KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. The hoarding of rumor was an addicting sort of habit that made Isek Beirnuckle hum with ecstasy. Tiny morsels of information kept him alive, barely surviving, until the blissful moment when all the pieces fell into place, clicking together with a rush of glorious revelation.
Occasionally, he happened upon a rarity of illumination that was simply too tempting to resist, one where a more active role was required.
Isek had acquired precisely such a treasure, when earlier this morning, he had pressed his ear to a door and listened to two ancients speaking of matters never before spoken. The reward was limitless; the risk disastrous. But life had always been a game to one such as Isek, and he played it with a ruthless flourish.
In one indistinguishable corridor from the next, Isek led his four fellow Wise Ones behind a dusty tapestry that mirrored a thousand others.
A dark-skinned Kilnish Lord, a slant-eyed Rahuatl, a leather-garbed gnome, and a young power hungry Xaionian crowded behind the tattered tapestry with Isek.
Eiji growled, jostling for a better position as the four men threatened to squeeze the gnome from the cramped alcove. Isek suppressed a chuckle, imagining the tapestry from without, bulging and moving as five Wise Ones stuffed themselves into the space.
“Grant me access to the Archlord’s Runic Eye,” Tharios ordered, and although he wore a smooth, imperious mask of control, his eyes shone with hunger.
“I can’t—” Isek stammered. “Not until the Circle of Nine names you as Archlord. Until that’s done, Marsais is the only one who can grant you access to the rune.” Isek shuffled from foot to foot. But his uneasiness was insincere.
The Spine defied logic, it resisted reason, and anyone daring to ponder its design would be left with a truly puzzling conclusion. However, Isek knew the tower like the back of his teeth, and he recognized that he had the advantage over the power hungry fool. He intended to keep it that way.
Tharios’ cool eyes pierced Isek. For a moment Tharios’ mask slipped, revealing the depth of lunacy beneath, but before Isek could take a step back, the mask returned, leaving him good and truly unsettled. He ran a nervous hand over his smooth head.
“You’re right of course.” Tharios dipped his chin. “Uphold your end of our bargain, and I’ll uphold mine.”
“As agreed.” Isek pressed his palm over a bare spot of stone. The invisible rune activated with a faint tremor. He motioned the four into the teleportation weave. When they had all disappeared, he stepped through, feeling the familiar tug of stone. He emerged in an alcove that was perpetually plagued by cobwebs. The four Wise Ones stood staring at the long corridor that was void of decoration save a row of doors on either side.
Their footsteps echoed in the emptiness.
“What’s behind these doors?” The gnome peered curiously at each in turn.
“Libraries, storage rooms, and the vault,” explained Isek, pointing to one of the rune-etched doors that looked no different from the rest.
“Would you look at that Ward.” Eiji gave a low whistle, but he strode past without pause, leading them into the Archlord’s circular study. The room was exactly how Marsais had left it this morning before the duel—utterly chaotic.
“The bed and bathing chambers are through there.” Isek pointed down the short hallway to the connecting doors.
“Impressive,” Shimei said, admiring the massive crystal window. “Although as disorderly as it is, I feel as if I’ve walked into the lunatic’s mind.”
The only uncluttered surface in the study was a table top covered with a swirling cycle of rune stones. Isek eyed the abandoned game of King’s Folly. Marsais and his nymph were fond of the lord’s game, and so was Isek; only he liked to play with lives.
While Shimei and Eiji poked curiously around the study, N’Jalss searched for the purported flask that Marsais had reluctantly told them about in the dungeon. Isek followed Tharios and the Rahuatl into the bedchambers. When the two spotted the charred bedclothes, they drew up short.
“Marsais has odd tastes,” Isek explained, vaguely.
“Have you ever seen the flask Marsais claimed was here?” Tharios folded his hands behind his back, scanning the room while N’Jalss began a systematic search of the area, flicking things aside with his clawed finger caps.
“Not in his bedchamber, aside from the Primrose wine I gave him. However, there were two flagons in his vault,” Isek said. “Isiilde opened one of them, and accidentally released the Imp that has been plaguing the castle. The second flagon is still in his vault.”
“Keep searching his bedchamber, N’Jalss,” Tharios ordered, before sweeping out of the room with a rustle of fabric. He gestured to the gnome and Kiln. “Eiji, Shimei, with me.”
Isek followed, threading a gold crown over his knuckles; back and forth, up and over, in a steady, uninterrupted motion. The coin was his only bad habit—his only physical tell to an otherwise flawless act.
Three of the most talented Wise Ones in the Order stood in front of the vault. Each wore an identical frown. Marsais’ wards were as legendary as his madness.
“Open it, Isek.” Shimei gestured at the vault.
“I think not,” Isek smiled blandly. “I’d sooner ride an Auroch than touch one of Marsais’ wards. The man may be mad, but he has a cruel sense of humor when it comes to runes. In the past, when he’s needed something from his vault, he always opens the door himself.”
“You’re not in a place to negotiate,” Shimei sneered.
“Actually, he is,” Tharios interjected with the smoothness of a diplomat. “Isek, as I’m sure he knows, is the only one who can safely transport us out of the Archlord’s inner sanctum. In short, Shimei, if something were to happen to our guide, we would be trapped here.” The Kiln bristled and, raising his chin, turned his back on Isek to study the warded vault.
“How did the nymph unravel this ward?”
“Isiilde has a talent for them. She thinks it’s a game. After she unraveled this one, she rifled through his vault.”
Tharios pursed his lips in thought. And Isek kept his breath even. It was apparent, even then, that there was more to the nymph than met the eye—talent was an understatement.
Eiji gave a dispassionate shrug. “We can use Marsais as leverage and have the nymph open it.”
“And risk her dying in the process?” Isek snapped. It wouldn’t do for Tharios to take an interest in the nymph. If the man Stievin, who had raped the nymph, had had any sense beyond his cock, he would have realized just what he possessed. The power hungry Xaionian would not be nearly so foolish.
Tharios held up a hand. “I honor my arrangements. I swore to Isek that he would have her. Besides, I wouldn’t trust the nymph to open this any further than I’d trust Marsais—who knows what those two might purposefully unleash.” Tharios turned to Shimei and smiled.
“It’s time our Kilnish friend proved his dedication.”
Shimei spat. “What do you call my participation in this usurpation thus far?”
“You were the one who approached me. After all, if a nymph can unravel this ward, then surely it’s not too difficult for a Kiln.”
Tharios had pricked Shimei’s pride. The lord could hardly back down now; however, he was rescued by a soft murmuring breeze. An urgent chorus of whispers settled on Tharios’ ears—all vying for attention. The messages were the same: The prisoners have escaped.
“Curse Zander’s incompetence!” Tharios hissed, twisting his features into a mask of rage. For the first time since Isek undertook this dangerous game of betrayal, he felt a knot form in his stomach—the game had just taken an unexpected turn.
Tharios turned to Isek. “Get us down there, now!”
As the five Wise Ones sped back down the hallway whence they came, each of them asked the same silent question: How did the bound prisoners manage to escape their guards?
Round two to you, Marsais. Isek slapped his palm on the teleportation rune with more force than necessary, and as Tharios disappeared into the stone, Isek knew he was going to have to find some new leverage for himself, and fast.
The seer had had a trick up his sleeve after all. This left Isek in a very precarious position, but more importantly, the most powerful being to walk Fyrsta in over two thousand years—a sixteen year-old nymph—had slipped through his fingers.
COOL AIR SLAPPED the nymph’s face. Isiilde Jaal’Yasine dangled over a broad shoulder, staring at moving boots and the ground far below. The ferns and earth were bathed in blue. She craned her neck, gazing at the Runic Gateway. One step from crushing stone to open air, but where had they stepped into?
The twin pillars of the Gateway swirled with chaotic runes. She blinked against the light, twisting her body to take in the view. A forest of ancient sequoia stretched towards the sky. Silver moonlight pierced the distant canopy, caressing a maze of ruin and a toppled tower. Wherever they were, the tangle of stone and vine mixed with shadow did not look hospitable.
As if sensing her thoughts, the portal snapped out of existence, plunging her into darkness. The nymph dropped her head. She did not care if the darkness swallowed her, but she did care for another.
She struggled on her perch, shifting weakly. Oenghus helped her down, lowering her some seven feet to the earth. Her guardian’s sapphire eyes glinted in the night, and his hand steadied her until her legs stopped wobbling.
A shadow fought with a fern on the ground. Moonlight touched a cascade of luminous white hair, and Isiilde rushed to her Bonded. His hands were crushed, bound in hasty bandages, and utterly useless. She could feel his pain as if it were a dim memory, lurking beyond the veil that he had forged between their intertwined spirits.
Weak with exhaustion, she stumbled on a root, and fell to her knees. Something stirred in the shadows, but her eyes were fixed on the rangy seer. Her heart was numb, it had been frozen and shattered, then stitched back together with his light. The battered organ gave a frantic lurch.
“Marsais,” she breathed. He wheezed her name in return, climbing to his knees. Isiilde looked to her giant guardian, who stood on a fallen pillar. “Heal him, Oen.”
The towering Nuthaanian quieted her with a gesture. And then she heard it—a soft scrape and a click, followed by another in the pattern of a predatory gait.
The Runic Gateway pulsed, the runes flared to life, and the air between pillars rippled. With a squeal of delight, a flapping fiend flew out of the portal, fleeing into the night. Luccub the Imp was free.
The Gateway pulsed once, and died. Shadows shifted in the ruins. A flash of ice blinked and disappeared. Marsais’ head snapped towards the flash. His long, lean body tensed.
“I can’t heal him here,” Oenghus growled, backing off the pillar. “It’s too dangerous.” He summoned the Lore, weaving a rune of light around his shield. White light replaced the fading blue, pushing at the shadows, but it failed to pierce their depths.
The Gateway activated, the air between the standing stones distorted again, and Knight Captain Acacia Mael stepped out of the portal. She took in the forest, the ruins, and the night, and moved beside the nymph, shield and sword held at the ready.
“We’re not alone,” Oenghus warned the new arrival. He shifted hammer to shield arm, and yanked the seer to his feet. Isiilde put a shoulder under Marsais’ arm, but he was heavy and she was weak, and she was not sure who supported whom.
Power gathered again, and the world exhaled, spewing two more paladins into the land: one young and smooth and the other seasoned and scarred.
A hiss rose with the wind. The shadows beyond the light writhed like a pit of snakes. Clicks and scrapes and a sibilant chorus whispered between trees.
Isiilde froze. “What is that?”
“Reapers,” the seasoned warrior spat. Lucas Cutter and Rivan moved into a defensive position, forming up around their captain. The single word clutched Isiilde’s throat. Fear trickled down her spine. Voidspawn. Creatures of nightmare with a thirst for fresh blood.
Isiilde wanted to stop time, to halt the moment and run back through the portal, but Marsais’ arm circled her neck protectively, pressing her back against his chest, rooting her in place.
The Runic Gateway flared to life, signaling another arrival—an unwanted one. Oenghus twisted, and swung as an Isle Guard stepped through the portal. The startled guard caught the steel fist with his face. Blood and bone and brain misted the night. The guard fell at the Gateway’s threshold.
A hundred eyes snapped open, burning with icy hunger. Blood was in the air. And the darkness exploded. The shadows converged like a pack of dogs after a hare.
“Shields on the nymph!” Acacia ordered, catching a dark shape on her own heater. A barrier of steel and flesh surrounded Isiilde and Marsais as darkness gave birth to terror. A roar shook the forest, lightning crackled, blinding and bright, illuminating the Reapers in a bluish light.
Something moved overhead, and Isiilde jerked her head up. A humanoid shadow leapt from a branch—all fang and claw and sleek scale. It landed in the middle of the circle, in front of Isiilde. The Reaper lashed, quick as an adder, but Marsais’ boot was quicker. His foot slammed into a fanged mouth.
The captain twisted, slicing her sword at the creature, felling it with one sweep, before returning to the wave of Reapers. Claw scraped against steel with ear-piercing shrieks.
Acacia chanted in a clear, ringing voice. Her shield burst with light, glowing as brightly as the silver moon. It cut through the murk, slamming into a knot of wiry Reapers. The Voidspawn spat in pain, shrinking from the blinding brilliance. A path opened through the tangle.
“Move to the tower,” Acacia ordered. As one, the fighting unit moved forward in a tight formation, all save Oenghus. The Nuthaanian waded into the fray, harvesting Reapers with broad, pounding strokes.
Behind the wall of shields, Isiilde struggled to maintain her footing, slipping over the mangled corpses of Reapers. But Marsais steadied her, providing a buffer against the paladins’ movements.
Air gathered, as if the earth held its breath, and then it burst with a wave of power. Isiilde peeked between the paladins’ shields. The Runic Gateway spit a cloaked figure from its portal. Above the clamor, she could hear the Lore, could see the runes the stranger traced, and the urgency in his weave.
Marsais shouted an alarm. And quick as a viper, he broke through the circle, racing heedlessly through the ruin, back the way they had come, towards the traitorous Wise One at the Gateway.
Isiilde moved to follow, but Acacia shoved her against Lucas, and shot after the seer. Isiilde watched her Bonded slam into the Wise One. Both men fell with a bone jarring force.
The Wise One came out on top, raising a wicked dagger. Acacia was too far to help. Isiilde screamed. The dagger plunged downwards, piercing flesh and heart, but not Marsais’. The traitor drove the blade into his own chest. His fingers spasmed, he twitched, and fell to the side.
“No,” Marsais rasped.
Acacia kicked the Wise One off Marsais, and the Reapers fell on the corpse, fangs sinking into flesh. As the cadaver began to harden, the captain dragged the seer to his feet, pulling him away from the transforming remains. A wave of Reapers converged, crashing against shields, and for a moment, the pair was lost.
Before Isiilde could dash into the fray, a single word of power split the night, pounding into her ears. Energy crackled around Oenghus’ hammer. A chain of lightning lashed towards the standing stones, slicing a path through the horde. Marsais and Acacia raced through the opening. Behind them, in the clear path, the stone like corpse cracked and eerie light seeped from hardened flesh, burning brighter with every heartbeat. The Reapers recoiled and fled, scattering like rats.
The corpse was consumed, and in its searing light agony was born. An inky spot appeared in the brightness, devouring the dead Wise One’s spirit. It grew and slithered until there was nothing left save an eternity of torment.
Isiilde could not tear her eyes from the abomination. An inhuman screech sliced the night. She was jostled, and dragged, and finally her feet remembered that they were attached to legs. The nymph ran.
A frigid wind infused the scream beating at her back, sucking the air from her lungs. The nymph pressed her palms against her pointed ears, but the sound rattled inside her skull, until she forgot to think, forgot to move. She stopped, as did the paladin at her side. Terror rooted her and Rivan in place.
Frost climbed the trees, foliage wilted, and a great flapping form rose on the wind—of tatters and bleakness and hungry death.
Hardened warriors to the bone, Oenghus and Lucas turned to face the monstrosity. Tendrils of inky rot spread, snaking through the forest, striving towards life. She could feel its touch like a cold tongue, flicking beneath her skin to lick her bones.
Oenghus roared, sending a bolt of jagged blue into the center of the Forsaken spirit. It twisted and wavered and then snapped back into focus with renewed strength. A shadowy tentacle lashed towards the offender, and Oenghus threw himself to the side, bringing his hammer down on the limb. Steel passed harmlessly through, and her guardian shuddered. He bellowed the Lore, awakening the earth.
The ground shifted, trembled, and erupted, rising over the Forsaken blot. Trees groaned, dirt and vines surged like a wave and crashed with force, drowning the writhing tatters.
Isiilde’s roots were shaken loose and her knees hit earth. The ground shuddered, and in the settling aftermath, Lucas Cutter ran towards the center of misery. His blade burned white and pure, pulsing with a prayer. Inky tendrils whipped at the charging paladin, groping for his soul.
The warrior leapt from crumbled stone, to fallen tree, and off, plunging his blade into the Forsaken’s heart.
Rage filled the forest, pounding at her eardrums. The tendrils folded in on themselves, retracting into a shapeless mass. Life warred with misery. The Forsaken was pinned to the ground, twisting beneath the searing blade. With a snap of air, it broke free, fluttering towards the tree tops until it disappeared.
Isiilde could not breathe. Her heart spasmed, as if the abused organ could not remember its rhythm. Marsais reached her, cupping her face with bandaged hands. His lips moved, eyes urgent, but so very far away.
“Move!” His order slapped shock aside and Isiilde scrambled to her feet as Acacia shoved Rivan into action.
The darkness hissed.
“They’re swarming!” Acacia shouted.
Stone bit into the nymph’s bare feet as she ran, blindly following the captain. A jangle of armor, haggard breathing, and hurried boots joined her flight. The group raced towards a ruined tower, its top shorn but the foundations strong.
The Reapers struck, heedless of steel and crackling doom.
Thunder rumbled from Oenghus’ throat. Lightning charged the air, dropping the Voidspawn like flies. Their burning stink seared the inside of the nymph’s nostrils.
An archway loomed ahead. The nymph flew through its threshold with Marsais on her heels. The stench of decay crawled down her throat, oozing from a chamber filled with detritus. Another archway stood opposite. Marsais dragged her to a stop, but every instinct screamed at her to flee, to keep running until the ruins fell away.
Lucas and Acacia raced in front of her, planting themselves at the exit while Oenghus turned to face the swarming pack nipping at their heels. Over seven feet of fury, of death and carnage, made for a formidable gatekeeper.
All around, steel flashed against claw and unnatural shadow. Isiilde was lost in the chaos, detached from her body. Time moved sluggishly. As if gazing through another’s eyes, she watched a sleek form crawl across the ceiling with a click of claw. The Reaper clung to the stone like a spider on its web. Somewhere, in a distant corner of the nymph’s mind, beyond horror and shock, a voice urged her to scream.
The Reaper sprang and a white-haired form rushed to her defense. Marsais slammed into her attacker, catching the Voidspawn in mid-air, knocking Isiilde to the ground. His hands were useless, but his body served him well. Marsais drove a bony shoulder into the creature, ramming it against the tower wall. Fangs flashed and bit into his flesh, as the seer growled, driving the Reaper mercilessly into the stone.
Rivan rushed forward, pinned the Reaper with his shield, and plunged his blade through the thrashing shadow. The fangs lost their will and Marsais staggered backwards. Isiilde steadied him, more clinging than supportive.
Oenghus roared, shaking loose dust and stone. White hot energy sizzled against scale, blasting a path through the mass outside. Reapers fell dead piling at the gate, as more surged to fill the gap.
Dirt and dry bone swirled in the air. The nymph suddenly sneezed, and three fiery bursts puffed from her ears. Marsais raked his eyes over the debris. Decay in all its morbid stages surrounded them: rotting flesh and dried bone; brittle timber and climbing vines.
“Rivan,” he ordered. “Gather timber, dead vines, anything that will burn.” Marsais kicked a branch against a thigh bone that was still attached to a brittle trouser leg.
Blood and sweat streaked the young paladin’s face. He blinked in confusion, but the nymph was well used to that state. Marsais rarely made sense. She picked up a rotted sack and tossed it in the pile. Rivan caught on, and did the same, adding more kindling as he found it.
To Isiilde, it felt as if she were moving in a fog. Fear was distant. Only rushing blood thundered in her ears, and then Marsais’ grey eyes appeared in her narrow tunnel of vision.
“Forgive me, my dear.” A long strip of filthy cloth dangled in front of her face. Marsais blew on the cloth, dust tickled her nose again, and she sneezed. From Isiilde’s fiery reaction, the material ignited, and flames eagerly licked the brittle fabric, climbing towards his sleeves. He dropped the burning fragment on the pile of debris. The tinder sparked, flame held and began to consume, filling the chamber with heat and rising smoke.
Isiilde stared at the fire, transfixed. It filled her vision, and consumed her mind. The raging fire in the dungeon burned in her memories. Sweet release, and power as she had never known. It terrified her.
“More,” Marsais urged. “Reapers fear fire.”
Isiilde watched the bonfire grow, captivated by its hiss and its seductive dance. An explosion of sparks made her blink. Rivan ran towards his captain, a flaming brand in hand. “Captain?”
Rivan touched torch to wood. Fire surged, crackling in defiance. Acacia and Lucas backed away from the jagged opening. They piled more timber on the fiery barrier, and the flurry of claws retreated. The younger paladin darted back across the chamber, snatched another brand, and touched it to the third bonfire behind Oenghus.
“Back up, Oen,” Marsais yelled. But the Nuthaanian ignored the order, along with the flames licking at his kilt. “Oenghus, you bull-headed idiot, retreat!”
No response, no retreat, only another bellow that knocked loose a shower of stone on their heads. Marsais clenched his jaw, backing well away from the berserker’s reach. He glanced at Acacia, cocked his head, and shouted, “Captain Mael is naked!”
Acacia narrowed her eyes, Lucas blinked, and Rivan stopped to gape. Oenghus slammed his targe against a scaly attacker, and glanced around. Surprise quenched his frenzied blood lust. He cursed and hopped to the side.
Rivan braced his shield against the flaming barrier and pushed it forward, blocking the archway, chasing the Reapers back. But Isiilde could sense them, just beyond the roaring flame, pacing restlessly in the dark.
“Needs must, Captain,” Marsais said by way of apology.
Oenghus glanced from Acacia to Marsais. “You lied.”
Acacia snorted, surveying the carnage. She wiped blood from her eyes and pressed a hand to a gash on her forehead. Blood pooled at their feet, trickling down small channels cut into the ancient stone.
Isiilde had seen such grooves before—in a slaughtering house on the Isle. Her stomach rolled over the sickening coincidence. There was not much kindling left. She could sing to her flame, make it dance and lash and grow until it licked the heavens, but there was nothing left in the nymph. She felt like a fire pit full of cold ash. And even if she had had the strength, she was more likely to burn them all to a crisp.
“There isn’t enough timber to last the hour,” Acacia noted.
“Don’t Reapers fear sunlight?” Rivan asked. His face was two shades lighter than it had been on the Isle. Beneath the sun, he had reminded Isiilde of a chestnut. Lucas, however, was as dark as coal, and his eyes were hard as flint, just like his voice. “We don’t even know if the sun will rise in this Void cursed land. Where are we, Seer?”
Marsais did not answer, so Oenghus answered for him. “Not a thousand feet up, and I’d wager it’s not the Nine Halls.” The berserker was covered in gashes, and blood ran down his legs, matting the hair. Despite his wounds, he stood tall and straight, eyes focused on the forest in thought.
“Are you hurt?” Marsais’ voice brought her back. She stared numbly into his eyes. She could not feel her body, and when she could not find her tongue to answer, he checked her over with a distant touch.
“You’re doing fine, Isiilde,” he reassured. “Stay close to me. They’re just Reapers.”
Just. Reapers. His words rattled around in her brain. Was he mad?
Of course Marsais was. But then Oenghus appeared to be enjoying himself. The nymph was not. She drifted closer to Marsais, and her ears drooped as she rested her forehead against his chest. A heavy arm wrapped around her trembling shoulders.
“What was that thing—the man who came through the portal? Why did he stab himself with his own dagger instead of Marsais?” Rivan asked.
The scarred warrior shivered with memory. “A Forsaken.”
“And something more,” Acacia added. “How long do we have before the Gateway closes?”
“Without someone to control it, Runic Gateways are unstable,” Marsais replied. “I doubt it’s still pointed here.”
“One less thing to worry about then. Injuries?”
The captain’s question alarmed the younger paladin, so much so, that he touched his face, checking whether everything was in place. “Cuts, I think.”
“Are you injured or not, Soldier?”
“We’re not out of this yet, Rivan. Stay focused. What about you, Lucas?”
“I’ll live,” her lieutenant grunted.
“You always say that,” Acacia retorted. “Is the nymph injured?”
“Nothing a healer can mend.” Her Bonded’s arm tightened around her shoulders.
“Well we can’t stay here all night. The forest is as thick as can be, even in daylight—there will be shadows. We walked right into their nest.” Oenghus eyed Marsais’ wounds. “Can you manage?”
“When have I not?”
Oenghus smirked. “Good. I refuse to carry your bony carcass.” He stomped over to Isiilde. “But I will carry you, Sprite. Up on my back.” He knelt and she obeyed, wrapping her arms around his thick neck. He adjusted his kilt, untucking the long ends of cloth, bringing them up and over his back and head, wearing the kilt in winter fashion. “Captain, I’ll need you as rear guard.”
“Only a fool follows a berserker into battle.”
Oenghus bared his teeth at the woman. “I don’t take you for one.”
“You don’t know me.” She hoisted her shield. “Do we have a plan?”
He shrugged. “Fire, steel, and swift feet.”
“As usual,” Marsais sighed.
“There’ll be nothing usual about this fight.” Oenghus removed his sacred flask. “I’ve been practicing since you bested me, ye ol’ bastard.”
“I’ll wager ten gold crowns that you singe your beard again.”