Before the dusk came a raging storm: a throbbing, pitiless thunder roared from the clouds. Mirum’s spirit tangled with the fearsome, terrible blizzard that shook the trees and rattled the modest homes of Ironfell.
From within his cell, Xavier sensed the electricity in the air.
Panting, he counted his push-ups in the darkness.
Sixty-eight. Sixty-nine. Seventy. His triceps ached and his mouth ran dry. Seventy-one. He challenged his body to press on. His duty did not cease to loom over him simply because the king locked him away—for he was born to fight. Seventy-two. Seventy-three. Born to protect. Seventy-four. Born to endure. Seventy-five.
Xavier collapsed into a puddle of cold sweat. Drained, he crawled to a trough beneath a torch hanging from the wall, knelt beside it, and doused his face in its lukewarm water before taking a sip through cupped hands. He would have given an arm and a leg to taste fresh rain on his tongue again—anything besides the stale bread served on a wooden tray every other night.
No longer could he identify the foul stench common to this place, nor did he care for the rats that roamed amidst the bars of his cell. Even the ticking of time became imperceptible. Day and night blended long ago until there existed no difference—only an indescribable void of obscurity, detached from the realm he once knew.
The realm that betrayed him.
All that mattered now was the unclean air he breathed. Survival. Persistence. Anything but rotting right where he laid, or allowing himself to be thrown into the oubliette—starving, decomposing, and forgotten.
Breathless, Xavier rolled on his back and shut his eyes. The quiet of this place had long ceased to disturb him, though the silence did allow his tireless thoughts to loop without end. Yet the persistent beating of the storm above land hushed the obsessions clouding his mind.
That is, until a voice spoke from the dark.
It belonged to a woman.
“Guardian,” it said. “Mirum has awoken.”
Xavier bolted upwards. No woman had ever lived in these dungeons. King Oliver never held any intention of allowing a woman to rot in a prison. He would much rather behead her for all to witness. After all, Oliver sat at King Magnus’s right hand to watch his own mother lashed for her infidelities. He was nothing but a boy, according to the rhymes, but he would remember the way his mother broke. The power his father commanded over her. A power he desired.
If there was a woman in Xavier’s cell, she was not supposed to be here.
The torch’s glow barely lit the corridor. It was enough to see that no one was there but Xavier.
Xavier curled into himself, holding his head.
No, no… Not me, too.
Night after night, more and more inmates succumbed to the tempting madness awaiting them in the oblivion beyond their cages—praying for death, even if it led them to the everlasting purgatory of Skünatt or Kyrik’s hellish, arctic realm beneath it.
But Xavier knows that no matter how dearly a man wishes for death, Mikáana will refuse to take their wishes into account.
Five years he waited; Death had yet to come.
“Dusk has fallen,” echoed Her voice.
Xavier spun around and hugged his chest. Softly, he hummed a soothing rhythm, a lullaby his mother sang to him long ago; however, it sounded more like a raspy breath of middling air than it did a song.
“Guardian,” the voice commanded.
“What?” Xavier cried.
A blast of thunder jostled the land, as though a magnificent force awoke and crashed against the sky. Mirum, thought Xavier. A chill tumbled into the dungeon and bit at Xavier’s bare skin.
“You haven’t much time,” spoke the woman. “Mirum is ready. And the Princess awaits.”
Xavier’s head snapped upwards.
A surging wind blew out the torchlight.
Suddenly, something thudded against the stone door at the top of a distant staircase. Xavier’s only way out. A scream pierced the still air.
That could not have been the work of wind.
“Prepare yourself,” the woman ordered.
Xavier hauled himself to his feet by the bars of his cell. His knees shook. This restless night would change him. He sensed this truth deep within his chest, which tightened and rocked with the ill beating of his heart.
The stone door swung on its hinges. Crying out in pain, a guard rolled down the stairwell, choking on what sounded to be his own spit. His outstretched body stilled on the lowermost step.
Blood poured from his chest and painted the steps crimson.
A shadowed figure vaulted into the dungeon, eyeing the trail of blood. He held a lantern in one hand; with his other, he sheathed a sword.
On its hilt was an emerald engraving of a hawk: the crest of the Silver Guard.
Xavier scrambled into the lantern light as the figure’s hand extended from the darkness, tossing a ring of keys into Xavier’s hands.
“C-Caolan,” Xavier breathed. The man’s wild, blue eyes raged like the storm above.
“Hurry,” Caolan hushed. On his tunic was a splattering of blood. “I shall clear the way, best I can.” He slid something clad in a leather sheath between the iron bars. “Your father ordered me to give you this—’tis yours, after all. Waste no time. The moon is rising.”
“Wait,” Xavier coughed. But his friend already turned away and vanished.
Xavier picked up the leather sheath. Out of it slipped a dagger: Xanthus, read an engraving. A smile curled Xavier’s lips. After all this time? The king confiscated and burned each of Xavier’s belongings years ago—at least, according to Isabella. Xavier ran his finger along the hilt of his familiar blade.
Sharpened. Newly polished.
Xavier shook his head. For once, he smiled.
Rüna, may Father and I meet again. I beg of you.
A small chuckle echoed in the cell.
The woman again.
“Go,” She commanded.
Xavier fumbled with the ring of keys. With effort and a bit of frustration, he found the rusty key that fit his cell’s even rustier lock and threw open its door. Dust swam in the beam of light that escaped the open, stone door.
Carefully, Xavier approached the corpse profusely bleeding at the bottom of the stairs. He recognized that face: Dain, one of Xavier’s own private guards. His pried-open armor revealed blood pooling in an open fissure of flesh at the man’s gut.
Xavier could not look away from the ghastly wound.
There be nuthin’ more satisfyin’ than a nice, cool cup o’ water. Or a woman’s touch, Dain once sneered at him. But ye’ll never know that. Will ye, boy?
With disdain, Xavier spit on the bitter man’s body.
Wrong, he persisted.
Stumbling up the stairwell, Xavier found more men Caolan left in his wake, spilled across the stairs with broken bones and wounds to the head. Xavier groped for the wall, staring at the rivers of blood before him with unfocused eyes. Almost immediately, he vomited last night’s bread at his feet.
Xavier followed the light before him, hauling himself forward with a thirst for the world stolen from him five long years ago—
“Here he is!”
A force slammed into Xavier from the side.
Effortlessly, Xavier knocked away the man’s helmet and threw him against the stone: it was Dain’s brother, Joscar—they had the same protruding nose and full cheeks, their faces red from mead and ale. Xavier reached a hand around his throat and wrestled him to the wall—holding the sharp tip of his knife to Joscar’s throat.
A toothless grin spread across the guard’s hard face.
“Go on—kill me, boy,” he taunted. “Ye were nuthin’ but an exile when ye walked into these halls. Not a killin’ bone in your body. Cryin’ like a babe, ye were. Beggin’ for food—beggin’ for your father.” Fury enflamed Xavier’s emerald eyes. “Ye couldn’t kill me if ye wanted to, dülŧag—.”
With every ounce of his boyish heart’s maddening rage, Xavier sunk his dagger into Joscar’s chest. The man’s eyes widened as he choked on dry air. That filthy word rested on his lips. Say that again, Xavier dared with his eyes. Call me a dülŧag—see what happens.
See the man you have made me become.
Sharply, Xavier spun the blade into Joscar’s heart. Spluttering blood, Joscar howled and fell to his knees, his eyes slowly glazing over. Xavier grabbed him by the hair and forced Joscar’s gaze to meet his own. At last, he could spit into his face and give the man what he deserved from the beginning. Xavier prodded Joscar’s body down the stairs with his bare foot, and it tumbled away, landing on Dain’s corpse.
For a moment, Xavier puffed his chest, cherishing the triumphant breath that filled his lungs. Yet the peace he expected this victory would yield never came.
Now he trembled. Shit. Madly, he rubbed his hands on his clothes, cleaning away little of Joscar’s blood.
No, no, no.
I did this.
This is the man I have become.
Without another glance, Xavier ran.
“C-Caolan…,” he tried to call. His stomach lurched; bile rose in his hoarse throat. His own voice became lost in the whirring wind of the oncoming storm. “Caolan—help!”
Xavier caught the sight of the graying sky and threw himself forward, collapsing into grass and gagging up anything left in his stomach. He waited for the fresh, wet air to heal and replenish his lungs. The world spun and swayed like a boat. Heavy drops of water cooled the back of his neck. He grasped onto the soil beneath him to steady himself.
Soil, he processed. Grass. Rain…
All painted crimson, as though freshly doused in blood.
Xavier raised his eyes to the night sky to see the moon risen high among the stars—eclipsed. A night sky claimed by the blood moon.
Like on the night we ran.
Two hands pulled him to his feet by the shoulders.
“Damn it, Xavier—move!” Caolan swore. He hauled the lethargic Guardian to his feet, dragging him towards a dense patch of woods while supporting his body. The warden’s raven cawed behind them, fussing over the smell of death that wafted from the gates of the Iron Keep.
Xavier’s legs struggled beneath his weight, as though he was born anew in the filth and grime of that stifling dungeon. Tripping over roots beside Caolan, he fell gladly into the shade of the forest and hid in the shadow of a thick trunk. Trees, Xavier sighed. Never have I seen such green trees in all my life. What a beautiful color… He rested against the bark, gazing upwards at the stars cloaked by massive storm clouds. Straight above him rose the brightest star of them all.
The rain sprinkled his dry, cracked skin. He thrust back his head and opened his mouth wide, welcoming the cool water into his parched throat. As though the heavens opened their greatest well of mercy upon him and allowed him to drink up their forgiveness.
Caolan knelt before Xavier and took his shoulders.
“Xavier,” he sighed. “Can you hear me? Xavier?” Caolan shook him until their gazes met, before slapping Xavier across the cheek. Xavier thrashed out at Caolan; his shout, however, came out as a sort of croak. Caolan eyed Xavier’s cheek. “Come, now, what have you done?” Caolan tilted Xavier’s head and wiped away a trail of blood running down his jaw. Xavier wrung his bloodied hands. ”Is this your blood?”
With time, Xavier shook his head.
Caolan looked concerned. “You killed a man?”
Xavier tucked his knees in his arms and hid behind them.
He felt misplaced in this body now that he had left the Iron Keep. This body belonged to a man, but this mind knew nothing more than boyhood.
A gentle hand took hold of his shoulder.
“You did what you had to, Xavier,” said Caolan. Xavier never answered. Caolan looked down. “Time is not on our side. The gateway closes as the eclipse fades.” A rustle in the bushes startled Xavier to his feet. “Shh,” hushed Caolan, walking toward the brush. A horse nearly black as the night stuck his neck into the open. Caolan tugged him into the clearing, and a second horse followed. “We ought to make haste, Xavier.” He rushed onto the back of his horse. Xavier, however, could not believe what he saw: Lady, his chestnut mare whom he rode from the age of eight to thirteen, stood before him. With her snout, Lady nuzzled Xavier’s neck. Xavier could not help but allow tears to surface as he climbed onto her back. She recognized him still.
Perhaps he was still the boy from years ago. Not only the prisoner, the dültag, the murderer—but the boy Guardian.
“Ready?” called Caolan, turning his horse around. “You told me once you remembered the way.” Xavier nodded, raising his eyes to the sky. The blood moon sat at its peak of visibility, drenched in what legends say was Kildred’s sacred blood. Opening the gateway to Skünatt once again.
Now the time came for Xavier to retrieve something lost.
Xavier led the journey ahead. He and Andria had studied the route to Alargon’s Pass dozens of times before the night they fled. It was a perilous path, one he was certain he could recall once more. In time, he began to conquer his sluggish lack of coordination, and his muscles finally began to settle as he sat atop Lady. Adrenaline still pumped through his veins.
Not once did Xavier let go of his dagger, its blade still tainted a deep red by his first kill. Xavier could not forget the sight of all the blood. All of it flooding from Joscar’s twitching body…
Xavier shook his head and moved on.
Soon, Xavier led Caolan into a breathtaking chasm: two grand mountains towered above the forest and blocked the sky, and on either side of them stood high, thick trees and colossal cliffs covered in frost. The rain turned to a light snowfall. The air bit at Xavier’s bare skin: his filthy, tattered peasant shirt and thin pants had turned brown over the years and acquired numerous holes in them.
“Here,” said Caolan. He lunged forward and pried open his large satchel, retrieving a fur coat and wrapping it around Xavier’s broad, shivering frame. “Can’t have you die now. Not after all this fuss,” he joked. Xavier chuckled, too—an airy joy he hadn’t experienced in a long time.
They linked arms and braved the wind side by side.
With time, the gusts of wind died down. An unequivocal peace fell upon the land. Snowflakes delicately embedded themselves into the boys’ hair. Reaching a narrow pathway dividing an icy brush, the chill ceased. The storm subsided.
Xavier eyed the many four-toed prints littering the path. They did not belong to any wolf. Without warning, something poked its head out of a clump of bushes. Xavier jumped and pointed his weapon at it. He scanned it up and down: a brown coat, dotted with white. Small, pointed antlers that zigzagged toward the sky. Big, black eyes.
“Don’t,” Caolan said, dismounting his horse. “An Alden doe shall not harm us.”
Xavier eased himself off of Lady’s back, landing safely on the ground with his eyes on the delicate thing that trotted into the light. Why is she all alone? Xavier wondered. He had only ever seen them traveling in families. They would graze together in the forests beyond the bridge to Aramore. They never trusted him, but they always trusted Andë. She would have nuts and fruits ready to feed to them. Her trusting, gentle nature so mirrored their own.
This doe, however, approached the boys without fear. She knew no better than to trust in strangers, as was the case for all animals that roamed the untouched paradise of Alargon’s Pass. She shook her speckled coat and stretched her neck to sniff the blood on Xavier’s tunic, blinking her big eyes right at him.
Xavier only itched to break her fragile neck.
How simple it would be to skin the meat from her bones. How full his stomach would be once he ate her in the light of the blood moon…
Xavier hung his head.
I have gone mad, he decided.
Sickened, Xavier stomped at the doe. She reeled back on her hind legs and bounded back into the thick brush.
Caolan spotted the familiar change in his friend’s eyes—a wild, uncontrollable shimmer he had only ever seen when he brought Xavier his single meal every evening.
“I have bread,” he said. Xavier looked away, but not for long. When Caolan retrieved a roll of bread from his satchel, Xavier stood attentive. “One half for you, one half for me.” Xavier snatched his piece from Caolan and scarfed it down in no time like a hungry wolf.
The mere sight of Xavier so hungry stirred Caolan’s sympathies. Without hesitation, he handed his portion to Xavier. At first, the young Guardian shook his head.
“Take it,” insisted Caolan. “You need it more.” Xavier eyed the bread in his hands. He ate it with much more care than he did the first half. With time, he pushed himself to speak.
“I… owe you s-so much,” he uttered.
“Please,” Caolan said. “You are like my brother. You owe me nothing—understand?”
Xavier kept shaking his head.
“Fine. If you insist on payment… I fully expect you to repay me with half a roll of bread.” Xavier chuckled. “That is more than enough, aye? ’Tis settled then. You better remember.”
Xavier wanted to speak up once more, but he knew he would make no difference. Caolan had made up his mind.
As they climbed higher, the snow beneath their feet melted into frost. The friends did their best to steady one another on the unstable slope, but nothing stopped them from slipping. Their steeds battled uphill, nudging the boys forward. Xavier’s nose and cheeks numbed in the cold. A bit farther, he willed himself. Then the oasis shall warm you.
A ghastly noise like swords scratching against stone sounded from above them. Caolan pressed Xavier into the snow, pressing his finger to his lips. Xavier lifted his head ever so slightly to see the warden’s ravens circling above them—hunting them.
With great care, Xavier and Caolan took their time sneaking to the crest of the slope. Caolan gawked at the sight before them: a wide clearing of healthy, green grass that reached their waists’ height, littered with flowers and rich soil from an oasis sitting at the heart of the meadow. This was a completely separate world.
The two largest mountains of Alargon’s Pass—the Mountains of Dawn and Dusk—rose high against the night sky. Perfectly between their peaks rose the blood moon.
“Rüna,” Caolan gawked. Xavier cleared a way through the grass until they set foot upon the oasis’s rich soil, where he knelt to locate the small bunches of glowing bellflowers. “Flowers of immortal light.” Xavier nodded. These were flowers of legends, blessed by the sun and moon and native only to the most sacred of places in the kingdoms—places Rüna herself blessed; places the first Kildred walked himself.
Again, I walk in my famed ancestor’s own footsteps, Xavier mused. He scoffed at the thought that Kildred watched his every move, guided him amongst his own mistakes. Perhaps he chuckled at the chaos Xavier would make himself. Either way, it would mean Xavier was not alone.
While Caolan’s horse drifted into the brush, seeking apples with which to preoccupy himself, Lady laid by the bank of the water. The horses could not swim their way into Skünatt, but this water was safe to drink, and fresh fruits adorned nearby trees. Lady would make it. After all, Alargon himself was the man to tame the first horses of Aramore. His spirit would keep her safe. Xavier hugged Lady around her neck, and she nudged him again as she would when he was a boy. Long ago, he came to understand her gestures as a language. Do come back, he imagined her insisting. It has been so long. You must feed me and wash my coat. Your sister never cleans my hooves properly.
In her black eyes, Xavier found his own reflection. He saw a man in there. Not a boy.
“I will come b-back,” he whispered to her. His smile felt foreign. Brushing her one last time, he left Lady’s side and stood at the edge of the breathtaking oasis, whose depths faded into oblivion below. Years ago, he and Andria saw the pond transform from crystals into countless, dazzling rubies. From water to blood.
“What awaits us down there?” asked Caolan. Xavier peered into the water, remembering not only the slimy creatures that wrapped around his ankles, but also the fears brought to reality—pieces of memories and nightmares, like shards of a perfect, vile reflection. A reflection he could not withstand as a boy. A reflection that forced him to let go and swim back the way he came…
“Dread,” he said. Purgatory. Hell.
Caolan heaved a deep breath before wading into the blood-water. Xavier followed: the temperature hampered him from walking any further without a breather, sending cold chills like knives up and down his skin. He shivered terribly. With abrupt urgency, Caolan took hold of Xavier’s arm; he did not take his eyes off the abyss before them.
“Rage against this cruel abyss,” Caolan quoted with eyes closed, “and you shall be met with peace.” A pang of memory shocked Xavier: that was a passage from King Alargon’s own journals detailing his journey into Skünatt. Into purgatory. Andria read the entire account aloud to him in their secret library spot years ago. Still, he remembered the old king’s chilling words of advice. Caolan completed the famous stanza: “Only he who surrenders to the endless void shall surely drown.”
Xavier shut his eyes.
“Andria made it as a girl.” Caolan shook Xavier’s shoulder. “We certainly can as men. We must not surrender.”
Xavier wondered if Caolan had forgotten how fierce Andria was. Girl, boy—it mattered not when it concerned her. Regardless, he nodded.
You stay by me, Xavier said with his eyes. No matter what.
Caolan smiled and returned a nod.
Without warning, the sky fell down.
Something swiped at Xavier’s nape, scratching into his skin. The whir of black swooped upwards as quickly as it dropped down. The Warden’s raven. Its talons scratched him badly: his wound left a narrow trace of blood that matched the surface of the lake.
“Dive!” Caolan bellowed. He plunged beneath fresh waves just as the creature descended upon him and narrowly missed him with its claws.
As the raven soared, Xavier met its cold and fiery stare.
Panicked, Xavier submersed himself. The rushing sensation of icy water struck his congested nose, and he thrashed and sputtered at the surface. In the corner of his eye, he eyed the bird as it launched itself straight at him, its claws held before it, ready to gouge out Xavier’s emerald-like eyes.
A pair of hands seized Xavier’s shoulders.
“Hold your breath!” Caolan howled before forcing him beneath the surface. In an instant, the frigid water enveloped Xavier’s body. His discomfort no longer mattered—there was no turning back. He blinked furiously and dove further as his bellflower opened in full bloom and shone a light as brilliant as a candle flame. Xavier lunged forward, gripped Caolan’s arm, and swam into the murky, crimson limbo below.