Shadow's Pursuit

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Chapter Two

DAMIEN LISTENED TO the report with fierce attention, but he made sure that his face showed none of it. He stood still, muscles ready, his hands behind his back. He felt exposed and far too open, stuck in the large meeting room that provided too many places for an enemy to hide. He had become used to the brightness of the castle halls and to being seen and heard, but that didn’t mean that he had to like it.

The king sighed with relief and Damien’s eyes flicked over the back of his head once again. In all his life, he never thought that he would find himself on a mission like this.

“I’m glad to hear that there were so few casualties,” King Thomas said, genuinely relieved. “I was initially unsure about deploying the recently initiated magi, but it seems to have worked out exceptionally well.”

One of the men sitting closest to him smiled at him confidently. He was a thickly built man with a powerfully large nose and receding black hair, perfectly combed.

“As I said it would, Your Majesty. You should grant your advisors a little more trust!” he joked. Damien watched the other advisor’s face as the muscles around his jaw tensed, his eyes flashing with anger for less than a moment. He was the eldest of the two and had greying hair in a bowl-cut style, a thinning grey moustache growing beneath his crooked nose.

King Thomas gave a light little laugh, missing the glare that the older man gave the other.

“Perhaps I should indeed, General Lowth.” he said. Damien could hear the smile in his voice, and wondered wryly how King Desmond would respond if one of his advisors spoke to him like that. He could just imagine the expensive rugs beneath them coated in blood, joking or not.

Then King Thomas sighed suddenly, his expression sombre. “We will need to send our condolences to the families.” he said. “What were their names?”

The older advisor pulled out a scroll and passed it to the chamberlain, an ancient, scrawny man with a thick coat of dark-blonde hair. He had been sitting quietly and listening, and now read through the names in a nasally voice.

Then she survived, Damien thought. And so she should have, given the training I put her through.

“Very well; leave those names with me.” the king said and the chamberlain nodded, taking his seat beside the generals again.

“You’ll handwrite them yourself, sire?” Lowth asked in an even voice, his thick, black eyebrows only rising just enough for Damien to notice.

“Of course; they were my soldiers, after all. Also, please make sure that the families are compensated for their losses.” the king said. The two men nodded but Damien could see a hint of displeasure in Lowth’s eyes.

Meeting concluded, the men stood up with the king and bowed to him, dismissed, before leaving the Meeting Room through the large double-doors at the end of the room. The chamberlain remained, looking at another long list in his hands.

Damien continued standing to attention behind the king’s high-backed chair, another man beside him. He kept his gaze straight ahead as King Thomas turned around to better address the two of them.

“Thank Rendeis that that matter is dealt with,” he said, smiling wearily at the other guard beside Damien.

With dark, curling hair that twisted around his ears and soft chocolate-brown eyes, he looked every part the loved, respected young king that Damien had learned about. He was dressed rather modestly for a Majesty, he thought, in a long-sleeved gold and blue tunic, the crest of the country embroidered over his chest. A long red cape was draped around his shoulders, clasped together at the front with an intricate brooch. The golden crown sat on his head, modestly small and partially concealed by his thick curls.

“Indeed, sire.” the other guard, Cowill, said politely. “Not only will the relations between Avendan and the Kreshna tribes be strengthened, but we now have the increased trading with them as part of the negotiations.”

Thomas nodded. “Yes. And Rendeis himself knows that we need all the help we can get in these troubling times.” he said.

Damien made a mental note to send this information to Treston as soon as he was able.

With a short nod, King Thomas turned and stepped toward the door, and they promptly followed. Damien kept his displeasure hidden as they left the room and a fifth figure joined them, having been standing outside the doors of the War Room and waiting for them.

He was a young man, about his own age, with cropped, pale-blonde hair. He had the dark skin of a Kreshnan tribesman, so dark that it was almost black, contrasting fiercely with his light hair and the whites of his eyes and teeth. Damien had heard rumours that he had bars of metal pierced through his arms and patterns inked into his shoulders and chest, but it was impossible to know for certain. Blue and gold armour covered his chest, arms and legs, mostly hidden underneath a long, open white robe that was intricately decorated with symbols of Rendeis and Avendan in gold thread. A scimitar was strapped to his back.

Damien disliked the Illuminator acolyte greatly, and he knew that the feeling was mutual. Keraan of the Kechoh Tribe was a silent young man, his eyes darker than his skin, his expression as flat and emotionless as the desert plains that he hailed from.

How he was found by the Illuminators and brought to Avendan for training despite the tribe’s well-known political neutrality was well beyond Damien’s knowledge. He did know, however, that he had arrived to the kingdom only very recently, and remained at the king’s side for both practical and diplomatic reasons. He was confident that he was superior to the acolyte in terms of combat ability, but was fiercely aware that Keraan held the advantage of status. He was only an acolyte and did not yet possess the power of arresting others but he was of Order Scrutator, the order assigned with defending the castle and king.

What concerned Damien, however, was that he was also in close contact with more experienced Illuminators.

Damien remained quiet as they walked down the castle walls, following the king, Cowill, Keraan and the chamberlain at an acceptable distance ten or so paces away. King Thomas was discussing the battle with the Kreshnan and for once, interest was evident on his dark face as he replied in a quiet, polite voice.

Damien caught a glimpse of himself in the reflection of one of the windows and looked away quickly, hiding a scowl of distaste. So used to the black, plain clothes of a Shadow, dressing in the eye-catching blue, gold and black irked him greatly.

He was glad, however, that he was disguised as a master swordsman and not a knight- he was able to wear light armour that was of similar weight to his Shadow set. Another benefit of being part of the King’s Guard was that he had the right to carry whatever weapons he pleased, and so, one shortsword sat at his waist and another was tied across his back. Multiple knives and throwing stars were hidden within his clothes.

He was examining the stained glass image of an eagle on the window to his left as a door ahead of them on the right opened, just as the king approached it. Damien automatically moved to the left of the walkway, sensing what was about to happen. A girl, easily a few years younger than he, stepped out and nearly bumped into the king. Cowill had the grace to grip her arms gently, preventing her from doing so.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Your Majesty,” she said in a thin, high pitched voice, curtseying deeply as Cowill released her and moved back. She looked up again with a pale, blushing face and her eyes widened as she saw Damien, still standing at the back of the entourage.

“That’s quite alright, Lady Priscilla,” King Thomas said pleasantly. “Are you unharmed?”

She looked back at Thomas, her blush increasing. “Oh yes, Your Majesty; I’m quite fine, thankyou.” she breathed.

“Excellent; have a good day.” he said, and they moved forward. The girl stood back against the door as they swept past, and watched Damien as he approached. For Tenebrae’s sake, not this again.

“Good day, Lady.” he said as politely and plainly as he could, bowing his head slightly. She nodded and smiled widely at him and as he walked away, he could feel her eyes burning into his back. He resisted the urge to sigh darkly as he caught up with the king.

They walked silently for a while before Thomas turned and looked at him, his eyes shining.

“I do believe that Lady Priscilla is quite fond of you, Swordsmaster Delamere.” he said, his lips twitching in a smile.

“Is that so, Your Majesty?” Damien said, doing his best to prevent his jaw from clenching. “She is a polite young lady; I am sure she will grow into a fine and respectable woman.”

The king chuckled. “Indeed; I’m sure she will. How are you settling in, at any rate? You have been here for a few months now, no?”

Damien bowed his head slightly. “That is correct sire, and very well, thankyou.” he said. Cowill now looked back at him as well and smiled.

“Swordsmaster Delamere has proven himself a very adept member of the Guard, sire.” he said. “He has already improved the defence of the castle with his own suggestions, not to mention his exceptional skills with a blade.”

“Is that so?” King Thomas said, his smile growing. “Well, I am glad I listened to Tibbord’s advice about hiring you. Perhaps I shall have to spar with you one day?”

“I am unworthy of such an honour, Your Majesty.” Damien said, bowing again. The king gave another chuckle and they continued forward. Keraan had remained silent during this time, looking out of a window with obvious disinterest.

They eventually reached the huge throne-room, its white marble floor polished and gleaming. A large golden chandelier hung from the high ceiling and at the other side of the room, deep-blue curtains were drawn back to let light and air through the open windows.

“Some of the nobles have requested audiences with you, sire. We thought it would be best to let them see you first before holding court for the commoners.” said the chamberlain. He reminded Damien of a nagging housewife, constantly referring to the long scroll in his spidery, shaking hands, as if it held the words of the Gods themselves.

Thomas nodded as he sat upon his throne, raised above the rest of the room on a dais. Damien stood in his usual place behind and to the side of the king’s seat as he gestured to the doorman to let the first noble through.

The man who entered was a noble whom Damien had seen a few times before, elegantly dressed in black breeches, a white, silk shirt and a deep-blue coat that was finely embroidered with gold.

He lowered his body in a deep bow, his ash-brown hair flicking casually as he did so. Then he looked up at the king with a look of familiarity on his smiling face.

“Good day, Your Majesty,” he said, his voice pleasant and friendly. Thomas stood up from his seat immediately, face beaming.

“Isaac! How great it is to see you!” he said in surprise, arms outstretched. “You do not need to request an audience with me, you should know that!”

The man, Isaac, stepped forward towards Thomas, grinning. “Please sit sire; do not stand on ceremony for me!”

Thomas laughed as he sat back down again. “Pray tell, what brings you here? Isn’t our weekly chess game on Friday?”

The man nodded. “Yes and it is still on, of course,” he said.

His expression darkened. “I am here because one of my farms along the Severin River was attacked.”

Thomas sighed deeply. “This war with Treston looms ever closer,” he muttered. “I am saddened to hear that, Isaac. Tell me what I can do to help.”

Despite still listening closely, Damien braced himself for the long hours of boredom ahead. He found himself wishing that he was out in the field like Raine, despite the fact that his position had provided him with plenty of useful information to send back to Treston.

RAINE HAD WAITED until nightfall to begin her investigation, for it made slipping between the buildings and moving around people far easier. She had opted for her Shadow clothes, and now wore black pants and a long-sleeved tunic, her feet covered by dark sandals. Her long hair was tied low at her neck and she felt no need to conceal it, for it was the same shade as her clothes.

She left the female quarters of the mage barracks through her window, her feet silent on the grass beneath her. She moved quickly, keeping to the shadows and avoiding the main paths often taken by magi as they moved to and from the Dining Hall. She could smell the remnants of that night’s meal as it drifted through the scarf that concealed her face, but she felt anything but hungry. She had completed such tasks before and had been trained specifically to do so, but she still felt nervousness swell in her stomach.

Weeks had passed since they had returned from the Kreshna Desert, and the joy of having completed such a mission had long since left her, replaced now by the constant need to search for useful information for Treston. She knew that despite being sent away, Grandmaster Kyushu would still be demanding contact from her.

She headed straight for the officer’s quarters of Second Company, the place where their platoon lieutenants and captains gathered for the sharing of information. The building was circular and of three levels, the lowest main door guarded by two armed magi, visible in the light of a torch that one was holding.

Raine opted to move around its opposite side, and swiftly climbed up the stone wall to a window, thanking the Gods when she found it unlocked. No one noticed her as she pulled the large, heavy window up and slid inside, keeping herself to the walls.

The building was thankfully empty, and she moved about with practised ease, collecting maps, diagrams of military structures, lists of important personnel- anything that her masters in the Shadow Guild could find a purpose for.

Then she left as smoothly as she had arrived, leaving no trace of her presence behind. She was tempted to use her Shadowsight to double-check that no one was following her as she twisted and turned through the side-paths, but she decided against it. The threat of attracting an Illuminator’s attention was one that remained prominent in her mind- her training was never far from her thoughts.

Raine breathed in deeply, doing her best to silence the sounds of her breath as it came from her mouth and nose as she exhaled. She focused her mind and allowed her body to relax, remaining as still as she physically could. She knew that her hiding spot was a good one, but she couldn’t help but feel nervous as Damien continued to pace the room, his own footsteps silent.

“Good,” he said eventually, his eyes scanning past her and finding nothing, “Hiding in a darkened room is one of the basic tenets of a Shadow.”

“The challenge,” he said, moving to the heavy curtains that were draped over the window, virtually blocking all light, “is what you do when the shadows are removed.” With that, he whipped the curtains open and bright, intense sunlight flooded the room. Damien turned and looked at her, and she wondered if he knew that she was there all along.

“Light is a Shadow’s greatest weakness because it takes away our defence, that being the shadows. It may help us because it creates shadows for us to hide in but if there is too much light, or it moves, your position will be revealed and your mission becomes a failure.” he said.

She nodded, keeping her expression even.

“So who would be our greatest threat then?” he asked, looking at her seriously.

“Someone who can control light, and therefore shadows. Illuminators.” Raine said after thinking for a moment.

“Exactly.” Damien said. “Take out the Illuminator first in any given situation, as he poses the most danger to us. They are trained to sense and follow us in ways we aren’t even completely sure of yet. Not to mention, they have the highest authority aside from the king himself and that only adds to the threat. Avendan trains them specifically to fend off Shadows.”

He then covered the windows again, and the room became dark once more. “Let’s try moving in shadows again. You still haven’t grasped the basics.”

Pushing the memory from her mind, Raine made her way quietly through the streets, keeping to the sides and away from people’s wandering eyes. She had quickly changed into a plain, dark tunic and equally bland pants and boots in a deserted back-alley, and now looked like just another average person strolling through the streets and enjoying the evening. She made a turn down one of the thin side-streets and continued to move, following the map she had made in her mind. As the path became less inhabited it became dirtier, telling her that she had reached the poorer outskirts of the city.

She looked around, gained her bearings, and continued past the windows and doors of commoner’s houses until she reached one particular building, light streaming out from its large, thick glass windows. It had a sign hanging from the front, a picture of a crow carved into the wood.

She pushed open the door of the Crow’s Tavern and entered, adjusting her eyes and ears to the sights and sounds before her.

Fairly busy at this time of night, patrons were enjoying late dinners and alcoholic refreshment, sitting around circular tables together or alone. No one looked at her twice as she moved through the sensory bludgeoning- the overpowering smells of ale, beer, animal fat and meat and the cacophony of raucous laughter, drunken yelling, and clinking of cheap cutlery and glass all around. In the background, a bard was playing a lute and singing songs related to Avendan’s history.

Raine ignored most of this, gazing around discreetly until she reached the bar at the opposite side of the room.

“What’ll ya have, Miss?” the bartender asked her, a large bearded man with massive ears.

“Is Crow here?” she asked, her lips curled into a small smile.

“Teh, lucky bastard. I’ll jus’ go get the slimeball for ya.” he said, scowling, and disappeared behind the rows of kegs behind him.

She waited for a moment, feigning ignorance at the looks of interest from some of the more drunken men at the bar, hoping that she was doing the right thing. She knew what she was and what her purpose was, but she still couldn’t prevent the guilt from rising in her gut.

Despite everything, she still felt like a traitor of sorts.

The lumbering shape of the bartender returned into view, pulling her from her thoughts. “He says to go on back.” he said.

“Which room?” she asked, already moving. The atmosphere was repulsive, the opportunities to be attacked too many. She walked around the edge of the bar, pushing past people with murmurs of apology.

“Go right to the back, then right. Second door.” the bartender said, already looking away from her and serving a customer.

“Thankyou,” Raine said, stepping over empty kegs and bottles and continuing to the back of the bar. The large room veered off into a thin hallway, its walls littered with dust and cobwebs. She turned right, and then tapped firmly on the second door.

“Come in,” came a male’s voice.

The room inside was as dark and dirty as the hallway, but the candlelight instantly revealed the man in front of her. Undoubtedly older that her, he was thin and lanky, wearing dark clothes that were far too big for him. Black hair lolled in front of his face and as she entered, his expression rapidly turned from boredom to interest.

“Hello there, young lady!” he said, getting up from his old armchair and moving a thin hand across his unshaven chin.

“Are you Crow?” she asked, and his sparkling eyes narrowed.

“I may be, but then that all depends on who you are, Miss.” he said, his musical tone fading.

“Tell me then- which way do you fly?” she asked. Damien had ensured that she remembered everything properly before they had even arrived in the country, but she had only felt the need to actually meet the man now. Her raven simply could not carry the amount of documents she held tonight.

“Holy Gods, really?” The man whistled, impressed. “I fly south to feed and nest in the north.”

Raine nodded. “I have information that needs to be delivered, discreetly please.” she said, pulling out the documents she had stolen earlier and handing them to Crow. He was still staring at her.

“A female Shadow huh?” he said, taking the letter. “Haven’t seen one of those for a while. You must be-” He looked at her for a moment, considering her, “Yeah, thought so. You’re the newbie that that grumpy guy brought along, right?”

“You mean Shadowmaster Damien?” Raine asked. He’s telling everyone that I’m new?

Crow nodded. “Yeah, that’s his name; I remember now. Had a chat with him ’bout a month ago.” he said. He looked at her, intrigued. “So, this for the Guild, yeah?”

“Yes, and I need it delivered as quickly as possible, thankyou.” she said.

He sighed. “Well, you’re more polite than that stick in the mud, that’s for sure. Guess I’ll see what I can do.” he said, resigned. “Don’t need any of your gear or anything?”

“You have my gear?” she asked in surprise. He nodded, a slow grin coming to his face.

“Yeah, didn’t your friend tell ya?” he said, gleaming at the chance to insult Damien again. “Doesn’t surprise me but yeah, he handed in a heap of stuff ages ago when ya’s first arrived.”

So he was his contact- I’m not surprised that he didn’t tell me either. “No, I’m fine. Just deliver that letter, thankyou.” Raine said, and turned back to the door.

He waved his hand dismissively. “Yeah yeah, don’t want the Shadows watching me, now do I?” he said as she left the room.

WHEN SHE FINALLY returned to the magi quarters, a couple of hours had passed and few people were moving around outside. She followed the now familiar path to her room, moving quietly down the hall so as to not wake the other residents.

As she entered her room, she felt her boots crunch on something, and she looked down to find that she was standing on an envelope. She picked it up swiftly, closed the door behind her, and sat down on the end of her bed as she opened it, frowning.

The front of the envelope had her name written on it in curly and exuberant handwriting, and she opened it slowly. The letter smelt of ink and fresh parchment, the sort of smell that reminded her of an old library. She opened it up, reading it in the dim light provided by the candle on her bedside table.

Dear Raine, it read, in the same loopy writing, It has been some time since I saw you last, following our meeting during the Kreshna Desert mission. I dread that you have forgotten what I asked of you during then? I have information that I believe you will find greatly interesting, and I would be most pleased to share it with you. Would you care to meet with me after dinner tonight? You will find me in the Athos Library, Private Study section.

I look forward to seeing you, Lloyd Wetherdon.

Following that was a loopy scribble that Raine assumed was his signature.

Frowning, she quickly reread the note a few times before folding it back into its envelope. Her stomach sank with the same unpleasant feeling of unease that had grown in his presence the first, and last, time they met. What information could he possibly have that I would find interesting? she thought. And would he still even be there, given that it’s so late? He didn’t give me much time to respond…

A FEW MOMENTS later, Raine was pushing open the old wooden doors to the library and stepping inside. She was immediately shrouded in darkness, and her eyes had to quickly adjust to the flickers of light from the burning sconces that sat on the stone walls.

She paused for a moment to take in her surroundings. The air was musty and heavy, and she resisted the urge to sneeze from all the dust. She felt her panic start to rise and she slowed her breathing, using her training to settle her emotions. Nothing to be worried about; he just wants to talk. It’s not like he’s going to attack me or anything. It’s not like he knows anything about me. He can’t- it’s impossible.

She approached an open door, the plaque on it informing her that she was in the right place. Candlelight was glowing from inside the room, and she braced herself as she walked inside.

At first, Raine couldn’t see him and she stared around the room, half expecting someone to jump out as a joke. Then, when no one did, she let her eyes adjust and scanned past empty tables and chairs and full bookcases until she saw someone hunched over a desk at the very end of the room.

Her Shadow training took over and she kept to the dark, walking silently in case the person there was not Wetherdon at all. The person’s back was turned to her and she still had no idea who it was until she walked into the open, passing the last bookshelf. She opened her mouth to speak.

“There you are, Miss Raine,” Wetherdon said, turning his head to look at her, smiling. His eyes were hidden by the reflection of the light on his glasses. “I was beginning to think that you wouldn’t grace me with your presence!”

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said quietly, and tried to smile. “I only just received your note. How did you know it was me?”

His smile grew, the corners of his lips twitching. “Well now, that is exactly what I was deeply hoping to discuss with you.” he said. He straightened from his hunched position over the desk, which was covered in parchments and a single burning candle. “Please, take a seat. I am very glad that you could come.”

Raine sat opposite him. Despite her unease, she felt her curiosity rise.

“So what do you want to talk to me about?” she asked. He sat back in his chair, his eyes finally visible beneath his glasses as he pulled away from the candlelight, and she realised that they were of a bright teal colour.

Wetherdon seemed to be considering her, or enjoying the moment; she couldn’t tell.

“I’ve been contemplating for some time as to how I would explain this particularly…interesting piece of news to you, Miss Raine,” he said slowly, “And still, I have yet to come up with anything that would not shock you.”

Raine said nothing. What could he possibly know? He can’t know I’m a Shadow or a spy; that’s absurd.

“But then, I am sure that you will appreciate a sense of forwardness.” he continued. He moved closer to her, leaning his elbows on the table and linking his fingers together in front of his face. He watched her from over his hands, his eyes glinting.

“I believe, Miss Raine, well actually I know, rather, that you have the capacity to become a Death Mage.” he said.

At first, she just looked at him. Then she frowned.

“A what? A Death Mage?” she repeated dumbly. He nodded slowly.

“That is correct. Well of course you are a Water Mage, that much can be seen, but you also have the Bridge of Death.” he said swiftly and calmly. “And, if you choose to be taken down that particular path, you can become a qualified Death Mage and then technically a Sage.”

“I can’t be a Death Mage; I’m just a Water Mage. I don’t have the Bridge of Death.” Raine said, resisting the urge to smirk. Here I was thinking that he knew about me being a Shadow!

A strange look came across Wetherdon’s face. “Oh yes, yes you do.” he said, still smiling. “Please, allow me to explain to you how I came across this invaluable piece of knowledge.”

He paused and Raine just looked at him, her amusement rapidly fading.

“I have a few pieces of evidence that support my claims, Miss Raine; do not believe that I have brought this to you without proper consideration. Firstly- I can sense it.” He gestured his hands up in a shrug as her frown deepened. “Hardly evidence, I know. But it is a well-established fact that Death and Life Magi can sense their own kind as well as each other. This is more of a survival tactic than anything.”

“But if I was a Death Mage, Chelstra would know. She’s a Life Mage.” Raine said.

“Indeed.” Wetherdon nodded. “But my dear, as I have mentioned before, you are not a fully trained Death Mage. You only have the Bridge connecting you to its powers but you have not… should I say… tapped into it?”

She opened her mouth to question him again but he placed his hand up.

“Please allow me to continue; I will answer all your questions in a short while.” he said, seriousness suddenly gleaming in his eyes. “As I was saying, Death and Life Magi can detect each other. More specifically to your particular situation, Death Magi can sense other Death Magi by detecting their Bridge of Death.”

“You believe that you can sense a Bridge of Death in me?” Raine asked, unable to help herself. The whole idea seemed ridiculous.

“I do not believe, Raine; I know.” Wetherdon said. He paused for a moment and by the time he pushed his round glasses up his nose again, his previous smile had returned.

“Allow me to provide you with my second piece of evidence. You say that you are purely just a Water Mage. It is an understandable statement; the Bridge of Death is very difficult for one to find on one’s own. However, Water Magi do not have the ability to sense élan vital like you do.”

“What makes you think I can sense élan vital?” Raine said, feigning indignity. Her heart was racing in her chest.

As if being able to hear the pounding, his smile grew. “Well, whilst I cannot say that I have any proof towards this, I am almost certain that you yourself have attempted this ability.” He looked at her intently. “Tell me Miss Raine, have you ever realised that someone was near you before you actually saw them?”

Raine chose to say nothing, keeping her expression tight. Truth be told, her mind was reeling. Something in his words had reminded her of her Shadowsight- the visual technique that could allow her to see the shapes and presence of those around her, those that were moving in or partially in shadows. They always appeared as a glowing white light, one that she had automatically assumed was their life energy, or élan vital.

She had seen that light dim and fade away once the owner of it had been killed.

But isn’t that Shadowsight- a Shadow technique? You don’t need to be a mage to use it…

“You seem to be considering my words, my dear,” Wetherdon continued smoothly, clearly unaware that she was starting to panic. “Only Death and Life Magi can sense élan vital, and you are most certainly not a Life Mage. If you were, then I highly doubt that we would be having this conversation. Life and Death Magi… well, they don’t seem to get along very well.”

“Right,” Raine said slowly, doubtful. “So you’re saying that I have the ability to become a Death Mage because I have the Bridge connecting to my mana vital, right? And you know somehow because you can sense it?”

He tilted his head, resting it on his palm, and looked at her with amusement. “You still don’t believe me,” he said with a sigh, still smiling. “Perhaps if you discussed this with another Death Mage; gained confirmation from somebody other than myself?”

“There’s no need.” Raine went to stand, finding that her knees were weak. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that it doesn’t matter. Even if I had the Bridge of Death, somehow, it doesn’t matter. I am a Water Mage, and I am happy with that.”

“What are you afraid of?” Wetherdon asked quickly. He watched her intently as she automatically glanced around the room. The question had taken her off guard, and she did not know the answer. She was as equally concerned that he had detected her fear at all. Why am I afraid?

“Nothing,” she lied. “I just don’t want to be a Death Mage. I’m happy where I am. Thankyou for your concern, though.”

“My initial concern is nothing compared to what it is now, Miss Raine,” Wetherdon said, slowly getting to his feet. “Death Magi are incredibly rare, and it would be more of a sin than a shame to miss this opportunity.”

Feeling more enclosed than ever, Raine quickly moved around the desk and towards the bookcases again, back towards the library entrance. “Then I’m sure that it is my sin to bear, Lloyd.” she said shortly. “Thanks again.”

“Wait, please.” Wetherdon looked at her seriously, and she could see genuine regret in his eyes. “Please, at least consider it. You have no idea how much this could change your life.”

“Alright, I’ll do that.” she said quickly, desperate to get out of the room and away from him.

He bowed his head slightly. “Thankyou. Goodnight then.” he said, his voice heavy with resignation.

“Yes, you too.” she said. She strode from the room, doing her best not to let her weak knees get the best of her.

She looked up at the open door a final time as she moved down the stairs. Candlelight still danced along the walls.

SHE WALKED MINDLESSLY for a while before she forced her legs to slow, allowing the pounding in her chest to subside. The conversation having only lasted ten minutes or so, nothing outside had really changed. She willed herself to appear calm, breathing deeply and repeating her Shadow mantras, and this worked well enough to get her back to her room without drawing attention to herself.

When she shut the wooden door behind her, however, she sank to the floor, her back against the door. She looked slowly at her hands.

Is that how I can sense élan vital? I thought I could because I was a Shadow, but then again, can Shadows even sense it? Damien’s never mentioned it to me before, so maybe I’ve been doing something completely different...

Perhaps it’s not a part of Shadowsight after all?

Her stomach felt queasy. She tried to calm herself, to find reason. But surely one of the Death Magi at Treston would have picked it up; someone would have told me; Wetherdon couldn’t be the only one…

But Wetherdon is the only Death Mage you’ve come into actual contact with, said a nasty, clever voice in her head. Treston’s Death Magi never had the opportunity to take a look at you.

She sighed heavily as she picked herself up, pulled her boots from her feet and prepared for bed. It didn’t make any sense and she did not want to consider the possibilities- it was something that she would think about at another time. Running around and climbing buildings had tired her, at any rate.

She decided, as she climbed into bed, that she would do her best to solve the strange mystery in the morning.

SHE WAS WALKING along a flat pebble pathway, her black silk slippers gliding effortlessly with each of her steps. She passed beautifully cut marble pillars that held up the lattice wood roofing above her, vines with white flowers curling and growing around it. The tailored black gown she was wearing hugged her figure and displayed her perfect curves with open arrogance, cut low and corseted at the front to reveal her impressive cleavage and slitted on the sides to show her long, slim legs.

Any normal man would look twice at her at the very least, but the man beside her couldn’t care less.

He too was dressed in exquisite black clothing, and wore multiple, expensive rings on his fingers. His perfect pale face was tainted by a scowl.

Despite her confident stride, she too felt nervous.

They walked in silence along the pathway, past fields of immaculate grass and gardens and towards an open clearing where marble rose up from the ground into a small amphitheatre. It was divided into quarters by large paths that moved down into a lowered centre. Gentle music was being played from somewhere in the fields around them.

Some of the others were already there, sitting on the marble benches and watching them with clear looks of distaste as they approached. They were all dressed the same- conservative and white, some bearing ribbons or tassels of gold. The man beside her flicked his hair in a careless way and stared back at them, dark eyes void of emotion. She gave them a seductive, cheeky grin as they entered the centre of the circle, standing and facing them all.

“I would not smile so if I were in your position.”

She looked up at the woman sitting on the highest of the marble quarters, and even she had to narrow her eyes to avoid being blinded by the burning light that surrounded her.

“I doubt you’ve been in any of the positions I have, sweetheart,” she drawled, her smile growing to reveal her slightly pointed canines. She lowered her voice. “You’re too conservative for that kind of thing.”

The men and women sitting around them shared looks of anger and outrage and the man beside her smirked. She felt her confidence rise at his clear approval of her words.

“Your arrogance is beyond contempt!” an old man shouted, standing and waving his intricately decorated staff at them. She blew him a kiss.

“Enough.”

His voice boomed from above the steps, overpowering all of the yells and cries of the people. The council silenced immediately, all looking up at where the woman sat.

Feeling the first flicker of fear in her chest, she followed their gazes.

The light around him was brighter than the woman’s- he radiated pure power and it burned down upon them all. From beneath the light that surrounded him, a man suddenly sat tall in a high-backed marble throne that had been carved out from the steps.

She felt his eyes rest on her, and she longed for the cover of darkness more than anything. The man beside her did nothing as he stared at her, choking her with the intensity of his gaze, crushing her with the sheer force of his aura. She stood still but she could feel her bones burning into flecks of dust inside of her.

WHEN RAINE AWOKE, her whole body feeling as though it was on fire, she realised that she was lying alone in her room, drenched in sweat. Her blankets were a tangled mess around her, and one of her throwing knives was clenched tightly in her hand, her knuckles white.

She breathed out deeply and released her grip on the weapon, realising that she had only been dreaming, and looked up at the window behind her head. Sunlight was peeking through the thin slit in her curtains, indicating the beginning of another day.

She pulled herself upright and began her usual morning routines, her dream fading into the back of her memory as thoughts of the night before took hold.

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