Chapter I: Reim
‘Everything is Gone’
The wise ones gathered in a snow-dusted cluster and thumped their staves on the ground in the ancient story rhythm. With a judgmental lick of his one tusk, the eldest began the first Telling of the story that would be told and retold for generations:
“It was Trostan once, but soon it will be forgotten.”
“The wise ones knew,” they sang in chorus.
“Humans came to tear holes in the glaciers. They came to rip the crystal from the earth. They came to drink of the well,” continued the next-eldest in her shrill tone.
“The wise ones knew.”
“Our trophy-hunters traded with humans for steel,” called the next.
“The wise ones knew.”
“The city collapsed under its own greed,” crooned another.
“The wise ones knew.”
“Their ancestors lie too far to carry home their souls,” wailed the eldest.
“The wise ones kn…”
An icy blast from the peak above trembled the ground and broke their song. “Sisuuk!” screamed a Mother, gathering her kits close. All eyes turned away from the flames to look upward. Instead of an avalanche, though, what came forth along with the freezing wind was a man, his spine bent with age, spotted skin fragile as onion layers. His claw-like hand gripped a staff. Around his shoulders he wore the pelt of a Grangor. Though none of the Grangor had seen him before, they all knew of the elusive recluse. Reim, they called him, master of ice, devourer of Grangor, terror of the Kall Peaks. Though they outnumbered him by many dozens, the Grangor backed away, weapons at the ready, while the ice mage exhaled enraged breaths that crystallized into frost.
“Where is the boy?” he growled.
“His mother knows,” replied the eldest, but it was only an expression among the Grangor. It meant that a thing could not be known.
With a sneer, Reim turned away from the Grangor and walked the path down the mountainside, grumbling to himself all the way. The river that bordered the burning city flowed black with ash. Reim struck his staff on the ground and the flowing water froze in place. He shuffled over it, coughing and hacking, into the city, waving his staff in irritation at the fires as he passed them. They sizzled and hissed into frozen, charred kindling.
“Kid!” he called. “Hey kid!”
The city had bustled with trade and travelers that morning; now, only the livestock raced away from their burned enclosures to the rivers at either side of the basin.
The mage choked the fires under his conjured frost one by one, leaving destroyed homes and businesses under thick sheets of ice, by turns calling out and mumbling to himself. He stopped to roll his eyes at the mage tower, resplendent in its ancient Gythian spires, the center of Trostan’s government. The top third had collapsed; the rest was a scorched husk of its former magnificence. This, too, he left frozen behind him. Round the town he traveled, tension rising in his voice. “Hey kid, you’re late! Where’d you get off to?” he continued until he reached the halcyon well at the center, the only thing unaffected by the flames. Noxious fumes rose from the burnt detritus of Trostan, drowned under ice. There, at the well’s edge, was a small woman with her face buried in the furry shoulder of a much larger Grangor. In one hand, she held a lantern that cast eerie shadows in the swirling ash.
“Ay!” shouted Reim with an annoyed clearing of his throat. “Who’s in charge here!”
The woman turned her soot-stained face, mapped with tears, toward the stranger, revealing the singed remains of the robes of a High Mage of Gythia. Her shoulders rolled back, her chin tilted up, and though she was much smaller than the other two, the answer to Reim’s question had been answered.
“The boy,” he demanded.
The woman shook her head and held the Grangor’s forearm for support. “He’s gone,” she answered, then looked up at the Grangor’s chubby face. “Everything is gone.”
“She will kill me if you don’t come home,” said his stout Grangor companion.
“I’ve climbed scarier things than this.”
“It isn’t the climb that worries me. It’s what’s at the top.”
The boy patted the Grangor on his snow-dusted shoulder, then began his slow, slippery ascent.
When the boy popped his head out at the top, struggling for breath, he was eye level with a pair of furry boots. The famed ice mage himself waited, ripping apart pine cones and munching on the nuts. “Magister!” cried the boy, holding up one hand for help, “I have come to learn from you.”
“Lesson one,” grunted Reim, planting a boot in the center of the boy’s forehead. “Leave me alone.” With a little nudge, the boy slid back down the icy tunnel on his belly, his oofs and thuds echoing along with the mage’s laughter, all the way down to the Grangor’s feet.
“Um,” said the Grangor.
“I’m fine,” gasped the boy, and began again.
When he reached the top, he found Reim sitting by his tent cross-legged, eating lichen out of the first stomach of a half-frozen reindeer. “Magister,” he said, rising to his feet, “I have heard great tales of your magic.”
The mage chewed with his mouth open.
“I am Mageborn. I have reached the ninth level of Gythian mage discipline. I have passed the test of the Grangor hunter.”
Reim’s fluffy white eyebrows did not rise with interest.
The boy lost patience. “Or maybe you’re just a crazy old man. Maybe the wise ones tell the stories of you just to scare the kits.”
Reim pressed one finger to his nostril and honked a frozen booger out onto the boy’s cheek.
Insulted, the boy descended through the tunnels again. The Grangor sat by a little fire.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said the boy.
“Trying again?” replied the Grangor.
“Yes,” said the boy, and climbed again.
This time, he knelt in the snow before the ice mage. He unwrapped the furs from his head and pressed his face into the puffy new snow on the ground. “Magister,” he said, his words muffled, “I read about what happened to your son. Please help me to avoid his fate.”
Reim ignored him and went about his day. He gathered meat from his traps and snares. He ate. He napped. At sunset, he kicked the boy on his shoulder. “You want hypothermia?” he yelled in the deaf way of old men. “Come inside, you idiot!”
In a tent made of Grangor skins and tusks, Reim waited until the boy’s teeth stopped chattering.
“What’s your name!”
“Samuel,” said the boy.
“And you consort with the filthy cats?”
Samuel’s shoulders tensed. “The Grangor people are …”
“… are not people. And passing their little test won’t grow fur on your butt. So what are you?”
“I am Gythian. The Mageborn son of Archmage Lora, head of the war division of the mage guild …”
“You’re as Gythian as you are Grangor.”
“I can trace my bloodline back for ten Gythian generations.”
“Yeah? Who bakes the best crusty rolls on Via Lucia?”
Samuel’s eyes dropped. “I … I have been fostered in Trostan since I was four.”
“Then the servant who dumps your grand archmage mother’s chamberpot is more Gythian than you are.” Reim hacked out a laugh. “Mageborn. Bred like a dog. When Gythia finds something that doesn’t work, by golly they stick to it.”
“Your son was Mageborn,” whispered Samuel.
“If you don’t wanna end up like my son,” said Reim, closing his eyes, “don’t bother with the tenth level of Gythian mage discipline. Swab the deck of one of the ships hauling crystal out of Trostan. Tend one of those balmy Lillian vineyards. Heck, collect creature eyeballs with those walking furballs. Forget about magic, and forget about Gythia.”
“But my mother …”
“… didn’t want you, or she would’ve raised you.”
The snow-blanketed silence filled the tent.
Reim opened the flap of the tent. “Go home,” he grumped.
Resolute, Samuel crawled outside and wrapped the furs back around his face. The soupy gray sky flashed with green and red streaks of light.
“And be back at dawn!” bellowed the ice mage.
Samuel grinned back at the tent as the flap fell closed.
Chapter II: Lyra
‘The Consequence and The Inception’
On the muddy shore of Trostan, Lyra watched a Grangor search expedition wind their way through the ghost town, past the glowing blue well of power and up the glacier trail. For days they had sorted through the smoking rubble, rubbing ash away from the faces of the dead, hearts in their throats, but Samuel had not been found.
The old ice mage shuffled up beside her, leaning his weight on a staff, one bushy eyebrow raised. “No one’ll blame you if you don’t go back.”
Lyra didn’t hesitate. “I am Gythian.”
“Uh huh.” Reim made the blah-blah motion with one gnarled hand.
“It’s time,” she said.
Reim stretched out one arm; from his palm, a spinning ice ball formed. Lyra’s breath froze in her throat. Goosebumps rose on her arms. Frost leapt from Reim’s fingers; icicles formed on his beard; ice coated his staff and he slammed it into the mud. The ground shook as an ice spire shot up at the center of Trostan, spearing the sky, sealing the well.
“Your turn,” said Reim. “Shut it down.”
The spellbook blinked and fluttered open between her hands; the ancient words dropped from her mouth. The city’s magic borders scrolled away from the sky, fluttered in the air and returned to the book. Held back for decades, roiling clouds fled down from the peaks, flooding the destroyed city, releasing snow in fat flakes that blanketed the seared wreckage in blinding white.
The mages boarded the last of the ships. From the stern, Lyra hugged her spellbook to her chest and watched the expanse of her life’s work shrink away into the distance. It had begun as a frozen camp for miners, thieves and get-rich-quick schemes, but within Lyra’s protective barriers, it had become a pocket of color in desolate white. Gythian settlers had filled it with spires, sculpture, vegetation, legitimate trade and proper jurisprudence. The mage tower of Trostan, though a shadow of the one at home, had been all her own, its rounded walls lined with books and art, now ash.
Twenty years and some earlier, the view from the prow of the icebreaker ship, with its strengthened hull crunched up against what would soon be the port of Trostan, was of white and more white, sandwiched between a cruel gray sky and a choppy gray sea.
The fateswoman’s dour mouth twisted under her white hood as she dumped the divine doves out of their gilded cage without ceremony. When they flew into the masts, she proclaimed it a positive augur as she’d been paid to do. The reading of the fates mattered not at all to Lyra, but the surrounding ship decks were packed with lower-born citizens who would not have disembarked without a good augur. These explorers and miners had settled this forsaken and frozen area of the Kall Peaks, where only Grangor had roamed before crystal had been found. High above, on the ledges of the mountains, the cat-beasts themselves watched. If Lyra succeeded, more ships would follow from Gythia with future Trostanians: architects, merchants, artists, agriculturalists with their seedlings and livestock, more miners and equipment and shipbuilders, teachers and physicians for their children.
Lyra huddled under a red fur cape that would have commanded respect were it not soaking wet. Spring in the Kalls meant sleet, a sleet that slammed into the sea at such a volume that her speech about the glory of the empire and hope for a future of affluence was abandoned.
Never before had so many eyes laid upon her. Never before had so much responsibility rested on her shoulders. Never before had she wished for failure.
“If there is a day for it, let it be today,” she muttered.
“What?” bellowed her Grangor guide. Though covered in fur, he seemed no worse for wear; the wetness slid away from him and his toothy grin triumphed over the storm.
“I had a speech prepared,” she yelled back. “I don’t think they’ll hear it!”
“May as well just do your thing!” The Grangor’s claws clasped together over his generous belly.
Lyra focused her gaze on the glowing glacier, all else falling away. She sank a deep, cold breath into her lungs and held it there, warming it, before releasing it out in a fog. “Come, Ambrosius,” she whispered, and her spellbook fled away from her cloak to float by her upturned palm. His eye rolled up as she whispered the words that appeared in runes on his pages. Another deep cold breath and the sleet sizzled when it struck her, and then her crimson fur cloak warmed and dried, then her hair, and she gathered the warmth between her hands and wished, as always, that she could hold it forever. Her arms spread wide and light flooded from her fingertips. Warm curved barriers formed at the borders of what would soon be Trostan, and the sleet fell around these wards like water around a glass globe. The clouds dissolved within her warm bulwark, the people turned joyful faces toward the sun, and the great glowing Halcyon-infused glacier began to crack and drip and flow into what would be known, for the next generation, as the twin rivers of Trostan.
‘The First Mistake’
Lyra, escorted by her Grangor guide, disciplined her expression into sobriety, but her eyes shone as they darted around the dock. Golden-cloaked Gythian soldiers emerged from a tender hefting ornate chests and crates. With an impatient but formal gesture of greeting she approached the most decorated of the soldiers, a silver-templed man holding the hand of a small boy. “I was told my replacement would be of the mages, but I suppose Trostan can be held well enough by the army now that it’s operative,” she said. “You and your son are welcome here.”
“You’re mistaken, Lady Lyra. Your replacement is of the mages.” The soldier guided the boy forward by his shoulders. “Archmage Lora bade me deliver him to you and memorize her message.”
Lyra’s heart sank along with her eyes as she gazed down at the boy, resplendent in a night-black fur cloak far too large for him, his terrified dark eyes widened with hope. “Deliver the message, sir.”
“‘Greetings, Battlemage Lyra,” snapped the soldier. “‘The Mage Guild of Gythia is pleased to present Samuel the Mageborn, son of Archmage Lora the Mageborn and Scholar Titus the Mageborn, to be fostered and educated under your wise tutelage until such time as he comes of age and can take your place in the governorship of Trostan.’”
“What’s this?” asked the Grangor.
“Politics,” said Lyra through a wound-tight jaw. “Or a cruel joke.”
The Grangor hunched down. “Welcome, Sam. How old are you?”
The boy held up four fingers.
“Four winters old! Such a handsome big boy you are.” The Grangor mussed the child’s hair.
“Lora has banished me to Trostan for fourteen more years.” Lyra coughed out a laugh. “She still fears me.”
“We’ll make you up a room in the mage tower, Sam,” said the Grangor. Without ceremony he swung the boy up onto his shoulders and the soldiers followed them into town, leaving Lyra to stare off into the warm sea of her memories.
In Gythia, the onshore cold from Bladed Bay breezed the curtains in Lyra’s mage tower apartment. Back then, Trostan was a stratagem, a hope for Gythia’s post-war recovery effort. Before she experienced the ice storms of Trostan, Lyra thought this breeze unbearable; she rolled over in bed, smooshing her face into Titus’ chest to escape it. “Hold me,” she mumbled into his skin. “I’m cold.” He slung one leg over her waist, making her giggle. “Useless, you are. Now I’m overheated just on this spot. Get off me and I’ll make tea.”
He held her down, sliding a steel letter opener through the wax seal of a scroll. “If you wanted to escape, you’d turn me into a toad or something, Miss Battlemage.”
“No need,” she said, arching up for a sour morning kiss. “I trust you.”
“That is your first mistake. Ooh,” he said, drawing the sharp point of the letter opener down her side, “It’s from the Archmage. You are important now.”
“Your envy is unattractive.” Lyra shivered and smiled, inhaling the sweat and sandalwood scent of him. “What is that?”
“A letter came for you with breakfast.”
“If it is for me, don’t you think I should open it?”
He held the scroll out of her reach. “Battlemage Lyra of the Mage Guild, blah blah … immediate deployment to the Kall Peaks to establish the colony of Trostan …”
“They’re sending us to the Kalls?” Lyra reached for the scroll, but Titus held fast to it, his brows knitted.
“Your petition of marriage to Scholar Titus the Mageborn is heretofore denied due to the arrangement of marriage to …”
Lyra rolled over him and snatched the letter from his hands; wax bits scattered onto the bed. “.. to Lora the Mageborn,” she mumbled. “There’s been some administrative error. Someone mistook my name for Lora’s. This has happened before.”
“You are not Mageborn.” Titus drew her close. “You knew they might choose to arrange my marriage. The Guild wants …”
“… Mageborn children,” she said. “But I went through all the proper channels. I filled out the forms. I thought ….” She held his ears in her hands, pressed her forehead to his. “We do not have to obey. We can be farmers in the provinces. We can disappear in Taizen Gate.”
“You have worked since childhood to rise in the guild’s ranks. I will not allow you to give up everything you worked so hard to accomplish,” he said, burying his face in the plum tumble of her hair. “We are Gythian foremost.”
She soaked his neck with silent tears, her fingers clawing into his shoulders.
Chapter III: Lance
He followed a path through the tide pools where barefoot children sprinted over the slick bone surface, squatting to inspect the bright slugs, limpets, anemones, sea slugs and stars. A small child held a sea urchin in one hand, drawing out meat from its belly with deft fingers and slurping it up as he watched Samuel step with care. Older children looked after nests of eggs larger than their heads.
At the highest point of the island, the smell of food cooking set his stomach to growling. Locals milled about, poking at a grill, laying out baskets, cleaning up children. A giant carp smoked to a golden brown crisp on smoldering coals laid in the center, its stuffed belly open; clams and oysters and heaps of pickled seaweed lay in steaming piles around it.
“Take cover, ladies. A raincloud approaches,” called a voice, followed by ladies laughing. “Join us, Samuel.”
Blossoms drifted down from a cherry tree under which sat a large man, two women and a basket of food. The three wore sarongs; the man’s was fuschia and wrapped round his waist. One of the women shaved his head with a straight razor. The other sat cross-legged, her hand outstretched, as the man manicured her nails.
Samuel paused in an awkward half-step before sitting at the edge of the shade. “I am afraid I do not know you.”
“You need not fear. I am Lance,” said the man. The woman pushed his ear forward to shave behind it. “Eat honey and cheese. It will sweeten you.”
“I will not eat today,” said Samuel.
“Are you sick?” asked the woman with the straight razor.
“No,” said Samuel. “Fasting preserves power and increases discipline.”
“You have all the rest of your lonely life to starve,” said the man. “How many days will you have for licking honey from the fingers of a beautiful lady?”
Samuel turned his blushing face away from the manicured woman, who dipped a finger in the honeypot with a sly smile. “Is she not one of your wives?”
“People are not possessions,” replied Lance.
“Are these not your children?” sputtered Samuel.
“The children belong to everyone, or rather, we belong to them.” The woman folded away her razor and a little boy slipped down from a branch onto Lance’s shoulders. “You will break your fast today, Sam. If you argue, we will take offense.”
“I prefer Samuel,” he said, but he could not refuse. He deposited a bit of fish into his basket and plucked meat from the fragile bones with his fingers like the others. Children crawled up on his legs and asked incessant questions. Lance made no move to save him from the onslaught, and before long Samuel could not help but chuckle.
After they had eaten, the crowd walked the long pathway down to the shell’s edge to watch the sea trolls hunt. They herded seals and held them under, drowning them before tossing them high in the air and catching them in their giant maws.
“I would not allow the children so close to those hunters,” said Samuel.
Lance kept an arm around Samuel’s stiff shoulder as though they were old friends. “The trolls come ashore once a year to lay eggs, and we care for them. In return, the trolls protect Archelon’s soft underbelly from predators, and we play together. Come, watch the jousts.”
At the shell’s edge, past the long line of docked barges, men tied woven saddles to the beasts’ great heads. Wearing bamboo armor and shields and wielding rattan lances, the men mounted the trolls and charged, their lances crashing into one another’s shields with startling cracks. Lance was the best of these knights; he took to the saddle as if born there, sending one opponent after another splashing into the water, his powerful arm locked around his weapon, a frightening grin spread across his face. His troll roared its pleasure and sprayed the onlookers with a wall of water from its slapping tail.
After the jousts, Samuel and Lance watched the moon rise together while the others wandered away. “How do you like our home?” asked Lance.
“It will not last,” said Samuel. “Archelon will not live forever.”
“The rings round the scutes tell us that Archelon has lived at least a thousand growth seasons, and he swims stronger than ever.”
“All things die.”
“Have faith, Sam.” Lance clapped the young man on his shoulder.
“That is no answer.”
“And yet, it is ever the correct one.”
“I saw it, and it saw me,” said Samuel, drawing on dry clothes.
“What did Archelon say to you?”
Samuel’s brow cocked. “I do not speak whatever burbling beast language he speaks.”
“You heard nothing in your heart?”
“I also do not speak whatever burbling beast language the heart speaks.”
“Well enough; you have presented yourself to Archelon and so you are one of us. Come.” Lance led him around the shell shore, pausing to rub the heads of sea trolls when they poked through the surface. “Archelon is too large to swim through Bladed Bay. At dawn, I shall escort you to the city by barge.” In the Gythian language he continued: “Your destiny is also mine.”
“I did not think to hear that language from an Archelion,” said Samuel also in Gythian, his words cutting sharp corners. On the docks where the barges hung, children took air in little sips before diving for pearl oysters, dripping nets dangling round their necks.
Lance led Samuel inside the cabin of one of the barges. “Long ago, when I was a young man, a Gythian like yourself bought passage on Archelon to see the world during his last year. He was a knight with a good heart.”
“Nothing like me then,” said Samuel.
“He taught me to wield the lance and shield and live by the knightly tenets of justice, courage, mercy, decorum, honesty, honor, loyalty and character.” A beatific light shone in Lance’s eyes. “And he told me about the city’s rich history of music and passion, enough beauty to inebriate the soul.”
“Did he forget about the wars, corruption and ruthless politics in his dotage?”
“It is true; there is much in the world to be set aright. How can I stay on Archelon when my duty is elsewhere? Look: When my teacher passed on, he gave me these.” Lance lit candles round the cabin and, as the light flickered a warm air of the sacred, opened a hidden compartment under the floorboards where armor, shield and a lance laid in repose. “Since then, I have made it my life’s work to collect Gythian artifacts.”
He hefted up the shield to display, but Samuel rifled through a neat pile of kitchen tools, a bronze candelabra, long-outdated maps and recipes, plumed carnival masks and a brass door knocker in the shape of a lion’s head. He plucked up a rusted garlic press, snapped it open and closed. “Beautiful shield, and not a scratch on it,” he said. “Your fabled knight did not see enough battle to find those tenets difficult.”
“War is not the whole of a knight,” said Lance, unwavering. “I vowed to one day protect a Gythian, and in doing so earn knighthood for myself.”
“I do not need protecting.” Samuel threw the garlic press back to its spot. “I am not the Gythian of your dreams. I have not even seen the city since I was four years old.”
“You are he. I know it.”
“You do not know me, and you do not know Gythia, for all of your careful study of its garbage. Who bakes the best crusty rolls on Via Lucia?” Samuel grabbed up a book and paged through it fast. “The knighthood is just old families clinging to faltering fortunes. It has nothing to do with … what was that ludicrous list? Justice, honesty, decorum …”
Lance took the book from Samuel’s hand as if handling a sleeping baby. “That ludicrous list has everything to do with me.”
And so, at the first gray light, Samuel sat on Lance’s barge, folded in bad posture inside his dark cloak. Lance, wearing the full armor of a Gythian knight, steered the sea troll that pulled the barge through the treacherous black-toothed mouth of the city. The mist parted and a rose-gold light bathed the gleaming fountains and sculpture, the towers and spires, the churning water wheels. Lance’s breath caught in his throat; tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. His plain barge pulled up to the dock between luxury steamboats where a grand reception of dignitaries in elegant finery waited.
Samuel moved like an unwilling shadow behind Lance’s great steel bulk as they disembarked. Lance held up his hand in greeting, but all eyes locked on the hooded young man. The woman in the center stepped forward, one hand heavy with rings appearing beyond long silk sleeves to show her palm in proper greeting. “Welcome home, Samuel,” she said. “We feared the worst.”
“My thanks, Mother,” said Samuel.
Chapter IV: Samuel
Lyra picked her way with care across the disaster of stacked books, maps and papers, giving a wide berth to the skeleton of the mammoth seal Samuel had speared at his Grangor hunter trial. “Did you… eat this creature?”
“The tribe feasted after the trial. I ate the right flipper and the chief ate the left.”
Lyra shuddered. “I shall have your room cleaned. There is a spider above your bed.”
“It’s a sleep-spider. It gobbles up dreams and spins webs in the shapes of those dreams. I took it from the Netherworld. Don’t touch it.”
Lyra’s eyes blazed. “I told you not to dabble in the Netherworld. The nightmares and phantasms …”
“And dreams and ghosts and Valkyries. Magister Reim …”
“And I told you to stay away from that crazed old man. Is that where you were all week?”
Samuel chuckled, his arm still covering his eyes. “Add that to your list of disappointments. I have given up trying to please you. I rather think you are incapable of pleasure.”
“You do not have the luxury of adolescent insolence.”
“The obligation lecture, then.” Samuel responded with an exaggerated yawn.
Lyra exhaled through her nose, eyes closed, collecting herself. “No. That is the Archmage’s duty now.” She dropped a heavy but small steel machine onto the bed next to him and he removed his arm from his eyes to squint at it.
“What is that contraption?”
“It came with the latest shipment. They have managed to make holograms work, thanks to infused Trostanian crystal. They’ve had holographic messages in Mont Lille for years …”
“… and in Campestria far longer.” Samuel sat up in his bed to inspect the box.
“It is progress nevertheless, so our efforts here are not in vain.”
“Well then, let us see what my mother deigns to say to me.”
“Samuel.” Lyra rested a hand on his shoulder. The gesture was awkward and made them both flinch. “I think … I do not know if this message …”
“Don’t worry, Lady. I am not an orphan harboring dreams of mommy bestowing affection on me after fourteen years of no word.” Samuel snorted. “The Magister said I was bred like a dog.”
Lyra was quieted by that. She focused her gaze on the message box, her violet curls falling to hide her expression while Samuel hit the button with his fist. The platform buzzed with blue light that broke and spat before it came together to form a face. The Archmage’s face. He had no memory of it, and there was no color to her eyes, but the resemblance was obvious.
“Samuel.” The sound crackled with static. “Lady Lyra has kept me informed of your progress. Well done on passing the first nine disciplines. The Mage Guild depends on you passing the tenth. You shall return home to prove your worth in the final test before your formal induction into the guild. I trust Lyra has prepared you well.”
Home. He almost missed what came after.
“After you have received your rank, you shall be positioned as governor of Trostan and lead the effort to move the Grangor population to the frontier. You shall see to the expansion of our crystal mining in the Kall Peaks. Your rapport with the Grangor beasts will be essential to this effort. You shall return to Trostan with whatever contingent of troops you deem necessary to assist you.
“Our guild and our empire depend on your success, my son. With your help, Gythia shall return to its former glory.”
The picture blinked out of existence and Samuel stared at the place where it had been. “Move the Grangor population,” he breathed. “Has she ever met a Grangor?”
Lyra clasped her hands inside her long sleeves. “If it is necessary …”
“They won’t go. I have seen their souls in the Netherworld. They are rooted to this land by blood and ritual and the hunt.”
“You sound like one of them,” said Lyra, her tone measured.
He stood and paced the room. “I’d have to kill them all. My mother wants me to kill them all.”
“You are Gythian.”
Samuel whirled to face her. “Why should I have to explain to you that this is wrong?” he cried, and the words spilled out of him in a dark magic that formed into a treacherous churning orb that surrounded them both.
Inside the orb was the deep cave-dark of nightmares. Nothing Lyra had taught Samuel of Gythian magecraft explained that darkness, or the weakening beat of her heart. She snapped awake without realizing she’d been asleep, gasping and shaking, and whispered the words of warding. A green glow shone through the blackness, drinking it in, dispelling it.
Above the bed, the sleep-spider wove into its web a shimmering silken depiction of Trostan in flames.
Samuel entered the tower under the hard golden gaze of his sculpted mother and followed his escort into the grand center theater. The acrid taste of unfamiliar magic stung his tongue. Lyra and Reim stopped Lance from following; the three stood by the door.
A walkway edged with sculpted obsidian pillars led to two stone platforms, one higher than the other. Samuel stood on the shorter; atop the high platform stood the guild’s top-ranking mages, the Archmage at the fore, her robes removed to reveal the somber black lace vestments of judgment. “Samuel the Mage Born,” she said, her sugared tone echoing in the immense room, “your tenth trial begins now. If you pass, you shall receive your rank in our guild.” She stretched Verdict forth. “I hope you are prepared.”
Samuel pulled from his belt the wand named Malice. “So I am not to answer for disobeying you, Mother? For burning down Gythia’s hopes? Does it trouble you overmuch to acknowledge the failure of your bloodline?” He spun the wand between his fingers before clenching it in his fist.
A shadow fled from Verdict and landed in Samuel’s periphery a split moment before pain flooded his belly. He whirled to face his aggressor and stared into his own face, at Malice pointed at his own torso. There was no time to register this ultimate betrayal before his shadow double flanked and shot again.
Lance lunged forward only to slam full-force into a shimmering green wall.
“For every action, there is a consequence,” said Lyra.
Reim watched the fight, expressionless, white-knuckling his staff.
A rushing water sound filled Samuel’s ears. He circled to the right and his shadow self mirrored him; there was a flash, and a sting bloomed on Samuel’s leg, a pain that sank to his bones. He curled his tongue around the words of power and a burst of magic fled from his wand, missing the shadow by a breath. He dove and spat out another word: “Uruz!” Another shot just missed the shadow’s neck. The shadow returned the blasts and Samuel dodged. They traded dark magic fire until the platform was a blinding shower of light. He could not outwit himself.
But the shadow could not learn.
He feinted right and leaped away from his double, springing to the nearest pillar, cracking his ribs, two fingers curled around the canine teeth of a carved lion’s head. With the half-second he’d bought, he pulled himself up to crouch atop it.
“Kenaz,” he cried, and the air wavered, and around him were the souls of ancient mages, thousands of them with hollow eyes watching, and the darkness of the Netherworld enveloped him as he leaped. Light flashed from Malice and the shadow crouched, spun wrong and caught the full force of the spell in its back.
When the dark had dissipated, Samuel stood alone on the platform. The Netherworld, having been opened, lurked close, the phantasms murmuring hate and promising justice. Above, the Archmage extended Verdict again.
“So you present a test no one can survive to save yourself the embarrassment of convicting me.” Samuel’s bitter laugh seized as he held his broken ribs. “That is how Magister Reim’s son died, isn’t it? He asked too many questions.”
“If it is so,” said the Archmage, “then you should concentrate on succeeding.”
A second shadow fled from Verdict, forming beside Samuel. He slid back, Malice held in his fist like a blade, his eyes narrowed at his new opponent –
– and his arm dropped as he flinched away from the little boy who looked up at him with wide, terrified eyes: Samuel, as he’d been fourteen years past when he entered Trostan for the first time, Malice far too big for his little hands.
“Such poetry,” mocked Samuel. “I suppose I shall face my wise old future self next?”
“You shall have no such future if you fail,” called the Archmage.
Samuel sidestepped the shadow boy’s fumbling shots with ease. Tears welled in the boy’s eyes.
“I would rather fail,” said Samuel, and released the phantasm that twisted and curled into the skull-shape of nightmares, sailing around the shadow child and then the mages high above, lulling them all to sleep. The shadow disappeared and the Archmage fell.
The shimmering wall dropped. A spinning, churning hole appeared in the walkway by Lance’s feet.
“Go,” choked Lyra behind him. “Go!”
The Archmage landed in Samuel’s outstretched arms, slamming him to the floor. His shoulder dislocated from its socket, sending shocks of pain through his arm and spine. He snatched Verdict away from her, rolled away, yanked his shoulder back into place with an agonized gasp, then stumbled to his feet. “Where is she?” he screamed.
“Who?” gasped the Archmage, blinking, disoriented.
“Gythia’s little creature.” He bent over her, spitting the words into her face. “Trostan wasn’t the only iron you had in the fire. Where is the Storm Queen’s niece?”
The Archmage flinched away. “Gathering allies,” she whimpered. “The Halcyon -”
Samuel sneered and aimed both wands at the Archmage’s face. “Well done, Mother.”
Armor clattered as the knight rolled into position between them, weapon at the ready, shield high. Samuel stepped back, wands crossed in front of him.
“Reconsider, my friend,” growled Lance.
Samuel’s grim mouth cracked into a smile. “You are better than Gythia ever was,” he said, and fell back into the churning portal.
Reim stood at the portal’s source, palm out as Lyra’s face turned blue. Icicles hung from her ears and hair. Her book, encased in ice, laid useless on the floor. Samuel tumbled from the portal’s source at his feet, struggling for breath as he looked up at his teacher’s distressed eyes.
“Magister,” he whispered.
“Run, you fool.”
Chapter V: Grace
‘The Boy Who Speaks Fire’
“Do you like the islands, Grace?”
At six years old, this was her first trip outside of Gythia, and the foreign tropics were a dizzying delight. Wherever there was soil, color burst through. Flowers as big as her head called hi! hey! hi! Exotic birds showed off their plumage and screeched to make sure she looked. Even the mosquito swarms shimmered.
“Yes,” she answered, her tone solemn. “This must be the prettiest place in the world.”
“These shall be the Grace Islands, then.” Her father waved his arm in an arc to indicate the half-moon shape of the archipelago. “Make a note of it,” he called over one shoulder, and a mapmaker scribbled in her journal.
Grace stared in reserved wonder at her surroundings while her father named the flora and fauna as though he’d created it all. The locals wore colorful sarongs and flowers in their hair. They waved and never ceased smiling. One of them fed plums to a young macaque that perched with hungry obedience on the little girl’s shoulder.
“These are nice people,” observed Grace.
“Peace and kindness is embedded into their culture. They even file down the sharp teeth of adolescents to remove their violent nature.”
Grace touched her own teeth. “Does it hurt?”
“You should tell them to stop, Papa.”
“Oh, dulcissima! A man may be a better hunter than a tiger, but he would be a fool to tell the beast how to hunt on its own land.”
“But these are people.”
“Yes, they are people,” mused the paladin. “Of a kind.”
Grace stopped short, wavering on her feet. The world around her brightened at the edges. The monkey leaped away and the retinue came to a halt.
“Papa?” she whimpered.
The paladin held her steady by the shoulders. “Do not fear. Tell me what the light shows you.”
Grace shivered as a great wall of ice rose up, blocking their path. Where the path forked toward the river, a wall of fire blazed upward, spitting embers and burning her cheeks. “Ice and fire,” she whispered.
“Which way is the fire?”
She pointed to the river and the vision ended, the walls only tricks of the light.
The procession moved single-file onto the stone steps leading across the river. In the center of the water stood a temple.
A guide intercepted them. His smile never wavered, though his voice was strained. “Sir,” he said, bowing low, “visitors do not cross here, Sir. Danger, Sir.” He held out his arms, revealing rippling burn scars.
“Stand back,” said the paladin. He rested a hand on the guide’s shoulder, and when he lifted it, a hand-shaped spot of healed flesh remained.
The temple was made of stone. The mangroves growing over it were scorched. The buzzing mosquitos and bickering monkeys stayed away, so that the temple was cloaked in eerie quiet. At the temple’s entrance a local boy appeared, perhaps a year younger than Grace. He wore only a sarong around his waist, so that gruesome scars and new welts from burns showed all over his chest and face.
“This boy speaks fire,” whispered the guide. He stared in wonder at his shoulder as the healed skin spread down his arm. “His name is Reza.”
“He’s hurt,” said Grace.
The paladin guided Grace forward, toward the boy. “Go and do as you have learned.”
Grace stepped across slick stones to the temple with care, leaving her father behind. She greeted the boy with a Gythian hand gesture and he flinched.
“I’m going to take care of you,” she said, gentle but firm. She rested her palms on the boy’s face. The light burned at the top of her head and she guided it down, as her father had taught her, down through her head and throat, flooding her heart and belly and arms and then escaping through her fingertips. The light swelled and the boy’s eyes grew wide. Down to his shoulders her hands slid, leaving behind smooth, healed flesh. The light traveled down his body, enveloping him with its warmth. “There,” she said when she had done. She was tired to her bones from the effort, but the boy’s burn scars and welts had disappeared, leaving behind a dazzling, dark beauty. “That’s better.”
The boy opened his mouth to speak, or cry or laugh; it couldn’t be known, for what came from his mouth was a trail of fire, just like in Grace’s vision, spurting sparks and raining ash.
The paladin’s light shield burst into being between her and the boy just in time. The flames beat against it but could not penetrate. The boy’s mouth shut and his eyes filled with ashy tears as the paladin approached.
“The Mageborn must be trained to the proper use of their power, just as you, born to the light, have learned to control your visions,” he said, patting Grace’s red braid. “Until we deliver him to the mages, you must care for him like a sister.”
“My brother.” Grace took the boy’s hand. “I shall name you Titus.”
‘The First Hour’
At first there was only a sound, that of a young man crying out words of power, and then there was a darkness that split apart the air. From that darkness came tortured beings, phantasms, dead things with white eyes yearning for freedom. The Nether, a place of nightmares, the absence of life and light, called forth by a mage.
Grace danced through the mace flow, blind to the world around her, her eyes rolled up, and forced the vision forward. Show me he who opened the Nether, she said without saying, and the vision changed – but instead of a mage, she saw a knight wandering the city’s twisting alleyways in the dark. He was a stranger in Gythian armor, bearing a shield and a lance, braving the sea-cold wind without tiring, asking locals for the whereabouts of a wayward boy. Grace watched as he paused to admire the ancient towers, to stare at torchlit fountains and, in the minutes before dawn, to breathe in the smell of the day’s first bread baking.
Grace ended the mace flow and shook off the vision. A silent cluster of acolytes in robes and cowls filed out to the yard and went to work trimming the rose bushes, brushing and raking the clay and sand yards, and skimming the surface of the battle pool with a net. The mace landed in Grace’s palms with finality and acolytes scurried to bring water and towel the sweat from her brow.
“There is a man at the gate,” said Grace, sitting for her breakfast. “Bring him to me.”
Grace’s visions were not questioned. A few moments later the stranger from her dream was led to her table. He stared at the training yard with open-mouthed awe, his eyes beatific as an icon, while his shield and lance were presented to Grace for study. “These were Gennaro’s,” she said. “Did you know him?”
The man met Grace’s eyes with a wide smile and an ease that few possessed in her presence. “Gennaro was my teacher. He journeyed to the next world on the back of Archelon and passed his possessions to me.”
Grace handed the shield to an acolyte. “Then we mourn together. Gennaro was a good knight, and a friend of my father’s. Do you, then, seek knighthood?”
“That was my reason for coming here,” said the man, and all at once he seemed tired down to his soul. “I found a mage and swore to protect him, to prove myself worthy. But his tenth trial was designed to kill him, and I could not do as I promised.”
“So he is dead.”
“No. I don’t know.” The man sighed. “He did something I could not understand.”
“He opened the Nether,” Grace whispered.
“He tried to kill the Archmage. His own mother.”
“His mother?” Grace’s heart fell.
“I stopped him, and he fled. So I must find him, and right this wrong, so that I can fulfill my destiny.”
Grace stood, and even without the splendor of her ceremonial dress she was an imposing figure, the sunlight enveloping her. “What is your name, warrior?” she said in a low tone.
“Lance,” he said, his voice withered with shame. “Lance of Archelon.”
“On your knees, Lance of Archelon.”
The man knelt, prepared for punishment. Instead, he felt the woman’s palm on his bare head. Warmth flooded down his spine, and with it, a peace he had not known since he was a babe in his mother’s arms.
“With valor and bravery you saved the life of the Archmage,” she said. “You kept watch in the night. Do you swear to live by the tenets of justice, courage, mercy, decorum, honesty, honor, loyalty and character?”
“I do.” His words cracked with emotion.
“Then you are welcome in my guild and in my country. Rise, Lance, Knight of Gythia, in the name of the Light.” Grace smiled and her hand dropped. “Go and rest. This is now a matter for the office of the paladin.”
He wept his thanks as the acolytes guided him away. Grace’s attendants hovered close.
“Shall we call upon the Archmage, Domina?”
“No.” Grace turned and strode toward her chambers, the greyhound at her heel. “Find my brother.”
Chapter VI: Reza
‘Reza, the Fire Mage’
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Consumed by the Dark
Guardian of the Nether