DEMONS. DEATH. DELIVERANCE.

All these Issa must face as darkness strikes into the heart of their last stronghold. Greater demons are rising from the Pit, Carvon is brutally attacked, and a horrifying murder forces Issa and her companions to flee. Despite their devastating loss, Issa must keep her oath to the Shadow Demons and alone reclaim the spear that can save them.

Asaph’s destiny calls to him, but it will take an ancient, awakening dragon and a terrible price to free himself from Cirosa’s chains.

All around there is war but the dark moon is rising once more to spread its light upon the world. With its power Issa has a chance to stand against the darkness and fight the terrifying evil rising from the Abyss.

DEMON SPEAR is a gripping epic fantasy read in Araya Evermore’s bestselling series The Goddess Prophecies. With much-loved characters, breath-taking scenes and fast-paced action, it’s easy to see why Evermore’s books have been downloaded tens of thousands times.

What readers are saying:

“You seem to have captured the essence of a whole different level of fantasy writing and I can’t wait for the next book!” Amazon Reviewer
“I want to say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy to read. Your world building is very complex, deep and layered. I loved your characters and your plot was well-developed. You took me into another world!” Kathy B
“Issa becomes an ever more interesting character and this is classic fantasy with a strong female protagonist” John Jarrold

CHAPTER 1

World’s End

DEMONS made of black smoke clustered before Issa. They fed upon the shadows, drawing them into their form, becoming larger and more solid. One materialised fully—black skin slick and smooth, slanted red eyes narrowing, wings stretching high before folding back.

She retreated, thinking if she moved slowly it would not see her. But its eyes fell upon her, pupils widening sickeningly. A clawed foot stepped towards her. The other demons turned, looked at her and followed the first.

She tried to think of a spell that would save her and reached for the Flow. It wasn’t there. A smoke demon reached out, its deathly cold hand clamping onto her forehead. She screamed and tried to shake it off.

‘Issa, relax,’ a familiar voice spoke and the demons faded away. ‘You have a fever, nothing too bad, and quite usual after the Storm Holt.’

For a moment Freydel’s smiling face came into view with the fire-lit, comforting darkness of her room in Castle Carvon.

‘But I’m still here in the Storm Holt,’ she murmured. Her voice sounded all weak and croaky. Was this really her room or a demon trick? But Freydel’s eyes were normal and not slitted. She remembered leaving the Storm Holt, Maggot had been there with her. She was free of that place. A wave of relief washed over her and she sunk back into the fever.

The demons were waiting for her; a crowding cluster of shadow-shapes, red eyes flashing, fangs gleaming, ready to devour her soul.

‘Raven Queen,’ one called. Its voice deep and hollow like wind howling through a chimney—a voice she dreaded hearing. The demon grew larger, its head becoming a three-pointed helmet, its chest the body of a huge man. Her heart skittered and she slammed her eyes shut, not wanting to see the horror of Baelthrom.

The sacred mound, think of the sacred mound. Reach for it.

With all her will she formed a clear picture in her mind and reached for it. The sacred mound loomed before her, driving away the demons and the half-materialised form of Baelthrom. His voice echoed away into nothing.

She sobbed in relief. Why did the demons still haunt her? Why did the Abyss still have a hold on her?

The calmness of the standing stones and ancient trees soothed her and she wiped her face, taking a deep breath. It was night and a myriad of stars twinkled above, their brightness unrivalled in the absence of any moon. The Blaze of Eight—a distinctive curving line of eight stars—trailed overhead. The great stones stood still and silent like watchful guardians.

She stepped towards the liquid black entrance of the mound, no longer afraid of entering it but curious. Her reflection stared back at her; the mysterious warrior woman dressed in Dread Dragon scale armour and armed with swords, whilst she stood unarmed in a nightshirt that barely reached her knees.

She looked into the woman’s eyes and for the first time thought the woman no longer seemed so different or frightening. Better skilled, more experienced and harder perhaps, though that iron determination in the warrior woman’s face was the same she felt in her own heart. But was she merciful or utterly unyielding? Was she empathetic and kind, or just a cold-hearted warrior? Could she even love?

“The warrior who shows no mercy will be the one still standing at the end of the battle.” Grast’anth’s words echoed in her mind, and made her sad. Did she need to give up love and empathy to become the Raven Queen?

‘But what about love?’ she whispered to the warrior.

A faint smile broke across the woman’s face, followed by a look of wonder that took Issa by surprise. She did not want to let go of love and become something else. She lifted her hands and so did the warrior woman, and stepped forwards into herself.

A moment of intense cold froze every cell in her body before the darkness faded into light.

~*~

Everything was hazy and surreal as in a dream, and yet she was wide-awake. Warmth spread through her and then the arms of a woman cradled her tiny baby body—a woman with long dark hair and intense blue-green eyes. There was nothing but love in her face and it made her squirm with joy. Mother, she thought, knowing it was true beyond any doubt.

Beyond her mother another face came into view. A man’s. His hair was darker and he was tall and broad. His tattooed arms were folded across his chest. He was smiling at her. Father.

She remembered her parents profoundly and longed to find them and be with them again. The world began to blur and fade. She tried to hold onto it, wanting with all her heart to stay with them longer, but it melted away.

A warm breeze blew and she stared wide-eyed as a fascinating world took shape.

She stood in a courtyard made of gleaming white crystal. Four gigantic pyramids surrounded the courtyard, their white tips rising high into the night sky. Beyond them were more pyramids, the tops of which she could just see. She sighed in relief, feeling as if she had finally returned home after a long and difficult journey.

Stars twinkled above, far more than she’d ever seen on Maioria, and she recognised none of the constellations. There were two moons—one reddish in colour and the other yellow—slowly coming into alignment, one behind the other. Beyond them a bright star shone, and then several dimmer ones. The moons and stars were all moving into one straight line.

‘How incredible,’ she breathed, realising what a monumental event it must be.

In her hand she held the raven talisman. It seemed lighter than usual and gleamed beautiful indigo. She gasped as her hand began to tingle and glow blue. The colour spread up her arm and over the rest of her body until she was covered in a subtle shimmer of indigo extending an inch above her skin.

What is this? Where am I? She stared at her hand before glancing up at the crystal pyramids.

A low hum started and the ground began to rumble. The pyramids burst into light illuminating the night. The tips of the pyramids grew brighter and brighter, light flaring up from all of them towards the moons.

The ground shuddered and rocked, forcing her to catch her balance. The sound of people yelling came from all around her; tall, beautiful but very strange looking beings appeared, filling the courtyard as if they had been there all along but she hadn’t been able to see them.

They had pale gold or silver skin, elongated, bald heads, very large slanted eyes like an elf’s, only much bigger, and small mouths. They had six fingers and toes—just like the Ancients—and they seemed to flow gracefully above the stones as they moved. They were obviously in a panic, running this way and that, and totally oblivious to her as if they couldn’t see her.

The vibrating earth intensified and she fell to her knees. The crystal flagstones began to crack and separate. Waves of immense energy began to roll through her. It felt like magic passing through every cell in her body turning them upside down, a tumbling feeling that utterly disorientated her.

She screamed along with the strange people as the flagstones began to lift and drop and lift again. People fell and rolled, tripping others over. The pyramid stones began to rise and separate yet still maintained their pyramidal form, as if each stone was being moved by magic and suspended in the air. The entire planet looked and felt as if it was fragmenting as great waves of energy smashed through it.

A burst of devastating light was followed by a boom. Everything disintegrated, even her hands in front of her face burst apart—too fast to see or feel any pain.

~*~

There was nothing, only her mind suspended in a gentle sea of indigo. Understanding and unfathomable sadness filled her. The planet she had been on only moments ago, and all it’s people, were gone.

‘Yes, Aralansia was destroyed,’ a soft, female voice answered her thoughts. Zanufey’s voice.

Issa searched for her, but nothing was distinct in the flows of indigo.

‘That’s why you came, isn’t it? To help?’ Issa asked. She felt her body form around her as she spoke.

‘Yes.’

‘If Baelthrom is not stopped, more planets will die like that one?’

‘Yes.’

Issa had many questions, but also the sense that time was short. She had to ask the most important ones before everything faded.

‘Are you really a goddess?’ She felt blasphemous.

‘As your race currently understands the concept, yes. But I, like all things in existence, was created by the benevolent One Source of All—as you call it. Beings like myself were created to create, and so we brought into being other life forms, beings such as yourselves. Source made us, guardians as you might call us, and we made you.’

Issa blinked. ‘We? There are many of you?’

‘For every planet and every star, there is a guardian, a keeper of the house if you will – sometimes more than one. In the beginning, we are all created with, by, and through love and hold only that intention. But through the desire to explore, some choose the opposite of love, to see and learn what that is like and what their choices bring. In the end, we all come back to love, one way or another, and there is only pure vibrational harmony—which is love. In this universe, the journey from beginning to end is one of free will choice.’

‘In this universe? There are other universes where things might be different?’ Every answer Issa received made her want to ask more questions. Why had she never thought to ask these things before?

‘There are other cosmoses, yes.’

Other cosmoses? What did that mean? She got the sense that creation was much larger than she had thought, unfathomably big.

The air became denser, and soft, blue sand formed beneath her feet. The familiar, endless desert took shape around them, the trilithon standing to her right and the hooded figure of Zanufey to her left. The wind was warm and comforting.

‘You were the guardian of the planet that I saw destroyed?’ Issa asked. Had it really been destroyed? It wasn’t how she imagined it would be, witnessing a planet annihilated.

‘Yes. Once it was a beautiful planet filled with life and oceans and flowing rivers. What we stand on now is all that remains of Aralansia. A barren rock stripped of its mantle and devoid of life and the ability to hold life again.’ There was sadness in Zanufey’s voice, and that sadness grew exponentially within her.

‘Couldn’t you save it?’ Issa’s voice was barely a whisper. If the goddess Zanufey could not save her own planet, what hope was there?

‘Free will must always be honoured. The people of Aralansia, the Aralans, chose to help heal another falling race, but the Aralans unwittingly let the darkness in to themselves and their world. In the end, they were not able to save themselves or the other race.’

‘Knowing that frightens me. The loss and… hopelessness. But why am I seeing this planet? And why do you talk to me of all people? Why do you tell me all this now and yet remain silent most of the time? And why is your face hidden?’

The questions sounded pertinent and sulky, but she had a heartfelt desire to understand.

‘All your questions can be answered by yourself if you cultivate the skills to look deep within. It’s hard for you to understand because there’s much your race has to learn. It will come, in time.

‘You are seeing Aralansia before it was destroyed. You are seeing because it in your blood, and because, long ago in another lifetime, you were there. As your power increases, and what you call the dark moon calls to you, you are remembering the past. You were young when it was destroyed.’

Issa caught her breath, unable to believe what she was hearing. There was a cacophony of thoughts clamouring in her head as Zanufey continued.

‘Maioria called out for help as the darkness of the great rift reached her. The darkness had already consumed many planets. Her call was answered by many. Your courageous spirit spoke to me; you wanted to return to help because you were not able to complete your mission and help Aralansia.

‘It may be too much for you to understand, but you had chosen to come stop the darkness before, to stop it spreading on Aralansia, but sadly you were too late. You promised to come and try again, for the darkness still spreads, and so your soul incarnated into a human body upon Maioria. I can see this is a lot for you. In time you will come to feel and know what I tell you as the truth.

‘I was gifted with the precreative force, and I gave this gift to those I created, the Aralans. You also carry some of this gift, which is why you can do things most others can’t. This gift cannot be taught or learnt, it can only be discovered.

‘This precreative force flows through the eyes. The eyes are the windows to the soul and through the eyes the soul shines. Light from the highest dimension is too bright for your species to look at and would harm you. So I conceal that light, the light that flows from my eyes. I could choose any form but I choose this form to appear to those of your planet as it’s one they’ll most easily identify with. If I were to reveal my true form to you, I would appear only as light so bright you would not be able to look at me at all.’

Issa imagined Zanufey removing her head and awesome divine light flooding from her eyes, blinding everyone in its purity. Could she really choose any form? Her mouth hung open at the thought. ‘Is that why some call you the Goddess of Death? How can you just choose any form?’

Zanufey smiled. ‘Perhaps so. I come from the highest dimensions to collect all those I can reach, all those who have not fallen too far into darkness and still wish to return to the light. I do not bring them death, as such, but reach for them across the void.

‘All of those beyond the realms of matter can choose any form. Our natural state is light and sound, not material bodies.’

‘And the guardians of Maioria called for help?’ Issa asked, keen to return to topics of which she had a better grasp.

‘Yes. And also those from the many planets threatened by the Dark Rift. So you see, you aren’t alone in this struggle. Just as there are many planets, there are many guardians. We are not one, but many.’

‘Who are they? The guardians of Maioria—’ even as she asked it, she suddenly realised. knew. ‘Doon and Woetala. Two guardians?’

Zanufey smiled. ‘The male and the female are strong polarities in your world. In other worlds there is only one gender, and on some there are five. Perhaps in other cosmoses there are more, even I do not know that.’

Issa’s eyes went wide as she struggled to comprehend five genders. ‘And Feygriene?’

‘The guardian of your sun,’ said Zanufey. ‘In the next dimension above Maioria, your sun is a planet just like Maioria. The darkness spreads there too. So you see again, Maioria is not alone in her struggle.

‘Asaph was sent by Feygriene to assist Maioria and help you, my chosen. Just as you have come from Aralansia and are imbued with gifts from me, so too is he from Feygriene. And there are many others who have incarnated upon Maioria to help her—but you must be the strongest, for you carry the encryption of Aralansia and the precreative force within you, and it was from Aralansia that Baelthrom came too. It’s a divine calling you have chosen.

‘However, Baelthrom isn’t the only one to spread the darkness. There are others amongst you who still choose dominion over others, and many who help him.’

Issa took a deep breath, trying to hold onto her spinning mind and wondering which of the thousand questions she should to ask next.

‘Can we win?’

Zanufey held out her hands. ‘That depends upon what the collective beings of each planet choose. It is the job of the guardians to assist those who ask for help, who desire the light. Free will must always be honoured.’

‘But why don’t we know any of this?’ She didn’t disbelieve anything Zanufey said, as far-fetched as it was to the point of madness, but how could such important information just not be known?

‘You did, a long time ago. But your race desired to explore the darkness and so things were forgotten. Some even destroyed the sacred teachings, and that is when you began to fall from the light. When you let the darkness in, Baelthrom came. He destroyed the rest of your sacred scriptures and relics until no one remembered anything anymore.’

‘Why are you telling me all this now? Why not before.’

Zanufey’s lips curled into a smile. ‘Because you did not ask. And you did not ask because you were not ready to know. There is a divine order and a timing in the universe, despite how chaotic it might seem in the outer worlds of creation. It is not my right to reveal to you those things for which you are not ready to understand.

‘See, your spirit is tiring. This is already a lot of information for you to understand.’

Issa nodded. She was feeling exhausted, but the questions still burned with her. The desert began to disappear and she felt herself floating downwards. For all her desires to have her questions answered, she welcomed it when the light faded.

CHAPTER 2

Alone

I’VE been surrounded by people all my life, and yet I’ve felt utterly alone for most of it.

Asaph hunched lower on his stool and watched the people throng in the packed tavern. Nobody paid him much attention. Finding an empty beer barrel for a table, he’d wedged himself into the corner of the dingy bar. In the gloom he hoped he looked like any of the other patrons drinking their ale.

On previous visits he’d glimpsed the locals eyeing him up—he stood half a foot taller than most—and could almost hear their thoughts about his heritage. He wanted nothing more than to be a nobody and blend in.

Smoke wafted upwards from pipes and collected at the ceiling where it created an interesting, rippling, indoor cloud effect. Light from the front windows spilled in but barely reached the back of the room where he sat. Being lunchtime and market day, the tavern was filled to brimming.

He sipped his ale. It was warm and bitter and not to his liking, but the warm fuzzy feeling it brought was very welcome—a respite from the dark mood that seemed to blacken his days lately.

“There simply is no time for us.”

The argument with Issa played out in his mind time and again. He’d stormed off and spent the rest of that night wondering if she actually loved him. Sure, the anger had calmed, but all he felt now was rejection, just as he had been rejected by his Kuapoh kinswomen. It seemed his love would always be unrequited, and he wondered if she wanted to be with him at all.

If she liked him, why did she clam up as soon as he touched or kissed her? She seemed warm and loving sometimes, but at others cold and shut off. She never came to him for anything, not even for help, and she never seemed to want him by her side. He didn’t doubt that she cared for him, but was it any more than that? Would it ever be any more than that?

If she says there’s no time for us, then what time is there for? I must find time for myself.

He had avoided her since the argument, and was certain she was avoiding him as well. He’d also tried to avoid everyone else too, not that that was difficult since Coronos and Navarr were busy with the Wizard’s Circle. No one noticed whether he was there or not and no one needed him. He may as well not exist.

The days had become monotonous, just as they had been with the Kuapoh. At dawn he went for a run around the city walls—this made sure he avoided everyone at breakfast. Then he disappeared into the city for most of the day.

It was an amazing place. The pale grey stone of the buildings seemed to gleam in the sunlight. Bridges and walkways traversed the two great rivers that ran through the city (or one river divided cleverly into two to nourish the north and south) in a complex yet beautiful manner of ornamental stone, wrought iron and carved wood.

The place was so large it had taken him a week to explore it, and there were gardens and back streets he had yet to discover. People from all over the Known World filled every street, busy about their business. Usually his travels would take him to one of the many taverns that littered the city.

He had never felt anonymous before, and he was growing to like being a stranger. He wondered if Coronos even noticed he wasn’t around. His father was either in deep discussion with the wizard Freydel, or completely absent at the Wizard’s Circle.

He sighed. He didn’t even know when Issa would go into the Storm Holt or when she would return. Perhaps she’d already gone. Even thinking about it twisted his stomach, and the thought of her not returning made him feel ill. But what could he do? He couldn’t force her to stay.

She was right anyway, so was Coronos. He couldn’t stop her doing what she wanted, that would be wrong, but he only wanted to be with her and to protect her—something which she would not let him do. Whatever happened, he couldn’t lose her the way he had lost his mother.

He gripped his tankard. His feelings frustrated him, making him feel useless and pathetic. He was so besotted with her, he couldn’t even think about his own life. But what was there to think about?

I’m an unknown, exiled prince of a lost land. And a damned shapeshifter at that! I’ll remain hidden and forgotten and alone my whole life.

He took another gulp of beer, wishing Kahly, Jommen and Tillin were here, bantering and laughing with him. He felt more alone now then he had before he’d left them. Had he made the right decision to leave his home? He’d made no friends here at all, and though King Navarr had invited him on scouting parties, he had declined, feigning illness. He should have gone, it would have helped. His life had been boring and meaningless until he’d saved Issa from the Shadowlands, but now it seemed boring and meaningless once more. Did he exist only to help her, or did he have a divine calling of his own?

The Recollection expanded in his mind. He saw the Sword of Binding surrounded by a great many people. The blood-red pommel and blue-grey blade gleamed. Whisperings came from it, asking him to wield it. In the distance he heard the roar of dragons, and then the sky was filled with them. Majestic, pure blood dragons of red, silver and green, flowed over the mountains and circled above in a dazzling wave.

The people cheered, their voices mingling with the roaring dragons. He knew instinctively what the celebrations were about; the Dragon Wars had ended, and for the first time ever there was peace between human and dragon.

Something whispered to him and the cheering din of The Recollection and garbling noise of the tavern fell away to silence. Far away a voice called in his mind—a dragon voice filled with all the sorrow of a caged animal.

Out there, somewhere, dragons slept. He had to find them and awaken them. And to do that he had to find the sword—that was his destiny. Excitement and urgency coursed through him. He had to do this with or without Issa by his side. His sanity and sense of self-worth depended upon it.

The noisy tavern crowded around him again became stifling. He drained the rest of his pint, left some coins on the table, and squeezed past the crush of people to the door.

Coronos had given him a small pouch of coins from his chest in Castle Carvon, but Asaph still found the whole notion of using bits of metal to purchase things very strange. The Kuapoh did things because they needed to be done, and everything was shared. If someone was in need, the whole tribe saw to it. They didn’t need to exchange bits of metal to do anything.

A hand caressed his bottom. He started and looked back at a heavily painted woman, all bright, curvy and fleshy. She winked at him from her kohl-ringed eyes. Her lips were made fuller by red paint and she pouted seductively at him.

She was pretty and young, but Coronos had warned him away from the “painted women” and told him everything he needed to know. He had been shocked at the time. The thought of paying for sex made him feel deeply uncomfortable. He smiled uneasily back at her, and moved faster out the tavern, hoping she wouldn’t follow.

Stepping outside, he breathed in the cool air, relieved. People bustled passed, and it seemed as busy outside as the tavern was inside. At least it wasn’t stifling.

The leaves of the trees lining the street, and those of the forest rising above the city beyond its walls, were beginning to change to the beautiful yellows and oranges of autumn. He smiled. At least some things weren’t so different here compared to the Uncharted Lands; the trees acted the same.

‘My, he’s a big one,’ a man’s squeaky voice came from somewhere, cutting through the sound of the noisy street and catching Asaph’s attention.

‘Oi, Draxian. Fancy a fight? There’ll be gold in it,’ said a deeper voice soon after then guffawed.

He searched behind for the owners of the voices, his eyes settling on a short, wiry man who folded his arms and looked ready to take on anyone. He grinned, showing one gold tooth that gleamed in the light and several missing ones.

The guy next to him was as wide as he was tall, although he was still half a foot shorter than Asaph. He looked more fat than muscly under his grease-stained t-shirt. The big man also folded his arms across his huge chest in the same challenging manner. Both were smirking.

Asaph pointed at himself and they nodded.

‘Next fight starts soon,’ said the big man, and rubbed his stubble.

‘A silver piece for the winner of each fight and a gold piece if you can win all three in a row,’ said the skinny man, his half toothless grin widening.

‘That’s if you’re not scared, of course,’ the big man said and rolled his eyes.

Asaph shook his head a little confused. Why would anyone fight for gold?

‘It’s not quite my thing,’ he said, waved his hand and turned to go.

‘All muscle, but no fight,’ laughed the skinny one.

The words made Asaph bristle and he stopped, his mind buzzing.

Actually, yes, now that he thought about it, he did want a fight, a big one. He didn’t care about the gold, but he wanted to punch and to be punched; to feel pain and blood and sweat. He felt wound up and coiled tight with a sudden desperate need to release whatever it was inside. He had to release his pent up anger and a fight was exactly what he wanted. He’d prefer one with his sword and to the death, but maybe today it was safer for everyone that he didn’t have it.

Surprised at his own actions, he rolled back his shoulders and turned back to the men who were walking away down a side street.

‘All right,’ Asaph called out. The other men stopped.

‘All right what?’ said the big man.

‘All right, I’ll fight. What are the rules?’ Asaph said and walked towards them, wondering what he was getting himself into, but feeling reckless and free all the same. He would be the ruler of his own destiny and no one could tell him what to do.

The men looked at each other and laughed loudly.

‘There ain’t no rules, Draxian. You just win or lose,’ said the little man.

‘It’s until the first one can’t get up. If you win you get to fight the next one soon after. If you lose you get to pick your teeth up,’ the big man explained. ‘Three fights in total and they must finish before sun down.’

‘Are you game or are you chicken?’ the little man chuckled. Asaph didn’t trust the gleam in his eye.

‘I’m game,’ Asaph said firmly.

He could prove his worth in a fight, if only to himself and his opponent. It was recognition, of a certain kind. He grinned hard at the small man.

~*~

The men led Asaph down a side street and through two alleys to a shabby part of the city he had never explored. The houses here were old, and though they may have been rich once with their two stories and dark wooden beams, they were in dire need of repair. Even as they passed, a slate tile fell off and smashed on the ground making them jump.

They emerged out of another alley to the back of a row of houses where people, mostly men, were gathered around a fenced off area about fifteen-foot square. Through the jeering men hanging over the fencing, he glimpsed two well-toned men stripped to the waist, rolling in the dust and straw covered ground.

The smaller, younger man kicked and rolled to his feet, spitting blood and teeth at his larger, slower opponent. The larger man’s left eye was swollen shut, but he still managed to dodge the younger man’s punch, which came so fast Asaph could barely see it. Another fast, left-handed punch sprayed blood from his mouth and he staggered.

The bigger man caught his balance, swept a leg and punched at the same time, completely flooring the other. His opponent folded with a gasp and lay unmoving. Asaph resisted the urge to run and help him. Seeing the fallen man’s chest rise and fall set him more at ease.

Half the crowd erupted into cheers whilst the other half scowled and grumbled. He rubbed his stubble, finding the whole thing a bizarre spectacle. What people were willing to do in this city for bits of metal was very strange, and yet people wanted to pay for it and be paid to do it.

Feeling it wise to refrain from laughing out loud at his thoughts, he kept his face blank and watched as coins and papers were exchanged between those gathered. The winner was tossed a silver piece from a man he couldn’t quite see through the crowd.

‘All right, laddies. We have another tough guy,’ shouted the half-toothless man who had led him here.

Everyone turned, cheered and eyed him up and down. Some nodded approvingly and began to count their coins.

Surprisingly, he wasn’t nervous and stood tall as they measured him up. Perhaps the beer earlier had helped settle his nerves and made him bold, but he was still incredibly pent up.

Another painted lady sauntered into view, her gaze lingering long on him. She had dyed red hair and pushed-up breasts that were all but exploding out of her dress. Her huge skirts pushed the men back from her. She ignored their hungry looks and stared only at him. She winked and turned away, finding herself a position from which to view the next fight.

‘You’ll be ready to fight within the hour,’ the fat man at his side said, jabbing him in the ribs.

‘I’m ready,’ Asaph growled, scowling a warning.

The fat man barked a laugh and walked away.

Asaph glanced over the crowd, wondering who he would be fighting. Most of the men were dressed simply in dungarees and straw hats—perhaps they were farmers and labourers—but some were dressed in the finer clothes of merchants; pressed white shirts, black blazers and round hats. Whatever their class, most seemed too old or too unfit to fight, not that he had done much fist-fighting to be sure. He’d been taught by the Kuapoh how to fight with his hands against goblins if he ever lost his weapon. Other than that it was mostly play fighting with Jommen.

Being tall, he watched the next fight over the heads of those gathered. It ended much like the first with the winner bloody and the loser unconscious. His father would never approve. Purposeless fighting was completely frowned upon by the Kuapoh and he had never seen a heated, physical fight break out amongst his kinsfolk.

Knowing he was doing something wrong made him feel good. Who cared what they thought? He didn’t belong anywhere or with any people. What did it matter what he did with his pointless life? This was rebellious and fun. He was finally taking control of his own life.

CHAPTER 3

Fighting For Gold

ASAPH stared at the lanky, wiry man who growled back at him. His hair was dark and shaved close, as was his thick stubble, and there was a subtle sheen of sweat already on his brow. They were both stripped to the waist.

The man lifted his fists and circled, his eyes never leaving Asaph’s. He twitched, as if with nerves, and his breath was shallow and tense. Asaph lifted his own fists and focused, his senses beginning to heighten. There was a slight breeze, a welcome thing in this claustrophobic, crowded city, and it blew cool across the flame scar on his chest, making it tingle.

The warm smell of cooking mixed with the fresh smell of laundry lay heavy on the air. Spectators shouted, urging them on, but he pushed the noise away, letting it fade into the background. Even their faces became lost in a blur as his eyes fixated only on his opponent.

The man struck first, lightning quick. Asaph dodged it faster, and stepped sideways. There came interested murmurs. His eyes remained on the other man as they circled, still unfazed and totally focused.

The man moved in and struck again, twice, once with his right then his left. Asaph dodged them both just as easily, but this time, before his opponent had a chance to complete his left swing, he smashed his fist into his face, feeling all his pent up anger surge forwards.

There was a still moment as the man shuddered, then staggered back, blood and spit dripping from his mouth. Then he fell, stiff as a plank, to the floor.

Alarmed, Asaph dropped down beside him. The man was breathing and moaning a little, but he did not open his eyes. Confused murmurs spread through the crowd, then they cheered. Two burly men jumped over the fence, pushed Asaph aside and dragged out the unconscious man.

A flurry of activity descended upon the crowd. Amongst the shouting and jeering, coins were exchanged as new bets were made. Bets on him, the newcomer, he supposed.

He looked at his fist and then at the man sagging between the burly men. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. He’d never deliberately harmed anyone who wasn’t his enemy before. He started towards the fence, intending to get out, only to find it was too late. Another bare-chested man was climbing into the square glaring at him; a keen, predatory look in his eyes.

Asaph gave a silent sigh and turned towards his corner of the fence where a mug of water was thrust into his hands. He downed it and eyed the new man. He was facing the crowd with his back to Asaph and his arms raised. Most of the crowd cheered at him. So, the man was known, maybe even famous.

As if sensing his gaze the man turned and grinned at him. His two front teeth were missing and his nose was bent and flattened, but that wasn’t the most frightening thing about him. This guy had huge muscles that bulged and rippled under his tanned and tattooed skin. His head was completely shaved, apart from an inch high crest of fair-hair running from front to back.

Asaph stepped forwards. The man sniggered as he raised his fists and began to circle, slow and deliberate. He seemed completely sure of himself, showing none of the nervousness of the previous guy. Asaph swallowed. This would be a harder fight. His confidence had oddly been rocked because of his victory. Perhaps he didn’t actually want to hurt anyone, nor did he want to lose his teeth.

The other man came on strong, throwing a meaty punch that brushed past his hair as he dodged. He sensed the tattooed man had expected him to dodge and was testing him whilst warming up. He circled the man cautiously with his fists raised.

‘Come on, Draxian, let’s see how tough you are,’ the man said, his voice deep and rasping.

Asaph was curious about the man’s strange accent, one he hadn’t heard before, and it definitely wasn’t Frayonesse. He wondered if the man was from Lans Himay, since Davonians were generally dark-haired. His musings were cut short as the man lunged for him, faster than he was expecting. Rather than punch, the man’s arm reached past him, circled around his neck and plunged him down into a headlock.

Asaph gasped, gripped the arm and heaved uselessly back and forth. He bucked and kicked, but the man’s hold was unbreakable. Breathing was hard and soon he was panting.

A fist punched into his stomach like a battering ram, winding him perfectly. He gasped for air as his head was crushed against the man’s chest. Another fist in his face sent him dizzy. Fury surged within and the dragon opened its eyes.

Not now, I’m busy, Asaph prayed, desperately hoping that the dragon wouldn’t come upon him now, in the middle of all these people, in the centre of the biggest city in the Known World. Why on earth had he agreed to these stupid fights? He should never have listened to those lowlifes.

More blows hammered into his face and stomach as he wheezed and struggled. He punched his left fist into the man’s rock-hard gut, then his right into the man’s equally solid back to no avail. He couldn’t reach a soft or sensitive spot. Feeling as if his head would explode, he was vaguely aware of the crowd jeering and shouting. His opponent rasped a laugh that made him even more furious.

Asaph growled, slammed both fists and his leg into the other man’s legs and hurled backwards. They crashed to the ground together, sawdust and straw spraying into his face. He used the surprise to pound the man’s side just below his ribs. The headlock loosened and he jerked free, landing a solid punch into the man’s face just as he was getting up. The tattooed man fell back on the ground, only to fling himself back up with a roar, spitting blood.

Asaph punched him again and the man staggered. Sensing victory, Asaph drove on, punching left then right, never pausing. He knew his blows were fast, his hands even blurred in his own vision. For a moment he felt release come as he fought. For a moment he was enjoying himself; the pain, the blood, the dirt. There was just him and his fists, and the fight before him.

The audience fell back as the tattooed man plunged against the fence nearly breaking it. Blood dripped from a number of cuts and his eyes were glazed. Asaph paused, fists high and ready to strike, but the man slumped down onto his knees.

The crowd cheered.

Asaph grinned and wiped away the blood from his own split lip and bruised cheek. His knuckles were sore and his crushed throat hurt, but he was far from wounded.

He’d hoped for a pause, for a sit down and some water, but already another bare-chested man moved towards the ring, the crowd parting eagerly to let him through. Perhaps there was no rest for the winner. His victories just seemed to spur more fighters to come and test him, the newcomer. He was tired but not done in, though he didn’t want to fight so much anymore.

The next man was slender and shorter than the other two, but his body was covered in sinewy muscle and he moved silently, gracefully, like a cat. Coins and papers were exchanged and the crowd hushed. Many nodded approvingly at the man—and that got Asaph concerned. The last thing he wanted to do was fight the city legend. With a good amount of uneasiness, he eyed up the calm, quiet man who came to stand before him.

The man was grey-eyed and fair-haired—like most northern Frayon people. He wore his shoulder length hair like Asaph, tied back in a cord. His nose was straight, chiselled almost, and certainly had never been broken. Unusual for a fighter. The man said nothing as his gaze locked onto him. He didn’t even raise his fists yet, and instead seemed to measure him up by looking at only his face.

The silence deepened around them and, unlike the other two, this man held no malice towards him. It seemed as if he was there simply to do a job, enact his craft, and move on.

Asaph calmly held up his fists, but he did not even see the first strike come. It hit him straight between the eyes like a hammer, luckily just missing his nose. The world wobbled alarmingly before the pain came, and he only just managed to keep his balance. He expected the man to come on relentlessly but, almost honourably, the sinewy man let him recover.

Asaph shook his head and blinked back into focus, suddenly feeling the weariness of the first two fights bearing down on him. He worried that this man was an experienced fighter, possibly excellent, at least far better than he was. And he could probably tell that Asaph was inexperienced. As the world focused, he noticed the man still had all his teeth, unbroken. Had this man ever lost a fight? Asaph swallowed.

The man did not move and circle, but instead remained still as calmness settled around him once more. Asaph found himself being captivated by the man’s actions and instinctively mirrored them. He sorely wished he’d had all the training Dragon Lords used to have, but without that he had to learn from whoever crossed his path, and he felt he could learn a lot from this opponent.

The man came on fast and Asaph found himself parrying desperately, his own arms moving faster to block than even he thought possible. He barely managed to knock back the blur of his opponent’s strikes.

The man stopped his rain of fists, a glimmer of surprise and respect in his grey eyes. Asaph, too, was surprised at his own ability. He had never fought like this and yet he seemed to know instinctively how. Did his dragon blood give him greater speed? Surely it must. He wondered if the Recollection gave him shared skill and knowledge as well as memory.

The crowd was strangely silent. Those watching appeared spellbound by these seemingly well-matched fighters.

The man came on, raining blows upon him again before he even had a chance to hit back. Again he parried desperately—never able to find the time to land his own blow, but managing to block or dodge every one of his opponent’s strikes. The fists stopped and again they looked at each other.

Asaph went in for the same attack, copying exactly his opponent’s technique since he had no experience of his own to draw upon. His fists were blocked equally superbly and with just as much speed. He stopped for breath and fell back.

They circled once and he noticed the other man was finally sweating and breathing harder. However, Asaph’s own breath still came easy and only a light sweat covered his chest. It was surely his dragon blood giving him speed and stamina. He hesitated, perhaps this wasn’t really a fair fight. Perhaps he could have easily killed the other two fighters too. The feeling made him uneasy and, seeing his hesitation, the other man attacked fast.

Asaph blocked him, felt a leg curl around his calf and was flung to the ground, the breath knocked out of him. A pummel of fists fell on his face and blood burst from his nose before he could shield. He kicked hard, landing his foot solidly in the other man’s stomach and hurling him back against the fence.

Asaph jumped up, winded and breathing heavily, but surged forwards as his opponent launched himself off the fence. Asaph ducked the blows and rammed his shoulder into the man’s stomach, hurling him against the fence again.

The man ran back, slower than before. Asaph stepped to the side, jabbed his elbow into the man’s ear and followed it up with a solid punch to the jaw.

The man went down silently, gracefully almost, just as he had been graceful in the fight. Stunned silence covered the crowd and then half of them were cheering whilst the others looked on dismayed.

‘He downed Leaper,’ one man said in shock.

‘That’s the first time in a decade,’ said another.

The fat man and skinny man Asaph had originally met were grinning at each other.

He looked down at Leaper, saw his chest rise and fall and relaxed. The man’s nose was bloody, but still remained unbroken. Part of him was pleased he hadn’t ruined the man’s face just for a fight. He turned and climbed out of the square as the burly men came to collect his opponent. The crowd parted to let him through, nodding at him respectfully.

‘Nice work, Draxian,’ said the fat man. ‘We expect to see you again. Everyone will want to fight you now.’

Asaph nodded and took the two silver pieces the skinny man gave to him—the first money he’d ever earned.

‘But the first gold,’ the skinny man said, holding up one shiny gold piece, ‘is the price newcomers must pay to enter the fight,’ he grinned slyly.

‘That wasn’t the deal,’ Asaph growled.

‘It’s always the deal,’ said the fat man, stepping closer.

Asaph lunged for the gold then felt something solid crack down upon his skull. He fell to the floor, hot blood trickling down his face. He blinked through stinging blood up at a heavy man holding a club. He’d seen the man collecting money from the crowd earlier. Now four men bunched close around him as he got back onto his feet.

The world swayed. The skinny man laughed. The dragon opened its eyes and stood up. Asaph snarled and lunged for the gold again, daring them—wanting them—to attack him. A meaty fist punched him in the stomach, winding him painfully and sending him back into the dirt. He gasped, the pain of three fights making him groan. The dragon within growled impatiently, and he felt his temper rising out of control.

He jumped up, swung a punch randomly, felt it connect with soft flesh and heard a gasp before the club crashed down on him again. The dragon roared as he spat out dirt and rage flowed through him.

‘Asaph,’ the relatively quiet commanding voice cut through the noise of the crowd and the laughing men around him. The dragon snapped its mouth shut and the rage lulled. The same voice continued.

‘When the mind is unclear, seeking the Fire Sight is better than brawling like idiot.’

Asaph blinked and wiped away blood, sweat and dirt. Silence descended and the men surrounding him melted into the crowd. Onlookers began to disperse too, as if fearing the arrival of an authoritative figure come to report them to the king. Had the city guard come to arrest them? He recognised that voice, but his bludgeoned brain couldn’t quite make the connections. He blinked through the grime up at the man in the grey cloak carrying a staff and walking towards him through the disappearing crowd.

‘Father?’ he said, struggling to his knees and wiping at the blood that continued to flow from his head into his eyes. He felt like a little boy again, and this time he knew he’d done something very bad. The dragon within sighed and curled up. His father looked down at him with a disapproving frown.

‘And besides, I thought you’d like to know that Issa is finally awake.’

~*~

Coronos’ voice rebounded off the walls of the dining room.

‘You fool. What were you thinking?’ he demanded. ‘Did I bring you up to be a dull-brained brawler? You are a prince, Asaph. No, actually, you are a king!’

Asaph guffawed and adjusted the bandage on his head. ‘King of what? Who gives a damn.’

‘I do, Asaph. And so should you,’ his father whirled away with a disgusted look that made Asaph hunch.

Coronos stared out of the window. Outside it was darkening with the oncoming dusk. ‘I know you’ve been angry with Issa and that you’ve argued, but you can’t stop her doing what she chooses, and you can’t vent your pique in street fights with local thugs.’

‘I’ve learned more today about being a man and fighting than I ever have before,’ Asaph retorted, chagrined that his voice was weak and his throat raw from his recent stranglehold.

Coronos sighed and spoke as if to himself. ‘Yes, you should have been trained in fighting to an elite standard. I guess you have seen that much in the Recollection. But what can I do?’

He turned and faced him. ‘Anyway, to keep you out of trouble, I’ve arranged for you to join Prince Petar’s hunting party. That way you’ll meet better quality men and fighters. And I suggest we ask King Navarr if you can train with his men in the armoury, as all princes are expected to do.’

‘I met a great fighter today, probably one of the best,’ Asaph mumbled. Coronos cast him a warning look.

‘Anyway, how is Issa,’ Asaph changed the subject, thinking it wise not to anger his father further. He had been arguing with him for nearly an hour and his already sore head was beginning to throb.

‘She was gone for days,’ Coronos frowned and shook his head. ‘She hasn’t left her bed yet. It was bad. The demons are up to something, we’re sure of it.’

Asaph’s heart lurched and he suddenly felt sick. He jumped up. ‘I must see her.’

‘But she survived,’ Coronos added, wonder in his voice. ‘Somehow—and I don’t understand this or what it means—the lesser demons of the Murk helped her. We’ll learn more when she’s up, but I think it’s high time we had a woman on the Circle again. I think she’ll become a Master Wizard.’

‘Where is she? In her room?’ Asaph stalked to the door.

‘Yes. The healers have left her to rest. She was asking for you but when I couldn’t find you I went searching through the whole city,’ Coronos scowled at him. ‘It didn’t take me long to find you. Don’t think for a moment that a Dragon Rider cannot sense dragon kin nearby.

‘Anyway,’ his father sighed, reached into his robe and pulled out a gold coin. ‘You’re a fool for thinking they wouldn’t rip you off. But at least they won’t be ripping anyone else off too soon. Let’s just say what goes around comes around.’

Coronos tapped his nose.

‘I think this belongs to you?’ He flipped the coin to Asaph. ‘Don’t ever brawl again.’

Asaph caught the coin, his first ever earning, and grinned.

~*~

Asaph quietly opened the door to Issa’s room and walked over to her. His heart pounded as he watched her sleeping. She was pale and had dark rings under her eyes. He stroked her hand folded over her chest. Her eyelids fluttered and she looked up at him with those big, sea-green eyes he’d first fallen in love with what seemed like so long ago.

‘I didn’t mean to wake you,’ he whispered apologetically.

‘It’s all right,’ her voice was faint. ‘I’ve been sleeping too much anyway, and yet I still feel tired.’ She pushed herself into a sitting position and smoothed the hair back from her face.

‘Coronos said it was bad.’ He frowned, half not wanting to know what had happened.

‘It was. I thought I was dead. I chose to die,’ pain passed across her face. ‘I saw you, only it wasn’t you, and you were with another… You were with Cirosa, the High Priestess of Celene, only it wasn’t her either. You both had eyes like a demons. It was awful…’ She shook her head. He sat down on the bed beside her.

‘It wasn’t me and I’ve never met this Cirosa,’ he blurted. ‘I’ve never wanted to be with anyone but you.’

Memories of the beautiful pale woman floated in his mind, making him feel guilty. He pushed them aside. ‘It was all part of the test. Father told me some of it, but we don’t have to talk about it now. Maybe later when you’re well.’

She nodded and gave a faint smile. ‘I’m sorry we argued.’

‘Me too.’ He leaned forward to hug her. She hesitated, as if she were afraid, and then hugged him back, albeit weakly. He hated how frail she seemed.

‘Things are very… complicated. I wish there was more time for us,’ she said when they pulled apart. She chewed her lip, then started a different conversation.

‘In the Storm Holt I met the demons who’ve been plaguing my mind. It may seem strange, but they saved my life when I was lost in the Abyss. They call themselves Shadow Demons, and they desperately need our help.

‘Hear me out,’ she said when he scowled. ‘There are many types of demons.’ She shivered.

‘To put it simply, the lesser demons are being invaded and destroyed by the greater demons. The greater demons want to invade here, Maioria—and they most certainly will unless we do something to stop them. If we help the lesser demons close the gates to the Pit, then they cannot take the Murk and they cannot come to Maioria. That’s what my dreams have all been about. That’s why they’ve contacted me.’

‘But what can we do about it?’ Asaph said. ‘Why are they asking you?’

Issa shrugged. ‘I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s to do with Ehka going to them, and the fact that I can enter the realm of the dead, like ravens can. I think.

‘There’s a spear we have to find and a man who can use it. It’s all so confusing. I don’t know anymore about it than that. But if we don’t help them, then there will be Maphraxies and demons to fight, and I don’t think anyone will be left alive on Maioria if that happens.’

‘Never trust demons,’ Asaph shook his head. He didn’t like what he was hearing.

‘Quite, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot… if we decide to help them, we can ask them to fight with against the Maphraxies in return,’ she said.

‘You’ll never get them to do what you want,’ Asaph scowled. Perhaps she had gone a little crazy in the Storm Holt.

‘Maybe, maybe not. I’ll only agree to help them, if they agree to help us. Imagine, if we did join forces, we’d be formidable against the Maphraxies,’ she said, her eyes alight.

‘I don’t know, it sounds very dangerous…’ He shook his head again. ‘Perhaps you should rest more and I’ll bring you some food.’

‘But still, it’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?’ she grinned.

The look in her eyes worried him. ‘I just can’t imagine ever trusting a demon, let alone fighting alongside them as allies,’ he said. ‘You relax now and I’ll bring you something nice to eat.’

She nodded and smiled as he got up and closed the door. On the other side he let out a long sigh.

CHAPTER 4

Zorock

‘I saw a green beast,’ Issa said to the King of the Shadow Demons. She swallowed and shivered, recalling her time in the Storm Holt when the hideous green devil had appeared. ‘He beckoned to me. He could have killed me if he wanted, but he chose not to.’

Its face had been long and green, unlike any animal she could think of, and its black horns straight and shiny. But it had come to her aid. Apart from Maggot’s voice, it was the only thing that had reached for her in the darkness of the Abyss. Maybe the only being that could reach her. Why had it helped her? She doubted if she’d ever know.

‘Almighty Zorock,’ whispered the demonic voice within her raven talisman. Gedrock’s voice was a low rumbling sound filled with awe. The image of the crystal shard glowed green then dimmed, pulsing slowly.

‘God of the moon of the Murk?’ she was unable to keep the shock from her voice. Why would Zorock come to her, much less help her?

Gedrock, the king of the Shadow Demons, remained silent.

‘Why did I see Baelthrom?’ Everything about her experience in the Storm Holt was a confusion of unanswered questions, and just the memory of the place filled her with dread.

‘That wasn’t Baelthrom,’ Gedrock’s voice rumbled. ‘Demons beyond the Murk can take any form they wish. Down there they have no solid body.’

Issa yawned and felt herself sinking. Communicating to the demons was incredibly tiring. She had become quite good at scrying through the raven talisman, its shiny surface proved as good as any still water, but to scry between dimensions was exhausting. Her eyes drooped and she felt herself slumping back into the pillows.

‘Rest, Raven Queen. Remember our deal. Find the Cursed King and retrieve the white spear. Do not fail us,’ Gedrock’s voice rumbled into silence and she fell asleep, the raven talisman still in her grasp.

~*~

Even when she wasn’t scrying for them, the demons still came to her in her dreams, either talking in disembodied voices or appearing as shadowy shapes with wings and yellow eyes. It was becoming very clear that they wouldn’t leave her alone until she had fulfilled her word.

Several days had passed since she’d returned from the Storm Holt and most of that she’d spent in bed fighting a fever that had descended upon her immediately. Only today had she managed to pull her still weak and tired body out of bed. Freydel told her earlier when he’d brought her breakfast that travelling inter-dimensionally took a lot out of the body and required much rest after. Sometimes an illness comes along to force the body to do just that.

She sat on the edge of the bed and watched the autumn sun spread its rays across the forest beyond Frayon’s city walls. What has the Storm Holt taught me? She pondered, not for the first time. Words could not really describe what she had learned. Though she had returned from the Storm Holt weak and sick, her magic reserves had completely recovered, and to greater levels than before. Mentally complicated tasks involving magic, such as scrying, were easier now, and the Flow came to her more readily. With intuition alone she found she could use the raven talisman to do many things, such as giving light or heat, and it no longer seemed such a mystery.

The wizards were right, it had made her stronger, but on the inside not the outside. She had prevailed against terrifying powers and beings that were beyond her skills in magic and sword—she had prevailed, barely, through strength of will, faith and spirit. And friends. She frowned at the thought. Could demons ever be considered friends?

It worried her how easily weak and deceived she, and likely most humans, were. That hadn’t been Asaph down there with Cirosa, but it had hurt her as much as if it had been. Demons were true masters of form, they could change into and mimic anything. It frightened her how much they knew about and understood the beings of Maioria in order to copy them so precisely. She clenched her jaw, determined not to fall victim to demon trickery in the future.

So, that hadn’t been Baelthrom, and yet she had believed it utterly. She shivered. The darkness and intelligence that had seeped from him… A consciousness that had become utterly twisted, and yet part of her wondered how and why. She had glimpsed his plan and now she understood Baelthrom and what drove him; to make what he saw as a broken and pathetic world stronger, and to get rid of all beings he deemed as weak.

She couldn’t simply stop him because she knew his plan. Why did he want to control all beings, even planets? What was in the Dark Rift and why did he want to return there taking everything with him? The thought made her go cold.

The demons wanted her to find the Cursed King, but how? Maybe if she asked Ehka, he would find the man again. But how would they get the spear? They would have to go to the Murk and into that awful black spire—and that’s if the man agreed to come with her. Not many people simply walked into the Murk, and willingly at that. Maybe if she first found the Cursed King, Gedrock would tell her what to do. Being in cahoots with demons did not sit well with her.

She got up and washed herself in the water basin. Her meeting with the Wizards’ Circle was soon. Besides a brief visit from Freydel at her sickbed, she had yet to see the wizards after her return—and one thing was sure, she was still furious at them for what had happened to her in there. They should have warned her that the Storm Holt led to other places and that it could go wrong, very wrong. They could at least have told her that there was no magic down there. None that she could use, anyway.

Why didn’t they teach her more about demons? They had said nothing. How could anything like that be called a Wizard’s Reckoning? She yanked on her trousers, going over everything she planned to say to them. When she had finished brushing her hair, the Orb of Water began to pulse. She picked it up and took a deep breath.

‘Now then, wizards, you deserve a piece of my mind,’ she scowled and accepted the translocation.

~*~

‘Call that a Wizard’s Reckoning?’ Issa had barely materialised in the Wizards’ Circle before she was screaming. Somewhere in the few seconds it had taken to translocate from her room in Castle Carvon to the Wizards’ Circle, her fury had exploded.

‘What the hell has it got to do with magic?’

The shocked faces of the wizards materialised. They all looked taken aback, Freydel particularly so. Perhaps she had never lost her temper in his presence before. She didn’t care.

‘What bit about it could even constitute a test of a wizard, hmmm?’ she eyed each of them critically.

‘Uh, hang on,’ Freydel began, clearly trying to form some ordered thought under her onslaught.

‘Hang on to what? There’s nothing to hang on to. I nearly died in there. Not because of any magic failure, but because that bloody gate doesn’t just go to the Murk, does it?’ she shouted.

The wizards looked at each other and frowned.

‘You saw the green moon of the Murk?’ Averen began. Issa nodded. ‘The black rock spire?’

‘Yeah, yeah, all that shit,’ Issa waved her hand. ‘I couldn’t stop myself. I was being sucked straight through. I fell through the spire into layers of darkness and out into a red world, red like blood, and still I fell.’ The wizards looked increasingly concerned as she powered on breathlessly. ‘Beyond that there were more layers of darkness, utter emptiness. It exists, whatever it is. I know, I was there.’

‘The gates to the Pit have been opened,’ panic tinged Freydel’s voice and his knuckles gripped his robes.

‘The greater demons are trying to break through again,’ said Haelgon.

‘I went beyond the Pit,’ Issa said more quietly. The tangible memory of it and her dissipating fury made her feel faint. ‘I don’t know how far I went, it was such a long way down, but I wouldn’t have returned if…’

‘If what?’ Domenon said when she failed to continue, his dark eyes watching her unblinking.

‘If the Shadow Demons hadn’t saved me,’ she said with a sigh.

Luren laughed in disbelief, but a stern look from Haelgon silenced him.

‘She’s not lying,’ Averen said, his eyes gleaming in surprise.

‘Yes, the gates have been opened,’ she said. ‘That’s why the lesser demons speak to me in my visions and dreams. They saved me because they need my… our help.’ Whether they believed her or not was up to them. There was no point dressing up what had happened down there.

‘Why should we help those bastards?’ said Drumblodd. He growled and gripped his axe.

‘If we don’t, then the Murk will fall to the greater demons, and then they will attack Maioria,’ she hunched her shoulders. ‘That’s what their demon lord Karhlusus plans. The Shadow Demons want our help to kill this demon lord and close the gates to the Pit.’

‘And how on Maioria do they think we’re going to be able to do that?’ Haelgon looked incredulous.

Issa stared into the distance where the sea sparkled in the sunlight. ‘They say I must find the one who can wield the white spear. An ancient king reborn to lift his curse and that of his knights. He has come here to destroy Karhlusus anyway, whether he knows it or not. I don’t know this man, only that he’s called the Cursed King.

‘The Shadow Demons talk to me because Ehka, my raven friend, showed them a vision of what will come to pass. They talk to me because of my ability to move between the world of the living and the dead, like ravens can.’

No one said a word. The wizards looked at each other.

‘As if we don’t have enough on our plate,’ Freydel broke the silence and rubbed his eyes.

‘I told you the Storm Holt was unstable,’ Domenon said to the others. ‘I said the energy felt strange and erratic, that the demons were up to something.’ He smiled at her faintly, not an unkind smile.

‘I would have gone anyway,’ Issa admitted. ‘I had to know why the demons plagued my mind. But you could have warned me it went go beyond the Pit,’ anger tinged her voice again.

‘We simply didn’t know,’ Averen said, raising his hands. ‘Although it may not be obvious right now, perhaps you’ve already felt some of the strength the Reckoning has given you?’

Issa nodded slowly.

Averen continued. ‘Knowing about all the power in the world doesn’t mean you know how to use it.’

‘Yes, but, I wasn’t ready for it. I guess I’d never be ready for it,’ she sighed. ‘So what happens now?’

The wizards looked at each other then laughed. She felt her cheeks colour. Surely they had some idea of what to do.

‘I think it’s you who needs to tell us that,’ Freydel smiled warmly. Issa frowned.

‘Right.’ She shrugged. ‘Well, I’ve given them my word that I’ll help because in helping them, I believe, they will in turn assist us against the Maphraxies.’

Surprise flickered across his face.

‘Demons help no one,’ Drumblodd’s scowl deepened.

‘If she’s made a pact with them, they’ll never let her be,’ Averen said, rubbing his naturally beardless chin.

‘You should never have spoken to them,’ Luren shook his head.

‘Perhaps, but if I hadn’t then I wouldn’t be standing here now.’ She stood tall and jutted her chin. What did these wizards really know of what had happened, or of what was going on down there? Her soul would have been trapped and tormented at the bottom of the Abyss forever had Gedrock, Maggot and Zorock not helped her.

She spoke louder to cut through their chattering. ‘They’re only lesser demons and they mean me, and us, no harm. But I can see the strength of a demon army driving back the Maphraxies, can’t you?’

‘To fight alongside demons when we’ve fought them like a plague since the dawn of time?’ Haelgon shook his head.

‘What choice do we have?’ Issa said.

Coronos nodded and looked at the ground thoughtfully. ‘That’s if they agree to help us and stick to their word. A pact with demons is a double-edged sword.’

‘If we don’t help them, then the greater demons will invade Maioria,’ Issa said. ‘If they don’t help us, then Baelthrom will invade the Murk. The stakes are the same even though we reside in different dimensions.’

‘That’s if we’re even able to defeat Karhlusus and his greater demons,’ Freydel said. ‘But first, before we decide to do anything, you must tell us all that happened in the Storm Holt, if you can bear it. It seems we can no longer stay silent about the things that happened to us in there. Our very lives depend on it.’

Issa nodded and swallowed. For the next hour she told them everything that had happened, glossing over the part with Asaph and Cirosa. It wasn’t easy remembering in detail all that she had suffered, and no words could describe how she’d felt. How she’d given up everything that she was, even her soul. How she would have perished had Maggot’s voice not found her.

The wizards listened and patiently waited until she had finished before speaking all at once to each other.

‘I warned that the Storm Holt energies were erratic,’ said Domenon.

‘How could it lead to the Pit?’ growled Drumblodd.

‘We must document this,’ said Averen.

‘Now one has gone so far,’ said Navarr.

‘And returned,’ said Freydel, a look of awe in his eyes.

‘The gate must sealed and protected by magic. What if the demons break through again?’ Haelgon said, scowling.

‘They won’t break through, they can’t and they’re too busy,’ Issa said, hands on hips. The wizards stopped talking and looked at her. ‘They are worried humans will invade them.’

Freydel nodded slowly though worried his beard. ‘And what about the green devil?’

‘Zorock,’ she said simply.

A look of horror and wonder was shared between the wizards.

‘I would not have got out if he hadn’t helped me. Why it did, I don’t know,’ she shrugged.

‘I would be very wary indeed to accept the assistance of a demon god,’ said Domenon. ‘Your life is indebted to it now.’

‘Indeed,’ said Issa holding his gaze coolly. ‘But when not to accept means death… We shall see. He would not have helped me without a reason. I think he knows the peril his demons are in.’

The wizards began talking at once again, mostly about the technicalities of how the Storm Holt could have been changed energetically. She agreed with them that it could only have been through Karhlusus’ meddling demonic magic. Freydel sat back with a sigh then pointed at the raven talisman tucked in her belt.

‘Whilst you were gone, we had a good look at that, but even now we’re none the wiser. It’s like an orb, only its power is not separated but whole. We couldn’t touch it for long without feeling unwell. It’s bound to you, like the orbs are bound to their Keepers. We have, as yet, discovered no scripture mentioning it.’

The wizards shook their heads, apart from Domenon who rubbed his chin and stared at the talisman. She wondered if he knew something but was keeping it to himself.

‘I can use it better now, since the Storm Holt, but all I know is that it’s very old. Arla found it, but from where I don’t know. Perhaps she can tell us more?’ The thought excited her.

Freydel gave a pained look and shook his head. ‘She’s been bed-bound since the day I returned. She lives in a permanent fever that no healer or wizard can break.’ The worry in his voice infected her and her heart lurched. What had happened to the poor child?

‘I must see her,’ Issa said, her voice stricken.

~*~

Navarr’s expert healers quietly closed the door to Arla’s room, leaving Issa alone by her bedside. The room was much like her own; large and decorated with wooden wall panels. The curtains were half drawn, leaving enough light to see, but not enough to wake Arla.

Issa knelt down beside the child. Her face was as white as the sheets that bound her and her breath was noisy in her throat. The girl did not stir even when she touched her cold hand. She blinked back tears. Arla was dying and she had no idea how to help her.

‘You know, I remember another who was bed-bound?’ Issa whispered, thinking of her mother, Fraya. ‘I couldn’t help her no matter what I tried. But I want to help you, if you’ll let me.’

She closed her eyes and focused her mind on Arla, just like she used to do when treating sick animals at the smithy on Little Kammy. In her mind’s eye, the child’s aura was very faint and drawn close to her body. She got a real sense that Arla was only half there, whilst the other part of her was somewhere else.

She’s trapped between two places, Issa realised. Maybe part of her was stuck where Freydel had been trapped in the ethereal planes. That was where Arla had found him, so he’d said. How had he returned all right and she hadn’t? Issa chewed her lip. She had no idea what to do. Could she reach Arla in the realm of the dead? But Arla wasn’t dead, so it wasn’t likely.

‘Arla, can you hear me? I know you can. Tell me how I can help you.’ Issa took the talisman from her belt. ‘You gave me this. I don’t know where you found it but, from your note, I think that retrieving it weakened you. Maybe I can use it to make you stronger.’ She tucked the talisman under Arla’s arm and closed her eyes.

‘Arla, reach for the talisman, it has power,’ she said in her mind.

Arla’s aura grew brighter and larger. The child stirred. Issa bit her nails, praying that the girl would awaken. Finally her eyes fluttered open and Issa gasped. They were brilliant blue with the Sight.

‘Issa?’ the girl croaked.

‘Arla,’ she hugged her gently.

‘I can barely see… My spirit is trapped,’ Arla wheezed. ‘I feel my body dying.’

‘Arla, how can we help you? Please tell us what to do,’ Issa pleaded.

‘I don’t know,’ Arla whispered. ‘Take me to him. Take me to the boatman.’

‘The boatman?’ Issa asked. ‘Murlonius the Ancient? How do you know of him?’ But Arla’s eyes had closed again and her aura was shrinking.

‘Arla, come back.’

There was nothing she could do as the girl descended back to sleep. Whatever strength the talisman had given her was gone. Blinking back tears, Issa stood up, tucked the talisman into her belt and slumped in defeat. How did she know of the boatman? Freydel said she talked to the Ancients, could that be how she knew him?

She bit her lip, feeling utterly helpless. Arla confirmed she was trapped. She needed to find someone who could reach the ethereal planes. Perhaps Murlonius knew how. Reluctantly she left the sleeping girl and went to find Coronos.

~*~

He wasn’t in his room. She eventually found him in the library sat on a plush velvet couch with a huge book resting on his knees. He was too engrossed in his book to notice her until she was right next to him. He looked up startled and she smiled and bent to hug him, feeling as if he was the grandfather she’d never had.

‘Ah hah. How is my favourite daughter-in-law?’ he said as she sat down beside him, a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

‘Asaph and I aren’t married,’ she sighed, then grinned.

‘Well, you know he loves you very much,’ he said, taking her completely by surprise. ‘You don’t need to be afraid of love and you don’t need to close yourself off.’

His sudden frankness and insight startled her and she floundered. ‘I didn’t know I was. I thought he was being distant. I don’t want anyone else getting hurt because of me. I can’t lose another…’ she left it hanging.

‘You cannot know what the future holds. You can only live in the moment. If you shut love out now, then how can it find you in the future?’ Coronos gave a grandfatherly smile and she realised how not having one, or even a father, had left a big hole in her life.

‘Love lets go. Love opens up. Fear holds on and closes in. If you live in fear, then Baelthrom has already won,’ he said.

She had come here to ask him something but instead he had laid her heart bare. Was she so easy to read?

‘I’m afraid of losing those I love,’ she admitted. ‘But I’m so angry… I want revenge for those who were murdered and taken from us. When the dark moon rises again, I want to devastate them. I want to end him and this stupid war now.’ The anger boiled up as Ely, Rance and Fraya’s faces flashed in her mind.

‘We all do, Issa, we all do,’ Coronos said gently. ‘I long to see peace. I enjoyed it in the Uncharted Lands, but now I think I’ll only find peace when I rest eternally.’

‘I think you’ve got a good number of years left to go,’ she grinned, trying to lift the dark mood she felt she had created. ‘You don’t get out that easily.’

He laughed and set his book aside, patting the couch beside him for her to come closer. ‘You have come looking for me for some reason? I can see the worry in your eyes.’

She nodded. ‘It’s about Arla. She’s trapped. Her physical body remains here where it weakens, but her spirit is trapped beyond. I tried to help her with the power of the raven talisman. She came around for a short while and said to take her to “the boatman”—I guess she means Murlonius. Then she slipped away again.’

Coronos’ eyes widened. ‘Murlonius the boatman? Asaph called his name and he came, but back then he had divine intention and a mission. I’m not sure if he’ll come just like that.’

‘We have to try, for Arla’s sake. Otherwise she’ll die,’ Issa worried the hem of her tunic dress.

‘Indeed,’ Coronos stood up abruptly. ‘Let’s find Asaph. He’s called the boatman twice before, perhaps he’ll be the best person to call him again.’

~*~

They couldn’t find Asaph, much to Coronos’ surprise. He’d apparently taken his advice and accepted King Navarr’s invite to join his son’s scouting party. The stable master informed them that they would be gone for two days hunting the forests for ogres, foltoy, thieves and anything else unsavoury in close proximity to the city.

‘Well, I feel there’s nothing we can do except wait,’ Coronos said as they made their way back to the castle.

Issa nodded, worry for Arla churning in her stomach. She didn’t feel right calling the boatman herself, but she couldn’t wait for Asaph to return.

She decided to go for a walk alone through the castle’s water gardens to try to take her mind off Arla. Her meandering steps brought her to the river.

‘The City of Rivers,’ she murmured, admiring how one river flowing through the castle grounds had been split into a myriad of streams, channelled between beds of yellow, orange and tiny pink flowers.

One part of the river flowed through a miniature stone city complete with connecting bridges, towers and a castle. She realised it was an exact replica of Carvon City. There was even a tiny stream flowing through a green patch marking where she stood now in the water gardens. But the beautiful castle grounds could not distract her for long, and soon she was thinking about what to do with Arla, the demons and the Cursed King.

Before dinner, alone in her room, she pulled up a chair to the open window where Ehka was perched on the sill.

‘I remember what Edarna told me,’ she said, stroking his feathers and making him croon. ‘She said that you were searching for the Cursed King. Now I understand why. I also know now why you went to the demons, though I’m not sure why Zanufey would care about them. Perhaps she knows this is the only way to stop a demon invasion of Maioria when her people are so weak.

‘Our hope lies in this strange Cursed King. Together we’ll help the demons, as I promised. I know they’ll help us fight against the Maphraxies, they’ll have to. But first, I must meet this king, wherever he is. Can you find him again and bring him here?’

Ehka cooed and nodded his beak.

‘Go to him, no matter how far away he is. Tell him that we must meet. Tell him about the demons and Karhlusus. Bring him here if you can, or come back and lead me to him. As soon as the demons are on our side, we’ll have a greater force to fight against the Maphraxies.’

Ehka cawed.

The sun was setting and its orange rays cast the forest ablaze. She looked straight up. The sky was darkening to deep blue. Out there, somewhere, she felt the dark moon moving. She closed her eyes and felt the faint touch of its pure power. It was coming closer and soon it would rise again. She didn’t know when, but she had to be ready for it. When it rose, she would use its power to her fullest potential.

‘You feel it too, don’t you?’ she opened her eyes and looked at the bird. He fluffed up his feathers. ‘The dark moon will rise again, and soon. We must be ready. Go now, find the Cursed King as fast as you can.’

Ehka croaked and stood up, flattening his feathers and looking ready for business, but he didn’t fly away immediately and instead looked at her.

She smiled. ‘You needn’t worry about me, I’m not going anywhere outside of these walls. I’ll watch and wait for you. Now, go on.’

Ehka crowed, turned and launched himself from the window. She watched him fly low over the city then the forest, heading west until he was lost from view.

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