My sight showed me a time yet to come, and no matter how hard I try, all I see is fire and death. Every possible turn of events ends the same—with the end of everything. My peers laugh at me: the Council of Magi have rejected my prophesies as nightmares, a thing the Gods would never allow to come to pass. Yet for decades, in my dreams I have seen mortals and gods fighting side by side, and dying side by side. A terrible darkness is coming, and no one but I can see it. I doubt myself constantly, yet I dare not ignore my sight. No other seer can see as far as I can, nor is any one of them as powerful as I. If I see truthfully, all will end. I’ve pushed my gifts as far as I dare without burning my magic out, scouring the rivers of time for any possible future that does not end in darkness.
And, last night, I have found one. I cannot see it clearly, but I know only that there is this one slim chance for something other than the end of all things. In this future I see only moments, and they are unclear to me, as if I am looking through a fog. I see myself standing on a balcony looking over a city, and the sea is filled with ships of strange builds and unfamiliar colors. I see myself standing before a massive gate with an army at my back. I feel happiness and pain, and so many things that I cannot understand.
Yet how could that be? I will not live long enough to be there, and none of my efforts to extend my own life have borne fruit. My time nears its end, and I have one last gamble to attempt. It is an insanity that might doom my soul, yet I know that I must try. For if there is a chance for survival, that chance is only there when I myself am there to meet whatever is coming. I leave this journal of my prophetic dreams as a warning to others, in case that my plan fails. Perhaps I did not see all. Perhaps my dreams can be of use. Perhaps there is still hope.
- Excerpt from the Journal of Vardun Con Aroch
The god walked through the radiant halls of the Nexus, each step taking him further through the golden arches and star-filled pillars that held the weight of the sky, which was awash with every color imaginable. He wore clothes in a style no mortal had seen in millennia. A blue-black coat with the gray fur of a magic beast he had slain long ago was laid around his shoulders, stretching behind him to graze the floor. Glyphs of power along with elegant golden embroidery adorned his trousers and silken shirt. He was in his true form, that of a man with golden eyes—the same color as every god, with short dark horns bent backward that framed his long, midnight-colored hair. Perched on his shoulder was his loyal and ever-present companion, the red-and-white-feathered phoenix.
As they walked, the god couldn’t help but feel sorrow at the sights around him. He remembered a time when the Nexus had been filled with gods from both the lower and the higher planes—a time that had long since passed. The halls he walked now were desolate. The massive city complex and its realm were hollow, empty. Now the rest of his kind had started their own the pantheons and had built their own realms, had made their own wonders, yet in his eyes all of them paled in comparison to their mother’s creation. Memories of the Lifebringer, mother to them all, came to him unbidden from the furthest reaches of his mind. Memories of him walking by her side through these same halls, waiting on her every word, basking in her brilliance and warmth. Her laughter at his insane ideas and observations, at his attempts to goad the others into his schemes: Ah, Ban, you are a scoundrel with no equal, but I love you dearly for it. The memory of her voice echoed through his mind, making him feel all the more hollow now for what had happened to her afterward. He pushed those memories aside, carefully, delicately—they were his greatest treasures, after all.
Shaking off the past, he continued walking until he reached a stretch of the hall with smaller archways on both sides. He approached one of them and stepped through, and he was instantly transported to another place. He stepped into a round room with a large circular table in the middle with a hole in its center. Above it, there shined the stars of the mortal plane. The god walked over and sat in one of the chairs in front of the table, while his companion flew away and found a place to perch above one of the archways. With a short burst of anima he made the connection with the ancient table and the stars changed, flying past with increasing speed until they finally came to a stop at a small moon orbiting a large gas giant. The moon grew larger and larger, until he could discern its mountains, and eventually its people. A large gate stood in the side of the mountain, and all around it two armies fought, the small world’s defenders and the invaders. He had made it in time, it seemed.
He guided the viewing table with his magic, seeking a single person in the chaos on the small world. The defending army was smaller, but for every one of them that fell, they took ten of their enemies with them. Their tenacity and skill was impressive, even to a god. Then a large flash of light caught the god’s attention, and he focused on it: there, before the throng of large beast-men, stood a warrior wearing resplendent gold-and-blue armor and carrying a spear bathed in golden light. His eyes blazed with energy, and all around him the air shimmered with power. The man gave a loud battle cry, rallying his warriors, and jumped at his enemies. Moving faster than mortal eyes could follow, he zipped through the throng of the large, winged beasts, cutting them down before their axes could reach him.
He jumped into the air and flew like the wind, striking at those in the air, and then with the wrath of lightning he slammed back to the ground, throwing dirt, stone, and beasts away from him. A dozen of the invaders’ mages stepped forward; these were of a race called the darji. The same race that the god himself had once, long ago, belonged to, except now their skin was red and their horns larger. The mages started casting their spells, drawing power from the gems on their staffs or the anima-wells around their necks in order to power them. They had no other choice, as the world they had attacked was a low-magic one; there was not enough anima in the air for any of their spells to be cast without anima-wells, which they’d brought through the gate. But the warrior gave them no chance to finish their spells—he moved faster than even Sao Ban’s eyes could follow, slaying dozens of the mages in moments. The warriors he led followed close behind, using power unlike anything the god had ever seen to repel the forces invading their world.
The god reached inside his coat and brought out a small leather-bound book before carefully, almost reverently, removing the bindings keeping the book closed. He parted the pages delicately and found the passage he was looking for. He read through it again, even though he now knew it by heart:
Oh how they break you, my Golden Light,
How your heart weeps for those that deserved you not,
The light of your soul hurts my eyes,
As brilliant as a star.
An unyielding will keeps us whole,
Keep to the spear and the staff, and look not at the golden lies wrapped in red,
Your heart will never be broken in our care,
Stand proud at our side.
The passage depicted a future that the god believed had something to do with the warrior fighting on this world, and if he was correct it spoke about him refusing an offer from the enemy. There was another passage which the god believed talked about the same person, except that this one spoke about a much different future. He turned the pages until he found it:
Oh, Golden Light mine, how deceived your heart was,
How you look at us now with red in your eyes,
Right hand of the deceiver.
Come back to us, follow the soaring blade,
Leave the lies the golden eyes gave,
Drop the spear seeped in blood,
Stand not against us at the summit of the dark.
He shook his head in frustration. That was the problem with prophecies—they were always contradicting themselves. Lost in the journal, he almost didn’t notice when another archway activated, making him no longer alone. He took his eyes off the book and looked up at the new arrival. A tall and wide white-furred wolf-man walked toward the table. He looked over to the god’s companion and dipped his large head, greeting the phoenix first before turning his golden eyes back to the god.
“Sao Ban,” the wolf-man greeted in his guttural voice.
“Vanagandr,” Sao Ban said in return.
Vanagandr glanced at the battle still raging above the table almost disinterestedly, and then looked back at Sao Ban. “Please tell me that you didn’t call just to show me mortals fighting.”
“Well, yes and no,” Sao Ban said.
“Ban…” Vanagandr growled. “Do you have any idea how far away my realm is from the Nexus these days?”
Sao Ban thought about it for a moment. “Actually, no. I hadn’t been paying attention to the other pantheons’ affairs in the last…oh, I don’t know…ten or eleven thousand years.”
Vanagandr closed his eyes in annoyance. “That explains why I haven’t seen you around.”
Sao Ban shrugged. “I never felt the need to join a pantheon. I hate the politics.”
Vanagandr nodded his head in understanding. “I know what you mean—but there is something to be said about power in numbers. The gods-well alone is worth joining a pantheon for.”
“I never felt the need for it, as you well know. There is more to strength than brute power,” Sao Ban said.
Vanagandr snorted. “I swear, when you speak like that I wonder why you haven’t moved to the lower plane yet. You sound just like them.”
“There is some merit to what they believe in, old friend. I just don’t agree with their core principles,” Sao Ban told him.
“So, what is so important that you needed me here?” Vanagandr asked.
“Look at this battle. Tell me what you see.”
Vanagandr turned his predatory eyes to the table. “That’s a low-magic unclaimed world, and there is a battle between mortals. Nothing new or interesting.” He had dismissed it without really looking closely, as Sao Ban had half expected.
Sao Ban sighed. “Those are the Arashan. They have invaded that world.”
“Arashan? Those are Khalio’s followers, right?”
“They are, and he hadn’t moved beyond the borders of his worlds for a long time. Until now.”
Vanagandr shrugged. “Still, he attacked an unclaimed world. None of the pantheons will care, especially since it is a low-magic world. It’s almost as useless as a completely non-magic world.”
“Look closely at the Arashan, at their anima,” Sao Ban insisted.
Vanagandr put his hand on the table, then let his anima reach out to the table and to the world in the mortal plane. Sao Ban watched Vanagandr as he looked over the darji invaders, until he finally saw what Sao Ban had seen. Vanagandr turned back and frowned. “That anima that is fed into their souls—is that a tether?”
Sao Ban nodded. “I don’t know where Khalio obtained enough power to actively feed it to his followers. But it is worrying. Not only would that require an insane amount of power, but it is also one of the things that Mother warned against. Feeding power to a few mortals is dangerous enough. Khalio is doing it to all of his followers as far as I can tell. And that, coupled with this journal”—Sao Ban tapped the book in front of him—“is making me very nervous.”
“What is it?” Vanagandr asked.
“It is a journal of a powerful mortal mage. A seer, among other things,” Sao Ban said hesitantly. “This is a collection of his prophecies, dreams, and visions.”
“Ban,” Vanagandr growled, “you know that prophecies cannot be trusted.”
“I agree—most of them. These ones seem different.”
“You have spent too much time among the mortals,” Vanagandr said.
“I know, but listen to me,” Sao Ban pleaded. “The prophecies started losing their accuracy around the same time that Mother died. Yet we have seen some come true, from time to time. And always they had been about important events. This,” he said, pointing at the book in front of him, “is important. I know it is. I feel it in my soul, Vanagandr. Something is coming, and we need to be ready.”
“You really think that a mortal could’ve seen something that we could not?”
“All of us had been mortals once; the only difference between us and them is that we have more knowledge and power. And the human that had made these prophecies was very powerful.”
“The others won’t give credence to mortal prophecies. You know that. Nor will they care, particularly, that Khalio is conquering worlds. Not unless he hits their own prime worlds, and even then it’s a coin toss. He is still only one god, and no matter what the gods of the lower plane believe, he can’t possibly threaten a pantheon. Not unless he somehow managed to unite the courts,” Vanagandr said.
“Will you help me?”
Vanagandr sighed. “Of course, old friend. What do you need me to do?”
“I was hoping to warn all the pantheons, but they don’t like me all that much,” Sao Ban said wryly. “Nor do they care for anything outside of their realms and mortal territories, as you said. But if the prophecies are right, then the next world the Arashan will attack is Enosia, a neutral, unclaimed world that I had been spending some time on. But if Enosia falls… Well, the future the seer saw is grim. Khalio is abiding by Mother’s rules, which means that I can’t interfere too much, but rather only nudge and guide. I don’t want to risk interfering directly and provoking Khalio to act in person. I have no idea what that would do to the future.”
“So, what, you want me to go around Enosia, nudging people to go where you want them to?”
“Well, you aren’t really subtle enough for that task,” Sao Ban said sheepishly, “but there is something else you can help me with. I need you to go to the lower plane and see what you can find out among the courts. About Khalio and his expansion and anything else that seems strange.”
Vanagandr smiled, showing the rows of his sharp teeth. “That I can do. I haven’t had a good fight in centuries.”
“Thank you,” Sao Ban said, and he meant it. Then, after a moment, he looked back at the battle still raging on the small world. “There is something else I would like to show you.”
“Look at the battle again, at the people fighting the Arashan.”
Vanagandr again turned his attention to the battle, anima flowing from him to sense the surface of the world more clearly. He both looked and felt the battle, seeing the Arashan rally against the strange warriors, their numbers pushing them back. With each passing moment the Arashan were nearing victory. And Vanagandr saw it—he discovered the same thing Sao Ban had several days ago when he first found this world.
Vanagandr sucked in a quick breath. “What is that?”
“I don’t know,” Sao Ban admitted. “I have never seen anything like it. Their world has so little anima that magic is virtually impossible; none of them can cast spells. Not how we understand them. Yet they have power. The anima inside their bodies is different. They are doing something to it. And they can somehow take the anima from magical beasts and infuse it with their own.”
“That shouldn’t be possible.” Vanagandr leaned down toward the table, focusing the scene on the warrior with the spear of light. “There is no spell-construct that I can see and no anima is spent from around him. And those weapons, they are infused with something anima-like…”
“I know. It think that I might have seen something similar, long ago,” Sao Ban said.
“On Eos, with Mother. She always had powers we didn’t understand; we assumed that she was either different than us, or just much more knowledgeable. But there was one moment when she moved so fast that I couldn’t follow her. There was no spell-construct, of course—she rarely needed such things. But it still felt different from what she usually did. That moment reminds me of what those warriors are doing, of how they are moving.”
“Why haven’t you gone down to try and learn what that is?”
“I found the world only a few days ago, and they have been fighting the Arashan for years. There has been no time.”
“You could’ve interfered. You said yourself that the Arashan need to be stopped.”
“Yes, but if the one future in which we have the chance to stop what the seer saw is to occur, then that world must fall. I couldn’t risk it,” Sao Ban said sadly.
“A shame. It has been a long time since I’ve had the chance to learn something truly new,” Vanagandr said.
“Yes, truly a shame,” Sao Ban whispered, as the last warrior on the small world faltered. The Arashan overwhelmed his force by sheer numbers, and he was defeated–the golden light of his spear abating. Sao Ban and Vanagandr watched as the unconscious warrior was chained and dragged away.
“What now?” Vanagandr asked.
Sao Ban turned to look at the man who was one of his oldest friends. “Now, I start meddling,” Sao Ban said, looking at the table.
The sun slowly dipped down, approaching the horizon and bathed the roofs of the old wooden buildings in a pale golden light, as Ashara navigated through the narrow, twisting streets of Amberhorn’s lower district on her way to the harbor. She kept a fast pace, although she was probably already late. I took too much time at the house. I shouldn’t have stayed so long, she thought to herself. She knew that it had been a mistake, but she couldn’t help herself; after all, it had been her home for nineteen years. Not anymore… Now it belongs to the crown. Along with everything else.
She adjusted the small sack containing her few possessions on her back and tightened her cloak and hood around her, making sure that no one could see and recognize her, although she doubted that there was anyone in the lower district that would know her on sight. Most knew about her family, and many probably knew her father—Lord Sanos Ravena—enough to easily recognize him, but Ashara had never interacted with the people below her station much. Her former station, she reminded herself. Everything was gone now; she was no better than the people living in the slums around her. Just several months ago she had been attending a gathering in the crown prince’s name, dancing and talking gossip with other ladies of the nobility with no care in the world. Her family might have been lower nobility, but her father had been a keen merchant and had gained enough wealth that it hadn’t mattered. Her family had been treated with respect. Until it all came crashing down.
It was her fault, she thought bitterly. If only she had smiled politely, then none of this would’ve happened. Instead she had humiliated her suitor in the worst way possible. She was arrogant and selfish; she had struck out with viciousness and malice, vile words spilling from her mouth before she could think them through. She didn’t even remember most of what she said, only the looks on the faces of those around her. And the fear that had gripped her heart when she heard of Lord Jauvek’s intentions. The moment he told her that he planned on asking for her hand in marriage, she knew that he would have her. A High Lord, son of the King’s cousin and one of the most powerful and influential families in Amaranthine. There would be no talking her way out of it. Lord Jauvek was one of the most desirable bachelors in the kingdom—her father would have had no reason to refuse.
After all, Ashara had long since reached marriageable age, and was almost too old—a few years more and people would be wondering why she wasn’t married. And her father had tried before to have her marry, and always she found some reason to refuse. She knew that her excuses would not work forever, but telling the truth was unimaginable. She couldn’t have done that to her father. And then Lord Faros Jauvek told her what he intended, and she knew that her father would have no choice but to accept. Ashara would be forced into a marriage that she did not want.
She had brought her family to ruin, she had publicly shamed one of the most powerful families in the kingdom. And their revenge crashed down on the Ravena family with the weight of a mountain. Friends turned their back to them; deals her father had made disappeared like the spring wind; their coffers had depleted trying to save their failing company, until they were forced to sell their ships and shipbuilding yards until they had nothing left. Her father had been broken, and then finally found escape with the noose around his neck. Her family’s lands and wealth were gone, and her father was dead. She had nothing, and all of it was her fault. She had pushed her own father to his death.
She couldn’t stay in Amberhorn; there was nothing for her here but pain and memories. At most she might find employment at a tavern, but more likely than not she would end up in a brothel forced to whore her way in order to survive. Her former friends had ostracized her, had turned their backs when she needed them the most. None of them were willing to stand between her and the Jauvek family—not even the one person that Ashara thought would never betray her. Her only hope was to go somewhere else, to make a new life for herself someplace where no one knew her.
All of which had brought her to Amberhorn’s harbor.
Ships of all shapes and colors filled the harbor: massive galleons with the colors of Amaranthine navy loomed over the smaller merchant ships which had come from every corner of the world. Ashara made her way to one of the docks, and even before she reached it she could see that she was too late. The ship was no longer docked there, and as she drew closer she could see the Kahaldian passenger ship out in the sea moving away from the harbor. She tightened her hand around the two small pouches around her belt beneath her cloak, which contained the last coins she had. She had paid a part of the fee for a cabin on that ship, precious coins that were now wasted. She had so little to get by with until she found a place to settle that she couldn’t afford to lose a single coin more. She needed to find another ship—Lord Jauvek had made it clear to her that it would be wise of her to leave the city before dark.
Angry at herself for missing the ship, Ashara turned around and walked over to the dock-master’s table, which was in front of the dock’s warehouse under a large wooden covering. She noticed the small line of people standing in front of the table, and she found a place at the back of the line. Now she was close enough to see the dock-master, and she noticed that it wasn’t the same man she had talked to days prior. The previous dock-master had been an old man with gray hair and a grim expression. This one seemed cheerful, with an easy smile that revealed his almost too perfect teeth. It was difficult for her to tell the man’s age; his hair was black, yet as he moved, it seemed to take on an almost bluish hue, and his eyes were a strange golden color. Quickly and efficiently, the man worked his way through the line, until it was finally her turn.
The dock-master greeted her with a wide smile. “Good day to you, young lady. How may I help?”
Ashara paused for a moment, taken aback by his friendliness. The last dock-master had seemed somehow offended that she had dared to take away his time. “Good day, sir. I need to know which ship is bound for Kahaldia soonest.”
The dock-master’s smile turned sad. “Unfortunately, there are no ships headed for Kahaldia which are scheduled to depart anytime soon. The next is set to leave in a little over fifteen days.”
Ashara turned around and looked at the merchant ships bearing Kahaldian flags, and then turned back to the dock-master with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, there are many Kahaldian ships in the harbor. But, as you certainly know, the harvest festival has just concluded, and Kahaldia has purchased great stores of grain. Those ships will stay until all the grain from the surrounding farms makes its way here.”
Ashara winced. With everything that had been happening, she had forgotten. For some reason, Kahaldia had decided to buy a lot more grain this time than they usually did. Her forgetfulness was a poor trait for someone that planned on making a living by trade.
Seeing her expression, the dock-master gave her an apologetic smile. “The last ship headed to Kahaldia had been the passenger ship that was scheduled to leave around this time. I assume that you missed it?”
Ashara had no strength to speak, so she just nodded.
“There are two ships headed to the Free Cities departing tomorrow. You could take one of those and try to find travel to Kahaldia from there.”
Ashara thought about it for a moment, but she knew that she did not have enough coin to stay in any of the Free Cities and pay two different ship captains for passage, nor was she willing to risk being taken by the slave-masters that operated freely in the so-called Free Cities. “No—I need to leave Amberhorn today. I don’t have enough coin to pay for protection, and I would really rather not be captured and sent to any of the slaver cities. Isn’t there any other ship leaving the port today?”
“Understandable,” the dock-master said, and then a large red-and-white-feathered bird landed on the table, sending many of the papers flying away. “Bashora, you pirate! That was not nice!” the dock master said to the bird, which responded with a chirp and then flew to settle on one of the covering’s beams, looking directly at Ashara.
“I apologize for her,” the dock-master said, clearly embarrassed. “She has a strange sense of humor. Sadly, there are no more ships leaving the port today. Although,” the dock-master said slowly, “there is a ship scheduled to leave tomorrow…but I know the captain, his affairs are done, and I know that he could be persuaded to leave today.”
“Where is the ship headed?” Ashara asked.
“It is headed to Tourran,” the dock-master said.
Ashara hesitated. Her plan was to get as far away from Amaranthine as possible, someplace where no one knew her, somewhere where she could start over. The best option was of course the kingdom of Kahaldia, as it was on another continent and provided ample opportunities for someone knowledgeable in trade to achieve something within their merchant guilds. Tourran, on the other hand, was a small and wealthy kingdom on the northern border of Amaranthine. It was a very large trading hub, mostly because of its silver mines and its position, which put it perfectly between the Shattered Kingdom, Amaranthine, and the Lashian Empire. It also had a very strained relationship with its neighbors, as it was known that both the king of Amaranthine and the Lashian Emperor wanted to conquer Tourran. She had not considered Tourran initially, she had focused on kingdoms far away from Amaranthine, but Tourran could be a good place to start again…and if she did well there, she could always move somewhere else later. But if she went to Tourran, she knew she would be forced to stay there for a while at least. She doubted that she had enough coin to buy herself a trip to Tourran and then from there to Kahaldia, not once the cost of living was taken into account.
“What is the name of the ship?” Ashara asked.
“The ship’s name is the Norvus, and it is docked at the last northern dock. It is a small…ah, merchant vessel,” the dock-master said delicately. “When you get there you should ask to speak with Captain Corvo.”
“Thank you, sir,” Ashara said, and turned to leave.
“Oh!” the dock-master said quickly, before she had even taken a step. “Here, take this.” He extended his arm. Ashara looked down and saw in his palm a small silver coin marked with a symbol that was unfamiliar to her. “Give this to the captain, and he will know that I sent you.”
Ashara reached over and accepted the coin. “I will. Thank you.”
Ashara smiled at the kind dock-master, then turned and left.
* * *
Ashara found the ship exactly where the dock-master said it would be. The Norvus was a medium-sized merchant ship, light and fast. Carefully, she walked across the board connecting the ship and the dock. She had barely taken a single step on the ship before a man appeared in front of her, startling her.
Ashara looked at the man—he had gray hair and strange markings across his face.
Steeling herself, she said, “This is the Norvus, yes? I would like to speak with Captain Corvo. Is he on the ship?”
“What about?” the man asked in a quiet voice, barely louder than a whisper.
“That is between me and the captain, I believe. Would you be kind enough to call on him?” she said sweetly, giving him one of her best smiles and a flutter of her eyelashes as she took her hood off, allowing him to see her more clearly. Her father had always told her that she looked exactly like her mother, and had the same ability to get anything she wanted with just a look. Her good looks had served her well when she helped her father make his deals, and had served her equally as well in her life among the nobility.
The man looked at her for a moment with no change in his expression. “I shall see if the captain is available.”
Ashara nodded and waited as the man disappeared beneath the deck. She took a look around the ship, seeing that it was well cared for. The sails were not the most expensive, but they were serviceable, and the deck was clean. It wasn’t anything like the ships her family had owned, but it didn’t seem like it would sink the moment it set out on the open sea. She turned her attention to the sounds of footsteps and waited as the sailor and his captain walked out onto the deck and over to her. The captain was a middle-aged man with some gray in his hair. He was a bit younger than the first man that spoke with Ashara, but he had an equally stern look on his face and carried himself like a soldier.
“Lady,” the captain greeted her, “my first mate tells me that you wish to speak with me?”
“Yes, Captain. I was told that you are headed to Tourran. I wish to buy passage on your ship.”
“The Norvus is not a passenger ship, my lady,” the captain said.
“I need to leave the city before nightfall, I was told by the dock-master that I could buy passage on this ship and that you would be willing to set off earlier than scheduled.”
“The old dock-master?” the captain asked guardedly.
“No, it was a younger man,” Ashara said. The first mate tensed, and she saw the captain’s eyes narrow.
“There is only one dock-master, lady,” the captain said slowly.
“What? No,” Ashara said, confused. “I spoke with the dock-master, a younger man with dark hair, and he—”
“I am sorry, lady, but as I said, the Norvus is not a passenger ship,” the captain told her. He gestured to his first mate, and the older man grabbed her firmly by the arm and started dragging her back.
“Wait!” she yelled at the captain’s back. “I’m telling the truth! Here, he gave me this coin for you!” She tried to reach into her pocket and pull out the coin—
The captain stopped and turned. “Solun, wait!” he said, and walked over to stand in front of her, while the first mate glared down at her.
Ashara gulped as she saw the captain’s eyes. She was unsure whether she should say anything or if she should just leave; she didn’t know if someone had played a cruel jest on her. But finally, the intensity of the captain’s stare and the desperation of her situation made her open her mouth and speak quickly.
“The dock-master asked me to give this to you,” she said quietly, producing the silver coin.
The captain’s eyes widened for a moment and he took the coin from her hand, bringing it closer to his eyes to study it. Then he looked back at her and leaned forward. “This man—what did you say he looked like?”
“He had long black hair, and golden eyes. And he had a bird with red-and-white feathers,” Ashara said in a single breath.
“And he told you that you could buy passage on this ship to Tourran?”
The captain seemed to have calmed down, and his expression had turned more thoughtful. “Very well. Five silver pieces will buy you a bed with the crew, and an additional golden dragon will buy you a cabin.”
Ashara gaped at the captain for a moment, before snapping out of it. “I’ll take the cabin, please.”
The captain extended his hand. “The payment is to be made upfront.”
Ashara reached down to her pouch and fished out five silver pieces and a single gold coin, a significant part of her remaining budget—but she had no desire to sleep with the crew, it would not be proper. She needed to get away from Amberhorn. The captain accepted the coins and put them inside his shirt, then turned to look at his first mate.
“Go get the mage before she drinks herself under the table. I’ll let the crew know that we will be setting off soon.”
The first mate nodded and turned, walking quickly down the walkway and off the ship. The captain turned back to look at her in askance. “Do we need to hurry? Is someone going to be coming looking for you?”
“No, I just need to be out of the city before nightfall.”
“We shouldn’t dally then, we have only little daylight left,” the captain said. “Come, I’ll show you to your cabin.”
He turned before Ashara could say anything else, and she had no choice but to follow him below deck. As they walked, she sighed in relief; finally she would be away from this cursed city, and would start a new life somewhere else. Somewhere far away from here.
Kai Zhao Vin woke in darkness on cold stone with shackles on his wrists and ankles. Thick chains kept him tied to a wall, allowing him only a few steps in any direction. He did not know for how long he’d slept, nor did he even know for how long he had been imprisoned. He had lost count of the days, with no sunlight to tell him the passage of time. Once again he cursed his captors for making his soul suffer through this abomination, for trying to break him and refusing to let his soul pass to the realm of the gods.
A rattle turned his attention to the doors of his cell; Vin heard voices and realized that he had been woken up by these visitors. He closed his eyes to shield them from being blinded by the orb of light that his jailers would certainly have, and waited. A few moments later he heard the door open and the sound footsteps growing closer. Suddenly, large hands grabbed him and removed the shackles from his wrists and ankles, and then the visitors picked him up and half carried, half dragged him outside.
The legs of this body were weak compared to the one he had been born with. The original owner of this body had been a weak spirit artist, his body not even reaching the first step of the path. So, even though he hated being carried, he swallowed his pride and conserved his strength.
He opened his eyes just a bit, letting them slowly adjust to the light. He hated that he was constrained by this frail body, hated that this body’s core was so weak that he could barely push ki through its channels, hated that he couldn’t seek justice for what had been done to him and to his people, and to Orb—his world.
He managed to turn his head enough to see the two that were carrying him. Beasts with dark red scales and black horns, over two meters tall and wide as oxen, with leathery wings folded on their backs. Brutes, they served as heavy infantry for the enemy, slow but powerful. Vin guessed that now, when there was no one else to fight, they had been delegated to other lesser tasks, such as retrieving prisoners.
They carried him out of the dungeon and into what had once been a city of his people, the last that was standing before Vin was captured. The soaring towers of Heavenly Orders no longer pierced the blue sky; now, only craters remained where they had once stood, and the once azure sky had turned crimson as blood. What previously had been the brown-and-gray shape of the Father Storm was now tinted in that same red, and the storms that danced across his surface now seemed angry as he rose above the horizon, filling half of the sky.
Buildings once filled with crafters and practitioners of the spirit arts were now tainted by the invaders. Vin did not know exactly for how long he had been a prisoner; he knew only that he had spent at least a year as a prisoner in his original body, enduring invasions of his mind. The enemy wanted him on their side, but Vin’s will was greater. He would never bow and accept their offer. He had tried to escape, of course—his honor as a spirit-artist demanded the attempt—as these were not artists from another clan, but honorless invaders. He had prepared for months, compressing and purifying his ki in order to gain a burst of power great enough to overcome the strange aura that the enemy used to keep him imprisoned.
He had almost succeeded; he escaped the prison and then ran right into one of the enemy commanders. Had he been at his peak before the imprisonment had weakened him, or if had he still possessed even one of his blessed arms, he could have won, he knew. Instead, he had found himself back in the cold, dark cell. The enemy had then used their cursed artifact and strange powers to extract Vin’s soul from its earthly vessel and put it into another, weaker one, ensuring that he would not have enough strength to escape again. And in fairness this body was not truly weak, Vin admitted: whoever had inhabited it before simply hadn’t even attempted to make the first step on the path. By the shape of the body’s muscles, Vin knew that the body’s previous owner had taken care of it, had trained it to the best of his meager ability.
A strong man for sure for his level of power, but nothing compared to power that Vin had wielded in his original body. The strength that the body possessed now was no match for even the lowest of the enemy’s soldiers. Despite that, Vin cultivated the body’s—or rather now his—ki, pushing and pulling it through the body’s channels. He was familiarizing himself with his new body, hoping that someday he would have enough power to escape.
The brutes led him through the streets toward the main square. Pain shot through his heart at the sights around him, for they gave truth to what his captors had been telling him. His people were gone.
The two brutes carried him through the throng of creatures and their leaders. Human-like creatures with horns and red skin that called themselves Arashan watched over their subjects. Eventually they reached the large square, and Vin immediately noticed the massive construction effort in the center of the clearing. Vin recognized it immediately: a World Gate. Made of gray stone, once finished it would tower above the buildings around it. Memories came to Vin of five thousand warriors, spirit artists all, the best of the best, following behind him as they marched on the gate the enemy had used to invade their world. It had been one last attempt to destroy it and cut them off from Orb, hoping that without support from their own world that they could be defeated.
They had lost. Most were killed; though a few were captured, Vin among them.
This new World Gate drew Vin’s eyes, and he could see that it wouldn’t be finished for a long time, years even, but it told him that the enemy was getting ready to invade another world. In order to do so, they would need a mirror World Gate on the world they intended to invade—that much Vin’s people had managed to learn. As he was dragged past the World Gate, Vin noticed something else. An archway similar in appearance to the larger gate, only smaller. Sized enough for maybe two people to pass through at the same time, with two large crystals placed on two pedestals on each side of the archway, each glowing with tainted red aura.
The two brutes carried him in the archway’s direction, and then past it toward a large round table covered with maps and documents written in what was to him an unfamiliar language. The brutes dropped him to the ground in front of their Arashan commander, who was leaning over the table and looking at maps of unfamiliar lands. The commander turned and looked down at Vin with his yellow eyes. With this new body’s weak sight, Vin could no longer see the soul of the commander, but still he remembered the sight when he’d had the ability: there was a red aura that added power to the being before him. It was as if there were a tether reaching from somewhere far beyond this place that fed power to the being in front of Vin.
The commander studied him, and Vin did the same in return. He glanced at the black armor that covered every part of the commander, each interlocking plate etched with glowing red symbols that wisped with smoke.
“Have you changed your mind, Vin?” the commander asked.
“No, Narzarah,” Vin answered.
Narzarah sighed. He gestured with his hand and the two brutes picked Vin up from his knees, allowing him to stand. Narzarah then turned to the table, pointing. “These are the maps of another world, Kai Zhao Vin. We have finished with yours. Mostly. The few that remain in hiding will die soon enough. And we have already made contact with the people of this new world—a World Gate will be built and the Host will spill through, adding the power of their world to that of our God. You have suffered enough, Vin. You have seen our power. Why delay the inevitable?” Narzarah asked. “A soul is immortal. You know that we can keep you alive and bound to earthly vessels forever. Forcing you from one body to another until you forget what your original one looked like. You will never see the heavens. Accept our God’s offer, Vin. Join the Arashan, and you will have a respected place among the Host.”
“Why are you doing all of this to get me on your side, Narzarah?”
“Because you stood up to us, of course. Your little moon is the first low-magic world we have ever encountered that stood against us with such success, considering your handicap. The only one that had refused to bow and add its strength to the Arashan. Your people have somehow learned to harness their innate power in ways that we have never seen before. There is so little magic on this world that most spells simply can’t work without us bringing gems and anima-wells from other worlds to power them. The innate anima of our mages is not enough to power them.” Narzarah considered him shrewdly. “Yet you have achieved something once thought impossible: you have devised a way to strengthen your own anima. To change it, and to achieve power without the use of spells and magic in nature. And you, among all of your people, have stood on the top, the youngest ever to become a Sage. You killed the most of our warriors and mages, and you prolonged what was supposed to be a short campaign of several months to five years. My God can use such talent and strength. I know that you are a warrior in your heart, just like me. Join us, Vin, and you will be by my side, leading the Host in the conquest of the stars.”
Vin listened to the words Narzarah spoke. And even though his words were in Vin’s own language, words which he knew the meaning of, he did not understand half of what Narzarah was saying. But it didn’t matter, in the end, whether Vin understood or not. He would never submit his soul to them. He had seen the mark of their God: the twisting red aura that coiled through their souls, giving them power. It was not something that any honorable spirit artist would even consider. To take such power unearned, to bow and step off the path, would take away so much of what it meant to be a spirit artist.
“If you wanted my power and my talents, you should not have put me in this weak body. In any case, I would never submit my soul to your God. Look at what you are, Narzarah! You have been twisted and corrupted by a power not conquered by your own will. I know that, once, you must have been like me—and now you are nothing but a disfigured puppet of a dark God.”
Narzarah laughed at Vin’s words. “I forget, sometimes, when we encounter worlds like yours. Those that have forgotten about the Sundering, forgotten about your origins. You look at me and see me as disfigured; you think my horns and eyes are a result of what you call demonic energy. Yet there are thousands of species all shaped as the first children of the Lifebringer, and my kind are just one among them. There is so much that you do not know about the rules of our plane of existence.” Narzarah leaned down to look at Vin, making their eyes level. “You think that your body was what made you powerful? It is not. It is your soul. The vessel of flesh you possess is only a conduit to what the soul has the will to do. It is the soul and the will that shape all the power in our universe. Given time, you could get that body,” Narzarah said, poking Vin’s chest with a finger, “to be as strong as your original.”
Narzarah shook his head and looked aside for moment, gazing at the construction of the World Gate. Then he turned back to Vin with a somehow softer look. “I have encountered others like you, Vin. You are an old soul, a favored soul. One which keeps finding its way back to this plane. You want to die and go to the heavens? Hah! You would only be sent back to this plane, and in time we would meet again.”
“None of your insanities change my answer, Narzarah. I will not abandon my honor. I will never give you the secrets of my people’s spirit arts,” Vin said firmly, looking the destroyer of his world in the eyes.
“Well, there is time yet. You are still young, and I will convince you eventually. But I don’t need you to teach me anything. I have already convinced others to share with me the secrets of your arts,” Narzarah said, and glanced to his side as two shapes stepped forward.
Vin had noticed others around the table, but hadn’t paid them any attention. Now he turned his eyes on them and froze. He knew them—Xhao Wa Lei of the Stone Heart Clan, and Xiang Hao Ming Li of the Fire Serpent Clan. He had not seen them since they had marched on the enemy’s World Gate. He had believed them dead, killed in the battle. But now… He might not be able to see their souls, but he felt them. They felt the same as Narzarah, and he knew that there was a pulsating tether that had been connected to their souls from somewhere beyond.
“What have you done?” Vin asked, disgusted.
Lei winced, his face taking on a shameful expression and his eyes looking away, evading Vin’s glare. Ming Li stepped forward, looking Vin in the eyes with a smile on her beautiful face.
“We survived, Vin,” she said. “Our people lie dead on the ground, rotting—and yet we live, and are more powerful than ever.”
“You disgraced your ancestors, your families! What would your father say if he could see you now?” Vin spat at her.
Ming Li’s face contorted into an ugly expression of rage. “Why do I care what the old fool would have thought? He was petty, and jealous of my power—he withheld the family secrets from me! Well, now I don’t need his scrolls, or the Way of the Coiling Fire Serpent! I have more power than he could’ve ever hoped to achieve!”
“And the only thing you gave in return was your soul.” Vin shook his head in disappointment. “You dishonored yourself—for what? For power? Your father was right to deny you the secrets of your Clan. You are not worthy.”
“I am more worthy than anyone ever was! And what do you think your honor will get you?” she spat back. “Our people are dead, and you will never be free. You will spend the rest of eternity as a prisoner of the Host, and there will come a time when even you must break.”
“I will never disgrace myself by stepping off my way, by abandoning the path—by betraying the arts created by our ancestors,” Vin said in return.
“Then I pity you and your honor,” Ming Li said haughtily.
Vin turned from her, not able to keep his eyes on what she had become a moment more. He looked at Lei, someone who he had thought an honored rival once. “And what about you, Lei? Will you not try to convince me to betray all that I am?”
Lei grimaced and turned to look at Vin, the shame clear in his eyes. “I know that there is no point. You will never agree to compromise your beliefs and stop walking the path.”
“That,” Narzarah interjected, “is where we disagree. Solitude and time break everyone eventually.” His eyes got a faraway look about them, and he whispered, as if to himself, “I know that better than most.”
Vin prepared to speak again, but they were interrupted. A group of Arashan approached them. Three men and three women, red-skinned and horned. The first half of the group, made up of two men and a woman, were wearing robe-like garments and carried large staffs adorned with gems on their tips. Vin recognized what they were. The enemy called them “mages,” wielders of strange powers. The last half, two women and one man, were adorned with armor similar to Narzarah’s, swords fastened at their waists.
The group stepped close—yet, among them, Vin noticed a man with no sign of corruption, dressed in an unfamiliar garb. He had red hair and green eyes, and his garb was a black tunic with green embroidery at the hem. A symbol of a strange blade piercing a black-and-yellow sun adorned his right breast. He had a black sash around his waist beneath a leather belt and a long, wide sword sheathed on his left side. The man walked with the corrupted completely at ease, not bothered by their demonic appearance in the slightest.
The leader of the group, a tall Arashan, stepped up to Narzarah. “We are ready to open the breach, Commander,” he said.
Narzarah nodded. “Good.” He then turned to look at the strange man standing among the other Arashan. “Are you ready, Grand Marshal?”
The man looked at Narzarah with contempt. “You fulfill your part of the bargain, and we will pay your price.”
“Careful, Grand Marshal,” Narzarah said threateningly. “There are countless others on your world who would jump at the opportunity to aid us.”
“As long as you help me achieve our goals, we will have no problems,” the Grand Marshal replied tersely.
“Good,” Narzarah said, and the group left, heading toward the archway.
The Grand Marshal’s piercing green eyes glanced at Vin as he passed him, but he didn’t stop. Vin’s gaze followed the strange man as they reached the archway. Two Arashan mages stepped close to the two crystals on each side of the construct, and started chanting.
“You disapprove, Vin?” Narzarah said, forcing Vin to look back at him.
“That man has no honor. Whatever he wants is not worth what you will do to his world,” Vin said.
“Your own people have done the same. The Golden Lion Clan built a World Gate for us in secret, and here we are.”
“Yes, and they were the first that you killed.”
“Your people are strong,” Narzarah said simply, “and strength breeds arrogance. The Golden Lion Clan misunderstood what we are. They sought to control us and use us to conquer the other clans.”
“And that man, does he know what you will do after you reach his world?”
“Of course not. He thinks that the Host will aid his people in the conquest of their world. And we will—for a time. Perhaps if they prove worthy, we might even allow a few to join us. But we will deal with them appropriately once the time is right.”
“Their world must be without honor if any of them would use you to further their gains,” Vin said sadly.
“Ah, the ignorance of your people never ceases to astound me. For all the knowledge you have gained in your arts, you are ignorant of greater realties of this plane.” Narzarah shook his head, and gestured to the two brutes. “In time you will see the truth. And when you do, you will join us.”
The brutes stepped close to grab Vin and carry him away back to his prison.
“I can walk by myself. Allow me this decency, Narzarah. In this body I am harmless to you and yours,” Vin said, defeated. His dignity had been stolen; he needed something back, even something as small as this.
Narzarah looked at him for a moment, then nodded at the brutes. “There is nowhere for you to run now. This world is ours. Walk back to your cell, Vin, and think hard on what I have said. At any moment you can change your answer, and I will welcome you in the ranks of the Arashan with open arms.”
Vin nodded at Narzarah, and turned to walk back toward the prison. He glanced at Lei and Ming Li as he walked pass them.
“You will break, Vin. I know you will. And then you shall see the power that the Arashan and their God offer,” Ming Li said, smiling darkly.
Vin ignored her and walked away, the brutes following two steps behind him. He drew close to the archway, seeing the group of six Arashan and the strange man waiting as two Arashan mages kept their staffs pointed at the two crystals, red energy seeping from the staffs to the crystals. Vin slowed as they stepped close. The brutes, seemingly content to follow his pace, slowed as well.
“Be ready! We can’t keep the breach open for long!” one of the mages yelled.
A strange man grabbed Vin’s attention—he looked much like the Arashan with horns and long, black hair, and piercing golden eyes. But where the Arashan had red skin, this one was pale. The man held Vin’s gaze, then cast his eyes to the archway and back at Vin, raising an eyebrow at him. Vin turned to look at the archway as it pulsed with visible aura. He turned back, but the man was no longer there. Vin cast his sight around him, looking, but saw no one that even resembled the man he had seen. I’m seeing things. I’ve been imprisoned for too long, he thought to himself.
Vin looked at the mages as they worked. And then, suddenly, the archway pulsed with power, and a tear appeared that spread to fill the archway, and Vin could see trees through it and people waiting. Narzarah had been right: there was nowhere on Orb that Vin could run to.
Vin looked behind him, and saw that the brutes were watching the archway as the first of the group passed through it. He was close to the archway, a dozen steps at most. Vin’s eyes slid further behind him to look at Narzarah, Lei, and Ming Li, as they too watched the archway. Narzarah’s eyes met Vin’s, and Vin smiled. Narzarah’s eyes narrowed in confusion and then widened in realization. He opened his mouth to speak, but it was too late.
Vin took a deep breath and jumped forward, running as fast as his vessel could carry him. The body was not even at the first step of the path—its core was not developed, preventing Vin from using any of the advanced techniques he knew. But being housed in a weak vessel did not mean that he couldn’t use ki, it only meant that he was very limited in doing so. Vin pushed the air out of his lungs, pulling ki from his core and pushing it through his channels. It was dangerous, a thing that should never be attempted before one reached at least the second step, but there was no choice.
He could cripple his ki channels if he made a single mistake. But Vin wasn’t someone on the second step, nor was he at the same level that this body was. He was a Sage on the seventh step of the path—a master of the spirit arts. His legs burned as ki flooded through them, and he activated a Surging technique. In the blink of an eye, he reached the archway as the last of the group passed through. The two mages holding the breach open failed to act in their shock as Vin reached out with his hands and grabbed one of the crystals from the pedestal, pulling it with him. Red energy flashed across his vision and he slipped, turning mid step as his back passed through the breach.
A shape appeared in front of him. Lei had finishing the Wind Step technique faster than Vin had ever seen him move before. His hand reached out to grab Vin, to pull him back—but then Vin saw Lei’s eyes and the sorrow and regret deep within them. And just as his hand was about to grab him, Lei hesitated, his fingers bent, and his hand missed. Ming Li appeared a step behind him, just as Vin passed through the breach and into a strange, dark realm. Seeing Lei’s failure, Ming Li jumped forward through the archway as its aura and energy twisted and churned, and Vin fell through it. Ming Li passed through the archway and was close to grabbing him when the crystal in Vin’s hand exploded with a blast of force. The opening they passed through closed, and the force of the explosion threw Vin sideways, separating him and Ming Li in the ether.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Vin saw the other opening in the distance, and saw Ming Li falling toward it. Then the darkness disappeared and was replaced by light. Vin was falling through the air, and then he hit the surface of what felt like a body of water, leaving him confused and disoriented. His muscles burning from the ki he had sent through them, he had no strength to move. Sinking deeper, he rejoiced, for he knew that he would truly die, and at last he was going to be free. His soul would ascend to the realm of the Gods.
His eyes stared at the bright spot above him, the sun shining through the waves illuminating his path to the heavens—but then a shape broke the surface of the water and swam toward him. But Vin was too weak to stay awake, to see if he would live or die.
They watch me at night, the stripes of blue and black. They are primal, at the edge of violence. Yet as the blue eyes fall on me, all I can feel is safe.
–Excerpt from the Journal of Vardun Con Aroch
Kyarra inscribed another glyph into the anima in front of her with deliberate movements of her hands as she kept up the chant. The spell was not very complex, but it did require a great deal of concentration and preparation. Things that were denied to Kyarra by her guardian as his words kept intruding into her mind. She tuned him out. Turning a storm around was tedious work, and there was too much that could go wrong. Once, when she was young, the King had asked her to move rain clouds that loomed over the city out over the bay and further into the open sea. He had planned a party for his daughter the day after, and nothing could ruin his little princess’s big day.
At eleven, Kyarra had not yet mastered weather-crafting, but she had attempted it anyway. She used a spell written down by one of her past lives. Only she knew nothing of how to use such a spell properly, and thus failed to account for the consequences of the act. She did succeed in banishing the clouds, and the princess’s big day indeed passed without any problems. However, three days after, the city had been buried under half a stick of snow—at the height of summer. Now she knew better than to use any spell that she had inherited from her past lives before she had studied it in detail first.
Kyarra spoke the last words of the chant and inscribed the last glyph of the spell, finishing the rune. Glyphs inscribed into the anima around her were visible and glowed with soft white light. Her anima flowed from her to the air around her and into the glyphs, triggering the spell-construct. Anima around her shifted as her spell was executed—her will and anima flew above the city and stretched to cover the entire valley and the bay. Kyarra sighed, exhausted, and slowly came out of her spell trance. She turned to look at her guardian, who was standing just outside her magic circle, waving a torn piece of paper at her.
“So, what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?” the gray-haired man asked her through his bushy beard in a gruff voice.
“You could’ve made me miscast the spell, Ovar,” Kyarra told him gently as she adjusted her robe, and then reached up to unclasp the hair from the back of her head, letting it fall loosely to graze her shoulders.
“Bah!” Ovar said, shaking the two pieces of paper in her direction again. “You have done that spell hundreds of times. This is more important! What is the meaning of this?”
Kyarra looked at the old man. He had been her guardian from the moment she was born, from the moment her soul had reincarnated into this body. She didn’t remember him from her past life, as she had none of the memories of the lives that came before this one. Her only connection to her past lives came from the journals written by her in those past lives. At times, when she read through them, she could almost feel something there at the edge of her consciousness: images, impressions, feelings. But nothing ever stayed with her for long. But then again she hadn’t spent that much time on any personal journals, choosing instead to focus more on the books that covered magical knowledge.
Kyarra knew that Ovar had been her guardian in her past life as well. Ovar had taken the position of the Eternal Soul’s guardian when the last guardian had died, and he had lived to see her—or rather him, as she had been a man in her last life—die and be reincarnated into her current body. Because of that, he sometimes overestimated her abilities. Her past life had lived for a long time; he had learned many spells and had been a powerful mage. She, on the other hand, was barely into her second decade; and at twenty years old, she still had much to learn.
“That means that I am not going,” Kyarra said as she walked out of her casting circle, closing the stream of anima and making it inert.
“Not going!” Ovar exclaimed indignantly, his brow furrowed and his mouth agape as she walked past him.
Kyarra took off her robes, which left her in a sleeveless shirt and trousers. She hung her robe on the metal hook on the wall and walked out of her workroom. A moment later, she heard hurried steps following behind. Kyarra took a turn and entered a hallway, which led toward her house garden. She’d just stepped onto the grass when Ovar caught up to her.
“You must go, Kyarra. You’ve been avoiding these gatherings for years. People are starting to talk,” Ovar said to her back, his voice hard.
Kyarra ignored him and walked over to a wooden bench beneath a singing tree. She sat down, leaning backward, and gazed over the short wall of her estate. She looked down at the city stretching below her and the deep blue sea of the bay. Out in the distance, she could see thunderclouds looming on the horizon, threatening to spill over the sea and into the city and the valley behind it. Then she cast her gaze over the mountain range that cut off Kyarra’s home—the Kingdom of Tourran—from the rest of the world. The storm would never reach the shores of Tourran; Kyarra had made sure of that. Instead it would slide around south and disappear against the snowy peaks of the Bronze Rock mountain range.
“Kyarra,” Ovar said as he stepped in front of her, blocking her view and forcing her to look at him, “we’ve talked about this.”
Kyarra rolled her eyes. “They don’t want me there.”
“Of course they want you there—look!” He pushed the torn invitation in front of her face.
Kyarra looked at the two pieces of the invitation. I should’ve burned it to ash, she thought. “They don’t want me there, Ovar. They need me there—there is a difference,” Kyarra said, clenching her jaw.
“But you loved going to these gatherings,” Ovar said, perplexed.
“No,” Kyarra said patiently to her very old guardian. “Ruidan loved going to these gatherings, as you have told me countless times. I am Kyarra. You are confusing us again, Ovar.”
Ovar frowned, looking at her through his fuzzy eyebrows for a moment in confusion. “Well…you should still go. You need to leave the house more, Kyarra. Meet someone.”
“What’s the point, Ovar? I am not allowed to marry or have children,” Kyarra said dismissively.
“That doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy yourself. Gods knows that Ruidan had, perhaps more than enough. Maybe you are balancing the scales. In your last life you were a lascivious exhibitionist, so in this one you are a solitary brooder,” Ovar said, scratching his beard thoughtfully.
Kyarra kicked him in the shin.
“Ouch!” Ovar jumped back, hopping on one foot and holding his leg in his hands. “That hurt, you little monster!”
Kyarra looked him in exasperation. “I doubt that my little kick harmed you that much.”
“You are as strong as an oxen!”
Kyarra felt a corner of her lip curl into the beginning of a smile. “I’m sorry.”
“No you’re not,” Ovar said as he tested walking on his hurt leg.
“I don’t want to go, Ovar,” she said finally. “I don’t want to be paraded and presented in front of their guests as a weapon. Nor am I in the mood for one of Jarna’s attempts at humiliating me again.”
“And what do you care what they think? You are the Eternal Soul! She is only jealous because people love you more than her. Your name is known all over the world.”
“The Eternal Soul is known—not me,” Kyarra whispered.
Ovar leaned down. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” Kyarra said quickly. “In any case, I ripped apart the invitation.”
Ovar snorted. “As if there is anyone in this city who would bar you entry anywhere.”
Kyarra crossed her arms across her chest. “Yes, they only bar me from leaving the city,” she said sullenly.
“That is the bargain you made,” Ovar said gently.
“No!” Kyarra stood, forcing Ovar to take a few steps back. She pointed her finger at his chest. “I didn’t make this bargain—one of my past lives did! Why would I want to be a servant to the royal family? To be their weapon, deterrent to the powers surrounding Tourran? I don’t remember my past lives, yet I am forced to abide by a bargain made a hundred lifetimes ago.”
“Every person is born into different circumstances, Kyarra. It is up to them to make the most out of the life given to them by fate,” Ovar told her.
“And my fate is to live behind these walls, and never be allowed to leave?” Kyarra glared at Ovar. The old guardian remained silent. He turned his eyes to his chest as his arm rose to fiddle with the amulet that hung loosely around his neck, as he always did when he had no answer for her. Kyarra stood up and walked over to the edge of the garden and the knees-tall wall. Her home was built on a small plateau that rose from the southern side of the bay and was the beginning of the mountain range that served as the southern border of the Tourran kingdom and the city. From her home she could see the entire city before her, as well as the bay to the west and the green valley surrounded by gray mountains to the north and east.
She looked at the sea, at the ships leaving port, or just now arriving from faraway lands. When she had been a child she made up stories about them, about the places they had visited and the people that traveled on them. Her dream had been to be a captain of her own ship, to sail the seas under the bright blue sky. That was before she had been told who she was—what she was. Now she knew that those dreams would never come to be. Her soul was not only bound to the endless cycle of reincarnation; it was bound to the blood of the royal family. And no ruler of Tourran would ever let her go. She was one of the reasons why the small kingdom still had its independence.
“Kyarra,” Ovar said as he put his palm on her shoulder. “The world is not fair. But because of you, those people down there get to live their lives in peace and safety. That is more than most in this world have. You have been blessed to have more than any one of them could ever imagine. Your duty is to them, to the little girls and boys that look up to you. Who want to one day be like you. The royal family can play their games of politics all they want, but they can’t take from you the love of the people.”
“They love the Eternal Soul, not me,” Kyarra said softly.
“You are the Eternal Soul,” he said as spun her around and held her in his gaze, his arms on her shoulders. “All of your lives struggled with this, Kyarra. You are your own person, as all of your past lives have been their own. They had different personalities, different desires, and different views on the world. Each learned how to deal with their fate, and you need to do the same. Ruidan loved women and he liked to attend parties. I am not saying that you need to be like him, but you need to get out of this house if you are to have any kind of life. You can’t spend all of your days in here studying magic. They dare to disrespect you because you allow them to. You have as much power in Tourran as the royal family, yet you do not act like it, and they see that. You are the Eternal Soul! That title demands respect—but you need to be worthy of it.”
Kyarra sighed. “All right, Ovar. I’ll go, but only because you asked it of me. And I promise that I won’t pity myself too much in the future.”
“Good,” Ovar said somberly. He stepped back and, resuming his usual cheerful tone, he said, “Now, go and get ready. We need to be there by nightfall.”
He turned and walked away, leaving her alone in the garden with the wind and the soft whistling of the singing tree’s leaves. Kyarra glanced at the bay one more time, then turned back and walked into the house. She made her way to her chambers and to the bathroom. She activated the glyphs inscribed on the wall of the bathroom as she entered and water started flowing from the pipes, bringing it from the underground river flowing in the rocks deep beneath her home. The large tub filled with water, and she activated more glyphs, which started heating the water.
As the spells worked to warm the tub, Kyarra undressed, throwing her clothes into the washing bin to the side of the room, before walking over to the tub in the middle. She tested the temperature and, after she found it to be satisfactory, stopped the heating spells and entered the tub, submerging her body in the warm water. She sighed and let her muscles relax. Casting spells might be more taxing on the mind, but the body suffered as well, she knew. She relaxed in the warm water for a few minutes before her mind began to wander.
Kyarra had been born to a man and a woman who were traveling from the southern continent on board a merchant ship—parents who’d had the bad luck of being in Tourran when Ruidan had died. When an Eternal Soul reaches the last stages of life, when he or she is close to death, the royal family would find a family expecting a child and willing to give it up. Kyarra, however, was an anomaly.
Typically, the family would be brought close to the Eternal Soul’s home and spells would be used to keep the Eternal Soul alive until the birthing of the child started. Once it had, the spells would be removed and the body of the Eternal Soul would die. The soul of any newly born child is only formed after it takes its first breath, and it takes time for it to mature. Sometimes a soul is reincarnated, and in those cases the soul arrives in the vessel just prior to birth, but that was a rare occurrence. And so the soul of Ruidan left its old body and, guided by spells cast long ago, traveled to the closest available vessel without a soul—the child about to be born and whose soul was yet to form.
But when Ruidan had died, something had gone wrong. The child chosen by the royal family had been stillborn, and Ruidan’s soul found the next closest available vessel. Kyarra had been born in an inn on the docks of Tourran, and had spent barely a day with her parents before the royal family’s mage found her. Such a thing had happened before, and there were spells that could track her soul, Vardun had made sure of that. They took her from her parents and brought her to the home of the Eternal Soul, to be raised as all her past lives had been.
Kyarra knew nothing about her parents except that they had been from the southern continent. She knew very little of the world she lived in. Most of what she knew was about the Lashian Empire and Amaranthine; all of her more general knowledge she had gleaned from listening to her servants and nobles at gatherings, as well as some that she learned in passing from her books on the different types of magic in the world. Each time she asked Ovar to bring her tutors to teach her about the world, he refused, telling her that there would be time for that later and that for now she needed to focus on learning magic. Kyarra could see his point; she would never be allowed to leave Tourran anyway, and that knowledge would serve her little. So, she spent all her time learning magic.
She knew that during her earlier lives she was taught by rogue mages that the royal house hired, but eventually one of her lives—where she had been known as Naira Con Aroch—began to write teaching books, and every subsequent life added to that knowledge. Now she had a treasure trove of books on magic larger than even that of the Academy of the Mages Guild. It was just another thing that the Guild resented her for; and that was probably not even at the top of their list.
Once she finished washing herself, she stepped out of the tub and cast a simple spell that removed all the water from the surface of her body and left her clean and dry. She walked over to her bedroom and stepped into her closet room. She looked over the rows of dresses, robes, tunics and trousers, trying to decide which one she would wear to the gathering. There were dresses in styles from every kingdom on Enosia. All of the best and finest quality. Kyarra never had to worry about coin. As the Eternal Soul, she had inherited the name Con Aroch, which all her past lives carried, and with it all the holdings they had earned. She owned half of the silver mines that made Tourran wealthy, and the reason why it was coveted by other kingdoms. All her past lives had managed that wealth well; she had a fortune accumulated over many lifetimes. She had more of it than anyone else in Tourran.
Yet even with the finest of dresses, Kyarra never felt comfortable wearing them. They never fit her as well as they did the other ladies of the court; dresses that looked perfect on them looked off on her. Kyarra turned and stood in front of the mirror, looking at herself. Her muscles were defined, not overtly so, but they were noticeable. Powerful mages knew that in order to have a healthy mind, one needed to take care of the body as well. Most of the journals and books from her past lives insisted on it, which was why she was keeping herself fit. Her shoulders were just a bit too wide, however, and her hips were just a bit too narrow. No one would ever mistake her for a man—her chest was large enough, she supposed, to prevent that much—but she was not built like the ladies of the court who were considered beautiful. Her hair was the color of dried ink, and her face was angular with strong lines. She had a sharp nose and high cheekbones, and light-brown skin. Her ancestry made Kyarra always stand out in these gatherings, compared to the fair and light complexions of most people in Tourran.
She turned back to the rows of clothing and grabbed a long, lavender dress and put it in front of her. It was one of her favorite dresses, and for a moment she debated putting it on. But she knew that if she wore it she would regret it by the end of the night. Princess Jarna would inevitably find a flaw or make a comment that would make everyone laugh at Kyarra’s expense. She sighed and put the dress back. She didn’t even know why she kept having these dresses made when she didn’t have the courage to wear them. The last time she wore a dress to a gathering had been Princess Jarna’s fourteenth birthday, three years ago. She remembered Jarna’s words clearly: “Oh, you poor thing! If you didn’t have a fitted dress, you could’ve just asked me. I would’ve gladly had one of my old dresses fitted for you.” All of Jarna’s friends laughed, and Kyarra had excused herself and left. Not because she was particularly hurt by the words themselves, but because she knew that Jarna was right.
Kyarra wasn’t really afraid of humiliation. Ovar had been correct—Jarna had only acted out of jealousy. Kyarra had figured that out a long time ago, but that didn’t change the truth behind the woman’s words. Tourran-styled dresses rarely looked good on her. And as the Eternal Soul, Kyarra had a reputation to protect. Many of her lives had written advice in their journals about perception and reputation. Half of the reason why the other kingdoms left Tourran alone was because her past lives worked hard to build on the Eternal Soul’s reputation, and Kyarra had a duty to do the same.
She reached over and found a small ornate chest sitting on one of her shelves, one she had acquired recently. She opened it and looked inside at the choker within. In it was set a small, dark-blue stone that shined with a pale light, and the stone itself had been inlaid in a silver base engraved with glyphs. She put it around her neck and activated the spell enchanted into the stone. Anima flowed from her to the choker and from it out over her body, bathing the room in a soft glow. After the spell was finished, Kyarra turned back to the mirror and looked at her reflection. She was wearing a strangely styled outfit. The top was a dark-blue sleeveless tunic that hung from her neck, leaving her shoulders and collarbone exposed. On the bottom she wore long, dark-blue trousers tucked into tall silver boots that came up to her knees, along with a silver-and-black half-skirt over the trousers that was open on the front side and came down to her knees on the back. Her arms were covered with long, dark-blue glovelettes that came up to just over her elbows and were held in place by silver bracelets that twined around her upper arms.
The choker’s gem was a magically crafted item, one that was supposed to hold a person’s most natural outfit inside. And these types of magic objects were nonexistent in Tourran or even the surrounding kingdoms. The Mages Guild had master crafters, but none could rival the masters of the kingdom of Kahaldia from the southern continent—Emaros—whose crafters were hailed as the best in the world. The stone had cost her a fortune, more than most nobles had in their entire treasuries. It was made by the greatest living mage crafter in world—Laos Han Mahaati, the grand crafter of Kahaldia. And the outfit was in the style of the kingdom of Kahaldia’s mage’s garb. Looking at herself in the mirror, Kyarra smiled. The outfit fit her perfectly. It was obviously a strange style, one that was clearly not from Tourran or anywhere else on the northern continent of Amiras. She liked to think that her parents had been from there somewhere—and that perhaps her mother had worn something similar.
Another benefit was that she didn’t need anyone’s help to get dressed, something that had always made her uncomfortable. But then again, she felt uncomfortable with other people in general, not just her servants. She turned away for a moment and walked over to one of the shelves, grabbing two golden pins covered with gems which had belonged to one of her past lives, and used them to hold her hair in a bun at the back of her head. She put on small touches of face paint, framing her eyelids with black and drawing a short line from her lower lip to her chin.
Ovar had been right—she had hidden and sulked in her home for far too long. She needed to come to terms with her fate, like all her lives had before her. She was the Eternal Soul. It was her duty to protect Tourran. She didn’t need to play politics or make sure that she was fashionable, nor should she care what spoiled little princesses thought. The royal family’s rule depended on her. But she needed to present a dignified and impressive visage, as that was a part of her duty, too.
Looking at her reflection in the mirror, she saw an impressive, albeit strangely dressed figure standing before her. There was only one thing missing. Kyarra put her right hand to the side and focused inward, toward the ever-present presence inside of her center. As familiar to her as her own heartbeat, she found it and called. Power rose up from her and space twisted around her arm as a large staff appeared in her hand. The staff was taller than her, and it resembled a strange polearm with the lower part of it ending in a gray-colored blade engraved with magic glyphs that glowed faintly white. The rest of the staff was coated in silver with more glyphs inscribed in around the handle all the way to the top, where a fist-sized, dark-gray crystal—that looked as if it was filled with violet smoke that twirled around constantly—was embedded into a base that twined around it.
The Staff of Storms, as it was called, was one of most powerful magic crafted items in existence—yet it was nothing but a conduit for channeling the power of the crystal embedded in its head. The crystal was a fragment of true power, and the true reason why no one dared attacking Tourran. There were only nine of these strange and powerful crystals in existence, and only seven of those were currently accounted for. Each of the crystals held enough power to level mountains. Wars were fought over them. Kingdoms rose and fell, and cities were slaughtered, all for the chance to hold one of these crystals and to possess their immense power.
Each crystal had a nearly endless well of anima which the person that possessed the fragment could draw from—if they were a mage, that is. Although non-mages could still use it if the fragment was used to power a magic-crafted weapon, like her staff, which was exactly that. The Staff of Storms was a weapon that drew power from the crystal, allowing her to cast the spells inscribed on the staff with no need for magic circles or chants, and even without using her own anima.
The staff that contained the crystal’s power was crafted by the person who all of her past lives considered their first life: Vardun Con Aroch, the man that cast the reincarnation spell on his soul and who had made the deal with the royal family of Tourran, exchanging a permanent home for permanent protection. Tourran would shelter all his lives in return for him protecting Tourran from all who sought to conquer it. It was a good deal for the royal family of Tourran, as it gave them a fragment of power, something that they would have never had the chance of obtaining on their own. The fragments of power were bonded to their owners until death; or, rather, until the owner’s soul passed from this realm to the next. Before then, no one could steal a fragment or use it but the person the fragment was bonded to. Kyarra’s soul never left the mortal realm, and so the Staff of Storms was always bound to her. Killing her would not break the bond, for her soul would not leave the realm of its influence.
And that was the greatest reason why the Mages Guild hated her—Vardun had been on the Council of Mages and had carried the staff in their name. And in their eyes he had betrayed them by stealing the fragment, and the cycle of reincarnation had made it impossible for the Guild to ever recover the fragment. No one understood the magic that Vardun used to bind his soul to the mortal realm, not even the greatest mages of the Guild. He had been beyond them all. Not even his other lives had any idea how he did it. The Guild had then cut off Tourran in protest, refused to provide mages as advisors or to sell their services to the kingdom. The Mages Guild trained and controlled almost every mage on the continent of Amiras—only a few kingdoms refused them entrance. And the Guild considered any mage who was not trained in their Academy as a rogue mage, someone who dabbled in magic with incomplete knowledge. They believed themselves the greatest authority on magic in the world, and looked down on anyone else—despite the fact that there were other magical societies and organizations in the world. As far as Kyarra could tell, they had taken the loss of the fragment and the fact that Tourran didn’t cave to their demands as a grave insult.
For centuries they had refused any sort of connection with Tourran—until recently, when Princess Jarna’s own talents had been discovered. The princess had been sixteen, a bit older on the scale, but still young enough to be accepted to the Academy. And so she had refused to be trained by the royal mage, who was not associated with the Guild, and it was clear then as it was now that under no circumstance would she accept being taught by Kyarra. And the King could rarely forbid his daughter anything.
And so the Council of Mages had reached out by sending an ambassador of sorts to negotiate with the King. He had not been all that keen on the idea the ambassador presented, but it had finally been agreed upon a few months ago that the princess would be sent off to the Academy next year. But that was not Kyarra’s business.
Kyarra sighed and turned to another small chest, taking out a few pieces of jewelry and putting them on. Then she looked herself over in the mirror one last time, making sure that everything was perfect, before she turned and left the room.
It was time for the Eternal Soul to return to Tourran’s high society.