Authors: Matthew Wolf
In his hands lay a tome as fat as a brick. Gold and silver reinforced the thick spine. The hermit stroked the book’s worn cover. “Ages has it been since I’ve held this.”
“Where’d you get it?”
Mura words were quick, as if it was a well-worn memory much like the book. “I purchased it in the unlikeliest of shops, just shy of the port, in the city of Reym, when I was your age.” He must have seen Gray’s look of confusion. “Reym is a traveler’s city. It’s not far from the great Tir Re’ Dol, used as a waypoint. Many interesting things can be found there if one knows where to look.” Despite the hermit’s earnest tone, something seemed absent from his story. The hermit continued, “There is something I want to show you.” He peeled opened the book and Gray saw strange patterns upon the aged parchment.
Gray faintly recognized the symbols. “I’ve seen those before,” he whispered, but as he tried to remember, he hit the same wall. Frustrated, he shook his head. “Go on,” he said, and Mura continued.
“These symbols stand for each of the nine Great Kingdoms. Each representing an element of old,” Mura said, pointing to each in turn. “Forest for the Kingdom of Eldas, home of the Elves, the element of nature; water for the ancient city of Seria within the Grand Falls, often called the city of tranquility; stone for the stronghold of Lander, whose walls were thicker than small cities, fortified within the rocky crags; moon for the city of Narim, coveted in the dark hills—half above, and half beneath the land, a vast, subterranean gem; sun for the shining keeps of Vaster, like alabaster jewels, always in the dawn’s light; metal for the city of Yronia, backed against the deep mines, a land of steam and gleaming steel; fire for the dark Farbs whose incantations ignite the night sky; and at last, the Kingdom of Flesh for Covai, a city of men, women, and beast, the land of the Mortal Being, the largest spiritual sect of all the lands. Each are called the shining jewels, the Great Kingdoms of the Lieon.”
Gray leaned forward to get a closer look.
“Of course,” Mura said, sitting back. “However, there is one kingdom that is often forgotten.” The hermit paused, his hand running over the coarse paper as he turned the page to reveal a symbol that made his pulse skip.
Mura spoke in a dark tone, “The symbol of wind. It stood for the ancient city of Morrow, upon the windy cliffs of Ren Nar that oversaw the world. It is the banished element.”
Gray looked to the snaking pattern of wind, losing himself in its design. He wanted to trace his fingers over its familiar shape when Mura snapped the cover shut with a thud, shattering his trance.
The hermit stood. “I’m giving it to you,” he said, hefting the book.
Eyeing the unreadable glyphs upon the cover he asked, “And how am I to read it? I don’t even know what language that is.”
“The language is called Yorin. I will teach it to you. For now, simply treat it well,” he said and then stretched. “The stew looks ready. Go ahead and serve it up. I’ll put this in your room with the rest of your books.”
Gray set out two wooden bowls along with a crusty loaf. Chewing on a small hunk of the bread, he hooked the teakettle over the fire’s flames, when there was a soft thunk from outside, barely loud enough to be heard over the wind. He cursed. Probably just another loose shingle from the roof, and I’ll be the one that will have to fix it. As he turned, a loud rasp made him freeze. He leaned forward, peering out the darkened window. Branches swished. Just the wind, he repeated when a movement caught his eye. “What kind of animal…?”
A shriek split the wind’s moan, and he backed away from the dark window.
“Douse the flame boy!” Mura kicked the kettle. The fire hissed and the room plunged into darkness.
He snatched the hermit’s sleeve. “What’s going on?”
Mura put his fingers to his lips. Pale moonlight lit the man’s features. In the silence, Gray heard it. Low grunts and snarls. “Go to the back door,” the hermit whispered. “Then when I tell you to—”
With a roar, the door burst. Gray was blown back. In a daze, he crawled behind a nearby chair when he saw the gleam of metal. Mura’s dagger. He gripped it, then tucked it in his leather belt.
Like an apparition, Mura slid into the shadow of the wall. Unease in the pit of his stomach, Gray peeked around the chair, peering at a cloud of dust where the door once stood.
Click… click… click… it sounded like nails rapping against the wood floor. Click… click… It came closer still.
Then, it stopped.
With his back pressed to the chair, Gray twisted to look for Mura and saw only shadows, when a clouded breath filled his vision. Silently, he scrambled away, moving to the other side of the chair. He looked back and saw his nightmares confirmed. A massive head swiveled to the sound—where Gray had been only moments before. The beast gave a violent, jagged snort. With a rasping breath that frosted in the air, the massive head slunk back. The room returned to a chilling silence.
Gray caught his breath as more shadows skulked across the window, their strange shapes reflecting on the wall. He eyed his open bedroom door. In a bent dash, he slipped from one dark shadow to the next.
A rough hand clasped over his mouth. “Stay quiet.”
He glanced over his shoulder and saw the hermit’s lined features. He nodded and silently, they made their way to the back hallway. Gray saw long scratches along the wall, and pockmarks in the wood floor like the rivets of a nail. He paused.
“I can’t leave it,” he whispered and Mura raised a thick brow.
“What are you talking about?” Mura reached out, but was too slow and Gray scrambled to his room. Inside, other than the broken window, the room seemed unscathed. Strange ruby light came through the window and lit his bed. There it was. He breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his cloth wrapped sword. He grabbed the bundle, when the rapping sounded again.
Click… Click… Click…
Slipping through the window, he stayed low and kept to the shadows of the walls. Quickly, he made his way to the back of the house. The hermit was waiting for him. Gray released a breath he hadn’t known he had been holding.
Mura scowled. “You’ll explain that to me one day, and I’ll win that argument.” He gripped his shoulder. “Stay close to me, and don’t stop for anything.” And together they moved into the Lost Woods.
ARIL SHOVED ANOTHER SET OF RIDING
clothes into her pack and turned from her bed. Her room was still, but her heart was not. Even the serene night mocked her frantic mind.
From the window above her bed, azure scrolls lit her room. An ornately carved bookshelf sat in the room’s corner. In the center, a wide-table, its stout legs made of silveroot, flowing as if alive with liquid silver. Elvin craftsmanship fit for a princess. A tranquil scene, but still her hand trembled, for beyond these walls lurked danger. Her gaze jumped to the plum-colored door made of heartwood. Heartwood was harder than most human metals—it would take a small army to break it down, but she knew that wouldn’t save her. He will be here any minute, she prayed.
She looked down and saw the polished stone in her palm. The rock was carved with a pattern of a leaf, stunningly real, as if the leaf had shed its skin upon the emerald stone. It was a gift of her fathers, something she had long forgotten, and childhood memories flooded through her. Only things I can’t live without, she repeated. She set it aside, placing it in a pile of books, jewelry, and precious things likely never to be seen again. Surely it’s too small to matter, she thought and quickly tucked the smooth stone in her bag.
The hard rap of knuckles sounded on the door. Karil grabbed a fistful of her split-riding skirt. Three knocks. She remembered their code and rushed to the door, unlocking it. Rydel flowed inside like a tempest. He passed her wordlessly and strode to the window. His grand hando cloak of black and forest green fluttered as he moved. Karil knew the cloak silently demanded respect, for he was one of only ten elves who bore the same shroud. He took the room in two giant strides, throwing back the drapes.
Outside, lights from the kingdom glowed. Hues of amethyst and sapphire lit the forest. A vast canopy was obscured by mist and cloud. Far below, tiny white dots blushed where twisting paths wound throughout the forest. The whole kingdom appeared as if stars were flung amid the trees. Each tree was a towering guardian, their trunks the width of cities. Below, a staircase glimmered, as if made of shimmering glass. It encircled the main structure they were in, the massive Spire, twining all the way up the Great Tree.
“Is it time?” she asked, stepping forward. Her voice was strong. She was glad for that—the tears shed were all but a memory. Rydel was quiet. His slender elvin eyes, a piercing green, watched the staircase. His sharp ears pricked, as if hearing sounds her half-elf ears could not.
Karil joined his side. “What is it? What do you see?”
“I see them. They are coming.” Rydel turned. He grabbed her shoulders. “We must leave, now.”
“So soon,” she said, “Somehow I thought there would be more time. Is everything ready?”
Rydel grabbed her pack. “The horses are waiting in the stables. All that is required now is to get to them, from there I have cleared a path out of the woods.” She heard the unspoken message in his words. If we can make it there…
“How many?” she asked.
“A dozen in the halls, maybe more, and hundreds scattered around the grounds of the city.” She saw his hesitancy, as if he was afraid to speak the rest, “What we feared has come to pass. Dryan is seizing upon the chaos of your father’s murder. Elves are joining his side in droves. There will be hundreds, if not thousands looking for you soon. You are the only thing standing between Dryan and the throne now.”
“And what of our supporters?”
“Most are dead or swayed to his side.”
“Then Dryan has won,” she whispered.
“No. Not yet. It will not be long before the entire kingdom is crawling, and then all hope of escaping will be lost. But there is still a chance if we leave now.”
If all things good can go to ruin so quickly, what did it matter? Karil rested a hand upon the windowsill. “I can always trust you, can’t I Rydel?”
Rydel answered without hesitation. “Forever, my queen.” Karil tensed. The title was daunting, but somehow he made it sound true and good.
“Lead the way,” she ordered and he nodded.
They left her quarters and swiftly navigated their way through the labyrinth of halls, taking the least used routes. Though they moved quickly, they were high in the Spire, where all the nobility resided. They turned a corner and saw shadows nearing. They threw themselves against the wall. The shadows revealed themselves as servants trailing robed nobles. Karil breathed a sigh. For a moment she considered gathering them as allies. Judging by their robes that were shades of green, they were of the House of Nava, a staunch supporter of her father. She shook her head. No one could be trusted.
As they ran, she caught glimpses through wide windows of bright lights like dashing sprites in the night. Rydel abruptly pressed her against the wall. Karil waited, listening, the elf’s rock-like arm holding her in place. He pulled them back further, moving into a carved niche, tucked behind a standing vase of Merilian Silver. She looked but saw nothing. The halls were silent. Then, around the bend, something shifted. Karil’s breath caught as a guard in black elvin plate-mail appeared, as if melting from the wall. He had been hiding in plain sight. His eyes skimmed just past their hidden nook. At last, he moved down the hall. Now she knew what pursued them.
As a girl, she had both looked up to and been afraid of these elite guards that protected her father. Even back then, she would cling to his leg when a Terma entered the room. Her father would simply stroke her hair as she trembled. The Terma lived and breathed their training, with the skill and agility of a hundred normal elves.
However, there was another rank, a secret echelon. The black-armored Terma were one rank below Rydel, and it was said that difference was the span of chasms. For there was no one higher than one of the Hidden, those who bore the hando cloak. But one against hundreds?
As they wove through the halls, she kept to Rydel’s side, watching the dark corners. Four more times Rydel halted them. Each time a Terma slunk out of the shadows, always impossible to see until revealed.
At last, they reached the stables. Relief flooded her. She entered. The dawn light lit the rafters and stacks of hay.