CHAPTER ONE

WHITE RAVEN

Dark thoughts crowded Issa’s mind as she lay on her bed in the cramped cabin.

Their warship, one of hundreds, sailed the dangerous and unpredictable waters between Davono and Venosia on a voyage that could well be their last. Struggling to sleep, she stared into the dark, the creaking and swaying of the ship both strangely relaxing and foreboding at the same time. Was her floating home carrying her to her death?

She imagined the sea, endless and dark beneath her, waves crashing white against the ship as it moved through the inky blackness. Above, a clouded sky made their passage even darker, and that hot, arid wind from Atalanph blew. Ahead, the coast of Venosia and the impending battle against Baelthrom’s hordes drew closer.

She closed her eyes for the tenth time only to see the black claws of the Devil’s Horns rising up before her, eager to smash into the pathetic hulls of their feeble wooden homes.

Where was Asaph? Where was Freydel? Had they left her in her darkest hour? No, Asaph will come to me, I know it. And Freydel? …I can but pray.

How long until they reached the Devil’s Horns? And how would they overcome them? Between now and when they reached them, she hoped the wizards would come up with a plan. Destroying them with magic would exhaust the wizards, and they needed every ounce of strength for the battle itself – and the use of magic would also alert the enemy.

If only Freydel were with them with his orb, he’d certainly figure something out, but he wasn’t here when he was needed the most. Had she pinned too much on hope? Was starting this war the most foolish thing she’d ever done? Was she about to send thousands of people to their deaths including her own?

With a long, exhausted sigh, an uneasy slumber stole over her.

~*~

Ahead, row upon row of jagged black spikes speared out of the ocean. Beyond them crawled the dark mass of Venosia. The wind blew harder until it screamed through the rigging and churned the sea. Gripping a rope around the mast, Issa spread her feet wide as the ship swayed drunkenly. Above, the clouds crowded thickly, turbulent and red-tinged.

In the Abyss the sky had been red—red, like blood and rage.

The Under Flow surged towards her, a loud din in her head, a cacophony of dark power hunting for her, stalking its prey. She reached for the Flow before it was smothered and formed a shield around herself. The Under Flow withdrew, its prey now unattainable.

Issa let go of her held breath and passed a hand over her forehead. It came away wet with sweat. Thunder cracked and a thick bolt of red lightning split the sky. She screamed as it smashed into a spike directly before the bow, illuminating the others around it.

A terrible groaning wailed through the air, the same tortured sound she had heard in the Dark Rift. Fear clenched her stomach, her heart thundered and the air turned too thick to breathe. The noise, the storm, the Under Flow, everything crushed down upon her. She collapsed onto the deck sweating, trembling.

She stared up, the sky was so close she could touch it. The clouds darkened and clustered together into familiar, looming shapes and an utterly helpless feeling assaulted her body, paralysing her in terror.

The Light Eaters, massive beyond comprehension, groaned and crowded above her, three hooded, faceless shapes looking down from their thrones in the sky. She was nothing. No magic could withstand their power. Hands made of dark clouds reached towards her, fingers opened wide, and from their clutches, four smaller shapes galloped.

She clung to the mast and stared, unable to look away, her body shivering and shaking. Sweat soaked her back despite the agonising cold that ate into her bones.

The horsemen grew large, hooves thundering on air. A shadow horse threw back its head and neighed, its scream cutting through the torturous moaning of the Eaters.

A raucous cawing joined it. A raven flew between her and the horsemen, but not a raven she knew. This one was pure white. She tried to reach it but there was nothing, as if the bird were a ghost, a figment of her imagination. Why was it white? Why did it not come to her?

Fear trickled like ice down her back. She inhaled sharply, more afraid of the raven than any of the horrors beyond it. The raven wheeled and dived, seeking neither to protect her nor fight her enemies.

‘You’ve come to warn me,’ she stated in a whisper.

The raven cawed, a long and mournful sound that brought with it all the desperate sorrow and emptiness she had known in the Shadowlands. Issa sobbed and clutched at the neck of her nightclothes.

The raven turned and flew straight at her. She raised her hands to ward it off and screamed.

~*~

Issa jerked awake, her eyes wildly hunting the darkness of her cabin.

Clutching her sweat-soaked nightshirt, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and, breathing hard, smoothed back her hair with shaking hands as she grappled for reality. It was still pitch black outside the porthole and the ship swayed and creaked rhythmically.

It was just a nightmare, she told herself, though she really didn’t feel it was. There was more to it than just a bad dream; a prophetic message she wasn’t ready to learn.

Someone knocked on the door. Softly at first, then more urgently and louder when she did not respond.

‘Lady Issa?’ Velonorian’s voice was tinged with worry. The young elf opened the door a crack and held his lantern high. Seeing her dishevelled, distraught look, he hurried into the room.

‘Lady Issa, are you sick? You’re as pale as a wraith and drenched! Has some evil magic befallen you? I was passing your door and I thought I heard crying.’

Issa could barely find the words to speak. She took the water he poured for her from the pitcher beside her bed, and gratefully drank, trying to still her shaking hands.

‘Some war commander I am. I’m in no fit state to lead this offensive,’ her voice was hoarse and ragged.

Velonorian sank down onto his heels to bring his head level with hers, interweaving his fingers and resting his elbows on his knees. ‘You won’t be leading it, the well-seasoned military commanders will. You’re the spark but they’re the drivers. There’s nothing to fear. You had a dream, a vision. I can see it in your aura. Even your eyes are blue with the Sight.’

Issa nodded. ‘I saw those things in the Dark Rift. And I saw the shadow knights who hunt me.’ Her stomach twisted into knots as she recalled the four horsemen, their forms emerging from shadow and smoke.

She let go a long silent breath and tried to sit up straighter. ‘But worse than that, I saw a white raven…’

Why had she seen a white raven? Had it been sent to her by Zanufey as a warning? Was she doing something wrong?

‘What is its meaning?’ asked Velonorian.

Issa looked away. She didn’t want to say. She didn’t want to speak aloud what she knew to be the truth. She took a deep breath and met his violet eyes. ‘The white raven is warning me of my death. What else can it mean? I don’t know if it was sent by Zanufey. I don’t know why it should come to me now. Could it be I’m taking the wrong course of action? Yet, of everything else I think of, this is the only action to take. There’s nothing else for me to do.’ She chewed a fingernail.

‘It’s a warning, a message to be cautious and nothing more,’ said Velonorian, squeezing her shoulder gently. She swallowed and nodded, wanting to believe him. ‘Now, why don’t you try to get some restful sleep? My room is just down the hall. I’ve already placed a ward on your door that will hold until dawn.’

‘Thank you, Velonorian,’ she said and slowly laid back down, but she could tell from his frown that he was deeply worried as he shut the door behind him.

She watched the creeping light from his lantern fade away beneath the door and darkness enveloped her once more. After a moment blinking into the black, she reached over the side of the bed and grabbed the orb and raven talisman. She held one in each hand protectively. No shadow knight can attack me now.

Forcing her mind to focus only upon the gentle rocking of the ship, she drifted back to sleep.

~*~

The darkness brightened slowly into a pale, grey-blue light.

She held up her talisman and orb but there was no danger, only quiet, calm, and blue fog swirling thickly around her, a fog which thickened until it took on a liquid quality. Soon she was suspended in beautiful aqua-blue water, but strangely, she could still breathe. She took a deep slow breath and let it go, watching fascinated as her exhalation emerged as bubbles. The foreboding that had gripped her for days disappeared completely. Instead she felt a playful joy.

‘Issa,’ a voice said softly in her head.

She looked around.

‘Issa,’ the voice said again, closer.

She saw the flash of purple and silver.

‘Wykiry?’ she answered back.

Three Wykiry appeared, their wing-like fins splaying out beautifully around them as they began to circle and dance around her.

‘In the ocean, we are always close. The Undead Knights hunt you. Nowhere is safe. Be careful of your dreams.’ The Wykiry spoke as one, their mellow voices barely whispers in her mind. ‘There are other dangers. All the power of Maioria cannot stand against that of the Dark Rift. Do not fight the Light Eaters. Run.’

‘I try but they find me and I can’t escape,’ Issa said, using her Daluni talents.

‘It’s because the fallen out-lander has found you.’

‘Who? The woman with the black eyes?’ Issa saw in her mind the beautiful but cruel face of Lona and shivered.

‘Yes,’ said the Wykiry.

‘But how are we to free Maioria if we cannot fight the Dark Rift?’ Issa asked.

‘We do not know. But if you fight them now, you will fail.’

Issa chewed her lip. ‘Then it’s hopeless. This battle will be to our deaths.’

‘No. The more lands that are freed, the more power returns to Maioria, the stronger she becomes.’

It seemed of little comfort.

‘And there is always hope.’ The Wykiry pressed.

Issa gave a bitter laugh. The Wykiry sensed her futility and slowed their circling. She felt warmth and comfort exude from them. They did not know everything, she reminded herself. They were not gods. Fate will not control my destiny, she vowed.

‘Yes,’ they said, reading her thoughts, and nodding their smooth round snouts. ‘Be the Raven Queen. Chart the destiny of your people. Come.’ Their voices faded as they began to disappear into the blue.

She didn’t want them to go. A thought that had been on her mind for a long time came to the fore and she took out the Orb of Water.

‘Why did you give this to me rather than take it back after Keteth? You can use it to do far greater things than I can,’ she said.

‘Because only you can set us free,’ a voice said from inside the blue.

‘What do you mean, set you free? From the ocean?’

‘From our curse; from the Immortals and from the sea to which we are bound.’

‘How do I do that? I barely know how to use it.’

‘We do not know, only that you can and you will. Through the orb you can reach us if you need. Call for us and we will come,’ the voice said.

The water turned cooler and darker as the Wykiry retreated and the dream darkened. The surface found her, and she inhaled but the air felt dank and polluted after the light water she had been breathing.

A dark red sky clouded above and a heavy ominous feeling fell. The Devil’s Horns rose out of the ocean before her. Yelping, she turned and tried to swim away but an unseen force pushed her forwards.

‘Don’t be afraid of what you see. Remember the orb,’ the Wykiry whispered in her mind from far away.

She closed her eyes and gripped the orb, focussing her mind on it, drawing on the Flow. She poured it into the orb.

There was a strange subtle switch in the magical energy as the orb and her mind connected. She was still in the Flow but it was oddly different, lesser in scope and yet purer. It’s pure magic! she realised with a start. Pure elemental water power unmixed with the other elements of fire, air or earth.

She let the orb’s power fill her, and with it came deep understanding of the elemental. Rivers and tides weren’t things and processes; they were beings in their own right. She understood the way the tiny unseen particles of water bonded together, how water froze and why it turned to mist or fog.

As understanding filled her, she became ever one with it until she felt herself melding with the ocean itself. In a rush, the immense elemental power of the sea became her power.

She spread her arms wide, holding the orb high. At her command, the sea surged, lifting her up. Higher and higher the sea rose, a great expanse of ocean reaching up into the sky. Issa looked down and laughed at the incredible sight. The ocean carried her on the crest of a great wave. Fifty feet below, the Devil’s Horns were no more than harmless splinters that simply vanished as the ocean surged over them.

‘You cannot learn the power of an orb, you can only be shown what it can do,’ said the Wykiry, their voices barely audible over the tremendous roar of the surf.

The great wave slowed and Issa felt herself sinking down gently into the sea and into a place where there were no dreams.

~*~

Asaph angled his wings and looked down upon the immense gold dragon statue of Feygriene dominating the centre of the lake.

The spring sunlight gleamed brightly off the magnificent effigy and an incredible feeling of awe bloomed deep in his chest.

He roared and listened as the sound echoed around the mountains and was soon joined by three more. He glanced back at the other dragons also circling the skies: Garna, the slender red female; and the two big males, Rust the red and Pennarc the green—those who had joined him in his attack on Avernayis. Only to the three by his side had he proven himself, had he shown that they could trust him, and so they had been bonded more closely.

Whilst he had been gone, the dragons had built the statue with the gold they’d kept hidden deep in their lairs. They must have hoarded mountains of the stuff to create the life-sized dragon, thought Asaph.

Using dragon magic, they had built up the base of the lake with rock and moulded the gold on top of it into the image of their goddess. With their combined powers it had taken them mere days, whereas any human endeavour of a similar scale would have taken years.

Asaph took in the sight of the towering mountains with their snow tips set against a deep blue sky, the glistening crystal-clear lake below surrounded by rich green meadow, and he nodded his head: this was the place of their magnificent rebirth.

The dragons had told him that, long ago, in Arc’s time, this place had been called Arc-Ralan, after the mighty wizard Ralan Afisius and the great dragon, Arc.

Now, the dragons called it Yis, meaning “dragon heart” in Dragon Speech. Here, the dragons had been reborn. Now was their time to live again. The Dragon Dream had gone but in its place they would have their sacred haven on Maioria.

Faelsun would be proud, he thought.

With another body shaking roar, he turned south, and the others followed.

Far below, at the base of the mountains, eight more dragons were visible. They would not come with him despite how he’d tried to convince them all to join the mighty battle—and what could be more glorious than a legion of dragons to make the Immortal Lord tremble? But the dragon race was still weak, and it was true that they were needed here to gather the others.

Asaph still sensed reluctance and distrust within those who had not fought alongside him at Avernayis. And why should they trust him? He, a Dragon Lord, the very same as those who had become Dromoorai and turned upon and destroyed their own kind.

Morhork had not been seen since their fight. He’d given up trusting the wingless dragon.

The green oasis of Yis disappeared behind him and the world turned into frigid ice sheets and towering mountains of snow. He felt the minds of Garna, Pennarc and Rust linked to his own. Just having the connection was teaching him many things—things a Dragon Lord should have known decades ago.

The wind itself carried messages, such as how far away winter or summer was, or when the next snow fall would come. He now instinctively knew how high he was, how far ahead the ocean lay, and a hundred minor things that had become second nature to him.

He sighed, feeling a deep sense of belonging for the first time in his life. If only Coronos were with him to share in that feeling. There was only one thing left for him to do: retake Drax. Fire rumbled in his belly.

Like the great Dragon Legions of old, we will descend upon Drax and wrench it from the Immortal Lord’s grasp!

~*~*~

CHAPTER 2

MYTH OF MYTHS

Jarlain paused and looked back over her shoulder for the hundredth time.

It had only taken a day to get to The Centre on Fenn’s back, but now the elderly, the young, and the injured made it painfully slow going on the return journey. The night was also overcast and very dark to make matters even worse.

Already, Shufen’s arrows and Tarn’s knife had taken down two death hounds that had ambushed them in the dark; they were easy prey with their torch beacons in the forest. There had been a third, but it had escaped and run off into the forest.

Jarlain noted the odd behaviour. Usually they fought to the death, they never fled. No one spoke aloud what they all felt—that it had run off to get others. Everyone was tired, uneasy, and jumpy, but she refused them rest.

Fenn gave a low growl. He was sick of the slow speed too.

‘It’s a wonder you humans survive anything,’ was all he said when they stopped yet again to wait for everyone to catch up. Jarlain pursed her lips and adjusted her helmet. At least the night gave respite from the heat of the sun, though she was still sweating under her armour. She decided to stop here and wait for daybreak.

Hours later, dawn broke; thick golden rays burst through the rich green canopy of the jungle. Her vantage point on a rocky hill looked out over the vastness of the forest—her home. She sighed, wishing she were here for good. Apart from the swathes of blackened, destroyed earth along the coast, the enemy had ultimately done little to hurt this endless land. She did not allow herself to hope though. It would not stay that way. Larger countries than hers had fallen to the Immortals.

She arched her back and stretched her sore muscles. They had made it through the night alive, and for that she gave thanks to Woela. Behind her, the others wearily stirred from their far too brief sleep.

‘How long, Fenn?’ Jarlain asked the bear as he returned from the stream.

He sniffed the air, finding his answers there before speaking. ‘An hour, maybe more if we stop.’

‘We cannot stop. I have the awful feeling we’re not going to get out of here without a fight,’ she said.

He growled.

Their journey became easier as Fenn led them downhill along a gentle slope. Jarlain glanced behind. The long line of people, all of whom were carrying weapons, looked tired, but there was determined set to their expressions.

Soon they heard the sound of the sea rushing against the shore. Hushed cheers spread, and relief washed over Jarlain. She hurried forwards but as she ran the ground shifted beneath her feet, making her stumble. Everything fell silent and an odd sensation filled the air. Fenn pushed his nose into her hand but she could barely feel or see him as numbness spread over her. He was coming to recognise when the Hidden Ones brought her visions.

She tried to control herself by sitting before she fell, but reality had already shifted. She heard that awful scream in her mind, the one that nearly made her lose control of her bladder. Her breathing came fast and shallow as the ground tumbled then righted itself. Great black shadows passed overhead. She looked up; many black dragons turned to her and roared torrents of flame.

‘Hurry,’ she screamed, her voice coming from far away. ‘They’re coming!’

~*~

Jarlain found herself slumped over Fenn’s back, her arm gripped gently in his mouth. The bear was desperately trying to keep her on his back as he rushed through the forest. She came around and hugged his neck, clinging on as the pounding in her head receded and her senses returned.

‘Too many to fight,’ said Fenn.

Blearily, she glanced behind her to see all the people running, terror on their faces. She didn’t dare look up. The dragon fear would take her when it came. The black dragons weren’t here yet, but even Fenn could feel them.

He came to a jolting stop just before they reached the exposed beach, staying under the cover of the trees. But trees were not going to protect them. Jarlain swung her legs off his back and stumbled to the ocean’s edge. A gust of wind and great screech coming from behind made her stagger. The boatman’s name was on her lips only to be ripped away by the dragon fear that coursed through her. Her legs shook and her bladder let go as she collapsed onto her knees.

Fenn roared. The bear’s dragon fear made her own more potent. Flames and immense heat burst in front of her and sprayed the trees. She couldn’t run or even turn her head to look back.

Call the boatman! Her mind yelled at her. The screams of her people cut through the grip of dragon fear. Kneeling on the wet sand she held her hands high and forced the words out.

‘Murlonius!’ she screamed three times.

Her whole body trembled as she pushed herself onto one knee, then the next, and finally to a standing position. She reached behind her back and pulled her spear free. It seemed to take an age. She turned in time to see the jungle become engulfed in thick orange flames. Fenn was locked in a struggle with a Foltoy, the undead beast’s fur already slick with black blood.

A howl of battle rage escaped her throat and she forgot about the thickening mist spreading over the ocean behind her as she lunged to help Fenn.

The Foltoy slid off her spear and Fenn whirled to face the next. Huge black shapes passed overhead, darkening the ground, and the jungle was alive with the howls of Foltoy and death hounds.

Something hard slammed into her, hurling her several feet into the air. Dazed and winded, she rolled out of instinct, narrowly missing the black axe that smacked into the white sand just in front of her face.

Jarlain jumped up, flinching at the contorted, ugly, grey face of her attacker. She dodged its blade again and slammed her spear straight through its pale eye. It howled and sunk to its knees, black blood oozing down its face.

Panting heavily, she wrenched her weapon free and took in the impossible sight before her. The forest was alive with the enemy and at least four Dread Dragons flew overhead. There was no hope.

She glanced to the ocean and was struck by the picture of calm. Standing in his boat was Murlonius with Yisufalni just behind him. The sky beyond had turned orange with the sunrise and the glass-like sea mirrored the boat and boatman perfectly. Around them drifted a glowing pale mist. Neither of the Ancients moved, they seemed like statues, an island of serenity in the bloody chaos of battle. Then, he beckoned.

‘Get to the boat!’ Jarlain screamed.

Fenn heard. He crunched his jaws, finishing off the death hound and tossed the body aside. Standing on his hind legs, he gave a mighty roar.

Jarlain ran towards him, screaming again and again, ‘Everyone, get to the boat!’

A moment passed where nothing happened other the sounds of screams and clash of weapons, then waves of wounded, panicking people hurtled out of the forest towards the ocean. They splashed and fell, frantic to reach the boat.

A death hound bounded out of a bush and clamped its jaws down on Jarlain’s spear arm. Her metal bracers creaked between its powerful jaws as it yanked left and right. She pulled her knife free and plunged it into the base of its skull. The undead dog shivered and fell.

She looked ahead and laughed. Murlonius’s boat had expanded to fit the hundred or so people already in it. Yisufalni constantly lifted her arms and an unseen power lifted people from the ocean.

Jarlain glanced back. Bloodied bodies floated in the water and were scattered on the beach. Red blood on white sand. Still, people streamed out of the flaming forest, some on fire, all harried by death hounds and Maphraxies. Not everybody was going to make it. What if the Immortals attacked the boat? The thought made her stomach turn. She couldn’t let that happen.

The Maphraxies hesitated at the water’s edge as if they did not want to get a foot wet. Jarlain watched, curious.

‘Get to the water!’ Murlonius screamed. ‘They won’t follow you into the sea!’

She glanced back at Yisufalni. The Ancient held out her six-fingered hands, palms down, her eyes glowing vivid blue.

A dark shadow covered the sun as a Dread Dragon swooped low over the water. Not five yards away from her the giant jaws of a Dread Dragon clamped down upon those in the water. She stared at its huge, blood-red eye that was larger than her head, the slit of its pupil narrowing as it focussed on her, and her heart skipped a beat. The muffled screams of people came from inside its mouth. The dragon clenched its jaw, silencing the howls within, and lifted into the air. Jarlain shook uncontrollably.

Something clanged loudly against her helmet, then she felt an intense pain and fell forwards into the water.

~*~

Yisufalni’s strength drained quickly. It took all of her power and concentration to keep their presence at once hidden from the Maphraxies yet still visible to the people they were trying to rescue. Murlonius could not assist her, consumed as he was with keeping the connection to Maioria open, the boat steady, and the sea calm. She sensed this was the most dangerous mission he had so far conducted. She couldn’t imagine it being any worse.

The doomed people were surrounded on all sides by Immortals. Their only hope was the sea, and Yisufalni poured the Flow into it. Maphraxies hated water, something to do with energy of the substance. To them it was toxic. The purity of the Flow was also toxic to them, its high frequency poisonous to those who existed in the low, dark frequencies. The enemy would not go into the water unless they were pushed. And there they would die.

But she could not protect them from the Dread Dragons. They swooped and attacked with ease, picking up people in their jaws and claws. Yisufalni looked at one, its dead eyes filled with hunger, whilst its rider’s gaze blazed within a metal face. She tried not to give in to hate, not now whilst she held the Flow. Hate would weaken her and muddy the pure energy she channelled.

Some people reached the boat and she lifted them in with her magic. They collapsed in the hull in exhaustion. The boat stretched to accommodate them as each one entered.

Yisufalni glimpsed Jarlain fighting alongside Fenn. She held her spear up and was screaming at the people. The brave Navadin had come last, commanding strength and power like the people of old. She already was a leader, Yisufalni smiled. The Flow jerked, and her smile dropped.

Emerging from the trees walked a man. A normal, human man—only dark, inhuman, power surrounded him. He was not a Maphraxie but he had the black aura of one who has tasted Sirin Derenax; one who had lost his humanity long ago. His piercing eyes spoke of intelligence without empathy. His grey hair was smoothed back, accentuating deep widow’s peaks and his face was long and gaunt. He moved slowly, completely controlled in a world of chaos.

Yisufalni held her breath as he looked straight at her. She froze. He can’t see me, he can’t! But the man looked on and then slowly, deliberately, raised his arm. Something glinted in his hand. Danger prickled her back. To do anything to protect herself from a direct attack—or to attack back—would immediately drop their cover.

Fenn moved fast. The bear’s jaws closed upon the man’s arm just as something fired from the device. A metal dart shot forth, she saw it clearly. The dart was off course; it would not hit her. But it was on course for another. Yisufalni stared at the trajectory towards Jarlain. The Navadin did not see it and there was no time for warning—to help her would reveal themselves fully and risk all the people they had saved.

Yisufalni raised her hand, formed the will to command the magic, and flicked her fingers forwards. A solid knot of shimmering air burst from her fingers and slammed into Jarlain. It knocked her into the water and continued straight into the grey man. The force tore him from Fenn’s grasp, leaving the man’s leather bracer in the bear’s mouth. Their shield was gone. The next moments became a whir of chaos.

Fenn spat out the man’s bracer and bounded into the water to where Jarlain had sunk under the weight of her armour. The Dread Dragons above turned to their new enemy. People still poured out of the jungle.

‘Oh, woe,’ she heard Murlonius whisper.

Yisufalni closed her eyes and focused the mass of energy that was the Flow.

The Maphraxies were black shapes moving through the living green of the forest. The red spots fleeing between them were the auras of terrified people. Energy gathered around the grey man getting onto his feet and the Flow avoided him. Fenn was a large ball of copper light and Jarlain’s aura was faint beside him.

Yisufalni lifted her hands and drew large shapes of power in the air. With a word, the Flow exploded outwards. Dread Dragons scattered, Maphraxie hordes and their death hounds sprawled. Only the people remained unaffected.

Yisufalni drew her arms together, shouting words in the Ancient Tongue. The Flow obeyed and the magic she had thrown out now rushed back towards her, picking up and carrying all the people who still had an aura.

Murlonius entered the Flow, a beautiful aura of purple in her maelstrom of magic. He lifted them all and she felt herself withdrawing from Maioria. The black shapes disappeared and the taint of the Under Flow vanished. Yisufalni let go of the Flow, feeling as if she floated back down into the boat. Exhausted, she let herself drift in a sea of magical energy.

~*~

Jarlain awoke to a large, wet tongue draping over her face. It gave a long lick from cheek to cheek.

‘Fenn, stop!’ she tried to sound annoyed but her voice was a rasp.

The bear stopped and dunked his snout into a bucket of water where he proceeded to drink noisily. He was caked in blood, both black and red, and his ear was ripped and oozing. Jarlain tried to sit up but slumped back instead. A middle-aged woman with lighter skin and hair than her own people took a cloth to the bear and inspected the ear. Jarlain wondered if she was Kuapoh but didn’t want to rasp again. Fenn flinched at the woman’s touch, then got into the idea and relaxed.

Jarlain tried to get her bearings, though she couldn’t see much past Fenn and the woman. She lay in the bottom of a huge boat that rocked gently and was surrounded by sleeping people. Above, the sky was a strange blanket of white though there was no sun that she could see. She rubbed her face and her hand came away bloody. Her fingers found the rough fabric of a bandage around her head.

‘The bleeding has mostly stopped. Your bear was just cleaning you,’ a familiar old woman’s voice said then chuckled.

‘Sharnu?’ Could it really be the Elder? Jarlain tried to sit again but her battered body protested. ‘Is it really you?’

The brown, wrinkled face of the old woman smiled down at her. Jarlain realised then that her head was cradled in the Elder’s lap. Tears filled both their eyes and the old woman bent to hug her.

For a long moment they stayed like that. There was nothing to say, each knew everything that had come to pass and all that had been lost.

‘Tarn’s gone,’ whispered Sharnu gently after a time.

Jarlain took a breath and swallowed against the pain of losing her half-brother. She hugged the Elder closer. So much pain, so many had been lost. She dedicated herself to protecting those who remained. Those around her in the boat.

It was the soft groaning growl from Fenn that drew them apart.

‘Now stop it you big wuss,’ said the pale woman tending his ear. She had a needle and thread and was attempting to sew up his wound. ‘The lotion will numb the area and you won’t feel a thing.’

‘It’s all right, Fenn,’ Jarlain said.

‘It hurts. The lotion doesn’t work,’ he growled.

‘Ah, Jarlain, you have awoken in us the gift of the Navadin. You are the first but the gift will spread and awaken within us all.’ Sharnu spoke telepathically, startling both Jarlain and the bear.

‘You can hear us?’ Jarlain forced herself to a seated position and looked at the Elder. Tears streaked the older woman’s face but they were tears of wonder as she looked at the bear.

‘So many ancient memories are returning to me,’ she said, her voice barely a whisper. Her eyes looked far away and began to glow subtly with the blue of the Sight. ‘When Hai left us, hope left my heart, despite what he said. Now hope fills it once more. I see a bright future before us but on far different shores, and the path to it is dark, many will not survive.

‘Now our people are so few in number. Look at them, we’re all that remain of the once great peoples of Unafey. But ahead, if we dare to reach for it, a new world dawns.’

‘A new world,’ Jarlain echoed, catching the feeling of hope.

‘A world like nothing we have seen before.’ Sharnu nodded. ‘But between us and it the black chasm of Oblivion yawns.’

Jarlain shivered. ‘We must leap across it.’

Sharnu’s eyes lost their faraway look. Smiling, she squeezed the younger woman’s hand.

~*~

Jarlain ate Tallen fruit whilst Sharnu and Fenn slept. Fighting back tiredness, she looked at the giant boat filled with the slumbering people of all the tribes of the Uncharted Lands. She had never seen so many people in one place; there were at least a thousand of them, many of them wounded, some seriously. Her eyes lingered briefly on those whose chests no longer rose or fell and her heart became heavy.

‘They did not die in pain,’ Murlonius spoke softly. ‘In this place, their souls are easily found by Zanufey.’

Jarlain turned to the boatman. He stood at the prow with his back to her. He was not rowing but wading with his oar. It seemed impossible that he could manoeuvre this massive boat filled with thousands in this manner, but this was the Sea of Opportunity and anything was possible.

Yisufalni sat beside him, staring straight ahead. The Ancient looked exhausted as she gripped the side of the boat. The pale, strained face and distant look in Yisufalni’s eyes made her realise the Ancient was deep in concentration. Murlonius’s face was set in a grim expression and there was a sheen of perspiration on his brow.

Jarlain made her way over the sleeping bodies towards them.

‘Something hit me on the head but…we made it out, didn’t we?’ asked Jarlain.

Yisufalni spoke without looking at her. ‘He’s seen us. He knows. They’re hunting for us at this moment. I’m doing all I can to conceal our passage.’ She passed something shiny to her.

Jarlain took the strange metal dart with a vicious tip. Inside was a tiny vial of green liquid.

‘Venosian saran poison,’ said Yisufalni. ‘Deadly. A special tool of Baelthrom’s second-hand man, Hameka. He saw Murlonius and I together, clear as day. Now, Baelthrom hunts us. He knows we meddle in the affairs of Maioria against him. Despite our curse he has seen what we can do. He will not let us live.’

Murlonius spoke. ‘That dart was meant for you. To save you, and thus the Navadin, Yisufalni had to expose us.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Jarlain. Had she jeopardised the lives of the very people who had saved her and her peoples? The thought made her feel sick.

‘Do not be,’ Yisufalni smiled. ‘I made the choice. Responsibility rests with me.’

‘You can’t have known,’ added Murlonius.

There was no hint of accusation in either of their voices. They accepted all that happened, without question or judgement. Humbled, Jarlain was awestruck by these beautiful beings, the ancestors of the Elves. Wisdom, grace and sorrow radiated from them.

‘The lives of the Navadin are now far more important than our own,’ said Yisufalni.

Jarlain frowned.

Yisufalni continued. ‘There’s only one last task left for us to do before our time is complete.’

Jarlain saw the frown of pain pass across Murlonius’s face, though he said nothing.

‘What?’ Jarlain asked. What was this thing they had to do that caused him pain? But they did not answer. She tried formulating another question but found her mind drifting and a deep sleep stole over her.

~*~

The sound of waves slapping the side of the boat awoke her. Jarlain opened her eyes and shivered in the cold. The sea rocked more than usual and a thick, damp fog had replaced the soft mist. She sat up at last, thankful she wore her armour to fight the chill.

Fenn was already awake, his snout lifted and twitching as he smelled the air. The fog cleared revealing craggy grey rocks and a thick forest of evergreen trees clustering down to the water’s edge on either side of the boat.

‘Where are we?’ asked Jarlain, her voice hushed so as not to wake the others.

‘Brackish water. We travel upstream along one of the many rivers flowing down from the central Everridge Mountains between Davono and Lans Himay,’ said Yisufalni, her eyes scanning the fog-covered land.

‘The boat has arrived at the destination of the one who wanted it the most,’ said Murlonius.

‘Marakon is here, then?’ Jarlain tried to see if there were any soldiers or knights moving through the forest but there was nothing.

Murlonius turned and smiled at her. ‘Not you, the bear.’ He nodded to Fenn.

The bear twitched his ears.

‘You chose here, why? What is here?’ she telepathed to him.

‘We call the bears. Woo has not much time. I smell Oodabans here, they can help you humans. Otherwise they will die of cold. They have no fur.’

‘Wait, who is Woo? What are Oodabans.’ Jarlain frowned.

‘Great Woo of the Forest. Ood is her mate. Oodabans, deer people.’

Jarlain blinked in surprise. Woo was Woetala in bear speak, but did he really mean the Karalanths Marakon had told her about?

Murlonius and Yisufalni stood up. Jarlain squinted to where they pointed and was startled by what she saw.

Antlers appeared through the fog, then the heads and bodies of the people they were attached to. These people had antlers on their heads but were otherwise human down to the abdomen and then animal for the rest. They looked like the three-prongs from her Gurlanka homelands, only much bigger. She realised her mouth was open and closed it. All of the people were now awake and staring at the Karalanths in silence.

Only when they lowered their drawn bows did Jarlain realise they had weapons pointed at them. There were five deer-people, four males and a female, clustered on the stony-bank at the waters’ edge. They stared in equal measure back at the two Ancients and the enormous boat filled with refugees. Looks of awe spread across the Karalanths’ faces and their white tails flicked nervously back and forth.

Some dropped their gaze respectfully, reminding Jarlain of the power and authority the Ancients might once have commanded. These two before her were the last of their race, just as the boat-load of refugees she sat amongst were the last of her race. She swallowed painfully.

The boat ground gently on to the pebbles and Fenn jumped out. The Karalanths looked at the bear, their surprise deepening as he padded fearlessly towards them. It struck Jarlain that they weren’t in the least bit afraid of the bear, when most humans would have run.

The nearest Karalanth, a man with long, greying hair and fur, put away his bow and arrow and spoke in a clipped language to the bear. He raised his hand and touched Fenn’s fur, stroking his great head down to his neck. Fenn seemed to accept this as some kind of greeting. The bear turned and looked at Jarlain as if wondering where she was.

Hesitantly, Jarlain stepped over the side of the boat and walked towards them. She laid a hand on Fenn’s neck as the Karalanths eyed her up and down. The male Karalanth said something over his shoulder to the others, who replied and nodded their heads.

‘You are dressed as a soldier of the Feylint Halanoi, and yet your race is not one of them. You are of those people,’ he nodded to the refugees, ‘but they are not dressed as you. Who are you to be bear companion?’ the man spoke perfect Frayonesse like Marakon, with only the barest hint of an accent.

‘I am Jarlain of the Gurlanka. These are some of my clan, the others are other clans. Cousins. We are all that remain of the peoples of the Uncharted Lands. The Immortal Lord came, with his Dread Dragons.’

The Karalanth nodded and took a deep breath. ‘I am Triest’anth, and we Karalanths are also few in number, but not so few as these two Ancient Ones before us.’

He turned from Jarlain and walked gracefully towards Murlonius and Yisufalni. The other Karalanths followed.

‘I have heard of your kind but never seen them,’ said Triest’anth. ‘You are but a myth of myths and yet here you stand. Are you truly the last?’

‘We are, Brave One. The world is changing and our time is nearly done. We bring with us the last of a mighty race, also a myth of myths and possibly older. Here stands before you the first of the Navadin.’ He nodded towards Jarlain.

The Karalanth looked shocked. He glanced back at Jarlain.

‘Great Doonis came to me,’ she said quietly. ‘I was close to death. He returned to me two things, memory and speech. Memory of what we once were and the language of the bear. This is so my people might live. But we are weak and battle weary, and we do not know how to survive in this new world. Will you help us?’ She caught Sharnu smiling at her from the boat, a look of pride on her face. There were warriors, Elders, chiefs and Leaders of the Hunt amongst the refugees, and yet it would be she who would lead her people.

Triest’anth studied her face, as if weighing up the responsibility of what she asked of him.

‘Woo has not much time,’ repeated Fenn.

The Karalanth looked at the bear, clearly able to hear him.

‘I do not feel I have a choice,’ said Triest’anth. ‘But the bear is right, Woetala is dying. There is not much time. Because Doon has graced you, we will help you live.’

‘Thank you,’ Jarlain bowed deeply. ‘Come.’ She motioned to her people.

With everybody’s help, including the Karalanths, the tribes of the Uncharted Lands climbed out of the boat, helping the injured.

‘Danger draws near, our time is done here,’ said Murlonius. Jarlain watched as he replaced the curious hourglass back into the sack at his feet. ‘In the astral planes, others come.’

‘Thank you, Murlonius,’ said Jarlain.

Both he and Yisufalni nodded.

The boat, now back to its normal small size, ground off the stones and back into the water of its own accord. Glimmering mist formed in the fog.

~*~*~

CHAPTER THREE

DWARVES, DEMONS AND KARALANTHS

Marakon waited by the entrance as soldiers and horses filed into the demon tunnel, faces pale, weapons drawn.

The stone door ground shut, sealing them in thick blackness as the torches all went out. Knowing what was going to happen didn’t lessen the carnal fear that knotted itself in Marakon’s stomach.

‘Demon doors always shut after something has passed through them, and all light is extinguished. Somehow they know,’ he said loudly, forcing his voice to sound almost bored. ‘Look, Velistor glows only dully. There’s nothing here for us to fear. Try lighting the torches again.’

Soldiers rummaged in packs looking for flint and tinder. Sparks lit up the cavern and torches flared back into life. The relief was palpable.

‘There’s not enough air here to feed the flames and us,’ Eiretonne growled, his gravelly voice somehow booming although he had spoken quietly.

Someone took a few steps and then paused when they heard a loud crunch.

A torch was held low.

‘Bones,’ a voice said with a tremor.

The horror of a demon skull assaulted Marakon’s eye. Its thick cranium and large, empty eye sockets bore into his own as if it saw and hated him again. Its skeleton lay in broken bits around it.

‘Decapitated after its death. It must have been killed by magic that prevented it exploding,’ said Marakon.

‘Why only one?’ asked Justenin.

‘Mortally wounded Shadow Demons fade into the shadow taking their victims with them before they die. They leave no trace of themselves or their prey. But the others, the Grazen, they explode when killed,’ said Marakon.

He scanned the tunnel and passed his hand over the wall. It came away black. ‘Look, see? I thought these walls were black but they’re grey beneath. The rock is blackened with soot and heat. This place is thick with dead demons only we can’t see most of them.’

His explanation was intended to reassure but he found it unnerved everyone even more, including himself. Demon wraiths were the last thing they needed. Thoughts about demon battles eons past crowded his mind. Had he fought here? There had been so many battles in so many places, he most probably had.

He shook his head. They had to get moving. ‘Bokaard?’

‘Sir?’ said the Atalanph captain, his blue eyes shining in the dark.

‘You bring up the rear. You can see in the dark if anything is following us.’

The Atalanph nodded and made his way to the back.

‘Eiretonne?’

‘Yes, Commander?’ The dwarf stepped closer, a determined look in his eyes.

‘Stay by my side,’ Marakon commanded. ‘You can also see well in the dark in these tunnels. I’m hoping you’ll have a better dwarven feel for underground caverns than I do. Where are the wizards you were bringing?’

The dwarf motioned with his hand and an unlikely slender dwarf female came forward. Brown freckles cover her nose and cheeks in an attractive manner and her long braid hung over one shoulder to her waist. She looked frightened, her large brown eyes wide and her helmet askew. She also looked completely uncomfortable in her ill-fitting armour that hung about her frame. She held her short sword too limply and Marakon quickly worried she’d do more damage to herself than the enemy.

He held back a sigh. Wizards never made good warriors. This one looked no good for battle, but the Feylint Halanoi had only allowed him two wizards of the ten he’d requested. If this was the best of them he worried what the second one was like. He remembered another dwarven female, an accomplished warrior who had been impaled upon the deck of his ship many months ago. Would this one share a similar fate? He prayed not.

‘She’s not a warrior, Commander, but what she lacks in strength she doubles in battle magic,’ said Eiretonne, guessing his thoughts. ‘That’s the reason the Feylint Halanoi hired her. She is not a witch or seer but a wizard. They say some women are finding the power again; they say it’s because of the Raven Queen.’

‘I can believe that.’ Marakon gave a nod, relieved somewhat. He turned to the dwarven woman whose cheeks had begun to colour under the scrutiny.

‘Name?’ he asked.

‘Shelley, Sir,’ she said.

Her voice was quiet but at least it didn’t tremble.

‘Shelley, when it darkens cast a low light but not so much it drains your energy. Beware of demon wraiths, they move in the shadows. Are you familiar with demon magic? Good. At this point in time, any we encounter should be our friends, but be wary.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ said Shelley, bowing awkwardly. She hurried away.

He turned back to Eiretonne. ‘And where is the other wizard?’

‘Er, well, I bargained for her over two other wizards,’ said Eiretonne, standing straighter and confident in his choice. ‘You see, well, the other one was really two—twins, you see, Sir. They could not be separated. Looks can be deceiving, but I know a good battle wizard when I see one. She has more ability than the other two combined. I was so impressed, it made me believe that the power is finally returning to our women folk with the rise of this, er, Raven Queen.’

Marakon took a deep breath and let it go slowly. ‘I guess I’ll have to take your word for it, Eiretonne. Let’s hope you’re right.’

‘Aye, Sir, you’ll not be disappointed.’

‘Still, we only have one wizard for one hundred soldiers… I’d prefer one to ten. Never mind.’ Marakon sighed and waved his hand. ‘Justenin?’

The tall officer stepped into the light. ‘Sir?’

‘Protect the wizard at all costs. Take a position beside her and back from the frontline.’

‘Yes, Sir.’

Marakon made his way past the waiting soldiers until he stood at the front. He peered into the blackness beyond the torches and dull light of Velistor. Who knew what lay in that darkness…

Eiretonne stepped beside him, the keen edge of his axe reflecting the torchlight. No one said a word as they moved forwards. Thankfully, demons came in large sizes and the tunnel was high and sometimes wide enough to let three soldiers pass side by side.

As he walked, many questions flitted through Marakon’s mind but eventually they all boiled down to one: how would he know which way to go when the passage split—and split he knew it would? He placed all his trust in Velistor, but how did it know where he wanted to go? Maybe it only ever sought out demons. He would know, his inner feeling said, just as he had known in that lifetime eons ago.

Eiretonne pointed ahead, snapping him out of his thoughts. ‘Look, the tunnel brightens.’

Sure enough, the blackness of the tunnel gave way to an eerie grey light that came from nowhere in particular.

Marakon pursed his lips into a smile, now remembering the mysterious demon light. It grew until everything was bathed in muted soft grey. ‘Douse the torches, there’s enough light to see and we might need them later.’

They moved forward, the mood of the soldiers changing from pensive to bored as the tunnel continued endlessly. After an hour, the passageway made its inevitable split into two tunnels.

‘Halt,’ Marakon called and the line shuffled to a stop.

He bent down to inspect the floor and then the sides of each tunnel, looking for a clue. Memory flashed. He held the tip of Velistor against the ground of one tunnel and gently scraped it around the circumference. Velistor hummed and grew brighter. Strange, luminous green symbols flared where the spear passed, making the demon symbols usually hidden to human eyes, visible.

He tried to read them and immediately felt sick.

‘Demonic runes. Don’t look too long at them,’ he warned those closest.

He turned to the next tunnel and did the same thing. Again, runes flared, and he didn’t know what they meant. It seemed logical that the tunnel on the left would lead him west—west towards Davono—but the spear pulled ever so subtly to the tunnel on the right.

‘Demon tunnels are trickery, like demons themselves,’ he murmured. He decided to trust Velistor and took the right-hand split. After several yards the tunnel sloped down and then turned to the left.

‘It’s turning west,’ said Eiretonne.

Marakon nodded and smiled. ‘Let’s trust the spear from now on.’

They continued and the initial interest in the split tunnel soon faded back to boredom. Being under all this rock and earth felt oppressive. How deep had they gone? Apart from back there, there had been no other decline to suggest they had gone deep, yet somehow he knew they had. Were they nearly all the way to Davono? What if this way led to an ancient demon trap? Were they even in Maioria anymore?

There came another tunnel split, this time into three. Again, Marakon used the spear to scrape each entrance and stared at the meaningless demonic runes. He took the central one when he felt the spear pull and prayed Velistor was responding to his will rather than seeking out demons. Hours passed, and they came to another tunnel divide.

After another hour, Marakon gave the command to rest. ‘Half an hour and no more,’ he said, setting Velistor against the wall. He realised it was impossible to tell the passing of time down here and then grinned when the wizard pulled out a tiny hourglass.

Marakon sat on the ground and washed down his dried fruit and nuts with some water. When the pink sand in the hour glass was half and half he gave the order to start moving again.

Another hour of marching passed when he came to large blotches of blackened walls. He touched them with his finger. It came away black.

‘Demon ash,’ he said quietly.

Eiretonne motioned for caution.

They walked on at a slower, muffled pace, passing the blackened marks and piles of ash dotted here and there. Marakon’s boot clanged against something in the soot. He bent to inspect it.

Brushing the soot off revealed a small, gleaming blade. ‘A throwing dagger,’ he said.

He barely touched the edge and it drew blood. ‘Still wickedly sharp!’ He smarted. ‘But it’s not demon-made.’

‘Here, let me look,’ said Eiretonne. Marakon passed him the blade and the dwarf squinted at it turning it over in his hands. His thick eyebrows rose. He passed it back to Marakon. ‘It’s not dwarven, but Karalanth.’

‘Karalanth?’ Marakon said, equally surprised. ‘What are the deer-folk doing in demon tunnels? They hate the bowels of darkness and anything underground.’

Eiretonne shrugged. ‘Could it have been carried here by something else, maybe even in the wound of a demon?’

‘Anything’s possible.’ Marakon shrugged. Tucking the dagger away, he continued walking.

They passed several more piles of soot and blackened walls but no more weapons or clues as to the battle that had taken place here until they came to another tunnel split.

This one was not like the others. One tunnel was much smaller, halfway up the wall and disappeared into pitch black rather than the muted grey of the demon passage. It was roughly hewn, unlike the relatively smooth demon ones.

‘Now this,’ said Eiretonne, smiling broadly, ‘is a tunnel made by dwarfs.’ He went close to inspect the entrance. ‘See the notch marks here? They were mining. This is a First Tunnel—so called because it is rough. Clearly, they never bothered to smooth and widen it because they tunnelled straight into a demon tunnel!’

‘Demon tunnels, dwarven mines and a Karalanth dagger.’ Marakon placed his hands on his hips. ‘What is going on? Have dwarves tunnelled this far into Frayon? How old is it? Have we reached the Everridge Mountains already or could this even be Venosia?’

Eiretonne shrugged. ‘I’ve no answers to your questions. I’m a warrior not a miner. I was trained from birth for battle and rarely lived inside any rock. Where there are dwarf tunnels, there are mines. Perhaps they were under the commission of an old Frayon King? Such things are common, even today.

‘Things don’t age underground so I can’t tell you how old it is. Here, let me inspect it further.’ He took a torch and motioned for another dwarf soldier to follow. With a leg up, Eiretonne pulled himself level with the entrance and peered into the gloom.

‘It opens up into a cave. There are skeletons and piles of soot, lots of them,’ he said, his voice strained. He pulled himself fully into the tunnel and disappeared before Marakon could stop him.

~*~

Marakon walked to the entrance, sword at the ready, followed by several soldiers. He peered over the edge. The tunnel descended steeply, and amongst the piles of rubble and black ash, lay skeletons cast in orange by Eiretonne’s torch. The dwarf hastily moved from skeleton to skeleton inspecting each, his eyes wide.

‘What is it?’ Marakon hissed, not wanting to be loud.

When Eiretonne didn’t answer, he heaved himself up. In full armour, it wasn’t easy getting through the small entrance built for dwarfs, but he clanged and scraped his way through. Thankfully the tunnel widened into a small cave almost immediately and the ceiling was just high enough for him to stand.

‘Dwarfs, all of them,’ said Eiretonne staring at a skeleton, his voice cracking with emotion.

‘For every one felled by a demon, double it for the ones who disappeared into shadow,’ said Marakon with a shiver.

‘Bastards!’ Eiretonne growled, then bent and picked something up from a pile of demon ash. It glinted in the light. ‘Another Karalanth dagger.’

Justenin, Shelley and several soldiers crawled into the cavern. The wizard cast a soft light, illuminating all.

Marakon paused by a pile of bones. The thick short femurs and relatively heavy set skulls of the dwarf were unmistakable. A helmet lay a few feet away, dented and rusted but otherwise whole. Carefully, he pulled at an arrow sticking between two ribs. He barely touched it when the ribs fractured releasing the arrow.

‘These skeletons are old. Very.’ He inspected the arrow, noting the leaf-like head. ‘And these are Karalanth arrows.’ The ancient arrow shaft crumbled when he tightened his grasp. He frowned, it didn’t make sense. What were dwarves, Karalanths and demons doing here?

‘Curse the Karalanths!’ Eiretonne growled and spat.

‘But where are their bodies?’ Marakon asked. ‘Surely one fell. They aren’t that good.’

He rubbed his beard, thinking. ‘No Karalanth bodies, but Karalanth weapons embedded in demons and dwarfs. To me, it seems, the Karalanths came upon a battle already taking place. Karalanths do not leave their injured or even their dead behind. If they came upon two enemies fighting each other, they would have had easy pickings.’

‘Wait,’ said Shelley, capturing everyone’s attention. ‘Look.’ She held up a dented dwarven helmet. ‘Look at the runes on the rim.’

Eiretonne snatched it from her and stared hard. With a grimace he threw the helmet aside where it bounced loudly against the wall. ‘Dark dwarves! Curse their black Tongue!’ He kicked a skeleton causing it to crumble.

As soon as he’d said it, the air thickened. Marakon tensed and the wizard fell back, her hands raised and ready to cast. Justenin jumped in front of her.

‘Prepare to fight!’ Marakon yelled, warning the others back in the demon tunnel. He heard them draw their weapons.

The temperature dropped and Marakon considered his options fast. Should they fight in here or get back into the demon tunnel where there were more soldiers? He turned to the tunnel entrance just as black light shot out of the darkness. It snaked like a living thing on the ceiling and flared around the entrance. Rocks split apart and crumbled in a spray of dust and rubble, sealing the entrance shut.

‘Great. We fight in here, then.’ Marakon grimaced.

The blackness thickened, and the pressure grew until his temples pounded. The soldiers, ten of them including Justenin and Eiretonne, held their swords ready, eyes wide with fear.

‘Bunch together,’ Marakon commanded, and they drew close into a circle with the wizard in the middle. ‘Shelley, what do you sense?’

‘D-dark, old magic and o-others,’ she stammered. ‘I can’t be sure. It’s not the Under Flow. The dead are here.’

‘Demon magic, once placed, is hard to remove,’ Marakon said. ‘Demon wraiths cannot be killed, only sent back to the Murk. They will not be on our side.’

‘I can feel the evil of the dark dwarven runes,’ Eiretonne said in a harsh whisper. ‘More than one black magic infests this place.’

The pressure suddenly dropped and a deafening noise unlike any sound he had heard assaulted his senses. Marakon released his spear to cover his ears. Adding to the din came a new sound, the thundering of hooves. He focused on it to drive away the other noise and struggled to pick up Velistor. Out of the blackness, a ghostly Karalanth warrior galloped at them. War paint covered his spectral face and his antlers reached high above him.

‘Wraiths!’ shouted Marakon.

The ghost roared, his face contorting in hatred and his weapons raised as it laid eyes on Eiretonne, its most hated enemy.

Marakon saw a flash. He spun Velistor, only just in time to knock the spectral dagger away before it hit Eiretonne. He hadn’t expected the ghost blade to be solid, but it clanged against Velistor like any other dagger. He watched it spin through the air then disappear. Velistor has power in many dimensions, he thought.

Eiretonne caught the next dagger with his blade but not the third. It flew so fast and sunk into his shoulder between his armour plates. He roared and dropped to one knee.

A cruel smile spread across the Karalanth’s face as it bore down upon them.

Marakon howled and rushed to meet it, spear raised. The Karalanth skidded its charge and reared, hacking at him with a short sword. It clanged loudly off Velistor. Marakon pirouetted, lunged, and sunk the tip into the Karalanth’s rump. It bucked and screeched.

Wraith-like howling filled the air. The ghost hesitated and turned around, forgetting Marakon was there, seeing something in the dark the half-elf could not see. With a warrior’s cry the Karalanth reared, bounded forwards and disappeared into the rock wall. The howling faded away.

Panting, Marakon bent to help Eiretonne. The dwarf was pale and sweating profusely. Shelley held a glowing blue hand over his wounded shoulder.

‘I can stop the pain but I cannot heal a wraith’s blade and stop the blood,’ she said.

‘He’ll bleed to death,’ said Justenin.

Marakon scowled, he wasn’t about to let his friend die here.

‘Curse the Karalanths, curse the dark dwarfs, curse them all,’ Eiretonne gasped and tried to sit up.

Marakon pushed him back down. ‘The wraiths are afraid of the spear. It exists in many dimensions. I think it can destroy the wraith’s blade still embedded in your shoulder, but it will hurt.’

Eiretonne gave him a hard stare, brief nod, then closed his eyes. ‘Get on with it.’

‘Help with the pain,’ Marakon said to the wizard and held the spear up. Taking a deep breath, he stabbed Velistor into Eiretonne’s wound. The dwarf roared. The spear flared. He withdrew it in a burst of red blood. Eiretonne passed out. Justenin and the wizard quickly pressed cloth against the wound.

‘I think the bleeding already slows,’ said the wizard after a moment.

‘Cauterised by the spear. Something I remembered from long ago,’ Marakon gave a weak smile. ‘But he won’t be fit to fight this day.’

A raging howl, not made by Karalanth ghosts or human throats, echoed around them. Red eyes, dozens of them, flared in the shadows.

‘Demons!’ the wizard said, her eyes wide.

‘Back against the wall!’ Marakon shouted. Only the spear could protect them from demons. They fell back, dragging Eiretonne with them.

Shelley made light, halting the thickening darkness. Marakon stepped forwards. A demon wraith lunged for him, red eyes split in two by a narrow pupil, but the rest of its body remained as shadow. Marakon stabbed the spear into it. The demon howled and Marakon’s soul shivered. The demon vanished. More came at him and he stabbed and slashed, sweat soon beading his face and stinging his eye.

Light flashed from Shelley, seared past him and flared into a demon. It paused, stunned. The demon drew fully out of the shadows and turned on her. Marakon jumped between them, whirling his spear. Shelley didn’t try again. The other soldiers watched helplessly.

Demon wraiths came from every crevice, filling the cavern, forcing Marakon back with his flaring, angry spear. Issa’s raven talisman flashed in his mind; had it come from the spear? It wanted the talisman. If only she were here, the spear and the talisman would have ended this fight already.

Demon claws bigger than daggers materialised to his right. They swiped against his armour with a grating sound, its shadow fingers reaching beyond the metal. Icy cold touched Marakon’s heart and he fell to the floor. Gasping, he desperately tried to protect the others, plunging Velistor in front of him and striking madly.

Dark red flared to his right. It wasn’t Shelley’s magic, nor was it coming from the demons. The demon wraiths saw it too and huddled together.

Marakon blinked. Someone spoke in a human voice and the strange words stilled the air.

‘…Luf kin damack!’

A thunderbolt exploded past Marakon and smacked into the wraiths. Those not incinerated, fled, howling their demonic noise into the shadows from where they had come. The air became breathable once more and the pressure alleviated.

Marakon stood swaying and panting. He squinted at a young soldier who was in the far corner, on his hands and knees, beside a skeleton. The soldier laughed and held up an ancient scroll he had unravelled.

‘Hah! It worked,’ he said, pushing himself up. The young soldier was no more than eighteen, tall and gangly with a mop of hair under his helmet. ‘I saw it glowing in the dust. Maybe the demons made it glow. All I saw were runes and then I understood them. I don’t know—’ The scroll suddenly burst into flames, and he yelped and dropped it.

‘You fool!’ Shelley shouted, making the young soldier jump. He looked at her as she ranted. ‘You never read dark runes aloud, not ever!’

‘Why?’ asked Marakon not understanding.

Shelley turned her glare upon him. ‘Dark runes are a deception to the uninitiated! They will make themselves known to even non-magic users if it serves their purpose. But their price is great.’

‘So what made the demon wraiths run?’ asked Justenin, his frown matching Marakon’s.

Shelley sighed as if they were all stupid. ‘The demons are enemies of the dark dwarves. The spell was created to kill them. In the presence of the enemy, the spell made its own presence known. When a spell committed to paper is read it will destroy itself and often the speaker unless it is one versed in the magic that made it—in this case, dark dwarven magic.’

Everyone peered at the young soldier and he swallowed. ‘I didn’t know, I didn’t! But I’m still here, right?’

‘But we’re also enemies of the dark dwarves,’ said Marakon slowly.

Shelley nodded, the whites of her eyes vivid. ‘A spell may have more than one effect.’

The ground trembled. Everyone fell silent and looked at each other.

‘What now?’ Marakon sighed, rolling back his aching shoulders.

The tremors came again and everything on the ground began to shake. Fallen weapons and dark dwarven armour rattled against each other and the skeletons they still encased. Dust rose and rocks fell from the ceiling. There was nowhere safe to stand, and soldiers lifted their shields to protect themselves

Something gasped and groaned and then a dark dwarven skeleton sat bolt upright. Shelley squealed. The skeleton turned its creaking head and looked at them through empty eye sockets. Five more sat up, followed by the sound of many more in the darkness beyond the brazier light.

‘Not another skeleton army,’ Marakon moaned to himself and closed his eyes.

‘That cursed spell! It has called the dead to fight,’ rasped Shelley.

‘At least these ones we can fight, right?’ said Justenin stepping forwards in front of Marakon with his sword raised. Other soldiers readied their weapons eagerly, determined not to sit out on another fight.

‘Yes, but how many are there?’ asked Marakon, still sweating from the previous battle.

The skeletons creaked and groaned then grabbed their weapons and stood up. Rusted armour hung off their bones and ancient swords rattled in fleshless knuckles as they advanced towards them. In the darkness he could see skeletons amassing at odds of three to one.

‘Fireball,’ commanded Shelley and opened her palms.

A ball of white fire flared into the nearest skeleton and it burst into flames. The skeleton’s scream raked the air as it crumpled into dust. The skeleton behind it picked up its dropped blade and advanced with two weapons. Another flaming ball flared from the wizard’s fingers and took them down. Justenin pushed her back and advanced. Other soldiers jumped to attack, and the room filled with metal clashing against metal.

‘There are too many!’ Marakon screamed as he shoved a skeleton back and decapitated it. The head disintegrated as it hit the floor, followed by its body.

Another skeleton pressed in to take its place, barely giving him time to parry. Deftly, he switched his sword to his right hand and spear to his left. The spear was mostly useless against the skeletons, spearing them harmlessly between their bones, but he used it to drive them back then swipe with his sword. Two more fell and crumbled but many more pressed forwards.

‘Shelley!’ he shouted. ‘Blast open the tunnel. We can’t fight them all!’ He hoped she heard him over the din. One of his soldiers gave a death howl. Marakon couldn’t even spare the time to look.

There came a boom and flash of light, followed by the sound of rocks falling. Marakon strained to see through the dust but his opponent drove in hard. He sliced his sword, dismembering the skeleton’s sword arm and sending it flying into the corner where it twitched. He swung his sword back and decapitated it, only just managing to block the blow from the skeleton behind it.

Another boom came. A flash of light illuminated the cavern and the legion of skeleton soldiers before them. Marakon roared and struck, ignoring their dire predicament. The sound of tumbling rocks was replaced with the yells of soldiers. Behind, and to his left, he glimpsed the rest of his unit pour into the cavern through the crumbled wall. He laughed, the sight of them giving him renewed strength.

With the odds more even, skeletons fell fast beneath his elite army. The battle waged quickly, viciously on his soldiers’ part, pent up as they had been in the demon tunnels. Within the hour, not one skeleton remained standing.

Marakon took off his helmet with trembling hands and slapped Bokaard on the back.

‘Well met, friend,’ Marakon said.

‘Why do you always have to fight without me?’ the big man sighed. ‘Three enemies in one day? We haven’t even got to the front line yet!’

Marakon laughed. ‘I’m done in before we’ve even got there. How many dead and wounded?’ he asked Justenin, his humour vanishing as he steeled himself against the report.

‘Five, Sir, and the same again injured badly,’ the tall man’s face was flushed with exertion.

Marakon nodded, swallowing his guilt for the dead like so many times before. ‘It’s unfortunate, but it could have been much worse. We rest here, for a short time, then we get moving again,’ he spoke loudly for all to hear.

The soldiers sat or stood upon the ashes of their fallen foe and rested.

~*~*~

CHAPTER FOUR

LUMENOOR

‘And now, we separate them,’ said Ayeth, his golden skin gleaming in the pulsing light.

The tall Aralan drew his delicate, six-fingered hands apart, and the white magic filling his palms flared brightly. ‘Look at that. Magnificent!’

Freydel held his breath in fear and awe as he watched his Orb of Death throb with power between Ayeth’s hands. It began to elongate, its black light sizzling against the Aralan’s white magic. Ayeth drew his hands further apart and the orb elongated even more, making Freydel gasp.

Lona leaned closer, her eyes wide and as black and shining as the orb that captivated her. Her pale white face and smooth, hairless head shone brighter in the magic. Every time he came here now he could never find Ayeth alone; Lona was ever at his side, an irritation he let slide in the current magic of the orb.

Ayeth twisted his hands and the orb separated. Everyone gasped. Before them now were two shining onyx orbs resting on the glowing surface of the blue crystal pedestal.

‘How is that possible? How can you create this from the very ether?’ Freydel understood magic as a force to bend to one’s will, to co-create with and command. What Ayeth had done was create substance out of nothing.

‘I have a gift,’ Ayeth said softly. ‘Arzanu has blessed me with the gift of the pre-creative force. As such, all forms of elemental power and substance are open to me.’

Freydel blinked. He only knew one other with the power of the precreative force, and that was Issa. It seems the Night Goddess gives her gift to only a select few. But what did it mean for Ayeth to have the gift? Did Baelthrom have the same powers? Falling into the Dark Rift had changed him beyond recognition; he couldn’t possibly have the same powers—he couldn’t command the Flow—could he?

‘And they are exactly the same?’ asked Freydel as the magic torrent that Ayeth commanded lessened.

‘The same in as much as any two things can be the same,’ said Ayeth, the light of the crystal cavern now casting his skin in a blue shimmer. ‘The only difference will be that this second orb is created here, so it will hold Aralansia’s energy encryption, as well as Maioria’s—potentially making it more powerful, although I cannot be sure.’

Freydel licked his lips as he stared at the replica orb. Could it really hold more power than his? A sense of foreboding stole over him, but he didn’t know why. He lifted a hand towards the orb, but Lona was faster and touched it first, Ayeth too slow to stop her. Her small hand cupped the side of the orb and she closed her eyes, her smile deepening.

Ayeth swiftly touched it too. ‘Be careful of the things you touch after their creation. Like a baby they will attach to the first person they see.’

‘A second orb of undoing,’ Lona breathed.

‘Aralansia’s own orb of power,’ said Ayeth staring into the black surface.

Freydel picked his orb up. ‘If only I could create duplicates of the orbs Baelthrom holds…’

‘I must create one for Yurgharon,’ said Lona, opening her eyes.

Ayeth frowned, his perfectly smooth brow rising with worry. ‘That would not be wise. It could too easily fall into enemy hands.’

Lona dropped her gaze back to the orb and chewed her lip. ‘With greater power, we could destroy them once and for all. Then we would be free.’

‘Objects of power must not be used for harm. This is where the Yurgharon are going wrong and becoming like their enemies. I would use this orb to do good.’ Ayeth, caressed the orb and touched her hand. She dropped her gaze, brooding.

Freydel nodded his agreement at Ayeth’s sage words.

‘Destruction of another is never the answer,’ continued the wise Aralan. ‘Help and rehabilitation is, which is why I do not like the name, Orb of Death or Undoing. It speaks of that same destruction and does not befit this new orb’s Aralansian nature. I will name it “Lumenoor”,’ he said, rolling the ‘r’ in the Aralansian manner, ‘for the vast emptiness of space we see in the night sky above us. Lumenoor is also the name of a rare black gem we have on Aralansia, named for the same reason. I think it is far more fitting.

‘Lumenoor,’ Ayeth repeated, lifting the orb up. Everybody’s eyes followed.

Freydel smiled as it reflected them all perfectly in its dark surface. ‘You have created something marvellous again, great Ayeth.’

‘With it, like you have, I hope to see into the future,’ the Aralan said, smiling. ‘Only a magical relic made on Aralansia has the ability to accurately reach into Aralansia’s future timelines. With it, I might be able to discover what went wrong. Perhaps I might even be able to reach myself there, like you have reached me here so far in the past.’ Ayeth looked at Freydel.

‘I hope it does not come to that,’ said Freydel. ‘I worry that Baelthrom would destroy you for your power. But if you can stop what will happen, countless lives—and planets—will be saved.’

‘Then I must do it.’ The smile dropped from Ayeth’s face and he paled. ‘I am not a fool, however. There are many timelines stretching forth from a single moment. Nothing is set and sealed. The future is… changeable.’

Lona turned away, her delicate fingers stroking her perfect chin.

‘Only you can save our world,’ breathed Freydel. ‘The hope of millions lies in what you will or will not do.’ Relief washed over him. There, he’d said it. He’d been thinking on it for many days now, sometimes waking up in the night to ponder, and now he had come to this conclusion: Issa did not have the power to save Maioria, only Ayeth did.

The prophecies were true once, but now the war had turned, the timeline had changed. Baelthrom was far more powerful than ever the prophecies foretold. No, it would take something far greater than young Issalena Kammy to stop the destruction of Maioria. It would take him assisting the great Ayeth in whatever way he could. The replica orb was the first step.

A sudden, terrible pain in Freydel’s chest made him gasp. A hacking cough took a hold of him and he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, vaguely aware of Ayeth coming to his side as he convulsed.

The pain and lump in his lungs disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving him gasping and sweating.

‘Freydel?’

He looked into Ayeth’s concerned face.

‘I’m all right,’ he whispered but when he took his handkerchief away, it was flecked with bright blood. He scrunched it up and put it back in his pocket, hoping nobody noticed. He didn’t want to raise alarm or look weak. ‘I must be coming down with a cold. I should go and rest.’

‘Of course,’ said Ayeth. ‘But you must return to us soon. There is more I can teach you and there are things Lona can teach you too.’

Freydel glanced at Lona who was smiling at him. He wondered what she could teach him, and imagined the great technologies of the Yurgha. He suppressed a shiver and, with slumped shoulders, composed himself. The last thing he wanted to do was return to his mundane room in Castle Carvon. All he wanted was to remain here with the greatest wizard he had ever known. But his body was not letting him.

He would return home, rest, feed his body and come back to Ayeth as soon as he could. Within this new orb lay the answer to the future.

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