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Flames of the

Ether







By Sarah C.E. Parker


Sarah C. E Parker
ii

Copyright 2011 Sarah C. E. Parker
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this book may be copied or re-sold
CONTENTS

Acknowledgments i
Map ii
Prologue
Invictus
3
I Kara 6
II Revelations 18
III Demons in the Night 26
IV Echoes of Fate 31
V Secrets of the Past 44
VI Souran 48
VII Vernose 73
VIII Faces in the Mist 81
IX Memories and
Nightmares
100
X Ensnared 114
XI Reminiscence 130
XII The Catacombs

134
Sarah C. E Parker
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XIII Silver 146
XIV Day Break 169
XV Eyes of the Enemy 180
XVI The Docks 197
XVII Nightingale 205
XVIII Exodus 227
XIX Undercurrents 246
XX Tal'Sur 262
XXI Enemy at the Gates 284
XXII Faith to Wither 298
XXIII In the Dark 304
XXIV Fey Mors 317
XXV Home Again 338

i
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thanks to my family, specifically my dad for all the editing
and contributions you made to better my story, and also
thanks to my little sister Jess for all the great ideas..

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Prologue
Invictus

Motionless in the icy rain, I waited for the end. It
was remarkable how easily I had been deceived, duped into
complacency by those who became my undoing. I stood
now at the end of my life, my last moments spent in
reflection, for great was the folly that has led me to this end.
Death by betrayal, a truly tragic way to die. Doomed by
the ones you trusted most. Condemned by those who were
once your friends and companions, and left to spend the
brief period remaining of your life chiding yourself for
being so foolish. In my world, trust is not something that
can be afforded. People should know better than to trust so
blindly. They should know better than to be foolish enough
to be led into the trap and sucked into the web of lies so
cleverly designed so that it ultimately leads the fool to their
own demise. Such bad judgment is unforgivable, for
betrayal is not only the fault of the traitors who commit it,
but also the fault of the person foolish enough to trust so
completely that they forsake all caution and place their
belief in the flawed hands of those who would later be the
cause of their downfall. The consequences of such blind
trust stretch far beyond that of any other, as a betrayal such
as this one leaves you in painful regret, forever to
remember, both in life and in death, what a fatal mistake
you have committed. I had made many terrible mistakes,
but unlike the others this was not one that I could fix.
As the end drew nearer, I glanced around one final
time, studying the treacherous faces of those who had once
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been my friends, changed now by their deeds into those I
hated most. I should have seen through their masks of
deception. I should have looked beyond the false pretenses
of friendship and sensed their malicious intentions. As I
looked at them now, I saw them for what they really were,
nothing more than gutless snakes with no sense of either
loyalty or honor. I was filled with fury as I saw their eyes fill
with anticipation as my doom approached.
One face in particular caught my eye, his face a mask
of icy calm as he watched. Zeveran Cray. My first in
command and at one time a very close friend, but no
longer, now he stood amongst my enemies, waiting in silent
anticipation like all the others for the sword to strike. He
most of all, would pay for his treachery.
I felt a wave of bitterness as I turned to face my
executioner. No one should have to die like this. My enemy
approached and drew his sword. There was nothing I could
do except stand there and wait for the inevitable. I felt a
sudden burst of pain as the blade pierced my body. With
my last breath I swore vengeance on those who had
betrayed me, cursing them with the blackest of spells that
should never have been spoken. They would never rest
until I was avenged. From that moment on they would live
in anguish, never to feel the peace of death until justice was
served. I will never feel any remorse for my actions that day.
They were the ones who would look back on this moment
and become filled with regret, not me. Their legacy will be
one of horror. I will show them the meaning of pain! They
shall dread ever having dared to betray me! Let them rot for
all eternity!
The wind rose to a piercing shriek as I finished the
incantation. I collapsed to the stone floor laughing at the
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fools who sat there smiling in satisfaction, unaware of the
terrible fate that awaited them. The air grew still as my life
slowly drained away, and sealed in hate and blood my
words took hold. I felt a strange numbness and everything
around me began to fade. My name will be cursed forever
more for unleashing such a horrid plague upon the earth.
Nevertheless, I lay there fully content, sighing with
satisfaction as deaths cold hands closed around me.
* * * * *
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Chapter I
Kara
Kara walked silently through the underbrush, her
pale blond hair glinting in the moonlight. She stared up at
the star filled sky, feeling at ease in the deep silence that
surrounded the forest. The moon lay high in the heavens,
casting ghostly shadows across the forest floor. No sound
disturbed the night's mute perfection, and Kara felt a deep
sense of peace as she walked through the wood. This was
her home. She had lived here all her life and had never
really been anywhere else, but this did not concern her in
the least. This was where she belonged and there was no
other place that she would ever rather be.
Even as a child, Kara had always loved the forest,
especially at night, a time when all the world lay in silence,
at peace in its bliss filled sleep. Some people would
consider such times to be plain and boring, but they simply
could not perceive the true serenity that only nature could
offer. There were people who had been here for
generations, yet none of them truly appreciated the forest.
None came to understand it as she did, but then again, most
people here insisted on sticking to their archaic views,
seeing everything in black and white. Anything strange that
they didn't understand was evil and that was all there was to
it.
Though sometimes a little restless, Kara had never
been very fond of exploration. Someday she would leave,
but until then there was no point in agonizing over it. The
forest was her refuge, her home. There was no point in
leaving the familiar in favor of something new and exotic. At
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least Kara did not believe so, for standing here, looking up
at the starlit sky was the time when she felt most serene.
Her parents however felt just the opposite.
They didnt approve of her midnight walks. They
never had. As a child at least their concern had made some
sense, but now it was just ridiculous. It was foolish how
overprotective they were, always paranoid about hidden
dangers waiting to claim unwary travelers. Kara viewed their
opinion as pointless suspicion based on nothing more than
paranoia. There werent many dangers in a small town like
Savory, and when youve spent your entire life living in the
woods, by the time youre 15 you know how to take care of
yourself.
Besides, even if something really were hiding in the
darkness (as unlikely as that was) she had her magic to
protect her. This was not a reassuring prospect to her
parents though, if anything, it just gave them even more
reason to not allow such outings. Their mistrust of magic far
surpassed any other dislike in their life. For reasons
unknown to her, they viewed magic as an evil fruitless tool
of destruction that consumed all who used it. She on the
other hand saw magic as a wonderful gift, an opportunity to
experiment with things most people could only dream
about.
She paused, remembering the cryptic words of her
parents, spoken softly to each other when they believed her
to be asleep. She remembered hiding in the doorway
watching silently as they talked. She stared blankly ahead,
replaying the scene in her head exactly as she had seen it
before. Her mother stood against the wall, her voice frantic
as she spoke. It is unsafe for her to play with something as
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dangerous as magic. It is not a toy! You know what
happened to the last one cursed with this plague!
Her father shook his head, his face stern as he
spoke. What can we do? We cannot tell her the truth. It
would only frighten the child.
Her mother sighed, her dark hair tumbling loosely
into her eyes. I suppose youre right, but that doesn't make
me feel any better about it. If it weren't for that no-good
cousin of hers, we wouldn't have to worry so much.
That had been more than 5 years ago, but she still
remembered the conversation word for word. She hadnt
understood what it was they were talking about, she still
didnt, but she got the message. They viewed the magic as a
curse and something had happened a long time ago to
enforce this belief. Still, she refused to see things from their
perspective. It was her life, and from her point of view their
criticism of magic was simply an unnecessary resentment
over something that they couldnt change, no matter how
hard they tried.
Of course, her parents werent the only ones
opposed to the use of the dark arts as they were often
regarded, for people seemed incapable of making any
distinction between magic in general and the malevolent
force that served only to bring destruction. There were
many people who shared their mistrust of magic, most of
them having good reason to as thousands had died in the
wars that resulted from the use of such powerful forms of
magic. Now most agreed that all magic was dangerous, the
horrible acts committed by races such as the Volrye, were
too scarring to forget. Her parents however had no history
with magic. The wars of the dark arts had been hundreds of
years ago in distant parts of the realm. He parents had no
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relation to such events. Her gifts were nothing more than
coincidence making their hate of it all the more strange.
For as long as she could remember magic had
always been a part of her life. Though nothing
extraordinary, it was nevertheless an interesting prospect
with unlimited possibilities, a perfect escape from everyday
life. Though at times a little unpredictable, it had never
failed to accomplish its intended purpose. What was the
point of dreading something that was a part of you? She
wasnt going to deny her gift just because her parents
mistrusted it.
Superstitious by nature, the people of Savory were
of much the same opinion as her parents. Though she was
unsure of the reason for her parents suspicion of magic, the
people of the town made it pretty clear. Magic was a
forbidden art; strange, foreign, and not to be trusted.
Anything unfamiliar or unexplored that had the potential to
be used for destructive purposes was instantly deemed evil
and never to be used. Any mention of magic simply caused
you an evening of dirty looks and a mutual distrust shared
by all within hearing distance. The only person who had
shared her thinking on the subject was Kail, but he was long
gone.
She paused as she neared the small clearing where
her house sat. There was no light emanating from the
windows of the cottage. This was a good sign, as it meant
that her parents were still asleep and unaware of her
absence. She stared at the small brick cottage across the
way. It wasnt much, but it was home.
She crossed the empty clearing and started toward
her house, her mind beginning to wander. She had just
reached the center of the glade when out of the corner of
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her eye she saw a flash of movement in the underbrush.
She turned and examined the area, but everything looked as
it always did. Nothing seemed to be out of place. She
scanned the area one final time before scaling the side of
her house and climbing through the open window of her
bedroom, finding no reason for her sudden unease.
Unnoticed in the darkness, the stranger crept back into the
concealing shadows of the forest, his deep blue eyes serious
as he thought about the role she was to play.
* * * * *
With morning came clear blue skies and intense heat.
Kara road her horse through the humid air constantly
wiping her forehead in an attempt to stop the stream of
sweat steadily dripping down her face. She peered through
the branches overhead at the streamers of sunlight filtering
down through the tangled limbs, casting elaborate patterns
of light and shadow that danced playfully across the path in
front of her. She hated to think of what it would feel like
once noon came.
She made her way through the forest toward the small
town that lay at the edge of the valley. She never passed up
an opportunity to go into town, even on days such as this
when most people spent their time inside desperately trying
to keep cool. Though there was never anything interesting
happening in small secluded places like Savory, the trips
into town nonetheless provided an opportunity to get at
least some news on what was happening in the outside
world.
She glanced around the empty forest, reflecting upon
times past. She remembered walking through these woods
years ago, back when her magic was still new to her and she
was just discovering her abilities. She remembered Kail, his
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blue eyes smiling as he patiently instructed her. She closed
her eyes, shaking her head. Kail was gone; there was no
point in lingering in the past.
Time dragged on slowly and Kara could tell by the
steadily increasing noise and the presence of other travelers
on the secluded trail that she was nearing Savory. She rode
on, expecting at any moment to emerge from among the
trees and enter town.
A strange silence overcame the forest, filling Kara
with a sudden uneasiness and a feeling of being watched.
Her pulse racing, Kara carefully examined her surroundings
but saw nothing out of the ordinary. She thought again of
last night; she had experienced the same feeling of being
watched, but this was different. The eyes she felt upon her
were cold and calculating, yet strangely familiar as well. She
reached out, sending tendrils of magic into the brush,
searching for what lay hidden there. She scanned the area
with her mind closing her eyes in concentration as she
searched. Something dark brushed the edges of her
consciousness sending shivers down her spine. She felt a
momentary connection and had almost located its source
when suddenly it vanished. She cut off her search, shocked
by the sudden disappearance of what she had felt only
moments before. She looked around, peering intently into
the dense underbrush, but found no trace of the strange
presence she had sensed earlier. She continued on,
unaware of the strange ghostly eyes tracking her every
movement.
* * * * *
Kara walked through the small town of Savory,
made uneasy by the strange occurrence in the forest. She
knew that it was irrational to be so on edge considering that
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nothing had really happened to make her so
uncomfortable. Still, it was unexplainable and something
about the entire incident was peculiar. The thing she found
to be most unsettling was the strange sense of familiarity that
she had experienced when she had probed the area, and
even more disturbing was how all traces of it had vanished
in an instant. She knew that she was probably just
overreacting, but somewhere deep down she knew she
wasnt. Rationality and common sense pushed aside, Kara
strode forward, looking over her shoulder every few steps to
make sure nothing was out of place.
After two hours of wandering around town she had
gathered enough supplies to last her and her family at least
a few weeks, sparing her any further trips into town in the
steadily worsening weather. Her earlier optimism had
quickly disappeared after the long trip through town in the
days steadily worsening heat. That combined with her
recent bout of paranoia because of what had happened
earlier had not made for a very enjoyable day.
The sun sank slowly below the horizon, reducing
the temperature and eliminating the stifling sense of
suffocation she had experienced only hours before. What
few people there had been outside quickly disappeared,
leaving the streets empty and barren. The slow descent of
night cast ominous shadows across the flagstone, giving
everything around her a decidedly sinister cast. Kara looked
around nervously, the once familiar buildings appearing
strange and gloomy in the failing light.
She glanced about, watching as one by one people
left the main street, returning home after a long day.
Though it was more likely they were heading toward the
local tavern, which was quickly filling up with people who
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sought to reward themselves for a hard days work. After
looking over everything to make sure nothing was amiss,
she started back the way she had come, unwilling to stay any
longer. She rounded a corner, quickly approaching the edge
of town, and came to an abrupt halt, unable to dismiss the
feeling of being watched. She turned and found herself
staring at a strangely familiar figure standing in the shadows
of the building across the way, silently tracking her every
movement. Deep blue eyes met her own as the stranger
stepped into the light, pulling down the hood of his cloak
and standing fully revealed before her. She gasped in
surprise, recognizing immediately the face of her cousin.
No one had seen or even heard from Kail in over 2
years. Few people knew what had happened to him. Some
never even realized that he had left. For as long as Kara
could remember, Kail had been both her mentor and
friend. He was had taught her everything she knew about
survival and more importantly, everything she knew of
magic, which was why her parents had always regretted
having him as a member of their family. Kail's Father,
Veren, had died in a fire when he was still very young, and
he had been raised by his mother in a cottage a few miles
outside of Savory. Having no siblings of her own, Kail had
been like a brother to Kara. Growing up an only child in a
secluded environment, there werent many people who
shared her unique interests, especially her passion for
magic. The residents of the town being very old fashioned
and suspicious of anything that intruded upon their selective
way of life.
Though he hadnt been born with any magic of his
own, Kail had always been extremely interested in the world
of the unseen. He soon discovered how to use certain
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elemental magics, perfecting in days what others studied
years to learn. By the time he was 17 he had mastered the
basics of magic, and had in turn, instructed Kara on how to
manage her own. Though older by 4 years, Kail had never
hesitated to show Kara anything she needed to know,
teaching her how to use magic to her advantage and helping
her to keep her emotions under control. It had been
difficult at first, but after a while she had come to see that
many things were possible when you had magic to help you.
He had always been there when she needed him. The only
person in her tiny world that she could trust with things
others would instantly dismiss as foolish.
At least thats how it had been until three years ago
when he decided to leave, traveling west toward Souran with
the aspiration become a master of the arcane and explore
the mountains. He had been accepted into an order of
mages dedicated to the study of various elemental magics.
All members of the order were sworn to protect and
defend. Each magic wielder worked to maintain the balance
of the lands magic, protecting against any attacks or
intrusions that had their origin in the darker arts that were
forbidden to all because of the negative effects they had on
both the land and the wielder. Though said to support all
forms of magic, the practice of channeling spirits was
forbidden, and the combination of magics was done only
with the permission of all members of the council, and even
then always under strict supervision. Any deviation or
experimentation was completely prohibited, lest it lead to
corruption. After a year of study, Kail departed Souran,
convinced that he could learn more by himself where he
would be allowed to explore the more powerful forms of
magic forbidden to those under the control of the council.
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After his abrupt disappearance, things within the order
began to fall apart and the whole organization was dissolved.
No one had heard from Kail since, most simply assumed
that he was dead. Now here he was, standing before her and
acting as if nothing had happened at all.
Hello Kara. He greeted her casually.
She stood speechless, a mix of emotions flooding
through her at the appearance of someone she had thought
gone forever. Kail stood awkwardly to one side, watching
closely her reaction to his sudden appearance. Kara opened
her mouth to speak but he raised his hand silencing her and
continued talking. I know that you must have questions,
but there isnt time. There is much that must be made right
and it goes far beyond you and me. I promise I will tell you
everything in time, but first you must listen.
Kara stood in silence, hesitating a moment before
agreeing to hear him out. Kail hadnt come back simply to
visit. Much had happened in the past 2 years and she
sensed that whatever he had come here for was much more
important than taking care of some unresolved issues with
his long-forgotten cousin. It seemed that she must wait a
while longer if she ever wanted to receive the answers to her
questions. Kail led her off the main street toward the edge
of town, the sun casting strange shadows as it slowly slid
below the horizon.
Kail paused, his blue eyes serious as he turned to
look at her. As much as I might wish it was otherwise, I
cannot reveal to you most of what has happened to me
these past few years, nor can I give you much of an
explanation for what Im about to tell you.
Wait one second. Kara exclaimed, unable to
contain herself any longer. What are you talking about,
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and what did you mean when you said theres no time? No
one has heard from you in over 2 years, and you cant
expect me to listen to you when you wont even bother to
explain where youve been all this time! Its not like I
We have to leave, now.
Kara stared, taken aback by the sudden turn of
events. Leave? Where? You cant just show up after three
years and tell me I need to just leave without any
explanation or even any good reason explaining why I
should go!
Kara, please! There isnt time. They may already
know youre here. They? She thought in confusion, her
mind churning with a multitude of unanswered questions,
but one look at Kails face told her they would have to wait.
She took a shaky breath, still unsure whether or not
she was making the right decision. I will follow you
wherever it is we need to go, but after this is over you owe
me a very long explanation.
Kail smiled uncertainly. His soft reply lost in the
fading noise of the town, If only it were that simple.
Kara quickly gathered up the supplies she had
bought earlier that day and followed Kail to the stable on
the outskirts of town. Her cousin moved deftly across the
loosely packed straw, leading forward a pair of well-bred
stallions, their hooves churning the ground beneath them as
they eagerly waited to depart.
It only took a few minutes for them to load their
horses. They took no extra time to fuss over details, with
Kail becoming steadily more worried as the last traces of
sunlight faded from the sky, and the evening dragged on
towards nightfall. Kara glanced over at him in bewildered
concern, knowing that there must be some cause for his
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strange behavior, but not understanding what. Whatever it
was that they were running from, it was definitely a serious
matter. They mounted and set off, cloaks wrapped tightly
about them to ward off the nights deepening chill. They
rode through the forest, the last few rays of light slowly
disappearing into darkness. Kara looked back and watched
the town slowly fade into the distance, feeling a part of
herself go with it.


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Chapter II
Revelations
The world slipped slowly into darkness as night
settled over the plains. Kara slid off her horse feeling weary
and drained, all of her energy sapped by their harrowing
flight. She couldnt remember when they had last stopped
to rest, but it seemed like an eternity. She felt a weary
depression set in as she stared at the endless expanse of
grassland that lay before her. After a full day of racing
across the empty terrain with the sun beaming down on her,
she had begun to miss the cool quiet of the forest.
She tore angrily at a hunk of bread and remounted,
knowing they wouldnt stop till nightfall, meaning there was
at least another hour of riding before they stopped to set up
camp. She stared blankly ahead of her, taking in the deep
shadows slowly settling over the landscape, the long grass
painted red by the sun as it slowly sank toward the horizon.
She sighed, starring disinterestedly at the scarred terrain as
it flew past. Ahead of her, her cousin sat still as stone upon
his gray charger, his mind on other things. Something was
strange about him. He was far different from the person
Kara had known in her childhood. The stranger before her
was not the carefree individual she remembered, his
previous bright and happy attitude turned distant and
brooding. She wondered suddenly what had happened to
him during his absence. He had failed to mention anything
about the past few years, refusing to answer her questions
until the time was right, but it was hard to be patient while
so much was happening that she didnt understand.
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She frowned, growing extremely agitated as she
thought about Kails apparent reluctance to tell her
anything. Two days of riding alone through the nearly
deserted country surrounding Savory and he had still failed
to mention why it was that they were running.
The last 48 hours had been spent riding at
breakneck speed through the treacherous landscape of the
forest, driving the horses to their limits and stopping to rest
only when it was absolutely necessary. Kara was exhausted,
her endurance pushed to its limit. Neither had slept more
than a few hours since their abrupt departure from town,
but Kail seemed unaffected. Karas patience wore thin and
her temper worsened, for she was continually frustrated by
Kails insistence that they get safely away before her
questions could be answered. Though she found his request
unreasonable, she couldnt seem to find a way to get any
answers from him without forcing a confrontation, and so
on she rode, pushing herself to the limit in an attempt to
keep going even though every bone in her body screamed
for her to stop. With no idea where they were going, or
even what they were running from, it was getting decidedly
difficult to keep her anger in check.
They stopped to rest as night set in and fighting against
her exhaustion, Kara gathered her thoughts and confronted
her cousin.
I have spent the past 2 days in flight with no idea
where we are going, running from some faceless demon that
I know nothing about! Right now, all I want is to go to sleep,
and wake up to find that this has all just been some
elaborate dream, but I refuse to do anything of the sort until
I get some answers! You must understand that I find it
impossible to be patient when I have absolutely no idea
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whats going on! She stood staring at her cousin, frustrated
and weary, all the doubt and anger formed by the stress of
the past few days only working to strengthen her
determination. She stood before him, silently fuming, and
was surprised to see him smile.
I suppose I knew the moment I found you that it
wouldnt be long before you demanded some answers, He
began, but you must understand that everything I have ever
done I did because of need, not on a whim. You are in
great danger Kara and whether you like it or not, you dont
have much of a choice in the matter. Youre already a part
of this and you dont get the luxury of deciding whether or
not to become involved.
He stopped, all traces of a smile now gone,
vanished as if it had never existed. He looked directly at
her, his deep blue eyes reflecting his thoughts as clearly as if
they were written on paper. He straightened, his expression
grave, and in a voice barely a whisper, he continued. As
you may know, the practice of necromancy had been
outlawed after the wars between the Volrye and the
Darkened, a dark time in which most of the west had
suffered devastating losses as well as the destruction of its
capital city, Tolfane. Not many know the true reason
behind the war but the event itself is common knowledge.
Kara sat in silence, waiting patiently for her cousin
to continue. The Volrye were a power hungry people bent
on the destruction of all who opposed them in their crazed
conquest of Almora, led by the dark sorceress Dectra, who
ruthlessly destroyed any and everything in her path. For
years they were a terror upon the land, using the dark arts
to summon the souls of the dead in and utilize them as both
soldiers and as tools to strengthen their magic. Their
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mistake was made when they intruded upon the territory of
a reclusive race of people known as the Darkened, an
ancient people born and raised to fight using the most
deadly of magics, starting a feud that lasted many years until
the leader of the Volrye was slain in a devastating battle that
nearly wiped out both races. The entire land was affected by
this shocking series of events, and the monarchies of all the
major realms vowed never again to allow the practice of the
dark arts to go unpunished. There had always been rumors
of those who continued with their studies in spite of the law,
but rumors were all they ever were.
He paused, his tone becoming grim as he
proceeded. At least thats how it was until about two
hundred years ago, when someone discovered the remnants
of a powerful text known as The Book of Night, an ancient
tome used by Dectra herself, containing many terrible
secrets about the darker side of magic. Her name was Syra
Ilsren, practitioner of the dark arts and leader of an order of
sorcerers studying the forbidden magics in an effort to
discover a means to gain mastery over the realm of the
dead. Using the secrets learned from the text, Syra began to
delve deeper into the forbidden arts, using her newly
discovered power in the most terrible of ways, until finally
some within the cult became dissatisfied with her
leadership, believing that she had gone too far in her pursuit
of power, so they turned to the people of Zalem for aid in
her destruction. The people of the realm of Zalem
mistrusted any and all forms of magic, and were especially
vehement about the complete prohibition of any and all use
of the dark arts. The antagonism between them and the cult
was a constant throughout Syras lifetime. It was a feud that
only ended years later with the death of Syra and the
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destruction of the cult. Syras death however, was not of
natural causes. It happened just days before her planned
attack on the kingdom of Zalem when her most trusted
advisor, Zeveran Cray, along with the rest of the
conspirators disloyal to Syra, betrayed her to the king of
Zalem and revealed to the government the location of all
the cults main hideouts. She was executed at dawn of the
following day, but not before she used her dark powers to
curse those who had betrayed her, binding their souls to
herself and leaving them to live in eternal torment until the
day she was avenged.
Kail paused in his narration, his expression
becoming troubled, I had heard the story before, but it was
not until recently that I discovered the truth of it. The curse
is real and it has evolved far beyond what it once was. The
living dead of whom the legend speaks are no fantasy. They
are a serious threat and mortal weapons cannot harm them;
even the most potent magic does nothing but hinder their
efforts. The thing that was once the traitor Zeveran and the
others who betrayed Syra all those years ago now roam
these lands. They are far more dangerous than anything I
have ever seen, their very souls twisted into something so
loathsome and dark that I can barely stand to even think
about it. After years of hiding deep within the Black Marsh,
they have come forth with no intent other than to destroy,
and to remove all those who may yet undo the curse and
stop them from succeeding in their dark goals. You most of
all Kara, for yours is the magic that they fear most, for you
are the direct descendant of Syra Ilsren and the only person
capable of stopping them.
Kara stared at him with her mouth hanging open,
too shocked by what he had just said to form a coherent
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23
sentence. She struggled to say something in response but
remained speechless, wondering distantly if this was all
some cruel joke. Not only was her ancestor a practitioner of
dark magic and directly responsible for possibly the greatest
evil ever to enter the realm, but she, a girl of barely fifteen
was supposed to destroy a cult of demonic creatures
spawned from the blackest of sorcery and evolved into
something no longer human, something too powerful for
even the most formidable of mages to even contemplate
challenging.
Kail looked down, seeing the look on her face and
reading in her eyes her response. I know you dont believe
that you can accomplish anything close to what I ask, but
you need to understand
Understand what? That I need to either travel to
my death and confront an undefeatable evil or spend the
rest of my life in hiding? Understand that because Im the
descendant of some evil sorceress I need to go avenge her
well-deserved death or die trying? How is that fair? Its not
even reasonable! Why cant you go! Youre the one with the
real magic, the one who spent the past three years learning
it! Im just a girl. I havent even had a chance to do anything
with my life! I cant do anything even close to what youre
asking! You cant just come here and expect me to, to...
She trailed off, realizing as soon as she said it that none of it
really mattered in the end. If this was something that Kail
could have done himself, he never would have dragged her
into it. She glared at him, knowing none of this was really
his fault, but blaming him anyways for the way things had
turned out.
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24
She sighed, You know youre insane and I
probably am too, because no matter how much I argue I
know that Im going to end up going anyway.
I wouldnt have involved you in all this if it werent
absolutely necessary. He stated quietly. It was by my
choice that I traveled to Souran to study magic. It was my
choice to dedicate my life to maintaining the balance and
protecting the realm. If I could do this on my own, I would.
I know that you didnt want to become involved in any of
this, but Im afraid there isnt much of an alternative. Im
sorry that things turned out this way, but you are the only
living descendant of Syra, the only one capable of
preventing this calamity. I may be your cousin, but I cannot
do what is needed, you can.
Kara did not understand what he meant by that, but
she knew regardless that everything he had told her was
true. I know. She sighed in resignation, feeling the last of
her anger fade into reluctant acceptance.
Get some sleep, Kail replied. At dawn we leave
for Souran, from there we will travel south until we reach
the Black Marsh. She laid back, her mind filled with
millions of questions and queries, all without answers. She
closed her eyes, thinking of the past and how much
everything had changed. In only a few hours her entire life
had been altered irrevocably, and no matter how much she
might want them to, things would never go back to the way
they were before, nor would she be able to live with herself
if she went back home now and tried to act as if nothing was
wrong. She couldnt just walk away, not now, not if it meant
that she would be responsible for the deaths of thousands
and all the destruction that would follow, all because she
was too afraid to try. She thought then of her parents and
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25
their seemingly unreasonable distrust of magic, and realized
in light of this new revelation that maybe their prejudice had
not been all that irrational after all. Magic was not always
necessarily a good thing. Karas thoughts drifted and her
exhaustion finally overcame her. She fell slowly asleep, her
thoughts plagued by doubts and unanswered questions.
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26
Chapter III
Demons in the Night
They set out at dawn, packing up what remained
of the supplies they had brought, they departed. Kara road
steadily onward, trying her best not to think about the long
journey that lay ahead. Her attempts to focus on other
things eventually failed however, and she found herself
thinking once again of the previous nights frightening
revelation about her heritage. She had never bothered to
wonder why she possessed magic, or where such a gift had
come from. She never would have thought to consider the
possibility that her magical abilities were anything more than
just a fluke. As far as she knew, no one else in her family
had ever had possession of magic, except for Kail, and that
was only because he had gone out of his way to learn it. The
inheritance of magic was an extreme rarity anywhere within
the realm, it had happened only a few times in the history of
Almora, and even then, only among the more powerful
races such as the Soera and the Volrye, to whom magic was
their lifeblood. Now to learn the truth about her family and
to finally understand what it meant to have magic such as
hers
She shook her head, unwilling to continue with her
trail of thought. Lingering on such matters only worked to
further her depression. Dark clouds began to mass in the
sky above her head, seeming to reflect the grim mix of
emotions that roiled inside of her. Kail quickened their
pace in the hopes of reaching shelter before the storm
struck. Kara stared straight ahead through unseeing eyes,
her thoughts on other things.
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27
They stopped at nightfall, settling down for the
night beneath a grove of trees, the only shelter visible across
the barren expanse of grass that was the plains. Kail
cautiously scanned the area, seeming uneasy for some
reason as they slowly dismounted. Kara gazed
apprehensively through the sparse covering of trees, the
faint glow of twilight already beginning to fade into
darkness.
It took longer than expected to set up camp, a time
spent in silence as neither made any attempt at
conversation. Kail continued to look decidedly uneasy,
though Kara couldnt see why and felt no desire to ask. She
reflected briefly on the times she had spent with him years
before any of this had happened. His constant attentions
and gentle instruction had been what had helped her to
cope with the isolation caused by her magic, allowing her to
see her power as a gift. Though back then it had only been
a toy, something to pass the long hours of the day and
amuse herself with, never anything as momentous as what
Kail now expected it to be.
The night was pitch black, the stars blotted out by
the thick covering of clouds. Kail forbade any sort of fire,
claiming it was too risky and that it would only give away
their position to those they were hiding from. Kara watched
silently as Kail sat staring off into the distance, his face dark,
his eyes turned a pale indigo. He seemed unusually
reserved and something about his demeanor hinted at
knowledge of something that she sensed was not altogether
pleasant. Kara sat alone and ate her meal in silence, sensing
that he was not in the mood for idle conversation. It was
strange to see how much things had changed between them
in the few years hed been away. She found it depressing to
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28
be reminded of the sad fact that nothing was permanent,
even the things you were sure would never change soon
became unrecognizable, even to themselves. She stopped as
she realized that she had not been thinking about Kail, but
of herself. Only a few days had passed since her sudden
reunion with her cousin and already she was far different
from the ignorant 15 year old she had been. She pulled her
knees up to her chest, reflecting on how much better it had
been when she hadnt known about such things. She lay
down, her gaze wandering aimlessly across the empty
horizon. A faint mist had settled across the plains cutting
down visibility to almost nothing. Kara drifted off to sleep
unable to dismiss the horrible feeling of dread as the night
deepened.
* * * * *
Kara gave a violent start, and struggled to focus her
sleep filled eyes on the figure standing before her. Kail
stood over her, a finger to his lips. He motioned for her to
get up, glancing worriedly over at the area beyond the place
where they camped. Kara rose silently, detecting a sudden
shift in the air. She shivered, feeling strangely on edge, the
irrational sense of foreboding she had experienced earlier
returning and filling her heart with dread.
Kail guided her from the campsite, crouching down
in the center of a thick tangle of weeds and pulling her
down beside him. Kara slowly crept forward, the sudden
silence pressing down upon her like a weight around her
neck. She stared out into the mist, slowly scanning the
empty horizon for some sign of whatever lurked in the
darkness, hidden just beyond her field of vision.
Her breath caught in her throat and she peered
intently forward at the blurred figures emerging from the
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29
haze. The creatures strode forward, moving slowly yet
without hesitation as they made their way across the plains,
an inevitable unstoppable force that threatened to swallow
her whole. She bit back a scream as she stared at the black
cloaked forms moving toward them. A horrible darkness
spread out from the figures, an icy blackness that drained
the warmth from the air and turned her knees to jelly. She
found herself unable to move, assaulted with wave upon
wave of terror. One of the creatures moved forward, its gaze
fixing on the exact spot where she lay hidden. The cold eyes
seemed to cut through the layers of brush and settle on the
girl who lay concealed beneath the undergrowth, turning
her blood to ice. She remained motionless, unable to so
much as breathe as she gazed into the coal black eyes of the
creature, its face a sunken skull, eyes smoldering with
hatred and murderous rage. A sudden noise sounded far to
the east, echoing through the still air and shattering the
unnatural silence that filled the night. She heard the
pounding of hooves as the faint sound became clearer.
The lead figure turned, and after quickly scanning the area
where they lay hidden rode off toward the last fading echoes
of sound ringing through the night.
Kara stayed silent watching the figures fade back into
the mist, unable to breath, knowing that if she tried it would
only result in a scream. She turned toward Kail and was
surprised to find that she was shivering.
What were they? she gasped in a hoarse whisper,
angry and ashamed but unable nevertheless to stop the
violent shudders that racked her body.
Shades of what were once the members of the
dark cult that betrayed Syra. He replied his face pale but
otherwise composed.
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30
What happened? How did they know where we
were? I swear they were looking right at me, almost as if
She trailed of unable to continue remembering the horrible
paralysis that had overcome her.
We cant stay here, Kail stated abruptly, scooping
up their supplies and saddling their horses. Even if they
didnt know for certain where we are, they will soon
enough.
Kara stopped, recalling suddenly the strange sound
that had drawn the attention of the creatures. What
happened back there? The sound I mean. They were
coming toward us and then all of a sudden
A distraction, He stated, nothing more. They
will be back on our trail before you know it. He quickly
mounted his horse and motioning for Kara to follow. Kara
looked out across the deserted plains. The strange fog had
all but vanished, leaving only traces of vapor in the damp
air. The sky was already starting to lighten, the deep black
turning to a soft gray as the night inched on towards
morning. She glanced up at the clouds amassing overhead,
in an effort to turn her thoughts away from what had just
happened. It was not a good distraction however, as such
weather just meant more bad news; the storm they had been
anticipating was not far off.
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31

Chapter IV
Echoes of Fate
Rumbles of thunder shook the earth as sheet upon
sheet of stinging rain poured down from the sky, completely
drenching an already sodden Kara and leaving both her and
her cousin desperately struggling to find their way through
the ferocious downpour. Bolts of lightning forked across the
sky, causing flashes of light in an otherwise black world.
We Have To Stop! Kara screamed, fighting to be
heard over the howl of the wind.
Kail Shook his head.If we stop now, well lose any
lead we may have gained. This is a good thing, we couldnt
have asked for a better way to cover our tracks. Not even
they can track us in weather like this.
Another lightning bolt sizzled through the air,
striking a tree and setting it ablaze. A good thing? She
couldnt see how almost being struck by lightning as well as
being pelted by torrents of stinging water was a good thing.
If we stay out here were going to die anyway! Kara yelled,
all the fear and uncertainty of the past few days coming
together now working to elevate both her anger and fear. It
seemed that she was in a steady downward spiral from bad
to worse.
Fine, Kail agreed. He avoided her gaze, saddened
as he spoke Adra is only a few hours south of here. We
should be able to stay there until this storm blows over.
Kara nodded, gripping tightly the reins of her horse and
leading it forward through the gale. She glanced sideways at
Kail, seeing the sadness in his eyes. Adra was where he had
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32
grown up. The last time he had visited there was his father's
funeral, but they had no choice in the matter.
It was nearly an hour later that she caught site of a
faint light glimmering in the darkness up ahead. Relief
overwhelmed her as she stared at the pinpricks of fire that
pierced the night, temporarily pushing back the dread and
doubt of the past few days at the thought of being warm and
dry for even a few minutes.
The lights soon began to take shape and Kara
found herself looking at a town. It was fairly large for a
settlement in such a remote area and she found herself
vaguely depressed by the plain gray buildings and the
garbage littered streets that lay before her. Kail led her
forward, heading towards a small nondescript tavern on the
edge of the city. He glanced at the buildings as they passed,
recognizing each and every one of them. They arrived at the
far side of town, a small tavern appearing in front of them.
After quickly tying up their horses, they stepped inside and
found themselves in a large room, the smell of ash and the
stench of beer heavy on the air. Kail strode forward, his
cloak pulled low over his face to conceal his features from
the crowd of onlookers. He moved towards the counter,
Kara standing in the background, waiting patiently as he left
to talk to the innkeeper.
He walked up to the man behind the counter and
began to speak, Me and my companion have come seeking
shelter from the storm, he began, were not from around
here and
That much is plain to see. stated the man,
abruptly cutting off the rest of Kails sentence. He spoke
with a strange accent and seemed to be in a rather foul
mood. He had taken an instant disliking to them, which was
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33
strange considering they really hadnt done anything. I
dont know ya and frankly, I dont much like ya either. If
youre looking for a drink youve come to the right place.
Weve also got a few rooms upstairs if you need one, but I
feel you should know that folks round here dont take
kindly to strangers, me included, especially secretive ones.
So get what you need and get out. Upon finishing his
sentence he turned his back on them and began grimly
scrubbing the grime encrusted counter, muttering under his
breath as he scraped at the grit in a futile attempt to get it
clean.
Please dont be upset, said a young woman, long
brown hair swaying as she stepped forward. He doesnt
take kindly to strangers. You and your friend there can have
one of the rooms upstairs, first one on the left. Drinks are
extra. Kail thanked the girl and paid her the money for the
room. She accepted it with a smile and immediately
returned to work. Kail headed back toward Kara, the room
key held loosely in his hand.
Not the friendliest of people are they? She asked
Just cautious. was his only reply. Im going to
stay down here for a while and see what I can learn. Youre
free to go upstairs at any time, though I wouldnt advise
staying down here long. She stared after him as he walked
away, irritated by his suggestion, and angrily decided that
she wasnt going anywhere.
She watched as Kail walked through the crowd,
casually conversing with the other customers, who were by
now far too drunk to care where he was from. Kara slid into
a booth and looked around the crowded room, grimacing at
the foul odor of sweat and beer that lingered on the air. A
table at the far end of the room drew her attention, empty
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34
except for a single person, the slight figure shrouded in a
long gray cloak and sitting deep in the shadows of the
sheltered alcove. Her attention was momentarily diverted by
a commotion near the bar, where two men sat angrily
yelling at each other and soon began a full out brawl. Kara
gathered up her things, deciding that it was time to leave.
She shot one last glance at the cloaked stranger and was
shocked to find that there was no one there. She scanned
the crowd, looking for some sign of the telltale dull gray
cloak, but found nothing. She walked up the stairs toward
her room, feeling unsettled and disturbed all over again.
Nothing seemed to make sense these days. She drifted off
to sleep, her thoughts lingering on things of night and
shadow, as she saw once more the faces of those that
hunted her.
* * * * *
Kara sat bolt upright, frantically scanning the room
for any sign of the demons that haunted her sleep. She sat
back, feeling worn and exhausted. She hadnt had a good
nights sleep since her encounter with the creatures on the
plains, and the nightmares were getting worse. Every time
she closed her eyes she saw the pale tormented face of the
shade, its cruel eyes burning with some unknown inner
torment. The dead gaze penetrating flesh and bone, and
laying bare her soul.
She crept from the room and went back down into
the main room of the tavern. It was not long after midnight.
Only a couple hours had passed since she had left upstairs.
Kail was nowhere in sight and she assumed that he was
already asleep. She slid into a booth in the back of the
room, not wanting to draw attention to herself and gratefully
accepted the tankard passed to her by the barmaid. She
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35
sipped slowly at the cup of ale and looked around the
crowded room. It was considerably quieter than before,
most of the customers having descended into a drunken
stupor after drinking enough beer to flood half of Savory.
Suddenly a soft, ghostly voice reached her ears and
she found herself listening intently as strange music filled
the room with its haunting melody. The room went dead
silent. All the earlier commotion vanished as the first few
notes rang through the air and faded into the night. She
searched for the source of the strange music and found
herself staring at the same cloaked stranger that she had
seen earlier that night, the girls features hidden by the
curtain of hair surrounding her face. In her hands she held
a strange stringed instrument which she played skillfully, her
angelic voice ringing softly through the air as she strummed
each note. Her hair shone silver in the lamp-light. Her eyes
remained downcast throughout the song, her attention
riveted on her instrument. As the final note slowly faded
into silence, two milky white eyes lifted to meet her own
and Kara found herself staring at the face of a young girl no
more than 17, her fair face unlined though her hair was
already colored a silvered white. The musician slowly
departed from the stage at the front of the room where she
had been playing, her gaze steady as she strode across the
floor, never faltering or searching, but smooth and sure.
Karas initial surprise turned to amazement as the girl
walked directly across the room and slid into the seat
opposite her. Her gaze was strangely penetrating, even
though Kara knew she couldnt possibly really see her.
Greetings oh chosen descendant of she whose
name shall forever be cursed. You are not unwelcome here,
though many would disagree. She greeted.
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36
Kara stared, taken aback and instantly suspicious of
this strange woman who seemed to be much more than she
appeared. Hello. Kara replied uncertainly. That was
beautiful, Ive never heard anything so She paused, at a
loss for words, the strangers cool eyes fixed on her the
entire time.
Sometimes people need a little light to inspire
them, The singer stated, especially in times like these.
You most of all know this Kara, for one with a task as
momentous as yours cannot resolve to do everything
alone.
Karas eyes were probing as they searched the face
of the woman across from her, disturbed and on edge. She
reached slowly under the table, her hand closing around the
hilt of her dagger. How do you know my name?
I see many things, most of which are much more
shocking than such simple knowledge as knowing a
stranger's name. There is much more to this story than what
your cousin has told you. There will be much loss before
the end. I suggest you look past the obvious next time
someone tells you something, and try to understand that
there are many things that are not as they appear to be.
There is more to a message than just words. She stood up,
leaving as abruptly as she had come. She spared Kara one
final glance as she left. Beware Kara, she called. for in
the end, you are alone. She turned away, her small lithe
figure quickly disappearing into the crowd. Kara stared after
her, the bleak words of the girls warning echoing in her
mind, an omen of doom in an already darkened world. She
sat in silence, thinking of how difficult her life had become.
* * * * *
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37
Menacing laughter haunted Karas dreams that
night, her head filled with images of a past long forgotten.
She looked nervously at the pale face of the stranger who
stood before her, positive she had never seen the woman
before, and yet sensing that e knew her all the same.
Whats wrong child? the woman mocked, her low voice
dripping with fake sympathy. Kara jumped back, watching
in horror as the womans face slowly transformed into
something much more sinister. Two coal black eyes blazing
with anger stared out at her from a face twisted with hate.
She stared at the dark figure, unable to move as it slowly
approached her. Dont you know your death when you see
it?
* * * * *
Kara sat bolt upright, her body drenched in sweat.
The horrifying memory of the tormented eyes of the
demon that haunted her dreams hung in the forefront of
her mind. The dream disturbed her greatly, as there was
something chillingly prophetic about it. She shuddered as
she remembered the cold face of the woman and the
dreadful fascination she had felt as she had watched it
slowly transform into the face of her enemy. She felt as if
she was missing something painfully obvious. She
remembered suddenly Kails story of how Syra was
betrayed and finally realized what the dream had been
referring too. She now knew exactly who it was that she and
her cousin had seen that night on the plains, Zeveran Cray,
foremost among those cursed by Syra and leader of all
those who now sought to kill her. It all made sense really,
and it helped to explain how the creatures had found them
so easily, if they were being led by someone as powerful as
the former right hand of her cursed ancestor. The
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38
disturbing thing though was the strange sense of familiarity
she had experienced upon seeing the woman and the
instant recognition she had felt the moment she had heard
her voice. Who was she and why was it that no matter how
hard she tried she couldnt get rid of the feeling that she
knew exactly who she was?
Midnight came and went with Kara still refusing to
even attempt to sleep, still thinking on the events of the
dream. She sat in silence, continually frustrated by her lack
of knowledge as she tried to reason this through. The
nagging feeling that she was still missing something
remained inside her, and no amount of speculation or
deliberation would tell her why.
* * * * *
They left the inn early that morning, packing their
things and saddling the horses in record time, setting off as
the first few tinges of color began to light the sky. Kara
watched silently as the city of Adra slowly faded into the
distance, thinking once more of the strange warning she had
received from the girl at the inn. There is much more to
this story than what your cousin has told you, there will be
much loss before the end. I suggest you look past the
obvious next time someone tells you something and try to
understand that there are many things that are not as they
appear to be.
She still didnt completely understand what it was
the woman had been trying to tell her, and more
importantly, the reason for the strange revelation. She could
not quite accept the possibility that the girl had been telling
the truth when she had said that she had seen things that
were yet to happen. The more probable answer was that the
strange musician had been lying the entire time and
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39
someone had wanted her to say those things to Kara, not to
aid her but for their own selfish reasons. If anything, it only
gave Kara all the more reason to simply forget the entire
incident. After all, what reason did she have to believe one
word of what she had been told, especially when it meant
doubting her cousin, but for some reason she simply
couldnt bring herself to just dismiss it out of hand. What
troubled her even more was the strange dream she had
experienced. Something about it seemed far too important
to ignore. If only she could remember what it was. She
stared moodily into the distance, wishing desperately that
things could just go back to the way they had been before,
and at the same time knowing how pointless it was to waste
her time thinking about it.
They rode on, the landscape becoming lighter as
the morning wore on. It was almost noon when Kail
suddenly stopped, frowning and scanning the landscape
ahead of them. He glanced up at the roiling bank of clouds
that had begun to fill the horizon and his brow lowered in
concern.
What is it? Kara asked, looking out at the empty
landscape.
The clouds just changed directions. Kail replied,
his expression growing dark. Kara stared
uncomprehendingly at her cousin, not seeing what the
problem was. Then, all of a sudden, the sky turned dark.
Deep fog descended over the plains, blotting out the sun
and making it impossible to see beyond a few feet in any
direction.
What the... She stopped abruptly as the fog
parted and someone approached. Kail dismounted, pulling
out a long sword that lay concealed beneath his cloak when
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40
suddenly he froze. Kara turned to go to him and suddenly
found she could not move. It was nothing like the paralysis
she had felt when facing the shades of Syras followers, she
simply found herself unable to move as if invisible restraints
had been placed over her entire body, leaving her incapable
of movement.
She starred in shock as the figure before her began
to take shape and she found herself facing the strangely
familiar form of Syra Ilsren. The sorceress looked like
someone in her mid-thirties with jet black hair that tumbled
well past her shoulders and gave her skin a ghostly white
hue. Something about her was... off. She seemed ethereal as
if she could fade away in a moments notice, and Kara
found that if she looked closely she could see right through
her into the swirling fog that filled the air beyond. Hello
Kara. Syra greeted, her voice low and mocking just as it
had been in her dream.
Youre dead. She replied, still trying to come to
terms with what was happening.
Just because I died doesnt mean I dont still exist.
I've been watching you. You've felt me before haven't you?
She asked her face cold. Kara remembered the moment in
the woods outside of Savory, thinking of the inexplicable
feeling of being watched.
That was you? she breathed, staring
apprehensively at the specter before her.
Don't sound so surprised. I wasn't about to let you
be destroyed by the Cursed Ones was I? Not with you being
my only chance at settling this matter. Luckily your cousin
over there made action unnecessary and here you are
fulfilling your destiny.
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41
Kara stared at her, her eyes narrowing. How are
you still here? The Cursed Ones wouldn't just let you live,
even in this form.
Syra glared at her, her eyes flaming. They have no
power over me. They are but puppets on a string. Those
traitorous scum will never be rid of me. Fools! They will
burn for all eternity! Kara flinched as the sorceresss eyes
glowed red, her voice filling with venom as she spoke.
Besides, she said, all traces of her previous anger gone,
you should be grateful. I came to help you. Justice must be
served after all, and you as my successor, are going to give it
to me.
I dont want your help. Kara replied, growing
angry as she stared at the face of the person responsible for
everything that had happened.
I grow tired of your antics. You don't have a
choice in the matter. The Cursed Ones must be stopped.
Kara glared at her. Its your fault theyve become
what they have. Do you know what will happen if they win?
How many people will
Silence! Syra screamed, her voice dropping to a
hiss, Foolish girl. You understand nothing! Kara flushed,
infuriated by this arrogant cruel specter telling her that she
didnt understand. How many peoples lives would this
womans curse destroy, and yet here she was expecting
complete compliance in the carrying out of what she termed
justice.
Kara jumped as the sorceress let out a harsh laugh,
breaking the morbid silence that surrounded them. How
little you understand, she jeered. I see the judgment you
would pass upon me, yet still you remain ignorant of the
sins of those others to who you look for guidance. Karas
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42
eyes followed Syras line of sight and she grew suddenly
cold as her gaze came to rest on her cousin. You think I
am the only one who has used that which is dark? Syra
queried. Kara shook her head. She thought back to that
night at the inn and the words of the seer, there is much
more to this story than what your cousin has told you.
Enough of this, I need not waste my time explaining such
things to you, The sorceress said loftily, her face filled with
barely concealed contempt. My time here is almost over.
Hear my words and listen well, for I shall not repeat them.
Many trials lay before you Kara, some of which without aid,
you will not survive. Seek out Gray Ravenwing, for without
him this quest shall surely fail. Find him, and drive back the
dark which you so despise. She faded away, her words
echoing through the dead air of the grasslands. Kail lurched
forward, freed from the bonds that had held him frozen.
He stared around in confusion as the fog faded away,
leaving everything precisely as it had been before.
What just happened? Her cousin asked
uncertainly, and Kara realized he had been unaware of
everything that had just occurred. She took a shaky breath
and told him about her meeting with Syra. Are you sure
she said Gray Ravenwing? He asked, his voice taking on an
unfamiliar note of sadness.
Positive. She replied. Why? Do you know
where to find him?
Kail looked away, refusing to meet her gaze. It
seems that theres been a change of plans, he stated, his
expression becoming slightly brooding as he considered
what lay ahead. It appears I have a meeting with an old
friend. They gathered up their supplies and set out, riding
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toward the distant city of Souran and the fate that awaited
them there.

Sarah C. E Parker

44
Chapter V
Secrets of the Past
Kara glanced sideways at her cousin, taking in his
gloomy expression and suddenly wondering how it was that
he knew the person Syra had mentioned. Gray Ravenwing.
The name seemed to bring him great pain. Whatever it was
that had happened between them, it couldn't have been
good. He had barely spoken since yesterday when she had
told him of the encounter. She thought again of the words
of her dead ancestor. What was it that Kail hadnt told her?
Why was it that everyone seemed to know exactly what was
going on except for her?
Who is he? she asked quietly, looking up at her
cousin, his face pale and drawn.
What are you talking about?
Gray Ravenwing, how is it that you know him and
why is it that youre so afraid of seeing him again?
He stared at her, a look of slight surprise crossing his
face before changing back into the look of dread he had
been wearing before. Its a long story. Many things
happened back then, most of which are better forgotten.
Tell me. She said, her voice insistent.
He turned to face her, his face dead serious. You
wont like what you hear
She stared at him, a deep foreboding burning deep
inside of her, warning her of what was to come. I need to
know.
He sighed taking a deep breath before he began.
Shortly after I was accepted into the order of mages, I met
another magician. His name was Gray Ravenwing. He had
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an amazing affinity for magic. He could see things no one
else knew and his talent for manipulating and combining
different forms of magic was amazing. When first we met,
Gray was already in his ninth year of service. He came to
Souran early on in his life and was the youngest person ever
to be granted an apprenticeship there. Like me, all he
wanted was to learn more about magic, but the council was
opposed to such rash exploration. They claimed that
certain magics were not to be tampered with, that
experimentation was dangerous. As it turns out, they were
right but I couldnt see this when I first came there. We
became friends, both of us attempting to change the
prejudiced view of the council, to allow exploration into the
more powerful forms of magic. For a while, we were almost
inseparable, until one day I discovered something that I felt
would finally solve all my problems and everything
changed.
He paused, his eyes filling with pain and his
expression becoming troubled. He told me not to use it,
but I wouldnt listen. I thought if I could learn to control it I
would finally be able to show the others that such powers
could be used for good instead of evil. I would finally be
able to stop living in secrecy and hiding my studies. I was
wrong. I couldnt control it, and things soon got out of
hand. He trailed off, his eyes downcast.
Wait a second, control what? What was so dangerous
about your research?
Kara Im not sure that
What is it that you found? She repeated, her voice
shaking slightly as she thought of Syras words. I see the
judgment you would pass upon me, yet still you remain
ignorant of the sins of those others whom you look to for
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46
guidance. You think I am the only one who has used that
which is dark?
He looked up at her, his eyes pained. It was known
by the Darkened as the Taylovas. You know it as The Book
of Night. Kara was speechless. She could not believe what
she was hearing; such terrible things could not be true. She
closed her eyes, hearing Syras evil laughter echoing again
and again inside her head.
Eventually I stopped using it, but not before
something went terribly wrong. It was in the middle of a
spell using spirits that I stumbled upon it. I wasnt sure what
it would do, but the words of the incantation seemed to
strike a chord within me. There was great power within
those line and I was positive that if I could control it, I
would finally have what I needed to reform the council.
Gray stopped me before I could complete the incantation,
but it was already too late. I could feel them waking and I
have been looking for a way to stop them ever since. The
council discovered what had happened, but Gray told them
that he was the one responsible and was exiled never to
return. I was afraid. I didnt want to be held accountable for
what I had done and so I stood by as he was punished. I let
him take the blame for my mistake and I never told anyone
the truth. Latter, when no one was around I snuck into the
archives and destroyed all evidence of my research. It
wasnt until recently that I discovered you were the only one
who could stop the cataclysm that I have set in motion.
Now, because of me, it falls to you to end Syras curse and
destroy what I have unleashed.
Kara gasped, feeling the last remainder of hope
breaking apart inside of her as she realized the full impact
of what her cousin was telling her. It was you? Youre the
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reason I left my home. Youre the reason Im being hunted
by those...thosethings!
Kara Im so sorry, I never meant for
Stop! she screamed her eyes tearing up. Just
stop. She sunk to her knees, bowing her head in defeat.
Do you know what youve done? she sobbed her voice
barely a whisper. Do you know how many people will be
hurt because of this?
For a long time I have suffered under the weight
of this burden, but I cant fix it by myself. If I could undo
what I have done I would, but I cannot change what
happened any more than you can. I need your help in
order to stop them. Its something I cannot do on my own.
Kara, please.
She looked up, searching the once familiar face of
her cousin and desperately wishing that none of this had
happened. She rose to her feet, mounting her horse and
gathering their scattered supplies. When next she spoke her
voice was cold I will do what I must, but after this is over, I
want you to leave. Leave and this time, dont come back.
Im tired of being lied to. She turned galloping toward the
horizon, knowing that everything she had once believed was
a lie.
* * * * *
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48
Chapter VI
Souran
Gray stared moodily out into the rain soaked
streets of the city of Souran, watching the crowds of
people as they passed, each of them searching for
shelter from the downpour. The storm which had
come over the town had been going on for a number
of days now and it didnt do much to improve his
already gloomy mood. Something was happening,
something dark was stirring, and soon it would
overtake everyone. He gazed out through the dirt
streaked windows of the tavern, watching sadly as the
people pushed through the crowd. They flocked like
vultures, enduring the rain and the cold in order to get
a hold of the possessions of the recently deceased that
were being auctioned off, the bodies of the items
previous owners left to lie in the gutter. It was funny to
see how ignorant people were, chasing after empty
promises of wealth and riches, never knowing that
soon none of it would matter anyways. Soon they
would join their brothers in the gutter and these streets
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would lie in silence.
Once, a long time ago he had been concerned
about what would happen to others, but much had
changed since then, and he was no longer responsible
for the balance of the realm. Let the people continue
with their sad lives while they could.
He ran his hand through his hair, sitting alone
at the back of the tavern. No one came near him.
Though only in his early thirties, the haunted look in
his eyes spoke of something that had aged him far
beyond his years, and the grim animosity that
constantly lay over his rugged and unshaven features
drove of any who might seek to intrude upon his
broodings.
Souran had never been his favorite place. It held
too many unpleasant memories, though much had
changed since the destruction of the Council of Mages.
They at least had held order here after the king's
death, now the council lay in ruins and the city had
fallen to anarchy. He slumped forward over his glass,
remembering the white shining columns of the council,
the peace that had lain over the city while both king
and mage had ruled, but the king had died a long time
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50
ago, the council destroyed shortly after. Now
memories and piles of rubble strewn across the hill top
were the only remnant of their power. The age of
splendor and glory that had once ruled this city had
been broken, discarded in favor of the mire and refuse
of the current day.
A man stumbled drunkenly out of the tavern
door, rejoining his brethren in their work to further the
citys decay. No, nothing remained of the glory and
valor once found here. Fitting then, that this is where
he should live out his days.
Gray sighed, leaning back against the hard
wooden backed chair and ordering another drink to
drown his sorrows. The council hadn't believed the
threat to be as dire as he had stated. They had never
been able to see past their own conceited world and so
in the end their destruction had been inevitable. He
could still see their faces, contorted in pain as he had
watched them burn. He had come too late to prevent
it from happening, had stood by helplessly as they had
died. Kail had known, but he had done nothing to stop
the Cursed as they destroyed everything he had once
stood for. He had fled, leaving them alone to face the
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51
terror that he had wrought.
Gray bowed his head, wiping the memory from
his mind. Now with the council destroyed no one
remained to stop what was coming. He sighed, if only
they had listened to reason. If only they had seen
He leaned over, his deep brown hair tumbling
into his eyes as he reached for his drink. He glanced
disinterestedly around the crowded tavern as two men
began to fight, pummeling each other over some
imaginary insult. It soon got out of hand and he smiled
slightly as they were both tossed out into the street. It
was amazing to see how far the once great city had
fallen. Souran, the city of kings, now a bottomless pit
of criminals and drunkards. The smile faded from his
face and his dark gray eyes turned stormy as a cloaked
figure appeared in the doorway of the tavern,
immediately sending a jolt of recognition through him
and brining up memories of times better forgotten. His
frown deepened as the stranger crossed the room and
sat down next to him.
He sighed, pushing his drink to one side and
turning to face him. What do you want Kail?
Not exactly a warm welcome, but I guess after
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52
all thats happened, you arent very happy to see me.
Why did you come here Kail? You were
exiled from the city after you defied the councils
orders and tampered with the archives. he sighed,
staring accusingly at the man responsible for his ruin.
You werent there when it mattered; why come back
after all this time?
Kail shook his head. What happened then is
not what matters, besides the laws of the council no
longer hold any sway here, and you of all people are
not one to talk about disobeying orders. Im here
because I need your help.
Grays eyes filled with anger and his voice
dropped to a whisper. You are the last person I
would ever wish to help. Where were you while I was
persecuted? I took the blame for your mistake and
then you left without a word to anyone. Its your fault
the council fell. All of this is your fault. You knew they
would come! You knew the council didnt have the
power to stop them! You abandoned them! I took
responsibility for your actions because I knew if they
found out it was you, they would have given you a
punishment much worse than exile. I hid the book,
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53
concealed your crimes and how did you repay me? By
vanishing, and leaving them to their fate. I am not so
foolish that I would make the same mistake twice by
trusting you.
I know what I did, and Im sorry about what
happened, but you cannot ignore your duty to these
people and to everyone else in the realm. The Cursed
Ones have risen, and we need your help in order to
stop them.
Who are you to lecture me about duty? You
wouldnt listen when I warned you about using the
book. You werent there when the council burned,
when all our friends died along with the rest of their
order. They lie dead now, and so does everything they
have worked for. You didnt hear their screams, you
werent He stopped, composing himself and
blocking the images from his mind. I wont help you.
He stated.
But you have to! Gray shifted his attention to
the young girl standing awkwardly off to one side, her
pale blond hair tumbling into her eyes as she stared at
him, her voice demanding and insistent.
Little girl I dont have to do anything. He
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54
replied calmly ignoring her and turning back to face
Kail.
Im finished with trying to mend your
mistakes Kail. Im not going with you, and thats the
end of it. He turned away from the stunned face of
his former companion and rose to leave.
So what, thats it? You just get up and leave?
How can you do that! We need your help. People
make mistakes! You think I like being lied to and
being charged with correcting my familys blunders?
Of course not, but that doesnt mean that everyone
else deserves to suffer because of them, so just get over
it and help! I dont pretend to know how you feel
about this, but I cant do this on my own and Im not
going to allow you to just sit here and let it happen!
Gray glared savagely at the small blond waif of
a girl standing before him, her face flushed with anger
as she gave her speech. What makes you think I can
help you? I dont know how to stop these things any
more than you do.
But you know where to find them, dont
you? Kail said softly.
Gray sighed, Perhaps I do, but the mire of the
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55
Black Marsh is not any place for little girls and their
misguided friends.
I have a name. she replied through gritted
teeth. Its Kara, and I may be the only one who can
stop the ensuing destruction that the Cursed shall
bring, but I need your help.
I dont care who you are, Im not going to
help you.
Look, just help us find our way through the
marsh, at least for the sake of everyone else who will
be affected if we fail, then we wont bother you ever
again. She pleaded, her gaze beseeching.
Im sorry, I cant. He rose, turning to leave
and was quickly intercepted by Kara, her blue eyes
alight with anger.
You were a good person once. The past and
whatever happened then is irrelevant. Dont you care
at all what will happen to the world if they win? You
wont change what went wrong simply by sitting here
and wallowing in your own self-pity. I hope you
remember this moment as everything around you is
dying, maybe by then youll have finally learned that
there are things that are worth protecting, things that
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56
are more important than your and your own self-
righteous broodings. He stared at her in shock,
completely taken by surprise as she abruptly turned
and stormed out the door. He stared after her,
thinking on what she had said.
How many more people will have to die Gray,
before you see what must be done? Kail whispered,
rising and disappearing out the door. Gray stared
blankly out the window to the city outside, meeting the
eyes of a small child playing in the streets. He looked
down, thinking of the faces of his dead friends. How
many more?
* * * * *
Kara fled from the tavern, marching through
the sodden streets and thinking about everything she
had just said. She hadnt realized until that point how
much those words applied to her own situation. She
remembered the stunned faces of Gray and her cousin
as she had delivered her speech. It had all been for
nothing though, the trip to Souran, her flight across the
plains. She leaned against the wall, staring up at the
sky. The rain ran in glistening streams down her face,
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57
drenching her completely until she sank to the ground
a sodden mess of clothes and hair. She buried her
head in her hands, feeling keenly the hopelessness of
her situation. It seemed there was no one she could
trust, whatever it was she had to do, she would have to
do it by herself. She remained motionless as a familiar
figure came and sunk to the ground beside her. They
both sat in silence, staring out into the rain in mute
depression until finally he spoke.
That was quite a speech you gave back there.
Kail said softly.
It didnt make a difference in the end though
did it? she replied, refusing to look at him, and
continuing to stare moodily at the ground.
I think maybe it did. Each person must make
their own choices in life, though I am not one to talk
about right and wrong. Grays choice not to help
changes nothing. Well just have to find our own way,
and whatever happens, even if you do still hate me, I
want you to know Im proud of you.
I dont hate you, she sighed, Im just tired of
knowing that all my life Ive been lied too, and now
that I know the truth I sometimes wish that I was back
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58
to being the ignorant fifteen year old I was before.
Maybe its better this way. He stated, I dont
know about you, but I dont really trust Syras word
about anything.
Kara sighed leaning her head on her cousins
shoulder. What did Gray mean when he said the
council burned?
You werent the first target of those who now
hunt us. Kail said softly, staring off into space. It was
about a year ago, not long after I had left. They came
in the night while the city lay in slumber. The council
thought they would be safe within their walls, but they
were wrong. I tried to warn them, but they wouldnt
listen to me. I was an outcast, no longer trustworthy in
their eyes. My decision to leave had placed me in
disfavor with them and I was viewed as a criminal for
tampering with the records. He hung his head in
shame, pausing to compose himself before continuing.
They burned it to the ground. Most of them were still
asleep while it happened, some fought back, but they
were no match for the combined power of the Cursed.
There were no survivors.
He continued on, his voice filled with regret.
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59
Gray blames me for what happened to them that
night. I couldnt have stopped them anymore than he
could, but he holds me accountable none the less.
Maybe he was right. They couldnt have known what
they were up against. If only they had listened
Kara studied her cousins face, forgetting for a
moment her earlier anger as she stared at a man who
had lost everything because of his mistake. She leaned
against him staring out into the rain and thinking about
how in the end, nothing that Kail had done back then
changed how things now stood; there was still a chance
that the future could be saved and that was all that
mattered. When do we leave? she asked.
He turned to face her, his blue eyes serious
Well stay here for a day or two while we replenish
our supplies, until then I want you to lay low. Dont
attract any unwanted attention. Im not exactly
welcome here. Ive managed to make quite a few
enemies over the years and it wouldnt do for them to
discover I was here.
She smiled at him. Dont worry. Ill try my
best not to get us killed. She leaned back against the
wall, hoping desperately that Kail was right and Syra
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60
had been wrong about their fate.
* * * * *
They slept that night at an inn near the center
of the town. Kara collapsed on the bed, ringing out her
sodden cloths and drifting off quickly to sleep. The
following morning brought a stop to the rain which had
plagued the town and Karas mood was improved
considerably by the bright sunshine that came to
replace it. There was no sign of Gray. She had
searched earlier that day but had been unable to find
him. Kail had suggested several places where he might
be, but all of them had been vacant. It seemed she had
blown her only chance to persuade him to come. They
would simply have to complete this quest alone.
The day passed by uneventfully. Despite Kails
earlier warning about not being welcome in Souran, no
one seemed to care much who they were or why they
had come to the city.
Kara stared out at the grim expressions of the
people around her, all of them appearing weary and
resigned with a pinched hardness in their features that
gave her pause in approaching any of them. Why are
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they like that? she asked her cousin softly as one very
disgruntled man shoved her aside on his way to the
tavern, his expression cold.
They dont really have much reason to rejoice
anymore. Theyve been without king or any sort of
decent ruler for years now. The only sort of justice
now is the corrupted whims the strong hold over the
weak. Their only sense of purpose is found in the
bottom of their bottle as they try and drown the
demons that pursue them.
Kara looked at him quizzically, her brow
knitted in confusion. What do you mean? What
happened to their ruler?
Kail shook his head. He made a mistake,
decided on something the people disagreed with, and
so some of the more ambitious villains here took
advantage of the opportunity, spreading propaganda
about the king and persuading the people to rise up
against him. Most did not buy into it, but those that did
were ruthless enough that it made no difference. They
came upon him like ravenous wolves. Forgotten were
all the victories and glory to which he had led them,
and all the man had sacrificed to save them from
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destruction. But that seems to be the way of most
things, one spark able to start a bonfire. Kail sighed,
his face grim. They razed the palace, burning it to the
ground in a single act that forever ruined the city. They
ripped out the soul of this city by killing both the king
and his entire family before anyone rational could step
in and prevent it. Those that had planned to replace
him however, found themselves in the middle of a
chaos and panic which they could not control. For a
while, the council of mages was able to maintain the
order here, and at least deliver some measure of justice
to the distressed citizens, but now theyre gone as well,
and the only rule that remains is each person taking
care of themselves. Needless to say, it is a poor way to
live.
Kara did not ask any more questions after that,
reflecting on what he had told her and continuing
about the days business with a heavy heart.
They split up around mid-day to shop for
supplies, assuming it would take less time if they both
did half. By the time they had completed their search
and finished gathering the necessary provisions, it was
already nightfall. They returned to the tavern where
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63
they had stayed the night, Karas earlier good mood
having long since vanished. She felt keenly her failure
to convince Gray of the urgency of their situation.
Despite what Kail had said, she believed that Syra had
been truthful in telling her to seek him out, and her
unsuccessful attempt to change the former mages
mind gnawed at her.
She ate her dinner in silence, feeling weary and
subdued as she thought about how little help she had
provided throughout this entire expedition. If it
werent for Kail, she would never have made it this far;
she would have died that night on the plains. She
shivered, recalling how helpless she had been while
under the gaze of the creature that had once been
Zeveran Cray. She had been paralyzed with fear,
unable to think of anything but those terrible eyes as
they sought her out and dissolved her courage in one
quick glance that turned her knees to jelly.
She stopped, thinking to herself how strange it
was that there had been no sign of the Cursed since
that night. Perhaps they had lost their trail in the
storm, but somehow she doubted it. The more she
thought about it, the more troubled she became. If
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they had discovered her so easily before, why was it
that they were unable to find now, unless of course
they already knew exactly where she was and it was
only a matter of time until they arrived. She shook her
head, dismissing the thought as nothing more than
paranoia. The creatures had no way of knowing that
she and her cousin would go to Souran. Her fear was
simply making her irrational. She stared moodily at
her plate, her appetite having disappeared completely.
She pushed the unfinished meal across the counter
and deftly paid for her food. Kail glanced over at her,
appearing concerned as he read her expression.
Its nothing. She sighed. Just a little tired,
thats all. He raised an eyebrow, obviously not buying
the excuse. He did not press her further however,
turning back to his dinner with his features
purposefully devoid of expression.
Maybe you should get some rest, was all he
said, turning away the words spoken over his shoulder
as she rose to leave. Kara started up the old staircase
that led to the upper floor of the inn, reflecting once
again on her conversation with the shade of Syra. She
didnt need the assistance of her ancestor, or anyone
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else. She would do this without anyones help if she
needed to, and it did not matter what the sorceress had
foreseen; she had been wrong. At least that was what
she told herself, though the hope seemed a frail one.
* * * * *
Silence lay over the city, the sky an empty expanse
of featureless black that hung menacingly overhead. Thick
clouds spread over the heavens like a shroud and blotted
out all traces of moon and stars, leaving the city below in
darkness. Kara stared out her window. Sleep would not
come to her this night, her thoughts too filled with
speculations of what was yet to come. She found the silence
that lay over the streets below unnerving. She had never
thought that a city as large as Souran would ever lay so
deathly quiet, even at night. Kail sat beside her, a pale
shadow wrapped tightly in his black cloak.
Something isnt right. He whispered, echoing her
thoughts. Its too quiet.
Maybe everyones just asleep. Kara replied
uncertainly, trying to convince herself more than her cousin.
Stay here, he told her, Ill be back soon. He left
without another word, stepping silently through the door
and disappearing into the night. Stay here she thought, yeah
right. She gathered up her things, pulling on her boots and
slipping out the door after him.
* * * * *
Kara stepped out into the empty streets, the chill night
air making her shiver. She stumbled forward blindly in the
deepening dark, unable to see anything more than the vague
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outline of buildings. She cupped her hands together,
focusing on the thought of light. She watched patiently as a
tongue of flame came to life within the cradle of her hands,
illuminating the darkness around her and driving off the
unnatural cold that seeped through her. She glanced around
uncertainly, staring at the small shape slumped in the corner
of the alley. She rushed forward and turned over the body,
her eyes widening in horror as she beheld the form of a
child, no more than nine years old, his entire body lined
with wicked looking gashes that coated every part of the
child in blood. She felt a wave of nausea roll through her as
she stared down at the corpse. She peered out into the
street, but there was no sign of anyone. They all still lay
asleep, unaware of what lurked in the darkness. She looked
about, searching for her cousin, but she had lost sight of
him.
A low growl sounded off to her left. She spun around
frantically searching the shadows for what lay hidden there.
A huge shape lunged at her. She reacted out of instinct
hurling the flame she held cupped in one hand at the beast
and watching in amazement as it grew into a pillar of fire,
engulfing the monster and burning it to ash. She gaped at
the charred remains of what seemed to be a large wolf, its
body covered in coarse hair and its eyes gleaming blood red
in the darkness. A piercing howl carried through the air
from somewhere down the street. There were more of
them. She had to find Kail.
She took off at a sprint, charging down the empty
street in the direction she had seen him go. She didnt see
the creature until it was already on top of her, slamming
into her with enough force to take down a horse. She
screamed as she felt teeth sink into her shoulder, almost
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67
blacking out as she fell to the ground in a tangled heap, the
putrid smell of the animal on top of her flooding her
senses. She heard a sudden yelp of pain from the beast as it
was pulled off of her, a sudden flash of silver stabbing
downward through its heart. She stared uncomprehendingly
at the figure that stood over her, sword in hand.
Stupid girl, he snapped. What do you think youre
doing? Running out into the streets in the middle of the
night while the city is infested with ravenous wolves! You
werent kidding when you said you needed my help. He
reached down, tearing off a strip off cloth and binding her
shoulder.
II have to find Kail. She gasped struggling to rise.
Hold still, he commanded, Youve already lost a
lot of blood. She felt a hand grasp her own, pulling her to
her feet where she swayed unsteadily. Stormy gray eyes
stared accusingly at her from beneath the cowl of a long
robe, and she realized suddenly that she was staring at the
face of Gray Ravenwing.
Come on, he said, pulling her along through the
night. She stumbled after him, cradling her ruined shoulder.
Another wolf launched itself out of the shadows behind
them and Gray spun around, swinging his sword in a
whirling arc and turning the creature into nothing more than
a bloody mess lying motionless on the ground. With the
conclusion of the attack, the night seemed unnaturally
silent, with nothing to break the eerie stillness that hung
over everything around her. The people of Souran
remained deep in slumber, unaware of the chaos taking
place outside.
Why dont they wake up? she questioned, glancing
around nervously as another howl split the night.
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They cant. Gray answered. Theyre under a
sleeping spell. None of them will be aware of any of this
until they wake up tomorrow and find the carcasses in the
street.
She peered through the darkness, searching for more
of the creatures. If thats true why arent we asleep?
Isnt it obvious? he replied in that condescending
way of his, because of our magic. Kara glared at him, but
he didnt seem to notice. They ran through the streets,
heading toward the east end of town.
Kara began to feel light headed. The wound in her
shoulder was taking its toll. How did you find me, and now
that I think of it, why did you save me? I thought you
werent going to help us. She gasped as they darted
forward through the deserted streets.
Despite what you may think, I am not completely
heartless. Besides, I couldnt have just stood by and let you
die, now could I? Not with you being, as you so eloquently
put it, the only one who can stop the ensuing destruction
that the Cursed shall bring. He paused, his face becoming
grim. Im tired of standing by and watching people die.
He said quietly. You were right Kara. The past is gone.
A bright flash of light appeared ahead of them,
followed by a series of agonized yelps, both originating from
the entrance of an alleyway not far ahead. Gray turned to
face her. Stay here, Im going to go help Kail. Try not to
get yourself killed while Im gone, okay? Kara flushed. She
felt an overpowering compulsion to say something that
would wipe that arrogant look off his face as but nothing
came to mind. He charged forward into the alley, leaving
her propped up against a wall, fighting against the wave of
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blackness that was beginning to tinge the corners of her
vision.
* * * * *
Kail leapt forward, his hand a glove of white fire as
he drove back the beasts that surrounded him. He had
encountered them shortly after he had left Kara. They had
come upon him rather suddenly, bursting out of the
shadows in a rush of teeth and claws, their eyes empty red
orbs that revealed them to be something demonic in origin.
He had known as soon as he saw them who had sent the
creatures. Their arrival here had not been a coincidence.
They had been summoned and dispatched here with the
specific purpose of seeking him and Kara out. The Cursed
had not given up their pursuit as easily as he had hoped;
they had simply sent these creatures to finish the job in their
stead.
He had cut down the first two beasts as they
charged forward from out of the darkness, the bone chilling
howls of anticipation having spoiled their ambush by giving
him the few seconds warning that he needed to summon up
his magic and brace for their attack. The first few had been
easily dispatched, but his magic had drawn the hoard.
There were dozens of the creatures, and even with his
magic to aid him it seemed highly unlikely that he could
prevail against such odds as for every one he struck down,
two more seemed to rise up and take its place. He had tried
initially to frighten them away so that he could make his way
back to where Kara waited at the inn, but the creatures did
not seem to have much concern for self-preservation. They
had cut off his intended escape and managed to corner him
in an alleyway where he had spent the last 10 minutes
pinned against the wall and trying to avoid being eaten.
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The wolves circled anxiously near the mouth of the
alley, waiting for an opportunity to stirke. The largest of the
creatures darted forward to snap at his right side, and he
swung his sword sideways in a broad hacking slash that bit
deep into the creatures collarbone and instantly put an end
to its efforts to strike. One of the braver among the pack
took advantage of his distraction and lunged for his throat,
but the as wall of flame flared up in front of the beast just
and reduced the slavering demon into a scattering of ash.
Kails head jerked up in surprise as a wall of flame
ripped through the alleyway, scattering his assailants
throughout the passage. He stared in disbelief at the
cloaked form of Gray Ravenwing, his long silver sword
cutting down enemies by the dozen as he threw himself into
the melee. Knocking back the closest of his attackers, Kail
freed himself from the heat of the battle and raised his bow,
neatly dispatching the remainder of the beasts who had
foolishly turned their attention to this new intruder and left
themselves easy targets.
Kail turned to face his old friend, a faint smile
hovering around the corners of his mouth. I thought you
werent going to help. He said quietly, his voice filled with
gratitude.
Gray sheathed his sword, his face averted. You
needed it. was all he said in reply.
* * * * *
By the time Gray arrived back at the place where he
had left Kara, she was barely conscious. Her arm was
covered in blood that had soaked through the make-shift
bandage he had placed over the gash and the dark stain
spread out from the bite in her shoulder in copious
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amounts. Damn it, he swore, bending down to inspect the
wound.
What on earth were you thinking?! Kail yelled. I
told you to stay inside!
It seemed like a good idea at the time. She gasped,
her vision blurring.
We need to get her to a healer. Gray said quietly.
Help me lift her. They walked through the deserted
streets of the city of Souran toward the edge of town, their
faces grim as they carried the semi-conscious Kara away
from the site of the battle. Theres a healer who lives on
the outskirts of town by the name of Vira Desoles. Gray
stated calmly. If we can get her there by daybreak, she
should be fine.
Does this mean youre going with us? Kail said
quietly, a hopeful expression lighting his dark blue eyes.
Dont congratulate yourself. If this was about helping
you, I never would have done it. He snapped. This
doesnt change anything, but sometimes you have to look
past yourself in order to achieve the greater good. He
looked away, mounting his horse in silence. Kail followed,
the limp form of his cousin seated directly in front of him.
They set off at a quick trot, riding east towards the forest
and leaving the grim silence of the slumbering city behind.
* * * * *
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Chapter VII
Vernose
A Deep fog clouded Karas vision as she drifted in
and out of consciousness. She recognized vaguely the voices
of her cousin and Gray Ravenwing as they rode through the
darkness, but she couldnt make sense of the blurred
images that haunted her as she slept. She knew that
something was wrong, but she couldnt remember what.
They rode on, the burning in her shoulder the only
reminder of what had transpired. Reality slipped further
and further away as the minutes passed, and Kara began to
feel a cold sense of isolation as she fell. She shivered as an
icy coldness spread throughout her body and the world
began to fade away.
She didnt know how much time had passed since
they had left the city when she felt a cool hand on her
forehead. Slowly the pain began to fade, and the world once
again began to take on definition as her muddled thoughts
slowly began to clear. She opened her eyes, still feeling
weak. She heard the voice of a young woman conversing in
low tones with her cousin. She groaned, struggling to sit up,
but was prevented by a strong hand that quickly forced her
back down.
She blinked away the haze that was once again
beginning to tinge the corners of her vision and found
herself facing a young woman somewhere in her mid-
twenties with greenish hazel eyes and long dark hair pulled
back in a braid behind her shoulders. Where? she
began to ask, but was cut off by the figure above.
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Shh, the woman admonished, her voice soft. Rest
now. There will be plenty of time for conversation come
morning. Kara leaned back, feeling a deep sense of peace
as her eyes slowly slipped shut. She drifted off to sleep,
sighing contently as, for the first time in weeks, her dreams
remained untroubled.
* * * * *
Kara sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, and
looked around the small room where she had spent the
night. She smiled as she caught sight of a familiar figure
slumped against the wall, his dirty blond hair a rumpled
mess atop his head. She glanced down at her shoulder,
expecting to see a long line of scars where the wolf had
bitten her, but to her surprise found no evidence that she
had ever been wounded. A woman entered through the
door to the left and Karas eyes narrowed with slowly
dawning recognition. It was the woman she had seen earlier
that night, right before she had passed out.
Good morning! The healer beamed, smiling as she
brought forth a tray stacked high with food. Im glad to see
youre feeling better this morning. You were in pretty bad
shape when they brought you here last night. She said, her
face serious.
Who are you? Kara asked, graciously accepting the
tray of food placed before her.
Vira Desoles, at your service. Healer and Alchemist,
second class. She introduced herself, holding out her hand
with her expression one of silent expectation.
Im Kara. She replied, accepting Viras outstretched
hand and shaking it quickly before turning to her meal Its
nice to meet you. She wolfed down her food, not realizing
until that moment how hungry she had been. What
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happened last night, and where exactly am I? She
questioned, her attention still riveted on her rapidly
disappearing meal.
What happened, Kara, is that you had a very close
encounter with death. You had already lost a lot of blood
when you arrived here last night. Your cousin and his friend
over there, she said, motioning toward the sleeping form of
Kail, brought you in sometime late last night. They said
you had been injured, a severe understatement in my
opinion. If they had gotten here any later, you wouldnt be
sitting here right now having this conversation.
Kara peered past Vira towards the small window on
the other side of the room.
What time is it? she asked, seeing that it was still dark.
About half an hour until dawn. You havent been
conscious for the past day. She replied, scooping up the
empty tray and heading out the door. I suggest you try to
go back to sleep, I doubt anyone will be up for at least two
hours.
She paused, looking at the sleeping form of Kail.
Hes been sitting there ever since they brought you in.
She stated, Refused to leave even when I ordered him
too. She shook her head, a slight frown appearing at the
corners of her mouth. I found it incredibly irritating trying
to heal someone with him hovering over my shoulder all
night questioning my work, but it couldnt really be helped I
suppose. She turned to leave, closing the door and leaving
Kara on her own.
Kara leaned back against the silken sheets, relieved
by how things had turned out. She closed her eyes, sinking
back into the pillow and drifting off to sleep.
* * * * *
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Bright sunlight filtered down through the window,
driving away Karas dreams of better times and bringing her
back to reality. She stood up, fighting back a sudden wave
of dizziness and making her way across the room. The chair
at the side of the room lay empty and there was no sign of
either Vira or her cousin. She cracked open the door,
peering out into the empty hallway that lay beyond. She
strode forward, walking toward the distant sound of voices
coming from somewhere down the corridor. She stepped
through the entryway at the end of the hall and found
herself inside a small dining room where her cousin sat
talking with Gray Ravenwing. Both sat hunched low over
the table, conversing in low tones so as not to be heard by
the silent form of Vira who sat off in one corner adding up
the large sum of money she had received for her attentions.
Kail looked up as Kara entered the room, his expression
showing a large amount of relief at seeing her well again. He
motioned her over and she quickly crossed the small
distance that lay between them, feeling slightly concerned as
she noticed the dark bags that lay beneath her cousins eyes.
She sank slowly into her seat and turned to face the two
before her, noticing faintly that Grays demeanor had not
lightened any from the stormy darkness that had dominated
his expression since their first encounter at the inn.
We have a long journey ahead of us if we want to
reach The Black Marsh. Gray said quietly, glancing over
his shoulder to where Vira sat staring blankly into the fire
burning in the hearth. However, with the season already
approaching winter it isn't going to be easy to get there in
time to do anything to stop the Cursed from beginning their
destruction. The fastest way would be to travel by sea from
the port city outside Zalem to the East continent, then ride
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through the mountains. However, we would first have to
travel north around the Dead Forest and that could take
weeks. The fastest we could get there would be about 5
months, and I'm not sure we have that kind of time. he
paused, his face grim. There is another way of course. he
said softly. If we cross through the ruins of Taylonose, we
could arrive in Zalem by the end of the week. From there it
would only take a month or two to reach The Black
Marsh.
You can't be serious! Kail exclaimed, his face a
mix of anger and shock. How can you even suggest
something as dangerous as entering that crypt after what just
happened! No one, not one person who has gone there has
ever...
Wait one moment. Kara interrupted, cutting off
the rest of her cousin's tirade. What is Taylonose and why
are you so reluctant to go there?
Kail sighed, his expression troubled. Taylonose is
a mausoleum. Its catacombs run underneath the Dead
Forest. Its the only way we could go that would take us
directly through the wood rather than around it. However, it
is not just any grave site. It was built centuries ago by the
Darkened. A resting place for the souls of their dead. The
place is cursed. No one who has dared to go there has ever
returned. It is a place of great evil. Its very essence reeks of
dark magic. Even if we did go there, the place is guarded by
powerful wards. To even set foot inside the crypt is suicide.
Or so you think. Gray replied, his expression
somewhat smug. He reached into his robes, pulling out
what, at first glance, seemed to be nothing more than a
silver ring, no larger than Kara's hand. She leaned forward,
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studying the intricate markings that ran along the inside of
the circle.
What is it? she asked, peering intently at the
strange ring grasped loosely in Gray's hand.
A key. Gray replied, slowly placing the ring back
inside his cloak. It will take down the wards that guard the
entrance to Taylonose, as well as enable us to navigate the
catacombs that lie beneath.
Where did you get such a thing?' Kail questioned.
To my knowledge, no one has ever recovered any of the
Darkened's artifacts. I did not even know that there was a
key to Taylonose.
You have not thoroughly read the archives of the
council. Gray stated. I would be surprised if you did know
of its existence. It was found by a group of investigating
mages over a century ago, buried in the ruins of an ancient
Darkened city.
Kail raised an eyebrow, not quite believing that
such a thing had been kept a secret. Why would the
council want to keep such a discovery a secret? He asked,
his expression puzzled. and how is it that you knew of it
and I did not?
Gray laughed, his tone bitter. I may have been
exiled, but you must keep in mind that I was once a trusted
member of the council. That is until you came along. The
council never discovered the true purpose of the key. They
feared that if it became common knowledge, others would
try to steal it in the hopes of using it as a weapon against
them.
Kail sighed disapprovingly. I don't like it. Even if
we do manage to gain entry, Taylonose is still a dangerous
place. How do we know this so called key even works? You
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said yourself that the council never figured out what it was
for, so how can you be sure that it was intended to do what
you propose?
We'll just have to go there and find out then won't
we? Gray replied shortly. It was easy to tell by the way he
said it that he wasn't going to change his mind, no matter
how much Kail disliked the idea. You were the one who
wanted me to help you. Guide us to the Black Marsh you
say. Well that's what I'm trying to do, so don't question my
methods. We don't have the time to circumvent the entire
Dead Forest, and you know better than I that attempting to
cross through the wood would be even more dangerous
than the plan I propose. At this point we have no other
options. You're just going to have to trust me.
Kara glanced nervously between the two men.
Gray's face was hard and it was apparent byt eh set of his
jaw that if Kail did not agree to the plan they might well lose
the only person who knew where the Cursed hid. Gray sat
in silence, staring challengingly at Kail who sat gazing off
into the distance, his eyes filled with doubt. They stayed like
that for a long time before Kail finally spoke, and Kara
could tell by his expression that he was still troubled by the
idea of taking such a risk. Fine, well go to Taylonose, but
only because we have no other choice.
Good. Gray said. Now there's only one
problem.
What do you mean? Kail questioned, his
expression guarded.
This is only one half of the key. The other half lies
in the ruin of Vernose, only about half a mile from here.
You mean to say that you don't even have the
entire key? Entering Taylonose with an artifact to grant us
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passage is one thing, but trespassing into the ruins of a
Darkened city is another.
Kail, Kara pleaded. you said yourself that
Taylonose was our only option.
Yes but that was before...
Relax. Gray reassured him. Those cities were
abandoned long ago. The Darkened were extinct hundreds
of years ago. No ones been down there in centuries.
Yes, but the magic that guards such places does
not diminish over time. Kail replied.
Then we'll be careful. Kara retorted. Its not like
we haven't been in dangerous situations before.
Fine, but if anything happens, we're leaving,
whether we have the key or not.
It's settled then. Gray said, a look of satisfaction
on his face. We'll leave tonight.
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Chapter VIII
Faces in the Mist
Kara stared silently out into the twilight plains. They
would be leaving soon for the ruins of Vernose to find the
second half to Gray's key. Kail hadn't said a word since their
decision to leave, and Kara could tell by the way his
reclusive demeanor that he was still troubled by the idea of
trespassing on the territory of the Darkened. To be honest,
she was not herself entirely sure about Gray's plan, but she
didnt see any other options. There only way to reach Black
Marsh in time to stop the Cursed lay through the ruins of
Taylonose. Any other path would take too long. It was
either go along with Grays plan or go home, and she had
come too far to turn back now.
She looked up as Kail emerged from the interior of
the house. He came and sat beside her. She glanced over at
him, his face pale.
When are we leaving? she questioned, more for
the sake of making conversation than out of any real
curiosity.
Soon. he replied quietly, the look in his eyes
expressing his feelings about what they were about to do far
more than words ever could. Gray is inside packing up our
supplies. We should leave within the hour.
I don't get it. Kara sighed What is it that made
him suddenly want to help us? I thought he didn't care what
happened to anyone else. It doesn't make sense
There's a lot about Gray that doesn't make sense,
Kail replied but his decision to help us isn't one of those
things. Despite what may have happened to him, he is still
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dedicated to protecting the people of this realm. he
paused, lost in thought. Despite what he pretends, I dont
think that Gray ever stopped caring about what happens to
the world. He has dedicated his entire life to the
preservation of the land and its people, and such unswerving
commitment is not something you easily forget.
I suppose not, though I don't see why you would
care. Kara jumped, turning to face the cloaked form of
Gray Ravenwing, lounging indolently in the shadowy alcove
of the doorway behind them. If you two are done
discussing me, we're just about ready to leave.
Karas cheeks turned a bright crimson as she turned
away from Grays stern gaze. Kail however, did not seem in
the least ashamed at having been caught talking about the
mage behind his back, though a strange look lay over his
eyes as he rose to his feet, his voice impassive. I'll ready the
horses.
* * * * *
Kara rode through the night, following the
shadowed figure of Gray who rode just a few yards
ahead of her, with her cousin trailing along behind.
She contemplated the dark shape of the mage
hunched over before her and found herself puzzled by
what she discovered. She still was not quite sure what
had finally prodded Gray to accompany them thus far
and he seemed to maintain a purposeful distance
between himself and the others of the company. He
remained aloof from both her and her cousin with a
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seemingly permanent graveness in his expression that
suggested the separation was intentional. He had saved
both of their lives back in Souran and seemed quite
willing to help them reach the lair of the Cursed, but
something about his manner still spoke of the doubts
he kept concealed from them and she was not quite
sure yet what to think of him.
Kara continued to examine him as they slowly
crossed the miles separating them from Vernose. He wasnt
really as old as he seemed, no more than thirty or so, but
the hard edged bitterness and the burden of all he had
endured appeared to have aged him, making him seem as if
he had lived a long time though, in fact he was not really
that much older than her cousin.
Her eyes were drawn back to the path in front of her
as the place they had been searching for began to
materialize from out of the darkness. The Darkened ruin of
Vernose, a frail remnant of all the thousands of people who
had long since faded into memory. Dead silence
surrounded them as they drew steadily closer to the ruins.
Kara peered forward to where she could just make out the
pale silhouette of the citys broken towers, their crumbled
fragments stretching crookedly toward the sky.
They slowed their horses to a trot, veering off to one
side as they readied themselves to enter the ruined city.
They dismounted, tethering their horses to the sparse
scattering of trees that surrounded Vernose. Kara ran her
hand nervously through her hair, the pale blond tresses
bleached white in the moonlight, her eyes dark and
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haunted. She felt unnaturally cold, as if all the warmth had
been leached from her body. She had begun to see why
Kail had been so reluctant to enter this godless place.
Kail strode toward her, his voice barely more than a
whisper as he spoke. Here's the plan. he began, glancing
over at Gray who stood leaning off to one side. We go in,
get the key, then we leave. No side trips. No detours.
There's something evil about this place. Even if the
Darkened no longer reside here, the taint of their magic
remains.
I've felt it as well. Gray said softly. You weren't
wrong when you said magic doesnt diminish with time. The
wards the Darkened put in place to guard this city will still
be active. Well need to be careful.
Kail nodded, turning to face Kara with an unusually
grim expression overcasting his features. Stay behind us,
and if anything happens, flee. The key is worthless if you
die. It doesnt matter what happens to me and Gray, you
need to escape. Stopping the Cursed Ones is more
important than either of our lives. Kail pulled his dark
green cloak tightly about him, his gaze intense. Let's go.
They set out, keeping within the shelter of the trees as
they approached the ruined city. The silence unnerved
Kara almost as much as the ruin itself. It lay over the city
like shroud, the normal sounds of nature that filled the
night without banished from this place where no life
resided. The rusted metal gates at the front of the ruin were
cracked with age, providing a gap just large enough for them
to slip through and into the city beyond. Tall stone towers
lay broken on the ground, the crumbling remnants of
buildings strewn listlessly on the soil. Most of the city still
remained intact, though all was soiled and worn to but a
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pale whisper of what once might have been beautiful.
Nothing lived in the barren place beyond the rusted gates.
Neither plant nor animal took residence amongst the
rubble, a fact that did not escape the company's notice and
only added to Kara's notion that they should not be here.
The place had been deserted for hundreds of years,
tarnished metal and worn images engraved upon the stone
all that remained of the city's past splendor.
Kail crept forward, followed closely by Gray and Kara
who trailed along at the rear of the procession, her eyes
wide as she stared ahead at the remnants of the Darkened
city. They moved past the crumbling buildings that lined the
streets and headed towards the center of town, Kail leading
the way with measured steps. Karas eyes tracked her
cousins movements as he continued to glance around
apprehensively, searching the shadows for the hidden
dangers he knew awaited them here.
They strode down the wide rutted path, stopping
abruptly as they came across a door set deep within the wall
of a building near the center of town. The edges of the
heavy stone archway were inscribed with runes that glowed
crimson, and Kara noted faintly that the structure behind it
was the only building in the entire city that remained
untouched by the ravages of time. Gray took the lead, his
face a mask of grim determination as he reached up to
touch the doorframe. The runes flared brightly as he laid
his hand upon the cool stone surface, sending out a wave of
heat as the entire entrance caught fire, turning the air into a
suffocating mix of smoke and ash. Gray closed his eyes, a
wave of light spreading outward from his upraised hand and
enveloping the door. The runes went out with an ugly hiss,
the heat disappearing as quickly as it had come.
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Gray turned toward them, his robes smoking, That
wasn't so bad now was it? he stated, placing his hand on
the door and stepping through into the corridor that lay
beyond.
Kail followed closely behind, doubt and apprehension
clouding his features. I expected the wardings to be
stronger. he said quietly
Maybe they were weakened by the destruction of the
city. Kara said hopefully, not liking the implication of her
cousin's words.
The Darkened possessed powerful magic. They
would not have left one of their artifacts so lightly guarded
with nothing but a single ward to prevent it from being
stolen.
Perhaps, since it's only half of the key, they wouldn't
have needed to guard it as carefully. After all, until recently
you didn't even know of its existence, much less where to
find it.
I hope you're right. he replied, the troubled look in
his eyes telling her that she hadn't convinced him of
anything. She stared down at the ground. She supposed it
was foolish to expect him to believe her. How could he,
when she didn't believe it herself?
* * * * *
Gray strode forward through the musty corridors of
Vernose, his worn leather boots sending up puffs of dust
with each step. Kara and Kail trailed along behind him,
discussing in low tones what he knew to be true. It had all
been too easy. The other half of the key that the council
had studied had been hidden deep within the Darkened
city of Sandros, protected by a powerful spell. It made no
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sense that this half should be so easy to obtain when it had
taken the lives of three mages to retrieve the other.
The air turned suddenly cold and Gray stiffened as
an icy breeze blew across the back of his neck, sending
shivers down his spine. Trespassers. The words grated
through his mind, the words a low hiss.
Did you feel that? Kail asked, coming up behind
him. Kara stood farther back, her arms folded tightly across
her chest and her face pinched with worry.
Gray nodded, his eyes hard. They crept forward
through the passageway, the air lying flat and dead.
Whispers rose around him as he continued down the
corridor, fragments of conversation drifting through the air
and worming their way inside his head. He blocked them
out, hearing nothing but incoherent murmuring until a
familiar voice rose above the others.
Gray? He cast about searching the empty
corridor for the source of the voice, but found nothing.
What is it? Kail murmured, his expression
concerned.
You didn't hear that? he asked warily.
Hear what? Kara questioned, clearly confused.
Gray frowned, his eyes stormy. Be on guard. We
aren't as alone as we might have thought. They continued
onward, the air growing colder with each step. They
rounded a corner and stood facing a large set of wide
double doors. The three of them ground to a halt and
Grays eyes narrowed in suspicion. The doors were thrown
wide open, giving a clear view of the chamber that lay
beyond. A small dais sat in the middle of the room with a
strange jewel fixed atop it that he knew to be the second half
of the key to Taylonose. There it was, the artifact that they
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had been searching for, lying motionless and unguarded in
plain sight of any who wandered past. He pushed aside his
growing unease and walked forward. He had gone no more
than a few steps when he came to an abrupt halt, an
expression of shock lighting his features as a familiar figure
came up to him, her green eyes sparkling with delight.
Lya? he gasped, staring in disbelief at the person
before him, oblivious to the doors swinging slowly shut
behind him.
* * * * *
Kail watched silently as Gray walked slowly towards
the dais that held the second half of the key. Something was
wrong. Gray had been right when he had said they weren't
alone here.
Gray froze, his eyes going wide as he stared at the
empty air in front of him. Kail started forward, not sure
what was happening, but knowing that whatever it was, it
couldn't be good.
A line of runes lining the door flared to life at Kails
approach, sending out a wave of energy and throwing him
against the far wall. The impact knocked the breath out of
him, filling his vision with spots as he fell to the floor. He
struggled to his feet, blinking away the haze that clouded the
corners of his vision. He stood with his head in his hands,
taking a moment to clear his thoughts before moving
forward. He felt a warm substance running down the back
of his head where he had hit the wall, and when he pulled
his hand away he wasn't surprised to see it stained red with
blood. He peered through the smoky corridor, searching
for any sign of what had happened to Kara.
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Kail? He spun around and caught sight of Kara
standing off to one side of the hall, her face pale and her
blue eyes wide.
Kara? he said in confusion, slowly approaching
the disheveled figure of his cousin. Are you all right?
I'm fine. She said quietly. Kail stared at her
wordlessly; he had a nagging feeling that something wasn't
quite right about her. We have to help Gray. she pleaded.
Kail nodded, dismissing his anxiety and turning his thoughts
back to the matter at hand. Right now, she wasn't the one he
needed to worry about. He turned to face the sealed door
that led to the chamber where Gray had gone. Behind him,
the changeling that guarded the ruins smiled, its eyes
gleaming red as it pulled forth a dagger, the jagged black
edges of the blade dripping with venom.
* * * * *
Kara cried out in dismay as the shock wave that had
emanated from the door pulled her feet out from under her
and hurled her backwards to land in a crumpled heap at the
end of the corridor. She struggled to her feet, a wave of
nausea washing over her as she did. She blinked away her
disorientation and looked around. An acrid smell
permeated the passageway and the air was filled with
smoke, making it impossible to see beyond five feet from
where she stood. She cast about for her cousin but he was
nowhere to be found. She started forward, heading back
toward the door at the end of the hall where she had last
seen the others. A strange shadow loomed up behind her,
its eyes boring into her back. She shivered as she sensed the
creature's feral gaze settle upon her, spinning around to
confront the shade. Where a moment before the corridor
had been empty, a figure now stood there, gazing at her
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disapprovingly and shaking her head. Kara blinked, unable
to believe her eyes as she looked into the familiar face of
her mother.
Kara, Kara, what have you gotten yourself into
now? The small woman sighed, a slight smile tugging at the
corners of her mouth.
Of course you never were one to do what you
were told. Kara jumped, hearing the voice of her father as
he approached from behind and came over to join her
mother, his face lined with worry.
You're not real. she gasped, backing slowly away
from the phantoms before her.
A cruel laugh echoed through the air, sending
shivers down Kara's spine. Foolish girl. You are far too
naive to even begin to understand what you have done in
coming here. Karas head whipped around, her mouth
dropping open as the dark form of the sorceress Syra Islren
appeared at her shoulder.
Thief. The creature that was her mother hissed,
its eyes pulsing red.
You dare to enter our city? You dare to try to take
our key?! They were closing in a circle around her, their
features twisted with hate.
Now you will die along with the rest of your
miserable company. The one with Syra's face snapped, its
hands closing around her throat.
* * * * *
Gray stood stone still, his mind reeling as he tried
to come to grips with what he saw before him. This isn't
real, he whispered, his voice hoarse. It can't be. Lya
stood before him, her delicate features soft and welcoming.
She was exactly as he remembered her, her green eyes
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bright, her light brown hair tumbling loosely around her
face.
What do you mean? She asked, her face a mask
of innocence. Gray stared down at the ground in front of
him, reminding himself angrily that it wasn't really her.
You're an illusion. A guardian put here by the
Darkened to protect the key, nothing more.
Oh, but that's where you're wrong. She replied.
We are much more than that.
He bent his head in concentration, summoning
forth his magic. I will get that key.
She laughed, her face cold as she smiled. We will
not allow you to do so. By coming here, you have sealed
your fate. You would have died soon anyway. You could
not defeat the Cursed Ones before; you stand no chance
against them this time either.
Stop talking. he hissed, his eyes burning as he
stared into the achingly familiar feaures.
She shook her head. You just can't make up your
mind, can you? After all those years spent begging for me to
come back, you want me to leave?
You can't fool me with your tricks! He snapped.
She laughed, her eyes dead and empty as she
looked at him. I already have. He spun around leaping to
one side as a giant wall of energy slammed into him,
shattering the frail shield he had managed to construct out
of magic a few moments before, and ripping through his
defenses. He grit his teeth against the wave of pain that
flooded through his body, dispelling the dark magic from
his system with a quickly muttered spell. He rolled to his
feet, pulling his sword from its sheath, his hand a glove of
white fire. He cast about, searching the room for the
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creature that had attacked him. A slight buzzing filled the
air, and Gray dove to the side, narrowly avoiding the bolt of
electricity that crackled across the room, knowing that if he
had been any slower it would have killed him.
He struck out with his sword, sending a wave of fire
through the creature as it streaked past him. A sickening
screech rose from the creature's mouth as Gray's magic
ripped through it. He crouched in front of the thing, the
disguise it had worn now discarded, its true form revealed.
He starred in horror at the demon before him, its twisted
body composed of a hideous mix of smoke and flesh, its
hands and feet ending in sharp talons. Thief it hissed, its
voice echoing hollowly inside his head. You will die!
It leapt toward him, claws outstretched. He slid
under it, sword raking its underbelly and sending a spray of
blood out from the wound. The creature howled, attacking
him from the side and raking its claws across his back. He
screamed, feeling a searing pain spread outward from the
gashes that seemed to set his skin afire. A red haze tinged
the corners of his vision and he knew it wouldn't be much
longer before he lost consciousness. He grit his teeth and
rose to his feet. He turned to face the nightmare before
him, its face a constantly shifting mass that altered
completely from one moment to the next, its eyes blood
red. The creature rose up, its clawed hands burning with
black fire. Gray knew he could not ward off another attack.
If he waited for it to spring, he was finished. He dove at the
guardian, his sword edged in fire as he plunged it into the
creatures head. The demon shuddered, collapsing into
smoke as the life bled out of it. As it fell, its face slowly
transformed back into the pale frightened face of Lya, her
green eyes rising to meet his own That's twice now you've
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let me die. she sighed, her features dissolving into smoke.
Gray stared down at the cold stone floor in front of him,
feeling as if he'd just had his heart ripped out. The
wounds on his back burned like fire as he rose to his feet,
gently lifting the key off the dais where it sat and thinking of
what it had cost him to get it. His head snapped up as he
remembered his conversation with the guardian just before
it had attacked him. You're an illusion. A guardian put here
by the Darkened to protect the key nothing more.
Oh, but that's where you're wrong. We are much
more than that. We. he breathed, berating himself for not
realizing it sooner. The Darkened hadn't just left one
guardian, they had created multiple. He glanced toward the
door that led out to the hallway where he had left the
others, snatching up his sword and running towards the
door.
* * * * *
Kara gasped, struggling against the blackness that
was flooding the corners of her vision. She lashed out at the
creature that held her pinned against the wall, its hands
circling her throat. The creature laughed, its disguise
melting away. Its voice slithered inside her mind, sinister
and cold. Stay still mortal. It will all be over soon. Claws
sprouted from the ends of its hands, digging into her flesh
and sending a wave of pain through her body. Bright spots
danced before her eyes and she knew she had to do
something now or in a few seconds she would be dead. A
strange pressure began to build inside of her, filling her ears
with a roaring sound as it reached a crescendo. She acted
instinctively, lashing out at the creature with everything she
had. Bright blue light filled her vision and her magic came
out of her in a wave, completely engulfing all three of the
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creatures and ripping them apart. The things shrieked as
the energy tore into them, the shards of light acting as
daggers to rend their flesh. Kara fell to the ground
coughing, desperately struggling for air. She felt drained and
weary as if all the energy had been sapped from her body.
She rose to her knees, her head spinning and her stomach
tilting with nausea as she struggled to her feet. She stared in
horror at the pile of ashes in front of her as it slowly melted
into smoke, leaving no trace of anything that had happened.
She stumbled down the corridor, the wounds on
her throat still burning from where the creature had held
her. She had to find the others. She limped haltingly
forward, moving towards where she had last seen Gray and
her cousin and all the while trying to dispel the feeling that
she was already too late.
* * * * *
Kail threw his hands up protectively as the doors in
front of him burst open. The bloodied form of Gray
Ravenwing emerging from the shadows, his eyes haunted.
Look out! The mage shouted, rushing forward
with sword in hand. An ugly hiss sounded behind Kails
shoulder, and he spun around. The hastily formed shield
he had placed in front of him just barely intercepted the
jagged knife wielded by the demon behind him as it
plunged toward his unprotected back. The guardian
screeched in frustration, the image of Kara fading away,
replaced by a hideous creature with clawed hands and
blood red eyes. Its entire body seemed to be made of
mangled bits of flesh and smoke, fused together by dark
magic. Kail dodged to the side as the creature came at him
once more, slashing its side with the blade of his sword.
The creature let out a piercing shriek and Gray leapt
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forward, sending a wave of magic ripping through its body.
It screamed, twisting out of the line of attack and coming at
them from the side. Kail pulled out his bow, shooting the
demon straight between the eyes as it attacked. His arrow
blazed with light and the corridor filled with the acrid smell
of burning flesh. The guardian jerked backward with a
series of strange convusions, giving one final screech before
disappearing into smoke.
Kail let out his breath, considerably shaken by what
had just happened. I'm guessing that was the guardian?
One of many. Gray replied. There was another
one protecting the key, and its possible that there are more
still out there.
We have to find Kara. Kail stated. I lost sight of
her when you entered the chamber.
Well we'll have to do it quickly. Gray replied.
There's something I didn't tell you about the key...
Gray, Kail, is that you? Kail glanced over at Gray
as Kara emerged from out of the clouds of smog that filled
the corridor. Neither of them was sure about how to tell
whether or not she was really who she appeared to be.
Stay where you are Kara. Gray instructed, his
sword held ready.
Why? she asked, suspicion clouding her girlish
features. Look, I really don't think its a good idea to stay
down here for much longer. Have you got the key?
Just wait one minute. Kail said, turning to face
Gray. Is there any way we can tell if it really is Kara?
Gray shook his head. I don't think so. However, if
it really was another guardian, I dont think theyd try the
same thing twice. Besides, from what Ive seen of their
behavior, they won't leave the city. They probably wouldnt
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even follow us out of this building. They were created to
stay here and guard against intruders. They wouldn't
abandon their post.
Kail nodded, turning to face his cousin. Come on,
we're getting out of here. You take the lead; we'll be right
behind you.
Kara shook her head. After what I've just seen, I
don't think that would be a very good idea. At this point, I'm
not really sure if you are who you say.
Gray rolled his eyes, moving in front of them.
Come on, we don't have time for this. I for one have no
doubt that you are both exactly who you say. The creatures
aren't stupid enough to waste time standing around arguing
as to whether or not they're real.
Kara flushed, her hands knotting into fists. Well
excuse me for not wanting to...
Come on. Kail said, taking her by the hand and
leading her down the corridor after the retreating form of
Gray. He smiled slightly as she stared moodily ahead,
silently fuming. This was definitely the real Kara.
They emerged from the building without any
further encounters with the creatures that dwelt within the
ruins. They walked silently back to the place where they
had left their horses, stopping to inspect their wounds
before embarking. A ring of dark bruises lined Kara's throat
where the creature had held her, the black and red streaks
standing out starkly against her pale skin.
Kail frowned, his face lined with concern. How
did this happen?
After the explosion in the corridor, I ran into
something. It was strange. It looked exactly like my mother,
but I knew it couldn't be. Shes still back in Savory. Kara
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sighed. Part of me wanted to believe it really was her, but
another part knew that it couldn't be.
Gray nodded, his eyes distant. The same thing
happened to me.
Three guardians. Kail stated. The Darkened
must have valued this key very much to leave it so heavily
guarded.
Kara coughed, looking slightly embarrassed as she
spoke. Not three, five.
Five? Gray exclaimed, his eyebrow raised.
Three of them attacked me. Each of them masked as
a different person from my life.
Then how...? Kail question, his expression puzzled.
You mean to say, Gray stated quietly, that you
single handedly destroyed three of the Darkened's
guardians?
She looked down. I'm not exactly sure what
happened. One minute I was choking, and the next...
It was your magic, wasn't it? Kail replied.
She nodded. Kail bowed his head, deep in thought.
He had known that Kara possessed powerful magic, but
until tonight there had been no evidence of its full
magnitude. If she couldn't learn how to control it, this could
become a serious problem for all of them. Even more
troubling was the fact that he had already taught her most of
what he knew. Inherited magic was far different from
elemental and other learned forms, and it was going to be
difficult to help her when he did not even know exactly
what she could do.
Kara do you remember exactly... Kail stopped
suddenly as Gray began to sway unsteadily, his face pale.
Gray are you...
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Leave me alone. he snapped. I'll be fine. Kail
moved forward, staring in shock at the deep gashes that
lined the mans back, previously concealed beneath his
robe.
This is serious. Kail remarked, feeling a wave of
concern run through him as he stared at the black ooze that
ran along each of the cuts.
The creatures that attacked us were poisonous. Gray
gasped, his eyes going slightly out of focus.
Why didn't you say something! Kail exclaimed. You
could've died and we wouldn't even have had the chance to
notice anything was wrong! How long were you planning to
wait before telling us?
We need to get out of here. Gray sighed. The key
acts as a beacon. I didn't know until I touched it in the
chamber, its what I was trying to tell you earlier. If we don't
leave soon, this area could be swarming with all manner of
creatures, not just the demons the Darkened left to guard
their treasure.
Kara glanced over at her cousin, her eyes filled with
worry. You're in no condition to travel. Kail declared, his
blue eyes serious.
Stop worrying about me. Gray spat from between
clenched teeth. There's a small village only a few miles
north of here. I'll be fine until then. He stared at Kail, his
gray eyes filled with an iron determination. I died already
that night the council burned; a little pain is nothing new to
me.
Kail looked away, unable to meet his gaze. He knew all
too well the reason for Gray's anger and he knew also that
he was at fault for everything for which Gray blamed him.
They mounted their horses, setting off as the first few tinges
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of color began to light the sky, signaling the approach of
dawn. Kail stared at the pale orange streaks that crisscrossed
the faint gray of the sky, thinking of times long before, so
many good things that had been washed away by the blood
of all those dead because of him.
* * * * *
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Chapter IX
Memories and Nightmares
Gray struggled against the blackness that was
beginning to tinge the corners of his vision. The wounds on
his back burned like lines of fire, flaring up with each
movement of his horse. He knew that if they didn't reach
the village soon, the next time he closed his eyes he may
never wake up. He thought again of what had transpired
within the chamber at Vernose. That's twice now you've let
me die. The words had cut him deeper than any other
wound the creature could have inflicted. He thought once
more of that terrible night at the council, the building's
white spires stained black with ash as they burned slowly to
the ground. Lya stood in front of him, her eyes wide and
frightened as the walls slowly collapsed on top of her, and
he could do nothing but listen to her screams that grew
weaker and weaker as she burned to death.
He blinked back the tears that had begun to flood his
eyes. Kail was to blame. If it hadn't been for him, she never
would have gone back. He swayed unsteadily in his saddle,
his forehead beaded with sweat. A bright light appeared in
front of him and he stared uncomprehendingly at the small
village before him. He vaguely recognized Kail's voice as he
questioned the villagers about where they could find a
healer, but everything around him seemed to be falling
away. With each passing moment his awareness dimmed
and his initial certainty of whose voice it was that echoed in
his ear and what was happening slowly lessened. The world
faded slowly away, the fever burning away the last remnants
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of his strength. He slumped forward in his saddle, the
horse shout of a small blond girl who road beside him
resounding meaninglessly inside his head. He was distantly
aware of somone rushing forward to catch him as he slid
limply to the ground, surrendering to the wave of blackness
as it flooded over him.
* * * * *
Gray ran out into the crowded streets of Souran,
the roads clogged with thousands of people, fleeing from
the terrible fate that had fallen upon them. He dashed
forward, weaving through the crowd and heading towards
the citadel that lay on the far side of the city. He broke
through the masses and stared in horror at the building
ahead. The pathway leading up to the council was littered
with the bodies of those who had died defending it, the
columns of smoke rising up from amidst the tarnished
white spires shrouding the gory scene in a layer of smog and
acrid fumes. The council's gates were flung wide open,
hoards of demons flooding the courtyard and slaughtering
everyone who stood in their path. He looked up at the hills
overlooking the citadel where seated atop their chargers the
Cursed Ones watched, their eyes dead and empty as they
destroyed the only thing that stood between them and their
goal.
Gray sprinted forward, slicing through the mass of
creatures with wave upon wave of burning energy as he
searched frantically for Lya. People called out to him, their
cries turning to screams as they succumbed to the demons
that beset them. He glanced behind him, a brief bout of
indecision wrenching his heart as he turned his back on his
friends who lay dying in the courtyard. He had to find Lya.
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He ran through the smoke-filled corridors of the
council calling her name, his shouts growing more and
more frantic with each second that passed. She emerged
from an adjoining hallway, her hands glowing with magic as
she fought off the demons that pursued her. She caught
sight of him as he ran past the rows of bodies that lined the
passageway and her bright eyes became filled with worry.
You shouldnt have come here. You should have
stayed in the city. Theyre everywhere
Come on. he yelled, ignoring her admonishments
and grabbing her by the hand.
Wait! she cried. I have to find the book. He
stared at her uncomprehendingly. I swore I would keep
watch over it. It is contains all we know about this enemy.
They may be powerful enough to destroy the council, but
with it at least later we'll know how to stop them.
Leave it. He snapped. We dont have time to
search for it
Its too important Gray. I cannot let it burn.
He shook his head angrily, but she faced him
determinedly, her eyes filled with unwavering resolve. If he
had not told me to watch it, maybe I would go, but I cant. I
already deserted him once Gray when I told the council
about the Book of Night. Im the reason he was banished,
the reason you were exiled. Don't ask me to do it again.
'Guard it with your life', those were his instructions. If he is
to make this right, he needs our help. I promised him Gray,
and this is not a promise I intend to break. She spun
around, sprinting toward the entrance to the archives that
lay at the end of the hall.
Lya wait! he cried, running after her, but he was
unable to keep up with her as she darted through the
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wreckage with a speed and an agility that was beyond him.
An explosion shook the building, throwing him back against
the wall and clogging the hall with debris. Flames burned all
across the walls, filling the air with clouds of smoke and ash.
He struggled to his feet, catching sight of Lya, her face
twisted with pain. She lay motionless on the floor, pinned
under the pile of debris that had fallen from the roof. He
ran forward, searching frantically for a way to help but
unable to do anything to save her. She stared up at him, her
green eyes wide with a mix of pain and shock. The flames
slowly crept over the wreckage with a horrible inevitability,
spreading over the helpless woman as he stood by,
powerless to stop it.
Go. she gasped. He shook his head, pushing
against the debris until his hands were scraped raw. She
yelled at him to leave, her green eyes alight with fear. He
stood there helplessly, tears running down his face as he
watched her burn.
* * * * *
Gray cried out, unable to stop the violent shivers
that wracked him as he broke free of his memories with his
body covered in sweat. He looked around at the sparsely
furnished chamber that he found himself in. The room was
empty except for the small stone fireplace sitting across
from the bed where he lay. He rose to his feet, wincing
slightly as the scabs that lined his back cracked open once
more. He pulled on his robe, taking out the small gold
necklace that lay concealed within the pocket. He stared
down at it, doubting suddenly his purpose in coming here.
He sank back onto the bed, staring blankly into the fire and
seeing once more the face of the woman he had loved.
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* * * * *
Kara sat silently in her chair. Looking up as the
healer emerged from the room where Gray lay sleeping.
Kail hadn't said a word since their arrival here. The past few
hours had found him pacing nervously back and forth, his
face lined with apprehension as well as inexplicable guilt.
Outside the sun began its slow decent towards the horizon
as night fell over the village.
Gray had been in pretty bad condition when they
had brought him in early this morning. The poison from
the creatures that had attacked them was slowly leaching
away his life. He had been unconscious for almost 2 days,
running a high fever and muttering strange things in his
sleep. After a while, the poison had been purged from his
system by the town healer, though not without considerable
effort. Kail had spent the entire time staring blankly into
space, his face haggard and worn. She could tell he was
worried, but more than that, he seemed to blame himself
for Gray's injury. The frustrating thing was, she could not
for the life of her figure out why.
The healer came forward to greet the two who
waited anxiously outside the sickroom. He appeared to be a
man somewhere in his late thirties, his sandy hair just
beginning to develop streaks of gray. He walked toward
them, his weathered face crinkled with concern as he
approached. He's awake if you want to see him, though at
the moment he doesn't seem to want company.
Kail stared down at the ground. Thank you for
your help. he replied softly, slipping the man his pay as he
passed. It was much appreciated.
The man turned to leave, shooting them one final
glance before he left. Those wounds were pretty bad,
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never seen anything like them. Must have been a
particularly nasty creature to deliver such a scar.
No, there aren't many things that make such
wounds. Kail replied coolly, shrugging off the question.
The man frowned in discontentment and walked slowly
away, leaving them alone once more. They never had told
him how it was that Gray had been injured and Kara
couldn't blame him for his curiosity.
Kara glanced over at her cousin, thinking about
how much they had been through together. Its not your
fault you know. she assured him. I don't know why it is he
blames you for what happened back then, but it isn't your
fault.
Kail met her gaze, his deep blue eyes filled with
regret. You can't know that. he replied. If I hadn't told
her to stay...
Kara stared at him. Told who?
It was a long time ago Kara. he said quietly.
What is it? He stayed silent, his eyes downcast.
Kara rose, glancing toward the room at the end of the hall
where Gray had been sleeping.
Kail shook his head, instantly recognizing her
intent. Don't ask him. It will only further his doubts. Kara
stared at him, clueless as to his meaning. She hesitated a
moment before rising to her feet, her need to know
outweighing her other reservations. She slipped silently
through the doorway and glanced around the small wood-
paneled room, her eyes falling upon the still figure of Gray.
He did not look up as she entered, but remained
motionless on the bed, a small gold necklace clasped
loosely in his hand.
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She moved forward, taking in the exquisite detail
that marked the amulet. A green jewel was set in its center,
reflecting the light from the fire. It's beautiful she said
softly.
Gray stared into the fire, his eyes distant. It
belonged to a friend of mine. Someone who was very dear
to me. She was the type of person who could make you
forget for a moment that there was anything wrong with the
world just by looking at you. The type of person who never
lost hope no matter what happened. He sighed, his
expression blank. Her name was Lya. He ran the amulet
through his hand, lost in memories of times past. She was
the sweetest person you'd ever meet, with eyes brighter than
emeralds, and a smile that could light up even the darkest of
places.
What happened to her? Kara questioned,
surprised by the terrible pain that lit his eyes.
He tightened his hand around the necklace, its
sharp edges cutting into his palm. She died the night the
council fell. She sacrificed herself because she thought she
was doing the right thing. She died to save a book. He rose
to leave without another word, his face hard. Kara watched
him go, not understanding what he had meant, but knowing
that this was what Kail had been talking about when he said
Gray blamed him for what had happened. She thought
back to the night they had left Vernose. I died that night
the council burned; a little pain is nothing new to me. She
stared down at the floor. She was beginning to think there
was a lot more to Gray Ravenwing than she had thought.
* * * * *
Kail stared down at his hands, his blue eyes
somber. He hung his head, not looking up as Kara rose to
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leave, determined to get the answers she was looking for as
she set off toward Gray's room at the end of the hall. He
could tell she didn't understand the reason behind his
silence, but it was not his place to tell her things about
Gray's past. Not when things between them were already so
unsteady. She would find out soon enough anyway.
He pulled out the two halves of the key that had
been concealed within Gray's robes, gazing down at the
strange writing that lay inscribed upon it. He lifted the
second part of the object, carefully fitting the jewel they had
discovered within Vernose into the silver ring. The two
halves glowed with a pale greenish light, the runes flaring to
life. So this was the key to Taylonose.
Quite something isn't it? Gray remarked,
emerging from the shadows that lined the hall and standing
before him.
Kail carefully placed the key in his pocket, raising
his gaze to meet that of his former friend. He scanned the
other mans face, taking in the hard lines that marred his
expression. Gray was fully dressed in travel gear, his pack
slung over one shoulder as he strode forward. Dark circles
lay under his eyes and Kail could tell that he still wasn't fully
recovered from the wounds he had suffered. What I'm still
uncertain of, is if in the end it was really worth the cost.
Kail remarked softly.
Gray laughed his voice hoarse. Don't worry about
me Kail. I have no need for your pity.
Kail shook his head, his expression pained. I'm
not asking out of pity, I'm asking because it's important...
Nothing is really all that important any more Kail.
Gray said quietly. Especially not me. Not since you caused
her death.
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Kail stared at him, seeing the real cause for Gray's
sickly pallor. It was not the physical damage that the
guardian had caused that now plagued him. There's
nothing I could have done to save her. I made a mistake in
telling her to stay and protect the book, but that book was
the key to defeating the Cursed. It's how I learned about
Syra in the first place, not to mention the fact that it
contained the map that revealed the location of their
fortress within the marsh. Lya was the only one on the
council I could still trust, I didn't know... he trailed off,
shaking his head and feeling rather childish as he poured
out excuse after excuse in an attempt to explain his actions.
Gray stared at him, his gray eyes steady as he
carefully examined the truth of Kails statement. Maybe
so, he said quietly, his expression grave. but that doesn't
change what happened. He turned and walked away, his
movements made stiff by his still injured back. Kail watched
him leave, wondering suddenly if he was right.
* * * * *
Kara pressed herself deeper into the shadows of
the doorway, feeling slightly ashamed as she watched Gray
exit the room, leaving Kail alone once more. She had been
eavesdropping on the conversation between the two men,
listening intently as they talked. She made her way down the
hallway, entering the small room where Kail sat staring
moodily at the wall. She glanced quickly at her cousin and
instantly decided that now was not the time to tell him she
had been listening. She walked outside, the last of the suns
rays fading slowly into darkness. Gray stood slumped
against the wall beside her, in no way acknowledging her
presence. She stared at him, wondering how it was that he
knew as much as he did about their quest. According to her
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ancestor, he was the only one that could lead them to the
lair of the Cursed Ones, but at the moment, she didn't see
how.
She turned to face him, opening her mouth to
speak.
You know it isn't proper to eavesdrop. he said
calmly, not even turning to look at her, maintaining his
unblinking stare out at the empty horizon.
She stared at him. How...
He laughed, a slight smile creasing the corners of
his mouth though his eyes remained bitter and lost. I'm a
mage remember. It really isn't all that difficult to sense when
someone's there.
Kara stared down at her feet. Maybe it wasn't right
to listen in, but it seems to me that you're holding a grudge
for something that you can't really change anyway.
Gray continued to stare blankly ahead, his face
expressionless. Some things are not so easily forgotten.
Kail's mistake cost me everything I had, and I will never
forgive him for that.
You shouldn't blame him. It wasn't his fault Lya
died.
Gray closed his eyes, his face hardening. You
don't know what you're talking about. It's none of your
business what goes on between me and your cousin.
Kara stared at him incredulously In case you
haven't noticed, he just saved your life. He's done a lot
more to help than you have! she knew she should stop, but
she was too angry to care. All you've done so far is almost
get us killed! At the moment, I doubt that you even really
know how to get to the Black Marsh at all, especially
considering what a horrible job you've done so far!
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Gray's eyes narrowed, his face alight with anger.
What you seem to have forgotten is that you were the one
who wanted my help in the first place. You're nothing but
an ignorant little girl who has somehow deceived herself
into thinking that she knows all about life in the real world.
You don't really think you can destroy the Cursed Ones do
you? You, a girl barely more than a child with no control
whatsoever over the magic that is your only defense. He
turned to face her, his voice filled with barely suppressed
rage as he continued. I know how to get to the marsh
because I have been there before. I spent months tracking
the Cursed to their lair, following them as they retreated
from the ruins of the council. I would go there and I would
kill them, that was my plan. They would suffer for what they
had done, or so I thought, but I was a fool. The Black
Marsh is an endless labyrinth of swampland, the likes of
which you have never seen, filled with creatures born out of
your worst nightmares. After weeks of searching through the
mire, I came across them, hidden deep within their lair at
Fey Mors, a fortress forged out of black magic, nested deep
within the marsh. I faced only two of them, yet I barely
escaped with my life. They possess power the likes which I
have never seen. Do not deceive yourself into thinking you
can defeat them, and do not be stupid enough to think that
I will risk everything on a fools errand.
Kara stared at him, her face pale. At least I can try
to stop them.
Gray stared at her, his eyes stormy. Then you are
a fool. He turned, gathering up his things and turning
toward the stables. Do what you will Kara, but you can do
it without my help. As you said, all I've done so far is get
people killed. Kara stared after him in mute astonishment,
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thinking of the impossible task that lay before her. She tried
in vain to shift her thoughts to other things, but she could
not dismiss the doubt that lingered in the corners of her
mind. Gray's words echoed endlessly inside her head,
reminding her once more of how hopeless the situation
truly was.
* * * * *
Gray strode forward, silently fuming as he moved
toward the stables. He thought again of the way Kara's face
had fallen as he spoke, her voice shaking slightly as she had
replied. He regretted his words, but at the moment he was
too filled with anger and self-loathing to care. He reflected
on the events of the past few days, seeing in his mind the
creature that had guarded Vernose, its face transforming
into the one he knew so well, Lya's face. He remembered
his conversation with Kail, how he had shunned the other's
words without even stopping to consider the truth of the
matter. What I'm still uncertain of, is whether in the end it
was really worth the cost. He remembered Kail's face as he
had said that, his deep blue eyes holding his with that same
seriousness they always had. Don't worry about me Kail. I
have no need for your pity. His head buzzed, his stomach
churning. The poison had not been expunged. Though
purged from his body, it still plagued his thoughts, re-
illuminating those darkest of things which he had buried
forever, and casting everything into doubt. He thought again
of Kara, her face flushed with anger as she told him how
Kail had just saved his life. Gray shook his head, thinking
about how much Kail had done for him. He hated Kail for
what his mistakes, but even so, he could not forget how
close they had been before. He strode forward, carefully
masking the conflict raging on inside of him, both loving
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and hating Kail and unable to decide between the two
extremes.
Coming here in the first place had been a mistake.
Kail was best left in the past along with the rest of his
memories. His thoughts turned to those that followed them.
He wasn't ready to face again so soon those who had so
easily defeated them before. He thought of Lya's pale face
as she lay dying and suddenly pictured the dead bodies of
Kara and Kail joining those who had already been
slaughtered by the Cursed Ones hand.
He dismissed the thought quickly; he had already
made up his mind. He saddled his horse, reaching back for
his pack and was intercepted by Kail, the younger mans
face an iron mask of determination as he moved to
confront him.
Get out of my way Kail. he growled, his face
grim.
So what, that's it? You just pack up and leave.
What's the point? After coming all this way you just decide
to quit?
You have your route, and you have the key to
access Taylonose. You don't need my help any further.
You can't run forever Gray. There comes a time in
everyone's life where they are faced with a decision. This is
yours. You cannot turn away from this. Whatever Kara
said, whatever either of us might have said to make you
think otherwise was a mistake. We can't do this without
you. You are as much a part of this as I am. He paused,
his gaze steady. I know you can't forgive me for Lya's
death, but this goes beyond whatever happens to any of us.
Gray looked away, his hard expression a mask to
hide the guilt that lay beneath. I have done enough. I
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cannot help you defeat the Cursed Ones, I never could.
You're on your own. He turned away, throwing wide the
stable doors.
Kail shook his head, watching silently as Gray
mounted his stallion. To forsake your friends at the time
when they need you most. Was not that the accusation you
once leveled against me?
Gray stared forward at the empty horizon, hating
what he was about to do, but knowing all the same that he
couldn't stay. Goodbye Kail. he sighed, his tone wistful.
You were right. You were always right. He dug in his
heels, taking off at a gallop. He stared blankly ahead as he
drew steadily further and further away from both the village
and the people he had abandoned, his guilt weighing like a
chain around his neck.
* * * * *

Chapter X
Ensnared
Kara sat patiently waiting as Kail gathered his things.
They had spent the night at a small inn in the village
preparing for the long journey that lay ahead of them. Kara
sat in silence, thinking about her earlier conversation with
Gray. She still didn't understand why he had been so angry
with Kail, but it had been foolish of her to say what she had.
Her cousin turned to face her, his expression sad as he
took in her expression. You can't blame yourself for what
happened, Kara. He said quietly. He would have left
anyway; his mind was already made up. His blue eyes were
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distant as he continued, and she had a feeling that he was
still trying to make sense of it himself. Gray's decisions
were his own. You cannot let it trouble you. He was never
really dedicated to helping us anyway.
Kara stared at him, knowing that despite what his
words, he hadn't expected Gray to leave either. The mages
decision to so callously pack up and abandon their quest
had hurt him more than he would like to admit. Kara bit
her lip, wondering how they would finish this without him.
What will we do now? How do we get through the Black
Marsh without Gray to guide us?
Kail looked away, his face hard. Nothing has changed.
Well continue on as planned. It's about a three day ride to
the edge of the Dead Forest and the entrance to Taylonose.
After then, it will only take a few weeks to reach the port in
Zalem.
Kara stared at him, seeing through his blank
expression to the feelings that lay beneath. You still haven't
answered my question. She stated.
Kail sighed, shaking his head. I don't know Kara. I
don't know how to get through the marsh, and I don't know
why Gray decided to leave. To be perfectly honest, at the
moment I haven't the slightest idea of how to get anywhere
near the Curseds lair, but the best we can do right now is
continue on and hope for the best. He turned away,
saddling his horse and packing the remainder of their
supplies.
Kara swung herself up onto her horse, tying back her
long blond hair to keep it from falling into her eyes as she
rode. She glanced over at Kail, his face serious as he
worked. She remembered what things had been like years
ago when she was still a child, back before Kail had left
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when she hadnt known the truth about Syra and the dark
legacy the sorceress had left her. She stared out into the
horizon. Kail glanced over at her, and she knew before he
spoke what he was about to ask. I'm ready. she said
quietly. They set out towards the Dead Forest, leaving the
horrors of Vernose behind them.
* * * * *
Gray sped across the flat terrain, unable to
understand why he felt such an urgent need to flee and
escape whatever dark thing pursued him. His head was a
mess as he slipped from his horse, sliding limply to the
ground and burying his head in his hands. He was
unsurprised when he reached back and found his cloak
stained with blood from where his wounds had reopened.
He shouldn't have left when he did. He was still not fully
recovered from his experience in the corridors of Vernose
and he was not yet fit for travel.
He thought suddenly of Kail, standing silently
watching as he had left. He closed his eyes, taking a
moment to stop the feelings of nausea that overcame him.
He rose to his feet and led his horse away from the
road into the thick brush that lined the pathway. He set up
camp in silence, not bothering to make a fire and eating his
dinner cold. He thought of those long months he had spent
tracking the Cursed Ones. The dreary weeks spent
wandering through the mire of the Black Marsh, only to fail
when it came time to face them. No, he would not be going
back there. Kail and Kara could confront the demons on
their own.
It had been just over a day since he had parted
ways with Kail and his nave cousin. He was riding steadily
south, heading back towards the grasslands and the city of
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Souran. He had barely slept since his departure, his head
spinning with an inexplicable sense of trepidation. He
settled back against a tree, feeling drained of energy.
He chewed half-heartedly on a loaf of bread and
reached back over his shoulder to probe the still healing
scars that crossed his back. They still stung, pulsing with a
steady ache that set his teeth on edge. The damage to his
body however paled in comparison to that of his psyche,
dredged up memories and guilt still haunting him. He
pulled the coarse wool of the blanket tighter to ward off the
chill, the air itself having nothing to do with the cold he felt.
Spectral images of the past hung over him as he
slept, reaching back from that night long ago in Souran to
just recently in the horrifying experience in the ruins of
Vernose. He could see Lya's dead eyes staring up at him as
she faded into smoke. That's twice now you've let me die.
A strange scuffling sounded off in the distance and
Gray quickly awoke, his eyes snapping open. He pulled his
robes tightly about him and rose to his feet, heading back
toward the main road and the origin of the disturbance that
had woken him. He crept forward, moving silently through
the underbrush and peering out into the night. A faint light
appeared in the distance, moving slowly up the road. He
crouched down among the bushes, making no sound as he
watched the slow approach of what he could now see was
the bobbing flame of a single torch. The torchbearer was at
the head of a group of people on horseback, all of them
casting nervous glances left and right as they rode. They had
the appearance of soldiers, armored head to foot with each
man carrying an array of weapons, yet something was wrong
about them. Gray slid closer, reaching out with his mind
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and quickly discovered what it was. The men stank of dark
magic, their very being tainted by its effects.
The air grew cold as another figure emerged from
among the trees, cloaked all in black with sunken eyes that
smoldered with an unquenchable fire. Gray immediately
recognized the figure for what it was. He found himself
filled with a mix of rage and terror as he stared at the
creature that had once been Zeveran Cray, the demon that
had slaughtered his friends and nearly taken his life during
their last deadly battle. Gray remained immobile as the
figure continued its approach, not knowing whether to
attack or to flee, his blood boiling with hatred. The air grew
cold as the shade came to a halt before the group of
quivering soldiers. The men stood spellbound before it,
their eyes filled with a mix of terror and adoration.
You know why you are here. Gray shivered. The
voice that spoke was one devoid of feeling, its tone deep
and commanding.
Master. The leader, dismounting from his horse
and sinking down on one knee. We await your command.
What is it that you need us to do?
The creature's eyes fixed on him, its expression
cold as if regarding an insect. Go forth to the forest north
of here, there you shall find a girl. Kill her, and I will grant
to you the power which you seek.
One of the men in the back shook his head, his
expression confused as if awaking from a dream. I will
not. he whispered, his voice wavering slightly as the
creature turned to face him. He glanced over at this leader.
You have gone too far Tein. This...this thing, is evil. This
is not the way to save Zalem. I will not... He choked, his
words cutting off abruptly. The creatures eyes fixed on the
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wide-eyed face of the man before it, its expression bleak.
Gray flinched, feeling the surge of darkness that emanated
from the specter before him. The soldier screamed, his
body convulsing violently as he stared in horror at the
creature in front of him. His neck snapped backward, his
body crumpling in on itself as he was flung through the air
to land in a bloody heap on the path behind them. The
corpse lay tangled in a misshapen sprawl with its head
turned upward so that its face was bared to the sky for all to
see, the soldiers expression one of horror and pain as he
breathed his last.
Gray stared at the remains of the man, his face
unnaturally pale. The leader of the Cursed straightened, its
eyes smoldering as it turned to face those assembled. I am
your master. If any of you ever dare to defy me again, you
will see this pathetic weaklings death as a mercy. Be
thankful that I shall spare you this time of punishment.
Next time, I shall not be so forgiving. The men retreated
from the demon with muttered pledges of loyalty, their
faces pale with fright as they rode away.
Gray stayed where he was, his hand clenched
around the pommel of his sword. He stared at the cloaked
figure still standing motionless in the center of the path,
holding his breath and waiting to see what would happen.
The creature turned away, fading back into the darkness
from whence it had come. He watched it leave, fighting past
the paralyzing sense of terror that assailed him and rising
slowly to his feet. He looked east towards where the men
had fled. They were going after Kara. There was no
mistaking the creatures instructions. The question was, how
long would it take them to reach their target?
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Gray slung his pack over his shoulder, striding back
to the clearing where he had left his horse. He gathered his
supplies, all earlier doubts forgotten and mounted the
speckled brown stallion he had taken from the healer, Vira.
He could not let those men fulfill their instructions,
whatever the cost.
He hesitated, thinking briefly of his earlier
resolution to abandon this hopeless quest. He pictured
Kara's face, her hands clenched into fists as she in no
uncertain terms told him he shouldn't have come. Then he
thought of Kail, his light eyes despairing as he had watched
him leave. He knew what he had to do. Gray charged
forward, his horse flying through the moonless night, riding
steadily toward the Dead Forest.
* * * * *
Kara's eyes snapped open, her hands shaking as she
woke. She sat staring blindly into the darkness waiting for
her eyes to adjust. The nightmares were getting worse.
Every time she closed her eyes there they were, plaguing
her sleep and haunting her every waking hour with their
memory. She rose to her knees, her head in her hands as
she slowly regained her composure.
She glanced around the deserted wood where they
had set up camp. They had spent the entire day traveling
north toward the Dead Forest and the entrance to
Taylonose, stopping only a few hours before mid-night
when the light became too poor and the terrain too
treacherous for them to make it any farther.
Kail lay sleeping a few yard away from her, his face
strained and tight even while unconscious. The dying
embers of the fire sparked slightly, lending no warmth to
the cold autumn air. Kara sighed, pulling her blanket tightly
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around her for warmth and quickly dismissing the thought
of going back to sleep. In two days time they would reach
Taylonose, and the thought scared her more than she
would like to admit. The city of Vernose had been a waking
nightmare that had almost killed them all, how much worse
than would the resting place of the Darkened's spirits be by
comparison. Her reluctance had no impact on their course
of action however. Taylonose was their only chance of
reaching the Black Marsh before the winter storms set in.
Any other route would delay them too long and they would
be forced to wait an entire season before continuing on.
The north was a ferocious place during the winter, the
frequent storms making travel impossible with temperatures
plummeting well below freezing. If they couldn't reach the
marsh before then, it would be too late to prevent the
Cursed Ones from fulfilling their dark agenda.
Kara rose to her feet, unwilling to return to the
realm of nightmares that haunted her sleep. She walked
through the trees, feeling nervous and on edge. Minutes
turned to hours and she knew she should turn back, but for
some reason she felt compelled to continue on. A small
glimmer of light illuminated the landscape ahead and she
peered forward, making out the faint outline of a small
figure skipping forward through the trees, her hands held
out to her sides and her head thrown back as if she hadnt a
care in the world. The stranger let out a quick giggle and
stepped forward to greet her, the girls eyes colored a
startling shade of violet. She was nothing more than a child,
her hair falling in a loose braid down her back interspersed
here and there with flowers, her mouth split open in a
smile. Kara stared at the strange little girl, unsure of what to
think. The figure seemed oddly luminescent, as if alight
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with some inner fire. Her small body was garbed in
elaborately woven silk, its edges embroided in silver.
The girl smiled at her, her voice high and musical
as she spoke. What are you doing here? Kara stared at
her apprehensively, unsure of how to reply. The girl shook
her head, crossing her arms as her smile was replaced with a
pout. It's not very nice to ignore people. Why are you in
my woods in the first place? Who said you were allowed
here?
Kara shook her head. What are you doing out in
the middle of the woods at an hour like this?
I told you, they're my woods. You're the one who
shouldn't be here. Silly humans, waltzing around like you
own the world. Burning my trees, intruding into my home,
it simply won't do.
Kara took a step back, realizing suddenly who this
strange little girl really was. As a child she had been told
stories of Nixes, but she had never actually believed them to
be true. Nixes were malevolent creatures that dwelled in the
deep forests. They appeared often in the guise of children
and were said to be extremely temperamental. They did not
take well to the presence of humans within their territory.
Kara glanced at the Nixie, its purple eyes bright.
You see, it purred. I don't take nicely to people
invading my home. If you had stayed on the edges of the
forest, I might have overlooked your transgression, but
instead you saw fit to come all the way to my doorstep. I
can't ignore that kind of rudeness. The Nixie's eyes grew
slitted like a cat's, its teeth needle sharp as it smiled once
more.
Wait. Kara cried, the beginnings of an idea
starting to form inside her head. Why are you doing this? I
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can just leave right now and I'll never come back, I
promise. She backed slowly away, leaving an image of
herself in the place she had been standing a few seconds
before and sliding out of it unnoticed. It was a trick she had
learned from her cousin years ago. The image was an exact
replica and it was nearly impossible to tell the difference.
She circled around to the side of the Nixie, readying her
magic.
I'm afraid that's not the way it works. the creature
giggled, its teeth barred in a toothy grin as it continued to
stare at the false image before it. Besides, you wouldn't
survive much longer even if I did decide to let you go.
Kara hesitated, expecting a trick. What do you
mean? she called, throwing her voice so as not to give away
her position.
None of you concern now. The Nixie leapt
forward, lashing out at the illusion in front of it. Kara
watched tensely as the image disintegrated. She pulled tight
the invisible netting she had set, effectively trapping the
Nixie. It gave a startled exclamation, tearing at the magic
that ensnared it with vicious tenacity.
Kara moved toward it, her face strained with
concentration. Now tell me, what did you mean when you
said I wouldn't have survived much longer?
The creature hissed, its face twisted with anger.
You will get no answers from me.
Kara jerked tight the cords that bound it, making it
cry out in pain as the magic came in contact with it. The
men... the girl whined. they hunt you. Sent to destroy.
Intruding on my forest They will soon arrive at the place
your companion now rests.
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Kara's face went white, her thoughts turning to Kail.
Swear you will not follow me and I will let you live. she
said quietly, the effort of holding the net beginning to wear
on her.
The Nixie glared at her, its eyes bright. Stupid girl.
You're not half as smart as you think.
I was smart enough to catch you, and you're not
going anywhere until you swear you'll leave.
It looked away. Very well. I swear I shall not harm
you, but the next time you enter these woods, I will take
great delight in making you a snack for the wolves.
Kara released her hold on the magic and watched
nervously as the Nixie vanished. She hesitated a moment
before collapsing the net and taking off through the forest,
running back toward the camp site.
* * * * *
Kail's eyes snapped open, his nerves thrumming
with the sense of impending danger. He sat bolt upright,
scanning the empty forest that surrounded him. He listened
intently to the faint sound of hooves sounding in the
distance. He turned to find Kara and became overwhelmed
with panic as he found the empty bed roll where she had
been sleeping only hours before. He rose swiftly to his feet,
strapping on his sword and pulling on his boots. He cast
about the campsite, taking note of the faint footprints that
marked her passage into the forest. His voice caught in his
throat as he realized where she had gone.
He swept up his pack and began following the faint
tracks through the brush. He was met only moments later
by the fleeing form of Kara, her face wild as she ran. He
caught her by the arm as she came careening into him,
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taking in her wide eyed expression and torn cloak. What is
it? he said quietly.
Kail! she exclaimed, blinking away her
momentary confusion. We have to get out of here!
What do you... he fell silent, stopping in mid-
sentence as a hollow twang split the air. Kail spun around,
reacting out of instinct as he spotted the person behind him.
He grabbed Kara's hand and pulled her out of the way of
the single arrow as it flew through the air to the place she
had been only moments before. The man swore, drawing
back another arrow and preparing to fire. Kail sent his
magic out in a wave, taking out the archer and his
companion who was preparing to charge them with a sword.
The pounding of hooves shook the trees as the rest of the
company approached.
There were a dozen or so, wielding various
weapons and covered head to foot in armor. Kail pushed
Kara back into the trees, unslinging his bow from across his
back. He shot the first one between the eyes, the arrow
sliding perfectly between the slats in his visor. The man
behind him howled, his helmet tossed aside as he turned
his horse to face Kail. The man glared at him, his grisly face
alight with a savage glee. He spurred his mount forward, an
ax clutched tightly in his hand. Kail fired once more before
diving out of the path of the horse, easily avoiding the blade
as it swung past him. His arrow sunk into the horsemans
neck and he watched numbly as the warrior tumbled to the
ground.
He unsheathed his sword and turned to face the
remainder of his assailants. He didn't hear the warrior
creeping up behind him until it was too late. He dove out of
the way, moving too slow to avoid the steel edge of the
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sword as it bit into his flesh. He kicked out at his attacker,
fighting against the wave of pain that washed through him
and tinged the corners of his vision with red. The man
grunted angrily and fell to the ground, his armor weighing
him down. Kail rolled to his feet, barely blocking another
mans sword as it came to finish him off. He slid under the
soldier's guard, going for a weak point in his armor and
finishing him off.
A cry sounded off in the woods and Kail cast about
in an effort to locate Kara. Panic overcame him as he saw
her standing a few feet away from another of the warriors,
knife in hand. He started toward her, raising his bow and
killing the man as his back was still turned. The soldier he
had knocked to the ground stumbled to his feet, his face
twisted with anger as he charged. Kail raised his sword to
ward off the man's attack, but the pain of his injury was
beginning to wear on him. The sword swung toward his
head, glancing off his blade and biting deep into his
unprotected shoulder. Bone crunched underneath the force
of the blow and Kail cried out in pain. He retaliated against
the assault with a series of rapid strikes, his vision beginning
to blur. His opponent laughed, his eyes alight with the fire
of madness as he swung the butt end of his sword and
struck Kail in the side of the head, sending him to his
knees. Kail reached for his sword, only to find it lying yards
away, it was pointless to try and reach it. The man raised his
blade, his mouth twisted in a sadistic grin. Kail blinked away
the blood dripping into his eyes, knowing that this was the
end.
The soldier standing over him gasped in shock, the
blood draining from his face as his sword dropped from his
nerveless fingers to the ground below. He stared
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uncomprehendingly at the sword point protruding from his
stomach, giving one final moan before sliding lifelessly to
the ground. Bodies littered the floor of the clearing around
Kail, the last of the attackers vanishing into the forest. Kail
looked up at the tall figure mounted atop his brown
charger, his gray eyes solemn as he reached down and
pulled his sword from the corpse of the soldier he had
slain. A black wave of nausea ran through Kail's body, his
head swimming as he began to slide toward the forest floor.
Gray rushed forward to catch him as he fell, speaking quick
reassurances as he helped him regain his footing. Kail
blinked back the sudden dizziness that threatened to
overwhelm him, rising to his feet and following compliantly
as Gray led him away from the field of carnage that littered
the forest floor.
* * * * *
Gray made his way forward through the grisly
remains of the battle with Kail leaning heavily on his
shoulder, stepping calmly over the numerous corpses that
blocked the path forward and making his way to where
Kara stood gaping at them both.
I thought you were leaving. Kail said, a slight
smile hovering around the corner of his mouth. What
happened to going back to Souran?
Gray laughed harshly, his face grim. You can't
seem to get anywhere without me. Kail shook his head,
looking skeptically at the bedraggled form of Gray, the
mages shirt stained with blood from his wounds. Youre
not one to speak. he replied, his head spinning.
Kara ran toward them, her face pale as she looked
at her cousin. She shifted her attention to Gray, her blue
eyes fixing on his own. What are you doing back here?
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she snapped. Why bother coming back if youre just going
to get up and leave again? She glared at him, her eyes filled
with hurt.
I think thank you would suffice. He replied,
concealing from her the still lingering guilt he felt as he
turned his attention to the bloody form of Kail. His wounds
were fairly severe, especially the cut in his shoulder. They
pulled out their supplies and fashioned make-shift bandages
out of the spare clothing they had brought with them. Kail
winced as they bound up his arm, his face growing pale.
The blade had cut all the way to the bone, leaving an ugly
gash that would take time to heal. Kara stitched up the cut;
the end result was, to state it nicely, less than perfect, but it
was better than nothing. They bound it up as best they
could, both working diligently until it was done. Kara sat in
silence for a long time after, staring intently at Gray. He
could tell she was still trying to make up her mind about
him. He couldn't say he blamed her. He had not really
given her any good reason to trust him, especially not after
he had abandoned them before. He stared down at the
blood-stained leaves that littered the ground where he sat.
To be perfectly honest, he hadn't entirely forgiven himself.
Why did you come back? she asked quietly.
He shook his head, recalling last nights encounter.
While travelling to Souran, I overheard a group of men
led by the shade of Zeveran Cray. They were dispatched to
kill you, and I came after them. It's as simple as that. She
turned to look at her cousin, who sat watching silently as
they spoke. Gray rose to his feet, walking back toward his
horse. We should get going. It isn't safe to stay here any
longer.
But what about Kail? she answered anxiously.
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Kail gave her a half-hearted smile, rising to his feet.
I'll be fine Kara. he replied, but it was easy to tell by the
look on her face that she didn't believe him.
They set off, leaving the gruesome remains of the
soldiers lying where they had fallen. Gray stared straight
ahead of him as he rode through the trees, no longer
questioning his decision to return. There was no turning
back now; he had already made his decision. He would go
to the Black Marsh and he would find the Cursed, and the
moment that he did, he would kill them.
* * * * *
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Chapter XI
Reminiscence
The day slipped quickly away as Kara and the others
of the company made their way through the fringe of
woodlands. The sun had already begun to set by the time
they broke free of the trees and set out onto the plains that
lay before the Dead Forest and the deadly catacombs of
Taylonose where they were headed. Kail looked
considerably worse for wear as he slid from his saddle,
barely keeping his feet as he strode away from the stallion
and laid down to rest. He had lost a lot of blood and Kara
and Grays crude attempts at medicine with the limited
supplies they had been given were hardly adequate.
Gray moved off on his own and wordlessly set up
watch, reasoning that Kail was in no condition to help and
not even giving Kara a chance to volunteer. Kara frowned at
him slightly as he stared out across the plains. Immutable
and grim, he still retained the same haunted aura that he
had when he left. She could not bring herself to forgive him
for what he had done. The fragile trust she had developed
after he had saved her life in Souran was completely
shattered by his abrupt and unexplained departure a few
days before. She knew logically that she was being irrational
and that she should be grateful he had come back to save
them from the men sent to kill them, but something within
her refused to let go of the resentment and hurt she felt at
having been abandoned by someone she had put her faith
in. After all the traumatizing encounters she had already
been forced through these past few weeks, she did not need
this sort of thing from one of her allies.
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She turned to find Kails eyes on her from the place
where he lay a few feet away He had not gone to sleep as
she had assumed and the look on his face gave her the
impression that it was not his intention to rest just yet. You
should stop blaming him you know. He said quietly,
seeming to read her thoughts.
Kara flushed, What am I supposed to think? Why
should I rely on him when I dont even know if hell be
there the next time were in danger? What if he just runs off
again and leaves us to fend for ourselves? I wouldnt put it
beyond him at this point. She said it all without any real
malice or passion, her tone weary and resigned rather than
angry.
You dont really know him all that well Kara. Kail
replied. The point is, he was there. He made a decision
today. It wasnt on a whim that he came back to help us; it
was because he knew it was something he needed to do. I
dont pretend to know any more than you about what
prodded him to leave, but that isnt what matters. He didnt
need to be involved in all this Kara. Unlike you and me,
this isnt about him. Hes already sacrificed so much trying
to fix my mistake, I couldnt expect him to do any more.
Yet even after everything thats happened hes decided to
stay, and that counts for more than youre willing to admit.
Kara kept quiet after that, not quite knowing how to
reply to the statement, and Kail did not pursue the matter.
They both sat in silence for a time after that, staring off into
the distance and reflecting on what was past. It was a few
moments longer before Kara decided to speak, sitting down
beside her cousin with her legs curled up to her chest, her
chin resting lightly on her knees as she thought.
Remember back in Savory, she said softly. When I was
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still just discovering the magic and I wanted you to show me
how to use it to manipulate the elements.
He nodded, smiling faintly. Your attention kept
wandering and I couldnt get you to concentrate. You
ended up redirecting river water into the basement of the
house and flooding the entire bottom floor, and then we
both tried to clean it up before your parents got back.
She smiled in return, remembering the incident in
perfect detail as if only a few months had passed rather than
years. We thought we had taken care of everything and
then father opened the closet door and the part we had
missed poured down on top of him. She bit her lip. I was
grounded for months after that. She laughed, and then
there was the time I convinced you I couldnt learn the trick
with moving things until I was shown, so to demonstrate you
ended up levitating things in the town tavern and people
became convinced it was haunted.
Kail shook his head. Now that was an interesting one.
Your parents were the only ones not fooled by the whole
notion of a specter in the village. They didnt like me all
that much after that.
They didnt dislike you that much. She retorted, but
Kail just raised an eyebrow.
Who do you think gave me the money to journey to
Souran once I decided to become a mage? They were all
too happy to see me gone. At the time they believed if I
wasnt there you would stop using magic.
Karas gaze dropped as she considered the matter. He
was probably right she conceded. Her parents never had
approved of her exploration of magic and Kail had been the
person they blamed for her use of the art. She continued to
think for a time about her childhood in Savory, wondering
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suddenly what her parents were doing. They were probably
asleep by now, preparing for another day of hard work as
they readied themselves for the coming winter. She drifted
off to sleep, memories of times long since passed drifting
through her mind in a comforting collage that, for a time at
least, could block away the horrors of the present in which
she was trapped.
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Chapter XII
The Catacombs
Kara pulled her cloak tightly about her, shivering
in the cool autumn air. They had been traveling since
daybreak, but Kail's injuries had slowed them down
considerably and it had taken them all day to reach the
border of the Dead Forest. The entrance to Taylonose lay
somewhere at the base of the cliffs where the forest met the
mountains. Supposedly the crypts began on the outskirts of
the woods a fair distance from any recognizable road that
might lead them forward. As a result they had been forced
to travel farther east before proceeding. It was late in the
evening when they reached their destination, the sun low in
the sky though not yet below the horizon. Kara glanced at
the dead stretch of trees that lay before them, not liking the
feel of this place.
Gray turned towards them, his face stern. The
entrance is about a mile in. If we go now, we should reach it
before nightfall. he turned to look at Kail. Do you think
you can last the night? Once we go in, we cannot stop until
we've reached the end.
Kail nodded his head, his face pale. I'll be fine.
Don't worry about me.
Kara couldn't help but question that assessment. By
the looks of it, he wasn't half as well as he claimed to be.
Maybe we should wait till dawn before leaving. None of us
are in any condition to miss yet another night of sleep,
especially not you. she added, glancing reprovingly at her
cousin.
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Kail shook his head. The Cursed Ones found us
once before, it wouldn't be too hard for them to track us
here. If we enter Taylonose, they won't be able to follow us.
As powerful as the Cursed are, none can cross here who do
not possess the key. Its our best chance.
Gray nodded. Kail's right. The sooner we start the
sooner we'll finish. But be wary; even with the key to guide
us, the spirits of the Darkened still linger in this place. It
would be best not to do anything to rouse them.
Gray led them forward, following the base of the
cliffs as they entered the wood. Silence surrounded them,
and it seemed as if nothing dwelt in this forsaken place.
Kara shivered; she was beginning to see why they called it
the Dead Forest. The sky disappeared as the canopy
overhead thickened, the entire forest locked in eternal
twilight. They walked beneath the skeletal limbs, leading
their horses by hand through the thick foliage. The leaves of
the plants were a sickly black, reeking of rot and decay. It
was all she could do to stop from fleeing this awful place.
Kara continued forward through the wood,
stopping suddenly to stare at a strange flower, its petals a
vibrant purple lined in crimson. It stood out strangely
against its bleak surroundings, the one splash of life in a
world of death. She reached out to touch it, unbearably
curious with the need to know more about this strange
plant. Gray grabbed her hand, stopping her before she
could touch it. One drop of venom from that plant and
you will end up dead on the forest floor in under a minute.
Kara jumped back, watching in horrid fascination as the
flower opened up, its interior lined with wicked fangs
coated in a sickly green substance. Gray raised an eyebrow
at her, his gray eyes faintly amused as he watched her
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reaction. The only creatures living in this forest are those
that survive by leaching away the life of other beings. No
man could last even two days in this place because of it.
Keep that in mind next time you feel compelled to touch
something. He walked away as quickly as he had come,
and Kara could imagine how satisfied he must be with
himself right now as he corrected her naivety, though there
was no hint of smugness in his expression . Kara glared after
him, murmuring angrily under her breath before moving
away from the deadly plant.
A few moments later, Gray called for a halt and the
three figures wearily dismounted. Their horses were
growing restless, walking forward with anxious steps. Gray
stared disapprovingly at the animals, seeing their unease and
making his decision. We have to leave them. We wouldn't
be able to take them through the ruin anyway and we're not
getting anywhere when it takes a minute of coaxing to get
them to take one step. Kara stared sadly at her broad-
chested stallion. It had belonged to her father and she was
reluctant to let it go. Still, Gray had been right in saying that
the horses would not enter the ruin. She unsaddled it,
removing the reins and watching silently as it bolted through
the woods back the way they had come.
They slung the packs over their shoulders, moving
forward through the wood with cautious steps. It was fully
dark by the time they reached the doorway. The high
arched entrance was carved entirely out of black marble, its
surface inscribed with strange symbols, runes identical to
the ones that had marked the gateway in Vernose. Kara
stared at the entrance, wisps of mist curling around its edges
in a way that made her skin crawl. In the center of the
doorway lay a faint indentation, overgrown with vines and
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concealed from sight. Gray walked toward the archway, the
key held before him. He brushed away the vines that lay
across the polished surface, fitting the key into the ring that
lay at its center. The runes flared up, lighting the landscape
with a pale white glow. The three waited in silence as the
panel slid back into the rock face with a hollow grinding
noise, revealing the path into Taylonose.
Kara took a sharp intake of breath; the very essence
of this place reeked of darkness. She moved slowly forward,
following the cloaked figure of Gray with Kail bringing up
the rear. The interior of the passage was lined with row
upon row of coffins, carved of stone and set neatly into the
walls that lined the corridor. Kara closed her eyes as she
heard the door grind shut behind them, sealing off their
escape and trapping them within the tomb.
Gray's face tightened as he watched the door slide
shut. There's no going back now. he sighed. A ball of light
flared up around his fingers and he started down the
passage. Whispers drifted through the air, soft murmurs of
discontent that echoed inside her head in a way that was all
too familiar, reminding her once again of the night they had
entered Vernose. She closed her eyes, doing her best to
ignore the sound.
Why do you come? Kara clenched her hands, her
nails digging into the palm of her hand. The voices
intensified, scraping through her mind like bits of broken
glass. Why do you disturb our rest? She bit back a scream
as a figure appeared before her, its form composed of
swirling bits of mist. It fixed its eyes on her, a dark blade
clasped loosely in its hand. Mortals hold no place here,
Kara, child of fate.
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Kail stood beside her, his arm placed reassuringly
on her shoulder. He winced as the figure fixed its eyes on
him, speaking inside his head as it had to her only moments
before. It cannot harm us. he assured her, glancing warily
at the shade. He led her forward, passing directly through
the phantom and watching slowly as it faded away.
She continued to move forward, raising her hands
to cover her ears in a futile attempt to block out the
murmured cries that seemed to surround her. They
continued down the passage, entering a wide antechamber,
its walls lined with statues of those who had died. Dozens of
doors filled the room each one inscribed with a single rune
that pulsed slowly in the presence of the key. Gray stood
before them, closely inspecting each door before reaching
down to examine the key.
Kara started towards the statue of a young man, his
face the same as the one of the ghost they had encountered
in the hall. She looked down at the inscription upon the
plaque, the runes changing before her eyes to spell out a
message. The Cursed Ones Hunt. She closed her eyes,
turning away from the letters on the stone. The voice
sounded again inside her head, its tone deep and
foreboding.
To kill the Cursed, restore the balance; that is your
charge. You should not have come into our domain. The
cost for this shall be great. The same fate awaits you as it did
your parents. See now the ruin of your people, gone now to
join ours in rest.
She opened her eyes, crying out as she saw the
charred remains of Savory, the bloody carcasses that lined
the streets all that remained of its citizens. A black cloaked
figure appeared in the center of the vision, its coal black
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eyes smoldering as it reached out to touch her. She
screamed once more, backing away from the nightmarish
figure. The stone walls of the room returned, the image
dissolving as quickly as it had come. Kail appeared before
her, his face lined with concern as he examined her
horrified expression. Gray turned toward her, his eyes
scanning the empty chamber. What is it? Kail said softly.
The Darkened... the voices. she gasped.
Everyone's dead, all those people... she was panicking
now, unable to stop the endless stream of words.
Kails voice was steady, his words soft and
reassuring as her blue eyes rose to meet his own. It wasn't
real. It was just an illusion. No ones dead. Kara took a
deep breath, calming herself as best she could, but still
unable to dispel the panicked terror that had overcome her.
Gray shook his head. They know we're here.
They're watching us.
Kail met his gaze. If that's true, why is it only
Kara.
Gray frowned, his face stern. Because she's the
easiest to reach. Eventually, we'll all be driven mad He
stared down at the key. We need to get out of here. Follow
me. Stay close by until we leave and don't believe anything
you see or hear. They moved forward through a door on
the far side of the room, the key guiding them through the
maze of corridors that lay at every turn. Kara walked
determinedly forward, shutting out the thousands of voices
that slid sibilantly through her mind.
* * * * *
Gray led them steadily forward, the key held before
him, its runes guiding him through the labyrinth of
catacombs. Figures appeared before him, their cold hands
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brushing against him as they whispered of things that made
him shudder with dread. A woman materialized in the
center of his path, her eyes black as night. You trespass on
our grounds. She hissed, her voice overlapped with the
wails of thousands of dead souls. We were the most
powerful of any race, and still we met our doom. Soon you
shall join us in our eternal damnation, Gray Ravenwing.
The shade smiled as she spoke, his name a hoarse whisper
in the recesses of his mind. The man to whom all that
matters is the death of those that hunt you.
Gray walked straight through the phantom, ignoring
the mocking voice of the ghost and continuing down the
hall. Another appeared before him a few seconds later, its
hands reaching out to him as it whispered of the fate that
awaited him at the hands of the Cursed. He blocked his
ears to the wails, knowing that to listen to their taunts was to
give in to madness. He strode directly through the mass of
spirits, not liking the way their eyes followed him. Barely
concealed anticipation lay in their gaze, as if they were
waiting for something to happen. He jerked his eyes away
from the ring of ethereal onlookers and found himself
staring at an armored knight that had appeared in the
middle of the hall before him. He hesitated momentarily as
he examined the malevolent spirit, the silent presence of
Kara and Kail who lingered in the passage behind him
finally prodding him to continue on. He turned a corner,
steadily approaching the exit to the ruin. It wasn't until he
was nearly out of sight of the spirit that the attack began.
* * * * *
Kail screamed, dropping to his knees as a terrible
screeching entered his head, nearly causing him to black
out. Ahead of him Gray had collapsed, the key falling to the
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floor in front of him. Images of death and torture flashed
through Kails mind, the screaming voices of the Darkened
ripping through his consciousness with savage intent. Kara
dropped to her knees beside him, her hands clamped
tightly over her ears. Kail lurched to his feet and staggered
against the wall of the passage, looking forward at the
strange spirit that stood over them and knowing intuitively
that it was the cause of this attack. Gray's eyes rose to meet
his own as he glanced forward at the phantom that loomed
over them, its face hidden behind a worn suit of armor.
Gray nodded his head, knowing what Kail was about to do.
Kail summoned forth his magic, calling to mind an ancient
incantation that had lain deep within the vaults of his mind,
suppressed but never forgotten. An eerie black light spread
out from his hands, enveloping the spirit in a sheet of dark
fire. The specter shrieked, crying out as the magic ensnared
it. Kail stayed silent, watching through a haze of pain as it
dissolved into mist.
He slumped against the far wall, trying to subdue
the suffocating horror that was left from the spirit's assault.
He felt sick to his stomach, the dark magic he had cast
taking its toll upon him. Kara lay curled on the floor her
small form shaking as she recovered from the attack. Gray
rose slowly to his feet, his face an unnatural shade of white.
Kail limped over to Kara, helping her to her feet. She stared
at him, her eyes wide and frightened. What happened?
she said quietly.
He glanced over at Gray, both knowing the origins
of the spell he had used. Don't worry, it won't happen
again. he replied, his voice weary.
They continued onward through the deserted halls,
the voices that had plagued them having finally fallen silent.
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Kail thought again of the effect his spell had on the spirit. It
was the first time he had used such magic in the two years
since he had discarded The Book of Night, a tool that had
at first seemed so harmless, but later revealed its true deadly
nature.
Gray fell into step alongside him, his face serious.
Are you alright? he asked gruffly, seeing Kail's discomfort
and guessing its origins.
Kail shook his head. I shouldn't have used it. Not
again, not now, not after... he trailed off, staring blankly at
the hall in front of him.
Gray stared down at his feet, lost in thought. Kail
looked away, remembering the passage in the Book of
Night. The Hand of Reaping it had been titled, a spell used
by the Volrye to bind and destroy souls. Even before
forswearing the use of dark magic, he had been appalled by
this particular spell, for it targeted the very essence of a
being, sending its soul to oblivion and giving the wielder the
power to summon it forth and turn it on his enemies. It was
a spell of demonic origin, one that should never be used. It
was magic like this that had made the Volrye such an
unstoppable horror. Magic that granted the user possession
over your very soul. Spells such as this one were dangerous.
They corrupted the user and carried with them the constant
risk of possession by the spirit they controlled. Kail had not
destroyed the specter completely; he had simply
imprisoned it in a form of stasis. Though he had been sure
it would remain consigned to the halls of Taylonose, never
to be used for his own personal agenda, it was still a danger.
Gray examined his face, seeing his dilemma. When
he spoke again there was a strange hint of gentleness that
Kail had not heard in a long time. What happened in the
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past has no effect on what happened here. Dark magic in
itself is evil, there is no question about that, but you did not
use it out of lust for power or hate. You used it in self-
defense, and we wouldn't be alive now if you hadn't. Kail
stared at him in surprise. Gray walked away without saying
anything further, taking the lead once more with the key
held tightly in his hand. Kail followed slowly after, thinking
suddenly that maybe things between them were not as
different as he had thought.
* * * * *
Kara trailed along behind the two men, still shaken
by the recent attack. She remembered the pain, ripping
through her mind in a sudden burst of sound and leaving
her defenseless. The strange thing was, she still didn't know
what had transpired. What happened to stop the onslaught,
and why was Kail so sure no similar attacks would occur?
Whatever it was, she had a feeling it had to do with Kail.
She remembered the wave of blackness that had come from
his outstretched hand, the sudden cry of pain that had burst
from the spirit as it was enveloped by the light. Whatever
Kail had done, it had saved them, though it had clearly
taken a lot out of him as well. He trudged slowly ahead of
her, his face an unnatural pallor and his head bowed in
thought. The only positive thing about the encounter was
that the endless barrage of voices had finally ceased. She
glanced around at the cold stone walls of the crypt. The
sooner they were out of here the better.
After hours spent wandering the bleak depths of
Taylonose, Kara nearly wept with relief as she caught sight
of the marble door leading back outside. She rushed
forward only to come up short as a final spirit appeared
before her, his young face stern. Be warned Kara, child of
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promise, that many dangers await you. Trust no one, for
your faith shall be the cause of your fall. Kara stared white
faced at the strange apparition, her eyes never leaving his
face as it slowly dissolved into mist.
Kail glanced questioningly at her, his face tired.
What did it say? He asked.
She shook her head, still staring at the space where
the phantom had stood. It was a warning. she replied, still
trying to figure out whether or not there was any truth to the
spirit's words.
Kail frowned. Why would it do that? he said
softly, the question addressed more to himself than to her.
Ahead of them the door slid slowly open, the sky a
pale gray through the tangle of growth that shrouded the
resting place of the Darkened. Gray looked back over his
shoulder, clearly reluctant to stay any longer in the deadly
labyrinth that was Taylonose. Unless you two prefer to stay
down here forever, I suggest you hurry up and leave before
the door closes. he stated, turning and walking away. Kara
exchanged a quick look with her cousin before running
after him into the open air of the world above
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Chapter XIII
Silver
Kara sighed with relief as they emerged from the
gloomy murk of the Dead Forest into the rocky plains that
lay on the outskirts of Zalem. The sky was free of clouds,
the sunrise a vibrant splash of color against the gray slated
terrain. It had taken them little over an hour to escape the
dreary confines of the forest, which had looked
considerably less depressing after the bleak and horrifying
catacombs of the Darkened mausoleum. According to
Gray, it was about a full day's travel to the city on foot and
they had all agreed to forestall sleep until they had arrived
safely inside the city walls.
Kail had taken the lead, despite the wounds he had
suffered, he was the one least effected by the terrors of
Taylonose. Gray had gone into a sudden state of brooding
silence upon emerging from the ruin, though by the looks
of it, it had more to do with their proximity to Zalem than
with anything else. Either way, it was clear he was not a good
choice to lead. Kara was still deeply troubled by the vision
the spirits had shown her, Savory burning to the ground,
not a single survivor. She shuddered at the memory,
thinking once again of the final shade who had confronted
her at the exit. Truth among lies. It was impossible to know
what had been truth and what hadn't, and despite her best
efforts, she could not ignore the possibility that every horror
she had seen down there had already come to pass.
Kail dropped back to ride beside her, Gray trailing, his
mood still black. Kara addressed her cousin, her face
serious. Why is he like this all of a sudden? she
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questioned, disturbed by Gray's mood, which though not as
bleak as it had been after they had left Vernose, had about
it a sort of pensive anxiety that she had not seen in him
before.
Kail shook his head. I can't be sure. This isn't his first
trip to Zalem. he paused, his head bowed in thought. If I
had to guess, I would probably say it has something to do
with the prohibition, and knowing Gray, his worries
probably come from already having broken it.
Kara stared at him in confusion. What prohibition?
He turned to look at her. Any use of magic is
forbidden within the territory of his majesty Rayos IV, king
of Zalem. The employment of the arcane arts is an offense
punishable by life imprisonment and in some severe cases,
death.
Kara stared at him in surprise. What? she
exclaimed, but why? Not all magic is evil.
Kail shook his head. After the war between the
Darkened and the Volrye, the empire of Zalem fell into
chaos, it was all the king could do to keep it from falling
apart. Since then magic, even the mildest kind, has been
outlawed.
Kara exhaled. If you ask me, his reaction seems a
little extreme.
Kail laughed. If you had ever met the king of Zalem,
you would not think so.
The sun moved slowly across the sky as the day
progressed. Kara walked forward, her earlier exuberance
long gone. She sighed, regretting deeply the loss of her
horse as she trudged onward across the flats. As time
marched on she began to seriously doubt the wisdom of
their previous decision to reach Zalem before resting. She
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was already days behind on sleep and it wasn't easy to miss
yet another period of much needed rest, not to mention
that it was hard to think clearly when fighting to keep your
eyes open every step.
Something stirred in the distance, sending up clouds of
dust. It seemed to be a patrol of some sort. Kail called for a
halt, carefully examining the approaching company and
contemplating a course of action. Gray stared stonily at the
approaching group. Imperial soldiers. he sighed.
Whatever they want, it can't be good.
I'm not entirely sure its us they want. Kail replied.
Kara glanced forward, spotting suddenly a lithe figure
astride a large stallion. At first she had believed the stranger
to be one of the Imperial patrol, but upon closer inspection
she came to see that the stranger was too far ahead to be a
member of the company. The armor was also different, and
by the look of things, whoever the person was the soldiers
were intent on catching them. The figure being chased was
only seconds away from the three of them when the arrow
hit. It pierced the armor just over the joint between arm and
shoulder, sliding between the plating and knocking the
stranger from their horse. Kara stepped off the road,
removing herself from the path of the charging horse as it
thundered past. Gray moved forward to inspect the injured
rogue who lay only a few yards away from them, leaning
over to inspect the injury. The helmet had come loose as
the figure fell, revealing the face of a young woman of
around twenty years, her hair colored a fiery red and tied
back in a long braid.
The Imperial company reached them a few seconds
later, reigning in their horses and regarding them with
disdainful expressions. This is an Imperial matter. Leave
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immediately or face the consequences. Gray glared at
them, opening his mouth to speak. Kails hand closed
around his companions arm, cautioning him against doing
anything rash. The soldier who had first spoken moved
over to the woman, leaning over her as he examined her
wounds. The kick came out lightning fast, the steel toe of
her boot striking the man square in the jaw and sending him
sprawling to the ground. By the time the others of the
company reacted, the woman was already up and moving, a
spiked whip cradled loosely in her hand. The first soldier to
approach her was struck under the helmet, the curved
spikes hooking under the edge of his visor as she jerked her
arm roughly backward, twisting his head sideways with a
horrible crunch in an intricate maneuver that broke his
neck. She twisted around to evade the next attacker, long
knife flashing briefly in the sunlight as it stabbed through
the joints in the closest soldiers armor, her bade sliding
right into the side of his stomach. Kara stumbled as Gray
pushed her roughly out of the way. She watched with a mix
of fear and fascination as the woman fought off the soldiers,
each falling one by one to the ground.
Gray sighed, pulling free his sword. Enough of this.
He came up behind the woman, deflecting her strike and
moving in on her. The womans eyes shifted to meet his,
her eyes widening in a faint expression of surprise. She had
no time to react as Gray raised the hilt of his sword and
slammed it into the side of her head, knocking her
unconscious in one quick stroke.
The guard captain rose slowly to his feet, a deep
purple bruise lining the base of his jaw. Kara watched
silently as the soldier approached. She could not help but
dislike the guarded look that had entered his eyes as he had
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watched Gray fight. He studied him carefully, taking in
every detail before speaking. Your assistance was much
appreciated in this matter. he said coldly, his icy blue eyes
never leaving Gray's face. You have my thanks mister...
Sirden. he replied. Gray Sirden. Kara stared at
him, wondering why he would lie about his name. She
opened her mouth to speak and shut it just as quickly after
one quick look from Kail.
Ah, I see. Anyway, this criminal shall be immediately
transported to the Imperial prison in Zalem, where she will
be tried and executed for her crimes. He examined the
small group, taking in their limited supplies and exhausted
appearance. Youre welcome to come with us. We
certainly wouldn't mind the extra company, would we
men? The group replied in unison, all agreeing that it was
no trouble. Kara glared suspiciously at the captain. She did
not like the sudden change he had undergone. One
moment he had regarded them as nothing more than
insects, and now here he was telling them he would be
happy to escort them into the city. Gray remained silent,
examining the officer. The soldier met his gaze, speaking in
clipped tones. Unfortunately, we do have a schedule to
maintain, so please decide quickly.
Kail met Gray's gaze, both agreeing that it would be
unwise to accept. Thank you for the offer, but I'm afraid
we must decline. Kail stated placidly, his plain features
showing nothing of his thoughts.
How unfortunate. the captain stated. Kara continued
to keep her eye on him. There was something sinister
lurking in his tone that made her wary. Thank you anyway
mister... what did you say your name was again?
Sirden. Gray stated calmly.
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Really? the man exclaimed. because the last time I
saw you, I seem to recall it being Ravenwing. The guards
moved forward, taking hold of Gray by the shoulders and
pinning his hands behind his back. His majesty will be
pleased to hear of your arrival, especially since the last time
you were here you were placed under arrest for the
forbidden practice of sorcery! He turned his gaze on Kara,
his face hard. Resist and you will both be placed under
restraint same as your friend. His majesty has no interest in
you two. However, until this matter is cleared up you
cannot be allowed to leave. Kara walked forward
compliantly, already feeling the prison cell door closing
behind her.
* * * * *
Kara sat in moody silence, obediently following the
soldiers as they led the small company toward Zalem. She
rode in the remnants of an old wagon the soldiers had
commandeered from a group of travelers unlucky enough
to cross their path. Kail and Gray rode in a similar cart
behind them with the escort of soldiers, Gray's hands
bound tightly together to ensure he didnt try anything
unnatural or tricky, as the captain had put it, to secure his
escape.
Zalem was still a ways away, its high stone walls
intimidatingly tall, even from a distance. It was by far the
largest city Kara had ever seen, a hulking behemoth
standing braced against the mountainside. They drew slowly
nearer, the wagon jostling along the rough dirt road.
Beside her sat the woman responsible for their
current predicament, only just now recovering from the
blow Gray had dealt her. She glanced over at Kara, an
obvious look of distaste filling her expression. You don't
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look like the type to be arrested by the Imperial guard. she
stated bluntly. Of course your friend over there... well I
can't say the same about him. Damn fiend. If he hadn't
come at me from behind, I might have actually gotten away.
Can't say I blame him though, not after the way things
turned out... she glared at Kara, her dark green eyes filled
with hostility. Kara avoided her gaze, glad for the shackles
that held the woman chained to the floor of the wagon. I'm
talking to you girl. she stated rudely. Kara ignored her,
continuing to stare toward the city. The woman looked
away, tossing back her long braid and gazing steadily
forward. Remain silent if you please, it doesnt make much
of a difference anyway. Soon we'll be at the palace. she
taunted, her eyes bleak. You don't want to know what waits
for you in the dank dungeons of the king.
Kara's eyes narrowed, her hands balling into fists.
Your stories don't scare me. If I were you, I'd be more
worried about my impending execution than making lame
attempts to frighten people. she snapped.
The woman laughed, her face breaking into a smile
and her eyes softening. So the girl has a voice after all. I
can't argue with that last point, but I see no purpose in
spending all my time dwelling on that rather unpleasant
fate. She sighed, the smile falling from her face. The
dungeons though, are not a pleasant place. I've certainly
been there enough times to know that. I wasn't lying when I
said you don't want to know what waits for you down there,
she glanced over at Kara, re-evaluating her earlier
assumption. but by the looks of it, this wouldn't be your
first time in an unpleasant situation though, would it? she
stated, looking pointedly at the faint bruises that ringed
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Kara's neck, still not completely healed from their
misguided trip into the Darkened ruin of Vernose.
Kara avoided her gaze. It's none of your business.
she said firmly. I already know this won't be your first trip
to the prison, but I dont intend on being locked up for no
crime other than being in the wrong place at the wrong
time. she paused, considering the circumstances under
which they had found her. Who are you anyway, and what
did you do that made you the target of an entire squadron
of soldiers?
The woman remained silent, her deep green eyes
drilling into her like probes. My name is Xerra Silver. I am
here because I see things in a way our narrow minded king
neither understands nor appreciates. I have done things I'm
not proud of, but they are nowhere near as vile as the
atrocities he has committed in the name of what he calls
justice. She turned away, her face hard.
Kara continued her contemplation of the stranger
as the wagon continued its rough bouncing travel over the
plains, carefully evaluating the words of this strange woman.
She remembered the fire that had lit womans eyes as she
had cut down the soldiers that sought to imprison her. The
somber way her face had tightened as Kara had asked her
why she was here. There was a lot about the strange red-
head that she could not understand. Being a wanted
criminal, she was obviously not without guilt. Kara had seen
for herself the merciless way she had slaughtered those
soldiers. Yet at the same time there was something about
her that Kara instinctively liked, despite her earlier hostility,
she did not believe that Xerra was as bad a person as she
might have seemed.
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The city gates loomed above her. Opening wide as
their company approached. They abandoned the wagons,
moving forward on foot toward the palatial fortress that lay
at the center of the city. Gray drew up beside her, the
guards eyes watching them closely as they spoke. The king
will not forgive my crimes, and if he should discover your
possession of magic, you will be imprisoned along with me.
Make no mention of it, and do not try to defend me, it will
only get you in more trouble.
She stared at him in shock, struggling to keep her
voice low as she spoke. We can't just leave you! she
exclaimed. We need you to come with us. Besides, it just
wouldn't be right. You don't just abandon... she trailed off,
remembering his willingness to leave them. Why should it
be any different with him? She hesitated.
Gray nodded, reading accurately the expression on
her face. You can't doubt your own reasoning Kara. I
know I haven't been the most reliable ally. Take my advice
and leave. Leave before its too late. he walked away,
departing as abruptly as he had come. She considered his
words, unable to ignore the logic of his plea.
Xerra watched Gray leave, her brow creased with
thought. I don't know about you, but it doesn't seem right
to abandon people to their fate, no matter what they've
done to warrant it. She stared intently at Kara, her green
eyes piercing. When you spend your life only looking out
for yourself, soon you have nothing left worth protecting.
Kara stared at her, seeing in her eyes a brief
glimpse into the terrible past that had led her to this fate.
Like you. she whispered.
The woman looked away, her eyes filled with
sorrow. Like me. she replied.
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The people in the streets turned to look at them,
murmuring under their breath as they saw the thick
manacles that circled both Gray and Xerra's wrists. They
strode through the market, the guards clearing the way
through the crowd of people, all anxious to see these
strange criminals who had entered their city. As they
progressed through the capital Kara noticed the strange way
the people watched Xerra, shaking their heads and making
odd comments like. Such a tragedy. His own daughter
too... Kara glanced over at her cousin, unable to hide the
fear in her eyes as they approached the palace. Kail held
her gaze for a moment before turning away, his eyes sad.
Gray stared blankly ahead, lost deep in thought. The only
one among them who remained strong in the face of her
fate was Xerra. She marched forward, her head held high,
meeting the stares of the people around her as they watched
her go by.
One man pushed to the front of the crowd, a long
scar running the length of his cheek and disappearing into
the pale brown beard that covered his chin. Traitor! he
screamed. You should be ashamed of yourself. I would kill
you myself if granted the chance! he glared at her, his face
red with anger.
Be silent Warren, Xerra hissed, her voice filled
with arrogance. or do you wish to gain another scar like the
last time you challenged me?
The man charged forward, his face twisted with
fury. The guards moved forward to restrain him, struggling
to hold him back from the prisoners. Kara watched in
wordless shock, taken aback by the man's ferocity. She
found herself wondering once again as to the truth about
this strange woman. What could she have done to deserve
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such hatred, yet at the same time have half the crowd staring
at her with sadness in their eyes as if watching on of their
own children walk to the gallows?
They entered the palace, the iron gate swinging
open to reveal an extensive stretch of gardens that filled the
courtyard of the building. A small child ran toward the
company as they approached, a little girl of no more than
eight. She tore away from her caretaker and ran to greet
them, her small face stained with tears. Xerra bent down to
embrace her, cooing softly that it would be alright. They
looked remarkably alike, both with the same deep red hair
and piercing green eyes that could reach right through you
and see into your soul.
The guards moved forward, but Xerra ignored
them. I have to go now Tya, she said softly. go back to
the nurse. The little girl obeyed, moving away from them
and rejoining the old woman she had been with before. The
elder woman led her slowly away, glaring back at Xerra as
she left. Kara watched the entire incident with surprise,
wondering suddenly who the little girl was and why she was
in the castle courtyard.
They made their way through the palace doors,
moving through the empty hallways and toward the throne
room that lay in the center of the building. They came to a
halt at the foot of a high stone dais, the regal looking man
seated atop the gold gilded throne stationed atop the
platform staring down at the prisoners with an expression of
disdain.
The guards prodded them in the back. Bow
before your king, his majesty Rayos IV of Zalem. Kara and
her cousin sunk obediently to their knees, Gray reluctantly
following after a sharp jab from the rear end of a spear
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wielded by the soldier behind him. Xerra remained
standing, her face cold as she glared accusingly at the king.
The guard at her shoulder growled at her, raising his staff in
order to force her compliance, but the king held up his
hand in a slight gesture that stopped the soldier from
following through with the blow.
The regent walked slowly over to meet them, his
expression cold and hard. His deep green eyes glinted with
anger from beneath lowered eyebrows, his golden hair
falling in long waves around his shoulders. Faint wrinkles
marred his face, but he was still a very imposing figure, well
over six feet tall with eyes that cut to the bone. He stood
before them silently stroking his beard, his eyes on Xerra
who stood with her chin raised and her eyes fierce. Even in
my own house still you will not submit. There was a time
Xerra, when you did all that I asked without question.
She spit at his feet, her eyes hard. There was a
time, when I believed you had what it took to rule our
kingdom. A time when I was unaware of the pacts you
made with darkness, and the atrocities you committed. That
time is long gone, and I will no longer listen to your lies.
She stood proudly before him, never flinching as she met
his gaze.
He turned his back to her, his anger evident. You
cannot escape punishment. he stated, his deep voice
echoing throughout the hall. You will receive no mercy
from me child. You will be executed for your crimes. I can
no longer tolerate such disobedience, not even from my
own daughter. Kara's eyes widened, taken aback by this
unexpected new revelation. Now that she thought about it, it
made a certain amount of sense. The way the town's people
had recognized Xerra, the little girl in the courtyard; it all
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hinted to this most recent revelation. The girl was her sister,
Kara thought sadly, troubled by the realization.
The king turned to face the captain who had led
them in, his face hard. Take her to the dungeons. She will
be executed at dawn. Xerra turned upon hearing the
pronouncement and walked purposefully away, shoving
away the hands of the guards that sought to guide her. The
king turned to look at the remaining three prisoners, his
eyes narrowing as he caught sight of Gray. It seems we will
have two sets of nooses for the hang man's post master
Ravenwing. he said darkly. I'm surprised you had the
nerve to come back here, especially after you razed my
castle and murdered my men! Magic wielders such as
yourself are nothing but trouble. You will die along with the
other traitor at dawn tomorrow. he turned away, returning
to his seat atop the dais. Let the others go. They are of no
consequence to me. The captain nodded, bowing deeply,
his hand over his heart. Gray rose to his feet, a faint
expression of relief crossing his face as he learned that Kara
and Kail would not share in his fate.
Kara leapt forward upon hearing the
announcement, unable to contain herself any longer.
Wait! she cried, wrenching her arm free of the grip of the
soldier who had come to lead her out. You can't do that!
The king glared down at her, his eyes smoldering.
Excuse me?
She marched forward, thinking that this was
probably the stupidest thing she had ever done. She stared
up at the king, looking small and pathetic beside him. If
you kill him, you'll have to kill me too, because Im not
leaving here without him!
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Gray stared at her in shock, barely perceivable
apprehension entering his eyes. The kings frown
deepened, appearing considerably less than amused. I will
not release this criminal. Now, I suggest you leave before
you are forcibly removed. The soldiers stepped forward,
swords in hand.
Kara dug deep down inside herself, focusing her
thoughts. She summoned forth her magic, the tips of her
fingers lighting with sparks of fire. The king backed away,
his strong features becoming panicked. Arrest her! he
screamed. The soldier closest to her charged forward to
attack and Kail leapt to her defense, summoning forth a
gust of wind that hurled the man clear across the room.
Gray took advantage of the guards distraction and broke
free of his captors, his hands flaring with light as he melted
the shackles that encircled his wrists and lashed out at the
man holding him.
Kara let loose her magic, flames springing out of
the air and engulfing the guards. The king was thrown back
against the far wall of the chamber, the magic ensnaring him
in a wave of energy. Kara felt a strange pull deep inside her
as the magic intensified. The guards were ripped apart, the
magic cutting through their steel armor as easily as if it were
paper. The tapestries that lined the walls caught fire, the
magic spraying out in every direction. Kara gasped, she was
losing control. Gray was thrown back against the wall by a
sudden burst of energy in the air a few feet in front of him,
the breath knocked out of him. Kail struggled to reach her
as the magic continued its rampage, weaving his arms before
him and forming a shield to guard himself against the
unintentional attack. The guards tried to flee, running
frantically from the chaos that surrounded them. They were
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engulfed by the energy, destroyed in seconds by the
malevolent force that raged around them. Kail darted
forward, his shield shattered by the torrents of magic. He
grabbed Kara by the hand, speaking softly to her and
restoring her to reality. She gasped for air, the magic dying
down and returning to the place from whence it came. Kara
sagged against her cousin, unable to breath, her vision going
hazy. It was so strong! She did not know how it had done
what it did. An unstoppable force with a mind of its own, it
did what it wanted and the longer she used it, the more
unpredictable it became. She lay there with her eyes closed,
trying to quell the violent trembling that overcame her.
The remaining guards crept cautiously forward, the
former two dozen reduced now to five disgruntled men,
their hands shaking in terror. They moved forward to help
their king. He rose to his feet, shaking with rage. He yelled
at his guards to arrest them. Kail was jerked roughly away
from her, his hands chained behind his back. Gray was
dragged to his feet, a long stream of blood running down
the side of his face from his impact with the wall.
Kara stood unresisting as the guards shackled her,
all her energy spent. King Rayos moved to confront her, his
face twisted with hate. Be grateful that I grant you a
merciful death. You have your wish; you will die at dawn
along with the rest of these dangerous felons! Take her
away!
The guards dragged her from the room, heading
down through the palace to the dank depths that were the
dungeons. They tossed her limp form onto the cell floor,
locking the door behind her. Kara stared blearily at the
stone ceiling. What have I done?
* * * * *
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Gray sat solemnly in the confines of his cell, silently
brooding about the unexpected turn of events. He slammed
his fist against the wall, swearing angrily as he reflected on
all that had gone wrong in the throne room. Stupid Girl!
They were going to let you go. Why can't you just do what
youre told? He put his head in his hands. Now they were
all stuck here in these rancid cells, waiting helplessly for
death to take them. Once again it was his fault they were
down here, but he could not change what he had done in
the past, nor did he particularly regret his actions, even
though they meant his death. His only regret was that he
wasn't the only one dying. Now no one remained to stop the
Cursed Ones, and the faint hope he had of avenging Lya's
death was gone with the slamming of the cell door.
Blood poured down from the gash in his forehead
in a steady stream. He wiped it away with his sleeve,
thinking on how he had received this particular injury. He
glanced over to the cell across from him where Kara lay,
her small form shaking with suppressed sobs. He was
shocked by what she had done with her magic. Never
before had he seen such power, not even from creatures
such as the Cursed who could kill a man without so much
as lifting a finger. Staring now at her tear streaked face, it
was hard to believe that someone so vulnerable could do
such a thing.
He stared down at the shackles that held him
bound. The black mercury lined edges prevented him from
casting even the smallest of spells. It was an exceedingly rare
element used by the Darkened to construct their fortresses,
impervious to any and all kinds of magic. The king wasn't
about to make the same mistake twice and give his
prisoners a bond they could escape as he had the last time
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he had locked gray down here and used ordinary metal.
Gray glanced around his cell, but to his dismay found
nothing that could be used to help him escape. The sun
sunk lower in the sky until it was level with the window of
his cell, lighting the inside of the cell with hues of violet and
gold. He remembered watching those sunsets the first time
he had come here, back before he had helped Xerra Silver
set fire to her father's castle and made himself an enemy of
the state. He watched the sun sink slowly below the
horizon. Tomorrow, he thought, would be his last time
watching the sunrise before he left to finally join the other
mages of Souran in the eternal darkness of the void.
* * * * *
Kail sat motionless on the hard stone floor of his
cell, his wrists rubbed raw from his failed attempts to loosen
the thick coils of rope that held him bound. It was a
pointless endeavor. The thin shavings of Black Mercury
that were woven into the rope nullified his magic and made
trying to loosen the bindings all the more painful. He had
known from the start that his struggles would be in vain, but
that did not stop him from trying. He could not just sit there
and await his execution. He could not do nothing and let
even more people die.
He hung his head in defeat. Even if he did manage
to escape, he did not know where they had taken Gray and
Kara and the endless maze of corridors that made up the
prisons made it nearly impossible for him to locate them
simply by wandering about blindly. He frowned angrily at
the glimmering strands of enchanted metal encircling his
wrists. There had to be some way out of here.
The faint sound of singing reached his ears,
carrying through the empty corridors in sweet melodious
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tones. He paused to listen, recognizing the song as an elegy.
He had heard this particular hym before when he was still a
child on the day of his father's funeral. He closed his eyes.
He had not thought about that day in a long time, but the
song seemed to bring all the memories of the moment
flooding back to mind.
He had been nine years old when his father had
passed, the contagion that had swept through the small
village just outside of Adra killing many of its citizens within
the first week. Hundreds throughout the region had died
from the epidemic. He recalled long it had taken for the
disease to finally run its course, the long months his father
had spent writhing in agony until finally Kail gave up
praying for a cure and began to wish that the plague would
simply drain away the last of his fathers life, for at least then
the suffering would end.
Kail shook his head, blocking away such thoughts
along with the rest of his unpleasant past. He did not like to
think about that time, for after that fateful day he had been
alone in the world. He had been sent to live with his aunt
and uncle in Savory, but they had never trusted him due to
his fascination with magic. He knew the legends of the dark
gift that resided in their family, but he had never given them
much credit, and so he ignored their warnings about the
dangers of magic and continued his exploration of the art
until finally his relatives anger with him overcame their pity
and they began to see him as a burden.
He sighed, remembering the day of the funeral.
The sky was clouded over as he stood amongst the
hundreds of graves that lined the field outside of Adra. The
priest had murmured the final rights over the bodies of the
deceased from afar, not daring to go to near the corpses lest
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he succumb to the disease that still lingered in their flesh,
but Kail had not been afraid. He had watched with dry eyes
as they had buried his father's body, recommitting him into
the earth along with the rest of the people from the village
who had already passed on. All his tears had been spent in
the long days he had sat by his bedside, waiting for the
inevitable. He stared at the motionless form of his father,
the mans weathered face strong and composed even in
death. Beside him a woman began to sing, her voice
quavering slightly as she stood over the body of her dead
husband.
Eternity's Depths, that was the title of the song that
now echoed through the corridors of the jailhouse. A
funeral ballad, sung as the lost souls of the dead passed on
from this life into the next.
Kail opened his mouth, his voice steady as he sung.
He did not once falter as he joined the soft voice in the cell
beside him, the words of the requiem having been
committed to memory long ago. The song ended, the final
notes echoing ominously through the cold stone depths of
the prison. The woman in the cell beside him began to
speak, the strength and arrogance gone from her voice as
she became resigned to her fate. You're the man who
came her with Gray Ravenwing, aren't you? she
questioned, a mournful note of melancholy underlying her
voice, similar to that of her song.
Yes. he replied. We came here in the hopes of
taking a ship from the port within the city, he paused; all of
their previous plans seemed so distant now. but things
didn't quite turn out the way we expected. he finished,
staring down at his feet.
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In the cell next to him Xerra brushed back her
dark red hair, thinking over his answer. What's your
name? she asked softly.
Kail glanced over at stone wall beside him,
recognizing the mood of the person imprisoned on the
other side, both of them waiting in dread for morning to
come. Kail. he replied, his deep blue eyes fixing on an
empty spot on the floor in front of him.
Xerra Silver, she replied, but I'm guessing you
already assumed as much.
He remained silent, reflecting upon what this
woman might have done to become such an outcast among
her own people. I figured it was you. he replied finally.
though a name doesnt really tell me who you are. Theres
much about you that still remains a mystery.
Xerra laughed bitterly, reading by his tone the
question in his mind. Youre wondering why someone
would turn against her own people. Like everyone else, you
view me as nothing more than a rebellious daughter
disobeying her father and betraying her country. she
continued on, her voice spiteful. And you're right. I have
betrayed my people. My father is a corrupt ruler. He lied
about the death of his own son so the people would
retaliate. The mages weren't hurting us in any way, they
didnt want to interfere... she trailed off, her voice quiet.
They weren't the ones who killed my brother, but I didn't
know that. The king claimed it was murder, that his son was
attacked and killed by these fiends. I believed him at first,
and so when he asked for a company of soldiers to hunt
down these men, I was eager to volunteer. she stared at the
wall in front of her, tears running out of the corners of her
eyes. We attacked them at night, slaughtering them while
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they slept. One man came before me, begging for his life.
He claimed that they had never hurt anyone, but I called
him a liar and spurned his plea. I killed him slowly, made
him suffer for killing my brother. It wasn't until later that I
found out it was all a lie. She went silent, her voice shaking
slightly as she continued. And that is why I turned against
my father. Men like him do not deserve to live. She stared
silently ahead, her green eyes watering.
Kail sat silently in the cell beside her, taking in her
tale. I never did, you know. he said quietly.
What? she asked, considerably confused by his
statement.
View you as nothing more than a rebellious traitor.
I simply saw someone with a lot of things they regretted in
their past, and I couldn't help but think that maybe we had
something in common. he paused, his dirty blond hair
falling into his eyes. But I was wrong. You're sin was not
your fault. You thought you were doing what was right. My
crimes are because I wanted to prove something. I deserve
to die for my sins, you don't
She stayed silent, surprised and ashamed by his
statement. He continued to talk, his voice steady. How do
you know the song? He asked. I haven't heard it sung
since I was a child.
She stared down at the ground. My mother died
giving birth to my sister Tya. They sang it at her funeral.
she stared off into the distance. My father was never the
same after she died. He became colder, more stern in his
laws against magic. I was twelve at the time and I didn't
understand until it was too late that my father was no longer
the person he had been.
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Kail sat with his back against the wall, feeling drawn
to this woman who had been through so much. He sensed
in her a kindred spirit, and he could not help but admire
her courage and the way she had stood up to her father,
even though it meant her death. My mother was killed by
raiders when I was six, my father three years later by a
plague that wiped out most of the people in our town. he
sighed. Eternity's Depths was the song they sang as we
buried the bodies of those who had been struck down by
the pestilence. he stared at the wall, lost in thought. When
I heard you singing it, I couldn't help but think how perfect
it was. I too would die to the same song as my father. he
sat in silence, staring blankly at the far wall.
Xerra did not reply, feeling at a loss for words in
light of this most recent revelation. I'm sorry. I didn't
know.
They sat in silence for a time them, each lost in
memories. They began to talk after a while, she telling him
of her childhood in Zalem, and he relating his life as a
mage. He spoke without regard for secrecy, surrendering
everything about why he and the others were here and the
truth of the Cursed. She listened patiently, nodding slowly
as the tale came to an end. It seems we'll both die without
mending the harm we have caused. Me for not saving my
father and leaving my people to the rule of a madman, and
you for a mistake made years ago.
He nodded grimly. When the time comes Xerra,
he said softly. don't feel guilty. You did all you could.
She shook her head, her voice distant. Maybe all
I could just wasn't enough.
When the guards came at dawn to take them away
Kail reached out his hand, his fingers intertwining with that
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of the woman who would share his fate. Xerra cast him a
wan smile and walked forward with her head held high,
tightly grasping Kail's hand as they strode slowly toward the
gallows.
* * * * *
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Chapter XIV
Day Break
Gray stood watching the sunrise, the sky a brilliant
orange tinged with pink as the sun slowly ascended above
the horizon. He listened patiently to the sound of footsteps
outside his cell, not turning as a knot of soldiers entered
behind him. The guards took hold of him, leading him up
the stairs and into the courtyard, towards the gallows. Kara
marched along beside him, her elfin features set
determinedly as she was led away. Kail and Xerra came out
to join them a few moments later, their hands locked tightly
together, holding on to each other for strength as their
doom approached. They were lined up on a platform in the
center of the courtyard, the crowd of spectators looking
decidedly pale as they stared up at them. King Rayos sat
elevated on his throne that had been carried out into the
yard, his expression one of disdain as he regarded them.
Gray turned to face Xerra who stood right beside him,
her face expressionless. Her eyes flickered sideways and
came to fix on him. I didnt expect to ever see you again.
she said softly. Not after the horrible way my plan turned
out.
He avoided her gaze, his face taking on a self-mocking
expression as he spoke. It wasn't your fault. You couldn't
have known they'd be waiting. You were still only a girl, I
should have known better. He paused, recalling that first
night spent in the city of Zalem.
* * * * *
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He had been twenty six years old at the time, sent by
the council to investigate the murder of a small group of
magicians. He had met Xerra in an inn off the waterfront,
staring gloomily into a flagon of ale, her eyes bloodshot. At
sixteen years of age she was no less intimidating than she
was now. Still, he ignored her forbidding air and
approached her. His eyes skipped over her fine clothing
and faintly arrogant expression; her very essence was that of
royalty. He watched silently as she downed an entire
tankard, motioning for the bar tender to pass her another.
Youre fairly young to be drinking in a tavern. he stated
bluntly. not to mention that you don't usually find nobility
in places like these.
Xerra turned to look at him, her green eyes flaming. I
can do what I like. she snapped. You have no business
correcting me.
He stared at her, seeing past the outward display of
anger and seeing the pain and self-loathing that lay beneath.
I didn't mean to upset you. he said complacently. I was
simply curious.
She stared at him, considering him carefully before
speaking. Her eyes had a fevered look to them, and she
spoke without care as to who he was or where they were.
She was far too weary and inebriated for it to matter. You
aren't what upset me. she said quietly. I killed a man last
month, slaughtered him without a second thought, only to
find out now that he had done nothing wrong. she avoided
his gaze, taking another gulp of ale. They shouldn't have
come here in the first place. They were breaking the law by
being here. Still... they weren't trying to hurt anybody. They
never killed Farren... she trailed off, murmuring softly to
herself. Lies... all of it a lie...
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Gray's face remained expressionless. He knew now
what had befallen the magicians who resided here. It was
not hard for him to make the connection between this girls
fragmented tale and the sudden disappearance of the group
of mages that he had been sent here to investigate. It was no
secret that Zalem was opposed to the use of magic, but this
was going too far. Gray rose to take his leave, his report for
the council already composed inside his head.
Xerra reached out to stop him, her hand clamping
firmly around his arm. Youre a mage aren't you? she said
quietly. That's why you came here, to find out what
happened to the others. she removed her hand from his
arm. Go then, tell your council it was Xerra Silver that
killed them. She deserves to face the consequences of her
actions. She turned away from him, her curly red hair
spilling over her face.
Gray stared down at her. No. he said softly. Though
I am certain now that our men were slain, Im afraid the
magicians' murderer was never found. The council can take
no action. Xerra stared at him in stunned silence and he
walked away.
Her eyes followed after him as he left, and he was not
all that surprised to see her following close behind him as
he exited the tavern. Her voice was steady as she addressed
him, her green eyes intense. The cause of their death was
the king. she stated. It is his fault such atrocities are
committed. I cannot let such things go on any longer. She
stared at him beseechingly. Will you help?
His face was impassive as he turned to meet her gaze,
instantly knowing his reply.
* * * * *
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A noose was slipped loosely around Grays neck,
bringing his thoughts back to the present. Over five years
had passed since that day, but the images of the events that
had followed still remained vivid in his mind. Kail and
Xerra stood on either side of him with Kara standing
silently at the far end.
The king rose to his feet, his loud voice ringing
through the air as he spoke. Today we shall witness the
execution of the traitors who have dared to upset the peace
within our fine city of Zalem. Let this be an example to all
of you, that none, he declared, looking pointedly at Xerra.
are above the law! he took his seat. Let justice be
served.
A servant moved forward, reaching toward the lever
that would drop away the floor of the platform and send
them all to their death. Xerra stood tall her voice ringing
out across the crowd. The servant hesitated, his attention
focused on the princess. You stand here today in the
oppression of this tyrant, fully convinced that his rule is one
of justice. But how many of you truly know of his actions?
Do you even dare to ask why I have done what I have?
The king rose to his feet, Be silent traitor! I will hear
no lies today. he turned to the man with his hand still
hovering over the lever. Pull it you idiot, or I will have you
hang with them. A look of indecision passed over the
man's face, but he made no move to comply. Xerra gave
him a sad smile and resumed her narrative. You must
know the truth of how things stand. My death is not what
compels me to speak, but I cannot allow you to live on
forever without ever hearing of the lies that keep you
imprisoned.
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The king had lost all composure, anger overcoming his
sense as he screamed for the execution to proceed. Xerra
continued unhindered, her voice clear and steady. You
know me, as I have known you since I was but a child. This
is my home. I am not the traitor here, the traitor stands
before you, wearing the robes of a king, but he is no longer
the ruler we once knew. No longer the father I loved. she
continued on her eyes filling with tears, her voice rising with
the strength of her conviction. Kill me if you please, for I
have committed crimes in his name when I thought them to
be right. But it was not when I burned the castle that I acted
wrongly, but when I served him in battle. I know now the
lies he would have us believe as truth. Kill me if that is what
you view as right, but hear first the truth of the serpent you
call king!
The crowd lay completely silent, impervious to the
king as he screamed for them to proceed, completely
enraptured by Xerra's words, knowing in their hearts what
she said to be true. The kingdom of Xeroxes never
attacked us. They retaliated after their ambassador was
murdered in our court! Ten thousand of your sons and
daughters were not killed in war because the Trithians were
invading our country, they were sent to expand our
kingdom after the peace treaty Trithia proposed was
declined. she continued on, the crowd staring up at her in
horror. Remember the two dozen men who plotted against
the king? Their families were not sent away to be kept safe
as you have been told. They were slaughtered, every last
child murdered because of their fathers. I was not sent to
kill those travelers that came here because they murdered
my brother Farren, the prince died while out scouting. My
father told us this so we would get rid of the magicians.
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The king strode forward, his face red with anger.
Enough! he screamed. You are a liar and a traitor and
you will die for this blasphemy! He turned to the captain of
the guard. Kill them captain, and kill them now or I swear
you will be the next in line to be executed!
The captain turned to face him, his ice blue eyes hard.
He glanced at Xerra, his expression sorrowful. I am sorry.
he said. He turned to face the king, his face hard. The king
sat there silently, a satisfied smile upon his face. The captain
turned to face his men. Soldier! he called out.
The man stepped forward, his face lined with fear.
Yes sir.
The captain turned toward the company. Release
them, and take this traitor to the dungeons. The king
stared at them in shock. The captain bent over him as he
was seized by the guards. My son died because of the war
with Xeroxes. he whispered, his face cold. Hope you rot
you bastard. The king cried out, commanding the soldiers
to release him, but the men followed dutifully their captain's
orders and dragged him away.
Xerra smiled at the captain as he undid the manacles
that circled her wrists. Gray rubbed his wrists gratefully,
watching as they spoke. You have my thanks. she said,
her eyes sad. I'm sorry about your son.
The captain met her gaze, his blue eyes kind. I
shouldn't have doubted you. You are more the ruler of
these people now than that traitor ever was. he said softly.
Gray watched him leave, still trying to process the
events leading up to their release. How did you know
him? he inquired.
Xerra smiled. He used to watch me when I was little.
He's the one who taught me how to fight. she turned to
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face him, her green eyes intense. He was devastated when
he learned of my betrayal. One night shortly after you left
he caught me, sneaking out of the city under cover of
darkness. I told him I was innocent. He didn't believe me. I
was brought before my father, sentenced to a life in prison.
It was nearly a month before I escaped, knocking out the
guard who dropped off my meals and escaping through the
passages underneath the palace. I never held it against him,
but I think some part of him regretted it. She smiled.
none of that matters now. He saved our lives. If it wasn't
for him we'd be dead right now.
They strode through the crowd, the people anxious
and murmuring. The majority were content with the fate of
their king, but some still refused to believe Xerra's story,
dismissing it as nothing more than lies created to secure her
release. They glared at her disapprovingly as she passed
them, their baleful glances fixing on Gray with the same
amount of hostility.
They were escorted out of the castle, their weapons
returned. Kail strode over to Xerra, his eyes filled with
admiration. Gray recognized immediately that there was
something between the two of them. It had been obvious
from the time they had emerged from the prison, hands
tightly entwined. That was amazing what you did back
there. he said quietly.
She smiled at him, her face softening. Thank you.
You're people will need a leader now that your
father's gone.
She raised an eyebrow at him. And you believe that
leader to be me?
He nodded. The people love you. They will follow
you if you ask them.
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She stared down at the ground. Some of them still see
me as a traitor who usurped the king's power. she raised
her eyes to meet his own. I cannot rule these people. Not
after what I've done. Alec is the next in line for the throne;
he will give these people the justice they deserve. It would
be better for everyone if I simply disappeared. They stood
in silence, both at a loss for words.
Gray stepped forward, his gray eyes thoughtful. There
is of course another option. They turned to look at him,
Kail already knowing what he was going to suggest. You
could come with us. Xerra stared at him in surprise, barely
stopping to think it over before deciding.
* * * * *
Kara watched silently as Xerra gave her speech,
extreme relief filling her as the guards moved forward to
release them. She could not help but admire this young
woman. She possessed a courage and a fire that Kara had
never seen before. Something about the way she spoke
inspired you, made you want to get up and follow her
without so much as a second thought. She rubbed her
wrists, trying to restore feeling to her hands. She watched in
silence as Kail left to join Xerra and Gray, watching the
stunned expression that crossed Xerra's face as Gray asked
her to go with them to the Black Marsh.
A small figure ran through the palace gates,
accompanied by a young man about sixteen years of age, his
brown hair held back by a silver crown. Tya ran toward her
sister, her small face exuberant. Xerra laughed, picking her
up off her feet and twirling her around. The young man
walked toward them, an expression of relief crossing his
face as he saw for himself that his sister was alive and well.
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He walked over to her, his green eyes pained. It's
good to see you Xerra.
She nodded, her face uncertain as she replied. Its
been awhile Alec.
He stared down at the ground, deeply ashamed. I'm
sorry I didn't believe you, but after Farren's death... I was
too angry to listen. I didn't want to believe that our father
would lie to me. He was never the same after mother
passed away.
She stared at him her eyes softening slightly. Apology
accepted.
He glanced over his shoulder to where a group of old
men sat discussing the current situation. They're expecting
you in the council chambers. There is much still to be
resolved. The events of today have been rather... unsettling.
I still can't believe father would do something like that...
She stared at him setting Tya down on the ground. I
won't be staying.
What do you mean? Tya questioned, the smile
replaced by an expression of panic.
I can't stay here Tya. she glanced over at Kail.
There is something I need to do. Alec will take care of you
while I'm gone. He'll make a fine king.
He stared at her in shock. But you're the eldest. I
can't rule Zalem. I don't...
She raised her hand, cutting him off. These people
need you. There's no one else.
Tya stared up at her, her round eyes filling with tears.
But you can't leave! she exclaimed.
Xerra held her close, kissing her soft curls. I'll be
back Tya, but there are many things I need to make up for,
and I can't do that here. She said her goodbye's to her
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siblings, watching sadly as they disappeared behind the iron
gates of the castle. She turned to face Gray. You said you
needed a ship? he nodded. The port lies a few miles
outside the city.
Kail looked at her, his brow furrowing in concern.
Are you sure you want to leave? he questioned. There's
a high chance that none of us will survive the end of this
quest.
She stared at him, her smile sad. Positive.
They walked toward the Port of Zyre, not bothering to
pick up horses as in a short time they would be at sea. It
took the rest of the day to reach the city, and Kara stared at
the run down village; it wasn't exactly a pleasant place. The
streets were clogged with people. It appeared this place was
no less populated than Zalem. Kara trailed along behind
the rest of the company, glad that Xerra had decided to
accompany them. They made their way to the harbor at the
edge of the city. Kara stared in awe at the endless expanse
of water that stretched out before her. Xerra turned to face
her. This is the Sea of Winds. We'll take a ship across it to
the mountains on the other side.
Kara stared at her with something approaching panic.
Exactly how large is the sea?
Xerra laughed. You'll see soon enough.
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Chapter XV
Eyes of the Enemy
Durus Sorrel was a large man. He towered well
over six feet, his grisly face covered in hair. Kara stared up
at the sailor, her just over five feet of height making her
look startlingly tiny beside this sea-faring giant. Xerra stood
a few feet beside her, arranging the terms for their voyage.
Gray sat off to the side, interjecting the occasional comment
as to what supplies they would need and when they were to
leave.
The captain shook his head, his voice gruff as he
spoke. Still don't see why ya need to leave so soon. Takes
time to prepare for a voyage as long as this one.
Xerra stared at him, her voice firm. We will leave no
later than tomorrow. For each hour you delay, your pay will
be docked 5%.
He glared at her. You're a cruel woman yer majesty.
If it was anyone else telling me that, I'd have them removed
from my ship. Very well, I can get the ship stocked and
ready to sail by mid-day, but no sooner.
Gray rose to his feet, nodding in satisfaction. We'll be
back at noon tomorrow.
Kara followed them off the deck of the ship. Gray had
been opposed to revealing their identity, but Xerra had
assured him that it was necessary since the captain had
refused to even allow them on board his ship until Xerra
revealed who she was. After that, he had quickly agreed to
grant them passage, though he was still being difficult. She
sighed, if there had been any other ship available, she would
have taken it; she found the burly man intimidating and the
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hard eyed sailors that served him did not look particularly
friendly either. Kail moved forward to meet them as they
left the ship, his brow creased in thought. I take it we have
a ship?
Gray nodded. We leave at noon tomorrow.
Kara examined her cousin, her brow lowering in
concern as she noted how he avoided her gaze. That's
good to hear. He glanced around at the crowds of people
clogging the street. I have some news of my own, but I
think it would be better if we were back at the inn before I
told you. There's a private room in the back where no ones
likely to overhear. He remarked, shooting a pointed look
at the people surrounding them that examined them with
sour glances when they thought they weren't looking. The
people in Zyre did not exactly like strangers, and those who
caught sight of Xerra's face from beneath her hat seemed to
be working very hard to listen in on their conversation.
Gray met Kails gaze, his face grim. Lead the way.
They wove their way through the masses, Kara trailing
along behind as had become common these days. She did
not like the way Kail had avoided her gaze. She had a
feeling that whatever he had learned, it was not a good
thing. She stared down at her feet. The brief reprieve she
had felt after the near-death experience within the castle had
ended all too soon.
She strode through the crowd, the people on either
side of her shoving and elbowing their way past her. A pale
pair of eyes tracked her as she made her way through the
multitude, closely shadowing the company as they entered
the inn. Kara glanced behind her before stepping through
the doorway. She felt a nagging suspicion that something
was there, just beyond her line of sight. She shook her head,
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it was impossible to tell with this many people. She entered
the main room, striding over to where the rest of her
company sat talking.
Kail leaned forward as he spoke, his face intense.
While you were out arranging our deal with captain Sorrel,
I went back to the center of town to see what I could learn.
he paused. While there I overheard some men talking.
They had ridden here from Trithia, arriving sometime early
this morning. While crossing through the mountains they
encountered a strange group of riders, cloaked all in black
with their faces hidden by dark cowls.
Kara stared at him in horror, a chill running through
her. Kail continued unhindered. The men were waylaid by
the strangers who asked strange questions about a small
company of travelers who had passed through that area.
The men claimed they did not know of any such people.
Kail stared down at the ground, his voice devoid of emotion
as he spoke. They were slaughtered for their ignorance.
There was only one survivor. He was out scouting during
the attack; the Cursed were unaware of his presence. He
learned what happened from one of his companions
moments before he died, but the specters had already
learned what they needed to know.
He looked up, meeting the frightened gazes of those
around him. They were last seen a day ago, headed straight
for the city.
Kara rose to her feet, feeling sick. Kail reached out to
her, but she backed away from him. Just give me a
moment.
She walked away from them, remembering her first
encounter with the Cursed Ones, how helpless she had
been. Fighting their henchmen was one thing, but in person
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they were something out of her worst nightmares. Their
burning gaze seemed to reach into her very soul with the
power to crush her like an insect. She stared blankly ahead,
oblivious to those around her.
Kail came up behind her. You all right?
She nodded. I'll be fine, don't worry. Kail walked
away, his eyes uncertain. Kara continued to stare blankly
forward, knowing he hadn't believed her lie.
* * * * *
Kara stared in horror at the ruin before her. The
buildings and streets once so pristine and perfect had been
trampled into the ground, the bits of remaining timber and
rubble charred beyond all recognition. There remained no
trace of the town that had once been her home. Bitter
laughter poured out from the stranger standing at her
shoulder as she examined the ruins, his voice a pale whisper
in her ear. So it will be with all the world once we are fully
risen. She tried to turn, but found herself immobilized.
The voice continued to speak, sounding deeply pained.
We deserved our fate some say Perhaps they are right,
but do not fool yourself into thinking we are like this by
choice. We are powerless against the hunger, the thirst to
destroy that she implanted within us. Our humanity is lost.
Most of us no longer even care about the horror we have
become. They embrace this madness, for fighting is futile.
The magic is our siren's song, our eternal torment, our pain,
our need.
The stranger walked around in front of her. He was
oddly familiar. The mans tall form was stooped slightly, as
if he stood under the weight of some impossible burden.
He was somewhere in his mid-thirties, but the haggard look
in his eyes made him appear much older. He was of
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average height, with dark hair and a gaze that screamed of
pain and torment the likes of which she would never know.
He stared at her, his dark eyes bloodshot. You do not
know me now do you? he taunted. For you do not fully
recognize the truth of your ancestor's curse. The stranger's
hands began to shake, something dark stirring in his eyes. I
pledged my life to her service, gained her trust only to
betray her. She murdered my family, ruined my life, and so
I deceived her into thinking I was her servant, my only goal
always being her death. The shaking in his hands became
more violent, his strong features twisting in anger and his
voice gaining a grating quality that mad her shiver. I
watched her die, but still she lived on, tormenting my every
waking moment, but leaving me unable to end my
miserable existence, unable to stop the horrible
transformation as it overtook me! Kara tried to back away,
but she was paralyzed, powerless in the presence of this
dark stranger. Dark magic child, cursed words that should
never be spoken. She binds her spirit to the rot that
consumes us and so the root of this evil shall never die, just
as we shall live on forever, to suffer for all of eternity.
The deep brown eyes held her frozen, sparks of red
flaring deep within their fiery depths. I see you child for
what you really are. I see the power that lies within you, the
power to end me and my kind. The power I seek so
desperately, so that this waking nightmare may end, but I
will never allow you to use it. Even now I hunt you, restless
in my pursuit. I am enthralled by my curse, no longer the
person I was. He stood up straight, his black robes
billowing in the wind. You see me now as I was, nothing
but a pale remnant of the humanity now lost. She stared at
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him in horrid fascination as he began to change. See now
your hunter, the demon your ancestor has created!
Kara tried to scream, but her voice remained locked in
her throat. She watched in terror as the person in front of
her was transformed, the color draining from his skin, his
eyes turning cold and dead. The sunken features emanated
sickness and death, his hands curling into claws. Kara stared
at the twisted figure before her, a figure she knew all too
well, its coal black eyes smoldering with hate. Now you see
the truth of what you face! it hissed, its hand closing firmly
around her throat. She struggled to escape, but her efforts
were futile. It laughed. You cannot escape us. We will find
you wherever you are. There is nowhere you can go that is
beyond our reach. she gasped, her vision turning fuzzy.
You are alone child. You will see the truth of this as you
die...
* * * * *
Kara screamed, thrashing violently against the bonds
that held her. She sat bolt upright, staring down at the tangle
of sheets that lay crumpled on the floor. She searched in
terror for the enemy that haunted her, but she was alone.
She rose to her feet, struggling to subdue the sudden nausea
she had felt upon waking. In the rooms beside her the other
members of her company slept soundly, unaware of the
demons that plagued her. She remembered the perverted
image of the Cursed, slowly choking the life from her as she
stood powerless before it. Zeveran Cray. She recognized
him now even though she had not in her dream. He was the
leader of the Cursed, Syra's first in command and the one
that hunted her. She shuddered. She could still hear his
voice inside her head. She could still feel the chill flesh of
his hand as it closed around her throat.
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She fled from the room, unable to stand the
confinement any longer. She ran out into the alley at the
back of the inn, gulping down the crisp night air and trying
to soothe her nerves. She did not notice Kail as he followed
her out, too preoccupied with her own thoughts.
She jumped as he laid his hand on her shoulder,
poised to flee. He looked at her with concern, his blue eyes
reading the terror in her eyes. What is it? he whispered.
She shivered. He was there. It was just the same as
when he found us last only... he was different and, and he
spoke to me. she swallowed, knowing she wasn't making
any sense. Terrible things Kail. He said terrible things. I
don't know how close they are now to finding us, but I
can't defeat something like that.
He shook his head. Kara it was only a dream...
It wasn't just a dream. She stated, her eyes wild. It's
like he was really there, like I was actually living it, not just
seeing it in my head. She shook her head.
He stared at her, lost deep in thought. Like a vision.
Where you could see and hear everything, but you were just
standing there, helpless to do anything?
She nodded. How did you know?
It's an uncommon form of magic known as Shadow
sight. It allows the user to manipulate peoples dreams,
usually to communicate things or send warnings.
She shuddered. He spoke of how they came to be
cursed, saying I did not understand. It was like two different
people, one the man Zeveran Cray, the other... an evil
creature of dark magic. They're coming. They know where
we are. Soon they'll be here and they'll finish what they
started that night on the plains.
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Kail shook his head. Powerful as they may be, they
cannot penetrate reach us here so close to Zalem whose
soldiers guard day and night for any sign of dark magic or
its creatures. After thousands of years of executing magic
wielders, you think they would not have wards to prevent
this sort of thing? Even if we are no longer in the capital city
itself there are still the guards if the wards do not extend this
far and by tomorrow we will be out at sea and they will have
no way of reaching us.
She turned to look at him, her blue eyes wide.
Eventually they will. If they could track us across the Dead
Forest and through the depths of Taylonose, they will find
us anywhere. She turned away from him, feeling like a
frightened child. I can still see their faces in my head. I can
still feel his hand around my throat. This isn't the first time
I've seen them; every night as I sleep they are waiting. I can
feel their eyes searing into me. They know where we are
Kail; they know where were going. They've always known.
Kail reached toward her, holding her close like he had
when she was six years old, hiding from the crashing
thunder of the storm that raged outside the small cottage
where she had grown up. They can't hurt you Kara, not
now. They don't always know where you are. Its just
another trick they use to get inside your head. he turned
her to face him, his face sincere. They can haunt you in
your dreams, but that doesn't change reality.
She shook her head. I wish this had never happened.
I wish I could just go home and forget the whole thing, she
sighed. but at this point I don't even know if I have a home
to go back to.
Nothing has happened to Savory, Kara. It is still
exactly the same as when you left it.
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How can you know that? she exclaimed. How can
you be sure the visions I saw were false?
Nothing has happened to your home. he stated
firmly. 'The Cursed have been tracking us this entire time.
They wouldn't waste any effort on destroying Savory; there
would be no point. He stared at her intently, his
expression earnest. It was just another lie.
She sighed, shutting tight her eyes and thinking on
what he had said. Now go and get some sleep. He stated.
She turned to leave, making her way back down the hall
towards her room. All a lie. She assured herself, unable to
dispel the doubt that lingered in her heart as she said it.
* * * * *
Kail sat motionless upon the stone steps of the inn,
watching as the first few steaks of color appeared against the
horizon, spreading out like paint across a canvass beneath a
line of dark clouds. The steady throbbing in his shoulder
made him change positions frequently in order to ease
some of the discomfort. Karas hastily applied medical care
had done nothing to lessen the pain of the wound; not that
he had done much to improve his condition by entering the
fight with the guards in the throne room as well as
constantly travelling. The night without sleep would not
much aid his recovery either, but his personal welfare was
not very important to him in comparison to that of Kara
and the rest of the company.
The wind whipped about him, its edges biting and
cold, but he ignored it. Soon they would leave the city and
set out across the sea, entering the bleak mountains that
surrounded the Black Marsh. There would be no moments
of restful reprieve once out there, for it was a place of
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perpetual gloom where the sun never penetrated the thick
clouds that overshadowed everything.
Gray emerged from the inn, his cloak pulled about
him to ward against the faint drizzling rain. They had all
agreed to avoid drawing attention to themselves while within
the village, as the people of the Port had never had a high
opinion of Zalem, especially not its royalty. After the events
of yesterday, it would be better if no one here knew their
identities.
Gray moved silently across the flag stones to where
Kail was sitting, taking a seat beside his friend. Never cared
much for sunrises. he stated, staring out at the horizon.
but then again, it may very well be the last sunrise we'll see
for a very long time... he frowned, dark circles lining his
eyes. It seemed that no one had gotten much sleep that
night. I've been thinking about this journey, how close we
are to finally succeeding, and I can't help but wonder what
will be left afterward.
Kail turned to face him. What do you mean?
Gray sighed. We may survive, or we may not. Either
way, I have no purpose beyond finishing this. Before I
might have had something to go back to, but a lot has
changed since then.
Kail stared at him, taking in the distant look that lit his
eyes. It's still about Lya isn't it?
Gray refused to meet his gaze, continuing to stare
ahead, his face placid. It always has been. Regardless, this
mission must be completed. I won't fail this time.
Kail continued to appraise him, knowing that his words
were addressed more to himself than to the man to whom
he was speaking. The sun peaked above the horizon, its
fiery color reflected in their eyes. Xerra and Kara emerged
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from the inn. There was much that needed to be done
before they could depart. Kail looked over at Xerra,
compulsively examining her out of the corner of his eye.
She was dressed in loose fitting shirt and trousers and a
wide brimmed hat shadowed her face, a disguise of sorts
that she had taken to wearing as soon as they had left Zalem
in order to prevent anyone from recognizing her. Her green
eyes shone brightly from beneath the rim of the hat, and he
couldn't help but think how beautiful she was. Kara strode
out of the inn beside her, her face still pale with dark rings
lining her eyes. Despite his efforts to comfort her, she had
barely slept at all, unable to find rest in the terrifying world
of her dreams.
They set out, moving through the crowds of people
toward the center of town. A light drizzle fell upon them as
they walked, the temporary warmth that had existed within
the city quickly fading from the air. Kail glanced behind
them as they walked, sensing the shadow that trailed along
after them and had been doing so ever since they had
arrived. Gray appeared beside him, his stern face hidden by
the hood of his robes. There's someone following us. he
breathed.
Kail nodded. They've been behind us since late
yesterday, but I can't quite pick them out in this big a crowd.
Gray stared blankly ahead, his eyes clouding over. He
spoke in a monotone, his eyes perceiving something that
only he could see. Hes about a block behind us. A slight
figure wrapped in a brown cloak, he shook his head. I
can't tell who he is beneath the cowl; something is
preventing me from seeing into his mind... Wait... he
trailed off, face intense. He's been watching us ever since
we arrived in Zalem. Saw us enter town in the company of
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the guards. He watched the execution, followed us out of
the city, hired to do so by someone who shall not be
named... His eyes snapped back into focus, he swore
under his breath. He knows what I was doing, he sensed
it. He shook his head, his gaze shifting to Kail. Whoever
he is, he must be a pretty adept magic user to not only
sense, but also block me.
Either that, or the Cursed have given him some
skills. Kail muttered darkly. Does he know anything
important?
Gray frowned. I can't be sure. I could only read what
was on the surface. Everything else was hidden.
Kail looked ahead to where Xerra and Kara waited.
Looks like we're going to have a change of plans. he
sighed.
* * * * *
Kara walked slowly through the mist of rain. People
glanced at her as she passed, seeing the haunted look in her
eyes and sensing that there was something different about
her. Xerra strode beside her, the black brimmed hat
keeping the rain from her face. No one stopped to look at
her as she passed, her disguise serving its purpose and not
drawing attention. Kara pulled her cloak about her, trying to
ward of a chill much deeper than that caused by the rain.
She hadn't slept all night, kept awake by her feelings of
foreboding resulting from her most recent nightmare. Kail's
words hadn't helped her. Despite his assurances she still felt
disturbed by all the plausible things she had been shown in
her dream. Truth mixed with lies, that much was easy to
tell, but the two were so tightly entwined that they had
become inseparable.
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Kara glanced behind her, looking over her shoulder at
the huddled forms of Gray and Kail. They stood deep in
conversation, cloaks wrapped tightly about them. She
dropped back to join them, seeing the anxious look on both
their faces. What is it? she said.
Kail turned to face her. We're being followed. he
replied. Someone was hired to tail us; we can't be sure of
their identity, but I think it would be best if we left before
they find us again.
Kara nodded apprehensively. She hadn't been wrong
yesterday when she had sensed their shadow. She caught up
with Xerra, relaying to her their discovery.
Xerra's eyes darkened. It's not a good sign that they've
been watching us so long without us knowing. she mused.
Kail and Gray joined them at the side of the street,
deciding on a course of action. We'll just have to leave a
little earlier than anticipated. Gray stated. They nodded in
agreement.
I'll pick up our supplies and meet you at the ship in
twenty minutes. Xerra stated.
Gray nodded. I'll go inform the captain of the change
in plans. Kail, he said turning to his friend, go with Kara
back to the inn and gather our weapons and other supplies.
We'll all meet back at the ship twenty minutes from now.
They parted company, Kail leading Kara back through
the streets toward the inn. Kara trailed along behind him,
thinking of this most recent discovery. On the bright side
this meant they would leave before the Cursed had a chance
to locate them. On the other hand, it was impossible to
know exactly how much the spy had had the chance to
discover.
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They stepped through the thick wooden door of their
lodgings, moving up the spiral stairs to their rooms. They
then commenced with the task of gathering their scattered
belongings and packing them away. Kara quickly finished
with her pack and moved on to Xerra's. She stared down at
the black leather armor the princess had hanging inside the
closet, complete with metal gauntlets and bracers along with
the spiked whip she had seen earlier. She stood uncertainly,
unsure of what to do with the equipment. She moved on to
Xerras other possessions, clearing the room of the various
articles of clothing and other paraphernalia. She stopped as
she came across a curved set of throwing knives, their hilts
lined with gold. She stuffed them into the sack along with
the other weapons and armor, then proceeded back to the
main room to meet with Kail.
He glanced up at her as she entered. Took you quite
a while. he stated, glancing pointedly at the disorganized
pack that contained Xerra's belongings.
She smirked at him. I didn't exactly know what to do
with the set of armor and assorted knives. she retorted.
His face broke into a grin. I guess I forgot not all of us
are used to caring around an armada on our backs. She
returned his smile, forgetting for a moment their current
situation and remembering what life had been like before
Kail had left, back before the Cursed when that smile had
been commonplace rather than an unexpected relief.
Sheets of rain pounded on the roof of the building, the
earlier drizzle transformed into a full blown storm. Kara
glanced at her cousin the smile fading from his face. We
should get moving.
They ran out into the streets, heading towards the
docks where they would rendezvous with Gray and Xerra.
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The day was wearing on toward evening. Though the thick
clouds hid the sun from sight, the deepening darkness of
the night was still apparent. They arrived at the ship to find
Gray having a heated discussion with Captain Sorrel, both
of them yelling to be heard over the gale of wind that shook
the ship. I don't care what yer problem is, the sailor
exclaimed, I wont sail in this kind of weather.
Gray raised his hand in exasperation. Captain, we
can't afford to wait until this storm ends. Who knows how
long it will last. We need to leave, and we need to leave
now! he shouted.
Sorrel glared at him, drawing up to his full height. I
won't be told how to run my ship, especially not by the likes
of you! he snapped. Now I suggest you get off my ship
before I have you removed.
Gray scoffed at him. I can and will tell you what to do
captain, and I refuse to leave this ship until you take us
where we need to go!
Xerra came up behind Kara and Kail, opening her
mouth to speak. She paused as she caught sight of Gray, the
captain standing menacingly above him. What's wrong
now. she groaned.
The captain is reluctant to sail in this weather, and
Gray hasn't exactly made the situation any better. Kail
replied calmly. Kara remained silent, watching the scene
unfold before her.
Xerra shook her head, her face becoming frantic. We
can't afford this delay! she stated.
Kara stared at her. Just because we're being followed,
doesn't mean were in any immediate danger. she replied.
We should probably just wait till after the storm. After this,
we'll be lucky if the captain ever takes us.
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You don't get it. Xerra snapped. We have to leave
now!
Kail turned to look at her, his blue eyes troubled.
What do you mean?
While I was in the market buying the supplies for our
journey, I caught sight of a group of people. They were
cloaked in black with faces so pale they were white. I asked
the shopkeeper about them and he said he had seen people
fitting that description just a few hours ago. nothing but
smoke and mirrors, thats how the man described them,
translucent and ghostly, yet here they were now and I assure
you there was nothing ethereal about them.
Kail frowned, This isn't good.
Xerra sighed, I wasn't done. They were meeting with
another man, his face hidden by a brown cloak. Kara
glanced at her cousin, her eyes wide. According to the
merchant they were discussing a group of travelers who had
visited the docks yesterday to discuss a voyage across the
sea. She paused, The strange thing is that afterward they
simply disappeared, vanishing into thin air as if they had
never been there in the first place.
Kail marched onto the ship, cutting into the shouting
match that had engaged between Gray and the captain. Kara
followed along behind him, leaving Xerra alone on the
docks. Captain Sorrel, Kail began, I'm very sorry for the
inconvenience, but it is imperative that we leave
immediately.
Look here ya intrusive blackguard, Sorrel snapped.
I ain't going nowhere in this weather, as I have tried to tell
this demanding scoundrel beside me, and there is nothing
you can do to convince me otherwise!
Captain, I don't think you quite understand...
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No it's you who doesn't understand! I ain't gonna...
Kail! Xerra shouted, pointing to the open alleyway
behind her where a group of black cloaked figures had
emerged. Kara grew sick, overcome with terror as she
stared at her hunters. She struggled to breathe, knowing that
this time there would be no escape. They were too late.
The Cursed Ones had come.
* * * * *
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Chapter XVI
The Docks
Xerra had never before seen anything as terrifying as
the creatures that walked slowly toward her now. She stared
in mute horror through the sheets of rain that cascaded
down into the street, running off the black cloaks that
wrapped the creatures known as the Cursed. She cried out a
warning to those standing on the deck of the ship behind
her, left alone to face the demons that stalked them. She
acted instinctively, breaking through the paralysis that had
held her and flinging a wickedly curved knife straight toward
the heart of the first of the attackers. The leader of the
group held up his hand, effortlessly snatching the blade
from out of the air and examining it with apparent interest.
He looked up at her, his dark eyes smoldering. I am
surprised at you Xerra, daughter of kings. he hissed, Did
you not know that the dammed of hell cannot be slain? It
laughed, the sound harsh and biting. You are pathetic. You
will die like the fool you are.
The blade she had thrown shimmered, burning with a
dark fire as it flew through the air towards its intended
target. Kail rushed forward, flying over the rail of the ship
and landing in front of her. He locked his hands in front of
him, deflecting the dagger with a hastily constructed shield
of magic. The demons hissed, the six of them moving in
unison as they approached the two huddled at the end of
the dock. Kail stood his ground, standing protectively in
front of Xerra. She glanced over at him, seeing the strain on
his face. She looked down at the spattering of blood staining
the sleeve of his tunic. She felt confused and concerned as
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she stared at the wound, but there was no time to consider it
as the Cursed Ones drew nearer.
Xerra glanced behind her at the sudden commotion
on the deck of the ship. It seemed that Captain Sorrel had
undergone a sudden change of heart, bellowing at his
terrified crew to get a move on and prepare to set sail. She
stood bravely beside Kail as the creatures before them drew
steadily nearer; the best they could do was delay the
attackers and hope that Gray and Kara had a chance to
escape.
She reached into her pack, wishing suddenly that she
had gone back to the inn herself instead of sending Kara to
gather her things. The leader of the Cursed fell back rather
suddenly, his eyes tracking Kara's progress as she was
dragged by Gray along the deck of the ship to the lower
levels. Xerra's hand closed around the handle of her whip
and she stepped in front of Kail, fluidly uncoiling the length
of wire and sinking the barbed spikes into the unshielded
side of one of her attackers. The demon stood rigid in
shock, its cold eyes fixing on her with an expression that
showed more anger than pain. She yanked back the whip,
setting up for another attack. She watched in horror as the
demon before her continued to approach, its mouth
splitting into a cruel smile as the long gashes in its side
closed over. You cannot harm the dead. it hissed.
It leapt toward her, striking her in the side before she
had time to react. She cried out and fell forward clutching
her side, a flash of pain shooting out from her ribs as the fist
struck bone. The creature stood over her, preparing to
finish her off. She seized a length of broken off wood from
the planking of the dock and sent the jagged edged tip
straight through the creatures eye. Despite being unable to
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die, there was nothing that prevented the demon from
experiencing in full the immense pain of the shaft being
thrust through its skull. It stumbled backward with a shriek,
giving Xerra a chance to rise to her feet, her will to survive
overcoming her pain.
Kail stood beside her, desperately trying to ward off
wave after wave of black magic slowly crumpling his
defenses. Streams of fire and electricity crackled through
the air as dark and light magic collided. The strain of the
battle was evident on Kail's face, the waves of blackness
from the Cursed slowly swallowing each of his attacks.
The ship slipped its moorings and Xerra retreated,
knowing that they stood no chance against the Cursed; their
only hope was to leave on the ship. She shouted for Kail,
motioning toward the departing boat. He glanced over at
her, nodding his understanding. She leapt from the dock,
biting her lip to hold back her scream as she smacked
against the side of the hull, her side throbbing. A wave of
fire spread out behind her and enveloping the Cursed.
They walked through it unhindered, catching Kail off guard
and breaking through his defenses. He hurled himself from
the dock, barely avoiding the jagged bolt of electricity that
struck the side of the ship only inches from where he was
hanging. He lay there dangling from the rail, a steady flow
of blood spreading across his shoulder. She pulled him up
over the side and tore open his sleeve, staring at the open
wound on his shoulder. He grew extremely pale, all his
energy gone. A cry sounded from below deck, and Xerra
turned just in time to feel the full effects of the explosion.
* * * * *
Kara struggled to break the vice-like grip that held her
captive. She watched in horror as Kail and Xerra stood
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against the Cursed Ones on the docks below, fighting
frantically to overcome an undefeatable adversary. They
were already faltering, unable to withstand the tide. She
screamed at Gray to let go of her, but he continued to drag
her below, his rugged features stony as he ignored all her
pleas. The ship lurched forward, freed from its moorings
and ready to depart. A bright flash of light illuminated the
night as the docks caught fire. Kara had time enough left for
only one quick glimpse of the inferno before she was
shoved through the cabin door at the bow of the ship, Gray
following close behind her.
She turned to face him, her pale face flushed with
anger. We have to go help them! she cried.
He stood blocking her way. You, he stated, are not
going anywhere.
She opened her mouth to reply, but went silent as the
atmosphere of the ship underwent a subtle change, filling
her with foreboding. A sudden darkness filled the room
and a figure materialized in the air before her. Her eyes
widened as she met the tortured gaze of Zeveran Cray. She
raised her hand in a frantic attempt to summon her magic
but the leader of the Cursed seized her wrist, its hand
glowing with magic as it raised its arm to strike. Gray leapt
forward, his sword glowing with light as it sailed in a smooth
arc toward the creature's neck. The creature snarled in
disgust, blocking the attack with his own ebony blade. He
struck Gray along the side of the head with the hilt of the
weapon, sending him sprawling against the far wall.
Kara jerked her wrist to the side in an attempt to free
herself, but only succeeded in spraining her hand. She
gasped as the blade of her enemys weapon was pressed
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against her neck. The sword emanated bitter cold and a
strange numbness spread through her as it bit into her skin.
The demon regarded her with flaming eyes, its voice a
hiss. And now you will die, as promised, Kara, descendant
of our tormentor, and with you the only threat to our rule.
The ship gave a sudden lurch, sending a spray of seawater
through the port side window. The creature flinched back,
its sword lowering away from her neck. Out of the shadows
sprung Gray, his silver sword glinting in the moonlight. He
plunged the blade into the demon's chest, its edges burning
with holy fire. The creature stiffened, shuddering as the fire
seared through it. It struck out at Gray, attempting to free
the sword from its chest, but the blade remained firmly
lodged. Kara jerked her wrist free, falling away from the
demon. It hissed at her, its robes smoking. A shock wave
emanated from the dark figure, flinging Gray against the
wall of the cabin and racking the entire ship with shudders.
The creature dissolved, its cold voice echoing inside
her head as it dissolved into mist. You will die a slow and
painful death, for we shall not forget this Kara... We shall
not forget...
She held her breath as the demon vanished, turning
her attention to the still form of Gray. He lay slumped
against the wall, his breathing ragged. An ugly bruise
flowered along the side of his face where the creature had
struck him. She moved over to him, pulling him unsteadily
to his feet. He regarded her with concern, taking in her
deathly pallor. She shoved open the door of the cabin and
stumbled toward the ladder, climbing up to the main deck.
Gray followed unsteadily behind her.
Xerra and Kail were kneeling on the deck of the ship.
Xerra tried to rise to her feet, but sank back to her knees
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with a gasp as the pain in her ribs flared sharply. Durus
Sorrel moved toward the four of them, his stern face
reflecting clear anxiety. Who were those soulless beasts?
he whispered, his deep voice quavering slightly, the usual
gruffness gone.
Gray's eyes locked on the captain, his gray eyes
unnervingly cold. That sir, was the reason why you should
have listened to me when I told you we needed to leave.
He strode away from the giant looming over him, moving
over to join the others. Kara glanced over at the other
sailors, their faces lined with a mix of shock and outright
terror. She peered out through the veil of rain, the burning
docks fading into the distance behind them.
She looked over to where her cousin knelt. The
wound in his shoulder had reopened along with numerous
other gashes along his arm and side. Xerra, if anything,
looked even worse. She knelt motionless on the floor, her
face drained of color. She looked on the verge of collapse,
her eyes squeezed shut as she fought to stay conscious.
Kara rushed over to them. One of the sailors moved
forward to help her, his clear blue eyes looking in concern
at the severity of their injuries. He carried Xerra down
through the hatch to the lower decks, ignoring her weak
protests. Kara followed along behind him, Kail leaning
heavily on her shoulder.
The sailor lowered Xerra onto a narrow cot in a room
below deck in the company of the ship's doctor. He turned
to Kara, his tan face stupefied I don't know who you are,
he commented, but you people definitely need to rethink
this whole idea of battling demonic creatures. he
commented.
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Kara smiled faintly, her blond hair tumbling into her
eyes. Believe me, its not a voluntary profession.
He examined her, taking in the way she cradled her
wrist. His face wrinkled in concern as he spoke. You
should probably get that looked at.
She glanced down at her hand, noticing the swollen
redness. She sighed, I suppose I probably should.
Here, he said, leading her to a bench outside the
room where they were treating the others' wounds. I can
take care of that. He wrapped her wrist in gauze, bracing it
with a splint and treating it with an herb from the ship's
medical supplies to reduce the swelling.
Thank you. she whispered; the throbbing pain in her
hand had subsided to a dull ache.
No problem. he said with a smile. The names Flint
Hawkwood. I did some medical training before becoming a
sailor. Been under the command of Captain Sorrel almost
two years now; I took to sailing when I was fourteen.
She accepted his outstretched hand, clasping it in her
own. Kara Ilsren. she replied.
He smiled at her, Well, I should probably get back to
work. Most of the crew is still in shock from the events of
tonight. Us sailors are a very superstitious bunch, most have
probably never even heard of anything like those creatures
we saw tonight.
And you have? she asked, frowning slightly.
He shrugged, his short brown hair wet with rain and
matted against his head. Ive heard stories. Ive seen and
heard quite a lot of frightening things, but I will admit this,
there was no one on this ship who wasn't scared to death by
those demons. He rose to his feet and made his way back
to the upper decks. Kara watched him leave, thinking that
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there was something distinctly odd about him. He seemed
familiar somehow, but not in a good way. She dismissed the
feeling, setting off down the hall, towards her cabin.
She glanced out the window. The sky outside was
colored a dreary gray thought the rain it seemed had come
to an end. She stared out at the vast expanse of water, the
rocking of the ship creating a decidedly unpleasant
sensation within her head and stomach. She climbed up the
ladder, doing her best to ascend with only one hand. She
leaned against the rail and breathed deeply the fresh air of
the sea in order to combat her sudden feelings of nausea.
This, she thought, was going to be a long voyage.
* * * * *
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Chapter XVII
Nightingale
Gray waved away the doctor attempting to bandage
the bruise on his head, annoyed by the big fuss she was
making over so slight an injury. There were many other
people like Xerra who had suffered much worse wounds
and those were the patients that she should be focusing on.
To be truthful, his foul temper did not really have much to
do with his current circumstance. He was still on edge from
his encounter with the shade of Zeveran Cray. He did not
know what had happened to the Cursed One, but he knew
in his heart he had not succeeded in killing it.
He rose to his feet, ignoring the protests of the
physician and exiting the infirmary. He ascended the ladder
leading to the top deck and glanced out at the turbulent
waters upon which they sailed. The ship rocked to and fro
among the waves, but he was used to the feeling. This wasn't
his first time traveling by ship; while on the council he had
taken many such trips. Kara however, already had a slightly
green tinge to her face. She leaned against the railing, trying
not to vomit. A young sailor working on a section of rigging
beside the girl observed rather wryly that she looked like
she was becoming seasick.
Gray examined the sailor. There was something
familiar about him, and he could not explain why, but he
instinctively disliked him. He continued to stare at the
young man in front of him, his brow furrowed in deep
thought. He did not like the strange sense of recognition,
nor the feelings of wariness that came along with it, and so
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Gray stood motionless in the steady downpour, trying to
figure out what made this nondescript sailor seem so
familiar.
A deep voice rumbled behind him and he turned to
find Captain Sorrel, his thick brows creased together in
disapproval. I thought the likes of you would be down in
the infirmary right now, seeing as that nasty mark on yer
head seems to be gettin worse.
Gray raised an eyebrow at him. I was under the
impression you wouldn't much care if I died. he
commented.
The captain grimaced. Why of course I do. You die,
I don't get paid. So ya see, I don't really want you dead,
even if ya are a no good scoundrel who cheated me into
setting sail.
Gray stared at him, incredulous. You were free to stay
in Port, not that it would have been a very wise decision.
The captain huffed. Say what you want, but if I'd ave
known about them devils, I never would 'ave agreed to have
ya on board.
Gray smirked. Ill be sure to remember to mention
the danger of being of being slaughtered by demonic
creatures the next time I hire a ship.
Sorrel stared at him, carefully assessing him as he
would a new form of plague. I still don't like you, but
seeing as I'm stuck with ya for the next three weeks, I might
as well make the best of it. He tossed him a coil of rope.
You know how to tie a knot? Gray nodded, and the
captain grunted. Then why don't ya make yourself useful
and help tie down the cargo. Most of me crew are still
wanderin' around dumbstruck. Lot of help they are. He
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walked away without another word, heading back toward
the wheel.
Gray stared after him, seeing a chance to maybe get
some answers. Say captain, he called, who is that sailor
over there, the one by the main sail with the brown hair?
Sorrel glanced back at him. That there's Flint
Hawkwood. Served aboard my ship for the past two years.
Lad's not too bad, and he's as good a sailor as they come.
Gray frowned. He had never known anyone by that
name, yet he could not dismiss that strange sense of having
met the young man before. He turned away, lost in his
thoughts. He walked below decks, the murmured
complaints of the captain trailing along after him.
* * * * *
Kail sat still upon the bed, waiting patiently as the
medic bandaged the numerous gashes that lined his body.
Joining the fight hadn't been the wisest decision, but under
the circumstances, there was nothing else he could have
done. They were all still alive, and that's all that mattered. A
few fresh bumps and bruises was a small price to pay for the
lives of Xerra and the others. He glanced over at Gray, who
sat arguing with the doctor. Kail shook his head as he
watched his friend shove away the physicians reaching
hands and rise to his feet, walking out the door without
once looking back. The woman running the make-shift
hospital called after him, but he ignored her. She threw her
hands up in exasperation, muttering angrily to herself about
the stubborn idiocy of men.
Kail glanced down at the gash in his shoulder, the
clean white bandage already stained with a fresh coating of
blood. He stared at the shredded remains of his cloak lying
in a crumpled heap at the foot of the bench upon which he
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sat. The fight definitely hadn't gone as planned. The dark
magic used by the Cursed had only played a small part in
the damage they did; their sharp bladed weapons had made
short work of his defenses and he was amazed he was still in
one piece after facing so many. Xerra sat at the back of the
room, a tenser bandage wrapped around her mid-section.
The blow to her side had cracked two of her ribs; he found
it amazing that she had still managed to leap onto the ship
when he had experienced difficulty doing so with just his
injured shoulder. She was an incredible person whose
determination and strength had overcome her pain.
She glanced over at him and smiled. I guess maybe it
wasn't the best idea to try to fight off undead forces of evil.
she commented dryly. She glanced at his shoulder. The
strange thing is, I never saw them cut you there. she raised
an eyebrow, clearly wanting an explanation.
He sighed, Its not a new wound; it just reopened
during the fight. I was hit in the shoulder during an attack
by a group of soldiers enthralled by the Cursed.
She shook her head. Its amazing you people are still
alive after all these near death experiences. she
commented dryly.
He laughed. In case you don't remember, the first
time we met, you were being chased down by Imperial
soldiers.
Her face split into a grin. Good point. A large wave
rocked the ship, a sudden squall of rain hitting the porthole.
She stared out at the sea, her expression becoming
melancholy. I never thanked you. she said quietly. It was
a really brave thing you did back there. You saved my life.
she turned back toward him, her eyes expressing her
gratitude.
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I only wish I had done a better job of it. he stated
ruefully, seeing the way her face tightened with pain
whenever she shifted position.
Xerra frowned, You risked a lot coming after me at
all, especially when you were already wounded.
He stared at her, feeling at a loss for words. She met
his gaze, waiting patiently for a reply. He looked quickly
away, unable to hide the truth of his feelings. He didn't
know why it was he felt the way he did, but he knew with an
unshakable certainty that he would rather die himself than
let her be harmed. That was why he had jumped in front of
her, and it wasn't something he was going to share.
I'm going to go get something to eat. she stated,
rising slowly to her feet.
He blocked her way, his face lined with concern. I'll
get it for you. You shouldn't exert yourself.
She smirked. What, this? she joked, gesturing
toward her cracked ribs. This is nothing. It will heal.
Besides, a little pain is nothing. At least I'm still alive. She
sighed, her face falling. Though for how long I can't be
sure. I don't know what will happen the next time we face
those things. I couldn't so much as wound them. How do
you defeat something like that?
His eyes darkened as he thought about the journey
that lay ahead of them. The best we can do is keep
fighting, and hope that I was right when I said that they can
be stopped. They sat in silence, staring out at the foaming
mass of water. Kail thought again of that terrible night in the
halls of the council, the night all of this had begun. Yes. He
thought. No matter the cost, the Cursed will fall.
* * * * *
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Kara stared out at the endless expanse of water that lay
in all directions. After spending four days aboard The
Nightingale her sudden bout of seasickness had finally
subsided. She had at this point decided that after this was
over, she never wanted to spend another minute aboard a
ship ever again. The storm that had followed them from the
harbor at Zyre had lasted for two days without halting,
resulting in long days spent below decks, hiding from the
squalls of rain and torrents of wind that shook the ship.
Luckily, other than a few minor repairs nothing had been
damaged by the storm, and other than their extremely surly
captain, everyone was in fairly high spirits.
Flint Hawkwood appeared beside her, his face split in
a devilish grin. He had been her constant companion ever
since the encounter on the docks three nights ago. She had
to admit, he really was quite pleasant company, though she
had to fight down a blush every time he looked over. Don't
you have a job to do? she questioned. All the other crew
members were hard at work repairing the damaged sails.
He laughed. You don't seem overly pleased to see
me. I would think that you would be overjoyed to be in the
company of one so charming as I.
She giggled. Maybe if that one weren't so arrogant, he
might receive more enthusiasm at his appearance.
Flint smiled. You never fail to make me laugh Kara.
he commented, his blue eyes sparkling. However, there is
a reason I came over here you know.
Oh? she remarked. And what would that be?
Well there's something rather special happening
tonight that I think you'd be pleased to see.
She opened her mouth to reply, only to be interrupted
by a loud bellow from the front of the ship. Flint
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Hawkwood ya lazy slacker, stop flirting with the passengers
and get back to work before I fire yer sorry ass and find
someone better to do the job!
He winced, rising slowly to his feet. She held back a
laugh as she watched Durus Sorrel's face flush bright red
with anger, his eyes narrowing. Flint turned to face her,
kissing her hand and giving her a smile. Meet me at the
starboard rail of the ship at midnight. he told her. Now, if
you'll excuse me, I do in fact have work to do. He walked
over to the captain, his stride confident and sure.
Kara watched him as he worked, his tall lanky form
easily navigating through the tangle of rope and spars that
lay scattered across the deck. She stared closely at him,
wondering suddenly if she had ever seen him before
coming onto this ship. She dismissed the feeling, going back
to staring out at the placid waters. After all, she would have
remembered his identity if she had ever encountered him
previously, wouldnt she?
* * * * *
The stars shone brightly in the deep indigo sky. Kara
walked slowly up on deck, staring up at the pale crescent of
silver that lit the sky above. She moved toward the starboard
rail, staring out at the placid waters, the stars reflected
perfectly across the mirror-like surface.
Beautiful isn't it. She jumped, turning to find Flint
standing right behind her, his hands shoved into his
pockets.
Is this what you wanted to show me? she asked,
suddenly curious.
He shook his head, smiling slightly. Not quite. He
took her hand, leading her toward the Wheel. Look over
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there. he instructed, pointing out across the sea toward the
horizon.
She peered forward. Tiny flashes of color began to
light the horizon, dancing playfully across the midnight sky.
She gasped; the streaks of color spiraled through the air in a
dazzling pattern that was almost magical to watch. What is
it? she questioned, staring in awe at the display.
He smiled, Its called Soul Fire. You can only see it
when out at sea. Legend has it that this is a manifestation of
the spirits of dead sailors, left to forever wander the
oceans.
She gazed out at the multitude of lights. It seems sad
somehow, she stated, to just wander forever, to never be
able to go home.
He frowned, his face losing all mirth. For some, there
isn't any home left to go to. Wandering isnt so bad once
you've got nothing to return to.
She glanced over at him, his strong face lined with
bitterness. What do you mean?
He stared out at the dancing lights, his voice
melancholy. My family was murdered by raiders. I
watched as they were slaughtered. It was something no eight
year old should have to see. I managed to escape, me and
my younger brother, but the village we ran to refused to give
us sanctuary. We were too much of a risk now that the
raiders were after us. He spit off to the side, his voice cold.
We were nothing more than a burden to them; they
turned us away like lepers. After four years of living on the
streets, I came to Zyre and applied to become a sailor,
starving and with no experience. I started out as a cabin boy
on another ship, a grueling life of scraping crap of the deck
and staying up all night staring at nothing but empty ocean.
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It wasn't a pleasant job, but I worked hard at it. Worked
aboard The Cobra for two years before transferring here.
I've been on this ship ever since.
She stared at him, not liking this other side of him, but
at the same time understanding his pain. And your
brother? she asked softly.
He laughed. His names Torrin, toughest eleven year
old you'll ever meet, or he was... He looked away, refusing
to meet her gaze. He grew terribly sick, won't survive much
longer.... but soon he'll be better, soon It'll be over... he
trailed off, staring out across the water, his eyes distant and
pained.
Kara looked away from him, the lights fading slowly
away and leaving the night empty and dark. She leaned
against the railing, the sudden silence standing between the
two of them like a barrier.
Get some sleep. he sighed, moving away. Things
will be better in the morning. She watched him go,
realizing suddenly how little she really knew of this person.
He disappeared below decks and she pursed her lips,
wondering what else about him she didnt know.
* * * * *
Wraiths bearing the faces of her friends and family
haunted Kara's sleep that night, their cold skeletal hands
reaching out to her. She fled down the endless corridors of
the ruin, back once more in the catacombs of Taylonose,
confused and alone. Voices called out to her, mournful and
shrill in their lamentations, bearing promises of the fate that
would befall her. A spirit of the Darkened appeared before
her, his ethereal features oddly intense. She recognized his
face, for it was the same as that of the specter that had stood
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in her way when she had been exiting the ruin with Gray
and her cousin.
The ghost stared at her, his eyes alight with the
memory of life. Beware Kara, for you are already
beginning to succumb to the trap that was laid for you. He
whispered. We have warned you Kara, but still you cannot
see through the veil that clouds your vision. The spirit
shimmered and the ruin around Kara transformed into a
different scene. A stone fortress stood before her, stationed
deep in the shadows that surrounded the lake over which it
loomed. A small boat moved slowly across the surface of
the lake, its passengers cloaked and hooded. Kara peered
closely at the small form of the one seated in the center of
the boat, her hands bound tightly behind her back as she
was dragged through the entrance of the fortress. The gates
of the castle swung wide, their spiked tips lined with skulls.
Kara stood transfixed as she watched the scene play
out before her. She recognized the figure in front who she
had been watching, the hood falling back from her face, her
features illuminated by the murky light before she
disappeared behind the gates of the prison. She stared at
the light blue eyes and delicate features, feeling a chill run
through her as she recognized the face of the girl as her
own.
The spirit of the Darkened materialized beside her
once more, joined by the familiar figure of the seer she had
met in the city of Adra, her milky eyes fixing on her face.
You are being shown a vision Kara. she said softly. Heed
it well for it is the fate that awaits you should you fall prey to
the Cursed Ones' devices. The dream faded away, leaving
her floating in the half world between sleep and waking. She
slept on, thinking on the strange vision she had seen and
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knowing that if nothing changed, it would soon become
reality.
* * * * *
The sharp clang of metal hitting metal awoke Kara
with a start. She rose to her feet, her tired eyes scanning the
empty cabin. Her dagger lay on the floor of the cabin, a
sudden jolt from a wave having knocked it off its shelf. The
sound she had heard had been the sound the knife had
made when it had fallen and crashed against a pipe. She
slipped out of her nightgown, pulling on a plain white dress
that had once belonged to her mother. She buried her
hands in the smooth material, thinking of her parents. It
had never occurred to her to wonder what they thought
about her disappearance. She hadn't even bothered to tell
them that she was leaving, she just had. She got dressed and
pulled on her long blue cloak to ward off the chill. Now she
might never have a chance to tell her parents what had
happened. They would just go on wondering until the day
they died, that is if they weren't already dead. She shut her
eyes, seeing again the broken ruin that was all that remained
of the town where she had grown up in. It wasn't real. It
couldnt be. That's what Kail had told her, but no matter
how hard she tried, she couldn't seem to make herself
believe him. She slipped silently out into the hall. She could
not have slept more than three hours, but she was unwilling
to risk more dreams.
She moved past the other cabins and climbed up the
ladder to the top deck, being careful of her wrist as she
went. She crept past the sailors who were steering the ship
and made her way back toward the cargo hold. She
rounded a corner and came up short as she caught sight of
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Gray, his face expressionless as he stared out across the
open expanse of water.
He looked over at her as she approached. She met his
gaze, seeing the dark circles that lined his eyes. He stared at
her, his gray eyes strangely lost. Couldn't sleep? It was
more a statement than a question; still she nodded her head
in reply. It doesnt matter. You should go back to bed. Its
not good to be up at all hours of the night. You'll need all
the sleep you can get before we reach the marsh.
She stared at him. You look like you need it more
than I do.
He remained motionless, his tone dull and lifeless.
Sleep bears no rest for me, too many memories, too many
regrets... he trailed off, staring distantly across the sea.
She remained silent, leaning awkwardly against the rail.
At least with memories, its already past. I can't say the
same about my dreams, because there's always the
possibility that everything I've seen is true and that no
matter how hard I try to avoid it, its going to happen and
theres nothing I can do to stop it.
He turned to face her. You're right, the two are
different. With memories, there's nothing you can do to
change things, no matter how much you want to. Whatever
you see in these visions however, theres always a chance
that it can be changed.
She looked down at the rail, feeling slightly abashed.
The only problem with that is the visions might not be real
at all, and I might be worrying over nothing. Even worse is
the possibility that some of them could have already
happened. By the time I know even that much, it might be
too late to prevent it from happening.
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You still worried about what you saw while in
Taylonose?
She bit her lip. Its more than that. Every time I close
my eyes, theres some new horror I didn't see before, from
strange visions to just plain old nightmares. I couldn't go
back to sleep even if I wanted to.
He stared at her, his face softening. You just have to
believe that whatever it is, you'll get through it. Besides,
soon the Cursed Ones will be dead and there will be no
more need to worry.
She shook her head. Do you honestly believe that?
she questioned, her face tightening. How am I supposed to
stand up against them? I couldn't even fend off a few
soldiers, not even when Kail was almost killed! I have no
idea what I'm doing with my magic. You yourself said that I
didn't stand a chance against the Cursed, and maybe you
were right! she exclaimed, all her terror and frustration
finally coming out. Why does everyone seem to think that
I can do any more than they can to stop them? She buried
her head in her hands, the stark reality of her words
shattering what little had remained of her resolve.
Gray stood silently listening, knowing she was no
longer really talking to him, but was simply expressing the
doubt she had kept hidden all this time. He stood staring
out to sea, thinking about all she had said. I was wrong you
know. he stated.
She looked over at him, her eyes watering over.
What?
He met her gaze, his expression grave. I was wrong.
The day I left, when I said you didn't stand a chance against
the Cursed, I was mistaken. She stared at him, surprise
and confusion mirroring on her face at this sudden change
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in him. Sometimes, he continued, its hard to see things
at first, but Kara, I have never in my life seen any magic as
powerful as yours. Nor have I ever met anyone as
impossibly stubborn as you. You can and will put an end to
the Cursed. The only way you'll fail is if you give in and
surrender. He scanned her face, his gaze intense. If you
come to believe that you don't stand a chance, then when
the time comes you won't. You have the power and the will
to do something no one else can, but not if you cant learn
to move past your despair. As long as you let your emotions
rule you, you'll never be in control of your magic. Keep that
in mind.
He walked away, departing without another word. She
stared after him, his words echoing inside her head. She
hadn't expected that reaction. Such encouragement would
not be out of place had it come from her cousin, but from
Gray... She stared out at the waters, her earlier anxiety
melting away. Maybe he was right. She had come this far;
there was no point in turning back now. She stared out to
sea. Ahead lay the East Continent and the Black Marsh.
There she would finish this; she had come too far not to.
* * * * *
Empty your thoughts. Kara flinched at the sharp
command, trying her best to comply. The exercises with the
magic had started about a week into their voyage, and
despite her efforts, the lessons were not getting any easier.
The ball of energy she had summoned hovered a few
inches off the ground in front of her, the pulsing sphere
about twice the size of her head. She had performed this
exercise when she was a child with her cousin, but now it
was being made much more difficult. The pressure from
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the magic trying to extinguish the sphere increased and the
orb dwindled in size.
Gray shook his head. Stop letting your thoughts
wander. You need to concentrate Kara.
She pursed her lips. I am concentrating. A sailor
moving cargo off the port bow caught her attention. The
large barrel the sailor held plummeted to the ground with
an angry crash as the man lost his grip and the amber liquid
spilled over the planks.
A sudden surge of energy from behind her threw here
off her feet and the sphere of light crumpled like a deflated
balloon. She struggled to her feet and another gust of air
knocked her flat. Gray cocked an eyebrow at her and she
frowned. If that's your idea of concentrating I would hate
to see you when you aren't. he remarked.
She exhaled to calm herself. They had been at this for
hours and the tasks seemed to be growing more frustrating
by the minute. Look, I don't see what the point of this is.
We've been doing the same thing for hours and...
You asked to be taught more about magic. Well, that
requires that you listen to instructions. Now stand up. She
rose to her feet, waiting impatiently for further direction.
Release your frustration and remain calm. This time
summon a line of fire and hold it up in front of you. She
did as directed, the long strip of flame quavering slightly as
Gray once again told her to be calm. How calm was she
supposed to be with him barking commands? Did he really
think...
The fire leapt ten feet in the air, shooting sparks in
every direction as it flared outward. She jumped in surprise,
all thoughts of calm leaving her as she jerked away from the
inferno. Gray swore angrily as the magic shot toward him,
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murmuring something incomprehensible and extinguishing
the blaze with a wave of black.
The deck gave off clouds of smoke from where it had
been scorched by the flames, and Captain Sorrel appeared
from behind the helm. What the hell are ya doing to me
ship! he shouted, moving past the crowd of frightened
sailors that had gathered and coming to confront them.
Kara craned her neck up at the angry sailor, her blue eyes
widening in trepidation as she saw the expression on his
face.
Gray met the man's stare with a look of his own and
the smoke suddenly dissipated, the charred wood flaking
away and leaving no trace of the previous destruction.
Your ship captain, is undamaged. Now, I was in the
middle of something so...
Undamaged! You daft, no-good fool! You practically
burnt a hole through the deck! You mages and yer arcane
foolery Should 'ave thrown ya overboard the moment I
knew what ya were. Royalty or no, the princess had no
business dragging you blackguards onto my ship. Forget
getting along with ya troublemakers. You just...
If youre done with your rant captain, Gray
interrupted, his tone cool. I think you may have another
problem. Sorrel looked backward to where one of the sails
had broken loose of its stays and was waving about uselessly
in the breeze.
Oh bloody... What are you louts lying about for? He
shouted at the crowd of sailors who had been watching the
confrontation. Look what ya did! Stop gaping like idiots
and fix it! If we lose that sail so help me I'll...
The shouts trailed off into the distance as Gray led
Kara below, his face like steel. Do you understand what
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almost just happened? Kara, the whole ship could have
gone up if I hadn't put that out when I did. You need to
stop letting your emotions influence your magic or you're
never going to be able to use it properly.
She bit her lip, her eyes downcast as she realized the
truth of his words. He sighed, glancing out the porthole to
the ocean without. Go take the rest of the day off. We'll try
again tomorrow. No fire this time. She nodded mutely and
he walked away. She reemerged into the open air of the top
deck, taking care to avoid an already agitated Captain Sorrel
and making her way to the starboard rail. She stared down
at the endless expanse of water. The initial queasiness she
had felt whenever on board had subsided, and now only a
faint discomfort remained in its place.
Flint appeared at her shoulder, keeping a fair distance
between them. She noticed suddenly the singed side of his
shirt and remembered that he had been one of the people
on deck when she had lost control. I didn't...well, I'm sorry
about, uh. she sighed and he smiled slightly.
It's alright, I guess. I was just a little...surprised, that's
all. She nodded uncertainly and he continued, his face
dead serious. I'll just be sure not to be one of the ones on
deck next time you need to practice. I would hate to keep
distracting you with my devilish good looks like I did this
time.
She stared at him incredulously. You think... His
face broke into a smile and she shook her head at him.
Dont you ever get tired of annoying people?
His smile broadened. Only you Kara. Only you. He
moved away as the penetrating voice of the first mate broke
into their conversation and ordered him back to work, and
Kara stared after him with a faint longing. She felt slightly
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foolish for wanting to chase after him, but being with him
was a pleasant break from all the worries that went along
with the rest of her life. She sighed, moving below to get a
bite to eat. One could only escape reality for so long.
Eventually, all good things had to end.
* * * * *
Kail slept soundly that night, most of the wounds that
had reopened during the battle on the docks having sealed
over once more. It had been over two weeks since they had
departed from the Port of Zyre and in a few days time they
would arrive in the mountains on the border of the East
Continent of Almora.
He opened his eyes, peering around the small cabin
that housed the infirmary, the faint smell of disinfectants
entering his nostrils. He rose to his feet, a pale gray light
spilling in through the porthole and illuminating the make-
shift hospital on board the ship. Xerra slept soundly in the
bed across from him, still recovering from the blow to her
ribs. The Healer had insisted they stay here, despite their
protests, until they were fully healed. Kail had complied
with the order, if only because he couldn't manage to climb
the ladder until his shoulder was at least partially healed.
He dressed quickly, removing the last of the bandages
from around his shoulder and going up on deck. He had
been trapped down there long enough and now that the
majority of his injuries had finally closed over, he saw no
further reason to stay sealed away. He was intercepted by
Gray Ravenwing as he made his way across the deck, the
mages stern face creased with concern as he pulled Kail off
to the side. Look over there, you see that sailor?
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Kail followed grays gaze to the brown haired young
man standing near the main mast. He nodded. Yes I do,
but why do you ask?
Gray frowned, his gray eyes stormy. I swear I know
him from somewhere, but I can't remember he paused.
Another thing that has been bothering me about him is
how unusually close him and Kara have grown.
Kail glanced over to where Kara was standing, laughing
as she helped the young sailor with the piece of rigging he
was fixing. He doesnt seem all that familiar to me, so
wherever you might have encountered him it couldnt have
been all that recently. Why are you so concerned about him
anyway? He hasn't done anything bad has he?
Gray frowned, his expression still eerily intense. Not
that I know of, but there's something about him that I find
disturbing.
Kail didn't reply. He couldn't help but notice how tired
Gray seemed. Judging by the dark circles that lined his eyes,
he probably hadn't slept more than a few hours the entire
time he'd been on board. Kail turned his attention back to
the young sailor, his tanned face alight with laughter. He
couldn't see what Gray was so worried about, but he knew
better than to doubt the mans senses.
He turned to face his friend. Get some rest, he
stated. I'll keep an eye on Kara, I always do. Gray said
nothing in reply, his vexation made evident by the look in
his eyes.
Xerra's rueful voice commented from somewhere
behind him, Does he ever smile I wonder? 'cause it seems
to me that he takes thing a little too seriously.
Kail turned to face her, her green eyes sparkling with
suppressed mirth and her fiery hair glinting in the sunlight.
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You didn't wake me up. She stated. After two weeks
stuck in the same room, I would think you'd have the
courtesy to let me know when that insistent healer finally
cleared us to leave.
He smiled at her, brushing his dirty blond hair out of
his eyes. You needed the rest. If I were the healer, I
wouldn't have let you leave until I was absolutely certain you
were fully healed.
Her face softened. You don't need to worry about me
Kail. If you ask me, I'm the one who needs to worry about
you, especially once we reach the mountains. They set off
across the deck to the mess hall that lay on the other side of
the ship, leaving the crisp salt air of the world above and
returning to the gloomy enclosure compartments that lay
below decks. The time they had spent together while in
recovery had brought them much closer together, and the
more Kail learned about Xerra, the more he felt himself
falling hopelessly in love with her. He glanced over at her
now, noticing the way she glided smoothly through the halls,
her lithe form unerringly graceful and her green eyes
dancing with some hidden amusement.
They joined the rest of the crew at the entrance to the
kitchens, waiting patiently for breakfast to be served. Kail
spotted Kara as she walked down the hall to join them, her
nose wrinkling in distaste as the strong smell of liquor
assaulted her nostrils. Why is it that everything seems to
smell like its been soaked in a mix of beer and sweat. she
lamented.
Xerra smiled. Probably because most of it has. she
replied. If you think this is bad, you should try visiting the
military barracks in Zalem, though I wouldn't recommend
it.
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The door of the mess hall flew open and the daunting
figure of Captain Sorrel appeared, his face creased in
irritation. Breakfast is canceled. he declared, addressing
the gathering of sailors. Now get yourselves up on deck;
we've got work to do. He turned to face the three of them,
his deep frown concealed by his beard. You too, there's
something you should probably see.
They climbed the ladder to the top deck, meeting
Gray at the stern of the ship. Kail met his gaze, not liking
the way his friends eyes had darkened, his face going hard.
It appears we have company.
Kail glanced out to sea. The faint outline of the
mountains loomed in front of the ship, but it wasn't the sight
of land that made the blood drain from his face. Barring the
way forward lay the carcasses of dozens of ships. Flames
danced along the splintered hulls of the wrecks, the decks
piled high with the bodies of those who had crewed them.
Kail experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach,
already knowing who was responsible for this atrocity. He
peered ahead through the veil of fog to the far shore where
a dozen riders sat mounted on their horses, their cold faces
lined with a perverted joy. In the center stood the shade of
Zeveran Cray, his sunken face expressionless except for the
burning hatred that flamed deep inside his eyes.
Kara came to stand beside him, seeing the horrific
scene displayed before them and seeking out the enemy
before them with a look of resignation in her eyes. And so
it ends, she sighed.
Gray's face tightened, his eyes burning with
anticipation rather than fear. He drew his sword, its silver
edges glinting in the sunlight. Too late to turn back now.
he replied, talking more to himself than anyone else. Kail
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turned away from him, fighting past his terror and turning to
face his enemy.
* * * * *
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Chapter XVIII
Exodus
Kara stared in horror at the creatures on the
shoreline, all the good feelings she had experienced earlier
that day evaporating the moment she saw them. The captain
stood at the wheel, shouting orders and readying the
powerful crossbows that lined the sides of the ship.
Kail stood staring at them, his blue eyes reflecting the
light of the fires that burned steadily aboard the ships.
What are they waiting for? he whispered.
Kara glanced toward the bay where the creatures sat
motionless, their hoods pulled low over their faces to hide
the wasted shells that lay beneath. She stared at them,
thinking on what her cousin had said. She thought again of
that night on the docks, remembering suddenly that they
hadn't come after them that time either. If their leader had
come after her on board the ship, then the others could
have as well, so why had they done nothing? Why did they
just stay there now instead of coming to face them? The
only one who had dared come on board The Nightingale
that time on the docks was the shade of Zeveran Cray, the
most powerful among them, yet even he had seemed
reluctant to follow her, flinching back from the wave that
had sprayed into the cabin through the window, almost as if
he were afraid...
The water. she gasped, turning toward her cousin. A
voice in the back of her mind gave a faint laugh, the cruel
tone chillingly familiar. There you go, Kara. Kail! she
shouted, putting her hand on his shoulder.
He glanced over at her. What is it?
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Is it possible that the Cursed don't attack not because
they're waiting, but because they can't?
He stared at her, his brow knitted in confusion. What
do you mean.
The water, she replied. Something about it is
stopping them from coming after us. Its almost as if theyre
afraid of it.
His eyes lit up, Of course. he sighed, remembering
suddenly his lessons from when he had first joined the
council. Captain! he called, Tell your men to unload the
crossbows. I have an idea.
Gray came over to them, his eyes questioning. What
are you doing?
Kail met his gaze. It was Kara's idea. Do you
remember the theory that certain substances with a pure
essence are anathema to dark magic?
Gray stared at him incredulously. You mean the
water? It can't be that simple.
Kail grinned, I think maybe it is. He walked toward
the center of the deck and stood rooted to the ground, his
eyes focusing on the ocean around them.
Kail, Gray cautioned, it takes a lot of energy to do
what you're about to attempt. If youre wrong about this,
you'll be defenseless against them.
Its going to work. Kara stated, her voice firm with
unshakable certainty. I know it will.
Gray sighed, his eyes filled with a grudging acceptance.
I'll buy you some time. Captain! he shouted, ready some
of your men; we're going ashore.
Sorrel wheeled to face him, his eyes wild. You're
mad! I'm not going anywhere near those accursed demons
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and neither are my men! You wanna go kill yourself, go
ahead! But yer not gonna drag us into it you no-good...
Gray drew his sword, holding it pressed firmly against
the man's neck. Now is not the time. he hissed, his eyes
cold. Now, do as I ask or I swear it will be you on that
beach with those monsters and I won't be there to protect
you.
The captain flushed, his dark eyes flaming with anger.
Ryce, go get Nixon and Yoren, as well as a few other
volunteers and follow Mr. Ravenwing to shore. he
instructed, his eyes drilling into Gray.
The man known as Ryce paled slightly, his weathered
face blank. Yes sir. he managed, his voice quavering.
Wait! Kail called. You can't stop all of them, not
alone.
Kara stood off to the side, knowing what she needed to
do. I could help. she stated, moving forward to join them.
Just tell me how.
Kail glanced at Gray, his expression troubled. Gray
turned to address her. Focus your mind. Think of a wall of
impenetrable steel repelling the magic. Kara nodded.
Keep them from using their magic and well stand a
chance, but stay here with your cousin. Don't even try to
follow. he finished, turning toward the group of sailors who
had volunteered for the mission.
Gray strode forward, taking charge of the company
and setting up at line of sailors armed with crossbows to stay
behind while the remainder went ashore. Xerra went with
them, wickedly curved daggers held tightly in both hands
with her whip looped through her belt. They lowered
themselves into the small lifeboats hanging at the side of the
ship, crossing the short distance that separated them from
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the beach and wading ashore. Kara watched them leave,
swallowing nervously and hoping that she could do what she
had been asked.
Out on the beach, the Cursed Ones had begun to
mount some kind of defense, dismounting and summoning
forth a wall of darkness. Kara cleared her mind, following
Grays instructions as closely as she could. She began to feel
the first stirrings of magic, the energy gathering inside of her
and stretching out to envelope everyone still on board the
ship.
A wave of blackness spread out from the Cursed,
shooting toward the approaching sailors and destroying
everything in its path. Gray fought against it, weakening the
effects of their spell. The sailors rushed forward and began
battle against the demons, their weapons having almost no
effect. Gray continued to counteract the spells directed at
himself and the others fighting along the shoreline, the
strain on his face evident as he also lent what little he could
to aiding Kara in her own defense. Kara held steady the
shield around the ship, feeling the building pressure of the
opposing magic.
Kail steadied himself, calling forth his magic and
reaching out toward the water. The sea began to churn
violently, froth forming on its surface as it rose up to meet
his hand.
The Cursed saw what he was doing and instantly
turned their efforts against him. Gray faltered, fending off
the creatures' attacks with his sword. Kara gasped at the
sudden increase in pressure, realizing that Grays efforts had
failed and she was the only one standing between them and
her cousin. Something deep inside her stirred to life,
strengthening her efforts and filling her with a strange
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exhilaration. She continued to hold the energy barrier,
falling slowly away from the chaos around her as the magic
drew her farther and farther away from herself.
* * * * *
Gray stood behind the line of sailors that battled the
Cursed, all his concentration focused on disrupting the
spells being woven by the enemy that confronted them. On
board the ship, he was vaguely aware of Kail beginning to
summon forth the magic that would send forth the wave.
They only needed to hold the creatures off for a little longer
and then it would be over.
A one handed scythe arced through the air toward his
throat and he reacted on instinct, raising his sword and
deflecting the blow. The owner of the weapon charged
toward him, dead features twisted with hate. He fought
against the demon, all the while still continuing to stop the
flow of magic spreading out from the others. Xerra leapt in
front of him as another creatures joined its companion in
the battle against him. A knife flew from out of her
outstretched hand with perfect precision and embedded
itself in the first creatures skull. It shrieked, and Gray took
advantage of the opportunity, slamming the end of his
sword into the knife and sending it forward into the
demons eye along with a burst of energy before turning
about and decapitating the second of the creatures.
Unearthly yells filled the air as the pair of Cursed fled,
moving back to join their kin.
Gray redoubled his efforts, successfully unraveling the
complex spell the other Cursed were attempting to cast. He
did not see the others until they were right on top of him,
but a quick shout from Xerra warned him at the last
second. He spun around, parrying a blow from a long
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bladed pike, but the creature twisted the weapon at the last
moment. It scraped along his sword arm, biting into the
flesh and sending a jolt of pain through him. His magic
crumpled, collapsing in an instant and leaving the Cursed
free to attack. He dodged the wraith's next few attacks, two
of them fighting ferociously in an attempt to kill him.
As he continued his defense, an enormous wall of
water loomed up in front of them and Gray could feel the
slight alteration in the magic as the Cursed quickly shifted
their efforts toward Kail, intent on killing him where he
stood. Gray held his breath, waiting for the magic to find its
target, but nothing happened. It was then that he noticed
Kara, her face calm and composed as she held back the full
force of the dark magic.
The ship lurched sideways and the torrent of water
shot forward, an unstoppable behemoth moving to destroy
the enemy who beset them. Gray called for a retreat,
struggling against the malevolent creatures who had cut off
his retreat, his sword flashing in the sun. He watched as the
majority of the men dropped their weapons and fled,
running across the beach away from the oncoming tide.
Only a few stayed with him a while longer before tactically
retreating, including to his great surprise, Flint Hawkwood,
who cradled his damaged shoulder that had been injured
earlier in the fight.
Two of the sailors were slain, unable to stand against
the unnatural strength of the demons. The Cursed moved
toward them with not a single wound marking any of their
bodies, all the various injuries the combatants had dealt
them having healed. They charged toward the retreating
sailors, but luckily the water reached them first. The water
curved around the men and headed toward the Cursed, a
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sudden gale of wind steering it in a complex spiral that
converged on the wraiths and sent up a chorus of pain filled
shrieks as the clear liquid seared the demons flesh like fire.
The Cursed Ones raced away from the tide, black robes
smoking. Gray watched with satisfaction as their enemy fled,
their skeletal faces twisted with pain as the water burned
into them. He led the remaining sailors back to the ship.
Victory was theirs.
* * * * *
The magic that had threatened them dissipated and
Kara blinked in confusion to clear the strange disorientation
that had suddenly overcome her. She didn't feel tired at all.
In fact, she felt just the opposite. She was rejuvenated, the
magic roiling within her in a compelling manner that made
her hungry for more.
Beside her, Kail slid to his knees, his face drawn and
haggard. He called back the tide, stilling the ocean and
returning it to the state of placid serenity it had previously
maintained. The Cursed Ones were nowhere in sight,
having returned to the darkness from whence they had
come. Gray and Xerra came back to join them,
accompanied by the rest of the sailors who had gone with
them to join the battle.
Gray stared at Kara, his eyes filled with a mix of
surprise and admiration. How did you do that?
She stared at him uncomprehendingly. What do you
mean?
For someone who has never created a shield before,
yours held against twelve of those creatures, completely
stopping all of their efforts to harm us.
She looked down, her blue eyes thoughtful. I don't
know.
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Xerra rushed over to Kail, her eyes filled with worry.
He gave her a weak smile, his eyelids drooping and his tone
faint. I'm fine, really.
He tried to rise to his feet only to be caught by Gray as
his strength left him and he slumped forward. Don't be an
idiot Kail, the mage snapped. Of course you're not alright.
You just moved about ten thousand gallons of water, and
then returned it to its regular state. Not to mention that little
trick with the wind that made it converge around the Cursed
which was not only stupid, but dangerous as well. I'm
surprised you haven't passed out yet.
Kail glanced at him ruefully, You know, I've never
known anyone who can be quite as insulting while
expressing genuine concern. he remarked wryly, just
moments before he blacked out.
Kara trailed along after the group as they carried Kail
below decks, still thinking about what had happened. The
amount of success she had experienced when fending off
the black magic of the Cursed exhilarated her, but it
frightened her as well. The strange hunger she had felt
upon sealing it away, the revolting feeling the magic gave her
after she had used it, was just plain disturbing. She could
feel it even now, pacing inside of her like a caged beast
awaiting release. She entered her cabin, locking the door
behind her and shutting her eyes against her mix of
emotions.
A cold voice filled the room with laughter. Kara gritted
her teeth, instantly recognizing the unmistakable taunting of
the person responsible for all that had happened to her.
The sorceress spoke softly, her voice deceivingly silky,
hiding the cold biting edge that lay beneath. Youre doing
much better than I expected, finally experiencing the
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tantalizing allure that true power holds. Syra smiled at her,
her blue eyes sparkling. Soon you'll feel the intoxicating
effect of its use, the growing hunger and finally the moment
of weakness that makes you succumb. Your cousin can tell
you, it happens quite suddenly. Do not shy from it child. It
is something to be embraced, not hidden in the shadows.
The potential for such greatness has always been yours. If
only you were not so naive, maybe you could have made
something of this power that has been given to you.
Kara glared at her. I don't want anything to do with
your magic! All that I've inherited from you is misery. I
would never do any of the horrible things that you did!
The specter smiled without warmth, seeming to lose all
transparency and become almost solid. Never is a bold
word child. Tis true, I've killed people, and yes, I have
done things that some might consider to be morally wrong,
but do not make the mistake of deluding yourself into
thinking that you have not. She paused, her face hard,
The dead soldiers that line the halls of Zalem would testify
otherwise wouldn't they? Besides, I was not the one who set
the Cursed free to roam this earth, that my dear was your
cousin, as you well know...
Get out! she yelled, her face flushed with anger.
Right now. Just go back to whatever level of hell you came
from and leave me alone!
Syra's eyes narrowed, hostility radiating from her in
waves. Stupid child, she hissed. I take orders from no
one. Those pompous fools that had me executed thought
they could dictate my life. They dared to challenge my
authority. Now they lie dead in the ground, a pitiful
collection of bones, and thats just the lucky ones. You have
seen for yourself the fate of those who opposed me. They
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are but ashes and dust. Empty shells, their souls consigned
to the depths of the hell of whence you speak. Still I live on.
You see you little wretch, I am eternal.
She turned her gaze on Kara, her ghostly eyes burning
with anger. You are a fool to believe you can do anything
without me. If I did not need you, I would kill you for your
impudence. The sorceress turned away from her, a
swirling mass of darkened mist, her long black hair falling in
smooth waves to her waist. As it stands however, it still
remains to be seen whether or not I will kill you when this
is over. Do not make the mistake of thinking I cannot. You
will realize soon enough the cost of such ignorance. We are
not so different you and I. she purred. We have a lot
more in common than you are willing to admit. Syra
turned back to face her, her face devoid of emotion. Kara
saw in her eyes a frightening darkness, something inhuman
that had sunken far beyond the capacity to feel anything
more than the festering hate that pulsed deep inside the
ghost.
I am nothing like you. Kara spat, her hands clenched
into fists.
Syra smiled, her strange eyes twinkling. We shall see;
we shall see. She placed her hand on Kara's shoulder,
sending a wave of icy pain lancing throughout the girls body
at the unnatural contact. In the end, you shall give me what
I want regardless of your reservations. Whether you
succeed or fail, you can never really win. In the end, I shall
be the one left standing when you are long gone.
She faded away, the bitter chill of her presence still
lingering long after she was gone. Kara remained motionless
in the center of the room, staring at the empty space in front
of her where the spirit had stood. The harsh words echoed
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inside her head, an endless litany of hopeless visions of her
fate. She sank down onto her bed, knowing that there
would be no sleep tonight.
* * * * *
Gray waited patiently while the healer applied the mix
of herbs to the gash in his arm, waiting along with the others
who had been injured in the fight down in the sick bay
below decks. The healers here used a mix of magic and
herbs to cure most injuries and though it was not as effective
as the art of healing practiced by the council and other
expert mages, it surpassed regular medicine in that it
worked faster and left no scars. The head injury he had
received during his last encounter with the Cursed had
finally vanished, only to be replaced by this new set of
injuries, but that seemed to be the way things worked for
him. His life all seemed to have been nothing but an
endless series of conflicts, with one battle just barely
reaching its conclusion before another crisis arose to take its
place.
He shook his head, glancing down at his arm. The cut
was superficial. It would heal fairly fast, unlike the wounds
suffered by some of the others who had gone with him.
Only a few had died, but many had suffered injuries far
worse than his.
He glanced over to where Kail lay deep in sleep,
recovering the energy he had expended by creating the
storm that had driven off the Cursed Ones. Gray
remembered how hard it had been to thwart their magic.
When he had been forced to fight them physically as well, it
had been too much for him and his efforts to stop them
from using their powers had failed completely. Then there
was Kara, holding off the full force of all the Curseds magic
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and emerging from the battle completely unscathed, looking
for all the world as if she hadn't done anything but stand
there and watch. He shook his head. At least this time she
had kept it under control as opposed to the last few times
when her magic had raged wild, indiscriminately taking out
everything in its path.
He glanced over to where the captain stood talking
with his first mate Ryce, his stern face dark and moody.
We lost Nixon and Copernin during the battle. Both were
felled by the devils as they tried to cover our retreat. Many
others suffered minor injuries, a few cuts and broken bones,
none of which are expected to be fatal.
Sorrel frowned, his voice a low growl, Inform our
passengers that as soon as that sorcerous trouble-maker on
the cot over there wakes up, I want them to get off my ship
and never come back. He stormed off, his meaty hands
clenched into fists, looking feral and hostile. Gray watched
him leave, knowing that they had definitely seen the last of
Durus Sorrel.
Flint Hawkwood sat in the bed next to him, grimacing
as the healer set his dislocated shoulder, placing it back in
its socket and applying the enchanted herbs that would knit
the tissue back together at an accelerated rate. Gray had
never had much interest in things concerning medicine,
whether they were magical or not, though he had to admit
they were very useful on journeys as dangerous as this one.
Flint groaned as the bone was placed back in its socket,
moving away from the healer quickly after it was done. Gray
still didn't trust him, but he had done well today, the first to
arrive (along with himself) and one of the last to retreat.
Flint turned to face him, sensing he was being watched.
Gray examined him, speaking with grudging admiration,
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You didn't do half as bad as I thought you would. he
remarked. Though you probably should have pulled your
arm away before they grabbed it, maybe then you wouldn't
be here now.
Flint smiled uncertainly. I've never been one to stay
out of a fight.
Gray rose to his feet, his gaze still containing a hint of
suspicion as he left the boy. He strode over to where Xerra
sat beside Kail, taking off the light leather armor she had
thrown on before the battle. She glanced up at his
approach, her dark green eyes expressing her anxiety for
the man lying motionless beside her despite her attempts to
hide it.
Any change? he asked, already knowing the answer.
She shook her head, The medic isn't really sure what
to do. They said it would be best to just wait and see what
happens.
Kara slipped into the room, her face pale and
frightened. She sat down beside them, her voice soft as she
spoke. How's he doing? she asked.
Xerra sighed, I couldn't say. Being from Zalem, I
have no experience with this kind of thing. she glanced
over at Gray. You know more about it than I do.
Gray looked up at Kara wondering what had happened
to make her so distraught. He'll be fine. It takes a lot of
energy to conjure up a storm on such a large scale. He
should wake up in a few hours, don't worry.
She nodded, her eyes wandering. They went to their
rooms and packed their things, Gray taking care to place all
of his meager possessions in perfect order inside of his bag.
He went over to the closet inside his cabin, taking out the
delicate gold necklace that had belonged to Lya and placing
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it inside his robes, reminding himself once again what he
was fighting for. He emerged into the hall only to be
confronted by Captain Sorrel, the sailors breath reeking of
alcohol.
The disheveled man moved to block his way, his
words slurred as he spoke. Get off me ship. I've 'ad
enough of ya stupid trouble-makers. I'll give ya ten minutes
to leave and if yer still 'ere when they're finished I'll 'ave ya
thrown over the rail!
Flint Hawkwood appeared in the doorway behind
them, his eyes flickering uncertainly between the two of
them. Captain, he started, don't you think your
overreacting just a little? They saved our lives and I'm not
really sure youre in the right state to be...
Sorrel glared balefully at him, his flushed face radiating
anger. Shut your mouth Hawkwood before I shut it for
ya!
Flint flushed, his blue eyes filling with anger. Maybe I
should, but I won't. You don't have a right to do this...
It's my ship ya blackguard! And you seem to 'ave
fergotten yer place here. So you can join these evil fiends on
the shore, 'cause you're fired! And you! he shouted turning
back toward Gray. I've fulfilled my half of the bargain,
where's my money?
His words were slurred as he spoke, and by the look in his
eyes he was in a dangerous mood.
Gray tossed him a pouch overflowing with gold,
keeping his face blank. All of its there, as agreed. Is there
anything else?
No. he snapped. Now go and get the rest of yer
plague of interlopers and get of me ship! He stumbled off,
belligerent and angry. Gray shook his head; he had no
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doubt that the captain was fully intent on fulfilling his
promise and throwing them overboard if they weren't gone
by the time he came back. He briefly considered staying just
to spite him, but quickly dismissed the idea. He glanced
back at the still form of Flint Hawkwood, his face gone pale.
The boy should have known better than to challenge the
captain. Regardless, it wasn't his problem.
He strode into the makeshift hospital, seizing a pail of
water from the healer and moving over to where Kail lay
sleeping. It had been over an hour since the battle; it was
high time he woke. Gray swiftly emptied the contents of the
bucket, soaking the old mattress and bringing Kail
spluttering awake.
He sat up coughing, blinking the ice cold water from
his eyes and fixing his eyes on Gray. You couldn't have
considered trying to use a wake spell? he stated accusingly,
his sodden blond hair dripping water onto his face.
I thought it was only appropriate to use water. Gray
stated wryly, turning away. Now come on, we have to
leave. They joined Xerra and Kara out in the hall, packs
slung over their shoulders. Kail swayed unsteadily, still not
fully recovered, but better than he was before.
What happened? And why are you wet? Kara said
confusedly, her blond hair pulled back in a long ponytail.
Our drunken captain wants us off the ship right now
or we get thrown overboard. Gray replied. Now I suggest
we hurry up and leave. We can ask questions later.
They made their way to the top deck without any
further discussion, moving toward the gangplank leading to
the country beyond.
Kara stared up at the daunting forms of the mountains,
an endless maze of rocky peaks that stretched for miles in
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every direction. She glanced at Gray, her expression
anxious. You know the way through these? she
questioned.
He looked away from her. To be perfectly honest,
no.
Kara stared at him in shock, her face incredulous.
What do you mean no! I thought you'd been here before!
He shook his head, I landed about 10 leagues south,
and tracked the Cursed north through the hills.
Don't you think you could have mentioned that
before! she shouted, her voice becoming panicked as the
stress of the past few days finally got to her.
He stared at her calmly, his gray eyes placating. The
storm must have blown us off course. I didn't realize until
we reached the shore, and at that point, there were much
more important things to worry about.
A vaguely familiar voice sounded off to one side, and
Gray turned toward it, frowning when he discovered who it
was. Did I hear you say you needed a guide. Flint asked,
his blue eyes flickering with hope.
Kara smiled as she caught sight of him, leaning lazily
against the railing as he gave them his offer. Why? she
asked. Do you know someone?
As a matter of fact, I do. I've been through these
mountains numerous times while delivering cargo to the
people of the mountains when I worked aboard The
Cobra. I can get you wherever you need to go, as long as it
doesn't go beyond the river Hellese into the Black Marsh.
Kail raised an eyebrow. I don't think your captain
would appreciate you just abandoning ship.
Flint looked down, I'm not exactly abandoning it. The
captain threw me off a few minutes ago for contradicting
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him when he said he should throw you overboard. To be
perfectly honest, at the moment, I don't really have
anywhere else to go but with you.
Xerra glanced over at Gray, her tone imploring, I say
we give it a shot. We have no other way of getting where we
need to go and we don't have enough time to wander
around the mountains for months on end. Besides, its not
like he can go back to the ship. Its only because he helped
us that this is happening.
Kail nodded. I agree. Gray?
Gray frowned, his eyes darkening. You already know
my answer.
Kara sighed dramatically. Stop being so paranoid! We
don't have time to argue. He's offering to help us, and he
stood up for us even when it meant losing his job. This is
the least we can do. Gray didn't reply, his expression one
of resignation.
The hatch leading below was thrown open and the
man by the name of Yoren appeared, his accent thick as he
spoke. Cap'n demands ya leave right now, or else I'm
o'dered to throw ya overboard. he paused, his gaze shifting
to find Flint. And that means all of ya. A group of men
appeared behind him, muscled bodies standing tense and
ready as if anticipating their refusal.
Flint raised an eyebrow, glancing knowingly at Gray.
Very well. The mage answered coolly, his expression
guarded. Lead the way Hawkwood.
They strode down the gangplank, Flint in the lead with
Gray closely following. The ship set sail behind them,
casting off anchor and disappearing behind the line of razor
sharp peaks that surrounded them.
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They waded to shore, Kail leaning on Xerra's shoulder
for support. Flint turned to address them as they left the
water, his face gone serious. There's a path leading through
the mountains that heads east through the territory of the
Jika. It splits off about five miles from here depending on
where you wanna go.
Kail turned to face him, blue eyes dead serious. We'll
be heading east to the shores of the Hellese River. There,
we'll part company and you can try to find a ship to take
you back to the West.
Flint stared at them incredulously, You can't be going
into the marsh. Do you know how dangerous that would
be? There's nothing there but toxic sludge and creatures
that could...
Where we're going is none of your concern. Gray
snapped. Your job is to get us there and not ask
questions.
Flint flushed. Yes sir. he replied rather sardonically,
his face sullen. Now if you're well enough to go, we can
leave immediately. he said, addressing Kail.
I'll be fine. We should leave before the Cursed have
time to recover. It wont be long before they come back,
and next time, it might not be so easy to drive them off.
Xerra frowned at him, shouldering her pack and
setting off. They made their way across the beach and into
the slate gray rocky terrain of the mountains. Gray stayed
behind Flint the entire way, knowing that there was more to
him than the others were willing to believe.
* * * * *
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Chapter XIX
Undercurrents
The company marched steadily onward, navigating
their way through the treacherous spires that lined the
narrow path. The road wound up through the rocky terrain
of the mountains and progress was slow, the rock walls
surrounding them already covered in a thin layer of ice. Kail
lagged behind, wrapping his cloak tighter about him to ward
off the chill and doing his best to keep pace as he
recuperated from his use of the magic.
Near the front strode Flint, Gray close at his back as
the sailor showing them the way through the complex maze
of passes that lined the valley's floor. Similar to Gray, Kail in
no way trusted Flint, but they had needed a guide and as of
yet the sailor had not done anything to prove himself to be
the villain Gray suspected him to be. Still, Gray had been
right when he had said that there was something weird
about the kid. He couldn't explain it, but he knew there was
more to this boy than met the eye.
His gaze shifted to find Kara, her hood pulled low over
her face, hiding her expression. Kail frowned; she had been
acting strange ever since their encounter with the Cursed on
the beaches. Something had frightened her, and he had a
feeling that it hadn't been the Cursed Ones themselves, but
was instead something more personal. He tried to think
back to the battle, but found that the memory was
considerably clouded. He had been so focused on
controlling the wave that he hadn't been aware of much that
had been happening around him.
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He briefly considered asking her about it, but
dismissed the idea as being premature. Whatever it was had
frightened her, it would not be a good idea to impose when
she was still so upset. Like most things, it would simply have
to wait until a later time.
A sudden feeling of being watched overcame him, and
he looked up into the massive cracks that lined the rock
face, the hollow gaps shrouded in shadows.
Xerra dropped back beside him, her slim form
wrapped in a pale green cloak, along with a tight leather vest
and breeches. She scanned his face, her green eyes taking in
every detail. What is it? she questioned, understanding
immediately that something was wrong.
He was slow to reply, his blue eyes troubled as he
stared ahead into the darkening light of the valley. I think
we're being watched.
She followed his gaze to the cliffs above them, but
could not see anything of what he was talking about. She
shook her head, I can't make out anything. If there is
something up there, its too far away to do any harm. She
glanced over at him, seeing that her reassurance had been
in vain. I'll keep an eye out just in case. she finished, going
back to rejoin the others.
Kail stared after her, thinking that if there was
something watching them that they couldn't see, it was a
danger to all of them.
They stopped to rest about three hours into their
journey, making a light meal of bread and cheese out of the
meager supplies they had carried with them from the ship.
Kail sat eating in silence, his mind lost in thought. A
faint shadow fell over him and he looked up, shaken from
his reverie and saw Kara sitting beside him. She looked
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243
strangely vulnerable, her blue eyes staring down at the
ground. Do you think magic makes people change? she
asked softly.
He stared at her, confusion on his face. What do you
mean?
Do you think using magic can change a person? She
repeated, her eyes coming to fix on him.
He paused, thinking it over. I honestly can't say.
Magic is never one thing or the other. It has different effects
on different people. Sometimes it can cause changes
because the wielder wants more power, but I can't say for
sure whether thats the magic itself or just something inside
of us.
So then it might be true, and I might be the same as
her.
Kail's brows creased in confusion. Kara, what are you
talking about?
She sighed, I'm talking about Syra, but more than
that, I'm talking about everything. I can't tell whats true and
what isn't. It all seems so real, yet I don't want to believe any
of it! She ran her hands through her hair, stressed and
confused.
You mean when she spoke to you outside of Souran?
Kara you can't trust anything she says she isn't...
No not just then. I can hear her in my head. Earlier
today after the battle, she appeared just as she did before,
telling more about the Cursed's doom, and then she spoke
of magic. How it can corrupt and how soon I'd be the same
as her. I said she was lying, but to be honest, I don't know. I
can't help but think that maybe she's right and after this is
done, I'll just keep falling farther and farther until none of it
matters anymore.
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She paused, her face growing harder. After I used the
magic today, I could feel it inside of me, like a living thing
waiting for release. I wanted to use it again, not because I
needed to or because someone was in danger, but just so I
could feel that strange exhilaration that it gave me. What
happens when it finally becomes too much and I give into
that feeling? What happens when there's nothing of me left
to protest?
Tears filled her eyes. She stared at the ground, her face
becoming hidden by a curtain of hair. Kail put his arm
around her, his voice steady and reassuring as he spoke.
That won't happen.
And why not? How do you know that? How can you
be sure?
He stared straight into her eyes, his gaze holding hers.
Because no matter how strong the temptation to abuse
your gift gets, you will always be stronger. I know the feeling
that using such power gives you. It's addictive, and you feel
as if nothing in the world really matters anymore as long as
you have it. But it can't control you. You are the wielder;
the magic cannot do anything that you don't want it to. The
only control it has over you is when you forget that and let it
do as it wishes. Syra's words are nothing but lies. Everything
I've told you is truth and no matter what horrifying things
you may be shown, you just need to remember that none of
it changes that you are the same caring person you have
always been, and I will always be there to remind you of
that.
She smiled at him, the haunted look she had worn
earlier beginning to fade from her eyes. Thank you, she
said softly, standing up and moving over to the remnants of
her meal.
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Gray rose to his feet, stating grimly hat it was time they
pressed onward.
The company made its way through the failing light,
winding their way deeper into the maze of peaks with Flint
standing at the head of the column and Gray an ever
present shadow not far behind him. The group had not
gone more than a mile when they encountered a sheer wall
of ice in the center of the pass before them, a formidable
barricade that blocked off all access to the mountains
beyond. According to Flint, the only way through was to
leave the valley and climb into the higher ranges, then
continue onward and descend at the edge of the Hellese
River where the pass rejoined the main road east.
They climbed higher into the icy crags, the air getting
thinner as they ascended toward their summits. Kail felt
strangely lightheaded as the trek continued, his strength still
diminished from his use of magic earlier that day with the
thin air of the mountains about him making his head spin.
He was surprised at how much summoning the wave had
taken out of him. He had worked with elemental magic
many times before, though never on such a large scale, and
it had never been anything more than mildly tiring. The fact
remained that Gray had been right when he had said it was
stupid to do something that required so much energy, and
he probably wouldn't have tried it to perform such a
difficult maneuver had he known how hard it would be.
Still, it had saved their lives. The Cursed Ones were gone,
but Kara was more to thank for that than he was. It had
been her idea in the first place and he never would have
thought of it on his own.
He glanced toward the front of the procession to
where Kara and Flint were walking, trailed by the ever-
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watchful Gray. He knew how much Gray mistrusted the
recently fired sailor, but he couldn't help but think that
maybe Gray was being a little too paranoid. After all, they
knew next nothing about Flint, so what reason did they have
to mistrust him? Then again, it was that very same logic that
made him wonder if it wouldnt be safer to just do as Gray
suggested and leave him right then and there.
It was almost dark by the time they entered the Fore-
rim, a particularly narrow stretch of path that led above a
deep crevasse that lay between two of the mountains. Kail
glanced uncertainly at the icy trail, the horrid conditions
making it so that even the slightest misstep would send you
straight into the pit below.
Kail turned to Gray, his blue eyes grave. This doesn't
seem like a good idea.
Gray glanced at the Fore-rim, nodding his head in
agreement. It would be nearly impossible to cross this,
even without the ice to make it worse. We'll need to find
another way.
Gray shifted his gaze to find Flint. You're the guide, is
there another way through without having to cross?
Flint shook his head, running his hands through his
lank brown hair, the edges of which were lined with frost.
The only other way is a trail that leads around the
escarpment about five miles north of here. We dont have
the time to retrace our steps through the pass. We need to
get back down to lower altitudes before nightfall; dangerous
things hunt these places by night, not to mention the cold. It
will be impossible to find our way through these mountains
once it grows completely dark and we can't afford to stay
here and wait till dawn.
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Gray frowned, his eyes darkening. He clearly did not
think much of the notion of crossing the chasm. Xerra
stepped forward, her face grave as she spoke. Judging by
what little I know of these mountains he's right about the
predators that hunt these grounds. I say we attempt a
crossing before sunset when we'll lose what little light we
have and be forced to continue by torch.
We could use magic. Kara suggested, her face
brightening. It would be easy to light the way and find our
way through this other pass that you mentioned. she said,
turning toward Flint.
It would also draw every animal within a mile like
moths to a flame. Gray remarked dryly. The creatures of
this region aren't afraid of light. An illumination spell will be
like a painted banner to give away our location, not to
mention possibly drawing the Cursed as well.
Kail stepped forward. We aren't gaining anything by
standing here and arguing. I say we try to cross. We don't
have much else of an option at this point.
The others nodded, reluctance and trepidation
mirrored on all of their faces. Kail went first, edging out
onto the narrow ledge and sliding along the cliff wall toward
the other side. Xerra and Kara followed close behind him
with Flint and Gray trailing. They had gotten over half way
across when the tremors began, ripping through the entire
mountain and dislodging rocks and ice from the slopes
above. They pressed themselves close against the walls of
the cliff, watching the rubble shoot past them and tumble
into the endless chasm below. A particularly violent
shudder shook the ridge, causing a section of the path to
break away and sending Kara sliding into the void.
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Kail saw what was happening and tried to act, but there
was nothing he could do. He watched in helpless
desperation as the ledge crumbled away, with Xerra just
barely avoiding falling herself as the entire section of the
rock fell into the abyss. It was Flint who reacted, locking his
strong hands around Karas wrist and plunging his dagger
into the ice that lined the wall to keep from falling. He
gasped as the sudden weight pulled at his recently
dislocated shoulder, pressing against the side of the cliff to
keep it from being re-injured. He pulled with his good arm,
bracing himself and using all his strength to help her back
onto the ledge. Kara gripped the side of the rock face and,
with Flint's help, pulled herself back up.
Kail and Xerra stared at the wide gap in the ledge that
separated them from the others. There was no way for the
three on the opposite side to get across. Kail stared grimly
at the thousand foot drop. It looks too wide to cross.
Flint stood massaging his shoulder. The herbs had
done their job and kept it from completely dislocating a
second time, though by the looks of it, they had not done
much to ease the pain. He peered over the edge to the dark
crevasse that lay beneath, taking in the twelve foot gap that
separated them. I could probably try to jump it, but it
would be too dangerous with all the ice.
You couldnt jump a gap like that no matter the
conditions. Gray scoffed, his tone dark.
Kail continued to stare off into space, his blue eyes
brightening as an idea began to form. If your dagger stayed
lodged in the wall when you saved Kara, it should support a
person's weight if you all cross one at a time. He pulled out
a length of rope from his pack, tossing one end over to
Flint. Wrap it around the hilt than lodge it into the side of
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the mountain. I'll do the same on this end, and then you
can climb across.
Flint nodded, doing as instructed and watching as the
rope went taut. The tremors continued to ripple through
the mountain. They had lessened, but were still large
enough to knock them all into the pit if they weren't careful.
Flint was the first to cross, wrapping his legs around the
length of rope and sliding toward the far ledge. Kara
followed, moving swiftly toward them. She had not
completely regained her composure, as evidenced by the
wild look in her eyes, and was still shaken by her fall.
Gray was the last to cross, edging slowly toward the
crevasse. He took hold of the rope, tossing his sword and
cloak to the far side before making his way across. He was
just over halfway when the ice on the left side that anchored
the blade gave way with a sickening crack. Kara darted
forward, crying out in terror as dagger, rope, and person, all
fell in a shower of ice. The rope swung wide and Gray hit
the side of the mountain with a thud. The dagger on the far
side of the chasm groaned under the weight and Kara bit
her lip, already anticipating the worst. Gray swung sideways
and caught hold of the base of the ledge where they stood,
releasing the rope just as the second knife slid free.
Kail pulled him up to stand beside them, and the mage
shook his head ruefully, gray eyes grim. Far too close. he
remarked, shooting a look at Flint who was standing near
the front of the column, making it obvious who he had
chosen to blame for the incident.
They stood staring down at the crevasse, the last of the
light beginning to fade. They made it to the other side
without incident, moving smoothly along the narrow path
and continuing their journey east. Kail marched steadily
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onward. He couldn't help but think how close that had
been. They had almost lost two people this night and it was
a miracle they were all still here after so close an encounter
with death. He glanced forward at Flint, still unable to make
up his mind about him. He had saved Kara's life, yet at the
same time it had been because of his bad directions that
they had been forced to cross the chasm in the first place.
They walked for another hour or so before stopping
for the night. They set up camp in a broad alcove near the
valley floor, the rough grass sparkling with frost. It was
considerably warmer in the lower altitudes, though the feel
of winter still lay heavy on the air. If they did not make it
out of these mountains soon and enter the humid plains of
the marsh, they might not survive the storms that were to
come.
Xerra came to sit beside him as he finished off his
meager dinner, her green eyes troubled as she stared into
the fire. That was close. she remarked. If those tremors
had been any more potent, we'd all be at the bottom of that
ravine right now. As it was, we barely avoided losing Kara
and Gray.
She glanced over at the person to whom she had just
been speaking. Gray lay staring out into the darkness at the
edge of camp, far removed from the others, though
isolation was not an unusual trait from him. He had
volunteered to keep watch, well, more accurately he had
stated that he was going to do so and sent everyone else to
get some rest. Her gaze shifted to Flint who sat conversing
with Kara, his strong face lined with genuine concern as he
spoke.
I'm not sure what to make of him, Xerra
commented. I suppose I believe that he really does care
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251
about Kara and that he's trying to help us. He seems to be a
perfectly good person, yet at the same time he seems so...
Guarded. Kail finished. Like he's hiding something
from us.
She nodded, Exactly. No matter how he appears
there's still the possibility that Gray is right and he really isn't
on our side, but why would he have saved Kara if his
intentions were to sabotage us?
Kail sighed, feeling tired and confused. I don't know.
I've been asking myself the same question.
Xerra rose to leave, her eyes lost in thought. I'm going
to get some sleep. You should do the same. You haven't
looked well since you used that magic. She shook her
head. Who would have ever thought that a princess of
Zalem would be aiding a magic wielder, but times change,
she stated, shifting her gaze to meet his own. Her stare was
captivating, her deep green eyes displaying something that
he could not quite understand. hopefully for the better.
His eyes followed after her as she left. There was
something about her presence that he found reassuring and
he felt a peculiar ache deep inside as he watched her
depart, even if she hadnt really gone all that far. He
continued his silent contemplation of her for a few
moments longer before setting out his bedroll and laying
down to rest. The events of the day were beginning to wear
on him. Too much was happening to put them all in
danger, and he knew with an unwavering certainty that
things would only get worse the closer they got to the end of
this journey and the enemy that awaited them. He closed
his eyes, the world outside fading away as he let go of reality
and began to dream.
* * * * *
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Kara sat talking with Flint as the fire began to dwindle
and die. Xerra and Kail had gone to sleep, though Gray was
still up, sitting apart from everyone as he stared off into the
forest. She pulled her cloak around her as the nights chill
deepened, her petite form shivering with cold. It had been a
long day, her near-death experience only worsening her
sense of trepidation that had carried over from her meeting
with Syra. No one but Kail knew about the encounter and
the fact that he understood her feelings reassured her in a
way the others could not. He had seemed so different when
they had begun this journey all those months ago, far
removed from the loving cousin she had once known, but
now she had begun to see flashes of his old self. The
distance that had grown between them had faded away, and
she now felt closer to him than ever. He was someone who
would always be there for her, like the brother she had
never had. Not that he could protect her from those that
hunted her when with a flick of their hand the Cursed had
killed mages of ten times his strength, and not that it
changed the fact that if she failed in this quest, they would
all die.
She sighed, staring out into the darkness between the
scattering of tree's that grew along the mountains where they
sat. If only this was all over and she could go back home.
Then maybe she wouldn't have to worry about such things.
What are you thinking about? Flint asked, his blue
eyes reflecting the light of the fire.
Just lamenting on how hard this has turned out to be.
How hopeless it all seems. It seems every time we escape
from the darkness some new danger appears to challenge
us.
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The older boy glanced away from her, his expression
troubled. Maybe it is hopeless to fight. Maybe the dangers
are too many and there isn't really anyone you can rely on.
She stared at him, decidedly perplexed. That's never
true. Why would you say something like that? There are
always some people you can rely on.
He continued to look away from her. Maybe thats so,
or maybe its just what you want to believe. There's always a
chance that those who you think you can trust don't really
deserve that trust. Your friend Gray certainly thinks so. He
seems pretty convinced that I dont deserve your faith.
Her brow creased, a stubborn determination emerging
on her face. You saved my life today. I wouldn't be here
right now if it wasn't for you. If you ask me, that's more than
enough proof that I can trust you.
He glanced over at her, his eyes sad. I'm glad you
think so. He walked away before she had a chance to say
anything further, rolling up into his blankets with his back to
her. Kara stayed seated, thinking for a long time about what
he had said. She went to sleep finally, her exhaustion
making her eyes heavy. No one noticed the shadowy
presence that hovered over their camp, hidden in the
darkness as they crept ever closer to the camp.
* * * * *
Kail's eyes snapped open and he rolled to his feet, his
senses tingling as he detected the strange presence that had
tracked them all day. The others remained sleeping, lying in
peaceful bliss, unable to detect the intruders. It was then
that he spotted Gray lying motionless on the ground, the
attacker having come at him from behind and disabled him
before he could do anything to retaliate. He reached for his
sword, only to be halted by the feel of cold metal pressing
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against his back, the smooth tip of the blade digging into his
flesh.
The owner of the blade began to speak, Move one
inch and you and your companions will all be slain. Her
voice was cold and factual as she spoke, her hand steady as
she held the dagger against his back. He glanced up into the
ridges that stood above them, spotting the figures concealed
there, crossbows aimed at those who remained sleeping. He
had no doubt that they would not miss should they choose
to fire those shots.
He stood motionless, desperately trying to think of
something to do. Remove your hand from your sword and
make no sudden movements. The voice commanded. He
hesitated before doing as he was asked, knowing there was
nothing else he could do. Thick ropes were looped about
his hands, his sword carried well out of reach. The others
eyes blinked open at the sound of approaching footsteps.
Xerra reached for her dagger, only to stop as she spotted
Kail with the knife pressed against his back. The strangers
took them captive, binding their hands behind their backs
and confiscating their weapons.
Kail stood watching it happen, catching sight of the
faces of those who had them and knowing them
immediately for what they were. The pressure of the knife
left his back and he was turned over to another of the
people. He began to summon his magic, subtle traces that
would not be detectable until it was too late. He burned
swiftly through the ropes that bound him, throwing back his
captor, and settling into a protective crouch.
The woman in charge turned toward him, her eyes
going cold. She gave the command for the others to kill the
prisoners, but Kail had predicted as much, and watched
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255
with satisfaction as the warriors weapons were ripped from
their hands by the force he threw against them. Xerra broke
free of her captor, only to be struck in the side by a bolt
from one of the archers positioned above. Kail charged
forward to help her, only to be intercepted by the woman.
He struck out with his magic and watched in confusion as it
slid around her, the jeweled amulet she wore around her
neck deflecting his spell. She slashed at him with her short
sword and he blocked the strike with his arm, using what
little he knew of hand to hand combat as well as defensive
magic to ward off her blows and keep well away from the
blade of her weapon. Still she was determined, and she
clearly held the upper hand in their battle. His gaze
flickered sideways as Xerra was knocked sprawling. Flint
and Kara were already bound and helpless with the
intruders jagged swords pressed tight against their throats.
Kail ducked under the woman's next slash only to be
caught in the side of the head by the butt end of the sword.
He fell motionless to the ground, the world fading away as
everything around him went black.
* * * * *
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Chapter XX
Tal'Sur
The warm glow of the torch illuminated the obsidian
walls of the caves through which they walked. Kara glanced
back at the others of the company, all with their hands
bound tightly behind their backs, their captor's weapons
held ready in case they attempted anything further to
escape. She stared at the confusing labyrinth of tunnels they
had entered. Even if they did find a way to break free of
their bonds, they would never find their way out of the
mountain and would only be recaptured.
Kail and Gray were still unconscious. They had been
deemed by the companys leader as the most dangerous of
the group, as both had displayed the capacity for magic.
Kara was under the impression that her abductors still did
not know about her own power, but there was little she
could do without guaranteeing all of their deaths. Kail had
demonstrated that. He was the much more skilled of the
two, and he had not been able to save them, even before
they had descended into this warren.
She remembered the moment she had awoken, only
to find a strange figure looming over her, his hands gripping
tightly the hilt of a jagged-edged sword. She recalled briefly
the chaos that had followed, the events that now seemed
nothing more than a senseless blur, her mind still numbed
by sleep. She had tried to resist as they had bound her
wrists, only to feel the press of metal against her neck. Gray
had already been unconscious by the time she had awoken
and she still did not fully know what had happened to him.
Flint hadn't done much better than she had, pinned to the
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ground near the beginning of the fight by a few of the men
after he had stabbed one in the eye, fatally wounding him,
while they were trying to disarm him. She had done
nothing, unable to react quickly enough to be of any use as
the fight quickly played itself out.
She had watched Xerra break free of her captors,
Kail's magic blazing through the night and striking the
woman who had led the assault, only to slide past her and
sizzle out. He had continued to fight, Xerra fending off the
men with nothing more than her hands and feet. But it had
all been in vain; the archers positioned above them had
disabled Xerra and the leader of the group had taken care
of her valiant cousin, knocking him senseless with a blow to
the head.
She sighed; not much had happened after that. They
had been led through the pass into a tunnel that led below
ground, the clear sky fading into memory as they strode
through the seemingly endless passages, following the
woman to their final destination. She glanced over at Xerra,
her eyes blazing with defiance. The wound in her side
looked awful, but it did not seem to hinder her. Instead it
seemed to only strengthen her determination to retaliate
against those responsible.
The leader called for a halt, turning to face those
assembled, and addressing those she had taken prisoner.
You have intruded upon the kingdom of the Jika, she
stated, by coming unauthorized into our lands. Worse still,
you have slain two of my men and also drawn the attention
of the demons who dwell in the lands beyond. Her dark
eyes burned into them, her face stern. We shall soon
emerge into the fortress of Tal'Sur where you shall stand
trial against the council who shall then decide your fate.
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Her eyes narrowed, her baleful gaze making Kara flinch.
Once inside the city, you shall be freed of your bonds and
brought one by one to present your case to the elders, but I
warn you, try anything and the others of your company shall
be slain. The offender executed shortly thereafter. She
examined them closely, her eyes strangely piercing, seeing
far beyond flesh and bone and discerning the truth that lay
beneath. Consider yourselves lucky. You are being granted
lenience. If it were up to me, you would have been disposed
of the moment you entered our lands.
She turned on heel, leading them up a steep incline
toward a set of stairs winding up to a gold framed door,
carved with symbols from a strange language that Kara did
not recognize. She remembered vaguely that Flint had
mentioned the Jika while describing the route they would
take, but she hadn't expected such a hostile reaction. She
stared at the strange clothing worn by the people, the armor
made of a series of overlapping scales similar in color to
that of the obsidian walls of the cave. Most were fully
clothed in it, carrying a mix of swords and bows slung across
their backs. They seemed well prepared, as if expecting an
attack, and judging by the manner of their assault, they had
been trained to remain undetected until the moment of the
strike.
She watched the leader of the group remove the
amulet she had worn while leading the attack, pressing it
into a slight indentation in the center of the door. A faint
light spread outward from the necklace, the snick of the
locks as they released echoing eerily in the bitter silence that
surrounded them. They walked through the thick metal
door, the wariiors still keeping careful watch over them.
They emerged into another stretch of tunnels, the floor
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paved with large flagstones. It appeared the passage was
man-made rather than a natural formation like the caves
through which they had passed. They ascended to the
higher levels of the fortress where they were met by another
official, a man somewhere in his late thirties, clothed in a
more ornate version of the armor that the other soldiers
wore.
Lord Vernin, the woman at the head of the group
greeted, inclining her head ever so slightly at the others
approach. We encountered these trespassers on the
western shores and have been tracking them all day as they
progressed into our territory. We captured them earlier this
night in a silent raid, but some among them possessed
arcane abilities. They detected our presence and Taethos
and Verya were slain.
The man turned to face them, his eyes scanning the
small company with a look of frightening intensity. He
glanced briefly at the unconscious figures of Kail and Gray
then turned toward Xerra without giving them another
thought. What is your purpose here? You have killed our
people, an unforgivable offense punishable by death.
Xerra met his gaze, her face calm. Your people
attacked us. We acted out of self-defense and are in no way
responsible for murder. We sought only to pass through
this territory into the lands that lie beyond. We did not
think it would be taken as an intrusion.
He examined her, nodding his head in silent
agreement. You speak with conviction, and I sense there is
at least some truth to your words. The council shall decide
whether or not it is enough to excuse you of your actions.
He turned back to the leader of the raiders who had
captured them, Samir, take them to the upper levels and
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place them under guard in separate rooms. I will inform the
elders and at sunset today we shall hold trial. Send Jeroes to
inform the families of Taethos and Verya what has befallen
them. They were good soldiers, and will be remembered as
such.
He set off down the hall, leaving them alone once
more with the soldiers of the Jika. Samir gave out the orders
and they were led up another flight of stairs into a long
hallway of rooms. The doors of the cells were composed of
the same thick plated metal that had been used to form the
one that had led from the caves below.
Kara walked complacently into the empty room into
which she was shown, the spacious area sparsely furnished
with a single bed and a small table holding a bowl of water.
The guard cut the rope from around her wrists and then
assumed his position outside the door. Kara rubbed
ruefully at the red marks around her hands, trying to restore
the circulation.
She sunk down onto the bed, feeling weary and
drained from the long trek through the tunnels. There was
no way to tell the time, as they had been underground for
the past few hours and there were no windows in the room
in which she now resided, the only light coming from a
single candle set on the small table in front of her. She slid
out of her plain leather boots, letting her eyes slip shut as
she fell quickly asleep. Her last thought was one of
remembrance as she reflected on a time before all this has
started, when there had been nothing but the cool shade of
the trees in her beautiful forest outside of Savory. She held
on to that thought as long as she could before falling away
into the frightening haze of her nightmares.
* * * * *
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Kail stirred sluggishly, his mind awakening from the
stifling depths of the void. His hand lifted to the side of his
head, feeling the rough crusting of dried blood and recalling
to mind what had happened to put it there. He sat up, his
head spinning with vertigo. He glanced around the
cavernous room in which he found himself, a single door
leading out with no windows or vents. The place was empty
except for a small wooden table and the bed where he sat,
the thick stone walls featureless and bare. He could tell by
the lack of weight on his back that his both his bow and his
pack had been confiscated. He rose to his feet, glancing
down at his belt and reaffirming what he already knew. All
of his weapons were gone.
He walked over to the bowl of water sitting
undisturbed upon the table, the small candle casting a
myriad of colors upon its surface. He dipped his hands into
the container, wiping the blood and grime from his face and
doing his best to clean out the wound. He had by this time
realized that they had been captured by the people known
as the Jika, a warrior race living in stone fortresses hidden in
the recesses of these mountains. He did not know what had
become of the others, but he suspected that like him they
were all imprisoned, awaiting the judgment of their captors.
He shook his head. Not much was known about the Jika,
but they were believed to be in possession of elemental
magics rooted in fire and earth, an inherit trait displayed
only among certain members of their race. They were finely
trained warriors, silent and deadly, but just as skilled in
open combat. He stood no chance of escaping them,
especially when he had no clue where to find the others.
He sighed, he should have known that intruding upon
their territory would be a mistake. He should have known
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better than to ignore his instincts that first time when he had
sensed that they were being followed. But no matter how
much he thought about what he should have done, the fact
remained that he could not fix this problem with hindsight,
and it wasn't doing him any good to just sit there reflecting
on what was already over and done with.
He held his hand parallel to the flame of the candle,
watching as the flame left the wick and swirled over the
palm of his hand. It increased in size until it was large
enough to illuminate the entire room, dispersing the
numerous shadows that had gathered there. He scanned the
walls and floor, searching for anything that would give him a
way of escape. His efforts were in vain however, and after a
few minutes he let the fire go out, reigniting the candle and
sinking back down upon the bed.
The guard who stood outside his door shifted position,
the man's shadow shifting places on the floor in accordance
to his movement. He could probably unlock the door and
come at the guard from behind, disabling him before he
had a chance to react, but any attempt at escape endangered
his friends, and there was no chance that he could find and
free all of them before the guards learned of his actions and
recaptured him.
Voices sounded outside in the hall and the door was
flung open to admit a man somewhere in his late thirties,
tall and muscular with a strangely piercing stare that set Kail
on edge. He walked up to the bedraggled prisoner, taking in
the soiled robes and tousled blond hair. Kail read the slight
arrogance hidden in the man's eyes and knew him to be
someone of importance.
What is your name? the Jika asked, his voice deep
and resonating.
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Kail. he replied, waiting patiently for the reason
behind this man's visit.
I am Lord Malachi Vernin, commander of the
warriors of the Jika and member of the high council. Kail
nodded, his face expressionless. My lieutenant tells me
that you are responsible for the deaths of one of my men, is
this true?
She was not mistaken.
The man nodded, his amber eyes oddly poignant.
You admit your guilt without hesitation, I respect this.
Both you and the woman who came with you speak with
honesty and conviction. I shall keep this in mind while
casting my vote to determine your fate. He turned,
motioning for Kail to follow. Come, it is time for you to
stand trial against the council. We shall then decide whether
or not you and your companions shall be allowed to leave
this place alive.
Kail followed lord Vernin down a series of long empty
corridor leading through the citadel, following a twisting line
of passages into a large room, thirty or so people seated
around a central platform on which he stood.
He turned to face a panel of five elders, four men and
one woman who would be the judges of his fate, their
clothing that of royalty. Kail waited in silence for the trial to
begin, Lord Vernin moving over to an empty seat at the
front of the council to watch. The central figure among the
elders rose to his feet, his weathered face a map of creases
though his pale eyes were lit with a firm determination that
spoke of a strength and wisdom earned by years of hard
lessons and first-hand experience.
The elder stared at Kail, his voice frail but firm as he
spoke, You and those with you have been accused of
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invasion and murder. As one of those responsible for the
deaths of our people, what have you to say for yourself?
Kail faced the panel of councilors, his voice calm and
placating as he spoke. We did not come here looking for a
fight. We seek only to pass through these mountains and
into the lands beyond. The scouts we encountered
surprised us when they moved to attack. We acted only out
of self-defense and did not intend to harm your people.
The man remained expressionless, his kinsmen
whispering among themselves. A very reasonable
argument, but why, I ask you, would you seek passage into
the mire of swamps that lie beyond these mountains? There
is nothing there but darkness and death. Your defense is
not believable, as you have no reason to be here and no
apparent motivation to wish to enter the lands beyond.
Kail was unfazed by this newest of accusations. You
are mistaken in saying that, your honor. As we have both
motivation and purpose in coming through these
mountains. The demons that dwell in the fortress of Fey
Mors are an abomination that is growing in power. Our
purpose in going to the marsh is to stop them before it is
too late.
A series of murmurings broke out among those
assembled and he could tell by their tone that they did not
believe him. A noble quest indeed. the older man stated,
his craggy face deep in thought. However, I find it hard to
believe that one such as yourself would be both willing and
able to combat these devils. A few months back, we found
them trespassing through our lands and sent out a brigade
to stop them. Seventy of our warriors were dead within
minutes. That is what waits for you in the marsh, young
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man, and youll forgive me if I am skeptical of your plans to
confront such a powerful foe.
Kail shook his head. I am not the one who has the
power to stop these creatures, that responsibility falls to
another within my company, but I assure you that both me
and my companions are well aware of the danger these
creatures pose. If you cannot believe this, then take my life
in payment for the others. I am the one who caused the
death of your soldiers.
That is not entirely true now is it? the man replied
calmly. He turned to face one of the guards who stood like
a statue at his side, awaiting orders. Bring forth the other.
Flint Hawkwood came to the front of the assembly
looking the worse for wear. This man has taken the life of
one of our soldiers as well, the councilor stated. and is no
better than you, who has just admitted that you are not
absolved of guilt. The man paused, his care-worn face
thoughtful. In fact, how do we know that the others among
you have not also committed similar crimes? We all know
that you have in your company the former princess of
Zalem, Xerra Silver, who has herself committed many
wrongs, her people many more. Maybe the wisest thing to
do would be to have you all executed since you have
intruded on our lands, and by logical reasoning have also all
committed crimes of murder at one time or another.
Kail shook his head, his patience coming to an end.
Such an act would be wrong and you know it. Yes, many
among us have killed, but only defending our lives and our
freedom. Is there even one person in this room who can
honestly say they have never committed crimes against
another? What we have done, we have done in the hopes
of saving others. You have neither the right nor any real
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cause to hold us here. Know that if you kill us now, not only
will you be murderers, but you will be condemning
yourselves to die at the hands of the Cursed, for the only
hope of defeating them lies with us. Kail said nothing
further, his final words echoing around the cavernous room
where he stood before dying off into silence.
The elder bowed his head, his stooped shoulders
relaxing their former tense position. You have spoken well,
Kail. We shall now proceed to hear out the rest within your
company and then make our decision.
Kail followed the guards through the thick iron double
doors, leaving the open space of the arena and moving once
more through the closed passages that led back to the room
where he had awoken. He paced around the small room,
thinking about the way the man had questioned him. The
more he thought about it, the more it seemed that the man
had been trying to provoke him, testing in some way how he
would respond. He sighed, the fact that he hadn't been
allowed to stay while the others spoke bothered him. He
was in the dark about how things would go with no plans on
how to get out of this mess if his arguments had not been
enough to sway the council that would decide their fate.
* * * * *
Gray stared calmly out into the flock of people
examining him from their seats around the citadel. The
man standing in the center of the room continued his
questioning, his voice strong and sturdy despite his obvious
age. He was the eldest there, wrinkled face shrewd as his
pale eyes examined the person on trial before him.
Xerra had emerged from the council chambers a few
minutes before, looking every inch a princess, with her head
held high and her stature proud, but the flicker of doubt
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that passed through her eyes was enough to tell him that she
was not yet sure of what would happen here and so it was
that he entered the council with a wary heart. What was said
right now could very well mean the difference between life
and death for both him and the others.
He glanced over at the people around him, the
disproving stares and the veiled expressions on the elders
before him not providing him with much of a reason to be
optimistic. One wrong word could mean the end for him,
and by the sour looks coming from some of the councilors
around him, an execution seemed to be the anticipated
outcome of this hearing.
The elder who was the leader of the council folded his
hands before him. The others before you have spoken of
your quest into the swamps, the man said quietly, They
claim that such an urgent mission justifies your intrusion.
Many here however, are not yet convinced as to the truth of
your tale. Your companions represented their cases well,
speaking with conviction and dedication. However, many
can be persuasive in their arguments and speak with
fervency when in fear for their lives, so this alone will not
protect you. Blood has been spilled this night, and two of
our soldier's lives were lost. By the law of our people, those
responsible must pay back that blood and the rest of you by
association owe us a debt as well.
Gray remained placid, listening patiently and waiting
for his chance to speak. You argue against these charges
because you claim it was self-defense, the councilor
continued. however the scouts intended you no harm.
They were simply to bring you here. He paused. Two
families are now without a son and there is a child who will
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be raised without a father because of your actions this
night. He said softly. What have you to say for yourself?
You already know the reason we are here. Gray
stated, his eyes holding that of the old man across from
him. We are not intruders or trespassers seeking to invade;
we simply sought passage through these lands and would
have continued unhindered if you had not attacked us. The
deaths of your people are regrettable, but when being
ambushed in the middle of the night, you do not stop to
make clear your enemies' intentions before retaliating.
A woman near the front of the crowd shook her head
in disagreement, dark curls tied elaborately behind her
head and cascading down her back. By her clothes she was
very wealthy. Fairly high up in the ranks, her words would
carry weight. Reasonable as all these arguments may be,
they do not change what happened. She said. Our scouts
are no less dead because you regret killing them, and you
can title it whatever you like but by our laws, any taking of a
soldier's life outside of the battle field is murder. And
despite what you say to the contrary, only spies and traders
come here into our lands, and you sir are certainly no
merchant. I say that both you and your friends are liars and
interlopers. No sane man would enter the marsh and I
doubt any of you have either the strength or the heart to
face the demons whose curse you would claim to undo.
She sank back down into her seat, holding herself rigid with
cold dignity.
Neither me nor any of my companions have spoken
falsely. Gray retorted. We will go to the Black Marsh,
whether or not you try to stop us. There is a blood price
there to be paid as well, only a thousand times greater than
any you have blamed on us. You speak of how precious the
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lives of your people are? Well then, how many will die
when the Cursed emerge from their hollow? If you have
ever encountered these demons you know they feel no
emotion and will destroy everything simply for the sake of
killing! Thousands, if not millions everywhere will be
slaughtered if these creatures are not stopped, and their
deaths will be on your hands, just as the deaths of your
people are on mine for simply being associated with those
who killed them. If you decide to have us executed, the
Cursed Ones will never be stopped, and each one of you
here who agrees with the pronouncement will be
responsible for the corpses that will clog your streets, if any
survive long enough to see it.
The people around him were dead silent, no one
speaking for a moment except to murmur under their
breath. One man in the back finally rose to his feet, dark
hair shot through with lines of gray. For a thousand years
we have stood against the forces of dark, and never have we
been defeated! We do not need your help to drive off these
foes but shall do it by ourselves as we always have. No
matter how noble your quest, none of this changes that
blood has been spilt, and you all must pay penance for the
lives you have stolen.
Gray regarded the people assembled, pausing a
moment before replying. If one of my company had died
during the raid, would you have executed the killer? None
came forward to answer the question and he continued
unhindered. I think not. Even though you attacked us and
there would have been no defense for such an act, you
would owe us no debt. So why is it then that we are
regarded as murderers and threatened with execution for
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the deaths of men and women who essentially condemned
themselves by attacking us in the first place?
A man in the audience bounded to his feet, dark eyes
flaming. This is absurd! You trespassed on our lands, thus
we had a right to kill you if we wished. We could kill you
now without even needing another reason.
So then we have no right to take a life when
defending our own, but you have the right to kill us simply
for entering a patch of dirt that you claimed ownership of?
his tone was flat as he turned to face the remainder of the
council, pale eyes flaming. Are other's lives worth so little
in comparison to yours? I had heard that the Jika were
strong warriors, but I did not take them for brutes and
savages.
The assembly erupted in a chorus of angry shouts, the
faces of those around him turning frosty. The chancellor
waved them to be silent, his eyes turning back to find Gray.
The man who had spoken out earlier glared sullenly at his
back, speaking loudly, his voice filled with anger and
indignation. Have you allowed them councilor to come
here simply to insult us? I will not stand for this foolishness!
Why must we listen to these murderer's? My cousin's death
shall not go unavenged! These foreigners...
Be silent Taneth and know your place. the old man
snapped and the lord sank back down into his seat. The
chancellor turned toward Gray. You should be more
careful with what you say young man. he reprimanded, but
Gray simply shook his head.
I speak only truth councilor. You would not listen to
my friends when they told you of our need and argued for
our release, despite their conviction or how carefully they
spoke. I have tried reason and I have appealed to your
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sense of humanity, but both seem to have failed me, so I
will try a different method. I will say what I must bluntly,
whether or not it is what you want to hear and then, if you
still decide to kill us, at least you will know what you've
done.
The Jika stared at him in mute silence, guilt and
trepidation showing on some of their faces while others
retained the same cool serenity they had held when he
entered. Have you anything else to say? One of the elders
asked curtly.
Nothing further your grace. he replied and she
nodded. He exited through the long tunnel leading below,
brushing past Kara on his way back to his room. Kara was
the last to go, after that their fate was in the hands of the
council. All he could do now was wait.
* * * * *
Kara strode slowly down the worn stone steps leading
away from the council chamber, feeling more nervous than
when she had gone in. She had been the last to speak
following Gray's defense and the experience had been more
than a little unnerving with so much riding on her defense.
She had done her best to persuade the Jika leaders of their
innocence, and yet she could not avoid the unpleasant
feeling she had that it had not been enough. She continued
down the empty halls, the guard bringing her back to her
room to await the council's decision. The questions they
had asked seemed both redundant and pointless. They
argued different angles to justify an obvious wrong and her
responses had seemed pointless.
She frowned, brushing back a stray piece of hair. She
had not exactly been diplomatic during her speech,
becoming exasperated and angry over the elders' seemingly
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deliberately provocative attitude. She had gone through so
much to get where she was, only to be stopped by a few
stubborn bureaucrats. Her parents had often stated their
dislike for most rulers; arrogant and unreasonable, that's
what they had called them. She now felt inclined to agree,
especially since meeting Xerra's father, the king of Zalem,
who was by far the most prideful, irrational person she had
ever encountered. The elders, though completely
reasonable, were both aggravating and confusing, and after
the blatant way they had dismissed her, she doubted they
would ever agree to release them. She sighed, shaking her
head. There was no point in giving up now; she did not yet
know what they had decided. There was still the chance that
they would be allowed to leave.
Over an hour past before the door of her cell was re-
opened and the guard reappeared, motioning for her to
follow. She walked down the familiar route of halls to the
main council, standing in the center of the platform along
with all those who had come with her. She glanced over at
Kail, his face calm and composed as he waited for the
leader to speak. The panel of elders was paying them no
attention, conversing in low tones as they mulled over their
decision.
The old man who had questioned them stepped
forward, his weathered face oddly pleasant as he made his
announcement. I believe you all to be strong of character
and just in your intentions. Many among us have come to a
similar realization and after extensive examination of the
situation, we have decided there is not enough behind these
accusations to have any of you executed and so we shall not
hold you accountable for your actions against us. We have
debated the matter and decided to let you go, granted you
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swear never to reveal the location of either this fortress or
the tunnels leading here to anyone in the outside world.
Kara said nothing, feeling decidedly surprised at this
unexpected turn of events.
Kail inclined his head, his face expressionless. Thank
you, your reverence. Your show of merci is much
appreciated.
The man nodded, his face placid. You are free to go.
They made their way out of the chambers, descending
into the lower levels of the compound. It doesn't make any
sense. Kara exclaimed finally, addressing her cousin.
They seemed so bent on having us punished. What
happened to change their minds?
Nothing. he replied calmly. It was a test. She
turned to face him, her expression one of confusion.
There were multiple reasons for the high councilor's
behavior. First of all, it tested our strength of character and
conviction by seeing what kind of people we were.
Secondly, by using up every other possible argument against
us, it stripped the other members of the council of any
legitimate reason to argue for our deaths.
Kara shook her head. I still don't understand. He's
never even met us, why would he do that?
Kail shrugged nonchalantly. Of that, I still can't be
sure, but either way were free.
A shadowy figure detached itself from the wall in front
of them and Kara recognized the armored form of Lord
Vernin, the man they had encountered upon entering the
citadel. He walked up to them, his fair face placid and calm
as he spoke. It is nearly nightfall, the last of the daylight has
already begun to fade. It would be foolish to venture out
into the mountains at this late of an hour.
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Gray raised an eyebrow at him, his cool eyes
calculating. It wouldn't be wise to stay. We've already lost a
lot of time as it is.
Exhausting yourself by traveling at night through
dangerous terrain isn't overly wise either. the man replied.
Kail glanced forward at his friend, his opinion on the
matter clear. It would be better to rest now and leave in the
morning. Besides, it would give us a chance to see if these
people know a quicker route through to the Black Marsh.
No one knows these mountains as well as the Jika.
Gray seemed to mull the matter over for a few
seconds before nodding his assent. He turned his gaze back
to Vernin. Is it possible that you could find an open area
where we could sleep? I've had enough of being locked in a
cell for one day.
Vernin nodded, Follow me to the upper levels of the
citadel. There's a main room that leads to the battlements.
Its aboveground, but shielded from the wind and cold.
Gray nodded. That will be fine. They followed the
lord through the winding corridors, ascending the
numerous levels into the room where they would stay the
night. The guards had given back their belongings, though
most of what they had brought had been left at their
campsite in the mountains. They had a quick meal of the
scraps of food provided by the Jika and talked briefly about
the events of the day before going off to sleep.
Kara curled up on one of the small beds leaning
against the far wall of the chamber, her mind wandering.
She couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong.
She did not know what it was, but something about the way
the night lay so silent bothered her. She stared up at the sky
overhead, unwilling to fall asleep just yet. She lay there for a
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long time, drifting off to sleep a few hours later, the last of
the torches that light the room slowly fizzling out.
* * * * *
Verien Astur gazed steadily out into the dark ridges of
the mountains, his eyes never leaving the horizon. The faint
hissing sounds he had detected earlier still carried on the
wind and the odd occurrence set his teeth on edge. It was
well past midnight with dawn only a few hours away, yet still
the strange sound continued. It had begun a few hours
earlier, low and threatening, a sibilant whisper of malicious
intent. It was unlike anything the man had ever heard, the
timber and tone of the hissing not matching any of the
predators that hunted these lands.
A faint pinprick of light began winding its way through
the pass and Verien reached for his bow, trying to make out
who it was who approached so late in the night. He doubted
that he needed to incite a panic by sounding the bell that
would warn the rest of the Jika of this intruder. It was
probably just a scout returning from their shift; otherwise
they would not have bothered to carry a torch. The sound
Verien had been tracking died down, the creature that had
made it becoming silent once more as the fire drew closer.
The light drew closer to the walls, its progress steady and
unhindered when suddenly it went out.
Astur blinked, his dark eyes narrowing in suspicion.
He summoned forth a ball of fire, spreading it across the
wall and illuminating the landscape below. He gasped,
gaping in shock at the horror before him. Massed below
him were thousands of shapeless creatures, their bodies
twisted and disfigured. They varied in size and shape, some
appearing almost human and others so deeply perverted
that he could not tell what they were. A group of them tore
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at the lifeless carcass of one of the Jika's scouts, ripping the
flesh from her bones and devouring it in gruesome chunks.
Verien raced down the length of the wall, flying across the
smooth stone surface toward the large brass bell that would
warn the others. He sounded the siren, his face frantic as he
thought about the army feeding below.
At the base of the wall, one of the less bestial of the
creatures glanced up at the watchman, the man's face white
with shock as he took in their numbers. The demon
removed the crossbow from behind its back, winding back
the massive crank and leveling the powerful weapon with
the guards shadowed form. The demon smiled with delight,
sending the poisoned bolt straight through the man's neck.
It watched in satisfaction as the guard tumbled from the
wall, the last faint tones of the bell fading into silence.
* * * * *
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Chapter XXI
Enemy at the Gates
Gray's eyes snapped open, the thunderous
pounding of footsteps sounding from somewhere above his
head. In the distance the faint tones of warning bells faded
into silence.
He rose to his feet, pulling on his worn boots and
strapping on his sword. It was still dark, the sun not yet
risen. He strode to the door of the room, passing the
sleeping form of Kara, curled up with her knees to her
chest, her long blond hair overshadowing her face. Xerra
and Kail had already dressed, and the boy Flint Hawkwood
was just opening his eyes. The familiar figure of Malachi
Vernin entered the room, his expression grave. There is an
army encamped right outside of our walls, thousands strong,
all armed. Do you know anything about this?
Gray shook his head, his steady gaze calm. No more
than you. What sort of people would be able to gather such
a force and why would they attack you?
Vernin shook his head, his amber eyes intense as they
turned to meet his own. Not people, creatures. They
devoured one of our scouts and we found the watchmen
that sighted them pierced through the throat with a
poisoned bolt. Whatever these creatures are, they're massed
outside of our gates.
Xerra walked toward them, listening intently as he told
them of the situation. Is there any way they can break
through to the fortress?
Vernin shook his head. They would have to break
down the main gates, which would take some very powerful
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siege equipment, the like of which they do not appear to
possess.
If they came from the Cursed, they would have no
need for such equipment. Kail replied shortly. Theyll use
dark magic to break down the gates. I could help to hold
them off and ensure they don't breach the walls.
Gray nodded, Both of us will.
Vernin nodded his approval. I must join the other
commanders on the battlements. Samir will tell you where
to go. He departed from the room, his dark dragon scale
armor glinting in the light of the fires.
Kara blinked awake at the sound of his departure, her
expression anxious as she rose to find them drawing forth
their weapons.
The woman known as Samir came in a few seconds
later, clothed head to foot in the durable plates of dragon
scale armor worn by most of the Jika. She held a helmet
cradled loosely in the crook of her arm, her face serious as
she studied them. Our warriors need you out on the walls.
The creatures launched an attack shortly after they were
spotted. They've already taken out dozens of our archers.
Its time for you to pay us back for the lives you took.
Gray's eyes narrowed. The woman's distaste for them
was clearly mirrored on her features. Clearly she wasn't
happy with the council's decision to let them live. Xerra
gathered together her weapons, strapping on the long brace
of knives and the spiked whip that she had used against the
soldiers the day she was captured in Zalem.
Samir caught sight of her and tossed her the heavy
pack she held cradled under one arm. You might find this
useful. she stated. My men found it in your campsite after
we left.
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Xerra glanced inside, pulling out the sturdy set of black
steel armor. Thanks.
Samir did not reply, leaving as quickly as she had
come. Take the staircase down to the base of the wall
when youre ready to fight. she shouted back at them, the
words sharp and biting.
Kail scooped up his bow from where it lay resting on
the floor, as Xerra strapped on the various pieces of her
armor. Gray threw on his cloak, along with a set of scaled
bracers he had retrieved from the fortresss armory,
thinking of the battle that lay ahead. Kail stood patiently
waiting while Xerra finished, and Gray noticed that Kail's
eyes were lit with a strange nervousness that was decidedly
uncharacteristic in him. As if sensing his thoughts Kail
turned away from Gray, masking the feeling the mage had
sighted under a layer of forced calm.
The three rose to leave, setting off down the hallway in
the direction of the battlements. Kara moved to follow, Flint
hanging back. Gray quickly moved to intercept her, his face
expressionless as he spoke. And just where do you think
youre going?
Kara frowned at him, You know the answer to that.
Now come on.
He shook his head. You are not going anywhere.
You're going to stay down here and keep as far away as
possible from any type of battle.
So what? I stay here and do nothing while all of you
go and risk your lives fighting? If you're going, then so am I!
Im not going to be left behind to wait. She took another
step forward, her face tightening with resolve.
Kail moved forward to intercept her, his blue eyes
grave. Gray's right Kara. You can't come with us. If you die
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this whole journey will have been for nothing. There's no
point in taking unnecessary risks.
She hung her head in grudging acceptance. It isn't
right. she sighed.
Kail smiled faintly, Don't worry; we'll be back.
They marched out to the walls, descending from the
battlements to the main gate where Samir and the rest of
the Jika were holding off the beasts without. Gray stared out
at the deformed creatures, some not even resembling
anything close to human. They were definitely creatures
sent by the Cursed, an army summoned out of the
underworld and sent to slay them.
He shook his head, drawing out his sword. They were
nothing if not persistent. Most likely the fact that he and the
others were here in TalSur was just a convenient bonus for
the demons and had not been an original part of the
Cursed's plan. It took time to gather an army of this
magnitude. This was their means of eradicating those who
stood in their path, the beginnings of their conquest. Gray
stared out at the seemingly endless stretch of enemies,
demonic creatures with no purpose other than to slaughter.
His face hardened, his pale gray eyes reflecting his thoughts.
Nothing could stop an army this deadly.
He shifted his attention to the base of the stairs where
Samir and her men stood firing volleys of arrows into the
creatures massed against the walls, using subtle weaves of
magic so that the barbed heads burst into flames as they
came in contact with the beasts. She turned toward them,
shouting to be heard over the screams of the creatures. So
far they haven't been able to breech our walls, but we can't
let them get close enough to try. They destroyed the main
gate before we had time to react, reducing the stone to
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rubble. All that's holding them off now is the secondary
portcullis. I don't know about the east... She broke off mid-
sentence, firing a bolt from her crossbow directly through
the eye of an oncoming attacker that was tearing at the gate's
reinforcements. She turned back to them, her dark eyes
flaming. We've managed to hold them off here. Do what
you can, but I don't see what you could do that would make
a difference. We're doing fine on our own.
A sudden shudder ran through the ground. The
monsters had retreated from the barrage of arrows, parting
their ranks to emit a central figure. Encased in armor and
towering well over ten feet, the creature brushed aside the
deadly shafts being fired at it from the fortresss defenders
and advanced toward them. It raised high a massive mace,
the protruding spikes glistening with the blood of its foes.
Gray stared at the creature, going into a protective crouch as
another tremor rippled through the ground. The creature
was hammering against the metal portcullis, shock-waves
rippling out from its weapon with each and every strike.
You were saying. Gray stated darkly, hand tightening
around the pommel of his sword. Samir swore, yelling at
her men to take it down, but their weapons did next to
nothing, unable to penetrate the heavy metal of its armor.
The metal of the secondary gate gave way, crumpling
inward and letting loose the tide of enemies. The warriors
hacked away at the demons, desperately trying to hold them
off. Xerra charged forward, cutting her way through the
hordes of attackers. Kail discarded his bow, pulling free his
long sword and diving in after her. Gray shifted his gaze to
the largest among them, the one who had broken through
the portcullis. It smashed through the lines of warriors
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before it, piercing through armor and crushing them with a
single swing.
Gray navigated his way through the multitude of
enemies, neatly disposing of all those who opposed him,
both magic and blade working together to stem the tide. He
strode toward the creature, ducking under its initial swing
and driving his sword through the layers of steel and into its
flesh of its thigh. The beast cried out, trying in vain to
destroy him, but a second too slow. Gray dodged the huge
mace descending towards him, falling back from the demon
and weaving through the line of carcasses to come up
behind it. He summoned his magic, sending a wave of fire
lancing toward the small gap between helmet and armor
near the back of its neck. The creature brushed off the
attack, smashing out with its fist and catching him a glancing
blow that sent him flying into the wall.
He rolled to his feet, ignoring the dull throb building
in the back of his skull. He blinked away his disorientation,
moving out of the way of another of the beasts that flew
toward him, similar in appearance to the demon wolves
they had seen inside Souran. He slashed at its head,
avoiding its lunge and piecing it in the side. He turned back
to face the giant, moving just in time to avoid another of its
attacks. He frowned, growing increasingly angry. It was time
to end this.
He focused his thoughts, engulfing the beast in a
torrent of fire that halted its attack and temporarily blinded
it. He scooped up a spear left by one of the fallen
defenders, gathering his strength and sending a bolt of
energy into the demons head, at the same time hacking at
its legs with his sword. The creature fell backward, sent off
balance by his attack. Gray tightened his grip on the shaft of
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the spear, sending it straight through the slats in its visor and
into the sickly yellow gleam of its eye. The beast stiffened,
waves of fire running down from Gray's hand and into its
brain. It lashed out with its mace in a desperate attempt to
destroy him, but Gray was expecting it and he ducked
under the swing, keeping his grip tightly locked on the
spear. Tremors racked the demons body, and it gave one
final groan before releasing the weapon, all its strength
gone.
Gray backed away from the corpse, the defenders
rushing through the now open passage to the shattered
remnants of the gate. Kail appeared beside him, his face
streaked with a mixture of blood and sweat. He glanced
over at the fallen creature, Nice work. was all he said.
Samir appeared beside them, her face displaying a
grudging admiration. We can't hold them off for much
longer here. she stated. There's too many. We'll have to
fall back to the interior levels. The east gate is still intact.
Lord Vernin has managed to stop them from breaking
through, but judging by what I've seen here, I don't know
how much longer they'll be able to hold it. Gray nodded.
Both the east and south gates are weakening, I suggest you
go there. There's nothing more you can do here. She
turned away, calling for her men to retreat as more of the
beasts came to fill the ranks of those who had died, an
endless stretch of enemies that cared nothing for casualties.
Xerra joined them as they made their way back up the stairs
toward the battlements, an iron gate closing after the last of
the warriors to hold off the demons.
Gray turned to face Xerra and Kail, already decided
on a course of action. I'll go to the west gate and try to
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prevent them from breaking through. You two go back to
the west. Find Lord Vernin and see what you can do.
Kail nodded, Be careful. he whispered, setting off
toward the east gate with Xerra following close behind.
Gray glanced after them, thinking of the fate that
awaited all the world should they fail. He descended the
stairs to the west gate of the fortress, the sea of blackened
faces staring out at him, each one reflecting the vacant void
of their souls.
* * * * *
Kara hung her head, watching in frustration as Kail,
Gray, and Xerra marched off to meet the army sent to
destroy them, leaving her to watch helplessly as they risked
their lives to protect her. She reentered the room that had
become their quarters, sinking down onto one of the small
cots, her thoughts dwelling on the inescapable fear that they
would not return. She caught sight of Flint, his tan face
grave as he stared down at the floor. The pounding rush of
footsteps sounded above them, soon joined by the muffled
cries of the wounded echoing through the empty halls.
It never ends does it? he sighed, his face displaying a
deep poignancy that she had not seen evidence of before.
She stared at him, her eyes downcast. How long do
you think they can hold them off?
He sighed. Who knows, but eventually they'll break
through. You can't hold off an army of that size, no matter
how strong the walls. This is only the beginning, they won't
stop here.
She glanced over at him in confusion. What do you
mean?
He laughed without humor. Who do you think sent
the army? I know enough of those devils that attacked us on
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the beach to see that they command such power. What
other reason would those creatures have for attacking this
particular place?
She bit her lip. So once again it was her fault these
people were dying. Flint glanced up at her, seeing her
reaction. I'm sorry. he whispered.
She smiled faintly. You have nothing to be sorry for.
Yes I do. he replied, his bright eyes troubled.
A sudden shudder rippled through the foundations of
the fortress, sending them both to their knees. A scout
appeared in the doorway, her face flushed with exertion.
She brushed nervously at her long red hair, her amber eyes
wild. The west and south gates have fallen. It isn't safe to
stay up here. Lieutenant Samir sent me to tell you to go to
the lower levels of the compound and join the rest of our
people near the tunnels.
Kara gathered her things, the girl leaving as quickly as
she had come. Yells and shouts of panic filled the corridors
as the enemy without drew closer. Flint led her down the
winding corridors back toward the tunnels from whence
they had come. They came to a sudden halt, staring at the
heavy metal doors, the handles barred shut, effectively
cutting off their escape. Kara scanned the empty corridors,
but there was no one there to give them direction.
Flint scanned the thick metal door that stood barring
their path. The passage over there might lead somewhere.
He stated. The important thing right now is getting away
from the surface. Kara nodded her agreement, turning
down the long stretch of corridors that led below with Flint
following at her heels.
The corridors ended at an empty compartment, a
metal hatch set into the center of the room. Flint peered
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down into the darkness below grabbing a torch from the
bracket in the side of the wall and illuminating the path
before them. They quickly descended the worn iron rungs
of the ladder positioned beneath the hatch, entering a
cavernous room similar to the tunnels they had used to
enter the city. Kara scanned the empty walls, throwing
forward the latch on the door and staring into the caves
beyond. We've gone too far down. she stated, recognizing
the tunnels the raiding party had led them through only a
few days before.
A sudden stabbing pain shot through the back of her
neck and she gasped in surprise. She fell to her knees, the
world around her going blurry. Her eyelids began to droop
forward as the drug coursing through her system did its job
and dragged her towards unconsciousness. Somewhere in
the back of her mind she heard a faintly familiar voice sigh.
Im sorry Kara. Soon it will be over. Some small part of
her recognized the voice for who it was, but the thought was
lost as she continued her descent into oblivion.
* * * * *
Kail raised his sword just in time to deflect the earth
shattering blow of the demon's ax. He slid under its guard
stabbing it through the stomach and turning to confront the
remainder of the creatures. The eastern gate still held back
the majority of the assailants, if only just barely, but some
had managed to sneak in through a sewage grate that led
under the walls.
He raised his hand in a sweeping motion, engulfing the
creatures before him in a wave of fire. The soldier beside
him boosted his efforts, turning the blaze into a raging
inferno that reduced the beasts to ash. He glanced over at
the man. A long scar ran the length of his one eye that was
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colored the light amber that was characteristic to many
among the Jika. He nodded his thanks to the solider,
charging forward toward the shattered grate and fusing it
shut, effectively stemming the flow of creatures and cutting
off any chance of escape for those already inside.
He caught sight of Xerra, her striking features covered
with a layer of sweat. She moved over to him, the last of the
creatures effectively disposed of by the remaining
defenders. How long do you think it will hold?
He shook his head, Not long. There's too many of
them, but the gate will probably fall before they try to enter
through there again, and once that happens there will be no
stopping them.
The man known as Lord Vernin moved toward them,
his once bright armor stained with gore. He caught the end
of their conversation and his expression became stern.
There isn't much more we can do, at least not here. The
southern gate fell only a few minutes ago and they've already
begun to breech the interior defenses.
Kail met the other's gaze, sensing there was more to
this than he was saying. What are you suggesting we do?
We retaliate. A small force could slip around and
attack from behind using a series of passages that lead
outside, but we can't risk losing the gate. If you stay behind
with a group of our warriors, you could hold the south wall
while we attack from behind.
Kail stared at him, his deep blue eyes reflecting his
displeasure. How will you get back inside once the attack is
ended?
There is a doorway concealed in the base of the wall
that leads back inside.
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I'll do what I can, but I'm not sure this is the wisest
thing to do.
The commander remained expressionless. Wise or
not, it's our last resort. He strode away, gathering his men
and giving them their orders. Xerra moved over to join
them, her whip cradled loosely in her hand.
Kail moved forward to intercept her, a ripple of fear
passing through him as he realized her intent. You can't
possibly be thinking of going out there. he said quietly.
She glanced at him. There's nothing I can do to make
a difference if I stay inside. They're going to need all the
help they can get if this plan is to succeed.
Its too dangerous.
Her brow creased in frustration, Its no more
dangerous for me than it is for them. she retorted. Why
are you being so resistant?
He ignored her question, continuing with his refusal.
If youre going then I'm going with you.
She shook her head. They need you here to hold the
gate. Besides, I'll be fine on my own. I've been fighting
battles like these a lot longer then you have.
What if they use magic? I won't be there to protect
you. At least some of the others have talismans to ward off
such attacks, you don't.
She stared at him exasperated. Kail, I can't not go just
because there's the possibility I might get hurt. That
possibility is the same for everyone. Why are you making
such an issue of this?
Because if you die out there it will have been my
fault. I'll die myself before I let anything happen to you,
because dying would be better than having to live with the
knowledge that I couldn't save you.
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She stared at him, her green eyes bright with wonder.
She locked her arms around his neck and raised her lips to
meet his own. She pulled away, her eyes holding his. And I
couldn't live with myself if I let you and everyone else die
when I could have made a difference. She moved over to
join the company of men departing toward the passages that
led outside. Trust me. she said softly, disappearing
behind the stone walls of the fortress. He stood motionless
among the group of warriors around him, vaguely aware of
the beasts massing outside. He turned to meet them, his
heart aching with the knowledge that he might never see her
again.
* * * * *
Gray drove back the hordes of monsters that poured
through the gaping hole of the west gate. It was a hopeless
attempt, but he fought on regardless, refusing to accept the
inevitable. It was a powerful magic that had torn down
through the heavy stone of the gate, shaking the very
foundations of the fortress and reducing it to dust. A
deformed figure hunched and cloaked sent a bolt of
electricity searing into his side, shattering his already
weakened shield and sending him sprawling. He blinked
back the pain and nausea, rising to his feet and looking out
at the carnage all around him. The person commanding the
unit who defended this section called for a retreat, seeing
that they could no longer stop the assault. The defenders
fell back from the gates, retreating to the interior of the
fortress. Gray stumbled after them, no longer able to deny
the obvious truth that confronted them all. Tal'Sur was lost.
* * * * *

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Chapter XXII
Faith to Wither
Faint whisperings of nameless strangers drifted in
and out of focus as Kara continued to drift in the empty
blackness of the ether. She was vaguely aware that she was
being taken somewhere, the steady sensation of motion
breaking through the haze of her thoughts. Something had
happened to put her in this situation. Something had
happened to pull her away from the others, but she could
not remember what. A seeping cold emanated from the
stone floor below her, chilling her to the bone and breaking
through her drug induced sleep. Her eyes slid open, and
she found herself in a small enclosed room, empty except
for a single figure standing forlornly in front of her, staring
blankly out the single window that looked out unto the
bloody chaos of the battle still ensuing inside the Jika city of
Tal'Sur. She struggled to stand, blinking away her lingering
lethargy and rising to her knees. Her hands were securely
tied behind her back, a gag placed firmly around her mouth
and forcing her to breathe through her nose. She glanced
out at the smoking ruin of the Jika city visible through the
window across from her, the gates smashed inward, the
courtyards flooded with the twisted forms of the enemy.
She glanced up at the immobile figure of Flint Hawkwood,
feeling angry and ashamed for ever having trusted him.
Flint spoke without looking at her, his voice distant.
They won't last much longer. Two of the three main gates
have fallen and by now they will have flooded all the upper
levels. No one will be coming to save you. he glanced back
at her, his eyes haunted. They've made sure of that. You
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should've known you couldn't stop something as powerful
as them. Your resistance has done nothing but delay them.
She glared at him, but he didn't seem to notice, continuing
his bleak monologue. There's no stopping them. If only
you had listened to your friends Kara. They knew, but in
the end none of you did anything. I didn't want to do this,
but there are more important things.... he trailed off,
walking over and pulling her to her feet. Eleven is too
young to die. They have the power to save him. Soon he'll
be safe. We'll both be.
She had no idea what he was talking about, but at the
moment she didn't care. If only you had listened to your
friends... She blinked back her tears, determined not to cry.
If only she had. She remembered Gray saying how they
couldn't trust Flint. How there was something wrong about
the sailor and letting him accompany them would be a
mistake. He had been right. A wave of bitterness overcame
her and somewhere deep inside she heard the faint sound
of laughter. All alone with your betrayal. So nave and
unsuspecting of this fate. You should have listened... She
blocked away the hateful voice of the sorceress as it echoed
through her mind, not needing to hear more of her
ancestor's taunts.
She descended down the spiral steps of the abandoned
watch tower where she had awoken with Flint leading her
roughly by the arm. Already they were miles away from the
mountain city, miles away from any chance of rescue. They
emerged into a stretch of forest on the fringes of the
mountains, the citadel of the Jika fading from sight. Flint
dragged her steadily forward and she went willingly,
knowing it was pointless to resist. She was unarmed and
Flint was much stronger than she. Unless she used her
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magic, she had nothing with which to defend herself,
nothing to give her any hope of escape.
The sun shone faintly through the scattering of trees. It
was a few hours past dawn, meaning she had been gone for
many hours already. They pushed their way through the
thickening brush, the air growing warmer with the passage
of time. She didn't need to guess where they were going, for
in her heart she already knew. They would soon arrive at
the place she had been trying to reach since this journey
began. They were going to Fey Mors, the fortress of the
Cursed.
She thought suddenly of the vision she had dreamt, the
one where she had watched the boat make its way across
the river carrying the prisoner through the gates of the
fortress. She knew now that the prisoner had been her. The
dream had been a warning telling her not to trust Flint and
not to let the vision come to pass, but she had failed to
understand, and now the knowledge was useless. She
glanced sideways at the bedraggled form of Flint Hawkwood
as he plodded steadily through the dense forest, taking her
toward her doom. She knotted her hands into fists, her nails
digging into the palms of her hands. There was still a
chance that she could save herself. There was still a chance
that she could escape. She closed her eyes, reaching down
inside herself for the power she knew to be there. It
emerged almost immediately, sparking at the tips of her
finger, waiting for release. A numbing pain shot up through
her wrists, breaking her concentration and making her gasp
in pain.
She staggered forward and her captor pulled her
roughly to her feet, his face grim. I wouldn't try that again if
I were you. The more powerful the magic the more
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violently it reacts. He pointed down at the tarnished silver
threads that encircled her hands. She experienced a sinking
feeling in the pit of her stomach, her last hope of escape
having shattered. Black Mercury. He stated. Resistant to
all forms of magic no matter how strong. The masters do
not wish for you to be leaving just yet.
She glared at him, wishing nothing more than to see
him pay for his betrayal. He met her gaze, seeing the
hostility reflected in her eyes. Don't pretend you didn't
know this was coming. I told you not to trust me, but you
did anyways. he glanced away, his face mirroring a mix of
conflicting emotions, his eyes displaying the slight madness
that ate away at him. You believed me in spite of
everything. This is your fault as much as it is mine.
They walked for hours, trudging through the dense
woods, the air becoming stiflingly hot. There was no
evidence here of the winter that lay over the rest of the
world, the suffocating heat intensifying with each and every
step. Kara walked with her eyes on the ground, not wanting
to see any more of the one who had betrayed her, betrayed
them all. She remembered faintly how she had felt about
him, the way he had always been able to make her laugh,
the charming audacity he had displayed when they had first
met. He had saved her life, only to take it away by
delivering her into the hands of her enemies. Tears filled
the corner of her eyes and she blinked them angrily away.
She had been a fool.
They emerged from between the trees and came upon
a small plateau, the winding ribbon of the river Hellese
visible in the distance. The murky waters flowed sluggishly
down the twisting path, like a serpent weaving its way
through the earth. A small group of men came forward to
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meet them, their pockmarked faces covered with greasy
sweat. Kara recoiled from them, their stagnant odor
assaulting her senses. They lurched forward with a strange
hobbling motion, their crooked limbs unable to imitate the
appearance of order. Something about them was decidedly
wrong, their garbled features speaking of something evil.
I have done what the masters have ordered. Flint
proclaimed, eyeing the brutes with wariness in his eyes.
The foremost among them smiled, his blackened teeth
curved like fangs. Your service is appreciated. The master
waits. You shall soon receive your reward.
Kara stared closely at those assembled and saw to her
horror what was wrong about them, minute details she had
missed before. Their reptilian eyes were devoid of anything
human, broken gateways to the hollow chasm of their souls.
She was pulled after them, marching toward the river that
would lead them to the Black Marsh. They reached the
shores, coming upon an old boat, its worn wooden surface
stained with filth. She hesitated before entering the vessel,
looking uncertainly at the slime encrusted seats.
The one who had spoken before turned toward her,
addressing her directly. She held herself ridged. The feel of
decay emanated from his very being. No time to delay.
The masters will be eager to have you.
He shoved her forward, Flint sliding in nervously
behind her, his shadowy presences a constant reminder of
how this had come to pass. They set off across the river, the
last of Kara's hopes burning to ashes in her hands.
* * * * *
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Chapter XXIII
In the Dark
Xerra pressed back against the cool stone wall, the
creatures that prowled the empty corridor sliding by,
unaware of her presence. The rest of the company that had
led the attack outside the walls were either fatally wounded
or dead, taken down in the aftermath of their disastrous
attempt to drive back the demons.
They had gone through the passage and attacked the
army from behind, only one hundred soldiers against a
thousand; it had been a desperate attempt. They managed
to kill many in the first assault before the creatures had time
to react, but somewhere along the way something had gone
terribly wrong and their intended escape route had been
sealed off, trapping them outside in the center of the horde.
They fought valiantly, but there were far too many enemies
to make a difference. Xerra, along with a few others, had
managed to return through the sewage grate running under
the west gate, but they had not been prepared for the
creatures already inside.
She took a moment to rest, remembering suddenly the
boy who had been with her. She shook her head, the
memory rising unbidden to the forefront of her mind. They
had been cornered in a small network of passages by a pack
of the beasts and she and the boy had drawn off the horde
from the rest of the survivors. They had only gone a few
feet before he was killed, shot through the neck with an
arrow. He had died staring up at her, his eyes wide in
shock, not quite believing what had just happened.
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She blinked back her tears. Now was not the time to
cry. It had been a freak accident. It should not have
happened, and yet there was nothing she could do to
change it. He had endured so much only to be felled by a
stray arrow... She shook her head. Many had died today,
but mourning would have to wait. Right now, all she could
focus on was escaping this hellhole alive.
She took a deep breath, moving swiftly through the
blood stained corridors, the sounds of battle still echoing
through the halls above. She had seen no evidence of any of
the others who had come in with her and she didn't put too
much hope in the possibility that they had survived. She was
alone now, moving swiftly without the weight of her armor
to wear her down. She had discarded most of the
equipment early on. Dented and damaged by the skirmish
outside, it was more hindrance than help.
She rounded the corner and came face to face with
another of the demons. She did not hesitate as she struck,
uncoiling her whip and embedding the deadly spikes into
the flesh of its neck, jerking it forward and breaking the
bone. A scraping sound came off to her left and she turned
to find another of the creatures, its canine features feral and
crazed. It ran down the corridor she had come from, loping
across the smooth stone floor and leaping for her throat.
She dropped to the ground, ducking under the strike and
raking her knife along its exposed underbelly as it flew past.
It gave a cry of pain, its lifeless body skidding across the
polished floor.
She rolled to her feet, climbing up a nearby flight of
stairs and putting the encounter behind her. She made her
way back to the main level, heading toward the east gate
where she hoped to find Kail. She had just emerged onto
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the battlements when all hell broke loose. The last of the
gates guarding the citadel broke down, letting loose a fresh
wave of attackers, crazed yellowed eyes searching for their
prey. The reinforced door that had barricaded the upper
levels gave way, letting in the creatures that had entered
through the sewers. People ran in fear, some standing to
fight, but most falling victim to panic, their reason overcome
by the desperate fear that now drove them.
Xerra retreated back into the corridor, knowing that it
was foolish to try and fight the demons; her only chance was
to escape through the tunnels they had come through the
night they were captured. She sprinted down the empty
halls, taking a different route than the one she had come
through, one that veered away from the east and south
wings of the compound which were by this time overrun by
demons. She continued down the maze of corridors,
fervently praying that Kail had not been one of those still
outside when the gates had fallen.
A sudden explosion knocked her feet out from under
her, planting her flat on her face on the ground. She
blinked back the spots that had begun to cloud her vision,
all the breath having left her body. The entire west wall of
the corridor had been blown apart, the pale gray light of
dawn filtering down through a veil of dust and debris. An
unmistakable growl sounded from behind her back,
accompanied by a chorus of hissing. She reached for her
dagger, knowing without looking what waited behind her.
* * * * *
Kail shoved his way forward through the mob of
people, their faces panicked as they fled. Most of the
warriors now lay dead in the ground and it seemed now that
those that still fought would join them soon enough. All that
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remained now of the Jikas army were those too weak or
young to join the battle, sheep fenced in by the wolves
without.
He glanced remorsefully at the shattered remnants of
the east gate, thinking of all the bodies that now littered the
once clear courtyard. He had failed in his attempts to hold
the gate, the attacks from those already within too much to
stand against when coupled with the creatures without. He
had watched in dismay as the raiding party led by Lord
Vernin had fallen apart, their escape sealed off by a group
of the creatures who had discovered the passage out. The
attacks from the other creatures had begun shortly after, led
by some of the demons who had somehow managed to
enter through the sewage tunnels that lay beneath the city
and worm their way past the interior defenses that held
back the rest of their brethren.
He turned away from the main passage, searching in
vain for Xerra and the others from the shattered company,
but it was impossible to find anything in the chaos that
surrounded him. A group of demons came in from the
south, blocking the passage and catching the people
unawares. Some pulled free their weapons, trying to fend
off the creatures attacks, but they were no match for them.
Kail summoned forth his magic, ignoring the weariness and
stress that was overcoming him as a result of its excessive
use.
He blew back the foremost of his attackers, leaping
forward with his sword and taking them down. The other
refugees rallied around him, strengthening their attempts
and driving back the creatures. Some among the group
retreated, but many continued to fight. Crazed past the
need for self-preservation, they fought to the death. Kail
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glanced around at the bloodstained halls, advising the rest
of the people that they should stay away from the east
corridors and enter the west wing where there would be less
of the creatures. He continued alone through the halls,
skillfully evading the masses of creatures and searching for
the room where he had left Kara.
The familiar snake-like hissing carried down the
corridor from the reptilian beasts that he had encountered
in the courtyard, sending shivers down his spine. He
slipped back into one of the empty storage rooms, waiting
silently for them to pass. He peered around the small
enclosure and his eyes became drawn to the crumpled heap
that lay slumped against one wall, hidden by the deep
shadows that shrouded the room.
He slipped forward, crouching down to get a better
look at the person before him. His eyes widened as he
found himself face to face with the broken form of Malachi
Vernin, his arm hanging uselessly at his side, his shirt front a
mass of blood.
The amber eyes locked on his own as he crouched
down beside the man, his expression filled with a grave
determination. How many are out there? He spoke softly,
his voice hoarse.
Kail glanced at the torchlight spilling from under the
door. Thousands. The interior defenses are down. All the
gates have fallen. he hesitated, his blue eyes dark pools in
the dim light. The fortress is flooded. There isn't any hope
of recovery. The man nodded, accepting calmly what he
already knew to be true. How badly are you hurt? Kail
questioned, glancing uneasily at the blood that stained the
commanders tunic.
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My right arm is broken at the elbow and wrist Stab
wound to the side. A few other minor scratches as well, but
I'll survive.
Can you walk?
Vernin shook his head. I don't expect so. Help me to
my feet and I'll try. If I stay here, I'm dead.
Kail nodded, reaching down and helping the man to
his feet. Vernin groaned, sagging slightly, but still managing
to keep his footing. Kail looked down at the discarded
armor lying in a heap on the floor. Come on. The tunnels
are only a few levels below us.
They limped forward down the hallway, Kail
murmuring a spell under his breath that would mask their
presence from the creatures who stalked them. Kail peered
into the cavernous room where he had left Kara and Flint,
but it was empty. He experienced a sinking feeling in the pit
of his stomach. Though logically he reasoned they would
have been evacuated from so near the gates once the battle
had started, deep down, he knew that something much
worse had happened.
They descended through the various levels of the
fortress, most of the demons gone off in pursuit of the
survivors who had fled the upper levels. The older man
leaned heavily on his shoulder, his wounds much more
serious than he cared to admit.
They made it most of the way back toward the tunnels
that led out before they stopped to rest. Kail wordlessly
wrapped the man's wound with a spare piece of cloth to
staunch the flow of blood as he asked the question that had
been eating away at him since he had first spotted the
commander in the room. What happened to the rest of
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the soldiers who attacked the army outside? Were there any
survivors besides yourself?
Vernin turned to look at him, his strong face lined with
weariness. A few of us managed to escape through a series
of sewage tunnels the creatures had reopened, but most
were killed by the army when they sealed off our escape.
There were more demons waiting for us when we emerged
inside the compound and they killed off most of us before
we had time to react. Your friend Xerra, and my nephew,
Freyoes drew away the horde, giving us a chance to escape.
Myself along with three others tried to make our way back
to the gates to help fortify the interior.
Kail stared at the ground a fresh wave of trepidation
flooding through him. Xerra was still alive, but if he didn't
find her soon, she might not be. Can you go on? he
asked, rising to his feet.
The other nodded. Take the tunnel branching left to
the south wing. It's the fastest way to the tunnels that lead
out of the city. Kail followed the darkened corridor, a
gnawing fear growing in his stomach. If they didn't get out
soon, they would join the rest of the warriors of Tal'Sur in
the depths of the ether.
* * * * *
The demon shot toward Xerra in a tangle of fur and
sinew, teeth split open to expose the curved yellow fangs
that would sink into her flesh. Xerra rolled over onto her
back, jamming the long knife she held gripped in her hand
between its open jaws and into its throat. The momentum
of the demons attack carried it over her head and she
released her grip on the haft of the knife, knowing the
creature was already dead.
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A lightning fast kick caught her in the side of the head
as she struggled to rise to her feet and the blackened clawed
hand of another of the creatures closed around her throat,
the vice like grip closing off the air from her lungs. She
snapped out her whip and sent the curved blades fixed to its
end straight into the demons reptilian eyes, knowing from
experience that its scaled hide would protect the rest of its
body from such an attack.
The creature reared back, dark blood pouring down
from the ugly gouge in its face, but the other demon was
quickly on top of her, backhanding her so hard she was sent
sprawling into the side of the wall.
A flash of silver entered the corner of her vision, the
blurred figure shooting down the hall and cutting down the
demons that surrounded her like wheat. He strolled over to
her and helped her to her feet, his gray eyes intense.
Xerra spit a mouthful of blood onto the stone floor,
only adding to the already existing gore. She turned to look
at the grim face of Gray Ravenwing, her veins still
thrumming with adrenaline. Thanks. she managed. I
didn't know if you had survived the collapse of the gates.
He nodded wordlessly, glancing past her down the
corridor from which she had come. More are coming. We
should go.
They ran down a long series of corridors, Gray leading
her back toward the lower levels and the escape tunnels that
exited the city. Xerra followed steadily after him, trying to
ignore the pounding in her head. She thought sadly of Kail.
The faint hope she had that he had survived was rapidly
deteriorating with each minute that passed. She could not
ignore the possibility that he had fallen in the attack, and the
very thought made her heart ache. She bit her lip, thinking
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of the way he had looked at her, his face deceptively calm,
but his eyes betraying the panic and worry he felt as she had
left. She sighed, weaving her way through the cold stone
passages. Now there would never be a chance to tell him
how she felt.
They stepped back into an empty room, avoiding a
passing party of demon wolves sent to track down the
survivors. Gray glanced over at her, his voice barely more
than a whisper as he spoke. The tunnels leading out are on
the level below us. What few survivors there are will be
waiting for us there. He stopped speaking, leveling his
gaze. I take it there's been no sign of either Kail or Kara?
She felt the last of her hope fade away inside of her.
They aren't with the rest of the survivors?
Gray shook his head. I'm afraid not. Most of the Jika
found their way there after the inner gates collapsed. I
arrived there earlier after I failed to seal the breech in the
south wall. he paused, his expression remorseful. Most of
the Jika were slain in the attack, only a few were able to
make it this far. None of them have heard any word about
either Kara or Kail, though one girl did mention that she
had been sent to warn Kara and Flint after the initial
attack. He stopped, his eyes burning with suspicion. She
was surprised they hadn't made it down there hours ago.
They should have been out long before any of the creatures
got inside.
Xerra shook her head. You think its because of Flint
don't you? she said calmly, more a statement than a
question.
How do you think the creatures found this citadel in
the first place? After centuries of eluding all the dark
monsters that sought to destroy them do you honestly think
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the Jika would have been so easily found by a pack of
mindless demons? The Cursed are surely good hunters, but
they are no better than the Darkened or the Volrye, who
both attempted to wipe out the Jika and yet were never able
to find a single one of their fortresses. It occurs to me now
that it was impossible for the Cursed to have found us at all
when we docked here, for they cannot track across water.
They had no way of knowing where we would land unless
of course someone told them. Someone like Flint
Hawkwood, who knew exactly when and where the ship
would land. He shook his head. I cant believe I didnt
see this before. He was the one following us that day in the
port outside Zalem. Hes been working for the Cursed this
entire time and now its too late to stop him from carrying
out his orders.
Xerra looked away, her nails digging into her palms.
Stupid! She chastised herself. How could she have missed
this? She took a deep breath, calming her anger. We have
to go after him. She whispered.
We can find the snake later. Gray replied. Right
now, we have to get out of here. They continued down the
stretch of corridors, descending down the ladder into the
bowels of the fortress. Wait. Gray hissed, holding out his
hand to stop her. There's something there.
She glanced ahead into the empty hall, the faint
shadow cast by the torchlight revealing the presence of the
enemy who might have otherwise gone unnoticed. She
reached for her dagger, tensing as the creature emerged
from around the corner.
* * * * *
Kail walked steadily onward, following the directions
murmured by the struggling Lord Vernin to the tunnels that
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would lead them away from this death trap. His efforts to
evade the predators that stalked them had been only
partially successful, with far too many deadly encounters to
suit him. Worse still, his sustained use of the magic to hide
them and to fight off the creatures was leeching away at his
strength, and he did not know how much longer he could
continue this march.
They rounded a corner, coming onto a long stretch of
halls very close to where they were headed. Two figures
emerged out of the shadows, seeing through their disguise
and moving to confront them. Kail dropped away the
illusion, the features of the people before him catching the
light.
Xerra came up short, her face lined with relief. Kail!
she exclaimed moving forward to embrace him. Kail
straightened in surprise, waiting a moment before returning
the embrace, relief and joy coursing through him as he saw
that she was safe.
Vernin leaned dizzily against the wall, his strong face
haggard as he fixed his gaze on the approaching form of
Gray. Gray Ravenwing. I must admit, I am relieved to see
it is you and not another of those accursed beasts. He
scanned the dark corridors, his jaw tightening as he saw
there was no one else with them. He turned to find Xerra,
his eyes sad. What has become of Freyoes?
Xerra shook her head. He was fatally wounded by
one of the creatures while we were leading them away.
There was nothing I could do. Vernin looked away, his
eyes downcast.
We should keep going. Gray stated. It isn't much
further. They arrived at the sealed door, giving the
password and entering the room that held the entrance to
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the tunnels below. A group of people rushed forward,
taking the bloody form of Lord Vernin and seeing to his
wounds. Gray pulled Kail aside, coldly explaining his
suspicions of Flint Hawkwood and the circumstances
around Kara's disappearance. Kail said nothing, frustration
and despair overwhelming him as he realized what a
mistake he had made.
He raised his gaze to meet Gray's. We have to find
them. There's no doubt where he'll be taking her. If he is
working for the Cursed, then she'll be dead the moment
they reach their layer at Fey Mors. Can we cross the marsh
into the Cursed's fortress in time to stop them?
Gray stared at him, seeing the look in his friends eyes
and recognizing the feelings behind it. You couldn't have
known what he would do Kail. he stated, the others gaze
fixing on his own. We will find her, and then we'll put an
end to those demons once and for all.
They moved over to the slumped figure of Malachi
Vernin, his face drawn and pale but still lit with the pride
and resolve that was integral to his character. We're
leaving. Kail told him. Something has happened to one of
our companions, and we need to go and find them.
Vernin nodded, You have my gratitude. You saved
my life as well as those of many here in this room. We will
be leaving within the next hour, setting out for our brothers'
fortress at Her'Nore. Go with our blessing, and know that
you will always have friends among the Jika.
They moved toward the heavy brass door leading into
the tunnels, Xerra coming up behind him with what meager
supplies the people had to give slung over her shoulder in a
worn leather pack. They moved through the network of
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caves, following the winding passage toward the enemy they
had long sought.

* * * * *
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Chapter XXIV
Fey Mors
The mist loomed up in front of Kara like an
impenetrable wall as the ragged boat continued to wind its
way down the river, drifting deeper and deeper into the
mire of the Black Marsh. She held her breath, trying to
block out the stench of decay that permeated everything
within the swamp. It had been hours since she and the
traitor Flint Hawkwood had first encountered the brutes
that led them now. She felt a crushing despair settle over
her, deepening with every minute that passed as she strayed
farther and farther from any hope of rescue.
The minion in the bow of the boat led them out of the
main channel and into a narrow stretch of streams
spreading through the swamp ahead like tendrils of hair.
The unnatural humidity hung over the boat like a shroud,
choking the breath from her body, the stale gag that
encircled her mouth only intensifying its effects. Glowing
eyes stared out at her from behind the brush, malevolent
and cunning, displaying an insatiable hunger as they tracked
the small boat's progress through their territory. A cruel
voice played in the back of Kara's head as they went, a
constant reminder of what a fool she had been.
They emerged from beneath the covering of trees and
came into a stagnant pond that sat placidly before them, its
toxic waters undisturbed by anything living. Kara stared at
the massive fortress that loomed ahead, the jagged points of
rock that marked its entrance hanging open like teeth
forming the mouth of a beast come to swallow her. Hell's
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Maw, the entrance to the fortress of the Cursed, the marker
of her doom.
They passed through the austere gates, the rest of the
world fading into memory as the iron doors swung shut
behind them. Kara gathered her courage and pulled futilely
at the bonds that held her captive, her magic a distant
presence, inaccessible and unable to provide any aid. They
reached the shore in front of the large double doors that
were the entrance to Fey Mors, the fog curling around her
in ethereal tendrils that prickled her skin. The boat set off
behind them, leaving her alone with Flint as the chillingly
familiar cloaked forms of the Cursed emerged from the
entryway before them.
One of the creatures stepped forward to greet them, its
cold eyes flaming with hate. You have done well. Kara
shivered at the sound of the admonition. The voice was
devoid of emotion, echoing inside her head as it
reverberated throughout the air.
Flint stepped forward, his face troubled. What of the
reward I was promised? he asked uncertainly. Where is
the elixir?
The creature's cold eyes fixed on him, clearly irritated
by the question. Do not demand of me slave. it hissed.
Soon you shall have your reward, but first , what of the
others who accompanied you?
Flint glanced away, avoiding the other's gaze. Lost in
the battle at the Jika citadel of Tal'Sur. Trapped along with
the other warriors inside of the city when it fell.
Kara glanced quizzically at him, knowing his statement
to be false. The escape tunnels leading out ensured that
none would be trapped inside, unless of course they had
been sealed. She glanced away, her mind troubled by this
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newest revelation. What of Terrin? Flint prodded. Is he
safe?
The Cursed inclined its head, a barely perceptible
nod. Flint relaxed noticeably, but a look of fear and
trepidation still lingered in his eyes as they shifted nervously
to meet those of the creature before him. I have done all
you have asked.
The demon smiled without warmth, its eyes cold and
hard. Indeed you have. Now it is time to give you the prize
you deserve. It raised its hand and Flint shuddered, his
eyes going wide with a mix of surprise and pain. He tried to
cry out, but no sound escaped his tortured face, jaw working
frantically as he struggled to break loose of the invisible
bonds that held him. His body jerked sideways, bending at
an unnatural angle as he collapsed to the ground, his face a
twisted mask of unperceivable horror as he died.
Kara stared down in shock at the limp form of her
companion, his eyes open and staring. The creature turned
to face her, its twisted features dead and sunken. Envy him
child, for your death will be much slower.
* * * * *
Gray crept forward, Kail and Xerra following close
behind as they made their way through the narrow passages
that wound through the marsh. He had tracked Flint and
Kara out of the passages beneath the city to an old watch
tower about three leagues east, following their trail to the
bank of the Hellese River, where the two had met with a
larger group and taken a boat downstream toward Fey
Mors. The route was long, curving around the border to the
entrance at Hell's Maw. It was not the most direct way to
approach the fortress, but it was by far the safest.
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Gray covered his mouth with the hem of his tunic to
ward off the stench of decay as they emerged from behind
the corpse of trees. He stared out at the foul waters of the
lake before them. Nothing living could survive in such a
toxic environment where to even touch the water was death
to all but the most resilient of creatures. He and the others
hadn't had time to follow the people who had taken Kara
down the river, as they were already hours behind, so they
had instead chosen to take a more precarious route that led
through the heart of the swamp, the same path he had taken
the last time he had come here while tracking the Cursed.
Gray grimaced as he remembered the long trek that
had brought them here. It was not something that he cared
to reflect on, as the treacherous landscape of the bog and
the carnivorous creatures that roamed its lengths had not
exactly presented an easy path forward. He stared now at
the looming gates of the structure before him, his gray eyes
penetrating as they searched for a way past the armored
exterior of the fortress to the demons within.
Kail crouched down beside him, his voice soft as he
spoke. How are we going to cross the river and breach the
gates without letting them know we're here?
Gray took his time replying, his senses acute as he
located the watchmen that lay concealed in the broken
spires. Theres a point where the island curves around to
meet the shore. We will cross there and enter through one
of the passages leading underneath the fortress to the main
keep. Thats where well find Kara.
Kail nodded solemnly, his attention fixed on the castle
before them. They crept through the shadows of the marsh,
keeping to the concealment of the brush as they crossed the
small stretch of ground leading up to the castle. Dark
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twisted figures slouched along the walls above, bleak crazed
eyes staring blankly into the swamps beyond. Gray grimaced
as he passed near the emaciated forms; an almost tangible
aura of madness and blood lust emanated from the
creatures. They were a vicious type of demon known as
Reapers, the things could kill in an instant should they catch
sight of the three below. It appeared the Cursed had not
sent all of their creatures to invade Tal'Sur. They would
have to be careful.
They slid along the stone wall of the fortress, Gray
running his hands along the cold stone surface in search of
the door he knew to be hidden there. He muttered a spell
under his breath, unlocking the hidden panel and clearing
the way forward into the interior. No light illuminated the
hollow passages and they crouched in silence in the still
darkness as Kail summoned forth a ball of light that
hovered over the palm of his hand to remedy the problem.
Gray took the lead once more, carefully following the
route mapped out in his mind from the last time he had
been here. They ascended the flights of spiral stairs out of
the earthen corridors and onto the main levels, advancing
toward the keep. Gray probed the passages ahead for any
sign of the creatures that guarded them, and was disturbed
to find them empty. He glanced up at the tunnels ahead,
unable to avoid the feeling that something about this was
not quite right. He was still holding on to that same thought
when he tripped the ward and everything around them
erupted in an explosion of fire.
* * * * *
Xerra glanced around the bleak stretch of passages that
wound their way upward through the citadel. She did not
like being enclosed in such a foreign environment,
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especially when she had no idea where to go if something
happened and they needed to escape. She glanced forward
at the cloaked forms of Kail and Gray, silent shadows
cautiously making their way through the maze of corridors
connecting to the keep.
She thought of all that had happened to bring them
here and reflected suddenly on her decision to leave Zalem.
It had been the right decision at the time, but the more she
thought about it, the more she remembered the surprise
mirrored in her brother's eyes as she had told him she was
leaving, abandoning him and forcing him to rule the
kingdom all by himself. She glanced ahead at Kail, studying
the familiar shape of his body and knew that if she had to
go back and choose again she would have made the same
decision. She stared down at her hands, much had
happened in the past few weeks, and her own troubles with
her homeland seemed distant and trivial. The king was
gone, disposed of and replaced, but there were many things
that still needed to be set right within the city and that was a
responsibility that she could not ignore. She had left much
unfinished in her home city, and the obligation to remedy
the situation there still lay heavily upon her. She continued
her silent study of the two men before her, thinking
critically on what was to happen. If she did survive this day,
maybe it was time she went home.
They progressed through the series of corridors,
encountering no sign of anything living. Ahead of her,
Gray's face creased in concern beneath the shadow of his
hood. Something about the passage clearly bothered him.
She glanced ahead, her eyes falling on the stone arch that
hung overhead. She was still studying it when a hoarse shout
from Kail sent her diving to the floor, the world around her
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exploding in a fury of light and sound. Gray bore the brunt
of the attack, arms locked before him in a hastily
constructed shield. A powerful shock-wave rippled through
the corridor, a line of fire spreading out overhead to destroy
the intruders. Xerra lay flat against the floor as she struggled
to endure the suffocating heat, cursing silently for all the
noise this was making. The attack subsided and Xerra
cleared her lungs, sweat beaded on her forehead from the
lingering heat, the smell of ash still wafting on the air.
Gray rose to his feet, the edges of his robes smoking.
It looks like they have made some changes since the last
time I was here. He grunted.
Kail relaxed his guard, put on edge by the suddenness
of the attack. Can you search out any other ward's the
Cursed Ones may have put in place? he asked, his voice
even and calm despite his unease.
Gray nodded. Now that I know what to look for, we
can probably avoid any other snares they've constructed.
They continued their ascent, Kail aiding Gray in the
unraveling of the other spells put in place to block their way
forward. Xerra continued to follow them, glancing around
at the empty stone corridors, unable to detect even the
slightest indication of the traps that could mean the end of
them. They came to a stop a few minutes later, Gray
studying the corridor in which they stood in silent
contemplation. He seemed to be searching for something,
though he wasn't looking for it with his eyes. The keep of
the fortress is just ahead in the room above. he stated.
There's a panel concealed within the floor overhead. If
we're quick enough, we can reach Kara before the Cursed
even know we're here.
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Do you know the layout of the room from the last
time you were here? Xerra questioned, but Gray just
shook his head.
Only roughly. Last time I went in through a branching
tunnel and never actually entered the keep. The Cursed
were expecting me then, this time they won't be. We'll just
have to be careful. Don't speak until we're out, just follow
my lead.
They climbed up a narrow set of winding stairs to a
cramped passage leading under the floor of the main
fortress above. Gray raised his hand, signaling for them to
stop. Xerra cocked her head, straining to make out the
words of the faint voices echoing in the halls above. The
trapdoor of which Gray spoke lay just down the hall, but
they stayed where they were, the unmistakable rasping hiss
of a demon's speech grating against the inside of Xerra's
ears like a razor.
* * * * *
Their tracks were discovered outside the citadel by
my brethren. By now they are already somewhere inside.
The demon hissed, addressing the tall robed figure of the
Cursed that stood impassively before Kara in the hollow
stretch of corridors leading up to the keep where awaited
her doom.
Kara remained motionless as she leaned against the
stone wall, a thrill of hope racing through her at the
mention of Kail and the others. Small rivulets of blood
trickled down from the wounds in her wrist created during
the fateful march up to through the halls of Fey Mors. She
had tried everything to slip free of the bonds that rendered
her helpless, but had only succeeded in wearing away the
skin of her wrists as the gossamer threads of Black Mercury
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woven into the rope bit into her flesh. A throbbing ache
spread through her hands as she shifted position, but she
ignored her discomfort as she waited intently for her captor
to speak.
The Cursed took its time replying, its back turned to
the deadly creature as if to show how lowly it regarded the
demon. We know of the intruders of which you speak.
One of the wards was activated a few minutes past. You
waste time with your pointless rhetoric. It turned to face
the beast, its cold eyes radiating hostility. We have more
important things to deal with than wasting our time chasing
after a few interfering mages and their companion. Take the
wolves and track them down, then bring them here alive so
that the master may deal with them.
The demon backed away, bowing slightly to show its
ascent. It shall be done as you command. It purred, its
red eyes gleaming with anticipation.
Kara watched it leave, the last of her hope fading as
she listened to the pronouncement. The Cursed turned, its
dead eyes fixing on her face. Now it is time for you to meet
the master and see for yourself why none can stand against
us. It turned, and Kara jerked forward to follow, pulled by
invisible strings to the chamber beyond.
* * * * *
Gray started forward once more, the echo of footsteps
sounding from above as the creatures parted ways. He
thought about the last few words spoken by the Cursed,
addressed not at the demon, but at someone else. Kara. He
glanced up at the trapdoor looming above them that led to
the chamber of the keep. There waited the Cursed Ones,
and there it would end.
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Gray turned back to face the shadowed forms of Kail
and Xerra, not daring to speak above more than a whisper
as the empty halls of the chamber would carry even the
smallest sound. We will come out in the west corner of the
room. I'll distract them and you two focus on freeing Kara;
she's the only one who stands a chance against so many of
them.
Kail nodded solemnly, Xerra mimicking the gesture,
iron determination reflected in both their eyes. They would
see this through until the end. Gray climbed the rungs of
the ladder, easing open the heavy wooden panel and setting
it on the ground beside him. He slowly surveyed the strange
setting before him, the shadowed alcove in which he stood
concealed by a heavy velvet curtain colored a deep crimson.
He had a vague impression of the layout of the keep from a
scan he had performed while preparing to enter, but he had
never gone this deep before. This was foreign territory to
him, and he would have to be wary.
He stared at the worn pillars lining the room, the
sparse furnishings crumbling with age and decay. The smell
of blood lay heavy on the air, the floor of the room stained
with gore. The lair of the demon, he thought grimly.
The doors of the room swung open, and the creatures
that had remained unnoticed in the shadows rose to their
feet, the cold dead eyes of the Cursed gleaming with an all
too familiar look of anticipation as their prey approached.
Another of the Cursed Ones entered through the door at
the side of the room, joining the rest of its brethren inside.
Kara trailed forlornly behind it, her face smudged with dirt,
hands tied securely behind her back. Kail knelt rigidly
beside Gray on the floor of the room, his blue eyes flaring
with anxiety as he spotted his cousin. He glanced over at
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Gray, clearly demanding they do something, but Gray
motioned him away, his eyes fixed on the figures in front of
them.
The Cursed and its prisoner made their way to the
center of the room, the wasted shade of Zeveran Cray
moving forward to greet them. Its eyes remained locked on
Kara, its voice cutting and hard as it addressed her. Today
comes the end, for you and for all who have held us
imprisoned.
* * * * *
Kara lurched forward through the cracked wooden
doors of the chamber, coming face to face with the enemy
that stalked her. She swallowed her fear and trepidation,
determined to stand strong in the face of her death. She
thought fleetingly of Kail and the others who had come with
her, knowing that even if they had escaped the demons sent
to destroy them there was no way they would make it here
in time to save her. She was alone.
She glanced ruefully at the bloodstained coils that held
her captive. All this talk about the power she possessed, yet
here she was, rendered helpless by a few strands of rope.
She glanced around the bleak setting of the room, the floor
stained with the remnant of the lives lost here. She glanced
up at the marble faces of the Cursed, their souls rotted away
by the magic that consumed them. They were no freer than
she was.
The foremast among them moved forward to meet
her, and she recognized him instantly to be their leader,
Zeveran Cray, who had been so close to killing her many
times before. Now it seemed he would finally succeed, and
then there would be nothing to prevent the demon that
consumed him from ravaging the earth.
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Today comes the end, for you and for all who have
held us imprisoned. She shivered, the words biting into
her mind with a piercing intensity.
A small blur of motion moved through the edges of
her vision, and she shifted her attention there momentarily
before coming back to focus on the shade. She wondered if
any of the creatures had noticed, but they gave no indication
of having seen anything. She brought her attention back to
what the demon was saying, the resonating monotone of its
words instantly drawing her focus. For too long have we
been held here in captivity, for too long have we rested. It
turned to face the others of its kind, their eyes burning with
an eager anticipation. Now we shall take our vengeance on
those pitiful creatures that flood the realm. Now we shall
destroy those who, for so long, have opposed us. It drew
its sword, the black metal gleaming in the gray half-light that
flooded the chamber. Kara held her breath, curling her
hands into fists and meeting the cruel stare of the creature.
Today it ends.
A line of fire shot across the floor from of the room,
rising up in a wall of flames that separated Kara from her
attacker. The shade screeched in anger, and Kara jumped
back from the heat of the flames, struggling once more to
get her hands free. The familiar cloaked form of Gray
Ravenwing leapt forward into the chaos, sheets of white fire
burning down the length of his sword. He slashed at the
twisted forms of the Cursed, evading their attacks and
striking out at them with a savage fury, his eyes shining with
a frightening fervor.
Xerra appeared behind her, sliding out of the shadows
to crouch at her shoulder, Kail close behind. Kara felt a
surge of relief come to fill her, accompanied by a wave of
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confusion. But how..? she began, but Xerra motioned her
to silence.
Later. The princess replied curtly, her long knife
sawing through the bonds that held her. Kail raised his gaze
to the battle before them, Gray fighting furiously against the
impossible odds arrayed against him. A robed figure strode
through the wall of fire and approached the three that sat
huddled on the floor, undeterred by the distraction of the
mage diverting the attention of the others.
Kail rose to his feet, magic sparking at the tips of his
fingers. Fools. Zeveran Cray hissed, seemingly more
agitated then daunted by his resistance. You have sealed
your own fate!
* * * * *
Gray locked his hands before him, shielding himself
from the barrage of magic thrown at him from the twisted
forms of the Cursed that surrounded him. He felt his
defenses slowly crumbling under the onslaught; there were
simply too many of them, each more powerful than himself,
if somewhat less skilled.
He parried another attack from the blade of a long
sword and very nearly lost his grip on the magic. He
strengthened his efforts, knowing that if he failed now, there
was no hope of ever stopping the Cursed Ones. He stabbed
the nearest creature through the chest, watching it shriek in
pain as the white magic burned through it and hoping to
god that Kail and Xerra had managed to get Kara free.
A flare of light near the back of the room caught his
attention and he spotted Kail standing toe to toe with
Zeveran Cray, magic flaring at the ends of his fingertips. A
sudden increase in the magic assaulting him ripped through
his defenses, engulfing him in a wave of blackness and
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sending him tumbling to the floor. He fought through the
haze of pain that clouded his vision, and tried to regain his
concentration, managing at the last moment to rebuild the
fragments of a shield and drive off the deadly fire that had
consumed him.
He rolled to his feet, his energy flagging. He raised his
sword to ward off another attack, knowing he was not strong
enough to do more than delay the evil that would soon
swallow him. He darted around the demon's defenses,
dealing it what, to a mortal, would be a fatal blow. The
strike only worked to slow the Cursed, giving him but a
moments respite before it renewed its assault. He hacked at
their ranks, growing weaker and weaker with each blow he
dealt.
* * * * *
Kail lashed out at the Cursed before him, energy
crackling from the tips of his fingers and engulfing the
demon in a wave of light. The creature was impossibly
strong, and none of his attacks seemed to do so much as
phase it, the horrible eyes threatening to drain him of
courage and leave him paralyzed before it.
He pulled free his sword, striking out again without
waiting for a response. The Cursed raised his own sword in
response and the two blades clashed together with a
resounding ring of steel on steel as the creature effortlessly
blocked his strike, the force of the blow vibrating all along
Kail's arm.
He sent forth a burst of energy to drive back his
enemy, but the others magic quickly shattered the attack as
the Cursed retaliated with an offense of its own. Kail
staggered under the weight of the energy and a smile of
satisfaction spread over the waxen face of his enemy. The
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demon lunged forward, deflecting the next thrust of Kail's
sword, and cocking its head as it plunged the blade of its
weapon through the side of his body. Kail gasped in
surprise, his blue eyes widening in pain and shock. In one
fluid motion the Cursed yanked free his blade, watching
with a cold detachment as Kail slid limply to the floor. An
angry scream echoed in the back of his awareness, but a
deepening blackness had flooded his mind, blotting out the
world around him and submerging him in the darkness of
oblivion.
* * * * *
Kara watched in trepidation as the leader of the
Cursed continued its inexorable approach upon her cousin,
shrugging off Kail's numerous attacks and wearing away his
defenses. Xerra sawed frantically at the bonds that held her,
both watching the quickly deteriorating battle before them.
The sharp sound of steel on steel split the air of the
chamber, Kail's sword arm shaking slightly as the Cursed's
sword rose to meet his own. Kara could feel the spike of
worry that filled Xerra as Kail renewed his assault, and she
herself felt agonized over the knowledge that Kail could not
possibly win this battle. It was only a matter of time before
the Cursed overcame him.
She reached down inside herself for the magic that lay
hidden there, but only felt the familiar burn spreading
through her hands as the black mercury thwarted her
attempts. Xerra recoiled from the metal, the strands glowing
white hot as they reacted to the magic. Kara cut off the
attempt, knowing it was in vain and all the while wanting to
try again, wanting to try anything so that she could do
something to aid her cousin.
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The blaze of Kail's magic burned through the Cursed
with seemingly little effect, only slowing the creature and
keeping it far enough away to avoid a direct confrontation.
Kara shouted a warning as she saw a cloud of darkness
gather around the demon, but Kail did not seem to hear
her, too focused on maintaining his attack. The sudden
burst of magic from the Cursed forced Kail to abandon his
efforts to land a strike and shield himself from the
onslaught. His face became knotted with strain and Kara
felt her heart stop. Surely this was the end.
The creature moved with lightning speed as it dealt its
next blow, catching Kail off balance and sliding the wickedly
curved sword it held into her cousins side. The blade
jerked free without a sound, the long length of steel coated
in a thick layer of blood. Her cousin dropped to the ground
with a gasp, his lips parting slightly in an expression of
surprise as he fell.
Xerra screamed in fury, leaping to her feet and sending
the jagged blades of her whip flying toward the creature's
face. The demon did not change expression, catching the
blades of the side of its sword, and striking out at Xerra with
a burst of energy that tossed her like a rag doll into the back
wall.
Kara shifted her gaze from the limp body of her friend
to meet that of the Cursed, fumbling frantically for the knife
Xerra had left lying on the floor. A blur of motion leapt
across the barrier of flames and came darting toward the
Cursed, gray cloaks flaring out behind him as he struck.
The Cursed turned in surprise, quickly blocking the swing
of the sword that very nearly did its job of severing the
creatures head from its body.
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Gray's eyes burned with hate as he confronted the
Cursed, his appearance ragged and bloodied but no less
formidable. For Lya and everyone else you've slain you
filthy demon! He hissed, rushing to destroy the nightmare
before him.
* * * * *
The fire burned white hot around the mage, coming
dangerously close to breaking through his shield as Gray
flew through the barrier that separated him from the others
and came to confront the demon Zeveran Cray. Kara knelt
silently on the floor behind him, her eyes shifting to find
him as she desperately struggled to escape her bonds. Kail
and Xerra lay motionless on the floor, a long jagged slash
splitting the side of his fellow mages body with a streamer of
blood running down to soak through his cloak. It fell to
Gray to do what was needed, and this time he would not
fail.
He whipped his sword in a whirling arc toward the
Cursed's exposed neck, only to be thwarted at the last
second as the creature turned to block it, dead eyes fixing
him with a baleful glare. Gray did not hesitate, yelling in
defiance as he pressed his attack and slid under the
creature's guard to pierce it in the shoulder. The white fire
of his magic ripped through the twisted body of his foe from
the blade of his weapon, fueled by the anger of its wielder.
The demon shrieked and struck him in the chest, the blow
powerful enough to break bones if not for the shield that
encapsulated him. Even so, the hit knocked the breath from
his body and sent him reeling backward, and he barely
reacted in time to fend off the next strike from the hungry
blade of the sword that sought to rend his flesh.
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Unnoticed in the background Kara continued to watch
in silence, fighting to stay calm as she strove to finish what
she was doing. The hilt of the knife was held awkwardly
between her hands, a layer of sweat making it difficult to
maneuver. She saw the power wielded by the demon before
her, saw the unmistakable evil sowed into its being, and she
knew that Gray could not win this battle, not alone. She
gritted her teeth; she was moving as fast as she could, but
would it be enough? At the moment it did not seem so.
The creature's eyes flared with unmistakable hatred as
yet again Gray fended off the attack and landed another
mortal wound that sent the demon reeling back, its efforts
abandoned. It glared at the enemy confronting it, the last of
its patience having evaporated. Gray tensed as he felt the
build of dark magic; the creature was preparing an attack
and he had long since lost any sort of advantage that had
come from the initial surprise of his attack. He put all of his
remaining energy into maintaining his shield as the demon
struck, the killing energy engulfing him in a wave of
blackness.
The Cursed renewed its attack, cruel face marked with
a look of satisfaction as it saw the inevitable outcome of this
battle. Gray tried to hold his defense, but the magic burned
through his shield, dropping him to his knees and filling
him with a wave of nausea and pain as the world around
him began to blur. Agonizing bursts of pain ravaged him,
the nightmarish haze of darkness that surrounded him all
he could focus on.
The creature looming above him shuddered, its look
of delight changing into one of shock as a new magic
entered its awareness, holding it immobile and dwarfing its
power. The flames around Gray fizzled out, his breath
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coming in gasps as he struggled to recover from the strike.
Kara stood solemnly behind the Cursed, her face rigid with
concentration as she let loose the magic that was hers alone
to wield. The torn strands of rope that had bound her lay
shredded on the floor, Xerra's knife having done its job and
severed the cord.
She had watched in increasing horror as the Cursed
overcame Gray, defeating him just as it had Kail and Xerra
and nearly destroying them all. It had come time for her to
end this. Cool and in control just as Gray had taught her,
she would destroy the last of Syra's cruel legacy and right
things once and for all.
The Cursed Ones screeched, each and every one
ensnared by her magic. They convulsed in agony as the
magic flooded through them, reaching down to the
blackened pit of their souls and doing as its wielder had
commanded by stripping them of the magic that gave them
life. Kara knew now what she had to do. To destroy these
demons by burning them to ash was not enough. Syra could
not be allowed to have her justice. Things must be
corrected here, and if that was to happen there was not one,
but two enemies she must defeat today.
The creature that was Zeveran Cray fell to the ground,
the curse that had bound it for so many years unraveling
with the touch of the heir to the power of the sorceress who
had cast it. Kara poured all her energy into the unraveling
of the spell, an angry voice screaming inside of her as she
worked, the cruel laughter long gone as it realized what she
planned. You cannot control me. She thought silently, her
ancestor's protests blocked from her mind. This time you
die for real.
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She reached down into the empty casing of the
demons before her, words springing to her lips unbidden
and giving life to her magic. Layer upon layer of dark magic
came undone under the weight of her magic. Like rusted
chains, the ties holding Syra to this life, the same ties that
had created the twisted monsters before her, broke apart
with an almost tangible snap, disappearing forever in the
flames of the ether.
The spell ran its course and the figure on the floor
looked up at her, real human emotion flooding his eyes
before he sighed in contentment and returned to the realm
of death, the ravaged forms of Syra's followers finding the
rest which for so long had been denied them.
The shade of Syra glared up at Kara from across the
room, cold eyes burning with hatred as she was consumed.
You are not free child! She screamed. You will never be.
You are no different than I. The magic is mine, I have lived
for hundreds of years and you cannot destroy me! she
hissed, but her words were but a pale echo and Kara smiled
with the realization of how powerless the spirit really was.
Its over Syra. she whispered. The specter would not
have its victory as it had envisioned. Just as Kara was able to
destroy the Cursed, so it was also within her power to once
and for all dispose of the shade who had kept herself bound
to the physical world, exiling her to the hell which for so
long she had avoided. The spirit was livid with rage as it
realized this and Kara felt a deep sense of satisfaction as she
faced her down. You've lost. She stated. The shade glared
at her, the faint lines that defined it blurring away as the
sorceress was drawn inexorably toward the fate she had
evaded for so long. Kara sighed in relief, watching the spirit
who had haunted her fall prey to the dark powers she had
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wielded, her perverse sense of justice destroyed along with
her curse.
Kara slumped back against the wall of the chamber,
the ghost of a smile spreading over her lips. It was finished.
* * * * *
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Chapter XXV
Home Again
Xerra rose unsteadily to her knees, blinking away
the rivulets of blood that ran down from the gash in her
forehead and filled her vision with a haze of red. Shudders
racked the floor of the chamber, becoming more violent
with each passing moment. Kara stood motionless before
her, clear eyes staring at something far away, all her energy
expended. There was no sign of the Cursed Ones who had,
only moments ago, surrounded them, a faint scattering of
dust and the memories in her mind all that remained to
testify that they were ever really there in the first place.
Kara? she called uncertainly, rising slowly to her feet.
Kara spun around to face her, blue eyes wide with
confusion. Another series of shudders shook the building,
only reaffirming what Xerra already knew to be true. We
have to get out of here. The fortress is falling apart.
Whatever you did, it destroyed whatever was holding this
place together. She glanced over at the limp forms of Gray
and Kail, a pang of panic flooding through her.
Kara read her expression, a similar worry showing in
her face. Help me get them out of here.
They went first to Kail, lying pale and unresponsive as
they approached. Xerra's hand shook as she reached down
to check his pulse, already fearing the worse. The faint
rhythm pounding against her fingers sent a wave of relief
coursing through her, her eyes lined with a film of tears as
she turned to face Kara. He's alive.
Kara reached out and bound the open wound in his
side with a strip of cloth to prevent any more loss of blood.
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He was badly injured, but if they got him out of here now
there was still a chance of saving him. Kara gave her cousin
a final anxious glance before moving over to where Gray lay
slumped against the wall, her blue eyes bright with worry.
Kara reached down toward him, and his eyes snapped
open, the stormy gaze fixing on her face. Leave me.
Kara shook her head, but Xerra said nothing, seeing
clearly the scorch marks that lined his body and knowing
that the wounds were fatal. What do you mean? Kara
demanded, her voice insistent. You'll be fine we just have
to...
Gray cut her off, his face paling. Don't be stupid girl.
You already know that's not true. She shook her head,
biting her lip to keep from crying. Xerra stared down at the
two, filled with sadness and guilt. Not all of them would be
walking away from this. I'm sorry Kara. Gray sighed. I
can't keep my promise this time. It looks like I'll be leaving
after all.
Kara shook her head, her blue eyes defiant. You're
just saying that. You've survived worse... Another series of
shudders rippled through the chamber, rocks becoming
dislodged from the ceiling overhead.
Gray grabbed her by the front of her tunic, his eyes
holding hers. You know that's not true. Dark magic like
that used by the Cursed leaves a taint even if it doesn't kill.
I'm dying Kara, you can't save me. He released his grip, his
eyes softening slightly. I've taught you all I can. What you
did here was amazing. Go home and be proud of what
you've done. You saved us all, and my lie doesnt matter
anymore now that its ended. Kara shook her head again,
stubborn determination rooting her in place. Gray's eyes
stared into her own with a knowing intensity, his voice
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sounding strained. Go get your cousin and get out of here.
If you stay much longer, the fortress will collapse. Theres
no reason that both of us should die. Kara stayed where
she was, her face marked with indecision.
He's right Kara. Xerra said softly. Come on, we
have to go. She pulled the girl to her feet, Kara's face lined
with tears as she continued to stare down at Gray.
He stared up at her, seeing her hesitation. Go, he
said softly, his gaze turning away from her to stare up at the
ceiling. Go. It is about time I left to join them. I've done
what I set out to do. You must accept it. Xerra did not
understand who he was talking about when he said them,
but she knew he was right about the rest.
Kara allowed herself to be drawn away, shaking her
head as if by refusing to believe his death she could make it
so it never happened. Xerra led her to the center of the
room, the girl finally pulling her gaze away from the wall as
both of them helped to carry Kail. Xerra glanced back over
her shoulder at Gray, remembering a time a few years ago
when he, of all people, had helped her to succeed where all
others had failed. Goodbye Gray Ravenwing. she
muttered under her breath. Rest in Peace.
* * * * *
Gray stared blankly up at the roof of the chamber,
catching sight of the departing forms of Kara and Xerra as
they fled the crumbling citadel of the Cursed Ones. He
glanced around the worn room, the ashes scattered across
the floor all that remained of the enemy he had so long
pursued.
He lay shivering on the floor, the searing pain of the
magic like an endless wave as it tore through him. The
onslaught of magic had not ended when Kara destroyed
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Zeveran Cray, the spell already too far gone to be stopped.
The magic would continue until it succeeded in its
objective. Perhaps at a different time in his life he would
have sought a way to prevent it, but now he simply accepted
the reality of the situation and gave no challenge to what was
meant to be.
His thoughts turned to Kara. She had refused to
believe he was dying, stubbornly insisting he would recover.
He shook his head; it seemed impossible for anyone to
deny such an obvious truth, but the girl was nothing if not
determined. He gazed blankly at the stone above, lost in the
memories of what had been. He would always see Kara as
the girl who had come up to him that night in the tavern in
Souran, yelling at him for ignoring the outside world and
bringing to light the reality he had refused to acknowledge.
She would always be strong, even if at times she was
impulsive and testing. It was good that she was going home
now. It was good she was gone.
At least in the end he had gotten his wish; the Cursed
were destroyed, and things were right again. That was all
that mattered.
Resounding cracks split the air before him as the stone
foundations and walls of the citadel split open and followed
their masters down to dust. He hoped distantly that the
others had managed to make it out. If only one of them was
to survive, better it be them. Better they be the ones to live
and him to die. They were the ones whose lives were worth
saving.
He sighed, his breathing ragged and uneven. The
shade's magic had done its work; he was dying and there
was nothing he could do but wait and face the inevitable.
The pain that had racked his body began to subside, the
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rumbling in the chamber around him becoming more
distant as the cold of the void seeped slowly through him.
A faint light entered the corners of his vision,
becoming more prominent with each passing moment. A
small figure appeared before him, green eyes shining with
love, her smile bright and dazzling just as he remembered it.
He smiled back at the woman, his pain and bitterness a
distant memory resigned to the past. He reached out his
hand, finally finding what for so long he had sought. He
welcomed the end as it came to find him, embracing it and
releasing the last of the ties that held him to the limp figure
bleeding on the floor of the chamber. The rest of the world
faded away, peace and contentment flooding through him.
He smiled, his eyes slipping shut. Lya, he thought blearily,
I've come home.
* * * * *
Kail's eyes slid lazily open, his face marked with
confusion as he stared at his foreign surroundings. The
memory of the battle in Fey Mors rushed back to him, and
he sat bolt upright, his mind spinning with any number of
possibilities as to what could have happened. He peered
around the small stone enclosure, a single torch lighting the
way in an otherwise shadowed setting. The place bore a
striking resemblance to the room he had stayed in while in
the Jika fortress of Tal'Sur, but despite the similarities, he
knew it could not be. That place was destroyed, and
wherever he was, he was not dead.
He glanced down at the bandages encircling his torso,
remembering all too well the wound dealt by the Cursed
that had brought him here. He put his hand on the cloth,
peeling it back to get a better look at the wound.
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I wouldn't do that if I were you. He glanced up in
surprise, the door of the room creaking open to admit
Xerra. Her voice was chastising as she spoke, a tray of food
grasped loosely in her hands. She was clad in a deep velvet
green dress, the gold lining dancing with color as she moved
through the torchlight room. He stared at her in relief, glad
to see that she was alright. You've been unconscious for
days. You're lucky we got you here when we did. It wasn't
exactly easy to carry you out of the marsh and back through
the mountains. If that Jika scouting party hadn't met us at
the pass, I don't know what we would have done.
He nodded uncertainly, still not quite sure what she
was talking about. Where exactly is here?
Her'Nor. Lord Vernin and the rest of the survivors
from the attack at Tal'Sur came here a few days back, and
when they heard about the Cursed Ones fate they were
happy to...
Wait just one second. Kail cut in. This might work
better if you start at the beginning.
Xerra smiled ruefully at him, her green eyes bright.
Sorry. I'm a little ahead of myself. She started by telling
him what Kara had told her, about Gray and the Cursed
after they were both rendered unconscious, continuing her
story with the undoing of the curse and the death of Gray
Ravenwing.
Kail stared down at his hands, refusing to meet her
gaze. Sadness and regret coursed through him in alternating
waves. I can't believe he's really gone, but I know its
foolish to think otherwise. I guess... he deserves to rest, after
all he's done. he sighed. He would probably want it this
way anyways. He took a breath. Tell me the rest.
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She spoke then of the flight through the tunnels under
the city. Most of the demons that had been sent to track
them had fled with the beginning of the tremors. He
himself knew that with the death of the Cursed the beasts
would be exiled back to the hell from which they had come.
The demon only remained so long as the conjurer who had
summoned it. The army that had decimated the Jika city
had been banished into oblivion with the fall of their
master; there would be no worries from them.
We made it out in time, Xerra continued. if only
just barely, but we didn't get much farther than the border
of the Hellese before Kara and I were too exhausted to
continue. The scouts found us a few hours later and
brought us here. Nothing remains now of Fey Mors but a
few pieces of rubble submerged in the lake.
They sat in silence, Kail still trying to process all that
had happened. Where's Kara? he asked softly, the
question foremost among his thoughts now that he knew
what had happened.
Resting now. Neither of us wanted to leave you, but
the healer insisted. It isn't yet dawn, but I couldn't really
sleep anyway so I figured I'd come here instead.
He nodded, rising to his feet. She put a restraining
hand on his chest, her face stern. And where exactly do
you think you're going? she demanded.
I've been in bed long enough. he replied. Now help
me up.
She shook her head, her face incredulous. What part
of mortally wounded don't you understand?
He sank back against the covers, his eyes searching
hers. You know Xerra, injured or not I can still get out of
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here on my own. Besides, mortally wounded is just a bit of
an exaggeration, don't you think?
She shook her head at him, her tone disapproving.
You're incorrigible, do you know that? He rose to his
feet, ignoring the slight burning in his side as he threw on a
shirt he found in the small closet across the room.
They slipped silently down the hall, moving past the
guards unnoticed and climbing the battlement above the
city to where the first of the sun's rays were just beginning to
rise above the horizon, painting the mountains in soft hues
of pink and gold. He stared out at the breathtaking display,
suddenly finding it hard to believe that something so perfect
could exist after all the evil they had seen. He glanced over
at Xerra, her deep red hair spilling over her shoulders in a
cascade of loose curls. Maybe it wasn't so hard to believe
after all.
They stood there in silence for a long time before
Xerra finally spoke, her voice soft and uncertain as she
asked the question that had been hovering on her lips
unspoken for the past half hour since he awoke. What will
you do now? With the Cursed gone there isn't much left to
challenge the balance anymore. Things are at peace and
your duties as a mage are finished.
He shrugged, his gaze steady and unwavering as he
stared out at the landscape. I'm not sure. Maybe return to
Souran, try to rebuild what the Cursed Ones destroyed. Im
all thats left of the council now that Gray's gone.
She glanced over at him, her green eyes searching.
Maybe Souran isn't the right place to rebuild. She stated.
You could come back to Zalem. The people there
certainly need a change to wipe away all the centuries of
distrust and hostility. Maybe by rebuilding the council there
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you could change that. He glanced over at her in surprise,
at a loss for words as he considered the weight of her offer.
The door leading to the parapet burst open and the
small form of Kara appeared, her face breaking into a smile
as she spotted her cousin. Kail! she exclaimed, locking
her arms around him. You're awake! I can't believe... she
glanced at the two of them, her face flushing with
embarrassment. Sorry, I'm interrupting something aren't I?
I'll just... she began to turn away, but Xerra shook her
head.
It's alright. I'm sure you two have a lot to say to each
other. She shifted her eyes to Kail. Besides, I have a
feeling it's best to leave things where they are... for the
moment at least. She turned away, moving a short distance
down the battlements and watching the sun as it made its
way over the horizon. Dawn had finally come.
Kail turned to face his cousin, a slight grin spreading
over his face. You seem well enough. he remarked.
She blushed. We've had quite a bit of time to recover
and received plenty of comfort since we came here. Lady
Tera, who rules Her'Nor was happy to hear of the fall of the
demons that had plagued them so long. Not to mention all
the help you gave at Tal'Sur. She looked away, her eyes
growing distant as she continued. I still can't believe that it's
finally ended. All the running, the fighting, it's all over now
isn't it?
He nodded. I'm sorry I ever got you involved in this
in the first place Kara, but I'm glad it turned out as well as it
did.
She smiled at him, her eyes slightly sad. It couldn't
have happened any other way Kail. I get the feeling that
whether or not you had decided to involve me, I would
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have gotten tied up in this anyway, and probably been a lot
worse off than I am now. She sighed. But now... now, I
think it's time I went home.
He exhaled, remembering how long it had been since
he had first arrived in Savory, coming to take Kara away on
the quest that had changed all their lives. Tell your parents
I'm sorry, will you? he pleaded, already seeing in his mind
their probable reaction to their daughters long absence.
She stared at him in confusion. I thought you could
tell them yourself. I know its been a long time since you
lived in Savory but I thought, well now that this was over,
maybe you'd come back.
He shook his head, glancing over at Xerra, his face
breaking into a smile. I think there's a different path in
store for me, one that, for once maybe, isn't mine alone to
share.
* * * * *
The deep indigo of twilight spread high across the sky,
the stocky form of Jarrel Ilsren a dim shadow standing out
against the dark horizon as he worked. The slight figure of
his wife appeared in the doorway, her expression
disapproving as she regarded him. It's late Jarrel. she said
softly. Come on inside, you're not getting anything done by
staying out here in the cold and hacking at wood with half
numb fingers.
He turned to face her, his voice weary and resigned.
We can get at least some work done before the thaw. If
Kara were here...well, then things would be different, but
for now there's work to do.
She looked away, running her hand through her dark
hair. She was beautiful in a delicate sort of way, her petite
form and slender hands giving her a frail appearance
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despite the iron hard character that lay behind it. She
didn't leave without reason Jarrel. Wherever she is, she'll
come home when she's ready.
The man grunted, his expression dark as he moved
through the crisp snow that coated the valley. A faint figure
appeared along the horizon, making its way down the steep
slope with a skillful ease that defied most people. The girl
came out from beneath the covering of trees, her pale
blond hair falling back along her shoulders in a smooth
sweep. She stopped at the base of the ridge, a small smile
lighting her face as she stared at the two before her.
The woman rushed forward without a second thought,
embracing Kara just as she had when she was a little girl,
small sobs racking her body. Kara returned the hug, glad to
be home once more. The woman drew away a moment
later, wiping at her eyes, her expression becoming distinctly
sour. Where on earth have you been! Do you know how
worried we were? How much distress you've caused us?
Disappearing without so much as one word of goodbye!
she chided, her voice breaking.
Kara stared uncertainly at her parents, her tone modest
as she spoke. Hello. I... ah... didn't expect you to be out
this late.
The woman shook her head, keeping her arms locked
around her daughter, her face beaming with relief and joy
despite the accusation in her tone. You didn't, did you?
Well I didn't expect you to just leave one day then show up
months later without so much as an apology. If something
had happened to you... Imagine how worried we were when
you didn't come back, imagine... she sighed, wiping at her
eyes in an attempt to clear away the flood of tears now
rolling down her cheeks. She was obviously trying to be
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stern, but was not having much success in light of her other
emotions. Come inside both of you. You, young lady, have
a lot of explaining to do.
She turned away without another word, retreating to
the interior of the house. Her father regarded Kara with a
mix of relief and disapproval. Indeed you do. was all he
said. Kara smiled, following them in. Nothing would make
her happier.