Authors: Amanda Young,Raymond Young Jr.
Samantha felt her own shock and grief mirror theirs. Kern saved her life. He was a good man, and the world would be a far darker place without him. The sickness in her belly intensified and Samantha stood. All eyes turned to her, but she did not shirk from the attention this time. “They draw near,” she said with confidence. “We must leave.”
They followed her without question. Any other time she may have wondered at her ability to command such authority, but now was not that time. Kern protected her people, who he did not know. He led them through the mountains and saw them to the wall at the cost of his own life. She would see that his family made it to safety. Opening the entrance to the escape tunnel, she waited for everyone to file past, until all that remained was she and Collin.
He looked from her to the window and back. His expression was pained, his indecision clear. The woman he loved was lost in a battle zone. One brother was already dead. How much longer could she last out there? He wanted to find her, protect her, be with her
in this time of pain, but he also felt a responsibility to her brothers’ families. With danger approaching, he could not easily abandon them.
Overcome by an overwhelming abundance of hope and determination, Samantha put a hand on his arm and smiled. “Go to her. We will be safe in the tunnels. And should they follow, we will have the guards with us. Either way, we have a head start and perhaps an hour before they reach the palace. Warn the other guards and staff, and when you find the Lawgivers, tell them of our danger.”
Collin looked at her with wonder, unhooking and handing her a sheathed sword from his belt. Samantha held the blade awkwardly, her confidence shaking slightly. “I’m afraid I don’t have any skill with the blade.” She handed it back, but he held up his hands, refusing to take it.
“I think when the time comes you will know how to use it.”
“What do you mean?”
It’s just a feeling. I met someone with a gift like yours once before. He was a friend of my father’s. The way you spoke just now reminded me of him. That sword belonged to him. I think you should have it.”
No longer conflicted, Collin saluted her in farewell and left the room. Holding her new sword, Samantha took to the dark escape route. The others waited for her at the landing of the initial staircase. There were several more stairways leading down into the darkness. Pausing a moment to secure the sword to her person, she grabbed a torch from the wall and lit it on one carried by the guards. Valesca looked expectantly back up the stairs to the chamber. “He went to help the others,” Samantha answered her unasked question.
With everyone presen
t, one of the guards took the lead. The stairs curved around the center of the palace tree. As with all buildings of importance in Aleria, the palace was shaped by magic out of a massive tree. Hollow portions within the trunk formed the many rooms and hallways. Balconies sat nestled on the limbs. The walls, flooring and some seats were made from the wood of the tree. It was all very impressive to a human from the foothills.
Like the rest of the palace, the escape stairs formed from the wood of the trunk. They were narrow, only allowing one or two people to stand on each step. Every fifty to a hundred steps, the floor widened to a large resting area with knots for stools and an acces
s door leading from other secure rooms throughout the palace. There was one such door hidden on every floor. Only the royal family and a few trusted guards knew the location of each door.
the wood became mud. The air grew humid with water dripping on the floor at random intervals, and Samantha knew they were in the root system of the tree. The stairs here were made of stone, hand carved with a widening width the lower they went. The dripping of water was audible, now. It echoed down the stairway. At last they made it to the final step, eliciting a relieved sigh from everyone who crossed it. The group gathered in a wide cave at the center of several tunnels. The sound of rushing water could be heard in the darkness. Somewhere behind one of these walls was an underground river, fed from the Therion.
“Which way do we go?” Traelene asked.
Everyone turned to Samantha. “Does anyone know where the tunnels lead?” she asked.
“Some lead out of the city,” one of the guards answered. “Others lead to similar access points within the city.”
Samantha considered their options. As appealing as the idea of distance was, leaving the city also meant they were further from reinforcements. She thought back to the last time she spoke with the three lords. Pielere could feel the suffering of his people. Mirerien could sense where Kern was. They all seemed to possess strange powers. If they still lived she knew they would find their wives and children. “What tunnels go south?”
“The one behind you leads to the healing clerics’ tree,” the guard answered. “The next one to the right lets out at the guard tower on the southern wall, just north of the river, and the one on the side goes south, but I don’t know where it
Samantha closed her eyes and said a prayer for guidance. She felt a tug on her chest, pulling her toward the clerics’ tunnel. Needing no other sign, she turned that way.
“I’m sorry Marcy,” Bryce shook his head. Thomas rested on the grass, a rolled up jacket for a pillow. Despite Bryce’s bandaging, his wound continued to bleed. He coughed, and Marcy ran back to his side. Bryce stepped away uncomfortably. “What are you even doing back here?” he asked, not knowing what else to say or do.
“We went with Kern,” she said, her voice breaking into a sob. “First Kern, now you,” she cried into Thomas’ shirt, unable to hold back her emotions any longer.
“Kern . . . was hurt?” he asked hesitantly.
“Kern was killed at the wall,” she swiped the tears from her red, swollen eyes.
“Oh, Marcy, I’m sorry.” He put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. Deciding to give her space, he turned his attention to the girl who was with Marcy when he found them. She sat with her back to the wall of the building they were hiding behind. Her eyes looked forward blankly, in some kind of shock. From what he overheard of her mumblings he could tell she somehow blamed herself for what happened, though he couldn’t fathom how. Knowing there was nothing else he could say for Marcy right now, he pulled the girl to her feet and led her around the side of the building.
“What’s your name?” he asked, pulling a napkin from his pocket
, folding it several times and handing it to her.
She looked down at the napkin, now a delicate white flower, and smiled, a look of complete innocence and wonder melting her face.
“Candice,” she answered.
, he guessed she was about fifteen years old. Of course, he wasn’t very good at judging human ages. Most people he knew had at least a little elf in them. Emotionally, she acted very much younger, at least at the moment. Then again, Suriaxian children tended to grow to maturity quickly, so maybe he was misjudging her. “Candice, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Bryce. Where are you from?”
Her eyes shuttered slightly, but she answered, “Breakeren.”
“Ah,” he nodded, beginning to piece things together. “Is that where you met my sister?”
She shook her head. “We met in the forest when I was running. We’ve been running ever since.”
Bryce closed his eyes and sighed. “Well, we will just have to see what we can do to change that,” he said with more confidence than he felt. She smiled and seemed comforted. Now if only he could think of the right words to say to make things easier for his sister. “Come on,” he said, standing. “Let’s get back to Marcy.”
* * *
Marcy held her hand over the bloody wound and felt tears run down her face. “Thomas, Thomas.” She shook him, but he did not open his eyes. She felt his heart beat slowly under her fingers at his neck. His breathing was shallow. His chest rose only a fraction of an inch. She felt his life slipping away and looked around for help. There was none. They were alone with no potions or spells to heal his injury.
She sat up straight,
her eyes wide. Spells. There was one chance, but it was risky with no guarantee of success. Looking down at his face, she made her decision and began to sing the song of binding. She only hoped she could remember all the words. There weren’t many bindings in Suriax.
The ritual was created for King Emerien, the founder of Aleria. He was an elf in love with a human. Unable to imagine life without her, he had the clerics find a way to bind their lives. He shortened his life to extend hers. To be bound was a permanent choice, and it could not be done by force. Only true love could allow the magic to work. Only the willing could be bound.
Marcy sang and prayed. She prayed the gift of her life energy could save him. She did not know of any binding being attempted under such circumstances, but where magic was involved anything could happen. And if she did cut her own life in half and lose him anyway, so be it.
She felt her palm
warm over his wound. Her body grew heavy. Her head spun. She closed her eyes, feeling tired and weak. The sense of heaviness eased off, beginning at her head and peeling off her like a snake removing an old skin. She felt it last at her fingertips and toes. Then Thomas grew heavy in her arms. She opened her eyes, the dizziness gone, and watched as his features elongated into a more elven look. He took a deep breath, his eyes blinking several times. His hand went to his stomach. His fingers searched through the blood for an injury, but the skin was healed. He looked at Marcy, his clean hand wiping the tears from her face. His eyes searched hers. “What did you do?” he asked softly.
She leaned her face into his hand and cried quiet tears of relief. “We are joined. The magic of the binding saved you.”
His eyes shone with gratitude and uncertainty. She could see he wanted to ask if she was certain she wanted this, but they both knew a binding would not work otherwise. He tilted his head, catching the distant sounds of battle with his newly heightened hearing. He stood and pulled her to her feet. “The battle is getting closer.”
Marcy shook her head. “No, the sounds are as loud as before. You just couldn’t hear it, then.”
He looked at her in confusion and reached up to touch the soft points of his ears. His eyes grew with comprehension. “That will take some getting used to. Alright, well we still need to move.”
“Marce?” Bryce called out, looking between
her and Thomas. Candice held onto his arm, holding a paper flower with her other hand. Her face glowed at seeing Thomas alive and standing. Bryce just looked confused. Then he saw the changes in their appearances, and the confusion turned to sadness. “Tell me you didn’t.”
“It was the only way,” she defended.
Oblivious to the tension between them, Candice ran happily to Thomas. Laughing at her excitement, he knelt beside her. “Your ears look funny,” she said, poking them. “Are you okay?” a hint of fear entered her voice at the question.
“Yes,” he answered.
She hugged him tightly and cried. “I’m so glad. I thought my father killed you.”
“Your father?” he pulled back to look at her face.
“I . . . I didn’t want you to get hurt. I just saw you two fighting and . . . I know he’s not my daddy anymore,” she began sobbing into his still bloody shirt. “But what if he is? What if it is still him somehow?”
Thomas patted her back. Marcy and Bryce shared a look, their own argument seeming far less important given the pain of this young girl. “Come on,”
Bryce said to her instead. “I’ll brow beat you later, if we survive this mess.”
“Wait,” Thomas said, raising his ring to activate it.
“Kern’s ring?” Marcy asked hesitantly. Thomas narrowed his eyes. “I think it’s Frex, though he sounds strange.”
“Kern gave him another ring like ours before we left Aleria. It was set up to speak to Kern’s ring first and only come to mine if the call went unanswered.” He fell silent, listening closely. “He is in trouble, at the bakery. They are under attack.”
“We must help him,” Marcy said adamantly.
With Kern gone, there was no one else to offer aide.
“Good luck with that,” Bryce snorted. “I take it this bakery is in Aleria?”
“Yes,” she answered. “It isn’t too far from the main bridge.”
“Wonderful. And how do you expect to get there through all the invaders and Alerian troops likely fighting to keep anyone and everyone from crossing into the city? And even if you can get over there, what makes you think you’ll do it in time to actually be of any help?”
“I hate to say this,” Thomas said, “but he has a point.”
Marcy closed her eyes and grabbed her broach, as she often did while thinking. Only this time it burned her. “I think I have a way,” she realized, holding on despite the heat. “My broach,” she answered their questioning faces. “Feel this.” She lifted it from her cloak for each of them to feel.
“Why is it so hot?” Bryce was the first to ask.
“And how is that going to help?” Thomas added.
“Lynnalin gave this to me as a gift,” she explained to her brother. “She said it could have any number of spells on it. I felt it get warm like this once before when it activated a spell that allowed me to fall slowly. I think it wants to activate another spell. Come closer.”
The moment they all were touching, the air shimmer
ed and shifted. The bushes and ground turned to stone and overturned tables and chairs. Three people attempted to put their weight against the door to keep it from being busted in. One, Marcy recognized as the baker’s grandson, Alnerand. The baker, an older elven woman named Elisteen, and Frex, Kern’s aged uncle, were no were to be seen. The man and woman helping Alnerand were much younger, though they dressed strikingly similar. Outside the Culler invaders ran at the walls and windows. “Candice, get in the back,” Marcy commanded, running forward. Bryce and Thomas went to help the others.
Pulling her heat in to her, Marcy sent it outward. The others flinched visibly as the wave passed through them and contin
ued on outside. Once she felt the heat surround the building on all sides, Marcy sparked it, setting up a tall wall of fire around the entire building. Closing her eyes, she pictured the fire, watching it thicken and burn hotter. It was a death trap to any who entered it. Some still tried, but those who did make it through did not live long. Marcy kept feeding the fire heat until she felt her own skin begin to flush. “That’s enough,” she heard Thomas say. Inclined to agree with him, she tried to pull the heat back, but it was free now and did not want to be restrained.
Heat continued to rush out of her in waves, stealing her air and baking her skin. She felt her body falling, wrapped in something soft. Shocks of cold that she soon recognized as water, helped break the hold the heat had on her. She opened her eyes, the pain down to a tingling in her fingertips and toes. Filling her lungs with welcomed oxygen, she took the glass of water Thomas offered her. Bryce beat a towel against the curtains to put out a small fire. There were singe marks everywhere. “Sorry,” she coughed, struggling to sit.
“Don’t be,” the woman said. “That was quite a show.”
“And it worked,” the man added. “The streets are qui
Marcy squinted, sure her ears or eyes were deceiving her. The man and woman sounded remarkably like Frex and Elisteen, but they were much too young. The man laughed and helped Marcy to stand.
“I know. It’s me. I promise. I’ve been getting younger ever since I returned to this city. I thought it was my imagination at first, state of mind and all that, but, well there’s no denying it anymore. Especially once it started happening to Eli, too.” The couple shared a loving look and a chaste kiss on the cheek. Marcy smiled at their happiness. Whatever was at work here, it could not have happened to a nicer couple. Frex dedicated his entire life to keeping Kern safe in exile and hiding his royal lineage from those who may want to harm him. Now, Frex was given a second chance at that life. If only Kern could be here to see it. She felt her eyes moisten.
“By the way, where is Kern?” Frex asked, somehow tapping into her train of thoughts. “Not that I don’t appreciate your help, I’m just eager to challenge my stubborn nephew to a wrestling match.” His eyes twinkled with mirth.
“He is with his brothers and sister,” Thomas jumped in, saving Marcy from having to break the sad news. She squeezed his hand in thanks for the rescue and sighed. They would have to tell him eventually, but it could wait a little bit.
“Who are you?” Alnerand asked, seeing Candice in the back of the shop.
“It’s okay,” Marcy assured her. “These are friends.”
Alnerand walked over to her, coaxing her out of hiding. “I’m Alnerand,” he introduced himself.
“Candice,” she replied, responding to his kindness and youthfulness. Leaving the two of them to get acquainted, the rest of them developed their defenses. There was no chance of convincing Elisteen to leave her bakery, so the best they could do was have a plan in place for when the invaders returned. As the sounds of fighting grew louder again, they settled in for the next wave of battle.
* * *
“So you are Kern, the man who plays with gods.”
Kern opened his eyes and took in his su
rroundings. He found himself in a room, draped in red curtains, with shields and swords proudly on display. The room was comfortable, yet efficient, with simple wooden furniture and a carpet made of grass. Across from him sat a man draped in a black tunic bound by a twisted golden cord. His armor rested on the floor beside his chair. A glistening black blade with ruby accents sat on the table to his other side. Kern knew without question this man was a warrior. Even without wearing his armor or weapon, he carried the air of a dangerous and lethal opponent.
“You reject the gifts of one and die saving
another,” the man continued. “You know it isn’t every day a mortal sacrifices his life for one. Oh, of course people die for their gods all the time in one war or another, but they never die from actually physically protecting one.”
“One what?” Kern asked, still completely confused, having difficulty following the conversation. “Am I dead?”
“A god, and yes, you are dead, at least for the time being.”
“But,” Kern struggled to remember what happened before he woke up in this strange place. “I
was protecting my sister.”