Cendril did not feel at ease in the forest this day. There was a mugginess to the air that wasn’t natural and he knew that someone or something was watching. He could see his comrades were feeling it too. Ket’s horse had already tried to bolt off a few times. Haru’s falcon Elidae had not returned from his flight in days, nor had Cendril’s own beast.
“No game out here. Nothing but dying trees. What a waste.” Liulf muttered, his wolf Aibe growling alongside him. Cendril did not disagree, but Chieftain Denyy had given them strict instructions. Scout the area, hunt anything available, return to camp safely.
Like there was any chance of one or more of the group coming back dead. Cendril Tupha, Liulf Bheda, Haru Sahe and Ket Youa were the best warriors of the tribe and they had earned those positions for a reason. Any creatures lurking had better beware.
A branch snapped and immediately the group were on alert. Though their caution was unneeded, for only a blue-gray horse stepped into view, it’s head raised and sniffing the air.
“Now there is a beauty. Unusual colouring, mind, but Gods, what a creature she must be to ride.” Haru commented in awe. Indeed, the creature was not a common one. Most of the horses the tribe owned were bulkily built, trained for hunting and fighting. This horse was slight and agile looking, with a beautifully shaped face and intelligent eyes, a creature that could seem to run forever on its elegant legs, light and free as air.
Cendril had a feeling this horse was no ordinary kind, but kept his awe silent. A horse that unusual looking in a dying land? The odds didn’t match up. But he was never a great believer of coincidences in the first place. All it proved at that very moment is that maybe there was some life left in this forest after all.
“We need to keep moving.” He said, steering his horse away.
Liulf, Haru and Ket all looked at each other before following suit. As they left, the blue-grey horse stared after them, picking at the ground with its hoof and whinnying softly.
Eirene shuddered. Her vision was blurred, like trying to search through smoke. The atmosphere was grey and the ripped robes she wore exposed a lot of her skin to the cool, crisp air of the dawn that was approaching. But somehow she didn’t feel any chill. There was no movement. No sound.
The leaves lay on the ground, once golden and orange, now almost blackened and lifeless. After a deep breath, Eirene stood up from her sleeping spot and saw for certain that she was no longer in the place where she had fallen asleep. Instead, she was on the bank of a lake, covered by the large canopy of branches above. The greyness hovered over it like an omen.
Then a rush of crippling pain surged through her.
Eirene shut her eyes, trying to control the burning that was stinging her head, her eyes, her skin. As she opened them again, her eyes watered upon seeing a roar of fire encircled around her. Through the throng of flames, she saw a girl being burned to death. The screams pierced Eirene’s ears and made them ring and suddenly before she could let out a breath, the vision was gone. She clutched the skin covering her pounding heart.
Another bout of pain came, just as fierce as before. Eirene clutched her head with both hands, willing herself not to vomit all over the floor. She saw a boy falling into the crumbling earth beneath, his cries echoing through the chasm. She whimpered, closed her eyes and began to pray this wasn’t real. When they snapped open again, just as surely as the last the vision, there was nothing.
What was happening to her? Eirene started to feel that there was something more sinister at work, or that perhaps she was going out of her mind.
A strong wind flew past her and once again, the pain.
Her body doubled over and she let out a cry. Her head felt like it was being squeezed at the temples, rendering her even more disoriented than before. She attempted to stand up and looked to see a tornado forming in the sky. Another boy was clinging to the ground desperately by the fingertips, though to avail as he lost his grip and was sucked up into the vortex. His wails grew louder as he disappeared into the darkness, the sound stretching far and wide across the atmosphere. And then the apparition vanished without a trace.
Everything finally stilled and Eirene collapsed on the ground, exhausted, frenzied, confused. Those visions…what did they mean? Who were those poor people who had been fated to events so horrific? The more she questioned herself, the more she felt that her sanity was slipping through her fingers. What she saw could not possibly be real. It simply could not be.
The sound of twigs snapped behind her and Eirene turned around in fright.
A woman came out of the trees. Her hair was white blond, almost the colour of silver and she wore pale green robes. She walked forward and stopped just before Eirene, holding out a pale hand to help the quivering young priestess to her feet. Eirene accepted with hesitance, awaiting the pain to arrive once more. But none came, only the feeling of the strangely calm aura that surrounded this woman filled Eirene’s senses.
“Belief is power, Eirene.” The woman whispered, turning her head to look at the still waters of the lake.
Eirene did not have time to draw breath before the woman pulled forward, plunging them both into the dark, misty waters.
Eirene shot up from her bed of leaves and felt all fright drain through the breath that escaped her lips. A dream. All a dream. High Priest Eldwin used to say that dreams were merely journeys the mind creates, that none of it was ever real. And she believed him, most of the time. Eirene’s mother saw differently, however.
“Dreams can be just as real as we are, Eirene, remember that.” She had said one starry evening when Eirene as a child had been too troubled by dreams to sleep.
“Our bodies, our minds and our souls are merely different realms. If others cannot see what you see, that does not mean it is no less real. Your soul will take you to many places and make you see different things in dreams. We all travel to the similar places, but some will see black and white, some will see colours, some will see shapes and so on.”
Before Eirene slipped into a more peaceful minded slumber, her mother kissed her gently goodnight and whispered, “We are not just born from stars. We are stars.”
Was her mother right? Eirene wasn’t sure whether believing so was the answer she wanted. Because if it was true, her soul had visited a place that had frightened her more than the black rider that had chased her the day before. Her blood then chilled. What if the rider found her now? What if there were more of its kind? Where would she escape to? One grey horse would not be enough to help fend them off. She needed to move to somewhere safer and she needed to find it fast.
Then she noticed that the grey horse was gone and her panic heightened. Where would she go now? A branch snapped and Eirene turned around sharply.
The black rider stood across from her, their cloak hiding their face. Eirene wanted to scream her terror. But no one would hear her. Not now.
The black rider stepped forward and when she stepped back, almost stumbling in fear, they raised their hand.
“Peace, child of Astrum. I will not harm you.”
His voice was commanding, his demeanour calm. Eirene had no choice but to hope he was being truthful. She straightened herself and looked at him.
“Who are you?”
Raising their gloved hands, the rider pulled back their hood to reveal a man. Eirene stared wide eyed in wonder. His skin was the colour of sandstone. Dark green tattoos covered him from chin to scalp, continuing until the patterns disappeared under the cloak collar, almost glowing in the faded sunlight.
The markings were at once familiar and in moments, Eirene remembered when High Priest Eldwin had taught her from his books about the different kinds of markings that tribes and other mystical groups used. The ones on the rider were the markings of the Vesn, an ancient and supposedly mythical order of messengers, who were thought to have disappeared thousands of years ago.
It was said that the Vesn were highly trained in combat and had the ability to teleport anywhere they chose. Their duties and the knowledge they held, however, were mysterious. Although they would often appear to aid individuals of great power, such as kings, queens and army generals, they did also come to individuals with great skill and knowledge also. No one knew if and when they would come, but when they did, the honour was said to be one of the greatest to receive.
But now the honour and the very existence of the Vesn was dismissed as legend. It had been a long time since a member had visited upon these lands, and now that one had appeared before Eirene’s very eyes, she felt she should have been more humbled than astonished.
“You know of my markings, you know what I am.” The rider observed, seeming pleased that she did recognise them.
“I do, but I thought your kind were long dead,” Eirene admitted, “How many of you remain?”
“I am the last.”
Eirene bowed her head. It was a sad thing, to be the only one left.
“Why have you come?”
The rider smiled and said, “I did not mean to frighten on the nigh previous, child, but I needed to speak with you as we are doing now. The world we know is changing very greatly and it is important you understand that there are a great many things ahead of you.”
Eirene blinked, confused.
“Ahead of me?”
“You know of what I speak, child. The stars, they give us their messages as they please, do they not?”, The rider’s smile lessened now, “You know that they speak to us and through us, even if we don’t realise it. I believe your beloved Eldwin frequently tried to stop you from learning of the stars in more detail before you were ready.”
“Eldwin? You know High Priest Eldwin?” Eirene stammered incredulously.
“He was a dear friend.” The rider stated sadly. It slowly began to sink in that one of the people, who Eirene had loved and respected most in the world she had known, was no more. She had hoped he had survived, but it was all for nought. Tears came unbidden to her eyes.
“Eldwin…my mother…” She murmured, raising her head higher to see two birds suddenly fly off into the pale of the morning, their chirps creating an eerie echo.
The rider began to walk closer towards her, putting his hands behind his back.
“They would have prepared you better, but their time was cut short. It is now up to you to learn somehow, some other way.”
“Prepared me for what?” Eirene frowned, “Why has all of this happened?”
“A darkness is rising, child, or should I say returning,” Said the rider, his smile disappearing entirely, “You will not know it by name yet, or what it has done before. But it will pursue you, as it will others like you. You have to find safety first, then you will find the answers you seek.”
Eirene started shaking, yet despite her panic, she walked towards him and looked at him, almost pleading.
“Where must I go?”
“That I cannot answer for you, child, for there are many places you can go,” The rider answered before calling for his horse, “The stars have given you what they have decided to give. Now you must decide what you will do.”
Shaking her head, Eirene whispered, “I do not understand.”
“You will soon enough,” The rider answered. How could he possibly know? Maybe this was what High Priest Eldwin meant about the Vesn being mysterious in their purpose, or how they knew more than the people they aided.
Without another word, the rider mounted his black horse, steadying it as it whinnied wilfully. Before he could take off, Eirene approached and looked up at him imploringly.
“Please take me with you.”
When he looked at her, he saw why he had been sent to guide her. She did not know her strength yet, but she would. He could see and feel it in her being, in her future. The rider shook his head, though a stab of sympathy for the young girl pained him. She did not deserve this. But the stars had decided and like many before her, she would have to learn. The world was not a forgiving place and she was no exception.
“No, child, I cannot. But you will find your way.” He finally answered, though his eyes were sad.
Nodding, defeated, Eirene then asked, “Then may I know your name?
Eirene smiled faintly. It was only name, but it was better than not knowing at all.
“Will we ever meet again?”
“Yes, child. We will.”
And with that, Dricohli kicked is horse gently and steered it away, disappearing into the forest like mist finally lifting in the morning.
Eirene was alone once again and when she was sure Dricohli was gone, she sank to her knees and wept like she had never done before. Sorrow, delirium and confusion came in waves, clenching her whole being until she could not writhe any longer. And there, in the grips of despair she stayed, weeping for her mother, High Priest Eldwin, the priestesses, the people of Astrum. She bent forwards until her nose brushed the ground and tears dripped off her face onto the earth not so far below.
Did her mother and High Priest Eldwin know something they had not told her? How could they have left her so bereft of any skills or knowledge to survive this world she did not know outside of Astrum? How would she survive?
As the questions mounted up in her mind, so did the fear and the sorrow of knowing that the two people she loved most in this world had been taken from her. But with knowing that she was in danger, she had to get to grips with the feelings that were overwhelming her right now. She knew it was the right thing to do. Everything that had happened was past. If she wanted to live, she had to find some will from somewhere, and soon.
The sound of horses suddenly came from a short distance away. Before Eirene thought of running or hiding, she wiped her eyes and stood up quickly. Then from around the corner of the little cove, another rider appeared. This time, the man was not cloaked. He was instead dressed in the garb of a warrior, with daggers and a sword resting in scabbards on his belt. Once he caught sight of her, he stopped his horse.
Eirene held her breath as three more riders appeared from behind him, all men, all dressed in similar styles to the first. A wolf weaved between the horses and appeared in front of them, it’s dark eyes and white jaw proud. Everyone stared at each other for a few moments before Haru, silver haired and a scar above is his right brow, stated, “Well…she is not one of ours.”
Ours? Eirene thought, wondering how many more of them there were. Liulf’s light blue eyes flashed with annoyance and he clapped Haru on the back of the head. The latter man yelped in protest.
“Of course she is not. The question is, who is she and from where has she come to here?” Liulf scolded. Haru looked at his companion menacingly but kept his mouth shut. The first rider, Cendril, kicked his horse forward and stopped just before where Eirene stood.
“Your name?” He asked quietly, taking in the sight of her tattered robes. She was definitely not a traveller or warrior of any kind, that much he could tell.
“Eirene.” Replied the young girl.
Cendril nodded. He was about to ask her another question, but was interrupted by a loud grumble. Immediately, the men leaped down from their horses and drew their weapons. The wolf Aibe began to snarl as it sniffed the air, its eyes fixed forward into the forest.
Eirene looked to Cendril worriedly. He motioned for her to move behind him and she obeyed without question. Her heart began to thump, and then her pulse became hard and painful, making her ears ring. Whatever was approaching through the forest, she could feel it moving, feel its power, feel its menace. Every twinge of muscle and limb vibrated her senses and succumbed her to a fear much worse than any nightmares she had ever experienced. Suddenly, unbidden in her mind, she cursed her mother, High Priest Eldwin and the other priestesses for not teaching her to defend herself. What use was a few spells at a time like this?
The beast emerged from the fog, revealing itself to be a manticore. The horses whinnied in panic, rearing in the air. Eirene should have moved for cover from the flailing hooves, but she was frozen, awestruck by this magnificently dangerous beast that she never thought she would see in her wildest dreams.
Suddenly, the world was brought back into focus and Eirene realised that the manticore was about to pounce. She ran towards the cove and hid under it, while the four men rallied together. The manticore roared and leaped forwards, talons and poison-filled tail glinting, and crashed just in front of the cove as the men steered their horses out of harm’s way.
Cendril drew his sword and eyed the creature as it sniffed and growled angrily at the young woman trapped underneath the rocks. The most dangerous part of the manticore was its tail, a scorpions sting that assured instant death if one was crushed underneath it. If he could only cut it off…
Ket’s horse kicked the ground and the manticore immediately turned round at speed.
“Around!” He commanded, forcing his horse to start circling the manticore. The rest of the men followed suit, Aibe not too far away from them, their own weapons drawn and ready. Cendril knew he had missed his chance. Liulf, Ket, and Haru were apt enough in combat, but not enough to keep this beast distracted for long enough him to make a hit. Eirene trembling under the cove meant she was no use either.
He then thought of Reneiia, his beloved companion. All he had to do was make the call and perhaps – just perhaps – there was a chance of killing the beast easier.
As loud as he could, Cendril made a piercing whistle that carried as the wind came past. The manticore roared again, smashing the ground with its paw, its tail twitching for a target.
Haru made the first move, thrusting his spear forwards and piercing the manticore’s hide. It wailed in pain, suddenly swiping out at Haru’s horse with its tail. The creature reared in fright, flinging Haru from its back.
“Rally!” Liulf shouted, trying to move his horse to a safe enough distance for him to aim his bow and arrow. Aibe was still growling, though keeping also keeping out of the larger beast’s way.
Ket to Haru’s aid, came down from his horse and brought his great shield before the two of them.
Eirene meanwhile started to get her shaking under control. Although she had been so close to being prey to a manticore, Cendril, Ket, Haru and Liulf finding her at the last minute was an answer to her prayers. They hadn’t harmed her, and even though they had every right to doubt who she was, they were protecting her. She wished she could do something to help, to fight back.
Then a mighty screech sounded from above and the sky was engulfed in flame. Disorientated and frightened by the heat and the sounds of battle, Eirene crawled out of the cove, feeling like the small space was swallowing her. She looked up and a magnificent phoenix soared across the skyline, plumage as bright and orange as the burning sun on a horizon.
“Reneiia, now!” Cendril commanded. The great bird screeched again and descended rapidly in one fiery dive. Scattered embers from the phoenix shot out towards the nearby trees and Eirene’s eyes widened with realisation. With the forest catching fire, they would all be trapped. Very few Eirene knew had ever survived wild fire, let alone phoenix fire. But what could she do?
Reneiia screeched again, flapping away angrily in flurry of feathers from where the manticore had scratched and wounded him. Flames began to spread and arise all around Eirene, Cendril, Haru, Ket and Liulf. The horses began whinnying in panic, the manticore howled to the sky as blood poured from deep gashes made by Reneiia’s talons.
Eirene closed her eyes.
Concentrate your mind and your energy, Eirene, and you can make anything happen. Make things move, give other creatures strength, maybe even change the atmosphere around us. Just concentrate…
Even though she had never had any formal lessons in sorcery, this was the first and only rule Eldwin had ever taught her. Whether or not this would work, Eirene knew she had to try. Fire was closing in on them all and as each minute passed, the more men’s faces dissolved into desperation.
She channelled all her thoughts and feelings down one channel, searching her mind for something, anything, that would change the course of things that could come. Her mind cast her back to a memory of a storm that had happened upon Astrum many years ago. Eirene was only nine in years.
The seas had risen and the clouds were a continuously rippling blanket of grey. What had been the wind, had become a raging gale that almost knocked her from her feet. Rain pelted down onto the earth, assaulting it with large drops heavier than any drizzle, cleansing…
Liulf had quickly sent Aibe safely off into the distance, but wasn’t in much better shape than the rest of the men. The manticore had in the meantime managed to swipe him from his horse and leave him with an arm wound. Ket and Haru were jabbing frantically at the manticore to try and confuse it, more than once being so close to being the next victims.
Cendril was trying to control his horse as it bucked and reared on the spot. He had not thought of the consequences due to Reneiia’s fire. This was the price for his moment of ignorance.
A rumble of thunder suddenly sounded in the sky and all motion stopped. The men looked up and as quick as sunlight could reach the earth, clouds of dark grey rolled in, lightning crackling across them in thin white veins. Sound upon sound rolled upon each other in uneven waves, at times meeting together and creating one single wave so powerful that the men’s ears began to ring. Rain began to fall fast, putting out the fire that had been so close to consuming them all.
Sorcery, Cendril thought, with no other explanation to how a storm had developed so quickly. He looked to Eirene and saw her standing outside of the cove, eyes closed and fists clenched. Had she really…
The manticore turned its baleful eyes in Eirene’s direction, as though it could tell what had brought this wild storm. Cendril gripped the reins of his horse and began riding towards her.
Eirene opened her eyes to see the manticore crouching down to pounce. She thought of the lightning above, once again concentrating all of her energy into that single image. Just as the manticore moved into the air, Eirene released the pressure in her fists and down came one stroke of lightning upon the manticore.
Cendril and his men were knocked from the ground and outwards towards the trees. Eirene gasped as the impact also forced her back and upwards into mid-air. She hit a tree and fell downwards onto her back. She should have felt pain, but the noise and the shock numbed her so much that she began to feel herself shut down.
Her eyes began to slide shut as the light dissipated and the storm rolled away, revealing the glare of the sunshine again.
She had done it. She had helped kill the manticore and saved her rescuers from fire. If only she had the strength to get up, but neither her arms nor legs would shift. She laid there staring up at the blue of the sky, where Reneiia was now soaring across the sky, fiery as a comet. She could hear him from the distance and this time, he sounded like a melody, singing triumphantly above the battle they had just won.
What a beautiful sight, she thought, slipping away into darkness just as a pair of hands cradled her head.