Authors: Matthew Wolf
With a portion of the spark, Vera twisted a strand of water with a thicker thread of light. Any trace of dampness was sucked from her dress, like poison drawn from a wound as gray wool was simultaneously straightened and smoothed. Immediately, pain jolted her as if a small firework erupted within her brain. She gasped and fell to her knees. Looking up, she saw Merian had snapped the link tight.
The link was a connection of visible gold between her and the others, like a wagon-wheel’s spokes, stemming from Merian. For that mere moment, the link between all eight women glowed brightly. The other women gave Merian curious, if not entirely disapproving looks. All except one. Eliywn looked at Vera with sympathy. It was well known that the use of pain outside each individual Trial was strictly prohibited.
“Do not use the spark during the Trials for anything but the Trials themselves,” Merian snapped. “At least not until we are done with you.” The woman’s lips pursed, as if she were thinking up something truly cruel to say. “And I would save your energy if I were you. You will need every morsel you can conjure in the next Trial, or you will fail miserably.”
Vera brushed her fall of auburn hair behind her ears and rose to her full height. There was a fire in Merian she had not seen until now, and she nearly applauded the woman for showing her backbone at last. Then she eyed Merian’s red robes. The robes of a Reaver. She looked around the room at each woman. Each bore the robes of a full Reaver, a title she craved to hold more than air.
“Neophyte Vera, you have completed the Sixth Trial. The final Seventh Trial will begin now,” Merian quoted line for line.
With the veil of obedience, Vera smiled. “As you wish, Reaver Merian.” Each woman looked like coiled desrah snakes ready to strike. She grinned, inviting it, and together, the women attacked.
Spokes of light flew forth, striking from all sides. She threw up her hands, erecting a shield of light. The spokes of light moved through her shield like water, racing towards her. Too strong. Seven Reavers could not be bested by any but an Arbiter in a match of raw power. The Seventh Trial was not one of strength, but a test of spirit. It was not meant to be won. But she was not done.
Vera summoned a shield of darkness and it launched from her fingertips, spreading in the air. Her gaze narrowed like an arrow’s sight on Merian whose eyes blazed with hatred. She unleashed her bottled power with a scream, uncaging the tendrils of living darkness, but in the last minute wove threads of moon to disguise the power’s dark form. The light and darkness collided with a powerful crash and an earth-shaking clap rattled the room. The bars evaporated like mist. But in the moment before their collapse, the darkness funneled up the spoke of light and sunk its teeth into the wielder of the link.
The thunderclap of air blew the women back.
Slowly, the women rose to their feet. A foul smell like burnt hair hung in the air, but no others seemed to notice. At her feet, Vera saw fragments of colored glass from the windows high above, and shreds of priceless tapestries depicting grand scenes of the Lieon, the Great War.
Resa, a bull-like woman, spoke, “Never has the test of light been countered with a shield of moon. Moon is the weaker of the two elements, but somehow it worked. Truly remarkable and worth the coming ceremony. You are now the youngest to pass the Seven Trials in history. Congratulations, Reaver Vera.”
“Congratulations,” the other six said, their voices a single hum from the Link.
“Merian, sound the chime,” Resa ordered. “It is complete, the Citadel must know. The ceremonies must commence.” She hadn’t noticed. Neither had the others. There was a stark silence. Vera smirked, reveling in their confusion. The seven women’s eyes widened in sudden recognition, their feelings connected through the link. As one they looked to Merian.
The woman knelt, her wide-eyes brimming in horror. “My power is gone!” the woman shrieked, and gave a bloody cry.
“Merian!” The women swarmed around her, dropping the golden glow of the link.
Resa touched the sister’s forehead and recoiled with a gasp. “I cannot heal her. It is far beyond my skill.” She grabbed Tamiko. “Take her to an Arbiter and quickly. Perhaps they can grab the spark before it recedes too far.”
“She… it’s gone? But how?” Tamiko stuttered.
Vera smiled at the woman’s shock. Like a wide-eyed doll. She always thought Tamiko’s hair and face too done up to be attractive, though most of the men of the Citadel didn’t seem to mind.
“Stop asking questions and go!” Resa yelled. Tamiko bolted to get help and Resa turned. The woman’s eyed blazed. Come to me, Vera beckoned. Resa rose, moving towards her. Her heavy steps reminded Vera of a cerabul before the charge, or one of the Devari guards stalking postures, which made her think of Kirin. Behind the woman Vera saw others. Curious and fearful Neophytes flowed into the room, faces pale from the sound of Merian’s chilling scream. Eliywn rushed to Vera’s side. Resa approached and Eliywn straightened to her fullest height, which was a hand or two shorter than Vera.
Before Resa could speak Eliywn proclaimed in a rush, “She did nothing against the law of the Citadel, and she obviously didn’t mean—”
“Leave,” Resa seethed.
Eliywn bristled as if slapped, and she looked ready to respond. The girl knows not when to quit. Ignoring Resa’s direct order would meet with serious punishment, for Reaver of three stripes vastly outranked Eliywn’s one. She touched her friend’s arm. Eliywn frowned, but understood, and grudgingly took her leave.
“What was that?” Resa whispered, breathing fire. The woman’s body practically shook with desire to hurt Vera, likely not even with the spark, but with pure, animal-like rage. She would… thought Vera calmly.
“What was what?”
The spacious hall filled with Neophytes and Reavers, rushing to see the cause of the uproar and whispers spread like fire.
“Heresy,” Resa sputtered. “Merian might die, if she doesn’t, the spark inside her is shriveled and likely the spark is gone from her forever! You desiccated her!”
The word gave Vera chills. Desiccating meant being deprived and cut from the spark, like a still beating heart carved from one’s chest. For a Reaver, it was a word far worse than any curse.
Vera returned the woman’s wrathful glare with a small smile. Words would clearly not affect some women, she knew, no matter how profound. Resa snatched Vera’s robes. “If I ever, ever see anything like that again, Citadel law or not, I will personally pluck your haughty eyes from your head, without the spark.”
I was right. Vera dipped her head, casting her eyes downward. “Apologies, Reaver Resa. My power went beyond me,” she lied. “I will learn to control it.” That much was truth.
Resa’s meaty fist rose, ready to strike. At last, with an unattractive snarl, she turned and stalked out of the chambers, following the two women who held the muttering, half-conscious Merian on a cloth stretcher.
And for a brief moment, she felt a note of pity. No one should suffer that fate… She would take a thousand deaths before she would take a life without the spark. Ignoring the eyes of others, Vera pushed her way through the whispering crowds of Neophytes, heading to her quarters.
The Neophyte Palace
HE CORRIDOR SHOOK WITH THE PEAL
of tower bells, announcing the completion of the Seven Trials. Vera ground her teeth in irritation and turned the corner swiftly, running headlong into a figure. She rubbed her arm, looking up to see the worried frown of Enise, a bookish Neophyte.
“I’m so sorry, are you all right?” Enise asked.
The girl looked every bit like a startled bird—sharp nose, spiky fray of white hair like plumage, which was even more frayed and bristly than normal, and bright, wide eyes. Enise was one of the few who didn’t loathe Vera. She wondered if the girl had never heard the rumors. Either way, she liked Enise.
“I’m fine Enise. It was my fault.”
“No no, it’s mine, I know I shouldn’t read and walk, Ali—err, Reaver Aliye always yells at me for it.” Enise fell to her knees, gathering up the fallen volumes.
Vera knelt at her side and helped, noticing the faded gold titles. The Last Reliquaries of Tremwar. Accounts of the Final Battles of the Kimon. Tales of the Great Schism. The Battle of Gal, Letters of a General. The Kyomen Wars, and a dictionary on Yorin, the old tongue. “Quite the collection. Brushing up on your history?”
Enise blushed nervously. “Just a little reading. Ethelwin—I mean, Reaver Ethelwin lectured briefly on the betrayal and how they destroyed the world. She explained their heresy, but even as a girl I knew of their betrayal. Yet even back then I felt something was missing, but it was smaller, like an itch I couldn’t scratch. Then yesterday, during Ethelwin’s speech, I felt the itch grow. And I knew something was truly wrong with the stories.”
“You’re talking about the Ronin,” Vera said.
Enise’s gaze flickered to either end of the hall. “Vera! You can’t say that name.”
“I’ve gotten in enough trouble today, what else can they do?”
“They’ll hang you. You know that.”
“No one will hear,” she said. “Have you found anything yet?”
The girl sighed. “Not yet. Just the same history we all know. It’s strange, but it seems as if even these old things are missing pieces.” Enise shook her head as if coming to her senses. “I really shouldn’t be talking of this. Wait, why were you in such a hurry?”
“Didn’t you hear?” Vera glanced upward.
“You passed!” Enise exclaimed. “Congratulations! When are the ceremonies? Are you going to—”
Vera wasn’t listening as two Devari passed, moving with deadly grace. Where many men dared to eye her slender form and perfect curves, the Devari’s attention never wavered, eyes on their destination. She looked back. Enise was still talking. “Enise,” she interrupted, “if you see Kirin, can you tell him I’m looking for him? I’ll be in my room if he asks.” She thrust the books into the girl’s arms and left her kneeling wide-eyed.
She moved through the halls until she reached the grand antechamber of the Neophyte Palace. Hundreds of Neophytes swarmed the broad floor, rushing to chores or lectures. In the center of the room was a grand staircase, each step large enough for a small house to sit comfortably upon.
Feeling too exposed, Vera took the staircase swiftly. Above was a dome with a series of large windows. Between each window were huge portraits of the Arbiters. Only five Arbiters had ever been born, and each lived for thousands of years. It was said their lifespan was due to the power of the spark they held, for the weakest Arbiter was stronger than a hundred Reavers working together with a link. The thought of such power made her knees weak and she glanced to the painting of the man in grand flowing robes of gold and white. The Patriarch. He was the oldest and strongest of all the Arbiters and Guardian of the Citadel. There had only ever been one Arbiter to hold the mantle of Patriarch in all time. The man was a legend.
Suddenly she spotted a familiar face. Evalyn, tall, buxom, and never two steps away from her pet Rosalyn. She hated Evalyn. The girl was admittedly beautiful, and powerful too, but she viewed others like pieces in a game of Cyn, sacrificing Followers to get to the Mark.
Not to mention, Evalyn had an obvious taste for Kirin, which put a sour taste in Vera’s mouth. So she was glad to see Evalyn turn the corner towards the courtyards.
Reaching the top of the stairs, she took a crowded hallway when a presence ripped her breath from her lungs. At the end of the hall, a tall man walked briskly towards her. All others in the crowded corridor seemed to disappear. Despite his simple brown robes and gray cape with a flaring collar, he filled the corridor with his presence. His eyes fell on her. Despite all her confidence and power, in that moment, Vera felt like a shriveled weed beneath his foot.
What is he doing down here? Arbiters kept to themselves, rarely seen beyond the restricted upper halls of the Citadel where great magic resided.
Ezrah passed, lips moving soundlessly. Something touched her. Vera felt a chill as if dunked in ice water. Suddenly, the tolling of bells was absent. There was only silence and Ezrah’s quiet mumbling. A spell… she realized. Ezrah quickly passed, taking the bubble of silence with him as he turned the corner. She took a breath and the others in the hall came back into her awareness. Neophytes and Reavers whispered in fear and awe at having seen an Arbiter.
She left them, knowing what awaited her.
Today, Vera would unlock the sword’s true power. Today, she would surpass the limits of a mere Reaver.
A Night to Remember
IRIN HIT THE GROUND.
Instinctively, he tucked and rolled on the hard dirt. He came to a stop and his stomach churned, the world spinning.
The ramparts were gone, as if evaporated. The stone was now replaced with hard earth, and he felt bits of gravel between his nails. On his left, a stone’s throw away, a group of girls in gray dresses sat on a grassy knoll shaded by old silveroot trees. The trees’ glossy bark glistened like a fish’s scaled belly. They listened attentively to an older woman in scarlet robes, who wove luminescent green strands of nature between her hands like a seamstress—as she did, a silveroot’s nearest branch miraculously lengthened, bending to touch her outstretched palm. Elsewhere, groups of women roved the grounds, conversing lightly, ignoring his sudden appearance in the middle of the courtyard. To his left, near a stack of barrels, a pair of older Neophytes trained, tossing a large flame steadily between the two.