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Time's Will: Eyes of Phire

By carlislephoenix1 All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Horror

Blurb

College junior Patrick Martel completes all but the final day of Officer Candidate School. On that last morning the Marine helicopter he is on never returns. The catastrophic wreck kills all five of Patrick's friends and he is left in a coma, hovering at the edge of death. When Patrick does wake up all is not well. A demon wakes up with him, the kind that claws at Patrick’s mind and appears like a wraith in the shadows. This personification of Patrick's inner pain blurs his perception of the world and challenges his sanity. His internal battle against the darkness becomes an outward quest in a world of castles and magic, to not only face his demon, but discover the flesh-and-blood girl who can help him destroy it. Layered with rich allegory and parallelism, Time’s Will: Eyes of Phire takes the decidedly human fight for purpose and hope in the face of great pain and transforms it into the brutal but heroic story it truly is. Time’s Will: Eyes of Phire is a 101,231 word New Adult, Fantasy Adventure novel. It is the first book of a planned four part series. I have had several short stories in this genre published in the Ink Slingers 2015 Anthology: Doorway to Discovery. I have also

Chapter 1

Time’s Will

-Eyes of Phire-

By:

Philip Carlisle

Copyright © 2016 Philip P. Carlisle. All rights reserved.

Timeswillbooks.wordpress.com


Dedications

To the past:

You hold my muse, frozen in time and immortal in memory. A point of reference in the infinite space. A kindred heart, an opposite in a dance cut short. Like sudden gravity she altered my path through the cosmos, irrevocably. None do you hold that afflicted me with emotions so great or violent.

To the present:

You hold the aids to my pen. Those who lend thoughts and efforts to my task as it pours out. Few and far between they are but all gave when requirement did not command their action. Chief among them my mother, steady, confident, and willing to deliver needed words. My thanks to all.

To the future:

You hold my hope. In you the words I write will burn bright or burn up. A place of countless hearts I do not know and one I yearn to meet. Faceless though she may yet be, I am pulled ever forward to see what burning my work may become. Regardless of which, I pray its light shines on her face.

To eternity:

You define the Almighty One. Whose power of creation I wield as a steward, and whose heart I hope to have pleased.

When the body has a time of no purpose, we call that time rest. When there is no need to labor, a man may find peace in doing nothing. How different it is with the heart. A heart with no purpose is a most terrible affliction and no rest is found in that stillness. Without something – nay someone to live for, someone to work for, someone to wait for, someone to yearn for, the heart is crushed by a weariness it cannot long endure.



Chapter 1

The Angel

Patrick Martel’s bright umber eyes misted over as the UH-1 helicopter lifted out of the Virginia forest. The thrill of just completing Hell Week for Officer Candidate School countered every pain his exhausted six foot four frame currently suffered under, including a broken toe and dislocated wrist.

Ten weeks earlier he had been a normal college student slogging towards a degree in Health Sciences. Now he would be a Marine Officer upon graduation. Five other men, college students just like him, filled all but one of the six other seats in the Huey helicopter.

All heads were slumped forwards on their packs as each man finally could let his guard down. The nervous young crew chief Stephen Le Faye seemed more concerned about not disturbing the six beat down candidates around him than he did with his own breathing. He sat to Patrick’s left keeping both arms pinned in his lap to avoid even touching shoulders with those around him. Patrick guessed him to be no older than seventeen.

He drew in a breath to tell Le Faye he could relax but the helicopter gave an unnerving twitch and Patrick let go of his com button. A curious vibration now buzzed in Patrick’s seat and wriggled up his spine. The tickling sensation would have made a great massage were they not a thousand feet in the air. Now it only made Patrick’s neck tighten and a clammy sweat prickle his forehead. He depressed his intercom switch again.

“Captain Matthew do you feel—” The chopper lurched to the side and Patrick’s head slammed against the bulkhead with a crack. One of the tail rotor blades sheared off and the three foot piece of sharpened metal tomahawked towards the single turboshaft engine. Armor-less, the transport’s skin yielded to the projectile without a fight.

“Hydraulic failure. I have no response in the pedals,” Captain Matthew shouted. “Quantico tower, this is Rutledge One—”

The radio feed cut out and the control panels went dark.

“Le Faye, keep those boys in their seats back there. Le Faye?”

Matthew twisted around, looking for his crew chief among the six officer recruits he had in the back seats but the helicopter lurched to the side and whipped his neck forward. The crying screech of metal on metal drowned out his words as the engine belched smoke. The disintegrating turbine now played the role of a machine gun, riddling the cabin with shards of hot slicing metal.

“Ellis, auto rotate now. Go to auto rotate,” Matthew called out. His co-pilot lay slumped over in his seat, a fan blade stuck out the back of his helmet.

Patrick heard Matthew’s shouts, but the shriek of the engine destroyed the Captain’s words. Black smoke, so thick it felt fluid, now sprayed into the cabin. The helicopter yanked sideways and a blast of wind cleaned out the burning haze but threatened to drag every man out the open doors. Another cry rang out in the din from Patrick’s left. It wasn’t the captain this time. This one held panic.

“Bayern, hold on,” Patrick yelled.

He dove across the floor of the helicopter, straining for his comrade who had tumbled from his seat. Their fingertips only grazed and Patrick watched his friend flip out the open door. Bayern’s body gave a sickening crack when it struck the top of an old tree before vanishing into the leaves below.

More shouting from the pilot turned Patrick’s stunned gaze from the merry-go-round view out the door to the crew chief, Stephen Le Faye, as he slammed into the roof. Le Faye went limp and his foot hooked under a seat. One by one, the violet spinning ripped Patrick’s friends towards the gaping door. Each one, screaming, tumbling, grasping for the slightest hand hold. Patrick’s free hand found a pant leg here, a backpack strap there, even a hand for the briefest of seconds, but could never hold on. Doan, Nyquist, and Kane, all slipped from his touch and vanished into the fast approaching forest. The last man, Titus, caught the side of the door and his wide eyes met with Patrick’s.

“Don’t let go Titus, hold on soldier,” Patrick shouted.

The spinning bird wreaked havoc on Patrick’s outstretched hand, flopping it about never letting more than a fingertip graze Titus. The dying chopper pitched onto its side and the force peeled Titus away.

A twang coursed through the air as one of the main rotor blades shattered against a tree. Le Faye’s unconscious body unhooked from the seat and slid toward the door. Patrick screamed with fury and abandoned his one hand hold. He could not watch another man slip past him. Praying for a miracle, he lunged for Le Faye and caught the Navy Seaman by his boot but both continued to careen towards death. A final fan blade from the shredded turbine shot through the roof and pierced Patrick’s leg. The foot long piece of jagged metal played the role of savior and pinned him to the floor of the helicopter

The swirling chaos around him grew dim and darkness crept in around his sight. A pop followed by fiery pain exploded in his shoulder when he tried to pull Le Faye back inside.

“Stephen,” Patrick yelled. “Wake up…help me.”

Ground and trees rushed closer and Stephen’s limp head hung under the skid. Patrick took one look at the bloody metal shard sticking up from his leg and clamped his jaw shut. He let go of the strap his hand had found and the flesh of his calf bore both his weight and Stephen’s. His right shoulder was dislocated but with his free left arm he yanked Stephen out from under the skid. A claymore of glass exploded as an army of branches shattered the cockpit. Patrick threw himself on top of Stephen as the helicopter slammed into the ground. The nose crumpled like tinfoil while splintered rotors slashed at the dirt. The aircraft cartwheeled in a cloud of smoke and dust before grinding to a halt.

Patrick’s hacking lungs brought him back to consciousness. He spit the blood and grit from his mouth and tried to push himself up. His right shoulder buckled and he collapsed back on to what he thought was the floor. A terrible pressure filled his head and made his sight flash with lights. The helicopter rested on its side with its floor and roof now serving as the walls of little box. Patrick hung by his impaled leg like some cannibal’s prize on the now vertical helicopter floor. Stephen lay a few feet below him on the ground but still within the helicopter.

“Stephen, wake up. We need to move, wake up.”

A hissing crackling sound turned Patrick’s head and what blood he had left ran cold. The first yellow tongues of fire danced to life in what remained of the mangled cockpit and dead pilots.

“Stephen, can you hear me? You have to get up!”

Stephen groaned and rolled onto his side. The fire continued to spread but Stephen didn’t move again. Patrick thrashed against the piece of metal that now threatened to kill him, but it held fast to his leg.

The heat of the fire filled the helicopter and the sickening smell of burning flesh assaulted Patrick’s nose. Captain Mathew and his co-pilot’s bodies were hissing and popping—Patrick’s fate while still alive if he didn’t get free. He sat up, gripped the metal blade,, and drove all his remaining strength through his good leg. This didn’t remove the piece from his calf, but it did unseat the shrapnel from the helicopter. The five foot fall punched him between the shoulders. Wheezing and nauseous from pain, he staggered to his feet and threw Stephen’s arm around his shoulder.

“Let’s go buddy, you got to help me here. That fire isn’t going to wait. Can you climb up the seats?”

Stephen groaned a response and set a limp hand on the first sideways seat. Fire claimed the cockpit along with the pilot’s bodies and oozed out on a sheet of oil below Patrick and Steven. Bit by bit the pair worked their way up and out of the helicopter with the fire licking at their heels. Together they threw themselves out the open side of the Huey and staggered away from the burning wreck. A few yards away Patrick screamed, staggered, and collapsed. His pant leg shone red and a sudden dizziness swam in his head. The sight of trees and sky above him grew farther and farther away and the sun stopped making any light. Stephen’s shouts echoed around him but they sounded so quiet now.

“Patrick, don’t go to sleep…Patrick….Patrick…”

****

The sound of a woman crying snapped Patrick awake. She had her face buried across Patrick’s chest and sobbed into her arms. She withdrew when Patrick pushed up onto his elbows. A little crimson flashed on her cheeks. Her brilliant emerald eyes were swollen and shone with tears but Patrick could not pull his gaze from them.

She wore a burgundy sweater, jeans and a fine necklace bearing the most brilliant blue sapphire Patrick had ever seen. Radiance seemed drawn to her. Light shone around on the edges of her clothes and on her long chestnut hair like a powerful lamp was behind her. But the only light source was the noonday sun filtering through the trees. Each tear that clung to her chin twinkled like a star, as did the sapphire she wore around her neck.

“Why are you crying?” Patrick asked. “Did someone hurt you?”

“I apologize for my tears. I didn’t think this would be so hard. I came to thank you for what you did, and because the doctor said talking to you might help.”

Patrick sprang to his feet and brushed the leaves and dirt off his fatigues.

“Why? What doctor? I’m fine.”

“See? And thank me for what?” he asked.

The young woman’s face didn’t brighten. She kept looking down at Patrick’s feet. His gaze followed and then his heart stopped; the turbine blade still ran through his calf. It caused him no pain but sticky black blood stained his pant leg and boot. The charred helicopter crash sat a few yards away but was dark and cold. Patrick stammered while pointing to his leg and to the helicopter.

“How…what…”

“Okay here goes…I’m Jayne Le Faye,” the woman said. “Stephen Le Faye’s sister. I came to thank you for saving his life. You will be glad to know he survived and only because of him did they find you. He does have a broken ankle and some burns but they are not serious. He told me what happened…how he had been invited by the pilot to go with them to pick up the OCS recruits. Then about the crash and how you pulled him from the burning helicopter. I thought that stuff only happened in movies. Oh…I’m guessing you already knew this but no one else survived. Maybe it’s better you are like this for a while, it might be…somehow easier to learn that later.”

Jayne sat back on her heels and wiped a fresh flood of tears from her eyes. Patrick’s face went ashen and the light drained from his eyes.

“I could have saved them. I should have saved them all, but I…wait...We’re still in the forest. Quantico is twenty miles away. How can you be here?” Patrick said.

“But we can’t talk about that awfulness,” Jayne Continued. “I’d be an absolute wreck if five of my friends died all at once. Okay, my idea is a story. I love fantasy stories, especially the classic hero and heroine tales. You are just a college student like me so let’s make the main characters be college students. I’ll be Sapphire and you can be Tatric.”

“What are you talking about!” Patrick shouted. “I like stories as much as anyone, but this doesn’t make any sense at all. What is going on? Please answer me.”

Patrick grabbed his head as a surge of pressure made it pulse with pain. He groaned and slumped down against a tree. Jayne knelt in front of him and laid her soft hands over Patrick’s. Her touch drove the pain back and Patrick’s breaths began to slow.

Jayne smiled and out from behind her shoulders spread a pair of transparent wings. They rippled like flags in the breeze and seemed to be half mirage, half physical. Their deep amethyst color flickered with tiny bolts of red, green and blue like the feathers were some strange dark opal.

“I hope you like your name. I’d let you pick it if you could,” Jayne said.

“Yeah...Sure. The name is great.”

All Patrick’s attention was fixated on the glittering feathers. He stopped his out stretched hand inches away and his eyes asked Jayne if he could continue. She nodded and moved her wing to touch Patrick’s finger willingly. She gave a soft giggle when he stroked the long flight feathers from base to tip. Her other wing tip reached forward as if it were a finger on a hand. The plumage pushed Patrick’s chin up until he looked her in the eye.

“I go to school at Jay University in Southern California,” Jayne continued, “and have often pretended it is a magical world. Promise to not tell anyone. I keep that a secret along with my Tinker Bell movies under my bed.” She gave a playful smile and continued. “Let’s start with where I live. On campus it’s a boring apartment complex called Lancer Arms. But in this story, I live in a castle in the Mountains of Sal-Marcern. That’s Lancer Arms with the letters all mixed around…I love anagrams. Anyway, come with me. It’s just over that hill.”

Patrick nodded with his mouth gaping. Jayne’s wing pushed it closed before she took his hand again. Jayne led the way and Patrick followed a step behind at her side. With each stride a pulse of warm wind caressed Patrick’s face and a strange sensation gripped him—this little walk over the hill was not what it seemed. He was traveling somewhere but it wasn’t caused by the steps he took.

With each passing moment his perception of the world shifted ever so slightly. The trees seemed taller and stronger and there were a new kinds Patrick was fairly certain didn’t grow in Virginia. Jayne’s wings came and went in the light of a richer sun and little flowers bloomed at her feet as she walked.

They crested the small ridge and Patrick’s mouth dropped open again. The rolling Virginia forest ended and a mountain valley spread out before them. Colossal snow-covered peaks drew Patrick’s eyes up and made his legs weak.

“You…you live in the mountains?” he asked.

“I’m a sorceress of sorts in this world and being such I can’t live just anywhere or in only one place,” Jayne said. “In the spring and summer I spend time in that little house with the tower by the river. See it down by the bend? The bedroom in the tower has the best view of the sunrise you can imagine.”

The walk into the mountain valley washed away every sensation of familiarity from what Patrick’s senses brought him. He was no longer in Virginia that was certain. Jayne kept moving towards the river but Patrick paused at the tower and laid his hands on the cool stone. Flowering vines snaked over every block and colored the structure with glittering blue petals.

“I can’t help but think of Rapunzel looking up at this. So you’re a sorceress in this story or dream or afterlife or whatever this is. What does that make me?” Patrick asked.

A violent concussion of sound rang out from the sky before Jayne could answer. It was like some invisible giant had hit the world’s biggest kettle drum in quick succession.

“Yes, I know,” Jayne called out towards the sky.

“What was that?” Patrick asked rushing back towards her. “I need information, anything. Please, am I dead? If I am and you are the angel who is supposed to take me somewhere that’s fine. But please answer me. Say something Jayne!”

Jayne just stared up at the southern mountain range and the embankment of black clouds that crept over its peaks. She whirled around and smiled when Patrick came up to her.

“Let me tell you about my castle next…that is where I live most of the time. Maybe one day you can help me with part of it.” Her slender hand pointed high up the northern mountainside. Only a pair of black stone turrets and one balcony managed to peak through the pine trees. The castle seemed built into, rather on the mountainside.

“That is my real home. Up there I have a magical bathhouse, a library, and a bedchamber to die for. What I need help with right now is deciding what enchantment should guard my bedchamber. Something sweet and pretty? No, no that would tempt people to go inside. That’s my job. I know, a dragon face seal. It would burn into the wood like embers and roar if someone bad came too close. Maybe your quest will bring you there.”

“My quest?” Patrick asked.

“Time is short, Patrick, I can’t stay much longer. But I want to finish this bit of the story because it fits so well with what you are going through right now. Every story needs a quest the hero goes on, something that motivates him and allows him to push through the darkness.”

Jayne’s eyes then turned back to the boiling storm clouds that now blotted out the sun. They rippled with lightning and a coldness filtered through the valley. A clap of thunder that sounded eerily like a laugh to Patrick detonated in the black clouds. Jayne’s wings flashed open and hatred glared in her emerald eyes. The stone tower and house collapsed to a pile of smoking dust as more thunder made the ground tremble.

Her defiance melted into bitter frustration in a few seconds. Her wings drooped and she gave a cry, stomping her foot. .

“This feeling of powerlessness to help is breaking my heart,” she said. “I’m frightened for you. I don’t know how the story ends. It could—”

Another thunder clap exploded and the black clouds rushed down the side of the mountain like an invisible dam had burst. Its rolling form bristled with thunderbolts and tore across the valley floor. The deafening blast of wind that preceded the onslaught tore feathers from Jayne’s wings and ripped both her and Patrick off their feet.

“We need to find cover,” Patrick shouted. “That is going to cross the river in seconds and—”

His voice trailed off as movement caught his eye. It was high in the clouds above the mountain peaks. Jayne fought to her feet and rushed to get in front of Patrick when she saw it too—a figure in the storm. He dwarfed the mountains and filled half the sky with his cloaked form. A gold veil spanned the opening of his hood and reflected Patrick and Jayne’s image.

“What…what is that?” he asked.

“I can’t stay much longer…please fight, Patrick. Fight!”

The avalanche of black storm clouds crossed the river and hit them both. Jayne blocked much of the force but feathers poured off her wings and her body began to grow transparent. She turned her back to the onslaught and drew close to Patrick.

“Our story has to end now, but you must keep fighting,” she said.

A renewed blast of the storm destroyed her and nothing but swirling darkness surrounded Patrick—darkness, and the unyielding stare of the Gold Veil. Pain shot back into his leg. His shoulder popped back out of joint and every cut and bruise from the crash hit him all at once. He crumpled to the ground as the dark figure above him grew more terrible.

Images of Patrick’s friends sliced in and out of the blackness. The cries they made hit Patrick with force. A metal bat would have done less damage. Each blow not only broke flesh, it struck Patrick’s heart with a darkness far greater than that which surrounded him. The poison of despair leached in and took hold. The world had no use for Patrick, he was nothing but a cosmic joke whose impotence had killed five men.

The Gold Veil seemed to cackle from every direction as Patrick collapsed to his knees and tore at his own hair. The form of a gun materialized from the darkness and Patrick snatched it up. He drove the rifled barrel to his head and gritted his teeth. Tears poured from clenched eyes as his finger touched the trigger.

“God save you. My hero.”

Jayne’s voice echoing in the air broke Patrick’s heart and his hot tears flowed even more. The gun still drove into his temple but his finger came off the trigger.

“I’m not a hero,” Patrick sobbed. “I’m nothing, I’m no one.

The heaving cries rattled Patrick’s chest as he curled up on himself. The attack of the Gold Veil did not cease. It redoubled. Patrick screamed in pain and his one free hand clawed at his chest. The finger returned to the trigger. Again it began to pull. A bitter coldness filled his body and death felt like the warmest of friends. The hammer on the gun began to quiver but a touch warmer than death’s promised relief fell on his hand. Jayne. She had not returned physically but the sensation of her hand on his put the horror he was under to shame. Then a kiss landed on his forehead. With the yell of battle, but not yet victory, he hurled the dark gun away. The Gold Veil held its attack constant but Patrick could now endure. For curled up and beaten down as he was, he now held an amethyst feather tight to his chest and it wouldn’t let him die today.

****

The rapid unsteady beat of a heart monitor filled the ICU room at Quantico Hospital. A young woman in a burgundy sweater gripped Patrick Martel’s hand and pulled her lips from his hot forehead. He lay silently on the bed, eyes taped shut and a breathing tube down his throat.

“God save you. My hero,” she whispered.

A knock on the doorframe turned her head around.

“Jayne, are you ready now? This is going to cut your flight close.”

“Sorry, Stephen. I had to stay a bit longer.”

“Come on. Mom and Dad are waiting back up in my room. You were in there quite a while. What did you say to him?”

“I told him a story is all.”

“How so?”

“I made up a classic hero-on-a-quest-to-find-the-heroine tale. Used my Cal Jay campus as the skeleton for the world. I imagined he would be the type to enjoy that kind of a story – even if he was hoping to become a Marine. Didn’t get to finish it though…”

“Jayne, you know the doctors said he’s…brain damaged. The chances he heard anything you said are…I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say things like that.”

Jayne’s chest heaved and she burst into tears.

“I know…I know he is hurt bad but I thought if I told him a story from my heart he could…hear me with his heart and that would help him to…to keep fighting.”

Stephen dropped his crutches in the middle of the hallway and took his sister in his arms.

“Yes…yes I am sure he heard you. You got through.


Chapter 2

The Letter

It was day eleven at my new college. Three months had passed since I cheated death at the Quantico Hospital. I stood in the no-man’s-land of the school cafeteria, just outside of the serving area but not yet among the tables. Several other students were trapped with me. Their heads bobbed and craned. The shorter ones pushed up on their tip-toes looking for that elusive person they may know. I snagged the first empty table I saw.

I drew an envelope from my book bag and slapped it down next to my plate—something forwarded to me from the college in Tennessee I had transferred from. My name, Patrick Martel, handwritten in swirling cursive, intrigued me but I didn’t recognize the sender. Jayne Le Faye.

Everything in my head was darker now, memories included. One often hears stories of people coming off near death experiences with a fresh vigor for life. Maybe there is a delay for some people. My psychiatrist said the anti-depressant/anti-psychotic medications I was currently on would help but might make my thinking a little foggy. So far they’d only done the later and made me twitchy. When I woke up from the coma, a cloaked figure with a gold veil stood in the dark corner of my hospital room. My doctor said I screamed something about “her feather”. Then I broke the cast on my arm in a panic when the feather wasn’t in my hand. I sleep with a hall light on now.

My phone chirped and I let out a groan—another text from the mother. I knew she had nothing but my best interests in mind, but she can’t kiss this scraped knee and make it better. And she didn’t know the half of it.

Everyone I ever knew, family included, have always had this haze around them in my mind. It’s a little like that sensation you get when someone knows you, but you aren’t quite sure who they are. I felt I could only half see them. They were behind glass to me. The one exception to this was the five men in that helicopter…who I let die. Now the pane that separated me from the world was smeared with the blood and soot of that crash and even harder to see through.

I fired off an “I’m hanging in there” reply and stuffed my phone deep in my satchel. The mystery letter from this Jayne Le Faye came with me as I went for a milk refill. I tossed the envelope in the trash and brought the single page back to my table. I moved all my trays away and wiped off the table before setting the letter down. I couldn’t help but smile as I smoothed out the fancy old-fashioned paper she used. It looked like I had received a letter from an angel written in swirling cursive on a faux-cracked page illuminated with dark purple feathers. It was so beautiful I didn’t start reading right away. At least I told myself that’s why I hesitated. In truth, part of me didn’t want to know what it said. What if I couldn’t recall this girl?

It was from the sister of a man I had saved in the crash. I did recall doing that, though his name had fallen through the rather large cracks in my mind. She wanted to thank me in a manner she knew I would understand. I suspected she felt a little embarrassed as she recounted how she had sat at my bedside for several hours and told me a make-believe story. I found it sweet. She even called me her hero for saving her brother. Can’t say that didn’t make my chest rise a little.

Then the clouds shifted and waves of shadow poured in through the cafeteria’s glass wall. I felt him before I saw him—the cloaked figure with the gold veil I had seen in my hospital room. I had seen him several times since then and was always preceded by an unnatural shadow. Like a hologram, he flashed in and out of sight within the darkest points all around the room. Fear heated my skin but froze my heart and I couldn’t move.

Each time he appeared, a burst of my past flickered like a movie projected onto smoke in the air around him. Bayern slipping from my fingers, Titus looking me in the eye before his grip failed, the co-pilot with the blade through his head, me walking away from the Quantico Hospital medically disqualified from the Corps for life.

Each replay was a wasp set loose in my chest. I had been acting lieutenant that final week, those men died on my watch.

“Honor your friends’ choice to get in that helicopter. To claim responsibility for their death is to steal from them the dignity of their freely willed decision.”

The words of my psychiatrist tried to challenge my devolving thoughts, but they had no effect. The verdict of guilty smothered me like a waterboarding towel.

Solid sunlight returned and the Gold Veil vanished but I continued to unravel. I didn’t lift my head up until I was outside and seated on a flower planter.

The Gold Veil flashed again in the shadows by the theater and drove me from my spot. I charged across the quad and out onto the school’s sprawling front lawn. I sat under the protection of a towering oak tree and let the pain run down my face. How could I have been so weak? I should have been strong. A Marine Officer is strong.

I balled up Jayne’s letter and heaved it out in the grass. Hero…that was the last thing I was. My stomach twisted on itself and I stood to throw-up. A comforting coolness hit my face before I did and a purple feather came flowing on the breeze. It was agonizingly familiar to my eyes and I had to follow as it danced away. A crackle under my feet broke the feather’s magnetic pull and I looked down to see Jayne’s letter. A tinge of guilt hit me as I picked it up. I shouldn’t have damaged it like this. I glanced again for the feather. It was gone. Vanished or carried beyond view, I didn’t know.

Only after I got back to the tree did I wonder why that feather had been so captivating. I knew I had said something about a feather when I came out of the coma but that didn’t help me. I blew it off and decided to finish reading Jayne’s letter. I skipped over the hero part and started where she mentioned the story again. She used the words “our story” to describe it and I couldn’t help but smile. I had never been a part of any girl’s story. My smile turned sober the more I read. She expressed a deep worry she had for me, a fear that even after I woke up I would still be hurting.

“The hero’s fight is never quick and painless. He cannot win by shear strength alone and always requires others to aid him,” she wrote. “I don’t want to be forward or assume things are dark for you. I really hope they aren’t. But I wanted to offer you the chance to write to me if you think that might help. Say anything that is on your heart and I will listen. Or if things are great, write for fun. Maybe we could continue our story.”

I didn’t feel much as I set the letter down, maybe a slight warmth on my face but that could have been the sunlight. Then the warmth came a little stronger and washed over my skin like it was carried on a breeze. As strange as it sounded in my own head I thought the letter itself gave off that energy. Its rhythmic pulses kindled a second thought that smoldered for a few minutes then suddenly burst into clarity.

My heart flinched and I felt the first hit of adrenaline course over me. I fought against the excitement that tried to grow—to be suckered by false hope now would only make things worse. To confirm I was not imagining things, I re-read Jayne’s letter a second and third time. Each time that feeling remained, or perhaps I should say a certain feeling remained absent. That isolating haze the crash had thrown up around me didn’t cloud Jayne. I felt no “glass” between me and her.

She was still a stranger to me but hope had settled on her. I got to my feet and took the first few steps from the front lawn towards the post office. A cold realization halted my feet. I turned her letter over and over. No return address.

I turned back to campus and found myself almost running by the time I reached the cafeteria. I swiped another meal off my card and wove through the thick crowd to the trash by the milk. The envelope dripped with melted ice cream. A pain bit my stomach. It seemed I had allowed more hope to grow than I had planned to.

A few people slowed and stared at what they must have thought was a freak digging in the trash. No one stopped. The Gold Veil shimmered to life in the corner and the sound of the disintegrating helicopter engine grated in my ears. It felt like punishment for coming back. I gritted my teeth against the pain and took the soggy envelope to an empty table. A vice seemed to clamp down harder on the back of my neck for each second it took to wipe off the chocolatey slime. When I did, the world ground to a halt.

I hadn’t salvaged her complete address, only a single line. An uncontrollable chuckle rattled me as I looked at the three words again and again. California Jay University.

Of all the universities out there, I had been led to hers.


Chapter 3

Green eyes

I leaned back in my cafeteria chair. My cold, half eaten sandwich was pushed aside as the bustle of students swirled around my lone table. Jayne’s letter flipped over and over in my fingers. Every few seconds I glanced down at it to make certain I had read it correctly. I had. Jayne was here, on this campus, right now. That meant I had to do something about it… but what was the question.

How does one find a girl you only met while half dead?

My coma after the crash had been the result of blood loss not trauma, so I had no speech, vision, or muscular deficits. I took this to mean my brain had not been complete mush while she sat at my bedside. It must have picked up on her presence in some manner. Maybe I would recognize her voice or what perfume she preferred. That thought turned up a rare smile on my face. This could turn out to be the ultimate treasure hunt.

The oppressive chatter of three hundred students and their clanking dishes wouldn’t let me think further so I headed for the door. The dirty tray drop-off created a bottle neck that I had to wade through to get to the lone exit. As I bobbed and weaved I randomly caught the eye of a girl as she opened the door for her friends. A rush of familiarity hit me but dissipated just as fast. Only one thing stuck.

Eyes! Green eyes. Jayne, the angel, had green eyes. Wait, why did I just blend her and that angel notion? Where did that come from?

The girl’s gaze darted away from mine and she ducked out with her friends. I still shuffled along with the traffic not sure what to make of my reaction. Could that have been Jayne? I didn’t see any recognition on her face.

My internal questioning screeched to a halt when a puff of pine scented air hit me. The exit I had at last reached should have led to the campus breezeway, and yet grass was under my feet and mountains towered around me. My body locked up, as if stillness would help me comprehend what I saw. I moved only my eyes as they took in a small house next to a river a few dozen yards away. Attached to the house rose a stone tower glittering with blue flowering vines. What looked like a single room with a door-less entry adorned the top. Dark wooden shingles made a softy angled roof that overhung the little balcony which encircled the room.

Jasmine vines adorned the arched opening and the view seemed to be looking due east. My eyes turned that way. The dark serrated lines of the mountains dominated the pewter and gold dawn for a final second after I looked. In a flash the most brilliant sunrise I had ever experienced leapt over the suddenly humble looking range. Golden and white, it blazed above the jagged peaks but even such glory did not force me to turn away, only the intrigue of the tower and its mystery room did. With the deliberateness of a tightrope walker, I moved down the hill to it and laid my hand on the cool stone.

“I’ve been here before…” I whispered.

Even stranger was the river of college students that still moved along through the valley as if nothing were amiss. It was like the school grounds had been replaced and only I could see it. Or only I could see it because I had a massive head injury not three months prior.

A quiet voice on the air cut off my thoughts of getting more brain scans. It had sounded like my name but I couldn’t trust my brain to even know which way was up at the moment. Again the gentle word floated past me and my ears directed my eyes towards the house. A tall girl with long chestnut hair leaned against the home’s stonework corner. She was stationary in contrast to the flow of students, dressed in dark denim pants and a maroon cardigan. Her eyes sparkled with an impossible green shine, as if they were made of real emeralds.

Another tinge of familiarity seized the back of my mind, but for the life of me I could not place where I had seen her. She held me with her gaze as her hand lifted up to her lips and blew a kiss my way. I didn’t dare breathe as I watched a shimmering wave, tinted the same pink as her lips, ripple through the air and wash up on my cheek. The meager amount of oxygen I had left in my lungs squeaked out as the warmth of her kiss soaked in.

My weight shifted forward onto my toes and my eyes glided shut. The angelic sensation flooded my body with a tingling warmth, like hot water on chilled skin. It was glorious but showed me how cold inside I had become. When I opened my eyes the girl had turned to leave. Before she vanished around the side of the house, she looked back. The call to follow could not have been louder. Yet before I could take a single step the wood paneling obscured her. Everything snapped back to normal. I stood in the college breezeway, the door to the cafeteria was behind me, and the river of smartphone carrying, earbud-plugged students flowed around me. My hand still held my cheek. I could feel the wetness of her kiss on my fingers.

Something crashing into me dislodged the kiss from my mind.

“This is not a place to stand, bro. Move it,” the offending student growled.

He went back to his little screen before I could offer an apology. I heeded his words and made for the nearest door. My hand touched the metal handle but leaped off it of its own accord. An instant later the pain of a burn stung me. I jumped back from the door looking at my palm for any blistering but the skin was undamaged. When my eyes turned back up a gasp far louder than I expected squeaked out of me. The rectangle of glass and metal was gone. In its place arched a great wooden door, illustrated with carvings of rose vines and carnations. It wasn’t the flowers that scared me, but the moving face they surrounded. It was a face made from what appeared to be burning coals – the face of a dragon. It lacked the typical horns and scales, and I imagined it would be soft to the touch. This gave me little comfort, less in fact than if it had that devil serpent look. My soul was in danger here as well as my body. I felt under inspection by this dragon, as if he was searching my heart and could see my intentions. His gaze drew a cold haunting sensation out from the deepest part of me, carrying every secret I ever held towards the scrutinizing light.

A student opened the door from the inside and pushed passed me. My trial before the dragon ceased, or was put on hold, I couldn’t tell. My mind was unable to stay long on the question as past the door was not the expected hallway to Chick-fil-a and the coffee shop. My eyes had only the time it took for the door to close to register all this, but I swear I saw a woman silhouetted in the darkness. The twinkle of a bright sapphire gem hung around her neck and bathed her face with the faintest blue light. When the door did close, it was bland metal and glass again. Beyond it stretched the expected hallway.

When my hand touched the bar again and felt only coolness denial blasted me. I had to fight this, my sanity was already splitting because of the Gold Veil. If I allowed more I may never recover. I rushed past the line for Chick-fil-a, willfully pining my hands at my side so they wouldn’t start clutching at my head. More brain scans. Yes, I needed more of those for sure.

I wound up on the front steps of the university, leaning against one of the thick Roman style pillars. My psychiatrist’s number called to me from the phone in my pocket. As I made the first move to sit down, intending to take the phone out, movement flashed in the corner of my eye. My hand snapped from my pocket and I darted to the side. As I did, a line of sight opened up between two of the pillars. There stood the green eyed girl. Her gaze snared mine perfectly, as if she knew when and where I was going to look. The narrow opening between the columns closed like a shutter as I couldn’t halt the momentum of my step. By the time I scrambled back the other direction, she was gone.

Seeing her had been so brief I couldn’t even tell what clothes she wore, not even their color. I didn’t recall if she had been smiling or solemn. All my mind held was her eyes, shining, peaceful, and kind. Their beauty made everything feel alright. More than alright, the world was as it should be and I should not be alarmed in the slightest.

A sudden peace let my heart beat free of the tension that had plagued it and my lungs felt they could get a full breath. I couldn’t think of anything but her on the way back from the front of the school to my dorm. My eyes focused on every rustling tree, followed every leaf that blew across my path, anything that might signal she was about to reappear.

The ten minute walk came to an end and I had not seen her again. That peace I felt moments ago shattered and a pit where my heart used to be replaced it. Clouds blocked the sun and I knew my isolation was about to end, but not in a good way. I crumpled into the porch chair and slammed my eyes shut. His veiled face still burned to golden life on the back of my eyelids like a burning light had scorched my sight. Flashes of Quantico exploded next. Visions of my team, the only men my age I ever cared for, struck in sharp succession. Bang! Each one, a face, getting into that doomed helicopter. Bang! Each one closing his eyes as I screamed for them to wake up. Each one my fault.

In my delirium, a woman’s voice echoed.

“God save you, my hero.”

“Yes, God save me,” I cried. “God send the angel back.”

Why I called out for the angel I didn’t know. My heart had jumped to Jayne. But it still felt like the most natural thing to say.

God withheld his kindness from me and nothing happened. The torturous visions ceased but I still sat slumped in my chair like a pummeled prize fighter. The Gold Veil lingered in every shadow, a mocking spectator to my pain. His form blended with the darkness and flickered in and out of clarity.

The movement that caught my deadened gaze was so small I never should have seen it. Perhaps I did because I was now so small, so devolved, so reduced. It was a little spot quivering in a puddle made by the sprinklers on the sidewalk. I pushed myself up and my head screamed in protest. The doppelgangers of the Gold Veil hissed in anger like an arsenal of hornets in the darkness. They caught the evening light on their shining veils and raked my eyes with flashing darts. The throbbing headache doubled but I could not sit back down; I knew what was making the water quiver. With one eye clamped shut and the other half open, I staggered to the puddle’s edge. The little bee thrashed about with all his might but such tiny legs could do nothing against what had snared him. His wings were stuck to the water’s surface and could not pull away. Death from exhaustion or suffocation would be his, alone and cold in the dark. I knelt down and put a twig out for him to grab onto. He scampered up it and his happy wings shed the water with a powerful buzz. His first attempt to fly found him back in the water. So did his second and third. Each time I got him back on the twig and by the fourth time he allowed me to try and run him over to the flowering shrubs by my cottage.

“I have to ask what you are doing.”

My surgeon like attention on the bee broke and I looked behind me. A petite Asian girl with a Hello Kitty shirt and red Converse shoes looked up at me.

“Oh, hi. Yes this must look silly. I am rescuing this bee…oops.” I bent over and scooped him back up on the stick.

“Aww that’s nice of you. Most people step on bugs when they see them.”

I set the bee-laden stick on a flower and stood back up.

“Yeah that does make me sad to see that. They are just harmless little creatures. I’m not a “save the whales” type, but I can’t walk by these little guys and not help.”

“That is a good way to live I think. I’m Monique, by the way.”

“Patrick, nice to meet you. Do you live in the cottages?”

“No, I’m in the freshmen dorms but I was heading back from seeing my friend here.”

I gave my best smile and tried to keep both eyes open despite the pulsating pain which still throbbed in my head.

“I…” The Gold Veil collapsed back into a single large form and swooped across the sidewalk behind Monique. My eyes couldn’t help but follow him. When he merged back with the darkness on the side of my cottage a burning flash from his veil caught me square in both eyes.

“Are you okay? Did that bee sting you?” Monique asked.

I gave my eyes a hard rub for a few seconds then forced them both open and tried to give a grimace that said “annoyed” instead of “dying”.

“A headache is all. Just hit me a little while ago.”

“Oh no, do you have some aspirin? The sooner you take it the better I have found.”

“No I don’t, but I will be okay. It’s not super bad.”

“I have some at my room. If you want to walk back with me I can give you some. I know I have the worst time sleeping with a headache and they often get worse before they get better.”

I didn’t imagine something as simple as aspirin would help, but I would try snake oil at this point so I agreed.

“How’s your semester, Monique?” I asked as we left the cottages behind. “I’m a transfer so I have already did my freshmen year in a high rise dorm at my old school.”

“Heading off to college was a little scary to be honest. But it’s been going okay so far,” she answered.

“That’s good, it took me a lot longer to make friends that I could go visit my freshman year. I never really felt I did.”

Monique didn’t look up as we started to cross the basketball courts. It seemed like her backpack had just gotten twenty pounds heavier.

“But I’m sure you will do better than I did,” I added. “It might take a little more time than you would prefer, but it will get better.”

“Yeah…” Monique said. It was more of an empty exhale than a word, but I heard it.

The final few hundred yards to Simmons Hall went by in silence. The clack and beep of Monique’s I.D. Card restarted the conversation.

“Boys are free to be on the ground floor but not in the hallways right now. I’ll be right back,” Monique said.

I took a seat by the one unused ping pong table and tried to draw in a full breath. The other two and the pool table were in use. My body still ached but the Gold Veil had chosen not to follow me here. The squeak of the hallway door opened up my eyes. Monique dropped a pair of white pills in my hand and handed me a Yoda shaped cup of water.

“Thank you so much. I like the cup too,” I said. “Any plans for this evening?”

Monique plopped down in a fat chair opposite me and swung her backpack into her lap. It was about as big as she was and I could only see her eyes over the neon green fabric. She blew out another sigh and strained to yank a thick textbook from the bag.

“I have a biology test tomorrow. I was supposed to go study in the cottages with some people from my class but no one was there. The suite mate that answered the door said they had already finished studying and were going to see a movie. Guess they forgot about me. So I wasn’t really coming back from seeing a friend like I told you. Sorry.”

“Oh dear…that does sound like it would hurt. But I’m sure you will do fine on your test. Studying alone is helpful too.”

“Not for me. I’m already failing the class and it’s really making my parents mad. Hooking up with a study group was my professor’s idea but I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

Monique’s almond eyes misted over as she flopped open the large text on her lap.

“You know, I’m a pre-med major. Biology is one of my strong suits. I’d be happy to spend some time with you. I think we have till midnight until I have to leave the dorm.”

“Oh you don’t have to, I know you have a headache. Maybe college is just not for me.”

“Nonsense. Anyone who is awesome enough to have a Yoda cup can tackle biology. Tell me what chapters you will be tested on tomorrow.”

I moved my chair next to hers and held out my hand for the book. She handed it to me and that twenty extra pounds on her shoulders started to lessen a bit, as did the pain in my head.

“Eleven through fifteen and then heart anatomy only from chapter four. Here is the study guide also.”

“Perfect. With Yoda to help us we will get you ready for tomorrow. Let’s start with the major units of nutrition.”


Chapter 4

An Answer

I have a strange relationship with isolation. I want to be left alone most of the time, but left alone while in a crowd. I found this helped my depression to a small degree. The more life I see around me, the less I have to focus on how little I currently possess. This often means headphones in at some eating establishment. The music gives me a blanket of security and control. No one can say I am hiding in my room and I retain the ability to interact at the level I wish to and with whom. The world around me feels half real. The people in it are encapsulated with doubt, like they are possibly holograms without real substance. I think this is why it is so hard to interact with them and why I connected with my fellow Marine candidates. The brutality and rawness of Officer Candidate school stripped away the doubt that surrounded their realness. I knew they bled like me.

This odd form of therapy found me surrounded by the bustle of the school coffee shop at its peak. However, chamber music through my headphones kept my desired level of separation intact.

You have to find her.

Yes, I know. Quiet, please.

My mind was being persistent today. It didn’t seem to know my preference for interaction with others on my own terms. It wasn’t like I had forgotten about Jayne. I thought about her every day.

However, in the two weeks that had elapsed since those…those magical intrusions, I never settled on a way to think about her. Every time she came to mind I generated a different view of her nature. Having seen that Green-Eyed-Girl had further complicated things. Like the notion of the angel, I could not separate Jayne from the Green-Eyed-Girl either. To my heart all three were the same person.

Maybe this was my fractured mind’s way of remembering Jayne. She could look just like this green-eyed-girl for all I knew.

You have to find her.

Yes, I know!

I slammed my human anatomy book shut and stuffed it back in my satchel. I had no where to go, no one to talk to, and I could feel my mind start to slip into a deeper darkness. It is at those points, when there is no task at hand, that I feel the least in control of my mood. A flash of burning gold hit me from the inside of my eyes and I felt myself fall.

It’s my impression that my darkest crashes don’t change my outward appearance that much. At least it has never generated a reaction in any of those around me. My body stayed upright and kept walking, but my mind had lost its footing. Another flash of that awful light from a dark corner of the theater building pushed me from treading water to drowning. The Gold Veil didn’t have to show me anything specific this time to generate my descending spiral. My heart felt crushed under sandbags and life itself crumbled into infinite absurdity. I labored to tell myself I had been in this place before and emerged intact. Like all those times before my self-talk fell on deaf ears.

I staggered from the café to the planter with a large sculpture of the school’s class ring on it I strained to draw in enough air to free my heart from the burn of suffocation.

My vision flickered with bright pricks of light and I felt my head start to swim. The clammy sweat on my neck suddenly flashed cool as a breeze picked up. The soothing touch cleared my sight and I saw an amethyst feather drift by me. It went towards the library and appeared to pass right through the front door. My depression leveled out and my chest felt it could get enough air to at least not pass out.

I did have a little work I could do at the computers so I followed the feather up the stairs. I already spent fifteen hours a week in what felt like an old closet as a research aid for one of my professors, but now the Library felt welcoming, promising even as I strode in.

It was well past seven and only the most desperate or overachieving students were left. None were at the computers. I dutifully scribbled my John Hancock and the time on the sign-in sheet and moved to set the clipboard down. Just before I realized it, a panic seized my arm like I was about to something horrible and didn’t know it. A moment later my conscious mind caught up and I yanked the clipboard back from the table top. Three names above mine a line of unmistakable characters jumped off the page: Jayne Le Faye.

The looping beauty of the letters held my gaze until I realized what was also written next to them in plain print. Her check-out time: 8:11pm. I whipped out my phone. 8:20pm. A girl had walked out of the Library right as I started up the steps. I passed inches from her. Could that have been Jayne? I didn’t think to even drop the clipboard as I ran back outside. Students milled around the quad and filtered in and out of all the buildings I could see. After nine minutes she could have been back to her dorm or in any room of the surrounding buildings. She could also be any of the girls I saw from my small vantage point.

My eyes darted from one to the next praying something would hit me as familiar, but nothing did. The excitement of the moment evaporated and weakness replaced energy in my legs. I went back inside and let the clipboard clank back onto the little desk. This felt like being toyed with. Jayne wasn’t here and even if she was, what on earth was I supposed to do about it? Yes, she asked me to write her back, but not stalk her around campus. For all she knew I was back at my other school. What would she think if I suddenly walked up to her in person?

The air in the library felt thick and I made the long walk back to my porch. I collapsed into the deck chair and let my head fall between my knees. I could be inches away but never find Jayne and these attacks would never cease. The horror of such a future did not strike softly.

I paced between the little columns of my front porch warring inside myself to maintain hope. Death could not be the only solution. I let my face smack against one of the rough wooden poles and tried to think of only the air going slowly in and out of my chest. A few students turned down the sidewalk that ran between the facing row of cottages and I collected myself for a few seconds. I leaned on the pole with my shoulder rather than my head and hoped my closed eyes made it look like I was only thinking.

Once their chatter faded, I drew in a gasping breath and stumbled back to my chair. After just a few seconds, an anger-fueled energy shot me back to my feet. My pounding steps made the surging pressure in my head worse but I didn’t slow down. I ripped open the door of my little pickup truck and tore out of the parking lot.

I had no plans, no place to go. Where does one with no purpose go? My mess of random turns, blasting acceleration, and screeching stops ended in front of a bookstore by the mall. Pure reaction dictated what I did, and in a few minutes’ time I had a new book in my hand. A little self-awareness returned and I decided my purpose was to read for a bit.

On the drive back to campus, I paid the price for disregarding my head before. My brain felt like it had swelled and my skull had shrunk. A bomb of pain would fire off if I did not hold perfectly still. On top of that, my ribs felt fused and I had to labor for every sip of air.

If one can “limp” to help his head and chest not hurt, I did so from my truck back to the deck chair on my dorm’s porch. The book I had gotten turned out to be a dark fantasy romance that opened with a failed prison escape from a demonic wizard. I felt envious of the characters and the distinct purpose they appeared to have. Even the suffering of the hero right from the start didn’t make me doubt his eventual success. I knew he had to struggle. That was how the story went.

When I expressed that idea, that faith in his future success, I felt a flicker of positive energy in my body. It went up my spine and into my head, triggering the first feeling of a coming answer to my pain. It was like the sensation of knowing something but having to pause and work to pull the fact from the cobwebs of your memory and bring it into focus. A rush of excitement and relief flooded over me as that clarity began to increase.

“Patrick the man! Look at you with that thick book. Ever play hacky-sack?”

The overly peppy shouts of my Resident Assistant Luke shattered my inner thoughts.

I frantically snatched at the “answer” but it slipped through my finger tips and sank away. My heart felt like it had burst. That was my last hope and I dropped it, like a priceless jewel down a filthy drain.

I wiped the burning onslaught of tears off my eyes and tried to look up at Luke with a face that didn’t scream, “I want to give up.” Thankfully he stayed on the sidewalk and didn’t come up to my porch. I gave a few fake coughs to make sure my voice wouldn’t crack when I gave my answer.

“Hey ma...man, yeah once or twice.” It didn’t work.

“Cool, me and some guys are going to play on the basketball courts in a bit if you want to come? I bet you’re really good.”

I held up the book I had.

“Thanks for the heads-up. This is pretty good right now, but if gets boring I will probably head over.”

“We’ll be out there around nine this evening. Hope to see ya there.”

I couldn’t be mad at Luke. He had been a friendly R.A. since day one. That was his job though. I appreciated his efforts but it wasn’t what I needed now. What I needed had green eyes. I started reading again, hoping to lure that “answer” back to the surface.

After a few more chapters and no success, breathing really became work. With that stress came the wrenching twist of reality. I really was on a precipice. This dive into my own darkness wouldn’t end. If I fell in now, I would sink for eternity. Death felt more welcome than that.

What I looked like to any passers-by was likely awful. I hoped I came off as maybe sleepy, maybe daydreaming. I knew I wasn’t moving much. The book dropped from my hand and a tingling numbness leaked out over my body. The more the pain and pressure in my head grew, the smaller and more transparent I felt.

The world around me went blurry and the sounds of distant traffic seemed to move farther away. The cottages opposite me melted into nothing more than blurry blue and white blobs and the trees and bushes congealed to the same smear of greenish-brown.

So this is what losing one’s mind looks like? That and it makes the air smell like lilac perfume. The sweat on my skin made that fragrant wisp feel so cold, chills rippled over me. The icy jolt forced my eyes to focus, but I didn’t see the cottages and trees. I saw “her”. At this point I felt so outside myself even her presence didn’t create a sharp response.

I didn’t know if my frayed mind was trying to see Jayne, the angel, or the one with green eyes. I didn’t fight to separate them; this woman was all three. The nonsensical logic of a dream held sway. I both saw her standing across the way from me in the present moment and watched replays of each time I had seen her before. She stood by the tower in the mountain valley, then in the darkness beyond the dragon faced door, followed by when she had been inches from me between the pillars. This was like being there again, within those memories, watching each moment in real time, including all the sensations that came along with it. When she vanished for the last time behind the pillars, the proper sight from my cottage returned. This did not include her. When I realized her absence, frustration and anger surged to life again in my chest.

Why did the horizon have to be so bleak? Why couldn’t it be a great mountain with a vast enchanted forest at its base? There, that’s better. I like how the mountain has that distinct tree line and the black rock streaked with snow on its top. Wait what?!

I sprang up from my chair and rubbed my eyes. Just behind the row of single story cottages in front of me towered a great mountain range covered in a vibrant forest. Had I just commanded it into existence? As I stared, new trees burst from the ground and the forest expanded. The tree line raced towards me and began to engulf the other cottages. I could smell the fresh pine as the wind flowed onto my face. Then another wisp of lilac joined it. Motion at the tree line drew my sight. There she stood, her green eyes smiling at me.

A glistening silver cloak hid her figure but I could see her blow another kiss. I watched it glide along the wind like a butterfly made of shimmering heat waves. This time it didn’t land on my cheek but danced around my head and returned to her waiting hand. A mischievous smile crossed her lips and her head gave the slightest nod to follow. I obeyed as fast as I could, but after my first step everything snapped back to normalcy.

I braced for the descent back to that dark pit I had been in moments before but nothing happened. I felt strangely held up in some way. Not only that, a quiet voice called my name, but not Patrick. The oddity was not lost on me. I knew the name Tatric had been said, but it felt as much my name as the one etched on my birth certificate. It came again and my head spontaneously turned towards the source, my book satchel. My hands went for my anatomy textbook. Out from the protection of its hardback covers, I pulled Jayne’s letter. A jolt of adrenaline hit me when a second page of text fell into my lap. I could have sworn she had only written one page.

The handwriting was unmistakable but the paper was different. It was thicker, with an aged yellow tint to it, not lined and not torn from a book. The opening line said “Dear Tatric”. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes and re-read it. “Dear Patrick.”

Get it together, Patrick. I drew in a collecting breath and looked back down.

“Dear Tatric,” Oh Crap.

Embarrassment heated my face like I had just misspelled the same word twice in front of a crowd. I felt like all those walking by could somehow see the mental difficulty I was having keeping reality in line and I tried to sit lower in my chair. Curiosity pulled my eyes back to the page again.

“Dear Patrick…Okay that’s better…I think.I’m completely guessing here but maybe you like fantasy stories. If you don’t feel comfortable writing about how you are doing maybe you would like to be pen pals of sorts. I like creating stories from the world around me and changing them to be magical. Like at my school I have taken the campus and started to make my own world. The Yeager Center I changed to be the nation of Geraye. It’s an anagram of Yeager. And the Kugel fountain at the school’s front steps I made be a city called Waterstone. The flag poles I turned into the City of Flags. So it can be simple or complex. Again, this is just a silly idea and you don’t have to do anything with it. But if you do, I think it would be fun to see what you could do with the school you are at.”

Hope you are well.

-Sapphire

Out of pure curiosity I left my porch and went to the Yeager center. This “L” shaped section of classrooms and offices had the breezeway where I had first seen the green-eyed girl, the door that changed into the dragon face, and the pillars where she appeared. Near those pillars, just up from the main entrance stairs, sat that unique water fountain Jayne had referenced called the Kugel. Basically a granite sphere about four feet in diameter that gives off the illusion it is floating on water. I came up to it and laid my hand on its wet glistening surface. The etching of the globe was the only thing that broke up its perfectly smooth surface. I gave it a spin and let my fingers brush its surface as it rotated on its own.

“Waterstone,” I said out loud.

Thoughts of Jayne doing the same thing fluttered around in my head but darted away when my hand called all my attention back to the Kugel. The Eastern hemisphere was gone. I slammed both my hands on the wet stone and rolled it slowing round and round. The third time around the Western Hemisphere was gone too, or should I say replaced. I wiped my hand over and over the white lines that now detailed my college campus. It was the same aerial view that was on the student handbook I had gotten when I first came, but with two unsettling variations. The name Yeager Center was absent, Geraye had replaced it, and City of Flags in bold archaic text arced over the small picture of the flag poles. A subtle tremor shook the ground and the whole map started to expand. All the letters for every location danced around as if they were hung on the stone like picture frames. The first ones to fall off were those for the living area called Lancer Arms. The letters reordered themselves into the Sal-Marcern. When they re-fixed onto the Kugel the drawings of Lancer Arms apartments themselves crumbled. The detailing of a great mountain range rose in their place.

I sprinted away from the Kugel and to the quad where I could look in the direction of Lancer Arms. The theater building that would have normally obscured my line of site to Lancer Arms was gone. A whole swatch of the campus was now a vast open country. I could see for hundreds of miles, like I stood on some grand vantage point. Along the southeast horizon where Lancer Arms apartments should have been, rose a great mountain range.

My legs felt weak from over stimulation and I staggered back to the Kugel through the still modern building of the Yeager Center. All the names on the expanded map shook off at once and began reordering themselves. The Fortunate Fountain became the Fort of Una, Lot Three outside the cottages became Reltheot, Simmons Hall morphed into a city name Himm Sollans, and likewise Smith Hall became Shilltham. The tennis courts, baseball and softball diamonds, and soccer field broke away and expanded into a group of islands.

My world continued to shake as more and more of my college transformed according to what changed on the Kugel. Even new names appeared on places that had none to begin with. The front lawn of the college gained the name Dynasty Plains and blanketed as much land as I could see to the northeast with rolling grass hills. A cool wind rushed in from this new world and whipped around me and the Kugel. It pulled a spray of water off the Kugel’s base and peppered my face with cold droplets.

In wonderment and disbelief I slowly moved down the steps of the Yeager Center spinning slow circles. Only those front steps and the facade of the school remained normal when I waded out into the knee high grass. The sidewalk that used to lead a few hundred yards to the flag poles was now a great road of cut stones. I could not see its end but I knew it led to the City of Flags that was beyond the horizon. The clip-clop of a horse’s hooves on stone turned my head. A coal black mare that glinted crimson in the blazing sunlight came up to my side and nuzzled my hand. Her name already filled my head, Touch of the Rose.

A tug of heavy cloth on my shoulders pulled my attention to my sides. The thin fabric of my hoodie was gone. The oiled leather of a black and tan duster had replaced it. The wind flipped open the lip of my satchel that I had dropped at my feet and a mechanical pencil rolled out. When I picked it up, a slender sword with a needle sharp tip lay in my hands. I didn’t even have to think about it before I slid it behind my head into the back-sheath that hid under my coat.

I grabbed the pommel on Rose’s saddle and swung up like I had done it a thousand times before. Jayne wanted me to tell her a story. If I didn’t wake up in a padded room, I would have the greatest story she ever heard. But to tell her I must find her, and the first place I will look is the City of Flags.


Part II


Chapter 5

A New Perspective

Tatric Farion tightened his grip on the reins. Rose gave a nicker and shuffled her feet eagerly beneath him. Behind the pair stood his home city Waterstone and the University he attended. In front of him, the rising sun lifted off the horizon. Through its yellow glare, his eyes traced the endless ribbon of stone paving that stretched out across the plains before him. From the inner pocket of his duster, he drew out a small map and began to study it. Starting at Waterstone he traced his finger to the southeast until it landed on the Northern Highway that extended due east from the Road of the Realm (the road he was currently on) and continued to the City of Flags.

“Well, Rose, it would take at least a week to make the Fort of Una,” Tatric said out loud. “I think we can make the City of Flags in about four days if we don’t dawdle. Let’s do that. I wonder how many flags will be there at this time of year.”

Rose gave a snort and pawed at the high grass she stood in.

“I know you think this trip is odd; I don’t understand it myself either. Horses don’t have this problem, but people do. It’s called Soul Searching. It’s awful, really. You feel this tremendous need but cannot explain what will fill it. I don’t know what I’m looking for, where it might be, or what it looks like, but I will know it when I see it. So let’s go.”

Tatric rolled up the map and kicked Rose into a canter. Going eastward with him were mostly farmers hauling huge circular baskets of wheat and corn. They were most likely going to the City of Flags as he was, or to supply the garrison at the Fort of Una.

“You there, rider!” the voice of a carriage driver shouted. “How long to the diplomatic city?”

Tatric’s mind snapped back to the present and he twisted around in his saddle to answer.

“In a carriage, five days.”

When he turned back around he couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. The mortified look of the overdressed foreigner riding in the carriage was quite humorous.

That’s right, no down bed for you for a while.

The following morning Tatric came to the beginning of the Northern Highway of Geraye. While the Road of the Realm was free for international travel, a custom’s gate stood guard at the Road’s junction with the sovereign Geraye road. Being a citizen of Geraye and because he carried no international wares, Tatric passed through without a toll exacted from his purse.

Once beyond the congestion of the checkpoint, he kicked Rose into a gallop and pushed hard all day until he reached a small settlement. By then his shadow stretched far out in front of him and his back was hot from the low hanging sun. To call what he came to a town, was an overstatement. It was merely a modest collection of inns, taverns and market stalls that flanked the highway.

As Tatric rode past the first inn, a man sitting in a chair on the porch drew his eye. The man wore a green cloak and appeared to be asleep with his boots propped up on the railing and his eyes shielded by his hood. Why the man stood out to Tatric he couldn’t quite say, but he felt a curious need to watch him longer than he normally would have.

The extra gaze was only a few seconds worth before Tatric dismounted and led Rose up to the hitching post. As he tied her off, a dirty little man in a faded brown shirt and loose pants slinked past him and up the stairs. Tatric’s gaze hooked on the odd behavior and followed the man up the stairs. The little man stayed hunched over and his eyes darted from side to side as he paused in front of the inn’s door. A moment later a young woman dressed in expensive white silk stepped out of the doorway. The small man leapt up and snared her necklace with his boney fingers. The flat silver chain did not yield but the large diamond it suspended snapped off in the thief’s hand.

With a pair of explosive steps Tatric darted to the edge of the porch and cut the man off at the base of the stairs. The thief whirled around and scrambled to jump over the railing. But with his prize clutched so tightly in one hand, his other arm crumpled under his weight and he tumbled face-first onto the dirt on the other side.

Tatric calmly slipped his sword out from its back-sheath and had it pointed to the ground by his side before the man could regain his feet. Trapped between the high porch wall and the stairs and staring up at a much larger armed man in Tatric, the thief stopped cold. He chucked the diamond at Tatric’s feet and slumped back into a wedge of shadow.

Tatric returned his sword behind his head and retrieved the diamond. Without a second look at the thief, he turned aside and brought it to the flustered woman. Color returned to her face as Tatric placed the glittering stone back in her trembling hand. He heard the thief scramble away but had no thought of going after him.

His humiliation is punishment enough from me.

“Oh thank you, sir” the woman managed to say, “I should have known better than to wear this necklace here.”

“At least you have a chance to wear it again in a more appropriate setting,” Tatric answered. “It does look very nice on you.”

Tatric tipped his broad brimmed hat and ducked past her before she could say more.

She isn’t what I’m looking for.

He paid for a single room plus boarding for Rose, then returned outside for her. The woman was gone but the man in the green hood still sat in the chair sleeping. Without turning his head, Tatric again eyed the man as he descended the stairs. Once he got Rose, she monopolized his attention as he brought her over to the stall that she felt certain was going to eat her.

Only after Tatric made her a big bucket of wet oats and filled her hay manger did she admit the stall was safe to enter. As quickly as she could get her nose into the bucket, she started to eat. Her enthusiasm spread most of it across her face and on the sides of the stall as was her norm.

“You are such a little piglet, Rose. That is all you get for tonight so I would make sure you eat it instead of flinging it everywhere.”

She paid no attention and kept spreading her food over the ground as she moved back and forth from her grain bucket to her water trough.

“Fine. Do what you like; it’s not my stomach that will be empty tomorrow.”

Before he left, Tatric checked the locks on Rose’s stall and felt satisfied that they were properly secured. He made certain she had fresh bedding and gave her one last slap on the shoulder before heading back to the inn.

On his way he noticed the little man who had tried to steal the necklace. He sat against a stack of old hay bales behind the line of stalls. He had a small blanket and struggled to wrap it around his shoulders. Suddenly, Tatric felt the chill of the evening as well and it was strong. Stirred with pity he returned to his room and purchased the quilt off his bed from the innkeeper. Tatric brought it out to the man by the hay and offered it to him. The small man recoiled. Then with a furrowed brow and an unsteady hand he reached out and took the blanket.

“What is your name?” Tatric asked.

“Nicholas…thank you, sir.”

“Take care, Nicholas,” Tatric said before turning back towards the inn.

Before he got to the door the brightness of the stars turned his head up towards them. Their clean luminescence brought a smile to his face. When his gaze came back down, just off the corner of the inn, came a flash of green cloth.


Chapter 6

Fear Confirmed

Out from the cold morning mist that hung over the cacti and shrubs, rode a green-hooded man atop a grey horse. The strengthening light thinned the haze around him as a great stone complex took shape in the distance. Several watch towers made of earthen bricks and flat wooden roofs caught the sun’s light first. The towers were connected to a heavy wall that arched out towards the rider from between two rugged hills. The wall seemed to mark the end of the desert for beyond it among the numerous domed buildings, he could see pine trees, wild roses, and junipers.

As the rider came closer, the ground sloped down and soon he could no longer see over the high wall. At the gate he swung off his horse and struck the heavy wooden door three times. As his arm swung the sunlight jumped off the lone silver leaf that was emblazoned on his leather arm guard. Imbedded next to the leaf was a bronze medallion. The size of a large coin, it bore four unique leaves etched in a circle around an empty jewel depression. Several moments of silence passed before a voice from behind the gate called out, “Who seeks entrance to the L’hal Compound?”

“It is I, Stephen Fidelis, third year of the Order of L’hal,” the cloaked man replied.

“Produce your medallion for entry, Stephen.” Stephen lifted up his hand to display the medallion within his arm guard. The gatekeeper nodded in recognition and disappeared behind the wall.

The gate Stephen stood before boasted odd features. Or rather lacked normal ones. There was neither a point where the gate separated from itself in the middle nor were there hinges on either end. Only ironwood beams, bound together with steel bands and rivets, spanned the gap between the stone walls. All the beams ran horizontally except for a dozen or so in the gate’s center. These vertical ones gave the impression of a small hinge-less door. It was by these beams that Stephen stopped. As he stood there the smooth polished look of their wood began to fade and dust started to fall along their length. The portion of the iron bands that ran across them lost its luster and began to rust. In just a few seconds that part of the gate aged into dust and allowed Stephen through.

On the other side a young looking man with short blond hair and fair skin met him. He wore the same green hood and leather arm guard as Stephen but instead of a single silver leaf he had two, and instead of an empty depression his medallion displayed a round white gem. Stephen made a nod of submission to him after he entered.

“We are grateful for your quick return, young Stephen. Master Bayern and the other elders have been impatient of late; a trait I have never seen in them before. I suggest you meet with them at once,” he said.

Stephen’s shoulders pulled back and he stood a little straighter as he heard the urgency in his superior’s voice. He fought the aching fatigue of his journey and delivered a strong reply.

“I shall with all haste.”

The other man nodded and Stephen continued on. He passed the foundations of the two watchtowers and made straight for the compound’s central structure—a short wide tower. It stood on a rise in the terrain and held a commanding view of every other building. The stone path Stephen was on lead straight to it. His rapid steps led him past all the detours that would take him to other buildings. He didn’t stop till he stood at the tower’s lone door.

Unlike all the other buildings, the central tower bore a ring of bronze about the width of an arm around its middle. On the metal were etched circles of the same size and appearance as the medallion Stephen wore. The ring went around the entire building but the medallion carvings did not. There were only a few dozen. All had a name beneath them and either a white jewel, a black jewel, or nothing in their center. Most had a white jewel; only the one above his name and five others held nothing. The only black jewels were near the start of the bronze ring save for a sudden grouping about half way through.

The sight of the black jewels drove a chill down Stephen’s spine and turned his eyes back to the building’s entrance. Unlike the main gate, it was a normal looking door with a large ring handle and four heavy iron hinges. He knocked as he had done at the gate and stood at attention.

“Who seeks entry to the elders’ chamber?” a voice called out from inside.

“Stephen Fidelis.”

“Come in.”

The door was far heavier than Stephen expected and he had to shift his footing before he gained the leverage to open it. As he stepped into the elders’ chamber for the first time, a wide circular room with five chairs around a central table greeted him. The floor was polished pine boards and the walls were painted with an exact replica of the environment surrounding the tower. The artistry was so skilled and constantly updated for the seasons that Stephen felt the illusion he was not actually inside. The path he had just walked up was even painted on the door behind him.

There was one exception, however; due east from the tower stood a single great peak called the Eternal Mountain. From the compound it was a few hours walk away so only its outline could be seen. Yet inside the tower the east wall bore the mountain in great detail as if it was only yards away, including the elaborately carved entrance at its base.

It was toward this rendering of the mountain that Stephen looked when he entered. He dropped to one knee and waited. Three men with long white hair sat around the table. All faced away from Stephen. They wore a black, short-sleeved tunic and matching cloak, a stout leather belt, and high black boots and pants. The dress was similar to Stephen’s save the colors and the medallions around their necks instead of on their arms.

One stood and walked toward Stephen, his young face solemn and tense. He held the same level of youth as Stephen, no older than twenty-five, but with one stark difference. His bright blue eyes were streaked with white and held the authority of ten men twice his age.

“Speak quickly, Stephen. What have you learned?” he said.

“Yes, Master Bayern,” Stephen replied. “As instructed I traveled to the country of Belfrim to investigate the separatist cult that has been forming south of the Sal-Marcern mountain range at the place known as the “False Mountain”. From my observations, the populace seemed relaxed and content. They carried on with life as if there was no tension with the Belfrim government at all…” “The leadership, Stephen! That is what is important. Who is building that city and why?” Bayern interrupted.

“Yes sir, my apologies, sir. Feigning a desire to join the city, I gained an audience with the current leadership. I spoke with a man called Gabriel about the goals and purpose of the city. He explained how the people were there to follow the teachings of one called “The Professor of En’Nightenment.” Yes, that is the correct pronunciation. I got no details from him about the professor and was not allowed to meet him.”

“I pray you did not give up there. We did make a great exception in preparing you as we did,” Bayern said, turning away.

“No sir, I did not give up. I am grateful for the faith you put in me and understand that I normally would not have been allowed to learn any of the magical arts before my time in the mountain. So…”

“Did it show anything to you!?” the Elder said turned back over his shoulder.

“Yes...I mean...”

“Speak up!”

“Yes sir! After the formal meeting I lingered in the main hall then returned to the meeting room. There I used the past vision spell as I was taught. I know the spell was supposed to show me how the room appeared at certain times in the near past. A previous enchantment on the room blocked my sight and nothing was different. I did, however, manage to cut through the defense spell in one area for a brief moment – the head chair at the conference table. I saw a banner draped over the backrest of the chair that had not been there during my meeting. It was maroon in color and bore a section of mirrored cloth in the image of a distorted face. I saw that image nowhere else and cannot attribute any meaning to it myself. That is all, Sir.”

Bayern and the other elders were silent for a long time.

“A mirrored face, you say….which way was it facing when you looked at it?” Bayern quietly asked.

“To my left.”

With a deep sigh, Bayern breathed out a soft and disdain filled word, “Ti’Ceed”. He swept back towards the table and he and the other two elders whispered furiously amongst themselves.

Stephen lifted his head and his ears burned to hear what they were saying. The elder’s abnormal behavior filled him with curiosity and excitement. During his three years as a L’hal apprentice, he had never seen a hint of worry or lack of control in them. Yet now all three men seemed at a loss.

“If I may be so bold, masters. Please tell me…who is Ti’Ceed?” Stephen asked. “I have no memory of him from my studies.” The three elders ceased speaking and all turned to look at the kneeling Stephen.

“Ti’Ceed is taught during the fifth year, after you enter the mountain,” Bayern began. “But since you have already heard his name and have experienced his power, I will tell you some so your mind may be free of excess curiosity. Our Order first became aware of his existence many years ago, before the country of Belfrim had established its present day borders. He and five others were expelled from the Order of the Leviathan for seeking certain things that I will not mention at this time. This group migrated to the False Mountain and gathered a small following along the way. It is unknown what the group did there, but we know the entire southeastern portion of Belfrim was abandoned soon after their arrival.”

“But sir, if he was so powerful then, why did he leave only to return now?” Stephen asked.

Bayern had turned to leave but stopped with his back towards Stephen. After a long hesitation he continued.

“He is the reason for the black jewels on this building. He even killed our leader, the Prime Fidelis himself. His intent seemed to be the removal of any who worshiped the Divine. He came after us first because we were the closest target at the time. I will not go into the details of that battle now, but in the end the Five Deceivers were killed and Ti’Ceed was repelled. We feared time could not destroy him and today that fear is confirmed.”


Chapter 7

The Mirrored Face

Tatric woke before the sun and came downstairs as the innkeeper was starting the fire for breakfast. To his surprise the green-cloaked man from the porch already sat at a table eating some cheese and bread. Even though the dawn’s light fell in through the numerous windows, the man still sat in shadow. Tatric found it odd the way the light fell and gave more than one sideways glance. He sat at the far table and occupied himself by writing a few notes for his school assignment. His eyes fought against this use and repeatedly glanced back up at the hooded man.

Tatric noticed the hooded man’s muscular arms were bare up to his shoulders. However, over his right forearm he wore a leather guard – brown with two silver leaves along each side and a bronze medallion that bore a white jewel. The man wore a vest of light leather armor dyed dark brown with the stamp of a single mountain in the center. Under the vest he wore a sleeveless wool shirt that was visible at his neck and fell out just over his shoulders.

As the man cut off pieces of cheese with a small rounded knife, Tatric’s disobedient eyes started to study the man’s hands. They were not thick, rough, or scarred. The man seemed like an experienced outdoorsman who was skilled with a sword and axe. But along his belt Tatric saw only the sheath for the blunt knife the man was using to eat with. Tatric shook the confusion out of his head and forced his gaze back to his business. He finished his breakfast of porridge and milk then started back to the staircase.

As he moved past the hooded man, the odd shadow that covered him fled like a sheet had been pulled away. At the same moment Tatric felt the man grab his arm and without looking up the man spoke.

“The Deceivers will soon come. Hold to what you know.”

The man released Tatric’s arm and the curious shadow spread back over him as he returned to his food. Tatric’s mind went blank and his body felt strangely calm. Befuddled he kept on walking.

That was strange. How did he grab me so fast? I didn’t even see him move…and why did I not flinch?

He heard what the man had said, but it seemed as if he had only been touched for a single moment rather than grabbed and held. In addition, he felt that the man’s hands were indeed not coarse. They were smooth, almost soft. However, the strength with which they had grabbed his arm felt like manacles of iron.

This paradox wedged in is mind as he mounted the stairs back to his room. What also troubled him was what the man had said.

“The Deceivers will soon come…” What could he have meant by that? Did he mean a specific group of people, or was he talking about the normal traveling charlatans…or is he just crazy?

Nothing resembling an answer came to him by the time he had packed his things. The displeasure of a question unanswered, pushed the green cloaked man from his mind as he came back down the stairs. He kicked open the back door, as his arms were occupied with his saddle bags, and started toward the stables. At the hay stacks his eyes fell on the spot where he met the thief Nicholas the night before. The blanket he had given him was still there, covered in dirt and hay.

“This man was led astray last night. See how they convinced him to leave your gift behind?”

Tatric spun around towards the sudden voice and staggered in the wet, muddy grass. The green-cloaked man stood inches behind him pointing at the muddy blanket.

“Who are you?! Why do you speak to me like this?” Tatric challenged.

The cloaked man looked up and allowed the light to enter his hood and illuminate his face. To Tatric’s surprise he looked no older than himself, clean shaven with short brown hair and fair skin. But his bright blue eyes were streaked with white and seemed to hold incredible age and knowledge.

“It is not important that you know who I am now. But a name you need to know is Ti’Ceed. With that the man turned and was a hundred paces away before Tatric even realized he had started to leave. Tatric’s first step was pursuit but he stopped when a series of loud wet footsteps came to his ear. Again he whirled around but no one was there. Then the sounds started to fade like it was someone leaving not coming. Baffled, Tatric gave a frustrated groan and continued on towards Rose.

At her stall he paused and tried in vain to take a breath that would relax him. The confusion and stress the hooded man caused dredged up Tatric’s old internal enemy.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can go on like this, girl. I hoped this trip would help be break out of this rut but so far it’s only making my heart heavier. Why so downcast, O my soul?”

Tatric let his words hang in the air as he leaned against Rose’s shoulder. Then with a deliberate breath he forced back his shoulders and swung up in the saddle. Once clear of the palisade walls of the town, he kicked Rose into a gallop. They ran north of the highway into the Dynasty Plains and made good time by avoiding the slower carts on the road. After a few hours Tatric came to a collection of boulders that rose up through the grass. Their towering size and number forced him to slow down.

The loss of pace annoyed him a little but he found that within the small maze of stones numerous types of flowers thrived. Purple thistles towered above orange daisies, and both were dwarfed by yellow sunflowers. This assortment of color was the norm at first, but then Tatric came to a single massive stone which made a table that angled up towards the northern sky. The potential view from the rock’s tip tempted Tatric enough to stop.

The high grass slid past his knees as he waded through the green-brown sea. A cool wind swirled amongst the rocks and churned the grass like waves. It lifted off the fresh earthy scent and brought it to Tatric’s nose.

The boulder’s true immensity staggered him once he got to its base, and he estimated its tip must be over thirty-feet in the air. Climbing up to its tip, he found a thin vine. It grew up from under the shadow of the rock and curled around the lifted edge. Its flowers were a brilliant blue surrounding a center stalk of silver. Tatric knelt down and picked one. When he lifted it up to his eyes to study it, his balance faltered and he nearly fell. It had nothing to do with the flower but with what his eyes saw past it. The tilt of the rock was such that the view it gave was solely of the sky without any horizon; a glorious but disorientating sight.

Wish I could be here at night. Seeing nothing but the sky…the stars would be incredible.

The musing passed quickly and Tatric felt he needed to continue on. He tucked the flower in his hat and ran back down the rock. By the time the setting sun warmed his back, the City of Flags appeared on the horizon. Eager for the day’s journey to be over, Tatric urged Rose into a final run into the city.

Tatric knew the City of Flags was so named for the vast array of flags that flew in the central garden. It was tradition for the emissaries and diplomats that came to the city for international relations to place small national, tribal, or clan flags in groups in the garden; showing who was currently meeting together. He hoped to see the garden on his trip, but knew it would have to wait until morning.

While a strong stone and plaster wall surrounded the city, it had no gates. Only a pair of high watchtowers and checkpoints served to limit access. All who entered were required to rent a small storage locker and check in their weapons; a reflection of the purely diplomatic nature of the city. Tatric only carried his light rapier and a hunting knife, so the locker he rented was cheap.

After writing down a description of his belongings and turning them over, the guard gave him a voucher to retrieve them once he left. Leading Rose by her bridle he entered the city proper along with all the travelers, salesmen, merchants and foreigners who had business there.

The city was only a city in name, for it had few private dwellings or outlying farm land. All along the outer edge, abutting the wall, were inns with varying levels of service. Starting from the basic bunkhouses that most of the day laborers and common travelers slept in, to the great Hotel Americale that serviced the dignitaries. The hotel rose several stories high in the center of the city, looking like a temple of stone columns and gold capitals. Its garden lawn was where all the flag groupings of the countries, tribes, cities and clans were placed.

Rose stomped and pulled as Tatric led her through the crowds near the entrance. Her fidgeting lessened as the two moved farther inside and entered the large central cobblestoned road that circled through the entire city. Five separate wooden bridges straddling the road at even intervals allowed for cross traffic to move smoothly and safely overhead. Only carts or mounted riders were allowed in the center roadway, so Tatric swung back up onto Rose as they entered and joined the flow of traffic.

Moving at a slow canter he took the first exit he could moving toward the center of the city. Above the small shops and trees he could see the slanted white tile roof of the Hotel Americale. Once closer and off the noisy main road, the quiet snap of flags came to him on the wind. Dismounting, he led Rose to a small patch of trees and ground tied her there. Continuing on toward the Americale, he could still only see the roof and gold capitals that supported it because the backside of the grand staterooms blocked his view. Circling around he came to a split in the wood slat buildings that served as a walkway. Eager to see the flags, he moved through and emerged from the other side into the central garden.

There the high front steps of the Americale and dozens of colorful flags met his eye. The flags were attached to five foot wooden rods and covered the flat grassy area of the garden like reed patches in the shallows of a lake. Even though the flags were the name sake of the city, only a small portion of the garden was set aside for them. Most of it had thick low trees and flower beds, along with lattices snaking with flowering vines and shaded benches and chairs.

A footpath wove through the trees and repeatedly arched over a small creek that fed a central pond. A cool breeze blew in from the Dynasty Plains as Tatric walked among the flags. He let his finger run over each of the national banners and admired the artwork they possessed.

He found his home flag of Geraye first with its kugel fountain and five unique trees, then Reltheot and its depiction of a great cactus in the foreground and the sun rising up from behind the Eternal Mountain. The island nation of C’Dcer boasted a Spearfin shark, while the banner of Belfrim displayed a jeweled ax crossed with a golden mining pick.

The last flag he came to was that of Sheelhigh and its image of two contrasting temples. Pausing longer at that one, he pulled the flag taut so he could better see the intricate detailing. The stone tower of the Leviathan Shrine rose up from a rocky shoreline like a lighthouse on one half, and the massive wooden temple of the Pegasus Stables dominated the other. Both impressed but he found his eyes drawn more to the Stable. The great wooden structure featured five pillars like the Americale hotel. Though made of wood, they were half concealed within the temple face itself. Branches carved on the paneling in between them made it look like living trees were part of the structure.

As he gazed closer, those branches and leaves moved as if struck by wind and thunder exploded from the clear sky. The call of a stallion followed with equal force. Tatric’s heart jumped and he dropped to the ground. A great gust surged across the garden and every flag snapped wildly in the torrent. Tatric whirled about expecting to join those around him who would be running for cover. Everyone went about their business as if nothing were amiss.

Tatric’s pounding heart slammed to a halt when he looked back at the flag. The image of a great winged horse dominated the picture of the stable. It was in motion and seemed to be flying right out of the flag toward him. Infinite blackness comprised its body and the brilliant gold of its hooves and flight feathers stung Tatric’s eyes. The look of power in its face felt unbearable to behold but Tatric could not turn away. It was both too terrifying and too beautiful. The creature grew larger on the flag and seemed about to burst from the cloth. Tatric’s body went cold and he stumbled back. He fell and the flag dropped from his hand.

When he sat back up panting, sweating, and trembling, he reached for the flag again. He fumbled to open the crumbled cloth, nervously turning his head as he did. When just the two temples greeted him he felt a rush of relief, but also a hint of disappointment.

His heart still pounded and his entire body was covered in sweat. The vision of the Pegasus had been so intense Tatric felt he had been in the presence of a being with great power and authority. While the stallion was unimaginably strong, it did not make Tatric afraid. Then the wind changed.

The gale that had picked up before the vision started died away and a new one followed. It came from the opposite direction and was deathly cold. It rolled over Tatric like ice water and he couldn’t help but feel some dark rebuttal had just been given. The foreboding drought flowed out over the garden but affected only one flag. When it rolled open and caught the sun a stabbing light shot out from it. Flinching from the glare, Tatric got to his feet and hesitantly walked over to the flapping burgundy cloth.

He caught it in both hands and spread it open. The flag bore a mirrored section on it shaped like a man’s head in profile, but distorted and swept back. In its perfect shine, Tatric’s own face came back to his eyes, twisted and deformed. The snapping sound of another flag turned his eyes up. One by one, among every grouping of flags in the garden, the same grotesque face unfurled.


Chapter 8

Tears of a Sorceress

A lone house in the Sal-Marcern Mountain valley waited patiently for the warm light of morning to reach it. The building resembled a lighthouse with a small single story living area made of heavy timbers, stone walls, and wooden shingles, along with a slender tower that rose well above the roof. Like the house, the tower’s walls were stone, but of much greater size and covered with a fragrant flowering vine.

A small balcony circled the tower’s tip and a single bedroom doorway faced the rising sun. A pair of emerald eyes fluttered open as the waxing light bathed the face that held them. She took a deep breath, arched her back and stretched towards the head of her bed. Soft happy groans leaked out of her mouth as she collapsed back onto the soft mattress. Her hand slid under the covers and pulled out a teddy bear. She buried her face in its clean silky fur and gave it a long hug. With one of her bare arms she clutched the bear to her chest and with the other she slid off the covers.

Her white pearl bedposts rose all the way up to the rafters and four thin sheets stretched from one to the other. They softened the direct sun and made four walls of white light around her. With her free hand she spread open the split between the sheets and slipped off the bed. Stepping through the wide door-less opening, her body gave a small shiver. Returning to the bed, she pulled off the light fur blanket and wrapped it over her thin nightgown. Under its warm embrace she ventured back out into the brisk morning.

Out on the tiny balcony she watched the waterwheel at the tower’s base spin faithfully round and round. Its quiet squeak and soft splashing mixed with the rush of the river and cooing of doves. Her eyes hung on the wheel for a while and watched its rhythmic turnings, but then they turned west and a look of longing filtered into them.

Holding her bear tighter, she walked around to the shaded western side. Her eyes strained to see as far down stream as she could. She watched the silver band for a few minutes but the shadow’s chill quickly cut to her skin. The warmth of the eastern side called to her and she broke her western watch.

The morning steadily warmed and she let the blanket slip down her shoulders. Soon she no longer needed it and laid it, along with her bear, back on the bed. As she broke the threshold back onto the balcony, the sun crested the high mountain peaks. Its flashing rays streaked into the valley and sparkled in her eyes. The strong light sliced through the thin mist that rose off the river and gathered directly on the tower.

The woman looked straight into the rising sun like it was a blossoming flower. A smile of familiar affection crossed her face and her eyes began to shine. As the sun moved higher its light caressed her body and washed through her hair. Once it broke free of the mountain’s jagged tips and shown down on her with its full glory, the woman’s skin began to sparkle. The once straight rays of light curled around her and became silk and lace. The silk was pure white while the lace glinted with gold flecks. Both wove together and formed a soft corset that drew tightly around her. The firm cloth lifted her breasts and pressed them snuggly together. Clear white diamonds sprung to life across her deep cleavage and twinkled with life. A silver ribbon wove through the corset down her back and finished with a bow behind her shoulders.

The intimate touch of silk closed her eyes and tilted her head back with pleasure. She drew in a deep breath and as she exhaled, a golden skirt flowed from the light that surrounded her hips. A warm breeze drew her hair off her bare shoulders and filled each lock with the scent of lilac. Curling streams of light tucked her hair behind one ear and a tiny carnation held it in place.

As the flower opened its petals, the rays of the sun fanned out over the valley and no longer landed just on the tower. The woman gave the petals an affectionate touch and mouthed a thank you towards the sun. Her gratitude turned to longing as she again looked to the west.

Throughout the morning she contented herself with picking flowers and walking through the fields by the river. With each step she took, the grass by her feet turned greener and the flowers more radiant. Each blossom she picked and tossed into the wind lit with fire and scattered its color around her.

Every so often her eyes were again pulled to the west. In the late afternoon as she was reading in the house below the tower, the clunk of a boat striking a wooden dock came to her ears. Her heart leaped in her chest as she raced outside. To her delight she saw a young man tying up his small rowboat at the dock. She squealed with joy and clasped her hands together over her lips, waiting for him to notice her.

She stood at the start of the dock for several seconds but the moment passed and he never looked up. Her feet stopped dancing and her hands slowly drooped. Once he did look, her joy rushed back but it was dampened. Still, she ran to him with open arms and her golden dress flowing behind.

He was a small dark haired man with a shrewd look in his eye. His dress was well-to-do and comprised of black pants, small boots, a loose white shirt and a brown button-down coat. His chest was high and he smiled from ear to ear as he stepped onto the dock. The woman threw herself into his arms and wrapped his neck with a hug. Such enthusiasm nearly tipped both into the river. The man caught her by the shoulders and pushed her back.

“Don’t do that Sapphire, you might hurt yourself with such eagerness,” he said.

Sapphire’s joyful green eyes fell at his rebuff, but she kept her smile and took his arm. She landed a light kiss on his cheek then changed the subject.

“I’m so glad you’re back, Serrano. Please tell me how your time in Gabrie Anniel was. Were you able to study under the professor I told you about?”

Serrano didn’t answer right away. Instead, he fidgeted for a few seconds with the handle of the small dagger he wore.

“No, I did not. He was not taking any new apprentices when I got there. But your man is very resourceful and I, through much diligence and effort, found a better teacher.

“Oh... well who was it that you trained under? Was he someone who knew Professor Berean?” Sapphire asked. Again Serrano’s hand and eyes dropped to the dagger before managing a reply.

“He never told us his full name and insisted we call him the Professor of En’Nightenment. He had been a well-respected priest in Sheelhigh before an honest misunderstanding and the jealousy of others forced him to leave. He gave these daggers to his top students as a reward. Your man of course received one.”

Smiling broadly, Serrano pulled the knife out of its sheath and offered it to Sapphire. The dagger was beautiful. A black handle of polished ivory and gold quillions gave way to a sleek silver blade. Laid flush in the handle on the side Sapphire could see, were three gems: one green, one red, and one white.

As Sapphire turned it over in her hand it slipped and the blade sliced her finger. She cried out and the dagger dropped to the dock. A line of bright blood leaked through her clenched hand and tears misted her eyes. Serrano rushed to the fallen dagger and with a horrified look brushed it off on his sleeve. He inspected every inch of it for damage. Once satisfied there was none, he replaced it in its sheath then turned to Sapphire.

With a gentle touch he spread open her fingers and pulled her hand towards him. With a different knife he kept on his boot he cut a small strip off his silk handkerchief. With it, he carefully bandaged Sapphire’s wound.

Sapphire’s smiling eyes looked up at his face as he flipped the piece of cloth over and over her finger. His head stayed down. Once Serrano was done he pulled her hand to her chest and kissed it. Then arm in arm again they walked back up toward the house.

As they did a sharp glint bounced off Serrano’s dagger. The light stung Sapphire’s eyes and she glanced down. The dagger now faced the opposite way and this side had no jewels. It had a mirrored face. Again cut by the bouncing light Sapphire grimaced and turned away. The look of pain on her face froze as did everything around them. She and Serrano stopped walking, the birds stopped singing, the river stopped flowing, the water wheel stopped turning. Like a drop of ink falling into water, darkness billowed up all around them. It covered everything until only her hurting face and his smiling one remained. They remained like a painting on the polished face of a memory stone in Sapphire’s hand.

The portion of her past she had just relived, cut her heart far deeper than the slip with Serrano’s knife had her finger. Looking down at her hand the pink scar flickered with pain.

“How could it have gone so wrong?!” she cried before hurling the stone across the tower’s bedroom.

The piercing shatter of her dresser’s mirror followed the sound of her tearful voice. A cold grey light streamed in through the open doorway. Thick dark clouds hung over the valley. The meadow suffered in the icy grasp of a fall storm. Only stiff brown grass remained. Such dormancy and deadness held even greater sadness as the memory of a golden dress and warm sky still sat fresh in her mind.

Sapphire’s weight landed on the edge of the bed and she wiped a few stubborn tears from her emerald eyes. The broken mirror returned her blank stare and made her look as fragmented as she felt.

Her gaze snapped away from that painful sight and down to her hands. In them rested the reason she had returned to the tower bedroom—her bear. Its once silky fur was now matted and coarse and a musty smell leaked up to her as she hugged it. Dead leaves and dirt clung to the stiff weathered blankets on her bed. Only a single sheet remained un-torn from the bedposts. It ripped off when she touched it. A corner of her dresser was warped from the constant dripping of an unrepaired leak. The floor was layered with dust and her reading chair was flecked with mouse droppings. Abandonment touched everything.

The thickness of her silver dress protected her from wrist to ankle, but the cold wormed through anyway. Violent shivers drove her to her feet. Not ready to leave yet, she walked over and picked up what she had thrown. It was a stone the size of a small fruit cut perfectly in half with a rough rounded side opposite a polished flat side. On the glassy side the faint imagine of the tower bedroom and the rising sun still flickered. Tears welled back up in her eyes. With the back of her hand she angrily wiped them away.

Memory stones…Why, oh why did I even make them?

A sob lurched in her chest and that was the final straw. She jammed the memory stone back into her pocket and jumped to her feet. Looking straight ahead she forced her chin up and marched downstairs. Like the tower, time and neglect covered the lower room but Sapphire passed it all by. She paused at the door only to clutch her bear a little tighter, then pushed outside.

A bitter wind blasted her face. It wasn’t raining but tiny drops of stinging water still struck any exposed skin. The frigid air burned her lungs and yanked on her dress. After only a few steps down the stone path a large raindrop hit her—then another. Even as the rain began she did not turn around. She did not even look back.

The chill cut through her dress as did the icy downpour. The storm was cruel but even it couldn’t be as cold as the tower bedroom. She clung to her bear and set her eyes back on the stone path. Her next step failed her. One foot shot out from under her and all her weight tipped back.

With a crying whimper she slammed down in the mud alongside the path. The fall drove her breath from her and ripped her bear from her arms. It took a few seconds to find each. Her breath came first and she rolled onto her knees. Her bear lay in a dormant bush across the path. She reached out with one hand and snatched it up quickly…too quickly. A seam hooked and an awful ripping sound joined the rain.

Mortified, Sapphire gasped and slid through the mud closer to the bush and unhooked the bear. A gapping tear ran down its side. With quivering blue lips and frozen, mud covered hands she struggled to push the cotton stuffing back inside. Unable to feel anything, her feeble attempts only drew more cotton out.

She burst out crying and clutched the bear to her chest, trying desperately to shield it from further harm. Her tears poured out and her sobs were drowned out by the thunder. Shaking uncontrollably she rocked back and forth in the rain and could not stand. She clung to the bear and tried with all her might to protect it. Her heart throbbed and felt colder than the rain could ever be. Her mind darkened as more and more of her senses were frozen. She couldn’t even feel the constant pelting of the rain, though she could still hear it.

After a second or two she realized the rain wasn’t hitting her. Opening her eyes she looked up. Above her was the great wing of a dragon. It gave a moan and nuzzled Sapphire with its soft nose. The touch brought a weak smile to Sapphire’s face. She hooked one arm around its neck and managed to pull herself up. With her bear still protected against her chest, she threw her other arm around the dragon’s head.

“Thank you, Tanith. I really need a friend now.”

The dragon affectionately rubbed her cheek on Sapphire’s back and soon the two were flying within the storm clouds. The pair shot up through the lightning and the rain until a steep mountainside rushed out from the dense clouds. Tanith turned up sharply and grazed the tips of the trees as she drove through the buffeting winds. Unable to see more than a hundred yards, Tanith still managed to level off at the correct spot and a castle came into view. It was built into the mountain itself and only small portions pushed above the trees or could be seen anchored into the rock.

A strip of bricks along a massive granite face emerged from the mist first. It was flush with the natural stone and led from Sapphire’s bedroom window to the great balcony. A marble arch formed the opening to the balcony and above it the largest sections of the castle took shape. It blended with the arch then ran along the top of the granite face, stopping high above the bedroom window. Its manmade stone rose higher still and wrapped back into the forest forming a wide circular section. Two towers, one slender and one thick, rose like javelins above the trees and up into the storm clouds from each end.

It was between the two towers, on the round flat section, that Tanith’s granite like claws set down. Her steely wings remained unfurled and shielded Sapphire as she lightly slid off her back. The young sorceress kissed Tanith’s nose before she turned towards the thick tower. At its base was a heavy wooden door with a silver lock in the shape of a heart. It had no key hole. Sapphire simply placed her hand on it and the door opened.

Inside the small entry room, a single small lamp sprung to life and shone dimly upon two archways. The one to her left had stairs that led up to the tower and the other led down into the castle. She headed downwards. As she walked little blue gems on the wall illuminated her steps and the stairs turned into a hallway. Its walls were polished onyx, but its roof was uncut stone. A few more gems lit her way until she came to a library with its fireplace, tall book-laden shelves, and great curtain covered balcony.

Her dress dripped with the frigid rain as did her hair and face. Sharp random shivers reminded her of how cold she was. Her trembling white hand that pulled a book off the shelf did so too. She ignored both and reached into a deep opening in the wall behind the book. She drew out a small leather pouch.

Her face twisted in self-reproach as she set her bear down and took the memory stone from her dress pocket. Like it was an ember to her now, she shoved it in amongst the others. A deep breath held back her tears and she put both the pouch and book back.

With her injured bear she left the library and hurried down the hall to her bedchamber. Her body still shook from the cold as she stopped in front of a great wooden door carved with vines and carnations. In the center of the door an ember-like glow kindled. The soft orange light expanded out into the face of a dragon and the door opened by itself.

With her free hand, she dragged her best reading chair to the middle of the bedroom and set the muddy torn bear on it. Cotton still poured from its side and one arm hung on by only a thread.

Once she had steadied the bear against the backrest, Sapphire rushed to her dresser. There, with quivering pale fingers, she pulled out manual sewing items. With them she ran back to the chair as if the stuffed animal were bleeding to death. With chattering teeth and rain soaked hair, she began to heal her friend.

After a few minutes the warmth of the room brought a little feeling back into her gentle hands and the bear’s original shape began to return. A painstaking hour later she bit the last line of thread off and held up the bear. No one could miss the thick repair stitch, but the bear was solid and whole again. With a sigh of relief she clasped it to her chest and gave it a long tight hug. Dirty water leaked out from the bear and ran down her dress. She didn’t care.

Another hard shiver broke the embrace and Sapphire felt how cold she really was. Still holding her bear, she hurried down the hall from her room and into the bath chamber.

This room of pure black and white marble already echoed with the sound of flowing water. Four gold-lined troughs of stone angled down from the four corners of the ceiling and water poured out from them. Enchanted blue flames at the trough’s tips heated the water as it cascaded into a telescoping central pool.

Sapphire kept all her clothes on as she approached the pool and then got down on her knees. She splashed the steaming water over the bear first, cleaning its fur of the sticky mud, broken sticks, and musty smell that covered it.

Once satisfied her job was complete, she set the bear on the edge of the pool and unbuttoned her dress by hand. Even with it opened from her neck to her waist, she struggled to pull her arms out from the clinging sleeves. It stuck to her skin and seemed intent on holding its icy cloth against her. After a modest struggle and a few popped seams, the heavy outer part of her dress hit the floor. The softer under dress was made just as troublesome by the numbness in her fingers and the continuous shivers that now ran through her body. As it finally fell off she wrapped her arms around herself and slowly stepped into the pool.

The hot water stung her skin with tiny needles as it rose up her legs. Little by little the warmth found its way into her and she finally felt the icy grip release her. With each step that took her deeper in the water, she felt her muscles finally relax and her arms loosened from around her chest. As the water seeped between her fingers and rose up to her neck she couldn’t help but give a soft laugh.

Her hands fell to her sides and she slipped under the water. Another glorious wave of tingling needles washed over her face and shoulders. Its touch banished the last chills from her body. Her happy sigh left a long trail of bubbles as she sank to the bottom. Bobbing up only to breathe, she let the warm water hold her for a long time.

When she broke the surface with the intent of getting out, the pool began to drain. When the water level reached her ankles pure fire poured down from the troughs overhead. As the swirling fire caressed her, Sapphire stretched her arms behind her neck and lifted her hair off her shoulders. She let it flow off her arms and back down to her waist coating every strand with the enchanted fire.

When the cascade of flame stopped, she caught the last little bit in her cupped hands. Careful not to spill a drop, she climbed up the steps and poured it over her stuffed bear. The benevolent fire washed over the little animal and expelled all the dampness that still clung to its fur.

Warmed and refreshed, Sapphire stepped out from the pool surrounded with steam. It clung tightly to her body and formed into a fur blanket that wrapped around her shoulders and fell to the floor. Not forgetting her bear, she returned to her chamber and headed straight for bed. Before she reached it, a white carnation petal blew off from the bouquet of flowers by her bed. It landed on her head and split into two white ribbons. Each wove through her hair and pulled it back in a loose single strand.

Sapphire let the fur blanket fall away from her back but held it to her chest as she climbed into bed. She tucked her bear under the covers next to her and let out a long sigh as she stared at the ceiling. The murals of angels, demons, rivers, flowers, and champions looked back at her through the dimness. The first flickers of a brewing storm flashed through her window. The great image of an armored knight tangled in battle with a demonic magician jumped out with each flash.

Rising up from a river behind the masked champion was a mermaid who seemed ready to cast a spell of her own against the darkness. The powerful image had on many occasions given Sapphire comfort and hope. With such a heavy heart her eyes now saw the struggle differently—the evil mage was winning. Each flash of lightning that landed on him only made him seem stronger and more terrible. Even with her eyes shut tight the fear still found its way into her.

All of the peace that her bath had given her fled and the pressure and pain over her heart returned. Throwing off the covers she grabbed her bear and rushed from the bedroom. No sooner had she closed the door behind her and felt the fear begin to subside, the lightning flashed again. It put a new image of the battle on the wall in front of her. The knight lay in his own blood. Jumping back with a start she ran down the hall to the library. Another flash of light and the mage stood in front of her. He held the mermaid by her tail in his giant hand.

His touch burned her scales and the scent of the foul smoke pricked Sapphire’s nose. Each flash changed the image in front of her like a montage of horror. The claps of thunder were now laced with the mermaid’s cries of terror.

A new flash and Sapphire saw the mermaid chained up in a cage of iron. Another flash and the dark conjuror turned towards Sapphire. She stumbled back gasping for enough air to scream. On her back side, Sapphire labored to scoot away. The ground shook with each step the sorcerer took and when his black burning hand touched her leg she shot up in bed.

Sweat glued the fur blanket to her back. Her chest heaved up and down to keep up with her frantic breaths. Her hands dug frantically through her bunched up sheet but could not find her bear. Finding it on the floor against the wall, she snatched it up and left her room. The first flash that greeted her in the hall pulled a scream from her throat but the sorcerer did not appear. Overcome with relief she fell against the wall and was able to laugh at herself a little.

Goodness, this never happened when Serrano…

She cut the idea short. Just the name stung her heart with pain. Feeling suddenly suffocated, she rushed out through the great curtains and onto the balcony. The clouds held their rain but the wind and lightning were as fierce as she could remember. Defiant, she held her bear and marched right to the end of the man-made precipice. The sheer magnitude of the storm gave her a small measure of peace as it demanded she take note of it. And in doing so she forgot some of her heartache.

Still the storm in her heart could not be eclipsed and her mind struggled over it. The memories made in her castle and in the tower by the river could not be forced from her mind. Like the storm in the sky, they cast off bolts in her heart that stung her repeatedly and would not let her rest.

As if feeling her pain, the natural storm outside lessened for just a moment and large sections of the clouds parted. The brilliant unimpeded stars shown down and their light parted the clouds in her heart. The small hole moved to the north and Sapphire couldn’t help but be drawn to follow it. Watching it move away sparked a simple idea, one that lessened the weight she carried.

Maybe I will go north to the Dynasty Plains. I have never seen better stars than when I am there. Perhaps I will even be able to forget a little. Or better yet, make a new memory.


Chapter 9

The First of Five

The rasping puffs of strained breathing shattered the silence. Light at the end of a door-less hallway spread out into the darkness. The sound and light grew stronger until a short round man, clutching an armful of parchments and books, burst out from the hall.

His balding head shone with sweat and his black professor robes fluttered behind him. Across the wide open room he labored, every muscle and joint in his body protesting his speed. The darkness of the chamber devoured the light of his lantern, leaving little to guide his feet. The diluted rays cast long creeping shadows as he rushed by several spindly stone columns and a central island.

At the island he turned and ran past numerous reading chairs and tables until he came to the back of the chamber. There the lantern managed to light the high bookshelves that covered the walls. Following the wall he came to what looked like a barred cell. Two walls made of wooden poles sealed off a corner of the chamber. The striped light his lantern cast inside the cell fell across five descending staircases that opened up in the floor.

The professor rushed up to the single door on the cell and without stopping pulled on it. The door did not yield. The unexpected resistance yanked his arm away from his body and all his papers and books crashed to the ground. A whimper leaked from his mouth as he put down the lantern and fumbled with a ring of keys. Key after key met a solid unyielding lock. Each failed choice made his hands tremble more. Further dividing his concentration, he constantly looked over his shoulder into the distorted shadows behind him.

Once the correct key turned, he gathered up most of his books and papers and rushed through. The few straggling papers he abandoned. At the bottom of the staircase he had chosen, he emerged into a wide room with a low stone ceiling. Shelves upon shelves of tablets, scrolls, books, and parchments littered the floor; some broken and fallen over, others so covered with dust their contents was concealed. Like the chamber above, the vault room absorbed much of his lantern’s light.

The man remained at the bottom of the stairs and started to count the aisles. His eyes bounced from one to the next as his lips silently mouthed numbers. Coming to the one he needed, he took off running again. He labored through the labyrinth of paper, wood, and dust until he reached what appeared to be a dead end.

Though thin and hard to see, an image could still be made out on the wall he faced. Putting down his lantern and papers, the man frantically started dusting off the wall. When he had finished, not much of the original picture had survived. Only the faint outline of two large wings and a horse’s front legs were discernible. The professor’s breath quickened, but now a little excitement joined the worry in his eyes. Rifling through what he had brought, he pulled out a small black scroll.

He laid it out on the stone floor next to the lantern and ran his finger across the gold characters. His lips moved with the ancient language and when he reached a certain line of text, his eyes flashed wider.

“This is it! I found it!” he shouted.

Reaching in his bag, he pulled out a small hammer and a thick iron nail. He counted nine feathers in from the tip of the left wing, placed the nail on it and struck it with his hammer. He repeated this on the fourth feather of the left wing and then the fifth and tenth feather of the right wing.

When he struck the tenth feather, all four sank a few inches into the wall. The professor stepped back, not daring to breathe. Nothing more happened. The color drained from his face and his expectant look turned to horror.

“No no no! This is right, this has to be right!”

He rushed back to the black scroll and frantically read and re-read it. Thrusting the scroll in his pocket, he grabbed at his thin hair.

“What did I do wrong? I know this is…”

Suddenly he stopped. He held as still as a statue until he felt it again — wind. He moved one of his hands out in front of him. The back of his palm felt cold. Looking up into the darkness, he made out a single blacker square.

Dumping off the contents of the nearest table, he dragged it under the opening. His arms protested with pain as he fought to pull his heavy frame through the small opening in the ceiling.

Inside he found himself in complete darkness. Before he could turn back to retrieve his lantern and books, the mechanism that had lifted the stone reset. The stone that had been lifted up dropped back in the hole.

Panic and self-reproach gripped him. He strained against the cable that held the stone, but it would not budge. The coarse twisted metal took flesh from his soft hands as punishment for the foolish attempt. With his adrenaline spent, complete fatigue overcame the professor. His legs crumpled under him and he slid down the wall to the floor. After a few minutes his heart slowed and his emotions did not run so rampant.

As his eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, he made out a long narrow corridor in front of him. He fought to his feet and started forward. The passage made him turn sideways to fit and had so many twists and turns he quickly lost count.

The tiny hall terminated at a small metal ladder with moonlight shining in from the top. The professor began to climb up slowly, testing each rusted rung before putting his weight on it. At the top he found himself in a room that resembled a large attic. The ceiling sloped sharply; the rafters and base of the roof were exposed. The stagnant air instantly drew sweat from his body and filled his nose with the scent of dust and wood.

Across from him the faint light of morning filtered in through a lone window shaped like the rising sun. Through it he could see the coming dawn and the city of Gabrie Anniel. Turning back into the room he walked round it several times. There were no furnishings and all the walls seemed solid and lacked any markings.

After a few minutes the excitement of finding the chamber wore off and the ambiguous fear he had earlier came back into his eyes. He paced in front of the window and cursed himself for leaving the black scroll behind.

“How could you be so careless, Christian? You know someone has been trying to steal that Scroll of Night since you found it! They are probably in the library right now and have already taken it! And by the stars it is hot in here!”

He stripped off his robe and angrily cast it to the ground. A heavy thud came as it hit the ground. The sound stopped his pacing and he rushed over to it. All his excitement came back when he pulled out the black scroll.

He held it up in the morning light and his eyes raced back and forth over it. When he found the text he needed he ran over to the wall opposite the window. He got on his knees and brought his face inches away from the wooden panels. There it was! A fine golden thread had been fastened to the wall in the shape of two wings. A smile crossed his face as the fresh morning sun started to shine in. Perfect timing.

A tingling sensation cover his body as he waited for the direct sunlight to strike the thread. When it did, the thread began to glow. When the full force of the sun hit it, living gold feathers filled the strings outline. They came off the wall and flapped once. Their motion kindled a thunder clap mixed with the call of a stallion. A blast of wind followed and blew the professor back like a tumble weed.

The sound of a door swinging open coaxed him to peek out from the trembling ball he had curled himself into. The wings had split down the center and a doorway had opened up revealing a small room. Inside stood a large block of black glass.

The professor crept on his hands and knees through the doorway and up to the waist-high block. Being inside the room degraded his sense of balance as none of the walls were defined; they were black, like a starless sky that seemed to go on forever. Even the floor didn’t appear to be made of anything and the only reference point he had was the block of glass.

A subtle light flickered within the glass and made it appear almost alive. As he watched the light in the block, he noticed a long dark outline on the top which the light did not pass through. With trembling hands he reached into a depression in the block. He drew out what appeared to be a sleek black-shafted arrow with gold fletching and a glass cap on its tip. The arrow injected a coldness into his skin and felt as heavy as a horseshoe. He could not take his eyes off it as he stood up and walked from the room. As he moved he noticed faint wisps of smoke that seeped out from the shaft and fletching as the arrow moved.

His gaze moved down the shaft to the bladed head. He slipped off the glass sheath and studied the material closely. It was a very dark almost black material, but as he rotated it in the light hints of blue and purple shone from it like a fish scale. Filled with curiosity he reached out one finger and tapped the tip. His heart stopped as the arrow passed painlessly right through his finger as if his flesh was a vapor.

Before he pulled it off a surge of energy hit him like a thunderbolt. It jolted his body and blinded his eyes. He felt himself falling but hit water, not a wooden floor. When his sight returned he found himself thrashing about in the ocean. In front of him a tower of black glass rose out of the water itself and dominated the sky with its size. It consumed his sight and pierced up into the hurricane that raged in the night sky. The waves that struck it were obliterated and hurled up into the air. The spray and foam mixed with lightning rained down on the professor.

Even with the freezing water around his body, the burning salt in his eyes, and the choking feeling in his lungs, the professor desperately swam away from the tower. A sound like the rending of the world itself stopped him and in terror he looked back. Behind the tower, in the fog and clouds, a bolt of lightning outlined a dark serpentine shape.

The professor’s fear turned to dismay as a great sea serpent plunged through the clouds and into the sea. Its dark scales glinted blue and purple in the light of the storm. The creature dwarfed the tower and sent a tidal wave out in all directions. Just as the wave hit him and he was certain death was at hand, he found himself back in the small room. Panting and moaning he fell onto his back. He took out his handkerchief and feebly patted down his flushed face.

After several minutes his wits returned and he recalled the arrow. It was no longer in his hand. Scrambling to his hands and knees he rushed about in search of it. The room was dark and only a few shafts of dim moonlight leaked through the window. It was enough light to cause a glint of gold on the floor to catch his eye. Exhaling with relief, he ran over to the arrow and picked it up. But as he returned the glass cap, he saw the moonlight on his hands.

How could it possibly be night already?

No sooner had he asked than the sun took the moon’s place and a strong afternoon light filled the room. The sudden change thrust a terrible sinking feeling into his stomach. A soft chuckle came from the corner of the room as six hooded figures appeared like mirages in front of the professor.

“A good trick, don’t you think Professor Berean? To deceive someone into believing it is night when in truth the sun shines on his face?” a voice among the six said.

Berean whirled about but before he could make out any details of the one who spoke, the five others moved in unison, like chess pieces, and concealed the sixth one. Floor length cloaks hid their bodies and hoods with silver veils shielded their faces.

Professor Berean tripped as he stumbled back and landed hard on his backside. The five figures that towered over him seemed inhuman. The silver cloth that covered their faces was like a mirror. In each of them Berean saw his own distorted, terrified reflection. Despite his fear he struggled to his feet, removed the glass sheath, and brandished the arrow like a dagger.

“Ahh...so you found it – very good,” the figure behind the five said. “It was so kind of you to do all the work surrounding this treasure. I could never have done all the academic research you did just to find the first Scroll of Night, much less interpret its text and be led to this holy place. Yes– I know there are others. Also, I must thank you for preserving all your notes so carefully and leaving them unguarded down below. They will be most helpful to me in the future.”

The sixth one’s voice alone backed the professor up and he began to lower the arrow.

“I… I knew some f…ffoul craft servant would come. Someone driven by power lust to steal what is not his. You may know of the second scroll for this treasure, b…but it is gone!! I…I destroyed it.”

“Come now professor. We both know that is not true. You may have found the first Scroll of Night and learned the location of one of the Divine Treasures, but you don’t have the slightest idea of their purpose. If you did, you would realize that brandishing one like it is a stick you sharpened while squatting in the mud is pointless.”

“Enough of this!” Berean angrily shouted. “Who are you and how can you claim to know the purpose of this item? Hardly anyone in the entire Realm even knows of the legend of the five Divine Treasures. Even I doubted its legitimacy for years.”

The sixth man’s dark silhouette stiffened and he took a sharp step forward.

“I know because of this.”

At his words the hand of one of the silver veiled figures thrust out through the front of his cloak. In it rested a golden paper scroll.

“I have possessed the first Scroll of Day for some time now, professor. Though I have a much more…..how shall we say…efficient method of translating it.”

“You bewitched it!?” Berean gasped. “You dare place dark magic on such a sacred artifact! Who do you think you are!?”

Berean gave a hate filled yell and sprang forward from his place against the wall. He hurled the arrow like a dart at the sixth man. The bolt jumped from his fingers as if it was loosed from a hunter’s bow. The golden fletching left a trail of smoke and sparks as it flew straight for the sixth one’s head.

He did not make any attempt to block or evade the incoming shot. He stood perfectly still and allowed the arrow to find its mark right between his eyes. It pierced skin and bone and shot a dull thud out into the room as it hit the back wall.

Berean was momentarily overjoyed at his apparent success and he expected the five servants to flee or render aid to their leader. Instead, the sixth man reached up and pulled the arrow from the wall and out of his head. The optimism Berean had gained from his throw drained like blood from a slit throat. Now weaponless he slinked back as the man spoke.

“You disappoint me, professor. Did I not already tell you that you know nothing about this treasure? Why may I ask, would a supernatural instrument inflict natural injury? Also, I am not just anyone.”

The man then stepped out from between the Silver Veils and into the light. Berean averted his gaze as he imagined some old grotesque conjuror covered in animal skins and filth. His arms tried to block the sight, but his eyes rebelled and peeked through. What he saw drained the color from his face and replaced it with a clammy cold sweat. It was not a dirty magician but an identical copy of himself – the wire rimmed glasses he wore, the uneven balding over his head, the scar across his left cheek from falling off a book ladder. Even the buttons and cloth on his waistcoat were worn and misaligned exactly as his were.

“No…no... it cannot be. He is…not real...just a myth, a lie, a bedtime story. You...you….can’t be…HIM!” Berean croaked.

“Yes, I am “him”…I am Ti’Ceed.

Chapter 10

The Green Eyed Girl

Tatric snapped his reins back and forth across Rose’s shoulders as the pair thundered away from the City of Flags. The ominous encounter with the mirror faced flag had festered that night. Time after time he lurched awake covered in cold sweat with the silver face burned into his mind. The icy chill of that perspiration still clung to his clothes as he rode. The pit it spawned in his heart seemed to chase him throughout the day. By the time he reached the village he had stopped at on his outbound trip, it felt like he had been poisoned. Though not with physical venom. A force ate, not at his body, but at his will to live.

Surges of despair racked his chest like heart attacks and drove a knifing pain through his limbs. The simple act of dismounting Rose crumpled his legs and a crack sounded from his wrist as he broke his fall. True physical pain proved to be an unlikely aid as it pulled his mind back from the darkness. Thoughts of tending to his sprain and the rest a bed promised calmed him enough to rent a room for the night. Once his eyes closed and sleep covered his physical pain, the evil returned.

A nightmare thrust him out onto a barren hillside. It filled him with a need to walk but constantly drove a frigid wind in his face. The awful mirrored face looked down on him from the orange sky. The wind seeped in around his clothes no matter how tightly he pulled them. When his muscles quit and death from exposure came mercifully close, the mirrored faces cast off a spark. The spark spawned a flame that formed into a sleek female hand. The hand touched Tatric’s face and imparted enough warmed to stave off death.

Then it vanished and Tatric was compelled to walk again. His steps took him nowhere and again the cold was about to take his life. But the hand of fire wouldn’t let him die. After the third cruel touch Tatric fell from his bed and landed on his wrist. The ache it drove into his arm pushed the despair of the nightmare back, but denied any return to sleep. Tatric sat on the edge of his bed cradling his arm and rocked back and forth. His wide eyes stared unblinking out the rain-spotted window of his room. A small break in the clouds freed a single star to shine down and give its light to Tatric’s eyes. This broke Tatric from his stupor and with one good hand he gathered his belongings to leave.

In his haste the night before Tatric had left his oiled raincoat in the tack room by Rose. The cold drizzle made quick work of the cotton and wool shirts he wore. By the time he saddled Rose, his hands were white and his teeth rattled. The rain did fade to little more than a falling mist as he left town, but its damage had been done. Rose slipped more than once in the mud and wet grass before they reached the highway. Even there, the wet stone proved dangerous and Tatric dared not push Rose faster than a modest canter. Night arrived before he came within sight of Waterstone.

Chills refused to let Tatric’s body be still, as did the mist that refused to stop stinging his face. Even with his arms wrapped completely inside his coat, he found no warmth. To make matters worse, his physical pain ceased to hold back the darkness.

There is nothing for you back at Waterstone and there won’t be anything for you no matter where you go. Why are you even out here freezing to death? For some stupid university assignment you don’t even care about? What is the point? What is the point of anything?!

Without thinking he yanked Rose off the highway. He kicked her into a gallop and drove north into the Dynasty Plains. This mad run took him to the same cluster of boulders he had visited a few days before. His unraveling thoughts forced him to stop. He slid off Rose before she had stopped and crumpled into the grass. Thoughts of letting the freezing night come and do its worst gained a foothold in his mind. Yet a tiny part of his aching heart said no. With a blank stare and trembling hands he erected a makeshift tent in a cluster of small trees.

Sitting down against one of the young oaks, his gaze turned upward. The storm clouds had cleared and the brilliance of the night sky caught his attention. Besides the moon and stars, a comet and the planets Hannah and Imperator added their glory to the heavens. Their beauty kindly dried his tears and sleep felt possible.

His eyes started to drift close when the light from Hannah blinked out. It returned just as fast but then Imperator’s did the same. Snapping upright, Tatric scanned the heavens and soon saw a large black object circling the sky. It had to be massive by how it obscured the stars as it flew. He could make out wings that narrowed by its body and widened out considerably near the tips. It resembled no bird he had ever seen and even had a long serpentine tail. Tatric leaned forward off the oak and continued to watch. His eyes brought him no more information, but his ears picked up the rush of wind as the creature beat its powerful wings. It glided effortlessly through the night sky seemingly at random, as if it had no intentions or purpose except to fly.

Tatric watched as the creature circled lower and lower until it landed in the group of flat boulders a few dozen yards away. Once amongst the rocks, and without the backdrop of the stars, its shape vanished. Tatric guessed it had lain down in the grass but couldn’t tell. It now looked just like one of the boulders. Not knowing where such a large and mysterious creature was set Tatric on edge. Thankfully Rose was fast asleep with her nose in the grass or she would have certainly bolted. Trying more not to wake her than give himself away, Tatric crept out of his little camp towards the boulders.

The stone he had climbed with the blue flowers was the only one which rose high enough to break the horizon and suddenly the stars near its tip went dark. His reflex was to crouch low and he strained to see what the creature was doing. But to his surprise the shape that took form against the sky was that of a woman.

Tatric’s heart skipped a beat and he dared to step closer. Then his steps stopped. Tatric didn’t know why they had, but a sudden urge to listen struck him. A strong gust of wind rattled the grass and when it ceased a new sound took its place. A voice, singing. It seemed to come from all around him, a song soft and sad. Tatric risked a few more steps to get behind a large bolder that was close to her. With his back pressed tight to the coarse stone he let his head peer around it. His eyes first fell on the woman again but then one of the boulders near her moved. Tatric had completely forgotten about the creature and shot back behind the boulder when he saw it. The sound of his heart drowned out the woman’s song for a moment and he felt a surge of fear and disbelief as he mouthed a single word into the darkness. “Dragon?!”

Three times Tatric looked around the boulder and three times his mind refused to acknowledge what his eyes saw. Dragons didn’t exist…Dragons can’t exist.

Tatric fought with the paradox until the sound of the woman’s song pulled his thoughts back to her. Its melody flowed along with the cold wind of the plains and he couldn’t help but fall into it. The lullaby penetrated the darkness the mirrored face had forced inside him and with each note a fresh wave of peace came over him.

Just barely believing she was real, he looked back around the boulder and saw that the dragon had stood and was nuzzling the woman’s back. Its touch stopped her song for a moment. She turned and hugged its face. The moonlight seemed to be drawn to her almost like a spotlight and being so close Tatric could see the pair well. The woman was dressed in riding pants and a snug black corset overlaid with a sheer poncho. The poncho flowed off her shoulders to her knees and a small silver belt held it tight to her waist. All her clothes seemed to catch a unique celestial light and reflect it back, mimicking its source. Her poncho sparkled with its own constellations. Her white riding pants glowed like the moon. Even her black boots had a faint comet’s tail streaking up them to her knees. The only light on her that was not from the heavens was the gleam of a sapphire gem hanging from her neck.

Tatric held his breath as he watched her snuggle with the dragon. After a few minutes she turned back to the rock’s tip and picked one of the blue flowers. Her touch acted like the morning sun and turned the moonlight grey of the flower back to its radiant blue. She brought it to her nose for a second then held it to her chest. After a few seconds she threw it up into the sky above her head. It separated into several sapphire blue sparks that streaked down like tiny meteors. Each light landed on the stone around her and from each flame a new flower was born.

The display of magic for nothing more than creation and beauty astounded Tatric. He had heard of magic being practiced, but always by foul little men of whom no good was ever spoken.

“Curses and illusions – that is all magic can be and it should be eradicated from this Realm. It is repulsive and unfitting of anyone civilized,” Tatric recalled his professor once saying.

He had believed the same. But now, looking at the soft blue light that surrounded this strange girl that belief fell away. His hand moved to his chest but not to rub at any pain. It rested flat over his heart and felt it start to race. The desire to speak to her was so overwhelming that Tatric flinched. His sharp movement rustled the grass next to him. The instant the woman heard it, she leapt from the stone onto the dragon’s back and they were in the air.

As they fled, Tatric rose from his now meaningless hiding place and looked out after them. His hand rubbing his chest, followed a heavy exhale. But just before the woman vanished into the night sky she looked back.

He dropped to one knee as he watched her shinning emerald eyes hold his gaze for a moment then turn away. He couldn’t make up his mind if a great opportunity was just had or just lost. His second knee followed and he let his open hands fall limply into his lap.

So she just flies away and that’s it?

With the woman gone from sight, it all began to feel more like a dream than reality and Tatric suddenly felt incredibly tired. Wishing, hoping, wanting was too much for him now.

The morning found him again poorly rested but his dreams had been free of the silver face. The first thought he had was of the girl and the dragon, but he believed it had been a dream.

Something that rare could not just cross my path. It’s impossible.

That final dissenting thought from Tatric’s mind spawned a reply from his long dormant heart.

“Impossible you say? In that case you wouldn’t have anything to lose by checking the raised bolder. Just to make sure there are no new flowers there,” it commented.

Tatric had just swung up and settled into the saddle when he heard the simple challenge. His momentum and that of Rose were already towards the highway but he checked it and stopped. He didn’t turn around right away and seemed to be stuck.

“Well?…Just a quick look and then we can forget about it,” his heart casually said.

Almost without truly deciding to, Tatric’s wrist turned over and he spun Rose around. A few seconds’ canter took him past the grove of trees and over to the rocks. Still more cynical than hopeful, he jumped down and started towards the rock. He swished his feet through the grass as he walked thinking he might see some of the dragon tracks, but not a single blade seemed bent unnaturally.

Still his heart pushed him to climb the rock again and go to the tip. Not expecting to find anything and already mumbling to himself about the foolishness of even looking, he was caught off guard by what he did see. There at the edge of the rock, in a perfect circle, were five blue flowers. They grew right up from the stone itself and were in no way attached to the vine.

Tatric’s heart slammed in his chest and he felt like it wouldn’t start again for a few seconds. The simple truth the flowers told him struck him harder than anything had before. His eyes were fixed on the blue petals and how they swayed in the wind. With an open hand he lightly stroked one and let his touch again tell him it was real. The flower he had picked from the vine the day before had since wilted, so he pulled one of the five new ones and placed it in his hat. With that one flower he walked back down the boulder feeling strong. A small purpose finally had taken hold in his heart.

I must find her. I have no idea what I will do if I succeed. But I must try.

Upon his return to school every free moment he had was spent in the library. Weeks later he had found little more than fictional stories in regards to dragons and dry academic commentaries on magical flowers. But he found plenty of information from all different perspectives on the stars.

Starting with basic astronomy, Tatric learned much about the most prominent constellations and how they moved in the sky. Since it was fall he focused on what was specifically visible in the extreme northern sky during this time of year.

She must have been there for a reason that night. Perhaps she is a priestess and was there to perform some ritual.

More weeks passed. Tatric kept up his diligent search but found no clues as to who the girl might be. Saddened by his lack of success, he found his hand rubbing his chest more often than even before he had seen her. The fear of having only that one brief memory of her and nothing more began to haunt him. No new ideas of where to look came and he began doubting again if he had ever really seen her at all. He would have given up hope were it not for an open window and a random event.

Tatric’s normal routine was to have his bedroom window open at night and closed during the day. But one morning he just decided not be bother with it and got dressed with it open. All his clothes were either hung up or in a drawer except for his broad brimmed hat. It was always placed high up on the desk that split his room. As he reached for it that morning a gust of wind came through the open window and knocked the hat onto the ground. As he bent to pick it up his hand was suddenly stopped by a flash of color. There in his hat, still as fresh as the day he picked it, was the blue flower.

Again the little flower spoke volumes to him. The life it retained from her touch transferred into his heart. He still didn’t have any new ideas of where to look, but his desire to find one rekindled. His persistence paid off, for later that day he found one in the last place he thought to look – horticulture.

By chance his instructor included that very subject in his lecture that morning. At first Tatric thought nothing of it, but then the professor mentioned a myth. It spoke of flowers being used for magic because they were thought to gather starlight. The connection to the girl was immediate in Tatric’s mind and his hand shot up. He didn’t wait to be called on but began his question in earnest.

“Do the myths say anything about a specific flower being important?”

The professor stopped mid-sentence on his next point and fumbled through a manuscript he had brought. “I have not researched it very thoroughly, Tatric,” he said. “But it appears to me that all flowers were considered useful in some way. However, I do recall reading about a specific plant. It was aptly called the Star Flower and was considered almost divine. I believe the carnation was also mentioned more so than others. Why exactly I do not know and honestly I don’t think it’s that important. There are things in my lesson that are important, so we shall continue with that.”

Tatric did not pry further, but after the lesson he pulled the professor aside. “Forgive me sir for my interruption earlier. I know it may seem odd, but I have a personal interest in myths and legends, particularly those about the stars. Do you know where I could find some more information on the celestial flower myth you talked about in class today?”

“No need to apologize, Master Tatric. I can never punish a desire to learn. There are a few writings and compilations of myths regarding the five kingdoms here in our libraries. But for a complete study of all the original texts, I would recommend you go to Gabrie Anniel and visit the Library of Day. I’ll tell you what. I have a good friend and colleague named Professor Christian Berean who is head of the University at Gabrie Anniel and proctor of the Library of Day. If you would be interested, I could speak with the headmaster here and perhaps send you on a business trip of sorts to Gabrie Anniel. I know many people who would desire to send letters with you on your journey. You could serve as our courier and spend a few months studying under Professor Berean. I know he will share your interest in ancient mythologies, for he himself has taken up numerous projects researching such things. I dare say he has become obsessed recently. Would you be interested in such a task? I would send a personal letter with you to Berean asking that he assist in your inquiries as well.”

The offer was more than Tatric could have hoped for and he quickly agreed. Over the next several days he felt his hope grow like it had never done before. He was certain the Library of Day would yield what he needed to find the Girl Under the Stars.

The school would be paying for his travel, so Tatric was obligated to take any letters or purchase requests the school needed. This burden he gladly accepted but his eagerness to leave thinned his patience to wait. But wait he did as seemingly every professor had something to give him. One week later everything was finalized and Tatric set out from Waterstone.

Once clear of the city Tatric took out his map. He had studied his chosen route a little the night before and knew that it would be more than twice as long as it had been going to the City of Flags. So he had planned out several stops along the way. In addition, since he was going to stay much longer in Gabrie Anniel, he had brought far more supplies. The loading of these did not please Rose in the least. She had even bit the backside of an unlucky stable boy who had foolishly turned away from her.

The number of travelers heading away from Waterstone was sparse compared to the number of carts, wagons, and beasts of burden heading to the capital. Waterstone was primarily a political city. It lacked much in the way of manufacturing or agriculture, at least not on a scale large enough to make export trade profitable. This allowed Tatric to make good time for the first few days.

By the second day of travel, Tatric came to the western side of the Wheat Hills. There on its edge lay his first obstacle. A small dense forest that had grown around the Road of the Realm. Officially called the Warwick Forest it held a far more dubious common name – The Thieves’ Forest.


Chapter 11

A Choice of Weakness

Five silver-veiled figures walled of the door. Still as death, they were fixed like chess pieces of onyx and steel. Berean couldn’t help but think, “Check” as he sat behind his desk. Ti’Ceed, still copying Berean’s appearance, walked around the dimly lit cluttered office. He took a small bronze plaque from the wall and set it in front of the professor.

The artifact was the size of a dinner plate. It bore the raised image of five straight rays emanating from a central ring. Along each of the four borders a single line of ancient text repeated.

“Tell me about this piece of history, my good professor,” he said sitting on the corner of the desk. With shaking hands Berean took the plaque, put on his glasses, and read the text.

“‘With the five and the one, Hannah and Imperator will allow’. That is all it says,” the professor remarked as he tossed the plate back onto his desk.

Looking down to read had caused a few large drops of sweat to fall onto his glasses. They clung stubbornly to the frame after streaking the glass on his lens. Berean tried to rub them off with his finger but his hands shook too much. He succeeded only in knocking the glasses off his nose. Frustrated, he snatched them completely off his face and looked up at Ti’Ceed again.

“Why do you need me for this?! You can translate this yourself with your foul craft just as you did the Scroll of Day.”

Chuckling, Ti’Ceed stepped around to the front of the heavy desk and leaned in close.

“I certainly could, but I am no fool. Translations are useless without someone to interpret them. I did have a great deal of knowledge about this subject at one time, far more than even you. But I have become a bit forgetful of late. So you see my dear professor, I am in need of a good teacher who will help me learn. Now, the first lesson I want is related to this plaque. Tell me what the five and the one are.”

As Ti’Ceed spoke the last phrase, the room began to shrink. Darkness boiled out from the air like smoke and concealed the ceiling and the bookshelves. Walls turned into the stone blocks of a dungeon cell. Iron bars crossed the windows. The chairs and tables in the room twisted and morphed into torture devices. Manacles of iron snaked across the floor, their rusted chains clanking and grinding behind them.

Ice grabbed at Berean’s skin as his eyes took in the horror. Every bit of his courage fled like blood from a puncture. His arms and feet flailed like a seizure. His breath came in sharp heaving puffs. This only pushed him tighter into his chair and the manacles found his ankles. Their metal mouths bit into his skin. Their tails snaked up the chair and constricted around his body like snakes. The cold links even wrapped his head and pinned it against the chair’s backrest.

The darkness crept in tighter and blanketed everything but Ti’Ceed. He stood in front of Berean and smiled at the professor with his copied face. The five Silver Veils emerged from the blackness behind Ti’Ceed. In their hands, cups of molten metal and boiling oil shimmered with heat.

Berean thrashed his feet against the ground and cowered lower in the chair, screaming for them to stop. The five encircled him. They lifted their cups and poured.

The searing contents reached his skin and ate through to the bone like acid. The next moment Berean found himself back in his own office, his body un-maimed. He sat un-shackled in his own cushioned chair and the five Silver Veils still stood motionless by the doors.

“Now, I will ask once more…” Hearing his own voice whipped Berean’s head around and he lurched back in his chair. Ti’Ceed still sat on the edge of the desk and leaned closer as he spoke.

“Will you take me on as your student?”

White faced and sweating, Berean’s quivering lips whispered an agreement. “Y…yes.”

“Excellent! I am so pleased,” Ti’Ceed applauded. “In honor of my new teacher, I have a gift to give.”

He then knelt down in front of Berean and slipped a gold ring encrusted with five small red jewels onto the professor’s hand. When Ti’Ceed stood the jewels blinked as if they were eyes. The cold tight metal on his hand snapped Berean out of his stupor.

“What is this?! What curse have you put on me, you foul conjuror?” he stammered.

He yanked his hand back and strained to pull the ring off. The gold only tightened. As it did a cold dread washed over Berean. A horrid feeling of a thousand eyes watching him followed.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Ti’Ceed said shaking his head. “That is a gift and you will wear it proudly. But I fear I am keeping my dear teacher from preparing his first lesson. I will leave you now, but I expect a very informative session the next time we meet. Yes?”

With a defeated voice the professor hung his head and answered, “Yes… I will do as you ask.”

With that Ti’Ceed’s copied form of Berean shimmered. His face turned gold and its features melted away in a cloth veil. The shadows gathered on him and dropped a black cloak around his body.

With the one gold veil added to the five silvers, the six vanished like a mirage, the colored veils being the last to fade completely. Falling back in his chair, Berean fought with his vest pocket for his handkerchief. While dabbing his wet forehead, his other hand fumbled to pour a glass of brandy.

“You are a fool Christian, an absolute fool! How many warnings did you see? How many times did you say, ‘Oh, this is all academic, even the legend of Ti’Ceed. Nothing real will happen. The entire idea of the supernatural is a fairy tale, an outdated crutch for the ignorant to lean on.’ How sophisticated and intellectual do you feel now?”

His hand lifted the drink to his mouth and didn’t stop until it was gone. The alcohol’s warmth slowed his shakes, but it did nothing to alleviate the cause.

Helping Ti’Ceed was a terrible thought and Berean tried to pull the ring off his finger again. To his surprise and increased fear, the ring was not even visible now. Yet he could feel its tight grasp still imprisoning his finger. Try as he might the ring would not budge. Each failed attempt drained Berean of both strength and courage.

Sleep called to him. Praying it was all a nightmare he started to leave his office. As his hand touched the door, he felt the gems on the ring move. The feeling of a thousand eyes staring again bore down on him. Only after he let his hand fall off the handle, did it lessen.

The next several hours he spent clearing his desk for the new reluctant project. He categorized and stored manuscripts from past projects. He returned books, scrolls, and parchments to their proper place – either on his private shelves or back in the university’s archives. Even after sundown he swept and dusted his entire office and made sure everything was organized. Just before sunrise he laid the last cleaned artifact back under its glass case. The only things he didn’t put away were a freshly cut quill, a full ink well, a blank notebook and the plaque Ti’Ceed had picked.

He titled the first page in the notebook, “The Five and the One” then drew a copy of the plaque. Once he finished and his mind shifted to the next step, he let out a frustrated groan.

“Good grief. What am I thinking? I will never find anything here.”

Driven on by the weight of the ring, Berean pushed back from his desk and proceeded to lock up the office. He kept his head down and moved as quickly as his tired legs could take him through the crowded halls. Several people tried to gain his attention, but he only lifted a single hand to them as he rushed by. A few minutes’ walk found him at a little known exit in the north wall of the city. It was a small heavy door just big enough for a single man to pass through. It opened out from inside the university itself and allowed Berean a private start to the Library of Day.

As he walked his conscience started to prick him. It condemned him for his failure to protect the treasure and his current task of helping Ti’Ceed. It made him stop several times but was not stronger than the ring. The oppressive feeling of the eyes easily drowned out the small voice. As beat down as he had ever felt, Berean labored on. He moved out of small bushes behind the city and over to a wide dirt path. It angled up into a group of forested hills.

Berean had walked it many times. This time, however, he didn’t notice any of the flowers that grew along the sides. He didn’t smell any of the pine trees that hissed in the wind. He didn’t even realize when he got there. He just found himself in his secondary office staring blankly at his desk. Prodded by the ring he began his work. Weeks past.

The ring allowed him to perform his duties at the university but drove him back to the Library’s hall whenever there was an opportunity. The constant strain of the ring along with his own self-reproach left him beleaguered and depressed. This spilled over into his normal duties at the university and many of his colleagues and students became concerned.

“Perhaps you are working too hard and should consider taking on an assistant,” one suggested.

“You look terrible and I am afraid you will take ill very soon. What is it that you need to devote so much effort to?” another added.

Each time someone brought up the subject, the ring’s sight would weigh even heavier on him. Terrified that Ti’Ceed would appear and punish him if he explained himself, Berean agreed to take on an assistant.

So that afternoon he sent an order to the school printing house. One hundred copies of an ad seeking an office assistant and research aid.


Chapter 12

The Recruitment

Stephen Fidelis fidgeted with excitement and uneasiness. The late autumn leaves and a small boulder made a comfortable seat but he couldn’t sit still. A few dozen yards in front of him was the entrance to the Eternal Mountain and it was being transformed. Bayern had allowed him the privilege of watching.

The news Stephen had gathered involving Ti’Ceed’s return had sparked a strong response by the Prime Fidelis of the Order; the current reconstruction being part of that response. The Prime himself had been an elder when Ti’Ceed first came to power and attacked the Order over four hundred years ago. Despite the large passage of time, he and the few others who escaped that attack had not forgotten it. Watching one’s brother be killed by madness and illusions of horror never can be. In spite of such things the memory provided one advantage.

Only after Ti’Ceed had entered the chamber did his spells lose their potency. It was his one weakness. So the plan of battle, should he attack again, was to attempt to lead him into the mountain.

To assist with that plan the Prime had ordered that the entire entrance be changed. Not until Bayern explained the manner in which Ti’Ceed had been driven off, did Stephen understand.

He told how the dark priest had not been thwarted by force of arms or by any singularly powerful spell. It was the work of numerous small ones. These Time Skill charms were effective because they eliminated the times in Ti’Ceed’s past when he had learned or understood something specific. Outside of the chamber these charms had no effect no matter how many were cast. But once he entered the mountain chamber, they all affected him at once. Like a swarm of hornets there were too many to counter at one time. Every one hit its mark and more. While it was probable his memory of the mountain being his weakness had been erased, the Prime left nothing to chance. So the entrance was ordered changed just in case it would trigger Ti’Ceed’s memory.

Stephen had yet to take the final training course that was given in the mountain chamber, so he had only seen the outside entrance once before during his first year. That was three years ago. At that time it had no door and was wide enough for three men standing abreast to walk through. The stone around its edges had been hewn to resemble two pine trees with an arch of carved letters connecting their tips.

A heart filled with

THE TRUTH

cannot be deceived

While Stephen was sad to see the original workings of the cave erased, he fully understood the wisdom behind it and was eager to see the new design. Some of the work was done with hand tools but the majority was done with the magic of the five elders.

Stephen watched with fascination as they placed time charms of differing strengths on the carved stone with a simple touch of their hands. Slowly the stone grew or crumbled until an archway of cube shaped depressions replaced the original trees and words.

The elders took large blocks of hand carved obsidian and fitted them into the depressions around the cave’s entrance. On the face of each block a unique gold leaf had already been laid; one for each of the different trees that grew on the Eternal Mountain. Next, a door of black ironwood was fitted across the cave’s entrance and the opening was sealed for the first time. Its stout bronze hinges were anchored deep into the granite and three riveted steel straps held the door’s planks together. Lastly, they fastened a white ceramic eagle to the face of the door. This eagle had belonged to the previous Prime whom Ti’Ceed had killed. In the eagle’s diamond talons it grasped a large version of the Order’s medallion. Its outstretched wings were feathered with gold and its white eyes held a menacing look.

With its completion Bayern started towards him and the young L’hal knew his time was up. “There is more work for us to do inside,” the elder said. “But that is not for your eyes yet so please return to your training now. Ti’Ceed has changed much and there is a great deal for all to do.”

Stephen gave a nod of understanding and obeyed. Early in the morning several days later, Stephen was on duty with the gatekeeper when a lone rider suddenly appeared mere feet in front of the gate. A mist covered the desert and clouded Stephens’s sight a little, but he knew he should have seen the rider far sooner.

Even though the man was already within arm’s reach of the gate, Stephen still gave out the call of a sighting. A pit twisted his stomach as he expected to be chastised. Allowing someone to get so close before announcing their presence screamed of laziness. As the full L’hal that commanded the gate leapt up the stone steps, Stephen expected the worst. But nothing came.

“Self-reproach is not needed now, Stephen,” he said. “It was no failure of yours that allowed him to get this close. Soon you will know why,” he said.

The man at the gate was dressed as a L’hal, but his face was covered by his cloak, and he did not look up or speak.

“Produce your medallion and hold your ground before entering,” the gatekeeper commanded. Again without speaking or showing his eyes, the man lifted his arm and Stephen could see the white jewel glint on his armguard.

The mountain entrance was not the only change Ti’Ceed’s return caused. All defenses and defense protocols had been stiffened. One of which required all those wishing to gain access to the compound to not only produce their medallion, but also to submit to several spells. One of these spells caused a person’s clothes to revert back to what they were at random times in the past. A new seal on the face of the gate performed the tests and the traveler passed each. Once the gatekeeper was satisfied that the man had no deceptive magic upon him, he granted passage.

“I see we have already begun to prepare,” the hooded rider said as he walked past the disintegrated gate.

“Merely precautions and something to scare the less experienced ones with,” the gatekeeper answered. The joke did not return a chuckle as the man turned his eyes up. Stephen could see his young face was not fearful, but his eyes were hard and his lips tight.

“They may have been merely precautions before, but no longer,” he said.

The gatekeeper turned to Stephen. “Go now and tell Bayern that Titus has returned and brings news.”

Stephen jumped down from his place and took off running. He found Bayern in the library and as he ran in the elder looked up and said one word – “Titus?”

“Yes sir, he is at the gates now.”

“I see. Stay here,” Bayern said as he rushed by.

A twinge of disappointment struck Stephen when he heard Bayern’s command, but he obeyed without hesitation.

Bayern had been expecting Titus to return much sooner. With haste he moved down the hard dirt path from the library to the gates. Titus stood waiting for him. The elder came right up beside him.

“Walk with me now,” was all he said.

Titus dropped his horse’s reins and fell in step with Bayern. In silence the pair walked through the monastery compound. A recent rain had dampened the ground and a fresh green edge touched the desert landscape. The creosote bushes gave off their sweet smell, the wild roses sprouted new leaves, and a cool wind hissed through the acacia trees. Such things normally gave Bayern pleasure, but he hardly noticed. With his hands behind his back, his eyes stared at the ground as he walked.

Titus broke step towards the council chamber as they passed it but Bayern walked on. Still in silence they passed more wild rose patches and small cacti until the path gained pine trees and junipers. Once isolation and a forest surrounded them, Bayern spoke.

“He delayed you, yes?”

“Yes Sir. The Prime’s orders were rather peculiar but I followed them as instructed. My journey to Geraye was accomplished without difficulty and I located the one I was sent to warn. What role that young man will play is a mystery to me. The look in his eye was that of one burdened by a great weight. Still, I warned him with the Prime’s words and thought my job was done. But then, by the grace of the Divine, I witnessed something the night before I was to leave. A common thief by the name of Nicholas was… how shall I say…recruited. Three men, one of whom bore a large battle axe, forced him to take an audition of sorts. He was given a sword and made to fight the man with the axe and then given a bow and made to shoot. At the end it appeared he passed their test and was given a small dagger which bore…a mirrored face.”

“I knew it. His plans are already in motion,” Bayern muttered as Titus continued.

“The thief was welcomed into the group and they immediately left towards the City of Flags. I debated on following them, but I felt an additional warning to the boy was now needed so I stayed. Once I spoke to him a second time, I did follow but failed to find the group again. When I came to the City the Flags the mirrored face flew next to the banners of all five nations. However, there was only one meeting in progress that I was able to get close enough to eavesdrop on.”

“Who were the parties?” Bayern asked.

“It was between one who claimed to speak for someone called the Professor of En’Nightenment and a delegate from C’dcer. I am not certain who this professor is, but I suspect it is the new name Ti’Ceed has given himself or a figurehead servant meant to absorb attention. As I listened, the two discussed only one topic; the ability of the Professor of En’Nightenment to conduct research in C’dcer. I suspect that was the agenda of every meeting because the representative of the professor commented that Geraye and Reltheot had already consented to this request.”

Bayern listened intently but said nothing after Titus finished. The two kept walking. Once they reached the entrance to the mountain, Bayern changed the subject. He casually talked about the new construction and how it was decided upon and implemented. Bayern kept up his slow conversation but stopped mid-sentence. He stared at the eagle on the front of the new door.

“I know you are aware that the Prime does not experience time the same way we do out here,” he said. “The visions he sees are sometimes difficult to explain in a way we can understand. What he has told me is that the one you met in the City of Flags will be of great importance to Ti’Ceed at some point. The elders do not believe Ti’Ceed is yet aware of the boy or of his need for whatever the boy can do or be. Although if the Prime has seen something, we can be sure that Ti’Ceed will soon as well. His foul crafts of divination were strong before and we must assume still are. I will relay what you have told me to the Prime and stay for a time with him. You must take rest. When I return I will have new instructions.”

After a quick clasp of hands, Bayern turned away from Titus and faced the eagle. He stood perfectly still and looked right into the eagle’s diamond eyes. The eyes were the first to move. They took on a look of intent and turned to meet Bayern’s directly. Then its head became fluid and turned as a living eagle’s would. Its eyes gained a strong inner light as it looked Bayern up and down, searching for a reason to block him. The eagle’s gaze found none. The light in its eyes faded and as its head turned back, the door swung open.

* * * * *

Maps can be deceptive. An unsettling fact Tatric knew as he checked his for the third time. Ever since entering the Thieves’ Forest, he wanted out of it. Even though the route looked short on paper, he had to accept the fact it wasn’t. The many small hills and massive rock formations that littered the woods forced the builders to make it snake along instead of cutting straight. The road had been built in the forest’s infancy and since then the retaining wall and ditch had been removed and their stone salvaged as the trees became a natural flood break. This however allowed the forest to nearly engulf the road. It succeeded with its overhanging branches but the constant flow of traffic prevented a complete take over.

Tatric entered the forest around mid-day and knew he could not pass through before nightfall. This would not have been so disconcerting if the thickness of the branches didn’t block out the sky so much. Even the strong afternoon sun had difficulty penetrating through to the road. The dimness made Tatric want to cover as much distance as possible on the first day, so he kicked Rose into a gallop.

The snap of her iron shoes on the stone drowned out the soft rustle of the wind as they drove deeper into the forest. Rose was strong and the two made good time, but failed to reach the southern border of the forest before the light began to get sparse. Although Tatric could still see fairly well, he pulled Rose off the road.

The light will fade much faster in here. I must use it while I can to make camp.

A short distance into the woods he came to a small stream and a section of flat ground wide enough to sleep on. He gave Rose a good brushing then tied her up near the water so she could graze and drink. While the horse noisily ripped up the grass and splashed around, he went looking for firewood. The leaves had changed and many already carpeted the ground. The trees that didn’t retreat for winter held out their dark green leaves, a sharp contrast to the red, brown, and gold that dominated. The summer had taken its toll on the smaller ones and it wasn’t long before he had an armful of dry branches.

Rose had rooted into a collection of ferns and lifted her head momentarily as Tatric set down his collection of wood. The sharp scent of smoke and the snap of fire soon followed. Once it was established Tatric went over to Rose.

“Now you can’t sleep yet. I have to clean your feet,” he said.

The horse knew the routine as well and stiffly got up from the fern patch. With a small metal tool Tatric cleaned out the mud and rocks that had built up in her hooves. It took only a few minutes but when he was done the fire had burned down. Only a few weak flames leaked up from the bed of black and orange coals. This was just what he wanted. He took out his cooking utensils and buried a potato in the coals. Gathering some water from the stream, he began to boil vegetables and fry a few links of pork. As his food cooked Tatric leaned back against a large boulder and looked up through a small opening in the forest canopy. He could see the stars beginning to prick through the dark blue sky along with the faint outline of Hannah and Imperator.

The small view of the night sky brought Tatric’s thoughts back to the night out in the Dynasty Plains where he first saw the girl and her dragon. The pain over his heart had bothered him since he left Waterstone, but it now melted away as his memory saw her eyes again.

The smell of his burning potato snapped him back to the campsite and chased the memory away. Chuckling to himself, he peeled the charred skin off and salvaged what he could. Quickly finishing his now reduced meal, Tatric rolled out his set of sleeping blankets.

“Good night, Rose. Don’t let anyone steal something, okay? You have first watch,” he said. The horse nickered back at the sound of her name, but promptly returned her nose to between her feet and drifted off again. Fatigued by the hard ride, Tatric quickly fell asleep and began dreaming of a small forest meadow.

The air above the ground flowed like a carpet of fog around his boots. There was neither sun nor blue sky, but instead a bright white blanket that sparkled like snow floated high above. It seemed to shine from within and gave light to the flowers and grass that peeked up through the fog. Tatric found himself walking out into the meadow with Rose following close beside him. The mist swirled around his ankles and he stepped through it like the clouded waters of a stream.

The flowers were all tightly closed upon themselves and were a type he had never seen before. They had dark purple petals and leaves as black as night with silver veins visibly coursing with light. Intrigued, Tatric reached down to pick one. His hand snapped back when a clap of thunder hit. It exploded right over his head and the call of a stallion followed. Instinctively ducking, Tatric’s head spun around and cold adrenaline coursed through him.

Rose spooked and in her mad rush to leave, she crashed into Tatric. The thick mist along the ground also seemed afraid and rushed into the forest. Knocked to the ground by Rose, Tatric was covered in the fleeing mist. Being under it was like being engulfed in water, sight and sound were weakened.

Both senses slowly returned as the mist thinned and he saw a figure out in front of him, a young girl of maybe twelve. She wore a black and gold dress that went down to her wrists and touched the grass. She called him over with her eyes. He got up from the meadow floor and moved closer with careful steps. Before he got next to her he took the sword from behind his head and laid it in the grass.

“Can I help you, little one? Are you lost?” he asked.

“I am here to help you,” she replied. “You see, it is not I, but you who are lost.”

The girl’s voice matched her child-like appearance, but it came from all around him, not just from her lips.

I do not understand. How is it that I am lost?” Tatric asked. The girl gave a sympathetic smile and touched Tatric’s hand.

“You are lost because your heart is lost. You have not put its strength to a purpose so it wanders – lost without meaning. But there is a time coming soon when a single one, and indeed everyone, will need that to not be so.”

Tatric didn’t know why, but the girl’s words carried a gravity of importance beyond measure, and he felt a more important conversation could not be had. She seemed to speak not just to his ears, but to him as a whole. Though much of what she said did not make sense. What or who was a “single one” and how could everyone need him?

He did, however, completely and painfully know what she meant by saying his heart was lost. The reference brought his hand to his chest and he felt his breath cut short again.

The girl’s face dropped as she watched Tatric struggle. She stepped closer and pulled his hand off his chest. In it she placed a small blue flower.

“Your heart is on the right path. What you must do is listen when it speaks. Be willing to do what it asks, no matter the cost. This will be more difficult than you know, but I will help you.”

After she spoke the gold borders on her dress gained immense brilliance and Tatric fell back with a start. He raised his hand over his face to shield his eyes from the light. The glow turned the girl into only a silhouette. In the swirling radiance she grew taller and opened a great pair of wings. When the light lessened enough for Tatric to see her, he drew back with a start. She was now a grown woman with shinning black hair streaked with gold. Her eyes shined and her golden wings completely surrounded Tatric.

“Ask and it will be allowed,” she said. The brilliance of her transformation was terrifying but he could not look away. Her words echoed around him but he didn’t know what she meant.

Ask? Ask what? Why?

Feeling he absolutely must answer, his mind scrambled to make sense of it. It just swirled with nothing and couldn’t form a clear thought. Falling to his knees and clutching his head Tatric cried out in pain. The woman stepped forward and laid her hand on his head. The raging chaos in his mind instantly calmed. The girl under the stars took its place. There her face stuck, looking back over her shoulder at him as she flew away.

The image brought a torrent of thoughts with it— thoughts about all the time that had passed since he last saw her. Thoughts about the time it would take to get to the Library of Day, the time it would take to find something about her, if that something even existed, then the time it would take to seek her.

The momentary peace he had faded. The memory of her face followed as he stared at the great gap of time separating him from her. His face turned down and with a glassy stare he just whispered, “I need…time.”

With tears falling, Tatric turned his face back up towards the woman. The brilliance of her dress softened and she knelt at his side. She picked up his sword from the grass and placed a little white flower on its hilt. She drew Tatric’s hand away from his own chest and placed both the sword and flower in his palm. The flower filled with light and sank into the hilt.

“It is allowed,” she whispered.

She leaned forward and gave a kiss to his forehead. A thunder clap detonated and she was gone.

The clap of natural thunder and the first pricks of rain jolted Tatric from his sleep. Only a few made it through the thick branches above him but he knew that may not last long. The dull morning light strained to filter through the storm clouds and trees. It was meager at best but enough for Tatric to break camp by. Fearing the rain might increase at any time, he focused on packing his supplies as quickly as possible, and the dream slipped from his mind.

Once he got back to the road the dream flickered back and he reached for his sword. But the commotion of a group of soldiers riding by at the same moment stayed his hand. He let the group pass but kept Rose at a modest cantor for a while. A few hours later he overtook an old man driving a cart and began a conversation.

“How far is it until we clear this forest, sir? I have never taken this particular route south before.”

“Well with this old nag here and my cart it will take until mid-day tomorrow. But for a young one like you with a fine horse, you could make it out by sunset if you hurry. Guess you have heard the tales of all the bandits in this forest?” the man said spitting tobacco juice out to his side.

“I wouldn’t think it should be called the Thieves’ Forest without reason, though I have had no such issues thus far,” Tatric replied.

The old man cackled and spit again before answering.

“And you won’t, son. See I have made this trip carrying cider and ale for twenty years. There used to be all sorts of trouble, lost many loads to those scoundrels and lowlifes. But these last few months have been smooth sailing because of the Recruiter.”

Tatric furrowed his brow at the strange reference. “Who is the Recruiter? You mean like forced enlistment? I have never heard of that happening before in Geraye.”

The old man waved his hand in disagreement. “No, no, not anything like that. The Recruiter is just a name that has been given to a man of magic that has been rumored to be in these woods of late. I have heard many stories of how he corners travelers along the road and asks them to join a cause or an order or something. If they refuse, he puts curses on them that make them go mad. I ain’t never seen him, but ever since people started talkin’ about him the thieves begun to disappear. So I like that man, whoever he is. How’s that for a story to rob you of sleep,” he said with another laugh. “But good luck to ya, son. I have to give this old girl of mine a rest.” With that the old man pulled up his horse, drifted to the side of the highway and stopped.

That was quite the wild story. Crazy old man.

Tatric also doubted the time the man had said it would take him to get out of the forest, so he kicked Rose into a gallop. As much as Rose could take he kept the pace fast but by dusk the forest had not thinned at all. Forced to stay another night, Tatric again led Rose off the road and found a place to bed down. Thankfully the storm clouds had not spilled any strong rain and the ground was dry enough. By the morning the clouds were gone and Tatric had strong sunlight with which to continue.

As he started out again he figured the old man could not have been off by too much and expected to clear the forest by late morning. By mid-day, however, Tatric had still not seen any sign of the forest thinning or any breaks in the hilly terrain. A cold unnerving sweat beaded on his brow as he kicked Rose into a run again. As he pressed on a disturbing realization came to him; no one else was on the road.

Mid-day passed and the road began to straighten out. The number of boulders and hills lessened, giving Tatric hope that he would soon be free of the forest and all its uncertainties. A loud rustle in the bushes at the next bend in the road snapped up his full attention.

A large gruff looking man with one eye and a dirty beard stepped out onto the road. Tatric yanked Rose to a stop; reflex put his sword in his hand.

A heavy battle axe rested over the stranger’s shoulder and he looked almost bored. He said nothing, but cast off his large mud covered raincoat and motioned for Tatric to dismount.

“So much for that old man’s story of there being no thieves left here,” Tatric muttered to himself.

The man made no aggressive move but defiantly blocked the road. Tatric’s head spun around from side to side anticipating a second attacker. Rose squealed and pawed at the stone road, terrified of the man a few yards away. Several minutes passed and Tatric felt confident the man was working alone. He urged Rose up closer and pointed his sword at him.

“Who are you to block my path?! Stand aside and let the peace be kept between us.” The one eyed man said nothing but again motioned for Tatric to dismount. Looking the man over Tatric could see many fresh scabs along with old scars. His nose also told him they were never cleaned, nothing on the man was cleaned.

I bet he is just a low level thief, forced to bear the risk and danger of robbing for his group.

Tatric took a small sack of money from his saddle bags and threw it at the man’s feet. “If it is money you desire from me let this be considered my payment to continue on unhindered.”

The man kicked aside the money and muttered, “Fight me… then you may go.”

Tatric’s anger began to build as his knuckles turned white on his sword. “Fine! If it is sport and combat you desire, I shall oblige,” he said after dismounting. “You take a big risk fighting me with one eye. I may take the other and leave you to wander this forest until the beasts find you.”

“I’ll handle it,” is all the man answered and the conflict began. Tatric was not a highly skilled swordsman, but his few years of training in Waterstone had made him competent and he was able to fight with confidence. He knew his light rapier was not a match for the heavy spiked axe so he made sharp swift attacks then retreated, letting distance be his defense. The older man was far more experienced and parried Tatric’s attacks with calmness and skill. Each time Tatric would lunge forward the man seemed to know where he would try to strike. Time after time all Tatric’s sword found was the crook or flat of the double bladed axe.

Patience, Tatric. Patience. You can outlast him. Don’t waste your strength now.

Frustration tightened Tatric’s neck as his failed attacks began to accumulate. The older man did not seem to tire and suddenly changed his tactics. After turning another of Tatric’s attacks to the side, he spun in a rapid circle and swung his axe low at Tatric’s waist. Surprised by the sudden quickness, Tatric barely sucked his stomach away from the blade and spike.

The man kept up the same pattern of attacks with little variation to his swing. Only the first one had surprised Tatric and the next several he easily evaded. This gave Tatric confidence and his energy grew as did the effectiveness of his attacks. The man’s previously casual defense now seemed more urgent and Tatric inflicted a few minor cuts on the man’s arms.

“Give up yet? There is no need for you to die now,” Tatric said during a momentary lull. The man’s one eyed expression held no emotion and he again just stood and held his ground.

“Very well, I gave you fair warning.”

The fresh blood on the man’s hands filled Tatric with confidence and he rushed in hoping for the final blow. This time however, the man again expertly blocked Tatric’s blade and spun around for his counter swing. Tatric jumped back as he had before and tightened his stomach for a counter attack. When he made his move forward a burning pain grabbed his thigh and he stopped. The sensation of hot running blood came to him from under his pant leg. A deep slice sat open on his leg.

Tatric felt a coldness wash over him and his breathing grew labored. The one eyed man smiled and flicked the wrist that held his axe. The handle snapped back a few inches into itself.

Tatric wobbled and had to put all his weight on one leg. With one hand he held up his shaking sword and with the other he tried to slow the bleeding. The man did not rush forward to strike again, but stood erect and tossed his axe to the side. Tatric slowly lowered his sword too, but then flicked it back up as the man drew a knife from his belt.

“You are not worthy,” he said.

As the knife flashed towards him the girl under the stars suddenly jumped into Tatric’s mind. He saw her face looking back at him with a hint of longing. When she turned away the knife shattered her image like a pane of glass. The blade streaked towards him.

To his surprise he easily sprang out of the way of the dagger’s path and it clanked harmlessly on the stone behind him. Both he and the man stopped short, unsure of what just happened. Bewildered, Tatric slowly looked down and saw the wound on his thigh was gone. A fresh surge of energy followed and he felt like the fight had just begun. Not waiting to figure out why, Tatric seized his advantage and the conflict began anew. With his renewed vigor and sudden strength, Tatric overcame the man’s experience and delivered a serious wound of his own across the man’s hand. Pain and fear now filled his lone eye and he fled back into the woods.

Back on Rose, Tatric thundered off. He figured he must be close to the wood’s edge now and pushed her hard. However, his heart sank as the trees began to get thicker and the road more uneven as he went. After another hour of hard ridding he suddenly saw the afternoon sun through the forest canopy; it was on his left. Cursing himself he realized that in his haste he had been running north not south.

Rose fought hard to keep up the pace that Tatric asked, but once they neared the place where they had encountered the one eyed man, she could not maintain it.

Tatric allowed her to stop and together they walked off the road. They found a stream but only stayed long enough for both to drink and catch their breath. Back on the road Tatric was about to swing up into the saddle when a glint of metal on the road caught his eye.

It was the knife the one eyed man had thrown just before fleeing. The blade was only the length of his first finger, old but well sharpened. Its handle curved slightly and was made from a deer antler. Cut into the side were more than a dozen small notches and under them the name Hagen. Tatric’s face burned with anger as he looked at the lives marked on the handle.

The man is nothing but a bloodlust, a brute who challenges people to fight just so he can kill them. If I meet him again his knife will get a final notch.

Sliding the knife into his belt as a prize, he remounted Rose and pushed forward toward the edge of the forest.

Due to the fight with Hagen, and subsequent negative travel, Tatric did not reach the forest’s southern border until late that afternoon. When he broke through the trees, he could see far out into the countryside below.

From his high perspective Tatric could see the military fort far off to the south and smoke from the city of A’Tallcer to the east. All were comforting sights but when his eyes fell on his immediate path his stomach sank. Less than a mile away, the road disappeared into a section of hills littered with boulders and small trees. Not another soul could be seen and only one word came to mind as Tatric stared at it. Ambush.

Wanting nothing to do with all of the blind corners and possible hiding spots among the rocks, Tatric turned off into the grass well before he came to it. However, as soon as he cleared the retaining wall that flanked the road, Rose stumbled. He was not hurt and Rose seemed alright as well though she danced and tossed her head nervously.

“What was that all about girl? You find a rock or something?”

It took many soft words to calm her anxious prancing, before he could check her legs. All were sound and Tatric let go a sigh of relief. He then started swishing his foot in the grass to find the rock he assumed she had tripped on. But instead he nearly fell as his leg dropped into a large gopher hole. Tatric’s heart rate started to climb as did the tension he felt in his chest. He continued out farther into the field and with nearly every step he took, he felt the fresh dirt of another hole.

Tatric knew Rose had been lucky. Gopher holes can kill horses. And even if he walked her slowly through the grass, she almost surely would fall again. So with no choice Tatric led her back to the road. After a deep breath he headed to what he hoped was just an abandoned pile of rocks.


Chapter 13

The Library of Day

The large wooden doors of Professor Christian Berean’s office were closed tight. A young girl in her early twenties stood outside shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Her dark blue eyes darted back and forth between the name plate next to the doors and a piece of paper in her hand. As a few students walked by she turned away from the door and tried to appear to be only reading her note. Once they passed, she again compared the note to the name plate.

Feeling confident she was at the correct place despite the locked doors, she gave the silver knocker a few taps. The sound of a chair sliding across the floor was followed by a loud crash of books that made her jump. Some halfhearted cursing leaked through the wood before footsteps came and the lock turned. As it did, the girl took a deep breath and put on a wide smile. A beleaguered looking Professor Berean opened the door.

The girl cheerfully thrust out her hand, even though the Professor’s arms were full.

“Hello, Professor Berean,” she said quickly. “My name is Benicia Jay and I am here to apply for the Academic Assistant position.”

A lethargic Berean limply let part of his hand be taken as he looked up at the taller energetic girl standing in front of him. “I’m sorry…the what?”

“The Academic Assistant position you advertised for. Oh no! It’s not taken already, is it?!”

A confused mumble leaked from Berean’s mouth and a blank look covered his face. Benicia moved her long bangs behind her ear and Berean saw her eyes. Their beauty and brilliance was like a splash of cool water on his face and snapped him from his stupor. His cheeks flushed a red and he fumbled with his armful of books until he could shake Benicia’s hand properly.

“Oh yes, I mean no, the position is not filled. My apologies. Please come in and we can do your interview right now. There has been only one other applicant so far and I was hoping for a bit of choice in the matter.”

Benicia smiled with the change in Berean’s demeanor and glided past him into the small vestibule outside his office.

“Please go on inside and take a seat. I will be right with you,” Berean said. Benicia did so as Berean cast a wary eye down the hallways, before locking the outer doors again.

“I am sorry for the state of my office. Please move anything that’s in your way. I am so sorry,” he gushed coming back in.

Reaching his chair still with books in his arms, his head spun back and forth for a place to put them. He just mashed them back on to a random shelf in front of its proper content.

His once clean office was again a disaster of ink spills, book stacks, chalkboard drawings and random papers. The scent of many lunches left to spoil hung in the air along with the thick scent of paper. The latter Benicia found pleasant and familiar. As for the former, she was glad a source did not sit in front of her.

Berean rushed to move a large pile of papers from the smaller chair in front of his desk and motioned for Benicia to sit. Weaving himself through the rest of the chaos, he sat down in his chair. For a second he stopped as if he was done, but then snatched a notebook from the top of his desk and thrust it in a drawer.

Benicia watched the professor scramble about and tried to hide her discomfort by focusing on the paper she held. When Berean sat in his chair and appeared to be ready to listen, she began to extend the paper she held. Both it and her first word she sucked back when Berean abruptly shoved the notebook away. A few awkward moments followed as Benicia waited to make sure the professor was actually ready.

She then pulled several other papers, including a sealed letter from her bag and pushed them across the desk.

“Here is my work experience and a letter of recommendation from the headmaster of the Belfrim Academy at Shilltham.”

“You came all the way from Belfrim to apply for this post? How did you even know of it?” Berean asked.

Benicia bit her lip and fought to hold back a knowing smile, like she was privy to some entertaining secret, before answering.

“I just needed to get away for a while. I am an efficient traveler though I did come to Geraye with the intent of finding some work either with the university or in the Library of Day. So when I came across your advertisement, it sounded like just what I am looking for.

“Really? I find that a bit odd for a young girl to travel so far alone and without any guarantee of work. But far be it from me to judge you.”

He scanned through the letter and her work experience notes. Pointing to one particular section in the notes he asked, “It says here that you held a part time teaching post at the youth academy in Shilltham nearly every winter for the last five years. Why did you never gain a full time position?”

Gesturing back to the letter Benicia answered. “If you recall, it says that I was offered one several times but I had certain private obligations in eastern Belfrim that I could not forsake. Therefore, I was unable to take a full time post. Though arrangements have been made now that will allow me to stay here a full year if necessary. So please take that into account with your decision.”

“Well, I am ready to hire you right now if you are willing to accept the same weekly wage you received in Shilltham,” Berean said. “Though I would have you teaching studies of social behaviors to first year students here instead of history, along with working as a research aid for my projects. This would include access to the Library of Day.”

Berean leaned over and opened another drawer in his desk. He pulled out a teardrop of clear glass attached to a fine silver chain. Inside the drop a golden scroll hung in suspension. He handed it to Benicia and his face grew serious.

“This is your access to the Library. You must wear it at all times while at the library and conceal it when you are not. The Library of Day is not like the school library. Access is strictly controlled and some parts are off limits completely. Exact records of what you do there are required. Only I and a few others may grant access to it for special projects. So if you are staying there, you cannot have visitors if they do not also have this charm. Is that acceptable, Miss Jay?”

Standing up with a big smile, Benicia reached across the desk and shook Berean’s hand firmly. “Yes, sir, it is. When can I start?”

Such infectious enthusiasm and joyful expression found its way onto Berean’s weary face too. A little pep filled his voice as he replied.

“The new class does not begin for two months. So the first task you have will be research at the Library of Day. I assume you have accommodations arranged?”

Benicia’s smile turned down and she looked at the floor.

“I was actually hoping I could secure some sort of arrangement with the school to stay on the grounds while I am here. I hope that is not an imposition, but in Shilltham we have housing for teachers. I assumed it would be the same here.” The fall in Benicia’s face made Berean flinch but his answer carried a positive tone.

“We do have housing on campus but only for the full time professors. I am sorry… but I am sure something can be found at the Library of Day for you. That arrangement would help while you work there, but when the new class begins it will make for some early mornings.”

The smile and light came right back to Benicia’s face when Berean mentioned the library.

“Oh thank you, that will be more than acceptable. I will not mind meeting the sun every morning. He is my friend.”

Berean chuckled and shook his head as he pulled out the notebook he had stowed away earlier. He took a few seconds to copy a list from one page then handed the list to Benicia.

“Here are the topics of research I am currently pursuing as well as a list of the parts of the library where you will most likely find the appropriate subject matter. I cannot stress enough the importance of this subject to me. I expect very studious and efficient work. You may tell the chief librarian, Donovan Hornsby, that I have allowed you to use a vacant study room as your living quarters and he will find you a suitable one.”

“Thank you so much, professor. It has been a dream of mine to study at the Library of Day,” she said, shaking Berean’s hand again.

“You are most welcome, young lady. I hope you enjoy your time here.”

Benicia’s deep blue eyes sparkled with a fresh joy as she burst out from the university’s main doors into the sunlight. Being allowed to stay in the library itself was a dream come true and she had to fight the urge to start running towards the city gate. Going as fast as she dared, she passed out from the main university hall and down its sweeping stone steps.

The building was originally the palace for the King of Geraye and held all the grandeur of one. Its five sections were all of the same style, set on high ground with half-moon staircases of marble leading up to an open platform. Set away from the edge of the stairs were the buildings themselves and each displayed heavy wooden pillars capped with a silver base and capital.

However impressive the structures were, Benicia only slowed her steps a little to gaze up at them. Her true interest, the Library of Day, lay outside Gabrie Anniel to the north. Though the closest gate demanded she leave the university grounds and move east through the city.

As she walked through the light crowd, the morning sun rose higher and began to warm her skin. Its light focused on her and the hem of her light blue dress faded to white. From there the sunlight gathered near her shoes and tiny gold roses appeared in the black leather.

Benicia continued on and gained more than one odd glance as the white color climbed higher on her dress. When the blue was gone from her skirt, the sunlight began to dissolve the hem and touched more and more of her legs with its warm rays. This gained her attention. She squealed in lighthearted protest and scooted to the nearest shadow. The sunlight couldn’t reach her there and her dress fell back below her knees, regaining its original color. Warmth filled her cheeks as she scowled playfully at the sun.

“I can’t play with you today, especially here in the middle of town! I’m sure what you had in mind would have been beautiful, but it has to wait, yes?”

A few seconds later she ventured a step back out into the sun and watched her dress. When it didn’t change she smiled. “That’s better.” As she started walking again the sun did take its focus off her, but a final few golden rays formed into a silk ribbon around her waist.

“I saw that!” she said with a giggle.

Benicia did not stop for any supplies as she passed through the marketplace. She headed straight for the eastern gate. The Library of Day was an hour’s walk into the hills northeast of Gabrie Anniel and Benicia was content to make the short trek on foot. In fact, she enjoyed walking and was pleased that the hills and the countryside were quite similar to the outskirts of Shilltham. The last thistle blossoms of summer added spots of purple to the sea of yellow sunflowers that lined the dirt road. She smiled and took a deep relaxing breath of the flowers’ scent as the path started to tilt upwards.

The deeper she got into the hills the more slowly she walked. She did want to get to the library but paused along the way to watch every butterfly for a moment and smell every flower she hadn’t seen before. Knowing this was the last display before winter, she filled her arms with each flower that caught her eye. Several butterflies even landed in her bouquet and drank from the blossoms as she carried them. Their lack of fear brought her hand over her heart and a grateful smile to her face.

“Thank you for not running away from me. It really does mean something,” she said to them.

With her collection of sweet scented color, she crested the hill and the Library of Day came into sight. Benicia had seen drawings of the library but the real thing stopped her in her tracks. She had to remind herself to breath as she inched closer.

Situated in a flat field surrounded by soft forested hills, the setting sun amplified the Library’s glory. The structure’s central hall rose twice as high as the hills around it, dwarfing even the tallest trees. The front portion of the main complex was a large cylinder made of five great stone pillars and block walls supporting a golden dome. The courtyard was simple compared to the majesty of the building but was beautiful in its simplicity. It consisted of a paved circle with rays coming off of it like the sun, and a thick old tree in the center. Around its whole circumference, and filling the rays, were planters of bright yellow roses. Benicia added one of the large flowers to her collection and then approached the tree. At its base a bronze plaque read “Imperator’s Shade.”

That’s curious. Why would they name a tree after a planet?

The tree was a type she had never seen before and looked as old as time itself. It had a massively thick trunk and short spindly branches with long feather-like leaves. The tree had strength in it though. Not a single dead branch marred its gold and red leaves. Plucking one of the bright leaves for her bouquet, she passed on to the main entrance of the library.

The tower and gilded dome she stood in front of was the tallest portion, but it was rendered thin and spindly in comparison to what lay behind it. Looking like a double sided ballroom staircase into the heavens, the central portion of the library curved slightly around the tower. Five tiers of white tile roofs on each side of the tower progressively rose until both sides met the flanks of the main hall. On each section that faced the tower, a tile mosaic of the sun was laid into the wood.

Starting from the lowest east wall and moving to the lowest west wall, it portrayed the path of the sun from dawn till dusk. Benicia followed the artwork along its complete path noticing how the portion for the current time of day seemed to catch more sunlight than the others. Below the suns, the lesser stories of the library were filled with small windows and balconies. The main hall, however, bore only a single window above the massive full sun mosaic.

Benicia paused for a long time and watched as the true sun moved its light from the late morning mosaic to the large central one. As those tiles gained brilliance she looked around to see if any prying eyes were about. A group of students had passed her on the road but they were nowhere to be seen in the courtyard.

“Now you may,” she whispered.

At her words the thin clouds that flavored the sky shifted and the full power of the sun shone on her. Its rays dissolved away her simple blue dress and covered her body with a brilliant shine. Golden sparks and tiny flames fell from her hair as it curled in the breeze. Flames coursed around each lock and its dark chestnut color transformed to a golden hue.

Opening her arms to the sun, the flowers she held were taken up into the air and one by one the light around her absorbed them. As the brightness dimmed, a white and gold dress now hugged her body and silver sandal straps wrapped up to her knees. The dress rested high in the front, but fell to the ground behind her with the silver forms of every flower she had picked lining the hem. Flowing off the tips of her shoulders, loose sheer sleeves reached down to her hands and attached to silver bands on her ring fingers. A yellow butterfly danced up from the yellow roses nearby and landed on her chest. It melted into her dress and its golden wings flared out across the rises of her breasts.

The sun’s affection filled Benicia with warmth and a peaceful smile crossed her face. Her eyes were closed but as the wing tips of the butterfly joined with her dress they flashed open. Their original blue was now laced with flecks like molten gold that shined with their own light. The powerful eyes turned up towards the sun and blazed like they were its little siblings.

“Thank you, friend. You give me joy when I need it most,” she said.

At the tower’s great double doors she glanced back up at the sun as if to say, “That’s enough for now.” A few reluctant seconds later the sun obliged and again shone naturally all around her. This lessened her dress’s brilliance and her eyes calmed back to their natural solid blue.

There was no bell or knocker so Benicia pulled one of the large doors to the tower open herself. When she stepped inside her gaze turned upward to a spectacular sight. Light that seemed almost solid stretched up to the tower’s roof. Small slits let the light in from the outside but were angled such that Benicia could not see them clearly as she looked up. Nothing adorned the walls save for white stone polished to a shine. Pure radiance was the only decoration. A slow motion cyclone of dust flakes swirled upwards and made Benicia feel almost as if she was rising with them.

She had to stop in the center and take in all the tower’s splendor before moving on to the small inner doors. She opened both of them with a strong two arm push and entered a short carpeted hallway. At the end she was met with the vast main hall of the library and again her eyes lifted upwards.

Bookshelves and book ladders covered every wall in the massive central room. There were numerous desks, couches, and chairs placed in small groups. A few dozen people milled about, all displaying the small teardrop of glass in some manner. One girl even had it as an earring. Five black marble pillars ran in a line through the center of the room. The two central columns flanked a cherry wood island with several men with ascots and high collars sitting around on the inside.

Those must be the librarians Professor Berean spoke of.

The light tap of her shoes echoed throughout the otherwise silent hall as she crossed the large distance to the island. It was set several feet higher than the rest of the room and made Benicia feel almost as if she was looking up at a judge’s bench. There were no name plates in front of the men so Benicia chose one at random and came up closer. He did not acknowledge her right away but slowly kept writing until his thoughts were finished. After clearing his throat and removing his glasses, he turned a stiff gaze down at her.

The look of superiority in his eyes changed to surprise as he noticed Benicia in her radiant golden form. She held up her teardrop charm and smiled.

“Hello Miss. Good eve I...I mean good morning. How may you...how may I help you today?” he stammered.

Amused at him being tongue tied, Benicia tried to hold back a smile but was only partially successful. This just served to make things worse as the man began to turn a little red and tugged at his collar. Saving him from further stress, Benicia spoke up.

“Good morning, sir. My name is Benicia Jay and I have just come from a meeting with Professor Christian Berean. He has hired me as a research aid and instructed me to speak with Donovan Hornsby regarding my stay,” Benicia said offering out the professor’s note. The librarian took the paper and scanned it with darting eyes.

“Yes. I was aware the professor had been seeking some help recently. He has been under a tremendous amount of stress lately because he will not lessen the workload he has put upon himself. It was I who finally convinced him to seek an assistant. I am glad he found someone so quickly.”

Stepping down from his seat, the librarian walked around and opened a false section of the island. A few felt stairs were exposed and he joined Benicia.

“Welcome to the crown jewel of Geraye, the Library of Day,” he said offering out his hand. “I am Donovan Hornsby, the Chief Librarian under Professor Berean. Please follow me and I can show you where you will be staying.” Shaking his hand politely, Benicia fell in step with Hornsby and followed him out of the main hall.

“How much do you know of this library, Miss Jay?” Hornsby asked as the two snaked down the hallway.

“Not a great deal. I grew up in Belfrim and only read about it a few times and saw some artwork. But my mother told me stories about her times here and how incredible it was. So it has been a dream of mine to visit,” Benicia replied.

“Well allow me to give you a brief history then. Contrary to its name, the Library of Day was originally built as a temple and archive for an ancient religious sect, though the exact date of construction is not known. It is well accepted that it predates the formation of the five nations. While it remains under Geraye control today, there have been many different entities that have laid claim to it – even private ones. While this has sadly led to some things being lost from the library, it has also led to the great expansion of the archives. Every time control switched hands, that person or kingdom would add on to the library in order to store their own documents, treasures, and relics. As a result, no one knows the full extent of the library – how many rooms it actually contains or even what is stored in every known room. That means we need you to keep a good record of everything you do and find here so we can increase our overall understanding of this place. Ah! Here we are,” Hornsby said stopping at a door.

“Every room on this hallway was originally a room for the priests of the temple, then they were study rooms before we were able to obtain all the furniture you saw in the main hall. This one still has some furnishings that you may arrange to your liking. I must return to my work now but please don’t hesitate to ask me for any assistance, Miss Jay.”

Hornsby handed Benicia the room key and after a slight bow he departed. Dimness and the scent of old leather greeted her as she stepped inside. A few weak rays of light leaked in from around a pair of curtains on the far wall. The room was of modest size with several chairs surrounding a low coffee table and two couches along the far side. Mostly empty bookshelves lined the walls and dust sheets covered everything.

She first pulled off all the dust covers from the chairs, tables, and dressers with a little more enthusiasm than was needed. A fact made clear by the sudden itching of her eyes. A building tingle in her nose followed and by the time she reached the window an attack of high pitched sneezes shook her body. When they finally stopped her hair was strewn across her face and she desperately needed to blow her running nose. With no hankie, the old curtains sufficed.

Glad no one saw that. Note to self, open the window before making a giant dust storm in a small room.

Still wiggling her tickled nose, she tugged the large curtains aside. The amber glass window unlatched easily and swung out, letting in much needed clean air. Free to see outside Benicia could tell her room was on the second tier of the west side of the library. Half of the courtyard’s yellow roses were directly in front of her and off to her right was Imperator’s Shade. The view was lovely and the air refreshing but Benicia didn’t pause to enjoy it long. The dust filled unorganized room behind her demanded attention. With a last deep breath of the clean air, she closed the window.

With only a few scattered streams of dust-filled light flowing past the curtain, her white and gold dress shifted back to the modest blue one it had been before. Her normal brown hair reached only to her waist and the bouquet of flowers rested back in the crook of her arm. The golden butterfly pulled off her chest and took to the air again. She set the flowers down on the table and took stock of all the furnishings. Her brow twisted this way and that and she bit her lip as options cycled through her mind.

Reaching a conclusion she gave a satisfied node. With an outstretched hand she touched the wooden backrest of the nearest chair and a subtle flame came to life. Without blackening the wood it spread down the edges and engulfed the entire piece. Like a bubbling spring, golden fire flowed out from the chair until flames touched the entire room. The small transparent tongues consumed everything until only the bare room was left. The fire created no heat but filled the room with a swirling wind that tugged at Benicia’s hair and dress. It twisted around her legs and danced down her arms. With fire as her clay she walked about the room and re-created all the furnishings in their new places.

When finished, Benicia looked around with approval until her eyes fell on the flowers she had picked. Frowning at her forgetting them, she caught one of the last fading flames in her hand. She touched the fire to her lips and blew it towards the flowers. Her kiss ignited the blossoms of each flower with fire that matched the petal’s color. Taking the large yellow rose first she set it on end on the table. It didn’t fall over but hardened into glass. The fire danced inside its petals and like a lamp it gave off a cool light.

One by one she set all the others out around the room or hung them on the wall. Each formed into a lamp or candle that bore the likeness of the flower, and soon the room was filled with light. As she placed the final flower, the golden butterfly landed on the petals.

“Oh hi, little friend. I am so sorry I forgot about you,” she said pausing to think for a moment.

With a gentle blow Benicia moved the enchanted fire off the flower and onto the butterfly’s wings. The little creature absorbed the flames and its wings began to sparkle and grow. It jumped off the flower and shot straight up to the ceiling flashing into a shower of sparks. The tiny falling embers each formed into a glass butterfly that burned with a strong light. Each one hung by threads of differing length from the ceiling and formed a glittering tapered chandelier. Now she was done.

The two couches were pressed together like a bed complete with an assortment of sheets, pillows and blankets. The chairs were now by the great window and the table stood in front of them. Only a single bookshelf had been remade from the flames and it stood just on the inside of the door. Not a fleck of dust remained and everything from the stone floor to the wooden plank ceiling was new as the day it was made.

A happy smile of satisfaction crossed Benicia’s face as she took a long look at her new room. She spun a few times round then suddenly stopped as if remembering something important.

Her smile condensed to a solemn line and her eyes narrowed sharply. Her head slowly turned until she faced the door. In a flash the blue of her eyes become an iridescent emerald green. They smoldered with power and all the lights in the room began to dim. She stared intently at the door and two small spots started to blacken and smoke. The room trembled as the sound of giant beating wings pulsed through the air. Benicia continued to stare at the door and a subtle smile crossed her lips. Her eyes moved slightly and lines of charred wood coursed out from the two spots. Like a hundred invisible artists drawing at once, the terrible face of a dragon came to life. When the final line was complete, the two spots flashed open as eyes; identical to those that had just created them. The dragon gave a roar and fire filled the lines that created it. A blast of hot wind surged into the room and pulled embers from Benicia’s hair.

Calming her eyes and relaxing her face, the lines on the wood faded until only a light outline of the dragon remained. The light in the room returned and a happy gentle smile crossed her face.

There now. I will truly have some peace here.

Satisfied with her work, Benicia opened the curtains and sat down in the chair by the window. It was late afternoon now and she watched the last bit of the sun set and the first evening star emerge. Looking at the star, a hint of sadness crept into her emerald eyes. Once the sunlight was gone, she turned back from the window now wearing a black satin nightgown that twinkled with its own starlight.

A strong deliberate breath focused her mind and she retrieved the note Professor Berean had given her. Just before sitting back down she rushed to her bag and pulled out a worn mended teddy bear. With it snug in her arm and a warm blanket around her shoulders, she curled up in the chair and began to read.

I have to record everything I do here. What if a few pages accidentally get…misplaced?

****

Guilt. A heavy dose of it stung Professor Berean as he watched Benicia walk away with his hiring note in her hand. Was he putting her in danger? Was it wrong enlisting her aid in his secret, forced alliance with Ti’Ceed? Would the dark master be angry at him for doing so?

These questions weighed on him but he did not have the strength to act. He turned back and shut himself inside his office. He placated his conscious by thinking he had sent her on a general research mission only – one that really didn’t have anything directly to do with the plate or the FIVE and the ONE it spoke of.

She will be fine. Ti’Ceed need not even know about her. And if I get what he wants, he won’t even care.

With the guilt forced down to a dull ache, he sat back in his chair and began reading again. While he knew the Library of Day certainly held undiscovered information about this subject, he thought it best to exhaust the library at the university and his own collection first. Then he would shift to sifting through the great archives.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of movement. His heart lurched in his chest and he whirled about, dropping his book. A curtain flapped by an open window. He hurled a curse at the mindless fabric and retrieved the flung book. The damage had been done to both page and nerves. His shaking hands felt numb and a cold sweat beaded on his forehead.

It had been months since Ti’Ceed stole the first divine treasure and recruited him. Since then many such moments of panic had plagued Berean. With each day that passed he had grown more paranoid of every cloaked or shadowy figure. He removed all mirrors in his office, terrified he might see Ti’Ceed in one when he least expected. His doors were always locked and he could not shake the weight of the unseen ring on his hand. The knowledge that the Deceiver could appear at will filled his dreams. Time and again he awoke dripping with sweat.

Even so, Berean managed to control his fear enough to make progress on his research. He had planned all along to one day study the plaque and its cryptic passage and symbols. So part of him was glad to get the chance sooner than expected. That being the case, a loose plan as to how he would go about it already sat in his mind. Once he was given the task, he had the first step planned: Seek the meaning of the One.

The ONE must bear more significance than the FIVE since it is set in distinction from them– so there ought to be more information concerning it.

He had also made an educated assumption concerning the ONE that guided his thinking. The ONE must lack some common factor that the FIVE share, and therefore the method of locating it would likely differ from that of the FIVE.

A second assumption was that the FIVE were the Divine Treasures, one of which was the arrow. He also believed the ancient worshipers of the stars created or were entrusted with the Scrolls of Night. If this was indeed true, then the ONE must be spoken of in their writings.

Armed with this line of thought, Berean compiled the best historical literature and surviving writings he could find that dealt with sacred places, objects, and items of that ancient religion.

For several weeks Berean used this approach. Every waking moment the unseen ring weighed on his finger if he was not working on the task. It gave only small moments of relief for his obligatory university duties.

This perceived obsessive state is what had caused his colleagues to insist that he take on an assistant. His conscience strongly objected and had turned away the first applicant, even though he was qualified. Something the ring punished him for with nightmares of molten metal and silver faced demons. The ring only loosened its unseen grip after he allowed Benicia into his office with the intent of hiring her. His need for relief overcame his sincere but weak will, and he sent her to the Library of Day – an unwitting accomplice.

A few weeks after he hired Benicia, he made his first breakthrough. During excavation of the temple where he found the Scroll of Night, he had also found a small obelisk. A long line of text adorned each face and he finally managed to translate them. Each was the same text, though such things were common for that kind of object.

The ONE with heart of stone in hand,

the Eyes of Tanith will look on

with blessings and honor.

Simply finding the phrase the ONE with the same capitalization pattern as the plaque was something noteworthy. In addition, it was of interest that the text also mentioned Hannah and Imperator, though not directly. It was common knowledge for someone as learned as Berean to know that the constellation, Eyes of Tanith, included the planets Hannah and Imperator. This small phrase allowed for the expansion of his current theory, but also complicated it. It was expanded by the implication that the ONE was not inherently favored by the deities. It complicated it by implying the ONE was a person not an item like the FIVE.

It clearly states on the plaque that a total of six items are needed for something to be allowed. So how can the ONE be a thing and a person at the same time? Also, what is a “heart of stone” and how can such a thing bring favor?

Frustrated by gaining a small bit of insight at the cost of generating an apparent paradox, Berean slammed his notes shut. He massaged his face under his glasses and strained to find some success to build on.

Well at least I have something to fill a “lesson” with when he comes back.

The ring on his finger countered his positive feelings and the oppressive unseen gaze blanketed him. Under its weight the beleaguered professor reached for another parchment in his stack and began to translate it. The one he randomly selected bore the royal seal of the first dynasty of Sheelhigh. Methodically and mechanically he converted the foreign texts to modern expressions.

The long, drawn out greeting was typical of the writing at that time and didn’t convey any real information. Fatigue and disinterest crept into his mind and clouded his eyes. So much so that when he completed the translation he did not read through it from start to finish. Or even recall what its general subject was. With its completion though the ring allowed him a respite and he went straight to bed.

The next day, after returning from his lectures, the ring insisted he work some more. Numb to his conscience now, he dutifully plopped down in his chair. While re-reading the parchment he had translated the night before, surprise nearly threw him from his seat.

Christian, you fool. How did you not see this before!

Blessings and peace be to you, noble High Priest,

Glory and praise to the Two who are One. I am pleased to inform you that the work our fathers were given is now ours to finish. The fifth and final Sky Temple has been completed and lacks only the sacred flower for consecration and protection of its purpose. By the authority of my father, and with great joy, I command that the final item be removed from the vaults and sent with all haste. Take the utmost care with this crowning act so that our purpose may not be undone in the last moments. The flower and the item will touch no hand but yours.

By the strength of His heart I command,

Nathanial, Son of the King

“So there are five Sky Temples and each received a sacred “flower” to plant in their garden. In reality they were secretly hiding the five Scrolls of Night,” Berean said.

Even though he knew who the information would eventually serve, happiness sprinkled over his heart. He had discovered an ancient secret of real merit. The mood leveled out when the obvious next question forced its way into his mind. Where are the other four Sky Temples?


Chapter 14

New Strength

Titus stood next to his horse on a high grassy hill. Below him the ocean pummeled a rocky beach. The cold wind swirled his cape and bit at his skin. He stood against the buffeting and watched the waves roll ashore then shoot skyward through the hole in the sheet of black rock.

To the south, the Port of Sheelhigh slept and the Lighthouse of the Leviathan shone in the dim morning light. The sealed letter he held dictated that neither of those would be his destination.

Bayern had given him the letter after the elder had returned from his time in the Eternal Chamber with the Prime.

“Go to the port city in southern Sheelhigh to the monk complex that services the Leviathan Shrine and give this to the High Priest. Not another soul shall touch it or know of it. Then return with all haste,” had been his orders.

The rushing hiss of the blowhole brought Titus’s gaze back to it. The blowhole was a marker and Titus knew the priest’s complex was between it and the lighthouse. Turning south, he began to ride along the high road that flanked the coast. He continued until the ocean green tiles of the monastery complex came into sight.

A large half circle wall of thick tar-soaked beams enclosed the landward side of the buildings, but left it open towards the sea. The buildings were all shaped like the scales of a fish, save one. Black obsidian tiles covered it, rather than green and it angled sharply like an arrowhead. Covered walkways connected the buildings in an undulating line, giving a serpentine appearance to the whole collection.

Titus pulled up his horse where the high ground slopped down and to the sea. A series of heavy wooden poles, half buried in the sandy earth, made an oversized staircase that led to the complex’s gate. “State your business, stranger, before you come any closer to our dwelling,” the watchman called out as Titus approached. Stopping as commanded, Titus raised his arm and showed his medallion.

“I am Titus Fidelis, serving member of the Order of L’hal. I bring a message with utmost urgency from the Prime to your High Priest.”

“Very well, you may approach,” the watchman replied. With that he disappeared from the short lookout tower and moments later the single gate creaked open. Even though he had opened the gate, the young watchman stood in Titus’s path.

“Tell me the nature of this message before you pass further,” he challenged.

Titus’s eyes flashed with anger. The silver flecks in them shined and his lips drew tight. A single step forward and a single phrase, “Do not hinder me,” drove the lesser man back. As if Titus were a lion and he a lamb, the young priest stumbled back as the color drained from his face.

“Yes, yes sir, please forgive me bu…but I cannot guarantee you an audience with our master,” the watchman stammered.

“I care not for your thoughts on this matter. I mean to speak with him and will not be turned away so quickly,” Titus took another step and the watchman nearly took off running.

“Of course, of course. Tie your horse here and I will take you as far as I am able. Thi...this way.”

The two set off toward the black tiled building where the watchman opened the main door and gestured Titus inside.

“Someone of my rank cannot enter the lower chamber without a summons. Proceed down the central staircase and you may gain what you seek,” he said with an apologetic bow.

The door shut behind Titus and extinguished all light. A slight flicker of light came from Titus’s medallion and his eyes adjusted instantly. Only a single long hallway of white sand stretched before him with doors every few paces on each side. The walls and ceiling were perfectly covered in scales of abalone shell and gave a slight fishy taste to the air. At the far end was a tiny square room with a descending circular staircase in the center of it.

With urgency Titus made his way to the stairs and descended. In the stairwell the abalone scales ceased and the walls were polished stone. Carvings of the sea and storm clouds were its decorations. He circled down what felt like several stories until he came to a large wooden door. He knocked firmly and waited. A few seconds later the latch on the other side lifted and the door opened without a sound.

Titus anticipated a dank hallway or narrow tunnel. Instead a giant room opened up in front of him. Five shafts of light dropped in from the smooth rock above and looked like the pillars of a great hall. Four of the brilliant columns surrounded a wide circular pool and the fifth illumined a statue in its center.

The statue was that of a mermaid who seemed to float on her side. She rotated slowly on the water with a green metallic tail and strikingly beautiful human features. Her dark hair held a hint of ocean blue and it fell over her back. With one elbow she supported herself against the water while the other hand held a dark purple flower. Her radiant silver eyes matched the streaks of color that accented the flower’s petals, and a soft happiness filled her face.

The sudden light of a raised lamp made Titus jump and pulled his gaze from the mermaid. A white haired hunched priest stood just beyond the open door. “Seems the Lady of Sinnet can even captivate the hard trained mind of a L’hal,” the priest said.

“Yes, she can,” Titus said, his eyes back on her. “I never knew she existed nor have I seen anything like her before.”

“Few have,” the man answered. “She was a gift from the Isles of C’dcer many years ago… rumored to be the likeness of a real mermaid too, if you believe in their legend.”

“Seeing her makes me believe it more,” Titus answered finally breaking his gaze. “I have never seen such a work of art. It’s almost as if she were real and just holding still. Forgive me if I am intruding in any way, but I bear an urgent message for the High Priest.”

“It is quite an imposition to come without invitation. The lady is not for show, nor is anything else here. But I have never seen a L’hal do something rash or without just cause. I shall take you to our master. Come… this way.”

Titus followed at the man’s side as he led the way around the pool to the far side. His slow pace and the size of the pool gave Titus time to look around at the many works of art that adorned the walls. Masterful depictions of dolphins, seahorses, crabs, and rocky shores hid in the dimness. Titus noticed there were only carvings and tapestries in the room, not a single painting. A sudden loss of footing on the damp stone showed him why. No painting could survive the constant moisture that hung in the air.

However great the pieces were, his eyes kept going back to the mermaid in the pool. Her back was still turned to him and her tail now appeared purple from where he stood. He wanted to wait till she turned around again and see her face. But the loud creaking of a door and the urgent message he carried pulled him away.

Before he left that room his eyes were drawn upward toward the ceiling by a glint of blue light. High in the darkness he could just make out two massive images on the ceiling – a great sea serpent and a winged horse. They were carved with such skill that each creature could be clearly distinguished even while sharing the same pair of blue diamond eyes.

The light of the old priest’s torch struggled to illuminate the new hallway that he and Titus now walked through. The constant dripping of water echoed in the darkness ahead. The manmade hallway soon became nothing but a rock tunnel filled with black moss and a bitter cold mist. An hour’s walk later Titus saw light from something other than his guide’s torch. It leaked under a stout wooden door at the top of high set of stone stairs. The old priest unlocked it and ushered Titus into a finely furnished cave.

A long window cut in the rock provided ample light and gave a view of the ocean some two hundred yards away. The hot spring that bubbled up in the center of the room chased away the chill of the tunnel that still clung to Titus. The spring flowed out through a pair of holes in the rock below the window and crashed down several hundred feet before flowing out to sea. The furnishings consisted mostly of wool blankets that covered the smooth stone floor and large stiff cushions that served as chairs. Several side tunnels led out from the main room, but his guide asked Titus to stand where he was. Disappearing down one of the corridors, the guide returned several minutes later. He was followed by a man in heavy blue and white robes made of coarse wool fabric. He was not the high priest. He was far younger– no more than thirty-five.

A simple thank you was extended to the guide by the new man before the old priest disappeared back down the frigid tunnel. Motioning for Titus to sit at one of the large cushions around the hot spring, the younger priest poured two cups of steaming tea and handed one to Titus. Both held their tea but neither drank for several minutes. Tension hung in the air and both seemed suspicious of the other. The priest was the first to break the stillness, but not the silence. He set down his tea and worked a leather cord necklace out from under his shirt. He looped it off his neck and held the seashell charm in his hand. He stared at Titus who set his cup down and proceeded to remove his arm guard.

They both extended their items and traded. Each looked over the other’s object for a few seconds. Then in a moment the tension in the room ceased.

“Ti’Ceed forces us to do strange things in order to know that we are actually with friends. It is good to see a L’hal warrior again,” the priest said grasping Titus’s hand firmly. Titus returned the gesture as both gave back the traded item.

“My name is Kingheld. I am sure you were expecting my predecessor. No doubt you two had met one another before, since you are a full L’hal member. You must have at least 115 years of experience if my memory of your ways doesn’t mislead me. I would be calling you master if we were not in my office,” the priest added with a chuckle.

“You are indeed correct on both accounts, sir. I was unaware a succession had taken place here and I am 119 years experienced,” Titus replied.

“Fine achievement indeed. Yes, I prefer that the inner workings of my Order not be common knowledge. Only the King of Sheelhigh and his highest officials are informed of such matters. My predecessor was my primary instructor and his respect for the L’hals led to a full course being required here related to the origins and practices of your Order. Though, of course, we teach our own theology. In spite of our admiration for you we intend to keep it that way. However, I doubt a full L’hal member would come all this way to banter the finer points of the Divine with me. Why have you come?”

“A letter…” Titus answered. “A letter that I freely admit is a mystery to me. I only know of its urgency. My master, the Elder Bayern Fidelis and his brothers have been…fearful in recent days. The return of Ti’Ceed has caused more alarm than I thought possible among our leadership. The Royal Council of Reltheot has become so secularized they pay little attention to any letter we send them. I doubt they even reach the King’s hand. So we must act without the Council’s blessing or aid. Our Prime has been seeing visions that greatly disturb him. This letter was given to me immediately after Bayern had spoken with the Prime. That is all I know, but I was told to return with utmost haste after receiving your response.”

A solemn mood covered Kingheld as he broke the seal and spread the four corners of the letter apart. As he read his face grew darker and a level of anger crept into his grey eyes. He refolded the note and sat back in silence.

“A heavy request…one I would think your Prime would know should not be asked,” he said. “If my predecessor were still holding this seat, I am sure you would be refused. To do such a thing carries immense risk to my Order, my position, and the well-being of the entire nation of Sheelhigh. However, Ti’Ceed’s presence changes many things. So I will take a step of faith and trust in the wisdom of the Prime this one time… I will open the Library of Night.

* * * * *

The collection of boulders loomed large as Tatric came closer. During the short mile it had taken him to reach it, the sky had changed considerably. A cold wind swirled and was now joined by dark storm clouds. The sun was blotted out the moment he passed by the first stone, something Tatric felt was a most unnatural coincidence.

Something about the storm felt different too. The wind hit him square in the face no matter which way he turned and the clouds were a strange mixture of purple and black.

Everything about the moment seemed wrong and after only a few minutes Tatric couldn’t stand it. He leapt from Rose and drew his sword. His ears strained to hear every sound. His eyes darted from one rock to the next. A rabbit darted out and Tatric nearly cut one of its ears off with a reflex swing. He kept his steps as quiet as possible as he passed one ideal ambush site after another. All the while the storm continued to build overhead.

Strangely not a single drop fell, though Tatric felt like an ocean hung above him. The clouds were menacing and fearsome, yet not a single thunder clap rumbled out or flash of lightning was seen. Only the biting cold wind and the smell of rain gave the storm’s presence away. This whitened his knuckles even more. The storm was waiting.

Several yards ahead, a dark shape streaked by. Man or animal Tatric could not tell but it disappeared around one of the larger stones.

Tatric’s senses heightened ever more and he let go of Rose’s reins. Quiet step after quiet step brought him up to the large boulder that the figure had slipped behind. He pressed his back to it. Inch by inch he scooted down to the corner and peeked around it. There was a small circle of rocks and symbols drawn in the dirt. In the center of the ring was a stone bowl that burned with purple and black smoke.

It took Tatric a moment to realize what he was looking at. When he did his heart dropped. It was an incantation rite, and seemed to be in full effect.

“Damn! And I have walked right into it,” he whispered to himself. Gripping his sword with both hands, he forced his breath to slow.

I’ll need all my wits and a lot of luck to get out of this.

The storm flashed to life and a bolt of lightning leapt from the clouds. With only a quiet hiss it lunged to the earth and struck the center of the incantation ring. A deafening thunder report followed and dense white smoke erupted from the incense bowl. It billowed up into the storm clouds and more silent lightning raged inside them. Tatric’s instincts turned him around and he made a break for Rose. A blinding flash and a bolt from the clouds cut him off. It scorched the grass and threw up dirt and gravel in his face. The thunder clap detonated a moment later and hurled Tatric back.

Rose screamed in terror and fled. The noose was tightening and Tatric knew it. He stood, feeling like a fish in a net, and watched the unholy smoke rise. From within the billowing haze, a tiny silver light sprang to life. The figure of a man formed beside the light and the glow remained at his hip.

“Greetings, traveler,” a soft kind voice said. “Today your life changes for the better…or for the worse if you are foolish. Your testing by Hagen in the forest has gained you the privilege, or should I say has gained us the privilege of meeting one another. I represent someone of great power and importance – someone who is in need of strong capable men to join him in an honorable and just cause. You are such a man, I can tell. One who cares for things other than himself, a young man with great will. You are someone whose heart is confident in its purpose, and has been set on a clear and noble path.”

Tatric started to lower his sword at the man’s seemingly genuine words, but snapped it back up as the man spoke of his heart’s purpose. The dream with the young girl flashed into his mind along with the words she had spoken to him. “You are lost because your heart is lost...”

Even though it was a dream, her words held an absolute truth. This mystery man had just run completely contrary to them and flattery reeked in his words. Indignant at the prepared rhetoric, Tatric interrupted his speech with a sharp question.

“What cause or purpose do you propose for me, conjurer?” The figure in the smoke did not falter and took the interruption in stride as if expecting it.

“A fair question and one I am pleased to answer. I represent the noblest, most pure instructor of knowledge the Realm has ever seen. He is a man who has received divine direction to teach and guide those wise enough to follow him. It is his wish that no one but himself relay his true name. However, he goes by another that I will tell you now. The man I speak for is the Professor of En’Nightenment. He desires strong youths such as you to join him in forming a new order of justice and peace in the Realm. If you chose to join us, you will receive a most honored gift as well as power and knowledge.”

His silhouetted form pointed to a polished wooden case on the ground a few paces away—dark cherry red with the carving of a single mountain on its face. It slowly opened showing a burgundy felt interior with six depressions and two glinting daggers alongside their sheaths. The lid folded out to an elbow and the daggers rose up with it. They spun slowly on their tips, flawless blades flashing with the storm’s light.

“As you can see four of these prizes have already been claimed. Reach out your hand and take the fifth. You will be welcomed by the Lord and become an En’Nightened One,” the figure subtly commanded.

Tatric did find the daggers incredibly beautiful and the man’s voice strangely persuasive. He approached the case, knelt down, and set his hat off to the side. The daggers were short and sleek, with straight silver blades on strong black and gold handles.

Leaning closely Tatric’s eyes filled with green, white, and red light from the jewels that adorned one side of each of the daggers’ handles. The gems were perfect in their cut, color, and clarity – flawless through and through. The glittering light and the power that swam inside them pulled out his hand to take one. His fingers brushed the hilt and began to close around it.

“Listen…you must listen no matter the cost.” a young girl’s adamant voice echoed in his mind.

Tatric’s eyes suddenly shot to the still fresh blue flower in his hat, the one the girl under the stars had given life to.

“You cannot turn away from her now. You must find her,” his heart screamed.

The desperation with which it spoke injected a surge of fear through Tatric’s veins; fear of what he had almost done. A quiet sigh of thankfulness for the narrow escape passed through his lips, but then they tightened as he put his hat back on and stood.

“I am sorry, sir. Your offer is most generous, but I cannot accept,” Tatric said as he took a big step back. The tone of the concealed man’s voice hinted of agitation as he replied.

“Perhaps you do not realize the magnitude of what is being offered. Hagen told me you possess some form of healing magic and my master greatly desires such skills. He will surely give you a high position if you choose to join him.”

“Your servant misleads you. I hold no magic and only possess an academic knowledge of such things.” The figure chuckled softly and Tatric could feel his condescending smile.

“He may have. However, I shall find out the truth in due time. You see, I am he who is called The Recruiter. It is my charge to find those worthy to join my master’s cause… and punish those arrogant enough to refuse him. Now feel the power my master has given me and see what you could have had!”

Like a hunter’s dog loosed on its prey, the storm sprung on Tatric. It cracked with deafening thunder. Bitter cold rain poured down. Its wind swept up from behind the smoke cloud and drove against him carrying raindrops like stones from a sling. They drove into him like a wave and threw Tatric back. Tatric fought to his feet feeling as if he had fallen through ice. He whirled about expecting a sword to come next. The storm’s wind drove right into his eyes and burled his sight. The repeated claps of thunder drove pain into his ears. Only the pillar of white smoke and the Recruiter’s voice remained clear.

“It is a spell my master created but I have put some of my own design into it as well. Do you see how you are experiencing the full force of this storm?” Tatric didn’t answer but the rain had long since reached his skin and his jaw quivered.

“Don’t you find it curious that this cloud of smoke has not blown away? Yet the wind of the storm has been blowing in your face this entire time? You see, I don’t feel this storm at all – only you feel the wind, only you feel the cold, only you are blinded by the rain and the darkness. I can see you perfectly. And you look terrible,” he chuckled again.

Now Tatric heard the sword slide from its sheath. The dull silver glow he had seen when the figure first appeared got brighter and moved with the whoosh of the blade. Tatric assumed the glow marked the sword and strained to make out the weapon’s length.

With the next flash of lightning the Recruiter rushed forward out of the smoke. This made him slightly easier to see but it didn’t matter. More by luck than skill, Tatric managed to block the first swing. His hands fought to grip his sword as freezing rainwater drenched them. Numbness gnawed into his fingertips and stripped sensation. The rain turned what little grass there was slick as ice sheets. The earth became sticky mud. On one surface Tactic’s foot could not stay still. On the other, it could barely move at all.

In seconds Tatric’s body begged him to stop. His legs burned, his chest heaved, and his shoulders were seizing up. The only thing that did not shout at him was his hands. They had gone silent.

The apparition of the Recruiter advanced steadily and delivered repeated attacks. Tatric managed to block them all, though he knew it was not purely by his own skill.

He is toying with me.

Despite the obvious truth to his thoughts, Tatric forced them out. Block the next one…block the next one was all he told himself. For a few minutes he held his own but the storm could not be ignored. Like ice cracking a great stone it wormed into Tatric. Another patch of slick grass stole one leg out from under him and the other buckled.

A laugh and a raised silver glow followed. In the instant before the light came down, Tatric saw her again. In the swirling clouds her green eyes opened and she looked back at him. When she vanished Tatric found himself on one knee with his arms raised. His sword had blocked the Recruiter’s.

“Oh, there is drive in you still? What compels you to continue I wonder?” the Recruiter taunted.

He drove his sword down again on Tatric’s and the two locked hilts. With no need for speed or reliable footing, the fight became equal. Tatric fought to turn the Recruiter’s sword to the side while he fought to keep it above Tatric’s head and drive him back. Only inches apart, the Recruiter’s face came out of the darkness of the rain. Tatric could see his teeth clenched in a smile.

Tatric’s physical strength exceeded the Recruiter’s but his body was spent fighting the storm. The bitter cold bore into his fingers and took their last strength. The muscles in his legs began to cramp up. Bit by inevitable bit, Tatric’s arms bent farther and farther. When his adversary’s sword touched his cheek Tatric saw the source of the silver. It was not the blade but another mirrored face. Its light burned Tatric’s skin and blinded his already limited sight.

Like a scalding nail, the pain drove deeper. The Recruiter smiled even wider and twisted his hilt shifting the light directly into Tatric’s eye. Screaming in agony Tatric thrashed his head from side to side.

“See what you could have had?! Now you will die knowing the power you foolishly refused,” the Recruiter hissed.

His words and breath stung but something far worse came with them—the sting of failure. An unbearable sadness welled up in Tatric’s heart. He would never find her now. He would die now and she would be lost forever. In that moment when everything caved in around him he heard a quiet voice on the air. Even with the cursed storm raging around him, it came perfectly clear. It was her song, the one she sang to the stars that night. Each note that came dulled the burning light of the mirrored face. Each note gave strength back to Tatric’s legs. Now it was his turn to smile.

“You want to know what compels me? She does!”

With that he gave a tremendous push. Every bit of power he had left drove up through his legs, across his arms and into his sword. The Recruiter could not match the sudden surge and staggered back. Then Tatric’s hand slipped. As he felt his grip fail, he clamped his eyes shut expecting the final blow. What came was the voice of the girl from his dream. “I will help you.”

The next moment both the Recruiter’s and Tatric’s sword hilts touched and a tremendous sound like splitting stone exploded outwards. Each was hurled back and fell stunned, several yards apart. Tatric recovered first and managed to push up onto his elbows. The first thing he noticed was the wind. It had changed.

It no longer blew in his face or held a cold sting, but rushed from his back towards the incantation circle. A wash of fresh natural light poured down on him and the rain ceased. All of the unnatural clouds and the column of white smoke drew back into the stone bowl at the circle’s center like sewage to a drain.

Tatric had barely time to witness all of this before he found himself in dry clothes and on firm ground. Without the weight of the storm bearing down on him his strength returned and he jumped up looking for the Recruiter. He was gone along with the center bowl of the incantation circle and the case of daggers.

Tatric kicked the rest of the incantation stones apart and destroyed the markings in the earth.

“Damn you, you foul conjuror! Damn you!”

It bothered Tatric to almost be killed, but jeopardizing his chance to find the girl infuriated him. The latter he would not forgive. Seething with anger, he ran from rock to rock seeking to cut the Recruiter down. His revenge run brought him to Rose who was contently de-leafing an innocent sapling back at the entrance to the rocks. She lazily lifted her head as he called to her. Tatric grabbed the pommel and swung into the saddle.

“Here I am battling a magician for my very life and you go find maple leaves? I’m glad I only need you to ride on, not fight with.”

Tatric abandoned his search for the Recruiter and chose speed over caution. He kicked Rose into a gallop and dashed through the boulders. Once on the other side, the Road of the Realm opened and more travelers were on it. He pulled Rose out of her run and let her walk at her own pace. He laid the reins across her neck and took off his hat. His fingers stroked the blue flower then he gave it a kiss.

“I will find you. I promise.”


Chapter 15

Good Hunting

The following morning Tatric came within sight of the fort city. It served as a checkpoint between the international Road of the Realm and the sovereign Geraye Central Highway. It also marked the halfway point of his journey.

There had been no incident that night nor did Tatric suspect he was being followed. A small wooded section of the road still lay between him and the town, but it did not give him the same foreboding feeling the rocks had. The sun filtered through the autumn leaves and the road stayed wide as he entered. The number of other travelers was also high and it created an atmosphere of normalcy. The traffic was so great that Tatric decided to leave the road and rest an hour.

The sun hung high in the east as Tatric turned Rose off the road and jumped her over the flanking water break. He found a wide shallow stream a few hundred yards away in a small ravine out of sight of the road. He took Rose’s bridle off and let her nose around the shallow waters. A single large pine grew in the soft earth near the banks and Tatric found it served as an excellent backrest.

Having escaped the Recruiter filled his heart with hope that his quest might be blessed and he would succeed. The cool breeze and quiet babble of the river pulled his eyes shut. In the calmness his mind relaxed and it replayed the memory of the girl under the stars. In such serenity he recalled every detail about her, from the strangeness of her dragon, to the light on her clothes, to the somber song she sang, and of course her wondrous green eyes—even seeing their light through his memory made his heart accelerate. As he played that moment over and over, he was again flushed with thankfulness he had not given in to the Recruiter.

No prize, power, or purpose that he could offer would be greater than finding her.

In this moment the pain over his heart lifted and each breath flowed effortlessly into his chest. He couldn’t even feel the sand under his legs or the tree against his back. He was in the Dynasty Plains again watching the girl sing.

The sickening twang of a bow string shattered his daydreaming. The unmistakable sound ejected Tatric from his own thoughts and his eyes sprang open. Yet a pit already collapsed his stomach. Hearing a shot meant it was already too late. Somehow he sprang to his feet and saw the incoming arrow well off. The amount of time he had to move mesmerized him and only at the last moment did his reflexes jerk his body away from the bolt. The arrow pierced his shirt and the fletching sliced a paper cut like a wound across his ribs. Gravel and sand flew up as Tatric scrambled for cover behind the pine.

He gave his heart a few seconds to stop muffling his hearing then peeked around the tree. Ice filled his veins. The arrow’s path had created what he could only describe as a “cut” in the air. Black mist seeped out from it like blood from a razor’s bite. The wound closed like a zipper and the air was clear again, but not before Tatric traced it back to a figure across the stream – a figure he recognized. Tatric’s anger surged back. He stormed across the river, determined to exact revenge this time.

The Recruiter turned to flee but could not outrun the determination of the one he had meant to kill. Tatric’s eyes narrowed and his face was dark and emotionless. His intent to kill was only betrayed by his boring gaze that never left his target.

Within seconds Tatric was upon him. A sharp kick to the back of the Recruiter’s leg brought the conjuror to the ground. He tried to scramble back on to his elbows but a woody shrub snagged him. The bush caught his hood and revealed the grey streaked hair and lined face of a very average looking man.

Tatric grabbed him by the collar and with the knife he had taken from Hagen, sliced a painful wound down his cheek. The cut added sincerity to the Recruiter’s already pathetic sounds and squirms. Pressing the knife’s point to his enemy’s throat, Tatric hissed inches from his face,

“Who are you really and for what cause are you after me? Speak!”

The Recruiter stammered, “I….I...can’t tell you…he would find me.”

“Who would find you, this Lord of En’Nightenment?” After Tatric spoke the Recruiter’s look of fear evaporated and he smiled darkly.

“The one who is going to kill God.” He then threw something at the ground. To Tatric it looked like a large seed but when it hit the rocks at his feet it flashed with light and ignited a foul smoke. Like the cursed storm had, the acrid smoke drove right into Tatric’s face. Its bitterness burned his eyes and drug rasping coughs from his lungs. Reflex forced Tatric’s hand to release the Recruiter and swat at the smoke like it was a mess of hornets.

The smoke screen lasted a second or two, but when Tatric could see again the Recruiter was gone. Tatric rushed back down the hill and splashed across the river. To his relief Rose was calming eating and completely ignored the fact that he had returned.

“Well, aren’t you the most loyal of horses. I was almost killed again and you are here stuffing your face again.” Rose gave a small grunt and moved on to some flowers. She greedily ripped them out of the ground and then spit them out, snorting in disapproval at their flavor.

“Well, snack time is over piggy. We have to get to the fort before night if you want to sleep in a real stall.”

As Tatric put his foot in the stirrup, his line of sight fell on the pine tree that he had been resting against. There, buried deep in the bark, was the arrow – if it could be called that. Its fletching was burgundy and shined as if oiled. Its shaft was dark and crooked with little hook-like thorns sprouting from it. The same ugly mist that it had wounded the air with wafted off it like a mirage. Suspiciously Tatric walked over, constantly turning his head around to see if any eyes were upon him. The arrow had bored half its length into the pine tree’s trunk, yet another ominous oddity. It took a careful grip to avoid the thorns and a strong pull to release it.

Once Tatric held the weapon, it confused him even more. It felt excessively heavy for an arrow and gave a strange tingling sensation to his skin. He wrapped the arrow in a cloth and secured it in his satchel. Mounting Rose he headed off again toward the fort, praying his near death experiences were over.

Tatric reached the fort close to sundown. He passed through a wooden pike wall as the soldiers cast a disinterested obligatory gaze his way. Tatric stopped at the first inn he came to and labored up to the door. He paid the owner for a single night then led Rose around to the stalls. He left her happily covering her face and the stall with wet oats and grain. Famished himself he realized he had not eaten for well over a day due to the repeated issues with Hagen and the Recruiter. At the inn’s dining hall he ordered a rack of pork ribs and a pint of cider and enjoyed a full meal in peace.

Happily full and aching for a real bed, he set money on the table and grabbed his satchel. When he stood the strap hooked on the table’s edge and jerked out of his hand. A quick reflex caught the bag but as he drew it back towards him the arrow tumbled out. It pierced the cloth it was wrapped in like tissue paper. It fell straight down and stuck upright in the floor. At first Tatric thought little of it, but as he bent to retrieve it his hand stopped. The bolt had fallen less the two feet but had penetrated the floorboards completely. The same black mist he had seen at the river oozed from a little cut in the air above the arrow’s fletching.

The dining hall was not full, but there were still many people nearby. Tatric knelt down and tried to cover the arrow with his body as he pulled it free. The arrow’s thorns were like barbs on a fishing hook. They forced him to grip it with both hands and make an obvious effort to pull it free. When it did finally break loose it tore a section of floorboard up with it. Not anticipating the sudden release, Tatric staggered back and the arrow slid away from him.

“Ah ha! Little pup can’t hold his liquor,” some man barked out.

A few others at the bar slung taunts Tatric’s way but none seemed noticed the arrow except one of the serving girls. She nearly dropped her large wooden tray of frothing beer at the sight of it. The shouts of the drink recipients moved her past the arrow, but Tatric had seen the color drain from her face.

As casually as he could, he scooped the arrow off the floor and slipped it back in his satchel. With a little stagger and a slurred shout of “Cheers”, he moved out the door.

Outside, he sprinted around the back side of the inn. A single jump brought his hands to the first story roof and he pulled himself up. In a crouch, he scooted past a few bedroom windows until he came to one that was open and empty. The serving girl who had recognized the arrow walked right past the open bedroom door. Tatric hurried after her and grabbed her arm from behind. He spun her around, pulled her in the room, and shut the door.

“Please…don’t...I…have no...” A quick raised hand from Tatric cut the frightened girl off.

With a blank expression Tatric pointed at the bed. Even more color drained from the girl’s face. She stiffly complied and sat on the mattresses’ edge. Her lips pressed tightly together and her hands clutched one another in her lap. She sat so rigid it seemed she feared the bed would explode if she moved a single muscle.

Tatric’s narrowed eyes scanned her up and down and searched her face. Just because she recognized the arrow did not make her a friend. She could be a servant of the Recruiter, or someone under his control. He snapped the door lock closed and the girl nearly sprang out of her skin. She kept her chin up and didn’t cry but looked more fragile than a porcelain doll. Then a shining tear trickled down her cheek. She was no threat.

A twinge of guilt poked Tatric’s heart for her catatonic state. He relaxed his body and smiled, hoping to catch her eyes. She stared straight past him. He pulled up a chair next to her and gently laid his hand over hers.

“I mean you no harm and seek only your help, nothing more.” He took the arrow from his pack and set it in her lap. “First, please tell me your name and then if you know anything about this.”

His words pulled some of the weight off her shoulders and he saw a wash of relief color her face. Her eyes fell to the arrow in her lap and blankly stared at it.

“My name is Katlene Haln,” she whispered, “and this arrow… it killed my father.”

Sadness welled up in her eyes and she tilted her head back. The tears streamed out anyway and ran down her face and neck.

Tatric took the arrow back and covered it with his satchel. He gave Katlene a moment to compose herself before speaking again.

“Thank you, Katlene. My name is Tatric. May I ask who your father was and how he was killed by this strange weapon? I do not ask because of overzealous curiosity. I can see your pain. I ask because this arrow nearly did the same to me this morning and I suspect the one who loosed it will want it back. I must learn what I can about it before that time. Please Katlene, how long ago was your father killed?”

Katlene took a deep breath and with the side of her hand chased a stubborn tear from her eye.

“Okay… my father was Dalon Haln. He was a good leader in this village and a practicing magician, though he kept that part of himself a secret to most. Several years ago he went to study with the Order of L’hal as a guest of one of the elders. He returned about nine months ago, and he was different. He was more certain in his magical skills, yet more anxious at the same time. Oh, and he also brought home a chest he had not taken with him.

I do not know what was in it, but he seemed to constantly worry over it. He took it everywhere with him and would not let anyone touch it. He even took it on our last trip to Waterstone…and that’s when it happened. On the way back we were confronted by a rough bandit with a large battle axe. He challenged my father to fight him. Why I don’t know. He never asked for money or even looked at me.

I knew the bandit was strong and a good fighter, but my father defeated him with his bare hands. The bandit took one swing, but my father evaded the blow and had his hand on the bandit’s face in a single motion. Crying out in pain, the bandit dropped his axe and grabbed his face; his left eye was burned and clouded by just my father’s touch. The bandit fled and I thought we were safe. A few hours later we came across him again. This time though, he did not challenge my father and he was with someone. I never saw that man’s face but he wore a black cloak trimmed with red. That man bowed with respect to my father when he approached us. He told us he and the bandit meant no real harm. He and my father spoke privately. I did not hear what was said. I stayed in the wagon and watched from a distance. I did see the hooded man open some sort of case and offer it up to my father. I could tell something was wrong when a few moments later the man slammed the case closed. Then I did hear something. The cloaked man said, “Kill her.”

At those words my father came running back to me. Just as his hand touched my shoulder that horrid arrow burst through his chest and nearly hit me too. I know it was this arrow because it wounded the air as it flew and those thorns were inches from my face. Then…then…”

A burst of tears stopped Katlene’s already cracking voice. Both hands rushed to her face and heartbroken sobs racked her body. Tatric offered her the small cloth from his satchel which she gratefully accepted. Once her tears slowed and her cracking voice steadied, she continued.

“I was too terrified to do anything once my father had been shot. The man ran up, took the arrow and fled. I would not have remembered anything more were it not for the strangeness of the wound my father had. The arrow did not leave a hole like I expected, but rather my father had only a small broken ring of bruising over his heart, nothing else. I know I saw that awful bolt halfway out his chest, but there was no blood, no hole, nothing. Yet he was dead the moment it struck him.”

The pain on Katlene’s face was too much for Tatric. Fighting back tears of his own, he held up his hand.

“You can stop, Katlene. I have caused you enough pain. Thank you for what you have told me. I assure you if I meet the man again, I will avenge your father.” He gave her hand a squeeze then hurried out.

* * * * *

One glass butterfly then another sparked to life. Little by the little the chandelier filled the newly occupied study room with a golden hue. The first rays of dawn added their light around the edges of the tightly drawn curtains. The two sources grew steadily and focused their attention on Sapphire as she slept.

The note from Professor Berean lay on the arm of one of the couches and her head rested tightly in the crook of the opposite one. Layers of grey satin sheets along with a fur blanket stopped above her waist. Her black nightgown had faded to silver and grew even lighter as the morning’s glow strengthened. The gown’s thin straps lay off her shoulders and the silk over her breasts rose and fell with each quiet breath.

As she lay in peaceful dreams cuddling her bear, a small white flame flickered to life on her chest. It burned for a moment over her heart, billowing with energy and life.

Its dance slowed and the small flame formed into flower bud. One by one its petals snapped outwards and the full blossom opened. A small heart shaped gem sat nestled in their soft embrace. The pink jewel slowly brightened and a single spark leaped out from it. The tiny light flew up to the chandelier and grew into a butterfly itself. Its body glittered like the white spark that made it but its dark blue wings were real.

It drifted down from its glass counterparts and landed on Sapphire’s cheek. Softly moaning in protest, she brushed at it and snuggled deeper into her pillows. The butterfly glided away from her fingers and came to rest on the ground. It twitched its wings and in a moment thin white flames swirled about it like a whirlpool. Its wings were consumed and its bright body grew into the form of a small dragon. As the flames around it faded, the dragon’s body dimmed to a deep pink. Soft felt-like scales covered its skin and wings. Its teeth and slender claws were pearl white and its big happy eyes were bright emerald green.

With a flick of her wings, the little dragon jumped up onto a table next to the couches and snaked over to the makeshift bed. She came up next to Sapphire who still slept soundly and regarded her curiously.

The dragon cocked her head from one side to the other as if contemplating how to accomplish a task. A decision soon lit up her eyes and she burrowed down under the sheets. The serpentine bump coursed to the foot of the bed and then vanished. Moments later Sapphire let out a squeal. She pulled her legs up to her chest. She didn’t open her eyes but a half smile pushed across her lips.

The little dragon poked her head out from under the blankets at the far end with a happy playful look on her face. Squeaking with satisfaction she burrowed back to the head of the bed. Sapphire had her eyes squeezed shut and her arms wrapped securely around her bear as the dragon peeked out from under a cushion. With her warm little tongue the dragon playfully tickled Sapphire’s cheeks and neck.

Its slick wet touch gave the young sorceress goosebumps. She squirmed and giggled but still didn’t open her eyes. Not having the success she wanted, the dragon gave a little huff and crawled onto the back of the couch. She sat there quite perturbed until a new plan sparkled in her eyes. She flew over to the window and tugged the curtains open with her mouth.

The sun had not yet risen, but the strength of the dawn brightened the room considerably. Sure that this had worked she bounced back to the couches. Sapphire had pulled a pillow over her face and dozed off again. A more determined grunt escaped the dragon and she scurried down to the foot of the bed again. Sapphire’s feet were out of range, but she was not after those anyway. The blankets were her target. Taking the edges of all of them in her mouth at once she tugged. Sapphire’s hand shot down to grab them but missed. A few more tugs and the dragon had them on the floor. Sapphire’s face cracked a full smile but she still didn’t open her eyes. Instead she curled her legs up to her chest and pulled her now pearl white nightgown over her knees.

Her movements made the dragon squeak with premature delight. But Sapphire’s eyes remained stubbornly shut, though the sorceress did steal one quick peek and only half stopped a loud giggle.

The little dragon squeaked and grunted as if muttering to herself in frustration. She eyed Sapphire for a few seconds then crawled down and sat on the sorceress’s head. In her balled up state, Sapphire presented few weaknesses but the dragon found one. With one jump it landed near Sapphire’s legs and with her stubby little front legs began to scratch the bottom of her feet.

Sapphire’s face turned red and a huge smile spread across her face. She broke out laughing and sat up. She glared playfully at the dragon who now bounced with delight on the back of the couch.

“Tanith! You mischievous little thing you. Though I suppose I deserved it. But I am up now so let the day begin.”

The double couch bed presented a challenge. Having no flat edges Sapphire couldn’t just slide off onto the floor. She had to crawl on all fours to the side, stand awkwardly on the deep cushions and jump to escape it. Her foot promptly clipped the edge as she did. Flailing her arms in circles she squealed but managed to catch herself; one foot on the ground the other bent up behind her hooked on the couch. Letting out a laughing snort Sapphire blew her bangs out of her face.

“Don’t you dare laugh, Tanith. You know how I am with stairs. I trip on a shadow going down them and this is like one big stair.”

The dragon fought to repress a huge smirk that lined its long narrow face but couldn’t. She folded her wings over her head as little squeaks and a puff of glittering fire leaked out.

Sapphire gave her a glare and returned to her own predicament. No longer off balance, she lifted her back leg higher off the couch and gracefully spun on the other. Now solidly on two feet she glided to the window and the sunrise. Tanith flew over to her shoulder and they watched it together.

Peering out their south facing window at an angle, they could just see the lord of day climb over the Vale G’thile mountain range. As the first direct rays of light filled Sapphire’s eyes, they sparkled with a brilliant green light. Her white nightgown shimmered with the sun as embroidery of gold carnations blossomed on the silk over her breasts. A ray of light wrapped around her and darkened to a midnight black. It formed a ribbon that tightened around her waist and cross-wove up her back. The nightgown’s hem grew down from high on her thighs to her knees and loosened.

Softly laughing to herself she looked at the sun and said, “It’s beautiful. Thank you. But remember now, I am not Sapphire here. I am Benicia, so keep that in mind.”

The sun dimmed.

“Oh no, you are doing wonderfully!” Sapphire said. “Please don’t stop, just be a little more conservative than normal.”

The sunlight perked up at her words and his workings continued. The flawless white silk of the nightgown faded to a simple white cotton that flowed out from a boneless corset. The luster of the gold carnations withdrew and became subtle outlines of silver on her chest. The black ribbon unlaced itself from her back and formed a thin leather belt instead. Her hair remained its rich chestnut brown and only a single white carnation adorned her head. The skin of her arms and chest were wrapped tightly in shear white cloth, thinner than an eyelash. For his final gift the sun brought to life a silver herring bone necklace and laid it on the gentle rise of her breasts. Sapphire’s ears and fingers remained free of gems or gold and the colors of her clothes faded to only a modest brilliance.

Sapphire gave a curtsy. “Thank you. That is much more appropriate for a part time teacher and research aid.”

Tanith had also been changed by the sun. Her pink hue had faded to the white of Sapphire’s dress and her previously black claws had softened to silver. She hopped off Sapphire’s shoulder and down to the window sill. She pressed her face to the glass for a moment then looked back up at Sapphire expectantly. Seeing the eager, pleading look in the dragon’s eyes, Sapphire couldn’t help but smile and open the window.

“Alright girl, but stay out of sight and out of trouble and be back by bedtime. Okay?”

With a gleeful squeal Tanith jumped out of the window. A swirl of blue fire and sparks surrounded her and she shot into the sky in her full size. With a little wave Sapphire turned back to the couches and picked up the letter Professor Berean had given her. She tucked it in her small leather bag and walked to the door.

The dragon face she had instilled in the door woke up as she neared. Its outline rippled over the door and the lock clicked open. Before she stepped into the hall, she took a long deep breath and closed her emerald eyes. When she let the breath out and opened her eyes, they were blue.

Now “Benicia” again, she muttered to herself while snaking down the hallways back towards the main hall. Her memory was flawless and not once did she have to second guess a turn.

“The professor wanted information on the gardens found at temples of ancient star worshipers. So, I think I should start with sacred plants and see where that takes me.”

Her personal conversation ended as she entered the main hall. A subdued bustle filled the air. Perhaps fifty students and a score of professors milled around the great hall. The high rows of windows let the morning light stream in and fall right on the walls of books. Her heart quickened at the thought of what stories the walls may contain, but she resisted and went to the librarian’s island. Hornsby greeted her.

“Good morning, Miss Jay. I hope you made yourself comfortable enough last night.”

“Yes, thank you. I brought a few special things from home and slept quite well. So well in fact I’m eager to start my work for Professor Berean now. Where would you suggest I look for information on ancient religious gardens?”

“Hmmm...a curious subject,” Hornsby said. He put aside his work and stepped down from the island. “It is quite specific too. I do not know of a book with that exact combination of topics. I would suggest starting with the religious section. It is far larger than anything we have on plants and it sounds like you are looking for more philosophical or theological things than what season to plant and harvest. The “R” section is in the northeast part of the hall. Shall I show you?”

“Yes, I don’t want farming books. I can find it, thank you so much.”

Sapphire spun on her toes and was off. She counted two dozen rows of shelves before she reached the north wall. Her skin tingled with excitement. So many pages, so many stories waiting for her to dive into. At the north wall she turned right and began the long march along its face. It wasn’t a straight wall as it had appeared when she stood at the librarian’s island. Little half rooms opened up in it filled with couches, tables and reading chairs. There were no windows but light came down from holes in the ceiling’s corners and fell on crystal globes, illuminating the rooms as if the sun itself shown in them.

Sapphire clutched her bag to her chest and took off running. She couldn’t wait to get that first book in her hand. The next break in the north wall brought her to a sliding halt. A thick black rope spanned the opening. It lacked furniture or trick lighting. Sapphire guessed it to be twice as deep as the others but it seemed empty. Her head turned left then right. Curiosity pulled her forward and she ducked under the rope.

When her eyes adjusted, the outline of what looked like prison bars came into focus. Two walls of metal bars isolated one corner of the room. The bars didn’t reach the celling but a heavy lock hung on the door. Sapphire wrapped her slender fingers around one of the cold rods and peered through. In the marble floor were the serrated mouths of five dark staircases.


Chapter 16

The Library of Night

“…The Library of Night,” Titus felt his chest tighten at the words. It was something even the L’hals knew little about. Only after completing their time in the mountain and receiving a second leaf were they told just three things about it. Its existence, its purpose, and who knew of its location—the High Priest of the Leviathan Order, and a random unknown priest called the “Knowing One.” After being told, they were commanded never to speak of it or research it in any manner.

The seriousness of it was so terrible Titus felt his skin grow cold. Kingheld too remained stiff and silent. Only the babble of the cave’s spring echoed in the stillness. Kingheld stood and disappeared down one of the hallways. He returned with a large wooden book bound by a lock with no keyhole, only the indentation of a small sea shell.

He took the shell necklace he had shown Titus earlier and pressed it into the lock. A simple command to “open” followed and the lock snapped free. He handed the book to Titus and sat back. “This is the only physical history of the Library of Night that is not contained within its own walls. I believe you should know the truth about the library if we are to go there together. Within those entries, one is of greatest importance. It speaks of how Ti’Ceed laid claim to the Library for a time. We know not what he changed, stole, or added.”

Titus soberly slipped the lock from its eyelets and folded the two heavy halves open. The book covered his entire lap and was composed of only two metal pages; one silver and the other gold. The silver page contained several sections of stamped writing while the gold page displayed the elaborate seal of the Order – the great Leviathan itself rising up from the ocean. Beneath the beast, a warning was written to those who might wish to read the silver text.

PRINCE OR PAUPER, PRIEST OR PROSTITUE, FRIEND OR FOE— IT IS FORBIDEN TO READ THE TEXT OF THIS BOOK AND SEEK THAT WHICH IS DESCRIBED. NONE SAVE THE HIGH PRIEST AND THOSE HE CHOOSES MAY DO AS SUCH. DEFIANCE OF THIS WARNING WILL MEAN TO FORFEIT YOUR LIFE. FOR THE LIBRARY DOES NOT LEND ITS CONTENT.

Kingheld had been writing on a small section of paper and set it down on the table once Titus finished reading.

“This will be the most recent entry in that book. I pray no entry will be quick to follow,” he said.

Titus picked up the paper and read through it while Kingheld retrieved the stamps and hammer for marking the metal page. The sharp ping of steel on steel filled the room as Titus read the note.

Entry by the 11th High Priest

of the Leviathan Order

Darkness threatens the Library of Night. The mirrored face demon, Ti’Ceed has returned in some form and with unknown powers or intent. Because of the nature of the threat and current information given to be by the Prime Fidelis, I and a L’hal warrior known as Titus will enter the library. My purpose in doing so in an attempt to retrieve an item described in the message from the Prime. Only this item’s location in the library has been given and if we return, I shall add what we found.

Kingheld finished his entry in the metal book and after replacing it in his desk, he burned the note.

“We must depart immediately. Are you ready, L’hal warrior?”

Snapping up to his feet, Titus saluted the priest as he would an elder of his own Order saying, “I will aid you as I would aid one of my own brothers. Let the will of the Prime be done.”

In silence the two headed down the chilled tunnel. Titus followed behind Kingheld and only their boots and the sound of water dripping broke the silence. The grim mood of both softened as they entered the room with the mermaid statue.

“She always gives me peace when I see her. I pray it’s not the final time,” Kingheld said.

After moving up through the circular stairs and into the abalone scaled room, both stepped outside into the cold, wet air. The grey sky and rain had forced everyone else inside. Kingheld stopped at one of the buildings and opened a small side door. He pulled two peasant cloaks from the closet and handed one to Titus.

“We must not appear to be who we are lest Ti’Ceed or his servant follow us to the Library,” Kingheld said. “It is a half-day’s walk to the library’s entrance. Once we are near, I will tell you what we are seeking and how it can be found.”

Their trip followed the coastline south to the port city of the Leviathan. No outer wall or guarded gate met the two monks as they entered the city’s large central road. Flat, tightly joined stones served as an excellent medium for transporting heavy cargo. A nearly constant flow of large wagons, filled to the brim with pungent barrels of fish and crab, rattled along next to the pair as they walked.

“The massive influx of people to this area originally concerned us. The city’s population has doubled every five years for the last twenty,” Kingheld said. “We feared the library would be discovered, but it seems the concealment spells on the entrance have been effective. The library is linked to the Shrine; to get there we must rent a boat and pose as pilgrims wanting to pray in the lower chambers.”

The docks and central road leading out from them were the only well designed sections of the city. Commerce demanded efficiency and even the weak leaders knew a wide straight road was wise to build. Within an hour after entering the city, Titus and Kingheld reached the docks.

They boarded a ferry with a few dozen other would-be worshipers. The trip was quick thanks to the calm waters in the harbor and the lack of wind. But a constant drizzle refused to allow anything to dry. All the passengers disembarked onto a stone dock on the landward side of the island. Kingheld and Titus fell in with the crowd as it made its way to the base of the structure. A priest met the group and spoke on worship etiquette.

Titus had never been this close and the shrine took his breath from him. At its base, the tower was wide enough to hold fifty men standing abreast and over three times that to encircle it. Its construction was of granite blocks as wide as a man’s arm and long strips of green volcanic glass. The base consisted of twenty-five glass pillars around a more narrow central section. That central portion was set some fifteen feet inside the pillars and bore five green copper doors. The main body of the tower rested on both the pillars and the central section. Several bands of the green glass ringed the tower and divided it into five sections as it rose; each narrower than the one below it.

The monumental splendor and awesome strength of the tower stopped Titus and drew his gaze upward.

“Another time and I would show you all of it but come, the path to the library is close,” Kingheld said. He and Titus melted back in with the group and followed them into the tower.

Once inside the majesty of what Titus saw stopped him cold. The roof of the first chamber rose halfway up the tower before stopping at a ring of glass windows. The volcanic glass allowed light to filter through, flooding the entire room with ripples of sea green light. The floor was black obsidian stone polished to a mirrored shine. Five open rooms rounded outwards like the edge of a sea shell and dominated half the chamber. Each contained a small brass altar and a large statue of a sea creature made out of sandstone, pearls, gold, glass, coral, and/or stone. A few priests walked around with metal boxes on chains filled with hot coals for those who brought incense to burn.

The first of the statues that Titus eyed closely was a seahorse. It was fashioned from light brown sandstone with gold fins and tail. A large branching stalk of white coral rose up from the granite pedestal on which the seahorse rested. It wrapped around the seahorse and gave it support. In the next room, a great golden tiger shark breached out of a glass ocean surface. Its teeth were serrated obsidian and its eyes were large black pearls. A solid granite orca occupied the central room. Its masterful workmanship and detail served as its only decoration aside from the curving gold stand upon which it rested. A crystal jellyfish with long tentacles of flowing white pearls wrapping around pink stalks of coral filled the fourth.

The final statue of worship was a sea turtle formed out of the same green glass that filled the walls of the tower. Like the orca, its beauty was in its form and not in its substance. Its face gave an almost human look of understanding and sympathy and the panels of its shell were inscribed with thousands of prayers.

Titus stood and watched the solemn, reverent display wondering why he had never come before. His thoughts were redirected when Kingheld came up beside him.

“We are certainly monotheistic, contrary to the way this may appear,” Kingheld said.

“What is it that they are doing then? It appears they are praying to the creatures,” Titus replied.

“It does appear so, but look there and see the representation of what they truly worship,” he said pointing up.

High on the dimly lit ceiling were the same two carved images he had seen in the room with the mermaid – a great sea serpent and a winged horsed, each sharing the same blue diamond eyes.

“You see, we do not believe we can directly approach the Divine. So we give our prayers to these five sacred creatures and they carry our words and offerings to Him at his true house of worship. This temple is just a model, a modest replica, of what we believe to be the original temple not built by human hands. Our teachings say the architect of this tower was transported to that temple on the back of a winged stallion after gaining great favor in the eyes of the Divine. But come, we cannot linger.”

Kingheld turned and Titus followed. In the wall opposite the statues there were several doors. The one Kingheld chose opened to a staircase that ascended to the second level of the tower. Reaching the door at the top, Kingheld opened it a crack revealing a simple storeroom and sleeping quarters. Closing it again, he placed his hand on the door and whispered a command. “Open.”

The image of the Leviathan slowly formed on the wood, drawn in a black line. It was no static picture and thrashed around in the door like the wood was a glass cage. It repeatedly rammed its head against the wood gnashing is hooked teeth at the perceived intruders. The door lurched with each charge and Titus felt his heart begin to quicken.

Kingheld took the seashell from around his neck and placed it on the door. Like ice was forming around it the Leviathan’s attacks slowed and then ceased. The lines that created it reformed into the kind image of a mermaid. She looked both men in the eye and turned the door’s handle with her own.

Only opening the door a crack, Kingheld slipped through first and hissed that Titus follow with haste. He then slammed it shut almost catching the tail of Titus’s cloak.

“Forgive my sharp tone. I should have explained things beforehand,” Kingheld said. “That was our most vulnerable spot if we were being followed. Let us wait here for a while to make sure no one can breach the spell on this door and pursue us.”

The two waited for several hours until the High Priest felt satisfied their secrecy remained intact. The room they had been waiting in was not the storeroom Titus had seen when the door was first opened. It was an empty circular room with no windows. The only light was that which filtered through a ring of white glass that wrapped around within the wall. On the floor in the center of the room was a picture of the moon and an opened scroll. Once Kingheld pried his gaze off the door, he walked over and stood on them.

For several more hours the priest waited. Not a muscle twitched and his eyes stayed closed. Titus stood in faithful silence by the doorway. The light in the room faded as the sun set but then slowly brightened as the moon rose. As the intensity of the new light grew, so did the symbols upon which Kingheld stood. Letter by letter words were written on the scroll and bit by bit the moon’s glow increased. Their light filled the room and when the last word was written, Titus heard a lock snap. The door flew open and a rush of wind blew into the room. He whirled around and threw his hands out to his sides. A faint light filled his palms as he called on a defensive spell. Kingheld couldn’t help but laugh a bit at Titus’s reaction.

“There I go, not explaining things again. That was the second lock of four before we get to the library’s doors. The others won’t be so dramatic. Now follow me, my eager warrior. We may have something for you to fight soon enough.”

Through the door they descended what appeared to Titus as the same staircase they had come up. However, he could feel the dampness of the air increase and his breath began to condense as they approached the bottom floor. The stairs ended at a door-less opening to a large underground room. Kingheld lit a small oil lamp he had in his bag. Its light shot out far greater than Titus expected and it brightly lit the entire man-made chamber.

“This was the quarry where the granite and glass were mined for the tower’s construction. The original entrance was backfilled and sealed after construction was completed. Only the path we just took can reach it today. Now come, we have a rather long walk. It can get deathly cold in here at times, so whatever you do – do not stop,” Kingheld said. “That one is the tunnel we need.”

The walk through the tunnel felt just like the small passageway Titus had endured to reach Kingheld’s office chamber, but many times longer. He also found Kingheld had not exaggerated about the cold. Black ice clung to the walls and stubborn salt water leaked over it, refusing to freeze. The air was still and laced with a sharp metallic smell. The smell even collected in Titus’s mouth and he could taste its bitterness. By the time a widening in the tunnel appeared even the stout L’hal quivered with chills and felt sick to his stomach.

The tunnel led the pair to a second smaller cave. Hearing it long before seeing it, Kingheld’s lantern illuminated a large waterfall within the cave. Had Titus not been near his limits with the cold, the rare sight would have been beautiful. The waterfall kept the main current from freezing, but the mist it churned up turned to snow. Locked in perpetual winter, a blanket of white covered the cave and tiny flakes swirled in the air. Seemingly unhindered by the cold, Kingheld marched right into the heaviest mist that billowed up near the waterfall. His wool overcoat quickly frosted over with tiny beads of ice but he held steady. “Stop” was his only word and the waterfall did so. Behind it, the carving of a door had been etched into the wall.

As Kingheld approached, the same Leviathan that challenged him at the first door did so again. This time however, it did not fling itself at the door. Its eyes glowed and carefully examined each man. Titus could see severe mistrust in its eyes and felt like the gaze cut right through him.

Kingheld pulled a toothless key from his bag and inserted it where the handle of a door would have been.

“Open,” he commanded.

The pop of splitting stone crackled in the room and a wooden door formed in place of the stone outline. The mermaid and her kind silver eyes now gazed out at them and with her hand she opened the third lock.

Kingheld allowed Titus to pass through first then gave a long wary look down the tunnel before he followed. The sound of splintering wood snapped for a few seconds and the stone door reformed behind them. This new tunnel Titus found to be a great relief. It was more earth than stone and lacked both the cold and the bitter tasting air. In less than an hour the two reached a third cave. By far the smallest, it bore a half moon shape. Along its curved edge loomed five ironwood doors.

Each door displayed a single picture: a sea horse, shark, jellyfish, orca, and sea turtle. Kingheld stepped forward and placed his hand on the door with the image of the sea turtle. His eyes turned down and his head hung low. For several minutes he stood there quietly. Titus watched Kingheld’s burden pull the priest lower and a prick of guilt needled its way into his mind.

What can be so important that we take this amount of risk? My faith in the Prime will be tested.

“Open.” Kingheld’s command broke the silence and quickened Titus’s heart. The painting of the sea turtle turned its head and looked right into Kingheld’s eyes. With a face as somber as the priest’s, it nodded in obedience. The snap of a lock popped from within the door and Kingheld placed his hand on the handle.

“Welcome to the Library of Night.”


Chapter 17

Lackluster

Sapphire groaned and rolled her head left and right. Her hand dug at a knot in her neck that burned like a hot needle. The main hall of the Library of Day hummed along with its quiet collection of studious students and faculty. Several of each sat around Sapphire at the many writing desks. On her piece of dark stained wood, she had her log book open. A scribbled list of book names and authors sat next to her ink well. A dozen entries and subsequent notes, laid down in flawless cursive, covered the open page of her log book. Hundreds more lay in the pages behind them. She dipped her pen and began copying the final entry she had on the list. Halfway through, her ink petered out.

She collapsed face down on her desk and let out a whimpering moan. She left her high heeled boots by her chair and trudged over to the desk nearest her. A young man with messy yellow hair and a velvet jacket, sat engrossed with a book.

“Pardon me sir, may I have one dip of ink. I am out and have only one line—” “No.”

The yellow haired man didn’t look up as his hand slid his ink well to the other side. A rip in the back of her pants would have embarrassed Sapphire less. Her face swelled with heat and she felt her mouth go slack. The man turned a page in his book and the crinkling of the paper broke Sapphire’s stupor. Tears fought at her eyes and she ran back to her desk. Her hand trembled as she scrapped out the last few words on her log book. The streaked letters glared up at her like mud on a dress but she slammed the book shut anyway.

Her lips drew tight as she crammed her writing materials into her bag. She carried her shoes and kept her head down as she hurried away from the mess of desks. She let her hair stay loose to guard her face from any prying eyes that may see her bloodshot eyes. Her bed called to her. Tea, bed, and a good cry, in that order.

Her path to drop her log off with Hornsby took her by the mysterious caged room. The intrigue and danger of it drug her steps towards it. Her pace slowed as she neared it but she slammed her eyes shut and rushed on by. At the Librarian’s island she dropped her log off for the day and headed for her room.

She added change into a baggy shirt, to her tea, bed, and cry list. All four felt so good. When her eyes dried, she opened the window of her room and let the evening breeze caress her face. A mournful squeak turned her gaze to the ground. Little Tanith stood at her feet looking up. The dragon’s eyes could not get any bigger and Sapphire burst out laughing as more tears covered her cheeks. She scooped up her friend and pulled her to her chest.

“I am okay little one. The stress has gotten a bit much lately is all. I had such expectations for this place. Silly little girl expectations it turns out.” She carried Tanith to the fire place and poured herself more tea.

“I imagined this place would have magic in it. Mystery, danger, romance but it’s just dry old books. They don’t even have stories in them. They are cold lifeless academic blathering.”

Tanith gasped in when Sapphire said there were no stories. She dove into Sapphire’s lap and covered her head with her wings.

“Oh don’t cry. That doesn’t mean there are no stories in books. We have lots back home still. There just aren’t the same kind of books here. I am working for a history professor after all. I should have been more prepared for this. But now it is time for sleep.”

The bright moonlight leaked in past the shades of Sapphire’s window as she lay on top of her sheets, eyes wide open. Hours passed.

“One peek won’t hurt.”

She jumped from her double couch bed and threw open the curtains. She leaned out into the cold night air and looked up at the moon.

“I need a little help. I can’t wait for the sun this time.”

Clouds moved in and covered the sky but left a single hole for the moonlight to shine on Sapphire like a spotlight. The pale grey light added length and a row of buttons to Sapphire’s baggy shirt and wrapped her waist with a thin diamond studded belt.

“Thank you. This is perfect for what I have planned. I doubt anyone will be up but I can’t claim “early studying” if I’m in my pajamas.”

Sapphire’s bare feet made no sound on the stone floor as she scooted down the hall. Blackness greeted her when she entered the central chamber. Only her ears gave her knowledge and they said the room was soulless. The pounding of her own heart was loud enough to wake the dead as she ventured across the open floor. Her toe found the Librarian’s island and lots of mouthed screaming and one foot hopping ensued.

For the sake of her toes she touched the carnation flower that sat nestled above her ear. Its petals shined with a soft light and guided her steps. She ducked under the black rope and drew close to the barred wall. The light from her flower threw long spooky lines across the five staircases.

A little sweat beaded on Sapphire’s forehead as she wetted her lips. Her head turned and glanced back over her shoulder one last time then she unhooked her belt. A flick of her finger pushed her dress off each shoulder and it fell in a ring at her feet. She closed her eyes and the light from her carnation went out. When her eyes glided open they shined from within and her round human pupils narrowed to slits.

****

Professor Berean thrashed wildly in his bed. “Temples, sky temples,” he shouted. The hard wooden floor slamming between his shoulder blades jolted him from the nightmare. He lay tangled in his sheets on the floor next to his bed. More mad swatting of his arms and legs freed him enough to see. He staggered to his feet and rushed over to the pitcher of water on the table by the window. Much sloshed out as his trembling hands poured it into a basin. After several splashes of the cold water on his face, his breathing calmed.

He didn’t return to bed but slumped down in a high-backed reading chair. His fingers rubbed his temples hard and he kept muttering, “Sky temples”. A gold light glinted in the darkness and ice replaced Berean’s skin. Five grey lights followed and the Silver Veils emerged into the moonlight. Berean’s mouth went dry and he gulped for air like a fish. He tried to stand up but found himself belted down to his chair. A rasping voice hissed all around him, “temples, sky temples.” As the Silver Veils drew closer, they surrounded him and drew out hook daggers that glowed white with heat. The blades made the air around them shimmer and burned Berean without touching him.

Berean’s voice cracked and wheezed as his lungs puffed out what little air they had into pleading words. Again and again he swore he would find the temples, he would find them if only he had more time.

“More time, more time,” Berean screamed. The hard wooden floor slamming into his back jolted him awake. He lay on the ground next to his bed, the faint morning light filtered in through his window.

He staggered over to his full water pitcher and poured enough to wash his face. Every flap of a curtain, every squeak of a floorboard made him jump as he struggled to get shaved and dressed. The fear clung to him like a collar of stone as he trudged to the University. He forced his eyes to stay wide open in case any silver or gold flash might appear. Every person that greeted him as he made his way to his office sounded like they were underwater to him. His hands would not stop shaking even after his second brandy. The thought to drink until it killed him flickered through his mind but he put the bottle away after one more. There was one option before suicide.

He penned a note to Benicia Jay and dropped it off at the courier’s station. An hour later he saw her and her brilliant blue eyes come onto the grounds. His soul couldn’t feel only pain in her presence. He got up from the shaded bench he had waited on and greeted her.

“So good of you to come, Miss Jay. I have something private to speak with you about. Oh, no we are not going back inside. Walk with me.” Benicia turned away from the stairs she had headed for and drew up to his side.

The pair strolled around the fountains in silence. Berean walked with his hands held behind his back looking up at the birds and clouds. He waited until a natural bubble of distance formed around them and they could speak freely.

“Thank you for your patience, Miss Jay. How has your time at the Library been? I reviewed a few of your logs and must commend you on your thoroughness.”

“Thank you, Professor. I am glad you approve; I only wish I could have provided things of greater value to your project. I know what I have found has been meager.”

“You are correct, it has been. Though I do not blame you. While the Library of Day has a great store of knowledge, I fear my project may be too complex even for the great chamber. That is why I have another task for you.”

Benicia stopped and she turned towards the Professor with bated breath.

“The Library is far larger than you know. It is a tricky subject to breach as some may consider it illegal to do so.”

“Oh is it? I had no idea. Though something always made me feel I was missing something when I was there. What do you mean illegal? I thought the University had full control over the Library?”

“That is partially true. I have full legal authority from Waterstone to dictate rules and access to the front part of the Library. There are five other portions that we know of. Several hundred years ago when the Geraye government gained control over the Library from its last private owner, it was not considered an academic place but rather a holy site. Strict laws were put into place as to how the content should be organized and cataloged, and by whom. When the royalty was in Gabrie Anniel great progress was made in the main chamber, the living quarters, the grounds, and some in those five other areas. When the government moved, they put a hold on any further work as they were now too far away to directly oversee it. Those holds have never been removed and time has swallowed up those who cared about continuing.”

“Does anyone go down there anymore? How can the King let so much untapped knowledge collect dust?” Benicia said.

“I and my predecessors have sent many letters. We sometimes get replies that it will be brought up to the royal council of governors at the earliest convenience. But nothing changes.”

Benicia gave a snort.

“I have been to Waterstone, it has become a fat selfish city. I am not surprised little effort is taken on something that would not benefit its citizens. But what can we do about it?”

“The laws say no cataloging can be made by anyone not officially designated by Waterstone. There are steep penalties on the books for disobedience. Though you are a citizen of Belfrim which helps to muddy those laws. Part of my duties as curator of the Library involve the routine assessment of the building itself. So under that pretext I have made short trips down to the lower levels every year or so.”

“You want me to “assess the building” down there but if I happened to stop and read a scroll or two I might as well take some notes? Is that it?” Benicia asked.

Berean laughed and shook his head. “You seem eager to walk the grey line of the law. I chose my assistant well. Of course you may cease to do so anytime your conscience tells you.”

“If it means I may find books no one has read in hundreds of years, you would have to report me to the sheriff to stop me now. Can I start today?”

Berean paused and turned his attention back to the sky as a group of teachers passed nearby. When he spoke again his voice was lowered.

“I will have this same conversation with Hornsby. He will be the only person to know you are entering. It is best to keep it that way. So please wait until tomorrow and speak with him first, if you can manage it.”

Benicia threw her arms around Berean and kissed his cheek. She was off and running before he could blush.

“I will be the best ‘building assessor’ you ever had,” she called back. “Thank you so much.”


Chapter 18

Inside the Night

“Welcome to the Library of Night.” The words brought fresh tension to Titus’s chest. The door with the sea turtle swung open and he followed Kingheld through. A short passage opened into a long narrow room. Its walls and floor were flat unpolished stone. If it had a ceiling Titus could not see it in the darkness above him.

The only light other than Kingheld’s lamp came from five living images. Each one moved within one of five large stone doors opposite the room’s entrance. Titus recognized the creatures as the ones he had seen in the temple, though all had lost their benevolent look. In front of each door sat a pair of stone mortars that cast a thin yellow smoke into the air. Kingheld pointed to them.

“I must tell you one final thing,” he said. “Ti’Ceed did not attack the L’hal Order first. He wanted it to appear he had.”

This whipped Titus’s head around and his body went stiff.

“What? How…that cannot be...”

“It is the greatest shame my Order has suffered. He controlled the library for several weeks and we do not know what he stole, deposited, or changed. Our hope is the defensive spells prevented or greatly limited his thievery but no one knows. Given the proper amount of time, this smoke will burn away all enchantments that it contacts.”

“Will that not destroy the Library’s defenses?” Titus asked.

“Yes, it will. They are a last desperate measure decided by my ancestors many years ago. The only way to know we have destroyed all of Ti’Ceed’s evil is to purge the Library and start over. We will find more of the same inside. Avoid the smoke. It is not pleasant.”

“Are we not yet in the Library of Night then?” Titus asked.

“No. This is the courtyard, if you will. Behind each of these images is a vault room. Only the Orca’s chamber is not full and that is the one we must enter,” Kingheld answered.

As the priest approached, the image of the Orca turned towards him. It writhed in the door, its eyes willing nothing but malice on the perceived intruder. Like the Leviathan on the very first door, it looked like a beast trapped in a tank. Its burning glow flared brighter and it lunged forward repeatedly, trying to break out of the stone. Each time it struck the door the ground lurched and the Orca gave a muted screech.

Kingheld stepped right up to the door and looked straight into the Orca’s eyes. Such defiance made the creature thrash harder against its confines. Kingheld kept his feet planted and bore through the Orca with his gaze. Little by little the beast began to submit. When its violence lessened, Kingheld lifted his hand and stretched it out in front of him. With his palm facing the creature, he voiced his command.

“Peace! Be Still! I am Kingheld, High Priest by divine right of the Order of the Leviathan. I have cause and authority to enter this place. Give me passage.”

His voice rumbled with the might of the ocean. It came not just from his mouth but from all around him. The power that surged in his voice gave Titus goosebumps. The Orca too was unprepared and the voice hurled it deeper into the door.

“The strength of his word alone is enough to submit to his power. Incredible,” Titus thought.

Not beaten yet, the Orca came charging back. The High Priest held his ground and commanded again, “GIVE ME PASSAGE!” This time the thunder of his voice struck the Orca like a ramming ship. A whimpering cry replaced its hateful screech. It swam away into the door shrinking from sight. Once gone, the Orca’s carving reappeared in the stone door; motionless and devoid of light.

“Come...let us be about our business,” Kingheld said.

He touched the door and it parted down the center of the Orca’s carving. The two halves slid into the walls and left a large square opening in their place. The light from Kingheld’s lantern seemed to be consumed by the darkness that was inside. Nothing was illuminated. Kingheld set the lantern down before he motioned for Titus to step beside him.

“That light will do us no good inside. Limitation of sight is the library’s first weapon,” Kingheld said.

Together the two men stepped across the black threshold and the stone doors closed behind them. For a moment darkness pervaded everything, a blackness thicker than Titus could imagine. He felt covered in it, like it was pitch that clung to his very skin. A tremor in the floor and a sudden glow behind him made Titus whirl about. The Orca was back but on the inside of the door.

“Peace,” Kingheld said taking Titus by the shoulder. “We are now inside and the inner gatekeeper will not care if we go deeper...when we try to leave however…”

Titus did notice the new Orca eye them but in a passive, indifferent way. Taking a deep breath, he turned back from the creature and willed his eyes to adjust to the dark. A flash of his medallion and they instantly did, though there was not much to see. There were two hallway openings in front of him and several more incantation mortar stones.

“What we seek is quite far. Let us be about it,” Kingheld said. He headed into the right-hand hallway as a small breath of wind rolled out from it. It stung the pair and Titus buckled. It drove the feeling out of his hands and they started to spasm. Fear fought its way into his mind and increased all the more when Kingheld started coughing.

“The library’s defenses know where each of our strengths lie – in your hands and in my voice,” the priest said.

As the pair continued down the hall Titus felt the wind slow but needles still pricked his hands and every few minutes a coughing fit attacked Kingheld.

More lights came to life on the walls all around as they walked. Yet the light did not shine out and give light to Titus’s feet. It only touched his eyes. Each was a small replica of the Orca which guarded the chamber’s main door. Like the large one, they were all bound within a separate stone panel in the wall. Though small and made of white instead of green light, the tiny guardians held the same malevolent intent in their eyes.

“Three pairs of hallways comprise this chamber,” Kingheld said. “We are now in the central one. Halfway down we will find a pair of stairs – one that goes up and the other down. According to the records of my Order, the upper hall should be empty. Yet that is where we are instructed to go. I fear we are meant to retrieve something Ti’Ceed has placed there. That compounds our difficulty. Nothing was meant to be taken from this place and the library will resist us, regardless of what we take. Remember one thing Titus – men are not meant to be here. Our presence is merely tolerated. Now come, let us be quick.”

Each guardian turned and followed them as they passed by, determined to protect the dark treasures concealed in their private crypts. Titus could feel the numerous eyes focused on him, judging his every move and looking for the slightest excuse to deem his intentions ill.

The pair progressed without incident to another set of mortars a few dozen yards down the hall. The smoke had extinguished the lights from several panels on the walls and only the lifeless outlines of the orcas remained. Yet a few guardians still burned brightly, even in the densest part of the smoke.

“You see, it is impossible to tell which spells will be removed first and to what extent,” Kingheld pointed out.

Past several more mortar pairs the two reached the stairs. The passage to the upper hall was narrow and could only accommodate one at a time. Kingheld went first and disappeared into the darkness. Being unable to see the High Priest quickened Titus’s step. In his haste his finger brushed the final panel on the wall; it was still lit. The guardian on it shrieked and shot over to the corner. It bit Titus’s finger and trapped his hand to the stone.

Titus felt no pain when the orca bit him. Instead, the burning cold of ice water rushed up his arm and swarmed over his body. A slight wind hit his face and brought with it the scent of saltwater. The coldness locked his muscles and he could only watch as the ghostly likeness of an ocean wave rushed down the hallway and enveloped him. As it did the orca bit down again. This time pain like that of a venomous serpent came with it. A thousand burning needles filled his veins and clawed up his arm. When the orca released its teeth, Titus staggered away and began to fall. He landed in a raging sea.

The library was gone and nothing but frothing black water and crashing waves surrounded him. The waves drove him down into the dark endless water beneath him.

Each roll of the sea was like a fist and with each breath Titus took, he was struck. Icy brine came with the air. Within a few seconds Titus’s lungs were filled and he clumsily smacked at the water. His feet no longer moved when he commanded them to. Repeated attempts at casting a spell to reset his strength failed. The light in his medallion’s stone never flickered. Seconds were hours and each tiny sip of air more precious than the last. With the air more water came and followed it down his throat. Both stomach and lungs were filled to bursting. Both violently struggled to purge themselves. Hacking coughs moved right into wrenching gags and vomit mixed with water.

Each convulsion took more strength from his limbs and he began to sink. Fear of death, something he as a full L’hal had not felt in a hundred years, drove into him like the thrashing seawater. A greater fear soon replaced it.

In the light of a thunderbolt, he saw it. The colossal form of a sea serpent outlined in the distant clouds. Like a great undulating snake, it drew closer. Rising up into the black night then crashing back down into the sea. The waves it created dwarfed those the storm churned up. When those walls of water reached Titus they covered him like an avalanche. Hundreds of feet of the icy black water now separated him from the surface. Still, wave after wave hammered him deeper. The lightning of the clouds faded to mere shimmers and he felt his lungs about to burst.

As terrible as the dark water was for Titus, it seemed like the warm sun to him when the serpent’s eyes appeared. Like two great fires they opened up far below him and pierced his soul. Now death was his salvation and he prayed it came before the serpent did.

What did come was a faint yet powerful voice. A single muffled word, as if someone above the water’s surface was shouting down to him. It steadily grew louder until it echoed clearly all around him. “RELEASE.”

In the next moment the library returned and Titus found himself lying on the floor. A sweating, panting Kingheld stood above him facing the panel Titus had touched. The priest’s open palm was flat against the stone and the orca lay still beneath it on its back, its light extinguished. Without a word Kingheld removed his hand from the wall and offered it to Titus. Shivering and feeling like he truly had been plucked from a frigid, violent ocean, Titus clutched Kingheld’s arm and struggled on to wobbly legs.

“I...I felt like a child...the fear it...unlike anything I have felt…ever,” Titus croaked.

Kingheld’s face was grave and he did not answer. He pulled Titus into the stairwell so they both could rest against a benign wall. The shakes still rattled the L’hal’s broad shoulders and Kingheld held them to the wall until the shock passed. When it did Titus touched his medallion and restored his own strength to what it had been before he hit the stone panel. With a long cleansing breath, the strong confident warrior returned. He jumped to his feet and grasped Kingheld’s hand. No other thanks were needed.

The stairs emptied out in the center of the upper hall. No orcas lit its panels and the black corridors were indistinguishable from the black air that filled them. A faint light did leak up through the staircase and illuminated just a few of the stone panels opposite the entrance. Unlike the ones below, all were blank. No carvings adorned their faces. Yet Titus still saw one pair of mortars just at the light’s edge, casting up their necessarily foul smoke.

“Precautions for anything left by Ti’Ceed,” Kingheld said. He then took out the letter Titus had brought from the Prime and handed it to him.

“It is safe now to share the location of what we are searching for. I dared not risk speaking it anywhere else for fear of our mission being discovered.”

Inside the letter Titus found a simple hand drawn picture. A single long room divided down the middle with a central wall and the words “Upper Chamber of the Orca” across the middle. On the side of the dividing wall opposite the entrance was a large dot with L-9-252 marked beside it.

“These are directions to the panel we must find – from the left side 9 up and 252 over,” Kingheld said flatly. “Meaning we must make our way around to the other side of this dividing wall.”

“I must remind you that even more caution must be taken now. If any spells endure here, they will be Ti’Ceed’s.”

“But how can we hope to find it in this darkness? Can any light we create survive in here?” Titus asked.

“No, any lights we have brought with us will not survive. However, there is a source of light within the hall we may use. It was provided for those who would need to come in to seal items within the library. Let us pray it still has life.”

He took off the cord he wore around his neck with the white seashell and pressed it to one of the blank panels. The mortar cracked perfectly along the panel’s borders and it fell silently into Kingheld’s waiting hand. Inside was a tiny glass bowl filled with small white rocks, no bigger than a fingernail. Kingheld took these stones and cast them into the darkness of the hallway. Like storm clouds breaking up in the night, tiny lights pierced through the darkness.

To Titus it seemed as if the night sky had been released into the hall and he now walked among the stars. The tiny lights seemed so close he could touch them. Yet they were always just beyond his fingertips if he reached out to one. Their beauty comforted his anxious heart and he was glad to see even more lights after he turned the first corner. That calmness shattered when Kingheld’s arm shot in front of Titus’s chest, blocking his path. These lights were not the same.

The Priest’s iron grip locked Titus in place while his sight was directed down to the first panel on the wall. It took the L’hal a few seconds, and then he saw it. In the bottom corner a pin prick of light glinted off a tiny mirrored face.

Only a dozen or so of the sinister lights filled the small section at the end of the chamber. When they turned the corner completely Titus felt his knees waver. Thousands more pricks of light greeted them, like a hive of venomous insects barely asleep. The sound of his own pounding heart and rasping breath seemed so loud to Titus. Would that sound alone wake whatever these lights were? Anger at his failing courage heated his face, but his knees still had no strength.

“Look straight ahead and downward. Do not speak unless absolutely necessary. I will count and find what we need,” Kingheld whispered.

Kingheld’s strong unshaken voice gave Titus courage and step by step the two crept down the infested hallway. Each metallic face they passed slid along the stone and followed them. Quiet ticks rang out when one hit the border of its panel and stopped. The rippling of hundreds of tiny sounds made it feel even more like a hive to Titus, a hive they were being allowed to get deeper into.

The sight of two mortars against the wall provided a small measure of encouragement. Many of the faces near the smoke were rusted and lacked the piercing mirrored shine. A few had even fallen off completely and lay decaying on the ground.

Titus followed behind Kingheld until the priest stopped in the middle of the hallway and pointed to a single panel. It was smaller than most and bore two faces – not just one. Titus felt his heart flinch but then relax. Each face was severely rusted. In addition, a mortar had been advantageously placed directly beneath it.

Kingheld crouched low and drew the three legged stone aside. Once the smoke cleared he stepped up to the chest high panel. He set his jaw and stared at one of the evil faces. Titus set his feet in preparation for battle as the priest took a deep breath and struck one of the metallic faces with the heel of his palm. Kingheld withdrew his hand as a small innocent stream of rust fell to the floor, remnants of the first metal face. Relief washed over the priest’s face and Titus relaxed his legs. Kingheld nodded to the mortar, its smoke had worked.

He raised his hand to strike the second face but pain exploded in his body and his arm refused to obey. It hung motionless in the air behind him, stung by what felt like hundreds of crawling ants. He bent his neck around to see what had caught him and his heart tripped. A rusted chain slithered out from the rust mark on his palm and bound his arm like a malevolent parasite. Though seemingly thin and frail the chain’s grip felt stronger than steel and held him fast. Its advance was relentless, a web spun by an invisible spider trapping its prey. Bit by agonizing bit it coursed over Kingheld’s body. Its head rose up like a cobra and seemed to stare into the priest’s eyes. All that remained to be bound was his throat.

Kingheld struggled, coughing and wheezing as the chain’s pressure clamped around his neck. The pressure made his eyes bulge out and turned his vision red. His face swelled and felt as if covered with fire. He desperately looked to Titus, but the L’hal’s expression was only flavored with mild confusion and seemed to look right past him.

“Why is it taking so long to get the panel off?” Titus asked.

The terrible truth was now clear; Titus couldn’t see him. His breathing rasped through his throat and his vision narrowed. His fingers dug at the links on his throat but were weaker than green twigs. Like a leaf trying to lever up a great stone, they only brushed at the chain. Thrashing on the ground in a final attempt to breathe, his eyes caught a plume of yellow smoke.

In spite of the darkness closing in around him, Kingheld whispered one hoarse command, “Blow”. The authority even in such a quiet rasped word produced obedience. Smoke from the mortar he had moved shifted. A sudden wind rushed down the hall and blew the smoke around the priest. The chain’s grip weakened but did not fail. When the acrid cloud hit Titus, the L’hal fell to the ground in a coughing fit.

Up to this point Titus had not suspected anything had gone wrong. He saw Kingheld break the first face as well as the second with ease. A mild prick of confusion had hit him after the priest had pried at the panel for some time without opening it. He thought his question going unanswered was odd, but didn’t press the matter. Then the mortar’s smoke hit him.

The yellowish vapor seared his lungs and burned away all the strength in his limbs. Fearing this was Ti’Ceed’s trap and Kingheld was being attacked too, Titus drug himself to the priest’s side. He forced himself up to his feet and grabbed Kingheld’s shoulders. Like severing a marionette’s string, Titus’s touch made Kingheld go limp. Titus gave a cry of alarm when the Priest’s head rolled back. His wise and benevolent eyes had turned to black marbles and the face of Ti’Ceed shined on the surface. Thankfully the mortar’s spell was strong and the illusion couldn’t endure it long. It faded away and Titus saw the real Kingheld struggling against the foul chain.

The white jewel on Titus’s arm guard ignited. His right hand glistened as he grasped the rusted links. His magic tore at the metal and shredded it like water through dry dirt. The chain writhed and hissed as it fought to maintain its grip on Kingheld. It was strong but Titus was stronger and the chain broke apart in his hands.

Severed from its source, all of the links past Titus’s hand fell limp on the floor and dissolved into the darkness. Only a small tail remained attached to the mark on Kingheld’s hand. It started to grow again.

With most of the chain removed, Kingheld found his body free to move. He lunged for the granite mortar and thrust his hand down against the inner surface. Like cauterizing a wound, Kingheld cried out in pain and his flesh hissed and popped. But the chain could not survive such concentration of the mortar’s spell. It, along with the rust mark that spawned it, burned away.

Once certain the foul chain was destroyed, Kingheld shoved the mortar and its smoke away from himself and Titus. Sitting together on the floor both men struggled for breath. The fight with the chain left Kingheld far more diminished and he passed out. Titus saw his eyes roll back and reached out to catch him. His hand closed around only the shell necklace.

The leather cord failed and Kingheld fell back against the wall. His head struck a flawless metal face. Horror filled Titus’s heart as he expected another terrible curse to be triggered, but nothing happened. The silver face did not move and the unconscious form of Kingheld remained still. Knowing the ease with which his eyes were deceived before, Titus wasted no time and dragged him over to the mortar. With his cloak as a fan he drove a cloud of the cleansing spell over Kingheld, but nothing seemed to change.

The burning smoke made Kingheld start to cough and he opened his eyes. At first they shot down to his hand and frantically rubbed at his wrist. But when no pain came and his arms freely moved, he stopped.

“Well my brother, it seems each of us should act as the other’s savior in this trial. Let us pray neither shall need such help again.”

“Agreed,” Titus said. With the L’hal’s help, Kingheld also stood. He rubbed the back of his head and grimaced, though a little chuckle filled his voice too.

“Did I fall or was that chain curse more effective than I thought?”

“You did fall, and you struck your head directly on one of the seals – one that was not rusted or faded in any way,” Titus replied. “Yet nothing happened. I do not understand how the rusted one was so powerful while the untarnished one did nothing.”

Kingheld turned around and knelt next to the panel Titus pointed to, still rubbing the growing knot on his head. For a long while he stared at the face that reflected his own gaze. Without a word he suddenly struck it as he had the other panel. This time a small stream of silver dust fell to the floor leaving the foul seal destroyed. No mark remained on Kingheld’s hand and no other seal reacted to their brother’s death.

“It appears we have been caught assuming things. Let’s hope the second seal on the compartment we are here for is that easy,” Kingheld said. He then collected himself and turned back to the remaining rusted face. Before he struck it, Titus raised his hand and a look of sudden realization crossed his face.

“What is it?” Kingheld asked.

Titus remained motionless for a few more seconds and finalized his thoughts before speaking.

“I have learned that when the Prime gives directions, they always have a greater purpose. Often times the directions themselves are not what is important. It is what happens when trying to accomplish them that matters most. We should open that other panel as well.”

“We do not know what Ti’Ceed has placed there. It may be best to leave it alone...but if you feel that strongly, I will allow it,” Kingheld replied.

“Let me do it, for if I am wrong you will not suffer the consequences,” Titus said stepping forward.

Kingheld nodded and stepped aside. Titus knelt and began to pry at the panel’s edges. Once the top line of mortar cracked, he broke the bottom line with a sharp tap of his fist and spun the thin square panel into its opening. He pulled it free and reached inside. He drew out a leather armguard, much like his own and handed it to Kingheld. It matched Titus’s in form, but was black not brown and bore a brilliant golden medallion instead of a bronze one.

“It is the medallion of the Prime Fidelis whom Ti’Ceed killed,” Titus whispered and bowed his head.

“Your faith in the Prime is rewarded,” Kingheld said slipping it over his arm. “This may be the means to our success here. I do not know if I can endure the curse of the second seal. But with this we just may be able to overcome it.”

He clenched his hand into a fist as the white jewel on the armguard flickered back to life. Strength rushed back into him and with his face set like stone, he stood and engaged the final lock.

The previously subtle priest discarded all pretenses and let his authority come to bear. His eyes burned with the strength of all who had come before him and his command thundered through the entire library. The voice of the fallen Prime joined with his own and even Titus stepped back.

“In the name of the Divine Eternal One, I command you to be broken!” Kingheld said. Then he struck the seal with his closed fist.

A great shriek followed like a metal beast crying out with rage and pain. Dust fell from the ceiling and walls as dozens of chains shot out from behind Kingheld’s fist. He drove into the face with all his might as the chains fought to ensnare his arm again. The light from the fallen Prime’s medallion that Kingheld now wore, burned them into dust. Still they continued to pour out, trying to overwhelm the new power brought against them.

Neither side gained on the other as the library continued to shake. The violence woke up every other face and all slid on the surface of their panels, getting as close as possible to the battle. They sprouted chains of their own and shot them like whips in aid of their assaulted brother.

Titus leaped into their path and threw his back against Kingheld’s. His hands shone like brazen metal as he grasped at the chains, burning them to dust, protecting the priest as best he could. Yet he could not destroy them all and soon each man was snared.

Not yet paralyzed, they continued to fight and the seal under Kingheld’s fist faltered. A few tortuous seconds later the face split down the middle and the chains from it fell limp.

“Be broken!” Kingheld shouted once more and struck it a second time.

The seal gave a final shriek and shattered. Yet even with its destruction, the other chains did not cease. They still strained for the pair like stinging tentacles and both men were hard pressed to free themselves. They managed to prevent any further entanglement but could not remove the ones that had reached them. The stalemate continued during which time the panel covering the compartment was dislodged.

Kingheld saw this and the grave choice that was now his. Ceasing his struggle against the chains, he rushed to the opening and drew out a long wooden case that rested inside. Even though it took him only a moment to do so, the chains gained an insurmountable advantage over him. They caught both his feet and he could feel his entire body begin to fade from his control.

“Titus go!” was his final command. He pulled the gold medallion from his armguard and thrust both it and the box into his companion’s chest. Titus continued to fight the foul chains as they focused their power on the weakened Kingheld.

“Go! You must go!” Kingheld pleaded.

This time the authority of the High Priest’s command took effect. Titus clutched the gold medallion in his hand and with its strength destroyed the final chains that ensnared him. He dared not look back as he rushed around the corner towards the stairs. Tears stung his eyes as the terrible grinding noise of the chains rang in his ears. Several times his feet balked at his command to move forward and he almost went back. But the wisdom of Kingheld’s choice was clear. To go back now would be to undo his sacrifice.

Titus clutched the wooden case closer and sprinted down the stairs to the hall they had first entered. Emotion did not trump his reason though and he slowed down to carefully pass by each orca that watched him from the walls. A few tense minutes later he reached the great image of the inner gatekeeper. As Kingheld had implied it now eyed him with contempt.

The beast hissed and roared at him from inside its stone, forbidding his exit from the library. Anger surged in Titus and without thinking he thundered a command like Kingheld had.

“Let me pass!”

The power in his voice drove the large orca back and it yielded to him without resistance. Breaking into a run, Titus flew back down the hallway to the frozen waterfall. He did not stop until he was back to the Leviathan tower itself. In the room with the scroll and moon on the floor, he paused. He took the moment to collect himself and resumed his peasant’s façade. With the Prime’s medallion and wooden case tucked safely in his cloak, he stepped out into the worship hall.

His first steps were quick and headed towards the door, but then he stopped.

I can take a moment here.

He turned back to the five statues and heard Kingheld’s voice explaining them again. Had it really only been a few hours since he was here? It felt like weeks to him now. His eyes stopped on the sea turtle and his feet carried him up to it. A coal still burned in the altar before it. A stick of incense meant for the coal had fallen off and lay unburned to the side. Titus took it and rested it securely back on the coal. A sweet cloud rose up and swirled around the turtle. In that moment of peace, Titus gave a prayer to the turtle on behalf of the fallen Kingheld. The news would be a terrible burden to bear back to the monk’s compound.


Chapter 19

Beyond the Bars

Sapphire sat on a crimson felt couch in a large waiting room outside the office proper of Donovan Hornsby. She couldn’t help but bounce on the springy cushion to entertain herself. In her bag were several blank notebooks and three jars of ink. Like the small reading alcoves downstairs, the office was lit with the same reflected light that came down mirrored shafts onto crystal spheres. No doors obstructed her view of the great oak desk that sat against the far wall. Only a small indent in the walls defined each room. The outer door opened and Hornsby marched in. Sapphire stopped her bouncing and took on a professional face as Hornsby offered his hand.

“Thank you for meeting me, Miss Jay. Do come inside.”

Hornsby moved behind his legless desk and knelt to unlock one of the drawers. He pulled out what looked like a polished cigar box and set it in front of Sapphire.

“That is the key you will need. Only one other copy exists, so I recommend care with it. I will take you to the five stairs today but to keep this as secretive as possible I can’t be seen going near them too often. Do you have any questions before we go?”

“No sir. I would like to thank you and Berean for this opportunity. It is an honor.”

“It is you who we should be thanking, Miss Jay. It has been some time since any progress has been made in the lower archives. Damn shame. Now come with me. We don’t want to miss the slowest part of the day.”

He grabbed a lantern and led Sapphire out from his office. He paused at the top of the stairs and scoured the library’s current patrons. None were close to the north wall. He and Sapphire seized the opening and advanced to the roped-off room.

“I will be having a curtain installed here tomorrow to give you better privacy as you come and go,” Hornsby said.

The pair ducked under the rope and moved to the dimness at the back of the room.

“Each of those stairs lead to separate storage archives,” Hornsby explained. “Based on the small about of cataloging that has been done, each one seems to hold works generalized to a specific country. Hence the names on the first steps. It is by no means a hard and fast rule; you could find anything in any of them. However, it is the only way we have to direct one’s searches. So if you hope to find the most ancient information, I would recommend the Sheelhigh vault. Its rulers began keeping records long before any of the other nations.”

Sapphire took out the key and turned the heavy lock. It gave a clunk and the barred door swung out of her way. Her body quivered with excitement as she took steps toward the Sheelhigh stairs.

“You will need this for the walk down,” Hornsby added. “The archives themselves are lit but the stairs are not.”

Sapphire spun around and scurried back for the lantern in Hornsby’s hand.

“Oh my! I do not like the dark and would have been right back here. Thank you.”

“You can leave it on the steps when you are done. Good hunting, Miss Jay.”

Hornsby vanished back into the main hall and left Sapphire alone with the stairs. A little ways down she set the lantern on the black marble. She blew out its dirty yellow light and reached for the carnation in her hair. At her finger’s touch, a cool white light shined out from its petals. She flew down the remaining levels until she reached a small stone archway. Stepping into the darkness beyond it, the light from her flower poured out into the archive. Yet the archive was so great the light only illuminated a small corner of it.

Now what did Hornsby mean when he said the archives had their own light? I never saw one when I first came here. Guess my night vision is better in my other form. But if I’m here to read and write I will need my thumbs.

As if in answer to her question, a tiny prick of light appeared. It glinted off the wall just to her right. It was a small crystal pyramid embedded in the wall next to a metal lever. Rays of light were carved into the stone wall around the lever.

I bet this must be the lighting for the archive.

She pulled the lever down and a loud click echoed in the stillness. The groan of stone scraping on stone followed. Dozens of panels on the low ceiling rose up and slid to the side. Bright columns of light poured out from the openings down onto large crystal pyramids. The pyramids were elevated above the shelves on block towers and the light scattered out from them in all directions. With a gasp of wonder Sapphire ran over to the nearest opening and looked up the shaft of light. Through the hole was a silver coated tunnel and large mirror where the tunnel turned. Sapphire could not see where the tunnel went after the turn, but the image of the sun in the morning sky shone on the mirror.

There must be scores of those mirrors collecting light and bringing it down the tunnels…clever.

The ceiling was so low the tips of the pyramids nearly reached the openings in the ceiling. This forced all the shelves to be no more than shoulder height or they would block the refracted light. With nothing obstructing her view and light filling the entire archive, Sapphire could see its true vastness.

For a few seconds she stared out over the countless shelves, tables and chests. As she did a cramp started in her neck and her lungs felt tight. The feeling of astonishment morphed into one of anxiety. She estimated the chamber to be at least a thousand yards deep and over half that wide. And it was only one of five. Her search was doomed before it began. Weak knees and blurred vision reminded her to breathe. When she did, the breaths came with a rapidness she had to fight to slow them down.

It’s alright…I don’t need to go through all of that. I will find what I need with patience and a deliberate approach. Besides, there is knowledge here that no one else may know. Even if I don’t find what I’m looking for, I will find something.

She set her jaw and struck down the front of the archive. While dust and time held sway on everything, there was a feeling of order, at least near the front. Each aisle had a metal plaque on the floor demarking the general topic located in that area. The vastness of the room forced Sapphire to spend most of the morning sifting through the numerous sections before coming to one titled: Sacred Plants.

“As good a start as any,” she muttered.

There were no chairs or desks so Sapphire had to sit on the rough stone floor. The first thing she pulled down was a loosely bound text with the picture of a flower and a stone temple on its cover.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and find what I’m looking for quickly…and what the professor needs too.

****

A terrible and relentless wind from the east and a twisting, writhing formation of rock combined to rip dust from the ground and thrust it skyward. Like a heat-less volcano, it drove its gritty “smoke” to such heights it cut the horizon of northern Belfrim like a mountain peak.

In the shadow of this “False Mountain”, the Recruiter rode until his horse would go no closer. Swinging down from the saddle, he pulled out a long thick cloth from his saddle bag. He wrapped it around his face and eyes and continued towards the boiling mass of dust and cloud. The light grew thin and the wind angrier as he drew closer. He leaned against the buffeting torrent and made his way into a large cavernous portion of the rock formation. In it the vicious wind and the etching sand drew blood from any exposed skin.

Groaning against the pain, he reached a small slit in the smooth red rock where the wind lessened. A few yards down the roofless tunnel, he came to a colossal single rock and a door. Inside was a rounded cave several dozen yards wide and just as many high. Its carved features gave the feel of a temple and at the far end was a wide staircase. At the top a brown sandstone throne towered and on it sat a cloaked figure. Black draped his body and a gold veil shielded his face. Behind the throne, in the shadows of a recess, hovered five silver lights. The Recruiter marched up to the base of the stairs and knelt.

“My Lord, I bring news concerning the task you gave me in the Thieves’ Forest. As commanded I have gained six lesser servants that have sworn allegiance to the Professor of En’Nightenment. But...I...” the Recruiter choked on his own words. His face turned red and he fought to find the right words. The Gold Veil stood and with a thousand voices spoke from every corner of the room.

“Tell me what you have done with it.”

With pursed lips the Recruiter slammed his fist on the ground. “I...I lost it!”

The cloaked figure did not shout or hurl curses of anger down the steps. Curiosity flavored his voice.

“Tell me how. For it is not an easy thing to lose.” The Recruiter took a deep breath and clearly delivered his answer.

“I am not sure how. I had used it as directed to kill those who would not join with us and posed a threat. It slew powerful men and not one lifted a finger in defense. Then he came, a young man of simple appearance who Hagen claimed to have the magic of healing. The boy denied having such power and refused the dagger I offered. I was seconds from destroying him with my own power, when suddenly he saved himself. I still do not know how. Fearing he was stronger than I, I chose to use the arrow as I had done before. Like every other time, I laid an ambush and loosed it from no more than thirty yards. Yet it appeared to me from his reaction that he knew the moment I let the arrow go. He evaded the shot even though I am certain he never saw me. After the miss he pursued and I feared I was the one to be destroyed. Yet strangely I escaped him by use of a simple smoke screen spell. He took the arrow as a prize. I offer my deepest apologies and swear I shall regain it.”

“Divine One moves his own piece,” the thousand voices said. “It appears we shall be contested now. Tell me, what magic did this man use?”

“It seemed similar to that of a L’hal, my Lord. But its exact nature I have never witnessed before. He did not bear their dress or medallion and he carried a sword so I am sure he is not one of them. My servant, Hagen, claims he healed a physical wound in a single moment and he broke my false storm spell when my hilt touched his. Hagen also told me, and I observed it myself, that he seemed genuinely weak at first. But in both conflicts, with me and with Hagen, he managed to escape death and overcome at the final moment. Then when I tried to use the arrow, he evaded it with no overt magic at all.”

“So this man is nearly defeated by Hagen’s mortal blade but prevails. Is nearly overcome by your enchantment but prevails. And is nearly killed by my arrow and also prevails. Yet in the end he is confounded by a basic confusion charm.”

“Yes, my lord. It is exactly as you say. I cannot come to a conclusion that satisfies me. The only one that makes a small amount of sense is that he was aided by another whom I did not see and it was never truly him that wielded the magic.”

The Gold Veil did not reply for some time and seemed to be in thought. The figure eventually stood and walked down the steps to the Recruiter.

“It matters not exactly how. What matters is that he now possesses the arrow. If he is who I think he will be, that could undo everything we have put in motion. Now come. Our plans must be accelerated.”

The Gold Veil swept back up the stairs and into the shadows where the five silver lights were. The Recruiter followed. When both reached the top, the light in the room shifted, fully illuminating the five Silver Veils. They parted and allowed Ti’Ceed and the Recruiter to approach the back wall. There Ti’Ceed struck a small mirrored face embedded in the stone and a hidden stairway grinded open. It led down to a cavernous room where a large source-less fuchsia flame burned in the center. The flame hovered in the air and cast off a thick pink light onto the walls. At the far end of the room, square black stones surrounded the entrance to a descending spiral staircase.

Even though the Silver Veils entered the upper door last, they already stood, still as death, by the flame as Ti’Ceed and the Recruiter entered. The pair walked in silence through the spacious room and descended into the smoke that now rose from the far staircase. At the bottom of its winding steps the smoke obscured everything, but as it started to fade the Gold Veil spoke.

“We must visit my dear teacher again. Let us hope he has a good lesson prepared.”


Chapter 20

The Eyes of Tanith

An energetic Tanith scurried in fast circle’s around Sapphire’s feet while both descended into the Sheelhigh archive again. The little dragon had her fill of solo flying the day before and snuck along this time. It had taken all her willpower to stay as a butterfly charm on Sapphire’s necklace while in the public eyes. Once safely isolated in the staircase she had leaped from Benicia’s chest in a flash of glittering blue fire. Now dark purple with silver pearl claws that matched her master’s dress and shoes, the little dragon ran ahead into the darkness of the archive. A crash sounded even before Sapphire could let the light in onto the pyramids.

“Tanith dear, please slow down. Every mess you make is less time we have to find what we need.”

Once light filled the room it revealed that Tanith had knocked a small pile of books down but had already returned most of them. The dragon’s stubby front legs functioned to pick up the small books, but she struggled to lift the final large volume.

“Oh here, let me help you,” Sapphire said taking the heavy book. “I am glad you did what you could, but now I will show you where I have been this last week.” Tanith squealed with joy and leaped up into Sapphire’s arms, snuggling to her chest.

“I’m glad you chose to come with me today too. It got awfully lonely yesterday.”

The loneliness of the archive had begun to weigh on Sapphire, but the privacy it offered did not. Her secret access meant no one would disturb her so she had not bothered to put away any of the texts she had gotten out the night before. The book she had been reading still lay open on the floor with a small pebble marking her spot.

She had made good progress although sitting on the rough stone floor left her back and neck quite stiff this morning. Undeterred, she gingerly sat back down, rolled her neck a few times, and began to read again. After finishing that text she wrote down a few notes. Several more hours passed. After each one the stone floor felt harder and her back and neck protested louder. Every time she turned another page the need to stop and stretch grew stronger.

Tanith had been occupying herself staring into one of the crystal pyramids, highly amused by the strange reflections it gave off. But when she heard Sapphire give a long loud whimper and let her current read flip out of her hands, her head snapped up. With a little cry of her own, she glided over from the pyramid and landed on Sapphire’s knee. She crawled onto her shoulder and tried to lick and nuzzle some of the pain from her friend’s neck. Sapphire smiled with gratitude and rolled her neck side to side.

“Thank you so much! That is just what I needed, but you feel free to explore. I will be alright – don’t worry.”

Tanith hesitated but another urging to have fun sent her happily back out. After a long stretch Sapphire picked up a new scroll and began to read again. The text was in old Sheelhigh, a language few could read and fewer spoke. Thankfully one of those few places was the University at Shilltham. She was no expert but she had picked up a great deal.

A few hours later the loud crash of falling shelves and scattering papers broke the stillness. The noise was followed by an annoyed squeal and grunt from Tanith. Sapphire shook her head and giggled to herself.

Oh my goodness! That dragon could trip while flying.

A few seconds later the grinding sound of wood on stone came from the same area as the crash. Slowly the gritty sound came closer with an occasional crash of another stack of papers or a shelf hitting the ground.

“Tanith, be careful dear. You know this is not our library and I can’t just bat my eyes and fix your mess like I can at home,” Sapphire said, not even looking up from her book.

The dragging noise continued until Tanith appeared at the far end of the aisle, her mouth around the leg of a dirty old reading chair. The little dragon had managed to drag it all the way from wherever she found it, but one foot was now stuck in a deep crack. Still, Tanith tried and tried to keep pulling it, but it would not budge. The sight brought Sapphire’s hands over her chest.

“Aww! You brought me a chair?! How kind.” Putting her scroll aside, she sprung up and hurried down the aisle.

“Thank you! You are so thoughtful, but let me take it from here. You go rest for bit, alright?” Panting and tired, Tanith gave Sapphire’s leg a soft nuzzle and then allowed her to lift the chair and carry it the rest of the way.

Once back to her spot, Sapphire stepped back and eyed the chair with a slightly worrisome look. The original color had long since faded and a heavy layer of oily dust marred the seat cushion and backrest. She guessed the fabric was felt but it was so dirty she wasn’t sure.

The wood portions still seemed in good condition and a few wipes with the tail of her dress uncovered the dark stained oak. More cleaning on the backrest uncovered a faded crest. It was composed of a large shield divided into three portions. The single lower compartment held a constellation of five stars, while the two upper ones each contained a single planet.

Sapphire found the image vaguely familiar but couldn’t place it. Shifting thoughts she focused on cleaning the felt as best she could. After several minutes and quite a few sneezes she deemed it usable again. Happy to have an alternative to the floor, she pulled a small table up next to the chair and moved her books to it. With a sigh of relief, she plopped down in the chair. One of the back legs promptly broke. A loud scream and a book flung up into the ceiling followed. Once the moment of panic passed, she could not help but laugh at herself.

“You did not see that Tanith,” she said from underneath her own flipped up dress. Twisting over to the side she freed her legs from the chair and flattened out her dress. Her hair was frizzed up and fell randomly over her face as she sat in a heap on the backrest of the chair. She gave a halfhearted blow at the disheveled locks and tried to chase them out of her eyes.

“Well Tanith, I must say that was an adventure and a half! I guess chairs don’t work well after hundreds of years. Who knew?”

When her hair was moved enough to see, Sapphire’s smile instantly dropped. Tanith had rushed back when she heard the chair break. She stood on the floor a few feet away and her big eyes were full of tears. Sapphire scrambled to her and gathered up her little friend in a big hug.

“No, no, no. This is not your fault at all, little one. Please don’t cry.”

A single iridescent tear leaked from Tanith’s eye, but as she snuggled to Sapphire’s chest no more followed.

“Don’t worry, girl. I know I said using magic was too risky when I’m “Benicia”, but I think we can make an exception now. You did work so hard to bring me that chair and no one will see us here.”

Tanith squealed with delight and leaped from Sapphire’s arms. She bounced around and blew little streams of glittering blue and purple fire into the air.

“Calm down, girl. Calm down. I’m just going to restore the chair, nothing that exciting,” Sapphire said with a quiet laugh.

She pulled her carnation wand from her hair and took a single petal from the flower. She set the petal in her hand and blew it off. It exploded like a tiny firework into dozens of little white flames that rained down over the chair. Every place a flame touched slowly regained its original luster. The felt of the backrest filled with its true dark purple hue, the silver buttons along the edges shed their tarnish. The broken leg swung back into place and the oak wood splinters knit themselves back together. Even the crest on the backrest filled its broken edges in with silver paint and the stars once again sparkled with tiny diamonds in their centers.

Sapphire then held out her hand and the tiny flames gathered on it and reformed the single flower petal. To her surprise however, the seat cushion remained dull and covered with age. Her brow furrowed and a pout crossed her lips as she ran her fingers over the unchanged felt. She gave a little snort, more out of embarrassment than frustration, and blew the petal off again. As before it showered the chair with bright little flames but once again they had no effect.

“Very peculiar. I dare say the seat cushion of this chair has been enchanted for some reason. It has been sealed against a restoration spell or at least whatever was done to it has the same effect,” Sapphire said to herself.

She crossed her arms and her teeth played with her bottom lip while she thought. Meanwhile Tanith snaked over to the chair and stood up on her hind legs and tail. She looked intently at the dusty seat cushion as if eyeing a puzzle box. The little dragon drew in a deep breath and blew a stream of fire at the cushion. It bounced right off and covered her with soot. Sneezing and snorting, she wiped at her face with her wings then growled at the chair. Much to Sapphire’s amusement, Tanith stalked around the chair a few times. The third time around she sprung up and slashed at it with her needle-like claws. Like a cat and a silk dress, several long tears opened up in the cushion and its cotton stuffing bled out. Tanith gave a grunt at the chair, then walked off with her nose in the air.

Snickering at Tanith’s antics, Sapphire came over and tried to rip open the seat cushion more with her hands. The thin cloth, however, had the strength of chain mail. She couldn’t break another thread. Her brow furrowed again, this time with agitation at the paradoxical seat cushion. Sitting down, she took a deep breath and thought back to anything she may have read in the library of her castle or learned in her studies that could explain this.

Okay. There is a protective spell here so that must mean two things. One, there is a reason for it. Someone or something of importance was or is associated with this chair. And two, the defensive spell cannot be broken by physical force. Only a stronger spell of the proper type can break it.

Knowing only a few of the latter spells herself, and not very well, Sapphire decided against trying them.

I would probably do them wrong and either damage the archive…But why then did Tanith’s claws work so easily, yet her flame was repelled?

The question gnawed at her for several minutes before a theory sprung into her head. She dug around in her bag and pulled out the small sack of memory stones.

“Now I know why I put so much effort into creating these.” She plucked out one of the stones and held it to her chest after taking a deep breath. The blue eyes of Benicia vanished as she closed them and when Sapphire opened them they no longer saw the dusty archive. Instead they were filled by a large mountain valley. The serrated peaks of the Sal-Marcern Mountains flanked the valley on three sides and the great chasm known as the Dragon’s Slash sealed the valley to the south.

All the myths and superstitions that surrounded it said the claw of an enormous dragon had created it and this spirit now dwelt in the central valley. It was in this valley that Sapphire found herself, standing in an open field of knee-high grass at the northern edge looking up the steep slopes of the mountains.

Out from the trees of that slope came a young girl of perhaps sixteen. She was dressed in black boots, grey leggings and a dark green dress that fell high above her knees. A black leather jacket clung tightly around her and a backpack hung off her shoulders. As she broke into the clearing she looked up to the wide open sky. Her bright emerald eyes shone with excitement and wonder as her long brown hair lifted off her back in the breeze. Sapphire’s hair caught the same wind just as the girl walked right in front of her and out into the vale.

The girl went a few hundred yards into the fragrant grass to a large patch of wildflowers. From her pack she rolled out several thick blankets and watched the stars begin to punctuate the sky. She kept her gaze directed northwest and seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Sapphire took a seat in the grass several yards away and continued to watch the sky too. A few hours passed and the young girl had gotten distracted by some fireflies that danced above her blanket. She playfully tried to catch them but suddenly stopped as her gaze again turned northwest. She squealed with delight and jumped to her feet as two great planets, Hannah and Imperator, began to rise above the mountain peaks.

The gentle ghostly light they gave to the night sky filled her emerald eyes and like the planets, they shown with their own radiance. As the celestial pair rose higher, the girl’s hiking dress and boots faded away and were replaced by a long-sleeved nightgown. On its dark blue cloth two smaller versions of the planets appeared as did the nearly infinite amount of stars that now filled the sky. She broke her gaze just long enough to reach into her backpack and pull out a constellation map. She rolled it out in front of her and began tracing her fingers over the stars. As she counted them her eyes darted back and forth from the sky to the map. Finally she matched the constellation drawn on the map with the true one in the sky. Now knowing how to find it, she discarded the map and gazed up with pure childlike joy at what she had come to see.

Sapphire smiled and wiped a small tear from her own eye as she looked at the name of the constellations on the bottom of the page – The Eyes of Tanith. Its body and tail were made up of seventeen stars but her eyes needed only the two planets.

As the light from the dragon shone over the girl, a sudden white fire filled her hands that were clasped to her chest. Squealing with fright she shook her hands as hard as she could to get the fire off. But when she felt that the flames didn’t burn her, curiosity overcame fear. A strong breeze blew from her back but each flame in her hand bent towards the other. Moving her hands farther apart she saw the flames get dimmer, moving closer made them stronger. Holding her breath and not even daring to blink the girl let her hands touch. The flames jumped together and formed a brilliant white flower bud. Petal by petal it began to unfurl. Unable to hold her breath any longer she let it race. Bit by bit the blossom widened and soon a beating pink light shone through the last few petals. When the final petal swung away, a fountain of pink sparks shot up into the sky. Reflex closed the girl’s eyes and her head twisted away. The softest rhythmic sound and sweetest flower scent turned her head back. Slowly opening one eye then the other, the girl saw the pink light’s source; a flawless heart-shaped gem floating in the gentle grasp of the carnation’s petals. Its light pulsed to the rhythmic sound.

Transfixed by the treasure she held, the girl set the flower down and reached for the gem it held. Before her innocent fingers could touch it, the eyes of the dragon constellation above her flashed. A small flame ignited inside the gem. Sharply pulling her hand back, the girl watched as the flame flickered brighter and seemed to be pushing at the inside of the stone. Moments later, little drops of fire began to escape and ignite the ground all around her.

Nervous again, she backed away. Just off her blankets she watched as more and more drops of fire jumped out of the gem. The fire didn’t burn anything and was a strange transparent blue filled with white sparks. After a few minutes the gem ceased creating more fire and the flames that remained gathered together around the carnation. They formed one large column of fire, in which, the shape of an emerald eyed dragon appeared. At first it was made of light but then the blue fire started to be drawn inside it. As it did the dragon’s claws, scales, wings and tail took solid form.

Within seconds all of the blue fire was consumed and a small sapphire scaled dragon was born. The little dragon shook her head and sneezed as the last little wisps of flame faded from around her. Her big green eyes looked up and locked with the big green eyes of the young girl who stared back, still as a statue. The two looked at one another for a long moment. Then the little dragon squealed with delight, like she had just recognized an old friend. Trying to fly for the first time she only managed to beat her sparkling wings on the ground as she scrambled towards the girl.

The girl showed the same recognition and held out her open arms for the dragon to leap into. They rolled in the grass together until stopping in a tight embrace.

“It feels like I already know you and have known you forever,” the girl said.

Fondly watching the pair, Sapphire lifted her hand in goodbye as the landscape began to blacken around the edges. Like a floating cloth being sunk by a single stone tossed in its middle, the image of her younger self vanished and Sapphire was back in the library archive.

The joyful memory brought a few tears to Sapphire’s eyes and they flashed into tiny flames of blue as they fell off her cheeks. Tanith seemed to know or feel the same as a few flames dropped from her eyes. She flew up into Sapphire’s arms and they hugged just as they had so many years ago.

“You are something special, my little friend. I have no idea how or why you came to be with me, but I am eternally grateful that you did,” Sapphire whispered. Tanith cooed in agreement and snuggled closer to Sapphire’s chest. “Oh and you know what girl? I think I figured out why you can scratch the chair. Wanna know?” she continued. Tanith eagerly nodded and flapped her wings.

“I think it’s because you are somehow both magical and physical at the same time. You were born out of my heartstone by magic, yet you constantly knock over my bookshelves and rip my dresses when you’re too playful. So I think the spell on the chair can stop your fire because it is pure magic, but your claws are somewhere in between so they can go right through it. Now, do you want to help me with something? There must be a reason that only the seat of the chair was enchanted. Do you think you can very carefully cut away the top cushion for me? There might be something inside.”

Tanith squealed twice and Sapphire set her down next to the chair. She stood on her hind legs and eyed the seat cushion carefully. Instead of using her claws again, she crawled up the leg of the chair and sat on the armrest. Swinging her long tail up, she pushed it into one of the cuts made earlier and fished around inside the cushion. After a few seconds her eyes lit up. She pulled her tail out and went straight for the back right corner of the chair. Now with her claws she carefully cut the fabric away from the wooden frame. When it was large enough she stuck her entire head in the seat cushion and started pulling on something.

Sapphire stood by shifting from one foot to the other cringing a little at Tanith’s eagerness. The dull crack of breaking wood leaked up through the cotton stuffing. Sapphire flinched at the sound and brought her hand to her face.

“Oh be careful, Tanith.”

After a final snap of wood Tanith backed out of the hole and proudly held up a glass cylinder in her mouth. The pieces of the wooden brackets that held it to the chair were still partially attached.

“Good girl, Tanith! I’m so proud of you!” Sapphire said taking the object from her.

Sitting down in the chair, she eyed the glass carefully as Tanith perched on the backrest and looked over her shoulder. The cylinder was the length of her slender hand and was clouded by the years spent in its hiding place. One end was solid while the other had a cap of red wax with the faint markings of a signet ring still stamped in it. The proper academic person in Sapphire stopped her from just pulling out the seal to find what was inside. She set it down in her lap and began to write down notes about its discovery. She then traced it onto a blank page and sketched the stamp as best she could.

With the formal documentation done, she set the notebook aside and slipped her leg out from the long slit in her dress. On her thigh, in a leather and satin sheath, was a long thin dagger. With it she carefully carved away at the edges of the wax plug until it dropped out.

Returning the dagger to its sheath, she slipped a finger inside the tube and drew out its contents. A small roll of stiff brown leather and a four pointed metal star came out onto her lap. She gently rolled open the swatch and held it up to the light. It bore the same crest as the chair and artfully stamped in the middle was the image of a great winged stallion. Under its wings was a set of five oddly spaced words; three under the left wing and two under the right.

The symbols were ancient Sheelhigh, but Sapphire found herself staring blankly at them.

“Think you can translate for me?” she said holding it up for Tanith. “That’s alright. I think this is important enough to break our no magic rule again…just keep an eye on the door.”

Now where did I put that one book?

It took her a few minutes to find the one she was after. It was a tome containing the same text but in modern language and ancient Sheelhigh side by side. She opened it to a random page and set the leather square next to it. With the two next to each other on the ground, she laid a single strand of her hair across both of them. In a few seconds it straightened out and became a blue string of light that bound the two together. The book she had laid out started flipping pages by itself, but then stopped.

Two words on the book slowly filled with the same radiance as the string; one in ancient Sheelhigh, the other in the common tongue. Like a leaf in a stream, the modern word came off the page and flowed over the string. It moved to the leather patch and aligned itself under the first Sheelhigh word. The book’s pages then turned again and the second word was found. This repeated until all five Sheelhigh words on the leather held their translation beneath them in blue light. They were all numbers: six, six, four, five, and ten.

“So that is why I couldn’t read them,” Sapphire said. “I can’t recall the last time I saw numbers spelled out. After copying them down in her drawing book, she pulled the string off of the book and the swatch and it became the strand of hair again.

She let out a sigh and her head clunked back. “Well now we have some numbers. That is rather disappointing.” Her hands fell limp in her lap and barely held onto the leather swatch. Tanith let out a sad whimper and crawled down from the chair’s backrest to its arm. She eyed the piece of leather carefully, twisting her head this way and that.

Sapphire let her eyes close and winced at the first pain of a headache. She let the leather piece go and began to rub her temples. She was interrupted by Tanith who started to paw at her elbow.

“Please, girl. Not now. I am not feeling so well again.”

Tanith insisted and succeeded in bringing Sapphire’s gaze down to her. The dragon flipped the square over and on the back were more markings. Sapphire’s eyes lit up again. She snatched up her notebook and began to write.

The markings on the back showed a picture of the Library of Day but with a much younger looking tree in the courtyard. Below it was a series of small vertical lines and arrows ending with a single four pointed star.

“Well Tanith, it seems we now have lines with our numbers. But thank you, girl. I would have missed that.”

After adding the new markings and drawing to her notebook, she returned the leather page to its glass tube.

I am sure the professor will be interested in this later.

Sitting back in the half new, half torn chair she stared at the numbers, picture, and lines she had just drawn. After a long twenty minutes of scratching her head, she moved the notebook around in front of her to see it from different angles, but it didn’t help.

“I don’t have a clue, Tanith,” she lamented and tossed the book aside. Slumping down in the chair her hands went back to her temples. “Oh well, not like it was what I hoped to find anyway.”

Pushing away the disappointment as best she could, she settled back into her work for the professor again. After a few more hours the light flowing down on the crystal pyramids began to wane. Tanith plodded over and laid her head in Sapphire’s lap looking up with big, tired eyes.

“Aww. You’re too cute when you do that girl! I am sleepy as well. Once I am done with this book, we can leave.”

With a big yawn, Tanith crawled up into Sapphire’s lap and fell asleep. The light of the pyramids ran dry before she finished her text. But with just a simple touch to the carnation in her hair, she reignited its white glow and continued reading. Even after she completed the book, a sense of obligation to the professor made her pick up one last thing.

“I spent a lot of time with that chair today. I need to make some progress in what he needs as well.”

The final piece she decided to look through was a collection of letters between a priest named Bartholomew and the son of a former King of Sheelhigh.

Greetings honorable son of our Lord,

Glory and praise to the Two who are One. As you well know, construction of the fifth and final Sky Temple to honor and protect the power and righteousness of The One has begun. His Strength and Heart fill the sky each night reminding us of His eternal presence. My writing is in regard to the unique flower that is to be planted in the garden of this new temple and humbly request guidance as to when we should have the garden soil and the grounds prepared for the final addition to our temple.

Your humble servant,

Bartholomew

High Priest of the Fifth Garden

Blessings and peace be to you noble priest,

Glory and praise to the Two who are One. I am well pleased as to the progress you have made with this final addition. It will serve well the purpose for which it has been created. As for your request for guidance, I say this. All preparations for the sacred flower that will be sent when the time is right shall be completed no later than fifteen watches after the new moon. It is my will and the will of my father that extra care be taken with this final task. Inform me when the final stone of the main worship chamber is laid.

By the strength of His heart I command,

Nathanial - Son of the King

Greetings honorable son of our Lord,

Glory and praise to the Two who are One. It is my honor to inform you that our task which we set out to accomplish has indeed been completed. The final stone for the worship chamber has been laid and preparations have been completed for the flower that will sanctify the work of our hands and purify the ground in which it grows. May it make our prayers a sweet offering to the Two who are One.

Your humble servant,

Bartholomew

High Priest of the Fifth Garden

Blessings and peace be to you noble priest,

Glory and praise to the Two who are One. My heart is lifted by the news of your accomplishment and the completion of the great task our fathers received – the task that we have the honor of now completing. From the royal Vault of the King, the sacred flower will be sent to you so that you may perform the final rite of cleansing. You must place the flower where it can ever receive the light from the heavens and capture the blessings of the Two who are One. Expect the delivery to come three watches after you receive my letter.

By the strength of His heart I command,

Nathanial - Son of the King

Sapphire stretched her arms high above her head and arched her back up from the chair. Her hand gave a long stroke to Tanith’s back.

“Time to go, little one. I cannot read one more sentence.”

The little drake gave her own stretch and jumped to the ground. She gathered a few papers in her mouth and helped Sapphire organize and reshelf them. Once satisfied Sapphire slid her wand, with the still radiant carnation at its base, into her hair and began the long walk out of the archive. Looking like a giant bat gliding along in front of her, Tanith flew silently over the tables and shelves. Only the subtle sparkle of her scales gave her away in the dark.

After many twists and turns through the aisles, the carnation’s light hit the steeply angled staircase of the exit. Tanith flicked her wings and soared ahead landing on the first step. She waited for Sapphire to join her then scampered up the smooth stone steps. Sapphire’s labored steps sounded loudly on the ground but she smiled and quickened her pace to catch up. As she made a few hurried steps, her bag slipped off her shoulder and the cloth-wrapped glass cylinder fell out.

“Wait little one. Don’t let anyone see you please,” she called out up the stairs.

The tube had come to rest several steps from the bottom. When Sapphire turned to pick it up, she stopped. Looking out over the Sheelhigh archive from a now slightly greater height, the light from her flower cast long straight shadows down the first few aisles. At first she didn’t know why, but they looked familiar somehow. Then her mind hit on why.

She pulled out her notebook and swiped through to the page where she had written down the lines and arrows. Holding the drawing up, she gasped. The lines looked just like the rows and columns of the archive aisles. Strength surged through her body and her heart raced at the thought of an imminent discovery. But the excitement evaporated when an unfortunate fact crossed her mind.

Most if not all storage archives would be laid out like this one. The drawing would match them all. If only there was a way to know which…wait! The crest on the chair!

Praying her memory was true she sprinted up the stairs. Bursting up into the room with all the archive staircases, she turned to the crest above the Sheelhigh stairs. It was the same.

I knew it! I knew I had seen it before! The Sheelhigh archive is the right one.

Flying back down she zipped by Tanith who had become quite confused trying to follow the wild, unpredictable movements up and down the stairs.

“Oh Tanith, come quickly!” Sapphire called back to her. “I think I may have deciphered the markings.”

At the same height on the stairs, she held up the notebook and her eyes bounced three aisles over from the left.

“That way first! Come on, girl!”

Her long legs flashed in and out of her skirt’s two slits and effortlessly carried her down to the third column from the left side. Looking straight down at the drawing she followed its guidance. She passed five rows and turned right. Passed one column and then left again. After a passing a final three rows she slid to a stop.

Out of breath and flushed with excitement, she brushed her bangs off her moist brow and spun in a circle. The place the lines had led her to was a circular intersection of the aisle – not a square one like all the rest. As good a sign as any she was on the right track. But as she looked around her, nothing else seemed important. The dancing shadows her carnation made slowly came to a stop and she threw her hands up.

“But…but that was right. I know that was right.”

The light from her carnation dimmed until only enough light came from it to illuminate a few feet around her. Tanith crawled up with her tail dragging limply on the ground and gave Sapphire’s leg a hug. Kneeling down she scooped Tanith up and cradled her in her arms.

“Thank you. You’re always there for me when I need a hug,” she said touching her forehead to Tanith’s. The touch brought a little more strength to the flower’s light.

When she set her down Sapphire’s eye caught the shine of metal a few feet away. It looked like a small coin dropped in the center of a curiously large floor stone. She stooped to pick it up, but it was stuck fast. Dust covered the center of it but did not wipe clean when Sapphire ran her hand over it. A sharp puff of air did the trick, though it blew the dust into Sapphire’s eyes. When she opened them, her heart stopped. The coin was not a coin but a metal disk with a shape indented in its center. A five pointed star.

“I knew it! See! See! It’s that same size as the one we just found,” Sapphire squealed.

Try as she might, her hands still trembled as she took the star from the glass tube and set it in the ring. She did not need to push or turn anything. For as soon as the star settled into its outline, sections of the floor began to rise. The stone with the star as well as several smaller ones lifted out of the ground like they were being reeled up by unseen tethers. The largest stone rose well above Sapphire’s head, but the others stopped at unique heights forming a floating unlinked arch.

Up from the holes that the stones had vacated, rose two golden feathered wings and the onyx body of a Pegasus. Both shone with a brilliance that showed not a speck of dust or touch of time. Sapphire’s hands rose to cover her mouth as she watched its full form come into view.

The Pegasus was taller than her and stood only on its back feet. Its wings stretched out with a slight curve as if about to take flight. Streaks of gold filled its rolling black mane and billowing tail. Wide nostrils flared out over bared teeth and its white eyes had their own light.

She reached out her hand and tentatively set it on one of the stallion’s front hooves that were held up like fists. Its long straight flight feathers displayed every detail of true ones and Sapphire quietly counted them as she ran her fingertips out towards the wing’s tip.

“..Sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, ten… wait! That’s it! That is why they are so oddly spaced,” she said flipping to the Pegasus drawing in her notebook.

“Look Tanith! See where the original words are written under the flight feathers? So it’s not six, six, four, five and ten its sixth, sixth, fourth, fifth and tenth – a combination for a lock…I hope.”

The sound of her breath drawing in but not flowing out filtered through the silence and she lifted her arm. Her sleek finger reached out and touched the sixth feather on the left hand wing. It moved back like a piano key and her breath rushed out. Her body wriggled with joy before she settled back down and pressed it again, then the next three feathers in order. When the tenth feather had been touched, both of the stallion’s wings began to move. They rose up and away from its body fully extended. Then in slow unison they stroked forward. A gust of wind far more powerful than their simple motion could have made blasted into Sapphire’s face. The wind stripped the dust from every surrounding shelf and sent a billowing brown wave into the darkness.

When the wings returned to their original position, the floating stone arch had moved. It now stood in front of the statue instead of above it. Not daring to bat an eye, Sapphire watched as the stones continued to move. The largest one remained still while the smaller ones rose higher until they were even with it.

The hovering bar of now unbroken stone cubes turned like a lock until it was straight up and down. A long crack snaked down through it and the column opened like a clam shell. In a small compartment within the large stone was a little wooden box. Above it, in the long split made by a portion of the small stones, rested a scroll. Sapphire reached in and took both items.

Once she did, the ancient vault closed. The stones reformed the arch, moved back, and the Pegasus sank back into the floor. Sapphire felt a touch of sadness to see the beautiful creature leave, although her smile returned as she looked down at the two treasures in her hands.


Chapter 21

The Vault’s Hold

The click of Sapphire’s high heeled shoes echoed through the Library’s central chamber. Only Hornsby and a few committed students remained at such a late hour. She gave him a tired smile and he returned a raised hand as she passed. Upon reaching the hallway that led to her room, she slipped off her shoes and took off running.

The wind swirled through her hair and pulled sparks from it as she ran. Her blue and white dress flickered with tiny flames as it whipped behind her. Both the skirt’s edges, along with the pair of wide blue ribbons that covered her chest and wrapped behind her neck, smoldered to black. When she came to a stop, her dress swung back down to her legs and was her nightgown. Without the firelight from her dress, darkness blanketed the hallway. Like a pair of stars, light sparkled in her eyes and pushed that darkness back; eyes that were now green.

A matching set of emerald eyes opened in the door and the burning ember dragon came to life. As soon as it formed, the door swung open and Sapphire rushed inside. As she did a small blue butterfly also zipped in past her head. It landed on the chandelier and all the lights in the room flickered on.

“Thank you, Tanith. I am sorry I went so fast. I just have not felt this excited in a long time. You know why we are really here and this scroll could perhaps give us some clues. Please come down...I’ll let you open it.”

The brilliant blue wings twitched once and the little butterfly glided down to the table. A final flap turned the wings to glittering fire and Tanith leapt out of the little blaze in her dragon form. Her soft scales retained the luster of her butterfly form but now held a much darker hue.

With her slender nose and little front feet she pushed open one half of the scroll that Sapphire had laid out. She turned to do the same with the other half but let out a startled squeal as the first half rolled up on her tail. With a little growl she pounced back on the first half and pinned it down. When it was flat she slowly moved towards the other side, but shot quick, mistrusting looks at the first half. Like the first time, it started to roll back on itself but was quickly flattened by four little feet, a tail and a nose. Sapphire sat back on her heels by the low coffee table that held the scroll and couldn’t help but giggle at Tanith’s antics.

“Here girl, let me help a little. You stay on that side and I’ll roll this side out.”

Tanith kept one side pulled taunt with her front feet and Sapphire set her wand on the other. Seeming to know the need, all the lights in the room grew a little brighter as Sapphire looked down at the scroll for the first time. She cocked her head to the side and a mixture of curiosity and confusion pinched her brow. Puzzled for several seconds, the stressed look continued until she finally realized what she was looking at.

“It’s a map Tanith, but one far older than any I have ever seen. Look, only Sheelhigh has a defined border and it’s quite different than it is today,” she said, still fixed on the map.

She picked it up to study it more closely but suddenly stopped. It wasn’t what she saw but what she felt. She started to rub the material between her fingers, then lifted it up and smelled it. Fresh ink and paper came to her nose.

Strange...this map appears brand new, but that is impossible. It was locked in that enchanted vault. It must be very old to be stored there.

Sapphire’s final thought stimulated even more questions about the map and its meaning. Why had a seemingly simple map been stored in such an elaborate vault? Why were the owners of it so protective? How could a large scale map of the entire land be so valuable? She didn’t see any unique additions to the map – no important marked location or directions of any kind. The only symbols outside the map’s border were the crest she had seen on the chair, a shield filled with stars and two planets, and a small line of text at the bottom. The translation was not difficult and Sapphire did it in her head.

Work of the Royal Cartographers of Sheelhigh

20th year of King Tiberec

“Just the when and where,” she said with a sigh. “Guess we still don’t have anything for our little quest girl, but maybe Professor Berean could use this. I never expected the Sheelhigh archive would have what we need anyway. We need stuff about the ocean, don’t we?” Sapphire said giving her dragon a little rub on her head. Tanith cooed softly and crawled into Sapphire’s lap letting the map roll back up on itself.

“All is not lost though. We still have the second item we found. Let’s see what’s inside the little box.

Tanith leaned forward and sniffed the small dark cube curiously, then picked it up. With her little front feet she tried to pry it open, but to no avail. She did not give up quickly and Sapphire patiently waited until the little dragon’s determination faded. She set it back on the table and glared at it for a moment. Then she drew in a breath to cover it with a stream of fire. She would have succeeded were it not for Sapphire’s quick hand that covered the box and blocked the flame.

“No Tanith, don’t! You could burn it up! This is probably not protected like the chair was, so let’s be careful with it, okay?” Tanith shrank back into Sapphire’s lap and hid under her wings.

“It’s all right, dearest. We all get a little frustrated sometimes. Don’t feel bad.”

Tanith gave Sapphire a grateful nuzzle, then turned back around and watched as Sapphire picked up the box. Like Tanith, she tried to slip her fingernails in the thin slit that appeared to define the lid. She failed too. When she pulled her nails out though, she felt wax had been wedged up under them. This happened on all four sides of the box, but it still did not open. Setting it down for a second, Sapphire scraped at the wax under her nails and thought.

“Oh, of course! Don’t I feel silly.”

With a quick flick of her wrist, she twisted the top off the box. Flakes of wax fell out from the crack onto the table as she unscrewed the lid.

“See girl, it was not a hinged box but rather a screw top. Here, you finish it and see what is inside.”

Perking back up Tanith crawled out of Sapphire’s lap and onto the table. She held the bottom of the box with her tail and slowly spun the lid off. Inside there were several dozen small silver seeds along with the image of a strange beautiful flower carved on the underside of the lid. Sapphire poured out the seeds onto the polished table and spread them out with her fingertips. She picked up one seed and eyed it closely.

“Hmmmm. Do you think perhaps these are the seeds to the flower that was talked about in those letters we read earlier?”

Tanith too was staring intently at a seed in her hand, but set it down when Sapphire mentioned the flower. She scurried away and returned with a small vase in her mouth. She set it on the table and then dropped her seed into it. Sapphire laughed at how silly Tanith’s face looked through the glass as the dragon watched the seed.

“Sorry girl, these are not like the flowers I make. They won’t grow for a long time. You need earth, water and light for that. It will take several weeks for it to sprout, but we will be sure to try later. Right now I need to sleep. All of this excitement is tiresome.”

She began to put the seeds back into the box when the flower carving on the lid caught her attention.

I know I have seen that...but where?

Taking the map back out, she began scanning its markings again. With an exclamation of success, she pointed to a small flower high on the northern portion of the map. “Look, Tanith! See this flower on the map? It is the same as the one on the box of seeds.” The ever curious dragon scampered up the table leg and looked intently at the map, but not where Sapphire had pointed.

“No Tanith not there, the flower is up here at the top of the map.”

Tanith cocked her head and gave a little grunt. She pawed at the section she had been looking at.

“Oh!? You found one too! My apologies sweetheart. It seems there is more than one on the map. See if you can find any others.”

Both scoured the map and found three other flowers, making five in all – one in the north, three along the western coast and one in the far southern reaches.

“I did recall seeing the flower at the top when I first looked at the map, but simply thought it was for decoration not marking something,” Sapphire commented running her fingers over each flower.

As she spoke each black ink flower filled with glistening silver and sprouted out off of the map. Two tiny orbs hovered above each of them and filled with a gentle green light. Sapphire gasped and snatched her hand back. Next to each of the flowers a third shape formed that was not written on the map before. Like the flower and the orbs, they stood above the surface of the map. The effect was brief and Sapphire only caught a glimpse of the third shape next to the northern most flower before everything fell back into the map.

“Did you see that, Tanith?! Did you see what was next to any of the other flowers? I think there was an arrow next to mine but I’m not sure.”

Shaking her head Tanith tried rubbing the flower she was closest to with her tail, but nothing happened. For the next hour Sapphire tried to repeat everything she had done with the map in hopes of recreating the magic again. After many failed attempts she decided it was really time for bed. Gathering the seeds back into the wooden box and tightly attaching the top, she placed it and the scroll in a wooden chest next to the fireplace. She closed the heavy rounded lid and two molten metal dragons crawled out from the embers in the fireplace. They both climbed up onto the chest and hardened into locks along its face. Satisfied with the safety of her find, she walked back to the table and pulled two petals from her wand. She tossed both above her head and each lengthened into a long satin ribbon that tied up her hair for the night.

Tanith glided around the room, gathered all the light from the lamps in her wings and landed on the makeshift bed next to Sapphire. With the gentle glow of the captured light still on her, she walked up onto Sapphire’s chest. With a soft hopeful whimper, she rubbed her cheek right over Sapphire’s heart.

“So you want to sleep there tonight little one?”

Tanith’s big green eyes looked up and she gave a nod. Sapphire’s eyes misted over and she almost shed a tear at her friend’s affection and loyalty.

“Of course you may.”

In a moment a tiny white flame expanded into the carnation over Sapphire’s heart. It bloomed right on her chest and the pink light of her heartstone filled the room. As its radiance shone on Tanith, her soft blue scales turned to match the color of the stone. Slowly she dissolved into pink stardust and flames that flowed into the heartstone. The strength of the gem’s light increased after the final spark entered. But just as the petals started to close around it, the new light showed there were several severe cracks.

Rising the next morning, Sapphire glided to the window and threw open the curtains just as the sun broke the horizon. A strong cool breeze rushed in and lifted her dark hair off her shoulders. The breeze untied the satin bows and they floated back to Sapphire’s wand as flower petals again. Her free hair danced behind her and tiny embers fell from the locks as they swayed. When the wind died, her hair fell back down. But it fell not on her black nightgown, but on a sky blue dress. The coolness of the morning gave the dress long sleeves and a high neckline. The rays of the sun added gold trim and its likeness over her chest. The white clouds added lace around her wrists and the sky brought blue back into her eyes.

Out of habit she gathered her notes from the night before and went straight to her work in the archives. Late that afternoon, when the light from the pyramid crystals began to fade, she decided to take a short break and open the enchanted vault again. Just as she was about to place the metal star, she realized she had never told Professor Berean about her find.

She rushed back to her room and touched each metal dragon on the storage chest. They heated up to a dull red glow before crawling away back into the fireplace. At first she grabbed both the map and box of seeds, but then stopped. She hesitated for a moment then put the box of seeds back.

Once out through the tower of light at the library’s entrance, she took off at a full run. Before her first step hit the ground, her delicately heeled shoes were replaced by stout leather sandals that wrapped tightly to her ankles. She passed Imperator’s Shade and flew down the road to the university, arriving just as the sun neared the horizon. She entered the main halls, passed the great scroll and book doorstops then picked her way through the crowds of students.

“I hope I am not too late to speak with him,” she muttered as she turned down the first hallway. The stairs to Berean’s floor were at the far end, but a large crowd of chattering students blocked her. So eager to speak with the professor that evening, she forced her way through the group as quickly as she could. In her rush she ran smack into someone’s back.

He was not dressed in the fine clean uniform of a student, but wore riding pants and a leather coat; he also still bore his sword. She offered a quick apology then hurried past him. A few moments later as she reached the stairs, a strange thought crossed her mind.

Have I seen him before?

The purpose of her visit and its urgency pushed the thought from her mind and she continued up the stairs. As she turned down the final hallway, she saw Berean locking the double doors of his office. She picked up her pace and called out to him.

“Professor, please wait! I have something I must show you!” Berean flinched at the sudden shout, but smiled as she came up to him. Without stopping to take a breath, Sapphire launched right into her find and thrust out the scroll.

“I was in the library and Tanith found a secret safe combination and map. Inside was this.”

“Please Miss Jay, slow down. I hardly understood that. What is this you found? A safe? And who is Tanith?” Berean asked as he unrolled the scroll.

Sapphire’s heart dropped as she realized her slip. She stuttered for a second, but a gasp from the professor saved her. His mouth dropped open but didn’t move. His eyes darted back and forth across the page, getting bigger with each passing moment.

“Where...where did you find this, Miss Jay?” he finally managed to whisper. Sapphire let out an exhale and made sure the subject stayed on the scroll.

“I was “assessing the building” and found it concealed in a false bottom chest. The wood had rotted through so much that a small hole was visible or I would never have known it was there.”

Berean didn’t even look up before he spoke again. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.

“Not entirely. I was able to translate that line of text on the bottom. It just says, ’By the royal cartographers of Sheelhigh, 20th year of King Tiberec...if I did it correctly.”

Berean reached into his coat pocket and took out his spectacles. Looking down his nose through them, he mouthed the translation to himself a few times. Sapphire could hear that his translation was the same as hers but then suddenly the professor’s face went white. He stiffened and nervously looked around as if the empty halls were suddenly watching him. When he did speak, his voice was flat and lacked all the enthusiasm it held only a moment before.

“It’s quite warm inside. Have I ever shown you the passage through the northern wall? It was a secret escape route for the old palace. Let’s use it and get a little fresh air.”

Berean didn’t wait for her to answer and set out before he had finished asking. Sapphire was paralyzed for a moment. Completely confused as to the sudden change, but a few long strides caught her up to him. She opened her mouth to ask something but he started speaking again and her first syllable was drowned out.

“Many of the original palace walls have been removed so the passage is not that secret anymore,” Berean said. Sapphire didn’t offer more than a small noise in acknowledgement and the two continued on.

Guess I will just wait and see. But something is definitely wrong.

They went to the bottom floor of the main building and through several locked doors. Finally, in what Sapphire guessed to be an old prayer room, Berean stopped.

“The back wall of this room is the northern wall itself. Just down those stairs is the passage through the wall,” he said.

Again before finishing, he took off at a hurried pace and Sapphire was hard pressed to keep up. Down the stairs the two passed through a narrow section of the wall where the builders had left a gap between the large stones. A stout door and faint light through a key hole met them after a dozen feet of darkness.

Once outside Sapphire felt the first twinges of frustration tighten in her neck as she waited for the professor to speak again. He seemed completely distracted and wouldn’t look at her for a few seconds. After several moments he took a deep breath and turned.

“Ahh that’s better. Now where were we...oh yes. Your translation of the text is accurate and I can say for certain that this is authentic. I must thank you, Benicia, for your hard work and rather quick success in finding something of historical value. Now it will be best if you go back before it gets …”

“Why is he back tracking?” Sapphire’s mind shouted the moment he deliberately said historical value.

“But professor, this is more than that. I know it! If you would only listen to me and look into it more like I have been asking, you would see it too! This is relevant now. I am sure of that!”

“Nonsense my dear, I can tell about these things right away. While this map is in ideal condition, it is of little importance. I wouldn’t be surprised if one just like it is already on display at the university. But rest assured I will make a full documentation of the find and have you receive credit for it. Now please have a good evening.”

“But Professor Berean, I …”

“That will be all, Miss Jay. I must return to my office and write up the summary of this find before it gets too late. You should return to your quarters and get a fresh start tomorrow with your work. There is always more to do.”

Sapphire could only watch as Berean turned and shut the door behind him. She stood motionless with disbelief covering her blank face. Indignation followed and a flash of emerald light pushed out from her blue eyes. With a half sad, half angry yell she stomped her foot and began pacing outside the door. A few more times the green light cracked through the blue of her eyes. Her hand reached for the carnation in her hair each time. Eventually her anger cooled and her fists and teeth unclenched. She let out one more exasperated sigh that dovetailed into a baffled laugh.

At least I only brought the map and didn’t tell him about the Pegasus vault. But what on earth came over the professor? It’s like he suddenly became someone else.

From her spot outside the city, she could see the road that led back to the library but had to pick through a pathless assortment of small trees and bushes to reach it. When she stepped on to the road’s hard gravel, the first evening star pricked the sky. Almost as if it called out to her, Sapphire turned right towards it. She smiled like an old friend had come to her door but lifted a single finger for it to wait. Her eyes glanced up at the balcony atop the northern wall and then to the road—both were free of prying eyes. Looking back to the star she gave a nod. Twinkling with delight the star’s light subtly focused around Sapphire. It traded the gold trim on her dress for silver and the morning blue darkened to match the purple evening sky.

Even with her long sleeved dress, Sapphire had to wrap her arms around herself on the walk back. She had a full case of the shivers once she reached her room. With cold white hands she started a pot of tea on the fire and tried to warm up near it. When a little color returned to her fingers, she manually took off her dress and let the flames warm her bare skin directly. Their soothing touch drove away the last bit of cold, as well as the stress Berean’s odd reaction had inflicted on her.

While her tea warmed she slipped on a wool shirt that fell past her hips and curled up in a thick chair by the fire. As she stared into the swirling tongues of orange and white, the curiosity of Berean’s conversation replayed in her head. It didn’t stress her as it had before, but still she wished to understand why he acted so oddly. She thought if she went back through the conversation bit by bit she may understand. Her mind never got to it. For reasons she did not understand, it got stuck on the moment she bumped into the young man with the sword. He now seemed a far more interesting mystery than Berean’s oddities.

She tried to bring his face back to her mind but she had seen it so briefly it wasn’t clear. However, the look in his dark brown eyes was so familiar it tugged at her heart.

The whistle of her teapot washed the thought away and brought her back to the room. She transferred the steaming water into a smaller ceramic pot filled with tea leaves and through a cloth filter she poured herself a cup. Returning to her chair, she warmed her hands around the cup and slowly sipped the refreshing liquid. Its warmth made her eyes heavy and drew out a contented sigh.

A gust of wind rattled the window and snapped her upright. Her start turned to curiosity when a tiny prick of light on the window sill caught her eye. Keeping the blanket wrapped around her, she walked over to it and found the vase Tanith had put a seed into. It had sprouted.


Chapter 22

Tatric at Gabrie Anniel

The sun hung high and the air warmed Tatric’s skin as Gabrie Anniel came into sight. The simplicity of his final day of travel pushed thoughts of the Recruiter and the dark conjuror’s possible revenge from his mind. Were it not for the crooked arrow he still carried, it would have felt more like a bad dream than a near death experience. Even with the arrow’s ominous truth, the sight of his destination brought back the reason he had endured—the Girl Under the Stars. The conflicts with Hagen and the Recruiter did concern him, as did the arrow, but all were insignificant compared to thoughts of her.

The Road of the Realm did not pass through Gabrie Anniel directly. It ran a few miles to the west where it intersected with the Southern Highway of Geraye. It was at this crossroads that Tatric turned east and left the international roadway. Two hours later he arrived at the gates of the City of Knowledge. After stating he had business at the university and showing the gate official the large bag of letters and packages he carried as proof, he was permitted to enter.

The city lay just south of a collection of wooded hills and its design resembled a half moon shape. A straight northern wall abutted the forest hills while a pair of smaller curved walls outlined and divided the city. Because of its close proximity to the Library of Day, Gabrie Anniel once served as the capital of Geraye. The northern wall and first southern wall encased the palace, the nobility’s houses, and the official buildings.

After the capital moved to Waterstone, the outer wall was added and the royal buildings were converted into the university. It was this first wall that Tatric had just passed through. It encircled the main commercial portion of the city and five gates perforated its ten foot thickness. Each gate opened to a main road that radiated out from the inner wall like spokes on a wheel. Five smaller “Arc Roads” were laid out like ripples moving away from the inner wall and intersecting with the main roads. The main roads were primarily for commercial traffic but mounted riders could use them also. Tatric preferred to avoid its crowds and noise as much as possible and turned Rose off on the first arc road he came to.

The academic and intellectual nature of the city could not be missed as Tatric moved further into the city. The dress of everyone was more sophisticated and ornate than in Waterstone. Elaborate designs of the sun were common on the tunics of men along with embroideries of scrolls and tasseled books. The women wore tiny sun dials or mechanical lockets that only the owner knew how to open – rather than jewels or gold. Bookstores, art and sculpture galleries, and writing supply shops outnumbered bars and brothels. In small amphitheaters men debated philosophy and mathematics. Small children sat in outdoor classes diligently working on art and architectural projects. Most homes and shops were made of dark plank wood with flat plaster roofs. Elaborate stone edifices of pillars and marble stairs were common. The roads were grey brick and punctuated with black metal drains. The city’s lack of industries such as tanning, metal smithing, and glass working, lent a clean feel to the streets. Wood and coal smoke were rare. The smell of paint dyes or stone dust was the norm.

As Tatric continued on, it appeared to him that each Arc Road subdivided not only a section of the city, but also the differing social and economic classes as well. With each passing arc there were less open market stalls and multi-story apartments, and more estates and fine boarding houses. The stores that did find a place to do business were those of the highest quality.

At the inner wall, Tatric had to ride parallel with it for a while to reach the university’s gate. The bristling strength of the military style wall was still obvious even though it had long ceased to serve as such. The black, moss-lined wall was four times Tatric’s height even while he sat on Rose. Each block was the length of his arm and by tongue and groove was locked with its neighbors.

Only two gates opened through the inner wall and when Tatric reached the eastern one, the sight of it demanded he stop for a moment. Like the wall, the gate was an engine of war long retired from duty. Five steel hinges anchored the great iron-plated door into the middle of the stone wall. The crest of the king it protected still faintly survived on its rusted armor – the white head of an eagle next to the gold outline of a torch. The gate was propped open permanently by a pylon driven into the ground just off the road. A prick of sadness touched Tatric as he passed through.

It’s almost cruel to pin it open like that.

Inside the second wall was the University complex and its lush courtyard. Since the departure of the monarchy, and with it the need for a large bureaucracy, only a few buildings remained unclaimed by the University. The governor’s house, the Assembly Hall and the courts flew the flag of Geraye only. All the remaining ones had a second flag beneath the national one. It was the same eagle and torch Tatric had seen on the gate.

In honor of the king whose palace they now occupy no doubt.

Since the original builders were constructing a palace and not a school, the buildings were understandably overly impressive. Built with the intent to intimidate and foster respect and admiration for the king. Modeled after the Library of Day, the central building was massive with several smaller sections stair casing down from each side. Five black pillars with gold capitals marked the front of the main hall. A wide staircase of white marble with polished granite railings ran at a soft incline up towards the pillars. A flat open section separated the top of the stairs and the building doors. The open section’s only decoration was the seal of Geraye along with the eagle and torch crest laid in the marble. Two oak doors, each carved with a quill pen and scroll, guarded the main entrance to the building.

Tatric made his way up the marble stairway, passing many occupied students who scarcely acknowledged his presence. He paused for a moment to admire the pair of seals etched in the ground at the top, before stepping up to the main doors. Two heavy wooden statues propped them open; one a book, the other a scroll. A reminder to all newcomers they would no longer find a king inside.

This fact reiterated itself when Tactic stepped through the gaping doorway and was not greeted by a high chamber with streaming banners and parade dressed soldiers. Instead of a majestic hall, he found himself in modest sized room opening to many hallways and a large staircase. Its polished wood walls and white stone floors gave a look of quality, but with more emphasis on function than appearance.

The room was made even smaller by the large number of students and professors that bustled through like ants around their hill. It took Tatric only a couple of seconds to notice that few people took the central staircase and those that did appeared to be teachers who came down from the floor above.

Hmm, seems offices are upstairs.

He pulled aside a student and asked for Professor Berean’s office specifically. At first the student paused, seeing the conflict written on Tatric’s soiled and torn clothes and the sword on his back. He gave a quick generic answer of upstairs second floor.

Maybe the sword should have stayed with Rose...and a fresh shirt wouldn’t have hurt either.

Not caring enough to turn back now, Tatric followed the student’s directions to the second floor. The stairs opened up in the middle of a large circular room that, like the floor below, contained numerous hallways and another set of stairs; something his help had failed to mention. Unsure, he chose the hallway that the most people were going into. Down its brightly lit corridor he began to look for the large double doors the student had mentioned, hoping to get lucky.

Weaving his way through a dense group of students that were heading in the opposite direction, Tatric felt someone bump into his back.

In an obvious hurry, and not a student by the look of her blue and gold dress, she turned around and offered a quick apology. Tatric tried to offer his own, but she turned quickly and melted into the crowd. Tatric’s heart had skipped a beat for the split second their eyes met, but settled down as she left.

Familiar, but blue not green.

The encounter stirred fresh anticipation of what progress he might make in finding the Girl Under the Stars. His pace quickened down the hall but at the end he found no double doors, only a small staircase. He was about to turn back but then thought he might as well see what was on the third floor. Going one floor up, he found the door to that floor was locked, but the stairs continued. At the fourth floor the stairs emptied out onto a rooftop balcony. Behind him was the peak of the main hall’s roof and in front of him was the top of the northern wall. Only a small stone railing outlined the area and Tatric could see for miles.

The sun was setting and Tatric could not pass up the view. He leaned on the railing and wondered if the Girl Under the Stars was watching too, wherever she was. As the last of the orange orb sank behind the horizon, Tatric laid his head on his hands and closed his eyes.

He tried to take deep breaths of the cool evening air, but it fell short. The weight of the task before him, the searching, the unknown amount of time, and the high likelihood of failure, all rushed onto him at once. A prick of regret for not taking the Recruiter’s knife found its way under the hand that rubbed over his heart again.

What am I really doing?

“Setting yourself up to fail,” his mind interjected. The blunt but logical fact pulled Tatric down farther until he squatted by the railing holding on with only one limp hand. He worked his hand over and over his chest, but the pressure on his heart still built.

“She is gone and doesn’t care if you find her or not. A girl like her can’t be found by someone like you.”

The second blow pushed Tatric to one knee and a tear fought to cloud his eye. The pain tightened in his chest and the feeling of futility pushed his knee harder into the wooden floor.

“You found her once didn’t you?” his heart whispered.

Like a cooling breeze, the words drove back the despair. No sooner had he pulled his shoulders back and lifted his chin, a pair of voices came to his ear.

Tatric peered over the edge and saw the girl in the blue and gold dress that had bumped into him earlier. She was talking to an older, slightly balding man with wire-rimmed glasses. They had exited from a discreet door in the northern wall that was nearly concealed by vines and shrubs. They stood in a tiny clearing outside the door and seemed to be having an intense conversation. The older man looked flustered with his red glistening head and disheveled appearance. Though from Tatric’s height, he couldn’t tell if it was caused by stress or excitement. The girl looked more collected, but by the way she kept tipping her head back and clenching her hands, Tatric could tell she was agitated.

The whistle of the wind coming up over the lip of the wall blended the voices and Tatric struggled to make out their words. He knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop but his curiosity got the best of him and he stayed. The animated conversation continued and Tatric gathered the subject was the thin scroll the man held to his chest. The girl kept pointing at it, but the man didn’t seem to yield. By the way he kept fidgeting with his vest and glasses, Tatric could tell he was not comfortable with conflict. This back and forth continued for a few moments and right at the end the wind died enough for Tatric to hear.

“But Professor Berean, I am sure there is more—”

“That will be all, Miss Jay. I must return to my office and write up the summary of this find before it gets too late. You should return to your quarters and get a fresh start tomorrow with you work. There is always more to do.”

Professor Berean re-entered the building leaving a very agitated girl stomping her foot and pacing outside. Tatric could see she was fighting with herself about whether or not to pursue him. After several tense moments and a few reaches for the door handle, the girl let it go. She snatched up her bag and stormed away towards the main road to the Library of Day. Tactic watched her for a few moments longer. Why would she be going that way at this hour? Once she reached the road he turned to go back inside. Just as he reached the door he looked up and saw the evening star that had just twinkled to life.

The rather heated exchange between the girl and who Tatric now knew to be Professor Berean made him a little hesitant to speak with him that evening. Still, the urge to start his search as soon as possible won out and he hurried down the stairs. Back on the second floor, he went into the opposite hallway and this time found the large double doors of the professor’s office. Not surprisingly they were locked.

Tatric suspected his wait wouldn’t be long because the professor would be returning to store the item he had received from the girl. A few minutes later Tatric’s predictions were proven correct as he saw the fatigued professor hurrying down the hall.

As Berean stopped at the door and fumbled in his vest pocket for the key, Tatric stepped up and said, “Excuse me, professor my name is Tatric Farion. I know you’re busy, but I only need a few minutes of your time at some point this evening.” Berean jumped at the sound of Tatric’s voice. He dropped the key and his glasses fell down his nose. Picking the key up quickly, he adjusted his glasses and looked up at Tatric.

“Yes, please be quick. I have something very important to deal with at the moment.”

Tatric handed Berean the letter he had from Professor Prins and continued.

“We can discuss the details of all this at your earliest convenience. I just need direction from you as to where I will be staying as a visiting student.”

Berean skimmed the letter and his expression softened a little. “Oh, so you study under Professor Prins in Waterstone. I know him well and am always pleased to receive his best students for a time. Sadly I cannot give you a proper welcome and tour this evening. But if you go out to the east side of the university grounds, you will find a dormitory for housing guests on a temporary basis. You will not be with many other students I am afraid, but it is the best non-private accommodations we have here. But I must give you something first. Please come in.”

The two stepped into his office and Berean went around to his desk. From a drawer he took out a heavy brass token stamped with an eagle head and torch and handed it to Tatric.

“Take this to the city steward who is in the single story house near where you going. He will find you an open room for your stay.”

“Thank you, sir. I hope we can talk further tomorrow.”

The professor nodded and Tatric could tell the conversation was over. Expecting it to be brief, Tatric stole one quick glance at the item Berean had set on the desk and turned to leave.

Back near the gates of the inner wall, he collected Rose who had been patiently waiting at the hitching post. He led her along the inside of the wall to the east portion of the school. Without difficulty Tatric found the single large house next to the multi-room dormitory as Berean had described. He tapped the heavy iron knocker twice and the door was promptly answered by a middle aged woman. She wore an elegant black and white servant’s dress and politely greeted Tatric.

“Good evening, sir. I am Bridgette, the caretaker of the steward’s home. How may I assist you?” Producing the coin the professor had given him, Tatric placed it in her hand.

“I am here as a visiting student and guest of Professor Berean. He instructed me to show this to the steward and he would provide me with a room in the guest dormitory for my time here.”

Bridgette inspected the coin for a moment and then returned her attention to Tatric. “Yes, of course sir. Please come with me.”

Tatric followed her into the high roofed entryway but stopped when she held up her hand. She opened a side door and slipped inside. Moments later she reappeared and beckoned him in. Inside the small waiting room, Tatric was confronted with a set of elaborately carved black wooden doors separating him from the steward’s office proper. With a little bow Bridgette motioned to a small padded chair against the wall and then ducked out. Tatric sat in silence for a few minutes before the silver handle turned on the door. A large dark skinned man opened the door and greeted Tatric with a warm handshake.

“Good evening! I am Ellis, the steward of Gabrie Anniel. Please come in. Bridgette tells me you are a visiting student of Professor Berean and that you require temporary accommodations at the university.”

“Yes, that is correct, sir. I have other commitments for the school in Waterstone as well, but I am primarily here to study,” Tatric answered.

“Very good, a young man like you should keep his days filled with as much honest work as possible. Now let me check to see where you can stay.” Ellis paged through a small ledger on his desk for a few seconds, then stopped.

“I see here that there are currently several vacancies in the guest dormitory. Do you have any preference on where you would like to stay?” Ellis asked. “There are two ground floor apartments that face into the courtyard and three second story ones. All but one of these faces west. The one exception being a room which actually is part of the wall, and it faces the northern hills.”

Tatric’s first inclination was for the simplicity of a ground floor, but the one that faced north intrigued him. The fact that it faced towards the Library of Day and was part of the great north wall decided it for him.

“The north one it is,” Ellis said making a quick note in his ledger. From the pouch of a wide leather book, he then pulled two tasseled keys.

“One is for your room and one for the front door. It’s room twenty-five in the middle of the top floor. You should have no trouble finding it. The stable for your horse will have the same number. It is on the other side of the south wall off the school grounds”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate this opportunity to be here,” Tatric said offering out his hand.

Ellis shook it firmly and then called for Bridgette. She appeared and led Tatric back out to the front door where she bid him goodnight.

Exiting the steward’s house, Tatric led a sagging sleepy Rose out through the heavy gates and to the university owned boarding stables. Once satisfied she was set for the night, he hefted his large bags and returned to the university grounds.

The lateness of the hour had emptied the campus and left only Tatric and a few night watchmen outside in the weak moonlight. As Tatric unlocked the door the agitated hoot of an owl and thrashing wings broke the silence. He whirled around in time to see the great bird dramatically abandon its tree near the steward’s house. Tatric had come upon owls many times and not one ever paid him any mind. So this behavior sent a crawling chill over his skin. Yet as he looked at the tree there was no movement around it or in it.

Then he saw them—five silver lights, one next to the other, in the darkness. They did not flicker like candles nor were there any windows for light to be coming through. The shining dots made the hair on his arms and neck stand up and an eerie feeling filled his stomach. Just as quickly as they came, they blinked out like the closing of an eye.


Chapter 23

The Other Side

Berean’s feet dragged and his arms labored to gather his coat and bag. Another lengthy night in the university library lay before him. As he shut his office door and pulled out the key to lock it, the sound of running came to his ears. The noise slammed his heart down into his shoes but then it lifted when he saw it was Benicia hurrying down the hall. She called out to him as she ran.

“Professor, please wait! I have something I must show you!” Before he could even greet her, she launched right into the reason she was there and thrust a small scroll into his chest.

“I was in the library and Tanith found a secret safe combination and the map inside was this!”

Simply by way of reaction, Berean took the scroll Benicia offered him and then managed a reply.

“Please Miss Jay, slow down. I hardly understood that. What is this you found? A safe? And who is Tanith?”

The color dropped out of Benicia’s face and her breath caught in her throat. Berean thought it odd but his attention was immediately grabbed when he unrolled the scroll. A sharp breath sucked through his lips. His eyes darted wildly back and forth across the page.

“Where…where did you find this, Miss Jay?!” he whispered. Benicia took a moment before answering.

“I was “assessing the building” and found it concealed in a false bottom chest. The wood had rotted through so much that a small hole was visible or I would never have known it was there.”

“Do you know what this is?” he asked holding it out to her.

“Not entirely. I was able to translate that line of text there. It just says, ‘By the royal cartographers of Sheelhigh during the 20th year of King Tiberec’...if I did it correctly.”

Taking out his spectacles the professor translated the simple phrase on the spot. With his vision aided by the glasses something more jumped out. In the southern part of the map, near where modern Shilltham would be, was a flower with two small dots over it. He found the same symbol in four other places on the map including the spot in the Dynasty Plains where he had found the first Scroll of Night.

That symbol...I have seen it before. Could it possibly be...no...no. It couldn’t be all the Sky Temples... But it is.. it shows all five of them!

He was about to share the revelation with Benicia but the ring grabbed him and forced him to swallow the words.

He looked up and down the empty hall several times before he spoke. His voice was soft and hid a tremor.

“It’s quite warm inside. Have I ever shown you the passage through the northern wall? It was a secret escape route for the old palace. Let’s use it and get a little fresh air.”

Berean didn’t wait for her to answer. He set out before he had even finished asking. He set a hurried nervous pace and started rambling.

“Many of the original palace walls have been removed so the passage is not that secret anymore.”

Benicia didn’t offer more than a small noise in acknowledgement and Berean never met her eyes. They went to the bottom floor of the main building and through several locked doors. Finally Berean stopped.

“The back wall of this room is the northern wall itself. Just down those stairs is the passage through the wall,” he said.

Again before finishing he took off without looking back. Once down the stairs the two passed through a narrow section of the wall where the builders had left a gap between the stones. A stout door met them after a dozen feet of darkness. Once outside in the crimson dusk, Berean took a breath and seemed to recover himself.

“Now where were we...oh yes. Your translation of the text is accurate and I can say for certain that this is authentic. I must thank you, Benicia, for your hard work and rather quick success in finding something of historical value. Now it will be best if you go back before it gets...”

The agitation and confusion on Benicia’s face mixed with her reply and her first words were almost a shout.

“But professor, this is more than that. I know it! If you would only listen to me and look into it more like I have been asking you would see it too! This is relevant now. I am sure of that!”

“Nonsense, my dear. I can tell about these things right away. While this map is in ideal condition, it is of little importance. I wouldn’t be surprised if one just like it is already on display at the university. But rest assured I will make a full documentation of the find and have you receive credit for it. Now please have a good evening.”

“But Professor Berean, I am sure there is more…”

“That will be all, Miss Jay. I must return to my office and write up a summary of this find before it gets too late. You should return to your quarters and get a fresh start tomorrow with your work. There is always more to do.”

Berean ducked back inside and pulled the door closed behind him. He collapsed against it and let his head flop back. A flustered cry from Benicia leaked through the wood and he expected her to come after him. The door handle didn’t move and after a few minutes he guessed she had gone. Groaning he pushed himself up and schlepped back to his office. As he fumbled for the key in his vest pocket, a young man stepped up to him.

“Excuse me, professor my name is Tatric Farion. I know you’re busy, but I only need a few minutes of your time at some point this evening,” the man said.

Berean’s mind still swam with the stress of his conversation with Benicia. Only when the man spoke did he realize he was there. Jumping at the sound of his strong voice, Berean dropped the key and dislodged his glasses. Retrieving the key and awkwardly returning his lenses, he turned and muttered a reply.

“Yes, please be quick. I have something very important to deal with at the moment.” The man thrust a letter into Berean’s hand and continued to speak.

“We can discuss the details of all this at your earliest convenience. I just need direction from you as to where I will be staying as a visiting student.”

Still standing outside the door, Berean scanned the letter. His annoyance at the interruption lessened as he recognized the name of the writer.

“Oh, so you study under Professor Prins in Waterstone. I know him well and am always pleased to receive his best students for a time. Sadly I cannot give you a proper welcome and tour this evening. But if you go out to the east side of the university grounds, you will find a dormitory for housing guests on a temporary basis. You will not be with many other students I am afraid, but it is the best non-private accommodations we have here. But I must give you something first. Please come in.”

Berean opened his office doors and invited Tatric inside. Without sitting down Berean went round to his desk and from a drawer pulled a heavy brass token.

“Take this to the city steward who is in the single story house near where you going. He will find an open room for your stay.”

“Thank you, sir. I hope we can talk further tomorrow,” Tatric said. The professor gave a nod and was thankful the man quickly took his leave.

Once he was gone, Berean lit several lamps to chase the dimness from his office. Then cleared and stowed everything off his desk. On it he rolled out the map and set two bookends on it to keep it flat. In a small closet, he threw open a chest and rummaged through its contents of old clothes, bent books, and dull tools. He pulled out a thick brown paper scroll and rolled it out on the desk alongside Benicia’s map. His was a mass produced modern map of the Western Realm.

Finding rivers, mountains, forests and anything that endured long enough to be found on both maps, he drew the five flowers with the two dots onto the modern map. With a ruler and pen he made a cross on the nearest modern city. Finally, he used a geometry compass to plot the distances from each city to each flower. When the final mark was made, he opened his notebook and started a fresh page.

First Sky Temple: Located through simple archeological means. Significant finds – Preserved micro Obelisk, Scroll of Night.

Location: 8.2 miles from the City of Flags in the Dynasty Plains, 48 degrees N of E

Second Sky Temple: Location yet to be confirmed.

Possible location: 11 miles at 40 Degrees W of N from the northern most portion of Lake Sheelhigh.

Third Sky Temple: Location yet to be confirmed.

Possible location: 12 miles at 63 Degrees W from the junction of the Belfrim River and Lake Sheelhigh.

Note: Based on the letter from the King’s son to the High Priest, I suspect this location not only is a Sky Temple but the original resting place of the scrolls before dissemination to the other four sites. The kings’ vaults.

Fourth Sky Temple: location yet to be confirmed.

Possible location: 13 miles due E from the Leviathan Port in southern Sheelhigh.

Fifth Sky Temple: Location yet to be confirmed.

Possible location: 8.8 miles 45 Degrees S of W from Shilltham in Belfrim.

With the locations clearly written down, weight fell from Berean’s shoulders. The ring gave him a rest as he now had a solid plan to find the other scrolls. He even felt a little rush of excitement for the first time in weeks.

What might the other treasures be? What else might be found with them? But then if I do find them – he gets them.

The final realization stole the small amount of joy he had gotten. It lodged in his mind and gave him no rest. Compounding it, his long repressed conscience returned. It condemned his actions thus far and heaped coals of self-reproach on his head. His fear of Ti’Ceed and paranoia that the ring could read his mind, created a terrible counter argument. As the faint light of morning pushed up into the sky, he reached a compromise.

I will tell Ti’Ceed everything but only if he directly asks. I will not venture the information myself nor seek the Temples without direct instruction to do so. After all, I was only asked to find the meaning of the plate – nothing more. This is how I can fight back.


Chapter 24

Despair to Hope

Rising with the morning light, Tatric’s body felt strong as he got dressed. He chose a fine pair of black pants and loose white shirt overlaid with a light jacket. He knew his first order of business would be to meet with Professor Berean again. He gave a quick brush to his thick brown hair and was headed to the door but wheeled around and came back.

I’d better bring the letter again. I would not be surprised if Berean does not recall our brief meeting last night. He seemed very distracted.

The crisp morning air and numerous song birds greeted him as he stepped from his dorm. The tree next to the steward’s house where the creepy lights were the night before, was well lit and harmless. Tatric even laughed to himself about being nervous at all.

The sun had not yet risen so he decided to return to the roof balcony he had found the night before and catch it before it rose. He made it just as the first prick of bright orange broke the eastern horizon. Once it was too bright to watch, Tatric turned to the north. A few miles into the forested hills, he could see the morning light shining off the roof of the Library of Day.

Will there truly be anything in there for me? Will I even get close to finding her?

The peacefulness of the morning eroded under such heavy thoughts. The strength his body felt before bled away. His heart ached for his search to be over already, but his mind knew much effort lay before him.

The majesty of the library even at such a distance put some hope in his heart. Still, the pain and pressure dominated and his hand couldn’t rub it away. The necessity of his visit with Berean drove him back inside. He made his way through the first arriving students and found the professor’s door. Knocking firmly on it twice a frantic cracking voice called out telling him to wait for a moment. Tatric leaned closer to the door and heard what sounded like the rustling of papers and closing of drawers.

The locks finally clicked and the doors opened. Their creak was joined by the exasperated voice of the professor before they even opened.

“My office times for students are clearly pos...Oh, Tatric. Please forgive my rudeness. I should have known it was you. Come let us finish what is needed so that you can begin your studies.” Once seated behind his desk, Berean took a quick breath to collect himself and then spoke again.

“I do apologize, but I must ask you to refresh my memory regarding your stay.”

“Yes, of course, sir. I understand our meeting was brief yesterday. I brought the letter my professor sent with me in case you want to read it again,” Tatric replied handing the letter across the desk to Berean.

Looking down his nose through the small lenses of his wire glasses, Berean read it completely this time. It was several pages and contained far more than just why Tatric was there. Personal news and updates on academic projects from one friend to another were also included. This gave Tatric some time to casually scan the office and entertain himself with all of the strange things Berean had accumulated. The ancient weapons and epic paintings of combat were the first to catch his eye, but eventually his focus landed on a small plaque. It rested flat on the top of a round glass-topped case that stood on a thick pedestal behind Berean’s desk.

The plaque boasted no elaborate detail or precious stones. The metal was most likely bronze, but the image still drew Tatric in— a simple ring with five rays shining outwards.

Perhaps it’s the sun...or maybe even a star!?

Once Berean’s eyes looked up from the letter, Tatric gestured towards the plaque.

“Pardon me sir, but I have become very interested in stars recently. The image on that plate behind you looks as if it may be a star. Could you tell me about it?”

Berean’s face brightened as he turned around and slid his chair closer to the glass case. Though his hand froze and his joy vanished when he saw which plaque Tatric was referring too.

“No, it is not a star and it is of no value. I don’t know why I even keep it. Now to the topic of your studies.”

The sharpness of Berean’s voice and how it cracked at the beginning made the lie obvious, but Tatric did not press the issue. It was not his business and he knew offending the professor now would not help him later. So he gave no reaction and allowed Berean to move on to the topic he wanted. Berean picked up the letter again and skimmed through the part about Tatric, talking as he did.

“So...ancient religions...stars...flowers...Yes, fine … fine. You may do what work you need in the Library of Day, though I must ask one thing in return. The professor paused and Tatric could see him struggle with something. It looked as if he was fighting to keep back words rather than find them.

“I have a favor to ask of you. A favor of the legally grey kind. I assure it is harmless and seeks only to bypass outdated legislation for academic progress. Would you hear me out?”

Tatric sat up straight and his eyes narrowed. He looked carefully at Berean’s face.

“It would be a rare academic opportunity for you. Worth your while I guarantee,” Berean added.

“Go on,” Tatric said.

A wash of color returned to Berean’s face and he let out a long held breath.

“I would like you to access parts of the Library of Day that are technically off limits. Rare unknown knowledge lies down there and it would serve my current project greatly if you did some work on my behalf. Of course you may also seek your personal project as well.”

“And you would like me to do this because I am new, and could claim ignorance if I am caught?”

“Something like that. I cannot ask any of my staff to do so as that would both risk their jobs and cause jealousy between them.”

Tatric leaned back and crossed his hands behind his head. “What would I be looking for?”

“Should you come across anything with the phrase “the FIVE” or “the ONE” bring it to us … I mean me, bring it to me. Only me.”

Tatric could see the sheen of cold sweat on the professor’s face and agreed without prying.

“Thank you so much Tatric; this is really a great help. Here, this glass charm is your access pass. You must display it on your person whenever you go to the library but hide it at all other times. I will contact Donovan Hornsby. He is the chief Librarian and tell him what we have discussed here. Oh and one more thing. I have already enlisted a second person to do the same thing. The archives are so vast you many never run into her. But if you do, don’t be surprised.”

The two shook hands and Berean escorted Tatric out and shut the door without a farewell. Tatric had to wipe his hand twice to clear it of sweat.

Back at his room Tatric took his pouch of money from the lamp globe he had hidden it in. He spent the remaining sunlight out in the city gathering supplies for his stay. His requirements were simple. Fresh writing materials along with some personal food sufficed. No need drew him back to his room when he was done, so he remained out until sunset familiarizing himself with the city. When dusk painted the sky an assortment of pinks and purples, he headed back to the university and put away what he had bought.

The simplistic day helped keep the pain in his heart from surfacing. Fond, hopeful thoughts about his search to find the Girl Under the Stars increased as he sat by his window and watched Hannah and Imperator fill the sky. Maybe Berean’s secret task would be the break he needed. He went to bed ready to begin in earnest the next morning.

The following day he attended two standard lectures first – Historical Relations and Religious Thought. During these he learned two important things.

In the first class he learned the original border of Geraye extended farther south and encompassed what currently was the northern tip of Sheelhigh. The change to the modern configuration happened over a disputed holy site that Sheelhigh leadership thought should be under their control. The terrain was comprised of rocky hills and scattered peat bogs with little value to the secular-minded Gerayens. They willingly ceded the holy site as well as a significant portion of the surrounding countryside, but at a price. In exchange they received permanent shipping rights on Lake Sheelhigh.

The second thing occurred during the religion lecture which covered the same time period as the history course. The lecturer spoke about how the holy site responsible for the cessation of land was most likely a temple for the worship of Hannah and Imperator.

“The site itself has never been found and Sheelhigh records are intentionally vague on its nature. Most historians believe it was near the original capital of the ancestral tribes of Sheelhigh, a few miles west of the current city of E’lancelan,” the professor explained.

Perhaps the Girl Under the Stars is a remnant of that religion. If I find more information on that it may prove beneficial.

Armed with this idea, he headed straight for the Library of Day once his lectures concluded. The massive central mural of the sun that adorned the Library’s main hall greeted him. Its majesty blazed with nearly the same glory as the lord of day himself. It spread a clean white light around the center of the library and gave everything a celestial, almost holy, appearance. Even so, the beauty only slowed Tatric’s pace a little. For however grand the library was, in Tatric’s mind it paled in comparison to a pair of emerald green eyes. With strong deliberate steps he marched past Imperator’s Shade, through the tower of light and into the main hall.

The vastness of the inner hall turned his eyes upwards to the paintings on the ceiling. Flecked with shards of gold and silver, the images of angels and demons drawn there seemed alive with movement. Five angelic beings, each in battle with an opposing creature of darkness, filled the ceiling with images of conflict. As Tatric took note of each battle, he felt a theme of hope come down from them. Every angel wielded not a sword but a form of written words – a book, a scroll, a tablet, a proclamation, or a single page. Each angel seemed to be speaking what was written upon their form and by their words, held power over the dark ones. A great ribbon wove from one side of the ceiling to the other and separated each contest. Written upon it was the meaning of the work. “With TRUTH you shall command demons.”

A fitting proverb for such a place.

The painting added to the height of the main hall and made it appear like it had no limits, save for the heavens where the angels battled. When Tatric turned his eyes down, he saw that the library was quite full. Scores of students and teachers milled about. Some perusing the book laden shelves, others sitting at the numerous study benches and reading chairs. Yet for all that, only the tapping of shoes on the floor and the scratching of pen on paper filled the air.

At the central island several lines streamed back and Tatric assumed the men that serviced it were the managing librarians. He waited his turn and asked to speak with Donavon Hornsby.

“May I see your charm first young master?” the Librarian asked. Tatric raised his wrist and the little gold book glinted from inside its clear teardrop.

“Very good. I am Donavon Hornsby. How may I help you?”

“I am Tatric Farion.”

Hornsby pulled his glasses off and let them hang from their chain. He left his spot in the island and walked around to Tatric.

“Please come with me.”

He led Tatric to the north wall and staircase that jutted out from the wall itself and ran parallel with it. In the office at the top of the stairs, Hornsby directed Tatric to the seat in front of the desk. The Librarian unlocked a drawer and pulled out a small box. This is the key to the lower levels. It is the second of two as you know. Please take care of it. Do you have any questions of me before I take you to the archive’s entrances?”

“Thank you sir, I do not take this task lightly. I will of course be aiding Professor Berean’s task but he said I could also seek my own. Are the lower archives organized enough for me to narrow my search down to stars, flowers, and how those were used with magic?”

“A small amount of organization has been done but I do not know if it goes that specific. Can you narrow it down by country? That is the only direction I personally can give.”

Tatric sank deeper in his chair. If the girl was part of the star worshiper religion, country wouldn’t help. Though she was in Geraye looking at the stars.

“I would say Geraye,” Tatric answered.

“Come with me then. We can begin your work immediately.”

Tatric followed Hornsby back into the central chamber and along the north wall to what looked like a tapestry hanging all the way to the floor. Hornsby looked up and down the row and waited till no one was in line of sight. He pushed back the Tapestry and hurried Tatric into the room it concealed. The light of a lantern chased the darkness away and Hornsby handed it to Tatric. He led Tatric deeper into the room and to a set of barred walls that boxed in the room’s far corner.

“Here are the five main archives of the library, Master Tatric. They are separated by country. Geraye is the second from the left. You can tell by the seal in front of each stair. Take good notes and I wish you luck on both your tasks.”

He left and allowed Tatric to unlock the door and make his own way down the stairs. No sooner had Tatric descended the stairs, then he heard the creak of the metal gate again. He stopped momentarily and thought Hornsby wanted to say more. But the librarian did not call down to him nor did Tatric hear any footsteps on the stairs. Still, he climbed back up to check, but found no one.

Odd…Hornsby must have changed his mind twice.

With a shrug of his shoulders Tatric headed back down the stairs. As he broke out into the vast storage hall his skin went cold. The weak yellow light from his lantern barely touched the first row of shelves.

How will I find her in all of this? And with such poor light?

Weak though his lamp was, it was strong enough to shine a few yards down the wall from the stairs. On the wall a bright sparkle caught Tatric’s eye and he went over to it. The source was a small sphere of pure crystal and next to it was a bronze wheel. The gold rays shooting out from the crystal as well as from around the wheel made the light switch obvious. A single full turn and Tatric had to raise his hand against the brightness that filled the room.

Similar in appearance to the crystal on the wall, larger versions were set up on what looked like large candle sticks throughout the chamber. Shafts of light fell down from the low ceiling and were dispersed by the spheres. When the shock of the brightness lessened from his eyes, Tatric could see the first part of the massive chamber. It made his skin even colder.

On the bright side, the room was more organized than he first guessed– and more curious. Stone shelves lined the outer walls and were filled mostly with bound scrolls, but that was not the curious part. Not a single shelf stood in the middle of the room. Instead, tables as far as he could see filled the chamber, if you could call them tables. They were covered with a manmade honeycomb of some sort, a honeycomb of cells made of wood and copper, about as high as his forearm was long. They covered every inch of the large tables and functioned as discrete storage containers.

The honeycomb tables were grouped in sections just wide enough so the middle cells could be reached from either side and were several yards long. Only a few dozen sections near the entrance had labels on them, but none were related to Tatric’s need. With each section he passed – architecture, weapons, farming, shipwrights – his feet became heavier and his breath more difficult.

The pain he had suppressed since entering, leaked into his heart breeding despair. The pain wrapped his lungs in a vice and drove hot pokers into his back. Images of him returning to Waterstone, broken and empty-handed, flashed into his mind.

Numbness washed over his legs from the future he saw. Tatric dropped to one knee and half fell against a table. His fingers clawed at his chest through his shirt and he could not help but cry out in pain. The echo of his moan filtered out into the vast chamber but fell only on paper and stone.

Slouching down along the table’s wooden leg, he let his head fall limply back. Hot silent tears streamed down his face. He stared up blankly at the grey stone ceiling and recalled the Girl Under the Stars. She was his only weapon against the oncoming storm. He saw her standing again on the high stone with the blue flower in hand. But when she tossed it into the air, his memory stumbled and she blurred to only a faint recollection.

“No, no. Oh please no!” Tatric’s heart cried out. Try as he might to replay the moment, he could not see it clearly again. He could not picture the new flowers she created; he could not see her eyes.

This was a foolish idea to begin with. Are you surprised she is fading? Just forget it. It will be less hurtful that way. Go about your business at the university and then leave.

Tatric buried his face in his hands and fought to counter the argument but could not. The library was too big, the information he needed too uncertain, and the girl too wonderful for him. It was best to give up, he concluded.

A bitter relief, like amputating a crushed limb, diluted his despair a little as he got up to leave. He trudged back to the university in a daze and fell right into bed.

The next morning came far too soon. He obediently attended his lectures, then locked himself in his room and tried to subdue his mind. He managed to survive this way for a few weeks but when the skin over his heart started to bleed from constant rubbing, he decided to leave for good.

In the middle of the day he packed up his things and was about to go tell Berean. Though the packing had been simple, and his items few, it left his body aching and he fell into bed again. He intended to rest only a moment, but soon a dream began. At first it replayed that day in the Library archives where he struggled to see the moment the girl made the flower, but could not. Like a cruel joke it cycled over that moment many times but then it suddenly changed.

It did repeat his failure of recalling the flower but when the girl leapt onto her dragon it became clear. It continued right to the point she turned around. It stayed on that moment and time stopped. The girl just looked back at him and Tatric began to see what he thought was worry in her eyes – worry that he was about to quit on her. Just before he woke up, she spoke and said one word to him, “Please.”

Her voice and her eyes stayed clear and fresh in his mind as he sat on the bed’s edge. With that one word he felt she had asked him to keep looking for her. And with that thought came a new revelation. Even a girl like her, an infinitely unique magical sorceress, would have pain too. Pain like his even. She may cry herself to sleep at night and need to be found by someone just as desperately as he needed to find her.

Tatric’s pain did not cease with this thought, and despair hid just beneath his skin, but now he felt strength return. He could endure for her. He did not even unpack his bags. He stood and marched straight to the Library of Day.

If nothing else, I have the purpose of searching.

Back in the Geraye archive he chose a single section and opened up a few honeycomb cells at random. A few dusty books and some parchments were all that he found. The depression tried to surge forward, but it was beaten back by a single word. “Please.”

To feel some sense of purpose in his efforts, he started categorizing sections based on the contents of a few cells. This and the single word kept his spirits up. A few days later he pulled out a detailed drawing of a flower; the first thing with at least some association with the girl. The drawing focused his attention in that section and he started going through every cell.

Later that evening he came to a cell that was not merely closed with a lid but sealed by wax as well. Inside was a flower encased between two panes of glass. The stem and leaves were black and tiny silver veins coursed through the latter. Its long sharp petals were dark purple and flecked with silver. There were five of them and it seemed to Tatric that they would have formed a perfect star before it was flattened out and preserved. Below the flower there was a short phrase inlaid in the glass with gold.

To the Lady of Sinnet

With utmost gratitude for the salvation of my daughter,

Daniel II, King of Geraye

Neither of the names struck a chord and Tatric felt the excitement of the find begin to fade. When he looked back into the cell, the excitement jumped back. At the bottom was a small unsealed letter. Its formal style with sweeping elaborate characters matched that of the phrase on the glass case.

From the Steward of the King

to his Excellency the Royal Ambassador:

This Holy Star Flower is to be given to the Ambassador from the Isles of C’dcer. Please instruct him to make all effort to present it to the Lady of Sinnet or one of her sisters as gratitude for her benevolent act of kindness to the king’s family and the nation of Geraye.

The passage intrigued Tatric but it created more questions than answers. Why was this significant gift gathering time in an unseen wooden box in the basement of a library? Why was it not in the possession of the Lady it had been intended for?

I have heard of the Sinnet Islands but I thought they were uninhabited. Who could she be?

Several more times he read through the note and tried to scrape through his memory for something similar. Nothing came and he realized he would need help. So after tucking the two finds in his bag, he went back upstairs to the main hall. At the central island he found a free librarian and asked if she knew of any writings referencing the “Lady of Sinnet.”

When Tatric had first approached the older woman, a bland look of apathy and age filled her eyes. Both vanished when she heard the name Tatric spoke.

“Yes, Master Tatric. I have heard of that name before and would be pleased to show you where.”

“My name is Priya. Please follow me,” she said after exiting the island. “The first time I heard that name was from my grandmother when I was a child. She had brought one of her old children’s books to read to us. It had many stories in it but one was by far my favorite. It told about a young mermaid and a princess from Geraye who befriended her. The two girls became best friends and had all sorts of secret adventures together. Of course it was only a simple children’s story, but still it fascinated me. So when I was a younger woman, I spent much of my free time researching whether there might have been some true inspiration for the story...and there is.”

Priya’s enthusiasm was contagious and Tatric felt his heart quicken as he followed the old librarian to a set of white marble steps. He had not noticed them when he first came into the main hall, but now he saw that each wall was set flush with a pair of them. Each triangle of steps blended perfectly with the wall when Tatric looked right at them and were only given away by the door that seemed to hover twenty feet in the air.

“The second level of the library contains some of the more rare and fragile volumes, so please be careful,” Priya said. She then unlocked a heavy white door that bore the word HISTORY in large characters above it.

Inside Tatric found himself in a more typical looking library with rows of high wooden shelves laden with books and reading desks hidden in little nooks against the walls. Priya led him to the middle of the room where the shelves were replaced with several glass cases. The cases were arranged as three sides of a square and flanked around a reading table in the center. Please sit, Master Tatric, and I will bring the work you seek,” she said.

Unlocking one of the glass cases, she drew out a single volume. On the cover an old sailing ship flew the Kugel and four trees that was the Geraye flag. With the deliberateness her age required, Priya sat down next to Tatric and eagerly flipped right to the passage.

“This is a captain’s log which speaks of a great catastrophe that nearly occurred off the Islands of Sinnet several hundred years ago. The royal flagship was carrying Charlotte the young daughter of King Daniel II and she fell overboard. The report is that several hours later when all hope had been lost, she was found still in the water being held up by a woman. The Captain referred to the woman as a “native” of the Sinnet Islands in his writings, though no one is really sure what that means. Once she delivered the child up to the sailors, they tried to get her name and thank her. But she immediately swam away and disappeared under the water.

While it is still debated, some people believe the natives of Sinnet were mermaids. Sadly this of course is almost certainly pure myth because no mermaid sighting has ever been confirmed, nor has a single one ever been captured. A more likely explanation is that a group of semi-savage people once lived on the islands and were expert swimmers and divers. But there are plenty of mermaid stories and myths surrounding Sinnet, so it may be true, I suppose. The little girl in my heart certainly hopes it is. I pray that I have helped you. Feel free to take this book for a time if you desire, but do be sure to return it in good condition.”

Tatric had been skimming the actual entry as Priya recounted the story. It was just as she said; every fact was true.

“Yes, I do think it will help me to read more from this log, but I shan’t keep it for more than a few days. Thank you for your help, Priya. I suspect I will need it again, but until then goodbye,” Tatric said.

“You are welcome, young sir. May you find what you seek.”

Even after reading the entire log book and spending another few days in the Geraye archive, Tatric found nothing more concerning the encased flower or the Lady. One morning as he descended the stairs, he heard the clank of the door above. Like the first day when he thought it was Hornsby, he again came back upstairs but saw no one. Only a butterfly glided past him. The insect was such a brilliant sapphire blue that Tatric had to tell his eyes they were not seeing some strange fire, even though they kept insisting they were. It danced right in front of his face and landed for a moment on the first stair of a different archive. The blue color seemed so familiar to Tatric and suddenly the memory of the girl under the stars rushed into the forefront of his mind. The moment she tossed the flower up and it broke into five flames came back to him in perfect clarity. Tatric felt a fresh peace touch him and he took off his hat. Still tucked under the band, fresh as the day he picked it, was the blue flower.

He intended to compare it to the butterfly, but when he looked up it was gone. He let out a sigh and replaced the flower. He took a step back towards the Geraye stairs when his eyes caught a word. It was right where the butterfly had been and was carved into the stone by the set of stairs: “C’dcer.”

Wait! Why am I still looking in the Geraye archive when the Sinnet Islands are part of C’dcer?

Professional courtesy made him return to the Geraye archive and replace everything he had removed from a cell. The instant he was done, he sprinted up the Geraye stairs and down the C’dcer ones. He found the lighting system to be similar to Geraye but still unique. A lever opened panels in the ceiling but the light did not shine down onto spheres of crystal. Instead, columns of opaque white glass rose up from the floor and met flush with the openings in the ceiling. The light washed down through them and they glowed like steel in a furnace.

The manner of storage however differed greatly, as did the general construction of the archive. Dark red volcanic glass comprised the floor, not cut stone. The walls were made of thick cubes of blue glass that created thousands of slots. These slots were filled with a seemingly random assortment of items from scrolls and parchments sealed in blocks of wax for sea transport, to fishing rods, nets, books and even clothes. The center of the archive Tatric found to be even more peculiar. It was not laid out in consistent rows and columns, but instead seemed clumped and random.

From his perspective at the base of the stairs, he saw a large cohesive section of stand-alone wooden shelves directly in front of him. A walk down the entire length of the archive showed six smaller clumps. Every shelf faced inwards as if guarding its content. Thankfully there was an entrance of sorts to the large section between two of the linked shelves way back near the archive entrance. Inside were hundreds of more normally organized shelves and tables.

For the remainder of the day, Tatric surveyed the categorized sections of the archive, but didn’t find anything on the natives of Sinnet. The walk back to his dorm felt much longer. But he returned to the C’Dcer chamber consistently for several days and combed through the unlisted sections. Late one afternoon he heard a faint scratching noise that turned his eyes up from a book. It came loudly from the staircase but then faded.

A few minutes later the sound of books crashing down snapped Tatric’s head back up. He also heard what he thought was a hiss followed by a brief noise like fire. The scent of a strange smoke filtered into the arena of shelves and brought Tatric to his feet. Next he clearly heard a woman’s voice call down the stairs.

“Tanith, are you down there? I found something very special. Come back to the room with me and help me figure it out.”

The voice elicited an enthusiastic squeak and more scratching sounds. Quickening his pace, Tatric reached sight of the stairs just as a flash of maroon darted up the steps. He headed toward it but stopped when the smell of the strange smoke got stronger. It had the normal sharp smell of wood in it but also had sweetness to it. He imagined it to be like the scent of a flower he had never smelled before.

His nose brought him just outside the large collection of shelves where he had been working. One of the inward facing shelves was tipped back and had fallen against the glass bricks of the outer wall. A large burned scar still smoldered on the wood and had a curious blue hue to it. The damage also extended to the glass bricks and several of them were badly scorched.

What on earth could have done this? At least nothing but the bricks were damaged.

Several of the melted glass bricks stuck to the shelf as he tipped it back up. He attempted to return them to their original positions but found it difficult to properly re-create the slots. At first he thought it was just him not seeing the obvious, but as he looked closer he found the reason. A large hollow section opened up behind where the damaged bricks would have been.

He could not see inside but when he put his hand down to the bottom, his fingertips landed on a cold metal object. It was heavy and took Tatric several attempts to pinch it between his fingers and draw it high enough to grab. It was a metal plaque much like the one Berean had insisted was meaningless. It was cast bronze and the image rose out of the metal.

Instead of a single ring and five rays like Berean’s, there were five separate images of a man. Over the first man’s chest was a ring and in his hand was a single ray. The second man had the same ring, though bigger and more prominent, and in his hand were two rays. This pattern continued until the fifth man held five rays in his left hand and the ring, instead of over his chest, shone brightly in his right hand. Along the lower border was a long line of ancient text that Tatric was unable to read.

Setting the piece aside, he reached back into the small makeshift safe. This time his fingers touched cloth, stiff and old. It wrapped around something pointed and hard but it was small and easy to lift out. The cloth crumbled and tore as he uncovered what it protected; a ceramic statue of a mermaid. The detailing made Tatric’s eyes flash wide. He set it on the ground for fear he might somehow drop it. The base was a short wide cylinder of black volcanic glass on which the mermaid rested. On the top, half of the glass was cut to look like the surf and the other half a beach. The mermaid lay on her back in the sand. Her tail mixed with the glass waves and in her up-stretched hands was a flower.

Tatric dared not rub the statue with the tail of his shirt to clean it for fear he might damage it. He removed the loose dust with his breath alone. Eager to see her true beauty, he cut his day short and returned to his room. There he washed both the plaque and the mermaid statue with utmost care. Clean as the day she was carved, the mermaid’s beauty was mesmerizing. Tatric could not help but stare at her and trace every line of her white ceramic figure with his eyes.

When his gaze moved up her slender arms to the flower she was admiring, a realization struck him. Rushing to his bag he pulled out the flower encased in glass. He set it upright on the table next to the statue and his gaze shot back and forth from it to the mermaid’s flower. They were the same.


Chapter 25

Puzzle Pieces

Titus clutched his dearly bought prize tighter as the ferry rocked in the waves. He and a group of worshipers sat quietly in the small boat until the mooring lines were tied. The Leviathan Shrine lay across the water behind him, a light tipped spike in the lingering fog. Guilt kept prying at his heart. Should he have left Kingheld so quickly? Could he have done more? The highly disciplined L’hal in him quickly silenced such questions and he set his jaw tight. He would not let himself be distracted from what the current moment required of him. He must return to the Leviathan compound as quickly as possible.

The rattle of an anchor chain from a nearby sailing ship cut him like a piece of shale. He let his head sink father back in his hood and leapt from the boat as soon as he could. His legs wanted to run but he knew stealth was still paramount. He and Kingheld had not been followed into the Library but that did not mean there were none waiting for them to return.

“Being a single traveler will be an advantage,” Titus thought, trying to see something positive.

Once out of the city and free of possible stalkers, he took off running. A dead sprint up the beach for an unbroken hour brought him within sight of the compound. Again the young overzealous guard challenged his need to enter. Titus did not even look at him. The seething L’hal walked right up to the gate and struck it with his open hand.

The hinges crumbled off the wood like clay and the entire gate fell forward. It slammed into the wet earth and gave a piercing crack like a whip. Even after such a display, the guard still challenged Titus and moved to cut him off. With lips pressed white with anger, Titus snapped his head towards the boy. The L’hal’s burning face under his hood stopped the guard cold. The color from the lesser man’s face drained like he had turned a corner and found a lion. The guard’s legs failed him and he crumpled to the ground. Whimpering, he scrambled back until he hit the wall of the guard’s shack. Titus marched straight past him without another look.

His grim straight-line advance to the council chamber startled many other hapless priests. The chamber held the central position in the compound and was the largest by far. It was longer than it was wide with uncarved wood and limestone bricks making up its roof and walls.

With a hand heavier than lead, Titus knocked. A few moments later a hunched over old priest opened the green copper door. His body sagged under great age but his eyes were bright and strong, eyes that needed only one look at Titus’s face.

“I will call the council,” he said.

An hour later the long central table of the council buzzed with hushed conversation. The fifteen monks that comprised the governing body were of all ages, ranks, and opinions. Titus sat back from the head of the table next to the old hunched priest. From behind the darkness of his hood, he eyed each of the councilmen and how they looked at him. Many were upset and shot him glances of mistrust and annoyance as they spoke with their neighbors. When the eldest monk at the head chair stood up, silence rippled down the table and the discussions ceased. He stepped back and motioned for Titus to come forward and speak.

“Over the last several hours a most important event has occurred. I and the High Priest, Kingheld entered the Library of Night—”

“Blasphemy!” one priest shouted. “It is forbidden for anyone other than a member of this Order to do so! Kingheld would not have allowed it. You lie.” A chorus of agreement boiled up from other members and the elder had to command their silence.

“What happened was under the blessing and free choice of your High Priest,” Titus continued. “We entered to claim something left by Ti’Ceed...but we failed…failed most terribly.”

Titus then threw the broken sea shell necklace out onto the table and sat back down. Deafening silence followed. Even the naysayer’s tongues were stayed.

“My sorrow for this loss is beyond words. I will leave you now,” Titus said.

None offered a word to hold him back, but the eldest one followed him out of the chamber.

“Deception is not a common tool of a L’hal. But should there be a time for such a thing – it is now. I am unsure how long the truth can be concealed. This Order is pure but I do fear for some of the weakest minds. The strength of Kingheld was unmatched. I know his death gained you something. I need not know what and I know you will not tell. Yet I fear such secrecy cannot last. You must go immediately.”

The wisdom of the old priest’s words had Titus on his horse in a matter of minutes. Pausing for no one, he thundered over the collapsed gate and out into the darkness of night. He drove his horse due west and put many miles behind him before morning.

Having memorized numerous maps long ago, Titus had no difficulty formulating an alternate route to the Eternal Mountain. The standard way would have been to continue west to the Belfrim River and follow it to the beginnings of the Sal-Marcern mountain range. There, a course due north would take him home. However, he felt he had to assume Ti’Ceed would become aware of his entrance into the Library of Night. So he joined the Road of the Realm as it turned north to E’lancelan and Lake Sheelhigh.

With the Prime’s medallion as well as his own, he maintained his endurance and that of his horse for twenty continuous hours. Never breaking his gallop during that time, he reached the lake side city in what would have taken any other rider a week.

After such an expenditure of both will and magic, Titus desperately needed the rest he could take on the boat ride across the lake. His mind never stopped though. For the day and night that the crossing took, it spun ceaselessly.

Stealth, not speed is now my greatest ally and I must keep it. I must assume the L’hal compound is being watched and will be for at least the same amount of time it would normally take me to return. I must disappear until well after that time – force the enemy to move on...but where?

He turned the question over and over and when he landed in the northern port he had his answer. The city of Gabrie Anniel offered him his best chance of concealment. It was past the larger city of Reltheot which would force any pursuer to search there first, and it put him closer to his eventual route home.

Three days of normally paced riding brought him to the gates. He entered under the pretext of a pilgrim returning from the Leviathan Shrine. His first order of business was to rent a small commoner’s house. He burned his leather arm guard. The two medallions he attached to a chain around his neck. He hid the wooden case and it’s still unknown contents in the hollow of an old tree near the university. Knowing he had to stay for several weeks, Titus thought it wise to appear as normal as possible to those around him.

I must be forgotten by everyone who sees me the moment they look away.

He set up a small stand in the town center and posed as an illusionist for children; entertaining them with clever tricks and sleight of hand. He kept his act simple and was even mocked by other magicians or an arrogant older child for his mediocrity. Even though, as a full L’hal, his tricks were not tricks at all.

Such indifference continued as he hoped for several weeks. After that time Titus began considering the details of when and how he would leave. As he did a somewhat bothersome idea kept popping up.

Look in the case; you can better protect that which you understand.

The idea met resistance as part of him said it would be an overstep of propriety to look. Yet enough of him eventually agreed. One morning he took the box from its hiding place and went to the University’s library. There he found a school uniform in a storage room and blended well with the other students. He found a secluded reading desk that faced the open central portion of the library and had little space behind it. There he sat down to make his final choice. At first a stalemate of feelings dominated and he could only stare at the box. After an hour the lack of assertiveness annoyed him and forced a compromise.

I will only examine the box now without opening it.

He found it to be nothing special; only five simple latches and no carvings or written texts. But as he promised himself he did nothing further and began to put the box back in his bag.

“…Order of the Leviathan…” The phrase sprung out of the library’s quiet air. Like a blinding light had just burned his eyes, he cringed and clamped them shut. The sound of chains ground in his memory. But with the pain a different memory also came; the conversation where he persuaded Kingheld to open the first compartment.

“...often times the directions themselves are not what is important. It is what happens when trying to accomplish them...” he heard himself say.

Taking his own advice, he scanned the library for prying eyes, then unclipped the five latches. Inside he found a long scroll rolled up on two thin metal rods, one black and one gold. Titus lifted it from its case and gently rolled it open across the desk. The thin material was unlike any writing medium he had seen before. It felt like silk but at the same time stronger than leather. It was also incredibly supple as he unrolled it, but the moment it flattened on the table it was hard as glass. The total width did not exceed that of a normal book and was divided in half – one side black, the other gold.

At first Titus thought the unusual brilliance of the gold side had stunned his eyes when he saw no text. Though he quickly realized both sides were blank. Flipping the scroll over, he was greeted by the same blank gold and black shine.

Of course it wouldn’t be that simple.

Magical scrolls were not new to Titus and his faith in the Prime’s will blocked any feeling of frustration or anger. Kingheld did not die in vain; he knew that for certain.

He returned the scroll to its case and began walking out of the university back toward his room. When he passed the book and scroll door stops, his stomach tightened. On the skin of his throat and face he felt the faint touch of searing heat and paralyzing cold. The exact combination of pain he had felt from the chains. At the same moment he noticed a slightly out of place group of students. They were walking up the steps in front of him, five males in a tight group not speaking or joking like the others. They followed a single older student in almost a military fashion. All seemed to be headed somewhere with a powerful purpose. His normal instinct and duty as a L’hal monk would be to follow the group, determine their purpose, and attempt to foil them if they proved sinister. However, that was under normal circumstances and he knew his current task superseded all others.

I will need every bit of strength to protect the scroll and cannot afford to engage them. In fact, I should leave the city right now because of them.

Back at his rented house, he hurriedly packed everything of importance. Though his trip would be long, he only required a few supplies and was soon at the stables for his horse. Yet as he brought out his tack, a nagging feeling about the students pestered him. The pain he felt when they first passed shouted that they were in league with Ti’Ceed and he needed to find out to what extent.

The scroll is important but surely it alone cannot defeat Ti’Ceed. More will be needed and now is my chance to learn...such a chance may not come again. Very well, but only for a few minutes and I must avoid direct contact at all costs.

Fearing too much time would be lost re-concealing the scroll, he slipped it in his bag and headed back to the university grounds. He walked at random through the halls and along the walkways, waiting for the sting of burning ice he had felt before. It touched him faintly at times, like tiny wisps of noxious smoke from a distant fire. When he exited the stairs onto the third floor the sound of a lock turning drew his eyes to a pair of large doors a few yards down the hall. The telltale burn wasn’t in the air, but instinct told him to wait. Classes were in session and the hall was empty. Without making a board squeak, Titus crept up to the door. An older man’s voice in mid conversation came to his ear.

“...Tatric. It is interesting and certainly has some historical value, but the text will take some time to translate. If you will leave it with me, I will be sure to study it when I have the chance.”

“Of course, Professor Berean. I have no personal interest in it, but I’m always curious and thought I would at least ask you about it.”

“I’m glad you did. And it’s always a good thing to be curious.”

“Thank you, sir. Have a good day.”

Titus heard a desk drawer close and the sound of footsteps came his way. He scurried from his spot against the door and took several long strides down the hall before slowing to a normal walk. When the double doors opened behind him, he stole a glance back over his shoulder. A young man had just walked out and Titus recognized him.

That is the boy from Geraye! The one I was sent to warn.

At the same moment a rush of stinging wind slapped Titus in the face. Seconds later the six students he had seen earlier stepped from the stairwell and were a dozen yards down the hall. Before they looked up and saw him, he touched the medallions over his chest. Their power took him back to the moment he first knelt by the door to listen. The conversation played out exactly the same.

“I’m glad you did. And it’s always a good thing to be curious.”

“Thank you sir, have a good day.” The unseen conversation concluded again.

This time Titus did not wait for the drawer to slam closed or the footsteps. He took off running the opposite way he had before until he got to the stairs. Halfway down them he stopped and took out the scroll case. With a touch of his hand, he placed a simple concealment charm on the box and it vanished. He waited for Tatric to begin coming down the stairs and then he started up. Keeping his head down, Titus lightly bumped Tatric and dropped the hidden box into his book bag.

The six figures appeared at the other end of the hallway again just as Titus passed the double doors. He did not break stride and walked right past the six, even greeting them pleasantly as he did. The six did not return his salutation but proceeded directly into the double door office. When the doors clicked shut behind them, Titus backtracked and knelt down to listen a second time.

“Oh, my lord?! Do come in...I…um am happy to see you again. There is much for me to tell you….please do sit. Would you and…your companions care for some tea? I could go downstairs to the kitchen and…”

“No thank you, my teacher. I am here for my lesson and am eager to see what you have prepared.”

Titus pulled back from the door and rubbed a finger in his ear. He replayed the few lines of dialogue in his head, doubting what he thought he heard. It sounded as if the same man was having a conversation with himself. The voices were identical, though fear riddled the one that spoke first. He put his ear back on the key hold.

“Yes forgive me, my lord,” the fearful voice answered. “I do have several things I am sure you will be pleased with. One was just delivered to me not minutes before your arrival. But I have yet to examine it very closely so I will begin with my first major breakthrough on the research task you have assigned me.”

A chest creaked open and the sound of ruffling papers came to Titus’s ear. Seizing the momentary lull Titus pulled a pencil and notebook from his bag. When the ruffling of papers stopped the conversation continued.

“Now, I was sadly only able to glean myths about the FIVE and the ONE at the start of my research. But when I translated a phrase from an obelisk I discovered several years ago, I made my first breakthrough. See I have written it right here. The ONE with heart of stone in hand, the Eyes of Tanith will look on with blessings and honor. Forgive me, my lord, if you know some of this already, but the constellation Eyes of Tanith contains the two planets of Hannah and Imperator. So another way of translating this is – “The ONE with heart of stone in hand, Hannah and Imperator will look on with blessings and honor.” This matches part of the wording on the first bronze plaque and—”“Surely that is not all your lesson is,” the dominant voice said. “I care not for stars, constellations and fancy translations, professor.” The voice did not shout or feel laced with anger to Titus, but it had a great effect on the second voice’s reply. It cracked and scrambled for placation of what Titus assumed was an unheard threat.

“Oh fear not, my lord, fear not. I have not failed you. There is a connection between this and what I believe to be the ONE. Do you see the way the ONE is written on the obelisk? It is identical in form to the ONE on the plaque and I believe they are in reference to the same thing. So the ONE is probably a specific person. The FIVE I am very confident are the five divine treasures. One of which is the arrow you now possess. To summarize I believe that the riddle refers to a single person who can claim all five divine treasures and by doing so gain favor with the Divine and be allowed.”

Titus scrambled to write as detailed notes as he could on what he heard. Not because he feared forgetting it but as a safeguard should he be killed or rendered unable to convey the information.

“Is that all, my good professor?” the dominate voice continued. “What of the location of the five treasures? Or perhaps a more definitive answer about whether the ONE is a person or thing…for I do not share your confidence that it is indeed only a person.”

“Well umm...I mean no but...but there is the piece I just received today. I have yet to study it and see if it is relevant to what we need. I have done a quick translation of the text on it, but I am not confident I have it right. Here, look at it for yourself and perhaps it will be clear to you what it means. My loose translation is “The will or power of the ONE shows the FIVE. I have yet to even consider the images.”

More silence ensued as Titus assumed the second person was looking over the aforementioned artifact. The dull sound of metal striking wood followed and the dominate voice spoke again.

“‘The strengthening of the ONE will allow the revealing of the FIVE.’ My dear professor, surely you could have interpreted this as quickly as I did. If I did not know any better, I would say you were hoping not to show me this piece. But that would be nonsense. Why would you ever wish to deceive me, your humble student?”

“No, my lord, no...I ...I did not wish to include incomplete and possibly irrelevant things in my lesson.”

“This is hardly an irrelevant piece and it seems it is my turn to give you a lesson. I assume you never had time for women or they never had time for you. Regardless of which is true, I’m sure you know of this realm’s marriage rituals and where they originated. They of course stem from the legend of the Heartstone which speaks of two lovers who physically manifested their hearts as precious stones. At their wedding they combined these stones and created a single eternal jewel with their love. But a common misconception of the story is that the heartstones were purely romantic in nature...”

Even though the conversation was not complete Titus felt he had heard enough. He slipped back down the stairs and moved outside the school’s main entrance. His eyes scanned for Tatric among the thin crowds. His search ceased when the stinging pain hit him again, square in the back. With it came an equally unpleasant voice.

“Lose something, my L’hal friend?”


Chapter 26

Mysterious Discoveries

The glow of a strengthening dawn built behind Sapphire’s curtains. She lay on top of her blankets still lost in sleep. As the radiance grew, it sent a thin band of light through the slit in the curtains and laid it across Sapphire’s chest. Where light touched her dark nightgown, the satin faded to pink. Like dye swirling out in water, the fresh color of morning filled her entire gown.

Tanith slept near Sapphire’s shoulder and when the sun was high both stirred. Each gave a long stretch and opened their matching emerald eyes together.

Sapphire sat up and reached her hands high above her head and arched her back. Moaning with pleasure she held the stretch for a few glorious seconds then let it out with a sigh. Her hand fell on Tanith and she ran her fingers down the dragon’s back. The little drake purred and leaned into Sapphire’s touch.

“Good morning dearest. Sleeping in feels good doesn’t it?”

Tanith squeaked in agreement and climbed up onto the side of one of the couches. Sapphire crawled down to the foot of the makeshift bed and lightly jumped to the floor. She went over to the glass jar on the window sill that held the mysterious seedling. With a sad little snort, she frowned and tapped on the glass. “Why are you still the same size little one? You grew so fast before and you had a full day in the sun. I even gave you soil to put your roots in, yet you stay the same. Wish you could tell me what it is you need to grow. Maybe you are just soaking up the sun for now and I must be patient.”

With that she threw open the curtains and let in the full strength of the sun. “There little one, have all the sun you like and I’ll get you some water.”

Returning with a small cup, she poured it around the plant and watched it soak into the fine black dirt. With a look that said I have done all I can think of, she walked back to her trunk and put on a long black skirt with a strapless white top. After slipping on two golden arm bands with shear flowing sleeves that opened at her elbows, she stepped into the sunlight. A golden headpiece wove itself through her hair and the silver outline of a butterfly sparkled to life on a new necklace.

She let the sun warm her face and lighten her eyes to blue. A sad squeak turned her gaze down to Tanith who was curiously eyeing the little plant.

“I am not sure what is wrong, girl. Maybe it’s the type of plant that grows in sudden bursts and we just have to wait. I am sure it will be bigger by tomorrow if we let it have the rest of today in the sun.”

Tanith gave one last confused glance at the plant, then flicked her wings and landed on Sapphire’s bare shoulder. The two exited the room and made their way towards the library’s main hall. Just before they broke into the spacious room, Tanith glided off her master and burned into a tiny pink butterfly. She landed on Sapphire’s necklace and filled the silver outline.

Back at their current section of the Sheelhigh archive, Tanith flitted into the air. In a quick flash of pink fire, she was back in her dragon form resting on a crystal pyramid. Sapphire settled into the half restored reading chair.

“Since we slept in today, we don’t have as much time and I’m going to focus really hard on my work. So if you get bored with this archive, feel free to explore the others. But please stay out of sight and trouble.”

Gliding over, Tanith gave Sapphire a little lick on her cheek and then scampered off to the stairs and up out of sight. With a happy smile from the affection of her friend, Sapphire scooted deeper into the chair with several books detailing Sheelhigh business with the Isles of C’dcer.

As far as she could tell, it was just a standard list of goods that were traded between the two nations soon after Sheelhigh officially recognized the government of the Isles. They all contained only commercial information, save one. The smallest and final book bore the royal seal of Sheelhigh and its contents differed from the others. Instead of just price equivalency, tariffs, and annual records, it contained information on the dealings between the two royal houses. Most of the entries named individual nobles and what they sent or received and from whom it came. All the listed items seemed standard for royalty; fashioned glass, gems, rare oils and exotic seafood. There was one entry however that stood out to her, both because of who was named and what was sent.

From the Lady of Sinnet to

Bernard, High Priest of Sheelhigh:

Seeds of the Star flower

This is it! This is exactly what Berean is looking for – a direct link between religion and the use of plants or gardens.

Her initial joy was tempered knowing that a single entry in a log book would not amount to much. She needed more. Sadly the book gave no more details.

If the gift was formally recorded in that book there ought to be more about it elsewhere. Maybe even information as to what a star flower actually is. I should ask the librarians if they know something.

When she reached the lantern she always left on the steps and silenced her carnation’s light, the clank of the upper door came to her ears. She guessed it was one of the librarians and hurried to catch him. But when she emerged in the small barred room, she was alone. The faint sound of footsteps clicked out from the C’dcer stairwell and she almost called down. Too shy to shout to a random person though, she held her tongue and went to find Hornsby instead. He was alone at the center island and smiled as she approached.

“Hello, Miss Jay. Do you require some assistance?”

“Yes, I do. I have come across a reference to a specific flower that was given to a Sheelhigh priest as a gift from the Isles of C’dcer. I was thinking it might be mentioned in more detail somewhere.”

“I cannot guarantee it will be,” Hornsby replied. “But we do have one of the most complete horticulture encyclopedias that I know of here. You will find it in the general references section by the dictionaries. What flower was mentioned, if I may ask?”

“Technically, it said the seeds of the Star Flower, not just a flower itself. Does that sound familiar to you at all?” Sapphire asked.

“Sadly it does not,” Hornsby said shaking his head. “But it sounds interesting. I wish you luck in finding it.”

In the reference room, Sapphire found the dictionary section and the encyclopedias just as Hornsby had said. The horticulture book was so enormous that she nearly fell backwards while hefting it to a book stand, an iron stand meant only for it.

My goodness! I did not think someone could make a book that big. At least it is on flowers. Maybe they will let me keep it. I’d need a horse to get it home though.

Sapphire laughed to herself and let her mind wander a little as she paged through hundreds of flowers at random. She would have been content to search the tome all day, but her intrigue with the star flower reigned her mind back in. She flipped to the appendix and traced her long white nail down the “S” word list until it came to rest on Star Flower.

“Yes, yes,” she squealed. Her exuberance gleaned a few annoyed looks from some stiff overly formal students around her, but she cared not. At the Star Flower’s page she traced the words with her finger and let her eyes follow.

STAR FLOWER

A small flowering plant with a black stem and black leaves containing metallic silver veins.

Grows to approximately three feet high with 4-5 small stems and palmately-compound leaves.

Flowering and reproductive cycle unknown.

Blossom consists of five large dark purple petals arranged in a star pattern lined with silver veins but no central stamen or pistil.

Native to the Islands of Sinnet. Have been known to grow elsewhere but extremely difficult to do so.

Nocturnal in nature and will grow best when exposed to star and moon light.

Mature plants that have flowered will form a dense white bulb in their root system over time. Many cultures and religions attribute great significance to the bulb.

Note. All information was gathered from other historical texts and the study of a single preserved non-living specimen.

As Sapphire read, images of her bedroom window sill flashed into her mind. Vague at first, but with each passing sentence focused closer on the vase and suddenly she saw the little black and silver sprout.

That’s it! That is the plant we have. It’s a Star Flower.

She gleefully bounced on her toes as she copied the entry down. After again struggling to return the massive book to its place, she scooted out of the room as fast as she dared without running.

Her body felt flushed with life as she returned to the archive and began her readings again in earnest. She finished her self-allotted pile just when the light in the crystals started to dim. Overly eager to see her star flower sprout, she failed to take care stowing the final book. Its edge caught on the lip of the shelf and it fell. Her reflex caught it, but also crushed it against her leg. Several pages were torn and the cover was severely creased.

“Oh dear! No, no, no!” she cried.

As if she held a wounded baby bird, she rushed the book back to her chair and tried to mend it. Page by page her gentle hands unfolded each bend and smoothed out each crease. When she got to the bent cover all the light from the crystals had faded and she ignited her carnation to see. The stronger, more direct light caused a sudden glint to flash out from the frayed bend in the cover.

Sapphire’s eyes narrowed and held the book up close to her face. She moved the cover around until the shine flashed again. Bending the cover more she saw a tiny hand, drawn in silver paint. Her sharp eyes also noticed the cover had begun to split right where the crease met the edge. It divided the top and bottom halves far too perfectly and her suspicions were aroused. With her long slender nail she expanded the slit around the entire border of the hard back cover.

Like a book with a single page, the two halves pulled apart and revealed a map. At first the silver ink detailed what seemed like an island chain, but when the owner of the silver hand she had first seen came into view, Sapphire’s heart jumped. Her eyes spontaneously flashed to green and her hand shot to her quivering lips.

It can’t be...can it? Can it be what I have been looking so long for? It is...it’s a mermaid.

Glittering tears ran down her cheeks and filled her wide smile. But when she drew the map out from the cover that smile plummeted and she gave a sharp cry. The mermaid’s tail stopped just past her waist. The map was torn in half. Sapphire’s head fell forwards and her shoulders drooped. She blew out a heavy sigh and dried her eyes.

“Half is better than none, I suppose.” All her previous enthusiasm drained away and she weakly slipped the book back on the shelf.

“Tanith dear, it is time for us to go...are you still in here?” she called out. No answer or sound came from beyond the long streaks of shadow that fanned out around her.

“Now where did that little dragon get off to?” Once at the top of the Sheelhigh stairs an echoing crash filtered up from the C’dcer vault and her question was answered. With a mildly exasperated sigh, she walked a few steps down and called out again.

“Tanith, are you down there? I found something very special. Come back to the room with me and help me figure it out.”

A little squeal answered her, followed by the scratching sound of claws on the stone steps. Just as the sound neared the top of the stairs they ceased. Seconds later a small maroon butterfly flitted out of the darkness and landed on Sapphire’s hairpiece. Giggling to herself at Tanith’s traditionally perturbed coloring, her eyes angled up at the small butterfly.

“More shelves being mean to you, little girl? Well, you’re lucky I found something really important so we will clean up that mess first thing tomorrow. Tanith’s sad sound squeaked out of the butterfly and its wings drooped low.

“Oh don’t worry dear, this will be sure to cheer you up. But I can’t show you until we are back at our room. Okay?” With a happier little dragon sound, the butterfly slowly brightened to pink and glided down to Sapphire’s necklace.

Once safely behind the dragon’s door at her room, Tanith flew off and the pink and silver dragon returned before she hit the ground. The eyes of Benicia burned away and Sapphire’s emerald glow replaced her namesake blue.

She set the torn map on the table along with her notes regarding the Star Flower and went right to her little vase. The sprout did not look sick from being in the sun, but she still tucked it away in the room’s darkest corner. Tanith followed her over and with a worried whimper pawed gently at the vase. Her big emerald eyes seemed about to cry as she looked through the glass. Sapphire was on her knees in an instant ready to comfort her friend. She pulled the little dragon into her lap and gave her a reassuring hug.

“Don’t worry, girl. This is a very special flower. It is different than any other we have grown before. It doesn’t need sunlight.”

A quizzical look crossed Tanith’s face as she crawled back up to the flower. She looked at it for a second then an idea lit up in her eyes. She scurried up to the couch bed and retrieved a small cushion. With her nose she propped it up to shade the plant even further.

“That’s my girl,” Sapphire applauded. “Now come look at this map with me. Let’s see if we can figure it out even though it’s damaged.”

Eager as ever to help, Tanith jumped up on the table and sniffed at the map. Her gleeful energy faded when she saw the frayed edge that cut off the Mermaid’s tail as well as several islands.

“It’s all right, girl. We will do our best to find the missing piece and put her back together,” Sapphire said confidently.

Rubbing the mist out of her eyes, Tanith’s wings lost their sag and she climbed into Sapphire’s lap. The sorceress ran her fingers over the smooth parchment and eyed every detail like a jeweler.

Part of the map was missing though how much she could not know. It was no doubt an island chain, but no name or writing said which islands. The compass rose was missing so cardinal directions were not known, but those could be easily inferred by the mermaid’s position. The map had three complete islands plus the slivers of two others, but the scale could not be known without the map’s legend.

Of the three complete islands, the southernmost was largest and more circular in shape than the other two. They sat parallel to each other just north of the large one and were shaped like small strips running north and south. Surrounding them all was an unbroken reef marking.

Sapphire leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms as she stared at the collection of silver markings. Even with so many unknowns, Sapphire’s sharp mind landed on a strong theory.

Of course! The unbroken reef, the drawing of a mermaid … must be the Isles of Sinnet. To confirm her theory she took out a modern map of the Isles of C’dcer.

“Please please please be right,” she whispered to herself as she rolled the new map out.

While the torn map contained far greater detail, the general shape and position of the three complete islands matched closely to the three western Sinnet Islands.

“Yes! We are getting closer, Tanith! If mermaids are real, then what my mother spoke of must be as well. I just wish so badly we had the entire map. We might be missing something crucial on the other part. Why does this have to be so hard!?”

Her hand slapped down on the table in sudden anger. She stormed away from the table and began making a pot of tea. Tanith didn’t pay much mind to Sapphire’s growling. She remained on the table and continued to eye the map, specifically the mermaid.

Like a curious ferret, her head cocked from side to side as she circled around the image. Sapphire meanwhile had broken her only two tea cups in her struggle to set a pot to boil. Anger had become sorrow and tears fought at her eyes. She plopped down heavily in front of the fire and sat with her hands limp in her lap. Tanith’s head shot up from the map. Now about to cry too, the dragon crawled to the edge of the table. She looked around the room as if hunting for something to cheer Sapphire up with. She found it when her eyes hit on the dragon-locked chest.

Her wings perked up a little and she bounced back to the map. With the page in her mouth she flew over to Sapphire and tried to put it in her friend’s half open hand. The limp fingers didn’t close around it and the sorceress’s blank stare didn’t move from the fire.

The little drake nosed at Sapphire’s fingers and snapped her wings. Every few seconds she stopped and her hopeful eyes turned up. Many times they were disappointed but she didn’t stop. Finally, the glaze on Sapphire’s face broke and she seemed to come back to herself. She wearily looked down; her eyes followed Tanith’s little front legs as the dragon pawed at the flower in the mermaid’s hand.

“Yes, Tanith, I know there are flowers next to her. They’re very pretty.” With a little annoyed grunt, Tanith ran over to the dragon-locked chest. With a quick spit of fire, she chased the locks back into the fireplace. With her wings she opened the chest and started rooting around with her nose.

“What are you doing, little one? You know the stuff in there is fragile,” Sapphire said weakly.

A few seconds later Tanith pulled out the box of star flower seeds in her mouth. Holding it down with her tail, she managed to spin the lid off with her front feet.

“Tanith dear, please don’t lose those seeds. They may be the only ones left in the world.”

The weak admonishment did not change Tanith’s actions and she carried just the lid back to Sapphire. The whistle of the tea pot stood Sapphire up before Tanith got to her. Undeterred Tanith set the lid face up on the map and followed her into the kitchen. She stood on her hind legs and gently tugged on Sapphire’s skirt as the sorceress poured her tea into a small bowl.

“Not now please. I am not feeling well,” Sapphire said rubbing her chest. Still, Tanith pulled and finally Sapphire knelt down and looked right at her little friend.

“All right, sweetheart, all right. I always have time for you, even on my worst days.”

Tanith gave a happy squeal and licked Sapphire’s cheek before heading over to the map. She nosed the upturned lid next to the mermaid and then looked up. Sapphire’s brow furrowed for a few seconds, but then her eyes flashed open.

“The flowers next to the mermaid are identical to the one on the lid!” she exclaimed. “I do not know the significance of this, but it is another piece of this puzzle. Thank you, Tanith! Thank you for being there for me.”

Tanith happily squeaked in acknowledgment and jumped into Sapphire’s arms. The two shared a few minutes snuggled in the chair while Sapphire drank her tea. When it was gone and the fire was low, Sapphire gently prodded Tanith who had dozed off. She set the still drowsy dragon in the chair and returned with the infant star flower.

“I don’t think we will solve anything tonight, and I badly need to sleep right now. But at least we did figure out one thing. Our little friend needs starlight, not sunlight.”

Throwing open the curtains, she let the cool night breeze wrap her in a dark burgundy nightgown. The dress’s cool silk rippled in the wind as she placed the vase back on the sill. After a few adjustments she felt satisfied the sprout had the most starlight possible and started towards her bed. The mermaid map turned her back to the table for one last look. She picked it up and walked back over to the open window.

“Do you think you can tell me what this map means and where I can find the other half,” she said to the little sprout.

Almost as if answering her, the sprout twinkled and Sapphire felt warmth in her fingers. The map heated up and its paper sparkled like the night sky that shown in on it. What looked like green stardust flowed within the page and everything the map depicted seemed to come to life. The waters rolled and tossed, the trees blew in the wind, birds flew in the air, dolphins splashed off the cost and even the mermaid began to move. Not daring to blink, Sapphire stared wide-eyed as the mermaid picked a flower, inhaled a deep breath from it, and then blew its glittering silver pollen out over the map. Some of it filtered over the complete islands, but the majority was directed to the east and vanished at the map’s frayed side.

Sapphire’s joy crumbled when all the silver pollen vanished and nothing more happened to the map. Desperation crept into her eyes and brought with it hot tears. Her heart throbbed in her chest. The map seemed to be intentionally tormenting her. Offering tantalizing bits of what she craved only to yank them back and give her nothing. Through the blur of her water-filled eyes, she frantically searched for anything she might have missed. Nothing. Then it got worse. The green stardust began to fade and the map’s life with it.

“No, no, no, please, no! Why do you torment me with half-truths? Please show me. I need to know! I need to know! Help me. Please someone help me,” she sobbed.

Tears gushed from her eyes and streaks of white fire dropped from her face to the floor. She collapsed to her knees with the now dull map hanging in one hand. Grief, frustration, agony, and anger all piled on her shoulders at once and drove her further down. To even move under such weight was a colossal effort but she managed to sit and lean back against the wall. All her tears were spent but her heart still commanded her eyes to cry. Try as they might no more came and they grew red and swollen from their effort.

“It seems it is our day for half victories, Tanith. But we are a small step closer . . . it can’t stay out of our reach forever, right?”

Tanith’s dry eyes held the same damage as Sapphire’s and she could barely stay on her feet. Still, she fought her way to Sapphire and climbed into her lap. With the same excruciating effort it took Sapphire to sit and lean against the wall, Tanith opened her wings and wrapped them and her little arms around Sapphire’s waist.

How long they sat there Sapphire didn’t know. Eventually her legs had the strength to stand. With Tanith cradled in her arms she gingerly moved to the thick chair and sat down.

“Oh Tanith, I don’t know how long I can bear this. I just want to quit – sit down right here and quit. My heart hurts constantly and Serrano will not leave my mind. We were supposed to be doing all this together. He said we would! He promised he would! That was why I chose to give him my hea. . .”

Sapphire choked on her final word and fresh tears welled up in her bloodshot eyes. She clenched her eyes shut and tried to force the tears back. They came anyway, bursting out from under her raw eyelids and running out her nose.

Sobbing she clutched Tanith tighter. For an hour the tears came and went until Sapphire’s body was utterly spent. Her heart still throbbed but all its pain remained hidden under a wrinkled nightgown, knotted hair, dry cracked lips, and swollen eyes. Finally, mercifully sleep came.

* * * * *

Tatric shot up in bed, breath racing. It was the middle of the night, yet he was instantly wide awake. Even more than awake, he was ready to fight. His heart slammed in his own ears, his chest was moist with sweat and the muscles in his arms were tight. If he had been woken by a nightmare, he didn’t remember it.

Thinking he may have been startled by a thief, he rose cautiously and moved towards the bedroom door. From the key hole and around its edges a flickering light leaked in. He listened first, but not the squeak of a floorboard or the grind of a drawer reached his ears. More curious and less fearful Tatric cracked the door and looked out. Instead of a burglar’s lamp, a greenish light shown out from underneath the mermaid statue he had left on the table. Picking up the statue increased the brightness a little and when Tatric turned the mermaid over he saw why.

A small section of the black stone base glowed with a dull light. Around its edges, like around the edges of a door, small slivers of bright light managed to leak through. He ran back to his bedroom and retrieved the dagger he had won from Hagen in the Thieves’ Forest. With just its tip he spread the crack where the light was brightest and slowly expanded it around the dull glow. After just a few twists Tatric could see a clean circle forming and quickly pried out a plug of glass. The plug was hollow and contained the light source – a tightly folded piece of paper. The paper was covered in wax but it broke away like dry clay as Tatric unfolded it. Although the piece was small, when he laid it out over the table the whole room glowed. This is an island map...but it’s somehow alive. The grasses, the clouds, the trees, the ocean, even the large fish . . . Oh no . . . It’s been torn.

Tatric frowned as he ran his fingers over the animated fish tail and down the torn edge. As he did a great stream of what looked like silver dust flowed onto the map from the damaged side. It gathered around the southern island and seemed to dive into a deep volcanic lake. As it did the image of two shining emerald seashells appeared in the water. Tatric had seen nothing like this before and it took him a minute to realize he should do more than just stare. The proper academic thing would be to record what he was seeing and describe it in detail.

He set the map down on the table and rushed to get his notebook and pen. Just when he uncapped his ink well, the swirling stardust faded and the map became as normal as any other. Without its supernatural light only the faint glow of the moon leaked into the room past the curtains. For a moment Tatric sat with breath held like a statue, hoping the map would reignite. He refused to move for several minutes but nothing changed. Finally his breath blew out in a loud puff and his shoulders sagged. He tossed his still dry pen onto his still blank notebook and sat back.

“Well that was certainly unexpected. But what is it even a map of?” he said to himself.

Too curious to sleep now, he opened the curtain and let the night’s light fill the room. He held the map up to catch the glow, and his eyes traced each line of silver ink. It was obvious he held only a small section of the map as he could see that both of the westernmost islands were cut off. Thankfully a compass rose survived and he knew he had the eastern section of the map, though the compass rose was a strange one. It seemed to give six directions. Before Tatric could come to any conclusion a bank of heavy clouds rolled in and snuffed out his light. Having no candles Tatric was forced to put the map away.

Early the next morning he jumped out of bed and eagerly ran out to the table. He held a small hope that something may have changed. Only basic silver lines greeted him, though seeing it in the fresh sunlight revealed more than he had seen the night before. Even in its normal form, it still boasted great detail and craftsmanship. The exactness of the shorelines and reefs as well as the complexity of each island’s landscape was more than impressive. Yet it didn’t explain anything about the map.

The fact it was of an island chain could not be clearer, but which one? Tatric couldn’t think of any island chain other than C’dcer and that country was made up of only three islands. This map, even half torn, already showed four.

For over an hour Tatric stared at the few islands and tried to recall every map he had seen with islands.

C’dcer has three large islands and this map has at least four. It can’t be a map of them, but...wait! C’dcer also contains a small chain of isles... the Sinnet Isles...but no one lives there so such a detailed map of them would be useless.

Discarding the idea, Tatric moved on in his mental search but kept coming up empty.

“Well, it being Sinnet is the only idea I have so I might as well make absolutely sure it’s not,” he eventually admitted.

The only map he had of C’dcer was a full Western Realm map, but it served his purpose well enough. The Sinnet Islands were very small compared to the map fragment he had, but he was forced to admit a striking similarity existed between the two. There was also the reef. Just as with the fragment, a long unbroken reef completely surrounded the Sinnet Isles on the modern map, and it was not hard to imagine the reef on his fragment continuing in the same manner.

He knew that the reef around Sinnet blocked all ships, large or small, and in addition access to the islands was formally forbidden by the C’dcer government. A vague mix of religious and safety concerns was cited as the reason.

The fragment he had found in the statue was obviously not a normal map though, and certainly not one made recently. However, since he only possessed a portion of it, it was not going to be of much immediate use to him. He put it aside and turned his attention to the bronze plaque, something he had forgotten about in the excitement of finding the map.

It was a rectangular plate with rounded edges about twice the length of his hand and seemed to be stamped or cast rather than etched. The five men depicted on the plate were only of modest detail and seemed to not be the artist’s focus. The rings over the hearts of the first four along with the rays in their hands drew Tatric’s attention. While he could not translate the inscription along the bottom, he could see there was a relationship between the ring and the rays. As the ring over the heart grew in size and prominence, more rays appeared in the man’s hand. Such logic came to an abrupt halt at the final image.

Why is the ring now in the man’s hand and not over his heart like all the rest? This makes no sense!

Even though it did not appear to have any direct relevance to his quest about the girl, he found himself very curious as to the text. So instead of going back to the library, he chose to visit Professor Berean. With the plate wrapped in cloth, he placed it in his satchel along with his lecture texts and notebooks.

The walk across campus was initially very pleasant, but suddenly a strange sensation rubbed on his skin. He could not tell if it felt more like burning or freezing, but as quickly as it started it passed. The feeling was eerily similar to his encounter with the Recruiter. Was he still hunting him? Or was he after the arrow like Tatric first anticipated? Tatric saw little difference for him regardless of which one it was. He moved out of the open courtyard and up to the sidewalk against the buildings. His eyes darted like a hunter from face to face rather than enjoying the flowers. He scoured the crowds of students and teachers that milled about the courtyard. Nothing stood out to him, but a voice in the back of his head told him to retrieve his sword.

Carrying a sword on campus was officially forbidden, but it was a cool overcast day and Tatric felt that his long duster would not stand out. Just to be sure, he chose his back sheath and made certain his collar concealed the sword’s hilt. Feeling more prepared, Tatric set out again and made it to Berean’s door without incident.

After the lock clicked aside and the door opened a crack, the professor peered out. His eyes were wide and tense, but they relaxed when he saw Tatric.

“Tatric, it is good to see you somewhere other than in the lecture halls. I trust your stay here has been a profitable one, for both our endeavors?” He motioned Tatric into his office. Sitting down in the visitor’s chair, Tatric again noticed the “meaningless” bronze plate he had seen before behind Berean’s desk. It had not been moved.

“My general studies have been going very well, thank you. But my personal project has not yielded much, I am afraid. However, I did make an interesting, but unrelated find and I brought it to show you. Maybe it will serve your project.”

He took the cloth-wrapped plate from his bag and set it in front of Berean. Tatric watched the professor’s eyes intently and waited for their reaction. He did see one but could not decide if it was fear or excitement. It seemed to Tatric that Berean himself struggled to know what emotion seeing the plaque truly caused. The conflict resulted in more of a blank expression on his face until he folded the cloth back on the plaque and looked up.

“I am rather unsure what to make of your find, Tatric. It is interesting and certainly has some historical value, but the text will take some time to translate. So if you will leave it with me, I will be sure to study it when I have the chance.”

Tatric gave a shrug and leaned back. “Of course, Professor Berean. I have no personal interest in it, but I’m always curious and thought I would at least ask you about it.”

“I’m glad you did, and it’s always a good thing to be curious, but…but I must be getting back to work now. Thank you for coming by,” Berean said as he randomly grabbed at papers and books.

His hands shook terribly and he seemed to suddenly be in a great hurry. He shoved the now crumpled papers and the plate into a random desk drawer and slammed it shut. Once the plate was put out of sight, Berean’s mood instantly calmed. It was as if the plate being in plain sight was incredibly stressful for him.

These peculiarities were not lost on Tatric, though again he did not pry. He wished Berean a good day and let himself out. On his way down the stairs, he bumped into a man that looked about his age but dressed in common worker’s clothes rather than academic attire. Thinking little of it, he continued on to his first lecture hall and took out his notepad and quill. Reaching back in for his ink well, his fingers struck something that felt like polished wood. Shaking his offended finger he lifted up his bag and looked inside. He saw only books and his ink well—nothing wood.

Again he reached for the ink and once again his fingers jammed on something like polished wood. Unsure of how to resolve the conflict between what his eyes didn’t see and what his fingers felt, Tatric paused. His brow furrowed and he bit his lip as he slipped his hand back in. Touching the wooden object he felt up and down its length. His hand told him it was a slender wooden case. Not being able to see his hand while inside the bag made the situation feel less odd. When he pulled his hand out and it gripped nothing but air, odd did not do the feeling justice.

The awkwardness of holding nothing out in front of him brought his hand down to the table. Without being able to see the wooden object, it slammed down hard. The loud clank of wood on wood drew many glances from all those next to him. The lecturer even stopped and shot him a disapproving stare.

The mishap quickened Tatric’s heart and brought a cold sweat to his hairline. Having to explain the invisible box to the class was not high on his list. However, the incident had one upside. When the case hit the table it slid in his hand and his finger bumped a metal latch. Tatric feigned a renewed attention to the lecturer to shed the unwanted eyes. Once they were off him, all his attention turned to the case. He felt along its length and undid all five latches he found.

Like an unseen curtain being drawn back for a performance, the dark polished wood of the desk parted and revealed the lighter inner portion of the case. Inside, resting in a depression of silk was a thin double-rod scroll. Tatric moved just his eyes left and right to check those around him. None were looking so he slowly lifted out the scroll. Acting like it was material for the lecture, he rolled it out and inked his quill. His face turned up toward the professor, but his sight looked down at the scroll. It had two parts – one gold and one black. A single phrase, written in the opposite color to its page, spanned both sides.

With strength proven by possessing the FIVE

and heart proven by bearing the ONE,

call upon Imperator, Soul of the Divine.

Bear you, the Soul shall, to the Eternal place

and call to you Hannah, Power of the Divine.

With Power and Soul, Time’s Will may be commanded

and Hannah and Imperator will allow.

The cryptic phrase only got worse no matter how many times he read it. The only bit that sounded vaguely familiar were the final few words – Hannah and Imperator will allow.

But Hannah and Imperator are just planets, aren’t they? What is Time’s Will? This makes no sense at all.

Tatric shook his head and returned the scroll to the unseen box. The lecture ended and he considered seeing Professor Berean again, but quickly reconsidered. The professor’s behavior earlier would have only been odd were it not for the icy burn he had felt. Now the behavior was foreboding.

That plate was hidden deep by someone for some reason. Yet the professor never even asked me where I found it. It also bore an undeniable similarity to the smaller one he said was meaningless. It’s like he can’t admit they are valuable, but why? I cannot trust his judgment of things right now.

He hoped time would help bring clarity so he continued on to his next lecture. This took him out the front entrance, but as he passed the first doorstop a sickeningly familiar voice floated on the air.

“Lose something, my L’hal friend?”

The Recruiter’s voice stuck Tatric in his tracks. His blood ran cold, he had been found. When he spun and saw the Recruiter was several yards away with his back turned, he realized the dark conjurer was not addressing him but another. A man Tatric recognized as the commoner he had bumped into as he left Berean’s office.

Seeing the one who had nearly manipulated him into abandoning his search for the Girl Under the Stars, ignited furry within Tatric. After the time he heard her say the word “please” in his dream, Tatric believed it was now his duty to find her, believed that she needed him to find her. And this man threatened that duty and thereby threatened her. It was not forgivable.

Every thought of the scroll vanished. The entire world around him slowed to a crawl as his fingers slipped behind his high collar and closed on the hidden hilt. Cold, calculating furry burned in his eyes and they did not waver from his target. With his blade drawn and partially concealed at his side, he advanced on the Recruiter who was now mocking the commoner.

“You are a long way from home, little monk. It seems your current Prime is just as feeble as the last. He can’t even provide his servants with dignified clothes.”

“Feebleness is found in the heart, not in the outward appearance of the body. Based on the garb your master has chosen to cloth you in, it appears he is trying to cover something that displeases him.”

The moment the commoner spoke Tatric stopped. There was something familiar about his voice, or maybe the way he spoke, Tatric was not sure. It was not the voice of a commoner that was certain. It held power and Tatric felt compelled to listen. The commoner had not broken his gaze with the Recruiter and Tatric felt he had yet to be seen by either. Hoping to maintain that, he slowly slipped back behind a pillar.

The Recruiter took a step back and lifted up his hands. “Oh my! Such hostility from a man of peace. I simply wish to speak with you and understand your purpose in this city. There is no need for violence.”

Tatric watched as the other man set his feet and threw his hands out to his sides. His head stayed low but his unflinching eyes turned up. Such confident power made Tatric’s skin tingle and he started to second guess his plan to attack. Plain as this man looked, it was obvious, almost terrifyingly so, that he had great power. Yet the Recruiter had not even batted an eye.

“Save your sweet rhetoric for babes and old women. I know whom you serve and that the words you speak are shadows and lies. Nothing else fills your heart.”

The Recruiter chuckled darkly to himself, as if expecting such a retort. Tatric jumped when a quick swirl of dark mist appeared around the Recruiter’s hand. It vanished as fast as it came, but not before revealing a black bladed sword.

“Such a clever little trained dog,” the Recruiter hissed. “Let us see if you know any other tricks.”

The impending conflict had long since cleared the upper courtyard where the three men stood. A few overly brave students watched from the base of the stairs but none came closer. No sooner had the Recruiter finished his last word than he gave an inhuman shriek and rushed forward. The black steel of his blade hissed in the air as it slashed down.

Titus had seen Tatric step out from behind the pillar and advance on the Recruiter’s back. Why Tatric had stopped the L’hal didn’t know, but he was relieved to see it. While Titus didn’t know the extent of the Recruiter’s strength, doubts of how effective even his own magic would be pricked his mind as the black blade hissed down towards him. He would never have engaged if he had the scroll, but now his hand was forced. Summoning all the power his L’hal nature granted him, he met the Recruiter head on. The black razor’s edge hit squarely across his hands but never touched his skin. It stopped above his flesh and shimmered like a mirage.

The Recruiter gave a yell of disgust and pulled his sword back, launching another attack. Swing after swing, Titus caught and turned aside. But swing after swing Titus felt his hands get weaker.

How can his blade still be whole? I have moved it to a time when it should be dust. Why can’t I affect it?!

With no answer, Titus labored to keep up his defenses while his mind scrambled for a way to fight back. Even as he wore thin the L’hal’s stoic face gave nothing away. With speed, precision, and apparent ease he still caught the Recruiter’s blade and turned it aside, something which caused his enemy no small bit of frustration. Seeing a window for a psychological attack, Titus exaggerated the ease with which he defended. He put one hand behind his back, blocked only with a few fingers, even refused to block at all and just side stepped several assaults.

Anger seeped into the Recruiter’s eyes and he swung his sword more violently. The longer Titus managed to keep up his act, the more random and aggressive the Recruiter became. The Recruiter’s form broke down, particularly when he rose to swing. It hung up above his head too long and Titus could easily see part of the hilt above the Recruiter’s hand. On it was the same silver face he had seen in the Library of Night. This one however, glinted with a hint of red as it caught the setting sunlight.

If I can attack that face, I may have a chan ahhh!

The sting of steel slicing through his skin shattered Titus’s plan. The wound was not deep, but it produced enough blood for the Recruiter to see.

“Well now for a moment there I actually thought you were able to stand against me. Now let’s see where else we can make you bleed, you pathetic god groveler ahhh!!”

A shinning flash of silver cut the Recruiter’s threat short. He stumbled back clutching his hand to his face. Streaks of blood ran between his fingers. Growling like a wolf he whirled about and came face to face with Tatric. A slight moment of recognition flickered in the Recruiter’s eyes, followed by a second blow from Tatric’s sword.

Wounded across his face and shoulder, he staggered back. Recovering inhumanly fast he lunged back at Tatric. Screaming with furry he clamped both hands on his sword and brought it down like an axe.

When the battle first began Tatric had been so fearful that the common man would be instantly struck down he turned away. When the angry frustrated curses of the Recruiter came to his ears, he braved a look. The supernatural nature of the pair’s struggle took him completely by surprise. The way the common man’s hand shimmered as he caught the black blade. And how, when the Recruiter swung his sword, it left a trail of dark mist in the air. The ease with which the man defended the attacks made Tatric feel the Recruiter’s defeat was imminent. So when the black blade found its mark, Tatric’s heart dropped like a stone. In that moment he felt the stranger’s defeat was also his defeat. Like the two had always been allies, both fighting for the girl in a different way.

Such a feeling is what drove him out from behind the pillar and brought his sword across the Recruiter’s face. Yet the suddenness with which the Recruiter retaliated caught him off guard. The force of the double handed blow cut through Tatric’s defenses in an instant, and the Recruiter’s boot struck his chest. The kick hurled Tatric back like he was a made of straw and drove him into one of the large doorstops. Fireworks of tiny lights scattered across his vision as he saw the Recruiter charge after him.

Tatric clamped his eyes shut and turned his head expecting the sting of a decisive blow. The Recruiter’s pounding footsteps ceased, along with every other sound. Not a bird called, not a gust of wind rustled, not a person’s voice cried out.

When Tatric opened one eye then the other the Recruiter stood over him, stiff as stone. The black sword bristled in the air, its point lifted, ready to pierce Tatric’s chest. Anger, with a hint of satisfaction, was frozen in the lines on his face. A ghost-like image of the Recruiter appeared, standing calmly in the same boots as its physical copy. It was not frozen but breathed and moved as if it was walking in place. All around it, faint shimmering images of people, hallways, and city streets rushed by and vanished. It was over in a few seconds and the flesh and blood Recruiter collapsed at Tatric’s feet.

Tatric’s body still expected imminent death and the heat of adrenaline still coursed over him. The commoner with both his arms outstretched and one leg forwards like he was pushing some unseen bolder up a hill. On his palms were two medallions, one bronze and one gold. Each had a small white stone in their center which smoldered with light.

“Who....how did you…” Tatric stammered.

Tatric didn’t even see the commoner move but found himself pulled into the shadow of the pillars and thrust against the wall.

“No time for explanations,” he commoner whispered. “Save to say as long as he doesn’t see either of us, he will not recall our encounter. Now you must leave!”

Tatric’s mind reeled and he groped for an answer. By the time he found a starting first word, the man was already down the stairs. The feeling of time moving so quickly that he couldn’t react tugged at his memory, yet he couldn’t place why. In addition, the command to leave and not let the Recruiter see him again carried a peculiarly large amount of weight. All of Tatric’s natural feelings were to bleed the Recruiter dry.

A few seconds of painful indecision ended with an exasperated groan. Tatric sheathed his sword and did as the man asked. He ducked back inside the university and took a longer route back to his room. Inside with the door locked he pulled off his duster and let it fall in a heap on the floor. He unbuckled his sword but kept it close.

There is no way I really saw all that. Magic is not like that at all. It’s dirty and weak, used by little old men in the mountains to do selfish petty things, right?

Rubbing his own neck and bending his head down he struggled to make sense of it all. In the jumbling of thoughts and questions, the unseen box and strange scroll came to the surface. He reached into his bag for it but his fingers touched only rough book covers and his glass ink well. Item by item he emptied his bag and then flattened the leather out on the table. Empty. Again his mind erupted into a swirly chaos of questions. This time it landed on an answer.

Wait!. . .that commoner. He was really a full L’hal monk! I knew those medallions were familiar. He must have planted and then retrieved the scroll from me. Easy come, easy go, I suppose...it’s probably for the best anyway. I didn’t have any idea what that phrase meant and it would have distracted me from my true purpose.

Tatric refocused his thoughts on the Girl Under the Stars and headed straight to the Library of Day. Having spent much of the day at the University, he arrived just as the sun was setting. With such little light left, he figured he could not do much research so he chose to repair the fallen shelves and melted glass he had found the night before. On his way out Hornsby stopped him just as he crossed the main hall.

“Master Tatric, please wait. I have an urgent letter for you from Professor Berean.”


Chapter 27

Berean’s Lesson

(Earlier that day)

The smoke at the bottom of the twisted staircase cleared and the Recruiter could see. The five Silver Veils along with Ti’Ceed stood opposite him in the tiny circular room. Its ceiling was cut stone and its walls were one flawless mirror.

The ground seemed alive with an oozing pitch that seeped up from around a large obsidian cylinder. It boiled out like a putrid fountain and drained back down along the room’s edges. Strangely enough its odor was not all together unpleasant. Only a sublet metallic smell touched the Recruiter’s nose and the air was thin and cool.

On the obsidian pedestal rested an idol of gold and silver. It resembled the image of a man, hunched over with his hands on the ground. Scorpion tails bristled along his back, and stingers came out of his fingers. His head bore four faces, detailing a horrid progressive transformation – human to demon.

Over the demonic face, one of the Silver Veil’s stretched out his bare hand. A single drop of blood already clung to the tip of his finger and it fell onto the idol’s lips. Its silver tongue swam in the drop and the entire idol quivered to life. The mouth drank up the offering and the body began to writhe. It bent over on itself and all its joints contorted and moved in grossly unnatural ways. The dull crack of breaking bones joined the rushing sound of a burning kiln. The idol’s body began to glisten as all its details – the claws, fangs, stingers, and flesh disintegrated. The top of its head melted and slithered down the four faces. The rest of the idol followed and an oozing stream of molten silver and gold flowed down the black pedestal.

The burning metal split into seven serpent-like streams and swam through the pitch towards each man. They formed circles around their feet and the pitch began to pop and boil. A dense smoke erupted from the coil and engulfed each figure in an unholy cloud. Like a stone sinking into dark waters and vanishing, so all seven men sank into the darkness of the smoke. As they did the mirrored walls ceased to reflect their images, but instead became like windows and showed the outskirts of Gabrie Anniel.

The next moment all seven stepped from rings of burned grass in a wide open meadow. Ti’Ceed and the five Silver Veils had the appearance of students while the Recruiter maintained his dark clothes and red trimmed hood.

In his new boyish voice, Ti’Ceed ordered the Recruiter to search the city for the one who stole the Arrow of Thorns, while he met with Professor Berean. The Recruiter obeyed and broke off from the group of false students.

Ti’Ceed and the disguised Silver Veils marched straight to the University and up the main steps past the heavy scroll and book doorstops. In the upstairs hallway, a commoner greeted them politely as he passed through their ranks. All ignored the salutation and Ti’Ceed muttered, “meaningless man” as he opened Berean’s door without a knock.

As soon as the door clicked shut, the facade of a student fell from all six. A deathly pallor washed over Berean’s face as he looked up to see five Silver Veils and the copy of himself again. The pen dropped from his shaking hand and his words stuck as he tried to speak.

“Oh, my lord! Do come in...I….um am happy to see you again. There is much for me … I mean the lesson, yes the lesson….please do sit. Would you and your . . . companions care for some tea? I could go downstairs to the kitchen and—”

“No thank you, my teacher,” Berean heard his own voice say. “I am here for my lesson and am eager to see what you have prepared.”

The interjection was not laced with anger or even loud. Still, Berean felt slapped in the face and staggered back to his chair. Fumbling with his now askew glasses, he continued, hardly remembering to breathe.

“Yes, yes, forgive me, my lord. I do have several things I am sure you will be pleased with. One was just delivered to me not minutes before your arrival, but I have yet to examine it very closely so I will begin with my first major breakthrough on the research task you gave to me.”

Dizzy and fighting splotchy vision, Berean slid out a small wooden chest from under his desk. Rifling through the assortment of random papers and books, he retrieved his notebook. The shock of Ti’Ceed’s return faded just a little bit as Berean’s teaching nature came out. He opened his notebook and turned it towards his doppelganger.

“Now, I was only able to glean myths about the FIVE and the ONE at the start of my research. But when I translated a phrase from an obelisk I had discovered several years ago, I made my first breakthrough. It said: ‘The ONE with heart of stone in hand, the Eyes of Tanith will look on with blessings and honor.’ Forgive me, my lord, if you know some of this already. I do not patronize. The constellation Eyes of Tanith contains the two planets of Hannah and Imperator. So another way of translating this is – “The ONE with heart of stone in hand, Hannah and Imperator will look on with blessings and honor. This matches part of the wording on the first bronze plaque…”

“Surely that is not all your lesson is. I care not for stars, constellations, and fancy translations, professor.”

Now Berean heard frustration in his pirated voice. Any comfort he had when he started his lesson shriveled. Cold sweat coated his skin, sticking him to his own clothes. Thick beads of water ran down his glasses which he snatched off his face; his voice cracked as he continued.

“Oh fear not, my lord, fear not. I have not failed you. There is a connection between this and what I believe to be the ONE. Do you see the way the ONE is written on the obelisk? It is identical in form to the ONE on the plaque and I believe they are in reference to the same thing. So the ONE is probably a specific person. The FIVE, I am very confident are the five divine treasures. One of which is the arrow you now possess. In conclusion, I believe that the riddle refers to the ONE who can gain all FIVE of the divine treasures and by doing so will gain favor with the Divine and be allowed. I have yet to even consider the images.”

Berean shrank farther into his chair, terrified that he had not said enough. Ti’Ceed walked randomly about the office for a few minutes. The flash of agitation Berean had seen earlier cooled, and he felt his heart’s thumping begin to lessen.

“Is that all, my good professor?” Ti’Ceed eventually asked. “What of the location of the five treasures? Or perhaps a more definitive answer about whether the ONE is a person or thing. I do not share your confidence that it is indeed only a person.”

Berean’s mind scrambled as his moment of respite vanished. He strained for some answer, something to placate Ti’Ceed. He knew he had something; Tatric had brought it to him not five minutes before, but he fought as long as he could to not mention it.

“Well umm...I mean no but...but there is the piece I just received today. I have yet to study it and see if it is relevant to what we need. I have done a quick translation of the text on it, but I am not confident I have it right. Here, look at it for yourself and perhaps it will be clear to you what it means. My loose translation is “The will or power of the ONE shows the FIVE.”

Berean dug it out and plopped it on the desk. The calm curious manner in which Ti’Ceed eyed the piece almost made Berean forget who he was looking at. Ti’Ceed tossed the plate on the desk and gave his translation and interpretation.

“The strengthening of the ONE will allow the revealing of the FIVE. My dear professor, surely you could have interpreted both this and the images just as quickly as I did. If I did not know any better, I would say you were hoping not to show me this piece. But that would be nonsense. Why would you ever wish to deceive me, your humble student?”

“No, my lord, no...I ...I just did not wish to include incomplete and possibly irrelevant things in my lesson and…” A raised hand from his likeness cut him off.

“Well this is hardly an irrelevant piece and it seems it is my turn to give you a lesson. I assume you never had time for women or they never had time for you. Regardless of which is true, I’m sure you know of the marriage rituals and where they originated. They of course stem from the legend of the Heartstone. It speaks of two lovers who were able to physically manifest their hearts as precious stones. At their wedding they combined them and created a single eternal jewel with their love. But a common misconception of the story is that the Heartstones were purely romantic in nature. People often forget that the two had the ability to manifest their stones apart from one another. So something else was at work before the romance. In a single word that something is strength…strength of heart. The man and woman in that true legend were not born with such ability. Only over time did they become strong enough and that is what this plaque is showing. As his heart grows stronger, he obtains more rays until he can manifest his heartstone and obtain all five. So we are left with one answer and one remaining question. A man with all five Divine Treasures and a manifested heartstone is who Hannah and Imperator will allow. The question that remains is what will be allowed.

Berean bowed his head to Ti’Ceed and with a feeble flattering voice said, “I completely agree, my lord; your wisdom and insight are far greater than mine. What does my lord wish of me now? I fear it will be far more difficult to determine what the Great Divine will allow...”

“SILENCE!” The sudden rage-filled shout exploded from a thousand voices all around Berean. The ring on his hand stung like a cobra and all of his office seemed to collapse into darkness.

“Never speak in such a manner again. The Divine shall never be called great or be called anything! He shall not be mentioned…EVER!” Ti’Ceed thundered. The outburst toppled Berean from his chair and the terrified professor cowered under his desk.

“But...but my lord, these things are not meant for mortals to have. We will upset their maker’s intent by doing this,” Berean squeaked.

Completely peaceful again Ti’Ceed laughed and smiled darkly. “Precisely”

Berean shrieked but not because of the implications of what Ti’Ceed had said. Snakes of molten gold and silver crawled out from under his desk and drove him from his last refuge. Panic gripped his body; he felt himself start to fall. The sound of his own sharp little breaths came to his hearing, but he was aware of little else. His head swam and all he saw around him was black smoke. A hand painfully gripping his shoulder and shoving him aside stimulated a bit more awareness. His hands and face felt hot and sticky and a strange metallic smell filled the air. He struggled to sit up and look at his hands. They were covered in a black pitch as was his face and now his pants. Even though he saw all this, the reflection of himself on the flawless mirrored walls only stared blankly. Half-conscious, he thought he heard himself start talking.

“Welcome professor, to my humble chamber of En’Nightenment. This simple place is where fate led me once I was cast out by my brothers so very long ago. I learned in here that there is power, real power without having to worship some selfish, self-centered deity in the sky – some god that demands constant devotion and sacrifice while hording its power and only giving it to a special few whom it deems worthy. Well, if anyone was worthy – it was I! No one was more fervent, more committed or more knowledgeable. Yet it was deemed blasphemous for me to seek the power of the Five. For such an act I was disgraced and abandoned by all. As revenge I will make certain no one else can ever gain favor with the Divine. I will erase every mention of Him from every corner of this world. I will remove Him from the hearts of men and by doing so, I will kill Him.”

Berean was just a spectator now. Trapped in his own impotent body. He could still see but even the most basic of shapes felt like looking at a different language. He saw but did not understand. Through this broken sense he saw the snakes of molten gold slithered up a thick black pedestal in the room’s center. They formed into a large fang rimmed bowl and cooled to solid metal. Ti’Ceed stood with his back to Berean and when he turned around his form had changed. He no longer mimicked the professor’s likeness, but had retaken his form as the single Gold Veil. In the mirrored cloth of his face, Berean did not see his reflection but the reflection of the fanged bowl. Its teeth moved like it was alive; more fear surged in his heart but his body stayed limp and damp. From behind the glistening golden mouth on the veil, the thousand voices came.

“You see, this power requires but one thing each time I make a request of it – and we have a request, don’t we?” they said. Ti’Ceed held up the bronze plate.

The next thing Berean realized is that he was now on his stomach near the pedestal. In his stupor Berean hardly felt his hand being raised and pressed onto the searing hot metal of the fanged bowl. He made no protest as the flesh on his fingers swelled and popped from the heat. Blood from his wound flowed into the bowl and began to boil.

Next to the spattering pool of blood, Ti’Ceed placed the plaque. It melted like butter. Berean felt himself back against the wall and stared as Ti’Ceed placed a drop of his own blood on the shimmering gold. The mouth of the bowl closed like a shark’s, consuming all three gifts. When it opened it had the appearance of a book. In silence Ti’Ceed stared at the blood red inscriptions that filled the gold and silver page.

“Our question is answered,” he said. When he turned, Berean saw the copy of himself again and heard his own voice.

“The idol allows me to see the intent of the plate’s creator. Indeed the ONE refers both to a male heartstone and the one who bears it. However, such a thing is exceedingly rare and the ONE cannot yet manifest it. Until then, the four remaining treasures will stay hidden. So it pains me to say that I am no longer your student and have no need of your services….for now. I know it saddens you to lose someone who desires so much to learn. But fear not, when the time comes I shall again seek your guidance.”

When the words ceased Berean found himself on the floor of his office. The smell of the pitch was gone and his hand undamaged. His sanity took time to recover and his body longer. When he managed to pull himself up to his chair everything he had just witnessed felt like a bad dream— too strange, too horrible to be real.

He still felt the ring on his hand but it now had a cold almost benign feeling to it. The only part of the experience he clearly recalled was Ti’Ceed’s final words: “...when the time comes, I shall seek your guidance again.”

A deep despair flooded his heart and he collapsed face down on his desk. Seconds later he jumped up and franticly began to pack a travel trunk and several book bags. His sanity came and went with little laughs and random words like “gold,” “snake” and “guidance”.

Once his packing was done, his grip on reality was a bit stronger. He stood and looked around his office one time. As he turned to leave a sudden remembrance brought him back to his desk. He took out two pieces of letter stock and drafted a pair of letters – one marked Tatric, the other Benicia.

* * * * *

The caress of velvet scales against Sapphire’s cheek coaxed her eyes to open. When she did, she found an identical pair looking back at her tinted with worry. She managed a weak smile and gave Tanith a good morning hug.

“Hello there, faithful one. Thank you for the blankey last night. I did notice you got it for me after the breeze started. Chairs are not the warmest thing to fall asleep in it seems . . . or the healthiest for one’s back.” Sapphire pushed on her lower spine with a grimace.

A few pops brought relief to her face and she settled back into the chair. “That’s better.” More convinced that her friend was alright, Tanith gave a happy squeak and jumped to the floor.

Sapphire pulled the grey felt blanket higher on her chest and watched the little dragon try to start a fire. Tanith took fresh logs in her mouth and laid them carefully in the fireplace and then tried to light them with her own flame. The stream of blue and purple sparks did scorch the wood, but couldn’t spawn a flame. Tanith glared at the smoking logs and tried again after moving closer, but with the same result. Not deterred she kept trying and her growling grumbling antics after each failure made Sapphire giggle.

Wrapped in the warmth of the blanket, she held it to her chest and glided over to the fireplace. Standing behind Tanith, she kissed her hand and blew just as the dragon loosed another shower of sparks. A pair of pink lips made of fire glided off her hand. Their kiss on the wood ignited a strong glittering fire. Squealing with joy at her apparent success, Tanith jumped into the flames like they were a soothing waterfall.

As Tanith enjoyed the fire, Sapphire let the blanket fall from her body and manually changed from her wrinkled night gown into a linen robe. Just as she pulled the knot at her waist, a knock sounded from her door. It was a student aid bearing a letter.

“My apologies for such an early call, but I have an important letter for you, Miss Jay, from Professor Berean,” the young girl said.

Back in the reading chair near the fire, Sapphire poured herself a bowl of tea and started to read.

Dear Miss Jay,

I regret to inform you that out of concern for my health, I will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the University and the Library of Day effective immediately. Since anyone personally employed by me cannot remain if I do not, I fear you will not get a chance to teach this coming year or to continue our project. In an effort to compensate you for this monetary and academic loss, I have included vouchers for travel and stay at the Isles of C’dcer during their upcoming athletic competitions. I hope this small token will show my gratitude for the work you have done for me and the sincerity of my apology for leaving.

May the Truth always be clear to you,

Professor Christian Berean

Sapphire set the letter aside and picked up her bowl. For several minutes she lightly strummed her nails on the china as creases grew across her face.

C’dcer...that is where I planned to go all along...that is where he and I planned to go before...

Her stressful thoughts darkened the flames in the fireplace and Tanith crawled out with concern. She jumped up into Sapphire’s lap and tried to catch her eyes. Sapphire’s unblinking stare was fixed on the now cold tea in her hands.

“How can I go there alone, Tanith...would I be able to do it alone?”

The rhetorical question faded into silence as Sapphire set her bowl down and brought out her heartstone again. Tanith watched the gem spin in the soft white petals. The cracks along it were still plainly visible.

At first sadness clouded Sapphire’s eyes as she looked at it and a single tear fell into the flower. The hurt dominated for a few seconds, but then became laced with resolve and she put the heartstone away. Holding her head high, she strode to the window and threw the curtains open. She took a deep breath of the cool morning air and whispered her decision.

“Not only will I go…I will enter the games.”


Chapter 28

The Return

Tatric slumped deeper in his chair. The letter from Professor Berean dangled in his hand. A dryness ate away inside him, like his life blood had turned to sand. The paper he held began to crack along its edges like every thought of moisture had been drained from it. Bits of it flaked away like dry skin and fluttered to the ground.

All around him, everything began to do the same. The wooden floorboards split and turned to powder. The windows clouded over and cracked. Even Tatric’s clothes became thread bare and began to sluff off. When the last shred of the letter slipped from his fingers and hit the floor, the world crumbled.

A letter dropped from my hand to the library steps. A student too focused on his smartphone stepped on it before I could retrieve it. I didn’t try again. The History Professor I had been working as a research aid for had taken a sudden leave of absence. My job left with him.

After reading that letter hopelessness punched me in the stomach. I had seen Jayne’s name many more times on the sign-in sheet at the computer lab but never saw her. I had braved a peace at her Facebook so I knew what she looked like as a three inch by three inch square. I held hope that we’d have to cross paths eventually because of the time it seemed we both spent in the library. But now that hope was dead.

The bizarre but life sustaining story I had been living since reading that mysterious extra page of Jayne’s letter disintegrated with my hope. I strained to retain it but it ran through my fingers like water. It circled a drain in my head and bit by bit vanished like a dream. The harder I fought to keep it, the faster it died.

I could already feel his burning gold gaze on my face. My demon was everywhere again, in every shadowy corner of the campus, in every widening crack of my heart. He said nothing, injected no visions of despair. He didn’t even replay the helicopter crash or the faces of my friends. He just held up a feather, burnt and dead. The silence seemed to laugh for him.

A few fragments of the story did manage to get snagged on the sides of my mind – a mountain castle, green eyes, something about gold and silver faces but nothing could compete with the demon and the truth he held.

To make matter’s worse a voice rippled through my head. A woman’s voice saying, “Our story has to end now.”

Her words came with the with the notion of an impending plane flight, though not mine. I could not make sense of any of it.

I could only plop down on the Library stairs and rage against the voice that said the story was over. It couldn’t be over. I needed it, I needed the angel still. Dizziness struck me and even sitting I felt the need to grab at handrail. The voice and tantalizing fragments of the story that remained swirled in my head and defied my ability to organize them.

“Hey Patrick, ever play any soccer?”

The voice of my RA, Luke snapped me out of my own head. Somehow I had ended up back at my front porch.

“I’ve played. Why?” I heard my voice answer.

“There is going to be a pick-up game at the soccer fields at three. We are always looking for more players. You should come.”

The woman’s voice in my head repeated,

“Our story has to end now.”

I took it as a sign that I should go. Fighting to regain the faded story only seemed to make the demon’s silent laughter feel louder.

“I haven’t played in a while but I did bring my cleats. Meet you there,” I called back.

I trudged back to my room, numb to everything I did to get ready. I changed and gathered my cleats. The walk to the fields went by like a blur. My mind reeled and had trouble focusing on anything but the mechanical process of walking.

At the fields a group had already gathered by the bleachers. I was in no condition to have a cheery conversation so I stayed back and began lacing up my cleats. My fingers felt rubbery and cold but the demon had mercifully faded. My hands needed a break in between shoes, so I sat back and people-watched for a few seconds.

A set of girl’s legs flashed through a gap in the group as her feet controlled a ball and kicked it away. My body suddenly had a little strength and with only one shoe on I moved to get a better view. She was already on the field passing with another girl. She was taller than the other, with waist length chestnut hair and long athletic legs.

She looked exactly like the green-eyed girl but something was different. The green-eyed girl had always possessed an air of untouchability. That sense was nonexistent when I looked at this girl. She was real.

“Sydney, Jayne. We’re ready to start.”

Who had called them I didn’t know, but the final name made the world go quiet. A ripple of energy filled my chest and my heart shouted her name. At least I thought it was only my heart. Cold embarrassment hit me as I was unsure of my own actions. Did I just call her name? Out loud?

Her attention broke from the group as if I had and she looked right at me. I think my heart broke the laws of physics as it dropped into my shoes and leapt from my chest at the same time.

The moment her eyes met mine, the ghostly outline of angel’s wings made of amethyst feathers lifted off her back then vanished like mist.

A memory, clear as any I could have, flooded my brain. I saw Jayne sitting next to me at the hospital in Quantico. I felt her hand squeeze mine and the warm touch of her parting kiss on my cheek. This was her.

Now what?

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