to the rhythm, revelling in the numb burn that started in his lower back and thighs. His biceps and triceps soon felt shredded, and his shoulders were on fire, but he kept pace with them. For the first time in too long, he had a way to expend the aggression that had been growing, since the night Shashara was taken – the release eased him profoundly.

Tristan felt the vibration of the oar, as it snapped. The sound of it ricocheted off the hull, as did his “Whoah!” when he tumbled backwards off the bench, cracking his head on the cannon behind him.

Marching over, the serpentine fera bellowed: “You ignorant landlubber!” He stooped to snag the two halves of splintered wood from the deck. Shaking it in Tristan’s face, he shouted: “How many oars do you think we carry with us across the oceanus? Look what you’ve done! The captain will flay your hide for this.”

“It was an accident,” Tristan said, as he reached back to the knot on his head. Shocked at the absence of blood, he shoved his way to his feet, and added: “I’m sorry about the oar, though.”

“Just get out,” the fera said, in disgust.

Tristan swayed, unsteady on his feet, as his vision cleared and blurred in turns, but stated: “I’m not leaving.” His fortitude waned, however, when, one by one, the crewmen stood, cracking their knuckles.

Swallowing what little pride remained, he left, lying to himself: saying he was doing it for Shashara. Finding a quiet spot in the hold, one level above, he attempted to push the morning’s events from his mind, but failed.

When the bell rang out from the galley, to call the crew in for grub, their talk revolved around the strangers – most of all, him. Sitting with forearms resting on bent knees, Tristan could hear it all from the other side of the bulkhead. He arched his head back against the hull, as he told himself he didn’t care what they said. The funny thing about lying, is that you can lie to everybody but yourself.

“Don’t let them wear you down, boy.”

Razoran’s voice broke Tristan out of his reverie.

Looming over him, the fera’s ripped physique was fearsome. A striking contrast upon the dark grey of his fur, his markings were as white as Tristan’s skin – the intertwining crescent shapes ran from Razoran’s armpits to the inside of his wrists.

At a loss for words, Tristan said: “Your markings are amazing – I’m assuming your ability is strength.”

“There’s not a mortalis or fera on this ship that I can’t handle – except, maybe, the captain.” He chuckled at the last, and squatted down.

“You’re loyal. I may not understand it, and I’ll not lie and say that I like your captain, but there is honor in your loyalty to him.”

Taken aback, Razoran looked at Tristan anew. “I was the first fera to join Triton’s crew – that was fifteen years ago. To say my future had looked dismal would be like saying that a hurricane resembled rain. He took me in – he made me family – and, like you, he is not what he seems.”

“Jacob took Set and me in after we lost our parents, so I can understand where you’re coming from.” Guilt pulled the confession from his tongue: “My presence in his life has caused him complications from the beginning, but never in such a way as this – I’m repaying his kindness with added burden.”

“It was his gain, not his burden. At least, that’s what the captain says about me.” The fera stood. His broad chest puffed with pride as he smiled, displaying two rows of sharp teeth and long canines protruding from black gum-lines.

“Hang in there, boy – things will get better. Or, they won’t. Either way, you’ll survive – your companions will make sure of it.”

 

*

 

Tristan went on deck alone the next morning. The stench of hot tar greeted him.

Totalis was waiting, with a mop made from lengths of medium rope, and a wooden bucket, steaming with the sticky, black substance.

Shoving them into his hands, Totalis said: “Get to work.”

By midday it was clear that the crew had changed tactics: they’d tried taunting him, they’d tried to break him; now, he was apparently relegated to the position of stray dog. He couldn’t trust the hand that fed him not to be poisoned, but they also couldn’t trust him not to bite, if they brought that hand too close – it made for a tenuous truce. But, at least he was allowed to work.

Dunking the mop into the wooden bucket, before slopping it down onto the main deck, Tristan felt envy stir, as he felt the pull of the tar on the bottoms of his boots: meanwhile, Davad held his own – both by wit and brawn – working smoothly alongside the crewmen.

Tristan arched his back, and had to squint against the glare of the water. His clothes and hooded cloak protected his body, and his gloves protected his hands, but the black tar reflected heat, as well as light, and his face was beginning to blister.

He could have finished the chore in a quarter of the time, but that would have had to reveal his abilities. Without markings, how would he explain the things he could do? With the fate of the rogue mortalis still fresh in his mind, he feared what the crew would do to him. It was possible for a person to possess more than one type of physical ability, but it was unheard of for one person to possess them all – and no one in Superian history had an ability, absent a mark.

His personal trials were made smaller when the forecastle door flew wide, and Set came sailing through it, head first. Landing on his belly, he slid across the deck, kissing the edge of freshly laid tar, before he came to a stop. As his skin turned the color of ash, he vomited.

The red-headed mortalis stood in the forecastle doorway, bellowing: “Find Swiney.” He stormed towards Set.

Keeping his head down, his face veiled by the top of his hood, Tristan intercepted him: “Don’t touch my brother again.”

Scarlet suffused the mortalis’s white skin, and highlighted his pock-marked, purple scars, as his almond-shaped green eyes narrowed. “Don’t threaten me, boy,” he said.

But, he backed away, when Tristan stated: “I don’t make threats.”

Regaining his bluster, for the benefit of the crew, the redhead stepped up. Tristan smiled.

“What’s going on here?” Triton barked, as he jumped over the railing of the helm, onto the main deck. Reaching them, he got in tight with the redhead, and growled: “Back off!”

“Aye, Captain,” the man complied, but his stare told Tristan that things were not finished between them.

Swiney grunted, as he came up from the hold, through the hatch at the center of the main deck. With a hand pressed to his lower back, he stretched out his spine, as he ambled over. With a respectful bow to Triton, Swiney propped his hands on his bony hips, and scowled down at Set, who lay on his belly, with the side of his face in his own vomit.

“Apologies, Captain,” he said; “I thought for sure that last batch of tea would have settled the boy’s stomach.”

“The crew is sick of the smell in forecastle,” the redhead complained, on behalf of the crew.

“The sails have caught a good wind, Captain,” Swiney said, over the top the redhead’s words, “and the gun deck is empty – maybe we should move him below.”

“Do it,” Triton told him, “and keep him down there until he finds his legs, or until we reach port.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.” Swiney bent his stooped back, to offer Set a hand in gaining his feet.

An animalistic growl escaped Tristan’s throat.

Triton got in his face, quick, bringing them nose to nose; “Let me teach you something of pirates, boy: we believe the ship is like a woman – mercurial and dangerous, but stronger than any man, for the weight she carries on her back. Treat her right – show her respect – and she’ll bring you to port, through the worst the oceanus can throw at you. But, disrespect her, Yellow Eyes, and you’ll find yourself belly up in a whirlpool, shipwrecked, or worse.

“Either he goes below, or they’ll keelhaul his hide, and that will be the end of it – I’ll not have my men mutiny over your brother’s weak gut.”

Leaving his current company, Davad came up at Set’s side, and pulled him to his feet. Turning to Triton, he asked: “Do we want to know what that means?”

The redhead was quick to give answer: “The keel runs beneath the hull, along her belly, from fore to aft. Cuts the water, she does, but the oceanus, boy, he fights back, by sticking barnacles on her hide, that slows her speed and makes her vulnerable. When you bind a man’s hands, tie him off at the bow sprit, and toss him over, those barnacles cut like fens, but twice as deep; she’ll bleed a man dry, while he drowns.”

Set’s eyes grew to large spheres at the description. Tristan held his ground, refusing to back away, until Triton spun on his boot heels, and barked at his crew: “Get back to work!”

The men scurried to do his bidding, along with Davad, who shrugged and smiled with a grimace, as he hurried off with them.

“Not you,” Triton pointed at the red-headed mortalis. “Like it or not, these are guests on my ship, and, if not for the sickly one, you’d be the one feeding every meal to the fishes. Or, perhaps not, considering you knew the flour and spirits were poisoned.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the mortalis swore, as his rounded eyes sought out the gunwale – weighing his odds of surviving the oceanus, to surviving the wrath of Triton. His decision made, he turned to run, but it was Triton’s elbow, smashing into his cheek, that completed his turn, as the bone crunched beneath the blow. He hit the deck, hard.

Looming over him, Triton said: “When we reach Effugere Aquam, you will disembark and not return. Your code of conduct has broken the article between us, and, if not for the debt I owe your father, you’d already be dead.”

“You know that wasn’t me, Captain – it was the bilge rat; you flogged him yourself!”

“The whole while that mortalis took his comeuppance, Jacob saw only one face in his mind,” Triton told him, “and it was yours. If I see you again on board my ship, I’ll haul you to the execution dock myself. Razoran!”

“Aye, Captain,” the fera answered, always close at hand.

“Take him to the bilge and lock him up.”

Razoran’s lips peeled back in a grin. “With pleasure,” he said, grabbing the mortalis by the back of his shirt, to haul him away. “But Socmoon won’t be happy with the company.”

“Tell the old one to keep his complaints in the bilge where they belong,” Triton said, a hint of a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Struggling against Razoran’s superior strength, the redhead asked: “If you knew it was me, then why didn’t you lock me up sooner?”

“I needed to make sure there were no others of your ilk threatening my trade.”

As the man began begging for his life, Triton snarled: “Get him out of my sight.”

Clubbing the man’s head with a meaty fist, Razoran caught him by the twine rope at his waist, as his legs gave out, and then dragged him to the opening of the hatch. With a wink Tristan’s way, he dumped the man down the hole, and then leapt through after him.

“Your crew doesn’t like me,” Tristan stated, as the men, giving them a wide berth, scrutinized his actions, for reasons to aggress.

Arms crossed, Triton said: “Davad makes no secret of his elemental ability, and I’ve known Jacob for too many years not to know what he is. I’m fairly certain your brother is an epoto, though he’s pathetically untrained.”

Tristan listened, without betraying his thoughts, and refusing to confirm or deny the pirate’s assumptions, but, when Triton spoke of his mother, Tristan’s tolerance began to fray.

“Beth had eyes the color of spring grass, and glorious blonde hair, that fell in waves to the small of her back. Her skin was honey, and her ability was elemental, which you are clearly not. And, in truth, you look nothing like her.”

“I look like my father.” Tristan gritted his teeth.

Triton laughed outright. He took in the long-sleeved, green shirt that Tristan wore, underneath a hooded cloak that hid his face, and the trousers that tucked into his leather boots, the toes misshapen within, as well as his gloved hands.

“Set has his father’s hair and eyes, and he has the angular features of his mother. But you, Yellow Eyes – you look nothing like either of them. So, tell me: are you covering your marks on purpose, boy, or do you hide something more than abilities?”

Tristan’s hands trembled, as fear wormed its way through his belly, even as anger pulsed through his veins. “My skin burns, Captain – that is the reason for the covering. As for a mark, I don’t have one; if Beth and Matthew are not my parents, then I’ve no idea who they are.”

Triton’s obsidian stare pinned Tristan. From this close, Tristan could have traced the stony plains of the man’s face with his hands. He was surprised to notice signs of ageing – the captain was not nearly as young as he seemed when his menacing presence was overwhelming another.

Blond hair dishevelled, and clothes in disarray, a haggard Jacob leaned from the open door of Triton’s upper cabin, to say: “Triton, I found it.”

They’d seen little of Jacob since boarding the schooner, and, if he was surprised to see the two of them talking, it didn’t show. Over the last three days, he’d pored over maps and studied countless sketches – planning, he would say, for when they reached port.

“Coming,” Triton said. Then, before breaking eye contact with Tristan, he added: “I’ll know your secrets before you leave my ship, boy – you have my word on it.”

XII

Private Battles

 

Tristan caught the hatch door, as a crewmember tried to slam it shut, and forced his way from the hold onto the main deck.

No sooner had he emerged, than a stiff shoulder slammed into his own, knocking him off balance, as it spun him sideways. Gritting his teeth against the hatred of the crew, he tried to tell himself that he wouldn’t be on this forsaken ship forever, but his optimism didn’t survive long – the last five days had seemed a lifetime, and the voyage was far from over.

He knew what people saw when they looked at him, and it was not a sixteen-year-old guy, trying to find his way in a world where differences made you a target. No – they saw the weight of a man, spread across a six-foot frame, laden with heavy, cut muscle.

Though his size and strength provoked challenge in others, age had yet been his ally. Growing up with such differences had made fighting a daily occurrence; the taunts and cruelty of children’s games had pushed him beyond control, until the moment came when he’d lost his hold on his temper – it was that moment that he had come to fear his abilities.

The crewmen were like those children: they taunted and provoked that which would destroy them if unleashed. Only, he was no longer a child, and he knew well the consequences of using his abilities where others could see.

He grinned, as the short hairs on the back of his neck alerted him to Triton’s gaze. The pirate had sworn to discover his secrets before they reached port in Pisces Stragulum, and, in the process, had given him reason to keep hold of his temper. Denying Triton the knowledge he sought was the only balm he’d found against the chafing of the crew’s consistent mistreatment.

Shielding his eyes from the brilliant glare coming off of the open oceanus, Tristan spotted Jacob and Triton, at the stern of the ship. They stood, like two titans, on the quarter-deck, above the entrance to the captain’s quarters. Jacob’s cloak, tossed back by the wind, danced around the sword at his hip, as his raptor’s gaze narrowed on the horizon. Triton held the helm’s pommels with two hands, to steer, his vigilant onyx eyes watching over his crew, until they fell upon him.

Stiffening, Tristan matched the pirate, will for will, and swallowed a chuckle, as Triton looked away first.

A loud grunt diverted his attention to the fore of the ship, just before the forecastle, where Davad was pulling down on a rope as thick as his wrists. As his bare feet began to slip on the slick wood, Hammy shouted encouragement:

“Hold her fast, boy – the fore boom is coming round.”

Exhilaration strengthened the conviction of his words. “I’ve got this,” Davad shouted, his face turning red with exertion, as he pulled harder.

Envy rolled over Tristan like a physical force.

Hammy, the mortalis who had taken Davad under his wing, had given him a set of clothes better fitted for working the deck – the brown trousers featured a green patch over one knee, and a length of hemp twine cinched it at the waist. The bottom hem fit snugly against his ankles. Bare-chested, like the rest of the crewmen, he’d wrapped his hair in a square piece of red cloth, with the front two corners pulled around and tied at the back of his head.

Stout for fourteen, and thanks to the time spent at a Clave’s forge, Davad wasn’t afraid of hard work. His tanned skin had begun taking on the darker tint of a nox, from so much time under the suns.

Tristan’s brows fell, as a disconcerting thought wafted through his mind: If this keeps up, Davad will be punching hoops through his ears, and saying “Aargh” all the time. How annoying will that be? Wincing, Tristan scolded himself and turned his thoughts another way.

It had taken time, but the novelty of their presence had begun to wear off, and the crew had fallen into a sort of rhythm. Each person had a particular job, but he couldn’t do it, unless someone else did theirs first – if one person fell out of step, the effect would ripple down the line, and the entire crew would threaten to keelhaul the slacker.

Triton had taken eighty men – both mortalis and fera; amongst them murderers and thieves – and had turned them into a harmonized unit. There was no segregation here, except for his own isolation. The mortalis and feras worked together, to keep their captain happy, and Tristan couldn’t say he blamed them: Triton was scary – his obsidian eyes made Tristan think of the creepers he had imagined under his bed as a child; only, the merchant was far more dangerous.

As Tristan climbed the ladder to the quarter-deck, Jacob, in a more jovial mood than they’d seen from him since boarding, said with a grin: “Well, good morning. I thought you’d sleep all day.”

“Morning, Jacob,” Tristan said, “though, I hesitate to call it ‘good’. Captain,” he nodded, showing as much respect as he could muster.

Triton looked right through him.

Jacob winced, his countenance apologetic, as he tugged Tristan closer to the gunwale.

“Triton and I were in the middle of a discussion, Tristan,” Jacob informed him; “now’s not really a good time. Is there something you need?”

Translation: Triton hates your guts, so you should probably make yourself scarce, Tristan thought. But, he said: “I wanted to check in with the captain, to see if there was work for me today.”

“Work, huh?” Jacob rubbed the stubble on his chin. The silence that followed was awkward for them both – left with no choice, Jacob asked: “What do you think, Captain?”

Triton’s voice was rough gravel when he replied: “You can trust a fera to be led by instinct; you can trust a mortalis to be more heart than head; you can trust a fulgo to seek power, and that a nox will place his prowess above his own life. You must know what a man is, if you are to judge his value and intent. My men don’t trust you, Yellow Eyes – they don’t want your help.”

Tristan felt his blood boil, as rage shook him to his core. “I am mortalis,” he snarled, as Jacob caught his arm, to halt his forward steps. Forbidden to speak his mind, he shoved them down Jacob’s telepathic throat instead:

I am mortalis. No matter what that man believes, Beth and Matthew were my parents, and they were mortalis! I have no answers, Jacob, for why I am different, but you do, and that makes everything he just said your fault.

“I know,” Jacob said, aloud.

No, Tristan thought, you don’t. I grow weary of being treated like a dog – like a spectacle, to be feared, pitied, but never accepted. As his heated stare bore into Triton’s back, he hissed: “Who does he think he is, to talk to me that way?”

“I’m the one keeping my men from feeding your arse to the sharks,” Triton smirked.

“I warn you, Triton,” Jacob said: “friend or not, still your flapping gums, before I break the jaw that moves them.” As Triton threw back his head and laughed, Jacob cursed: “Son of a…”

He grabbed Tristan and spun him towards the oceanus, away from the eyes of both captain and crew. Grabbing the back of Tristan’s head, Jacob pressed his forehead against Tristan’s, and told him: “Get below deck, and keep your head down until you get there.”

The aggression emanating from Jacob further ignited Tristan’s rage, as he pulled free from the other man’s hold. He wasn’t sure what he’d done to warrant the attitude, but, in his current mood, he was more than ready to give it back.

Jacob read Tristan’s intent, and instinct had his fist rearing back to deliver reply, but the boy’s words held it captive.

“We’re crossing two continents to rescue Shashara from a cage, and yet you would condemn me to one. I’ve done nothing wrong, Jacob – Triton is the one with issues.” There was no hiding the venom dripping from the accusation, as his blood burned hot, and his heart turned to ice. Yet, when Jacob’s fury turned to fear, as his eyes slid past Tristan to Triton, the boy asked: “What is it?”

Jacob snatched him by the front of his shirt, and dragged them nose to nose, as he shoved a singular thought into Tristan’s mind: Your eyes are glowing like grease lanterns, Tristan, threatening to see us all over the gunwale. Breathing in heavy panting, he stated: “You have to calm down.”

It was then that Tristan saw the shadows cast across Jacob’s features, catching the edges of white scars, that marred his sun-darkened flesh. Fear drained the fight right out of him.

“We’ll have to finish our conversation later, Triton,” Jacob said; “I need to talk to Tristan.”

“If it gets him out of my sight,” Triton retorted, “I’m all for the delay.”

Tristan barely heard him over the pounding of his heartbeat, as Jacob led them down the ladder, to the main deck. Eyes tracked them until they disappeared through the first hatch, but Jacob didn’t stop until they’d gone one level further down, to the lower mid-deck.

The open shutters – or “deadlights” – which stopped the aquis from gushing into the ship’s hull when the oceanus grew rough, allowed light and a salty breeze to grace the mid-deck.

Set stood there, with his head stuck through a porthole, as he retched in violent heaves. With one palm pressed against the hull, he grasped the top of its shutter with the other, to keep from sinking to his knees. Tristan felt his own stomach grow queasy at the sound of his brother’s suffering. Jacob was too focused on him to even look Set’s way.

With worry creasing his brow, Jacob said: “Superi help us, Tristan – your eyes… That can’t happen!” Pacing to gather his thoughts, he asked: “How angry were you?”

“How do you measure rage?” Tristan asked. His expression twisted, as he admitted aloud what Jacob already knew: “I have all this power, but I’m made to feel defenceless by fear. Your worries are that my abilities will be discovered, and mine are that I’ll cause injury – one that time can’t heal.

“I look at him,” he nodded towards Set, “and the guilt cripples me. But, standing before Triton…” he shook his head; “I can hurt him, Jacob. You threatened to break his jaw – I want to shut it permanently, and I’m strong enough to do it! But, then what? I live with the guilt of taking the life of your friend?”

He sighed, as his shoulders slumped: “It’s like I’m two different people, Jacob, and the lack of reconciliation between my two halves is beginning to rip me apart.”

“I would suggest you make an effort towards finding a balance,” Jacob told him, “or the crew will see your flesh divided, along with your psyche.”

“You think I have a choice?”

Helplessness rekindled Tristan’s anger, as well as the illumination in his eyes, which drew Set’s attention from twenty feet away. He watched his brother’s jaw drop, but when fear paled Set’s face, he closed his eyes against bearing witness to it – the shame of it dimmed the light, but also broke his spirit.

“I’ve known ridicule and prejudice my whole life,” Tristan said, in a small voice, “but it is worse on board this ship than anywhere we’ve travelled. I hate it.”

Set made a point of coming to stand beside his brother. “It is not you I fear, but the evolution of your power. If it brings you comfort, know that I fear my own even more.”

“Do you know what happens to a fulgo when they turn sixteen?” Jacob’s question caught them both without answer.

“No,” Tristan stated, “but, why would I care? I’m not a fulgo.”

“Their eyes glow when they get angry,” Jacob said, “and until they learn control, their abilities are unstable.”

“I agree with Tristan,” Set interjected: “What does that have to do with him?”

Tristan’s chest tightened at the expression which clouded Jacob’s face; “I’ve seen the love you have for us crack your walls of stone; I’ve seen you wear pride like a second skin; I’ve witnessed you don retribution, as a mask only vengeance could remove; I’ve even seen the shackles of fear shake your footing… but never have I seen you wear the visage of guilt, now revealed. What is it you know about me that turns your straight stare to one of diverted shame?”

Staying true to the nature of a mercenary, Jacob went stoic: “Once we have Shashara back, I’ll tell you everything I know. But, for now, stay out of the crew’s way and out of Triton’s sight.” The clenching of Tristan’s jaw softened his words: “We’re days from port. I know it’s unfair of me to ask, and the way you’ve been treated is wrong, but I’m asking anyway. If you can’t keep your head, then you need to stay down here, or you need to send Set to find me – I’ll help if I can.”

Tristan smirked: “You’re no different than them.”

Jacob shook his head. “I’ll not credit that statement with reply. I will, however, have Triton talk to his men again.”

“You must be joking,” Tristan said; “I’m not some child who’s going to come running to you every time someone is mean to me, Jacob. I’m not a coward, and you’ve no right to ask me to be one.” He could feel his heartbeat pounding in his temples. “Why won’t you just tell me what’s wrong with me?”

Jacob’s patience reached its end, as his volatile voice exploded through Tristan’s mind: Boy, take a good look around – we’re outnumbered, twenty to one, and the rest of us don’t have your abilities, and, in case you’ve forgotten, we can’t heal like you. Not even my skill would be enough to stand in a close combat fight against Triton’s crew.

Tristan open his mouth to vent his frustrations, but Jacob’s mental bellow brought with it a pain that snapped his teeth together:

So help me, Tristan, I’ll put you in a trance, if that’s what I have to do – I’ll carry you off this ship over my shoulder. But, I will not allow your hurt feelings and lack of self-control to cost the rest of us our lives! Do we understand each other?

“Jacob, ease off,” Set said, as Tristan’s knees buckled.

Seated on a bench, with the heels of his palms pressed against his temples, Tristan fought against the wave of pain that threatened to take him under. “I get it,” he said, and then sagged, as Jacob withdrew from his mind.

“I love you like my own, Tristan,” Jacob told him. “If this rescue mission was for you, I’d never allow Davad or Shashara to mess it up.”

“I know that.” And he did, but that didn’t make the situation any easier for him to bear.

“Stay below with Set,” Jacob said; “you don’t have to stay locked up down here, but I’ll have your word that you will maintain control of your temper, if you go above.”

Tristan stood and squared his shoulders. Voice thick with hurt and anger, he said: “You have it, but once Shashara is found, I’ll expect you to keep yours. I want answers, Jacob – all of them.”

Jacob’s aggression surged at the challenge in Tristan’s stare. His instinct was to back the boy down – he didn’t take orders. But, this wasn’t his enemy, it was his best friend’s son. Exhaling slowly, he replied: “Understood.” He turned his back on the boys, and reached for the ladder that would carry him from the belly of the ship.

Set plopped down hard, on the bench his brother had vacated. Grimacing, he leaned to the side to rub at a sore cheek. “And, here I thought I was, having a bad day.”

Tristan paced, his gaze slipping time and again to the hatch door. “Triton’s arrogance needs to be cropped at the neck. And Jacob…” he shook his head, “..his secrets are going to get one of us killed.”

“I think you’re right about Jacob’s guilt,” Set told him: “in truth, my gut says he’s eaten up with it.”

Tristan smirked: “And what does your gut say about Triton?”

“That he’s an invaluable ally when you find your back to the wall,” Set replied.

“Do not defend him, brother,” Tristan said, as his anger surged, though, the physical state Set was in refused to let it ignite. Dark, purple half-moons rested beneath Set’s sunken eyes, his cheeks were hollow, and his flesh was nearly as pale as Tristan’s own.

“You look horrible,” Tristan said.

“Thanks,” Set rolled his eyes. “I feel worse than I look, believe me.”

“Where’s Swiney?”

“He’s gone to talk to Triton,” Set told him, slumping forward, “probably about me. I give the man credit for trying: he uses his healing ability on a daily, to keep me from starving.” Looking up at his brother, he chuckled, without mirth: “This blasted ship is determined to be my end.”

Taking off his shirt, Tristan rolled it into a ball, and laid it at one end of the bench. “It doesn’t look as if either of us will be going anywhere, anytime soon – why don’t you lie down for a while?”

Set groaned, as he took his brother’s advice. His hand lay protectively over his tender stomach, as he braced his feet on the floor, and stretched out along the wooden bench. Wincing against the sunlight pouring through the portholes, he covered his eyes with his free hand.

Tristan, seeing Set’s discomfort, crossed the planked floor to close the deadlights.

“Thank you,” Set said, his head pounding in unison with Tristan’s booted steps, as his brother returned. “I thought the sea-sickness would have passed by now, you know.”

“Yeah…” Tristan said, as he settled against the hull, facing Set – he didn’t know what else to say.

“I was…” Set swallowed hard, and paused, before saying: “..wrong.”

“You typically are,” Tristan attempted to joke. But, the skeletal being Set had become was no laughing matter. “We don’t have much longer, brother.”

“You may hate me sometimes,” Set said, his voice little more than a whisper, “and sometimes I even deserve it, but we are the only blood we have.” Lifting his forearm off of his eyes, he turned his head, as he sought his brother’s face. Set’s expression said what words could not.

From around the lump in his throat, Tristan replied: “I love you, too.”

Set let his forearm fall back into place. “Do you remember that song Mom used to sing – the one about Superians?”

Closing his eyes, Tristan smiled at the memories. The song had been one of his favorites, at least when his Mom sang it – his Dad sounded like a croaking toad when he had tried.

“Yeah,” he paused, “I remember.”

Set’s bottom lip quivered, before he sucked it between his teeth. “Will you sing it to me?” he asked, as a tear slid down his temple, to dampen his dark hair.

Not since their parents’ death had Set shown such vulnerability. The sight of it now cleaved Tristan’s heart, so he brought to mind the melody of their mother’s voice, and hoped it would bring his brother a measure of comfort.

 

Sleep, little Superian – let dreams sweep you away,

To a place that was, but is no more.

Twas before the Cruxen Clav,

It was before the portal opened,

Before the gate was made.

Oh sleep, little Superian – let dreams sweep you away.

 

Sleep, little Superian – within your dreams you fly,

To dance amongst a million stars.

When we were angeli,

It was a time of sweet remembrance.

So, hush now – close your eyes;

Oh sleep, little Superian – let not the memory die.”

 

Tristan sang the lilting tune, until soft snores escaped from his brother. Neither knew the meaning of the song, but the memory it held was amongst their most precious possessions.

He’d enquired as to its meaning, before her death, but her answer confounded him: “Some knowledge, my son, is unobtainable, until one has gained the wisdom with which to understand.”

It had been no answer at all.

 

*

 

Over the following four days, Tristan was taught the true meaning of helplessness, as his brother faded before him.

The strength and weight he’d gained, during their trek from Exterius Antro to Catena Piscari, had long since melted away. His eyes appeared huge in his skeletal face, and his skin, stretched tightly over his frail frame, revealed the bones beneath. His lips, thin and flattened against his teeth, gave him the carnivorous appearance of a starving animal.

More than once Tristan had offered to let Set pull from him, but each time his brother’s response had been the same: no. Tristan didn’t blame him: draining from his abilities would use what core epoto energy Set had left, and then he would be faced with the driving hunger that Tristan knew all too well. So, he watched… helpless.

Swiney had tried everything – teas that had worked for generations proved useless. The marginal relief that came from chewing the small leaves, favored by the sailors for settling stomachs, was not worth the cauldron of acidic bile that Set’s gut became afterwards.

“Thank you, Swiney,” Tristan said, clasping the old aquis wielder’s forearm, after he’d offered Set what comfort he could. “I can’t imagine how much the healings cost you.”

Exhaustion hunched the man’s back, and his steps were slow, as he made his way to the hatch, but he replied: “I’ll see him whole, if it kills me.” With a dry chuckle, he dragged himself up the ladder, to the deck above.

Sipping the broth Swiney had ordered him to finish, Set said: “I swear, if I survive this, I’ll never set foot on anything that isn’t attached to solid ground again.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, little brother,” Tristan grinned; “we still have to make it home.”

The thought had Set setting the bowl aside, as he turned green and eyed a porthole. Placing a hand over his mouth, he leaned back his head, and willed the broth to stay in his stomach. Sweat slicked his skin by the time the wave of nausea had passed.

“Your mask of pity is worse than the rocking of this ship,” he said. “You’ve been down here for days – you should go up for some fresh air.”

“You’ve been down here for longer,” Tristan told him.

“Throwing up is bad enough, without an audience, Tristan,” Set said. “Go on deck – catch some sunshine for us both, for surely there is none down here. I tell you, Tristan, I’ve soaked up enough salt through the portholes, that if we were to shipwreck, I’d be the last to be eaten by the fera.”

Tristan couldn’t help but laugh; “That’s because there’s nothing on you to eat – you’re skin and bone, Set.”

“I’m serious,” Set told him; “I’ve thought about it:” – a shiver, that shook his small frame, caused him to wince, as the sudden movement cramped his undernourished muscles – “they’d save me for last, because even if I died first, there’s enough salt in my blood to keep me fresh for months.”

Tristan tried to maintain a straight face. Clearly, his brother was distressed, but… come on. He laughed until it looked like he’d sprung a leak; tears ran down his cheeks, his mouth open wide, and his head thrown back, as a heavy weight lifted off his chest. Here he was, upset that Triton’s crew didn’t like him, and his poor brother feared he might become emergency food rations.

Wounded, Set turned away; “Just go, Tristan.”

Eyeing the hatch, Tristan shrugged: “Nah, I’m good.”

“You’re hiding,” Set said. “In my book, that’s never good.”

Tristan diverted his stare, before speaking the lie: “I’m not hiding – I’m doing as I was told,” he said, and found himself squirming under Set’s scrutiny. The knowledge held in those blue eyes was far beyond Set’s thirteen years.

“Do you want to know why I preferred to take your power, rather than have you offer it?”

“That’s a touchy subject, Set,” Tristan said; “I’m surprised you’d choose now to bring it up.”

“You have more physical abilities than anyone we’ve ever seen,” Set began, “but you also have instincts that go beyond that of your abilities – ones that go beyond my ability to reach.” He hesitated, and then said: “Knowing I can take from you… helps even out the imbalance between us.”

Tristan’s brow furrowed; “I don’t know what you mean.”

Set hid his face, as shame colored his cheeks. “Mom used to dote on me because I was smaller – weaker – but I’ve always wished Dad would have looked at me the way I saw him look at you; I’m jealous of you.”

“Jealous?” Tristan didn’t know whether to be flattered or peeved. “You’re the one with the super ability.”

Set cleared his throat; “I’ve learnt things about being an epoto from you, that no one else could teach. You’re different,” he said: “your core energy is different. It’s just one more thing that makes you unlike anyone else.”

“It always comes back to that: I’m different.” Tristan couldn’t hide his anger; “That doesn’t give you the right.”

“I know,” Set said, “and it won’t happen again.” He gave a lopsided grin; “It turns out that Jacob was right: draining your energy created a vulnerability within my aether ability, and revealed a failing within myself.”

The sincerity in Set’s tone diffused Tristan’s ire: “How so?”

“An enemy isn’t likely to be asleep, Tristan, and he isn’t going to hold his hand out and offer his abilities up. You want the truth? I’m scared to death of my ability: I’m scared I’m going to hurt someone – that I’m going to kill someone – and I’m not going to know how to control it. It’s changing… it’s… growing… and there is no one to train me. I know it wasn’t right, but your ability to self-heal made the danger less. I’m sorry, brother – I should have never put your life at risk.”

“We’ve never spoken like this before,” Tristan said, feeling as if he owed Set for his honesty. “Jacob, he… uh… admitted that there’s something going on with me – there’s a reason why I’m… different.”

“And he doesn’t want to tell you until we’ve found Shashara,” Set speculated; “he’s worried you’ll lose focus.”

“That about sums it up,” Tristan said. “But, the point, brother, is that there is something for Jacob to know.”

Tristan’s words hit home, leaving Set speechless.

“There are no mixed races on Superi,” Tristan stated, fidgeting with his fingers, and staring at his brother. “You know the secrets I hide, Set – do you believe I’m mortalis? Do you believe I am of your blood?”

“When you and Jacob first came down here,” Set told him, “it was not your eyes that had me turning to face you – it was your rage. I could feel it – my epoto ability absorbed the emotion without any direction on my part, but, what scares me is that your anger became my own.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Tristan said.

“Superians fear telepaths, Tristan, so what would they do to someone like me? I’m untrained, and I’m dangerous. My answer? We all have our secrets,” he said, “but whether by blood or by choice, destiny gave us to one another, and that, regardless of birth, makes us brothers.”

Tristan attempted a smile; “And here I thought I was, just your personal power source.”

“That, too,” Set grinned, but it didn’t hold for long. “My battle lies where only I can fight – it is a war of the mind – but your battle is waiting on the main deck. I’ve felt the power that runs through your veins, Tristan, and it’s greater than you can imagine – you’re not simply different: you’re unique. Getting your answers won’t change what is – the answers will only tell you why. Do you know what Dad would say?”

Tristan shook his head, afraid to speak, lest tears betray his raw emotions.

“He would tell you to stop hiding from what you are, and to start showing people who you are. You do not fear those men – we both know you’re strong enough to face whatever they can throw at you. What you fear is shame. But, brother, that’s a mantle you choose to put on.”

“What about you?” Tristan asked; “How will you conquer your fear?”

“Trust me,” Set said, “I’m working on it.”

Eyeing the hatch again, Tristan rubbed his sweating palms across his thighs, and stood. “I won’t be gone long.”

“Don’t rush,” Set told him, waving him off with both hands; “after that little tit-for-tat, I could use some alone-time.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said, with a half-grin, “I get that.”

What Set couldn’t say was that Tristan’s emotional turmoil felt like gritted paper against his skin, and he needed a break. He could feel the trepidation that stilted Tristan’s steps, as he escaped the confines of the ship’s belly, for the oppressive stares awaiting him above.

As the hatch door closed, and Set was assured that he was alone, he let his tears fall. Turning his head too fast, causing the view through the portholes to blur, he groaned, as his stomach rolled. He closed his eyes against the nausea, but held little hope that it would pass. He wasn’t sure how much more he could take. Death was something he’d never feared, for ignorance had rendered him incapable of comprehending it, but the pain of his body feasting upon itself brought with it understanding.

He warred with the envy that had arrived with Tristan’s departure, but, unlike his brother, he did not dare go above. The detailed description of what would be his fate if he upended his stomach on deck again, delivered by Triton’s crew, held him captive below.

When the hatch door creaked open, he’d thought to find Tristan too quickly returning, and filled his lungs to berate him, but the air expelled in a rush, when Triton dropped down the hatch instead. He fought the urge to cringe, when the nox’s dark eyes levelled on him, as he did the desire to mentally call to Jacob for aid. For the first time, he reached out with his epoto ability, in an effort to discern the pirate’s intent, but, as his fortune would have it, he could not manifest the new aspect of his power at will.

“Swiney said you’re in desperate shape, boy,” Triton said, breaking the silence between them, “but the likes of this I’ve never seen.”

Though Triton hadn’t taken a single step, Set felt as if the man were looming over him, though craning his neck to meet the boy’s stare, rather than coming to his feet.

“I’ve done what you’ve asked,” Set stated: “I’ve stayed out of the way.”

Propping closed fists upon his hips, Triton’s head cocked to the side; “It seems an injustice that you suffer so, after sparing us a similar fate.”

Set offered a crooked grin; “That’s seems to be the way of my luck.”

“I would see your fortune changed,” Triton told him, “and see my debt to you balanced. I offer hope of a solution, if you’ve the courage to take it.”

Set’s jaw dropped before he snapped it shut; “Of all the words I expected to hear from you, the ones given are a surprise that renders gratitude. At this point, Triton, I’d be willing to do just about anything.”

After a considered hesitation, Triton divulged the information he carried. “This ship holds a secret,” he said; “it hides in the bilge. Find it, and, if you can understand it, you may yet survive this voyage.”

“I can see now why Jacob holds you in such high esteem, and wish to regard you the same. But, a question keeps me from it.”

Triton’s demeanor slipped to one of speculation: “You are yet a boy, but upon a day you will be a man – one that I would call friend instead of foe. So, ask your question, and I’ll consider giving an answer.”

“Why do you hate Tristan?”

“I don’t hate him, boy,” Triton scowled; “I don’t know him to hate him. I fear what he is, because I don’t understand it… and I’m not a man accustomed to the feeling.”

Turning towards the ladder, he said: “If you breathe a word of that admission, I’ll throw you beneath the keel myself.” Then, he disappeared through the hatch.

Finding himself alone again, and knowing he had nothing to lose, Set went in search of Triton’s secret, and descended into the bilge.

XIII

On the Word of a Traitor

 

Exhausted and drained, Montilis stepped off the warship, onto the docks of Palus Regia.

After six days of travelling, from one ship to the next, and from one gate-maker’s portal to the next, his homecoming was far from a joyous occasion. Soldiers he had trained – those he had fought beside – now lined the dock, with their eyes averted, as they waited to take their general into custody. From beneath bushy brows, the sharp, silver eyes of his mentor and friend, Senior General Riker, missed nothing.

Montilis watched his cautious approach – his right hand resting atop his double-edged sword. Grey hair and leathered, brown skin gave testament to his age – as did the stripes on his shoulder, marking his rank – but his physical prowess was that of a younger man.

Riker had trained Montilis, but it was his own actions that had earned him the respect and deference of the Regia Aquam Guard.

“General Aquam,” Riker said, “I would greet you warmly, but the conditions of your return leave me cold.”

“Senior General,” Montilis dipped his head, “your gaze is not needed to deliver your disappointment – I can feel its sting, and yet I offer no apologies.”

Stepping close so only Montilis could hear, Riker said: “Of all the men who’ve passed beneath my charge, you are the last I would have marked as a traitor.”

“You would not have been wrong,” Montilis told him.

“Your actions prove the contrary,” Riker retorted, with a shake of his head. “Follow me, Montilis. And, you five – come,” he said, as the remaining soldiers returned to their posts.

Montilis fell into step beside Riker, as the chosen five soldiers trailed them. He chuckled, drawing a scowl: “Let me ask you something: do you really believe that five men would be enough to stop me, if I chose to break free?”

Riker’s shoulders shook with suppressed mirth: “I think an army would not be enough to stop you, but, if you ran now,” – he paused in his steps, to make his point – “I would be the one to come after you.”

The right corner of Montilis’s mouth twitched: “At last – a threat with teeth.”

Riker laughed: “And don’t you forget it.”

Montilis squared his shoulders as they moved forward, and said: “I make no apologies for my actions, but you have a right to hear the reason from me.”

“There is no reason under the twin suns that can redeem a traitor.”

Montilis couldn’t let the insult slide: “My daughter was taken from me. So, call me a deserter if it suits your purpose, but name me a traitor again, and there will be consequences.”

“Another threat with teeth,” Riker acknowledged. “Anliac’s absence does not excuse your actions.”

“Not her absence,” Montilis stated: “her abduction. I made the only choice a father could.”

Clasping his hands behind his back, Riker replied: “We both know I’m little more than a figurehead in the Regia Aquam Guard, called back into service because of this debacle. Love of family is admirable, Aquam, but when you became general, your family became more than those of your house: your loyalty was to the army and the citizens of Palus Regia – that you would abandon them all for the sake of one is, in fact… treason.”

The offence taken coated Montilis’s words: “If you weren’t my closest friend, I’d snap your neck.”

“If you weren’t mine,” Riker quipped, “you’d already be dead.”

After a tense moment of silence, Jacob sighed, and said: “Riker, I’ve never left a man to fight alone. I am the first to wield my element, and the last to leave the fight – I give my all to deserve the title. So, how can I be asked to abandon one of my own blood? I would lose the right to call myself her father.

“Palus Regia has the Guard, Riker, but Anliac is alone. And, if I were a traitor,” – he shook the shackles around his wrists – “these would not be here, and those who stand between me and my daughter would be dead.” He asked, when Riker said nothing: “What would you have done?”

“I can only tell you what I would not have done,” Riker said, “and that’s abandon my men.”

He fell silent, and led them down a winding, stone path, that meandered past beds of purple and white flowers, watered by fountains in the images of aquis elementals, to his spacious, three-storey, wooden home. The two storeys that stood above ground were shaded by the sprawling branches of ancient trees. As they ascended the steps to a narrow front porch, Montillis asked: “What are we doing here?”

“Come now, Montilis – you didn’t seriously think we’d house you with common criminals? No,” he said opening the door, “you will be my guest – under guard, of course – until the magistrate returns from Imbellis.”

Three of the soldiers stopped at the door, while the other two followed them inside. Like most homes in Palus Regia, the interior spaces were large, sparsely furnished, and utilitarian in décor. Members of Riker’s house bowed or smiled, but were careful not to meet Montilis’s gaze.

Montilis winced. His people felt betrayed – the looks on their faces were worse than any punishment the magistrate could deliver, he thought, as he followed behind Riker, down a hallway of the lower floor.

The bedchamber chosen for his prison cell was proportionate to the rest of the house. The large, canopied bed, arrayed in differing shades of blue, sat in the center of the far wall, while a tall, rectangular table hugged another, next to an empty basin and water pitcher. Between the foot of the bed and the door, the sitting area hosted two high-backed, overstuffed chairs, which faced each other over a low, round table.

As they took their seats, Riker began: “I must apologize for the inconvenience, but, should you require drink, or the privy, you will need to alert one of the guards stationed outside the room. All water sources were cut off when the magistrate ordered the aqueducts to this side of the city diverted for the duration of your stay here – I’m sure you can understand why.”

“How long before Magistrate Rayner is to return?”

“Nine days,” Riker told him, then changed the subject: “I fear the charges against you have brought your wife a great deal of distress, as it has us all – she will be anxious to see you.”

“You will allow it?” Montilis asked. As a man used to giving orders, rather than taking them, it was as close as he could come to requesting permission.

“I’ve known you since you were a boy, Montilis – you were trained at my hand, and not once have I ever been ashamed of the man you’ve become… until now. Redeem yourself in my eyes,” he said, “and I will allow you to see your wife.”

“Anliac is not just missing,” Montilis said, his grip tightening, on the armrests of his chair; “she did not simply run away.”

“So you’ve said.”

“You’re not hearing me,” Montilis stated: “she was taken from my house by bounty hunters.”

Riker stiffened; “Those are dangerous words to give voice to.”

Having gained the man’s attention, Montilis said: “They caught up to her in Exterius Antro, where she was taken captive, along with a mortalis female.”

Riker sat up straighter in his seat: “How do you know all this?”

“That’s a long story,” Montilis sighed, as his hand moved to the covered wound on his chest.

“What do we know of the girl?”

“We know her father is a telepath,” Montilis replied. “He was the one who handed me over to our soldiers in Catena Piscari, though, admittedly, not by choice. The aether wielder said he was able to see both of our daughters in the hands of men wearing black, red ropes around their waists, and the red stitching of the letters ‘I.A.’ on their breasts.”

Riker shook his head: “Even if Anliac has fallen into the hands of that vile sect, you have no proof that they entered Palus Regia. By your own testimony, she was taken from Exterius Antro, and, if they captured her, believing her a commoner, then they’ve not broken the accord.”

Montilis’s visage darkened.

“I’m sorry,” Riker said, in response, “but the facts are what they are: you abandoned your post to chase after a rebellious daughter. I will send word to the tower,” he said, “informing them of their error, but no more can be done until the magistrate returns. I will, however, allow you to see Inabeth.” Rising from his seat, he added: “She has suffered enough for your actions.”

At the door, curiosity gave him pause: “What was Anliac’s reason for running away?”

Montilis was slow to answer: “I saw Inabeth strike Anliac that night. I watched her run off, furious and crying, and then she disappeared.” Blinking to clear the memory from his mind’s eye, he met Riker’s stare; “I should have gone to her then, but one of my men had stepped out of line, and I had been summoned to deal with him – I chose my duty to the people over comforting my daughter, and now we’re both caged.”

“What was the cause of their disagreement?”

“According to Inabeth,” Montilis said, “Anliac had planned to sneak out, to be with a young man beneath her station. When my wife stopped her, Anliac said harsh words that should have never been spoken: that it was up to her to further the Aquam line, and that to do so she must find a mate, and the only reason Inabeth stood in her way was jealousy.”

“Jealousy?”

“My wife is barren.” Montilis held steady his stare, knowing how damaging the confession was to his plight. “I know what you’re thinking, but Anliac did not run away.”

At an impasse, Riker told him: “I’ll send word to Inabeth of your arrival.”

Montilis dipped his head; “Thank you.”

“I’ll return after the two of you have spoken,” Riker said, extending an olive branch. “Perhaps we’ll play a game of chess, and speak of more pleasant things?”

Humorless, Montilis replied: “I’m not going anywhere.”

 

*

 

Filling his time with plans to reach Imbellis (and how he could best exact retribution on those who’d dared to lay hands on his child), he waited for his wife.

She entered, like a lifeline. Her slender arms wrapped around his neck.

He whispered: “I’ve missed you”, as he inhaled the scent of night-blooming roses, which clung to her skin.

Of almost equal height, she pulled back, to cup his face in her palms. “I’ve missed you too, husband,” she said, tears filling her crimson red eyes. “Oh, Montilis – what have you done to us?”

With his thumbs, he smoothed the lines of stress tucked around her eyes, before pressing a soft kiss to the pout of her full lips. Lifting his head, he brushed her silky, black hair off of her delicate shoulders, and said: “I have no answers that will set things right again. Come,” he said, taking her hand; “sit with me.”

As she curled her voluptuous body against him, he said: “I’m so sorry, Inabeth – when I left here, I didn’t think about what I was leaving you to deal with alone. Can you ever forgive me?”

“Montilis Aquam,” she said, shifting to see his face, “I love Anliac – she is the daughter of my heart, if not of my blood. If you had but told me what you had planned before you left, I would have sent you after her with my blessing; I would have even gone with you, had you but asked. Have you no faith in me at all?”

Her body trembled, as if with cold. A tear splashed onto the back of his hand, as she hid her face against his chest; “I struck her – this is all my fault.”

“No, Inabeth,” he said; “I-”

A knock sounded at the door. When it opened, two guards flanked the sides of it, while a third stood, waiting to be addressed.

“Speak,” Montilis commanded, as he set Inabeth aside, and came to his feet.

“General Aquam, the master blacksmith of your house has requested an audience.”

He glanced over his shoulder, at his wife, turned suddenly pale, and then replied: “I’m interested in word from my house, but now is not the time.”

“I understand, sir, and the blacksmith feared you would feel the same.” He held out a letter, sealed with blue wax and emblazoned with the master blacksmith’s personal signet: “He asked that I deliver this missive into your hand, and to tell you that he early awaits your reply.”

“Thank you.” Montilis took the letter and shut the door after the soldier.

Pulling a handkerchief from the wrist of her emerald-green dress, Inabeth dabbed beneath her eyes to dry her tears, and asked: “What is it?”

“Let us see,” Montilis said, as he broke the seal. Skimming the letter, he sighed in relief.

“Well?”

“It’s good news,” he told her.

The picture of wifely concern, she smiled, and said: “Read it to me, dear, so that I may share in your relief.”

He cleared his throat:

 

General Aquam,

 

It is with great trepidation that I send by written word what should only be spoken in confidence. I have waited weeks, hoping for your safe return, but what I have to say will only place you in further danger, as it has those of us who know.

 

More than the House of Aquam has been betrayed – Palus Regia has been betrayed as well. Though the knowledge is far above my station, the years I have faithfully served your house have made me privy to more information than a blacksmith – even a master – should have. Those who serve the tower – a sect of men called ‘bounty hunters’ – were brought within the city. Discovering that she was their target, and being denied the time to seek you out, your daughter fled Palus Regia.

 

Be careful of those you trust, General, for not all those who claim to be loyal are – their actions have proven the contrary.”

 

Inabeth let out a sharp gasp. “The letter speaks of betrayal within our home,” she said, her voice rising in pitch. “How do we know the blacksmith isn’t one of those who betrayed us?”

“If the blacksmith is guilty, he’s tipped his hand,” Montilis said. “If we can prove that I.A. broke the accord and trespassed into Palus Regia, I will be released.” Folding the letter, he slipped it into his back trouser pocket.

“This is good news, Inabeth. Your reaction confuses me – is there something you know, that you’re not telling me?”

With a dainty sniff, Inabeth attempted a smile; “Forgive me, husband, but if the blacksmith speaks true, why did he not come to me long before now? What kind of coward hides with such knowledge, while his general’s name and reputation are coming to ruination? It is a tenuous hope to hang your salvation upon.”

“That’s why I need you, Inabeth.” Montilis went down to one knee, as he took her hands into his own; “I need you to go to the blacksmith and discover what else he knows. Find a witness who can place those bounty hunters in Palus Regia on the night Anliac disappeared, and you will be my salvation.”

Inabeth’s dark cream-colored skin paled beneath her husband’s stare. “Bounty hunters, Montilis? Knowing the sect exists and believing them brave enough to enter here are two different things – do you really believe they would be that stupid? Do you really believe that such shadows would allow themselves to be discovered, or that they would leave witnesses behind if they were?”

Coming to his feet, he paced; “I know bounty hunters have Anliac, and I know they’ve taken her to the tower.”

“What? How?”

“I ran into a telepath in Catena Piscari. But, what I know isn’t enough: I have to be able to prove that they came into Palus Regia, if I want to convince the magistrate to let me go. I need you, Inabeth – can I count on you?”

Inabeth left her seat, to close the distance between them. Squaring her shoulders, she gave him a look of determination to rival that of any soldier. “I’ll start with the blacksmith,” she said; “if there is a witness out there who can clear your name, I swear I’ll find him.”

As she left, he watched the sway of her hips, wishing he could follow. “Hurry back to me, my love,” he said, as the door closed.

 

*

 

Many times Inabeth came to see him in the nine days that followed, each visit more disheartening than the last. The master blacksmith of his house seemed to have disappeared, and, without him, her endeavors to find a witness were proving futile.

Riker had visited him often, as well. His assurance that the request for Anliac’s immediate release had been sent brought him little comfort. So far, there’d been no confirmation from the tower of receiving the missive, or that Anliac was even there.

Though the room was more than comfortable, four walls and no way out still made it a prison, and the captivity was beginning to chafe.

“You need to focus, Montilis,” Riker said; “if not, I’ll take your king in three moves – do you truly wish to lose another game to me?”

He rubbed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “The magistrate is due to return today, and I have nothing but a letter to show as evidence, and my word to give as testimony. Even you believe in my guilt, my friend – how am I to justify my actions to him?”

XIV

Deceived

 

“Stop!” a guard bellowed from beyond the door; “you can’t be down here.”

“We’re here to see the general.”

“No one sees him without going through General Riker.”

Without access to water, the wielders were forced to use other means to guard their prisoner, and so came the sound of swords clearing their scabbards.

Warning Montilis to stay put with a pointed finger, Riker went to the door and opened it; “What’s going on here?”

“I’m sorry you were disturbed, General,” said one of the guards; “we’ll get rid of them.”

“Hold on,” Riker commanded. To the two intruders, he asked: “Tell me who you are.”

The older one undid the first few buttons of his brown, linen shirt and tugged the material to the side – branded upon his right pectoral muscle was the signet of the House of Aquam.

“My name is Gawin – I am the master blacksmith of the House of Aquam, and this is Malic, my apprentice.”

A powerfully built man, was Gawin, with salt-and-pepper hair cut close to his scalp; his strong, prominent jaw and hawkish nose lent him an arrogant air, as his silver eyes grew hard beneath Riker’s scrutiny. The younger man’s long, lean muscles suggested more of a fighter’s build, than one accustomed to swinging a blacksmith’s hammer. His eyes, black as pitch beneath his shaggy hair, burned with a fire that could have set the room to flames.

Riker’s eyes narrowed at the mention of their names; “We’ve been looking for you for days.”

“No, sir,” Gawin objected, with a dip of his head; “Inabeth Aquam has been searching for us, and doing all in her power to keep us from reaching General Aquam.”

“And why would my wife do that?”

“Go inside, both of you,” Riker let them pass. “Guards, no one else is to enter this room, do you understand me?”

“Yes, General.”

His arms crossed, Montilis’s eyes bore into the two men; “You’ve served my house for a lot of years, Gawin. Your letter served to offer hope, but then you went into hiding – I want to know why.”

Stiff in posture, with arms folded behind his back, Gawin stared straight ahead. “Forgive my directness, General, but I warned you to be careful of whom you trusted.” Knowing his next words could easily be his last, he braced himself to say: “You sent your wife to question me.”

“Are you suggesting my wife had something to do with Anliac’s capture?”

Gawin glanced over at his apprentice; “You should hear what he has to say, General, and then you can draw your own conclusions.”

Montilis turned harsh eyes on the younger man: “Speak.”

Malic didn’t cower; “First, I must confess to being where I should not have been – it was late, and I had gone into the kitchen to see a woman of special interest to me. As I departed her company, intent on returning to my room, I stepped from the kitchen into the dining hall, and that is when I heard Mistress Inabeth’s voice.”

“You overheard the argument between my wife and my daughter?”

“No, General – this was the night before Mistress Anliac’s capture,” Malic told him.

Montilis’s head cocked to the side: “Then, who was she speaking to?”

“They spoke in whispers, but I saw clearly their clothes – there were three of them, dressed in black, with red ropes around their waists. I confess, I couldn’t hear all of what was said, but I heard Mistress Inabeth tell them that she’d called for an aquis wielder with the ability to read blood – she told them that Anliac was one I.A. could use. I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know what that means.”

“It is to your credit that you do not,” Montilis said.

Riker pulled at the muscles at his neck; “I don’t believe this: Inabeth would never ally herself to the likes of those men. Malic,” he demanded, “you said this happened the night before – what makes you certain those men took action?”

Malic gave his reply to Montilis: “At the risk of drawing your ire, General, I followed your daughter the entire next day – I was afraid those men would bring her harm. That’s how I saw the argument between Mistress Anliac and Mistress Inabeth. I witnessed Mistress Inabeth leave the house quickly thereafter, but only once she’d let in the three men from the night before. Mistress Anliac was running from the foyer to the stairs – she was crying and upset after being struck by Mistress Inabeth, and the men went after her.”

“Did they take her?” Montilis balled his hands into tight fists at his sides.

Malic shook his head: “No, sir – she must have left the house after.”

“After what?” Riker asked.

“After I killed two of them,” Malic answered, without hesitation. “The third man hit me over the head from behind. I woke, with my hands and feet tied, beneath the belly of a horse; I was bound by a metal I’ve never seen – somehow, it blocked my ignis ability.

“The man who captured me is named Trennor. He took me to the outskirts of Exterius Antro, where he met with three other men, wearing the same uniform. The chains were removed, and I was tossed into an iron cage, the same as nearly a dozen others. At least fifteen to twenty feras, at any given time, most of whom had physical abilities, guarded us.”

“Was my daughter with them?” Montilis coiled with tension.

“Not then, General, no, but the three men dressed in black left us there, to go into Exterius Antro. When they came out again, they were dressed as city guards, and had two prisoners, locked in boxes. When the lids were opened, your daughter came out fighting.”

Montilis’s respiration quickened.

“Between Exterius Antro and Catena Piscari, they only stopped once for the night. I waited until just before dawn, when the guards were the least alert, for my chance to escape – I burned through the bars of my cage. I had to choose, General, between risking my recapture in an attempt to free her, against overwhelming odds, and leaving her there in hopes of reaching you.”

Malic lowered his gaze, as the weight of his confession pressed in on Montilis.

Gawin laid a hand atop the younger man’s shoulder, and said: “By the time Malic made it back to Palus Regia, you were already gone. And, after hearing Malic’s story, I kept him hidden from Mistress Inabeth. When you refused an audience with me, I risked sending you word by letter.”

“And then I read the letter in front of her, and sent her right to you…”

“You didn’t know, General. And, as I said, we received warning in time to leave the house.” He turned to Riker: “I’m afraid a few of your soldiers, Senior General, may have been injured, as we made our way through to General Montilis – none were killed.”

Riker sniffed indignantly: “If my men were taken out by blacksmiths, they deserve whatever injury they took, I assure you, and will suffer more of the same when I get my hands on them. Regardless, after hearing Malic’s testimony, I’m more than grateful that you were successful in getting through.”

“What now?” Montilis asked Riker.

“My doubt of you has become my shame,” Riker said. “Gawin, come with me.”

“Yes sir.”

Montilis stepped between Riker and the door.; “Where are you going, and why do you need the blacksmith?”

“I’m going to find Rayner,” Riker told him; “I’ll see you released. Then, I’m going to track down your wife, and he’s going to help me,”

Gawin grinned: “It will be my pleasure.” At Montilis’s scowl, he cleared his throat, and said: “Sorry, sir.”

“Malic, stay here,” Riker ordered; “we’ll need your testimony.”

“Yes, sir,” Malic said, as the two men stormed out.

An awkward moment of silence followed.

“You fear I am angry with you,” Montilis stated.

Malic couldn’t meet the other man’s eyes; “I left your daughter behind.” His head shook back and forth, in small, repetitious movements.

“I have soldiers under my command who do not possess half the courage and fortitude that you’ve shown,” Montilis told him; “I feel only gratitude towards you, son, and your loyalty to the House of Aquam will not go unrewarded.”

“That I have found favor in your eyes is reward enough. Believe me, sir: the guilt of leaving Mistress Anliac behind has weighed on my conscience, to the point of insanity.”

“Cast aside your guilt, Malic, for it is not yours to bear,” Montilis said. “Once I am free, and my daughter safely returned, I shall commission our weapons master to train you as Anliac’s personal guard – there is no one I would trust with her safety above you; your actions have proven your worth.”

Placing hand to heart, Malic bowed low, before he said: “I do not deserve such an elevated position, but, on my honor, I will earn it.”

 

*

General Riker and Gawin didn’t have far to go to find the magistrate – as they stepped outside the front door, Rayner was dismounting his horse in the yard.

He appeared put out, as he brushed the dust of the journey off his long robe, its coloring more amber than crimson. His dark, round face, and plump cheeks, reddened from irritation, revealed his relative youth. Pale, green eyes looked to Riker for explanation, as he waddled over, his excessive weight hindering his steps, and causing his breathing to become labored.

“Senior General Riker, there had better be a good explanation for what is going on here. Inabeth Aquam was waiting for me outside of the city, unguarded and in great distress, begging me for mercy and sanctuary.” Rayner’s thick jowls quivered with his words.

Riker snorted derisively: “I have to hand it to her: that was quick thinking.”

“Pardon me?” the magistrate’s brows lifted at Riker’s insolent tone. “She claims a member of her husband’s house is spreading vile rumors, that she is somehow involved in Anliac Aquam’s supposed abduction.”

“The rumors are true,” Riker told him; “General Aquam was able to confirm that it was, in fact, bounty hunters, and not slavers, who took Mistress Anliac, before his… detainment at Catena Piscari. His testimony, added to that of another of his house, is all the proof that we need. It means the tower has broken the accord, by taking a member of a ruling house, and because of their treachery, General Aquam should be released to go after his daughter, and the Regia Aquam Guard should stand at his back, to ensure his success.”

Rayner chuckled, as he huffed and puffed his way up the steps, to the covered porch: “I believe you’ve gotten ahead of yourself, Riker. Tell me, what position within the House of Aquam does this informant hold?”

“He is my apprentice, Magistrate Rayner. I am Gawin – House of Aquam’s master blacksmith.”

“Forgive me, blacksmith: I do not mean to offend, but, Riker, do you honestly expect me to arrest one of Inabeth Aquam’s standing within this city, on the testimony of an apprentice?”

“Speak to General Aquam, magistrate,” Riker insisted, as he showed the way to Montilis’s room. “Speak to the apprentice yourself – you will find their testimonies sufficient for her arrest.”

“Mistress Inabeth is a guest in my home, and under guard for her own protection – no one is to touch her until I’ve got to the bottom of this.”

“Understood.”

“Good,” Rayner said, “then, let us go and speak to the traitor who abandoned his post, and who now seeks his own freedom at the expense of his wife’s.”

Riker swallowed back his retort, as he took the stairs descending to the lower floor.

 

*

“Riker works fast,” Montilis said, when a knock sounded at the door. He gestured for Malic to open it.

Outside was a petite nox female, carrying a tray bearing two covered plates, two cups, and a steaming pot of tea. Seeing no threat, Malic allowed her to enter.

“You can place it on the table,” Montilis told the woman, and then grinned at the roar from Malic’s stomach. Once she’d relieved herself of her burden, he said: “Show her to the door and then eat, boy, before you pass out.”

Her eyes were downward cast, as Malic urged her to go before him. He didn’t notice the dagger that slipped from the sleeve of her plain, brown dress, and into her hand, until she turned toward him – the blade entered his flesh, just beneath his sternum; the upward angle of her thrust plunged it into his heart.

The scent of freshly spilled blood filled the room, as the assassin pulled her blade free. Malic grunted and turned towards Montilis, but his knees buckled; covering the hole in his chest, with blood seeping between his fingers, he toppled to his side.

The assassin didn’t run after making her kill – she hadn’t come for the boy.

With a flick of his wrist, Montilis summoned the steaming tea from its pot, and slung it at her dominant hand, scalding the flesh and the meat beneath it. Even he could not dismiss the impressive control she had over her pain.

Dropping the dagger into her other hand, she sprung off the balls of her feet to slash at Montilis’s throat. He leaned back to evade, shifting his weight onto his left leg, as the dagger sliced through air. Following the path of the blade, he pivoted on his right foot, and, stepping around with his left, snapped his hand forward to catch her right wrist.

She cried out, as the fractured bone sent rivets of pain up her arm, but capitalized on the blow’s momentum, as she let it spin her body around.

Montilis glimpsed Malic lying in his own blood, and fury overtook him – he raised a fist, with the base of her neck as his target. Anticipating his move, she crouched into a defensive stance, coming around to face him, with her dagger in her hand – exploding from her squatting position, she struck, up and out, for Montilis’s chest.

He hissed as the tip of her blade took first blood, slashing through his shirt and the first few layers of skin; it slid over the iron embedded in his chest, like boots on slick ice. Taking advantage of the assassin’s proximity, he hammer-fisted her right thigh and unbalanced her. As she fell, he bashed her eye, which hurried her descent to the floor.

She used the strike’s powerful momentum to send herself into a tight roll, and came up on her feet like an agile feline. Crouched, with lips pulled back in a feral snarl, her cold, green eyes glimmered with deadly intent.

 

*

Riker and Gawin heard the racket the moment they entered the hall. Exchanging one quick glance, they took off at a run, leaving the portly magistrate to catch up.

The smiles and laughter of the two nox guards dried up, as death descended upon them – Riker’s pace never slowed, as he unsheathed his sword and sliced the neck of the first guard in an upward swing. The second guard fell to his knees, with head bowed to beg for mercy; without a moment’s hesitation, Riker brought his sword down – the guard’s head thudded to the floor, silencing his pleas for good.

Gagging at the grizzly sight, Rayner huddled against the far wall in the hallway, clutching his chest as if it pained him.

Shoving the door open, Riker’s jaw dropped at the bloody scene.

The assassin caught the distraction in her target’s gaze. Dropping low, she aimed for the artery at Montilis’s inner thigh. She never saw Riker’s sword, before it pierced the base of her skull.

Propriety was forgotten when Gawin saw Malic lying dead on the floor – shoving past General Riker, he squatted down beside his apprentice; he didn’t bother searching for a pulse – the light in the young man’s eyes had been extinguished.

Shaking with leashed fury, Gawin stood and faced the magistrate, peeking through the open doorway.

“Since the word of a mere apprentice is not good enough for you, magistrate” – bright red flames consumed Gawin’s hands, as he stalked forward, and pinned the man to the wall – “perhaps his death is enough to convince you.”

Avoiding the flames that had turned Gawin’s shirtsleeves to ash, Montilis placed a restraining hand on the ignis wielder’s shoulder. “Careful,” he said, “before you cross a line you can’t come back from.”

Sweat slicked the pompous magistrate’s fleshy skin, as Gawin’s arms trapped him within a burning cage.

“This is outrageous!” Rayner bellowed. “Riker, get this man off of me!”

Montilis moved in, but Gawin’s words stalled his steps: “Someone is going to bleed for that boy’s death – I don’t care what title they carry.”

“I’m on your side, Gawin,” Montilis said, “but catching the magistrate on fire will only ensure your death as well; you cannot obtain justice for Malic if you’re hanging from the gallows.”

Riker pulled the available moisture from the air to put out the burning cloth, as he braced to feel the flames still emerging from the ignis wielder’s flesh. Stepping in behind the blacksmith, he wrapped his arms around the man’s barrel chest, and dragged him back.

Gawin leashed his ability, to avoid injuring the innocent.

Sagging in relief, Rayner attempted to regain his bluster: “I demand to know what has happened here!”

“It would appear my witness is dead – murdered by an assassin… sent by my wife.” Montilis approached the magistrate, who cringed against the wall; “So, I suppose you’re going to have to take my word for it: Inabeth has betrayed me, and the tower has betrayed us all.”

XV

The Cost of Knowledge

 

The stench that assaulted Set was unlike anything he had ever known – in comparison, refuse had the scent of old lady Moraine’s prized flowers.

Rotted crates and twisted lengths of rope and netting littered the bilge floor. A half a dozen barrels of spirits – a cask of Nelson’s Folly, one of rum, some grog and mead – sat cluttered to the side of the ladder, leading to the lower mid-deck; they were most likely as poisoned as the casks in the hold. Set made a mental note to ask Jacob about it, as he neared the far wall, where six iron cages were secured to the ship’s hull by long, metal chains larger than his fists. The treacherous redhead was curled asleep in one of them.

Besides the smell, a cacophony of noises greeted Set: the man’s snores sounded like a saw-blade put to metal, the hull creaked and groaned against the weight of the oceanus, chickens clucked, and scurrying mice squeaked. He flinched at an angry voice, bellowing from beyond several large wooden crates stacked at the stern. Curiosity distracted him from his queasy stomach, as he crept closer for a better look.

An ancient fulgo, draped in a multicolored patchwork robe of dark green, vibrant yellow, and a deep red that reminded him of berry wine, sat atop one of the small crates. His long legs were awkwardly positioned, as he leaned over a larger one, covered in a dingy scrap of canvas, and appeared to study what lay scattered on it, though his eyes were closed. The quilled fera who stood before him, with arms crossed, seemed displeased.

Set had seen all types of games in his travels – some played with two dice, and others with four, as well as games that used stones or carved figurines – but he didn’t recognize this one. The colored stones he could name, but the other materials… what where they? His hand pressed against his tender gut, as realization dawned: they were bones. Please don’t let them be mortalis, he thought.

The fulgo lifted his head in resignation; “You chose the stones and cast the bones – this is no fault of mine. Wenches are useful, but loyal they’re not, so take my advice and kill them-”

“You’re wrong!”

Set didn’t need to see his face to know the fera was Totalis – his grey skin was barely visible beneath the differing shades of brown quills. The color was interrupted only by white markings, which ran down the backs of both of his heavily muscled arms in horizontal dashes – from pits to wrists – which suggested his ability was strength. Decked in traditional sailor garb, absent a shirt, his anger manifested in the rising ridge of quills along his spine. The fulgo’s long, bushy, silver hair brushed across the grime of the planked floor, as he shook his head, with a mixture of regret and patient tolerance.

Where most marks consisted of solid lines, his were an oddity – the dark blue markings spanned the left side of his face, including his eyelid, and resembled thousands of tiny starbursts; its completion indicated he had a mastery of the ability.

“The past is like the grave, and can never be changed, but the future is ripe for new choices to be made. Life at sea or a beautiful bride, you alone can shift the tide. Now, leave us.”

“This can’t be happening,” Totalis said, but the oracle’s attention was not on him. With eyes still closed, the old fulgo pointed a bony finger in Set’s direction;

“Ah, Set Mattewson – the telepathic mercenary’s blue-eyed son. You’ve found me at last, I see.” He grinned, revealing jagged, yellow teeth: “I’ve been waiting patiently.”

Tears had darkened the fera’s short, brown quills, framing a hazel stare, which pinned Set in place as Totalis twisted his upper torso around. Too heartbroken to be angry, and more embarrassed than anything else, he asked: “What are you doing here, kid?

“Triton said there might be something down here that can help me,” Set answered, before asking the fulgo a question of his own: “How do you know me? And how do you see without sight – you’ve yet to open your eyes?”

The fulgo’s reply added to Set’s confusion, for it was no answer at all: “A stone for the past, one for the present, and one for what will be. Choose thrice from the bones, as well, and we’ll see how your destiny reads.”

Ignoring the fulgo, Totalis said: “I don’t know why the captain told you about the oracle, but, if you’re smart, boy, you’ll leave your questions unasked – sometimes the knowing isn’t worth the cost of knowing it.”

“If there is help for me here, I have to stay,” Set told him; “I don’t want to die on this ship.”

Totalis considered Set’s circumstances, and then nodded: “I can’t say that I blame you.” His head dropped forward on his shoulders. “But, don’t say you were not warned,” the last was added in parting.

The fulgo opened his eyes, and Set wished only for him to close them again – the milky white skim, surrounding the man’s left pinprick of a pupil, was disconcerting. “I’ve never met an oracle before,” he said, in an attempt to break the silence stretching between them. “Why do you stay down here?”

“I’ve met one other like you,” the oracle replied: “family of yours, I believe. I boarded this ship many years ago,” he began to chuckle, “and simply refused to leave.”

Uncertain as to what his response should be, Set’s smile was shaky at best.

Pointing to a crate sitting opposite him, the oracle said: “Sit, young one. My name is Socmoon. You’ve nothing from me to fear, I swear – so long as your heart is strong enough – the answers you seek to bear.”

Growing unsettled beneath Socmoon’s scrutiny, Set remarked: “I’ve asked you no questions.” He took his seat.

“Your mind is full of worry, over the mortalis you cherish, for you sense a change of fate, should they perish. To tell you more, you’ll have to choose the stones… to dig deeper, boy, you’ll have to cast the bones.”

“The mortalis? Which one do you mean?”

Socmoon spread his hands over the canvas, waiting on him to pick up the pieces.

Set chose three stones, and swept the bones together until he could gather them all at once.

With expectation, Socmoon held open a small, leather pouch. “I say it’s usually best to randomly guess, allowing the soul to choose what the mind would only confuse. What question would you ask first, before I spill the purse?” He held up a long, slender finger; “Check your resolve before you speak – I’ll not feel ill if you’re too weak.”

“Why do you speak in rhyme?” Set blurted out the first question that came to mind.

The fulgo’s eyebrows rose. “It is rare that I am caught off guard,” he chuckled, “but your question is not hard.” After a moment’s pause, he replied: “I speak in rhyme to make others search for the meaning within my twisted words.”

“But, why?”

Socmoon’s head tilted; “Some say the curse of the Cruxen Clav affected not just ingenuity, but prophecy as well. I fear insanity, if too much I tell.”

Set remembered the words from the lullaby his mother used to sing, but the trepidation crawling up his spine told him to let that line of questioning go. Feeling foolish, he thought harder before forming a second question: “Will we get Shashara back whole?”

The tiny left pupil dilated, until it overtook the oracle’s eye, and then the wrinkled lid snapped shut. Hand trembling, without sight, Socmoon upended the pouch onto the canvas and, with crooked fingers, traced over the pieces without disturbing their rest. When he looked at Set again, his gaze was somber.

“By the time you find her, none will remain whole – but the damage will be less to the body, and more to the soul.” He paused; “Except for one who shall not return, but before knowledge is lost, much will be learned.”

Set’s heart lost its rhythm. Was he saying one of them was going to die? He couldn’t bring himself to ask.

Totalis was right – the knowing wasn’t worth the cost of knowing it. He should leave, but suddenly he had so many questions, and Triton had said he would find help down here – he couldn’t leave until he had it.

Waiting for Set’s next question, Socmoon watched him closely, his right yellow eye still normal, and the left completely black.

Set’s thoughts turned to Tristan: “My brother – what-”

The oracle held up a hand; “I am blind to the one – his future’s unclear; a century of life, and he’s the first I’ve feared! As questions go, ask another, but, as for Tristan, I’ll speak no further.”

Fearing that he would anger the oracle before finding the aid he sought, Set forced himself not to ask what he had meant about Tristan. Instead, without admitting to what he was, he asked: “What can you tell me about my aether ability?”

Set watched Socmoon settle as quickly as he’d become riled, noting the evidence of long years without sunlight in the transparency of the fulgo’s pale flesh. His left, milky-white iris returned, as the large pupil shrank back into a dot, while his yellow eye glowed, as Tristan’s had.

“At last, you ask. An epoto’s ability is hard to discern – yes… yes… you’ve much to learn.” He set a long, tapered finger against his cheek; “How would you like a pair of sea legs, young Set? Are you not tired of vomiting yet?”

“You mean you know where I left mine?” Set chuckled, “because I thought I left them on the dock, back in Catena Piscari?”

“‘Tis true: your own lies on solid ground. But you’re an epoto: possibilities abound!” The oracle’s stare slid to the red-headed prisoner; “I know one who cannot stand, and deserving of punishment he is – if you wish to walk on a seaman’s legs, why not take his?”

The skin bunched between Set’s brows.

“Equilibrium is not an ability, unless you consider it a part of agility. You must reach within the mortalis’s core.” His tone turned taunting: “You know how – you’ve done so before.”

“You’re referring to his animus?”

“Indeed,” Socmoon grinned. “A reptilian fera at a high stone gate – you thought you’d put him to sleep, but cut the threads of his fate. Worms now feast on his decaying flesh – ask the mercenary if you think I jest.”

Set’s head fell back on his shoulders, as the memory of that night flooded forth; “I… I killed him?” He could feel the truth in the statement. Bringing his head up, he added: “I did not mean to.”

“You can take as a whole, or take in part, but there are no limits, so you must be smart.” He tapped his temple with a fingertip: “Emotions you feel, like a telepath reads thoughts, but be careful of the damage you can wrought. Touch is required, if you wish to attain that which you’d take from another’s veins; but, remember, if too much you take, their life is at stake, and what you thought was fleeting, will take on new meaning. For good or for ill, you cannot undo what you take in when your victim becomes a part of you.”

“Wait,” Set said: “are you saying I can take more than abilities?” He thought of Tristan’s heightened senses, locked within his brother’s animus, safe, or so he’d thought, from his epoto abilities.

“Within all of Superi and the powers she holds, none are feared more than the epotos of old. Level-threes, such as you, are nearly extinct, feared by all for the power you bring – from sea legs to abilities, from memories to life, an epoto can take anything he likes. But, if you play for keeps you need the key – only death can bring you victory.”

There was no disguising the strain of the reading, so Socmoon didn’t bother trying. Slumped forward, with his forearms resting on his thighs, he waited for Set’s reply.

Set’s spine was ramrod straight – an outward sign of an inward battle to keep himself together; his own animus felt weary. The sorrow of knowing one of their number would soon be lost tempered the comfort of knowing they would get Shashara back. Shaking his head, he refused to dwell on who it might be, and decided not to speak of it to anyone, lest his words trigger the events that would cause one of their deaths.

“Thank you, Socmoon,” Set said, once he was sure he could trust his voice, “for the knowledge you’ve shared.”

A phantom grin curled the fulgo’s lips, then quickly faded. “Are you not angry, as others tend to be, when they hear of a future they don’t wish to see?”

“Jacob says that knowledge is power. The past is set in stone, right? That’s what you told Totalis. But, the future can be changed if we have the knowledge to change it, right?”

The fulgo nodded once.

“Then I intend to change the future you speak of, and I’m going to do it with the help of all the mortalis I cherish.” He stood, and asked: “Before I go, is there anything I can do for you, Socmoon? I’m in your debt.”

Socmoon stood as well – pushing eight-feet tall, he had to slouch, lest he bang his head on the ceiling. “I meant to ask the telepath, but pain clouds his mind: if a debt you feel and wish to be free, a favor I would ask, before this ship you leave.” He held out his hand.

Set took it. “You have my word,” he said. “We’ll speak again.”

Peering upward, Socmoon’s nostrils flared, as his respiration quickened. “A debt I owe the mercenary, I’ve waited sixteen years to repay. If you’ll take the payment, I’ve the words now to say.”

“I value any knowledge you wish to share, Socmoon, and I’m sure Jacob will feel the same.”

“The loss you will suffer across the oceanus is not of what I speak, but deadly points soon will fly – the mercenary’s son to seek; the captain’s cry will be the warning you receive. Reach him first, epoto, or to death he will bleed.”

When Set would have bolted for the hatch, Socmoon caught his arm. “Time you have before catastrophe strikes – use it to save your own life,” he said, before releasing Set and returning to his seat.

Scooping up the stones and bones, he dumped them into his dark purple pouch, and pulled the white cord tight, before sliding them into the folds of his robe. “Now, go,” he said, ushering the boy away, with a flourishing wave of his scrawny arm.

His mind buzzing with new knowledge, Set approached the redhead, who eyed him warily. He reached up and spun the cage, until the prisoner was brought around to his side. Then, he grabbed hold of the man’s arm.

“What are you doing?” the redhead asked, tugging to be free, but his strength was diminishing.

“We both know you were listening,” Set said, “so, let us see how this works, shall we?”

Along with the prisoner’s screams came the sweet relief Set had so desperately needed. He was careful to withdraw his ability before severing the man from his life, though he felt no guilt about leaving him crumpled and unconscious in his cage.

Above deck, for the first time in weeks, hoping for a moment of calm before the coming storm, Set found himself in a gathering crowd.

XVI

The Value of a Friend

 

“I don’t care what Socmoon told you, Totalis – if you leave this ship when we make port in Pisces Stragulum, Triton will rip your article to shreds, and make you eat it. We’re not the military – you don’t get to take leave, simply because you can’t control your wench.”

“She’s not a wench – she’s my wife, so I’d suggest you mind your blasted tongue!” The quills on his spine rose.

Razoran threw back his head, and howled at the fera’s insolence. His black lips peeled back from his sharp teeth; with his canines leading the way, his powerful upper body leaned forward, ready to take the other man to the ground.

Totalis smirked at Razoran’s offensive stance, but his quills stood from his body like a pin-cushion, in response.

Triton came up from the forecastle, splintering the wooden door, as he stepped on deck. In a fury, he demanded: “What is going on up here?”

What he saw was answer enough, and fear gripped him; his first mate was standing too close to the volatile quartermaster. Vaulting for the ladder to the upper deck, he bellowed: “Look lively, mates – for your lives, hit the deck!”

As confused panic ensued, Set’s heart slammed against his chest at Triton’s warning. Eyes darting and head turning, he searched for Davad, and spotted him, standing beside Jacob at the gunwale portside – a good twenty feet separated them.

“Davad! Get down!” he shouted, his boots pounding across the deck to reach his brother in time. Concern flickered across Jacob’s face, as Set’s panicked psyche rolled over him.

Razoran turned at the sound of his captain’s call. He scanned the deck for danger, prepared to protect the captain, but he was knocked flat, as Triton’s greater weight took them both to the deck.

Jacob and Davad exchanged a perplexed glance, as they watched Set race towards them. “What are you doing?” Davad shouted, as he came closer.

Set launched himself sideways into the air, shouting: “Get down!” His body slammed into theirs.

Sudden screams of surprised pain erupted from all directions, as Jacob scrambled to pull the boys beneath him, searching for the cause.

Having lost control of his inherent ability, Totalis had exploded, casting out his quills like a myriad of loose arrows, impaling crewmen across the main deck.

Pulling free the embedded quills, protruding along Triton’s left side, where his captain had taken the blast meant for him, Razoran said: “What were you thinking, Captain? You could have been killed.”

“Leave off,” Triton harrumphed, brushing away his first mate’s ministrations.

“Wo! Wo! Wo! Grab the line – the rigging is slipping!” The shout came down from the ratlines: “‘Ware the boom!”

The ship lurched to the right, rolling all that was not tied down into the gunwale, including the men. The sudden movement sent the mortalis out of the crow’s nest, arms and legs flailing, as he toppled from his perch, into the murky, grey waters of the Nubilosus Oceanus. The bowline on the foremast snapped, sending the long boom on a collision course with everyone standing on the fore-deck.

Shoving Triton out of harm’s way, and over the railing, to crash down onto the main deck, Razoran turned and braced himself.

Tristan stood at the ratlines and witnessed the precarious position Razoran was in. As the arm of the boom made a straight line for the fera’s head, Tristan’s adrenaline spiked, and his abilities responded: time seemed to slow, as he let loose his speed and bolted forward, to aid the only person to show him kindness since boarding the schooner. He reached the boom in the nick of time, planting his feet and grabbing hold with both hands; but, even his strength was put to the test.

Grey eyes, like saucers, turned on Tristan, as the boom kissed the end of Razoran’s black nose. Tristan laughed and had to turn away, lest he lose focus, and that’s when a gust of wind blew Tristan’s hood from his head – the next sent his long, black hair billowing behind him, exposing his double pointed ears.

It was no more than Tristan was used to, but when Razoran cringed at the sight, it felt like a physical blow.

Just then, the sail caught wind, and the wooden planks beneath Tristan’s feet cracked under the pressure. “I can’t… hold it,” he warned.

Shoving away the questions that held him motionless, Razoran stepped up to lend aid, by placing his hands on the boom alongside Tristan’s. Together, muscles bulging, they pitted their strength against that of nature, and fought to keep the ship from upending. Step by slow step, they moved the boom, until the hull of the schooner was once again balanced on her keel. Triton was barking orders to the crew, but the blood pounding in their own ears deafened them, as, numb from the pain, they held on, until, at last, the rigging was secure.

Depleted of energy, they collapsed onto their haunches, their muscles refusing to do more. In unison, they breathed through the burn.

A sideward glance, which brought Razoran’s focus back to Tristan’s ears, had the boy pulling his hood into place.

“I don’t know what you are, Yellow Eyes,” Razoran said, “nor do I care.” He held out his hand, and as Tristan took it, they helped each other to their feet. “I’m just glad you were here.”

“Thank you,” Tristan replied, as he surveyed the chaotic aftermath to avoid eye contact; “your words mean more than you know.”

“There,” Razoran said, as he pointed to the one responsible, his ire giving way to amusement; he was not the only one – even the crew could not hold their anger in the face of Totalis’s mortifying predicament.

His grey skin was riddled with red holes where the quills had left him bare – vulnerable, and smaller of stature than anyone would have guessed – as he stared through woeful hazel eyes, at the mocking crewmen. The few random quills that remained, protruding from the top of his bald head, added to their amusement, but not nearly as much as the sight of his full, feminine, black lips.

Jacob, standing behind Set, reached up to cover both of the boy’s reddening ears, to the comments being made, in typical sailor fashion.

“I feel bad for him,” Set said, unable to look away.

“As do I,” Jacob replied.

Totalis’s breeches hung in tatters, revealing a pair of knobby knees, as the fera covered his pelvis, to protect what remained of his pride. He could do nothing about the blown seat of his trousers, or the taunting jeers and boisterous laughter of those he’d called friends, as he turned his back and disappeared into the forecastle.

With the spectacle over, and the crewmen falling back to work, Jacob left the boys, to cross the deck and check on Tristan, but it was to Triton that he spoke.

“You should let Swiney take a look at that,” he said.

Nodding like a lunatic, Razoran concurred, as Triton scowled, glaring at the quills, as if his ire alone could scorch them from his flesh.

“I’ll have my crew looked over first,” Triton told them, turning at the sound of water splashing over the gunwale, as the mortalis who’d toppled from the crow’s nest landed once again upon the deck.

“That makes two crewmen you’ve lost this trip,” Jacob stated, causing Triton’s right brow to arch in question.

“You mean Totalis?”

“His decision to leave the crew was already made, but this has strengthened his resolve. Tristan,” Jacob asked, “how are you doing, kid?

“I’m good,” Tristan said, distracted, as he searched the deck for the boys. He chuckled when he found them – Davad had Set wrapped up, and was squeezing the life out of him.

“What’s that all about?” he asked, turning to find Jacob. He was, instead, caught by Triton’s scrutiny.

“Something on your mind, Captain?”

Triton’s upper lip furled: “You’ve speed and strength the likes of which I’ve never seen.” He paused, and then snarled: “No abilities, my arse!” He stomped off towards the helm.

Trailing behind his captain, Razoran tossed over his shoulder, with a grin: “That’s pirate talk for ‘thank you’.”

“Looks like you’ve made a friend after all, Tristan – good for you,” Jacob said. “So, mmm…” he scratched at his whiskered chin; “what was Triton’s comment about?”

“The pirate is too curious for his own good,” Tristan smirked. “But, don’t worry: he won’t find out anything.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Liar…” Tristan grinned.

Jacob slugged him in the shoulder, then joined in his laughter, to cover the concern he truly felt. It was Razoran that bothered him: the fera’s shock at seeing Tristan’s secrets had been strong enough to grab hold of the aether, and invade his telepathy – he would tell Triton.

As Set and Davad neared, Jacob forced his smile to hold.

“Look at you, little brother,” Tristan grinned; “I guess one of Swiney’s concoctions finally worked.”

“Actually,” Set said, fidgeting, “it was one of Triton’s. Hey, uh, Jacob, I need to tell you something.”

“There is something I would say to you, first,” Jacob told him: “in your weakened physical state, I can’t imagine what you did was easy, but it was very brave. I could not be more proud of you.”

“I’m not the one you should be thanking,” Set said: “there is someone on this ship who sees as much as you hear, and he warned that Totalis’s quills would cost Davad his life if I failed to reach him in time.”

The sudden tension around Jacob’s eyes was obvious.

“He’s an oracle,” Set continued, and was hesitant to say: “Jacob, he’s a master. I found him in the bilge. He calls himself Socmoon, and claims he owed you a debt from a time long passed.”

Jacob’s shoulders sagged with relief: “I remember him. Your parents and I were seeking passage upon Triton’s ship, but, as usual, I would not agree to his terms. So, after returning to the city and choosing an inn for the night, we imbibed in far too much rum, and I found myself puking behind the outbuilding.” He let the boys’ chortles die down, then continued: “That’s where I found Socmoon, who was being chased – hunted like prey – because his ability had delivered an ill fortune to the wife of the city’s magistrate. So, we struck a bargain: the oracle found his escape, and, since Triton considered the oracle an improvement over my telepathy, we were granted passage. There was no debt. I am, however, surprised to learn he is still on board.”

“It doesn’t matter how you see it, Jacob,” Set told him: “Socmoon needs to know that the debt he feels he owes has been repaid.”

“I’ll speak to him,” Jacob said. “And, I’ve good news: Triton swears we’ll see dry land in less than three sunsets, and we’ll see port not long after.”

Davad’s expression fell.

“What’s wrong?” Jacob asked.

“Nothing,” Davad said; “finding Shashara is all that matters. But,” he shrugged, “I’m going to miss the crew, Dad – Hammy most of all. I mean… I can see myself coming back to this life, if Triton would have me. And, who knows – maybe I’ll have my own ship one day.”

“I thought you hated Triton?”

“I did,” Davad admitted, “but I’m beginning to think people just don’t understand him. Look at his crew – the men are loyal to him, and that kind of loyalty is earnt, not given; they’re family.” When everyone continued to stare, he said: “Give me a break – there are worse lives to be led.”

“Indeed there are,” Jacob grinned. “An ignis wielder as the captain of a ship… I’ve heard of stranger things, I suppose.”

Davad blushed, as Tristan and Set both laughed at his intensity.

 

*

 

That night, as the sound of the galley bell gathered the men for their meal, the atmosphere amongst them had shifted.

Jacob was breaking bread with Triton, but, instead of staying with his captain, Razoran found Tristan, and joined him in the serving line. Tristan gave thanks to the cook, who piled his plate high with extra helpings, and then rolled his eyes, asking: “What?” when Razoran chortled.

“I didn’t say anything,” Razoran said, holding his hands up in surrender.

Tristan glared back at him; “I eat a lot – get over it.”

Despite the effort to hold his scowl, a smile slipped past, as, together, they found empty space at one of the bench-style tables, and plopped down their meals, before sitting.

In high spirits, and with a rough grin, Razoran said: “If we’re not going to discuss the abyss you call a stomach, then tell me about the oar you broke.”

Tristan paused, mid-bite, as several of the crewmen who had been there that day, laughed.

“Snapped it in half he did, and cracked his head,” one of the men said; “reminded me of another young pup, from years ago.”

More bark than bite, unless he was cornered, the right side of Razoran’s upper lip furled. Growling in halfhearted warning, he said: “That pup now has teeth, old man. If the story is to be told, I will do the telling of it.”

Lifting his plate into his hands, Tristan turned and straddled the bench, to face his new friend. “This should be interesting,” he said.

“We were in the middle of the Ferus Oceanus – an oceanus as brutal as its name – when a storm hit, in the dead of night,” Razoran began. “Thick, monstrous clouds blocked out the moons and stars, which turned us around. The wind whipped through the sails, like pirates through rum, yanking the hull this way and that – the helm and rudder were all but useless. Hammy yelled from the crow’s nest: ‘There’s a whirlpool forming on the starboard side, Captain – we need to push her through’. And then, the main top-sail snapped at the gaff – as she fell, the bowline went with her, and tangled the rigging.”

Eager to fill in the story, Hammy said: “Men filled the gun deck, shoulder to shoulder – we pushed and pulled those oars for half the night, didn’t we, boys?”

“Argh!” they said, with raised fists, as if the battle had just been won.

“Our first mate here decided he needed to do his fair share, and took up an oar.” Hammy chuckled: “He broke three before Bores threw him up the hatch, and dared him to come back down.”

Tristan’s and Bores’s stares collided across the room, as the animosity, born on the day Tristan had gone below to help, lessened, and smiles broke their attempted stoicism.

“When the storm was over,” Hammy said, “Triton was so mad about the coin it would cost to replace the oars that he took up one of the paddled ends and told the crew to form a line…” His grin split his leathered face wide; “We paddled Razoran’s arse, until he was sitting tender for days.”

Laughter erupted throughout the galley.

Low enough so only Tristan could hear, Razoran said: “And you thought they were hard on you.”

Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Tristan replied: “You’ll never hear me complain again”, as he shifted to face the table.

Razoran’s laughter was cut short when he made eye contact with the mercenary’s son, Davad. The mortalis was sitting at the next table over, with Hammy and a crowd of others, looking very much at home amongst the rough men. He nodded in acknowledgement, as the boy did the same.

Both were distracted when Set came late into the galley, with a dark green cloak thrown over his arm. Tristan saw him as well. “He’ll be fortunate if the cooks haven’t tossed the scraps overboard by now,” he said.

“What scraps?” Razoran chuckled. “They gave them all to you.”

“Shut up,” Tristan said, with good humor, as he tracked Set’s progress: “He looks better, right? His color is improved, and the shadows beneath his eyes are fading. He needs weight… a lot of it… but, he’s going to be okay, right?”

“He’ll live,” Razoran nodded.

Ignoring the stares he felt, boring into his back, Set approached the end of a table, where Totalis sat alone. “Have you lost your appetite, along with your quills?” Set asked, as he took note of the hard-tack Totalis had in front of him. He sat down, uninvited.

The fera sat, his elbows bent atop the table, with downcast eyes. “The head cook spent the better part of his day having my quills pulled from his arse,” Totalis said; “better to be fed hard-tack than to be food for the fishes.” Tense with expectation of more teasing, he forced his stare from the table, to the boy’s; “What do you want?”

“The holes in your flesh look painful,” Set told him, and they did – they stood out from his grey skin, red and angry.

“Well, it doesn’t feel good, boy.”

Unaffected by Totalis’s remark, Set asked: “How long before they come back in?”

“What does it matter to you?”

Set sighed: “It doesn’t. Here,” he said, laying the folded cloak atop the table, and sliding it towards him; “the men won’t let me work, so…” He winced: “Forgive the poor stitching – I’ve no skill with a needle.”

Accepting the gift, Totalis asked: “Why would you bother?”

“Because I’m betting your skin isn’t used to being exposed to the suns,” Set answered. “Tristan burns easily – he says the pain of it is awful.” Shrugging, he added: “It just seems like you’ve been dealt enough pain.”

Swinging the cloak around his shoulders, Totalis secured the clasp at his neck, and said: “I’m indebted to you.”

“There is no debt,” Set told him. “And, don’t worry: your friends’ anger will fade, along with their wounds.”

Totalis scoffed: “In the eyes of the crew, I’m finished.”

“Is that really a bad thing?” Set asked. “Look, we both know I heard what Socmoon had to say about your wife.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Totalis warned.

“Then, just listen,” Set said, with more force than intended, as he slung a wary glance in Davad’s direction, to be assured his words would not be overheard: “I knew a woman who loved her husband, but the man was one of war and obligation. When she grew tired and began to desire a home and hearth, the man chose to hold his course, and, in his absence, she found another.”

Having made the disclosure, Set gave the relevance: “Socmoon said the choice was yours: your life at sea, or the woman you love. He gave his advice, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it, or even that you should. Maybe what happened out there was destiny’s way of giving you a little push in the right direction. If you look at it that way, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed – you should feel on top of the world, that destiny found you worth the effort.”

“So, then, what should I do?” Totalis asked. “Do I give up the only life I’ve ever known, for one on dry land, that I know nothing about?” He sighed: “I suppose I have no choice now, but how am I to endure the remainder of this voyage, with men I once called friends looking at me as if I have no worth?”

Set’s spine stiffened, as his countenance firmed: “You do as Tristan has had to do this entire trip: you hold your head up and show them what kind of man… uh… fera… you are. When the ship docks, go find your wife, and make your family whole again. Those who are truly your friends will wish you well – the others should hold no importance to you.”

“Did the man in your story have regrets?”

“More than he would ever confess. But, war wasn’t something the man had asked for – it was his obligation. You chose this life – you chose to leave her alone; so, you’re not without guilt – that means your marriage can be salvaged.”

There was no heat behind Totalis’s words – only sadness: “What do you know of love and obligation?”

Set smiled, but it never reached his eyes: “We both know it’s good advice… so, you’re welcome.”

 

*

 

After finding Tristan’s bunk empty, Razoran left the forecastle and stepped out onto the main deck, where the night crew kept watch, beneath a cloudless, moon-filled sky.

The galley was empty, the drinking and gambling done, allowing a quiet tranquility to seep over the ship. The sound of the oceanus lapping against the hull – the whoosh of the wind, as it played in the ship’s sails – was a lullaby known to all sailors.

Razoran found Tristan, leaning against the railing of the bowsprit, staring out across the shadowed aquis, but his gaze was upward cast. Gaining the fore-deck, Razoran joined him, and said: “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Tristan replied, in whispered reverence; “a dark, star-studded veil that covers the world, revealing the myriad moons, in all their varying stages of glory.” Tilting his head, he stretched forth his arm into the aether, and cradled the Priaz moon in the palm of his hand. “Some appear close enough to touch,” he said, letting his arm fall, “while others are so distant it’s as if they belong to a world not our own.”

Razoran scratched the end of his nose with the tip of a claw, grinned, and said: “The oceanus has turned many men into poets, but I’d not have thought it of you.”

“Thanks,” Tristan said, his eyes rolling. “Your rank puts you above night watch,” he said; “what are you doing out here?”

“The same as you, I’d imagine,” Razoran told him. “It’s quiet… peaceful – you’re going to miss it once you’re gone.”

“Do you ever miss solid ground?” Tristan asked. “Or ever want more than the ship can provide? A home… a hearth… little feras that, hopefully, have their mother’s looks..?”

“You’re funny,” Razoran said, then turned serious: “For nearly two decades I’ve lived on this ship.” Drawing in a strong breath, he asked: “You smell that? There’s nothing like a salty breeze to clear a man’s mind, but, with clarity comes memory.”

Grasping the railing beside Tristan, Razoran pushed off, to stretch the muscles running across his back and shoulders. “I was born in the wilds of Duar Mortis, where the land is blanketed in sheets of white, and you wake to the sharp scent of evergreens… or you never wake at all.” After a long moment of contemplation, he gave his answer: “No, Tristan, I would not give up this life. But…”

“But there are times you miss home,” Tristan finished for him.

“Duar Mortis feras are as tough and mean as our race comes,” Razoran told him; “I wonder sometimes if the sea has made me weak.”

“If you are weak, my friend, then I hope never to make an enemy of your kin.”

“Your words prove your intelligence,” Razoran grinned. “What about you, Yellow Eyes – where are you from?”

Tristan tensed. “I don’t know,” he said. Then, to cover the depth of that truth, he added: “My parents never spoke of it, and I’ve never thought to ask Jacob.”

Noting the mop handle protruding from a cold bucket of tar, Razoran asked: “Were you out here working?”

“I won’t be marked a slacker,” Tristan told him. “It’s easier to work at night – there are less people to stare, and less fights I have to avoid. Besides,” he said, “the moons are much easier on my skin than the suns.”

“There are a handful of smaller moons that play their part when their orbit brings them close,” Razoran told him, “but there is nothing like the power held by the two great moons. Did you know,” he asked, “that you can tell the mood of oceanus by their phases?”

“I’ve never thought beyond their beauty, and the light they offer in the dark,” Tristan replied.

“They are so much more than that,” Razoran said. “When they are full, they tug at the water, until the oceanus is smooth as glass beneath our keel. When they’re crescent in shape, as they are now, the waves come – they rock us in a gentle sway, like that of a babe in his mother’s arms. But, on the true nights – the nights of the new moons – the oceanus will roll, and the waves will crash; the ship will rock on her keel, until we hold our breath, watching the horizon for dawn’s salvation.”

Hesitant, Tristan said: “I fear the new moons that have cast my life into shadowed chaos, Razoran. So, I have to ask: will dawn be my salvation, or will it reveal my doom?”

“Speak plain, boy,” Razoran said; “answers of worth are given in straight lines.”

Nodding, Tristan asked: “Did you tell Triton what you saw?”

Razoran’s fur ruffled, as his countenance darkened, in offence; “You spared my head splitting on that tree trunk, and you saved my captain. Your secrets are yours to tell – I owe you that. But, here is the question you should be asking: why do you choose to hide?”

“Doing otherwise was never a choice given,” Tristan told him: “like you, I was raised to follow orders.”

“I follow a Captain whose orders make sense,” Razoran said. “Hiding the kind of strength and speed you possess… well, that makes no sense.”

Tristan chuckled at Razoran’s pointed remark: “Is that so?”

“Do you even know what you are?” Razoran asked.

“I’m mortalis,” was Tristan’s quick reply.

“I bear completed strength markings; you possess none, yet we both know you are stronger. It matters not to me, but, Tristan… mortalis? My arse! How long have you been as you are?”

“As far as I know,” Tristan sighed, “I was born this way.”

“And your yellow eyes?”

“Always.”

“You are young and foolish, but honest and loyal, and I am glad you were here,” Razoran said. “You saved my captain, which means you saved me twice. Perhaps it’s time you stopped hiding. Maybe,” he said, “it’s time to let the world see who you are: a good man, who just happens to have yellow eyes, and ridiculously pointed ears.”

“You’re one to talk,” Tristan said, with a crooked grin: “just look at those pointy things, growing from atop your furry head.”

“Ha!” Razoran barked. Backing away from the railing, turning towards the ladder that led below, he cast over his shoulder: “Get back to work, boy – you know that the captain doesn’t allow the night crew to sluff off.”

“Aye, aye, first mate.” Tristan said, with a mock salute, but, though his friend disappeared, Razoran’s words hovered. Perhaps he was right: perhaps it was time for him to stop hiding, and to start living his life.

XVII

What’s a Dracon?

 

The following dawn, the galley was full of men, scarfing down breakfast before their shift, when a bell tolled, loud enough to wake the dead.

A moment of pause quietened the room, before chaos erupted, and men scrambled for the door. One after another, they filed up the ladder and through the hatch.

“Move, you sea dogs!” Razoran bellowed, as he waited his turn.

Coming up beside him, Davad asked: “What’s going on?”

“It’s best you stay below, boy – the last thing we need is fire on deck.” His eyes slid to Set; “And keep the kid with you. Tristan, are you coming?”

“Yeah,” Tristan said, shoving his way through to the ladder, “I am.”

Davad raised his voice, to be heard over the noise: “You didn’t answer my question! What’s going on?” He cursed as the last crewmen disappeared through the hatch, and slammed it closed. “Well,” he told Set, “this sucks.”

Emerging from the hatch, Tristan was knocked over by Totalis, whose new cloak billowed, as he shimmied up the mainmast with his claws, to reach the crow’s nest. Rising to his feet, Tristan’s jaw went slack at the scene before him: the deck was a flood of crewmen, scrambling for their positions, but there was only one face he sought. He found it at the helm, where Jacob, grave of visage, was drawing his sword.

Razoran spun Tristan around. Grabbing hold of his shoulders, he pulled the boy close, and, with frantic eyes, pleaded: “Watch Triton’s back, my friend”, before sprinting across the aft of the ship. Launching himself onto the quarter-deck, he took control of the helm.

Tristan nodded. Jacob would be safe – Razoran would see to it. Now, where was Triton?

“Totalis! What do we see?”

“It’s a dracon, Captain, and he’s moving in fast!”

Tristan had no idea what a dracon was, but the crew’s reaction made his blood run cold. He stood, uncertain of what he should do, as even the old and crippled found a way to be of use – they scuttled to crates and barrels strategically placed around the gunwale, and cracked them wide open, aiding the men in arming themselves.

Those going up the ratlines grabbed long spears and short swords, while those defending the deck snatched up swords with longer, broader blades. They split up: five to a group (three to the fore and two behind); three of the groups spaced themselves out on the starboard side, while the other three faced portside, along with their captain.

Six aquis wielders waited on each side of the ship for the part they would play. Those portside raised their arms wide, and began to draw on their ability.

“Brace yourselves!” Totalis shouted, from above.

The force of the blow against the portside of the ship’s hull rocked it on its keel, and the men on deck grabbed what they could to keep from tumbling. Unable to hold on, an aquis wielder, standing midship, portside, rolled backwards, head over end, into the gunwale. The other wielders pushed and pulled the oceanus, moving the waves to either side of the hull, to center the ship.

Tristan covered his ears, as the loud boom of a cannon shook the ship. They enjoyed a moment’s relief, as a high-pitched, keening wail indicated that the gunman had hit his target, but then the ship endured another hit, this time closer to the fore. The aquis wielders did all they could to lessen the strain on the vessel, as the force of the blow shoved the prow of the ship against the cut of the water, but still she groaned in protest.

For all Tristan’s talk of being a man, he’d never felt less of one – the real men faced the danger, while he was immobilized by fear.

“Superi help us,” came the sound of his own voice, as the top of a slick, dark green, scaly head cleared the gunwale. Four black eyes – a pair set high and wide, the other set close, where a nose should have been – peered at them. Two thick, short horns protruded from the sides of the creature’s head, curling backwards to hug the sides of its skull; when the dracon’s mouth opened to wail again, four rows of razor-sharp teeth glimmered inside its maw, large enough to devour a man whole.

The beast continued to rise, on a long, sinuous neck, and Tristan’s eyes were drawn to the dracon’s left shoulder, where a black-edged tear surrounding vivid red meat revealed the work of the cannon.

The men in the ratlines threw their spears, but the shafted heads bounced off of the dracon’s scales like it was armor, inflicting little injury, as it enraged the beast.

Rising another ten feet into the air, the dracon snapped its neck forward to snatch one of the men from the ratline – it chomped twice, and spat the man’s mutilated body onto the deck, before moving for another. Their spears spent, some of the men battled the dracon with short swords, while others tried to lasso its neck, or catch its head in netting, all the while hanging onto the ratline for dear life.

BOOM!

The cannon sounded, and the dracon’s head reared back, as it let loose its terrible wail again. The crewmen in close proximity cupped their ears, screaming, as blood seeped between their fingers.

With its long neck slinging to and fro, the dracon toppled back into the dark sea. But the monster wasn’t down for long.

“Up it comes, Captain!” Totalis shouted.

The dracon’s upper torso reached the gunwale, and its two massive forelegs came crashing down upon the main deck – the wooden planks bowed and splintered beneath the beast’s massive weight.

“Now!” Triton yelled, cursing the damage to his deck.

The five men to Triton’s left rushed forward, slashing at its neck, as they searched for an opening to reach its chest; the five to his right attacked the forelegs, each of which was easily the breadth of all of them combined, as they hacked at the scaled flesh which kept the dracon anchored to their ship.

A solitary swing of its muscled neck sent most of the men flying. Others fled, as terror overcame them – their cowardice seemed wise, as those who did not run were torn apart.

The dracon’s neck shot forward again, and then retracted with its prize: the arm of a black-furred crewman between its teeth. The man fell to his back, clutching the stump with his remaining hand, to stifle the flow of blood, as he shoved off with his booted feet – away from the body of a dead mate, to slide across the slick deck, in search of measured safety.

The last standing crewman dropped to his knees, before the might of the beast. His sword now forgotten, he threw up his arms, to cover his head from the descending maw. When its jaws snapped shut, the crewman was gone.

Pulling itself completely on board, the length of the dracon took up half the width of the schooner, while its triangular tail fin stretched from the portside gunwale to the prow.

With determined strides, the men from the starboard side started forward. Some held swords, while others bared their claws. Some brought abilities, but everyone brought their all. With a war cry rattling their ribcages, they attacked, but it was the beast that reigned. Bodies were flung, torn asunder, and blood pooled upon the deck. The screams of the dying tore the fabric of sanity, bringing nightmares to life, as desperation became its own kind of monster.

Tristan stared at the black-eyed beast, and knew they could not win. That’s when he heard Set’s words echoing in his mind: “You have more physical abilities than anyone we’ve ever seen, but you also have instincts that go beyond that of your abilities – ones that go beyond my ability to reach. I’ve learnt things about being an epoto from you, that no one else could teach. You’re different: your core energy is different.”

From across the aft, Tristan’s eyes met Jacob’s.

Now would be a really good time to get mad, son.

But, I’m afraid! Tristan’s mind screamed.

“Wielders,” Triton shouted; “prepare!”

They turned to the call of their captain, and the crewman standing in the beast’s way hit the deck; Tristan followed suit, as shards of ice pelted the dracon. It opened its maw and wailed – the sound of it was ice in the veins, that froze the heart, but the physical pain which came with the cry was unbearable.

They tried, but the aquis wielders weren’t doing damage fast enough. The crewmen couldn’t offer aid, because they were pinned to the deck, to avoid the volley of frozen spears – to their credit, they did not retreat, but they were growing tired.

Shoulders back, and head held high, Triton feared neither the ice his wielders conjured, nor the beast threatening to destroy them – taking his stand, he moved his arms in an arching, circular motion, with palms downward, as though he were swimming on dry land. The ship began to rock, as growing waves climbed their way up the hull. If they had been on a pond, the nox could have done more… on a lake, he would have stood a chance… but moving an oceanus was taxing, even to a master. Try as Triton might, he couldn’t get the waves high enough to clear the gunwale, without fear of capsizing the ship.

Tristan’s head turned, as the hatch door flung wide, and Davad came jumping through. Pale as death, with eyes peeled wide, Davad said: “What… is… that?”

“Go back!” Tristan shouted. “You can’t be here.”

“The ship is taking on too much water,” Davad said; “the deadlights aren’t enough to seal it out. Whatever Triton’s planning, he needs to do it now!”

“He’s a little busy at the moment,” Tristan countered.

“It’s not enough.” Davad cupped his hands around his mouth, and bellowed until his heels lifted off the deck: “Wielders, look starboard! Look starboard!”

Struggling to hold the helm steady, Razoran bellowed: “Do as he says!”

The wielders rushed to the starboard side, acting as a counter-balance, to keep the ship even on its keel, as Triton began again.

As the water breached the gunwale and poured onto the main deck, Triton shifted the rotation of his arms, until his palms were face up. With a great exhale, he attempted to freeze the dracon’s finned forelegs in place, before there was nothing left of his ship to be saved. Only one limb turned to ice, before the water escaped back into the oceanus, re-levelling the hull, as Triton stopped his wielding.

He was, however, far from finished: drawing his twin blades from their gilded scabbards, he rushed the dracon, reaching the monster in four graceful bounds. With his last step, the heavy muscles of his thighs coiled, releasing to launch him into the air. One sword descended from a high arch, as he brought the other blade round in an outward swing. The first blade caught one of the dracon’s horns, severing it at the skull, as the other opened a vicious gash in the side of its neck.

Its maw opened, its jaw unhinging, and a silent shockwave of invisible energy barrelled forth. The aquis wielders on the starboard side, and the crewmen protecting the fore-deck, were tossed into the oceanus. Tristan felt his weight being lifted, and buried his claws deep into either side of the mainmast, as his legs flew out from under him, while Triton, who had been closest to the dracon’s mouth, flew past him – thirty feet in the air – on a collision course with the solid pole of the foremast. The force of the impact folded Triton’s shoulders backwards around the pole, his head bounced forward with a painful rebound, before he fell, missing the fore-deck, to land on his hands and knees, a few paces behind Tristan; the captain wasn’t dead, but he was done for.

The dracon struggled to break its frozen right foreleg free, as its black eyes zeroed in on the nox who’d inflicted the pain.

Davad!

Tristan knew that mental voice as well as he knew his own, and the panic in it terrified him; dreading what he would find, he turned towards where he had last seen Jacob. The mercenary’s fists were clenching the quarter-deck’s railing on the starboard gunwale, so hard that his knuckles glowed white; his stare was pinned – Tristan tracked it.

“No!”

Blood pooled beneath Davad’s pale cheek, from a head wound that had left him unconscious, beside the gunwale.

A feral snarl ripped from Tristan’s chest, as fury burned away his fear. Reaching into the cache of weapons, he grabbed the first hilt his left hand touched, and, as he pulled it free, he stepped between Triton and the dracon.

The dracon paused, assessing the new threat, before redoubling its effort to free itself.

I am faster than this beast, Tristan thought, as Razoran shouted from behind him: “Yellow Eyes!” Twisting his torso, he glanced back at the fera, who was helping his captain to stand. Triton, his arm draped across his first mate’s shoulders, used his free hand to toss Tristan one of his favored swords.

Tristan caught the hilt in his large hand, and twirled the blade to test its balance, as if wielding a sword his whole life. Energy, unlike anything he’d ever experienced, coursed through him, to emerge from his eyes as glowing beams of light.

“Thank you,” he said, in a voice unrecognizable, even to him.

Razoran went still, as if stone.

A moment of truth passed between Tristan and Triton – a new awareness, that reached beyond the normal parameters of understanding, to forge an acceptance born of dire circumstance. Triton was getting what he’d wanted from the beginning: Tristan’s secrets laid bare; and those secrets were all that stood between the dracon and the destruction of everything Triton held dear – Triton knew it, and, with a slow nod, he admitted it.

Tristan turned to face the beast.

The dracon ceased its struggles as, with predatory eyes, it stalked him, waiting to strike. When it did, its neck shot forward with incredible speed, its maw gaping, as its teeth sought the taste of flesh.

Tristan twisted his torso and arched backwards to avoid the dracon’s bite. Tightening his abdominal muscles, he pulled himself erect, and used the forward motion to hurl a blade at the beast’s heart – it sliced through the scales, but the angle was wrong; deflected, the sword hit the deck, and skittered out of reach.

The dracon wasted no time in delivering its counter-strike, swiping out with its free foreleg. Tristan avoided the full impact, but felt the searing pain of the dracon’s claws ripping through the thin cotton layer of his shirt, to leave four long, thin slices in their wake. He ignored it – the wound would last no longer than the fight.

Dodging the dracon’s next attack, Tristan jumped, and found himself launching into the air, instead. Waiting for his feet to return to the deck, he moved by instinct, keeping his legs beneath him. Once they did, he leaned forward and turned his foot sideways, to slow his backward slide.

The dragon’s neck undulated, as its head rose to attack from above.

Tristan smirked and went low. Tucking Triton’s sword against his side, he fell into a roll beneath the dracon’s broad chest and powerful forelegs, to deliver an inside cross-slash – the sharp blade sliced through the dracon’s left elbow, to the bone, and rendered it useless. With a battle cry to rival that of a true warrior, Tristan slammed the side of the blade into the beast’s frozen appendage – it shattered like glass.

The dracon wailed.

Pain exploded inside Tristan’s ears, as he clung to Triton’s sword, and rolled free of the beast. He came to his feet near the gunwale, as the dracon began to fall.

Shouts and cheers of “Yellow Eyes!” rose from the crewmen – a name given in mockery now resounded as a hero’s homage. But he was not yet finished.

Taking Triton’s sword in both hands, he found a calm void within his anger, and enveloped himself in it. Time all but ceased – he could have counted every scale running the length of the dracon’s side, and still had time to act. Bending his knees, Tristan pushed himself off the deck – the wooden planks cracking in protest – and launched himself at the beast’s head.

The dracon elongated its neck to counter-balance its falling torso, rising above its would be prey, and attempted to snatch Tristan from the air.

Forced to change his tactics, Tristan slashed the underside of the dracon’s neck. The counter-force slammed him to the deck, but he did not stay down – he rose again, with a lethal gleam in his golden eyes.

Gathering his energy, he demanded it do his bidding, and launched himself into the air again – he flew, as though born with wings.

Without time to react, the dracon’s neck was fully exposed; Tristan twisted with all of his strength, and separated the dracon’s head from its body, with one mighty upswing of the sword.

The ship exploded into cheer.

Above it all, Tristan watched, as the beast collapsed onto the main deck. Then, spreading wide his arms and legs, he offered himself up to their praise.

His victorious visage turned to surprise, as first the crew, then the gun deck, disappeared from view – a moment later, he plunged into the icy waters of the Nubilosus Oceanus.

His cloak tangled around his head, threatening to drown him, as he grabbed it with one hand, the other refusing to let go of Triton’s sword – better to wake up dead, than to survive without it. The thought panicked him, shattering the calm void that had protected him from fear – he kicked and flailed, until his heart raced and his lungs screamed for air.

When his head cleared the surface, coughing and spewing the salt-water from his chest, he fought for fresh air, but, with the surge of strength and raw power gone, exhaustion overwhelmed him – he felt as if Set had snuck up on him, catching him unaware, and drained him dry. As the freezing water numbed his limbs, and he lost his ability to move, he lay back and surrendered to his fate, waiting on destiny to take him.

Twin suns broke the horizon – he could feel the promise of their warmth, but it would come too late to save him. The call of seabirds distracted him from this thought. His body shifted, but it was through no movement of his own. He realized it was the fish – their tiny nips tugging at his clothes, beneath the surface.

There was a tranquility to it all; if death had to come, this was a good ending. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift.

 

*

 

Awake and ravenous, Tristan held his eyes shut, as he ascertained his condition, aware of the presence of others in the room. He wiggled his toes, twitched a shoulder, quirked a finger on his right hand, and then did the same with one on his left. Relieved that he could move, he sighed.

“He’s waking up.”

When he heard Set’s voice, everything that had happened came crashing back: eating supper, working the night shift, the bell tolling… and the fight with the dracon… before going over the gunwale. His mother used to tell him that pride came before a fall – he’d never taken her literally. Humiliation heated his flesh, turning his pale skin red, and denying him the option of feigning sleep.

He opened his eyes, then wished he’d drowned, as unease tightened his chest. He was in Triton’s bed.

Set sat cross-legged at his side, tears pooling in his piercing blue eyes, before spilling down his cheeks; “I thought you’d left me… Socmoon said… Don’t ever scare me like that again!”

Leaning back, in a chair across the room, Jacob drew attention, as the legs of it slammed against the cabin floor. “You did well, Tristan,” he said, but his stare was focused on Set.

Groaning, Tristan forced himself upright in the bed. The room shifted erratically, before he found his equilibrium, and was able to give thanks.

Bemused, Davad leaned against the wall to the right, and watched him.

“I see you standing there,” Tristan said, hoarse from the salt-water he’d swallowed, “but the image of you lying on the deck, with blood gushing from…” He shook his head; “I thought…”

“Yeah,” Davad grinned, “Dad told me that you didn’t like me getting hurt.” His grin grew; “I guess I’m not the only one with an over-protective streak.” When his attempted humor failed to lessen the tension around Tristan’s eyes, he said: “I’m fine – Swiney took good care of me. And,” he shrugged, “so did you.”

When Triton stepped forward, the stony plains of his stoic face revealed nothing of his intent.

Tristan locked down his muscles, forbidding them to flinch or bolt. “I didn’t mean to lose your sword, Triton.”

“You didn’t, boy,” he grinned; “they had to pry the hilt from your hold.”

Tristan had seen the expression of respect on Triton’s face before, in his dealings with Jacob and Razoran, but he’d never thought to see it there for himself. So, when Triton said: “I’m in your debt for saving my ship and my crew”, he had no idea how to respond.

Placing a hand over his heart, Triton gave a slight bow, and then said: “But, for bringing back my sword, I owe a debt that coin and favors cannot repay. So, I offer my friendship…” he held out his hand, and added: “..such as it is.”

Weak, and fearful that his legs would not bear his weight, Tristan was determined to stand for this. Swinging his limbs off the side of the bed, he tentatively stepped from the platform to the floor – when his knees would have buckled, Razoran was there to steady him.

Stretching out his free arm, Tristan took firm hold of the captain’s hand; “I’ll take friendship over coin any day.” Feeling only a little foolish, he placed a hand over his heart and bowed.

Jacob slapped the tops of both his thighs. “Enough of this,” he said, as he came to his feet. “Don’t we have something we want to show our young hero?” Tristan blushed at the accolade, much to the spectators’ delight.

“We do, indeed,” Razoran grinned. “Come, young hero,” he said, with dripping sarcasm, as Set led the way to the hatch.

“What’s wrong?” Jacob asked Tristan, when he hesitated before the ladder.

Swaying on his feet, Tristan said: “I’m not sure if I can make it up.”

“I’ve got you,” Razoran replied, and shimmied to the top; reaching it, he stretched out on his belly along the upper cabin’s floor, and extended his arm back down the hatch.

Tristan took it, and his feet left the ground as Razoran pulled him through. “Thanks,” he said, as they exited Jacob’s quarters and stepped out on the main deck, where the first thing Tristan saw was the dracon.

Even dead, the creature was fearsome. Without the surge of power rushing through his animus, he trembled at the memory of the fight; “What was I thinking?”

Razoran laughed, and slapped him on the back.

“I have to admit, Tristan,” Jacob said: “Triton isn’t the only one that owes you a few favors.” Grinning, he added: “It’s not often I’m presented with the opportunity to try something new.”

“Which is?”

With a wiggle of his brow, he replied: “I’ve never tasted dracon.”

“With your permission, Captain,” the cook said, “I’ll prepare the juiciest parts for you and our guests.”

“Have at it,” Triton told him.

The cook’s eyes were wild with delight, as he took out his carving blade and advanced on his target. When satisfied with his haul, he scuttled back to the kitchens.

“Bring me its horns,” Triton told his men, “and then take what you want of it.”

As the race for teeth and claws began, Tristan surveyed the damage to the ship, and the repairs that were already underway. “How bad is it?”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Triton told him: “My men will see that she sees us to port.”

“No doubt they will,” Tristan said.

Despite the loss of so many of their friends, the men were in jovial spirits, as they went about their set tasks. Some brought up spare planks from the hold, to make critical repairs to the decking. Others raced around on the ratlines, as they did what they could to make the broken gaff hold, and the sails wind-worthy enough to get them to the port in Pisces Stragulum.

“How can I help?” Tristan asked, but, as always, he was refused. The difference, this time, was that instead of turning him away in scorn, they turned him away with hand to heart, and heads bowed in gratitude.

XVIII

A Good and Proper Parting

 

The suns crested over the horizon, as a crewman yelled from the crow’s nest: “Land ahead!”

The port in Pisces Stragulum – a fishing village similar to Catena Piscari, that had been abandoned since the second water war – drew near. Beyond the rocky shoreline, flanking the docks and their protruding chute, knee-high grass swayed, with the air current pulled in from the coast.

Tristan ran to the fore-deck for a better view, and Davad’s grin split his face wide as he, too, joined. Down on the main deck, Set envied their enthusiasm, but could muster none of his own, lost as he was in analyzing recent events.

During the fight with the dracon, Set had thought: Why would destiny have Socmoon save Davad, only to let him die later the same day? And then Tristan had gone overboard. When the crew had dredged him from the oceanus, he hadn’t been breathing. While sitting at his side, fearing that it had been his brother’s death the oracle had prophesized, Set realized the depth of his dependency on Tristan.

He’d tried so hard to block Jacob’s ability, but in that moment of realization, he had dropped his guard, and the legs of Jacob’s chair had slammed into the floor – proof that the telepath had slipped into his thoughts. It was the first time Jacob had ever pushed his way into Set’s mind and taken knowledge against his will – the feeling of being violated had ushered in a mountain of guilt, because he himself had done the same to Tristan, countless times.

Now that Jacob knew about the prophecy, he couldn’t help but wonder if Jacob would find knowing worth the cost of knowing, or if, like him, he would wish for the return of ignorance.

Cupping his hands around his mouth, Set shouted: “Hey, guys, have either of you seen Jacob?”

Pointing to the hatch that led to the hold, Davad answered: “He’s below deck.”

Set’s shoulders sagged. In truth, he had known where Jacob would be, but had hoped for a reprieve. Worrying, and wondering if Socmoon would give Jacob the same warning, he entered the hold, with the bitter taste of anxiety on his tongue.

Triton’s voice breeched the thin interior wall of his cabin, leaking into the lower mid-deck: “Will it be ready in time?”

“Aye, Captain,” was the fera’s reply.

That was the last thing Set heard, before he took the second hatch, and entered the bilge.

“What did you do to me?”

The sudden rattling of the iron cage and the growled question had Set’s feet leaving the ground, as he jumped, and twisted to face the source. The red-headed mortalis had his pale, freckled face pressed to the bars, his hawkish nose protruding through them, as he shook the cage again. “I’ve been sick for days!”

“Perhaps next time someone is ill, you’ll have more sympathy towards their plight.”

“I know what you are,” the mortalis said, his voice pitched high with malicious intent, “and as soon as they let me out of this cage, I’m going to tell them.”

The threat was real – it would not matter that Jacob was friends with their captain, it would not matter that he’d saved them from poisoning, or that Tristan had slayed a dracon to save them; nothing would matter but the fact that he was an epoto. If the crew found out what he was, they would turn on him, and Shashara would be lost, he thought.

So, he steeled his voice and lied through his teeth: “You say you know what I am – so, tell me: are you an incredibly brave man, or just stupid?”

The man blinked: “What?”

“I’ve been inside your mind,” Set said, with a cold grin; “you could run to the far reaches of Superi, and still it wouldn’t be far enough, if ever I choose to search you out. Everything you are, every thought you possess, is mine for the taking.”

A sheen of sweat beaded on the man’s forehead; “You can’t do that.” But, the dark-blue teardrop markings on the left side of Set’s face turned the statement into a question.

“Know many master epotos, do you?” Set stormed towards the cage, as the prisoner scampered into a corner. “If you so much as breathe a word of what I am to anyone, ever, I’ll hear, and then I’ll drain the life from your body, and leave you to rot.”

The man fainted cold.

“Set.”

He turned, wide-eyed and hands aloft, towards the sound of Jacob’s voice; “I didn’t touch him, I swear!”

“He’s only sleeping,” Jacob told him. “We need to have a conversation, and I won’t risk the traitor learning any more about us.”

“Sorry,” Set said, “but I was desperate.”

“Your mistake wasn’t in using your ability, Set,” Jacob said: “your mistake was in not killing him after.”

“I-” Set started to speak, but Jacob cut him off.

“A prophecy given by an oracle should never be ignored,” Jacob shook his head. “Were you ever going to tell me?”

Set rubbed at his sternum, as Jacob’s hurt leeched into him; “No, I wasn’t.”

Distracted from his anger, Jacob said: “I lived at your father’s side for a very long time. How are you enjoying the new aspect of your ability?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Set admitted.

“The power to feel the emotions of others.” Jacob’s eyes dropped to Set’s hand, which still ran in slow circles over his heart. Knowing Set was unprepared to answer, he asked instead: “Why would you not tell me what Socmoon foresaw?”

“You’ve always taught us that knowledge is power, Jacob, and that its power makes it dangerous.”

“Did he tell you who…” Running his fingers through his hair, Jacob gave a gripping pull, and asked: “Did he say a name?” His overwhelming emotions crashed over Set like a wave.

Fighting to stay erect under the weight of Jacob’s emotions, Set answered: “No, but even if he had, I wouldn’t have told you.”

Jacob’s anger flared.

“I’m afraid that the more of us who know,” Set explained, “the more likely we are to cause it to come to pass.” Feeling the eyes of the prisoner on them, Set focused his thoughts: He’s awake.

I know, Jacob replied, without voice.

Set continued the same way: Socmoon said something about a Cruxen Clav, and that he feared losing his mind if he said too much about the future. I guess I’m afraid, too.

Unable to argue with Set’s logic, Jacob sealed off his emotions, and said: “Socmoon is waiting.”

The first thing Set said, when they found Socmoon, was: “I did not tell him, Socmoon, but keeping secrets from a telepath is like keeping the rain in the sky.”

“Truth you speak – this I know, even had the mercenary not told me so.”

“You saved Davad’s life,” Set told him, “and probably my own. So, I’m here to keep my promise – you said there was something I could do for you.”

“Hounding down my neck they were, so I sought refuge out at sea. Too late I realized that, though I’d escaped, fear had captured me.” Socmoon glanced at Jacob, before resettling on Set; “A telepath could block the fear for a time, but you, young Set, can venture to where the fear doth dwell – follow the pulse of my energy; find the fear, epoto, and from it set me free.”

It was Set’s turn to look to Jacob; “Is it possible?”

Jacob chuckled, though he found little humor in the situation. “Everything you threatened that prisoner with was true,” he shrugged, “with the exception of the continued connection and the reach. But the danger to the one you use your ability on, and the danger to yourself, is extreme.”

“What could happen?”

It was Socmoon who answered: “If you pull my fear and fail to release, trapped you could become; if you lose focus while inside, my mind could become undone. Of catastrophes we can speak, until the chance has passed, or you can keep your word, epoto, and set me free, at last.”

Jacob spoke into Set’s mind: There is so much for you to learn, Set – so much I would have spared you from learning. But now it’s too late: the aether ability within you has been fully awakened. If the oracle is willing, you should take the opportunity to further train your ability.

Wiping his sweaty palms down the legs his breeches, Set turned to Socmoon, and said: “You couldn’t have asked for something simple, huh?”

 

*

Silence swept across the deck, and the crew stilled at their tasks, as, aided by the telepath and the boy, the oracle emerged from the central hatch.

“I think I’ll join Davad and Tristan on the fore-deck,” Set said, gesturing with a nod towards the coming captain. “You two have fun,” he chuckled, and then made his escape.

Planting his feet, Triton crossed his arms and glared. “What have you done now, Jacob? And you…” – his eyes narrowed – “..where do you think you’re going?”

“You don’t own him, Triton,” Jacob was quick to point out; “he’s always been free to leave.”

Dropping his hands to his hips, Triton started as if to argue, but then sighed in defeat. “You know,” he said, dismayed, “in all the years he’s been on my ship, he’s only read my fortune once.”

“Really?” Jacob asked. “I’m intrigued – I’d have thought you would have demanded information for his keep.”

Socmoon laughed outright. He covered his mouth to soften the noise, but his broad, bony shoulders continued to shake, as he slipped off towards the railing.

Focused on Socmoon’s retreating back, Triton told Jacob: “The fulgo told me that as long as he was on board, I’d never die. And then he refused to tell me another blasted thing.”

“Now, that’s funny,” Jacob chuckled.

“I couldn’t very well kick his skinny arse off my ship after that, now, could I?”

“It serves you right, and you know it.”

“Yeah,” Triton said with a crooked grin, “it did.”

“I want to thank you for the maps,” Jacob told him. “Getting into I.A. won’t be easy.”

“If anyone can breech the Imbellis Asylum, it is you.” Triton cleared his throat; “Jacob, you know you can leave the boys with me.”

“If I thought Davad would stay behind, I might try to convince him, but the truth is I need Set and Tristan, and Davad would follow, no matter what I said. I’m only going to have one chance to get Shashara out, and those two boys hold a lot of power. Now,” he said, “if I could get you to come with me-”

“You don’t need my help, mercenary,” Triton cut him off, “but I’ll give you a word of advice.”

“I’m listening.”

“Don’t underestimate your son,” Triton told him; “Tristan and Set’s abilities may be stronger, but Davad’s fortitude will carry him, long after the others have given up.” Feeling as if he had said more than he’d a right to, Triton excused himself.

Left alone, Jacob’s steps were heavy, as he made his way to stand beside the oracle. “Is it me?” he asked, without looking over.

“Your death would be better, would you not agree? The loss of a life lived, instead of the loss of youth and vitality.” Socmoon paused, as his left pupil dilated – when he spoke again, it was with great strain: “Try as I might, I cannot see which thread will be cut by destiny. You travel with a catalyst – one created and not born; let us hope it is not he who from this life is torn.”

While the man spoke, Jacob scoured his mind for answers, but found none. “You saved my son’s life,” he said, “so, whatever you believed the scales to read between us,” – he offered his hand – “they are balanced now.”

As the crew brought the ship to dock, Socmoon grasped Jacob’s forearm, instead, and said: “May good fortune forge your path and guard your back, mercenary.” Opening his mind, he held an image in place, and then said: “It is a heavy burden you carry.”

Beth had spoken of what had been done to Tristan in the alchemist’s chambers – the image of it was worse, and it brought to the fore promises made that were now broken.

Turning, Jacob swallowed the trepidation hampering his breath, and, without further words to the oracle, made his way to the fore-deck, where the boys stood talking amongst themselves. They quieted at his approach.

Set could feel the profound sadness emanating from Jacob. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Not long ago,” Jacob said, “I told you that I knew what manner of men you could be – for truth, I didn’t know the half of it.” He looked at his son. “There are those that lead in this life, and there are those who follow – you proved yourself the former when you took control of the wielders, and saved the ship from capsizing.”

He looked to Tristan: “Bravery is not the absence of fear, Tristan, but it is the act of courage, in the face of it. Despite all of the physical abilities you hold, it was your bravery that made you a hero. I cannot imagine how proud your father would have been, because I know how proud I am.

“Set,” he said, aware of the exchange of energy pulsing between their aether abilities, “you’ve gained an understanding that words cannot grant. Now you know the truth: knowledge is power, because of the cost of obtaining it.”

Davad and Tristan looked to Set, who stood between them, but did not pry for an explanation.

“You boarded this ship as boys,” Jacob told them, “but have since taken on the mantle of men, so let no one call you children again. Now,” he said, “gather your things and meet me on the dock – Triton will wish to speak to each of you before we leave.”

“Yes sir,” came their reply.

Jacob remained on the fore-deck, as Davad and Tristan disappeared into the forecastle, to do as they’d been bidden. Set, spotting Totalis heading towards Socmoon, with a bulging pack thrown over his shoulder, detoured to join them.

“Looks like your quills grow as fast as Jacob’s beard,” Set grinned. Knowing Totalis was on his way to Elisium Agricolor, to find his wife, he added: “You’re looking good.”

“It itches,” Totalis replied.

“That’s what Jacob says,” Set grinned.

Opening his pack, Totalis pulled free Set’s dark green cloak, which had been folded with care and laid on top of all the other contents. “I went back to see Socmoon after you offered me this,” he said, returning it; “I told the fulgo I owed you a debt of kindness.”

Set shook his head: “Totalis, we’re friends – you don’t owe me anything.”

“We are friends now,” Totalis countered, “but we weren’t friends then.” After a brief pause, he gestured to the cloak, and said: “A gift is folded inside.”

Set peeled back the cloth. Hidden beneath was a wooden hair brush, gilded in wavering flames of gold. “Socmoon says the gift isn’t really for you,” Totalis explained, “but for a mortalis girl, who holds your heart, the way my wife holds mine.”

“It’s beautiful,” he said, casting about for who might have overheard. “Thank you.”

Totalis nodded, pleased that the debt had been settled.

“Socmoon,” Set asked, “where will you go?”

The oracle gazed at the coast, as if he feared it would disappear; “It’s not where I go, but where I will be – when the time comes, you’ll know where to find me.” With a directional nod, he said: “They wait for you, upon the dock, your journey to renew. Think not on what was, or what will come, or to the dangers of the day you’ll succumb. And, boy,” he said, his pale face flushing with sentimentality; “I truly thank you.”

Throwing his arms around the tall fulgo’s waist, Set squeezed him; “I will miss you too.”

No sooner had he stepped back, than Totalis pulled him in, lifting his feet from the deck. “Ugh,” he groaned, as the air was squished from his chest.

“Sorry,” Totalis winced, releasing him. “The oracle told me about your aether ability, and that you fear what you are.” Taking hold of Set’s shoulders, he pitched his voice not to carry, and said: “Your power is balanced by the purity of your heart. If an epoto must walk the world again, I’m grateful that it lies within you.”

Words came hard around the lump in Set’s throat: “The gift you made is breathtaking, but the gift of your words is invaluable.” He hugged Totalis again, then, before tears could betray him, he walked down the gangplank, towards where the others waited.

Passing Swiney on his way, he placed a hand to his heart, and said: “I owe you, old man.”

“And don’t think I’ll soon forget it,” Swiney replied, with a wink and chuckle.

At the end of the dock, the men waited in pairs: Razoran and Tristan, Davad and Hammy, Jacob and Triton… How different this scene was from when they’d first tried to board the ship, in Catena Piscari.

“It took you long enough,” Tristan said, as Set took a place at his side.

Set didn’t have time to answer, before Triton moved away from Razoran to face them – the pirate did indeed strike an imposing figure. His long hair had been oiled into strands of black silk, which lay across his broad shoulders, silver hoops dangled from each ear, cradling a face like stoic stone, and the black, leather, V-cut vest he wore contrasted with the white, lace-collared shirt that lay beneath it, darkening the brown tint of his skin.

Set’s eyes fell to the two curved dracon horns, which hung on leather straps around Triton’s neck. When Tristan nudged him, he dropped his gaze to the silver-tipped toes of the captain’s polished boots, but they did not stay there long.

Having read Triton’s mind, Jacob ignored Set and Davad’s confusion, and urged them forward.

Taking the leather cords from around his neck, Triton hung the first one around Set’s, and then stepped back to say: “The poison you saved us from would have killed more of my crew than the dracon – you have my gratitude.”

Placing the other over Davad’s head, he arranged it so the horn hung over the boy’s heart. “Your father tells me you want to be the captain of your own ship one day.”

“One day,” Davad answered, “yes, sir.”

“The courage you displayed, coming above deck when the dracon attacked,” Triton said, “and the way you took charge of the wielders: placing yourself at risk to cover my back, so they could keep the ship from capsizing… You are a leader by nature, Davad – you would make a fine captain.”

“Thank you, sir,” Davad said, with a dip of his chin, as he and Set fell back with the others.

Triton called forward his new quartermaster and reached for what the mortalis held: a thin, long bundle wrapped in expensive black silk, with deep blue stitches forming a pattern of scales.

“Tristan Mattewson,” Triton said, “on behalf of myself and my crew, please accept this token of our gratitude.” Flipping back the expensive cloth, he revealed a black, leather sheath that was a work of art in and of itself; when he drew the blade, everyone gasped, eyes gaping, at the beautiful, three-foot long broadsword. “Take it,” he said; “if not for you, Yellow Eyes, we all would have found a watery grave.”

Tristan’s hands trembled, as he reached for the weapon. The blade featured a design of a white dracon climbing its length, and around its black hilt was embossed the phrase: “In my hand lies your fate.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Tristan said; “thank you doesn’t seem enough.”

“Trust me, boy – I feel the same,” he said. “Know that there will always be a ship to welcome you upon her deck, so long as I am called ‘Captain’.” Placing his hand to his heart, the proud nox bowed low; “Know that you are not without friends.”

As Davad and Set admired Tristan’s new sword, Triton and Jacob said their farewells.

“My crew is full of traitors, my ship is in shambles, and my oracle is lost,” Triton chuckled, “and yet I am sorry to see you leave. I wish you good fortune, and your daughter’s safe return.”

Clasping his friend’s forearm, Jacob said: “If fortune favors me, we will meet again. And, if not…” he glanced to where the boys stood; “..they will need you.”

“Understood,” Triton said, as he nodded once, and then turned away, his crew returning with him to gain the gangplank.

“Triton may be their captain,” Jacob said, “but every member of his crew supported the idea to gift you that sword – you should thank them, Tristan, while there’s still time to do so.”

Tristan searched for fitting words, and, finding none, shoved the blade of his new sword high, letting loose a triumphant shout, which gained their approval – throwing back his head, he bellowed: “ARRGH!”

Triton’s steps stalled, as he turned towards the sound and laughed; his crew gave the boy his due:

“ARRGH!”

The power of their collective voice caused the oceanus to tremble beneath the keel – it was a good and proper parting.

XIX

Lost Hope

 

They’d digressed into a symbiotic pattern of falling apart and pulling each other together again, over the course of their journey across the oceanus.

Such co-dependency was new to Anliac, and in the beginning she’d fought against it; her indignation had been enough to stiffen her spine, but, after days of darkness, the stench of refuse, and the cries and angry rants of other prisoners, fragility had taken hold. Despite the fact that she was daughter to a general in the Regia Aquam Guard, and that she knew well the tactics captors employed to break their prisoners, without Shashara she would have been lost to despair.

After being tossed into the rat-infested bilge, they’d been left to the merciless care of the guards.

Sores had formed where the rusty iron shackles bit into their flesh. Caged in their tiny, iron-barred boxes and given just enough sustenance to keep them alive, their muscles grew weaker by the day. The blindfolds did their part too, adding an element of fear and vulnerability to their circumstances.

Yet, such tactics were not enough to break those of stronger will, and, so ,when a guard snapped the neck of the young mortalis boy, Jonas, the rebellion that ensued had been inevitable.

Shashara, having found a likeness in the boy that reminded her of Set, had lost her mind to fury – as the other captives reached for their tormentors through the bars caging them, to inflict what damage they could, Shashara set a guard’s fur to flame.

It was the man’s screams that called forth the tide of flesh that poured down, through the hatch, to deliver retribution. Dousing the fire that had started to spread, they’d dragged Shashara from her cage and beaten her bloody, but the punishment had not stopped there.

Ordered to remove their blindfolds, those worth the coin to save were forced to witness as others’ throats were slit and their bodies dragged away. It did not have the desired result of breaking their will, nor was it the last act of defiance from the captives; far from it.

A new dawn broke, but it was not the light of the suns that renewed the day. The whispered talk amongst the prisoners withered with the appearance of the guards, whose cruelty was quelled only by their orders not to kill them.

“It is a thin line between surviving and dying.”

Anliac tensed at the sound of Jaydon’s voice, as all of her senses came to the fore. He loved to catch her unaware – to revel in the bite of his favored whip, as it sliced its way through her flesh. The man was mercurial and malicious. If she were to meet death, it would be at his hand, and if fate decreed that she were to live, he would find his death at hers – there was no other way it could be.

“Their shackles stay in place,” Jaydon said; “I want them bound hand to foot until we deliver them to the Asylum.”

The tension amongst the prisoners grew palpable, upon hearing that they’d reached their first destination.

“I think we should keep Anliac from the others. You saw what she did last night – her aquis ability makes her too dangerous.”

“Nonsense, Ronin,” Jaydon said; “once we have her off this ship and away from the oceanus, she’ll pose no threat to us.”

“She’s killed how many of our guards since we’ve boarded?” Ronin spat in Anliac’s direction. “Do you really think iron bars will be enough to control her?”

“Those guards died because they were fools,” Jaydon retorted, as he closed the short distance between the hatch and Anliac’s cage. “She had no true desire to sink this ship with herself and her friend on board, did you, my pet?”

Blindfolded, she could not see, yet she lifted her chin in defiance, and said: “The knowledge that you would have drowned as well was tempting, but no – I’m not like you: I’ll not have the blood of innocents on my hands.”

“You see?” Jaydon grinned. “Still,” he said, sliding his fingers suggestively down her leg, “perhaps we do need more than a cage to control her.”

“Don’t touch me,” she hissed.

Jaydon laughed at her discomfort; “Just so we’re clear, Anliac, if you cause any trouble, it will be Shashara who pays the price.” To his partners, he said: “And, just in case she values her own life over that of her friend’s, use the arcanite chains – she’ll cause no mischief if she can’t access her abilities.”

“Fetch a set for the girl,” Ronin ordered a guard, “and be quick about it.”

As the guard hurried towards the hatch, Jaydon pointed to another of the guards and said: “You, organize your men and get the prisoners above deck; there is a wagon waiting at the end of the dock – see them on it.”

“Yes, sir. You heard the man: let’s get them moving.”

Rusty iron squeaked, as the feras dragged the prisoners out of their cages, one by one. While the men struggled, in vain, to turn the tide of the inevitable, receiving violent blows for their efforts, the women whimpered.

When she heard Shashara’s cage open, Anliac said: “Don’t fight them.”

“I’ve no fight left in me at the moment,” Shashara replied, grunting as rough hands pulled her forward.

“You’ll make a fine slave, mortalis,” her guard said, leading her towards the hatch; “I might even bid for you myself.”

“I’d rather die.”

“That, too, is an option,” the fera chuckled, as he hoisted Shashara up through the hatch.

Anliac felt the blood drain from her face, as heavy boots slammed against the bilge floor, accompanied by the rattle of chains; manipulated arcanite – every wielder’s worst fear. She would be all but defenceless, without hope of escape.

The thought quickened her breath, and her heart raced. She knew a moment of true fear, and fell back on her training to rein it in – she would not be controlled by emotion. Bracing herself against the far side of her cage, she waited.

When the door swung wide, she kicked out, and was rewarded when her heel caught the guard in his gut. Air whooshed from his lungs as he stumbled backwards, but he hadn’t come alone. Dragged from her cage, she was thrown to the floor, and, though she fought them, she was subdued – they held her down, to replace her shackles with the alloy restraints that would block her from her ability. She felt it: as soon as the arcanite touched her skin, leaving behind a hollow chasm in her chest, her power was gone.

Tears slipped from the corners of her almond-shaped eyes, to slide down her caramel-colored temples, dampening the cloth that hid her shame. Without access to her ability, she was no threat, and they left her laying there, as they went about collecting the remaining prisoner.

“Let’s go, Quade.”

Quade grunted, as the guard prodded him forward. “Follow the advice you gave your friend,” he said, as he stepped over her to reach the hatch: “don’t fight them.”

“On your feet.”

Anliac sucked back the pain of the metal biting into her flesh, as her guard grabbed the chain running between her shackled wrists, and lifted her from the floor. She flinched, emitting a tiny squeak, when her blindfold was ripped off.

Her eyes narrowed on the last fera, as the others exited the bilge. The brown breeches he wore, shoved into black boots, along with his loose, green, cotton shirt, accentuated his immense size. He had no need of armor – his scaled flesh more than provided this. When her eyes dropped to his pincer-like hands, she heard him laugh.

“Move, woman,” he grinned around his fangs, “before I mistake your eyes on me as interest or invitation.”

Her spine stiffened. “You disgust me,” she said, as she moved to stand before the ladder to wait. When she heard no sound of him following, she turned. Her nostrils flared, her upper lip furled, and before she could stop herself, she asked: “What kind of animal are you?”

His approach was swift, thereafter. Backhanding her cheek, the force of it slammed her body into the ladder at her back. “I’m not an animal, you stupid nox – I’m fera.”

Anliac pushed away from the broken rungs, to stand upright. “Is there a difference?”

When his arm swung again, it was a fist that met her cheek. Her last memory was of being thrown over his solid shoulder, before she blacked out.

“Anliac!” Shashara’s eyes bulged – the guard bringing her friend up from the bilge was enormous, but that didn’t stop her from demanding: “What have you done to her?”

“Shut up!” Stolace shouted, drawing back his hand in warning.

“Or what?” Shashara sneered; “You’ll beat me again? You’ll lock me in another cage? Blindfold me? Starve me? Honestly, Stolace, you’ve nothing left to threaten me with.”

When Stolace growled and lunged forward, she held her ground: “You don’t frighten me,” she said.

“Stop playing with the girl and get her loaded,” Jaydon said, thwarting Stolace’s retribution. “I grow bored, and wish to be done with this lot.”

Following after the guard, with Anliac draped over his shoulder, Stolace dragged Shashara behind, sneering at Jaydon, who fell into step beside him. “You wish to discover if the nox can be bought.”

It was not a question, but Jaydon answered: “True.” He said: “If fortune favors me it will be the mortalis girl Malstar desires, for I fear the little nox has wiggled her way beneath my skin.”

The corner of Stolace’s lip twitched; “An ill fate for her.”

“True,” Jaydon grinned, as they moved towards the waiting wagon, the back of which had been altered into one large wrought-iron cage.

Shashara envied Anliac her unconscious state, because she dreaded the thought of being forced inside. To keep from panicking over things beyond her control, she focused on her surroundings. The buildings along the dock were better kept than the ones she’d glimpsed in Catena Piscari, and the merchants were far better dressed. And, though the day was yet young, for now the sense of imminent violence was absent.

However, she was no fool – slavery was common on the western continent, so she did not look for allies amongst the people, knowing she would find only apathy.

They reached the wagon, where the other prisoners were loaded. The women clustered in shared fear, while the men glared with silent rage.

“Easy…” Shashara cried out, as Anliac’s guard tossed her in like meat gone rancid, only to find herself summarily discarded.

She twisted in midair, to keep from landing on top of Anliac, and fell into the lap of a blond mortalis man. Half of his face had been touched by fire – burnt beyond recognition.

“You’re okay,” the man soothed, as she scrambled from his reach. Helping her to sit upright, he said: “I’ll not hurt you.”

After a moment, he asked: “What’s your name?”

Gathering Anliac to rest the girl’s head in her lap, she hesitated, but answered: “Shashara.” The guards were filing into boarding lines around them. “What is yours?”

“Quade,” he replied, keeping an eye on Jaydon, Ronin and Stolace, as they mounted their horses. “I come from Habilis Vita. And you?”

“Exterius Antro.”

She planted an open palm on the floorboards, when the driver brought his quirt down onto the lead horse’s flank, and the wagon lurched forward, onto a well-travelled dirt road, toward the town of Caterva Concentio.

“I’m Braydon from Antro,” a fulgo said; “the one city on the eastern continent that still has house-slaves.” He downed his head, his long, blond hair becoming a curtain that hid the blush stealing over his pale cheeks, when Shashara smiled.

She couldn’t help it – he had a hooked nose, and ears far too large for his narrow face, but his golden eyes held kindness. She liked him immediately.

“After weeks of ignoring each other in the bilge of that ship, are we now to become friends?”

Shashara glowered at the spike-haired nox who had spoke. Though undeniably handsome, his blue eyes were as cruel as those of the fera guards.

“Would you rather make us your enemies?”

“I’d rather not be here at all,” was his retort. “Soon, we’ll all be slaves, or dead – neither outcome allows for friends.”

“If you’ve lost hope of gaining your freedom, you are already a slave… of your despair.” Wiping at unbidden tears, Shashara said: “You’re dead, despite the breath that fills your lungs.”

Sneering, he replied: “If harsh words from me can break you down, mortalis, how do you think you’ll fare where we’re going?”

Quade rolled his eyes; “Why don’t you spare us your words and keep quiet? The last leg of our journey has only just begun, and already I’m sick of you.”

“Quiet!” A fera guard slammed his thick wooden staff into the side of their cage.

They were, and the journey became more arduous for it, leaving them with nothing but time, that stretched. Most of the prisoners had been lulled to sleep by the heat of the suns, but were roused by the noise of Caterva Concentio.

The town was years from becoming a city, resembling more the fishing villages of Satio Mapalia. There was a small inn, with green shutters over its windows, and beside it another wooden building, whose sign read: “Town Council.” It was, however, the large building on the town’s outskirts which held her attention, until their progress removed it from view; meant for prisoners, its purpose revolted her.

For too long they’d tasted only stale water and thin gruel. So, passing by the trading post, hers was not the only mouth that watered at the sight of all the fruit and vegetables, set out in crates and barrels along its front stoop.

Behind the businesses were the local residences. She could smell the cook fires and see the chimney smoke rising above the trees; she heard chickens clucking in the yards, pigs squealing in their pens, and a mother shouting for her child to be careful – it was a picture of normalcy.

Like everywhere else, there were feras, but the townspeople were mostly mortalis, marked by their vague interest in the prisoners bound for Imbellis; Shashara saw no fulgos. The nox – what little presence they had in the town – were obviously from elsewhere; most likely, they had come off of either the slave ship, or one of the smaller vessels, docked at the port.

Shashara was distracted from her scrutiny of the town, when a young girl, with round, hazel eyes and chubby cheeks, ran into the street to keep pace with the wagon. Tiny as she was, she couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. Hands behind her back, her eyes held mischief, yet Shashara clung to the sight of such innocence, amidst so much malice; despite her circumstance, the smile was genuine.

The girl smiled back, revealing two missing front teeth, and then darted in front of a guard, to cut closer to the wagon. Her little arm lifted as if to wave, but she threw a stone instead – her aim proved true, and it struck Shashara’s temple.

The pessimistic nox chuckled at her pain: “It seems she doesn’t want to make friends, either.”

Ripping yet another strip of cloth from the bottom of what remained of her shirt, she pressed it to the wound, and glared at the nox. “That the children of this town are no better than the adults is no laughing matter,” she said; “the regularity of slaves being transported down their streets has compromised their conscience and sense of morality – it has hardened their hearts to the sorrows of others.” With slight turns, her head shook: “They are to be pitied.”

“Says the girl in chains,” the nox jeered, before returning to his own thoughts.

Leaving Caterva Concentio behind, the wheels of the wagon bumped, alongside a river which bulged and narrowed at will – Shashara’s longing to leap into its crystal clear depths must have registered on her face.

“We’ll be cleansed of the filth from the bilge presently,” the nox chuckled; “we’ll fetch a higher price if we don’t reek.”

“Ignore him,” Quade said.

Shashara did, but only because the thought that followed put a knot in her throat that she couldn’t speak around. Though she wished it otherwise, the horrors experienced, and those yet to come, would never wash clean from her mind.

The trees of the coast shrank to shrubbery, then flattened into a plain that forsook salvation. Here, the prisoners had nowhere to run, and would-be rescuers had nowhere to hide; the guards, knowing as much, relaxed their vigilance, as the suns’ heat pummeled them all, parching their throats and reddening their skin.

Shashara envied those who’d found sleep. Unable to find slumber herself, she worried over Anliac, who had yet to rouse, and fretted over what would become of them once they reached the tower. She knew her father would come for her, but she knew, as well, that his help might come too late.

“Who’s your friend?” Quade asked.

Grateful for the distraction, Shashara answered: “Her name is Anliac.”

“Where is she from?”

“She never speaks of family,” Shashara said, brushing a stray wisp of dark hair from Anliac’s cheek, careful to avoid her swollen jaw.

“How did the two of you meet?” Braydon asked, as much to pass the time as out of genuine curiosity.

Shashara licked her dry lips, but there was simply no moisture left on her tongue. “I was working a forge in Exterius Antro, when she’d come in looking for work. It had been bad timing on her part, and ill fortune on mine, for that was the day we were both taken.”

“Is it true what they whisper?” Braydon asked, nodding towards the guards: “That you attempted to aid her when everyone else ran?”

With an exhaustion that reached her bones, Shashara sighed: “Well, I couldn’t leave her, so here we both are.”

“Though you share no blood,” Quade said. “I’d expected to hear that you were as family; to know that you sacrificed your freedom to come to the aid of a stranger…” He dipped his chin; “..that was very brave.”

“No,” said the spike-haired nox, “it was dumb. I would’ve turned and never looked back.”

“We are not all cowards,” Braydon retorted.

“How did you come to be here, Braydon?” Shashara enquired, to deny the nox the attention he craved.

“I was turned over by my master, to be resold across the oceanus,” he said.

“Why?” Shashara asked, with a curious smile, that grew along with the blush creeping over the fulgo’s face.

“I am but a level-two aer wielder,” Braydon shrugged; “I overstepped my station, and fell in love with my master’s sister. This is my punishment.”

Fidgeting under the scrutiny of the others, he asked: “What of you, Quade? How did you come to be here?”

Quade’s countenance darkened; “I killed the man who killed my family and left me to die in a burning house. It just so happened that the one responsible was the magistrate of Habilis Vita.”

“Oh…” Shashara, wide-eyed, covered her mouth to hide its gaping surprise.

“His brother,” Quade continued, “thought it would be a more fitting punishment that I become a slave in a foreign land, than to be granted the mercy of death.”

“And what of you, Zadyst?” Shashara asked, and then rolled her eyes at the look this captive shot her. “Of course we know your name,” she said: “we’ve all heard the guards cursing it. Would you care to share your story?”

Zadyst grunted: “Don’t sound so judgemental, girl – you and your friend killed more of the guards than I did.”

Her right brow arched. “I wasn’t judging,” she said; “I was simply stating facts.”

“What if I told you,” Zadyst asked, “that I was given over to the slavers to pay a debt I did not owe?” At their dubious expressions, he said: “While the slavers were busy gathering the lot of you, my father was busy taking their horses. He did, however, leave payment.” He touched his own chest with his fingertips, and then indicated to the women asleep in the corner.

With a hard edge to his tone, Quade asked: “You know these women?” His expression went slack. “Are they your family?”

“Of course not,” Zadyst said, his words dripping with disdain; “they were my father’s… play things. I suppose he’d grown bored of them, as he had of me.”

“I can’t imagine being betrayed by my father,” Shashara said, in a whisper. “Truly, Zadyst, I am sorry.”

“Save your pity,” he sneered. “My father spent a decade of his life in prison for a crime he had not committed – I had.”

He paused, as a malicious grin warped his handsome face into a vile thing. “So, you see, you naive little girl, my captivity is ironically just. I am going to show you a kindness – I am going to rip what remains of your innocence from your psyche.”

“Leave her alone,” Quade said, his voice deep with warning.

Zadyst spoke as if the other man had not: “Here is truth: the ability to deceive and betray runs through the veins of every race – life is a game of survival, and the last one standing wins. I see you watching the horizon for your father, or whoever it is you think is coming to rescue you, but they’re not coming. Hope is not your friend.”

Shashara took in a sharp, audible breath, as tears spilled down her cheeks.

Zadyst wasn’t finished. “For all you know,” he said, “your father is one of them, and he’s sold you out.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Anliac groaned. Taking a moment to gather her wits, she pushed herself up on her elbows, and glared at Zadyst, saying: “It’s true: your father may not reach us in time, Shashara, but it will not be for a lack of trying, nor will it be because he’s betrayed you.”

“His words are of no consequence,” Shashara said, with a brilliant smile and a relieved sigh. “You’ve been asleep for far too long. Are you okay?”

Pushing herself upright, Anliac grunted, as she settled her back against the iron bars. “Don’t fuss over me, Shashara – I’m fine.”

“Because I’m so glad you’re okay,” Shashara snipped, “I’ll let your attitude pass.”

The right corner of Anliac’s lip twitched.

“This is Braydon, from Antro,” Shashara volunteered, “and Quade from Habilis Vita.”

“What?” Zadyst grinned; “Do I not warrant an introduction?”

“I know who you are,” Anliac scowled: “you were the cause of that boy getting his neck snapped.”

Ignoring the statement, he told her: “I must admit, your feisty temper adds to your appeal. I find you even more beautiful awake than asleep – such cannot be said of most women.”

“You disgust me.”

“Ouch.” Feigning offence, Zadyst covered his heart. “Truly,” he said, “I’m hurt.”

“Not yet,” Anliac retorted, “but if you don’t shut up, you will be.”

Braydon pointed off into the distance: “Look.”

An ancient city rose from the plains to the south, with flags of red and blue flying from its turrets. They could see the men, made tiny by distance, walking the length of its wall. A mortalis woman, woken by the exchange, roused the other. She shifted her position for a better look and asked: “Is that where we’re going?”

“No,” Anliac said, “that is Certamen – an outdated city, full of pompous has-beens, who have been sent out of Imbellis to retire. You’re either wealthy and with title, or destitute and desperate, if you live within those walls.”

“They say it was considered the city of power, before Imbellis was built,” Braydon said, to no one in particular.

Wringing her hands, the mortalis woman whined: “The waiting is too much. I’m a no one from nowhere, who nobody wants – why won’t they let me go?”

“Hush now,” another woman cooed, pulling the younger girl against her chest, as they both began to cry. “Perhaps it won’t be as terrible as you and I fear – there’s a chance we will be given to nice families, who will show us kindness. Ones who will offer us a better life than the one delivered by his father.”

All eyes swung to Zadyst, whose smirk made no apologies. “As I said, my father had been behind bars for the last decade – he might have been a bit zealous in making up for lost time.”

“Like father, like son,” Anliac said: “you’re both swine. There!”

She was the first to see Imbellis, as the white stone tower became visible, over the trees of the massive grove surrounding the city; “That is our destination.”

When the women began to cry, Quade offered shallow comfort: “Wait to spill your tears,” he said: “we’ve half a day’s ride ahead of us yet.”

Hands trembling, Shashara laced her fingers, and laid them in her lap. “I’m afraid, Anliac,” she whispered.

“There are but two things you can do with fear,” Anliac told her: “you can succumb to it, or you can overcome it. But either way, Shashara, you will have to face it.”

Leaning the back of her head against the bars, Shashara closed her eyes. “Your words offer no comfort.”

“No, they do not,” Anliac said, “but they do offer you truth.”

Falling silent and into private thoughts, Anliac was more disheartened than she revealed. Her fast friendship with Shashara, and their untenable circumstances, had closed the gap between their stations, but that did not change the facts: she was of a ruling house, and Shashara was not. As they approached Imbellis, she could not help but dwell on facts known only to the titled – dangerous truths, that placed the common denizens of Superi at a disadvantage.

XX

The White-Stoned City

 

The two great moons of Superi – mere colored slivers in an inky-black sky – all but disappeared, as they entered the grove, by way of a narrow dirt road. Halting the wagon, the guards strung grease-lanterns from long poles, and passed them out amongst themselves, before they continued on. Before long, dirt gave way to crushed white stone, packed down over time, by the passing of footsteps and wagon wheels.

Nearing the southern gate of the city, Braydon wondered aloud: “The egress is left open? Is that not arrogance?” he asked, as whitewashed wooden buildings, with the signs of their trade swinging from wrought iron poles, came into view.

As the fera guards stopped to douse the grease-lamps, rendered useless by the oil lanterns that lined the cobble-stone streets, Shashara said: “With the way this city displays such opulence, I’d imagine it has an equally impressive army.” No one seemed inclined to disagree, as the wagon took the twists and turns, down streets and alleys, towards the tower.

On one street, the trilling notes of a flute, accompanied by the rhythmic thud of drums, drew their attention to a massive white-stoned inn. Its dim interior lights cast eerie shadows from its windows, out into the street, but the common room was very much alive; so, it became symbolic of the freedom they’d all lost.

Reaching the heart of Imbellis, the Asylum’s ascending steps, with elevated boardwalks to either side, resembled teeth, leading to its wide mouth.

“Like a ravenous beast,” Shashara shivered, “this place seeks to devour us.”

The river flowed down from the north. It ran beneath the tower, through huge, cylindrical pipes, which funnelled the water back into its banks. From there, it forked into two tributaries. They’d followed one branch in from the southwest coast – the other flowed south by a straighter course, veering only slightly to the east, as it left the city behind.

Wistful and serene, free and without care, citizens of the city had ventured out into the night, to stand upon the wide bridges that overlooked the black depths of the rivers. Not even they – the captives – could deny the beauty that lay before them.

The driver tugged the reins to the left, diverting from the main street, to cross a bridge, onto a less travelled road that wound its way to the back of the Asylum.

When a group of the fera guards rushed ahead, it was to open the door. But, though it appeared to be on ground level, because of the natural rise in the land, the egress would carry them to a level below. Pulling rein, only a half-dozen guards remained with the wagon, while the others disappeared inside.

“Keep an eye on them,” Jaydon told a guard; “Malstar will not be pleased if we lose his prize, so close to its being claimed.”

“Yes, sir,” the guard replied.

“Ronin… Stolace…” Jaydon asked: “Shall we?” He did not turn to see if they followed him into the tower.

Huddled together, the whimpering and hysteria of the women grew, as the guards closed rank around their cage.

“Quiet,” Zadyst growled; “your tears count for nothing here.”

“Shut your mouth,” Quade snapped.

With aggression running high amongst the men, Anliac placed herself in front of Shashara. However, before violence could ensue, Jaydon and his men returned.

With a lascivious stare, Jaydon pinned Anliac in place, and ordered: “Open the cage.”

Braydon and Quade fought against the guards, but the others, including Zadyst, were led without struggle through the back door of the Asylum. When only Shashara and Anliac remained, Ronin and Stolace moved in to take hold of them.

A tall figure in dark robes exited the tower – his stride marked him a man of importance, as did the palpable tension his presence created. “Bring them here,” he said, dropping the hood, that hid his face in shadow, to his shoulders; “let us see what you’ve brought to me.”

Shashara stiffened, as the man reached down and captured a cascading wave of her hair, to twirl it around his finger. “Even if you’re not the one I seek,” he said, “you will fetch a handsome price on the slave block.”

“They would soon return me, or see me dead,” Shashara replied, “for I am no one’s slave.” The knowing smile that slid across his thin lips caused her skin to crawl. She did not breathe again until he turned away.

“My, my,” he said to Anliac, “you are a beauty.”

Stoic, Anliac lifted her chin; “You must be Malstar.”

“Indeed I am,” he said. “Tell me: how is it you know my name?”

“I assure you,” she replied, “I know more than your name. Quite frankly,” she said, “for a man with so many secrets, you’ve surrounded yourself with those incapable of holding your confidence.”

“Is that so?” Malstar asked, his rising brows showing genuine surprise. “And, what secrets have my men revealed?”

“Your ignorance.”

When the grin slid off his face, she asked: “Do you truly not know who I am? There will be no hiding after this.”

“Of what does she speak?” When Jaydon, Stolace and Ronin looked to each other to answer, he bellowed: “Answer me!”

“They are too low to know my station,” Anliac told him, “but there is no such excuse for you.”

“Forgive the interruption,” he said, “but my endeavors lie in areas other than politics.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Then, allow me to educate you,” she said: “not long ago, men wearing the colors of Imbellis met privately with a woman by the name of Inabeth Aquam – second wife to General Montilis Aquam, of the Regia Aquam Guard, in Palus Regia-”

“This means nothing to me,” he interjected: “I am not kept abreast of dignitaries and the regions they visit. As I’ve said-”

“For your sake,” she cut him off, “I hope you speak the truth, for I am the only surviving offspring of General Aquam.” At his unease, she continued: “There are now two witnesses willing to testify to Inabeth’s betrayal, both of which will tie Imbellis and the Asylum to her treachery. My father has been made aware of your men’s attack against my person. So, tell me, Malstar, what do you suppose will happen when the armies of Palus Regia turn their eyes to your fair city? The war,” she grinned, “will be one for the histories.”

“Is there truth to her claims?” Malstar asked.

“We found her in Exterius Antro with this one,” Jaydon replied, gesturing to Shashara.

“Have you proof of your claim, girl?”

“I need no proof other than my word,” she said, “but, for the sake of argument, I will tell you this to verify the truth I speak: while I escaped the clutches of your men in Palus Regia, another of my house was not so fortunate – perhaps you read the report of his escape, outside of Exterius Antro? By now, he has made it to Palus Regia.”

Turning his scowl on Jaydon, he clenched his fists and demanded to know: “What is she talking about?”

It was Stolace who answered: “I fear there may be truth to her claims, Malstar.” Hesitating, he said: “Trennor delivered a level-three ignis wielder to us, but he did not say where the one called Malic was taken from – he told us only that his partners had been killed, and that he was to report back to the tower for further orders. He asked that we bring the captive with us, so as not to delay his travel.”

Malstar paused to consider. Those of a ruling house were off-limits to the tower, and the girl would not dare lay claim to such a lofty title in falsehood. So, indeed, there would be trouble – dissention, for sure, but if the whole truth were discovered, it could well incite a war.

“Trennor never reported in,” pinching the bridge of his nose, he shook his head. “Take them below, for now,” he said, “but place them separately.”

“Anliac!”

She could hear Shashara’s fear, and it grated that there was nothing she could do about it, so she lied: “All will be well, Shashara.” Turning to Malstar, she added: “Or the truth of the bounty hunters will be revealed to the whole of Superi.”

Malstar paled. Her threat dissolved any doubt as to her station, for no commoner knew that name.

“I must speak to Calstar,” he told Jaydon, “but will rejoin you thereafter.”

Threatening Shashara’s balance, Stolace jerked her forward by her chains, ordering: “Move.”

Though Ronin held her chains, Anliac started forward of her own accord, saying over her shoulder to Malstar: “I look forward to our next conversation.”

Shashara’s breathing became labored by her anxiety and fear, as they entered a large room, crawling with fera guards. Laying their weapons aside, and sliding off their boots, the guards plopped onto the bunks that lined the right wall, to stretch out and sleep.

The captives were led around an enclosed stairwell, that dominated the center of the room. Beyond it, against the far left wall, were three smaller adjacent rooms, with closed doors. It was the long, narrow room that ran the length of the farthest stone wall, its multiple doors wide open, that drew their attention next – a glimpse inside revealed a myriad of weapons: swords, staves, bows and quivers of arrows, as well as maces… too many to catalogue in passing, as they were prodded into the egress of the stairwell.

Grease-lanterns lit the cold, grey, rough stone interior, as they stepped inside. There were stairs leading in both directions, but they were directed to descend. One level down, the sound of rushing water echoed around them.

“What is that?” Shashara asked.

“The aqueducts,” Ronin replied. “Don’t think to get ideas,” he said to Anliac: “the arcanite chains will spoil them.”

The second sound they heard, one level further below, sent chills crawling up even Anliac’s spine: they could hear the prisoners of I.A., their screams and pleas reverberating through the stone walls, for mercy they were not likely to receive.

When, at last, they made their exit, they stood in a corridor connected to long hallways, lined with rooms. Snatching Anliac’s chains from Ronin, Jaydon yanked her to a stop, before a closed door. Opening it with his hand, he bowed in mock formality, and bid her to enter.

Dragged from her friend’s side, her tears renewed, Shashara found herself before a room, further down.

“Don’t get comfortable,” Jaydon said; “you’ll join the others soon enough, and, if not, it will be a worse fate.” He shoved her hard.

Shashara landed on her stomach, upon the dirt-covered stone floor, the air forced from her lungs. Rolling to her back, she brought her arms over her head to expand her diaphragm, and cringed as she heard the lock click in place.

With no one there to witness her shame, Shashara curled herself into a ball and cried, as self-pity washed over her. She hurt – body and mind – and she was utterly terrified of what was to come; of what, even now, could be happening to Anliac. She wanted her Dad, and, short of that, she wanted her friend. Exhaustion trapped her, and she succumbed to restless sleep, for even in slumber the nightmare remained.

Jaydon led Anliac to her room, and took up post before it.

“What is this place?” Anliac asked, looking past the rectangular obsidian table and its four chairs, to the manacles mounted on a wall. The blue tint to the metal suggested it was more of the arcanite – like that wrapped around her wrists, which allowed her to feel her element, but blocked her ability to wield it.

Her question went without answer, as Ronin and Stolace rejoined them. No words were exchanged between the three men, but anxious glances and nervous pacing revealed their shared concern.

“Your people should have stayed out of Palus Regia, Jaydon,” she said, “for, if it takes three of you to stand guard against one nox…” – a grin tipped the corners of her lips – “..how will your numbers hold when you face the Regia Aquam Guard? My people are not easily handled, bounty hunter, as you’ll soon discover with me. And, Superi help you all, if you fail to release me before my father arrives.”

Hands clasped behind his back, spine stiff and eyes narrowed, Jaydon replied: “Your arrogance shall be your undoing, nox. Do you honestly believe Malstar cares who your father is?”

As he stepped forward with aggressive intent, Ronin captured Jaydon’s wrist, to stay his hand. “Do not make matters worse,” Ronin warned; “we wait for word from Malstar.”

“Not even Palus Regia would dare come against Imbellis, Jaydon,” Stolace said; “it is the great cornerstone of peace.”

“Indeed,” Jaydon replied, far from placated. Turning to face Anliac once again, he said: “The regions of Superi would gather together to obliterate the swamp-land of your people.”

“I think it less complicated than that,” Stolace said. “Before war can be declared, there must be proof, and if the girl is dead and buried… well, what proof is there?” As he spoke, the door opened and Malstar entered.

“Stop frightening the girl,” Malstar said, crossing the room, to set a black lacquered box, with silver snaps and buckles, down on the table.

“I’ve spoken to my brother,” he said, addressing Anliac. “He is a man highly regarded within the Asylum, as he is amongst the people of Imbellis. He informed me that while it is true the daughter of General Aquam has been reported missing, it is also true that he abandoned his post without the permission of his magistrate in order to bring her back. Your father was captured in Catena Piscari, and is currently being held for trial for treason.” To his men, he said: “The general poses no threat to us here.”

“What of Malic?” Jaydon enquired.

“There is no proof that the ignis wielder ever made it back to Palus Regia. Perhaps,” Jaydon said, “he decided silence was more prudent than heroism.”

Outwardly, Anliac revealed no reaction, but inside she was howling, as hope abandoned her. “What is it you want from me, Malstar?”

“That depends on what we discover,” he said, lifting the lid of the onyx box.

Inside, cushioned by velvet, were glass vials, syringes filled with a dark liquid and other apparatus she couldn’t name. He removed a shallow, circular dish and placed it on the table; then, one by one, he lifted out the syringes.

Anliac swallowed hard, as she read the labels written on them: “fera”; “mortalis”; “fulgo”…

“It’s blood,” she said, without conscious thought of having spoken aloud. Nor was she aware of retreating, until her back pressed against the stone wall. “Stay back!” she yelled, when Jaydon came to take hold of her.

Stolace aided him in raising her arms above her head, careful to have the manacles from the wall in place, before removing those already there, while Malstar squirted a small amount of blood from each syringe into the bowl.

“It is not my intention to be the cause of alarm, Anliac,” Malstar told her; “the arcanite chains are as much for your benefit as mine.”

“And what benefit do I reap from being shackled in chains like a dog?” Anliac said, fighting against her bonds.

“For one,” he said, “it keeps these men from having to kill you. For, should you be so foolish as to cause me harm, you would surely be put to death, and what a travesty that would be.”

Holding an empty syringe in his hand, he approached. “Call it courage,” he grinned, “or tenacity, but your actions in the face of insurmountable odds has inspired my respect – a thing not easily done.” He added: “So, to you only, I make this vow: allow me a single vial of your blood without struggle, and, should my experiment fail, I will release you.”

“And what shall happen, should you prove successful in whatever twisted endeavor you would mire me in?”

“Should that be case,” he replied, with far more honesty than she’d anticipated, “your freedom will be lost in the name of science. However, you will then be treated with the utmost care, for your life will become one of the most important on Superi.”

“Life in a cage does not appeal to me, Malstar,” Anliac said, with a defiant lift of her chin.

“Should I succeed,” he told her, “we can further discuss the matter. For now,” he held the syringe aloft, “I would have your answer.”

Slowing her racing heart by force of will, she closed her eyes and called forth her father’s image. He was a brilliant general – one whose prowess and command on the battlefield would stay the hand of Palus Regia’s magistrate, even against the charge of treason. What would he say to her now?

Memory took her back to a training session for new recruits – she was young, but allowed to sit under her father’s lecture. Standing before his men, in a crisp uniform of browns and greens, that blended as one with the swamplands, his authorized tone had given instruction:

Nox do not cower. We do not whimper before the enemy, nor do we waste energy on useless struggle. But, rather, we bide our time until an opportunistic moment comes to us. It is then we attack; it is then we kill. Patience and fortitude are key in a captive situation.”

Those were his words – they became her orders. So, she acquiesced.

“Good girl,” Malstar praised. “Jaydon, unbind one of her arms.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?”

“She has given her word,” he replied, “and, as she has already informed us, her word is enough.” When still Jaydon hesitated, Malstar grew impatient: “Blood must be allowed to flow into her appendage if I am to withdraw it from her vein. Do as you’re told!”

Jaydon flinched at the last, and hurried to do as ordered.

Moderating his tone, Malstar said: “You shall feel a sharp sting, Anliac, and nothing more. Are you prepared?”

“Just do it,” she snapped, and then hissed as the small, hollow tube punctured the flesh on the inside of her elbow. Her blood flowed, the sight of it sickening her – she diverted her eyes, lest her weakness be made known. Despite her resolve, she sighed when the needle was removed.

Jaydon’s hand replaced it, making quick work of clasping the arcanite manacle back around her wrist.

Close enough that she could count his chin hairs, Anliac angled her neck to meet his downward sneer, and said: “If I should find myself in favor of your boss, I’ll ask that he allow me to kill you, and should I find myself at his displeasure, I’ll find the means do it anyway.”

Malstar chuckled at Jaydon’s unease, but grew speculative as he peered into the petri dish of blood specimens.

“What is it, exactly, that you expect to happen?” Anliac asked, when the syringe of her blood trembled in Malstar’s hesitant hand.

“The unity of Superian blood was divided by a curse,” he told her. “Therefore, like and oil and water, they refuse to become one. In truth,” he paused, “I expect nothing to happen.”

Turning bright eyes upon her, he added: “But, if something does happen, dearest Anliac, everything will change.”

Taking a deep breath that had the others holding their own, Malstar released a slow trickle of her blood into the shallow bowl. Tensions mounted when the separate bloods began to move, as if living entities.

Malstar’s palms dropped to either side of the dish. “It’s working!” he almost shouted, in glee.

Like a death stroke, his words murdered what remained of her hope.

Looking again at what lay before him, Malstar said, with a smile that reached his ears: “Your blood is the bond that will remake what was destroyed.” Coming to stand before her, he cupped her cheek; “It will be mixed.”

Pulling from his touch, she asked: “Mixed with what?”

He did not give answer, but instead replied with words that further confused her. “It seems I’ve spent half my life searching for another to replace the one I lost, Anliac,” he said. “With your beauty and ability, what a wondrous creature you might become.”

She feared the maniacal gleam in his eyes far more than any verbal threat. “You’re insane.”

“It is my hope you will join me in my insanity – together, we can accomplish impossible feats.” He clasped his hands together and laced his long fingers.

“To what end?” she asked.

“Calstar will be well pleased with his devoted brother, and with you, Anliac, for you shall be the catalyst of change – of ancient things reborn.”

Anliac clenched her teeth, as fear and frustration tore at her self-control; “I’ve no patience for riddles – speak plain.”

“It is simple,” he told her: “I’m going to inject you with the blood of all the races, and you will become a new creature – or, more accurately, an old creature.”

Panic pressed hard on the heels of silence, as she digested his declaration. In a voice near a whisper, she said: “You can’t – I’ll die.”

“That is a possibility,” he replied; “I fear that most do. And, so far, those who do not immediately perish suffer the culmination of foreign blood – it twists their bodies and minds, until mercy demands their death.”

“So that is to be my fate,” she said: “death and pain?”

His stare betrayed no fleshly interest; “No, sweet Anliac, for I believe your blood will save you.”

“If you do this, and somehow I survive,” she warned, “I’ll defy you at every turn. Let down your guard but for a moment, and I’ll be there to take your life.”

Unflustered by her threat, Malstar said: “I offer you a life of purpose and prominence that not even your father can provide, and yet in recompense you offer threat. I will take you at your word, Anliac, and use tonight to demonstrate to you how much suffering lies along the path of resistance.

“Jaydon,” he said, “see her to the prison room – she and I will speak again on the morrow.”

While Ronin and Stolace stood at the ready, Jaydon released her wrists from the manacles holding her arms over her head, to replace them with the arcanite chains she’d worn into the room.

“What would you have us do with the mortalis girl?” Stolace asked, once Anliac was secure.

“The probability that two of mixable blood would be found in such close proximity is slim,” Malstar told him. “You have the strongest talent for searching the blood of others for what I desire, Stolace, so I’ll leave it to you. Go,” he said, “read her again, and if you still believe she is as rare a find as our dear Anliac, notify me at once. If not, take her to the prison room with the others, to be put up for auction.”

“NO!” Anliac shouted. “On my word, Malstar, if you hurt her, I will become the bane of your existence.”

“Shut your mouth, girl,” Jaydon sneered, dragging her toward the door.

“Wait,” Malstar ordered, tilting his head to the side, as he considered Anliac. “Will you agree to compliance if she is brought to no harm?”

The proposition stilled her struggles against Jaydon’s vice-like grip, but her response required no thought: “Shashara is my friend, and, as such, she will understand: not even for her life will I be turned into a monster… an abomination, born from your cursed mind.”

“Not an abomination,” Malstar’s temper flared, “but a recreation of the most powerful beings Superi has ever known. I offer you everything, and yet you would defy me. So, know this with surety,” he said: “with or without your compliance, life as you know it is over. Take her away,” he ordered. “Tomorrow, we will begin.”

They led Anliac from the room and down the hallway, where she paused before a door. She could hear Shashara’s sobs wafting through the wood, and her guilt multiplied.

Dragging her back against his chest, Jaydon leant down to speak into her ear: “You could have saved her – now it is too late.”

Ronin moved ahead a dozen paces, to unlock another door, as Jaydon shoved her towards it. Entering the cavernous room, left in a natural state, she was led to an internal egress – upon its opening, Anliac resisted. Inside, there were two rows of cages, each running the length of a wall, with others suspended from the stone ceiling. A small desk, behind which sat a single guard, was the room’s only furnishing.

“Move, nox,” Ronin said, forcing her further into the room, as Stolace opened one of the cages. “Get in,” he told her.

Anliac, scanning the faces of the other prisoners for ones familiar, complied. She counted six, as the iron-barred door closed and locked into place – the others she did not know.

“What about Shashara?” she asked, when the three men turned to leave.

She was ignored, as Jaydon said to the guard: “Malstar wants this one taught a lesson in obedience, but, as her flesh is a vessel he has use of, he would have her kept whole.”

The guard nodded. “Understood,” he said; “her flesh will be spared. After all, will is a thing born of the mind – if the alchemist requires compliance, I will see hers broken.”

“One other is to be brought to you this night,” Stolace said; “see that no permanent harm comes to her. She is of lesser value, but,” he glanced to Anliac’s cage, “she may yet be of use.”

Biting back words she longed to spew, Anliac settled once more against the familiar bars of iron, and waited for Shashara to come.

It was not long after the bounty hunters took their leave that the fera servants began making entry, lugging washtubs and buckets of water into the room. Upending the buckets into the tubs, they dropped onto the grey floor lumps of lye and rough, bristled brushes, with which to scrub down the prisoners. Stripped naked of clothes and pride, the captives suffered under the cruel ministrations of the feras.

Their heads were plunged beneath the water, until they feared their next breath would see them drowned. Working methodically to rid them of the dirt and grime that would lower their value, the captives’ skin was left with raw abrasions, covered up by the robes of slaves. Not all were as lambs, for there were several who dared to fight, but the subsequent beating they received soon quelled them into submissiveness.

When her turn came, Anliac couldn’t dam the swell of tears that accompanied her humiliation. The guard had been given his orders, and the servants were there to see it done. With sadistic pleasure, they removed her clothing, only to terry with their hands upon her flesh, before ever lifting the lye and brush.

Zadyst, clasping the front bars of his cage, pressed his face close, to ogle her bared flesh.

“Upon a day,” she said, meeting his stare, “you will wish you had averted your eyes.”

Escorted in, Shashara paled: “Oh, Anliac…”

The sympathy in Shashara’s voice threatened to break her. “Do not pity me,” she said, “for you are fated to endure the same.”

When the servants took hold of Shashara’s garments, and the girl’s hands reddened with intent, Anliac warned: “Do not fight them – they will only beat you for it.”

“I cannot do this,” Shashara said, even as her hands cooled, and her flesh grew frigid at the feras’ first touch.

“Just look at me,” Anliac said, ignoring the hands upon her own flesh, as Shashara was stripped and forced into a tub. “Soon this ordeal will be over, and we will contemplate our retribution.” The guard and servants found amusement in her words, yet it was not the first pact made between the two, and it served its purpose.

Tossed into neighboring cages at the conclusion of their cleansing, Anliac asked: “What did Stolace say about your blood?”

Wiping tears, confusion clouded Shashara’s swollen eyes: “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Did he not speak to you before bringing you here?”

“He came into the room,” Shashara replied, “with Jaydon and Ronin, but no one spoke.” After a moment of pause, Shashara said: “Though it may make me a coward, I cannot do this – I’ll not survive it.”

“Don’t worry, Shashara – you are only to be made a slave.”

“I find your words of little comfort – what fate could be worse?”

Anliac spared her the truth, and offered hope, instead: “As long as you live, you can be saved.”

“As you will be saved when my father comes,” Shashara said.

“I am the one Malstar sought, Shashara – there is no saving me.”

XXI

Race the Dawn

 

There was no discernable layout to the abandoned town of Pisces Stragulum, beyond the large buildings that traversed its perimeter, and the open square at its heart. Nature, seeking to reclaim what civilization had disturbed, was using creeper vines, as thick as a man’s wrist, to take it all down. The thatched roofs of the dilapidated wooden buildings had long since caved in, and soon the thick foliage of three-pointed green leaves would overtake them in their entirety.

“No one has lived here in a great while,” Davad said, as he turned in a slow circle to see.

“What race was the last, I wonder?”

“Mortalis, Set,” Jacob answered. “This town used to make blankets and clothing – some of the best the western continent had to offer.”

A mortalis, who had been hidden by the tall grass, appeared – a bald, sunburnt head, which floated above the blades, to slur: “But, first… were the angeli.”

Jacob, losing a startled curse, pulled out his sword and pivoted towards the unexpected voice. Flames erupted from Davad’s hands as he spread them wide, while Tristan made attempt to unsheathe his sword – his bluster was spoilt when he could not clear the scabbard, and then the moment was passed.

“He’s no threat,” Jacob said, as he put his sword away: “he’s merely a drunkard.”

Davad chuckled at Tristan’s expense: “What good is a blade, if you cannot bring it to bear?”

“What good will be your jaw, when my fist denies its use?”

Set’s evolving aether ability sensed the true hurt to Tristan’s pride, so he nudged Davad’s shoulder, and said: “Leave him be.”

With liquor flask in hand, the mortalis lumbered to his feet. Nearly as wide as he was tall, the man stood, stroking the greasy, grey beard, that came to a point at the center of his chest. “It’s true: I’m p-fertly… perftically… perfectly harmless,” he said, running his thumbs beneath the rope belt which held aloft his tattered breeches.

Stretching the rope away from a dingy cotton shirt, that might have once been white, he appraised them through faded, bloodshot eyes. “No one ever comes here,” he said, staggering closer, “‘cept those who are sneakin’.”

“You’re here,” Tristan countered.

“Well, of course I’m here, boy – I live here.” The mortalis tucked his dented tin flask into his back pocket. “So, I say that gives me the right to be asking why you’re in my house.”

“We’re not in your house,” Tristan said, struggling to restrain laughter.

Planting his fists on hips that did not exist, the man huffed: “I say you’re standing in my kitchen. Bedroom’s over there,” he said, nearly toppling sideways, as he gestured to an indentation in the grass. “Why, I’m in my sitting room right here.”

Jacob tugged at his chin to dispel his grin, as the boys looked at the man, askance.

Belly wiggling with mirth of his own, the mortalis confessed: “Nah.” He gestured north, with a floppy wrist; “I’m pulling your legs – I live there.”

They turned to look. Red-domed, stone rooves peeked above the forest canopy surrounding Pisces Stragulum. If the mortalis hadn’t pointed them out, they would have gone unnoticed.

“Why were they built separate from the whole?” Set asked.

“It’s the old town of Pisces Stragulum,” the mortalis said, “but no one remembers by what name it was called. Built by the angeli before the Discindo Pestis – around 5262 D.P., wouldn’t you say, swordsman?”

The boys struggled to find meaning in the man’s slurred speech and nonsensical words. First checking to ensure he was not alone in his confusion, Set spoke for them all: “We’ve never heard of angeli, a Discindo Pestis, or a D.P. for that matter. What are they?”

“What are they teaching kids these days?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Jacob replied. “But, please, feel free to educate them.”

Needing no further encouragement, the mortalis said: “D.P. stands for the curse, boy – well, one of them, anyway.” Removing his flask from his pocket, he took a long pull… and then another.

“The Discindo Pestis – the curse the Earth god cast, that split us into the four races we are today.” He turned up his flask again, and drained its contents down his gullet. In result, he fell onto his backside with a grunt.

Davad lurched forward to offer aid, but two steps into his course, the sound of snores stopped his feet. Chuckling, he said: “The man’s passed out cold.”

“Good,” Jacob sighed. “Then, let us be on our way.”

“I would see the ancient dwellings up close,” Davad said, “if you think we’ve the time to spare.”

Jacob ran his fingers through his hair, as he looked towards the city of Imbellis, with squinted eyes. “Shashara and Anliac left Catena Piscari two days ahead of us – Triton said, by porting at Pisces Stragulum. We gained back a significant portion of that time, but lost some again when the dracon damaged the ship. As it stands, the girls should reach Imbellis by dark.”

Davad’s enthusiasm waned. What pleasure could be gleaned from a glimpse into the past, when his sister’s future was so uncertain? “How far behind are we?”

“Dawn will reveal Imbellis to our purpose,” Jacob told him, “if we do not terry over-long.”

“I cannot deny the weight of guilt,” Tristan confessed, “but the history of this place draws me in. Let us see the houses, Jacob – we’ll be quick about it, and then I’ll let Set take some of my stamina and speed. We’ll run,” he said, “to make up for any time lost.”

With an arched right brow, Jacob spoke the younger boy’s name in question, knowing full well his thoughts: “Set?”

“I am far from recovered,” Set winced, “and sure to pay a price for my curiosity, but I’m with Tristan.”

Skeptical, Jacob asked again: “If you’re sure?”

“I am,” Set assured him, with more conviction than he actually felt.

Tristan, rubbing his palms together, said: “Let’s go.” Then, his speed carried him from sight.

“You cheat,” Set shouted, rushing after him.

Jacob and Davad trailed at a more sedate pace. Glancing over at Davad, Jacob asked: “Are you not equally as curious?”

“It’s seldom I have you to myself, Dad,” he shrugged; “I thought we could talk.”

Quelling his telepathic ability as best he could, Jacob asked: “What’s on your mind?” He’d rather hear the words spoken from his son’s heart.

“It’s something the drunkard said…” Davad searched his father’s face before continuing: “How much truth did his words carry?”

“Truth is perception, son.”

Davad threw his hands into the air; “What does that even mean?” Coming to a stop, he turned to face his father: “From the moment you returned home absent Shashara, you have not been the same – you keep so many secrets, Dad, that it grows harder to trust you; you’re leaving us to walk blind.”

“I know,” Jacob sighed.

“Then, talk to me,” Davad demanded, slamming his closed fist against his own chest. “I am your son – if you cannot trust me with your secrets, then who can you trust?”

“It is not about trust,” Jacob told him, “it’s about focus – the answers you boys seek… especially Tristan… will only cause distraction. I would not save one only to lose another – the loss would be as great.”

“So, you will tell us nothing?” Davad scowled. “Ignorance kills as often as a sword – you taught us that lesson.” With those words, he started forward again, caring not if his father followed.

“I’ve been to the white-stoned city before,” Jacob said, falling into step with his son. “Its opulent splendor draws you in, blinding you to the truth: that Imbellis is vile. I recall Beth referring to the Asylum as the city’s rotting heart, and yet, to save Shashara we must be able to cut it out. So, I will risk your anger, and leave you in ignorance, knowing that the truth holds the greater danger.”

As they stepped into a clearing, they heard Set exclaim: “Oh, wow!” They saw his reason for it: “This door is massive. See if you can open it.”

Davad and Jacob stood back, as Tristan proceeded to try. Planting his palms flush against the aged wood, he dug in with his boots and pushed against it, until his forearms bulged at the strain.

“Wo!” he shouted, as the door broke loose from its hinges. When it went down, he went down with it.

“Awesome!” Set said, using Tristan’s gut as a stepping stone to gain entry.

“Ugh…” Tristan groaned, as the air was forced from his lungs. Flipping to his stomach, he gained his feet and followed the sound of Set’s exclamation: “Look at this!”

“Aren’t you going in?” Jacob asked Davad.

“No.”

“Are you going to talk to me,” Jacob asked, “or stand there and pout?”

Keeping his voice down, Davad turned on his father: “You trust us to fight at your side – to have your back when we enter the Asylum – but you don’t trust us to think for ourselves. You’re a telepath, Dad – what am I thinking now?”

“Davad-”

Whatever he would have said was cut off, when Set burst through the door: “Jacob, look what Tristan found.” Holding something out, he said: “I’m a little jealous he claimed it first.”

“Davad’s the metal worker,” Jacob said; “why don’t we let him take a closer look?”

“Sure,” Set said.

Davad took the intricate figurine and flipped it over in his hands. “A wolf with wings,” he said, tracing his fingertips over it, “like something out of a children’s story.” Shuddering, he added: “There’s something in its eyes that gives me the cold chills, though.” Handing it to Tristan, he said: “Whatever the metal, it’s soft, so be careful with it.”

Tristan chuckled: “That doesn’t tell us much.”

“Well,” Davad said, “you can try and find out what my Dad knows, but then again, it might be one of his secrets.”

The statement brought with it silence.

Jacob broke it: “The figurine is a mixture of metals – the one that gives it the color and allure is a rare metal called arcanite. It’s rare,” he said, “because only a level-three terra wielder can pull it from the ground.”

“I’ve never met a level-three terra wielder,” Tristan said, smoothing his thumb over the ripples in the wolf’s wings.

“I’m aware of only one,” Jacob replied. “That blue tint means it’s been transmuted – most likely spelled to give warning, if the one the figurine was linked to felt fear or panic.”

“You seem certain,” Set said; “how do you know?”

“The wolf is a symbol for protection, Set,” he answered; “they would have called it a custos, which means ‘guardian’.”

“They?” Davad asked; “You mean the angeli?”

“We need to get moving,” Jacob said.

“Can I ask a stupid question first?” Tristan asked.

Jacob, reading Tristan’s thoughts as he had them, grinned: “You mean the numbers?”

As Tristan nodded, Set said: “It would be nice to know the question to the answer.”

Jacob explained: “Tristan is curious as to what the numbers associated with our abilities mean. It’s not complicated, and civilians use it, but the numbering system started with military ranking.”

“The redhead called me a level,” Set stated.

“You are,” Jacob told him. “The only thing more dangerous than a level-three epoto is a trained level-three epoto. A master is not born – a master of any ability is forged.”

“What about those like me… like Shashara?” Davad asked.

“Your markings are full, son,” Jacob said; “that ranks you a level-two, unlike those whose markings have gaps – they are ranked as level-ones.”

Davad crossed his arms over his chest, but the action wasn’t necessary – his irritation came across just fine without it. “So… what?” he sneered, “I’m less of a wielder because my marks aren’t good enough?”

“Trust me,” Jacob chuckled: “no matter the race or the region, the military would use you – the ranking helps them to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. For example,” he said: “a level-one ignis wielder risks burning his own hands if he pushes his ability too far. Other than their hands – perhaps as far up as the elbow – level-two ranks are impervious to fire; the rest of their flesh is flammable enough.” He waited for Davad to acknowledge the truth, and then continued: “Those who are ranked as a level-three are completely impervious to fire. Masters are those who have been trained to push their abilities beyond their limits.” Watching his son’s face, he waited to see if he would have to speak the rest of it out loud.

“I get it,” Davad said, dropping his arms: “the greater the ability, the greater the value.”

“Militaristically speaking, yes,” Jacob answered the unasked question.

“So, then it’s possible,” Set said, daring to hope, “that there are other epotos? Maybe not level-threes, but those of lesser rank… It’s possible?”

Jacob turned to Set, with the memory of Matthew between them. “There might be,” he said. “The fact I have not met one means little – Superi is full of secrets kept.

“Now,” he told them, “we really need to get moving.”

Falling into line, the boys went without question, but Set cast a wistful look over his shoulder, at the other domed dwelling they’d not explored.

Passing the remaining rubble of small, mud-plastered homes, built by the hands of the mortalis, who’d settled Pisces Stragulum, Tristan slugged Set’s shoulder, and said: “We’ll come back one day, little brother, and finish what we started.”

“We’ve a piece to travel, before we hit tree line,” Jacob said. “Between here and there I’ll tell you what I know of the angeli, and the Discindo Pestis.”

Noting the displeasure in his tone, the boys held quiet.

“In the beginning,” Jacob said, “Superi had one race of denizens – they called themselves ‘angeli’. According to history, they looked much as we mortalis do today, but they were said to be tall, like the fulgo, and incredibly powerful – utterly perfect in physical form and ability.”

“If they were so powerful, what happened to them?” Tristan lengthened his stride, to fall in at Jacob’s side.

“I’m getting to it,” Jacob told him, absent the smile that commonly accompanied the curiosity of their youth – knowledge would lead to more complicated questions.

“Supposedly,” Jacob continued, “they were all like you, Tristan, possessing every aspect of physical abilities. However,” he said, “they also possessed the ability to wield any combination of the six classes.”

“Wait,” Set said: “aer, ignis, aether, terra, and aquis – that makes five.”

“True,” Jacob nodded. “We also classify gate-makers as aether wielders, because their ability is a manipulation of energy. But an angeli gate-maker was something altogether different – they were called ‘rift-makers’.”

“Different, how?” Davad asked.

“Where a level-three gate-maker today can open a portal between the two continents,” Jacob told him, “an angeli rift-maker could open one between two worlds.”

“Let me guess,” Tristan said: “Earth was one of the worlds they found.”

“A rift was opened,” he looked at Tristan, “Earth was discovered, and, over the course of time, the angeli decided to lay claim – in so doing, they overstepped in their pride, and Superi paid the price.”

Irritated with his father, Davad was yet determined to glean what information he could. “How did they overstep?” he asked.

“They believed the people of Earth, called – ‘humans’ – to be weak and without defence, and their arrogance blinded them to their ignorance. Earth has entities called ‘gods’, and the angeli angered them – one, in particular.”

“Umm… that’s not the first time you’ve mentioned that name,” Set said; “what, exactly is a ‘god’?”

Jacob missed a step. “They are powerful beings, who rule over those without abilities.”

“That’s why Superi has no god,” Set said, “because we have abilities of our own.”

“I would assume so,” Jacob replied, “or perhaps it’s because the angeli refused to be ruled. Either way, gods do exist – they just don’t exist on Superi.”

“So, what happened when the god grew angry?” Tristan prodded, to keep Jacob on track.

“There is far too much of the story to tell,” he said, “but here is the short of it: there was a battle for dominance on Earth, and the angeli were forced into retreat. But, before the rift could be closed, the god of their single sun stepped through; he cursed the angeli twofold: first came the curse of the Cruxen Clav – it attacked our minds, limiting their full potential, and therefore our ability to advance or evolve as a civilization. Next came the Discindo Pestis curse: it attacked our blood, and split the angeli race into the four races of Superi that we know today.”

Tristan, scowling, said: “Tell me we didn’t let the god get away with that.”

“As the story tells it,” Jacob told them, “the god escaped through the rift, and that was the end of it.”

The words rolled easily from Jacob’s tongue, but Set’s ability knew them to be a lie. Pain lanced behind his eyes, blinding him.

“Are you okay?” Tristan asked, when Set cried out.

The pain abated, but Set’s anger did not. “I’m fine,” he said, between gritted teeth, glowering at Jacob’s stiff back. He didn’t know what, but the telepath had intruded into his mind, and had taken something.

“Knock it off, Set,” Jacob said, feeling the path of the epoto’s energy drilling into the back of his skull.

“Tell me what you did,” Set demanded.

“What are you two talking about?” Tristan asked.

“Nothing…” Set and Jacob said, together.

“Whatever,” Davad said, as they cleared the tree line, and stood, staring in the direction of Imbellis.

“Are you up for it?” Tristan asked Set.

“Yeah,” he said, rolling his head and shaking out his shoulders, “just give me a moment.”

Pacing, Set breathed deep, to bring his anger under control. He had to find his center, to use the draining aspect of his ability, otherwise, he risked doing unintentional harm – the reptilian fera, at the northern gate of Exterius Antro, had paid the price for the knowledge gained.

“Okay,” he said, reaching to clasp forearms with his brother: “I’m ready. Are you?”

Bracing himself for the pain sure to come, Tristan nodded. Set released a slow tendril of his aether ability.

“I don’t get it,” Tristan said, surprise replacing his furrowed brow; “Set, that’s amazing!”

“What?” Davad asked. “What’s he doing?”

Too focused to give answer, Jacob replied on Set’s behalf: “He’s learned to control multiple flows of aether energy at once. Right now,” he said, “Set is using one flow to seek out the physical abilities he desires – with another, he is separating those energy flows from the ones he intends to leave alone. That said, it is of the third flow of energy that Tristan speaks – the one blocking his mind from the pain his body is actually feeling; it’s the only way Set can drain him slowly enough to ensure no hurt to his animus, while protecting him from the tortuous agony he would otherwise endure.”

“For which I am grateful,” Tristan said, when Set released him; “it was the pain I resented.”

Set smiled: “I’m relieved to hear that it worked. How do you feel?”

Grinning, Tristan slugged Set in the shoulder, and said: “Drained”, before laughing at his own joke. Walking towards Jacob and Davad, he said: “I’m still on my feet, little brother – I’d say that’s improvement.”

Jacob stood, staring out across the vast plains, dotted with clusters of scrawny trees, his sight captured along the way by the natural springs, which shimmered silver, under the suns.

“That’s one daunting run, Set – you sure you’re up for it?” Davad asked.

“I’ve got this.”

“Good,” Jacob said; “we need to be in and out of Imbellis before dawn – as time stands, we won’t make it. So, we either run until we’ve reached the grove, or Shashara spends a second night in the Asylum.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Davad stated.

“We cannot risk breaching the tower in daylight,” Jacob told him.

“Then why are we still talking?” Davad asked. He did not wait for answer – he started to run.

They ran until sweat slicked their skin, until their throats were parched, until their sides cramped, and their legs trembled.

Set, with aid of Tristan’s abilities, was holding up, but Davad stumbled – Jacob saw it.

“Do we need to stop?”

“No,” Tristan said, latching on to Davad’s arm before he fell, and slung the boy onto his back, “I’ve got him.”

Thankful, Davad yet felt inclined to say: “You have to be tired too, Tristan.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Tristan said, breathless; “you just rest awhile.”

Knowing that even Tristan had his limits, Jacob slowed their pace. But, when Set’s speed put them at a crawl, he said: “Davad, do you think you can run?”

He followed his father’s sideward glance to Set’s agony. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks for the ride,” Davad said, as he slid to the ground.

Dropping back, Tristan went to one knee and tapped Set’s shoulder: “Your turn, little brother – hop on.”

Set reached for Tristan without preamble, and sagged against him. “I’m sorry,” Set told him, when Tristan’s first three strides towards regaining ground were stumbling.

“Just hold on,” he said, bouncing Set higher on his back, to balance his weight.

The setting suns stretched shadows across the land, when, from a hilltop, they saw a dark pool in the distance.

“What… is that?” Davad managed to ask.

“The grove,” Jacob answered. “Boys, we’re going to make it.”

XXII

Getting In

 

The sight of their destination gave them a burst of energy.

But, distance, coupled with stretching shadows, was a deceptive thing, and night had fully fallen by the time they reached the grove. Its sweet-smelling flowers and ripe fruit drew them in by their stomachs.

Jacob slowed them to a walk. “Eat your fill,” he said, in a hushed voice, “but be quick about it.”

Set slipped from Tristan’s back. “You mind helping a brother out,” he said, gesturing overhead to several plump morsels he was ready to devour. Plucking the fruit free, Tristan handed several pieces to Set, before biting into one of his own. He moaned: “Oh that’s good”, and then made short work of the others he’d gathered.

Desperate to curb the ravaging hunger brought on by his abilities, he and his brother ate with purpose, grinning all the while at the shared cost of using them.

“That run wasn’t easy,” Jacob said, once they’d all had their fill; “you boys did well.”

“Accolades will not get us into the city, so, do we have a plan?” Davad asked.

“Entering the city will not be a problem,” Jacob told them: “they leave their gates open.”

“Imbellis is a big place,” Set said; “do we know how to find the tower?”

“I’m familiar with Imbellis.” Jacob nodded; “the tower sits at the heart of it, upon a rise in the land.”

“How do we get in?”

“In truth, Tristan,” Jacob replied, “I have no idea.”

Davad scoffed: “That would have been nice to know before now.”

“Ease off, Davad,” Set said, sensing the elevation in Jacob’s temper; “foreknowledge would not have changed our course.”

“Gratitude, Set,” Jacob said, and then added: “Triton had a basic blueprint of the tower – I should be able to get us around once we’re inside; I’m simply uncertain as to how to gain entrance.”

“Tell us what you know,” Tristan suggested.

“I know the back door leads directly into the armory, and to the guard quarters,” he told them, “so, entering through the back isn’t going to happen; we can’t exactly walk through the front door, either.”

Davad shook his head at Jacob, and scoffed.

“Whatever is going on between the two of you,” Tristan said, “we’ve no time for it. We’ll figure out what to do, but first we have to get there.”

“First,” Jacob countered, “we need to stash our packs – they’ll slow us down.”

“What about my wolf?” Tristan asked.

“We’ll come back for them if we’re able,” Jacob replied.

Relieving the others of their packs, his back bent under their combined weight, Tristan reached for the lowest branch of the nearest tree and pulled himself up. Climbing deep into its boughs, he tied off the straps of the packs, and shimmied down again.

“The dense foliage should keep them hidden,” Tristan said, as he slipped off a glove, to inconspicuously mark the trunk with a sharp nail.

“Pull your hoods up, and tug your cowls low,” Jacob instructed; “the western gate will be open, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be guards.”

“Won’t that make us seem suspicious?” Set asked, doing as he was told.

“In Imbellis, we would look suspicious if we tried to appear as if we had nothing to hide.”

“That makes no sense,” Set said, perplexed.

“Twisted words of truth often fall from lying lips, Set,” Jacob told him; “don’t say you were never warned.” To them all, he said: “The city of Imbellis has embraced its own language, and it is called manipulation and subterfuge. Sincerity is a cause for concern, and honesty is a cause for scrutiny, because those that would rule from here are not capable of showing either.”

“It sounds like a horrid place,” Set said.

“Your mother agreed with you.”

“Jacob,” Tristan pointed, “there’s the gate, but I see no road.”

“If it were daylight,” Jacob said, “you would find woven paths throughout the groves, but there is only one road leading in to Imbellis, and it comes from the south – the other gates are simply access points. The fruit harvested is a major export for Imbellis – a huge source of the city’s income, along with a good portion of the commoners’ livelihoods.”

The reptilian fera’s face, from the northern gate of Exterius Antro, flashed in Set’s mind, as the guards came into view. Fearing a repeat of history, Set swallowed hard. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” he said, realizing too late that he’d spoken aloud.

“Don’t gape at the city as if you’ve never set foot in one,” Jacob said, “don’t speak unless spoken to, and follow my lead. With fortune’s favor, Set, you won’t have to… at least, not yet,” he added, when Davad’s thoughts called him a “liar”.

Four guards – two feras and two fulgos – glanced at them, as they came through the gate.

“Welcome to Imbellis,” a guard greeted.

Jacob nodded his thanks.

“I’m afraid the inn on this side of the city is full,” another of the guards stated, “but there’s room at the southern inn, if you’re looking to spend the night.”

Tristan saw the tilt to the third guard’s head – one of the fulgos – as the man attempted to peer inside his cowl. Lowering his chin to hide his mortalis features, Tristan lifted his eyes and stared back – pale skin and a golden stare was all the guard could see, and so he lost interest.

“Thank you for the information,” Jacob said; “we’ll head that way now.”

Jacob took a right, down a wide, cobble-stone street that headed in the wrong direction. The boys didn’t question his course, knowing it would be corrected at the next turn – it was, and the tower rose before them.

“You okay, Jacob?” Set asked.

Coming to a stop at the mouth of an alleyway, Jacob replied, with a crooked smile: “There’s no hiding anything from you now, Set – the new aspect of your ability is… well…” he chuckled under his breath; “..it’s as annoying from you as it was from your father.”

Turning serious, Jacob tried to judge the distance of the courtyard that separated them from the tower, where the white stone caught what moonlight remained, lighting its staggering sets of steps in a pale blue glow. To either side were the boardwalks that held the two branches of the river in their banks, and upon the rises stood men in red robes, clustered in conversation.

“Who are they?” Set asked.

“Early risers,” Jacob scowled; “it must be closer to dawn than I thought.”

Dissatisfied with the answer, Set asked: “Why do they wear red?”

“They’re lawyers, Set,” Jacob told him; “they work in the tower. If they see us, it’s over.”

“They cannot know our purpose until we act,” Tristan said. “Perhaps we should just walk through the front door – we can slip from sight easily enough after we’ve gained entry.”

“No,” Jacob said, much louder than intended.

Davad pounced on the opening: “Why not?” When his father only stared, offering no excuse, he said: “I should have known: more secrets.”

“Okay, enough,” Set stated; “for whatever reason, we can’t be seen. So, what’s the plan, Jacob?”

Jacob tugged his hair in frustration, as he paced a tight line: “I have no idea.”

“The water flow from the tunnels looks low,” Davad said. “Do they have maintenance hatches, like the tunnels in Antro?”

“Let’s hope so,” Jacob’s brows lifted, as he pulled the budding idea from his son’s mind. Taking the blueprint Triton had given him from his back pocket, he unfolded it on the ground, and urged the others closer.

“Let’s see,” he said: “the aqueducts are eight-feet in diameter, and… yes, there are hatches, as well as hand-holds, running the length of both sides.”

“So, what’s the plan exactly?” Tristan wished he hadn’t asked, for he found himself the focus of three stares; “What?”

“If we enter through one of the tunnels, we can open a hatch and access the second lower level of the tower, without being seen.”

“That would depend on what we find on the second level,” Davad challenged.

“Well,” Jacob said, pointing to the map as he spoke: “according to the blueprint, there’s only one massive space – it holds the two tunnels entering through the northern wall of the tower… here… and exiting the southern wall… here. There’s an enclosed stairwell – which has an egress on two sides – sitting in-between. And, that’s it… which means there aren’t likely to be guards.” Pensive, Jacob looked up at the boys: “I believe this to be our best shot.”

“Sounds good,” Tristan said; “let’s do it.”

“Hold on,” Jacob said; “there are a few flaws with the plan.”

“Such as?”

“The water will be frigid-cold, and the current swift,” Jacob replied; “before long, our blood will cool and our limbs will grow numb – as we weaken, the opposing current will gain advantage. I promise you boys,” he said: “this is will be harder than the run to get here.”

“Davad,” Set asked, “can you use the heat from the air to warm the water around us?”

Davad shook his head: “There’s no heat source for me to draw from, Set – it’s all cold.”

“Then there’s no way I’m going to make it.” When they paused to question him, Set said: “Look, I hate to admit it, but I’ve learned my lesson, and my physical limitations. I will not be the broken link that leaves Shashara in this place for another day.”

“It will be hardest on you, Set, that’s true,” Jacob said, “but I won’t leave you behind. So, either we do this together or we find another way.”

“There is no other way,” Davad stressed.

“We will need more than…” Jacob shifted his words, but not in time to save Davad from the inflicted hurt. Wincing, he said: “He’s an epoto, son.”

With words unspoken hanging between them, their attention followed Set’s, as Tristan tore a length of heavy rope from a roof’s edge.

“If the two of you are finished,” Tristan said, holding it out, “we can tie ourselves together with this. Worst case scenario,” Tristan shrugged: “I’ll use the handholds to pull us through – chances are my strength will hold the longest.”

Streaks of orange and pink had lightened the dark sky to pale grey. As they secured the rope around themselves, Jacob chuckled under his breath.

“What?” Tristan asked, knowing the smirk Jacob wore was for him.

“Before we left Exterius Antro,” Jacob told him, “you wouldn’t have dared to speak that way to me.”

Testing the knot securing the rope around his waist, Tristan stared at the tower, and replied: “Everything has changed, Jacob, and there’s nothing funny about it.” Turning his head, he met the older man’s stare.

“It’s now or never,” he said; “pick a side.”

With Socmoon’s prophecy looming, and the boys’ ire towards him growing, Jacob sighed and gestured towards the left tunnel; “If we are to avoid being seen, we have to cross the river at the start of the boardwalk.”

Tristan led them forward, taking them as close as possible to the opening in the aqueduct, while avoiding being seen. Limiting the amount of time they would be exposed to the freezing water, he waited until there was no choice, before stepping into the river.

Jacob cursed and Tristan grunted, when the current swept Set and Davad off their feet, forcing them to drag the boys across to the far bank.

“The river is deeper than it looks,” Davad said, as they emerged.

Set, lips trembling, nodded his agreement.

Jacob checked the surroundings. “The rise of the land and the bridge offer us scant cover,” he said, “but I don’t think the lawyers can see us.”

“Which ones?” Set asked; “the ones on the bridge, or the ones on the front steps of the tower?”

Jacob looked for himself. “There are more gathering in the plaza,” he cursed. “We’re too vulnerable here, especially to anyone coming up from the same side of the river – we need to get to the tunnel.”

Reaching it, Tristan said: “Check the ropes again – if someone comes loose, they’ll wash out before we can grab them back. Or, worse,” he added, “they’ll take us all with them.”

“They’re secure,” Jacob said, and then turned to address Set and Davad: “The distance may not seem great, boys, but it will be pitch-black and freezing cold – there will be pain. But, we are going to push through it – we are going to help Tristan for as long as we can.”

“For Shashara,” Tristan said, stepping into the river again.

He followed the sloping ground to the center, and then looked, askance, at the water pouring over the bottom lip of the tunnel.

“Take a deep breath, Tristan, and then hold it,” Jacob told him, “when you’re ready, grab for the edge – I’ll be here to give you a foot up.”

Tristan did so, but the frigid water rushing down on his head made him gasp. Spitting and sputtering, unable to see, he bent his right knee and hoped Jacob found his foot before he drowned. The moment contact was made, Tristan’s muscles bulged, as he fought the current to secure his hold. Lunging for the first hand-hold he could find, he pulled himself fully into the aqueduct, cursing as the hilt of his sword caught on the tunnel’s edge.

Shifting his sword free, and latching on to his hand-hold with a death grip, he forced his legs to cut through the current. Once sideways, he hooked the toe of a sodden boot against another hold, and braced himself. With his head narrowly above the water line, he tugged on the rope with his free hand.

Jacob grunted, as the rope tugging at his waist pulled him off his feet. He followed the rope with his hands, until he could get his body upright. “Here we go,” he told the boys, before stepping beneath the cascade of water.

Hand over hand, he pulled them up, rushing to relieve Tristan of his weight, the moment he made it over the edge. Arms aching, breathless and cold, Jacob gripped the first hand-hold his fingers found, and said: “Tristan, the boys…”

Davad pulled himself closer to Set; “Wrap your arms around my neck, so he can lift us both at the same time.”

“Good idea,” Set said, through chattering teeth, as he manoeuvered into positon

Davad yelped, as the rope at his waist pulled taut. “Hold on, and hold your breath,” he said. But, when the water rushed over them, they panicked. With the back of his shoulders pressed to one side of the tunnel, and the toes of his boots pressed against the other, Tristan struggled to haul in their combined weight. When his boot slipped, Jacob bellowed into the boys’ mind: Calm down and stop fighting him, as he grabbed on to the back of Tristan’s belt. As soon as Davad’s head cleared the bottom of the tunnel, Jacob hoisted him and Set over.

Tristan, relieved of his burden, gasped for air, as he fought to turn himself around. With Jacob’s help, he was able to pass to the front.

“This current is swift,” he said, “and the only way to find the hand-holds is to go under the water.” He glanced back at the boys; “They can’t do it, Jacob.”

“I know,” Jacob replied, “so, we will.”

“Okay,” Tristan nodded, “I’ll take the left side – you take the right.” Then, he took a deep breath and disappeared beneath the water. Jacob followed.

Find the hold… Grip… Pull… Again…

Tristan was the first to come up for air. “Flip onto your backs,” he told the boys; “you’re dead weight.”

Davad flipped first. Set, wadding a fistful of the side of Davad’s shirt in his hand, forced himself to do the same.

“I’ve got you,” Davad said, for Set’s hearing alone.

“Are you ready?” Jacob asked Tristan.

“Yes, sir,” Tristan said, refilling his lungs, before they went under again.

Find the hold… Grip… Pull… Again… Again…

A sudden yank tore Tristan’s fingers loose from the hand-hold, and they washed a half dozen holds backwards, before Tristan caught one, cursing, as a muscle ripped in his shoulder.

“What happened?”

Jacob, pale and shaking, said: “I’m losing my grip – it’s my hands…” – he shook his head – “..I can’t feel them.”

“How are the… they?” Tristan asked, trying to see for himself.

“S-s-s-sleepy…” Davad managed to whisper; “S-S-Set’s not d-d-doing well.”

“Jacob,” Tristan said, then exclaimed, when he saw the man’s eyes drifting shut: “Hey! I need you to focus! How much further is it?”

Through garbled words, Jacob replied: “They’ll have lanterns – the light will… show… through the cracks around the m-m-maintenance hatches.”

A pale illumination lit the tunnel. Confused, Tristan tried to find the source.

“It’s just your eyes, Tristan,” Jacob told him. “Calm yourself, and see us out of here.”

Taking a huge breath, Tristan went under again. He dragged them forward, hand over hand, fighting his panic. Reaching for the next vertical hold, his knuckles bumped against a horizontal one, slightly higher than the first. Straining, he pulled himself up, using the horizontal holds, until he could brace the side of one boot against the vertical hold, beneath the water.

“Jacob, I see it. I need your help. There’s a hatch door right above us.”

Tilting his chin to avoid swallowing the river water, Jacob stammered: “What do you need me to d-d-do?”

Securing his position, Tristan reached for Jacob. “Give me your hand,” he said, but grabbed the man’s wrist, instead. Pulling with all he had, he aided Jacob in grabbing the first horizontal hold. “I need you to anchor yourself, and bear their weight, while I open the hatch.”

Too weak to waste energy on unnecessary words, Jacob grabbed the hold with both hands, and nodded.

Bracing himself, Tristan pressed a palm flush against the hatch, and pushed – it sprung open on rusted hinges, and banged against the external tunnel wall. He winced.

“Don’t worry about the noise,” Jacob told him; “Just… hurry – I can’t… I…”

Pain lanced through Tristan’s arms and legs, when Jacob’s strength failed, threatening to drag him down again. He clawed his way over the lip of the hatch, to collapse on top of the aqueduct. Three breaths – that’s all he allowed himself – before he twisted around to peer through the hatch.

“Okay, Jacob, up you go.” Wrapping the rope around his hand, he started to pull. “Come on, old man – you have to work with me.”

Jacob tried, but his fingers refused to hold his weight. As his shoulders cleared the opening, he braced himself on his forearms, and wiggled onto the top of the tunnel. “Get them… out,” he gasped.

Tristan’s hands were shaking when he wrapped the rope around them again. “Set,” Tristan said, his eyes burning from sudden tears, when his brother came through the hatch, folded in half at the waist, and unconscious.

“Give him to me,” Jacob stated, “and get Davad out.”

As he spoke the words, Davad’s head cleared the hatch. Tristan grabbed the boy and saw him through; “You still with me, man?”

“Barely,” Davad gave a frozen-lipped smile. “Is S-S-Set okay?”

“I’m not sure,” Tristan told him, as he worked to unbind them from the rope.

The grease-lanterns, spaced along the stone walls of the second level, flickered wildly, as Davad drew in their heat. As his core temperature rose, his lethargy diminished.

Clear of mind, he asked: “Dad, are you good?”

“Yeah, but I’m worried about Set.”

Tristan climbed down the set of rusted rungs, to the floor. “Jacob, I know your hands hurt,” he said, “but I need to grab Set under the arms, to keep him from sliding, and then, Davad,” he added, “I need you to shove his legs over the side.”

“I’ve got him,” Jacob said, but when Davad moved Set’s legs, he began to slide.

“We’re okay,” Davad said, grabbing hold of the back of Jacob’s breeches.

“Drop him,” Tristan said, catching his brother in his arms, and lowering him to the terra floor.

Davad scrambled down the rungs, and sank to his knees beside Set. Using his ignis ability, he set his hands to a warm burn, and began wafting them over the frozen boy, careful not to get too close.

Jacob descended at a slower pace. Reaching the floor, he leant against the tunnel, opening and closing his fist to return the blood flow to his hands. Hearing footsteps echoing in the stairwell, he reached for his sword, but pain lanced through his frozen fingers. “I can’t grasp the hilt,” Jacob said, pitching his voice low.

“Don’t worry,” Davad said, “Tristan and I will handle it.”

The stairwell had two egresses, facing north and south, and Tristan and Davad positioned themselves accordingly. The echoing footsteps chose the northern door, and, as the guard exited, he met Tristan. A solid punch to the jaw spun the guard around, and, snatching the back of the man’s black uniform, Tristan slammed his forehead into the stairwell’s outer wall, knocking him out cold.

As Davad ducked his head into the stairwell, to check for more guards, Tristan dragged the man to Set, and dropped him there.

“What are you doing?” Davad asked, returning to see Tristan ripping open the guard’s shirt, to place his brother’s hand on the unconscious man’s bared chest.

“He’s too pale…” Tristan said, “..too cold. Come on, Set.” Desperate, he took his brother by the shoulders and shook him: “Wake up!”

Set’s eyes, piercing blue and bloodshot, opened wide. Raw, primal instinct dictated his actions, as he rolled towards the fera guard, and drained the heat from his grey, scaled body.

Suddenly becoming aware, he pushed himself off. “No,” he cried, “not again!” He scrambled to put more distance between himself and his victim; “Please tell me that I didn’t kill him.”

Tristan put a hand in front of the fera’s broad nose; “Calm yourself, Set – he still lives.”

“We should kill him,” Jacob stated; “leaving an enemy at your back is the quickest way to finding yourself facing a horde.”

“He’s likely to die anyway,” Set said: “his skull is cracked and I’ve left him all but ice.” His expression pleading, he suggested: “We can tie him up and gag him.”

“They’ll find him eventually,” Davad said, “and early discovery could cost us our success.”

Jacob’s eyes were pinned on Set’s, their aether abilities holding a conversation the others couldn’t understand; “We’ll risk it.”

Set’s shoulders sagged. “Thank you, Jacob,” he said, as Davad went to gather the discarded rope.

Tristan winced, as needle-like pain heralded the return of his body temperature.

Set saw it; “Are you okay?”

“Let’s just say, I’ve never been more envious of yours and Davad’s abilities.” He forced a grin. “In truth,” Tristan told him, “the thawing out is almost as bad as the freezing.”

“I was thinking the same,” Jacob groaned.

Still weak, Set struggled into an upright position, and asked: “Jacob, does my ability only go one way?”

“What do you mean?”

“You use your aether ability to push thoughts into our heads all the time,” Set said; “am I wrong in assuming that my epoto ability can do the same?”

“As I understand it,” Jacob told him, “you have to be touching the other person. But, yes – your ability works the same.”

Set’s dark blue markings stood out on his flushed skin. “Is it possible for me to share my body heat?”

Jacob’s head cocked to the side; “I would suppose so, but I don’t see how you have any to spare.”

Set shook his head: “You don’t understand how it works. That fera is a big man… I’m not – he held more heat than my body can hold, and now I’m feverish; I think I can warm one of you.”

“Give it to Jacob,” Tristan told him: “my metabolism is kicking in; I’ll be warm – and starving – in no time.”

Turning to Jacob, Set asked: “Will you let me try?”

“It’s worth a shot,” Jacob said, crossing the floor towards him; “the longer we stay here, the higher our odds of discovery, and, as it stands, I cannot draw my sword.”

Without fear or hesitation, Jacob took Set’s hand; “You get more like your Dad every day – he’d be proud of you, son.”

Set caught Tristan’s smile, as the memory of his envious confession for their father’s affection passed between them.

“I told you, little brother,” Tristan said.

Set shot him a crooked grin; “It’s still nice to hear.”

Jacob moaned, as a rush of warmth entered his body – lethargy followed in its wake. Gathering the rope Davad had dropped in a pile, he tied up the guard, to keep himself moving, while his eyelids fought to close.

With the last knot tied, Set said: “Well, we’re inside the tower and still breathing. What do we do now, Jacob?”

“According to Triton’s map, and my memory, there are five levels to the Asylum: there is an upper storey – mainly offices; the main level is made of waiting rooms and audience chambers – we’d waste our time searching there.”

“The guard rooms are directly above us, right?” Tristan wanted confirmed.

Jacob nodded: “There are two more levels below the aqueducts – we’ll search there first. We take this slow,” he said, “understood?” After they acknowledged his words, he said: “Okay, follow me.”

Entering, their eyes drilled into the stone curve of the stairwell wall, as they made their descent, desperate to see beyond the next turn. When Jacob stopped in front of the first door they came to, they strained their ears for the sound of voices, or footsteps, coming from the other side.

Hearing nothing with his mind or his ears, Jacob cracked the door. When he gestured that all was clear, they spilled out from the central stairwell into a corridor. With a slow turn, Jacob noted that there were others, and a myriad of hallways branched from them.

Skepticism and doubt clouded the boys’ visage, but it was Davad who whispered: “It’s a maze down here – how are we to search every room?”

The closest door was to their immediate right, and, though his ability said the room was empty, Jacob opened it with caution, before ushering the boys inside.

In the way of furnishings, the room held only a rectangular obsidian table and four plain chairs. The flash of blue from the manacles on the wall caught their attention.

“Hey,” Davad asked, as he walked over for a closer look, “aren’t these made of the same metal as the wolf Tristan found in Pisces Stragulum?” He gave them a yank and shook his head: “No – they may appear the same, but these are much stronger.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that the tower has possession of the precious metal,” Jacob said, “but it concerns me. Manacles would be tempered and spelled for a different purpose – try to discover it in my absence.”

Davad tensed: “Where are you going? And why would you be going alone?”

“We need to get a sense of the place, son, and it is easier for one to slip by unnoticed.”

“And what do you intend to do if you find her, Dad, or if you find yourself instead outnumbered by the guards?” Davad asked, aware that the boy he’d been in Exterius Antro would have never had the nerve. “Set nearly died because you said you needed more… Now, you move forward with less?” Without waiting for reply, he said: “It is never a good idea to split up if there’s another option.”

The true measure of how much things had changed occurred when Jacob explained. “Listen,” he said, “all of you – I need to be able to focus. Davad’s right: the tower is far too large to search room by room.”

“So, then, what are you planning to do?” Tristan asked.

“I’m going to use telepathy,” Jacob answered. “I know her mind as well as my own – I’m hoping,” he said, “that if I get close enough to breech her psyche, she can guide us to her.”

“I agree with the plan,” Set said, “but fail to see how us staying behind aids it.”

“It’s simple,” Jacob told him: “I can discard the thoughts of strangers, but I’m attuned to you boys.” He watched their heads lower, and their feet shuffle; “I do my best to respect your privacy, but, in truth, I hear every word you think – I see every image you form in your minds. It’s a distraction, boys – one Shashara and Anliac can’t afford.”

Taking advantage of their inability to look at him, Jacob slipped out the door, smiling at the varying images of Shashara that popped up in their minds: to Davad, she was a helpless victim, to Tristan, a possible future. But, Set’s image of his daughter made his eyebrows shoot for his hairline.

“Never trust a telepath,” Tristan said. Taking a chair from the table, he placed it facing the door, and sat down with his arms crossed.

Set plopped down atop the table. “He hasn’t had companions to deal with since Mom and Dad died, Tristan – he’s used to working alone. So,” he shrugged, “maybe cut him some slack.”

Davad, pacing the floor between Tristan’s seat and the door, cast anxious angry glances with each pass. “Shashara’s out there, and here we sit, while he’s out there, alone.” His fingers clenched into fists; “And here we sit, with no idea what could walk through that door – one or a dozen guards, depending on whether or not my father is dead.”

 

*

 

They heard footsteps that fell silent outside the door.

When a man came through, Tristan flipped his legs out from under him, as Set’s hand wrapped around his throat and followed him to the floor.

“Set! It’s my Dad! Stop!”

The order wasn’t necessary. Set crab-walked until his shoulders hit a wall – shaking, nauseated and horrified at what he had almost done.

Jacob, on his back, forced his lungs to refill with air. “At least I know you boys are prepared,” he said, chuckling, as he came to his feet.

“Did you find her?” Davad asked.

Jacob shook his head: “The level below us is nothing but laboratories – there’s no one down there. I ran every hallway on this level, but I didn’t sense her.”

“So, then, what now?” Set asked.

“There’s a locked room on the back side of the stairwell, on this level,” Jacob told them, “but getting into it is going to draw attention. I want to check the armory and guards’ quarters before we risk it. It’s a long shot, I know,” he said.

“A dangerous one,” Tristan stressed the point, “that puts you two levels away from us, Jacob… And, guaranteed, there will be guards on that level.”

The crack in Jacob’s voice revealed his panicked desperation: “I can’t hear her, Tristan.”

Set laid a hand on the outside of Jacob’s shoulder. Sending a tendril of aether through the telepath’s animus, Set siphoned away his excess fear to help him focus, releasing it before it became his own.

“We will succeed, Jacob,” he said: “Shashara will come out of this tower – Socmoon saw it.”

“We both know what else he saw,” Jacob countered.

“Well, then, that makes the two of you,” Davad scowled. “Care to share?”

“The suns are coming up,” Jacob said; “we’re running out of time.”

XXIII

Ascertained Truth

 

Unable to stay in one place, Davad gave closer inspection to the manacles on the wall.

“I can’t believe he left us here… again.” He cut his glare to Set; “And don’t think I’m not mad at you, too.”

“Let it go, Davad,” Set told him; “nothing else the oracle said changes anything.”

Davad rolled his eyes. “Whatever,” he said, turning the manacles over in his hand. “Dad said the blue tint means the metal has been spelled; he wanted us to figure out its use. Any ideas… Tristan..?” He glared at Set one more time, for good measure.

“They’re manacles, Davad – they’re used to hold people against their will,” Tristan said; “whatever else they do, that’s their purpose.”

Curious, despite Tristan’s lack of interest, Davad sent heat into the arcanite – he loosened his hold when the metal hissed and turned frigid. “Tristan, come here.”

“Why?”

“Come on,” Davad said; “I want to see if you can break their links.”

Tristan grasped the metal, and immediately felt his strength drain. Letting go, the manacles clanked against the wall, as he wiped his hands on his damp trousers; “That’s disturbing.”

“What is?” Set asked, hopping down from the table, for a closer look, himself.

“The arcanite has been spelled to block or drain abilities,” Tristan told him.

Set reached for them. “I wonder…” he began, but his arm fell, at the sound of footsteps coming from inside the stairwell.

Though the men did not exit, their deep, reverberating voices carried through the stone wall, and into the room where the boys waited.

Cautioning quiet, Tristan pressed a finger to his lips, and eased the door open a crack.

“Brother, I’m telling you it’s possible, because I’ve done it once before.”

“Nonsense! If you had, you would have said something long before now.”

“I told you: the mercenary who brought me the mortalis child sixteen years ago stole him away, but, before she did, the transfusion had worked. The nox girl’s blood will also take the transfusion – we can create another angeli, Calstar!”

Cold chills swept up Tristan’s spine. He could feel Davad and Set’s eyes boring into his back, as they, too, heard what the man had to say – he blocked them out to listen.

“Oh, shut up, Malstar.”

There was a heavy sigh, and then more words: “I recall, with vivid clarity, the shame you brought upon the Asylum, with all of your boastful claims, completely lacking in supporting evidence. Ugh! I confess to contemplating locking you up, to spare myself further humiliation.”

“Why is he egging the man on?” Davad asked, in a whisper.

Set shrugged.

“Why can your compulsive need for control – your perfectionism – never come into play when the stakes count? Tell me, brother, how does a solitary female – mercenary or not – escape the tower with such an important child?”

“She was not alone, and I never said she was alone: two other mercenaries were working with her. You should remember them, Calstar – one was a telepath, and the other an epoto. If memory serves, they ripped through your tower guards, and painted the foyer red with their blood.”

“I do remember them – I remember scouring the city for them. I remember the unprovoked attack, by that pack of wild feras at the eastern gate, against our guards – that’s how they escaped to reach the port, yes?”

“Yes.”

“I ordered the lot of them found and killed, did I not?”

“The order was given, but was never carried out – that nox, Triton, thwarted your men’s attempt to kill them.”

“Indeed, and your men’s attempt to bring back the child which could have proven your claims.”

The voices descended in the stairwell until the boys could no longer hear, but even in the silence they remained still, as the information sunk in.

“I have to know more,” Tristan said, at last, his voice thick with emotion; “I’m going to follow them.”

“We should stay here,” Davad said, “but if your course is chosen, then we go together.”

“I would have it no other way,” Tristan said, slipping from the room, to enter the stairwell.

Descending as quickly as they dared, they caught a glimpse of a scarlet robe, and of the man who wore it – topping seven-feet, he was obviously fulgo. He exited on the lowest level, with his companion, before they could discover more.

Pausing at the stairwell door, they heard another across the hall open and shut.

“Tristan…no,” Set mouthed, more than he spoke, for fear of being caught.

Ignoring him, Tristan eased into the narrow hall to listen, allowing Davad to press his less sensitive ear to the door.

“No, you wouldn’t have recognized the infant had you seen him before the infusion – he was brought to me with blue eyes and tanned skin; if he lives, he sees through the yellow eyes of the fulgo, and his skin is as ours. On his head bounced blond waves, yet after the injection it was black as pitch; I watched his mortalis ears grow the double points that would mark him a nox, but, Calstar, it was the fera blood that wrought the most change: the nails on his hands and feet narrowed and sharpened. Can you fathom an infant with the hardened musculature of a man, and what he might be upon maturity? He came to me with no marking on his flesh, but I witnessed his entire body glow golden, with power and potential.”

“And, yet, you did not come to me for aid.”

“Though the subjects survived the initial transfusions, many died, and those who did not had to be put down. I felt your time was too valuable to be wasted – I wanted to make sure the infant would remain viable before I bothered you with my endeavor. But, then he was stolen from me, and until now” – his voice grew more confident – “I was unable to find another with the right blood.”

“That brings us full circle, does it not? You think to repeat the process with the nox female – the beauty brought in last night by the bounty hunters?”

“Yes. Her blood is like that of the first, but, unlike the unmarked child, she is a level-three aquis wielder, and her potential is so much greater. Calstar, I’d like you to witness the process first-hand this time – the transformation is awe-inspiring.”

“I have no time for such experiments, Malstar – I’m due in my chambers now, and I’ll be holding court for the remainder of the day. But, send for me if you’re successful – I will come and see your work.”

Davad pulled his ear from the chamber door and gestured to the stairwell. When Tristan showed no intent to turn, he gestured Set forward, saying in a hushed whisper: “We need to go – now.”

Set circled to face Tristan, planted both palms on his brother’s chest and pushed, while Davad grabbed the back of Tristan’s shirt collar, and his belt, and pulled. Together, they managed to get him moving.

Back in the room where Jacob had left them, their hearts raced. Set paced, pausing often to listen for approaching footsteps, while Davad held a defensive stance, facing the door in case they had been seen.

Tristan, his mind swimming in an existential crisis, was beyond the concern of discovery – the truth, spoken by strangers, had revealed the lies spoken by those he loved. His fingers clenched into fists, he wanted someone to walk in – he needed a target, someone he could lose his anger on… something he could destroy, as his own life was being destroyed.

“Someone is coming,” Davad said, his words calling Set to his side.

“It’s Jacob,” Tristan told them.

“How do you know?” Set asked.

“I can smell him.” His words proved true, when Jacob’s voice carried through the closed door.

“It’s me,” Jacob said, before cracking the door and entering.

Assaulted by the emotional overload gushing from the boys, he closed the door and turned to face them. Their psyches read as chaos, but what he could decipher left him speechless. “What’s happened?” he asked. “Tristan, look at me!”

Hot, angry tears spilled down Tristan’s pale cheeks. “You know about me,” he said; “I know you know, yet, even after they died, you didn’t tell me.”

“Is he right, Dad?” Davad asked, shaking from anger of his own: “Did you know that Beth delivered him into the tower’s hands, and then stole him from the Asylum after that fulgo mixed his blood?”

“Now is not the time, son,” Jacob answered: “the tower is waking up.”

“Did you know?” Davad all but shouted. “Is that the secret you’ve been keeping from us?”

Unrelenting, Jacob told them: “I believe the prisoners are being kept beyond that locked door – the one behind the stairwell, on this level. Tristan, I can sense where you’re at, but you’re the only one who can get us in.”

“Because my fera blood makes me super strong, right, Jacob?” His forward step was aggressive. “The monsters in this place experimented on me. And you…” – he gritted his teeth – “..you didn’t even have the decency to tell me… to warn me about what they’d turned me into.” Quaking with suppressed rage and a rush of power, he snarled: “I’m an angeli.” He stepped forward again.

The force of Tristan’s fury put Jacob on his heels, and the act of cowardice sparked his own anger. Unaware that his hand had found the hilt of his sword, Jacob said: “Boy, you need to calm yourself”, as he stepped up to meet the challenge.

Set sensed his brother’s wrath, and it compounded with his own. It was he who intercepted Jacob’s advance; “How could you?”

“Be quiet, Set!” Jacob barked, raising his hand, as if to strike.

Not taking to the threat against his brother, Tristan’s speed placed him between the epoto and the telepath before either could track his movement. When his flattened palms collided with Jacob’s chest, they heard the cracking of bone, as Jacob flew backwards into the wall.

“Tristan, enough!” Davad shouted, as his father crumpled to the floor. When Tristan advanced, despite the warning, Davad squared off – the temperature in the room dropped, as he absorbed the heat and ignited his ability, flames enveloping his hands.

“I’m not defending what he’s done,” Davad said, “but this can wait, Tristan.” Looking to Set to back him up, he added: “We’re here for Shashara.”

Desperate for air that was too painful to draw, Jacob used the stone wall to stand, and said: “He’s right”, with labored breath. An arm wrapped around his ribs, he limped his way over to stand before Tristan. Eye to eye and beyond words, Tristan opened his psyche and dared Jacob to enter in. The wheezing in Jacob’s chest bode ill, but he should care – he’d seen men die from less, yet emotion turned to ash beneath his fury.

“Tristan, talk to me,” Jacob said.

“Nine years,” Tristan told him, “that’s how long you’ve stood in my father’s place, but you’ve been family my whole life. How many times have I come to you for guidance, afraid to upset Mom, or afraid of disappointing Dad? When I buckled beneath the ridicule of others… when I began to fear my strength… I turned to you.”

“And, now you know,” Jacob conceded, “that I hold the answers to all of your unspoken questions.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said, as anger engulfed him, but pain followed in the wake of his fury. As waves of pulsating energy heated his flesh, engorging his muscles with blood, he ripped at his shirt and let the pieces fall. Waiting for the pain to be replaced with power, he revelled in the rush of it. He’d felt its like only once before – when he’d faced the dracon – but even then his strength had been tempered with fear. Such was not the case this time. Instead, he fed the inferno of his rage.

He saw Jacob’s eyes widen, and he saw Set and Davad step away. Looking down, he saw the reason behind their sudden fear: sinuous golden lines, covering him from waist to neck and up both arms, pulsated with the beat of his heart. Fighting for control of the volatile energy seeking an exit, he stared at the markings he should not possess.

“Tristan, get control,” Jacob said, “before you kill us all.” When his words marked no change, he added: “Think of Shashara, Tristan… think of Anliac – they need us.”

Tristan was shaken by the image Jacob forced into his mind: of Shashara, caged and in pain. The light pouring from the markings on his flesh dimmed, but his temper did not, nor did the marks fade. Acutely aware of the way they looked at him, as if a feral beast, he turned from their scrutiny, towards the door.

“Tristan, no,” Set said, moving to intercept, but, when his brother’s stare met his own, he backed away.

From the corner of his eye, Tristan saw Jacob tuck Davad behind him. Their rejection cut deep, but it was a superficial hurt, compared to the wound truth had already delivered.

Knowing his eyes were glowing again, he pushed away the betrayal he felt, but paused before opening the door, to say: “We’ve come for Shashara, right?” The deep bass that reverberated through his chest was not a voice he recognized.

Ignoring the chills that swept over him, he said: “Then let’s be done with it.” Then, he stepped into the hall. Without looking back, he made his way to the locked door, where Jacob believed the girls were imprisoned, and watched it open.

A fera guard, with striped orange fur and feline green eyes, hissed through elongated fangs: “Stop struggling”, as he dragged a female nox into the hall, by the roots of her ebony hair; “Malstar gets what Malstar wants.”

Mention of the alchemist’s name, coupled with the mistreatment of the girl, released a surge of anger in Tristan, that exploded forth as brilliant burst of light. “Not if I can help it,” he said, as the fera’s mouth fell agape, and he pulled the nox against his chest as a shield.

Shrouded in a dangerous calm, Tristan sensed the others falling in at his back. “Let her go,” he warned, “or I will kill you.” The power in his voice caused the dust at his feet to dance, as the vibration of it travelled through the stone, and rattled the ribcages of those close by.

In response, the guard tightened his hold.

“Ahh!” the girl cried out in pain.

The guard cried, as well, but in surprise, when Tristan moved forward, so fast his image blurred. Grabbing the fera’s wrist, Tristan snapped the bone with effortless force.

Freed, the woman scrambled in the only direction afforded her – towards Jacob – as the guard howled in pain.

“Easy, Anliac,” Jacob said, catching her when she would have darted by; “Montilis sent us.” When her struggles ceased, he let her go.

Anliac collapsed to her knees, the shackles around her wrists clanking against the stone floor, as she gawked in wide-eyed terror at the boy with his hand around the guard’s throat. Lifting the fera’s feet from the floor, Tristan demanded: “Where are the other prisoners?”

As the fera’s eyes bulged, the vessels bursting, Davad said: “He can’t breathe, Tristan, much less speak – ease up.”

“No,” Tristan said, “I made him a promise.”

The guard’s feet kicked in spasm jerks, as Tristan squeezed. When his fingers closed into fists, blood spewed, as the fera’s body hit the floor… followed by his head.

Anliac screamed.

Tristan turned towards the sound, and became a captive of his heightened senses. Lured by her beauty, his abilities focused – he could count the sooty lashes surrounding her emerald-green eyes… could trace the delicate points at the tips of her tiny ears.

Needing to pair a scent with her image, he inhaled, and his blood ran cold – she smelt of fear, and the knowledge of this swept the markings from his flesh. “I won’t hurt you,” he said. Upon hearing his voice returned to normal, the light from his golden eyes dimmed and then disappeared, yet she remained on the verge of flight.

Anliac was not the only one shaken by what had transpired, but Jacob was the first to recover his wits. “He speaks the truth,” he said: “you’ve nothing to fear from us. But, we are in danger here, and time is our enemy.” Offering his hand, he helped her to her feet, and cupped her tear-streaked cheeks in his palms. “Anliac, I know you’re frightened, but I need your help: my daughter, Shashara – do you know where they’re keeping her?”

Her tears welled, as she pointed with a trembling finger, and said: “Through the open door. There’s a room beyond it – the prisoners…” she hesitated, “..the ones intended for auction, are caged there.”

“Thank you, Anliac,” Jacob said, squeezing her shoulders. “What about-”

“They tested some of us,” she said, cutting short his question. “They tested me. My blood, he said-” hysteria tinged her voice: “-my blood is mixable.”

“It’s okay,” Jacob soothed: “we’re going to get Shashara, and then we’re going to get you both out of here.”

Anliac dug her nails into Jacob’s forearm. “You don’t understand – you don’t know what that means.”

“Trust me,” Tristan said, unable to hide the venom in his tone, “we all know what it means.”

Anliac turned from Jacob, and, though she shook from the fear of it, she directed her words to Tristan: “Then, promise me… promise that you will kill me, before you let them take me back.”

Tristan’s eyes flashed a golden light; “No one else is going to hurt you.”

“But we could use your help, Anliac,” Jacob told her: “we need to know what we’re walking into.”

Taking a breath to steady her nerves, she said: “There are two egresses: the door and a hatch, that’s on the far side of the room.”

“How many guards?” Set asked.

“Two.”

“That’s not so bad,” Davad said.

“There’s a red rope,” she told them, “hanging beside the hatch – if a guard reaches it, bells will toll on every level, and we will not escape.”

“Okay,” Davad said, “so we rush them.”

Jacob shook his head: “Without knowing how closely they’re positioned to the alarm, we can’t risk it. But, I have another idea. Let’s go.”

Set followed Jacob through the door, but Tristan paused to wait for Anliac. When she backed away from him, he sighed, and joined the others.

Davad wasn’t so easily deterred – he reached for her hand, and said: “I can’t leave you out here alone, Anliac, so make my life a little easier, and come on.”

“You don’t even know me,” she said; “why do you care?”

He didn’t hesitate to give his answer: “Because your life is repayment for a debt I owe your father.”

Though the stress of the situation did not lessen, Anliac found herself calming in the presence of this particular mortalis – he did not appraise her with the eyes of a man, and he spoke of debt and the repayment of it – ideals she could understand.

“What is your name?” she asked him.

“Davad.”

“I can respect your purpose, Davad, but that does not mean I trust any of you.”

Instead of responding, Davad dug through the dead guard’s pockets, and found the key to her shackles. “There we go,” he said, as the locks opened. “Trust is earnt, Anliac, and it goes both ways. But I made a promise, so, like it or not,” he reached for her hand again, “I intend to keep it.”

Placing her hand in his, they entered the cavernous room together, and waited for their eyes to adjust to the dim light. The sloped floor was bare, leaving nothing to suggest the room’s purpose.

Crouched by the door, Jacob had both palms pressed flat against the wood. Set, with his eyes closed, rested one hand on Jacob’s shoulder, and the other on Tristan’s chest. Sheened in sweat, Tristan swayed on his feet, as he watched Anliac. Pulling free of Davad’s hold, she took a full step back; “What are they doing?”

Davad shrugged: “You know what I know.”

“There are too many people in the room,” Tristan said, around the pain: “Jacob couldn’t single out the guards’ minds from some of the prisoners’.” Grunting, he continued: “He’s a strong telepath, but he’s hu… hurt. It would have taken too long.”

Her eyes narrowed at the hitch in his words, suspecting it had little to do with his current agony.

“So,” Tristan continued, “Set is draining my energy to power Jacob’s telepathy – he’s connected with the psyches of two guards, and intends to put them in a state of sleep before we enter.”

With every new piece of information, Anliac’s heart raced a little faster. Crossing her arms beneath her ample bosom, she reminded herself to breathe. “Jacob is a telepath?”

Tristan nodded.

“The boy,” she hesitated to speak her suspicion aloud: “he’s a level-three epoto?”

Tristan nodded again.

“What then,” she asked, “are you?”

Sensing her distress, Set’s eyes popped open, but he couldn’t speak. He simply wasn’t skilled enough to simultaneously drain Tristan, redirect the energy to Jacob, and block the pain his ability caused. Tristan groaned, as Set’s focus slipped.

“Sorry,” Set rushed to say, slamming his eyelids closed.

As the agony returned to a bearable level, Tristan’s stare held a different kind of sorrow, when he answered: “If your blood will mix as they say, I am what they intended to make you.”

Faced with a truth she couldn’t deny, she moved past Davad, over to the man who’d scared her witless and saved her life. “I can see it,” she said: “the fulgo in your golden eyes and pale skin.” Reaching to her right ear, she touched upon both tips, and said: “I see the nox in you, too. Mortalis blood resides in the angles of your face, but your body…”

Her eyes swept across the breadth of his shoulders, and slid down well-formed arms, but were caught by the V of his torso. Following its downward path, over a tight, ripped abdomen, she heard him chuckle, and was infuriated by her wayward thoughts. “You’ve the body of a beast,” she sneered; “definitely fera blood.”

His pain took a back seat to the beauty standing before him, shooting daggers at him with her emerald grin eyes. Her hair was like black silk, tucked behind her ears, allowing him a glimpse of the delicate valley between her neck and shoulder. He could see the vein pulsing there, just beneath her caramel-tinted skin. Her breath quickened, and his eyes were drawn to the swell and fall of her voluptuous breasts. His stare followed, when her two tiny fists found the tempting curve of her hip.

“Put your eyes back where they belong, Tristan,” she said, “before I rip them from their sockets.”

Though his body trembled from pain, his memory recalled the words his father had said to his Mom countless times, and claimed them now for his own: “Yes, ma’am.” He grinned: “So much for playing by the same rules.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snapped, but she blushed, too.

“It’s done,” Jacob said, sagging against the door.

Tristan listed sideways when Set broke their connection. “Thanks,” he said, when Davad stepped up to steady him.

Coming to his feet, an arm wrapped and pressed across his chest, Jacob wiped at the sweat running down his forehead, into his eyes. “They should be out,” he said, his breathing shallow.

“Take a moment,” Davad cautioned: “catch your breath – I don’t have to wield aether to know how much energy that took.”

“There’s no time,” Jacob said, and opened the door.

“Daddy!”

They heard the sound of Shashara’s scream, as Jacob came to a sudden stop, as if he’d slammed into an invisible wall.

“Daddy! NO!”

“Dad!” Davad shouted, running over from behind, as an arrow burst through his father’s back.

XXIV

Time to Go

 

Looking back at his son, Jacob hit his knees, but sought his daughter’s visage, as he tumbled face-first to the floor.

Shashara’s screams, Davad’s shout and the noise of the confused prisoners worked together to wake the unconscious guards – they reached for their weapons, and chaos erupted.

Without missing a step, Davad swooped in passing, and pulled free his father’s sword, charging the mortalis guard who held the bow.

Nocking an arrow, the guard brought string to cheek, but before he could lose the projectile, Davad rammed the sword blade into the soft spot beneath the man’s sternum. The forward momentum carried them both across the room, the guard’s head banging against hanging cages, until it slammed into the far wall. Reaching up, Davad wrapped his free hand around the man’s throat, and set it on fire. The women prisoners screamed – some emptied their stomachs – and even the men gagged at the stench of burning flesh.

Forcing Socmoon’s prophecy from his mind, Set saw the second guard rise from behind a desk, and acted to stop him. Sliding across its scarred top, he threw his weight against the bigger man, and latched onto his face with both hands, as they crashed to the floor. Landing hard, Set rolled to the side and took a moment to catch his lost breath.

The guard was no longer a threat – he was dead.

“ What the- Ow!” Sharp, needle-like pain lanced through Set’s hips, down his thighs, to the backs of his knees, leaving him temporarily paralyzed.

Shaking the bars of her cage, Shashara cried: “Get me out of here.” She was unable to tear her eyes from her father.

Coming through the door, Anliac went straight for her. But a third guard – one unseen by the telepath – manoeuvered himself between them.

“You’re a tiny little piece, to challenge me,” he grinned, but his confidence faltered when she grinned back – it wasn’t necessary, but she wanted the man to know who brought his death. She shoved her arms straight out, palms open, and, flipping her wrists, she closed her fingers, latching her ability to the water mixed with his blood. When she drew back her arms, she pulled the water from his body, watching as his eyeballs shrivelled in their sockets.

Grabbing his throat, he fell to his knees.

Refusing to let him die from dehydration, she turned his own fluid into a bloody rod of ice, and said: “You don’t get off that easy”, before casting it into his heart.

“Anliac!”

“I’ve got you, Shashara,” she said, crossing the floor. Squatting in front of the cage, she grasped the metal lock and tried to freeze it, but she was not a terra wielder – bracing her palms against the floor, she fell back and gritted her teeth against the bruising pain of trying to shatter cold iron with bare feet, but she failed. She wasn’t strong enough to do it alone, so she scanned the room for aid.

It was clear that Set was not an option – there was something wrong with his legs. Tristan was useless – frozen over Jacob’s body.

“Davad,” she said, “that guard is more than dead and I need your help.” Her words got her nowhere.

“Davad, please,” Shashara’s whimpered plea broke through his grief. In a daze, he stumbled towards his sister, gaining focus as he neared.

Seated on top of his victim’s chest, still recovering from the unfamiliar pain, Set turned, as the hatch door opened. “No, you don’t,” he said, lunging before the guard could reach the bell.

Rolling across the floor, grappling for dominance, Set used the guard’s hold on him to his advantage, and took everything: memories, thoughts, hopes, details of the tower and city, but, most importantly, his life. Shashara’s broken sobs dispelled any guilt that might have weighed on his conscience.

“Davad… he’s dead!” Her blue eyes, impossibly wide, stood in contrast to her pale face; “Dad is dead!”

Blocking his sister’s words, he focused on the task at hand: “Touch the iron again, Anliac – get it as cold as you can.” Once this was done, he said: “Good, now back away. Shashara, you too – scoot to the back and cover your face.”

“What are you going to do?” Anliac asked, moving out of the way, but staying close.

Clutching his father’s sword in his dominant hand, he closed the other around the lock, and poured his ignis ability into heating it. In a fluid motion, he released the lock and brought the hilt of the sword down on the red metal – it shattered. He wasted no time slinging open the cage door and helping Shashara out.

She collapsed against him, counting on his arms to hold her up.

“What about us? You can’t leave us here!”

“Shut up, Zadyst,” Anliac said, as the hatch door flew open, admitting an angry nox. Knowing she was too far away to stop the guard’s hand from reaching the alarm, she shouted: “Set!”

“Coward!” Set barked the first word that came to mind. When the nox paused, he said: “It’s pathetic that you need help to take down a kid, but,” he shrugged, “you do what you have to.”

Taking the bait, the red rope was left unsung, as the guard advanced, with his mace in hand.

Grinning to hide his terror, Set retreated, to put more distance between the nox and the alarm; he cursed when his back hit a corner wall. Leaning to the side, he dodged the guard’s broad swing, and then ducked to avoid the back stroke, as he realized he might have bitten off more than he could chew.

Surprised by his sudden agility, Set didn’t push his luck. “Tristan,” he called out, unable to find a way past the guard’s offensive to make contact, “I could use some help here.”

For the first time since Jacob fell, Tristan brought up his eyes and took in the nightmare before him: Set, trapped between a wall and a flailing mace, Shashara, wrapped around her brother like a vice, Davad’s visage, warped by fear… Tristan spun to find the cause.

Arm raised, a green-skinned fera attacked with a war hammer, his veins bulging in his neck, as he threw his weight into the downward swing.

Tristan’s left hand shot out and wrenched the weapon from the fera’s grasp, as he drew the dracon sword, and shoved it into the man’s vulnerable gut. As the guard doubled over, Tristan split the fera’s head with his own hammer.

Seeing the blood seeping from Jacob’s mortal wound, Tristan left his sword in place and cast the mace aside. Shoving the sharp points of his nails through the ends of his gloves, he ripped through the guard’s black shirt, rending the flesh beneath. His second swipe slit the fera’s throat and released a geyser of blood, which drenched them both.

Dumbfounded by the excessive violence, Davad watched Tristan turn the fera into a mutilated piece of meat. “Don’t look,” he said, tucking Shashara’s face into his shoulder when she turned.

Set, tiring from the perilous dance of avoiding mortal wounds, and the mace trying to deliver them, stumbled. Confident of victory, the guard left himself vulnerable, and Anliac took swift advantage: approaching from behind, she sidestepped and kicked the man’s knee toward his other. As he bellowed, she pivoted to face him, and planted her knee where it counted. When he cupped his precious jewels, she grabbed him by the hair and sank his nose flush with his face, by bringing her knee up one last time; a solid shove put him dead on the floor.

“Umm, thanks…” Set said, a tad scared of the tiny girl, who had just pummelled a man to death.

“Don’t mention it.”

Fast on the heels of relief came rage; “Tristan!” Set turned towards his brother, furious at his failure to help, but what he saw choked his words:

Tristan’s hands and sword were covered in blood; it was splattered across his face and soaked into his breeches and boots. In a stupor, he pointed to the guard he’d killed. Set recognized the mask of terror on his brother’s face – he’d worn it himself, when he crossed the line from man to monster.

“Just breathe,” he said, taking slow steps towards his sibling; “you’re okay, Tristan.”

“No,” Tristan sank to his knees, beside Jacob, “I’m not.” As Davad, Set and Shashara gathered around, he said: “Nothing will ever be okay after this.”

Uncomfortable with emotion, Anliac gave them space to grieve and say goodbye, as she searched through the pockets of the dead guards, until she found the keys. Grateful they had not been Tristan’s kills, she moved down the row of cages, unlocking them.

As they were freed, the prisoners huddled together, waiting for someone to lead them.

“Hey,” Zadyst said, the only one still caged, “what about me?”

“What about you?” Anliac asked, turning her back on him.

Fear pitched his voice high: “You have to let me out.”

“Anliac?”

“Don’t, Shashara,” Anliac said: “we both know he deserves a cage.”

“You’ll be sorry,” Zadyst vowed: “I’ll make you pay for this!” He cringed, fear stilling his tongue, when Tristan’s golden stare flared.

“We should kill him.”

“No,” Anliac told him: “he’s a coward and a rat – death is too good for either.” Joining them, she gestured to the gathered prisoners: “We need to get these people, and ourselves, out of here.”

Shashara grabbed hold of her father’s shirt, and buried her face against his chest; “What are we going to do?” A torrent of tears poured from her eyes when she raised them to Anliac; “We can’t leave him.”

When Anliac winced, Shashara turned to her brother: “Davad, please… don’t make me leave him.”

Clutching the outside of her shoulders, her cry of “No!” broke his heart, as he forced her to stand along with him. “I’m sorry, Sis, but we don’t have a choice.”

Shashara caressed her father’s cheek, retracting from the unnatural cold, as she allowed Davad to pull her up. “I knew you would come,” she said, taking in their faces. “I wanted to you to come, but this…” her voice broke: “..this wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Steeling herself against Shashara’s grief, Anliac said: “I’ve lost a mother, and a brother, so I know your pain. I’ve also witnessed your strength – you will do now what needs to be done, for those of your family who yet live, and you’ll shed tears for your father once they are safe. Do you understand?”

When Shashara’s head fell forward in defeat, Anliac said: “Good girl.” Then she asked the boys: “Okay, what do we do now?”

“There are three ways out of the tower,” Tristan said; “one is through the aqueducts.”

“We wouldn’t recommend that course,” Set winced, shivering from the remembered cold.

“One is through the back door,” Tristan continued, “which is located in the armory and guards’ quarters, on the first lower level. This time of morning, the room will be crawling with guards. That leaves the front door.”

“That’s suicide,” Shashara said. “There has to be another way.”

“There’s not,” Davad told her. “Grab anything you can use as weapon,” he said, addressing the prisoners too, in his suggestion. “We’ll have to stay together – run as a unit – until we reach the outside.”

The women were crying, but they scavenged for weapons as eagerly as the men, who sought retribution.

“And, after that?” a male mortalis, with long, blond hair and a hooked nose, spoke for the prisoners.

“After that,” Davad replied, “we’re all on our own.”

Checking to see that no hand was empty, Tristan said: “Let’s move.” He led the way from the prison room. He could feel Shashara at his back, and wanted to offer her comfort – to take her in his arms and assure himself that she was okay, but there was no time.

Entering the stairwell, they ascended three levels.

Pausing at the last door, Set gestured everyone close, and then said: “This door leads to the main foyer. It’s a wide open space, filled with nothing but towering columns, and a floor that echoes.”

“How do you know?” Davad asked.

Set brushed off the question. “Later,” he said, “but I’m right.”

“How far is the run to the main door?” Tristan asked.

“Too far,” Set stated the brutal truth, “but it’s a straight shot between where we’ll come out and the main exit.”

“We’re not all going to make it, are we?” a frantic female voice carried from the back.

“No,” Anliac told her, “but those who fall will buy others time to gain their freedom. Remember,” she said to them all, “it is better to die with your weapon in hand, and a battle-cry on your lips, than to rot into old age, a prisoner of your cowardice.”

“Way to offer inspiration,” Tristan grinned, though his hand trembled on the door lever, hesitant to lift the thing. “We all heard Set: run straight, run fast, and expect guards to be chomping at your heels before you’re free.”

Anxieties spiked, as footsteps echoed from behind.

“Stop!”

“Go!” Anliac shouted: “It’s Malstar!”

They poured into the large foyer, and made a mad dash for the front doors, as the bells tolled, and guards appeared, as if emerging from the stone. Desperation quickened their sprint, but it wasn’t enough.

“Guards!” Malstar bellowed, stumbling from the stairwell: “Guards! Stop them!”

The order was made unnecessary by their training – the standing guards positioned throughout the foyer fell to action: those with physical abilities gave chase, while those with elemental ones attacked from a distance.

From the corner of her eye, Shashara saw fire streaming towards her head. She ducked, and then stumbled, when a woman caught fire in her place, and began to scream.

Tristan came from behind and swooped her up. Swinging her onto his back, he shouted over the noise: “Hold on, Shashara!”

She laid her cheek against his neck, and angled her chin towards his ear. “Slow down, Tristan,” she said: “wait for the others.”

“I’m trying,” he growled, cutting down the guards that confronted him with quick efficiency. Forcibly holding back his speed, he said: “It’s not exactly easy, considering…”

The foyer was a pit of violence, alive with the clashing of steel and iron, guttural grunts of heated battle, and cries of pain that foreshadowed death. Tristan, making slow progress towards the double-doors, had his hands full, keeping track of their group amongst the chaos. He saw Set drop back, to help a woman who had taken a hit to her right thigh, and a fulgo, with strength marks running down both shoulders, that moved to intercept.

“Set, watch out!” Tristan shouted, too far away to help.

Shoving the woman out of harm’s way, they both went down. Rolling to his back, Set saw the guard, sword in hand, and knew he was going to die.

An ice shard opened a hole in the guard’s chest, dumping blood and gore onto the marbled floor. As the man dropped, Anliac, flushed and breathless, grabbed hold of Set’s hand and yanked him to his feet.

“Thanks,” he grinned; “that was close.”

“Just keep up,” she said, pushing their pace to reach the others, who were approaching the doors.

Shashara slid from Tristan’s back, as Davad drew their father’s sword. Two guards blocked their exit, and the surviving prisoners were coming up fast.

“I’ve got the fera,” Davad said, “if you’ve got the nox.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Tristan told him. Using speed to gain advantage over his opponent, he snatched the nox by the neck and snapped it clean, kicking the dead body clear of the door, as the first prisoners reached the exit.

“Seriously..?” Davad rolled his eyes at Tristan’s grin, and slashed with his sword to back up the fera, who fell into a defensive stance and countered. The clash of their weapons sent pain shooting up Davad’s arm, and the anger of it sparked his free hand to flame. Forming a fiery fist, he punched the fera in the jaw, and when the man’s dark fur caught fire, Davad ran him through with his blade.

Anliac, dragging Set with her, through the throng of madness, reached Shashara, as another wave of guards rushed them. “We’ve got to get out of here,” she said, her eyes sweeping a foyer floor littered with the dead and dying.

Reaching down, Davad made attempt to pull free his father’s sword, but it was stuck. Forced to leave it, or be trampled, he shoved opened one door, as Tristan threw wide the other.

Another fera waited just beyond.

Cursing, Davad’s hands exploded into flame.

“Wait!” the fera exclaimed; “I am not your enemy. Run, friend,” he encouraged; “your allies will find you.”

“Then, move,” Davad growled, “or die where you stand.”

As prisoners emerged from the tower and scattered, Tristan led their small group down the front steps to the plaza. Crossing it at a run, they took the stairs up to the boardwalk, and gained the bridge.

Pausing to let the others catch up, Tristan winced at the number of guards in pursuit. “Hurry,” he said, though they were moving as fast as they could.

Bringing up the rear, Set asked: “Are you insane? We’re sitting ducks up here, Tristan.”

“And, we’ve got company!” Anliac said, as the first of the guards topped the boardwalk. Squaring her stance, she moved her hands in growing, wave-like motions, but the fulgo at the other end was an aquis wielder as well. Set was the closest, so, to buy Anliac time, he rushed the fulgo.

The completed aether mark on Set’s face caused the guard to panic – abandoning the attack he was forming for Anliac, the fulgo cast forth a barrage of frozen daggers.

Thunk… thunk… The deadly tips sank into an ice-shield that Anliac had thrown up to protect him, but, unable to slow in time, Set crashed into it as well.

Coming out the other side, he lunged for the guard – the moment his hand wrapped around the fulgo’s wrist, the light in the man’s yellow eyes went out, his animus severed.

Though dead, the body did not fall to the stone: Anliac’s cast – a large chunk of ice – barrelled into the guard’s chest, and toppled him into the river below.

Sprinting to catch up with the others, Set said: “Whew – looks like I owe you again.”

“Anliac!”

She turned at the call of her name.

Malstar stumbled towards them, tripping over the hem of his robe, his hand outstretched. “Anliac,” he cried out again, “please. I need you.”

“It’s him – it’s Malstar.” Her heart was pounding. “Whatever you’re planning, Yellow Eyes, now would be the time.”

Tower guards were filing in at Malstar’s back, while city guards – feras all – appeared at the other end, and forced them to the center of the bridge.

“Don’t jump!” Malstar panicked. “Stop them,” he shouted to the fera guards, who turned about in mock confusion, as if they couldn’t find their targets.

“Traitors!” he bellowed, before turning pleading eyes to Anliac: “Don’t run from me, Anliac – you are mine.”

Unaware of her action, Anliac stepped closer to Tristan, and said: “I don’t think so.”

“Grab hands,” Tristan told them, his head turning once, in both directions; “it looks like we’re going for a swim.”

“No!” Malstar cried. “Hold,” he ordered, when the tower guards rushed by.

“Do your duty!” a counter-order was shouted, as a flash of bright red forced its way through the confused guards to confront the alchemist.

“The prisoners of the tower have escaped,” Calstar snarled. Smacking the back of Malstar’s head, he spewed: “What have you done?”

Flinching, Malstar replied: “The others are of no consequence – the girl is all that matters.”

“So you say,” Calstar fumed, “but it is I who will answer to Imbellis for this debacle. Stop them,” he told the guards, “or take their place.”

As the wielders moved forward, Malstar fell to his knees, and grasped at Calstar’s robe: “Brother, no… I beg you – I can’t lose another one.”

“What are we waiting for?” Davad asked, when, instead of launching themselves over the side, they stood, holding hands, as Tristan stared at their would-be captor.

With his heightened senses, Tristan alone heard Malstar’s plea, confirming the alchemist’s role in all he’d endured. A sudden burst of anger ignited, and it opened the dam to his power – as it coursed through his veins, the golden marks flared on his flesh, and his eyes became beacons of light that led Malstar straight to him.

“It’s you!” Malstar gasped, as wonder filled his visage, and he erupted into maniacal laughter.

Calstar took hold of his brother, and shook him: “You fool – have you lost your mind?”

With his stare locked on Tristan, Malstar ignored Calstar’s rough treatment, and said: “I can’t believe it – he’s come back to me.” Latching onto Calstar’s arm, he begged: “They are a perfect pair, brother – they are my life’s work. Help me.”

Shoving Malstar to the ground, his brother said: “Your snivelling is pathetic. Guards, advance.”

“No!” Malstar cried, reaching out, as if his arms could span the distance, as Tristan said:

“Ready..? Now!”

As one, they leapt off the stone bridge, into the icy waters below.


SR1

  • Author: LRPEditorial
  • Published: 2017-06-28 15:06:08
  • Words: 104115
SR1 SR1