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Convergence

Convergence: Triumph of Heroes (Book Two)

By Samuel Knight

Distributed at Shakespir

Copyright 2016 Samuel Knight

Shakespir Distribution License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1 – Smoke and Mirrors

Chapter 2 – Deals

Chapter 3 – Lost in a Fog

Chapter 4 – Fame

Chapter 5 – Funeral Pyre

Chapter 6 – Training

Interlude 1 – Truth

Chapter 7 – Awakening

Chapter 8 – Oaths

Chapter 9 – A Shortcut

Chapter 10 – Fortune

Chapter 11 – Ozymandius

Chapter 12 – Escape

Interlude 2 – Searching

Chapter 13 – Rise Up

Chapter 14 – Betrayal

Chapter 15 – The Marble Room

Chapter 16 – Power

Chapter 17 – The Right Track

Chapter 18 – A New Beginning

Chapter 19 – Game Over

Chapter 20 – Reunion

Chapter 21 – Revelations

Epilogue

Message to the Readers

About the Author

Connections

Character Map

Introduction

Somewhere on the world of Renea

“How much longer?”

Gnosis appraises his companion. The man with magenta eyes paces in front of him, hands stuffed in his pockets. Moonlight streams down from the raven black sky, casting a silver glow in the grass. The world is quiet—perhaps too quiet. It’s the perfect night to make plans in the dark.

“Be patient, Max,” Gnosis says. “All things happen in due time.”

Max glances over his shoulder. “I hate it when you do that.”

“When I do what?”

“When you try to be mysterious and mystical. Just shut up and be specific.”

“I’ve been specific with you before. I’m just choosing to be unspecific now.”

Max frowns. “We’ve worked together for how long and you still can’t tell me what’s going to happen? What, is it going to break the fabric of space-time for you to just let me into the loop?”

“No, but it’s still very dangerous. If I tell you anything I’m not supposed to, it could drastically affect my plan.”

“What plan?”

“The plan I’ve been given. Don’t you remember the strings that bind us? We’re only the tributaries of a much larger river; should we diverge too far, we’ll suffer the consequences.” Gnosis sits up. “And since we’re here together, you should stop trying to conspire with Ariana. It’s against the rules.”

Max snorts and crosses his arms. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I know you went to see her a few nights ago. I know every word you said and everything you thought. What made you think you could hide something of that magnitude from me? You know how dangerous it is to step out of line. You know how dangerous it is to struggle against our binding strings.”

“I hate being used like this,” Max mutters. “For once in my life I’d like to believe I have free will. Even if it’s baseless and nothing more than a dream, I still want to believe. I want to have hope.”

Gnosis spreads his hands, defeated. “What hope have we, the forgotten toys of time? We make our moves and we play exactly as we’ve been told to play. Straying from the path will get us killed or worse.” He points at his companion. “You shouldn’t hold on to hope when there is none to have.”

Max grins. “Aren’t you curious, though? I want to see what these little kids can do once they get really strong. Maybe they’ll become so powerful they’ll put us out of commission for good. Wouldn’t that be something?”

“It would be something, yes. However, you forget about our colleague.”

Max’s smile fades. “Right,” he says. “I forgot about him.”

“I’ll admit, though: I am a little bit curious. Perhaps they can finish what the Emissaries started.”

“You should know, right? You’re the omniscient one here.”

“I may know everything about everything, but that doesn’t mean I can see what will happen. Dark holes cloud the edges of my vision and they grow each day.”

Max laughs. “Maybe you’re just going blind.”

“I’m being serious!” Gnosis says. “It’s as if something is blocking my vision, or something is tampering with the ebb and flow of space-time. It goes beyond my power to see what it is, and that frightens me.”

“Maybe he’s waking up,” Max says. “Maybe he’s finally returning to the land of the living.”

“Even if he woke up right this instant, I should still be able to see further than I can now. Whatever is blocking my vision goes beyond even his power.”

“Seriously?” Max runs a hand through his hair. “I don’t want to imagine something beyond what he’s capable of.”

“It doesn’t matter now. The pieces are falling into place. He’s preparing to make his entrance, but he’s waiting for something to trigger it, and when I try to see what it is, all I find is a dark hole, like a picture that’s been burned through the center.” Gnosis sighs. “It’s very frustrating.”

Max looks up at the sky. The moon hangs high above Monarch, the Greatest City in the World, and bright blue and purple galaxies cut through the clear night sky. A perfect night for walking, and a perfect night for dreaming.

“Do you remember the last time you slept?” Max leans on his hand, his eyes on the distant galaxies. “The last dream you had?”

“You’re unironically directing that question at an all-knowing, omniscient being?”

“All of the Heroes are asleep now. They’re vulnerable, and weak. I could kill every single one right now, save us the trouble of doing it later. Slice a throat here, stab a heart there…”

“Do as you please,” Gnosis says, “but don’t forget the consequences of your actions. The Heroes aren’t ready to die—at least not yet. Changing the script is dangerous, and you know what happens when the timeline goes haywire.”

“I was just thinking”—Max stretches out on the ground—“how cruel would it be to kill them while they slept? How evil do you have to be to slay someone as they rest, as they escape from their living nightmares? I don’t think I have it in me to be so evil, and I’ve been doing this since time began.” He shrugs at Gnosis’s blank stare. “Just thinking, that’s all.”

“Stop thinking so much.” Gnosis knits his hands in front of him. “These Heroes wake to living dreams, not living nightmares. It’s when they sleep that they fall back into normalcy, into a world without powers or friends or a beautiful world like Renea. Their dreams are their nightmares, and their day-to-day lives are their dreams. And by that extension, if they’re really asleep when they wake up, doesn’t that mean killing them when they’re awake is really the evil thing? Doesn’t that mean killing them in their waking dreamland is the cruelest death of all?”

Max stares at the stars, silent.

Gnosis looks out over the darkened landscape. “Just food for the thought.”

Chapter One

[]Smoke and Mirrors

In an abandoned house in Chaldir’s Ruins

Kexal’s Journal, date unknown.

It’s been another hard day protecting the girls from the Skeletons. Jenna’s finally awake after a few days of rest, but she’s not strong enough to fight. Bennie is taking a long time to heal. She’s well enough to be moved via sling and sled, so we’re making progress towards Palace Center. Every now and then I’ll demand that Jenna lays in the sled with Bennie and rest. It makes the load heavier on me, but I can’t stand to listen to her wheeze and cough like that. I’ll grind through the extra weight if it keeps her alive.

My left arm is still hurting from where that Skeleton soldier slashed me. Luckily it was a clean cut, so not much muscle was shredded. Stitched it up as best I could—Opat would have done a better job. Despite Jenna’s insistence that it was an easy fix, I refused her magic treatment. She needs to save her magic for healing Bennie. This whole journey is lost without her.

I have to be more careful out here. If I lose the use of my right arm we’re all going to be in big trouble. I haven’t seen many Skeleton soldiers yet today but I know they’re out there. I’ll be up all night again tonight keeping watch.

Bennie wakes about once a day, mumbles something incoherent, and quickly goes unconscious again. Jenna says she’s not a coma, so I suppose that’s good news, in a strange and dismal way.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Even though we’re making progress, I feel like we’re only going backwards. I don’t know if I can do this much longer. It’s too much for one person—for me—to handle alone. I haven’t prayed to Chaldir in a long time, but…

Kexal taps the bottom of his metal pen against the page, trying to think of a good way to wrap up his journal entry for the night. After several moments of thought, nothing deep or exciting comes to mind. His brain feels as empty as his stomach, which has only become more empty since he started giving his already sparse rations to Jenna.

He closes his journal and tucks it away into his backpack. The warm orange fire across from him provides a small degree of comfort in his troubled world. Bennie sleeps soundlessly next to Jenna, who clings to Bennie like a mother would cling to her hurting child. Kexal laces his fingers together and leans back, mentally cataloging the supplies they still have.

We have a little bit of bread, some fruits, a couple skins of water. That should last us for a few days. Kexal pauses, then shakes his head. A few days? We’re probably weeks away from Palace Center. We need food and we need it soon. With the poisonous magic still taking its toll on the girls…

Kexal runs a hand through his dark brown hair. Flecks of soot fall into his face, his fingers streaked with ash and dirt. His left arm, though still in a sling and wrapped with tight bandages, stings from the ash that somehow manages to creep into his wound. It’ll need to be cleaned again before sunrise.

He rests his head against the brick wall behind him. Through the hole in the front of the single-room house he can see the crimson sky slowly filling with the nightly ash clouds. The sun dipped below the horizon only a few minutes ago; judging by the color of the sky, the ashfall won’t begin until early in the morning, probably just before sunrise.

Kexal once again looks at his two companions. They look peaceful in their sleep, aloof to their situation and not caring about what the future holds. He looks at his hands. They’re vulnerable out here with me like this. He frowns. No, they’re vulnerable out here because I’m like this. If I had seen that stupid Skeleton…

He plants a fist on his leg, frustrated. The past few days have rapidly devolved from carefree adventure to desperate survival. Each day is spent dragging at least one person through heavy ash with a ruined left arm and poor nutrition. Each night is spent searching his mind for options to get through the next day without incident. As independent and cynical as Kexal is, he knows he needs help. And he knows there’s only one place to get it.

Kexal takes in a deep breath, preparing himself for prayer.

“Chaldir?” he calls softly. “Are you out there?”

He immediately feels like an idiot for talking to an empty sky. Unsurprisingly, the only sound that answers him is the crackling of the fire.

“I haven’t done this in a long time so… Sorry for being awkward about it.” Kexal stops to gather his thoughts. “I suppose being honest is the best thing to do, so let me give you some background. I’ve got a useless left arm, Bennie is out of commission, and Jenna is struggling to get back on her feet. I’m dragging both of them by a makeshift sled I pieced together from scraps I stole from abandoned buildings. I know you don’t condone stealing but if I didn’t do something they might have died. I can’t let either of them die. I told Bennie I would help her find you.”

Kexal bites his tongue. Talking to no one is harder than he thought it would be.

“But I need help,” he finally says. “These girls are counting on me to keep them safe until they get back up to full health. I get less than four hours of sleep every three days, we’re running low on food, and I’m pulling almost twice my body weight for hours at a time. If there’s anything you can do—”

“Kexal?” Jenna sits up and rubs her eyes. Kexal jumps, his heart going berserk in his chest. “Who’re you talking to?”

“Nothing!” he says quickly. “I mean, no one! Just… Just talking to myself. Keeping myself company. That’s all.”

Jenna merely yawns, accepting his lie; he breathes a sigh of relief.

“With you two injured I get a lot of time to be alone, so I’ve gotten used to talking out loud. It helps me think.”

“That so?” Jenna rubs her eyes again. “What’re you thinking about?”

Kexal searches for another lie. “Gold,” he says after a moment. “I’m trying to picture how much gold I’ll be able to get from Palace Center. If it’s the palace of a god, it has to have tons of gold, right?”

Jenna leans on her knee. “I suppose so,” she says after a moment.

“How’re you feeling today?” Kexal asks.

“About the same. Draining the poison magic from Bennie’s body took a big toll on me—more than I thought it would. I’m fighting to avoid relapse.” She gives him a look. “How about you? Feeling alright?”

Kexal looks around and debates telling another lie.

“I’m great.” He offers a smile. “Towing you two around isn’t the worst thing in the world. We’re moving a lot slower than normal but at least we’re moving. I’m confident that we’ll reach Palace Center in no time!”

Jenna fixes him with a stare. “You’re never this optimistic. What’s on your mind?”

“What do you mean? I’m just as grumpy as ever. Now shut up and go back to sleep. See? Completely normal.”

“Kexal.”

He grits his teeth, then lets out a sigh. “I’ve had… A change of heart, I guess you could call it. Trying to keep you and Bennie safe has made me realize that I can fight back against the world when it throws me around. It made me realize that even though bad things happen, I can still get back up and try again.” Kexal shrugs, ignoring the butterflies in his stomach from bluntly lying to one of his only two friends. “People change, Jenna. I’m proof of that.”

“Fine,” she sighs. “Don’t tell me what’s wrong. I’m going back to sleep.”

“I know I’ve been talking about gold pretty often, so I want to make it up to you. When we get to Palace Center, you can have half of my spoils.” Kexal mentally kicks himself as soon the words fly out of his mouth. Playing it too hard will expose he’s cracking.

“Sounds like a deal,” Jenna yawns. “A good deal. Good night.”

Kexal says nothing further and lets Jenna crawl over and snuggle up next to Bennie, who sleeps without snoring and without moving. To an uninformed eye, she looks to be dead. But if Kexal listens closely, he can hear the faint sound of her breathing. Sighing, he repositions himself against the back wall and watches the front of the abandoned house for movement, a knife at the ready. The crackling fire sits at the edge of his vision, its orange and yellow light hypnotic and dreamy. The heat warms Kexal to his core, weighing his eyelids down like two tons of bricks.

Without meaning to, he dozes off.

While asleep, Kexal has a dream. A big-top circus rolls into the Ruins from nowhere, simply springing up overnight. Dancers and clowns and acrobats run through the streets. The alcohol is free all day, no matter where you get it. Kexal runs through the circus with a bright smile on his face, full of energy and spirit. No one stops to challenge him for being happy. As a matter of fact, no one even looks unhappy. Intense jubilance radiates from every booth, corner, and alleyway.

Kexal pulls to a stop at a little booth with a bearded old man sitting on a stool. He waves to Kexal, who immediately waves back.

“Come closer! I want to make a deal with you!”

“A deal?” Kexal jumps up and down. “How exciting! What kind of deal?”

“Come closer! I want to make a deal with you!”

“What kind? What kind?”

The dream abruptly ends and Kexal jolts awake. He whips out his knife and stands, brandishing it with a wild look in his eyes. Bennie stirs slightly, then rolls away. Jenna murmurs something incoherent. The fire crackles softly at his feet. Everyone is safe.

Kexal slinks to the ground, feeling no more rested than before. He goes over the dream to keep himself awake. When he reaches the part about the old man’s booth, he unconsciously replays it over and over again, as if he can’t get enough of it.

Come closer! I want to make a deal with you!

“A deal, eh?” Kexal snorts. “Old man was probably going to rob me blind.”

An outrageous thought pops into his mind. He looks around to make sure no one saw or heard what he thought, despite the impossibility. The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes that it’s a desperate shot in the dark—no, more than just desperate. The chances of it paying off would be the chances of hitting a snake’s tongue with an arrow while wearing a blindfold and rolling down a hill with a broken arm.

With them in such a condition, could I really take such a gamble?

But the payoff… He allows himself a moment of debate. The payoff could be huge. Kexal looks at Bennie and Jenna. His stomach wrenches at the thought of digging their graves; he knows he doesn’t have a choice. Standing, Kexal grabs his backpack and sheathes his knife. He steps out of the abandoned house, places a slab of wood in front to serve as a makeshift door, and walks off into the Ruins.

Unsurprisingly, the typically quiet realm is even quieter at night. The dancing fires hide themselves between broken-down buildings and ruined homes, respecting the night sky that hangs overhead like a seamless piece of black cloth. The only sound comes from Kexal’s feet as he tromps through the pockets of ash cluttering the roadway. He makes no attempt to hide or silence his movement.

After several minutes of walking and checking to ensure he’s far enough from the camp, Kexal stops moving. He stands alone, unsheltered, in the middle of the road. A sensation slowly crawls up his spine and tingles him to the bone. The overwhelming urge to flee surges through his body, but Kexal forces himself to stay rooted. He can feel a nameless horror creeping up on him, with soulless eyes and thousands of razor sharp teeth just waiting to dig into his skin and eat him alive.

“Hey!” Kexal finally screams. “Face me!”

Dozens of Skeleton soldiers emerge from the ashen wasteland, materializing like ghosts passing through a wall. They all wear red and gold armor, though the metal doesn’t slow them down at all. Half of them hold gleaming swords; the other half hold metal shields with spikes on the front.

“I…” Kexal takes in a breath as the Skeletons make a circle around him. “I want to make a deal with Riel, the Skeleton King.”

“Do you, now?” says one Skeleton with a metallic, scratchy voice. “What kind of deal?”

“That’s none of your business. I’ll talk with him directly or I won’t talk at all.”

“We have ways of making you talk.” The first Skeleton steps forward with its sword pointed at Kexal’s throat. “Don’t make this a bloodbath.”

“I said I’ll only talk to Riel,” Kexal snaps. “If you want to fight, go ahead and swing.”

The Skeleton immediately slashes at Kexal’s throat, but the blade stops mere inches from his skin. Kexal blinks, astonished at how fast the soldier moved. Had that blow actually connected…

The Skeleton steps back, bowing its head in respect. The other Skeletons follow suit, bowing their heads respectfully towards Kexal. He looks around, confused, until he notices a bright blue glow. Kexal turns around to see a tall Skeleton wearing a black cloak, its body covered in iridescent blue fire.

“Just in time,” it says. The voice is male.

Kexal takes a step back, his hand on his sheathed knife. “Riel?”

“No, but I serve the Skeleton King. I’m Nekros Mathis, necromancer.” Nekros spreads his hands. “If you want to talk with Riel, I’ll hear you out in his stead. Riel can’t teleport to his soldiers like I can. Besides, he’s very busy at the moment.”

“A necromancer… You use magic, then?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must have planted the gemstone for us to find.” Kexal points a finger at Nekros. “You knew we were hunting for treasure. You put it right where we would find it and filled it with poisonous magic. It was your trap, wasn’t it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nekros says. “Raw gemstones are poisonous to all magic users. I’m no more immune to a raw gemstone than fire is immune to water.”

If that’s true, then why did it hurt Bennie but not Jenna? Kexal thinks for a moment before he makes a connection. Jenna’s gloves. She was wearing gloves. If she had put even a hand on that stone she’d be in the same spot as Bennie.

He sizes Nekros up, gauging his power by the amount of magic he can sense. The Skeleton necromancer offers nothing in the line of readability, his face lacking all facial tissue. Magic, however, radiates from Nekros’s body like a bonfire. Briefly, Kexal wonders how it must feel to be around Riel, especially if his second-in-command is this intimidating.

“Well?” Nekros says. “Are we going to talk or not?”

After another moment, Kexal nods. “I want to make a deal. Or rather, more of an exchange—what I want for something you want.”

“The only thing I want is the Hero. Would you just willingly hand her over? What could you possibly desire that is worth her life?”

“I’m not trading Bennie,” Kexal says. “I told her I would help her find Chaldir and I intend to keep my promise. However, I have something worth almost as much as her, if you’re willing to hear me out.”

Nekros walks forwards until he stops right in front of Kexal. The Skeleton necromancer leans down into Kexal’s face. “Do explain.”

“Bennie’s been in an accident; she’s currently in a coma. Our friend Jenna has been trying to heal her, but there’s only so much she can do when our food is as low as it is.”

“Ah, so you need a healer.” Nekros leans back; Kexal lets out his breath, not realizing he’d held it in. “My magic only raises the dead. Unless they both die, I can’t help you.”

“I don’t want your damn magic. I want food, water, and several bottles of Orange to give to Bennie and Jenna.”

“Food? You want… You want food?”

“I don’t see why not,” Kexal says. “Orange is the only drink on Renea with enough vitamins to keep Bennie alive until she can eat real food again. I don’t have enough supplies to keep me and Jenna in good health for much long, and Bennie won’t be able to eat real good food when she wakes up.”

Nekros turns away, attempting to grasp what Kexal is asking. “He wants food. Unbelievable.”

Kexal pulls out his knife and extends it handle-first. “If you can get us food, I’ll give you this.”

Nekros takes the knife and inspects it. “You’d try to trade me this piece of junk? You couldn’t get a loaf of moldy bread with this.”

Kexal snatches it back and whispers a word under his breath. The knife comes alive, holy grey light flooding the street and levitating particles of ash into the air. Nekros backs away, watching as grey magic spills out of the knife like an overflowing cup. Kexal grits his teeth in an attempt to hold on as long as he can.

With a gasp, he drops the knife and collapses to one knee, wheezing for air. The grey light fades, the knife discarded on the ground. The Skeleton soldiers remain impassive. Curious, Nekros reaches down and plucks the knife out of the ash.

“So it’s not a piece of junk after all—it’s a magical weapon.” He inspects it closer than he did before, then tosses it at Kexal’s feet. “It’s still not enough for what you’re asking.”

“What if I told you this wasn’t just any magical weapon?” Kexal takes the knife and slowly gets to his feet. “What if I told you this was a one-of-a-kind legendary weapon?”

Nekros’s mind goes to the half-pike sitting in the bowels of the Dark Hollow. It, too, reacted in strange ways to certain words and phrases. Riel would be upset if he came back without Bennie in hand, but if he were to find another legendary weapon, the Skeleton King’s mood might be less stormy.

“Do you know its name?”

“Casix,” says Kexal.

The knife glows at the mention of its name, emitting piercing grey light.

“I was told its name by a strange man with oddly colored eyes,” he continues. “He told me that this knife would help me at some point in my journey to Palace Center, but so far it’s done nothing but sit in my backpack like a useless rock.” Kexal sheathes it and presents it to Nekros. “It’s useless to me and I’m getting desperate. We’re going to run out of food in three days, I know that for a fact. If I don’t keep Bennie hydrated and full of vitamins, she’ll…” He swallows. “She may be a Hero, but she’s not going to last forever.”

Nekros chuckles. “Why should I help you? Killing Bennie is Riel’s ultimate goal. Refusing your offer benefits me in every way.”

Kexal offers what he hopes is an intelligent smirk. “Something tells me you and Riel have different goals.”

Nekros goes silent for a moment. When he reaches for Casix, Kexal pulls it away.

“Do we have a deal or not?”

Nekros pauses, then nods. “We have a deal.”

Relieved, Kexal passes the knife over to the necromancer. “And call off your Skeletons for a few nights. I haven’t slept in an eternity.”

“That wasn’t part of the deal.” Nekros eyes the knife greedily. “However, since I’ve been meaning to collect more of these legendary weapons, you’ve put me in a good mood. You have three days.”

Kexal nearly sinks to the ground in gratitude.

“My soldiers will deposit a week’s worth of food at your campsite before the night is over. The following morning, your three day vacation begins.”

“You know where my camp is?”

“I have eyes all over the Ruins. I know every place you’ve slept for the past month.” Nekros places the knife into the folds of his robes.

“Why haven’t you attacked us? I’ve been up each night watching for your soldiers.”

“It’s unsportsmanlike to kill opponents while they sleep. That’s poor taste.” Nekros waves Kexal off. “Away with you. Our business here is done.”

Kexal walks back to camp with so much excitement boiling inside him that he can barely think about sleeping. The walk back to camp goes far faster than the walk into the Ruins, and Kexal soon finds himself removing his makeshift door and settling back into his previous position as if he had just left. Bennie and Jenna haven’t moved one inch since he’s been gone.

With a smile and a quick thank-you to Chaldir, Kexal leans against the wall behind him and passes into a deep slumber.

Many hours later, Kexal wakes up long after the sun has risen in the sky. The fire is nothing more than smoldering ash. He shields his eyes and gauges the time to be almost noon. With a yelp, Kexal leaps up and runs outside. His foot catches on something and he flops on the ground, jarring his right arm. As he stands, grumbling and cursing his luck, Kexal freezes in place.

Bags of fresh vegetables. A wooden box full of salted meats. Bread, cheeses, bottles of Orange and wineskins full of water. Kexal looks inside the house to make sure the girls are still asleep before pumping a fist into the air; Nekros came through on his promise.

Kexal rekindles the fire and cooks breakfast, making sure to ration out enough to feed him and Jenna while leaving enough to last for a week, with or without Bennie. Halfway through his preparations, Jenna wakes up.

“What…” Jenna rubs her tired eyes, then gasps when she sees the food. “Is that what I think it is? I must be dreaming. Am I dreaming?”

Kexal smiles, sifting food around in his skillet. “I’m almost done cooking the first batch of bacon. Do you want some fresh bread with yours?”

Jenna’s jaw drops. “You’re smiling? I’m not dreaming, I’m dead!”

“I sure hope not! I could use you alive.” Kexal inhales deeply, steeling himself to weave another lie. “Last night, I prayed to Chaldir for help; we were running out of food. I begged him to help us get by for one more day, and, well…” Kexal gestures to his bounty. “It looks like he gave us enough to last for a week!”

“This isn’t possible.” Jenna picks up a loaf of bread, inspecting it in disbelief. “This can’t be possible.” She bites into it and groans. “You know, I don’t care if it’s possible anymore.” She corks open a fresh wineskin full of water and drowns her bread with a huge gulp.

“That’s the spirit!” Kexal pushes the bacon out of the skillet on to Jenna’s loaf of bread. “Eat up. You need to keep refueling so your body can heal. Chaldir was thoughtful enough to give us a few bottles of Orange, too. While you eat, I’m going to get Bennie to drink a little bit. Every time we stop I’m going to make her drink some Orange and some water.”

Jenna tears into her bacon and bread with voracious hunger. “I’m surprised,” she says through mouthfuls. “I’m surprised you prayed to Chaldir about getting food for us. It’s almost like you care about something other than gold.”

Kexal forces a laugh. “Yeah, aren’t impossibilities fun to entertain?” Jenna merely nods and continues eating.

The sun peaks at noontime when Jenna and Kexal finish their meal. Kexal packs the excess food away into another makeshift bundle that he ties, bandages, and otherwise stitches together from loose bags and rags he finds during a quick scavenge of the surrounding area. He loads the bag on the front of the sled, places Bennie in the sling behind the bag, and lashes himself to the ropes.

Jenna takes up a pair of ropes beside him.

“And what do you think you’re doing?” Kexal demands.

“You honestly think you can tug me, Bennie, and all that food by yourself?” Jenna laughs. “I get it now. You’ve completely lost your mind.”

“I won’t have you putting stress on your body while you’re trying to heal. Either butt out and walk or lay with Bennie in the sled.”

“I know my body better than you, and I think I’m perfectly capable of towing this sled for a few hours. If I get tired I’ll take a break and let you do it by yourself.”

“Fine, you can help,” Kexal says. “But if you’re going to tow the line, you’d better keep at my pace. I’d hate to leave you behind.”

Jenna smirks and elbows him in the ribs. With a determined huff, the two step off together down the road, set on finding Palace Center and meeting Chaldir. Though Kexal would never openly admit it, he’s very glad to have Jenna pull the sled with him. It makes the weight easier to bear while making the walk less lonely.

In the sling on the sled, Bennie’s face remains unchanged and emotionless as she drifts through her dream-like unconsciousness, blissfully unaware of the changes taking place around her.

Bennie wakes to an empty white void. She slowly gets to her feet, sound echoing as if traveling down a long corridor. This isn’t the first time she’s been in this blank room.

Back so soon? she thinks. Well, I best get started.

Bennie puts one knee to the ground and plants a hand in front as a brace. Her body bursts into flames in a roar of heat and light, burning her clothes to ash and leaving her cloaked in white-hot fire. In response, a rocky world littered with lava pits springs up around her. Black clouds hang overhead and red forked lightning zigzags across the sky. Bennie straightens herself up, appreciating the fine training grounds.

The lava pits bubble and hiss, clouds of smoke and shards of molten rock bursting into the air. Bennie turns as a long arm emerges from the pit, followed shortly by a shoulder and then a misshapen head—her training partner. A second arm emerges, and then a torso made of lava, and finally two heavy legs. The lavabeast’s mouth hangs open and gobs of magma fall to the ground, cracking and sizzling on the black rocks.

It lurches forward, then dashes at full speed. Bennie moves out of the way just moments before its strike lands. Hot fire surges through Bennie and bursts from her outstretched hands, consuming the lavabeast and knocking it off balance. It catches itself, turns on its heels, and roars.

Bennie grinds her heels into the ground and roars right back.

The lavabeast rushes Bennie again, arms reared back to strike. Instinct takes control and she sends a blazing shield of fire from her body, knocking her attacker away. The monster slips back into position, unfazed, and mounts an assault. Bennie throws herself aside and tucks into a roll. She recovers and swings an arm behind her. A plume of fire erupts into the air and the lavabeast reels back—just enough time for Bennie to charge in.

Hot energy boils in her hands and a raging fire burns in her chest. She launches hard, fast punches into the monster’s face. The creature stumbles back and tries to shield itself, but its efforts are in vain. Bennie throws a particularly heavy blow at the lavabeast’s chest, blasting a hole right through to the other side.

Then, with a shout of victory, Bennie sweeps her right leg up and kicks the lavabeast in the head for all she’s worth. Fire surges through her foot and blasts its head into oblivion, leaving a half-formed standing organism made of lava. It collapses in on itself, turns into a pool of magma, then slides back toward the lava pit it came from.

Bennie plops to the ground and breathes slowly, trying to regain her breath. She’s still not used to fighting in a place that changes landscapes with a mere thought. Previous versions of her world had included trees, gardens, and sometimes buildings. Most of them had been spliced together, fragments of fever dreams stolen in haste to fill the emptiness of the white void. This one is different, though. It feels planned and thought-out, as if constructed by Bennie’s own mind.

A shudder ripples through the air and everything shivers. The rocks waver from side to side as if they are illusions about to come undone. Bennie stays seated, watching it without fear. The first time the world started changing, Bennie tried to run from it. When she did, she found herself in the middle of an enormous thunderhead crackling with teal-colored lightning and a downpour of neon blue rain. Now she simply sits back and accept the changes as they come.

As the world changes, Bennie feels hot magic surge into her chest like magma from the planet’s core—the magic of pyrokinetic creation and wanton destruction. She lets it flow through her chest, into her arms, up her throat, and down her legs. Her cloak of fire flares brighter.

Bennie’s rocky, barren wasteland fades with a small, imperceptible shiver, giving way to an alley facing a street. She stands and peers out, looking down the wide main street. It slopes down towards a gorgeous blue lake. Fishing boats float on the water and seagulls call from a distance. Carts and their owners populate both sides of the street; it must be market day. Stone buildings painted in shades of white, peach, blue, and green extend as far as the eye can see in every direction.

Boy, she thinks. Stanley would love this place.

Bennie stands at the edge of the alleyway to get her bearings. Her body is still covered in a raging orange fire in this new world, but so far no one’s noticed. A few creatures walk past the alley and glance at her, but they all say nothing. One or two are bipedal organisms similar to humans, but their eyes are exotic colors and their ears are pointed. Some of them have rows of sharp teeth instead of flat teeth. One creature who passes by looks like a tangle of swamp moss and vines. Other creatures move aside when they see it coming.

A tall, dark creature glides past, glances at Bennie, then immediately stops and turns back to stand in front of her. She tenses up.

“That mark, on your forehead. Where did you get it?”

Bennie touches her forehead and finds herself tracing the symbol of Chaldir.

“The mark,” it says again, drawing closer. Bennie steps back. “Where did you get it?”

“Who’s asking?”

“A fellow Renean. Are you the Hero of the Ruins?”

Bennie considers her options, never breaking eye-contact. The creature moves back to give her space, looming several feet taller than her.

“Yes,” she finally says. “I’m a Hero. Who are you?”

“I’m a scientist. I’m here conducting research.” The creature quirks its dark head. “What are you doing in the astral realm? Coming here should be far beyond your abilities.”

“Astral realm?” Bennie looks around. The sky above her wavers slightly, as if made of glass panels. “That would explain the white room.”

“Your dream world,” says the creature. “I’m astonished you managed to create a fully functioning world without knowing you were in the astral realm—I saw it in the sky just before you came here.”

“It felt natural, like having a dream that you could control.” Bennie steps out of the alleyway and looks down the wide, sloping street. People pass her by without saying anything; no one stares or points. “Where am I?”

“You’re at a crossroads between your dream world and the rest of the astral plane. This is Lakeshire, Haven of the Spirit World. What’s your name?”

“Bennie.”

“Pleased to meet you, Bennie. My name’s Salvation.”

They shake hands.

“Can you help me?” Bennie asks. “I have no clue how I got here.”

“You didn’t come here on purpose?”

Bennie shakes her head.

“That’s a problem in and of itself. No one just ‘enters’ the astral realm. It’s a place you have to train to reach. What’s the last thing you remember doing?”

“I don’t even remember the last thing I remember. I was with Kexal and Jenna, and we were looking at something, but I don’t remember what it was or why it was important. Maybe whatever we found sent us here.” She shrugs. “Look, you seem like a busy guy, so I don’t want to keep you any longer than I have to. Do you know where I can find my friends?”

“You think they’re here, too?”

“Most likely,” Bennie says. “If they’re not here, where else could they be?”

“Probably back on Renea, taking care of your unconscious body.”

“Unconscious?”

“When you enter the astral realm, you pass out in the real world.”

“Really? Then I’ve got to get out of here and wake up!” She takes a step out into the street, then slowly steps back into the alley. “Uh, do you know anyone who…?”

“If you’re up for a long trip,” Salvation says, “you might go see the Lady of the Woods. She’s an astral demigod who lives across the lake.” Salvation points at a thick, green forest on the far side of the bright blue lake. “If anyone can help you, it’s her.”

“How do I find her?”

“I couldn’t say; she’s notoriously hard to find. I’ve never personally been to see her, at least not until now. I’m going there to ask for her help. She might have a cure for the sickness that’s poisoning my realm.” He pauses, then grimly adds, “If there is a cure.”

Bennie casts her gaze at the forest. “How long is the walk? Two, three days?”

“In Renean time, yes, a few days. But the astral realm doesn’t have the same grasp of time as Renea. You could spend a few weeks in here, return to Renea, and find that only a few minutes has passed. On the other hand you could spend a few hours here, return to Renea, and find that years have passed.”

“Then it’s worth my effort to try.” Bennie looks at Salvation. “What happens if I wake up in the real world before I’m ready on this end?”

Salvation shudders, then looks away. He doesn’t answer.

“That’s answer enough for me,” Bennie says. “So if I’m passed out somewhere in the middle of the Ruins, the last thing I want to do is be woken up before I’m ready. How can the Lady of the Woods help?”

“If you’re trying to wake up safely, especially if you got here by accident, she’s the only one who can help you. The way I enter and exit the astral realm would tear your brain apart. But she can help you discover a way to wake up that doesn’t harm you.”

Bennie frowns. “To travel all that way for something as lame as a wake-up call feels pretty dumb.”

Salvation grins widely. “I hear there’s also a legendary treasure hidden in the forest.”

“A legendary treasure!” Bennie condenses her blazing coat of fire into her typical adventure clothing—mid-calf leather boots, a skirt with a split down the leg, and interlocking plates and chain mail for everything above the waist. “There’s no time to lose!”

“What’s the rush? It’s a beautiful day in Lakeshire.” Salvation clasps his shadowy hands behind his back and turns towards the lake. “We should take time and enjoy the view.”

“Time isn’t our side,” Bennie says. “At the very least, it isn’t on my side. If you’re going my way, I think it’s wise for us to put our feet to the ground and get moving.”

Salvation looks down at the ground. Murky darkness pools where his feet should be. “I suppose so, yes. I keep forgetting that you have a shorter time here than me. I tend to pass in and out of this world often, so astral time is a problem I’ve learned to control.” He pauses, then frowns. “What do you mean by ‘us’?”

“Isn’t it obvious? We’re going to travel together. That way we have twice the eyes and twice the strength.” Bennie puts her hands on her hips. “I don’t know about you, but when I hear about an elusive demigod living in the woods, my first two questions are ‘How strong is it?’ and ‘How do I kill it if it attacks me?’”

“You’re definitely a different breed of Renean,” Salvation muses. “Most Reneans would approach a demigod peacefully and respectfully.”

“I’m not Renean. I came from a planet called Earth.”

Salvation fixes Bennie with a hard look. She holds her ground.

“What does it look like?” Salvation asks.

“Big and blue,” she replies. “Lots of oceans. Some mountains, huge cities, deserts, ice caps—”

“Ice what?”

“Ice caps. Big sheets of ice covering the top and bottom of the planet.” She tosses a few glances up and down the street. “Okay, looks safe. If anyone’s got their eyes on this alley, they’re in for a surprise when they try to attack.” Bennie starts down the street and heads directly toward the lake. Salvation hurries to catch up.

“Is it a feral world?” he asks. “Are there lots of dangerous creatures lurking about? Is that why you’re so suspicious of other creatures? What about gods? What kind of gods do you have?”

“Sheesh!” Bennie exclaims. “One at a time, would you? No, it’s not feral; we have a lot of advanced technology and we’re mostly civilized. The only dangerous creatures left are in zoos or are so rare you would never meet one face-to-face. To many people there’s only one true God, but other people think there are different gods, and some think there are no gods at all.”

“What an odd world. How do you live with so many conflicting views? Without gods, who governs the land?”

“Fresh fish!” a man yells in Bennie’s face, throwing a salmon in her arms. “Good choice, ma’am! That’ll be—”

Bennie’s palms explode and she torches the salmon a charred black. She dumps it in the astonished fisherman’s arms and continues on her way. The Master of Shades looks at the blackened fish for a moment and then at the woman making her way towards the lake. Sighing, he glides down the street and pulls up next to her.

“Your race must have a sad, violent history,” Salvation says. “To be suspicious of so many things all the time is so… Alien.”

“It certainly is,” Bennie says softly.

“Does Earth have many monsters?”

“We don’t have any monsters anymore. We have stories of monsters, but that’s all that’s left. Stories say that we killed most of the monsters that once plagued our world. In truth, my race—the human race—is pretty awesome. If you think of it like I think of it, instead of hiding from our monsters, we hunted them to extinction.”

Salvation’s pink eyes glimmer with scholarly delight. “What kind of monsters did you have? Were they fierce? What did they look like?”

Bennie smiles good-naturedly. “We had one monster called a dragon. It was a lizard with wings that could breathe fire. There was also something called a kraken that lived in the deepest parts of the ocean. Think of huge, hungry octopus with a nasty temper.”

“Ah yes,” Salvation mutters absently. “Dragons and leviathans. That’s one for the notes.”

“But they’re all gone now. Life moved on from the unbeatable dragon and the unkillable kraken. Now the real monsters use people like pawns and stab you in the back the moment you’re no longer worth their time.”

Salvation looks away, pondering his own inner demons. As he tries to recollect his history and his past, clouds roll across his memories, blotting out his vision. Salvation drifts away from thought and observes the fog as it passes by. What secrets lie hidden in there? he wonders. What things hide beyond that impenetrable wall?

“Hey, you listening to me?”

Salvation perks up out of his reverie. “Sorry, you were saying?”

“I asked you a question.”

“I’m sorry, I missed it.”

“I figured. It wasn’t that important anyways.”

“It sounds like it was.”

“It’s just…” Bennie gestures vaguely. “I don’t know, I just don’t understand.”

Salvation quirks his head, curious.

“I don’t understand a lot of things,” Bennie says. “I don’t understand why people have to be so evil, why they have to use each other like a craftsman uses his tools. I don’t understand why there has to be so much violence and hatred and misery in the world—in both our worlds. I haven’t even met Riel yet and all I know is that I’m supposed to fight him. What if he turns out to be really nice? Maybe I can reason with him and get him to stop whatever it is he’s doing.”

She sighs, rubbing her arms. Fire sparks off her skin.

“I’ve been here for a while now, but also for not that long at all, and no matter how much I learn about myself or learn about the world, it feels like I’m not learning anything at all. I still don’t even know why I was called to Renea in the first place.” She looks up at Salvation, her brown eyes brimming with curiosity. “I guess that leaves one question: do you know why Renea brought me here?”

“I’m hardly the type of person—” He shakes his head. “I’m hardly the type of creature who should talk about philosophy, about why things happen, why they don’t, or what it all means in the end. I’m still seeking my own truths; it wouldn’t be right to answer your truths for you.” Salvation smiles shortly. “That being said, you must have been brought here for a reason. How did you get to Renea?”

“I was playing a game with some friends,” Bennie explains. “There was this flash of blue light, and the next thing I knew I was on my back with a huge headache. Everything after that just spiraled towards, well…” She sweeps her arm around her. “Towards this.”

Salvation looks toward the forest. “Let’s entertain a thought. Assume Renea’s soul—the Essence of the World, if you would—called you here all the way from Earth, your home. Why would she do it? Surely not out of spite nor out of desire for a greater population.”

“Maybe out of fear?”

Salvation grimaces. “Not what I was going for, but sure, let’s suppose it was fear. What would cause an entire world to feel fear? What exists out there that threatens Renea’s very soul?”

The image of the man with the magenta eyes plants itself at the forefront of Bennie’s mind. She doesn’t answer, unsure of how to phrase her response.

“It may very well be fear,” Salvation continues. “Privileged Heroes revel in their sloth in Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. A sickness chokes the life out of the once beautiful Cemetery. Dark magic thrums in the ground, in the air. We may be at peace for now, but you’d be a fool not to see the storm on the horizon.”

A storm… Bennie looks up. “What can we do to stop it?”

“If there’s any place to find answers, it’s the astral realm. And if there’s anyone in the astral realm who’s likely to know anything about Renea’s soul, it’s the Lady of the Woods.” He chuckles drily. “All the more reason to visit her.”

Bennie forces a laugh. “This is all hypothetical, right? Renea didn’t really call me because it’s afraid of something, right? This is all smoke-and-mirror speculation.”

Salvation smiles grimly. “Sure, Bennie. Smoke and mirrors.”

The conversation dwindles. Bennie keeps her eyes facing forward, though doubts tumble about inside her. Why else would Renea have called me? Maybe it was just sick of the Heroes not adventuring. Yeah, that’s it! It wanted someone proactive to jump on the opportunity! She nods. That’s it. That’s the real reason.

However, her logic feels baseless. She grinds her teeth in silent agony and wishes Stanley was nearby. He would know why Renea called them.

Salvation entertains neither thought nor emotion. He simply floats at Bennie’s side, his eyes tracing the edges of the buildings of Lakeshire, Haven of the Spirit World. The forest ahead looms forebodingly, and though he tries to fight it, Salvation can’t help but feel a heavy weight sink into where his stomach used to be.

Please, he prays silently. Please let the Lady of the Woods have the answers I seek.

Chapter Two

[]Deals

Somewhere in Magnus’s Cemetery

Scott opens his eyes to a grey sky and a pounding headache.

“Damn it!” he shouts. “Every single time!”

Pain shoots up his spine and throws a wild party in his skull. Headaches. Why is it always a headache? Scott tries to sit up and get his bearings, but stars burst in front of him. He slumps back to the ground with a groan. Jinas is beside him not a moment later, a washcloth in hand.

“Give it to me straight,” Scott says. “Who’d I kill this time?”

“No one.” Jinas dabs the washcloth on Scott’s forehead. “You talked to some dead people and then passed out. It could have been much worse.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t.” Scott waves Jinas away. “Where are we? What day is it?”

“We haven’t moved since you passed out; that was two days ago.”

“That’s it?” Scott sits up, grinding his teeth against his body’s protests. “You sure nothing else happened?”

“Considering I’m the only person a day’s walk in any direction, I’d take my word for it.” Jinas gently guides Scott back to the ground. “I warned you to not push yourself too hard, and look where you ended up. Now I have to play doctor yet again until you’re fixed.”

“I’ll heal,” Scott says. “It should only take me a few minutes to get that burst of energy. Once that hits I’ll be on my feet and ready to adventure before you can say—” A jolt of pain flashes through him and he groans involuntarily.

Jinas smirks. “Before you can say…?”

Scott shifts himself. “Give it a few minutes. It’ll come.”

“No, it won’t. You’ve run out of stamina. There’s nothing you can do now but wait, rest, and heal.” Jinas folds his arms. “So since you’re here, we might as well clear the air. Katrina left a couple nights ago. What did you say to make her leave?”

Scott is silent for a moment, but then he relents. “I told her that I wasn’t a native Renean—that I was from Earth. Then she stood up and ran away.” He looks up. “You don’t think I scared her away just from that, do you?”

I’m still having a hard time believing you came from another planet. You walk, talk, and have the same anatomy as a Renean. I thought you might be going insane when you first told me.” Scott goes to protest, but Jinas holds up a hand. “But as you described Earth, I became convinced you were who you said you were. I believe now, as I did then, that you’re an alien.” He snickers. “That sounds a little silly, calling you an alien.”

“Who’s an alien?” Scott once again goes to sit up, only to flop backwards, pain surging through his body. “You’re the alien, here. I’m a human.”

“Is that what you call your race? Humans?”

“Yeah. The human race.”

“I’ve never heard the words ‘earth’ or ‘human’ before. I don’t think any Renean has.” Jinas rubs his chin in thought. “Is this what it feels like to know an alien?”

“Regardless of who’s an alien, it’s obvious that we have a few problems here, none of which involve races.” Scott holds up a hand, counting off. “One, that burst of healing hasn’t come; it’s been almost two minutes. Two, Katrina is missing. She needs to come back as soon as possible because we need her.”

“What makes you think we need her? Look Scott, no offense to your girlfriend, but she didn’t serve much of a purpose for us. She showed up, killed some Shades, got us lost in the wilderness, and then disappeared. She served only as a strange, tertiary backdrop to our initially two-person quest.” He places a hand on Scott’s arm. “If you ask me, I think she meant to get us lost out here in the first place.”

An image passes through Scott’s mind of Katrina hunched over a black and red goblet, talking to a voice an impossible distance away. Drew’s name had popped up, along with the traits “stubborn” and “stupid”, which meant it was definitely Drew.

“I’m sure she’s got a lot on her mind,” says Scott. “I think talking to her about my origins scared her off. Not everyone is level-headed when they learn they’re not alone in the universe.”

“But she wouldn’t run away from that alone. Something else must have set her off, something you said or did.” Jinas rubs his chin in thought. “Come to think of it, we never learned the source of her powers. She could have been working for Salvation from the beginning. This would be the perfect time for his Shades to strike—fresh from a coma, when you’re vulnerable.”

Scott sighs; it’s time to come clean. “The night Katrina left the camp, she went into the wilderness with a goblet that allowed her to talk to someone who wasn’t physically with her.”

“Telepathy fire!” Jinas exclaims. “That’s very advanced magic.”

“I was curious, so I left to spy on her. She talked with someone named Roger out in Cebral’s Ocean. They talked about how they were something called Emissaries; I think they watch over the Heroes and keep them from getting seriously injured. That’s reason enough for me to believe Katrina has my best interests in mind.”

“But even if she is an Emissary,” Jinas says, “where do her powers come from? Magic-wielding non-Heroic Reneans are extremely rare, close to one every thirty generations, perhaps even longer than that.”

“But it’s still a chance,” Scott says. “Katrina is somewhere out in the Cemetery alone, scared out of her wits because of something I told her. I need to see her again so I can make things right.”

“Why do you need her? She hasn’t helped us at all and our journey has just begun. We have a lot of ground to cover before we get to the Royal Crypt. You and I both know Katrina was one of those people who showed up for a brief stint, got bored, and then left because the excitement died.” Jinas leans in close. “Do you really want that kind of negativity in your life?”

Scott laughs. “You sound like my dad.”

“I feel like it.” He sits back and crosses his arms. “So what are you going to do next?”

“Probably something stupid.”

“You’ve already done that—multiple times, might I add.”

“Take care,” Scott grins. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Be back? What are you—”

Scott’s eyes flash blue and his body rockets into the air, tossing up a cloud of dust. He ascends so high that Jinas becomes a speck on an infinitely large field of short, dry grass. Scott pauses for just a moment and mentally scans the area, his heart pounding fast enough to vibrate. A faint glimmer of intelligence catches his radar and Scott races off towards it, ripping a path through the clouds and leaving a trail of blue magic in his wake.

Back on the ground, Jinas’s waving arms and pleas fall on deaf ears. As Scott disappears over the horizon, Jinas stops jumping and shouting. He takes a step forward, then yells a profanity and kicks his water bucket into the grass.

“Hey, that wasn’t very nice. What’d the bucket ever do to you?”

A single chord sings through the air, plucked from a string instrument. A memory of a familiar night flashes through Jinas’s mind—he doesn’t have to turn to see who’s behind him.

“What are you doing here?” Jinas asks.

“Just making my rounds. By the looks of things, I made it here just seconds after Scott left. Shame. I had a fantastic ragtime tune to play for him.” The man plucks a quick succession of notes in a ragtime fashion. “Fun little jig, really. He would have loved it.”

“What do you want?” Jinas says angrily, turning to face the stranger. “I’m not in the mood for mysterious shenanigans.”

“I know where Katrina is and I want to take you to her.”

Jinas narrows his eyes.

“Hey, you didn’t want mysterious shenanigans.” The man plucks another ragtime succession of notes on his lute. “I’m hurt, you know, that you didn’t take my lute when I gave it to you. You could have been playing her like a pro by now. Why didn’t you take it?”

“I had other things on my mind.”

“Oh really?” He grins. “Like trying not to get caught sneaking off to meet a mysterious man in the dark?”

“No, more like wondering why you insinuated that Gerrich the Mountain Bandit is my brother.”

“Because he is,” the man says, as if it were the most obvious truth in the world. “You know, a lot of bad things would stop happening if people actually listened to me once in a while.” He plucks another ragtime succession, but then he frowns. “Speaking of bad things, did you hear that line? Kalax’s boot, I’m falling out of practice.”

“I’ll ask again: why are you here?” The stranger looks up to see Jinas’s determined frown. “You want people to trust you, right? You can start by answering questions without being vague. You said you want to take me to Katrina. Why?”

“Let’s just say that the stars are about to align quite unfavorably, and that it’s in your best interests to not be with Scott when that happens.”

“Oh, I see what you’re doing. You’re trying to drive a wedge between us so you can swoop in and use Scott for your own sinister purposes.” Jinas folds his arms. “It’s not going to work.”

“No?” He strums another chord. “You think so?”

“I made a promise. Now get lost, your face makes me sick.”

“My, aren’t we testy! Why don’t you be a little nicer? I’m trying to help you get back to Katrina, if you haven’t noticed. Don’t you want to see if she’s okay? Scott seemed pretty concerned about finding her again, and considering he’s your patient…” He shrugs. “If I was a doctor and he was my patient, I’d do anything to make sure he feels happy. Maybe that makes me a better doctor than you’ll ever be.” The stranger quirks his head. “Don’t you feel like you have a moral obligation to him?”

“Don’t lecture me about how to handle my patients. Who do you think you are?”

“I’m nobody, at least according to every history book and ancient story that inhabits this planet.” He fixes Jinas with a look. “You seem concerned.”

“Concerned about you.” Jinas looks the man over. “You’re an impossible read. I can’t tell if you’re going to hurt me or help me.”

“I simply show up exactly when it’s inconvenient, because that’s actually the most convenient time. Reneans have a tendency to procrastinate until the last minute, and that’s exactly when I show up—just as everyone is rushing to get things done.”

Jinas sighs. “So you pride yourself on being annoying.”

“Nonsense. I give sound advice, but I never give it at a time when people will listen to me. Perhaps that’s my fault, but I like doing it that way: it shows me who the smart people are. My advice is very important, after all—almost cataclysmically so.” The man grins widely. “So will you listen to my cataclysmically important advice or will you ignore it like everyone else?”

Jinas appraises the man carefully. His clothes are the exact same as they were when they first met: a blue cloak with a hood, a black shirt, and brown trousers. Messy brown hair and magenta eyes. He holds a lute in his hands, a wide grin on his face. Something stirs in Jinas, taking root in his stomach that is singularly so heavy he can’t bear it and yet so light he can barely feel it.

Look, he tells himself, this is the only lead you’ve got right now. Just play along until you find Katrina. If he does anything shady, run fast and don’t look back.

“What advice,” Jinas starts slowly, “do you have for me?”

“I already gave you it. Weren’t you listening?”

“I…” Jinas trails off. “I thought I was listening.”

“It happens to everyone. You’re hardly the first, and you definitely won’t be the last.”

“Well I don’t know what to do.”

“Worry not, we’ll do exactly what should be done. In this case, that means going off to find Katrina. She’s a key player in the upcoming endgame, at least so I’ve been told.” The man slings his lute over his back and starts off into the Cemetery, opposite the direction of where Scott had flown.

Jinas hesitates. The singularly heavy and singularly light feeling drops into his stomach again. It feels like apprehension—perhaps anxiety, or even fear. The man pauses in his walk and Jinas tenses up. Magic crackles in the air as he fixes Jinas with a glance.

“Are you coming or not?”

“I…” Jinas falters. “I’m not sure I can trust you.”

“Remember what I said about people who don’t listen and the bad things that happen to them.” He holds out a hand. “If you’ll be the one person who trusts me, I promise I’ll take you to Katrina. I promise I’ll lead you to success.”

Jinas looks at the man’s hand, hesitation fluttering in his stomach.

“Hurry. Retribution is coming.”

With a suppressed sigh, Jinas takes the hand. The man grins and pulls Jinas forwards. They start off together towards the horizon, Jinas’s heart pounding and the stranger’s eyes glowing. The dried grass crunches under their feet, the grey sky looming overhead like an impending shadow.

In the distance, a bright blue light flashes, lighting up the sky before quickly dimming to nothingness.

Katrina looks over her shoulder as a blue light flashes on the horizon. Could that be…?

“Katrina?”

She turns as Malakai the peddler comes around the corner of the treeline, a bag over his shoulder.

“Oh good,” he says with a sigh, “you’re still here. I was worried you wandered off.”

“Did you find anything?” she asks.

“Some animal trails, but no sign of any Shades. The road looks clear, too. Any luck over here?”

“No. Either Salvation’s created a new breed of Shade stealthier than a flea or there are no Shades anywhere around us.” Katrina looks over her shoulder again. “If we’re lucky, perhaps there aren’t any Shades left in the whole Cemetery.”

Malakai laughs. “That’d be the craziest thing. Imagine how much product I could sell!” He turns, then pauses. “Why are we looking for Shades again?”

“A friend of mine attracts them like fire attracts moths. If he’s anywhere close, Shades are bound to be nearby.” Katrina shoulders her backpack. “If we can find a big cluster of them, we can find one who’s willing to talk.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with those friends you mentioned earlier, does it?”

Katrina pauses. “No,” she says. “It’s unrelated.”

“That’s a shame. I would love to meet them someday.” Malakai adjusts his bag. “I’m going to pack up camp and get ready to move. The nearest town is a day and a half away and my supplies are running low. Having to feed two people will do that to you, though! I should have packed better.” He looks Katrina over. “What are you going to do next?”

“I have a few options,” she says. “I can look for the Shades or I can look for my friends. If I find the Shades, I’ll likely find my friends. But if I find my friends, the Shades will not be far behind. There’s bound to be trouble no matter what I do.”

“How do you figure?”

“Call it intuition. My friends are strong, but without me they’re helpless. One of them is gifted in medicine but is entirely useless in battle. The other is so incredibly stupid that if he faced dirt in a strategy game he’d be outwitted before he even sat down.”

Malakai smiles. “I can tell you have a lot of love for them. That brings us back to my question: what are you going to do next?”

“I don’t know. There’re too many risks with my options, and too many options to take a risk. If I make one mistake, I could end up dead or put all of us in danger.” She shakes her head. “I don’t want to get you killed, Malakai. You’ve got many years ahead of you.”

“I’ve got years ahead of me? You’re younger than I am, you know.”

Buddy, if only you knew. “Yes, well…” Katrina sighs. “I don’t think I have time to make a reasonable decision. I’ll just have to take a chance and hope I get lucky.”

“Luck is good! I wouldn’t have a job without luck.” Malakai turns. “Well, you’d better get going. I’m sure I can find you if you wander too far—seems I’ve almost got a knack for it.” He steps away, approaching the treeline.

“Malakai, wait.”

The peddler pauses. Katrina runs up to him and plants a gentle kiss on his cheek.

“Thank you,” she says. “For everything.”

“You’re very welcome.” A small smile is on Malakai’s face. “If you need me, just sit tight and listen for the sound of my cart. I promise I’ll come find you.”

Katrina squeezes his shoulder reassuringly. She then takes up her backpack, says a brief good-bye, and walks away from Malakai’s camp and back into the Cemetery. Katrina walks for several long minutes in no particular direction, the sun blotted out by long grey clouds, a calm breeze in the air. She reaches back and ties her long black hair into a bun.

A screech echoes across the grassland, sending a cold chill up her spine. Katrina whips around to see a black shadow dart between the cluster of trees near Malakai’s camp.

Her heart in her throat, Katrina sprints back to the treeline as fast as her legs can carry her. An explosion comes from nearby, along with sounds of a struggle. She screams Malakai’s name; he screams hers back. She crashes through the trees towards the camp, throwing the branches aside.

Just as she reaches the clearing, a large black Shade plunges a shadowy claw into Malakai’s chest. His body goes rigid, a gasp on his lips. White hot bile rises in Katrina’s throat and she screams, red hot fury thundering through her veins. The Shade immediately turns in her direction, as does Malakai. He looks confused, unsure if Katrina is real or not.

Hot red magic flows off her body in waves, saturating the campsite with power. The Shade rips its claw from Malakai’s chest, leaving a gaping hole that exposes the man’s lungs and still-beating heart. It turns to face her, hissing.

Katrina charges the Shade in a blind fury, bolts of angry red lightning flashing off her body. The Shade hesitates, then darts up into the sky. Katrina leaps with it and seizes the darkness of its cloak. With a heave of effort, Katrina flings the creature back to the ground. She drops back to the dirt and lands with a puf of smoke, her teeth clenched in rage. Malakai lies unmoving on the ground behind her.

“New threat,” the Shade says, pulling itself from the crater. “Must be extinguished.”

“Come over here and try it!”

The Shade rears up to full height—nearly eight feet tall—before sinking its claws into the ground. Cracks spider-web across the ground and shards of earth jut upward. Light brown magic flows from the Shade’s murky body; it giggles with delight. Katrina darts between the rocks and tackles the Shade out of its position, pinning it. The Shade fades into the ground with a throaty laugh.

“Where am I?” The Shade’s voice comes from everywhere. Katrina looks around for an indicator of where it could be. “Am I in the trees? Am I under your feet? Where am I, little one?”

“I don’t have time for this,” Katrina growls.

She throws her hands high into the air. Pausing for a mere heartbeat, Katrina brings her fists together and sends an electric shockwave through the air. Waves of red lightning discharge from her body, rippling through the ground and jumping up the trees. A screech of surprise comes from her right, followed by a shadowed form leaping up from the ground.

“Stings! It stings!” The Shade frantically brushes red bolts of lightning from its body. One bolt snakes around the Shade with a jubilant flair, sending multiple shocks through its head. The Shade drops from the sky and crashes to the ground. It wheezes and twitches, coils of lightning arcing across its black form.

Katrina runs over to Malakai. She kneels at his side, hands hovering over the wide gash in his chest. She looks away for a moment, the sight of his exposed organs too much to take in all at once.

“I should have stayed,” she says when she regains her composure. Malakai looks at her, gasping for breath. “I should have stayed with you.”

“And be at death’s door like me?” Malakai forces a laugh. “Hardly seems fair to you.”

“I’d rather be in your shoes. I’ve been looking for death for a very long time, but it never comes for me.” Katrina gives him a sad look. “Only for the people I care about.”

“You’ve got a Shade now,” Malakai wheezes. “Make him take you to Salvation. The Master of Shades will tell you what you need to know, I…” He chokes, blood spilling from his lips. “I know it.”

“What about you? I can’t just leave you here.”

Malakai laughs again, pain in his voice. “My journey is over, Katrina. I know it is. You still have my music box, right?”

“Of course,” she says.

“Keep it safe, and when you listen to it, think about me. I don’t care that I didn’t change the world. I don’t care that I didn’t save anyone’s life. If just one person will remember me after I’m gone, I’ll have truly lived.” Malakai sighs, his chest rattling like a clogged pipe. “I met a mystic once who told me my destiny was tied to a group of stars. Did I tell you that?”

“You did, yes.” Katrina wipes the blood from Malakai’s lips. “You said that you never even knew the name of the stars.”

“Never figured it out, but I did notice something special about them last night. If I looked at them just right, they almost looked like your face.” Malakai turns to look her in the eyes. “Could it be a coincidence, or is it really destiny?”

Katrina falters, unsure of what to say.

“If it really was destiny, then I’ve been a puppet all my life, dancing to a tune I don’t recognize in a theater full of foreign, empty faces.” Malakai grins, his eyes going foggy. “But if it wasn’t destiny, then it was the best damn coincidence that’s ever happened to me.” He chuckles, then coughs, then goes still. Katrina pulls away as his head rolls to the side.

With a huff, she marches over to the Shade. She takes a fistful of its cloak and jerks its face off the ground.

“You,” she says, “are going to take me to your master.”

“Not possible,” it breathes. “Retribution has no home.”

“I’m talking about Salvation. You’re going to take me to see Salvation.”

It laughs—a hollow, empty sound. “Salvation is weak. I don’t follow him anymore.”

“He’s the Master of Shades. You have to follow him.”

“What do you know of Shades?” it hisses angrily. “You think I’m bound to Salvation by some kind of unbreakable oath? I follow only who I feel I should follow, and I don’t follow Salvation anymore. He came, he existed, and he endured. Now he’s nothing but a lifeless bronze statue. Why would I follow a hunk of metal when Retribution offers so much more?”

“Retribution?” Katrina’s rage cools for the moment, giving way to curiosity. “What’s Retribution?”

“Everything that Salvation is not.” The Shade groans again and feebly swipes at Katrina’s hand. “Let me go.”

Her rage comes back full-force. “I don’t care who you worship now; you’re taking me to see Salvation.” Her eyes glow bright red, lightning sparking through her black hair. “I know you remember how to get to his lair. If you want to go back to this Retribution character, you’re going to drop me at Salvation’s door first.”

The Shade looks at Katrina. “What does Salvation have that you so desperately need?”

“Answers.” She tightens her first, electricity arcing across her knuckles. “Now are you going to make this easy or am I going to have to make it really painful?”

The Shade relents and flattens itself on the ground. Katrina climbs on to its back, digs her hands into the dry cloak, and holds on. The ground drops away from her and tendrils of darkness spread in every direction as the Shade screeches across the sky. Katrina does her best to block out the deafening noise, shielding her eyes from the lacerating wind.

After several minutes in flight, the Shade dips into a slow descent and the wind becomes less biting. Katrina looks up to see that dried grass has given way to rocks and twisted briar. A large, umbrella-like tree looms on the horizon; dark grey clouds hang low overhead, waiting for the perfect moment to turn into a storm. The Shade physically tenses as it draws close to the tree. Katrina pats its back reassuringly, though she doesn’t know why.

The Shade dips lower, weaving through the briar with ease. Katrina keeps herself pressed against its back until the Shade pulls to a stop. The large tree—Salvation’s Hideaway—towers before them. Katrina climbs off its back.

“This is as far as I take you,” the creature says. Then, with another shriek, the Shade rockets into the air and vanishes from sight.

Katrina appraises the mass of the Hideaway, complete silence all around her. No Shades chatter from the shadows, nor do they flicker in and out of view like ghosts. Everything is unnaturally still, as if the very breath of life has been drained away.

She starts toward the tree trunk, pebbles crunching underfoot and echoing across the empty expanse. At the very bottom of the Hideaway is the opening of a tunnel leading into sheer darkness.

For reassurance, Katrina closes her eyes and lets the magic come to her. Raw power, addictive and nauseating, pumps through her heart like battery acid and a faint red light emanates from her body. She presses her hand against the rock doorframe, suppressing a sigh of delight. With Katrina, magic is always a sensual experience. Each pore pulses with life and her body leaks energy, filling her with pep and zest. The urge to turn around and hurl lightning bolts at the sky is overwhelming.

Instead, Katrina forces herself forward and makes her way into Salvation’s lair. The tunnel is circular and slopes upward, but there are no steps on the floor. She ascends with measured caution, aware that one misplaced step could mean a broken ankle or a nasty slide back down the tunnel. Her red aura casts a long pool of light ahead of her, but even after several minutes of walking, all she sees is an endless sea of darkness.

Just as Katrina is about to turn back, a sound comes from up ahead—two people are talking. She puts her magic on a simmer and creeps forward. A pink glow comes from the end of the tunnel.

“I know you’re there,” calls a brassy voice. “Come out and face me.”

She lowers herself to the ground, setting her teeth hard. He’s bluffing. He’s got to be.

“Face you?” says a second voice. Katrina half-yelps; she quickly covers her mouth. “You say that like I’m purposefully hiding from you. I can assure you I meant to do no such thing.”

“Speak your mind,” says Salvation. “My time is short.”

“I just came by to visit. I was in the neighborhood and thought you could use some company.”

“I’m fine on my own. If that’s all you wanted to say, you should leave.”

“I brought this for you.” A hollow thump echoes down the tunnel. “I found this in a library in the Peaks. It looks like something you’d enjoy reading.”

“A Brief History of the Ancient Age, by Sal the Bright.” Pages ruffle. “I hate history. It’s a very boring subject.”

“Keep reading, maybe you’ll find something interesting within the pages.” A pause, as if the second voice had prepared to leave but thought against it. “Scott’s in trouble.”

Katrina’s heart skips a beat. Salvation chuckles. “Is that so?”

“You bet it is. I watched him force his body to fly two citystrides after what you did to him a few days ago. He had just woken up, too. Oh, you should have seen Jinas’s face! He was beyond furious.”

Katrina pounds her fist against the floor. Damn you, Scott!

“Poisoning Scott’s mind is taking longer than it should,” says the Master of Shades. “He’s resilient—far more resilient than I expected he would be.” A sound like cloth sliding across the floor moves past the tunnel entrance. The pink light glow a little brighter. “The longer this takes, the greater chance I have of losing.”

“Yes, well, we don’t want that, now do we? This realm will be better off for everyone if you succeed. It’ll be a dance, a jig, and a sweet round of ragtime tunes when you finally win.”

Katrina freezes, petrified as an old presence from an eternity ago sweeps through her chest. It can’t be… It couldn’t be him

“Where are my Shades? The Hideaway is unusually quiet.”

“Ah, I figured you’d ask. I’m not the one who can give you an answer, but I know someone who can. You see, our conversation isn’t as private as you think it is. There’s a third pair of ears listening from the shadows.” The voice pauses; when it speaks again, it’s much louder, calling out. “Isn’t that right, Katrina?”

It’s him… she thinks, suddenly panicked. It’s actually him!

Katrina stays very, very still, too mortified to do anything else. Her heart pounds like a drum in her ears. For a moment, everything is silent. The pink light from Salvation’s Glow stays subdued and gentle. Then, without warning, the pink light floods the tunnel. A shadowy claw reaches in and snatches Katrina by the back of her black hair. She screams as she’s pulled from the darkness and into Salvation’s main hall.

The Master of Shades palms Katrina, then brings her up to his face. She leans back on her haunches, dumbfounded at his sheer size. Salvation’s face is nearly triple her height and she sits in his palm like a tiny insect. Katrina looks over the sides of Salvation’s massive hand—the floor of the main hall is dozens of yards away. Salvation’s murky body pools on the ground, a pink light coming from the center of his chest. She turns to look into his face.

His expression shows no hint of anger. In fact, he appears intrigued, as if Katrina is the single most amazing artifact he’s ever discovered. Her initial feelings of fear die down, replaced by a sense of wonder. She realizes that she’s probably the only living Renean to ever come face-to-face with the Master of Shades himself.

“So,” he says, “your name is Katrina.”

“And you must be Salvation. I didn’t expect you to be so…” She looks over the edge of his hand again. “Big.”

Salvation barks a loud laugh, then begins to shrink. Katrina jumps out of his hand and lands smoothly on her feet. When she looks again, Salvation stands at a more agreeable seven feet tall—just enough to intimidate, but not impossible to talk to.

“I don’t like eavesdroppers,” says Salvation. “Unless you want to have one nasty ending to your story, I recommend you tell me why you’re here.”

Katrina looks around Salvation’s body. “Where did the other one go?”

“He comes and goes as he pleases.” Salvation moves in front of Katrina, blocking her view. “Tell me why you’re here.”

“One of your Shades killed a friend of mine today.”

Salvation offers a mirthless smile. “Do you expect an apology?”

“I expect answers. Why did it attack Malakai and not me? What purpose does it serve to kill an innocent man? Do you really think you can just order Shades to kill whoever you want?”

Salvation slowly takes in a breath. A menacing aura radiates from him, the air crackling with tension. Katrina clenches her fists.

“So many questions,” Salvation says. “Some sound like accusations, and I don’t like being accused of things I didn’t do.”

“You’re the Master of Shades. You have dominion and responsibility over all the Shades on Renea. If a Shade kills a Renean man, you’re directly responsible for his death.”

“Don’t lecture me. I know exactly what my responsibilities are.” Salvation slides backward. “Did a cluster of Shades attack you and your friend, or was it only one?”

“Just one. It tried to use brown magic on me.”

Salvation grins, wisps of pink magic curling from his mouth. “So they’re beginning to evolve on their own. That’s wonderful news.”

“How is that wonderful? Did you miss the part where I said your Shade attacked an innocent man unprovoked?”

“Did he lead you here, the Shade that killed your friend?”

“I forced him to. Had I known how empty this place would be, I wouldn’t have come.” Katrina looks around. “A Hideaway without Shades is… Eerie. I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I.” Salvation slides back farther, concealing his body in darkness until only his pink Glow can be seen. “It was foolish of you to come here and tell me these things, especially now that my Hideaway is empty and neither of us know why.” He goes quiet and his Glow dims. “Where are my Shades?” he asks softly. “What happened to them?”

“I may have an idea,” Katrina says. “Your Shade said that it had left you for a new Master, whom it called Retribution.”

“Did it?” Salvation lets out a slow, ponderous sigh. “One more thing to deal with, then.”

“What about my friend?”

“Your friend lies where he lies. Let the worms take care of him.” His Glow fades and he becomes a disembodied voice in the shadows. “Leave me. I have much work to do.”

“What about Scott?” Katrina presses. “Are you going to kill him?”

“If I can, I will.” Salvation is silent for a moment. “What do you know about the Hero?”

“Enough to know he’s too important to kill.”

“You’re a friend of his, then?”

Friend? Katrina bites her tongue. “You could say that, I suppose.”

“How interesting.” Salvation suddenly glides out from the darkness, his face set in deep thought. “On account of the information you’ve given me, I’ll hold off on killing Scott—for now. Retribution has stolen my Shades and I need to discover how and why. Until I do, you may consider the Hero off my kill list.”

“Just like that? You’re not going to try to make a deal, then stab me in the back later?”

“What purpose would it serve to do such a thing? You have nothing to offer me.” Salvation turns away, clasping his shadowy hands behind his back. “You can leave now. We have nothing left to discuss.”

Katrina walks back towards the hole in the main hall. She pauses at the doorframe. “What were you so involved in,” she says, “that caused you missed the exodus of all your Shades?”

“Research,” Salvation says, his back to Katrina. He slides toward the edge of the main hall, lost in thought. Katrina inclines her head, then disappears back into the tunnel.

Salvation stares at the wall ahead of him. He wants nothing more than to return to his research in the astral realm; the Lady of the Woods is the only one who can give him true answers. He reaches out and places a hand on the tree bark. An image passes through his head: warm sunlight, fresh breeze, and cool, green grass. A voice—melodious like a harp—calls out to him. Something bubbles up inside, clogging his throat and sending a shiver through his spectral body.

“What does it mean?” Salvation digs his claws into the wood; fresh pulp and splinters of wood run down the length of his arm. “What do all these images mean? Are they memories, or are they visions of what’s to come? What does it mean?”

Salvation pulls his claw from the wood and inspects it. Four fingers and a thumb, along with a flat palm. A human hand.

What does it mean?

“Stupid. This was unbelievably stupid.”

Scott Cornot braces himself against the ground in the middle of an empty field. A small group of tall, thin trees lies directly ahead, offering refuge from the elements. He coughs long and hard; blood speckles the yellow grass in front of him. He wipes his mouth clean with the back of his hand. As is typical of his day-to-day life, Scott’s head pounds as if being beaten on with a hammer.

You’ve been stupid before, Scott says to himself, but this is a whole new level. You’ve got to be stupid on your own, now. Man up; this is what it’s all about. He grits his teeth and stands, his vision swimming. This is what the real Heroes are made of.

Scott stumbles forward, his legs throbbing and his heart slamming into his ribs. The thought of the shade under the nearby group of trees is the only thing propelling him forward, but despite seeming so close, they look impossibly far away. A haze settles over his mind, his steps uncertain and erratic. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to gauge the distance he still has to cover.

The dull grey sky burns like a billion suns against Scott’s tired eyes. He waves his hand haphazardly, trying to catch his fingers against a branch or tree limb. The world spins and brightens. Scott stumbles again, unable to keep his balance. Each breath becomes tantamount to swallowing coal and each step sends painful ripples into his brain. Each heartbeat feels like the beating of a giant drum.

With a gasp and a final wobbling step, Scott collapses under the shade of the arbor. He crawls to the closest tree and props himself up against the bark. A cool wind blows through the trees and Scott shivers involuntarily. Blood leaks from his nose.

“Pushed too hard,” he breathes. “So stupid.”

“All Heroes tend to push too hard,” says a snake-like voice, drawing out S sounds. “Do you really think you are any different?”

“Leave him be,” says a second voice, speaking as if struggling for air. “He’s had it hard enough.”

Scott looks up. Two dark shapes sit across from him against the opposite group of trees. He squints, unsure if it’s his headache or his eyes that’s causing his vision to blur. The shapes shift, seeming to settle themselves into a more comfortable position.

“Does it feel good, Hero?” asks the snake-like voice. “Does it feel good to burst with energy, only to have it bite you when you’ve pushed yourself too far?”

“I said leave him be!” shouts the asphyxiated voice. It coughs horribly. “You have no room to say such things; put your bitterness away. Our time to seize power has passed and it is not coming back.”

“Who are you?” Scott says, rubbing his eyes. “What’s wrong with your throat?”

The haze clears from his vision, revealing the two dark shapes to be… Two dark shapes, one blue and one black. The blue one has green eyes and three fingers on each hand. The black one’s face shifts between shapeless horror and a partial skull. Scott presses himself against the tree.

Shades.

“Get back,” he warns, holding out a trembling hand. “I have enough power to tear you both to pieces. I’ll do it, I swear to God I will!”

The shapeless Shade sighs, turning away. “Go ahead, kill me. Perhaps it’s for the best that I die here. I would rather die by the hand of a Hero than be corrupted by Retribution. Death’s embrace cannot come soon enough.”

“Ignore that one,” says the blue, breathless Shade. “It’s had a very long day to say the least.” The Shade casts a long look at the ground. “We both have.”

Scott keeps his hand forward. “Rough day terrorizing the realm?”

“Your sarcasm is delightful,” spits the black Shade. “If you knew what we’ve lost you wouldn’t act so condescending.”

“Oh really? Enlighten me.”

The shapeless Shade bristles, black tendrils coiling angrily. “Tell me, Hero. Have you ever been bonded to a savior’s spirit—lashed to a will greater than your own? Have you ever felt dwarfed by its power and magnitude? I have. I felt safe when I was in Salvation’s presence. I felt happy.” Fury burns in its eyes. “Imagine that being torn from you. Imagine every shred of happiness you once felt being dashed to the ground like a piece of cheap pottery. No more sense of belonging. No more sense of safety—just an endless emptiness inside that nothing can fill.” The Shade’s face pauses as a skeleton skull before becoming formless again. “Have you ever felt such a severance?”

“No,” Scott says. His outstretched arm drops into his lap. “I’ve never felt that before.”

“Our Master is gone,” says the blue Shade. “Salvation has become silent. Without him, we no longer have a meaning in life. We are Shades. We terrorize and pillage and ruin, but we only do it because Salvation says so. Now he’s gone and we have no teachings, no purpose, and no hope.”

“You should be happy,” says Scott. “With him out of the way, you have free reign to live your own lives. You don’t have to kill or hurt people anymore.”

“Salvation was our source of life and joy and direction. We might have been doing objectively evil deeds, but they were for a purpose we believed in. Salvation took us in when we were lost and showed us the way to a better world.” The blue Shade sighs, its body deflating. “Without his guidance, we are lost.”

“Think for yourselves, then. There must be something out there you want to do—something out there you believe in.”

“There is no point,” says the black Shade, “without Salvation.”

Scott slaps his hands on his legs in frustration. “I’ve never met such a sorry pair of creatures in my entire life! Salvation can’t always be around to hold your hand! You have to take hold of your future and do something with it!” Catching himself, he sighs and shakes his head. “I can’t believe I’m lecturing two Shades in the middle of Scenic Nowhere. Dad would be proud.”

The blue Shade sits up a little. “Are you religious, Hero?”

“No, it’s not my style. I’m fine with looking out for number one.”

“But you understand religion, correct?”

Scott shrugs and says nothing.

“Allow me to explain why it’s pointless without Salvation. We Shades are born as purposeless shells with the red Glow. We have no sense of where to go or what to do, so most of the time we wander. Reneans flee from us on sight because we’re frightening, but as a newborn Shade, you have no concept of what’s frightening and what isn’t. You simply wander and look for something extremely important, but you don’t know exactly what it is. Many Shades wander for centuries looking for something they can’t remember. But if you’re lucky, you find Salvation.”

The black Shade leans forward, picking up. “Salvation brings you to his Hideaway. You find beings who are just like you—lost, disoriented, and unsure. Salvation guides you towards something he calls ‘a higher purpose’. You feel something stir inside. Is it a memory? A feeling you once had, now lost to time? Salvation reawakens it inside you. He shows you that if you follow him, you will find what you’ve lost, what you’ve been looking for.”

“He calls it the white Glow,” says the blue Shade. “Not even Salvation himself has achieved it, but he’s the closest of us all. Legend says that once you have the white Glow, you’ve found what you’ve lost. No one knows what happens after that. Some Shades say you become a demigod. Others say you ascend to a world full of light and laughter. Salvation says you become what you were before you became a Shade.”

“Some of us remember much,” the black Shade says. “Some remember nothing at all. I remember only the color blue—a soft, cooling blue that makes me feel at home.”

“I remember a quick wind,” says the blue Shade. “Lots of wind, and moving very fast through that wind, but nothing more. I’m closer now than I’ve ever been. Only a few more tiers to climb.”

Scott takes a long look at the two Shades sitting across from him. They are starting to look less like monsters and more like lost children. In the blue Shade’s green eyes is something seen only in the eyes of the lovesick teenager daydreaming in class. The black Shade’s facial shifts have become slower, lingering on some faces and formless shapes longer than others. Both Shades remain totally silent, lost in their respective thoughts.

Without Salvation they’re lost, Scott realizes. Salvation may be responsible for a lot of evil, but he’s the only one capable of guiding these two.

“Well…” Scott bites his lip. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I guess I have to go and wake up Salvation.”

“He’s very awake,” says the blue Shade. “He’s just remaining silent; no Shade can get him to talk. If he won’t talk, he can’t guide us. That’s why Retribution has stolen so many Shades from Salvation’s hands.”

“Who?”

“A former Shade who once followed the Master. He took up the name to oppose Salvation and his teachings. Retribution disguises his orders as ‘teachings’ and forces the Shades who follow him to destroy and ruin without purpose. They’ve been brainwashed into thinking Salvation left them. However, I know the Master has a reason for hiding himself away. Perhaps we did something wrong.”

“Regardless,” continues the black Shade, “the Shades only follow Retribution because of Salvation’s silence. We two are the only ones who remain loyal to him. I would rather die than join Retribution, but at the same time, I would rather die than see the Master again. I have questions for him, many of which are sure to provoke his anger. And his anger is a terrible, awful thing.”

“Time is short and our break is over,” says the blue Shade. “We must be moving on.” It rises from the ground. The black Shade follows suit. “Salvation is still looking for you, Hero. He still wants you dead. Don’t think our conversation here has changed that.”

“Well if you see him, tell him I’m ready to fight whenever he is.”

The black Shade scoffs—a sound like a puff of smoke. “In your condition, he would kill you with little effort.”

Scott chews over his thoughts before speaking again. “Even if I don’t want to fight, where can I find him?”

“Salvation stays in his Hideaway at the far edge of the Cemetery near the ancient magical barrier that borders the Plains. If you can make it there alive, he might grant you an audience.”

“That far? I can’t go there; it’s too far away from the Royal Crypt.” Scott tries to stand, but he collapses back to the ground. “Are you going back to the Hideaway?”

“There’s no reason,” says the blue Shade. “All of our brothers and sisters have left to either roam or join Retribution. I won’t go back to the Hideaway unless I unlock the white Glow. But to do that, I have to look for what I lost before I became a Shade.”

“I need to see him.” Scott once again tries to stand, but his legs give out and he drops to the ground. “Salvation might have the answers to my questions.”

“Why not ask Magnus?”

“I have no way of contacting him. I haven’t felt his presence in weeks, maybe months—ever since I first came to this world.” Ever since I stole from the Monarch Archive. Scott instinctively places a hand on his chest, feeling for one of the emblems of the gods. Surprisingly, at least one of them is still in its pocket. He hopes the rest are still there.

The black Shade makes a sound like laughter. “Do what you will, Hero, but remember that Salvation is out for blood, and the Master of Shades always wins.”

The Shades levitate off the ground, then fly out from under the cover of the trees, a banshee screech accompanying them as they leave. Scott watches until the Shades are gone from sight, and then he waits until their spectral trails disappear. With nothing but a gentle breeze and some shade to accompany him, Scott puts his mind to work.

He constructs a mental map of his location. The blue Shade headed toward the open Cemetery and the black Shade was on its way toward Monarch. He shapes the realm like a large triangle, setting Monarch at the apex. Doing some quick math, he figures out he’s sitting with his back facing the edge of the Cemetery, specifically the border shared with the Peaks. That puts the Royal Crypt…

Scott looks to his right, slightly over his shoulder.

That puts the Royal Crypt somewhere over there.

Nodding, Scott prepares himself to stand, this time planting a hand firmly against the tree behind him as a brace. With a grunt of effort and a mental kick in the rear, Scott shakily gets to his feet. He immediately leans against the tree and inhales a gulp of air, his body quivering against his will. A cool breeze blows across his face as a bead of sweat rolls down his jaw.

No time to rest. Let’s get moving, champ.

Scott grinds his teeth and pushes himself off of the tree. He wobbles for just a moment before standing still with both legs planted firm. However, he knows moving even a single step will cause his legs to fold. Steeling himself for what will be another painful flight, Scott’s eyes turn bright blue and he forcibly digs deep into his reservoir of magic.

Power thunders through his veins and his heart pounds in his head. His legs lift off the ground and he floats into the air, coming out of the shade of the trees. The dull grey sunlight blasts his eyes with the force of a freight train, threatening to blind him, but Scott holds himself true, focusing on the blue magic coursing through his body.

No need to fly fast or high. Just make progress.

Scott floats forward, wisps of blue magic streaming off his body. The grass, only a few feet away from his toes, bends away from Scott as if clearing a path for royalty. The sparking, crackling sensation of magic keeps Scott attentive and focused. He avoids thinking about things like time, speed, or distance left to travel. He concentrates only on moving forward without his body giving out on him.

Seconds pass. Minutes pass. Perhaps even hours pass. Scott loses concept of both time and space, his only conscious thought the mental map he created in the shade of the trees. He imagines a small blue line being drawn across the map’s surface to denote his progress thus far. Scott chuckles at the thought and mentally doodles a few artistic details to steal more time. A tree here, a collection of houses there, a star for a town…

Then, without warning, Scott’s body locks up.

He gasps, clutching at his throat as his lungs squeeze themselves dry. An angry bolt of blue magic spirals off his body and slams into the ground, kicking up dirt and tearing up grass. A horrific laugh roars in his ear, long and loud and deafening. Scott’s eyes glow with pink magic, his mind being viciously attacked as his body struggles to find a way to expel the intruder.

“Get…” Scott coughs, wheezing for air. He drops closer to the ground, his toes skirting the grass. “Get out…”

Scott lands on the ground and falls to his knees, all but begging for a single breath of air. Panic seizes his stomach and he thrashes wildly. The sinking feeling of an approaching darkness looms just out of sight, waiting to attack and take Scott away forever.

You can pull through this! A voice—Jinas’s voice. Come on, Scott, pull through!

He imagines Jinas alone in the world, without family or friend to help him find his way. Scott bears his teeth and raging blue magic boils in his chest, flooding his arms and burning in his head. He rears back and screams, “GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”

A supersonic shockwave explodes in every direction, splintering the ground around him and annihilating the sparse trees like weak tinder. Blue magic erupts from Scott’s chest and shatters the intrusive magic’s hold. The whole Cemetery trembles in the face of his power. Every living creature within three citystrides flees for cover as the world underneath them shifts dangerously.

Scott coughs as the magic returns to his core. His eyes focus on nothing at all as blood runs from his nose down his jaw, dripping into the dirt.

I… Won’t quit fighting… He plants his hands on the ground, forcing every muscle in his body to move, to push himself off the ground. No matter how hard it gets, I won’t stop fighting! His whole body trembles with overexertion as he grinds his palms into the dirt, all but screaming at his body to stand. At the very cusp of breaking through, his mind goes blank and all power drains from his muscles.

With an exhausted sigh, Scott crumples to the ground and moves no more.

Chapter Three

[]Lost in a Fog

In the mountain range known as Deion’s Peaks

“It’s time.”

Stanley Lockwood looks up at his companion as the sun begins to break over the horizon. It’s the dawn of a new day in the Peaks and a silver mist has settled over the mountain range. The air is cool and wet.

“Come again?” he asks, cleaning his foggy glasses on his shirt.

“I said it’s time.” Max turns. “Aren’t you ready to get your rear in gear and start getting some experience under your belt?”

“Experience?”

“The more you adventure and battle, the stronger you’ll get. That way you won’t embarrass yourself when you finally meet Deion. So before you go off and take a bite out of things too big for you to handle, you have to get experience, and I think it’s high time we got you some.” Max stands and dusts off his cloak. “Don’t you think so?”

“I… Suppose so.” Stanley quirks his head. “I am not sure I am following.”

“It’s pretty easy,” Max says. “We pack up camp, head a little farther up the path, and find you an obstacle to overcome.”

“But obstacles are not found,” Stanley counters. “They spring themselves upon you.”

“That sounds like something Gabriel would have said. But I’m a little different from him; I like making my own chances instead of waiting for the world to do it for me. We can’t just wait around for Renea to decide it’s time to grow—we have to do it ourselves.” Max grins. “From here on out, we take charge of our future. We make our own luck and our own experiences.”

A slow grin spreads across Stanley’s face. He stands. “I like the sound of that. It feels like the beginning of a real adventure.”

“Vastly different from your old partner, right?” Max tosses a thumb over his shoulder. “Come on, we’re burning daylight.”

They pack up camp and ascend the mountain path. Max gives Stanley the lead, who follows the grey light emanating from his staff. At this point in his adventure, Stanley has lost track of the number of mountains he’s climbed, not to mention how many he’s missed by going through secret passes between the rocks. Though he looks for the peak he saw when he first entered the Peaks—the one with the glowing red top—he can’t find it no matter how hard he looks. The duo travels in silence for a few long hours, enjoying the early morning sunlight.

When the Peaks sun reaches high in the sky, the flat grey stones heat up like coals in a fire, reflecting the heat of the day into their faces. Stanley leans on his staff for more support and pushes himself through the steamy heat, hoping to find a library or tavern soon so he can get out of the sun.

“Surely,” he finally explodes, “there is a tavern somewhere nearby!”

“Hmm?” Max draws up next to Stanley, his own forehead not even creased with effort. “A tavern? All the way out here?”

“Gabriel said there are taverns in the Peaks. One might be close by.”

Max laughs. “He said that and wasn’t ironic about it? You’re in for a surprise. The last tavern this far into the Peaks was back where you first met Gabriel and Espetra. Don’t expect anything out here”

He continues walking; Stanley gapes after him, astounded.

“You must be joking! Are you joking?”

“I’ve taken it upon myself not to lie to you, old bean. No, I’m not joking; we’re on our own out here. Why would you believe anything Gabriel says? He wouldn’t know anything about the Peaks if it smacked his face and called him Sally. He only settled here because he made a big mistake that forced him out of the other realms.”

“What kind of mistake?”

“Well,” Max chuckles, “that depends on which mistake you’re referring to. He’s made many.”

“The most recent one, then. The one that made him settle here.”

“Gabriel got into a bit of a mess with a Hero around sixty years ago. He prematurely believed that she was going to be one of the Heroes who would break his curse, but when his plan fell through, he ran away like the coward he is and hid in the Peaks. If I were that poor girl, I would have hunted him down for ruining my life.”

“Sixty years ago?” Stanley says. “He could not possibly be that old. He barely looks twenty! How is that possible?”

“Causality,” Max says simply. “He, like many of us, was a victim of causality. You don’t yet realize it, but every decision you make will have far-reaching consequences that you can’t even begin to understand.” Max throws a look over his shoulder, as if expecting to see something important up the road. “Don’t feel confused. It’s never an easy concept to grasp, the idea of cause and effect. Each little string pulls another in turn, making tiny movements that, when combined together, have the capability of moving mountains.” He knocks on the mountainside for emphasis.

Stanley frowns. “You are being as unspecific as Gabriel.”

“You’ll learn everything you need to know soon enough. But as Gabriel once said, this isn’t about him, and it’s certainly not about me. It’s about you, your story, your hardships and adventures. Who cares about unimportant old guys who’re supposed to be long dead? It’s the fresh blood we really care about. That’s what makes the papers sell. That’s what plays the ragtime tune with the big band.”

“But what if I want to learn about him? What if my curiosity is piqued to the point where I cannot hide it any longer?”

“Then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I’m not allowed to tell you very much. The strings that tie me are wound very tight. If I misstep I’m liable to lose more than a few appendages.” Max smiles good-naturedly. “Trust me, Stanley. I would tell you if I could. Nothing would please me more than to gush all the info you want to hear. But there are some things I can’t do yet.”

Stanley quirks his head. “Yet?”

Max nods. “Give it a little while longer. I’m not asking you to trust me. I’m only asking you to be patient.”

“Well, I have waited this long. I suppose I can wait a little more.”

“Good!” Max claps his hands together. “Now how about that experience I was talking about? Are you ready?”

Stanley perks up. “Here?” He looks around. “Now?”

“Sure, why not? This is the perfect place.” Max points into the valley. “Observe the locals below us.”

Stanley peers over the edge of the mountain. A small light flickers in and out of sight, obscured by the noontime mist. He looks at Max for confirmation, who nods his head.

“What is down there?”

“Consider it…” Max purses his lips. “A new type of experience. Teleport a little closer, I’ll make my way down.”

“How?”

“You let me worry about that.”

Stanley tosses another look over the mountainside. Figuring it can’t hurt to just take a look, he teleports down to a lower path. The air is warmer in-between the mountains but the mist is far denser. He can barely see a thing.

A hand clamps on his shoulder. “You see them now?”

“You move fast,” Stanley says, turning to face Max.

“Yeah, isn’t that nutty? It’s almost like I can be in two places at once.” Max pushes on Stanley’s shoulder. “Go on, get moving.”

“And do what? What is near the light?”

“Just some bandits that need a good pummeling.”

Stanley fixes Max with a hard gaze. “I am not going to do that.”

“No? Well, I can’t blame you.” His magenta eyes glimmer with mischief. “In any case, you don’t need to worry. They’ll just pummel themselves silly for you.”

An ear-splitting scream slices through the mist, along with the sounds of a fierce struggle. Grunts of effort and cries of pain ring loud through the valley. Stanley takes a step forward.

“Well?” Max says, grinning devilishly. “Aren’t you going to do something? They need your help, after all. Someone could be getting hurt.”

A knot in his stomach, Stanley grips his staff and hurls himself through the mist, seeking out the light. He runs toward the sound of people fighting and screaming; they sound like they’re being attacked by a vicious monster. The mist blurs into itself, contorting and shifting like a living creature, making vile shapes and frightening faces. The world spins. Stanley loses track of where he is.

Then, without warning, he stumbles into a clearing.

A small fire, freshly made, crackles on the ground. Someone dressed in grey mountain-climbing clothes lays unmoving between two rocks. Two men, their fists in each other’s shirts, shove and sling one another around senselessly. A young woman, dressed in similar grey clothes, cowers against the wall of mist. Stanley approaches her first.

“Excuse me,” he says softly. She watches the two men in fear, ignoring him. “Excuse me, miss. Are you hurt? What happened here?” He touches her shoulder. She whips around to see him, then shrieks, pushing herself away. Her eyes are wild, terrified.

“Monster!” she screams. “Monster!”

“What monster?” he asks. “What happened?”

But the woman bandit only hears a brassy, earth-shattering voice coming from the faceless creature before her. Stanley is not a man in her eyes; he instead stands tall and has a sharp, angular body. Tentacles spill from his back, curling over his shoulders and highlighting his long, sharp claws. But the worst feature is his face—a face without features. No mouth. No eyes. No humanity.

Stanley steps forwards. She screams again, blubbering and begging for her life. From afar, one man lifts the other one up and slams him face-first into the hard stone, then repeatedly stomps on his head. Stanley turns away from the gruesome sight, trying to block out the sickening noises.

“Kishna!” The voice comes from the surviving male bandit. “Kishna, are you alright?” He runs up and grabs Kishna, the female bandit, by the shoulders. “Talk to me. What are you looking at?”

She can only raise a quivering finger at Stanley. The man turns, then locks up. Through his eyes he can see the same creature his partner sees. It stands where Stanley is, horrifying hisses and clicks coming from its mouthless face.

“What is this place?” Stanley demands. “What do you see that I cannot?”

The male bandit reaches into the folds of his clothes and produces a knife. Stanley visibly stiffens.

“Stay back,” the man says, his arm shaking. “I’m warning you!”

Stanley holds up his hands, but the male bandit takes it as an act of aggression and lunges like a wild animal. Stanley leaps to the side and dashes across the clearing, putting distance between him and the other man. He steps backward toward the mist, hoping he can fade out of sight and maybe—

Stanley pauses, then presses his hands against the mist. His palms flatten against something hard and gritty and he looks up. Through a break in the mist, Stanley sees a mountainside cliff towering above him.

This mountain was not here before. What is going on?

The bandit man screams and recklessly throws himself at Stanley. The Hero teleports to the other side of the camp. The bandit passes through the mist harmlessly, the cliffside gone as suddenly as it appeared. He reemerges with murder in his eyes. To Stanley’s left, the woman bandit approaches, holding a rock in one hand.

All at once, Stanley feels the overwhelming urge to attack. His blood boils hot in his veins. He grits his teeth, his vision going red. I have to fight. No, I want to fight!

He slams the male bandit in the face with the butt of his staff. He then teleports to the woman and smashes his staff into the back of her head with all his strength. The man recovers and attacks. Stanley dodges and strikes again, relentlessly pounding away with his staff until the woman cracks him in the face with her rock. He stumbles away, dazed, and then the two bandits run at him again.

With a shout, Stanley slams his staff into the ground and freezes time. Everything stops moving. Hands trembling, he picks up two rocks and hurls them at the bandits. Stanley unfreezes time and the bandits explode in a shower of gore, evaporating in a spray of red that coats the clearing and Stanley’s clothes.

The two rocks explode through the side of a mountain, sending an avalanche of boulders into the valley. Stanley seethes for a few more seconds, then becomes abruptly calm. His staff clatters to the ground and he sits down, drained. He looks at his hands—they’re stained with blood.

“You’ve got to exercise some restraint when you do that.”

Stanley looks up to see Max standing in front of him. The man tosses two bloodstained rocks at Stanley’s feet.

“Do you have any idea how many times I died trying to stop those rocks? Next time you want to generate so much power, try not to go overboard with it.”

Max sits down across from his companion. Stanley, his glasses splattered with fresh blood, stares at his companion, wheezing.

“What happened to me?”

Max grins, his magenta eyes glowing. “Consider it a new type of experience.”

“You…” Stanley gulps in a breath. “You did this?”

Max nods.

“Why?”

“You had to learn sooner or later,” Max says. “I told you it’s time to get your rear in gear. No more riddles, no more puzzles, no more shady dealings in dark alleys. Just pure, undiluted experience.”

“What did you do to me?” Stanley pulls off his glasses to clean them. “Why did you make me kill those bandits? Where did that cliff come from? Why did she see a monster instead of me?” He speaks as if in a haze, not believing his own words. Surely I did not kill those people. Surely they are still living.

“Magic is a curious thing,” Max says. “Each color of magic does something different. Blue magic grants telepathy and hydrokinesis. Grey magic, as you know, gives one power over time. My magic allows me to spread fear and corruption. I can pollute and control people’s minds, make them see things that aren’t there.” He opens his arms as if preparing to give a speech. “I am the end-all be-all to the phrase ‘doing it my way.’”

Stanley spits a glob of blood on the ground, his face stinging from where he’d been struck with the rock. “So not only are you unhelpful—you are also completely insane.”

“Unhelpful? Insane? I’ve given you an experience that taught you how to control your powers under pressure. What did Gabriel teach you? How to use your powers to make it stop raining?”

Stanley forms a rebuttal, but he thinks the better of it.

“It’s time for you to raise the bar, Stanley. Gabriel had you plodding behind in the kiddie playpen. Now’s your chance to sack up and join the adults in the big world.” He gestures to the carnage around them. “Gabriel didn’t want you to see this—the ugly side of Renea. He wanted you to see sunshine and beautiful landscapes and library books. Gabriel was trying to shelter you from the truth.”

“I can see why,” Stanley grumbles. “This is no truth I wish to see.”

“But now your eyes have been opened!” Max tosses an arm over his shoulder and draws Stanley toward him. “Now you see what he was hiding from you. Do you really think you were going to find anything useful in those stuffy old libraries? History isn’t made in libraries. It’s made out here, and now you’re a part of it. A part of history. A part of the real world.”

Stanley says nothing, keeping his eyes on the ground.

“You can hide yourself from the truth, or you can open your eyes and be set free. The world isn’t rainbows and cupcakes, Stanley. It’s cold and brutal, like a mountain. It’s ominous and frightening, like a fogbank. But you can’t face that if you’re looking in the wrong direction, can you?”

He looks up. “What do you mean?”

“Fear, Stanley. You’re afraid of seeing the truth. You want the romance of the adventure, not the pain of the truth.” Max claps Stanley on the back. “But for that, I can’t blame you. You’re young and so full of life. It’s why I did what I did. It’s why I corrupted the minds of the bandits and made them attack each other and see you as a monster. It’s why I corrupted your mind and made you aggressive—to teach you, to help you grow, to help you learn.”

“Such tactics,” Stanley whispers, “are simply evil.”

“Evil is a subjective term. And evil tactics or not, they worked, didn’t they?” Max smiles. “You know how to control your powers better. You’ve learned that this adventure isn’t just peaches and cream. It’s gritty out here and you’re going to have to be tough to survive. Just puffing up your chest isn’t enough. You can’t even face your fear as an equal. You’ve got to be scarier than fear itself. And if you can do that, well, you might become the strongest Hero in the universe.”

Stanley looks up. “Do you think so?”

“I know so. I’ve been around long enough to know about these kinds of things.” Max stands, then offers his hand. Stanley takes it and Max pulls him to his feet. “I know my methods are a little different from Gabriel’s, but let’s face it, he didn’t exactly get you anywhere fast. If you’re willing to stick with me, I’m still willing to take you to Pinnacle Monastery.”

Stanley rubs his face absently. The blood stains on his clothes have faded to a dull brown. He’ll need to wash them later, of that much he’s certain. Despite the faintly sick feeling in the back of his throat, he has no negative feelings towards Max. After thinking about it for a moment, Stanley walks over and picks up his staff.

“I will meet you back on the path,” he says, straightening his back. “How much ground do we still have to cover?”

“We’re closer than you think, but we’ve still got a long way to go. If you wanted, you could teleport across mountaintops and cheat your way to the top.” Max grins again, a wide and wicked grin. “I’ve got no problem with it if you’re planning on doing that. I can travel just as fast if not faster than you can.”

“Cheating is against the rules. Though my powers have been given to me to help me progress through my adventure, I will not abuse them.” Stanley taps the butt of his staff on the ground. “The path?”

“The path.”

Stanley nods and teleports awy. Max is waiting there for him, as if he always had been and always would be there.

“It is like you never left.”

“Well, you’re not wrong.” Max tosses his head toward the path. “Come on. Deion waits for no man.”

Hours later…

Gerrich the Mountain Bandit scoops up a handful of gravel and sifts it through his hands. It smells like rocks and has a tingly, magical hint to it. Farther down the path, Gabriel leans against the mountainside, smelling the air for clues. It feels fresh and cold despite the midafternoon heat. The scent of blood lingers somewhere close by.

“Bastards,” Gerrich mutters under his breath. He stands. “They came through here for sure. I’d know the smell of that magenta magic anywhere.”

“You sure it’s them?” Gabriel calls.

“Unless there’s someone else traveling through the Peaks who uses the rarest and most dangerous form of magic.” Gerrich looks up the path. “There’s only one way they could have gone. We’re lucky this portion of the Peaks is mostly gravel—makes them easier to track, so long as they don’t teleport. Maybe Deion’s looking out for us.”

“If he knew what we were planning, I doubt we’d still be alive. It’s not every day he learns someone wants to burn his library to the ground. And with luck, today won’t be that day.”

“I’m not in the mood to pick a fight with a god.” Gerrich approaches. “You ready to move on?”

“Not quite. There’s something strange here.” Gabriel kneels and inspects the path. “Judging by the tracks, Stanley was leading for a long while. But right here, Stanley abruptly becomes the follower. There’s no change in pace or stride, however, and that snake he calls a friend never left the path. That means only one thing: Stanley teleported.”

“Doesn’t this ‘friend’ have a name?” Gerrich demands. “Every time he came to me he never once gave his name.”

Gabriel looks at Gerrich. “You’ve spoken to him?”

“He’s the one who told me you and Stanley were in the Peaks.” Gerrich reaches into his clothes and pulls out a neatly folded piece of paper. “He drew this for me. I used the landscape in the picture to figure out where you were.” Gabriel takes the paper and chuckles.

“He didn’t get my nose right,” he says. “Look at this! He’s an amateur artist, that’s for sure.”

“Who cares what he is?” Gerrich swipes the paper and jams it back in his pockets. “Where are we going next?”

Gabriel points into the valley. “There’s blood down there. A fight must have happened in the mist. We need to go investigate. Maybe if we’re lucky Stanley left a clue. It might help us get this mess cleaned up.”

Gerrich turns away. He slides down the sheer side of the mountain, making his way into the valley below with little effort. Gabriel looks over the edge; the drop is thirty, perhaps forty feet. Instead of risking the climb using his hands and feet, Gabriel gets on one knee and places his palms on the rock. Green magic flows into the mountain and a ladder of branches and vines grows from the cliffside. Using the ladder, Gabriel descends into the valley below.

“Oh sure,” Gerrich grumbles as Gabriel lands on the valley floor, “couldn’t make me a ladder. I had to go about it the hard way. I had to do it the way a real man does it.”

“Gripe all you want,” Gabriel says, the vine ladder vanishing into the rock. “But if you want me to make you a ladder next time, all you have to do is ask.” Gerrich snorts and turns away.

“So what are we looking for here, O Wise One?”

“Clues, mostly. Reasons for bloodshed. Something caused a fight nearby, and even if there wasn’t a fight, there was certainly a lot of blood spilled.” Gabriel takes a whiff of the air, then heaves over his knees and vomits. Gerrich looks at him with blatant disgust. He chokes, stumbling aside. Gabriel goes to his knees, snot slicking his nose. “Oh, by all that’s holy and heavenly…” He vomits again, his back arching inhumanely.

“Tetrask’s Almighty Tooth, what the hell is wrong with you?” Gerrich seizes Gabriel by his hair and jerks the man’s head up. Whap! A hearty slap leaves a stinging red welt on Gabriel’s cheek. “You look pathetic. Get a grip!”

Gabriel merely coughs. Gerrich takes his hand away.

“You know what? Fine. Be sick. Who gives a damn. I’ll do this myself.”

Gerrich walks off, entering into the mist. The fogbank surrounds him on all sides, obscuring his vision to less than a pace away. As he puts distance between him and Gabriel, sound slowly disappears. The gentle whistle of the wind goes quiet. Years of training mutes Gerrich’s very footsteps. It’s almost as if the world itself has stopped moving.

He pauses abruptly and looks around. I should have made progress by now. Where am I?

Gerrich squints, hunting for a break in the fog. The only thing he can see is the amorphous shifting of the mist around him. It curls into and out of sight, simultaneously consuming and feeding itself. Gerrich takes a small step forward, then pauses again. Did I turn somewhere? I might have gone in a circle…

He shakes his head. No, I’m on track. Keep walking forward.

Gerrich strides ahead and keeps his eyes locked directly in front of him. The air in the fogbank is both heavy and light, both sickly sweet and bitter like the taste of cold metal. He makes no move to change his pace and his eyes never turn themselves astride.

Then, Gerrich abruptly stops moving. Something is lingering nearby. A hot breeze trickles down the back of his neck, causing sweat to bead on his forehead. His stomach wrenches. All at once an overwhelming urge to scream rips through him. He grinds his teeth in resolve, his hands shaking. He loses balance, the world tipping on its side. Gerrich stumbles to the side, reaching out for something to hold on to. His hands clasp onto something cold and wet and he stabilizes.

What the hell is happening to me? What’s going on?

He looks up into the eyeless face of a rotting corpse, and this time, Gerrich doesn’t hold back a scream. He lands flat on his back and scoots away, panic clogging his throat. The corpse, blackened with decay, is standing of its own accord. It reaches out, a rattle-like moan escaping its maw. A single step forward, another moan.

“Get away!” he shrieks, pushing himself backwards as fast as possible.

The corpse moans again, its withered and bony fingers seeking Gerrich’s flesh. With each step the shambling ghoul increases speed, drawing closer. An oozing stench leaks from its rotting body. Eyeless sockets burn a hole into Gerrich’s very soul; he can’t tear himself away.

Gerrich finds himself pressed against hard rock. He throws a terrified gaze up to see a cliff that stretches out of sight into the mist above. He turns back to see the face of the corpse as it drops down on him.

He shouts and struggles with the monster, tangling his fingers in its vine-like hair and kicking with everything he’s got. Gerrich bites, yanks, shouts, and even cries. He can almost feel his life force draining as the ghoul’s clammy hands close around his throat.

Smack!

Gerrich yelps, his arms tightly pinned above his head by briarwood vines. The corpse has vanished. Gabriel has his hand around Gerrich’s throat, an angry snarl on his face.

“You done trying to brute-force your way through this fog?” he snaps.

“W-What…” Gerrich’s voice shakes. “What happened?”

“You got a full dose of fear magic—probably the most potent concentration lingering on this planet.” Gabriel relinquishes his grip on Gerrich’s throat. He sits back, placing himself between Gerrich’s outspread legs. “If I hadn’t’ve gone in there to pull you out, you might have gone insane.”

Gerrich looks over Gabriel’s shoulder at the fogbank. It curls into and out of itself, both feeding and consuming, stopping just before reaching the tips of his toes.

“Like a living creature…” Gerrich shivers. “It was so real. The zombie, the sounds, the sensations… It just felt so real.”

“Fear magic is nothing to take lightly. You think I was vomiting just to get a rise out of you?” Gabriel throws a look over his shoulder. The mist lingers forebodingly. “I hate to say this, but we have to go back in there.”

“You’re damn right we do. I’m not going to let some little old nightmare scare me off.” Gerrich wriggles under the vine restraints. “Get these things off of me. I feel like a slave.”

“But you are a slave.” Gabriel smiles weakly. “We’re all slaves to the concept of free will.”

“Parrot that bastard’s hedonistic words one more time and I swear I’ll strangle you with your intestines.”

The vines come undone with a wave of Gabriel’s hands. Gerrich comes free and massages blood back into his wrists, glaring at his companion.

“You can’t just let him infect you like that.” Gerrich stands and yanks his companion to his feet. “Get a hold of yourself. You’re not in the Twilight Woods anymore; you’re in the Peaks. You need to be tenacious—be hard and resolute, like stone. Don’t fall asleep under the oak tree, or whatever lame idiom you Woodsmen use.”

“We don’t have any sayings like that.”

“You know what I mean.” He shoulders his way past Gabriel. “I’ll admit I was reluctant to find this ‘battleground’ of yours, but now I’m curious about the fog. Why hide something with so much magic? Why hide a little bloodshed? What is it he doesn’t want us to see?” Gerrich turns. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe Stanley did leave something for us to find.”

“I know what I said earlier, but I’m starting to wonder if I was wrong.” Gabriel eyes the mist. “Sure, I smelled blood, but that doesn’t mean anything. For all we know this mist might be a natural function of the valley. The smell could mean nothing more than travelers who got lost in it and died.”

“Now you’re just making excuses. If you’re not man enough to get lost in a fog, go home and let the big boys handle things.”

Gabriel straightens up defensively. “I never said—”

“Then prove it!” Gerrich points at the mist. “March!”

Gabriel hesitates. He knows nothing about what lies within the shroud of mist. The longer he looks at it, the worse he feels about entering. His thinly-veiled look of pleading is met by a stoic and expectant frown. Gerrich points again. With a sigh, Gabriel trudges forwards, entering the mist.

“Good boy,” Gerrich says as he follows, a spiteful grin on his face. “Want a treat?”

“Get bent,” Gabriel half-snaps, sweat already beading on his forehead. “I don’t like this place and you’re not helping.” He shivers and rubs his arms. “Why is it so cold in here?”

“Do you want the scientific answer or do you want a metaphorical answer?” Gerrich sweeps his hands out in a wide arc. “The chilling wind reflects the absence of life in this desolate realm,” he recites theatrically. “The frigid stone beneath our feet only serves as a pathway toward our inevitable graves. Little do we realize—”

Gabriel doubles over and vomits on the ground. Gerrich stares at him flatly, agitated that his stirring monologue was interrupted.

“If I have to come down there, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Choking, Gabriel curls up on his side. He coughs hard, his face going red. Gerrich rolls his eyes and kneels down.

“Are you really going to do this to me again?”

A glaze is over Gabriel’s eyes; it’s impossible to tell if he can even hear Gerrich at all.

Sighing, Gerrich seizes a large handful of Gabriel’s hair and drags him into the mist. Gabriel shrieks, his hands flying up to pry the fingers from his hair. But Gerrich’s grip has been strengthened by years of scaling rock walls and climbing steep mountain paths. He simply holds on tighter and keeps walking. Despite the screams of pain adding undue eeriness to the fogbank, along with the fact that Gabriel digs his fingernails into Gerrich’s hand like an animal, the added noise keeps the bandit’s mind surprisingly clear.

It takes only seconds for Gerrich to reach a break in the mist. When he does, he finally lets go of Gabriel and observes his hand. Warm red blood trickles down his palm, dripping on the grey stone at his feet. Gerrich snorts.

“I knew you were a wuss but this is just ridiculous.” He turns. “Seriously, it wasn’t even that bad.”

“Yeah?” Gabriel shoots his companion a venomous glare, his face red. “When was the last time you were dragged by your hair through a cloud of poisonous gas? I don’t think it’s anytime recent.” Gabriel begins to pull himself to his feet, his legs unsteady. Reluctantly, Gerrich helps him stabilize. They take in their surroundings.

The mist curves unnaturally, making a hollowed out clearing in the otherwise dense fogbank. Two unnaturally bent corpses lie between rocks and two dark red splatters paint the ground. Gabriel covers his nose, trying to ignore the stinging smell of blood and the sickly sweet smell of magenta magic.

Gerrich inhales deeply. “Now there’s a familiar smell. Guts and glory.”

“More like ‘that’s unholy.’” Gabriel gags. “You’d think I’d have gotten used to this by now.”

“What do you suppose that bastard’s blood smells like as it leaks from a gaping hole in his chest? I want to know and I want to know real bad.”

Gabriel peels himself off of Gerrich. Green vines sprout from the ground, curling up like tiny fingers to support his arms and provide foundation for his legs. He looks to be half plant, half man. Gingerly, Gabriel takes a few steps, vines splitting the rock from underneath to help him move, and he kneels near one of the dark red splatters.

“Strange.” He runs a finger across the dry ground, pulling little flakes from the stain. “They were just… Vaporized.”

“Check it out!” Gerrich yells, standing over a corpse. “This guy owed me money!”

“What could have possibly…” Gabriel traces the stain, willing a small amount of magic into the ground. Wisps of green curl off the rock, and for a second nothing happens. Then, slowly at first, small green buds emerge from the stone, their petals unfurling into small pink flowers. “Not killed by magic or a spell,” he mutters. “Something on the physical plane did this.”

Plop!

Gabriel turns to see Gerrich drop off a body and leave without a word. He pushes the body aside and reexamines the splatters on the ground. One of the buds has grown bigger than its companions. It’s now a large blossom at the height of its adult life. He cups it in his hand, curious. A grey spark jolts across the petals.

Plop!

Another body. Gerrich again leaves without a word. Gabriel shoves this one aside and turns his attention back to the flower in his hand. It’s now wilted and brown, its lifecycle spent and depleted. He channels a small burst of magic into the flower, hoping to revive it, but the flower continues to die. Within seconds it’s nothing but a dead husk.

My magic would have healed it if it was poisoned, he thinks, respectfully placing the flower back on the stone. I definitely can’t reverse death, so this was all natural. It simply aged much faster than its companion. There’s only one thing on Renea that can do that.

“It’s time.”

“Exactly,” Gabriel says absently. “Time magic.”

“What? No, moron. Pull the plants out of your ears.” Gabriel looks up to see Gerrich standing over him. “It’s time, as in it’s time to strip these bodies of their belongings and get moving. There’s nothing here.”

“Nothing here?” Gabriel glances down. “I beg to differ.”

“Beg all you want. I’ve been all around this place and collected a fat sack of nothing.” He kneels down near a body and rummages through the clothes. “These guys were bandits, but they weren’t any of my kin. Probably the remnants of the old group who used to control the Peaks.”

Gabriel laughs. “You honestly think the Mountain Roots clan is still around? They stopped being, well, anything after Deion reversed time on their leader and left him as a stillborn child.”

“Tell that to these guys. They’re wearing Roots clan clothes.” Gerrich pulls out a small nugget of gold, lingers for a moment, then tosses it over his shoulder. “If I could just find a weapon, I think I’d be content. Your friend stole all my good throwing knives from me.”

“He’s no friend to me,” Gabriel spits. “Maxillarion can off himself for all I care.”

“Maxi-who?”

“Oh Gabriel,” says a voice. “Will you ever stop making mistakes?”

The duo scrambles to their feet. Behind them stands a man with a blue cloak and frazzled brown hair. His magenta eyes glint with mirth and malice, a wicked smile on his face.

“Saying my name aloud? To a mortal man? You should know better.”

Gabriel takes a step back, putting Gerrich between them.

“What should I do to you, now that he knows who I am?” Max rubs his hands, rocking back and forth on his heels. “I could pump magic into your brain until you have an aneurism. I could flood your waking world with illusions and make you go insane. Maybe I’ll make Gerrich attack and you’ll have to kill him.” Max moves forward, smiling from ear to ear. “What a delightful thing! A pacifist forced to kill… It’s something I’ve always dreamed about seeing.”

He pauses for a moment, lost in thought.

“I suppose I could also trap you in your nightmares. Hadn’t thought about that. I know you haven’t been sleeping well, at least not recently.” Gabriel presses himself against a cliff wall that exists only in his mind; Max draws closer with every leisurely step. “It keeps you up every night, doesn’t it? Thinking of all those Heroes who failed. Wondering if Stanley will finally set you free. Dreaming about his impending failure, over and over, without end.”

“Stay out of my head,” Gabriel warns. Max comes to a halt a few feet in front of him. “I’m not going to let you poison me again.”

“Again? That would imply you’re not already poisoned.” Max reaches out and pokes Gabriel in the chest. “Has it started yet, I wonder?”

“Has what?”

Max grins. “You tell me. I’m just asking questions.”

“If I was poisoned, my magic would heal me.” Gabriel stands up a little straighter. “You can’t scare me that easily.”

“You’re not the green mage you used to be, Gabriel. You can barely heal yourself from a small cut nowadays. Back in your prime I remember you healing the entire Twilight Woods after Kaldoryun burnt it to the ground.” Max laughs. “Chaldir’s beard, that was a long time ago. Why did you let him get away with it?”

“I didn’t have a choice,” Gabriel says defensively. “He made a torchfiend to distract me.”

“What a titanic mistake.” Max brushes aside a loose strand of Gabriel’s hair. “That’s all you ever do, Gabriel: you make mistakes. You fall for distractions when the real threat is right in front of you. You think premature Heroes will would save you when they only make things worse. And now you’ve told Gerrich my true name.” His scowls. “Everywhere you go you only screw things up. I’ve tried being patient with you, but there’s only so much I can do to abate Gnosis’s wrath.”

Gabriel’s eyes betray defiant acceptance. “Let him come and kill me, then. I’ve lived long enough as it is.”

“That would be far too easy,” Max says. “For you and the rest of the Emissaries, death is a reward. And in what universe do you think you’ve done anything to warrant such a reward? No, you will not have your death.” He steps away. “You’ve had so much suffering in your hundred millennia on Renea. I might as well make it worse by stating some facts. The Heroes will fail their quests. The gods will, once again, lose their apprentices to many ‘unfortunate accidents’ and ‘personal shortcomings.’ You’ll still be trapped here, doing Gnosis’s bidding, searching for meaning in a dark world, until the time is right.”

“And when would that be?” Gabriel asks.

“When we finally recover what we came here to find.” Max smiles. “I’ll leave Gerrich alive because he’s an important piece of the puzzle, but if you step out of line again, you’re finished. This is your last warning. Don’t make me find you again.”

With that, Max vanishes as if blinked out of existence.

Gerrich jolts awake. He looks around, confused. Gabriel sinks to his knees and sucks in a breath to stabilize his body, relieved to be rid of Max’s intense presence. Gerrich turns at the sound and, upon finding his companion once again on the ground out of breath, heaves a sigh of frustration.

“What, is walking that hard for you?” Gerrich stomps over to his companion. “Heaven forbid you do a little walking in your life, Mr. Magic. Pull yourself together.”

“Oh shut up,” Gabriel mutters angrily.

Startled but somehow pleased, Gerrich kneels at the bodies of the fallen Mountain Roots clan members and loots them dry. He doesn’t seem to remember the appearance of Max at all. “Hey!” Gerrich calls. “I know you’re real interested in staring at rocks, but we’ve wasted enough time here. Let’s go back to the path and start tracking them!”

Gabriel sighs. He stands up and brushes off his hands. “Good idea,” he says. “Better to breathe out there than suffocate in here.”

“I happen to like breathing, thank you very much.” Gerrich shoulders past him with a makeshift bag slung over his shoulder. “Let’s go, the day won’t last forever.”

Gabriel takes in a short breath, then turns and follows his companion out of the mist. He doesn’t dare turn back out of the fear that he might see Max waiting there, watching him, taunting him with the memory of his long, tortured past.

Chapter Four

[]Fame

Under a field of stars in Tetrask’s Temple

“Checkmate!” Luke cries triumphantly, sliding his queen into position. “I finally got you, Teddy old pal! You thought you had a leg up on me, did you? Well guess again! You can’t beat Luke Derringer, chess king extraordinaire!”

Nysse smiles from behind her hand.

“Well,” Luke says, “that’s what I would say if I ever beat Tetrask in a chess match.” He knocks over a black bishop with a flick of a finger. “He’s just so dang good at this silly game. You’d think he was the guy who invented it in the first place.” Luke grins. “But you wait. I’m going to beat him one day and be the undisputed master of chess.”

“You have to graduate Hero School before that,” says Nysse. “And before that, you have to pass all your Hero classes and get right with the teacher. Both of which, by the way, you can’t do if you’re practicing chess.”

“Hey man, he’s a rough teacher! I need a break here and there!” Luke sits back in his chair. “And you need breaks, too. I hear he’s running you ragged down at the office.”

“Word got around that Tetrask named a Hero,” Nysse says. “The shrine has been full of people coming to ask about space and the heavens and even Armageddon. I haven’t been this busy for at least half a century.”

“How does that work, anyways?” Luke gestures with his hand. “You being like, a hundred years old or whatever.”

“Time slows to a crawl for oracles. Some of us live to be many hundreds of years old, far outliving our own generation and quite a few on top of that. The oldest oracle represented Magnus, and his name was Jyvat. He lived to be 957 years old.” Nysse smiles. “I don’t intend to live that long. I’d like to go around 450 or 500. Half a millennium is plenty enough for me.”

“Well, how old are you now?”

“You should never ask a woman her age, Luke. Don’t you know it’s improper?”

Luke smiles. “Yeah, I suppose I forgot my manners there.” He glances down at the chessboard, suddenly lost in thought.

“Luke?” Nysse snaps her fingers. “Are you with me?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. I just started thinking about Scott. Secretly hoping he’s been keeping up his chess skills. Maybe we can play when we see each other again.”

“Until then, how about you review the rules again?” Nysse points at the overturned black bishop. “You’ve got me in checkmate but you knocked over my bishop, not my king.” She sets the bishop up straight and overturns her black king. “Sooner or later I’m going to catch a mistake and make the most of it. Maybe I’ll be the undisputed chess master instead of you.”

“I doubt it!” Luke says. “I’m gonna be the best chess player in the history of history!”

“That so?” Nysse quirks her head. “You don’t want to be the best Hero in the history of history?”

“Eh”—Luke waves his hand—“I’m fine with just being me. That title will come if it does.”

“In my opinion, I think you’re already the strongest Hero of all time.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

Nysse leans back, amused. “You think there’s been stronger? Really?”

“Well, just because I can destroy the most doesn’t mean I’m the strongest. There’s more to being a Hero than having raw power, and there’s more to strength than being able to kill anything you want. Some people might think being strong means keeping others safe, and some people might think being strong means being able to flatten whole cities on a whim.”

“Then what’s your definition?”

Luke, Tetrask interrupts. Where are you?

“Chilling out, old buddy!” Luke says aloud. “Nysse and I just played a round of chess. Want to get in on this? We’ve got the board set up and everything!”

No. Come to the garden immediately. I have something important to talk to you about.

“Interrupting us again?” Nysse smiles good-naturedly. “Can’t I have him to myself just this once?”

This isn’t the time for jokes! Tetrask shouts. Luke, come to the garden at once!

Luke’s smile fades. He flashes an apologetic look at Nysse, then stands. “Another time, I guess.”

“Another day, actually.” Nysse stands. “I have to get back to the shrine.”

“So soon? You can’t stay for one more game?”

“No, sorry. Tetrask’s shrine won’t run itself and it’s my job to deliver his prophecies and teachings.” She smiles. “I’ll come up when business is slower, I promise.”

“Don’t back out on me,” Luke says lightly. “I enjoy hanging out with you.”

“And I enjoy our time together.” Nysse inclines her head respectfully. “You should get going before Tetrask gets angry again. I’ll see you in a few days, Luke.” With that, she turns and walks out of the room. Luke watches with confusion, her gait and stride far more proper than usual.

He sighs and heads toward the garden. The grey stones of Tetrask’s Temple blend together and make a long corridor that seems to have neither beginning nor end. The roof yawns upwards toward infinity, a darkness lingering where the ceiling should be. The yellow gemstone torches hanging on the wall glow with gentle warmth. Luke hums a song to himself as he strolls, appreciating the masterful craftsmanship of the Temple stones.

Luke.

“Hey,” he says, grateful to have someone to talk to. The silence in the Temple hallways can be a little unnerving. “Don’t worry Tetrask, I’m on my way right now. I don’t know if I took the right path, so I might be a little late.” He rubs his chin in thought. “Last time I went to the kitchen and then… I think I took a left, and maybe a right somewhere as well.”

Luke.

“Oh, this must be important!” Luke sweeps his hand in front of him. “You’ve got the floor, old pal. I’ll keep quiet and let you talk.”

Luke.

His heart skips a beat; the voice doesn’t belong to Tetrask. Luke stops walking and leans against the wall, a yellow gemstone lamp glowing nearby. He looks both ways down the hallway before speaking again.

“Hey,” he whispers softly, “is this you again?”

Luke.

He laughs. “It is you after all! What’s happening, man? It’s been a few days since we’ve talked.”

Luke.

“I’ll bet Tetrask found you and gave you a thorough what-for, didn’t he? This must be incredibly dangerous for you. Am I really worth that much to you?”

Luke.

“Yeah, I know how you feel. I’ve got someone like that too, but you already knew that, didn’t you? I talk about her nonstop.” Luke sits on the ground. “I meant to get her a gift for her birthday, and I thought I did, but as it turns out I forgot the darn thing was in my lap the whole time. Some kind of potential boyfriend I am, right? Think I should give it to her when I see her again?”

Luke.

“That’s what I was thinking! It’ll be a few days, though, since I missed my chance earlier.” Luke sighs dreamily, thinking of Nysse. “You know man, you’re a great conversant. You don’t say much besides my name, but somehow that’s comforting in its own way, like how moms sometimes play heartbeat noises to help their babies sleep.”

A powerful, warm presence presses Luke backward and he soaks it up against his will. Across from him, the wall caves inward, exposing a completely dark doorway. Luke stands, captivated. He slowly moves toward the darkness, drawn by the sunny feeling radiating in his body. A carefree sensation fills his mind, blocking out all thoughts besides reveling in the warmth and happiness.

“Luke!”

Tetrask seizes Luke by the arm and jerks him away from the darkened hall, which instantly vanishes from sight. Luke stares at empty space for a few seconds, then blinks and shakes his head, the fog lifting from his mind. His eyes fall on Tetrask, and though it takes a few moments, he gradually remembers who he’s looking at.

“Oh, hey Tedsworth. Good morning. Or is it good night?” Luke looks at his wrist, expecting to see a watch. He frowns. “I guess I can forget time-telling. Looks like someone’s stolen my watch.”

“This is no time to be playing games.” Tetrask flashes a sharp glare at the wall. “Especially with nonexistent voices in the dark.”

“What voices? I was just on my way to see you after…” Luke frowns again, concentrating. “After… What was it?”

Tetrask tosses him a thoroughly concerned glance.

“Chess!” Luke exclaims, snapping his fingers. “I had just finished a chess game with Nysse. I was on my way down the hallway when you popped up and shook me like I owed you money. Did I do something wrong? I’ll go run a few laps if I did.”

“No, you didn’t do anything wrong.” The god straightens his back. “Come with me. We have to talk.”

“Man, are you about to weigh my ear down with some heavy conversation?” Luke folds his arms. “Can we talk about something fun for once? I figured out a new opening with Nysse today. It sets up for a really aggressive game.”

Tetrask grabs Luke by the arm and pulls him down the hallway. Luke goes to object, but he then remembers his previous statement about running laps and falls silent, allowing Tetrask to guide him down the hallway. Periodically, Luke looks over his shoulder for something he can’t seem to find, yearning for a sensation he doesn’t really remember. Whenever he slows down too much, Tetrask yanks him forward.

They arrive at the garden and Tetrask pushes open the door. Steamy air and bright light flow into the hallway, tendrils of mist sliding past their feet. Tetrask enters in a brusque hurry. Luke pauses outside the garden, thoughtful. Why would they go to the garden of all places? There are darker rooms and more secluded corridors in the Temple to talk in secret.

Luke enters inside, though his vision is obscured by the thick mist. His feet brush against long blades of grass and his hands catch the edges of sharp pieces of bark. It’s almost as if the garden has turned into a rainforest. The only thing missing is the sweet sound of birdsong. Artificial sunlight streams down from the center of the ceiling. Though Tetrask is nowhere in sight, sounds come from only a few feet ahead.

“Come, Luke. I have to show you something.”

“Show me something?” Luke moves a branch covered with long, flat leaves out of his face. “I thought you had to tell me somethi—whoa.”

Tetrask stands next to the monstrous tree growing from the center of the garden. It’s grown much taller since the last time he saw it, its branches flaring out like a protective umbrella. Its roots burst from the ground, making the terrain uneven and bumpy. The trunk is so large around that it would dwarf a redwood on Earth. Renean symbols are etched into the bark, covering the tree from boughs to roots.

Luke approaches. He lays a hand on the trunk, his fingers sliding between the bark and tracing the Renean symbols. A strange feeling blooms in his chest, uncurling like a flower after rain.

“This is a memorial,” Tetrask says softly. He too lays a hand on the bark, his fingers sliding through the cracks of the bark. His eyes are solemn and sad, as if the tree is an ancient regret that he never got the chance to mend. Luke lets the silence build between them.

Then, out of the blue, a nightingale chirps from somewhere in the garden. Luke pulls his hand away and turns, listening for the birdsong. It doesn’t chirp a second time.

“Kalax is dead.”

Luke looks behind him. Tetrask’s jaw is firmly set, his eyes on the bark.

“He what?” Luke turns around fully. “Who?”

“The god of life and forests is dead. You stand on his grave.”

“That’s not cool of me.” Luke steps backward. “I wouldn’t want anyone trampling on my grave.”

“Your feet grace his grave; they don’t defile it.” Tetrask gestures for Luke to approach, which he does. “He died not long before you came to Renea. I transported his body to the moon for safekeeping, hence the growing garden.” He chuckles softly. “Even in death, Kalax is unmatched when it comes to horticulture.”

“Another god down, huh?” Luke folds his arms. “How’d he die?”

“He was sick,” Tetrask says, “and like most sick creatures, he couldn’t beat the disease. You don’t need to know any more than that. But this isn’t why I called you here. I have something far more important to tell you.”

Luke narrows his eyes. “You’ve been slinging around that word like a short man with a slingshot. Either yuck up the facts about this important stuff or I’m going back to do some spear training.”

“There’s been a disturbance in the Plains. An old friend of yours has been in an accident and her partner has been captured by Stark Pureblood, a fanatical nomad leader. Apalon has summoned me to go and advise him on the matter.”

“Camellia’s been in an accident? Aw man, is she hurt?”

“I’m not sure. Apalon was strangely unspecific. Regardless, I rarely get the chance to speak to my comrades. I’ve decided to take this chance while I have it, despite the circumstances of the meeting. As such, that means I have to leave the moon for a while. I need you to watch the Temple while I’m gone.”

“The whole Temple?”

Tetrask levels Luke with a stare. “No. Just the western corridor and the third hallway of the eastern wing.”

“Really?” Luke rubs his chin in thought. “That’s awfully specific, man. I suppose I could try to be in two places at once, but I can’t guarantee—”

“Luke!” Tetrask exclaims. “Of course I want you to watch the whole Temple!”

“Oh. I knew that, I was just testing you.” Luke tosses his hands up in acceptance. “Well, I’m not exactly a professional night watchman, but I suppose I can take a swing at it. What about Nysse? Does she know you’re leaving?”

“No, and let’s keep it like that. I don’t need her coming up here to babysit you while I’m away.”

Luke frowns but doesn’t retort.

“I’ll only be gone for a day or two,” Tetrask continues. “My trip would be shorter than that but I know Apalon will want to talk and catch up. I need you to keep the garden trimmed and the Temple in respectable shape.”

“Never fancied myself as a lawncare professional, but I’ll give it a shot.”

“The Temple is a place from a different age. It was never intended to be seen by mortal eyes; there are things in here only gods can handle. Don’t wander too far, and don’t enter into any rooms you haven’t seen before. Try to stay in the right wing, which is where you’ve been most of the time, and avoid the left wing entirely.”

“You know,” says Luke, “you saying not to go somewhere is only going to make me want to go even more.”

Tetrask leans in close. “Go into the left wing and I’ll make you run 57,000 laps.”

“Stay in the right wing, got it.”

Never enter a door that manifests from the wall, especially if it leads to pitch darkness. You know the doors I’m talking about, don’t you, Luke?”

The Hero looks at his feet. He doesn’t answer.

“If you hear voices, don’t acknowledge them. They don’t exist. The more you feed them, the more they’ll talk to you, so don’t talk to them at all.” Tetrask opens his palm. A flash of light reveals a small bracelet with a brown gemstone. Luke takes it and puts it on, turning it in the artificial sunlight. “If you need my help, hold your fingers to the gem and call my name.”

“Far out.” Luke extends a hand. “Well, it’s been nice knowing you, Teddy old pal.”

“I’m only leaving for a day. And don’t call me that.” Tetrask turns away from the tree. “I hope you train while I’m gone, because it takes two days to pick up the slack for missing one.”

“Don’t worry about me, Tedsworth. I’m a training monster, remember? I do nothing but train and train, all day! Training for everyone, man. It’s like a training free-for-all giveaway sweepstakes, and I’m your host, Luke ‘Training Monster Giveaway’ Derringer.” Tetrask shoots him a sharp look; Luke smiles. “Just a joke, old buddy.”

“I didn’t find it humorous. Stay safe, Luke. I’ll see you when I get back.” The god departs into the mist and disappears from sight. His smile fading, Luke sighs and leans against the tree. The leafy canopy sways, disturbed by a wind from inside the garden.

Luke places his hand on the tree again, threading his fingers in the bark. He stares at the wood for a long time, unsure of what to do with his newfound freedom.

Then, on the bark of the tree, a doorway to endless darkness appears.

Nysse looks up as yet another customer walks into Tetrask’s shrine—her fifth of the day, in fact. Since the news broke about Luke, people from every realm have been heading to the shrine to learn about the cosmos. The rekindling of Renean interest in the stars has been almost too incredible to believe. Nysse smiles to herself.

“Good day,” she says, standing. “I am Nysse, oracle to Tetrask, god of Armageddon and the Cosmos. How may I help you?”

The customer, a shorter man with frazzled hair and curious eyes, looks around before leaning in conspiratorially. “Is it true that Tetrask named a Hero?”

“Yes.”

“What’s he like?”

Nysse bites her lip. The customer looks very energetic and interested; he likely wants to be told about a strong Hero with a chiseled jaw and bulging muscles. If she tells him about Luke instead…

“He’s charming, very strong, and built like a tank,” Nysse says, taking a seat. “He works hard and has a boundless love of life.”

Her customer sits as well. “You talk as if you’ve spoken with him. What’s his name?”

“Luke.”

The customer quirks his head. “Odd name for a Renean.”

Because he’s not actually from Renea. “He’s from a small village in the Ocean,” she lies. “Tetrask wanted a Renean who had a pure heart and a love for life. Those kind of people are best found in small villages where the world has yet to hurt them.”

“Hurt them? Renea’s pretty peaceful compared to how it was back in the day.” The customer leans back, making himself comfortable. “Ancient wars, family blood feuds, petty politics… I’m glad we live in a more civilized time.”

Nysse’s mind blanks. Our world is fragile and the gods are fickle, Tyram had said, his words now loud and clear. They act on their whims like any mortal would. If they so desired, Renea would break apart at the seams.

“I fear,” she says, “that this peace we have now won’t last. I’ve heard from other oracles that Renea is beginning to have issues. There are problems rising from each of the Six Realms.”

“Problems?” Her customer sits up. “Do you mean war?”

Nysse averts her eyes. “I shouldn’t be telling you this. It’s sensitive information.”

“Then don’t tell me about it. I didn’t come here to hear about war, or even about the Hero; I actually came here to receive a prophecy.” He smiles sheepishly. “I’m running an errand for the boss, you see, but I was curious about the Hero too.”

“What kind of prophecy?”

“A prophecy about Armageddon.”

Nysse frowns. Most customers tend to avoid asking about the apocalypse, but every now and again there’s someone who wants to hear about it. Most are the basement-dweller types, but some are very rich men and women. This customer, however, is neither basement-dweller nor highman. He looks to be average in every sense of the word.

“What,” Nysse says carefully, “would your boss like to hear about Armageddon? If it’s about when it will come, I can’t help you. Tetrask will bring it about on his own timetable; only he knows the time and day.”

“It’s more along the lines of what will happen during that time—what kinds of things will tear the world apart. He’s a fighter to the bone and wants to be prepared for whatever happens.”

“I see. Follow me to the back room. I can tell you what you need to know.”

Nysse stands and leads her customer to the room in the back. As they walk down the side hallway, he pauses periodically to look at the pictures of the gods hanging on the wall. She describes a few of the gods to him. The customer stares at Magnus for a long time, lost in thought. After a few moments of silence, Nysse slips away.

She closes the door to the back room and the walls immediately flush with warm celestial light. Spectacular blues, vibrant reds, and royal purples paint themselves across the walls, glowing with twinkling white specks that imitate stars hundreds of thousands of light years away. Nysse sighs dreamily, leaning against the door and sinking to the ground. The cosmos never ceases to amaze.

The cauldron at the back of the room flickers to life, mellow green fire rising out of the bowl. It casts a foggy light on a wall scroll depicting the Big Ten facing the ancient monster. A treasure of the shrine, legends say it was painted by Cenkhan the Learned. Nysse approaches the cauldron and grips the rim with her hands. The green fire jumps upward, lapping at her fingers with heatless energy.

The door creaks open. “Please come in,” Nysse says without turning. “I will do my best tell you about Armageddon, but the Aether can be fickle.”

“What’s the Aether?”

“It’s the origin of prophecies and dreams. The Aether is a strange place. It’s like a fog bank that hangs over a motionless lake of fathomless energy. It’s everywhere, but also nowhere. It’s the empty space between an object and its shadow, the material that bonds space and time.”

“Is it made of magic?”

“No. It’s made of everything and nothing all at once. No one knows where magic came from. Scholars say it came from the gods, but I think it was always in nature and the land, waiting to be discovered by Reneans.” Nysse raises her arms. “The Aether is hard to tap into, so forgive me if it takes a while.”

Nysse breathes in, feeling for movement in empty space. At first her mind is loud and filled with noise, but gradually Tetrask’s presence bubbles within her and boils like a kettle over a fire, steaming through her veins. Nysse breathes out, slowing her pulse and tuning in to the silence of the room around her. She listens to the soft crackle of the cauldron fire, to the soft hum of the land beneath her, and to the Aether.

Her vision comes slowly at first, like a droplet of water sliding down the stem of a leaf. Something flickers to life in the distance—the light at the end of a tunnel. A feeling like being torn apart rips at her body, followed immediately by Tetrask’s presence. The Aether is no place for mortal minds to wander, and only those blessed by the gods are strong enough to walk the Ethereal Plane. Nysse breathes in again, focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel, drawing herself closer to it.

The tunnel opens up into a wide field and she finds herself standing on a hill in a place filled with crested wheatgrass. The lighting is strange and mixed, as if six different suns hang in the sky. Land from the Six Realms all meet at a center point in the middle of the field. Nysse frowns. That’s where Monarch should be. Where is it?

The field changes, time quickly flowing forwards. Groups of men and people in wagons scramble past like ants at high speed, crossing between the Six Realms at the Nexus. Entire years pass in moments, entire centuries in seconds.

Then, time slows to a stop. A single man is standing in the center of the Nexus, looking around at the Six Realms. A group of men stand off to the side, arguing over what appears to be a pile of architectural papers. The man at the center turns, and even though she’s miles away, Nysse can see his face clearly. She draws in a quick breath.

That’s Eldun Kor’Yar. That’s the man who built Monarch.

Time speeds up again. Rocks are brought in from the Peaks, then are chiseled and shaped into foundations and buildings. Water is brought in from the Ocean to fill various self-refueling fountains throughout the city. Bronze is taken from the Ruins and shaped to make the tops of buildings and public pieces of art. Trees and plants are shipped in from the Woods to fill the city with life and joy. Animals migrate in from the Plains to start the economy. Rare flowers are brought in from the Cemetery to commemorate the grand opening of the new city.

Eldun Kor’Yar stands at the top of the tallest building in the center of Monarch, a building Nysse has never seen before. He surveys his city with a grin on his face, proud of his achievement. The six suns shine bright on the new city of Monarch, reflecting light off the bronze building toppers and the saltwater fountains. Everything is beautiful and perfect.

Then, a brilliant yellow light splits open the sky, covering Nysse’s vision. An ear-splitting roar rends the air. Absolute rage pours into her body, followed immediately by undiluted, childish joy. Nysse can’t help but laugh out loud, her mind swamped by the overwhelming emotions.

The yellow light dims, cools, and then goes out altogether. The emotions trickle out of Nysse’s mind, leaving her breathless and dizzy. When she finally focuses her eyes on the scene before her, she lets out a gasp.

Monarch is in flames, and instead of floating several hundred feet in the air, it sprawls along the ground. A massive hole is in the center, splitting the city into multiple pieces. People scramble away from the burning ruins, fleeing in all directions. A wave of nausea washes through her and she drops to her knees. The main spire of the Capital Cathedral falls in time with her, and the great Monarch Archives belch thick black smoke into the open air.

This is what you wanted, isn’t it?

The voice is unfamiliar. Nysse looks around for the source.

Stop crying. You don’t give a damn about those people.

Once again, all-consuming fury courses through her, joined by child-like joy. Nysse looks around for the source of the voice, but she’s unable to find it. The world fades to dark and her vision comes to an end.

Nysse opens her eyes. The cauldron’s green fire has died down to barely more than a spark. The awesome blues and purples and reds on the walls have changed to oranges and greens and browns, the starfield wallpaper changing even as she watches. Nysse leans over the cauldron and grips the rim for support, her energy drained.

The Aether used to take a lot less effort to sift through. Why am I so tired? She looks up. Has it changed, or have I changed?

She looks wearily over her shoulder. To her surprise, the customer stands patiently in the center of the room, hands clasped in front of him.

“Well? What did you see?”

Nysse turns back to the cauldron, the image of Monarch in ruins fresh in her mind. For a long while she says nothing. Then, she gingerly steps away from the cauldron. Nysse folds her hands into her robes, looking at the ground.

“I… I saw…”

This is what you wanted, isn’t it? A sickening feeling comes over her and she shudders. The voice had been both kind and mocking, the fury both exhilarating and maddening.

“Madame Oracle?”

“A meteor,” Nysse says softly. “A mighty meteor will fall from the sky at Tetrask’s command and destroy the world.”

“What happens after that?”

“I saw no more than what I’ve told you. The Aether is fickle and it drains my energy. I’m sorry, but this is all I can do for you.”

“You don’t look well. Wait here, I’ll get you a chair.” Her customer flits out of the room.

Nysse crumples to the ground, her head spinning.

That was Eldun Kor’Yar. That was the world before Monarch. I was passing through time like a ghost. Could they see me up on that hill? She thinks about the flash of yellow light. It had been brighter than any sun she’d ever seen. She doubles over, trying to hold off a pounding headache and a queasy stomach.

Her customer comes back as suddenly as he left. He lifts Nysse off the ground with a grunt of effort and places her gently in the chair. She holds her forehead in her hand. The man reaches into his cloak and brings out a small bag of leaves. Nysse takes one and chews it slowly. She starts at the cool sensation that spreads through her mouth and up into her brain. The customer puts his bag away.

“It’s coldsnap,” he explains. “It’s supposed to help get rid of headaches. Boss pays me in this stuff when he doesn’t have money. I don’t have much left, but you need it more than I do.” He smiles and sits down on the ground. “I hope you don’t mind me doctoring you. I wanted to be one when I was a young boy.”

Nysse smiles weakly. “I wanted to be a Hero.”

“Didn’t we all? Who did you want to apprentice for?”

“Anyone.” Nysse breathes out, her warm breath laced with an edge of cold. “I just wanted to be someone special, someone who made a difference in the world.” She looks around her. “In a way, I guess I got my wish.”

“It must’ve been hard to be an oracle for Tetrask for all these years.”

“It was,” she says. “The only people who liked me were a few of the other oracles. They knew what I was going through and how lonely the job could be. I had it hardest, though. When the King called an oracle summit, I was purposely left off the invitation list. When the oracles met to discuss their realms, I was shut out of the Palace.” Nysse breathes out again, her breath cooler now. “I only had him.”

“Tetrask?”

“Actually, until Luke appeared, Tetrask and I never had anything beyond a business relationship. My only friend was the greatest Hero in the universe.” Nysse smiles wryly. “Rather, who I used to think was the greatest Hero in the universe. I see him now as he really was: someone desperate to find a way out and who was willing to use anyone to achieve his plans.”

“I’m sure there was a reason for everything that happened to you. I believe in a little thing called destiny—fate, if you want to call it that. Whatever happened to you in the past was for a good reason. It’s leading you towards some ultimate goal, but whether you succeed or fail isn’t up to destiny or fate—it’s up to you.” As if catching himself, he looks away. “But that’s just my opinion.”

“It’s good to have an opinion.” Nysse stands. “It makes you interesting.”

The customer stands up. “Can you take it from here?”

“I just sifted through a realm of sheer nothingness and didn’t die. I think I’ll be fine.”

He bows. “Thank you for your service, Madame Oracle. I’ll tell my boss you send your greetings.”

“May your journey be fruitful, and may safe winds bring you home.” Nysse shakes her customer’s hand, then stands aside as he approaches the door. “Oh, and sir? You have very pleasant eyes. They were a joy to see.”

“Were they? You’d be surprised at how many people hate them.”

“Who could ever hate such a beautiful thing?”

The man smiles, his magenta eyes glinting in the celestial light. “You’d be surprised,” he says softly. He inclines his head in a reverent bow and leaves without another word.

This is what you wanted, isn’t it?

Nysse holds her head, confused. The voice sounds different this time. It sounds like… him. The greatest Hero in the universe.

Stop crying. You don’t give a damn about those people.

He had said that, that day. On the day that…

Nysse approaches the cauldron. She spreads her arms and calls for Luke Derringer.

“Cut the grass, got it. Sweep the floors, got it. Change the light bulb in the artificial sun, become surprised that there’s no light bulb, fall from the ceiling and crash through the trees until you hit the ground, got it. Check for broken bones, inspect the path for invasive weeds…”

Luke taps the pen against his head, trying to remember what else he needed to finish. His enormous list of things to do while Tetrask was on Renea had only taken him the morning to complete. Something has to be missing, but Luke can’t quite figure out what it is. He pulls a rag out of his back pocket and wipes the sweat from his brow. As he does, something clatters on the stone behind him.

Luke turns to see a small black box with a red ribbon lying on the ground. The red ribbon has a faint lace around the tips, and the black box is decorated with a single seam of gold. He grins widely and picks up it, cradling it in his hands.

“Hey little fella. It’s dangerous to go alone out in the wild.” Luke tucks the box into his back pocket. “You best stay in here for a while. The Temple garden is no place for a fool to be running around in.”

Luke, are you there? Luke, this is Nysse.

“Nysse! What’s up, man? I was just thinking about you.” Luke clicks his pen and scratches off an entry that reads ‘Avoid thinking about Nysse until she comes back to the Temple.’ “You sound worried. Did some big guy come by looking for a free fortune telling? I won’t hesitate to give him some free dental work if you want.”

What are you on about?

“Six hours of sleep and about halfway through my list, I guess.” Luke flips a paper over his clipboard. “I think dinner is in order next. How about soup and a light salad? I’ll probably need a few things before I can start cooking anything. You run to the market, it’ll save us some time. Hey, do oracles get a special discount at the market or is that just a myth?”

Nysse sighs in frustration. You know, forget you heard from me. I’ll see you in a few days.

“Oh alright, I’ll see you then. Hey! If any of my buddies swing by, tell them I said hello! It’s kind of hard to be on Renea when you live and work on the moon, know what I mean?”

Unsurprisingly, Nysse doesn’t answer. Luke shrugs it off and once again checks his clipboard schedule. He hasn’t yet given Nysse her birthday gift, which he would rather save until she comes back to the moon. Luke draws a line through ‘Nysse birthday gift’ on his to-do list. The only things remaining on his list are ‘Make dinner with something spicy’ and ‘Explore the Temple while avoiding the left wing.’ Considering Nysse shot down his ideas for dinner, Luke figures he only has one thing left to do before he calls it a day.

He pays his respects to Kalax’s grave and leaves the Temple garden. The lights in the hallway glimmer pleasant shades of orange and blue. In the neon lighting, Tetrask’s Temple looks less like a temple and more like an entrance to a fine dinner and dance. He whistles a happy tune as he walks, periodically snapping his fingers. He crosses the courtyard and finds himself in front of the door leading into the upper wing of the Temple—an unexplored area for him, until now.

Luke pulls open the human-sized door and finds himself taken aback; it looks like the entrance to some underground catacombs. The hallway is short and compressed, barely big enough for him to walk through. No gemstone lamps hang on the walls, the only light coming from the torches on the walls behind him.

Luke reaches into his pocket and pulls out a single white gemstone—the same one he accidentally stole from the tunnels underneath Monarch. Though it glows a little bit less than the other gemstones, it still provides a protective shield of white light that all but wraps itself around his body. Luke steps into the dark hallway of the upper wing with the gemstone cupped in his palm. The door behind him closes so softly that he doesn’t even notice it.

“Kind of creepy around here.” Luke pats his gemstone reassuringly. “But don’t worry, pal. I’ve got you, and that means no one’s going to get you.” He reaches out to guide himself with the wall, but he quickly pulls away. His fingers are wet and slimy. He holds his hand under his gemstone’s white light; it’s covered in green muck. Luke shakes out his hand and wipes the rest off on his pants. No one must have been here for a long time.

After walking in silence for a bit, Luke finds himself at a two-way intersection. The hallway to his life is covered in more green slime and looks hazardous, with a slick floor and loose bricks. The hallway to his right hallway is clean and swept—no loose bricks or green muck. Luke takes a hesitant step forward, then a firmer step back.

Tetrask said there are places only gods should see. Right looks well-traveled, so he probably goes right more often than left. Luke turns to his left, grimacing. The green slime and slippery floor looks everything but inviting. Looks I’ve got no choice this time. He holds his gemstone forwards like a lantern. It uncovers a few feet of darkness, just enough to see that the elevation gradually slopes downward.

He starts into the hallway, then quickly loses his footing and falls forward. Luke careens down the slope and drags a face full of green muck with him. Just as he manages to pull himself into a seated sliding position, Luke slams back-first into a wall, cracking his head against hard stone. Stars burst in front of his eyes.

He sits still for a few moments to recuperate, then pulls himself out of the muck and holds up his gemstone. It pulses, energized by his touch. Luke surveys his surroundings. There are more hallways to his left and his right, the muck-covered path directly in front of him. Deciding to take a shot in the dark, Luke selects a hallway at random and follows it.

Ahead is yet another crossroad, this one a four-way instead of two. A single candle tray hangs from the center of the ceiling, easily within Luke’s reach. He pulls it from its hook. The candle is lit, quite recently by the looks of it. Luke quirks his head, curious.

Go straight ahead.

“Who’s that?” Luke looks around. “Tetrask?”

Straight ahead.

“Oh, it’s you again!” Luke turns around in the middle of the corridors, trying to see farther in the darkness with the added light of his candle. “I bet you must be around here somewhere. Is this where you’ve been hiding all this time? That’s how you get around the Temple so quickly! I knew I wasn’t crazy.” Luke walks straight ahead, the candle out in front of him. “You know, Tetrask says you don’t really exist, that you’re just a nonexistent voice coming from nowhere. He must think you’re bad for me—bad like, you might make me insane kind of bad.”

The voice says nothing in response. The green slime become less prevalent, giving way to a clearer floor and walls. Even the air becomes clean, as if purified. A smell like fresh raspberries fills the hallway. Luke takes a heavy inhale and feels crispness race through his body, invigorating his every joint and muscle. It washes the muck from his lungs and rejuvenates him.

Luke comes to yet another four-way crossroad, but this one has the left hallway blocked off—a job that’s been done relatively recently, by the looks of it. Light from his candle reveals the mortar is still grey and the bricks are jammed out of place. Whoever set the bricks must have been in a hurry.

Turn left, through the wall.

“Through the wall! It’s solid brick!” Luke knocks on it for emphasis. “How do you expect me to get through a solid wall, man?”

Through the wall.

A light bulb goes on in Luke’s head. He places the candle tray aside and points a finger at the center of the wall. A low sound drones through the hallway and the brick wall cracks. With a whoosh of air and a rocky crunch, it collapses into a single point and slams into the ground.

Luke finds himself looking at a door with a hole instead of a handle. A brilliant light comes from the room beyond, painting the hallway a pristine white. He reaches out and pushes lightly against the door, which easily gives way and swings inwards, revealing the room inside.

Massive piles of treasure gleam in all four corners. White gemstone lamps hang on the walls, no doubt fueled to overflowing by Tetrask’s presence. Glints of gold sparkle on the floor and dance with the light of the gemstones. Luke enters the room slowly, feeling as if he’s stepped foot in an Egyptian tomb.

A staff carved from jet black wood leans against the wall, offsetting the stinging shine of the wealth around him. Curiousity piqued, Luke picks it up. The top barely clears his nose, ending in a twisted configuration of black wood like gnarled fingers. He waves the staff around, curious about its properties, but nothing magical happens. Luke concentrates, willing energy into the wood, but once again nothing happens.

“Huh. Odd place to put a piece of plain wood.” Luke walks around the room a few times, tapping his staff against the ground every few seconds. A grin spreads across his face. “I’ve never had a real walking stick before. This is pretty cool.”

Luke drops into stance, holding his staff parallel to the ground. “Back, villain!” he shouts. “Don’t make me use the full force of my magic on you! Beware, for I have found true power!” Luke whips around and points his palm forwards. A burst of light explodes outward, knocking him to the ground. When Luke looks up, the door leading back into the hallway is now nothing more than a tall, smoky hole.

Shoot. He grimaces. Teddy is gonna throw a fit if he comes back and sees this. Luke peeks his head into the hallway and looks around. The cosmic burst made a giant curved tunnel out of the previously square corridor directly across from him. The top of the staff in Luke’s hand glows with an inner power, a faint yellow light emanating from the twisted knob of black wood. Curious, Luke taps the bottom against the stones. A wave of yellow magic spreads across the ground.

Luke steps out of the room and the tip of his staff glows brighter. The door reforms from ash and new bricks appear and stack themselves up, plunging the hall into darkness. His heart stops for a moment—but just a moment only, until the tip of his staff comes alive with light. He pats the wood with his palm, relieved.

Suddenly, the floor underneath him trembles. Luke presses himself against the closest wall and a blade of bright red light explodes from underfoot, splitting open the floor as cracks snake up the walls. Luke detaches himself from the wall as a blast of heat blazes across his neck. The whole Temple roars like a wild animal, hot air gusting through the hallway.

“Come on, seriously?” Luke flinches as the floor cracks open again. “I can’t wreck the Temple! Tetrask will have me running laps forever!”

Red light consumes everything in sight. The floor shifts, then drops away, taking Luke’s footing out from under him. With a gasp and a swing for something to hold on to, Luke’s hand snags the very edge of what remains of the floor, his legs dangling over an abyss of endless red light. The staff hangs loose in his hand, the tip flashing imperceptibly.

Oh boy, I’ve really done it now. This is the end of my career as a Hero, I just know it.

Luke looks up at his hand, knowing that if he hadn’t been training so hard his arm would have long since given out. Nevertheless, his grip is weakening. He can feel it in his knuckles and fingers. Tentatively, Luke looks over his shoulder at the bright abyss. There’s no way to tell how far away the ground is, or if there’s any ground at all.

Let go.

Luke closes his eyes and grinds his teeth. Tetrask’s warning about listening to the voices rings loud and clear in his head.

Let go, Luke.

Luke closes his eyes tighter. He focuses on gathering energy to unleash a cosmic blast capable of getting him out of the fissure. It will take a few moments to get ready, but when he has it done…

Trust me, Luke.

Luke opens his eyes. His hand is screaming for relief. The chasm below stretches open like the mouth of a hungry dragon. The nearest stable section of ground—if there is one anywhere nearby—is too far away to be seen. If Luke uses his powers to propel himself anywhere, there’s no telling where he’ll land. The tip of his staff pulses with a brilliant yellow light, beckoning to him.

“Well,” he chuckles, “all or nothing, as they say.”

Luke releases his grip and tumbles into the abyss.

“Ah, Tetrask! Good to see you again!”

The god of Armageddon and the Cosmos politely shakes the hand of Apalon, god of Sunshine and the Wind. Apalon then pulls Tetrask in for a firm hug, which he stiffly awkwardly reciprocates.

Apalon holds him at arm’s length, his bald head and golden eyes shining like polished gemstones. “How’ve you been? You haven’t aged a single day!”

“We’re gods. We shouldn’t age at all.” Tetrask detaches himself from Apalon’s iron grip. “Can we skip the pleasantries and get right down to business? I’ve left Luke alone at the Temple and I have a feeling he’s going to get himself into trouble if I stay for too long”

“You’re in quite the rush! Settle down for a little bit, relax and enjoy the fresh air.” Apalon turns toward the Plains sun and drinks in the light. “It’s a beautiful day in the Plains, don’t you think? A great day to see the sights and walk the path of the old Heroes.”

Tetrask scoffs. “The old Heroes were nothing more than failures waiting to happen. Every single one of them let you down, Apalon. Walking their path is disgraceful.”

“Speak for yourself,” Apalon says. “They may not have ever fulfilled our Testaments, but they all grew and changed for the better. Without the old Heroes, Renea might not have become as peaceful as it is today. Can you imagine living in a world steeped in war and chaos? I don’t think I could live with that.”

“Somehow I doubt I would have much of an issue. I tend to win most of the battles I get myself into, old memories notwithstanding.”

Apalon sighs, his smile fading. “Yes, old memories notwithstanding.” He turns to face Tetrask. “How much longer will it hold?”

“It’s impossible to tell. As long as I can keep it away from Luke, it should stay trapped for another hundred millennia. I’ve done my best to keep it subdued, but I fear Lolai’s magic might be coming undone. With Kalax now gone, I don’t know if we can keep it contained forever.”

“We’ll just have to address the problems as they come.” Apalon walks toward the Plains sun, hands folded in front. Tetrask follows a few paces behind. “You remember why I asked for your help, don’t you?”

“You said I had a ruthlessness you didn’t, but frankly, I’m hardly the vicious outlaw you think I am. I’m surprised you didn’t ask Cebral or Chaldir for guidance.”

“Cebral can be… Difficult to talk to. I think that endless ocean is starting to drive him mad. He talks like he’s training to be a superhero and when I can finally get him to speak plain Renean he tells me he’s got something important to do and leaves.”

“He’s not changed much, then. He was always the dreamer of our group.”

“I miss it, old friend. The exploration, the new worlds, the fierce battles… When did life get so boring?”

“When a monster fell from the sky and slaughtered our friends and family, leaving nothing but our little group and a broken world.” Tetrask sighs. “I wanted to go on more adventures after we locked it away, but it was impossible to convince anyone to come with me. Perhaps I was foolish to even ask.”

“We can’t change the past, Tetrask. We can only wade through the grass of the present and walk towards the sunrise of the future.”

The cosmic god goes quiet, resigning himself to become lost in his memories. The gold Plains sun, slowly rising in the sky, radiates a warm, comfortable heat. The endless field of wheatgrass bends to the will of an unseen wind, making waves in the sea of green. Not a single cloud hangs in the clear blue sky.

Apalon stops walking for a moment to appreciate a gust of wind as it whirls past his ears. A smile spreads on his face and the urge to chase it swells inside him. In light of his company, Apalon forces the feeling away for another time. There are, after all, important matters to be discussed.

“What should I do?”

Tetrask jumps, startled out of his thoughts. “About what?”

“About Ariana and Camellia. The former is a prisoner in Stark’s warcamp, and the latter is still recovering from a brutal beating. They might not make it to Sunset Hill at this rate, and I was expecting to see them both within a week.” Apalon folds his arms. “I don’t know how to break Ariana out without hurting the Plainsmen in Stark’s warcamp. I can’t help Camellia because I’m not a healer. What do I do, Tetrask? Should I wait and let them do it themselves?”

“That’s the point of a Hero’s quest, isn’t it? To let them be the deciding factor in if they’re worthy of receiving your blessings?”

“But she’s different,” Apalon says. “Camellia is so much different than all the other Heroes who’ve come before her. I’ve got a good feeling about this one. She’s going to do something remarkable.”

“You’ve said that before, about other Heroes.”

“But Camellia is different from them!”

“You’ve said that before, too.”

Apalon sighs, feeling defeated. “I just want to know how I can help them make it to Sunset Hill without hurting my people.”

“You consider Stark’s followers your people?” Tetrask balks. “Do they even worship you?”

“Do they have to?” Apalon counters. “They live in my realm, so I’m responsible for their well-being. Isn’t that what we agreed all those eons ago when we made the first Reneans?”

“You want my opinion? Fine. Let Camellia arrive on her own time. She’s a Hero. She should be given the same chances to succeed—or fail—as was given to every other Hero before her.” Tetrask points a finger at Apalon. “Favoritism is why Lolai died before her Testament could be given. She spent too much time with that mortal Delra. Had she named a Hero, her legacy might have lived on.”

Apalon straightens his back. “You can’t afford to be bitter about her forever, old friend. She made a mistake that I don’t intend on repeating. Camellia may be just another Hero to you, but to me she’s something beyond that. She fights for the right things and wants to change into a better person. Can your Hero say the same?”

“Don’t lecture me. Luke has potential beyond your wildest dreams. He’s capable of things that would wipe that grin off your face.”

Apalon smiles. “Maybe I should have called him for help instead of you. Maybe he gives better advice.”

“Hardly,” Tetrask says flatly. “He’ll probably give you a misguided opinion and then ask if you want to hear about Nysse.”

“Your oracle? Why would he talk about her?”

“He all but drools over her from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep.” Tetrask grimaces. “It’s almost vile, the way he talks about her. It’s like she’s the only star in his sky.”

“As I remember, you used to talk that way about Lolai.”

Tetrask’s heart shatters. He looks away, silent.

“In truth,” Apalon continues, “I suppose you’re right. I don’t think anyone can help my Hero and her guide—not even me. I wanted to get Ariana to safety, but that would take away a chance for Camellia to prove herself. I wanted to help Camellia recover, but that would take away the experience of feeling defeat. Now that she knows what it tastes like, she probably never wants to feel like that again.”

“That’s it, then?” Tetrask perks up. “We’re done?”

“Not quite. We have one more problem on our hands.”

“Of course we do. We always have one more problem. What is it this time?”

“They’ve been on the move.”

“Who?”

“They. Them.” Apalon gives Tetrask a hard gaze. “You know who I mean.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m a god. I know when my realm is in peril.”

“They’re here? In your own realm? Why didn’t you say so earlier?” Tetrask’s body surges with intense brown magic. “Where are they? Now’s our chance to kill them both. They won’t be able to do any more damage if we do this quickly.”

Apalon sighs, then once again turns to face the sun. “They’re both with Camellia. Attacking them is sure to turn her away from all of us, not just you and me. Telling Camellia she’s harboring the two most dangerous villains in the history of our planet is sure to backfire. Maybe if you talk to her…”

“Me,” Tetrask snorts. “The cosmic god, doomsayer and Armageddon freak, come to tell her that her two closest advisors are plotting the demise of all things good and pure.” Tetrask crosses his arms, his magical aura dying away. “I’m sure that will work handily.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Apalon snaps, whirling on Tetrask. “They’re wearing masks while they plot to ruin everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve. If we unmask them too soon, we’re bound to find ourselves in a heap of trouble with not only Camellia, but every other Hero they’ve helped. That’s almost enough to turn the whole planet against us.”

“Have you talked to the others? What have they told you?”

“Nothing. The only sensible one left is Chaldir, but he’s too busy brooding in Palace Center to talk to me. Cebral is impossible to talk to, we’ve discussed that. Deion’s turned me away because he’s too busy researching. Apparently Magnus won’t talk to anyone, not even Deion.”

“He and Deion used to be very close. What’s happened to them?”

“A fairer question: what’s happened to us?”

Tetrask spreads his hands in a gesture of resigned acceptance. “What hasn’t happened? We were the pinnacle of life in the galaxy before Renea was decimated by the monster. We had a chance to repopulate, but the remaining females died before new Daltinkarian kin could be born. Then Hibem left, leaving just the seven of us. We then had a chance to help the Heroes finish their quests, but they failed because we didn’t have the audacity to approach them and train them. And to top it all off, Kalax succumbed to the curse and Renea is facing the prospect of a world war, all thanks to the upstart Adversaries made possible by the first Heroes who failed because we were too proud to help them succeed!” Tetrask slams his foot on the ground. “Damn it! We’re nothing but incompetent fools!”

“Some of us, perhaps,” Apalon says softly. “I’ve done my best all my life, from birth to the present. There’s only so much we can do with our time, Tetrask, even though we both have had eons to change from mortals to heroes to gods. I’ll always do what’s best for my realm and I’ll always protect my people, whether they’re evil or good.”

“I don’t understand your bleeding heart. Stark is killing good Plainsmen and two very evil people are plotting to uproot the heart of our world. Yet all you can do is stand around and appreciate the sunlight! Why don’t you act? Why don’t you fight against them and show what happens when they cross you?”

“It’s not my place to right the wrongs Stark has made; it’s Camellia’s. Only she should stop Stark’s rampage, because it is her quest to fulfill. Could I stop him from killing his fellow Plainsmen in an effort to make a perfect bloodline? Yes, but why should I if it deprives Camellia of the chance to prove herself? What purpose would she have if I did everything for her?” Apalon sighs. “You’ve spent so much time training with Luke that you’ve forgotten how big the world is, old friend. On Renea, Heroes have to adventure and fight to get stronger. Meeting with their patron god is a privilege they have to earn.”

“Are you implying that I’m robbing Luke of the chance to grow?”

“I’ve said what I’ve said. Interpret it as you wish.”

“Why did you summon me if you already knew the answers to your questions?” Tetrask turns away, his mood stormy. “You’ve wasted my time and you’ve wasted your own.”

“Far from it! You got to see me again and I got to see you again. It’s been years since you’ve come down to Renea. That stuffy old Temple must be so lonely and boring. Why don’t you ever visit?”

“You know why. The moon isn’t exactly the most stable place without me present at all times.”

Apalon smiles. “Well, I think it’s time you took a vacation. Come with me, we can retire to my home and talk about the old days. Don’t you miss having conversations with creatures who understand what it’s like to be a god?”

Tetrask looks towards the direction of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. Somewhere in the bright blue sky lies the moon, and somewhere on the moon is his Temple. Within that Temple is a special boy with special powers who has a tendency to wander and get himself into trouble.

A sinking feeling drops into the cosmic god’s stomach and he falters, worried about Luke. Something could be wrong. He could be hurt, or dying, or running out of air…

“Tetrask? Are you coming?”

Apalon’s hand is outstretched towards his friend, an expectant look on his face. Tetrask takes one last look at the heavens before letting out a slow sigh.

“Alright,” he says, taking Apalon’s hand. “It’s not like Luke can get himself into too much trouble if I’m gone for a day or two.”

Chapter Five

[]Funeral Pyre

On the high seas of Cebral’s Ocean

The funeral service for Hartor, Quartermaster of the ship Undying Adventure, is about to begin.

The Ocean sun breaks over the horizon, sending a warm glow across the water. A morning haze lingers over the sea, adding a dreary and lethargic feel to the air. The mood on the Undying Adventure is gloomy. Any cheer is replaced by a desire to lean over the railing and sigh—to watch the waves splash against the side of the ship and wish for better days.

The bow of the ship points toward the Ocean sun, signaling a readiness to depart for uncharted territories. The sails, however, are furled up and tied down securely. No one stands at the ship’s wheel to give her direction and purpose. Captain Roger is alone on the navigation deck, pacing silently.

Bamor, a deckhand, leans against a railing with Jingnix, his best friend and sailing mate since he was very young. With Hartor gone, they both feel a profound emptiness inside their hearts that no amount of work or drink can fill. Jingnix drums his fingers on the wood railing, waiting for something to happen or for someone to do something interesting.

“Today’s the day,” Bamor says. The words taste like sawdust and sand when they leave his mouth. Jingnix grunts in reply.

“And to think he was going to retire when we got back on land…” Bamor shakes his head. “I feel bad just thinking about it.”

“Then stop spreading it,” Jingnix snaps. “I’m upset enough as it is.”

“I suppose it’s for the best,” Bamor continues, heedless of Jingnix’s feelings. “Hartor was getting old. Maybe him dying on the high seas is what he really wanted. Who wants to die cooped up in a hospital? I know I wouldn’t. I’d like to go out in a big firefight with lots of explosions and swords.” He leaps backward, an invisible sword in his hand. “It’d be just me and my enemy, blade against blade, and we’d dance across the deck. I’d hear a cannon go off, ripping through the main mast. Smoke would be hanging in the air. My heart would be pounding loud, the blood singing in my veins.

“Then, wham! He gets me right here”—Bamor points at his heart—“and suddenly time freezes. I look into his eyes and I see his anger, knowing that I was once a pirate like him. I notice how nice his green eyes look with his black beard and I wonder what his parents must have looked like. My breath stops and I feel pain. I drop to the ground and he yanks his sword out from my chest, stepping over my body to find a new victim. And that’s how I die, Jingnix. I die right there, on that deck, peering through the smoke and the flags at the clear blue sky. Despite all the explosions and the screams, all I can hear is the waves.”

Jingnix gives him a patient stare. He seems to be thinking about something.

“I would die,” he replies, “by lying down and going to sleep after a good day of work.” Jingnix then turns back to the sea and says nothing more.

“Seems pleasant enough.” Bamor turns around and rests his back against the railing. “I wonder if Hartor actually died from his wounds or not. Roger’s been awfully quiet about the whole thing. Some men die from drinking too much water while in the hospital; they get water-poisoned and they drown their organs. It sounds too cliché for Hartor to have just died from his wounds. I think something else is going on.”

Jingnix shrugs, watching a rare spotted red gecheppie leap from the water. His mind drifts to the days he spent as a child fishing in the shallows with his own rod. How many years ago was that? It feels like forever.

Bamor nudges Jingnix, once again startling him out of his daydream. “What do you think Roger’s up to now?” He gestures to the pacing Captain. “He’s been walking back and forth across the navigation deck like that for almost an hour. Any longer and he’ll wear a hole right through the wood.”

“I don’t know,” Jingnix replies. “Quit bothering me. I’m trying to think.”

“I’ve been thinking all day and I’m sick of it. I want to do something.” Bamor shoves himself off the railing and begins to pace. “I want to get this ship repaired so we can get back to treasure hunting. I want to get out of this mist and get back in the sun, where it’s bright and clear and warm. Above all, I want to get this funeral over and done with. Hartor was a fantastic man and an even better quartermaster—it’s time we laid him to rest and let go.”

“I’m more worried about Drew than I am about Roger.” Jingnix looks over his shoulder at the crow’s nest. “He’s been up there for almost two days. Won’t sleep, won’t eat, won’t drink anything. It’s like he’s punishing himself.”

“For what? It wasn’t his fault Hartor died. If we’re blaming anyone, we should be blaming that doctor who appeared like magic and disappeared into nowhere.”

“If he could have saved Hartor’s life, he would have,” Jingnix says. “Sometimes medicine just isn’t enough. There are some wounds that simply can’t be healed.”

“I just wish everything wasn’t so depressing. Now that Hartor’s gone it feels like the ship itself is coming apart at the seams.”

“With Roger at the helm, it just might.”

On the navigation deck, Captain Roger listens intently, his hearing enhanced by a small amount of black magic. Morale isn’t high and the sailors are already questioning his leadership—not a good start to his career as Captain. He debates wearing something that would mark him as a Captain, just to show that he’s in charge. Currently, the only feature denoting Roger as the Captain is his place on the navigation deck. He wears a plain pair of sailing pants, a loose vest, and a blue shirt—the typical garb of an average sailor. His short black hair has grown since he met Drew at the pier, his bangs starting to curl off his forehead. His fierce black eyes have a new level of hardness in them from Hartor’s untimely death.

Roger looks out over the stern of the ship, the sun at his back. The long shadow of the Undying Adventure stretches across the water. Somehow it feels symbolic for his new position—that he’s dwarfed by the responsibility that’s quite suddenly been thrust upon him. He grinds his teeth, trying to focus his mind on tackling the task at hand rather than feeling intimidated by it. It’s been a long time since he’s led a large group of people. The last time was back in the Cemetery, when he was a new Hero adventuring to find his patron god.

How long ago was that? After living for so long, the years feel uncountable.

Time has lost its power to Roger. He wakes up and can remember days that felt the exact same in terms of temperature, daylight, and even humidity. He’s seen trillions of sunrises and watched the night sky change across thousands of years. Each day is exactly like one he’s already had. Some days Roger wakes up and believes he’s gone back in time. He leaps out of bed, ready to solve all the mistakes he made, only to realize that it’s too late—that it has always been, and always will be. On those days, Roger stays in his hammock, alone with his thoughts.

Up in the crow’s nest, Drew hasn’t moved in several hours and he hasn’t been down to the deck in almost two days. While the crew steadily rebuilds the broken portions of the ship, Drew secludes himself from others and sullenly watches the waves. His stomach rumbles, yearning for food, especially for dishes like pumpkin pie and chicken roasted over a wood fire. He can almost smell the smoke, taste the crispiness of the skin…

Drew shakes his head, clearing his mind of the images. Oh no you don’t. You’re not allowed. Not until you’ve suffered enough. You have to pay for your failure to save Hartor. You could have at least tried to use your hydrotherapy on his wounds! Why did you have to trust that stupid doctor? He didn’t have a single magical bone in his body! There’s no way he could have helped him.

He looks up at the sky. But I could have, right? I could have saved him. Drew wants to slap himself but he lacks the energy to move his arms. Two days without food is starting to wear him down. He conserves energy by moving less, even though sitting around makes him feel useless and lazy.

Drew hazards a look down at the deck, finding little motivation among the crew. They sit around or aimlessly mill about, trying to find something to do with their time. Every now and then a sailor casts a longing glance at the broken portions of the ship yet to be rebuilt, but he invariably shakes his head and looks away. It’s almost as if the very spirit of the crew has been broken down the center.

Down at the navigation deck, Roger starts pacing again. It’s the only thing he can do to get his mind off of Hartor. This would be so much easier if Captain was around, he thinks angrily. But now I’m the Captain. My decisions influence the crew. Just pacing on the navigation deck is probably upsetting them more than anything else I could be doing right now.

With a sigh, Roger leaves the navigation deck and enters the ship. He goes down to the bottom floor and walks through the cargo hold. A few sailors sleep soundly in the dark corners or against the boxes, but Roger avoids waking them. Once at the bow, he produces a key for the locked room ahead. He unlocks the door, enters, and shuts it behind him. A single yellow gemstone lamp hangs on the far wall and an open coffin is on a table in the middle of the room, exposing Hartor’s corpse. He almost looks asleep.

“I don’t know where to start,” Roger says. “I’ve lived a long time, but truthfully I haven’t buried many people. I spent a lot of my life running—running from connections, from second chances at love, from pain. I’ve lived on islands, on sandbars, in towns, and everywhere in-between. But this hollowness…” He touches his chest. “It’s new to me. I haven’t felt this way since I was separated from my spiritmate all those years ago. I didn’t want to ever feel that way again. But now I’m here and you’re gone, so I don’t have much of a choice. This is as real as it gets.”

Roger pauses, almost expecting Hartor to get up and say that it’s just a joke, that he’s not really dead at all, but the quartermaster doesn’t stir.

“What you told me before you died was true,” Roger continues. “I am a part of something bigger than normal Reneans can comprehend. I can’t tell you what it is, though I wish I could, because I’ve been carrying this weight for a very long time. If I do tell someone, I might be killed. No matter how bad I want that, I can’t let it happen. If I do, that leaves Jenna to fight for herself. She’s outrageously strong but she can’t do it without me. And I can’t do it without her. She’s my spiritmate, Hartor. We’re one soul separated into two bodies. If one is gone, the other is incomplete.”

He rubs the back of his neck, suddenly embarrassed. “I don’t know why I’m pouring my heart out to you. I know you can’t hear me all the way in the Royal Crypt. If I could go back to the Cemetery I would, but Gnosis won’t let me.” Roger instinctively touches the blue mark on his face. “You’ve no idea what it’s like to not be able to go home—to the one place in the world you feel safe. I could fix all the trouble between Katrina and her new Hero if only I could get there, but I can’t.” He sighs. “We’re all in big trouble, Hartor. If these new Heroes don’t do something, Renea is going to die.”

Once again he pauses, expecting a response from his former quartermaster. But nothing happens.

“Before I get too carried away, I just want to thank you for the good times you gave me. I liked it when you told me I showed promise as a sailor. I know I started out cold and hostile, but I’m glad you got me to warm up. Even when we got caught in that nasty storm, I remember how you coordinated everyone without a moment’s hesitation. Sure, we limped to shore with a battered ship and we lost a few good men—not to mention most of our treasure—but we survived, didn’t we? We survived.” He shakes his head. “I just wish you had survived this last storm. We could use a good leader right now and, if you couldn’t tell, I’m not the best at leading people.”

The ship creaks and Roger’s heart skips. He stands stock still, hoping no one barges in on his private conversation. When no one comes, he continues.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t save you,” he says. “I knew that ‘doctor’ was going to poison you, but I couldn’t tell the crew with him right in front of me. I was afraid. Maybe they would have believed me if I said something, but I didn’t. Now you’re dead because of it. Still, it’s not the only mistake I’ve made. It’s definitely not the biggest, and it won’t be the last.”

Roger sighs, low and long. “I wish I could tell you that I’d avenge you, that I’ll track him down and make sure I paint the world with his cosmic blood. But I can’t make that promise, Hartor. He’s stronger than me. He’s stronger than all of us.” Roger wipes his eyes. “But something has to be done; we’re running out of time. I can feel it radiating from the moon at night and from the waves during the day. Something enormous is about to happen and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I don’t think anyone can stop it. If only I could talk to Magnus again… Maybe then I would have the power to end it. It would cost me my life, but it would be worth it. I’ve lived long enough as it is.”

The door behind him creaks open. Roger whirls around to see Drew King standing in the doorway, hunched and nearly shaking. Though only two days have gone without him eating or drinking, it appears to have taken a heavy toll on his body. He looks weak.

“I didn’t think anyone else would be here,” he says, his body quivering. Drew enters the room and closes the door. “I thought I would pay my respects to Hartor in private. I’ve never been good at funerals.”

“I’ll leave if you want.”

“No. I trust you.”

With obvious effort, Drew straightens his back and walks up next to Roger. He looks into the coffin.

“He almost looks asleep.”

“I wish he was.”

“We sure could use him around here.”

“I agree.” Drew looks at Roger, startled by his response. “Don’t look at me like that. I know Hartor would be a better Captain than me. Everyone knows that.”

“I don’t believe that,” Drew says with utmost honesty. “I think you’ll be a great Captain. Hartor was a good guy, but I don’t think he was captain material. He worked best as the quartermaster—as an advisor. I don’t see him as a man who would stand around looking important and giving occasional orders. Not to say that’s all Captain did, but…” He sheepishly rubs the back of his neck. “Well, you get the point.”

Roger folds his arms, directing his eyes at Hartor’s body. The pair says nothing to one another for a long time, content to be lost in their thoughts. The Undying Adventure creaks gently, shifting to and fro in the calm seas. After a few moments, Drew breaks the silence.

“What do we do now?”

Roger turns and gives him a questioning glance.

“Where do we go from here? Is it just a straight shot to wherever we’re going next? Do we go for the shore and find a good cemetery to bury the body?” Drew places a hand on the coffin. “I’ve never had someone close to me die before. Isn’t there a grief period we’re supposed to go through first?”

“We don’t have that luxury,” Roger says. “We’ll probably throw the coffin overboard after the funeral—it’s all we can afford to do on our tight timeframe. With both Hartor and Captain gone, our ship will no longer follow their course.”

Drew smirks. “We had a course to begin with?”

“Captain was going to take us to the farthest point of the charted Ocean: the Isles of Boir. It’s a group of seven islands that’s half a citystride off the mainland. They’re loaded with secret treasure and ancient ruins. It would have been the perfect adventure, but I don’t intend on going to the Isles.”

“Why not?”

“The Isles are in the wrong direction. We need to head for Seastorm Grotto.”

“That’s where Cebral lives,” says Drew. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? What about the crew? They signed up to get treasure.”

“I don’t care what they signed up for. I’m going to get you to Seastorm Grotto. If they don’t like it, they can get in a rowboat and shove off to shore.”

“Why the rush? I want to find treasure too, you know. I’ve never held real gold in my hands.”

“Our time together is growing short. I don’t know how much longer we can afford to piddle around. The faster we get you to Cebral, the more likely we are to succeed.”

“Who’s ‘we?’ And why do ‘we’ need to succeed? What’s going on?”

“I don’t have time to tell you.” Roger closes the lid of the coffin. “We need to put on our best faces for the crew and get this funeral underway. It’s long overdue.”

“Oh no you don’t.” Drew steps between Roger and the coffin. “Your vagueness has gone on for long enough. I’m fed up with being left in the dark and I want some answers. Who do you mean by ‘we?’ Why is our time short and why can’t we afford to go treasure hunting? What’s with you?”

“I don’t have time to—”

“Yes you do!” Drew yells. “We’re alone in the middle of the Ocean. The crew is mourning Hartor’s death. No ship is going to pass by within the next hour that demands your attention. You’ve got all the time in the world, and I want some answers.” He points at Roger. “No more games. I’m a Hero; I can handle it.”

A tense pause passes between them. Drew’s brow is furrowed, his jaw set in determination. Roger’s eyes are guarded and his face is closed. Neither of them yield an inch, staring each other down. Drew knows that his only chance of getting strong enough to face Cebral lies with what Roger has to say, though he can’t explain why. Roger knows that if he tells Drew what’s really going on, about his orders from Gnosis to go to Seastorm Grotto, everything he’s worked so to achieve could fall apart. Gnosis himself might get involved, and with Max already on a tight string…

But telling him would give me an opportunity to escape.

Roger eyes Drew carefully. Telling Drew about why he’s really going to Seastorm Grotto could fracture his trust—maybe even destroy it completely. But Gnosis is growing impatient; he wouldn’t have sent Max to deliver such an explicit order for any other reason. Whatever the Eternal Chalice is, Gnosis doesn’t want Cebral to have it.

Roger knows he’s running out of options. If Gnosis doesn’t get the Chalice, a lot more than heads are going roll. Ships will sink. Families will be split in two. Entire towns will burn. Roger knows that such devastation will only be the beginning of something far worse. In all of his years he’s never felt such tension in Renea’s atmosphere. Something big—very, very big—is coming, and it’s coming soon.

Screw it, Roger thinks. If this is the end, let it end. I’m sick and tired of taking the safe way out. I’m going to gamble on Drew’s faith in me.

“I’ll tell you,” Roger says firmly. “But I’ll tell you after the funeral, when I know we’ll have time to talk.” He looks the Hero in the eyes. “But you won’t like what I’m going to say.”

“How do you know?”

“I know you. Trust me when I say your heart won’t exactly be flying through the air.” Roger turns. “I have my own agenda out here. I’m not doing this solely to be nice. There are things I have to do, things that are required of me. I trust you’ll keep that in mind when I tell you why I’ve been so vague.”

“I know you have your own agenda,” Drew says. “I trust you, Roger. Whatever it is you need to do, if you can help me get to Seastorm Grotto, I can help you in return.”

“You won’t want to help me after I tell you. But that’s for another time. Go get a few sailors to lift this coffin and carry it to the deck. It’s time we laid our friend to rest.”

Drew leaves in a hurry. Roger stays in the room until a squadron of four sailors arrives, looking ready to get the proceedings underway. They lift the coffin and carry it out to the deck; Roger sends Drew to collect the rest of the crew.

After a few minutes the remaining crew of the Undying Adventure stands in a circle around a closed coffin. The Ocean sun scorches their skin, but the sailors don’t seem to care. Their only focus is on the box in front of them.

Roger steps forward; all eyes turn to him. “I’ve asked Arharen to write a eulogy, so at this time, Arharen if you please…”

Arharen, a rail-thin boy barely out of his teens, steps forwards, a piece of paper in his shaking hands. It’s hard to tell if he’s nervous or overcome with grief.

“Hartor,” he reads, “if life had a way of being crueler than this, I don’t think I want to see it. You were taken from us before you could retire to that home on that grey island you were always talking about: the one with waterfalls and vines. Instead you were taken by your wounds—a hero to us all, right to the end.” Arharen pauses and clears his throat. “We mourn the loss of our friend and his passing to the Royal Crypt. But we also celebrate his life and the joy he brought us. We celebrate his teachings and his sense of humor. Hartor, in life you were my mentor and my friend. You taught me everything I know about being a good quartermaster. I can only hope to live up to your reputation.”

“Death is not the end,” Roger says. “We all look forward to a new life in the Royal Crypt, a place without fear or pain or suffering. It was a shame you had to leave us so soon.”

“We all loved you,” Arharen continues. “I loved you dearly, perhaps the most of us all. You were the guiding light to all of us—you were the lantern that lit our way in the dark, and for that, we thank you. Now, as we lay you to rest, we pray that your soul safely reaches the Royal Crypt. We hope that you find peace in the afterlife, and that we’ll meet again someday. Goodbye Hartor. We’ll miss you.”

Arharen folds up the paper and steps back into the circle. A few of the sailors nearby pat him on the shoulder, commending him on the speech.

“And now,” says Roger, “a moment of silence for our fallen comrade.”

Earlier…

“Did you lock the hatches in place?”

“You asked me that two minutes ago!” Cochin says. “Yes, I did! Get off my back, sheesh!”

“Look,” Fradlr says, pointing at his companion, “if you want to explain to Captain Karos that the Fog didn’t work because we forgot to lock the hatches, be my guest. I’ll be happy to watch from the sidelines while he’s flaying you alive.”

“Just because the Captain is in his office you think you can parade around the deck like you own us? Ever since he promoted you to First Officer it’s like you’re a whole new person. The Fradlr I knew remembered what it was like to have fun.”

“This is a direct order from Karos himself!” Fradlr exclaims, dumbfounded. “If you want to ignore it, then fine, ignore it! Just don’t come crying to me when Karos flattens you for disobedience.”

Cochin whirls around, his face red. “If you’re so concerned about making the Captain happy, why don’t you stop pretending you’re the Captain? Go get him out of his office, do something useful for once.”

“When Karos is ‘in meditation,’ I’m in charge. Either get your rear in gear or I’ll find someone to check the hatches for you. How hard is it to follow a simple order?”

“Get bent!” Cochin yells. “I’ll take my orders from Karos, not from you!” He stomps past Fradlr and kicks the door to the living quarters open, closing it with a resounding BANG!

Despite his own frustration, Fradlr knows he has a point. Karos has been secluded in his office for over a day and the preparations for the Fog have long since been completed. The only thing left to get is the go-ahead from Karos, which is difficult to get when he locks himself away for hours at a time.

Sighing, Fradlr enters the Navion and walks to Karos’s office, which is barred by a wide, ornate door. He knocks a few times, then steps back and waits.

A few moments pass. Inside, faint breathing can be heard. Fradlr puts his ear to the door and knocks again, louder this time. The breathing hitches, as if someone has been startled awake.

“Captain Karos? Are you in there?” Fradlr knocks on the door again. “Can you hear me?”

Blue light comes from underneath the door and a horrendous rattling sound soon follows, as if a piece of metal is being dragged along the floor. The door splinters, cracks of neon blue crawling across the front. The door crumbles in on itself, reduced to sawdust.

Karos the Scourge stands in the doorway, the dim orange light from oil lamps casting misshapen shadows on his gaunt face. He looks as if he hasn’t eaten in days and hasn’t slept in weeks. His back is hunched, his beautiful black hair messy and tangled. He leans on his ceremonial cutlass, using it as a crutch.

“What is it?” Karos asks, his voice husky and weary. “I was nearing a breakthrough in my research.”

Fradlr is too astonished to speak for a moment. “I…” He shakes his head, still trying to grasp who he’s talking to. “I didn’t know you were doing research.”

“I’m a secretive man. What do you want?”

Fradlr straightens his back. “I came to report, sir. The Fog is ready to be deployed.”

“What took you so long?” Karos slumps against the doorway. “I said be ready to deploy in four hours, didn’t I? Why didn’t you find me earlier?”

“You’ve been locked in your office for over a day.”

“Time flies, as they say.” Karos sighs. “How’s the sea looking?”

“Beautiful, except we’ve got almost half a fleet of Navy ships blockading us in every direction. We should deploy the Fog now. If we don’t, we run the risk of a skirmish with the Navy.”

“And the Hero’s ship? What about him?”

“I watched them pass through the Navy blockade a few hours ago.” He pauses. “Why do you ask, sir? About the Hero’s ship.”

“I’ve done some thinking,” Karos says, “about what I said to you earlier. I was wrong. When you told me I was scared of him, I didn’t want to admit it. The thought of a Hero being my equal was frightening—to an extent, it still is. But I don’t need to be scared anymore. I now have the power I need to beat him. All I need is to get to his ship.”

“Hence the Fog?”

“Exactly.” Karos lurches forward. “I know I don’t look like I’m in the best shape, but right now I’m capable of putting Drew down for the count.”

Fradlr doesn’t fail to miss the blue discoloration tingeing the edge of Karos’s eyes. Wherever he’s getting his power, it’s starting to have an adverse effect on his body. The only question is if Karos himself has noticed. Fradlr opens his mouth to speak.

“Anyways,” the Captain interrupts, “no time to make small talk. Go ready the sails and rouse the crew. We deploy the Fog as soon as I get back on deck.” Karos turns and limps back into his office. Just as he’s about to close the door, he throws a look over his shoulder. “Something on your mind, Fradlr? You look hesitant.”

“It’s just…” He shakes his head. “No sir, there’s nothing on my mind.”

“Then quit standing around and rouse the crew. Let’s make this happen.” With that, Karos reenters his office and closes the door behind him.

Far away, through the angriest thunderstorm, past the fiercest leviathan and the tallest titanshell, beyond the Isles of Boir and the edges of the map, lays the uncharted island called Seastorm Grotto, the legendary residence of Cebral, god of Architecture and the Ocean.

Though mythical in nature and theoretically impossible to find, one only needs to sail to the Vast Emptiness and wait at the edge of the world. Few have made it that far, and those who have either lost their sanity or lost control of their ships, tumbling into an endless nothingness. Only one person ever made it to Seastorm Grotto alive—a Hero who then became an exile for the next hundred thousand years.

Cebral sits on the shore of his island and watches the waves wash up on the beach. A forest of palm trees looms behind him, their fronds wavering in the wet wind. Just beyond the edge of the Grotto is a completely calm water. It’s almost impossible to notice, but if one looks carefully, one can see a lazily drifting current. By following that current for a few days, one reaches the Vast Emptiness—the edge of Renea, the edge of the world.

That may be the safest place now, the edge of the world. Cebral looks up at the sky; the moon hangs bright and full over Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. A cold shiver runs up his spine and he finds himself wondering how Tetrask manages to keep it all under wraps.

Cebral stands and dusts the sand off his trousers, his scraggly red beard hanging across his bare chest. He wades partly out to sea, then merges with the waves, turning into a living mass of water. Seastorm Grotto’s seashelf is half a citystride out from the island, where it then dips straight down toward the seafloor. Cebral glides over the shelf and dives down, seeking deeper waters where a dark cave rests, covered by a rock so large only a god can move it. When the water is too dark for any light to pierce further, Cebral turns to the shelf face and lays a hand on it. Finding a small bump, the god seizes it with both hands and yanks with all his might.

Seagreen magic surges from his aqueous body, casting a blinding light that rips open the undersea darkness. The rockshelf trembles as Cebral drags the behemoth boulder from its place. His body glides around it, slides into the cave, then wedges the boulder back into position, leaving him in complete darkness in a long tunnel.

Cebral blasts through the tunnel with near reckless abandon, his watery body sliced apart again and again by carefully positioned sharp rocks. Timing it perfectly, he breaches through the surface of an underground lake and lands in a darkened cove. His godly aura floods the cove with seagreen light, exposing another long tunnel whose ceiling stretches out of reach.

A sea terror with seven thousand tentacles and fifty lidless eyes sleeps noiselessly in front of the sea-going god. Cebral lays a gentle, caressing hand on its oily flesh. The monster stirs slightly, but once it senses his presence, it returns to its slumber. Cebral nods to himself and continues on, glad that it’s still alive. After all, something needs to guard the Eternal Chalice.

Cebral turns the corner past his pet sea terror, entering a small cave-like room. The marble stand in front of him presents a glistening silver cup, full to the brim with a starfield liquid that shifts like the night sky. Behind the silver cup is an obelisk that tapers into a pyramid at the top. The entire surface of the obelisk is covered in letters from a long-dead language that only six creatures in the universe can read; a small space remains at the bottom for final words.

“He can be anywhere and everywhere…” Cebral takes the Eternal Chalice in his hands. “Yet he hasn’t come to take this?”

“There’s a reason for that,” says a voice that seems to come from everywhere, echoing off the walls.

The ground under him shifts dangerously and Cebral looks over his shoulder. Hundreds of squirming, slimy tentacles sling themselves around the corner of the wall, propelling the monstrous sea terror into the room. A thunderous roar explodes from its mouth, exposing a near infinite amount of sharp teeth. Cebral holds up a glowing hand and the sea terror goes silent. The god shakes his head, dismissing the creature. It bows shortly, a gesture of respect, before slinking out of the room.

“Be grateful,” Cebral calls. “Only I can call off Ylgarthrun. He’d have killed you if I wasn’t here.”

“Are you waiting for a thank you?”

Cebral turns to a particularly dark corner of the room. “Come into the light.”

“And if I refuse?”

“I’ll call in a favor from an angry tentacle abomination.”

With a sigh, a man pulls himself out of the shadows and into the seagreen light of Cebral’s body. He wears a blue cloak, his brown hair strewn about haphazardly as if he didn’t bother with a brush or a comb. The man’s mischievous magenta eyes glimmer in the murkiness, almost seeming to smirk in their own way.

“So it was you,” Cebral says. “Figures. No one else is stupid enough to barge in here.”

“You were expecting someone stupider than me? I’m afraid I’m as dumb as it gets.” He straightens himself up. “I’m not here for the Chalice.”

“Ha! We both know that’s a lie.”

“I’ve been trying to get it for eons now. But every time I send a Hero this way they either chicken out, get sidetracked, or straight-up die. It’s very aggravating, especially when you’re crunched for time.” He chuckles. “So instead of finding another useless Hero who’s going to punk out, I’m sending Roger to collect it instead.”

Cebral cracks a grin. “You’re not serious.”

“You don’t think he’ll take an order from Gnosis seriously?”

“So Gnosis is the one who wants the Chalice. You’re just running errands for him.”

“I am not!” the man shouts. “Just because he’s smarter than me doesn’t mean he’s better than me! I have my own talents, my own gifts!” He starts pacing back and forth. “No one has an appreciation for me these days. I’m playing second fiddle to a lunatic who thinks we have all the time in the world.”

“Sounds like you’re just jealous of him.” Cebral sets the Chalice on the ground. “You’ve never wasted my time before, so I won’t waste yours. Get out of my sight. I would take the time to kill you, but you’d just be back faster than I can blink.”

The man smirks. “Yes, well, such is the nature of my abilities. Everywhere at once, but also nowhere, and only showing up exactly when I’m not needed at all. Keeps things interesting. But you knew that already.” He offers a hand. “I suppose you won’t just hand over the Chalice?”

“Of course not.”

“It was worth a shot.” The man sniffs. “No matter. It’s why I’m sending Roger instead.”

“Does Drew know?”

The stranger scoffs. “Does Drew know anything? He’s got no clue what’s about to happen. In fact, it’s happening right now.”

“What do you mean? What’s happening?”

“The grandest jest of our time,” the man says. “You see, a little someone named Roger didn’t do something very important back on Tantupo Island. He let the Scourge flee without repercussion, and now Karos has gained an obscene amount of power.” He grins wickedly. “I suppose it was only a matter of time, especially since all these Emissaries can do is make things worse for others. Drew’s still so young and inexperienced, and with Karos soaking up huge amounts of magical energy… Well, he just doesn’t stand a chance at all.”

“Raldin,” Cebral says, a light dawning in his mind. “Karos has Jenna’s cutlass.”

“You bet your bag of ancient bones he does. Drew hasn’t even learned about his legendary weapon yet. This is going to be one hell of a fireworks show and I don’t want to miss it.”

“You came here to taunt me, didn’t you? You want me to go save Drew so you can steal the Eternal Chalice for Gnosis.”

“I don’t need to steal anything,” the man says. “Roger will do that for me when you’re not looking. In my opinion, the Chalice is already good as gone. But what do I know? I’m just the guy who always shows up at the wrong time.”

With that, the stranger blinks into nothingness, vanishing as if he was just an illusion that never really existed.

Cebral casts a longing look at the Chalice, then approaches the obelisk. He places a hand on the stone, feeling the smooth letters that curl and whirl like miniature whirlpools. Such a beautiful language. I’ll miss it dearly. He gets down on one knee and points a finger. A small beam of seagreen magic fires from his finger, etching swirling letters into the rock. Cebral fills up all the remaining space, making sure that no room remains for extra sentences to be written.

Once done, Cebral approaches his sea terror, Ylgarthrun, and whispers soft orders in its ear. It nods in understanding, then returns to its slumber. Cebral dives into the underground lake and makes his way back through the tunnel. Ylgarthrun rests one of its two brains, going over Cebral’s order with the other.

Keep watch for Maxillarion, the man with the magenta eyes. If you see Roger, kill him on sight.

“And now, a moment of silence for our fallen comrade.”

Drew bows his head, but the moment of silence doesn’t last a heartbeat.

BOOM!

The Hero looks up as the sound echoes across the waves. His body instinctively turns into liquid water and a cannonball rips through him, smashing another sailor in the chest and knocking him off the ship. Roger yells and points over Drew’s shoulder.

A pirate ship emerges from a thick fog that manifests from nowhere. A black flag hangs on its main mast, a white symbol sewn in the center. Drew reforms into a solid body and the crew all but huddles behind him. Roger runs up next to Drew, watching the ship with a venomous glare.

“Pirates?” Drew asks.

“Not just any pirates,” Roger seethes. “That’s the Navion, the ship of Karos the Scourge.” He looks over his shoulder at the crew. “Find anything you can use as a weapon. Prepare for battle.”

The crew exchanges worried glances, uncertain. One by one they split off to grab swords, planks of wood, pieces of heavy metal—anything that can be weaponized. Battle cries come from the other ship. Karos himself stands on the navigation deck, back straight and hands clasped behind him. Drew can almost feel the smirk on the pirate’s face.

“He feels different,” Roger says.

Drew turns.

“His aura feels wrong. Back on Tantupo he felt strong, but this… I can feel his presence all the way over here. It’s like he’s been supercharged.” Roger looks at Drew. “I don’t like it. What could have given him such an enormous spike in strength?”

Drew cracks his knuckles. “I guess we’re about to find out, aren’t we?”

“No.” Roger puts a hand on Drew’s shoulder. “You’re not ready.”

“How do you know?” Drew slaps Roger’s hand away. “How am I supposed to get stronger if I can’t fight? Let me do this. You know I can beat him.”

“You could if we were back on Tantupo, but we’re not. You haven’t eaten in two days and Karos is overflowing with energy. It’s almost like…”

“It’s almost like what?”

It’s almost like I’m facing my Adversary again. “Never mind, it’s not important.” Roger faces the Hero. “You’re important, Drew. You’re the whole reason I’m taking us to Seastorm Grotto. Renea needs you and your gifts; what you have to offer is far more vital to this planet than you realize. If you’re killed here, all of Renea could be in jeopardy.”

“Over my death?” Drew says, incredulous. “Not that I’m trying to get myself killed, but I’m just one guy! I’m not that important in the grand scheme of things.”

“Once the individual cogs start turning, the larger machine starts moving. One piece out of place and the clock stops. Out of time, out of luck—Game Over. We need you, and though you don’t know it yet, you’re immensely valuable.” Roger squeezes Drew’s shoulder. “So I’m going to order you to not fight.”

“But I can take him! Who’s going to fight him if I don’t?”

“I’ll fight him.”

“But he’s my Adversary! You told me I was destined to clash with Karos in an epic battle! This is it, Roger! This is that battle you told me about!”

“No more complaints.” Roger takes his hand away. “As Captain of the Undying Adventure, and as your friend, I order you to not fight Karos. I will fight him in your stead. Hide until the battle is over.”

Drew opens his mouth to argue further, but he’s interrupted by a roar of cheers and shouts. The Navion has pulled up alongside the Undying Adventure and the pirates are readying planks for boarding. The sailors from the Undying Adventure look to Roger for orders, and Roger looks Drew square in the eyes, unmoving. After a moment, Drew turns and hides himself behind a few barrels so he can still watch the fight.

The planks come down and the pirates board the ship, forming a thick group near the far railing. They don’t attack immediately, choosing instead to mutter among themselves and directing the occasional threats at the sailors of the Undying Adventure. Roger stands in front of his crew, shoulders squared and muscles coiled. The blue mark on his face glints in the bright sunlight.

Heavy boots fall on the wood. Karos the Scourge drops from a plank onto the midship, a sheathed cutlass at his side.

“You again, Roger?” Karos looks around. “I was expecting my Adversary. Where’s he hiding?”

“I’m all you’ll get,” Roger replies. “If you want to leave before this gets ugly, I won’t hold anything against you. I’ll let you go for free.”

Karos rears back and howls with an animalistic, ugly laugh. His crew picks it up, laughing and howling and shoving one another. Roger grits his teeth.

“Ahh,” Karos says, wiping his eyes, “still as funny as a shipwreck. You didn’t honestly think threats would work twice, did you?”

“You know full well it’s not a threat—it’s a promise.” Roger steps forward. “Don’t make this any harder than it has to be. You wouldn’t want to get embarrassed in front of your crew, would you?”

What’s he doing? Drew thinks. Empty threats aren’t going to work twice.

“I’m not the one who’s going to get embarrassed.” Karos draws his cutlass from the sheath, the blade almost glowing in the sunlight. “With this I’m unstoppable, and you know it.”

Roger’s entire body goes rigid, though with fear or restraint, it’s hard to tell.

“Seem familiar? I didn’t think you’d know this weapon. It’s very old.”

“That was her blade,” Roger says softly. Sparks of purple magic curl around his fists; Drew squints, unsure if it’s a trick of the light. “Give it back, Karos.”

“Why? You want it?” Karos twirls the blade tauntingly. “I like it. I think I’ll keep it.”

I said give it back!

Roger’s body explodes and purple magic screams out in every direction. Karos’s crew backs away from the flood of intense energy; Roger’s crew scatters like ants. The blue mark on Roger’s face shines like a midmorning sun, the Undying Adventure trembling like a leaf in a hurricane.

“That cutlass,” Roger roars, his voice magnified, “belonged to my spiritmate! I’ve been trying to find her for over a hundred thousand years!” He holds out a hand, angry wisps of purple magic streaming off his arm. “Give. It. Back.”

Karos takes off his coat and hat and tosses his sheath to the side. “Come over here and make me.”

Roger is upon Karos in an instant, his fist jetting towards the pirate’s face. The cutlass comes up in the nick of time and Roger’s fist glances off the blade. The Pirate Captain moves to strike, but Roger is quicker, sliding back into position and cranking his fist into Karos’s stomach for all he’s worth. Karos gasps in pain, then flies away like a helpless puppy, slamming into a group of wooden boxes. Roger straightens up, his eyes completely white under a thick aura of radiant purple magic.

Karos slowly gets to his feet. “Well, color me surprised. I didn’t think you had any power at all.”

“You think this is power?” says Roger, approaching Karos. “In my prime I was capable of removing Monarch from its place and splitting the Ocean down the center. This is nothing compared to what I was once capable of.” He stops in front of Karos. “Be glad this is all you get to see.”

“Then allow me to show you what I’m capable of.”

Karos smashes the flat of his blade across Roger’s face, brilliant blue magic showering the ship’s deck like sparks from a welding torch. Roger stumbles back, astonished, as Karos rushes in for another strike. The Pirate Captain lands three swift punches and follows up with a ferocious side-kick into Roger’s lower stomach, sending him sliding across the deck. Roger drops to one knee, coughing.

Drew clenches his fists, restraining himself.

“That’s all?” Roger slowly climbs to his feet, an arrogant grin on his lips. “I’m almost disappointed.”

“You have no idea the power I wield.” Karos lays Raldin on his shoulder. “You couldn’t possibly understand what it feels like to have so much energy running through your veins.”

“You don’t know who I am, Karos. You don’t know where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, what I’ve done. I’ve felt power beyond your wildest dreams.” Roger approaches. “That blade only has so much energy and you can’t handle all of it. It belongs in the hands of a Hero, not in the hands of an oaf with too much bravado for his own good.”

Karos’s confident smirk turns into a glare. “You dare—”

“Shut up,” Roger snaps. “If you had half a mind you’d hand Raldin over to me before I really lose my temper.”

“Oh my,” Karos mocks. “I’m practically shivering in my boots.”

Roger rushes forward, catching Karos unawares. The Pirate Captain retreats quickly, blocking as many blows as he can while trying to regain his ground. Drew can only watch with amazement. Karos is moving even faster than he did back on Tantupo Island. Blue magic swirls around him as he ducks and dodges, bobs and weaves. He looks completely untouchable.

But Roger is even faster than Karos. The man moves like a flash of lightning, his arms nearly a blur. When Karos ducks away faster than any human could ever move, Roger is upon him before he can find stability, responding the instant Karos goes to move.

Roger lands a blazingly fast kick that sends the pirate spinning into the air; he lets out a triumphant, animalistic yell. Drew stands and shouts, pumping his fists. The rest of the crew joins in, yelling and cheering their Captain. Karos peels himself off the ground.

“Not bad,” Karos wheezes, blood leaking from his lips. “Not bad at all.”

Drew’s heart thunders in his chest, hot blood coursing through his veins. He feels an urge to move, an urge to fight. He’s teetering on the edge of blindly running into battle and simply yelling until his lungs burst. I want to fight, he thinks, heart pounding like a war drum in his head. I want to fight.

Unable to stand it any longer, Drew leaps over the barrels and charges at the still-reeling Karos. Roger turns to see what Karos is looking at, then shouts at Drew to get off of the battlefield. But Drew doesn’t hear him. He only hears the blood in his ears and the sound of his feet on the wood, his eyes on Karos and on Karos alone.

Drew lunges in for a reckless tackle but Karos easily sidesteps, sending Drew into a group of shattered boxes. The Hero is quick to his feet. He throws a jab, which Karos simply dodges. Drew throws a hook, then another jab, sending in Karos’s direction the quickest flurry of punches he’s ever thrown. But compared to the sheer speed of a supercharged Karos, it’s laughably slow.

Karos efficiently evades each strike without a hint of effort. While Drew exerts every amount of power he can muster, while he draws on every shred of experience he can recall, it’s all useless against his Adversary. Karos merely laughs when Drew begins to run out of steam, his jabs becoming slower and sloppier. After entertaining the Hero for a few seconds longer, Karos slams his knee into Drew’s lower stomach. Drew locks up, his fists frozen in air. He drops to his knees, wheezing.

Karos raises his blade for a killing blow.

“No!”

Roger shoves Drew aside.

The blade comes down.

Slowly, very slowly, Drew pulls himself upright. Roger is lying prone on the deck, a cutlass deep in his upper back. Karos stands over Roger’s unmoving body. Drew stares blankly, trying to grasp what he’s looking at. It feels like a fever dream.

If you make one wrong move, you’re going to end up in a grave. You think Cebral wants that?

Drew blinks, realization starting to set in. His body begins to shake.

Do you think I want that?

Karos rips his cutlass out of Roger’s body. It’s wet with fresh blood, the blade glowing neon blue in the sunlight. “How boring,” the pirate sighs. “I was just getting warmed up. If Drew hadn’t gotten antsy, we could have had an actually decent battle.”

“I’m not…” Drew presses his hands on the deck, his vision swimming and his abdomen spasming. Bile threatens to spill past his lips. “I’m not done with you yet.”

“Ha!” Karos barks, short and loud. “You can’t even touch me!”

Anger boils in Drew’s throat. He feels energy in his muscles that, for the moment, overrides the pain. With a shout, Drew launches himself at Karos. The Pirate slides to the side and kicks Drew square in the face. Drew flies backwards, cracks his head on the deck and blacks out.

The crew of the Undying Adventure looks on in total horror.

“Now then!” Karos levels his cutlass at the frightened crew. “You have a choice: join my legions or end up like these two.”

The sailors look at each other, eyeing the crude weapons they still hold in their hands. No one wants to make the first move. An uncomfortable silence settles over them; Karos waits patiently, his blade still pointing at them. This isn’t the first time a crew has been unwilling to join his cause.

Reluctantly, silently, a single sailor lays down his wooden plank and crosses the ship’s deck. He pauses at the bodies of the Hero and Roger, then moves quickly to the other side. He stands by himself, apart from Karos’s crew, who regard him with glee. One by one, the rest of the crew of the Undying Adventure crosses the deck and joins Karos’s legion.

Karos picks up Roger’s limp body and throws it over his shoulder. He regards Drew with a certain amount of disdain, perhaps even disappointment. Turning, Karos walks to the edge of the ship and wordlessly crosses back to the Navion. His crew, both new and old members alike, follow after their Captain. The Navion detaches from the Undying Adventure and makes its way out to the open Ocean.

Once the ships have considerable distance between them, Karos makes a small motion. From somewhere on the Navion’s deck, a flaming arrow flies across to the Undying Adventure, latching onto the sails. Within seconds the masts are on fire, and within a few minutes the whole ship is ablaze.

Karos laughs triumphantly, watching as the Undying Adventure and its sole occupant, an unconscious Drew King, sinks beneath the waves of Cebral’s Ocean.

Chapter Six

[]Training

In an open field in Apalon’s Plains

Camellia Agnelli’s eyes open to a dark world.

It is night in the Plains, just as Doc said it would be when she awoke again. A steady ache throbs in her lower back, but other than that, she feels rested and energized. She touches her collarbone; Doc’s blue charm necklace is still clasped securely around her neck. An orange glow from a nearby fire comes through the tent flap.

“You’re being stupid,” says a voice from outside. “We don’t have time for anything of that size or scope. The clock is ticking and there’s no way to slow it down.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” says another voice. “Camellia is awake.”

Curious, Camellia rolls to her knees and crawls through the flap. Doc and the man she met in the nomad camp sit next to each other by the fire.

“Morning,” Doc says. “You’re up rather early. The sun won’t rise for another few hours.”

“I guess my body just needed to get up and stretch.” Camellia gets to her feet, walks to the fire, and sits between Doc and his companion. “What time is it?”

“It’s two hours, thirty-seven minutes, and eighteen seconds past midnight.” Doc looks at the moon, hanging far opposite to him. “You’re just in time, actually. We were just talking about you—or rather, about how to free your friend.”

“We’re at a crossroads,” the man with magenta eyes says. “Doc says we need to be quick, in and out as soon as possible, but I say we need to be unpredictable and catch him with his pants down.”

“Stark’s camp isn’t for the faint of heart,” Doc argues. “You can’t just go in there with all guns blazing. It’s a nasty, crude, dangerous place, and his people take no prisoners.”

“And your bright idea is better, is it? Sneaking in like a snake is the surest way to get Camellia caught. You don’t think Stark would know something’s wrong if he catches on to your whispers-in-the-wind secret espionage twiddlefest?”

After a moment of silence, Camellia looks between her two companions. “So have either of you tried making a plan you both agree on?”

“Don’t be silly,” the other man says. “Doc is too stupid to make a simple plan. There has to be needless complexity, six back-up plans, and absolutely no good puns. He’s about as fun as dried beef.”

“Alright,” Doc snaps. “Cool it with the insults.”

“Well,” Camellia says, “what about doing both? I could fly in at night, grab Ariana, and whisk her out of the camp before anyone notices. I’m in and out before things get too hairy.”

The other man snorts. “A jolly idea, if it weren’t for the fact that you’ll light up like a golden firecracker the instant you get near Stark’s warcamp.”

“What?” Camellia turns. “Really? Why?”

Doc clears his throat, drawing Camellia’s attention. “When a Hero approaches the biggest obstacle of her quest for the first time, the symbol of her patron god will glow on her forehead. This obstacle is formally known as an Adversary, and is usually a powerful enemy, but it can also be a place, a task, an object… Anything, really. A puzzle too challenging to solve. A personal flaw threatening to hinder her success. Natural disasters, even. The track record against them leaves much to be desired. Adversaries have unfailingly halted every Hero since the very first generation.”

Camellia chews over her thoughts. “So Stark is my Adversary.”

“Hence the problem with flying into the camp,” Doc continues. “Your mark will light up and Stark will shoot you down before you can get close. But don’t worry, I think I can tweak your plan a little to make it work.” He picks up a stick from the fire and draws a circle in the dirt. “This is Stark’s camp. Camellia, you’re the X. Here’s what I had in mind…”

Doc draws lines and figures as he explains his plan, making a great effort to provide as much detail as possible. Camellia listens intently as he outlines the exact steps she needs to take in order to succeed, and he discusses other strategies as backups for many hours afterwards. They plan for so long that, eventually, a tinge of yellow works its way up the horizon. Doc looks over his shoulder.

“There it is,” he says. “I was wondering when we’d see the sun again.”

“Dawn,” Camellia says, unbelieving. “It’s already dawn.”

“And a new day begins. Now, this whole plan will work just fine if we can pull it off, but you have to do something for me.”

“Sure, anything.”

“You need to start training for this. Going in without preparation will most definitely get you killed.” Doc nods at where she had been hit with Madame’s arrow. “An arrow to the leg shouldn’t put you down for the count. You need to know and explore all the options available to you through your powers.”

Camellia looks at her wound. It still stings, as does the memory and the images of the beating she endured. She doubts she can fight with it, even in her recuperated state. A feeling of weakness worms its way into her stomach. Apalon’s words echo loud in her head: She doesn’t need your help to beat the beast.

Camellia shakes her head, trying to work courage into her system. She droops, however, at the thought of all the “challenges” she’s faced in the Plains thus far. Meeting new people? Escaping from a tunnel of dirt? Accidentally punching a hole in a monster’s chest? Enduring a beating which anyone would have survived with a little bit of magic?

Some Hero I’m turning out to be, Camellia thinks. Ariana would have been an amazing Hero if she had been chosen. But Apalon got me instead. Maybe I’m just getting in her way.

“What if we leave her there?” Camellia says.

Doc, who had just brought a cup of water to his lips, spews it out in astonishment. His companion quickly sits up.

“You…” Doc shakes his head. “If we do what?!”

“Just to see if she can do it alone.” Camellia shrugs. “I mean, she could handle a huntbeast alone. Why can’t she break out of a little nomadic warcamp? It should be a piece of cake.”

“And what if you were in the camp?” Doc demands. “What if Ariana decided to leave you to the challenge of breaking out all by yourself? What is wrong with you?”

“I don’t know.” Camellia brings her knees up to her chest. “It just feels like everything I do is pointless. What am I learning? What am I achieving? I’ve done nothing useful out here except get lost and have accidental strokes of luck.”

Doc and his companion exchange a glance. The other man shrugs and lays back down, watching the sky turn from grey to gold. Doc turns to Camellia.

“I take it,” he says, “you and Ariana never talked in any great detail.”

“Not really. We were more like guide and traveler than Hero and companion. I didn’t know her very well.”

“Not many people did.” Doc sighs. “I think it’s time you learned a few things about your friend. It may help you understand why she can’t escape alone—why she needs you to help her.”

Camellia says nothing, prompting Doc to continue.

“Long ago,” Doc begins, “when the Renean people were still young, Ariana was chosen to be a part of something spectacular beyond all imagination. She and her friends were given a mission to fulfill—to find and solve a puzzle to end all puzzles. A grand Riddle, if you will, that was nearly infinite in size, scope, and complexity.”

Camellia looks up in curiosity.

“Maybe it was luck, maybe it was chance, or maybe it was skill, but somehow they managed to solve their Riddle. They were poised to reap the fruits of their adventure and obtain a treasure beyond imagination.” Doc pauses. “But they were stopped by something no one could have seen coming, and by the time they realized what had happened, it was too late. Their powers were stripped and they were banished from their homes. Ariana and her friends became the Emissaries: social pariahs doomed to live forever until a group of Heroes finish what they started.”

“Emissaries for who?” Camellia asks.

“For a great evil,” Doc’s companion says, “though not by any choice of their own. He goes by the name ‘Gnosis’ and he stalks the shadows like a waiting predator. I’ve traveled across the whole world trying to kill him, but no matter how hard I look…”

“He’s impossible to find,” Doc says. “If Gnosis doesn’t want to be found, there’s no way anyone will find him.”

“But what about Ariana?” Camellia asks. “Why hasn’t anyone freed her and her friends?”

“Because no one has completed the Riddle. The Emissaries watched and waited as Heroes commenced their quests, but each tiny success was inevitably followed by a string of failures. After a while no more Heroes adventured after their patron gods, content to use their chosen position to reap the social benefits among men. For a hundred thousand years the Emissaries have been waiting for someone, anyone, to finish what they started.”

“Now they have me,” Camellia says, the connections aligning in her mind. “They have me and Drew and Stanley and Bennie.”

“Precisely,” Doc nods. “You and your friends are the last hope for this world. If you can’t do it, I don’t think there will be another group of Heroes to succeed you.”

“Why not?”

He looks her in the eyes. “Call it intuition.”

Camellia is silent for a moment. “Do you think we can do it? Finish what they started?”

“That’s up to you. Will you help Ariana escape from her imprisonment or will you leave her there to suffer?”

“Well, when you say it like that…”

“And even after saving Ariana, your quest is far from over. Sunset Hill still waits far beyond the horizon. Helping her is not the end-all-be-all of your adventure. If anything, it may be only the beginning.”

Camellia looks at her leg again. The spot where the arrow had been still stings, but it hurts less than it did before. She begins to think that maybe, just maybe, if she prepares herself for a few days, she can rescue Ariana and help her find the peace she’s been looking for.

“I think I need to get some rest and sleep on it. I’ll know what to do then.” Camellia looks at Doc and his companion. “Thanks for taking care of me.”

Doc smiles; his companion inclines his head shortly. Camellia forces her way to her feet and limps over to her tent. She crawls inside, lays down on her bedroll, and falls asleep.

“Think she’ll do it?”

Doc looks at his companion.

“Think she’ll finish what the Emissaries started?”

Doc turns to the campfire. “We’ll see,” he says. “There’s much to consider before I can answer such a question.”

The sun has long since set on the horizon, casting a dim orange glow across the Pureblood warcamp. Fires have started in preparation for the evening meal. The fire in the center of the camp burns higher and brighter than the rest, its flames fed by bushels of wood and wheatgrass. The Pureblood nomads feast heartily, passing drinks and plates of steaming meat to one another; it’s a feast worthy of kings.

Ariana stumbles forwards, her chain jerked by Stark Pureblood. He sits in a leather chair many times his size, a ceremonial vest over his powerful shoulders. She, on the other hand, stands by his side wearing clothes fit for an exotic dancer. A loose sash is wrapped around her waist, partially covering a large black circle etched into her stomach. Strange symbols are scrawled inside.

Alone at his table, Katan Justblade watches Ariana and the Pureblood leader. Cold white magic moves through his fingers like lightning through a cloud. The seal on Ariana’s stomach tightens. She groans, her legs threatening to fold.

“Stand up,” Stark says, tugging her chain again. “I won’t have you making me look like a fool in front of my people.”

“You don’t need my help to look like a fool,” Ariana hisses under her breath. The seal tightens again. She gasps, leaning over her knees.

“Don’t be snide, filthblood.” Stark tilts her head up with a finger. “You’re my trophy tonight and you will be on your best behavior. I have no qualms about throwing you in a hole for a couple of days to clear your head.” The warmonger grins. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll just beat you until you cooperate. I have no problem doing that, either.”

Ariana jerks her head away.

“You have such a pretty face, though. It’d be a shame to ruin it.” Stark rescinds his hand. “So long as you behave and do as you’re told, you have nothing to fear. It’s the Hero I’m really after.”

“If she’s smart,” Ariana says, “she won’t come here. And even if she does, you’ll probably have me killed long before then.”

“I might kill you tonight if you keep talking,” Stark says threateningly. “The more attention you draw to yourself the worse you’ll be punished later.”

She snorts. “Your punishment consists of some sweaty dudes punching my face in for a few hours. I don’t think I care about a little punishment.”

“Oh, so you don’t?” He jerks her chain again, sending Ariana to her knees. “Well I hadn’t planned on using you tonight, but since you’ve been so uncooperative, I think I’ve changed my mind. You’re going to dance the Kar Baval.”

Ariana’s face goes pale. “No,” she whispers. “I won’t do it.”

“You’ll do it if you want to keep your organs,” says Katan Justblade, walking up to the Pureblood leader. He bows reverently at Stark, who acknowledges him with a nod. “Follow his orders filthblood or I’ll stack another level on your seal.”

“I said I won’t do it.” Ariana tries to drag her chains away from Stark. “Stack the seal on ten times, beat me til I’m dead, do whatever you want. I won’t dance for you.”

Katan stretches out his fingers and white light dances across his knuckles. The seal twists into Ariana’s stomach, digging into her latent energy reserves. Her eyes roll into the back of her head and she slumps against Stark’s chair.

“Get off my chair.” Stark shoves Ariana aside. She crumples like a doll and smacks her head on the hard ground.

“Look at you,” Katan says. “So adamant even when you have no choice.” He grips her chains and yanks hard, dragging Ariana’s body across the ground. “Great Stark wants you to dance, and what Great Stark wants, Great Stark gets.”

Foam bubbles at the corners of Ariana’s mouth as she attempts to stand, her eyes glazing over. Katan yanks her chain again and she stumbles, landing flat on her face in the dirt.

“Oh for the love of—” Katan grabs Ariana by her long brown hair and drags her to her feet. A gasp of pain escapes her lips and her hands instinctively latch onto Katan’s iron grip. He pulls her away from Stark’s chair, the nomad leader watching with great amusement.

The Pureblood people watch in earnest as Katan drags Ariana to the center of the feast. He clears a table with one hand and throws Ariana on it with the other. Katan climbs on top and wraps his hand around Ariana’s chains, tugging her upward so she kneels, her head hanging in exhaustion.

“Behold!” Katan calls. “Great Stark Pureblood is gracious enough to lend his trophy for our entertainment!” He grabs a fistful of her hair and pulls her to her feet; Ariana bites back a cry of pain. “Isn’t she just wonderful? Let’s give our great leader a round of applause!”

As the nomads cheer for their leader, Katan leans in close. “I’ll loosen your seal to give you energy to dance. Try anything funny and I’ll make sure public humiliation is the least of your problems.”

Justblade steps down from the table and rejoins Stark near the seat of honor. The cheers die down and soon everyone is quiet, all eyes on Ariana, who stands alone on a table in the center of the feast. Katan opens his hand, white magic curling through his fingers as he loosens the seal.

The band strikes up an exotic, otherworldly tune and Ariana pauses for a moment. The nomadic people are watching her. Stark Pureblood is watching her. Katan Justblade is watching her. When she doesn’t move for a few seconds, Katan holds up a hand threateningly. A spark of white magic dances through his fingertips, the seal tightening ever so slightly.

Slowly, Ariana begins to dance.

She moves with the music, stepping and shifting her body as carefully as she can. The drums provide a steady, otherworldly bounce and the flutes blend in a slurry of musical color. The crowd sways with the ambient music; Stark and Katan Justblade watch Ariana’s movements for any sign of an attempt to flee, but no such attempt comes. She merely continues to dance.

Light, flitting movements. Slow, sensual movements. Delicate shifting of her hips, smooth transitions with precision steps. Every movement Ariana makes is measured and meticulous, both precise and accurate. Women watch with envy and men watch with glee. Even Katan seems to appreciate Ariana’s skill in dance.

Stark Pureblood leans over and whispers something in his second’s ear. He hesitates, then nods.

Katan spreads his fingers and blue magic covers his hand. With an astonished yelp, Ariana’s feet move of their own accord and drag her off the table. She lands on the ground and continues dancing. The nomads appraise the dancer with curious eyes. She steps into the crowd against her will; they quickly make a path for her, with many of the women making faces of disgust at being so close to a filthblood.

Katan turns his hand and Ariana turns with him, putty in his fingers—a mere puppet on strings. She moves towards a group of male nomads. One of them whistles as Ariana leans against the largest of the bunch, laying her head on his shoulder with a grin on her face. Her irises have faded from hazel to a clear, sparkling blue.

She turns and wraps her sash around the male nomad’s neck, drawing close to his face. His breath smells like fried meat and warm bread; Ariana’s brain screams at her to run away, but her body is no longer under her command. She draws close to him, slowly moving her body in a sensual, almost erotic manner. Just inches from kissing his mouth, Ariana pulls the sash over his head and flits away. The other nomads laugh at their friend’s bewildered stare, the sash dangling around his neck.

Stark nudges Katan and stands. As he takes off his ceremonial vest, all eyes turn toward their leader. Ariana stops dancing, her hypnotized gaze locked only on him. The band strikes up a new tune as Stark descends from his platform to join Ariana.

She spins in a circle, then claps her hands in time with the beat of the song, a coy smile on her face. Stark steps to the beat, dancing with only his feet, and always drawing closer to his captive. Ariana and Stark make circles around one another, their feet moving to the pounding of the drums. The nomads crowd around to watch the spectacle. Katan keeps his eyes on Ariana, blue magic wisping through his fingers.

Ariana and Stark halt in unison, then face one another. They saunter in close and stop inches from each other, Stark towering over Ariana. He wraps his arm around her midsection and pulls her close; her hand instinctively presses against Stark in response. The Pureblood nomads murmur among themselves—they almost look to be husband and wife locked in the throes of romance.

The band drives forward into the liveliest section of the song. Stark turns and Ariana turns with him. They step together, moving around the circle in each other’s arms. Stark leads, Ariana following almost mindlessly, blue magic curling out of her eyes. She floats around the dance circle in Stark’s burly arms, her hands gripping onto him for support.

The Pureblood leader spins her out from his arms, then brings her back in. He leans Ariana over, dipping her towards the ground without even a hint of effort. That same coy smile still paints Ariana’s lips as she reaches up and places her hands around Stark’s head. She strokes his face lightly.

Katan twists his hand slowly. Stark leans down and plants his kiss on Ariana’s lips.

The Pureblood nomads cheer and catcall, hollering at their leader and the filthblood dancer in his arms. Katan grins, but in the heat of the moment, his concentration slips. The blue magic fades for only a second, but it’s a second nevertheless. Ariana comes to her senses, rips away from Stark, and clocks him in the jaw.

A collective gasp from the crowd, accompanied by the band loudly cracking a note. Stark stumbles back, holding his chin in shock as Ariana falls flat on her back. He fires a scathing glare at Katan, who quickly clenches his hand. White magic cloaks his fist and Ariana screams, arching her back against the tightening seal.

Stark grabs a fistful of her long brown hair and drags her up. She latches on to his hand, kicking and twisting to alleviate the pain. Hot tears threaten to run down her face.

“I’ll make you regret that,” Stark hisses in her ear. He turns to the Pureblood nomads, a wide grin on his face. “Filthbloods. They never know how to behave.”

They laugh in response, but it seems forced. Stark frowns, then drags Ariana away from the circle. She struggles to find her footing and Stark purposely holds her above the ground so she can’t. Katan follows at a distance, hiding a smirk every time Stark accidentally slams Ariana into a table or cart.

The nomad leader pauses at his personal tent. It’s much larger than the others and is decorated with ornate designs. It sits at the back of the camp, watching over the others like a vigilant sentry. Stark and Katan enter together, Ariana still squirming against the leader’s massive hand.

“Thank you, Katan.” Stark throws Ariana on the ground. “You’ve ruined a perfectly good evening with your incompetence. All I asked is that you keep her under control!”

“I lost concentration for only a moment—”

Stark smashes Katan across the face, knocking him to the ground. Katan makes no move to retaliate.

“The whole camp will be laughing by the time the sun rises!” Stark seizes Katan by the throat and drags him off the ground. Katan gasps for air as Stark’s grip tightens. “You’ve made a fool out of me, Justblade. Have you no concept of gratitude? I rescued you from your filthblood parents and this is how you repay me?”

“Accident…” Katan wheezes. “Accident!”

Stark slams him into the ground, his grip all but crushing Katan’s windpipe. “Accident is not in your vocabulary! You are a Pureblood! You do not make mistakes! Because of you, now I have a whole warcamp to get back under control!” Stark rips his hand away. Katan heaves a hard cough, turning on his side.

“The captive.” Katan breathes in, trying to regain his breath. “What do you want me to do with the captive?”

“I don’t care what you do. Just make her pay.” Stark looks at Ariana. She twitches and groans on the ground, the seal far too tight to bear in silence. “I’d do it myself, but I have a feast to oversee.” He lowers himself into Katan’s face. “Think you can follow a simple order, Katan Justblade?”

“Yes, Great Stark.” He weakly presses his fist to his chest, blood leaking out of the corner of his nose. “I will follow you until the sun itself stops burning in the sky.”

Stark turns and leaves his tent. Katan takes a moment to breathe slowly, relaxing his mind and body. He tunes in to the music of the ground beneath him. Magic slowly courses through his bones again—rich white magic and calm blue magic. He weakly waves a hand at Ariana, loosening the seal to avoid killing her.

“Oh my, you two are quite the handful.”

Katan looks over his shoulder.

“I was quite enjoying that nomad band, too. They didn’t play my ragtime tune, but I was still grooving with their sound, know what I mean?”

Katan stands, only to be nearly knocked over by Ariana. She drags him to his feet and cowers behind him, her hands digging into his shoulders. For a moment Katan wonders how she got her energy back so quickly, but then his attention turns to the stranger in front of him.

The strange man wears clothes that don’t really belong to any realm—a blue cloak with matching hood and a black shirt. Katan immediately recognizes his eyes.

“I remember you.” Katan steps forwards. “That day at the slave market. You said you wanted to purchase Ariana but thought childbearing was a problem.”

The strange man grins. “Can’t have a filthblood bearing my Pureblood sons, can we?”

“Please,” Ariana says softly. Katan turns to find her trembling. “I’ll let you do anything you want. Just don’t let him take me away.”

Katan turns to the strange man, who fixes him with another grin. An unsettling, sickly feeling pools in his stomach.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a freelance travelmaster.” The stranger opens his arms, as if preparing to give a grand speech. “I ride wherever the wind takes me, though sometimes it’s not on the wind, and sometimes I’m not really riding anything at all. I play my ragtime tune wherever I feel it’s needed.”

Ariana shudders, hiding behind Katan’s back.

This man isn’t a Pureblood. He might not even be a nomad. Justblade takes a step forward, putting a wall between Ariana and the stranger. “Explain how you got in this tent and I’ll let you live.”

“Would you believe me if I said I was always here, and always will be?”

“Not like this,” Ariana whispers, her eyes still on the stranger. “I can’t let him take me away. I have to get out of here before he kills me.”

“Kill you? Nonsense! I just want to talk with you!” The stranger walks forward. “Of course I plan to kill you eventually, but don’t be upset. I plan to kill a lot of people.”

“She belongs to Great Stark,” says Katan. “In Great Stark’s tent is where she will stay.” He draws his curved blade from his belt and points it at the stranger. “Come any closer and I will kill you.”

“Eh”—the stranger shrugs—“go ahead and kill me. Ariana will die sooner or later, as will you and everyone else on this wretched planet. This world is a keg of gunpowder and the fuse has long since been lit. Anything we do before that final explosion is pointless.” He stops in front of Katan and spreads his arms out wide. “Protecting her? Pointless. Stark putting on his best face for the crowd? Pointless. There’s nothing in this whole damned universe that has meaning or purpose. It’s nothing but a joke, Katan Justblade. A massive cosmic joke.”

“And here’s the punchline,” Katan snarls, jamming his sword into the stranger’s stomach. He twists it, drags it up to the man’s heart, then kicks him off his blade. The stranger collapses to the ground, cosmic blood pouring from the wound. The tent fills with the smell of burnt metal and black soot.

“He’s immortal,” Ariana says, unbidden. “What you just did was pointless.”

“Sure made me feel better.” Katan sheathes his blade, then turns to Ariana. “Are you going to play nice while I redo the seal or am I going to have to chain you down?”

Ariana peers over Katan’s shoulder at the dead stranger. “At this point, I’d rather do without the seal.”

“Do you think I’m a fool?”

“I won’t try to escape, I promise. I’d rather be here than out there alone.” She points at the corpse. “If you promise to keep him away from me, I’ll stay here as long as you want.”

Katan looks at the stranger’s corpse. Once again, an unsettling feeling pools in his stomach. He resists the urge to make a sound of disgust.

“Put me in chains. Beat me, torture me, tear me open, do anything you want!” Ariana drops to her knees. True terror is in her eyes. “Just please, Katan, please don’t let him take me away.”

Katan looks at the corpse again. “What has he done to you?”

“Things you could never imagine.”

Stark’s command echoes in the back of Katan’s mind. He pulls Ariana off the ground.

“I have my orders from Great Stark,” he says, “and I’ll follow Great Stark until the sun itself stops burning in the sky.”

Katan walks Ariana through Stark’s tent, guiding her to a room in the back. He lights an oil lamp and the room brightens, revealing a wooden table with crude leather straps. A barrel filled with water sits in the corner with miscellaneous metal tools. Ariana swallows as Katan leads her to the table. He rips off her clothes and straps her down. He then grabs a leather whip and a long, thin funnel. Ariana’s eyes go to the water barrel. Lashings. Water torture. Perhaps things even worse than that.

“Great Stark wants you punished.” Katan turns towards Ariana, though no amusement is in his eyes—only acceptance of duty. “And what Great Stark wants, Great Stark gets.”

Camellia struggles to her feet and dusts the dirt off her legs. She winces at the dull throb in her left knee, the unpleasant memory of her wound still fresh in her mind. The sweat on her brow glistens in the hot Plains sun. Doc stands off to the side, hands folded in the small of his back. His companion snores loudly from the grass next to him, one leg crossed over the other.

“Well?” she says. “Was it better that time?”

“It was a good effort!” Doc calls. “Run it again, but try to feel the wind move you this time!”

Camellia nods. She takes a step forward, concentrating on what she did wrong last time. A kick with too much power here, a sloppy punch there, and a poor liftoff into the air. Camellia balances on her toes, trying to get a good feel for the wind.

She focuses, calming her mind and shutting out the excess white noise. Echoes of past conversations rattle in her brain, along with songs she hasn’t listened to in a long time, all accompanied by her own mind’s chatter. The cacophony is more dissonant than she initially thought; it’s difficult to find balance. Have my thoughts always been so loud?

Camellia runs forward, then jumps into the sky. She effortlessly swoops away from the Plains, though she wobbles slightly in takeoff. As she banks to her left, her brain erupts with chatter again, clouding her thoughts. She trembles, suddenly uncertain.

Doc yells something to her from the ground, his hands cupped around his mouth. Camellia tries to focus on remaining aloft, but in the wake of all the noise in her head, she loses all concentration and falls from the sky.

She careens into the arms of Doc’s ever-present companion, who had woken up just in time to save her from further injury. They slam into the ground with a dull whump and Doc jogs across the Plains to join them.

“Well?” the other man asks. “What excuse will you have for him this time?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just can’t focus on anything.” Camellia sighs. “This has been happening too often. I can’t help Ariana while I’m like this.”

“You’ve still got some time.” He pats Camellia’s back reassuringly. “Come on, let’s get you on your feet.”

Camellia stands and offers a smile as Doc comes up to them. It fades, however, when she sees a frown on his face.

“What happened?” he demands.

“I’m sorry, I just couldn’t focus.”

“Then you need to spend more time meditating.” Doc squints at the sun. “We only have a few more hours until dusk, so let’s run it again. After that you can start in on meditation. Three hours at the very least.”

“Three hours is a lot,” Camellia mutters.

“That’s a bare minimum,” says Doc. “You should be meditating for far longer. Many nomads meditate for days without food. The Keepers in the Peaks meditate for whole weeks at a time.”

“She’s neither of those two,” Doc’s companion says. “Give her a break.”

“She can take a break when Ariana isn’t stuck in Stark’s warcamp.” He claps his hands together. “Come on, back to the drill. Remember, it’s run, jump, fly. Get that good running start first; the rest will follow.” He turns and walks back towards the camp. Camellia frowns.

“Is it just me, or is he unusually gruff today?”

“He’s gruff, but it’s only because he wants to toughen you up. He really wants you to make it to Stark’s camp.” He chuckles. “I couldn’t do what he’s doing. I don’t have an evil bone in my body.”

Camellia turns. “Evil?”

“Evil, rough, brutish… All the same ragtime tune to me.” Doc’s companion starts off towards the camp. “Let’s go run that drill again, just to keep Doc happy. After that I can show you what I’ve been working on; I think you’ll like it.”

“What is it?”

“A training exercise of sorts, but it’s far more fun than what you’ve been doing.”

Deciding to take his word for it, Camellia follows Doc’s companion back to the camp, limping on her bad knee every few steps. Doc stands at the edge of the camp with his arms folded and an impatient frown on his lips. Camellia averts her eyes. His companion brushes by him without a second glance, but Camellia meekly shuffles up to him, her eyes on the ground.

“How is your knee?”

“It hurts a little.”

“Then we’ll only do it one more time.” He puts a finger under Camellia’s chin and tilts her head up. “Just keep pushing yourself. One more time, then we can break for the evening.” He takes his hand away. “I hear my associate has something fun planned for you afterwards. That’ll be a good way to unwind before you meditate.”

Camellia nods and turns back to the Plains. The sun is dropping lower in the sky, but there are still plenty of hours of daylight left. A warm wind dashes over a hill, blowing Camellia’s long brown hair towards Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. She looks in Monarch’s direction, suddenly curious about Mr. John and what he’s been doing this whole time.

“Okay Camellia, let’s make this one count. Run the drill!”

Focus, she thinks to herself. Run, jump, fly. Run, jump, fly. Camellia takes off at a full run, sprinting for as long as her legs will allow. She then leaps into the air and soars into the sky.

She banks hard right, taking an air current down closer to the ground. At the last second she pulls up and out of her dive, her hair flying back against the wind. She does a few twists and turns in the air, circling around the sky but never flying too high or too fast. Just a drill, she thinks to herself. Stay within your limits.

An alarm goes off in her head, along with a sudden influx of the mathematical association of the word “limit.” Camellia trembles in the air.

“Oh no you don’t,” she says under her breath. “Not this time.” She shuts her eyes and swings around in a wide circle, trying to regain her composure with an easy-going flight.

Her conversation with Drew on the ride to Mr. John’s shop runs through her brain, and though she consciously fights against it, the conversation plays itself again and again, over and over. Drew’s music plays on repeat, but only one section of one song. Mr. John smiles and says the same thing dozens of times. The sun rises and sets and rises and sets. The moon hangs high over Monarch, the Greatest City in the World, glowing like a white fire.

She shouts a frustrated expletive and drops from the sky.

Wham!

Once again, Camellia crashes into Doc’s companion. His arms wrap around her protectively and they roll across the wheatgrass. As they come to a stop, Camellia holds her head in her hands, clutching on to her ears to try and shut out any excess noise. Doc’s companion coughs, blood trickling out of the corner of his lips.

“Hey,” he says. “You alright?”

“Dang it!” she shouts, pounding a fist on his chest. “What the hell is wrong with me!”

“H-Hey, be careful! You shattered my ribs!”

Camellia rolls onto the grass. She stretches out and stares up at the golden sky overhead.

“Do you think Doc will be mad?”

“I think he knew it was going to happen.”

“So he’ll be mad?”

“Probably, yes.”

She sighs. “I can’t do anything right. How am I going to rescue Ariana if I can’t get my head out of the clouds? And what about rescuing other people? Heroes are supposed to be saviors and protectors, not people like me.”

“Who told you that?”

“No one. I just thought that’s who they are.”

“You just thought, huh?”

Camellia smiles. “A gut feeling, I guess.”

“Not everyone is made to be a hero or a savior or a protector,” the other man says. “Some of us have to be content with just being everyday people. Sometimes that’s the best you can do.”

“It seems like such a waste,” she says. “To just live your life without trying to help other people. I don’t think I can understand someone who lives like that.”

“So you don’t understand me, huh?”

Camellia laughs. “Don’t be silly. You got Doc out of the Underground to come and help me when I was about to die.” She looks over at her companion. “That’s more than I can say for just about anyone I know.”

“I’ve helped many people, but that doesn’t make me a good person.”

“Well, anyways, I’m just thinking out loud.”

Feet fall in the grass nearby. Doc is almost upon them. Camellia sighs.

“It was fun talking with you while it lasted.”

“I would say the same, but I’m actually in serious physical pain.”

Camellia gets to her feet and faces Doc, who is halfway between chewing his lip and frowning. She says nothing, content to let him ream her as much as his heart desires.

“I hope you have a good excuse this time.”

“No excuses,” Camellia says. “I just couldn’t focus again.”

Doc kneads the bridge of his nose. “You can’t keep doing this, do you understand me? I need you to try harder. What will you do when you drop into Stark’s warcamp? Will you tell him that you just lost concentration and you need to try it again?”

“No, but—”

“But nothing!” Doc says. “If you can’t get yourself under control, I suggest you forget about Ariana and push onward to Sunset Hill. She’s not worth your time if you’re going to get yourself killed.”

“What makes me any different than her?” Camellia demands. “Her life is just as important as mine.”

Doc goes to respond, but he catches himself. His companion gives him a serious look, as if warning him from overstepping his boundaries.

“Fine,” Doc mutters. “If that’s what you want to believe, then fine. But there’s no sense in being suicidal. You need to be ready to fight for your life if you get caught, because if you don’t, Stark will kill you. Neither Ariana nor I want to bury you with our own two hands.”

“I won’t get killed. I can handle myself.”

“You can’t even fly in a straight line.”

“Then I’ll train harder.”

“No sense arguing with her,” the other man interjects. “She’s made up her mind.”

“You stay out of this,” Doc snaps. “We’re not finished talking.”

“I…” Camellia softly clears her throat. “I think we are.”

Doc turns. “What did you say?”

“I said we’re done talking.” She stands up a little straighter. “I’m going to go help Ariana no matter what. She’s done so much for me. It wouldn’t be fair to leave her to die.”

“Fair?” Doc scoffs. “In what universe do you think you reserve the right to be fair? Do you have any idea how important you are? If you don’t get to Sunset Hill—”

Hey,” his companion says, a sharp warning in his voice. “Let Camellia decide what she wants to do. You’ve done enough as it is.”

“Who told you to—”

“Doc,” Camellia interrupts. “I know you want to protect me from harm. But I can do this, I know it. When the chips are down, I know I’ll pull through. I want Ariana to be with me when I get to Sunset Hill even if I have to get hurt to do it.”

“Oh no you don’t. You’re too important to be shoving off and rescuing damsels in distress. Come tomorrow, you’re running all the way to Sunset Hill.”

“Sunset Hill can wait. It’s Ariana I want.” Camellia pats him on the arm. “I’m going back to camp to meditate now. Good talking with you, Doc.”

She brushes by him without another word, though secretly she feels as if her heart is about to burst out of her ribcage. Never in her life has she ever talked that way to an authority figure. It feels rebellious and scary, but in a strange way, she likes it.

Doc gives his companion a look. “Could that have gone better?”

“Are you asking that ironically or…?”

He sighs. “Forget it. Just tell me which ribs are broken.”

“What about Camellia? Aren’t you going to set her straight?”

“Do you want your ribs fixed?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then be quiet and let me handle Camellia on my own time.” Doc kneels down. “Where does it hurt?”

“Everywhere. But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

“Of course.” Doc stretches out his hands. “I know everything.”

Later that evening, after the sun has gone down and only the fire remains to keep the camp warm, Camellia finds herself sitting alone in quiet meditation.

Truth be told, she has no idea how to meditate. For the first half hour she sits around and thinks about her life. The next hour is filled with mostly silence as her brain calms down and as she tunes in to the crackle of the fire and the whistle of the wind. It isn’t until the latter half of the second hour that Camellia begins to feel she’s getting somewhere.

Then, in a peculiar interruption of her thoughts, Doc’s companion appears from out of nowhere. He doesn’t walk into the camp, nor does he run, fly, or even casually stroll. He simply appears from thin air next to Camellia, his bright magenta eyes watching her with obvious curiosity. Though startled by his appearance, she keeps herself focused and tries not to break concentration.

“How you doing, Cammy?”

She says nothing and slowly inhales.

“Oh, you’re probably deep in thought right now. I can see when I’m not wanted.” He puts on his hands behind his head and leans back on the grass. “The moon is real gorgeous tonight, isn’t it?”

Camellia cracks a smile, then nods her head.

“I thought you’d agree. I mean, not that you can see the moon or anything. I’m just making conversation.” He shifts himself, settling into a more comfortable position. “So what do you know about legendary weapons?”

She shrugs.

“What if I told you,” he says conspiratorially, “you can make your own whenever you want?”

Camellia’s concentration breaks with a chuckle. “Okay,” she says, opening her eyes, “now this I have to hear. Tell me all about these ‘legendary’ weapons.”

“Let me set you straight: this isn’t one of those things you read about in second-rate books where it’s really just your untapped potential. You literally have an enormously powerful weapon inside of you, latched on to your soul. It’s a one-of-a-kind weapon that you can wield as if it were lighter than air.”

“Oh is it?” she grins. “Does Doc have one too? Let me guess, his is a whip. Yours is a clown horn, right? What do I get, a pair of pom-poms made from scrap metal?”

“I’m not joshing you!” he exclaims. “It’s as real as you and me. Also, I now really want those metal pom-poms. If you’re trying to tell me you wouldn’t give old man Stark a sock in the nose with those bad boys, then you can go stick it.”

“I’m guessing Stark has one too? What about his pets? The blades of grass?”

“Alright chucklehead, all joking aside, only Heroes get legendary weapons. The weapon itself is on a case-by-case basis, provided the previous weapon isn’t passed down or lost to time. For example, Stark used to have a spear that belonged to the first Hero of the Plains, but it was stolen from him when he was just a boy.”

Camellia leans on her hand, interested. “Is it just the sword, spear, or staff trio? Do you get to pick?”

“It’s never quite the same for every Hero,” the man says. “Take the aforementioned first Hero of the Plains. His ragtime tune was a half-pike that glowed like the sun. The first Hero of the Peaks owned was a knife that went missing somewhere in the Ruins. Supposedly Redguard had a big metal scythe, but most scholars agree that Blueface destroyed it after their climactic battle.”

“But how do I get mine?” she asks. “I can’t just reach into my soul and pull it free!”

“You’re a smart kid, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” He suddenly frowns. “Oh great, people are breaking the rules again.”

“What rules?”

“Oh, just some rules. Nothing you need to be too concerned with.” He stands up and dusts his pants off. “I can’t believe I’m doing this again. You know, a lot of bad things would stop happening if people actually listened to me once in a while. When will they learn?”

“After you teach them a lesson, I suppose.”

The stranger pauses. “What a fitting expression,” he says. “Damn, you’re a genius. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

“So you’re going?”

“Yeah, I’m going. Best to take Exit Lane before Doc wakes up and yells at me for interrupting you. After all, you’re supposed to be meditating.” He shoots her a thumbs-up. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

With that, the strange man vanishes, blinked out of existence.

Camellia turns her eyes to the fire. The tongues of orange flame coil around one another like snakes locked in combat. She tilts her head, captivated. The sparks dance with joy and the warmth from the fire reaches deep into her core. Fatigue creeps into her eyes and they shut slowly, almost against her will. Camellia straightens her back, gently guiding her mind back into meditation.

Scattered, empty noises bounce around in her head like shards of broken glass. She can’t quite grasp what they are, but they’re distinct enough to recognize as familiar. A boy’s laugh, a man’s voice—just faint snippets, always ghosting the edges of her mind, and always frustratingly out of reach.

She lets the noises flow unobstructed. She neither blocks them nor focuses on them, concentrating only on the warmth of the fire and the crackling of the wood. A prickly sensation crawls up her spine, sending a shiver of internal warmth through her bones. It pools in her chest like fresh metal dripping from an open forge—the basest form of gold magic.

A vague memory crawls into her brain. A red haired boy with hazel eyes. A bright smile, an eagerness to learn and to adventure. A flash of sunlight off the hood of his car. A glimpse of his smile across the table. A kiss stolen in the dark, against a wall, under an umbrella of rain. She inhales deeply, reconstructing the memories piece by piece. A smell like mountain air and cinnamon drifts into her nose, and she recognizes it as a smell that comes with only one name.

Drew.

With the name comes more memories, more vague shapes and muted sounds. A taller boy with cold blue eyes and a certain hardness about him. A shorter girl with a bright smile and a degree of liveliness in her step. A smiling boy who never knew when to quit making jokes, and a slightly surly boy who seemed both easy to upset and to entertain.

There is another link in the chain—a missing piece to the puzzle she hasn’t solved yet, and she knows it. A man’s voice breaks through the fog, bringing her friends together through a series of scripted but enjoyable hardships. An image flashes through her mind, fleetingly, of a collection of dice in her hand. She tosses the dice on the table, and when they stop rolling, everyone stands up out of their chairs and cheers. Drew wraps his arms around her, and then Stanley, then Bennie and Scott and Luke. It was a roll that was all but impossible to get, but she rolled it at precisely the right moment.

Mr. John.

The man with a salt-and-pepper beard appears bright in her mind, seeming to shine like the morning sun. He had been the one who introduced her to the tabletop roleplaying group. He had been the one who suggested she tried to adventure as a paladin. He had been the one who brought the new game into the back of the shop that night. He had opened the rulebook and brought them to Renea.

How could I have forgotten these people? How long ago was that? What’s happened since then?

Everything floods her mind at once. Memories from her childhood, from her time playing board games with her friends, even from her time in Renea—it all sings together in a beautiful chorus of joy, love, pain, and friendship. A feeling like warm butter makes its way down her throat, pooling around her heart and catching her lungs. She opens her mouth to say something, but instead she’s filled with an overwhelming emotion too powerful and too grand to fully understand.

Her heart swells, warm and red. An odd sensation spreads across her chest and drops to her stomach, warming her from the inside. She holds it for as long as she can, willing the feeling to turn into something more. For just a brief moment she catches a glimpse of something wonderful—a magnificently bright object of indeterminate shape and design.

The wood in the fire shifts, sending a cloud of embers into the sky. After a few moments of silence, Camellia opens her eyes and wipes her face. She didn’t realize she had been crying.

Doc walks into camp, though he stops walking when he sees her tears.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” he says.

“Oh, no!” She wipes her face and grins. “It’s nothing. Please, sit.”

Doc sits next to her and knits his hands. “I hear my associate told you about your legendary weapon.”

“He did, but I’m not sure whether he was being ironic or not.”

“In this rare case, he was neither joking nor lying. Everything he said was true.” He sighs. “I want to apologize about my behavior earlier today. It wasn’t right for me to yell at you. It’s just… There are certain things I would really like to see come to fruition, and your arrival at Sunset Hill is one of them. I feel like your one-man holy mission to rescue Ariana is an unnecessary risk.”

“I’m all about holy missions,” Camellia says. “Even when I was just roleplaying this stuff I always played the characters who believed in a higher cause—in justice and truth above all things. It’s funny that you call it a holy mission, because all I see is the decision to save a friend in need.”

“Then perhaps your spirit may someday have no boundaries whatsoever.” Doc looks up at the sky, his eyes settling on the moon. “Do you believe in destiny?”

“I’m not sure what to believe in,” Camellia admits. “You once told me that my destiny was here on the surface, far away from the dark tunnels of the Underground. I think that, if there’s any truth to what you said, I’ll find my destiny somewhere over the next hill.” She pauses. “I guess that probably sounded pretty silly.”

“No, it didn’t. You said all that you needed to say.” Doc gets to his feet. “I’m going to get some rest now. We can do more training tomorrow if you’re up to it.”

Camellia offers a smile. “I’d like that.”

“Good night, then.” Doc leaves the camp for the darkened Plains. He crests over a hill and disappears from sight.

Back at the fire, Camellia lets out a slow breath. She closes her eyes and returns to a thoughtless, meditative trance.

[] Interlude One

Truth

Chaldir’s Shrine, the Ruins District in Monarch

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” says Charlie.

Cynard, oracle to Chaldir, god of Ruin and Flame, claps Charlie on the back. “Just give it to me straight, good or bad. You know I’ve got your back.”

“The bad news? I’m currently number one on Monarch’s most wanted list. The good news?” Charlie spreads his arms. “They haven’t caught me yet.”

“And Kalisk is safe?”

“For now, yes. I’ve put it in a place where no one will find it.” He knits his hands behind his head. “We’re safe for now.”

“Where’d you hide it, if I can ask?”

Charlie can’t resist a grin. “I’ll tell you later. It’s going to be such a riot when you learn.”

“Why not tell me now?”

“And ruin the surprise? No way. I’ll tell you when Gabriel—” Charlie pauses, catching himself. “When my friend can reclaim it for his own, whenever that is.”

“Gabriel, eh?” Cynard rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’ve heard that name before.”

“From who?” Charlie demands. “Where? When was this?”

“Oh, this must have been fifty-five, sixty years ago.” Cynard scratches his head. “Can’t remember exactly what brought it up, but I do remember hearing it.” He racks his brain for the memory. Charlie searches for the fastest way to change the conversation.

Thankfully, the oracle tosses his hands into the air and says, “Ah, I can’t remember.” Charlie breathes a sigh of relief. “It was real important, though. I’ll put some more thought into it.”

“Instead of that,” Charlie says quickly, “why don’t you check out my mark? It’s been acting up recently.”

“Oh, has it? If you want to, then sure. Let’s head to the back.”

Charlie and Cynard head to the back room. The oracle opens the top of a gemstone lamp above his bed, filling the room with orange gemstone light. As he looks for his notebook, Charlie removes his shirt, facing away from the light. He gingerly touches places on his skin where, against his will, old scars have begun to reappear.

“Let’s have a look.” Cynard turns Charlie his way quite abruptly, shedding light on his heavily scarred torso. For a brief moment the oracle is too astonished to say anything. Charlie covers himself with his arms.

“Charlie, what…” Cynard pries away one of his arms. “What are these? Where did they come from?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“We’ve talked about this. You can’t keep hiding things from me if you want me to help you.”

I don’t need your help, he thinks bitterly. “It’s nothing serious. Just some old wounds that you must not have seen before.”

“I’ve been acting as your doctor for almost two years now! How on Renea could I miss something like that?”

“Maybe you’re really blind.”

Cynard sighs and puts his notebook down. “You’ve got to talk to me, Charlie. Let me guess: you got in a fight with some soldiers and had a crackpot healer patch you up. Is that it? Is that what happened?”

“No, that’s not it. It’s not important.”

“It’s important when it involves you getting hurt.”

Charlie looks into Cynard’s starfield eyes. All he can see is concern and trust. Cynard harbors no ill will or ulterior motives at all. It almost makes him sick from how used he is to seeing darkness in the eyes of the people he meets. Charlie sighs.

“I wasn’t going to tell you, but I suppose you deserve to know.” He pats his chest, taking a breath to calm his nerves.

Just as Charlie goes to speak, a wave of total fear washes through him. The feeling that something dangerous is in the room comes from everywhere and nowhere at once. Charlie goes rigid, trying to keep his eyes from searching too quickly.

“Don’t avoid me,” Cynard says. “We’re going to figure this out together.”

Cynard’s words echo a thousand citystrides away. Deep in the pit of his stomach, Charlie fights the instinct to run. His mind races, sweat beading on his brow. His heart pounds loud and fast in the back of his head.

“Charlie. Look at me.”

Charlie cranks his head sideways to look at Cynard. The oracle’s brilliant starfield eyes flood him with the presence of Chaldir, driving fear out and putting power in its place. Against his will, Charlie all but droops to the bed. It’s been far too long since he’s felt so safe and refreshed.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you okay?” The oracle holds two fingers up to the side of Charlie’s throat. “Kalax’s boot, your heart is thundering. And you’re sweating! What’s going on?”

“I’m…” Charlie nods his head, ready to spill the truth. “I’m not as young as you think I am.”

“Well,” Cynard muses, “you did mention that your friend was responsible for Nysse becoming an oracle. I assumed you either had connections with old people or you just look good for your age.”

“It’s worse than that.” Charlie looks the oracle square in the eyes, willing him to see the truth. “I’m stuck here, on this planet—I’m immortal.”

Cynard blinks, then leans back to take it in. He makes no move to argue.

“A long time ago, something very important happened—but you know already, don’t you? A monster came from the sky and massacred the gods. The Big Ten swooped in to stop it; everyone knows the story.” He looks at his hands. “And not long after, the gods started calling for apprentices; they called them Heroes. And I… I was part of the first group of Heroes.”

Cynard remains silent. The starfield in his eyes shifts uncomfortably.

“My companions and I rode out to our gods, adventuring and questing like Heroes are supposed to do. When I found Apalon, my patron god, I was told something monumental—something that would change my life forever.”

“What was it?”

A tall beacon of brilliant blue light flashes through his mind. He shudders. “I can’t tell you. It’s a rule I’m not capable of breaking.”

Cynard nods, then motions for Charlie to continue.

“I raced back to Monarch to tell my friends,” Charlie says. “Upon their arrival, I discovered that they had all been told the same thing by their patron gods. We were a mess of confusion and excitement and fear. No one understood why this was happening to us. It was all too soon and too sudden, in more ways than one.” Charlie opens his arms, exposing the scars on his chest. “I got these scars from the titanic battle that followed. If it wasn’t for our green mage, I would have died many times.”

“Green mage?” Cynard feels his pulse race. “Is he still alive?”

Charlie merely nods.

The oracle stands up, holding his head in his hands. “Oh gods, this is just…” He paces in a circle, then turns. “It’s all true, isn’t it? You’re telling the truth?”

Charlie doesn’t nod, the answer given through the look in his eyes.

Cynard leans against the wall, his mind reeling. “You’re a Hero—a real Hero! And not just any Hero, the very first Hero of the Plains!” He bows low at the waist. “I’ve never been so humbled in my entire life. To think I’ve been talking so casually with a legendary figure! Charlie, do you have any idea how famous you are? Renowned scholars have been trying to find the identity of the first Heroes for generations!”

“I’m not important,” he says. “Not anymore, at least. My time has come and gone. All I can do is wait until the end comes.”

“I knew I recognized that name.” Cynard stands up straighter. “Gabriel. That was the name Nysse said to me the night she left the jail, the night Tetrask made her an oracle. He’s the one who did that to her, isn’t he? He’s the green mage you talked about.”

“He’s the very first,” says Charlie. “Pioneered the basis for everything about green magic we know today. I did the same for gold magic, and my friends did the same for their respective fields. Kalisk, the bow I stole from the King, is a piece of Gabriel’s soul that he forged into a legendary weapon.”

“That explains a lot…” Cynard laughs. “Who am I kidding, that explains almost everything!”

Charlie quirks his head. “Almost?”

“Only two things bother me.” Cynard sits in front of Charlie as a child would sit in front of a grandparent. “Why are your scars coming back?”

“That’s why I came here; I thought you would know.”

“I would need to do an obscene amount of tests, but with all this new information, I’ll be more than willing to do it. As far as the second thing…” Cynard points. “What about the mark on your shoulder?”

Charlie looks at the spiraling blue design. It corners off in random places, as if created without regards for symmetry. It aches, sending a tingling sensation up and down his arm. Charlie pats it reassuringly.

“That came next,” he says. “In regards to the battle I mentioned earlier, we fought for a long time—too long to remember. Weeks, maybe months. Our hard work finally paid off, though, and we succeeded. Somehow, miraculously, we had won. There was, however, one last Riddle to complete. We had to draw upon every last shred of our experience and intellect for a clever enough answer. And, once again, we succeeded.”

Cynard nods, taking it all in.

“Finally, after years of searching, battling, and questing, the greatest reward in the universe was within our grasp. We had reached the pinnacle of Heroism—we were unbeatable.” Charlie’s mark begins to burn. “But something stopped us. Something known only as the Blue Rift.”

Chapter Seven

[]Awakening

Somewhere in a forest in the astral realm

Bennie saws her way through another tree elemental, a blade of fire swirling from her hand. The tree shudders, then crumbles to the ground in a pile of dust. Bennie wipes the sweat from her forehead, taking in big gulps of the fresh forest air. Salvation, Master of Shades, watches from the cover of the nearby trees.

“And that makes ten,” Bennie wheezes. “How many more are out there?”

“Who knows?” Salvation looks around. “It could be the entire forest.”

“That’s not so bad.” She leans back, popping her spine in multiple places. “They’ll run out of trees sooner or later.”

Salvation approaches his companion. “Do you really think it’s wise to hurt these creatures? Chances are they work for the Lady of the Woods.”

“Honestly, I’m just killing time until the Lady of the Woods shows herself.”

“An astral demigod won’t just show herself to you.”

“Exactly; she wants to test me first.” Bennie gestures around her. “Hence the walking trees. She wants to see if I’m strong enough to face her.”

“Did you ever consider that she’s sending these creatures to guide you somewhere? Maybe to her home?”

“Don’t be silly. Astral demigods never make it that simple.”

Salvation kneads the bridge of his nose. “You’re right, Bennie. I don’t know what I was thinking. You’re not worth her time unless you burn half the forest to the ground.”

“I’m glad you see it my way,” Bennie grins. “So where do we go from here?”

“I’ll go check.”

The Master of Shades floats upward, passing through the trees and exiting above the canopy. The forest stretches to infinity in every direction, as flat and green as a field of grass. No discernable markings, no changes in elevation—simply green everywhere, forever. Salvation had figured that trying to find the Lady of the Woods would be difficult, but he didn’t expect it to be this difficult.

Slowly, he returns to the forest floor. “There’s not much to see besides treetops. If she’s out here, she’s hidden herself well.”

“She’ll come out soon.” Bennie clenches a fist, fire surging to life around her knuckles. “I’ll make sure she does.”

A sharp gasp comes from somewhere nearby; Salvation immediately dives into the underbrush. Bennie whirls around, searching for the source of the voice. Oh thanks, she thinks. Leaving me to fight alone again while you hide your face—

Salvation reappears, his shadowy claws wrapped around a small, squirming girl. He tosses her at Bennie’s feet and expands his body threateningly. Pink light flares from his nostrils; something tells Bennie that he must really hate strange people arriving at inopportune times.

The eavesdropper looks up at Bennie. She has a human face and a human body, with bright lavender eyes, pointed ears, and sharp teeth. If Bennie wasn’t entirely convinced that she looked like a kelpie, she could almost be a female elf. With the way she’s shaking, intimidation feels like the right path to take.

“You…” Bennie feigns anger, twisting her lips into a frown. “You were spying on us, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” the girl says in a surprisingly confident voice. “I’ve been watching you since I saw you in Lakeshire.”

“Oh really?” Bennie takes a threatening step forward. “Why is that?”

“I recognized you from a vision I had once, a long time ago.” She quirks her head. “But you don’t look anything like what I remember. Your eyes are darker and you don’t have normal ears.”

“Normal ears?” Bennie covers her ears instinctively. “What’s wrong with my ears?”

“They aren’t pointed.”

“But round ears are normal!” Bennie protests.

“No, pointed ears are normal. What are you, some kind of alien?”

“What are you, some kind of elf?”

She opens her mouth to respond, then thinks the better of it. “Yes, I suppose you could call me an elf if you want.”

After a moment of tense silence, Bennie helps the elf girl to her feet. “What’s your name?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she says, sounding genuinely confused. “I was never given one, I suppose.”

“Well I have to call you something. How about…” Bennie puts a finger to her lips, thinking. “How about Cat? You look like a cat.”

“That’s fine, I guess.”

“Cat it is then.” Bennie claps her hands together. “So, once more from the top. Why are you following us?”

“I saw you in a vision.”

“A vision of what?”

“Just a vision. I don’t think the specifics are relevant.” She glances over her shoulder at the menacing Shade behind her. “Especially in mixed company.”

“You’re worried about little ol’ Sal? He wouldn’t hurt a fly!”

Salvation sniffs loudly, his aura menacing and cold.

“I’d rather keep it to myself,” Cat mutters. “Nothing good ever comes from sharing visions with people.”

“Suit yourself.” Bennie nods to Salvation. “You want to get going?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” he says, pink magic flaring from between his teeth.

“Where are you two heading?” Cat asks.

“None of your concern,” Salvation snaps angrily. “And I don’t have a problem with meeting strangers in the woods, thank you for wondering.”

“I wasn’t wondering.”

“We’re looking for the Lady of the Woods,” Bennie says. “I made it to this realm by accident and I need to figure out how to get home. Salvation says the Lady of the Woods can help me.” She crosses her arms. “I just wish she wouldn’t send so many murderous trees after me.”

“Murderous trees?”

As if on cue, the foliage flies apart in every direction, revealing a stone monster with glowing orange eyes and a thick, powerful body.

“Sweet!” Bennie says, delight in her eyes. “It’s go time!”

Bennie charges the stone monster with fire pooling in her palms. The stone behemoth hesitates for just a moment, but it’s just enough for Bennie to steal the advantage. She sends a spear of fire into its face as a distraction, then ducks underneath its hands. Wrapping a shield of flame around her leg, she whirlwind kicks the monster’s leg for all she’s worth.

Crack! The monster’s knee explodes across the clearing, molten rock peppering the grassy battleground. It drops to one knee and bellows a roar. Bennie hobbles off to the side, clutching her shin and swearing at the top of her lungs.

Cat takes a step forward. “What is she doing? I can’t just let her—”

“Don’t,” Salvation says shortly. The warning is plenty sufficient; she stops cold.

You idiot! Bennie thinks, mentally kicking herself. Why would you kick solid stone? This isn’t some tree you can burn down! You can’t just—

The air rushes out of her. She’s tossed into the air, the world spinning like a top. Bennie slams into the ground, skids a short distance, and comes to a stop. The sky is bright and hazy, her heart pounding in her ears. A roar trumpets nearby, though it sounds miles away.

Bennie slowly pulls herself to her feet. The stone monster has regrown its missing leg; its orange eyes blaze with fury. Seeing Bennie on her feet, it stomps the ground and roars again.

Okay, Bennie thinks. That thing is way faster than it looks.

In an instant the monster is upon her. She instinctively covers her head, throwing up a wall of fire. A stony fist crashes into the shield and shatters into a molten rain. Bennie rolls to the side and puts distance between them, trying to analyze the situation despite the chaotic energy inside her.

The monster spots Bennie and charges, leaving no openings to capitalize and too many openings to analyze. Bennie evades the monster’s earth-shattering attacks while desperately trying to form a plan. As her frustration grows, so does the incessant desire to give in to raw battle instinct.

When one attack comes too close for comfort, Bennie lets herself go.

Fire erupts from every pore in her body and she leaps up to the monster’s chest. It tries to swat her away, but Bennie scrambles upward with unprecedented speed. She grabs hold of its head, concentrating her energy in the bottom of her stomach. The monster bucks and tosses itself wildly in an attempt to throw Bennie off.

No you don’t, she thinks sharply. Oh no you don’t!

The energy reaches a boiling point. Bennie explodes.

An all-consuming blaze engulfs the clearing. Bennie’s vision goes white, her world a mix of titanic howling and the gush of raging flames. Energy pours into the blaze from every part of her body; the fire becomes hotter, brighter, and the monster’s roars become frantic and shrill. With a final high-pitched shriek, the monster crumbles underneath Bennie’s hands, bringing her down to the earth. The fire dims to a smolder, then peters out completely.

The only remains of the monster is a pool of molten rock. The treeline has been scorched beyond recognition, the ground black and smoky. Salvation slowly uncurls himself from a protective shell, flakes of liquid fire dripping off his cloak of darkness. To Bennie’s surprise, Cat hides within Salvation’s arms. She peels her hands from her eyes, uncertain if the danger is gone.

Bennie gets to her feet, then allows herself a victorious grin. She skips over to the Master of Shades, a certain degree of excitement in her step. Unleashing such a devastating amount of power is something she’s never done before. Despite the effort it took to deal her killing blow, Bennie feels more energized than ever.

“What a rush,” she says, her head still spinning. “I’ve never done something like that before.”

Salvation glides away, freeing Cat from his protection. “Warn me before you go burning things to the ground. I might not be quick enough to keep her safe next time.”

“Why did you do that?” Cat cries. “Why would you destroy such a beautiful creature?”

“Because it attacked me?”

“It wanted to help you! It was trying to…” Cat runs a hand through her hair. She trots over to the pool of molten rock and stands at the edge in silence. With the elf now out of earshot, Salvation gives Bennie a hard look.

“What? Why the glare?”

“I don’t like her.”

“It’s the short hair, isn’t it? You must like girls with long hair. Hey wait a minute—I have short hair! Salvation!”

“I mean I don’t trust her. I don’t trust anyone who spies on people and I certainly don’t trust anyone I don’t know, especially in the astral realm. I’ve seen meetings like this go horribly wrong, where one of the parties involved is a soul-devouring monster stuck between the Royal Crypt and the physical plane.”

“I think you’re overreacting,” Bennie says dismissively. “Besides, I like Cat. She’s got gorgeous eyes.”

All soul-eating monsters have gorgeous eyes.”

“Now you’re being silly. Even if she was some vicious demon, I’d just blow her up if she attacked me.”

“I want to know why she was following us. Her ‘vision’ story is as see-through as a Skeleton’s ribcage. I don’t like spies and I’ve never been kind to those I’ve caught. If they’re sneaking around, they know they’re doing something wrong.”

“Look,” Bennie says, “I’ll admit it’s weird she came out of nowhere and yes, her ‘vision’ story is kind of hokey. But I say we let this play out. She came here for a reason, didn’t she? What if she’s here to help me?”

Salvation looks at the forlorn elf kneeling at the magma. He studies her and says nothing for a moment. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asks. “What if you’re wrong?”

“So what if I am?” Bennie opens her palm and it fills with fire. “I’ll handle it.”

“You would kill someone you barely know?”

“Not if I don’t have to. Besides, I like her. As long as she doesn’t try to hurt me, I have no reason to hurt her.”

Salvation looks over the Hero’s shoulder as Cat approaches them. Her eyes look puffy as if she’s been crying; Salvation tries not to gag on the thought of someone weeping over a pile of rocks.

“Sorry,” Cat says. “It’s just that… The monster was, I mean, it looked like… And I thought…” She shakes her head. “Forget it. It’s too much to explain.”

“Good,” Salvation grunts. “I hate listening to long-winded conversations that lead nowhere.”

“I’m going to take you to the Lady of the Woods.”

A heartbeat pause in the conversation. Bennie glances at Salvation, then clears her throat. “Are you sure you didn’t mean to say—”

“I meant what I said, and I said I’m going to take you to the Lady of the Woods.”

“Yeah?” Bennie says. “How do you know where she is?”

“I just know.”

“And what makes you think we can’t find her ourselves?”

Cat gestures to the smoldering wasteland around them. “Because you keep blowing up her messengers.”

“They attacked me first.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to kill them.”

Bennie thinks for a moment. Then, she puts her hand out for a handshake. As Cat reaches for it, Bennie pulls back.

“If you try anything shifty,” she says, “I won’t be able to stop the big guy behind me.”

Cat boldly approaches, seizes Bennie by the arm, and jams their hands together, her lavender eyes blazing with conviction. “If you think, even for a moment, that I’m trying to cross you”—Cat spreads her arms wide—“pin my heart to a tree and torch what remains.”

She then turns and darts through an opening in the trees. As Bennie follows, Salvation lurks a few paces behind. He can’t shake the feeling that something terrible is going to happen. He doesn’t know when or where, but the feeling looms over him like a death cloud, simply waiting to descend and consume everything in its path.

“Well,” Riel says, “look who finally decided to join the party!”

Nekros, right-hand-man and necromancer for Riel, the Skeleton King, strides confidently into the wide room. Though typically populated by Skeleton generals, guards, and lesser officials, only Riel is currently in the room. The Skeleton King’s table is barely more than a plank of wood with shoddy, makeshift legs. The wrong amount of weight in the wrong place could cause the whole thing to collapse.

“I hope you have some good news for me,” Riel continues. “I haven’t heard from you in a long while.”

“Bad news first,” Nekros says. “Remember that special task force you requested as a back-up plan a long time ago? I did my testing, but the subjects didn’t have the capacity to sustain the intense magical energy; I had to abandon the project.”

“Hmm,” Riel muses. “That means the fight against the Hero is going to be one nasty slugfest… Do you have any good news?”

“Of course I do.” Nekros reaches into his cloak and brings out an object concealed in a cloth. He slides it across the table. “Take a look.”

Riel removes the cloth, dismayed to find only a small knife underneath. He takes it in his hand, inspecting it with disdain.

“Casix,” Nekros calls. The blade flashes with magical grey light and Riel drops it as if he’d been burned.

“It’s a legendary item,” Nekros says. “In fact, if my research is right, this item is nearly a hundred thousand years old. It must have belonged to one of the first Heroes, likely one who adventured in the Peaks.”

Riel picks up the blade again. A rush of cold grey magic surges through his body and he stands, openly defying the energy. Streams of magic scream outwards, lighting up the dim room. Nekros steps back and Riel lets out a roar, his voice laced with raw power. A sickening crack splits the air as his bones start to fracture.

With a gasp, Riel drops the knife on the table. It pulses slowly, rhythmically, taunting them both. Riel slumps into a chair and pats his chest, exhausted but content.

“Exactly like the golden spear,” he says. “Power beyond compare. I thought gold magic was unruly, but after feeling this?” Riel laughs. “Grey magic is simply unbelievable. Like an untamed animal.”

“Imagine if we could wield that power,” Nekros says. “We’d be unstoppable. Chaldir’s fortress would crumble without any effort.”

“You’re damn right it would.” Riel glances up. “Where did you get this? Surely you didn’t steal it from a weakling child like you did with the spear.”

“It was given to me by a man in a desperate situation.”

“He just gave you it?”

“Yes.”

Riel leans back. Unease settles in Nekros’s chest.

“Surely you had to bargain,” Riel says. “Anyone who’s anyone knows this is valuable beyond compare.” He takes Casix in his hand and twirls it expertly. “There’s no need to lie to me, Nekros. Where did you get it?”

Nekros feigns guilty silence, but he’s well aware that Riel knows it’s a façade. The two of them are simply playing their parts to see who cracks first. Nekros knows he can’t tell his King that he went to see the Hero, that he’s had eyes on her for weeks. Riel would want to know why he didn’t tell him sooner, and unnecessary pressure is the last thing Nekros needs.

“It’s as I said,” Nekros says casually. “I got it from a desperate man.”

“And what was he desperate for? Money? Power?”

“Food,” Nekros says. “Only food.”

“What fool would trade away one of the world’s most valuable artifacts for a meal?”

“A man with a family,” Nekros lies. “A sick wife and a dying child. He was a poor man, Riel; he obviously had no clue what he had.”

Riel leans on his fist, thinking. Something about the story feels off, but nothing seems immediately out of place.

“Anyways,” Nekros says, “we now have another valuable weapon to add to your collection. We should get this down to the vault as soon as possible.”

“How did you meet this man?” Riel prods. “I thought you had been here this whole time, doing tests on the Skeletons for my back-up plan. Why would you leave the Dark Hollow if we still have so much preparation to do?”

Another test, this time to see if Nekros is openly lying. It would be almost impossible for him to go explore the Ruins and run tests for the back-up soldiers at the same time. Instead of weaving a deeper web of lies, Nekros decides to throw Riel a metaphorical bone.

“I received a vision,” Nekros says. “A vision of a place somewhere in the Ruins. It felt like a message, but I don’t know who would have sent it. When I went to explore the area I saw in my vision, I met a man desperate to feed his family. All he had to offer was the knife.” Nekros steps back, his blue aura sending distorting shadows climbing up the wall. “I knew it was a legendary weapon, so I traded for it and brought it back here.”

Riel goes silent for a moment. A rather recent conversation replays itself—a conversation with a strange man with magenta eyes. You must promise me that you won’t trust Nekros Mathis, he had said. Looking at the necromancer now, Riel gets the feeling that he was on to something. Nekros is definitely off his game; he doesn’t speak with his usual detached indifference.

“Did the vision come from your black mirror?”

“Yes, it did.” Nekros pauses. “It also showed me where I can find the Hero.” Another lie, but a necessary one. Riel would be furious if he learned how long Nekros knew about Bennie’s location.

“Really?” Riel shoots out of his chair. “You know where she is?”

“Not precisely, but I’m close to pinpointing it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“I only had a vague idea. The beacon of fire was my first clue that she was in the Ruins, and then scouts spotted her somewhere in the Abandoned District. Now she’s somewhere between the old outposts and Palace Center.”

“Palace Center!” Riel explodes. “You mean to tell me she’s only hours away from meeting Chaldir himself?”

“Possibly,” Nekros says. “But I need more time before I can intercept her. Your troops aren’t ready yet.”

“Then raise more! We march within the hour!”

“I wouldn’t advise it.”

“I’m not asking you to advise it, I’m ordering you to do it!”

“Please listen to me, Riel. Something has happened to the Hero and she’s now incapable of meeting her patron god. I don’t know what’s exactly wrong, but she’s somehow been incapacitated. Even if she makes it to Palace Center, she might not be awake to meet Chaldir.” Nekros pauses. “In fact, it’s impossible to know if she’ll ever awaken.”

Riel stares him down, the four horns on his head giving him an intimidating, regal presence.

“This Hero could end up being a monster beyond compare,” Nekros presses. “You need more time to prepare and I need more time to create an army large enough to overwhelm Chaldir’s walls.”

The Skeleton King lowers himself into a chair. He considers, for just a moment, that Nekros could be telling the truth. However, it could also be an elaborate ruse to stall him out. But what would he be stalling for? Riel rubs his chin in thought, wondering if it’s safe to take a gamble.

“How long?” he finally asks. “How long until she reaches Palace Center?”

“Hard to say,” Nekros lies. “Could be a few hours, could be a few days. If she were to wake up right now, it would be a swift walk to Chaldir’s doorstep.”

“And how do you know where Palace Center is?”

“Another vision from a long time ago. I sent scouts to find it and was pleased when Chaldir rained down hellfire on them as soon as they caught a glimpse of his gates.”

“And when were you going to tell me?” The Skeleton King plants a firm hand on the table, frustrated. “You can’t keep those things to yourself. I am the King; I deserve to know why you’ve been hiding these things.” Riel fixes Nekros with a hard gaze. “What are you planning?”

Nekros takes a moment to collect himself before giving his answer.

“I’m planning on succeeding,” he says. “There are a lot of moving parts to our plan and each piece needs to be adjusted accordingly. If we make one single mistake, all of our efforts will come crashing down. Every step we make has to be measured. Every movement must be controlled.” He spreads his hands, the front of his robe splitting and revealing his burning skeleton. “We must be like puppetmasters, Riel. Each time we tug a string, it must be for a reason. Each time we move our puppets, they must move with a purpose. If there is neither reason nor purpose, only chaos will come. Then everything burns in a whirlwind of fire—the soldiers, your plans… Even me and you.

Nekros comes around the table; Riel stands.

“And what do you get out of this?” Riel asks. “My rise to godhood benefits you in no way.”

“Untrue,” Nekros replies. “Once Chaldir is gone, I will get to serve under the most powerful god on all Renea.” The necromancer goes to one knee, bowing his head. “I exist to give you immortality and limitless power, Riel. All I ask in return is that you remember me when you’ve ascended.”

“Get to your feet, Nekros. You’re above this, kneeling like slave.”

“I am your right hand, my King. Somehow, somewhere along the line, you’ve lost your faith in me.” The necromancer looks up. “What can I do to make you trust me again?”

Riel goes to answer, but he pauses when he sees the faintest twinkle in Nekros’s eyes. A clever trap, trying to bait him into revealing that his mistrust.

“I haven’t lost faith in you,” Riel says. “I’m just disturbed you didn’t tell me you had eyes on the Hero.” He pulls Nekros off the ground. “Your council is important to me. If you don’t think the army is ready to march on Palace Center, then we wait. But I won’t wait forever; I’m eager to claim what is mine.”

“We don’t need much longer,” Nekros replies. “Just another few days, though likely far less. However, I do need to prepare a few more spells to blunt Chaldir’s fire.”

“You can’t make a spell to cancel it?”

“Chaldir is a god without equal; his magic will always be leagues ahead of what I can do. But I think I can slow what he throws at our troops. We should expect to face a fight unlike any other.”

“Then tell the ironworkers to make more fireproof armor. We need to make sure both Chaldir and the Hero are accounted for.”

“I don’t think the Hero will be much of a problem by the time we attack.” At Riel’s glance, Nekros shrugs. “Call it intuition.”

“Nevertheless, tell the ironworkers to make more armor. And while you’re at it, take that knife down to the vault and put it on a pedestal in front of the spear. After I become the god of this realm, I will want to gloat over my treasures.”

“Gloat?” Nekros says, truthfully confused. “Who will you gloat to?”

“The severed heads of Chaldir and the Hero, both of which I will mount on my wall.” Riel turns away. “And after I kill them both, I want Palace Center eradicated. The home of the new god of the Ruins will be here, in the Dark Hollow.”

Nekros bows at the waist. “It will be done.” He takes Casix and leaves the throne room.

Riel breathes deeply, anxiety bubbling somewhere in what used to be his stomach. Something about Nekros’s submissive attitude strikes him as odd, but he can’t quite put a finger on it. Though he does his best to disregard the conversation he had with the stranger a few nights ago, it sticks with him, words of warning ring like church bells in his mind.

“It’s official,” Bennie wheezes. “Walking sucks.” She casts an envious glance at Salvation, who floats just above the ground, observing the scenery in carefree silence. “Why couldn’t I have been born a Shade?”

“Shades aren’t born,” Salvation says. “And the last thing in the world you want to be is a Shade, trust me.”

“Yeah? Why’s that? It would make walking easier.”

“I should be envying you, not the other way around. It’s been too long since I’ve felt the ground under my feet.” He glances at Bennie. “I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat.”

“You don’t want to be me,” she says. “The weight of responsibility would kill you.”

“There are many things out there that want to kill me. I doubt responsibility will be the first to do it.”

As Bennie goes to respond, Cat comes sprinting through the bushes, excitement in her brilliant lavender eyes. “I found it!” she cries. “The house! I found the house!”

“Whose house?” Bennie asks. “The Lady of the Woods?”

“Yes! Yes! Come on, let’s go see her!” Cat darts into the bushes, leaving hardly a trace she was ever there.

Bennie pushes her way through the underbrush, cursing when a branch snags her hair. Salvation passes through the foliage like a ghost, pausing only to appreciate the occasional flower. In the distance, Cat yells for them to hurry up. It takes all of Bennie’s willpower to not burn a path right through the bushes.

The duo emerges from the brush in a clearing cut into a perfect circle. The canopy splits, casting sunbeams on the trunk of a wide tree. The air smells of earth and sap. Salvation takes a slow, long breath, savoring the smell of the natural world. Bennie joins Cat at the tree trunk.

“See? I told you I’d find it.” Cat stands aside, revealing a door carved into the wood. “The Lady of the Woods is just beyond this door. This is where we part.”

“What about your vision?” Bennie asks. “You never told me what you saw.”

“Ah yes, that.” Cat glances at Salvation. The Master of Shades is busy admiring the twilight scenery. “I don’t think this is the right time to tell you.”

“Why? I can tell Salvation to let us talk in private.”

“It’s not about him. It’s about your personal safety.” Cat offers a smile. “Visions are fake anyways. They’re barely one step above fever dreams.”

“I’ll be the only one worrying about my safety,” Bennie says. “I want to hear about this vision. Why are you hiding it from me?”

Cat pauses for several long moments. “Because…” She sighs. “Because in my vision, I watched you die.”

“Excuse me?” Bennie coughs.

“Something terrible is about to happen,” Cat continues. “Something that will shake every last blade of grass and speck of sand. I watched as rivers were polluted with sticky red blood. The skies were full of black clouds and screams of death lingered in the air. And… And you were in the middle of it, choking on your last breaths as dozens of soldiers fell around you.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Bennie says. “How do you know this happens?”

“I don’t know if it happens or not. I can only tell you what I saw.” Cat takes Bennie’s hand. “When you leave the astral realm, you have to stay alive, no matter the cost. Keep your friends alive for as long as possible, because you’ll need all of them to weather the oncoming storm. If you can last until he comes back, you might have a shot at taking back what they lost.”

“Who’s they? Who’s coming back?”

Cat steps away from the Hero and vanishes from existence, as if she were nothing more than a disrupted heat wave. Bennie reaches out to her companion, but there’s nothing to touch. Cat is gone.

“Bennie?” Salvation slowly glides up behind her. “Are you ready now?”

“I… I don’t know.” She looks up into his eyes, searching for understanding, but she quickly turns away. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Bennie knocks on the door and the sound echoes through the trunk, bouncing down a long, unseen hallway. For a moment nothing happens; then the door opens. A tall, beautiful woman with dark brown skin stands in the doorway. She wears green and yellow robes and has stunningly bright lime green eyes. Like Cat, her ears are pointed, except her ears slant outward horizontally from her head.

“Uhm…” Bennie clears her throat. “Are you—”

“No,” says the woman, “but you have the right place. I’m her assistant, Melia.” She glances at Salvation and quirks her head, confused. “She wasn’t expecting more than one visitor today.”

“I can wait outside,” Salvation says. “I’m in no hurry.”

“No, you’re more than welcome. The Lady of the Woods doesn’t like leaving her guests out in the cold.” Melia opens the door wider. “Please come in. I’ll take you to her.”

The inside of the trunk is barely more than a single long hallway ending at a wall of light. Birdsong chirps in the distance, echoing down the tunnel. Melia takes the lead, walking without a candle or any form of light. Bennie’s faint cloak of fire and Salvation’s pink Glow provide enough luminescence to avoid tripping over the roots. Melia simply steps over and around them, her movement instinctive and sure, while Bennie does her best not to fall flat on her face.

“My Lady?” Melia calls, entering into the wall of light. “You have—”

“Visitors,” says a soft, motherly voice. “Yes, I know. Send them in.”

Bennie covers her eyes as she walks into light, which dims to reveal a circular chamber. Sunlight streams down from a large skylight at the top of the room. The wooden walls have been rubbed smooth and almost seem to shine. Birds with brightly colored wings perch in the myriad of potted plants, chirping intermittently. The chamber smells like mint and pine needles.

A woman stands across the room. She wears orange and white robes, as if she were a blossom about to unfurl. Intertwined in her hair are flowers of various colors and sizes. She has a soft, maternal face and an aura of warmth and radiance.

“You can call me Delilah,” the woman says. “And don’t be so uptight. You can relax while you’re with me.” Delilah reaches up and a branch curls down from the skylight, nuzzling into her hand. “You certainly took your time getting here. Didn’t you see my messenger trees? They were supposed to bring you here.”

Salvation stifles a laugh. Bennie shoots him a glare.

“There were…” Bennie wrings her hands. “Complications. With your trees. I thought they were trying to attack me, so…” She spreads her hands. “I mean, had I known they were your messengers, I would have followed them!”

“Ah, so that’s why the trees were sad today.” Delilah sighs. “I suppose it was bound to happen, especially with your abilities. Wood is easy to burn, after all.”

“Sorry,” Bennie mumbles.

“No need to offer an apology. Accidents happen.” She knits her hands together. “But enough chat. You came here with a problem and you hope I have a solution, is that right?”

“Yes, we did. All I need is a way to get out of here.” Bennie nods at Salvation. “He’s got a much more complex problem on his hands.”

“It involves the Cemetery,” he says. “However, Bennie cannot control her time here. She should go first.”

“No, I want to see what you have for me.” Delilah gestures. “Come here, let me look at you.”

Sighing, Salvation glides across the room and stops in front of the Lady of the Woods. Delilah reaches up and takes his head in her hands. Her fingers trace the murky shape of his face, drawing lines in places Salvation has long since forgotten. She gently feels the curvature of his jaw, the shape of his throat, the branching outline of his collarbones and shoulders. Salvation breathes deeply, slowly. His pink Glow flickers like the shadow of a lantern.

Then, his Glow turns brilliant white. It holds true for only a moment before fading back to a regal pink. Delilah gently pulls away and Salvation slowly opens his eyes.

“How wonderful,” Delilah says. “You’re almost there.”

“Almost isn’t good enough,” Salvation says. “I need to be there now.

“All things in due time, Salvation. You will get there when the time is right.”

“What about a solution? Did you find an answer to my question?”

“Yes, I did. The sickness can be cured.”

Bennie, who had been toying with one of the exotic plants, looks over her shoulder. Salvation’s back is to her; judging by his silence, he’s either too shocked or too ecstatic to say anything.

“It can be cured,” Salvation echoes. “How?”

“I’m not sure,” says Delilah.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I don’t know how to cure the sickness.”

“Why don’t you know?”

“I simply don’t, Salvation. I can only show you a path; it’s up to you if you want to walk it.”

“Of course I want to walk it!” Salvation rages, expanding to twice his size. “I want nothing more than to save my Cemetery! You think I came here just to be told something I already know? I know the sickness can be cured! I’ve known it in my heart for as long as I can remember! I don’t want a mere confirmation that it can be healed—I want to know how to heal it!”

“I’m sorry,” Delilah says. “I’ve told you all I know. The rest is up to you.”

Salvation takes to the sky and hurtles through the skylight, howling at the top of his lungs. Bennie runs to stop him, but by the time she can see past the blinding sunlight, the Master of Shades is long gone. Melia walks up to Bennie, checks the skylight, then leaves to tend to the plants. Delilah rests herself on a chair made from a stump, a small grin on her lips.

Bennie glances at her. “You knew he was going to get angry?”

“They always do. When you’re in my line of work, expect your visitors to be angry when they arrive and even angrier when they leave.” Delilah smooths out her clothes. “Now how about you? Ready to get angry?”

“Not if you want to keep your home standing,” Bennie says, dropping onto a stump chair. “I might torch it to a crisp.”

“There’s plenty of trees in the forest. I’ll find a new one.” Delilah pauses. “I do have one request, if you don’t mind.”

“You’re helping me escape a prison that I probably got myself into. Ask anything you want.”

“Try not to set yourself on fire.”

Bennie chuckles. “Yes ma’am, you got it.”

“Just relax and let me look at you.” Delilah places her hands on both sides of Bennie’s face and gasps. “Oh my…”

“What is it?”

“You’ve certainly come a long way—far longer than your companion.” Delilah quirks her head. “How did you get here, I wonder?”

Bennie shrugs. “Your guess is as good as mine. I can’t remember anything.”

“The astral realm isn’t the ‘here’ I meant.” Delilah straightens herself before Bennie can respond. “Now, as a fair warning, your mind might try to reject me at first, so try not to tense up.” She looks deep into the Hero’s eyes. “Ready?”

Bennie nods and closes her eyes. A moment later her skin starts to prickle. The world hums softly underfoot—a droning, natural sound like that of a machine. A shiver slowly crawls down her spine and she tenses.

No you don’t, she thinks. Just relax and let it happen.

The shiver hits the base of her spine. A pause, then everything rushes forward.

Loud, thunderous noise. The low drone of the world becomes the roar of a train engine. Tendrils of incredible life energy shoot through her body, ripping through her heart and whipping about with wild, untamed fury. Raw energy surges through her. She can feel everything around her—the tree, the grass, each individual plant, Melia and Delilah…

Bennie cries out, unable to contain herself, and blistering hot flames race outwards in every direction. The power flows through her faster than she can burn it off. She grinds her teeth. So much energy… There’s just too much! I can’t take it anymore!

“I can’t take it!” she screams.

Then, as soon as the power came, it leaves.

Bennie gasps and lurches over her knees, breathing raggedly. Gentle golden sunlight streams down from overhead. A smell like torched wood and burnt pine lingers heavily in the air. She coughs once, long and hard, her body and mind completely spent.

A hand around her back; she allows herself to be helped upright. The Lady of the Woods sits down across from her, a little singed but otherwise unharmed. The room around them is blackened and many of the plants are nothing but husks. Melia, also unharmed, is already removing dead plants and replacing them with new ones.

“Don’t worry about the plants,” Delilah says. “It’s natural to be burned if you play with fire.”

“I’m sorry,” Bennie mutters, averting her eyes. “I couldn’t contain your power.”

“My power? That was your power. All I did was tap into your latent potential and open up the stream.” Delilah smiles. “As it turns out, you have a very strong connection to the land and a wealth of emotions churning inside you. Are you a gardener?”

“I was,” Bennie says. “But that was back when I was just a kid.”

“An early start breeds an unbreakable bond.” Delilah reaches out and pats Bennie’s arm. “You have a gift, Bennie. There is a flame in you that can never be extinguished. You’re not just a good friend—you’re a source of life and an incredible ally. Never forget the power you hold inside you. I was afraid that I would be the one to give out first.”

“That’s great and all, but…” Bennie stands. “Did you find the answer to my question? How can I wake up?”

“You know how to do it. I don’t know why you came for my help in the first place.”

“Because I don’t know how to wake up? Look, I get that you’re trying to be mysterious, but the longer I stay here—”

“If you want to wake up,” Delilah says, “you’re going to have to admit some things about yourself. They may be awful, painful truths, but they’re truths nonetheless. Like me, you’re driven by your emotions and your feelings; there’s nothing wrong with that. But sooner or later those emotions take control of you and drive you away from the truth. You become so steeped in your feelings that you forget the reality of the world.”

“I don’t—”

“But, on the other hand, if you detach yourself from emotions—if you become distant and surgical—you’ll lose touch with others around you. The light around you will dim. Though the light of your mind would be an illuminating lantern, inside all you’ll see is darkness. Balance, Bennie. Balance is the most crucial law of the universe. If you can strike a balance, you can wake yourself up.”

“I still don’t understand,” says Bennie. “What do you see in me that makes you think I’m not balanced?”

“Room for improvement. That’s what I see.” Delilah steps away from Bennie. “You have what you came for. It’s time for you to go.”

“What! But you haven’t—”

“I have,” the Lady says firmly, but kindly. “I can guarantee you won’t learn any more from me. You do have what you came to find; now all you need to do is unlock it.” Delilah turns and leaves the room.

Bennie turns toward Melia. “Is she always that way?”

“No,” she answers. “Normally the Lady of the Woods is a bit more cryptic.” She offers a smile, then bows her head shortly. “I wish you the best, Miss Hero.”

Bennie leaves the Lady’s home through the tunnel she entered through. She thinks about stomping in anger or shuffling in frustration, but strangely, Bennie finds herself unwilling to do either. A feeling of contented confusion settles in her chest. It’s a curious mix; she can’t tell if all is right in the world or if she’s been pushed back to where she started.

She quickly finds herself outside of the Lady’s home; Salvation is still nowhere to be found. Bennie puts her fists on her hips, her mind at work. What if she’s right? What if I do know how to wake up but I’m just not balanced enough to do it? How do I balance myself? Arrgh, why did she have to be so vague! Bennie looks around. And just where did Salvation run off to? He’d be a huge help right now.

Sighing, she wanders off into the woods. Though the sunlight above is bright and warm, the forest floor is quiet and cool. In the contrasting landscape, with her heart trying to settle on how to feel, Bennie’s mind begins to drift.

“Stop moving and drink the water.”

Jenna pushes the waterskin away. “I told you I don’t need it; I just got a little tired, that’s all. Save it for Bennie. She needs it more than we do.”

“You didn’t just ‘get tired,’” Kexal retorts. “You passed out and hit the ground like a sack of bricks. You’ve been pushing yourself way too hard. So I’ll say it again…” He shoves the waterskin at Jenna. “Drink the damn water.”

“I’m not thirsty and I told you to save it for Bennie. We should be rationing.”

Kexal points a knife hand at the bulging sack of foodstuff near Bennie’s sled. Hanging off the sack are multiple waterskins and bottles of Orange—more than enough for three people to live on for at least a month.

“You see that?” Kexal says. “If anything, we have too much. You’re still working your way through the poison and you need to build up your energy. I’m usually not much for giving orders, but this time I’m not asking.”

Sighing, Jenna takes the waterskin and knocks back a drink. For a moment she seems displeased, but eventually she takes another drink, this one slower than the last. Kexal nods in satisfaction.

“You get refueled. I’m going to check on Bennie.”

Kexal walks around the sack of food and kneels next to the Hero. He checks her pulse, her breathing, and the stiffness of her neck muscles. Surprisingly, everything seems relaxed and at ease. Kexal pushes a strand of hair from Bennie’s face, taking a moment to appreciate how peaceful she looks. If he knew she wasn’t suffering in a coma caused by a lethal dose of poisonous magic, Bennie could almost look asleep.

She sighs contentedly, curling herself towards Kexal. His heart skips a beat, his eyes on her gently parted lips. Kexal squeezes his eyes shut, then gingerly rolls Bennie on her back. When he opens his eyes, her hair has fallen about her face.

She’s so beautiful. He reaches out. I wonder if… Scowling, Kexal takes his hands away. Don’t be a fool. She’d never go for someone like you. His steals a sideways glance. But maybe if…

“Hey, Kexal?”

He shoots to his feet and whirls around. Jenna stands nearby, leaning against the foodstuff sack. In her hand is an empty waterskin.

“Oh, hey.” Kexal rubs his face; his ears are burning at the possibility of being caught. “Still thirsty? I have a few spare waterskins around.”

“No, I think I’m okay. I just wanted to check on Bennie. How’s she doing?”

“Fine,” he says quickly. “Everything’s fine.”

“Good, that’s—” Jenna squints. “Are you okay? Your face is red.”

“Fine, just fine. One hundred percent, in fact.”

“Wait, are you… Are you blushing?”

“The waterskin is empty, isn’t it? You’re thirsty, aren’t you? Let me get you a drink.” Kexal hurriedly shoulders past Jenna and reaches for a waterskin. It’s just a few inches too high, however. He stands on his tip-toes, fingers stretching wide.

“Oh, so that’s how is it.” Jenna pops in over his shoulder. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s okay, you don’t have to tell me anything; you read like an open book. If you like Bennie, why don’t you try to talk to her?”

Kexal gives her a look. “Because she’s in a coma.”

“Aha!” Jenna says triumphantly. “So you do like her!”

“I’m changing the subject!” Kexal jumps and snags a waterskin. He shoves it in her face. “Here! Now quit bothering me!”

Jenna takes the waterskin. “Once she wakes up, I could talk to her. You know, about you.”

“Oh what is this, a pep-talk?” Kexal stomps away; Jenna follows. “Stop following me. Can’t you see I’m trying to get away from you?”

“It’s okay to have feelings for people, Kexal. It’s not uncommon to fall in love.” Jenna laughs. “Besides, you’re pretty handsome. I’m sure she’d like to get to know you better.”

“Are you insane?” Kexal snaps. “We’re business partners! I’m only traveling with her so I can get rich from mountains of gold!”

“I thought you said you wanted closure?” Jenna asks. “You know, after what happened with Opat. She was the only person you had in this world and now she’s gone. Without her, you’re pretty much…” A lightbulb clicks in Jenna’s mind. She smiles softly. “Ah, now I understand.”

“You don’t understand at all,” he spits, his eyes blazing with hot fury. “Forage partners know each other from the ground up. If they swapped bodies they could practically be one other. Opat was my other half—my caring, fun-loving counterpart. She was a part of me that I’ll never get back. I don’t expect you to understand anything about that.”

“But I do understand,” Jenna says softly, her mind on her spiritmate. “I lost someone too, a long time ago when I was adventuring with my friends. We messed up a big opportunity and were forced to go our separate ways.” She offers a smile. “I don’t understand the bond forage partners share, but I understand your loss. In many ways, I’m still dealing with mine.”

Kexal’s eyes soften for a moment, but a flare of anger immediately follows it. “I told you I don’t want to talk about this.” He storms away to the far side of the camp. Jenna waits for a moment, then follows. She finds him staring at the ground.

“Okay,” she says, “we need to resolve this before she wakes up.”

“I don’t want it resolved. I want my feelings gone.”

“Why would you want that?”

Kexal turns to her, spreading his arms. “Are you looking at me? Does this body, this face, look anything like someone who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a Hero? Do I look like someone who could possibly… I mean, even if it were possible, do you really think she…”

Slowly, he lowers his arms to his side. His eyes are misty and distant.

“I don’t want another forage partner, Jenna. I want a life partner. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always had Opat or if it’s because Bennie’s the first person I’ve started to have deep feelings for since I was born.” Kexal presses a hand against his chest. “My heart feels like exploding and I just don’t know what to do.”

“Well,” Jenna says, “you could start freaking out.”

“Don’t make a joke, I’m trying to be serious.”

“Turn around,” she says. “Turn around right now.”

Kexal glances over his shoulder, then freezes. Slowly, carefully, he turns all the way around. Jenna joins him at his side and they stare together, speechless.

Bennie is sitting up.

“Where are we?” Her voice is coarse and dusty. She squints and looks around. “Are we still in the Ruins? What time is it?”

Kexal sputters for words, then faints, collapsing against Jenna’s shoulder. Jenna lays him carefully on the ground. She grabs a spare waterskin and approaches.

“Hey, a familiar face.” Bennie smiles. “How’s the world?”

“Limping along,” Jenna says. She sits down and passes the waterskin to her friend. “Drink slowly, okay? Too much too fast will hurt your stomach.”

Bennie goes to drink, then spots Kexal on the ground. “What happened to him?”

“Too much Orange,” Jenna lies. “He was drinking himself silly worrying about you.”

“And you let him?”

Jenna shrugs and knits her hands in her lap. “How are you feeling?”

“Better, but I don’t remember much. It’s all a haze, like I was in a really vivid dream that I could only remember for a few minutes.” She looks around again. “Have we moved since I’ve been out?”

“We have. Kexal made a sled for you and has been carting us through the Ruins for quite a long time.”

“Us? What do you mean ‘us?’”

“After you touched the gemstone, I tried my best to clean you out. Unfortunately, the poison hurt me as much as it hurt you; I was out for a while.”

“Oh, I remember now. The Ruins, the shiny blue gemstone…” Bennie nods. “It’s coming back to me.”

“Now as for exactly where we are, I wish I could tell you but Kexal’s actually been doing most of the walking. I do what I can to help, but he insists I keep resting. He says he needs my magic to keep you healthy.”

“I didn’t know you knew magic,” says Bennie. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You didn’t have a reason to know.”

Bennie sets down her waterskin. Shifting herself around, she plants a firm foot in the ash and slowly gets to her feet. Jenna stands up, hands out in case Bennie loses her balance.

“Take it easy—baby steps.”

“I’m fine, Jenna.” Bennie straightens her back and takes a slow, wobbly step.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to Palace Center. We’re close, I can feel it.”

“You can just ‘feel’ it?”

“My heart is on fire,” Bennie says. “It feels like if I get any closer I’m going to burst. If that’s not the surest sign of being near Chaldir, I don’t know what is.”

Kexal sits up, slowly coming to his senses. He leaps to his feet when he sees Bennie on the move. “And just where in the hell do you think you’re going?”

“Palace Center,” Bennie says. “Where else?”

Kexal marches up and bars her way. “You need to get back on the ground and let me get some energy into your system.”

Jenna audibly snorts, covering her mouth to hide her smile. Kexal hurls her a death glare.

“I’m just fine,” Bennie says. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m on my way to meet my patron god.” As Bennie takes another step, her legs fold and she stumbles. Jenna leaps forwards and catches her moments before she hits the ground.

“Not like that you’re not,” Kexal says. “You’re a mess.”

“I just need some time. These old legs will be back to normal in no time.” Suddenly she scrunches up her face, then rubs her forehead. “Hey Kexal, do we have anything for headaches?”

“Why, what’s your problem now?”

Jenna looks up and her eyes go wide. Kexal, following her gaze, looks over his shoulder. Slowly he turns, his heart thundering in his chest. Bennie struggles to look around Kexal’s legs, unable to see in the dimness of the night.

Down the road, an army of Skeletons marches towards them. At the front is a Skeleton covered in blue fire. Next to him is an enormous Skeleton with four massive, curving horns. Strapped to his side is a sword and over his shoulders flies a red and gold cape.

On Bennie’s forehead, the symbol of Chaldir glows white and proud, a brilliant star on the canvas of eternal night.

Chapter Eight

[]Oaths

Somewhere in Magnus’s Cemetery

Deep in the maze of twisted trees leading to Salvation’s Hideaway, a small campfire crackles against the nighttime stillness. A twisted fog snakes through the brush, highlighting the bland greyness of decay and ruin. Katrina sits with her back against a tree and a short knife in her hand.

She steals a glance at the sky but finds it impossible to see through the fog. She remembers seeing a fog much like this a long time ago, far away in the Ruins. Though somehow familiar, the fog is also vastly different, as if she’s stuck halfway between a memory and a fever dream.

How many times have I seen this fog, wondered about the evening stars? Though she tries to count, she knows there is no point. The eternity she’s spent stranded on Renea has made her aware of the pointlessness of time. It is no longer confusing or a grand mystery; instead, it’s simply irrelevant.

Each new sunrise is the same as the last. Every sunset is a hollow duplicate of one already seen. Katrina remembers all the years she spent living in the world after the cataclysm that exiled her from her friends. She remembers watching people meet, fall in love, start their new lives. It seemed like a miracle each time it happened. Each new child was a gift—each marriage a treasure. Life had no boundaries, then.

But the children grew up to have children of their own, who grew up to have children of their own, and on and on the cycle went. Child, marriage, death, over and over. Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset. Days blurred into one another like the smeared paint of an infinitely long canvas. People who Katrina knew from their birth were on their deathbeds in what felt like a week. She never aged, never changed, never died.

Of course they asked questions, and of course Katrina told lies. It was the only way to protect them from Gnosis. Soon the cycle of questions and birth and death became routine. She expected questions, answered them, showed up to funerals and marriages as she always had. But routine was not in Katrina’s blood. Everything was so incredibly wrong about living entire lifetimes without changing anything.

That’s when she started to rebel.

She spread stories about a group of Heroes who not only made it to their patron gods but also made it back to Monarch. She told people that these Heroes had their powers robbed and their weapons stolen. The stories spread and multiplied. Theories were shot across tables during even the most casual conversations. Everyone in the Cemetery was talking about it. Given enough time, it would have reached Monarch and spread across the globe.

But then came the war. A brilliant, charismatic warlord took control of a million men and stormed through the Cemetery, intent on ruling the world. Everyone Katrina knew died in the onslaught, along with many more innocents she never met. She herself was captured and beaten for days, then dumped in the wilderness without any reason at all.

But Katrina knew why it happened. She knew why she had been punished so brutally. Katrina stopped telling her stories and discouraged any survivors from spreading such silly fairy tales. A few months later, the warlord was killed by a rebel force with a timely attack from Magnus himself. The Cemetery was slow to rebuild, but this time Katrina kept herself out of the picture. She pronounced herself dead to the world.

It worked for a long time. She lived alone and traveled often, scouring every edge of the Cemetery. When she had made a perfectly detailed map of the entire realm, she sold it and went off to make another one from the ground up. Before long there wasn’t a blade of grass she didn’t know, not a town’s name she hadn’t heard.

And in the end, it was still meaningless.

It started as whispers—strange voices, their words always out of earshot. Then it was the visions at night, followed by hallucinations during the day. Without meaning to her life, Katrina easily slipped into the madness. Tales spread of an insane mage who threw red lightning bolts at whatever was unfortunate enough to cross her path. The tales became myth, and some began to wonder if the insane mage was a Hero from a time long since forgotten. It wasn’t long until a plague spread across the Cemetery and killed huge swaths of people, snuffing out the wild stories like dirt on a fire. Slowly the madness left Katrina’s mind, along with the memory of her beloved maps.

Bouts of depression and anger alternated every few centuries. Living for so long had all but killed her short-term sense of morality; boredom became her cruelest master. She concocted elaborate plots and set them to work just to have something to do. Sometimes it was as small as ruining a marriage. Other times it was as large as causing civil war between rival districts. Katrina relished in the chaos.

But in the end, it was still so meaningless. Everything was meaningless without him.

It always came back to her spiritmate. When the darkness threatened to take her away, his memory was there to turn on the light. When she slipped into psychosis, his image was there to help her. After a hundred millennium of waiting, Katrina had still not given up hope of seeing him again. It was the only thing that still brought her joy. It was the only thing she wanted to live for.

At least, until Scott and Jinas arrived in her life. For once she didn’t feel like she was running or hiding. Everything was perfect; she even got to use her powers against the Shades in that tiny town. The boys made everything feel natural and at home; she wanted to trust people again. It had been going perfectly until Scott revealed he came from a planet called “Earth.”

The word had been a bolt of lightning down her spine. Realization of her waking reality spun Katrina’s world like a top. She immediately rebelled, but instead of lashing out as she had done in her past, she ran away. The horror of the truth was simply too much to contain. Scott and Jinas could never understand. Only her friends—only they would understand.

Katrina looks at her hands and sighs. Now that her eyes have been opened, nothing makes sense anymore. Everything is just so wrong and she doesn’t know why.

I don’t understand, Katrina thinks. Scott isn’t even supposed to be here!

“But what if he is?”

Katrina looks up. A man sits across from her, his body blocking the firelight—she can’t see his face. But his voice…

“What if he was meant to be here all along?” the man says. “It could be destiny, you know.”

That voice… Katrina gets to her feet. “Is that you, my love?”

“Depends,” he replies. “Are you still the same as you were?”

She immediately deflates. “You’re not him. I must be dreaming.”

“If this is a dream, I don’t ever want it to end.” He stands but does not turn. “Come into the light, Katrina. Let me see your face.” Katrina stands and makes her way around to the man’s face. He smiles at her, brown eyes glinting with forlorn happiness. She gasps, backing away.

“No,” she whispers. “You can’t be him. This should be—”

“Impossible?” Gabriel says. “Nothing’s impossible for us, remember? We conquered the world in our prime. We destroyed every opponent, overpowered every obstacle.” He spreads his arms wide. “We were the pinnacle of civilization.”

“This isn’t you.” Katrina closes her eyes. “I’m going to wake up now. This dream is too painful for me.”

“This is me.” Gabriel holds Katrina’s face in his hands. “This is real. It’s happening to you right now. I’m here, Katrina. I’m here.”

“No!” Katrina shoves him away. “I saw what happened. You were torn away from me. You can’t stay here. You’re endangering all of us, everything we’ve worked for.”

“I thought you were dead,” says Gabriel. “I made a grave for you. I buried what little I still had, even the stray few tears. I thought I could live in peace with our mistake. But seeing you here, I don’t care about that. I care about you.” He clasps his hands over Katrina’s. “I care more about you than anything else.”

“Even the mission?”

“Even the mission.”

“Then you’re no spiritmate of mine.” Katrina tears her hands away. “You know what’s at stake. You know we agreed to risk our lives—no, our very souls, to make sure we succeed. Time and time again we’ve been stopped by Maxillarion and Gnosis. This is the first time in a hundred millennium we’ve gotten the chance to make things right. We’ll never get it again.”

“I don’t want to fight like this. I want to talk to you.”

“We have to stop whatever they’re planning!” Katrina shouts. “Don’t you get that? Gabriel, I love you, but you remember what Kalax told you! You know these kids are our last hope. If we fail…” She tosses her hands helplessly. “We lose everything.”

“Then we run away,” Gabriel says, stepping close to her. “We take each other by the hand and run into the Vast Emptiness. Neither Max nor Gnosis would dare chase us out there.”

“And wander endlessly until time comes unraveled?” Katrina pushes past Gabriel and walks to the edge of the firelight. “We’ve lost so much and we deserved it. We were arrogant and selfish. I can’t let Scott share our fate.”

“Max and Gnosis are scared of them.” Gabriel approaches Katrina. “These kids can do things I can barely believe. Scott is more powerful than any telekinetic I’ve ever met.” He wraps his arms around Katrina’s midsection. “They can handle this alone. Our job is done. We should leave them to finish what we started and live out our lives together.”

Katrina straightens up. “What did you say?”

“Our job is done?”

“Before that, about Scott.”

“He’s the most powerful telekinetic I’ve ever met.”

“How many days, Gabriel?” Katrina puts her hands over his hands. “Do you remember how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other?”

“That’s a lot of time to track, my love.”

“You would remember”—her fingers crackle with lightning—“if you were real.” Katrina clamps down and sends a surge of electricity bursting through Gabriel’s body. He howls in pain and releases her, stumbling away.

“You would remember!” she screams, turning to face him with red lightning at her fingertips. “You would count every second, log every minute! You would remember exactly where you were when you thought of me! You would have ripped apart space and time to find me again! Where were you, Gabriel? Where were you when I needed you!”

“Searching,” he says. “I was searching for you.”

“Liar!” Katrina cries. “This world would have been in flames if you were trying! I ruined lives to get you back! I ended up responsible for millions of deaths, plagues, wars, all because I couldn’t bear to live without you!” Tears stream down her face. “Why, Gabriel? Why are you lying to me!”

“Katrina, please…”

“No. I’m done with the lies. I want the honest truth. I want the real you, Gabriel.” Katrina sinks to her knees, the lightning dissipating. “I just want the real you.”

“Katrina.”

“No more,” she whispers, eyes on the ground. “No more. I have to help Scott. I need to help Scott. He’s the most important person in the world and he needs my help now more than ever.”

“Katrina? Is that you?” The voice is familiar. “Can you hear me?”

“No more. I don’t want you to hurt me anymore.”

“I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help you.”

“Then stop lying,” Katrina says. “I want to know what changed you. The mission was everything to you. Why have you changed? Why have you given up?”

“Promise not to shock me.” A hand takes her by the chin and tilts her head up. The face she’s looking at is blurred, but it’s hard to tell if it’s because of tears or anger. “Look at my finger and follow it.” A blurry object moves in front of her eyes and she slowly tracks it.

“Is this your test?” she asks. “Because I said you’re not real, now you want to see if I’m real?”

“We’re both very real, trust me. Tell me if this hurts.” He pinches her arm and she winces. “Can you hear this?” He snaps next to her ears and she slowly nods. “I want you to say something; anything is fine.”

“You’ve changed. You’re not the same man I fell in love with, Gabriel. The man I knew would have never given up on something so important.”

“Slurred speech, unfocused eyes, but working ears and nerves. You’re either in shock, hallucinating, or both.” The blurred face turns away and comes back with a blanket. He wraps it around her shoulders and hands her a cup of water. “Drink slowly, very slowly.”

Katrina holds the cup in her hands and takes occasional sips. She stares at the ground, unwilling to make eye contact. They sit in silence for many minutes.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Salvation’s Hideaway,” Katrina replies softly. “I’m somewhere in the maze of trees.”

“Is it day or night?”

“Night. Can’t you see the moon?” She sets her cup down. “Why are you asking me these questions, Gabriel?”

He picks the cup up and places it back in her hands. “Keep drinking; small sips. What’s your name?”

“Katrina,” she says.

“And where are you from?”

“Chaldir’s Ruins. I adventured there as a Hero.”

“How did you get to the Cemetery?”

“The Blue Rift.” Katrina’s tongue immediately ties itself into a knot; she makes no move to say anything else.

“Do you know who I am?”

“My spiritmate,” she says softly. “The love of my life, Gabriel.”

“I’m not Gabriel. I’m a doctor and I’m here to help you.” He leans in close. “Does the name Scott Cornot mean anything to you?”

Katrina says nothing.

“How about Zyphias, the oracle?”

Katrina stays silent.

“Does the word ‘Earth’ sound familiar?”

The world tips upside down and Katrina’s vision swims. She gasps and drops her cup of water. The film comes off of her eyes as she gets to her feet. The moon and the trees have disappeared, leaving her in a wide field of grass in the middle of day. A young man sits on the ground, looking up at Katrina with a grin on his face.

Jinas.

“You were wandering when I spotted you,” Jinas explains, pouring water into Katrina’s cup. “Blank eyes, walking around aimlessly, mumbling to yourself. I didn’t think it was you until you started throwing lightning bolts. I hid until you calmed down, then ran over to help you.”

Katrina pulls her blanket tighter around her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Jinas. I didn’t mean for you to see that side of me.”

“Everyone has a little darkness in their heart. No sense in keeping it bottled up.” Jinas digs into his pack. “I have a few things for you to take. They’ll help you feel better.”

“I don’t need anything,” Katrina says. “I’m fine, really.”

“You leave one night without explanation and don’t come back. Days later I find you half dead and hurling lightning at anything that moves.” He produces a small flask with light green liquid. “As a doctor I have to prescribe you something that will help, and as your friend I insist that you let me.”

Katrina sighs and takes the flask. “So what is it?”

“The slang for it is madness juice, typically usually used when someone returns from a fugue state. It’s supposed to reverse memory loss.”

“But I remember everything,” Katrina says. “I left our camp, met a man named Malakai, and found Salvation, the Master of Shades. Then…” She falters for a moment. “Then I walked through the brush in front of the Hideaway, but I don’t remember anything else.”

“Katrina, you’re almost ten citystrides away from the Hideaway. That’s a week’s journey, maybe longer. I know it may have seemed real, but how can you be sure it wasn’t all in your head?”

“It was real, I know it. I held Malakai in my arms as he died.”

“But how can you be certain? What if it all was just a dream?”

“I can’t question reality, Jinas. It’s a constant, unchanging mess. What happened, happened.”

“Or do it?” Jinas holds up his hands. “Look, I won’t force you to do anything, but unless you’re perfectly certain a man named Gabriel was talking to you in the Hideaway, I urge you to drink the medicine. You could have been delirious from exposure, malnutrition, dehydration… It could be anything. I can’t help you unless I know where you’ve been and what exactly happened out there.”

Katrina looks at the medicine in her hand. It bubbles unsteadily, as if sensing her anticipation.

“Are you sure?” she says. “You’re certain this will work?”

“I’d stake my father’s reputation on it.”

Closing her eyes, Katrina opens the flask and drinks it all in one smooth motion. It burns on the way down, warming her stomach but scalding her throat like acid.

“It’s going to act fast,” Jinas says. “Lay back and close your eyes. Once you get back, tell me everything you saw, no matter how small.”

Katrina reclines and closes her eyes. The blood in her head drains away; she sputters, resisting the feeling. It continues against her will until Katrina feels like she’s about to choke on her own lungs. She breathes in a steady rhythm, trying to calm her heart rate.

“Don’t fight it,” Jinas says. “Let it flow.”

With a long gasp, Katrina’s eyes fly open and the world disappears. She finds herself standing on a rock in the middle of a calm black lake. A formless mist lingers over the surface of the water like a forlorn ghost. Katrina leans over the lake; it’s as if she’s looking in a mirror.

A black shape moves through the void, approaching her rock. Katrina takes a hesitant step back as the mist clears. A familiar face steps from the fog and stands on the lake, watching her.

“Gabriel,” she breathes. She steels herself for the question. “Is that you, my love?”

He blinks and says nothing. A soft wind blows across the lake, taking the hair from her face. The surface remains unchanged, smooth as glass. It’s not him; just another illusion.

“Why are you here?” she asks. “What is this place?”

Gabriel wordlessly extends a hand. Katrina throws a concerned look at the water around her. It’s impossible to tell how deep the lake is; it might even be bottomless.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says, voice echoing into the emptiness around her. “Take my hand.”

Katrina nods and steps out onto the lake. She walks across the water without making a splash and stops in front of Gabriel’s hand. He brings his hand to his side and walks away. Katrina follows.

The fog curls around them, obscuring Katrina’s perception of distance and time. She keeps her eyes trained on the back of Gabriel’s head, matching his easy-going pace step for step. Voices chatter from somewhere nearby, speaking an alien language too complex to understand. She listens to their conversation in deep curiosity.

Without warning, Gabriel stops walking. Katrina stops a few strides behind him.

He then turns and points; the mist swirls into a tunnel. A collection of images flashes across the far side like a leafed-through scrapbook. With a start, she recognizes them as memories from her quest in the Ruins over a hundred millennium ago. Katrina watches for several long moments. Gabriel says nothing.

“Why are we here?” she says.

“To learn,” he replies. “To understand.”

“But I’ve seen these before.” Katrina points at the flashing images. “These are just the old memories of my quest. There’s nothing here.”

“Look again. Look harder.”

“And see what? A tiny detail that will save the universe?” Katrina steps in front of Gabriel, her back to the tunnel. “Looking forward is what’s going to save us. Looking back will only serve as a painful reminder of our failures—of my failures. You think I haven’t seen this before?”

Gabriel blinks, a dark liquid leaking from his eyes. “Look again. Look harder.”

“And see what? There’s nothing there!”

“Look again.” Gabriel points over her shoulder. “Look harder.”

She turns. The image is fixed on six friends standing at the Nexus underneath Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. They are set in a heated argument with each other. Katrina knows this moment all too well.

“Don’t do this,” she whispers. “Gabriel, don’t do this to me.”

“Look again. Look harder.”

A loud whirring sound splits the air and the six sections fracture off from each other, giving way to a blinding light.

“No,” she says. “No more.”

“Look again. Look harder.”

Katrina covers her eyes. The image transports itself from the tunnel directly into her brain, bypassing her closed eyes. She shrieks, throwing herself away from the tunnel entrance, but she’s unable to rid herself of the image.

The friends start looking around. A brighter, bluer light covers the image—the Blue Rift. Pain floods every part of her body and Katrina cries out, dropping to her knees. The loud whirring sound becomes a thunderous roar, screaming through her veins like an oncoming train. Howling, malicious laughter pierces her soul. Everything inside her breaks.

“Stop this!” Katrina grabs Gabriel’s hands. “Make this stop!”

Gabriel looks down at her. His eyes have been burned out, black liquid staining his cheeks. His mouth yawns open, stretching his jaw beyond recognition. Katrina falls back, scooting away from this new horror.

“Look again,” he says flatly, monotonously. “Look harder. Look again. Look harder. Look again. Look harder.”

“Stop!” Katrina cries. “Stop, please!”

The world changes. Katrina finds herself in the maze of trees near Salvation’s Hideaway. A second version of her stands close by, staring emptily at the moon. A man walks slow circles around her, waves of magenta magic flowing from his hands. He talks in a hushed tone, whispering gentle insanities. Katrina approaches slowly.

The second version of her wobbles slightly. Her eyes are covered in a magenta film and veins stick out from her neck. She’s either resisting with all her might or the magic is too powerful to handle.

“Good,” the man says. “This will do. Now go away.” He shoves her forward. “Start walking and don’t stop until you find something worth living for. Knowing you, you’ll never find it.”

Slowly, steadily, the second Katrina walks away, disappearing into a thick fogbank. The man disappears as if blinked out of existence. Salvation’s large umbrella tree looms in the distance, the Renean moon brilliant and full. Katrina closes her eyes, forcing herself to understand.

She opens her eyes. Jinas is at her side with a washcloth moments later, dabbing her face. The sun has dropped low in the sky and the horizon is painted with hues of orange and gold. A fire crackles nearby and a heavenly smell fills the air. Katrina suddenly realizes how hungry she is.

“It worked,” she says. “I remember everything now.”

“Was it the same as you thought?”

“No. It was all so different.” Katrina rubs her head to clear the fog from her mind. “After I talked to Salvation, a man found me in the maze of trees. He poisoned my mind, he made me hallucinate. I was sent wandering without any way to stop myself.”

“Then it was good fortune I found you when I did.” Jinas dabs her forehead with a washcloth. “Do you want to talk about what you saw?”

“No, not yet.” She sits up. “But I think I am ready to talk about your dad.”

Jinas perks up. “My dad?”

“Zyphias, the oracle. Though when I knew him, he was called Gennos. Does that name sound familiar?”

“It’s a family secret,” Jinas says. “No one knew about it unless you were family. How did you learn it?”

“It’s a long story,” Katrina says. “Before he was an oracle, he lived in Deion’s Peaks as a Mountaineer. He was a good merchant with good finances, but he had notoriously bad luck. One day he went out with his twin brother. They stopped in the market to get some food. Unfortunately, a hot-shot Hero was there trying to show off her powers to the world. She lost control and killed a lot of people—one of them was Zyphias’s brother. Your dad went to a bar and drank himself silly, then went to a brothel in the Peaks and…” She pauses. “Are you sure you want me to continue?”

“Yes,” Jinas says. “I need to know.”

“He slept with someone he shouldn’t have. After that he went about his life as usual, hiding the pain of losing his brother. He would never know it, but the woman he slept with would give birth to Gerrich, the Mountain Bandit.”

“Deion’s chin,” Jinas breathes. “You’re kidding, right?”

“I wish I was. She left him for the bandits and never looked back—never told Zyphias. Decades later, Zyphias would meet another woman many years his younger who made deals with Gerrich to keep her war crimes hidden. Through a necessary need for business connections, that woman would become your birthmother.”

“What was her name?”

“Her name was Espetra,” Katrina says. “Gennos was called to be an oracle a few years later. I suppose you know the rest.”

Jinas is silent for a moment. “So I’m the younger brother of the Mountain Bandit?”

Katrina nods her head.

“How do you know all of this?”

“If you’re willing to take it, I’ll tell you more.”

“Tell me everything.”

“I know because my closest friend is responsible for Gerrich’s rise to power.” Katrina’s eyes become misty and distant. “Her name is Ariana. She met Gerrich in the Plains when he was still exploring the world. She instilled in him a ruthless, never-stop-fighting attitude. Ariana told him all the knowledge in the world would be his if he went to the Peaks and learned from the Keepers. But they were afraid of his potential, so they told him a monstrous lie—that teaching bandits was against the rules of the libraries. Perhaps they wanted to keep their knowledge safe from his power.”

“What power?” Jinas asks.

“That’s irrelevant,” Katrina says. “The bottom line is that lie sent him down a path. Instead of using his mind for scholarship, he became the most ruthless bandit leader in the history of the Peaks. The Keepers doomed their future by trying to protect their present. Gerrich could have been another Cenkhan the Learned or Dakhan the Great, but instead they…” Katrina shakes her head. “There are things in this world we’re not meant to understand or change, Jinas. I think it was always supposed to happen. It was just destiny. And destiny is a cruel, cruel mistress.”

Jinas repositions himself. “Since we’re on the topic of destiny, mind if I ask you something?”

“Okay.”

“Why did you run away?”

“I…” Katrina is silent for a moment. “I don’t see how that has anything to do with destiny.”

“You can tell me, Katrina. You know you can trust me.”

“I know I can trust you, Jinas. But there are some things I physically cannot tell you.”

“Why not?”

Fear crawls up her spine. Katrina shivers and pulls the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “It’s for your own safety. Only another Hero can know the reason I left.”

“So you’ll tell Scott but you won’t tell me?”

“No, I can’t tell Scott either.” She shakes her head. “It’s complicated.”

“Then make it simple.” Jinas offers a kind smile. “I’m simple, Katrina. There’s no grey area with me. Why did you run?”

“Because…” Katrina sighs. “Because Heroes aren’t supposed to come from outside.”

“What do you mean ‘outside’?”

“I’m sorry.” Katrina rolls away from Jinas. “I’ve told you all I can.”

Jinas makes no move to rekindle the conversation.

The next morning, Katrina and Jinas wake up moments apart from each other and eat a small breakfast in silence. Jinas takes the lead, heading toward where he last saw Scott. The morning sun quickly hides itself behind a shield of grey clouds and the air temperature drops to a mild chill.

The duo walks for several hours. Jinas runs through a memorized list of chemical formulas to keep himself occupied; Katrina goes over her visions and newly discovered memories. If Max really did corrupt her mind, was it impossible to believe that it wasn’t his first time? How many of her old memories were nothing more than illusions? She shakes her head and searches for a way to get her mind off of the troubling thought.

“Katrina,” Jinas says. He holds out his arm, barring her way. “Do you notice anything strange?”

“Not really, no.”

“Exactly.” Jinas turns. “Nothing is happening. There’s no Shades, no people, no wind… Just nothing. The Cemetery is empty.”

“Well,” Katrina says, “we are in the middle of nowhere.”

“The whole Cemetery is one big patch of nowhere. I’m as used to silence as any Cemeterian but this feels different. Like the planet is going to open up and swallow me any second.”

“Come on, let’s keep walking. Silence is good for the soul.”

“Not this kind of silence,” Jinas says. “This is what drives a man insane.” He spots something in the distance and shields his eyes. “Hey, maybe I was wrong. See that? Looks like someone’s out here after all.”

Katrina gasps. “Jinas, I think that’s Scott!”

“One foot… Two foot… Left foot… Right foot…” Scott blinks, trying to clear his vision of a hazy brightness. Though each step sends his body off-balance, he merely stumbles back into position to right himself. Scott feels like he’s in a fever dream, the world both blurred and intense at the same time. The sound of his feet shuffling through grass echoes as if he were walking down a long, empty tunnel.

“One after the other,” Scott says softly. “One step closer to Magnus.” He stumbles but catches himself, swinging his momentum to the side and careening forwards in a zigzag. The grass shoots up to meet him, but he doesn’t fall all the way. Scott’s ragged breathing wheezes in his ears and his heartbeat thumps far away, a distant drum that prepares soldiers for war.

“Can’t stop fighting. Can’t stop, won’t stop.” Scott presses his hand against a young sapling, pausing for breath. “Can’t stop here. Can’t stop.”

“Scott!” a voice shouts. “Scott!”

“Can’t…” He wobbles, his eyes rolling into the back of his head. “Stop…”

Jinas throws himself under Scott as the Hero drops to the dirt, unconscious. Katrina trots up moments later and lifts Scott off Jinas. She lays him against the sapling’s trunk and Jinas tosses her a waterskin from his bag.

“No,” Scott mumbles, his head drooping. “Have to reach Magnus. Can’t stop walking.”

“Is he drinking?” Jinas calls, rummaging through his pack.

“A little bit but he’s making me fight for it.” Katrina tilts up Scott’s chin. “Drink, Scott. You need water.”

“No.” The Hero weakly pushes her hand aside. “Need to keep moving.”

“I said you need—”

Jinas takes the waterskin from Katrina, jerks Scott’s head back and squeezes a blast of water down the Hero’s throat. Scott sputters and coughs, spitting half the water across the ground. The doctor brings out a small leaf and holds it under Scott’s nose. Scott takes one small sniff of it and shudders, his pupils dilating wide open.

“More water,” Jinas says, holding the sides of Scott’s head. “Come on, Katrina! More water!”

Katrina presses the waterskin to Scott’s lips and forces more water down his throat. Scott chokes, batting the waterskin away. Jinas waves the leaf under Scott’s nose again, causing him to suck in a heavy breath and convulse against the tree.

“Quit thrashing, damn you.” Jinas grips Scott by the shirt. “This isn’t the first time you’ve been knocked down. Don’t make it the last.”

Scott thrashes and shivers, his hands twitching uselessly at his sides. Color slowly returns to his face. He mumbles senseless words, his eyes madly flickering about. After several moments he goes still; his eyes close and his breathing becomes slow and deep. Jinas pulls him off the sapling and gently places the Hero’s head on his backpack.

Satisfied, Jinas sits back and lets out a sigh of relief. “I really hate seizures. I hope I never become a surgeon.”

“What was that?” Katrina asks. “What did you do?”

Jinas holds up the small leaf. “This was given to me by my dad for my tenth birthday. It’s a leaf from the Miracle Bush—a special plant blessed by Magnus that was kept in the shrine. It heals any ailment, injury, or disease, but it can only be used once. After that…” The leaf turns grey in his hand, then blows away in a stray wind. “Well, you get the point.”

“Why use it now? You should have saved it for another time.”

“If I didn’t use it now, Scott would have died.” Jinas looks at Scott’s sleeping form. “Acute dehydration. Possible concussion, perhaps brain inflammation. Excessive stress, head trauma, fever…” He glances at Katrina. “I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker. We’re lucky I had the leaf in the first place.”

“How long will he be out?”

“Could be days,” Jinas says. “He needs a good meal and lots of rest. We might as well get comfortable because the chance of him getting to full health soon is slim to none.”

A laugh comes from Scott. He cracks open an eye, directing it at Jinas. “Like hell it is.”

“I had to say it!” Jinas cries, throwing his hands in the air. “I just had to say it!”

“Hey, I’m not going to be running marathons anytime soon.” He takes a slow, long inhale of the air. “But it still feels good to be on my way again.”

“I’ll bet,” Katrina says, leaning over Scott’s face. Scott pulls her black hair aside, gazing up at her with a smile. “Expect to see me again so soon?” she asks.

“Not in this lifetime,” Scott answers. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m leaning over you and I’m asking some questions. What are you doing here?”

“Dying, mostly. But I’m used to it.”

“You’ll need to be watched,” Jinas says. “If you feel your lower spine start tingling, I don’t care what time it is: call for me.”

“Why?” Scott asks. “What’s wrong with my spine?”

“Nothing, hopefully. But I can’t afford to be too careful.” Jinas dusts his hands off and stands. “Scott can’t move until tomorrow at the earliest. We’ll set up camp and see how you feel in the morning.”

“It’s still daytime,” Katrina says. “I’ll go collect some firewood.”

“Bring back some food if you can manage,” Jinas says. “Our rations are running low.”

“Wood and food, then. I’ll scout around after I get back, try to figure out where we are.” She takes up her pack and trots away. After she’s out of earshot, Scott turns to his doctor.

“Why’d she come back?”

“She didn’t come back. I found her wandering in the wilderness shooting lightning bolts at random.” He looks over his shoulder. “I don’t understand her. There’s something so unique about her that she couldn’t possibly be as normal as she tries to be.”

“Women,” Scott snickers. “They’re a mystery to all men, mortal and immortal.”

Later that night, after darkness has settled over the silent Cemetery, Jinas retires from his shift as the watchman and wakes up Katrina for her shift. He then curls up on the ground on the other side of the fire, quickly falling asleep. Scott himself lays motionless next to the sapling, eyes closed and breathing steady.

Katrina sits herself against the sapling and watches the fire. The night sky is calm and peaceful, the faintest hint of a blue galaxy sitting low to the horizon. The warmth of the fire mixes well with the cool evening air, providing just enough heat to not be cold.

“I’ve seen all of this before,” Katrina says. “This fire, this sky… Even that galaxy over there. It shows up every five years or so, but I never figured out why. Maybe it likes us, this planet.”

She glances at Scott. His breathing remains deep and constant.

“You probably have a lot of questions; I wouldn’t blame you if you were suspicious of me. I’m keeping a lot of secrets from you because you’re not ready yet. I don’t know if you’ll ever be ready. I wish you didn’t have to do this, Scott. It’s truly cruel.”

Katrina sighs, leaning on one of her fists.

“And yet here I am, helping you find Magnus, leading you to your destiny. If you knew how wrong everything is, maybe you’d stop playing their little game. Maybe you’d go home, see your friends and family, live out your life like you were meant to do.” She laughs. “You know, I used to think destiny was a meaningless word. I used to believe you charted your own path and made your own luck. I don’t know why I was so blind.”

Katrina fishes a black goblet out of her backpack.

“Even this is nothing more than a tool for them to use. My nostalgia, my memories, even my logic and wit—useless. I fell for their trap and you’re falling for it too.” She gives him a longing look. “I wouldn’t wish this fate upon my worst enemy. I’ll never understand why it had to happen to you. Maybe it really was destiny.”

Katrina sets the goblet aside. She sighs and tucks a strand of hair behind her ears. A log in the fire shifts, sending a flurry of sparks into the air.

“Why did you come back?”

Katrina jumps. Scott is sitting up, watching her curiously.

“Why now?” he asks. “Why come back now?”

“Because you need my help.” Katrina takes a breath to calm her nerves. “Something is going to happen soon—something only I can help you understand. You’ll need me when that time comes.”

“Then why run?”

“When you told me you were from Earth, I couldn’t cope with the truth. It was just too much to handle.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t fully explain,” she says. “We would be here all night and unfortunately neither of us have that kind of time. The bottom line is I’m here for you now and I’ve dedicated myself to getting you to Magnus. Everything else is unimportant.”

“What is it you’re hiding that you have to tackle alone?” He takes one of her hands. “We’re a team, the three of us. I can help you if you let me.”

“It’s not that simple.” Katrina looks out to the wilderness. “We’re being watched. If I tell you anything I’m not supposed to, he’ll kill you.”

“Who will?”

Fear gnaws at the edges of Katrina’s mind. She takes her hand away. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I can’t tell you that either.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’ll kill you.”

“Tell me anyways. I’m not afraid of anyone.”

“Don’t,” Katrina says. She grabs Scott by the shirt. “Don’t make him come here.”

“Him who? You say this like he’s just around the corner!”

“Scott, please let it go. Do this for me and I promise I’ll explain everything to you when the time is right.”

“When’s that, Katrina?” Scott brushes her hands off. “Whenever you feel like it?”

“I’m trying,” she says. “Honest to Chaldir, I am. I would go to war if it meant you were safe for one more day. Everything I do is to protect you.”

“I don’t need protection. I need answers.” He looks Katrina square in the eyes. “Are you going to give them to me or not?”

“I have to keep you safe from him, don’t you see? Why don’t you understand, Scott?”

“I want to know! Why won’t you tell me!”

“Hey,” Jinas says, sitting up. “Everything okay over there?”

Scott throws Katrina a glare. She blinks, unmoving. “Everything’s fine,” he says tersely. “I was just having a bad dream.” Scott flops on his side and rolls away from Katrina, staring hard at the ground.

“Is he alright?” Jinas asks. “He sounds angry.”

“Like he said,” Katrina whispers. “Just a bad dream. Go to sleep, Jinas. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

Hours later, a pale sun breaks over the horizon. Clouds quickly move to cover it, burying the Cemetery in a cold grey light. Katrina rises first and leaves the camp to collect wood for the fire. Jinas wakes up next and finds Scott looking around with weary eyes.

“You alive over there?” he calls.

“Barely,” Scott says. “Where’s Katrina?”

“She left before I got up.” Jinas gets up and takes his waterskin over to Scott. “Feeling any better?”

“I’m not at full speed, but whatever you gave me is working wonders. I can barely feel my headache anymore.” Scott takes a long drink from the waterskin.

“Just don’t do anything like that again,” Jinas says. “That was the last leaf of the last Miracle Bush on Renea.”

“You don’t have any more?”

“No. You destroyed the last Miracle Bush when you collapsed the shrine.”

“Of course,” Scott says humorlessly. “Of course I did.”

“If you ever push yourself that hard again, I can’t promise you’ll live. There isn’t anything on this planet as strong as the Miracle Bush.”

“So much for having good bedside manners,” Scott chuckles. “You’re a doctor, aren’t you?”

“Not a trained one,” Jinas smirks.

Something over Jinas’s shoulder catches Scott’s attention and his eyes darken. Jinas turns to see Katrina walking into camp. Katrina and Scott’s eyes meet and tension tightens the air. Katrina offers a smile; Scott’s frown deepens and he turns away. Shrugging, Katrina drops off the wood and adds more to the fire.

“Something going on I should know about?” Jinas asks, glancing between them.

“Nothing at all,” Scott says. “Help me up. I could use some food.”

The trio has breakfast in silence. Scott remains quiet and sullen, never directing his eyes up from the ground. Jinas glances at Katrina for an explanation, but she keeps her eyes directed at the wilderness around her. The atmosphere is cold and heavy; judging by the looming black clouds, it might rain in a few hours.

Breakfast ends without incident. They pack up camp and continue on towards the horizon, Scott taking the lead. Jinas waits patiently for Scott to make a joke or start floating off like he used to do, but the Hero does nothing except tromp onwards. Katrina whistles a tune every few seconds, much to Scott’s slowly growing agitation.

“Alright,” Jinas finally sniffs, “I’ve had enough of Silent Josan and Quiet Sue!” He plants both feet in the ground and crosses his arms. “You both need to stop whatever’s going on between you two and you need to do it right now.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Scott says. “The Royal Crypt could be just over the next rise.”

“Well in that case we’re not losing any time at all!” Jinas sits on the ground. “I won’t have us parting ways with you two angry at each other.”

“Not my fault she won’t talk to me,” Scott mutters.

“Hey!” Katrina shouts. “I’ve told you everything I can tell you!”

“Then tell me who’s going to try and kill me!”

“No! Then he’ll come and actually kill you!”

“No one’s killing anyone,” Jinas insists. “This silliness needs to stop. I don’t know where your paranoia is coming from but it’s not helping the situation.”

“Paranoia!” Katrina exclaims. “You think I’m being paranoid? You think I don’t know what will happen if I tell you things I’m not supposed to?”

“Scott doesn’t know. Why don’t you tell him?”

“You have no clue what’s coming,” she says. “If we keep pushing them for action, we’re going to get burned worse than you can possibly imagine.”

“I don’t care if you think it’s dangerous,” Scott says.

Katrina snorts. “Then you don’t care about your own safety.”

“If someone wants to kill me, I want to know! I can handle my safety! I’m perfectly capable of…” He stumbles. “I’m perfectly capable of watching out for myself.”

“Look at you! You can barely even stand! How can you think you’re capable of keeping yourself safe?”

“I can…” The color drains from Scott’s face. “I can…”

He crumples to the ground with a weak thud. Jinas is at Scott’s side before Katrina even recognizes what’s happening. Scott shudders and his eyes snap open.

“What happened?” he says, looking around. “I’m awake, I’m awake.”

“You passed out,” Jinas answers. “You need to rest for a minute.”

“My head,” Scott groans. “Why is it always my head?”

As Katrina and Jinas watch, the mark of Magnus scrawls itself into view on Scott’s forehead. It fills with clear white light, almost seeming to sparkle with power. Katrina looks behind her. A dark shadow approaches from the sky, a sickly pink Glow coursing through its dark body.

Salvation is coming.

Earlier…

Salvation emerges from the astral plane and slumps to the floor.

He presses his hands into the ground as his head spins, his shadowy cloak wavering like black fire. This isn’t right, he thinks. The Lady of the Woods was supposed to tell me how to heal this realm. Why wouldn’t she tell me?

Salvation looks up. His Hideaway is unnaturally quiet, devoid of the chatter of Shades and their restless movement. The shock of reality comes back to him—the smell, the sensation, the constant flow of time. Salvation grinds his claws into the wood floor, taking back a handful of pulp and bark.

“Alive,” he says softly. “I’m alive.”

Yet somehow, Salvation has never felt more dead.

His people have left him, fleeing for a new master who doesn’t spend each waking hour searching for answers in the astral plane. The Lady of the Woods had shown him how close he was to the white Glow. And he was so close! Salvation knows once he achieves it his questions will be answered. He’ll know how to save the Cemetery and how to cure the Shades.

But is it possible that I’m the one responsible for all this?

The thought has occurred to him on occasion, but he never entertains the thought for long; it always leaves a bad taste in his mouth. Salvation floats upwards, exiting through a hole in the upper wall. He moves to the end of his ledge and overlooks his Hideaway. The night sky is cloudless and clear, the moon full and luminescent. A sparkling blue galaxy sits low on the horizon.

“I won’t do it,” he declares. “I won’t be responsible for the death of this beautiful realm.”

A wind blows through the trees.

“This is my home. I’m not afraid to protect it.” He looks to the moon. But how can I help my people?

Salvation remembers his conversation with Katrina; she mentioned a Shade named Retribution. His stomach sinks low with worry at the thought of Retribution as the new leader. He knows that his research will have to be put on hold until he’s found and dealt with him.

He spreads his arms, preparing to take flight.

“Wait! Master, wait!”

Salvation turns around to find two Shades at the entrance into his hall. One is blue and has strange claws for hands. The other is a shapeless mass whose face shifts endlessly. They both carry the regal pink Glow—the closest to the white Glow any Shade has ever achieved. Salvation recognizes them instantly.

“You,” Salvation says. “Why are you here?”

“We were exploring,” says the blue Shade, speaking as if struggling for breath. “We were trying to find what we were before we became Shades.”

“But we came here to warn you, Master,” says the shapeless Shade. “Warn you about Retribution.”

“I know about him.”

“Then did you know Scott is still looking for the Royal Crypt?”

Scott? A plan instantly forms in Salvation’s mind, the connections too immediate to thoroughly process. “Where is he?”

“Close to Magnus,” the blue Shade answers. “It won’t be long until they meet.”

Salvation grins. “Good. He’s exactly where I want him to be.”

The black Shade shifts uneasily. “He is?”

“Yes, he is. Do you know where Retribution is hiding?”

“He is not like you, Master. He makes no secret of his destruction or his whereabouts. If anything he openly invites an opposition.” The Shade makes a sound of disgust. “Just so he can have an excuse to kill more innocents.”

“Then he’s fundamentally corrupted my message.” Salvation looks them over. “How did you two advance so far in the tiers? Last I remember you were barely above red Glow.”

“We followed your teachings,” says the black Shade. “In my visions I saw flashes of blue and something big moving nearby. I see the images now more than ever; I can’t help but feel that I’m going to leave this body soon.”

“So why haven’t you?”

“It felt wrong to do that without telling you, Master.”

Salvation laughs. “I am not your Master any longer. You’ve figured out how to become what you were before you were a Shade. I should be calling you Master.”

“Never,” says the blue Shade. “You will always be my Master.”

“And mine,” says the shapeless Shade. “We would be lost without you.”

“I appreciate that more than you know.” Salvation turns toward the open expanse of trees. “Keep the Hideaway safe for me. I’ll be back after I’ve rescued our people.” He shoots into the air with a banshee scream and rapidly disappears into the dark skies.

From his vantage point above the ground, Salvation discovers that the Shades had been correct when they said Retribution made his movements less than secret. Fires rages across the Cemetery and the screams of helpless people rend the night. Salvation stops many times and chases the aggressive Shades off, attacking them if necessary. The Reneans scuttle away from his presence, more terrified of the great Master of Shades than any of their previous assailants.

Salvation doesn’t blame them, but their fear troubles him. He always knew mending the relationship between the Shades and the Renean people would be difficult, but after Retribution’s rampage, it might even be impossible. His hatred for Retribution deepens and he searches the Cemetery for many hours, following devastation wherever it goes.

Deep in the Cemetery, a cloud of Shades swarm like a school of fish and make their way across the long, empty terrain. At the heart of the swarm is a fierce yellow light, gleaming like polished gold. Salvation hovers just out of sight, waiting for the Shades to stop moving. They finally come to a halt near the edge of a sleepy gothic town.

Salvation races towards them at maximum speed. The air screams past his ears, his onslaught piercing the cold night air. The mass of Shades scramble wildly, shrieking in fear—all except the Shade with the yellow Glow. Salvation stops himself inches above the ground, his tailwind blasting dirt and rocks in every direction. When the dust settles, Salvation is face-to-face with Retribution.

“You’re alone,” the rebel leader hisses. “Good.”

“I know you,” Salvation says, surprised. “Kalonius, wasn’t it? I sent you to find Scott many weeks ago but you failed. I thought you were dead.”

“Never dead. Just waiting.” Retribution grins wickedly. “When you told me to never come back unless I found Scott, I searched for ages. But he was gone. I came home to accept my punishment, but you were gone, too. I waited for as long as I could, but you forced me to take matters into my own hands. You betrayed me—you betrayed all of us!”

The other Shades chatter in agreement. Salvation hurls them a merciless glare and they immediately go quiet.

“I almost didn’t leave you,” Retribution continues. “A ball of light told me to wait for you; they said you made a deal with our archenemy, Magnus. I realized then that you would never come back. So I sought out my own peace, just like you told me.” He smiles, then gestures to the world around him. “And I found it.”

“Your peace lies within murder?”

“Don’t you understand?” Retribution cries. “This is necessary! Scott can’t hide forever. The only way to find him, as you instructed me long ago, is to kill without end until he shows himself. Then I can kill him and bring him to you. Don’t you see, Master? I never neglected my duties as a Shade! I will find Scott as you ordered. Then I can come home!” Retribution smiles hopefully. “Then you can show me the path to enlightenment.”

“This is wrong,” Salvation says. “You’ve misunderstood my message. You’ve not only failed your duty, you’ve perverted my teachings and justified them through twisted logic.” He rises up. “I don’t want you in my Hideaway ever again.”

Retribution’s eyes darken. “I thought you’d say that, though I was hoping you wouldn’t.” He spreads his arms and the Shades start to circle around them. “Now I’m forced to kill you and become the new Master of Shades. You’ve forgotten that your ruthlessness is what made you so powerful, so feared! You’ve forgotten what it means to be a Shade.”

“To be a Shade is to better yourself!” Salvation roars, dispelling the circle of Shades. “To learn about who you are and to understand the nature of your soul! Killing innocents to find one man? Causing ruin, destruction, mayhem? You understand nothing!”

“It’s you who understands nothing!” Retribution shouts, though his voice is barely a squeak in comparison to Salvation’s. “You’re nothing but a weak, frail shadow of the greatest Shade who ever lived! These Shades don’t want someone who sheds tears over the blood of the Renean filth. They want someone who can lead and instruct.”

Salvation’s anger flares, bathing the area in a brilliant pink glow. “This is your one warning,” he threatens. “Don’t make me do this in front of our people.”

My people,” the other Shade corrects. “They’re not yours anymore.”

Retribution darts at Salvation with a high-pitched screech. The Master of Shades dodges, snags the other by the throat, and slams him into the ground. Retribution claws madly at Salvation’s arms, thrashing under the larger Shade’s immense strength. Salvation pushes down harder, pink magic flowing from his nostrils in smoky wisps.

Retribution phases into the ground and emerges a few yards away, his hands glowing with yellow magic. Salvation is upon him instantly, knocking him aside with barely a flick of the wrist. He is on top of Retribution before the Shade can recover; he smashes a shadowy claw across his opponent’s face.

Salvation seizes the rebel Shade and blasts into the air. He rounds the peak of a low-flying cloud and divebombs at top speed. The impact pulverizes the ground and entire chunks of rock splinter up and outward. Shades scatter in every direction, a cloud of dust spreading away from the epicenter.

Salvation hovers high over the gasping form of Retribution. The rattling breath of the rebel Shade rasps like tearing fabric. Salvation looks around as the other Shades draw close to the battle, curious and anxious. Retribution barks a laugh and the Master of Shades drops down to him, his cloak of night pooling on the ground.

“They’re waiting,” Retribution sneers. “Can you sense their hunger?”

The Shades whisper restlessly, all eyes on Salvation.

They want me to kill him. Salvation looks at the defeated Shade below him. Killing him will do nothing but reinforce Retribution’s twisted message. But letting him live would only alienate the misguided Shades further. They’re too blind to see that he’s manipulating them. They now honestly believe killing is in their nature.

“When we meet again,” Salvation says, “I will take my people back.”

“Oh?” Retribution sits up. “Not going to kill me?”

“I have other matters to attend to.”

“If I live, I’ll spread more violence. I hope whatever you’re ‘attending to’ is worth the lives of countless Cemeterians.”

“What I’m attending to reaches beyond the borders of the Cemetery.” Salvation hovers into the air. “Goodbye, Kalonius.”

Salvation flies toward the Royal Crypt, his brain a mix of abstract planning and shapeless thoughts. Beyond the pressing matter of finding Scott and ensuring that he meets Magnus, at the forefront of his mind is how to get his people back without killing Retribution. Salvation is familiar with both respect and fear, and all of Retribution’s Shades respect and fear the rebel leader. Undermining either will be difficult. Undermining both may be impossible.

The Master of Shades flies for many hours, going at a quick pace to match his racing thoughts. He flies long after the sun breaks over the far horizon near the Vast Emptiness, though it’s quickly blotted out by clouds. The cold grey sky is flat and uniform like a piece of sheet metal.

If Scott isn’t too close to the Royal Crypt, I may have time to talk to Magnus about Retribution. Salvation rubs his chin in thought. Surely he knows about Retribution’s rampage. It’s upsetting the natural balance of the Cemetery, yet he’s done nothing about it. What could possibly preoccupy him more than balance in his realm?

The thought troubles him more than he cares to admit.

A familiar feeling prickles the back of his throat. He immediately reaches out with his mind and finds three more nearby—one powerful, one average, and one crippled. The feel of the first is enough of a warning to stay away from mental probes, cloaked in equal parts magmatic fury and magenta fear. The second he all but skips over, focusing on the third. He feels for familiar hairline fractures and knows exactly where to push to make more.

Scott’s mind has never been so easy to unravel.

Salvation spots them in the distance, mere minutes from the gates to the Royal Crypt. The owner of the first mind, Katrina, stares up at him in horror. The Master of Shades knows better than to attack her on the mental front, and if she fights anything like her mind feels, direct combat would be a very bad decision.

Salvation drops to the ground a few paces away from the trio. Scott blinks, trying to focus the image in front of him. Katrina takes a step back, magic coiling in her palm. Jinas holds his hand in front of Scott protectively. None of them have any idea how close they are to the Royal Crypt.

“Good,” he says. “I’m just in time.”

Chapter Nine

[]A Shortcut

Somewhere in the Peaks

Gabriel turns the page in his journal. The thick paper crinkles under his thumb, stiff as a reed yet as fragile as glass. The sun is beginning to set on the far side of the Peaks, its glow already obscured by the towering spires. A thin mist has settled on the mountains and the fire across from Gabriel burns hot and bright, barely emitting any smoke. He sighs, laying his fingers gently on the page. So many memories.

And what wonderful memories they are.

He closes the journal and looks at the cover. Silver letters drawn in neat, smooth Renean adorn the front: “Journal, owned by Gabriel.” He rubs his fingers across where his last name used to be. Softly, he whispers it under his breath, allowing himself the luxury of speaking it this one time. Things got easier once he became a nobody with just a first name and a regular face. It became easier to hide, to disappear, to start again.

I want to start again.

The thought comes to him from nowhere. Gabriel smiles, wondering if such an event is even possible. Going back to the start would require much more than pressing a reset button. All the mistakes and problems he’s caused, all the actions and reactions… Everything would need to be undone. He wonders how much different the world would be without his actions, for better or for worse. Perhaps Renea might not even be Renea anymore.

Thump! Gerrich drops his bag loudly on the ground, startling Gabriel out of his daydream. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” he says. “It’s disgusting.”

“Good to know you like to lift others up.”

“Low self-esteem is a terrible trait. Get over yourself.” He sits down in a huff, staring at the fire.

“Hunt didn’t go well, I take it?”

Gerrich snorts. “You think? What gave me away?”

“More than a few things.”

Gerrich pauses for a moment. “The trail’s gone cold. I’ve lost them.”

“Yeah, I know.” Gabriel folds his hands over his journal. “I lost them around the time you did.”

“Which was?”

“Four or five hours ago.” Gabriel sprouts a branch from his palm. An orange swells to life and he plucks it off. “Want an orange?” Gerrich rolls his eyes and says nothing. “Well, with no trail, we’re going to be shooting in the dark.”

“Can’t you find them with your magic? Do some mumbo-jumbo mystical tracking thing?”

Gabriel chuckles. “Mystical tracking thing?”

“Whatever you want to call it. With a cold trail and no leads, we might as well be looking for a ghost. Magic is the only option.”

“I make oranges and I fix broken bones. Tracking is for someone experienced in black or blue magic. I do green, nothing else.”

“So your magic is useless. You must have an idea, then.”

“I always have ideas—the more back-up plans the better, after all. Unfortunately, most of my ideas are never good.” Gabriel takes a bite out of his orange. “The one I’m working on now might get us killed.”

“Let’s hear it.”

Gabriel glances up. “I was serious about getting killed.”

“And I said I wanted to hear it.”

“Gerrich, this is your life we’re talking about.”

“The hatred I have for you is unimaginable,” says Gerrich. “But right now you’re not my problem. I want to get even with the man who almost killed me and I want to beat the smile off that pompous Hero’s face. I don’t care if I have to put my life on the line to do it.” He smirks. “Besides, if we get to Pinnacle Monastery first, they’re going to have an awful surprise waiting for them.”

A pang of anxiety spikes in Gabriel’s stomach. He had forgotten about his promise to burn the Monastery down; the thought makes him shift uncomfortably. Though he knows it’s unlikely, Gabriel doesn’t rule out the possibility of talking Gerrich out of it, despite arson being his idea in the first place.

“At this point,” Gabriel says, “arson feels like a bad idea. It might be better to avoid getting on Deion’s bad side by torching his library.”

“You’re trying to talk me out of this? It was your idea in the first place!”

“I realize that, but what do we gain from ruining the Monastery? Stanley still meets with Deion. I can’t let that happen without me there.”

“And why not?”

Gabriel glances at the journal sitting in his lap. “It’s complicated.”

“I’ll piece it together. Start talking.”

“Stanley needs me by his side. His current companion is… Not the right man for the job.”

“Just give him a name already!” Gerrich cries. “I’m tired of being left in the dark.”

“His name is irrelevant. His position next to Stanley is far more important. I know why Deion needs Stanley, and because of that, I can’t let them meet without me.”

“So what better way to stop them than by torching Pinnacle Monastery? It’s like you don’t think before you speak. Does anything go through that thick head of yours or do you just spout words like a big dumb oaf?”

“I’m always planning for contingencies,” Gabriel counters. “Right now, we need to make sure two things don’t happen. One, Stanley can’t meet Deion without me there. Two, we can’t make Deion angry with us. If we fail to do one of those things, I fear we’ll lose.”

“We who? You? Who’s losing and why?”

Gabriel rubs the fatigue out of his face. “You ask so many questions.”

“Then I’ll settle for one question, and I want an answer to this one. Why does it have to be you? Why can’t Deion meet Stanley alone?”

Once again, Gabriel glances at the journal in his lap. He pauses before answering. “He’s going to need help once he meets Deion. I’m the only one who will understand what he’s going through. There’s no one else on Renea who can help him except for me.”

Gerrich snorts. “Isn’t that just downright egotistical.”

“If you knew why, you wouldn’t think so.” Gabriel lifts up his journal. “This is the key to predicting Stanley’s next move. As such, this journal needs to be kept safe at all times.”

“Let me read it.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Why not! Damn you, we’re in this together and you need my help as much as I need yours, as much as I hate to admit it.”

“My journal is only for the eyes of a Hero, containing things that only Heroes should know. The knowledge isn’t for you to have.”

Gabriel regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth.

Gerrich stands. “You know what else wasn’t mine to have?” he says. “A future. I was going to be a scholar, remember? Ariana told me it would happen!”

“Gerrich—”

“Who are you to take the gift of knowledge from me? Who are you to hide away the secrets of the world? I know your type. You’re no better than those academics and intellectuals who rejected me for being born as a bandit!”

“You can’t know these secrets, Gerrich. I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted! These words are protected by divine magic. If you try to read my journal…” Gabriel sighs. “You’ll be killed instantly. These aren’t my rules. These are the rules of the gods.”

Gerrich grinds his teeth, then slowly sits down. Gabriel feels relief pass through him. Good. He believed it.

“So your journal makes the Hero predictable.” He looks up. “Then what’s the next play?”

“Well”—Gabriel leans forwards, lacing his fingers—“first, we need to find the closest library. There’s a network of tunnels used by the Keepers that should get us close to Pinnacle Monastery. It’s a tricky system to navigate, but I’ve been through it many times. We should be safe.”

“What do you mean ‘should be safe’?”

“Like I said, we should be safe. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m worrying about it.”

“Gerrich, I know you don’t trust me; with all the secrets I’m keeping, I don’t blame you. Not even Stanley trusted me. But if you’re going to put your faith in anything, believe me when I say I know exactly what I’m doing. If we take this one step at a time, our shot will be small, but it’ll be much bigger than anything else we’ll get.”

“And once we get to the Monastery, will you stop me from burning it down?”

Gabriel shakes his head. “I won’t stop you from doing anything, but I have faith you’ll change your mind. Burn down the library at your own risk.”

“You’re being spineless,” Gerrich spits. “If you cared about angering Deion you wouldn’t have suggested burning the library down in the first place. And what was all that about getting some petty revenge on the man with magenta eyes? I know the only thing you really want is that sword.” He pauses, something dawning on him. “Unless there’s something in the library you don’t want him to find.”

Gabriel scowls. “That would be ridiculous. What do I have to hide?”

“I don’t know, what do you have to hide?”

“Like you said, I only care about the sword.” He sits back. “There’s nothing in the Monastery that I’m interested in. Only my sword.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” says Gerrich. “If you wanted me to commit arson for you, there’s no reason to lie about it and then try to talk me out of it so I think it was my idea.” He points. “I don’t know what you’re hiding—at this point it could be anything—but if you try to sneak anything out of that library before I torch it, I’ll kill you.”

Gabriel looks the bandit square in the eyes. “There is nothing in Pinnacle Monastery that I personally value, that I can promise. I want Ghaldin and I want to be there when Stanley meets with Deion. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Fine, don’t tell me the truth. You’re not going to win any points.”

“If I wanted to win points I’d ask what I can do to earn them.”

“Get bent,” Gerrich snarls. He stands and stalks away from the camp. Gabriel watches him until he disappears into the darkness. He turns and stares deep into the fire, tracing patterns in the hot orange flames. Things had been easier when he was just a nobody with only himself to look out for.

Gabriel opens his journal, turning through the pages until he reaches the entry he had been reading earlier.

I don’t know why he wants it, but he wants it badly. I don’t understand what it means or why he wants it, but every time I’ve been sent after it, Deion just teleports me back to Monarch. It’s like he knows why I keep coming back and decides not to kill me for it. It’s like he knows I don’t have a choice.

Why doesn’t Gnosis just get it himself? Why send me? There must be a reason, an explanation. He could send Max instead. Max is far more powerful, more flexible, more dynamic… Yet time and time again I’m sent to find this blasted stone, and time and time again I fail.

If I listen closely, I can hear voices in my ear. They utter silent torments, their words always too soft to hear. The quieter my world is, the more I hear them. I think they’re telling me to take the stone at any cost, even my own life. I know better than to stoop to suicide missions. I know Katrina is still out there, waiting for me. This business we’re doing for Gnosis matters; it keeps us alive. It keeps Katrina alive.

As far as I can tell it’s just a lump of stone carved to look pretty. It’s funny, really. I know why the Heroes were called by the gods, but I can’t figure out the usefulness of a chunk of stone.’

Gabriel closes his journal and slowly traces the faded Renean script. It’s been nearly six hundred years since that last entry. Such a tiny stretch of time feels like barely a drop in the bucket. He’s surprised that so many things still mean so much to him. By now, he figured he’d have lost all hope, all feeling—even the memory of love.

Yet every time he comes close to losing everything, he remembers Katrina. He remembers her smile, her laugh, the beautiful twinkle in her eyes. He remembers the feel of her touch on his face, the way her long hair whips about in the wind. Each time Gabriel is about to lose it all, Katrina brings him back. Katrina always brings him back.

I was close once before, he thinks, determination settling into his stomach. I won’t miss my chance again. I need to get that stone before they do.

The next morning, Gabriel is up long before Gerrich. He makes breakfast, cleans up camp, and scouts out a few mountain paths. None of them explicitly lead to a library, but Gabriel knows the path to one when he sees it. He makes a mental note of which path to take and heads back to camp. By the time he returns, Gerrich is stomping around cursing his lungs out.

“Rough morning?” Gabriel laughs. “You look like you stepped on more than two rocks.”

Gerrich seizes his companion by the shirt. “You ever leave me alone again, I’ll cut your hands off!”

“Funny, I thought you’d be used to being alone.” Gabriel peels the bandit’s hands off his shirt. “You were that broken up about me leaving? Really?”

“Who knows what you’d do just because we had an argument. For all I know you’re emotionally unstable and liable to throw yourself off a cliff at any moment.” He hoists his pack over his shoulder. “I don’t care what your reasons are for wanting me to burn down Pinnacle Monastery, nor do I care why you want to be there for the Hero. I just want to get there and make a mess so big it’ll take forever to clean up.”

“It’s a big library,” says Gabriel. “It might take you a while.”

“I’m a patient man.”

Gabriel doesn’t respond. He takes the lead, Gerrich following behind. They walk until the sun rises high and hot in the sky. Gerrich plods along like an indestructible mule, enduring the heat without complaint. Gabriel dances down the path like a honeybee, jubilant and excited despite the sweat dripping off his forehead. He occasionally calls for Gerrich to hurry up, but the bandit never changes pace. He moves at his own constant, steady speed.

After several hours, Gabriel comes to a stop and turns to face a rock wall. Two pillars have been carved out of the mountain, but no door can be seen. The valley behind him stretches far out of sight, the mountains in the distance obscured by a thick mist.

“Well?” Gabriel grins as Gerrich stops beside him. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s a rock wall. Congratulations, Gabriel. Not only are you a useless moron, you’re also a useless moron with no taste in architecture.”

“Oh cheer up, this is a library!” Gabriel skips over to the rock. He places a hand on the mountainside, taking a slow breath in. “This one is one of my favorites. I used to visit here quite often, but recently I’ve had trouble making time.” Gabriel turns. “Well? Aren’t you coming?”

“Why, is there something over there?”

Gabriel points. “You stand by that pillar; I’ll stand by this one. Just wait and watch the magic happen.”

Gerrich positions himself by the pillar and an immediate grumble comes from beyond the wall, followed by a scraping, grating sound. The pillars rotate into themselves, revealing a hollow center leading into darkness.

“See you at the bottom!” Gabriel shouts. He steps into the hole and vanishes, his laughter echoing as if going down a tunnel.

The bandit wraps his arms across his pack. If I die, I’m going to kill him.

He closes his eyes and jumps feet-first into the hole. There’s a sickening moment of stillness. Then, Gerrich drops. The wind whips past his face and he finds himself sliding against something as if traveling down a laundry chute. He crosses his feet at the ankles and keeps his head as far from the ceiling as possible, his eyes shut tight.

Gerrich flies out of the tunnel and lands on something soft with a puff. The air around him is still and everything is quiet. He slowly opens his eyes to a room filled with pleasant green light. Gabriel is standing over him with a wide grin.

“Wasn’t that fun?” Gabriel pulls the bandit to his feet. “See why it’s my favorite?”

“Alright,” Gerrich admits, “it was fun. But stepping into a dark hole that might lead to a pit of spikes is not my idea of a fun time.”

“You could have just asked me where we were going. I would have told you.”

A gasp comes from behind them. Gabriel and Gerrich turn to see a short grey man with a long white beard.

“Deion’s chin!” he exclaims. “Is that you, Gabriel?”

Gabriel rubs his eyes. “Jondal? Is that you, old man? You look fantastic!”

“Jondal indeed, but I’m Jondal Junior! You knew my father, Jondal Senior. He’s passed on now, sadly—left me the library in his will.” Jondal walks up to Gabriel and takes his hand firmly. “Apalon’s nose, it is good to see you again. I was barely decoding Archaic Renean last I saw you. How long ago was that? One, two hundred years?”

“Something like that,” Gabriel laughs.

“Come on into the next room,” Jondal says. “We can talk in there.”

Jondal leaves first, followed by Gabriel. Gerrich follows begrudgingly, muttering under his breath.

The adjacent room is taller and longer than the previous one, with high shelves and a seemingly endless amount of space. Green lampposts rise between the opening of the shelves, giving the whole area an aged, vintage feeling. Lifts run by pulleys sit silent and still in varying positions on the massive shelves. Gerrich gapes at the size, too awestruck to make words.

“You looking for something?” Jondal asks, stepping up to Gabriel.

“I placed something here a few years back,” Gabriel says, drawing his finger across the book spines. “A map of sorts. Your father would have known where I stored it.”

“He left me a manifest of everything in the library—could be on there. I’ll go check for you.” Jondal hurries away, his feet making hardly a sound on the hard stone floor.

Gabriel throws a glance over his shoulder. Gerrich walks next to a shelf, his hands clenching and unclenching themselves into fists. He pauses for a moment, then slowly retrieves a book with a red spine. Just as he goes to open it, he shakes his head and returns it. Gabriel turns away, pretending to have not seen anything.

“What are we doing here?” Gerrich says, laying an abrupt hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “I thought you said something about some tunnels.”

“Tunnels, yes. Wandering blindly through tunnels, not a chance. I made a few maps of the passages I’ve explored. With them I can chart the fastest route to Pinnacle Monastery.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just walk there through the mountains?”

“Sure, if you want to go up and down long, treacherous paths for the next couple days. Or we can take the tunnels, which gives us a straight shot to the Monastery.” Gabriel turns. “When we’re down there, you have to do exactly what I say.”

Gerrich snorts, folding his arms. “I’m not taking orders from you.”

“Consider them friendly suggestions.”

“That doesn’t change anything.”

“I’ll be blunt, Gerrich. When we’re in the tunnels, if you don’t do exactly what I say, you will end up dead. That’s not pessimism; that’s a statement of facts. You don’t know what’s down there, but I do. Life is not something you should gamble with, particularly if it’s your own, so when I say run, you run.”

Gerrich cracks a smile. “Don’t you mean if you say run?”

“I know what I said.”

Gerrich’s smile disappears. Gabriel places a hand on Gerrich’s arm, but the bandit shakes it off.

“Look,” Gabriel begins. “The Peaks is a Moon Realm, and as such it stunts my powers heavily. Going underground makes it even worse. Like it or not, between the two of us I’m clearly more powerful despite my many handicaps. If I was in my prime, the tunnels would never have been an option in the first place. Unfortunately, time is short and we need to take shortcuts.”

Gerrich sniffs once, unimpressed.

“It’s a madhouse down there,” Gabriel continues. “Whether or not you decide to trust me is up to you, but in the end, if you make a wrong decision, you’re dead.” He offers a hand. “Stick with me and I’ll make sure you stay alive.”

Gerrich looks at the hand carefully, hatred glinting in his eyes. He looks away, tapping his foot. Gabriel makes no move to take his hand back. Gerrich glances at the hand again, then looks the other way. Several long seconds pass. Finally, the bandit sighs. He slowly reaches for Gabriel’s hand.

“Good news, boys!”

Gerrich rips his hand away.

“Here’s the manifest!” Jondal says brightly, trotting up to the pair. Under one arm is a collection of papers and a briefcase. “I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, so I hope your eyes are better than mine.”

Gabriel throws Jondal a dark look before snatching the papers from the Keeper’s hands. He sifts through them, his eyes scanning the pages. He pauses at one in particular, squints, then turns to Jondal.

“This one,” he says, pointing to something scribbled at the bottom of the page. “I need this one.”

Jondal takes the page and draws his finger across the columns. He winces. “Well, you sure know how to pick ‘em, that’s for sure. This one hasn’t been dredged up in some time—it’s a couple floors down.” Jondal snaps his fingers; a bright spark lights up the air. “But no worries, I installed a handy system a few decades ago.”

Gabriel balks. “You’re using magic? In a library?”

“I have to; we’ve expanded quite a bit since you’ve been around.” Jondal holds out his hand. “Since I’m the only employee here, I have to use magic, else this whole place would fall apart.”

A gust of wind bursts into the room. A red book streaks into Jondal’s open hand, nearly knocking him over. The Keeper claps the top, a cloud of dust bursting into the air. He blows off the cover and proudly presents it to Gabriel.

Gabriel opens the cover, revealing an enormous collection of old papyrus scribbled with thick black ink. Lines snake across the paper and connect across multiple pages. Comments drawn in hasty Renean litter the margins along with stars, dots, and markings of all kinds.

Jondal whistles long and loud. “Now that’s a map. Just how much does this cover?”

“All of Deion’s Peaks—every tunnel, every hidden passageway, every dead end.” Gabriel nods. “This is good. Everything is still here.” He closes the cover and gently slides the book into his backpack. “We’ll need to move fast. The longer we wait, the worse things will get, not only for us but for Stanley as well.”

“Yeah yeah, gloom and doom, we get it.” Gerrich shoulders past his companion. “Let’s get moving. This place smells like dried wood and musty rocks.”

Jondal watches him go, then glances at Gabriel. “You know where you’re going, right?”

“If you haven’t moved the door from where your father put it, then yes, I know exactly where I’m going.” Gabriel pauses for a moment, then stretches out his hand. Jondal takes it. “Take care of yourself.”

“Only if you take care of yourself too.” Jondal pulls away. “Good luck out there.”

Gabriel shoulders his backpack and runs to catch up with Gerrich. The bandit waits impatiently between two shelves, tapping his foot against the ground. He gives Gabriel a stern look when the man stops in front of him.

“I thought we were in a rush.”

“We are, you’re right.” He pats the him on the shoulder. “Come on, the door to the tunnels isn’t far.”

They walk in silence until they reach a flat wooden board set into the ground. A handle is bolted firmly in the center. Gabriel kneels and spreads a hand over the handle. Wisps of green magic swirl around the door until a sharp click comes from somewhere underneath it.

Gabriel yanks on the handle, pulling back the hatch to reveal a set of stairs descending into darkness. Gerrich gives his companion a flat stare.

“What?” Gabriel grins. “You worried about a little darkness?”

“If that qualifies as ‘a little,’ I’m the King of Monarch.”

“Oh relax, the domestic Keepers put gemstone lamps down there.”

“Domestic? Are you telling me there are wild ones out there?”

“Of course; feral Keepers are vicious monsters. You really have to watch out for them.” Gabriel makes his way down the steps. “Try to stay balanced. I was the last one to use these steps, so there’s no telling if they’re still safe.”

“My life revolves around balance,” Gerrich says. “You forget I climb treacherous mountains for a living.”

The bandit starts ahead, but his foot slips and he lurches forwards. He crashes into Gabriel and they tumble all the way down, landing on the bottom stair in a tangled mess of limbs.

“Balance, you said?” Gabriel coughs a laugh. “You mean when you balanced your elbow into my ribs about fifty-seven times?”

“Shut up or I’ll make it fifty-eight.”

Gabriel uncoils himself from the bandit and gets to his feet. He dusts himself off and pulls out the map from his backpack. Ahead is a wide, circular tunnel lit by intermittent green gemstones. Gerrich peers over Gabriel’s shoulder as he flips through a few pages. After a moment of silence, Gabriel closes the map and returns it to his bag.

“We head straight, then take a right at the fork.” He looks at the bandit. “You ready to run?”

Before Gerrich can respond, a shape lunges out from the murkiness. It seizes Gabriel and darts back from where it came. Gerrich pauses for a moment, unsure of what just happened. Far away, at the end of the tunnel, Gabriel’s voice echoes off the walls: “Run!”

“Oh he’s great,” the bandit mutters. “Just absolutely hilarious.” He tenses his muscles, takes in a huge breath, then takes off at a full sprint after his rapidly disappearing partner.

“And that,” Max says with a note of finality, “is why you never mix a glass of Red with a glass of Burgundy.”

“Fascinating,” says Stanley. “However, I fail to see the pertinence it has towards the topic at hand.”

“Isn’t it obvious? In this life you’re going to have choices. Some of those choices aren’t going to be easy to make, like deciding to mix your Red with Silver or your Red with Blue. Now clearly you would never mix Red with Burgundy, as I just explained. But regardless, you need to be ready to make those decisions at a moment’s notice. I can teach you how to make those hard decisions, but it’s always up to you which choice to choose.”

“Yes, I understand, but…” Stanley stops walking.

Max stops too. “But?”

“I just wish you did not use such harsh methods. Your brand of teaching is difficult to deal with.”

“My brand?” Max laughs. “You’ve always had a great way of explaining things, old boy.”

“I killed those people,” Stanley says. “Back in the valley, with my own two hands.”

“And a rock,” Max adds. “Your two hands and a rock. Don’t forget to add the catalyst to a chemical reaction.”

“It does not change the fact that I have blood on my hands which no amount of goodwill can atone for. This is something, might I add, that you yourself caused.” Stanley exhales. “If we are to continue in our travels together, you need to lighten your methods. No more violence towards the innocent.”

Max snorts. “I can assure you they were far from innocent. You stopped rogue bandits from executing a major operation on Monarch’s Capital Cathedral. Your timing couldn’t have been more perfect.”

Your timing,” Stanley corrects. “I have not forgotten that you led me to that place on purpose.” Max gives him a crooked smile, expressing a devil-may-care attitude. “I simply ask that you be less aggressive with your teaching methods,” he continues. “I am going through many changes right now and you are making this difficult on me.”

“Ah, but that’s the point!” Max spreads his arms as if giving a speech. “To challenge you and make you grow! I don’t sugarcoat things, Stanley; I tell you exactly how it is, but only after you’ve taken the lesson and formed your own opinion first. What would be the point in telling you what you’re going to learn? I’d rather put you in a situation with difficult decisions and let you learn for yourself. The things I do are always done to strengthen you, to prepare you for untold greatness!”

Stanley says nothing, his face blank.

“So no, I won’t be taking things down a few notches. That would cheat you out of a good deal of training.”

“Your ‘training’ involves the injury of innocent people. I do not like that.”

Max sighs. “Yes, you’ve made that very clear. I guess I have no choice.” He opens his palms towards the sky. A crack of magenta magic splits the air and a sheathed sword drops into his hands. “Do you know what this is?”

“Of course. That is Ghaldin, the sword which Gabriel nearly killed me to obtain.”

“This sword is special. It played a vital part in the past, but it will be even more important in the future. Aside from its true owner, there’s nothing in this world Gabriel treasures more.” Max offers it. “I want you to have it.”

Stanley quirks an eyebrow.

“I’ll admit that my teaching is harsh, but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I’m not doing this to be cruel. I really do care about you and I want you to trust me. Ghaldin is probably the most valuable artifact on all Renea.” Max steps forward. “So I’m giving it to you to show that I trust you. I can only hope that, in time, you will come to trust me as well.”

The Hero hesitates, then reaches out and places a hand on the sheath. Max makes no move to rescind his offer. Slowly, Stanley takes the sword and ties the sash around his waist.

“There!” Max grins. “That wasn’t so hard, right?”

“I…” Stanley sets his jaw firmly, gathering his conviction. “I will need time. Gabriel’s teachings are still fresh and are vastly different from yours. But I appreciate that you are at least trying. I commend your tenacity.”

Max throws an arm over Stanley’s shoulder. “We’re stuck out here together, champ. If we don’t trust each other, who can we trust?”

“Gabriel?” Stanley says with a smile. Max laughs heartily, patting him on the back.

They start their walk again, passing in and out of patches of mist. Stanley talks about his time as an amateur poker player before he found Mr. John’s shop and learned about tabletop roleplaying games. Max retells Renean legends he’s read in books. They swap stories for hours, the Peaks sun barely piercing the protective shell of the mist. After a while the conversation dwindles and the duo merely enjoys each other’s company.

Out of the blue, Max screeches to a halt. Excitement is in his eyes. “Do you see that?”

Stanley squints and spots a small form stepping lightly through the mist. It’s a feline, though the body is angled off in strange places. The tail is thick and bulbous like a stack of rocks. The creature steps out of the mist and pauses on the trail, balancing on its feet and sniffing the air.

“A cat,” Stanley says. “A cat made of rock.”

“Not just any cat,” Max says. “That’s the tectoriad—the legendary animal of the Peaks. There’s only one of them in the whole world and we’re looking at it. A rare feline, barely bigger than a housecat, made completely out of minerals found only in the Peaks.” He smiles. “This is an amazing moment, Stanley. This isn’t something you just happen to find. It has to be fated. It has to be destiny.”

“Yes, well”—Stanley straightens his back—“who am I to argue with destiny?”

“Agreed.” Max claps his hands together. “Shall we get started, then?”

“Get started on what?”

“Isn’t it obvious? We have to kill it.”

Stanley’s heart skips a beat. He searches for the sign of a joke in the other man’s eyes but all he sees is utmost seriousness. He cracks an uneasy smile. “Amusing, Max. But if you are going to make a joke, make it less extreme.”

“I wasn’t kidding. We need to kill it.” Max glances at the feline, which has yet to spot them. “Are you looking at that thing? Why should we allow it to live?”

Stanley’s eyes widen. “You are serious about this.”

“Of course I am! In life, we have to make difficult decisions. Some decisions are so hard to make that they destroy families and ruin empires. Now you have a choice, Stanley. What will you choose?”

“I choose to let it live,” he replies without hesitation. “I will not kill this creature.”

Max sighs. “You should stand back. This is going to get hairy.”

He points a palm at the tectoriad, magenta magic swelling from his core. Light blasts from his body, shoving Stanley backwards. Max’s eyes go completely magenta, his face twisted into a wicked grin. Stanley throws a look down the path. The creature shrieks, writhing in pain as its body contorts at unnatural angles.

Stanley lunges at his companion. Max easily sidesteps, seizes the time wizard by his collar, and hurls him back onto the path.

“Come on!” Max laughs. “You can do better than that!”

Stanley freezes time and tackles Max to the ground. Unaffected by the temporal pause, Max bucks upward and shoves the Hero off his chest, breaking his control over time. Max whirls around and pins Stanley to the ground, knocking his staff off the cliff. As Stanley goes to freeze time again, Max floods his mind with magenta magic. Stanley’s darkest fears scream past his eyes in the span of a heartbeat.

Give it up, Max hisses in his mind. You’re helpless against me.

Stanley lets out a primal roar and everything flows backwards.

His staff comes flying from the mist and lands firmly in his hand. Max gets off the Hero and throws himself on the ground. Stanley moves in reverse, finding himself on top of Max as time restores to a normal forward flow. Before he can react, Stanley jams his staff across the man’s throat, pinning him.

Max’s eyes flash and a forcefield erupts from his body, throwing Stanley against the mountain wall. Max gets to his feet, his body a whirlwind of magenta magic. Stanley throws a look down the path; the tectoriad is still squirming in pain.

I have no choice.

Stanley taps the bottom of his staff on the ground, freezing time only around Max. He carefully picks up a single rock from the path. Max remains motionless, his magenta magic suspended in mid-air. Stanley whips the rock directly at Max’s face, unfreezes time, and looks away.

After a moment of silence, he hazards a glance. A dark red bloodstain is all that remains of Max’s body. He sinks to the ground, leaning on his staff for support.

“Take responsibility,” he whispers. “You killed him, Stanley. You alone are responsible for the blood on your hands.” Stanley stares at the red splatter. “You can never change your decision.”

“Learning has occurred!”

A heavy weight crashes into Stanley’s back, slamming him face-first into the ground. He gasps, the wind rushing out of his lungs.

“What a beautiful day for a tough lesson, eh old bean? Come on, up and at ‘em.”

The weight comes off his back and Stanley slowly flips himself over. Max stands above him with a crooked, amused smile on his face. In his hand is Stanley’s staff.

“You, my friend, are one tough cookie. I had no clue you would kill me to save some little animal. At least now I know you have a soft spot for them.” He leans down and offers a hand. “Fancy a pick-me-up?”

Too shocked to grasp who he’s looking at, Stanley merely stares, dumbfounded. Sighing, Max digs his arm under Stanley’s body and hoists him to his feet.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Max takes Stanley by the shirt and dusts him off. “You’ve got a lot to learn before you’re ready to jam with the big ragtime band.”

“You were dead,” Stanley whispers. “I saw—”

“My blood? And since when is my blood red?” Max grins. “You saw what I needed you to see. It was just some more underhanded tricks. You should get used to them, because I’ve got a lot more of them and they’re going to keep coming.”

Stanley bristles. “You tricked me again.”

“And you learned a valuable lesson!”

“I learned to not trust you.” Stanley rips himself away from Max. “Our partnership is hereby finished.”

Max purses his lips, then shakes his head. “No, it’s not happening.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said ‘no, it’s not happening.’ Do you need to clean your ears? I have a handkerchief somewhere if you need it.”

“You murdered an innocent animal! You manipulated me into killing again! Every time you teach me a ‘lesson,’ all I receive is a guilty conscience and the vague feeling that I am being played for a fool!” Stanley points his staff at Max. “I want no business with you any longer.”

“So you want to be made new, is that it?”

Stanley falters. “Pardon?”

“You want to be made new? You want to shed your old hide and emerge, sparkling like the sun?”

“I suppose, but I do not see how—”

“Then be like him.” Max steps aside, sweeping his arm out. “Be like the tectoriad.”

On the motionless corpse of the rocky tectoriad, a small crack forms along its side. It lengthens, reaching from hind legs to the base of the throat. Snap! The body splits wide open and bright, purple light spills out. Stanley shields his eyes. A small claw emerges, followed by a head, then a body, then…

“Upon my word…” Stanley breathes.

The tectoriad pulls itself out of the rocky shell, its new body shining like a polished amethyst. It jumps off the corpse and lands soundlessly on the path. The creature flexes its legs and arches its back, testing all its joints and muscles. Once satisfied, the tectoriad leaps over the old body and disappears into the curling mist.

Stanley turns to Max. “You knew?”

“Why else would I attack it?”

“But you did not tell me why you were attacking.”

“You won’t always be told why you have to make a decision. Sometimes you just have to make one and trust your instincts.” Max holds up his hands. “Granted, not telling you was a little devious, but imagine how boring things would be if I said, ‘Hey Stanley, this thing’s in its last stretches; do a mercy killing.’ Where’s the fun in that?”

Stanley says nothing.

“Sometimes you have to make wrong decisions to learn, and sometimes you have to destroy to make something new. This world is crazy, Stanley. Everything here is absolutely insane in ways you don’t yet understand. But if you stick with me, you will understand. I will teach you enough to be the strongest Hero in all of history.”

“Your methods are unorthodox,” Stanley says. “I remain firm in my assertion that I do not care for them.” He sighs. “However, I cannot deny their effectiveness. I apologize for wanting to end our partnership. Let us continue together.”

“Atta boy!” Max cheers, throwing an arm around the Hero. “Just keep reacting like you normally would and you’ll keep learning.” He pauses. “But you know, I don’t think we’ll have much time for learning. We’re here.”

Stanley looks around. “Where is here?”

“Look up, old boy.”

Above them, the mist breaks. It’s faint at first, but a red glow gradually appears. It pulses in a slow, monotonous rhythm, sending gentle shockwaves through the ground. Stanley feels it vibrate through his chest like the drone of heavy machinery.

“Misty Zenith?” Stanley says.

“Not just Misty Zenith—it’s the end of your path. We’ve reached Pinnacle Monastery.”

Stanley frowns. “Gabriel implied Pinnacle Monastery was here, but he never said it outright.”

“And since when can you trust Gabriel? Trust yourself, not the vague preaching of someone who tried to kill you over a useless hunk of metal.”

Stanley throws him an amused look. “Whereas you made me kill three people just to prove two lessons.”

“Hey, if there’s a lesson to be had about killing someone over a dinky sword, I’ll be the first to give you free instruction.” He looks at the peak. “So what do you think? Is Pinnacle Monastery up there?”

The Hero closes his eyes, breathing in time with the vibrations of Misty Zenith. For this rare moment he shuns logic and reason, giving in to his emotions and his instincts.

He opens his eyes. “Yes,” he says. “This is it.”

“Then I say we teleport up there and start this big meeting with Deion!”

“No. I have walked far to get here. One more hill will not kill me.” Stanley takes in a slow, deep breath. “I have something for you, Max.”

“A present? For me?” Max waves his hand dismissively. “Oh Stanley, you charmer!”

The Hero undoes the sash on Ghaldin and offers the sword. “I want you to have this. You gave this to me as a symbol of your trust. I now want to reciprocate.”

“Meaning?”

“It means I trust you. I may not be used to your methods, but in time I will learn.” He offers the sword again. “Please, take it. It was easier to walk when I only had my staff, anyways.”

Max takes Ghaldin and it vanishes in a blast of magenta light. He smiles widely. “We’re going to be a great team, you and I.”

“Yes,” Stanley says. “Yes, I hope we will.”

They turn towards Misty Zenith, their eyes on the glowing red peak. With a sure step and determination in his eyes, Stanley starts up the final path to the home of Deion, god of Mountains and Time.

“Of all the terrible, irresponsible, and rude ways to do things—” Gerrich snaps his fingers. “Yes, rude, that’s what this is! Would Gabriel have done this for me? Of course not, because he’s a ruthless cutthroat!”

Gerrich kicks down an ancient door and finds a dusty skeleton chained to the wall. He shudders and goes to slam the door, only then remembering that he kicked it to the ground. He scowls angrily and stomps off.

“First it was save the Hero,” he grumbles. “Now it’s save the Emissary. I’m playing nursemaid to a grown man because he’s too stupid to look after himself.”

Gerrich comes to a fork in the tunnels and arbitrarily chooses to go left.

“This is payback, isn’t it? I’m being punished for burning books.” Gerrich stops walking for a moment to shout at the emptiness. “Then I’ll burn a million more books! Keep me down here until I die for all I care! My ghost will finish what I started!”

“You say that,” a voice calls, “but this is the last place you want to die!”

The bandit whirls around. “Gabriel? Is that you? Where are you?”

“At the back of the tunnel,” the voice says. “Hurry!”

Gerrich takes off at top speed. He comes to a screeching halt at the entrance to a dark room shaped like a dome. The faintest clink-clank comes from somewhere in the darkness, followed by a short cough. Gerrich drops to his stomach and slowly crawls across the room. He pushes aside the occasional rough object to clear a path.

Suddenly, a pale green glow casts a loose cloud of light into the darkness. A ragged cough comes from nearby.

“Found you,” Gerrich says. He pulls himself into a sitting position just inside the cloud of light. Gabriel stares back at him, his face covered in dirt and dried blood, his eyes glazed and weary.

“Good to see you,” Gabriel says weakly.

“You’re a mess. What happened?”

“Feral Keeper got a hold of me. What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be on your way to Pinnacle Monastery right now.”

“Gee, you’re right Gabriel. How thoughtless of me. I should have wandered the tunnels aimlessly until I found myself in Pinnacle Monastery, a place that’s impossible to find.” Gerrich gives him a flat stare.

“I’m not exactly at my peak,” Gabriel admits. “Everything is a little fuzzy for me.”

“Then pull yourself together.”

“I’m underground in a Moon Realm at night with poison in my veins; did you expect me to be the life of the party?”

Gerrich pauses. “How thick are those chains?”

“Too thick for me to break, especially with how I am now. Unless you’ve been hiding the fact that you can break metal with your bare hands, I don’t think I’m getting out of here anytime soon.” Gabriel sighs. “You should leave without me. I can tell you where to go on the map. After that you’d be on your own.”

“I couldn’t agree more. I’m sick of your whining anyways.” Gerrich looks over his shoulder. “So where’s your pack? It had your maps in it.”

“Your guess is as good as mine. I got knocked unconscious shortly after I told you to run. But if you fancy digging around a room full of bones, I’m sure you’ll find it somewhere.”

“Bones!” Gerrich yelps. “What about bones?”

“You didn’t see? This is the Keeper’s feeding chamber. The feral ones aren’t exactly the cleanest with their meals.”

“R-Right.” Gerrich holds his head. “Of course I saw them.”

Gabriel raises an eyebrow, confused. Slowly he begins to understand; a smile breaks across his face.

“What’s so funny?” Gerrich demands.

“Nothing,” Gabriel replies. “I just never would’ve figured you’d be afraid of bones.”

“I’m not afraid!” Gerrich shrieks. “I just hate them, that’s all! When’s this monster of yours coming back?”

“I have no clue, so we should act as if it were right around the corner. You need to get those maps from my backpack as soon as possible. And yes, that means shuffling around the room full of bones until you find it.”

“Stop mentioning bones. I’m not afraid of bones.”

“Then I guess it’s time to get down to the bones of the issue.”

“Cut it out!”

A deafening loud roar trumpets down the tunnel, shaking the walls. Dirt streams down from the roof.

“It’s coming,” Gabriel says. “You’ve got to get out here, Gerrich. Feral Keepers are ten feet tall and will eat just about anything!”

Another roar, closer this time. Gerrich throws a pained look at Gabriel’s chains. He seizes them and pulls, but they don’t even budge. Loud footsteps slam into the dirt, shaking the ground like miniature explosions.

“New plan!” Gerrich shouts. “We improvise!”

He darts into the darkness. Gabriel extinguishes his light as a monstrous shape casts a wide shadow on the far tunnel wall. Hidden in the shadows, Gerrich stays perfectly still and keeps his eyes on the distorted silhouette of the monster. He slowly stoops and searches for a weapon. The monster takes a step forward, a rumble coming from deep in its throat.

Gerrich’s fingers close around the wide, long jawbone of an unfamiliar animal; he suppresses the urge to cringe. He crouches low, his muscles compressing in preparation to move. The monster rumbles again, dropping its stance. A single bead of sweat drips off Gerrich’s brow. He knows the monster can smell him.

The instant the monster dashes into the room, Gerrich sprints forward to meet it, smashing its head with the jawbone for all he’s worth. The monster shrieks and stumbles aside, its body coming alive with pinpricks of light. A tall grey humanoid monster with natural bioluminescence towers over the small bandit, lighting up the room.

“You figure out a plan yet?” Gabriel yells from across the room.

Gerrich doesn’t have time to think of a response. He bobs out of the Keeper’s range as it swipes at him, tossing the jawbone from hand to hand as he looks for an opening. The monster drops to all fours and scuttles across the floor at top speed. Gerrich sidesteps once more, narrowly avoiding the dashing creature now heading directly toward Gabriel.

The bandit springs forward. Just as the Keeper closes in on Gabriel, Gerrich bashes the monster off to the side. The Keeper barrels into the wall, ripping the chains from their plates. Gabriel scrambles to his feet and stumbles away, shackles around his wrists and ankles but free nevertheless.

“Find your backpack,” Gerrich says, pointing the curved end of the jawbone at Gabriel. “We’re getting out of here.”

Wham! Gerrich goes flying into the air, launched by a body slam. Gabriel dodges a hasty swipe of the Keeper’s paw and retaliates with a weak crack of his chains, his body lethargic from the poison. As the monster raises up to strike, Gerrich comes flying out of nowhere and rams the Keeper in the stomach. The bandit silences its gasp of pain with a jawbone baseball-swing to its face.

The bandit whirls around, blood leaking from a gash on his face. “Backpack. Now.”

Gabriel nods and makes his way deeper into the room. Bones of previous meals litter the ground, and while the Keeper’s natural light provides a small level of visibility, it leaves much of the chamber in darkness. The monster roars, followed by the sounds of blows being exchanged. Gerrich cries out in anger, then in pain. Gabriel digs through the room faster.

Focus, damn you. The Emissary plants his palms into the ground, feeling for the natural heartbeat of the ground. This isn’t the first time you’ve been in a stressful situation. Focus and control yourself. He breathes low and slow, tuning himself with the hum of Renea’s core. He feels the poison’s grip on him begin to lessen, sparks of magic zipping around his fingers.

Gabriel looks up, his eyes laced with small traces of green. He spies a small light only a few strides away—his journal, and by that extension, his backpack. Gabriel runs to the source of the light and pulls his backpack open. Everything is still inside, including his journal. His connection with Renea dims and the green light fades.

“I have it!” Gabriel calls, shouldering his pack. “Let’s get out of here!”

An object flashes by him and crashes into the wall. The area lights up as the Keeper steps near, its throat rumbling with angry growls. A battered Gerrich detaches himself from the wall. In his hand is a fractured jawbone, his shirt torn and dripping with blood.

“So soon?” the bandit wheezes. “I was just getting into my groove.”

The Keeper bellows a roar, spreading its arms in preparation to kill. Gabriel points a hand at the monster and clenches his fist. A branch shoots up from the ground and wraps itself around its neck, chaining it in place. As the monster struggles with the restraint, Gabriel seizes Gerrich by the arm.

“Come on, we’re leaving!”

“You don’t have to tell me twice!”

The bandit takes off at top speed, leaving his companion in the dust. Gabriel follows him down the tunnel at his quickest pace, putting as much distance between him and the monster as he can. Every few seconds the monster roars in anger; Gabriel can feel his control over the restraints weakening. He slows to a jog, his body screaming for relief.

Snap!

Moments after the branch breaks, the sound of an approaching train barrels down the tunnel. The green gemstone lamps quiver with each pounding footstep of the fast-approaching monster. Gabriel jogs as fast as he can, trying to remember which way Gerrich might have gone.

The bandit arrives from nowhere and sweeps Gabriel off his feet. Gerrich sprints down the tunnel, carrying Gabriel wedding-style. “You’re just helpless without me, aren’t you?”

“Take a left!” Gabriel says. “We need to get to the surface before it catches us!”

“Quit your screaming,” Gerrich says. “It’ll never catch me. I was born to run.”

The Keeper slides around the corner, putting itself and the fleeing duo in the same tunnel. Murderous, ravenous hunger gleams in its feral eyes. The Keeper howls and charges ahead, its call reverberating down the long tunnel, knocking gemstone lamps off the walls.

Gabriel focuses his power. Gerrich keeps running, searching for light. He doesn’t dare look over his shoulder, concerned only with putting one foot in front of the other. Gabriel’s eyes begin to glow and a feeling pushes on his forehead, begging to be let out of its cage. The monster is so close he can smell its breath.

“Take a right,” Gabriel manages. He reaches over Gerrich’s shoulders and spreads his fingers wide.

The ceiling of the tunnel drops onto the Keeper. Its screams of pain echo through the thunderous cacophony of falling rocks. Gerrich rounds the corner to the right and keeps sprinting, putting the cave-in long behind them.

By the time he checks behind him, the tunnels are far out of sight. Gerrich slows to a stop and lets Gabriel down.

They have reached the edge of a mountain path. The night sky of the Peaks stretches wide and clear above him. A light fog weaves across the distant mountains, obscuring the valley below. Slowly, Gerrich sits down and takes a long breath, glad to be rid of the stale tunnel air.

Gabriel sits himself next to the bandit. They stare at the wide mountain range in silence, each taking long, slow breaths of the cool night air.

Gerrich looks at his companion. “Worst shortcut ever.”

“Without a doubt.” He looks Gerrich over. “That Keeper really messed you up, huh?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.” Gerrich chucks the jawbone over the side of the mountain. “Nothing that won’t heal.”

“I can fix you once the sun rises.” Gabriel reclines. “Until then, we should get some sleep.”

“Sleep? After that? You’re completely mental.” Gerrich sits himself in a meditative position. “Besides, we need to catch up with Stanley as soon as possible. We’ll rest for one hour and get back on the road.”

Gabriel laughs. “I have the feeling we’re far, far ahead of Stanley at this point.” He points up at the mist. “Take a look.”

The mist breaks, revealing the glowing red peak of a tall mountain. The bandit throws him look. “Pinnacle Monastery was at Misty Zenith the whole time?”

“You seem surprised.”

“But it’s so obvious! People have gone there before, haven’t they? Why hasn’t anyone come back?”

“Deion isn’t particularly fond of unwanted guests. He either wipes their memory and sends them home or makes them work in his library for the rest of their lives.” Gabriel holds up a finger. “And don’t forget the journey to get here. Not everyone is built to survive something like that.”

Gerrich mutters something smart under his breath.

“Sunrise is in a few hours,” Gabriel says. “By the time Stanley gets here we’ll be waiting for him at the top of Misty Zenith.”

“And Pinnacle Monastery will be gone.”

“You know, if Deion is away from his home, burning Pinnacle Monastery might turn out to be a good idea after all.” He throws a glance at Gerrich. “It’ll certainly grab his attention.”

“So now you’re back on my side? Gods, go to sleep. Hypocrisy makes me sick.”

Gabriel closes his eyes, lacing his fingers over his stomach. “Everything’s turning out like I wanted it, Gerrich. By the time the sun rises, everything will be as it should be. Everything is going to be okay.”

Earlier that day…

Stanley Lockwood climbs up the mountain path, his staff clicking on the ground in time with his steps. The alpenglow on the nearby peaks makes his heart flutter like a newborn bird, his stomach doing acrobatic flips. He’s so close to Pinnacle Monastery that he can almost taste Deion’s presence in the air.

“Do you feel it, Max?” He glances over his shoulder with a smile. “Do you sense the change in the air?”

“I think that’s just because we’re climbing higher.”

“No, this is different.” Stanley looks ahead. “This is something more.”

He takes off up the path, unable to control himself any longer. Max calls out but Stanley ignores him. His heart pounds double-time in his chest. At long last, he thinks. At long last, I will get to meet Deion himself! Stanley lets out a whoop and a holler, pumping his fists into the air. A massive red glow looms nearby, pulsing rhythmically.

Stanley rounds a corner and finds himself on a wide, perfectly level clearing; a loose fogbank blocks most of his view. The bright red glow from Misty Zenith pulses almost directly above him, vibrating the air with its powerful resonance. Max comes around the corner moments later and trots up to Stanley’s side, out of breath.

“Well look at that,” he pants. “I daresay we’ve made it.”

“Yes,” Stanley says. “Yes, we have.”

A gust of wind sweeps away the fog. At the far end of the clearing is a set of enormous pearlescent doors.

“Pinnacle Monastery,” Max breathes.

“And the end of my journey.” Stanley looks at his companion. “I must go forward alone.”

“Why?”

“It is something I feel deep inside me—something I cannot logically explain. But I know it is something I must do by myself.” Stanley places a hand on Max’s shoulder. “I am sorry we did not have more time to get to know each other. When my business is done here, I will be happy to adventure with you again.”

“What, just going to leave me out here all alone?”

“Something tells me you will find your way home.”

“You know me,” Max grins. “I’m always looking for a new ragtime tune anyways.” He sweeps his hand outwards, pointing it at the door. “Deion awaits, my friend. I wish you the best of luck.”

“I trusted you to get me here and you did not fail. For that I am eternally grateful.” Stanley takes up his staff and turns to face the doors. “Farewell, Max.”

Stanley takes a step and stops. He suddenly feels strange, though he doesn’t quite know why. He goes to move, but his legs feel as heavy as lead. Pinnacle Monastery’s doors loom in front of him, beckoning, but they look to be at the farthest end of a long tunnel. Something is rooting him to the spot. He looks down.

The gleaming silver blade of a sword protrudes from his chest.

Max yanks the blade out of Stanley’s back, splattering fresh blood across the ground. The Hero slowly brings a hand up to his chest and places his fingers in the gaping hole, unable to believe what he’s seeing. His legs begin to shake, his head going light as a feather. Blood, he thinks. This is… my blood.

Stanley drops to his knees, holding his staff in a death grip. His whole body quakes and he gasps, suddenly aware that he can barely breathe. The Hero topples to his side, then rolls to his back. The faintest sensation of pain floats at the edges of his mind. In the far distance the Peaks sun is low on the horizon, only an hour left until sunset.

Max stands over Stanley. “Now where have I seen that look before?” He presses his fingers together, then grins. “Ah yes, I remember now. Espetra looked just like that when I knifed her in the back. Her face was truly priceless.”

Stanley sputters, blood dripping from the edge of his lips.

“What was it you said earlier? ‘I trusted you to get me here’? Well, I got you here, and that’s what’s important.” Max crouches down. “But I guess you should have trusted Gabriel after all, eh Stanley?”

Grinning wickedly, he sheathes Ghaldin and tosses it to the side, just out of Stanley’s reach. Then Max simply vanishes from existence.

Stanley reaches out for the sword, his hands grasping desperately. I cannot… let him… do this to me… He swipes at Ghaldin, the tips of his fingers clipping the hilt but unable to grasp it. I have to get up. Get up, you fool! Get up!

He turns on his side and cries out, his hands shivering against his will. Stars burst in front of his eyes, the sword thousands of miles away. Stanley looks at the wound in his chest. His silver shirt is stained all the way through, the blood pooling on the ground in a wide puddle. It’s impossible to tell how much blood he’s lost. His skin is chalky white and everything inside him feels light and airless.

Stanley stops grasping for the sword and slowly, painfully, turns himself on his back. He stares up at the rich copper sky, his body shaking and shuddering. He listens to the breeze ghosting across his ears and watches the clouds bounce freely, joyously.

Stanley Lockwood closes his eyes. Moments later, he steps into the waiting darkness.

Chapter Ten

[]Fortune

In Tetrask’s Temple on the moon

Luke rolls on his side, a headache clenching his brain in an iron grip. A groan escapes his mouth as he tries to remember what exactly happened. The ground beneath him is brittle and the air is hot and dry. He slowly pulls himself upright.

It comes back to him all at once. The black staff. The golden treasure. The rift in the floor. Falling. Unconsciousness.

Man, he thinks, holding his head. Where’s a painkiller when you need one?

Luke finds himself in a dim cavern. Lines of red light trickle across the walls like veins of gold. A large patch of yellow and orange light takes up a wide expanse of the ceiling, mirrored by a similar patch of light on the floor. He wipes his forehead, finding himself sweating. Where am I?

Luke’s eyes come into focus. The lines of red are speckled with oranges and blacks. A low hum drones beneath his feet, vibrating his body. An intense heat radiates from somewhere inside the cavern. Locating his black staff, Luke gets to his feet and realizes what he’s looking at.

Lines of magma trickle across the walls like veins of gold. A wide pool of molten rock sends floating bubbles to a sister pool on the ceiling, and the ceiling sends bubbles back to the floor. Somehow he’s ended up in the core of the Renean moon.

This heat should be unbearable. How in the world am I still alive? Luke shrugs and takes off his shirt. Ah well, details are for posers. Time to explore.

Luke holds his staff in front of him. “I’m following your lead on this. Show me the way.”

A ray of yellow light from the staff’s head pierces the murky cavern. It points down a smooth path ahead of him, contrasting the rugged terrain of the lavafield. Taking it as a sign, Luke strides confidently into the cavern, his footsteps echoing into the emptiness.

“Odd,” he says aloud. “You’d think a place like this would have a minimart or something. A big bottle of water would be a real thirst-quencher, that’s for sure.” Luke glances around. “With all this lava I can’t name too many people who would voluntarily be here without a cold beer or two.”

He walks along the path until he stands close enough to observe the magma bubbles closer. One billows up from the bottom pool, swelling to life until it slowly detaches. It lazily drifts up to the top pool and sinks inside. Two smaller bubbles follow suit as a separate one detaches and travels toward the bottom.

Could be magnetism, Luke thinks. It’s a weird place to have a such a strong field, though. Deciding he’s seen enough, Luke turns away and continues along the path.

He follows his staff for several long minutes, periodically glancing at the magma snaking through the walls. The longer he walks the more restless he feels. It’s almost as if he’s walking in circles, or perhaps walking nowhere at all.

After a while he simply stops in place. Most of the heat has been left behind, the light of the lava now nothing more than a rapidly fading dimness. A faint chill is in the air. Luke sighs and leans on his staff, thinking it best to just head back. There’s clearly nothing out here and Tetrask may show up unexpectedly at any moment.

He looks at the staff in his hand. “You lead me out here for a reason, didn’t you? To show me my destiny or something?”

The light pulses once, urging him to continue moving.

“What’s out there?” Luke asks. “More emptiness? Another path for me to spend hours walking along?”

The light pulses again.

“You know what?” Luke tosses the staff to the ground. “If you’re not going to show me a way out, I’ll just go back the way I came.”

Luke turns around and finds himself staring at an enormous golem made out of molten rock.

The golem breathes slowly, exhaling hot, foul-smelling fumes across the Hero’s face. Magma drips from its maw, falling in puddles on the ground. Luke grins sheepishly and backs away.

The golem takes a threatening step forward, steam hissing from its mouth. Luke crouches and picks up his staff, his eyes never leaving his foe’s face. It charges without warning and Luke instantly activates his powers, dropping his personal gravity by several magnitudes. He leaps high over the golem’s advance and gracefully lands on the ground behind it.

The golem is upon him in a flash. Luke only has time to turn himself into stardust, dropping his staff in the process. The golem barrels through him and scatters his body across the room. Luke gathers himself behind a wide boulder and reforms into flesh and bone.

This thing’s got a temper, he thinks. Where did it even come from? He hazards a peek around the side of the boulder. The golem stomps about, looking for him. More importantly, why is it down here? What’s it looking for?

“Come out!”

Luke sharply draws a breath. The golem had bellowed a long, loud roar. No comprehensible sounds came from its mouth, yet he understood the golem’s roar in his own tongue. Luke wriggles a finger in his ear, uncertain if he’s hearing things or not.

The golem turns and spots Luke. It dashes madly at the boulder. Luke leaps into the air, neutralizing gravity to give himself enough lift. He latches on to a stalactite, watching the golem spew hot magma in a rage.

“Down!” it roars. “No run! You want to find, you fight first!”

Find? Luke thinks. Find what? Heck at this point all I want to find is an exit sign and maybe a tuna sandwich.

The golem rears back, the magmatic veins on its body turning white. Luke reactivates gravity and drops away just as his foe sends a rain of molten rock at the ceiling. The Hero hits the ground and runs, scooping up his discarded staff as he goes. A thunderous roar echoes behind him, punctuated by pounding footfalls. The golem can’t be more than a few strides behind.

Luke screeches to a halt a mere footstep from a blank wall. He turns around to run, only to be confronted by the golem blocking the path. He hesitates, searching for a way out.

“No run,” his opponent breathes, orange magma dripping from its lower jaw. “No hide. Fight.”

“What for?” Luke asks. “Look man, I just want to take Easy Street out of this joint. I don’t even know how I got here! It was an accident!”

“No accident. Here for reason.” The golem takes a step forward. “Fight.”

It charges, giving Luke no time to respond. The Hero hastens to the side; the golem turns and belches liquid lava. Luke opens his hand and draws all the magma into a singularity. The golem tackles and pins him to the wall.

“Too slow,” it says.

“You cheated!” Luke exclaims. “Where I come from, it’s one-two-three go!”

The golem rams its knee into Luke’s stomach. He chokes, blood bursting past his lips. A stray droplet slides down Luke’s chin.

“Weak,” the golem says. “Weak and slow. Not worthy.”

“Let me go.”

“Kill you.” The golem’s mouth drops open, revealing a pool of steaming magma. “Kill you now. No fun. Not worthy.”

Luke seizes the golem by the throat, his hand glowing with bright yellow light. The golem gasps, magma dripping onto Luke’s skin and glancing off without harming him. Luke tightens his grip, rock splintering under his fingers. The golem tears itself away, magma spilling from its fractured throat.

Murderous yellow light surges from Luke’s eyes. He whips his arm in a circle, generating a blast of cosmic energy. The golem evaporates with a loud shriek, leaving a gaping hole in the far wall. Slowly, the yellow light fades from his body. Soon the only light comes from his small black staff.

Luke shudders, the golem’s scream still loud in his ears. He resolves to never do anything like that ever again. He lifts up his staff and follows the beam of light to a point farther down the wall.

Luke walks with his hand on the wall, feeling for anything out of the ordinary. When he reaches the place where the light points, the staff begins to shake. Luke plants his ear against the wall; a steady, droning hum comes from just beyond.

Hollow, he thinks. There must be a tunnel back there.

He slowly opens his palms and wills energy into his hands. Sparks of cosmic light dance at his fingertips. But just as he rears back to strike, a spark of deep brown magic flashes across the wall. Curious, Luke lightly lays a supercharged hand the wall. He gasps as his arm goes numb, his energy stolen from a mere touch.

“Alright, so no brute-force.” Luke sniffs, discharging his energy. “Maybe I should just knock and see if anyone’s home.”

He raps a knuckle on the wall and a shudder ripples through the ground. The wall caves inward, the outline of a door carving itself into the rock. It gently creaks open, sending a wave of frigid air blasting into the chamber.

Luke.

He recognizes the voice immediately. Luke glances down at his staff. It rattles on the ground like a toy gone mad, its guiding light pointing directly into the tunnel. There’s no mistaking the direction he needs to go next.

Luke shuffles toward the door. “Hey man, can you cool it with the icebox wind? I left my shirt back by the lava.”

Luke.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “I figured you would say that.”

Luke braces himself against the icy wind and shoves his way into the tunnel. A faint light burns in the distance. As he draws closer, the low hum becomes louder, deeper, more resonant.

He exits the tunnel and enters a dome-shaped room. The wind peters out, though the room itself remains cold. An enormous block of ice dominates the center of the room, and deep within is a glowing mass of yellow light. It pulses intermittently, swelling and compressing like a slowly beating heart.

Luke takes a step forward, intrigued. The light responds with a powerful pulse, sending a shockwave through the Hero’s body that nearly knocks him over.

Luke whistles long and low. “You’re a sight, man. What are you?”

Luke.

“Hey man, you can’t be me. I’m me, and I’m the only me there is.”

Luke.

“Ahh, you looking to be a wise guy?” Luke cracks a grin and throws his fists up. “Put ‘em up, you old sausage! I’ll have your head for that!”

The light pulses rapidly, as if laughing. Luke.

“A fair jest! But take this!” Luke throws a punch, brushing the surface of the ice.

An electric spark jolts up his spine, flooding his brain with pure bliss. Luke stands stock still, relishing the lightheaded, warm feeling. He giggles and stumbles, his legs dropping from underneath him. The high gradually calms down to a blank emptiness.

“Wow,” Luke breathes. “You’re something else entirely, aren’t you?”

Luke.

“This is too cool. I’ve got to tell someone about you.” He snaps his fingers. “Hey, what about Nysse?”

Luke.

“Yeah, Nysse’ll understand for sure. It’s Tetrask I’ve got to hide you from. He thinks you don’t exist. He thinks you’re just my mind playing tricks on me. If I try to show you to him, he’ll get mad. He might take you away from me.” He smiles. “I don’t want that, man. I want you to stick around, so I won’t tell Tetrask I saw you. Sound good?”

Luke.

“I’ll be back soon, okay? I’ve got to find an exit and get out of here before Tetrask gets home.” Luke gets to his feet. “I promise I’ll be back in a couple of hours, probably. Think you can wait for me?”

Luke.

“Right on, my dude. I’ll see you real soon.”

Luke walks around the chamber a few times, searching for another door. When it becomes apparent that the room is a dead end, Luke goes back through the tunnel and enters the main chamber. Behind him, the door swings closed of its own accord, the cracks in the wall disappearing to form an unbroken surface. The red glow of the lava room is just around the corner.

Luke picks up his staff and treks back toward where he came, grateful to be away from the cold wind. He soon arrives at the pool of floating magma. A few feet away is his discarded shirt, and above that is the split in the ceiling from where he first fell.

Luke glances up into the darkness. It’s impossible to tell if there’s even a way back to the catacombs. For all he knows the roof could have reformed into solid rock. Luke sighs and pulls his shirt back over his bare chest. No way to know if there’s a way out without taking a jump.

All else fails, I can start blasting holes in the ceiling until I find an exit. Luke points his staff above his head in preparation. It probably won’t sit well with Tetrask, but if I have to crack some eggs to make an omelet… He crouches low, then jumps and shuts off gravity at the same time.

Every joint in Luke’s body decompresses, weightlessness settling in as he ascends into darkness. He sweeps his staff in slow arcs, searching for a roof. Luke continues to rise until he fears looking down, the floor almost too distant to see. Whole minutes pass. The floor gets farther away and the top is nowhere in sight. For a moment he considers going back to the lava room and finding a new path.

His staff strikes something hard and flat. Luke comes to a stop and he takes a slow inhale. The air quality is cleaner and smells fresher, though it comes with a hint of slime. Luke pushes himself off the roof at an angle, stretching out his feet until he strikes something wet and mucky.

“Man,” he grins. “Never thought I’d be so happy to see this green sludge.” He takes a few more steps before returning gravity to normal. Luke buckles under his own weight, surprised at how heavy he feels.

Nysse, he thinks with a start. I’ve got to find Nysse and tell her what I found. Luke taps the bottom of his staff on the ground. The light comes alive and points down the hall. Hoping it leads to an exit, Luke makes his way in the direction of his beacon, heart light with the joy of his discovery.

Down in the lava room, a being steps out of the shadows, fresh from the soil of Renea. He looks around in confusion. Normally the core of his moon is covered in darkness, the air so cold that icicles hang from the stalactites. Now veins of lava run through the walls and bubbles of magma float without regards for gravity.

This isn’t supposed to be here. Tetrask stoops, placing a hand on the bedrock. All the ice has melted. Why is there lava?

The god stands and makes his way to the inverted lava pools. He watches the bubbles pass between them, his nose twitching at the intense heat radiating across his face. Tetrask turns and marches into the darkness, his path taking him directly to a flat wall entrenched in darkness.

“So this is how you want to play, is it?” he snarls. “Fine. We’ll play your game.”

Tetrask slams his hand against the wall. A door appears and swings open, sending icy wind swirling into the room. He holds the door open wide, letting not a single gust be blocked. In seconds snow is on the floor. In minutes the snow has become solid ice.

“I can do this all day long!” Tetrask shouts down the hallway. “You will never get out of here, you hear me?”

Tetrask.

The voice breaks against his mind like a tidal wave. He grinds his teeth, pressing his palm against the door even harder. A heavy weight presses down on the god’s shoulders and the ground under his feet begins to crack. The droning hum becomes a threatening buzz.

Tetrask.

“Do your worst,” Tetrask hisses. “I’m not going to break like some mere mortal.”

The droning intensifies, then dims back down to a gentle hum. The icy wind blows farther, faster, spreading throughout the room. It doesn’t take long for the veins of lava to become solid rock. The lava pools ice over, then freeze completely solid. The floating bubbles crash back to the bottom pool. Ice covers everything in sight. Tetrask leaves the door open for a few more seconds, then slams it shut. The cracks fill themselves in, isolating the chamber from the outside.

Tetrask tromps through the thick snow back into the lava room, his godly aura filling the room with powerful cosmic brown light. The room has become a winter wonderland. The ice glitters like freshly polished crystal. Not a single speck of lava is in sight, yet despite his victory, Tetrask’s mood is stormy.

This won’t hold, he thinks. The lava will return and I can’t keep coming down here to freeze it again. I need a permanent solution. He rubs his forehead. But where? How?

Night falls on Renea. Gemstone lamps light up across Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. White lights accent the dome of the Monarch Archives while soldiers patrol the grounds. No incidents have occurred since the Crag Party rioted several months ago, but Monarch authority isn’t taking any chances. The Vault carries too many precious items for them to risk anything, particularly in the wake of Kalisk’s disappearance.

Nysse pokes her head out the front door of Tetrask’s shrine and checks the street. Aside from the patrolling soldiers, foot traffic has dwindled to nothing. She closes the door, locks it for the night, and blows out the candles in the front room. It’s time for some well-earned rest.

Despite her fatigue, Nysse finds herself standing in front of the divination cauldron. The room’s stelliferous wallpaper shifts soundlessly, shades of purple and blue mixing with the bright white of distant, unknown stars. The oracle lays a hand on the black metal. She gingerly reaches out to the moon, hoping someone will bring her to see Luke.

The other end stays silent. Sighing, Nysse takes her hand away.

If you want to come here, you need only ask.

“Tetrask.” Nysse quickly bows her head. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

I was coming to get you anyways. There’s been a development that I need to do some research on, and unfortunately I can’t trust Luke to be alone for so long. I need you to come up here and keep an eye on him.

“What? Even with what you said about behavior around him?”

Ignore what I said earlier. Just look after him until I’m done with my research. It shouldn’t be more than a few hours. Can you handle that?

“Yes sir. Of course, sir.”

The cauldron fills with calm green fire. Nysse reaches inside and searches for a hand. Finding a connection, she squeezes her eyes tight and is transported to the moon. When she opens her eyes, Tetrask stands before her. She bows respectfully.

“No need to be formal when it’s just us.” The god tilts her chin up. “Only around Luke, as I instructed.”

“Where is he now?”

“He was on his way to bathe. I only caught him from across the hall, but he told me he spent a couple hours training.”

“Should I wait for him?”

“No. I don’t want him wandering off and getting himself hurt. It’s bad enough trying to get him to sit still.” Tetrask sighs. “I wish I didn’t have to call you up here so often. These days it feels like I ask too much of you.”

“I’m your oracle. I live to serve you.”

“Don’t forget that you have a life to live, too.” Tetrask steps back. “I’ll be in my study if anything goes wrong.” With that, the god turns and exits down a hallway. Nysse breathes in slowly, steeling herself to remain objectively formal. With a nod, the oracle departs down a separate hallway toward the baths.

Nysse enters without knocking. The bath room is lit by subtle red and orange gemstone light. Though six baths are available, only one is being used. She never truly understood how Tetrask managed to get water and plumbing on the moon, nor why he needed more than one bath.

“Tedsworth? That you?” The steam makes it difficult to see anything. “Gimme a holler if you need something, I’m over here by the window!”

Nysse approaches without hesitation. She pulls up a stool and sets it next to Luke’s bath. The steam clears, revealing her face. “Hello, Luke.”

“Well hey!” Luke says brightly. “Didn’t expect to see you here, I thought you were Tetrask!” He glances down at his bare chest, everything below his ribcage covered by bubbles. “Sorry about the no-clothes thing. I got a little dirty when I was…” He coughs, looking away. “When I was training.”

“I assure you it’s not a problem.” She leans on her knees, watching him intently.

“So what can I do you for?” Luke asks, turning to his side. “Need a hand opening a pickle jar or something?”

“No,” Nysse replies. “Tetrask told me to keep an eye on you. So here I am, keeping my eyes”—she points—“on you.”

“Cool, I have my own personal security guard! Go check out that corner, I think I saw someone suspicious.”

Nysse cracks a smile. “I don’t think that’s in my job description.”

“Please?” Luke says, his green eyes glimmering. “For me? He looked really scary, I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight if you don’t.”

“Fine.” Nysse stands. “But only because you asked so nicely.” She walks over to a corner and glances around. “I don’t see anything. Maybe he got away.”

“Keep checking!” Luke splashes around in the tub. “I’m sure he’s hiding, that tricky little devil!”

Nysse throws a glance over her shoulder. Luke has wrapped himself in a towel, droplets of water beading on the tips of his hair.

“You know,” she says, “but if you were ready to get out, you could have just said so.”

“Oh I wasn’t ready yet. But the water was getting cold, so…” He shrugs, drying his arms with the edges of the towel. “No big deal. I can take another bath later if I really need it.”

Nysse grabs a spare towel. “Your hair is still wet. You need to dry it or else it’ll get frizzy.”

“Nah, my hair is a whole different animal. It’s best when it’s soaking wet. I don’t need to dry it, really.”

“Well I insist, so stand still.” Nysse dries Luke’s head with the spare towel, rubbing thoroughly to ensure she gets it as dry as possible. “How did you get your hair wet anyways?”

“What can I say? I love blowing bubbles underwater.”

Nysse drapes the towel over Luke’s shoulders and pats him on the arm. Her hand lingers against her will, fingers glued to his skin. Nysse glances up into his eyes and she becomes aware of the height difference between them. His green eyes sparkle like emerald gemstones, his breathing slow and steady. She finds herself looking at the outlines of the muscle on his body, a testament to his continuous training.

Luke watches Nysse’s starfield eyes dance across his exposed upper body. He looks at the smooth curves of her hips, the supple lightness of her lips, the sloping ridge of her neck. A tingle shoots up his spine. Luke slowly laces his hand around Nysse’s lower back, pressing her body against his.

Their eyes lock, their breathing slowly synchronizing. Time stands still. Nysse becomes fully aware of the tough, strong body Luke has built for himself. She averts her eyes, trying to focus on the wall, or perhaps the floor. All Luke is aware of is how beautiful Nysse looks in the red and orange light. He smiles.

“That reminds me,” he says. “I have something for you.”

Luke pulls himself away and hurries across the room to his discarded clothes. He produces a small black box with a red ribbon around it and shows it to Nysse. The oracle takes it, then unwraps the ribbon. She gasps.

“Well? You like it?”

“From all that time ago…” Nysse pulls out the head of an aliaria, the flower that rings like a sleigh bell. “You kept this from that long ago?”

“It’s only been a few months. I meant to give it to you for your birthday but I kept forgetting. I wanted you to have the whole flower, but the stem died a few weeks ago.” Luke offers a smile. “It still makes noise, though.”

Nysse holds it by the tip and lightly taps the head. A clear ring like a sleigh bell echoes through the room. She smiles and gently lays it back in the box. “Thank you, Luke. This means a lot to me.” Nysse places her present in the folds of her robes. “Now I have a present for you.”

She untucks her shirt and begins to pull it up.

Luke quickly covers his eyes. “Hey, I know we just had a moment, but like… Let’s not take this too far too fast.”

Nysse laughs. “You misunderstand. Take your hands away.”

Luke hazards a peek. Inscribed on Nysse’s ribcage is the symbol of Tetrask. Luke reaches out to touch it, then takes his hand away. “Is that a tattoo or something?”

“No,” Nysse says, a degree of sadness in her voice. She lets her shirt down. “Unfortunately, that’s the real deal. It’s the symbol that marks me as a Hero.”

“That’s awesome!” He takes Nysse by the arms. “We can adventure together! Oh, but first you have to train, right? I can teach you all of my tricks! This is the best day ever!”

“Luke…” Nysse takes his hands away. “A Hero can become an oracle, but an oracle can never become a Hero. It’s a one-way street and there’s no way to go back.” She looks up, her starfield eyes glistening. “I was a Hero once, but I can never be one again.”

Luke drops down on the edge of the bath, stunned. They sit in silence for a few moments.

“What happened?” Luke finally asks. “Was it personal? We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“You deserve to know,” Nysse says. She knits her hands in her lap. “Around sixty years ago, I was called to be a Hero by Tetrask—the first one he’s called in untold generations.”

“I thought you said I was the first?”

Nysse laughs. “I couldn’t tell a complete stranger that there had been another called by such an infamous god. It would raise too many questions.”

“I understand,” Luke says. “So you were a Hero, then. Did you leave to be an oracle because the job was too tough?”

“No. I made a mistake that cost the lives of many people.” Nysse takes a slow breath to calm her nerves. “I had to keep my Heroism a secret from everybody. I couldn’t tell my parents, my friends… One night I got lonely. I went to a bar to drink my sorrows away. There, I met a man who had been a Hero under Kalax. I don’t remember much of the night, but when I awoke the next morning, he knew all about my apprenticeship under Tetrask. I must have told him far too much.”

Luke says nothing, listening intently.

“The man took me under his wing,” she continues. “He filled my head with dreams, telling me I was destined to be one of the strongest Heroes ever. He was wonderful, Luke. Talented, witty, charming, handsome, charismatic… There wasn’t anyone who could compete with him. To me, he was the greatest Hero of all time.” Her eyes darken. “But he used me. He played me amazingly well, slowly building my confidence even though he must have known I was on course for disaster.”

“What happened?”

“An accident,” Nysse says. “One day, he took me out to the market and told me it was time for people to know my name. He told me to unleash my powers and put on a spectacle for everyone to see. So I did—or at least tried to. I lost control and…” Her hands curl into fists. “The Monarchian Guard came minutes later. I didn’t resist; I knew I had done wrong. Many people died that day. They threw me in jail, but in my heart I knew my mentor would come to set me free. The greatest Hero of all time would save me from prison.”

Luke sighs. “And he didn’t.”

“I rotted in jail for three years, eating scraps and hating myself. I wanted to die every single day. I wanted to lose control again and blow my own head off. But no matter how angry I got, I always fizzled out into depression. I kept believing he would come back and save me. I wanted him to come back. I was madly in love with him.” She shakes her head. “But he never came back. I never saw him again.”

“Who got you out?”

“Tetrask himself. He asked me if I wanted to become an oracle and I agreed. After I left jail, I got in touch with other oracles but I was never truly part of their circle. To them, I was the unnecessary seventh body at the table. Only Cynard and Tyram would talk to me.” Nysse is silent for a moment. “Sixty years went by; I did my duty to Tetrask and stayed out of sight. Then one day I met a loud boy who wanted to steal pictures off my wall.”

Luke blinks. “Hey, hey wait a minute! That was me, wasn’t it?”

Nysse spreads her hands. “Everything else, as they say, is history.”

Luke gives her a smile and she smiles back, then stares at her hands. He slowly exhales, steeling himself to make a move. He reaches out and brushes a strand of hair from her face. Nysse looks up, her starfield eyes all but swallowing up Luke’s green eyes. His heart skips a beat; her breath quickens.

Luke leans in and presses his lips to hers.

Nysse leans into him and wraps her arms around his neck, pulling him closer. They kiss for what feels like an eternity, then slowly separate. They rest their foreheads against each other’s, silence filling the gap between them.

“I’m sorry,” Nysse whispers.

“Why?” Luke whispers back. “What for?”

“I’m just…” She closes her eyes. Tetrask’s commands echo like a crash cymbal in the back of her mind. The glowing image of her former mentor shines like the sun. “I’m just confused.”

Luke laughs softly. “What’s confusing? I have feelings for you, so I kissed you.”

“It’s not that simple.” Nysse takes her hands back. “I have a lot going on right now.”

“There’s someone else?” Luke asks, quirking his head.

“No, no one else.”

“Then why isn’t it simple?”

“Because it just isn’t, Luke.”

He frowns and looks away. “Well maybe it should be.”

Nysse bristles. “What was that?”

“Maybe it should be simple.” Luke shrugs. “I like you, I’m pretty sure you like me… I don’t see how it can get any simpler than that.”

“Like I said, I have a lot going on.” Nysse stands up. “I don’t think you would understand.”

“I’m pretty understanding,” Luke says, also getting to his feet. “You should run it by me. I can figure it out.”

“It’s not about you!” Nysse explodes. “I mean, it is about you! But it’s not about you like you think it is! Get it?”

“Not… Really? I’m sorry, I’m not following.”

“Tetrask’s tooth,” she says. “How can you not understand?”

“Look,” Luke says. “I’m not that smart. You’ve gotta be straight with me when you do something like this.”

“What do you mean ‘something like this’?” Nysse shrieks. “You kissed me!”

Luke sighs. “I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have.”

Nysse shoves Luke backward, sending him sprawling into the bath tub. She runs out of the room, covering her mouth so Luke can’t hear her crying. She runs all the way to the cauldron of green fire and hurls herself back to Renea.

Luke pulls himself out of the tub, his bath towel soaked and water all over the floor. Frowning, Luke lets the tub drain and finds himself a new towel. He returns to his room, dries off, and puts on fresh clothes. Luke looks in a mirror, pursing his lips. Though he doesn’t want to openly admit it, he feels as if he somehow made a big mistake.

“Only one place to go now,” he says to himself. Luke walks across the Temple to Tetrask’s study. To his surprise, the door is closed. Normally Tetrask keeps the door open in case Luke has questions about his training.

Shrugging, Luke knocks on Tetrask’s door, then steps back and waits. For a moment nothing out of the ordinary happens; the hallway remains quiet and dark. Luke looks around the foyer for something to think about, but there is nothing detailed or otherwise observable anywhere on the walls. With a sigh, Luke leans in and knocks again.

“What is it?” snaps a voice from inside.

“Teddy? It’s me, Luke.”

“Come in.”

Luke pushes against the door and it swings open. Tetrask stands with his back facing Luke, hunched over a table covered in papers. A small gemstone fire crackles from the nearby hearth, providing light but no heat. The room is simple with an exquisite flair—an ornate bookcase and a fancy armchair sit in the far corner.

“Whoa. You redecorated since I was last here.”

“What is it, Luke? I’m very busy right now.”

“I just needed someone to talk to, that’s all. You have a moment?”

Tetrask picks up a piece of paper, holding it up to the light. “As I said, I’m very busy.”

“It’s about Nysse, dude.”

“Is she hurt?” Tetrask asks.

“No, she—”

“Is she sick?”

“No, but she—”

“Is she dead?”

“Well no, but—”

“Then it’s not important. You know where the door is; get out.”

“Hey, come on, this is actually pretty important to me.” Luke leans against the doorjamb. “See, we had a bit of a fight and now she’s mad at me. I only said one small thing and she got set off. I’m telling you old buddy, she really railed on me. I don’t know what to do with myself or what to say to her. Heck, I don’t know what I did wrong in the first place.”

Tetrask places his hands on the table and sighs.

“That was basically my reaction too, Tedsworth. I was all like, ‘Alright Nysse. We can talk this out.’ I don’t understand women, man. I thought I did, but they’re like big puzzle boxes that you gotta unravel from the inside out.” He grins. “But man, she makes me so happy, Tetrask. She makes me feel warm inside. I just don’t know how to tell her how I feel, and believe me, I want to. It’s just hard, you know? It’s hard to tell someone you—”

“Luke!” Tetrask shouts, cutting him off. “I’m in the middle of something vital to the safety of the entire planet. I’ve been working at this for hours without rest and I’m nearing a breakthrough. I don’t have time to entertain your lovesick whims today.”

“Oh, okay.” Luke pushes off the doorjamb. “Well, how about you take a break? A good game of chess might get your mind off things.” He shrugs. “You and I haven’t played a game in a long time, so I thought maybe—”

“Maybe what? That we could play instead of work?” Tetrask turns around, fixing Luke with a hard gaze. “It’s time to get serious, Luke. You’re on your way to be a fully-fledged Hero. You can’t afford to be thinking about trivial things like women and chess. You have to focus on what’s important to the safety of Renea! When was the last time you picked up a spear and trained?”

“I actually trained for two hours today,” Luke says. “It wasn’t anything pretty, but I spun that thing like the leader of a circus band! Man Teddy, you should have seen me. I was doing a great job.”

“Two hours isn’t enough; you’re slacking.” Tetrask faces Luke fully. “You know what I’ve noticed, Luke? You’ve been going on and on about how you want to be a great Hero who’s respected by his peers yet you do so little to accomplish it. You think Redguard got that way from playing chess with Chaldir? You think Dakhan became a legendary sage by telling Deion about his puppy love with a girl five times his age?”

Luke forces a smile on his face. “Hey, Tedsworth—”

“Stop calling me that!” Tetrask thunders, causing the whole Temple to shake. “My name is Tetrask! I am the god of Armageddon and the Cosmos! And lest you forget, you are my apprentice and disciple! You have an obligation to serve, Luke, and the time for fooling around is gone! Haven’t you noticed Nysse’s change in behavior? Haven’t you noticed my change in behavior?”

Luke says nothing.

“The way I see it, you have two options. You can either recognize your destiny is approaching and get serious or I can get rid of you and find another Hero.”

Luke laughs. “Alright Teddy, that was a good one. I know you don’t really mean that.” His voice goes soft. “You don’t mean that, do you?”

“I will do what I must to keep Renea safe.” Tetrask approaches; Luke backpedals away. “I suggest you think about why you’re here, Luke. There’s too much at stake for you to be messing around anymore. If you don’t want to train—if all you want to do is play chess and flirt with my oracle—I suggest you get the hell out of my Temple and go back to wherever you came from.”

“I don’t understand,” Luke says. “What am I doing wrong? Is it the laps? I’ll go run laps right now. I’ll do 500 laps, and then 100 sets with the spear, and then—”

“Don’t,” the god says. “Just don’t.” He closes the door halfway, then sighs. “I want you to stay here, Luke. I really do. I think your parents would be very disappointed if you went home empty-handed.”

Luke stiffens but says nothing.

“Then again,” Tetrask continues, “if you did, maybe they wouldn’t be surprised—after all, you’d be just like every other Hero who failed.” He stares down at Luke. “In my opinion, you’re already well on your way.”

Tetrask slams the door shut. Luke stands still for a few minutes, unsure of what to say or do. He reaches up to knock on the door, but his hand stops just above the wood. Luke sighs, puts his hands in his pockets, and walks away.

He doesn’t smile, nor does he grin or think about funny jokes to tell Nysse or Tetrask. He just sighs and stares at the ground, walking in no direction at all. Luke wanders past the kitchen and the courtyard, past his room and his favorite sitting area in front of the window that looks over Renea. The ever-present gemstone lamplight changes from blue to red, from purple to green. The tall, yawning ceilings that once felt like an adventure waiting to happen now feel like the mouth of an ancient monster ready to swallow him up.

After several minutes, Luke stops walking and leans against the wall. He slinks down to the ground, reaches into his pocket, and produces a small white gemstone. It glows with a faint luminescence, pulsing rhythmically like a small heartbeat. He runs his thumb over the surface.

Luke.

“Oh.” Luke hurriedly hides his gemstone. “Hey old pal. I forgot about you.”

Luke.

He shakes his head slowly. “No. I’m not supposed to be talking to you. Tetrask said you’re not real. I mean, I saw you in the block of ice and all, but…” He sighs. “Look, leave me alone, okay? You’re going to get us in trouble.”

Unknown to Luke, the red and green gemstone lamps slowly change color, fading to yellow. They flicker like candles in a cold night wind.

Luke.

“Yeah, I know. You probably hate me too, huh? Everyone else does.” Luke laughs joylessly. “Go ahead; if you want to hate me I don’t really care that much. You’re no different from all of my other friends.”

Luke.

“It’s like Tetrask said, man. ‘You’d be just like every other Hero who failed.’ But I’m different. I know I am.” Luke falls silent. He pulls out his gemstone again and cradles it in his hand. “I just know I am.”

Luke.

“I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong,” he continues. “I’m working hard! I’m building relationships and forging bonds. A Hero can’t fight a war by himself. He needs friends to help him, allies to lend a hand when he’s in need. I just…” Luke sighs. “I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, man.”

Luke.

“Nysse probably hates my guts and I don’t know what I did wrong. Tetrask is angry with me and thinks I’m some deadbeat loser. I’ve got no one left.”

Luke.

“Well, I have you, but I’m not even supposed to be talking to you. It’s safe to say that despite the fact that you’re a sentient block of ice living in the center of an alien moon, you’re currently the only friend I have left.” Luke smiles weakly. “Is that alright with you, old pal?”

Yes, Luke.

A sob escapes his mouth. Luke clutches his gemstone close. “I’m scared,” he says softly. “I’m scared and I’m lonely and I have no reason to keep training. No one talks to me anymore, not even my own patron god. I’m just trying to understand what I need to do and he tells me I’m a failure. I don’t have anyone to turn to.” Luke looks up. “You think… You think it’d be better if I just leave?”

Luke.

“No. No, I couldn’t do that… Not to Nysse. Not to her.” Luke smiles, hot tears falling down his cheeks. “She’s so beautiful, man. I couldn’t let her go—I don’t want to let her go. When I think of her my heart pounds and I get dizzy something fierce.”

Luke.

“Maybe I can take her home someday.” Luke’s bottom lip quivers. “Introduce her to my m-mom, and my dad… Oh, God…”

Luke wraps his arms around his knees and plants his face against his legs, weeping. No one runs down the hallway to console him. No one stops to ask if he’s alright. Luke sits against the wall in the hallway and cries, alone.

“I miss them,” Luke chokes, eyes red and puffy. “I miss my mom and I miss my dad. I don’t want to do this anymore, old pal. I don’t want to be a Hero anymore.”

Luke.

“I want to go home, man.” Luke pulls his knees closer. “I just want to go home.”

Across the hallway, a door appears on the wall. It opens soundlessly, revealing a wall of infinite darkness.

Nysse.

The oracle looks up wearily from her bed on Renea, the voice indistinct. She rubs the grogginess from her eyes.

Wake up, Nysse. We need to talk.

She slowly raises herself out of bed, half dreaming and half awake. She’s unsure where the voice is coming from; it sounds familiar.

“Can’t this wait?” she mumbles. “I was having such a good dream.”

Get to the cauldron. I’ll bring you to my Temple as soon as you’re there. Hurry.

“Temple? What Temple—”

Shocked awake, Nysse sprints down the hall and rips open the door to the back room. The cauldron has already been lit, sparks of green fire filling the room. Nysse all but dives forward. She’s pulled through by a powerful hand and arrives in a wide hall in Tetrask’s Temple. Tetrask stands before her, his eyes glowing with cosmic magic.

“I’m very sorry.” Nysse bows respectfully. “Had I known it was you, I would have never taken so long to get here. I apologize.”

“Yes, well…” The god sighs. “Apologies can be exchanged later.”

“Exchanged?”

“I have to apologize to you, too, but you won’t understand if I tell you now.” He turns and walks toward a nearby hallway. “I need you to follow me and not ask any questions until we reach the end of our journey. It’s a short walk, though you will undoubtedly feel ancient by the time we’re through.”

“Where are we going?” Nysse asks, running up to her patron god. Catching herself asking a question, she goes to apologize, then remembers not to apologize, and instead remains silent.

Tetrask walks down a long hallway. Every few seconds he’ll hum a tune as old as the gods, a tune totally foreign to Nysse’s ears. To him, however, it’s like a childhood friend waving hello from far away—too old to be important again, but not unimportant enough to be forgotten.

Nysse keeps her eyes on Tetrask’s face, searching for an indication of where they’re heading, but his face betrays nothing. Brown magic slowly wisps from the corner of his eyes, his presence calm and reassuring. Nysse clutches at her chest. How did I ever get so lucky? Not every oracle has such a personal relationship with their god. Is this really all because of Luke? A frown creases her lips. Luke, that air-headed, carefree moron. Why can’t he take anything seriously?

“We’re here.”

Tetrask stands still, his eyes on the wall in front of him. Red and orange gemstone lamps glow nearby, energized by the god’s presence. Nysse looks around, wondering where exactly “here” is. The hallway shows nothing special in the line of secret panels, hidden passages, or even doors.

Then, she feels it.

It starts out so gently that at first she thinks it’s just her mind playing tricks on her. A presence other than Tetrask’s trickles into her mind, warm and peaceful like a summer’s day. She slowly realizes that it’s coming from somewhere outside her body. Childlike joy plays through her body and she giggles against her will.

“Don’t let it consume you,” Tetrask says, laying a hand on her shoulder. His presence fills her like a torrent of water, driving out the alien feelings. A shudder of awe passes through Nysse’s body at the magnitude of his strength. The presence prods at her mind, but this time Nysse holds her ground.

Across from them, a doorway into a gaping hole of darkness appears.

Tetrask looks at Nysse, the magnificence of his eyes drawing her in and comforting her. “Hold on to me. Whatever you do, whatever you feel, whatever you think, do not let go unless I tell you. I will guide you and protect you. Do you understand?”

Nysse merely nods, lost in the vastness that is Tetrask, god of Armageddon and the Cosmos.

With Nysse gripping on his cloak, the cosmic god walks into the darkness. The instant his foot touches it, Nysse’s world goes black. She tightens her grip on her patron god, her pace slowing. Tetrask puts a hand behind her back reassuringly, guiding her ever forward.

The darkness tightens around Nysse’s throat, making her choke. Tetrask wards it away, waving his hand in front of him. She blinks to clear her eyes, but nothing she does produces a visible shape. Despite her best efforts to remain calm, Nysse feels terror grow in her stomach.

“I don’t like this,” she says. “Can we leave?”

“No,” Tetrask replies. “We need to keep going.”

“I don’t want to keep going.” Nysse starts to loosen her grip. Tetrask’s hand clamps down over hers, pinning it to his arm.

“Let go and you’ll be torn apart,” he says. “You have no idea what’s out here. You need to hold on to me, as I instructed.”

“I don’t want to know!” Nysse struggles to pull away. “I don’t want to hold on! I want to get out of here!”

Tetrask continues to walk forwards, dragging Nysse against her will. Nysse pulls and pulls, trying to break free, but Tetrask’s strength is infinitely greater. He walks without slowing and Nysse continues pulling, trying to find something, anything, to look at. Only sheer darkness greets her. Panic sets into her brain and she thrashes, begging Tetrask to let her go.

After what feels like an eternity of suffering, the pressure of the darkness fades to a brutal cold. Once again Tetrask’s presence is there, driving away the cold and replacing it with warmth. A faint light glimmers in the darkness. Nysse feels relief wash over her like a bucket of hot water, but with it comes the shadow of a sensation she doesn’t understand. It feels like hope, or maybe dread—perhaps both.

The darkness fades and Nysse finds herself standing in a large room. The floor is circular, with the walls curving up to make the shape of a dome. In the center of the room is the source of the sudden cold: an enormous block of ice. A yellow light comes from inside, frozen in suspended animation as if it were the center of a large geode.

“You can let go of me if you want,” Tetrask says, releasing his grip on Nysse’s hand. “As long as I’m here, nothing will harm you.”

Hesitantly, Nysse lets go of her patron god. She takes in the flawless, pristine surface of the block of ice. It’s smoother than glass and broken only by the glowing yellow light. Nysse slowly steps towards it, drawn by its steady pulsation. At first she sees images of Luke smiling, waving, telling her a joke. Feelings of childish joy blossom in her stomach and a giggle escapes her lips. She feels happy and free.

Those images fade. An unknowable sensation finds its way into her chest. It lingers for a moment, then explodes with fury. Nysse’s body clenches up and she realizes that it is fury. It’s rage. Anger. Madness. It’s the uncontrollable desire to wreak havoc and violence, to rain hellfire and mayhem down on everyone and everything she can find.

Tetrask seizes her arm, jolting Nysse back into reality. Her fingers are mere inches from the block of ice.

She retreats next to her patron god. The yellow light flashes angrily, but Tetrask stands between it and Nysse, his eyes glowing with raw cosmic power.

“I’m going to tell you a story,” Tetrask says. “A long time ago, before there were any Reneans, there was a huge hierarchy of gods. They were good people, and they were my friends. We came here before life even existed and made our home. The world was simpler, then—equal parts beauty and chaos. It was a place only gods could live.”

Tetrask steps forward. Nysse reluctantly follows.

“One day, after Renea’s surface had become livable for mortals, three stars fell from the sky. I didn’t know it then, but it would lead to the downfall of my people. I suppose it was justified, the genocide that followed. We were arrogant, deluded into thinking we had risen to the peak of all beings. It had been billions of years since the fall of Daltinkar and we had forgotten what defeat tasted like. We had forgotten to be cautious.”

Tetrask stops in front of the block of ice. The yellow light pulses slowly, rhythmically.

“You know what happened next, don’t you?”

“The monster,” Nysse says. “It killed everyone.”

“Everyone except the Big Ten,” Tetrask nods. “We were the last, so we stood up to face it. We would not bow to its tyranny, to its violence. With all our powers combined, we managed to separate it from its weapon. That alone gave us enough of an advantage to obliterate its physical body. Deion froze the monster’s Essence in time…” He reaches out, placing his hand on the block. “And Lolai, the love of my life, froze the monster’s Essence in ice.”

The light glows steady, unwavering.

“But the damage had been done. What was once a powerful kingdom of immortal gods had become a shattered, ruined world. We held a council and discussed what to do next. Cebral, Hibem, and Kalax worked on restoring the planet that had been ruined by our fighting. Apalon and Paral set about making a new race to populate the world, as it was now too big for only ten gods. Chaldir, Deion and I created the moon, and in it we placed the remaining piece of the monster who wrought so much destruction.”

“Why not destroy its Essence? Why keep it frozen here?”

Tetrask sighs, his hand slipping off the ice. “We tried, Lord Daltinkar Above did we try. But it was far too powerful. The harder we tried to destroy it, the more we realized how much stronger than us it truly was. I doubt even the combined force of the entire hierarchy of gods and goddesses could have destroyed it. Our only option was this.” He gestures to the ice. “But we needed someone up here to maintain it. Someone powerful enough to not only send a warning to the others if it escaped, but to hold it off until the other gods could get our creation—the Renean people—to safety.” He faces her. “So I agreed to take the blame in the story that the gods told the first Reneans. I accepted the role of chief evil-doer, the god of Armageddon. We concocted a lie mostly in line with what you now know, except that everyone on Renea currently thinks the monster is gone.”

“But why would it come to Renea?” Nysse asks, moving away so she can look into Tetrask’s eyes. “Why here?”

“If I knew, I would tell you.”

“What about the other two stars that fell from the sky?”

“The monster’s accomplices. Manipulative, ruthless, and impossible to find, much less kill. We didn’t even know they existed until”—Tetrask winces, as if physically pained by the memory—“until an incident occurred with the first group of Heroes. It started a chain of events that, although too small to be seen or understood, would ultimately lead to where we are today: the present. It’s a vast web that’s been woven, and this?” Tetrask points at the ice. “This is the spider waiting to drop on its prey.”

“But it can’t get out, right?”

“As long as it remains frozen.”

“And its weapon?”

Tetrask shudders. He makes no move to respond.

“Did you destroy it?”

“No, it was too powerful.”

“Is it here?”

“Are you insane?” Tetrask says. “Putting this monster so close to its weapon would create a link powerful enough to shatter Deion’s time magic and Lolai’s ice magic. Then the monster would be free again and we would be powerless to stop it. There’s only six of us left, my oracle. We six would serve as nothing more than an annoying roadblock.”

“Then where is it?”

“It was given to someone we can trust. It’s buried far underground, in a hole so deep and so dark that not even the spirits of the dead can reach it.” He folds his hands in front of him. “You shouldn’t have to listen to this; you’ve been through too much as it is. I’m sorry, Nysse, for once again dragging you into a world so far beyond your own.”

“I have to be a part of some of this.” She smiles. “I’m your oracle, remember?”

“I know you talked to Tyram about no longer worshipping the gods.”

Nysse goes rigid. She meekly bows her head, acknowledging her guilt.

“I don’t blame you. If I were you, I wouldn’t worship us either.” Tetrask casts a longing look at the block of ice, this time more focused on the ice itself than the light inside. He lays a hand on its surface, his eyes forlorn and lost. “So many mistakes,” he whispers. “So many beautiful, wonderful deities killed. All because we didn’t act, because we were arrogant.”

Tetrask shakes his head, silent. Against her better judgment, Nysse steps forward and wraps her arms around him. For a moment, he doesn’t move. Then, slowly, he returns the embrace. They hold one another for a long time, neither willing to break away.

The light from the block of ice pulses behind them, casting long, misshapen shadows on the curved walls of the chamber.

Chapter Eleven

[]Ozymandius

On an island in the middle of Cebral’s Ocean

Waneus, former Captain of the Undying Adventure, opens his eyes. A few pillowy clouds drift overhead, moving with a slow wind across the wonderfully clear sky. He closes his eyes, wishing to wake up in his old hammock on his old ship. But when he opens them again, nothing has changed. The palm trees above him move back and forth with the breeze. Another day stuck on the island.

Waneus draws himself up and rubs the back of his head. Last night’s sleep was not restful in the least. Beyond the storm that blew across the island, the beasts had been particularly restless. Waneus thought it had something to do with the phase of the moon, but now that morning is here, he can’t be sure. He picks up his makeshift blanket of reeds and grass and rolls it up. After putting the blanket in his makeshift pack, Waneus starts off through the thick forest. Time to check his traps.

Waneus had drifted in a sea storm for five days, knowing nothing but rain and waves. Any normal man would have been ripped apart or drowned, but Waneus had been in plenty of storms. He knew how to drift with the waves, when to duck underwater, and how to avoid making himself a prey to deep-sea predators.

He landed on the island seven days later and saw nothing but bright sunshine and pure white sand. Waneus would have cried out for joy if he wasn’t such a proud man. Over the next seven days he built up traps for catching fish, collecting water, and hunting game. Everything he needed he either made or found.

And yet try as he might, Waneus couldn’t figure out how to get off the island.

Waneus had never been a particularly religious man. He liked to swear, get rowdy, and commit good debaucheries every once in a while. It made him feel young again. Yet while Waneus wasn’t religious, he couldn’t deny that something higher than him was at work. There was a reason he survived the storm, a reason he had been brought to the island.

“Must be a cruel joke,” he mutters to himself, “because there ain’t no way I’m getting out of here anytime soon.”

Waneus reaches the beach shortly before noon, the sun hot and the skies clear. The dark blue waves roll over each other in harmonious rhythm. Waneus takes a moment to enjoy the view, thinking that perhaps his island isn’t so bad after all. Great weather, plenty of food, no taxes…

He spots something. A shape has washed up on the beach—it looks like a man. Waneus sprints down the shore, the water splashing over the unmoving body.

“Hey!” he shouts. “Can you hear me? Hey!”

Waneus slides to a stop and drags the man out of the waves. The body is riddled with wounds and patches of blistered skin. He’s going to need a doctor, Waneus thinks. I might have some septum root back at my camp, but I don’t know if it’ll do much.

“Come on,” he says, flipping the body over. “Don’t you die on me—”

Waneus freezes. The red hair and wiry, lean body is too shockingly familiar. Though burns cover his body and a wide gash is across his side, it’s still possible to recognize the face of his former swabbie.

“Drew King,” he breathes. “What in Cebral’s name are you doing off my ship?”

“Fradlr.”

The pirate glances up from the map table. Karos the Scourge gestures for him to follow and they walk to the edge of the navigation deck. The helmsman, Cochin, shoots a look over his shoulder but ultimately turns back to the open sea.

“So,” Karos says softly. “What did you get from our mutual friend downstairs?”

Fradlr throws a look at Cochin; the man is out of earshot. “Not much,” he admits. “I doubt he’ll walk again, since you paralyzed him from the neck down.”

“Is he awake?”

“Awake, yes. Talking to us, no. Frankly I don’t blame him.” Fradlr hesitates. “This might go without saying, but I don’t think beating information out of him is going to work.”

Karos frowns. “You have a suggestion?”

“Honestly, I was hoping you had a better plan.”

“I have one or two, yes.” Karos sighs. “But we’ll have to go back to our hideout in the Isles of Boir first.”

“You’d take Roger all the way there? What for?”

“Because he’s a threat and because it’s as far as I can get him from civilization without throwing him in the waves.” Karos looks toward the sea. “You know how they say you never know someone until you fight them? I felt things simply indescribable as Roger and I exchanged blows. Unchecked, he might be the most dangerous person in the entire Ocean.”

“What about Drew?” Fradlr asks. “Is he dangerous?”

“To me? Not in the slightest. To everyone else? Maybe. It’s hard to judge someone you can beat in one hit.” Karos grins. “But Roger… Now he’s a fighter. I’d sell my arm and leg to have him as my Adversary, even at the cost of the damage we’d do to each other. It’d be like Blueface and Redguard all over again.”

Fradlr grimaces at the thought of such widespread destruction.

Karos is quiet for a moment. “You think I did the right thing?” he asks. “You think it was right to kill Drew before his time?”

“Who’s to say when someone’s time to die is? For all you know he was supposed to die on that ship.” Fradlr smiles. “I say good riddance. He was too much of a pushover.”

“Still,” Karos mutters, “I can’t shake a strange feeling in my stomach. It feels like there’s tension in the air everywhere I go.”

“A restless mind, perhaps? You have been stretching yourself thin recently.”

“No. No, this is different. Bigger than my mind, bigger than the crew.” Karos looks at the sky. “It feels like it’s coming from somewhere up there.”

Fradlr looks up. The skies are clear and blue, not a cloud in sight. “What do you mean, sir?”

“Nothing, Fradlr. Just thinking out loud.” He gathers himself up. “Alert the crew of our next destination. I’m going to go relay orders to my legions. We sail for our hideout in the Isles.”

“Aye, sir.”

Karos the Scourge leaves the navigation deck and enters the ship soundlessly. Cochin watches him from the wheel, making certain he never appears to be watching too closely. Fradlr taps him on the shoulder, grabbing his attention.

“Set a course for the Isles. We’re going home.”

“Already?” Cochin says. “We’ve been out for less than four months. Why’s Captain sending us back to the Isles?”

“I don’t know. Just do as you’re told.”

Anger rises in Cochin’s cheeks but he swallows it like a bowl of nails. Fradlr returns to his maps, drawing lines with his finger as if looking for something. Cochin rolls the wheel in the direction of their new course. The pair stands in silence for several minutes, each focused on their own tasks. A gentle breeze creates a wall between them.

“So,” Cochin finally says after he can bear the quiet no longer. “What’d you and Karos talk about?”

“Just some executive stuff,” Fradlr says absently. “Some ends that need tidying up, paperwork… The usual. It’s all very boring.”

Cochin grunts. He knows Fradlr is lying and, secretly, he wants to believe that their conversation was likely nothing more than exactly what Fradlr said it was. Yet something feels off about it. Karos is slowly becoming more distant from his crew, giving most of his orders using Fradlr as a proxy. There have been entire stretches of days when he even missed crew dinners.

If there is anything Cochin knows for sure, it’s that he hates the new Fradlr. But he hates the new Karos even more.

Drew King opens his eyes. A stunning blue sky stretches overhead.

He knows he should be dead, though he has no idea why the thought occurred to him. Where am I? He blinks slowly. Fire. There was fire. I was sinking, and then… Nothing. I don’t think I’m dead. Drew wills strength into his arms. But then again, who’s to say I’m not? I could be in heaven for all I know.

He pushes himself up and a searing pain rips open his side. He gasps and drops back to the ground.

“Okay,” Drew wheezes. “Okay, not dead. Definitely not dead.”

“No, but you sure gave it your best!”

Drew tilts his head. The former Captain of the Undying Adventure, Waneus, sits a few paces away. He sports a castaway beard and his clothes are scraggly and worn.

“Captain?” Drew says. “Is that really you? You look like an island hermit.”

“I’ve been out here for quite a few days now. I’m bound to get a little messy.” Waneus sits himself next to Drew. “How you feeling, swabbie?”

“Like I had my teeth kicked down my throat. Where am I?”

“You’re on a stowaway island. Pirates used to use place like these to hide their cargo while evading Her Majesty’s Navy. This one’s been abandoned for a long time.”

Drew gingerly touches his side; a bandage covers his wound, but the job is haphazard and patchy. “What happened there?”

“You tell me. You washed up on my beach half dead and covered in burns and scars. I took care of the worst of it but you’re going to need serious medical attention to get that gash on your side fixed.”

“I don’t remember much,” Drew says. “But if I had to guess, I’m going to say Karos beat me senseless and sent your ship to the depths—with me on it, of course.”

“And what of the crew?”

“I don’t know.” Drew sits up, wincing against the stinging pain. “I saw Roger go down to protect me from Karos’s blade. They were fighting and I dashed in like a hothead.” He pounds a fist against his knee. “I wanted a piece of him so bad. I wanted to put Karos in his place and make him respect me.”

“Roger and Karos fought?” Waneus gasps. “And Karos beat Roger?”

Drew looks up. “You knew about Roger?”

“Of course I knew, but I was the only one who did. For Karos to beat Roger… That’s unthinkable!” Waneus grins. “How was he, swabbie? Was he fast?”

“Blindingly. I could barely follow their strikes. How did Roger get so strong?”

“I don’t know. He never told me.” Waneus reaches into his backpack and produces a makeshift waterskin made of leaves. “Here, have some water. It’ll help you get your strength back.”

Drew tilts the waterskin back. He suddenly pauses, the rim at his lips. Water! That’s it! “Captain, I need you to take me to the beach.”

“What for?”

“I can heal my wounds in water. If you get me to the beach, I can be back at full strength in a matter of seconds.”

“Well why didn’t you say so!” The Captain scrambles to his feet. “Come on, let’s get moving before Palenta goes out on her hunt!”

“Who’s Palenta?”

A primal roar thunders across the island, scattering birds from the trees and shaking the ground.

“That,” Waneus says grimly, “would be Palenta.”

“You stole my victory, you worm.”

Roger blinks once, his eyes on the grimy ceiling of the brig but his consciousness hidden in the safety of his mind. Karos looms over him, four tense pirates standing nearby. This isn’t the first time the Pirate Captain has tried to intimidate Roger to get information and it won’t be the last.

“I had Drew right where I wanted him,” Karos seethes. “I had him dead where he stood. I’ve had visions of spilling his blood for as long as I’ve known his face. Killing Drew with my own hands was going to take me one step closer to my final goal.” He pulls Roger up by the collar. “And you stole it from me!”

Roger doesn’t look at Karos. He stays silent and keeps his eyes trained on the ceiling, his mind completely separated from his body. Nothing Karos can say will bring him back unless Roger wills it, and nothing Karos can do will physically hurt him. Besides the occasional blink, it’s as if Roger isn’t there at all.

“You can’t hide from me forever,” says Karos. “Sooner or later you’ll lose concentration. When that happens, I’ll be here—and you’ll be dead.”

The Pirate Captain hurls Roger off the bed and slams him into the ground. Roger doesn’t even flinch. Karos shoves his way through the four nearby pirates and storms out of the brig. The four exchange a glance, then leave Roger on the floor. They close the door and lock it tightly. Once again Roger is left alone in his solitude.

“You’ve got to stop goading him like that.”

The jingle of keys latches into the lock and the door swings open. A bald man lifts Roger off the floor, dusts off his clothes, and gently settles him back on the bed.

“How’s that?” he asks. “Comfortable?”

“Comfortable as a paralyzed man can be,” Roger says. “What do you want this time, Cochin?”

“I don’t want anything.” Cochin sits on the floor. “I just want to talk.”

“Karos won’t be happy to learn you’re in here with me.”

“Yeah, well I’m not happy with my Captain right now. I don’t really care what he does to me.” Cochin leans on his hands. “He’s been getting more and more distant, both from me and his crew. I don’t like the way he’s leading us.”

A lightbulb goes on in Roger’s head. “He wasn’t this way before?”

“Karos used to actually talk to people like me. He made time to come to our meals and mingle with the crew. Nowadays it’s just him and Fradlr conspiring behind closed doors.” Cochin snorts. “Sometimes he’s alone behind the closed door.”

“And you haven’t thought to ask him about it?”

“You don’t know Karos like I do. Asking him anything is pointless. He does the whole ‘all in due time’ shtick and then tells you to get out.”

“Sounds like he has something to hide.” Roger turns his head so he can look at Cochin. “Has he been having side-conversations with certain key sailors?”

“Mostly Fradlr,” Cochin says.

“No one else?” Roger’s eyes flash with a black light and he plants a memory in Cochin’s mind. He gently pushes the pirate towards it. “Are you sure?”

Cochin thinks for a second, his mind taking hold of the false memory. “Well, there was this one shifty guy he was talking to… I found them while looking through the cargo hold, actually, and—” He shakes his head. “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

“Telling me what?” Roger asks, gently pushing Cochin’s mind again. “We’re just talking, remember?”

“I suppose so,” Cochin admits. “They were clearly trying to talk in secret. Karos froze up when he saw me and got out of there fast. The other guy went somewhere deeper in the hold, so I let him go. I don’t see him much anymore.”

“Makes you wonder what Karos could be planning to do to the crew.”

Cochin looks up. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t be blind. Conversations in secret? A sudden lust for strength? He’s got a lot of crew members after taking all of mine, and I’m sure he’s more than willing to sacrifice a few of them for more power.”

“How dare you.” Cochin stands up, his face red. “Karos would never think about hurting one of his own.”

“I didn’t say it was only one.” Roger glances at Cochin. “If you can’t see what’s coming, I guess you’re just as paralyzed as me.”

“Get bent,” Cochin snaps. He stomps out of the cell and slams the door shut, locking it securely. Once the pirate has left the brig, Roger allows himself a small smile. Tearing down Karos’s crew will be so easy he won’t even have to lift a finger to do it.

“There,” Waneus gasps. “I think we’re safe for now.”

“Why are you out of breath?” Drew asks. “We moved ten feet away.”

The former Captain of the Undying Adventure slumps against a tree trunk. He slides to the ground and wipes his brow with the back of his arm. “We’ve got to get out of here before Palenta finds us.”

“How do you know her name?”

“I named her after my ex-wife.” Waneus grins. “Loud, grumpy, and always chasing me around for some insane reason. She’s a big reptile with a spiked tail and hungry red eyes. The longer we avoid her the better—exactly like my ex-wife.”

“Then take me to the beach,” Drew says. “Once I’m healed I can keep us safe.”

“I doubt that,” Waneus replies. “You don’t know this island like I do. ‘Safe’ is only a word here.”

“Don’t doubt me before you know what I can do. I fought a leviathan! I can handle this, Captain. I need to handle this.”

“And why’s that?”

Drew sighs. “Because Cebral told me to get stronger. I can’t show up to Seastorm Grotto like this. I’d disappoint him.” He forces himself first to sit up, then he gets to his knees. “I need to get stronger or everything I’ve learned is going to be useless. Besides, you can’t see out of one eye. You’ll need someone to watch your blind side.”

Waneus gives Drew a stern look. A low rumble bounds through the trees, followed by a wet hiss.

“If you slow me down,” Waneus says as he stands, “I’ll leave you to the beasts.”

“Just help me up. I can run faster than you no matter what shape I’m in.”

“Well you better run fast.” The Captain pulls Drew to his feet. “Because she’s on the other side of our camp.”

Waneus disappears like a shot into the trees, gone without rustling so much as a branch. Drew presses a hand to his side and sucks in a deep breath. No pain, he thinks. Just one foot in front of the other.

Drew bolts into the woods. A roar splits the air moments later and half the trees behind him are swiped away. Drew doesn’t look back. He runs against the pain screaming from the gash in his side. He throws branches aside and ducks under large logs. Waneus has long since vanished; following any trail but the most obvious is impossible.

A thunderous boom detonates behind him. Drew doesn’t stop running. The leaves blur into one another. The pain in his side becomes a distant ping. Another roar, louder this time. Heat streams across Drew’s neck from somewhere close by. A wet hiss rattles his teeth, coming from directly behind him.

This is not how I die. Not today.

Drew leaps over a log and turns his body to stone. Sharp gravel rubs into his wound and he can’t help but scream. He slams into the ground and tumbles over himself. A black shadow flies directly over him and continues on, deafening footfalls shaking the trees. A roar trumpets through the air.

Several minutes pass. The stomps soften, becoming less resonant and more distant. It doesn’t take long for Drew to find himself alone in the jungle, stars flashing in front of his eyes. His body reforms into flesh and blood and Drew gasps. The bandages are now ripped and his scab is torn, the wound exposed to the open air.

First the injury, then the monster, and now this. Damned island.

“That does it,” Drew says. “When I get out of here, I’m retiring to the mountains.”

Cochin stands at the door to Karos’s office. He had been relieved of duty by Fradlr a few minutes ago, meaning he was free to do whatever he wanted until his next shift came around. That wouldn’t be until later tonight; currently, it’s the middle of the afternoon. With Fradlr distracted on deck and no one else in the belly of the ship, Cochin has Karos all to himself. All he needs to do is knock.

“Come in,” Karos says as Cochin reaches up. “I know you’re out there.”

Cochin pushes the door open. Karos sits at his desk, polishing his ceremonial cutlass. Sunlight from the open window fills the room and glints off the blade in Karos’s hands. It almost looks like its glowing blue.

“Ah, Cochin!” Karos sheathes his cutlass and stands. “Good to see you. How are you?”

“I’m fine,” the bald pirate replies. “A little worried but nothing major.”

“Worry is good. It keeps a man on his toes.” Karos gestures to a chair and Cochin sits. “What can I do for you?”

“If you want to know…” Cochin folds his hands in front of him. “You can start by telling me why I never see you anymore.”

“A Captain has duties higher than mingling with the crew.”

“I recognize that,” says Cochin. “I respect you for it. But it would be nice to see you around the crew again. We miss you at meals and on the deck. Why aren’t you around like you used to be?”

“I’m a busy man,” Karos says. “I have a lot to deal with right now. I’ve had to make a few sacrifices to keep my legion strong.”

“What kind of sacrifices?”

The Pirate Captain smiles. “All in due time, I promise.”

“What about you and Fradlr?”

“What about it?”

“You promote him to First Officer out of the blue, even though I’ve been here two years longer.”

“Crew members are all equal, Cochin. Fradlr and I just happened to share a conversation that gave me some insight into who he was as a person.” Karos folds his hands. “I’m sure you understand.”

“No, I don’t. What makes Fradlr special? Why wasn’t I promoted instead of him?”

Karos snorts. “You sound like a child.”

“I need to know why, Captain. Why are we heading back to the Isles? Why Fradlr instead of me? Why all the secrecy?”

“There are levels of trust on this ship, Cochin. You’re not on a high enough level to know the answers to any of your questions.”

“Then who is?”

Karos is silent for a moment. He sweeps his hand toward the door. “You can leave now. We have nothing left to discuss.”

Cochin locks eyes with his Captain. Karos watches him with a placid gaze, the corners of his eyes stained with blue magic. They stare each other down for several long moments, each daring the other to make the first move.

“Fine,” Cochin says. “Thank you for your time, Captain.”

He takes his leave from Karos’s office and makes his way to the brig.

Drew King scans the area around him for signs of movement. Yellow sunlight trickles through the branches on to the ground, blending with the green of the forest into a stunning chromatic. Birds chip in the trees. The monstrous footfalls can no longer be heard.

Could be a trick, Drew reasons. Or it could be an opportunity.

After waiting for a few more moments, Drew exits the safety of his hideaway and slowly continues toward the beach. Now that Waneus is long out of sight, he can only make vague guesses about the direction of the ocean. However, considering he’s on an island, Drew figures walking in any direction will eventually put him on the shore.

A stray wind shuffles through the trees and Drew glances around. Laughter bounces through the underbrush, like the giggle of a young girl. He spots movement out of the corner of his eye and immediately whips around to face it. A small girl in a white dress dances away between the trees, vanishing from sight.

“And now it’s whisper-in-the-wind mind games,” he says. “If something’s going to kill me it’d better hurry up and do it.”

Drew keeps walking. Periodically the laughter comes again, followed by the girl in the white dress dancing through the trees. The Hero ignores it, focusing only on putting one foot in front of the other. Part way into the forest, Drew discards his bandages and becomes ever more vigilant on what branch is going to brush where.

A woman in a white dress steps from the trees into Drew’s path. He freezes, his legs tensed and ready to run if necessary. She smiles and reaches out a hand. This is a trick, he thinks. Don’t fall for it. He takes a step forward nonetheless, almost against his will; her eyes are hypnotizing. Just who is she? She’s gorgeous.

“Drew!” Waneus flies out of the undergrowth like he was shot from a cannon, startling the Hero. The woman is gone. “Where in Cebral’s name were you, swabbie?”

“I was searching for you!” Drew retorts. “How can you just run off into the jungle and leave an injured man behind?”

“How can I? Easy, I get up and start running!” Waneus claps Drew on the back, causing him to gasp in pain. “Come on, no time to dawdle. These forest nymphs look playful but they’ll eat you alive—literally.” He starts off back into the trees; Drew follows.

“Why does everything want to kill me?” the Hero asks, trotting to keep up with Waneus’s long strides. “What did I do wrong?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong. This island is a killer’s hell. Everything that doesn’t want to kill you or eat you wants to kill anything else that moves.” He glances behind him. “You okay back there? Why are you walking so slow?”

“Gee, it’s almost like I’m bleeding to death or something!”

“Almost only counts in horseshoes, swabbie. Unless you’re stone dead, you should keep walking and quit complaining.”

Drew grumbles a few choice words under his breath but Waneus pointedly ignores him. The light grows dimmer the longer they trek, the branches thicker and more tangled. Drew has to go out of his way to avoid sharp branches which could dig into his wound. Waneus helps very little by throwing branches out of his way and swiping saplings to the side, causing them to crack like tiny whips. More than once Drew has to turn his body into rock just to take a hit to his arm or face, all while protecting his injury.

After what feels like forever, Drew shoves through a bush and comes out into a clearing. Stretching in front of him is the sparkling blue ocean. Waves tumble on the shore and energy surges into Drew’s body. His hot back tingles with the promise of jumping into the refreshing waves.

But the thought vanishes when a primal roar shakes the air.

“Oh, would you look at that?” Roger tilts his head, a bemused smirk on his face. “It’s the Happiness Brigade led by Cochin himself. Always good to see a smiling face.”

Cochin stands outside of Roger’s prison. To say he looks unhappy is an understatement; if the man glares any harder he’s liable to melt the bars.

“So to what do I owe the pleasure?” Roger asks curiously. Cochin digs his set of keys into the door and cranks open the lock. “Come to interrogate me again?”

“You can call it that.” Cochin tears open the brig door and enters, slamming it shut behind him. “I want to know about Karos.”

Roger snorts. “He’s your Captain. You tell me.”

“Don’t pull that. I know exactly what you’re trying to do and it isn’t going to work.”

“What isn’t?”

“You’re trying to pull information out of me. It’s me who’s supposed to pull information out of you.”

“What makes you think I know anything?”

“Considering you wield purple magic, had a clear advantage over Karos in a pitched battle, and are still alive after taking a sword to your spine, I’d say you know a lot that I don’t.” Cochin pulls out a box from the corner of the room and sits on it. “So start talking. I won’t leave until you do.”

“But we’re talking right now.”

“No, we’re not.”

“My favorite color is blue. There, I talked. You can leave at any time.”

“Tell me about Karos or I’ll break your spine.”

Roger grins. “It’s already broken, remember?”

Cochin stands up to smash the daylights out of his captive prisoner.

“Look,” Roger says shortly. “I tried to tell you about Karos but you didn’t want to listen. You went off on some rant about how he’s the good guy and would never do anything to hurt his own.”

“And I stand by that.”

“He’s a bad man with a seriously misguided desire for revenge. And if he gets his way, something far worse than trouble is going to come raining down on the Ocean.”

Cochin slowly sits. “What do you mean?”

“Karos is delusional,” Roger explains. “He thinks that if he can kill Cebral he’ll become a god. He wants nothing more than the destruction of everything and everyone Cebral cares about—which, by the way, means the entirety of his own crew, including you.” A spark of black magic snaps across Roger’s eyes. “And no matter what he says otherwise, he’s lying.”

“You think he’s lying?” Cochin quirks his head, falling under the spell. “Why should I believe you?”

“Your own Captain won’t tell you why you’re heading home and Fradlr, your closest friend, is keeping secrets from you. If that doesn’t smell of a conspiracy, I don’t know what is.” Roger smiles. “With those two high-level pirates conspiring in the dark, I’d say the most trustworthy man on the ship is me.”

“If you know so much,” Cochin says, “then why are we going back to the Isles?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Roger replies. “Karos is gathering his legions all in one place to make his play. He’s ready to put his plans into action and wants them cornered so he can do it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Karos knows how to kill Cebral.” Another spark of black magic whips across Roger’s eyes, bigger this time. “And there are a lot of people who believe in the god of Architecture and the Ocean. This kind of announcement isn’t something you can just shout to the world; ‘politically unpopular’ doesn’t begin to cover it. This is something that needs to make its rounds, stir some unrest, and fester for a few days.”

“Until?”

“Until Karos knows who the loyalists are,” Roger says. “Then he singles them out, rounds them up, and kills them.”

Cochin stands up angrily. “Stop spewing your venom, you snake.”

“Do you want to hear the truth about Karos or not?”

“Not from you.” Cochin heads for the brig door. “If you have nothing to tell me, then we have nothing to say to each other.”

“Keep living in the dark,” calls Roger. “But when you’re staring down Karos’s blade and he demands you give up your beliefs or die, what will you say then?”

Cochin pauses, his hand on the door. He doesn’t speak for a while. “I can’t stop him alone,” he finally says. “He’s just too powerful.”

“You don’t have to do it alone.”

“Then how?” Cochin asks, turning around. “How can I stop it?”

Roger grins. “I have a few ideas.”

“Move!”

Waneus yanks Drew away from the tree line and they make a mad dash for the waves. A shadow shoots over their heads and lands in front of them with a crash. A behemoth reptilian monster with menacing red eyes hisses down at them, exposing rows of sharp teeth. Waneus takes a slow step back, ready to bolt for the safety of the jungle. Drew keeps his eyes on the sea in front of him.

“Captain,” he says. “Think you can distract it?”

“Do what?” Waneus snaps. “Are you insane?”

Palenta hisses and takes a step forward.

“Just long enough for me to make it into the water.” Drew clenches his fists. “I can save us both, but I need to get into the ocean.”

“You’re out of your—”

Palenta emits a low, throaty rumble.

Waneus tosses glances between Drew and the monstrous reptile in front of them. Palenta’s rear legs coil in preparation to move.

“Kalax’s boot,” Waneus mutters, “I hate being the bait.”

With that, he sprints off down the beach. Palenta is on the move a heartbeat after Waneus, leaving a straight shot into the ocean. Drew dashes at the waves, running up to his knees before diving right into the water. The cold froth surges past his ears and sends an icy shock up his spine. But even that isn’t enough to stop Drew from letting out a whoop of joy as the familiar sensation of magic pours into his body.

Foam whips around him and the waves crash on his skull. He lets out a long, loud scream of joy, air bubbles blasting from his mouth. Magic spirals through his veins, playing a symphony of wonder and healing in his ears. His side knits itself together, the wound glowing with bright blue light. The burns cool and vanish into his skin, leaving no trace. Drew can’t help but pump his fists and shout in ecstasy.

He bursts from the waves feeling renewed and refreshed. Water swirls around his fingers like the tentacles of a thousand leviathans, filling him with a power he didn’t even know he had. Waneus bolts down the beach at top speed, Palenta right behind him and gaining fast. Her powerful legs dig her feet deep into the sand, slowing her assault enough for Waneus to have a fighting chance.

“How much longer!” the Captain shrieks. “I can’t run forever!”

Drew coils himself back into the water, gathers his energy, then blasts into the air. He lingers for just a moment, then drops toward the reptilian monster. Waneus dives into the underbrush; a heartbeat later, Drew crashes into Palenta like a comet, grinding the creature into the ground. Palenta roars and thrashes wildly, throwing Drew into the trees. He careens through the branches and lands on the ground with a heavy thud.

“Tetrask’s tooth, you did it!” Waneus pulls Drew to his feet. “You put that old reptile down for the count!”

“Hardly,” Drew says. “She’s got a lot more fight left in her. I’ve got to go back there and face her.”

“For real? Think you can do it?”

“I…” He takes a slow breath. “I don’t know. But I have to try.”

“Someone sure has to! Else we’re both dead men!” He claps Drew on the shoulder. “Come find me if you survive!” Waneus runs into the jungle without looking back, leaving Drew alone and mere feet from a massive reptilian problem.

“I guess that’s why I’m the Hero…” Drew rolls a knot out of his shoulder. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

Roger glances up as Fradlr jams his keys into the brig door. Three armed pirates stand outside the bars, swords at the ready. The door creaks open.

“So,” Fradlr says, “are you going to come quietly or are you going to make this difficult?”

“I’m paralyzed, you idiot. What do you think I’m going to do?”

Two of the pirates move into the brig. They lift Roger off the bed and place him on a stretcher. Fradlr takes the lead, followed by the stretcher carried by two pirates with the third one bringing up the rear. Roger keeps his eyes trained on the ceiling and concentrates on ignoring the tingly numbness of everything below his waist. They ascend a staircase and emerge on the main deck. The sky is dark and the air is cool like the inside of a cave.

“Put him there,” Fradlr says. “A little to the left… A little bit more. Karos wants this perfect. There, that’s good enough.”

Roger takes a slow inhale to test the air. It’s fresh and clean, but also a little salty, and a gentle breeze cycles past his ears. The stretcher clicks and Roger is pushed into a sitting position; it locks in place behind him.

“Good, you’re awake.” Karos comes around Roger’s left and stands in front of him before he can get a good view of what’s in front of him. “I wanted to show you this myself.”

“I’m impressed,” Roger says. “I’ve never been in a reclining seat. Did you make this?”

“A metalsmith back in Her Majesty’s Royal Port made it; I simply stole it from him. But that isn’t what I wanted to show you.” Karos steps aside. “This is what I wanted to show you.”

In front of the Navion is a wide sea lane cutting through the center of an enormous cavern. An opening in the roof provides a spiraling pool of sunlight in the center of the water. Against every wall, stacked tight together and ready for deployment, is row upon row of warships and seafaring crafts of all kinds. The clatter of preparation and training echoes off the tall stone walls, each ship lit with gemstone lamps of different colors. Someone at the helm blows a horn, signaling Karos’s arrival.

“What do you think?” Cochin asks, walking up next to Roger. “Ready to give the Captain what he wants yet?”

Roger says nothing. Karos waves the bald pirate off. “I don’t want a damn thing anything from you—besides your blood all over my blade, that is.”

“You had plenty of time to do that,” Roger says. “I think you want me alive.”

“Well,” Karos grins, “it does make bargaining with Drew a bit easier.”

“You’re planning on a trade?”

“Something like that.” Karos puts his fists on his hips. “So what do you think? Isn’t it beautiful?”

Roger looks around. Cochin is listening nearby, though he’s pretending to not pay attention.

“Pirates are better on ships,” Roger says. “If you’re going to attack Seastorm Grotto, seems to me like you’ll want troops who are better on land.”

“And when did you become a genius in naval combat?”

“When did you?”

Karos grins. “Last night. Through an epiphany, if you must know, bestowed upon me by myself.” He pats his sheathed cutlass fondly. “But I wouldn’t expect you to understand something like that. It’s not like you were ever close to the owner of this sword.”

Fury flares in Roger’s eyes, but his anger is not enough to make him forget his situation. “So what now?” he says. “Do you have a plan?”

“I always have a plan,” Karos replies, looking into the distance. “First Cebral, for killing my mother. After that? Well…” He smiles. “I can’t wait to show you what I’m going to do.”

Roger throws a look at Cochin. Their eyes meet for a moment only. Karos gestures and two men lift Roger’s stretcher, carrying him back to the brig. Cochin turns and stares over the side of the ship, unable to look up lest he see Karos and vomit all over the deck.

Drew bobs out of Palenta’s range, then ducks in with a punch. She swats his rocky body to the side and he slams into a tree. Air whooshes from his lungs; he can’t stifle a gasp.

Palenta skulks the beach, saliva dripping from her multitoothed maw. Drew gets to his feet and charges.

Palenta’s tail whips across the sand.

Drew slips out of the way and attacks.

Palenta chomps down, but her teeth find empty air.

Drew pounds the reptile’s eye. He’s met with a roar of pain and a wild kick to the chest. Once more Drew sails through the air and slams into a tree. He heaves out a gasp, warm blood spewing from his mouth.

The reptilian behemoth stomps about wildly, bellowing in pain. Drew slowly gets to his feet, then dashes for the ocean. He splashes into the water and dives underneath, merging with the waves. He pokes his head out of the water; Palenta is looking around and hissing. She can’t seem to track his scent.

Drew rises partly out of the ocean. Tickling tendrils of energy shoot through his body and crawl in his veins. Watery pillars rise from the froth, twisting about like tentacles. Drew shoves his hands forward and the tendrils latch on to Palenta, much to her surprise.

If I can’t beat you on land… Drew slowly pulls back his arms. I’ll just have to beat you in the water.

Palenta struggles against the drag of the water. Her snapping mouth and slashing tail serve only to agitate her restraints. Drew yanks hard. Palenta stumbles and is pulled into sea.

Drew barrels into her stomach, then sweeps around and kicks her in the face.

She swipes her tail at nothing.

Drew launches a blast of water into her back

Palenta thrashes helplessly.

Drew whips himself into a whirlpool, spinning the reptile around like a top. He dips down out of the vortex to admire his handiwork, then draws back for the last blow.

Hope you’ve learned your lesson.

Drew thrusts his hand forward.

Palenta’s body bursts through the waves and flies through the air. She lands on the sand with a hollow but resounding BOOM!

Then slowly, painfully, she gets to her feet and limps away.

Drew emerges on the beach, tired but content with his work. There’s no cheering to be had, no big hurrah with friends and no speech about the power of fighting as a team. The battle is over, plain and simple.

He spies a piece of driftwood and picks it up to use as a crutch. His fight with Palenta and Karos, on top of his refusal to eat for so many days after Hartor’s death, has made his body weak. It will take more than a few days to get back to full health. Drew starts off into the forest.

Now to find Waneus, he thinks, and figure out how to get off the island.

In the brig of the Navion, Roger watches the door leading to the deck. No one has come through it in almost half an hour. If there was ever a time to act, it would be now.

He throws his legs over the side of the bed and stands. After being paralyzed for so long, it feels good to stretch again. Healing his spinal injury had taken longer than he anticipated, but it turned out to be a good thing. Now he’s in Karos’s hideout and everyone thinks he can’t even take a step.

Roger approaches the brig door and waves a hand. It unlocks immediately, swinging open and exposing the empty hallway. He takes in a long breath, savoring the smell of freedom. Then, he runs up the steps and shoves the door aside.

The deck is empty as he expected it to be. The other ships in the hideout are silent as well; nearly everyone must be asleep. With Karos’s entire legions piled up in one place, who would be rash enough to attempt an attack?

Or, for that matter, an escape?

Roger sneaks across the deck to a waiting rowboat. The Navion is positioned in the middle of the water with plenty of space in every direction. Getting the rowboat down without causing a commotion is the easy part. Getting out of the cave without being seen will be a little harder. The risks, however, make little difference to Roger. The element of surprise is on his side.

But what about Cochin?

The thought comes unbidden with Roger’s hand already around the rope. Doubt claws at his stomach. Even after all his subtle manipulation, it’s quite possible that Cochin won’t try to usurp Karos. A final nail needs to be struck into the coffin. Something that will eat at Cochin day and night until he has no choice but to act. Something like a nightmare, or an idea, or perhaps both.

Roger is back inside the ship not a heartbeat later, his movement soundless on the creaking wooden floor. He passes by Karos’s office in a hurry; blue light and whispers come from underneath the door. He tiptoes into the crew’s sleeping quarters and scans the room for Cochin.

There, in the corner.

Roger crouches next to Cochin’s bunk and spreads his hands over the sleeping man’s face. Tiny wisps of black magic float from his fingers into Cochin’s ears, worming their way into his brain. Cochin groans and shifts. Roger pushes harder, sculpting the dream as vividly as he can.

In the dream, Karos raises his blade and cleaves through another pirate. He kicks the body aside, much to the delight of his loyal crew members. Once more he challenges a pirate about his personal beliefs, and when the pirate tries to reason with the Captain, Karos cuts him down. Blood paints the Navion’s deck.

Disgust boils in Cochin’s throat but he keeps his eyes trained on the floor. All he can think about is excuses for why he didn’t listen to Roger when he had the chance. Now everyone is dying and it’s his fault.

“Look at me.”

Cochin looks up against his will. Karos towers over him, blue magic spilling from the corners of his eyes. Spider-web cracks are spread across his distorted, monstrous face. What was once a powerful, noble man has become nothing more than a shell consumed by greed.

“What do you believe in, pirate?”

Cochin spits in Karos’s face. It’s all he can do.

Karos raises his blade.

On the Navion, Cochin wakes up in a cold sweat. He looks around wildly for the faces of his dead comrades, but everyone is sound asleep—asleep and safe.

Cochin drops back on his hammock, grateful to be alive. He throws nervous glances into the darkness, unable to shake the feeling that he’s being watched. The image of Karos slaughtering his own sailors sends a cold chill down his spine. Though he tries to return to sleep, the horrific images from his dream are burned into his mind.

After an hour of deliberation, Cochin gets out of his hammock and starts waking the others.

Outside, a lone rowboat paddles away from the Navion and toward the open sea.

Drew King pushes aside a long branch and lets it snap back into place. A phantom pain twinges in his side but he ignores it. No longer is he crippled by a deep wound or multiple burns. Though still tired from his fight, Drew feels better than ever.

As he walks, he begins to think about his final enemy: Karos the Scourge. Their previous fight hadn’t ended well for him and it was a miracle he survived the sinking ship. There can be no doubt that Karos is the better fighter, and even with Drew’s increased confidence after handling Palenta, he doubts Karos is beatable.

I should have stayed hidden, Drew thinks. I should have let Roger beat him.

Drew tries to put away his regrets as he walks into Waneus’s camp. Unsurprisingly, most of the camp has been cleaned up and put away. Waneus himself is busy putting the last of his meager belongings into his backpack.

“Leaving so soon?” Drew calls. Waneus spins around at the sound of his voice.

“Swabbie! You’re alive!” Waneus pulls him in for a bear hug. “I’ll be damned, you actually did it!” He drops the Hero as quickly as he picked him up. “So where is she? Where’s her tattered carcass?”

“I didn’t kill her,” Drew says. “I decided to let her go.”

“You did what? What for!”

“It just didn’t feel right. She’s probably one of the last of her kind.” Drew tosses his driftwood crutch into the bushes. “Besides, I think we understand each other now.”

“Understand how?”

“I can’t explain it. Just that we reached an understanding.”

“Okay, fantastic, whatever. We need to relocate. Now that Palenta knows where our camp is, we’ll have a rough time trying to do anything with our back to the trees.” Waneus shoulders his pack. “Time to find a new hiding place.”

“Actually,” Drew says, “I was thinking we could build a boat.”

“What for?” Waneus says. “The rivers are too shallow to go rafting in.”

“We use a boat to get off this island. I thought that was pretty obvious.”

“Oh. Leaving the island.” Waneus frowns. “I hadn’t thought about that.”

“You didn’t want to go back?”

“Go back to what? To a paycheck from Her Majesty and an empty home? I don’t have kids or a wife or even any friends.” Waneus looks around at the trees and the reddening sky. “No, this place is good enough for me. I think I’ll stay.”

“Well I’ve got to get to Cebral, remember?”

“Can’t you just swim there?”

“No. I have to use a boat.”

“Says who?”

“Says me. I can’t explain how I know. I just know. It’s either a boat or I’m going nowhere.” Drew perks up at a thought. “Didn’t you say this island used to be used by pirates?”

“Yeah, I did. What’s your point?”

“Maybe they left something behind. Alcohol, maps… Maybe a boat.”

A smirk comes across Waneus’s face. He motions for Drew to follow and sprints into the forest. Drew, used to spontaneity at this point, hurries off after him, leaving the clearing behind.

Karos the Scourge cradles his cutlass close to his chest. Blue light streams off the blade and flows into his fingers, causing veins to stick out on his arms. His black hair curls and twists around his neck, shaggy and unkempt. Spider-web cracks are spread across his jaw, his eyes tinged with blue.

The ship is quiet save for the occasional creak of the wood. After all, no one knows about the location of Karos’s base except the captains of his legions. That liberty gives Karos all the time in the world to treasure the power of the weapon given to him by his mother.

Jenna’s cutlass, Raldin: a legendary weapon forged by the willpower of the first Hero of the Ocean. The power it holds is unimaginable, second only to the weapon of a god. Such strength and magic can only be wielded by one who is equally strong enough to handle it.

Karos traces the smooth curve of the blade, watching with glee as blue sparks fly into the air. They jolt up his spine and burst in his brain like miniature fireworks. Karos’s eyes roll into the back of his head and he grins. This sword is a treasure beyond treasures.

A sharp knock at the door startles him back to reality.

Grumbling, Karos shuffles to the door and cracks it open. Fradlr is standing in the hallway; he looks nervous. Karos heaves the door open.

“Is this a bad time?”

“Yes,” Karos says flatly.

“Then I’m sorry for disturbing you, but we’ve got a serious problem on our hands.” Fradlr shoves past his Captain and enters the room. “You might want to sit down for this.”

“I’ll stand, thank you. As you can see I’m as healthy as ever.”

Fradlr glances Karos up and down. His long hair hasn’t been washed in days. His skin clings to his bones like paper and his eyes are sunken and corrupted. Blue veins stick out on his bare arms and it almost looks like his skin is peeling off. A stray wind is liable to blow the Pirate Captain away.

“Roger is gone,” Fradlr says, deciding to drop the bomb without precedent. “I went down to check on him and his door was open, the brig empty. I’ve been all around the ship and searched in every dark corner. The last place I looked was the lifeboats.” He rubs his hands together. “One of them was missing.”

Karos blinks; it takes a few moments for the information to set in. “Are you sure he’s gone?”

“I’m positive. All the keys were still on the brig wall and the door was unlocked from the inside. He broke out of there himself.”

“Unless someone reached through the bars and helped him out.” Karos looks at his cutlass, grimaces, then painfully sheathes it. “We’ve got a traitor in our midst. Rouse the crew. I’ll ring the bell and wake my legions.”

“Is that wise?” Fradlr says. “Maybe it’s best we let Roger go. He’s paralyzed. What more could he possibly do?”

“I told you once he was the most dangerous man on the Ocean. Paralyzed or not, I want him where I can control him.” Karos shoves his door open. “Wake the crew, Fradlr. We’ve got to catch him before he gets too far.”

Karos stumbles into the hallway and limps toward the deck. Behind him, Fradlr runs the opposite way toward the crew’s sleeping quarters. Karos pauses for breath and plants a hand on the wall for stability. His body cries out for the powerful magic of his cutlass, but he ignores it and keeps walking.

The Pirate Captain pushes the door open and walks on to the deck. The firelight of torches greets him. His first thought is to commend Fradlr on waking the crew so fast, but that quickly disappears when he sees the expression of his crew. They all look very angry, and they’re all looking at him.

Standing in the center of the crew is Cochin, and he looks the angriest of them all.

Drew ducks under a tree branch thrown out of its place. Ahead of him, Waneus vaults over a log sticking halfway out of the ground. They jump and tumble, bob and weave their way through the island’s thick forestry. Drew’s feet are nimble and quick; Waneus’s are steady and sure.

By the time they reach the beach again, Drew has long since lost track of time. Waneus slows to a trot, then to a jog, and then he stops. Drew pauses to rest against a tree. Between a break in the foilage, another beach spreads itself across the horizon. Emerald green waves crest on the warm sand, the sky above turning red with the promise of sunset. Waneus walks forward into the water, the waves splashing at his ankles.

Drew strides up to his former Captain and casts his gaze to the horizon. The smell of salt lingers in the air.

All at once Drew is back near Monarch, kicking off his shoes to dig his feet in the sand. All at once he’s grinning and running his hand along the rock formations near the Ocean Gate. All at once Drew is marveling at the beautiful, mysterious islands floating just offshore. He can’t help but smile. A warm, happy feeling pools in the back of his throat.

“You’re not going to start crying, are you?” Waneus is staring at Drew. “Because if you start crying, then I’m going to start crying.”

“Relax,” Drew says. “No one’s crying here. No crying until the end.” He sighs. “I guess I’m just happy. This realm is so beautiful.”

“Yeah, she’s something else.” Waneus claps his hands together. “Alright swabbie, let’s get you going. Cebral’s waiting for you.”

Waneus leads Drew down the beach until they come to an unnatural clearing in the trees. They head up the beach and walk into the clearing. A group of boats is camouflaged by a stack of reeds and palm fronds. Waneus stomps around in the clearing until his foot lands on something hollow. He reaches down and pulls open a trap door.

“What’s down there?” Drew asks.

“Good question,” Waneus says, emptying his backpack on the ground. “Stay here while I check it out.”

Waneus drops into the hidden room and lands with a dull thud. Drew leans over the hole, trying to see into the pit. Shuffling comes from inside, then the clattering of bottles and glass. After a few seconds of more shuffling, Waneus’s hand shoots up from the hidden room. Drew pulls him out.

Waneus dumps the contents of his backpack on the ground. “Some old lamps and some oil, but I don’t know if they’re still good. Plenty of bottles of Green, though, all aged well. It should be enough to last you two weeks on the open Ocean.”

Drew takes a bottle of Green in his hand. He grimaces at the memory of trying it for the first time.

“Don’t make that face,” Waneus says. “It’s got enough vitamins to keep you alive by itself, with or without food. Like it or die, as we sailors say.”

They make several trips back into the hidden room. Each time Waneus spends barely a minute inside and comes out with new treasures: old maps, oil lamps, soiled bombs, a few rusted swords, and even one or two cannonballs. In the end, Drew decides on three lamps, some maps to pass the time, and extra oil and matches. The rest of his cargo is all Green alcohol.

Waneus picks the best boat for Drew from the ones hidden under the palm fronds. They push it out to the beach and load it up with his cargo. By the time the boat is ready for depature, the sun has dropped low in the sky, painting the horizon a blend of orange, yellow, and red. Drew and Waneus stand in the waves and watch the sunset together. Neither says anything for many long minutes.

“I’d better get going,” Drew says. “I don’t think gods like to be kept waiting.”

“How you’re going to get there?” Waneus asks. “I wasn’t aware you knew how to sail.”

“I don’t,” Drew says. “I’m just going to paddle out to open water, crank open the sails and see where the current takes me.”

“That’s dangerous. Who knows where you’ll end up?”

“With luck, Seastorm Grotto.”

Waneus is silent for a moment. Then, he plants a firm hand on Drew’s shoulder. “You take care of yourself out there, swabbie.” He chuckles. “Well, I guess you’re not a swabbie anymore.”

Drew grasps his Captain’s hand and squeezes it in understanding. Then, the pair pushes Drew’s ship into the water. Drew hops inside and begins to paddle. Waneus watches him go, waving until Drew has long since disappeared from sight.

When Drew can no longer see the island, the sky has darkened to a deep blue and the stars dot the heavens. Drew lights his first lamp and plants it on the bow of the ship.

“Now then,” he says, unfurling his sails. “Let’s go god hunting.”

“Cochin?”

The bald pirate says nothing. He just stares at Karos, the firelight flickering in his eyes. Karos looks at each of his crew members but none of them say anything either. The silence is unnerving and agitating. In the quiet, Karos’s cutlass calls for it to be used.

“Well,” the Pirate Captain says, “I see you’ve got the crew in order. I didn’t think Fradlr was that quick.”

Cochin says nothing.

“You know Roger escaped, then? That’s good. We need to rouse the rest of the legions and get them up to speed. We’ll need a search party and—”

“Shut up.”

Karos blinks. “What was that?”

“I said shut up, you traitor.” Cochin’s hands are shaking, but from fear or fury is anyone’s guess. “We believed in you. We trusted you to do the right thing and protect us when it came time to unveil your secret master plan. I can’t believe I was so stupid up until now!”

“What do you mean? What in Tetrask’s tooth is going on?”

“Captain!”

Fradlr bursts through the crowd of pirates. Almost immediately he’s tackled and restrained.

“They’ve gone mad!” Fradlr yells. “They think you’re trying to kill them!”

Karos whirls on Cochin with fire in his eyes. “You dare accuse me of such treachery?”

“Let it be known,” Cochin bellows, “that Karos the Scourge was ready to kill everyone in his legions in order to become a god! Let it be known that Karos was going to slaughter those who disagreed with his twisted beliefs! Let it be known that Karos had intentions of killing anyone and everyone who got in his way!”

“He killed her!” Karos shrieks. “Cebral killed my mother! He deserves his death! Only then can this realm be free! Why can’t you see that?”

“Your mind is poisoned,” Cochin says. “That cutlass is infused with foul magic that pollutes and corrupts. You’re just a shadow of the greatest pirate to sail Cebral’s Ocean. You were respected and feared, and now you’re nothing.”

“It was you,” Karos says, realization dawning. “You let Roger out of his cell and sent him back into the world. Damn you! Don’t you know how dangerous he is?”

“Roger is free? I didn’t know.”

“Liar!” Karos pulls out his cutlass; an explosion of blue lights up the cave. All the other pirates pull out their weapons in response. “You knew how much he meant to me and you set him free anyways!”

Cochin eyes the glowing blade carefully. “Put that away before you get someone hurt.”

“I should kill you,” he seethes. “I should strike you down where you stand. It would be easy, like squashing an annoying little bug.”

“Look around you, Karos.” Cochin’s eyes burn with conviction. “Killing me here would only further prove my point—you’re willing to kill anyone and everyone who gets in your way. Your time as Captain of this legion is finished.”

Karos glances around him. His former crew watches his every move, their blades poised to strike at the slightest hint of a threat. He throws a look at Fradlr. A pirate has a sword to his throat, ready to spill blood if necessary. Everything is in a tense gridlock.

“Alright,” he says softly. “Alright fine, you win. What do you want?”

“I want you gone,” Cochin says. He points to the last rowboat on the Navion. “I want you to get in that boat and never come back here again.”

“I’m going with him!”

Fradlr wrenches himself free and runs next to his Captain.

“I’m going with him and you can’t stop me.”

“Good,” Cochin says. “I hate you anyways.”

“And you, Cochin?” Karos says. “What will you do?”

“I’m taking command of this legion,” he replies. “I’m going to use their power to succeed where you failed. No more silliness about killing gods. We’ll fight for a noble cause.”

“Like what?”

“That’s none of your concern. You don’t belong here anymore.” Cochin points to the rowboat again. “So get out before I have you killed.”

Karos and Fradlr climb into the boat together. Cochin’s pirates lower them into the water and Fradlr begins to row. They curve around the Navion and exit the hideout for open water. Karos lingers at the stern of the boat, watching as his empire falls into the hands of another.

“Why did you do it?” Karos asks. The former Captain looks over his shoulder at Fradlr. “Why did you come with me?”

“I made you a promise,” Fradlr says. “I told you I would happily row your boat to the end of the world. I keep my promises, Captain.”

“I’m not your Captain anymore.”

“Yes, you are.”

Karos makes his way across the boat and unfurls the sail. He seizes the rudder and cranks it in the direction of the horizon.

“We have a heading?” Fradlr asks.

“We sail for Seastorm Grotto,” Karos says. He instinctively places a hand on his cutlass. “It’s time we end this, once and for all.”

Chapter Twelve

[]Escape

Somewhere in the Plains

A cold, pale moon hangs high over Apalon’s Plains. The icy breath of night sweeps in gusts across the dark, silent expanse of crested wheatgrass. All across the realm, animals huddle with one another for shelter from the cold. The wind is merciless, biting into whatever it can get a hold of.

Far in the Plains, somewhere deep in the middle of nowhere, the nomadic warcamp of Stark Pureblood braces against the cold. Tarps held up by sticks block the wind to keep the fires alive. Children stay close to their parents, warming themselves by the flames. Everyone is quiet against the commanding voice of the icy wind.

Katan Justblade polishes his curved sword outside Stark’s war tent. A heated debate rages inside, with top ranking generals talking over each other as Stark shouts over everyone. For once Katan is glad he’s not in a meeting with the generals. Tonight he’s only a guard, which means he can enjoy the cold night air and not have to worry about being held accountable.

Abruptly, one of the generals storms out of the tent. He’s soon followed by a second, then a third. The tent empties quickly, all seven generals taking their leave of the Pureblood leader’s war tent. Some of them look furious, others look contemplative, and one looks relieved. When the last general has left, Katan does not move from his post. He knows Stark will summon him if necessary.

From inside the tent comes muttering and hushed discussion. Stark usually has post-meeting conversations with himself to sort out his feelings. Though normally short, this conversation in particular goes on for several minutes. Dismissing it, Katan continues to polish his blade. After all, a good blade can never be too clean.

“Katan.” Stark’s voice is short and sharp. Justblade stands and enters without hesitation, but he stops once inside. Stark is slumped in a large armchair, his eyes weary. He looks twenty years older. Slowly, Stark’s eyes come up to meet Katan’s.

“You called, Great Stark,” Katan says, bowing at the waist.

“Sit, please.” Justblade follows the order. “The meeting didn’t go like I thought it would. Menui and his cronies want to publically execute Ariana. Rashal and his company are fiercely against it. Donral, as usual, took the neutral stance, leaving me to try and sort it out. I’ve thought it over and I’ve come to a decision.”

Katan draws his chair closer.

“We’re going to kill Ariana. And I want you to do it. Tonight.”

Justblade’s heart leaps into his mouth and he clears his throat. “Pardon me, Great Stark, but I…”

Stark’s eyes become stormy; he sits up. “What is it?”

“You’ve made the wrong decision.”

“Wrong decision!” Stark thunders, standing up and knocking over his chair. Katan remains seated. “I’ve been in this tent for four hours arguing with seven mindless idiots and you tell me I’ve made the wrong decision?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

Stark knocks the maps and leaflet books off the table. “Who are you to argue against my orders? Ariana is nothing but dead weight! She’s useless if she can’t bring the Hero out from hiding!” He pauses, his demeanor calming. “I want her dead. That’s an order, Katan.”

Katan searches for a rebuttal. “She could have information,” he says quickly. “Knowledge of the Hero’s whereabouts. Her face, how strong she is…”

“This is not up for negotiation. Carry out my orders.”

“She’s the only one in this whole camp who’s personally met with the Hero. Killing her severs any and all leads we have.”

“What leads? You’ve been torturing her for almost a week now and she hasn’t said anything!”

Katan stands and squares himself with Stark. The Pureblood nomad raises up to his full height, nostrils flaring and eyes blazing. They size one another up, daring the other to make a move.

“Great Stark,” Katan says slowly, respectfully. “Ariana is our only lead. She serves as a wellspring of knowledge and bait for the Hero in the event of a rescue mission.”

“A rescue mission?” Stark sputters, perhaps too forcefully. “Who told you about a rescue mission?”

“No one did; I’m only thinking out loud. The Hero will want to see her friend safe. Think about it. If one of your people had been captured by Monarchian soldiers, wouldn’t you do anything to get them back?”

Stark remains impassive, though it’s apparent he’s considering the argument.

“I think we can afford to gamble with destiny,” Katan continues. “If the Hero never arrives, we force every bit of information out of Ariana and dump her body somewhere it can’t be found. If the Hero mounts a rescue mission, we use Ariana as bait and capture the Hero unawares.” Katan pats his blade. “I will kill Ariana if the Hero doesn’t arrive in three days, you have my word. But I urge you to keep her alive for at least that much longer.”

“What do you know of a rescue mission?” Stark asks curiously, stepping around his chair. “Who told you of a rescue mission? Are you hiding something from me, Justblade?”

“No, Great Stark. I’m only guessing based what we know.” Katan’s eyes show that he’s telling the truth. “If I knew of any rescue missions, I swear—”

“I believe you,” Stark interrupts. “A rescue mission would be borderline suicide anyways. Maybe that’s why it’s so brilliant.” He straightens his vest. “Come. It’s time to visit our favorite captive.”

Across the camp in Stark’s personal tent, Ariana is lashed tightly to a post. Forced to sit on her now-raw knees, her arms are tied behind her back and she’s long since lost feeling in her shoulders. The only way she can find to entertain herself is by counting how many times she blinks and restarting when she misses one. Though sheltered from the brutal cold, she nevertheless feels miserable. Her face is bruised and every part of her body is either in pain or numb.

The tent flap opens and Ariana looks up. Katan Justblade stands in the entrance, hand on his curved blade.

“Hey,” Ariana says, a smile on her face. “Good to see you again.”

Katan steps aside. Stark Pureblood walks into the tent and Ariana’s smile fades. He looks angry, though Katan knows it’s mostly for show—mostly.

“Your friend.” Stark kneels in front of her. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

SMACK!

Ariana gasps, her face stinging from the blow.

“Your friend,” Stark says, slower this time. “Where is she?”

“She’s on her way to Sunset Hill. You honestly think Camellia would come here for me? My chapter is over, Stark. I couldn’t care less whether I live or die.”

Stark snaps his fingers at Katan. The right-hand nomad steps forwards, drawing his blade.

“Although…”

Stark holds up a hand; Katan stops in place.

“It’s not very likely, but she might try to rescue me.” Ariana purses her lips, thinking. “If you keep me alive and Camellia decides to do that, you would probably use me as bait. But if she goes to meet Apalon first and then comes here, hellfire is going to rain down on your head. I suppose you could kill me before that, but…” She snorts. “Well, I’m only one person, after all. I just happen to be the only one who can predict what she’ll do next.”

Stark seizes her by the jaw, yanking her face into position with his. “Don’t play games with my head. I alone choose whether you live or die.” He points at Katan. “I alone am the only thing keeping that man from slaughtering you. You should be nothing but thankful.”

“Either kill me or don’t,” Ariana says. “Either way you’re faced with a gamble. If you don’t kill me, you’ll have to fight her hand-to-hand, and I know she’ll beat you. If you do kill me, she no longer has a reason to come here, and you have to start all over.”

The vein in Stark’s neck bulges, his face hot and angry.

“What’ll it be, old man?” Ariana asks playfully.

Stark stands and stomps toward the tent flap. Katan follows. They exit the tent together, standing to the side.

“What do you think, Great Stark?”

“I think she’s a crafty bitch who needs to have her arms broken in a couple places.” He pounds a fist into his palm. “I have a feeling she knows something we don’t. Some persuasion is in order.”

Katan gives him a look. “With all due respect, I’ve been torturing her for the past couple days and she’s yet to crack.”

“Then you’re obviously not doing enough.”

“Great Stark—”

“No more arguments,” he says, voice firm. “Get your tools out and work through the rest of the night. No breaks. No mercy. If she’s not spitting up her blood-stained secrets by the time the sun rises, it’ll be you on that table.”

Stark walks away from his tent without another word. Katan lets out a sigh and reenters the tent.

“You’re a real handful, you know that?” He pulls a crate out and sits on it in front of Ariana. “Thanks to your little stunt, I now have to work with you all night.”

“Sounds like a dream.” Ariana laughs at the nomad’s frown. “Don’t be so serious, Katan. You’re always serious.”

“Being serious is my job.”

“Then you need a new job.” She chuckles. “For a second, when he was red like a tomato, I thought he was going to break my arms.”

“Don’t tempt him. You know he’d do it if it got you to talk.”

“Too bad for him, because I won’t ever talk. That would mean betraying Cammy’s trust.” She smiles warmly. “He says he’s the only thing preventing you from killing me, but you don’t you have it in you, Katan. You’re only following Stark’s orders. If it came down to it, I don’t think you’d actually kill me.”

“I’m many things, Ariana. A white mage, a soldier, an important officer to Great Stark… But you’re right. I’m not a killer.” Katan pulls out his sword. “However, what I am above all things is loyal. I will follow Stark wherever he goes, do whatever he says, because I believe in him. I believe in his message. I believe in his dreams.”

Ariana quirks her head. “Meaning…?”

“Meaning that if Stark orders me to kill you, or to torture you, or to rape you, I must do it. I’m bound by my promise to follow Stark, regardless of the darkness he leads us through. We have a saying in the camp: ‘When the world is dark, look to Stark, for he carries the lantern of truth.’”

Ariana snorts.

“It’s true that Stark is a cult of personality; you’d have to be a fool not to see that. But his words are a rock for people who, quite literally, spend their whole lives wandering.”

Ariana shifts herself into a more comfortable position—as comfortable as one can get when one’s arms are tied to a post. “Why are you telling me this?”

“A little while ago, Stark ordered me to kill you. I argued that you might still have valuable information, maybe some that could lead us to the Hero.” He looks her in the eyes. “I need you to start upholding your end of the bargain. I need you to tell me about Camellia.”

“I can’t tell you anything.”

“I don’t want to kill you, Ariana. I’d much rather see you alive than see you dead. But if you don’t start telling me things like we agreed, Stark will soon force me to kill you.”

“Then do it. I’m well beyond ready to die to keep Camellia safe. She’s more important than you could possibly imagine. I won’t give you anything that could hurt her.”

“Why?” Katan asks. “Why protect her so fiercely?”

“I just told you; weren’t you listening?”

“If Stark knew how much you value her life, he’ll want you dead in a heartbeat.”

“So tell him.”

“But I don’t want you to die.”

“So… Don’t tell him?”

“It’s not that simple!” he shouts. “I’m bound by oath to my leader! I must tell him anything I force from you!”

“You didn’t force me,” Ariana replies. “I told you willingly. Technically you don’t have to tell him at all.”

Katan slumps on to the box, holding his head.

“Look, he’ll only find out if you tell him. You said you have to tell Stark whatever you force me to tell you. Assuming you didn’t just lie to me—which would be supremely rude, by the way—I don’t think I’ve really told you anything at all.”

Katan looks up. “Outside, Stark called you a crafty bitch. I have to say I’m inclined to agree.”

Ariana bites her bottom lip. “Keep talking dirty, you’re riling me up.”

“This is serious, Ariana. We made a deal, remember? I keep you alive and protect you from that strange man, you feed me information about Camellia that I can relay to Stark. I need you to stay alive for both our sakes.”

“I’m not worried about Stark.” Ariana looks around the room. “As long as he’s not coming for me, I could care less what happens.”

“You can’t keep toying with Stark’s emotions like that, saying you don’t care if you live or die.”

“But I really don’t care. If I die tomorrow, I’d consider it a relief of duty. If I don’t die, I’ll simply get up and go about my day until the sun sets again.” She looks at Katan with weary eyes. “There is no real reason for me to live. I’ll never see my spiritmate again and Camellia is more than capable of reaching Sunset Hill by herself. My chapter finished a long time ago; I’m just waiting for my story to end.”

Katan looks over his shoulder at the sound of a conversation happening outside. Reluctantly, he stands and sheathes his sword. “We can talk more after I carry out my orders. If Stark comes in here and finds us talking, it won’t be good.”

“I understand.” Ariana closes her eyes. “Do what you need to do. I’ll still be here when you’re done.”

“I hope so.” Katan cuts the ropes and pulls her to her feet. “I have much to discuss with you.”

“Are the preparations almost complete?” Doc asks.

“As complete as they’re going to get.” The other man throws a glance at Camellia’s tent. “When do you think she’s coming out?”

“When she’s ready.” Doc knits his hands, watching the fire. “Let her have a little private time for once. You’ve been sticking your nose in her business almost all day.”

“Excuse me for trying to teach her something.”

“You can drop the act. Camellia can’t hear us.”

“What act? I’m actually concerned here. If she doesn’t follow the plan perfectly, we’re back to square one.” Doc’s companion points a finger. “And I don’t think I need to tell you what that means for our timeframe, not to mention our lives in general.”

“People die all the time.” Doc casually leans back. “We have to accept that truth of nature.”

“Then tell me, O Wise One, how we’re going to complete our mission if we’re dead.”

“Who said we’d complete the mission? He’ll send more like us if we fail. I think our focus should be less on completing the mission and more on having a good time doing it. Besides”—Doc spreads his arms—“do you really think any of these Heroes can even put a speck of dust on us?”

“You tell me,” the other man replies cautiously. “I don’t have all the answers.”

Doc’s smile fades. “As I mentioned before, my vision is becoming blurred. There’s a dark cloud over my omniscience, blocking me from seeing what will happen. I no longer know if anything fruitful will come from our endeavors.” He looks away. “I don’t even know if we’ll still be stronger than the Heroes when all is said and done. We can only fight our hardest and hope for the best.”

Doc’s companion sighs and reclines on the ground. A few moments of silence pass between them. The moon hangs high overhead—there are still many hours of night left. Off to the side, a wild ox with enormous horns grazes quietly on the crested wheatgrass. A chill wind blows through the camp.

“Now how much longer?”

“You simply don’t know the value of patience, do you?” Doc sighs. “She’s just woken up; she’ll be out any minute.”

Not a moment later, Camellia emerges from her tent. She wears beautiful blue robes with sleeves that seem to ripple like the ocean. Despite her straight back, it’s clear she’s still favoring her uninjured leg. Doc and his companion stand to help her.

She gently waves them off. With a small push of effort, Camellia makes her way past the two men and sits between them, the fire across from her. She takes a heavy inhale of the cold night air.

“It feels good out here,” she says. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually missed the cold.”

“How’s the leg doing?” the other man asks.

“A little sore, but it’s been worse.” She looks at Doc. “I’m sorry for being rude earlier. I just really want to help Ariana.”

“I know you do,” Doc replies. “But if you’re going to do this, you need to be at the top of your game.”

“Tonight’s the night, isn’t it?”

Doc nods.

“To think it’s come so soon… It feels like I lost her only yesterday. If I had paid attention to my surroundings none of this would have happened.”

“Consider it a consequence of causality,” Doc says. “Your injury was meant to happen. Each step you’ve taken in your journey thus far was leading up to this very night. Every other path you could have taken would have led you astray. Every decision you didn’t make turned you toward this moment.” He snorts. “Destiny… It’s strange, the things we believe in. Who could have known you’d come this far?”

“I’ve made progress, yes, but I still have a lot of work ahead of me. There are whole new levels of power and skill I can’t even imagine reaching.” She turns. “Before I go, I want to go over the plan one more time.”

Doc folds his hands. “The plan is simple. You, using your super speed, will rush past the guard outposts as quickly and quietly as you can. Once you’re inside the warcamp, provided you haven’t been caught, you’ll sneak around the camp until you find where Ariana is being held. Obviously once you find Ariana it’s all downhill from there.”

“That’s it?” Doc’s companion sits up. “You planned all night and ended up with that?”

“Without boring you with details, the short answer is yes. There are many moving parts to this plan; if you had been awake when I was planning, you would know this.”

“It also operates on a lot of theory,” Camellia says. “I have no idea if I’m fast or nimble enough to make it past the guards unheard. At top speed, I might lose control and crash through half the tents. By then I’ll have lost the element of surprise and my mark will be glowing like a lighthouse. Stark will see me from a mile away.”

“There’s still many hours before the sun rises,” Doc says, “so if you take your time you should be fine. Go as fast as you can control, not as fast as possible.”

“I know we have a plan put together,” Camellia says, “but I’ve been brewing another, possibly better idea. What if I made a distraction? Something to draw the attention of the camp and possibly Stark himself.”

“There’s no need to cause a scene. Sneaking in at top speed is your best bet.”

Camellia draws a smooth circle in the dirt. “I have a feeling Stark is expecting me to rescue Ariana. He obviously can’t know for sure, but I think he’s planning on it. If I try to sneak around and find her, chances are he’ll have a trap ready and spring it when I least expect it.” She draws a few symbols her makeshift map. “However, if I can draw his attention for long enough, I can make my move and get out unseen.”

Doc frowns. “Too risky. If you get caught in the distraction, Stark will be all over you. Ariana will be killed and you’ll soon follow. I can’t have you jeopardizing all your hard work like that. Besides, you’re assuming that Stark suspects you’re coming to rescue her.”

“Then let’s assume Stark knows for certain I’m coming to Ariana’s rescue.” Camellia sweeps the dirt away and draws a new map. “His warcamp is probably built in a circle so the guards and scouts have an easy patrol route.” She draws an X. “This is where they’ll keep Ariana: somewhere separate from the others. A post in the middle of the camp would see her beaten to death in hours, especially if the Pureblood nomads are as vicious as the ones I’ve met. Stark will assume that I think she’s being kept in some secret tent, hidden from the others. Knowing this, he’ll leave it wide open and expect me to drop in. At that point”—she jams a finger in the dirt—“he springs his trap and I kiss my freedom goodbye.”

She looks up, expecting a rebuttal from Doc. He says nothing, appearing deep in thought.

“Right now, we’re still assuming Stark knows I’m coming to Ariana’s rescue. He’s expecting me to try and sneak her way into the camp without being seen. In this case, that’s the fastest way to get myself caught.” She sits back. “I think causing mayhem and rousing the troops will divert the camp’s attention long enough for me to search for Ariana and then make my escape. By the time they realize it’s a diversion, I’ll be long gone.”

“What if he knows it’s a diversion?” Doc counters. “Stark isn’t one to fall for tricks.”

“He won’t be able to ignore it if I set his personal tent on fire. Look, I know it looks risky, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while. If I don’t take a risk, I might not be able to save Ariana. Once he knows I’m in the camp, Stark will try to have her killed before I can reach her.” She leans back. “It’s either make a distraction and bank on mayhem or sneak in and pray I don’t get caught.”

Silence falls over the camp, broken only by the crackling of the fire and the occasional whisper of wind. Doc stares deep into the flames, his mind working overtime. Camellia stares up at the beautifully clear night sky; a stray wind pulls the hair from her face. A thin blue galaxy stretches across the lower right portion of the horizon, almost seeming to glow against the darkness.

When several minutes have passed, Camellia looks at Doc. “What’s on your mind?”

Doc rubs his hands together. “I still don’t think causing a distraction will help you. Someone will catch on and Stark will find you. But on the other hand, if you’re flying right into a trap, a distraction might…” He sighs, shaking his head. “No matter what I say, you’re going to do what you feel is best.”

“So you don’t agree with it?”

“I’m not a gambling man, Camellia. I only take risks when I know they’ll turn out in my favor. People are unpredictable. When the cards are on the table, you can only optimize the chances of your own success and bolt yourself down for the chaos that follows.” He looks her in the eyes. “If you’re willing to take the risk, I have no reason to try and stop you.”

“Then I guess there’s no reason to wait around.” Camellia takes a slow breath to calm her nerves. “This is where it all comes together, I guess.”

“Hop to it,” the other man says, hitting her lightly on the arm. “You delay much longer and you’ll run out of time.”

Nodding, Camellia stands. “I want to thank you again for everything you’ve done. Both of you. If I hadn’t met Doc back in those tunnels, who knows where I’d be?”

“Probably safer,” Doc says. “But probably in a much more boring place.”

“I didn’t do much,” the other man says. “I don’t deserve your thanks.”

“Keep it anyways. These days it feels like I have a lot to give.” She turns away. “It’s that way, isn’t it? Stark’s warcamp.”

“Yes,” says Doc. He turns to the fire. “Best of luck, Camellia. We’ll meet again someday.”

Without another word, Camellia takes off at a full sprint towards Stark’s warcamp.

The moon hangs high above Monarch, sending piercing white rays across the darkened Plains. The icy night air whips past her face and burns cold in her lungs. Camellia looks down at her feet, watching them all but fly across the grass. She laughs, reveling in the exhilarating sensation.

With a jump, Camellia rockets into the starry sky, the ground dropping away. She ascends in a spiral, continuing upward until she passes through a patch of clouds. As she slows to a stop, the world becomes still and serene. The absence of wind leaves a profound silence in its wake. Camellia turns towards the moon. In the far distance, she can almost make out the shape of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World.

She thinks back to the path she’s walked so far, retracing her steps from when she first left home to the now, where she hovers high above the magical ground of a completely different planet. Though she knows it’s been weeks, perhaps months since she’s had her feet on home soil, it feels like only yesterday. Camellia sighs and an easy-going wind pulls back her hair. The moonlight shines down on her face, her grey-blue eyes glimmering like tiny stars.

I can do this, she tells herself. As long as I act fast, I can save Ariana.

Camellia descends to the ground, the mark of Apalon glowing on her forehead. She rubs it away, irritated. Going into the warcamp with her mark shining will make her a target before she can pull off her distraction. Camellia taps her feet on the grass a few times, grounding herself as she comes off the high of flying. A warm feeling creeps up from her feet, crawling across her body and pumping her heart in double-time. A faint golden halo forms around her head, mimicking the outline of the sun.

In a short burst of golden light, Camellia blasts across the Plains. Grass blurs together. The wind screams past her ears. Her feet speed along the ground. She keeps her mind focused on one thing: getting Ariana to safety.

Camellia reaches the peak of a hill and comes to a stop. A wide valley opens up below her, exposing the orange glow of the Pureblood warcamp. The faint halo of light around her head vanishes, concealing her in the darkness. Pausing only to take a breath, she blitzes past the outpost circle and hurls herself to the ground, sliding through the dirt at breakneck speed. She careens into a wooden cart and slams to a stop; a cast-iron pot crashes to the ground next to her.

After several minutes of silence, no one comes looking for her. Camellia stands and brushes herself off. She can feel Apalon’s mark itching, begging to let its energy loose, but she holds it back. Being caught now would ruin everything.

Tugging her clothes close, Camellia sneaks off to put her plan into action.

“Say it again.”

“I’m sorry,” Katan says, clattering around with medical equipment on the opposite end of the room. “I don’t know why you want me to keep saying that. You know I don’t mean it.”

“It makes me feel better. Now say it again.”

“I’m sorry.” Katan approaches and applies a small drop of healing salve to a burn on Ariana’s upper arm. She winces.

“Hey, that’s cold.”

“I thought you would like it cold.”

She smiles up at him, her naked body trembling on the cold table. “You don’t have to be so nice when you’re doing your job. I can take more than these weak love-taps.”

“Don’t call them that. This is supposed to be torture, not pleasure.”

“Being hurt is far from pleasurable, let me assure you.”

Katan sighs and sets down his tools. “Why do you do this to me? You act like having your body mutilated is no big deal. I’m trying to extract information yet you pretend like I’m playing a game.” He pulls a red-hot branding iron from the fire pit. “I’m giving you scars from which you cannot heal. You’ll be stuck with these for life.”

“I’ve been stuck with worse,” Ariana says. The blue mark on her leg crackles indistinctly. “I envy you, Katan. You only know physical torture. I wish I could remember what it was like to only feel pain on a physical level.” She winces as Katan applies more salve to her wounds. “It made things so much easier to bear.”

“Quit talking like that. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you like this.”

“I do like this.” Katan throws her a wild look. She grins. “Talking, Katan. I like it when we talk.”

He frowns. “Don’t do that to me. I’m under enough pressure as it is.”

“You act like I don’t do this every time you torture me.”

“You’re rarely this cheery.” He dries his hands on a rag. “I don’t like it.”

“I’m just trying to look on the bright side of things.” Ariana sits up. “I’ve got a good feeling about tonight—just a really good feeling. Something special is going to happen.”

“Not tonight it won’t,” he says. “Would you like some water before we continue?”

“No. I need you here. If I’m left alone for even a moment, he could show up and kill me.” She lays a hand on Katan’s arm. “I need you, Katan. If you won’t stay here and protect me, who else will?”

“What’s the deal with you?” Katan snaps. “Why are you so afraid of this man? You watched me kill him, didn’t you? He’s dead now! What do you have to be afraid of?”

Sighing, Ariana withdraws her hand. “It’s a little more complicated than I care to explain.”

“It’s not like we don’t have time.” He folds his arms. “You can start explaining whenever you want.”

Ariana says nothing. Slowly, her eyes fill with the evidence of long-forgotten memories. Ancient words whispered by old friends pass through her ears. Laughter plays at the edges of her mind. Promises made ages ago playfully tumble about, mocking her inability to fulfill them. In a single overwhelming moment, Ariana’s eyes cloud with the deepest well of sadness she’s ever known.

Her emotions wash over Katan like a stormy ocean wave. Somewhere in the pit of his stomach, a single butterfly flaps its feeble wings. For a moment he feels something overwhelming, something powerful—something too unique and unknowable to describe. He takes a step back, then exits the room in a hurry.

Katan finds himself leaning over his knees, hot blood pounding through his head. Emotions he buried long before meeting Stark Pureblood cry out from their prison, the cracks on his stone heart threatening to let them sneak out. He grinds his teeth, struggling to shove the feelings back.

And despite his efforts, he can’t shake off the look in Ariana’s eyes.

Katan barges back into the other room, throwing the tent flap aside and trying to appear as menacing as possible. Ariana doesn’t even glance at him, her face turned away, her eyes distant and sad.

“What the hell did you do to me?”

Ariana remains silent. Katan grabs the branding iron from the fire and plants it on Ariana’s bare stomach. Though her body tenses slightly, she doesn’t even flinch. And she still doesn’t look at him.

He presses the brand on the inside of her leg, causing her skin to hiss and crackle. Ariana still doesn’t move, her eyes on the opposite wall of the tent. Disgusted, Katan discards the brand and climbs on to the table. Straddling her waist, he digs his hand into her jaw and wrenches her face in line with his. She keeps her eyes directed to the side.

“Listen closely,” he hisses. “I’m in charge of making your life as difficult as possible. It’s quite literally my job. But we made a deal, didn’t we? Information for safety. You haven’t been upholding your end of the bargain and I can’t keep lying for you.” He tightens his grip. “I don’t know what the hell you just did to me, but it’s really pissing me off, and now I want what you promised me. It’s clear that you’re no stranger to pain. Torture won’t get anything from you.”

But what will?

Deciding to test a theory, he traces the curves of Ariana’s body with a finger. She stiffens at his touch, annoyance flashing in her eyes. Good, he thinks. This will make her talk.

“I wonder how your spiritmate would feel with me torturing you,” he says, planting his hands next to either side of her head. “I’ve withheld from doing more, but looking at you now…” Katan drags his eyes across her naked form. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold myself back. You’re very beautiful, you know.”

Ariana says nothing, slowing her breath to look motionless.

“He would definitely be jealous that I have you all to myself.” He cups her face in his hands; she doesn’t look at him. “I have you right where I want you. If Stark were watching, he would praise me for what I’m going to do to you. He’d invite other high-ranking officers to follow my lead. He himself might take a turn.” Katan puts on his best wicked grin. “But you can stop me, Ariana. All you have to do is tell me about the Hero.”

“No,” she says softly. “I won’t betray her.”

“Don’t think of it as betrayal. Think of it as…” Katan traces slow circles on Ariana’s lower stomach. “Prevention of the inevitable. You’re putting yourself into this situation by remaining quiet, you know. If you want me to stop, tell me about the Hero.”

“I won’t betray her.”

Katan stops tracing, his fingers hovering at her waistline. “This is your last chance.”

Ariana glowers at Katan, fire in her eyes. “I won’t betray her.”

Katan’s fingers begin to move lower.

“I won’t betray her.”

They move lower.

“I won’t…”

Lower.

“I…”

“Get your hands off of her.”

Katan barely has the time to glance over his shoulder before he’s knocked off the table with the force of a battering ram. His head cracks hard on the ground, stars bursting behind his eyes. The world spins.

Get up, you idiot! Get up!

Justblade scrambles to his feet, drawing his sword in one smooth motion. A stranger dressed in blue robes stands at the front of the room. A small halo of light glows around her head, like the sun about to break over a tall mountain.

“Who are you?” he demands. “How did you get in here?”

“Deion’s chin…” Ariana breathes, sitting up. “Cammy?”

Camellia breathes heavily, her face dirtied and her clothes covered in dust. Her deep blue robes have golden buttons across the lapel that make a diagonal stripe across her chest. Creases and tucks make ocean-like ripples down her arms. Folds in the fabric create the illusion of a skirt, but it’s actually a pair of pants.

“We have to get out of here,” she says breathlessly. “And before you demand an explanation, there’s no time for one.” Camellia picks up a spare robe from the ground and tosses it at Ariana. “Get dressed. We’re leaving.”

“With pleasure,” Ariana says, pulling on the robe with haste.

“Who said you can leave?” Katan steps forward. “She’s my prisoner. I say whether—”

“And she’s my friend,” Camellia says, her eyes blazing with gold magic. “Please don’t make me hurt you.”

A tense pause. Then, a slow smile comes across Katan’s face: one of relief, of thankfulness. “I knew you’d come. I just didn’t think you’d get here so quickly.” He drops his sword to the ground, signaling his surrender. “You’re her, aren’t you? You’re the Hero.”

“Yes, I am. Now if you’ll excuse us…”

“Wait a minute.” Katan holds out a hand. “I can’t just let you take her.”

Camellia drops into a stance, power radiating from her body. “You really don’t want to do this. I’m on a tight string and an even tighter schedule.”

“Hear me out,” he says. “If I let you take her without a fight, I’ll be seen as a traitor. But if it looks like a struggle took place, I’ll still be in good favor with Stark Pureblood.”

“What?” Camellia quirks her head. “Why does that matter?”

“Because I believe in Stark’s ideals, not the man who’s proclaiming them.” Katan pauses to gather his thoughts. “He doesn’t want to admit it, but he’s not getting any younger. He’ll need someone to replace him as the Pureblood leader—someone he can rely on.”

Camellia returns to a neutral stance. “Someone like you?”

Katan nods. “I am Stark’s right-hand man; I’m in line to inherit his kingdom. I believe in Stark’s dream of a noble, pure nomadic race, but I’m the only one in the whole camp who doesn’t agree with his violence.”

Camellia says nothing.

Katan picks up his blade. “We have to make it look like a fight actually happened or I lose everything I’ve worked for. Stark will no longer trust me, and when the time comes, he’ll choose a successor who will only continue what he’s preached. His legacy of hatred and destruction will continue on without end.” He spreads his hands. “Elitist following elitist. Violence following violence. Death following death. Greed, desire, expansion… Maybe even war.”

Camellia gives Ariana a short glance.

“I can see it now, Hero,” he says. “The world in chaos. Blood soaking into the ground. And at the center of it all, Stark Pureblood himself. He only wants what’s best for his people, but he wants it at the cost of innocent lives, solely because they’re different. Even I don’t know how he chooses who is pure and who isn’t; I’m tempted to think it’s arbitrary.”

“And you’re different from him?” Camellia says. “How do I know you won’t do the same things Stark has done?”

“I beg you to spare my life, if not for the present or the past, then for the future.” He breathes slowly. “Stark is aging; sooner or later, he will die. And when he does, I can promise you he’ll name me as the new Pureblood leader. I can use my position to bring about true peace. I’ll recruit those who want to have pure hearts and noble minds. People will be given something they’ve never had under Stark—a choice. Given time, the whole world will be united under my leadership. Given time, the whole world will be Pureblood.”

Then, Ariana screams.

Earlier…

Camellia careens into a wooden cart and slams to a stop; a cast-iron pot crashes to the ground next to her. After several minutes of silence, no one comes looking for her. Camellia stands and brushes herself off. Tugging her clothes close, she sneaks off to put her plan into action.

She steps lightly, keeping a vigilant eye on nearby light and open ears on conversation. A pair of men pass in front of her, gossiping about how Stark had been punched by a filthblood. Camellia keeps herself low and quiet, ducking between tents and always staying in the shadows.

She pauses on the darkened side of a tent to catch her breath. Though she sees the occasional nomad walking around, the camp is notably quiet—perhaps too quiet. A camp this size should be far more lively, cold night or warm night. Unease settles into Camellia’s stomach; she scans the area around her for any hints of a trap before moving on.

A large tent rises at the far side of the camp: Stark Pureblood’s personal tent. That must be where they’re keeping her, Camellia thinks. She sprints across the remaining distance, stopping herself behind a collection of crates opposite to the tent flap. The street in front of her is deserted and an orange glow comes from inside Stark’s tent. A faint shadow blocks the light for a moment, taking the shape of a man. He pauses for a moment, as if looking for something, then steps out of the light.

Only one guard. That’s manageable.

After waiting for a few moments to ensure the guard is back on his rounds, Camellia dashes across the street and enters the tent. Inside is a large room mostly adorned with torches; an opening at the top allows smoke to exit. A large wooden chair sits at the far back of the room like a throne. Wooden pillars with inset orange gemstones stand on either side.

Camellia pauses. The air crackles with… Nothing. It doesn’t crackle at all. There’s the faintest hint of displacement in the air, perhaps coming from the guard, but Camellia senses no fear or desperation. The air inside Stark’s tent is normal—too normal.

Ariana isn’t here.

Abruptly, she’s shoved forward. Camellia hits the ground, rolls out, and quickly gets to her feet. Three burly nomads with shaven heads stand at the tent flap, their arms crossed. She lowers herself into a battle stance, but none of them make a move. One nods to something behind her. More nomads emerge from the corners of the tent, weapons in hand. None of them make a move to attack.

Then, her mark begins to glow.

“I’ve known about you for what feels like an eternity.”

She turns as someone steps around the wooden throne.

“Yet I can’t help but feel like you came here only yesterday. Young, afraid—you knew so little about the dangers of the world. Now it feels like you know everything.” He pauses, letting the moment linger. “Perhaps you know too much, Hero. Perhaps the change you want to bring about is wrong. Perhaps your passions don’t align with mine. If that is true…” He steps down from the pedestal, spreading his arms wide. “Who better to be my Adversary than you?”

“Stark Pureblood,” Camellia says.

“I was pleased when I heard you were planning to rescue Ariana.” Stark snaps his fingers and a nomad steps forward, presenting a double-bladed axe. “It made trapping you that much easier.”

“That so?” Camellia flexes her hands. “What’s to stop me from flying out of here right now?”

“I’ve got men stationed where Ariana is being held. Flee me and I’ll have her killed.”

“I’m tempted to call your bluff.”

“Call it, then.” Stark pats his axe, lost in the curvature of the blade. “It’s her life you’re gambling with. Now that I have you, I don’t care if she lives or dies.”

Camellia levitates partly off the ground. Stark does nothing to stop her, merely watching with a complacent look on his face. They stare each other down for several seconds, daring the other to make a move. Stark sniffs and adjusts his axe. Camellia breathes slowly, focusing her mind.

After nearly a minute, she gently returns to the Renean soil.

“What do you want?” she asks.

“A test.” Stark levels his axe at her, the muscles in his forearms protruding like thick cables of wire. “My blade against a weapon of your choice.”

“Why?”

“I’ve been told I’m your Adversary—the greatest obstacle you’ll have to overcome. If you can’t beat me, how can you call yourself a Hero?” He quirks his head. “I’ll admit, I thought you were going to be more skittish than this. You seem too comfortable.”

“People change,” she says, still concentrating on her breathing. Warm energy flows up from the ground, pooling in her chest. “You can change too. Let me take Ariana and go.”

“And let you be free out there, putting everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve at risk? My warcamp, my future, my people…” Stark shakes his head and hefts the axe on his shoulder. “No. You’re too much of a threat. The wanton emptiness you seek is a sham.”

“Emptiness?”

“This world is not as free as you think it is. These people—my people—are in chains. There’s no such thing as true freedom, Hero. You have no idea what’s wrong with this world. The land rumbles with an ancient power. Herds of the great oxen stampede toward nowhere, trampling their own kin. The moon is more sinister at night than it’s been in untold generations.” He frowns. “I won’t have you spreading propaganda about being free. There is no freedom here. Only slavery and pain.”

Heat rises in Camellia’s throat, her heart pounding in her chest. “Freedom or no freedom, I want Ariana and I won’t take no for an answer.”

“You’ll have to fight me for her.” Stark spreads his hands. “It’s a shame you didn’t bring a weapon.”

All at once, Camellia’s body explodes with brilliant golden light.

Stark takes a step back, the ground beneath him shuddering under the outpour of magical energy. His nomads drop their weapons, fear on their faces. A high-pitched screech splits the night air, followed by a heavy thud. Camellia’s light vanishes as quickly as it came, the torches snuffing out. The only light in the room comes from the few orange gemstones behind Stark Pureblood.

Camellia begins to glow again, both exhaustion and relief on her face. In her hands is a massive grey warhammer.

“What…” Stark shakes his head. “What is that? How did you—”

“Felterre,” Camellia says, lifting the hammer as if it weighed nothing at all. “Her name is Felterre, and there’s nothing like her in the whole universe.”

Stark hesitates. The warhammer is easily large enough to flatten an ox. It might even be strong enough to burst through stone or metal. He considers his options, including having Ariana killed. That might distract her for long enough to—

“Hey. Are we fighting or are you too scared?”

Stark’s face of contemplation turns to a face of fury. Veins sticking out of his neck, he picks up his double-bladed axe and charges straight at Camellia.

She moves instantly, leaving a silhouette of golden light in her wake.

Stark whirls and swings his axe, connecting with Felterre. His muscles bulge with raw power, his teeth grinding together. Camellia stares up into her Adversary’s face, holding back his killing blow with Felterre’s handle.

They break, knocking each other back. Camellia gracefully bounds across the battleground, coming to a stop in front of Stark’s throne.

“Not only fast, but strong.” Stark runs a hand through his hair. “What kind of training did you go through?”

“The same you did, apparently.” Camellia pulls her hair out of her face. “That blow almost broke Felterre in half. Could you be more careful? This is my first time seeing her in action.”

“I regret that I have to kill you,” Stark says, walking forwards. “You’re powerful for a little girl.”

“And you’re fast for a crusty old man.”

Stark sprints across the room, his axe low at his side.

Camellia waits for a split second, then heaves Felterre up and smashes it into the ground with all the strength she can muster. The shockwave rips the torches from the ground, tossing up a cloud of dirt and sending everything flying.

Camellia braces for another attack. But the world is dipped in silence. No movement comes from any corner of the tent, save for the groans of dazed nomads.

Camellia dismisses her legendary weapon with a flash of gold light. She runs out of the tent and takes to the sky, knowing the element of surprise has long been lost. A quick scan of the camp reveals nothing she doesn’t already know; dark tents, a few people walking around, and the single glow of a tiny light.

Camellia squints. The light comes from a tent on the far side of the camp. Deep down she feels an urge to explore it, and though there’s hardly a reason for her to believe it, there’s a chance that it might hold Ariana.

“Bring her down!”

The thwhap of an arrow sailing through the air brings her attention back to the situation at hand. Camellia kicks it away. Seven nomads, maybe eight, are shooting arrows at her position. Stark Pureblood is nowhere to be seen.

I know I didn’t hit him, she thinks, kicking away another arrow. He’s too fast for that. That means he’s headed for Ariana. Her stomach lurching with the change in velocity, Camellia rockets across the camp and drops in front of the tent she scouted earlier. Muffled shouts come from a distance; she’s running out of time.

Camellia boldly strides into the tent, throwing the flap aside. The main room is empty, but to the side is another room, a small light coming from inside. A voice comes from behind the tent flap. Gingerly, Camellia pulls it open.

A man straddles Ariana’s waist, his hand dangerously low on her naked stomach and dropping lower with each moment. Ariana’s resolve is breaking—Camellia can see it in her eyes. For the first time in a long time, she feels the hot sensation of rage in the back of her throat, burning like a bundle of hot coals. Camellia’s fists shake.

“Get your hands off of her,” she whispers, voice tight. As the man begins to turn, Camellia punches as fast as she can, sending a wave of air directly into his side. He crashes to the ground, then instantly scrambles to his feet.

“Who are you?” he demands. “How did you get in here?”

“Deion’s chin…” Ariana sits up. “Cammy?”

“Given time,” says Katan, “the whole world will be united under my leadership. Given time, the whole world will be Pureblood.”

Then, Ariana screams.

Camellia regards her with a confused look. Katan first looks at Ariana, then at something behind Camellia. Shock comes over his face, followed by determination. He leaps in front of Ariana protectively, brandishing his blade. To Camellia’s surprise, Ariana hides herself behind him willingly.

What are they looking at?

“Excuse me, madame. You’re in my way.”

Magic blasts into Camellia’s back. She gasps and stumbles forward, pain shooting up her spine. Camellia regains her footing and whirls around next to Katan, ready to face her attacker. She starts, however, at the face before her.

“You?”

“Yeah,” the stranger says, his magenta eyes glinting. “Me.”

“I killed you,” says Katan. “I saw your corpse.”

“You saw what he let you see,” says Ariana. “I told you it’s impossible to kill him.”

“Katan,” the stranger says, “I’m afraid I’ve got some very bad news. You see, the higher-ups and I have been talking, and we’re going to have to let you go.”

“What higher-ups? What are you talking about? You don’t control me.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Ariana and the stranger say in unison.

Camellia throws her companion a glance. What’s on Earth is going on?

“Allow me to explain,” the stranger continues. “I heard your very impassioned speech about saving the world, making it a place of ideal men and women. Truly moving, we were all very impressed. Unfortunately, you’ve impressed us in all the wrong ways. We can’t have you trying to promote such an altruistic business model.”

Katan raises an eyebrow.

“Stark’s idea is much more profitable. War, violence, ethnic cleansing… The higher-ups enjoy chaos, you see. It keeps things interesting, exciting, and most importantly, it keeps the attention off of us. We’re trying to find something that we’ve lost and it’s very important that we’re not disturbed while we work. But with your doctrine of peace and love, it’ll take away what Stark has to offer.” He spreads his hands. “As such, you’re hereby fired.”

“You can’t fire me,” Katan retorts. “You’re not even in my chain of command!”

“I’m not firing you from the Purebloods.” The stranger points an open palm at Katan, menace radiating off his body. “I’m firing you from life.”

Camellia turns to tackle Katan out of the way, but she’s just a second too late. Katan grabs his head and screams, the sword dropping from his hand. Camellia hits him with the force of a train, knocking him to the ground. Katan’s head explodes in a rain of gore, painting the inside of the tent all shades of red. Camellia stares down at the headless corpse in horror.

“Damn, I haven’t heard a man scream like that in years.” The stranger wipes a speck of blood from his face. “It never fails to amuse.”

Camellia gets to her feet, legs quivering.

“Well, now that he’s out of the way…” He points an open palm at Ariana. “Best clean up the rest of the crew, too.”

“What?” Camellia steps protectively in front of Ariana. “Why?”

“Move, please. You’re in the way.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I said move.”

“And I asked you why!”

“I said move!” he roars, a storm of magic exploding from his body. “Move before I slaughter you too!”

This isn’t him, Camellia thinks, her head spinning. He would never do this. He’s not—

“Camellia!” Ariana screams.

A burst of brilliant golden light blinds the stranger, and when he can see again, Ariana and Camellia are gone. He takes in a deep breath to calm his nerves. There’s no need to panic. He knows exactly where they are.

As Camellia and Ariana run through the darkened streets, the stranger is there. He watches them from every dark corner, stares at them from every tent flap, stands in the way at every turn. When they see him, they run the other way. When his laugh comes from behind, they run faster. When his eyes glint from the darkness, they turn away in fear. Carefully, strategically, the stranger forces Ariana and Camellia into the center of the nomad camp.

Then, from all sides, the Pureblood nomads close in.

Camellia frantically looks around as she finds herself in the middle of the camp, Ariana clinging to her side. The bright moonlight glows grim and fierce overhead, highlighting the curvature of weapons and the outline of eyes. Nomads emerge from the shadows, murder in their eyes. They move together as one group, each step in unison.

“We’ve come full circle.” Stark Pureblood pushes through the line of nomads, his axe in one hand and a bow across his chest. “Now there’s nowhere to run.”

Camellia looks around her. Ariana still trembles, her eyes wild and frantic. There’s got to be a way out, she thinks. Her heart pounds in her ears, her stomach flipping like an acrobat. There’s got to be some way out of here!

Then, a voice sings through the fog of her mind, so soft she can barely hear it.

What the hell? On the other side of the camp, the stranger furrows his brow, his concentration slipping. Where’s that voice coming from? Who’s talking to her?

“Fly, damn you!” the voice shrieks, audible only to Camellia. “Fly!”

Without missing a beat, Camellia sweeps Ariana off her feet and blasts into the sky. She’s followed by a hundred arrows seeming to come loose all at once. Camellia keeps climbing, soaring higher and higher. The roar of the nomad camp dwindles, dropping to a shout, then a call, then a whisper, and then she’s left in silence.

High up in the air, Camellia finds herself staring at the enormous, beautiful moon. The cold air bites at her cheeks, the clouds sweeping by in their ponderous journey to nowhere. A sparkling blue galaxy sits low on the horizon, glinting like a tiny gem. Her stomach bubbles with joy.

I did it. We’re free.

Then, tilting slightly, Camellia jets towards the horizon with Ariana in her arms.

In a small tent in the Pureblood nomad camp, a man with magenta eyes laughs softly to himself. “Shame on me,” he chuckles. “How could I have forgotten about Apalon?”

Camellia lets out a loud shout and a cheer, unable to contain herself any longer. She laughs, she cries, she does loops in the air—freedom! Freedom at long last! The distant horizon suddenly doesn’t seem so distant and the sky surges toward her. The piercing moonlight, once the angry mistress of the heavens, now showers her with praise and adoration.

“We did it!” she yells, uncaring. “We really did it! It’s been so long since I’ve seen your face. How’re you doing? Ah, who cares? You’re free!” Camellia does another loop. “We’ve done it, Ariana. We’re back together again.”

“Cammy?”

“It’s finally happening,” Camellia continues, her heart racing. “We’re going to make it to Sunset Hill. I’m going to meet Apalon. You’re finally going to have a safe home. Everything is coming together, Ariana. Everything’s going to be okay.”

“Cammy.”

“I was stuck in a dark place for a while,” she admits. “I was stuck in the Underground. But it’s like Doc said: I just needed to take a train from one station to the next. I finally found my train, Ariana. I’m finally out of there. I’m finally free—truly free.” She sighs, drinking in the night air. “It feels so good out tonight.”

“Camellia…”

“Crisp breeze, gorgeous moonlight, cold air… Everything is beautiful. Everything is turning out okay.” Camellia presses Ariana’s warm body closer to her. “Everything is going to be alright.”

They fly in silence for a while longer, Camellia occasionally laughing or giggling to herself. She can’t wait to see the sunrise. Though the air around her is cold, the only thing Camellia is aware of is how warm she feels, both inside and out.

Suddenly, she pauses. Warm… But it’s cold out. Why am I so warm? Why is Ariana so warm?

She looks down at her silent companion. Sticking out of Ariana’s stomach is the shaft of an arrow.

Interlude Two

[]Searching

The dry, warm Ruins sun hangs low in the sky, casting a red glow along the Ruins District. Though the ashfall won’t begin for several hours, the district will be dark soon. People hurriedly make their way into houses and apartments as the night dwellers emerge from hiding. Openly dark deals and dangerous trades clog the streets.

Charlie keeps his eyes forward and his back straight, fully aware of the treachery roaming the Ruins District at night. A few dealers shoot him sidelong glances; Charlie avoids eye contact. As usual, his destination is Chaldir’s shrine. It has been several days since their previous session; Cynard should have finished analyzing the data by now.

Now it’s time to know the truth. Charlie stops in front of the shrine door. Now it’s time to figure out why I’m still here.

“Cynard, you home?” Charlie knocks on the door. It creaks open, the bolt unlocked. His guard is up instantly and he reverts back to his old training—light steps, deep breathing, and vigilant eyes. He slips into the shrine soundlessly, pushing the door just far enough for him to squeeze inside.

An orange light flickers in the back room. Charlie moves through the main room in silence, ready to run or fight if necessary. The darkness in the shrine is thick enough to be cut with a knife, as if the whole room is trying to swallow him up. Against his will, Charlie’s heart beats quicker in his chest.

“Cynard,” he hisses. “Are you in here?”

A soft giggle echoes through the shrine, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Charlie’s blood runs cold, a shiver crawling up his spine. The orange light in the back room flickers again, drawing him to it like a moth to fire. Charlie stops just short of the bedroom door and presses himself against the wall. No movement comes from inside, a pungent odor hanging in the air. Steeling his nerves, he steps into the room.

One small candle twinkles in the dark room, the rest snuffed out. Cynard is sitting on the bed, facing away from the door. Charlie lets out a heavy sigh of relief.

“Jeez,” he whispers. “You scared the life out of me.” Charlie approaches the desk and starts lighting more candles. “I hate to bother you right now, but we have things we need to talk about. I hope you finished your research.”

Charlie looks over his shoulder. The oracle hasn’t moved.

“You ready or not?” Charlie grasps Cynard’s shoulder. “It’s time to face the—”

The oracle topples backward, his empty eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, a gaping slash across his throat. Charlie recoils in horror, flattening himself against the wall. Thick blood oozes from the wound and the sheets are stained a crimson black. Charlie feels his stomach squeeze.

Don’t you dare. He closes his eyes. Calm down and focus. Focus. Get the details.

Charlie grabs a candlestick and holds it over the bed for better light. A straight, clean cut across the man’s neck with no signs of struggle. And of course there is blood—lots of blood, seemingly everywhere. The sharp copper odor becomes all the more rancid the longer he stares at the corpse. The kill was recent, perhaps even seconds ago.

Then, as if drawn to it, Charlie looks up. A message has been painted on the wall.

You were warned. Learn your lesson.

Charlie is on his way outside not a moment later. Only two people on all Renea have the capacity to walk into a shrine and kill an oracle, and Charlie has a good hunch as to which of the two sent Cynard six feet under. He stands in the middle of the street and stares up at the sky.

“Come out and face me!” Charlie shouts. “You monster! Who do you think you are, killing oracles like they’re insects?”

“But they are insects.” A man steps out of the opposite alleyway, his magenta eyes glinting with the punchline of some untold joke. “Then again, you’re all insects to me.”

“You son of a bitch,” Charlie growls. “How dare you.”

“How dare I? No, how dare you, spilling the secrets you were warned never to tell. The rules haven’t changed, Charlie.” Maxillarion walks across the street. “You knew the risks and decided to test me anyways.”

“I had no choice. I wouldn’t lie to Cynard.”

“You know what I think?” Max says. “I think you told him your secret so I would come and kill him for you. After all, he knew about Gabriel, and we can’t have a liability like that running around, now can we?”

Charlie bristles angrily.

“And here I was thinking I had to kill Cynard because you made a mistake!” Max laughs. “You’re more slippery than I gave you credit for. Who knew you had such a black heart?”

“Shut up!” Charlie screams. “I never wanted him dead! I wanted Cynard to live!”

“Then why tell him about the Blue Rift? You knew what was going to happen next.”

“I had to tell someone,” Charlie says. “It’s been killing me for as long as I can remember. I just thought that…” He gestures to the shrine. “He’s an oracle. Why wasn’t he an exception?”

Max grabs Charlie by the shirt and yanks him forward. “You listen to me,” he snarls, “because I’m only going to tell you this one more time. If you spill your secrets, I will kill those you tell. We’ve got a very strict relationship, you and I, and the harder you make it on me the worse it’ll get for you. So just keep yourself contained for a little while longer and I’ll finally let you die.”

“I don’t care about dying.”

“Oh, but you don’t care about living either.”

Charlie shoves Max away. “Why don’t you just end it? You’ve led them on for long enough, haven’t you? If you’re so all-powerful and mighty, why don’t you kill these new Heroes like you’ve done to all the previous ones?”

“Because these ones are special,” Max says. “Bennie Balachie, Scott Cornot, Stanley Lockwood, Luke Derringer, Drew King, Camellia Agnelli—they all serve a purpose. They all come from someplace immeasurably important, and because of where they come from, Gnosis made it clear that they should never be killed. At least, not yet.” He spreads his hands, a theatrical grin on his face. “Renea is a beautiful, wonderful world. But it has hidden secrets that can only be opened with a very specific set of keys. There are certain people who physically embody those keys. Killing one ensures the door can never be opened, so they must live.”

“What door?” Charlie demands. “Where does it lead?”

Max laughs. “Don’t take it so literally, Charlie. It was only a figure of speech.”

“I can never tell with you.”

“And with luck, you never will.”

Charlie is quiet for a moment. Max’s magenta eyes seem to glow with humor, as if he knows Charlie has questions and is just waiting to hear them. But for Charlie to admit he has questions would mean Max wins again. Asking no questions leads to a dead end, but asking any questions at all leads to more power for Max.

“Why are you here, Max?”

“Why are you here, Charlie?”

Charlie doesn’t immediately answer. It feels like nothing he can ask will lead to answers, but it also feels like anything he could ask is an answer in itself—which will, of course, inevitably bring up yet more questions. Questions within questions, answers within questions, each looping back into one another in an infinite spiral of information that leads to nowhere. Max watches the other man with placid curiosity, fully expecting an answer at any second.

“I don’t know,” Charlie says helplessly. “I don’t know why I’m here.”

Max slings an arm over Charlie’s shoulder. “Then let me help you figure it out.” They start walking down the road. “Why do you suppose you’ve been alive for so long?”

“Because I’m important?”

Max snorts a laugh. “Funny, but you’re only halfway there. What’s your purpose in life right now? And don’t you dare say waiting. If you say waiting I’m going to throw you off a building.”

My purpose? “It’s…” An image of his friends sitting together passes through his mind. A warm fire, with lots of food, and Gabriel playing a song on some instrument long forgotten to time. Ariana’s beautiful eyes flash at him from across the flames, a smile on her face. “It’s to see my friends again.”

“Almost there. You can’t just see them again. What is it you have to do?”

Charlie’s brow furrows. “I’m not sure.”

“Think fundamentals,” Max says, his eyes glinting. “Think very, very basic. If you want to do something, what do you need before anything else?”

“A… Plan?”

“Yes!” Max cries, excitement on his face. “Further! Go further!”

“I need a plan to find my friends again. I need a way to get them back together.” Charlie looks at Max. “So I’m still alive because I’m looking for a way to achieve that.”

“That’s it,” Max says, tapping Charlie on the nose. “Now you’re thinking.”

“I don’t understand.” Charlie pulls himself away. “What does it mean?”

“Don’t you get it? You just answered your own question. Why are you here, Charlie? Why are the new Heroes here? Why are any of us here?”

“Because… Because we’re all looking for something.” Charlie looks up. “Because you’re looking for something.”

“Ding ding ding, we have a winner.”

“What exactly are you looking for?”

“That’s a need-to-know basis, and right now you don’t need to know anything at all.” Max puts his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “I’ll never apologize for killing Cynard, but you need to understand that I did it for a reason. Whether you hate me or not is beneath my notice. But if you continue to tell people about your past, the bodies are going to keep piling up.” He squeezes his shoulder. “You don’t want that, do you?”

“No,” Charlie whispers. “I don’t.”

“Then go back to the shrine and lay Cynard to rest. The oracles will announce his death tomorrow morning.”

“Okay,” Charlie says. He turns around and slowly trudges back toward the shrine. Max watches him go, magenta magic seething from the corners of his eyes. Without another word, Max blinks out of reality, simply vanishing as if he never existed in the first place.

Chapter Thirteen

[]Rise Up

Deep in the heart of Chaldir’s Ruins

Bennie, Kexal, and Jenna watch as the Skeleton Army draws toward them, the militant pounding of feet shakes the ground. Leading the march is Riel, the Skeleton King, his four horns and red and gold attire distinguishing him from his shambling soldiers. Next to him is Nekros Mathis, the Skeleton necromancer covered in eternal blue fire.

Bennie gets to her feet. Long ago, Nekros mentioned that she would need to train in order to face Riel, but she didn’t take it seriously at the time. Now that Riel is finally in her sights, it becomes apparent why he told her that.

“Strange,” Jenna says softly. “The army shouldn’t have mobilized so quickly.”

“What?” Bennie turns. “What do you mean ‘shouldn’t have’?”

“This isn’t how it usually happens,” Jenna explains. “Something’s not right.”

“What do you mean ‘how it usually happens’? What’s going on here?”

The Skeleton Army comes to an abrupt halt. A thick cloud of ash lingers in the air, making it even more difficult to see anything under the hazy red sky. Riel nods to Nekros, then starts forward alone, his eyes trained on Bennie.

“He wants to meet,” Bennie says. “He wants to meet halfway and discuss terms.”

“Like hell he does!” Kexal scoffs. “He wants to run you through with his sword!”

“I don’t think he does.” Bennie looks at the approaching King. “I can’t explain why, but I have this feeling that he wants something from me, and if I give it to him, we might not even have to fight at all.”

“But that’s why you’re here!” Jenna exclaims. “Your purpose has always been to stop Riel. You can’t go back on that now.”

“Says who?” Bennie turns to her friend. “While I was unconscious, I walked through the astral realm and I learned some things that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. I get the feeling that Riel is just one small player in a game that’s ultimately far too big for any of us to understand. Whether I fight him or not is a pretty insignificant decision.”

Insignificant? Have you gone completely insane?”

“Calm down,” Kexal says, driving himself between Jenna and Bennie. “We’ve got more important things to worry about—namely, a huge army, a dark sorcerer, and the Skeleton King himself. Metaphysics will have to wait.”

“This isn’t about metaphysics; this is about what has to happen.” Jenna grabs Kexal by the collar. “Do you realize what will happen if Riel is allowed to go free? The whole world will be in danger. This isn’t something you can just shove under the carpet and ignore. Riel has to be stopped here before he gets out of control. Right? Bennie?”

Bennie isn’t listening. She’s already halfway toward Riel, her hair blazing righteously. As Jenna goes to stop her, Kexal pulls her back. There’s no sense in getting caught in the crossfire between a Hero and her Adversary.

Beyond, Riel waits in the middle of No Man’s Land, his sword drawn and at the ready. Bennie stops a few strides in front of him, giving the Skeleton King enough space to take control of the situation. A warm wind blows a swirl of ash between them, Riel’s cape flapping over his wide shoulders.

“So,” Bennie says. “You’re him.”

“I am.” Riel nods. “You must be her.”

“I am.”

They stare at each other for a few moments. Bennie clears her throat.

“So,” she says. “What brings you all the way out here?”

“I was searching for you. Thankfully I knew exactly where to look. What brings the illustrious Hero this deep into the Ruins?”

“I’m looking for Palace Center,” Bennie says without missing a beat. “I’m going to find Chaldir and finish my quest.”

“Is that so? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news: you’re not but five minutes from the gates of Palace Center.” Riel drums his fingers on his sword’s handle. “The bad news: my army and I stand between you and your patron god.”

Bennie cracks a smile. “I don’t suppose a ‘Please step aside’ will do anything.”

“Not hardly, no. But I appreciate the effort.” Riel nods to Kexal and Jenna. “What about them? Will they be joining in the fun?”

“No,” Bennie sighs, “just me. I had been hoping to talk you out of this, but it looks like you’ve come ready for a full-blown attack.” She pauses. “If we’re going to do this, it’s going to be between you and me—leave them out of this.”

Riel walks away. “You can have two minutes.”

“Two minutes for what?”

“To say your goodbyes.” Riel glances over his shoulder. “After your two minutes is up, I’ll send the army to kill you and your friends. If you beat my army, you’ll have to stop my necromancer. If you beat my necromancer, then we’ll have our fight.”

“What!” Bennie shouts. “You’re going to hide behind your army like a coward rather than fight me hand to hand?”

“Of course! How else will I know if you’re worthy?”

“By fighting me! That’s why I’m here!”

Riel ignores her. He approaches his army and speaks with Nekros, who nods and starts sending orders down the ranks. Bennie runs a hand through her hair. The battle was supposed to be between her and Riel alone, but somehow he ended up with an army at his back. She’s completely unprepared for something of this size, even more so since she just woke up from a coma.

Bennie remembers time is ticking. She hurries back to her companions.

“Well?” Kexal asks. “Did you talk him out of it?”

“You tell me,” Bennie says, motioning to the mobilizing army behind her.

“I tried to tell you,” Jenna says. “This is something that has to happen. At least he let you come back and talk to us before you two fight.”

“It’s not going to be like that.” Bennie takes in a deep breath. “You and Kexal need to get as far away from here as you can.”

“What do you mean?” Kexal says. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here with you.”

“Riel won’t fight me,” Bennie says. “He’s going to send his entire army trampling toward us like a herd of wild animals. If I beat the whole army, I have to fight his necromancer and beat him. And if I happen to last that long, then I will I get a shot at the King himself.”

Kexal rubs the back of his neck. “On second thought, leaving doesn’t sound too bad.”

Jenna looks over Bennie’s shoulder. The depth of the army stretches far into the ashen wasteland, as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach. “That snake,” she growls. “He’s breaking the rules.”

“What rules?” Bennie asks.

“It’s unimportant.” Jenna pats her friend on the arm. “I’m here for you, Bennie. We can do this together.”

“No. This is something I want to do by myself.”

“Don’t be foolish. You can’t do this alone.”

“How do you know that? How do I know that? I have to at least try.”

“Bennie, you can’t—”

“Hey.” Kexal lightly elbows Jenna. “Quit playing mother and let her breathe a little. If she thinks she can handle this, well… I say let her try.”

Jenna goes to protest, but as if remembering something important, chooses to say nothing instead. She surveys the massive army. “Are you sure you can do this alone?” she asks. “There’s so many of them.”

“I don’t know,” Bennie says. “But I have to try. If I can’t stop the army, Riel will kill you both and there’ll be nothing I can do to protect you—either of you.” She looks between Kexal and Jenna. “You both need to go, right now. I don’t want you to see what’s about to happen.”

Kexal sighs. He seizes Bennie and wraps her into a tight hug. Jenna throws her arms around them both, burying her face into Kexal’s shoulder. They hold each other for just a moment, then they separate. Jenna takes Bennie’s face in her hands.

“Listen to me,” she says. “You have no clue how important you are. If at any time you think you’re going to die, you run away. I don’t care where you go or how long you run—you will keep yourself alive no matter what happens.”

The familiar pounding of feet shakes the ground. Kexal nudges the two girls and points at the approaching front; the army is on the move. Jenna turns back to Bennie.

“You have to stay safe,” she says. “You’re too special to die, you understand?”

“If I have to die to protect you,” Bennie says, “it’s a death I’m willing to accept.”

“Don’t say that!” Jenna cries. “You will not let yourself be killed! Your importance to this realm is far beyond anything you can imagine! I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind. I can’t let you do this.” She takes Bennie by the arm. “You grab Kexal and go. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”

“You and I both know there’s only one way out of this.” Bennie brushes Jenna’s hand off her arm. “Go, while there’s still time.”

With that, Bennie turns around and runs straight for the advancing Skeleton Army.

Jenna turns. “Aren’t you going to stop her? You love her, don’t you?”

“I do love her,” Kexal says. He takes a deep breath. “But I have to let her do this. She’s part of something I’ll never be able to fully understand.”

Bennie’s hair ignites in a whirlwind of heat and fire.

“What do you mean?” Jenna says. “What don’t you understand?”

The Skeleton soldiers unsheathe their swords.

“People like her,” says Kexal. “Those are willing to lay down their life for those they love—the True Heroes. Looking at Bennie, the way she is now, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s destined to change the world.”

Bennie lets out a battle cry, a torrent of flame swirling around her body.

The Skeleton Army roars in response, and the first wave of soldiers charges forward.

“I don’t belong with her,” he continues. “She’s in a place I can never be.” Kexal pats Jenna on the shoulder. “Let’s go. I don’t want to watch this.”

Jenna casts a look at the battlefield. Then, with a sigh, she turns and runs away. Kexal lingers for just a moment longer, his eyes on Bennie’s disappearing form; then, he too runs away.

In the center of the battlefield, Bennie clashes with the Skeleton Army.

The first wave of soldiers falls in a blast of fire and light. Bennie shoves through the charred bodies, the bones blowing away in the wind. Flames dance in her hands and the mark of Chaldir burns bright upon her forehead. Skeletons rush toward her in droves. Bennie razes them to the ground, waves of fire roaring through the onslaught. Her anger kindles against Riel and she lets a shout pass from her lips. An explosion of flames sends soldiers flying in the air.

I won’t let him do this, she thinks. I will not let Riel hurt them.

A sword leaps toward her face and she blocks it, searing the soldier into a pile of ash. Two more arrive to take its place. More soldiers take up position as their comrades fall to the blistering flames. For each Skeleton that crumples into dust, three more launch an attack. Bennie combats the onslaught with the embodiment of righteous fury in her hands. Wave after wave of Skeletons burn away like flax paper.

“Amusing, isn’t it?” Nekros glances at Riel. “She’s spirited despite her situation.”

“Indeed, she is.” Riel gestures with a single hand. “Send in the second regiment.”

Deep in the battlefield, the final Skeleton soldier falls to the ground, unmoving. Bennie takes deep, gulping breaths of the ash-filled air and hacks out a ragged cough. A fiery shield kindles around her body, burning the ash out of her face. Fatigue gnaws at her arms and legs. She begins to think that fighting fresh from a coma was an unwise decision.

The ground rumbles treacherously, a rhythmic pounding in the air. Bennie looks up.

Another wave of Skeleton soldiers advances on her position, this one twice as big as the last.

“Seriously?” she whispers.

Her instincts tell her to run away while she still can, but her legs quiver at the thought of running. Taking even one step might end with her face in the dirt; her body feels too weak to outrun anything. Her mind goes to Kexal and Jenna. They have to stay safe; they need to stay safe. Bennie runs a hand through her hair, unsure of what to do.

Someone has to hold the line. She sets her jaw firmly and stares out at the approaching front. Someone has to stand up and say no.

The Skeletons unsheathe their swords and the front rank breaks into a run. Bennie lets out a breath to calm her nerves.

As the first group reaches her position, Bennie dodges out of range of their flashing swords and retaliates with a wave of fire. One stray Skeleton bobs out of the way, and for a second Bennie takes more notice of it than the second rank leaping through the smoke. She defends herself with a dome of flame, knocking her opponents away.

A stray Skeleton ducks into range and grabs Bennie by the arm. She seizes it by the spine and melts the bone into a thick, pasty fluid. Two more Skeletons charge at her front; she’s forced to toss up a shield of fire and backpedal. Though her training in the astral realm left her barely winded, Bennie’s physical body can’t meet the demands of combat. Her legs ache with each step and her breaths come in heavy wheezes.

Then, for just a moment, everything around her is still. Black smoke from smoldering bones plumes into the air, creating a thick haze. Her heart thunders in her chest as her eyes dart in every direction. There isn’t a place on her body that doesn’t feel drained.

Stay focused, she thinks. You have to—

A foot rockets into her stomach from nowhere. She gasps, her knees creaking. A fist cracks across her jaw and she drops to the ground. Skeleton soldiers charge toward her in a chaotic gaggle, seeming to surge from the curtain of black smoke as one massive group.

Riel immediately snaps a finger at Nekros. “Call them off. Let her up.”

Nekros glances at his King. “If you want the Hero dead—”

“I said let her up.” Riel turns back to the battle. “She still has some fight left.”

Nekros holds out a hand. The Skeleton soldiers back away and form a circle around Bennie, their empty eyes peering down at her.

Bennie drives a fist into the dirt, blood leaking from a busted lip. Grinding her teeth, she pushes herself to her feet. None of the soldiers so much as twitch, frozen in place like wax figurines. She coughs harshly, a cloud of ash and dust escaping her lungs.

Bennie casts her gaze across the battlefield. The remainder of the second regiment waits vigilantly just a few dozen paces away. Behind them is another sea of Skeleton soldiers, and overseeing the battle from the roof of a ruined building is Riel the Skeleton King. He turns and says something to a Skeleton in black robes—Bennie can’t seem to remember his name.

The soldiers around her come to life, holding up their swords.

Bennie cracks her neck. Back to work.

The Skeletons pile in all at once. Bennie’s first reaction is a blast of fire in every direction, but it comes out as barely more than a weak puff of heat. She twists away from the flashing edge of a sword and shoves through the line, escaping into the free air.

She turns and is met with hard end of a handle.

Bennie stumbles, her head spinning. Another strike to her face dimly registers, her brain too busy short-circuiting to notice. Months of memories pass by in moments. A man with intelligent blue eyes offers her a hand with her books. A woman with a shy smile invites her out to coffee. A boy with red hair tells her a joke and she laughs.

Suddenly Bennie is back in the Nexus, making a pledge with her friends under the city of Monarch. Conviction burns in their eyes, and Mr. John watches from a few paces away, a knowing smile on his face. Then she’s digging up an ancient shield with Kexal and Jenna, wonder sparkling in her eyes. Time moves by in a blur, memories too quick to recognize and emotions too powerful to put into words.

She comes back to reality and finds herself surrounded on all sides by Skeleton soldiers. She pulls a weak fist back, readying to punch the next thing she sees.

A hard blow to the face sends her spinning.

Bennie reels, her balance gone and her legs folding like a deck of cards. She crumples to the floor in a heap, blood leaking from her broken nose and split lips. Every last inch of her body throbs with fatigue.

Get up, she thinks to herself. You have to get up…

Bennie plants a quivering arm in the ash. She trembles, then drops into the dust. Everything hurts. She hiccups, her eyes filling with tears of pain and aggravation. Palace Center is only minutes away—so close she can taste it—but the will to fight has left her. Bennie doesn’t make another attempt to stand. Frustrated tears stream from her eyes.

“And that’s the end of the great Hero of the Ruins.” Nekros looks at Riel. “Shall I?”

“Damn her,” Riel growls. “She no Adversary of mine. Finish the job.”

A pair of Skeletons grabs Bennie by the arms and drags her to her knees. Another grabs a fistful of hair and yanks her head back. A Skeleton emerges from the gathered crowd. In its hands is a large, curved blade with a thick black handle. Realization dawns in the back of her exhausted mind.

The Skeletons shove Bennie’s head downward. Though too weak to do more than struggle, she forces herself to fight back. Her valiant efforts register as barely more than a few twitches and some half-hearted attempts at pulling away.

The cold metal blade touches her neck. Her body goes rigid.

No, Bennie thinks, suddenly horrified. Please God, no…

The Skeleton raises its sword, the Ruins sun glinting off its blade.

I can’t stop it. I can’t stop it!

Panic boils in her throat. She thrashes wildly against the grip of the soldiers. “Please!” she begs, tears streaming down her face. “Please, no! I don’t want to die!”

The sword falls.

Bennie screams.

“We should go back.”

“Like hell.” Kexal looks over his shoulder. “That’s a surefire way to get yourself killed. If you don’t want to end up dead, I suggest you follow my lead and push forward.”

“Push forward?” Jenna sputters. “We’re going backward! We should be going toward Palace Center, toward our destiny. Bennie needs us, don’t you see? If we’re not with her when she meets Chaldir—”

“Who cares about that washed-up old man?” Kexal says. “Bennie said we need to run, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m going to run until I can’t run anymore, and then I’m going to keep running. If Bennie survives Riel’s challenge, she’ll know exactly where to find us.”

“How can you be this way?” Jenna says. “If you had even a shred of understanding about how important she is, you would never dream of leaving her side.”

“If she’s so important, why did you leave?”

“I…” She sighs. “I can’t tell you.”

“What for? Who’s going to hear what you have to say besides me?”

Jenna laughs drily. “You never know who’s listening.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Look,” Jenna says. “I wouldn’t have left her if I didn’t think she could handle herself. Yes, I got a little more than concerned when she said she would die for me. It should be me out there, fighting and risking my life to keep her safe. She’s destined to do something beyond all imagination and I’m the only other person in this realm who can help her cope with that.”

Kexal folds his arms across his chest. “And how did you manage to get such sensitive information?”

Someone laughs behind them. “Because she’s insane!”

Jenna and Kexal turn around. A man in a blue cloak leans on the rubble across from them, an amused grin on his face. Jenna takes a slow step backward.

“All women are insane!” he says. “The real trick these days is finding one with the amount of insanity you can stand.”

“I didn’t say anything wrong,” Jenna whispers, shaking. “I didn’t go against the rules.”

“What rules?” Kexal says, turning toward her. “What’s wrong with you? You’re as pale as a ghost.”

“Why are you here? I haven’t told him anything!”

“Hmm?” The man steps forward. “I don’t understand. Have we met before?”

“Whoa there, stranger.” Kexal steps between him and Jenna. “Not another step until you explain why she’s freaking out.”

“Why are you asking me? I just got here.”

“Liar,” Jenna spits. “You’ve always been there, Maxillarion.”

The world freezes. The humor fades from Max’s eyes.

“You know,” he says, “you’re the second person in three days who thought it was a good idea to say my name to someone you’re not supposed to. Gabriel did it earlier and I nearly killed both him and Gerrich.”

“Gabriel?” Jenna says. “He’s still alive? Where is he now? What about the others? Is Roger—”

“See, now I’m even more upset because you’re not taking my threats to heart. And didn’t I tell you to take my threats to heart?” Max passes by the frozen form of Kexal. He waves a hand and thick, wiry veins bulge from the side of Kexal’s neck. Kexal emits a low, pained groan. “You know, a lot of bad things would stop happening if people actually listened to me once in a while. I’m on a very tight string right now and I’m about two seconds away from putting Kexal six feet under. You were right when you said you didn’t go against the rules… Until you mentioned my name.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Jenna says. “When you appeared, I thought I was dead.”

“When I’m through with you, you’re going to wish you were.”

“Hey,” a voice says. “Don’t do that.”

Max lets out a long, agitated sigh. “Why not, dad.”

“Because I said so,” Gnosis says. It’s pitch dark in the Plains, and the lonely moon overhead ices the ground with uncharacteristic frigidity. “Jenna is still useful. She needs to survive.”

“Come on,” Max complains, dropping down on the cold grass. “I just want to do a little bit of damage. Maybe cut off a leg, or take out an eyeball.”

“Doing that decreases the likelihood of Jenna and Kexal reuniting with Bennie by upwards of 40 percent. Believe it or not, we actually want them to get back together.” Gnosis spreads his arms. “It’s all part of the plan.”

“Yeah, well, who put you in charge?”

“I put myself in charge when our dear companion got himself frozen in a block of ice and locked outside of time.” Gnosis gives him a dry look. “If you want to botch a hundred millennium of hard work and careful planning for three seconds of murderous bliss, please be my guest. I’m sure you-know-who will be considerably less than pleased when he learns how badly you screwed his plans. He’ll force us to start all over again.”

“Oh jeez”—Max runs a hand through his hair—“anything but that.”

“Then stop whining and do as I say.” Gnosis reaches into his pocket and produces a compass. “You know what to do.”

Max pulls his hand away from Kexal’s throat. Jenna watches him with fearful, worried eyes.

“It’s your lucky day,” he says. “The higher-ups and I have decided it wouldn’t be smart to kill you—yet. I’ll let you and Kexal off the hook for now, but before I leave, I have something for you.”

“What is it?” Jenna asks.

“Nothing special. Just a little heirloom of sorts.” Max produces a small compass from his pocket. “I picked up this little thing from an odd but innovative nomad a few months ago. Someone very wise told me to give it to you and I won’t take no for an answer.”

Jenna eyes the compass. “Was it Gnosis?”

“So what if it was?” He forces the compass into her hands. “You’re going to take this and you’re going to like it.”

“But what do I use it for?”

“What do I care? I was told to give it to you. I don’t care what you do with it.” Max looks at Kexal’s frozen form. “And if you ever say my name again in front of someone you’re not supposed to, I promise you it won’t end well for anyone involved.”

Jenna nods. Max pats her on the cheek, then steps around a pile of rubble and disappears. The world begins to move again; Kexal starts as if coming out of a trance.

“Hey.” Jenna waves her hand in front of his face. “You alright? I lost you there for a second.”

Kexal blinks. “I…” He shakes himself. “Sorry, I don’t know what came over me. I lost my train of thought.”

Jenna throws a glance over her shoulder, expecting to see Max appear at any second.

“I guess we should get out of here,” Kexal says. “The journey to Monarch is going to be a long one.”

“I’m not going back,” Jenna says. “I’ve got to help Bennie.”

“Are you an idiot? You heard what Bennie said. We run, she fights. I’m not going to argue with her.”

“But you love her, Kexal.”

“Do you delight in reminding me?” he exclaims. “Yes, I have deep feelings for her. It kills me to know she’s committing suicide to protect us; she doesn’t even know how much I care for her! Have you ever had someone you love throw themselves on a pit of spikes to save you? Do you have any idea how much it hurts to see that?”

“I…” Jenna closes her eyes. “Yes, I do. Someone very close once sacrificed himself to save me from a magical trap. I held him in my arms as it ate the heart out of his chest.”

Kexal goes quiet. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know.”

“Not many people did.”

A long moment of silence passes between them.

“What do we do now?” Kexal finally says.

“I have to go back to Bennie,” says Jenna. “I’m the only one who understands how important she is to this world. I have to make sure she lives to see Chaldir.”

“Well, then I guess I’ll go with you.”

“You will? Really?”

“You and Bennie are the only family I have left in this world. If she dies, I want to die by her side. At least then I can say I lived and died fighting for the woman I love.”

Jenna gives Kexal a warm hug. She pulls away before he can reciprocate.

“Come on,” she says. “Let’s go meet our destiny.”

“Or our deaths,” Kexal mutters.

Turning tail, they trot off back in the direction of Palace Center.

“Please!” she begs, tears streaming down her face. “Please, no! I don’t want to die!”

The sword falls.

Bennie screams.

The sword stops in mid-air.

Quivering, Bennie looks up. The Skeletons are frozen in place, their empty eyes staring at nothing like morbid statues in a haunted cemetery. She wiggles her arms free of her captor’s grip and shakily backs away. Not a single breath of life sweeps through the suddenly still battlefield. In the resounding quiet, their lifelessness becomes irrationally unnerving.

Across the battlefield, Riel turns to his necromancer, but Nekros is nowhere to be seen. He looks out across his army, searching for his right-hand man, until he realizes something strange: all of his soldiers are looking directly at him.

Instructions, he thinks. They’re waiting for instructions.

One of the soldiers takes initiative and walks toward the Skeleton King.

“You!” Riel calls. “Where is Nekros? I know you can sense him.”

The soldier draws its blade. As it approaches Riel, it rears back to slash.

Riel’s blade flashes from its scabbard like blast of sunlight. The soldier’s head rolls off into the ash.

“The fool,” he snarls, sheathing his sword. “As if I wouldn’t see such obvious—”

A second Skeleton makes its way toward the King. Then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. Almost as one, the entire Skeleton army unsheathes its blades and moves toward Riel.

Across the battlefield, Bennie’s captors leave her in peace and walk back toward the main army. Far away, she can hear the faint sound of swords clashing and someone shouting.

“And he never saw it coming, either.”

Bennie turns. Nekros Mathis stands a few paces away, his eyes fixed on the converging army.

“Foolish, don’t you think? I thought for sure he would discover my plan, yet he was so invested in preparing for you that he left me to my own devices. This is almost too easy.” Nekros snorts. “The Skeleton King… What a joke.”

“I don’t understand,” Bennie says. “What’s happening? Why am I alive?”

“You’re alive because you upheld your end of the bargain.” Nekros glances at Bennie. “You stayed away from Riel, just as I asked. I see no reason to kill someone who is so plainly honest.”

Bennie sputters, at a loss for words.

“Riel’s reign is over,” says Nekros. “He done nothing but lounge around, fretting over your arrival, complaining to me about creating soldiers tailored to kill you. He thought that killing Chaldir would make him a god. Well, you can’t be a god if you’re dead, now can you?” The necromancer waves his hand dismissively. “Now go away. I have no further quarrels with you.”

“You’re stabbing him in the back!” Bennie exclaims. “How could you? He’s your King!”

“He’s no King of mine!” Nekros shouts. “He’s an arrogant, pompous, foolish creature who deserves to be put back in the ground where he belongs. He doesn’t have what it takes to lead this army. Riel has been nothing more than a strawman for Ruinswalkers to attack—a scary story for Reneans to tell their children at night. His usefulness as a figurehead has run its course. Now it’s time for the true Skeleton King to rise up.”

Bennie is silent for a moment. She looks out at the numberless army, and for what feels like the first time, she hears Riel’s screams of fury. For a moment her heart goes out to him, but in the next she realizes a window has opened.

“What about me?” she asks. “What happens to me?”

“Whatever you want to happen. Your next stop is Palace Center, isn’t it? If you plan to make it there before me, I would leave now. As soon as Riel is dead, I will march on its gates.” Nekros folds his arms behind his back. “After all, why be King of the Skeletons when I can be the King of the Ruins?”

“You’re going to kill Chaldir?”

“Yes, as soon as I’m finished with Riel.” Nekros glances at her. “So if you want to see him before he dies, I would leave now.”

“I…” Bennie’s legs wobble; her body is completely drained. “I don’t think I can make it there alone.”

“You are such a worthless child.” Nekros waves his hand and shoots a bolt of jet black magic through her chest. Bennie gasps, stumbling to the ground. “There,” he says. “I revitalized your body with my dark magic. Now get out of my sight.”

Bennie slowly gets to her feet, surprised at the sudden influx of energy.

“Actually, one last thing.” Nekros reaches into his robes and pulls out a small dagger. “This is an ancient weapon that I happened upon through some very interesting circumstances.” He places it in Bennie’s hands.

“What am I supposed to do with—”

“A few nights ago, I was visited by a man who broke into my Vault to steal this knife—Casix is its name. He told me to give this to Chaldir and tell him his lifelong dream is over.”

“I don’t understand,” Bennie says. “Why are you giving this to me?”

“Because those words will hurt much worse when they come from the mouth of his apprentice. If you don’t do as I said, I will track you down and kill you.” Nekros pats Bennie’s hands. “So take that to Chaldir like a good girl and stay out of my way when I come to take his head.”

“I can’t just—” Bennie pauses. She closes her eyes and thinks of Kexal and Jenna. The sooner she can get back to them, the better. Continuing to argue with Nekros does nothing but waste time. “Okay,” she says. “I’ll do it.”

“Good,” Nekros says. “Now get moving. Riel is giving my soldiers a run for their money.”

Holding the knife Casix close to her chest, Bennie trots off into the ash-covered wasteland, circling around the army until she’s out of sight. Nekros exhales contentedly—one less problem to worry about. Now he can turn his full attention on quashing his former King.

Riel cleaves through an attacking soldier, his blade weightless in his hands. Hordes of Skeletons swarm at him from every angle. He slashes through one wave, then turns and cuts down another. Their carefully practiced, mechanized attack patterns allow Riel to read them like a book. He grinds the head of a fallen soldier beneath his foot, the bodies piling up around him.

Fury burns in Riel’s mouth. Every slain Skeleton blurs into the next, becoming a slurry of death and destruction. The soldiers climb over each other for a chance at Riel. He battles without rest for what feels like hours, rage powering his never ending onslaught.

Then, Nekros holds up a hand and the army stops advancing. He weaves his way through the ranks and stops near a pile of Skeleton corpses that reaches into the sky.

Standing atop that pile is Riel, the Skeleton King.

His once luxurious cape is tattered and torn, the hazy red sun at his back. His sword hangs loosely in one hand, the tip halfway into the decapitated head of a soldier. Staring down at Nekros with his chest swelling in steady, even breaths, he almost looks like a warrior from legends past.

“Look at you,” Nekros says. “You finally look like the king you always thought you were.”

“I gave you everything,” Riel says. “I trusted you with everything, yet you betrayed me. You treated me like a pawn.”

“You were never anything but.” Nekros folds his arms behind his back. “You’ve been very helpful in my plans, Riel. All good masterminds need a scapegoat and you played your part masterfully. For a while you actually believed you had control over my soldiers! I’ve fooled many people in my lifetime, but I’ve never fooled anyone like you.”

“But I came before you.” Riel descends down the pile of unmoving soldiers. “I was the first. I am the rightful Skeleton King.”

“Wrong!” Nekros yells, gleeful malice in his voice. “The only thing unique about you are the horns on your head, and even that is nothing but a cosmetic growth. You are a rank-and-file soldier, Riel, and it’s time you got back in line where you belong.”

Riel takes a step and swings his sword with all his might. A gaggle of soldiers throw themselves in front of the blade, protecting Nekros from the blow. Their shattered bones burst into the air, leaving Nekros and Riel standing virtually face to face.

“You can’t have it,” Riel says. “If you want to be the Skeleton King, you’ll have to pry the title from my dead hands.”

“I didn’t bring an army for show, you knw.” Nekros glances around. “This seems like a lot to handle, even for you.”

“I’m not Renean, you fool. I never tire. I never hunger. I can and will fight for all eternity.”

“Amusing,” Nekros chuckles. “You honestly still think you have a chance against me. I can see it in your eyes; you still want to order me around. You’re hoping I’ll cower like weakling animal. Never again, I swear by it. I’m the one who gives the orders now.”

“I’ll never take orders from you.”

“Is that so? Well, then there’s no other way around it. If it’s a fight with me you want, then it’s a fight with me you’ll get.” Nekros strips himself of his black robe, exposing his blazing body to the air. “But it would be unfair for me to be the only one dressed this way, in my cloak of regal blue fire. Even though you’re just a regular soldier, you’re still deserving of something that befits our situation.”

He reaches out and blows a jet of fire across the landscape. When it clears, Riel is covered in intense red flames. His sword glows a pale orange and his horns have turned white from the heat.

“You always had a thing for irony,” Riel says. “Usurper versus King, red versus blue. What horrific theming.”

“You make it sound like you don’t enjoy good theming.” Nekros spreads his arms. “But enough talk. Let’s get this over with.”

Riel’s feet grind into the ground. He springs forward.

Nekros ducks away and a crowd of Skeletons hurl themselves at his assailant.

“Fight me like a man!” Riel’s sword cleaves through the soldiers. “You accepted my terms, now face me!”

Nekros merely laughs and the echo carries across the landscape—it’s impossible to tell where it’s coming from. “As if I would be so foolish!” he calls. “You made your bed, Riel! Now lie in it!”

The Skeleton King charges forward, but a horde of soldiers drives him back. His sword flashes like a bolt of lightning, his feet falling like peals of thunder. The army attacks him from all angles. Their swords hack into his bones and chop at his legs. When Riel slices four soldiers in half, fifty more rush in for their chance. From every direction comes metal and malice, and it comes without end.

Riel fights without fear and without fatigue. The only emotion welling in his chest is all-consuming rage. A stray blade cuts off his left arm at the humerus; Riel’s only response is to turn and slash the soldier to pieces. Then comes the sharp clang! of metal against bone, and Riel’s leg is sent sailing into the Skeleton swarm.

But he feels no pain, and he hardly notices the loss.

He strikes again and again, and soldier after soldier falls under the might of his blade. Yet more take their fallen comrade’s place. The Skeleton King doesn’t slow for a single moment, but he can’t help but notice the dullness of his blade. It sticks in his enemy’s rib cage, no longer slicing as well as it used to. Attacks rain down on him from every angle and he finds himself overwhelmed.

A loud crack!, and Riel’s remaining arm shatters at the shoulder, his sword clattering into the ash. The Skeletons step away from him, knowing the battle is finished.

But Riel is not finished yet.

He crouches down to the ground and takes the pommel of his sword in his teeth. Then, standing on his one leg, Riel faces the endless sea of opponents. He catches the faintest glimpse of Nekros weaving through the army before he appears just behind the frontmost line, protected by his soldiers.

“Look at you,” Nekros says. “No arms and one leg, yet you continue to fight. You must have realized by now that you can’t kill me. Why do you persist?”

“Because you betrayed me,” Riel seethes. “I won’t stop until I kill you.”

“I have an army. What do you have?”

Riel spits his sword on the ground. “A secret weapon.”

Then, as if called by the gods, a beam of golden light rains down on the Skeleton King.

The blast scatters Skeleton soldiers in every direction, the light pouring into the ground like an outflow of liquid gold from a heavenly waterfall. The barren soil crystallizes and cracks. Power radiates in heavy waves across the battlefield; a magnificent transformation is taking place.

Nekros knows better than to stick around to see what becomes of Riel. He hurriedly vanishes into the sea of Skeletons.

Moments later, Riel emerges.

His arms have been replaced by pure gold and his missing leg has been miraculously healed. Radiant golden magic spills from his body in every direction. In his hands is a legendary weapon—Acetil, the spear that belonged to the first Hero of the Plains.

The stranger said a pure heart was required to wield this weapon. Riel laughs. He didn’t say it had to be a good heart. Pure evil is still pure.

The Skeleton army presses back in and forms an impenetrable circle around Riel.

“I’m curious,” Nekros calls from somewhere out of sight. “Does Acetil truly recognize you as its owner or did you find a way to cheat the spear into believing you can wield it?”

“What does it matter?” Riel says. “I alone control its power and you can’t stop me. No one can.”

“I still have my army.”

Riel flicks Acetil in a short circle and an arc of golden light vaporizes an entire regiment of Skeleton soldiers.

“Not for long you don’t.” Riel pauses as a thought comes to mind. But if I’m going to kill him, I’ll need to keep as many soldiers alive as I can. I can’t raise even a single soldier without Nekros.

Riel leaps into the fray. As a line of Skeletons rush in, Riel sends them spinning with a swipe of his spear. The tip charges with power and he thrusts it forward, sending a blast of gold blazing into the army. The faintest flicker of blue fire crackles just out of the corner of Riel’s eye—Nekros isn’t far away.

The Skeleton King turns and pulverizes a waiting mass of Skeletons. Just behind them, a flash of blue. Three soldiers leap forward to distract him, but Riel charges, interested only in the evasive necromancer. The army’s once continuous, methodical attacks become sloppy and frantic; soldiers slash wildly, seeking to bury their swords in anything they can even get close to. Some soldiers even attack each other.

Nekros is running scared.

Riel looses a ray of light from the tip of his spear, blasting a line of Skeletons into oblivion. When the smoke clears, standing there for all the world to see is Nekros Mathis.

Half of him is missing, blasted away as if a large creature took an enormous bite out of him. The remaining portion of his skull is cracked and his cloak of fire fizzles like a glitching computer system. Riel moves forward, Acetil leveled at the treacherous necromancer.

Nekros glances at his ruined body. For all anyone can tell, he could be glancing over the morning newspaper.

“Hmm,” he says after a moment. “Care to call it a draw?”

Riel’s spear flashes and a blaze of golden light reduces Nekros Mathis to smithereens, leaving only a pile of ash. A wind blows through the battlefield and whips the remains into a small tornado. The necromancer’s ashes blend with the ash falling from the sky, and moments later, nothing remains to denote he ever existed.

The Skeleton soldiers all turn to him in unison.

Good, Riel thinks. They’re ready for orders. “Who has eyes on the Hero?”

“She’s at the gates of Palace Center,” a soldier says from nearby. “Even at top speed, it will be impossible to catch her before she reaches Chaldir.”

“Then we storm his gates and take her by force.”

“Unwise,” another says. “Chaldir will kill anyone who tries to interrupt their meeting. Our forces are drastically lower than they were prior to our march. Currently, we do not have enough soldiers to effectively combat a god.”

Riel grinds his teeth together. Though he could easily overrule the Skeleton’s warning, he knows it speaks the truth. Nekros must have known the delay would buy Bennie enough time to get to Palace Center. Perhaps he ignored the possibility out of sheer ignorance. Either way, that still means Bennie will be the first one to reach Chaldir in untold generations. Even if Riel kills the god after they finish talking, it won’t make a difference. Bennie still met Chaldir before him.

“The Hero has outlived her usefulness,” Riel says. “Killing her now does nothing at all. Nekros’s treachery has ruined my chance at destroying Chaldir’s foothold in this realm.”

“We await your orders,” a soldier says.

The Skeleton King looks at the spear in his hands. Its gleaming golden handle gives him a small push of courage.

“Ah, to hell with being a god.” Riel starts to climb a building. “I will conquer the Ruins as a man!”

“Conquer the Ruins,” a Skeleton intones from the bottom of the pile. “Confirm your orders, sir.”

A light dawns in Riel’s mind. “No,” he thinks. “Why stop there? The Ruins is just one realm. A god and his apprentice can fall by the works of one man. Who’s to say the other gods and their apprentices can’t be killed too? I could take my army to across the world and subjugate every realm to my rule. Riel, King of Renea…”

“March on Monarch,” a Skeleton intones. “Confirm your orders, sir.”

“Confirmed!” Riel roars, raising Acetil above his head. “We march on Monarch, and neither man nor god will stop me!”

The bricks of Palace Center are scorched black from the heat of too many fires, though not a single speck of ash lingers anywhere in sight. Spires and towers rise into the sky from the ruined castle, bronze domes capping their tops. Firelight flickers in a few windows. Across from the portcullis is a long bridge that stretches over an infinitely deep chasm. Beyond the Palace, the sky appears to break apart, as if reality itself is coming undone. An empty blackness serves as a vigilant and silent backdrop for the abandoned castle.

Bennie takes in a deep breath. Her entire journey has led her to this moment, to this place. Nothing stands between her and Chaldir except a short walk over a long stone bridge. She takes a slow step and gently rolls her foot on to the stone. It holds her weight.

Bennie crosses the bridge as softly as possible, afraid to disturb the eerie silence. The Ruins sun warms the bottom of the horizon, eager to rise and shed light on the realm. Ash falls to the ground in light flakes and Bennie waves it away, coughing as it chokes her lungs. Despite the lack of ash anywhere on Palace Center itself, the ashfall near it seems thicker and heavier than any place she’s been before.

She stops at the portcullis, a wide wooden gate already spanning the gap between the castle and the bridge. A click resounds from inside the castle and the portcullis rises, metal gears grinding with pained effort. Bennie crosses the lowered drawbridge and enters into Palace Center’s courtyard.

As she expected, the courtyard is empty. Piles of ash collect in corners and crevices but the main walkway is clear. One or two dried-out bushes still struggle for survival, their cracked roots branching out in search of water and sunlight. A collection of nearby stables has fallen in on themselves, the wood splintered and scattered.

The unsettling silence sends creeping chills up her spine as Bennie moves through the courtyard. She continually feels as if something is about to jump out at her, though nothing ever does. Everywhere she looks, the world is still and lifeless.

Bennie comes to a large wooden door blocking the entrance to the main building of the castle. Bright red light trickles from between the cracks; Bennie instinctively knows Chaldir must be on the other side.

Taking in a breath for confidence, she takes the handle and pulls the door open.

The red light dims to a pale glow on the far side of the long room. Frayed, grey tapestries cling to the walls for dear life. Fading red light streams in through the broken windows, dropping barely visible sunbeams on the floor. The ceiling above yawns upward like the mouth of a whale, a long red carpet adorning the floor.

A throne sits at the farthest side of the room, the red light emanating from its seat. She gathers her courage and crosses the room. A sense of awe fills her as she draws closer to it; she knows she’s about to meet her patron god face to face. Bennie stops a few paces in front of the throne, the red light glimmering like a polished red ruby.

The light dims, and Bennie finds herself looking at Chaldir, god of Ruin and Flame.

His old, tired eyes are filled with powerful red light. In his right hand is an enormous red sword, his stringy hair spilling about his shoulders and chest. A thick, long beard sprouts from his wrinkled face. He looks like he’s been trying to sleep for hours but has been unable to fully drift off.

Bennie searches for her words. “Uhm…” She gestures, then drops her hands. “I don’t know what to say. Hi, I guess?”

Chaldir blinks, long and slow, and Bennie can feel the inflow and outflow of magic swell in the room. He doesn’t say anything.

“I made it,” Bennie says. “It took me a long time, but I made it.”

Chaldir rests his head on his left fist, watching her carefully.

“I had help, of course. Kexal and Jenna… I wouldn’t be anywhere without them.” She knits her fingers together, rocking on her toes. “I’m kind of hoping you’ll say something now.”

“You made quite the mess of things,” Chaldir says, his voice ponderous and slow.

“I…” Bennie shakes her head. “Come again?”

“I said you made quite the mess of things.” Chaldir gestures with his hand. “Attracting Riel’s attention, inspiring others to stand up to the Skeletons… Quite a mess, indeed.”

“Inspired?”

“Some people were pleased,” Chaldir continues. “Pleased to see a Hero so bravely defy the Skeleton King. It gave them hope. Most of them tried to fight, and some actually succeeded in taking back their ruined cities. Life is returning to the Ruins and the Skeletons are disappearing from the public eye.”

Bennie frowns. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It is. You should have let Riel do as he pleased. You shouldn’t have interfered.”

“What!” Bennie exclaims. “But he was killing innocent people and enslaving them! How could I possibly let that happen?”

“Because he provided balance,” Chaldir says. “Though it was a violent balance, it was offset by Nekros’s subtle sabotage, and to an extent, it was Nekros himself who was providing a way for the Ruins to remain in equilibrium.” He leans back in his chair. “Why didn’t you leave my realm in peace, Bennie? Why did you have to provoke him?”

“He was doing wrong. I finally had the power to make a difference, so why shouldn’t I try to stop him? I had the ability to serve justice while everyone else ran and hid.”

“What is justice?” Chaldir asks. “Define it.”

“It’s…” Bennie taps her foot, thinking. “It has to do with…”

“If you don’t have a vision of what justice looks like, there’s very little chance you’ll ever achieve it. You say you believe in justice, but what have you done to fix this realm? You stopped one Skeleton in a backwater tavern. You dug up an old shield and then buried it again. Then you let yourself get dragged across the realm by someone who isn’t even a Hero. If anything, he should be a Hero, not you.”

“Excuse me?” Bennie says. “I’m the only person who had the guts to oppose the evil in this realm! You think having injustice in the world is a good thing?”

“It’s a necessary part of balance.” Chaldir sighs again. “You should have left this place as it were. Riel was never going to be a god and Nekros would never have been able to wrestle power from him. They would have struggled for all time, playing mind games and whispering in the shadows about things that would never come to pass. Their presence kept this realm at peace, their violence kept population growth in check, and their polar personalities kept damage at an extreme minimum. How did you not see it?”

“I was too busy trying to find you.”

“Well, you’ve found me. But I think you should just give up and go home.”

“Like hell I am! Why would I ever give up? I’ve come so far!”

“All your efforts will never be enough. No matter how hard you struggle, you will fail—every time.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Bennie says. “And you know what? I’m going to fail a lot; it’s a part of life. But someone has to keep fighting. Someone has to stand up and say ‘No more!’, even if it means dying in the process. I’m not a Hero of the ages, I know that. I don’t have a dark history or a genius intellect or even truly incredible powers. I only know that if I see someone hurting others, I have to step in.”

“Yet you were hurting others by killing Riel’s Skeletons. You were upsetting the balance by destroying those who were created to tip the scales back into equilibrium. So where do you draw the line, Bennie?”

“What are you, a philosopher? What do you want from me?”

“I just want answers,” says Chaldir. “You promote justice at the cost of balance in the Ruins. You can only have one, so which will it be? Balance, or justice?”

“Justice,” she says. “Always justice.”

Chaldir’s grip tightens around his sword. Bennie slowly reaches into her pocket for the knife Nekros gave her.

“So be it,” Chaldir says.

Bennie charges forward, fire already brewing in her fists.

Chaldir waves his hand. Bennie gasps, the fire puffing out in a wheeze of smoke. She crumples to the floor, heaving gulps of hair.

“Don’t be hasty,” says the god. “I wanted answers, not a fight.”

Bennie plants a fist on the ground, the metal blade of her knife gleaming in the faint red light. “It sounds like you want a fight.”

Chaldir sits up a little straighter. “That knife…” He gets off of his throne and approaches his apprentice. “Where did you get that knife?”

“Nekros gave it to me.” Bennie gets to her feet. “He told me to give it to you, so… Here, I guess.”

The god carefully takes the knife in his hands and mutters a few things under his breath. He turns it this way and that, searching for something he just can’t seem to find.

“It’s not glowing,” he says. “Why isn’t it glowing? It should be glowing.”

“He also said to tell you your lifelong dream is dead.”

Chaldir sighs—a deep, slow sound that fills the whole room with its melancholy. “Yes, I can see why he would say that. He’s right; with Casix no longer glowing as it should, my lifelong dream is over.” He smiles for the first time since Bennie’s arrival. “But that doesn’t matter anymore. Now I have you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Long ago,” Chaldir says, “way before the legends and myths of old, an incredibly powerful Hero adventured in this realm. She was gifted with the power to wield lightning, and though her entire party abandoned her just days before reaching my home, she made it nonetheless. She was part of an elite group—the first Heroes ever called by the gods.” He holds Casix up to the light. “This weapon belonged to a friend of hers, a Hero who adventured in the Peaks. Now that it’s no longer glowing…” He trails off, then hands the blade back to Bennie.

“What difference does it make whether it glows or not?” she asks.

“It means the owner has passed from this world, whoever that may be. Now that they’re gone, my lifelong dream is over, just as Nekros said. We needed all six of those Heroes to fix what happened. Now that only five remain, they can never again fulfill their purpose.”

“Purpose?” Bennie says. “What kind of purpose?”

“Six Heroes,” says Chaldir. “Six realms, six gods.”

Bennie quirks her head, not understanding.

“Many eons ago, a monster fell from the sky and slaughtered my people. I was one of the few who survived, so I rallied with my friends to defeat it. And defeat it we did. But we were left with a terrible burden—an incurable disease which will eventually kill us all.” He pauses. “We’re dying, Bennie. The gods are dying and there isn’t much time left. I’m glad you’re here now. You’re the first one in a long time to reach my home, and I have no doubt that this is destiny.”

“I’m not sure I understand. Just a second ago you were challenging my convinctions, but now you’re… You almost sound relieved.”

“I am relieved,” Chaldir says. “I’ve finally found someone to take my place.”

“Your what?”

“The gods aren’t foolish, Bennie, though some of us are incredibly vain. We wouldn’t dare leave our realms unprotected. Someone will have to take command when we’re gone.”

“Someone like me?” she squeaks. “Me?”

Chaldir nods, the movement slow and long.

“But!” Bennie sputters, then tosses her hands up. “But I can’t be a god!”

“Why not? Have you ever tried to be one?”

“What about Stanley? I can’t become immortal and watch him grow old without me!” Bennie blushes bright red; she covers her face. “Uh… Pretend I didn’t say that.”

“You don’t think Deion will tell him the same thing I’m telling you?” Chaldir lays a hand on her shoulder. “Every Hero we’ve chosen through the years has had something special inside them. Great leadership, true compassion, iron conviction… Whatever it was, it made them unique. Each Hero we’ve chosen had the makings of a god, though few had the tenacity to make it this far. But you…”

Bennie looks up at her patron god.

You made it.” Chaldir squares her at the shoulders. “By your own strength, or perhaps by sheer dumb luck, you made it to Palace Center. You have the makings of a god, Bennie, and you have the mental toughness to never give up. You dared to believe that there was something special at the end of the rainbow. I can only hope, after hearing why you were called here, that you’ve found what you’re looking for.”

“I…” Bennie shakes her head. “I don’t know what I’m looking for. I thought my adventure would end after I reached you, that it would be Game Over. I would go home and get back to my old life, pick up where I left off. I never intended to stay here for so long.”

“Yet you stayed nonetheless,” Chaldir says.

“But I don’t know why,” Bennie says. “What am I supposed to say to you? If I say yes, I could be here for an eternity, maybe longer. What about my parents? My friends, my family?”

“You need time, I can tell. But Bennie, if you don’t take up this mantle, there won’t be anyone else. The gods can’t survive long enough for another Hero to make it all the way out here. Our powers are growing weaker by the day. It’s either you or an empty throne for the rest of time.”

“You can’t say that,” she whispers, turning away. “You can’t just say that. Do you understand what you’re saying?”

“Of course I do. I’ve pitched this idea at least one other time, you know.” Chaldir turns Bennie around. “The greatest use of your life is to spend it on something that will outlast it. You’re everything I ever wanted for a successor, Bennie. This realm… No, this world, will only benefit from your leadership.”

“But how?” she asks, exasperated. “How can I do this?”

“I can guarantee you this much: you won’t do it alone.” Chaldir guides her out of the throne room. “Right now, all across the world, your friends are being told this very same message by their own patron gods. They have different stories, different hardships, different journies, yet everything you young Heroes have done is leading up to an incredible convergence, I just know it. This is something worth celebrating.”

“I don’t know,” Bennie says as they exit into the courtyard. “It’s a lot to take in all at once.”

“Then take your time,” Chaldir says. “Stay a while and think about it.”

“I…” She nods. “Okay, I’ll stay.”

Chaldir takes Bennie out to the drawbridge. They stand shoulder to shoulder, overlooking the vastness of the Ruins as the sun starts to peek over the horizon.

“This realm is everything I have,” he says. “I’ll miss it dearly when I’m gone.”

“If I do take the job,” Bennie says, “I’ll do my best to keep it safe for you.”

Chaldir chuckles. “That means more to me than you know.”

Then, a brilliant yellow light rips open the hazy red sky over Chaldir’s Ruins.

Chapter Fourteen

[]Betrayal

Near the entrance to the Royal Crypt

Scott always figured he and Salvation would meet, but deep down he never believed it would actually happen. And now that the Master of Shades floats not five paces across from him, Scott is thoroughly convinced he’s in a dream. Salvation towers almost ten feet tall, his body a cloak of pure darkness. Menacing pink eyes glower down at him and a pink light pulses in the Shade’s chest.

“Good,” Salvation says. “I’m just in time.” He folds his hands behind his back. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for this. You and me, finally meeting. It’s like a dream come true.”

“Take one more step and I’ll fry you,” Katrina says, red lightning crackling in her palms.

“Cute,” Salvation says flatly. “But if you’re going to attack me, do it after I’ve talked with Scott.”

“Scott doesn’t have anything—”

“Wait!” Scott forces himself to stand, leaning on Jinas for support. “I want to hear what you have to say.”

“What!” Katrina exclaims. “Don’t you know who this is?”

“Of course I do,” Scott answers. “That’s Salvation, the Master of Shades. Sure, I barely heard of him during my quest, but I felt him in my mind almost constantly. He was a sharp pain all the time, whispering bad thoughts and telling me I should give up and go home. Now he’s here and he wants to face to face, talk like a man.” Scott takes his arm off Jinas, standing alone. “I say let’s hear what he’s got.”

“Alone,” Salvation says. “We talk alone or not at all.”

Scott points to a distant tree. “Over there, then. It’s far out of earshot.”

“You can’t be serious!” Jinas says. “What if he—”

“I know him,” Scott interrupts. “I can’t explain how or why, but I know him. If Salvation wanted me dead right now, I’d be dead.” Scott takes a small step, then looks up at the Shade. “Keep an eye on me, would you? I’m not at my strongest right now.”

The pair walks to the tree, leaving Katrina flustered and Jinas fuming. Scott pauses multiple times to catch his breath and Salvation waits patiently, making no move to attack. After several arduous minutes they arrive at the tree. Scott props himself up against the trunk and looks at the Master of Shades expectantly.

“I suppose I should start by thanking you,” Salvation says. “No one but you has given me such joy in this purgatory hell of an afterlife.”

“Purgatory hell?” Scott chuckles. “You sure know how to turn a phrase.”

“I’m stuck between the world of the living and the world of the dead, unable to discover who or what I really am. The realm I love with all my heart is falling apart and I can’t stop it. If this isn’t purgatory hell, I don’t know what is.”

“So you’re thanking me for making your life bearable?”

“Interesting, not bearable. Our mental sparring matches were… Enlightening.”

“Sparring matches?” Scott says. “You shredded my mind in an attempt to get me to quit and go home. I never had the power or the strength to battle you off. You made this quest unbelievably hard; it’s a miracle I’m alive at all.”

“And yet look where you ended up.” Salvation sweeps his arm out. “You’re mere feet from the end of your journey. You’re face-to-face with your Adversary who, for once, isn’t trying to kill you. We’ve been conditioning each other for this, Scott. You and I have been traveling on a road that ends here, at the entrance to the Royal Crypt.” He sighs. “Now, I suppose it ends.”

“Here, right now? I’m not in the best shape to be fighting, but if you really want to, I’m ready to throw down.”

“No,” Salvation says. “That’s not what I meant. I was talking about our relationship: Adversary and Hero. It ends the moment we leave this place.”

“What?” Scott tries to stand up straight but blood rushes to his head. He slumps back against the tree. “What are you saying?”

“All this time, I thought you were the cause of the sickness. I thought your presence was supercharging the realm and creating more Shades. So I set out to stop you. But maybe you serve a different purpose.”

“What purpose would that be?”

Maybe you’re destined to kill Magnus.

Salvation’s mind goes back to the time where Magnus used an unimaginably dangerous weapon to extort a deal. The god had mentioned drinking from the Cup of Divination and seeing a vision of his death. And the Cup had never wrong before. Sooner or later, Salvation knows someone is going to kill Magnus. Salvation is willing to bet that the killer is none other than Scott Cornot.

And once Scott completes the task and realizes his mistake, Salvation thinks, he’ll flee the Cemetery in shame. The realm will be mine for the taking, and under my leadership I will heal what was sick and fix everything that was broken.

There is only one small snare. If Magnus doesn’t die like his vision foretold, Salvation knows he has to leave the Cemetery forever. That was the term of the deal, a point that Magnus made certain to enforce with the weapon.

But the Cup is never wrong. Even if he is a god, Magnus will still die. Salvation looks at the fatigued, trembling Hero. And somehow his incredibly weak apprentice is going to do it.

“Uh…” Scott snaps his fingers in Salvation’s face. “You mentioned I might serve a different purpose? You spaced out.”

“I’m not quite sure what your purpose is,” Salvation lies. “But it’s not with me, of that much I’m certain. Maybe it’s somewhere in the Royal Crypt, waiting for you to discover it.”

“So you don’t want to fight?” Scott places a hand over his heart in relief. “I’m not going to say I’m glad, but I’m definitely not upset.”

“I have a feeling you aren’t what I’m looking for anyways,” Salvation says. “As I said before, I don’t think you’re causing the sickness. I’m almost certain that I myself am a simple byproduct. It could be something bigger than this realm, something ancient beyond measure.”

“Like what?”

“I’m not sure. But whatever it is, I am merely an effect, as are the Shades. I might even have been a normal Renean man long before I was a Shade. I suppose I’ll find out when our business here is done.” Salvation’s face becomes serious. “But then I have to deal with Retribution.”

“Who?”

“A Shade who corrupted my message and used it to spread death and destruction. I had to leave the physical plane for a long time, and in my absence the Shades began to believe I had left them forever. Retribution appeared and took them under his wing. Everything I taught them has been destroyed. Now I’m back to where I started: alone, lost, and without a clue where to begin.”

“Well,” Scott says, “you could just kill him and get it over with.”

Salvation laughs. “Oh, to be naïve again. No, killing him will only reinforce his twisted message. Retribution’s arrival has fundamentally altered both of our futures. You and I were destined to have an epic battle to decide the fate of this realm. Man versus monster, Hero versus Adversary, red versus blue.” His eyes become soft. “But that’s not possible anymore. Our world has changed.”

“We could still fight.” Scott pushes himself off the tree and wobbles slightly. “We can still do it, right here and right now. Come on, hit me.”

“A battle would be pointless,” Salvation says. “What would it prove? Retribution would still be running around slaughtering innocent people. Magnus would still be holed up in his Crypt awaiting your arrival. The sickness would still be spreading with no end in sight. We can no longer follow the path that led us here.”

“You’re serious,” Scott says. “You actually believe we aren’t meant to fight anymore? Are you looking at me?” He jabs a finger at his forehead; the mark of Magnus glows like a small sun. “If this isn’t a sign saying, ‘Hey, it’s time to fight!’, what else could it mean?”

“It means nothing at all. Your mark is a relic of future that is not meant to be.” Salvation lays a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Our destinies were intertwined, but they were never meant to connect. Our paths will diverge soon. Because of that, I cannot fight you; I doubt I ever will.”

Scott is silent for a moment. “Then what happens now?”

“First, I’ll take you to the Royal Crypt. Then I’ll find Retribution and figure out a way to take back my Shades. After that? I don’t know.”

Scott looks out to his friends. Katrina watches the pair with lightning in her palms. Jinas is pacing nervously. “What do I tell them?”

“Tell them what you want,” Salvation says. “You’ve made it to the end, after all. It’s time to face your destiny.”

The Master of Shades glides away from the tree. Scott follows at a distance, his heart a bundle of mixed emotions. Everything he had done was preparing him for the battle against his Adversary. But there’s no battle to be had. The fighting was never “destined” to occur. Scott grinds his teeth; everything about this feels wrong.

“Well?” Jinas says as Scott and Salvation reenter the camp. “What’s the news?”

The Shade looks at Scott expectantly.

“We’ve agreed to peace,” Scott says.

“What!” Katrina is in Scott’s face almost instantly. “That’s not possible!”

“Let me explain,” says Scott, pushing Katrina back to arm’s length. “He and I both agreed that this realm has bigger problems to deal with than our opposition to each other. A petty fight won’t solve anything just because it’s ‘destined’ to happen. Salvation says we’re near the Royal Crypt, and he himself has more than a few issues to fix.” Scott looks at the Master of Shades. “We’re putting our differences aside to see the big picture.”

“Wow,” Jinas whispers. “You’re making mature decisions? I never thought I’d see the day.”

“This is wrong,” Katrina says. “You two have to fight. You can’t just go against the flow like this! You are Hero and Adversary! This is destiny!”

“Screw my destiny!” Scott shouts. “All I’ve been told is how I’m destined to do this, become that! What if I don’t want any of that, huh? I don’t want to be some savior or a celebrity or whatever it is I’m ‘supposed’ to become! I just want to be me!”

“Don’t do this, Scott.” Katrina takes his hands in hers. “You have no idea what will happen if you don’t battle your Adversary. The consequences—”

“Be still,” Salvation says. “He’s made his decision.”

“You shut it,” Katrina growls. “You have no room to speak here.”

“He’s right, Katrina.” Scott takes back his hands. “I have made my decision and I’m going to stick to it. You told me that you would go to war if it meant I was safe for one more day. I trust you on that. Will you trust me on this?”

Katrina looks deep into Scott’s eyes. In it she finds mounds of conviction and mountains of exhaustion. Scott is tired of fighting against Salvation. But Katrina knows that’s exactly how she felt against her own Adversary. It was all for a purpose—a lesson she didn’t learn until it was too late.

“Fine,” Katrina whispers. “But you’re making a big mistake, I hope you know that. Once we reach the Royal Crypt, you’re on your own. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Scott nods.

“Follow me,” Salvation says. “The entrance to the Crypt is not far.”

The Master of Shades leads the trio away from their campsite and back into the wilderness. As they walk, the terrain becomes hilly and uneven, though seconds ago it had been as flat as the savannah grasslands. A murky fog emerges from nowhere and blankets the land. The wind stops blowing, the only sound coming from the crunch of grass underfoot.

After several minutes, Salvation holds out his arm. “We’ve made it.”

Ahead of him, an enormous ornate gate appears from the fog. Its black bars reach up into the sky and disappear into oblivion. The wall meeting the gate arrives from nothingness and stretches out to eternity in each direction.

“I made it,” Scott says. “I actually made it.”

“Don’t seem so surprised,” says Salvation. “This was your destiny, after all.” He turns toward Scott and extends a hand. “I wish you the best in your endeavors. May Magnus give you what you are looking for.”

“Yeah, and I hope you throttle that Retribution guy.” Scott takes the hand and squeezes it. “He sounds like a real knucklehead.”

Salvation takes back his hand. “Good luck, Scott.”

The Master of Shades turns away from the Crypt and rockets into the sky. He disappears into the thick fog, leaving Scott alone with his two companions.

“Well,” Scott says, “we made it. I’d call for a celebration, but I don’t think that would be appropriate near the Royal Crypt. We have dead people sleeping in there.”

“Kind of scary to imagine what’s beyond the bars,” Jinas says. “Do you think the people are slimy and gross, all decayed with their organs falling out?”

“I hope not,” Katrina mutters. “I hate zombies.”

Scott turns to face the Crypt. As he does, the gate shudders and swings inward. An impenetrable fogbank blocks any attempt to see inside. Scott throws a look at Katrina.

“Any last words of wisdom?”

Katrina sighs. “I really, really hope you listen to what Magnus has to say. I’ll be here to help you when you come back. I’m the only one who can.”

“Hey, Scott.” Jinas offers a smile. “If you see my dad, give him a hug for me and tell him I said hello.”

Scott flashes him a thumbs-up. Then, with a deep breath, Scott walks forward. His feet cross over the threshold of the Royal Crypt and tendrils of fog swallow him whole. The gates swing shut, sending a metallic clang echoing across the landscape.

Jinas turns to Katrina. “Now what?”

“Now we wait.” Katrina sits on the ground. “We wait for the end to come.”

Scott takes slow steps through the thick fog, always putting a foot out to feel for solid ground before continuing. There’s no telling where the terrain leads or what secrets it contains. The world is quiet—not even his steps make a sound. He has become a ghost floating through an emptiness without beginning and without end.

Then, Scott’s foot lands with a plink!

He freezes in place, but when nothing else happens, he relaxes. Scott lifts his foot and brings it down a little harder than last time.

Plink!

He does it again.

Plink!

Scott crouches and sweeps his hand along the ground, trying to clear the fog. At first the fog defies his efforts, pouring itself back into place the instant it’s cleared. But as Scott persists, the fog slowly parts, revealing the beginning of a brick road. Scott digs his fingers into the soft earth and yanks, pulling one of the cobblestones free. He stands to look at it in better lighting.

In his hand is a brick made from solid gold.

Now this is a souvenir worth bringing home. He puts the brick in one of his overcoat pockets but it drops through and lands on the ground. Curious, Scott picks it up and tries it again. Once more the brick passes through his overcoat and lands on the ground.

“Well,” he chuckles, “there goes my get-rich-quick scheme.”

Scott replaces the brick in its rightful spot and follows the path, his shoes going plink! plink! with each step. A light looms overhead, like a sun hidden by the clouds. As Scott gets closer to the light, he hears the sound of a parade and people singing.

The fog clears away and Scott finds himself facing a city.

Buildings made of solid gold rise into the sky. The golden road at his feet winds deep into the city, its bricks shimmering under the pale luminescence. Farther down the road is a parade of people dressed in colors more bright and magnificent than any he’s ever seen. Everyone is smiling and laughing. A beautiful ball of light floats high above the city, showering everything with its warmth.

“Welcome!” a man in grey cheers, running toward Scott with a clipboard in his hand. “You’ve officially made it to the Royal Crypt. We’re quite sorry you died, but we’re so happy you’re here! What’s your name?”

“I’m…” Scott shields his eyes from the overhead light. “I’m Scott Cornot.”

“Hmm…” The man flips through his clipboard. “Funny, I don’t see you on my list. Oh well, accidents happen all the time. How did you die?”

“I’m not dead.”

“Not dead!” the man exclaims. “Then why are you here?”

“I’m a Hero,” Scott says. “I’ve ventured all the way out here to find Magnus, my patron god. Do you know where he is?”

“Ha! Does anyone?” The man jots something down on his clipboard. “Alright, Scott Cornot, here’s the deal. The living are typically sent back out into the Cemetery, but since you’re a Hero, you can stay here as long as you like. I do have one favor to ask, if you don’t mind. The instant you see Magnus, you best send us a postcard. Everyone wants to thank him for preparing the afterlife for us!”

“You mean that isn’t him up there?” Scott points to the light.

“Of course not. That’s the Cemetery sun. It comes here to rest each day. Right now it’s on duty, so the city is a little darker than normal. Once it drops back down, the Royal Crypt will get a lot brighter!”

Scott finds himself wishing for a pair of sunglasses.

“I’ll tell you what.” The man throws an arm around the Hero’s shoulders. “The Royal Crypt is a very big place, so if you get lost or have any questions, just call for me—the name’s Cenkhan, by the way. Enjoy your stay in the afterlife!” With that, Cenkhan runs off to join the crowd.

Scott first looks at the crowd, then at his clothes. His dark attire doesn’t mix well with the local populace; it might not be a good idea to go wandering around with dead people. The parade shifts to his right, continuing on through the streets of the golden city.

Scott walks parallel to the crowd, deciding to explore the side streets in search of Magnus. His path leads him down a golden brick road with the occasional bench on either side. He passes by several couples walking together, their smiles more dazzling than any he’s ever seen. Everything is warm and bright and happy.

“If this is what the afterlife is like,” Scott says, “I can’t wait to die.”

“Hey, don’t be in a hurry. Life’s got plenty to offer.”

Scott turns and sees a burly man in blue robes sitting on a nearby bench. Scott approaches. “Mind if I sit?”

“Please, be my guest.”

Scott drops onto the bench. “How did you die?”

“Got poisoned,” the man says. “But before that I had half a ship dumped on my chest. I guess there’s just some things a man can’t survive.” He looks at Scott. “And yourself?”

“I’m not dead; I’m alive. My name is Scott. I’m a Hero.”

The man’s eyes brighten. “That’s incredible! You must be the first to make it to the Royal Crypt alive. How’d you manage it?”

“Well, I didn’t do it alone. I had a lot of help from my friends, especially Jinas. I would’ve died many times if he wasn’t there.” Scott stretches himself out. “Not everyone is lucky enough to have a doctor by their side.”

“The last ‘doctor’ I talked to got me killed. If that isn’t irony, I don’t know what is.” The man also stretches himself out. “It’s not a big deal, though. I’m sure he had his reasons.”

They let the conversation slip into silence. Bird chirp happily in the trees and the sound of the parade rings in the distance. Every so often, someone passes by the bench and says hello. Scott and his companion nod and return the greeting. For the first time in a long time, there is no conflict to be had, no fight to be fought, no wars to be won. Scott sighs happily.

“I could stay like this forever.”

“Someday you will.” The man turns. “But right now you’re alive. You’ve got to meet Magnus and fulfill your destiny.”

“Nah,” Scott says, waving his hand. “I’ve heard a little too much about destiny recently. I’m fine with doing what I want for a little while.”

“You sound like a Hero I once knew,” the man says. “Stubborn like an ox and pretty stupid too. But he was honest and worked hard. He wanted to prove he was capable of doing the things he dreamed of. Sure, it didn’t always work out, but at least his heart was in the right place.”

“I wish I was like him. I don’t know how it happened, but I lost my sense of duty when people started telling me what to do.” Scott frowns. When Katrina started telling me what to do.

“Well don’t you wonder what Magnus looks like? Aren’t you curious about what he has to say? It’s not every day that a mortal gets to meet a god.” The burly man gets to his feet. “Tell you what, I’ll make you a deal. Find Magnus and complete your quest. If you do, I’ll show you around the entire Royal Crypt for as long as you like.”

“Consider it a date. Hey”—Scott gets up—“while I have you here, do you know a man named Zyphias? He was an oracle who died not too long ago.”

“Ah, him,” the man says. “Now that’s a good man. He goes by Gennos now, his birth name. I’ve seen him in the flower park with his wife, though he sometimes comes out when big-name guys like Dakhan show up.”

“Where’s the park?”

The man turns and points. “Right across the road. Don’t worry about the fog; it’s just for show. Magnus loves theatrics.”

“A man after my own heart.” Scott extends his hand. “Thanks for all your help.”

The man shakes the hand firmly. “Anytime, my friend. I hope I see you again.” He bows shortly, then turns and walks away.

Across the road, the fogbank drifts apart to reveal an enormous field of rich green grass. Beautiful flowers of every color adorn the ground as far as the eye can see. People wander through the park in quiet, happy contemplation. A boy throws a ball to his dog. An old man picks a red flower and gives it to his wife.

Vaguely, Scott wonders why Earth can never be as peaceful as the Royal Crypt.

A sense of urgency pushes him forward. Scott enters the park and asks around for Zyphias. Most people know the name, but no one knows exactly where he is. The old man says he saw the oracle in the parade whereas the boy tells Scott he thought Zyphias was communing with Magnus at one of the many shrines. Despite his aloofness toward his meeting with Magnus, Scott knows his time is short and continues his search. He goes deeper into the flower park, asking anyone he sees if they know where Zyphias might be.

The longer he searches, the quieter the parade becomes. The people become more scarce and the sounds of their joyous laughter fades away. Eventually Scott goes so far into the flower park that the golden city disappears from the horizon.

Then, Scott spots a familiar face sitting quietly under a tree, contemplating the quiet beauty of the Crypt. He hesitates, at first unsure if approaching is a good idea. His feet slowly move against his will, and Scott soon finds himself standing in front of Delra, Zyphias’s late wife. Her blue, ethereal body has been replaced with flesh, blood, and a calming blue dress.

Scott stares at her in uncomfortable silence for a few moments; she hasn’t noticed him yet. Her gentle breathing and peaceful gaze, directed at the distant horizon, brings back a wave of memories.

Suddenly Scott is back in Monarch, in the Capital Cathedral, breaking bread with Luke Derringer and an increasingly nervous priest. Then he’s in the Archives, dueling spear-toting guards and stealing ancient artifacts. Scott can still remember how the wind felt on his face as he charged down the black cobblestone path, focused only on reaching the unreachable Royal Crypt.

How long ago was that? Scott wonders. I feel so much older now.

When he decides he can wait no longer, Scott nervously clears his throat. Delra glances up and scrambles to her feet, her eyes wide. Scott digs for words.

“Uh, hi,” he finally says. “It’s me, Scott.”

“I know,” Delra says. “I know, of course it is. Are you…?” She takes in a breath. “I mean, did you…?”

“No. No, I’m alive. I made it to the Royal Crypt alive.”

Delra flings her arms around Scott and weeps.

She smells just like his mom—vanilla and fresh dough. Scott bites back a surge of emotion and forces himself to gently return the embrace.

“We prayed so hard,” Delra chokes. “We prayed for safety in your travels. We begged Magnus to keep you safe. Every waking moment we hoped that someday you would make it here.” She pulls away and holds him at arm’s length, tears streaking her face. “To see you here now… It’s simply overwhelming. It’s so wonderful to see you.”

“It is?” Scott says, astonished. “But I killed you. I took you away from Jinas.”

“And it was no one’s fault but my own. I thought you could handle going through my mind, but everyone makes mistakes.” Delra laughs. “I’m just happy you’re alive! Gennos will be so pleased.”

“Oh.” Scott’s stomach ties itself in a knot. “Right, him.”

“He’s not angry with you, dear. We’ve had a lot of time to think and we both agreed that our deaths served a purpose. Whatever purpose that may be, and however big it was or was not, I’m certain it helped you make it here.” She takes his hand. “Come with me. I’ll take you to my husband now.”

Delra leads Scott deeper into the flower park. They travel so far into the fields that soon the fog returns, ghosting the ground at Scott’s ankles. Though the silence feels deafening, Scott doesn’t fail to miss a subdued hum coming from the ground like the whirr of machinery.

After a while, Delra pulls to a stop. A man sits facing away from them, his gaze locked in the distance. Delra approaches him from the side.

“Gennos,” she whispers. “Gennos my love, we have company.”

“Delra,” he says slowly, as if just waking from a long sleep. “I was having a vision. I can’t explain it, but I feel like Scott’s journey is close to its end now more than ever. I think our future has hope after all.”

“He’s here, my love. He’s right behind you.”

Zyphias turns slightly. Scott swallows hard. Zyphias slowly gets to his feet and turns to face the Hero. His starburst eyes have been replaced with gentle brown and a green and gold robe sweeps about his body. Scott casts his eyes at the floor, ashamed.

Zyphias tilts Scott’s head up. He turns it to the left, and then he turns it to the right. He looks deep into Scott’s eyes, searching for something known only to him, and when he’s satisfied, Zyphias lets go. Scott rubs his chin.

“You’re tired,” Zyphias says. “You’re very, very tired.”

“Yeah, and now I have a sore jaw.”

Zyphias cracks a grin. He takes Scott in his arms and embraces him. “It’s good to see you again.”

Scott clears his throat and gently pats Zyphias on the back. “Likewise. Good to see you too.”

Zyphias steps back and appraises him at arm’s length. “How did you get here? The journey should have killed you many times.”

“It almost did, but I didn’t make this trip alone. My friends were there to help me out. Your son says hello, by the way. He’s right outside the gates.”

“Jinas came with you?” Delra says. “All the way to this sacred place?”

“He’s a brave boy,” says Scott. “And he sure knows his medicine. Without him I would probably be dead in a ditch somewhere. You two raised a special one, that’s for sure.”

“I dreamed he would end up a doctor someday,” says Zyphias. “It’s good that he finally found his niche.” He turns to Scott. “Have you met Magnus yet?”

“Not yet. I’ll do that after I’m done talking with you guys.”

“You came to us first?” Delra says. “Why didn’t you go to Magnus?”

“I wanted to see you,” Scott says. “And I also wanted to say I’m sorry for killing you. I really didn’t mean it. I just lost control and… Look, I’ve never done something like that before. I was way out of control and I didn’t know how to stop myself.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” says Zyphias. “I don’t hate you for killing me. Our deaths served a purpose. Somehow or another, they were a necessary part of your development as a man.” He frowns. “And while I do appreciate you coming here, you really should have gone to see Magnus first.”

“I’ll visit him when I’m ready. There’s this guy I met who said he would show me around the Royal Crypt later, so I was thinking—”

“Scott,” Delra says gently. “I hope you realize that you’re the first Hero since the first Heroes to meet your patron god. This meeting could radically change the world. It is something you must do.”

“What if I don’t want it?” Scott says. “What if I want to just leave and forget all this ever happened?”

“Then you damn us all,” says Zyphias. “I know you’re headstrong and independent. I know you want freedom and liberty; that’s natural. But at least listen to what Magnus has to say. Let him talk to you. Then decide how you’re going to live your life. But don’t pass up this opportunity just because someone told you how important it is. That’s foolish.”

Scott sighs. “Fine. Where can I find him?”

Zyphias returns to his place on the ground. “Just keep walking. He will find you.”

“Scott…” Delra hugs him close. “I know things are confusing for you right now. But I promise everything is going to be explained soon. Just keep going. It’s almost Game Over.”

Scott hesitates for a moment, then hugs her back as tightly as he can. Suddenly he’s back on Earth, hugging his mom goodbye before going to work the night he would leave Earth. He breaks away before he gets too attached, and without another word, Scott hurries off into the emptiness of the flower park.

He walks in silence, his heart beating in double-time. It’s been ages since he’s thought of his home, his family, or everything and everyone he left behind. Why now? Why Delra and Zyphias? Perhaps it’s because they remind him of his parents. Maybe it’s because no matter how many times he messes up, they’ll always love him.

Don’t, he thinks. Don’t go there. Get back to the mission. Find Magnus.

Scott drifts through the foggy flower park in search of more people to ask for directions. He finds himself going nowhere. Each patch of grass blends into the next and all the flowerbeds look the same. Though he wanders for several minutes, he doesn’t find a single living person to talk to.

Then, Scott spies a thin man standing under a tree. He wears a black robe and holds a twisted staff in his hands. He stares out at the distant horizon, as if watching a fantastic spectacle that only he can see. Relieved he’s not completely lost, Scott jogs up to the tree.

“Hey,” Scott says. “Do you know where I can find Magnus?”

“Of course I do.” The man turns. “You’re looking at him.”

Salvation cruises slowly through the familiar maze of trees. His first stop is his Hideaway to set up fail-safes and preserve his research should he die fighting against Retribution. That way, long after his death, someone—perhaps a curious adventurer—stumble into the Hideaway and wonder about the story behind the ruins. They might even become inspired enough to continue Salvation’s work, hence the importance of keeping his research on the Shades hidden, maintained, and protected.

I’ve fought too hard and hunted the truth for too long. I won’t let it die with me. Salvation leisurely glides through the tunnel into his Hideaway. If I die today, my work must live on. Someone has to figure out how to cure the sickness and how to save my people.

He enters into his main hall. The smell of rotting, decaying flesh overloads his senses and he gags, instinctively reaching for a nose he doesn’t have. It takes a few moments for Salvation to steel himself against the stench.

He shoves his way past the odor and faces its source. Laying in the middle of the ground is the decaying corpse of a shredded octopus. Nearby is a dead flightless bird with a long, broken neck.

So this is how Retribution gets his kicks? Salvation slides around the carnage in a circle. By dumping flesh and blood in my own home? How childish. He’s no more fit to be Master of Shades than I’m fit to be—

He pauses, suddenly intrigued. Salvation floats into the air and surveys the scene from above. Spread out from both the bird and the octopus are scorch marks, as if something exploded and left only the corpses in its wake.

A light flicks on in Salvation’s mind. “By the gods,” he breathes. “They actually did it.”

It all becomes clear to him. The blue Shade, who always spoke as if struggling for breath, had been a bird that died from a broken neck. The shapeless Shade, who was always shifting form, had been an octopus that was torn to pieces by a bigger predator.

Reaching the white Glow makes you become what you were before you were a Shade!

Salvation sweeps down to the ground in a spiral, grateful for the Shades’ sacrifice. Through them, his knowledge has been furthered. Now he can give hope to his people—now he has a way to combat Retribution’s message of destruction and violence.

He instinctively touches the hole in his chest exposing his pink Glow. He grimaces, suddenly unsure if reverting to his original form is a wise idea. There’s no telling what the hole in his chest means. It could be anything from a cannon wound to the natural body of an undersea creature. Something tells him that finding out will likely be the last thing he ever does.

But if not now, when? Salvation glides across the two corpses and settles himself on the pedestal where he used to move himself to the astral realm. Why have I found out how to free myself from this body only to learn it will kill me? He looks out to his ledge high on the wall. And what of my people? If I die, who will tell them the secret I now know?

Salvation flies up to his ledge and exits into the open air, surveying the Hideaway below. He can almost hear his old students chattering in the thick fog, weaving through the trees and into their favorite crevices and corners. He had been teaching them, then. He had been their leader.

“Maybe Retribution was right,” he whispers. “Maybe I did betray them.”

Delilah, the Lady of the Woods, had been right after all. The path to the white Glow revealed itself to Salvation when he was least expecting it. He already had all the keys; what he needed was a proper door.

Somewhere out in the Cemetery, Salvation knows Retribution is terrorizing and murdering innocent lives. If left unchecked, the upstart Shade will take his fanatics out of the Cemetery and into places like Monarch, or perhaps even other realms. The gods will not take kindly to the new infestation, and in one fell swoop Salvation will lose all of his students forever—a punishment he doesn’t know if he can take.

Then I don’t have a choice, do I? Salvation looks up at the cold grey sky. I have to kill Retribution.

Scott says nothing, too awestruck to form words. Standing in front of him is Magnus, the god of Silence and Souls.

Magnus’s purple tattoos cut across his face like war paint, adding a degree of fierce intimidation to his sharp, sunken purple eyes. His short black hair spikes up over his forehead, and his gaunt body is weighed down by a plain black robe. In his hand is a long walking staff with a twisted end.

“So,” Magnus says. “You finally made it.”

“Yes,” Scott manages. “I mean, yes sir, but I wouldn’t have made it without some help.”

“Either way, I’m glad you’re here. It’s good to finally meet you in person.” Magnus turns and waves his staff at the flower park. A black portal manifests from thin air; a winding black cobblestone path appears on the ground. “Walk with me. It’s time we had a talk.”

“Right, a talk.” Scott claps his hands together, rocking on his heels. “The big one, I guess. The one everyone’s been waiting for.”

“Yes, that’s the one. Are you coming or not?”

Scott jogs up next to his patron god. Magnus walks off into the portal and Scott follows. No purple or white stones glint from the cobblestone path. The darkness is lit only by Magnus’s glowing purple eyes and the tip of his staff. They walk in silence. The world around them becomes quiet and still, devoid of the laughter and joy of the flower park and the golden city.

“So…” Scott clears his throat. “What’s this big talk going to be about?”

“About you, and your friends, and the reason that the Heroes were chosen in the first place.” Magnus looks over his shoulder. “Care to hazard a guess?”

Scott tosses his hands up. “I’m here to learn, not to shoot in the dark.”

“Learning started somewhere. The first man to learn was the first to, as you put it, shoot in the dark.” A leafless tree catches Magnus’s eye, its branches twisted and gnarled like broken fingers. He stops walking, suddenly wistful. “The gods are an old race, Scott—an ancient one that predates all written records and all passed-down memories. No one remembers that once, we were average creatures. We were once as mortal as the people of Renea.”

Magnus taps the head of his staff against the tree. A beautiful purple light pulses through it and it comes alive, a lantern in a tunnel of pitch darkness.

“We are not native Reneans,” he says. “We came from a different world and settled here after a grand adventure across the universe. That was entire eons ago, long before anyone heard the word ‘Renea.’”

“Not Renean…” Scott lays a hand on the tree, causing the lights to change from purple to blue. “Where did you come from?”

Magnus waves his staff at the heavens and continues on his way. “Out there, beyond the horizon, past the trees and the grass and the sky, from the planet Daltinkar. The original exploration group was close to a million in number—diverse enough to start a new world, for ours had been consumed by greed and violence. That original group eventually became the hierarchy of gods on a planet we named Renea, after the daughter of our ruler Lord Daltinkar.” Magnus laughs. “That must sound silly, a god worshipping someone.”

“But you weren’t gods at one point. That’s not silly at all.”

“Perhaps.” Magnus touches another tree and it glows with purple lights. “You know the story by now, don’t you? An ancient monster appeared and killed our friends, but the Big Ten stopped it. The ten strongest gods.” He snorts. “We were hardly ‘the Big Ten’ at all, besides Tetrask and maybe Chaldir. We ten gods were just gods; there was nothing special about any of us.” Magnus pauses, his voice becoming faraway. “But when we fought together… Oh when we fought together, we became something else entirely.”

Scott says nothing, letting the god have a moment to reminiscence.

“And so we fought,” Magnus says. “We killed the monster’s body and froze its Essence in spacetime. Tetrask took up the duty of keeping it locked away, and after the Renean people were created, he moved it to the moon. We crafted an elaborate story of Tetrask’s own design: how he set the monster loose, how we killed it and exiled him to the moon as punishment. It was a grand lie, a beautiful lie, but one that was necessary to keep the Reneans safe.” Magnus wrings his hands on his staff. “We soon learned, however, that our old enemy would have the last laugh.”

“Was he into jokes or something?”

Magnus smiles thinly. “No, the monster was all action and few words, unlike his companions who pride themselves on being powerful wordsmiths.”

“So why’d it get the last laugh?”

“Because of the final trick it played on the ten gods who defeated it. It laid upon us a horrifying curse, one that’s plagued us since time immemorial, and one that has taken the lives of many of our comrades. Paral was the first to go, followed by Lolai. Hibem fled the planet out of fear. Soon there were only seven. With Kalax now gone, there are only six.” Magnus glances at Scott. “Now do you care to hazard a guess as to why we need the Heroes?”

“The monster is coming back.” It dawns on Scott all at once. “It’s going to come back, but you’re three gods short of the Big Ten. You can’t kill it without all ten, so that’s why you need the Heroes.” He points. “You’re trying to build an army.”

Salvation floats through the sky with a lazy but deliberate sense of direction. Finding Retribution isn’t a problem since destruction and ruin follow him wherever he goes. The real problem is how to prevent his deceitful message from spreading. Salvation has come to terms with the fact that he must kill the rebel leader, but he doesn’t know if there’s a proper way to do it. A brutal murder will only intensify the rebellion and a merciful killing will paint Salvation as a lightweight.

He sighs, frustrated. Death was much easier to control when he wasn’t directly wielding it.

Cells of Shades have overrun every part of the Cemetery, even to the most remote areas near the ancient magical barriers. When Salvation spots a group of them swarming or terrorizing a local community, he swoops down from the sky and scatters them. Naturally, his presence serves to scatter the locals as well. The irony of his name quickly becomes a chain around his neck.

The hour is late when he finally spots a collection of yellow Glows shooting across the Cemetery; one light in the center is far brighter than the others. Retribution’s corrupted Shades look about with anxious fervency, no doubt weary of the Master’s arrival. That can only mean one thing—Retribution is afraid.

Good, Salvation thinks. He should be.

Instead of divebombing as he did before, Salvation leisurely descends toward them, silent and steady in his approach. It isn’t until he’s close enough to touch one of the Shades on the shoulder that the group notices him, and when they do, they disperse with shrieking howls. Some bury themselves in the ground while others hide in the darkness of nearby trees.

And once again, Retribution and Salvation stand face-to-face.

The rebel leader has grown in size. What was once a spindly, thin Shade has grown into a wide, powerful monster with a skeletal face and a wicked grin. Though he could easily swell to ten times Retribution’s height, Salvation merely matches it, figuring that the time for bluster and bravado has long since passed. This is purely business.

“Salvation.” Retribution looks pleased. “How are things?”

“Spare me the small talk. You stole my people from me and I’m here to take them back.”

“Stole? No, they were liberated. They never truly understood your message, though I suppose I didn’t either. But now I see the truth.” Retribution spreads his arms. “Now I am free.”

“Free from what?”

“From guilt. From worldly passions and desires. Even though the irony is bitter, I can’t help but thank you. Rebelling against your teachings has given me new life, a life I couldn’t have if I had nothing to reject.”

Salvation and Retribution begin to move around each other in a slow circle.

“You are a fool,” the Master says. “You don’t see where your actions are leading you.”

“I know exactly where they’re leading me. Once I’m done with the Cemetery, I’ll make an attack on Monarch. I’ll spread the sickness of the Shades across the entire world.”

Not if the gods have anything to say about it.

“And when the fire of war has dwindled, I will stand on top of the ashes and proclaim myself the one true king of Renea.” Retribution grins. “It is my purpose.”

“The gods will strike you down before you ever break through Monarch’s walls,” Salvation says. “Your plan is nothing but the pining wishes of a deluded child.”

“I have power now!” Retribution roars, blasting dust in every direction. “My strength is limitless! My Shades will usher in the greatest reckoning this world has ever seen! Who are you to stand in my way?”

“I am Salvation, the Master of Shades. The Cemetery is my home and I will do anything and everything to keep it safe.”

“Then the time for talk is over.” Retribution’s eyes glow fiercely. “Let’s end this, you traitor.”

The two Shades clash in a burst of pink and yellow magic. Retribution claws at Salvation’s face like a wild animal. Salvation slings Retribution into a tree. They exchange blows back and forth, battling for control. The corrupted Shades watch on in silent awe as the titans battle.

Retribution reels from a crushing blow; Salvation rushes in.

The rebel takes to the sky, but Salvation hurls him back to the ground.

“You don’t understand anything!” the Master shouts, beating Retribution across the field. “You never understood my message!”

You never understood my message!

Salvation feels a heartbeat rack his body; he stops moving. Somewhere deep in his chest, a small sensation begins to flutter, beating its feeble wings in an attempt to grow. He gingerly reaches for it, but his shadowy fingers meet only the hole in his chest.

“Where are you looking?”

Retribution barrels into his foe. He lifts the Master high and slams him into the ground.

Salvation draws himself up to full height, returning his focus to the battle. Retribution’s power has certainly grown by many magnitudes, but…

“Getting tired?”

“Not at all,” Salvation says, dusting himself off. “Shall we continue?”

Shall we continue?

Salvation jolts. The voice rings like a church bell, so loud and piercing that it reaches the depths of his being. The fluttering sensation flaps in his chest again.

Retribution attacks with a rush of yellow magic, overwhelming the unprepared Master of Shades. Salvation ducks out of the way and unleashes his own barrage of pink magic. Retribution batters it away and charges with a shriek.

Salvation takes to the sky.

Retribution drags Salvation to the ground.

“Lose your powers?” Retribution jeers, ruthlessly pummeling the Master of Shades. “Given up in the face of superior strength?”

With a roar of fury, Salvation lets himself go.

He smashes a fist into Retribution and rapidly turns the tables, attacking mercilessly. At first Retribution is merely stunned, but then he’s actively on defense. Salvation moves with brutal intention, pink magic punctuating each strike. Retribution bobs and weaves, gliding backward as fast as possible.

“You’re wrong!” Salvation cries, and the voice in his head echoes his words. “Everything you do, everything you say, it’s all a lie! A sham! You have no true power! You stole your strength from others!”

“Ha!” Retribution barks, launching his counterattack. “You stole more than I could ever dream! Who appointed you leader of the Shades? What makes you think any of us want to be led in the first place?” He shoves Salvation away; they hiss at each other from across the battlefield. “Who cares about your petty dreams of being a savior? What about what the dreams of others? What about my dreams?”

“Your dreams are twisted!” Salvation shouts. “I seek understanding, not destruction!” I seek peace, not violence! “The Shades were lost! I took it upon myself to guide them to the truth!”

“A truth you created!” Retribution retorts. “A truth built on a bedrock of lies! You don’t even know what happens when you reach the white Glow!”

“Do you?”

“What does it matter? I’ve reached an entirely new level of nirvana.” Retribution sweeps his arm out. “Look around you, Salvation. Your empire is in ruins. I control the Shades now. I alone am their ruler and their Master.”

“I was never their ruler,” Salvation says. “I never wanted to be. After I awoke in this nightmare, I knew there would soon be others like me—lost creatures searching for a purpose. I wanted to guide them; I never wanted to rule them.”

“Then you were blind,” Retribution seethes. “The only truth these Shades need to know is the truth of power. And I am more powerful than them.”

But what is power without wisdom?

Salvation’s voice catches and the fluttering in his chest intensifies. Images flash across his mind, images he can’t fully understand. A woman’s face smiling through the fog of candlelight. The laughter of children. A sun more beautiful and righteous than the brightest star in the sky.

Salvation shudders, then a brilliant light pierces the battleground.

Dust chokes the air, obscuring the view of the two combatants. The corrupted Shades watch with curious yellow eyes, some venturing from their hiding spots to get a closer look. Retribution stumbles out of the cloud, collapsing on the ground. He scurries away, fear etched in his face.

Salvation emerges from the smoke, his pink Glow replaced by pure white light.

And he can see it all.

He sees the life he led when he was a Renean. The wife he married, who helped him raise two beautiful boys. The friends he laughed with over drinks. His betrayal at the memorial of Eldun Kor’Yar before being killed by the one he trusted most. Everything is clear, finally clear. As the years of emotions and memories overwhelm his senses, Salvation can no longer contain himself.

Tears begin to fall from his eyes.

“What is this?” Retribution demands, fearful. “What have you done?”

“I had a family,” Salvation whispers. “I had children, friends, a home… I was a man.” He smiles. “I was a man.”

“You’re about to be dead!”

Retribution leaps toward his foe.

Salvation dips out of the way and cracks the rebel Shade across the jaw. Retribution skitters across the grass.

The Master of Shades glides forward, his hands folded behind his back. Condemning white light streams from the hole in his chest. Retribution scrambles to his feet and slings a bolt of yellow magic at Salvation.

Salvation deflects it with a flick of his hand.

“Fight back!” The rebel Shade flings a wild barrage of yellow magic. “Fight back, damn you!”

Salvation deflects each attack with a single hand. He presses ever forward, drawing closer to his foe with each passing moment. Retribution’s attacks become erratic and sloppy; they become pathetically easy to counter. When Salvation is mere strides from his foe, he thrusts a hand out and a sealing circle scrawls itself into the dirt, chaining Retribution in place.

The Master of Shades looks upon Retribution with heaviness in his heart. The fury, the agony, the fear… He understands it all. For too long he had been cooped up in his mad search for truth, knowing only frustration and elusion. He can only imagine what Retribution must have gone through during his long absence from the physical world.

“I think I know now.” Salvation slides forward. “I think I finally understand the pain you’re going through. The feeling of betrayal, the red-hot hatred in your heart… I truly hurt you, didn’t I?”

“Don’t you dare pity me,” Retribution seethes. “Free me so we can continue our battle.”

“What would it prove? I have bested you in strength, speed, and magic.”

“Is that what you think? Let me up! I’ve shown you only a sliver of my true power!”

“No, you’ve shown me everything you have. Frankly, I’m disappointed. I had high hopes when I first found you. You took to my teachings quite well.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” Retribution mutters. “You didn’t even know my name until the Hero entered the picture.”

“Of course I knew your name. I was the one who gave you it.” Salvation sighs. “This is where it ends. It brings me no joy to send one of my students away, but you’ve become too much of a threat. I can’t have you trying to hurt my people.”

“And where will you send me, hmm? No four walls can hold me. I’m invincible.”

“I’ll banish you to the Vast Emptiness, where you can never harm or corrupt anyone ever again.”

“No!” Retribution screams, struggling against the seal binding him to the ground. “You can’t do that! I am all-powerful! I will kill you!”

Salvation claps his hands together.

Retribution vanishes in a flash of white light, and all is silent.

Salvation turns to the Shades hiding in the trees and dark corners. He smiles and extends a hand toward them.

At first, nothing happens.

Then, one Shade darts out from the shadows and stops in front of Salvation. It bows reverently. “Master,” it says. “I have soiled our relationship. I don’t seek your forgiveness; I am not worthy. I am only sorry.”

“It was I who betrayed you. I’m sorry for my absence.” Salvation lays his hand on the Shade; the yellow Glow flees its body, replaced by a dim blue. “But I will teach you again—I will teach you how to discover the truth about yourself, if you are willing to listen.”

“Always,” the Shade says thankfully. “Always.”

A second Shade appears from the shadows. “Me too, Master. I wish to learn.”

“And me,” says a third.

One by one, the trees and dark hollows empty. The Shades crowd around their Master, and the yellow Glow recedes with only a touch. It isn’t long until all of the Shades gathered are back to their rightful Glow: some red, a few blue, and a few green.

“You all wish to learn?” Salvation asks.

The Shades all nod eagerly.

“Then follow me.” He turns toward the horizon. “The sun is rising soon, and I have a feeling it will be the most beautiful sunrise there has ever been.”

“That’s why you need the Heroes. You’re trying to build an army.”

Magnus smiles. “Close,” he says, “but it’s not quite so grand.”

Scott visibly deflates.

“An army would be helpful, perhaps as a momentary roadblock, because the power of the monster is absolute. Ten gods could barely hold the monster at bay; it’s far too much for one man, or even one million men.”

“And you’re four gods short now,” Scott says. “What happens if the monster gets out?”

“I suppose I will die, like everyone else.”

Scott scoffs. “Gods don’t die.”

“They shouldn’t, but they do.” Magnus grips his staff tighter. His eyes are troubled. “I may be a god, but I can’t live forever. Sooner or later, I’m going to die.”

Scott quirks his head, curious. Magnus turns and continues down the black cobblestone path.

“As I mentioned before,” Magnus says, “we learned that our enemy would have the last laugh. Before dying, it laid a curse upon the remaining gods, infecting us with an incurable disease. We’ve only survived because we are gods, but this curse comes from a power beyond all imagining.” Magnus stops in his tracks. He sinks into himself, supporting his weight against his staff. “I envy you, Scott. You’ve never seen the monster’s power at work. I myself can barely stand the memories.”

Scott is silent for a moment. “So why the Heroes? If they’re not an army, why were they called?”

“A god cannot die without an heir,” Magnus says. “Someone has to take our place when we die.”

A chill ripples down Scott’s spine. He mentally slaps himself, unbelieving.

Magnus faces his apprentice. “When a god dies, a chosen Hero must ascend and take their position as the new god. But not just any Hero: only a True Hero can take the place of a god. Anyone can be a Hero, and any Hero can venture to find the gods, but only a True Hero is worthy of Deiascension.”

“Am I…” Scott swallows. “Am I a True Hero?”

“No, not yet.” Magnus holds up a hand. “There’s still time to become one, and there is a lot to do between then and now. I’ve heard tales of a creature named Retribution wandering my realm; he will have to be dealt with. Salvation must also be neutralized; he’s a threat to everything I’ve worked for.” Magnus sighs. “My realm has so many problems. I can only hope I’ve prescribed the right medicine.”

“You’ve discovered a way to cure the sickness, then? A way to undo what’s happened to the people of the Cemetery?”

Magnus turns his gaze down the tunnel of black cobblestone. “Have you ever given thought to Salvation’s name, to what it means?”

“Not really,” says Scott. “I thought it was just pure irony.”

Magnus snorts a laugh. “It’s not just pure irony: it’s a horrific irony. Salvation, the savior of all things, yet by his very existence he spreads the sickness.”

“Are you sure? He said he was a byproduct of the sickness, not the source.”

“It’s funny, isn’t it? His name is Salvation, yet he destroys everything he touches. I am the god of Silence and Souls, yet there is nothing but noise and violence in my realm. Irony is such a cruel mistress.”

Magnus pauses, his eyes locked in the distance.

“All these people,” he whispers, his voice cold, “with their pleas and their prayers. They don’t understand what it’s like to be a god. They don’t understand my desire to be left alone, by myself, forever. It’s my nature, Scott. It’s who I am.”

An unsettling feeling blooms in Scott’s stomach. He takes a slow step backward.

“The monster had the right idea with its curse,” Magnus continues. “I should have done something like this ages ago. And good riddance to the other gods. If all goes well, soon I won’t have to see anyone else ever again.” He grins. “I will be alone, forever, in blissful silence.”

Scott sucks in a breath. “Oh my God…”

“Ever since I created the sickness, Cemeterians have been dying in droves. Blood soaks into the dirt. Souls pour into my Crypt by the thousands. And with each passing day, the Cemetery has gotten a little bit quieter.” Magnus turns; his eyes are cold and calculating. “Have you noticed it, Scott? Isn’t it beautiful?”

“You,” Scott says. “The sickness, the Shades… It was you! You caused all of it!”

“Of course I did.” Magnus strikes his staff on the ground. A magic circle appears at his feet, purple magic curling into the air. “This is my realm. I won’t let anyone have it. Not you, not Salvation, not anyone. To hell to the other gods, with their Testaments and their neutrality and their belief in mortal men. I alone am ruler of the Cemetery, and I always will be.”

“How could you do such a thing?” Nausea sickens his stomach. “To poison your own realm… To murder your own people! How could you do this, Magnus?”

“When the gods voted to create the Reneans and the Heroes,” Magnus says, “I was the sole dissenting voice. I wanted my legacy to die with me so no one could ever claim my throne.” He stands up straighter, his voice regal and profound. “I am a god, Scott, and though I might not have been once before, that was eons ago. Now I’m used to the power and the prestige and I want to keep it. Here in my Royal Crypt I can be left alone to do as I please. No more diplomatic meetings to decide what to do next. No more majority vote. No more senseless noise. Just total silence, forever.”

Scott stumbles, dizzy. “This is wrong.” He presses his hand against a tree, then slides down to his knees. “This is just so wrong.”

Magnus snorts pretentiously. “What do you know about gods, Scott? What do you know about living for hundreds of thousands of years? What’s one dead Renean to me, or a thousand, or a million? Why should it disturb me to pollute the spirits of the dead to create a new breed of monsters? I have a near infinite amount of souls to use—do you really think I care what happens to them? Do you think I care about the people my sickness has killed? Do you think I care about the souls I’ve corrupted to make Shades? I care about nothing—not anyone, not anything.”

“Then I have to fight you,” Scott manages. Magnus’s purple magic swirls around him in a frenzied whirlwind. “And I won’t stop fighting until I win, no matter how hard it gets.”

“I thought you might say that. That means I have to kill you.” Magnus lifts up his staff. “I’m obliged to tell you this before you die: not long ago, I had a vision. A vision that someone would come here and kill me. At first I thought it was Salvation, but now I know it was you. You’re here to kill me and take my Cemetery away from me. You don’t think I’m capable of handling myself. You want to destroy everything I’ve worked for.”

“You’ve already…” Scott coughs, the purple magic like a thick poison in his lungs. “You’ve already destroyed everything you’ve worked for.”

“I see things differently,” Magnus replies. “I’ve advanced my empire. But I won’t stop here. The Cemetery is just the beginning. I’ll spread my sickness across the world and render everything silent. The other gods will be powerless to stop me. Renea will become a quiet, lifeless world—a place where only I walk the surface.”

“I won’t let you do this,” Scott says. “I can’t let you do this!”

“I suppose I should thank you,” Magnus says. “If you had been less dedicated in finding me, Salvation might have found you much earlier, and he certainly would have killed you. Imagine if the Master of Shades stood in your place! Then I’d really have my work cut out for me.” The god shrugs. “But since it’s only you, this is going to be far easier than I thought.”

Scott grinds his teeth, trying to force himself to stand up.

“So, thank you for neutralizing Salvation for me. Thank you for making this easy. And thank you for being a willing sacrifice to my cause. After all, what’s one more soul in the coffers of my Crypt?” The god points his staff forward. “I suppose visions are fake after all. I’ll be sure to tell Salvation before I kill him, too.”

“Don’t do this,” Scott whispers. “Please, Magnus…”

“Goodbye, Scott.”

Then, a brilliant yellow light splits the world wide open.

Chapter Fifteen

[]The Marble Room

Inside Pinnacle Monastery

Stanley Lockwood opens his eyes and draws in a shaky breath.

It takes him a moment to realize he’s alive, and a moment longer to wonder why he should be dead. His chest aches with a distant pain that he can’t fully remember. Stanley places a few quivering fingers on his chest. His heart beats loud and strong, each pump of blood like hot magma in his veins.

Stanley slowly sits up. His blanket falls away, exposing his bare skin to the cool air. A faint line is etched into his sternum. If Stanley didn’t know better, he would almost say he was stabbed by a sword.

The room around him is made of grey shale. The only permanent fixtures are his bed, an adjacent window, and a small chair, over which is draped a silver robe. It is still night outside, though the sky is showing hints of grey. Only a few more hours until sunrise.

The door opens without warning. A tall, grey-skinned man with a long beard enters the room.

“Deion said you would be awake. Good. My name is Kinar; I’m one of the Keepers of Pinnacle Monastery.” He gestures to the chair. “There was a tear in your robe, so I sewed it up for you. I fixed your glasses and put them in the left pocket.”

Stanley instinctively reaches for his face. He didn’t even notice that his glasses were missing.

“Deion said you would probably like a tour. Is that correct?”

“Deion?” The words feel dry in his throat. “Deion is here?”

Kinar nods. “Yes, he’s been in the Monastery ever since your accident.”

“Accident? What accident?”

“Deion will explain later.” Kinar turns. “Get dressed. I’ll be waiting outside.”

The door closes rather unceremoniously. Stanley sits in silence for a while, then looks at the scar on his chest. The diamond shape rules out being impaled by a spike or run through with a javelin. He slowly traces the sealed skin, a little confused as to why he doesn’t remember much from his apparent accident.

Stanley pulls his blanket aside and lets his legs dangle over the bed. His bare feet find purchase on the cool bedrock of his room; a chill runs up his spine. He stands slowly, taking a moment to ensure his legs won’t fold underneath him. The weight of his body presses into the ground and the muscles in his legs tighten, but he doesn’t fall.

Stanley pulls on his silver robe and ties the sash low and tight across his waist. He fishes his spectacles out of the pocket and puts them on. The world focuses into view, though it takes him a few seconds to get used to wearing glasses again. When he can finally see clearly, Stanley spies something he didn’t see earlier.

Sitting on the chair is a small red box that’s been beaten and bruised around the edges. The hinges are torn and bent, more rust than they are silver. The box seems somewhat familiar, as if he saw it in a dream a long time ago.

Stanley picks it up and thumbs the lid. For a moment he considers opening it to see what’s inside, but something tells him now isn’t the right moment. Though he doesn’t understand why, Stanley decides it isn’t worth an arduous debate. Kinar is still waiting to give him a tour and forfeiting a trip through Pinnacle Monastery isn’t worth a peek into a vaguely important box.

Stanley pockets it and leaves his room; Kinar is waiting patiently outside. The roof curves like an underground tunnel, green and white gemstone lamps hanging on walls. The hallway is quiet and still—even a soft inhale feels like the trumpeting call of an elephant.

“Are you surprised?” Kinar asks, breaking the silence quite abruptly.

“Surprised? What would I be surprised about?”

Kinar quirks his head. “You came here in a frankly distressing condition.”

“I do not remember much.”

“Yes, well… It’s probably for the best.” Kinar walks down the hallway.

“What happened?” Stanley asks, jogging up to the Keeper. “Why was I in a ‘distressing condition’?”

“Deion will tell you,” Kinar replies. “After all, he’s the one who saved your life.”

“Why will you not tell me?”

“Because it’s not my place—it is Deion’s.” Kinar stops at a closed door. “All Keepers respect and fear the god of Mountains and Time. We avoid speaking when not addressed, and when he entertains a guest, we stay out of his way. Deion is not fond of many Reneans. We’ve seen what he does to those who come here unbidden.”

“What does he do?”

“Many things,” Kinar says. “But it is not my place to tell you.”

Stanley frowns but says nothing else.

Kinar turns aside and opens the door, revealing a room made out of sparkling white marble. Ornate pillars reach for the ceiling and hold up a glowing, pulsing dome. Tapestries of all colors dangle from the walls; along the floor is a beautiful red carpet leading to the base of an enormous grey statue.

“Here is where we part,” Kinar says. “I’ll return later.”

“I thought you said you were taking me on a tour.”

“Plans have changed.” Kinar guides Stanley into the room. “See you soon.”

The door closes and Stanley is left alone.

Pinnacle Monastery rumbles and something at the far end of the room shifts. The grey statue moves from its place and lumbers toward the Hero. Stanley takes a step backward, ready to bolt for the door if necessary.

The statue stops a few feet from Stanley. Then, it shrinks impossibly quickly. Instead of a block of stone, there stands a bald, grey-skinned man in loose red pants with a black sash. His barrel chest is wide and stocky, and his eyes glow with brilliant grey light. A wave of awe washes through the Hero, and Stanley matches the gaze with an intense gaze of his own. He’s no fool—it’s clear who’s standing across from him.

“Deion.”

“Stanley.” Even though his lips don’t so much as twitch into a smile, the tone of Deion’s voice makes it clear he’s overjoyed about the Hero’s arrival.

Curt but polite, Stanley thinks. I like him already.

Deion turns away and walks deeper into the huge hall. Stanley follows, his footsteps resounding off the walls. A strange sense of déjà vu comes over him. The sparkling marble walls seem too surreal, the sound of Deion’s voice too familiar. Stanley’s hand instinctively goes to his chest, gingerly touching the place where his wound was healed.

Ahead, Deion pulls to a stop. He appears to be waiting for something.

“What happened to me?” Stanley asks. “Why did Kinar say I was in an accident?”

“Because you were in an accident.”

“What kind of accident?”

“You were stabbed through the chest by an omnipresent demon.” Deion starts walking again. “You died three hours ago.”

Stanley suddenly becomes aware of the blood pumping through his veins. He shivers, the line between death and life blurred into a messy grey paste. His pulse beats in the corner of his wrist and he hurriedly rubs it away.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Deion says over his shoulder. “I thought you would be.”

Stanley jogs to catch up. “If I died three hours ago, how am I here now?”

“There is no here,” Deion says. “There is no now. There is only the slurry of space and time, and currently you and I are isolated from it until our conversation is over.”

“How can I die and still be alive? It is not possible.”

“Your mind is blocked by what you perceive as possible. Until you learn to see time less as a medium instead of a linearity, you will never understand how you can be both dead and alive.”

“I do not understand,” Stanley says, running around to stop Deion in place. “Explain what I am missing.”

“No,” says the god. “You have to learn on your own. I’m a mentor, not a crutch.”

“How can I learn if you will not teach me?”

“I’m teaching you right now. Grey magic is not easy to control. But if you master it, you will perform wonders beyond all imagination, like how I saved you without the use of medicine.”

“You saved me,” Stanley echoes. “I can accept that. But how did you do it?”

“If you don’t remember, you still have much to learn.”

Deion pushes past Stanley and heads for the farthest side of the room. He stops in front of an altar and gestures. Stanley jogs up to him. Sitting on a pedestal is a circular block of stone with six inserts engraved with six symbols. Another insert sits in the center, also with a symbol engraved inside.

“In another time,” Deion says, “you would have died on my doorstep. I can only imagineyou’re your companion would leave you there, but perhaps there’s a method to his madness. In a way, he forced my hand; either I fixed you or lost the most valuable man in the universe.”

“Valuable?” Stanley says. “Me?”

“You’re certainly the first apprentice to reach Pinnacle Monastery since…” Deion sighs. “Since a very special woman many, many years ago.”

Stanley thinks for a moment. “You reversed time. That is why I do not remember anything. It is the only plausible explanation I can think of.”

“Correct,” the god says. “You lost a lot of blood, and while I managed to stop the bleeding, the damage to your brain was something I could only fix by sending your mind back in time. I then had to catch it before you were stabbed and fast-forward it to a future where you survived. It was a bit of a messy business.” Deion knits his hands together. “However, space-time has a tendency to correct the changes made, and someday you will die again. Perhaps multiple times, if it’s necessary.”

“No wonder I feel out of place.” Stanley lays a hand on the altar. “I have become unstuck from time.”

“You’re very much rooted in time,” Deion says. “It would be foolish to leave you open to free travel throughout the timestream. If someone were to gain control of your mind, the consequences could be devastating.”

“A great power with great responsibility, then.”

“More than you can possibly imagine.” Deion pauses. “What I’m about to tell you I have told to only one other mortal. I hope you will listen to what I have to say, because if you accept my proposition, you will likely have this conversation with someone else someday.”

The corner of Stanley’s lips curl into a smile. “Just as I thought. I was called here to be your replacement.”

“You don’t seem surprised. Strange, you were blown away in most of our previous conversations.”

“Previous conversations?”

“It’s unimportant,” Deion says, waving his hand dismissively. “The good news is you’re here and you’re ahead of the curve. I doubt other candidates would have been as astute.”

“It makes logical sense,” says Stanley. “Why else would I be called here? To just ‘have an adventure’? To ‘save Renea’ from some otherworldly, unbeatable force?”

Deion’s eyes harden, but he says nothing.

“Certainly not to become part of some army of Heroes,” Stanley continues. “Either the Renean gods are getting restless and wish to leave and start anew or you are all about to die. A suicide pact, perhaps? No, there is no motive behind that.”

“The gods are sick,” Deion explains. “A curse was laid on us and we have been dying ever since. Kalax, god of life and forests, died a few months ago and the rest of us don’t have much longer. We’ve been looking for replacements since we first called the Heroes ages ago. I believe you know one of them: he goes by Gabriel. He apprenticed under Kalax.”

“Is that so? Then why was he unable to take Kalax’s place?”

“Gabriel and his friends never became True Heroes, and only a True Hero will be able to ascend and take the place of a god. How you become a True Hero is something you have to learn for yourself, like the intricacies of grey magic.”

Stanley glances at the circular rock on the altar. “Does it have anything to do with that?”

“No. That’s a piece of a Puzzle best left forgotten and unsolved.”