Part 1: Shadows and Starstone (excerpt)
Ducking into the howling wind, they moved up the narrow path. The inky clouds now stretched over the entire valley, leaving only a small patch of red-gold sunlight to filter through on the far western rim of the ravine. The shafts of orange light from the setting suns mixed with acrid purple. The waning daylight made the unnatural sky even more sinister as they wound their way up the steep path.
“We’re going to have to find shelter. It’s no use to fight in this.” Ivo grunted and shot the roiling clouds and vanishing sun a glare. Emaranthe frowned, but said nothing. He was right.
“Here, try this way,” Jaeger stopped as they rounded a bend and found a faint trail leading into a narrow gorge. “Stay wary.” He gripped his axe with both hands and led the way.
“I don’t like this.” Ivo frowned and let the women go first. He preferred to watch their backs.
“I wonder what’s down here,” Jadeth slung her hammer over her left shoulder and tipped her head to stare far up the sheer walls. “This whole place is larger than it looks.”
Emaranthe followed, her staff held loosely in her left hand, her gaze searching the shadows at the base of the cliffs. Like Ivo, she didn’t like it one bit.
The narrow ravine ended at another sheer wall and they stood in silent contemplation of their options. Though the wind still howled, it didn’t quite reach so deep into the blind canyon.
“We must stay here. There is little choice with the sun setting, and enemies afoot.” Emaranthe slid the hood off her head and sighed as she scanned the oval shaped dead end.
Jadeth shrugged, “It could be worse; we could be in the open.”
Ivo grunted and stowed his sword. Jaeger did likewise with his axe. They had nothing with them, so setting up camp was as easy as sinking to the ground, which both men did with pained, weary grunts.
Jaeger leaned against the crumbling sandstone wall and closed his eyes, feeling a weariness he hadn’t felt in a long time. Behind his eyelids a small, flickering glow lit up the dark. He didn’t bother opening them to look.
Emaranthe cupped her hand beneath the tiny, hovering flame and held it aloft like a lamp. It shivered and twisted in the sharp wind, but burned steady, casting a dancing golden puddle of light on the four friends sitting in a circle.
“Why haven’t we seen more of the Dro-Aconi?” Jadeth asked no one in particular and for a long moment no one answered. She too closed her eyes and leaned back against the cliff wall. “Not that I’m complaining, but after all these years one would think that they would have figured out how to fully enter our world instead of ensnaring the minds and bodies of mortals to be used as puppets.”
“They are waiting for the right moment,” Emaranthe whispered. She stared at the tiny fire-lamp in her gloved hand. “As for here and now, they know we are here. They need more mortals to join their dominion, to ensure their success.”
“Mining ore doesn’t need an entire invasion. Those skeletons were puppets, our people whose bodies were severed from their souls, and half that number could have taken out the village and secured the ore,” Jaeger said. He opened his eyes and frowned up at the pitch black sky. Darkness had fallen fast and hard. “There must be something other than soul and ore harvesting going on.”
“What else is here?” Jadeth asked. She sighed and dragged a scarlet braid over her left shoulder. She chewed on the tail of the braid, her long ears flattened back as she thought.
“Not much. These villagers lead a simple life. The ore was all they had and even then they never truly knew its value.” Emaranthe said.
She lowered her hand and let the fire writhe out of her gloved palm until it hovered above the bare stone floor. She sat back and pulled her knees to her chest, her cloak and robes bunching about her legs. Propping her narrow chin on her knees, pale braids dragging into the dirt, she watched the floating flame with wide, enigmatic eyes.
Ivo studied her, noting that she looked more like a young woman-child than ever. He knew better however, knew that the decades of battles, deaths, and reincarnations had hardened her, perhaps more so than even he, Jadeth, or Jaeger. Something about dying, repeatedly, made one grow up awfully fast. The fact that she was the youngest Immortal ever was also a puzzle, one the Earthlander leader was keen on solving, perhaps even more so than seeing their elite group drive back the enemy and search for their lost gods.
Jadeth dropped her hair and her ears shot up. Emaranthe sat up, her head tilted as she listened to the howling wind.
“Incoming!” Jadeth cried out. She bolted to her feet just as a louder, more audible wail echoed down the narrow gorge. Her hammer sang as she swung it high over her head, the green glow casting all in an eerie light. “More minions; I hear their bones scraping.”
Ivo hurtled to his feet, his heavy armor clattering as he slid his shield and sword free. He crouched, shifting agilely on the balls of his feet. Fury darkened his face and Jaeger kept his mouth shut as he moved into a defensive position in front of the women.
Emaranthe's tiny fire guttered as the wind strengthened. The wailing and clattering of bones grew louder. She pulled her staff free and moved to stand beside Jadeth.
There is no rest for the Immortal.
Emaranthe closed her eyes and let the heat rise within her. She let it curl, thrash, and slither from somewhere deep in her soul. Flames erupted and swirled at her feet in a macabre dance. They hovered and circled in an endless writhing motion at knee height.
Blazing eyes slammed open.
Jadeth felt the heat emanate from her tiny friend and, despite the approaching danger, she couldn’t pull her gaze from the mesmerizing sight. Emboldened, she tightened her grip on the hammer and turned to face the approaching horde.
Forced to march in a tighter formation by the narrow ravine walls, they appeared around the final bend in rows of four abreast. This time, however, there were more than skeletal minions.
Zombies, no more than skeletons with still-attached, half-decayed flesh and marginally higher intelligence, shambled disjointedly behind the first few rows of minions.
Ivo snarled and clanged sword to shield before dropping into a deeper crouch. Seeing this, Jaeger moved to stand close behind, his great axe ready.
With a roar, Ivo launched through the air on a gust of wind, sword swinging. He cleared the thirty-foot distance to the front line of minions and landed amidst them with an earth-shaking crash that dented the rocky ground. Rock and dirt shook from the cliffs above. Skeletons and zombies crunched, scattered, and screamed with the force of the attack.
Jaeger reached the front lines at nearly the same time. His great axe, finely honed with a layer of ice, swung wide and bits of bone scattered and rained all around.
Growling in fury, Ivo spun about, his sword flashing and gleaming in the green glow of Jadeth’s hammer. The skeletal minions fell quickly, but the zombies posed a slight difficulty as dismembered limbs had the disturbing ability to continue to fight.
Emaranthe noticed a mini horde of forearms and hands scratching and clawing across the ground, intent on attacking the men from behind. She plucked a large ball of fire from the miasma dancing about her legs and hurled it at them. It hit them dead on, exploding and scattering flesh and bone, and setting nearby skeletons and zombies afire. Infuriated, a group of skeletons detached from the mass and turned toward the women, disjointed jaws wide in ear-splitting screeches.
Jadeth swung the hammer over her head and the green light intensified, bathing the gorge in a sickening green glow. Her gaze wavered between the approaching skeletons and the men fighting furiously amid a sea of decay, bone, and screams. She swallowed, and focused on the men. They needed her more.
Emaranthe raised her staff and a pulse of fire, like a living vine lashed out in a fiery arc. It swept aside the first few in a blast of heat and flame. Charred bits of flesh splattered into the sandstone walls.
“Get away from them!” Jaeger’s cry drifted from somewhere in the approaching mob and as the women watched, a large bloodied axe rose above the moldering heads and sheared through most of them with a single blow. “Why. Don’t. You. Die!”
Without warning he staggered and fell, his roar of pain almost drowned out by the wind.
“No!” Jadeth screamed. She leaped forward and swung the hammer in a blaze of green.
Emaranthe sucked in a breath as he vanished beneath a gruesome dog pile of skeletons. She could hear bony fingers scratching and clawing at his armor.
“Ivo! Help!” Emaranthe screamed. She rushed toward the horrible sight, heart slamming against her ribs, her terrified scream almost lost in the ghoulish howls of the minions attacking Jaeger.
She didn’t dare launch fire at them without risking his life. Although as he could be remade, each time an Immortal died, a piece of their soul was irreparably wounded and their current body possibly unable to sustain it. If the body died permanently then he could, eventually, return in another, but he would be lost to them most likely forever.
Ivo turned and took in the scene with a single horrified look. All he could see of his little brother was a blood-streaked iron boot.
“No!” Ivo howled. He spun, leaping into flight across the gorge, shield and blade slashing. He landed at the edge of the mass, and swept his shield across the nearest few, sending them flying. Another bone-crunching swipe unburied the lower half of his brother’s body. Jaeger’s legs arched and kicked, seeking to fight his way free. Blood streamed from jagged gashes around the gaps of his armor.
Both women reached the still-struggling mass of zombies and skeletons at the same time. Jadeth, tears streaming much like Jaeger’s blood, hovered at the fringe, dancing carelessly away from scrabbling skeletons in a frantic effort to heal him. Her hammer glowed brighter as she neared, and the flow of blood slowed and then began to reverse and slide back up toward his numerous wounds.
Hands glowing with white hot fire, Emaranthe struggled past the scrabbling fingers to reach him. Each time her hands touched a defleshed body part it burst into flame, and the minion exploded into ash with howls of terror. She flung half a dozen burning zombies and skeletons away before she reached his bloodied upper torso.
“No. Come on!” Emaranthe gasped. She dropped beside him as Jadeth flung herself beneath a zombie’s outstretched arm and hovered her hammer directly over his barely-moving body.
Ivo couldn’t stop the assault long enough to see if his brother lived. His sword sang as he swung in violent desperation. More and more skeletons shuffled closer, decrepit hands and moldy fingers grasping and clawing.
“Ivo, quick! Come here!” Jadeth screamed over the screeching horde. Ivo spared them a frantic look and saw his giant brother draped over Emaranthe's lap, his armor dark with blood. Jadeth’s hammer glowed, but the wounds hardly moved to repair.
Heat burned deep inside Emaranthe as a powerful, burning fury built. Her eyes, already glinting with fear, darkened into molten gold and blazed in the darkness.
Ivo saw and threw himself toward them. A wave of heat erupted from her, writhing and licking, warping the air. A dome of fire enveloped the huddled group, encasing them in a shield of flame. Ivo dragged Jadeth closer and shot Emaranthe an apprehensive look.
White hot eyes burned the darkness. Panting with the effort and energy needed to create such power, Emaranthe curled into herself, clinging to Jaeger as if to tether herself to the physical world. Ivo and Jadeth edged closer and their strong arms encircled the blazing Mage. All around them hordes of bony hands touched the fiery shield. They burst into flame before crumbling into ash.
“I can’t stop, Ivo. My heart and soul burns!” Emaranthe whimpered, her voice hollow and wild within the fiery dome. “I can’t hold it back any more. Stay close; don’t move.”
“Emaranthe!” Ivo howled. He reached out to stop her.
Fiery eyes slammed shut and her arms whipped wide, staff aloft.
Fire exploded from her tiny body. Heat and flame blasted everyone backwards. The night sky swapped places with the ground, and fire licked the darkness.
And then... nothingness.
The stench of charred flesh seared Ivo’s nostrils. He blinked up at the darkness. For a long moment he didn’t move. Grimacing, he shifted his legs, arms, and torso to test for injuries. His entire body ached, but seemed able, if reluctant, to move.
He groaned and sat up, jerking his helm free. He dropped it to his left where it clattered loudly to the ground in the still night.
“Jaeger!” He called out. He turned and reached out his hand, but felt nothing nearby in the night. He clambered to his feet and dragged a hand through his dark hair as fear settled low in his stomach. “Jadeth! Emaranthe!”
“Ivo,” Jadeth’s voice echoed on the wind, faint and distant. Ivo spun around, tilting his head to better locate her voice.
“Where are you?” He yelled into the night. A grunt of pain just to his left startled him. He recognized that usually-snide sound and moved toward it. His boot collided with another iron boot.
Jaeger’s familiar voice hissed sarcastically, “So you’re trying to kill me too?”
Ivo ignored the comment and dropped to one knee at his brother’s side, “Brother, you are alive; thank The Four.” He gripped Jaeger’s arm and heaved him upright. Though unable to see in the darkness, Ivo was certain he was being glared at.
“What the hell happened?” Jaeger grunted. He tugged off his left gauntlet. Even without seeing his hand he knew it was cut up and bruised. He ignored it. “I remember trying to get the skeletons off the women—women! Where are they… are they okay?”
“I don’t know. I thought I heard Jadeth, but she sounded far away. I haven’t found Emaranthe.” Ivo said. He squinted into the darkness but saw nothing. The uneasy feeling sharpened.
“Jadeth! Emaranthe!” Jaeger bellowed into the night. Somewhere distant they both heard Jadeth’s voice in the wind. “Where in the hell—”
A neon green glow lit up the night sky.
Squinting, both men stared at the source in mute alarm. High above them, Jadeth crouched on a ledge, holding her hammer high.
“How in the...” Jaeger frowned at the Elf clinging to the cliff face. Jadeth stared down at them, white faced, scarlet braids undone, but other than that she seemed uninjured.
“I can’t get down!” Her voice drifted to them in the sharp wind.
Ivo didn’t hear her; he was staring at the unmoving bundle of fabric at the base of the cliff directly below her. Jaeger felt his brother tense and dropped his gaze.
“Aw, no,” Jaeger dragged his helm free, wincing as it glanced over multiple cuts and scrapes, and let it fall to the ground. “I’ll get Jadeth, you get her.”
Jaeger cupped his hands and yelled up to Jadeth, “I’m coming up; hold on!”
He backed up several yards, gauging the distance to the ledge. With a blur of speed he broke into a short run and launched himself into the air. Beneath him thousands of tinkling cracks echoed as the moisture in the desert air solidified into a stairway of ice. He leaped across the narrow gorge and upwards to the ledge, the hovering ice melting as soon as his feet moved to the next step. He jumped the last few yards and landed hard with a clatter of armor and a grunt of pain, just as the last ice step melted.
“Thank you… thank you,” Jadeth gasped. She clutched the unwieldy hammer in a death grip. “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”
Frowning, Jaeger gripped her upper arms and gave her a small shake, forcing her gaze up to his. Horrified blue eyes, vacant with memories long gone, stared at him as if they didn’t recognize him.
“Jadeth! Snap out of it!”
“So many dead. So many. Mother tried to help them. B..b..bodies everywhere... blood,” Jadeth stammered and gasped as she trembled. Jaeger saw in her vacant stare that she was reliving something very horrible.
“Jadeth, that happened long ago. It’s over now.” Jaeger didn’t dare pull her down from the ledge without calming her down. Remembrances were never easy, or asked for. They hit Immortals at odd times, the last vestiges of their pasts, vague flashes of memory, from before they were immortalized.
“No, no. Mother tried to heal them, but there was too many. Too many,” she choked on a sob. “I watched the demons tear her apart.”
Jaeger shot a quick glance down but he could see nothing from his position.
“Mother tried to fight them off… she wasn’t a fighter though, she was a healer! She fell next to the chest I was hiding in.” She whispered. Tears slid in filthy trails down her pale cheeks.
“Jadeth,” Jaeger whispered, but she cut him off.
“—I...I… grabbed her hammer and tried to fight, too. They laughed and flew away.” She swallowed and swayed. Jaeger tightened his grip on her arms.
“I followed them, searched for them… for years. My mother’s hammer was the only thing I had left of her or my people,” she whispered into the wind as it dragged streamers of her hair, now unbraided and loose on her narrow shoulders, over her face. “My village burned. My people were murdered! I chased the creatures for decades—”
“Jadeth, that was long ago. Please, we need to get down to help the others.” Jaeger shook her again, gently. She looked directly at him at last.
“I found every demon I could. I chased them all. I did everything I could to… die.” She sucked in an unsteady breath and blinked as the sharp wind whipped her hair wildly. Jaeger stayed silent… her agony was palpable.
“I died at last. I welcomed it. I felt them ripping at me. I felt their claws, their spears, their wings,” Jadeth sighed softly. “But I awoke again, in this body, with my mother’s hammer and bearing the Earth’s gift of healing. I vowed to avenge my mother and my people.”
“You had proven yourself then, Jadeth. The Four chose you because you are the best healer of all!” Jaeger hissed. “You alone healed us through that battle!”
“It wasn’t enough,” Jadeth said. Even in the green glow she could see the myriad of cuts, slashes, and bruises on his face and neck. His pale hair was tousled from either helm or wind… and slightly singed. “My mother would have been able to heal you all whole.”
“Stop it! You saved us!” Jaeger growled. “Without your abilities, I would have died. Something I vowed to never do again!”
He turned and stared far down into the vaguely green-lit blind canyon, but still no movement below. Unable to see directly beneath their position on the ledge, he could only figure Ivo and Emaranthe were still there.
“Come on. Let’s go see if Emaranthe is okay.” Jaeger glanced back at Jadeth and caught her look of utter horror.
“Emaranthe…” Jadeth gasped. “I forgot…”
“Do you have command of the plants enough to get us down from here?” Jaeger asked. There wasn’t enough moisture in the air to pull any more ice from, and Ivo and his command of the wind was not an option. That left Jadeth and her gift of earth and nature to see them safely from the ledge.
“Yes. There is one, but I’ve never used it,” Jadeth whispered.
“Then will you do it for your friends?” Jaeger’s voice pierced through the buffeting wind and echoed in the gorge.
“Yes,” Jadeth closed her eyes and swallowed. Her grip on her hammer tightened as Jaeger tightened his on her waist. She inhaled firmly and the glow of her hammer brightened. “Now!”
They leaped off the cliff.
An eerie green bolt of light erupted from the hammer. It speared the sky and lodged in the cliff face. It solidified into a thick vine and Jaeger and Jadeth gripped it with their hands and feet as gravity threw them downward. They expertly slid down it and, gasping, landed on their feet at the base of the cliff. As soon as they let go it faded, scattering green ash. Wide eyed, Jadeth spun around and launched herself at Jaeger, giving him a victorious hug.
“We did it!” She laughed.
Jaeger stilled. He had scanned the green-hued shadows and fallen on the huddled shapes beside the cliff.
Ivo looked up and locked eyes with his brother. Jaeger stared at the limp, unmoving bundle draped over Ivo’s lap, horror plunging his heart into his stomach. Bloodied fingers, broad and strong, sifted through a charred streamer of pale hair methodically, but Ivo’s gaze was vague... empty.
“No. No…” Jadeth looked past Jaeger and cried out. She pushed past him and darted forward, heaving her hammer high.
“It’s too late,” Ivo climbed to his feet, clutching the tiny Mage to him. As he walked from beneath the cliff, the wind stung his face. It was the wind, he told himself, that made his eyes tear up.
Singed blonde streamers drifted in the screaming wind and a small, charred, gloved hand swung freely as he walked heavily past Jaeger and Jadeth into the black night.
Jadeth rushed after Ivo. Jaeger followed, pausing to grab both of their helms. They hurried after him into the night, knowing without asking what he was looking for.
Jadeth lifted her hammer and a dim green light lit up the narrow path before them. They frantically searched the shadows between rock outcroppings and bushes that rattled in the screaming wind. The path wound steeply, carving through sheer cliffs and rock outcroppings, leaving little space available for what they looked for.
“There must be one here,” Jadeth muttered and glanced up the path—but the light from her hammer only lit up a few yards at best. They did not dare to do anything else or risk attracting the attention of more minions that they knew were out there.
Jaeger worriedly watched his brother walk ahead, his stride stiff with single minded determination. He could see Emaranthe's arm swinging loosely and a pale ribbon of her hair drifted in the wind over Ivo’s arm. They had to find a Solarium soon. Without the pedestal, a miniature temple to The Four, there would be no concentrated energy to heal Emaranthe... and there would be no coming back for their friend. He thanked The Four for realizing that Immortals with no ability to quickly return to battle were useless. Far too many had lost their bodies in the early years of the Immortal Wars, and far too few were reincarnated in time without the temples. The Dro-Aconi had grown wise to their use and destroyed many of them over the years.
“Here! Here!” Jadeth’s shriek broke Jaeger’s thoughts and both he and Ivo stumbled and turned.
To their left in a jagged indentation of the cliff, a huge bush jerked and shook as Jadeth grabbed the spiny stems and leaves and yanked. A handful of thorns and small leaves ripped free. She pulled again and several spindly stems gave out. Thorns bit into her fingers and palms, but she reached for another handful. Beyond the bush Jaeger and Ivo could just see the small, half- arched stone and iron pillars that marked it as a Solarium. They were lucky. So many had been destroyed by their enemy over the decades.
Jaeger slid his axe free and pushed Jadeth away. She danced aside just as the blade arced through the air, glinting silver and green in the glow of the hammer, and buried itself in the bush with a brittle crack. Bits of leaves, long stems and thorns, spun away on the wind. A second whack. A third.
Jaeger swung the axe a fourth time, sending the rest of the brittle stems scattering. Thunder rumbled further ahead of them, shaking the ground. The pedestal, uncovered now but for a few remnants of dead cactus, shimmered in the glow of Jadeth’s hammer. Jaeger glanced at Ivo, then looked away as he caught his brother’s tight, pained look. He backed away as he shouldered the axe and moved to stand beside Jadeth.
Grim and silent, Ivo moved forward and carefully placed the tiny figure upon the circular, knee-high stone pedestal. Emaranthe's cloak and robes, already overly large for her fragile frame, covered her easily as a death shroud…
“I am so sorry, Emaranthe,” Ivo’s whisper vanished on the wind as he backed away. Guilt sat heavy in his chest, tight and painful. A delicate sniff to his left reminded him that he wasn’t the only one there and he walked with pained slowness to stand beside his other two best, and only, friends.
“Please work. Please work. Please work,” Jadeth whispered and sniffed, her eyes unashamedly wet. The wind screamed and moaned through the narrow path, dragging her hair into her face.
Jaeger felt her hair drag across his shoulder guards and snag on the sharp edges. Atypically, he ignored it, but instead his gaze traveled fitfully between the still shape on the pedestal and his brother’s stony face. His hand fisted. They waited.
Out of the green-hued shadows, symbols and shapes glowed white hot on the stone pedestal. Jadeth’s hammer fell from her startled fingers and the green glow vanished, replaced by the light of the intricate runes covering the stone. Even the wind buffeted and stilled.
The white runes glowed brighter as Emaranthe's petite body began to fade.
Ivo swallowed thickly but forced himself to watch as she slowly drifted into nothingness, the bright runes more and more visible through her body as she vanished. At last there was nothing left on the pedestal but the glowing shapes and symbols carved by The Four long ago. The glow gradually intensified.
Shielding her eyes, Jadeth squinted into the light. Jaeger was doing likewise. Ivo still stared fully into the white hot light, his mouth tight, his gaze searching, hopeful.
A small, dark shape walked out of the light.
Fiery eyes glittered in the white light and a small gloved hand curled around a staff. Blonde braids trailed in the buffeting wind, dragging the worn hood from her head.
She inhaled heavily and smiled widely at Ivo, Jadeth, and Jaeger, as the runes faded behind her, the light flickering and moving oddly— like fire.
“Emaranthe!” Jadeth launched herself at her friend, forgetting for the moment that she towered over the tiny woman, and tackled her to the ground.
Laughing and crying both women hugged unashamedly on the rocky ground. In the background, Ivo and Jaeger traded exasperated looks. Women.
Emaranthe pulled free from Jadeth and stood. Jadeth retrieved her fallen hammer and the green glow once again banished the darkness. Ivo and Jaeger stood uncertainly in the long shadows cast by the pedestal.
Her gaze flicked between the brothers. Ivo’s face was grim with self loathing, his eyes watchful in the dark, as if awaiting reproach. Jaeger, too, looked worried and pained… something he would never admit to in any lifetime.
She halted before Ivo and stared far up at him.
“Thank you.” Emaranthe whispered. Her staff clattered to the ground as she wound thin arms around his waist, armor and all. Ivo froze, startled. He had expected blame and anger, not this.
“You thank me for letting you die?” Ivo rasped. “I should be begging your forgiveness and thanking you for saving us.”
“I didn’t die in vain if it saved you.” Emaranthe said softly. “And I would do it again and again, Ivo.”
Ivo closed his eyes as guilt battled with relief at her return. He knew all too well that sometimes there is no return for an Immortal if the soul is too wounded. Their immortality, a gift from desperate gods, was fickle at best. You were counted lucky if you kept your original body for more than a handful of reincarnations, because with each new body all your previous memories were jumbled, even lost.
Ivo wondered if that would be a blessing... and wondered how many bodies, lives, he’d lived unremembered so far. The thought was nothing compared to the terror of losing the friends who had been at his side, loyal and brave, for three hundred years.
Ivo’s iron and chainmail-clad arms gingerly returned the hug, even more mindful now just how small and fragile Emaranthe really was.
Jaeger watched with a tiny, twisted smile, noting how uncomfortable his brother was, as if Ivo wanted her to yell and blame. It wasn’t Ivo’s fault…
Emaranthe let go of Ivo and shot Jaeger a wide, sad smile.
“Oh no,” Jaeger held up both hands to hold her off. “Uh, no mushy stuff.”
“Hehe. All right.” Emaranthe said. She sighed and bent to retrieve her staff. She caught his gaze and smiled.
No mushy stuff.
Jaeger grinned and returned the acknowledgement.
No mushy stuff indeed.
The fitful wind dragged around them, then eased as daylight, though still hidden behind thick clouds, broke. Jadeth and Emaranthe huddled in the hollow behind the pedestal and dead cactus, a tiny hovering fire between them, trying to rest. The barely-lightened sky was icy and misty with the wind stilled and everything was damp.
Ivo and Jaeger stood guard side by side, arms crossed—towering sentinels. They had ganged up to make the women rest, and had earned glares and raised eyebrows from both females. In the end, even Jadeth had to acknowledge that Emaranthe needed rest more than anyone and had acquiesced too.
Haunted eyes watched from the shadowed depths of her hood. They fixed from time to time on each of her friends, a pang of despair settling deep in her chest. The thought of losing them had been too much.
They were all she had left.
Somewhere thunder rumbled. Emaranthe closed her eyes as the ground beneath her trembled. The thunder drifted into nothingness and she realized that she was what was trembling, not the earth…Chapter Five
The grim sky lightened little with the sunrise. Ivo and Jaeger stood guard at the edge of the trail, their shadowed eyes unreadable in the gray light. The subdued silence was mutual—as natural as breathing for them.
Thunder rumbled, and one of the women shifted behind them. Ivo turned, and his green eyes narrowed as they pinned on Emaranthe as she drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders and rolled over with a faint sigh. He turned back and caught Jaeger’s inquisitive look.
“She’s still asleep.” Ivo grunted. He crossed his arms over his chest.
Jaeger shot a curious stare over his shoulder before turning back and surveying the wide desert valley that stretched out before them. They were high up, so high that they could no longer see the bottom of the gorge. Still, Jaeger figured, there were many hundreds of feet left to climb upwards on the trail.
The plateau was immense, dotted with spires of red rock formations and arches hollowed out by the ravages of time. He watched an enormous windmill far across the valley on the other side. Its colossal green blades spun with lazy indifference, pumping the water from the distant river, no doubt.
“Mirena would have loved it here,” Jaeger whispered, his eyes still on the windmill. “She had always talked about travelling to the south to see the Burning Desert.”
Ivo hesitated, startled by the tumble of memories those few words brought back. Guilt rocked him as he shot Jaeger a sideways look and watched pain tighten his brother’s face into a mask of agony. Unlike many others, he and his brother had never forgotten. Ever.
Empty blue eyes stared ahead, lost in thoughts and memories that had been pushed aside in order to survive a world gone mad. “And here we are in the one place she will never get to see.”
“Jaeger—” Ivo jerked his helm off.
“No, it wasn’t your fault, Ivo,” Jaeger said, his eyes still unfocused, remembering. “I never blamed you, even after all of these years.”
“I should have been—”
“No, I should have been there,” Jaeger closed his eyes. “Mirena was going to make fish soup, remember? She’d been planning it for days.”
“Jaeger—” Ivo swallowed. There were no words for the tortured look on his younger brother’s face.
“—she was brushing Anya’s hair when I left. It had wanted to curl in the humidity.” Jaeger ignored his brother and spoke as the tide of bitter memories consumed him. Anya’s hair, so long and wild —a mane of brown waves, just like her mother’s. He remembered her vivid blue eyes sparkling with mischief as he’d blown her an adoring kiss goodbye. He’d then pulled Mirena close and kissed her fully on the mouth, with an unspoken promise for later —
A promise he’d broken.
“Jaeger! Stop!” Ivo snarled. He flung his helm down. It bounced and clattered away, hitting the red sandstone wall and tipping to a halt. “Don’t do this to yourself again!”
“I let them die—” Jaeger choked out. His shoulders slumped as guilt and pain pulled on him. “I wasn’t there to save them. They’d trusted me...”
“Brother, no one could have foreseen that day,” Ivo said. He too, had tried to bury the guilt and pain with little effect.
His brother’s wife, his little niece… their lives traded for a hunting trip.
Almost against his will, he remembered returning to their small village, proud of their manly accomplishments and feats of prowess. Their kills were impressive and would feed their whole seaside village in the distant eastern kingdom of Saro-shir. Sea and Wind, it meant in Sarhiran, their native language.
Instead of a village full of family and friends, there was a sea of death to greet them. Black water gushed and swirled waist high as they waded into what had been the village circle, their faces pale and voices mute with horror. Sturdy rock-walled homes were tumbled and flooded with foul water. Bloated bodies, very few, floated on the evil current, pushed by a wind that howled from every direction at once. There was no escaping the biting pull of the wind or the seductive tide of water it stirred with angry shrieks.
Crates, chickens, and cracked and mangled wood frames—the brothers shoved past these as they searched, thrashing wildly through the water, screaming against the foul wind for Mirena and Anya. The water kept rising, tugging on them, pulling them… and in the boiling, frothing torrents where the wind and waves met, little maddening whispers could be heard—join us… join us …join us…
The mad voices filled the flooded village, taunting… calling…
Ivo finally found the foundations of Jaeger’s home—even the great stone walls were torn and washed away. Hoarse from screaming, tears blurring his sight, he could only watch his little brother wade through the torrents of water, white-eyed with anguish and horror, as he searched futilely for his wife and daughter.
The flooding waters continued to rise with unnatural speed, but they paid it no heed. Ivo perched atop the remains of a barn, wrapped in the loathsome wind, his body bent against the unnatural urge to flee from it and vanish into the churning water below. It was no use in the end. The brothers were now forced to swim as they searched, struggling to shove splintered timber and sodden, floating carts aside—but the howling wind was strong and the voices in the roiling water were seductive—join us… join us…
As Ivo watched, Jaeger vanished beneath the black water. At first he thrashed his arms, resisted, but as his fingertips slid below the surface, he stilled—as the mad voices grew irresistible at last—join us… join us…
Ivo plunged after him. Howling with rage and grief, he flung himself deep into the cold darkness after his little brother. He’d given it no thought. The black void beneath the water was a swirling vortex and he tumbled and tossed on the violent current. Brief images of other things in the black water… a crate… a beam of wood, a cart wheel… Jaeger’s limp, wide flung arm…
He kicked his feet and lunged after his brother and gripped his unmoving arm. What little light was left faded and the only thing that was left was the black numbness of the dark water churning beneath the wicked wind and his brother’s arm clenched in his fist—and the cruelly laughing voices…
Eternity happened, maddening dark eternity.
Then the water drained away in a rush of light, sound, and motion. Ivo inhaled, felt the weight of death vanish. He gagged, coughed, and sucked air as if his lungs could never fully fill. Something or someone next to him was also choking, gasping…
“Jaeger! Jaeger!” Ivo choked, gagged on more water. It gushed from his mouth and nose in dark trails. He pried his eyes open and blinked at the light. To his left, Jaeger jerked himself upright, his eyes glazed with confusion.
Ivo jerked to the present as his brother stumbled beside him with a keening cry. Jaeger bent at the waist, hands on knees, as grief tore at him.
“Jaeger, you must stop. Mirena is gone. Anya is gone.” Ivo swallowed the words he wished he could say, wanted to say, but the unrelenting wind shoved them back into his throat.
“Maybe, maybe they are here too. Maybe they are like us,” Jaeger whispered. The wind returned and whipped sand about their feet as he spoke. “There are so many lands left to search, so many other Immortals.”
Ivo closed his eyes, feeling very old and tired. Thunder rumbled, closer this time, the reverberations shaking the ground beneath them.
“I’m sorry Jaeger,” Ivo moved away from Jaeger and retrieved his helm with a sigh of despair. “I’m sorry.”
Jaeger straightened and turned to look at his brother. Sad blue eyes locked with troubled green and held for an eternity.
“I know. I—I don’t know why,” he swallowed, his blue eyes misting, then freezing into anguished chips of ice. His breath fogged the air with his despair. “I wish I had stayed dead.”
“Don’t say that,” Ivo growled as the wind eddied and swirled about them in a rush of fury. It settled as Ivo stilled and his pained gaze dropped to the gritty red ground. “Don’t say that.”
A deep, earthy rumble filled the air. He stopped and traded frowns with Jaeger.
“What is that?” Jaeger asked. He spun and stared up the barely visible trail. The rumble continued, louder and angrier. The rock and dirt beneath their feet groaned and creaked as if cracking from within.
Emaranthe shot upright with a gasp as her cold stone bed shifted and buckled, sending pebbles and debris raining from the cliffs above. She stumbled toward the brothers, dodging the raining rock.
Jadeth followed on her heels, coughing. The rumble became a roar as the sky darkened and clouds swirled and frothed above them. A thread of light and a flash of purple streaked across the sky far above them.
“What’s happening?” Jadeth asked. She squinted at the odd clouds as she fought the shifting, shaking ground to remain upright.
They watched the roiling purple clouds swirl and mass together until a sharp flare of inky light lit up the sky. Black shadows erupted out of the light, shifting and slithering with each crackle of lightning. The ground beneath their feet shook, buckled. Dust billowed, covering everything and turning the garish purple light into a reddened miasma. The inky shadows spread until they blanketed the top of the plateau.
“That’s where they’re coming in!” Jaeger snarled, pulling his great axe free. Ivo followed suit and his sword sang and whistled in the sharp wind. Fury darkened his face, fueled by bitter memories. “If we don’t stop the spread of the darkness the whole valley will be overrun in hours!”
“Dro-Aconi,” Emaranthe said. She shuddered, unable to look away from the eerie scene. “They are here in person this time. They are growing stronger. If we don’t hurry they will break through this time.”
“Why? How?” Jadeth asked. Her scarlet braids whipped in the dusty wind.
“They need the stone,” she said. She rubbed her bare arms with her gloved hands where goose bumps rose freely. “They are desperate for it. Without its power they can never fully materialize.”
“We need to stop them,” Ivo said. “Now.”
Glancing between the brothers, and then up at the writhing shadows of evil high above, Emaranthe sighed, but the wind dragged it away unheard.
The men launched into motion with wild cries that defied the wind. Jadeth followed at their heels— her hammer high and bright. Emaranthe drifted after them, her feet a blur, barely touching the quaking ground, blonde braids trailing.
Her gaze steadied on the backs of her friends. Her chest tightened with a sudden, unnamable fear.
Ivo squinted as he studied the red rock landscape and steep path. He pushed himself into a wary run. Beside him, Jaeger growled, panting and snarling like a predator nearing a kill. The narrow path swung left around a hairpin turn. Both Ivo and Jaeger shouted, dug their boots into the ground, and skidded to a dusty halt. Jadeth slid to a graceful stop beside Jaeger. Ominous thunder rumbled from above as the clouds rolled and swirled with the evil shadows in an inky fury.
“What is it?” She gasped as she let her hammer drop to her shoulder. Emaranthe walked up past the three, blinking as dust and rock rained down the cliff walls. The turbulent wind whipped and dragged her pale braids from her shoulders.
“The mines,” Emaranthe turned and fell in beside Ivo, her eyes oddly neutral in the graying purple light.
“Um. Earthlanders go inside those?” Jadeth frowned. Elfkind didn’t do well in dark holes, preferring the jungle-covered mountains and trees of their homeland in the warm and tropical west. Dread pulled on her. She swallowed and glanced between Ivo and Jaeger for reassurance.
Neither man’s face offered any.
Ivo frowned at the pitch-black rectangular hole into the cliff, his dark brows drawn and lined. Jaeger’s face was grim, but resolute. If it came to a battle in the mines, there would be little room to maneuver, and both men knew how perilous that could be.
Thunder shook the ground and echoed off the cliff walls. Four pairs of eyes snapped up as far above them on the pinnacle of the plateau the Dro-Aconi, the living shadows of death, their world’s oldest enemy, swirled and stormed.
“We have no choice,” Emaranthe called out over the ghastly screeches and moans emanating from the shadows high above. “If we are to get up there. This is the only path.”
Ivo dropped his gaze with a grimace.
“Yes. Let’s finish this,” his hand clenched around the shaft of his sword until the leather in his gauntlets creaked. “Be warned, fighting in a mineshaft is deadly business.”
“Be wary.” Jaeger shifted his feet, ready to spring.
“Can we have light in there?” Jadeth licked her dry, cracked lips. “What if there are bottomless pits?”
Emaranthe caught and held Jadeth’s gaze. She nodded and lifted her small gloved hand, palm up. A small, luminescent flame ignited. It flickered and twisted in the stiff wind. She cupped her fingers, shielding it, and its soft light steadied and brightened. All watched the small flame with a sense of dread and hope.
“Ready? Emaranthe, follow behind me, then Jadeth, then Jaeger, you can be rearguard.” Ivo said. He turned and vanished into the darkness.
Emaranthe followed, holding the tiny lamp aloft. Jadeth hesitated a half second. Her innate fear of dark holes dragged her usually-lithe feet and spirit to a standstill. With a soft snarl she dove after Emaranthe and the guiding light she held.
Jaeger followed on her heels, his gaze wary and watchful in the dim light. Both hands gripped the shaft of the great axe as he ran lightly behind the other three. For long, tense moments the only sounds were their ragged breathing and the swift and sure steps of their feet echoing in the dark.
The mineshaft was narrow and only so often was shored up by fire-blackened timber bracing. Often Ivo and Jaeger both ducked as the roof itself abruptly lowered. Emaranthe paced behind Ivo easily despite her smaller stride, and her arm did not tire from holding the flame aloft. It cast a puddle of gold about their feet and the fast-moving shadows of their legs and arms marched beside them along the walls and ceiling.
The shaft dove steeply down for many yards before angling up again and veering sharply to the left. Every so often another shaft would drift off to the side and the four would hesitate in caution before resuming their steady run. At one such offshoot, Emaranthe halted with a gasp as her flickering lamplight fell on its walls.
“Wait!” She lifted her arm higher, dragging both the golden glow and their shadows along the cold stone walls. The side shaft was empty and silent, but still she stared into the blackness beyond. “There’s something here.”
Jaeger frowned suspiciously into the dark, “What?”
Ivo stared into the deep side shaft, his eyes narrowed, and searched for an unseen foe, “What is it, Emaranthe?”
“This.” Emaranthe stepped into the side shaft and lifted her arm high above her head, as close to the stone ceiling as possible for her diminutive frame. The flame in her hand flickered and twisted in an unfelt draft and as they watched an iridescent red glow bloomed within the rock above the flame.
The red glow glittered and spread, spiraling and streaking along the ceiling and down the walls. The veins of red continued to multiply until they raced down the dark tunnels, leaving a nearly fully lit tunnel in its wake.
“Wow, that’s something I’ve never seen before,” Jadeth gasped. She watched the mesmerizing dance of red trail down the mineshaft until it vanished into its depths elsewhere. Bathed in the incandescent light, the companions traded amazed—and simultaneously worried— looks.
“Raw Starstone,” Jaeger muttered. He inhaled deeply and shifted his axe to his shoulder. “I didn’t know it could be found so close to the surface. I thought this stuff was buried deeper within the ground.”
“And this is the most I’ve ever seen,” Ivo added. The glow was bright enough to make them squint now. Static crackled and forked along the vein making the red glow shift and undulate. “This mineshaft alone could power a portal or factory.”
“This is why the Dro-Aconi have come here. It is easy to get.” Jadeth shivered as an icy draft tugged fitfully on her braids and chainmail dress. “The villagers have been lucky to hide it for so long.”
“This discovery is not news, but nonetheless grim,” Ivo sighed. “There are neither minions nor other slaves here mining, so what is going on? How will they dig for it?”
Emaranthe let her arm fall to her side with a weary sigh. Her little fire flickered and died, leaving them bathed in the vivid red glow of the Starstone veins. Now charged with her power, they would glow for days. Their ability to remain undiscovered was limited now.
“We must get to the surface,” she whispered. “I’ve left a trail for any foes to follow us, I am afraid.”
As one they turned aside and pushed themselves into a swift run. Emaranthe's flame rekindled in her hand, small and white hot. Ivo reassumed the lead, his sword raised before him. Nothing evil lurched out of the dark tunnels to waylay them as they wound through the maze higher and higher toward the surface.
The first hint of inky, clouded sky showed itself when they angled around a steep turn in the tunnel and a rectangle of grim light appeared. They halted as the mineshaft quaked and rumbled from the force of the evil shadows close by. Dirt and dust choked the air. Emaranthe closed her fist over the flame and it flickered and died.
“Keep close; keep wary,” Ivo hissed. He crept toward the exit. He noted the exposed landscape outside the mine shaft, noting the terrain and foes with a single glance. “The Dro-Aconi’s shadows stretch across the expanse of the plateau. I cannot see what evil is stirring within.”
“Let me see,” Jadeth poked Jaeger in the shoulder. Reluctantly, he moved aside to let her slip to the front. She dropped into a wary crouch, her keen gaze narrowed on the gruesome turmoil within the odd tangle of shadows swirling about the plateau. Not just the Dro-Aconi, but four generals. A fifth, perhaps of a higher rank, stood at the center of the chaos.
“There are at least four generals. They guard a fifth figure in the center. I can’t see who or what it is,” Jadeth hissed over her shoulder. Ivo’s features tightened.
“And the Dro-Aconi?” He asked.
“None yet, but their shadows twine and cling like the slime of a slug,” Jadeth whispered. “They are close, but not strong enough to materialize yet. There aren’t enough living souls for them to capture yet.”
The Dro-Aconi have no corporeal bodies. They are the true evil, manifested only within the darkest moments of reality. Their shadows come before their forms, with long-reaching senses and abilities used to conquer and enslave. Their slaves were once free peoples of Ein-Aral. Bitter minions now, half dead, perhaps undead, and all corrupted by the stench of darkness that precedes the most terrifying evil in their world. To face the true Dro-Aconi is to face true evil. True terror. Only The Four have ever done so, in ages past, and now they are missing. Legend speaks that they will return only when needed at the end of all days.
“Let’s go.” Jaeger snarled.
They crept out of the shaft into the barely-brighter light. The clouds roiled and swirled in the gloom. A peal of thunder rattled the rocks beneath their feet. They hugged the cliff wall to the left, skirting the open landscape in favor of the cover of the few spindly bushes and craggy rock outcroppings.
Emaranthe pulled her staff free and it gleamed faintly with smoldering fire as she bent and crept behind Ivo. Her gaze flicked between the few generals guarding the shadows. They were singularly evil, twisted, beings—higher forms of minions clothed in midnight black robes. Instead of empty eye sockets in fleshless skulls, twin beads of black fire burned as eyes.
Ivo held up a hand. They halted as near to the generals as they dared, behind a bush and rock outcropping at the eastern edge of the plateau.
“We need to pick them off one by one,” Jaeger said. He studied their movements; his gaze narrowed as he tried to see beyond them to the creature in the center. The frenetic pacing of the generals made identification frustrating. “Get them away from the leader.”
“Okay, nearest first,” Ivo said. He pointed at the towering, robed skeleton. “Remember, these have powers the lower minions didn’t.”
Jaeger shifted his axe. Its razor sharp edge bled water and froze, now much sharper, and deadlier. Ivo freed his shield, the motion sending a nearly invisible gust of wind ricocheting around his massive body. The wind eddied and twisted until it swirled before his battered shield, creating a blanket of buffeting air. Unlike Emaranthe, their gifts were subtle and easily overlooked by the enemy and the brothers preferred to use them sparingly.
Jadeth held her hammer low to the ground so that its healing glow would not attract unwanted attention. The gritty sandstone dirt shifted and sank beneath the weapon, leaving a carpet of green in the exact same shape as its shadow. Tiny vines coiled and waited for their orders.
Emaranthe inhaled deeply. Ghostly flames licked and curled from her staff up her arm to her shoulders and over her body. The fire writhed and twisted, nearly invisible, until her entire body was sheathed in a layer of living flame.
Ivo shot a glance at his friends and three pairs of determined eyes met and locked with his own. He nodded and turned with a blur of speed. With a blast of wind, he heaved his shield into the air with a silent, furious cry.
It arced across the distance, spinning and glinting in the gloom, but silent and true. Guided by the wind, it turned, clipping one general in the shoulder, before spinning back to him with unnerving accuracy. Ivo caught it with an outstretched hand just as the infuriated general turned and screeched with slack jaws and bony arms outstretched. Still unable to see its attacker, it shambled closer to them.
They waited for a long, breathless moment for the general to be out of range of its companions. With a suppressed snarl, his breath frosting the air, Jaeger launched forward, axe singing in a brutal arc. It connected with the outstretched arms and they splintered like dry branches of a tree and clattered to the rocky dirt, frozen solid.
Ivo darted in and swung his sword low, snapping the general at the knees and sending it flailing to the ground. Its screams of rage were short lived. Emaranthe grabbed a moth-eaten fold of cloth and a hungry flame uncurled from her fingers and consumed as it spread. The odor of charred bone joined the stench of death and decay.
One down. Three to go.
Ivo crept forward, his gaze pinned on the next general. He sensed Jaeger shift to reposition for the attack.
Twin gasps, gagging chokes, from behind made both pause, then spin on their heels. Blue and green eyes stared in dawning horror at Jadeth and Emaranthe.
“No!” Ivo cried out. His sword clattered to the ground.
Long, impossibly strong fingers wound around both of the women’s slender throats, lifting them high in the air. The leader of the generals had somehow slipped past them.
Her skin was dark and well-toned with muscle and voluptuous curves. Long, lithe legs drew the eye up her lush body, and her face was shockingly, horribly beautiful. Full lips, dark red, wanted to pout but tended to sneer instead. Dark eyes burned black in the inky light and her red curls, held in check by a bone headdress, towered high and regal. A Necromancer.
Emaranthe scratched and clawed at the woman’s hand. She tried to suck in a breath, but couldn’t. In the towering Necromancer’s other hand Jadeth struggled to breathe, her long legs kicking valiantly.
“Well, well, well… two men, an Elf girl, and a child.” The strange woman cackled. The hairs stood on the men’s arms. Her voice was as lush and as deadly as her beauty.