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The Inner Circle: The Knowing

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The Inner Circle

The Knowing

Cael McIntosh

Copyright © 2015 Cael McIntosh

All rights reserved.

ISBN-13: 978-0-646-93735-9

 

DEDICATION

 

 

For the shunned.

CONTENTS

 

 

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|=. p<{color:#000;}. Prologue: Unfortunately |=. p<{color:#000;}. 1 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 1 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Actions and Reactions |=. p<{color:#000;}. 12 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 2 |=. p<{color:#000;}. In these Woods |=. p<{color:#000;}. 27 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 3 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Seeol |=. p<{color:#000;}. 38 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 4 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Elglair Eye |=. p<{color:#000;}. 53 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 5 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Out the Window |=. p<{color:#000;}. 59 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 6 |=. p<{color:#000;}. A Silt in Sitnic |=. p<{color:#000;}. 68 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 7 |=. p<{color:#000;}. No More Hiding |=. p<{color:#000;}. 76 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 8 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Master Fasil |=. p<{color:#000;}. 87 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 9 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Bird, the Horse and a Demon |=. p<{color:#000;}. 102 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 10 |=. p<{color:#000;}. A Thief in the Night |=. p<{color:#000;}. 109 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 11 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Stranger on the Road |=. p<{color:#000;}. 123 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 12 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Slaughter |=. p<{color:#000;}. 134 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 13 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Begin Again |=. p<{color:#000;}. 140 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 14 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Pieces of Emquin |=. p<{color:#000;}. 150 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 15 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Riverboat |=. p<{color:#000;}. 163 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 16 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Help Me, Little Bird |=. p<{color:#000;}. 173 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 17 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Changing Minds |=. p<{color:#000;}. 185 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 18 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Disembodiment |=. p<{color:#000;}. 193 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 19 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Cold Wood |=. p<{color:#000;}. 203 | =. |=. p<{color:#000;}. 20 |=. p<{color:#000;}. A Way Out |=. p<{color:#000;}. 216 | =. |=. p<{color:#000;}. 21 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Drink |=. p<{color:#000;}. 229 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 22 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Soulless |=. p<{color:#000;}. 243 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 23 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Truth Won’t Set You Free |=. p<{color:#000;}. 253 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 24 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Ice |=. p<{color:#000;}. 260 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 25 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Then There Was War |=. p<{color:#000;}. 268 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 26 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Ethereal Loathing |=. p<{color:#000;}. 282 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 27 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Underground |=. p<{color:#000;}. 296 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 28 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Thaw |=. p<{color:#000;}. 303 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 29 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Departure |=. p<{color:#000;}. 314

 

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Prologue

Unfortunately

 

 

Bright streaks of lightning revealed a sky filled with dark clouds that rumbled malevolently. Baen Geld turned away from the fearsome sight and determinedly pulled down the latch on the barn doors. The horses would be safe enough in there. The cattle would have to fend for themselves in the fields.

‘Urelie,’ Baen called as he hurried toward the small farmhouse he shared with his wife and son. He didn’t want to leave them alone too long. Baen was well aware of Ilgrin’s fear of storms and knew just how great a handful his son could be when frightened.

The boy was not truly theirs . . . not by birth. And at the tender age of six, he harboured the strength of a full grown man.

‘Daddy!’ Ilgrin’s voice cried shrilly from the doorway.

After that everything passed by in a blur. Lightning struck a tree just strides from the door and a deafeningly loud crack tore through the night. With his eyes locked on Baen, Ilgrin shrieked in terror and fled toward the closest safe haven he knew: his father.

‘Ilgrin, no!’ Urelie cried as the boy thrust himself into the night. She leapt after him to snatch at his wrist, but Urelie’s strength was futile against his. The tree that’d been struck just moments earlier moaned, its tortured trunk beginning to fold. Urelie threw her weight into the middle of Ilgrin’s back and sent him stumbling out of the way as the great tree completed its journey to the sodden earth.

‘Ilgrin!’ Baen called into the darkness, the once steady stream of lightning having momentarily ceased. ‘Ilgrin,’ he beckoned again, moving unsteadily with outstretched arms.

‘Daddy?’ the boy whimpered, wrapping his arms around Baen’s legs from his place in the mud.

‘Get into the house,’ Baen ordered weakly.

‘I’m scared,’ Ilgrin moaned, the sound bearing a more similar likeness to an animal than that of a human.

‘Get back inside!’ Baen projected firmly and doubled his efforts in escaping the boy’s iron grip. At last, Ilgrin did as he was told.

‘Urelie?’ Baen asked tentatively. He didn’t need to wait long for an answer, but it did not come from his wife. A bright flash of lightning revealed Urelie’s form crushed beneath the fallen tree. ‘No!’ Baen’s breath caught as he hurried to her side, the image of her mangled corpse ingrained on his memory forever. He pleaded the Ways that he’d been mistaken. Surely he hadn’t seen what he’d thought.

‘Urelie?’ Baen dropped to his knees and cupped her face in his hands. But there was no mistake. The tree had pinned Urelie’s torso to the earth. Her eyes were open, glassy in death.

A deep moan rumbled free of Baen’s chest as the realisation struck that his wife was beyond help. He howled, both enraged and destroyed. Baen leapt to his feet, wrapped his arms around the tree and used all his strength to free her body.

‘Daddy,’ Ilgrin’s voice echoed fearfully, as Baen huddled over his wife. He ignored the boy, instead closing his eyes and caressing her face.

‘Don’t be gone,’ he wept regretfully. ‘Don’t leave me alone with him.’

‘Daddy?’ Ilgrin squeaked. ‘What’s Mummy doing?’

‘This is your fault!’ Baen shouted. Overcome by pain, he lost all restraint. ‘You killed her!’ He glared at the boy, hating him. And why shouldn’t he? Baen gritted his teeth. The boy was not theirs. They’d pitied the creature. That was all. He glared at Ilgrin, remembering not for the first time what he really was.

The demon child stood silhouetted in the doorway, the light behind him blacking out his features and exacerbating his outline. Although his stature was small, his leathery wings arched wide from his shoulders and even the darkness of night failed to diminish the obscenity of his pasty white flesh. Ilgrin clamped his hands over his cheeks, bent his knees and screamed piercingly. It was a sound no human child could produce, a sound that chilled Baen to his core.

‘Mummy?’ The boy leapt through the doorway, his wings quivering, occasionally causing his toes to lift away from the earth. ‘No, no!’ he howled, gripping his mother’s hand. ‘Not my mummy!’

‘I’m sorry.’ Baen swallowed heavily, his heart softening. ‘I’m so sorry.’ He wrapped the boy in his arms, only to be hurled backward into the mud.

‘There’s no time,’ Ilgrin whimpered. ‘She’ll be gone soon.’

‘What’re you doing?’ Baen’s eyes were wide with alarm as he squirmed through the sludge to reach his son.

‘There’s no time,’ Ilgrin wailed, evading Baen’s grip. ‘I won’t let her go. I won’t! She’s not really dead,’ the boy mumbled, resting one pallid hand on his mother’s cheek before placing the other atop her stomach.

A flash of lightning brought Baen’s surroundings to the brightness of day. He gasped and recoiled at the sight before him as the world plunged back into darkness, a fearsome rumble vibrating the air. Had her hand twitched? Just for a moment? Did he dare hope?

‘Get away,’ Baen called, but the voice he heard was weak and noncommittal. ‘Please,’ he hissed, but the sound was barely audible.

‘Don’t go,’ Ilgrin whispered as he rocked back and forth over his mother. ‘You can’t go.’

‘Don’t do this,’ Baen croaked. ‘Oh, Maker, forgive him,’ he pleaded as he listened to Urelie’s bones snapping back into place and rearranging themselves into order.

Another flash of lightning revealed Urelie’s chest as it began to swell, the gash on her face likewise melting away. Baen’s throat felt as though it were filled with sand. He needed to stop the boy, but wasn’t it too late? Urelie was on the brink of being returned to life. Surely he’d waited too long. Shouldn’t he just let the demon finish his work?

‘Stop,’ Baen rasped, a waste of breath amongst ferocious wind. He was simultaneously paralysed by fear, hope, and repulsion. Baen was weak and for that he loathed himself. But, Maker forsake him, this was his wife.

How could Ilgrin have known? Baen and Urelie had done everything in their power to prevent him learning of such repulsive evils. They’d long ago destroyed every bit of literature on silts they could find, refusing to risk the chance of Ilgrin discovering his powers of resurrection. But clearly . . . somehow . . . they’d failed.

Urelie’s body jerked violently and she moaned loudly. Her arm twisted sideways and snapped into place. Her shoulder crunched forward and her head snapped back. She cried out and sat up glancing about herself in confusion. Baen knew what was coming. The cost of resurrection would not take long to reveal itself.

Ilgrin pulled his hands away and fell back, head hanging with exhaustion.

‘What—?’ Urelie began to ask, but her eyes widened in a display of discomfort and she began scratching her arms feverishly. The dim glow from the lanterns inside the house revealed panic rippling across her features. ‘In Maker’s name, what have you done?’ she choked out before the sound was cut off by a fit of coughing and wheezing.

Urelie stumbled to her feet, spluttering and gasping, gagging and choking. Why wasn’t it coming? Baen felt the panic rising in his chest. Surely it felt the call to freedom. Baen had never himself seen one before, but he’d heard that they were supposed to start exiting the body before the resurrection was even completed.

‘Get it out,’ Urelie shrieked. Her eyes were wide with panic. ‘Get out!’ She clawed at her neck and yanked at her clothes. She bent over and vomited, at last finding relief. But the substance pouring forth was not the liquid one might ordinarily expect from a person fallen ill.

Thick darkness poured from Urelie’s lips as she cradled her stomach and heaved gutturally in the grass. The darkness, blacker than night, poured toward the earth, but immediately wafted back into the air, a mist thicker than smoke. Baen stumbled away as the whisp moved past. It horrified him, its formlessness as hideous as the destruction it would no doubt cause.

The whisp squeezed from Urelie’s eyes and drained out through her nostrils. It spiralled away from her flesh, seeking escape by any means possible. It continued coming, seemingly endless. On and on, the dark cloud erupted—until, quite suddenly, it stopped. Urelie fell to the wet earth, sobbing as the black mist oozed silently into the night.

*

 

Having come from such a very small boy for such a very beautiful reason, the whisp radiated especially thick darkness from its frozen core. It danced joyously—almost playfully—in the late southern breeze, its destination a secret to all but itself.

Towns and villages filled with the vulnerable forms of sleeping humans passed by below. Any one of them would’ve been suitable recompense for the life returned just moments earlier, but the whisp ignored them all. The misty darkness resisted temptation, pursuing a more meaningful reward rather than instant gratification.

Many hours later, the whisp was faced with internal conflict. Some of the darkness pulled forcefully toward the sleeping world below. The Ways demanded recompense for a gift so crudely granted, but the greater portion of the whisp refused, intent on a loftier sacrifice. The strain became too much and the cloud split apart, the smaller portion churning violently toward the earth.

Through the stillness of night, the whisp crept silently along a road in the budding town of Elmsville. It whispered around street lanterns and slithered past shopfronts. It tickled the flowers on street corners and took pleasure in their wilting. The whisp came to a shuddering stop.

A small house stood before the dark mist, the building somehow having drawn it close. It surged toward the cottage and drifted over the rooftop, captivated. She was inside. She understood the Ways. What better reward could there be?

The whisp sunk through the ceiling and into a modest bedroom where a middle-aged couple lay blissfully ignorant, reading together in bed.

‘Good night, love,’ the man whispered and kissed his wife on the cheek. ‘I’d best get some sleep. We have a big day in the shop tomorrow.’

‘All right.’ The woman smiled. ‘I’m going to—’ She stopped abruptly and her features became still.

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing,’ she replied, glancing nervously about the room. ‘You go to sleep. I’ll just check on Seteal.’ She chuckled softly upon realising her husband had already fallen asleep.

The whisp sank into the shadows, excitement building. She’d felt it . . . just for a moment. She understood the Ways.

After abandoning the illusion of safety provided by her bed, the woman padded along a quiet hallway guided by no more than lantern light. The whisp remained silent as it slithered insidiously along the ceiling behind her. Having reached the corner at the end of the hall, the woman stopped and gazed adoringly at her daughter bundled up in bed.

‘I love you, Seteal,’ she whispered softly.

Stifling a yawn, the woman turned to go back to her room. Her foot landed heavily on the floorboards. The world twisted ever so slightly. The flooring moaned regret. And the black mist enveloped her. It touched her soul, leaving no time to gasp as the chill whispered its suffocating song.

The woman winced as bitter sorrow filled her heart. She knew what this was and yet she’d failed to sense it. Had she truly been so long away from her people? She wanted to scream, but could not. She knew this was her end. The clammy vapour sliced deep into her flesh and immediately her soul was cut out. The woman was dead before her body reached the floor.

The child in the next room sat bolt upright, her high-pitched scream tearing through the night. Whether she’d heard her mother collapse, or whether she’d simply known of its happening will forever be unclear, but the girl cried continuously and mournfully. The sound was deep and tormented. It was a sound that represented a kind of pain that should never be felt by a child so young.

The circle had begun to turn.

 

*

 

Its sister having taken human life created a sense of ease in the remaining portion of the whisp and its darkly clad journey all but simmered to a stop. Life was granted to the dead only if another was made to pay the debt. After all, life and death always had to remain in balance. The Ways demanded such justice. The dark haze meandered about the skies for some thirteen years before finally billowing through the treetops into the place marked out by man as Narvon Wood.

A small bird known by many in the region as an elf owl lifted into the air, beating her wings in anticipation for the night’s hunt. After having been created through such meaningful salvation, why the whisp chose such an insignificant target would forever remain a mystery. Perhaps it chose the owl because it had tired over the years. Perhaps it sought out the small animal through fear of its own inevitable demise. Either way, it was within the little bird’s soul that the darkness took its hold.

With its limited capacity, the owl could not understand from where the chill had come, nor why the cold spread so relentlessly throughout her body. Mind and instincts all but destroyed, the bird lost track of where she was and that she had a family awaiting her return. All the same, her body continued to function and, as such, the egg that’d been forming within her awaited being lain.

After a clumsy landing, the elf owl shuffled through the leaf-litter carpeting the forest floor and produced a perfectly black egg among the protective roots of an old tree. The bird opened her wings, the cold night beckoning her return, but the whisp within her died and, with it, so did she.

In the weeks that followed, the animals of Narvon Wood strayed increasingly far to avoid the base of that old tree. The surrounding foliage died and soon after rotted away, leaving a clearing in which nothing was able to live. Perhaps the dark and pervasive omen had been intended as a curse. Perhaps it was divine intervention for that which was yet to come. Or perhaps, as was so often the case, its creation was simply a grand coincidence of neither intention nor design. The clearing was a place where sunlight seemed dull, the egg becoming indefinable among the shadows that lulled across its surface.

Despite the lack of maternal warmth, when the time was due, the egg began to hatch, a tiny beak pipping its way tirelessly through the surface. The shell emitted a foul odour as it splintered to reveal the pathetic bit of flesh that came from within. The owlet’s appearance was deceptively similar to that of any other newborn of its kind. The bird opened its beak and called for a mother who’d long since become little more than dust and bones. It gaped for many hours but was graced by neither nourishment nor attention. Just as the young bird grew too weak to hold its head aloft, an unlikely guest appeared at the other side of the clearing.

The plump rat bristled fearfully as it approached the weakened owlet. Within its crooked teeth, it carried the still warm corpse of its own young. It laid down the body cautiously in the dirt and proceeded to tear off pieces of flesh and place them within the awaiting gullet of the hatchling. Having fed the bird to contentment, the rat curled up beside it, offering warmth throughout the night. Upon awakening, it scampered away without a backward glance.

The next visitor slithered equally as hesitantly into the clearing. Ordinarily, one would assume that the arrival of a serpent could only indicate ill intent, but again the visitor merely offered the owlet pieces of flesh torn from its kin.

In the days that followed, a variety of animals approached the bird, each providing food and warmth until the day came when the owlet was due to leave his place between the roots of the old tree. He’d gained much knowledge as he’d grown. He’d noticed that the tree was entirely black at the base where he’d spent so much time and that the wind seldom touched a single leaf.

Although he hadn’t realised it yet, the young owl was quite unlike other woodland animals. The bird ruffled his feathers and practiced beating his wings. He spotted a cricket on a nearby tree, leapt forward, and snatched it up within his clumsy talons. The elf owl no longer required the services of the animals of Narvon Wood, and oddly enough, they stopped coming.

 

Genesis 1

 

1. In the beginning Maker created Hae’Evun and the earth.

 

20. And Maker said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of the sky.

21. And Maker created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after their kind: and Maker saw that it was good.

 

24. And Maker said, Let the earth bring forth the living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind: and it was so.

 

26. And Maker said, Let us make man in our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

27. And Maker blessed them, and Maker said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it. And Maker let silts have dominion over all that He had created as guardians of man.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER One

Actions and Reactions

 

 

 

Today. Seteal’s eyes burst open. She leapt out of bed, stumbled across the room, slammed face-first into her wardrobe, hit the floor, and threw up. Lifting her chin, she paused for a moment to examine the strange carvings on the wooden door. Her father had constructed the wardrobe many years earlier, but she’d always found the images confusing. There was an ocean, frozen in time with people standing fearlessly beneath huge waves as if they too knew that the waters were incapable of crashing down.

‘For Maker’s sake,’ Seteal muttered before hurrying out of the room to find a cloth. After collecting one from the next room, she cleaned up the mess and got dressed.

‘Is that you thumping about up there, Seteal?’ Gifn called from downstairs.

‘No!’ Seteal shouted back to her father. Who did he expect it was? No one else lived there.

‘I’ve made breakfast,’ he announced.

‘I’m not hungry,’ Seteal replied. The last thing she wanted to do was have breakfast with that man. Not after last night.

After straightening out her bright yellow dress, Seteal made her way to the bedroom window and gazed out over the town. The house in front of theirs was all on one level, which allowed her to see the town centre beyond. It was early . . . too early for Seteal to be up, really, but she’d been unable to sleep lately on account of some rather disturbing dreams.

Seteal was able to see the future. Well . . . sometimes. Maybe. She was confused. Perhaps she was simply losing her mind. Throughout life she’d suddenly just know something was about to happen—sometimes only moments in advance, sometimes days. She didn’t always know what the event was, just that it would happen. Even to Seteal that sounded crazy. But it wasn’t.

She’d only ever known such things occasionally and it’d never impacted on her life too negatively. But lately things had been different. And today was the day. That was why she had been sick. She didn’t know what it was, but she’d known it was coming for well over a year. Every now and then, she’d freeze with the abrupt and somewhat forceful realisation that it’d gotten closer. Or maybe she was just a bored, small town girl making up childish fantasies to take her mind off what her father was up to.

With a tired sigh, Seteal headed downstairs to join Gifn in the kitchen. ‘Morning,’ she grumbled.

‘Morning,’ Gifn replied with an equal lack of enthusiasm. ‘You didn’t have to be so rude last night, you know?’

‘Really?’ Seteal rolled her eyes. ‘You want to start this early in the morning?’

‘What’s wrong with the boy?’ Gifn said indignantly. ‘He comes from a wealthy family and he’s actually quite a nice young man. You could do a lot worse.’

‘All right.’ Seteal exhaled softly. ‘We’re actually doing this. Fine. I—don’t—want—to—get—married. Do you understand me?’

‘Come now, Seteal. You finished school three years ago,’ Gifn insisted. ‘You can’t help out in the shop forever . . . and I won’t be here forever. You need someone who can take care of you.’

‘I can take care of myself,’ Seteal snapped. ‘I’ll run the business alone if I have to.

‘You’re a woman.’ Gifn chuckled before his face crumbled at the realisation that he should’ve kept such a comment to himself. ‘I mean to say: carpentry is heavy work.’

‘It’s work that you know I’m far more capable of handling than any of the men you’ve hired in the past.’ Seteal put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes accusingly.

‘I just don’t see why you’re so hostile to the idea of at least meeting some of these young men,’ Gifn intercepted, guiding the conversation back on course. ‘Most girls would be giddy with excitement at your age.’

Seteal stared at her father stonily. He couldn’t possibly be so dim. Surely he was trying to fool himself by denying what he must already know on some level, at least. She felt like shouting it at him, but couldn’t be so cruel. It would crush him. It wasn’t fair, but that was the world they lived in.

‘I’ve just met so many lately,’ Seteal stated, taking pity on her father’s desperation. ‘I’m tired of not finding the right person.’

‘Well.’ Gifn clapped his hands enthusiastically, relief and elation dancing across his features. ‘I’ve got just the man for you! He’s not the wealthiest in town, but he’s intelligent and handsome. I’ve arranged a meeting for tonight.’

‘No—enough!’ Seteal’s long-suppressed anger boiled to the surface. ‘For Maker’s sake, I’m trying to make this easy on you, but you keep throwing it back in my face. I don’t want to meet a man, any man, ever. Get it? I’m not interested in men.’

‘What’re you saying?’ Gifn’s face fell, making it obvious that he didn’t truly want the answer to his question.

‘I . . .’ Seteal slumped, once again softened by her father’s distress. He was old fashioned and alone. She was all he had. ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about tonight, that’s all.’

‘What kind of feeling?’ Gifn asked warily, clamping his hands over Seteal’s shoulders.

‘I don’t know.’ Seteal looked up at him awkwardly. ‘A feeling.’

‘What kind of feeling?’ Gifn repeated more firmly. ‘What does the feeling feel like?’

‘What does the feeling feel like?’ Seteal’s face creased in consternation. ‘What kind of a question is that? It feels like a feeling. The feeling feels like a feeling!’

‘Are you sure that it doesn’t feel like it’s not your feeling, but you’re feeling it anyway?’

‘What the torrid?’ Seteal got up from the table and stepped away to stare at anything other than Gifn’s eyes, all the while doing her best to remain calm. Her father had described exactly what it felt like when she felt the future. It was as though she knew something, but the knowledge was not her own. Rather, the thoughts seemed to have been inserted into her head from somewhere else. ‘I’m just not feeling very sociable.’ Seteal forced a laugh.

Why was he behaving this way? Had he figured it out? But how could he have possibly done so?

‘Well, all right, then.’ Gifn squeezed her shoulder and headed toward the sink, where he resumed drying the dishes. ‘You’d tell me if anything was the matter, wouldn’t you?’

‘At the moment . . .’ Seteal half-smiled. ‘I can guarantee that you’re the only thing bothering me.’

‘There it is.’ Gifn’s face split into a broad smile in recognition of Seteal’s. ‘I haven’t seen one of those in a while.’

‘Didn’t you say you had some breakfast for me?’ Seteal asked. She often found herself feeling awkward when her father behaved affectionately. She didn’t know how to respond. It was just a smile. Why did parents get so excited over such expressions? Everyone smiled. It was nothing special.

‘Oh dear,’ Gifn teased, ‘did I embarrass you?’

‘Just give me my breakfast.’ Seteal grinned wryly. Having spotted it on the counter, she pushed past her father, snatched up the plate, and took it to the table. ‘Thanks,’ she said through a mouthful of bread, sending crumbs spraying everywhere.

‘You’re going to clean that up.’ Gifn nodded at the breadcrumb explosion.

‘Yesh,’ Seteal tried to say, but only succeeded in sending more crumbs spraying across the table.

‘You just focus on eating.’ Gifn gestured patiently. ‘We chew, swallow, and then talk. Maker, it’s moments like these that I really miss your mother. She would’ve taught you some manners.’

Silence filled the room and Seteal lost her appetite. She put down the bread and dusted off her hands. Gifn occasionally reminisced over Jillian, but aside from a few dusty memories, Seteal had nothing to add to the conversation. And for that she was bitterly resentful.

‘I’m sorry, darling,’ Gifn began to apologise, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. ‘I wonder who that could be?’ He marched over and pulled it open. ‘You,’ he gasped.

‘Mister Eltari,’ a deep, commanding voice intoned.

Gifn slammed the door and put his weight against it. ‘Get out of here,’ he hissed at Seteal.

‘What’s going on?’ She moved around the table, curiosity driving her forward.

‘Listen very carefully.’ Gifn’s tone was one of disbelief and his eyes showed greater fear than Seteal had ever seen in them. ‘Go through the back. Don’t let anyone see you and run as fast as you can. I’ll try to keep them occupied.’

‘Come now, Gifn,’ the strong, elderly voice called through the door. ‘Must it really be this way?’

‘What do you want?’

‘I simply wish to speak to Miss Eltari,’ the voice replied.

‘No,’ Gifn responded without hesitation. ‘You can’t have her. You should leave.’

‘Father,’ Seteal gasped. ‘You’re being rude.’

‘Must you be so difficult?’ the voice enquired regretfully. ‘You well know that I needn’t be so courteous in getting my way. And you are beginning to test my patience.’

‘No . . . no,’ Gifn’s breaths became ragged. ‘Seteal . . . please, if you’re going to listen to me just once in your life, you need to get out of here now!’

‘I’m going.’ Seteal snapped out of her shock and swept toward the back door. She’d never seen her father in such a state, but knew that anyone capable of inducing such fear in a man so strong could only be incredibly dangerous. ‘Be careful,’ she called.

Seteal yanked open the back door as the one in the front swung open behind her. ‘Father!’ She spun and froze at the sight before her.

Gifn stood calmly beside the door with a disturbingly large smile plastered across his face. ‘Come back, darling,’ he said woodenly. ‘It’s safe now.’

‘Father?’ Seteal murmured, tentatively releasing the handle to take a step in his direction.

An elderly man stepped inside followed closely by a woman of similar age to Seteal. The strangers were the definition of contrast. The old man was dressed in a white robe with a dark blue collar and cuffs. The young woman was dressed in a flowing, deep red dress that seemed perfectly cut for her slender and beautifully proportioned body. The man was tall, with a long flowing beard and white hair, his skin leathery and ancient. The woman had hair as black as pitch, which framed a pale face without a single blemish. In fact, there was really only one thing that the pair had in common and that was their eyes.

The old man searched the room with deep blue eyes centred by white pupils until they came to rest on Seteal.

‘Your eyes,’ she choked out.

‘Come here,’ Gifn intoned, lifting a heavy hand. ‘Come meet the kind people.’

‘That’s enough, El-i-miir,’ the old man said sternly. ‘Put him in the corner.’

‘Certainly, Gil’rei,’ El-i-miir replied, her hand twitching dismissively. Gifn wandered to the corner of the room and stopped, his head resting against the wall.

‘What’ve you done to him?’ Seteal cried. She snatched up a bread knife and hurried across the room.

‘Stop.’ El-i-miir’s eyes flashed, white pupils burrowing into Seteal’s soul. Although she couldn’t explain why, Seteal froze in place, her fingers unfurling to drop the knife.

The old man chuckled. ‘What were you going to do, butter me?’

‘I . . . I . . .’ Seteal’s jaw worked but she couldn’t figure out which words to say.

‘All right.’ The imposter nodded. ‘I’ve seen enough. El-i-miir, my dear . . . if you’d be so kind. My will isn’t quite what it used to be.’

‘Of course.’ Concentration caused the woman’s soft features to crease. She looked into Seteal’s eyes and whispered, ‘Sleep.’ And that was exactly what Seteal did.

 

*

 

Seteal drifted, disembodied, through the woods. A ramshackle building, overgrown with weeds and foliage, appeared before her. Inside the building, a young woman slept on a dilapidated bed. Her head rested without a pillow and an old blanket had been thrown over her without too much care. The young woman had a small frame. Her hair was a boring brunette and her features were nothing outside of the ordinary. Although the woman’s eyelids were shut, Seteal knew that behind them sat radiantly coloured hazel eyes, one of her few redeeming features. Seteal knew this because the woman was her.

Opening her eyes, she glanced about her surroundings. Seteal was inside a run-down building that bore a striking resemblance to the one in her dream. The paint was peeling from the walls and large cracks had formed, through which plant life worked tirelessly to get inside. The only pieces of furniture were the bed in which Seteal rested and a wooden chair beside it. There, the peculiar old man was perched patiently, his features revealing an oddly familiar expression.

‘You’re awake,’ he announced. ‘You’re a determined little thing, aren’t you?’

‘Where am I?’ Seteal pushed herself upright, only to collapse beneath a heavy wave of exhaustion.

‘Give yourself time, girl,’ the man urged, leaning forward concernedly. ‘Artificial sleep can be rather deep. Just wait a moment or two and you’ll feel much better.’

Seteal nodded automatically and rested her head. Ordinarily she’d have fought violently to escape such a situation, but the exhaustion was overwhelming.

‘My name is Gil’rei Far-a-mael.’ The man stroked his white beard. ‘But you should address me as Gil’rei. When you’ve rested a little, come and join me in the next room. We have much to discuss.’ With surprising agility, Far-a-mael swept toward the door and closed it behind him.

Seteal stared at the sunken ceiling, curling and uncurling her fingers. Her head felt clouded, even peaceful. It was frustrating. A part of her mind was screaming in the distance. Peace was the last thing she should’ve been feeling. Seteal was in grave danger.

With a soft moan, she put her bare feet on the floorboards and felt about until she found her boots. When standing proved not to be too much of a challenge, Seteal made her way to the door and turned the handle silently. It wasn’t locked. She pushed it open and entered the next room.

‘For the love of Maker!’ Far-a-mael exclaimed from his place at a large table. ‘I told you to rest.’

‘I’m fine.’ Seteal shook her head, her senses slowly returning. ‘Where have you taken me? What do you want from me?’

‘All in good time.’ Keeping his peculiar white pupils fixed on Seteal, Far-a-mael gestured toward the only remaining chair. ‘Sit down. I won’t bite.’

‘What did you do to my father?’ Seteal put a hand over her mouth, memories flooding her with fear. ‘You . . . you need to take me home.’

‘Sit,’ Far-a-mael repeated.

‘Yes, Gil’rei,’ Seteal murmured, having felt an overwhelming compulsion to do as he’d ordered.

‘First of all.’ Far-a-mael rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward. ‘El-i-miir and myself are Elglair, in case you hadn’t yet worked that out.’

‘Elglair? You’re from the Frozen Lands?’ Seteal’s eyes widened in astonishment. ‘I didn’t think your sort ever travelled this far south.’

‘We avoid it whenever we can.’ Far-a-mael looked about the room disdainfully. ‘I was sent here on important business: the business of collecting you.’

‘Collecting me?’ Seteal narrowed her eyes irritably. ‘I’m not a possession. What reasonable explanation could you have for abducting me?’

‘We didn’t want to abduct you, you silly little girl.’ Far-a-mael waved his hand dismissively. ‘Your father resisted us. He left us little alternative.’

‘And that’s how you get your way, is it?’ Seteal said disdainfully and stood up so forcefully that her chair struck the wall. ‘You just kidnap people when they don’t do as they’re told? Well, I’ve never come across anyone so despicable.’

‘Be careful, child,’ Far-a-mael cautioned, planting his hands firmly on the table as he rose to his feet. ‘Sit down and I’ll explain.’

‘Child?’ Seteal spat furiously. ‘I’m hardly a child. How dare you treat me like one.’

‘You are a child,’ Far-a-mael chuckled mirthlessly. ‘How old are you, eighteen?’

‘Nineteen.’ The defiance was clear in Seteal’s voice.

‘Dear girl.’ Far-a-mael laughed aloud, ‘I very recently celebrated my one hundred and seventy-fourth birthday. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a child.’

‘That’s impossible,’ Seteal said, slowly retaking her seat. ‘No one lives that long.’

‘If you knew anything about the Elglair, you’d know that we’re notoriously long-lived,’ Far-a-mael said calmly as he too sat back down. ‘And, of course, that brings us back to the matter at hand.’

‘Go on, then,’ Seteal encouraged, thrown off-balance by the man’s age. ‘What’s your excuse for turning my father into a sock puppet and taking me from my home?’

‘We know, Seteal.’ Far-a-mael looked her in the eye. ‘We know about you.’

‘You know what?’

‘Don’t be coy,’ Far-a-mael cautioned. ‘You’ve touched the Ways. You’ve experienced the knowing.’

Seteal fidgeted uncomfortably. ‘I’m not sure what you mean.’

‘The Way of things,’ Far-a-mael murmured. ‘You know the Way of the future.’

‘Nonsense.’ Seteal rocked back in her chair. She didn’t know why it was so important to keep her secret, but these people had strayed far from gaining her trust. ‘I’m just an ordinary girl from a small town.’

‘You’re half Elglair,’ Far-a-mael stated without emotion, although his face betrayed him, revealing disgust. ‘I knew your mother very well, so you needn’t bother denying it.’

‘You knew my mother? She wasn’t Elglair. I’d have known,’ Seteal finished with more certainty than she felt. Did she remember a similar set of strange eyes in some distant memory? Had white pupils once served as a comfort as they watched her fall asleep?

‘Jil-e-an,’ Far-a-mael appeared to lose his composure, if only for a moment as the name rolled off his tongue. His eyes became focused on something far away and long ago. ‘That foolish girl. She could’ve had it all. Instead she ran away with an outlander.’ Far-a-mael’s face bore an expression of undisguised repulsion. ‘Your father.’

‘But Father would’ve told me.’ Seteal gripped the table. ‘That’s not even how we pronounce mother’s name.’

‘Of course Gifn didn’t tell you.’ Far-a-mael stared at her pityingly. ‘What would a strong spirited young lady such as yourself be likely to do had she found out the truth?’

‘I’d have travelled to the Frozen Lands to find out more about my mother,’ Seteal replied hesitantly.

‘And what would any sensible outlander not want his daughter to do?’

‘You’ve made your point.’ Seteal raised her eyebrows. ‘Still, I refuse to believe that I’m half Elglair. My eyes are normal and mother’s name was Jillian.’

‘Normal?’ Far-a-mael chuckled. ‘Normalcy depends merely on where you come from, my dear. In any case, with mixed race relationships, the Elglair eye is always the first thing to fade. The darkness of the outlander pupil pollutes the white and overwhelms it. As for your mother’s name, it’s likely she modified the spelling and changed the pronunciation to better fit in amongst outlanders.’

Seteal leaned back thoughtfully and stared at the entrance in time to see El-i-miir come inside. ‘I’ve tied up the horses and given them water, Gil’rei,’ the young woman murmured with a kind of forced respect.

‘Very good.’ Far-a-mael waved his hand to dismiss her.

‘So why did you take me by force . . . or at all?’ Seteal raised the constantly nagging question. ‘What do you intend to do with me?’

‘What do we intend to do with you?’ Far-a-mael behaved as though the question surprised him. ‘The question would be better put, what do you intend to do with you?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘There is a grave problem that arises for half-caste Elgair.’ Far-a-mael’s tone became serious. ‘You lack the natural instincts required to control your connection to the Ways and without special training they will overwhelm and kill you. It’s really only a matter of time.’

‘Maker,’ Seteal gasped. ‘But I feel fine.’

‘Of course you do.’ The elderly man shrugged. ‘But surely you’ve noticed an increase in the frequency and severity of your episodes?’

‘I suppose.’ Seteal frowned and crossed her arms.

‘Then your connection is getting stronger,’ Far-a-mael urged. ‘It must be restrained.’

El-i-miir made a sound of contempt, headed back outside and slammed the door behind her. ‘Is she okay?’ Seteal asked.

‘Never mind her,’ Far-a-mael replied calmly, but his eyes defied him, burning furiously after the woman. ‘She is an insolent child.’

‘So why do you care about me?’ Seteal asked suspiciously.

‘What do you mean?’

‘From what I’ve read, the Elglair don’t much care for outsiders and even less so for half-castes,’ Seteal said quizzically. ‘Why would you bother coming for me? What’s in it for you?’

Far-a-mael seemed surprised by this, sitting back forcibly. ‘Well . . . you’re very powerful. The silver glass—’

‘What’s that?’ Seteal cut him off.

‘What’s what?’

‘The silver glass.’

‘It’s rather hard to explain.’ Far-a-mael scratched his chin through his beard. ‘It’s not particularly relevant, but I suppose it couldn’t hurt to tell you. It’s much like a standing mirror, but instead of your reflection it shows the outline of places or people in distant locations. We’re not quite sure how it works, as it’s quite an ancient artefact, but wherever there is a decent breeze, the silver glass provides the viewer with an image. One day, you simply popped up before me and I realised who you were and how much potential you had.’

‘Potential for what?’

‘Whatever you want.’ Far-a-mael shrugged. ‘The point is, you took my interest enough that I refused to let you slip away and die. You should be grateful. By torrid, girl, I’ve come to save your life!’

‘All right.’ Seteal nodded, finally coming to accept the old man’s story. After all, she had seen the future on many occasions and his explanation was reasonable. Even her kidnapping—in a way—she’d sensed coming. ‘What do I need to know to stop it?’

‘Oh, dear.’ Far-a-mael slapped his knee and burst out laughing. ‘You want me to tell you right now?’

‘Why not?’ Seteal scowled. ‘Then I can go home and have words with Father as to why he’s kept all this from me.’

‘Dear girl,’ Far-a-mael somewhat startlingly smiled—almost affectionately. ‘It’ll take months of training before you’re fit to return home. I fear your condition has already progressed dangerously far.’

‘What’re you saying?’ Seteal glanced about the room apprehensively. ‘I can’t stay here . . . wherever here is.’

‘Of course not.’ Far-a-mael shook his head. ‘You must come with us to the Frozen Lands where you can be properly trained. El-i-miir will be graduating soon and I’ll be able to give you my undivided attention.’

‘But what about my father?’ Seteal asked.

‘What about him?’

‘I can’t just leave without any explanation.’ Seteal waved her hand in frustration. ‘He needs me. We have a business to tend.’

‘I’m afraid you’ll have to,’ Far-a-mael replied sternly. ‘As it is, we’re running out of time. Never fear, you’ll be able to reach him by letter once we’ve arrived in the Frozen Lands.’

‘By letter?’ Seteal said in alarm. ‘It’ll take weeks to get there! Father will be worried sick. Why couldn’t you just have explained all this at home, rather than knocking me out and kidnapping me?’ Seteal stood up heatedly, now doubting everything the stranger had said. ‘How can I trust you?’

There was a slight pause in which Far-a-mael opened his mouth to respond, but an unrecognisably loud sound tore through the room and stole the words from his lips. Far-a-mael and Seteal stared at each other in silent apprehension when a rumbling thud and a shrill scream pierced the silent night. ‘El-i-miir!’ Far-a-mael’s eyes shone protectively as he threw back his chair and lurched away from the table.

As the old man charged toward the door, the entire wall that housed it exploded, sending dust and debris spraying across the floorboards. Far-a-mael shoved Seteal under the table and turned again to the scene outside.

El-i-miir’s delicate form was crumpled beyond the spot where the door had been moments earlier. A frightening beast shrieked beside her and gnashed its hooked beak menacingly. The creature stood at least three times the height of a man, closely resembling a giant vulture or some deformed bird of prey. The beast ruffled its feathers and shrieked again, its golden eyes fixed on Seteal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Two

In These Woods

 

 

‘Stop!’ Far-a-mael boomed commandingly, both arms stretched out toward the beast. It didn’t listen. Instead, it propelled itself toward the old man on two sharply taloned, scaly legs. The legs reminded Seteal of something, but in that moment she couldn’t pick what. It was something about the toes. They were unusual, with two in the front and two out the back.

Far-a-mael held his ground as long as he dared, before having to leap out of the way as the beast jumped up onto the table. The old timber moaned under the heavy weight, but Seteal wasn’t left too much time to wonder whether it might collapse. The dark yellow beak was before her, the bird-like head upside-down, snapping at her feet.

‘Get away,’ she cried, kicking at its feathery face.

The beast roared and leapt off the table in its renewed efforts of getting underneath. Seteal threw herself out the other side and ran. She could hear the creature struggling to turn around in the confined space and a moment later felt its breath on her neck. She hit the floor and the beak snapped shut.

‘Stop,’ Far-a-mael commanded, his brow covered in sweat. Utter silence filled the room. The man stood over Seteal his hands stretched out toward the beast. ‘You’ll stop this now.’

His tone was more reminiscent of a plea than a command. All the same, the beast stood transfixed, snapping its beak dispassionately. The creature released a sound of irritation and—much to Seteal’s astonishment—began to shrink. Its limbs shrivelled up toward its body and its feathers became less dishevelled. The beast’s eyes became a more dazzling orange and its talons became less menacing. Before long, Seteal found herself staring at a bird no larger than her clenched fist.

‘Oh,’ Seteal gasped in surprise, recognising the bird as an elf owl, a native to the area. The tiny animal stared at her through large eyes. It somehow seemed desperately sad and lingered only long enough to share a strangely mutual look of disbelief, before opening its wings and vanishing amongst trees.

‘El-i-miir,’ Far-a-mael panted as he hurried toward his fallen accomplice. ‘Are you all right?’

‘I’ll be fine,’ El-i-miir replied, shocked but otherwise unharmed.

‘Where did it come from?’ Far-a-mael asked. ‘Weren’t you watching?’

‘It didn’t have an aura,’ El-i-miir sobbed. ‘Why wouldn’t it have an aura?’

‘I’ve heard of this, although seldom come across it.’ Far-a-mael’s expression was one of fear and disbelief.

‘How can it exist?’ El-i-miir winced as she rose to her feet. ‘I couldn’t see it. It just appeared. It was like being as blind as . . . as one of them.’ She pointed at Seteal.

‘It was seeol,’ Far-a-mael replied, his eyes fixed on some distant memory.

‘Seeol,’ El-i-miir murmured through shaking lips.

‘Is someone going to tell me what “seeol” means?’ Seteal put a hand on her hip. ‘Or are you going to keep me guessing all night?’

‘A seeol is something that shouldn’t exist,’ El-i-miir turned to Seteal. ‘That thing has no meaning, no aura, no Way. It is the offspring of a whisp and its very existence is a violation of reality.’

‘Gather the horses,’ Far-a-mael ordered, dusting off his robe and throwing a cloak over his shoulders. ‘We cannot stay here any longer.’

‘It’s too dark to ride,’ El-i-miir replied.

‘Then we’ll lead the horses until morning,’ Far-a-mael insisted. ‘We cannot risk that creature’s return. I don’t think I’ll be able to fight it off a second time and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I did this time. Without an aura, I’ve got no idea whether it responded to me or it transformed according to its own will.’

‘We’re in Narvon Wood,’ Seteal stated, glancing through the foreboding trees.

‘What of it?’ Far-a-mael barked.

‘If we’re going to the Frozen Lands, we’ll have to pass back by Elmsville,’ she said. ‘We can stop and let Father know what’s happening.’

‘Fine,’ Far-a-mael replied, much to Seteal’s and apparently El-i-miir’s surprise.

‘But Gil’rei—’ El-i-miir began to caution, only to be cut off before she could proceed.

‘Shut up and get the horses,’ Far-a-mael snapped. ‘I took the liberty of collecting yours for you,’ he directed at Seteal.

‘You have Darra?’ she asked incredulously. ‘Whatever. When can I see my father?’

‘We should be east of Elmsville by the early hours of the morning,’ Far-a-mael grumbled. ‘If by then you still wish to stop by, I’ll be happy to oblige.’

‘Good.’ Seteal smiled to show her satisfaction, despite feeling a little uneasy about what the old man had said. Why wouldn’t she still want to stop in the morning? What did Far-a-mael think would change her mind in the meantime? And more importantly, why did he want her to?

 

*

 

He clutched the bark beneath his talons. He squeezed it until he felt his claws pop through the surface. He was so angry. He was so sad. What had he done to that poor animal? The elf owl watched the strange beings from his place in the highest branch of a nearby tree, his vision not at all hindered by the dark.

The violent memories were beginning to fade. They always did so rather quickly. The owl was never able to remember all the lives he’d taken as his other self. The memories would fade, but the memories of the memories never did. He couldn’t remember the killing, but he knew what he’d done. He knew he’d extinguished life—not for nourishment, but for pleasure. His other self relished the kill. The evil inside of him fed on ruthless destruction. It thirsted . . . he thirsted. In that form, no greater pleasure could there be found than to rip the heads from other souls and watch their blood pour out. Sometimes he bathed in it. It was delicious.

On returning to his smaller self, he was forced to live with the guilt of what he’d done.

The elf owl watched the strange animals as they gathered their belongings and packed them atop larger, four-legged animals. He’d never encountered anything like them. They were strange and beautiful. And when they communicated, the sounds they made were infinitely more complex than those of any animal he’d met previously. They spoke with gestures, facial expressions, and the audible sounds generated through their mouths. Indeed, they were complex beings.

There’d been a short time during which the elf owl had attempted to live with others of his kind. He’d found a female once and she’d expressed such fear of him that it took a long time to get close. When he was finally able to approach her, he’d discovered her inability to connect with him in any meaningful way.

For a long time, the bird observed other animals, but they were unable or unwilling to interact with him. They ate and mated. They reproduced and raised families. Some killed for food. Others ate grass or leaves. The creatures he’d met undoubtedly formed some rudimentary kind of affection for one another, but the elf owl could never ease his feelings of isolation. No matter how he tried to fit in, he was too unlike the others to do so successfully. This tiny world that appeased the creatures of the woods left him feeling completely and utterly alone.

The owl flittered from tree-top to tree-top, following the animals he’d attacked earlier. After how close he’d come to killing them, he knew that he didn’t deserve their company, but his curiosity got the better of him. Too long he’d endured without stimulation and refused to allow this opportunity to slip from his grasp. An embarrassed part of him danced for joy at the prospect of companionship. Perhaps these animals would be able to communicate with him. Perhaps they would share their ways with him. Perhaps they wouldn’t. But just maybe . . . maybe they’d let him be their friend. He so wanted a friend.

 

*

 

They’d been riding for a long time and Seteal’s lower back hadn’t waited long to start complaining. The fact that it had drizzled all night didn’t help either. She rubbed her hands vigorously. The landscape to the west remained shrouded in darkness, but Seteal knew the area well enough to determine that Elmsville was only a few miles away. Her father would ordinarily be up reading the Holy Tome over breakfast.

Few people read the Tome anymore and even fewer placed any real value in its writings, but Gifn had always believed—or, perhaps, chosen to believe—that the ancient texts were the true word of Maker. Seteal gazed at the woodlands to the east where a gentle morning glow filtered through the branches of hundreds of naked trees.

Exhaustion would’ve long ago driven Seteal to beg for respite, had she not been so determined to show no weakness. The three of them had walked and then ridden many miles throughout the night. Surely that was a great enough feat for anybody. Seteal glanced at El-i-miir and was pleased to find that she too looked weary.

As the sun peeked sleepily over the horizon, Seteal recalled a nursery rhyme her mother had used to sing. It was such vague memories of her mother that led to wondering why her father hadn’t told Seteal the truth . . . if indeed it was the truth. The memories faded and her thoughts became indistinct. Seteal was overwhelmed by emptiness and knew nothing, was nothing . . . and then knew something else. The elf owl was following them.

The knowing fled as abruptly as it occurred. Seteal regained awareness of her surroundings.

‘Far-a-mael,’ she called out to the stooped figure seated atop the leading horse. ‘Or Gil’rei, or Gil, or whatever it is.’

‘Yes?’ He glanced over his shoulder but didn’t slow down.

Seteal had to raise her voice over the wind. ‘We’re being followed by the seeol.’

‘What do you mean?’ The Gil’rei ceased abruptly and spun his horse to face her. ‘Is this a knowing?’

‘I don’t know.’ Seteal shrugged. ‘You’re the ones who call it that, not me. It is what it is. I know it’s following us and that’s all there is to it.’

‘She’s right.’ El-i-miir nodded confirmation, stopping her horse beside Darra. ‘Something is wrong, but it could be anything. How can you tell that it’s the seeol?’

‘I thought you couldn’t sense it?’ Seteal said questioningly.

‘Knowing something is wrong in the Ways and seeing a being’s soul are two very different things.’ Far-a-mael snorted, shaking his head at her ignorance. ‘We cannot know it’s the creature, but we can tell that the Ways have been disturbed. If the seeol is tracking us, as you say, we must make greater haste.’

‘We’re east of Elmsville,’ Seteal reminded the old man of his promise. ‘I have to see my father before we continue.’

Far-a-mael grunted dismissively and turned his horse northward. ‘Perhaps.’

‘You promised,’ Seteal demanded, only to be ignored. ‘Old fool,’ she grumbled and turned her horse westward.

‘Have you no idea what I could teach you if only you’d show a little respect?’ Far-a-mael fixed her beneath his stony expression and set his horse at a trot beside hers. ‘Perhaps I should demonstrate.’

‘Look, I get it,’ Seteal crumbled beneath his glare. ‘You’re in charge and I’m sorry, but I cannot let this rest. I have to see my—’ She gasped as the deepest sorrow wracked her body. She spiralled into a world of darkness. She drifted in the very bowels of torrid, where she burned for all eternity in fiery torment. She mourned as her mother’s death became new, the whisp’s cold hands embracing her. She screamed as her soul shuddered and rippled before snapping into the cruel company of death. Death. The agony bored into Seteal’s heart, ceasing only when she was a quivering mass of tears, her face buried in Darra’s mane.

‘That, I can teach you,’ Far-a-mael stated. ‘Your lessons begin tomorrow.’

‘But my father,’ Seteal rasped, lacking the strength to do much more than hold onto her horse.

‘There’s no time,’ Far-a-mael said with finality.

‘But . . . ’ Seteal whimpered, weakened by his assault.

‘There’s no time,’ Far-a-mael repeated. ‘You simply don’t understand the gravity of your situation. You’re too weak. Invading your aura was far too easy. You’re much further along than I realised. We cannot allow for any more delay. We must return to the Frozen Lands immediately.’

‘But you promised,’ Seteal pleaded. ‘Father will be worried.’ She sounded like a snivelling child, but unable to withstand the weight of sorrow Far-a-mael had injected into her aura, Seteal found herself quite unable to muster up a steadier voice.

‘As I’ve told you before, you’ll be able to reach him by letter once we’ve reached the Frozen Lands,’ Far-a-mael insisted with a condescending shake of his finger. ‘With Mister Eltari’s knowledge of the Elglair, I’m sure he’ll appreciate the urgency of your situation and look forward to seeing you on your return.’

Seteal opened her mouth only to discover that she was too exhausted to speak. Cold and numb, she rested her head and became lost in the rocking motion of her horse.

At midday the travellers stopped to eat some dried mammoth meat, something Seteal had never tried before and was in no hurry to do so again. El-i-miir sat beside her, perhaps hoping to make conversation, but tired and confused as to whether she was a prisoner or a guest of honour, Seteal looked away and stewed on her suspicions.

Warmth tickled the back of Seteal’s neck and slithered along her spine. She remembered the scent of summer and her mother smiling. Her eyes . . . her eyes. Her perfume. Seteal raced through the fields outside with her father. She heard herself giggling and smiled. The sun touched her cheek and with it she felt an eruption of laughter escape her chest. Everything was going to be fine after all. Her father would understand.

Seteal gasped and turned aggressively to face El-i-miir. ‘Cut it out,’ she said through clenched teeth. The cold wind bore into the back of Seteal’s neck and her spine ached against the tree on which she leaned. Her hands were frozen solid. And she was angry.

‘I was just trying to help,’ El-i-miir muttered apologetically as the remaining traces of soothing emotion fled Seteal’s consciousness. ‘You seemed sad.’

‘I am sad,’ Seteal replied irritably. ‘I’m sad because it’s appropriate that I be so. Don’t . . . don’t do that again. You have no right. Stay out of my head.’

‘Fine.’ El-i-miir got to her feet. ‘I was just trying to make you a little more comfortable, but go ahead and feel miserable if that’s what you really want,’ she muttered over her shoulder and walked away.

‘Get up.’ Far-a-mael’s voice shattered Seteal’s dream and her eyes popped open. She’d fallen asleep. ‘It’s coming. We have to go,’ he said urgently.

Seteal hurried over to Darra and hefted herself into the saddle. She had no desire to reencounter the creature they’d met the night before. If that meant riding beyond the point of exhaustion, so be it.

In the hours that followed, Seteal passed the time by looking from Far-a-mael to El-i-miir and back again. The longer the Elglair rode, the grimmer their expressions became. The seeol was closing in.

It was late afternoon when El-i-miir broke the silence. ‘Look,’ she said softly as they approached the halfway point across an open field. Seteal glanced back in the direction from which they’d come and sure enough, there it was.

The elf owl stared at them from its perch atop a tree stump protruding from the long grass. Seteal didn’t have any great knowledge of avian behaviour, but as far as she could tell, the little bird was tired. It was scarcely able to keep its eyes open and had puffed out its feathers in an attempt to keep warm.

‘It’ll need to rest eventually,’ Far-a-mael muttered more to himself than to anyone else. ‘We’ll travel until sunset. It doesn’t look as though it can handle much more.’

Seteal moaned inwardly, identifying with the bird, doubting that she could handle much more either.

Hoping that keeping her mind occupied might help in taking it off the chilled air, Seteal moved her horse next to El-i-miir’s and made an attempt at conversation. ‘So what is it with you?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘You seem so . . . hostile.’ Seteal shrugged. ‘I mean, except for before when you were doing whatever it was you were doing to make me feel better.’

‘It’s not you, Seteal. It’s where you come from and how you came to be here. I was expecting a monster.’ El-i-miir shrugged her shoulders. ‘You’re the child of an illegitimate marriage.’

‘Excuse me?’ Seteal tilted her head defensively. ‘My parents had as much right to marriage as anyone else.’

‘Look, I’m sorry.’ El-i-miir sighed. ‘It’s just wrong. Elglair should be with Elglair and that’s all there is to it.’

Seteal frowned. ‘What a stupid thing to say.’

‘Perhaps you’re right,’ El-i-miir murmured without conviction. ‘I suppose I’m a little biased against you. The way Far-a-mael has been obsessing over you lately, he’s neglected my lessons and I’m falling behind.’

‘Far-a-mael has been obsessing over me?’ Seteal asked.

‘Oh, you have no idea the kind of favours he had to pull to come out here.’ El-i-miir nodded at Far-a-mael’s back.

‘But I’ll die if I’m not trained properly.’ Seteal pulled back in disgust. ‘Your superiors had no objection to that?’

El-i-miir inhaled sharply and cast her eyes toward the earth. ‘Seteal,’ she said after a long pause, ‘you shouldn’t judge people before you get to know them.’

‘I’m sorry?’ Seteal sniffed. ‘You were the one judging me.’

‘Conserve your energy and stop that mindless blathering!’ Far-a-mael shouted back from a little way ahead.

‘Look, just forget I said anything,’ El-i-miir mumbled, moving her horse away from Seteal’s.

At dusk, a road appeared in the distance that Seteal recognised as the one leading from Gor to Beldin. Deciding that the roadside was as good a place as any to make camp, Far-a-mael called for them to stop and Seteal slid gratefully from her saddle. She was cold and hungry. She was miles from home, fearful for her life, and not sure who she could trust. Seteal had never felt more alone and had absolutely no idea of what to do about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Three

Seeol

 

 

Seteal leaned against a log with her knees tucked up beneath her chin. It’d become dark very quickly and she found herself appreciating the large fire burning between herself and the others. Over the top of the cracking flames, Far-a-mael’s eyes shifted restlessly as he studied the surface of a map he’d procured from his bag. The old man’s face displayed its share of wrinkles. Had Seteal not been any wiser, she’d have estimated his age at somewhere in his late sixties. She sat in awe of his true age and couldn’t help but wonder just how long these people lived.

The stars were invisible, dense clouds having rolled in to fill the sky. Seteal glanced over her shoulder at the tent she was expected to share with El-i-miir. She’d always been one for personal space and wasn’t sure how she felt about the arrangement, but was almost certain she had no choice in the matter.

‘Throw the bones in when you’re done,’ Far-a-mael’s voice cut through and violated the soothing sounds of the fire. Seteal looked up to find him staring at her. ‘The last thing we need to do is attract any of the less than desirable night creatures you outlanders keep in these parts.’

Without a word of recognition, Seteal kicked the rabbit bones at her feet into the fire. It was still a mystery to her as to how the Elglair gil had managed to find rabbits to cook in such weather. He’d simply wandered off into the shrubbery and later returned with two of the animals.

‘You should go to sleep early,’ Far-a-mael muttered as he gathered himself together and headed for his tent. ‘You’ll thank yourselves in the morning.’

Moments later, El-i-miir made her way over to Seteal’s side and sat down. She remained quiet for some time, warming her hands over the flames before removing a dark bottle from her fur coat and taking a few deep swallows. ‘Want some?’ She asked with a mischievous grin.

‘What is it?’ Seteal replied, eyeing the bottle uneasily.

‘Whisky.’ The woman chuckled.

‘Where’d you get it?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘I guess not.’ Seteal shrugged, reaching out to take the bottle. ‘I’ve never had this before.’

‘Then take it slowly.’ El-i-miir winked.

Seteal took a sip of the liquid and wrinkled her nose in disgust. ‘It’s gross.’ She handed the bottle back.

El-i-miir nodded. ‘I know.’

‘Then why do you drink it?’ Seteal asked.

‘It feels good.’ El-i-miir shrugged. ‘Makes you happy.’

‘Aren’t you happy?’

El-i-miir spurted some of the liquid out of her mouth and engaged in a coughing fit. ‘I’m stuck with him.’ She nodded toward Far-a-mael’s tent. ‘How could I possibly be happy?’

‘Then why are you here?’ Seteal probed.

‘To take you to the Frozen Lands,’ El-i-miir said as though it should have been obvious.

‘No,’ Seteal replied. ‘That’s why Far-a-mael is here. I’m asking why you’re here.’

‘I’m his rei.’ El-i-miir’s tone was one of astonishment. ‘You know that.’

‘For Maker’s sake!’ Seteal found herself losing patience. ‘Why are you his rei? Why choose to do something you don’t want to do?’

‘Choose?’ El-i-miir narrowed her eyes, her silky black hair tumbling over her shoulder. ‘Who said anything about choice?’

‘But you must be my age at least,’ Seteal stated, refusing to make herself obnoxious enough to ask.

‘Older, actually.’ El-i-miir frowned. ‘I’m twenty-one.’

‘Well?’ Seteal pushed. ‘You’re a grown woman. Why not do as you please?’

El-i-miir let out a sharp laugh before cutting herself short and shushing Seteal, even though it’d been she who made the noise. ‘We have to be quiet, remember?’ She pointed at Far-a-mael’s tent. ‘What were we talking about again?’ She hiccupped.

‘Why can’t you do as you please?’

‘Oh, that’s right,’ El-i-miir slapped her knee none-too-gracefully. ‘I don’t know. That’s just the way it is. Elglair are not considered mature enough to make any major decisions until we’re at least thirty.’

‘Thirty?’ Seteal recoiled.

‘Certainly.’ El-i-miir’s expression became dire. ‘That’s why your mother could never return to the Frozen Lands.’

‘She didn’t want to become a gil?’

‘No,’ El-i-miir replied. ‘She disobeyed her parents. She could have been sent to Vish’el’Tei. That’s why she ran away.’

‘Vish’el’Tei?’

‘North.’ El-i-miir’s eyes filled with fear. ‘North of the Frozen Lands, where the cold is such that nothing survives.’

‘But if nothing survives . . .’ Seteal trailed off at the realisation that the Elglair, under certain conditions, might be willing to sentence their own children to death. ‘You mean they’d have killed her?’

‘Well . . . no.’ El-i-miir sighed. ‘I mean . . . maybe. I doubt it. But she couldn’t have stayed. Not if she wanted to marry your father. The only choice she had was either to run away, dishonouring herself and her family, or to marry him before willingly travelling to Vish’el’Tei to face an honourable death.’

‘In Maker’s name,’ Seteal whispered, realising for the first time just how much her mother had sacrificed to be with Gifn and later fall pregnant. ‘It all sounds rather horrible.’

‘Not to us.’ El-i-miir raised her bottle defensively. ‘That’s the Elglair way.’

‘And what about you?’ Seteal asked, no longer wishing to dwell on her mother or the fate that eventually befell her. ‘Would your parents send you away to die?’

‘It’s not as simple as you make it out to be,’ El-i-miir grumbled irritably. ‘My parents probably wouldn’t cause me trouble like that, but I could never hurt them by showing such disrespect as to go against their wishes.’

‘Well . . .’ Seteal shrugged. ‘What did you want to do?’

‘I wanted to study as a jilt’lesit,’ El-i-miir sighed longingly, before realising that Seteal had no idea what that was. ‘It’s what you’d probably call a doctor, but different. Jil’lesits utilise a combination of medicine and the Ways to help in healing people.’

‘Well, I think you should follow your heart.’ Seteal shrugged. ‘Life is too short for so many rules.’

‘Maybe for your people,’ El-i-miir replied curtly. ‘We Elglair must live a long time with the consequences of our actions. Anyway, I’m going to bed. Far-a-mael is right—tomorrow will be as long and exhausting as today. And if he meant what he said about starting your lessons, I’d advise you to do the same.’

Seteal watched as the Elglair woman stumbled over to their shared tent where she fumbled with the flap before entering. It didn’t take long before the oppressive darkness and the deep silence of night drove Seteal to follow. Fearing El-i-miir was already asleep and not wishing to disturb her, Seteal slipped silently into the tent and carefully arranged the blanket over herself.

Closing her eyes, she allowed her mind to wander, drifting about pleasant memories of home. She saw her father’s face, but it became creased with fear and concern. She tried to remember her bedroom, but could only recall the strangers forcing their way into her home. Seteal pushed the thoughts aside. She’d never sleep if she continued to dwell on such things. She rolled onto her side, but a scratching sound caught her attention. After a moment, Seteal dismissed it as having been the blanket sliding up against the canvas.

Silence prevailed and Seteal’s mind was able to rest. It took until she was dancing on the edge of sleep before the sound was repeated. Heart racing and eyes wide open, Seteal sat upright clinging to her blanket. She held her breath, listening intently to the once more piercing silence. When the sound was yet again repeated, Seteal recognised it as that of canvas tearing.

‘Wake up,’ she whispered, urgently turning to shake El-i-miir.

‘What?’ El-i-miir grumbled. ‘I’m sleeping.’

‘Light the lantern!’

‘Why?’

‘Just do it,’ Seteal urged. ‘I think the tent has been torn.’

‘Just a minute,’ El-i-miir replied, without masking the irritation in her voice. A moment later the tent was flooded with light as the woman lifted a lantern before her. ‘Torrid,’ she murmured.

‘See.’ Seteal fixed her gaze on a small tear near their feet. ‘I was right.’

‘What might’ve caused that?’ El-i-miir wondered aloud.

In answer to her question, a small feathery head with two bright golden eyes popped through the gap.

‘Seeol,’ the women gasped simultaneously as they retreated to the back of the tent.

‘Shee,’ the elf owl replied in its gravelly voice. ‘See . . . Seeol.’

Seteal’s jaw dropped, but she refused to believe her ears. Surely it’d been her mind playing tricks. ‘How should we get it out?’ she asked El-i-miir, but the woman remained transfixed on the bird, her skin covered in goose bumps.

‘I’ve truly never seen anything like it.’ Her voice wavered. ‘No aura. Nothing! There’s nothing but a void in the Ways. Everything just falls away from this bird. It cannot exist, but it does. It truly is seeol.’ El-i-miir continued to stare at the owl and not for the first time Seteal wondered just what those white pupils could see.

‘Seeol,’ the owl repeated, cocking its head sideways.

‘Okay,’ Seteal murmured. ‘This time I know I heard it.’

‘You did,’ El-i-miir confirmed flatly. ‘Can you say any other words?’ she addressed the elf owl after a moment’s hesitation.

‘Don’t talk to it,’ Seteal gasped. ‘It can’t understand you. I’ve heard of this before. Some birds can be trained to mimic speech.’

‘Does that include owls?’ El-i-miir raised a sceptical eyebrow.

‘I suppose so,’ Seteal insisted. ‘But, El-i-miir, who could have trained it?’

‘El-ish,’ the seeol stumbled over the foreign name. ‘El-i-mish,’ it croaked, taking a step forward to stare penetratingly.

‘Was that mimicry, too?’ El-i-miir asked dubiously. ‘I don’t think birds are able to learn quite that fast.’ The woman turned back to address the animal. ‘I’m El-i-miir.’ She held a hand to her chest. ‘Seteal.’ She gestured to her right.

‘You’re crazy,’ Seteal hissed, but was interrupted when the elf owl spoke again.

‘El-i-miish,’ the bird rasped. Standing on one foot, it lifted the other, unfurled a clawed toe and pointed at El-i-miir. ‘Seteal.’ The bird repeated the process in her direction. It lowered its foot and stood squarely on the floor, nuzzled its beak into its chest and uttered, ‘Seeol.’

‘It thinks its name is Seeol?’ El-i-miir cringed.

‘Well, it makes sense, really,’ Seteal said. ‘We’ve been calling him that.’

‘How do you know it’s male?’

‘Not all things need to be learnt through the Elglair eye,’ Seteal said smugly. ‘It’s the colouration on his wings and the golden eyes. The females have yellow ones.’

‘So it’s not a complete abomination,’ El-i-miir mused. ‘These birds actually exist?’

‘They’re all around Elmsville,’ Seteal said, having remembered occasionally seeing them hiding in cacti. ‘They’re desert birds. But I must confess to never having heard one talk before.’

‘We mustn’t be complacent.’ El-i-miir became very serious. ‘Just because it talks and seems harmless right now doesn’t mean we should forget what it did yesterday.’

‘Well,’ Seteal began, ‘what if he doesn’t know that what he did was wrong? He’s just a little bird after all. If we could teach him more, he might understand that it’s not all right to attack people.’

‘I think that’s a little naïve of you, Seteal,’ El-i-miir replied apologetically.

‘Maybe you’re right.’ Seteal looked away. ‘But we have to try something, don’t we?’

‘What do you mean?’ El-i-miir replied.

‘We can’t just let him go,’ Seteal continued. ‘If we do, he’ll only hunt down others.’

‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go,’ El-i-miir contemplated. ‘But Gil’rei Far-a-mael mustn’t find out.’

‘Why?’

‘I assure you he’ll have quite a different solution in dealing with a problem animal,’ El-i-miir warned. ‘He’ll find a way to kill it.’

‘We mustn’t let him do that,’ Seteal gasped, her eyes locked on Seeol’s fragile body. ‘He’s adorable.’ She reached out tentatively and patted the bird’s head. ‘But how will we get away with it? Surely it’s only a matter of time before Far-a-mael senses Seeol’s presence.’

‘I wish you wouldn’t keep calling it that.’ El-i-miir scrunched up her nose at the sound of the bird’s name.

‘Seeol.’ The elf owl once again gestured toward himself.

El-i-miir shuddered and turned back to Seteal. ‘Don’t worry about Far-a-mael. There is a certain ability shared by very few Elglair known as affiliation. Far-a-mael is among those few, but so am I.’ El-i-miir half-smiled. ‘I just so happen to be much better at it.’

‘What does it mean?’

‘I’m able to affiliate people’s minds,’ the woman said with obvious pride. ‘I can control, or even possess them. That’s why my horse rides without physical guidance. That’s what I did to your father when we entered your home. He wouldn’t let us in, so Far-a-mael asked me to affiliate and move him out of the way.’

‘Yes,’ Seteal grumbled, still dissatisfied with the excuses she’d been given for her abduction. ‘Go on.’

‘Well, affiliation needn’t always be so blatant.’ El-i-miir clapped her hands together excitedly. ‘We can influence people more subtly than that.’

‘You’re not going risk it on Far-a-mael are you?’ Seteal asked in surprise. Having heard El-i-miir preach all about obedience earlier that night, it seemed a little hard to understand why she’d suddenly choose to ignore her own advice.

‘Just a little,’ El-i-miir replied. ‘I’ll put a block on his thoughts whenever they might wander toward the seeol. He’ll probably feel like he’s forgotten something, but he won’t be able to work out what.’

‘All right let’s do it,’ Seteal shuffled forward excitedly, forgetting the fear she’d once had for the adorable bit of fluff staring up at her. ‘If you’re so confident in your abilities that you’re willing to take the risk, then so am I.’ She leaned toward Seeol. ‘I’m Seteal, you’re Seeol,’ she said to the animal.

‘I’m Seteal, you’re Seeol,’ the bird replied, pointing first at Seteal and then to himself.

‘No, no.’ Seteal shook her finger then placed both hands to her chest. ‘I’m Seteal.’ She paused for a moment and then pointed at Seeol. ‘I’m Seeol.’

‘I’m Seeol,’ the bird replied. ‘You’re Seteal.’ He bobbed his head excitedly.

‘Fast learner.’ El-i-miir swallowed nervously.

 

*

 

‘That will do for today,’ Far-a-mael called back, snapping Seteal free of her thoughts. A look at the sky informed her of the time, with the sun sitting fat and orange on the horizon. Another day was on the verge of completion. Seteal had never spent so much time on horseback and was thoroughly tired of doing so.

‘That will do for today,’ Seteal’s bag croaked—or rather its inhabitant did—from its place on her lap.

‘Be quiet,’ Seteal cautioned the owl, momentarily opening her bag to reveal his feathery face in disarray. ‘You’ll get us in trouble,’ she whispered sternly before closing the bag and sliding off her horse.

‘Sorry,’ the bird replied dejectedly.

Since the previous night, not only had Seeol picked up more words and their proper usage than Seteal had anticipated, but he’d also learnt to manipulate intonation.

‘I’ll help set up the tents,’ Seteal volunteered as she passed by Far-a-mael and made her way over to El-i-miir. ‘He keeps talking,’ she hissed. ‘I’ve been struggling all day to keep him quiet, but nothing seems to work.’

‘This was your idea,’ El-i-miir replied irritably as she tied the horses to a tree.

‘No way,’ Seteal growled. ‘You’re not weaselling out of this now. You promised you’d help.’

‘Listen.’ El-i-miir turned aggressively. ‘I was more than just a little bit drunk!’

‘That’s not my problem,’ Seteal said beneath her breath as Far-a-mael passed by. ‘Can’t you do something to make him shut up?’

‘No,’ El-i-miir said firmly. ‘He has no aura. I’m powerless over him.’

‘Well, what about Far-a-mael?’ Seteal looked over at the old man, who was glancing about the clearing, scratching his head as though he’d lost something.

‘Don’t worry about him,’ El-i-miir reassured her. ‘Just keep the bird quiet and leave Gil’rei Far-a-mael to me.’

As the sun disappeared from the world, Seteal assisted El-i-miir in setting up the tents while Far-a-mael trekked into the woods alone to return later with a couple of rabbits. By now, Seteal had come to the conclusion that he was likely affiliating them into hopping right over. Suddenly his hunting skills seemed less impressive. All he had to do was bend over and pick them up.

‘Come with me,’ Far-a-mael said after they’d finished dinner. He stood up and tossed his scraps into the fire.

‘Where are we going?’ Seteal asked fearfully, having dropped some rabbit into her bag for Seeol just moments earlier.

‘If you care to go on living . . .’ Far-a-mael crossed his arms, clearly irritated by her having questioned him, ‘. . . you’ll accompany me to my tent where we can begin your lessons.’

Seteal slid her bag across the earth toward El-i-miir before warily following after Far-a-mael.

‘Sit,’ the old man said as he sat cross-legged on the floor. Seteal attempted to replicate his position, but it hurt her knees and proved to be too difficult.

‘Is it really necessary to sit like that?’ she complained, eyeing the way Far-a-mael sat with his hands face-up on his knees, thumbs and index fingers touching at the tips.

‘In the beginning, yes. You must be completely comfortable my young rei,’ he replied without opening his eyes.

‘Well I’m certainly not,’ Seteal muttered once she’d folded herself into a position that bore some resemblance to Far-a-mael’s.

‘Certainly not what?’ Far-a-mael asked, opening one eye.

‘Comfortable,’ Seteal muttered. ‘You just said . . . oh, never mind.’

The old man was making fun of her. He chuckled and opened his other eye.

‘Eventually you’ll get used to it and then you’ll find it helps in concentration.’ He frowned. ‘If you really don’t like it, though, fear not! Very soon you’ll be able to touch the Ways in whatever position you like, but for now we’ll do it like this. Now, close your eyes and open your mind.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Seteal asked abrasively.

‘If you find that too difficult, you might at least close your mouth and open your mind,’ Far-a-mael said with disdain.

‘Fine, I get it.’ Seteal shut her eyes and waited.

‘Concentrate on your breathing. Nothing else matters,’ Far-a-mael began. ‘If a thought occurs to you, accept it and let it pass without dwelling on it too much. If you deny the thought, you’ll only find it more difficult to let it go. Accept and release until nothing remains but your breathing. Feel it rush in, and out. In. Out.’

What a waste of time, Seteal moaned inwardly. Still, she had to try, didn’t she? She accepted that the training was indeed ridiculous and then released the thought. No more than a second had passed, however, before she began to worry about her father and her friends. It was no sooner than she’d dismissed these thoughts that she began to worry about leaving El-i-miir alone with Seeol. It just didn’t seem to be working.

‘You’re not having very much luck, are you, girl?’

‘How’d you know?’ Seteal opened her eyes.

‘You’re frowning,’ Far-a-mael sighed. ‘You’re unable to relax, eh?’

‘I don’t think I can,’ Seteal replied honestly. ‘I can’t stop worrying.’

‘Hmm.’ Far-a-mael tapped his chin. ‘Can you make any connections or think of any habits or thoughts that may have preceded one of your knowings in the past?’

‘Not really,’ Seteal answered impatiently. ‘It just happens.’

‘Very well. Let’s go back to relaxation.’ Far-a-mael paused, looking Seteal in the eye. ‘I could help you this time.’

Seteal knew what that meant, but again she realized there wasn’t much of a choice. She nodded and closed her eyes. A kind of calmness overwhelmed her. The feeling was somehow and yet not entirely, disconnected from herself.

As her senses dulled and her mind glazed over, Seteal soon found herself focusing on nothing more than her steady breathing. In and out. In and out.

‘Now you’re getting it,’ said the voice of an elderly man somewhere far away. ‘I want you to forget you’re breathing now. Acknowledge nothing aside from my voice.’

Seteal did as she was told. The experience was one that couldn’t be properly explained, for it in itself was the lack of information or explanation. Floating in the void of her own mind, Seteal felt disconnected from reality. The darkness behind her eyelids was tranquil and calm. There was not a bitter thought, nor a worry or concern to bother her.

A night bird shrieked somewhere outside. Having momentarily feared it was Seeol, Seteal’s control wavered. Far-a-mael steadied her and began to withdraw his support. His comforting power drifted away, leaving Seteal alone in the tranquillity of her aura. She faltered and almost lost control, but quickly drove all thought from her mind and was free once more within the empty space.

‘Excellent! Come back now,’ Far-a-mael spoke, his voice insignificant and distant. ‘I know it’s exciting the first time, but you really must return so that we can talk about your progress before taking the next step.’

Seteal felt a rush of giddying curiosity shake her bubble of control and she fell away. ‘What’d you do that for?’ she complained, opening her eyes. The curiosity had not belonged to her.

‘New reis are always so reluctant to start thinking again,’ Far-a-mael said dismissively. ‘But as enjoyable as it is not to do so, at times we all must take time to think. So, how was it?’

‘Amazing.’ Seteal couldn’t help but show her excitement. ‘Everything was so clear and yet there was nothing there to be clear. I just felt . . . free. Can Elglair do that whenever they want?’

‘Actually, anybody can.’ Far-a-mael tapped his finger thoughtfully. ‘Probably not to the same depth as us, but all the same it’s simple meditation, a practice that’s existed for thousands of years. The good news is, I only helped you at the beginning. After that, you stabilised yourself.’

‘Can I learn more?’ Seteal asked eagerly.

‘No,’ Far-a-mael replied. ‘Go away and practice what I’ve shown you. If you need help relaxing, ask for El-i-miir’s assistance. If I feel you’re ready, we’ll take the next step tomorrow evening. From there, we’ll be able to see exactly what you’re made of.’

Seteal stood up and headed for the exit.

‘Just one more thing before you go,’ Far-a-mael called. ‘How much do you know about silts?’

‘They avoid us and we avoid them.’ Seteal turned and shrugged. ‘Old people think they’re demons or something. They’re the cause of all the whisps further south. That’s all, I think.’

‘Demons,’ Far-a-mael scoffed. ‘They are such silly old stories, aren’t they? My dear girl, silts are much, much more dangerous than the fabled demons depicted in the Holy Tome.’

‘Oh?’ Seteal responded. She was confused as to why he’d even raise such a topic. Something strange was happening. Far-a-mael was doing something to her. Seteal gasped as she felt a sharp hatred welling up inside her chest. It was not her own, but it made her feel powerful and before long she was basking in loathing, relishing its bitter taste.

‘I know you can feel it comes from me,’ Far-a-mael intoned, ‘but that doesn’t make it any less true. You’ve lived too much of your life sheltered from the knowledge of such foul creatures. It is only ignorance that prevents these feelings from being yours rather than mine. Harness them. Take them in and believe them. They are the truth. If you could only know . . . this is what you must always feel toward such creatures. Feed your hatred for the wicked, grotesque, and, yes, in many ways, demonic beings.’

Seteal’s head spun. Her fingers tingled. She could hardly see Far-a-mael’s face and became lost in her mind. The blood felt hot as it rushed by her ears. Creatures with leathery wings screamed as she hunted them. Seteal put a sword through a demon heart and laughed as its blood drained away in torrents. The repulsion she felt for the wicked creatures was second to none. Bile rose in Seteal’s throat, such was the sickness they caused her. She would cut open their pallid white flesh. She would create justice. She would kill them all. The earth would be cleansed in the blood of demons to usher in a new age of peace and security.

‘Seteal.’ The word buzzed but meant nothing. ‘Seteal?’ Far-a-mael’s face revealed his concern as the tent swam into perspective.

Seteal rubbed at her arms, suddenly feeling the cold. Had the old man been speaking? Or had it all been in her head? ‘What’d they do for you to hate them so much?’ She asked.

‘What did who do, dear?’ Far-a-mael raised his eyebrows.

‘The silts. What’d they do to you?’

‘Why in Maker’s name would you be pondering such creatures at a time like this?’ Far-a-mael’s expression was one of bewilderment.

‘I . . . ’ Seteal shook her head, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Four

The Elglair Eye

 

 

‘Where are we?’ Far-a-mael smoothed out the map’s creases over a cheap pine table. ‘There.’

He prodded the dark spot marked out as Golmar Crossing. They’d arrived in the miniscule riverside town just hours before sunset. The place was home to a rickety old bridge that served as the only border crossing between Gor Narvon and Abnatol. The town also boasted an inn, and after so much time spent resting on the floor of a tent, Far-a-mael was looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed. He smiled, now one country closer to home. There was a soft knock at the door.

‘Come in.’

‘Far-a . . . I mean, Gil’rei.’ Seteal lowered her head respectfully and made her way into the room. ‘Would you like to resume my lessons?’ the young lady asked from her place by the doorway.

‘Certainly.’ Far-a-mael waved her inside. The silly little thing always needed such explicit direction. She irritated him at the best of times, but lately even more so than usual. El-i-miir, too, for that matter. Far-a-mael rolled his neck before turning to inspect the girl suspiciously. Seteal was hiding something. The Ways screamed in his ears, but for some reason Far-a-mael couldn’t determine what they were saying.

‘Sit down.’ He watched the girl snatch up a pillow. ‘Not on the floor!’ Far-a-mael barked. ‘I’m tired. Just sit on the chair.’

‘Okay.’ Seteal sat at a small table in the corner of the room, a sullen expression contorting her features. What was wrong with the stupid girl? She was always so miserable, the way she trotted about with that gloomy expression and murky, discontented aura. She should’ve appreciated Far-a-mael’s efforts in liberating her from Elmsville, that Maker-forsaken hole of a place.

‘Do as you did yesterday,’ Far-a-mael ordered, his dark mood refusing to budge.

‘I need your help,’ Seteal said.

‘Haven’t you practiced?’

‘You only showed me last night,’ she retorted insolently.

‘Fine,’ Far-a-mael waved his hand and turned to look over the river through a smudged window. He didn’t need to meditate to become one with the Ways, as was encouraged of most new reis. Eventually, such a tactic was grown out of by even the dullest of students. Far-a-mael turned back, tracing his eyes over the floor where old and faded strands of light told stories of events that’d occurred in the past. There’d been an argument by the door where a stain of angry red had been left floating for none but the Elglair to see. There was a vague purple smear by the window, the green thread knotted within telling Far-a-mael the story of a broken heart. Anyone with white pupils was able to see the vivid lights that snaked about the world, but it took the knowledge of a gil to properly interpret them.

As Far-a-mael focused on the dancing strands of light, the room appeared to brighten, hiding none of its secrets. There was a hidden wall cavity to Far-a-mael’s left in which someone had once stowed a bottle of gin and then forgotten about it. El-i-miir pursued her studies not five strides away in the next room. There was a bird . . . the bird . . . but nothing. Far-a-mael’s spine tingled unforgivingly. Something was wrong. Seteal’s aura shuddered nervously and he was able to see its most intimate details.

‘Relax,’ he ordered.

The young woman closed her eyes. She was trying to focus, but murky green and purple sprays trickled throughout her aura, disturbing her with useless concerns. There. Far-a-mael snatched at the pale blues and yellows buried deep within and tied them together. He pulled them to the surface where they encapsulated Seteal, lulling her into deep, peaceful thought.

‘I’ve done it,’ Seteal murmured.

‘Of course you have,’ Far-a-mael replied without bothering to mask his sarcasm. ‘You’d better practice tonight. I’ll be expecting you to do it on your own tomorrow.’

‘Yes, Gil’rei,’ Seteal replied, her eyes wide with curiosity.

‘Now, listen,’ Far-a-mael spoke softly, ‘I asked you to come here tonight for a reason. It’s time we discovered whether you have any semblance of the Elglair eye.’

‘What do you mean?’ Seteal asked, her confusion causing her hold on the Ways to waver. ‘My eyes aren’t like yours. You know that.’

‘Yes, of course I do.’ Far-a-mael snatched at the girl’s aura and rearranged it to calm her once again. ‘I’m just hoping that with some effort you’ll be able to see, even if only vaguely, as we do.’

‘All right.’ Seteal shrugged. ‘What should I do?’

‘Well, first of all, what did you see when you became one with the Ways?’

‘Nothing,’ Seteal replied. ‘Everything looks the same . . . well, maybe a little clearer, but that’s all.’

‘What do you see when you look at me?’ Far-a-mael asked, failing to keep the irritation from his voice.

‘I just see you.’ Seteal frowned.

‘Try harder,’ Far-a-mael ordered. ‘Look carefully. Do you see anything? Even a faint glow on my skin?’

‘I’m sorry.’ Seteal sighed. ‘It’s just you.’

‘Torrid!’ Far-a-mael rubbed his temples.

‘Is there anything else I can try?’

‘No, child,’ Far-a-mael murmured. ‘You either have the ability or you don’t. It’s not something you can practice.’ He released the Ways and watched as his impression of Seteal’s aura became less vivid. ‘I’m afraid your pupils are simply too dark to see through.’

‘So . . . what does this mean?’ Seteal’s eyes revealed anxiety, her aura darkening as she lost focus. ‘You can still save me, can’t you?’

‘What?’ Far-a-mael raised his eyebrows in confusion. ‘Save you from what?’

‘Dying!’ Seteal wailed.

‘Oh, right . . . that.’ Far-a-mael silently reprimanded himself for having forgotten the little white lie he’d designed to get the girl to come along to begin with. ‘Yes, of course I can help you. I’m not going to let you die.’

‘Thank Maker.’ The girl’s expression became one of relief. ‘So what’s the problem with my inability to see like you?’

‘Oh . . . nothing really,’ Far-a-mael uttered distractedly. ‘It just means a great deal of the Ways will remain inaccessible to you.’

‘So?’ Seteal looked at Far-a-mael expectantly. ‘I don’t care about the Ways, outside of preventing them from killing me.’

‘And here I was thinking you’d come to appreciate your gift,’ Far-a-mael said contemptuously.

‘Sort of,’ Seteal murmured, ‘but I’m hardly aiming to become an Elglair warrior, am I?’

‘You mean a hadone,’ Far-a-mael corrected.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘That’s what you call an Elglair soldier,’ Far-a-mael said softly. ‘But never mind all that.’

‘Look.’ Seteal sighed, standing up and half-turning toward the door. ‘Clearly I’m not as powerful as you thought I’d be. Maybe I’m not a danger to myself after all.’

‘Seteal, wait,’ Far-a-mael said firmly. ‘There are plenty of things to be good at aside from the manipulation and visualisation of auras. Just look at El-i-miir,’ Far-a-mael raised his hands for emphasis. ‘Did you know she’s able to recognise when people are lying?’

‘Really?’ Seteal said in surprise.

‘Indeed.’ Far-a-mael laughed, glad to have won back her interest. ‘Along with her incredible powers of affiliation, that was one of the primary reasons I took her on. The ability is so rare that I couldn’t allow such an opportunity to pass me by. You see, the knowing is quite a different area of the Ways and it’s one in which I’m certain you’ll excel. Keep practicing and you’ll be fine.’

‘All right.’ Seteal cracked a smile. ‘Thanks, Gil’rei.’ She turned and marched toward the exit with heightened spirits.

‘Just a moment, Seteal,’ Far-a-mael intoned, focusing on the young woman’s aura as she turned to face him. He dug about for a moment and pulled hard on the slender black weaving he’d created earlier. The girl shivered and her face darkened. ‘How do you feel about silts today?’

‘I hate them, of course,’ she mumbled, staring at her shoes.

‘And it’s appropriate to hate them,’ Far-a-mael said as he dexterously snatched up a thick red cord burrowing through Seteal’s aura and added it to his earlier weaving. A moment later a fetid brown lump formed and he pushed its pulsating mass into the heart of her aura, binding it within the black strands.

‘Off you go now,’ Far-a-mael encouraged. ‘You should practice what I’ve taught you.’

‘Yes, Gil’rei.’ Seteal’s eyes came up lifeless as she turned to leave.

The door closed with a soft thud and all was silent. Far-a-mael exhaled tiredly and sat down, allowing his feelings to show now that he was alone. How could he have been so foolish? How could the silver glass have been so wrong? For Maker’s sake, she couldn’t even see! He’d be the laughing stock of the Elglair, an old fool who traipsed across the world to bring home some blind, useless half-breed. His application for eldership would be laughed out the door.

‘Get a hold of yourself, you old fool,’ Far-a-mael growled, irritated by his own defeatist thoughts. ‘Give her time. You’ve waited this long. Just give her a little more time.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Five

Out The Window

 

 

‘Hello, cutie,’ Seeol whispered through the space in the top of Seteal’s bag. He wasn’t certain of what the second word meant, but knew it was a friendly greeting of some sort.

‘Be quiet,’ Seteal hissed. The sound was similar to that of a snake.

‘Sorry,’ Seeol apologised fearfully. From his cramped position atop a pile of clothing, he could only see half of Seteal’s face and catch occasional glimpses of the scenery beyond. ‘You is so scary sometimes!’

‘What was that?’ Far-a-mael called from his position up ahead.

‘Nothing. I sneezed,’ Seteal replied, before lowering her face over the bag to reprimand Seeol. ‘Would you shut up? You’ll get us into trouble.’

Seeol understood enough of what she’d said to deduce that Seteal feared Far-a-mael discovering him. The bearded one was the head of the pack.

Although Seeol was getting a little tired of being cooped up inside a bag, he did enjoy the luxury of catching up on some well-needed sleep. For reasons to which Seeol remained ignorant, humans chose to sleep at night. Such behaviour was baffling, but it’d turned out for the best, as Seeol was able to hunt at night without fear of losing them. All the same, he’d had enough of hiding from Far-a-mael. He’d learnt many words, but couldn’t practice his steadily expanding vocabulary while stuck in a bag.

‘We’re nearly there,’ Far-a-mael’s sharp tone invaded the soft interior of Seteal’s bag.

It’d been a number of days since their departure from Golmar Crossing. Seeol had never before managed to go so long without transforming into his other self and although he tried not to get too excited, he found himself becoming increasingly hopeful that just being in the presence of these fascinating creatures had cured him.

He stretched his wings until they pressed against the sides of the bag. He looked forward to reaching the inn, as Seteal had promised to let him out.

There was a sharp jolt as the woman slid off her horse. A door was opened and the sound of loud voices surrounded Seeol, penetrating the fabric from every direction.

‘Good to have you back, Gil Far-a-mael,’ a gruff voice called over the ruckus.

‘We’ll take two rooms,’ Far-a-mael replied. ‘Preferably the same two we took on the way down if they’re available.’

‘They’re not,’ the innkeeper replied, ‘but we’ve got a similar pair next door to each other.’

‘Very well,’ Far-a-mael muttered. A moment later Seeol heard several coins dancing across the countertop.

‘Here are the keys,’ the innkeeper said, passing something that jangled over the counter. ‘I’ll send the boy for your horses.’

‘Thank you,’ Far-a-mael intoned. ‘This way.’ His voice was redirected toward Seteal. ‘Here’s your key.’ Far-a-mael passed a jangling object to El-i-miir after they’d completed a short journey up a flight of stairs. ‘I’ll see you both later,’ he muttered before firmly closing his door.

‘Quickly,’ Seteal urged as El-i-miir struggled with the key. ‘He won’t stop talking.’

The door swung open and the world turned upside down as Seeol was poured out of the bag along with a sea of soft material. He beat his wings, making several laps around the room before alighting on the back of a chair.

‘This is a big room,’ he observed.

‘It really isn’t,’ Seteal chuckled. ‘You’re just a very little bird. You could’ve gotten us in trouble today. You need to learn to be quiet.’

‘I likes talking.’ Seeol bobbed his head excitedly. ‘I like friends!’

‘Shh.’ El-i-miir pressed a finger against her lips.

‘That’s scary.’ Seeol pulled his head tightly into his feathers. ‘Don’t biting me.’

‘I’m not going to bite you.’ El-i-miir rolled her eyes, a facial gesture Seeol found quite impossible to replicate. ‘You must be quiet. Far-a-mael won’t let you stay with us if he finds out about you.’

‘Okay.’ Seeol gazed at the floor. ‘I’m sh-sorry.’

‘Thank you, Seeol.’ El-i-miir’s tone softened.

‘Seeol,’ he murmured. The humans were the first animals to have given him a name. Most didn’t understand the concept of having a name and even Seeol couldn’t see much sense in having one, but all the same he appreciated the demonstration of friendship. He suspected it was the human way of welcoming him into the pack.

A glance through a square hole in one of the walls revealed that it was dusk. Seeol clicked his beak, excited by the prospect of finding a nice big cricket to munch on for supper. He flew across the room, but screeched in pain when he hit an invisible barrier and fell to the floor.

 

*

 

‘Maker!’ Seteal cried when Seeol bounced off the glass and hit the floorboards. She scooped him up and was relieved to find him shocked but otherwise unharmed.

‘What happened?’ the bird asked.

‘It’s a window.’ El-i-miir strode across the room and tapped on the translucent material.

‘Right,’ Seeol shook his head, feeling somewhat embarrassed. ‘Can open it?’

‘Oh, I don’t know.’ El-i-miir frowned.

‘Could we try and see?’

‘I meant . . . I don’t know if we should,’ El-i-miir explained.

‘Why?’

‘Oh, go on,’ Seteal urged. ‘He’s been fine every other night.’

‘That’s true,’ El-i-miir nodded, ‘but until now we’ve been in the middle of nowhere. What if it happens here in the city?’

‘I is hungry,’ Seeol pleaded. ‘I’ll be good.’

‘We can’t very well let him starve,’ Seteal said with finality. She snatched at the handle and pushed the window open. ‘Just be careful to take note of where you’re going so that you’ll be able to find your way back.’

‘I will.’ Seeol tilted his head, golden eyes glowing with appreciation before he opened his wings and disappeared into the night.

‘Do you know where Far-a-mael is?’ Seteal asked as El-i-miir sat down on the bed, an expression of preoccupation on her face. ‘El-i-miir?’

‘What?’ She turned abruptly, but avoided eye-contact. ‘I think he’s gone for supper.’ She waved her hand dismissively.

‘Are you all right?’ Seteal asked, unnerved by the contortion of El-i-miir’s features.

‘No I—’ She cut off, doubled over, and gasped loudly. ‘Oh, Maker.’ She raised her eyes, chin quivering. ‘Seeol!’ El-i-miir raced across the room and leaned out the window.

Seteal rushed over in time to see a monstrous figure erupt out of thin air. City folk screamed and ran in terror as the winged beast swooped over them, snapping its mandibles and scratching out with sharp talons. The events taking place soon became too horrible to bear and yet Seteal found herself quite unable to move, transfixed by the devastation below.

The monster that was Seeol spotted a small girl in a frilly pink dress. The child had lost her parents in the pandemonium and would make an easy target. She ran and cried. Seeol banked toward her. She screamed and wailed. Seeol raked his talons forward. She died. Only when Seteal felt the pain in her throat did she realise she’d been screaming. She didn’t care. She couldn’t stop. She watched in dismay as Seeol tore the child to pieces before rolling about, bathing his feathers in her blood. He enjoyed it.

What have I done? The panicked thought invaded Seteal’s mind.

People abandoned their stalls and began to run in terror, before spewing out onto the street and continuing their journey. Seteal put a hand to her throat as she watched Seeol picking off the stragglers one by one. He landed heavily to loom over a disfigured man in a hooded coat, but a woman running along the roadside armed with nothing but a shovel stole his attention.

‘My daughter,’ she howled. ‘Mary!’ Seeol snatch her from the roadside and flung her into the air. The woman screamed until she hit the earth many strides away, her body split and twisted.

The creature beat his wings and launched himself into the air in pursuit of the crowd, whilst Seteal watched on from the safety of her window. She couldn’t bear it, couldn’t watch. It had to stop. It had to. She fell to the floor sobbing.

This is my fault, Seteal thought bitterly. It was her fault and she couldn’t let it continue. She refused. She turned her focus to the Ways. Seteal’s vision doubled, momentarily splitting everything in two. The room vibrated and the air rattled out of her lungs. Her knees buckled.

‘Seteal!’ El-i-miir cried, her face filling her vision.

‘I can’t—’ Seteal began to reply, but thereafter her lips refused to function. The entire world shuddered and then exploded with blinding light. Seteal twisted sideways and the room plummeted away from her. Her body toppled to the flooring and she fell disembodied into the sky.

Seteal had fallen unconscious. She knew that she was in shock because she could still feel the floorboards beneath her head. In her dream, she found Seeol, where the beast was doings its best to destroy the city and everyone in it. She pleaded with her imaginary Seeol. She begged him to stop. But she was only dreaming. There was nothing she could do.

Please Seeol! she cried desperately. Stop!

Having dropped the man he’d been about to tear, Seeol turned to stare at Seteal, or stare through her, given the fact that she had no body.

With a loud shriek, Seeol tumbled into himself, his various parts shrinking back down to their ordinary proportions. The bird’s face became a picture of horror as he tried and failed to shake the blood from his feathers. He leapt into the air and faded into the long shadows of late afternoon.

Seteal opened her eyes for the slightest moment and smiled. Seeol had stopped. It was finally over.

 

*

 

Far-a-mael stalked into the room, examining the Ways and absorbing the scene before him. El-i-miir was leaning against the wall breathing in short and sharp gasps. ‘What happened?’ Far-a-mael demanded. He glanced at the open window beneath which Seteal had passed out on the floor.

‘You.’ Far-a-mael turned back to El-i-miir with a more purposeful grip on the Ways. ‘How dare you affiliate me! Did you really think I wouldn’t realise? Such arrogance. You’re really not that special, you know.’

‘I—I—I’m sorry,’ El-i-miir stuttered.

‘How long have you been making a fool out of me?’ Far-a-mael barked. ‘How long?’ When El-i-miir failed to respond he continued. ‘There will be consequences for this.’ He jabbed a finger at her. ‘Get Seteal to bed. I’ll go down and try to clean up your mess.’

Far-a-mael turned and left the room in disgust. Such foolishness was to be expected from the likes of Seteal, but El-i-miir should’ve known better than to befriend a whisp-mutated animal. If Far-a-mael hadn’t been so angry, he’d have almost been impressed by El-i-miir’s focus in keeping him affiliated so long. But such a display of immaturity only served to discredit the young lady. Far-a-mael caught himself wondering if perhaps Seteal was a bad influence. She was a half-caste after all.

Once outside the building, Far-a-mael headed up the street and shook his head at the carnage spread out in all directions. Blood was everywhere. The place resembled a battlefield. As he continued along the street, Far-a-mael was greeted only by more death and destruction until finally he came to a place where the devastation seemed to have simply . . . stopped.

People were spread out all over the road moaning in pain or sorrow, but there, where the creature had ceased its work, most were still alive. Far-a-mael took a moment to glance about and see if there was anything he could do, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. Turning sharply, he saw a darkly clad figure staring at him from across the crowded street.

The watcher was dressed in a long black coat that hung well below his knees. With long sleeves and black gloves, the stranger was almost completely obscured. Only a pale, angular face could be vaguely determined from within the depths of a large hood. One distinguishing feature was the man’s disfigurement, a large hump on his back that forced him to stand hunched over. The mysterious stranger turned and scurried off against the setting sun. Far-a-mael paused, staring after him and wondered for just a moment . . . but, surely his eyes were playing tricks on him.

The stranger couldn’t possibly be more important than the task at hand, so Far-a-mael turned back to the wounded and offered what little help he could.

An old man—although probably much younger than Far-a-mael—sat on the road, his legs spread out and his clothing in disarray. Far-a-mael concentrated for a moment, stretching out his mind and touching the familiar energy that churned around him. The colours within the man’s aura were scattered and bounced about frantically, reflecting his inner turmoil. Tendrils of light trickled away from Far-a-mael’s fingertips, allowing him to penetrate and manipulate the aura. He eased the erratic motion of the darker colours and pushed them into the depths where they could be processed later. He carefully lassoed peaceful blues and whites before encouraging them to the surface. At last, he found some golden orange and pulled that up from the depths to increase the man’s strength and resolve. His aura came to life with feelings of empowerment and a sense of purpose. He stood up, dusted himself off, gave Far-a-mael a suspicious look and hurried across the road.

Far-a-mael shook his head. Surely it wouldn’t have hurt to show at least a little appreciation.

A little girl stood a few strides away, a steady stream of tears running down her cheeks. ‘Why did it hurt my mummy?’ Her voice was hollow. ‘I want my mummy,’ she sobbed, without removing her hands from her red face. Far-a-mael shuddered when he noticed the bloodied corpse fixed in her sights. He touched her aura ever so gently, intending not to startle her as he rearranged it: blue, yellow, white, a splash of teal, and some pink for good measure.

Despite the toll it took on his aging bones, Far-a-mael got down on one knee, placed his hands on the girl’s shoulders, and looked into her eye. ‘Listen to me. I know it hurts. I wasn’t much older than you when I lost my mother. It’s going to hurt for a very long time, but I promise you one day you’ll wake up, the pain will have become old, and you will be okay.’

‘But I want my mummy!’

‘Oh, sweetheart, of cause you do,’ Far-a-mael swallowed and squeezed the girl’s hands. ‘Sometimes, I want mine, too.’ It wasn’t like him to be emotional, but losing a parent wasn’t something easily forgotten. ‘We can’t bring her back,’ he leaned forward to whisper in the girl’s ear, ‘but I will make them pay.’ Far-a-mael rose to his feet.

‘Deenel!’ A young man hurried over and scooped the girl into his arms. ‘You found my sister,’ the man cried. ‘Thank you. Truly, thank you.’

Before Far-a-mael could reply the man had hurried away, leaving him alone with the haunting memory of loss in a child’s eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Six

A Silt in Sitnic

 

 

Ilgrin flared his wings and landed in the centre of a field. A startled cow mooed and galloped away. Ilgrin laughed and slid a hand through his dark blue mop of hair before a stab of loneliness drove him to examine his fingers. They were longer and thinner than those of a human and lacked nails. The colour was wrong, too, Ilgrin’s flesh being mostly white, with touches of pale blue. His face was angular, with cheekbones higher than those of most humans and eyes that tilted up at the sides. His skeletal structure was longer and thinner, but his bones were covered in so many layers of lean muscle that the end result was a much larger figure. In strength, Ilgrin had equalled his father by the age of ten and soon thereafter surpassed him. A few years later, he’d matched the man in height. Now at twenty-one years of age, Ilgrin towered over the human.

Ilgrin looked at his toes disapprovingly. His feet were no greater than half the length of an ordinary man’s and bore only three toes, one of which extended posteriorly. Such an arrangement was handy for perching in trees or carrying things in flight.

Ilgrin turned his large purple eyes toward the inviting blue sky. He was unable to fly—not the way he wanted to, anyway. To do so would be suicide. The constant threat of discovery kept him from ascending any higher than the treetops. Ilgrin was a prisoner. He looked at the family home with the same reluctant familiarity that a convict might have for his cell. Beside the building was a tree stump whose presence sent shivers down Ilgrin’s spine. It was the place where his mother had died and where he, in turn, had resurrected her.

Ilgrin took another moment to count the ways in which he differed from his parents. He often caught himself doing so. Perhaps it served as a reminder that he was indeed different, as despite appearances at times he could all but forget he wasn’t human. Or perhaps he did it to remember why he must remain hidden. But no matter how he suppressed it, Ilgrin knew that at the heart of the ritual, its reasons were to remind him that somewhere out there were others like him.

Ilgrin pushed off from the ground and flew lazily toward the house where raised voices caused him to hesitate, hand hovering over the doorknob. His parents were arguing, not an uncommon occurrence. There was a solitary step beneath the door upon which Baen had found Ilgrin as a newborn, blue-faced and screaming in his dead mother’s arms. She’d been shot through the heart by a silver-tipped arrow and in death the only evidence that remained of her existence was an unmarked stone at the back of the farthest paddock.

Not a day went by that Ilgrin didn’t feel bitterly resentful of a life slowly wasted in hiding. It wasn’t fair that everyone should hate him because of the actions of silts elsewhere. He had nothing to do with them. He’d never even met one. The world so hated silts for what they’d done and even Ilgrin was no stranger to the wickedness produced through demon hands. Although Ilgrin himself was guilty of whisp pollution, surely it could be forgiven him considering his age at the time. A child so young couldn’t possibly fathom the implications of such an action.

The whisp may have dissipated as some were known to do. Or it may have slaughtered an entire family. Was Ilgrin a hero or a murderer? Such was the price of resurrection. Someone somewhere would’ve had to die in place of his mother. Ilgrin often struggled with his conscience, his imagination conjuring up images of strangers at a funeral in some distant land.

He turned the doorknob and stepped inside. Urelie was in her rocking chair, knitting needles clicking furiously over an ugly green shirt created with wing-holes and buttons in the back. Baen stood warming his hands over the fireplace. Neither of them noticed Ilgrin’s presence.

‘I understand what you’re saying, but he can’t stay here forever,’ Baen said. ‘Someday soon he’ll be too big for this farm. He’ll need to spread his wings . . . so to speak. He’s not a little boy anymore.’

‘Don’t you think I know that?’ Urelie replied through gritted teeth. ‘But what do you suggest we do, package him off to Old World? They won’t take him in? They’re demons, for Maker’s sake. They’ll probably eat him or something.’

‘Don’t call them that,’ Ilgrin snapped, revealing himself.

Urelie jumped in surprise. ‘I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t mean anything.’

‘Yes, you did,’ Ilgrin accused. ‘You meant exactly what you said. You think we’re all a bunch of . . . of demons,’ he spat the final word, hating the feel of it on his tongue.

‘Not you, dear,’ Urelie put down her needles and hurried over to squeeze Ilgrin’s hands. ‘You’re different, my sweet boy. We raised you with morals and values. We raised you to be—’

‘Human?’ Ilgrin cut her off and pulled his hands free. Urelie paled and jerked away, turning her face as though expecting to be struck. ‘What’re you doing?’ Ilgrin gasped.

‘Nothing.’ Urelie put a hand over her mouth and tried to scurry away, but Ilgrin snatched at her wrist and spun her around.

‘You flinched,’ he said defensively.

‘That’s enough, boy.’ Baen put a hand flat against Ilgrin’s chest.

Ilgrin ignored the man and focused on his mother. ‘You’re scared of me? I thought you said I was different, that I wasn’t like the others.’

‘You are, darling.’ Beads of sweat formed on Urelie’s flushed face. ‘I trust you with my life. It’s just that . . . you know.’

‘What?’

‘You’ve truly grown up these last few years.’ She swallowed noisily. ‘You’re a man now and you look like . . . like one of them.’

‘You mean you can’t just pretend I’m a human with wings anymore?’ Ilgrin asked bitterly. ‘If my own mother can’t accept me as I am, then who the torrid will?’

‘I said no such thing,’ Urelie scurried on in Ilgrin’s wake as he stormed back toward the door.

‘I’m going out.’ Ilgrin slid his feet into makeshift shoes his mother had made him. They looked ridiculous, almost as long in the back as they were in the front to allow space for his third toe. He folded his wings and shoved his arms through coat sleeves, pulled up the hood, and put on a pair of black leather gloves. The mirror revealed nothing. He was obscured but for a pale-faced outlined within dark cloth. Not much could be done about his height, so he hunched over, which assisted in the illusion of his wings being an abnormal growth. The disguise wouldn’t stand up against intelligent scrutiny, but it served its purpose well enough for small outings into the more isolated parts of the city.

‘Stop him,’ Urelie pleaded of her husband. ‘He can’t go alone.’

Baen stared at Ilgrin before responding. ‘Be back before dark.’

‘No!’ Urelie wailed. ‘He’s gotten too tall. He’ll be discovered.’

‘We cannot keep him a prisoner forever!’ Baen thundered. He was the kind of man that reserved raising his voice for those occasions when no one would dare to question his decision thereafter. ‘We won’t be around forever,’ he continued more quietly. ‘The boy must learn to survive on his own.’

Ilgrin stepped outside and shut the door against his mother’s distressed pleas. He crossed the property quickly, fearing at any moment she would rush after him. He was only able to breathe once he’d made it to the dirt road to the city.

Sitnic had no walls or towers. There was no need for such defences. No one would attack the people of Abnatol any more than they would attack Egsean or Brin. The three countries had been allies far longer than the most ancient records were able to determine, and at their core they believed in peace to all mankind. The taking of a life was so deplorable to the people of Abnatol that anyone found guilty of doing so was exiled forever.

Ilgrin spent several hours meandering through the city lost in thought. Although he enjoyed the company of others, he was always careful to keep his distance. The apparent growth on his back made the task easier, as people had the tendency of steering clear of disease.

It wasn’t until the sun began to set that Ilgrin realised how late it’d become and that he should have already headed home. He dawdled south, reluctant to return only to sit in his room and listen to his parents fight.

The early hours of the evening were always quiet, so when a piercing scream sliced the silence, Ilgrin stopped moving and turned toward the sound. The scream was repeated, loud and sharp like that of a child. The third was accompanied by a deafening roar so powerful that it rattled the air. The screams were cut off to be replaced by others as a crowd of people spewed out onto the street ahead, all of them running toward Ilgrin. For a moment, he feared it was him they were after, but his concerns were immediately eased.

‘Run,’ a man called out as he shot past.

‘What in Maker’s name?’ Ilgrin’s jaw dropped when a creature resembling the offspring of a giant bird and the mythical dragon of children’s books swooped over the road. It shrieked so loudly that Ilgrin was forced to cover his ears and wince in pain. The gigantic creature swept back and forth snatching up its quarry and tearing them apart. It did not discriminate, killing men, women, and even children.

‘Watch out!’ someone shouted as the better runners started passing by.

Ilgrin stumbled back a few steps before turning to run with the crowd. He charged on, but was soon lost in the congestion as the humans surged ahead, their legs and feet far better designed for running than his. Ilgrin soon found himself at the back with the stragglers as they were picked off one by one.

An old lady cried out as she was dragged into air, churning to the beat of the creature’s feathery wings. A spray of blood told Ilgrin of her death. He crouched low when the wings returned. A hobbling simpleton was whisked away for slaughter. Ilgrin followed the boy with his eyes until he was torn apart far above. His innards rained down to decorate the road. For a moment, Ilgrin wondered if he should reveal his identity to escape, but refused to take the risk until he had absolutely no other option. Once the truth was out, there would be no way of getting it back.

The creature swooped and Ilgrin threw himself to the road as beating wings and grasping claws past overhead. The creature banked and swooped a second time, landed heavily, and made its way forward with golden eyes fixed on Ilgrin. He clung to his coat, beneath which his heart beat furiously in preparation to tear it off.

‘My daughter!’ a woman screamed, her bare feet sending up plumes of dust as she charged over, armed with a shovel. ‘Mary!’

The beast turned to confront the sound, plucked the woman from the roadside, and tossed her into the air as though she were weightless. Ilgrin watched the fear of death fill her eyes as she screamed. He could save her. He could leap into the sky and snatch her to safety. But he didn’t. Ilgrin remained frozen, fear rooting his feet to the earth. The woman hit the road, her body twisting and splitting on impact. With her death the creature lost all interest in the woman. It killed for pleasure rather than sustenance.

The creature returned its attention to the fleeing crowd and beat its wings in pursuit, once again attracted by the frenzied humans. Mercifully, Ilgrin had been forgotten. The unknown woman had inadvertently saved his life.

The creature reached the crowd and picked out a young man, but as soon as it did so, it vanished. The man was flipped over and landed on his back, but was able to climb unsteadily to his feet. Ilgrin shielded his eyes and squinted into the distance in time to see something tiny flit out of the crowd and disappear around the side of a building. The creature hadn’t vanished. It had shrunk.

Curiosity gave Ilgrin the strength to push through his shock and continue down the street. There he discovered the place where the destruction had come to an end. People sobbed and prayed, but many had wounds that couldn’t be stopped in time. Onlookers began to gather. Some gave a hand. Others simply watched, shocked to the point of inactivity.

It was then that Ilgrin noticed him, an old man in foreign clothing making his way through the crowd, touching people on the shoulder or otherwise gesticulating at them. He stared in open curiosity, but a moment later the man turned sharply in his direction with eyes so penetrating that they stole Ilgrin’s breath.

‘Elglair.’ The word rattled out in recognition of the white pupils. Ilgrin backed into the crowd and was relieved to see the stranger return his attention to the situation at hand.

Disturbed by such a close encounter, Ilgrin took another step back without paying attention to the placement of his foot. His toe got caught in a dead man’s shirt and when he tried to leap away he fell off balance. Instinct took over and just for a second his wing flicked out to assist in stabilisation. He carefully removed his foot and glanced about, fearful of anyone having noticed. Surely with such chaos surrounding them, nobody would have been watching the disfigured giant in a hood.

Ilgrin pulled his coat tight against the wind. Most people were busy with the wounded, but one man stared, pale-faced and shaking all over. He turned and ran away, quickly vanishing into the milling crowd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Seven

No More Hiding

 

 

By the time Ilgrin reached the front door, darkness had long since fallen. He slammed his fist several times against the wooden surface.

‘It’s me. Let me in,’ he hissed urgently.

‘Oh, thank Maker.’ Urelie dabbed at puffy eyes as she opened the door and ushered him inside. ‘Did they see you?’

‘What?’

‘Listen to me.’ Urelie put her hands on Ilgrin’s shoulders and stared penetratingly into his eyes. ‘Tell me it’s not true. Tell me they didn’t see you.’

‘No one saw me,’ Ilgrin replied with more certainty than he felt. ‘What’s wrong? Has something happened?’

‘Some creature—they’re calling it a demon—attacked the city,’ Urelie murmured in dismay. ‘I thought . . . ’

‘Urelie,’ Baen addressed her as he entered the room. ‘Calm yourself.’

‘You thought it was me?’ Ilgrin pulled away from his mother, unable to keep the hurt from his voice. ‘I could never have done what that thing did.’

‘I knew it couldn’t be true.’ Urelie threw out her hands. ‘People always exaggerate, but surely it’s not impossible for you to see why I’d fear rumours of a demon swooping about the city. You mustn’t blame me.’

‘You didn’t see it.’ Ilgrin put a hand to his forehead. ‘Whatever it was, it wasn’t a silt. It killed so many people. It must’ve been from a whisp, right?’ he asked. ‘That’s what they do isn’t it? Silts caused this. Maker, it all makes sense now. Some Elglair fellow was sniffing around after it happened. That must be why he’s here.’

‘Slow down,’ Baen ordered. ‘Elglair, you say? How do you know they’re not here for you?’

‘I don’t know.’ Ilgrin paced the room. ‘I don’t know what to think anymore.’

‘You do realise what this means, don’t you?’ Urelie enquired.

‘Not now,’ Baen warned her.

‘You mustn’t leave the farm anymore,’ she continued in a very serious tone.

‘What?’ Ilgrin’s jaw dropped. ‘You can’t be serious.’

‘Ilgrin,’ Baen said sympathetically, ‘they’ll be looking for you now. People don’t see what they don’t expect, but now they’ll be watching for silts. Your disguise won’t work.’

‘I can’t stay here forever!’

‘The Maker-damned Elglair are involved,’ Baen said though gritted teeth. ‘You need to stay here where we can protect you.’

‘I’ll go insane.’ Ilgrin raised his hands and backed away. ‘You can’t take away the only freedom I’ve got.’

‘You’re being a little dramatic, don’t you think?’ Urelie asked patronisingly.

‘I’m tired of being your prisoner.’ Ilgrin narrowed his eyes. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘That’s how you see this place, as a prison?’ Urelie cringed defensively. ‘This is your home. And they’ll kill you.’

Ilgrin sighed and looked away. ‘Maybe it’s time I returned to my people. You always said silts are evil, but it seems to me the real evil is right here in Sitnic.’

‘I can’t deal with this,’ Urelie choked through tears and hurried off to the kitchen.

‘Now look what you’ve done. You must be very proud of yourself.’ Baen shook his head disapprovingly and followed after his wife.

Ilgrin took the opportunity to escape to his bedroom. He shut the door and picked up an old leather-bound book. It was at least a hundred years old, having been written at a time when the very existence of silts was in question.

The book was entitled Mythological Creatures, and contained sketches of almost every being that anyone had ever dreamt up. Demons were listed not far before dragons, but there were also elves and trolls and other silly creatures.

Ilgrin flipped through the pages until he found the one he was looking for. Aside from its size, the scaly dragon on the page didn’t much resemble the creature he’d seen earlier. The page allocated to demons fell open on its own, the spine having become accustomed to doing so through wear. The sketch bore hideous fangs covered in green drool. Its eyes glowed red and it had a tail that flared at the end. Its legs were hairy and instead of feet, it boasted hooves. Ilgrin shook his head, freshly astonished by the author’s ignorance.

He closed the book and put it away. The illustration failed to disturb Ilgrin, who instead took great comfort in it. It served as a reminder that he was not really a demon at all. If humans could get their idea of a silt’s appearance so terribly wrong, it made sense that they’d gotten everything else wrong, too.

Ilgrin moved over to the window and rested his fingertips on the peeling frame. He stood there for a long time gazing at his reflection. There were no bony ridges along his spine, no evil glowing eyes or scales. He didn’t have claws or a tail. His inspection came to rest on his purple eyes, but movement beyond them quickly caught his attention.

Ilgrin put a hand up to the glass to block out the reflected lantern light so that he could better see. A small band of men argued across the street, their cloaks billowing in the wind. One of them shouted animatedly and pointed at the house. After putting out the lantern, Ilgrin returned to find the group of men staring up at his window. One of them looked familiar. Ilgrin felt a knot in his chest and wondered if it was the man who’d seen him stumble earlier that day. He stepped away with an overwhelming sense of dread. But Ilgrin had been through a lot. Surely his mind was playing tricks on him. He was just being paranoid. Ilgrin sat on his bed, tucked his knees up beneath his chin, wrapped his wings about himself and fell asleep in an upright position as he customarily did when feeling insecure. Perhaps a new day would bring with it fewer concerns.

When the morning arrived, Ilgrin decided that he’d been foolish to worry about the men on the street. He was clearly shaken by the events that’d unfolded earlier and had been worrying about nothing. The men could’ve been there for any number of reasons. He headed for the kitchen and scrounged together some bread and eggs for breakfast.

‘Mother?’ Ilgrin called when he was done, but there was no reply. ‘Father?’ Only silence answered him. They must’ve been working the farm. He picked up an inkwell and pen, scrawled a note explaining that he’d be back sometime after noon and left it on the table.

Ilgrin felt bad so blatantly ignoring his parents’ wishes, but he was old enough to make his own decisions. He needed time to think and after what’d happened yesterday, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to the city and see how things were going.

Unfortunately, when Ilgrin reached the city, he found that there really wasn’t all that much to see. Except for a few spots of dry blood, even the street in which the massacre had taken place had been swept clean. One could say a lot about Abnatians, but they certainly knew how to pull together in a crisis. Not wanting to go home, Ilgrin spent the day wandering. Most of the time he avoided people, but eventually got hungry enough to approach a market stall. He pulled his coat tight and yanked the hood as far forward as it would go.

‘May I have a loaf?’ Ilgrin asked, keeping his face toward the ground.

‘Um . . . certainly.’ The baker’s feet twitched uneasily. ‘My very finest.’ People tended to be intimidated by Ilgrin’s daunting figure.

‘Thank you,’ Ilgrin replied when the bread was placed on the bench and he reached out to pay. A firm hit in the side caused Ilgrin to miss his target and the coins bounced onto the road. ‘Hey!’ Ilgrin cried, spinning to face his aggressor. A brutish looking man stared back with a challenging smirk on his face. ‘Watch what you’re doing,’ Ilgrin grumbled. He was unable to bend over and collect the coins without revealing his wings, so instead he reached into his pocket to retrieve some more. This time the man slapped his hand and yet again the coins were lost. ‘What’s your problem?’ Ilgrin snapped.

‘You’re my problem.’ The man laughed, revealing an odour of alcohol and vomit. Another two thugs grinned from their position behind him.

‘Look.’ Ilgrin raised his hands and backed away. ‘I don’t want any trouble.’

‘Get back here.’ The aggressor grabbed a handful of Ilgrin’s coat and pulled him close. ‘You see him?’ He pointed at a man standing off to the side. It was the same man from the night before. ‘He’s a crazy old bastard that one,’ the thug laughed. ‘He paid me ten gold pieces just to do this,’ the words abandoned his lips before Ilgrin had the chance to pull away.

The man slapped his hand over Ilgrin’s head and with a sharp jerk yanked back his hood. It was such a simple gesture, requiring so little energy, but nothing would ever be the same again. The moment passed quickly and at the same time seemed to drag on forever.

The thug’s eyes bored into Ilgrin’s, going from nasty to surprised to fearful. The man stumbled and landed heavily on his backside. His jaw worked up and down but no sound came out. His friends abandoned him, turning to flee. Even the stranger who’d paid for the job now ran for his life. The baker fell back, shaking uncontrollably. Finally someone peddled through their shock and found the word Ilgrin had hoped so very desperately not to hear.

‘Demon!’ a woman screamed from across the street. Even to those who’d never seen a silt before, Ilgrin’s angular features, the colour of his eyes and shock of bluish black hair were unmistakable. ‘Demon!’ Other voices joined the woman’s cry. ‘Silt!’

Ilgrin gazed about his surroundings, looking . . . searching for a way to reverse what’d been done. People dashed in every direction, but a brave few began to brandish makeshift weapons: a farmer with pruning shears here, a hunter with a bow over there. Even peaceful Abnatians would not think twice before slaying a silt. Still, Ilgrin remained fixed to the spot. They’d only seen his face, but that was enough. They knew what he was. All was lost.

In one fluid motion, Ilgrin threw away his coat and flared wings, easily with a span of six strides from wingtip to wingtip. Such a gesture achieved its intended purpose. A disbelieving hush fell over those that’d refused to run. They were paralysed by fear, allowing Ilgrin the opportunity to bend his knees. Rhythmic screams and terrified howls rose up, reaching a feverish pitch as he beat his wings and ascended into the sky.

Something zipped passed Ilgrin’s face and it didn’t take long to realise that he was being shot at. He tore off his shoes and allowed them to fall as a second arrow passed beneath his feet. Ilgrin had a choice to make: he could fly higher than arrows could go and live off the hope that no one had a pistol, or he could fly low over their heads to prevent them from taking the risk of shooting. Even the death of a demon wouldn’t be worth the loss of human life.

Ilgrin pulled in his wings and dove. He caught himself sneering at the site of the scattering humans. Anger born from years of discrimination boiled to the surface and Ilgrin screamed in fury. They wanted a demon? They’d have their demon. He swooped over the terrified people, dragging on clothing and knocking off hats. He snatched up a man’s bag and tossed it into the air, sending papers scattering everywhere. They were all so scared. Ilgrin laughed even as tears ran down his cheeks.

‘Is this what you wanted?’ he cried, swooping over a group of young men, forcing them to dive for cover.

A young woman in a bright yellow dress stumbled as Ilgrin swooped. She glared with such ferocity that one would’ve thought he’d personally wronged her. Flaring his wings, Ilgrin slowed long enough to latch his toes around her arms and drag her into the air. He’d have a better chance of escaping if he had a hostage. At first the woman kicked and fought, but as they ascended higher and higher she began to cling to Ilgrin’s legs, fearful of falling.

‘What do you want from me?’ The girl cried.

‘My freedom,’ Ilgrin called over the wind.

‘Please don’t kill me,’ she begged.

‘I’m not going to kill you,’ Ilgrin said pityingly. ‘I’m no different from anyone else.’

‘You’ve kidnapped me!’ she shouted. ‘I hate you. You’re a demon. I hate you!’

Taken aback by her excessive display of aggression, Ilgrin looked down to make eye contact. ‘You don’t even know me.’

‘Oh, I know you,’ she laughed manically, her eyes becoming glassy. ‘Of course I know you! I have the knowing. I’m Elglair.’

Ilgrin swallowed fearfully. Her ordinary pupils told a different story, but the claim coupled with her strange behaviour made him nervous nevertheless. Having gained sufficient distance from the city Ilgrin banked toward the earth. ‘I’ll put you down,’ he told the woman, his eyes fixed on an empty field.

‘Don’t think you’ve seen the last of me,’ the woman snarled. ‘You’d better remember me. The day will come that I will slay you. All of you.’

‘What is wrong with you?’ Most people would’ve feared and even hated Ilgrin, but nobody behaved this way. It was as though she’d lost her mind. ‘I’m not evil!’ Ilgrin exclaimed, after putting the woman down safely in the middle of the gently sloping field. ‘If I was, I’d have killed you.’

The woman dropped to her knees and put a hand to her forehead. ‘What happened?’ She shook her head in confusion, seemingly having forgotten the whole experience. ‘Who are . . . ?’ She looked at Ilgrin and screamed.

‘Stop it.’ Ilgrin pounced, but the woman fell back, more fearful than before. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ He raised his hands and backed away. What’d he done to her? His parents hadn’t raised him to behave with so little respect for women.

‘There it is. Kill it!’ someone shouted from amidst an angry mob hurrying over a rise across the field.

‘You’ll be safe now.’ Ilgrin turned away. ‘People are coming. They’ll take care of you.’ He looked at the crowd. To them, he was no different from the creature that’d attacked the preceding night, a monster. He leapt into the sky.

After circling the city several times to confuse anyone that might’ve been tracking him, Ilgrin headed north. Once he was far enough away from the city, he flew in a wide semicircle until reaching the southernmost farming district. He landed in the farthest field at the back of the farm.

‘Wish me luck, Mother,’ he whispered at the small grey stone sitting beneath a large oak tree.

Ilgrin crept through the fields, staying low and weary of any movement. The distance to the farmhouse lessened without incident. He pushed open the back door and moved silently toward the front room.

‘Mother,’ he called. ‘Fath—’ The word stuck in his throat.

The smell of blood filled Ilgrin’s nostrils. Baen and Urelie were tied to kitchen chairs. Both had been beaten almost beyond recognition before finally having had their throats cut. A deep sob escaped Ilgrin’s lips as he stared into the dead eyes of the only parents he’d ever known.

‘No,’ he uttered, flexing his fingers. ‘Not like this. It doesn’t have to be this way.’ He marched through sticky red blood and touched his mother’s face. ‘I brought you back once. I can do it again.’

‘Now,’ a voice shouted and a moment later Ilgrin found himself surrounded. The leader dashed forward with a knife, but Ilgrin leapt aside causing the man to miss by a handswidth. He snapped his hand around the man’s neck and tossed him through the wall, which exploded in a shower of wooden debris. The man did not get up.

The other three charged. Ilgrin flared his wings threateningly, but knew he couldn’t defend himself properly in such confines. One of the men swung a sword, but it was wielded clumsily and without confidence. Ilgrin beat his wings once, raised his feet and kicked him in the chest. The man yelped as he sailed across the room. The other two imposters were stunned, allowing Ilgrin to take the opportunity to escape.

He ran for the door, yanked it open and leapt outside. There a fifth man was waiting. Ilgrin was taken so by surprise that he was left without time to react. The man threw back his arm and plunged a blade into Ilgrin’s shoulder, causing him to cry out in pain. He grasped the man’s head and slammed it so hard into the doorframe that it splintered the wood. Ilgrin stumbled away with a hand on his shoulder. He looked at his fingers to find them dripping with dark blue blood.

Fearing loss of consciousness, Ilgrin ran from his attackers. He beat his wings, but his shoulder screamed in protest, keeping him grounded. Something hit the back of his head, sending him sprawling on hands and knees. Ilgrin rolled onto his back, despite the discomfort the position brought his wings and shoulder. A small group of men surrounded him, carrying pitchforks and ancient swords. They looked rather proud of themselves. They’d caught a fearsome demon.

‘Go on then,’ Ilgrin choked out exhaustedly. ‘You’ve taken everything else.’

As spots danced across his vision one of the men lifted a pitchfork above his head, but before he could bring it down a deep rumbling sound stole his attention. The men turned around, their faces filling with terror. Their cries of alarm filled Ilgrin’s ears as they ran down the street. He turned to see what’d so frightened them. The monster from the day before slid its beak through Ilgrin’s trail of blood. It seemed confused, glancing at him once before screeching and continuing after his attackers.

‘Okay,’ Ilgrin whispered. ‘Get up.’ But his body refused, the loss of blood having left him light-headed and weak. ‘Get up,’ he panted, finally rolling over onto hands and knees to crawl away from the road. But to do so had been a mistake. The creature must’ve thought him as good as dead, but now that it had seen him moving it banked sharply in his direction. With what little strength remained, Ilgrin dove behind some dense shrubbery lining a rickety old fence. Spots played across his vision as the creature descended and darkness closed in.

Revelation 12

 

7. And there was war in Hae’Evun: Mi’Chael and his silts fought against the Devil, and the Devil fought with his silts, and prevailed not, their place could no longer be found in Hae’Evun.

8. And the great demon was cast out, that old silt, called the Devil, and Sa’Tan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the Earth for eternity and his silts were cast out with him.

 

12. And I heard a loud voice speaking within the Ways, Therefore rejoice, ye Hae’Evun, and ye who dwell there. Woe to the inhabitants of the Earth and the sea! For the Devil has come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

13. And when the Devil saw that he was cast unto the Earth, he persecuted a woman who could bring forth no child.

14. And to the woman was given the white of the middle eye, that she might escape to the frozen places, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and a half time, from the face of the Devil.

15. And the Devil cast out darkness from the silent bodies after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away in death.

16. But the Ways helped the woman, and the Ways opened up at her fingertips, and she caused the Devil great distress, his will being fruitless against her.

17. And the Devil was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant, which keep the commandments of Maker, and have his eternal blessing in the frozen places where he hath sent them.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Eight

Master Fasil

 

 

Seteal picked herself up, dusted off her dress, and gazed into the clouds in time to glimpse the silt fading against the declining sun. A moment later, she was surrounded.

‘Are you all right there, missy?’ a man asked, placing a hand on Seteal’s shoulder.

‘I’m fine.’ Seteal turned to face a middle-aged man in attire befitting a commoner. His breath was foul and his flesh was that of someone who’d spent too many years in the sun, but his eyes were kindly so Seteal adjusted her tone accordingly. ‘I’m sorry. You startled me.’

‘It didn’t hurt you, did it?’ The man narrowed his eyes worriedly. ‘Pretty little thing like you.’

‘No, I’m fine, thank you,’ she reassured the man, all the while discreetly trying to wipe away tears.

‘How rude of me,’ the man grunted. ‘I’m Master Fasil.’ He took Seteal’s hand and kissed it gingerly.

‘Seteal,’ she replied, retrieving her hand a little too hastily for common courtesy.

‘And whom, may I ask, do you belong to?’

‘Belong to?’ Seteal cringed. ‘I’m afraid you’ve been mistaken. I don’t belong to anyone.’

‘Pretty little thing, but none too bright,’ Master Fasil belly laughed. ‘It’s always that way with the better ones.’

‘I really must be getting back,’ Seteal excused herself.

‘That’s exactly my point!’ Fasil bent over and laughed so hard that he belched. ‘I left my carriage by the road on the other side of the field and I’d hate to see you getting into any more trouble. I’ll give you a ride wherever it is you’ve got to go.’

‘Thank you, but no,’ Seteal stepped back in a vain attempt to avoid the man’s pervasive breath. ‘I’ll make my own way.’ Master Fasil had somehow managed to keep Seteal occupied long enough that the crowd had dispersed. It was only when she began taking hurried strides across the field that she realised almost everyone was gone.

Seteal trotted through the long grass. She wouldn’t run. She needn’t look a fool. But she had to hurry, didn’t she? The man wasn’t normal. There was something off about him. Blood rushed by Seteal’s ears. She scarcely breathed, focusing instead on reaching the road . . . a road that was completely abandoned.

‘Come on, missy,’ the man called as he hurried after her. ‘Don’t be like that.’ He grabbed Seteal’s arm and yanked her to a stand-still. ‘I just want to help. It’s really no bother.’

‘No!’ Seteal shouted, a fearful lump growing in her chest. ‘Get away from me!’ She tore free of Fasil’s grip. Appearing foolish no longer mattered. She no longer had suspicions, but reasons to be fearful.

Master Fasil grabbed a handful of Seteal’s hair and with a force that stung her scalp, snapped back her head. He put his arms around her and blew his rancid breath in her face. ‘You needn’t have been that way, young missy.’ His tone was one of hurt. ‘I’m very gentle with good girls.’ As the words escaped his lips, Seteal felt him tracing a blade along her neck and down her breasts. ‘But you’ve been a naughty girl.’

‘Let me go,’ Seteal gasped. ‘Please!’ The word erupted from her lips, a desperate plea encased by raw emotion. Master Fasil slid his hand down her belly and reached lower to touch her inappropriately.

‘Get off me! Get off me! Get off me!’ Seteal shrieked, struggling against the man’s grip, fearing a fate worse than death. She drove her elbow into his stomach and managed to break free, but as she turned to run, a clammy hand snatched at her wrist. Pulling hard, Seteal freed herself a second time and caught off balance Master Fasil tumbled to the ground. Seteal threw herself in the opposite direction but he grasped her ankle and she fell onto her elbows, grazing them in the grass. And then her life was over.

At first, she fought back. She slapped him. In response, he beat her face until it was hot and bruised and swollen. She punched him. He choked her and slammed her head against the earth until blood gushed from her nose and her throat became almost impossible to breathe through. He violated her, pushing himself into her. He put his weight on her back and drove her face into the earth with every thrust. Seteal stopped fighting—not because she didn’t want to, but because her mind shut down, receding into a place of solitude. The pain formed a rhythm, misery to a beat that sang a jeering tune. Seteal squeezed her eyes shut and screamed for it all to end through a throat that couldn’t make a sound.

The rhythm changed. He moaned in pleasure, pushed her away and stared down at her as though she carried an incurable disease. Seteal was covered in mud. There was blood between her thighs. At first she wondered if he’d cut her, but that wasn’t it. Seteal rolled onto her side, gingerly putting her legs together and staring into the man’s eyes. They made contact for a brief moment, but he looked away to pull up his trousers.

‘I told you you’d been naughty,’ he muttered irritably.

A loud explosion tore through the evening and echoed throughout the field. In unison with the sound, Fasil’s chest erupted, spraying Seteal’s face with blood. The man fell first to his knees, his eyes having lost their life before he even hit the ground. Across the field a reedy man with a long white beard strode in her direction, a smoking pistol held in his hand.

 

*

 

Far-a-mael sat on the edge of his bed staring at the silver matchlock pistol he’d been forced to use the day before. Its flared barrel and leaf-work design put its origins in Jenjol. Far-a-mael detested the Jenjen, but they were admittedly innovative when it came to their weaponry. He sighed and put the gun on the bed beside him. He had hoped never to use it and felt like a hypocrite in doing so. Wasn’t it he who’d once preached so vehemently that an accomplished gil should need wield naught but the Ways in facing an enemy? But times were changing, he supposed.

Renewed wailing from the next room drove Far-a-mael to his feet. Poor Seteal. Far-a-mael gritted his teeth. Poor him! This had undoubtedly meant another delay and they were already pushed for time. He’d intended on leaving that morning and would’ve done so had that damned silt not plucking Seteal off the street. Far-a-mael tugged his beard in frustration.

A silt in Sitnic . . . why? The question drove him mad, constantly resurfacing in his mind. Why would there be a silt in Sitnic? And a lone silt, no less. Contrary to popular belief, silts were not entirely evil. Far-a-mael wasn’t so naïve as to believe it possible for anyone to be entirely evil. And knowledge developed through personal experience backed up his hypothesis. However, although not evil, silts were indeed dangerous and vile and needed to be wiped from the face of the world.

Their capacity to raise the dead made silts the greatest burden the world had ever known. Far-a-mael needed Seteal to be aware of that. He needed her not to get bogged down by all that womanly emotion. As far as she should be concerned, silts were demons constructed of purest evil, just as it said in the Holy Tome. Far-a-mael chuckled at the thought. Perhaps he hoped she wasn’t that foolish after all. Anyone stupid enough to believe in the Holy Tome would probably fall miserably short of what he’d planned for Seteal.

There was a soft tapping at the door. ‘Gil Far-a-mael?’ A voice called. Far-a-mael opened the door and raised his eyebrows. ‘Your meal.’ A young man raised a covered plate and sniffed at the steam wafting above it.

‘There’s no need for you to drool all over it.’ Far-a-mael waved him in. ‘Put it on the desk.’ He waited for the boy to leave before closing the door and making his way down the hall. He stopped at the next room and put his ear against the door. Silence.

‘What’re you doing?’ a voice whispered in Far-a-mael’s ear.

Far-a-mael leapt back in fright and slammed into the opposite wall. The ghastly serving boy had followed him. ‘That’s none of your business!’ Far-a-mael shouted. ‘Get out of here.’

‘I thought you Elglair couldn’t be surprised like that,’ the boy grumbled as he made his way back along the hall.

‘You whispered in my ear,’ Far-a-mael cried in retaliation. ‘You could’ve given me a heart attack, another thing that can indeed happen to the Elglair!’ The boy didn’t respond and disappeared around the corner.

Far-a-mael narrowed his eyes and frowned before again leaning against the door, which at the same moment swung open causing him to topple inside onto El-i-miir.

‘Gil’rei Far-a-mael,’ she gasped in surprise. ‘I heard you shouting.’

‘Get out,’ Seteal squeaked from her bed in the corner.

‘How are you doing?’ Far-a-mael barged past El-i-miir to approach Seteal.

‘Get out!’ she shrieked when he arrived at the bedside. ‘Get out!’

‘All right.’ Far-a-mael raised his hands and backed away from the hysterical girl. ‘We’ll talk tomorrow,’ he informed El-i-miir as he passed by. ‘Do something for her. Not too much or she’ll never recover, but just enough to ease her distress.’

‘I’ll make sure she gets some rest,’ El-i-miir replied, her aura brightening as she embraced the Ways. ‘Goodnight,’ she said before firmly closing the door.

‘Well then,’ Far-a-mael spoke to himself, feeling entirely useless. ‘I’ll just have my supper,’ he muttered, wringing his hands and heading back to his room. He removed the cover and stared at the plate on his desk with a look of disgust. They’d given him one of those hideous lobsters from Middle Sea. He’d ordered steak. ‘Incompetence,’ Far-a-mael grumbled, scooping up the plate and heading for the door.

‘Here,’ he tossed the plate onto the counter upon reaching the common room downstairs. ‘I can’t eat this. Fix me something else,’ he ordered the bony man behind the counter. No wonder he’d confused the order; a man so skinny couldn’t possibly have had a proper respect for food.

‘Is there anything the matter with it, my lord?’ The skinny man asked nasally as he twirled a finger around his red moustache.

‘Yes there’s something wrong with it,’ Far-a-mael replied distractedly as he watched a group of drunks entering through the front. ‘It’s not what I ordered.’

‘I’m afraid that it is, sir,’ the skinny man sniffed loudly and pulled his pants up around his waist. He seemed to be having a problem with their continual escape from his miniscule frame.

‘Excuse me?’ Far-a-mael stared flabbergasted.

‘You ordered lobster,’ the skinny man insisted.

‘Don’t you think I’d know what I ordered?’ Far-a-mael’s tone elevated to match his frustration. ‘I’m allergic to lobster. Why the torrid would I order it?’

‘Only you would know the answer to that, sir, since you’re the one who ordered it,’ he replied vehemently.

‘This is ridiculous.’ Far-a-mael put a hand to his forehead.

‘If you must have it,’ the man nodded enthusiastically, ‘I have the order slip right here.’ He retrieved a square of paper and traced his finger down its length. ‘Yes, yes that’s right. Says right here that you ordered the lobster.’

‘You wrote that!’ Far-a-mael barked.

‘Well, of course I did, sir,’ the man said in confusion. ‘You don’t think I got it wrong, do you?’

‘Oh, for the love of Maker,’ Far-a-mael grumbled in utter disbelief, ‘just get me a steak.’ He raised his hand and twisted the man’s aura, ensuring his harried obedience.

‘Yes, sir,’ the man scurried away, the order slip fluttering forgotten to the ground.

‘Hey!’ Far-a-mael called after him.

‘When you’re done, bring it to me at that table.’ He pointed out a spot with a view onto the street.

‘Yes, sir,’ the man replied, hurrying about his duties.

Far-a-mael made his way past the other patrons and sat down at a table decorated by a small candle that flickered on the occasional breeze entering through the open door. It’d started raining outside and the common room was becoming increasingly crowded.

‘Da ye mind if I be sittin’ with ye?’ The question was rumbled by a thick Merry Islander accent.

‘Just great,’ Far-a-mael muttered sarcastically. ‘Why not,’ he replied more loudly, having decided that he might as well see what news he could gather. So far from home, it was likely the Merry Islander would carry stories of the world.

‘I da appreciate it,’ the dark-fleshed man rumbled, sitting heavily and exhaling tiredly. His eyes widened and he slapped his bald scalp with a hand twice the size of Far-a-mael’s. ‘I’ve nah seen your type for some time.’ The fellow gazed into Far-a-mael’s eyes with unrestrained curiosity. ‘Could I get ye a drink, friend?’

‘How lovely,’ Far-a-mael uttered dryly.

‘Your lobster, sir,’ the nasally voice of the skinny chef set Far-a-mael’s teeth on edge. He stared at the plate in front of him. Lobster.

‘I ordered steak,’ Far-a-mael said through gritted teeth. ‘Twice.’

‘I’m certain you ordered the lobster, sir,’ the man replied, putting down a second plate in front of the Merry Islander.

‘Excellent.’ The big man clapped his hands together and ran his eyes over a juicy portion of steak partnered with golden potatoes. ‘Thank ye kindly.’

‘You got his order right,’ Far-a-mael thrust out his chair and loomed over the skinny man. ‘What the torrid is wrong with you?’ He barked so loudly that a hush fell over the surrounding patrons. ‘Fix it! Fix it properly or so help me you’ll face the wrath of the Eighth Cleff!’

‘But sir,’ the man withered, ‘you ordered the—’

‘Shut up,’ Far-a-mael snapped. ‘Steak, you fool.’ He snatched at the man’s collar and shook him. ‘Steak!’

‘Stop that.’ The Merry Islander rose to his feet and pushed the men apart. ‘It nah be decent to fight when there be ladies about,’ he said firmly. ‘If ye wanted steak, ye should’ve ordered it.’

‘I did,’ Far-a-mael slumped dejectedly. ‘I don’t suppose you like lobster?’ he asked the Merry Islander. ‘If you’ll trade with me I’ll pay for your meal. This fool seems incapable of following simple instructions.’ He stared daggers at the skinny man.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but I really didn’t—’

‘Enough,’ Far-a-mael snapped. ‘And it’s gil, not sir. You understand?’

‘Yes, sir—gil—gil-sir,’ the man blathered. ‘Can I get you a drink?

‘A cold ale.’ Far-a-mael glared at him as he scurried away.

‘Ye needn’t be so hard on him,’ the Merry Islander said, shaking his head in disapproval. ‘Here.’ He slid his plate across the table before retrieving Far-a-mael’s.

‘Oh, thank you, Maker!’ Far-a-mael picked up a knife and fork. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked the man across the table before sinking his teeth into a thick piece of meat, relishing the feeling as it slid down his throat.

‘Briel,’ he replied, cracking open the lobster with his beefy hands. ‘Briel Keaco. Yeself?’

‘Gil’rei Far-a-mael. What brings you to these parts?’

‘We be traders of the finest cloth,’ Briel replied as he scraped out the flesh of the lobster and put a chunk in his mouth using his fingers. ‘Linen, towels, curtains, and the such.’

‘We?’ Far-a-mael enquired.

‘My wife, Fes, and I.’ Briel sucked on one of his sausage-like fingers. Far-a-mael wrinkled his nose, disgusted by the man’s lack of table manners.

‘Where are you headed now, then?’

‘We be headed back to Merry Island,’ Briel answered. ‘We do a loop, ye see. When we be halfway out of stock, we turn the wagon ‘round and sell what be left on the way home. What about yeself?’

‘Your wine sir,’ the skinny man reappeared, placing a goblet in front of Far-a-mael, who merely rolled his eyes at the appallingly inaccuracy of service.

‘Didn’t ye order ale?’ Briel frowned.

‘Never mind.’ Far-a-mael shrugged. ‘The way we’re going, I could try all night and still not get what I want.’

‘Right ye are.’

‘Help!’ A man with the red face of an alcoholic stumbled into the common room, drenched from head to toe. ‘The horse,’ he cried. ‘The horse stole my cloak! Snatched it right off my back, he did!’

‘Sit down, you drunk fool,’ one of the younger patrons shouted as the man stumbled across the room.

‘I wonder what’s becoming of the world,’ Far-a-mael muttered, shovelling the last piece of the potato into his mouth with a look of disgust.

‘We be livin’ in disturbin’ times,’ Briel replied. ‘Ye heard about the silt?’

‘Of course.’ Far-a-mael frowned. ‘Who hasn’t? Troubling isn’t it?’

‘Makes ye wonder what the mongrels be doin’ so far north.’

‘Indeed.’ Far-a-mael stroked his beard. ‘On that note, what else have you discovered on your travels? I’ve been away from my cleff and haven’t received news of the world in quite some time.’

‘There be nah much ta tell,’ Briel rubbed a greasy hand across his shirt. ‘Kilk and Kilk Antet be lookin’ at wagin’ war again. Jenjol be formin’ a mysterious army around Veret. What else . . . ? Shinteleran be at civil war again,’ he finished with a shrug.

‘Listen, you seem to be an honest enough fellow,’ Far-a-mael began, having come up with an idea.

‘The Lord Maker be my witness.’

‘Then perhaps you can help me with a little problem of mine?’

‘And what da that be, Gil’rei Far-a-mael?’

‘There is a young woman with whom I’m travelling whose become ill of health.’

‘It nah be catchin’?’ Briel sat back sharply.

‘It’s nothing like that,’ Far-a-mael reassured him. ‘It’s something of a personal matter. Now, you say you’re heading for Merry Island, yes?’

‘That da be the case.’ Briel nodded slowly.

‘Then I imagine you’ll first be taking the road to Sat Elmore.’ Far-a-mael hesitated only a moment before going on. ‘You see, I’m afraid my young friend is too unwell to ride on horseback, but I’m in a terrible rush to get home in order to take care of some rather pressing matters.’

‘Ye want ta travel with us so the lady be able ta rest in the wagon,’ Briel stated, surprising Far-a-mael by his quick intelligence.

‘Yes,’ Far-a-mael replied. ‘In return, I’ll pay your way to the port of Ignish, including transport by boat to Veret, and you will have my sworn protection for the duration of our time together. You’re aware of the silt sighting and the kind of protection I am able to offer doesn’t ordinarily come cheap.’ Briel put his hands flat on the table, but remained silent. ‘Well, come on, man!’ Far-a-mael barked. ‘I’m offering you a deal you cannot refuse.’

‘Ye needn’t have offered me anythin’,’ Briel said at last, his eyes filling with compassion. ‘All ye had ta da was tell me ‘bout the young lady. I’ll nah let my conscience be bothered by her discomfort.’

‘Well,’ Far-a-mael sat back, ‘you are an unusual man, Mister Keaco.’ He reached out and shook the Merry Islander’s hand. ‘I’d very much like to leave at first light.’

‘That suites me,’ Briel nodded. ‘I da have one question though.’

‘What’s that?’

‘How da ye plan we get ta Veret by boat?’ Briel asked. ‘There’s nah direct route.’

‘There is,’ Far-a-mael kept his voice hushed.

‘Ye can nah be serious,’ Briel hissed. ‘Ye can nah go that way. There’ll be nah captain willin’ ta take us.’

‘I have already arranged it,’ Far-a-mael reassured the man. ‘So, yes, I very much intend on travelling through Cold Wood.’

‘Ye be a madman.’ Briel looked away.

‘I’m not mad,’ Far-a-mael disagreed. ‘I’m a gil. And I’ve been practising my discipline for well over a hundred and forty years. You’ll be safe with me, even through the heart of Cold Wood.’

‘Ye still be mad.’ Briel stared Far-a-mael in the eye. ‘But on the terms we’ve discussed, we’ll accompany ye.’

‘Good . . . oh, dear,’ Far-a-mael murmured more to himself than to Briel before touching his cheek. ‘Am I a little flushed?’

‘I nah be able ta tell behind ye beard.’ Briel frowned and leaned in for a closer examination. ‘Maybe a little. Ye said the illness was nah catchin’.’

‘It’s not that,’ Far-a-mael pulled back sharply. ‘It’s the lobster,’ he grumbled. ‘I’m allergic. There must’ve been some on your hand when I shook it.’

Briel raised his eyebrows sceptically. ‘We’d best hope there be nah lobsters in Cold Wood.’

 

*

 

It’d all been a horrible nightmare. No, it hadn’t. The pain between her legs told her that it hadn’t. The dull ache in her face and the grit between her teeth told her that it hadn’t. But she preferred to think of it as a nightmare so that perhaps on the fringes of sleep she could pretend it wasn’t real. It didn’t work.

She hated silts, deep and true. It was a loathing. But where did the hatred come from?

Seteal opened her eyes to find El-i-miir watching her from her place atop a straight-backed chair at the bedside. She tried to stop it, but couldn’t. She didn’t even know where it’d come from. The sob tore free of her chest. The sound was foreign. It wasn’t a sound Seteal was accustomed to hearing escape her throat, a deep, guttural moan.

In a wave of motion, El-i-miir was on the bed and wrapping Seteal in her arms, holding her tight. Her strange white pupils bore into Seteal’s soul and piece began to worm its way into existence.

‘Don’t,’ she sobbed. ‘Let me feel it. Let me know what I’ve become.’

Without a word the sorrow returned and El-i-miir remained, but only to hold her hand and stroke her hair. Seteal closed her eyes for a long time. Then she opened them. She wasn’t sure how she preferred them, open or closed? Open or closed? It seemed like a terribly important matter. But it wasn’t.

Some day she would cut off their wings and slice open their ugly blue hearts. She’d never before hated with such passion.

Seteal went to get up, but pain and fear stopped her. What was outside the blankets? What if it was too cold? What if someone wanted to hurt her? She wouldn’t be safe. She should stay put. The blankets would protect her. No, they wouldn’t. Seteal knew they wouldn’t. Nothing could protect her now. There was nothing left to protect. He’d taken what’d made her a lady. And it had to be him.

Was this Maker’s cruel joke? Did Maker sit on His throne laughing? Did He laugh? Was it funny to Him? Did He watch while it was happening? Did the all-powerful Maker just sit there and watch her suffer . . . have that stolen from her? Was it the irony He enjoyed, that it’d been a man to touch her, when it was not the touch of a man she desired? But Seteal didn’t believe in Maker. How could she put her faith in someone so cruel?

And the silt that’d left her alone in the field. For him, she would reserve special torment. She would enjoy killing him slowly. So that she could become a monster, too?

El-i-miir had been gone awhile. She returned later. Time moved awfully quickly . . . and also slowly. El-i-miir packed their bags at a hurried pace.

‘Seteal.’ Her face filled the world. ‘You need to sleep. Far-a-mael told me we’re leaving tomorrow.’

‘Leaving?’ Seteal’s voice sounded weak, even to her.

‘He said we have to get on with our journey.’ El-i-miir frowned. ‘He’s organised a wagon as transport and I’ve bought you some clothes.’

‘Why must we go on?’ Seteal looked El-i-miir in the eye, her lips cracking as she spoke.

‘Because we have to get you to the Frozen Lands.’

Seteal put a hand to her throat. ‘What for?’

‘You know what for,’ El-i-miir said defensively.

‘Do I?’

‘Of course,’ El-i-miir flushed pink and backed away. ‘Now, get some sleep. I have to see Far-a-mael.’ She hurried out the door, stumbling twice as she left.

The door slammed and Seteal found herself alone once more. She pulled back the blanket and lifted her night dress to look beneath it. El-i-miir must’ve cleaned her up at some point, although when exactly remained a mystery. Seteal put a hand on her cheek. It was inflamed and swollen. With a deep sigh, she dropped the blankets and rested her eyes.

‘Pretty little thing, but none too bright,’ Master Fasil smiled down at her.

Seteal sat up and screamed. The room was black. She leapt out of bed and stumbled while disabling pain sapped her strength. She sprawled across the floorboards and cried until a light was ignited and El-i-miir gathered her into her arms. She was wearing her nightdress. Seteal must’ve slept for hours.

‘It’s okay,’ El-i-miir whispered in her ear. ‘I’ve got you.’

‘I don’t even like men,’ Seteal sobbed bitterly. It seemed like such a silly thing to say, but she couldn’t force the thought from her mind.

‘I know,’ El-i-miir sighed, rocking her back and forth like a child. ‘I know.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deuteronomy 22

 

25. But if a man find a damsel in the field, and the man force her and lie with her, then the man that lay with her shall die.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Nine

The Bird, The Horse and A Demon

 

 

The pain in his shoulder caused Ilgrin to gasp before granting him a moment in recollection over what’d happened. He wondered how long he’d been unconscious and how deep the blade had penetrated. He remembered his parents’ empty expressions and the blood on the floor. Ilgrin gagged but suppressed the urge to vomit, instead shaking violently from the emotional trauma. It was dark and he wasn’t far from home. He could resurrect them . . . if only he could find a way to stand up. Branches scratched Ilgrin’s face, reminding him of his position, sheltered beneath the shrubbery.

At the sound of a rumbling snort, Ilgrin turned to discover an old white horse with a large brown spot on its back. The animal stared at him over a rickety fence as though it was surprised to see him.

‘Best you being careful,’ a scratchy voice whispered from the other direction. Ilgrin snapped toward the sound so quickly that something popped in his neck. ‘They looked for you for so very many times.’ The voice spoke with a note of concern.

Ilgrin peered through the dark and found no one but a little bird whose golden eyes caught and reflected the moonlight. ‘Was that you?’

‘I is Seeol,’ the figure approached and rubbed his beak across Ilgrin’s arm for a moment. ‘I saw when you landed you was going to sleepy times and waited for you to be awaken up. You have wings. Do you become a monster, too?’

‘A monster . . . no.’ Ilgrin pushed aside the branches and sat up. ‘I’m delirious.’

‘You’re not delirious, dearie,’ a deep but decidedly feminine voice reassured him from behind the fence. ‘He’s been talking all night,’ the horse finished as Ilgrin turned to face her.

Resting the back of his hand to his forehead, Ilgrin took a moment to gauge whether his temperature was above ordinary. Perhaps he’d developed a fever. ‘Did that horse talk just now?’ He enquired of the little bird, whilst acknowledging the absurdity of his decision to do so.

‘Yes, cutie,’ the bird bobbed his head energetically. ‘She talks, too. We is all animals who is talking.’

‘Did you just call me cutie?’

‘Cutie!’ Seeol squealed delightedly.

‘Be quiet,’ hissed the horse. ‘You’ll get us killed.’

‘Do you . . . know each other?’ Ilgrin questioned.

‘No,’ the horse replied. ‘We met when you collapsed.’

‘But you can both talk,’ Ilgrin whispered incredulously.

‘And I’m sure we both have marvellous stories as to how that’s possible, but right now we have more pressing matters requiring our attendance,’ the horse said with finality. ‘If those people find you, they’ll kill you. Maker only knows I’d have once done the same.’

‘You’re a horse!’

‘I wasn’t always a horse,’ Emquin said tenuously.

‘I’m not always an elf owl,’ Seeol said regretfully.

‘You were human, too?’ Ilgrin asked.

‘No,’ Seeol replied. ‘I’m not a big human.’

‘What’s your name anyway?’ the horse enquired.

‘Ilgrin.’

‘Emquin.’ She momentarily bowed her head. ‘We’re going to have to work together to get out of here alive. You’re too weak to get very far on your own and I’m offering you a ride if you can get me out of here.’

‘Why?’ Ilgrin asked suspiciously. ‘Shouldn’t you hate me?’

‘I’m too old to hate anyone, boy,’ Emquin snorted condescendingly. ‘Besides, I’m from Shinteleran. In the borderlands, we don’t cling to such naïve ideas about silts as the northerners do. Your kind are a daily occurrence and we’ve long come to realise the situation is not so black and white as many would have you believe.’

‘Shinteleran?’ Ilgrin exclaimed. ‘How did you end up in Sitnic?’

‘It’s a long story.’ Emquin stomped her hoof. ‘My current circumstances have me playing the role of a pet on a daily basis and I’m not sure how much longer I can keep it up.

‘You mean . . . ?’ Ilgrin trailed off.

‘They don’t know I was human.’

‘You wouldn’t tell them?’

‘I’ve tried that before.’ Emquin shook her head in dismay. ‘It never goes well. Last time I wound up as an attraction in a travelling circus.’

‘That must’ve been awful,’ Ilgrin sympathised. ‘Well, I’d be happy to help you out. Where’s the gate?’

‘It’s a little farther along the fence, but it’s locked. Try the tool shed,’ Emquin encouraged. ‘You should be able to find something to break the lock. It’s old and shouldn’t give too much resistance.’

Ilgrin stumbled as he tried to stand, a wave of nausea crawling through his intestines. ‘Are you all right?’ Emquin enquired worriedly.

‘Yes,’ Seeol replied. The others ignored him.

‘I think so,’ Ilgrin shook his head and stood. ‘I’m a bit dizzy, but should be okay.’

‘Just take your time,’ Emquin encouraged. ‘The night is young. There’s no rush.’

Ilgrin took a nervous step into the night, his breath held when he noticed men with torches pacing up and down the road, no doubt looking for him.

‘You sure about this?’ Ilgrin murmured. ‘I can’t see a thing.’

‘What is shed?’ Seeol piped in. ‘A little house?’

‘Yes, I suppose,’ Emquin replied dismissively.

‘Beside a big house?’

‘You can see it through the dark?’ Ilgrin asked.

‘What is dark?’ Seeol said back. ‘I see everything.’

‘Really?’ Ilgrin said, coming up with an idea. ‘Will you help me find something to set Emquin free?’

‘You need my help?’ Seeol asked excitedly, before buzzing through the air and landing atop Ilgrin’s head. ‘I want to be your friend. Let’s help do things together!’

‘Okay,’ Ilgrin whispered. ‘But you must remember to be quiet.’

Shhhhhhh,’ Seeol made a shushing sound. ‘Quiet times.’

‘Come on, Seeol.’ Ilgrin removed the bird from his head and placed him to perch on a finger. ‘Guide me to the shed.’

‘Yes. I can see the little house. Be sneaky, though. There are naughty men on the street.’

‘Can we make it without being noticed?’

‘I do hope so,’ Seeol replied. ‘They don’t have such good eyeballs.’

‘Right,’ Ilgrin murmured. ‘Here goes.’ Staying as low as possible, he hurried across the lawn, past the front of the house and over to the little shed. He threw himself against it and ducked into the shadows. ‘Did anyone see?’ He gasped for breath, realising abruptly he’d been holding it the whole time.

‘I saw,’ Seeol replied.

‘Anyone else!?’

‘No . . . no, I don’t think so,’ Seeol shook his head, the human gesture appearing strangely foreign to an owl. Ilgrin wondered who’d been responsible for training it such unusual tricks. ‘There is a door to go iside.’

Ilgrin slid his hand along the wooden surface until he felt cool steel. He turned the handle and pulled. A soft thump spiralled into the night and Ilgrin waited in frozen anticipation. He slid into the shed, making sure to leave the door ajar. ‘What do you see?’ he whispered.

‘Sharp stuff.’ Seeol’s rather limited capacities in speech were making things difficult.

‘Can you see anything that might be strong enough to break a lock?’

‘What’s a lock?’

‘Okay.’ Ilgrin tapped his lip thoughtfully. ‘Can you see any giant scissors . . . or a really large knife?’

‘I know what scissors are,’ Seeol replied. ‘El-i-miish has some.’

‘Right.’ Ilgrin scratched his head, not having the faintest idea of who or what an ‘El-i-miish’ was. ‘Well, can you see any?’

‘Yes!’ Seeol cried victoriously, before quickly reprimanding himself with a quiet shushing sound. ‘Put your hand high. Higher.’

‘Here?’ Ilgrin asked, feeling along a shelf above his head.

‘More left,’ Seeol said.

‘Got it,’ Ilgrin whispered, clasping the smooth handles of a bolt-cutter. ‘Let’s go.’

‘Let’s save Emquin.’ The owl fluttered up and danced atop Ilgrin’s shoulder. ‘Yay!’

‘Emquin,’ Ilgrin hissed as he ducked down beside the fence.

‘Did you find anything?’

‘Bolt cutters.’

‘Perfect,’ the horse said with obvious relief. ‘Quickly now. It’s over here.’ The horse lead Ilgrin back from the house until they came to a small gate.

‘I have to go home,’ Ilgrin whispered. ‘I’ll let you out, but I have to see if I can do anything for my parents.’

‘What happened to your parents?’

‘They—’ the words caught in his throat. ‘They were killed.’

‘Just how many silts are there around here?’

‘Not silts.’ Ilgrin frowned. ‘My human parents.’

‘I see.’ A look of understanding crossed the horse’s face. ‘But if they’re dead, there’s really nothing you can do.’ She narrowed her eyes accusingly.

‘There is,’ Ilgrin insisted. ‘They’re my parents. I have to do it.’

‘Even if you did seek to perform so vile an act,’ Emquin said warningly, ‘it’s already far too late.’

‘What do you mean?’ Ilgrin asked wearily.

‘Even silts have their limitations,’ Emquin said candidly. ‘Your parents must’ve died hours ago. They’ll be far too dead for what you’re intending.’

‘I have to try,’ Ilgrin said pleadingly.

‘Then you’re a fool and you’ll be killed,’ the horse reprimanded him. ‘Don’t you think they have men waiting at your house? Don’t you think they’ll be expecting your return? Your parents are too dead to be saved. You have to leave it be, or else die trying to do the impossible.’

Ilgrin slumped. ‘You’re right.’ His voice revealed the deflation he felt. He wasn’t even sure he’d have been willing to bring them back if he could, such was the conflict within him. Ilgrin hefted the bolt cutters and with an echoing crack the lock fell away and the gate squeaked open.

‘You there,’ a voice called from the street. ‘Show yourself!’

‘And that would be our cue to leave,’ Emquin murmured apprehensively. ‘Quick, hop on.’ With no need for further prompting, Ilgrin leapt onto the horse’s back.

Seeol’s sharp claws dug into Ilgrin’s arm as Emquin galloped onto the road.

‘Stop!’ The man shouted after them. ‘Silt,’ he cried, having noticed Ilgrin’s wings. ‘Stop or I’ll shoot,’ the voice warned, waiting no more than a second before firing an arrow that swished right by Ilgrin’s head.

‘Hurry,’ he called.

‘What do you think I’m doing?’ Emquin snapped as she abandoned the roadside and galloped into the open plains. Despite valiant efforts on the part of their pursuers, human legs were no match for the speed of a frightened horse and before long they fell away into the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Ten

A Thief in the Night

 

 

‘Good morning.’ Emquin’s perpetually maternal voice filled Ilgrin’s ears. He opened his eyes to find himself situated in a small cave rendered naked by sunlight.

‘We’re alive,’ he rasped groggily, sleep having failed to relieve Ilgrin’s exhaustion. ‘I’m starving.’ He put a hand on his stomach, dismayed by the fact that he hadn’t eaten since the morning before. The morning before . . . could it really have been just yesterday that he’d enjoyed an ordinary meal within the loving confines of a family home? So much had happened. So much was lost. It was a nightmare.

‘Indeed we are.’ Emquin nodded her long head. ‘Few people know this place. I’ve stayed safe hiding here a few times.’

‘Where’s the bird?’

‘Seeol?’

‘That’s right.’ Ilgrin sat up, but failed to do so without cringing at the pain in his shoulder.

‘He’s sleeping down the back.’ Emquin raised her nose toward the shadowy depths of the cave. ‘He was confused by the idea of sleeping at night.’

Ilgrin stood up and examined his shoulder reluctantly. ‘So what’s your story?’

‘What’s yours?’ Emquin evaded the question. ‘What is a silt doing in Sitnic?’

‘I’ll tell if you tell,’ Ilgrin offered, before something glistening caught his eye. ‘What is that?’ He pointed at a small collection of dead insects, lizards, and beetles atop a flat stone.

‘Seeol gathered those.’ Emquin’s thick black lips moved most unnaturally in their replication of human speech. ‘He was certain you’d be hungry.’

Ilgrin wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘I can’t eat that.’

‘I know, dearie,’ the horse said dryly, ‘but we needn’t tell him, must we? The poor little thing spent the whole night collecting those for you.’

‘Of course I won’t tell him.’ Ilgrin absent-mindedly slid fingers over the stubble on his chin. ‘So, forgive me for asking, but it’s more than just a little odd meeting two talking animals in one night.’

‘I’m hardly an animal,’ Emquin said stuffily. ‘I used to be human. I lived in the capitol of Shinteleran, a place far too close to Old World for the good of its inhabitants. I fought in the royal army and expected to die in battle, but a whisp got me first. I was riding my horse one moment and the next I was trapped inside her mind, my human body having become an empty vessel that fell from her back.’

‘That’s horrible,’ Ilgrin murmured.

‘You don’t know the half of it.’ Emquin shuddered. ‘It used to be much worse. When it first happened, I had no control. I was simply stuck, observing through the eyes of my horse, unable to interact with the world around me. But one day, I managed to make her blink. It took years of practise, but eventually I took her over.’

‘So what happened to the horse?’

‘She’s still here with me,’ Emquin said apologetically. ‘She observes the world through my eyes now. I often feel her fear. I wish I could tell her what has happened to us, but her simple mind would never understand.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Ilgrin averted his eyes, horrified by the idea of being paralysed in one’s own body. ‘So how come you can talk? I mean, sure you were once human, but horse lips don’t work that way, right?’

‘I was stumped by that for a long time.’ Emquin gazed out of the cave. ‘Why should I be cursed so deeply only to be left this small relief? As the years passed by it became clear. My ability to speak was the whisp’s final cruel blow. When I asked for help, people locked me away and sold me for ridiculous prices. They forced me to perform in circuses and traveling shows. In the end, I learnt to keep my mouth shut.’

‘How did you wind up in the field where we met?’

Emquin frowned. ‘I realised my only hope in becoming human was with the Elglair. At home, we hear such fanciful stories about the people of the Frozen Lands. I’m sure most of them can’t be true, but it’s the only hope I’ve got. I left Nobell to go north, but a horse without a rider doesn’t make it very far. I’ve been captured and escaped on many occasions, but this most recent one was especially tricky. I was stuck in that field for at least a year.’

‘I don’t know what to say.’ Ilgrin sighed. ‘People can be awful.’

‘What about you?’

‘My story isn’t nearly as interesting.’ Ilgrin shrugged. ‘My father heard a strange noise one night. When he went to investigate, he found my birth mother outside with a silver-tipped arrow through her heart. Her arms were locked around a baby silt. And that was me.’

‘You can’t have been raised in Abnatol,’ Emquin said in astonishment.

‘Believe it or not,’ Ilgrin grumbled.

‘Abnatians are kind people.’ Emquin nodded. ‘But even if someone had taken you in, how could they have possibly kept you secret for so long?’

‘We have . . . we had a farm.’ Ilgrin felt a wave of emotion as he remembered his family: building a tree-house together, hanging a swing in the tree, learning to ride his first horse. ‘It wasn’t always fun, but there was plenty of room to hide—until recently, anyway.’

‘So you’ve never been to Old World?’ Emquin asked uneasily.

‘I’ve never seen another silt.’

‘May Maker be so merciful as to keep it that way,’ Emquin said emphatically. ‘Their world is a confusing one. Any morals they might’ve once had were long ago utterly corrupted. They can’t tell right from wrong anymore.’

‘I refuse to believe that they’re all the same.’

‘It’s not that they’re evil.’ Emquin frowned. ‘It’s worse—they’re selfish. When someone dies, they resurrect them, then when the whisp floats off to kill someone else, they get resurrected, too. This goes on and on until at last the whisp finds a human to prey upon. We can’t resurrect our dead,’ the horse finished in an accusatory tone.

‘I’m going to find something to eat,’ Ilgrin murmured uncomfortably. He picked up the insect-covered stone and exited the cave.

He didn’t know what to make of Emquin. It was easy to criticise, but she didn’t know what it felt like to live with the option of raising the dead. When Ilgrin had found his parents’ bodies, he would’ve resurrected them had he been allowed the chance to do so. Not for selfish reasons, but for selfless ones. In that moment of devastation, no one was so cold. Ilgrin had never known pain like that which he felt on finding his parents as they were. He wanted nothing more than to bring them back so that they could live the long and happy lives that they deserved. In that moment, all he could do was see death and know he had the power to reverse it.

Resurrection was more complicated than Emquin insinuated.

Ilgrin dug a small pit in the earth, emptied into it Seeol’s collection of dead things and covered them with dirt. He rolled his neck and eyed the trees in search for anything recognisably edible, but found nothing.

‘There’s a stream down that way,’ Emquin said after exiting the cave and nodding downhill. ‘There’s a collection of plants covered in blackberries this time of year.’ She eyed Ilgrin and for a moment he thought he detected a look of disapproval. ‘You might like to wash while you’re down there.’

‘Thanks,’ Ilgrin replied, realising then that his shirt was stained blue with blood.

When Ilgrin found the stream he threw himself in fully clad. The water was freezing and bit into his shoulder relentlessly, but he ignored the pain and greedily drank the refreshing liquid. Taking off his shirt painlessly proved to be challenging, but after some wriggling about Ilgrin was able remove it for scrubbing in the water. Most of the staining came out, but in some places the garment remained tinted.

Mud squelched up between Ilgrin’s toes as he made his way onto the bank where he hung his shirt over a branch to dry. He found himself surrounded by the plants Emquin had spoken of and began picking handfuls of berries to feed his ravenous hunger.

After about half an hour in the morning sun, Ilgrin’s shirt had dried relatively evenly. He reached out to pick it up, but hesitated. Although he was scared to do so, Ilgrin knew that he should inspect the wound on his shoulder. He turned to look and winced at the site.

The wound wasn’t excessively long, but it’d been split wide open, telling the tale of its depth. The knife had penetrated muscle and now pus forced its way out around a semi-dried and crusted scab. Ilgrin would have to be careful to keep it clean if he hoped to avoid serious infection. He stretched his wing cautiously, but his breath caught in response to a stabbing sensation that ran down the length of his arm. Flight was out of the question and would be so for some time.

With special care, Ilgrin slithered back into his shirt and made his way back toward the cave. As he approached he slowed down to the sound of animated conversation.

‘It’s the only way.’ Emquin’s voice echoed off the smooth rock walls.

‘But what if it tries to eat us,’ Seeol chattered back. ‘You said they does scary, naughty activities.’

‘And I wasn’t exaggerating,’ Emquin replied. ‘But there’s no way we’ll make it without him.’

‘I don’t—’

‘Quiet,’ Emquin hushed the owl as Ilgrin entered the cave. ‘There you are,’ she said, flabbergasted.

‘You looking better than gorgeous,’ Seeol bobbed his head. ‘You have a clean and spiffy shirt.’

‘Thank you,’ Ilgrin said, pausing for a moment before continuing. ‘I’m not interrupting anything, am I?’

‘Of course not, dear,’ Emquin shifted her hoof uncomfortably. ‘We were just wondering what you have planned now that . . .’ she trailed off.

‘Now that my parents are dead and the whole country is looking for me?’ Ilgrin said bluntly.

‘Yesh,’ Seeol scrabbled across the earth until he stood at Ilgrin’s feet, locking his motionless eyes on his. ‘Does you have plans?’

‘I hadn’t thought about it, to be honest.’ Ilgrin scratched his head. ‘I’ll probably go to Old World. It’s about time I learnt the truth.’

‘Oh, you don’t want to do that,’ Emquin cautioned. ‘They’ll make a meal out of an innocent thing like you.’

‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe that,’ Ilgrin said defensively. ‘There must be others like me.’

‘I suppose.’ Emquin glanced at Seeol nervously. The bird looked back at her, but said nothing.

‘Well, go on, then.’ Ilgrin raised his hands. Clearly they’d been discussing an alternative plan in his absence. ‘Out with it.’

‘Well . . . we were hoping you might assist us in reaching the Frozen Lands,’ Emquin spoke hesitantly. ‘Horses don’t get very far without a rider.’

‘They can fixes us,’ Seeol screeched overexcitedly as he spun in circles kicking up tiny clouds of dust. ‘El-i-mish . . . El-i-miir! El-i-miir never told us this could happen but they can fixes horses to humans again and maybe make sure some little owls don’t become too big and ugly anymore.’

‘I have no idea what any of that meant,’ Ilgrin said slowly.

‘I need to find Mish Mish,’ Seeol barked. ‘El-i-miish will make us better than ever.’

‘Right.’ Ilgrin frowned. ‘So you think the Elglair might be able to give you a human body?’ He directed the question at Emquin, having given up on trying to interpret the elf owl’s ramblings. ‘That sounds a little far-fetched, even for the Elglair.’

‘It’s the only hope I’ve got,’ Emquin said ruefully.

‘What’s in it for me?’ Ilgrin frowned. ‘I mean, it’s not like this comes without risk. Do you know what the Elglair will do if they discover me?’

‘Probably torture and kill you,’ Emquin replied, not bothering to water down what they both knew was the truth. ‘But without our help, you’d have been killed in Sitnic. You owe us this.’

‘I freed you,’ Ilgrin snapped defensively. ‘That makes us even.’

‘Please.’ Emquin’s voice was strained. ‘You’ve gone your whole life without going south. Can’t you give us just a few more weeks? That’s all we’re asking for, a month or so to help some friends.’

‘Yes.’ Seeol twitched his head toward Ilgrin. ‘Please help us have happy times. You don’t know what it’s like to become all big and horrible and be eating yucky things and having lots of blood in the air.’

‘Again.’ Ilgrin raised a hand toward Seeol. ‘Not making any sense.’ There was a silent moment after which Ilgrin sighed in defeat. ‘I’m not going all the way. The Elglair will know what I am the second they lay eyes on me. I’ll go as far as the northern border of Egsean, and no farther.’

‘Oh, thank you.’ Emquin’s voice was full of emotion. ‘If I could hug you, I would. I’ve waited so long for this.’

‘Yes.’ Seeol bounced on his toes. ‘And we can play games with Seteal! She is fun and likes to do fun things and scratches my head sometimes.’

Ilgrin stared at the bird for a long moment, wondering not for the first time if Seeol even knew what he was saying or if it was just garbled mimicry. He turned back to Emquin. ‘First of all, I’m going to need a cloak.’

*

 

It hadn’t been long since nightfall, but already Emquin was finding it difficult to navigate the gloom. Seeol took it upon himself to guide her to the road into Sitnic. ‘Can you see better now?’

‘Yes, thank you, Seeol,’ Emquin murmured, reminding him of the importance of staying quiet.

‘I will keep my eyeballs out for carriages,’ Seeol hissed. He continued when Emquin failed to reply. ‘Where did we go to?’ he asked directly into the animal’s ear.

‘Wherever there are drunks,’ Emquin replied.

The pair wove through the streets of Sitnic, Emquin making close acquaintance with the shadows while keeping the clapping of her hooves to a minimum. The outer districts were quiet, but the city centre was filled with the usual drunken merriment of a Saturday night.

‘Whoa, steady girl,’ Seeol cautioned.

‘Excuse me?’ Emquin choked out, apparently having taken offense to the way Seeol had addressed her.

Seeol bobbed his head enthusiastically. ‘That makes horses stop.’

‘What is it?’ Emquin asked irritably, coming to a stop in the shadows.

‘Waiting here,’ Seeol ordered, having recognised the distant sound of human footfall. He flew up onto a street lantern which squeaked annoyingly on the breeze. A small group of men stumbled toward them from about a block away.

‘Seeol,’ Emquin hissed from below. ‘What’s going on?’

‘We have to go away,’ Seeol replied after alighting atop Emquin’s mane.

‘No, we don’t.’ Emquin tossed her head, the action almost causing Seeol to lose his grip. ‘There’s an inn just down the road.’

‘Peoples are coming,’ Seeol warned. ‘Ones dizzy from thirstiness.’

‘Oh.’ Emquin jolted in alarm. ‘Do you see another way around?’

‘Hide,’ Seeol warned as the men’s approach became increasingly loud to his ears. ‘This is not far. Get into this little street.’

‘Where?’

‘Turn right.’ Seeol bit Emquin’s ear, which prompted the reaction he’d hoped for.

‘Ouch,’ Emquin yelped, turning sharply into the safety of an alleyway. There was barely enough room for her to turn around, but somehow she managed to do so in time to watch the men stumble past.

‘I could’a had one more drink,’ one of the men stated before somehow managing to simultaneously burp and take a drag on his cigarette. This was followed by a doubled-over coughing fit.

‘All right, Den boy?’ Another man patted him on the back. ‘I think you’ve had about enough.’ The men filled Seeol’s vision for a second and then they were gone, leaving nothing behind but the stale smell of smoke and alcohol.

‘Here wait,’ Seeol ordered. He flew to the ground and popped his head around the corner. ‘Come on,’ he hissed, zipping back up onto Emquin’s head when he was certain the coast was clear.

Emquin cautiously moved onto the street. ‘If you ever bite my ear again, I’ll be having owl stew for supper,’ she grumbled.

‘Hey!’ A young man grunted, struggling to do up his pants after urinating on a barber shop. ‘Someone lost a horse?’ He bellowed at nobody.

‘Not again,’ Emquin glowered.

‘Quickly,’ Seeol urged. ‘There’s an inn one little way down street. One man is wearing some lovely cloak that could hide wings from prying eyes whilst drinking his very favourite thirst-quencher.’

‘How could you possibly know that?’ Emquin picked up her pace to a hurried trot.

‘I see lots better than anyone.’ Seeol shrugged his wings, taking the opportunity to practice a human gesture. ‘You should hurry many times faster. They want to capture you,’ he said in alarm when he observed a group of men hurrying after them, the leader being the man who’d urinated on the barber shop. Emquin launched herself into a gallop.

Seeol released his grip on Emquin’s mane and flew ahead. ‘Follow me.’

‘I can’t see you,’ Emquin wailed.

‘Get the cloak,’ Seeol shrieked as they tore past a crowded inn. Emquin spun around so quickly that for a moment Seeol feared she would topple over.

‘Sorry, but I need this,’ she said, snatching a long black cloak from the back of a red-faced man.

‘That’s mine,’ the man cried as Emquin continued on her way without a backward glance. The cloak billowed about her as she ran, occasionally flapping over her face as she clenched it between her teeth.

Rope whipped through the air and a lasso snapped around Emquin’s neck to the victorious cries of men. The horse yelped as her body jarred sideways and her neck was craned uncomfortably. The cloak flew out of her mouth and landed in a bunch on the road.

‘Seeol!’ The word bubbled up, a panicked cry for help.

With eyes on fire, Seeol banked toward his friend’s aggressor and dove. He raked his talons forward at the last possible moment to gouged deep red lines across the man’s face. He yelped and let the rope go.

‘Where’s the cloak?’ Emquin bellowed, shaking off the lasso.

‘Over here.’ Seeol landed atop the garment. Emquin hurried over and picked it up in her teeth before turning to find herself standing face to face with the friends of the man who’d attacked them.

A gush of air escaped the horse’s nostrils as she took a menacing step forward and placed a hoof on the leader’s shoe. She glared into his eye.

‘Get out of my way,’ came the muffled warning through folds of cloak, ‘or I’ll crush every bone you have.’

The men fell back, their expressions revealing disbelief. Seeol took the opportunity to support Emquin’s threat. ‘And I will bite you so hard.’

‘Let’s get out of here.’ Emquin said, taking advantage of the men’s confusion to hurry back through the city without slowing down until they reached the woods. From there they moved slowly, Seeol having to guide every step.

‘Forward the steppings,’ he encouraged Emquin as she moved through the dark.

‘I think I can see it now,’ she replied, peering anxiously toward firelight glowing in the cave mouth. Seeol wondered not for the first time how such enormous eyes could be so utterly useless.

‘There you are.’ Ilgrin stood up as Emquin approached the cave. ‘You got it,’ he observed. ‘How?’

Emquin dropped the cloak. ‘Drunk people never take proper care of their cloaks.’

‘She stole it,’ Seeol added bluntly.

‘Our need is greater than his,’ Emquin replied defensively.

‘He’s probably gotten so cold by now.’

‘Look, do you want to stop becoming big and scary or whatever it is you think you are, or not?’ Emquin stomped in frustration. ‘Because I need to be human again.’

‘Well,’ Ilgrin said when Seeol refused to say anything further, ‘we should get some sleep.’

‘Sleeping again,’ Seeol snapped. ‘You practice sleeping every night.’

Ilgrin rubbed his forehead. ‘We sleep at night. It’s what we do.’

‘I’m not comfortable with that.’ Seeol puffed out his feathers, tipped his wings toward the ground, and started swaying from side to side.

‘What are you doing?’ Emquin cocked her head.

‘I’m looking big and scary for intimidation.’

‘It’s not working.’ Ilgrin raised his eyebrows. ‘You’re tiny.’

‘Fine!’ Seeol shrieked and vanished to his roost at the back of the cave. He’d decorated the small ledge with grass and feathers to ensure a comfortable rest. ‘Shleepy times now!’

‘He gets cranky, doesn’t he?’ Emquin chuckled.

‘Seems like it.’ Ilgrin crouched on his haunches.

Emquin lowered herself with a heavy thud, folding her legs at the knee. ‘Goodnight.’

‘Night.’ Ilgrin wrapped himself in his wings and closed his eyes, allowing his head to hang against his chest.

Unable to sleep, Seeol perched in silence for many hours stewing in irritation. Travelling by day was stupid. Predators could too easily eat you. These animals thought they were invulnerable just because they were big and fat, but they were just being silly. Seeol retracted his leg into his feathers and tucked his head behind a wing in the hope of finding sleep.

When Seeol awoke to find the cave awash with bright sunlight, he was astonished that he’d managed to drift off. He flew over the others and landed on the grass outside. What was there to eat at this time of day? Seeol took cautious steps, keeping an eye on the sky for fear of birds of prey.

Something glistening in the periphery of Seeol’s vision caught his attention. He immediately knew what it was and hopped toward the unmistakable sheen of a green lizard’s tail where it poked up out of the earth. He snatched it in his talons and pulled. But something was wrong. The lizard was dead and had been for some time. To make matters worse, the whole collection Seeol had gathered for Ilgrin came up with it. Why had he rejected all that food? Seeol felt hurt, but chewed idly on the lizard’s tail nevertheless as Ilgrin exited the cave with a yawn and a stretch.

His eyes widened in surprise. ‘Oh . . . Seeol.’ An awkward silence followed before the silt burst out laughing. ‘I’m being ridiculous. It’s just an owl.’ Hhe chuckled. ‘Guess you caught me, huh?’ He smiled as though Seeol’s labour meant nothing.

‘It took me ages to get these ones.’ Seeol flicked his tail in distress. ‘You didn’t even eat the green lizard,’ he said, squeezing the mangled reptile between his toes.

‘I didn’t.’ Ilgrin raised his hands arbitrarily. ‘I don’t eat that kind of food,’ he said, without bothering to suppress his mocking smile. Clearly it was all a big joke to him.

‘The green ones are especially delicious!’ Seeol threw the lizard into the dirt and scurried to hide behind a tree. He could hear Ilgrin laughing. He’d thought they were friends, but had clearly been mistaken. Seeol wanted to find El-i-miir and Seteal more than ever. They were his real friends, not this stupid silt and stupid horse. They’d taught him to talk and stroked his head. He couldn’t wait to tell them all about how mean Ilgrin was. They would have cups of tea and laugh. They would all laugh at Ilgrin together and see how much he liked it. Seeol had a feeling he wouldn’t like it at all.

It didn’t take long before thoughts of El-i-miir and Seteal caused Seeol’s mood to further degrade. After what he’d done in Sitnic, how could he expect them to even want to be his friends anymore? They probably hated him now. So much blood . . . Seeol cringed inwardly. Why couldn’t he stop it? There had to be a way to resist it. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He loved humans.

No . . . finding El-i-miir and Seteal could not become his priority. He needed to remain focused on what was important, getting to the Frozen Lands so the gils could fix him.

When Seeol emerged from his hiding place, he did so to find Ilgrin chewing on some kind of orange root. So he’d eat bits of trees, but not proper food? Ilgrin sure was a confusing animal.

‘Hurry up,’ Seeol ordered. ‘We have to hurry about our way.’

‘He’s right,’ Emquin agreed as she exited the cave. ‘You should try on your new cloak.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Eleven

Stranger on the Road

 

 

To describe Sitnic as a mess would be to profoundly understate the truth. Far-a-mael felt regret for that which the people had been forced to endure, but contempt for their desperation in pretending the truth to be contrary. They were given away by solemn expressions and auras that oozed with anxiety. The seeol’s attack needn’t have turned out so badly. For a city of its size, too few people carried weapons. There were no pistols or even swords. A country obsessed with peaceable ways was a country bound for destruction.

Something glimmered against the road ahead. Far-a-mael narrowed his eyes to read the slender tendril of an aura. He yanked on the reins and drew his horse to a halt as a small boy raced across the road following a path already laid out by the Ways.

‘Fool,’ Far-a-mael barked at the child, his heart pounding.

Across the road, there was a familiar stain that lead further down the street. Far-a-mael followed it until he spotted Briel’s unmistakeably bulky figure leaning against a bright red wagon. Beside him stood a portly woman who could’ve been none other than his wife.

‘Good morning, Mister Keaco,’ Far-a-mael announced when he was within earshot. ‘Mistess Keaco.’ He nodded at Fes.

‘Gil’rei.’ The dark woman wobbled as she curtsied. Atop her head sprung innumerable lengths of plaited hair from beneath a bonnet that’d once been white. Her clothing revealed the status of a commoner, just as Far-a-mael had expected from his meeting with her husband.

‘My name is Gil Far-a-mael of the Eighth Cleff,’ he stated grandly. ‘I thank you both for your kind hospitality in regards to this unfortunate matter. Rei El-i-miir is assisting the young woman of whom we spoke yesterday. It shouldn’t be too long before they join us. The girl’s name is Seteal Eltari, but at the moment I doubt she’ll answer to anything. And be careful of any abrupt movements. The child was skittish before all of this. Now she’s jumping at shadows.’

‘That be her?’ Briel nodded down the way, but Far-a-mael didn’t need to turn to recognise El-i-miir’s tenacious aura. Seteal on the other hand . . . had changed. She was still beneath it all, just a little more difficult to find amongst all that noise.

Far-a-mael nodded at Briel’s question before turning to welcome the girls with a forced smile. Displaying affection had always proven difficult for him.

‘Her poor face.’ Fes put a hand to her mouth when she noticed the bruising, scabbing, and purple welts marring Seteal’s features. ‘Ye poor dear,’ she cried as the young ladies approached.

Instead of responding favourably, Seteal hid behind El-i-miir and refused to raise her eyes. The rei took her hand and guided her away.

‘I warned you,’ Far-a-mael reprimanded, sparing a disdainful thought for Briel’s failure to control his wife.

‘Ye just rest now,’ Fes cooed, approaching Seteal more cautiously. ‘I’ve made ye up a nice cot in the back. Make yeself at home, dearie.’

Seteal nodded with downcast eyes, but otherwise failed to acknowledge the couple as she entered the wagon. ‘Is she quite comfortable?’ Far-a-mael asked when El-i-miir returned.

‘She’ll be okay,’ the rei replied sharply, her aura shimmering disapproval. Far-a-mael couldn’t think why.

‘Good, then. I think she’s had enough fussing over for now. We should be on our way. This whole debacle has been a terrible inconvenience,’ he murmured, flourishing his hand absent-mindedly. El-i-miir’s jaw dropped and she stormed away without rhyme or reason.

Far-a-mael waited impatiently for several minutes before at last El-i-miir and Seteal’s horses could be seen trotting toward them from down the street. The pair had no riders, which didn’t surprise Far-a-mael considering El-i-miir’s extraordinarily high achievements in affiliation.

A less-than-reputable-looking young man glanced about for the owners. His aura spoke of ill-intention and Far-a-mael had to suppress a laugh when he tried to lead the animals astray. The poor fellow had only to take hold of the reins before he too was affiliated and turned to sprint into the distance. If El-i-miir was in a particularly bad mood, he may have not stopped until his feet bled.

With a shaking head, El-i-miir approached from the other side of the wagon to mount her horse. Seteal’s animal would continue along beside her and be made useful as a packhorse. Far-a-mael released the reins and unfurled his fingers to watch a translucent strand of affiliation penetrate his horse’s aura. It was visible only by the way it warped all that was behind it in a manner not dissimilar to the effects seen through glass figurines.

Although his strength of affiliation paled by comparison to El-i-miir, animals offered little resistance and a moment later Far-a-mael felt a saddle on his back and the road beneath his hooves. The horse was filled with alarm as it lost control, but Far-a-mael soothed it by manipulating the colours drifting about its aura. He didn’t always bother to do so, but found affiliation was more easily maintained when the animal was congenial to its presence.

Far-a-mael glanced along the road and got a fright when his vision altered to observe fewer colours. He realised his mistake immediately, that he’d been looking through his horse’s eyes instead of his own. This was followed by embarrassment. He hoped El-i-miir hadn’t noticed the blunder. It was one not typically seen in reis above their third year of university.

As the group made their way out of the city, stone-paved streets gave way to dirt roads. The crowds diminished and then vanished. The final farm houses fell away and suddenly they were quite alone . . . well, almost. There was a solitary rider on the horizon and he remained there the entire day, a constant, unescapable black shadow in the distance. When Far-a-mael and the others increased their speed, so too did the rider. The same was true when they slowed their pace. Naturally suspicious, as he was of all things, Far-a-mael started wondering at what the stranger had to hide.

As the day wore on, Far-a-mael began to notice the limitations of his aging body. This would be his final mission away from home. His age and experience made him more than worthy of eldership. They couldn’t possibly refuse him. He might even offer to lecture a couple of days a week at the university, thereby being able to keep a closer eye on El-i-miir’s progress. Seteal, too, for that matter. Yes . . . most importantly of all, he was delivering her into the arms of the Elglair. And if all that wasn’t enough, he still had Gez-reil to vouch for him.

After years of fighting and scheming against an endless stream of obstacles, Far-a-mael’s plans would at last come to fruition. His name would echo through the pages of history, the man single-handedly responsible for the total destruction of Old World. At last he’d have his peace. At last, he could rest the memory of sweet Sar-ni. A rare, sincere smile graced Far-a-mael’s lips.

‘We’ll stop here for the night,’ he called up to Briel, who obediently slowed his horses. The sun was halfway vanished and he was exhausted. ‘Set up the tents,’ Far-a-mael ordered El-i-miir as he slid off his horse. He released the affiliation, allowing the animal to wander over to a roadside stream.

In unison with their small party, the distant rider likewise stopped for the night, furthering Far-a-mael’s suspicions that he was up to something. Soft footfall revealed Seteal’s presence as she exited the wagon without shoes and sat in the dirt beside the road. Sad eyes made a prisoner of the young woman’s features. She slid her finger through the dirt, making squiggly patterns. She tucked her knees up beneath her chin and wrapped her arms around them. Far-a-mael shook his head worriedly. She was terribly upset by the whole affair, even to the point of having become an entirely different person.

‘How long do you think it’ll take for her to recover?’ Far-a-mael asked El-i-miir. She hadn’t been trained as a jilt’lesit, but he was aware of her indulgence in personal study.

‘I’m not sure, Gil’rei,’ El-i-miir muttered, dropping the tent pole she’d been working with and straightening to face him. ‘I’m not a jilt’lesit,’ she said bitterly. She sighed and looked away before answering. ‘Some women take months or even years before gaining any sense of normality. Some may never fully recover, but Seteal is a fighter, Gil’rei Far-a-mael.’ El-i-miir looked at the woman sitting in the dirt, her forehead creasing in concern. ‘She’ll be able to resume her training soon enough. It’s not like there’s any real urgency, is there?’

‘You keep your mouth shut,’ Far-a-mael hissed irritably, casting a glance in Seteal’s direction. ‘My reason for training her is by far more important than the one we provided.’

‘Fear not, Gil’rei,’ El-i-miir whispered resentfully, ‘your secret is safe.’

‘Oh, I know it is.’ Far-a-mael frowned. ‘This mission is not only more important than her life, but it’s more important than yours. You’d do well to remember that.’

‘I don’t know how you sleep at night.’ El-i-miir narrowed her eyes and waved in Seteal’s general direction. ‘What happened to her is our fault. Don’t you get that? Do you really have so little compassion?’

Far-a-mael gaped at El-i-miir in utter disbelief. She’d never spoken to him so audaciously before. He worked his jaw, but was quite lost for words.

‘Just think about that.’ The fight fled El-i-miir’s eyes and she hurried away. Just as well, too. If she’d remained another minute, Far-a-mael might’ve backhanded her across the cheek for such disrespect. Not only was he her Gil’rei, but he was also easily more than eight times her age.

Far-a-mael affiliated Seteal’s horse to approach before rummaging through his bag to find his diary and a map. He flicked through the pages until he came to the day’s date. There he made a note on El-i-miir’s behaviour. He’d have to keep a stern eye on her. He closed the little book and unfolded the map.

Old World was marked out by charcoal shading that Far-a-mael had added himself, but every time he travelled south, he’d return having to add a little more. Where their territory began was irrefutably marked out by the black clouds that blocked the sun and bathed the land in eternal darkness. As Old World spread its ugly wings, countries such as Shinteleran and Olgarnda came ever closer to losing the precarious grip they had on their southern homes. Slowly, they were swallowed up.

Far-a-mael slid his finger down the path they’d be taking along the river. He hesitated before jabbing his nail at the border of Jenjol. The country had reportedly assembled an army of fearful proportions, rumoured to be purposed for the annihilation of the Elglair.

When Far-a-mael’s tent was set up, he turned to Seteal and invited her inside. Reluctant though she was, the girl soon appeared in the entryway, her face twisted by fear.

‘Do you know why I’ve asked you to join me?’ Far-a-mael said as he sat on his rolled-up blanket.

‘I can’t.’ Seteal’s eyes remained focused on the floor. ‘I’m so tired. I don’t want to practise.’

‘Of course not, you silly girl!’ Far-a-mael exclaimed. ‘We won’t rush back into that just yet. I thought we might have a little chat instead.’ He gestured toward a cushion. ‘Sit.’

Seteal lowered herself tentatively and winced, having to readjust her position several times before attaining any level of comfort. Far-a-mael felt a pang of guilt. This was Jil-e-an’s daughter, after all. He looked into Seteal’s hazel-coloured eyes, if only to avoid the purple bruising on her face. The poor child. Some silly little part of him wanted desperately to hold her in his arms and tell her everything would be okay. Some small selfless part of him desired so entirely to protect the child from what she would inevitably have to face, but he pushed the thought aside.

Far-a-mael buried his feelings beneath cold logic and intellect. He did not know Seteal. He never had. He was pursuing goals for those he’d lost . . . those he’d loved. He was doing this for dear Sar-ni, not the insolent child sitting before him. Seteal would fulfil her usefulness and then have her peace, but not before Far-a-mael was done with her. And it was likely she’d see horrors greater than rape before her days were done.

‘Listen to my voice,’ Far-a-mael whispered, surprising even himself by the roar emotion contained therein. He hurried to suppress the sound and was grateful to see the girl’s lack of reaction. ‘Tell me, how do you feel about silts today?’ Far-a-mael embraced the Ways and expertly wove tendrils of colour into Seteal’s murky aura in such a way as to allude her suspicions.

‘I hate him,’ Seteal snarled as Far-a-mael spun deep red loathing into oozing green waters.

‘Him, you say? Not all of them?’

‘I don’t know all of them.’ Seteal slumped. ‘But I know him. I feel his hold around my arms. I hate the colour of his skin. I hate those ugly toes without nails. His eyes aren’t shaped right and his blood should be spilled.’

‘Indeed.’ Far-a-mael smiled encouragingly. ‘Can you tell me the colour of silt blood?’

‘No.’ Seteal recoiled. ‘Is it black? It’s black like their souls.’

‘Worse.’ Far-a-mael moved his finger discreetly, flicking whips of brown and red into Seteal’s aura. ‘It’s blue, the very opposite to our own. They are our true and mortal enemies. Between us, there can be no peace.’

‘Yes.’ Seteal clapped her hands together, her eyes widening joyously. ‘We should invade their land. We should kill their children.’ She giggled malevolently.

‘Perhaps someday we shall,’ Far-a-mael agreed, even as he began to severe the tie. He’d done enough for one session. Overwhelming a subject could lead to their recognition of the foreignism of their thoughts. Far-a-mael could not afford such a setback. ‘What do you intend to do with the rest of your evening?’

‘I’m hungry,’ Seteal muttered, her eyes squinting and foot tapping. She was anxious, but didn’t know why. Far-a-mael had pushed her too hard. He’d better go easier the next time. She was fragile. ‘I’ll probably go to sleep soon.’

‘We have a long day tomorrow.’ Far-a-mael nodded in agreement as he retrieved the final translucent weaving of affiliation. ‘You’d best be off.’

‘Yes.’ Seteal straightened her dress and stood, confusion muddling her features. This was a good thing, but her attempted recollection gave Far-a-mael cause for concern. She was one of the more suspicious people he’d ever worked with. ‘Good evening, Gil’rei.’ Seteal nodded respectfully before departing the tent.

 

*

 

El-i-miir ran her eyes along the same line on the page for what felt like the hundredth time. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t concentrate on the book in her hands. She put it down and sighed. How had it come to this?

Seteal lay quietly across the tent. Her body was still, her eyes were locked on the canvas above. El-i-miir had only a vague understanding of what Far-a-mael was up to, but the little she knew sent shivers down her spine. There was a new darkness that moved about in the old gil’s aura. Or perhaps it’d always been there, El-i-miir having formerly been too inexperienced to see it. A reflection of that darkness drifted about in Seteal, preaching testament to Far-a-mael’s having affiliated and tampered with her.

El-i-miir hated being a part of it. It made her sick to her stomach . . . all the lies. And it got harder every day, with her impression of Seteal growing fonder. Of course the Gor woman had her weaknesses: she was impulsive, quick to judge, and sharp with her tongue, but she was also honest and had a kind heart.

El-i-miir had been training beneath Gil’rei Far-a-mael for no less than six years. She’d been just fifteen when he’d whisked her away, her parents waving her off. She’d seen very little of them ever since. The Sixth Cleff was simply too far away from the place in which El-i-miir did the majority of her training, the Eighth Cleff, Far-a-mael’s home.

It saddened El-i-miir that she’d missed out on being there for her younger sisters. She’d never wanted to be a gil, but her parents had long ago promised her to Far-a-mael. The reason for their doing so was still very much shrouded in mystery, leaving El-i-miir to doubt whether she’d ever find out the truth. Perhaps it all had something to do with her. El-i-miir turned to glare disparagingly at Seteal.

Rancid browns and murky greens swirled about in Seteal’s aura, revealing a mental state that was far from stable. Since the incident, the woman had scarcely said a word and avoided human interaction wherever possible. She’d remained in the Keacos’ wagon the entire day. She didn’t eat or drink and wore dark circles beneath her eyes from a lack of sleep.

‘Seteal?’ El-i-miir whispered, struck with pity.

‘What?’ Seteal replied when El-i-miir’s voice broke the silence. Rather than lifting her head or sitting up she simply rolled over to face her.

‘I can help you,’ El-i-miir said softly, embracing the Ways so that Seteal’s aura ignited further and she was able to see every last weaving of light that danced within her soul. She unfurled her finger and a slender stream of blue twisted away like fine lace.

‘No.’ Seteal cringed. ‘Please . . . I don’t want that.’ She recoiled dramatically. ‘Get it out of me! Get it out!’ She wailed, sitting up to push El-i-miir away.

‘I’m so sorry,’ El-i-miir’s mouth fell open in horror as she immediately regretted what she’d done. How could she have been so insensitive? The last thing Seteal wanted was to have yet another person forcing themselves into any part of her. ‘Maker, I didn’t think.’ El-i-miir shuddered. ‘I just wanted to help.’

‘I don’t need your help,’ Seteal narrowed her eyes. ‘Who are you, El-i-miir? Who are you but a stranger? I don’t need your friendship. I need my father. I need my home. I need not to be traipsing across the world in a Maker-damned tent,’ she choked out amidst a flood of tears. ‘I need my life back: where silts don’t pluck you off the street, where owls don’t talk or turn into hideous monsters, and where I could believe that men were decent. So if you need to tell me something,’ Seteal sat forward and gripped El-i-miir’s shoulders, ‘do it now. If you want to do right by me, tell me the truth.’

‘I-I don’t understand,’ El-i-miir stuttered through a dry mouth.

‘I’m scared,’ Seteal wept. ‘I’m alone and I don’t want to die. I don’t. But the price has been so great. Please . . . please tell me that you’re not making a fool out of me. Tell me Far-a-mael is genuine. Tell me that this isn’t all for nothing, because honestly, El-i-miir, I don’t know who to trust anymore, but I think I can trust you.’

‘You can trust me.’ El-i-miir swallowed loudly. ‘Far-a-mael is telling you the truth.’

‘All right.’ Seteal nodded, closing her eyes. ‘All right then.’ She exhaled slowly and laid back down.

Shaking like a leaf, El-i-miir turned and blew out the lantern before she could give herself away. In the darkness, she rested her head and clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle the sobs trying so hard to escape her throat. She’d been raised to be honest, but in just a few short years Far-a-mael had transformed her into a successful liar. Maker knew she wanted to tell Seteal the truth, but the cost was just too great. The mission was too important and she would certainly be sent to Vish’el’Tei for treason if she did. That was a price El-i-miir simply wasn’t willing to pay—not for Seteal, not for anyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twelve

Slaughter

 

 

The branch was relatively thin, which suited Seeol’s purpose anyway. It wasn’t as though he intended to go to roost, but instead to remain only long enough for Emquin and Ilgrin to fall asleep. It wouldn’t take long. The day had been exhausting.

Seeol was happy. Emquin and Ilgrin were his friends, as much as that silly silt tried to prove otherwise. They’d come to trust him. All day he’d made sure to warn them when Far-a-mael and the others got too close, allowing Emquin to speed up accordingly. Ilgrin seemed to think Far-a-mael would be mean to him and Seeol couldn’t help but agree.

Upon hearing the low and steady breathing that confirmed the slumber of his friends, Seeol bounced along the branch and launched himself into the air. He flew beside the road and landed quietly several strides from the first tent. The snoring within gave away Far-a-mael as the inhabitant. Seeol hopped across the grass until he came to the entrance of a second tent.

Someone had repaired the hole he’d torn when first making contact with Seteal and El-i-miir, but that was okay, he could easily pick it out again. Seeol pecked at the stitching until it came free. His eyes adjusted quickly as he stepped inside, allowing him to see as clearly as he would by daylight.

El-i-miir slept on one side of the tent, as did Seteal on the other. Seeol stood beside El-i-miir’s gigantic head, contemplating the depths to which he’d missed her company. His heart felt like it might beat free of his chest. His tail twitched anxiously as he stared with adoration. He hadn’t seen her since leaving the Sit’n’nic inn and the regrettable events that’d followed thereafter.

Seeol climbed atop El-i-miir’s body and stood on her chest. He looked at her face. She was a strange creature, lacking feathers or fur over the majority of a body that was somehow so beautiful that it left him lost for words. Seeol felt like he could play in her hair for eternity. He clicked his beak and bobbed his head, turned in a circle and puffed out his chest before gently rubbing his beak over El-i-miir’s nose.

The woman woke with a start, her arms swinging through the air. ‘Get it off me,’ she cried, slapping Seeol’s midsection, sending him spiralling out of control until he hit the canvas and slid down its length.

‘What’s wrong?’ Seteal’s voice rose in panic as she squinted about, unable to see through the dark.

‘Something . . . ’ El-i-miir trailed off. There was a scraping sound followed immediately by a bright flash. The level of light changed as a lantern was ignited. ‘Something touched me.’

‘El-i-miish,’ Seeol said giddily, shaking out a few loose feathers.

‘Seeol,’ Seteal announced nervously. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘You have to go!’ El-i-miir exclaimed, her face more pale than usual.

‘But I missed my friendlies.’ Seeol pointed at them, an attempt to mimic a gesture they might recognise. ‘I thought we could playing some games and tickle our heads.’

‘You have to go,’ El-i-miir repeated.

‘But I . . .’ Seeol spread his wings, an instinctual act designed to make him appear larger and more threatening than usual. ‘I love my friendlies.’

‘You’re dangerous,’ El-i-miir hissed. ‘Get out of here, and don’t come back.’

‘El-i-miir,’ Seteal uttered disparagingly. ‘He doesn’t understand.’

‘It’s dangerous,’ El-i-miir snapped. ‘You saw what it can do.’

‘But we wanted to fixes me.’ Seeol pulled his head back tight into his feathers.

‘No one can fix you, Seeol,’ El-i-miir said incredulously. ‘The best you can do is go back to Narvon Wood and stay there.’

‘I don’t believing you!’ Seeol shouted, stretching his wings wide and dipping them toward the floor as passionately as he could. ‘If Elgleg can change horsey into human they can fixes owls that are a little naughty.’

‘What the torrid are you talking about?’ El-i-miir shook her head, but Seeol refused to answer. He scurried across the canvas and nuzzled through the gap before exploding into the night. He soared into the cold air, bitter and angry.

‘Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!’ he shrieked repeatedly as he headed back along the road. Why had he allowed himself hope that they would want to see him? They knew what he was now. They’d seen him kill. How could anyone love him when they knew what he could do?

Seeol landed clumsily in a tree close to where Ilgrin and Emquin slept. He dug his claws in tight to the bark. Why did it ache so much? What was this pain, if not physical? And how was it that such invisible pain could hurt so much?

 

*

 

Ilgrin opened his eyes to the yellow light of dawn. He stretched his wings and rolled his neck. The pain in his shoulder was more tolerable than it’d been during days past. The air was crisp, the sky was blue and it looked to be a beautiful day.

Emquin stood several strides away chewing determinedly on a mouthful of grass. She swallowed hard when she saw Ilgrin watching and pretended to be analysing the earth at her hooves.

‘Good morning, Emquin.’

‘Morning.’ The horse looked up at him, but her warm expression quickly departed in exchange for one of disbelief. ‘Run.’ The word shuddered free of her choked throat.

‘What is it?’

‘Run,’ Emquin repeated as she leapt toward Ilgrin, forcing him to dive out of the way in avoidance of being trampled. He stumbled but maintained his balance, turning in time to catch a glimpse of the monster he’d encountered in Sitnic. Emquin stood where Ilgrin had been a moment earlier and with a thud that must have knocked the air from her lungs she was whisked into the air.

‘Emquin!’ Ilgrin cried.

She howled and bucked as the monster’s claws dug into her flank. She sailed through the air, kicking and flailing for solid ground where none could be found. A deafening shriek drowned out her cries. The monster tore off chunks of her flesh.

Ilgrin beat his wings and leapt after the creature but fell to the ground in pain. His wounded shoulder tore open afresh. ‘Emquin!’ His throat burned as he screamed, hurrying along the road after the monster.

The beast turned and swooped back toward Ilgrin, Emquin flopping about like a rag doll in its talons. She had lost the strength to cry out, but still struggled weakly.

When its eyes locked on Ilgrin’s, his bravery gave out and he turned to run. The strangers were irrelevant. Surely they could pose no greater threat than the monster in pursuit. Ilgrin’s calves burned, his toes begging for mercy as they were twisted in unnatural ways. He ignored the discomfort and continued on.

The rhythmic beating gushing wings pressed heavily on Ilgrin’s back. The creature was closing in, but he didn’t dare risk a glance over his shoulder. A deafening screech revealed the creature’s presence, but it was the long, low moan buried beneath it that made Ilgrin sick with regret.

He was sent sprawling onto hands and knees as the monster passed within a handswidth. Ilgrin watched it reascend, Emquin still clutched in its talons. She gave a final kick before the monster snapped her spine and tore her in two. Pieces of Emquin fell to the earth: the front half, the back half, and the various organs that’d come loose on the way down.

‘Lord Maker,’ Ilgrin gasped as his face was sprayed in blood. He had to go. He had to run. Ilgrin ran from the body of his friend, from the beating wings and the evil golden eyes.

Despite the pain, Ilgrin opened his wings and forced a beat here or there to give his legs a break for several strides. Time and again he hit the ground running, face contorting in response to the burning pain.

Two women stood on the road ahead clothed in nothing more than nightdresses. Their expressions revealed an equal mixture of terror and, somewhat unexpectedly, familiarity.

‘Run!’ Ilgrin shouted.

The monster raked forward its talons, but Ilgrin threw himself to the side so that it missed by milliwidths. He lifted his face out of the dirt in time to see an old man step onto the road. He stretched out his arms, making elaborate gestures while shouting foreign words.

‘Run, you fool!’ Ilgrin warned as he hurried past. The man didn’t listen, instead remaining in place as the monster descended.

The women leapt into a large, red wagon parked by the road. With no other means of escape, Ilgrin followed after them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Thirteen

Begin Again

 

 

Before he could reach the wagon, Ilgrin was struck in the back and was sent sprawling onto the road. When he looked to see what had hit him, he was disturbed to find that it was the detached head of the old man he’d seen earlier. The monster landed. Ilgrin leapt backward. He glanced at the wagon and wondered if he could make it. The creature stepped forward, a cruel glint in its eye.

Hoping to distract the monster, Ilgrin kicked the old man’s head, sending it rolling across the earth. The monster took the bait and pursued the head, allowing him the opportunity to leap into the wagon’s dark interior.

A ham-sized fist hit the middle of Ilgrin’s chest and slammed him into the wall. A dark face came within a handswidth and a dagger was put to his throat.

‘Ye give me one reason nah ta gut ye right here?’ a deep voice rumbled.

‘It wasn’t me,’ Ilgrin pleaded. ‘I didn’t do anything.’

‘That nah be good enough.’ The big man pressed his blade against Ilgrin’s throat, but when the wagon rocked unexpectedly he lost his grip and fell sideways. The canvas ceiling was torn away to reveal the monster’s giant face hovering above.

‘Seeol!’ cried out the pale woman with dark hair. ‘Please, Seeol!

‘Seeol?’ Ilgrin murmured in disbelief. He understood then why the creature’s eyes were so familiar. ‘It can’t be.’

Seeol ignored the woman and snapped at the brunette girl curled up on the floor, her eyes hidden by hands clamped tight. The monster’s face deformed and its beak shrank to the miniscule size of small bird’s. Its head and body were sucked into themselves and right before Ilgrin’s eyes a transformation took place that resulted in the recreation of the elf owl known as Seeol. His head twitched this way and that from his place perched atop the wagon wall. A look of realisation crossed the animal’s features before he opened his wings and disappeared without a trace.

‘Oh, Maker,’ the dark-haired woman moaned. Ilgrin glanced over to see her weeping, eyes locked on the detached head beside the road. ‘It killed him,’ she choked out. ‘Seeol killed him.’

Seteal stared at Ilgrin with such a familiar loathing that it took only a moment to recognise her as the girl he’d left in the field. ‘You,’ she hissed. ‘I’ll kill you.’ She leapt toward him, showing none of the fear or restraint he’d come to expect from humans.

‘Get off me!’ Ilgrin flung the woman onto a pile of linens strewn across the floor. He leapt out of the wagon to run, but his legs slowed of their own accord. Ilgrin’s thoughts became indistinct. He couldn’t remember what he was running from. He glanced back toward Far-a-mael’s head with a sense of admiration in his heart. He knew the man . . . had even come to care for him.

The woman with long black hair stared at the back of his head. How Ilgrin knew this, was impossible to explain. The white pupils of the Elglair burned into his soul.

‘I have to fix him,’ Ilgrin and El-i-miir said together, their voices merging.

‘El-i-miir,’ Seteal called from behind them, ‘what’re you doing?’

‘He is my gil’rei,’ Ilgrin cried, tears running down his face. ‘I have to save him.’

‘That’d nah be what he wanted.’ A large woman stepped down from the back of the wagon and put a hand on El-i-miir’s shoulder. Ilgrin felt it on his own. ‘There be nah ye can do for him now. It be too late.’

‘That’s not true!’ Ilgrin heard himself shout defensively. El-i-miir thrust out her hand and he felt his legs march forward.

‘The mission is too important,’ El-i-miir grated through clenched teeth. The words bounced across Ilgrin’s brain as though they had been his own.

‘I can’t,’ he said weakly. ‘You will,’ he stated firmly as El-i-miir cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. ‘I will.’ Ilgrin’s lip quivered. ‘I have to save my gil’rei.’

Ilgrin picked up Far-a-mael’s head by a fistful of hair. He felt blood oozing between his fingers as it dangled.

I won’t do it. This is wrong, Ilgrin tried to say in some small part of his mind, but no sound escaped.

Crouching on his knees, Ilgrin lined up the head with the body as a circle of onlookers gathered. El-i-miir glared at him with paralysing intensity. The others huddled fearfully.

‘Don’t do it, El-i-miir,’ Seteal warned, her voice reaching Ilgrin’s ears from a world far removed. ‘It’ll make you no better than them.’

‘I have to,’ Ilgrin sobbed along with El-i-miir. ‘It’s too important. We’ve come too far. Whatever the cost, it’s worth it. It has to be.’

El-i-miir wailed as Ilgrin snapped a hand around Far-a-mael’s throat.

‘Oh,’ Ilgrin sobbed, his fingers tingling as they wrapped around cold flesh. ‘Maker forgive me.’ His tears mingled with the man’s blood. The tingling sensation spread to his hands, his arms and then his chest. He remembered the feeling, although it had been so long. The gil’rei’s skin became a pool of liquefied flesh as the separated parts of his neck writhed beneath Ilgrin’s touch. Vertebrae crunched as bones and nerves slithered back together. Far-a-mael’s face was flooded with colour as blood beat by his heart and pulsed through arteries that’d been collapsed only moments earlier.

A single rattling breath escaped the old man’s lips and his eyes burst open. He rolled onto his side coughing and wheezing.

‘What have you done?’ The gil’rei managed to ask as he stumbled to his feet. He grabbed El-i-miir’s shoulder and shook her until she fell to the earth. Ilgrin’s senses returned in a rush.

‘Gil’rei Far-a-mael.’ El-i-miir put a hand to her throat. ‘I thought . . .’ She trailed off. Far-a-mael tried to speak, but instead wound up coughing uncontrollably. His face was flushed, his eyes bulged. He bent over gagging and choking. A spray of blood intermingled with specks of something black spattered across the dirt.

Far-a-mael gagged repeatedly, but something was blocking his airway. His face turned red and then purple and then at last he vomited, but it was not partially digested food the escaped from within. Out poured a substance that drained the light from the air surrounding it, a darkness caught somewhere between liquid and gas. The whisp hit the earth with force, rebounding, churning back into the air and thinning to a mist as it departed.

El-i-miir’s face, previously so doggedly determined, now bore naught but despair. Far-a-mael sat with a dazed expression, his flesh having faded to grey as the darkness worked its way through his pores. Realising his opportunity, Ilgrin turned to run. He didn’t know where he’d go, but the Elglair were bad news. Anywhere would do.

He stopped short, realising that he shouldn’t leave after all. He turned to Far-a-mael, who stood with a fierce expression in his eyes. A lump caught in Ilgrin’s throat. He fell to his knees encumbered by a sense of impending doom. He couldn’t let them capture him. Ilgrin pushed back, fighting against the intrusive thoughts and feelings forced upon him. He stood and stumbled several strides, but he was so tired.

The young woman lifted her hand and murmured, ‘Sleep.’ And that was exactly what Ilgrin decided to do.

 

*

 

Seteal sat in the grass, the dark blue dress El-i-miir had purchased bunched up around her legs. It was not the most expensive dress in the world, but certainly superior in quality to anything Seteal could’ve afforded.

‘Ye be all right there, lass?’ Briel asked as he made his way past, dragging the unconscious silt.

‘I’m all right,’ Seteal murmured. Her eyes followed the lumbering man until he reached the wagon. There he tethered the demon by its ankle to prevent escape. A soft flutter of wings stole Seteal’s attention. She turned to find Seeol standing in the grass, gazing up at her.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, regret forging a heavy tone.

‘I know you are,’ Seteal traced her fingers through the grass. ‘It’s not your fault, but we’re not safe around you.’

‘I should’ve stayed in Narvey Wood like El-i-mish said.’ Seeol bobbed his head. ‘I didn’t know what things existed, but it’s too late now.’

‘I know.’ Seteal looked at him solemnly. ‘You’ve seen too much.’

‘I couldn’t make me stay away. The other one will make me kill things.’ Seeol’s unmoving eyes bored into Seteal’s. ‘The naughty one will do naughty things.’

‘Then you mustn’t go.’ Seteal sighed, her own heart aching for the simplicity of life in Elmsville.

Seeol glanced away. ‘I cannot stay.’

‘Then follow us,’ Seteal whispered uncertainly, ‘but keep your distance. Give us a fighting chance the next time you change.’

‘Maybe I won’t do it again before we get to the frozen places.’ Seeol spoke without conviction. ‘Elders can turn horses into humans.’ He bounced and danced in a circle flicking his tail with renewed enthusiasm. ‘They can make me nicer.’

‘Sure they can,’ Seteal replied distractedly.

‘Where’s Emquin?’ Seeol asked abruptly.

‘Who’s Emquin?’

Seeol’s head twitched about in every direction, until it stopped on the tattered remains of the silt’s horse. ‘I killeded Emquin,’ the bird moaned.

‘Oh, the horse?’ Seteal raised her eyebrows. ‘It’s okay Seeol. It’s only a horse.’

‘Like I’m only an owl?’ Seeol accused with narrowed eyes. ‘You is just like him.’ He pointed a toe at Far-a-mael standing in the middle distance. He bounced once, opened his wings and disappeared amidst the trees.

Seteal shook her head. The poor little creature couldn’t distinguish between himself and ordinary animals. She dusted off her dress and rose to her feet, pausing to rest a hand against her cheek. It was tender, but not as painful as it had been. The ache in her heart was quite a different problem. Seteal wandered over to the silt where it lay sprawled on the earth. Its eyes were shut tight, but its chest gently rose and fell. She stared at the demon. She just stared for the longest time.

The silt’s cloak had been removed and its shirt was torn, revealing a white chest with blue nipples. Although she couldn’t decide why precisely, Seteal felt disgusted by what she saw. In some ways the young demon looked oddly human . . . and yet he didn’t. All of the necessary features were there: two eyes, a nose, a mouth. But the angles and shapes were wrong.

When the creature didn’t respond to a gentle nudge from Seteal’s toe, she kicked it in the ribs. Once again, it didn’t respond in any way other than to grunt. Seteal kicked it again. And again. She laughed giddily and spun around with arms outstretched.

Long white fingers wrapped around Seteal’s ankle and squeezed so tight that blood couldn’t reach her foot. Intelligent purple eyes stared into Seteal’s, pain and fury painted across the silt’s features. With a flick of his wrist, Seteal was flung off balance so that she fell into the grass.

‘Leave me alone,’ the silt grumbled.

Seteal obeyed, slithering backward along the earth. How could she have been so stupid? It wasn’t like her to be so mean. She mentally slapped herself. It was a demon. It deserved much worse than what she’d done to it.

‘Do you remember me?’ Seteal spat, tears running down her cheeks. ‘Do you remember me?’

‘Yes,’ the demon replied, apparent sadness in its voice. The sadness had to be a trick. Demons could only think and feel evil thoughts. ‘I must apologise for my behaviour,’ the silt’s voice shook. ‘I shouldn’t have taken you like that. I wasn’t thinking.’

Driven by fury, Seteal dove at the silt and slapped it so hard that its cheek turned blue. ‘I was raped!’ Seteal screamed. ‘You left me there to be raped!’

‘What?’ The demon clutched its cheek protectively. ‘I did no such thing!’

‘You left me there, alone, in that field,’ Seteal sobbed without restraint. ‘You took me away from where I was safe and abandoned me. And he was there. He ruined me!’

‘I’m so sorry,’ the demon’s face fell. ‘I didn’t know.’

‘Didn’t you?’ Seteal wiped away tears. ‘I think you knew. I think you knew and you wanted it to happen because you’re evil.’

‘That’s not true,’ Ilgrin pleaded. ‘I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone.’

‘You’re disgusting,’ Seteal taunted the creature.

‘That’s enough, Seteal.’ Far-a-mael appeared out of nowhere with an oddly satisfied expression on his face. ‘What’s your name, boy?’ He turned his attention to the silt.

‘Ilgrin Geld,’ the demon replied after a moment’s hesitation.

‘Mister Geld.’ Far-a-mael chuckled mirthlessly as he turned to Seteal with raised eyebrows. ‘Did you hear that? He’s got an Abnatian name. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous?’

‘I don’t think I have.’ Seteal burst out laughing, surprising even herself by the malice in her tone.

‘I wonder what story you’ll tell us?’ Far-a-mael bent to stare into the silt’s eyes. ‘Why would a silt have an Abnatian name?’

‘I was raised from infancy by humans in Abnatol,’ Ilgrin said through gritted teeth.

‘You see.’ Far-a-mael turned to Seteal. ‘They can’t help themselves. They’re liars, all of them. It’s all they can do.’

‘Yes, I can see that.’ Seteal shook her head disparagingly.

‘Da ye be sure?’ Fes made her presence known. ‘We be travellin’ the world for many years and I be able to recognise an Abnatian accent when I be hearin’ one.’

‘Nonsense,’ Far-a-mael scoffed at the Merry Islander. ‘Know your enemy. It’s the first rule of war. His accent simply implies that the silt has studied Abnatians to increase the plausibility of his story.’

‘What be ye plans for him then?’ Briel asked, stepping up beside Fes.

‘Capturing a live silt is indeed a rare opportunity,’ Far-a-mael murmured thoughtfully. ‘Upon our return to the Frozen Lands, I’ll present him to the elders for interrogation.’

‘No.’ Ilgrin’s eyes widened with fear. ‘Please let me go. I’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘Be quiet.’ Far-a-mael waved his hand at the creature, who fell back obediently, leaving Seteal to assume he’d tampered with its aura.

‘Gil’rei Far-a-mael.’ El-i-miir’s timid voice drifted out of the wagon before she did. ‘He’s telling the truth.’

‘Poor El-i-miir.’ Far-a-mael laughed condescendingly. ‘Her abilities have been knocked out by such an extreme act of affiliation.’

‘But Gil’rei—’

‘That’s enough.’ Far-a-mael’s expression hardened and his eyes darkened with anger. ‘I’m your gil’rei, your superior, your master, and I’ll ask for your opinion when I want it. You are a rei. You know nothing and you’ll keep your mouth shut until you’re told otherwise.’

El-i-miir’s gaze fell to the earth. ‘Yes, Gil’rei.’

‘Oh, I’m not even close to finished with you, child,’ Far-a-mael spat furiously. ‘You forced this revolting creature to perform a resurrection. How am I to distinguish you from one of them? You sicken me to the stomach, but rest assured I am yet to come up with a suitable punishment.’

‘I saved your life,’ El-i-miir squeaked.

‘You sound like one of them.’ Far-a-mael jabbed a finger at Ilgrin. ‘That’s how they try to justify their actions. You didn’t save my life. You recreated it at the cost of someone else’s.’

Briel put a hand on Far-a-mael’s shoulder. ‘I think that’ll be enough.’

‘Don’t touch me.’ He slapped off the man’s hand. ‘You would all do very well to stay away from me,’ he finished sharply and stormed off to his tent. ‘We’ll be moving on before the hour is done.’

 

*

 

It wasn’t an unusual day. It was perfectly ordinary and Ellona was happy. She put a hand against her enlarged stomach and spoke to the little one forming within. She’d been married to her childhood sweetheart for only a year when they’d fallen pregnant. She couldn’t have been happier. Life was everything she’d dreamed it would be.

The kettle sung in the kitchen, but Ellona couldn’t remember having put it on. Her memory had been playing tricks on her since she’d fallen pregnant. She smiled, put down her book and headed to the kitchen. She removed the pot and put it on the counter. As she did so, she accidentally knocked it over, causing boiling water to spill out and burn her hand. Throbbing pain forced her to the sink where she poured water over the wound.

The deep moaning sound of deforming wood soon stole Ellona’s attention. She followed the noise and stared in horror as the ceiling darkened to black. The timber twisted and warped as it began to drip blood to the floor. Beside the red liquid, something black also fell.

Ellona dashed for the front door, but it refused to open. Surely this wasn’t what she feared, not so far north. ‘Anything but that,’ she begged Maker. ‘Please.’

The black liquid rained from the ceiling, heavy droplets of darkness covering everything. Ellona felt her sanity slipping as it oozed across her skin. She put a hand over her belly and picked up a kitchen knife. She put the tip against her flesh, but screamed and withdrew her hand. Thick ropes of black mist stretched out from the walls and squeezed her fingers around the handle.

The whisp laughed, but the sound came from within her head, whispering voices filling Ellona’s mind.

‘Do it . . . push it . . . take the life . . . cut it out.’ Ellona’s throat bled as she screamed. Agony consumed her as she sliced through her own flesh and dug the knife into the heart of her unborn child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Fourteen

Pieces of Emquin

 

 

Seteal seemed incapable of having a regular conversation anymore. She spoke of nothing other than her recently acquired animosity toward silts. El-i-miir felt tempted to unravel Far-a-mael’s weaving just to spite him, but thought better of it. Not only would he know that she’d done it, but such hatred was presently the only thing empowering Seteal to do anything other than curl up on the floor.

El-i-miir stared at the wagon perched across the road. Ilgrin laid uncomfortably in the cold. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for the creature with his leg chained and hands tied. El-i-miir shook her head. What was she thinking? This was a silt, a demon. He deserved whatever he got . . . regardless of how attractive he was. El-i-miir widened her eyes disbelievingly at the inappropriateness of her thoughts.

What might a demon feel like? El-i-miir wondered if he’d be cold to the touch as she gazed upon his bare white chest. She wandered over and reached out to poke the tip of his wing. The demon mumbled under his breath and El-i-miir leapt back in fear. After regathering her confidence, she reached out and placed a hand flat against his chest. He was warm, like an ordinary man. El-i-miir hadn’t known what to expect, but she hadn’t anticipated he’d feel the same as anyone else. Her eyes slid along the silt’s slender, muscular body. His features were warped, angular or elongated in certain places, but not at all in an unappealing way. El-i-miir snatched back her hand and glared at the silt as though it’d been his fault that she’d had such thoughts. She took a moment to remind herself that if the stories were anything to go by, he was a monster constructed of purest evil.

Bright purple eyes opened and took away El-i-miir’s breath. They were beautiful. She stepped back nervously.

‘Thank you,’ the silt whispered. El-i-miir had been educated to believe that Ilgrin was a terrible foe and yet she could feel no evil in him. Her instincts were finely tuned to detect even the faintest taste of treachery and yet she could find none in the man before her. His aura served as a window into a soul filled with more kindness and compassion than El-i-miir had seen in a long time. She couldn’t understand how Far-a-mael was so unable to see it. Or unwilling.

‘What for?’ El-i-miir replied, glanced over her shoulder to check if anyone was watching.

‘For checking on me,’ Ilgrin replied.

‘That’s okay.’ El-i-miir shrugged nonchalantly.

‘Do you believe what I told the others, El-i-miir?’ Ilgrin lifted his head and leaned on an elbow.

El-i-miir’s heart raced at the sound of her name on his tongue. It was beautiful when it came from his lips. ‘I have to believe you.’ She sighed. ‘I’m able to detect dishonesty. From you, I’ve heard none.’

‘Then you’ll set me free?’ The silt sat up, hope filling his eyes.

‘No.’ El-i-miir shuddered at the thought. ‘I can’t.’

‘But you said you believed me.’

‘I’d be condemned for such an act.’ El-i-miir threw out her arms. ‘They’d kill me.’

‘Then come with me,’ Ilgrin beckoned.

‘No,’ El-i-miir gaped. ‘Where could we possibly go?’

‘Who cares?’ Ilgrin replied. ‘We’d be alive. If you do nothing, they’ll kill me.’

‘I’m sorry. I really am.’ El-i-miir shook her head wearily. ‘But I can’t just throw everything away . . . my life . . . my family. I can’t give that up for a . . .’ She trailed off.

‘For a demon,’ Ilgrin finished, his tone becoming bitter.

‘I suppose that’s true.’ El-i-miir clenched her teeth. ‘You’re still a silt, whether you were raised in Sitnic or not. You’ve killed people.’

‘And you haven’t?’ Accusation was written across Ilgrin’s features.

El-i-miir opened her mouth to reply, but could think of no way to defend herself. Through him, she too had raised the dead. El-i-miir turned to walk away.

‘Wait!’ Ilgrin cried.

‘What?’ El-i-miir snapped furiously.

‘Is that . . . ?’ The silt shielded his eyes to gaze up the road. His attention was locked on Briel, who was busy slicing up the remains of his horse. With long days ahead, there was no sense in leaving the meat to rot.

‘Goodbye, Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir grumbled. ‘I’d keep quiet if I were you.’

‘No!’ the silt shouted, leaping to his feet. ‘Emquin!’ The howl tore from his throat, revealing a level of compassion not ordinarily expressed for a horse.

‘Shut up,’ El-i-miir pleaded that the silt be quiet if only to protect him from Far-a-mael’s wrath.

‘You have to stop this,’ Ilgrin gasped, tears pouring down his face. ‘If you have any heart at all, you have to stop him.’

‘It’s just a horse.’ El-i-miir shook her head, confused by the silt’s dedication. ‘I don’t understand?’

‘No, you don’t.’ Ilgrin’s purple eyes burned with fury. ‘You really don’t!’

‘If you don’t shut up, I’ll have to shut you up!’ El-i-miir warned.

‘Stop him!’ Ilgrin shouted. ‘Stop him and I’ll explain. She deserves a decent burial.’

‘That’s it,’ El-i-miir gritted her teeth, ‘I warned you.’ She embraced the Ways, spun a string of light around the silt’s aura and severed it. The aura dulled as the silt’s head hit the earth. El-i-miir glanced at Far-a-mael’s tent and was relieved to see he hadn’t exited. She’d split Ilgrin’s consciousness quite deeply and was satisfied that he wouldn’t wake up for hours.

 

*

 

The fire warmed Seteal’s toes and for that she was grateful. She couldn’t recall the last time her feet had been warm . . . or perhaps she could. She smiled at the memory of her father handing over a hot cup of tea as they sat before the fireplace. Normally the two fought like wild dogs, but that night they’d laughed so hard Seteal had thought her sides would split. The young man her father had invited over earlier that evening had been so nervous he’d spilled his wine, his soup, and even his desert. By the time he left, Seteal couldn’t tell what colour his pants had originally been.

A short, sharp sob escaped her throat. Memories were all she had left. If she was willing, even that young man would turn in disgust at the prospect of having her as a wife.

Far-a-mael didn’t emerge from his tent until the sun sat tiredly on the horizon. Briel waved him over then turned to offer Seteal a piece of horse meat. ‘You don’t actually mean for us to eat this do you?’ Seteal cringed, looking back and forth between the two men. ‘I’d feel guilty with Darra watching.’

‘Eat it or starve,’ Far-a-mael growled, having abandoned any pretence of caring for her. ‘It’s cold, there’s nothing to hunt, and much of our journey is yet to be had.’

‘Horse it is then.’ Seteal sighed miserably. She’d been about to add something sarcastic, but a distressed cry through the dimming light stole her attention.

The demon called out an unfamiliar name and then with a shout snapped the rope that bound its wrists. Briel and Far-a-mael leapt to their feet and hurried toward it. Seteal got up and stumbled back in fear, her eyes locked on the site before her. The silt’s face scrunched up in pain as it beat its wings, rose into the air and rocked the entire wagon. It wailed in frustration and fell back to the earth.

Briel reached the demon first, but it was far too strong and hurtled him back through the air. Far-a-mael threw out his hands, but it was too late. Fes crept out of the darkness wielding a frying pan and with a solid crack to the back of its head the demon crumpled. Briel sat up to stare at his wife in shock. Far-a-mael shared a similar expression. Fes spread her hands innocently.

‘Never be sendin’ a man ta da a woman’s job,’ she chuckled.

‘Don’t ye ever be puttin’ yeself in that kind of danger again, ye hear me?’ Briel limped over to his wife and wrapped her in his arms.

‘Come now, Briel, don’t be makin’ a fuss.’ Fes pushed him away.

‘All of this excitement isn’t good for my heart.’ Far-a-mael bent over, resting his hands on his knees. ‘This ought to make him behave.’ The Gil’rei pulled out a knife and wedged it into the silt’s infected wound, splitting it open afresh. Dark blue blood and puss trickled down the creature’s wing.

Whether it was repulsion or hunger that drove them, everyone headed back to the fire. Briel fancied himself as something of a chef and volunteered to cook some more meat. It smelled odd, but not undesirable. Seteal opened her mouth and took a small bite. It wasn’t terribly chewy. She could almost pretend it was an ordinary steak. Almost.

‘Seteal.’ Fes sat heavily, a large chunk of meat clutched between her fingers. ‘We’ve nah had much of a chance ta get ta know ye?’

‘I suppose not.’ Seteal looked at her feet. She’d have preferred not to engage in conversation.

‘I can’t help but be wonderin’ what a young Gor be doin’ travelin’ with Elglair.’ Fes frowned.

‘It be none of our business,’ Briel reprimanded his wife.

‘She’s a half-caste,’ Far-a-mael stated.

‘I mean nah disrespect.’ Fes raised her eyebrows. ‘But I always thought ye people did nah much care for the half-bloods.’

‘Seteal is of special interest,’ Far-a-mael grumbled. ‘Now, I’ve had enough of this discussion.’

‘You didn’t really think they’d just leave me to die, did you?’ Seteal frowned.

‘Who said anythin’ about dyin’?’ Fes laughed.

‘I don’t understand,’ Seteal said slowly, but her confusion was left unanswered, as it was in that moment that the silt awoke.

‘Bastards,’ the demon moaned, its hideous purple eyes locked on the meat in Seteal’s hands. The creature bent over gagging and carrying on. ‘You’re all going to burn in torrid. You know that? You’ll burn.’

‘Shut up, demon!’ Far-a-mael snarled, before tossing a chunk of gristle at the creature. The silt leapt aside in disgust, his eyes filled with tears. Seteal gaped. Surely it couldn’t be crying. Silts didn’t cry. They were evil. The silt dug a hole in the earth, nudged in the piece of gristle with a stick and covered it over.

‘What ye be up to?’ Briel asked suspiciously.

‘In your memory, Emquin,’ the silt said softly. ‘May you find the peace you sought,’ he murmured, placing two fingers to his forehead and then heart.

Far-a-mael rolled his eyes, but otherwise ignored the silt. ‘El-i-miir, pass me some more of the blackened parts. I’m so hungry I could, well . . . I could eat a horse.’ He laughed and slapped his knee.

‘I hope ye be right about this silt,’ Fes spoke up. ‘He be wearin’ Abnatian clothin’, has an Abnatian accent, and just now performed an Abnatian funeral tradition.’

Far-a-mael shook his head vigorously. ‘Our boy here simply knows what he’s doing.’ He strode over to the silt. ‘Don’t you? You’ve trained hard, haven’t you?’ The silt glared at Far-a-mael but said nothing. ‘You’re pathetic,’ Far-a-mael muttered, turning back to the fire.

For some mysterious reason, El-i-miir filled a bucket with water and carried it over to the silt. The creature took the bucket and drank greedily.

‘What’d you do that for?’ Far-a-mael asked.

‘There’s not much point in bringing him home if he’s dead when we get there.’ El-i-miir shrugged.

‘Thanks. Here’s your bucket,’ the silt called as he tossed it into the fire and succeeded in putting it out.

‘You see what they do?’ Far-a-mael asked El-i-miir. ‘You show them the slightest bit of mercy and they repay you with wickedness.’ He wandered over and stared at the silt with penetrating eyes. At first it tried to resist, but it didn’t take long before it collapsed, writhing and howling in misery.

Seteal watched as Far-a-mael’s attack stretched on. It didn’t bother her. No matter how much she saw the silt suffer, she couldn’t have cared less. And that was unusual. She’d always been compassionate toward others and couldn’t stand to see the sufferance of anyone. She watched as the silt clasped its head and gritted its teeth, but found she was only able to enjoy what she saw. Repulsed by her lack of repulsion, Seteal abandoned the scene and headed down the road. When she returned everyone had gone to bed.

She headed for the tent, only to pause at the entrance to the sound of sobbing coming from within. Seteal found the sound strangely irritating. What did that pathetic little sap have to cry about now? How had her pretty little life mistreated her this time? Choosing to ignore the woman, Seteal felt about for her night dress, got changed and slid beneath the covers. Sleep wouldn’t come easily—it seldom did—but she closed her eyes and hoped for the best.

‘But you’ve been a naughty girl,’ Master Fasil taunted her, coiling his claws around Seteal’s leg. Her eyes shot open and she placed a hand protectively between her thighs.

‘He is from Sitnic, you know.’ El-i-miir’s voice shuddered with emotion.

‘What?’

‘The silt. He told us the truth.’

‘I don’t understand.’ Seteal frowned. ‘Far-a-mael is a gil, and he doesn’t believe it’s from Sitnic.’

‘Far-a-mael cannot sense lies the way I do,’ El-i-miir said.

‘I still don’t understand.’ Seteal shook her head. ‘Even if you’re right, who cares? It’s a filthy, no-good demon.’

‘How can you say that?’ El-i-miir’s voice gave away unwarranted emotion. ‘What if he was raised like you and me or anyone else. How can we judge him for something that’s not his fault?’

‘That’s a bit rich coming from the woman who accused my parents of having an illegitimate marriage,’ Seteal scoffed. ‘You live your life believing half-castes like me are unworthy of Elglair attention. Torrid, your people scarcely even leave the Frozen Lands because of your conviction to being so much better than everyone else.’

‘Maybe I’ve changed,’ El-i-miir replied weakly. ‘I care about you now. I understand that you can’t just judge people on where they’re from or what they look like. I mean, even if every other silt is born of purest evil . . . what if this one is not? Wouldn’t that make it wrong to treat him so cruelly?’

‘I would hold my tongue if I were you,’ Seteal said softly after a long silence. ‘You shouldn’t be speaking like that. If Far-a-mael heard about it . . .’ She let the threat hang in the air.

‘Fine,’ El-i-miir said stuffily, ‘but you know what, Seteal, at least I’ve come to be more open-minded. You, on the other hand, have become less. You’re starting to sound like Far-a-mael.’

‘It would be an honour to be like Far-a-mael,’ Seteal snarled. ‘At least he has conviction.’

‘All right, Seteal,’ El-i-miir muttered weakly. ‘I guess we’ve got nothing further to say.’

‘You know a whisp killed my mother, don’t you?’

‘I didn’t know that.’ El-i-miir’s tone filled with understanding. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s fine.’ Seteal laid back aggressively.

‘This isn’t really about the silt though, is it?’ El-i-miir said after a moment’s hesitation. ‘All of your aggression.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Seteal moaned in frustration, wishing that the woman would just leave her alone.

‘It’s okay.’ El-i-miir reached out for Seteal’s hand, but she snatched it away. ‘It’s natural to feel this way. It means you’re dealing with what happened. First you were shocked, depression followed closely, and now you’re angry. This behaviour is all about Master Fasil.’

‘Don’t say that name!’ Seteal said, sitting up and looming threateningly not a handswidth from El-i-miir’s face. ‘Don’t you dare try to analyse me! You don’t know what I’ve been through. You haven’t felt what I have. Until a man has reached inside you and stolen what was taken from me, don’t presume to understand what it’s like. I was raped, El-i-miir. There’s nothing “natural” about it, and I will never be able to “deal” with it. So stop trying to fix me, stop trying to help me, and most importantly stop trying to be my friend.’

El-i-miir said nothing further, perhaps having finally realised that opening her mouth only ever made things worse. Seteal closed her eyes, but knew she’d have no hope in falling asleep. She decided to practice some of Far-a-mael’s techniques. She’d discovered in her lessons that when she was frustrated or angry she tended to be better able to open up to the Ways.

Something had happened to Seteal, both in Narvon Wood and in Sitnic when Seeol had been on his murderous rampage. The world around her had distorted somehow and she couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if she encouraged the sensation rather than hiding from it.

Seteal cleared her mind of disruptive thoughts. She focused on mundane realities, reached out, and sensed the Ways as they coiled throughout existence, weaving and guiding the paths of all things. Seteal’s mind drained into a void of joy and joylessness. The Ways stretched out like a spider’s web. It reached her soul, picked her up, and pulled her away. Seteal gasped, but her body remained motionless. Screaming filled her mind as all control was lost. Where before it’d required so much effort to reach out, now the Ways took over, drawing her away.

And it was over. She was safe. Her eyes were open and above her the walls of the tent stretched away into the darkness. But it wasn’t dark, though it should’ve been. It couldn’t possibly be morning and yet Seteal was able to see as clearly as day. But was it truly sight? She searched about for the light source, but there was none. And then she discovered the truth. Seteal wasn’t seeing, she was knowing. A young woman rested on her pillow with brown hair and a bruised face. The woman appeared to be sleeping, but Seteal knew that wasn’t the case, because the woman was her.

Panic flooded her being and Seteal fled. She didn’t understand the mechanism of her motion, as she lacked legs, a body, or any physical form whatsoever. She was nothingness. She both existed and didn’t. She was a part of the Ways and separate from them.

The campsite spilled away into the distant night as Seteal was drawn to another part of the Ways. The road that’d once seemed so very long disappeared as she churned through existence, through forests, mountain ranges and unknown places. Time had ceased to flow. Birds remained frozen in the sky, their wings outstretched, their hearts no longer beating.

A small town became Seteal’s reality and she realised that she’d been reaching for it all along. She’d been calling for someone. Father.

Seteal formed the memory as she plunged into the heart of Elmsville. And everything stopped.

Seteal existed in the town centre. She could see the roof of her house over the top of the one facing the square. She moved through the dark streets, silent and detached. The building loomed up before her. It was a daunting, foreboding place, no longer the warm and hospitable home it’d once been. Seteal fell through the closed door.

‘Bring her back to me,’ a voice whispered sorrowfully. The house was dark. Seteal was aware of the fact, despite its not being an impediment to her. Gifn Eltari was on his knees before the fireplace, his copy of the Holy Tome clenched in both hands. ‘I’ve pleaded with you, Maker, but still you do not bring her home. Have I not been your loyal servant?’

Silence prevailed and yet somehow, somewhere, Seteal felt tears on her cheeks.

Father, Seteal tried to speak, but without a mouth she could not make a sound. She reached out to him but only succeeded in drifting through his body and coming out the other side.

‘Forgive my blasphemous mouth, but, Lord, I can wait on you no longer,’ Gifn sobbed. ‘I’ve trusted in you, but found no peace.’

Gifn faded from existence along with the fire he’d knelt before. The room was silent, but for his whispered voice as it vanished into the past. The home became darker than before. Seteal moved toward her father’s chair, where layers of dust gathered at an incredible pace. A spider built an entire web in what felt like seconds. She had witnessed the past and was now sliding back toward the present. No one lived there anymore. Gifn was gone. With all her might, Seteal tried to rekindle the image of her father, but he was gone and she couldn’t bring him back.

Her spirit was slapped sideways. The world spiralled and Seteal felt a familiar sensation—a bodily sensation. Someone was shaking her. She was torn through the world, severed from the Ways, and her eyes burst open to discover the tent’s gloomy interior.

‘Wake up,’ El-i-miir whispered urgently. ‘Seeol’s in a tree outside. I think he’s back to following us.’

‘Of course he is.’ Seteal rolled over, putting her back to the woman. ‘I told him to.’

‘You did what?’ El-i-miir said with a stunned tone. ‘So you accuse me of pitying the silt and yet you’ve actively encouraged the companionship of a creature we’ve seen murder in cold blood. What the torrid is wrong with you?’

‘I’m hardly encouraging his companionship, I just happen to think the Elglair might be able to do something to help him,’ Seteal said thoughtfully. ‘Surely not all of your people are as useless as you and Far-a-mael.’

‘Excuse me?’ El-i-miir said defensively. ‘I’ll have you know that we’re two of the most powerful Elglair in the last four hundred years.’

‘In some ways, yes,’ Seteal said as she rolled back over, ‘but Far-a-mael made it clear to me that different gils are good at different things. What makes you so sure Seeol can’t be helped?’

‘Because it’s impossible,’ El-i-miir fumed. ‘Seeol is seeol! There’s a meaning behind his name, you know. You speak with such confidence on matters of which you are ignorant.’

‘You know what? This is just so typical of you, El-i-miir.’ Seteal glared at the woman. ‘As long as Seeol isn’t bothering you, he’s not your problem right? But he is a problem. If he’s not following us, he’ll follow someone less equipped to deal with him. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want those lives on my conscience. Then again, I suppose that’s not a problem for you, considering that whisp you created.’

‘What is wrong with you?’ El-i-miir burst out, her voice flooding with emotion. ‘You’re so cruel! I don’t even know why I try anymore.’

‘I’m cruel?’ Seteal said defensively. ‘You’ve probably killed someone. You’re no different to the silt that killed my mother. What the torrid do you expect from me?’

‘I thought it was the right thing to do,’ El-i-miir sobbed.

‘Well, it wasn’t,’ Seteal said as she rolled back to face the wall yet again. Silence prevailed thereafter. Neither woman spoke and for many hours neither woman slept.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Fifteen

The Riverboat

 

 

Far-a-mael kept the silt unconscious most of the time. With Seteal unable to sit atop a horse for lengthy periods, the silt had been tied to Darra so that Far-a-mael could keep an eye on him. Whenever he woke up, he turned to El-i-miir with pleading eyes. All her life she had been able to distinguish truth from lie, and although Far-a-mael couldn’t acknowledge it publically, he trusted she was not incorrect in regards to young Ilgrin. The problem with El-i-miir was that she was too naïve. She seemed willing to give the silt a chance, just as Far-a-mael himself had done in his youth—much to his discredit.

Whether Ilgrin had been raised in Abnatol or Old World was irrelevant. The day would come when he would re-join his people and become a partner in the destruction of New World.

After days of isolation, Far-a-mael smiled at the first signs of civilisation. ‘We’re close,’ he announced to the others. ‘Sat Elmore lies just ahead. Cover the silt with his cloak.’

El-i-miir slid off her horse to do as Far-a-mael had ordered. She paused for a moment to whisper in Ilgrin’s ear. Far-a-mael frowned at her. She’d displeased him greatly throughout their travels and he was beginning to second-guess her readiness in becoming a gil.

When they approached the city, Seteal became visibly excited and forged ahead of the group. Far-a-mael could only feel relieved that the girl was expressing anything other than misery and hatred. Certainly he’d implanted a healthy dislike for silts within her aura, but lately she’d shown contempt for just about everything.

Days earlier, Seteal had told Far-a-mael of a strange experience in which she’d proclaimed to have departed her body. He’d told her that she’d dreamt it, but in all honesty, he wasn’t so sure. There were books more ancient than the Holy Tome that spoke of the Elglair having once had such abilities when the gift was young and the world was new. But it confounded Far-a-mael. Seteal was only half Elglair. How could she possibly possess such powers? Then again, the silver glass had led him to her for a reason.

With a sharp intellect and a natural hunger for knowledge, Seteal was learning very quickly. Far-a-mael only felt regret that El-i-miir hadn’t shown a similar enthusiasm for her studies. He’d had to drag her every step of the way. Even now she showed little appreciation.

Of course, Seteal’s situation was somewhat different from El-i-miir’s. It was illegal to affiliate a human in any situation other than an emergency, but that was a mere technicality. Far-a-mael needed Seteal to be ready. He needed her to stand up, be strong and never back down. The day would come when the world would depend on her, and Far-a-mael refused to go down in history as the man who’d damned them all to torrid. Sar-ni deserved better than that and he was determined to do her memory proud.

As the Keacos’ wagon trundled into the outermost parts of Sat Elmore, Far-a-mael checked the sun and was pleased to find it was not terribly far above the horizon. Perhaps they would find a riverboat before the day’s end. This city was older than Sitnic. Many of the buildings were either decrepit or refurbished versions of their former selves. The streets were narrow and paved, densely packed with merchants selling their wares. Reaching the other side of the city was slow-going and it took until midday to get there.

‘Wait here,’ Far-a-mael ordered when they reached the river port south-east of Sat Elmore. He got off his horse and headed to the dock where a young man with a generous girth sat listlessly. ‘Excuse me,’ Far-a-mael beckoned as he approached.

‘What?’ the man grumbled before turning around to notice Far-a-mael’s eyes. ‘I mean . . . excuse me . . . what can I do for you?’ he blathered, getting to his feet and offering his hand. Far-a-mael ignored it. It smelt like fish and he was allergic to most varieties.

‘I’m looking for Captain Waxnah,’ Far-a-mael stated. ‘I’ll pay him more handsomely than originally promised, as I have more cargo than originally intended.’

‘He won’t be back until late.’

‘Then tell him to meet me here tomorrow morning,’ Far-a-mael said. ‘He is not to leave without me. Have I made myself clear?’

‘You may have.’ The man extended his hand. Far-a-mael rolled his eyes and dropped two gold coins into his palm.

‘Now we have a contract,’ Far-a-mael said threateningly. ‘If you do not pass along this message I will find you. And that is not something you want to happen.’

‘Yes, sir.’ The man’s eyes widened.

‘Good boy.’ Far-a-mael nodded.

‘Who should I tell him this engagement is with?’ the young man called as Far-a-mael headed away.

‘Gil’rei Far-a-mael,’ he replied without a backward glance.

The evening proved to be uneventful, which was exactly what Far-a-mael had hoped for. The travellers stayed at an inn that was rather inexpensive and delivered meals to their rooms. Far-a-mael kept Seteal’s lesson short—spending most of it tampering with her aura—and went to bed early. In the morning, he put his feet on the cold floor and snorted in disgust at the sight before him.

‘Mister Geld,’ he grumbled at the silt chained up in the corner. The boy glared at him. Far-a-mael cracked his fingers and prepared to send the creature back to sleep.

‘You know I told the truth,’ Ilgrin whispered.

‘Of course I do,’ Far-a-mael said stuffily as he shoved his feet into boots.

‘Then why?’ He asked. ‘I’m just one silt. Capturing me won’t do you any good. I have nothing to offer under interrogation. I don’t know anything.’

‘You must be very confused.’ Far-a-mael smiled softly, remembering a silt he’d once known and cared about. ‘Poor boy. I’d explain everything, but I’m afraid it must remain my little secret for now.’

In many ways, Far-a-mael wished he could tell young Ilgrin his plan, if only to share its brilliance. The silt was destined to be his trophy. When the elders saw that Far-a-mael had successfully captured a silt so far north of Old World, they’d easily be convinced that he was a scout gathering reconnaissance for an upcoming invasion. With a little further encouragement, they’d agree to counter-attack. Then, all Far-a-mael would need was time to finish preparing his weapon, Seteal.

Far-a-mael removed the silt’s chains and affiliated him to stand up. He tossed Ilgrin a cloak and was satisfied by his compliance in putting it on. ‘Let’s go.’ Far-a-mael pointed at the door. ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’

‘Briel,’ Far-a-mael called when he left the building to find the man standing by his wagon. ‘Have you seen the others?’

‘Seteal be headin’ ta the docks on her own.’ Briel shrugged. ‘Fes and El-i-miir be here.’ He jabbed a thumb at the wagon. ‘Is that . . . ?’ He nodded toward the cloaked figure beside Far-a-mael.

‘Yes,’ he replied, before calling out to El-i-miir. ‘Take over for me.’

‘Come,’ El-i-miir said softly and the silt followed obediently.

‘I nah like him bein’ in my wagon,’ Briel said sternly.

‘We have to keep him out of sight, but rest assured I’ll have him out as soon as we find our riverboat.’ Far-a-mael climbed into his saddle and ordered the horse forward. He was growing increasingly weary of the islanders and looked forward to them parting ways. Fes’s faith in the silt’s story was becoming increasingly evident and it seemed as though she’d begun to pity him. El-i-miir, too, showed similar signs of weakness. Such attitudes flew in the face of what Far-a-mael was working to achieve with Seteal.

The streets weren’t terribly crowded that morning and Briel’s horses made speedier progress than they had the preceding day. When they reached the docks, Far-a-mael spotted Seteal sitting on the jetty, shoes beside her and feet dangling in the water. He was about to call out to her, when a voice distracted him from the other direction.

‘You must be Gil’rei Far-a-mael.’

‘Captain Waxnah?’ Far-a-mael asked of a man who could only be described as a pirate forced into uniform. His hair was wild, his eyes were grey, and his face was decidedly unfortunate.

‘The gil who thinks he’s so important that I should put off all other engagements until I’ve spoken with him?’ Captain Waxnah announced.

‘You’ve made the right choice.’ Far-a-mael waved toward his cohort waiting several strides away. ‘We seek passage to Sat Elam.’

‘You’ll have to go by road.’ Waxnah went to turn away but Far-a-mael grabbed his arm to stop him.

‘Going by road is not an option,’ he said fiercely. ‘Our journey is a pressing one.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Waxnah said firmly, ‘but going to Sat Elam would mean travelling through Cold Wood and seeing as though you’re the sensible type, I cannot imagine that is something you’d suggest.’

‘I’m not suggesting it.’ Far-a-mael pulled out a small bag of gold coins. ‘I’m demanding it.’

The captain took the bag and felt its weight before returning it. ‘My men have families.’ Waxnah shook his head. ‘You want them to risk certain death for a handful of coins?’

‘No one is going to die.’ Far-a-mael took a hold of the Ways and sent comforting strands of yellow and orange into the man’s aura. ‘I’m a very powerful gil. Your safety is all but guaranteed.’

‘Double it,’ Waxnah said. ‘Double it and we have a deal.’

‘All right.’ Far-a-mael retrieved a second bag from his pocket. He began to hand it over, but snatched it back before Waxnah’s hand could reach out. ‘I have a condition. I require the exclusive use of your brig for my prisoner. You have one, don’t you?’

‘Of course.’ Waxnah waved his hand dismissively, his eyes focused on the bags in Far-a-mael’s hand. ‘The brig is yours.’

‘I need you to listen very carefully,’ Far-a-mael rested a hand on the man’s shoulder and put his face close to his ear. ‘My prisoner is a silt.’

‘No.’ Waxnah stumbled back several steps, his eyes widening in disbelief. ‘Keep your money, Elglair! I will play no part in this.’

‘He is incapacitated,’ Far-a-mael reassured him, focusing on the Ways and reworking his aura into a calmer state. ‘I wouldn’t have felt the need to inform you of his presence except that I need to be sure your brig is strong enough to hold such a creature.’

‘You want to put a demon on my ship?’ Waxnah gaped in open astonishment. ‘And take it through the heart of Cold Wood? Are you out of your mind?’

‘I am a qualified gil on an important mission.’ Far-a-mael dangled the bags before Waxnah’s eyes. ‘If I didn’t think it were possible, I wouldn’t jeopardise my task. Now take the money . . . or leave it. Either way, we’ll be taking your boat.’

‘I’ll need a third bag for my men,’ Waxnah pushed.

‘No,’ Far-a-mael said. ‘This is our arrangement.’

Waxnah remained transfixed, uncertainty flooding his features, but at last he reached out and took the bags. ‘My men cannot know,’ Waxnah warned. ‘I’ll send them on a break so that we can take . . . your prisoner to the brig. We set sail in one hour.’

‘Wise choice.’ Far-a-mael smiled. ‘You’ve just become a wealthy man.’

‘This way.’ Captain Waxnah turned to head along the docks. It wasn’t long before their destination became obvious. Anchored at the final jetty, with three masts and plenty of sails, Waxnah’s riverboat was the biggest by far. ‘Getting that wagon on will be a push,’ Waxnah murmured, glancing over his shoulder to check if his passengers were following.

After making their way up a ramp and onto the deck, Far-a-mael and the others followed Waxnah down a steep set of stairs—a ladder, really. They followed the captain through a semi-lit corridor with worn red carpet underfoot and polished wooden walls either side. Small doors that lead to cramped quarters lined the hall. At the end, they came to a spiralling metal staircase that served as a second entrance to the livestock holding area.

At the opposite side of the space there were rows of pens designed for the transportation of horses and other animals. Far-a-mael nodded, satisfied that the horses would be suitably looked after. On the wall directly opposite the staircase was a heavy iron door with a small wheel on the front.

‘This will do nicely.’ Far-a-mael smiled as he approached the brig.

Forged from iron and concrete, the small room was secure enough to hold any silt. There were no windows, only a small hatch at the bottom of the door through which the occasional plate of food might be passed. Far-a-mael opened the door, affiliated Ilgrin inside and chained his wrist to a small bench within. He closed the door and returned his attention to Captain Waxnah. ‘It would be prudent to order your men to keep their distance,’ Far-a-mael warned. ‘Should any of them have to come below decks to fulfil their duties, they must be told not to listen to anything the prisoner says. Tell them he is a madman.’

‘Agreed,’ Waxnah replied, heading back to the spiral staircase. Once they’d re-entered the corridor above, Waxnah showed his passengers to their rooms before his men returned to retrieve the Keacos’ wagon and put it up on deck.

Getting the wagon on board required a great deal of effort, but with the crew working together, it was soon parked successfully on deck. A short while later, Far-a-mael found himself watching Sat Elmore fade into the distance. Keeping his eyes on land seemed to help with his queasy stomach. He’d only been on sea-craft a few times in his life and had never quite gotten used to the constant rocking motion.

‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ Captain Waxnah said crudely, shielding his eyes from the sun and staring up at the nearest mast.

‘What is it?’ Far-a-mael followed the man’s gaze, only to regret the irritation it caused him when his eyes locked on a boom pole several strides above.

‘I’ve never seen a bird like that before,’ Waxnah scratched his head.

‘I have.’ Far-a-mael sneered at the seeol flittering among the sails.

‘What is it?’ Waxnah murmured in curiosity. ‘It’s not like any seabird I’ve ever seen.’

‘It’s not,’ Far-a-mael replied. ‘You must have arrows on board.’

‘Arrows?’ Captain Waxnah said in surprise. ‘We too often sail Middle Sea and the salt air makes them useless, but I’ve got some throwing knives.’

‘Get them for me.’

‘What for?’

‘Oh, forget it!’ Far-a-mael snatched out his belt knife and threw it with precision, but the bird flew away at the same time, causing him to miss his target.

‘Nearly got him,’ the captain chortled. ‘Better luck next time, but jolly good shot. I enjoy a little sport when I find the time. When I get home I like to—’

Far-a-mael walked away without waiting for the captain to finish. He didn’t have the time nor the patience to contend with foolish blathering. Hoping for some time alone with his thoughts, Far-a-mael leaned back against the railing, only to be approached by Briel a moment later.

‘Gil, I be feelin’ ye owe us an explanation for the owl. I’ve seen what it be able ta da and truth is, it concerns me more than the silt.’

‘I’ll tell you what you need to know when you need to know it,’ Far-a-mael snapped. ‘Leave such matters to me.’ He was sick of the nosey man and his dimwit wife meddling in his business and intended to make it clear that they were not welcome to do so. Briel turned and thudded across the deck without another word, at least having the sense not to bother an Elglair gil when he wasn’t welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genesis 6

 

4. There were silts in New World in those days, and man shared occupancy of Old World. And also after that, the sons of Hae’Evun came in unto the daughters of men to bare children to them, but their seed was useless and a great war broke out on the Earth.

5. And Maker saw the wickedness of his creation, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

6. And Maker felt regret that he had allowed silts to watch over man on earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

7. And the Lord said, I will abandon man and those who have destroyed him, and My Spirit will not be found on the face of the Earth, both man, and demon, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air, for I regret that I have made them.

8. But the Elglair found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

 

13. And Maker said unto the Elglair, The end of darkness will come and you will be able to leave the frozen places, and, behold, I will destroy the silts within the Earth.

14. And Maker sent angels to restrain the demons in their place to the south, for unhindered they would spread darkness before the appointed time of the Holy Spirit.

 

18. And Maker said to the Elglair, But with thee will I establish my covenant, and thou shalt come into the frozen places, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy son’s wives with thee.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER sixteen

Help Me, Little Bird

 

 

Seeol was sad. A few days ago, Far-a-mael had spotted him in the rigging and thrown a knife at him. Now that he really thought about it, among the sails probably hadn’t been the best choice of hiding place. He’d felt isolated from everybody and just wanted to talk to a seagull. His loneliness had driven him to take an unnecessary risk and as it turned out, the gull couldn’t talk anyway.

Seeol scurried across the deck and hid behind a door. He waited for a while to be sure no one had seen him and took a moment to think. He didn’t want to hurt people anymore and wished he could just disappear. Seeol clung to Emquin’s stories, dreaming of the day he’d be free of his dark affliction. If the Elglair could turn a horse into a human, then surely they could help Seeol. And yet all Far-a-mael wanted to do was kill him. The old man had tortured Ilgrin and eaten Emquin. Seeol didn’t pretend to know very much about Elglair culture, but surely it was never okay to eat someone’s friend.

Seeol peeked around the doorway to check that the coast was clear before leaping through a hole in the floor and zipping through the corridor below. He landed on the railing of a spiralling staircase that led down into a deep abyss. Seeol hopped down onto the first stair to make his way down cautiously.

Across the room was an ugly door, behind which Ilgrin was being kept prisoner. Despite his rejection of the green lizard and other tasty morsels, Seeol found he’d become quite fond of the silt. There was a little door at the base of the big door. It was almost as though it’d been made just for him. Darra watched Seeol from her stall across the room and snorted.

‘Hello Darra.’ He bobbed his head in recognition. She couldn’t talk, but was a nice person nevertheless.

Seeol pulled open the little door and stepped through onto a plate containing a lump of grey meat. Not wanting to spoil Ilgrin’s food—even though he’d spoiled the green lizard—Seeol hopped off the plate and looked up at the silt worriedly. He was in a sorry state, sweating heavily and shivering constantly. His shoulder was an angry inflamed blue. There was a bruise on his face and dried blood on his clothes. Seeol chewed the meat idly as he considered the situation. It wasn’t fresh, but he hadn’t eaten in some time.

‘Seeol,’ Ilgrin’s voice came out raspy and weak. ‘It’s you.’

‘Of course I am me,’ Seeol replied. ‘I thinked that I should helping you escape.’

‘Unless you can open that door . . .’ Ilgrin sighed. ‘I don’t think that’s going to be possible.’

‘Of course!’ Seeol exclaimed. ‘Leave it to me.’ He scurried across the floor and put his weight against the door, his claws scrabbling as he did so. He stopped short at the sound of wheezing laughter.

‘Stop it, Seeol.’ Ilgrin smiled weakly. ‘If I can’t open it, what hope would you have? You’re only an elf owl,’ he shook his head in defeat. ‘You have to try to convince the others that I am from Sitnic. I think the apprentice, El-i-miir, sort of believes me. You have to convince her to help me.’

‘I’ll does my best.’ Seeol nodded. ‘But I don’t think El-i-mish likes me anymore.’

‘Anymore?’ Ilgrin shook his head in confusion. ‘What do you mean “anymore”?’

‘Seteal and El-i-miish were my friends.’ Seeol’s feathers stood up defensively. ‘They teached my talking.’

‘What does this mean?’ Ilgrin cringed, his face captured by deep thought. ‘Did you lead them to me? Was it all a trap? Is that why you turned into a monster?’

‘I have no idea,’ Seeol replied in confusion.

‘You’re in league with them,’ Ilgrin barked, a look of betrayal on his face. ‘They trained you . . . whatever you are and you betrayed me.’

‘No.’ Seeol recoiled. ‘I’d never betray my friendlies. I got lost and found Ilgrey by accidental fun times.’

‘I should have known,’ Ilgrin rocked back and forth. ‘So many talking animals. How could I not have seen it sooner? How long? Just tell me,’ he moaned. ‘How long did they know I was in Sitnic? How long did you all plan this?’

‘You’re a silly boy,’ Seeol growled. ‘We’ve got nothing but accidentals to do with you. Seteal is the one. Seteal is the one Far-a-mael wants to eat.’

‘Seteal?’ Ilgrin frowned. ‘What’s she got to do with any of this? She’s just another rei isn’t she?’

‘No.’ Seeol’s voice flooded with relief over Ilgrin’s willingness to hear him out. ‘She’s coming from my homely town. We lived in Elms-village.’

‘But what do they want from her?’ Ilgrin asked. ‘She’s crazy.’

‘Sometimes she is.’ Seeol nodded. ‘But she is a good girl. She is always friendlier than me.’

‘She seems kind of horrible.’ Ilgrin frowned.

‘That’s becauses Far-a-mael says mean things to her.’ Seeol’s head twitched sideways. ‘I’ve listened nearby with my fantastic ears sometimes. Far-a-mael says mean things about silts and Seteal doesn’t know much better because she is a silly girl. He is always whisper whisper whisper in her earlobes. Naughty silt this, naughty silt that.’

‘I don’t know.’ Ilgrin looked away.

‘What?’

‘I don’t know if I can trust you.’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘I want to, but there just seems to be too many coincidences. And that monster you turned into . . . you killed Emquin,’ his voice caught.

‘I’m just horrible.’ Seeol looked at the ground. He’d been dreading the inevitability of Ilgrin mentioning their murdered friend. ‘I don’t mean to be a bad bird. Far-a-mael thinks a whisp made me naughty and sometimes I get really big and hurt people.’

‘Okay.’ Ilgrin nodded slowly. ‘I’ll believe you, but you need to help me. Show me you’re not on their side. Help me get out of here.

‘It’s not such a simple thing,’ Seeol replied, heading for the exit. ‘They used to be my friendlies, but now they hate me because I killed Far-a-mael. I tries to cuddle them all the time, but they love rejecting me, always telling me to fly away.’ Seeol stepped through the little door and hurried away before he could become too emotional.

 

*

 

El-i-miir thrust her head out over the railing and vomited. It was the constant rocking that did it. Days on board this Maker-forsaken riverboat had left her stomach in tatters. She could barely keep a meal down, let alone function. This was El-i-miir’s first time traveling by boat and would be her last if she had anything to do with it. She was exhausted. Every time she’d tried to sleep the boat lurched in one direction or the other.

‘El-i-miir,’ Seteal’s voice drifted over.

‘What?’ El-i-miir replied, rolling her eyes and turning to face the woman.

‘You got a minute?’

‘I’m still standing here, aren’t I?’ El-i-miir grumbled impatiently, her stomach churning furiously. ‘I’m sorry.’ She raised a hand before Seteal could speak. ‘That was uncalled for. I’m more than just a little seasick.’

Seteal’s eyes hit the deck. ‘I came to apologise.’

‘What?’ El-i-miir raised her eyebrows dubiously.

‘The way Far-a-mael has been treating the demon would be hard for anyone to take.’ Seteal shrugged. ‘It’s not your fault it upsets you. To be honest, I’m surprised it doesn’t bother me. It would’ve once. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.’

‘Um . . . thanks.’ El-i-miir shrugged and looked away. She was well aware of why Seteal wasn’t bothered by Ilgrin’s ill-treatment. ‘Forget about it.’

‘No, I mean it.’ Seteal frowned. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve said a few really horrible things to you and you didn’t deserve it. Especially with the way you looked after me when . . . when we were in Sitnic.’

‘It’s fine,’ El-i-miir snapped. ‘Look, I have to go lie down. I haven’t been getting any sleep. I’ll talk to you later.’ She hurried away. It was easier when Seteal hated her, the guilt brought on by the burden of knowing the truth then feeling less severe.

When El-i-miir reached her cramped quarters she slithered out of her clothes and into a nightdress. She took a step toward her bed, but stopped short. Something wasn’t right. El-i-miir turned around to examine the weavings of light all around her, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Still, she couldn’t shake the sensation that something was wrong, kind of like the feeling one might get when something was missing, but they didn’t know what. El-i-miir’s eyes fell upon a little bird making himself comfortable atop the wardrobe.

‘Seeol,’ she gasped. ‘What’re you doing here?’

‘Ilgrin is sad.’

‘I don’t care,’ El-i-miir replied dismissively.

‘He’s not too different,’ Seeol’s head twitched about as he inspected the room. ‘He just looks silly.’

‘You’re just an owl.’ El-i-miir sighed. ‘I shouldn’t expect you to understand. ‘Why’re you here anyway?’

‘Ilgrin is sad.’

‘No.’ El-i-miir shook her head. ‘I mean, what’re you doing on the boat? You think we can help you? Seteal doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Elglair abilities cannot break the laws of possibility.’

‘Emquin said you can go and turn a horse into a people,’ the owl lowered his head dejectedly.

‘Emquin.’ El-i-miir tried out the unusual name. ‘Who’s that?’

‘My friend, but you eated her!’ Seeol shrieked passionately.

‘Oh, the horse.’ El-i-miir chuckled as she realised what the owl was going on about. ‘Horses can’t talk.’

‘Most can’t.’ Seeol nodded thoughtfully. ‘Darra can’t. But Emquin could. She was a person once, but a whisp cuddled her into a horse.’

El-i-miir frowned at the bird and stared at him for a long time. ‘I’m sure you’ve been mistaken.’

‘You eated her.’

El-i-miir hurried through the doorway, along the corridor and down the spiral staircase, her feet slapping noisily on the metal as she went. She reached the hold and stopped abruptly to stare at the imposing metal door. The silt lurked within.

‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir whispered after some hesitation. There was no response. ‘I have to speak with you.’ She rested her ear against the cold door. ‘Please.’ All was silent. El-i-miir found herself tracing a finger along the wheel on the door. It wouldn’t be too dangerous to go inside. The silt was chained to a bench. El-i-miir turned the wheel, jumping when it squeaked loudly. ‘Ilgrin,’ she repeated in a hushed voice. ‘I’m coming in to speak with you. Please . . . please don’t kill me.’

Clenching the wheel with both hands, El-i-miir turned it and was satisfied to hear a loud thud as the lock shifted. She was opening a very dangerous door to some very unfamiliar territory, but she took a deep breath and stepped across the threshold. The silt sat on the bench, his leathery wings crumpled against the walls to either side. His knees were tucked up under his chin and his arms were wrapped around them. His straight, bluish-black hair sat neatly above purple eyes that followed El-i-miir with suspicion, although without malice.

Upon seeing the conditions in which Ilgrin was being held, El-i-miir lost her confidence and started to back away.

‘Don’t be scared,’ he said, his voice strained.

‘Why didn’t you answer me when I called through before?’

‘I’m tired,’ he replied softly. ‘I’m just so tired. What do you want?’

‘I . . . it’s Seeol.’ El-i-miir laughed dismissively. ‘He speaks such silly nonsense, doesn’t he?’

‘I suppose.’ Ilgrin shrugged and looked away.

‘It’s just that . . . he said something about your horse.’ El-i-miir hesitated, fearing how the silt might react. ‘He said she was like him . . . that she was different.’

‘Emquin was different,’ Ilgrin confirmed, rising to his feet to loom over El-i-miir, forcing her to take a step back. ‘I was honoured to call her my friend, but she wasn’t anything like Seeol.’

‘Oh, thank Maker,’ El-i-miir exhaled in relief.

‘She wasn’t like Seeol,’ Ilgrin repeated. ‘She was like us.’

‘What?’ El-i-miir choked out.

‘Emquin was as human as you.’ Ilgrin frowned regretfully. ‘She was from the borderlands and was changed by a whisp.’

‘But . . . ’ El-i-miir’s jaw worked. ‘But that means . . .’

‘You ate somebody,’ Ilgrin finished for her.

‘Oh, Maker,’ El-i-miir put a hand over her stomach and gagged. ‘I’m going to be sick.’

‘Not in my cell,’ Ilgrin cringed and moved to push E-i-miir out the door.

There was a loud cracking sound. Together, Ilgrin and El-i-miir followed the sound to its source. Ilgrin had been chained to the bench, but the bench had only been attached to the wall by a single bolt. As he’d stepped forward to push El-i-miir out of the way the bolt had cracked out of the wall and the bench hit the ground. The chain that’d been looped around it slid away and Ilgrin was no longer a prisoner.

El-i-miir looked into the silt’s eyes and he into hers, both of them frozen in disbelief, neither quite sure of what to do next. El-i-miir reacted first, throwing herself over the threshold and slamming her weight against the door.

‘Hey!’ a crewman shouted as he ran across the hold, dropping a bucket of horse-feed as he went. A second man looked up at the sound and began racing toward the scene.

El-i-miir screamed as the door exploded open, her strength useless against the demon within. She hit the ground hard, turning in time to catch a glimpse of Ilgrin’s expression of desperation before the crewmen hit the door and put their weight against it.

‘What in Maker’s name is that thing?’ one of them cried out.

Rather than answering, El-i-miir too put her weight against the door. Despite the three of them working together, their efforts were not enough and the door moved against them. ‘I can’t hold it,’ one of the crewmen grunted. Ilgrin thrust open the door with a victorious shout, sending the three of them stumbling backward. He stepped into the hold and stretched out his intimidating wings.

‘What’s going on here?’ Seteal asked, appearing halfway down the spiral staircase. Of course, when she spotted the silt, the question was no longer relevant.

Ilgrin turned toward the sound of Seteal’s voice and hesitated, perhaps remembering the part he’d played in her fate. The hesitation was enough. El-i-miir closed her eyes and steadied her breathing, urging the Ways to submit to her.

The world was a litany of lights that snaked across the room, tracing the paths the crewmen had taken across the hold. Some were old and faded, whilst others still burned bright. Ilgrin’s aura glowed purple, green and red as panic and desperation suffocated his better judgement. He launched himself across the room, racing for sweet freedom. But it was too late. El-i-miir opened her hand and strands of translucency penetrated Ilgrin’s aura. The colourless strings whipped through the air, visible only by the warping of anything seen through them.

Ilgrin stopped just strides from a very pale and wide-eyed Seteal. El-i-miir focused on sending portions of her own consciousness through the strands and into Ilgrin’s being. A moment later she was able to see Seteal from two perspectives, one across the room and the other right before her. The two images were superimposed in such a way that it would confuse anyone not trained in how to interpret them. El-i-miir swallowed nervously as she folded Ilgrin’s wings behind their back. She felt the inhuman strength carried within the silt’s muscles and Ilgrin shuddered in horror.

His expression blank, El-i-miir walked the silt back to his cell. She stepped him inside and he shut the door. Seteal wasted no time in hurrying down the remaining steps, rushing across the room and spinning the wheel. Only then did El-i-miir release Ilgrin’s Way. A shout of frustration came from within the small cell as Ilgrin banged his fist against the door.

‘There’s a demon on board.’ One of the crewmen stood transfixed. ‘For the love of Maker . . . a demon!’

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Seteal levelled El-i-miir beneath a reproving stare. ‘Have you forgotten what that thing is capable of?’

‘No, I . . . ’ El-i-miir shook her head, devastated by her own stupidity. She was more sensible than that! How could she have allowed herself to trust the silt so far? ‘Seeol said something and I had to find out. I didn’t think.’

‘Clearly.’ Seteal pushed herself away from the door, as the crewmen departed, undoubtedly in a hurry to report what they’d seen to Captain Waxnah. ‘Well, I’m not going to waste my breath reprimanding you. When Far-a-mael finds out, you’ll be lucky if you come out alive.’

With that, Seteal left the hold and headed upstairs. El-i-miir watched her leave before putting a hand to her throat. Seteal had just spoken to her from a position of authority. How had that happened? And more importantly, when had it happened? Every single decision El-i-miir had made lately resulted in Seteal seeming increasingly sensible and El-i-miir increasingly juvenile. Had Far-a-mael noticed it? He’d probably instigated it. El-i-miir was toward the end of her studies so she didn’t need as much one on one time with the old man, but still she hadn’t had a single lesson with him since Seteal had joined them. Not one. Was she being replaced? No, it was worse—she was being cast aside. El-i-miir’s training had once been Far-a-mael’s proudest ambition. Now she was only in the way.

‘If you don’t want to be treated like a fool, stop acting one,’ she murmured, wiping away tears and straightening her dress. When she looked up, Far-a-mael was standing at the base of the steps. ‘Gil’rei!’

‘You foolish girl.’ Far-a-mael strode across the room and slapped her across the face. ‘You’re both an embarrassment to me and to yourself. That stupid child upstairs has more sense than you. Do you understand? You . . . a young woman born of wealth, raised with every possible advantage imaginable and the opportunity to train beneath the most powerful gil ever to grace the cleff in which I discovered you. You, with an Elglair education are a greater embarrassment to me than that empty-headed carpenter’s daughter.’ Spittle flew from Far-a-mael’s mouth as he shouted in El-i-miir’s face, his anger far surpassing anything she’d seen from him before.

‘But, Gil’rei—’

‘Shut up!’ Far-a-mael clapped a hand around El-i-miir’s throat, but seemed to think better of it and pulled away. ‘I do not want to hear you. I do not want to see you. Torrid, I don’t even want to catch a whiff of your perfume for the remainder of this trip.’

‘Yes, Gil’rei.’ El-i-miir lowered her eyes, but Far-a-mael hadn’t finished.

‘That creature in there—’ He jabbed a finger toward the door. ‘—has the strength to kill everyone on board this boat without stopping to catch its breath.’ He put his face close to El-i-miir’s, having lowered his voice abruptly. ‘You do not want to be responsible for Seteal’s death. Let me impress upon you, if nothing else, that if you ruin this for our people I’ll see you are sent to Vish’el’Tei to die after you’ve been tortured to within an inch of your piteous life. You’ll cry out to see your own blood long before your last breath will give you peace. Have I made myself clear?’

‘Very,’ El-i-miir squeaked. She’d never heard of a crime being so heavily punished, but was under no illusions that Far-a-mael was without the power to follow through on his threat.

‘Good,’ the gil murmured, turning away. ‘Waxnah threatened to kick us off at the final town before Cold Wood. I’ve had to double my payment. You can explain the additional expenditure to High Elder Gez-reil.’ El-i-miir quivered like a leaf but otherwise remained stuck to the spot. ‘Well?’ Far-a-mael barked. ‘Get out of my sight.’

As if someone had pushed her from behind, El-i-miir charged up stairs and into her room. At first she didn’t realise what the sound was. But before long she recognised it. The long, guttural cries were not those of a human. The sound penetrated the riverboat, no place being a suitable refuge from it. With the crew aware of his presence, Far-a-mael had lost any need to keep Ilgrin quiet . . . and the silt was too strong. El-i-miir knew what was happening, but climbed into bed and threw the covers over her head. She couldn’t know precisely what horrors Far-a-mael was inflicting on the silt, but they were likely both mentally and physically draining. Weakened captives behaved themselves.

El-i-miir rolled over and closed her eyes. She knew Ilgrin was innocent, even if he was a silt. He was a good man. She shuddered at the realisation. On a rational level she knew it was true, but emotionally . . . he was still a demon. El-i-miir was weak. She was a coward. Seteal had been taken against her will, raped, beaten and still she stood strong, holding closely to her values and beliefs. Seteal always followed her heart and did what she knew was right. El-i-miir hid beneath her blankets and cowered like a beaten dog. If she were anything like Seteal, she’d have set Ilgrin free, to torrid with the consequences. But she was not Seteal. She was a scared little girl, diligently obeying the commands of her superiors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Seventeen

Changing Minds

 

 

When El-i-miir woke up, the boat was surprisingly still and lacked the commotion usually heard from above. Seteal was sleeping in the lower bunk. Her breathing was slow and deep. The small mirror across the room revealed darkness beneath El-i-miir’s eyes and she put a hand to her mouth as memories of the previous day came back to her.

After getting dressed and applying her makeup, El-i-miir made her way over to the door and began to pull it open, but stopped sharply and closed it again. Something was wrong. El-i-miir turned in a slow circle at the centre of the room.

‘Seteal,’ she whispered, her eyes widening in disbelief.

El-i-miir clutched her stomach, terror causing her heart to beat rapidly. Seteal’s aura was gone. There were only two situations in which a person’s aura vanished completely. And that was in death, or if they became a seeol.

‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir rushed over and shook the woman. She was breathing. She had a pulse. Physically, she looked alive, but her spirit was gone. ‘Wake up!’

‘Leave me alone.’ The woman’s lips moved slowly, her voice barely audible. As she spoke patches of her aura flared in and out of existence.

‘Seteal!’ El-i-miir cried, fearing the consequences should something happen under her watch. ‘You need to wake up right now.’ She was flooded with relief when Seteal’s aura popped vibrantly and entirely into existence.

‘Get off me.’ Seteal’s eyes burst open and she pushed El-i-miir away. ‘I told you to leave me alone.’

‘Your aura was gone.’

‘What?’ Seteal asked in confusion as she slid off the bed and straightened her dress. In fact, she was fully dressed, which seemed odd.

‘Your aura,’ El-i-miir repeated. ‘It was gone.’

‘Well, that doesn’t mean a lot to me, now does it?’ Seteal put her hands on her hips. ‘I can’t see them, remember?’

‘You don’t understand,’ El-i-miir said worriedly. ‘Only dead people don’t have auras. Well . . . them and Seeol.’

Seteal’s expression remained blank, before finally she shook her head and rolled her eyes. ‘Just stay away from me. I know what I’m doing, okay?’

‘I don’t think you do.’ El-i-miir gripped Seteal’s arm. ‘I’ve been doing this for a long time and I recognise danger when I see it. If you want to meddle with dangerous parts of the Ways, do it around someone else. I’m not going to have to answer to Far-a-mael should you get yourself killed.’

‘Fine.’ Seteal shook free of El-i-miir’s grip. ‘I’ll stay away from you, if you stay away from me.’ She headed toward the door before turning back sharply. ‘And try to mind your own business, all right?’ The woman disappeared, leaving the door ajar as she went.

El-i-miir sat down and exhaled slowly. She was surrounded by people, but felt so alone. She imagined life had she gone to the University of the Sixth Cleff with her friends. It was a good school with a world-renowned Jilt’lesit degree. She’d be able to stay with her parents on weekends and tell her sisters about her day. Instead, she had been traipsed around the world with an evil old man who’d stop at nothing to reach his insane goals.

‘Hello, cutie,’ Seeol croaked, his tiny, feathery head popping around the door. ‘You’re looking sadder than ever.’ He scrabbled across the floor and stood at the toe of El-i-miir’s boot.

‘I am, a little.’ El-i-miir stared into the owl’s penetrating golden eyes.

‘You’re a good girl.’ Seeol bobbed his head. ‘Seteal is very angry all the time. Don’t worry. She has had horrible stuff to deal with. You are lovely so don’t be sadness. And your hair is silky nice.’

‘Thanks, Seeol.’ El-i-miir laughed, only to realise that she hadn’t done so in a very long time. ‘Oh, Seeol,’ she said softly, making her way over to a small circular window by the bed. ‘Have you ever imagined what it must be like for someone to love you . . . the real you? Can you imagine what such an embrace would mean?’ El-i-miir turned to face the owl’s blank expression. ‘No . . . of course not.’ She sighed. ‘I’m being silly. You’re just a little bird. No one would ever love you,’ she murmured thoughtlessly, before once again noting the profound emptiness on board. ‘You wouldn’t happen to know where everyone is, would you?’

‘They are on top of the town.’ Seeol’s head turned almost backward as he glanced out the door. ‘Soon we’ll be in the chilly woods and some people said to stop for supper . . . or supplies. Is it supplies?’

‘I think it probably would have been.’ El-i-miir nodded. ‘But the supplies might include supper.’

‘Glad that’s settled,’ Seeol mused.

El-i-miir pressed her face against the window. There was a single jetty to which the boat was moored. Beyond that stood a small town nestled between two mountains. ‘Has Far-a-mael gone, too?’

‘I did seen him go,’ Seeol replied.

‘Finally.’ El-i-miir stood. ‘Some time alone.’ She made her way through the door and turned right, intending to go up on deck, but she stopped short and looked back down the corridor at the sound of voices floating up from the hold.

‘Please,’ Ilgrin begged. ‘I need water.’

‘Shut up, demon,’ a familiar voice retorted.

‘Maker damn it!’ Ilgrin cried. ‘Just a drop.’

‘Don’t you use the Lord’s name,’ the crewman snapped. ‘It’s blasphemy on your tongue.’

‘Walk away, El-i-miir,’ she whispered to herself. Obediently, she turned back toward the steps that led up onto deck. She put her hand on the railing and her foot on the step but there she remained.

‘Help him.’ Seeol’s voice bit at El-i-miir’s heart. The elf owl was the only other that believed in Ilgrin, and El-i-miir knew he’d go to any length to help the silt. But Seeol was so limited in what he could do. Perhaps she’d played the coward long enough.

‘I will.’ El-i-miir turned to face the bird, looking up at her from his place on the carpet. ‘I will help him.’

The walk along the corridor took longer than it should have and the lanterns didn’t give off enough light, but eventually El-i-miir reached the spiral staircase and moved down into the hold. A crewman—Raeghan, if she remembered correctly—stood with his arms crossed before the cell door.

‘Can I help you, Rei El-i-miir?’ Raeghan asked.

‘Why haven’t you gotten off the boat with the others?’ she asked.

‘I wanted to.’ Raeghan looked disappointed. ‘But seeing as though the silt nearly escaped yesterday, Gil Far-a-mael wants a guard posted here at all times.’

‘Still, it seems a little unfair doesn’t it?’ El-i-miir headed across the room, examining Raeghan’s aura as she went. Within the lights that danced about him resided the secret to his departure. She siphoned through the colours of his aura until she found the ones that spelled out his weakness. The man liked cutting corners and had little integrity. Far-a-mael couldn’t have left a better guard. E-i-miir smiled. ‘Everyone else got to leave. Why not you?’

‘Well, it is a little unfair.’ Raeghan frowned. ‘But it’s captain’s orders. You know how it is.’

‘Well, I think you deserve the same treatment as everyone else,’ El-i-miir murmured, sinking tendrils of light into the man’s aura and pulling his indignation to the surface.

‘You’re right,’ Raeghan fumed. ‘Everyone else gets off of this Maker-damned boat and I’m left with a stinking demon.’

‘I know!’ El-i-miir pretended to have been struck by an idea. ‘Why don’t you go enjoy yourself and I’ll watch the silt.’

‘I don’t know about that, miss,’ Raeghan said uncertainly.

‘I don’t mind,’ El-i-miir insisted. ‘I’ve already been out for a walk.’ She pulled dangerously hard on Raeghan’s indignation and tied a knot in it to prevent it from sinking back into the depths of his aura. It would untangle eventually, but not for a good while. She then plunged streams of her own aura back into the glow to retrieve his desire and twist it aggressively. ‘What could possibly go wrong? Far-a-mael’s worrying about nothing.’

‘You’re right.’ Raeghan smiled as El-i-miir tickled his sense of well-being. ‘I’ll just go for a quick stroll. What could happen?’

‘Absolutely nothing,’ El-i-miir replied as the man raced across the room and ran up the stairs two at a time.

El-i-miir turned to where the horses were fed and filled a pitcher with water. When she returned, it dawned on her that she wouldn’t be able to fit the pitcher through the hatch.

‘Ilgrin?’

‘El-i-miir,’ the silt replied. ‘Please tell me you have water.’

‘I do,’ El-i-miir whispered, ‘but I can’t fit it through the hatch so I’m going to have to open the door. I need you to promise you won’t try to do what you did yesterday.’

‘I can’t,’ Ilgrin replied, laughing hoarsely. ‘They’ve chained me up properly this time.’

‘Okay.’ El-i-miir took several deep breaths. ‘I’m coming in,’ she whispered under her breath and turned the wheel. When the door opened, she was horrified to see the scope of damage Far-a-mael had inflicted.

Although his wounded shoulder looked to be on the mend, Ilgrin was covered in blue welts and patches of dried blood covered his clothing. Cuffs bound his wrists tightly and chains were wrapped around his legs before being secured to the metal loops protruding from the wall where the bench had previously been attached. ‘Please,’ Ilgrin reached for the pitcher with both hands. El-i-miir did not hesitate in giving it to him.

The silt put the pitcher to his chapped lips and drank greedily. El-i-miir leaned against the wall waiting patiently but soon found herself sliding down its length until she sat beside the silt. It was only once Ilgrin had finished drinking that he noticed El-i-miir sitting shoulder to shoulder beside him.

‘You’re not scared?’ he asked in confusion.

‘I never have been. Not really anyway,’ El-i-miir looked into Ilgrin’s eyes, her face less than a handswidth from his. ‘You’re not what they say you are, are you?’

‘A demon?’ Ilgrin said the word like he detested it.

‘A monster.’ El-i-miir looked away.

‘I’m not a monster.’ Ilgrin sighed. ‘I’m just not human either.’

‘Perhaps not. But you are a man,’ El-i-miir said softly. ‘You’re not evil or bad. You’re not even a little bit wrong.’ She swallowed.

‘It means a lot for you to say that.’ Ilgrin seemed taken aback. ‘But you hardly know me.’

‘I don’t need to know you to know you,’ El-i-miir replied. ‘I’m a rei, remember.’

‘Then why can’t the others see it?’ Ilgrin’s voice was filled with sadness. ‘Why don’t they believe me?’

‘Well, you can’t blame Seteal,’ El-i-miir shook her head pityingly. ‘She’s only new to the Ways and Far-a-mael’s been editing her aura.’

‘Why?’

‘I’m not certain,’ El-i-miir replied, becoming distracted from her thoughts by the way Ilgrin stared at her. ‘What is it?’

‘Set me free,’ Ilgrin said, touching her arm.

El-i-miir’s breath stuck in her throat. She looked down at his smooth-ended fingers as they traced along her flesh and curled around her hand. ‘I can’t,’ she replied, little above a whisper.

‘You gave me food when no one else would,’ Ilgrin said softly. ‘You gave me blankets those cold nights on the road. You brought me water when I thought I might die of thirst. You’ve believed in me when nobody else cared. Why, if only to watch them kill me when we reach the Frozen Lands?’

‘I don’t know,’ El-i-miir squeaked.

‘See, I think you do know,’ Ilgrin narrowed his eyes. ‘I think you’re happy to help me so long as it doesn’t inconvenience you. You don’t want them to kill me, but if you have to make any sacrifices . . . well, that’s another story.’

‘That’s not fair,’ El-i-miir snapped. She was tired of people passing judgement on her and wasn’t going to put up with it from Ilgrin. ‘You’re a silt. Think about that. I’ve spent my whole life under the impression that you’re all evil, slimy monsters. Of course, I see now that that’s not the case, but it takes more than two seconds to digest that sort of information. I’ll set you free when I’ve come up with the best possible way to go about it for the both of us, not because I’ve been bullied into it.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Ilgrin slumped over in defeat. ‘You’re right. I’m no one to pass judgement on you. Wait—’ His face lit up. ‘You said you’ll do it?’

‘I suppose I will.’ El-i-miir raised her eyebrows in surprise, but immediately felt certain of her decision. A weight had been lifted from her shoulders; the heavy burden she’d been carrying was gone. El-i-miir was going to do the right thing. She would not allow her people to kill an innocent man. ‘Listen here, Mister Geld.’ She took his hand. ‘I promise you I will help you escape, but you must trust me and be patient.’

‘Thank you,’ Ilgrin whispered. ‘I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay you, but I’ll do whatever I can.’

‘You don’t need to repay me. I’m only doing what I should’ve done a long time ago,’ El-i-miir replied as she rose to her feet and backed out of the room. ‘For now I’ll try to distract Far-a-mael and keep him away from you. And you should try to be as compliant as possible.’

Ilgrin nodded, an expression of elation filling his features as El-i-miir closed the door and spun the little green wheel. Despite herself, she felt her cheeks rise up into a smile that she couldn’t get rid of. It felt right, what she’d promised. It was dangerous, but for once she was putting her own fears aside and doing what was right. She made her way across the hold and reached the staircase as Raeghan hurried down toward her.

‘Raeghan?’ El-i-miir said in surprise.

‘I’m sorry, El-i-miir.’ Raeghan looked as white as a sheet. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking leaving you down here alone, abandoning my post like that! When the captain saw me, he almost blew his top.’

‘Never mind,’ El-i-miir patted him on the shoulder as she headed up the stairs. ‘No harm done.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Eighteen

Disembodiment

 

 

Seteal’s soul laughed soundlessly, existing miles above the earth. She was alone in her being, free from the torment of embodiment. Her broken and defeated body couldn’t burden her. There was no stolen virginity, rape, pain, or nightmares. Those things stayed with the body she’d abandoned. That body was lying in a bed that Seteal no longer required in a boat so very far, far away.

Seteal twisted through existence, bending what was until she came to drift above the outermost parts of the Bairon Desert. The desert stretched away from her, farther than she could hope to see . . . not that she was truly seeing, considering she no longer had any eyes. But Seteal wanted to know where the desert ended. She surged forward, but all too soon slowed down due to a debilitating weakness. Her soul became vague and uncertain. Seteal pushed a little farther, but soon found herself drifting out of consciousness, which in the Ways was all she had. Clearly there were limitations as to how far she could travel from her body.

Pulling back, Seteal made her way northeast. There she found what she was looking for—and, indeed, the Frozen Lands were beautiful. Vast stretches of ice spread out over hundreds of miles, only to rupture into the sky as towering sculptures formed by wind and rain. The lofty cliffs looked like great waves, reaching into the air where they’d been snap-frozen before having the chance to crash back down into an ancient ocean. The landscape was coloured by breathtaking whites and blues that reflected the blazing sun.

As Seteal moved southward again, she couldn’t help but reflect on the beauty of the things she’d seen. As she sailed through the treetops, she began to slow down, but much to her surprise, it wasn’t her that slowed. It was everything else. A small white bird beat its wings in slow motion. A leaf fell from a nearby tree, momentarily sat in the air, and finally began a painfully slow downward decent. A snake launched into a death bite whilst moving so slowly that Seteal could have read a book before its strike was complete.

Laughing at the insanity of it all, Seteal danced through the woods watching anything and everything that moved. She focused her energy on the surroundings, squeezing time and giggling inwardly when everything slowed even further. She squeezed again, but was unable to quite get everything to stop completely. She suddenly found herself imagining a ball of clay. One could squash the ball until it was little more than a slither, but the slither could never be flattened into nonexistence.

Seteal danced about the woods, feeding her soul with the light of freedom in a place free of hatred and regret. Only joy existed here. She plunged into the sky and sawed among the clouds. She snatched at her imagined ball of clay and pulled at both sides, stretching it out and speeding up eternity.

The air began to vibrate and Seteal watched as the sun sped by the clouds in its desperation to meet the horizon. The moon glowed into existence and stars filled the sky. As suddenly as night had come, again it vanished and floral faces reached for a sun that raced over the horizon as if it were running late for an appointment. This was impossible! Seteal wanted to scream and clap her hands. Instead, lightning struck the earth and the sky burped its throaty apology.

Again, the sun was gone. Night returned. It rained for a split second. The sun returned. But Seteal was no longer having fun. Something was wrong. Her breathing became laboured, but she didn’t have lungs. Her heart rate felt strange in a chest she no longer possessed. Her palms were sweating and her lips were too dry. Her throat was parched.

Seteal plunged into a darkness that swallowed her. She spiralled through the air, drawn from eternity to a finite point. She felt pressure on every part of her being as she was crushed and compacted into the confines of an all-too-familiar vessel. The first thing she noticed was the biting cold. The next thing she noticed was the pain in her stomach. Seteal opened her eyes, which was painful. She opened her mouth. That too was painful.

‘Here.’ Far-a-mael’s voice filled her ears as the old man loomed over her bed, a glass of water in hand. ‘Drink this.’

After swallowing only a few mouthfuls Seteal stopped, uncertain as to whether she’d be able to keep the water down. ‘What happened?’ Seteal asked, surprised by the weakness in her voice.

‘I’m not terribly sure.’ Far-a-mael gazed into her eyes, his own filled with concern. ‘We’ve been unable to wake you for more than two days. We found you sleeping, but your aura was absent. It was as though you were dead.’

‘I feel terrible,’ Seteal moaned.

‘I’d imagine so.’ Far-a-mael recoiled. ‘You’ve had nothing to eat or drink for days. You must be more cautious when you’re playing about with the Ways, Seteal. I dare say you need only practice under my direct supervision from now on. Simply too little is known about Elglair abilities in half-castes.’

Seteal disagreed inwardly, but was too tired to fight. She was miserable, a prisoner within her own skin. The flesh she was wrapped in served as a constant reminder of everything that’d happened to her, what she’d lost and what she’d become as a result, little better than a common whore.

‘I want to be free,’ Seteal whispered as she closed her eyes.

How could she not have anticipated what would happen when time sped up? Did she really think she was Maker, able to play with the Ways as she pleased? She hadn’t sped time up. She’d merely sped up her perception. Seteal had abandoned her body to starve for two nights and almost three days. She should’ve gone longer. Perhaps if she killed the body, she’d be free forever.

‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir called and her eyes popped open. Apparently she’d fallen asleep. ‘Eat this.’ The woman handed her a bowl. Seteal took it between shaking hands.

‘What is it?’ She asked.

‘I don’t know.’ El-i-miir shrugged. ‘Fes made it for you. She says it’ll put strength back into your bones . . . or something like that.’

‘Are you all right?’ Seteal narrowed her eyes as she lifted the spoon to her mouth.

‘All right?’ El-i-miir laughed nervously. ‘I’m fine!’

‘You seem awfully jittery,’ Seteal replied after swallowing a mouthful of Fes’s broth, which tasted delightful if a little salty.

‘I’m fine.’ El-i-miir shrugged.

‘Why’re you dressed like that?’ Seteal frowned, running her eyes over El-i-miir’s fur coat and animal skin boots.

‘I don’t want you to be alarmed,’ El-i-miir began slowly, ‘but you’ve been out for a few days.’

‘What of it?’

‘We’ve almost reached the heart of Cold Wood,’ El-i-miir lowered her voice.

‘I see.’ Seteal put down the bowl.

‘Far-a-mael and Waxnah want everyone to be prepared, but to remain calm,’ El-i-miir said steadily. ‘It would be advisable for you to slip into something a little more appropriate.’

‘Yes,’ Seteal murmured as she felt her strength beginning to return. ‘That’s probably for the best.’ She swung her feet out of the bed, only to freeze as the riverboat moaned from its depths. Seteal snapped her foot away as the floorboards warped and a shelf splintered from the wall.

El-i-miir launched herself beneath the covers with Seteal, in time for the temperature to plummet. ‘The heart of Cold Wood,’ El-i-miir whispered, pulling the covers above their heads.

‘Well, we can’t just lay here,’ Seteal replied. ‘What if they’re in trouble up on deck?’

‘Far-a-mael can take care of it,’ El-i-miir cautioned. ‘You’re hardly well enough to be walking about.’

‘I feel fine,’ Seteal replied dismissively. ‘Stay here if you’re too scared, but I’m taking the blanket.’ She pulled hard on the cloth, rolled off the bed, and shoved her feet into boots.

‘All right!’ El-i-miir yelped, leaping off the bed and snatching up the blanket from the top bunk. ‘I’m coming,’ she snapped. Just as suddenly as the cold had struck, it vanished.

‘What just happened?’ Seteal asked, hurrying over to the wardrobe to throw on a leather coat.

‘I’ve heard about this.’ El-i-miir’s face filled with recognition. ‘They say that the first sign of entry into the innermost parts of Cold Wood are the pockets of frozen air. Eventually the temperature will become consistent, but this far out it doesn’t quite mix properly.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense.’ Seteal frowned.

‘Not all things of demonic origin do.’ El-i-miir shrugged. ‘Not that that makes me a believer.’

‘A believer?’

‘You’ve never read the Holy Tome?’ El-i-miir cocked her head. ‘I thought your people were all church-goers.’

‘Not all of us,’ Seteal replied, without bothering to hide her contempt. ‘Followers of the Tome do nothing but condemn others without pausing for a moment to witness their own hypocrisy.’ Seteal took a deep, calming breath.

Faith had never done anything for her. She’d heard of people being touched, or inspired, or having felt Maker’s presence. Seteal had never felt it. If he existed at all, Maker had only ever shown her spite, his book openly condemning people like her as abominable. Maker created her as the person she was, only to turn around and call her that? That wasn’t love. That wasn’t kindness. The Holy Tome spewed such hatred that Seteal couldn’t even share the truth with her own father.

‘Why? What words of inspiration does the great and Holy Tome have to share with us today?’ she asked bitterly.

‘According to the Tome, Cold Wood is where the first silts punctured the barrier between Hae’Evun and our world,’ El-i-miir said slowly, taken aback by Seteal’s aggressive tone. ‘But, of course, that’s just nonsense. For all we know, silts have shared this world with us since the dawn of time. They’re probably more similar to us than we’d like to admit.’

‘They’re monsters.’ Seteal stared at El-i-miir. ‘Never let anyone convince you otherwise. Now, if you’re done sympathising with demons, I’m going to look for something productive to do.’ Seteal headed for the door, feeling disturbed by El-i-miir’s tolerance.

Seteal wrapped her hand around the doorhandle, but snapped it back as the cold bit into her fingertips. A second later, it felt as though she’d been plunged into some dark recess of the ocean that had never seen the light of day. The cold was crushing, crawling along the surface of her body until once again warmth touched her face. Rubbing herself vigorously, Seteal barged through the door and raced outside.

Men hurried about on deck, pulling lines in between rubbing their arms and wrapping their jackets tight. Seteal headed back downstairs to look for Fes and eventually found the Merry Islander in a small room that functioned as a kitchen. She was busy keeping a fire stoked and the water boiling.

‘Fes,’ Seteal called out as she entered the room. ‘Could I borrow some of the blankets from your wagon?’

‘Do what ye want,’ Fes muttered sulkily without even looking up.

‘Fes?’ Seteal said slowly, confused by the ordinarily cheery woman’s demeanour. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Nah, I’m nah all right.’ Fes spun around. ‘That gil be beatin’ the silt too much. It nah be fair. He ain’t done nothin’.’

‘Fes!’ Seteal’s jaw dropped. ‘It’s a demon.’

‘And nah let me get started on ye, young lady,’ Fes shook her head, her shoulders slumping as she turned back to the boiling pot. ‘Even El-i-miir be havin’ more compassion than ye and she be one of them. I know ye been through a hard lot, but ye be losin’ yeself, Seteal.’

‘I’m not losing myself,’ Seteal growled. ‘Demons are enemies of the Elglair.’

‘And ye are nah Elglair!’ Fes snapped. ‘Best ye remember where ye came from. Now ye listen ta me.’ She came very close and lowered her voice warningly. ‘I be knowin’ men like Far-a-mael in my time and they seldom mean well. Ye be careful ta remember what ye believe in.’

‘I’m going to get those blankets,’ Seteal muttered stonily as she left the room. She began to head back toward the deck, but it suddenly seemed more important to go down to the hold. Perhaps the silt had died from the cold. When Seteal reached the bottom of the spiralling staircase, she noticed how dark it was. No lanterns had been lit and not one crewman stood guard at the brig. Perhaps they’d needed additional hands on deck. Still, Far-a-mael would not be pleased when she reported this to him. Seteal smiled at the idea of telling Far-a-mael what she’d seen. He’d be very pleased with her. He was her rock, her stability in all this madness. The old man who she’d once so readily doubted was rapidly becoming a second father to her.

Seteal made her way over to the metal door embedded in the wall and placed a hand flat against the cold surface. ‘Are you there?’ she whispered.

‘Who is it?’ the demon responded, its voice sending shivers of repulsion throughout Seteal’s body.

‘I wish I could be there,’ Seteal heard herself saying as she rested her face against the door and allowed the images to tumble through her mind. ‘I wish I could see your face when they burn you at the stake or cut off your wings, if only to spit on you.’

‘You’re that woman,’ the demon stated. ‘Seteal? Listen, I’m sorry about what happened to you. It wasn’t fair to leave you alone in that field, but people were trying to kill me and I’d never heard of that happening in Abnatol before. Our people are ordinarily very kind.’

‘Shut up,’ Seteal hissed, still imagining the creature’s inevitable demise. ‘I don’t care to hear your piteous excuses, nor do I care that you abandoned me to be raped. I do not care that you were born in Sitnic, or that you had human parents, or if you’ve never created a single whisp in your life. I hate you because you’re a demon. You are a disgusting, repulsive, leathery-winged demon and if only I had the power and permission I would squeeze your throat until I’d killed you with my own hands. Do you hear?’

The silt did not respond and eventually Seteal grew tired of waiting. With a dreamy smile on her face she floated up the spiral staircase, along the corridor and up on deck. She wove between the crewmen and made her way to the Keacos’ wagon. She opened the door at the back, climbed inside, and collapsed on a pile of blankets. A wave of nausea pinched her stomach and thrust itself into her throat. Vomit sprayed from Seteal’s mouth and hit the floor of the wagon before she even knew what’d happened.

Seteal gagged at the smell, but found herself unable to leave the dark interior. ‘But you’ve been a naughty girl.’ His voice haunted her. Seteal put a hand on her shoulder, remembering his first touch.

‘Are you all right there missy?’ Master Fasil asked, grasping at Seteal’s shoulder. ‘How rude of me.’ The man shook his head. ‘I’m Master Fasil.’ He reached out to take Seteal’s hand and pushed his lips against it.

‘Seteal,’ she replied, retrieving her hand hastily.

‘And whom, may I ask, do you belong to?’ The man snarled like a predator.

‘Belong to?’ Seteal shook her head. ‘I’m afraid you’ve confused me.’

‘Pretty little thing, but none too bright,’ Master Fasil laughed mockingly. ‘But it’s always that way with the better ones.’

‘Is it really, you filthy old bastard?’ Seteal laughed vengefully. Master Fasil’s eyes widened in terror as she withdrew a great sword from its scabbard and spun it around in expert circles. Seteal smiled lustfully as she thrust the sword into his genitals and again into his body. Even as his eyes closed and blood poured to the earth, oh, how Seteal laughed. She laughed and laughed as the blood sprayed across the dirt. Again and again she plunged that sword into his black heart until he was nothing more than a discoloured pile of mush.

Wiping the vomit from her chin, Seteal fell back against the wall of the wagon. Outside she could see the crewmen rushing about their duties under Captain Waxnah’s watchful eye, but for all it mattered, she could’ve been a million miles away. What was happening to her? All she ever felt was hatred. It was exhausting. So much hatred. It consumed her. Maker, when would it ever end?

Seteal rocked forward onto her haunches and retrieved an armful of blankets, before making her way unsteadily out onto the deck. With an expressionless face, she wandered about handing out blankets and avoiding eye contact. Eye contact might mean conversation and conversation might mean time away from her hatful thoughts. She couldn’t risk that. She needed the hatred.

So focused on avoiding seeing anything, Seteal’s toe caught on a protrusion and she tripped. Her body flew forward without her, arms flailing, but a moment later her soul, too, fell forward into the back of her body, just after it’d hit the deck.

‘Are you all right?’ A crewman rushed over and grabbed her elbow in an effort to help her up.

‘It didn’t hurt you did it?’ Master Fasil narrowed his eyes in predation. ‘Pretty little thing like you.’

Seteal screamed before she could stop herself, she thrust her tightly clenched fist into the man’s face.

‘Get away from me!’ Seteal cried as she picked herself up to run away. ‘Just leave me alone!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Nineteen

Cold Wood

 

 

The night drifted by to the sound of Seteal tossing and turning in her sheets until eventually El-i-miir felt her drift off to sleep. She slid from her blankets and having gone to bed fully dressed, headed for the door. She turned the handle and slid silently out of the room.

The corridor was dark, but for a single lantern beside the ladder. Aside from the steady crashing of waves against the hull, all was still. Sliding her hand along the wall, El-i-miir made her way toward the spiral staircase, heart already pounding.

On reaching Ilgrin’s cell, she didn’t know quite what to do. El-i-miir considered going back to bed for a moment, but instead of doing so she sat cross-legged beside the door. Not a single sound came from within.

‘You came back,’ Ilgrin whispered after a long silence.

‘I did,’ El-i-miir replied, her mouth a handswidth from the door.

‘Is anything the matter?’ the silt enquired. ‘Are you upset?’

‘Of course I’m upset.’

‘Do you have any family?’ Ilgrin asked awkwardly a moment later.

‘Yes.’

‘Well, there’s something to be happy about,’ he whispered encouragingly. ‘Tell me about them.’

‘We’re like most families, I suppose.’ El-i-miir shrugged. ‘I have a mother, a father, and two younger sisters. They live in the Sixth Cleff, where I was raised before Far-a-mael took me away. I’m sorry. I’m probably boring you. What about you?’

A period of silence followed El-i-miir’s question, but in time the silt replied. ‘My family are all dead.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she said pityingly.

‘I know,’ Ilgrin whispered, his voice wavering with emotion.

El-i-miir bit her lip and looked away. She couldn’t free him yet. It’d be far too obvious who’d done it and too dangerous in the middle of Cold Wood. But if he asked her, she doubted her resolve not to do so. Her life, in exchange for his. There would be no falling in between. She could unlock the door with one small movement. She could free him. But in doing so, El-i-miir would lose everything: her family, her home, her position as a rei, and even the Frozen Lands themselves. She’d never be able to return and if she did, she’d be condemned to Vish’el’Tei.

El-i-miir placed her hand flat against the cold steel, imagining what it’d be like to touch Ilgrin on the other side. ‘I’ll save you,’ she whispered at last. The silt didn’t reply. ‘I’ve made you this promise and Maker damn me if I don’t fulfil it.’

‘The opportunity may never come,’ Ilgrin murmured solemnly. ‘Far-a-mael watches too closely.’

‘It will,’ El-i-miir insisted. ‘I’ll make sure of it.’

‘Why?’

‘Because . . .’ Because she loved him? ‘Because you’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘Thank you,’ he whispered. It was a simple admission and yet the words sent shivers down El-i-miir’s spine. She’d made a deal with a demon. From that there could be no return.

 

*

 

El-i-miir woke up with a start. Her backside ached and her back was stiff. She gasped, stood up and glanced fearfully about the hold. How could she have fallen asleep? How long had she been down there?

‘Good sleepy times?’ the unmistakable voice of Seeol enquired from less than a stride away.

‘Yes.’ El-i-miir picked herself up and put a hand to the side of her head. ‘I mean . . . no. What time is it?’

‘I can’t read clocks.’ Seeol shrugged his wings. ‘But the morning is very earlier.’

‘Morning,’ El-i-miir gasped. ‘Is anyone up yet?’

‘Lots of peoples,’ Seeol twittered. ‘Now silly El-i-miir must excuse me.’ The little bird bounced over to the cell door to unlatch the food hatch. ‘Ilgrin’s dinner is coming soon and we dine together.’ He hopped through the gap and El-i-miir was left to hear a muffled greeting pass between the two within.

El-i-miir hurried for the stairs in time to see a boot land at the top. She suppressed a yelp and scurried over to the horses. Much to Darra’s surprise, El-i-miir yanked open the gate and huddled down inside the stall. The animal stomped a hoof uneasily, but otherwise tolerated the intrusion.

El-i-miir held her breath as Raeghan descended carrying a small tray. He strode across the room and slid it through the opening at the bottom of the door, before stepping back to move uneasily toward the stairs.

‘Thank you,’ Seeol croaked from within. ‘This is scrumptious.’

Raeghan glanced back at the door with a pinched expression and then doubled his pace back upstairs. El-i-miir stepped out of the stall and hurried after him. She popped her head around the opening carefully and when she found the corridor was empty, made her way along its length to her room. She reached for the handle, but the door swung inward on its own.

‘Where have you been?’ Seteal raised a questioning eyebrow.

‘Um . . . the ladies’ room,’ El-i-miir spluttered.

‘Yuck,’ Seteal wrinkled her nose, her eyes falling to the bottom of El-i-miir’s dress. ‘I think you missed!’

El-i-miir followed her gaze and felt her face grow hot when there she found a smear of Darra’s manure. ‘No, I was . . . um . . . that’s something else.’

‘Come on, El-i-miir,’ Seteal reprimanded. ‘I know the boat makes you a little unsteady on your feet, but you really mustn’t let your standards of cleanliness drop like this. People will think you’re a commoner.’

‘But, I . . .’ El-i-miir scrabbled for words, but stopped upon the realisation that Seteal was teasing her. ‘You know.’

‘Of course.’ Seteal shrugged. ‘I’ve been around horses all my life. I know what dung looks like.’ She headed along the corridor but stopped abruptly. ‘Why exactly are you trying to hide the fact that you’ve been down there?’ She turned around. ‘You weren’t talking to it again, were you?’

‘So what if—?’ El-i-miir stopped short and narrowed her eyes piercingly. She was tired of making excuses for her actions. ‘It’s about time you remembered the hierarchy here, Seteal. It’s not your place to question my judgement. What I do in my own time is none of your concern.’

‘My lady.’ Seteal curtsied mockingly before finishing her journey along the corridor and up the ladder.

After taking a minute to regain her composure, El-i-miir followed. There was a gentle breeze that picked up her hair and pushed it this way and that. Men hurried about their duties, Captain Waxnah standing watchful guard over all of it. None of this was what held El-i-miir’s attention. On the other side of the boat, Seteal stood beside Far-a-mael. The pair watched her as though she was a suspicious animal that might harbour poisonous fangs, their clothing dancing about in the wind while their bodies stood fixed as living statues.

Far-a-mael’s face was stony as ever, his piercing blue eyes revealing naught but contempt. Seteal had become Far-a-mael’s rei. And El-i-miir had become the captive.

Breaking away from Far-a-mael’s gaze, she headed to the opposite end of the boat where she leaned over the railing, gathered her jackets and cloak about herself and raised a defensive hood against the biting cold. The water below was oddly dark and moved along the hull with a consistency more reminiscent of syrup. For all intents and purposes, the liquid should have been frozen solid, but for some mysterious reason, it wasn’t.

El-i-miir reflected on the scripture studies of her youth. Could this truly have been the place where Sa’Tan the Devil tore a hole between Hae’Evun and Earth? Was this where the demons gained original entry into the world of man? El-i-miir sincerely doubted it. Silts had always existed there, much like humans or any of the animals for that matter. It didn’t do to dwell on fairy tales.

El-i-miir turned and rested against the railing before an agonised scream stole her attention. A crewmen stumbled toward her, his right hand clutching his left wrist and his face drained of colour. He toppled forward and hit the deck with outthrust arms. His left hand shattered like porcelain, leaving nothing behind but an oozing stump.

‘Get away!’ El-i-miir shouted a warning when she noticed frost slithering menacingly along the riverboat’s figurehead, which cracked loudly and split down the middle. Men abandoned their duties and ran toward the back of the boat, but one was too slow and the frozen air engulfed him. The man became a statue, which fell and shattered across the deck.

Chaos erupted, crewmen flooding toward El-i-miir from every direction, she being closest to the hatch. Before she could react, El-i-miir found herself being pushed out of the way and shoved to the ground. She winced and rolled onto her side. There was a bloody graze on her elbow. She looked up to the sound of scraping and was astounded to see sheets of ice slithered across the deck toward her from every direction. The final crewman scurried through the hatch and slammed it tight.

‘Torrid!’ El-i-miir cried as she yanked on the latch. It wouldn’t budge. ‘Let me in,’ she screamed, pounding her fists against the little door. ‘Let me in!’

The sheets of ice slithered closer, the ship’s hull deafening as it creaked and moaned under pressure. The sails became solid, gluing themselves to the masts. ‘Please,’ El-i-miir begged, her breath becoming ragged as the temperature became such that inhalation was impossible. ‘Please.’ Her flesh began to stiffen, having lost its elasticity. ‘Please . . .’

 

*

 

Seteal threw open the galley door, ignoring Fes’s cries as she burst out into the cold. She hurried along the frigid corridor, legs losing strength as they went.

‘Please . . .’ El-i-miir moaned weakly through the hatch.

Seteal threw herself up the rungs of the ladder, fumbled with the lock and hurled it open. The cold sliced at her ears and nose, but she thrust out hands and dragged El-i-miir down, releasing her to hit the floor with a thud. She slammed the hatch, shattering sheets of ice that had already begun to creep inside. But the hatch only kept the cold at bay for a moment. Ice filled the cracks between the door and the ceiling and slithered down the ladder coating one rung after the other

‘Come on.’ Seteal threw an arm around El-i-miir’s waist and dragged her along the corridor.

‘C’mon, darlin’,’ Fes beckoned from the doorway. ‘Quickly!’

A backward glance told Seteal why there’d been such urgency to Fes’s tone. Bits of air became visible as they froze and fell to the ground, only to drift back up and freeze again. Seteal put her hands in the middle of El-i-miir’s back, shoved her through the doorway and dove in after her. Fes slammed the door and locked it.

Panting loudly, Seteal stared at the door which warped and creaked, but otherwise held. Ice formed in the cracks, only to immediately start melting. The galley was lit up to capacity, with countless lanterns and the oven burning. Fes boiled water on one of the stoves, perhaps intending the crewmen to drink it should the cold become too much. Steam filled the room and the men became shadowy figures that wandered about, ghosts without direction.

Master Fasil dug his bony fingers into Seteal’s shoulder and slammed her into the wall, using his weight against her.

‘Get off me,’ Seteal shrieked, slapping at Far-a-mael’s chest.

‘Get a hold of yourself,’ growled the old man.

‘I’m sorry,’ Seteal chocked out. ‘I thought . . . I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t you ever pull a stunt like that again,’ Far-a-mael whispered menacingly.

‘I’m sorry?’ Seteal replied. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Your life is more important than hers,’ Far-a-mael hissed. ‘You should’ve let her die.’

Seteal pulled away in disgust. Perhaps Far-a-mael was not the man she’d thought he was. She shook her head and moved over to El-i-miir who breathed noisily where she sat propped up against the wall.

‘Here ye go, love.’ Fes waddled over to hand her a cup of tea.

‘Thank you,’ El-i-miir rasped, rubbing her knees. ‘Thank you,’ she repeated once Fes had walked away, this time directing it at Seteal.

‘You’d have done the same for me,’ she replied dismissively and sat down beside El-i-miir to rest her head against the wall.

‘You sure about that?’ El-i-miir half-smiled and chuckled in relief, only to clap a hand against her chest and wince.

‘You’re not so bad, El-i-miir.’ Seteal nudged the woman playfully. ‘You’re not completely evil.’

‘Evil . . . ’ The colour fled from El-i-miir’s face. ‘Ilgrin . . .’ The word came out softly but passionately. Seteal looked the woman in the eye and at last she could see it. El-i-miir had fallen in love.

‘The silt?’ Far-a-mael made his presence known. ‘What of it?’

‘He’ll die,’ El-i-miir whimpered as she struggled to her feet, dropping the mug Fes had given her and ignoring it when it broke at her feet. ‘He’ll die.’ She stumbled across the room and slammed bodily into the galley door. She pulled weakly at the handle and clawed at the wooden surface.

‘Not now,’ Seteal rushed over, having witnessed utter repulsion flare up in Far-a-mael’s eyes. ‘For Maker’s sake,’ she whispered by El-i-miir’s ear, ‘everyone’s watching you.’

‘But he’ll die.’

‘He’s already dead,’ Seteal spat in an attempt to snap the woman out of her feverish desperation.

‘No.’ El-i-miir winced. ‘I have to save him. I promised.’

‘Enough.’ Seteal battered her hand away from the door and pushed her back against the wall. ‘You’ll kill us all. He’s gone. Don’t do something you’ll regret.’ She lowered her voice and glanced over to notice Far-a-mael’s keen observation. ‘He’s dead. He’s already dead. Let it go.’

‘Yes,’ El-i-miir sobbed, resting her weight against the wall and sliding down its length. ‘I suppose he is.’

‘Okay, then.’ Seteal exhaled. ‘Get some rest.’

Taking her own advice, she sat down and allowed El-i-miir to rest her head on her shoulder. It disgusted Seteal to her core that El-i-miir could feel such devotion for a demon, but at the same time, this was the first human emotion she’d seen from the woman since meeting her. Seteal closed her eyes and rested her head on her knees. Perhaps love truly did lack bounds.

 

*

 

There had been shouting upstairs. There’d been thudding and screaming and doors slamming followed shortly thereafter by an eerie silence. Ilgrin pulled his knees up to his chest. His teeth chattered and his breath had become visible. ‘What?’ He said irritably at the small owl staring up at him from the floor. In response, the bird merely puffed out his feathers and retracted his head as far as he could. Apparently Ilgrin wasn’t the only one feeling the chill.

‘It’s very scary,’ Seeol rasped softly, tilting his head to make eye contact. ‘Does you think we’ll be safe?’ he asked as the temperature continued to drop.

‘I don’t know, little bird.’ Ilgrin shuddered and wrapped himself in his wings. ‘Come now,’ he added, having noticed Seeol’s chest moving increasingly slowly. ‘It’ll be all right.’ He scooped up the bird and held him to his chest.

‘Is not,’ Seeol croaked, his legs giving out so that he rested on his keel bone. ‘Too much coldness.’

‘Hold on,’ Ilgrin leaned down and exhaled over the owl, hoping to warm him with his breath. But it made no difference. Seeol closed his eyes, tongue clicking softly between his mandibles. Finally his wings hung slack and he did little more than occasionally twitch.

‘Maker,’ Ilgrin wheezed. His muscles grew weak and his arms became stiff. ‘Don’t let us die down here,’ he whispered to no one. A loud cracking sound gave him cause to look up as sheets of ice formed on the door and walls. Seeol leaned heavily on one side, his claw scratching weakly in Ilgrin’s palm . . . until it didn’t. The bird’s toes curled up. Seeol was about to die.

Ilgrin’s breathing became laboured. He leaned against the wall, eyes focussed on the bird before him. He needed to acknowledge its last breath. Even an animal deserved that much. Seeol’s toes twitched and oddly enough the temperature raised just a fraction.

The bird’s eyes popped open and he fluttered to the ground where he staggered about in drunken circles. Ilgrin’s breath caught. Seeol violently shook his feathers and the temperature exploded to that of a hot summer’s day. He stared at the owl fearfully. How could this be? The ice came to a glossy finish in the cracks around the door.

‘Seeol?’ Ilgrin swallowed nervously. ‘What did you do?’

 

*

 

Seteal woke with a start, her rest having been haunted by the nightmares she’d come to expect. She stood and looked about the room. El-i-miir yawned tiredly and stood up beside her. Far-a-mael, Briel, and Captain Waxnah were involved in a three-way altercation of sorts. The crewmen seemed rather unsure of what to do with themselves and avoided involvement by huddling at the other side of the galley where Fes was brewing tea.

‘We can’t stay in here forever,’ Far-a-mael snapped irritably. ‘We must send out the most expendable crewman.’

‘None of my men are expendable,’ Captain Waxnah snarled. ‘That may well be how you do things, but not while you’re on my boat.’

‘The captain be right,’ Briel interjected. ‘We’ve nah run aground yet. Perhaps we be safer to stay here until we be sure.’

‘Quiet, you fool,’ Far-a-mael barked. ‘I don’t need to hear the opinion of one who consorts with demons.’

‘How dare ye speak such blasphemies,’ Briel grumbled. ‘We nah do nothin’ but question whether its story be true.’

‘In any case,’ Far-a-mael shook his head disgustedly, ‘we only need to be run aground once and we’ll be done for. The oven was put out over an hour ago and we haven’t yet suffered for it. Clearly we’ve drifted through the heart. We have to go back up.’

‘Maybe you should send out one of your people, Gil’rei,’ Waxnah grumbled. ‘Are any of them “expendable,” as you put it?’

‘El-i-miir,’ Far-a-mael announced stonily, without turning to look at her. ‘Be a dear and—’ He was cut off when the only female crewmember stepped forward to interrupt.

‘I’ll do it,’ she said bravely. Seteal had noticed her when she’d arrived, but from the distance had thought she was a boy, a mistake easily made given her clothing, lack of makeup, and short-cut blonde hair. ‘Send me.’

‘There’s another way,’ Seteal murmured, half-hoping that she wouldn’t be heard. Butterflies swam about in her stomach as the men levelled her beneath their penetrating stares.

‘If you have an idea, girl, then spit it out,’ Far-a-mael said impatiently.

‘I have to show you. Whatever appears to happen, try not to worry.’ She abandoned her body, leaving it to topple to the ground like the dead weight that it was.

‘Seteal!’ El-i-miir cried out and crouched beside the body. She turned to address Far-a-mael. ‘Her aura’s gone again.’

‘I’m not completely blind, my dear.’ Far-a-mael rolled his eyes. ‘Well? Wake her up.’

‘Seteal.’ El-i-miir took the shoulders and shook her. ‘Wake up.’

Ignoring El-i-miir’s pleas, Seteal spun away from her tainted body and surged through the door. Physical barriers were meaningless. She moved through the ceiling and onto the deck. Her first impression was that all was well, but then she noticed long tendrils of frozen air reaching up from the water, waving about like whips. Once again, Seteal was not actually seeing her surroundings. She didn’t have eyes. Somehow she simply knew the frozen tendrils existed through whatever Elglair power resided within her.

One of the tendrils slid through the air, making contact with the boat, freezing it solid. Sheets of ice slithered along the timber, but fell away as the tendril whipped back into the air. Seteal moved her consciousness back below deck where she found El-i-miir hovering worriedly over her still form. Having the distinct feeling that it’d worked once before, Seteal decided to try something. She focused her attention on reaching out along the cord that bound her to the body and made her mouth move. ‘I thought I told you not to worry.’

‘Oh, thank Maker,’ El-i-miir cried, still supporting Seteal’s limp body. ‘You’re all right. Seteal? Seteal!’ She shook the body when it spoke no further.

‘I’m not in there. Find me in the Ways.’

‘What nonsense.’ Far-a-mael crossed his arms. ‘Get up and stop playing the fool.’

‘No, I think . . . ’ El-i-miir trailed off, allowing Seteal’s head to fall back and hit the wall. Seteal frowned inwardly. She’d feel that later. El-i-miir turned slowly, hands outstretched as though she’d be able to find a tangible link. ‘You’re . . . somewhere else.’ She turned on her heels, peering through empty air. ‘I can’t pinpoint you, but I know you’re close.’

‘What are you stupid girls playing at?’ Far-a-mael glowered, but his expression soon changed and he tilted his head. ‘I’ve never felt such a thing. It’s impossible. What is this?’

Satisfied that she’d convinced the others to trust in her abilities, Seteal retired to her body although revolted by its all too familiar confinement.

‘Well.’ She rubbed the back of her head and rose to her feet. ‘I believe we’ve drifted out of the innermost parts of Cold Wood, but that’s not to say we’re no longer in any danger. Patches of frozen air are moving about all over the place, but if we work together I should be able to guide you safely,’ she directed at the captain. Her heart rate increased when she noticed the female crewmember staring at her with an expression of awe.

Far-a-mael clapped his hands together, appearing far more elated than the situation demanded. ‘This is brilliant.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty

A Way Out

 

 

Seteal existed several strides above her body, diligently keeping a keen eye on the tendrils of frozen air that whipped about the river boat. Her body had been covered in blankets right up to the chin and El-i-miir huddled beside it beneath one of her own. Seteal couldn’t very well feel the cold in her present state, but judging by the colour of her lips, the temperature could not have been very pleasant.

‘To your left.’ Seteal squeezed the words out through uncooperative lips.

‘Get away!’ El-i-miir shouted at the men working portside. They abandoned their duties and scurried starboard. A cold arm bit at the timber, coating it with a fresh layer of ice before snatching back away. Seteal gave the all-clear and the men returned to work.

Throughout the day, the streams of frozen air continued their assault on Captain Waxnah’s riverboat, but as the distance increased between themselves and the frozen centre, the danger steadily lessened. It’d been at least half an hour since the most recent attack and Seteal was growing tired, the temperature having taken a toll on her body which shivered uncontrollably.

In an attempt to distract herself, Seteal took a moment away from her duties and drifted over to the female crewmember she’d noticed earlier. The woman was pretty, with blue eyes and a charming smile. She worked as hard or harder than any of the men, which was probably why Waxnah had accepted her as part of the crew. The woman laughed at a joke made by one of the men. It was a nice laugh, both genuine and warm.

Seteal gasped as the cold pinched at her soul, a warning of what was to come. She spiralled away from the woman, but it was too late. A frozen tendril streaked toward the back of the boat. ‘Stern.’ The word burst up from Seteal’s chest as she thrust forward her spirit with such force that time slowed down around her.

The frozen air sat silently just a handswidth from a crewman’s face. He was smiling, perhaps having heard the same joke as the female crewmember. Seteal sighed within herself as the tendril crawled through time toward the man’s face. Why couldn’t she have stopped time completely? Why couldn’t she reverse it? Why had she been so selfish that she’d cost this man his life? When she re-entered the ordinary flow of time the tendril would certainly take his life. He was already dead.

If Seteal had had a mouth she’d have screamed as the strip of frozen air made contact with the man’s forehead. A small circle of flesh lost its colour. From there the circle grew as the tendril penetrated. There was no time for a change of expression. His smile seemed to mock Seteal for her incompetence. The man would die so quickly that he would never even know what had transpired. Why Seteal felt she had to watch the process in all its painful glory escaped her entirely, but perhaps it was a means by which to punish herself.

The man’s jaw dislocated and his throat ruptured. Shards of flesh broke away. Seteal cried out to eternity, but still she refused to hide from his death. She had done this to him. Seteal felt his heart’s final beat. She knew when his brain ceased to function. She felt the blood stop moving through his veins. And she fell backward into her body, where she began to scream.

The crewman hit the deck and cracked into pieces that quickly became bloody mush. ‘It’s my fault,’ Seteal cried. ‘It’s all my fault!’

‘No,’ El-i-miir comforted her as some of the crew scurried over to tend to the crewman’s remains. ‘You’ve saved countless lives today. We all knew the risks.’

‘No,’ Seteal sobbed. ‘You don’t understand. I was distracted. I let him down.’

‘Are there anymore?’ Far-a-mael rushed over and snatched at Seteal’s arm. Master Fasil drove her face into the mud and thrust himself into her.

‘Get off me,’ Seteal shrieked, shoving Far-a-mael away before stumbling to the side of the boat. ‘Get away from me, you monster.’

‘Stop this, girl.’ Far-a-mael pursued her, but wasn’t foolish enough to lay hands on her a second time. ‘Are there anymore?’

‘No,’ Seteal sniffled. ‘That was the last one. Now leave me the torrid alone or so help me, Maker, I’ll make you regret it.’

Far-a-mael gaped at her in astonishment. All the same he respected her request and did not follow as Seteal raced down into the hold. There she found what she’d known she would, but had hoped she wouldn’t. Darra and the other horses were dead. Their eyes were glazed over, their mouths twisted in agony.

‘Oh, Darra,’ Seteal sobbed, tears flowing down the side of her face as she entered the holding pen and wrapped her arms around the animal’s cold, soggy neck. ‘I’m so sorry.’

 

 

‘I should see if she’s okay,’ El-i-miir reassured Far-a-mael, retreating slowly. This was her chance. Waxnah’s people were preoccupied with the dead crewman and Far-a-mael knew better than to chase after Seteal in such a state. ‘I’ll talk to her. She’ll be fine.’ El-i-miir smiled innocently and then without waiting for the old man to give consent, she spun on her heels and headed below deck.

Undoubtedly, Seteal would be in their shared quarters, probably sobbing in her sheets. Without the time to worry about her, El-i-miir raced straight past the room and down the spiral staircase.

‘Please don’t be dead.’ Her heart pounded relentlessly. ‘Please Maker, don’t let him be dead.’ Water sloshed about her feet as El-i-miir approached the defrosting door.

She pounded the cold surface with her fist, tears already fogging her vision. Shaking hands grabbed the little wheel and she spun it feverishly. She pulled open the door and burst inside expecting the worst.

‘El-i-miir?’ Ilgrin said.

‘You’re alive?’ she gasped, unable to believe the sight before her. ‘Oh, thank Maker.’ She threw her arms around Ilgrin’s waist and held him tight. Then they kissed. El-i-miir felt her lips on his and dared for a moment to touch his tongue with hers. She knew it was blue. There could be no more ignoring what he was. Certainly he was a demon and some small, sinful part of El-i-miir found that exciting.

Ilgrin bit his lip when she finally pulled away. ‘That was unexpected.’

‘I’m sorry.’ El-i-miir put a hand over her mouth. ‘I thought . . .’

‘That I was dead?’ Ilgrin nodded. ‘I thought I was, too, but something happened to Seeol. He did . . . something.’

‘Seeol?’ El-i-miir frowned. ‘Where is he?’

‘He was frozen in here with me for a while.’ Ilgrin shrugged. ‘He left when—oh, who cares?’ He put his hand against El-i-miir’s back and leaned in to kiss her again. El-i-miir gave herself over to Ilgrin’s strength, willingly receiving his tender kiss.

‘You’re good at that.’ El-i-miir melted.

The silt blushed blue. ‘I’ve never done it before.’

‘Well, you’re very good.’ El-i-miir placed her finger on his lips before leaning in to kiss him, but a loud bang caught her attention and she pulled away. ‘I have to go,’ she whispered, leaping to her feet and hurrying out the door. She slammed it shut and spun the wheel.

The room was very still. It was too silent. El-i-miir’s jaw hung slack as she came to the realisation that the horses were all dead. In the mayhem, she hadn’t even spared a thought for them. She took two steps, before noticing a glistening path of light leading toward the holding pen. She came to a dead stop, her eyes locking on Seteal’s, red-rimmed and watching from within. The woman sat clutching Darra’s neck, her expression reflecting genuine fear as they followed El-i-miir’s approach.

‘Seteal?’ She swallowed. ‘How long have you been in there?’

‘Get away from me.’ Seteal’s voice shook. ‘Just leave me alone. I won’t tell anyone.’

‘Tell anyone what?’ El-i-miir asked unsteadily.

‘Nothing,’ Seteal whimpered. ‘I didn’t see anything. Just leave alone.’

‘You have to understand,’ El-i-miir insisted. ‘He’s different.’

‘You’re a Sa’Tanist, a demon worshipper,’ Seteal squeaked, sliding back fearfully until she hit the wall. ‘Everything makes sense now.’

‘No,’ El-i-miir raised her hands, ‘I’m not. Ilgrin is the only one I’ve ever seen.’

‘Please, just leave me alone,’ Seteal wailed, tucking her knees up under her chin.

‘You’re being ridiculous!’ El-i-miir yanked open the stall gate and stepped inside.

‘Help me!’ Seteal shouted out to anyone who might be listening.

‘All right.’ El-i-miir backed away. ‘I’m going. I can see you’re upset, but please, Seteal, please don’t tell Far-a-mael. At least not until you’ve given me a chance to explain.’

‘I won’t tell anyone.’ Her eyes were wide with fear.

‘Okay.’ El-i-miir remained fixed in place, waiting for Seteal to go on, but she didn’t. ‘Okay, then,’ she repeated. ‘I’m going to go.’ She waited another moment, but when Seteal refused to say another word, El-i-miir headed upstairs carrying a heavy burden.

 

*

 

The corridor was dimly lit. Most of the crew were still upstairs. Seteal couldn’t stand to be alone, so she tapped on the door and waited until Far-a-mael called for her to enter. ‘Gil’rei,’ she murmured once inside the cramped quarters. ‘Teach me something.’

‘To be honest, I didn’t expect to see you again today after your performance earlier.’ The old man raised an eyebrow. ‘What changed your mind?’

‘I’m sorry about that,’ Seteal said, pulling out the desk chair and taking a seat opposite Far-a-mael who was sitting on his bed. ‘I was upset about that poor crewman. I should’ve been better focused.’

‘We all make mistakes, my dear girl,’ Far-a-mael said warmly. He disassembled his pistol and started cleaning it.

‘Yes, but someone died.’

‘It’s not your fault.’ Far-a-mael stopped what he was doing to look her in the eye. ‘People will live and people will die. If there is anything my years have taught me, it’s that there’s nothing you can do to change that. If you keep blaming yourself, you’ll live in misery and doing so will not bring back the dead. That’s the way it is and the way it should be.’

‘Who did you lose?’ Seteal asked before she could stop the words from leaving her mouth.

‘I’ve seen a lot of death,’ Far-a-mael replied dismissively. ‘I’m one hundred and seventy-four years old.’

‘That’s not what I asked,’ Seteal insisted. ‘I asked who you have lost.’

‘Careful, girl.’ Far-a-mael picked up a brush and resumed cleaning his gun. ‘It’s not your place to enquire into my past and my tolerance is wearing thin. You must remember that I’m your gil, not your friend.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Anyway,’ Far-a-mael said cheerily, ‘we have more important things to discuss, do we not?’

‘I don’t understand,’ Seteal replied, her mind drifting back to the memory of helplessly watching the crewman die.

‘This ability of yours.’ Far-a-mael was hardly able to contain his excitement. ‘I intend on researching it properly when we get home, but I vaguely remember reading about projection when I was a boy.’

‘Projection?’

‘Yes,’ Far-a-mael mused. ‘The ability was only ever reported in ancient texts and many have disregarded it as myth. You don’t actually leave your body. That would be impossible. Certainly, no one living today would believe it possible. But here you are.’

‘Here I am.’ Seteal shook her head distractedly as she recalled El-i-miir’s embrace with the demon. That was the primary reason she’d come to see Far-a-mael, anything to get her mind off what she’d witnessed.

‘And you’re only half Elglair,’ Far-a-mael prattled on. ‘It really makes very little sense at all. Nevertheless, we must investigate your abilities more closely.’ He paused to take a breath. ‘Tell me, precisely how far can you project your mind?’

‘I moved halfway across the Bairon Desert once,’ Seteal replied, ‘but eventually I began to lose consciousness.’

‘Of course.’ Far-a-mael nodded. ‘The mind cannot exist without the body. Eventually the physical distance would become too much for the Ways to maintain your connection. It’s the same with affiliation. One can only affiliate others from a certain distance. We cannot—for example—affiliate from the other side of the world.’

‘I suppose,’ Seteal said, but didn’t really know what Far-a-mael was driving at and so said nothing further.

‘Could you . . . ’ Far-a-mael trailed off and licked his lips. ‘Do you think you could travel so far as Old World?’

‘Yes,’ Seteal said excitedly, coming alive for the first time in days. ‘I could go there and kill them.’ Pure hatred like that which she’d never experienced liberated Seteal’s mind from the burdens she carried.

‘All in good time, dear child,’ Far-a-mael rubbed his hands together. ‘Are you able to manipulate the environment in your projected state?’

‘Maybe.’ Seteal frowned. ‘I made the breeze pick up once.’

‘I need to know more.’ Far-a-mael scratched his chin through his beard. ‘Come lay down on the bed.’ Master Fasil rose to his feet and loomed over her. ‘Such a pretty little thing, but such a naughty girl. I’ll teach you some manners.’ The ugly man wrapped his hand around Seteal’s throat and threw her to the ground. She screamed and fought but he was too strong. He pushed into her, filling her with shame, agony, and blood. Her virginity was stolen. She’d kill him. She’d kill him!

‘What’s up?’ Far-a-mael asked in concern, standing several strides away.

‘Nothing.’ Seteal shook her head. ‘Sorry. I’m tired. I got distracted.’

‘That’s all right,’ Far-a-mael reassured her. ‘Now why don’t you lie down on the bed and project yourself.’

‘I’ll lie on the floor,’ Seteal said slowly, heart beating furiously. Could she leave her body so exposed with only Far-a-mael in the room for company? Did she really trust him that far? How could she know that he wouldn’t hurt her? ‘I’m not going to Old World,’ Seteal stated firmly. ‘I’m not leaving this room.’

‘I hope not,’ Far-a-mael agreed. ‘We won’t get much done if you can’t hear me.’

‘All right.’ Seteal put her head flat against the floor and stared up at the ceiling. ‘I’m going now.’ Doing so had become second nature to her. She needed dwell on it only for a second before she was expelled. In fact, it almost seemed harder to return now than it did to leave.

Seteal watched her head flop to the side, her body becoming an empty vessel. She felt none of the concerns that’d plagued her previously. Far-a-mael could do whatever he wanted to that pathetic body. It wasn’t her anymore. She existed separate from it: pure, free, unadulterated.

‘I’m out,’ the body whispered.

‘Here.’ Far-a-mael retrieved a small grey feather from between the pages of a book and placed it at the centre of his desk. ‘Can you move that?’

Seteal laughed internally. He was asking her to move a feather? She reached out and the feather slid from the surface onto the floor.

‘What else can you do?’ Far-a-mael asked, his jaw dropping and his eyes reflecting hope.

‘I don’t think I can do much more than that,’ Seteal’s body replied.

‘Wait.’ Far-a-mael waggled a finger in the air. ‘I think . . .’ He pulled open a drawer and riffled through it to retrieve a small, leather-bound book. He flicked through the pages, finally stopping to trace a finger along the cursive text. ‘The canvas. That’s it! Seteal, I need you to focus carefully on any one of the objects surrounding us. You should see, or more properly put, you should know a weaving.’

A weaving? Seteal wondered what that could mean. She drifted close to the wall and stared at the timber until she had trouble differentiating herself from the polished surface. Disguised in the wood, tiny strands of energy squirmed about one another.

‘I see it,’ Seteal heard herself reply.

‘I want you to pull out one of the threads,’ Far-a-mael said eagerly.

‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’

‘Just do it,’ he snapped impatiently.

Seteal focused on a miniscule thread. At first it resisted as she pulled, but soon enough the string snapped. She moved away at the sound of a loud thud that gave Far-a-mael cause to jump. A long crack slithered down the length of the wall. The old man stared at the timber for a long time.

‘You can come back now.’ Seteal turned her attention to the gil’rei, to observe the buzzing weaving that constructed his flesh. She wondered fleetingly what would happen if she broke one of his strands.

The room became comparatively dull when Seteal opened her eyes and stood up. She was again conscious of what was between her legs and felt repulsed by what’d been in there. She felt abundant hatred and sorrow, felt fear and regret. She was weak, encased by a disgusting shell.

The mysterious weaving had vanished, but the crack in the wall remained. Seteal slid her hand along the surface, examining the damage in disbelief. ‘What were those lines?’

‘The most ancient texts referred to the Ways as a canvas,’ Far-a-mael said. ‘It hasn’t been described as such for thousands of years as presumably one can only truly see the canvas when projecting, a skill thought long extinct. I believe you, Seteal, are able to communicate directly with the Ways. You didn’t just cause the wall to crack, you destroyed that fragment of reality. The wall is broken because that part of itself no longer exists.’

‘This is all very fascinating,’ Seteal sighed, ‘but I really don’t care.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘I don’t want to make pieces of reality stop existing.’

‘Is that so?’ Far-a-mael raised his eyebrows. ‘What if you’re able to pluck the weaving out of a demon? What if you’re able to kill them all?’

Seteal’s eyes widened with understanding. She smiled. ‘Perhaps I would like to learn a little more, but first we’ll have to ensure I’m able to prevent my powers from killing me.’

‘Killing you?’ Far-a-mael’s expression became one of confusion that was followed quickly by one of realisation. ‘Oh, I think we’re very close now,’ Far-a-mael murmured. ‘We’ll need to get you properly checked over in the Sixth Cleff, but I’m certain you’ll be fine.’

‘I’m going to bed,’ Seteal said sadly.

‘Yes.’ Far-a-mael waved her away. ‘I have much research to do. Go get some rest.’

Seteal turned the doorhandle, but stopped and spun around. ‘I know you’ve been lying to me,’ she said softly.

‘What?’ Far-a-mael gasped. ‘Nonsense, you silly girl.’

‘It’s okay. You’ve been very kind to me otherwise. I even understand why you did it.’

‘Dear girl,’ Far-a-mael’s jaw worked, ‘I don’t know what to say.’

‘Then say nothing.’ Seteal shrugged. ‘You knew I’d never come with you, safely nestled away in Elmsville, detached from the rest of the world. I see the truth now. My mother was killed by a whisp and that means she was killed by a demon.’ Seteal approached Far-a-mael slowly, staring into his eyes. ‘I will follow you to the end of Old World and together we will destroy every last one of those wretched murderers.’

Far-a-mael swallowed loudly. ‘Indeed.’

‘Goodnight, Far-a-mael.’ Seteal slid out the door and down the corridor, tracing her hand along the wall as she went.

She could never go home. She was not Gifn’s little girl anymore. There would be no place in Elmsville for her. She belonged with Far-a-mael now. Together they would destroy Old World and cleanse the earth of its demons. Seteal took a moment to try and remember her mother’s face, but she failed miserably. Soon enough no child would ever again have to lose their mother due to the selfishness of demons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt-hew 24

 

24. For there shall arise false teachers and false prophets and shall show great signs and wisdom, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive even the very elect.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-One

Drink

 

 

His cell was so small that at times Ilgrin felt sure he’d lose his mind. How long could a man stare at the same four walls and maintain his sanity? How many days had he been locked away? His torment was such that he couldn’t decide whether he’d been more comfortable tethered to a horse or locked up in a cell with naught but his own thoughts and a mutant bird for company.

Ilgrin turned his attention to the elf owl who’d been pacing for some time parallel to the length of the door. ‘What’re you doing?’

‘Trying to find some ways out.’

‘You can climb through the food hatch, remember?’ He didn’t know very much about birds, but made the assumption that Seeol’s avian memory had betrayed him.

‘Not for me.’ The owl scowled as far the expression were possible from his feathered face. ‘For you.’

‘You needn’t worry.’ Ilgrin shrugged, putting a hand on his shoulder where a dull ache reminded him of the injury he’d sustained weeks earlier. ‘I’ve made other arrangements.’

‘With El-i-mish?’ Seeol enquired, ceasing his pacing and levelling Ilgrin beneath his penetrating stare.

‘You know about that?’

‘I heard you talked.’

‘Well.’ Ilgrin frowned. ‘You know not to repeat what you heard to anyone right?’

‘Of course,’ Seeol croaked. ‘My eye is not stupid.’ Despite himself Ilgrin chuckled when the bird pointed at his eye, clearly having confused the difference between “I” and “eye.” ‘El-i-mish is very lovable to be helping you run away.’

‘She is, isn’t she?’ Ilgrin smiled, lowering his gaze to folded hands in his lap. He acknowledged the smooth blue tips. It was a small thing, another reminder of the many difference between himself and them. El-i-miir radiated beauty unlike anyone he’d ever seen. She easily surpassed Seteal, who, as far as he could tell, was completely insane. El-i-miir’s hair hung like woven silk. Her pale face was the image of perfection and her eyes . . . her eyes reflected the beauty of a cloudless sky.

The Elglair woman could be with any man she chose and yet there she was, visiting him every chance she got. Did she truly love him? Did he love her? Ilgrin’s heart leapt at the prospect. Surely he couldn’t be so fortunate. Perhaps she merely pitied him in the knowledge that he was innocent. But what of the intimacy? That memory was all that kept him sane.

Of course, Ilgrin knew the word ‘innocent’ was not one to be bandied around lightly. He was only innocent in so far as he’d never willing wished harm on anyone—but like many other silts before him, he too had reversed death. It was his kind that bore the responsibility for the slow destruction of their world and for that he, too, at least in some small part, was responsible. Ilgrin suffered a great deal of anxiety in the knowledge that his act of kindness may have caused bloodshed elsewhere.

Ilgrin came out of his thoughts when he realised Seeol was staring up at him with piercing eyes. ‘I found her first.’ His tone was one of accusation.

‘What?’

‘I found El-i-miish first,’ Seeol said aggressively.

‘So you did.’ Ilgrin shook his head at the animal’s lack of sense. What did it matter that he’d met El-i-miir first? Unless . . . no, it was impossible. Surely Seeol didn’t think he’d developed feelings for her. The thought alone was so disturbing that Ilgrin immediately wrote it off as absurd. He’d been locked up far too long. Whatever the bird was trying to say, it couldn’t have been that.

 

*

 

The doorframe was cold to the touch and for just a moment El-i-miir retracted her hand. This was what she’d been reduced to? Common thievery? She turned the handle, checked over her shoulder to be sure no one was watching and slid into the galley.

It was so late that although El-i-miir’s heart raced in her chest, she knew she was quite unlikely to be discovered. All but a skeleton crew were in bed and she was fairly certain that none of them had reason to come by the galley. Across the room El-i-miir found her target where a large air-tight unit beckoned. She pulled open the door with confidence, as this was not by any means her first nocturnal venture.

Far-a-mael intended to starve Ilgrin. He planned to keep the silt alive, but only just. That way he’d be too weak to cause any trouble. It was therefore El-i-miir’s task to ensure Ilgrin maintained his health so that when the opportunity arose, he’d be able to escape. Snatching up a crudely cut—although properly cooked—lump of meat in one arm and a loaf of bread in the other, El-i-miir pushed the unit shut with her foot and headed for the galley door.

‘It’s unbelievable,’ a male voice laughed outside.

‘I still can’t get my head around it,’ a deeper voice replied. ‘He said she can actually leave her body and go floating around in the sky.’

‘And she’s not even Elglair. Not really anyway,’ the first man spoke again. ‘Not like that other one.’

‘Pretty little doll, that El-i-miir,’ the deeper voice murmured. ‘A damn shame she’s such a sour little cunt.’ The door swung open and lantern light bounced off the walls. ‘Who’s there?’

‘It’s only me,’ El-i-miir grumbled as she pushed past them. ‘I got hungry.’ She blushed.

As soon as the door swung shut, El-i-miir heard the two men burst into fits of laughter. ‘Laugh it up, boys,’ El-i-miir mumbled, sneering. With a flick of her wrist she could’ve had them both blubbering like little girls.

With all the stealth she could muster, El-i-miir stuck close to the shadows, crept past Far-a-mael’s room and down the spiral staircase. The steel door was bathed in shadow and as was usually the case it was guarded by a single crewman.

The crewman had time only to gasp in surprise as El-i-miir approached. ‘Go to sleep,’ she whispered, lifting her hand to manipulate his Way. The crewman’s head fell forward and he started snoring.

El-i-miir unclipped the food hatch and with some effort pushed through the meat and bread. She could not risk opening the door, not with Far-a-mael so close. With his intentions so intrinsically linked to the silt it was very likely he’d sense such a violation of his trust and wake up.

‘El-i-miir?’ Ilgrin whispered from behind the door. ‘Is that you?’ With some effort, El-i-miir ignored him and hurried back the way she’d come. She so badly wanted to know how he was doing, even more than that, she wanted to kiss him again. But the risk was too great. She had to keep their exchanges as minimalistic as possible.

Despite her intentions to retire, El-i-miir was stopped halfway along the corridor by the sound of raucous laughter and merriment up on deck. Her curiosity having gotten the better of her, she clambered up the ladder.

Men were laughing, joking and dancing. ‘What’s going on,’ El-i-miir asked a crewman as he stumbled by.

‘Look over there.’ He pointed through the thinning woods toward a vast expanse of scrubland. ‘We’re about to turn out of the Ceal’lu River.’ They’d come out the other side of Cold Wood alive.

Before objection could be made, a mug was thrust into El-i-miir’s hand. ‘No!’ She tried to give it back, but the man danced away before she was able. The dark brown liquid smelt of strong ale and El-i-miir felt tempted to drink it. It’d been a long time since she’d had a drink and she doubted a few sips would hurt.

 

*

 

The demons surrounded her in a circular fashion. Nasty grins filled their faces. And they were naked like beasts. Seteal felt her throat closing, breaths coming in rapid bursts. ‘Please don’t hurt me,’ she begged them, but the circle of demons continued to tighten.

There was no escape. Seteal did not recognise the strange clearing in the centre of some foreign woodland. Fire burned atop lantern polls and the demons had strange symbols painted across their chests. All of them were men and she could see only evil in their eyes.

‘We’ve heard you’ve been a naughty girl,’ one of the creatures sneered, horns growing from the sides of his head.

‘No!’ Seteal cried out in desperation. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’

‘Neither have I.’ Ilgrin stepped forward. ‘I’ve never hurt you.’ Something was different about him. His pallid flesh had been filled with pink. His features had softened and his hair was a light brown colour, rather than the dark blue Seteal remembered. Ilgrin’s wings were gone and his feet fit comfortably into ordinary shoes. He was human, bearing only a vague resemblance of the creature he’d once been. ‘Let me help you.’ He extended his hand. It was only when Seteal took it that she realised he had no fingernails.

‘Ilgrin?’ Seteal gasped as she watched his face fade to white and his lips regain the colour of a dead man’s. He laughed at her and unfurled his wings with a sneer.

‘I’m afraid you’ve been misbehaving terribly.’ The silt snatched up a handful of Seteal’s hair and yanked her head backward before thrusting her into the crowd of hungrily awaiting demons. In the next moment she was buried beneath them, each taking it in turns to rape her as Ilgrin stood and laughed. Seteal screamed as his face twisted and transformed, becoming human again. Only this time the face was not Ilgrin’s, but Master Fasil’s.

‘No!’ Seteal screamed, sitting bolt upright in bed. She was drenched in sweat and panting for breath. She hit the floor in utter confusion where she wrestled desperately to escape her sheets. ‘Get off me! Get off me!’ She screamed as the door swung open with a bang.

‘Are you okay?’ El-i-miir asked in between hiccups where she stood silhouetted in the light from outside.

‘No, I’m not okay,’ Seteal snapped, finally escaping her sheets and tossing them against the wall in frustration. ‘You disgust me. You’re disgusting for what you’re doing. I hate you. You kissed him. I saw you do it!’

‘Torrid, Seteal.’ El-i-miir squinted around the room. ‘Are you on the floor?’ She giggled and hiccupped simultaneously, which resulted in a rather awkward sound. ‘I think you probably need this more than me.’ She sat down sloshing a large mug a handswidth from Seteal’s face.

‘You know what?’ Seteal narrowed her eyes, ‘For once I think you’re probably right.’ She took the mug and tipped it up at her lips, drinking deeply until she’d finished the entirety of the disgusting-tasting liquid.

‘Maker,’ El-i-miir exclaimed. ‘Someone’s thirsty.’ She leant against the blanket hanging from the bed. ‘Seriously, though,’ she barked, ‘you have got to let your hair down. You’re so uptight all the time.’

‘Oh, I’m uptight?’ Seteal half-smiled as she felt the brown liquid warming her belly and from there spreading to her limbs. ‘Well you’re a snob.’

‘A snob?’ El-i-miir feigned offense. ‘How am I snob?’

‘Exactly how drunk are you?’ Seteal raised her eyebrows.

‘Oh, you don’t even want to know.’ El-i-miir burst out laughing and was unable to stop until she was wheezing on the floor. ‘Here.’ She retrieved a bottle from beside her. ‘I brought this one with me. Her eyes brightened. ‘See, you could learn a thing or two from me.’ She giggled and attempted to refill the mug. ‘That’s foresight right there.’

‘Yes,’ Seteal said sarcastically. ‘You’re brilliant. You’re also a snob.’

‘Well, you’re just plain old rude.’ El-i-miir waggled her finger in Seteal’s face, and then with immense concentration guided her finger forward until she poked the tip of her nose. ‘You!’

‘I think you should go to bed,’ Seteal said, batting El-i-miir’s hand away.

‘And I think you need another drink.’ El-i-miir hiccupped and then burped. ‘How you gonna solve that problem, Seteal?’

‘Give me the mug then.’

‘Gross.’ El-i-miir smacked her lips together distractedly. ‘Did I just burp?’

‘Clearly I was wrong about the snob thing,’ Seteal grumbled and took a swallow.

‘I think a little something came up with it.’ El-i-miir wrinkled her nose. ‘Yuck!’

‘You know there’s something wrong with you, don’t you?’ Seteal chided as the alcohol began to grant its effect.

‘Well, you have a dirty aura,’ El-i-miir stabbed her finger at Seteal’s belly.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ She grumbled.

‘A dirty little bit of Far-a-mael lives inside of you.’ El-i-miir collapsed into a fit of laughter. ‘Never mind me.’ She suddenly became very serious. ‘It’s the ale talking. Your aura is fine.’

‘No, I want to know what you meant.’ Seteal pushed for an answer.

‘Hey.’ El-i-miir suddenly bounced to her feet. ‘Let’s go dance!’

‘Dance?’

‘Dance.’ El-i-miir spun in a circle, allowing her arms to fly out around her. ‘Oh, this is a pretty dress,’ she gasped as if noticing it for the first time. ‘Look at it twirl. Swish, swish, swish. Do you see it swish? Seteal! Do you see it swishing?’

‘Yes!’ Seteal cried. ‘I see it swishing. Maker, El-i-miir, you have to give me a chance to reply.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ El-i-miir pouted. ‘Seteal gets so grumpy, doesn’t she? Oh, yes, yes, she does get grumpy. She takes everything so seriously doesn’t she? And then she gets grumpy.’

‘What’re you . . . ?’ Seteal shook her head. ‘Who’re you talking to?’

‘She has the grumpy-pies,’ Seeol said, hopping across the floor. El-i-miir flushed red and became unintelligible, trying to squeeze out words whilst laughing uncontrollably.

‘I didn’t—’ El-i-miir gasped. ‘Okay, just breathe, El-i-miir. Breathe.’ She shook her hands. ‘Okay, I’m good. I was just trying to say—’ With a loud snort, she burst out laughing, forcing Seteal to wait yet again. ‘Okay, sorry. I was trying to say, I didn’t know he was here.’

‘I don’t think most people did.’ Seeol tilted his head sideways.

‘It talks.’ El-i-miir’s eyes started to water as she squirmed with renewed giggling. ‘What kind of owl talks?’

‘I do,’ Seeol replied very seriously.

‘Yes, you do,’ El-i-miir poked his beak with her finger. ‘You do!’

‘I do!’ Seeol screeched gleefully and started bouncing around in circles on the floor. ‘I do. I do. I do!’

‘Oh!’ El-i-miir clapped her hands together. ‘I know! Let’s go dance. Come on, Seteal, its fun up there. There’s music and dancing and . . . and more to drink. There’s a woman, too, you know,’ she said with a sneaky smile. ‘She asked about you.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Seteal pulled away blushing.

‘You know,’ El-i-miir poked her nose a second time.

‘Seriously,’ Seteal gritted her teeth, ‘if you poke me in the nose one more time I’m going to snap off your finger.’

‘You see,’ El-i-miir turned to Seeol, ‘this is what I have to put up with. Can you imagine? She’s no fun at all.’

‘I know all about Seteal.’ Seeol nodded solemnly. ‘So grumpy all the days long.’

‘I’m not grumpy,’ Seteal said defensively.

‘What a grumpy bum,’ Seeol twittered. ‘Grumpy bum. Grumpy bum.’ Without missing a beat El-i-miir joined the chorus and the two continued the chant together. ‘Grumpy bum! Grumpy bum! Grumpy bum!’

‘I’m not grumpy!’ Seteal shouted, leaping aggressively to her feet.

‘Fine.’ El-i-miir stumbled over until their faces were milihandswidths apart. ‘Prove it by coming for a dance.’ She wriggled her finger through the air and tapped Seteal on the nose yet again.

‘I warned you.’ Seteal pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, but a tiny smile betrayed her.

‘We better run, Seeol,’ El-i-miir giggled. ‘She’s going to break our fingers off!’

With that, El-i-miir dashed out of the room, Seteal hot on her heels. The two slammed one after the other into the corridor wall adjacent to their room and El-i-miir bolted for the ladder.

‘You know I really don’t like you,’ Seteal shouted, the mug of ale splashing her dress as she went.

‘That’s fine with me,’ El-i-miir called over her shoulder as she clambered up the ladder. ‘I really don’t like you either.’

‘And I hate you both,’ Seeol screamed playfully as he buzzed above their heads and out through the hatch.

With a desperate leap, Seteal clamped a hand around El-i-miir’s ankle, causing the woman to hit the deck with a thud. ‘Ouch!’ El-i-miir pulled her ankle free. ‘You grazed my knee.’

‘Maker, I’m so sorry,’ Seteal gasped as she clambered up the ladder and sat on the deck next to El-i-miir. ‘Show it to me.’

‘You didn’t really.’ El-i-miir giggled and ran off into the crowd.

Just as El-i-miir had promised, the deck was full of life. A couple of the crew played instruments. Others sang and danced. And, of course, everyone was drinking.

‘What a fuss.’ Seteal shook her head and swallowed what was left in her mug.

‘They’re excited,’ Seeol spoke into her ear, having landed on her shoulder. ‘We survived the chilly wood.’

‘That we did.’ Seteal smiled broadly. Whether it was the fact that for once she’d been a victor in her own life, or whether it was simply the alcoholic illusion that relieved her pain was irrelevant. She was . . . happy.

‘There you are.’ El-i-miir galloped over to Seteal and snatched up her hand. ‘Let’s go.’ She dragged Seteal along, forcing Seeol to dig in his claws to hold on for dear life.

Before long the two were dancing like fools. Seteal had no real experience with dancing and by the look of it, neither had El-i-miir, but the pair kept moving until their feet were aching and Seteal’s vision was blurred.

‘Where’s my drink?’ she demanded, turning back to where she’d left it. ‘Seeol!’ The bird was perched on the side of the cup, his eyes half-closed. ‘You haven’t been drinking that, have you?’

‘Fun,’ Seeol lifted one of his feet and fell to the deck where he proceeded to wobble about. ‘This funny water.’

‘Give me that.’ Seteal snatched up the mug. ‘That’s not for birds.’

‘That brew shouldn’t even be for humans,’ a smooth voice spoke up to Seteal’s right. She turned to discover the female crewmember watching her intently. ‘That’s the strongest we’ve had in a while. I hope your pet will be okay.’

‘He’s survived worse.’ Seteal blushed. She must’ve looked like an idiot talking to an owl. ‘I’m Seteal and this is . . . ’ She turned to introduce El-i-miir, but instead only caught a glimpse of her smiling cheekily as she danced back into the crowd. ‘That was El-i-miir.’

‘Eris.’ The woman took Seteal’s hand and shook it. ‘Nice to finally meet you, Seteal. I like your name.’

Seteal gasped as wings fluttered against her face and Seeol landed so clumsily on the rim of her mug that he nearly fell in. ‘Mine! Give it.’

‘Not now, Seeol.’ Seteal shook the mug back and forth, but the little bird held on.

‘I want it!’ Seeol shouted. ‘Give it!’

‘Seeol,’ Seteal snapped. ‘Stop it!’ She flung the mug sideways and watched the bird sail off into the night from the force of her gesture. She also watched her ale splash into the back of a crewman’s head. ‘Torrid,’ Seteal squeaked. ‘Sorry.’

‘Watch what you’re doing,’ the man grumbled, wiping at the back of his head. It was then that Seteal realised Eris was laughing.

‘Well,’ Seteal straightened out her dress, ‘I’m glad you found that amusing.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Eris stifled her laugh and regained composure. ‘You’re cute. And I like your bird, too. You’ve taught it to mimic really well. It’s a shame it doesn’t obey your commands, too. I had a dog like that once, except he couldn’t talk—I mean, obviously.’

‘Um . . . thanks.’ Seteal felt her face growing hot and knew she was blushing.

‘Forgive me,’ Eris apologised. ‘We don’t get women on here very often and it’s good to have a bit of feminine company once in a while. You know what I mean, don’t you?’

‘Of course I do.’ Seteal nodded with awkward enthusiasm. ‘I mean . . . any woman would go out of her mind without a bit of female friendship.’

‘Friendship?’ Eris’s expression suddenly became very bored.

‘We should get to know each other,’ Seteal said, hoping to salvage the conversation.

‘Sure.’ Eris smiled warmly. ‘Here.’ She wandered over to a bottle that’d been left open on a makeshift table and poured herself and Seteal a drink. ‘So what’re you really doing on board?’

‘I don’t know,’ Seteal sighed. ‘The whole thing has been one big mess. For longer than I’d like to admit, I thought I was going to die unless I got help from the Elglair.’

‘Help with what?’

‘I’m half Elglair.’ Seteal shrugged. ‘I was tricked into thinking I’d die if they didn’t help me to control my abilities.’

‘Why would you die from leaving your body?’ Eris’s face creased with confusion.

‘It’s not just that.’ Seteal rubbed her forehead. ‘Sometimes I see the future . . . or the past. I don’t know. It’s all getting so confusing. I’m not sure what to believe anymore.’

‘What about the silt?’ Eris enquired.

‘What about it?’

‘How’d you capture it?’

‘It was nothing glamorous, I assure you.’ Seteal frowned. ‘He was wounded and El-i-miir possessed him and then he fell unconscious so Far-a-mael tied him up. Even then we only captured him because of Seeol . . . oh, never mind. I’d really rather not talk about all I’ve been through lately.’

‘That’s okay.’ Eris smiled and ran her fingers along the back of Seteal’s hand. ‘Would you like to dance?’

‘I’d like that very much.’

Throughout the evening, Seteal continued to dance with Eris, occasionally stopping to have a drink or talk about life and what the future might hold. Eris was a breath of fresh air for Seteal. She seemed hopeful about the future and Seteal was able to pretend, if only for the moment, that hers wasn’t destined to be filled with death and warfare. From time to time, El-i-miir caught up with them and danced for a while, only to be dragged back into the fray of moving bodies, leaving Seteal and Eris with relative privacy.

‘I think I have to go to bed,’ Seteal panted finally at the end of another ‘one last dance’ Eris had begged for.

‘How about one last dance?’ Eris enquired.

‘No, really,’ Seteal objected. ‘I must get to sleep.’

‘Fine then.’ Eris pouted. ‘I’ll walk you back to your room.’

‘That would be lovely.’ Seteal nodded graciously. ‘Especially considering I can barely stand at the moment.’

‘Right this way,’ Eris whispered by Seteal’s ear, wrapping an arm around her waist to guide her below. Together they made their way along the corridor until they were standing before Seteal’s door.

‘Well, I guess this is goodnight.’ Seteal smiled at Eris, realising in the light of the lanterns just how pretty she was.

‘Good night, Seteal,’ Eris said softly, turning to face her.

‘Yes,’ Seteal breathed. ‘Goodnight.’

A moment passed and then another in which the pair just stared at each other. Seteal couldn’t be certain, but she felt that their faces had been farther apart a moment earlier. Soft lips touched hers. Seteal couldn’t breathe. How should she respond? Did she really have a choice? Seteal relaxed her mouth and allowed Eris to lead the way, her soft hand sliding down Seteal’s side until it rested on her hip.

Eris put her other arm around Seteal, supporting her as she leaned up against her, pressing her against the wall, their bodies coming together. Her hand moved up to the back of Seteal’s head and pulled at her hair, yanking her head back violently. Seteal wanted to scream as the old man’s hands touched her body, squeezing her breasts and forcing her legs apart. Her face was driven into the dirt until she was choking and could taste blood in her mouth.

‘Get off me,’ Seteal yelped, shoving Eris back so that she fell against the adjacent wall.

‘What is it?’ Eris’s eyes were wide with fear. ‘Did I do something wrong?’

‘No,’ Seteal tried to calm herself. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just me. I can’t do this.’ She looked down at her dress. Everything was as it should’ve been. Eris had barely even touched her.

‘I don’t understand,’ Eris said dejectedly. ‘I thought you were like me.’

‘What?’ Seteal recoiled. ‘I mean, I am, very much so. You’re beautiful.’

‘Then what’s wrong?’

‘I’m sorry.’ Seteal felt her throat tightening and her eyes watering. ‘I just can’t.’ She fumbled with the door until it opened. She slipped inside, slammed it shut, and slid down its length until she hit the floor sobbing.

‘Well,’ Eris said through the door, ‘goodnight then, Seteal.’ Footsteps moved away, leaving her alone to weep in the dark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Two

The Soulless

 

 

Young women. Foolish young women. Far-a-mael gripped the wooden railing until his fingers hurt. It’d been days since their drunken romp and time hadn’t resulted in Far-a-mael’s being any more forgiving. El-i-miir especially should have known better. Once outside of the Frozen Lands, she was a representative of the Elglair and needed to behave as such. Of course, the girls had both paid for it the following day. It’d been such a peaceful day, too. Far-a-mael hadn’t heard a peep from either of them.

‘Far-a-mael,’ Captain Waxnah called, all formality having long faded from his voice.

‘Yes.’ Far-a-mael turned to the captain.

‘The river has become too narrow and shallow to risk going any further. We’ll be docking at the next town,’ Waxnah stated with finality. ‘Butterdry is a tiny place, so I doubt you’ll find it on your map, but it’s only a few miles south of Sat Elam and you’ll be able to purchase stallions for the remainder of your journey.’

‘Very well,’ Far-a-mael replied. ‘When do you expect we’ll arrive?’

‘Within the hour,’ Waxnah said dismissively before turning to stride across the deck.

‘What be the fate of the young silt?’ Briel asked casually, having come to lean against the railing beside Far-a-mael.

‘That be none of your business,’ Far-a-mael snapped. ‘I know you sympathise with the creature and I know Fes brought it food. Did you really think the guard wouldn’t alert me?’

‘Ye mustn’t mind Fes.’ Briel lowered his eyes. ‘She cannah stand ta see nothin’ suffer. It be the mother in her.’

‘I don’t give a damn.’ Far-a-mael pushed away from the railing. ‘As soon as I’m off this boat I hope never to lay eyes on either of you ever again. For your own sakes, you’d better hope not to see me either.’

Without waiting for a response, Far-a-mael marched across the deck, through the hatch and down to the girls’ quarters. ‘Pack your things,’ he urged, popping his head through the doorway. ‘We’ll be docking within the hour.’

Far-a-mael headed farther along the corridor and descended the spiral staircase, but stopped short to inspect his hand on reaching the bottom. It was slightly yellowish and bruised. Had he really squeezed the railing that hard? Perhaps he was just having an allergic reaction to something he’d touched. He really needed to take better care of his progressively ageing body.

Without giving the matter much further thought, Far-a-mael strode across the hold, arming himself with the Ways as he went. He spun the wheel on the door to the brig and pulled it open. ‘Get out.’

‘Why?’ the silt asked warily.

‘Ah, good, you’ve decided to make this fun for me,’ Far-a-mael replied. Ilgrin’s aura had taken on a lot of dark purples and sickly greens since he’d been imprisoned, making Far-a-mael’s task even easier. Creating fear in the silt wouldn’t require the implantation of new emotions. All he’d have to do was stir up what was already there. ‘There you go,’ he pulled the purple forward and sunk it into a patch of brown that oozed across the aura’s surface.

Ilgrin’s face paled with fear. ‘Please,’ he squeaked, doubling over. ‘Not that.’

‘Dear boy.’ Far-a-mael smiled cruelly. ‘You make me grateful for my limited capacity for affiliation. That ability really does take all the fun out of being a gil. Now move.’ He flicked his wrist, allowing a stream of despair to leak away from his finger and penetrate Ilgrin’s soul.

‘Yes.’ Ilgrin shuddered. ‘I will.’

‘Good boy.’ Far-a-mael fed the silt miniscule amounts of comfort with every obedient move he made. It was never enough that he might regain his senses. Only so much that he’d have some hope and continue to do as he was told. ‘Put this on,’ Far-a-mael scooped up Ilgrin’s cloak and tossed it into his hands. ‘You’re revolting. We needn’t give anyone nightmares.’

With jarring motion, the silt pulled on his cloak and slid the hood over his head. There was no real way of hiding the wings, but at least the average fool might mistake them for an abnormal growth or something.

‘Far-a-mael,’ El-i-miir gasped from the top of the stairway. ‘What’re you doing down here?’

‘Collecting the prisoner.’ Far-a-mael glared at her, irritated by her lack of formality in addressing him. ‘I’d hate for him to escape so close to home.’

‘Allow me.’ El-i-miir stretched out her hand so that translucent strands of affiliation started weaving across the room.

‘No,’ Far-a-mael sneered, snapping a white band of light around El-i-miir’s weaving and severing it before it could reach its destination. ‘I’ll deal with him. And you really must learn to direct your Way without using your hands. I expect more from you by now.’

‘Yes, Gil’rei.’ El-i-miir lowered her eyes and removed herself from sight.

The silt watched as she left, eyes losing hope and his aura a litany of steadily darkening blues, yellows, and pinks.

‘How interesting,’ Far-a-mael murmured. His voice broke the spell and Ilgrin’s aura plunged back into murky darkness. ‘What could that little minx have done to get you, a demon, to fall in love with her?’

‘I . . . don’t know.’ Ilgrin squirmed as Far-a-mael poked about in his aura.

‘You do,’ Far-a-mael sneered. ‘I hope for your sake she hasn’t fallen in love with you, too. The Tome condemns such things as an abomination, often likening it to bestiality. On this particular matter, I happen to agree with the old writings. You must be an embarrassment even by the standards of your own kind. Is that why they sent you here, to get rid of you?’

‘I am from Sitnic.’

‘Yes, yes,’ Far-a-mael rolled his eyes. ‘I’ve heard it all before. You truly won’t budge from that silly little story, will you? What a stubborn creature.’

‘What the torrid is wrong with you?’ Ilgrin gasped, clamping the sides of his head. ‘Everyone else believes me. Why won’t you?’

‘Do you really want to know?’ Far-a-mael lowered his voice and marched over to the silt, stretching up to put his lips close to the creature’s ear. ‘Because I don’t want to,’ he whispered. ‘A technicality like that might ruin my plans.’

‘You,’ Ilgrin cried. ‘You’re the evil one, not me.’

‘Get up stairs,’ Far-a-mael ordered. ‘I don’t know how you managed to survive Cold Wood, but I assure you that you will not fare so well in Vish’el’Tei.’

Once they were off the boat, Far-a-mael turned on Briel and Fes. ‘Our business has reached its conclusion.’ He handed Briel a small moneybag. ‘You’d best be on your way.’

‘My horses be dead,’ Briel replied, sounding as tired of Far-a-mael’s company as he was of theirs.

‘I’ve given you enough to make up for your loss.’

Briel and Waxnah’s men were still struggling to remove the wagon from the riverboat when Far-a-mael and his companions left to make their way into town. The roads were dirt and the buildings were shabby. The central building was the Butterdry Inn, which of course happened to be the only one in town.

‘Good evening,’ Far-a-mael said as he approached the most sensibly dressed man in the building. ‘I require two rooms: one for myself and the gentleman to my right, and one for the ladies.’

The fellow didn’t even raise his head to ask for the appropriate sum of money and handed over a pair of keys. ‘Upstairs to your right.’

After pointing the girls to their room, Far-a-mael unlocked the next door and pushed the silt inside.

The room was small, its contents sparse. There was a narrow bed against the far wall and a modest table with a chair beside it and a small mirror that hung above it. Far-a-mael looked at the silt and smirked. He grabbed him by the neck and shoved him into the corner. The creature fell hard, his hood bouncing back to reveal a bruised face.

‘How long do you think you can keep me hostage?’

Far-a-mael answered by backhanding Ilgrin across the face. ‘Don’t look at me.’

The creature deserved to die and he’d have ended its pitiful life long ago if it weren’t for the sake of his people. Few throughout recorded history had managed to capture a living silt. When the elders learnt of his success, they’d accept his proposal immediately. He was certain of it. Far-a-mael glared at the silt, keeping an eye on him as he rummaged through his bag.

‘There,’ he murmured, retrieving a small pouch of herbs, but froze when a shiver ran down his spine. Something wasn’t right. But Far-a-mael’s power of knowing was weak in comparison to other gils. Perhaps he’d been mistaken. After a moment of transfixed silence, the feeling faded and Far-a-mael disregarded it.

He turned back to the creature on the floor and clutched his chin. Just touching the demon’s pasty white flesh revolted him. Far-a-mael yanked back Ilgrin’s head and pressed the bag of herbs under his nose until he passed out.

He put the herbs away and went to the door. He had little time before sunset and needed to be sure he could purchase some horses for the following day. He reached for the handle, but stopped at the return of the peculiar sensation he’d felt earlier. Someone was watching him. Far-a-mael spun around, grabbed the silt by the throat and peeled back his eyelids. But the herbs had never failed before and the silt was lost to the deep sleep they induced. Far-a-mael frowned and exited the room.

The door shut with a solid thud and Far-a-mael took two steps. His eyes widened and he froze in his tracks.

‘Seeol,’ he whispered, anxiously turning back to his room. This was his chance to destroy the creature once and for all. It was trapped. He hovered over the silt and patted down its body. Before long, he found a small bulge squirming about in his shirt.

‘Ah!’ Far-a-mael yelped and pulled his hand away to reveal a break in his skin. The little monster had bit him. He turned his attention back to the silt in time to see Seeol squirm free. Far-a-mael leapt at the owl but it evaded him and flew for the exit.

Far-a-mael kicked the door and was satisfied to see it slam shut on the bird as it tried to escape. He rushed over to examine the door. There were plenty of feathers, but no blood. Far-a-mael yanked it open hoping dearly to see the bird’s lifeless form on the carpet outside, but what he stood before him made his blood run cold.

Seeol had transformed into his other self, the creature now filling the entire hall, barely able to move in such confinement. Far-a-mael reached for his bag in the hope of retrieving his pistol, but before he could put any distance between himself and the monster, it picked him up in its talons.

‘Seeol . . . please,’ Far-a-mael begged as the mutant bird started squeezing, making it impossible to breathe.

The monster’s grip slackened and Far-a-mael hit the floor. He raised his eyes, expecting to see a giant foot come crashing down. But the fiend stood entranced. A glimpse passed the beast revealed Seteal, her eyes deep with concentration.

She had become one with the Ways. How she’d stilled the creature with so little experience was beyond Far-a-mael. Her strength had been proven so many times that he was almost willing to believe her potential limitless. Then the creature began to shrink. Seteal was reversing Seeol’s condition, something Far-a-mael had never succeeded in doing nor had he expected possible.

Once back to his regular self, Seeol launched into the air and out the door. Seteal fell against the wall, breathing raggedly. It was then that El-i-miir approached, somewhat paler than usual and offered her hand to Far-a-mael.

‘I’m fine!’ He battered her hand out of the way and clambered to his feet, wincing at a definite ache in his chest.

The innkeeper stormed up the stairs.

‘Torrid,’ Far-a-mael cursed and slammed the door before the he could get a proper look inside.

‘You in there. Open up.’ The innkeeper slammed his fist against the door. ‘I’ve taken a risk allowing Elglair to stay here with Jenjol across the river and this is how you repay me? What are you hiding in there? What was all that noise?’

Making eye contact with El-i-miir, Far-a-mael put a finger to his lips and listened as heavy footfall moved back down stairs, only to return moments later.

‘He’s got a master set.’ Far-a-mael’s eyes widened at the sound of jingling keys. He grabbed El-i-miir by the arm and pushed her down next to the silt before tearing the blankets off the bed and throwing them over both of them. ‘Try to look sick.’

‘What?’ El-i-miir’s eyes widened fearfully. The child must surely have been terrified lying beside such a creature.

‘Just make sure you keep that thing covered.’ Far-a-mael hushed her.

With a bang the door swung open and Far-a-mael put a finger against his lips aggressively. ‘Can’t you see how unwell she is?’

‘What in Maker’s name is going on?’ The innkeeper asked furiously, looking from Far-a-mael to El-i-miir covered apparently in a very large volume of blankets.

‘I’m sorry . . . is there a problem?’ Far-a-mael wove ropes of coloured light into the man’s aura, forcing him to calm down. ‘This child is simply ill.’

‘How ill?’ the innkeeper enquired, already backing out of the room.

‘Don’t be concerned.’ Far-a-mael rested a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘It isn’t catching.’

The innkeeper swallowed nervously, perhaps even wondering why he didn’t seem able to summon the anger he should’ve been feeling. Far-a-mael haphazardly pushed small bursts of pulsing olive cowardice into the man.

‘Well.’ He turned away from Far-a-mael’s penetrating gaze. ‘I think it’d be best if you were on your way at first light.’ The innkeeper backed out the door and pulled it shut.

‘You can get up now,’ Far-a-mael urged, having noticed the girl remaining in place even once the door was closed. She got up without too much delay, but not quite as hurriedly as Far-a-mael would’ve expected from someone in her situation.

As the innkeeper had demanded, Far-a-mael made sure to get the girls out of bed early the following morning, but having decided they probably needed the additional sleep, he first went out alone and purchased four horses at a ridiculously high price. The day that followed was mostly uneventful. For this, Far-a-mael was grateful, as his bones ached and his head was heavy.

As it turned out Butterdry was not as close to Sat Elam as Waxnah had proposed, and although Far-a-mael was loathe to do so, that meant another night sleeping in tents. The following morning they were all reminded of their destination by the rapidly declining temperature and the steady elevation of the landscape. Several hours later, the party arrived in Sat Elam.

‘Take Seteal into the city and bring back something to eat,’ Far-a-mael ordered El-i-miir, handing over his money bag. ‘I’ll stay out here with the silt.’ Far-a-mael frowned at Ilgrin tethered to a grey stallion, trotting beneath his influence.

‘Gil’rei?’ El-i-miir enquired with much more respect than that which Far-a-mael was accustomed to receiving.

‘Yes, my dear?’

‘If you’d like to see the city for yourself, I’d be happy to watch the demon for you.’

‘And have you let it escape?’ Far-a-mael rolled his eyes. ‘I think not.’

‘No, Gil,’ El-i-miir’s face expressed panic. ‘I’d never!’

‘I meant as an accident,’ Far-a-mael clarified, shaking his head. ‘Look, it’s fine, El-i-miir. I’ll wait here. I’m too old to be bustling about in city crowds.

When the women returned with bread and butter, Far-a-mael hurriedly ate and they continued on their way. It wasn’t until they passed the final row of ramshackle houses at the northern outskirts of the city that Far-a-mael squinted into the distance to witness a sight that brought warmth to his heart. When he heard Seteal gasp, he wasn’t at all surprised. The beauty of the Frozen Lands was enough to take anyone’s breath.

A flat desert of ice stretched out to the north, marred only by the occasion tree poking through its surface. Beyond that ten or so miles of icy plains were towering cliffs that stretched into the sky, their peaks breaking through the clouds. These mountains were not constructed of earth, but of ice. The entire landscape glowed as sunlight was captured and the blue of the sky was caught and reflected.

Far-a-mael exhaled in relief. He was finally home. These were the Elglair Frozen Lands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Three

The Truth Won’t Set You Free

 

 

It was colder than anything Seeol had experienced outside of Cold Wood. He looked at his toes and feared for a moment that they’d changed colour. He wriggled them. They felt stiff. Beating his wings, Seeol lifted into the air and found himself a perch in one of the few trees that broke through the ice.

El-i-miir and the others were ahead of him by almost fifty strides. It was far enough that they wouldn’t notice him and yet close enough that he could listen in on their conversations. Like himself, Seteal was native of Gor Narvon and looked to be suffering the cold as dismally as Seeol. If not for the threat that Far-a-mael posed, Seeol would’ve joined her so that they could share body heat.

‘Gil’rei?’ El-i-miir turned to Far-a-mael. Seeol tilted his head so as best to collect the sound of her voice. ‘May I take over control of the silt’s horse as we enter the Sixth Cleff?’

‘Why?’ Far-a-mael murmured distractedly.

‘I’m certain it would impress the elders.’ El-i-miir shrugged. ‘I hope to be graduating soon and it wouldn’t hurt to gain a little renown.’

‘No,’ Far-a-mael stated. ‘You’ve already proven yourself an imbecile. We needn’t lose the prisoner to confirm it.’

The distance was steadily increasing and Seeol was unable to catch El-i-miir’s response. He bounced off the branch and spread his wings in search of a closer tree, but there were no more to be seen. He landed on the ice and bounced along its surface after the others. The conversation had become animated and he didn’t want to miss any details, but he didn’t risk flying so close for fear of being noticed.

‘I understand that, Gil’rei,’ El-i-miir waved her hands with increasingly frantic gestures. ‘But if you’ll just allow me to take over for one minute . . .’ El-i-miir’s voice faded as the distance increased yet again.

She needed to tone it down, Seeol willed her inwardly. She was behaving too obviously, too erratically. If he hadn’t already, Far-a-mael would soon figure out what she was up to. El-i-miir was running out of time to set Ilgrin free, but getting herself into more trouble was not the way to go about it. She couldn’t have been thinking clearly.

Seeol decided to act. He needed to cause a distraction to allow El-i-miir the chance to clear her head and hopefully take a hint. Inhaling sharply, Seeol twittered the way other elf owls did back home in Narvon Wood. After doing so, he leapt into the air and not a moment too soon. With surprising dexterity, Far-a-mael spun around and threw a knife so hard that the ice where Seeol had been standing was shattered.

Seeol hurried in the opposite direction. He’d done all he could for El-i-miir. Now he had to find a place to hide before Far-a-mael found another knife.

 

*

 

El-i-miir knew that being a rei required an unyielding devotion to her gil. She remembered very well the oath she’d taken when first entering into the law enforceable contract.

 

I, El-i-miir of the Eighth Cleff, the Elglair Frozen Lands, swear to uphold and bind myself in connection to the ancient law of the gil’rei to obey my gil, irrespective of personal beliefs or wishes. Where he leads, I shall follow. His order shall be my purpose. I, El-i-miir, hereby swear this oath upon the true hope of salvation and peace amongst the Ways of the Lord, so help me Maker.

 

Behind the oath’s fanciful words laid the clear and unyielding message that when becoming a gil’rei a gil attained the legal capacity to put their rei to death. But Far-a-mael had lied in the most despicable fashion. He’d lied when telling Seteal that she’d die if she didn’t come to the Frozen Lands. Because of that and only that, she’d come. El-i-miir shuddered at the thought of what that one lie had cost poor Seteal. She’d lost so much and El-i-miir had supported Far-a-mael through it all. In many ways, she was as bad as him.

El-i-miir slowed her horse, allowing herself to drop behind Far-a-mael. Reasoning with him had proved useless. Now she would have to resort to other means. Having promised Ilgrin his freedom and acknowledging that Seteal deserved hers too, El-i-miir decided on the one remaining available course of action. The cost would be very great. El-i-miir cast one last look at the home she’d never see again.

‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir said quietly as she dropped back beside her. ‘Slow up with me for a minute.’

When El-i-miir felt sure that Far-a-mael was out of earshot, she turned to confront Seteal. ‘I have to tell you something.’

‘What’s that?’ Seteal replied, distractedly. She seemed to be looking for something, perhaps some sign of Seeol’s presence.

‘We haven’t been honest with you,’ El-i-miir began.

‘About what?’ Seteal’s face became dark.

‘You’re not really going to die,’ El-i-miir said slowly. ‘None of that was true.’

‘I know.’ Seteal shrugged.

‘What?’

‘I know,’ she insisted. ‘I figured that out a long time ago. It’s a bit embarrassing and reflects badly on you both, but I’ve come to accept it.’

‘Then why in Maker’s name haven’t you turned around and gone home?’

‘Well that wouldn’t do me much good, would it?’ Seteal frowned. ‘There would be no demons there.’

‘I don’t understand,’ El-i-miir shook her head.

‘It’s all so obvious,’ Seteal replied. ‘Far-a-mael wants me to help him destroy Old World and I very much intend to do so.’ She gave Ilgrin a dirty glance. ‘I’d love to empty his disgusting blue blood onto the snow and watch him squirm.’

‘Oh, that’s enough,’ El-i-miir fumed. ‘This isn’t you Seteal. You . . . the real you, is indifferent toward silts. Haven’t you ever questioned where all this hatred came from?’

‘That’s not true,’ Seteal retorted. ‘If Ilgrin hadn’t taken me hostage and left me in the middle of that field, then I wouldn’t have been . . . hurt like that.’

‘You might just as easily blame Far-a-mael,’ El-i-miir said in frustration. ‘You know what? I like you too much to let him do this to you. Enough is enough.’

Focusing on Seteal’s aura took only a little concentration. Locating Far-a-mael’s insidiously implanted affiliation took a little more practice. ‘There,’ El-i-miir murmured as she felt the ugly black weaving pulsing and squirming throughout Seteal’s being.

‘What’re you doing?’ Seteal’s eyes widened fearfully as El-i-miir set to work unpicking Far-a-mael’s knots with her own tendrils of light. ‘Maker, please stop! What’re you doing to me?’

‘Come on, girls,’ Far-a-mael turned back toward them. ‘We really must be on our . . . what are you doing? El-i-miir, stop!’

‘Just a second,’ El-i-miir clenched her teeth as she worked on an especially large knot that’d been doubled over several times. ‘Nearly got it.’

‘El-i-miir!’ Far-a-mael shrieked in fury, turning his horse around and setting off at a gallop. ‘Stop!’

‘Come on!’ El-i-miir cried as she struggled with the knot. Finally the cord unravelled, squirmed about for a moment and then vanished.

‘Oh,’ Seteal gasped, clutching at her chest. ‘Oh, I . . . can’t.’ Her face became broken as she again realised the horrors of what she’d been through. El-i-miir put a hand to her mouth, immediately realising her mistake. The only thing that’d kept Seteal going was the hatred Far-a-mael had planted within her. Now she was free—free to feel the pain she’d suffered without any focus or hatred to hide behind.

‘You fool,’ Far-a-mael’s face was red and his eyes bulged in rage. ‘You!’ He waved a finger in El-i-miir’s face. I’ll see you damned to Vish’el’Tei.’

‘What did you do to me?’ Seteal shrieked the sound bouncing on into the infinite distance over vast stretches of ice. ‘What did you do?’ She turned from Far-a-mael to El-i-miir and back again. ‘I wanted to kill them,’ she cried. ‘I wanted to kill them all and it felt so good. I felt alive and now I feel nothing!’

‘This is the real you, Seteal,’ El-i-miir cried, tears pouring down the sides of her face. ‘It might be horrible, but what he gave you wasn’t real. You were living in a fantasy.’

‘I don’t care.’ Seteal burst into tears. ‘I don’t want reality. Don’t you see? It hurts. It hurts too much. Give it back. Put it back. Please!’

‘I can’t,’ El-i-miir put a hand over her mouth. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it would be like this.’

‘I hate you,’ Seteal glared at her. ‘And you.’ She jabbed a finger at Far-a-mael. ‘I hate you more than you’ll ever know. You’re disgusting.’

‘Seteal.’ Far-a-mael spread his arms out before him. ‘I was only trying to ease your pain, my child.’

‘With hatred?’ Seteal shouted. ‘You don’t care about me. All you care about is them.’ She jabbed a finger at Ilgrin. ‘You’re infectious. You spread your hatred like a disease and I . . . I’m going to tell people. I’m going to see these elders of yours and make them understand exactly who you are.’ With that Seteal snatched up her reins and kicked her horse into a gallop.

‘Seteal, wait!’ Far-a-mael gripped onto his horse and chased after her as quickly as possible.

Without wasting another second, El-i-miir threw herself off her horse and ran over to Ilgrin. She snatched at the ropes that bound him and started untying them with shaking hands. ‘I’ve got you,’ she reassured him. ‘We’ll be free. We’ll run away. You’ll see.’

‘Quickly,’ Ilgrin urged once his hands and feet had been untied. ‘My wings.’ His voice was filled with fear. ‘He’s coming back.’ A glance over her shoulder told El-i-miir that Far-a-mael had realised what she was up to and he was now headed straight for them. ‘Get a knife,’ Ilgrin urged.

El-i-miir thrust out a hand, affiliating her horse instantly so that it trotted over. She threw open a bag, wrapped her hand around the knife within, pulled it free, and in one fluid motion sliced the rope that bound Ilgrin’s wings. The silt wrapped El-i-miir tight in his muscular arms, bent his knees and threw open his wings.

‘Don’t move,’ Far-a-mael commanded, his horse having come to a stop just strides away. ‘Don’t. You’re both going to die anyway, but you don’t want it to be like this.’

El-i-miir turned slowly to see Far-a-mael’s pistol aimed directly at Ilgrin’s head. The silt retracted his wings and stepped away from El-i-miir. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered.

‘If I see so much as a single tendril sneaking away from your fingertips,’ Far-a-mael turned to El-i-miir, ‘I’ll shoot him and then you.’

‘Gil’rei,’ El-i-miir pleaded. ‘Don’t do this.’

‘You’re asking me not to do this?’ Far-a-mael laughed hysterically. ‘You’re in love with a silt, El-i-miir. What has become of you? Have you lost all sense? And to think, you once showed so much promise.’

‘We’re not all the same you know,’ Ilgrin said sadly.

‘Actually, I do know that.’ Far-a-mael nodded. ‘I’m not one of those idiots who believe you’re all bloodthirsty, slobbering monsters. But I also know that as long as your kind exists, whisps will also exist. And I, for one, am tired of watching innocent people die. Now move. Both of you.’ Far-a-mael indicated with the pistol. ‘We’ll go by foot the remainder of the way.’

Her heart racing, El-i-miir started taking steady steps toward the Sixth Cleff with Ilgrin by her side. She had hoped that one day they’d be able to walk together, but not like this. Her fingers brushed against his for a moment, before Ilgrin found her hand and closed his around it.

‘I love you,’ he whispered.

‘I love you, too,’ El-i-miir replied.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Four

Ice

 

 

Seteal stumbled away from her horse and into a small clearing. Somehow she’d become lost in a forest of tree-like ice formations. Snow had begun to fall and flakes kept getting caught in her hair. Seteal tore off her protective black cloak and let it tumble to the snow, revealing a wispy white dress that immediately formed wet circles wherever the snow made contact.

In the middle of a clearing Seteal fell to her knees, acknowledging but not caring about the bite of the cold. ‘I can still hate them,’ she sobbed, looking about herself desperately. ‘Please, please, let me hate them.’ She slammed the palm of her hand into the snow. ‘Please.’ She gritted her teeth and broke down in tears.

She’d been raped again. Far-a-mael had gotten inside and changed her aura. He’d tinkered with her Way, manipulating her into respecting him and accepting her abduction. It was a lie. Even the hatred. That precious hatred was a lie and now Seteal was empty. She was as frozen as the structures that surrounded her.

‘Please,’ Seteal whispered, closing her eyes and lying down in the snow as the cold continued to sap her strength.

Master Fasil approached to kneel and smile over her. ‘You’ll never escape me,’ he whispered in her ear, trailing a finger over her shoulder. ‘You’ll carry me with you until we meet in the cold grave.’

‘No.’ Seteal reached out, grabbing a handful of snow and crushing it between her fingers. ‘Why won’t you get out of my head? Why won’t you leave me alone? I used to have hatred.’

‘Now you can better focus on me,’ Master Fasil said reassuringly, placing a soft kiss on Seteal’s cheek. ‘Now please . . . get up.’

‘No,’ Seteal murmured, her eyes having at sometime fallen shut.

‘Please get up.’ The elf owl rubbed his beak back and forth across her cheek. ‘You’re my friend. Don’t be dead.’

‘Seeol,’ Seteal wheezed, turning her head to face him. ‘It’s okay. I’m far from dead.’

‘Here we go, cutie.’ Seeol fluttered over to Seteal’s cloak, snagged it in his beak and tried in vain to drag it toward her.

‘I’ve got it,’ Seteal pushed to her feet and picked up the cloak. ‘Let’s go,’ she muttered wearily, head hanging so that her long brown hair would keep her face concealed from the world.

‘Can we find the bearded ones now?’

‘That’s exactly what we’re going to do.’ Seteal narrowed her eyes and clambered back onto her horse.

Moments later, she was manoeuvring through the ice trees as quickly as possible with Seeol leaping from branch to branch above her. The horse exploded back out onto icy plains and she was able to take him up to a hurried gallop. Seeol swooped down out of nowhere, dug his claws into Seteal’s shoulder and beat his wings furiously.

‘Shtop!’ he shrieked almost unintelligibly. Seteal gasped as she realised the illusion of the landscape before her, but it was too late to react. Where she’d thought the expanse was continuous, it was not.

And the ground vanished. The horse whinnied in terror and Seteal choked on a scream. Seeol’s wings continued to beat at her ear and together they plummeted. There was a moment of peace when Seteal realised she’d reached the Sixth Cleff—a place of domed towers and buildings built from bricks of ice—but then there was only pain. The ice beside them was a wall at first, but as Seteal fell it crept closer as its angle of degrees became increasingly less vertical. The cleff was positioned within an inverted dome, or basin.

The horse’s legs flailed fitfully and the animal bellowed as one of his legs cracked against the ice and broke. His other leg thrust out, missing Seteal’s face but forcing Seeol to release her or else be struck. The tiny bird rapidly became a speck in the distant sky.

The wall became increasingly diagonal, causing Seteal to hit the surface hard. Fiery pain raced along her arm as it was dragged across the ice. When she hit again the force expelled the air from her lungs. Seteal yelped as she slammed against the surface a few more times before remaining there as the ice began to level out.

The slope became increasingly horizontal, allowing for the slowing—although more painful—of Seteal’s decent. Her horse was dead, his limbs twisted and broken and his body rolling lifelessly down the basin below her. The ice became red and Seteal realised distantly that she was sliding through the animal’s blood. She lacked the strength to be disgusted.

She slid to a stop, barely conscious and not entirely sure which of her limbs, if any, still worked. Her cloak was in tatters and blood was everywhere . . . she couldn’t be sure whose. Seteal gagged and coughed. That was definitely her blood. She fell back into the snow and stared into the blinding blue sky above. Her breathing sounded so loud. Her heart pounded in her chest. The sky became dark. Seteal was losing consciousness. But she couldn’t! Not Like this . . . she’d be too vulnerable.

Leaping through the darkness, Seteal made one desperate grab for the sky and as she did she plunged away from her beaten body lying in the snow. Her consciousness fully restored, Seteal took the opportunity to investigate her current situation. Her body was covered in cuts, scrapes, and grazes, but she’d expected that. None of her bones were broken and her heart was still doing its job.

A small group of Elglair had noticed Seteal’s descent and were hurrying over to see if she was still alive. They would do their best to look after her. Satisfied in the knowledge that her body was as safe as it could be under the circumstances, Seteal set off to find the others. Several hundred strides away, Far-a-mael was descending via a staircase while holding Ilgrin and El-i-miir at gunpoint.

In a second . . . less, Seteal’s spirit was with them. Far-a-mael clutched his pistol within a white-knuckled hand. Ilgrin and El-i-miir moved ahead of him, both faces decidedly miserable. Seteal smiled inwardly. El-i-miir must’ve tried to free the silt. Finally, she’d stood up for what she believed in. Seteal almost felt proud of her.

‘Who goes there?’ A young guard put his hand on the hilt of his sword as Far-a-mael stepped into the basin.

‘Gil’rei Far-a-mael of the Eighth Cleff,’ the old man sneered at the boy. ‘Who are you?’

‘Just your humble servant, Gil’rei.’ The boy bowed. As he did so his eyes widened and he stepped back in fearful submission. Although Ilgrin was well covered in his cloak, his toes were clearly visible beneath it. ‘That’s a . . . it’s a . . .’ the boy scurried away several steps, lips shaking. ‘That’s a . . .’

‘A silt.’ Far-a-mael raised his eyebrows, before becoming distracted, his eyes filling with the knowing. Far-a-mael spun toward Seteal’s body. ‘That stupid girl,’ he barked, having realised her mode of entry into the cleff.

‘I don’t have time for this,’ Far-a-mael grumbled. ‘You’ He pointed at El-i-miir. ‘Make him sleep. And be sure to do a good job of it.’

‘I’m sorry, Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir said, lifting her hand. Far-a-mael watched the weaving very closely. He’d know if El-i-miir tampered with it. Ilgrin responded only by falling first to his knees and then onto his face.

‘Thank you,’ Far-a-mael said sarcastically before lifting his pistol and clubbing El-i-miir over the back of the head so that she too crumpled unconsciously to the snow. ‘Arrange a cell for each of them.’ Far-a-mael jabbed a finger at the young guard. ‘If they get away, I will personally ensure you’re sent to Vish’el’Tei,’ he growled before setting off at a run.

When Seteal and Far-a-mael arrived at her body, the small group of Elglair had increased in size. Two men dressed entirely in white had placed her body on a small bench and were preparing to lift it.

‘Get out of my way.’ Far-a-mael barged through the crowd. ‘Move, you Maker-damned buffoons. Oh, Seteal,’ he finished, kneeling down beside her. ‘I almost came to like you.’ There was something in his eyes. It was a look Seteal had never seen in them before. Could it be affection? ‘Well? What’re you waiting for? Get her inside,’ Far-a-mael addressed the men in white.

The men lifted the thin wooden bench and headed off into the cleff with Far-a-mael at their heels. ‘You stay alive, you hear me?’ Far-a-mael put his lips close to Seteal’s ear. ‘I’m not done with you yet,’ he finished darkly before scurrying off, perhaps to find Ilgrin and El-i-miir.

As the men carried Seteal’s body through the cleff, they came to be surrounded by stunning domed buildings of ice that curved up from the ground. But none of what Seteal saw on the outskirts of the cleff compared to the immense dome at the city centre.

The central structure was surrounded by smaller domes, which housed tunnels and bridges of ice, connecting them in a vast web-like network. Rather than doors or gates, the entrance of the building sported a tall archway leading into an immense chamber. Once inside, the men turned sharply to continue up a wide staircase. Seteal arrived in a small room that was surprisingly warm. The walls were lined with metal rods from which lanterns hung to light the room. The green flames that danced within didn’t melt the ice walls as one would have expected. If anything, they were strengthening the ice, as frost leapt away from the flames and drifted up against the ceiling.

Once the men had put down the bench on which Seteal was carried, they silently left the room. She didn’t have to wait long before a stout woman with stunning green eyes entered from a separate doorway.

‘Oh . . . poor dear.’ She frowned, her white pupils flashing with irritation. ‘You must be Jil-e-an’s little one.’

Surprised that the stranger had known her mother, Seteal’s spirit recoiled and her eyelids fluttered for just a moment. Wanting very much to speak with the lady, Seteal wondered if she should return to her body. Doing so, she’d likely be greeted by a great deal of pain and that was if she even managed to wake up at all. Deciding to take the risk, Seteal followed the cord of spirit that kept her connected to the body that was stretched out on the bench below.

She coughed and tried to move but everything seemed to be throbbing. ‘Don’t move, dearie.’ The woman put her warm, plump hand against Seteal’s forehead. ‘It’ll do you more harm than good. My name is Am-in-da and I’ll be your jilt’lesit today.’

‘You knew my mother?’ Seteal asked, fighting through the pain in her head.

‘I did. Here, drink this,’ Am-in-da put a small bottle to Seteal’s lips. ‘You’ll feel much better.’

‘What is it?’

‘It’s just a little spun root juice,’ Am-in-da pushed the bottle firmly over Seteal’s lips. ‘It’s been proven to have marvellous healing properties.’

Tentatively sipping the liquid and finding it not to be terribly unpleasant, Seteal drank it quickly and was shocked by the almost immediate pain relief.

‘Now I’d like to give your aura a once over to see if there’s any damage to your internal organs.’

‘You can do that?’ Seteal raised her eyebrows.

‘One would hope so after seven years of study and a further ninety years’ experience as a general practitioner,’ Am-in-da chuckled.

‘Um . . . sure,’ Seteal replied, once again finding it hard to comprehend Elglair lifespans. ‘Just don’t change anything without letting me know.’

‘That would be highly unethical, dearie.’ The woman stared directly at her, an expression of concentration on her face. Occasionally she looked a little flustered and made small hand gestures as though she were pushing some invisible object out of the way. ‘All right,’ she tapped her chin, ‘I’d like to give you some positive energy to help along the healing.’

‘No. The last thing I need is more people fooling about with my aura.’ Seteal sat up and put a hand to the side of her head. Spots danced across her vision and a wave of nausea washed over her. ‘I need to speak with the elders before Far-a-mael does. And people should be warned about Seeol.’

‘You’ve discovered a seeol?’ Am-in-da said in puzzlement. ‘Perhaps you’ve hit your head.’

‘His name is Seeol,’ Seteal corrected the jilt’lesit.

‘What an awful name.’ Am-in-da scowled. ‘But I’m afraid your friend will have to wait. You need to get some rest.’

‘He’s not my friend,’ Seteal barked, ‘and I really must speak with the elders.’

‘Sorry, dearie.’ Am-in-da put a hand on Seteal’s shoulder. ‘I didn’t want it to come to this.’ Seteal felt herself being overwhelmed by waves of drowsiness. Her head was heavy and her eyelids began to droop. ‘You’re not going anywhere. Far-a-mael would have my head,’ were the last words Seteal heard before falling to her pillow and drifting into a deep sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Five

Then There was War

 

 

The Room of Meeting was located in the very centre of the Dome of the Sixth. Unlike most in the complex, this room had been forged from one very large and very expensive block of ice. Far-a-mael’s attention, however, was on the semicircular table that ran parallel to the wall behind it. It was at this table that the high elders sat. Having learned long ago that with their combined abilities the high elders were able to pick out a lie almost as easily as El-i-miir, Far-a-mael had decided to err as closely to the truth as he could when explaining the events of his journey. Naturally, there’d been a few details he’d had to omit due to their sensitivity.

‘Gil’rei Far-a-mael,’ Gez-reil said formally, despite their having been close friends for many years. ‘We’d like to hear your suggestions in regards to the matters with which you’ve presented us?’

‘What do I suggest?’ Far-a-mael replied with mock humility, smothering a victorious grin beneath his hand. ‘I suggest we go to war, High Elder Gez-reil. We have her now, and I’ve brought back living proof of an impending silt invasion. I believe it’s time to reach out to our people stationed in Old World. If we do not strike now, I assure you that the enemy will.’

The high elder of the Third Cleff rolled his eyes dramatically and muttered distastefully, ‘How useful do you really expect her to be? Even if the abilities of which you speak are true, she’s hardly an army.’

‘Who knows what she’ll become capable of with more training,’ Far-a-mael urged. ‘As it stands, we can use her to keep tabs on every military movement the silts make. Do you doubt how useful that would be to our spies in the Lowly Order?’

‘She’s not even Elglair,’ the high elder insisted. ‘Not really, anyway. And one silt is not a good enough reason to trouble our people in the south.’

‘She is able to know in the most profound way imaginable, through projection. With a little more practise, I suspect she’ll even be able to know into the past and even see the future,’ Far-a-mael stated in exasperation. ‘As for the silt, well, we all know they’re like snow roaches. If you find one, there’s a hundred more beneath the iceboards. We infiltrated the Sat’Tanist ranks over a hundred years ago and we did it for a reason. Already we’ve ignored Old World too long, often bending over backward making excuses for their whims. Enough is enough. The line must be drawn here.’

The fifth high elder slammed down her notes and stood up abruptly. ‘We cannot declare war on Old World,’ she snapped. ‘Even if we should succeed, Maker knows with all odds against us, can you imagine at what cost?’

‘Many will die,’ Far-a-mael stated bluntly, recentful that he should have to explain himself to a woman. In his day High Elder Tes-ar-ni would never have been allowed into such a position. ‘I know that . . . of course. The girl herself will likely die, but we’re talking about a chance to retake Old World. I believe that the cost will be well worth the reward.’

‘Damn it, Far-a-mael!’ Gez-reil slammed his fist against the table and leapt to his feet. ‘Do you think I don’t suffer still, too? I remember your pain. I know your hurt, but for Maker’s sake, we’re talking about your granddaughter.’

‘No,’ Far-a-mael whispered turning his back on the group. ‘I disowned her mother a long time ago. Seteal is no relation of mine. She is the product of an illegitimate marriage . . . a thing of shame. The girl whom we discuss is nothing more than a tool with which we can bring peace and security to New World and reclaim what was once ours by right.’ He spun around to face the the high elders. ‘In any case, what you speak of is irrelevant. Who cares if she’s my granddaughter or your neighbour’s cat? I am giving you the opportunity to fix everything.’

The room fell silent, Gez-reil’s and Far-a-mael’s eyes locked, until finally the high elder lowered his. ‘You’re right.’ Gez-reil shook his head after another moment in silence.

‘I’m glad you’re able to see that,’ Far-a-mael replied as the majority of the surrounding elders began nodding in agreement.

‘I’ll have no part in this.’ The high elder of the Third Cleff pushed himself away from the table and stormed out of the room, followed closely thereafter by Tes-ar-ni.

‘If anyone else is in disagreement with Gil’rei Far-a-mael’s proposal, let them speak now,’ Gez-reil said softly. The remaining high elders maintained their seats, so Gez-reil continued. ‘All right, Far-a-mael. Tell me . . . promise me we won’t regret this.’

‘I don’t live with regrets.’ Far-a-mael lifted his chin.

‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’ Gez-reil held his gaze for an extended moment. He dipped a pen into his inkwell and turned one of the pages on the table before him. ‘Let it be as you’ve outlined in your proposal.’ Gez’reil sighed, signing the paper before passing it on to the others. ‘Congratulations, War Elder Far-a-mael of the Unified Cleffs.’ Gez’reil slowly stood up, his expression bearing no pleasure in using his new title. ‘I hope to Maker you know what you’re doing, old friend.’

‘You will not be disappointed,’ Far-a-mael said with a sly smile. He picked up the signed papers from the table. ‘I’ll have copies made immediately.

‘After you do that, have a chat with the Sixth Cleff military coordinator and see if she has any suggestions on the possibility of alliances with outlander countries,’ Gez-reil said. ‘If we’re going to attack Old World, we’re going to first need as many friends as we can get.’

‘Indeed.’ Far-a-mael nodded his agreement. Gez-reil had always felt the need to state the obvious in an effort to remind those around him that he was in control of any given situation.

‘Now then,’ Gez’reil shuffled through his papers. ‘On to other matters.’

‘Yes,’ Far-a-mael agreed. ‘What of the silt’s fate?’

‘We’ve decided to interrogate the silt in the traditional manner utilised for such creatures.’ Par-e-lin, the high elder of the Seventh Cleff spoke for the first time, a nasty glint in his eye. ‘Once we’ve extracted whatever information we can from the creature, it will be executed on the grounds of its existence.’

‘And the seeol?’ Far-a-mael enquired.

‘I find it very difficult to believe you’ve encountered a true seeol,’ said the high elder of the Fourth Cleff , his voice wheezing and frail. ‘A separated thread coming into existence against the will of the Ways. As such, it is an extraordinarily rare phenomenon. I might also add that I’m disappointed you’ve been unable to deal with the creature to the point of luring it all the way to our doorstep. Having said that, we shall assign a small group of gils to dispose of your seeol if and when it becomes a problem.’

When Far-a-mael didn’t excuse himself, the elders paused to glance at one another, double checking that they hadn’t missed anything on the agenda. ‘You’re dismissed, Far-a-mael,’ Gez-reil said. ‘Given your new responsibilities, your rei will be reassigned to another gil.’

‘Ah, yes . . . my lovely little rei,’ Far-a-mael murmured as he turned to the door across the room. ‘Bring her in,’ Far-a-mael ordered the guard holding El-i-miir with a gun to her temple. Surrounding him were ten additional hadoan soldiers trained well in armed combat. To the untrained eye, having so many men stand guard seemed preposterous in maintaining the security of one little girl, but Far-a-mael knew El-i-miir could affiliate three or four of them and possibly even more if she was pushed.

‘What on earth is this all about?’ Gez-reil gasped, his expression one of disbelief.

‘I have condemned her to Vish’el’Tei,’ Far-a-mael said without emotion.

‘Please don’t let him do this,’ El-i-miir sobbed, lifting her head, appealing to the high elders beneath running makeup and tears.

‘Vish’el’Tei?’ Gez-reil failed in keeping the horror from his voice. ‘Why El-i-miir? She’s the most gifted and least arrogant student we’ve had in five hundred years.’

‘Not anymore.’ Far-a-mael almost smiled at the thought of Seteal’s power having been placed so freely in his hands.

‘We cannot approve this.’ Gez-reil leant back in his chair and crossed his arms.

‘Oh, thank you,’ El-i-miir choked out. ‘Thank you. Thank you!’

‘Quiet, girl,’ Far-a-mael grated, before returning his attention to the high elders. ‘I demand that you hear me out before you decide against my decision. Besides, it’s written in the ancient law that a gil has the right to punish his rei however he sees fit. Seeking your permission is merely a courtesy.’

‘You . . . what? You can’t just condemn her without consulting us,’ Gez-reil spluttered.

‘That is a very old law, Far-a-mael.’ The fourth high elder shook his head disparagingly. ‘We simply don’t behave that way in modern times.’

‘I’ll admit freely that I had to use some rather unscrupulous methods in order to lure Seteal to the Frozen Lands.’ Far-a-mael frowned. ‘It was necessary to do so. El-i-miir chose to reveal certain deceptions to Seteal without my permission and now we’ll be lucky if we can get her to behave at all.’

‘That’s not all you did,’ El-i-miir squeaked.

‘Be quiet, El-i-miir,’ Gez-reil cautioned, before turning his attention back to Far-a-mael. ‘That’s not enough for Vish’el’Tei. What in Maker’s name is wrong with you, Far-a-mael?’

‘I’m not finished yet,’ Far-a-mael sneered. ‘It gets much darker than that. Rei El-i-miir conversed freely with our captive silt. She became increasingly friendly with the creature, even attempting to trick me into leaving her alone with it on multiple occasions. Today she tried to set it free.’

‘He’s innocent,’ El-i-miir cried desperately. ‘Don’t you see that? He was raised by humans in Sitnic! There is no silt invasion.’

‘Lies!’ Far-a-mael thrust out his hand. ‘Just look into her aura. It speaks the truth that she won’t. Don’t you see the compassion she vomits up for that retched demon? She took me for a fool at every turn and I don’t doubt for a minute that she’s even stooped so low as to have sexual relations with the silt.’

‘No,’ El-i-miir cried. ‘It’s not true.’

‘Is it true?’ Gez-reil asked her simply, staring deep into her aura. ‘Did you have intercourse with the creature, thereby committing the heinous act of bestiality?’

‘No,’ El-i-miir choked on the word.

Gez-reil continued to stare for a moment, before sitting back with a satisfied nod. ‘I believe you.’

‘You asked the wrong question, old friend,’ Far-a-mael reprimanded Gez-reil and turned malevolently toward El-i-miir. ‘The question isn’t whether you’ve had sexual relations with the silt, but rather more importantly whether you’d like to?’

‘No,’ El-i-miir lied through shaking lips.

Gez’reil sat back heavily. The lie had not escaped his, nor the other high elders’ notice, as it bounced fleetingly across El-i-miir’s aura. ‘Did you try to set it free?’ Gez-reil’s voice was hoarse.

‘I did,’ El-i-miir sobbed after a long pause filled only by silence.

‘Dear girl, silts are never innocent.’ Gez’reil rubbed his forehead and turned to Far-a-mael. ‘As the high elder of the Eighth Cleff, I am belatedly granting you my support to enact this rei’s condemnation.’

One by one the other high elders confirmed their agreement.

‘No,’ El-i-miir whimpered, crumpling to her knees. ‘No! Please. I’ll do anything.’

‘You may wait outside, child.’ Gez-reil frowned pityingly at El-i-miir as she exited. ‘You as well, Far-a-mael. You’re dismissed.’

Far-a-mael bowed deeply and backed out the door only to give El-i-miir a disgusted glance and continue on his way. He had not expected such passion from Gez-reil, especially in regards to Seteal’s being his granddaughter. Far-a-mael’s motives were entirely logical. When he was just a boy, his parents had been murdered by silts. Years later, his wife, Sar-ni, lost her life because of a whisp. And, of course, Jil-e-an ended up suffering that very same fate. That’s why Gez-reil’s attitude confused Far-a-mael. Sar-ni had been his sister. Surely, he of all people should’ve recognised that using Seteal for vengeance was poetically brilliant.

The high elders were such old fools, apparently having forgotten to consider the depths of Far-a-mael’s knowledge on legal matters. They clearly had no idea what the title of ‘War Elder’ actually entailed. If they had, they never would’ve granted it to him.

 

*

 

Gez-reil wandered along the icy corridors toward the room where he knew Seteal was to speak her oath. She’d probably need some convincing, which meant Po-let was probably going to try intimidating her into submission. With the Ways, it might work, but if Seteal was anything like her mother, Gez-reil very much doubted it.

At the end of the corridor, Gez-reil came to a large door with a small window sunk into the ice near the top. He peered through to find a young woman sitting at the table within the interrogation room. The first thing Gez-reil noticed was what a striking resemblance she had to his long-dead sister. Po-let, an ugly man, loomed over Seteal with a mean smile splitting his face. Gez-reil rolled his eyes, sincerely doubting that playing it tough would work with this young lady.

She was not what he’d expected, with dark brown hair, hazel eyes, and dirt smudged against her dress—hardly an imposing figure. Turning her face toward the lantern light, Gez-reil couldn’t help but feel a stab of regret. Seteal faced Po-let, her eyes twin flames. Gez-reil hadn’t seen such fire since the last time he’d seen Jil-e-an. Po-let dwarfed the skinny girl, but her face lacked any signs of intimidation.

‘Hello, Seteal. I’m Po-let. We’re going to spend some time together. Now we can have a pleasant time, or we can have an unpleasant time.’ He spoke as though one might to a small child. ‘You’ll make this easier on the both of us if you simply swear this oath to any elder of your choice. It really is that simple.’ He slid a piece of paper across the table toward her.

‘I want nothing to do with your people.’ Seteal turned away.

‘Oh?’ Po-let tilted his head and frowned mockingly. ‘That is a shame.’ The man pulled out a leather strap. ‘Ordinarily we’d starve you for a few days, or perhaps prevent you from sleeping, but we’re short on time so I’ll just have to cut to the chase.’ Po-let hefted his thick leather strap and threw back his arm.

Unable to believe his eyes, Gez-reil threw open the door and barged into the room. ‘What are you doing, man? Have you lost your mind?’

‘High Elder Gez-reil.’ Po-let lowered his arm. ‘I was merely encouraging the outlander to speak the oath.’

‘Has the entire cleff lost its mind?’ Gez-reil stretched out his open palms. ‘We do not torture our future reis.’

‘But the War Elder said I had to use any means possible to make her commit the oath.’ Po-let shrugged and turned back, hefting the strap as he went.

‘That’s enough!’ Gez-reil cried.

‘I’m sorry, High Elder Gez-reil, but I cannot disobey the War Elder. He might send me to Vish’el’Tei.’ Po-let dug around in his pocket to procure a neatly folded letter. The big man handed it over and Gez-reil wasted no time in reading it.

 

Gez-reil,

 

By now you are probably aware of Seteal Eltari’s impending misfortune. I assure you that this is for the very best. I’ve had extensive experience with this young lady and have come to the realisation that her spirit is too stubborn for verbal persuasion to penetrate. I understand that you are not a great believer in alternative forms of persuasion, however, I fear to inform you, my old friend, that your opinion is no longer relevant. Please note the following excerpt taken directly from Ancient Law, book five, chapter seventy, subtitle ‘War Elder Rights’:

In times of pronounced war, all decisions whether minor or major, shalt thus be made by the designated war elder.

If you read a little further, the paragraph goes on to explain that in times of war, decisions are processed far too slowly when an entire assembly of elders is invoked, hence the use of a war elder.

Did you not declare war, Gez-reil? Did you not all make that choice? Now I am your elder and I trust you will not interfere with the treatment I’ve set out for our future rei.

 

Yours faithfully,

War Elder Far-a-mael

Unified Cleffs

Gez-reil dropped the letter and watched it fall to the polished ice floor. What had they done? Gez-reil rushed out of the room to the sound of Seteal’s cries.

 

*

The red slippers were thin-soled and yet her toes felt warm. El-i-miir rubbed her arms in an attempt to create as much warmth as possible while she still had the chance. Once outside, the blood-red robes draped around her shoulders would provide no more protection from the cold than the slippers on her feet. Unlike most worn in the Frozen Lands, these clothes had not been designed to keep the wearer comfortable. It was a simple gown designed to show El-i-miir for what she was: forsaken.

Raising her face as much as she dared, El-i-miir peered around the poorly lit cave. Having been carved from stone, the space lacked the crystalline beauty found throughout the rest of the cleff. It was the only place El-i-miir had ever seen in the Frozen Lands where yellow flames—as opposed to green—burned in the holders attached to the walls.

Light danced and flickered eerily as it bounced and reflected off crude surfaces, only just managing to illuminate the hunched-over old man standing in the corner where he chanted unceasingly. El-i-miir cringed at a middle-aged woman who circled her slowly, a stone bowl clasped tightly in hand. She dipped her fingers into the bowl and ceremonially flicked hot water at El-i-miir’s face. A voice boomed loudly from somewhere in the gloomy cavern, ‘Do you, El-i-miir of Sixth Cleff, understand what has brought you here today?’

El-i-miir winced as hot water was splattered into her eyes, but she dared not wipe it away. The Elglair were a people steeped in old traditions and writs and even though it would inevitably lead to her death, El-i-miir still felt the need to treat the ancient ceremony with respect. The idea behind the heat within the cavern and the hot water being thrown against her flesh, was that the soul warmed so as to be caught off-guard when the prisoner was released to Vish’el’Tei.

‘I do,’ El-i-miir squeaked. She was terrified beyond the point of indignity.

‘Do you understand that your gil has seen fit for you to be punished under the ancient law of the gil’rei?’ The voice echoed with notable regret.

‘I do,’ El-i-miir whimpered.

‘Then you are hereby condemned to Vish’el’Tei for gross sin and an abandonment of respect for Elglari law. You are stripped of name and title. Hence forth, we know of no such person as Rei El-i-miir of the Sixth Cleff,’ the voice said with finality. ‘Such a name shall never be spoken again, so help us, Maker.’ The words were repeated twice in unison by a circle of darkly clad figures standing around the circumference of the room.

Only a short time ago, El-i-miir had clothed herself in these robes, walked along the dark hallway and into this chamber. Soon the northern door would be opened and she’d step outside into the blistering cold. Thereafter she’d be escorted several miles from the cleff by a small group of armed gil’hadoans. At that point, she’d be left to carry on north, shunned and condemned. And yet somehow the final part of the ceremony seemed so much more difficult to withstand than any of that which was to come.

‘Arl-an-dor and Mil-i-que of the Sixth Cleff,’ droned the voice belonging to a figure hidden beneath a black mask and dark clothing. ‘You may step forward for your final moment. You have a short time.’

El-i-miir’s heart sank as her father and mother stepped out of the shadows, both qualified gils themselves. As they approached, a flash of euphoria rocked El-i-miir to her core. Her mother barely raised a hand or showed any outward sign as she infiltrated El-i-miir’s aura sending her persistent waves of well-being. The soft streams of golden yellow and pale blues poured into El-i-miir, making her gasp with relief in the knowledge that everything would be okay. Summoning up all her strength, El-i-miir formed a crude block to prevent her mother’s manipulation.

‘I’m so sorry, Mama,’ El-i-miir sobbed, her grief returning.

‘Shh,’ her father hushed. ‘It’s our fault. We never should’ve forced you down this path.’

‘Oh, Maker . . . El-i-miir, you foolish girl.’ Her mother burst into tears and wrapped her in a tight hug. ‘What will we tell your sisters? They won’t stop crying. Oh, Maker! I love you so much.’

‘Your time is up.’ The man in the black mask stepped forward. ‘The escort must leave.’

‘No, please, just another minute,’ Mil-i-que begged. ‘Please!’

‘My dear woman, the law is clear.’ The man’s voice softened as he stepped into the light. ‘Open the door.’

Stone grated on ice and every candle died as the temperature was diminished to a deathly chill. El-i-miir gasped as freezing wind tore through the room causing her robe to billow about her feet. The last tendrils of Mil-i-que’s Way vanished back into her aura. El-i-miir shook from shock, not having realised that any remained. The water on her face froze to beads of ice that bit her cheeks.

‘Move.’ There was a sharp jab to the middle of her back.

El-i-miir stepped out into the snow and her red slippers soaked through immediately. The cold burned her feet, but she continued onward as the group of eight gil’hidoans encircled her. By the time the gils came to a stop, El-i-miir was shaking so hard that she thought she might collapse. The only kindness she’d been granted was the fact that she could no longer feel her toes. The gil’hidoans didn’t look at her, or even acknowledge her, as all but one turned and headed back the way they’d come.

El-i-miir lifted her gaze at the heavily clad figure as he pulled back his hood to reveal himself. ‘High Elder Gez-reil,’ El-i-miir said through chattering teeth. He was the last person she’d expected as part of the escort. Instead of replying, the elder stood transfixed lost in thought. At last he removed a satchel hanging over his shoulder and pulled out a pair of thick mammoth-leather boots. He then took off his heavy fur coat and handed it to El-i-miir. Without a single word or sign of recognition, he turned and hurried back toward the cleff, leaving El-i-miir to stand alone in utter confusion.

What was this act of kindness? With such an extraordinary act of mercy, he’d disobeyed the very laws he’d vowed to uphold. El-i-miir forced swollen feet into the boots and wrapped herself inside the coat. She stood fixed in place, gazing regretfully at the great dome peeking out over the top of the bowl shaped valley in the distance.

Gez-reil had acted against something he’d worked to uphold his entire life, Elglair law. Did he want for El-i-miir to live? Did he disagree with her condemnation? Where did he expect her to go? Did he really think she’d move south and live among the outlanders as Seteal’s mother had? Jil-e-an was loathed by thousands for committing such an act. Surely Gez-reil didn’t expect El-i-miir to do something so shameful. El-i-miir had known that her life in the Frozen Lands was over the second she’d sought to free Ilgrin. It was Gez-reil’s motivation that confounded her. As the confusing thoughts raced through El-i-miir’s mind, she continued to stand bewildered, with absolutely no idea of what to do next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Six

Ethereal Loathing

 

 

Ilgrin’s head felt like it was about to explode from the pain. He’d never known suffering such as the Elglair could deliver. Ilgrin bit his teeth together to stifle a scream as the whip snapped across his back, splitting his flesh. How long had he been there? Time didn’t matter anymore. It was a blur of agony. Ilgrin braced himself as the whip stung again, this time cutting across his wings.

His hands were bound by thick rope, which was also tied to a bar that ran along the ceiling. His feet were chained to an iron loop protruding from the frozen floor, which had since been painted blue with blood. The torture chamber was small and musty, leading Ilgrin to believe it hadn’t been used in some time. His persecutor had a weak stomach. Ilgrin knew this because although there were more elaborate machines surrounding them, he chose only to use the whip. For that, Ilgrin was grateful.

The blows came to a stop and Ilgrin’s head fell forward. He panted heavily and his heart raced, knowing what was to come. A single droplet of bright blue blood trickled down his face and fell from the tip of his nose. He watched its descent. He watched it splash upon his toe. Ilgrin swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut, pleading Maker for mercy.

Hel-i-yun did most of the physical part. He was the strongest in that regard and knew how to work a whip to his advantage. For now, that man so covered in Ilgrin’s blood, took a seat by the door so that Jer-in could take over. Ilgrin shook uncontrollably as the man approached, his white pupils glinting maliciously.

‘Please,’ Ilgrin sobbed. ‘I don’t know anything. I was raised by—’

‘By humans,’ Jer-in cut him off. ‘By Abnatians, no less. The most peaceable folk in the world.’ He backhanded Ilgrin across the face. ‘Do you take us for fools?’

‘I’m telling the truth,’ Ilgrin replied.

‘Let’s begin, then, shall we?’ Jer-in replied, eyes full of hatred.

Ilgrin inhaled sharply as the man reached into his aura and started twisting it. He couldn’t see what the man was doing, but the agony it caused was unlike anything he’d ever known. Ilgrin almost found himself looking forward to Hel-i-yun’s return. What really caught him off-guard was the screaming. At first, he’d thought they were torturing someone else in another room, but then realised the howls were coming from him. His entire body convulsed as the man tormented him in ways that Far-a-mael hadn’t dreamt of. The sum of all the pain he’d ever suffered was drawn to the surface to be relived anew.

When it stopped Ilgrin continued moaning for some time, not having realised the man had walked away. Hel-i-yun returned, put a finger under Ilgrin’s chin and lifted his face to look him in the eye.

‘All we need to know is what you’re doing here in New World,’ the man said with a quiet, reassuring tone. ‘It’s that simple. All of this could be over, if you’d just tell us.’

‘You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?’ Ilgrin’s voice was surprisingly steady.

‘Of course we are.’ Hel-i-yun smiled. ‘The only question is, how long do you wish to suffer before that happens?’

‘Fine,’ Ilgrin said in frustration. ‘I’m a scout for the silt city. We wanted to find some humans for slaves.’

Hel-i-yun stared into Ilgrin’s eyes unnervingly before turning to speak over his shoulder to Jer-in. ‘It might be time to try out some of the other gadgets around here.’ He gestured at some of the rather inventive-looking contraptions filling the room.

‘What a brilliant idea,’ Jer-in replied, raising his hand and sending Ilgrin into fits of paralysing fear while Hel-i-yun untied him. ‘Let’s stretch it out on the rack.’ Jer-in laughed shrilly as Hel-i-yun dragged him over to a table with a great wheel and straps for hands and feet at either end. ‘Put it face down so its wings don’t get in the way.’

‘Perhaps we should cut them off,’ Hel-i-yun suggested.

‘We’ll do that next,’ Jer-in agreed.

Ilgrin was too beaten to resist as the men threw him over the rack and strapped his ankles and wrists into place. The men moved over to the wheel and put their backs into turning it. Ilgrin felt his muscles stretch uncomfortably, complaining as his feet were kept in place and his hands were stretched incrementally above his head. How many people had been killed on this machine throughout the centuries? How many humans? But Ilgrin wasn’t human.

Ilgrin threw his remaining strength into resisting the machine. At first the wooden surface moaned, but it soon splintered, admitting defeat to Ilgrin’s inhuman strength. His hand having snapped free, Ilgrin thrust it out and hit Jar-in so forcefully that the man stumbled back, toppled over a chair and hit the floor with a thud.

Not wasting another second, Ilgrin tensed his muscles and tore free of the strap that bound his other arm. Hel-i-yun leapt forward dutifully with a knife in hand, but adrenalin had Ilgrin moving with too much strength to be stopped. Tearing his feet free of the restraints, Ilgrin stood atop the rack, panting feverishly with a racing heart. Ignoring the knife in the man’s hand, he leapt off the table and punched Hel-i-yun square in the nose. There was a cracking sound, but it wasn’t enough.

Caught up in the moment, his blood running hot, Ilgrin crouched over the man and continued to beat him until his head was little more than a red lump of mush and broken bone. Eyes wide with madness, Ilgrin turned to the sound of Jer-in racing across the room. He snatched up Hel-i-yun’s knife, leapt forward and drove it into Jer-in’s stomach. The man’s eyes glazed over as he stumbled and fell to the floor in death.

Horrified by the realisation of what he’d done, Ilgrin tried feverishly to wipe the blood from his hands. ‘Why did you make me do this?’ he howled at the dead men. ‘Now you’re dead,’ he cried, stumbling away from the bodies in an attempt to distance himself from the crime.

Ilgrin found himself rattling the doorhandle, but of course it was locked. He turned around, his eyes coming to rest on the Elglair bodies across the room. He gagged and put his shirt over his nose, but knew too well what needed to be done. One of them had to have the key.

 

*

 

Seteal watched in dismay as the unfamiliar old man dashed out of the room, the note he’d been given falling forgotten to the floor. The stranger had been her last hope. Now she was completely alone with this monster.

‘What are you going to do?’ Seteal asked shakily.

‘I’m going to strike you until you tell me you’re willing to speak the oath and sign this contract.’ Po-let frowned. ‘I don’t want to do this, you know.’

‘Your eyes say otherwise.’

‘Perhaps.’ The man forced Seteal over the table and tore open the back of her dress. He threw back his arm and brought down a leather strap.

‘This can’t be happening.’ Seteal winced as pain sliced along her back.

‘Oh, it’s happening,’ Master Fasil’s face appeared where Po-let’s used to be. ‘Will you sign the contract?’

‘Go to torrid,’ Seteal spat.

‘Have it your way,’ the man growled. Moments later, Seteal felt a second fiery bite landing in the middle of her back. Gripping the table hard in both hands, she pushed away from her body and sped over to the other side of the room where she analysed Po-let’s confusion as her body went limp.

‘Hey.’ He squeezed her shoulder. ‘Are you all right?’

Seteal’s temper flared in accordance with the long red welts on her back. Po-let glanced around the room as though he were making sure it was empty before making his way to the cell door. He opened it, checked both directions, and pulled it shut. What was he up to? Shouldn’t he have been getting help?

Po-let leaned against the door and exhaled slowly, a strange expression on his face. But it was not his expression that gave Po-let’s intensions away. Rather it was the sound of his belt buckle loosening as he began to fondle himself. Seteal’s soul shuddered and her heart rate increased. Not again, she cried inwardly. Never again.

Hatred filled every pore of Seteal’s being. She realised then that she should be thanking Po-let. Because of him, she was able to feel again, even if it was only hatred. Po-let slithered over to play with Seteal’s breast before racing back across the room to double check that no one was outside. On confirmation of his solitude, the man returned.

Seteal plunged through the ceiling, wishing to be anywhere, but there. She soared through strange rooms, passing people she didn’t know and through the top of the Dome of the Sixth. Still she didn’t stop, her ascension continuing until she existed some hundreds of miles above. There her soul screamed its fury and a deep rumble of thunder told the world of her wrath.

The Ways converged and Seteal sank deep into their fabric. She wrapped herself in the canvas and wore it like a gown. She drank in the Ways, tying herself to them, allowing them to flow through her. It was then that she decided to tamper with the stitching. She reached out to the sky and drew its moisture toward her.

From many thousands of miles, the clouds did respond, slowly at first and then with increasing speed. Fluffy white bits drew together, became darker. Seteal pulled harder, beckoning them, seducing them. The sky above the Sixth Cleff became a black churning mass like nothing the Frozen Lands had ever seen. But the great circular cloud was still too large. Seteal wanted its fury to match her own so she hemmed its edges, folding them over and over before stitching them into place.

When the darkness was so thick that no human could see more than a few strides in any direction, Seteal unleashed her rage. Streaks of lightning tore through the sky to rip apart the city below. Massive chunks of ice exploded up from the ground. People ran for their lives. They were ants taken by surprise, fleeing to their nest under the delusion that it would be a safe haven. She sneered at them. They deserved this. The Elglair were the most horrible people she’d ever had the misfortune of encountering. She hated them. She felt something. It felt glorious.

Seteal turned. The cord between herself and her body churned discord as Po-let’s fingers slid down to her genitals. Seteal pierced her way through the churning black sky, plunged through the ice and back into the room where her body was kept. There she dragged the energy of her storm and a thick white line of lightening exploded against the Dome of the Sixth.

Po-let loomed over her body, having given up on removing the dress and instead lifting it so that he could get underneath it. Seteal smiled with dark satisfaction. He’d be dead before he had the chance to violate that body. Po-let pulled off his pants and dragged Seteal closer, but froze when the lightning struck and a deep rumbling sound told of its occurrence. Po-let stumbled over his pants until he reached the door, once again checking to see if the coast was clear. It was. He returned to Seteal, but froze at the sound of a second explosion. This one was closer, causing tiny shards of ice to vibrate free of the walls.

Seteal reached out to her body and focused on making her lips move. ‘I’m going to watch you die,’ she whispered, her mouth turning into a smile.

‘What . . . what’s happening?’ Po-let fell against the wall. He wrestled with his pants.

The third explosion was deafening and was followed by the sound of breaking ice. Po-let stared at the wall as cracks slithered down its shiny surface. The final explosion was deafening and the entire room shook. Po-let’s face was filled up with the understanding that he was about to die and it was indeed the last expression he’d ever have. Chunks of ice began to cave in from above. One of them crushed Po-let beneath it, killing him before he could pull up his pants. Seteal followed the cord and sank into her physical form.

Her eyes opened. Her aches and pains returned. She ignored the suffocating sensation caused by returning to her body and quickly readjusted her dress, which was stained red in a few places and was tattered to strips around her ankles. Seteal hurried across the room, narrowly missing bricks of ice as they fell. Perhaps she’d been a little too forceful with the lightning.

‘Help,’ Seteal cried, slapping her open palm against the solid door. ‘Help!’

Seteal noticed an oddly familiar face dashing passed the tiny window embedded in the ice door. ‘Ilgrin! Ilgrin, help,’ she banged on the window frantically.

‘Seteal?’ Ilgrin’s bruised and beaten face appeared in the frame.

‘Get me out of here.’

‘Why should I?’ Ilgrin shouted over the noise, his eyes revealing fear rather than a thirst for vengeance.

‘Because I don’t hate you,’ Seteal cried desperately. ‘I never did. It was Far-a-mael. He got inside my aura and changed me. I believe your story.’

‘Step back,’ Ilgrin ordered, disappearing from view. A moment later the silt came crashing through the door with such force that he broke it open on the side of the hinges. ‘Come on,’ he said, reaching out a hand and helping her to her feet. ‘I don’t know what’s going on out there, but this whole place is coming down.’

 

*

 

The beast of Seeol saw where the tiny creatures had run. Soon now he would kill them. He stood atop the great ledge that overlooked the frozen city. He would go down and destroy it. So much to break. So many to kill . . . yes, he needed to kill. He needed to grate their flesh and tear off their skin, squeeze the children until they popped. The joy, the pleasure, the sweet pain. The pain. The death.

The beast spread his wings and launched into the air over the slope of the valley with only one thought in mind. Death . . . but not El-i-miir. The voice, a meaningless whisper that pleaded in an unrecognisable language.

The slope levelled out into a great valley. Seeol landed heavily, cracking the ice beneath him. People drew their swords, but he battered them away as though they were nothing. Blood . . . but not El-i-miir.

Seeol’s great wings thudded through the air. He raked his talons forward and smashed a great hole in the side of a dome before landing, flaring his wings and shrieking in the face of a woman who answered his call with a scream of her own. It was a delicious sound. The woman huddled against the building in fear for her life. She was right to be fearful. Seeol opened his mandibles excitedly. If he could just burst her head and see the blood flow from her arteries. The woman made several strange gestures before she began to shake uncontrollably.

‘A seeol,’ she whispered.

Everything was blinding white. The ground exploded underfoot and Seeol found himself being blasted sideways through hot air. Giant shards of ice erupted as he hit the ground and slid along its cold surface. He regained his balance and scrabbled over the broken ice. Utter confusion raced through Seeol’s mutilated intelligence.

Thunder clapped loudly, causing Seeol’s ears to ring. The deepest recesses of his mind noticed that the sky was dense with clouds and lightning struck angrily through the air. The lightning hit the ice repeatedly, causing a string of explosions throughout the cleff. Another flashed across Seeol’s vision and struck the ground just six strides away. He beat his wings to avoid the worst of the explosion and landed on his feet snarling.

People raced about in every conceivable direction. Children screamed. He would devour them. He forgot the storm and charged. He would break them, tear them into little pieces. Seeol snapped at the nearest human’s heels. Lightning struck as people screamed and died while great thunderclaps drowned out their pitiful cries. Seeol revelled in the slaughter that ensued and danced at the sound of human suffering as they howled their sweet melody of death.

A man ran with a child clutched tight in his arms. Thunder exploded and shards of ice as large as horses flew in every direction. One crushed the man and sent his child sprawling across the ground. It was ecstasy. Seeol snatched at a woman as she ran toward the child and thrust her into the air. She screamed as she continued to ascend, only to be cut off when a blast of lightning burnt her to a cinder. It was death so beautiful . . . but not El-i-miir.

Seeol hunted. He wanted to find someone. There was a woman he wanted kill. No . . . not kill. He’d never kill El-i-miir. Yes . . . yes, that was it. He had to find and kill El-i-miir.

 

*

 

A substance that seemed unable to decide whether it was ice or snow crunched underfoot as El-i-miir made her way north. She stopped abruptly, wrapping herself tight in Gez-reil’s thick mammoth-skin coat. She turned back to face the Sixth Cleff. The wind picked up, ripping through her clothing and causing the blood-red robes of the condemned to flutter at her boots.

The wind howled. El-i-miir’s long black hair to whipped about her face. The sky bore more fearsome black clouds than any weather El-i-miir had ever witnessed. It seemed appropriate for her mood.

‘What am I supposed to do?’ she cried out in frustration.

A flash of lightning momentarily revealed a large shadowy figure in the distance, but El-i-miir shrugged it off as a part of the landscape. By the time the thunder clapped in her ears, El-i-miir’s thoughts had turned to Ilgrin. They’d have him in a chamber. They’d torture him and eventually kill him. El-i-miir put a hand to her heart and winced at the ache therein. If she stayed out there, she’d die, and everyone already considered her a Sa’Tanist anyway. Her name was a disgrace. El-i-miir peered at her hands through the darkness. The cold had made them white and she found herself trying to imagine what it’d feel like to be a silt. It was then that she realised, she’d have felt exactly the way she did in that exact moment as a human.

‘We’re all the same.’ She clapped a hand over her mouth, the smile causing pain in such cold. ‘We’re all the same,’ she cried out in gleeful revelation.

El-i-miir set off at a run, determined to do everything she could to save Ilgrin. She would not let him die, not like that. She only hoped her decision hadn’t come too late. El-i-miir raced blindly through what’d quickly become a blizzard, energised by renewed determination. Lightning struck again and El-i-miir slid to a stop, toppled forward, and landed heavily on her knees. Then it was black again. Had it been an illusion?

The blizzard whipped up long sheets of snow that danced and twisted on the wind, so the immense black shape she’d seen could’ve simply been a wall of snow. What else could it have been? El-i-miir had come this way not long ago with the escorting gils. She knew there was nothing between herself and the Sixth Cleff. And yet there she’d seen it, what appeared to be a long black wall right in front of her face. A loud thumping sound caught El-i-miir’s attention, but still she was oblivious to whatever it could be. She stretched out her hands and moved forward, gasping when they contacted something unexpected—wool. She stifled a scream under the sudden knowledge of what she’d come across and of course the creature screamed back.

Another flash of lightening confirmed El-i-miir’s fears, revealing a giant mammoth lost in the blizzard. She stumbled backward and fell into the snow. The animal had to be at least seven strides in height, which meant it was a bull and although the animals were normally peaceful at a distance, they would certainly defend themselves if startled.

The mammoth stomped its feet and trumpeted repeatedly through its woolly trunk. Curved tusks swooped through the air dangerously close to El-i-miir’s head as she stayed low, dragging herself along the ground. The mammoth glimpsed her and thrashed its tusks down with such force that the ice to either side of El-i-miir was shattered. She squealed and rolled out of the way, but was forced to stop, her robe having gotten caught on a rock.

With a sharp tug the material tore free and El-i-miir leapt to her feet. A tusk clipped her shoulder, sending her sprawling back to the ice. The animal trumpeted and stomped its foot on El-i-miir’s coat, pinning her to the spot. A flash of lightning revealed the mammoth’s fear-filled eyes staring directly at her. It must’ve realised that its enemy was trapped because a moment later its tusks came bearing down. The lightning passed. All was darkness and waiting for the inevitable, El-i-miir squeezed her eyes shut.

Something course slapped against the side of El-i-miir’s face, but it wasn’t a tusk. An all-too-familiar piercing scream tore through the night just strides away, accompanied by the sound of beating wings. The mammoth’s cries became ones of terrible distress, but still its tusks swooped dangerously close to El-i-miir’s head. The mighty animal removed its foot, allowing her to escape. Again the sky lit up, this time revealing exactly what El-i-miir had expected to see.

Seeol stood atop the mammoth gnashing at its neck and pecking at its eyes. The giant animal moaned its misery, trying in vain to shake off its dexterous attacker. Seeol was far too good at killing. Darkness followed through which El-i-miir crept ever farther away from the scene as howls of agony and anguish permeated the night. She had to wait a long time before another flash of lightning came, but when it did it was more powerful than anything that’d proceeded it.

The area was lit up to the light of day as thick bolts of lightning struck one after the other at the very centre of the Sixth Cleff. Loud screams drifted up from the cleff and the deep groaning of ice structures crumbling told El-i-miir of the destruction within. But that was a problem for another time.

Seeol had torn off chunks of flesh from the mammoth’s neck and was coating his feathers in blood. The mammoth was tiring, but seemed to have noticed Seeol’s distraction. With one desperate wave of its head, its tusk slammed into Seeol and sent him flailing to the ice. The mammoth did not wait a second, knowing that only one would survive the confrontation.

A bolt hit the cleff. Seeol snarled from his place on the ground, but failed to move in time as the mammoth stomped on him. Seeol screeched, enjoying even his own pain. The mammoth swung its tusks and crushed Seeol’s wings against the ice, breaking them instantly. Finally, the animal thrust its head toward the mutant owl, stabbing its tusks straight through Seeol’s body. Blood spurted from his beak and his head crashed back against the snow. He squirmed a little, but could no longer fight as the mammoth struck him again and again.

Darkness filled the night once more and El-i-miir listened as the mammoth thudded away into the night. ‘Seeol?’ El-i-miir peered through the dark as she crept closer. Another bolt of lightning struck the cleff.

El-i-miir felt only dread as she witnessed the creature shrink, his warped features transforming to become the soft expression of his true self. Seeol’s wounds melted away, his skin writhing and rippling as it healed. His shattered wings twisted and reformed, fresh feathers sprouting from the ends before once again he became an elf owl standing in the snow. The cleff plunged back into darkness and a moment later tiny claws first dug into El-i-miir’s should and then burrowed down into her pocket.

‘It’s awfully coldness,’ Seeol complained. ‘Could I pleases ride in your most comfortable pocket?’

‘You’re alive.’ El-i-miir frowned, acknowledging the fact that they’d all be better off if he weren’t.

‘I is,’ Seeol replied, before burrowing ever deeper into the pocket. ‘Oh, that’s very nice, paper for a nest.’

Ignoring the bird, El-i-miir raced across the ice. There was so little time. Ilgrin was supposed to be interrogated in the underground chambers of the Dome of the Sixth, but with the repeated lightning strikes there was little hope the structure would remain standing for long.

‘Okay.’ She exhaled slowly, reaching the gentle slope that served as the entry to the northern side of the basin. ‘Focus, El-i-miir.’ She felt along the Ways.

She reached out, seeking the thread that confirmed Ilgrin’s continued existence. He was there. He was scared but he was alive. Seteal was with him. Whether that was a good thing or not was yet to be discovered. El-i-miir hurried her pace to a run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revelation 21

 

2. And I saw a new Hae’Evun and a new Earth: for the first Hae’Evun and the first Earth have passed away. And look, She descends with the clouds.

3. And She will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and whisps will be no more, neither will mourning, not outcry, nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Seven

Underground

 

 

‘This way.’ Ilgrin took Seteal’s hand and dragged her along at a run.

‘Wait,’ she said weakly, but continued along with him. ‘How do you know this is the right way?’

‘I came from the other direction.’ Ilgrin faced Seteal. ‘I took a risk stopping for you. Don’t make me regret it.’

‘I don’t understand.’ The young woman looked back down the icy corridor. A haunting rumbling sound told Ilgrin the reason why she’d ceased speaking. She’d finally noticed what he was running from to begin with.

Lightning had struck some deep foundation and set off a chain reaction throughout the building. The seemingly endless corridor was progressively collapsing behind them.

‘Maker!’ Seteal exclaimed, snatching her hand from Ilgrin’s grasp to run with renewed vigour.

Chunks of ice fell free from the ceiling and Ilgrin found himself having to duck and weave to avoid being struck. Green-flamed lanterns flickered and died. Up ahead, the corridor collapsed, a solid wall of ice filling their only means of escape. Ilgrin refused to stop running and hit it forcefully with his shoulder, but failed to make an impact.

‘Over there!’ Seteal shouted, pointing at a doorway to a small room. There was little hope the room would remain unscathed, but Ilgrin could see no other option. He hurried for the doorway, but the room collapsed in on itself before they could enter. With a deafening crack that shocked through the ice, the wall that’d previously blocked their route of escape crumbled.

The corridor echoed with thunderous explosions as it collapsed around them. Ilgrin found himself standing on the edge of a great, cavernous abyss where rooms and corridors had stood not long prior.

‘Come on.’ He threw his arms around Seteal.

‘No, I can’t!’ she cried. ‘Just leave me.’

‘Sorry!’ Ilgrin shouted over the din. ‘Can’t do that.’

He tightened his grip and leapt into the open air. Ilgrin searched for a safe place to land on the far side of the immense space, but could only see rooms and corridors crumbling to the screams of Elglair men and women meeting their deaths.

Pillars and unrecognisable bits of the structure rained down in every direction. Ilgrin did his best to manoeuver around the worst of it, but occasionally clipped a wingtip or was struck on the leg.

A thick white pillar tipped at such an angle that Ilgrin was certain he’d be unable to avoid it carrying the added burden of a second person. He beat his wings more furiously, but knew it was too late. He grabbed Seteal around the waist and threw her screaming into the dark. Ilgrin punched his wings and missed the pillar by a handswidth. He snapped shut his wings and dove sharply, arms outstretched. He grasped Seteal’s hands and spread his wings.

‘Do that again and I’ll kill you,’ the woman panted furiously.

‘At least wait until we find somewhere to land,’ Ilgrin called back over the wind.

‘There.’ Seteal pointed when a wall on the far side of the cavern loomed up ahead of them. ‘You see that? That’s a corridor.’

‘You’re right.’ Ilgrin adjusted the direction of his flight and a moment later the two landed safely. This part of the dome had even fewer lanterns remaining than the side they’d come from, but at least for now it seemed stable. As the two made their way through gloomy corridors, aside from an occasional shudder brought on by distant explosions, they soon found themselves accompanied by an eerie silence.

‘All right, that’s enough,’ Seteal said quietly, pulling at Ilgrin’s arm so that he came to a stop. ‘We’re safe here for a minute. I have to find a way out.’

‘You mean . . . ?’

‘Yes.’ Seteal nodded. ‘I’m going to leave my body, but I’m warning you—’ She waved a finger beneath Ilgrin’s nose. ‘—if you so much as touch me, I’ll know! And the last time someone tried that, this is what resulted.’ She indicated around herself at the crumbling dome.

‘You did this?’ Ilgrin said in disbelief.

‘Just don’t touch me,’ Seteal repeated her warning.

‘I hope someday you’ll know you can trust me,’ Ilgrin said sadly.

‘Don’t count on it.’ Seteal laid down on the floor. ‘But you’re okay.’ She gave him a half-smile before closing her eyes and pushing into eternity.

Ilgrin paced nervously to the rise and fall of Seteal’s chest. The deep moaning sounds were getting closer and the woman looked too unconscious for his liking. Still, if he ever wanted her to trust him, he’d have to start trusting her. Maybe all was not lost for their two peoples, Ilgrin couldn’t help but muse. If El-i-miir’s feelings were sincere and Seteal felt that he was ‘okay,’ surely other humans and silts could get along as well.

Ilgrin looked at Seteal’s face. It seemed like a lifetime since he’d wanted to go to Old World to see if there was any truth to what he’d been taught about silts. Now he realised he had to go there for an entirely different reason . . . that was, if he managed to survive the day. After all, the truth was, Ilgrin was neither human nor silt. Not really. And at the same time, he was both. Wasn’t he obligated to take this unique perspective and educate those who lived in ignorance?

‘Got it.’ Seteal opened her eyes and stood up. ‘We’re not too far from the exit, but we’re still too deep underground. There are stairs at the end of this corridor. Come on.’ She set off at a run.

Ilgrin followed several strides behind, which was why he was in a perfect position to catch her when she stumbled. Seteal’s knees buckled as she misplaced her feet. Ilgrin swooped in to lessen the impact.

‘Seteal? Are you all right?’ But the woman’s face was vacant, her eyes glassy.

‘Ilgrin,’ Seteal whispered after a few drawn-out seconds. She stumbled back and hit the wall.

‘What’s happening?’ He asked worriedly. ‘Are you okay?’

‘El-i-miir is here in the dome.’ Seteal covered her mouth. ‘She came for us, but she’s trapped back the way we came.’

‘I have to go.’ Ilgrin turned around, but Seteal stopped him.

‘I’m coming with you,’ she said determinedly. ‘El-i-miir came back for us. I’m not going to abandon her now.’

The two stared at each other for a silent moment, each realising for the first time that they were on the same side, united in saving the life of someone they cared about. Ilgrin and Seteal raced back along the corridor and were plunged into total darkness, accompanied only by the deafening rumblings that surrounded them.

 

*

 

Far-a-mael stood in silence as he watched the Dome of the Sixth become nothing more than a pile of slowly melting rubble caving into an immense sinkhole. He’d been close to the exit when the lightning struck and had wisely abandoned the place. ‘You see now, don’t you?’ He turned to the somewhat shorter man standing solemnly to his right.

‘Indeed,’ Gez-reil murmured breathlessly. ‘And you’re certain she’s responsible?’

‘I’m quite familiar with her Way, my dear old friend.’ Far-a-mael nodded, glancing at the sky where a giant black ball of cloud swirled menacingly. ‘You and I . . .’ Far-a-mael continued. ‘We’re able to read the Ways. Seteal . . . she is able to write them.’

‘What do you plan to do?’ Gez-reil’s voice shook as an entire section of the dome fell in on itself.

‘I will bring war to Old World.’ Far-a-mael shrugged.

‘I was talking about the girl,’ Gez-reil corrected him.

‘Seteal?’ Far-a-mael frowned. ‘I intend to do nothing.’

‘Nothing?’

‘Absolutely nothing,’ Far-a-mael confirmed. ‘When she is ready, she’ll come for me.’

‘How can you be certain she won’t return to Gor Narvon?’ Gez-reil pushed.

‘She won’t.’ Far-a-mael chuckled. ‘The girl’s greatest weakness is her anger, her lust for revenge. She’ll never let go of what happened to her. It’s quite simply a matter of time before she comes looking for me.’

‘I wonder where she got those characteristics from.’ Gez-reil squeezed Far-a-mael’s shoulder and gave him a sarcastic glance before making his way through the mourning crowds.

‘Perhaps she is like me,’ Far-a-mael muttered to himself. ‘That’s how I know her every thought.’

Far-a-mael stared at the crumbling building. He knew Seteal was in there somewhere and he knew she wasn’t dead. She would survive if only to seek him out, and when she did, he would once again find a way to make her do his bidding. If she did happen to die, however, it wouldn’t matter terribly. Her mere presence had gained him the office of War Elder and no one could take that away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Eight

Thaw

 

 

‘El-i-miisser.’ The unusual sound bounced off the walls of the underground confines. ‘Miish Miish. El-i-miish?’ Seeol bounced across the wet floor and rubbed his beak against the woman’s pale cheek. ‘It’s not sleepy times yet.’ He squeezed her nose softly between his toes. ‘Wake up, Miish Miish.’

Water spilled underfoot, coming together to form small pools. The cave-in had left them trapped, surrounded by steadily melting, icy debris. ‘El-i-miish!’ Seeol bit her nose, but the woman’s eyes stayed shut.

Bouncing back along the ice, Seeol found the water to have risen halfway up the length of his legs. By human standards, it was scarcely a puddle, but such was not the case for Seeol. Just a few moments earlier El-i-miir had been rushing through a trembling corridor. The ground gave way and the two fell to the level below. Now they were buried beneath precariously balanced sheets of ice, trapped in a space no longer than a stride in both height and width.

Between the melting masses that composed the structure were gaps only large enough for an elf owl to pass through, but as anxious and confused as he was, Seeol refused to leave. A droplet splashed against his beak and he glanced up to see where it’d come from. But the droplets were raining down from every surface.

‘El-i-miish.’ Seeol alighted on El-i-miir’s chest. ‘We’ve got to find some happier place,’ he cried. Her face had never looked more peaceful. Her pale complexion had become the more permanent colour of those who took the journey into death. El-i-miir’s long wet hair clung miserably to her neck and clothing. ‘Pleases waked up,’ Seeol begged. ‘I’ll give you a lizard. We can get the green ones! They’re deliciousness,’ he said excitedly, noticing the hollow feeling in his crop. ‘For Making your sake,’ the bird cursed, ‘waked up!’ He bit her nose as hard as he could.

‘Ouch,’ El-i-miir moaned, her eyes opening to slits. ‘What happened?’ she gasped, giving in immediately to shuddering fits and rubbing her arms without any real hope of warming them.

‘We have fallen,’ Seeol replied, his heart having come alive with joy. ‘We is trapped but you’re a big girl so you can break us through this naughty trap.’

‘I’m not a big girl,’ El-i-miir uttered defensively as she sat up to examine the situation. ‘Torrid,’ she murmured, realising their predicament. Stumbling to her knees, El-i-miir put her weight against one of the walls, but it wouldn’t budge.

‘That’s silly,’ Seeol shook his head. ‘If you pushed that one into another way, then the other ones will crashing on top of the top of our heads.’

‘You’re right,’ El-i-miir replied through chattering teeth and she sat back, ‘I wasn’t thinking.’

‘I can go,’ Seeol said, puffing out his feathers. ‘I can find our friendlies.’

‘It’s the only way,’ El-i-miir murmured. With a deep rumbling sound, the building shuddered, emphasising the urgency of their plight. ‘Hurry, Seeol!’

Seeol launched into the air and wove his way through the sheets of ice. Once free, he found himself in a small room. There was a broken desk supporting El-i-miir’s confines. She would be safe for now.

After shooting along the length of the corridor, Seeol landed atop a small shelf. There he froze and tilted his head this way and that. He didn’t have the gifts of the Elglair and he was only very small. If he was to have any hope in finding the others, he’d have to use the gifts that came naturally to him.

As Seeol rotated his head he was able to piece together an image in his mind. The northernmost parts of the dome were collapsing first, with the majority of the commotion coming from that direction. If Ilgrin and Seteal were up that way they’d be dead by now and seeing as though Seeol wasn’t willing to entertain that outcome as a possibility, he set off toward the south.

Every now and then he stopped to listen, intent on picking up any signs of life, but Seeol found it difficult to pinpoint the exact direction of the sounds he heard due to the echoes bouncing about in the steadily collapsing structure. Continuing south, he came upon a cavern whose immense proportions disregarded him as little more than a speck of dust. Across the great expanse, few of the corridors resumed their original paths, having crumbled in on themselves. Finding an opening, Seeol shot through, retracted his wings and landed softly.

He’d heard something. There were voices . . . back the way he’d come. Seeol flew out into the cavern and landed on a lump of ice protruding from one of the walls. There it was again. He flew a little higher.

‘Seteal?’ Seeol called.

‘Was that Seeol?’ Ilgrin’s muffled voice enquired.

The voices came from within one of the caved-in tunnels. Seeol flew up to the entrance. Large bricks filled the opening, allowing only the sound of voices to travel through the gaps in between. ‘Seteal? Ilgrin?’

‘It is you,’ Seteal replied. ‘Are you with El-i-miir?’

‘She’s in troubled,’ Seeol cried. ‘We have to be helping her.’

‘Stay there,’ Ilgrin called. ‘We’ll find a way around.’

‘Okay.’ Seeol’s wings twitched nervously. ‘Just hurry.’

Harried footfall faded to silence as the dull rumblings continued to vocalise their ever-present threat. Seeol waited. And waited. He switched feet on the ice, the one he’d been standing on having become too cold. He waited. ‘Coming on,’ he urged silently.

‘Seeol,’ Ilgrin’s voice called from somewhere below. ‘Are you there?’

‘Yeses!’ Seeol pumped his claw victoriously. He’d once witnessed a human perform a similar gesture and thought that he might at last understand its significance. Ilgrin and Seteal exited one of the corridors below. ‘Flap your wings,’ Seeol urged. ‘She is in another place.’

‘Great,’ Seteal grumbled, a forlorn expression dominating her face as the silt wrapped his arms around her, flared his wings and the two fell into the air to follow Seeol across the cavern. It’d changed since he’d last crossed its intimidating girth. Previously the depth had seemed almost bottomless. Now it was halfway filled by freezing cold water.

Ignoring the impending danger, Seeol dove toward the water and into the corridor where he’d left El-i-miir. Upon realising that the others were no longer behind him, he landed atop the shelf on which he’d found refuge earlier. It occurred to him then that Ilgrin couldn’t fly in such close quarters. And that was the least of their problems.

‘Hold on, Seeol,’ Ilgrin called, as Seteal and he waded along the tunnel through waist-high water against a current that threatened to push them back the way they’d come.

‘Quickly,’ Seeol urged. ‘Quickly!’ He leapt onto Ilgrin’s shoulder. ‘Go into the room up here. Hurriedly.’

‘Seeol.’ El-i-miir’s voice echoed from within. ‘Is that you? Did you find them?’

‘We’re here,’ Seteal called as she ran toward the large slabs of fallen brickwork.

‘There’s not much room left,’ El-i-miir spluttered weakly from within her frozen prison.

‘Seeol . . .’ Ilgrin began hesitantly as his eyes passed over the mess in front of him. ‘How much room does El-i-miir have under all that?’

‘Littler than your chest,’ Seeol said hysterically.

‘That means . . .’ Ilgrin didn’t bother to finish his sentence, instead running over to the pile to start throwing bricks out of the way. ‘Talk to me, El-i-miir. Talk to me. El-i-miir?’ No reply came from within.

‘Stop it, Ilgrin.’ Seteal waded over, her lips having turned blue. ‘It’ll collapse. We have to blow it up from the inside.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Ilgrin wailed.

‘I do,’ Seeol barked determinedly.

‘You do?’ Seteal said in surprise.

‘I have to get ugly.’ Seeol leapt off Ilgrin’s shoulder and zipped through the labyrinth of small gaps in the rubble. He nuzzled and wriggled over melting bits of ice until finally popping out into El-i-miir’s chamber. Her mouth was already beneath the water, her head pressed up against the ice, her eyes wide with terror.

Seeol was a desert bird and immediately began to panic as he bobbed uncomfortably atop the water. His face kept dipping forward and he had to beat his wings to keep it dry, but his feathers were quickly becoming waterlogged. His heart raced as the horror of what was happening properly sank in. He might drown. Oh, Maker, he was going to drown. Seeol shrieked as his face dipped beneath the surface for steadily lengthening periods of time. His wings screamed for mercy as he splashed them in the water. His legs and body were numb. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.

El-i-miir’s nose went under and her eyes started to close. No they couldn’t close. They couldn’t! Seeol would miss an opportunity to pluck them out of their sockets. No. He wouldn’t stand for it. He would pull them free and cut them out. He would suck the blood right from her throat.

 

*

 

‘We have to do something,’ Ilgrin cried.

‘I said wait,’ Seteal demanded, despite her own increasing anxiety over the decision she’d made.

‘I’m not waiting any longer.’ Ilgrin ignored her to turn and resume work on the pile of rubble.

‘Come on, Seeol,’ Seteal whispered, closing her eyes.

‘No,’ Ilgrin barked in frustration as his fingers slid helplessly along the wet surface, the once separate pieces of ice having fused together to become impenetrable.

‘Get away,’ Seteal shouted when ice cracked and moaned. The loud explosion that followed forced Ilgrin to leap back and lose his footing in the water. Seeol’s other self roared thunderously as it broke through the ice. El-i-miir burst up in front of the creature coughing and spluttering.

‘Run.’ Seteal raced out of the room, dragging the Elglair woman behind her. Ilgrin was at their heels.

‘That was stupid,’ Ilgrin cried, having come to understand Seteal’s plan. ‘She could’ve been crushed.’ The silt wrapped El-i-miir in his arms and took over the duty of dragging her through the water.

‘I sure hope you can fly wet,’ Seteal shouted as they tumbled and slid along the corridor.

‘Does it look like I have feathers?’ Ilgrin retorted sarcastically seconds before the beast crashed into the passage behind him.

Seeol was clearly frustrated, his pursuit slowed by the burden his waterlogged feathers. He roared and beat his wings, only to succeed in punching holes in the already compromised structure. Brickwork fell away and toppled down on the mutant bird.

‘We’re going to need your wings, Ilgrin,’ Seteal cried having reached the cavernous expanse. By then the current had become so strong that clinging to the walls was the only mechanism by which she could prevent herself from being thrown over the edge.

‘I can’t,’ Ilgrin’s expression became one of regret. ‘I can’t carry both of you.’

‘You have to,’ Seteal snapped.

‘No, I really can’t!’ Ilgrin shouted back. ‘I’ve never had the chance to properly exercise my wings. I’m not strong enough.’

‘Find the strength,’ Seteal pleaded desperately.

‘My wings were designed to carry one, not three,’ Ilgrin insisted.

‘Fine!’ Seteal shouted, flushing red. ‘Save her and leave me to die. It’s what you want.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Ilgrin said, wrapping El-i-miir in his arms and leaping from the edge.

Seteal watched as the two disappeared into darkness before turning to face Seeol. The creature growled as he struggled through the water, but as the current became increasingly forceful, his task became increasingly easy.

‘Seeol,’ Seteal begged. ‘Please, it’s me.’ Seeol didn’t slow down. If anything he sped up, excited by the prospects of spilling Seteal’s innards.

‘You want me?’ Seteal glared at the creature defiantly. ‘Come and get me.’ Releasing her hold on the walls, Seteal fell backward and plummeted into darkness. Thereafter it quickly became apparent that the ceiling above could no longer support its own weight as it began to cave in. Then silence.

Seteal plunged into murky waters. Breathing became impossible and her mind became scattered as the deathly chill sapped at her spirit. At first, she decided to flee the unpleasantness through the use of her spiritual form. But what good would it do her if her body should succumb to suffocation? When the cord was cut, would she continue to live? Far-a-mael hadn’t thought so. So instead of pursuing sweet freedom, Seteal kicked her frozen legs in a painful attempt to swim.

Something hit the water so heavily that the shockwave sent her spiralling out of control. Lost in his lust to murder, Seeol had followed her into what would soon become their graves. Seteal gasped as she grazed the side of her hand, slapping it painfully against a rough surface. It was the wall. No, it was a ledge. Dragging herself up, Seteal felt along its length to see how far it went, but there wasn’t much room and no chance of escape.

Hot breath blew across Seteal’s face. Seeol screeched in ecstasy. The creature’s wings thrashed about and he gnashed his beak, coming within handswidths of Seteal’s face. She kicked out with her boots and made contact with his face, but self-defence only served in exciting the monster further. In a flash of motion it was over.

One moment Seteal had been pressed up against the wall. The next, a gust of wind burst across her face, a hand clamped around her wrist and Ilgrin snatched her into the air. ‘You came back,’ she choked out.

‘I’ve got you,’ Ilgrin said, wrapping his arms around her midsection as he circled steadily toward the sky.

‘Where’s El-i-miir?’

‘Out there,’ Ilgrin replied, pointing up through the haze. He banked sharply, folded his wings and shot through a gap in the crumbling structure.

The height of the cavern was level with the ground outside, allowing Ilgrin to release Seteal as soon as they’d penetrated the gap.

‘For the love of Maker,’ the silt cried as he continued on in flight, glancing over his shoulder nervously.

‘What is it?’ Seteal called out, but Ilgrin was left with no time to explain as the side of the dome burst open and Seeol erupted into the night. The creature’s flight was laboured and water sprayed in every direction as he beat his tired wings. Seeol dipped his tail, changed course, and pursued Ilgrin.

‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir cried when Seeol caught up to the silt, her face a picture of horror. El-i-miir gesticulated madly in an attempt to manipulate the Ways, but it was to no avail. Seeol could not be touched. Ilgrin swooped and dipped this way and that, but Seeol’s wings were far more powerful. The mutant snatched Ilgrin out of the air and clutched him within sharp talons.

Seteal snapped away from her body before even taking the time to lay it down. The Ways spread out before her like a faulty market weaving with loose threads and failed embroidery. Seeol’s thread was shrouded in darkness. It was almost untouchable. It was no natural part of the weaving, somehow separate from the Ways. It was a foreign bit of yarn that’d been caught up and woven into the canvas by accident. He couldn’t be touched. He couldn’t be severed. But he could be confined.

The bird landed heavily, pinning Ilgrin to the ground with one foot pressed against his chest. He dipped his head, preparing to tear flesh, but Seteal squeezed the ancient fabric and time slowed to a crawl. She would not allow Ilgrin to die. El-i-miir’s hands were thrust out at Seeol. She ran toward the creature in slow motion. Her face was filled with the miserable knowledge that she was useless against him.

Seteal reached across the Ways and followed El-i-miir’s thread. She was able to affiliate most beings within the fabric. Everything was connected, but not Seeol. It was then that Seteal noticed the smallest oddity in the black yarn sticking up out of the fabric. Seeol was frayed. Pure darkness spilt through the frayed gap whenever it’d built up too much to contain. When the thread was at its darkest, Seeol would become the darkness. But surely that could be fixed. Seteal embedded herself in the Ways, coiling the threads about her being. She held them tight, wrapping them around Seeol’s frayed strands to bind them together. By the time she was done, Seteal had tied the knots so tight that no amount of evil would be able to squeeze through.

Pulling away from the weaving, she took a moment to look over her work as time returned an ordinary pace. El-i-miir’s boot hit the ice and her other leg swung forward. Ilgrin’s eyes widened in horror. Seteal’s body settled where it’d fallen. And Seeol began to shrink. But something was wrong.

As she was thrust back toward her body, Seteal turned her attention to the steadily receding Ways. There she caught a glimpse of something that made her sick with regret. She crashed into her body and heard a moan escape her lips. What had she done? What did this mean? The black thread remained in place, unable to spew out evil as it’d done before. Instead, it wept like a puss-filled wound. With no other escape, the darkness oozed through the edges and wafted away from in between the cracks.

Welcomed home by a host of aches and pains, Seteal pushed herself to her knees and doubled over gagging. A pounding headache bit at the sides of her skull and she felt uncomfortably tight within her own body, as if her spirit was steadily outgrowing it. Countless times she’d felt miserable upon returning, but this was different. This time she was suffocating. A high-pitched avian shriek stole Seteal’s attention as she lumbered toward the others.

Ilgrin was beaten and bruised, but otherwise unharmed. El-i-miir threw her arms around his shoulders and held him tight all the while thanking Maker that he was still alive. Seeol was fixated to the spot, his eyes cast down to the ice at his feet. His head tilted back and forth as though he were trying to identify a sound coming from a very distant place. His gaze lifted slowly, his golden eyes meeting Seteal’s. They were filled with a new kind of sorrow. ‘What has happened?’

‘I fixed you,’ Seteal choked out, revealing that her sentiments more closely resembled a plea than those of comfort.

‘I am unwell,’ Seeol said, his face becoming bathed in shadows for which there was no discernible source. The bird’s head moved about uncomfortably and his feathers twitched sporadically. ‘I can’t get it out. It’s eating me now.’

‘I know,’ Seteal uttered.

‘We must remain trapped togetherly forever,’ Seeol murmured bitterly.

‘I’m sorry,’ Seteal sobbed.

The little elf owl kept Seteal paralysed with his penetrating stare as the final parts of the Dome of the Sixth collapsed behind her. ‘I’m sorry, too,’ he whispered bitterly. A block of ice sailed through the air and struck Seteal in the side of the head, knocking her out cold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Nine

Departure

 

 

‘There are nine elders to each cleff, eight regular elders and the elected high elder. Every eight years, four selected elders from each cleff accompany their high elder to another cleff for Gis’el’yadawn. Eight years ago, it was the year of the Fifth and as tradition dictates, we’re today gathered together for the year of the Sixth.

‘This you already know. These are the ways of the Elglair and you’ve understood them since infancy. However, you could not be blamed for asking, “Why is it that for the first time in countless eighths the hidoan is being assembled and addressed?” You might be wondering this especially when considering that this time is intended as a peaceful one. The answer is quite simple.’ Far-a-mael took a steady breath and cast his gaze over the waiting crowd. The storm had calmed since earlier to leave an eerie silence upon the land. The group of men leaned forward, captivated by his every word.

Far-a-mael stood on a great bolder so that the added height would help project his voice. ‘We are under attack from an ancient enemy.’ He indicated the ruined city. ‘Our ways must be changed accordingly. Things that have never been done are now taking place with great haste. I have come before you today with news of a new elder existing among the cleffs.’ The gathering an’hidoans heaved a unified sigh of disbelief. ‘I speak the truth.’ Far-a-mael was forced to further raise his voice in order to be heard. ‘Some of you may remember me as Gil’rei Far-a-mael. I shall be spoken of by that title no longer. I am now your War Elder of the Unified Cleffs.’

If the crowd had been loud before, now it boomed like thunder. The cheering tone was one of support and yet their voices maintained an element of disbelief. Far-a-mael waited until fists had stopped being pumped patriotically and the group had again calmed to a dull roar.

‘There is more, my friends. My first order of duty as the War Elder of the Unified Cleffs is . . .’ He paused for emphasis. ‘. . . is that we wait no longer to crush the Jenjen threat!’ Thunderous hoots and cheering began all over again. Far-a-mael’s throat felt parched but he pushed on nevertheless. ‘Eat and sleep well while you can, brave men, for we will be moving south before the week is done. I have already sent the order and soon we’ll be joined by the hidoans of the other cleffs. Together, as the truly unified cleffs, we shall take Jenjol by force.’

The cheering became deafening. ‘People, people!’ Far-a-mael struggled, waving his arms about extravagantly to quiet them. ‘Then . . .’ He could hardly hear himself think, let alone speak. ‘Then, when we have made their army a part—although a lesser part—of our own hidoan we will . . .’ He took a deep breath. ‘We will not return to the Frozen Lands! Oh, no, but we will surge farther south. Yes, I can see it in your eyes, the hope. Well, I am here today to speak the truth. Young men before me, you’re soon to be a part of the great unified hidoan, which will cross over the borders into Old World. There we shall conquer the silts and retake what is rightfully ours!’

Old World had never belonged to the Elglair, but the silt borders had long been creeping north, taking over more and more human land as the decades passed. Far-a-mael had spat the word ‘silts’ with every last remaining bit of strength.

Far-a-mael stepped down from the giant boulder, a smile spreading across his features. His plans had fallen into place better than perfectly. The silt was very likely dead by now and Seteal would soon become his weapon of choice. It saddened him a little that El-i-miir, too, was almost certainly dead. He’d once been quite fond of the girl.

In between receiving pats on the back, Far-a-mael hobbled toward his insulated tent. It was easily four times the size of any sy’hidoan’s tent and perhaps even twice that of the gil’hidoans’, but he needn’t worry about gils anymore. It seemed strange no longer having the word in his title.

Far-a-mael pulled open the flaps and stepped inside. The space consisted of three rooms. One was designated sleeping quarters, another was for the storage of his possessions and the largest was a place for him to hold meetings. It’d been set up early due to the fact that he’d lost his place of temporary residence when the Dome of the Sixth had collapsed. Naturally, Far-a-mael had been offered a place in various peoples’ homes and at high-class inns, but he’d respectfully declined, deciding he’d be better off getting used to his soon-to-be-permanent lodgings.

Bones creaking, Far-a-mael hobbled through the first room and into his sleeping quarters. Servants had prepared the raised bed as if it were for a king, which, Far-a-mael mused, he wasn’t far short of. He touched the bed tentatively. It seemed comfortable enough. A contented smile graced Far-a-mael’s lips as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 

*

 

‘That’s far enough,’ Seteal heard El-i-miir say as her eyes fluttered open. She was in someone’s arms. They were strong arms.

‘Let go of me.’ Seteal kicked wildly until Ilgrin released her to stumble across the ice. She put a hand to the back of her head where a large lump was forming. ‘Where are we?’

‘After the dome collapsed, we decided to get as far away as possible,’ El-i-miir replied. ‘The only problem is that the cleff is surrounded by an’hadoans. I don’t think Far-a-mael wants us to leave without him knowing.’

Seteal turned, the cold wind catching her hood and throwing it off her head. The rubble caused by the collapse of the Dome of the Sixth laid in the far distance across the immense basin. The occasional smaller building existed between them and what’d been the dome, but otherwise this part of the cleff seemed largely vacant.

‘Where is everybody?’ Seteal asked, rubbing the lump on the back of her head.

‘They’ve probably all gone to see what happened in the centre,’ El-i-miir suggested. ‘I chose this direction because I remembered that the easternmost part of the cleff is less populated and my parents live out here anyway. They might be able to help us.’ El-i-miir glanced at the silt standing tall beside her.

‘We thought it best to keep a low profile.’ Ilgrin pulled his cloak around himself in an effort to keep his wings hidden. He’d been badly beaten and dark blue lines of blood were visible wherever flesh could be seen.

‘I’ve been keeping you cosy.’ Seeol startled Seteal, having spoken from somewhere within her sleeve.

‘What now then?’ Seteal took in her surroundings, nervous of being so exposed.

‘We’re going to see if El-i-miir’s parents will let us rest at their place. We’ll decide what to do from there.’ Ilgrin glanced at El-i-miir uncertainly before going on. ‘I plan to go to Old World. I need to find out the truth about my people and perhaps warn them of Far-a-mael’s plans.’

‘And I’m going with him,’ El-i-miir said rather apologetically. ‘There’s no place for me here anymore.’ She turned to look into Ilgrin’s eyes. ‘And this is important. I can see that.’

‘I will go, too, then!’ Seeol wriggled free and flew onto El-i-miir’s shoulder. ‘You could get hurt without me.’

‘Well?’ Ilgrin raised his eyebrows at Seteal. ‘How about it?’

‘How about it?’ Seteal frowned and took a step back. ‘You must be idiots. We’re human.’ She turned to El-i-miir. ‘They’ll kill you before you get a foot over the border.’

‘We don’t know that, Seteal,’ El-i-miir grumbled. ‘From where I’m standing, it seems like most of the things we were taught were lies.’

‘Do you know what’s not a lie?’ Seteal grumbled. ‘Whisps, El-i-miir. Whisps exist. One of them killed my mother.’

‘Fine.’ El-i-miir raised her hands. ‘So where exactly do you intend on going?’

‘I’m going home.’ Seteal’s voice broke as she remembered her father’s face. ‘Good luck in Old World.’ She turned to Ilgrin. ‘I really mean that. I hope you find what you’re looking for, but I have to go home.’

‘Oh.’ El-i-miir lowered her eyes, perhaps finally having seen the situation from Seteal’s perspective. She’d been taken from her home by force, lied to, raped, suffered insidious affiliation, beaten and almost died on several occasions. But most of all, unlike the others, Seteal still had a home to go to. ‘At least let us help you escape the cleff.’

‘I’ll find my own way.’ Seteal raised her hood and secured it atop her head.

‘Well.’ El-i-miir reached out to hug her, but pulled back when Seteal showed no signs of reciprocation. ‘Goodbye, then.’

‘Bye.’ Seteal turned away but remained fixed in place as she heard the others’ footfall crunching over the ice. She closed her eyes and tried to remember her mother’s face. She tried to remember the nursery rhymes she’d once sung. When Seteal opened her eyes, she was sitting on the cold ground, her legs crossed beneath her.

‘There you are.’ Master Fasil made his way over and sat down beside her, placing a hand on Seteal’s leg and sliding it up her thigh until it rested near her crotch. ‘I’ve missed you, my dear.’

‘Why won’t you leave me alone?’ Seteal moaned, resting her head in her lap.

‘I’ll never leave you alone,’ Fasil replied reassuringly. ‘You’re my little slut. Every time you shut those precious little eyes, I’ll be here, with you. Oh, come now.’ He patted her on the back. ‘I know you can’t remember the rhymes your mother used to sing, but I assure you, you’ll never forget me.’

‘I can’t,’ Seteal sobbed. ‘I can never be free.’

‘You’ll never forget my face or the colour of my eyes.’ Master Fasil laughed. ‘You’ll never forget what it felt like as I drove myself into you over and over again. And most importantly, you’ll never forget what a little whore you are.’

‘I can’t,’ Seteal whimpered. It was almost impossible to get the words out. ‘I can’t . . . I can’t go home, can I?’

‘Oh, honey.’ Master Fasil made a shushing sound. ‘Did you ever really think you could? Your father wouldn’t lay eyes on a little slut like you, let alone welcome you back into his home. But, like I keep saying, if it’s any consolation, you’ll always have me.’ His hand slid back and forth over Seteal’s thigh. ‘You could get yourself into trouble if you don’t come with me.’ Fasil burst out laughing. ‘You stupid woman. How did you fall for that?’

Seteal leapt to her feet and started chasing after the others, who’d quickly become small figures in the distance.

‘Wait!’ she cried and was relieved to see the group turn around. ‘Wait for me,’ she panted as she approached them. ‘Don’t go.’

‘What is it?’ El-i-miir asked. ‘Are you okay?’

‘No,’ Seteal gasped for air, ignoring the chill of her sodden clothes. ‘I may never be okay and I don’t much care for visiting Old World, but I can tell you this much: I cannot rest until I stand over Far-a-mael’s cold, dead body.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dan-i-el 18

 

1. The prophet recorded all things seen in the vision granted by Maker.

 

17. And Maker said, Now they will go to war with one another. These foolish men seek to bring redemption unto the world that they themselves hath cursed since the beginning. But only Maker’s Holy Spirit hath been granted the gift of salvation.

 

24. In those days many would lie in the power of the Wicked One, and he would stretch out his hand as Maker, deciding the very fate of mortal men.

25. For a time this must go on. And not until the world is a ruin should it be redeemed.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

Cael McIntosh is the author of The Inner Circle trilogy and is currently working on several other projects. Having been born and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, only to leave the faith in his early twenties, he has developed a unique perspective on religion and its implications. From that, along with other life experiences, he finds inspiration for his tales. It is his greatest hope that his works will inspire people to analyze and question their beliefs from an unbiased perspective.

 


The Inner Circle: The Knowing

What if demons aren't evil as we've been lead to believe from infancy? What if they're just like you and me: capable of making mistakes and having regrets? Maybe they're sorry for the wrong they've done and maybe we should forgive them. After all, isn't that what Maker is all about, forgiveness of sins? They found the demon child crying on their doorstep. He was cold, precariously balanced on the edge of death. They were kind people. Unable to ignore his suffering, they took him into their home and cared for him as if he were their own. But he was not their own, and the day came when he committed an unforgivable sin, in raising his mother from the dead. Have you ever imagined what it must be like for someone to love you . . . the real you? Can you imagine what such an embrace might feel like? No . . . of course not. I'm being silly. You're just a little bird. No one would ever love you.

  • Author: Cael McIntosh
  • Published: 2015-10-07 13:00:31
  • Words: 90851
The Inner Circle: The Knowing The Inner Circle: The Knowing