Sample Chapters: Beyond the Band of Death

BEYOND THE BAND OF DEATH

Rayna of Nightwind Series, Book Two

 

© Copyright December 2015 JK Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

ISBN# 978-1-310-94602-8

 

 

 


Chapter One: Wedding Day

 

“Will you, Arstinax of Kuara, take Rayna Powell of Nightwind to be your wife for all the days you shall live, and honor and cherish her with all your heart?” The clergyman, Levit, smiled and waited for Arstinax’s reply.

Arstinax, a tall imposing warrior, stood dressed in formal finery before Rayna, beaming. By all accounts, he was a large man, standing nearly seven feet tall with a body proportioned to match. His left hand held Rayna’s while his right rested upon an aged book, so frequently used its cover was long lost in the past. The warrior’s hand eclipsed the pages of the book and if anyone was curious as to what words lay on the surface of the outer page, they would have to wait until after the outdoor ceremony was over. One of Arstinax’s eyes bore a square patch of brown leather but his good eye was steady and focused on Rayna. “Yes,” he said, “with all my heart.”

“For better or for worse.”

“For better or for worse.”

“In sickness and in health.”

“In sickness and in health.”

“Until Death do thee part.”

“Until Death do us part.”

The clergyman smiled again and said, “By the grace of the Heavens, I hereby proclaim you both as husband and wife.” Brother Levit sniffed the air, pleased, as if the ceremony had produced a pleasant fragrance. “You may now kiss your bride, Arstinax of Kuara.”

Arstinax drew Rayna close and planted a tender kiss on her lips, perhaps longer than he intended, but no one seemed to mind and Rayna would have been content if such a kiss had gone on all day. He was such a handsome man and this wedding was everything she had hoped for. Once they finally parted lips, a roar of celebratory applause erupted and the sounds of merriment and cheer spread throughout the camp. Taren traditions usually called for long boisterous wedding receptions, starting immediately after the wedding and lasting well into the following day. Mercifully for Rayna, it was decided that it would be best to forgo a “proper” reception.

Rayna caught her breath and smiled back at the happy wedding guests, as she and Arstinax quietly made their way out of the spotlight to a quiet, green spot under a nearby shade tree. If one did not know better, one would never guess that this was the second wedding of the day. Rayna’s best friend, Keris, and the war hero, Ciredor, had tied the knot less than an hour ago. In fact, Rayna had been Keris’s Maid of Honor for the first wedding, only for them to have essentially switched roles for the second one.

Both weddings were beautiful and Rayna felt honored to share a wedding day with a Queen and newly crowned King. Of course, some in the wedding party felt the opposite was true—that it was an honor for the King and Queen to have been married on the same day as a Power. That is what the people of Taren called Rayna.  

 

According to legend, she was supposed to be the reincarnation of the immortal Power of chaos and change, a former prisoner of the Band now free with the fate of Taren in her hands. Even her beloved husband believed she was a Power.

In spite of all that she had seen since she arrived in Taren, Rayna stubbornly clung to her science-student roots and trusted the natural over the supernatural; she held fast to the hope that even Psi-magic had some basis in logic. Rayna laid a square cloth upon the grass to protect her white dress before sitting down. Perhaps, she thought, some of that legend was true. Rayna indeed felt that she would play a role in Taren’s future. But as always, science trumped legend. She recently discovered that two orbiting satellites, called the “Twin Eyes of Taren”, were malfunctioning climate control devices. If she did not find a way to deactivate those machines, Taren would soon become uninhabitable. But that was not the only threat. A more immediate threat loomed: war.

An army of mutated men, known as Beasts, were headed to the capital city Jerel to destroy it. Queen Keris and King Ciredor were determined to make it to the city first and fight them back from there. It was no trifling affair. If Jerel fell to the Beasts, all of Taren would follow; bloodshed and death would reign thereafter.

Rayna felt a tender hand touch her shoulder. Arstinax. Rayna looked up at him with a mixed look of adoration and shame. “I’m sorry, Arstinax,” she said, allowing him to pull her up and draw her into his massive arms, “I didn’t mean to ignore you. I know we should be enjoying our day but I couldn’t help but think about the war...and the Beasts. I can’t help but worry that this is one battle we can’t win.”

Arstinax held her tight, smiling. “Of all the things to think about on a wedding day, that would be the last place I would want my mind to dwell. But I understand. You are a Power first and a bride second.”

“I wish you would stop seeing me as some great Power reborn. I’m just me—Rayna Powell.”

“I love your humble nature but only a Power could have gotten us to this point and only a Power can see us through to the end.”

“But—”

“Irel of the Band?” a woman’s voice sounded behind her. Rayna turned to face an elderly woman with a blue and white shawl covering her head. Rayna suppressed a groan of displeasure. The wedding had temporarily stopped the curious and awestruck from following her around like groupies to a famed rock star. By now, they were starting to return and Rayna wondered if she and her husband would ever experience privacy again. Ever since they left the fire-ravaged town of Argat to head for Jerel, people from all walks of life had joined them—many because they heard “Irel of the Band” was among King Ciredor’s army. Every village they passed drew followers and more than a few warriors—many eager to join the cause. As a result, Ciredor’s core army had swollen to a sizable force, which pleased Ciredor. But these new recruits brought along with them their wives and family, and a wide assortment of non-warriors whose primary purpose for being there was to be in the presence of a Power. Rayna felt as if she had a cult following and these people thought this mission to Jerel was some great pilgrimage in her honor; it was a feeling she did not share or relish.

“Yes?” Rayna replied as politely as she could.  

 

The old woman blushed. “Forgive me, I have never spoken to a Power before. My name is Clarice. I was hoping you could tell me whether or not my granddaughter will marry well. My daughter is too ashamed to ask you herself but she is worried the man her daughter now fancies for marriage will lead her to ruin.”

Rayna hesitated, uncertain how to proceed. In the past few days, she had been asked by strangers to do everything from bless crops, to partake in long complicated tea ceremonies. But this was the first time she was asked to decide the fate of a marriage before it had even started. The irony of the fact that her own marriage was but minutes old was not lost on her. “I’m sorry but I’m not Psi-clairvoyant,” she replied. “I can’t see into the future.” That wasn’t completely true. Rayna as of late had been plagued by disturbing dreams—dreams that sometimes found their way into her reality.

“But you are a Power,” the woman persisted, “surely you can do something. My poor daughter is worried sick.”

Arstinax moved to intervene—no doubt to gently escort the woman away, but Rayna held firm to his hand to indicate she would handle the situation her way. Rayna thought about her recent marriage and how vulnerable love could leave a person. She was fortunate to have found Arstinax but she could imagine how devastating it could be, to be in love with a person who didn't feel the same way. “Is the man who wants to marry your granddaughter here?”

“Yes, he is.”

“And the granddaughter?”

“Yes.”

“Then bring them both here—quickly.”

Faster than Rayna thought possible for a woman her age, Clarice ran and returned with a young man and a young woman in their late teens. Both youth stared uncomfortably at Rayna’s feet. The girl fiddled with her braided black hair, while the boy grinned whenever she snuck a fleeting glance in his direction. Their youthful innocence was disarming and helped keep Rayna’s apprehension in check. She addressed the young man first. He was slightly taller than the young woman and he wore a red beard, neatly trimmed and was dashing and handsome by all accounts.

“What is your name?” Rayna asked.

“Kraun, Your Eminence. It is an honor to meet you—an honor second only to being betrothed to the love of my life.”

Rayna had to admit, the boy had a charming tongue, which made her a bit suspicious. Boys that young seldom were so good at flattery, unless they had a lot of practice. Intuitively, she opened herself up to the Wild Magic Chaotic and allowed it to fill her. With its power, she secretly probed the boy’s aura and found no malice on the surface. She dared not probe deeper in fear of hurting the boy; she was still learning how to safely use her abilities. However, she was satisfied with what her limited probe shown her. And her Psi-powered bracelet—her primary gauge of danger—detected no ill-will or ill-intent from the young man.

“Do you love her?” Rayna continued. Kraun looked at the young woman beside him, passionate longing in his eyes. He said, “Of course, she is my—”

“Do you swear before Irel of the Band you will love her forever?”

“Yes.”  

 

Rayna turned to the woman. She was thin and fragile-looking with brown eyes that matched her hair perfectly. She was slightly shorter than Rayna—about five feet tall. Though while her frame was delicate, her eyes looked strong and they soon shifted from nervous avoidance to a steady, direct gaze. Rayna was surprised to find her aura, though not malevolent, certainly had harsher undertones than the boy’s. She was no villainess but certainly not the innocent, sweet little girl she seemed. Oh, the irony, Rayna thought and asked the girl out loud, “What’s your name?”

“Tyra.”

“Do you love him?”

“Completely! I—”

“Do you swear before Irel of the Band you will love him forever?”

“Yes.”

“Then it is done. I declare you both fit for marriage. I foresee many happy years before you and many, um...offspring. If any one of you breaks the oath you have made before me, that person will suffer the terrible wrath of Irel, which is me. Now go, and be good.”

Just as the two were turning to leave, Rayna leaned over and whispered in the girl’s ear, “Tyra, remember your promise and behave yourself. You may have fooled the others but not me.”

Tyra blanched and swallowed before bowing quickly and walking away with her betrothed, turning once to look back at Rayna with an expression of fear and respect. After Rayna dismissed the couple, the grateful grandmother thanked Rayna profusely and headed off behind the couple, no doubt to remind them of the grave oath they had taken.

Queen Keris, still in her wedding gown, overheard the conversation and walked over to Rayna, clapping her hands lightly—slowly at first and then in rapid procession. “Well done, Rayna,” she said with a facetious grin. “I didn't know you performed engagement blessings. You are a woman of many talents.”

Rayna frowned. “Now don’t you start. You may be Queen of Taren but try being ‘Irel of the Band’ for a day and see how you like it.”

“No thank you. I think one Irel is more than enough for this realm.”

Rayna softened her tone, noting the many delicate and intricate folds of Keris’s gold and white marriage gown. Rows of sapphires bordered every hem with a sparking succession of brilliant color. Her underskirt was a crushed blue velvet—royal blue of course. Rayna’s own dress was stunning as well—far exceeding her expectations. The material was flowing white satin with green accents; a sewn necklace of emeralds formed a prominent ‘V’ down the front. The train of her gown was heavily embroidered with silver thread and tiny seed pearls, depicting dancing images of blossoming flowers and swirling patterns that seemed to weave in and out of her dress like magic. Keris told Rayna that her dress depicted a scene from folklore of how all of Taren would look after the Power Irel defeated her enemies and restored the land. Rayna didn’t believe in fairy tales but there was no mistaking the dress’ beauty. It was amazing what the royal seamstresses were able to achieve on such short notice. Rayna realized that she had been so caught up in her own world, she never complimented her friend on her gown. “Your dress is beautiful, Keris,” Rayna said, hoping her belated praise would be forgiven.  

 

“As is yours. I hate to cut the festivities short but my husband has called a meeting and the presence of Arstinax and yourself is required.”

Rayna shrugged. “Lead the way,” she said, lifting her dress to avoid the dust as she followed the Queen.

The camp was large and was growing larger by the day as folks from neighboring towns and villages flocked to join them. Rayna was amazed at how so many people would want to follow them to a city destined to be attacked by the Beasts. It was faith. It was hope. It was madness. Countless makeshift tents and portable dwellings turned a previously military camp into a nomadic city, complete with noisy livestock and small children. What was more amazing was that many of these people were West Tareners and Jerel was an East Taren city. East and West Taren had been rivals since the dawn of Taren itself and yet now, that was all changing. Them working together in relative harmony for a common goal. History was being made before Rayna’s eyes. Perhaps that was the one good thing the impending Beast war had done; it was doing what Keris’s mother and father could not—it was uniting Taren under one banner.

In the center of the camp lay a large patchwork dome-shaped tent the King and Queen used when meetings were in session. It was well guarded to keep prying eyes and ears away. Inside, the interior was spacious but drab—a worn palette of tans and grays. The entranceway also served as the structure’s sole window, letting in enough sunlight to keep the place from becoming too dark for honest business. Rayna and Arstinax took a seat near the end of a long table that looked as if it better belonged on majestic oak flooring in a grand hall, rather than being unceremoniously placed on the grass inside a dusty tent—in the middle of nowhere. It was the only notable piece of furniture in the tent, other than the chairs tucked against it on either side, like rows of suckling young. Keris took her seat next to King Ciredor, who sat at the head of the table. Ciredor was a tall man in his forties, with laugh lines and a dark beard wreathing his angular face. He looked like a warrior with a profound sense of humor, which he was. A rare combination. Prior to being King, Ciredor was a famed military commander for the East Taren army. He was well-known as a brilliant strategist and loyal servant to the throne. He was extremely popular among common people, and so, it was to everyone’s delight that this man was chosen by the new Queen to be her husband and thus King of Taren. Ciredor’s second-in-command was seated on the other side of him. He had a youthful appearance and his face was as bare as his head. His name was Orin and he was a powerful Psi-clairvoyant. His steel-gray eyes looked troubled, hinting of a tremendous burden on his soul. Orin was never known for being a cheerful man and he looked particularly glum this day, despite having witnessed two weddings.

Ciredor called the meeting to session with a loud thump of his hand upon the table. With a good-natured grin, he extended his arm and made a sweeping motion with his hand; it was a grand gesture for a not so grand interior. “Welcome once again to the Great Council,” he joked. His words were met with wan smiles from Keris and Rayna, but with an outright chuckle from Arstinax. Orin, steely-eyed, remained silent. Ciredor continued on a more somber note. “Forgive me for gathering you all here to discuss un-pleasantries so soon after such joyful weddings but we will arrive at Jerel in less than two days. This may be the last chance we have to discuss ideas and propose any new strategies.” Ciredor took in a deep breath and held it for a few seconds before releasing it out in a quiet, measured fashion. It was the disciplined breathing technique of a  

 

warrior monk. “Any news on finding a special weapon we can use against the Beasts?” he asked.

“The carrier we sent should have reached Authright by now,” Rayna said. Authright was a short but proud little man who was, sadly, the closest thing to a scientist Taren had—outside of Rayna herself. “When I was in Dosk, the secret lab I found in the Science Guild was lined with computers and a bunch of strange devices I didn’t have time to test while I was there. Before I left, I was able to override a few security protocols and give Authright partial system access.”

“In common tongue,” Keris said in her typical dispassionate manner, “I take that to mean you have outwitted the many guardians the Geni built to protect their machines and Authright is now privy to some of the stores of knowledge contained within the chamber?”

“Exactly, that’s what I said. Anyway, I’m not even sure he’s using it—he’s afraid of the system.” Rayna looked dismissive, stopping just short of rolling her eyes. “He thinks it’s possessed.”

Ciredor laughed with sympathy, rather than in mockery. “I can hardly blame the poor fellow. From what you last told us about the secret room—the doorway guarded by a pale image of a woman who appears and disappears like an apparition, and metal boxes of flickering lights that speak like men—I would not be eager to work in such a place either.”

Keris nodded grimly. “Authright must overcome his fears and do what is best for Taren. We need a Beast-killing weapon. Pikes, spears, and other thrusting weapons will do the job given time but the creatures heal so quickly, it would take three pikemen to fall one Beast, whilst a single Beast can easily slay half-a-dozen men with ease.”

Rayna explained, “In the note I gave the carrier, I instructed Authright to search the lab high and low for a weapon—anything we can use against the Beasts—and to meet us in Jerel with it.”

“Well, let us pray he is successful in that endeavor.”

“Keris, why don’t you let me come with you to Jerel? I’m supposed to be this great and powerful Power. Maybe I can use my power to help win the war.”

“No. We’ve gone over this before. You are our greatest hope of saving Taren from permanent ruin. What good would it do us to conquer the Beasts, only to succumb to the Twin Stars above?”

“Why can’t I do both? I can help you fight the Beasts and then try to deactivate the satellites.”

“It is too risky. If you were gravely injured—or worse still—killed in battle, Taren’s fate would surely be sealed, for I believe you are the only one who can pluck out the blue and red eyes of the sky machines.”

Just then, before Rayna could reply, a young boy—ten or eleven years of age— scurried into the tent, much to the vocal protest of the two guards at the tent’s entrance. A dog began barking outside. One of the guards quickly followed the boy-child inside. Rayna instantly recognized the boy as Quan, the sometimes flautist, sometimes thief, who had accompanied Keris and Rayna on much of their adventures. When Keris was a rebel princess with a price on her head, she took refuge in the town of Argat, at an orphanage run by an old woman herbalist named Emawin. Emawin did not know of Keris’s identity and took her in, despite Keris being an adult. Keris did confide her  

 

secret in one of Emawin’s foster children—Quan. Clever and discreet, he served as Keris’s eyes and ears while she hid in Argat from bounty hunters. Emawin soon regarded Keris as one of her own children and in turn, Keris saw Emawin as a second mother and Quan, her adoptive younger brother. However, following the death of Emawin, Quan had become sullen and withdrawn, accepting only the company of his dog, Bard. After the fiery attack on Argat, Quan blamed Keris for his mother’s death and he often avoided being in the same room as her, which made his presence in the tent all the more curious to Rayna.

Quan darted to the side of King Ciredor before the frustrated guard could grab him. “Forgive the intrusion, Your Majesties,” the guard apologized, dropping to one knee in a hasty kneel. “The boy is slipperier than a greased piglet. I’ll have him out of your way in moment.”

“No!” Quan protested. “I will stay! I have as much a right to be here as anyone else in this place. My mother died because she was kept ignorant of the dangers around her.” Quan cast an accusing eye at Keris. “The same will not happen to me.” Rayna was always struck by how uncommonly articulate and mature Quan was for his age. If she were to close her eyes and ignore his youthful voice, she would have sworn the forceful words coming from the child’s lips were instead from a fully grown man.

“Let him stay,” Ciredor said, perhaps impressed by the boy’s strong stand. “I see glimmers of manhood shining through this young man. As a young prince, Quan is expected to attend some meetings in order to learn the ways of leadership.”

Quan took a seat across from Ciredor and reassured Rayna he was still a child by making a face and sticking his tongue out at the guard, so quickly that only the guard and Rayna bore witness to the act.

The guard frowned in disapproval of Quan’s taunting but quietly obeyed the King and backed out of the tent. Just as the guard departed, the dog that had been barking outside slipped inside the tent and quietly rested by Quan’s feet. It was Bard, Quan’s faithful mongrel and partner in music—if you called the nerve-grating howling it made to Quan’s flute playing music.

“So what did I miss?” Quan asked, addressing his question to Ciredor, ignoring Keris, even though she sat facing opposite to him.

“Oh, not much, lad,” Ciredor said with a smile. “We were just discussing how Authright of the Science Guild was tasked with finding us a weapon we may use against the Beasts.”

“But Rayna of Nightwind is a master mage. She can help us defeat the Beasts.”

“For once we are in agreement,” Rayna quipped. “I’m no fan of fighting the Beasts—the last encounter I had with them nearly killed me. But this strange power of mine may be our best hope.”

“Perhaps,” Ciredor said, “but I agree with my wife. You must find the source of power to the Twin Stars and destroy it before half of Taren becomes fire and the other half, ice. There is too much at stake to risk your dying fighting the Beasts. We will just have to make do without the Wild Magic Chaotic”.

“May I go with Rayna and the others to find the Twin Stars’ source of power?” Quan asked, excited and eager.

“Absolutely not!” Queen Keris protested with a stern frown. “The journey that Rayna will endure will take her beyond the Band. Even if she is successful in finding a hidden  

 

underground tunnel to avoid the Band’s deadly lightning, the quest will be far more dangerous than the impending Beast War.”

“Indeed,” Arstinax added in a somber tone. “And that is saying much, for the Beast War is a danger of the likes Taren has never seen.”

“But no one has ever gone past the Taren borders before!” Quan persisted.

“And for good reason,” Keris replied sharply. “All who have tried to pass beyond the Band have met untimely ends. This is not a stroll through Soren Woods, Quan. I cannot stress enough the peril Rayna and her party will be facing on that journey. You are still a child. You would add little value to the quest and so, you will go with me to Jerel. In all likelihood we will be besieged there but it will be a relatively safer situation than traversing Outer Taren.”

“But—”

“That is my final word on this, Quan. Enough.”

Quan looked infuriated but said nothing more; he slouched back in his seat, his dark eyes flashing with anger. He crossed his arms and an aurora of brewing resentment surrounded him like swirling shroud of negative energy. This concerned Rayna. Quan was always such a lively and engaging boy. In spite of her better judgment, she found his mischievous ways and his cunning curiosity endearing. This new dark, reclusive side to Quan was troubling; Rayna worried it would take permanent root in his heart if the boy and Keris didn’t reconcile their differences soon.

Ciredor delivered another hardy thump upon the table, which abruptly broke the tension and drew all eyes toward him. “Well, unless anyone else has something to say, I will adjourn this meeting.”

“If I may, I have something to report, Your Majesty.” The calm words came from Orin’s lips; he had been so quiet Rayna had forgotten he was in the room.

“Of course, go on.”

“The governor of Zuran wishes to pledge a thousand battle-ready men for the war effort against the Beasts.”

“That is splendid news! Why was I not told of this sooner?”

“I was just given word by carrier this morning. I thought it would be best to inform you after the weddings.” Orin glanced briefly at Keris as if reaffirming some kind of unspoken agreement. His gray eyes quickly returned their focus to Ciredor.

“I see,” Ciredor replied with a nod. “When will these men arrive? Will they meet us at Jerel?”

“That’s the other thing I wanted to tell you—the governor insists that you receive this gift in person.”

“In person?” Ciredor repeated incredulously. “Doesn’t he know we are on the cusp of a war? Zuran is two day’s travel from here. I can’t afford to take off now.”

“According to the carrier, the governor was very adamant that you, as the newly crowned King, accept his offer of men in person.”

“Then why can’t he and his pledged army come to us?”

“He says he is unable to untie himself from the affairs of government to leave Zuran.”

“Perhaps so, but a governor has no authority to demand a King’s presence.”

“West Tareners have a long tradition of—as they put it—always being close enough to see the smiling eyes of friends and the crying eyes of foes.’”  

 

“Yes, yes, I know. I am quite familiar with the distinction of the cultures. I personally prefer to kill my enemies from a respectable distance, if I can help it.”

“Then you know that West Tareners almost always bestow important gifts face to face. To do otherwise would be taken as an insult.”

Ciredor’s eye narrowed with suspicion. “Zuran is a West Taren province and I am an East Tarener by birth. Perhaps he is unhappy with the newly united Taren and wants revenge. Maybe he plots to take the throne for himself. Could this be some sort of trap?”

“I don’t think so. None of my visions depicted the governor betraying you. On the contrary, my visions have often shown you bringing reinforcements to Jerel. Of this, I can say no more.”

“I see. But I think the governor would have to see my ‘smiling eyes’ another time.”

“A thousand men, is no trivial offering.”

“Perhaps, but we must make it to Jerel before the Beasts do.”

“I would gladly accompany the Queen to Jerel if you choose to meet with the governor in Zuran.”

“Please go, Ciredor,” Queen Keris bade him. “Take a retinue of a hundred men with you. Orin will be my escort. We should not turn down a thousand veteran fighters at a time of war.”

Ciredor sighed and chuckled. “I’m used to being outnumbered on the battlefield but it seems I am outnumbered in the war room as well. Very well. I will meet with this governor and accept his gift in person. I will leave at dawn with a hundred men and a half-dozen scouts.” Ciredor added wryly, “They had damn well better be the best warriors in all the land, to cost me two days travel to fetch them.”

“A thousand West Taren warriors will be a welcome addition to our forces,” Keris said. “They may not possess magic but they are skilled marksmen and pikemen to be sure.”

“As a West Tarener, I can attest to that, Your Majesty,” Arstinax said.

Ciredor nodded, adding, “And since the Beasts are susceptible to piercing and thrusting attacks, it may well be the tip of a West Taren spear that decides whether we be victors or corpses at the end of this war.”

“Indeed, my King.”

”Hmmm. Perhaps this is the secret weapon we were looking for all along—good old-fashioned manpower.”

“And womanpower,” the Queen added with a wry grin. “A good many West Taren women are not afraid to take up arms for battle. They are fierce in combat and they fight every bit as good as the men.”

Ciredor nodded and inclined his head toward Orin, his eyes suddenly serious. “I had hoped to announce your promotion later today in front of the men, but I suppose this is as good a place as any. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I cannot be both King and commander of the Taren army. That latter title now goes to you. Orin, I hereby appoint you High Commander of the Taren army. You will lead our forces to Jerel and we will make our stand against the Beasts there. Guard the Queen with your life. I will join you—a thousand men stronger—a few days after you arrive at the capital city.”  

 

Orin lowered his head in deference. “I am honored, my King. I will do my best to live up to your expectations.”

“I am sure you will exceed them. You were the finest Second a commander could have and I am certain you will be the finest general a king could have. Indeed, you may be uniquely suited as general. A powerful Psi-clairvoyant such as yourself can use your many visions to outmaneuver our enemies. Divine inspiration has granted you future eyes.”

“My gift has brought me as much pain as it has pleasure but it has given me the opportunity to serve you well, and for that I am grateful.”

Ciredor nodded, pleased. “Then it is done. Let us—”

The sound of an increasingly loud scuffle from outside got everyone’s attention. Quan perked up with sudden interest, the mischievous curiosity in his eyes renewed. Rayna and the others emerged from the tent to see a middle-aged man struggling against the grasp of two guards, who each held one of his arms. A third guard stood in front, blocking the stranger’s path to the tent. The man in custody had wild, dark gray hair that covered his head like an unruly mane; a charcoal and white-striped beard hung low from his chin. His dark robes bore many patches and looked as if he had not taken them off in a very long time. From underneath the bottom length of his robes rested leathery toes in dusty sandals.

“I demand you let me see the Queen! I and my followers have come a long way to see her!”

“Who are you and what business do you have with the Queen?” Ciredor asked, his voice low and dangerous.

“I am curious as to that myself,” Queen Keris said, staring at the bedraggled man.

By now, dozens of additional guards had arrived, flanking the sides of the King and Queen. Their hands glowed with preparatory magic, to be unleashed with a single command from the King or Queen.

The stranger appeared too annoyed to notice. When he spoke, his voice rang out with conviction. “My name is Rasmak and I am here to offer my services to the Queen and to protect her!”

“Protect me from what?” Keris asked.

“From many dangers, my Queen. From the Beasts, from West Taren rebels who may resist your rule—but most important, I must protect you from that one!” Rasmak pointed an accusing finger at Rayna, who responded with a look of shock.

“Rayna Powell of Nightwind?” Keris said, stifling the amusement in her eyes. “This may come as a surprise to you, Rasmak, but she is on our side.”

Rasmak sneered. “This creature is not on anyone's side but her own. And we must call her by her only true name—Irel of the Band! She is the thirteenth Power. You need only look at her round ears for proof. She is the Power of chaos and dark change. She spreads lies and deceit wherever she roams. She has escaped from her foul prison in the Band, to plague us with misfortune and strife!”

Arstinax stepped forward, his massive seven-foot frame enough to give pause to even the most veteran guards, who were no doubt, silently thanking the Heavens he was a friend rather than a foe. “Your words do dishonor to my wife and I will not stand idly by and let you sully her name!”  

 

Rayna held Arstinax’s hand, feeling the tension as it traveled from his palm to his rippling biceps and chest. He was bracing himself for battle. “Thank you for standing up for me,” Rayna said, “but I’m hardly a damsel in distress and we really don’t know what this is all about yet.”

“A fight!” Quan shouted, somewhere on the periphery of Rayna’s hearing. “There’s going to be a fight!”

“Don’t feign ignorance, girl!” Rasmak shouted. “I am not as blind as the others that I cannot see your true nature.”

“And why is that?” Rayna asked in a tone of bold indifference that rivaled Keris’s. “What makes you the expert on my true nature?” Her patience was faltering but Rayna managed to remain calm. Despite her agitation from the stranger’s insults, her curiosity was piqued, for her time in Taren had taught her that not everything here was as it first seemed.

“Is it not obvious? I am a Power myself!”

A hushed gasp washed over the crowd that had rapidly formed around Rayna, her companions and the stranger. The guards took defensive positions and warily looked on.

Rasmak spoke to the crowd, “I am one of the fabled Twelve and I have returned to guide and protect the Queen from the treachery of the exiled one. In my travels to meet you here, I have gained many followers who have pledged to share my divine charge.”

“You mean,” Ciredor said, “you have tricked a few poor devils into keeping you company while you follow your mad pursuits. Yes, come to think of it, I was told that there was a madman roaming the countryside claiming to be one of the Twelve but I thought it was foolish rumor. It seems you have proven me wrong.”

Rasmak appeared unfazed. “You are a young and new king, so I will forgive your insolence. My mission here is to serve the bloodline of the East Taren King Bromus and Queen Kerisandra is the only living soul left of that lineage.”

Rayna turned to Keris, “Kerisandra?”

Keris shrugged and hesitated before speaking, “My full birth name. It is seldom used, as I don’t care much for it. I much better prefer Keris.”

“I like the name Kerisandra,” Rayna said with a wry smile, ignoring her friend’s rising embarrassment. “It has a certain royal ring to it—and it rolls off the tongue.”

Keris aimed her ire at Rasmak, “How did you come to know my birth name? I did not know it was public knowledge.”

Rasmak passed his hand across the air with a dismissive wave. “As I told you, my Queen, I am a Power. I know many things. I am the Power of Psi-aquatic magic and just as water can flow over sand and stone, knowledge flows over me. It is I who will battle by your side against the Beasts. Only I can assure you of victory. Irel is a rogue Power whose magic is tainted with chaos and lies. I demand the right to challenge Irel to a duel to the death and we shall see which of us is worthy!”

Quan had pulled out his flute and was playing a perking little tune, which seemed a musical prelude to battle. Rayna was not amused.

She looked at the rambling old man called Rasmak. Despite his wild, unkempt appearance, he looked better suited to bouncing a couple of grandchildren on his knee than challenging arguably the most powerful mage in Taren to a death duel. The  

 

energies inside Rayna were not completely under her control; she could easily kill him by accident. “I will not fight you,” she said. “This is not a game.”

Rasmak laughed in a callous tone, looking back at the crowd, “Did you hear that, people? The outcast Power is afraid! Would you have a fearful Power leading you? If Irel will not face me now, then I promise you, she will surely abandon you in your greatest time of need!” The crowd began to murmur and whisper among themselves.

Keris cut in, “If you are truly of Power and one of the Twelve, then why did you wait until now to show yourself? Irel came forth when Taren was at war and risked her life to help restore peace. Now you come.”

Rasmak shook his head, “I see Irel has been busy influencing your mind. What better path to power than to have a queen’s favor? The vile usurper, Nephredom, did as much with your mother, the late Queen Aknata!”

To the backdrop of Quan’s battle music, Keris straightened with anger, “You dare use my mother’s name and Nephredom’s in the same breath? I am no longer amused by your presence. I suggest you and your followers leave this camp.”

“I have no quarrel with you, my Queen—please forgive me if I have brought you offense. You must understand that Irel has turned your mind against me.” Rasmak shook his fist at Rayna in a fashion that would have been comical under lighter circumstances. “Release her mind, you fiend!”

“I don’t know what you're talking about,” Rayna replied.

“Then accept my challenge and I will show you!”

To her surprise, Rayna suddenly felt power rising inside Rasmak; it was strong and steady. Though he appeared half-baked and delusional, the magic inside him was real and potent—one of the most potent Rayna had encountered since she learned how to “read” power signatures in people. Rayna’s silver and blue bracelet—her self-made talisman that glowed whenever she was in the proximity of magical danger—began to warm and shine faintly on her wrist.

As Rasmak looked on, Rayna took Keris to the side, out of earshot from the disheveled mage. “I think there’s more to this guy than meets the eye,” Rayna told Keris in a whisper.

Keris raised a brow. “Other than boisterous belligerence and a desperate need for a tailor?” she whispered back.

“I’m serious. He has power. A lot of it.”

“Then he is a threat?”

“Not really. I mean, he has the potential to be dangerous and my bracelet is glowing a bit but not nearly enough to indicate evil intent. If someone with that level of power truly had nefarious motives, my hand would be shining like a small sun.”

“So you see this scruffy mage as a potential ally?”

“Yes.”

“He’s not very fond of you, though.”

“Doesn’t matter, I’ve got a date with the Band and beyond, remember? And since I can’t convince you to let me stay and help you, at least let this guy do it. Crazy or not, he seems eager enough and you are going to need all the help you can get to win the Beast battle.”

“Do you believe he is master mage powerful?”  

 

“Definitely—and if he wants to pretend he’s a Power, let him. So long as he and his followers follow your army into battle.”

“You cannot simply dismiss the social and political implications of people believing a second Power walks among us. You do not believe you are a Power, so such things mean little to you but this man has the potential to unleash a religious maelstrom in the very land I have worked so hard to unite in peace. Accepting him into our fold lends legitimacy to his claims.”

“Keris, you were raised from birth to be a master of politics and ruler of men. And your husband was a commander and a high priest to boot. I’m sure between the two of you, you can keep Merlin here from getting out of hand.”

“Who?”

“Rasmin, or whatever his name is.”

“But who is Merlin?”

“I was making a—never mind, it would take too long to explain and this crowd is starting to make me feel a bit agoraphobic.”

“I swear, every third word you speak is in a foreign tongue.”

“Let’s just say I’m not much of a people person, except with the people I choose to be with. And right now your Rasmus friend is drawing in a small village. I’m not hanging around much longer. I think I need to leave before I have a panic attack.”

“And so the fate of this land may very well be decided by someone who doesn’t care much for people. You never cease to amaze me, Rayna of Nightwind.”

Rayna looked offended. “I like people...sort of. I just like them behind their backs. You know, in an observational sort of way. And I’ll have you know I almost majored in social psychology instead of applied science.”

“Now you are down to speaking in foreign tongue with every other word. Let us conclude this matter before your whole speech turns to gibberish.”

Rayna smiled and walked back to where she had stood before. She addressed Rasmak. “You win. There is no need for bloodshed. I’ll leave Taren. In fact, I’m leaving for the Band tomorrow. Back to my—what did you call it—‘foul prison’.”

Rasmak seemed taken aback and a little confused. You...you surrender, without contest?”

“That would be a ‘yes.’”

Quan’s flute music ended abruptly with a disappointed chirp.

Rasmak frowned. “What sort of trickery are you plotting, Irel? I saw you whispering poison in the Queen’s ears!”

“No poison. I was just conceding my position to Keris—I mean Queen Kerisandra before announcing it publicly.”

King Ciredor turned to Rasmak, after having exchanged a few words with his wife. “It seems,” he said, “the Queen has changed her mind and would welcome your counsel and assistance. I remain skeptical but am willing to let you prove your worth to our cause.”

“Excellent!” Rasmak exclaimed. “Blessed be the Heavens. I had anticipated far more resistance.”

“We were all overwhelmed by your charm,” Rayna quipped as she and Arstinax made their way from the crowd, leaving Keris and the others to deal with Rasmak alone. Rayna’s nerves were frayed, though she took great care not to let it show in public.  

 

“Your mockery is wasted on me, Irel,” Rasmak called out behind her. “I have won!”

Later that night, Rayna and Arstinax sat outside their tent, tending a small cooking fire. Skewered rabbit meat glistened and sizzled from its own fatty juices as Rayna’s husband turned it on a spit, which rested on a blackened metal rack over the flame tripod style. Soft, white light filled the air; a large full moon shone over the distant tree line and stars glimmered above like a plethora of diamonds scattered across a dark sea. As their dinner roasted, Rayna leaned back and gazed at the starry sky with fascination.

Eventually her eyes settled on two stars that stood out from the others. One pulsated with a warm, red glow; the other was a chilling blue—literally. They were powerful climate control satellites. Of course, the locals knew them as the “Twin Stars of Taren”. An advanced civilization of humans called the Geni built and placed them in orbit above Taren for reasons known only to them. Rayna let out a shuddering breath as she looked at the darkly clever sky machines. They were the reason why one half of Taren was so dreadfully cold and other side hot as hell. And with each passing year, it was getting worse; the machines were slowly killing both halves of Taren. The temperature extremes alone helped to shape East and West Taren culture in many ways and helped drive a wedge between the two peoples. That, and the fact West Tareners shunned “mind magic”, while East Tareners embraced it.

“The food is ready,” Arstinax announced as he removed the roasted meat from the skewer and placed it on a cutting board at a nearby table. There, he sliced the meat into several smaller pieces and placed it into two wooden bowls that were partially filled with hot water, boiled potatoes, carrots, and herbs. With the addition of the rabbit meat, the water turned into a rich broth and the vegetables blended with the meat to form an irresistible aroma.

Rayna inhaled deep and long, taking in the savory smells; she smiled as Arstinax handed her a steaming bowl of stew. “The perfect combination,” Rayna said as she grabbed a spoon from the table and sat back down to enjoy her food. “A handsome man who can cook.” Her mouth filled with flavor as she tasted the stew. The meat was tender and the vegetables were cooked just right. “Correction: a handsome man who can cook very well,” Rayna clarified, placing another spoonful to her lips. “Arstinax, this is really good!”

“A poor copy of a far better version that my mother used to make,” Arstinax replied with a humble smile.

“That’s what I love about you, you’re so modest.” Rayna paused, “Well, that’s not the only thing I love about you.” She reached over and caressed one of Arstinax’s large hands before clasping it with her own.

“It would be impossible for me to count the many ways I love you, Irel.”

Rayna hid her mild disappointment at her husband still calling her ‘Irel’ instead of her true name. But she knew what she was getting when she married Arstinax. Arstinax strongly believed in the Powers and he believed Rayna was the Power Irel—there was no way she could ever convince him otherwise. Part of Rayna wondered what would happen if she no longer lived up to what her new husband thought was worthy of a Power. Would he still love her as plain old Rayna Powell, or would he feel tricked and leave her forever?

“You stopped eating,” Arstinax said. “Is there something wrong?”  

 

Rayna shook her head and resumed eating her stew, “Nothing’s wrong.”

Arstinax’s forehead wrinkled the way it always did when he suspected Rayna of being less than truthful with him. The sight of it softened her resolve.

“Arstinax, will you always love me?”

Arstinax did not hesitate, “Always. This I swear.”

“Until death do us part?”

Arstinax smiled and repeated the vow he had only just spoken that morning. “Until death do us part.” With that, he drew Rayna close to him and her worries withered away. Rayna’s lips parted slightly as she received her husband’s kiss. As their lips touched, Rayna suddenly remembered they had not yet consummated their marriage. She suspected by the passionate, almost possessive way Arstinax was holding her that he had not forgotten for a moment. Still kissing and wrapped in each other’s arms, they made their way inside their tent and hastily undressed each other, letting both garments and burdensome cares fall away. Once again, Rayna sought shelter in the safety of Arstinax’s arms, wrapping her nude body around his. Her husband’s urgent kisses began to travel from her lips to her cheeks, all the way around to the nape of her neck. Rayna’s body responded with a delightful shiver of anticipation. She had never been with a man before but now she was ready. She gently laid down on the cot that was on the ground; she reached up, pulling her man down to her. Her slender arms draped across his broad back.

Inside the tent was dark, with only pale moon beams and fading embers from the dying cooking fire as illumination. The near-darkness made it all the more exciting. Rayna took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, allowing the last remnants of nervous tension to melt away. She felt Arstinax’s hands slide down her naked torso, meeting somewhere along her slender waist. Then he lowered his body close to her and she felt him enter her. Skin pressed against skin, their bodies performed a slow, gentle rhythmic dance and Rayna felt as if she could soar—higher and higher, until there was no beginning or end. With the soft moonlight as witness, Rayna gave in to rapture as she experienced the most perfect night of her life.

Later that night, Rayna dreamed of a floating bridge and a man with no face. From behind her, a resolute voice rang out, “I give my life for you!” Rayna turned around to see a dark-haired woman erupt into flame and vanish. Then Rayna looked at her hands and saw they were like that of an old woman; wrinkles and age spots covered her skin. And yet, Rayna felt no fear or distress. A sudden wind began to blow and Rayna found herself in a tempest. Another person—a young woman with purple eyes—was trying to tell her something but Rayna could not hear her for the storm. Nor did she care to hear. She let the wind carry her away into the dark oblivion…  

 


Chapter Two: Leave-taking

The bright day greeted Rayna with cheerful expectations. She felt like a new person and was determined to let that wonderful feeling last as long as possible. The savory scents she smelled in the air told her that Arstinax was already up, cooking breakfast outside. Rayna smiled. That was yet another benefit of being married to Arstinax. He was a Kuaran and Kuarans believed that hard work was the highest of virtues. He insisted on pampering Rayna, while he did most of the chores—including all the cooking. Rayna was secretly grateful, for she never progressed much in her own cooking skills, beyond the fine art of making toast. She rose from her cot, washed up and combed her tangled black hair. From a nearby trunk, she removed a tan traveling tunic and trousers, careful not to disturb her wedding gown, which she had placed neatly at the bottom the night before.

After donning some leather sandals—one of the many wedding gifts she received—she stepped just outside the tent’s entrance. The morning sun cast a warm glow on her golden brown skin and Rayna couldn’t help but smile. She looked to her right to see Arstinax a short distance away, cooking over a small flame. Rayna briefly closed her eyes wishing she could stay in that moment forever. It was hard to believe she was married. But she was, and to the most wonderful man in Taren. Arstinax had his back to Rayna and was unaware of her scrutiny. Drifting wisps of gray smoke carried more pungent smells of roasted vegetables and meat to Rayna’s nose, making her hungry.

Arstinax made living so far removed from her home bearable. Of course, “home” for Rayna never really existed. She was originally born in the late 20th century and lived with her mother in a quiet house on 1721 Nightwind Drive. One rainy night, as she was driving on a dark road, she lost control of her car and ran off the road. At some point—unknown to her at the time—her body was duplicated and transported one thousand years into the future. Taren was not actually a land, per se. It was an enormous outdoor experimental prison, denied all but the most primitive of technology. In fact, Taren was actually a secret acronym that stood for ‘Testing Area of Restricted Environmental Neo-prison’, or TAREN. And everyone in Taren, with the exception of herself, had been genetically “marked” to have pointed ears. She eventually found out the Geni were responsible for all of that, including her cloning and “time reassignment”. But why? Why her?

“There you are.”

Rayna turned to see Keris approaching the tent, Ciredor not far behind. “Jeez, you guys are so quiet, I didn’t hear you coming.”

A thin smile crossed Keris’s lips. “Speaking of quiet, last night for you was anything but.”

Rayna frowned, puzzled. “What are talking about?”

Keris looked amused and uncomfortable at the same time. “Rayna, it was you and Arstinax—but mostly you.”

“What about us?”  

 

“Must I blurt it out?” Keris lowered her voice to a whisper. “Your lovemaking last night. It was a bit...vocal. We could easily hear you from where we were and we’re five tents over.”

Rayna felt her face grow hot. She whispered back harshly to Keris, hoping no one else would hear, “You heard us?”

“Most of the camp heard you. You should have exercised a bit more discretion. We are in a large encampment located on flat plains. Sound travels easily here. It is fortunate we are not in enemy territory. Everyone is talking about you and last night. Consider yourself forewarned.”

“But—”

“Ah, the newlyweds!” King Ciredor greeted, laughing as he approached the tent. “I heard an odd rumor that Keris and I too are newlyweds but it would seem you two have um...stolen the show.” He shot a quick glance at Keris who nodded. He seemed satisfied with that response and continued. “We didn’t want to interrupt but something has happened back at the prison tent that requires your attention.”

At this point, Arstinax had finished cooking breakfast and joined them. “Did I miss anything?” he asked.

“Not at all. We were just asking your wife if she would help us with a prisoner scheduled for execution.”

“Execution?” Rayna repeated, her embarrassment giving way to alarm. “You want me to help you execute someone?”

“No, nothing like that. Our men are perfectly capable of carrying out death sentences to our enemies. Even Red Robes—especially Red Robes.”

“So the prisoner you speak of is a Red Robe?” Arstinax asked. His voice took on a rare tone of anger.

Rayna grimaced with empathy for her husband. The Red Robes served the false king Nephredom before he mysteriously disappeared. They were responsible for tearing out one of Arstinax’s eyes. She would always hate the Red Robes for that. That, and the fact they once tried to kill her by setting her on fire. They called it Psi-pyrics—the ability to mentally cause things to ignite into flame. A mage skilled in Psi-pyrics could manipulate fire the way a potter molded clay. The Red Robes were masters of Psi-pyrics, as well as several other Psi-magics.

“As you know,” Ciredor said, “we had taken quite a few Red Robes prisoners from our battle at Argat. They are all destined for death. Of course, they will, in due time, be given a trial as required by East Taren law. But I tell you, no Tarener judge—East or West, in any tribunal would grant mercy to those devils. They were the eyes, ears, and claws of Nephredom; may his soul rot for eternity—wherever he is. I assure you, the Red Robes will all die for their many crimes.”

Arstinax nodded, seemingly content with the King’s words. Rayna knew her husband was not a violent man, nor did he take pleasure in the condemnation of others. But the Red Robes were different. As much as Rayna hated to admit it, they deserved to die.

“So what of this Red Robe?” Arstinax asked. “What does he want with my wife?”

“It’s a ‘she’, actually. According to the East Taren Code of Law, she is allowed to confess her guilt before trial, so that she may plead leniency before the court.” Ciredor scoffed, his distaste for Red Robes unabashed and apparent. “Little good it will do her,  

 

but it is within her right. The problem is, most criminals choose to confess their crime to their legal advocate, a priest or perhaps a family member. In this woman’s case she insisted that her confession be heard by the Power Irel.”

“Lovely,” Rayna quipped.

“I can tell her that you refuse and that she must choose another.”

“No, no. If she really wants to come clean then I’m willing to hear it. Where I’m from, there’s a saying that goes: ‘confession is good for the soul.’”

“Humph, perhaps it is for most, but the souls of Red Robes are so heavily stained with innocent blood, I doubt if anything could help.”

Rayna turned to Arstinax. “What do you think?”

The big warrior shrugged. “I would not deny someone final confession, even if it’s a Red Robe. I say let the woman speak her peace and let the Heavens give final judgment.”

Rayna nodded. Arstinax seemed to have wisdom far beyond his years, something she appreciated about him from the start. “Alright,” she said. “First, let’s have breakfast, then let’s go hear that confession.”

The prison tent was on the far end of the encampment. As they made their way there, Rayna had to endure scandalous glances from several blushing women, who peered from their tents as Rayna, Ciredor, and the rest of the party made their way through. Some of the men in the camp would occasionally give Arstinax a sly wink of approval when they thought Rayna wasn’t looking. She caught bits of hushed gossip on the edge of her hearing:

“My goodness, after a night like that, I wonder if she has any voice left!”

“...perhaps Powers feel things more strongly than everyone else—you know—pleasure, pain, and that sort of thing...”

“I wish my husband could make me sing in bed like that, the worthless oaf. All he’s good for is eating and sleeping.”

“Well, I’m not sure it’s decent, howling like that in the dead of night.”

“What a commotion!”

“But she is a Power. Who are we to judge a Power?”

Rayna groaned. “Just kill me now,” she muttered under her breath.

She allowed the gossiping murmurs to fade into the background and forced herself to study her surroundings as a distraction. Black and white speckled chickens pecked frantically at the packed dirt near her feet; they clucked and bobbed their heads as the party passed by. A farmer pulled a listless Tuli cow by a rope, leading it to the grasser outskirts of the encampment. A small boy was standing in a puddle of mud, crying for his mother before a young woman wearing a blue domestic scarf swooped him up from behind, admonishing him with a wagging finger for straying too far away. A makeshift fence had been hastily constructed to contain a flock of sheep and several young goats. One of the goats had escaped and was charging about, terrorizing the elderly and children before being caught by a yelling herder and put back behind the rickety enclosure. Rayna couldn’t help but wonder how Ciredor and Keris planned to get all of these people and animals hundreds of miles east of here. Just thinking about the logistics was enough to give her a headache.  

 

“We’re here,” Ciredor announced as they approached a large, nondescript tent. High Commander Orin and a dozen stern-faced guards stood at the entrance. Heavily guarded due to the dangerous nature of the prisoners inside, Rayna surmised. “The tents adjacent to this one are also prison tents but this one holds the Red Robe in question,” the King said.

Orin presented Ciredor with a stiff half-bow, which was usually given by a military subordinate to a commanding officer, rather than from a subject to a king. It reaffirmed in Rayna’s mind that these warriors considered themselves men of the battlefield above all else. But unlike Ciredor—who was naturally vibrant and charismatic—Orin didn’t strike Rayna as the military type, or any high-ranking leader type for that matter. Ciredor carried himself like a born leader, whose confidence and skillful rhetoric inspired the trust of those around him. Orin, in contrast, was physically frail, glum, and timid around most people except Ciredor. He seldom spoke much and did not like to make eye contact. All of those things, along with his soft-spoken nature made Rayna forget he was one of the most powerful people in all of Taren. Orin was unique among other Psi-clairvoyants, in that he could clearly and consistently see events in the future before they happened. And a man with the power to see the future could help change it. That made him invaluable to Ciredor and his chief counsel and advisor, and that alone placed him as the third in succession of monarchical rank, after the Queen and the King.

“Your Majesties, Rayna of Nightwind, Arstinax of Kuara,” Orin stated, turning his attention to the broader audience before him.”

“You knew we were coming to see the prisoner?” Ciredor asked Orin before breaking out in a grin. “But of course you did. I forget who I am talking to.”

The edges of Orin’s thin mouth tensed and twitched but stopped just short of a smile. However, his steel-gray eyes did seem to glimmer with a hint of gaiety. “The prisoner awaits us inside, my King,” Orin replied formally, as he always did.

“Very good,” Ciredor said, his humor suddenly fading at the prospect of dealing with a Red Robe so early in the morning. “Let’s let the woman have her say, so everyone can move on to more important matters. I’m sure Rayna and her new husband have better things to do than waste time in the presence of war criminals.”

“They certainly did last night,” Keris muttered under her breath with obvious mirth.

“I heard that,” Rayna shot back. She felt mortified and angry at the same time—Keris was never going to let her live that down. And the day had started on such a good note! She shot a cutting glance at Arstinax, who had wisely remained quiet. It was all his fault, Rayna thought. Men!

“This way,” Orin said, ushering them all inside the prison tent, either blind or indifferent to Rayna and Keris’s exchange of verbal innuendo.

The tent was gloomy inside, but like all the other tents in the camp, the open entrance served as a large window, allowing enough sunlight inside to see reasonably well. Rayna couldn’t help but feel some pity for the Red Robes kept here. The only time light entered the tent was when the front entrance flap was pulled back—and that likely only occurred during inspections and feedings. Two or three times a day for a few minutes a day, that was all. The rest of the time they probably languished in near-darkness. Still, Rayna felt guilty for thinking about the Red Robes in a merciful light.  

 

They were the murderous minions to a madman. They were butchers whose Red Robes were said to hide the blood of their countless victims. They deserved no pity.

From where she stood, Rayna could see there were eight small cells crammed in the tent—four on opposite sides with enough space in the middle to serve as a functional aisle. In each cell sat one prisoner. Well, ‘cell’ was a bit of a euphemism; they were actually black iron cages, barely tall enough for a person to stand without stooping and barely deep enough to lie down without having to bend one’s legs. The bars to the cages were unusually thick—about the girth of a man’s arm. They were, no doubt, custom-made to resist Psi-pyric and Psi-kinetic attacks.

“She is in the last cell to the left,” Orin said, leading the way. The party followed Orin to the rear of the tent. As Rayna slowly passed by the cages of the Red Robes, she noticed some were stripped down to their undergarments, while others wore dirty, mismatched rags, unfit for a scarecrow. The prisoners looked pale and gaunt, like animated corpses behind bars. Most huddled close to the floor, knees drawn close to their chests, head cast downward in shame. Rayna turned away from the sorry sight. The Red Robes were a far cry from the intimidating menace they once were. One of the Red Robes was standing with his trembling hands pressing against the bars of his cage. With a crazed stare, he watched the party with obsessive curiosity. “Eyes!” he whispered harshly as Rayna passed. “The eyes! They are everywhere—and inside of me!”

“Some of the Red Robes are quite mad,” Ciredor explained to Rayna and Arstinax. “It would seem severing the mental link with the Collective exacted a costly toll.”

Rayna remembered. During her battle with Aric, she destroyed the psionic network the Red Robes had linked into. Without the psionic connection, the Red Robes lost their ability to think as one—and more importantly—fight as one. Their augmented power vanished and they were found wandering around aimlessly, like lost sheep when Ciredor’s forces found them.

“Here we are,” Orin said, gesturing at the last cage to the left.

Inside was a woman, about thirty-four years of age, standing tall and defiant. Unlike the other Red Robes, she was still dressed as a Red Robe. At least she wasn’t wearing the dreadful hood Red Robes were notorious for. Her skin was a healthy and glowing bronze color, a striking contrast to her pallid counterparts. Her hair was long and dark like Rayna’s, but unlike Rayna’s flowing curly hair, this woman’s locks were straight and limp. Her eyes were dark brown and they looked at Rayna with a keen perception—ignoring everyone else.

Ciredor turned to Orin with an uncharacteristic scowl. “You allowed her to continue wearing the robes of death?”

Orin bowed his head and kept it bowed as he spoke, “She refuses to wear anything else, my King. We even tried force-dressing her but she simply sheds the garments and discards them through the cell bars. In the end, I deemed it would be inappropriate for her to appear before Your Majesties unclothed. So she was given her old clothing to wear.”

“I see,” the King grumbled. “If I had known this prisoner was so difficult, I would have denied her request on that premise alone.” Ciredor turned an irritated eye to the prisoner. “Perhaps I still may. What do you have to say for yourself, woman? Why do you insist on wearing the uniform that condemns you to death?”  

 

The woman shrugged, her dark eyes reluctantly leaving Rayna to settle on the King. “I was imprisoned and everything I had of value was either stolen or burned to the ground,” she replied in a husky voice. “These robes are mine—they are the only things I have left and I will not part with them...unless you wish me to appear before you naked.”

“You will speak with respect when addressing the King!” Orin said. The harsh-spoken words startled Rayna; it was the first time she heard him raise his voice.

King Ciredor gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “It does not matter. I believe I’ve heard enough. This impetuous woman apparently still thinks the crimson robe she wears gives her authority. Her arrogance says as much. We will see how arrogant she is when final judgment is passed on her in a few days.” Ciredor turned away from the woman to face the others. “Let us be done with this place. We’ve wasted enough time.” The Queen and Arstinax nodded in agreement and turned to leave.

“Wait!” the woman’s throaty voice called out. “By right of Jerelian law, I am allowed to confess my guilt to the Power Irel. If you refuse me, you are no better than the dictator Nephredom you claim to oppose.”

Ciredor jerked his head back to the woman, his detestation of the Red Robe quite apparent from the raw fury in his eyes. Before he could say anything, Rayna intervened.

“I’ll hear what she has to say. I came all this way; I might as well hear her out.”

The dark haired woman nodded and smiled.

“But before you start, I have one question: were you one of the five Red Robes at the Condemning that tore out my husband’s eye?”

The jailed woman paused for what seemed to Rayna like a suspiciously long time for such a simple question. Then the woman spoke, “I don’t know. I have many holes in my memory. Some things I did as a Red Robe is as vivid in my mind as the day I committed them. Other things…I only remember in blurred pieces.”

“You are a liar,” Ciredor rebutted. “You surely know of the atrocities you and your ilk committed in Nephredom’s name.”

The woman smirked. “I didn’t know you were a Psi-telepath and could read minds, my King.”

“I won’t be your king for much longer. The grave will be your king in a few days. Your death is imminent.”

“Everyone’s death is imminent. For some, it is just more imminent than others.”

The woman returned her attention to Rayna. “In all honesty, Irel, an eye is a trivial thing compared to the many things I did as a Red Robe.”

Rayna tried hard to swallow her contempt. “Trivial for you maybe, but not for me.” She looked up at her husband, noting the square patch of brown leather where his right eye once was. Arstinax sensed her rising emotions and placed his hand gently on her shoulder.

“It is in the past, my love, and the past is forever gone. Let this person speak her peace so we may leave.”

Rayna nodded. “What is your name?” she asked the woman.

“Adara. At least that is what I believe it to be. I’d been inside the heads of so many others, I nearly lost who I am.”  

 

“A monster is who you are,” Queen Keris said, unable to hold her silence any longer.

“As a Red Robe, I took an oath to protect all peaceful citizens going about their lawful business.”

Keris let out a bitter laugh. “Well, you certainly made a spectacular mess of that oath, didn’t you?”

Adara turned away, her eyes searching inward in reflection. “We had no way of knowing we were being used as pawns of evil. We did not know the manner of our true roles…until it was too late.”

“You will find more pity from the ground beneath my feet than you will from me,” Keris said, before growing quiet again.

“What is your confession?” Rayna demanded. “I was brought here because I was told you wanted to confess your guilt and plead for leniency. You don’t sound very remorseful to me.”

Adara chuckled under her breath. “I did not request your presence so that I could grovel for mercy.”

“Then why did you ask me to come here?”

“I heard you plan to travel beyond the Band, into Outer Taren.”

“You heard right. What about it?”

“I wish to accompany you.”

“This is outrageous!” Ciredor exclaimed with an incredulous laugh. “What manner of fool do you take us for?”

“If I wanted to escape, surely I would not ask to join a mission considered by most to be suicidal. While I do not know the full nature of the quest, I do know it will be extremely dangerous. It is likely my death will come on swift wings either way. Only the location will change.”

“Then why do you want to come with us, if you know the odds of our survival is so slim?” Rayna asked.

“Redemption, Irel. Redemption. If I can help you complete your quest before I die, then perhaps the dark stains upon my spirit will lighten, though I know they can never completely fade away.”

“But enough to gain your miserable soul access into the Heavens?” Keris said. “I doubt it.”

“The Heavens will do what it will. I wish to do this for my own peace.”

“How can I trust you?” Rayna questioned. Despite her distaste for what the woman represented, something about Adara intrigued her.

Adara walked closer until her face nearly touched the bars of her prison. “Red Robes are known for many things but disloyalty is not one of them. I swear myself to your side.”

“I don’t need a puppy following me around just because you think I’m some great and important Power. I have enough zealots seeking me out as it is.” Rayna winced as the words came tumbling out. She was never very good at filtering her speech.

A dark gleam crossed Adara’s eyes as she gave her reply, “I’m not a zealot, nor am I anyone’s puppy. I was never a believer in Powers—exiled or otherwise—until I bore witness to your abilities firsthand, when you separated us from the Mind-Link. I offer my services to you as a skilled Psi-pyric.”  

 

Having said that, Adara raised her hands in presentation. Tiny flickers of flame weaved in between her fingers like wild, fiery threads, moving to and fro.

Several guards burst into the tent; apparently they were trained to sense when Psi-magic was being used. Ciredor waved them back. “This is nothing we cannot handle ourselves,” he said. “Go back outside.” The guards did as they were told.

“As you can see,” Adara went on, “I can summon the fire easily. I would give you a proper demonstration but the guards tend to frown on such things.”

The sight of flaming fingers conjured vivid recollections in Rayna of her near-death at the hands of Psi-pyric Red Robes. The thought of having one in her party was not appealing. Rayna started to speak, “I’m sorry but I don’t think I need—”

“I give my life for you.”

“What did you say?” The words triggered memories from last night, from a dream she had. She realized the dark-haired woman from her dreams and Adara were the same person. For both had uttered the same haunting words: ‘I give my life for you.’

Rayna knew at that instant, the woman spoke the truth and the dream she had was no coincidence. Since she arrived in Taren, Rayna discovered a burgeoning power inside her. At first, the power took on a purely defensive form—warning her of danger, shielding her from harm. Later she found she could summon more destructive forces. And recently, at random times, she could read thoughts, or have premonitions in the form of dreams. According to legend, they were manifestations of the Wild Magic Chaotic. It was supposed to be a more potent but unstable version of the Twelve Schools of Psi-Magic. But in spite of everything she had seen and done, she still wasn’t completely comfortable with anything with the word ‘magic’ in its name. Still, she trusted her instincts.

“Alright, you can come with me beyond the Band,” Rayna said, seemingly shocking everyone except Orin, who maintained a neutral face.

“But the woman is a war criminal!” Keris protested.

“Not where I’m going she’s not. I suppose I could use a fire specialist like her and if she really wants a shot at redemption, I can’t think of a better way to do it.”

“Thank you, Irel of the Band,” Adara said, bowing her head in deference. “I swear I will serve you well.”

Ciredor looked dismayed by Rayna’s decision but offered to help. “Since I will be going with you part of the way to receive the Zuran governor’s gift of soldiers,” Ciredor began, “I can guarantee this woman will not escape up to that point. However, after that, I must head to Zuran and you will presumably be traveling further north toward the Band. She may try to flee then.”

“I understand,” Rayna said. She looked at Adara, once more remembering her recent dream. “But I don’t think Adara is trying to deceive me. I can’t explain it logically—I just know. I think she really wants to help and I’m willing to give her that chance.”

“Far be it for me to question the insight of a master mage of your caliber, but I recommend caution with the Red Robe. Never turn your back to her.”

Keris said, “In the time I’ve known you, what seemed to me to be poor judgment on your part, ultimately proved to be a wise and necessary decision. If you truly believe the Red Robe can help you in your quest to save Taren, so be it.”

“So be it,” Ciredor repeated. “We shall turn her over to your custody.”  

 

“I will make arrangements for her release and provide her with some basic provisions for the journey,” Orin said with a flat voice.

Rayna paused in consideration. Here she was, swaying the opinions of kings and queens. To them, she was not just Rayna Powell. Nor was she to them—as Rayna saw herself—simply a petite, nerdy girl from the suburbs with a knack for science and a bigger knack for putting her foot in her mouth. No, to them she was also Irel of the Band: the last best hope for Taren’s long term survival and future of humanity. For all their sakes, Rayna hoped she would live up to such grand expectations.

“I came to see if your claim to depart from Taren was but a cunning lie,” Rasmak called out from the crowd that had gathered to see Rayna and her small party off.

A silent row of stone-faced guards stood between Rayna and the crowd, creating a transparent Psi-kinetic barrier that prevented anyone in the crowd from out-stepping their boundaries.

“But here you stand, provisions packed and with a small army escort as well. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the day has finally come that this land will be rid of the blight that is Irel of the Band!”

“And a lovely good morning to you too,” Rayna quipped, her dry humor belying nervous tension at having to face such a large crowd. Her response drew laughs from some people in the crowd but Rasmak wore his scowling frown like a badge of honor.

Rayna, Arstinax, and Adara waited patiently for the King. Well Rayna wasn’t exactly patient but she was doing a fairly good job at hiding it so far. Arstinax had his arms folded in front of him as he calmly surveyed the crowd. Rayna suspected he was keeping an eye out for dissenters or crazies who may try to attack Rayna—either out of malice or fanatical devotion. This was in spite of the fact the crowd seemed well behaved, and the guards—with their shimmering mind-shield—appeared to have everything under control. But that was how Arstinax was; he was always trying to protect her, even though on paper she was the most powerful mage in Taren. On paper. In truth, Rayna was still a novice in the ways of Psi-magic. Rayna looked over at the newly freed Adara. She too looked calm; she was covered in a burlap poncho to hide her Red Robes underneath. Her head was covered with a crude straw hat, painted black; it looked as if it was woven in great haste, as stray strands of straw poked out from several directions. However, its wide, low-set brim did a good job obscuring Adara’s face, which Rayna thought was a very good thing. If the crowd were to find out what Adara was, there’ll be hell to pay, Rayna thought.

Then Ciredor arrived to address the crowd; Keris was by his side. They stopped almost directly in from of Rayna and the King began to speak in a loud voice that carried on the wind like a trumpet blast:

“We stand on the eve of our great offensive! In a few days we will arrive in Jerel. We will reclaim the palace there and prepare for battle against the Beasts, who will very likely arrive soon after we do.”

A few anxious murmurs rippled through the crowd as Ciredor continued, “But fear not! We are not sheep and we will not yield to any monstrosity from the Lake of Lamec! We will fight the Beasts and we will defeat them. By the Heavens, we will drive them back to the ruins from which they came! We have many warriors to battle the Beasts—

 

some of them are in this very crowd. And I shall personally travel to Zuran to secure even more men…”

A handful of members in the crowd began to boo at the mention of the West Taren province. Ciredor cut them off with a bellowing rebuke. “I see the wounds of past prejudices run deep but now that Keris and I rule Taren, healing must happen! There is no East Taren or West Taren anymore—only Taren! And only as a united Taren can we conquer the Beasts and restore peace. You are probably standing beside a West Tarener right now. They are our brothers and sisters and we will embrace them!”

The crowd began to applaud and cheer as Ciredor went on, “And while we battle here against the Beasts, the one known to us as Irel of the Band will go on a special journey outside of Taren to help ensure the future prosperity of our land. That is all I can say for now.”

Ciredor told Rayna earlier the details of what she was going to do beyond Taren would be kept secret from the general public, lest it incite panic.

“Some of you may take Irel’s departure as a good sign while others among you may be saddened to know she is leaving. But with the favor of the Heavens, I pray Irel will return to us in good speed, for I am among those who believe Irel is for Taren’s good and not its ruin.” He cast a cautionary glance at Rasmak before concluding, “So onward to Jerel, and may the Heavens shine down upon us all!”

“Onward to Jerel!” the crowd echoed in celebratory accordance.

Rayna noted it was no coincidence the King made so many references to the Heavens in his speech. While he was in exile in the holy city of Soren, he was appointed high priest. It was not a position he wanted—indeed it was Nephredom’s way of insulting the Soren monks by forcefully appointing a man of war to rule over a place of peace. But Ciredor proved to be an able ruling priest and earned the respect and admiration of the monks there. Perhaps it was because Ciredor saw the reassignment as a way to change his life for the better and finally let peace into his heart. Ciredor once said that even as a young warrior he had always believed in the Heavens and Rayna had no doubt his faith had grown considerably stronger since then.

Now he was a warrior once more—a warrior king at that. But was his speech merely rhetoric to burn the blood and stir the soul into action? Or was it really...a prayer?

Rayna wasn’t particularly religious but she secretly hoped it was a prayer. They would need all the help they could get in the upcoming days.

Rayna hugged Keris goodbye as a semi-dispersed crowd looked on. “Heavenspeed in shutting down the sky machines, Rayna of Nightwind,” Keris whispered in her ear as she held Rayna close.

“Nobody wants to get to the bottom of this more than I do,” Rayna whispered back.

“When and if you meet with the citizens of Outer Taren, try to send word of your progress back to me at once. I will need to know if my quill is to sign a treaty, or a declaration of war.”

“You're thinking this might turn into a full scale war involving Taren and Outer Taren?”

“It might, if you are unable to shut down the power source of the machines on your own—or unable to convince the people of Outer Taren to do so.”  

 

Rayna shook her head in amused disbelief. “I should have known you would have a back-up plan.”

“We send you as our greatest ambassador, to see if these people can be reasoned with, if they still live.”

“In that case, I hope the whole place is a ghost town and all I have to do is turn the satellites off. My diplomatic skills suck.”

“If I understand the context of your words, that may be true, but war sucks far worse. So I pray for your success.” Keris’s voice took on a lighter, more personal tone. “How do you feel Rayna?”

Rayna shrugged. “Fine, I guess. I’m a little nervous though.”

“Take heart in knowing that I would not have agreed to let you go if I thought you could not handle the danger beyond the Band. You have proven to be most resourceful at times.”

“Thanks, but actually I was nervous because of the crowd.”

Keris laughed. “Being near a large crowd makes you nervous but going on a quest with a Red Robe into a land of unspeakable horrors does not?”

Rayna laughed back. “Hey, I’m trying to stay focused here, and thinking about ‘unspeakable horrors’ doesn’t help.”

“Sorry, my friend. Please be careful. Taren needs you back. We need you back.”

Rayna nodded solemnly and hugged Keris tightly once more before joining Ciredor, Arstinax, and Adara, who were waiting for her a short distance away. So this is it, Rayna thought to herself. She looked back one more time at Keris and the remnant crowd that stayed to see her off. A year ago, 1721 Nightwind Drive was her home; now Taren was her home. It was also her husband’s home and home to her few friends. Her mother was never truly her mother, so Taren was where she belonged. Somehow, she had to finish her mission and safely return home. Home to Taren. With that thought in mind, she set off with the others toward the north.

Orin saw Rayna and others leave and muttered a short poem he composed himself a month ago:

Irel of the Band, will leave this land, to travel to a world so forlorn.

Red Robe and Priest shall be her guide, and two who were never born.

With armor of light, her bannermen she’ll incite, both in future and in past.

Black to gray, her fate draws near and the Power’s time won’t long last...

“What is that you're saying?”

Orin turned to see Rasmak approaching in a hurry, the side straps of his worn sandals buckling from the stress. The frayed state of his dark robes made it difficult to see where Rasmak’s long beard ended and cloth began. “It is unbecoming for an attendant to the Queen to be talking to himself like a mad fool. Or were you singing a song? I approve of a good song every now and then. It warms the heart for battle.”

Orin’s face hardened but remained difficult to read, “It was a poem I wrote,” he said.

“A poem? Ah yes, I know who you are now. You are Orin of Dosk, the Second to the King and appointed commander of the royal army. The poet turned warrior. And you have the Sight, I understand.”  

 

“I am Psi-clairvoyant, yes.”

“Well, we’ll have little need for poetry where we are going, boy. What do your men think about following you into battle?”

“My men will follow me unto death itself.”

“Humph. I heard the speech the King gave before he left but I’ve heard nothing from you.”

“I don’t give speeches. In the end, there is only life or death. Light or darkness. A speech would not change that.”

“And yet you have time to babble poetry to yourself?”

“If you have something specific to say, you should say it now.”

“Just know this, Orin. I am one of the Twelve and I was sent here to protect and serve the Queen. The old ways are at an end. A new time has come.”

“If by that ‘new time’, you mean you, then perhaps new robes would be in order...and a new shave.”

“You dare mock me, poet? I am a Power and was divinely chosen to give Taren victory in the war against the Beasts! It should be I who lead the army into glorious battle. And, I do not trust men of flowery words and soft voices, so understand this: If you are not man enough to protect the Queen, you should step aside for someone who is!”

Rasmak stormed off in self-righteous offense. Unperturbed, Orin arched a brow, scratched his bald head, and began looking for the Queen.

As Queen Keris watched Rayna and the King fade into the distance, the guards dispersed the few remaining stragglers, leaving her in peaceful solitude. She inhaled deeply. The morning air was fresh and invigorating as it rushed inside her nostrils and filled her lungs. It gave her cautious hope. Despite the circumstances, Keris looked forward to returning home. She had not been in Jerel since she was framed for her brother’s murder, over two years ago. Now that she was vindicated, had a new husband and a sizable army at her command, she was ready. The throne of Jerel was her birthright and she intended to claim it.

Her thoughts fell to Quan, her foster brother. Jerel was going to be a very dangerous place in the upcoming days; she would have preferred the boy be sent to the city of Soren with the monks there, for his safety. But Quan was a stubborn and rebellious child. He hated Soren and if she sent him there, he would simply run away. The only way she could be sure he was properly looked after—other than keeping him under lock and key—was to take him to Jerel with her.

She suddenly became aware of a presence behind her. She turned to see Orin staring at her; clearly unnerved, she shuddered. “I thought I was the master of stealth,” Keris said, “how long were you there watching me?”

“Not long.” Orin’s voice was as soft as a whispering wind. “I wanted to thank you for trusting me.”

Keris clenched her teeth. “I do not like deceiving my husband. Why did you insist on us keeping him ignorant of what you saw?”

“As I told you, he would not listen. He would have insisted on going with us anyway. I have seen it many times.”  

 

“How can you be so certain? You said yourself that your visions are only shadows of what could be and not what will be.”

“That is true, but the closer we arrive to the event in question, the clearer and more accurate my visions become. As I told you before, if Ciredor returns to Jerel too soon, he will die.”

“And a few days delay will make a difference?”

“Yes. That is why I asked you to help me convince him to travel to Zuran. That will delay his arrival in Jerel long enough to prevent his death.”

“Death by whom? Is it someone we know—or will it be in battle?”

“I...cannot say. What I can say is that King Ciredor will most certainly die if he returns to Jerel with us at this time.”

“And when he gets to Zuran and finds that there is no offer of men, what do you think he will do then? My husband may have been a priest but he was a warrior first—a man of considerable honor. He despises lies and deception.” Keris’s eyes welled with tears. “It is only because I don’t want to lose him to death—not now. I can’t…”

“I will take full responsibility for this, my Queen. I am his Second.”

Keris looked at Orin, bright anger flashing in her eyes. “And I am his wife!” With that, she stormed off, leaving Orin alone.

Orin found himself staring at the sky, as if trying to glean a revelation from the Heavens. It was ironic, given that Orin had future-sight. He did not need to seek out a revelation; the revelations came to him. In merciless, unrelenting regularity, they came. It was the incredible burden of knowing what was going to happen before it came to pass. Now, the false paths had all but fallen away and only the true future remained. He had not told the Queen everything, of course. There was so much she didn’t know. He dared not tell the Queen of Rayna’s fate. If he did, the Queen would refuse to let Rayna leave. But Rayna of Nightwind had to go—it was her destiny. It was Rayna’s fate to travel beyond the Band...and it would be there that she would die.

 


Chapter Three: Aric’s Revenge

“I used to be beautiful”, Aric said to no one in particular, despite having the company of a narrow-shouldered man named Monif. They sat together in the darkness of night, in the woods in front of a modest campfire. Tall trees and their branches cast distorted shadows in the flickering firelight, like long, black fingers clawing the ground in a perpetually rhythmic dance. Only the sound of an occasional cricket chirp and the crackling wood of the fire broke the still silence of the woods. Aric looked in a hand mirror, holding its decorative handle in one hand while gingerly fingering the horribly burned skin that covered most of her face with the other. The pain she felt touching the raw, red blotted flesh was the only thing that dwarfed her anger. The constant pain. Revolted at what she saw, she threw the mirror into the fire, where waiting flames eagerly began to devour it.

Her stolen horse stood a few yards away, busy chewing at grass by its feet. The sight of the creature made her recall the weeks leading up to her arrival in those dark woods. King Nephredom sent her to lay an ambush in a backwater hamlet called Argat. She remembered looking forward to the fiery death and carnage she would unleash on the unsuspecting people there. She had come face to face there with the most powerful master mage she had ever known. Rayna of Nightwind. Aric muttered the name like a curse under her breath, “Rayna of Nightwind.” She thought the rumors of Rayna being the reincarnation of the Power Irel to be foolish talk. But now, having fought and lost to her, Aric was not so sure.

She turned to the man named Monif and said through clenched teeth, “She may have forced my retreat but I swear I will have my revenge. If I had been better prepared I would have beaten her—the power of the Lake Stone flows through me!” She went back to ignoring the man, who himself seemed lost in a detached daze, eyes staring off into nothing. The many sounds of night gave reprieve to the silence, crickets hummed in the near distance, somewhere a frog croaked a nocturnal song. But the sound Aric was listening for was absent. Her thoughts turned to another source of displeasure—Princess Keris. A twisted smile spread across her face. Keris was an immediate concern. Both of them had wanted the same thing: To sit upon the Jerelian throne. Keris was the rightful heir but Aric had plans to usurp that power.

The man named Monif stirred briefly and leaned forward to warm his hands by the fire. Aric turned her attention to him, displeased. “I did not give you permission to move, pawn!” she hissed and psychically tightened her grip on his will—on his very soul. She spoke to him telepathically.

‘I will decide what you do and when. You will do nothing without my permission. Nothing! I will not make the same mistake with you as I did with the Red Robes. You will be linked to none but me!

Monif stiffened and fell away from the fire, as if pushed. He said nothing in reply. Aric had met Monif shortly after she fled from Rayna of Nightwind and others. He was a passing traveler and saw that she and her horse were tired and hungry. He shared his

 

food and offered to be her guide to Jerel. She needed no guide but agreed because it gave her an opportunity to claw her way into his weak mind and control him as a slave. He served her in that manner ever since, though she could feel him ever resisting her. She grew weary of this mental battle and she hoped tonight would be the last she would have to put up with her “guide”.

The sound of snapping twigs interrupted Aric’s thoughts; she looked up to see a large heavily scaled reptilian creature with the head of lizard and immense wings like those of a bat. It stood and walked as a man but was taller and far more dangerous than any human. Aric’s heart quickened. The Beasts had come at last. More such creatures filed loosely behind the first one as if acknowledging some kind of hierarchy. The Beast that stood closest to her must be the highest ranking among them, she thought. The leader.

“I am Kirabo”, the leader said, his voice so gravelly his words were scarcely recognizable. “At least that was my human name before the great gift of the Lake Stone made us more than human.” Kirabo’s red pupils stared first at Monif, who ignored his gaze and continued to stare off at nothing. “A simpleton”, Kirabo muttered in conclusion and then turned his attention to Aric. “We know that you have been following us, human. Madness must have overtaken you, for no one pursues us—we are the hunters, not the prey!”

Aric tried her best to appear unfazed but apprehension gripped her. Her powers were still largely drained from her battle with Rayna of Nightwind and she doubted she had recovered enough to battle creatures such as this. Any miscalculation on her part would win her the prize of being torn asunder by the massive claws that protruded from Kirabo’s hands like black daggers. She forced a harsh laugh and smiled broadly despite the pain it caused her face. “Dear Kirabo, I was not stalking behind you like some loathsome brigand. I was seeking you out, requesting your audience.” She softened her tone for her next statement, careful to use her most seductive voice, “I have a proposal that will benefit us both.”

Kirabo’s scaled face twitched; he furrowed his massive brows and growled, “You, a scar-faced human woman with a skinny simpleton whose tongue does not work, have a proposal for me?”

Aric clapped her hands cheerfully. “I applaud you for a most astute assessment of my situation. I was once the most powerful woman in Taren and now—here I am—reduced to a single servant and having had my face marred by the East Taren Princess’s mage. I am here to ask you and your...men to help me avenge my dishonor.”

Something resembling a barking laugh came from Kirabo’s mouth. “You are bold, scar-faced one. You have nothing and you ask for everything.”

“I have knowledge, power and many—”

“You have nothing!”

“I can help you! I know of your plan to take Jerel, the capital city of East Taren. I can give you the layouts of the city and palace. I lived there for years with King Nephredom.”

The mention of that name got Kirabo’s attention. “Nephredom. What do you know of him?”  

 

“I know many things, Lord Kirabo. I know that he was the son of your dead king. His true name was Sunder II. I know that he is now also dead, after having gone mad trying to hold the Gate—the Gate that imprisoned you and your fellow Beasts for all those years.”

“Do not call us Beasts woman. A beast has no thoughts greater than his stomach and his mate. Despite our appearance, our minds have become more advanced than you can imagine. Another blessing of the Lake Stone”

“A slip of the tongue. My apologies.”

Kirabo paused in consideration. “What you say is interesting. I once served under the King when my flesh was human. I knew his son as a child. One day the boy was gone and the King would not speak a word of it. It was if the child never existed.”

Aric pressed on, confident she could sway the man-creature to her bidding. “Nephredom was secretly exiled because he had magic. I—”

The blow came so fast, Aric never saw the clawed hand hit her. She sprawled dazed on the ground by Kirabo’s feet, blood trickling from her swelling lips, her eyes watering from pain and fury.

Kirabo shook his gnarled head. “No one may accuse one of our own of being a filthy magic user. You are the magic user, not Sunder’s son. I can smell the foul taint of Psi-magics upon you.”

“I…I was merely trying to explain—”

“Enough! My patience has ended. You and your mute friend will pay for your impudence with your lives.”

Aric desperately tried to think of something to say that would appease the monsters that stood before her. She swallowed her loathing and kept her face neutral. “Would you kill the one who made your transformation possible?” she said casually, as if speaking to a friend over tea.

Kirabo’s face twisted in a contemptuous knot. “You go from one blasphemy to another, woman. You claim to be the maker of us?”

“It is no claim, Lord Kirabo, it is truth. I was there, years ago in Lamec. I touched the Lake Stone and made it come alive. I pierced its shell and released its great power into the air—the same power that transformed you and your people into…children of the Stone.”

Aric half-expected another blow, for it was no way to tell how these mercurial creatures would react to her words. But mere spoken words would have to do; she suspected they were immune to telepathic manipulation and in her magic-weakened condition she was not fool enough to test that theory.

Children of the Stone,” Kirabo echoed. In spite of the moonless night, the steady light from the campfire allowed Aric to see his pleased grin, full of sharp teeth glistening with green saliva. “A worthy title of what we have become.”

“Worthy indeed!” Aric replied. “The power of the Lake Stone changed you and started a glorious war in the process. A war started out of fear of you. Fear of your newfound might. Fear that humans would no longer be the predominate beings of this land.”

Aric played to Kirabo’s pride and it seemed to work. His crimson eyes stared at her in a new light, but a glint of suspicion remained. “If you touched the sacred Stone, then why are you still a fleshling and not a Child of the Stone yourself?”  

 

The truth was that Aric had managed to protect herself from the Stone’s mutating effects by creating a protective shield that filtered out the harmful, raw energies while allowing the rest of its power through. With it, she was able to restore her youth. However, the truth would not serve her purpose.

“I was unworthy,” she said. “I assume the stone only rewarded those who were native to the city. I was an outsider.

“But your actions were the catalyst for our transformation.”

“Yes, Lord Kirabo.” Aric held her breath, waiting.

“I believe you,” Kirabo said after a moment had passed. “In addition to your own magic, I can smell the Stone on your skin, in your bones—in your blood. It is very strong. You were there. I did not want to believe it was true but the scent does not lie. I will take you with us to see our king, Karnatham.”

Aric was pleased. Her plan had worked out better than she hoped. She was going to meet the leader of all the Beasts. If she could garner favor with the Beast king, she could well find herself with considerable power over what would be left of Jerel, once the Beasts had their way with the besieged city.

Kirabo pointed with a clawed finger at Aric’s companion Monif, who sat motionless during the conversation, staring off at the black sky. “What of the mute fool?”

Aric grinned, “An offering to you, Lord Kirabo. A simple token of my gratitude. You may do with him as you please.”

Kirabo nodded with hungry eyes. “His flesh will help fill some of our bellies before our journey. Your offering is accepted.”

Aric stepped aside allowing Kirabo to drag Monif toward him and his men. At the same time, she released her hold on Monif’s mind so he was fully aware of what was happening. But he had no time to resist or even scream, for one of the creatures clamped its mighty jaws around Monif’s throat, while others focused on devouring his limbs. With ferocious force, Kirabo tore into the victim’s torso as he took his share of the feast. Amid the savagery of the ensuring gore, Aric clapped and bowed to the red spectacle of death.

 

End of sample

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