Spear Gate — Chapter 10, Pt. 2

The mind cloud ascended the stairs, approaching another door near the top. Light peeked out a little through the cracks, far too dim to be direct sunlight. As Maelys had practiced, he unconsciously formed a structure of what might be on the other side. This technique had to be based in reality, and it wouldn’t work otherwise, even if a few details were wrong.

The cloud passed through the door again, and this time was met with a wider chamber lit by metal lanterns mounted on the wall. Throughout the room were about a dozen wooden tables, placed atop well-worn cobblestone. There were multiple doors on each side of the room, and the only defining feature of any of them was that the floor beneath the one he had entered from was slightly lowered from the rest of the ground; one had to step down to the door for the dungeons. Most of the walls were decorated with banners and weapons, portraits and crests. Near a few of the doors were also racks of standard issue blades. It seemed that this room was a gathering hall of some kind, too, because far off on the opposite side was a raised, concrete platform.

The room wasn’t empty, either. There were several soldiers, most wearing the uniform of the Upper Terrace guard, but a few wore civilian clothes. He also recognized the group of guards that had come to pay him and Varra a visit a few hours ago. They were chatting back and forth, but of course, Maelys’ mind projection was completely silent. What’s more, Rozire had explained that seeing people was an unreliable source of information. Apparently, they were nearly impossible to predict, so any words being said were useless. You couldn’t accurately predict a conversation you weren’t a part of, after all. The best intel the mind projection could give you was the general number of people within the vicinity, but beyond that there was no way to really know. Instead, he focused on more identifiable details as he floated. In, then out. In, then out.

He milled about the room, trying to discern which door might lead outside. The cobblestone was worn everywhere, impossible to tell which parts had the most foot traffic. The weapon racks were definitely positioned closer to specific doors than others, but was that because it was outside the living quarters or because it was the door to outside?

The mind projection technique was useful, but its imaginary world was based on logic. It built itself based on the guesses and knowledge of the user, so when that failed, its usefulness wavered. Beyond that, the mind cloud had a range limit. The further one strayed from the origin, the more difficult it was to make concrete predictions, though Rozire had never explained why that might be.

Maelys was just about to guess and pass through one of the clouds when something caught his attention. He sent his cloud out to it, and identified it as a litter. It seemed to have… char marks on the wood?

And then he remembered the Meadows. Drinking the Red Teeth and falling unconscious. Being found by the Maker himself. Aenias, carrying him on his back… only, it couldn’t have been Aenias, right? Maelys wasn’t dead. He remembered being surrounded by stone, and words being shouted, and he was holding Rozire’s staff.

And it had been aflame. Men were drawing weapons.

He had been lying on that litter when it had happened. Had he really used magic? That sounded insane.

He opened his eyes as his concentration was broken. He found himself in the position he had remembered being in in that whimsical memory, sitting upright with arms outstretched as he held the staff forward defensively. He carried no staff now, of course, and the memory faded like he had woken up from a terrible nightmare, breathing hard. In, then out. In, then out.

Spear Gate — Chapter Ten, Pt. 1

Time passed slowly in the cell. The two of them didn’t talk much. There was nothing to say, nothing to do. All that was left was waiting, or sleeping, in Varra’s case. She clearly hadn’t gotten enough of that lately, which was a problem Maelys couldn’t really sympathize with. Sleep was practically all he had done since he drank the vial of Red Teeth… how long ago was that? Two days? More? His condition had thrown off all sense of time, and being in a dungeon certainly didn’t help with that. There was absolutely nothing to do but wait. Wait for Eathe or Xan to return. Or wait for the guards to take him away, never to be seen or heard from again. Whichever came first.

Maelys knew, of course, that this line of thought would lead nowhere. Receiving death threats tended to lead one’s mind astray, so in order to curb the panic, he tried his hand at a thought technique Rozire had taught him so many months ago. It was one of his first lessons, actually: mind projection.

The first step was to sit in silence, back straight, with your thought wholly concentrated on your breath. It was basic meditation, really. In, then out. In, then out. Don’t worry about the past or the future, or even the present. Think only about breath. It had taken Maelys a week of practice just to get that part down.

But now there was so little to focus on. Apart from the looming terror of an imminent execution, he really had nothing going on. So with the help of previous experience and a peaceful environment, Maelys brought the focus of his entire being into his breath. In, then out. In, then out.

Time lost meaning after a while. Mind projection required a practiced, trance-like rhythm. Gathering enough focus seemed to take longer than it usually did. He was so out of practice, but his determination didn’t waver, and he kept his thoughts on his breath.

Then, he let his imagination roam.

As always, he imagined a small cloud, pulsating with his breathing. Expanding as he exhaled, compressing as he inhaled. Inside this cloud was a small eye, and Maelys used this imaginary eye to see the real world. Well, not the real world, of course. This technique was purely inventive, all playing out in one’s head. But as Rozire had taught him, imaginary exploration of the real world could teach you useful things about one’s surroundings and state of mind.

He sent his mind cloud out of the cell, passing through the bars and into the dark hallway. On one side—the side that Eathe and later the drunk guards had come from, had a warm light coming from around a corner nearby. He remembered seeing this light with his real eyes, but now it was brighter. He pressed forward as his cloud pulsated, moving towards that light. In, then out. In, then out.

When he rounded the corner, he saw the torch that hung neatly on the far wall. It made no sound, for Maelys had never grown adept enough with this technique to add auditory senses to his cloud. Apparently, Rozire could apply every sense to his mind projection except olfactory. He had promised that it was more due to experience than skill.

Some distance down this hall was a doorway. There were no openings, but it didn’t matter. The mind cloud wasn’t real, after all. He passed through it and came to a long, steep stairway.

He wondered what where this might lead. Into a barracks? Outside? Only one way to find out.

Spear Gate — Chapter 9, Pt. 3

A minute later, and four guards stumbled into view. They were laughing at each other and themselves as they all but tripped over their own feet. Maelys had no idea how drinking was regulated in the city, but this was clearly overstepping boundaries.

“Well, well, well,” one of the guards said. The only female among them. “Honored to serve, Exalted One.” She curtsied a little, but the effort of lowering herself disrupted her balance. She fell forward, grabbing one of the iron bars for support so she didn’t collapse all the way to the floor.

“Careful, Mills,” another chuckled, the only remotely sober one of the bunch. “You’ll lose your lunch if you go around bowing to everyone you see.”

“I’ll lose my lunch whenever I damn well pl—” in that moment, she choked up. Maelys shifted backwards, afraid she really was about to throw up, but the guard managed to hold it in.

“Why are you here?” Varra said, voice flat and unamused.

“Just thought we’d come to say hello,” she replied, having recovered from her potentially foul mishap. “And pay our respects to yet another Hand gone. Maybe someday we’ll have another someone like your mom. But it sure wasn’t you.”

Maelys watched the exchange, confused. What sort of relationship had she had with her subordinates for them to treat her like this in her circumstance?

“And we thought it’d be fun to give you a little news,” the shortest of the guards said. “Your friend here’s considered a liability. The Hand of Justice is going to have him executed tomorrow.”

A chill shot through his body at that. Executed. Tomorrow?

“Been awhile since we’ve had a public execution,” the sober one commented.

“Terrace has been altogether too boring lately. I’m glad to see a change of pace,” the girl said.

“What do you mean? There’s been tons of strange stuff happening lately.”

“That’s what I’m referring to you dolt. First the weird Constructor. Then the Spear Gate. Then Varra’s arrest. It’s all pretty exciting.”

“The way you phrased that it sounded like you found all that boring, and only the execution excited you.”

“Well what does it even matter? Damn, I thought I was the drunk one.”

Varra didn’t seem the least bit phased by the conversation. “I appreciate the information.”

“I’m sure you do,” she replied, grabbing the bars with two hands to get closer. There was a moment’s pause in the conversation as the levity among the four guards died down. Maelys was unsure as to what was happening as Varra and the drunk girl stared at each other.

Then, the girl spat at the former Hand of Defense. A lob of saliva landed on her chin. Varra flinched, but said nothing.

“That’s for my pa.” She tried to do it again, but this time the spit trickled out of her mouth and dripped down her own chin. She frowned, pushing a fist into her face to wipe her jaw.

“You good, Mills?” the short one asked, walking up to her.

“Don’t even think about touchin’ me,” she sneered. He backed off.

“We should go,” the sober guard said.

“Yeah, whatever. But don’t think this is over,” she snapped at Varra, who still hadn’t moved an inch.

The guards started shuffling out the way they had come, leaving the two of them alone once more. Maelys remained petrified and confused, having only witnessed what was really only an exchange between strangers. And of course, there was the big question.

How much longer did he have to live?

Spear Gate — Chapter Nine, Pt. 2

“So that’s what you were referring to in the courtyard earlier today,” Eathe said.

“Yes,” she nodded. “I had planned on telling you because you should know. But now we’re pressed for time, and as much as I would prefer the other two not hearing this, I think it’s better this way.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m not curious. How much is there to tell?”

“I’ll give you the short version. The first part is common knowledge: the Spear Gate has been around for all of recorded history. Even the most ancient texts in Tal’Doraken note it’s existence and the Constructors that guard it. The Hands believe that Aenias created both, for they are both of the same indestructible material. Terrace was built around that obelisk, but not as a city. At least, not at first. Terrace was originally a prison.

“The Spear Gate is not just an obelisk, as you now know. It’s a portal. You see the Gate is at the spot on the planet that is closest to Eranos. The sister-planet lies directly above it, and on the opposite side is another Spear Gate, and when the Gates open, the two connect. One can simply walk right through. One foot on Asamos. The next on Eranos. And vice-versa.

“In an age far gone, long before Tebrein claimed independence from the rest of the continent, records have stated that the Gates were always open. Thousands of alien beings from the sister-planet flooded through. Your ancestors, Xan. The Athaxi.”

The masked figure stomped its feet, head cocked to one side. They made no noise of protest at this, though.

Varra continued. “The Constructors halted their advance, but the flood was constant, and what’s more, the Athaxi seemed to have powers of some kind. Then, one day, everything stopped. The Spear Gates closed and the Constructors went silent. A fractured number of Athaxi remained here, stranded. Hundreds of years passed, and slowly the Constructors began to reawaken, even if the object that they guarded never did. And so, people flocked to Terrace. It’s location and circumstances were easy to defend after we found the secret to controlling the Constructors. Which brings us to today. Knowledge of what the Gate is has been kept hidden.

She paused, and her brow furrowed under the orange torchlight. “But things have been changing. Twenty years ago, when my mother was the Hand of Defense, the Spear Gate opened. A single person stepped through from Eranos, but he was no Athaxi. He called himself Rozire.”

Maelys’ jaw dropped at this. Rozire was from another planet?

“His purposes were unknown, and he was apprehended. But we found out that he had powers of his own, and one day he vanished without a trace. He didn’t go back to Eranos. The Gate did not open again.”

“You’re saying he’s still around?” Eathe asked. Maelys perked up at that. If Rozire was here, he could get everyone out of this situation. Everything would be fine.

But Varra shook her head. “I doubt it. The boy told me that he entered the Meadows with Rozire. He hasn’t been seen since, and—”

“He must be here, then,” Eathe interrupted. “How far could he have gotten?”

“Eathe, nobody has seen him, and we don’t really know what he can do. Magic isn’t of this world.”

“Well,” the former guard captain said. “What do you know of his magic, boy?”

Maelys reddened. “I’m hardly any younger than either of you. And I don’t know. He’s never used any magic around me.”

Varra made a confused sound. “Don’t lie to me, you used magic just after I found you. Rozire’s magic, in fact.”

“What are you talking about?” Maelys and Eathe said in unison.

“Your master’s staff? It has a runestone in it. The Athaxi used runes to manipulate the world around them. You used Rozire’s staff to summon flame.”

Maelys held his hands up. “That doesn’t sound familiar. He’s used his staff as a torch sometimes, but he’s always used flint.”

Varra grunted. “Boy, you don’t have anything to gain from lying to us, we’re in the same position as you!”

“I’m not lying!” Maelys yelled. “And stop calling me ‘boy’! This all sounds insane and I have nothing to contribute.”

He took a breath and looked away from the others.

“Rozire found me and took me away from a bad place. An island off the coast of Tebrein, near the Sanguine Archipelago, but independent. We spent several months together. He told me he was a cartographer and showed me how to make maps. He never said why we were going to Upper Terrace, and when we got here, we were attacked by a Constructor, and he vanished.”

In that instant, he felt a spark in his head. He had told Maelys. They were looking for his mother, a woman whom he had never known. Why in Upper Terrace, and what did Maelys have to do with any of this?

Voices came from down the hall. Everyone glanced at each other, and a tense moment passed. Eathe shrugged at Varra in a rare request for orders.

She leaned in close to him. “We’re done for now,” she whispered. “Come back sometime tomorrow. For now, hide in one of the further cells. They won’t check for any additional prisoners. And don’t make any sound. They’ve only heard me and Maelys talk.”

Eathe nodded and tugged at Xan’s robes as they pulled away. With a silent wave of dismissal, the two of them ventured further into the dungeon to avoid the approaching patrol.

Spear Gate — Chapter Nine, Pt. 1

Maelys’ entire body ached, sore and heavy. As he woke, he found himself still wrapped with an unshakable chill, but the chill was everywhere, now. Coming to consciousness, he realized he was lying on stone. Cold, hard stone that did little to ease the discomfort of the Red Teeth that still coursed through his body. He let out a strained groan as he sat up to lean against the rock. It wasn’t any more comfortable, but at least the pained muscles could relax a bit.

The room was dark. The slow, orange glow of a torchlight twisted around the stone walls and iron bars.

“Rise and shine,” a feminine voice said nearby. Maelys glanced towards it to see a woman staring back at him from the other side of the cell. It was hard to make out details in the darkness, but she seemed young. Her voice carried an air of authority with it, but it was contrasted by her posture. Her shoulders were slumped and her head was low.

Maelys frowned. “Where are we?”

“The dungeon under the barracks. It seems we’ve both fallen victim to crimes we didn’t commit.”

Something in the way she said that sparked some recognition. “We’ve met before haven’t we?”

The woman crossed her arms and looked away. “Yes. I’m the H—” she stopped herself with a sigh. “My name is Varra.”

Varra. Rozire had mentioned that name. It had seemed so long since his teacher was at his side, though, that he couldn’t remember anything beyond simple recognition. He coughed and felt a stain of wetness on his arm. Dizziness followed, and Maelys wavered a bit. He pushed against the ground to steady himself. “Maelys,” he said after a moment, more a confirmation for himself than an introduction to her.

He anticipated a response, but there was none. Varra seemed content that the conversation had finished, which suited him just fine. He didn’t have much strength, and talking seemed like a waste. The questions of what had happened and what was to come came to mind, but they seemed trivial. Unimportant when compared to the prospect of getting some rest.

But just as that thought came to him, he heard a dull rhythm. The loud clanking of footsteps echoing down the corridor. He opened his eyes again to look at Varra, and watched as her composure completely shifted. She remained seated, but her back straightened and she pulled her hair out of her face, head lifted to address whoever approached their cell.

Maelys was surprised to see two figures walk into view. The one that carried a torch was a tall young man wearing plated armor. He wore no helmet, and his hair was much lighter in color than what few people Maelys had met in Upper Terrace. The other figure was small and hunched. Even sitting on the ground as he was, their head wasn’t much higher up than Maelys’. What little skin their simple white robes exposed had a glossy texture, as if they were covered in sweat. This figure wore an intricate mask over their face, and overall there was no indication whatsoever of the person’s gender.

“Well, Exalted One,” the armored one said, a smile on his face as he looked at Maelys. “These are somewhat different circumstances than what I thought we would be having around this hour. Unless you expect me to believe these are your chambers.”

“I’m over here, you idiot,” Varra huffed, words peeking out from gritted teeth. “And it’s just Varra now.”

He looked to the other side of the cell to where she was, then back to Maelys. “Oh, my. You’ll have to forgive me, you two look… nevermind.” He walked a few paces towards Varra. His face grew more serious then. “Xan told me what happened.”

The hunched figure nodded vigorously, smashing it’s hands together. “Yes, yes. Xan saw the lady being dragged out of the palace towards the dungeon. Some time after the light faded, yes.” The voice sounded somewhat masculine to Maelys, but jumped up and down in pitch. He vaguely recalled seeing this figure in the infirmary, but had never heard this voice before.

“Thank you for fetching Eathe for me, Xan,” Varra said.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me how to do your job?” the guard asked. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I think we both know the other Hands are going to replace me as soon as possible.”

“Well, funny enough the conversation I wanted to have with you has only been made more necessary by recent circumstances. I have a plan.”

“Are we going to bust you out?” Eathe said, skepticism and worry coloring his tone.

Varra shook her head, trailing a hand through her hair. “No. At least, not yet. That will only get us killed. No, the four of us have some work to do. We’re all outcasts in one form or another, so we have to stick together. I can get us through this, but we’ll all need to work together as one.”

She beckoned everyone to come closer. They all did so with reluctance, but when she was insistent they all did as they were told. Maelys was far too lost to agree to anything just yet, but he had little choice.

“We’ll start with introductions,” she said, voice slightly louder than that of a whisper. “You all know me, but I’ll go first anyway. I’m Varra, former Hand of Defense of the city.”

The light-haired guard started to introduce himself, but Varra cut him off as she pointed in his direction. “That’s Eathe, former Guard Captain of Upper Terrace and de facto Hand of Defense. A capable tactician and a loyal friend. You’re going to be the one pulling all the strings for now.”

She addressed the masked figure next to Eathe. “Xan, Upper Terrace’s only Athaxi resident, and our only medical expert. Xan, you’re going to have to be our eyes while everything is going down. Nobody is going to think anything of you wandering the streets since you’ve been around longer than any of us. And since Maelys is here, you coming to the dungeon frequently isn’t going to arouse any suspicion.”

Xan stomped their feet on the ground, making soft thumps. Maelys had never heard of an ‘Athaxi’ before. Everything about this creature was strange.

Soon Varra pointed towards him. “And lastly, we have Maelys. A bundle of questions himself, but undoubtedly a big piece of the puzzle. He has some connection with Rozire and the Spear Gate, though how much remains to be seen. Maelys is the key to figuring out what’s really going on. Also, it goes without saying that none of this information leaves this room. And it especially doesn’t reach the ears of the other Hands.”

Eathe nodded. “That goes without saying. So what’s our first move?”

“It starts here,” Varra replied. “The Hands have arrested me for treason against Tebrein. I think it’s only fitting that I commit the crime that put me here. I’m going to tell you three everything the Hands know about the Spear Gate and our watchful sister-planet.”

Spear Gate — Chapter Six, Pt. 3

The Shadow began just as Varra reached the infirmary, where the boy was kept. The quicker she was the better.

“Exalted One!” a woman a measure older than herself greeted her as she entered. Her name was a mystery. “A pleasure, as always. What’s your business, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Varra slowed her step, but kept purpose in her gait. She didn’t have time for conversation. “Is Xan here?” she said, voice curt.

“I’m afraid not,” the lady replied. “He stepped out just a while ago to go fetch some supplies. He wasn’t more specific than that. You know how he is.”

“That’s fine. I won’t be too long, I’m just here to see the prisoner. If I don’t see you again on my way out, make sure to tell Xan I stopped by.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The infirmary wasn’t a large building. It was directly attached to the palace, though it had no connecting doorways on the inside. Really, it was an afterthought. Everyone in Upper Terrace could afford to have a doctor come to them. The infirmary was designed to be useful on a larger scale, expanding a wing of the palace into a sick bay in times of war, which had never been brought straight to the capital, for all Varra knew. This meant that the infirmary was a glorified storage facility for medical equipment. Few people were actually treated here.

As such, she had no trouble finding the boy, who had been left right where she had last seen him, except now he was kept in shackles, which chained him to the bed post behind him. He wasn’t quite lying on his back—a few pillows elevated him into something approaching a sitting position. He was no longer covered in so much blood. A change of clothes and a fresh bath had ensured that the moderate amount of blood on his chest and legs were recent, and that his condition hadn’t improved.

Varra approached him cautiously. Xan had assured her that the disease, which he had called Red Teeth, wasn’t contagious. Still, blood wasn’t the most sanitary thing to be around. Nor was it easy to clean.

“Boy,” she muttered, prodding his shoulder. “I have a few questions for you, most of which require your consciousness.”

He stirred, but didn’t open his eyes. He seemed to be muttering something, but it was too incoherent to make out. She prodded him again, and with a wet cough he became more lucid, eyes fluttering open. His eyes glazed over the surroundings, focusing slowly once they found Varra, and then widening. “M… mother…” he croaked.

The Hand of Defense frowned, taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“We’ve been… looking all over for you…”

“You must be mistaken,” she said, regaining her composure. “I’m no mother, and even if I was you’re far too old to be any child of mine.” As she thought about it, they were of very similar age. Within a few years, to be sure. But she didn’t want to tell him just how young she was. Too many people pointed that out often enough. “But you seem awake enough. Can you understand me?”

The boy started to say ‘yes’, but it turned into another cough, and Varra had to sidestep to avoid getting any blood on her.

“Very well. What’s your name?”

“…Maelys.”

“Good. You’re safe here. For now at least. You’re in Upper Terrace, if that clears anything up.”

He started coughing uncontrollably at that. Varra found a nearby pitcher of water and poured some into a small cup on the table next to him. She had to help him drink it, since his hands were bound, but he seemed grateful at the gesture. Beyond that, she needed him to think she was a friend.

“Did you come here alone?” she asked.

His eyes lost focus for a few moments before he shook his head.

“How many other people did you go into the Meadows with? Just one?”

He nodded.

“His name was Rozire, wasn’t it?”

Again, Maelys’ eyes grew wide. He nodded again. “…staff?”

“I have the staff, don’t worry.”

At that moment, she became aware of a low, deep humming sound. Far lower than the horn blaring of a constructor. It even sounded like it was coming from beneath the ground. The humming grew louder and louder, until the very walls seemed to resonate with the tone.

“Wha…?” the boy sounded.

Varra didn’t bother with any explanation, or even any words of departure. She left the boy, racing back through the building as quickly as she could. Her mother had told her about that sound. It was something she remembered vividly, even though she had heard it only once nearly two decades prior.

It was the sound of her nightmares coming to life.

Spear Gate — Chapter Five, Pt. 3

Cold. Intense, unshakable cold. Everything felt like it was freezing, but Maelys didn’t even have the strength to curl up. He had been spending all he had trying to breathe. Why was breathing suddenly so hard?

He could barely even keep his eyes open, and his vision swam. Rozire was there, then he wasn’t. In his place was the mirage of trees and leaves, flowing like a river in the sky as he lie there in the grass.

He faded in and out. Time passed, and the forest grew quiet. Only the breeze kept him company. Breathing was still nearly impossible, and if anything, it was getting more difficult. He had to do something, but what?

Eventually, Rozire returned. He knelt down and inspected Maelys, but didn’t seem keen on being near him. The figure left, and he started to wonder if it was really Rozire that had come back for him. Perhaps it was some forest spirit, or maybe Aenias himself, here to guide him out of the realm of the living.

His suspicions were confirmed when the figure pulled him to his feet. Maelys could not stand on his own, but Aenias was understandably strong and didn’t seem to struggle with his weight very much. It did, however, seem strange that God only had two arms. Where were the other three? And shouldn’t Aenias have the power to restore Maelys’ strength so he could walk on his own?

It was hard to hold on to consciousness, but Maelys doubted he needed to be awake for his final journey. Perhaps he could regain some strength leaning on The Maker itself while they traversed through the trees.

The next thing he knew, Aenias was speaking. Maelys had expected a soft, regal voice. Something eloquent and benign. Instead, the voice was loud and demanding. Aenias was still holding Maelys up, though at this point he might as well have been a corpse. Perhaps he was, in a way.

He tried to focus on his surroundings. The forest was no more. Instead, they were surrounded by stone walls in every direction. The buildings were larger than anything he had ever seen before, and they were so close together. Tales told of the Maker’s Palace of Stone deep inside the planet. He had never thought to see it with his own eyes, bleary as they still were.

It was unfair how he was still in so much pain. It was freezing, and breathing was still difficult. It was as if something was caught in his throat. Wasn’t all suffering supposed to cease when you died?

Maelys tried to speak, to beg the Maker to ease his pain, but the words strung together into a wet cough.

More figures approached the two of them, and Aenias all but pushed Maelys off towards them. Without the strength to stand, he fell, but hands caught him and he was laid down onto the floor. Then, the very ground beneath him lifted and he was moving again. What awesome power The Maker had to command the earth itself. Just like the thing he and Rozire had been running from.

A jolt of panic. Rozire.

Maelys shot upright and looked around. Few people milled about the streets as dawn approached. All the ones he could see wore armor, and many were staring back at him. Closest to him was a young woman, whose worried expression became alert and guarded as she took a step away from him. They pulled their swords out as he realized he was holding a staff. He had always been holding it, he realized. Rozire’s staff. And it was engulfed in flame.

The litter he had been lying in came crashing back down to the ground as the soldiers carrying him dropped it to defend themselves. He felt a dull pain as he was dropped, and with a sharp inhale, his body convulsed and he coughed. Blood. Blood everywhere.

The cold, dark void returned as the adrenaline faded as quickly as it had come.