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Silverburn (excerpt)

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In a dark and blighted land one young girl brings together the greatest force ever known to tackle the ancient and terrible threat of the Aesmancer and his hordes.

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Dinah crouched beneath the cellar stairs as she had been taught; the earth shook all around her. Plaster fell from the ceiling during the first few rumbles of the quake until there was none left and the shaking intensified. Then the walls began to give way and the entire building collapsed in on itself. Letting out an involuntary squeak Dinah squeezed her eyes tight and threw her arms over her head. She knew better than to cry out. She had been told the same stories as any other child about the tactics of the Renewed: those that remained silent often went unnoticed, but those that screamed met with a premature death or with a fate far worse.

Dinah’s mind was filled with the roaring and crashing of what felt to her like the entire universe tumbling down on top of her. She became utterly calm and her thoughts lacked any emotion as she coolly wondered if she was about to die, or if indeed she was already dead and just hadn’t realised. After what seemed a lifetime the earthquake ended and Dinah lay beneath the rubble in a small space created by the school’s stairwell that had protected her from the worst of the damage. She opened her big green eyes and blinked the plaster dust from her eyelashes, but having opened her eyes found that it made little difference as she was completely closed in and there was no light to be seen.

She experimented with pushing her hands upwards to see how close to the surface she was, but nothing gave. She was trapped. She laughed silently and mirthlessly to herself at the advice she had been given; the falling debris wouldn’t kill her if she hid under the stairs, but she would then die slowly and painfully from dehydration, starvation or suffocation if she was lucky. Again the thought of calling for help did not even enter her mind; calling for help after a quake brought the Renewed and Dinah would rather die than feel the touch of one of their cold hands.

Crouching in her tomb, as she was beginning to think of it, the tremors started again. Whether it was an aftershock or another quake created by the Aesmancer Dinah didn’t know or much care. She just hoped that it would shift some rubble so she could get out. The shaking grew and Dinah found herself being thrown about in her little bubble of stairs and brickwork. The quake heightened and there was an almighty booming sound and then Dinah was falling. Falling through the floor, through the foundations and then through what felt like a mile of darkness. The cold, stale up-rushing air whipped at her long chestnut hair and baggy clothes as she tumbled with the rest of the debris. Everything smelled musty and old and there was the faint metallic taste of magic on her tongue, mingling with great lungfuls of mud.

She bounced off the damp walls of the tunnel that was opening up beneath her and managed to dig her heels and fingers into the dirt to slow her descent as the impromptu passageway began to slope. She eventually ground to a halt as her bare feet hit something solid at last, sending a vibration through the soles of her feet right up to jar her teeth together. The smell was different now; as if there was a large expanse of open space before her, perhaps a cave of some sort. She lay back on the dirt for a moment to steady herself and then raised her left hand and struggled to control her breathing so that she could utter the correct chant as well as simultaneously drawing the runes of light in the air as she had been taught. It was one of the only spells she had been able to master, the other children her age were already throwing fire-balls and making rain or growing seeds to trees in a matter of seconds, but Dinah had never shown any aptitude for magic, except the strange unfocused method of her own devising. Her skill lay in fencing practice and Tri-Hana which was the locally taught martial art. She was far more interested by things she could see than in the mystical ramblings of the Magi.

The orange ball of light glowed on her outstretched palm as she extended her arm. She gasped and almost let the light go out as she saw what was before her. There was indeed a large expanse, but it was no cave. Dinah’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as she stared in total disbelief. The walls before her shimmered in the glow from her paltry light. The chamber stretched further than even her keen eyes could see as lines and lines of columns marched into the distance. And every surface was made of gold. The entire chamber was etched with runes that Dinah couldn’t understand. It was an ancient language that was mostly forgotten, save by the most boring of teachers as far as Dinah was concerned. She looked down at the lip that her heels had caught as she came to a stop and saw that there were steps leading down to the floor. She turned back towards the dank muddy tunnel down which she had fallen and decided that as she was already headed downwards she might as well have a look around while she was there. There was no point in climbing all the way back up the tunnel if there wasn’t any egress when she reached the top. Someone had built this great chamber so someone had to have come in somehow. It was far more likely that she would find a door than it was that she could claw her way out of the rubble at the surface of the tunnel.

Her mind made up, she jogged down the steps which, although gold in colour, were in fact made of some kind of sandstone rather than the precious metal. The walls and the columns, however, shimmered and reflected like no stone Dinah had ever seen. As she reached the foot of the steps she looked back at the tunnel mouth and saw that it was framed by an open-mouthed long-toothed big cat of some kind. The carving was impressive in its detail and Dinah found herself staring at it, just as another rumble from above dumped several tons of dirt down the tunnel and Dinah had to scamper away from the steps as the mud poured down, sealing off her alternative exit. She smiled grimly having made the right decision not to try to claw her way back to the surface.

She turned away from the now useless tunnel and threw her ball of light as hard as she could towards the ceiling, where it split into hundreds of smaller lights covering the roof with false stars that lit Dinah’s way. Setting off through the colossal chamber she gazed wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the beauty of the carvings and the sheer scale of the room in which she had inadvertently found herself. The chamber didn’t go on for as long as Dinah had thought it would and she eventually came to a massive door carved from the same golden stone as the steps. The door was covered in runes and there was no handle, but Dinah knew the symbol for entrance even if she couldn’t read any of the others. She placed her hands on the stone door and closed her eyes allowing her breathing to slow and eventually she held her breath so as to hear the words within the stone. It was a skill she had not learned, but one she had invented when she was only a small child. Her teachers had tried to stop her from doing it as they thought it was too close to Aesmancy. Communing with non elemental magic was an arrestable offence, but Dinah had ignored them and simply hidden her skill.

She could hear a sound like sand being poured onto stone, a very soft sound that almost escaped her, but she latched onto it with what she called her “ghost” and let the immaterial version of herself follow it. In her mind’s eye the sand was rushing through tubes like a maze. When it reached the very centre of the maze it spoke to her without words and she knew how to open the door. She opened her eyes and looked for a particular rune; it was very high up so this place was clearly not built to be used by nine-year-old girls. She jumped as high as she could, but it was still outside her reach so she backed off a few steps and took a run up. As she reached the door she leaped and pressed the bare toes of one foot against the door and kicked up again and this second leap gave her just enough distance to press her fingers to the rune before gravity brought her back down again. The door groaned and trembled and a great amount of dust and loose sand spilled out of the cracks around the door’s edges. Ear-splittingly, the enormous slab of stone wrenched open into the chamber where Dinah stood so that she had to dart backwards for fear of being knocked unconscious or squashed by the immense weight of the door.

Without her false stars the next room was dark except for what looked like an altar or, she shuddered, a sarcophagus in the centre, which glowed with a pale blue light. She was reluctant to approach in case it was someone’s tomb, as this place did feel decidedly like a temple. Dinah wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t really afraid of anything. She didn’t even fear the touch of the Renewed, the idea simply repulsed and angered her. Taking a deep breath she padded over to the glowing shape, her bare feet becoming cold on the metallic floor, which reflected the light of the altar-thing. As she approached she could make out three things lying atop the stone box as if they were in a display case. There was a long slim blade covered with runic symbols; a beautifully wrought beaten-silver quiver that seemed to be filled with the blue light rather than arrows; the last item the most stunning bow Dinah had ever seen. It was smaller than a traditional longbow, indicating that it may have been wielded by a woman, and the end pieces and centre grip were more carved silver. It seemed to be strung with a slightly darker shade of the blue light that effused the rest of the items.

Dinah wanted to touch the weapons, but the blue light was off-putting. What if it was an alarm system, or poisoned? She didn’t want to wake some spelled creature from its slumbers to hack her into little pieces. She walked around the stone running her fingers over the markings there and closed her eyes as she had with the door. The sound was higher pitched this time, Dinah thought that if colour had a sound then the blue light would sound like this. She stopped walking and concentrated until she could see the light in her mind. It seemed to draw her in rather than her seeking it out. She could feel the warmth of the light on her face and suddenly she knew whose weapons these were: the Blade of Ereshil and the Bow of Lisahr, his elfin wife. Dinah gasped and stumbled back from the stone trembling with awe. Ereshil and Lisahr were myths, they couldn’t have really lived! But things that fall out of modern history have a tendency to become myth.

She stepped back towards the glowing stone and looked again at the weapons. Just to touch them would be honour enough she decided. She wouldn’t take them because they weren’t hers to take – but just a touch and she could live the rest of her life knowing that Ereshil and Lisahr were real; that there truly had been heroes in the world even if there were no longer. Dinah knew that the memory of that touch would live in her heart evermore and make her work the rest of her life to be a mere shadow of Prince Ereshil and his Lady Lisahr. She reached out one tiny, shaking nine-year-old hand towards the blue glow, and felt the warmth of it tingling on her skin as she stretched. All the while she kept her other hand on the stone, telling it that she meant no harm and would not steal; that all she wanted was to touch the memory of those great heroes.

Finally, her fingers grazed the metal of the exquisitely carved quiver and she froze, unable to move even enough to draw breath. The blue light surged suddenly and she could feel it growing hotter on her skin, until she wasn’t sure if it was burning or freezing. The light seemed to concentrate itself on the fingers of her outstretched hand, and then her flesh began to glow with the blue light, as though she was absorbing it through her skin. She stared wide-eyed as the light behaved more like smoke and blew through the pores in her skin. Spreading out from the inside, the burning-whilst-freezing sensation soaked up her arm and into her chest and then out in all directions until her body was filled with it. Finally it seemed to release her and she sagged to the floor sobbing with relief.

When Dinah managed to pull herself together enough to get back up to her feet the blue light was gone from the stone table. The weapons lay there only just visible in the light from the stone door that she had left open. She turned her back on the table and leaned there panting, wondering what that strange smoky light was doing to her. Perhaps poisoning her like the Aesmancer’s quicksilver. She stared ahead into the gloom. A blue glow began to grow across the room from her and then it spread to all four walls. She hadn’t been able to see the walls of this room originally, but this new blue glow illuminated lines of statues of what seemed to be royals, warriors and magi that completely encircled the room save for the door through which she had entered and another on the wall opposite that.

The statues, although bathed in the blue light, seemed to be carved from the purest white marble that Dinah had ever seen even in the Temple of the Scions. She crept towards the nearest row of figures holding her breath as if she might wake them. The first statue was of a man dressed in toga-like robes that had not been worn, even by priests, for more than a century. He was holding a scroll in his left hand and a chain in the other; Dinah supposed that he was perhaps a representative of justice. The next statue was of a heavily set man with carved scars all over his face and bare torso. He looked to Dinah as if he might suddenly make a grab for her and she disliked the idea intensely so she moved on down the line gawping up at these long-forgotten figures who must have represented the most powerful people of their times.

Dinah made a slow lap of the chamber occasionally running her fingers over the smooth, utterly cold marble figures. As she returned to her starting point the blue light again took on a smoky quality and drifted out from the stone table. Dinah watched as the glow seemed to invest itself into two of the nearest statues, one of a man and one of a woman; both warrior-like in appearance. Dinah’s eyes widened as the smoky light was absorbed by the marble, as it had been absorbed by her skin. Her fascination turned to horror as the two statues blinked and began to move, stretching as if waking from a long sleep. Dinah’s mouth opened in a silent scream as the marble man and woman made their shaky way towards her. She had somehow triggered an alarm and now she would be pounded into dust by stone warriors.

As they approached they seemed to shake off their tiredness and their movements became lithe and the marble quality seemed to fall from them like so much dust accumulated over centuries of waiting. The woman was startlingly beautiful; her skin was as pale and flawless as the marble she had been only moments earlier. Her hair was so pale as to be almost white, but it glowed with vitality as it fell in gentle waves down the woman’s back and over her shoulders. Dinah could not help but stare at the woman’s deep blue eyes; eyes that were filled with intensity and warmth in equal measure. The man was as handsome as his female counterpart was beautiful. He had that same inner fire in his eyes, but he wore a small half-smile that seemed brotherly. In Dinah’s fear her mind became still as it had during the earthquake and in that heightened mental state she noticed the scars across the man’s knuckles and forearms that could not have come from anything other than sword battles. This coupled with his bearing marked him out every inch the warrior prince.

Dinah wondered idly in her panic why someone would build defenders in such perfect forms. Then, suddenly realisation hit again. Dinah lost her panic, but was now filled with awe and the horrible knowledge that she had no idea how she was supposed to behave in front of the two most powerful warriors, magi and rulers that the world had ever known. She tried to bow as Ereshil and Lisahr drew within a metre of the stone table, but she didn’t really know how to do it and it just came out like the bow before a bout in the Tri-Hana ring.

The marble creatures halted at that distance and Dinah kept her head bowed, not looking directly at them in case it was disrespectful. She felt a soft touch under her chin, far softer than marble had any right to be, as Lisahr’s hand lifted Dinah’s chin forcing her, very gently, to look up at their faces. The blue light was now utterly gone and the room was suffused with a low golden light. The two figures before her were definitely not marble any longer. They wore the ancient ceremonial garb of warriors, each with loose-fitting trousers and simple tunics that, on such majestic beings, looked like the finest court dress. Dinah tried not to gawp, but it was taking all her effort.

“Greetings little one.” Ereshil’s voice was deep and rounded and instantly made Dinah feel safe and warm.

“What is your name young warrior?” Lisahr’s voice was like a song to Dinah’s ears and she almost wept at the beauty of it.

“Dinah.” She managed after several attempts at ungluing her tongue from the roof of her mouth.

The two adults glanced at each other and smiled before Ereshil said, “Well met Dinah, we’ve been waiting on you.”

An unnatural fog hung over the bay of Cadere. The sea itself was only visible where it lapped slickly at the planks of the boats. As always when the Aesmancer’s mists fell there was a hush across the fishing fleet. No one dared break the silence and even the gentle splashes of sea against hull made the fishermen flinch. Men had been known to disappear in such a fog; some had been known to reappear again wholly changed: either as a Renewed or a Devoid.

Malik knew that he would never want to come back as a Devoid: a soulless creature living in the shell of the man it had once been. He had never quite decided which would be the worse fate. The Renewed were clearly utterly changed and could never pass for human, as they were consumed within and without by the Aesmancer’s quicksilver. When Malik had first seen the Renewed, he had been struck by how beautifully their silver skins reflected the sunlight. Beautiful – until he had seen one up close. The Renewed had cracked its jaw open with a sickening crunching sound, revealing rows of razor-like teeth framing its black tongue, and then extended its claws into Malik’s young brother’s chest, sucking his soul from his small body, and gulping it down its black throat. Malik had taken up his small practice sword and pierced his own brother’s heart, knowing that death was infinitely preferable to being a soulless, evil Devoid.

Malik shook himself from the waking nightmare that was the memory of that day, and looked out at the mist that seemed like a second sea, hovering above the true ocean beneath it. The other fishermen around him on his small craft seemed to be holding their breath. Malik did the opposite and drew in a deep lungful of air that should have smelled of salt and seaweed, but instead reeked of tin and tar: the tell-tale mark of the Aesmancer’s craft.

Then, as if the world had also been holding its breath and suddenly exhaled, the mist seemed to boil with liquid fire and an army of the Renewed came marching across the water. Their feet caused the surface of the sea to steam as it rebelled against their unnatural touch, but it did not deter them. Where the mist had hung damp and grey now it was a mass of colours that crackled with white lightning and dirty orange flames as the Aesmancer manipulated the false weather to his advantage. The water seemed to almost solidify beneath their feet, becoming gelatinous so that they could remain above the surface. They seemed to grin as they marched, their silver teeth catching the coloured lights that raged all around them.

The fishermen were abruptly scrambling with oars or simply leaping overboard as the quicksilver demons approached. Malik stood calmly as the ranks of the Renewed swarmed over the first boat and began leeching souls and slaughtering in equal measure. The beasts extended their claws and bared their teeth to grasp at the flesh of the fishermen. It was said that the very touch of a Renewed would leech your soul, but there was far more to it than that.

The Renewed’s teeth and claws were filled with poison that would paralyse a person in less than five seconds so they were unable to fight back. Then they had to get close enough with their awful gaping maws to leech the soul from a person and gulp it down their black throats with sickening ferocity. Starving animals could not match the wildness of a Renewed in a feeding frenzy. Their black tongues lapped at their victims’ blood. It seemed to any onlooker that they killed for pleasure, seemingly indiscriminately, but there was often a method to their foul madness. Whatever task the Aesmancer had given them would be followed without question and without faltering. The Renewed had no minds of their own and the Devoid were unburdened by conscience and seemingly inbuilt with the obligation to obey their Master.

Those that were slain were the lucky ones. The Renewed rent flesh like damp paper and most deaths were swift. The soul-leeched slumped to the deck or floated in the water until their paralysis wore off or they accidentally drowned in the sea. Others who were merely wounded were dragged away by parties of the Renewed through the lingering mists to bathe in the Aesmancer’s quicksilver and become Renewed themselves.

Malik looked up at the sky that was now visible where the mist was pulling back. A slow smile spread across his face as he drew his dagger and slid it smoothly across his own throat, sending himself where the Renewed could not harm him.

King Erion turned away from his tower window, unable to watch more innocent lives claimed by the madness of the Aesmancer.

“That damned sorcerer grows too bold Lunas!” The King’s eyes were red-rimmed from lack of sleep, and his fists seemed permanently clenched in anger and frustration these days. His Chief Vizier, Lunas, lounged in a chair beside the window and shrugged at the King’s outburst.

“What more can we do sire?” Lunas’s weaselling voice intimated that he was bored with this particular topic of conversation.

“We can fight back, for Ereshil’s sake! Instead we sit here like lambs to the slaughter!” The King slumped down in his own chair and thumped his fist on the desktop as he did so.

“But our Magi simply aren’t strong enough to resist him, my Lord, and our soldiers are just so much fodder for his Renewed.” Lunas reclined even further in his chair, utterly uncaring of the slaughter of the fishermen still continuing in the bay beyond the palace walls.

The King leaned his head in his hands and sighed deeply,

“There must be something we can do. Someone must have the strength or the power to defeat this madman.”

Lunas didn’t bother to reply. The King was in no mood for conversation and Lunas had duties to attend to. He excused himself and trotted down the servants’ stairs to his own chambers in the depths of the castle. He locked and bolted his door behind him and checked the room as he did every time he entered. There was no one hiding in the cupboards or under the bed or even on the window-ledge, but Lunas knew they were spying on him. He could feel their beady eyes on him wherever he went – and he meant to shut those eyes permanently. When his Master came he would serve at his right hand and be rewarded for all his good works. The palace was ripe for the plucking and the King had no defences that could keep out Lunas’s Master.

He slid the heavy metal box out from beneath his bed and ran his fingers over its cool surface. The box opened with barely a sound and Lunas smiled upon its contents. Slipping his long, claw-like fingers inside, he carefully extracted the delicate and intricate device therein. A wire frame made to fit over the skull of a man, it was hung with solidified teardrops of quicksilver at certain points that were important, but remained a mystery to Lunas, whose knowledge of sorcery was as extensive as his knowledge of brain surgery. Lifting the device carefully, he lowered it over his head, resting it on his over-large ears. He knelt there on the floor with his palms flat on his thighs, closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind as he had been told. Just as Lunas was beginning to think that he was doing something wrong, he felt a warm buzzing sensation at the points where the silver droplets touched his skin. A crackling sound rattled in his ears – suddenly he thought he had been tricked and that his brain was going to be burned from the inside out. He started to claw at the headpiece, but it would not move.

“Lunas, you worthless worm! Be still and listen!” The Master’s voice was so loud that Lunas span around looking for him, until he realised that it was coming through the device.

“Master.” Lunas whimpered and bowed his head to the floor, ignorant of the fact that the device was vocal only; his Master could not see Lunas any more than he could see his Master.

“Are preparations complete Lunas?” Lunas allowed himself a small smile. The Master would finally be proud of him.

“Yes Master, the tunnel is complete and will go unnoticed. You are free to take the palace as soon as possible.” Lunas grovelled on the floor as if reaching to kiss his Master’s feet.

“That is good Lunas, you will be rewarded. Be ready.” And with that the voice and the buzzing were gone and Lunas was once more alone in his own mind. He lifted the device from his head and placed it gently back in the box, closed it and slid it away again. Getting to his feet he stamped the blood back into his legs, whilst at the same time being unable to wipe the smug grin from his face. Soon everything he had dreamed would come to fruition; all the plans and schemes would finally bring him the reward he deserved.

King Erion sighed as the door closed behind his Chief Vizier. The little man was really starting to get on the King’s nerves. Lunas had only been the Chief Vizier for two months since his predecessor, and Erion’s oldest and wisest friend, Korin, had been killed in a freak accident whilst out hunting. Somehow one of the other hunters had shot the old man in the neck, when his horse had reared and put him between the bowman and his quarry. Erion missed Korin desperately. The old man’s advice had been paramount to keeping the kingdom in relative peace in these troubled times. Now Lunas was Chief Vizier – and Erion doubted if the man had ever had an independent thought in his life.

Erion arose once more and looked out of the window. The fog had lifted and the Renewed were nowhere in sight, but the late afternoon light still shone over the bay and it was no sunset that turned the waters red. The fishing fleet was destroyed, the boats capsized and too many bodies floated in the pink foam of the tide. Those whose bodies were not there had been taken by the Renewed to become like them in the Aesmancer’s vats of living quicksilver. Some would attempt to return home as Devoid, pretending to be the person they appeared to be, but without soul or conscience: puppets of the Aesmancer’s will. King Erion turned away with his eyes closed, but he could still see the floating corpses. There had been too many bodies in these last few years as the Aesmancer’s power grew and his reach extended.

The door creaked open and Erion sighed expecting the return of Lunas, but smiled as he saw that it was his son, Laith.

“Father, you should rest, you do not look at all well.” The young man turned to close the door behind him as he entered the room, his long blonde hair catching the light from the tower window. Erion reached out for his son, who was so like his late mother that it made Erion’s heart ache with the memory.

“My son, you should not worry about your old father. He’ll be fine. Now let me look at you.” Laith smiled broadly, his ice-blue eyes dancing in his pale face. The king enveloped his son in a warm embrace and then held him out at arm’s length to see him better. “You have grown since last I saw you.” Laith laughed and it was like the tinkling of silver bells.

“It has only been two weeks father. I can’t have grown in so short a time.” But Laith smiled down at his father as he was indeed two inches taller than him already, and only nineteen so still had room for more growth. The king led them over to a couch on the far side of the room and they sat together.

“Tell me how your studies are going Laith. What have you learned?” Laith composed himself, trying to think of everything he had learned at the college that he had not already reported to his father, but he knew that even if he repeated himself his father would not mind: he just enjoyed spending time with his son.

“More of the same really father. I have been continuing with my sword and archery practice with Master Gobur. And Mistress Ish is now giving me advanced classes in magik because I progressed too fast for the others in my class. And Master Gobur said I will be better than you with a blade one day!” Laith laughed again and his father smiled indulgently at his son. Better to let the young man think that his studies were for valour and honour. Only too soon would he realise that these skills he was learning were to be used in bloody battles where there was no real victor. Erion’s smile faltered, but he hid it by pulling his son into a tight embrace. Laith worried about his father and knew that the war was coming closer, but it was better for his father to think his son untroubled by such news.

They talked late into the night of learning and hunting, and Erion teased his son about all the pretty girls that followed Laith around the palace and the city. Eventually Laith fell asleep with his head on his father’s chest, and King Erion simply stoked the lad’s hair and occasionally kissed the top of his head absent-mindedly. Always in the King’s mind was the view outside the window, and how close the Aesmancer had managed to come. Soon the battle would be brought to the city and perhaps even inside the palace walls. Erion could not allow his thoughts to dwell on that as his son slept so peacefully in his arms, but the war would come and they would all have to fight. They could not win. The thought came unbidden into Erion’s mind, but he realised that it was true. The Aesmancer and his armies were too strong and there was none amongst them with the strength to resist. Erion laid his head against his son’s soft hair and cried silently as he had not done since the death of his wife.

The palace was not yet awake when the first sounds came from below. A quiet scratching of metal on stone seemed, at first, as quiet as mice, but soon became loud enough to wake even the deepest of sleeper. The first palace residents to encounter the source of the noise were possibly the luckiest as they met with a swift death as the Renewed pressed on to reach the power centre of the kingdom. They came with one mission: to find the King and his family and destroy them.

The alarm bells pealed out over the oncoming dawn and the guards hastily buckled their swords and armour over their nightshirts, some not even stopping to put on their boots before setting out to face the enemy. The Renewed moved quickly through the palace, turning in unison as if they knew exactly where they were headed, which of course thanks to Lunas, they did. The guards set up barricades around the inner tower which housed the royal chambers. Erion had railed at his generals when they had forbidden him to join the defence, but he saw the sense in their actions. Laith was too young to take over as King and Erion had no wish to leave the boy an orphan.

Laith and Erion stood together in the throne room which was at the very centre of the tower. It was the hardest room to reach from the outside, but had the disadvantage that there were five doors and five corridors that led into it. Erion and Laith each held a sword in their hand and were fully dressed and armoured, unlike their defenders outside the doors. Erion looked round at his son and was startled by the sudden knowledge that he had grown into a man without his father noticing. Laith’s expression was fixed and hard and there was no sign of fear in his face. Erion was filled with such pride in that moment and such terror as well. He could not, would not, lose his son. They would fight together and, if necessary, die together, but Erion would not leave his son alone in life or death.

They could hear the sounds of battle drawing closer and knew that the screams were the deaths of men they knew. Men they had hunted with, dined with, laughed with. Men that would never return to their families. The only sounds from the enemy were the sounds of claws rending flesh and that awful gurgling laugh that sent shivers through even the hardest of men. Erion realised that his son was standing just in front of him, shielding him as if he could protect his father and his kingdom by himself. The boy had no fear and Erion’s pride was tinged with worry for his son. For the man he might become if they survived this fight. Erion laid his hand on his son’s shoulder and almost flinched as Laith turned around with that hard expression on his beautiful face.

“It is my job to protect you Laith, not the other way around.” Then Laith swallowed hard and Erion could see the boy inside the man once more. Erion was quietly glad that the boy was scared; at least it meant that he was human.

“We will survive this, my son. I promise.” Erion forced a smile, but it did nothing for either of their spirits. They turned back to face the main doors as the sounds beyond escalated once more and then all five sets of doors exploded inwards and the guards were forced back into the room and the battle spilled across the massive chamber roaring towards the King and his son like those bloody waves in the bay the evening before. Both of them raised their swords, but the guards continued to keep a ring of clear floor between the attackers and the royal family.

Hours passed or perhaps only a few moments that felt like hours, but the Renewed kept pushing on. Laith could smell their hot breath and see their blood-slicked teeth and the guards were still trying to hold them back, but their numbers were dwindling. Laith closed his eyes and concentrated on everything he had been taught over the last few years. He began to chant under his breath, words of solidifying and shattering. He carved out the runes in the air with the tip of his sword and Erion watched, open-mouthed, as the runes flared like fire. There were few these days with the innate ability for magik, but Laith was clearly blessed.

The sounds coming from the Renewed began to change; their growls becoming croaks and whimpers of pain. Their shining skins contracted and stiffened as if they were turning to stone and then one by one they began to shatter into thousands of silver shards like porcelain hit with a hammer. Laith turned around the circle of attackers reinforcing the spell so that all the Renewed were affected. The guards began to cheer as they pushed at the solidifying creatures sending them crashing to the floor to break them up without the aid of Laith’s magik. Just as the last of them was beginning to solidify Laith turned to face his father. He was clearly exhausted from the use of such strong magik and sweat dripped from his face, but he was smiling and Erion had never been more proud of his son.

Erion moved towards Laith to embrace him in victory, but as he drew closer Laith’s eyes suddenly went wide and the smile dropped from his face. Erion leaped the few yards to his son and looked down at the boy’s chest where three silver claws were protruding. The Renewed behind Laith was not completely solid and its mouth was still open drawing in deep breaths of Laith’s soul. Erion wrestled with the creature to pull Laith free, but it was too late. The Renewed fell away and shattered on the floor as Laith’s spell completed its job and Laith collapsed into his father’s arms as the King screamed at the top of his lungs. It was a cry that was pure desolation and everyone present felt the anguish in it. Erion sagged to the floor with Laith’s body in his arms and sobbed into his son’s hair once more. These were not quiet tears of worry for the future; these were the wracking sobs of a future turned to ash.

Laith opened his eyes, but his vision was blurred. There was something obscuring his sight and he was colder than he had ever been before. He shivered, but something was pressing all around him that prevented him from moving properly.

“He is awake.” Laith could hear the voice, but it was muffled and distorted.

“Can he hear us?” Another voice, this one was familiar.

“Probably, but it doesn’t make any difference. There’s no way he can escape.” It was Mistress Ish, he recognised the voice now and the other was his father. Strange that the word ‘father’ seemed to mean nothing of any importance to Laith; it was just a title.

King Erion stood looking at the massive block of sorcerer’s ice that encased his son. All the requisite tests had been done and they had been conclusive that Laith had been soul-leeched. He was now one of the Devoid, but Erion could not bear to kill him. The King had vowed to find a cure, a way to return the soul to a Leeched body. Even if it took him the rest of this life and the next, Erion would have his son back.

Lunas pressed his face to the floor and snivelled as his Master paced in front of him. Waves of anger emanated from him as he stamped his feet with every step.

“You have failed me Lunas!” The Aesmancer’s voice was gravelly and harsh and perhaps tinged with sorcery, as it seemed to hurt Lunas’s ears as he grovelled before him.

“I did everything you asked of me Master.” Lunas’s own voice was high-pitched and pathetic, and snot was dribbling from his nose onto the floor as he blubbed like a child.

“You dare to answer back to me maggot!” The Aesmancer raised his voice yet another notch and Lunas flinched at the ferocity of it.

The Aesmancer stopped pacing and took a deep breath.

“But it was not wholly your failure Lunas. My Renewed were defeated by magiks that I failed to realise the opposition possessed. Get up Lunas, you’re ruining my rug.”

Lunas got to his feet as quickly as he could, and stood with his head bowed and his long fingers twining together in front of him, as he visibly squirmed in the presence of his Master.

“Go back to the palace, Lunas, and continue to report back to me. A new plan will emerge I feel sure of it. Now go!” Lunas let out an involuntary squeak and bolted for the door.

Laith was bored. Wherever his ice-prison sat it was not regularly visited, and more often than not it was too dark to see even the blurry shapes that indicated someone was passing by. Occasionally someone would come and stand right in front of him and just stare for hours. Laith supposed it was the King, but he didn’t understand why. Perhaps the man was trying to work out a way to use him for his own advantage.

Not knowing how much time had passed was probably the most annoying thing about his imprisonment. There was no natural light wherever he was, and the visitors were not regular enough for him to plot the hours by their appearances. He may have been there for days, months or years for all he knew, but what did it matter anyway? Soulless things had no desires or aspirations, so Laith just waited for something to occupy his mind for even a few moments.

“The boy was Soul-Leeched? Fascinating….” Once again Lunas had his face pressed to the floor, but alone in his own chambers this time, with the thought transference device on his head.

“I saw it with my own eyes, Master. He is imprisoned in Sorcerer’s Ice in the dungeons.” Lunas was desperately trying to curry favour with his Master after the failure of the attack.

“Could you get to him Lunas? Close enough to plant a device such as the one you wear about your miserable head?” Lunas nodded fervently even though his Master could not see him.

“Yes Master, but he is encased in ice as I said. How will I plant any device on him?” There was a pause and Lunas could just hear the buzzing in his ears again.

Then the voice returned and the Aesmancer seemed to be laughing to himself,

“Leave that to me my little worm.” And the connection went dead, leaving Lunas even more perplexed than usual.

The package arrived too many years later via the disused landing dock on the estuary. The dock covered the area of the palace not sided by the sea, or the North Road that was the only entrance into the city from the land. It arrived just before daybreak, and Lunas was starting to panic that he would be caught here with the device. But the messenger had arrived in a one-man dinghy that made so little sound in the water, that Lunas was startled when the man spoke to him.

“My Master bids you good day, Sir.” The man had long straggly hair that was more seaweed than anything else. It seemed to be so tangled with his beard, that only a complete shave of all the hair on his face and head would resolve it, though the razor would probably have come off the worse in that battle.

“And to you messenger, now hurry up. You’re late.” Lunas grabbed for the parcel, but the boatman simply pushed out a little from the jetty, leaving Lunas frantically scrabbling so as not to fall into the dark water.

“How do I know you’re the right person to give this to? Can you prove who you are?” Lunas nearly lunged at the man across the gap, but reminded himself that he could neither swim, nor jump very far, nor fight if it came to that, so he restrained himself.

“Who else would know to meet you, or know what is in that package? Now hand it over you simpleton!” The boatman paused for a moment before he realised he didn’t care if this madman was the rightful recipient or not. He lobbed the package to Lunas before shoving off into the night, without looking to see if he caught it.

Lunas’s long fingers clutched at nothing for one sickening moment, and then the paper in which the device was wrapped snagged under his lengthy fingernails, and he managed to claw the package towards himself. Hugging it to his chest, he looked about himself furtively, before trying to scramble back up the long steps into the palace before anyone noticed he was there. In his excitement he had forgotten just how many years had passed since he had knelt on that cold floor before his Master - and how he hadn’t exactly been young then, so he slunk away instead, keeping his back to the wall. The exuberance of youth would probably have got him caught anyway.

Back in his chambers with the door firmly locked and bolted, and after his usual checks for spies, Lunas laid the package on the floor, and sat down creakily to peel away the brown paper, revealing the lightweight silver box within. He pressed his fingers to the top, and the lid immediately sprang open to reveal a long, thin tube with a handle at one end, and a drill-bit at the other. There was also another tube with a wire going all the way through it that ended in a delicate metal claw that held a tear drop of quicksilver, like the ones on Lunas’s headpiece. Lunas smiled slowly as he realised the purpose of the things in the box. He understood now that his Master had indeed formulated a new plan.

Laith was occupying himself watching the lone torch on the wall opposite. There was nothing else to pass the time in his prison. Even his father had stopped visiting, perhaps he was dead. Laith neither knew nor cared. His world was simple now there were no emotions to cloud his mind. He had been spending his time testing his prison with various magiks to see if he could find a way out, but so far nothing was working. He knew that he was a fairly powerful Mage, but he simply lacked the relevant knowledge to free himself. It was frustrating, but it wasn’t as if he had anything else to do.

A figure appeared in front of him, but it wasn’t tall enough to be his father and it was impossible to recognise faces through the wall of ice. The figure was small and seemed to be slightly hunched. And it also seemed very intent on Laith’s ice. Perhaps it was one of the sorcerers that periodically came to check that the ice was still holding. The little shape busied itself with something for a long time, and then it held whatever it was up to the ice and Laith could feel the vibrations all around him. Someone was trying to free him.

The drilling went on for an age, until the end of the drill appeared in the tiny space right in front of Laith’s eyes. For a moment he thought that his saviour would become his executioner, but the machine was pulled back just in time. The man, for Laith was sure it must be a man as he had never seen a woman that shape, bent down to pick up something else, and then another tube was being pushed through the hole the drill had made. A very skinny metal claw appeared before him clutching a metal globule, which it dropped at the very end of the tunnel, and then retreated leaving Laith staring cross-eyed at the lump of metal.

“Can you reach it?” The voice was faint; the man must have been trying to whisper.

“Yes, but why should I?” Laith had no reason to trust the little man.

“If you can swallow the teardrop my Master will be able to free you.” The little man was practically hopping from one foot to another as he looked around himself furtively. The man was an ugly wriggling shape that irritated Laith, but he was intensely bored with his prison, and if swallowing a bit of metal would get him out then so be it.

Laith leaned his head forwards as far as the ice would allow, and reached out with his lips until he could feel the jagged edges of the hole and the smooth quicksilver teardrop that nestled there. He extended his tongue and tried to lick the metal towards his lips, but it just slid away from him. He sighed and pulled back.

“Push it with the claw when I lean forwards. Do you understand?” The little man bent down to pick up the claw so he must have understood.

The tube slid back into the hole and pushed the silver droplet until it fell into Laith’s mouth. He rolled it around on his tongue for a while, tasting it to see what it might be, but it was magik far beyond anything he had ever known. Having nothing better to do, and not caring if he lived or died, Laith swallowed and the little man packed up his things and ran away.

A warm feeling spread out from Laith’s stomach filling his entire body. He could feel his fingers and toes once more as he had not been able since the Renewed’s claws had pierced his flesh all those years ago. There was a buzzing sound in his ears and suddenly there came the voice.

“Dear Prince, what a predicament you find yourself in.” Laith blinked and flicked his eyes from side to side, but could see no one. And this voice was far too clear to have come from outside the ice.

“Who are you?” Laith still found it hard to force his lips to move after so little activity. There was a thin laugh from the voice that Laith was coming to think was in his head.

“I am your saviour and I will be your Master when you are free.” There was no hope or question in the statement; Laith knew that the voice belonged to the Aesmancer and that he would obey and his Master would indeed free him from the ice.

“I will teach you how to free yourself, but many things more besides. And you shall learn them first so that you are strong enough to defeat your enemies, your captors, once you are free.” Laith smiled in his cold prison. Revenge sounded like a very good idea indeed.

Over the coming years, Lunas lived without his Master’s voice and felt utterly abandoned. The Master had taken a new protégé and Lunas was to be thrown on the dung heap, or left for the wolves who would surely know his treason by now. Especially if his Master wished them to know. Now and then, Lunas would go and sit at the feet of the imprisoned Prince and weep. The rest of the palace staff believed he wept for the loss of his Prince and the downfall of the kingdom, since King Erion had declared open war on the Aesmancer, his country and all who dwelled therein. Lunas only wept for himself.

As Lunas sat there beside Laith’s immobile form in his block of spelled ice, the Aesmancer spoke to Laith through the quicksilver pellet in his stomach. Laith was a patient student and listened to every word, learned every lesson and grew in power. The Aesmancer was careful not to teach him the skills that would free him in case Laith reneged on their deal. Laith had no intention of escaping until he had learned everything the voice had to teach. No one outside Laith’s head could hear the Aesmancer’s lessons and Laith had discovered that if he thought loudly enough, his teacher could hear him just as easily as if he had said it aloud, so there was silence in Laith’s cell. The occasional visitors to Laith’s ice had no idea that there was even consciousness in Laith, let alone that he was engaged in in-depth conversations with a disembodied voice that was slowly teaching him how to destroy them all.

King Erion sat at his desk, his elbows leaning on the maps of Aeskar, the Aesmancer’s homeland. Thoughts of a cure had dwindled over the last few years and now his focus was fixed on vengeance. Five years had built him a fleet and ten years had trained him an army with handpicked Magi, some of whom had been friends and classmates of Laith with their own reasons for wanting to take the fight to the Aesmancer. The kingdom had changed dramatically since that pre-dawn raid over a decade before. Where the people had felt relatively secure compared to their country-dwelling compatriots, the enemy had penetrated their innermost sanctum and now none were safe.

The great stone walls had been doubled, the carved wooden gates were now stone, and every passage and tunnel was guarded fastidiously. The guards slept in shifts still fully dressed, just in case the call to arms came unannounced again. Even the sounds of children’s games had changed. Where there had been laughter now there was the grim determination of children grown much too old before their time. Swords and bows were the only toys, and even these were not the blunted, safe versions of a decade ago.

The maps beneath Erion’s elbows were scrawled with lines of attack and defence. They better resembled spiders’ webs than cartography. Still Erion’s spies and rangers had been unable to find an adequate route of attack. It seemed the Aesmancer was growing ever more concerned about his enemies, even if the majority of his own countrymen were now Devoid and all his injured captives become Renewed.

Erion clenched his fist and felt the stabbing pains of his arthritis in his knuckles. He knew that he may be no use at all in any coming battle as he could barely grip his sword now. He had not been a young man ten years ago; now he was definitely old, especially in his heart. His practice partners tried to let him win, but it was a difficult task considering that even the gentlest of contact would cause Erion to drop his sword in agony. All this even without mentioning the uselessness of his knees and hips and the fact that he was heart-broken and soul-tired, and did not know how much longer he could go on.

The evening light was orange, and the late summer breeze blew through the window ruffling the edges of the maps. Erion looked up remembering the evening before the raid when the fishermen had lost their lives. Many of them had indeed returned home to their families, but had found the Guard waiting for them with blades drawn. Mothers, wives and children had stood tearfully by as their husbands and sons had been unceremoniously put to the sword. One or two of the men had cried real tears and had been spared as no Devoid could feel true emotion. Erion shook himself out of his awful reverie and blinked back the tears that were welling up in his eyes. He hadn’t been able to look at his son in that ice prison for years now. He hated himself for giving up hope of seeing his son again, and could not bear to look at his frozen face. He remembered the child Laith had been, his dancing eyes and shining spun-gold hair. He remembered his laughter like silver bells, and his voice like liquid sunshine, and how he had made the old man feel young again.

Erion had been in his forties when Laith was born. He had not expected ever to find love and especially not at his age. Then he had met Kiria. She was the most beautiful woman Erion had ever seen and she made his heart ache. He had not been able to believe it when she expressed her feelings for him. The entire kingdom had rejoiced on their wedding day, for she was as fair as he was wise, and the people knew that their kingdom would be in good hands. Ten years passed in peace before the Aesmancer began to threaten their country. And then everything changed. The day Laith was born was both the happiest and saddest day of Erion’s life. Kiria had died in childbirth and Erion had sobbed as he held his son for the first time. Erion had no one to blame for the loss of his wife and Queen, but just over nineteen years later the Aesmancer took his son. His only remaining joy in the world had been snatched away and Erion had someone on whom to fix all of that anger. A thirty year old hurt, mingled with a ten year old hurt, would sustain him long past the hour that he should have laid himself down to sleep beside his wife. He would be revenged.

Dinah slid the bow into its slot at the side of the quiver so that she had one hand free and turned the sword so that she could carry it just below the hilt where the blade was unsharpened with the hilt upwards and in easy reach should she need it. She had not given thought to the fact that she might meet something dangerous as she explored this temple, but after what she had just witnessed and been part of the thought had now occurred and it would not go away. She bowed again to the, now dormant, figures of Ereshil and Lisahr and made her way over to the other door. There was no point going back the way she had come so the only thing for it was to press on and hope that there was an exit somewhere.

Dinah awoke in the small room at the Royal Defence Academy to which she had been led by the school’s Principal, Piotr shortly after her arrival. The room was on a corridor that was lined with other rooms that were exactly the same, save for a few personal touches made by the students who inhabited them. A skinny wardrobe, a bed, and a small desk with a simple wooden stool lined the white plaster walls. The wardrobe contained three tunic and trouser sets that were the colour of sand and identical to the ones she had seen the other students wearing when she arrived. She took out one set and trotted down to the wash room that she had been shown on the way to her room and removed her own clothes, carefully laying her weapons on top of them; she could still see them from the shower of water that seemed to come straight out of the rock that made up every inch of this place. The water was surprisingly warm, and Dinah supposed that it came from some underground spring as it smelled slightly of rotten eggs.

Once she had thoroughly scrubbed herself with a pumice stone, and the sweet smelling soap that was set into small alcoves in the wall at regular intervals, she dried herself on what was possibly the softest towel that Dinah had ever used. Pulling on her new tunic and trousers she tied a yellow sash around her waist. The sash was the first thing she had been given before the Academy’s Principal, Piotr, had gone back to his private study, apparently exhausted by their meeting. The significance of the yellow belt had not yet been made clear to her, but she knew it must be important for the Master himself to have presented it to her. She then looked at herself in the full length mirror that hung on the wall beside the door and she smiled. The clothes fitted her as if they had been made for her. She stepped closer to the mirror and a flash of colour that she was unused to caught her eye. Her big green eyes were now streaked with the same piercing blue as the mystical light of Ereshil and Lisahr that she had surely dreamed. The streak ran exactly through the centre of each eye from top to bottom, giving her the appearance of some strange cat. She squeezed her eyes together hard as if the image would go away, but it was still there when she reopened her eyes.

Dinah stood before the two tall figures and tried to give the appearance of bravery even if on the inside she was trembling like a dandelion in a breeze. She was beginning to wonder if she had activated some spell that would send all of the marble figures that ringed the room marching off to war. It also occurred to her that if they wanted to take on the Aesmancer then it wouldn’t actually be a bad thing because the statues all looked as if they could put up quite a fight. She was blinking rapidly and her mouth was too dry, but at least she wasn’t visibly shaking or crying.

“Dinah, we knew you would come eventually.” Lisahr’s voice clove through Dinah’s thoughts like a blade through smoke and it was as if nothing but the Elf Lady’s voice even existed.

“We have waited a long time for one to come who could bear the burden of the gifts we would give.” Ereshil’s voice was deep and reverberated in Dinah’s mind so that she almost missed the point of what he was saying.

“Burden? Gifts? I don’t understand. How am I possibly the best person for this? I’m a nine year old girl!” Dinah’s voice was almost a squeak as she reached the end of her outburst, but the two adults were still smiling knowingly.

“You are the one, Dinah, we know it. Only the right person could have woken us.” Dinah stared in disbelief as Lisahr spoke, but it seemed somehow right to Dinah.

It was not simply chance that she had fallen into the temple; it was fate. The entrance had closed behind her and she had found her way to this room and been able to open a door that even a most powerful Mage would have found nigh impossible. She had touched the weapons and they had known her touch and woken their masters. It couldn’t all be coincidence. Or perhaps Dinah had hit her head as she fell and this was a fever dream. She hoped it was destiny. Dinah had always been different to the other children. She had not been able to grasp even the simple magiks the way the priests taught it, but had developed her own which was far more powerful. She was a highly skilled fighter even standing half the size of the guards who had play-fought with her at first until they had started to lose. Dinah looked up into the open, honest faces of her heroes and she stopped wondering. They knew her, they knew what she was capable of and she sensed that there was more. What had Ereshil said about a burden?

“We cannot leave this place Dinah. We are a part of history now, but we can give you the gifts that we were given that may help you. You have a great task ahead little one, but you should not be afraid.” Lisahr’s voice made it almost impossible to feel fear.

Ereshil moved forwards and reached past Dinah to pick up his sword. Again the blue light flared and wrapped itself around his hand like a faithful pet recognising its master. He turned the sword so that the hilt faced towards Dinah and knelt before her.

“I give you Heart Breaker may he be as good to you as he was to me.” And with that he pressed the hilt into Dinah’s hand that was utterly dwarfed by Ereshil’s. The blade was heavier than she was used to, but it was perfectly weighted as if it had been made for her even though a great bear of a man had last borne it. It seemed to adapt itself to the wielder.

Then Lisahr reached over and took her quiver and bow and offered them to Dinah on one knee as her prince had done. “I give you True Sight and its never-emptying quiver, may they serve you well as they served me.” Dinah ducked her head as Lisahr looped the quiver’s strap over her shoulder and laid it gently against her back and then accepted the bow in her free hand.

The weapons were surprisingly light and fitted against her body perfectly. Dinah wondered if as she grew so the weapons would continue to adapt and she knew as she had that thought that they would.

“And our final gift Dinah True of Heart.” Dinah could hear the capital letters as Ereshil spoke and they both rose to their feet and it brought a tear to her eye. She had never been treated with much kindness and to be treated so by the people she held in highest regard was the greatest praise she had ever or could imagine ever receiving.

The beautiful pair took each other’s hands and closed their eyes for a moment and the golden light in the room dimmed so that Dinah could see the blue light spreading out between their clasped palms. They parted their hands and opened their eyes and each of them placed that hand over Dinah’s eyes. The blue light was so bright now that Dinah thought for a second she would be blinded, but it dimmed as it seemed to have turned to smoke again and was gently drifting back into her eye-sockets and further still into her mind. Suddenly the light was gone and Dinah blinked the spots out of her vision. Ereshil and Lisahr were marble once more and had rejoined the ranks of their kin that lined the walls. Dinah wondered if she had imagined it all, but the sword and bow were still in her hands and the quiver still rested on her back.

Her experience in the temple had changed her and it would take some time, she realised, before she knew the full extent of that change. Picking up her weapons she replaced the quiver and bow on her back and carried the sword by the unsharpened steel just beneath the hilt. It felt somehow right to have the blade there in her hand rather than in a scabbard. She also scooped up her old, ruined clothes and padded back to her room. There was a student waiting for her as she arrived, a young man who introduced himself as Skip. He took Dinah’s old clothes from her hands and dumped them on the floor outside her door where, he told her, the cleaning team would remove them when they made their rounds. Dinah sat on the edge of her bed as Skip took up station on her stool and proceeded to explain as much as he could in a very short period of time. Much of the information blew straight past Dinah, but she managed to grasp the basics, with a few questions thrown in when Skip occasionally paused for breath.

Skip was a young looking fourteen year old with fluffy blonde hair and pale grey eyes that danced in his angular face. His appearance was apparently quite typical of his homeland; a place in northern Aeskar called Hembur. Dinah had tried to butt in to enquire about living in Aeskar, but Skip was impossible to interrupt. Skip was in the intermediate class, which is why his sash was red. Dinah’s yellow denoted that she was just beginning her training. As a student progressed the sash changed colour and there was, apparently, much ceremony surrounding the upgrading of the sashes. The principles of the Academy were to teach promising youngsters to fight with weapons and magik. Each student had been chosen from villages, towns and cities across the world to train. Dinah’s entrance through the Door of Sighs, as it was known due to the strange breezes that occasionally escaped it, had been prophesied hundreds of years earlier and a great deal of hope had been placed on the person who managed to pass through that door. The Academy had been built around the door for that very reason. Dinah had gulped at that part, fearful that she might not live up to such high expectations.

When Skip had, apparently, run out of steam he announced that it would soon be time for dinner and that he would show Dinah where to go, and afterwards perhaps a tour of some of the more regularly visited areas of the Academy. Dinah nodded and realised that she had barely said ten words since she had arrived here. Everyone seemed to be talking at her or for her, and she was feeling more and more anxious with every passing minute. She hoped the feeling would pass swiftly as she settled into some kind of routine. Skip told her to leave her weapons in her room as they were forbidden in the dining hall; Dinah had trouble leaving them there and glanced back several times as Skip led her away.

Skip piloted her through a maze of corridors and up a long flight of stairs. As they reached the top, Dinah noticed that the quality of the light had changed. The great chamber that was the dining room and general meeting area was covered by great glass panes, through which a bright late afternoon sky could be seen. Dinah wondered how far from her starting point she had come, as she had never heard of this place, and a building so large must have been noticed by the nearby residents. The room was heaving with other students and adults who must have been teachers as they all wore black robes with black sashes, rather than the tan worn by the students. Skip dragged Dinah by the hand to join a long queue that snaked past an open kitchen. It smelled more wonderful that Dinah ever imagined food could.

Skip thrust a plate into her hand and ladled great dollops of various stews, beans and rice onto it, as she just stared and allowed him to exercise his hospitality. Once Dinah’s plate was towering with food, Skip towed her through the crowds to one of the long tables that lined the room, and nudged some other students aside so that he and Dinah could sit amongst them. Most of the students were cheerfully curious about the newcomer, but there were a few of the older ones who eyed her with suspicion. This tiny girl could not possibly be the one for whom the Magi had waited so long. Skip introduced Dinah to some of his friends, as she spooned the delicious food into her mouth with the sudden realisation that she was famished.

The two girls across the table were Sabine and Lucia and they were quite clearly twins, but felt they ought to mention it to Dinah in case she was terminally stupid. They were both very dark with almost black eyes and hair like ravens’ wings. They told her that they came from a place called Veroo that far was across the sea to the West. Dinah had never even seen the sea and her geographical knowledge was extremely poor, but she nodded and smiled all the same. The boy on Dinah’s left was Kim, which he hastened to emphasise was a boy’s name not a girl’s. The others giggled as he said it, so it must have been a running joke amongst them. Kim was from Kawahi in the north and his skin was naturally tanned and his face framed by cheek-length silky bark-brown hair and his eyes were almond shaped and the colour of chestnuts. He was a fairly shy individual, but clearly fiercely intelligent. Dinah liked them all instantly.

When Dinah enquired as to exactly where the Academy was the others fell silent, and she was suddenly afraid that she had asked the wrong question.

“It is in Aeskar.” Skip’s voice was trembling ever so slightly as he spoke. Dinah almost dropped her spoon and her mouth fell open.

“Aeskar? That’s not possible, I started in Enril. I can’t have crossed the sea!” Dinah realised that she had raised her voice and shushed herself when she had finished.

Aeskar: the home of the Aesmancer and his subjugated people. How was it possible that this Academy went unnoticed by the most powerful sorcerer the world had ever known? Or was this his Academy? Were they being trained to fight for him, rather than against him as Dinah had assumed? Suddenly the faces around her did not feel so friendly. A firm hand clapped Dinah on the shoulder, and she looked up into the face of a tall woman with deep, fire-red hair that was tied back in a long plait that hung over one shoulder. The woman leaned closer to Dinah’s ear.

“This place is hidden in a mountain range, and eleven-hundred Magi built a reflection overhead that makes us look like a yawning hole in the ground. The people of this land do not, have never, nor will they ever know that we are here. Until it is too late for them to do anything about us.” The woman smiled and her pale face suddenly danced and her chestnut eyes were warm. She laughed merrily and wandered away up the aisle between the tables. Conversation nearby resumed, and Dinah realised she had been holding her breath, and exhaled deeply.

“That was Cicerone Corine. She teaches advanced magik to the blue sashes.” Skip was watching the Cicerone as she walked away, and Dinah noticed that most of the other boys were doing the same and she smirked. She tried to cover it by eating some more stew, but the twins noticed and giggled and the boys were suddenly blushing and they were children again, all fears forgotten in a moment of childish mirth. There was nowhere in the world she would rather be than in the land of her enemy at that moment and her journey to this point was most definitely worth the effort.

She came to a door that was much larger than the ones before and the runes here told her that she had reached a viorta or way in. Perhaps her translation was wrong and it actually meant an exit, but she had no way of checking her knowledge of the runic script as it had only just been plopped into her head. She pressed her hands on the door and listened for that sand on stone that would guide her “ghost” to the correct runes to activate in order to gain access and found that, as with each previous door, her ability was getting much faster. She touched the three runes in sequence as the door had shown her and the massive golden stone heaved itself open showering Dinah with dust in the process.

It seemed that her translation was correct as this was indeed another room rather than an exit. There was one marked difference between this and the previous chambers; this one was occupied.

Rasping shut behind her, the door almost pushed Dinah into the bustling room. All around her people were rushing to their tasks, bending over workbenches, fetching water or stoking fires. As the door slammed to a close, every head in the room snapped up, and there was an instant hush as dozens of pairs of eyes stared at her. Dinah had the sudden realisation that she was very grubby and felt thoroughly embarrassed. The people in the room were all dressed in loose-fitting desert coloured tunics and baggy trousers of the same colour that were gathered at the ankles. They were all bare foot, but their feet were spotlessly clean as if they had never set foot on a dirty surface. They were also all very young, probably only two or three years older than Dinah herself.

As the majority of them gawped at Dinah, one of the older ones towards the back of the room darted away up some steps, and returned shortly afterwards at a more stately pace with an extremely elderly man leaning on his shoulder. The pair descended the steps and many of the young faces turned to watch his approach with as much awe as they had Dinah’s entrance. The man was bent almost double, and his hair and beard were pure white and reached almost to his knees, as he leaned on the young man as well as a long staff that was smooth with age.

As the man approached Dinah, she noticed that the young heads bowed as he passed them, and Dinah was getting that same feeling of inadequacy that she had undergone when she had met Ereshil and Lisahr. The old man stopped a few feet in front of Dinah and he shooed away his young aide. Just as Dinah was about to attempt a bow, she was taken aback as the old man raised his head and bowed deeply to her first.

“You have come, as was prophesied. Welcome True of Heart.” The old man’s voice was smooth and light and belied his age, and there was that name again – the name that Ereshil had called her: ‘True of Heart’. Dinah was beginning to worry that there had been some awful mistake somewhere along the lines, but she clung to her reasoning that it must be destiny.

“This is the Royal Defence Academy and you are most welcome.” The old man waved his hand expansively, gesturing towards the room and the students behind him.

“And I am Piotr, the Master of the School. We have a place for you here if you would accept.” Dinah was struggling to keep her mouth from dropping open. She had never heard of the Royal Defence Academy, nor did she understand why it should be so well hidden. How had these others come to be here? Had they passed through the temple the way that she had? But by the stunned looks on their faces as they stared open-mouthed at her she knew that they had not.

Dinah realised that Piotr was waiting for her to answer his invitation, so she nodded emphatically and smiled so broadly that she thought her face would tear. After all, what would there be for her to return to after the Aesmancer’s earthquake, that always brought the Renewed, and would have left nothing but the dead and Devoid in their wake? Dinah was home at last.

Curled into a ball in the middle of a tangle of blankets, Lunas slept fitfully with the speaking device pressing into his head. He had taken to wearing the headpiece at all times just in case he missed a message from his Master. His oversized floppy felt hat had been ridiculed by other members of the palace staff, but Lunas did not care. He missed his Master’s voice, and felt discarded and useless as the Prince basked in the glow of his Master’s teachings. Lunas was growing to hate the ice-bound Prince. For Lunas did have the ability to hate. Where the Master’s other servants were Devoid and emotionless, Lunas served for his own reasons and with his soul intact.

Laying there in a cloud of dark dreams, it took a few moments for him to realise that the buzzing in his ears was not his subconscious.

“Lunas! Wake up you idiot!” Despite the harsh words, Lunas almost wept with joy to hear his Master’s voice after all this time.

He leapt up and knelt in the middle of his bed with the blankets still snarled around his limbs.

“Go to the King, Lunas. The time has come when you shall serve me best.” And with that proclamation the voice was gone.

Lunas never questioned his Master, at least not aloud, but he was confused by this order. How was he to serve just by going to the King? What would happen when he got there? Was he being tricked, lured into a trap to be imprisoned like the young Prince? Lunas’s hands were shaking as he unravelled the bedclothes from his feet and pulled on his boots. He had been sleeping in his clothes a lot recently - he did not know exactly why - but at least he could do his Master’s bidding speedily. He snatched up his limp felt hat and crammed it onto his head over the speaking device, and half limped, half scuttled up the servants’ staircase to the King’s chambers.

King Erion was still awake and feverishly studying his scrolls and rangers reports as was his nightly ritual. He completely ignored Lunas’s entrance, as if he did not even notice the hunched figure insinuating himself into the room and depositing his frail frame into a chair beneath the window. Perhaps the King was so absorbed in his work that he was not aware of his Chief Vizier, but Lunas supposed that the King was just ignoring him as usual. Lunas tried to give the impression that he was simply attending his King, but he could not help the involuntary tapping of his foot or the biting of his wizened fingernails. The King continued to disregard him.

Laith smiled a grim, mirthless smile and breathed deeply. The time had come for vengeance. The Aesmancer’s lessons had ended with the final trick. Laith closed his blue eyes and concentrated on the ice around him. He extended his inner self as he had been taught and sought out the very nature of the ice. He had no need for chanting or drawing pathetic runes: this magik was deeper and far more powerful. He stretched himself out, filling the two foot thick Sorcerer’s Ice that had been his home for the last ten years.

He felt his essence melding with the ice, until he was sure that he and his prison were entirely entwined. Then he began to heat himself slowly, gradually, so that the spelled ice would not notice and he had a better chance of completing the magik before the ice reacted against him. Almost unexpectedly, Laith’s fingers were free and the water that had, only moments earlier, been solid ice dripped from his hands. Then it was suddenly cascading over him in a clear blue waterfall. He breathed freedom for the first time in a decade. Looking around his cell properly, he realised it was just a disused cellar room and there were no bars or locks at all. This was almost too easy.

He stepped down from the plinth that had held the ice and promptly fell flat in his face. His muscles had atrophied over such a long period of inactivity and he found himself weak and barely able to move. Closing his eyes, he reached through the stone floor with his disembodied self and drew on the strength of the very earth beneath. Snatching life and asking no one’s permission or giving any kind of thanks, Laith filled himself and left a patch of ground beneath the foundations, utterly barren and unable to sustain even the smallest microbe. He pulled himself to his feet and stretched, testing his replenished muscles. Where he had been soaked by the collapse of his ice cage he was now bone dry, and his piercing blue eyes gleamed with evil intent. The time was nigh.

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