Leaning against the double doors of the grand meeting hall, Amala stared into the ether, her teeth bared and her gaze fierce.
“Entitled little brat,” she spat. “Stupid, stupid little…”
Standing tall, the seething elf took a deep breath and let it out slowly before forcing a smile to her lips.
“There, there, Amala,” she said, “no reason to let the little bastard get under your skin.” Then, she spun around and began walking forth. “He asked for meadowfawn milk, and meadowfawn milk he shall get.”
Walking on, her eyes forward and her gaze fierce once more, the silver-haired elf’s gait remained unbroken till she stood within the doorway of the Tower Kitchen, and as she came to a halt, she cast her gaze about her. As her gaze fell upon the little girl seated at one of the tables within, her back to the door, Amala frowned.
“Naeve?” she said.
Naeve spun about, her mouth filled with toasted loaf and scrambled quail eggs.
“What’re you doing here so early?”
“Habin bwekfst, whtstheth luk lack?”
“What?” Amala replied, her frown deepening.
Waving a hand, Naeve spun about, picked up her mug and, swallowing her meal, took a deep swig of her mug before facing Amala once more.
“Having breakfast, what does it look like?” she repeated before licking off the creamy line above her lips.
Rolling her eyes, Amala turned to one of the mages there, one of many whose lips were parted by a wide grin.
“Do we have any meadowfawn milk?” she asked as she wandered near Naeve’s table.
“What’s wrong with ordinary milk?” Naeve asked, a frown upon her lips.
“Yes, well, I don’t want ordinary milk,” Amala replied, her gaze still upon the mage she’d accosted, “I want meadowfawn milk.”
“But that stuff’s expensive. Really expensive.”
“I know it’s expensive, Naeve,” Amala said, through gritted teeth, “but I need some. Now.”
“Never figured you to be pining for silly expensive stuff like that,” Naeve muttered before raising her mug once more.
Slamming a hand upon the table, Amala spun to face Naeve as a fierce smile parted her lips.
“If you must know,” Amala seethed, “the milk is for our latest delegate, a charming, charming old bastard and his equally charming little bastard son. The son is the one whining for the blasted milk, and simply won’t shut up about it, and now his delightful father is threatening to leave here and go tell all his bastard friends how lacking in hospitality the Shimmering Tower is. So, please, Naeve, not now, alright? I just want some blasted meadowfawn milk before I rip somebody’s throat open! Alright?”
“But we don’t have any,” the mage muttered.
“What do you mean we don’t…” Amala thundered before falling silent as she fought to bring her rage to heel.
“Why do they want it so badly?” Naeve asked.
“Why else?” Naeve sighed. “They’ve heard how wonderful it is and wish to try it.”
“So…they don’t know how it really tastes?”
Stopping, Amala stared hard at Naeve for a spell, then clasped hold of the little girl’s shoulder, her eyes bright.
“Naeve, darling, sometimes you’re an utter genius!”
“Don’t push your luck,” Amala replied before turning to the mage once more.
“Add some whisperwood nectar to some simple milk, please. And whatever else you think humans will find delicious.”
“Of course.” The mage smiled, then hurried off to do as Amala had asked.
Crumpling into the seat beside Naeve, Amala sighed as she rested an elbow upon the table and her head upon her hand. But then, as her gaze returned to the little girl, she rose her head once more, her frown returned .
“Why are you here this early?” she asked. “Your mother finally found you a tutor?”
Naeve shook her head as she scooped some of her eggs into her mouth. “Couldn’t sleep.”
“You?” Amala smiled.
Naeve turned to hold the silver-haired woman in a pointed stare before returning to her meal.
With her smile widening, Amala gently ran her hand through the little girl’s hair. “So, why couldn’t you sleep, then?”
Little Naeve’s face fell at this, her shoulders sagging as she bowed her head slightly, and as Amala watched the little girl’s demeanour change, her frown deepened, and rubbing the little girl’s back, she drew nearer her.
“Naeve, what is it?” she said
Little Naeve turned to her, but said nothing.
“What is it?” Amala pressed. “You can speak to me.”
Naeve stared in silence for a spell longer, a deep frown upon her lips, but soon sighed.
“I went to see Mistress Fellspire yesterday,” she muttered.
Amala nodded. “Yes, you said.”
“Yeah,” Naeve muttered. “Finally found her in her room, and when I went to apologise, she…she told me to get out, that she had no need of my useless apologies.”
Slowly, Amala sat tall.
“She did, did she?” the silver-haired woman said, and though her tone was calm, her gaze was anything but.
Nodding, Naeve returned her gaze to her meal.
“Your milk, Mistress Amala,” the mage who’d taken Amala’s order said as he returned and placed a tray before Amala.
“Ah,” Amala said, her gaze darting from Naeve to the jug and cups within the tray before turning to the mage. “Thank you.”
Bowing in response, the mage turned and returned to his duties.
Turning the the little girl, Amala stared in silence for a spell before leaning forward and placing a hand upon Naeve’s shoulder.
“When I’m done with these two, I’ll come find you, alright?” she said. “We’ll speak then.”
Naeve nodded in silence.
“Where will you be? The Gardens?”
“Very well.” Amala nodded, then picked up the tray and, staring at Naeve once more, the silver-haired woman turned and hurried out.
Making her way through the Tower, the enchanted torches fastened to the walls lighting her way, Amala yawned and stretched as she went. Never had she been as grateful as she was then to be heading to her quarters. But, even as her feet led her to her quarters, her heart pulled her elsewhere, for though every fibre of her being pleaded for rest, she knew in her heart that to sleep now would be folly. She had not fed all day, and, as she walked, she could feel the faint draw of her thirst. It was a draw that would only get stronger, and going to sleep without feeding was inviting calamity.
But then again, her bed was all she could think of. Perhaps she could gain a few moment’s rest, then feed before dawn. After all, the thirst wasn’t that bad, perhaps she could…
“Oh, shut up woman,” she sighed as she came to a halt, a deep frown upon her lips. “You feed tonight. You don’t have a choice.”
Sighing once more, Amala pouted as she stared at nothing in particular.
“I suppose I could make do with something small,” she soon muttered. “Doubt I have much strength for anything else.”
Pouting once more, the silver-haired woman set forth once again, but with a different destination in mind, and a gait far slower than before. That was, till the sound of laughter and raised voices reached her ears. Pausing once more, the silver-haired woman turned to the direction of the voices.
“Fellspire…” she growled, her mind recalling the words she’d shared in the morning with her dear little friend, and with her gaze fierce and her steps now hastened, Naeve marched towards the voices and did not slow once, not even when the object of her rage came into view.
“Mistress Fellspire,” she barked as her gaze fell upon the group of mages gathered in the distance. “I must speak with you.”
“Ah, Mistress Amala,” the elven scholar said, her tone even. “Forgive me, but I’m in the midst of–”
“Now,” Amala interjected as she reached the group. “This instant.”
“Forgive us, Mistress Amala,” one of the gathered spoke up, “but we’re in the midst of–”
“I’m speaking with Mistress Fellspire, not you!” Amala snapped. “Stay out of this!”
A charged silence fell upon the group as they all stared at each other, then at Amala, then lastly at Fellspire.
Through it all, the elven scholar kept her gaze upon Amala, a faint smirk upon her lips. Then, as the silence grew, the woman stood tall and sighed.
“Very well,” she said. “If we must speak, then–”
“Leave us!” Amala barked, turning to the other mages. “Now!”
The other mages turned to the elven scholar once more, but soon, one by one, they left.
“Well?” the tutor said, turning to Amala square as a faint sneer twisted her lips. “What is it?”
“What did you say to that child?” Amala demanded as she turned to the woman.
Mistress Fellspire’s smirk returned. “I should’ve known you’d–”
“What sort of decrepit animal are you, woman?” Amala interjected, words that wiped the smirk off the elven scholar’s face.
“How dare you–”
“She came to you to apologise! To mend what’s broken between the two of you, and you throw her out? Woman, are you a child or are you an Archmage?”
With her eyes ablaze and her entire face reddening with each passing moment, the elven scholar took a step forth.
“You have no hold over me, Amala, and I am sick and tired–”
“I have the Matriarch’s leave to keep order in her Tower as I see fit, and that give me every right to–”
“Her Tower? It’s our bloody Tower!”
“With the way you treat remorseful children, you’d be grateful to have a tent!”
“Have a care, Amala, have a care.”
“Have a care nothing,” Amala sneered, waving the woman’s words away. “The next time that little girl apologies to you, I expect you to–”
“One day,” the scholar growled, “one day, I’m going to show you for the fraud that you are, Amala! One day!”
“Oh, gods.” Amala rolled her eyes at the woman. “Do you truly have nothing better to do than to dabble in rumours?”
“Laugh at me all you want, but I will expose you,” Mistress Fellspire continued. “Whatever you have done to our Matriarch to blind her to you petty tyranny, I shall undo.”
“Oh, for the love of–”
“Laugh! Go ahead, laugh! Insults and teases, that’s what you do best. Yes, I threw that little girl out, but not because she apologised, on that one you are mistaken. No, I threw her out because I am sick of your games.”
“You think I don’t see how you mock me? You think I don’t see how you conspire with that sweet little child to destroy me? Well, you have earned my wrath, Amala, and I will expose you, I swear it!”
Amala stared at the seething woman before her with look of utter bemusement.
“What in the world are you blathering about?” she said.
“You deny it!”
“Ha! So you do deny it?”
“Woman, whatever nonsense this is, stop it, it’s making you look the fool. I have no interest in destroying you. Not that I need to, you’re doing a fine job of that right now…”
“How dare you–”
“…and as for this madness that I’m a fraud, spare me, please. I am an Archmage, just like you, a child of the–”
“I don’t believe that for a moment!”
“So go read my Tower Record, then, you little moron. Or have you forgotten how to read?”
Fellspire sneered. “That pack of lies?”
“Lies?” Amala chuckled. “Oh dear gods, you have been listening to the rumours, haven’t, you poor thing. Tell me…uhm…just how precisely am I supposed to have gotten these lies into a Tower Record? You know, those things in the Library that not even the Matriarch can alter without the express blessing of a Record Keeper? Oh, and do make it an intriguing tale, I so love intriguing tales!”
The scholar stared at Amala with a face so flush Amala felt sure the woman’s heart was sure to burst. Then, the woman’s smirk returned.
“Would you like to know what my friends and I were discussing?”
“I don’t care, woman.”
“Oh, truly lucky.” Fellspire nodded. “In four days, we shall begin an expedition to every single place named in your Record, and we shall prove once and for all that every word within is false.”
The scholar’s words called forth an icy ball within the pits of Amala’s core, one that numbed her more and more with each passing moment. But even as her numbness grew, the silver-haired woman forced a smile to her lips.
“Are you truly telling me you wish to scrutinise my past?” she said. “Well, I didn’t think there was any truth to the rumours of the Matriarch considering me for Magister, but if you’re going to go through all that trouble–”
“Oh, you think this is funny, do you?”
“Just a little.”
“Well, then, you’ll find this last part truly hilarious,” Fellspire said, taking a step closer.
“Do tell,” Amala replied, widening her smile.
“We aren’t just looking for witnesses to confirm you were where your Record said you were, in fact, we know we will find some. But, you and I both know people can be bribed, memories can be altered. So we’re going to look for these people, and we’re going to find out why they chose to confirm your presence.”
Amala could hold her smile no longer.
“Oh!” Fellspire gasped. “Did you not find that hilarious?”
“You mean to tell me you intend to run around the world Compelling people at random.”
The scholar chuckled at this. “Please. You can only Compel someone to reveal a lie they knowingly told. If their memory has been altered, Compelling them yields nothing. No, we have other means of dredging up the past.” Then, the woman sneered. “Enjoy your freedom while it lasts, woman.”
With those words, the seething scholar barged past Amala and stormed off. Amala watched her in silence, her eyes narrowed to slits. She had never truly like the Fellspire woman, the woman’s arrogance was beyond compare. But this…this made her less of a nuisance and more of a threat.
“I’m going to have to do something about you, woman,” Amala muttered, her gaze as dark as the blackest night. “Aren’t I?”
Staring at the receding mage for a spell longer, Amala turned at last and headed deeper into the Tower. Her spat with the scholar had reminded her of a promise she was yet to keep.
Mumbling, Naeve rolled over on her back, then stared at the door. Perhaps she was mistaken. Perhaps it was a dream.
Then the knock came again.
“Naeve, are you awake?” came a soft voice from the door.
“Amala?” Naeve replied as she sat up.
In response, the door swung open slowly as a contrite Amala stepped in.
“Where were you?” Naeve spat. “I waited for an eternity!”
“I know, my little darling,” Amala said as she closed the door behind her before making her way towards the bed,” I know. But it was a truly long day, and I only just finished.”
Naeve frowned at this. “What, just now?”
“Mhm.” Amala nodded as she sat on Naeve’s bed.
Shaking her head, Naeve sighed. “Mother’s working you too bloody hard. Again.”
Smiling, Amala ran a hand through Naeve’s hair. “Does that mean I’m forgiven.”
“This time…” Naeve replied. “But don’t push your luck.”
Chuckling, Amala nodded. “Duly noted.”
“So,” Naeve said, shuffling closer to her friend as a smile danced on her lips, “the two from this morning. Where did you bury their bodies, then?”
“Ha!” Amala grinned. “Believe me, I came close. So, so close.”
“Oh, I believe you.” Naeve grinned. “I don’t remember the last time you swore so much.”
Amala frowned. “I swore?”
“Mhm.” Naeve nodded.
“What did I say?”
“Uhm…” Naeve frowned. “I think you said bloody.”
“No I didn’t!”
“I think you did. Pretty sure you did.”
“I did not say bloody!”
“You did too say bloody!”
“I never say bloody!”
“Well, you’ve said it twice now so…”
Amala moved to speak, but fell silent and instead glared at the little girl with a smug smile upon her lips.
Naeve chuckled in response, and though Amala fought hard to keep her glare, it wasn’t long before she too chuckled along with her little friend.
“So,” Amala said after a spell, “how do you feel?”
“Hrm?” Naeve frowned.
“Meh.” Naeve shrugged. “I’ve had a chance to think and…well…some people just enjoy being bitter.”
“That is true.” Amala sighed.
“Exactly!” Naeve replied. “I’ve done my duty, I’ve apologised to her. If she chooses to act like some silly little cow, then…”
The little girl shrugged once more as a sad smile parted her lips. Amala stared at her little friend in silence for a spell.
“May I speak freely?” she asked at last.
Little Naeve cast a slow sideways glance at her friend. “Since when did you need anyone’s permission to speak freely?”
Smiling once more, Amala clasped hold of her little friend’s hand and held it in both of hers.
“I remember a time when something like what Fellspire did would’ve had you in a fit of rage and pain for days….”
“Amala…” Naeve growled.
“…but now, look at you…”
“Look how far you grown.”
“That’s it!” Naeve cried as she pulled her hand free. “If you’re going to get all weepy, leave! Go! I mean it!”
Amala smiled at her little friend.
“No more weepys,” Amala said at last.
Nodding, Amala bit back her smile and rose. “But I’d best get going. Is there anything you need?”
“Well…” Naeve began as she rose to her knees and clasped one of Amala’s hands in hers. “Now that you mentioned it, there is one thing.”
“Can I read a story?”
“What, at his hour?” Amala cried.
“Gods no! It’s ages past your bed time!”
“No, young woman! You’re lucky I even bothered to come over at all!”
“But you owe me, though!”
“Like hells I do!”
“But I won’t tell!” Naeve pleaded as she pulled on Amala’s hand.
Amala stood in silence for a spell, staring deep into Naeve’s pleading eyes. Every part of her knew precisely what would happened should she relent. Her little charge would wake up as an irritable nightmare, barking and snapping at all and sundry for much of the day. She knew in her heart she dare not acquiesce, but the more she stared into little Naeve’s eyes, the more her resolve waned, till at last, sighing, she sat back upon the bed.
“Why your father taught you the sympathy eyes thing, I will never know,” she muttered as she reached into her pocket.
Giggling, Naeve shuffled forward and placed her head upon Amala’s lap.
“Naeve, you’re getting too old for his head-in-my-lap thing. You do realise that, don’t you?”
“No.” Was Naeve’s simple reply.
Shaking her head, Amala cleared her throat and called forth the tome.
“So,” she said. “What would you like to read today?”
“Uhm…” Naeve began. “Do you have any stories about pets?”
“Hm.” Naeve nodded. “The really awesome ones. You know, night mares, wyverns, basilisks… those ones.”
“Yeah! But the awesome ones.”
“Awesome familiars…hrm…” Amala said as she turned the pages. “Ah, here we are.”
“Hm, Tirin,” Naeve muttered, but before she began to read, she clasped hold of Amala’s hand once more and placed it upon her head.
“Naeve…” Amala sighed.
“I’m not too old!”
“Very well,” Amala sighed once more, and as she began to run her fingers through Naeve’s hair, the little girl sighed, nestled in her friend’s lap and began to read.
Staring out of the window of her carriage, the young maiden sighed as she watched the trees fly past.
“Would you stop that?” a voice within the carriage growled. “You’re not being imprisoned, this is for your own good.”
Rolling her eyes, the young woman turned and glared at the elderly mage beside her.
“My own good?” she spat. “My own bloody good? How in the hells is sending me to some gods-forsaken monastery on the arse-end of the world my bloody good?”
“Would you rather be dead?” the mage across from her muttered, a slight sneer upon his lips.
“No,” the maiden shot back, “but I wager you bloody do!”
“You cannot begin to imagine,” the mage growled.
“That’s enough, Ducal!” the elderly mage barked, then turned to the young woman.
“Nyah, listen to me,” he said.
Young Nyah rolled her eyes in response and turned to the window.
“We’re doing this for your own good,” the elderly mage continued. “Whether you believe that or not, that changes nothing. You staying in the Tower, in your condition … you won’t live to see your child born.”
Biting her lip, young Nyah lowered her gaze as she gently rubbed her stomach.
“And, this is what Caius wants,” the elderly mage added. “It truly is.”
“What Caius wants…” Nyah growled. “That cowardly little shite just wants to hide, that’s what he wants to do. He’s the one in charge, isn’t he? Why does he fear that cow?”
“He deosn’t fear her,” the elderly mage said, his patience clearly strained. “There are rules even he must follow, laws he must obey. He cannot simply cast her aside without good reason, and Liriane has become especially good at hiding her hand.”
Nyah glared at the elderly mage as a deep sneer twisted her lips.
“A bunch of babies, is what you all are,” she said at last. “What you need is a woman’s hand in all this. You just leave me alone with her, and I’ll sort this whole affair out before you realise.”
“You?” Ducal cried as he chuckled. “That woman has led armies and crushed undead hordes, what have you done?”
Nyah turned to the mage, but no words came.
Ducal’s sneer returned. “About the hardest thing you’ve ever done is putting your ankles behind your ears and keeping them there.”
The slap that followed echoed about the carriage, stunning all within, Ducal most of all.
“She dared because you said what you shuoldn’t!” the elderly mage thundered. “Now, shut up!”
The younger mage sneered at the woman before him, but held his peace.
“As for you,” the elderly mage continued as he rounded on Nyah, “I care not one whit what you think of us. We’re here on our Patriarch’s orders, and by the gods we will do our duty! But understand, woman, that we swore to protect Caius’s heir. Do you hear me? We’re here to protect you if, and only if, you bear a girl. So, unless you have some power to see into your womb, I suggest you shut your mouth, close your eyes and pray to whatever god you worship that they grant you a daughter. Otherwise…well, after what you did at the Tower, you’re sure to have that quiet moment with Liriane should you birth a boy.”
Fighting back her tears, Nyah glared at the elderly mage with all she had, till at last, unable to keep the tears at bay, she turned and stared out the window once more as a heavy silence fell upon the carriage.
As the carriage rumbled past the simple gates of the monastery, the elderly mage sat tall as he stared out of the window, his eyes darting every which way till his gaze fell upon the familiar faces coming to meet the carriage.
“We’re here,” he said.
“We noticed,” Ducal growled, a response that earned him a withering glare.
Before long, the carriage came to a halt and the elderly mage stepped out, and though his smile was warm, the faint amber glow about him was unmistakable.
“About time you showed up,” said one of those nearing the carriage.
“Nice to see you too, Kaern,” the mage said as he turned to the grinning mage heading towards him, behind whom walked four others.
“When did you get here?” he added.
“Last week,” the mage replied, reaching the carriage.
“Where are the others?”
“They’re patrolling the compound. I sent Turik to the abbot though, to smooth feathers. The old man was quite offended when we insisted on being the only ones to greet you.”
“Ha!” The elderly mage chuckled. “Trust you to take every precaution and more.”
The mage that was Kaern bowed slightly. “I learned from the best.”
“Hardly.” The elderly mage grinned, but as he turned to face the carriage, Kaern stepped forth.
“There is one thing,” she said.
“Oh?” The elderly mage frowned.
“There is…one here we must be wary of.”
The elderly mage’s frown deepened. “Explain.”
“Well,” Kaern began, then sighed. “It’s best you see for yourself.”
The elderly mage stared hard at the mage before him.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Matthis. You must see this for yourself. You won’t believe me otherwise.”
“Very well,” Matthis said at last as he turned to face Kaern square. “Have someone show Nyah to her quarters. Ducal shall bring in her belongings. And as for you, take me to the abbot, but point this person to me should we pass them.”
“Her,” Kaern corrected. “And worry not, you’ll see her. She’s bound to be by the old man’s side. Calls her his personal servant, but she’s more a pet.”
Kaern grinned. “You’ll see. This way.”
“What is she called?”
“Jade,” Kaern replied, then led her leader into the monastery.
Sitting within the gardens, the Matriarch Liriane Earthchild stared on as her boys ran about playing in the sun, a smile upon her lips as she watched them with a warmth only a mother could have. As she watched them enact battles of ages past, the happy Matriarch lifted her cup in her hand to her lips. But then the sound of footsteps reached her ears, and turning, she watched as one of her personal attendants made his way towards her. At his sight, the Matriarch slowly sat tall as she placed the cup upon the saucer on the table beside her. Then, the Matriarch returned her gaze to her sons, but her smile was now replaced by a tight frown.
“Matriarch,” her attendant said as he reached her, bowing as he spoke.
“Daxin,” the Matriarch muttered.
“I brought you some more tea, Matriarch,” the attendant continued, offering the pot in his hand. “Shall I refill your cup, or shall I leave the pot upon the table?”
“Refill my cup,” the Matriarch said.
“Of course, Matriarch,” Daxin replied and bowed once more. Then, he darted to the side, bent forward and began slowly refilling the Matriarch’s cup.
“We’ve found them,” the attendant whispered, his gaze upon the cup. “Your husband is learning, Princess, but we found them. They’re–”
“I don’t care where they are,” Liriane snarled. “Can you reach her?”
“Not at the moment,” Daxin replied.
“What do you mean, not at the moment?” the Matriarch hissed.
“Her people are alert. They refuse to allow anyone they do not recognise anywhere near her.”
“Then find people there! Turn someone! I don’t care who or how much!”
Daxin smiled. “She has yet to give birth, Princess, we have time on our side. Give us till the birth. It’ll give my people time to ingratiate themselves with the locals, perhaps even, like you say, find and turn someone.”
Turning to her attendant, the Matriarch moved to speak, but instead gritted her teeth.
“Very well,” she said at last, turning to her boys once more.
“Do not worry, Princess. When the time comes, my people will be ready to strike.”
“See that they are.”
Nodding, Daxin stopped pouring the tea and bowed.
“I want this one dead, Daxin,” the Matriarch muttered as her attendant made to leave, “even if she births a boy. Am I clear?”
Daxin smiled once more. “Princess, killing her when there is no need may cost–”
“The little bitch slapped me,” Liriane snarled. “In front of the whole Tower. Such an insult must be answered.”
“Ah,” Daxin said as he bowed once more. “Of course.”
Then, spinning on his heels, the smiling attendant left his princess be. As for Liriane, her smile had returned, and with a sigh, she lifted her cup and sipped on her tea once more.
Rolling to her side, Nyah stared into the ether as a tired sigh escaped her lips. It had been three weeks since their arrival, and yet her nights were still filled with the endless tossing and turning of the restless.
Sighing once more, the young elf rose and sat upright before rubbing a hand across her face. Perhaps she should ask for more tea? But as soon as the thought formed, young Nyah dismissed it. Were she to drink any more tea, her bladder would burst.
“Then, what?” She sighed. “I need some bloody sleep.”
Turning, she stared out of her open window at the night’s sun, its rays basking her room in it’s silvery glow. It was enough to bring a smile to Nyah’s lips.
“A walk is what you need, girl,” Nyah soon said, swinging her legs off her bed and rising as she spoke. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Grabbing her shawl, the elven woman stepped out into the moonlight, a chill breeze sending a shiver racing up her spine. Wrapping herself warm, the expectant elf set forth, and with no destination in mind, Nyah let her feet take her where she wished, meandering through the monastery grounds as sleep continued to evade her.
Before long, the house of the abbot came into view, and as she stared at it, Nyah slowed. It wasn’t so much the house that slowed her steps, rather memories of what lay within its compound, for beside the abbot’s house lay a pond, modest in size, but filled with some of the most beautiful fish Nyah had ever seen. Merely sitting beside the pond seemed to bring her peace, the one thing she craved more than sleep. Except, the last time she went, the abbot had been most upset with her for dipping her hand in the pond and trying to catch the fish. Regardless of how many times she explained how she intended to put any she caught back, the old man had thrown her out. It was an error in judgement that had earned her a tongue-lashing from Kaern, and she could certainly do without another.
But the fish were magnificent.
Standing still, Nyah bit her lip as she weighed a tongue-lashing against a pond viewing, her eagerness to avoid the former battling against her desire for the latter, till at last, shrugging, the set forth once more.
“If I don’t touch them, Kaern can’t say anything,” she said, and marched towards the abbot’s house.
As she neared the house, Nyah slowed, The last thing she needed was to be caught before she reached her prize, and so, with the greatest of care, the young elf made her way about the house, darting from shadow to shadow as best she could, a wide grin upon he lips as her heart beat loudly in her ears
But then, as she darted past an open window, movement caught her eye and brought her to a halt. She knew not why she stopped, for she was deep in shadow, and anyone staring from the window wouldn’t see her easily. But stop she did, and as a deep frown parted her lips, Nyah stared through the open window, unsure of what she was seeing.
It was a woman, human, her bare shoulders and bosom plain for Nyah to see. She was upon a bed, lying on her back, and as Nyah stared, she watched as the woman jerked forward and back upon the bed in sharp rhythms. For a brief moment, the young elf was unsure what to make of what it was she was seeing, but as the grunts from the window reached her ears, a realisation dawned on Nyah, one that called forth a snicker and a shake of her head.
“So much for his vow of celibacy.” She smiled.
But then, as she made to move on, the woman’s head turned, and as it did so, Nyah found herself staring into the woman’s eyes, and as she stared, a cold hand gripped Nyah’s heart as she truly understood just what it was she was seeing. It was a realisation that held her rooted to the spot, her mouth agape as a deep shame filled her. But soon that shame was replaced by rage, and with eyes ablaze, the young elf stepped out into the moonlight and made to race for the house.
Only, upon her fifth step, the woman shook her head, an act that brought Nyah to a halt.
“Eh? What’re you looking at?” came a voice from the window.
Standing rooted, Nyah stared wide-eyed as the abbot’s face came into view, his gaze falling upon her, and for a spell, Nyah stared deep into the abbot’s eyes. But soon, Nyah’s courage returned and she took a deep breath, ready to scream at the vile human with all she had. Except, as she made to do so, the abbot turned his gaze to the woman once more.
“What were you looking at?” he demanded.
With her eyes upon Nyah, the woman shook her head. “Nothing.”
Growling, the abbot’s head disappeared, and the grunts returned.
Slowly, the woman gestured for Nyah to return to the shadows. Not knowing what else to do, Nyah retraced her steps, and once in the shadows, the mortified elf slowly sank to the grass, her eyes upon the human woman throughout.
Standing in the shadows, Nyah watched in silence as the human woman closed the front door of the abbot’s house and walk away. Checking to be sure they were alone, Nyah darted forward and hurried after the woman.
“Hey,” she whispered as she went.
The woman hastened her steps.
“Wait!” Nyah hissed, for she could only walk so fast.
“Wait!” she repeated when the woman’s pace remained unchanged.
“I said wait, damn you!” she snapped at last, as she paused for breath.
Stopping at last, the woman turned, glared at Nyah, and marched towards her.
“You shouldn’t be here, Miss,” the woman said. “You should be resting. Wandering around in the dark is not good for your child.”
“I could’ve stopped him,” Nyah said in response. “Why didn’t you want me to stop him?”
The woman stared at Nyah in silence for a spell, and though her jaw hardened, her gaze did not.
“What would you have done?” she said at last. “What could you have done?”
“I don’t know,” Nyah said in response. “Something!”
“No,” the woman replied, shaking her head. “You’re here to hide. For your protection and your child’s…”
“Well, yes, but–”
“…and had he known you were there, he’d demand you and your friends leave. Then, where would you go?”
Nyah fell silent at this, words lost to her.
“No,” the woman added, shaking her head. “I thank you, for thinking of saving me, but I’m not worth it.”
“What?” Nyah said as the woman turned and began walking away.
“Wait!” Nyah added as she began following.
“Go to bed, Miss,” the woman replied, her pace unrelenting once more. “You must rest, for your child’s sake.”
“At least, allow me thank you properly!”
“What?” the woman frowned as she stopped and turned once more.
“Well,” Nyah replied, panting as she too stopped, “he didn’t see me because you cloaked me. I’m right, aren’t I?”
The woman held her peace for a spell, her face as if etched in stone. Then, she spun about once more.
“Go to bed, Miss,” she repeated, and resumed her pace.
“Would you bloody wait?” Nyah snapped as she hurried after the woman once more.
The woman didn’t.
Then, stopping herself, Nyah’s heart sank as a thought wormed its way to the fore of her mind, and with it came a bitter smile.
“You think I’m beneath you, don’t you?” she said, words that slowed the woman’s steps.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” Nyah added. “You think I’m just some scatter-brained fool of a girl too eager to spread her legs and too stupid to know when she’s being used. I’m right, aren’t it?”
Slowly, the woman turned and held the Nyah in a confused stare.
“Well, I can expect such a thing from Ducal and Kaern, even Matthis, but you…? After what I saw in there, you’d…”
Taking a deep breath, Nyah stood tall and smiled. “Forgive my intrusion. I shall go to my bed now, and rest. That’s all I’m good for these days anyhow.”
Spinning on her heels, Nyah marched forth, her eyes glistening as she went.
“Wait!” the woman called out to Nyah.
“Wait,” the woman repeated as she grasped hold of Nyah’s hand.
Stopping, Nyah turned to the woman, biting back her tears as she did so, but once she saw the tenderness in the woman’s eyes, she could hold them back no longer.
“I didn’t meant to be so gruff,” the woman said. “And I didn’t mean to come across like … what you said. It wasn’t my intention to make you fell like…” Then, she sighed. “Shall we just start again? I’m called Jade.”
Smiling, Nyah wiped her tears and sniffled. “I know. I’ve seen you around a lot, heard people call your name.”
“I’m Nyah,” Nyah added.
“I know.” Jade smiled.
Nyah couldn’t help but laugh at this.
Then, as Jade’s smile faded, she reached out and clasped Nyah’s hands. “I thank you for looking to save me. It means a lot that you would do such a thing for someone like me.”
Shrugging as her face reddened, Nyah smiled. “It was the decent thing to do. Though I didn’t bloody do anything in the end.”
“Tell you what,” Jade added. “What say you join me in my quarters? I have some rice wine we can share, I brewed it myself.”
“Rice…wine?” Nyah frowned.
“Mhm.” Jade nodded. “A taste of home.”
“You can make wine from rice?”
Jade laughed at this.
“Well, is it safe enough for me to drink given my, uhm…” Nyah added as she rubbed her stomach.
“Oh, this one is,” Jade replied. “A special brew.”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Please. After the day I’ve had, I definitely need a few, and I hate drinking alone.”
Nyah stared in silence, unsure of what to say.
“Please,” Jade said. “Allow me thank you properly. And it is safe for your child. I swear.”
Nyah smiled. “Oh hells, why not.”
“Good!” Jade grinned, and hooking her arm with Nyah, led the elven mother-to-be from the abbot’s house.
“Tell me you jest!” Kaern barked as she glared at a contrite Ducal. “Please tell me you jest!”
The young mage held his peace.
“How many times must I tell you? Always check the wards on her doorway before going to bed! We must know the moment she leaves or has any visitors! What is wrong with you?”
“But I checked them!” Ducal cried. “I swear, I checked them!”
“Then, where are they?” Kaern demanded, gesturing to the doorway of Nyah’s room. “Hunh? Where the bloody hells are they?”
“If you say you don’t know one more time, Ducal, as the gods bear me witness, I’ll…”
Biting his lip, Ducal lowered his gaze once more and held his peace.
Taking a deep breath, the mage that was Kaern let it out slowly.
“Very well,” she said. “We are where we are. The best we can do is remedy things. Let’s split up, we’ll cover the grounds quicker.”
“What, you mean to find her now?” Ducal frowned.
“Yes!” Kaern hissed. “Now!”
“Do not give me any of your excuses, Ducal!” Kaern snarled. “We’re splitting up and we are going to find her, or so help me I shall march you to Matthis and let you answer for this on your own! Is that what you wish?”
A vehement shake of the head was Ducal’s response.
“I didn’t think so. You go north, I’ll go south. We make our way back here.”
“Right,” Ducal said, and hurried off.
Kaern watched him race off for a spell.
“Gods give me strength,” she growled, then headed out herself.
“Ah.” Nyah sighed, a warm smile upon her lips as she slowly rocked from side to side. “This is so good.”
Giggling, Jade pointed to the elven woman seated on her bed. “Your noshe ish red.”
“Hehe,” Nyah chuckled, “you talk funny.”
“What?” Jade replied, then hiccuped.
Giggling, Nyah leant forward. “Do that again.”
“Do what?” Jade replied, then hiccuped once more.
“Hah!” Nyah cried, then threw her head back and laughed. But as she did so, a great deal of the wine in the cup in her hand spilt on the bed.
“Oh no!” she added, looking aghast at the bed, then turning to wince at Jade.
“Ish alright,” Jade replied before taking a gulp from her cup. “Ish filthy anyway.”
“Oh,” Nyah replied, grinning. “Good!”
“Mmh!” Jade added as she reached for her gourd. “More?”
Nyah stared from the gourd to her cup and back.
“I think I’ve had a enough,” she slurred.
“Oh,” Jade replied, staring blearily at Nyah. “Alright.”
But then, as she moved to put the gourd away, Nyah offered her cup.
“But since you offered,” she added.
Giggling, Jade filled her new friend’s cup, and as she put the gourd back, Nyah took a deep gulp and sighed.
“Sho!” Jade added as she turned back to her friend. “You were telling me about Liliane.”
“Mh!” Nyah shook her head. “Liriane.”
“Dash what I shaid.”
“You shaid…you said Liliane.”
Jade held her friend in a confused stare.
“Nevermind,” Nyah soon added and sighed. “Well, she’s Caius’s wife.”
Nyah pointed to her stomach.
“Oh, yeah,” Jade nodded, raising her cup to her lips, “him.”
“Yes,” Nyah nodded, “him.”
“She musht hate you for bedding her hushband.” Jade said, then hiccuped.
“Oh, she hates me alright,” Nyah replied as she lifted her cup to her lips, “but for more than just that.”
“Mh.” Nyah nodded, then leant forward, only to grab hold of Jade’s thigh so she didn’t topple over.
“You remember I said I came from a place where women lead?”
Jade sighed and stared into the ether with deep longing. “Didn’t think shuch a place exishts in dish world.”
Nyah grinned as she righted herself. “Oh, it exists alright. Except, for some unfanthom…unfarthom…for some reason, that haggard bitch can’t birth a girl.”
Nyah nodded. “Five children, all boys.”
Jade stared at her elven friend in confusion for a spell, but soon smiled. “Ah, she wantsh an heir!”
“No.” Nyah shook her head. “Caius wants an heir.”
Jade stared at her friend in confusion once more before at last shaking her head.
“You’re making my head hurt,” she added.
Grinning, Nyah shook her head. “Allow me start again. Caius is Patriarch.”
“And he wants an heir.”
“But he’sh a man.”
“Daughtersh are not men.”
“You shaid only daughtersh lead.”
“Well, yes, but if no daughters the sons lead.”
Jade paused a spell.
“Sho Caiush’s parentsh had no daughtersh?” she asked at last.
“Yes!” Nyah cried.
“Ah ha!” Jade grinned, but soon frowned. “But wait, he’sh in the shame shpot ash hish parentsh. Why doesh he want a girl sho bad?”
Nyah stared dazed at her friend for a spell, her mouth agape. Then, she shook her head.
“Forgive me, it’s just … it’s a little difficult … to understand you right now.”
“Oh,” Jade replied, a sad frown upon her lips. “Shorry.”
“No. Yes! No, yes, yes!”
Then, after both cups were filled to brimming, Nyah continued.
“Caius rules because neither his parents, not his uncles and aunts have girls, so, as the eldest of his mother, he was heir.”
“Uh-huh.” Jade nodded, her bleary stare returned.
“But if he doesn’t have an air, his brother, Nedstrum, his daughter is next in line, and nobody likes Nedstrum.”
“No,” Jade shook her head as she raised her cup to her lips. “Nobody likesh Nedshtrum, no.”
“Right! Caius especially. Those two have been warring since he married Liriane.”
“Right!” Jade nodded. “Becaush Caiush bedded her before hish brother did.”
“No!” Nyah shook her head. “That’s Thorin! Caius and Thorin stopped speaking because Caius bedded Thorin’s wife on their wedded day! Remember?”
“Oh yeah.” Jade nodded. “I remember.”
“Mh-mm.” Jade shook her head as she took a deep gulp.
“Oh … well, anyhow, Caius doesn’t want to cede the seed…cede the seed? Cede the seat! Bloody hells! He doesn’t want to cede the seat to any of his brothers, so he wants an heir.”
“Sho why does Nedshtrum hate Liliane?”
“What?” Nyah frowned.
“You shaid Nedshtrum hatesh Liliane.”
“It’s Caius he hates, not Liriane … and it’s Liriane!”
“Yeah,” Jade nodded, “her.”
“Well, because she’s a princess.”
“Yes.” Nyah nodded. “Nedstrum wished to wed her. Since he couldn’t lead the Tower, he wanted something else to lead.”
Jade grinned. “Sho Caiush shtole her from him.”
“He did, yes! He couldn’t bear the thought of Nedstrum ruling a whole kingdom one day.”
“Yay!” Jade cried, raising both hands and spilling some of her wine. “I undershtand now!”
Then, she dropped her hands as a sad frown twisted her lips.
“Caiush ish a bashtard, ishn’t he?” Jade said at last.
Nyah sighed and pouted.“Yes, he is, isn’t it?”
“Mh.” Jade nodded and drank deep once more.
“Well, anyway, enough about me,” Nyah added. “What’s your tale?”
All at once, the human woman’s demeanour changed, a sad frown upon her lips as she stared into her cup.
“Nothing to shay,” she said. “Wash lured here by a man, and when I got here, he took shomething from me.”
“What?” Nyah frowned.
Jade shrugged in response before drinking deep.
Nyah’s frown deepened. “And that’s keeping you here? Even with all that the abbot does to you?”
Nyah shook her head at this. “I don’t know what this thing is, but I can’t see myself being trapped somewhere because someone took something from me.”
“Even if itsh your shoul?”
Nyah fell silent at this, a cold hand gripping her heart.
“My kind would rather die than be apart from it, Nyah.”
“I see,” Nyah added, her voice soft. “But can’t you steal it back?”
“Ah, shteal it back.” Jade sighed as she raised her gaze to the heavens. Then, she stared at her friend once more. “Itsh warded, Nyah. No matter what I do, no matter what I try, I can’t get near.”
“Have you tried–”
“I’ve tried everything. I’ve been trying for yearsh.”
“Well, then,” Nyah replied as she pondered Jade’s words, “what if I try?”
“You?” Jade frowned.
“Mhm.” Nyah nodded as she took another gulp.
Jade stared at her friend a spell.
Nyah shrugged. “Why not?”
Jade stared in silence once more.
“Itsh in the abbotsh bed chamber,” Jade added at last, “behind hish shrine. Jade box.”
“Abbot’s bed chamber, behind his shrine, jade box,” Nyah repeated, nodding as she spoke. “Understood.”
“But why try?”
Nyah shrugged. “You’re nice. And I like you. So, why not?”
Jade stared at her friend in silence for a spell, but soon a wide grin parted the human woman’s lips, and as the redness of her cheeks deepened, she raised her cup to her lips and began to drink deep.
Shrugging once more, Nyah made to do the same, but without warning, the elven woman sat ramrod straight as she stared wide eyed at her friend, then slowly turned to her cup.
“What?” Jade said as Nyah turned to her once more.
“I think I’d best stop,” Nyah said as she offered her cup to Jade.
“I’m seeing things now,” she replied before placing the cup on the floor. “No more rice wine for me.”
Nyah turned to her friend and stared as if pondering her words. Then, she sighed.
“Just saw your … this is so stupid … just saw your ears grow and turn pointy and furry.”
Jade slowly sat tall as she stared hard at Nyah.
“Precisely,” Nyah said.
“Are they shtill furry?”
Nyah shook her head. “It was only for a moment, but–”
“What in the bloody hells are you doing in there?” barked a voice from the window.
As one, the women turned to the door, which soon swung open as an incandescent Kaern marched in.
“Excush me!” Jade yelled.
“Shut up, you!” Kaern spat. “I shall deal with you later.” Then, she rounded on Nyah.
“Do you have any inkling just how worried you’ve made us all?” Kaern roared. “Do you? If you’re…”
Taking a step back, Kaern stared at the seated elven woman with a gaze filled with unbridled rage.
“Have you been drinking?” she thundered.
“I have,” Nyah replied. “What of it?”
“You’re with child! What in the world is wrong with you? Have you no idea what the drink can do to your–”
“The drink goesh to your head,” Jade interjected, “not your body. Her child ish shafe.”
“Is that so?” Kaern seethed as she turned to the human.
“Yesh.” Jade nodded as she drank deep.
“Well, if you think I am so easily fooled, then you are the fool. I know what you are, woman, and you–”
“Yesh,” Jade interjected once more, “I know you know what I am. You remind me every time you she me. But if you really know what I am, you know what I shpeak of ish mere childsh play for the likesh of me.”
Kaern glared at the human for a spell, then rounded on Nyah once more.
“We’re leaving,” she growled. “Now.”
Nyah glared at the woman with all her heart, but in the end, she rose and, giving her human friend a warm smile, she turned and left, a seething Kaern walking behind her. Jade watched them leave in silence, then, placing her cup upon the floor, she lay down on her bed and was still.
Staring up from the parchment in her hand, Jade smiled as she watched her friend waddle towards her. But even at her distance, she could already hear the feverish curses falling from the elven woman’s lips as she made her way over, and leaning against the wall behind her, the woman sighed, drained the cup beside her and refilled it, then waited for her friend.
“What?” Nyah panted as she’d reached Jade.
Jade’s smile grew. “Nothing.”
“Then stop staring at me like that!”
“I didn’t say anything this time!”
“But you were thinking it!”
“There, see? How about you try carrying all this weight in your gut for months on end! Let’s see how happy you are about it!”
Biting back a snicker, Jade shuffled to the side. “Sit?”
“Thank you, I will,” Nyah growled, then shuffling closer, the expectant mother turned around, reached out her hand to Jade, and as Jade grasped hold, she lowered herself slowly to the decking at the front of Jade’s home.
“Do they know you’ve come here?” Jade asked once Nyah was seated.
“Do I bloody care?” Nyah snarled.
“Nyah…” Jade sighed, then offered Nyah her cup.
“Oh, please, yes!” Nyah gasped as she took the cup and drank deep.
Shaking her head, Jade returned to her parchment.
“Oh, gods,” Nyah growled.
“Hrm?” Jade replied as she raised her gaze, but as her eyes fell upon a glowering Ducal in the distance, she smiled.
“Can you blame them?” she said, turning to her friend. “You are due any day now.”
Pulling a face, Nyah growled, an act that brought a smile to Jade’s lips, but as Nyah’s growl faded, so too did Jade’s smile. There was a sadness in the elven woman’s eyes, one that pierced the human woman’s heart, and as Jade stared at the elf beside her, she leant forward.
Nyah turned to her friend, forcing a smile to her lips.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said before lowering her gaze to the cup in her hand.
“Nyah,” Jade said, placing a soft hand upon her friend’s shoulder. “What is it?”
Nyah’s smile faded as she stared at her friend a spell. Then, she lowered her gaze to her womb.
“If it’s a girl,” she said, placing a caring hand upon her stomach, “they’ll take her back and leave here.”
Taking a deep breath, Jade let it out slowly and nodded. “And I shall miss you.”
“But what if they don’t take me back?” Nyah added as she turned to her friend.
“What if they take my child from me?”
“Did they say as much?”
“Then, what makes you so sure?”
Nyah shrugged and lowered her gaze.
“Nyah, look at me,” Jade said after a spell.
Nyah did as her friend had asked.
“Nobody is parting you from your child. You hear me? Nobody.”
“But what if they do?”
Leaning forward, Jade grasped hold of her friend’s face and stared deep into her eyes with a fierce gaze of her own.
“Nobody is taking your child from you. Nobody.”
As silence fell upon the pair and Jade stared deep into her friend’s eyes, she could see the fear within them begin to fade, and it warmed her heart. But then, movement in the corner of her vision turned her gaze from her friend to the grassy earth before them, and as she stared, she frowned.
“What is it?” Nyah asked as she too turned.
“Did you spill the wine?” Jade replied as she turned from the single trickle of water snaking through the grass to her friend, but as she did so, her eyes went wide as she noticed the water came from underneath Nyah.
The significance of the water dawned on the two women at precisely the same moment, and as one, both stared at each other with eyes wide and lips agape.
“It’s started!” they cried, and as Jade leapt to her feet, Nyah raised her arms to her friend, her hands waving frantically as she did so.
“Ducal!” Jade shrieked as she helped Nyah to her feet. “It’s started! It’s started!”
And with that, the pair made their way inside.
Pacing about the front of her home, her hands cupped before her as her eyes remained fixed upon the front door, Jade waited with bated breath for news of her friend as the night’s moon shone brightly above. Every once in a while, her gaze would drift to one of the mages surrounding her home, but each mage stood in silence, some scanning their surroundings, other staring at her as if she were a mortal enemy. But in the end, the forlorn woman would shake her head and resume her pacing, her heart lodged firmly in her throat.
Then at last came the time when her front door swung open and within its doorway stood the mage Matthis, a wide grin upon his lips.
“A girl!” he cried. “It’s a girl!”
All at once, the mages cheered, their cries echoing far and wide, utterly drowning out Jade as she screamed a question to the mage that was Matthis.
“How’s Nyah!” her voice eventually rang out above the din.
Falling silent, the mages turned to her.
“Nyah’s well,” Matthis answered at last, his face speaking volumes of what he thought of her interruption. “She is resting.”
“Oh, thank gods,” Jade said, clapping her hands slowly as a deep sigh escaped her lips. “Thank gods.”
“Perhaps we should begin preparations to leave,” Kaern spoke up.
“Yes,” Matthis nodded, “we should. We’ve tarried in this place long enough.” Then, he turned to face Kaern square. “I shall leave the protection of our future Matriarch to you.”
“Of course.” Kaern bowed.
“You three,” Matthis continued as he pointed to the mages about Kaern, “stay with her.”
“Yes. Matthis,” the three mages echoed.
“Ducal!” Matthis yelled.
“What?” Ducal barked from inside the house.
“What?” the mage cried.
Smiling, Matthis turned to the remaining mages. “The rest of you, return to your quarters and make ready. We leave in the morning.”
“Yes, Matthis,” they intoned.
Then, the mages parted and Matthis left, and before long, so too did many of the gathered.
Stepping to the side, Jade made to sit by her house, but as she did so, a soft hand touched her shoulder.
“Uhm,” the mage named Kaern said as she smiled at Jade. “I have a…boon to ask of you.”
“Of me?” Jade frowned.
“Mhm.” Kaern nodded. “But not here. Come.”
With her frown deepening, Jade stared at the woman that gently pulled at her arm. But Jade remained where she was.
Staring from her to her mage companions and back, Kaern neared the woman and lowered her head and her voice.
“It’s about Nyah,” she whispered, her gaze locked with Jade’s. “I need your aid to arrange quiet passage back for her. I can’t let Matthis or the others know.”
“Matthis is leaving her here?” Jade hissed.
“Hush!” Kaern hissed in return. “Not here. Come.”
Once more Kaern pulled on her arm, but this time Jade followed, and together, the two women wandered around to the back of the house.
“Alright, so,” Kaern began, but as her eyes wandered to the open window at the back of Jade’s house, she fell silent.
“Come,” she whispered instead. “Let’s move some distance away so we can talk freely.”
“Very well,” Jade replied, and falling in step beside Kaern, the pair walked away from the house.
As they walked, however, a faint scent tickled Jade’s nose. It came from the woman walking beside her, and it was a scent of the arcane, a scent she’d not smelt in an age, but one that could only mean one thing, and as her heart crept up her throat, the wary woman cleared her mind and readied herself for battle.
“Shall we go to that tree?” she said, pointing to the other side of the woman beside her.
“Hrm?” Kaern said as she turned.
As she did so, Jade darted back, calling forth an illusion of herself to walk on beside the woman, whilst at the same time cloaking herself from view, then watched as the woman and her illusion walked on.
“Hrm, no,” Kaern replied as she slowly reached behind her. “I think this is far enough!”
Without warning, the woman turned, pulling free an enchanted dagger and plunging it into Jade’s back. But there was no flesh to plunge the dagger through, and as the mage Kaern staggered forward, Jade loosened her cloak and flung a wind vine at the dagger in the woman’s hand.
“What in the…” Kaern said, only for a sharp gasp to escape her lips as the dagger was wrenched from her grasp.
Then, as Jade grasped the dagger tight, the snarling woman bent low and sprang forth at her foe, eager to repay the woman in kind. But Kaern was no ordinary mage, and as Jade dart forth, so too did her quarry dart back before calling forth a gust of wind to sweep Jade’s feet from under her, and as the startled woman fell, the smirking mage called forth an ice lance and plunged it at Jade.
It took all Jade had to roll out of the lance’s path in time, it’s frozen tip slicing through her tunic as she rolled away from the mage. But, as Kaern stepped forth, the fallen woman called forth a whirling gust about her, churning the dirt and the grass about her and hiding her from view.
Kaern smirked and took a step back.
“Coward,” she muttered, then readied herself for more.
She had not long to wait, as within moments, the gust blasted forth, blinding and staggering the mage, and as the mage Kaern planted her feet once more, a sharp cry filled her ears. On instinct, the wary mage called forth another lance and flung it forth. Except this time, she heard its tip plunge through flesh, and as she opened her eyes, a wide grin parted her lips, and she watched as her foe stood stunned at the end of her lance, blood pooling about where its tip had plunged into her chest.
“I told you, bitch,” Kaern sneered as she rose a hand, flames bursting to life and wreathing her fingers, “I know precisely what you are. You were never a match for me.”
Gasping for breath, Jade looked up from the lance to her killer.
“Die,” Kaern snarled and raised her hand to bathe her enemy’s head in a sea of flames.
At that moment, however, Jade smirked and became hollow before fading from view, and before Kaern could even think, a sharp gasp escaped her lips as her enchanted dagger was plunged into her back.
“You know nothing,” the real Jade snarled, then pushed the plunged dagger deeper into the mage, all the way to its hilt.
Then, as the beaten mage crumpled to the floor, a triumphant Jade stepped over the fallen woman and hurried back the way they’d come.
It was the panting that drew Nyah from her slumber, the loudness of it making it seem as if it was coming from right beside her ear, and as she stirred, she became dimly aware of a head near hers, but bowed forward.
“Mmh.” Nyah moaned as she moved to sit up, to see who it was that was beside her.
“No, no,” the person said, then gasped in pain.
“Ducal?” Nyah frowned as the blurs in her vision cleared, only for her eyes to widen as her gaze fell upon the deep gash upon his shoulder.
“What the bloody hells…?” Nyah began.
But then, a shape behind the wincing mage drew Nyah’s gaze past him, and as her eyes fell upon the two mages slumped in the room opposite, the young elf’s eyes went wide and she screamed.
“No, no!” Ducal cried. “Hush, it’s alright!”
“Keep away from me!” Nyah shrieked as she tried to scrambled away from Ducal.
“I’m not trying to kill you, damn it! They were!”
Stopping, Nyah turned to the mage. “What?”
Before Ducal to draw breath, however, the door flew open as a wrathful Jade burst into the room, her gaze fierce and her teeth bared.
“Gah!” Ducal cried as he raised his good arm at the human woman, lightning dancing between his fingers.
“Stay back!” he barked. “Back!”
“What the bloody hells are you doing?” Nyah demanded before shoving the mage’s arm away. “It’s Jade!”
“Are you alright?” Jade said before Ducal could speak.
Swallowing hard, Nyah nodded.
“Where’s Kaern?” Ducal asked.
“Dead.” Was Jade’s simple reply. “She tried to kill me.”
“Oh, gods,” Ducal whispered as he slumped to the floor. “Not her too.”
Turning to the fallen mage at the foot of the bed, Jade frowned. “What happened?”
“They tried to kill Nyah,” Ducal replied, “and the child.”
At those words, Nyah’s eyes went wide.
“My daughter!” she gasped as she spun about. “Where’s my daughter?”
“Up there,” Ducal replied as he pointed upwards.
As one, the two women raised their gazes, and both sighed as they watched Nyah’s newborn gently spin about atop a wind spire. Then, the wind spire began to weaken, bringing the child slowly down into her mother’s arms.
“It seems Liriane’s reach is far,” Ducal said at last, rising as he spoke. Then, he turned to Nyah. “I must get you to Matthis. Can you walk?”
“Can you trust Matthis?” Jade asked.
“Gods, I hope so,” Ducal replied.
“You hope?” Jade began. “You mean to risk…”
Her words were cut short by a myriad cries filling the night, and turning, a sharp gasp fell from the woman’s lips as she watched the homes in the distance go up in flames.
“No!” Jade cried, then raced forth.
“Jade, where are you going?” Nyah yelled
Stopping in her tracks, the human that was Jade turned to the pair, her eyes wide and her face twisted in pain.
“Find your friends,”she said, “lead them to the wood-turner’s house. Do you understand?”
“What’re you–” Nyah began
“Do understand?” Jade yelled.
“Good.” Jade nodded, then turned and race forth once more.
The pair watched her race in silence, then Ducal sighed and turned to Nyah.
“Come, Nyah,” Ducal said as he helped her to her feet. “We must leave. Now.”
Nyah looked from the door to her daughter. Then, turning to Ducal, she nodded.
“Help me,” she said, raising her hand to the mage, and once on her feet, she turned and headed for the door, her daughter nestled in her arms as the mage Ducal followed close behind.
As they made their way slowly from the house, however, a thought struck Nyah. It was so simple, and yet so profound, the elven woman stood rigid as her eyes went wide.
“What is it?” Ducal said.
Nyah turned to him, her mind awhirl.
“They’re fighting, aren’t they?” she asked.
Frowning, Ducal turned from her to the fires and back. “I’d say so, yes.”
“All of them, right?”
“Nyah, what’re you–”
“The abbot will be amongst them, won’t he?”
With a wide grin upon her lips, Nyah turned to the flames, then back to Ducal once more.
“Can you cloak me?”
“What in the hells–”
“Can you cloak me, yes or no?” Nyah snapped.
“Of course I can bloody cloak you!” Ducal barked. “What’s bloody gotten into you?”
Ignoring the mage, Nyah turned her gaze to her child, and in an instant, her heart was filled with doubt. To do this, she must part with her daughter. It was a thought that tore at her, but she had to do it. She had to. And so, taking a deep breath, she kissed her daughter upon her forehead, then turned to offer her to Ducal.
“Here,” Nyah said.
“What?” Ducal replied, his confusion plain as he took his future Matriarch.
“Alright, cloak me.”
“Nyah, for gods’ sake, what’re you–”
“Just cloak me!”
Ducal stared hard at the woman, but he remained unmoving.
“Ducal, please,” Nyah said. “There is something I must do. Cloak me so I can do this. You must take my daughter, find the others and tell them to head to the wood-turner’s house.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll meet you there.”
Ducal stared hard for a spell longer, then, sighed, and he did so, Nyah faded from view.
“You better bloody wait for me,” Nyah hissed, then hurried forth.
The confused mage stared at the darkness for a spell, then hurried off himself, cloaking both he and his charge as he went.
With his gaze fierce, the mage that was Matthis stood by his companions as they battled those who’d come to cleanse the compound of all life. It was a battle he was determined to win, and drawing deep on his knowledge of the arcane, the wizened mage dealt death and destruction in every direction. To do any less would be to fail his Patriarch, and that was one thing this wizened old batttle-mage would never never accept.
But even as he slaughtered all before him, Matthis knew the battle was all but lost. There were too many of the enemy, and too few of his own people. Worse still, his charge was missing, and he was surrounded, unable to send out a search party. He had yet to fail his Patriarch, true, but his failure was assured nonetheless.
Then, one of his mages tapped him on the shoulder.
“Matthis, look!” the mage cried and pointed.
Turning, Matthis followed the man’s finger, and as he stared, he stood stunned as he watched Ducal race towards them. But it was what was in his arm that gave the elderly mage his greatest surprise.
“It can’t be,” the elderly mage gasped.
“It won’t be for much longer!” the mage replied. “Look!”
Turning to stare where the mage pointed anew, the elderly mage’s gaze hardened as he watched group after group of their adversary spin away and race towards Ducal, eager to cut him and his charge down.
“Drop the barrier!” Matthis barked as he stepped forth.
The mages complied, and the moment the barrier fell, the elderly mage’s eyes glowed with an amber hue, and as he thrust a hand to the heavens, the earth before the mage rumbled and sprang upwards, creating a magnificent pillar before him. Then, with a swift drop of his hand, the incensed mage sent the pillar rolling forth, its motions akin to a tidal wave, the roiling earth flinging all within its path asunder as it rolled toward Ducal and all those racing towards him.
“Barrier!” Matthis barked.
“Barrier, damn you, now!”
As commanded, the mages’ barrier returned, but as a heavy silence fell upon all gathered about the mage, they watched with bated breath as Matthis’s spell rolled towards the racing mage. Then, at the very moment, Ducal leapt skywards, his leap clearly fuelled by arcane means, and as he sailed heaven-ward, Matthis grinned.
“Drop the barrier!” Matthis barked once more.
This time, the barrier dropped in an instant, and as it fell, the mage that was Ducal flung a wind vine as this mentor, a wind vine that Matthis caught without thought, and with a grunt, pulled his student to safety. Then, as Ducal clattered into the gathered, Matthis grinned and turned to the others.
“Barrrier,” he said, but he needn’t have bothered, for it already was.
“Gods, that was close,” Ducal panted as he rose.
“Is that her?” Matthis said.
In response, Ducal smiled and showed him that which he was cradling.
“Thank the gods.” Matthis sighed, then turned to the battlefield once more, his mind awhirl.
“Where’s everyone else?” Ducal asked.
Matthis winced at this, but another answered before he could.
“Dead.” Was the mage’s blunt response. “Or turned.”
“Gods damn it all!” Ducal spat.
“How about you?” Matthis replied.
“They’re all dead,” Ducal replied. “They all turned.”
“Even Kaern?” another mage asked.
“Yes,” Ducal replied.
Gritting his teeth, Matthis fought to contain his rage. Now was not the time for vengeance. He had to get his charge to safety first. Vengeance will have to wait.
“And why the bloody hells are you all out here?” Ducal demanded. “Standing out in the open, fighting on all sides doesn’t sound like a sound strategy to me.”
“It’s not, ” Matthis replied as he watched their enemy surround them once more. “They caught us off-guard, surrounded us before we were ready. They came prepared, too, I can’t open a portal without it imploding.”
“How can they–”
“I have a few theories, but none of that matters right now. What matters is getting our Matriarch out of here.”
“Any ideas, then?”
“Not going to think of one with your constant nattering.”
“Well, this might help. Jade said to head to the wood-turner’s house. She didn’t say why but…”
In response, Matthis turned to the other mages, a deep frown upon his lips.
“What is it?” Ducal asked.
“One of the monks was with us when the madness started,” Matthis said. “He was leading us to safety, said something about a secret way out of here–”
“That’s why we were caught out in the open,” added one of the mages. “They descended on us as we were hurrying after the monk.”
“So where is this monk now?” Ducal asked.
“Dead,” Matthis said. “Died in the first moments. He never told us where he was leading us.”
“Here they come,” another mage said.
“Damn it,” Matthis snarled as he turned to face the enemy square.
“No, Matthis,” a third mage said. “We shall face them. You slip away in the fighting. Ducal, you go with him.”
“Yes!” said the first mage. “Yes! Take Tirin and get her out of here!”
“Tirin?” Ducal frowned.
“It’s the name Caius wanted if it was a girl,” the first mage replied.
“I can’t just–” Matthis began.
“Hold,” Ducal interjected, “I’m not running, I’m–”
“You’re dying, you fool,” the first mage said. “You’re of no use to us.”
“What?” Matthis cried.
“Check his shoulder.”
Dropping to his knees, Matthis did, and as he stared at the dark and pulsing wound upon his student’s shoulder, his eyes went wide.
“They’re charging!” the second mage said.
“But I just can’t–” Matthis said.
“Now’s not the time to be stubborn, man!” the first mage barked as Matthis and Ducal faded from view. “Your charge is to protect her, ours is to protect you!”
“Just go!” a fourth mage yelled as the barrier flickered and faded. “Now!”
And then, with a roar, the mages charged forth, back-to-back and side-to side, their spells felling foes in every direction.
With his heart in his throat, the elderly mage cowered as he watched his companions fight with all they had. Then, as a soft hand touched his shoulder he turned and hurried to the side, out of the path of those seeking to flank the battling mages, and as the battle raged, both mentor and student slipped into the shadows and made their way towards the wood-turner’s house.
With her heart beating loudly in her ears, Nyah hugged the wall of the abbot’s house, her ears pricked to hurting.
Swallowing hard, she hurried over to the door, put her ear to it and listened.
“Oh, thank gods.” She sighed and, opening the door, darted inside before closing it softly.
“Right,” she muttered as she sought her bearings. “Where did Jade say to look?”
But her mind was a blank.
“Think, Nyah, think.”
“Damn it, woman,” she snarled before marching towards the first open door she saw. It was to the bed chamber. Stepping in, the elven woman stopped and scanned her surroundings, hoping something within would jar her memories.
Sighing once more, she turned to leave, but something in the corner of her eye stopped her, and frowning, she spun about once more and stared at what it was that had caught her attention. It was the shrine, or rather something beneath the shrine, carved into the wooden floor. Curious, she wandered towards it, and, dropping to her knees, ran her finger about it. It was indeed a carving, crudely done, deep into the wood.
“Hrm, she muttered, but then rose.
“Focus, Nyah,” she muttered as she tore her gaze from the carving and scanned the room once more. “You didn’t come to look at the floor, focus.”
But then, as she carried her gaze about the room, Nyah noticed something else. Every other part of the floor was spotless. Nothing, not so much as a scratch anywhere else.
Her curiosity mounting, Nyah turned to the carving.
“Hrm,” she repeated, then, stepping beside the shrine, pulled it forward by its side, pulling till she could see the carving plainly. It was then she realised it wasn’t just any old carving, but a runic carving, of a kind to keep enchanted beings at bay.
It was then she remembered Jade’s words, and as her eyes went wide, she turned and stared at the back of the shrine, and sure enough, staring back at her was a small jade box within a hole carved into the back of the shrine.
“There you are!” Nyah grinned as she pulled the box free. As she did so, however, Nyah felt her cloak begin to fade.
“No, no!” she cried. “Not yet!”
“Who’s there?” barked a voice from outside the room.
Gasping, Nyah stood still, staring wide eyed at the door. Biting back her fear, she hid the box within her robe and hurried to the door way, hugging the wall beside it as she held her breath. She had not long to wait, however, for soon the abbot’s face came into view, and with cry, the elderly human hurried over the the shrine.
Seizing her chance, Nyah darted out of the room, but as she darted out, she felt something snag her foot and pull it out from under her. Shrieking, the terrified elf fell forward, and as she hit the floor, she turned to stare at her foot. There was the end of a whip snaked about it.
“You?” came a voice from within the bed chamber.
Raising her gaze, Nyah glared at the abbot, but her newfound strength didn’t last, for as the abbot’s face darkened, so too did her terror return. Only, it was a terror that lent her strength, and as the abbot made to pull on the whip and draw Nyaha closer, so too did Nyah grasp hold of the whip, pulling before the abbot was ready and pulling him against his shrine, and as the old man clattered against it, Nyah freed herself, rose and raced out of the house as fast as she could.
“Hurry!” Jade hissed as she ushered the wounded into the secret tunnel whose entrance was within the wood-turner’s cellar. “It won’t be long before they find us.”
But she needn’t have bothered for those filing into the cellar were all eager to escape the fighting within the compound, for they were all the simple servants from the surrounding villages who had the misfortune of being within the compound when the attacks began.
Just then, loud voices reached Jade’s ears, coming from above.
“What now?” the woman growled, then turned to the monk standing on the other side of the tunnel.
He’d heard the commotion as well, and as their eyes met, he nodded. Nodding her self, Jade made her way out of the cellar towards the source of the voices.
“What in the hells is going on here?” she barked as she stepped into the front room, her gaze falling upon the mage that was Matthis as he argued with some of those seeking escape, while carrying a bundle Jade couldn’t quite discern.
“He was trying to skip ahead!” one of those remonstrating with the mage said.
“Yeah!” Another cried. “We’re all trying to get out of here! He’s got to wait his turn!”
“Gods damn it, people, he’s dying!” Matthis snapped.
“Keep your voice down!” Jade barked, but hurried over to the man nonetheless.
“Who’s dying?” she asked as she went.
Stepping aside, Matthis nodded to the mage resting against the wall behind him, a man whose health was plainly failing.
“Ducal,” Jade gasped and darted to his side.
“I’ll be alright,” Ducal whispered as Jade pulled him to his feet, fighting her grip as she did so.
“Stop being so damned stubborn, boy!” Matthis hissed.
“Where’s Nyah?” Jade asked.
Ducal shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t–“
“She said there was something she must do. She gave me her child and–“
“What? Where is she?”
“Here,” Matthis replied as he showed Jade the bundle cradled in his arm.
“She said she’ll meet us here,” Ducal continued.
Jade paused a spell, her mind awhirl.
“Any idea at all where she might’ve gone?” she asked at last.
Ducal nodded. “I cloaked her before we parted. I felt her presence till the cloak failed.”
“Failed?” Jade frowned. “Why did it failed?”
A sad smile parted Ducal’s lips. “I couldn’t maintain it any longer.”
“Oh,” was all Jade could say.
“But it failed in the abbot’s house, I think.”
“What?” Jade cried, her eyes wide.
Ducal nodded. “Not long ago.”
Staring hard at the mage, Jade stood in silence as her mind whirled. Then, standing tall, she turned to Matthis.
“Take him down to the cellar–“
At once, those gathered railed against her words.
“Shut! Up!” Jade barked, silencing them all in an instant.
“Take him down to the cellar,” Jade continued as she rounded on Matthis once more. “Tell the monk there I sent you, that it’s urgent you get him through.” Then, she headed for the door.
“Where’re you going?” Matthis called out.
“She’s going after Nyah,” Ducal whispered as a smile parted his lips.
Stopping with her hand upon the door’s handle, Jade turned to the mage, smiled and nodded. But then, just as she opened the door, she stopped once more and glared at Matthis.
“If you leave without her, mage, you shall answer for it,” she snarled.
Standing tall, Matthis sneered. “You would dare threaten me?”
“I would dare and more,” Jade growled.
“Now, listen to me, you–” Matthis began.
“We will not leave without her,” Ducal interjected.
“Ducal!” Matthis barked. “Do not forget your duty!”
“We will not leave,” Ducal repeated as he shook her head. “You have my word.”
“Oh, for gods’ sake, boy, have you still not learnt anything? Stop pining for what you cannot have!”
“Go,” Ducal added. “Go.”
Smiling once more, Jade nodded at the dying mage, then darted outside, slamming the door behind her as she went.
Hiding in the shadows, her heart in her throat, Nyah watched in silence as the abbot neared her hiding spot.
“I know you’re here,” she heard him say. “Come out, come out wherever you are.”
The abbot was only a few paces from the shrub behind which she was hiding, and she knew it was only a matter of time before he searched behind it like he’d done every nook, shrub and passage he’d passed. She needed a plan and fast.
“All I want is the box. Give it to me, and you will not be harmed. You have my word.”
Quivering, the elven woman slipped a hand into her robe, and as her fingers wrapped about the jade box she’d stolen, she swallowed hard as its smooth surface lent her some much-needed strength.
“We don’t have much time, woman! Give me the box! I can get us out of here safely, just give it to me!”
Then, a plan wormed its way to the fore of her mind. It was reckless by far, but as Nyah pondered it, she knew it was all she had, and so, breathing deep, she steeled herself and waited.
“Come on out, woman!”
The abbot was now five paces from her hiding spot.
“Do you want to die here?”
“I can get us out! Trust me!”
“You don’t even know what’s in the box, do you? Well, do you?”
“I do! I know how to wield its power!”
“Come out, damn you!”
As the abbot stood before the shrub, his back to her, Nyah shrieked, closed her eyes and leapt forward, throwing herself onto the man and toppling him with the weight of her body. Then, as the pair fell forward, the shrieking elf grabbed hold of the abbot’s ears, pulled his head back, and as they crashed into the gravelled earth, she slammed his head as hard as she could into the gravel.
Scrambling to her feet, Nyah broke into a dead sprint, the coughing and spluttering of the abbot lending her strength as she ran. But, as she ran, Nyah soon realised there was one part of her plan she’d forgotten. The abbot’s whip, she was meant to have taken it with her, and it was a failing she realised all too vividly when the whip’s crack filled the ear, and before she could even cry out, the hapless elf felt her legs being swiped out from under her, sending her careening forward. Worse still, as she fell, she watched as the jade box rolled out of her robe.
“No!” she shrieked as she scrambled after it.
“That’s mine!” she heard the abbot bark behind her, and as his footsteps filled her ears, terror full and raw filled the elf’s heart, and as tears stung her eyes, she scrambled frantically after the box.
But then, she stopped, for a pair of slippered feet had stepped out into the garden they were in, slippered feet that stood right before the box, and as she stared at them, Nyah felt her heart break.
“No,” she heard the abbot gasp. “Jade.”
Startled, Nyah threw her gaze up, and as her eyes fell upon the fierce gaze of her friend, the joy that filled her heart was euphoric.
“Are you alright?” Jade asked.
Nodding, Nyah raised a hand to her friend.
Nodding herself, Jade helped her friend to her feet, then stared at the box once more as a heavy silence fell upon them all.
“Isn’t…” Nyah began after a spell, staring at Jade, who’d stood rigid staring at the box. “Isn’t it yours?”
With no answer forthcoming, Nyah turned to the abbot, her confusion plain. But the terror she saw in his eyes as he cowered in the corner of the garden merely fuelled her confusion.
“Is this what you went to get?” she heard Jade say.
Turning to her friend, Nyah nodded. “You said it was what was keeping you here. Well, now you can leave with us.”
Raising her gaze from the box, Jade stared at Nyah, and as the elven woman saw the darkness within her friend’s gaze, her smile faded as her heart was filled with dread.
“Jade…?” she squeaked.
Turning from the woman beside her, Jade wandered over to the cowering abbot, and as she went, the jade box floated from the floor and faded from view.
Turning, Nyah watched as Jade stood before the abbot, the man cowering before her as the gravel beneath him began to dampen.
“Nothing will give me greater pleasure than to repay you for every cruelty you have shown me these many years, nothing in this world would give me greater pleasure. But I have other priorities now, so I shall leave you and your monks to our new visitors. If luck is with you, you will die here this night, if not, you will live, and I will find you.”
“No, Jade,” the man stammered, “please.”
“Jade,” Nyah said as she hurried to her friend’s side. But, as she stepped before the woman, Nyah recoiled from her, for upon Jade’s lips was a snarl more at home upon the lips of an animal than a human, and worse still, her friend’s eyes glowed with a fiery hue.
“What?” Jade snarled, her gaze upon Nyah.
“Nothing, I…” Nyah stammered, but, once more, movement at the corner of Nyah’s gaze caught her attention, and as she turned, she screamed.
“Wha…?” Jade began, but the moment she saw what Nyah saw, she lunged at her friend.
“Get down!” she barked as she pulled Jade close, shielding her with her body as she pulled her friend to the floor just as a fiery wreath burst to life about them, its flames leaping high and forming a barrier about the pair as the huge ball of flame both had seen sailing towards them exploded right before them, engulfing the pair and everything about them in a fiery inferno so hot it reduced everything about the pair to ash within moments.
But their shield held, and as the floor about them cooled, the shield faded and the pair stood tall.
“I knew I’d face you again, eventually,” came a voice from the shadows
“Kaern?” the pair said in unison.
“Did you truly think it would be that easy to kill an Archmage of the Shimmering Tower?” The mage grinned as she stepped into the light, the haggardness of her face unmistakable.
“That dagger went through your heart,” Jade seethed. “It cut through all your enchantments!”
“All but one, my dear,” Kaern smirked. “All but one.”
Jade snarled at this. “I should’ve taken your head instead.”
“Yes,” Kaern sneered, “you should’ve”.
As the mage spoke, others stepped out into the light, flanking the mage and lining up behind her, and as one, they slowly advanced, all but the mage wielding shimmering weapons of differing kinds. As they neared, Jade gently pulled her friend behind her and backed away from their new attackers.
Then, the assassins stopped.
“Where’s the child?” Kaern demanded.
“Not here,” Jade growled.
Kaern’s smiled. “Yes, I can see that. However, if you tell me where she is, I promise you both a quick death. Refuse, and…well, let’s just say I can be quite creative when the need arises.”
Swallowing hard, Nyah gripped her friend’s hand tight.
“There’s too many of them, isn’t there?” she whispered.
“I…” Jade began, but gritted her teeth and nodded slightly. “Yes. I can’t face them and protect you at the same time.”
“Then forget about me,” Nyah replied. “Save my daughter. Keep her safe.”
“What? Giving up already?”
“But you said–”
“Do you trust me?”
“What? Of course I–”
“Well?” Kaern barked. “What shall it be?”
“When I give the word,” Jade whispered, “close your eyes, grab hold of me and don’t let go.”
“Well?” Kaern repeated.
In response, Jade’s eyes glowed with a fiery hue once more as her snarl returned.
“My hearing hasn’t been all that good since our tussle, Kaern,” she said. “Why don’t you come a little closer, whisper in my ear…?”
With a snarl of her own, Kaern shook her head.
“Take them,” she said, and as one, those with her advanced.
“Now!” Jade barked, and in that moment, Nyah flung her arms about her friend, closed her eyes and held on tight.
But though she held on with all her might and steeled herself as best she could, she couldn’t stop a startled shriek escaping her lips as she felt herself flung skywards. It was Jade, the human leaping clear of their attackers in a single bound, her leap carrying the pair high and onto the roof of the house whose garden they were in, only for Jade to leap to its other side just as the roof was obliterated by the volley of death that was rained down upon where the pair once stood.
As their feet touched the grassy earth, Jade turned to her friend and grasped her hand tight. It was for a moment, nothing more, but in that moment, Nyah felt a strength flow into her, one that filled her legs with more fire than she’d thought possible.
“Run!” Jade barked, tugging hard at Nyah’s hand, and as one, the pair darted forth racing away from the house at a speed that took Nyah’s breath away.
But her exhilaration was short-lived, for soon, the crack of lightning bolts filled the air, and as Nyah turned, her heart sank as she watched Kearn and her assassins race after them.
“Damn it,” she heard Jade say, and as she turned to her friend, she felt Jade’s hand upon her waist, and once more, they flew high into the air, this time leaping into a nearby tree before leaping onto a house, and from there onto the fence behind it before leaping once more into another tree. On and on they darted and leapt, but as they leapt, more of the assassins appeared out of the shadows. Sometimes, they were led by Kaern, other times, they bore down on the pair leaderless, each time forcing the pair to change course.
Through it all, Nyah felt panic slowly grip her heart. They were being corralled, she was sure of it. It was this thought that filled her heart with dread and slowly robbed her of hope. But even as her panic grew, the stubborn elf held onto her word. She’d said she trusted her Jade, and she had to. She simply had to, and as they leapt once more, the frightened elf laid her head upon her protector, closed her eyes and held on tight.
Then, as they leapt off yet another fence, rather than leaping forth, the pair leapt backwards into the shadows behind them. Startled, Nyah opened her eyes, only to watch as two beings who resembled the pair in every conceivable way leapt forth from the very spot they had been onto the house across, and off to its other side.
Falling silent, her heart in her throat, Nyah watched as their hunters raced after the beings, and for what seemed like an eternity, the elven woman stood still and silent, till at last, feeling a gentle tap to her side, she turned to her dear friend, Jade.
Jade was grinning.
“Know where we are?” Jade whispered.
Frowning, Nyah looked about them, and immediately, her eyes lit up. They were in the wood-turner’s compound.
“Come,” Jade whispered, grabbing hold of Nyah’s hand. “The others are waiting.”
Sitting on the soft grassy earth, the mage Ducal cradled little Tirin in his arms as he gently rocked back and forth, his breathing laboured and his face haggard. Stopping, he turned to stare for a moment at his mentor pacing behind him, then returned his gaze to the infant in his arms.
Then, the wizened mage stopped.
“Ducal–” Matthis began.
“We’re not leaving, Matthis,” Ducal interjected as he shook his head.
“If I don’t get you to a healer, you will die, and soon,” Matthis pressed. “She’s not worth your life.”
Ducal smiled, but held his peace.
“Ducal, please. We must–”
Shaking his head, Ducal stared at the little girl in his arms. “We wait.”
“Boy, you’re forcing my hand. Do not make me–”
“Hey!” came a faint cry in the distance.
As one, the pair turned and watched as a grinning Nyah raced towards them, a happy Jade beside her.
“Told you she’d bring her back.” Ducal grinned.
“About damn time.” Matthis sighed.
Falling silent, the two men watched the pair draw near.
“I thought you weren’t going to wait,” Nyah yelled once they were within earshot.
“We very nearly didn’t!” Matthis yelled back as a smile danced upon his lips.
“Tease!” Nyah yelled back as her laughter filled the air.
But then, a glimmer in the distance drew Matthis’s gaze. It took a moment for the elderly mage to understand what it was he was seeing, but as he did, his eyes went wide.
“Behind you!” he yelled and called forth a dome of protection.
But, in his haste to cast his spell, the wizened mage misjudged its reach, and in his horror, he realised too late that it would not shield the women. Worse still, as he stared, he watched as the women turned, and, in a moment that would be forever burned in his mind, the wizened mage could only watch as the elven woman named Nyah shoved her dear human friend to the ground, only to be impaled by the ice lance that had been flung at the human.
“No,” he heard Ducal and Jade cry in unison.
“No,” Matthis whispered as his heart broke.
But there was worse to come, for even as the slain woman fell to the earth, Matthis watched as the night’s air was filled with volleys of all kinds, all aimed at him and his charges, and, steeling himself, he poured more of his arcane strength into his shield.
“Nyah!” Jade shrieked, scrambling to her friend. “Nyah!”
Gasping and spluttering, Nyah turned to her dear Jade and smiled.
Smiling herself, Jade sniffled as her tears ran free, grabbing hold of her friend’s hand as she did so. “Hold on, alright? Hold on.”
“No,” Nyah whispered, before choking and gasping.
“Don’t talk,” Jade pleaded. “You hear me? Don’t talk. I’ll think of something, I will! Just–”
“No,” Nyah repeated, shaking her head before gasping once more as a tear ran down her face.
“I said don’t talk!”
“My daughter,” the dying woman added. “Look…after her.”
“No.” Jade shook her had. “Don’t you dare give up on me! You hear me? Don’t you dare!”
“Shut up! Just shut up!”
Then, the elven woman’s gaze turned to the heavens, and she was still.
Lowering her head, the heartbroken woman wept, but with each tear she shed, her rage built, her thirst for vengeance growing with each passing moment, till at last, throwing her head skyward, she screamed with all her might as a flaming vortex burst forth about her and her fallen friend, charring the field about them before bursting outwards in a deafening blast. Then, rising to her feet, the woman that was Jade snarled at those who’d slain her friend, fangs bared and claws extended as her eyes shimmered with a fiery hue once more.
“Jade, no!” came a cry from behind the woman. “Think!”
Turning her head, the enraged woman glared at the mage behind her.
“I know what’s in your heart,” Matthis added. “I know all you wish for is to feel their blood on your claws, but I need you!”
Jade remained unmoving.
“I can’t portal all of us without dropping my shield, and the moment I do so, Kaern will unleash all she has at us. Please! Shield us while I portal us to safety!”
Jade stared hard at the elven mage, then turned to Kaern and her horde. There was caution in their steps, but they advanced nonetheless. Gritting her teeth, she stood tall and stared at her lifeless friend once more, and bending low, the grief stricken woman picked up her friend and wandered over to the mages.
As she entered their dome of protection, Jade placed Nyah’s body reverently by Matthis’s feet, then shuffled over to Ducal before beckoning for the child.
The young mage complied.
“Hey,” Jade said, her fangs gone and her eyes normal as she smiled at the little child now cradled in her arms, but her smile was brief. “I wish I could say I am glad to meet you at last, but in truth, I’m ashamed. Your mother’s dead, and it’s all my fault.”
“Jade,” Ducal whispered. “Nobody–”
“I let her die. Right before my eyes. She did me a kindness I would give my life to repay, and now I can’t. It hurts, you know? She was a good person, and I failed her…”
“…but she asked me to protect you, and protect you I will, till the end of my days. And should you die before me, I’ll protect your children, and their children after them, till you or your descendants release me, or death takes me.”
“Jade,” Ducal whispered. “There’s no need to–”
“But first, you must go with these men. Go with them, my little darling, and be safe. I’ll see you again, you hear me? And when I do, please remember my pledge, alright? And please accept it. Please.”
Then, sniffling, she handed the child back to Ducal, and rose, turning about as she did so.
Their enemies were closer now, close enough for Jade to see their faces clearly.
“Jade, please,” Matthis said as Jade stepped out of his dome. “I can’t–”
“Strengthen your shield, Matthis.”
“The last thing I want is to hurt her with what I’m about to do. Strengthen your shield. Now.”
“Jade, listen, you–”
“Do it, Matthis,” Ducal said. “There’s no dissuading her.”
The elderly mage stared at the woman before him and sighed, then did as she’d asked.
“Now,” Jade continued, “on my mark, count to two and drop your shield, then get them out of here ”
“For gods sake, woman, you can’t keep that many off us!” Matthis pleaded. “Not on your own!”
“Oh, can’t I?” Jade snarled as her fangs returned. But this time it was more than just her fangs that appeared, for as she stood before the mages, a second Jade swam into view beside the first, then a third, and a fourth, and on, till there were seven Jades in all. Only, these were no illusions, each was Jade and Jade was all.
“Good gods!” Ducal gasped.
Matthis stared wide-eyed at the Jades, his mouth agape. Then, as laughter took him, he shook his head. “I stand corrected, woman, you hid your true power well.”
“On my mark, Matthis,” the Jades said as their eyes shimmered in unison.
“Right,” Matthis replied as he steeled himself.
Nodding, the seven Jades hunched over, ready to spring forth.
Kaern and her horde had stopped advancing, their gazes upon the Jades.
“Ready?” the Jades muttered.
Then, and as one, the seven Jades raced forth, darting forward with such power as to fill the air with a deafening boom, and as a second blast filled the air, Matthis dropped his shield, lunged as his charges, and as one, the three faded from sight.
Walking through the marketplace, the Patriarch of the Shimmering Tower smiled as his gaze wandered from stall to stall.
“How about those ones, Tirin?” he said, looking down to the infant in his arms.
“Look,” he repeated, pointing to the wooden toys of the toymaker’s stall. “How about those ones?”
The little girl turned, stared and shook her head.
“You’re sure? I can breathe life into them. Of sorts.”
“Nuh,” the infant girl muttered, shaking her head once more. “Nuh.”
The Patriarch grinned. “My, she’s being quite fussy today, isn’t she?”
“Quite,” muttered the woman on the other side of the Patriarch, one whose demeanour was entirely at odds with his.
“Oh, hush, Liriane,” the Patriarch chided. “Allow her her moments. It’s the day of her birth after all.”
“So you say,” the woman growled.
“Yes,” the Patriarch replied, his voice taking an unmistakable edge, “so I say.”
Clearing her throat, the Matriarch Liriane Earthchild kept her peace and wandered on beside her husband, the mages behind the three doing their best to not snicker at the woman.
And thus did the group travel, meandering from stall to stall in the hopes of finding that one present that would light up the infant child face. But it was to no avail. No matter the present, regardless of how much it sparkled or shined, it held none of little Tirin’s interest.
And then, without warning, the little girl sat tall in her father’s arms and turned to stare in the distance.
“Hrm?” The Patriarch stopped and stared where his daughter’s gaze was, but frowned at what he saw.
“What is it?” the Matriarch frowned.
“I…don’t know,” the Patriarch replied.
And truly, it was most confounding, for there were no stalls where the little girl stared, no stands of any kind. In fact, the only thing to be seen was a large crowd that seemed to be slowly getting larger.
“Ah,” little Tirin said at last, pointing to the gathering.
“You wish to go there?” the Patriarch said, his frown deepening.
“What in the hells has gotten into her?” the Matriach growled.
“Hrm,” the Patriarch muttered as he stared from the crowd to his daughter. As he turned to his daughter, however, little Tirin turned to her father, held his gaze for a spell, then turned back to the crowd before pointing once more.
“Ah,” the little girl repeated.
As the Patriarch stared at this daughter, the hairs on the back of his neck slowly stood tall. Never had she held his gaze with such a fierce one of her own before. There was something his daughter was seeing, and it was calling out to her, he was sure of it.
“Caius,” the Matriarch said. “Come, we’ll be late.”
Turning to his wife, the Patriarch stared frowning at her for a spell, then turned and headed for the crowd.
Ignoring his wife, the Patriarch marched towards the crowd, and as he neared, the gathering parted of its own accord, and before long, both Patriarch and daughter stood within its centre, and as the Patriarch of the Shimmering Tower caught sight of what was within, he could only gasp.
“Good gods,” he breathed as he stared at the great fox seated before him, its seven tails swaying lazily behind it.
There was a majesty to the fox, a regal air one would expect of kings and queens. And it was not just Caius who felt it, everyone about the fox seemed hushed, as if the mere thought of raising their voices in its presence was a crime punishable by death. As for the fox, as the Patriarch walked into view, it raised its gaze to little Tirin and stared at the child as a calm smile parted its lips.
“What in the–” the Patriarch began.
“Ah, ah!” little Tirin cried as she reached for the fox.
“Steady, Tirin,” the Patriarch said as he tightened his grip on his daughter, “you’ll fall.”
“Shall I take her, Patriarch?” whispered one of the Archmages that had followed the pair.
Before Caius could answer, however, the little girl turned to her father once more, and once more held his gaze with the same fierceness as before, and, as before, the hairs on the back of the Patriarch’s neck stood tall.
Turning from his daughter to the fox, the Patriarch took a deep breath, turned to his daughter and lowered her to the ground.
“Patriarch, what’re you doing?” came a cry from behind him.
Turning to his loyal Archmages, Caius smiled.
“It’s alright,” he said, then, turning to his daughter, he placed her down.
Little Tirin stared up at her father, then, without a word, she rose, turned to the fox, and, on unsteady legs, wandered over as hushed murmurs drifted through the crowd.
Before long, the little girl stood before the great fox as a deathly silence fell upon the group, all eyes transfixed upon the pair. Then, little Tirin reached out her hand and began stroking the fox’s fur. Through it all, the fox stared at the child, its gaze boring deep into the infant, but it held its peace and kept its poise, its smile now gone.
The little girl soon rose her gaze and stared deep into the fox’s eyes. And then, without a word, she fell forward and hugged the kitsune close. At last, the great fox smiled once more, and with a soft sigh, it lowered its head and hugged the little child in response.
To all who witnessed, it was clear something had passed between the two, but it was something none gathered, not even the great Patriarch of the Shimmering Tower could quite explain, and as the pair parted, the little girl turned and headed for her father, the kitsune in tow.
As little Tirin reached her father, she stopped and stared deep into his eyes once more.
“You’re not contemplating keeping that thing, are you?” the Matriarch said.
“No,” the Patriarch said, shaking his head. “I’m not. Tirin is.”
“What do you mean, Tirin is?”
Ignoring his wife, Caius bent low and picked up his daughter before placing her upon the fox’s back, the fur upon the fox gently wrapping about the little girl’s legs and holding her firm.
“Let’s go,” the Patriarch said before any could speak, and spinning about, began walking back the way he’d come.
As he went, the regal fox fell in step behind him, its head held high and its gaze forward. As for little Tirin, the little girl laid down upon her protector’s back, closed her eyes and sighed as she ran her fingers through the kitsune’s fur.
Slowly, Naeve sat up and stared at her friend.
“Wow,” she said, her lips agape.
“You like it, then?” Amala smiled.
“Like it?” Naeve grinned. “It was…” But her words were cut short by a most gigantic yawn.
“And now I think it’s time for bed,” Amala said as she rose.
“Aww,” Naeve moaned, but shuffled back under her blanket regardless.
“Good night, my little darling,” Amala said as she tucked Naeve in.
“Good night Amala,” little Naeve replied.
“Remember, I was never here. Alright?”
Chuckling, little Naeve sat up and hugged her friend close, then laid back down once more, rolled to her side and closed her eyes.
Amala watched the little girl in silence for a spell, but soon her gaze darkened as her thoughts turned one more to the elven scholar’s words. The woman was set to rob her of what little happiness she now enjoyed, and that was something Amala couldn’t allow. She needed a solution and fast.
“But first,” she said as she headed for the door, “I must feed.”